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 "Who are you?... What do you want?..." asked Nacha after the first moment of astonishment. "Who am I? Nobody in particular! Just someone who has guessed that you are unhappy, and is anxious to help you."
"But ... you must have understood that I didn't want to see you again! I can't receive you here. You shouldn't have come to this house. It's hard on me! Think of the consequences! Perhaps I may lose my place here!"
"Your place here is what you hate more than anything else in the world!"
"How do you know? I'm not so sure.... I have a quiet home—and I'm free!"
The way the man looked at her made her break off. They were both silent for a time, the stranger, however, not taking his eyes from Nacha for a moment. She could see that he wanted to speak, but evidently did not dare. At last, in a low voice and with visible emotion, he began:
"Nacha—you see I know your name—you are not telling me the truth! You are not free!... You are suffering; and last night I saw how much! From the moment I first saw you I have felt a tremendous pity for you."
"Oh, really?" Nacha exclaimed, with a laugh of affected irony, calculated to put an end to the conversation with this man who had forced his way into her house, whose presence there was compromising to her, and who now, into the bargain, was allowing himself to express pity for her.
"Yes, real pity!" he repeated, evidently not understanding that her laugh was aimed at him.
"How kind of you! You must be an unusual sort of person!" Nacha said again, laughing scornfully.
"Your life is nothing but suffering," he continued, rather as though he were talking to himself and had not heard what Nacha said. "Here you live in humiliation, worry, perpetual terror of what is about to happen. That is not living, Nacha!"
"Call it dying if you like then. You are very amusing. I am sorry you must go at once! But if Pampa should find you here.... I wish he would come!"
They stood facing each other there in the middle of the room, the stranger listening quietly while Nacha poured out her nervousness in words, and yet more words, hurriedly, interrupting herself with her own forced laughter, and distractedly moving her hands and arms.
"Did you think you had made a hit with me? How funny! But don't fool yourself! I can't help laughing though, at the very idea! You're crazy. Only crazy people act the way you do. Anyway, I love Pampa. So there! You see what women are. He treats me badly, he despises me, he beats me—but I wouldn't leave him for the first booby who comes along!"
By way of reply he took her hand and led her to the sofa, where obediently she sat down. In a low voice that had in it the same ring of sincerity and feeling as before, he went on:
"Nacha, you accept this man's ill treatment because you are afraid of something worse. You cannot bear to think that tomorrow, or whenever he leaves you, you will have to go from one man to another—"
"This is too much! Who gave you the right to insult me? I am a decent woman!"
And then, finding her own words ridiculous perhaps, she began to laugh; and the laugh, this time, seemed to reveal her scorn for herself and her pride withal in living as she was living. The man's compassion grew.
"Why do you do it Nacha?"
"What?" she exclaimed, without checking her laughter.
"You are trying to bring together things that don't belong together. You are trying to make yourself out a bad woman, while really you are good."
Nacha, abruptly, became serious. She lowered her eyes and for several seconds sat motionless, looking at the floor, seemingly preoccupied. Finally she raised her head, and slowly turned her gaze upon this unknown friend. The peace she found in his eyes astonished her. After a long silence she asked him gently:
"Who are you? What is your name?"
He told her.
"Fernando Monsalvat...." she repeated, as though trying to inscribe the syllables on her memory. Then, apparently more at ease, she added with a smile,
"Why did you come to this house? Not to do me harm?"
"To do you good, little friend."
The girl smiled again, and again lowered her eyes, only to raise them once more to Monsalvat's face.
"Little friend—I like those words! Will you really be my friend, really, in your heart? It does me good to hear you speak to me that way. You don't know what it means to me to be told I am not bad. But, just the same, I am bad! Only I do everything I can to make people think I am even worse than I am."
She spoke in a yet lower tone as she went on, somewhat ill at ease from the intimacy of her confession:
"We girls have to make a show of being what we are not. It's easier that way for us to forget our real selves: we seem to become somebody else. I even go so far as not to blame the girl I was yesterday for all that makes me the girl I am today."
She was silent awhile, apparently searching her memory.
"Why do you try so hard to forget?" asked Monsalvat, "Wouldn't it be better to remember—if the present is so sad?"
"Sad? No, it isn't sad. Other people might think so. But really it isn't. It is worse than that rather: it is empty, without any feeling at all. We live in a sort of perpetual confusion. It's almost like not knowing whether you're alive or not."
"But why not remember what is good in the past? Why not dream?"
"Remember?" Her expression suggested that a world full of past sufferings had taken possession of her imagination.
"Why remember? Just to feel bad?"
"Yes, little friend, to feel, and to suffer. If you didn't suffer, you would be horrible, all of you. It is because you suffer that you deserve pity and sympathy; and so you ought to seek out pain, and treasure it."
Nacha raised her hands to her face. In his own trouble, and in the compassion Nacha aroused in him, Monsalvat began to feel a kind of satisfaction. If she could still feel so deeply, there was hope.
