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 The shock of his mother's death, and quite as much the story of Eugenia she had told, left Monsalvat for some days in a veritable stupor. He just let himself live on, listlessly yielding to the stream of passing hours much as water-grasses in mid-river bend and curl to the current. His mind was a blank, incapable of thinking, unresponsive alike to memory and to hope. At intervals, indeed, in some chance moment of awakened introspection, it occurred to him that this present spiritual passivity must be very like Nacha's habitual condition—a barely conscious drift down the course of events, thoughtless, will-less, purposeless. But such spiritual torpor could not last long in a man of Monsalvat's vigor. Eventually he began to feel the need of action, and two immediate projects seemed to present themselves: he must find his sister, and he must attend to the restoration of his tenements.
One morning the broker he had commissioned to execute the mortgage announced that he had drawn up the necessary papers, and that they were ready for his signature. A bank was advancing forty thousand pesos on the security of the improved property. Monsalvat gaily hurried to announce the news to his tenants. To his surprise he saw no results of the various measures toward cleaning up which he had suggested to the janitor.
"Why didn't you carry out my orders?" he asked the latter, a lean, loose-jointed immigrant from Aragón, whose arms bobbed up and down against his enormously wide hips as he talked with a slightly Andalusian lisp that had the intention of humor in it.
"I have, sir, I have. But these people—why, sir, what can a fellow do with them? Take a look at them! Born pigs, pigs they will remain."
His labored jocularity failed, however, in quite concealing the uneasiness the man was feeling at this unexpected visit from his employer. As Monsalvat started for the door of the tenement the janitor resumed:
"Going to talk to them? What's the use? They'll only lie to you. What such folks need is the stick, I'm telling you, and not kind words, nor favors."
But brushing him aside, Monsalvat went on into one of the apartments on the ground floor, the door of which was open. In it lived an Italian, with his wife and two children. The man, a laborer on some municipal building job, was away at work. Monsalvat asked the woman if the superintendent had conveyed his orders to her.
"There! Didn't I tell you?" the janitor commented triumphantly, at the reply that he had not. And he added, with a burst of ill-natured laughter, "The people, the sovereign people—pah!"
Monsalvat invited the fellow to leave him alone with the tenant.
"How much did you pay this month?" he inquired when the man was gone.
Foreseeing a raise in her rent, the woman put her apron to her eyes and began wailing about the poverty, debts, and sickness in her family. Monsalvat repeated his question.
"Twenty pesos," she replied, trembling.
Monsalvat had ordered his caretaker to reduce the rents by a half, and his face flashed with anger. The woman, however, misinterpreted her landlord's expression, which she thought due to surprise at the smallness of the sum. Now, surely, he was going to raise the rent. Oh, this America!
So from apartment to apartment Monsalvat went on pushing his inquiries. Some of the tenants were not in, but he managed to visit a dozen or more of them. It was the same story everywhere. He hurried down to the superintendent's quarters and ordered him to assemble all the tenants in the courtyard. When they had gathered there, he denounced the trickery of his agent and discharged him on the spot.
"Your rents are reduced by one-half," he then explained to the crowd. "But this will not be for long, because I am going to make some expensive alterations. I want you to be comfortable in clean homes, with plenty of air and sunlight. I want you to live like human beings, and not like animals. When the contractors begin work here you will probably have to move to some other house; but later when this building has been made a fit and pleasant place to live in, you can return here."
To his astonishment, his words were welcomed with no enthusiasm whatever. Instead of pleasing his listeners, indeed he seemed to have insulted them. Some commented with a shrug of their shoulders; others began whispering together. One old woman burst out weeping. A man who talked with a Galician accent voiced the protest that was in all their minds. They were being put out of the house, just as a pretext for higher rents afterwards. Calling the man by name, Monsalvat tried to explain.
"Don't you understand? I am thinking only of your own good. If you live under hygienic conditions, with plenty of air and light, you will have less sickness, and lose less time from your work. Life will be that much easier for you, anyway."
But the man did not understand. If they were satisfied, why force on them something they did not ask for? They lived like pigs? Well, had they ever lived any other way? Hygiene and air were all right for rich people. But poor folks had always gotten along without air; and as for hygiene,—what was hygiene anyway but some new fad of the white-collared crowd? Anyway, if poor people had a hard life, the rich needn't try to improve it with their uplift. Everybody knew only too well what rich people were like. If they were easy with you one moment, it was only to take it out on you at some other time. Mr. Landlord could leave them alone with his lower rents and his remodelled tenements. They wouldn't have the lower rents, and they wouldn't move a stick or stone out of there.
