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 Monsalvat had come to a crossroad in his life. For nearly forty years he had gone straight ahead, never hesitating as to which turning to take. But now, as though a complete transformation had occurred within him, he seemed a stranger to himself, and he did not know where this stranger was going. Heretofore he had lived without criticizing the world of which he was a part—which means that he had been fairly happy. But during the past few months he had come to view life and himself from a critical point of view, and he had reached the conclusion that as human beings go, he was one of the unfortunates.
He and his sister Eugenia were illegitimate children. His father, of the aristocracy, and rich with many millions, had, some five years before, died suddenly without leaving a will. Fernando was intelligent and had something of his father's manner and bearing; and as the legitimate heirs of the Monsalvat fortune were all girls, Fernando was given a good education while his father was still alive. In order to keep him away from his mother, an ignorant, irresponsible woman of the immigrant class, the boy was sent to a boarding school. It was only during vacations that he saw her. Fernando remembered his father's visits, the discussions with his mother, the admonitions he himself always received. Once his father had taken the boy to one of his ranches near Buenos Aires, a piece of property as big as an entire state, on which were marvelous forests, a house as magnificent as a palace, and paddocks full of splendid bulls and woolly sheep. More clearly than anything else, he remembered how his father took him along almost stealthily, and replied evasively when a friend, on the train, asked who the child with him was. Later, at boarding school, some boys who knew his father's legitimate family, enlightened him as to his own birth.
When he left college he took up law. He was an excellent student; and even before any regular admission to the bar, he was filling a place in the office of a well-known lawyer. Later he became this man's partner, made money, and won recognition. For a scruple he left the law office and went to Europe, remaining there two years. When he returned he was thirty-two. No longer wishing to continue in his profession, he finally obtained a consulship to an Italian city. It was now six months since he had returned, after seven years' absence, to settle permanently in his own country.
Fernando's mother was still living. She was ill, and aged; indeed, although not yet seventy, she seemed quite decrepit. Her son saw little of her. She lived with a mulatto servant in a rather poor neighborhood, in an apartment house facing Lezama Park. Of his own sister he had seen little.
Monsalvat had lived as do most decent men of his social position. He had worked hard in his law office, and as consul had rendered services of distinction. From boyhood, books had been his chief companions. He had taken up sociology, and from time to time he got an article published. His opinions were respected and discussed in certain intellectual circles. Though not socially inclined, and in spite of his timidity and lack of confidence, he frequented the clubs and theatres and race courses of Buenos Aires. He was not often present at more private social affairs, for the circumstances of his birth prevented his receiving invitations from certain quarters. While a student he lived on an allowance from his father. Now, on his return from Europe, he found himself possessed of no other income than three hundred pesos monthly from a piece of property which his father had given him upon his passing his law examinations.
The knowledge of his illegitimacy had exercised an incalculable influence on his character and general outlook on life. When he was a student certain youths of good family had made it plain that they did not desire his friendship; and later he had been socially snubbed on several occasions. He was, however, inclined to exaggerate the number of these slights. If an acquaintance failed to notice him, as he passed along the street, he believed the omission an intentional offense. If, at a dance, a girl chanced to refuse his proffered arm, he was beset always with the same thought.... "She does not dare to be seen with me.... She knows!..." If he received in his examinations a lower mark than the one he thought he must have earned, he did not for a moment doubt that it was the stigma of his birth which was to blame. Not a day passed that he did not at some moment revert to this preoccupation. He bore society no grudge; on the contrary, it seemed to him quite natural that, dominant ideas being what they are, he should be thought less of. Nevertheless he felt humiliated, with a vague consciousness that his value as a social being was diminished by a misfortune beyond his control.
All this, of course, tended to isolate him, and confirmed his tendencies toward bookishness. He had no real friends. He felt himself to be quite alone in life—alone spiritually, that is; for social relations in abundance could not fail a man of his intellect and professional position, whose character, moreover, was above reproach, and who, in spite of an outward coldness and an almost savage shyness that frequently took possession of him, was a kind and likeable sort of fellow.
This sense of solitude was tempered, if at all, by one or two experiences in love. His dealings with women were not those current among the young men of his generation. Gossip attributed, nevertheless, sentimental affairs to him, some of them with women of prominence in the life of the Capital. For Monsalvat, as his acquaintances noted, knew how to please. There was something that appealed to women in the soft inflections of his voice, and in the deep seriousness of his eyes. But the secret of his successes probably lay in the fact that he awakened in women that compassion which is so ruinous to them—so much so that Monsalvat was quite as often the pursued as the pursuer. Two or three times he had thought himself in love—mistakenly, as he soon discovered; and women for their part had loved him, and with passion. But these affairs were, after all, nothing but passing gratifications of the instinct of playfulness—little love episodes at best.