"No, no!" she broke out suddenly. "We haven't the right to suffer!"
"Human beings have no greater and more sacred right."
"But don't you see that we girls must always be gay, dance, laugh: our profession is joy, not suffering. If we're glum, we lose our jobs. If we are not ready for gaiety and caresses, we're accused of not earning our pay."
Her lips smiled bitterly. Monsalvat, sitting with one elbow on his knee, and his chin resting on his hand, was looking at her as though trying to drink in her very soul.
"We have to make ourselves over," Nacha continued, "change our natures as well as our names. Do you think it is only out of shame, or because of our families, that we hide our identities? No, it isn't wholly that. Taking another name makes us seem different somehow. It's like the Carnival. Under a disguise, you can do and say all the crazy things that come into your head. Are you ashamed afterwards? No, because when you take off your mask you are no longer the person who played all those wild pranks."
"And last night"—Monsalvat asked, after a brief pause, "why were you so unhappy?"
Through his conversation with Torres he knew the answer to this question; yet he listened anxiously for her reply.
"There you see what comes of being out of sorts!" she said at last. "Why should anyone go to a cabaret to gloom and whimper like a simpleton? Pampa had a right to be angry. I couldn't help it. I had just learned that the only real friend I ever had, the only man I ever really loved, was dying.... And you can imagine how I feel today. It's lucky I can be alone.... I can afford to let myself cry ... and remember!..."
Monsalvat had started at these words. He was glad to know that Nacha was still capable of feeling. At the same time, what she said about her love for Riga filled him with a vague uneasiness. Interrupting, he told her that he had known the poet.
"You knew him? Really? When? Where?"
From that moment Nacha looked upon Monsalvat as a brother. The wave of feeling carrying her towards him reached its height. She warmly took his hand for a moment and asked him to talk to her about Carlos Riga. There was tenderness in her eyes now. The last vestiges of distrust had vanished. She could have told him everything in her life, shown him the very bottom of her soul. He had known Riga! He need offer no other credentials to claim her friendship!
They talked a long time of the poet, whom Monsalvat had met through Edward Iturbide. The two men had never become intimate friends; for Monsalvat did not frequent the literary Bohemia that had known Riga best. Nacha eagerly sang the praises of her dead friend. Never had there lived so fine a soul, so generous a heart, so kind a spirit! Talking of him seemed to intoxicate her. She spoke confusedly, and at times wildly, in a jerky monologue of broken phrases. The moment came when her eyes filled with tears and she shook with emotion.
"And to think that I, who am speaking to you like this, I left him—the best man who ever breathed! All because I was afraid of poverty, afraid of hunger! It's true I've suffered, Monsalvat, in the life I have been leading: no one can know how much. But all I have been through was nothing compared to the despair I felt when I deserted Riga...."
The poor girl began to sob with great gasps that shook her from head to foot. Monsalvat tried to comfort her in words that astonished him, as he uttered them, for their consoling intensity: never had he heard nor spoken such words before. They seemed to well up from the very depths of suffering in which the girl before him was engulfed.
"I remember so well the morning when I left him," Nacha continued, "I shall remember it all the days God lets me live. We had a poor little room, dark, without air, the most miserable hole in a horrible tenement; and we had no furniture—just two wretched cots, old and broken and dirty. I hadn't slept that night, for I was crying all the time, going over my plans, and imagining how he would feel when he found I had gone."
She stopped a moment to check a sob, and then went on:
"At daybreak I dressed and made a little bundle of the few rags I owned, and all quite calmly. I wanted to put off the terrible moment as long as I could. But at last it came. I was going to leave him—and he loved me! It was so hard to do what I had made up my mind I must do. I went to take a last look at him. He was still asleep. I crept up to him on tiptoe, and kissed him, on the forehead. I don't know what happened then: I had to lean against the wall, for it seemed as though the whole world were falling away from me. My heart must have stopped beating. I thought I was dying and stayed there a long time, without moving, just stupified. When I could move I sat down on my cot and cried, then I got up to go. Every step hurt. I went so slowly, it seemed as though years must have passed—and at the door I looked back.—Why was I leaving him? Why? Why?... At last I crept out into the hall, and began to run, to run like mad, down the stairs, and out into the street...."
"You must tell me your whole life, from the time when you left your mother's," said Monsalvat after a pause.
Nacha hesitated, unwilling for a moment to comply. At last she told him her first tragic adventure; her love affair with one of the young men boarding in her mother's house; his brutality towards her when her timidity and shame placed her at his mercy; his attempts to exploit her, and the illness that followed. She recounted her attempts to support herself, afterwards, by honest work, the usual story of poverty, temptation and despair.
"There was no help for me. What could I do? I struggled from week to week; but debts, hunger, the need of clothes to put on my back, the luxury I saw around me!... One day I told a girl who worked in the store and was my friend that I would do whatever she advised ... and she took me to a house she knew...."
