Search      Hot    Newest Novel
HOME > Short Stories > Nacha Regules > CHAPTER I
Font Size:【Large】【Middle】【Small】 Add Bookmark  
 An August night! Hot with the fever of her adolescence as a national capital, Buenos Aires was ablaze with millions of lights and rejoicing in noisy revelry. The Centennial festivities had been going on since May. Thousands of people had flocked in from every corner of the country, from neighboring states and even from Europe. During these great days of a nation's coming of age, the crowd, in one enormous, slowly moving procession, thronged the asphalt pavements of the principle avenues. The very streets and houses appeared to be in motion. When, toward evening, the multitude increased, the congestion caused a swelling which, it seemed, must at a given moment burst the bounds on either side. At night some forty theatres, and innumerable movie-houses and concert halls, crammed overflowing masses into their hungry maws, while in the cabarets boisterous licence rubbed elbows with curiosity.
The cabaret, of "the Port"—as Argentina calls its chief city—is a public dance hall: it provides a room, tables for drinking, and an orchestra. The patrons are young men of the upper classes with their mistresses; tourists and rustic sight-seers; and girls "of the town," who come alone. The tango, almost the only dance seen there, and the orchestra, composed usually of white gangsters and mulattos are—with the champagne bottle and the tuxedo—the normal expressions of the Argentine suburban "soul"!
The musicians sing, shout, strike on the wooden pans of their instruments, gesticulate. The silhouettes of the dancers twist and intertwine, weave in and out across the floor, blend, and neutralize each other; and the mandola, with its dark low tones, underlines the tangos with long shadows of pain.
But there are other things in the cabaret besides dancing. On some nights a sudden outburst of noise, from end to end of the hall, cuts the tango in two, as it were, with an enormous, quivering gash. A man's persistent ogling of another fellow's girl, a violent collision of dancers, the suspicion of ridicule or insult, bring threats from mouths contorted with anger, while revolvers are flourished in the air. The patota, the inevitable leading actor in such scenes, is a group of wealthy roisterers whose greatest pleasure is to annoy, insult, attack with fist or weapon, in short, transform peaceable pleasure seeking into a tavern brawl. To show resentment toward a patota, to resist its aggressions, is to invite a drubbing from a pack trained to fight as a gang, or an unfailing bullet fired treacherously from behind.
On that August night, in one of these crowded cabarets, frenzied dancing was going on. Some gigantic invisible hand seemed to be reaching down from the top of the hall, and incessantly stirring the couples round and round. All the tables were full. Champagne bottles raised their aristocratic necks from the icy prisons which held them. Under the glow of the lights evening gowns blazed dazzlingly, and the women's flesh shone gleaming, vibrant, golden, from the low cut dresses. Tangos, tangos, more tangos! With the speed of a movie film, and in chance groupings, graceful poses and involuntary caricatures were sketched. The musicians, caught up in the madness of the throng, shouted phrases of double meanings caught up for the purpose from the latest song hits. A couple of "professionals" suddenly emerged, amidst wild applause, from the common herd of the dance, which opened from the centre to make way; and there, surrounded by a ring of faces, incited by exclamations, admiring and picturesque, the two embraced, separated, and came together again, interminably, with minutely patterned steps and attitudes, to the music of an uneasy, sensuous, odorous tango, which the mandola tried to sentimentalize with the wails of its deeper notes.
When the exhibition was over, many eyes turned toward a man sitting alone at a little table, conspicuous because he was so gloomy and preoccupied, so completely indifferent to everything that was going on around him. He was well dressed in a black suit that suggested both elegance and severity. His face attracted; magnetic, it might have been called; here, one felt, was a personality, a man who had fought his way up in life through suffering. His features wore an expression of mental and moral disquietude.
Unaccompanied save by his own thoughts, he was, nevertheless, furtively watching a young girl who, with several other people, sat at a table near by. This man was not in nor of the cabaret. When his gaze was not fixed on his pretty neighbor it seemed to be seeking distant worlds, wandering, perhaps, in search of something to fill his solitude or to offer to this girl in one single passionate glance.
