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 Monsalvat wondered how, after the events of the previous night and those of the afternoon, he could bring himself to dine that evening in Ruiz de Castro's palatial residence, in company with various worldly persons of the latter's selection. Was he not betraying his real self, being unfaithful to the new Monsalvat, born of his recent struggles? As he looked about him he could think only of the contrast between Nacha's unhappy life and that of these pretty women; and how different was the tragic dialogue which had occurred between him and that poor child, from the gay conversation buzzing about this aristocratic table! Strange that contact with reality should have made him forget the occurrences of the afternoon! At this moment he had only a vague notion of the things he had so recently been feeling, of the things he had so recently been doing. He knew simply that he had just been living hours of intense spiritual excitement—an exhilaration approaching delirium, dominated by an obsession which had severed every connection between him and his material surroundings, and left him completely indifferent to whatever lay outside of his own inner preoccupations.
After leaving Nacha's apartment he had wandered about the streets for a time. Then, a little quieted, he had called at the Ministry, less to inquire about the position promised him than to give himself something to do. There he met Ruiz de Castro, who had a few days before invited him to dinner, and who now insisted on his acceptance for that evening. He did not refuse. Why should he? Was he, perhaps intending to withdraw from society altogether? At any rate, here he was now, surrounded by elegant women, and by fashionable men of the world.
Ruiz de Castro, a classmate of Monsalvat's, was a likable fellow. His principal occupation was making himself agreeable to everyone, old or young, man or woman. He was a tall man and held himself extremely well, though his carefully nursed mustache, the height of his collars, the variety and splendor of his cravats, the profusion of jewelry on his fingers, left a faint suggestion of the Don Juan and of the fop in the total impression he made. Never had anyone seen Ruiz de Castro in clothes which did not look fresh from the tailor's; and he never failed to wear gloves even on the most terrible of summer's days. To a small fortune of his own he had added that of a millionaire's widow. His principal social hobby was the giving of suppers and small receptions to persons chosen from the most select circles of Buenos Aires. A lawyer by profession, he had read a great deal on all sorts of subjects and could talk entertainingly on art, and letters in particular; indeed by virtue of this intellectual pose, he considered himself superior to his surroundings. His guests were always men of recognized talent; doctors, distinguished lawyers, university professors, men prominent in politics or literature. At such intimate parties these "highbrows" and their wives, all of whom were art enthusiasts, talked painting and sculpture, music and verse. Of course, for this élite, nothing done in Argentina was of any account. To Monsalvat the women seemed to be better informed on the whole, more sensitive and discerning than the men. Of the ten there assembled, all of them elegant, beautiful, and witty—were they not Argentine?—one wrote with real talent, though not for the public; another knew the art and literature of France better than a majority of Argentine novelists of much more serious pretentions to learning; still another, a young woman who was seated near Monsalvat, had studied philosophy diligently and had even attended Bergson's seminars in Paris. On this particular evening they were discussing Rodin, Debussy, Strauss and Zuloaga whose pictures at the Exposition had aroused general enthusiasm among the artists and amateurs of the capital.
Monsalvat felt out of place in this atmosphere. Most of the young women he had not met until then, though he had some acquaintance with their husbands. His being there at all was due to Ruiz de Castro's affection for him. De Castro, a good Argentine and a good porte?o, instinctively admired success; and from his law school days had been wont to see in this young fellow, who always came out highest in examinations, and delivered the most impressive dissertations in class, a quite exceptional being, destined to social and public recognition. Monsalvat, for that matter, possessed a genuine distinction of his own in Castro's eyes. His natural and simple manners were a delight to the more sophisticated attorney, as were his quiet and correct conduct, his way of never calling attention to himself even by his clothes, his manner of speaking—which was not the fruit of careful premeditation, but the spontaneous expression of a real preference for simplicity. It was Ruiz de Castro who had done most to draw Monsalvat towards society, literally dragging him into the Jockey Club, and then prompting various of his invitations to society functions; for the ambitious lawyer felt certain that a man of Monsalvat's promise would never fail to do honor to his sponsor; and he was ingenuously eager out of sincere friendship to have his friend's personal worth recognized by his own particular set.
