A September adventure of the mason, Pedro Gil, in the old city of Manila some 270 years ago

Thursday August 18, 2016 ()

A September adventure of the Mason,  Pedro Gil,  in the old city of Manila some 270 years ago

In the entresuelo of a house on calle Fonda in the walled city of Manila, there lived in the year 1745 a stonemason, or albalil, named Pedro Gil. He had been brought to Manila years before by the Franciscans, to help direct and aid in the building of their churches and conventos, and a meager remuneration kept him constantly in distressed circumstances. Like most Spaniards, he had married young. His spouse was a woman of buxom health, he therefore possessed the poor-man's wealth - a horde of ravenous children.

In her day his spouse had been a noted beauty, but this fades early in the tropics, where women come quickly to maturity. However, at the time of our story much of her maiden prettiness still prevailed; she was, in fact, fonder of the fandango and of vain admiration than of her family duties, which were often wantonly neglected while she gossiped at the little market opposite Santa Potenciana college or frittered away her time in the dingy shops of the Parian - her children meanwhile running wild. Pedro Gil's nickname was Peregil, or Parsley. His errant wife brought him no great repute in the town, and gave him no help whatever in filling the larder.

A September adventure of the mason,  Pedro Gil,  in the old city of Manila some 270 years ago

Work at his trade was intermittent. Of course there were always chapels and conventos to repair, if the friars had the money to disburse, but his wages were often in arrears.

Peregil was content to take life as it came, and thus proved himself wiser than men of today who wear out their energies seeking the philosopher's stone, only to find they have passed it over in their busy quest.

He liked to mount the mossy ramparts and breathe the sea breeze sweeping in from the wide bay; to bear his head to its caresses, to fill his lungs with its ozone. He loved the miracles of the early morn, before the coming of the ardent sun; and the evenings, with their painted sunsets, scented with the smoke of kitchen fires. The natural beauty of the tropics was to him a narcotic, as it is to so many who dwell long in the Philippines, smothering the flames of ambition generated under other suns. It is a land of little seasonal change; what is called the apathy of the tropics is but the philosophy of leisure, and neither unwise nor unpleasant in a torrid clime.

So long as enough was forthcoming for immediate wants, Peregil took his humble pleasure in teasing the strings of his guitar. To friends and cronies dropping in, he would offer a banco with a gesture as courtly as if it were a cushioned dais, and, when they were seated, he might even proffer them a cheroot. Then, with a sweep of his nimble fingers over the strings of his guitar, he would make it twang out the jotas of his beloved country, the seguidillas of Seville, to the Bueno! Bueno! of his audience; for even a mason may be a poet and a musician and still be able, when it is necessary, to square and fit blocks of granite, limestone and tufa with a master's skill. Thus the evenings were whiled away harmoniously, until the goodwife's shrill supper call. Whereupon Peregil would, with noble courtesy, invite his friends to share his frugal repast: an invitation his friends quite as politely refused, knowing both the circumstances in which he lived and that, as everywhere in the Philippines, his hospitality was not a mere gesture of etiquette.

Spain had transplanted to these far-off isles not only her religion and language, but her whole culture, an influence as subtle as a perfume, as seductive as the bloom of the lotus; and it remains today, basically the culture of the people, though modified by a thousand innovations. Then the towns, and most especially Manila, resounded not alone with the sonorous anthems of the Church, but with a rhythm of dancing and passionate song. No Me Mates and Porque, Porque Temer? are olden songs of Spain brought here with the royal colors, the Lions and the Towers. Spanish power and Spanish culture in the Philippines were in their apogee during the 18th century.

Men of the period had the stately mien and courteous manners of grandees, even if they did not possess the rank. The women were generally pretty, vain, and poor managers; they did their abundant raven hair over high tortoise-shell combs, and affected dangling earrings and silken mantillas. Girls married at fifteen, wedding parties emerging from the portals of the Dominican, Augustinian or another of the great churches of the city, or from the Cathedral, preceded by a band and the high clangor of the bells in the campanario. If the wedding was of the rich, in the Philippine sense, dancing and feasting continued for days. There were jotas, the contradanza and the rigodon; the languorous native dances, the incoys, corrachas and cariƱosas, and always the fandango. There were juegos de anillo, wherein gaudily caparisoned caballeros tilted, to spit rings dangling from silken threads; and lordly hospitality was proverbial.

At night came the scent of camias and the dama de noche from behind the mossy garden walls. In the evening there was an aristocratic promenade along the south bank of the Pasig, on what is the Magallanes drive, for this was long before the days of the Luneta. The rich came in high-wheeled coaches, with footmen up behind and perhaps an outrider or two; the governor general and the archbishop each had a coach-and-four, and the archbishop's team was made up of snow-white stallions, while the governor had his showy escort of halberdiers, twenty four of them mounted.

The universal quilez, a kind of canopied Irish jaunting cart, and the one-horse carromata, or kill-car, were native to the soil. Men on horseback were everywhere, riding was a common means of getting about, as it was in such isolated regions as the Cagayan valley.