The youths with whom she was sitting formed a patota of five. She was dividing their attentions with three other women at the table. The men did not belong to aristocratic society, though they were of "good family" as the porte?os—the people of Buenos Aires—say; the names of their fathers', that is, were well-known in politics and business, and appeared frequently in the society columns of the newspapers. As individuals they had no distinction. They talked in loud, obtrusive voices, using terms of gross familiarity in addressing one another. When they laughed it was in a bellowing hilarity calculated to attract attention; just as, when they danced, it was with tremendous waggles of hips and shoulders. Of their champagne they were noisily ostentatious. It was now mid-winter in Buenos Aires; but they were wearing light suits and flashy neckties. Typical Argentine "sports" in short!
The girl, who had so impressed the solitary stranger, was taking no part in the animation around her. Her quiet melancholy shadowed a rather long face, a pair of burning dark eyes, a mouth that might have been called too large. Everything about her contributed to the tragic attractiveness of her person: the wide hat, which accentuated a child-like quality in her; the elegance, somewhat affectedly careless, of her dress; the relaxed indifference with which she moved her long arms—thin but shapely, and covered, to above the elbow, by white gloves. The low cut of her dress drew one's eye to the faint golden tints of her skin. Her hair, of a dull golden shade, fell in loops over her ears to form a frame for her features.
He observed that she was vainly trying to be merry, and to laugh with her companions; but depression had obstinately seized on her, and she lacked the will to master it. A moment came when her gloom increased to the point of tears, and her companions remarked it. One of them, in whom drink was already at work, cried out:
"What's the matter with you? Have you got the pip?"
He was a graceless individual, ugly, flat-nosed, restless, loud-voiced, constantly gesticulating, whom the others called "the Duck."
His friends greeted this witticism with bursts of laughter. The girl herself forced a smile in which the man at the neighboring table caught something of her suffering. His facial muscles contracted slightly.
"Give her another swig of booze—it's good for what ails her!" bawled the "Duck," inspired by the success of his previous venture.
"Don't mind him, Nacha!" said one of the women coldly, not as much from real sympathy as from a sense of feminine loyalty.
Again there were outbursts of laughter in the group, and even from people at other tables who had begun to listen. The girl, embarrassed, mortified, looked timidly about in every direction. When her eyes met those of the man who was sitting alone her self-consciousness increased.
The orchestra came to the end of a tango and, in the quiet which followed, the members of the patota set out to "rag" Nacha. One of them, who seemed to be her "man," egged the others on. The women playfully sided against her. Soon almost all the cabaret was taking part in the game. At last Nacha, unable to endure the banter longer, laid her face in her hands. The "Duck" moaned in burlesque: "Oh, Oh, Oh!" while some of the spectators near by almost unhinged their jaws in a roar of laughter, or chorused with the mourner in ridicule: "Oh, Oh, Oh!"
"See here, you are making a fool of me in public!" exclaimed Nacha's lover—and he added an oath.
Again the orchestra struck up a tango. The languid notes, the limping rhythms, the thick, bee-like murmur of the mandola, came to drown both curses and laughter alike. Again the couples were out on the floor, here swinging together in tight embrace, there stilting along with bodies stiffly erect and faces grave.
Nacha's "man" got up to dance with her. When, however, the girl resisted, he lifted her violently in his arms and set her down in the middle of the hall.
"Let me alone! I can't dance...."
"You are going to dance, I tell you.... You are only putting on!"
"But don't you see? I can't ... oh, please!"
The fellow grasped her around the waist and plunged with her into the rhythmic whirl on the floor. The man who sat alone had started at the brutality he was witnessing, as though a question had suddenly been settled in his mind. Something dramatic seemed about to happen, and many eyes watched him uneasily.
Nacha, with no heart for the dance, was not long in freeing herself and returning to the table; now it was quite unoccupied, since all her companions were on the floor. Her escort followed smiling with rage, and sitting down beside her, began apparently to insult and threaten her. His lower jaw was thrown far forward as he spoke; his teeth came tight together, and his lips twisted themselves into all the grimaces expressing anger and contempt.
"You'll pay for this ... as soon as we get out of here!" he said; and meanwhile he clutched her arm in a grip that hurt.
