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 Monsalvat's mother had been a very pretty girl; but at sixty she possessed not even the remnants of her earlier beauty. Aquilina Severin had left her parents' modest shop to work at a fashionable dressmaker's establishment on Florida Avenue. One fine day Fernando's father met her on the street, made love to her in due form, and succeeded in winning her. Aquilina was twenty when her son was born. Soon after this her lover, Claudio Monsalvat, married a girl of his own social position; which did not prevent his giving Aquilina an allowance and visiting her from time to time. Ten years later a girl Eugenia, came into the world. Claudio had made over a piece of property to Aquilina, but died without bequeathing anything to his natural children. Their mother had urged them to contest the will made wholly in favor of the legitimate family; but Fernando, then in Europe, refused to consider such a suggestion. His mother lived on the two hundred or so pesos which were the income from her property, until she sold it on the advice of an attorney of the neighborhood. The proceeds of the sale were turned to good account by various speculators; and shortly thereafter Aquilina found herself in the street, penniless. From that time on her son supported her. Of scant native endowments, Aquilina Severin had had little education, and remained a stupid, incompetent woman. The comforts supplied by Claudio represented the height of wellbeing in her eyes. She believed herself a fine lady, deserving of the world's envy. Her parents had not been married, and she had none of the current prejudices in favor of legal unions. She considered love the important thing in these matters and had for that sentiment a high regard, though the word "love" had a very elastic scope in the usage of this unfortunate derelict.
Her daughter's education, under the circumstances, could only be disastrous. Fernando at various times tried to take a hand in his sister's training. He advised his mother to send her to school, and to discourage certain of Eugenia's undesirable friendships. But Aquilina always replied:
"And why? What will she get out of it? I never went to school, and I came out all right! I know what I am doing, and it's nobody's business!"
Eugenia therefore got her schooling in the streets. She spent her days with other small girls on the sidewalk, or on the window balconies, where her graceful figure and fine black eyes attracted plenty of attention. When Eugenia was twenty she made certain attempts to overcome the waywardness naturally resulting from this bit of mistraining. She even tried to get work in a shop. But Aquilina objected, saying that the pay was an insult, that the girl would kill herself with work, come to look old before her time, and by accepting such a lowly station, harm her father and brother in the bargain. It was Aquilina's desire that Eugenia meet some rich or distinguished man who would fall in love with her and set her up in an establishment of her own. She knew that no one but a laborer or some socially insignificant person would marry her daughter; and she preferred one of those extra-legal arrangements which she took as a matter of course without the slightest scruple. Aquilina could conceive of nothing better for her daughter than a situation resembling her own. She believed romantically in eternal love, in everlasting fidelity—and in men's promises! She never spoke of these ambitions to her daughter, much less to her son; but Eugenia divined something of them just the same.
In the house next door lived a family of position and wealth. One of the sons of the family was wont to make eyes at Eugenia whenever he caught sight of her, without going so far as to speak—out of fear for Fernando perhaps, who in those days used to visit his mother two or three times a week. One day Aquilina observed to Eugenia in a tone which expressed her meaning even more clearly than did her words:
"Now we'll see if you can land your beau.... He's a fine young man—and he's rich!"
"But, mother, do you think he will marry me?"
"I don't know. We'll find that out later; but if he's reliable, and faithful, and affectionate, it doesn't matter much."
She stopped at the look of disgust and sadness in her daughter's eyes; for Eugenia, curiously enough, was a very normal girl at bottom. She wanted a husband and a home, but from all she had heard her mother say on this topic, she believed that, preliminary to "landing" men, it was necessary to angle for them.