Nacha lowered her eyes, shame-faced.
"Did you live long in this fashion?" he asked when she had lapsed into silence.
"Six months! Then one day I couldn't stand it any longer: I left the store; and never went back to that house. I did sewing, I made artificial flowers; but ... I had no luck. I took any work that came my way; but there were always back debts to pay off ... and all the while every man who came near me made love to me. More than once I left my job in order to get away from them.... I hated them, feared them, loathed them. At last, after several years of this struggle, I got a job as waitress in a café. There I was more annoyed by men than ever; but I earned enough to be able to afford a decent room and some furniture of my own. And there I met Riga!"
"And then?"
"After I left him? I went down again, this time for good and all. It was then that Arnedo took me."
They were silent for a space. Nacha did not move. Wide-eyed, she sat staring straight in front of her. What did she see? What were her thoughts? Monsalvat, watching her with an intensity that he had never before experienced, thought the critical moment had come.
"Nacha," he said, "you must get out of all this!"
Without looking at him, she slowly shook her head.
"But your repentance...?"
"I do not repent." The words came out slowly and deliberately, and she turned to look straight at Monsalvat. "I did not intend any wrong. What should I repent for?"
"But you are dissatisfied with the way you're living?"
"God knows! I have suffered frightfully. How could one help being sorry for such an unhappy life?"
"Well then, why don't you make up your mind to leave it?"
"I want to, but I can't. It's Fate! I was destined to be a bad woman!"
All the energy of his spirit rushed to Monsalvat's lips in words frantically shaped to arouse in Nacha the decisive will to free herself from evil, to find good at last. He seized both her hands. Feebly she tried to pull away from him.
"Nacha, you must change your way of living. You must be yourself! You must cease being someone else! You must learn to live! To live, do you hear? So as to be able to dream, to love—to remember! Your soul wants to be free, and together we are going to free it. This is slavery! You have been speaking of what you have already suffered. But that is nothing to the agonies that lie in wait for you. Youth too will leave you; and the day will come when you will be old, sick, worn out, a human rag, falling lower and lower. At last you will be, not only morally, but physically, a slave—The trader who is even now awaiting you will get you into his clutches. You will become a beast of pleasure, locked up in a house of evil; and you will have lost life, and hope—and love, too; for love has little to do with the criminal instincts of the men who will live on what you earn. You will be sold like a thing, at auction. 'How much is this woman worth? So much—take her! She is yours!' And then you will fall so low that only the dens of the underworld, only the gutters of the slums, will be open to you; for you will be old, your beauty eaten away.... Then finally you will die and no one will know that you have gone. Then Nacha, you, you whom I am speaking to now, will be tossed into the potter's field like a dead dog."
She was in a paroxysm of weeping now, writhing under this merciless attack, throwing back her head and tossing out her arms in tragic appeal to him to stop.
There was a ring at the front door.
Nacha started to her feet, and tried to remove the traces of her weeping. However, it was only the servant bringing in a letter from Arnedo. Nacha, dazed, had not the courage to open it. She asked Monsalvat to read it to her. Arnedo announced that he was dining that evening with some friends. Taking the letter Nacha stood motionless and silent, staring straight before her. When Monsalvat spoke, she neither answered nor looked up. A tragic expression settled on her face. She was trembling violently. Suddenly, raising her hands to her head, she cried:
"No, no, it can't be! It is madness. Go away at once! I never want to see you again. I was crazy. Go, I say!"
Monsalvat looked at her in amazement. He did not know what to do. Could he have lost her? Why a moment ago it seemed.... He tried to speak, to explain. But she pointed to the door with an obstinacy and an energy he had not dreamed she possessed. There was nothing for it but to obey—but this was an overwhelming catastrophe falling on his life.... His heart was breaking.... As he left the room Nacha did not even bid him good-bye.
Arnedo's two lines had sufficed to remind her of reality, or rather of what she believed reality to be. With a great effort she stopped weeping and recalling scenes of the dead past. She was a different Nacha now; she was Lila, the tango dancer, Lila, the delight of the cabarets. For a moment, she forgot even Riga.
But, towards five o'clock, her heart triumphed over her will. Suddenly, desperately, fearful of being late, she put on her hat, rushed to the street, and took a taxi to the cemetery.
The services had begun. Anxious not to be noticed, she hovered on the edge of the cluster of people gathered there. It saddened her to see that scarcely twenty of the poet's admirers had escorted him to his grave. When they had all gone, she drew near to the spot where her friend's body had been laid. Her handkerchief over her eyes, she stood there a long time, motionless, clad in black, silently weeping, an image of Grief itself. The sky was overcast; the cold drizzle was gradually turning to rain. As the first gusts reached the mound on which she lingered, Nacha slowly walked away, and returned to Arnedo's apartment.

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