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 It was one o'clock when Monsalvat came out of the cabaret. As he stepped out on the sidewalk the cold, waiting thief like at the door, leapt at his throat and face. He turned up the collar of his overcoat and walked slowly away, careless of direction, his eyes following the sidewalk in front of him as a wheel follows a groove. At the first street corner he paused. People were leaving theatres and cafés, whirling away into the dark in taxis and automobiles. The trams were crowded. The cross-streets, of unpretentious apartment houses and second-rate shops, all darkened and asleep, were poorly lighted; but at its southern end, the center of the capital's night life dusted the sky with a golden sheen. Monsalvat turned in that direction, walking on mechanically till he came out on the brilliantly illuminated avenue. Through the immense plate glass windows of the cafés he could see the multitudes of little tables, and topping them, hundreds of human torsos gesticulating under thick waves of cigarette smoke, pierced with colored lights; while through the opening and closing doors, tango music broke in irregular surges, now strong, now weak. The street corners were sprinkled with men stragglers or survivors from larger groups of joy-seekers. Automobile horns, conversations in every tongue, the bells of blocked street-cars, rent the lurid glow with resounding, impatient clangor. But in spite of all the animation and illumination of the theatre district, the merry-making had not the enthusiasm of the earlier hours. Only that irreducible minimum of vitality remained, that residue of joy-thirst, which survives evenings of revelry, clinging tenaciously to the later hours, and scattering over the after-midnight streets a pervading sense of weariness.
Indifferent to the animation of these glittering thoroughfares, concentrated on his own inner misery, bewildered in the maze of conflicting emotions within him, Monsalvat went on his way, but walking more and more slowly now. He tried to analyze the thoughts and sensations that were tormenting him; but the effort served only to exasperate his distress. He had never suffered like this. All he knew for the moment was that his heart, with an impulsiveness which he felt certain was quite disinterested, had gone out to a girl he saw doomed, the victim of her own will to live and of the evil nature of others. How cowardly, futile, he had felt himself in the presence of her helplessness and humiliation! And then something overwhelming, imperious, had seemed to stir in his being, filling him with a courage strangely unfamiliar to him, lifting him from his chair, and throwing him forward against the girl's tormentors. But had he not played the simple fool—in public? Had not even Nacha joined in the mockery as he left the room, proving incapable of loyalty even toward the man who had defended her? Then that final thrust of the bully: "Take a good look at me! I am Dalmacio Arnedo! Pampa Arnedo!" In the days of his thoughtless prosperity as a student and man of promise, Fernando had thought little of the sister, Eugenia Monsalvat, who shared his own position in his father's family. A touch of shame and sorrow had come to him when he learned that she had left her—and his—mother's home—disappearing from even that penumbra of respectability, to live as the mistress of a man named Arnedo. So this was the man, thus crossing his path a second time, rising before him leering and insulting, and pronouncing his own name as a symbol of redoubled scorn for the name of Monsalvat! And that sister, again! Had he done anything to prevent her fall, in the first place, or to redeem her, now that she had fallen?
He was still walking slowly down the avenue of white lights when he felt a touch on his arm. It was Hamilcar Torres, one of the most intimate of his few intimate acquaintances.
"Give me a few moments, Monsalvat. Let's go in here, shall we?"
They entered one of the large cafés. The orchestra here, composed of girls, was playing a languid gypsy waltz, the music and the musicians, in combination, evoking expressions of melting languor on the faces of the males who were assembled there, most of them, at this advanced hour, gazing about in stupid rapture over wine glasses that were being filled and filled again.
"It was I who sent for the police," said Torres, when they had taken a table. He brought out the words very deliberately, marking the syllables, and in a tone calculated to emphasize the allusion, though his manner at once changed from a mood of reproving seriousness to one of amusement, and bantering knowingness.
Torres was a physician; his strikingly white teeth, crisp curly hair, eyebrows prominent over deep-set black eyes, suggested a trace of African blood in his veins. Under a thick black mustache, rather handsomely set against rosy, smooth-shaven cheeks, he smiled continuously, sometimes sadly, sometimes ironically, sometimes with affected malevolence and shrewdness.
Monsalvat did not reply. The doctor, turning sideways to the table, crossed his long legs, and, thrusting them far beyond the limits of the space which might reasonably be allowed to each patron of the café, obstructed all passage near him.