The wines of Spain and Mexico were always precious, being expensive to bring to the islands; but there were always the vinos del pais, no less exhilarating. Over all, commending the good and exhorting the bad to better behavior, was spread the protecting mantle of Holy Church.

Peregil himself was a pious and devout man. He kept all the feasts and fasts of the Church, but a slim larder naturally led him more easily to celebrate the ayunos than the fiestas. He was, of course, well known to the friars, who were the real power and kept an eye on everything and everybody in their parishes.

One gusty night, in September, he was aroused by a discreet knocking on the iron - studded door of his entresuelo. After some hesitancy, he opened it - to find standing there a tall, cadaverous friar in a black cassock and shovel-hat. The friar had a swarthy, Moorish countenance, and a nose eloquent of the acquisitive instinct: a heritage often observed in natives of Valencia, Murcia or Carthagena, an ancestral trait of the Moor and the Carthaginian descended through long centuries. Without ceremony the friar addressed himself to the mason, informing him that he was impressed with his religious fervor, and, as a good and pious Christian, he was to be trusted with an important task that very night. Peregil readily assented, the friar promising him ready cash, and though he was somewhat suspicious, because of the unseemly hour at which he was called, the need of the pay overcame his scruples.

Bidding his wife keep silence, he put on his working doublet, placed his tools in a basket, and followed the friar.

When they had proceeded a few paces, the friar halted under a flickering street light and informed Peregil that the job was his solely if he followed directions and kept a discreet silence. Peregil acquiesced. He was then securely blindfolded. Taking his hand, the priest led him through the streets. After the sixth turn he began to lose count, and a short time after they stopped before the portals of a large house which Peregil recognized as such by the feel of the stones and the plaster. Applying the key, the friar turned a creaking lock and opened what seemed to Peregil a ponderous door. They entered, the friar closed and bolted the door behind them and guided Peregil down several passages and corridors to a distant part of the building.

Here the bandage was removed. Peregil found himself in a patio, or courtyard, dimly lighted by a large horn lantern. In the center stood the dry basin of a fountain, long stilled from flowing, and the general aspect of the place was that of a neglected ruin.

The friar now made known his desire, that Peregil construct a small vault beneath the fountain. The dimensions specified by the friar conformed to those of a grave, and gave the mason a momentary chill. But mortar, stone and all necessary materials were already on the ground, having evidently been prepared beforehand. So Peregil set to work, keeping at the task all night, but without finishing it, the friar remaining by his side in silence during the whole time. Just before daylight the silent friar signalled him to stop working, put a gold onza into his hand, again applied the bandage to his eyes, and led him, by the same contorted route they had come, back to his house on calle Fonda, telling him to say nothing of what had transpired.

And though his buxom wife besieged him, Perigil deceived her. He said that he was hired to repair a tottering wall and that the work could not be done in daylight as it was near the gates of a shrine. She was not completely satisfied with his explanation, but she had to be content, for Peregil, after a hurried breakfast, betook himself to his catre and spent the rest the day in sleep.

That night his emaciated employer came again, blindfolded him as before, and led him to his work.

By midnight the vault was completed. The friar then led Peregil to a corner of the patio, where, under a pile of straw, were three or four waterjars, or tapayans. These were evidently filled with coins, as they made a faint clinking as Peregil and the friar rolled them to the aperture and carefully bestowed them in the vault. This was now closed by masonry and carefully plastered over. The pavement was replaced, and all traces of the work obliterated. In a weak voice, no doubt due to his protracted vigil, the friar signified that he was well satisfied and that Peregil knew as a good Christian that he should not break his pledge of secrecy, as otherwise he would not be able to make a clean confession or attend to his Christian obligations.

Thus admonished, Peregil was blindfolded once more and led out by a different way than that by which he had entered. After being guided through a perplexing maze of turns and streets, he was edged against a stone and told to sit down. Now the friar put five pieces of gold into his hands and told him to be silent and wait until the Cathedral bells sounded early mass before removing the bandage from his eyes. So he sat there, firmly grasping the gold pieces.

Daylight came, and the town roused itself from sleep. All the while Peregil had been sitting obediently on his stone seat, thinking what forty pesos would purchase. When the bells tolled he removed blindfold, to find himself ensconced on a block of granite under a gnarled dapdap tree behind the palace of the governor general, not far from the postern gate. He lingered no longer, but made his way home the best he could. He rejoiced in his employment and only hoped that his nocturnal visitor would soon have other jars of coin to secrete, for a mason was lucky if he made six pesos a month in those days work.

That our hero was discreet goes without saying. But he was also human, therefore curious. The blocks of buildings in the walled city show the same kind of front. They are all of stone, with iron-studded doors of ponderous design, and the patio is a national institution. Try as he would he could never locate the building where he had dug the vault in the courtyard. Anybody who has been led blindfolded for eight or ten turnings will realize Peregil's complete loss of direction on those tortuous meanderings in a city laid out with the symmetry of a chessboard. He could not of course gain entrance to all the houses he might suspect, with a view to glancing at their patios; in addition there was the thin friar's admonition that he keep it all a secret. So he sought forgetfulness in his guitar, often enough wondering, as he gayly twanged the strings, but revealing nothing to his wife or friends by word or sign. And his wife soon let it all slip from her memory, though she dispensed a generous hospitality with the proceeds of her husband's task.

