Fernanda, who was keenly alive to all the gall of this discourse, made a cold reply, and after a few words she returned to the drawing-room.
Don Pedro was vexed by the stamp of elegance and distinction borne by the daughter of Estrada-Rosa. He was angry to think that any one could rise in their turn, albeit but a few degrees. He abhorred all that was foreign, especially Paris, where he imagined the Los Quinones had no especial prestige. He even suspected with horror that they were unknown there. But, as may easily be supposed, he put such a disagreeable idea out of his head. For if it took complete possession of his mind, what was left for the noble gentleman? Death, and nothing else.
The party of tresillo was composed of old acquaintances. Saleta, the great Saleta, whose lies went on flowing from his mouth so glibly and easily that he always had to go on lying. But Lancia almost lost in him one of its most magnanimous amusing fellows; for, retiring on a pension three years ago, he went and settled in the country, but he only stayed there one year, for he became homesick for Lancia, Quinones' gatherings, and, above all, the jokes of his colleague Valero; so he left the Gallician regions and came back to live with the Lancians. Valero, having become President of the Chamber, became every day more bombastic, noisy, and lisping. He was sitting on the left of the distinguished host. Facing him was Moro, the unattainable ideal of all the marriageable girls, whose indefatigable head easily stood twelve hours of tresillo without any ill-effects, or fatigue. Of all the institutions created for men, the most solid and respectable is that of tresillo. It may well be compared to the immutable laws of nature, so unchangeable is its stability. It was as true to Moro that a spade is worth more than a club, as that falling bodies represent a movement uniformly accelerated. And there, in the dark corner of the room, the celebrated Manin was sleeping in the same armchair, with his short breeches, green jacket, and hob-nailed boots. His hair was grey, almost white, but that was not the worst of it, for the sad part was, that he was no longer regarded in the place as a fierce hunter, grown grey in contending with the bears of the mountains. That legend had gradually passed away. His compatriots were right: Manin was nothing but a country clown. His deeds of prowess were now a subject of joke, and he was looked upon as the old buffoon of the mad, illustrious Senor de Quinones.
Fernanda managed at last to withdraw from the congratulations of her friends, and retired to a corner apart. She was sad. The hostility of the people of the house depressed her, but that was not the chief cause of her sadness, although she tried to think so. The real reason of it, ashamed as she was to confess it to herself, was Luis. The kind greeting of her old fiance had suddenly awoke all her recollections, all her illusions, and all the joys and sorrows of old times that slumbered in the depth of her soul like birds amid the leaves of a tree. The agitation of her mind was intense, but nothing, or very little, betrayed itself in her grave and cold demeanour. Nevertheless, she felt a great shock when she heard the following words close to her ear:
"How beautiful you have grown, Fernanda!"
She had been so full of thought that she had not noticed the count had taken a seat by her side. Involuntarily she raised her hand to her heart, and she replied immediately with a smile:
"Do you think so?"
"Yes; and I am getting old, am I not?"
She made an effort, and looked him straight in the face.
"No; nothing but a few grey hairs in your beard, and rather a weary look."
The trembling of her voice contrasted with the apparent indifference which she chose to give to her tone.
The count instantly grew serious. He put his hand to his brow, and at the end of some moments, he replied in a gloomy tone, as if he were speaking to himself:
"Weary! yes, that is the right word. Very weary! Weariness is exhaled from every pore."
Then they were both silent. The count was plunged in profound meditation which brought a deep furrow to his brow. After a while he renewed the conversation by saying:
"I saw you before I came here."
"Where?" she asked with assumed surprise.
"On the road. I went out this afternoon for a ride, and the post-chaise passed me. I knew you perfectly."
"Well, I did not see you. I only recollect meeting two or three peasants, but I did not recognise anybody."
On saying this a wave of crimson surged to her face in spite of herself. To hide her confusion she turned her head, and her eyes met those of Amalia, brilliant and steely, as they rested upon her. They looked at each other for an instant. The feline mouth of the Valencian was wreathed in a smile. Fernanda tried to respond by a similar one, but it was a failure. She turned again to the count, and talked of indifferent subjects, of theatres, music, and projects of travel.
Nevertheless, Luis became more and more preoccupied; he seemed to lose his self-control, and talked at random, as if his thoughts were straying afar. He was silent for some moments, struggled to say something, moved his lips, but instead of their articulating what he wanted, they expressed something quite different, something trivial and ridiculous that he was ashamed of directly he had said it. Fernanda watched him attentively, regaining the calmness and self-possession that he was rapidly losing. She seemed absorbed in the conversation, describing her travelling impressions with naturalness, and expressing her opinions with unconcern, as if there had been nothing between them but an old and tranquil friendship. Finally, availing himself of an instant's silence, he summoned resolution to say:
"When I approached you, you seemed very thoughtful. Of what were you thinking?"