In other respects his life might have been considered a model and an exception. He was courteous and simple in manner, with no violent dislikes for anyone. Kind, always ready to do a good turn, he pushed considerateness even to extremes. He lived scrupulously within his means. He never paid court to those in whose power it was to further his advancement. He never indulged in petty disloyalties toward his friends nor paid off injury with injury. His relations with people were always sincere and free from intrigue. A useful and an honest fellow Fernando Monsalvat might have been considered by anyone. Yet, these several months past, he had been coming to the conclusion that he had lived in a useless sort of way, that his life had been selfish, mediocre, barren of any good. He was most of all ashamed of his articles on moral and social subjects, all of them colored with "class" prejudice, mere reflections of the conventional, insincere, and rankly individualistic standards which pervaded the University, and which never failed of approval from climbing politicians as well as from the cultured élite. Monsalvat despised himself for having lived and thought like any other man of his social group. What real good had he ever accomplished? He had lived for himself alone; worked for the money that work might bring him; written to gratify an instinct of vanity, a desire for prominence, for applause. Now he endured a hidden torment: he was disgusted with himself, with society, and even with life, repenting, in his soul's secret, of so many wasted years.
To generous spirits, such moral crises are natural; moments are sure to come when they must view their own conduct critically; and at such junctures they loathe their sterile past. But how many ever succeed in changing the direction of their lives? Most of us stifle this moral unrest in the depths of our consciousness; discontented and pessimistic, we go on living a life we hate, tempering the noble impulses that beset our guilty consciences with considerations of personal, even petty, interests that bid us take things as we find them. This latter was the case with Monsalvat.
Two trifling events of his days in Paris had cast a gloom over his outlook on life.
Convinced that he ought to put an end to his solitude, he decided to marry; and he paid court to a girl of good family with whom he had been on pleasantly cordial terms in Rome. But no sooner did the family and the girl herself become aware of Monsalvat's intentions, than all friendliness on their part vanished. An officious friend intimated to Monsalvat—he never knew whether at the girl's own request, or that of her parents—that his attentions were not desired.
Later, at the hotel where he was stopping, he made the acquaintance of another fellow countrywoman. Friendship and flirtation followed. Monsalvat became interested to the point of believing himself in love. He made an offer of marriage and was contemptuously rejected, as though such an idea on his part were in itself an insult. In situations of this kind Monsalvat did not suffer so much on his own account; it was not shame of being what he was that hurt him, but a deepening sense of the injustice inherent in people and in things.
He had given barely a thought to the imperfection, the inequalities, of the world he was living in. Full of his own thoughts, his own books, his own pleasures, he had paid no attention to the cry of anguish rising from the depths of the social order—as an established, an immutable order he had accepted it all along.
The fact that not till he had felt them himself had he opened his eyes to the flagrant injustices of society aroused a deep self-reproach in Monsalvat. It seemed to him that at the bottom of his new opinions purely selfish motives lay. On the other hand, it was to the universal, the human aspects of his own case that he gave his attention. Besides, does not selfishness play a little part in our striving toward the greatest ends?
It was some six months before the scenes in the cabaret, that Fernando Monsalvat, disheartened and disillusioned, had arrived in Buenos Aires. At first it startled him to find himself judging people and institutions so mercilessly. Why did he see everything in its darkest colors? Had he become an incorrigible cynic? Eventually he came to understand that the severe judgments he was formulating were the natural consequence of the critical spirit now aroused within him. In the complex motivation of the finest, noblest, most heroic gestures of men, how many small, unconfessable impulses always have their play?
One afternoon chance revealed to him in vivid colors the degree to which his life had been self-centered. The taxi in which he happened to be riding came to a standstill at a turning in Lavalle Square. A crowd was coming toward him, singing. It was a Sunday afternoon. He noticed that all the doors of the neighborhood were closed. The singing came nearer, swelling up from the street, rising above the tree tops. It was an irritated, exasperated, tumultuous mob which was approaching; and a song which both alarmed and attracted him was resounding from hundreds of mouths, its spirit typified in the red flag waving above the multitude. He got out of the taxi, and at that moment a bugle sounded. The mob fell in on itself like a punctured balloon. There was a volley of rifle shots, and in the confusion he could see the police charging blindly with their swords. The song continued, however, for a time; then the regimented violence of the Law was stronger than the impulsive violence of the Internationale. The rabble broke into the side streets and dispersed. The swords of the police eagerly sought out the wretches crouching for shelter in the doorways. Other wretches were in headlong flight, their eyes wide with terror. No one was paying any attention to the dead or wounded. Doors and windows remained closed and silent. To Monsalvat, sick with indignation, his soul flaming in outrage, this very silence seemed a horrible complicity in a crime.
His transformation, however, was purely an inner one. To be sure, he had somewhat changed his manner of living: he no longer went to his club nor to parties; he avoided most of his former friends. But, after all, what had he actually done these six months past? Had he perchance even discovered the road he really wanted to take? He was ceaselessly tormented by these questions, which plunged him for hours at a time into inconclusive meditations.