Monsalvat, however, was too modest for the r?le assigned him: he had an exaggerated fear of appearing ridiculous. Dread of standing awkwardly in the limelight, of doing the wrong thing there, always made him keep his opinions to himself, no matter how much to the point they might have been. Timid, lacking confidence in himself and in others, he never gave anyone a glimpse of his real nature. Only a few intimate friends, among them the women who loved him, knew and appreciated his qualities. For them his was a deep, a noble, a generous spirit, modest and simple, without ambitions; a man who lived a satisfying inner life, and possessed an unusually rich culture. For others he was a colorless uninteresting individual, a bore and a nonentity.
The subjects touched upon in the conversation at the dinner-table developed nothing in common between Monsalvat and his neighbors. Art had never attracted him; and he knew little about literature. He had read voraciously, but rarely a novel or a volume of verse, or of literary criticism. Thus it was that when the ladies around him talked in dithyrambic ecstasies of Chabas or Loti, the conviction that he did not belong in these surroundings, bore in upon him not without a twinge of shame.
Monsalvat was not then thinking, nor did he wish to think, of what had so profoundly absorbed him during the afternoon and the preceding evening. Nacha's final attitude towards him, the manner of his dismissal, had deeply humiliated him, and made him long for the seclusion of his customary mode of living. What a fool to have believed it possible to regenerate such a woman! But his dinner-coat helped him to forget all this, clothing him for the moment with self-importance, and inclination toward frivolity. He put his sister, Pampa Arnedo, his conversation with Torres, all out of his mind.
One of the only two bachelors present among all these married people, Monsalvat had been seated between two ni?as, "girls," as unmarried women, of whatever age, are chivalrously called in the Argentine. The one on his right, Elsa, was a delightful creature, blond, virginal, with the unspoiled, however mature, freshness of her twenty-five years. The rather angelic slenderness of her shoulders gave her something of the ingenuously innocent appearance of Botticelli's maidens, with which the burning roses of her cheeks and lips scarcely harmonized. But she differed from the paintings of the early masters in not having a line that was either angular or rigid. Roundness, indeed, was the conspicuous trait in the lines of her figure, the slope of her shoulders, the modelling of her cheeks and chin. She spoke with a certain ingenuous and charming candor, turning to full account her acquaintance with books and authors, which was remarkably varied. Monsalvat had known her in Paris five years before, and had called at her rooms there. He had observed with astonishment that this Botticellian virgin had among her favorite volumes the Satiricon of Petronius, Willy's latest novels, and other productions of the same outlook on life. Elsa's main sport was playing with men and their foibles. Her wide blue eyes, of a surpassing beauty, gazed out at the world in such fashion that no male could long resist their spell. She would smile maliciously at her victim and assail him on the side of vanity, praising his talents, or whatever claim to distinction he might have. She would listen to the frankest allusions—provoked, of course, by her—without a trace of embarrassment or annoyance, though she herself always avoided improprieties in speech, indeed every word that came from her lips seemed the very breath of youthful innocence itself. Nevertheless there were hostile tongues to criticise Elsa. When an unfavorable comment reached her ears she would evince a discreet amount of alarm, and then smile to show how little importance she attached to such matters after all. As to love and marriage she had no illusions. How could she, when every husband who came her way, no matter how exemplary by reputation, made love to her at the slightest provocation? Looking at the world through fin de siècle French novels and the anecdotes of her friends, she judged it even worse than it is, seeing in it only the play of gross or perverted instincts. Never having felt or inspired love, she could not recognize it in the world about her. As to her women friends, they interested her so little that she never thought of inquiring what women were really like. In her heart she despised them and thought them poor fools to be talking of the love their sweethearts and husbands had for them. She "knew!" On more than one occasion, when she had heard a husband praised for his faithfulness, she found a way of having a few moments' conversation alone with him; and infallibly the model of fidelity soon was a model no more. Monsalvat had had with her several diverting and flirtatious conversations. But now, in his present critical state of conscience, at the awakening within him of far different desires, he could not possibly talk with her in the same tone. The young woman on his left, addressed as Isabel, had a lively intelligence but few physical charms. Nevertheless she displayed a certain attractiveness that evening. She knew how to make the most of her few good points, chief among which were her eyes, eager, sympathetic, trusting, questioning, quick to show embarrassment. Her face was too long, her mouth too large. Though her teeth were not pretty, she knew how to laugh—the clear, happy laughter of youth—and she showed them constantly. Her temperament and ideas were the exact opposites of Elsa's. Coming from a family of the old Spanish stock, and of devout catholicism, Isabel was always talking "tradition"; while Elsa, from one of the newer families, typified the modern pagan and cosmopolitan spirit of Buenos Aires. Isabel was all prejudices and enthusiasms. She talked excitedly, with passion. She was incapable even of suspecting the true nature of Elsa's cynical temperament. To her the world seemed better than it is. Only unmarried men interested her, though the idea of marrying frightened her. Some of the world's injustices were quite beyond her ken; but she believed that whatever they might be, one should practise resignation. For priests, whose words on any theme were pure gospel for her, she had a superstitious reverence; she believed them pure and saintly all.