"I do not recollect. Of what would you have me think?"
The count hesitated a moment; then encouraged by the gracious smile of his ex-fiancee, he ventured to say:
Fernanda looked at him in silence with playful curiosity, under which shone a delight impossible to hide. The count coloured up to the eyes, and he would gladly have cut his tongue out before having said those two fatal monosyllables.
"All right," said the girl, jumping up from her chair. "Au revoir, I am glad to see you friendly."
"What is it?" she said, turning back, as she was going away, and glancing at him with two smiling, malicious eyes that completed her conquest of him.
"Pardon, if my words offended you."
Fernanda tossed her head disdainfully and went off, exclaiming:
"Repent sinner, or hell will have you!"
This word, uttered at random, as a joke, gave him a sudden shock, and called him back again to the habitual tenor of his thoughts. All the Gayosos had lived under the influence of this baneful idea. But the terror of his ancestors seemed concentrated in his mind, tormenting and maddening him to a degree. Amalia had had a hard struggle to distract him for a little time from his scruples. Therefore, when she now signed to him to come to her she saw he moodily rose from his seat, and came towards her with slow, unwilling steps. She had too much tact and pride to show any vexation at the short conversation just held with his old fiancee. She received him with the same smile, speaking with her habitually assumed tone of cheerfulness, and she did not mention Fernanda's name. But her pallid lips contracted with anger every time his eyes turned towards the girl, which they often unwittingly did.
A beautiful child with blue eyes and long fair hair now appeared at the door with a servant.
"Oh, how late!" exclaimed the Senora de Quinones. "Why are you so late in bringing her, Paula?" she added severely.
The servant replied that the child was so amused at playing: "Let them give to the kite," that she cried every time they wanted her to go to bed.
"Are you not sleepy yet, my treasure?" said the lady drawing her to her, and passing her hand caressingly over her curls.
The guests were very interested in the little creature, and she went from one to the other, receiving caresses from one and the other, and returning them with good-night kisses.
"Good-night, Josefina. Until to-morrow, my treasure. Have you been good to-day? And has your godmother bought you a doll that shuts its eyes?"
The count regarded her with tears in his eyes, whilst he made incredible efforts to master his emotion. He always felt the same when he saw the child. When his turn came he only brushed her fair cheek with his lips; but Josefina, with the fine instinct of children, who always know who loves them, threw her arms round his neck, and gave evidence of particular affection for him. Fernanda also regarded her with intense interest, with a curiosity so great, that she opened her eyes wide. Josefina was six years old, she had a creamy complexion, eyes of infinite sweetness, and something sad and delicate about her diminutive person. One detected at once her likeness to the count. When the child left him, his eyes met Fernanda's, and he was so embarrassed, that he took a seat farther off.
Josefina was dressed with taste. The Senores de Quinones brought her up with every indulgence like an adopted child. This had been for some time the favourite topic of gossip in Lancia. The cost of her little hats was guessed at with the greatest interest; the number of her toys was commented upon, and calculations were made as to what her marriage dot would be. But such remarks ended by getting stale. It was only when the subject came up, that some sarcastic allusion was made, or some new discovery whispered. The child came to a stop before a group, in which figured Maria Josefa, the young lady with the long spiteful tongue, and Manuel Antonio, as beautiful as the first rays of morning.
"Listen, Josefina; who do you love best—your godmother or your godfather?" asked he of the child.
"My godmother," replied the child, without hesitation.
"And who do you love most—your godfather or the count?"
The child looked at him astonished with her large blue eyes, and a shade of distrust passed over them, as, with a frown on her beautiful brow, she returned:
"But does not the count bring you lots of toys? Does he not take you in his carriage to the Grange? Has he not brought you the little waggon?"
"Yes, but he is not my godfather."
The group received this reply with a smile. They knew that the child lied, for Don Pedro was not a man to inspire any one with affection.
"But I think the count is also your—fa—godfather."
"No such thing. I have only one godfather," returned the child, now getting angry. And then she left the group.
She then went to where Amalia was, and placing herself before her, she crossed her little arms upon her chest, and making a curtsey, said:
"Godmother, your blessing."
Whereupon the lady gave her her hand, which the child kissed with reverence. Then, taking her in her arms, she kissed her on the forehead.
"You must go to bed, my daughter. Go and ask your godfather for his blessing."
So the child went to the library. These old world customs were a great pleasure to the Senor de Quinones. Josefina approached him timidly. That great paralysed gentleman always inspired her with dread, although she tried to hide it according to her godmother's injunctions.
"Senor, your blessing," she said in a subdued voice.