The Galician looked defiantly at Monsalvat as he talked. His auditors, evidently a majority of the tenants in the building, loudly applauded his concluding words.
"He's right! He's right!"
And Monsalvat saw more than one hostile glance coming his way. Disheartened now, he did not care to reply. What could he say that he had not said? Merely assuring them again that the month's rent for each apartment would be ten pesos instead of twenty, he went away, leaving his tenants to continue discussing their grievances together.
As he walked toward his lodgings, he tried to convince himself that this incident was not a proper cause for discouragement; that, on the contrary, it emphasized the need of going on, of struggling with these people, even against their wills, for their own good. Their ignorance was the natural consequence of such absorbing poverty. When had culture ever existed apart from a certain amount of material wellbeing? And how really poor in every sense were these unfortunate tenants of his; their minds dulled by the grind of daily toil, their vision blurred to the most obvious beauties of life. It was understandable, indeed, that they should mistrust everything, even the best intentions of people who really had their welfare at heart. But he was sure of his road now; all doubt and faltering had left him. The difficulties he encountered only spurred him to new energy and a light was shining in his heart.
He had reached the steps leading up to his house when someone, from a carriage window, beckoned to him to stop. It was Ruiz de Castro, smart, dapper, gloved and perfumed as usual, bearing himself with his customary correctness and as always looking quite the conqueror. And following him out of his conveyance came Ercasty, who greeted Monsalvat with an affected courtesy quite in contrast with his obvious annoyance at this encounter.
"My dear fellow," Ruiz exclaimed, "you have no idea what an uproar you caused the other night. I have been busy apologizing for you ever since." And he laughed with his characteristic mannerliness, trying to appear amused as though it were all a joke. The doctor, however, eyed Monsalvat with aggressive hauteur, gazing skyward with intentional rudeness, whenever Fernando began to speak.
"Certainly it would never have occurred to anyone but Fernando Monsalvat to defend those women seriously." Castro continued: "All the ladies have decided you must be the wildest libertine in Buenos Aires. Something of a reputation, eh?"
"The injustice of such an inference must be rather obvious," said Monsalvat. "It offends me, however, only in the abstract, as something wrong, and therefore ugly. So far as I am concerned personally, it is nothing to me at all.
"I shall continue being what I am—regardless of what people think." The doctor, much annoyed, suddenly abandoned his passive attitude. It was incompatible with his veneration for "society" to admit that an individual could be other than what "society" declared him to be.
"That is sheer nonsense," he broke in aggressively. "What counts is public opinion. A man is, in any practical sense, exactly and only what people consider him to be."
Monsalvat took no notice of the interruption.
"I am not sorry that I spoke up in defense of those poor women," he said, addressing his remarks to Ruiz de Castro alone. "I assure you, we do not know them. To us they seem like animals, things without souls, without personalities. Well, we're wrong. They are human beings. They feel, and love, and hate, like any one of us. But even though it should not be so, granted they are virtually animals, whose fault is it?"
"It's idiotic to blame society for the manner of living of these people," the doctor asserted roundly. "They behave as they do because they are degenerates."
"No, not degenerates: victims! Many of them try to work. Pitiful salaries, with debts they can't avoid, drive them into the power of vice. A few of them may, indeed, be degenerates—off-spring of feeble-minded or alcoholic parents for whom, in a more roundabout way, we are perhaps just as much to blame. But, on the whole, the cause of the social evil, as of other evils, is in me, in Ruiz, in you, in the man going by there in that automobile, in the factory owner, in the store proprietor, in the criminal laws which give a sanction to economic injustice, in our moral ideas, in our conceptions of life—in our civilization, in short. The fact is, we have no human sympathy, no sense of justice, no pity. Countless numbers of these poor girls might still be saved, because they have not yet completely lost their self-respect. But what have we ever done to rehabilitate one of them? Do we ever go into the places where they live with any purpose but a shameful one? Do we ever extend the hand of Christian fellowship to the outcast? Can any one of us say that he has never, even by tacit complicity, helped to bring about the degradation of any woman? No, we are all the accomplices, witting and unwitting, of an infinitude of crimes. And yet those girls are our sisters; creatures, as people say, with souls to save, unfortunates feeling the same call to life that we all feel, and, like all of us, destined to the death that engulfs all our hopes and all our sorrows...."
Ruiz de Castro, from temper ............
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