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 That fifteenth of November was, for Nacha Regules, one of the unforgettable days of her life; for it brought her intense happiness and at the same time almost unbearable sorrow. She had not gone to the house of the paralytic the day before, as she was occupied in moving to another boarding house. Do?a Lucía's had become distasteful to her since she had discovered that one of the men there was accustomed to spend the afternoon reading in one room while his wife received men in another. She had made inquiries of the other boarders, expressed her indignation, complained to Do?a Lucía. The husband thereupon sought an interview with her. He was a vigorous blond, with a yellow mustache, prominent eyes, and a misshapen mouth. "You have the wrong idea about me," he began. "I'm an honorable man; I never owed a cent to anybody, and what's more, I don't owe anybody a cent now; and what my wife does is her own business, a private matter...."
Nacha did not care to talk with him; so she told him he was quite right and put an end to the interview. However she left the house two days later. On account of an unpleasant incident at Juanita's she ceased going there also; and Julieta introduced her to her friend, the paralytic.
She arrived at this woman's house early one afternoon, and found her alone. The paralytic asked to be read to and Nacha began reading aloud the interminable novel her employer was engaged upon. Nacha had felt depressed and nervous when she arrived, although she had no special reason for feeling so; but this narrative full of absurd adventures, related in an even more absurd style, amused and diverted her. She read for nearly an hour. The paralytic, by no means stupid nor illiterate, had no very high opinion of such hair-raising stories; but she had no other book on hand to entertain herself with. At three o'clock the servant, with a suggestion of mystery in her manner, called her mistress out of the room. The paralytic rolled herself down the hall to the parlor. In a short time she returned and told Nacha someone wanted to see her.
"Who is it? Tell me! If you don't I won't go—I can't—"
Her heart was pounding violently as if it were the clapper of a swinging bell. Fear vibrated through her and an indefinable distress; though she knew that Monsalvat was there ... and yet ... trembling, she hesitated, not knowing whether to run away or throw herself into his arms.
"It's a friend of yours. Why do you want to know who it is? I don't know him. He looks all right, and that's enough for me. He's waiting for you. Go along! I tell you he's a friend—but what's the matter with you? Are you afraid of something? If there is anything wrong I won't let you go—"
This put an end to Nacha's indecision. Fear of not seeing him took possession of her, soul and body, and pushed her down the corridor to the room where he was waiting. She was still trembling; she did not know what she was going to say, nor how she was going to act, and she wanted to cry. Even at the door she hesitated, and felt faint; everything grew blurred around her. She heard the voice of the paralytic following her down the hall, calling, "Go in! Go right in!" She heard a voice clamoring from her heart commanding her to open the door.—Then what happened she never knew. Someone must have opened the door from within, and then closed it. She was trembling and weeping, her hands pressed to her face. She could not see Monsalvat; but she felt his presence beside her.
When she raised her eyes she saw what anguish was, an anguish made up of torturing memories, and the presentiment of a fatality even then rearing insuperable obstacles between them; yet this pain only added to the intense joy of that moment.
"Nacha, why did you drive me away that afternoon? That was the beginning of all the unhappiness I have had since. Perhaps I didn't act as I should have done. Well, then, I ask you to forgive me. Since that day I have thought only of you. The problem of your life has become the problem of mine. I have searched for you in all the places I could think of—and how it hurt, Nacha, not to find you...."
They stood there facing one another, her hands in his. Nacha, in her emotion, lowered her head. She did not know how to act with this man who was so simple and so good. She felt that she too must be frank and straightforward. She had no right to conceal anything from him, disguise her real thoughts, lie to him. She could not foresee what the outcome of this meeting was to be. Should she let herself be carried along by whatever happened? If Monsalvat should want her, why she was his, body and soul! If not, what then?
And now she was beside him on the sofa, listening to what he was saying; and while he told her of all the efforts he had made to find her he wondered if the woman sitting beside him could be worthy of a passion such as his. Fearful of analyzing his emotion, fearful that his thoughts might dwell too long on this doubt, he tried to put all his feeling and enthusiasm into his story. His words summoned before Nacha, breathlessly listening, the long caravan of his dreams, his life of other years, and his life now; he talked to her of the ideals which tormented him, and without which he could not live; and he told her that at last he had found out the purpose of a man's life: to work for others, to live for those who have need of us.
Nacha was listening in silence. Sometimes she had dreamed of what this meeting of theirs would be like; and she had imagined that nothing at such a moment could serve their emotion but abandonment—kisses, caresses more than humanly sweet. For such, to her then, was love; but now she understood that there was a love greater than that. She was undaunted, but surprised. She did not know whether to delight in it or be saddened by it. The man she was listening to was not of her world; to her he was an enigma, something perhaps too far above her for her groping comprehension. She could not hope ever to understand him. How could she, poor fallen woman that she was, destitute of every possession, rise to the world of a being such as he? And sadness cast a beautifying shadow over her face. Monsalvat noticed the distress in her eyes and asked why she was troubled. She made a great effort not to burst into tears, using all her strength of will to master her weakness. And she won. Suddenly she perceived that she too was strong, for her will had made its decision.
"I am sad ... because ... I do not love you. And I know that I never shall!"
Monsalvat, in complete stupefaction, looked at her. He could not understand. He had always believed this woman loved him. He had felt, as one feels a human presence that can neither be heard nor seen, the presence of a great love between them. And now ... it was impossible! What was the secret of this baffling mystery? Could Nacha be once more under Arnedo's control? He tried to prove to her that it was himself she loved; and as do all lovers, he presented arguments that sober sense would have declared absurd. The whole strength of his case lay in the tone of his voice, and the sincerity of his emotion.
"No, I do not love.... It's no use. I can never love you. You have been very kind to me, very generous, and loyal. I love you as a friend ... but that is all."
Her words seemed only to show Monsalvat to what extent this passion possessed him. At times he had believed that the feeling animating him was simply a desire to regenerate this girl who was worthy of a better fate than the one he saw her struggling with, a desire to save another human being from falling to the lowest depths of evil, a desire to accomplish something for the sake of good; since, up to that time he had lived only for himself. At the same time he believed that he loved her; but this love of his seemed to mingle with all these other feelings and desires. Now, with genuine terror, he saw that all his ideals, all his desires of regeneration for her and for himself, were either disappearing, or retreating to the background of his consciousness. At that moment he was nothing but a man in love, and she the adored w............
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