The History of the Princess of South America

It’s the year 1875, and Mr. Johnson, an American writer, arrives in Cartagena, Colombia, where he decides to settle down for a while after having traveled across South America.

Mr. Johnson is a strong man, thirty years of age and good-looking, who stops at nothing to get what he wants. He got married years before to a marchioness in England, whom he brought to the United States and with whom he had a child, Joseph. Months after the child’s birth, the marchioness died mysteriously and Joseph was sent to England by his father to live with his deceased mother’s family, who would later send him to a boarding school in London. For the time that he has remained alone, Mr. Johnson has dedicated himself to traveling around the world and writing about the experiences he has had in the places he has visited.

Mr. Johnson buys a house in Cartagena and hires several servants to work for him. It is at this time that he meets Margarita, a beautiful thirty-year-old widow who has a seven-year-old daughter named Isabel. Margarita has come from the inland in search of new opportunities in the great Cartagena Port, but everything has gone wrong for her. She therefore has no other choice but to work in Mr. Johnson’s house, like any other servant.

Mr. Johnson has remained astonished by Margarita’s beauty, and on one of the many hot nights of this Caribbean city, he decides to visit her bedroom. Mr. Johnson enters her room without knocking, and the frightened Margarita immediately jumps out of bed. After a few minutes, Mr. Johnson realizes he can’t get anywhere with her, so he tries to force himself on her. In defending herself, Margarita grabs a razor blade and cuts Mr. Johnson across the face, leaving him scarred for life, and runs off while Mr. Johnson curses in pain.

Margarita takes refuge with her daughter Isabel in a small fishing town near the city. But one tragic night, the fishermen are attacked by a band of unknown horsemen who abduct Isabel. Mr. Johnson has sworn to separate Margarita from her daughter while the scar on his face endures. And that’s exactly what he does.

Margarita starts to inquire as to Isabel’s whereabouts, but unfortunately for her, it is in vain. Mr. Johnson has left Cartagena, but before he left, he gave orders to his accomplices to kill her.

It’s 1890, and Mr. Johnson lives in a quiet town in New Jersey, very close to New York City, in a great mansion where little Isabel has grown up as a servant and grown into a beautiful woman. At the same time, Mr. Johnson’s books have turned out to be failures, and he has become a powerful industrialist in New York. He took the fortune that the marchioness left him and invested it in small industries, and with his ambition and his exploitation of workers, these small industries have grown, and today he is one of the most important men in the city.

But Mr. Johnson has a problem. After his accomplice in Cartagena murders Margarita, he mails him a letter in which he describes how the murder took place, and encloses Isabel’s adoption papers. This letter falls into the hands of Dr. Edwards, a forty-year-old skeleton-like doctor who has been blackmailing Mr. Johnson since the murder, and whose most recent blackmail consists of wanting his daughter Elizabeth to marry young Joseph, even though he is living in England. Through this marriage, Dr. Edwards can ensure his future with one of the richest families in the city. Mr. Johnson accepts the terms of the blackmail and sends for Joseph in England, thus committing him to marriage with the beautiful Elizabeth.

Mr. Johnson also knows the danger of having Isabel in his house, as she harbors a profound hatred toward him. Regardless of the fact that no one has wanted to listen to her accusations regarding her abduction, it isn’t desirable that Joseph meet her, because, as Mr. Johnson says, Joseph is weak and good-natured like his mother, the marchioness, and Isabel is very beautiful. So when Isabel catches a simple cold, Mr. Johnson takes advantage of it, and, with the help of Dr. Edwards, makes a false diagnosis of tuberculosis. Isabel is then isolated from everyone and sent to live in a small house that is built for her on the beach.

Joseph arrives in New Jersey after several weeks of traveling, anxious to see his father’s property and other possessions and to meet his betrothed, about whom he has heard wonders. During one of his strolls on the estate, he discovers the small house in which Isabel lives. As he approaches the house, he suddenly sees the beautiful Isabel, semi-nude, sunbathing on the beach. From that moment, Joseph starts to become interested in Isabel, seeing in her the woman he has always dreamed about, and eventually he feels great passion for her, putting his betrothed and the impending wedding aside. Meanwhile, at the same time, his betrothed Elizabeth isn’t at all interested in the announced wedding, but instead wants to enter the convent. Elizabeth is a cultured and beautiful blonde who thinks it very strange that Mr. Johnson, a terribly powerful man, would want her, a common woman, the daughter of a second-class doctor, to marry his son, who has grown up in London’s high society.

Elizabeth starts to investigate her fathers’ affairs with Mr. Johnson and finds out about the letter. In the meantime, Joseph starts to try to win over Isabel, discovering that Dr. Edward’s prognosis of tuberculosis is false. But, in spite of knowing this, Isabel decides to keep quiet about it, recognizing that she now feels very far away from Mr. Johnson and if she hadn’t left the house any sooner, it was only because she was quietly waiting for revenge.

Isabel rejects Joseph at first, but because of the loneliness she feels and the sincerity and tenderness with which he speaks to her, she eventually accepts him…but not without continuing to feel afraid. Joseph and Isabel become clandestine lovers, and one night Joseph presents her with his mother’s crown, crowning her “The Princess of South America,” to show that he really loves her, and telling her how valuable she is despite the mud she has been dragged through. Joseph has turned against his father because of the way he has treated Isabel, but out of respect for her request, they decide to continue their relationship in secret until the day of the arranged wedding. Meanwhile, Isabel continues to keep her abduction and the murder of her mother a secret until she can find a way to prove it.

