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 The boarding house to which Nacha had fled belonged to an old maid of French extraction known as Mlle. Dupont. This elderly landlady quite won Nacha's heart with her amiability and delicate ways, her politeness and her unquestionable respectability. Poor Nacha had never in her whole life been so well treated; the years she had last lived through had prepared her to be particularly surprised and pleased by the attentions with which she now found herself surrounded. She attributed to kindliness and goodness of heart the courtesies which were due to "Mademoiselle's" punctilious ceremoniousness; and she thought that her landlady did her a great honor in demonstrating so much affection for her. As a matter of fact, Mlle. Dupont had as many wrinkles in her soul as on her face. Her apparent amiability expressed itself chiefly in certain phrases of endearment or pity such as ma petite, ma chérie, Oh, quel malheur! and others of the same nature. To hear her, one might have thought that to this sensitive being everything was delicious, enchanting, exquisite, worthy of compassion or sympathy. The daughter of Bayonne Protestants, she had turned Catholic, and was, at bottom, a narrow, egotistic, rather ridiculous old woman. She treated all her boarders as she treated Nacha, and was prodigal to them of similar amenities. She must have been about forty-five; but she looked more than fifty. She was tall, angular, stiff in her movements, with masculine features, and hair and eyebrows of a reddish cast. Her nose was sharply molded, and her hair, combed high in an ancient style, covering the greater part of her forehead and her ears, and hanging down the sides in ringlets that were not always in curl, gave her a somewhat ludicrous appearance. When she wished to appear particularly sweet-natured, she would lean ceremoniously toward the person addressing her, all the while smiling and blinking her small eyes.
Mlle. Dupont would quite frequently visit Nacha in her room.
"Always alone!" she would exclaim, clasping her hands, and shaking her head. "Would you care for a little company?"
"Yes, indeed; I'd be delighted!"
Then she would sit down beside Nacha and tell her what a fancy she had taken to her, and how she hoped she would never leave her house, and how much she enjoyed her.
"You are such a good girl, Nacha!"
"Oh, 'good,' Mademoiselle!"
Her landlady continued in eulogistic strain; and then came the moment for exchanging confidences! She wanted to know "everything" about her new friend, about her family, about the kind of work she had done, and what she lived on.... Nacha trembled before this curiosity. What should she reply? Such questions from anyone else would have annoyed her; but in "Mademoiselle's" case they seemed prompted by the affection she professed for her new friend, and a desire to be useful to her, and to know her better.
"Why do you want to know?" Nacha would ask.
"Oh, Mlle. Nacha! Nothing! Nothing at all! You wouldn't believe me if I told you—it's just because I'm so fond of you, you are so good, so—how shall I say—so innocent!"
Nacha reddened. Mlle. Dupont, watching her out of the corner of her eye, and a little constrained, reddened also. "Oh, I can tell at a glance! You are not like some of the other girls I have known. As for me I admire goodness so much that I cannot understand how some women ... I don't know how it is! ... you see I was brought up on very religious principles; and I can't help having such high standards about character that I really can't endure the thought of the slightest slip.... No, I always say; let a woman have all the faults she likes: but let her morals at least be above reproach!"
Nacha, terrified, was wondering if "Mademoiselle" knew anything about her life; but she could only conclude that her being allowed to remain under that roof at all proved that her hostess was in total ignorance of her history. All these declarations of lofty principles and integrity of character, confirmed by the obvious austerity of her daily life, caused poor Nacha to look upon Mlle. Dupont as a superior being. Here at last was someone worthy of her intense admiration! She went so far as to try to model her conduct upon that of her landlady, and avoided going out, believing that temptation and vice hovered outside the precincts of that house of refuge.
So she remained all day long in her room, going over the incidents of the day just passed, dreaming, wondering who Monsalvat could be, and what he wanted of her. Was he really what he appeared? Or had he practised a miserable deception on her, making use of his eloquent words to get her away from Arnedo, for his own advantage? This was not impossible; for to men all means are justified when the end is the woman their caprice has fastened upon. And she could not doubt that she was pleasing to Monsalvat. She remembered how he had looked at her, the first time they had ever seen one another, in the cabaret; he had followed her to the house—he had gone again to the cabaret to see her—and then how he had defended her! It couldn't be merely out of pity that he had risked incurring the insults and the violence of the patota! Does a man take such risks except for love? No, there could be no doubt: he was in love with her....
But, did she want him to be? What was the strange feeling she had for the man? Love or hate? Sometimes she thought she loved him with all the strength of her being; but when she remembered that she was now without resources, and that she would sooner or later be forced to have recourse to the means of livelihood so loathsome to her, she hated him. Why had he come to her house to torment her? Why had he spoken to her that way, knowing as he must that a woman of her kind is an outcast, and cannot change the manner of life that makes her so? Was he perhaps a lunatic, who took pleasure in doing her harm? Her head swam with all these questions and uncertainties. Then again at times she reproached herself for having driven Monsalvat away. How happy it made her even to remember that he had thought they might be friends!
Meanwhile Nacha was living on the money she had raised by pawning a few jewels. She was sorry now not to have accepted the sum Arnedo had offered her. Why so many scruples about accepting money? They became her strangely! Mlle. Dupont required payment in advance; so that she had had to part with a small brooch on the very day of her arrival in the boarding house. The jewels she still possessed were of a very modest sort and would scarcely provide her with means for even a month.
When she left Arnedo's apartment it was not with the intention of trying to lead a decent life. Convinced that she could not help being what she was, she had resolved to go on making a living as before. But now two things held her back; the memory of Monsalvat, and her regard for Mlle. Dupont. Never, while in that house, could she fall short of her "Mademoiselle's" ideals! The Frenchwoman's eloquence on the subject of "character" had impressed her. She felt the charm and the tranquillity of living respectably; and it was not merely the happy freedom from remorse which soothed her: the decency within her seemed, at last, to have found a home.
More helpful than anything else, however, was the thought of Monsalvat. In spite of her apparent evasion, he had conquered her, leaving on her spirit an ineffaceable imprint. Simply remembering him made it impossible for her to take up again her shameful profession; and when, hard pressed by need of money, or by habit of mind, she thought of yielding, Monsalvat's image appearing before her, imperious yet kind, strengthened her impulse to resist.
A month and a half passed while Nacha lived on in a beclouded dream, completely inactive. She got up at eleven, lunched with the other boarders, spent the aftern............
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