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 The fit of anger during which Nacha had ordered Monsalvat out of her house had quite passed by the time she returned from the cemetery. She could only marvel at her sudden refusal to hear more of what but a few moments before had offered her starving life the ideal it craved. Nevertheless, the regretful gentleness pervading her now was due undoubtedly to the soothing effect of her visit to Riga's grave. The thought of the dead poet made her repent of her sudden harshness towards Monsalvat. After that silent leave-taking from her friend, how indeed could she help yearning to turn away from the life she was leading? And yet could she accomplish that? No practicable plan occurred to her; Monsalvat might have helped; but she, stupidly, had driven him away. Strange how certain she felt, nevertheless, that he would not continue offended, that he would forgive her for everything in the end. Still, it was not probable now that he would look for her. Where could she find him? What were his occupations? What places did he frequent? Alas! she knew nothing of him at all, except his name.
By some strange confusion in her imagination, the figures of Monsalvat and Riga began to blend in her memory. She could not think of one apart from the other. Was there, perhaps, some spiritual resemblance between them? Outwardly they were such different men. Monsalvat gave an impression of serenity, of poise; Riga, on the contrary, seemed all nerves, all tension. What had Riga, weak, sensitive, the typical neurotic, the creature of whim and circumstance, to set against Monsalvat's strength of mind and will? Evidently this courageous stranger who had broken his way into her intimacy so suddenly had most of the requirements for success. Riga was one of those men born to fall of their own weakness, even before the battle of existence overwhelms them. But both were generous, high-minded, incapable of envy, or meanness of any kind. What good luck to have met a friend like Monsalvat at just this moment! And what an irreparable misfortune to have lost him forever!
When Arnedo came home early in the evening, he brought his friends, and their women, with him as usual. Nacha was once more lost in gloom. She tried to talk, and jest in the spirit of the party, but her words seemed to stick in her throat, and her laughter had in it no note of gaiety. Moreover, all her attempts to conceal her real state of feeling were useless. Arnedo and his companions were not to be deceived; and Pampa's face openly expressed the displeasure he was experiencing. Finally he called one of the other men to an adjoining room and Nacha, suspecting something, and listening intently, overheard this dialogue between them.
"Why don't you get rid of her, old man? When a woman goes around looking like Good Friday all day long...."
"She never used to be like that. There was no one could beat her when it came to dancing, and seeing that things went right in the kitchen, and dressing, and singing and playing, and entertaining people generally. She always gave a fellow a good time, Nacha did. She was good-natured, full of spirit, and...."
"Well, what's happened to her, do you suppose?"
"I don't know. Anyhow I'm going to let her go. You know, I told you about that matter, down at Belgrano.... Well, it's just like this." And Pampa gave a claw at the air with his fingers closing.
"I see," his companion replied. "So you've got a substitute for Nacha! What about today's trip out there? Anything doing?"
Nacha did not care to listen further. She joined the other girls, and was now apparently in better humor. When the two men came back she plunged with deliberate fervor into the merriment, reaching out for the champagne, and pretending drunkenness—not for Arnedo's edification, indeed; she knew now that her fate was settled—but to leave a good impression on all these people whom perhaps she would never see again.
Meanwhile the memory of Monsalvat and of Riga was vivid in her mind; their image looked up at her from the hollow of her wine glass; she seemed to see them standing in the doorways, their eyes sad with reproach; now they were directly in front of her, now she felt them by her side. One of Arnedo's friends was speaking, and she thought surely it was Monsalvat's voice she heard and was about to call his name. Later she had the impression that Riga was about to come into the room; and she actually looked around at the door—not without some alarm, on her companions' account. How terrified they would be at this intrusion of the dead! Arnedo and his guests were talking of the Centennial celebration; of "shows" and cabaret performances, of chorus girls and races. There were three women and four men at the table, only one of the latter in evening clothes. All of them had been present in the cabaret at the time of the quarrel with Monsalvat; and, since that whole occurrence was not an ordinary one, they soon began to discuss it.
"Who was that fool?" asked "the Duck," who had led the chorus of burlesque weepers in the cabaret.
At this question everyone looked at Nacha, who sat there anxiously shifting her eyes from one to another of her inquisitors.
"Why," drawled Arnedo, with an air of importance nevertheless, "he is the brother of one of my best conquests. Don't you all remember Eugenia?"
Nacha turned cold. Did Monsalvat know? Where was this Eugenia? Was she, too, part of "the life"? Ah, yes; that was it! That explained Monsalvat's actions, and his fervent words of that afternoon. So, then, he was not in love with her! The interest he showed in her was the interest he had in all girls sharing his sister's lot. How stupid not to have thought of that before! Of course! How could a man like Monsalvat care for an outcast like "Lila," like Nacha Regules!
Another guest, the man in the dinner-coat, a tall and skinny youth, whom his companions, out of regard for his large-boned nose, called "the Parrot," declared that Monsalvat wrote for the Patria, where articles had appeared signed with that name; whereupon all four men felt moved to express their scorn for this "literary fellow," a man who spent his time reading trash and writing nonsense and could only be an utter ninny. These young descendants of Moreira were, for that matter, quite sincere in the contempt they voiced. Products of the aggressive money-making illiteracy of the Argentine, they instinctively hated the "intellectual" as a menace to the power of their class, and could not look upon students and scientists save with disdainful hostility. From their point of view any man under forty who lived for something besides "a good time" was beyond comprehension. They despised books and newspapers; for they vaguely realized that in these lay a power of intelligence destined sooner or later to put an end to the half-breed barbarism incarnate in themselves.
As the dinner went on, the patoteros tried to exhibit their brilliancy. But wit for them consisted at best in anecdotes of the sort known in Argentina as "German jokes"; in pelting one another with bread pills; or in suddenly bursting out with some deafeningly loud rendition of a snatch from a music hall ballad. One of their best numbers was "the Duck's" weeping act, his most successful parlor stunt. Then "the Parrot" would rise from his place, disappear, and return wearing a woman's hat; or Pampa, flourishing his revolver, would pretend he was fighting a duel, seasoning his antics with picturesque obscenities from the jargon of a well-known vaudeville act. The others, meanwhile, acted as chorus and audience, laughing, and contributing an assortment of musical accompaniments.
Nacha was now quite merry; she began to sing, beating time on her glass with a spoon. The others took up the suggestion, and improvised an orchestra. "The Parrot" jumped up on the table to conduct, the others remaining in their places.
"Get down off of that!" yelled Arnedo.
The maid stopped in the doorway, doubling up with laughter at this uproarious scene. Shrieks, explosions of mirth, snatches of song, the clink of glasses, exclamations, and words from the gutter mingled in a deafening din. Suddenly it occurred to Nacha to begin a jota. Arnedo rushed at her, clasped her in his arms and bellowed:
"That's the way I like to see you, my little nigger!"
"I suppose so," said Nacha, throwing him off, "but what about your 'nigger' in Belgrano? You can do without me, now that you've found someone who............
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