It was at this time that Aquilina took into her service the woman, Celedonia, who from then on, for ten years, was her constant companion. Celedonia, a talkative, rather handsome creature, and of mixed blood, kept the whole neighborhood busy talking scandal about her. Fernando frequently begged his mother to get rid of her; but for Aquilina, her new servant was the most entertaining of company. She brought home all the gossip of the block; the deceptions practised by supposedly rich people to make an impression at little expense; the quarrels of husbands and wives; the love affairs of daughters or servants; the pranks of the men in the various families; the vices, in short of everybody. During Carnival, Celedonia always went, in costume and mask, to the balls at the Victoria Theatre, where she encountered others of mixed blood like herself. The next day she would come home, still half drunk, and spend the afternoon telling her mistress what she had seen. To Aquilina these stories of low-life were like a window opening on a world of gaiety denied her. She would rock with laughter at the anecdotes, enjoying descriptions of things of which she could have no experience, and almost envying Celedonia her good times. Sometimes Eugenia too was present, listening to these stories; and it never occurred to her mother to cut them short on account of her daughter's presence.
Not long before Fernando left on his second trip for Europe, Eugenia made Arnedo's acquaintance. He was a bold, handsome, domineering youth, apparently good-natured; and it did not take Eugenia long to fall in love with him. The first time he saw her, as he chanced to be passing the house she lived in, he made clear, in unmistakable fashion, what a profound impression she made on him. Catching sight of her in her doorway, he stopped a moment, on the sidewalk, then took up a position on the street corner; after a while he walked past her several times and finally approached. Eugenia, who was alone, stepped back a little; but Arnedo snatched at her hand, and in an imperious tone, ordered her to stay.
"But someone may be coming!"
"I don't care. I am crazy about you!" he declared, in a simulated burst of emotion.
They talked awhile. They told one another their names; and Arnedo as he caressed her hand, declared a consuming passion. For several evenings they continued their conversations in the vestibule. Eugenia never doubted Arnedo's sincerity when he promised to marry her very soon.
From that moment Arnedo was her master. Aquilina and Celedonia knew what was going on but did not interfere. The girl's mother believed that here at last was the man she was hoping for; and she was quite confident that her daughter would know how to manage him; Celedonia was not the one to discourage such conduct, surely.
Fernando was in Europe when Eugenia ran away with Arnedo. Her mother imagined that this was a desirably decisive act. She did not quite understand it, for the young people could perfectly well have taken her into their confidence; but she thought that perhaps methods in these matters had changed since her youth. As for Eugenia, she was quite ready to believe, when Arnedo took her to his quarters, that the affair was "serious." Nevertheless Arnedo left her at the end of a year. Eugenia returned to her mother's; and Aquilina's only reproach was on her lack of skill in managing men. For several weeks the girl was keenly conscious of shame, especially when she met her acquaintances of the neighborhood. One day she decided that she could no longer live with her mother, whom her presence in the apartment disgraced; and besides her mother's toleration of her conduct was extremely distasteful to her. She went away, leaving no word as to where she was going. For several months Aquilina had no news of her.
Eugenia's first flight had not been mentioned to Fernando; but when letters from her ceased to come he demanded an explanation. On his return from Europe, he got the whole story; Eugenia was living somewhere with Arnedo—this was all the mother knew. Fernando was not only distressed, but somewhat alarmed at this news, which, he believed, might harm him in his profession if it were widely known. His sister's conduct had a great deal to do with his leaving the country a second time, and remaining away for seven years.
Since his return Fernando had visited his mother very little, in spite of her ill-health. The mulatto woman, whom he intensely disliked, was always present during his interviews with her. Once he had suggested asking her to leave the room; but Aquilina begged him not to do so. For that matter Celedonia needed no authorization from her mistress for what she did or did not do. She ruled the establishment as absolute sovereign, managing Aquilina's funds, and sharing life with her mistress on equal terms. Aquilina adored her son, but she could not prevent the mulatto's exhibiting some of the hatred Monsalvat inspired in her; and the very natural effect of this was to discourage his visits.
When he reached the apartment that night, he found the outer rooms crowded with people. This convinced him that his mother must be dying; and with a sinking heart he rushed to her bedroom. The mulatto and another woman were there preparing hot applications; and he noticed also a young girl of some twenty years who appeared both pretty and respectable.
