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 The doctor's words rang in Monsalvat's ear. "Nacha has returned to the profession." How ironical the phrase! Profession, in truth, but of despair instead of faith in God, in law, in science! Yet oddly enough, this very relapse of hers gave him hope. He knew now where to look for her; and at the thought his blood ran faster. The very signs on the street corners spoke of finding her; automobile horns, the cries of street venders, all the incongruous voices of the enormous city, clamored to him that soon he would find Nacha. When his thoughts dwelt on all that was horrible, inhuman and painful in the life the girl must at that very moment be leading, his heart seemed to grow cold. No, it was better not to think.... Yet, were it not for these facts too horrible to think of, he might never trace her!
So, with his friend the doctor, he began the search for Nacha, and also for his sister, although his recovery of Eugenia was now a secondary interest. Together they started on a painful and long journey through the circles of that living hell reserved for fallen women, a martyrdom among other more frightful martyrdoms. Yet these stages of his journey led him through only the first circles of that inferno; for it was in these first circles that he expected to find the two women he was seeking. There are other circles more frightful and more tragic still.
With the doctor as his guide Monsalvat descended into these regions. The entrance gate was Madame Annette's front door; and upon it might very well have been blazoned forth
"Through me you pass into the city of woe,
Through me you pass into eternal pain,
Through me among the people lost for aye!"
But, alas, these were not the only gates of hell! Their number was infinite, and the women who passed through returned no more. However, the door of Mme. Annette's house was the principal gate, the gate of gold!
"Nacha Regules?" the French woman repeated coldly. "I don't know her."
The doctor persisted however in his inquiries, for he had caught a false intonation in the woman's denial. Mme. Annette kept to her first statement; and as he watched her vulgar gestures and listened to her displeasing voice, Monsalvat felt an indefinable uneasiness. How could such a woman, disagreeable, coarse, bad-tempered as she appeared, have the patrons of the sort Torres asserted she had? Surely crime lurked under the apparent luxury of this place; and if this evil enchantress succeeded in satisfying her aristocratic clients, it was with morsels of delicate flesh obtained by the most unspeakable deceptions and cruelties!
"Shall I call in the girls?" Mme. Annette asked abruptly, mistrustful of her callers; for she scarcely knew Torres and she had noticed Monsalvat's disgust.
"Let us go to the dining-room. Ask them to have a glass of champagne with us," the doctor replied.
Three of the girls came in. One of them was the child with whom Nacha had made friends. Monsalvat started at sight of this young thing. His eyes flashed anger as he looked at Mme. Annette, who lowered hers, more frightened than ashamed. Torres called the child to him and she sat down on the sofa beside him. Mme. Annette left her callers for a moment while she went to prepare the champagne. A fine-looking brunette, who declared herself a Paraguayan, entered into conversation with Monsalvat. Her eyes, indeed all her features, and her manner of speaking, bore witness to not very remote Indian ancestors. She knew nothing of Nacha or Eugenia, had never heard of them. Monsalvat, who thought every woman in this profession must be the victim of hostile circumstances, asked her to tell him her story. No doubt she too had suffered at the hands of father, or lover, or some exploiter of women! The girl, however, protested that the life she was leading was the only life for her. It meant pleasure, freedom, money; she did not have to work and heard nothing but pretty speeches from men. As she spoke a savage sensuality played about her eyes and lips. Obviously she loved pleasure for pleasure's sake. While she praised her profession she blew kisses into the air or pressed her arms tightly against her breasts in a kind of ecstasy; and she drank her champagne slowly, tasting its sweetness to the full, licking her lips, and looking mischievously at Monsalvat out of the corner of her eye. He was thinking meanwhile that though she was far from looking upon herself as a victim, she was one nevertheless. Who could tell what fatal inheritance was hers? The descendant perhaps of alcoholics who had sought in liquor some alleviation for the misery of their material circumstances, or for that other misery caused by the hatred and prejudices of their neighbors! A link by itself meant nothing. One had to consider the whole chain; evil could be born only of evil.
Meanwhile Torres was obtaining information. The child beside him knew nothing of Eugenia but she recalled very distinctly a girl who had come there one afternoon. "She felt so sorry for me," the child went on, "and her name was Nacha. She went away, because she had a quarrel with Madame—I don't know what about—."
