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 During the ten days when Nacha lay ill in bed her story reached the ears of everyone in the boarding house and aroused general interest. The girls of this calling, who are not yet hardened by cynicism and despair, are for the most part sentimental, even romantic, and invariably sympathize with the hero or the heroine, as the case may be, of a moving love story. Nacha was reported to be suffering from a passion for a man who had spoken to her only once; it was asserted also that she knew neither who he was, nor where he came from; but the fact that she must needs be unfaithful to this platonic and strange love, could not fail to arouse the liveliest sympathy among all these girls. They pitied her from their hearts, and considered it quite natural that she should be ill under the circumstances. When a girl loved a man as much as this, it was a shame that she should have to live as Nacha was living! What did this man look like, they wondered, and what could he and Nacha have talked about in that one fatal conversation? Then from trying to imagine what this love story must have been, they began to recall others in which they had played a part. But none of them was like Nacha's which, they agreed, surpassed even the "daily love stories" of the newspapers. And they envied Nacha, and hoped for an experience like hers, even though, like her, they might have to suffer hunger and sickness. The owner of the house, Do?a Lucía, was a silent little old woman. She kept two rooms, spotlessly clean, and entirely unattractive, for her own use. She never ate with her boarders and was too timid to call on them in their rooms or make any advances to them. Of a good provincial family, she concealed her name, for she thought it discreditable to have such lodgers in her house. Her family was little known in Buenos Aires, and as a matter of fact, she had little affection for any of its members; nevertheless she had a superstitious respect for "good blood" and would have suffered anything rather than disgrace an old name. Poor and alone, forgotten by her relatives, this widow of an officer who had died insane, had taken up her quarters in a boarding house kept by a friend. Even then lodgers of doubtful respectability were frequenting it. Do?a Lucía was aware of this fact but never dared mention it to her friend, and when the latter died, she kept the house going. She had resolved to take in no one without references, but she was too timid to insist on this point. Moreover she always found it hard not to believe what she was told. After awhile she grew accustomed to the class of boarders who sought her house; and the girls had a genuine respect for this old lady who went to church so often, and looked so severe.
When Nacha was well enough to get up, she went to call on Do?a Lucía, to thank her for kind attentions such as goblets of port wine, and the paying of her medicines at the drug store during her illness. Do?a Lucía revealed that all this had been done at the expense of three of the lodgers, Julieta, Sara and Ana María. These girls barely knew her and Nacha was touched by their generosity. She was well aware that Sara earned little having recently had difficulties with the police; Julieta was a quiet little person who made barely enough to live on, and Ana María's own bad health required a considerable expenditure for medicines. Their care of Nacha must have been at the cost of their own necessities.
Nacha could not but admit that she would have done as much for Julieta and Sara, who were already her friends; but it surprised her very much that Ana María should have shared in this expense. Ana María had visited her only twice during her illness. The first time she had come in with Julieta, and Nacha had been disagreeably affected by her presence. She was painfully emaciated, her cheeks sunken and yellow and her wide eyes looked frightened. Nacha decided she must be consumptive. She noted that her features were fine, of an aristocratic caste. During that first visit Nacha could not keep from staring at Ana María's wasted form, her prominent shoulder blades, her sunken chest, the transparent skin of her hands. The girl spoke slowly and there was in her voice a haunting melancholy. No one knew much about her. She claimed that her name was Ana María Gonzalez, but offered nothing to prove it. She seemed destitute of plans, of desire to live, of interests. Julieta had heard, from a friend, that Ana María had once possessed every luxury. A success in the "profession," she had owned a fine house, plenty of money, her own automobile; but quite recently, and very suddenly had come the decay of fortune and health. There was something mysterious about her which excited Nacha's curiosity. The second time she saw her, Nacha was alone in her room. Ana María, staring at her with her wide strange eyes, questioned her about her life. Nacha's answer appeared to interest her but little; indeed, she seemed at times not to be listening. When Nacha began to talk about Monsalvat, however, Ana María suddenly became all attention. She seemed to be absorbing this part of the story with all her senses, with all her soul; yet, when Nacha had ended, she left the room without a word.