Monsalvat brushed the women aside and leaned over to kiss his mother.
"Have you sent for the doctor?" he asked turning around.
"Doctor! Why a doctor?" exclaimed the mulatto scornfully. "Here is Mamita Juana, who knows more than all your doctors put together!"
Without replying, Fernando went to the door and addressing the men gathered there asked if there was anyone who could deliver a letter for him at once. A gray-haired old fellow with a long beard, his shoulders bent, and his clothing quite disreputable, pressed forward, holding out his hand.
"Don't you remember me, Doctor Monsalvat? Don't you remember Moreno, the attorney? That's me! Why, we worked together once!"
Monsalvat remembered that he had given this man employment in his office for a short time. Later he had found the old fellow again, earning a miserable pittance from odd jobs in the law courts.
Monsalvat took a pencil from his pocket and wrote something on a card, while Moreno went on talking:
"Here I am, Doctor, still alive, and that's some job! Those days are over—my law days, I call them. Don't think I'm stuck on myself; but just the same I'm proud of the work I did back there. The law in this country of ours owes me something, Doctor! I helped it along. We took part in some big law suits, and we won them. I say 'we' because, after all, the other fellow did his share of the work. And here I am, Doctor, with ten children on my hands, poor as a rat, and going down hill fast...."
In spite of his shabbiness, Moreno still possessed some of the manners of a more cultivated society than the one that now knew him. He smelt of cheap whiskey and his person was none too clean; but the semi-obscurity of the hall was to his advantage.
"Deliver this letter to this address at once. Take a cab, and wait for an answer! Bring Dr. Torres back with you."
Fernando gave him some money, urged him to hurry, and was about to return to his mother's bedside when a woman near by said:
"Don't let him go alone, sir. He'll stop for a drink in the first saloon he sees."
"This is the companion of my sorrows," proclaimed Moreno, "and see how she treats me! She owes me everything; I have given her ten children and my name, raising her to my own social position—"
"He's just talking, sir. We have no ten children—only seven. He thinks you'll give him some money."
The woman was half angry, half smiling; and the others standing around, who seemed to have quite forgotten the sick woman, burst out laughing.
"You'd better let my husband go with him," said one of the women, pointing to her man.
"All right. Will you?" asked Monsalvat.
Moreno, with an offended expression, placed one hand on his chest, and declared oratorically:
"Doctor, what has been said is offensive to my...."
"Stop talking, my good Moreno, and hurry, if you please!" Monsalvat interrupted. "I'll pay you well for your trouble."
"At your orders, Doctor, whatever you say," the man replied, inclining his head in humility. "It's you that asks it, sir, and I'll do anything for you! Just as in those distant days which never will return, Moreno, Attorney at law, will always...."
The man who was to accompany him grasped his arm and hustled him away. Fernando returned to his mother's room.
Aquilina was seriously ill. From her rapid pulse Monsalvat guessed she must be suffering from a heart attack. But what was there to do? He thought of cold applications and asked the girl, Moreno's oldest daughter, to prepare them. The woman quack remained in the room, partly enjoying the prospect of witnessing the doctor's failure, and partly bored. Celedonia sat at the bedside, casting contemptuous glances at Monsalvat.
"Leave me with my mother," he ordered, and the women went out, grumbling.
When Aquilina found herself alone with her son, she began to weep. Up to this moment she had been overwhelmed by the fear of death. But now her son's presence seemed to comfort her.
"Fernando," she began, when she was able to speak, "I have been a bad mother. If I could only see Eugenia before I go! Look for her ... find her ... so that she will come tomorrow. I was a bad mother I guess! It was my fault she went away! I knew what she was doing; I allowed her to go on."
Fernando tried to console her, assuring her that she was exaggerating her responsibility. He was sincere in this, for he could not believe his own mother had consented to her daughter's wrong-doing. In the miserable wretch before him he could see not a bad but an ignorant woman, doomed by her own foolishness, and by the circumstances of her life.