Years passed, Peregil himself all but forgot the incident in the incessant struggle to make both ends meet. He was still as devout as ever, but his life was the eternal question between a meal and a meal for his growing brood of children, of whom his wife presented him a new one at regular intervals. She continued to take her pleasure in gossip and gadding around with her acquaintances, and he waited like Micawber for something to turn up.

One evening when he was placidly smoking on the curb in front of his dwelling, he was accosted by the owner of the adjoining house, a man notorious for his avariciousness and for rentracking his tenants.

Peregil's progeny were playing round about him. Some of them were growing up, they would soon be launching out for themselves, and he, as usual, was worrying over the ways and means. The landlord, regarding him intently from beneath saturn brows, asked about his business prospects. Peregil replied that times were hard, work very difficult to find; he was hard put to it to find enough for rent and food. After some circumlocution the landlord told him of a house he owned that was badly in need of repairs, mentioning the fact that he could not find a tenant for the place, as it was commonly believed to be haunted. He said that if Peregil would put it into repair he could have the entresuelo rent-free.

Peregil said he would take a look at the house, and the landlord conducted him to a large building only a few doors away. Peregil knew the tales that this house was haunted, but had not known who owned it. The landlord led him through the entresuelo to the patio, which somehow seemed familiar to the mason. In fact, stifling his astonishment, Peregil recognized the courtyard as the one in which he had built the vault under the fountain for the mysterious friar so long ago. The landlord told him the house had been occupied by an aged canon of the Cathedral, a miser, who had died suddenly only a few months before. He had been reputed very wealthy, but when the brothers had thronged to take possession of his belongings for the Church, all they found was a modest sum of gold and some worthless trinkets, though they ransacked every corner of the house and even pried up the floors.

Grumbling over the damage they had done, the landlord rehearsed the story, already familiar gossip to Peregil, that nobody cared to rent the house now because it was said that the miserly friar could still be heard in it all night, counting money.

Peregil dissimulated, driving a hard bargain. However, getting the best terms he could, he finally made an agreement with the landlord which was duly drawn up, signed and witnessed before a royal notary. Then he moved his family into the entresuelo, where the children's continual hubbub would have laid any priestly ghosts that might have been stalking about. Peregil let them romp to their hearts' content, having business of importance to attend to himself.

It was not a difficult task for him to unearth the treasure, as he was daily engaged with trowel, mortar and stone in repairs to the house itself. He carefully removed the laden tapayans from the vault and provided them safe storage elsewhere. Then he began gradually to avail himself of the lucky windfall.

First he took a short journey, and explained his sudden access of wealth to his better half by saying that a legacy had fallen to him, left by an uncle in Spain. If his words did not satisfy her, his money did. But he made haste to put it into property. For a suitable residence, he purchased a house on calle Muralla, or Wall street. Then he acquired a farm, for well he knew that houses and lands were real, while money might melt away, as it often did. Remembering the Church in his affluence, as he had appealed to it in his poverty, he made various gifts to the religious orders and gave liberally to the poor - not forgetting his old companions.

The money might have been originally filched from the Church, he did not know; anyway, to liberal tithes the Church was entitled. Indeed the hoard had fallen into good hands in the worthy Peregil, who knew how to appreciate it and not allow it to dazzle him.

Very naturally, he elevated his standard of living. He wore better clothes, his daughters were provided with decent dowries and his sons set up in careers of their own. No longer was the price of garbanzos haggled over in the market by his stout wife, for she now was above that sort of thing and wore the highest combs and the finest mantillas in Manila. Persona grata to the Church, Peregil became in time a pillar of society, a gentleman of consequence. But he was never happier than when twanging his guitar to the tune of No Me Mates and other favorites of his bygone days, when the problem of winning his bread by the sweat of his brow had been the burning question of his life.

In recompense to the friar, he had many masses said for the latter's soul, designating him his benefactor and mentioning no name. His wife so magnified the story of the legacy that many persons came to believe in time that Peregil must be a scion of either the Mendozas or Medinas, the best families of Spain. Her love of gossip had not abated with the acquisition of a fortune.

The fortune, too, caused his nickname of Peregil to be quickly dropped, and his neighbors were soon respectfully saluting him as Don Pedro Gil. But his head was not turned. No man knew better than he the truth of the old Castilian proverb: Cuando hay dinero, soy Don Tomas; pero cuando no hay, soy Tomas, nada mas: When there is money, I am Don Tomas; but when there is none, I am simply Tomas. Though his declining years were made very pleasant by his lucky strike, after so many years of drudging poverty, he always remained very discreet about the money. He never revealed the source of his fortune until he was on his death-bed, and then only to his eldest son, cautioning him also to be discreet and to conserve the wealth of the family carefully. He died in the odor of sanctity, a model father, a model Christian, and a model master mason.


  1. A Manila "Adventure of the Mason" -- September 163 years ago by Percy Hill, American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, Volume 8 Number 9, September 1928


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