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 He did not know what to do. At the police station they could give him no information concerning Nacha's whereabouts. It had been ascertained, from the testimony of three watchmen, that on the night of her disappearance an automobile was noticed about two o'clock in the morning, going full speed in a southerly direction. One of the watchmen declared he had seen a woman in the car, and that several men were holding her down. Another asserted that there was no woman in the automobile he had noticed. Torres, when Monsalvat consulted him about the matter, openly expressed his satisfaction. In his opinion the abduction was only simulated. He believed that Nacha had been a party to it, that she wished to leave Monsalvat, and had not known how to go about it. "The probabilities are that she has gone off with Arnedo. Was it likely that this girl could continue long in the nunnery you condemned her to? Of course she wanted Pampa! Those fellows know how to keep the interest of women. When a girl falls in love with one of them she never gets over it. I know dozens of cases! It's as though they were bewitched. Well, now you're free! That scheme of yours really was ridiculous!"
Monsalvat looked at him hard. Torres was aware of his friend's reproach but did not desist from his criticism. They stood facing one another in the doctor's consultation room. Torres in his long white apron looked even more like a Moor than usual, for the enveloping white brought out sharply the blackness of his eyes and crisply curling hair.
"Yes, ridiculous!" he repeated. "Do you think that such magnanimous acts suit these times? It's all right to want to rescue a girl from living as Nacha was doing—you may even go so far as to fall in love with her and want to marry her! That kind of thing happens every day. But the absurdity in all this is that a man with your gifts should devote himself to missionary work and go about among lost women with the idea that he is going to save them!"
Monsalvat did not care to hear more of this and went away.
Within a few days a letter reached him from Nacha. Its few short lines had evidently been written in haste. She had been locked up, she wrote, in a house of ill-fame in the la Boca section; and she added that she was not seeing Pampa. Monsalvat must not look for her! It was her destiny to be "bad," and she had to fulfill this destiny. She hoped he would be happy, and go back to his place in the world, to that carefree life from which, all unknowingly, she had drawn him away. Monsalvat remained a long time looking at this letter, reading it over and over, pausing at every word. If only between the lines, he might discover the address of the house where Nacha was being held—
Not yet defeated, he once more set out on a search for her. He looked at the list of houses the doctor had given him to see if there were any house in la Boca mentioned there; but there was none. However, there were ten or twelve in the Barracas quarter. One afternoon, after leaving the Ministry he set out to visit one of these.
In a low section of the city, at the back of a two-storied house, in a dark corner of a street that led nowhere, he found the wretched house that was listed. At his knock at the door a toothless and unkempt old hag appeared. She was standing barefoot in the dirty water that she was swishing over the stone floor with an old broom. Monsalvat had never seen so lamentable a specimen of humanity. The bony old creature was scantily covered by a wrapper which, as it flapped open, revealed the appalling ugliness of her shrunken, discolored flesh and deformed body. When Monsalvat asked for the proprietor of the house, this human remnant showed her livid gums, and assured him she was the person in question. With a few apologies, she made him come in, and leaving him, went to put on more decent attire. Monsalvat found himself in a room permeated by a peculiar smell compounded of incense and smoke from the stove. It amused him to observe that the walls were papered with pictures of saints. In a corner, a candle was burning in front of St. Anthony. The chromos covered everything, even the head of the wooden bed, and the door.
The old woman returned somewhat tidier in appearance, and accompanied by a red-haired girl of about seventeen, poorly dressed, and very deaf. Monsalvat thought she must be a servant in one of the wretched houses of the neighborhood. He informed the old woman of his purpose in coming, and she at once asked for money. He gave her ten pesos which she acknowledged by telling him that the day before a girl had told a story about a woman who had been stolen and locked up in a certain house in la Boca.
Where could he see the girl?
The old woman screamed into the red-haired girl's ear inquiring who had told her this story. She mentioned a name.
"It's someone who just happened to be here—she isn't likely to come back. But I'll tell you where you can see her. Do you know the Basque woman's house? Well, they're going to have a party there tomorrow night, and the girl is sure to be there. Ask for Gertrude. She's a thin, dark piece ... puts on lots of airs."
Monsalvat could not leave without calling the old woman to account for her trade, or at least for having such young girls about. The hag laughed shrilly, opening her toothless mouth wide, and rocking her body back and forth. Whenever she stopped a moment in her glee she wiped her nose on her arm.
"So you think we ruin girls, do you? That's a good one! Listen, tell me! How old do you think I am? Fifty-two—not a year more! Well, look, in all the twenty years I've been in this business I never deceived nor ruined any woman. A good one, that is! I don't force women to this kind of work. Criminal, you call it? Well, what about the 'City of Paris' that pays its employees so little they have to get money somewhere else? What do you call that? Say, I know something about what's going on! I used to be up in the world once! You ought to have seen the folks who came to my house! Yes, a fine idea, you have! But I don't take advantage of anybody—Talk to me! Say, listen! Women don't ruin other women! It's you fine gentlemen that ruin them! That's a good one! Ha-ha! And if some woman helps to ruin another it's not us poor ones! That's a good one all right!"
The next evening Monsalvat set out for the Basque woman's house, where he was to inquire for "Gertrude." He went through dark sinister streets and at last came to what he thought must be the place. It was in a junction of two alleys, near the Hospicio de la Merced.
A desolate quarter of the town it was, depressing in lines and color. A short narrow street went upgrade between two high walls, then turned abruptly. From the direction in which Monsalvat was approaching, the walls and trees of the women's insane asylum alone were visible. All the rest was sky and night. Silence like that of the desert reigned, and a solitude fit for nameless crimes. Monsalvat shivered with a vague uneasiness. He turned at the end of the passage, and saw a multitude of distant lights. The view widened. Something ominous breathed in the thick darkness. On one side of the street stretched a low wall; and in the distance, beyond that, the wide inky railroad. The huge formless bulks of empty cars mingled in undistinguishable masses down there in those dreary yards; and beyond, from the skyline of the city electric lights were glittering. Here and there yellow signals glowed in the blackness, and to the left stretched a line of dingy houses. The house Monsalvat was seeking must be one of these.
In a building in front of him a door was open. He could hear talking inside, laughter, the sound of a piano. He called out to announce his presence. Someone shouted to him to come in. From the other end of the entrance hall a girl, who was having some beer with her escort, called out to ask him what he wanted. Perhaps Monsalvat's appearance aroused mistrust in her companion. At any rate they replied that the lady of the house was busy and that a party was going on. Monsalvat however was persistent. Finally they let him pass into an inner room. The proprietress, a very tall and heavy Basque, whom he encountered in the patio, seemed to have her doubts about him too. Monsalvat made up some pretext for staying there a few moments, and in addition gave the woman money. The girl who was drinking beer turned out to be Gertrude. The proprietress called her aside so that Monsalvat could talk to her.
"How should I know?" exclaimed Gertrude. "I heard the story; but who knows if it's true? And what's more I don't remember anything about it. That was a good many days ago."
"It isn't so many days ago, because all this happened last week."
"I tell you I don't know anything about it. I wasn't the one who told the story in the first place. It was somebody else."
Monsalvat noticed that the youth who had been drinking beer with her was watching him. In the inner room a tango was going on. From the patio Monsalvat could see............
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