"Yes, a bad woman," repeated Aquilina. "After Eugenia had given herself up to a bad life, I let her come here, and I let her give me money. At first, after Arnedo left her, she came back, and wanted to be a good girl. But Celedonia couldn't let her ... and I knew it all the time. Oh, Fernando, can you forgive me? Can you forgive me for all the harm I did you, too? I saw more than once how unhappy you were on account of me. If I had been a good mother, I would rather have died than harm you!"
Fernando scarcely heard the words. His mother's confession had made him draw his hand away, instinctively. He sat with his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped, his eyes closed. What pain this was, penetrating to every fibre of his body! His mother's self-accusation gave him a sense of unendurable shame; but at the same time the load of responsibility resting on his shoulders seemed to grow lighter. Aquilina had grown quieter after making her confession; and now he, too, felt a certain measure of peacefulness creeping into his heart. When he first listened to his mother's strange words he thought he was going to hate her, loathe her; but now, on the contrary, he loved her more than before. All the pity he was capable of seemed too little for this poor, foolish, dying mother of his; he began to sob, kissed her, put his arms around her with a tenderness which was the poor woman's only comfort during those moments.
"Mother, it is my fault, not yours," he assured her, when he could speak. "I intended coming to tell you so, even before you sent for me. All the responsibility is mine. I have had a better chance than either you or Eugenia; I knew more about life, and I should have taken care of you, both of you, protected you—tried to educate you. That was the task I should have set myself! Instead, I came here as little as possible, because I didn't want to be reminded of the facts I hated. I never really took any interest in you. Eugenia owes me nothing, because I never gave her anything; I never spoke to her openly, frankly; I never helped her by word or act. Instead of staying with you both to take care of you, I went to Europe, to get away from my mother and sister, to forget them."
"I brought disgrace upon you. You are paying for what is my fault, Fernando."
"No, it is not your fault! Something far more guilty than you is to blame! But, never mind! All this is very far away from us now, mother. At last I have come to know myself, and to know the world we live in."
Aquilina suddenly grew worse. Fernando, anxiously waiting for the doctor, sent Moreno's wife to watch for him at the street door. His mother seemed to be struggling for breath, and he thought oxygen would help her.
"You must find Eugenia," she gasped. "I need to know that she forgives me. Look for her ... tell her...."
Fernando was afraid to think where he might find Eugenia. What had become of her by this time? His thoughts turned to Nacha; and he wondered if those two had perhaps met. Nacha, Eugenia!... Surely his was a strange destiny, to have spent all his life far from this class of women, and now to find himself taking a part in their lives. Nacha! Eugenia! Was he in love with Nacha? If not, why did he think of her all the time even on such an occasion as this one? And where would such a love lead him? If he found Eugenia, he would take her to live with him. Why should not Nacha live with them also, in fraternal companionship? Eugenia, Nacha! The two seemed only one now. Their souls, their lives, even their forms, seemed to blend into one haunting symbol of human sorrow. Selfishness, ignorance and evil were their relentless enemies, and worse than any of these was the smug indifference of the prosperous.
The doctor's arrival roused him from his ponderings. Torres sent him at once for some oxygen, and he took Moreno with him.
In the hack he asked the old attorney if he knew where to find Eugenia. Moreno knew perfectly well, but he did not wish to part with his information too lightly. He assured Monsalvat that he did not know, but that he could find out.
"It will be a hard piece of work, doctor; but as long as it's for you.... I'm pretty hard up. You see how it is...."
"I'll give you whatever money you need. But you are to bring her to her mother's the very first thing in the morning, understand?"
Moreno promised. He began to talk of Eugenia, of her beauty, of the luxury amid which she was reported to be living. It was a shame ... but what could be done about it? And he added philosophically, as if it might console Monsalvat:
"You mustn't take it too hard, doctor. That's the way things go in this world."
When they returned to the apartment with the oxygen, Aquilina was dead.

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