"I followed along after you," he said, shifting uneasily on his chair and turning his head so as to face Monsalvat, "because I wanted to put you on your guard. You've got to be careful with these people, old man! I know them—they won't stop at anything—and I saw that you ... and the girl ... well ... er ... eh?"
His right finger pointed, on the query, to his own right eye, then he waggled it at Monsalvat. Again his face varied from a rather exaggerated severity to a knowing smile; and turning his head so that it was once more in line with his body, and he had to look sideways at Monsalvat, he added:
"No need to deny it, my boy! After all, the girl is pretty enough! But—be careful.... When women like that get a hold of a fellow...!"
"Aren't you putting it rather strongly, Torres? I have a feeling that this particular girl is not of just the kind that...."
"Just the kind that what?" snapped the doctor, still eyeing Fernando sidewise, and with a mocking smile. "You don't know her!"
Then facing Monsalvat, and mustering a choleric frown for the occasion, he added impressively in a mysterious and earnest tone of voice, as if revealing something from a transcendental source:
"More than one man has gone to the dogs on that girl's account!"
Whereupon, with an air of philosophical indifference, he settled back to his former comfortable position.
Monsalvat was not convinced. Nacha's gentle eyes seemed to refute the miserable innuendos Torres was making. And yet, supposing it were all true? What then? A wave of passionate curiosity swept over Monsalvat. He wanted to know more. He must know more! Yet he said nothing. He could not bring out the question that was hanging on his lips. Torres divined what his friend was thinking, and pleased to be able to show how intimately he knew the ins and outs of life in Buenos Aires, he began:
"This Arnedo fellow—Pampa, as they call him—is real low-life, the kind who wouldn't hesitate to put a bullet through your body, or forge your name. Two or three times he has come near going to jail. And you saw how he treats the girl! An out and out bully!"
"What's her name? Who is she?" interrupted Monsalvat, with ill-concealed eagerness.
"She's known as Lila about town; but her real name is Ignacia Regules—Nacha, as most people call her for short. Her mother kept a student's boarding house—still does, for that matter. I knew her mother ... because once...."
"Keep to Nacha, won't you?"
"I see; you want to hear all about the girl! That's the important subject!" The doctor looked slyly at Monsalvat, enjoying the latter's confusion at this sudden self-betrayal. "I'll tell you something of what I know—not all, of course. I'm obliged to keep the most interesting parts to myself. Well, this Nacha, while still living in her mother's boarding house, fell in love with a student and ran away with him. He kept her a couple of years or so; then he left her, and at a very critical juncture—she was in the hospital, with a child that, fortunately, did not live. When she came out she took a job in a store. Probably she was willing enough to live a decent life, but the bad example of some of her girl friends was too much for her. She began to earn ten times more than what she got in the store—in a different way."
Torres winked as he now looked at Monsalvat.
"And how do you know all this?" the latter inquired.
"My dear fellow, that is something I don't tell."
The doctor did not wish to modify the effect of his story by simply stating that Nacha had known a friend of his, and once, when she was ill and Torres had been attending her, she had given him her whole story. Torres enjoyed mystification for its own sake, and preferred, just for the fun of it, to keep Monsalvat on edge a little longer.
And this game, for that matter, was working well. In utter distress, Monsalvat stared fixedly, now at his friend, now at the orchestra, now at the unknown faces about the great hall. But he did not see what was before his eyes. His mind was filled with the image of his own sister, abandoned to misfortune, perhaps now a common woman of the streets; of his mother weeping her life out over her own and her daughter's shame; of Nacha Regules, caught in the brutal clutches of Pampa Arnedo; and finally of his own past self, happy, free to travel, flirting with handsome women, courting literary fame, lounging at his club, or attending fashionable parties! While he had been idling thoughtlessly along in this relative but still gilded luxury, Eugenia Monsalvat was falling lower and lower in the social scale! His sister! But not his sister, only! Millions of women were enduring a misery like hers! And a world of well-nourished, "successful" men and women went gaily on its way, indifferent to the ceaseless suffering of these other women, proud of its money, and its easy virtue, robbing the poor of sisters and daughters, buying them, corrupting them, enjoying life.