In spite of the fact that Joseph and Isabel love each other secretly, Mr. Johnson finds out about their relationship, and maliciously plans to put an end to it. Joseph, in his turn, plans to go to the church, just as Elizabeth does, but not exactly to get married. They both know about the letter with which Dr. Edwards is blackmailing Mr. Johnson, and they invite wedding guests.

It’s the day to expose everything in public, in front of all the wedding guests, and Joseph arrives at the church, Elizabeth arriving a moment later, beautifully dressed in white. The ceremony begins, and Joseph leaves the church with the intention of finding Isabel, bringing her back, and presenting her to the guests. But Mr. Johnson, who is much more clever than his son, has devised a better plan. As Joseph advances on his horse, Mr. Johnson chases him from behind until he finally catches up to him, and throws himself onto him. They fight violently. It’s the second great confrontation between father and son, but this time there is a death threat. “If you don’t return to the church and marry Elizabeth, that bitch will die,” threatens Mr. Johnson.

“You’re crazy if you think you can continue doing whatever you want. This time it’s not going to be easy for you,” Joseph replies angrily.

Then, Mr. Johnson shows Joseph one of Isabel’s dresses, which Joseph recognizes. “As you can see, it’s Isabel’s dress, and as for the blood…we had to give her a few lashes, you know how very rebellious she is,” Mr. Johnson continued, despite Joseph’s impending anger.

After cursing at his father, Joseph agrees to return to the church. Mr. Johnson’s lie was successful.

Isabel finds herself in Mr. Johnson’s house–in Joseph’s bedroom, where they had made love so many times–and waits for Joseph impatiently. When she looks out the window and sees the carriage with the newlyweds approaching the house, the world seems to fall on top of her. “Oh, no…God…no,” Isabel exclaims, covering her mouth with her hands. The wedding reception begins and in the middle of it, Isabel leaves the room wearing the crown that Joseph gave her and a red dress that Joseph bought for her in New York. When she gets downstairs she starts to yell her
accusations at Mr. Johnson, and also accuses him of murdering the marchioness.

Mr. Johnson, terrified by Isabel’s screaming in front of so many people, but still cunning, shows a governor who is present the letter of adoption, thus proving his innocence of Isabel’s accusations. Isabel, seeing that once again her words have been in vain, leaves the house in desperation, flinging the crown at the anguished Joseph’s feet. Joseph places himself in front of his father, for the first time knowing the whole truth and fully understanding the kind of man his father is. He threatens him in front of all the guests and leaves quickly to catch up to Isabel.

Elizabeth, still in her wedding dress, arrives at her house and starts to look for the letter. Her father’s writing desk and other furniture are secured with locks, so she uses an axe on the furniture, and after almost destroying everything in her father’s office, she finds the letter.

Meanwhile, Joseph succeeds in catching up to Isabel, who is headed toward the deep sea, wanting to kill herself. “No more lies! No more lies!” Isabel cries. “That’s all in the past! This was his last lie. I thought he had you in his custody and I couldn’t risk losing you,” Joseph explains to Isabel. Joseph takes Isabel in his arms and escorts her to her little house on the beach, where he promises to end his father’s wickedness. “How can I make you see that I really love you? That I haven’t lied to you?” Joseph asks the motionless Isabel. “If you really love me, bring me his corpse,” Isabel responds.

Dr. Edwards tries to take away the letter that Elizabeth has found, but she threatens him with the axe and runs toward the door. When she opens it, Mr. Johnson appears in the doorway; he has come to get what belongs to him. Mr. Johnson grabs Elizabeth by the arm and forces her to hand over the letter. At that moment, Joseph appears, armed with a pistol, and points it at Mr. Johnson. He demands that Mr. Johnson let Elizabeth go, but Mr. Johnson does the opposite and holds her even tighter, threatening her with a knife. Mr. Johnson explains why he must have the letter, and cynically confesses his crimes. Then the governor and some of the other wedding guests appear, having entered the house through the main door and overheard Mr. Johnson’s confession. At seeing himself cornered, Mr. Johnson tries to kill Elizabeth, but Joseph makes use of his good marksmanship and shoots his father in the head.

Joseph then picks up his father’s corpse and brings it to the beach, where Isabel is waiting for him.


Julian Rodríguez

Julian Rodríguez is a screenwriter and filmmaker currently residing in New Jersey and Mexico.

Harry Morales

Harry Morales is a Spanish literary translator whose translations include the work of the late Mario Benedetti, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Eugenio María de Hostos, Emir Rodríguez Monegal, Juan Rulfo, Alberto Ruy-Sánchez, Ilan Stavans, and Francisco Proaño Arandi, among many other distinguished Latin American writers. His work has been widely published in numerous anthologies, and has appeared in various journals, including Pequod, Quarterly West, Chicago Review, TriQuarterly, The Literary Review, AGNI, The Kenyon Review, Mid-American Review, ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, Mānoa, BOMB, WORLDVIEW, Puerto del Sol, The Iowa Review, Michigan Review, World Literature Today, and Hayden's Ferry Review, among others. His English translation of two verse collections by Mario Benedetti, Sólo Mientras Tanto: Poemas: 1948-1950 (Only in the Meantime: Poems: 1948-1950) and Poemas de la Oficina: 1953-1956 (Office Poems: 1953-1956), and a volume of stories, El Resto Es Selva y Otros Cuentos (The Rest is Jungle and Other Stories), are published by Host Publications.

Copyright (c) Julian Rodríguez, 1991. English translation copyright (c) Harry Morales, 1991.