On one point he was resolved: he would not resume his practice of law. What need had he to earn money? To save it up? To spend it on amusements? At any rate, he might give it away. But to whom, and how? A friend, a successful lawyer, who had a high opinion of Monsalvat's judicial learning, proposed making him a partner in his firm; but Monsalvat did not accept the offer. He thought, finally, he would prefer a clerkship in the Department of Foreign Relations, where his seven years as consul would count, and where, too, he was already looked upon with great favor. The Minister had promised him a post and the appointment would be coming along almost any day.
Meanwhile he roamed the streets, gloomy and preoccupied, fleeing from his acquaintances and the Centennial festivities of the fashionable quarters to wander through the tenement districts and the slums. Sometimes he would join the spectators of some street entertainment; and as he listened to the talk of those about him, or spoke to them, men and women, it surprised him to feel suddenly so much at home with these poor people, so at one with them; till he remembered that through his mother—born of laborers who had worked their way up to the shopkeeping class—he, too, was pueblo, very much pueblo, a true child of the proletariat.
One day he went to see the building—a small tenement—on the income from which he was living. The house was a loathsome plague-spot in which some fifteen wretched families lodged. How was it that it had never before occurred to him to look this house up, he wondered, disgusted with himself. And why had his agent never reported such conditions? Then he remembered that he had visited the property in person several times before his second trip to Europe; save that then all this poverty and squalor seemed to him a natural, even an excellent, thing! Was it not just this sort of surroundings which pricked the ambition of these laboring people, spurred them to work their way up to the comfort they had learned through hard experience to appreciate? Was not this very misery the first rung on the ladder of progress in this blessed country of opportunity, where "no one need be poor unless he chooses to be"? Monsalvat thought with shame of his earlier adherence to "economic liberalism," a toothless theory, surely invented by the rich that they might continue to exploit the poor! How much he would have given now never to have written those fine articles of his! He went away resolved to mortgage the tenement, and put the money into improvements which would make the building sanitary at least.
The people of his old world, his men friends especially, made fun of his new views. He had not been talking much of his recent mental struggles; but his aloofness, coupled with a few articles of his giving voice to the protest within him, annoyed not a few of the distinguished persons who had been wont to applaud him. Something had gone wrong inside this man; and society commented on the change without forbearance. Some said he was crazy, others thought there was something off with his liver or his spleen. More than one of his old admirers looked at him with a kind of fear. What was he going to do next? Perhaps break with all established institutions.
Monsalvat, however, was nobody's enemy. Feelings of revolt could not live long in his heart, but became transformed, soon after birth, into a nameless anguish, a physical and moral uneasiness. He hated only himself. His rebellion was a rebellion only against his own selfish years.
What was it he wanted now? What was he looking for? What road was he going to choose? He did not know. Around him he felt a great emptiness that was ever growing greater. Wherever he went a sense of infinite loneliness accompanied him. He spent hours pondering the future. Meanwhile he had grown strangely sensitive emotionally; and it seemed as though the moment had come when his outward life, as well, must undergo its transformation.
One night idle curiosity led him to a cabaret. He knew little of this form of diversion. The "show" entertained him; the tangos and the orchestra stirred his emotions. This place of amusement seemed to be a note of color in the bleak immensity of Buenos Aires. On the other hand, he felt more alone than ever before. In all that dancing, in all that music, he found, he scarcely knew why, the same sadness which was in his soul. At times when the mandola wailed in a crescendo from the depth of some vulgar popular tune—fraught with all the coarseness and abjections of the tenements of the city—he seemed to hear in it a cry of loneliness, despair, and bitterness rising from the dregs of life itself.
It was on that night that his eyes first met Nacha's. They looked at one another with surprise, and with a shade of embarrassment, as though they knew one another. The girl lost her composure, lowered her eyes, twisted her fingers nervously. For two hours Monsalvat lingered in the cabaret, persisting in this flirtation. He did not understand why he had never liked loose women; indeed, it all seemed to him rather absurd—though the girl did have pretty eyes! Perhaps she was not what she seemed! Perhaps she might some day love him, chance permitting. Perhaps his loneliness would be more bearable if a woman like her were there to sympathize with him. When she left the cabaret, he followed in a taxi. With her companion, she went into a house. Monsalvat concluded that she lived there. He got out of the taxi, and loitered about in the middle of the dark street. She came out on the balcony for a moment, casting two or three rapid glances in his direction.
A few nights later Monsalvat returned to the cabaret. He did not find her there. His loneliness again became unbearably acute, and his restlessness intolerable. It seemed to him more than ever imperative that he find some purpose in life again, some clear comprehension of his mission and destiny.
A few days later the scene in the cabaret occurred.

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