When we last left Christopher Buckley and John Tierney, they had narrowly escaped a forest fire in Provence, which they suspected might have been set by their hostess in order to get them to leave. Their Grand Tour then took them to the Cambrian sea town of Comillas in northern Spain.
WE ARRIVED in Comillas the night of the suicide, bedraggled and disoriented. Not on account of the suicide -- the previous night we had actually been forced to stay in a hotel.
Now, a hotel needn't be a traumatic experience, but if you've been mooching your way across Europe, and have spent 26 consecutive days freeloading off people, then finding yourself staring at the little bars of soap, the strip of paper across the toilet, the reminders about check-out time and the room rates plastered on the back of the door, well, it can all be pretty disconcerting. So when we saw the lights of Comillas, an ancient town on the north coast of Spain, and knew that within minutes we would once again be house guests, our relief was great. The Spanish Imposition was about to begin.
Our hosts on this particular sojourn were Buckley's uncle, F. Reid Buckley, novelist and farmer, and his Spanish wife, Tasa. As we were enjoying our first breakfast there, Tasa returned from town, now a busy summer resort, and reported that all Comillas was talking about a man who had killed himself the night before. He had tied himself to a rock and hurled himself into the water off a seawall. In a town where "Dallas" had become more popular than bullfighting, this was a juicy bit of news.
Later that day the marketplace was buzzing with further details: It turned out that he hadn't thrown himself in but walked out and tied himself to a rock at low tide. Then he waited for the tide to come in and drown him. He was also said to have left a note to his children, instructing them to commit their mother to an insane asylum.
We mulled it all over as we strolled through Comillas that evening with Reid. He mentioned that Comillas is historically known for having provided Spain over the years with two things: powerful bishops and high-class courtesans. Both tended to return to Comillas in their twilight years and build schools.
We visited the church. Reid's house, called Casa Santa ("sainted house"), was built with stones from the church's steeple, which had been destroyed in the Spanish Civil War. This was actually Comillas' second church. The first had been built at the time of the Duke of Infantado, who had employed a much despised man as his rent collector. One day at mass, when the duke was absent, an old woman sat in the pew reserved for him. The rent collector saw her, yelled, "How dare you sit in the duke's pew," and had his pikeman throw the old woman out.
The townspeople called an angry meeting. When it was over they stormed up to the house of the rent collector. Their leader glowered at him and announced, "Tan noble como es el gran Duque de Infantado, tan noble son los hidalgos de Comillas." ("The hidalgos of Comillas are every bit as noble as the great Duke of Infantado.") Never again did anyone in Comillas set foot inside the church. They built their own, paying for it stone by stone with proceeds from crops and fishermen's catches. The first church stands forgotten now, a nondescript ruin.
The next day we went back with Reid to the town square at sunset for chocolate and churros and gossip. There was a new development in the suicide story. The townspeople were threatening to boycott Sunday because the priest was refusing to say mass for the soul of the suicide. (Suicide is considered a mortal sin by the Catholic Church.) Apparently the suicide's brothers had gotten so mad that they roughed up the priest and were threatening to do worse.
Beating up the padre seemed to us an odd way of trying to ingratiate your brother in the eyes of the Almighty. But Reid explained that in matters of religion, Comillans work in mysterious ways. He told a story about the 19th century Marquis of Comillas.
The marquis was an enormously rich old man who was reputed to have made his fortune in the slave trade. Eventually he went into legitimate shipping. He was also a zealous Catholic. About the time he retired, the Vatican was embroiled in a crisis with Italy over the papal states. So the marquis devised a plan, perhaps designed to make Saint Peter more hospitable to an old slaver: He would simply buy Rome -- and give it to the pope. Working through secret agents, the marquis set out to buy every piece of Roman real estate that came on the market. But Rome could not be bought in a day. For years the agents labored, and finally the marquis died. Within a few years his family was broke and living on state pensions. Where had the money gone? No one knew.
Years passed and finally a family lawyer discovered a strongbox in a bank in Paris. It was opened. Inside were stacks and stacks of papers. Deeds -- to what now, roughly speaking, makes up downtown Rome. Suddenly the family was very rich again, and entertaining no thoughts of offering up any of Rome to the pope.