The stranger was now looking closely at the man. The latter was a tall strapping fellow, stockily built. His wide, close-shaven face showed a scar across the chin. He had broad shoulders, a dark skin; and his small hard eyes glittered with something of an Indian's haughtiness and sinister ferocity. A large pearl adorned his made-up necktie. He wore white spats over his patent leather shoes, and large rings on his fingers.
There are plenty of men like this among the porte?os! As vulgar as they are rich, they are always showing off their dollars and their women. They each set up a ménage with some pretty girl—for otherwise they would lose "standing." They spend their evenings in the theatres and their nights in the cabarets or, for adventure, ragging with their pals and their sweethearts some convenient victim; drinking champagne, making an uproar, annoying everyone, bellowing at one another. Noisy, aggressive, intrusive, they allow no one to look too pryingly, too persistently, at them! Their right forefingers itch for the feel of a revolver—an appendage that Nature should, to please them, have grown on their right hands. Women, in their eyes, are mechanical toys, objects without human feelings, to be bought and sold as such. And yet women become attached to them; perhaps because they like the manliness that such violence attests; or because these fellows show their women off, give them distinction—of a certain kind. Passion also inclines them to a certain fidelity at times. Some of them moreover are university men, or belong to prominent families. However, they are all office-seekers, all gamblers. They "go across" to Europe occasionally, insulting well-bred people by their arrogance and their grossness as nouveaux riches. In Paris they are always accompanied by cocottes, and make disturbances in dance halls and cabarets to advertise their South-American spirit and self-sufficiency. A repulsive type, in short: a mixture of the barbarian and of the civilized human being, of the gangster and the respectable citizen. The urban descendent of the Argentine cow-puncher is an individual without scruples, morals or discipline, with no law but caprice, and no ideal but pleasure.
Meanwhile Nacha, her face in her hands, was weeping. Her tormentor grew angrier, raised his voice to a higher, more resonant pitch, threatened her still more violently, called her hysterical, ridiculous, said she was surely "kidding." Anything would succeed better with him, he shouted, than cry-babying, and putting on.... At the single table near by, the stranger was looking on intently, his features tense with silent determination. How much longer could a self-respecting man hold out against the challenge of that brutality?
The rapier-thrust of a violin bow gave the death stab to a dying tango. The patoteros and their women returned to their table. The fellow who had wept vociferously before broke out again into mock lamentations at sight of Nacha's tears. He stood up, rubbing his fists into his eyes, and bawling grotesquely, like the dunce in school. His mirth caught the mood of the entire cabaret. Every atom of it quivered in titters of laughter. The butt of all this humor, hardened by this time, was shedding her tears inwardly now. She even feigned indifference, shrugging her shoulders and forcing her lips into an expression of disdain. But the man who was watching saw confessed suffering in her still reddened eyes.
When the next tango crushed this wretched farce under its innumerable feet, another of the patota's members, a tall thin youth, with a girlishly slender waist, asked Nacha to dance with him.
"I said I didn't want to dance!"
"What?" Her lover sprang toward her and seized her by the arms, determined to force her to her feet.
"Oh, please! I can't! ... I can't!"
"What do you mean—'can't'!"
The contest lasted only a second. The man won, inevitably. Pulling the girl out of her chair he dragged her along to the centre of the room, so that his friend could have a dance with her. But in his anger he gave one push so violent that she fell to the floor.
And then something unheard of happened. The man who was alone had risen suddenly at the beginning of the struggle. Now, to the stupefaction of everyone, he stepped coolly forward. The crowd quivered with excitement. A ring of uneasy faces formed around the chief actors in the scene. The tango was broken off; the sombre moan of the mandola was all that remained of it.
"What do you mean?" the girl's lover spat at him, while a leer of primitive hatred flashed in his Indian eyes, now smaller and harder than ever.
The coolness of the intruder amazed the crowd. He faced the fellow calmly and addressed him with apparent indifference. Nothing but a jerking of his lip muscles and a slight trembling of his hands betrayed the indignation in him. He looked steadily at the man in front of him and said slowly:
"You will please stop ill-treating this girl!"