Madame meanwhile had admitted to Torres, when he told her that they wanted to find Nacha for some reason connected with "justice," that she had been there.
"You put her in jail, do! That's where she belongs! You ought to hear the language she uses! I'm a respectable woman: I don't owe a cent to anybody, and I'm a good mother! There aren't many who pay more for their daughter's education! Some of the best people in Buenos Aires are my friends and that impudent little hussy allows herself to talk back to me!"
As the two men were leaving they met an acquaintance of the doctor's at the curb. Just as she was getting out of a taxi Torres inquired of the seductive Amelia if she could give him any news of Nacha.
"Go to Juanita's. Someone told me only yesterday that she went there. I must say I don't understand Nacha. Juanita's of all places! Such a crazy thing to do! One must keep up one's position, don't you think? There's no need of stepping down in the world before one has to. She just lowers herself going to Juanita's.... How am I looking, darling Doctor? Am I getting old, do you think? Well, so long! Good-bye, old man!"
It was still only about six o'clock; and they decided to go to the Sanmartino house then and there. Juanita received them in a large parlor, stuffy with hangings and filled with pretentious furniture. With her usual stately dignity and Victoria-like appearance, Mme. Sanmartino met her two callers very graciously. Monsalvat who was standing in the middle of the room saw a little girl of thirteen or so pass through the hall. He felt that behind the portières of the doorway women were watching; and it seemed to him that everywhere in that house, in the air, in the furnishings, were traces of Nacha; yet he divined also that he would not find her there.
"Yes, she used to come here," Juanita was saying in an ingratiating tone, slowly moving her head up and down. "A very nice girl, too. Quite pretty! But she doesn't come any more. No doubt she has found somebody to take care of her...."
She stopped, and looked at both men fearing her words might have wounded one of them. Monsalvat had not been able to control a start.
"Well, anyway, she doesn't come here any more, but I don't know why. Sometimes our patrons take girls away from the house—and set them up. But I don't think that in this case...."
Monsalvat turned pale. He had lost her again! But Torres inquired the name of the patron who had made friends with Nacha, and Juanita gave it to him at once. Then, in the silence that followed, the doctor looked at his friend and nodded. Monsalvat understood. Now was the time to ask about Eugenia; but he had not the courage. Torres came to his rescue, but obtained no satisfaction. Perhaps the girl had changed her name! Monsalvat described her. But what good was his description? There were several girls in that very house who answered it.
"Did you see that child in the hall?" Monsalvat asked nervously when he and Torres reached the street.
"That's Juanita's daughter. It's strange, isn't it? Juanita is sacrificing herself for that child. She hopes to work up a business that's good enough to sell, and then retire on a small fortune. It's for her daughter's sake that she exploits other women!"
Monsalvat demurred. "Why did she keep her daughter in such surroundings?"
"Why, those girls wouldn't say a word in that child's presence that she oughtn't to hear! Of course, now and then, they may let something slip without thinking. But, after all, that child couldn't help but consider that the relations between men and women are nothing but a simple business arrangement. She will see that the girls she knows sell themselves, and she too will sell herself, to some good fellow with a fortune; but her price will be not twenty or thirty thousand dollars but a hundred thousand. She'll make a good match."
Monsalvat was losing hope. That inferno was too vast, the catacombs of this subterranean world too obscure and intricate! Torres, as if to cheer him, drew a paper from his pocket. It was a sinister, a terrifying list of two hundred houses of the kind they had just visited, some of them aristocratic, some of them middle class, most of them modest or shabby; and somewhere in these houses were the women they sought! Monsalvat kept the list, but decided to continue his search alone. He could not take up more of the doctor's time.
Torres insisted, however, on taking him to a house where there was a good chance of obtaining information. They sent in their names and a servant ushered them into a room which had none of the perfumed, wholesale, elegance of Mme. Annette's house, nor the heavy, mediocre luxuriousness over which Juanita queened it. Here everything was extremely simple without being actually shabby. The owner of the establishment was not long in appearing.
"Florinda," said the doctor, "this is my friend Monsalvat—and this is my friend Florinda, the most charming of creoles...."
"At your service, gentlemen. I am entirely at your orders, but don't believe what this flatterer says. He's an old friend—from good old times, long past. But sit down sir! So honored by your call...."
Florinda, a creole, in the forties, tall and thin and decidedly plain, was married, and had a battal............
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