"And then?" asked Monsalvat, noticing that Torres was studying him, and eager to learn everything he could about the life of this girl, who seemed to him at that moment to represent all the unfortunate women of the earth in her person.
"Well, she left the store—you would never guess why! She wanted to be 'respectable'! She took up some kind of work, I forget what; but eventually she drifted into a café, as a waitress. Can you imagine 'respectable'—and a café waitress!"
Monsalvat, more and more irritated at his companion's flippancy, suggested that these attempts of Nacha to work and to be "respectable" were certainly nothing against her. She might be a good girl, after all!
"Good? Of course! These girls are all good—almost all, at least. We do judge them harshly, I realize. If they do wrong, it is without knowing exactly that it is wrong. And some of them really have a high moral code—for instance...."
Torres was not smiling now. Memories of the numberless poor creatures he had known, memories of extraordinary cases of generosity, and loyalty, and even heroism, for the moment drove his superficial cynicism from him.
Monsalvat was not interested however, obsessed as he was by the image of Nacha, who seemed to be appealing to him to rescue her. And rescue her he would! He would save her from her present tragic situation, from fearful hours awaiting her in the future, and from the memory of frightful hours of the past. An idea that he must see her, speak to her again, somehow, somewhere, took possession of him. But how? And where? And supposing he should meet her again? What would he say to her? He did not know; but his determination was not shaken on that account. He would see her—and save her; not for her own sake, nor because he was himself an "unfortunate" in society; nor because she was beautiful, and his eyes had dwelt upon her; but for love of his sister rather, for the sake of his own real self!
"These poor girls are simply victims of conditions, I suppose," continued Torres. "Nacha told me once that wherever she went, in shops, or workrooms, or business offices, the men were after her. And it's true, isn't it? We men, even the best of us, are a bad lot. I'd like to know how a girl who hasn't enough to eat, and who lives in the worst sort of surroundings, can resist temptation, especially when it comes in the form of a good-looking fellow who offers to take her out of the hell she is living in.... No, they are not to blame...."
Meanwhile the "Merry Widow" waltz floated languidly through the thick air of the café like a maze of shimmering diaphanous silk or impalpable tulle. But to Monsalvat it seemed that this music was winding itself about him, body and soul, a merciless bandage which bound him tighter and tighter, treacherously increasing the pain it promised to soothe. The sadness dwelling at the core of all worldly pleasures fell from each musical phrase, each bar, each note, on the heavy air of the café. Music in such places as this always distressed Monsalvat. Tonight his whole being was an open wound, over which the ceaselessly moving grind of the music grated until he wondered that he did not scream with pain. Was his own record absolutely clean? Had he, too, not bought favors from women—be it, indeed, with flattery and favors returned? And where were those women now?
Had they, too, by selling themselves, lost all right to the world's respect, the right to be treated as human beings, to be pitied? His fault? He despised himself utterly. Only the violence of his self-reproach gave him the strength to bear his pain.
"And then what?" he queried, rousing himself from his abstraction.
Torres, who had been silent for a time, now answered the question that came almost mechanically from Monsalvat's lips, and told all he knew of Nacha's history. Outstanding in her checkered career had been her love affair with the young poet, Carlos Riga. Together they had endured the most frightful poverty in the Argentine bohemia. Nacha had left him finally, driven away by sheer hunger—and the thought that perhaps her being always with him was an unjust burden on her penniless lover. In these circumstances she'd concluded that it was no use trying to be a "decent" girl; and she had gone off "on her own," taking up with a man—who was soon followed by another—better able to support her. One day the idea came into her head that exclusive devotion to any one protector meant a sort of unfaithfulness to Riga, whom she really adored. From that moment she gave herself up to the roving life of the cabarets and places of amusement. It was during this time that she met Arnedo. He found her pretty, intelligent, admired the ease of manner she had acquired in her mother's boarding house, was impressed by the smatterings of culture she had absorbed from Riga and other young writers she had known in Riga's company—in short, decided that Nacha was the jewel he was looking for—a girl he could "flash" on Capitol sportdom, and "show off" as his "woman" among people appreciative of such display.
"A horrible story!" exclaimed Monsalvat, gloomily. "Can there be many girls like that?"