Monsalvat and his neighbors had maintained the most trifling of conversations. Elsa, as was her way, tried to give it a suggestion of intimacy, to which Monsalvat did not lend himself very cordially. He would have preferred to talk to Isabel. But was even this pious woman, with her dogmatic education, her habit of never doubting anything, likely to understand the complex anxieties besetting him? He reached the conclusion that he had nothing in common with his neighbors on either side, addressed them only when courtesy required, and directed his attention to the plump young woman opposite him, a rather amusing person, well-read, talkative, and critical of things and persons. At the moment she was running on about the theatres.
"You simply can't go to the Odéon! At least not on subscription nights! It's scandalous, the plays those French writers give the public! There's never a decent character in them. What right have they to oblige the people who really support the theatres to listen to plays full of workmen, strikers, thieves—all the rabble! I'm sure I don't understand why the managers present such stuff!"
Isabel, and nearly everyone else who was listening, approved the speaker's view of the matter. Elsa looked at Monsalvat out of the corner of her eye, and smiled at him. For his part, he felt hot indignation against this woman who mentioned working men and thieves in the same breath, and would have nothing to do with humanity's troubles. A reply rose to his lips; but he was afraid of appearing ridiculous, and kept it to himself.
"Tell her what you think—you ought to!" said Elsa.
This half mischievous encouragement seemed suddenly to re-enforce the imperative of Monsalvat's own conscience. He felt somehow that he could no longer avoid speaking. With a smile at the plump lady, he said in a good-natured tone:
"But, dear madame, it is for people like you that just such plays are given. How else could elegant and distinguished ladies of your world know anything at all about human suffering?"
"But," said the devout Isabel, "one goes to the theatre to be amused!"
"If the show or the book is not to your liking...." Monsalvat began; but he was interrupted by several voices, among them that of Dr. Ercasty, who was sputtering about and exchanging knowing winks with his neighbors at the table. Dr. Ercasty had long had his doubts about that fellow, Monsalvat!
The plump lady's voice rose above the others:
"And why should we be bored with that sort of thing, Mr. Monsalvat? I don't think I need to. Of course everyone is free to do as he likes. I have my own troubles, and I believe everyone has at some time or other; but I don't go about unloading them on everybody; so why should I be made to listen to other people's tales of woe? Anyway, they don't ever show us moral struggle, but just hatred, crime, and insults to society. If there are people who are hungry, why don't they work? But I don't care to go to the theatre to hear about things that don't interest me, and that I can't help; and I care even less to hear myself being blamed for all sorts of things I never heard of. The other day I saw an impossible thing called "élise of the Underworld." I never was more disgusted! What on earth have we to do with that kind of women? No, Monsalvat, you are defending ideas that I know you can't really believe in."
Ercasty nodded congratulations to the plump lady and good humoredly suggested that Monsalvat had better throw up the sponge in the argument.
Ercasty was a physician, though he had abandoned practice to fill an important government position. In addition to a prominent paunch, and forty years of experience in this world, his chief distinction was his bland adeptness in the use of weapons little known in Argentine society—paradox, irony, sarcasm. In spite of his smoothness, however, Ercasty was a dangerous foe. When wounded he could fight back like a lion at bay. Reactionary in everything, he would make no terms with democracy, liberalism, or even individualism. "Society" was his god. "Society" provided him with the ideas and sentiments he lived by. To express an opinion contrary to those approved in the best society, seemed to him a breach of good form, an offense as obnoxious as a crime. Years before, when Monsalvat was writing for the Patria, the articles which "Society" had so much applauded, wherein, with talent and learning, he justified all the iniquities usually defended by daily newspapers, distinguished persons, fashionable writers, and all good Christians who interpret the teachings of Christ to the advantage of their own worldly self-seeking, Ercasty had been a good friend of his. Now the doctor would have enjoyed seeing him come to a violent end.
"Don't plead the cause of those people, Monsalvat, for Heaven's sake!" exclaimed the plump lady.