Apparently the idea of getting the old fellow canonized is raised every so often. But every time the relevant Vatican committee meets to discuss it, the awkward matter of how the marquis made his fortune in the first place comes up. At which point the committee moves on to other business.
Comillas fills with nobility in the summer. They come for the sun, the sea, and the cool Atlantic air that washes over the town, for the mountain peaks, the lush hills and forests where long ago Cro-Magnon men hunted and painted the walls of their caves with pictures of the animals they killed. We met a lot of them -- the nobility, that is -- at a dinner party and dance. As a result, we had to talk to them.
But our Spanish is at best college-level. This tends to limit chitchat to a conversational gamut from about A to F.
"When did you arrive in Comillas?" we would ask.
"And how long are you staying in Comillas?" we brilliantly parried.
"And how many years have you been coming to Comillas?" we queried.
We were the life of the fiesta.
Being from Washington, our usual opening line, naturally, often consisted of, "What do you do?" But here we found a slight problem, because some of the nobles, especially the younger ones, don't actually "do" anything; apart from having a good time, that is. The old proverb, "Living well is the best revenge," is of Spanish origin, and the youth of Comillas honor it daily. Their typical schedule consists of: Rise and shine at 1 p.m., lunch until 4, play bolos until 7, drink until 10, dine until 1, drink some more and dance at a nightclub called Las Ruedas past dawn.
Shortly after we got to the party, of course, we heard two fresh items about the suicide. The priest had compromised: He would say a private mass on Saturday for the family, so the boycott was off. The second bulletin was that the man had killed himself because his wife was having an affair with his sister.
There were one or two awkward moments at the party, as when Tierney decided to tell the one Spanish joke in his repertory to a Marquis of Somewhere.
The joke goes like this: Two callow youths from Madrid come speeding in a sports car into a village, stop, and ask an old man if there are any black and white cats in town that are two-feet long. "Si," says the local. Any that are three-feet long? "Si." How about any black and white cats that are five-feet long? The local shakes his head and says, "No."
"You see," says the passenger to the driver. "I told you we hit a nun!"
Tasteless, perhaps, but the intent was innocent enough. The trouble was that when Tierney came to the punch line, he forgot the Spanish word for nun (monja). He turned to Buckley and asked for the word. Buckley whispered that it was monje. So Tierney proceeded to issue a punchline that translates:
"You see, I told you it was a monkey!"
A blank expression glazed over the eyes of the marquis and his wife. He tried to be courteous but could only manage a feeble noise imitating mirth, "Heh . . . heh . . . heh . . ." The two of us were still unaware that our punchline made no sense at all, but it shortly became clear to us that we had made jackasses of ourselves. We slunk in our seats and refrained from further efforts at transcultural jocularity.
It was getting late, even by Spanish standards, when someone else brought yet more news about the suicide. It turned out that the man had been an atheist and refused even to send his children to church. The brothers who had roughed up the priest were evidently more traditional. Reid announced that in view of this intelligence, his sympathies were entirely with the priest.
Then a duchess said that she knew the real reason the man had killed himself. All heads at the table turned to her. It wasn't that the man's wife was having an affair with his sister. No, no, no, it was that his sister had rejected the advances of his wife's sister. This had gravely offended his wife's sense of honor, and as a result she had made his life a living hell. Which, finally, he was unable to bear.
"What I don't understand," said a countess at the table, "is why he didn't tie his wife to the rock."
After the party we went down to the muelle (the sea wall) with Paco, Buckley's teen-age cousin, and some of his friends. We stood there, drinking cheap red wine, smoking, talking, telling ghost stories, listening to the surf roar over the rocks where the man had died and splash up against the sides of the muelle, salting our hair.
You learn a thing or two on a Grand Tour, on any long voyage where there's time to think away from home. What we learned that night, around 4 a.m., as Paco and his friends decided to go to someone's house and hold a seance to contact the spirit of the suicide, was that we were getting old.
We tried our best to keep up, but without much luck. Five straight nights at Las Ruedas had done us in. We slept through the seance. At 6 in the morning we found ourselves sneaking out of Las Ruedas, where the gang was still going strong, and stumbling down a dirt road in the middle of a pasture toward Casa Santa, wondering whether the tide was in, or out.