No one could tell whether such coolness were due to foolhardiness or to real courage. The man was of average, if not less than average build, easy picking, obviously, for that semi-Indian and his pals, who could finish him off in a jiffy, with fists or revolvers, as patota preferences and custom might decide. The other members of the party meanwhile stood about in paralyzed amazement that any one should presume to call one of their fellows to account.
"What's that?" the fellow asked, as though he had not heard distinctly.
"Stop ill-treating this...."
A sudden attack from the four other members of the patota cut off the end of his sentence. At the same moment the onlookers discreetly drew back. A chair was knocked over. There was a rush to get out through the narrow doorway.
"Hold on there! Leave this fellow to me!" roared Nacha's owner. The air was dotted for a moment with clenched, up-raised fists. Seeing his friends still hedging the intruder about, their eagerness to attack unappeased, the fellow pushed them back one by one toward their table. Then he wheeled around on the spectators.
"This is nothing to stop dancing for, gentlemen!" To the musicians he shouted: "Go on with the music! Give us a tango!"
The orchestra, which had disintegrated during the scene, assembled around the music-stands again. After a few moments of aimless strumming it began a dance in quick time. The crowd, partly out of respect for the bully, and partly out of anxiety to dance down an incident which, if repeated, could only end in a shooting, began another tango. No one cared to return to a danger once safely passed.
Meanwhile the two men stood facing one another.
"You don't know me!" said the girl's lover at last, pulling at the rings on his fingers as though to busy his hands, so eager to be at the throat of the man opposite him. "You don't know me—but I know you! You are Dr. Fernando Monsalvat. Well sir, let me give you a suggestion. Leave us alone, and get out of here at once. You are older than I—forty at least. I am only thirty, very fit, and used to these affairs; and my friends are with me, their sleeves rolled up already, you might say. Just go along home! Don't be throwing your life away! And if I give you so much good advice gratis, it's because I have my reasons for doing so!"
The fellow's friends looked at one another inquiringly.
Who could that man be? What reasons did their comrade have to prevent them from breaking the presumptuous fool's head? The girl, seated at the table, kept her eyes on her champion. The orchestra was playing a wailing dance, limping with pauses, and mournful with the sighs of the mandola. There were many couples dancing, the women clinging to their partners' necks.
Monsalvat heard the man out in silence. He replied coolly:
"You can keep your advice to yourself! Meantime I want you to stop ill-treating that poor girl!"
"That poor girl!"
The fellow took a step backward as though about to "rush" his opponent. Rapidly his eyes took in everything around him. One hand felt for his revolver. But Monsalvat's self-possession held the rowdy in check. Perplexed, and already beaten, he began to feel ridiculous. This man was not trying to provoke him; neither did he fear him. He saw that the crowd and his companions had not noticed his compromising move; and he decided he could calm down without loss of prestige. Two or three minutes passed. Monsalvat waited as though entrenched in silence and calm. Something emanated from him which quite disconcerted his enemy. The latter lay aside his swaggering and said with a forced sarcastic laugh:
"You know, I am afraid of you! That is why I don't touch you. You are a regular man-eater, you see,—and that makes me spare my friends! I don't want to see them beaten up!..."
He stopped short, for his sarcasm quite obviously fell flat, even in his own estimation. He approached Monsalvat, and putting a hand on his shoulder said:
"See here, Monsalvat, it's lucky for you that it was I you ran across here ... however ... well ... never mind all that.... I'm going to make you see you're wrong. I'm going to let you talk with her. You can ask her any questions you see fit."
He went up to the girl and brought her back to introduce her. Ashen-pale, embarrassed, she smiled an absurd little smile, probably to hide her fear of some fatal outcome to the scene. Her eyes tremulously nestled for a moment in Monsalvat's steady gaze; but the voice of her master drove them from that refuge.
"This gentleman," he guffawed, "thinks I'm a blackguard more or less! Well, I want you to tell him whether you are satisfied with what I do for you or not. Tell him the truth, don't be afraid!"