"Of what people?"
"Oh, the rabble, the bad people, 'the people,' in short!"
"The sovereign people!" offered Ercasty contemptuously.
"Don't defend them!" continued the lady. "See what they tried to do last May, just when we had a lot of very distinguished foreigners here, ambassadors and their wives, representatives of European nobility even! They wanted to make someone pay for their own laziness! So they tried to cast discredit on their own country, and spoil the Centennial celebration—a disgusting performance if ever there was one! What can our distinguished visitors have thought? And to take advantage of such an occasion to gain their ends! There's no name for such conduct, Monsalvat!"
"And if I had been the government," said the doctor venomously, "I would have taken all these gringo organizers, soap boxers, agitators and strikers, and the bad Argentines who followed their example, stood them in a row on the Plaza de Mayo and shot them down. That would have been a number on the Centennial program, and example to the rabble!"
Monsalvat could listen no longer. He was quivering with indignation. Usually serene, quiet, and incapable of hating anybody, he would at this moment have enjoyed strangling the individual who was taunting him so flippantly. Now he realized that all the men and women around him were his enemies, representatives of his old out-worn ideas, of prejudices which he had come to abhor. On their faces he could see only insolent satisfaction with good living, a proclamation of inhuman selfishness, a spirit of evil, hypocrisy, pride, an absence of all human sympathy. What were their lives but one continuous lie? These men and women had no real existence. They were insipid creatures of something they called public opinion, thinking the thoughts of their crowd, following the morals, the standards, the tastes, the fads of their crowd! Their opinions were but a false semblance of opinion, their feelings but imitations of other people's feelings, their tastes, even their loves and their hates, mere aping pretense! Life for them was a gigantic farce. Had any of them ever thought of living sincerely, of seeking any meaning in all they were doing? And these people with their accommodating philosophy, their pretentious political economy, their hypocritical charity, were responsible for the poverty in the world, for the misery of girls like Nacha, for the sufferings which social injustice was heaping up on every hand! Why had he had to live forty years before understanding this? How could he have sat at this table a whole hour, forgetting all he had been through that afternoon? But no! he was not sorry he had come! Henceforth he could have no doubts as to his place in the general scheme of things: he belonged in the front line of the attack on pride and falsehood and evil! All these individuals around him were so many tools in the hands of Injustice; and someone must put an end to their privileges, their ideas, their unfeeling self-approval! At any cost, even at the cost of blood and fire, brotherly love must be made to prevail over brute force! These men who called themselves Christians must be taught what Christian love really meant!
And the young ladies, the one on his left and the one on his right? To him they seemed instruments of Wrong, monsters of selfishness, beings without hearts. One represented the selfishness of pleasure, the other, the selfishness of class. They could think only of themselves, of their amusements, their clothes, their reading, their suitors, their pet vices, or of their religious and social practices. To them the world seemed quite satisfactory as it was; and everything could go on in the same way to the end of time. In them there was no strong, spontaneous desire for the happiness of others. They were innocent of any attempt to relieve the pain of those who writhed in anguish in the world's black depths. They were little china figures, fashioned to adorn the society in which they lived, interested in knowing only the pleasant aspects of life. Now and then, from a play or a book, they received tidings of some one of life's tragedies; but always they turned away with disgust: such things were not for their fragile and aristocratic souls! Monsalvat was amazed at the ignorance, the unconscious cruelty their attitude toward life brought with it; and he could not help thinking of the outcry rising from the great city's multitudes who might some day clamor for vengeance as well as for justice!
But at the same time Monsalvat wondered if his present views might not perhaps be due to an attitude toward society engendered by his illegitimacy. His enemies would say so at any rate. They would attribute his bitterness to consciousness of his shameful birth, suspect him of trying to avenge his mother's disgrace on society at large. With how much truth? With none, whatever! Of that he was sure. For beyond all such considerations, the question of justice itself remained; and this justice, unaffected by personal wrongs, superior to any mean satisfactions, condemned Evil as Evil, and indeed,—it could not be otherwise—had decreed already the death of all that Monsalvat so intensely hated.
At last, when he could no longer contain the indignation burning within him, he began to speak; and the consternation was general. Ruiz de Castro, who knew that his friend was an exceptionally timid person, loath to attract any attention whatever, stared at Monsalvat in astonishment. The doctor kept executing fidgety gestures of annoyance and tried a number of times to interrupt. Isabel seemed to be agreeing with Monsalvat's tirade, but refrained from committing herself since she was unable to decide whether what she was hearing was for or against religion. Elsa was enjoying the whole situation as if this outburst were a new kind of lark. She sat looking at Monsalvat with smiling delight.