Since that afternoon Nacha had not seen her, but she spoke of her to Julieta and Sara. Julieta, plump and gentle, with velvety eyes and red lips, still retained a great deal of girlish modesty. She cherished the dream that a grand passion would come to her rescue. At times she became melancholy, even pessimistic, but she did not yet count herself among the lost. One result of this was that the other girls considered her "respectable." Among these others was Sara, who had all the appearance of having fallen very low indeed, yet she had led this life scarcely a year. Vice had, however, set its mark on her. She liked coarse stories, and obscene words. When, in the dining-room, some one of the men living in the house told a questionable anecdote, Sara never failed to respond with something worse. She was tall, thin, quick of movement with long arms and legs. Her face was sufficiently pretty, but it was her mouth people noticed; a mouth that was large, the lips mobile, and curving slightly upward, red as pomegranates, and moist. When talking, she moved her head constantly, gesticulating with her long arms. She rarely sat still, preferring to walk up and down, and she could not say a sentence without covering a distance of two or three yards, lifting her feet as though about to execute a dance step, laughing and opening her mouth wide so that one could see her long uneven teeth. There was not the slightest reserve nor modesty about her and she sought her patrons in the street with an indifference to appearances which distressed Julieta. Sara seemed oddly unaware of her situation, and of the difference between her and decent women. As to men, they were all the same to her. She liked them all, and never attempted to claim any one of them. Do?a Lucía could not bear her and would have put her out had she dared, for Sara and her friends, when they were in a merry mood, would sing, talk loud, and burst into roars of laughter, all to the great distress of Do?a Lucía, who implored the saints to free her from this disgraceful boarder. Sara's one fear was the police. She had only lately been arrested on the street and since then had become very cautious. Ana María gave every evidence of thoroughly disliking her; and several times when Sara indulged in coarse speeches, she had left the table. This always seemed a good joke to Sara, who, between bursts of laughter, would call Ana María "Madame Pompadour," though no one knew where she found this name, nor why she applied it to Ana María.
"Ana María must be half crazy," Nacha was saying. "I am afraid of her."
"You needn't be," Julieta replied. "She suffers a good deal. Nobody knows what she's been through before coming to this. I'm sorry for her. The poor girl has a kind heart."
"Yes, of course!" exclaimed Sara, with a laugh, walking up and down in the room. "You always think they have 'kind hearts.' I think she's got a lot of silly pride. She thinks herself better than the rest of us."
"Well, isn't she?" asked Julieta.
Nacha, now almost well, dreaded the moment of complete recovery. That moment would exact her return to what she hated. She would have given years from her life to be able to live as a decent girl. Moreover she was afraid of having another attack of illness if she could not have the decency she craved. But it was neither for fear of illness, nor love of decency that she wanted to keep "straight." It was for Monsalvat, who was in her thoughts night and day, whether she slept or lay awake, when she talked with her companions, and when she read, alone in her room.
One afternoon when Julieta came in Nacha said to her, "I want to be good—on his account, you see, Julieta. I'd do anything, work in a store, or whatever comes along. Do you think there's any chance—of my being what I ought to be?"
Julieta, who had been listening with a woeful expression in her dark eyes, smiled gently, and caressed Nacha's hand, but she did not look at her friend.
"Why don't you answer me? Do you think it impossible that I—that any woman—for love, and thinking all the time of him...? Is it impossible? Tell me the truth. If you don't tell me what you really think you're not my friend. Is it possible? Answer me!"
"It would be if it depended only on us. But people make it so hard for us! They don't want us to be good, Nacha!"
Both girls knew how true that was, and remained silent a long time, saddened, hurt, looking at one another like little children who have lost their mother.
Nevertheless Nacha determined to make one more attempt to save herself. She would find Monsalvat. She would seek him to the ends of the earth! So she began questioning the two students who lived in the house, a pair of lazy rascals, who took small interest in anything beyond their immediate horizon. One of them, Grajera, a short dark youth, as ugly as he was talkative, a chronic law-student, dissipated, incapable of telling the truth, had tried every makeshift for raising money. He had taught the art of skating, delivered lectures on tuberculosis, acted in cheap theatres, written articles for small town newspapers, and invented a system for never paying hotel or boarding house bills. Nacha had known him years ago in her mother's boarding house, and, because Grajera had made Riga's acquaintance there, was on friendly terms with him. He was besides an amusing table companion. Nacha implored him to find out where Monsalvat lived, and Grajera willingly promised to do so. The only trouble was that he always forgot to attend to this commission.
The other youth, also nominally a student, although it would have been hard to discover of what, was of a family from Córdoba, the son of a well-known judge, whose death after a laborious and austere life, had been generally lamented. Panchito, who had been sent away from home on account of early misbehavior, returned to Córdoba after his father's death, but was now once more in Buenos Aires, incorrigible as ever, always on the lookout for a chance to play a trick to his advantage, always runn............
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