Monsalvat, charmed and saddened, was still looking at Nacha, though he scarcely saw her. His eyes, softened with a pity intense enough to be pain, were remodelling a truer image of this girl of the underworld. She did not dare look at him. Her eyes were raised to her "man." Her mute question did not, apparently, interest Monsalvat, perhaps because he knew what the answer would be.
"Answer! Are you satisfied?"
Her voice was scarcely audible.
"And you have an easy time of it! You have a home, haven't you?"
Nacha saw what she must do. She must speak, declare herself satisfied with her lot. To do anything else would be to draw down on herself this man's anger at her champion. So suddenly she began to talk in a torrent of rambling, half-coherent words.
"Yes. I am satisfied. Why not? I have a home. I'm lucky all right. I don't have to chase around here and there the way I did before. And my home is fine. I have all the money I want to spend, and two servants. What more could I ask? And after all I went through before, it's quiet, and safe! You don't know what I went through!"
And, once started, she went on endlessly. She seemed to be talking into space, not addressing anyone in particular, and as if for herself alone, as if to distract her own attention with her own words. All that was not for Monsalvat's ears! She would have preferred that Monsalvat should not hear her at all! The words came out, poured out, beyond the control of will, much like a somnambulist's chatter. Monsalvat was not listening. It was enough for him to look at her and be conscious of her presence. Her gentleness, the tremulousness of her words, the sadness of her eyes, were what absorbed his whole interest. What she was saying did not matter. The tango throbbing through the air made him the more aware of the despairing monotone of her voice. The mandola with its bitter wail made her tragic melancholy only the more poignant.
Even Nacha's owner seemed for a moment to yield to the strange spell of these combining sounds. Then he interrupted:
"Well! You see? Are you convinced? Didn't I say she was putting on?"
Throwing back his shoulders, he burst into a laugh that rang with contempt. The tango was over, so was its spell.
The bully became the bully again. He approached his sweetheart, pushed her toward his comrades, who were sitting at their table waiting to see how it would all end.
"Now get out of here!" he said, turning to Monsalvat; "but before you go, I'll tell you who I am. It's to your interest, friend—just a moment—we might meet again—take a look at me!"
He was serious now. His right hand slipped through the opening of his tuxedo and rested on his belt. Then he announced solemnly:
"I am Dalmacio Arnedo, 'Pampa Arnedo,' as they call me."
Monsalvat started. Instinctively he raised a hand, but immediately let it fall. The five of the patota made a rush for him. At the same moment someone shouted: "The police!"
The cabaret seethed in confusion. Then suddenly an anxious calm fell on the room, a forced appearance of peaceableness, prearranged for the dull eyes of authority.
From the first there had been among the onlookers a certain number who took sides with Monsalvat. His manner toward the patota won him sympathizers. Some of them felt that the man had the strength to support his assurance. The girl herself aroused pity even though no one had had the courage to speak up in her defence. Two or three of these most sympathetic, or most prudent, individuals had called for the police, to have help on hand in case of an outbreak from the rowdies.
As the alarm was given the members of the patota hurried back to their places. Monsalvat, facing Arnedo, exclaimed:
"You rotter!"
Pampa Arnedo, safely seated at his table, answered with a sinister smile, while his friends beside him made noises with their lips, grimaced, and began offering toasts, simulating exaggerated merriment. Nacha looked pityingly at her protector. Who was this man? What did he want of her?
The police after a rapid glance around the room decided that "law and order" were still quite intact, and with solemn prudence went out again. Monsalvat returned to his table and paid his reckoning. The Duck began to sing the well-known tune from a popular variety show: "He's going now, he's going now!..."
The other members of the patota, and even some neutrals, joined in the chorus, "Now, now, he's going now!" Monsalvat, as he got up, saw that the girl, too, was singing and laughing. He paused a moment, reproachfully it seemed, his eyes dimmed with tears. Then quietly, without haste, he left the cabaret, while the fellow who had burlesqued Nacha's weeping broke out again with his "Oh, oh, oh!"

All The Data From The Network AND User Upload, If Infringement, Please Contact Us To Delete! Contact Us
About Us | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Tag List | Recent Search  
©2010-2018, All Rights Reserved