What was he talking about? Of social inequalities; of the fact that some of us have millions while others cannot buy even bread: that some of us live in great palaces set in handsome parks; while others, in dank, filthy, tenements, exist in a monstrous promiscuity which pens ten and twelve human beings in one room; that some have a superfluity of everything—property, comfort, pleasure, culture, education—and that this superabundance does no one any good, since it does not go to those who lack everything; that some women possess dozens of costumes and necklaces worth thousands of dollars—every kind of luxury and ornament—while other women have to sell their bodies, give up life, health, their very souls, barely to clothe their nakedness, to have just enough bread to keep alive!
"Well, why don't they work?" the plump lady who had been listening horror-struck angrily inquired.
"Because they can't get work, madame! Because work, as things are now organized, is another privilege which we selfishly keep for our own purposes. I don't know how it happens that all the masses we trample on have not risen to exterminate us!"
Indignant protests greeted this explosion. Elsa, vastly entertained, laughed and applauded. Isabel became definitely hostile. All he was saying she had finally concluded, was contrary to the views of the Church Fathers. How frightful! The plump lady was quite frankly calling Monsalvat an anarchist, an assassin, and an enemy of the established order.
The guests had risen from the table and gathered into small groups. The plump lady seemed determined to argue with Monsalvat. Ruiz de Castro approached them, smiling.
"Are you two bent on rearranging the whole universe?" he asked in a tone of conciliating banter.
"Do you know, this Monsalvat has become a dangerous anarchist!" the woman replied.
"Yes! Nothing is so dangerous as telling the truth!" was Fernando's rejoinder.
"But some individuals are even more dangerous than the truth—the dreamers, I mean. Isn't that so?" Ruiz de Castro addressed the remark to the plump lady.
"Certainly! And just consider what Monsalvat was saying about those women! Why, he was practically blaming me for the fact that—that they—well, you understand. Indeed you understand these matters only too well! I believe that what is wrong with all those creatures is that they lack the fear of God. Before giving themselves up to such a life they ought to beg, take places as servants, go to houses of charity, bestir themselves at any rate! There's no lack of work...! Let them do like the men; but instead of turning into anarchists or socialists and going about from strike to strike, they ought to submit to the will of God, and resign themselves to their lot! As we all have to!"
"Yes, that is true," exclaimed Isabel, emphasizing the last word as if she were impressed in advance by what she was going to say, and with all the conviction of a person who has found a clinching argument. "That is very, very true! Why stir up strikes? It's so wrong, so wrong!"
The plump lady added with a sigh of melancholy resignation: "Everyone must accept his lot in life!"
"When it is yours," said Ruiz de Castro, smiling, "one can well afford to think so. But I, instead of your lot, would choose your husband's!"
"Mine?" she exclaimed, passing over this gallantry. "But we are almost poor! I can't say we are actually hard up; but aside from my husband's salary as deputy, we have nothing but the rents from a few insignificant pieces of property and a farm near Buenos Aires. Still, I don't complain. Others have millions—Very well! I don't envy them: I accept God's will."
Monsalvat began to wonder why he was lingering among these people, the object of their general contempt. For that matter, he had no right to be there. He took leave of his hosts and went away.
The night air cleared his brain; but how tired he was, how sick! As he walked on, he began to feel in better spirits. He would have no more to do with what he called organized Injustice. He saw now the road he must henceforth follow. Good dwelt with the oppressed; and the only work worthy of a man was to fight for the down-trodden. He would give his life and the little money he had to the poor of the earth. People said he wanted vengeance? Very well! That would be his vengeance!
It was midnight when he reached his rooms; there dissatisfaction with himself came over him again. He took off his evening clothes, and tossed them carelessly aside. His thoughts reverted to Nacha. Why had she dismissed him after listening so long to him, after confiding her own history so intimately? Could he have fallen in love with her? Was this the explanation of his actions that evening? Oh, Nacha, Nacha! What would he not give to see her, for even the hundredth part of a second!
As his eye wandered about the room, he saw a letter lying on the table. It was from his mother. She was asking him to come to her for she was very ill, and believed death near. A few seconds later Monsalvat was hurrying in a taxi toward Lezama Park.

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