"Thousands of them. And I really know something about it.... I have long been a police physician. My dissertation was on that very subject!" And he lectured at length on the theme, sparing no details of the traffic which has made Buenos Aires famous as a market of human flesh.
Monsalvat could not speak meanwhile. He was thinking of his sister, trying to picture to himself what her lot must be. He saw her in the abandonment that followed her disgrace, struggling not to lose her grip on life, failing, struggling again to evade the deeper degradations of the outcast she saw below her; and finally sinking in the loathsome mire, dragged into its depths, by a trader's claws, perhaps, tortured, enslaved, and—who could say!—dead! He listened with speechless intentness. "What a ghastly nightmare this world is!" He stammered at last:
"And what is being done to remedy all this?"
"What is there to do, my dear fellow? We would have to destroy everything and construct society anew!"
At these words Monsalvat seized his friend's arm with violence; his eyes were moist with emotion and his voice rang with a strange solemnity, as he said slowly:
"Exactly! Exactly! Well, everything is being destroyed, and a new society is coming into being!"
Torres assented, as far as his facial muscles were concerned, responding to the suggestiveness of Monsalvat's moral earnestness, to the emotion which his friend's vision of a great and approaching Good stirred in his own sluggish depths. He even went so far as to nod.... Then came reaction. His inner, his real self recovered from the momentary spell of Monsalvat's ingenuous and lyric optimism. One look about at the café's noisy and drunken hilarity, and the man of generous instincts disappeared, giving place again to the man of the world, the man like any other man, stamped with all the ideas and sentiments of his kind. To Torres the words Monsalvat had spoken, his Quixotic theories, his grief over things that were not only irremediable and accepted, but even sanctioned, and necessary, began to appear ridiculous, and speaking as a doctor, trained to seek the origin of all human abnormalities in overstrung nerves and disturbed physical or mental equilibrium, he replied lightly and skeptically as before:
"The problem, you see, is too complex ... there is no solution really...."
Monsalvat did not hear him. Another voice was filling his ears, a voice from a thousand throats, convicting him of his own responsibility, too, for the world's crimes. His heart seemed to him a mournful, hollow, and despairing bell; his eyes saw the world as a scene ready set for tragedy—the tragedy, first, of his mother, deceived, suffering all her life, and handing on suffering to her children; then his sister's; then Nacha's. In an eternal chorus of tears rose the lamentations of the lost women of the earth, the weeping of their parents, their brothers; the cries of the children they were driven to destroy; their own screams of shame, and clamorings of hunger.
"Why, man, what's the matter with you?" asked Torres finally. "Hadn't we better be going? It's three o'clock."
Monsalvat nodded and got up. He took leave of Torres at once, on the pretext he did not feel well, and started off for the South End, toward the Avenida de Mayo, where he lived.
He went to bed at once upon reaching his rooms. But he could not sleep. He did not know why it was; but the sound of the shots that had brought down some of the human creatures in the mob at Lavalle Square, and the song they had sung, became interwoven with one of the cabaret tangos he had just been hearing. This strange music haunted his ears and drove sleep far from him. Later, when he had fallen into a kind of half slumber, there came towards him a procession of frightful figures, howling and groaning louder and louder as they approached; and he knew that this procession was Humanity. It was already dawn when he began to sleep—uneasily and for only a little while. But even this semblance of slumber brought with it a nightmare. A monstrous phantom, covered with gold, silks, and precious stones, its jaws those of an apocalyptic beast, its claws, too, dripping blood, was there before him, in his room, although scarcely contained by it. The monster approached his bed, showing its fangs, about to devour him; and this monster, with its charnel house of a belly, where lay countless generations of the world's unfortunates, was Injustice.
Monsalvat got up late. He was quiet now. At last there was new life within him. Everything had new life, new meaning. What this new life was he could not have said. But he knew that within him there was now a sense of clearness where before there had been nothing but confusion and obscurity.
He breakfasted and went out, thinking, rather vaguely, that he would go to his mother's. But, as he walked on, he turned in another direction. Moving absent-mindedly, yielding to a new sweet sense of inner calm, he seemed not to notice the streets along which he passed. When he came to himself, he noted that he was within a few yards of Nacha's house. Without hesitating, certain now that he was doing the right thing, he went up the steps and rang the bell.

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