The pompous old Grandee paid no attention, and looked at the cards he held in his hand, whilst wrapped in his grey cloak with the red cross, he seemed to grow bigger and bigger before the frightened eyes of poor Josefina. She thought that there was nobody in the world more immense, more imposing, and more worthy of respect than that noble senor; and Don Pedro shared the same opinion, so that all other beings with whom he came in contact seemed a chaotic mass, in which only two or three were possessed of any individual character. The child waited, with her little arms crossed, for about a quarter of an hour. At last the Senor de Quinones, after playing a good card, condescended to cast a severe look upon the child which turned her pale. He then stretched out his aristocratic hand with a gesture worthy of his namesake, Peter the Great of Russia, and Josefina pressed her trembling lips upon it and then withdrew. The bombastic old fellow was not quite pleased at his wife treating the little foundling with so much indulgence, but he consented because it flattered his vanity, for Amalia, knowing his weak point, said:
"Treating her like a servant is what anybody would do in Lancia. We ought to do things in another fashion."
So Don Pedro could not but see the weight of that undeniable truth. Josefina crossed the drawing-room to go to bed. As she passed by Fernanda, she caught her by the arm and dragged her to her. All the joy and love that filled her heart overflowed with vehemence upon the little creature whom she covered with kisses. She forgot all about her rival whom she considered defeated. She only thought that it was a child of his, his blood, his very image. And she kissed with ecstasy those blue, deep, melancholy, eyes, that creamy skin, and those yellow curls that surrounded her face like a golden aureole.
"Oh, what beautiful hair! What beautiful curls!"
And she pressed her lips on the child's head with so much feeling that she was not far from crying.
At that moment a sharp, imperious voice sounded in her ears.
"Not gone to bed yet! you naughty girl."
And on raising her eyes, Fernanda saw Amalia with a pallid face and compressed lips, take the child roughly by the arm, and after giving her a sharp shake, she dragged her to the door.
The next morning Paula, by command of the senora, took the child off to the ironing-room, sat her in a high chair, and asked a young girl, who was working at the window, for some scissors.
"What are you going to do?" Josefina asked.
"Cut your hair."
"Why? I don't want my hair cut."
Whereupon she got down from the chair with determination, but Paula turned back and put her up again.
"Be quiet," she said severely.
"I don't want to, I don't want to," she doggedly returned.
"It is certainly a shame to cut such beautiful hair," said one of the girls who was ironing.
"What do you mean, child? An order is an order."
And taking hold of one of the precious curls of hair, she cut it off with the scissors.
"Leave go, Paula!" cried the child, "I am going to tell godmother."
"Yes, precious, go and tell your godmother, indeed? All right, you shall tell her when it is done."
And paying no further heed to her protestations, and letting the words fall on deaf ears, she went on with the task quite undisturbed. But the child got down again, angry and furious. Then Paula called the sempstress Concha to her assistance, and she held her down on the chair until she was despoiled of every one of her curls, after which they arranged what was left as best they could.
"What a pity!" said the laundress again.
"It is not so bad, child," returned Paula, combing it with admiration.
At that moment the senora appeared at the door of the room.
"Godmother! come godmother! Look, Paula and Concha have cut my hair."
Amalia advanced some steps, avoiding the child's gaze, fixed her stern eyes upon her head and said in an imperious and cold tone:
"That is not right. Shave it off."
And she went away with a frowning brow, whilst Josefina, astonished, followed her with her eyes. Never had she seen her godmother so cold and stern. She was sad and thoughtful, and remained thus without making the slightest movement, until Paula had accomplished her task.
The little head was soon as smooth as a melon. The servants shouted with laughter.
"Child of my soul! what have they been doing to you?" exclaimed Maria, the ironer, with a tone of regret, although she could not repress a smile.
"Don't say that, woman," retorted Concha with a shade of bitterness. "Yes, she does look ridiculous."
She was a woman of five-and-twenty or more, extremely small, almost as small as Josefina, with sharp, keen eyes, and all the servants were afraid of her.
Paula laughed too and passed her hand over the little creature's head.
"When we want a jar for the vinegar we shall know where to go for it," continued Concha.
The wave of pity passed away. Guessing that the child had fallen into disgrace, the servants became quite facetious, exchanging jokes which were not pretty, but which made them nearly die of laughter. Josefina remained with her head down, quiet and silent. Then the jokes began to take effect, and two tears dropped from her long eyelashes.
"Crying for your little wig? What a shame to hurt her! It is not your fault, but theirs who brought you up like a princess, when you are only like us, and less than us," she added in a low tone, "for we have got fathers."
"Come, Concha, drop that! Don't fret the little monkey, you will soon have fresh hair," said Maria, in a maternal tone.
The child, touched by the kindness, began to sob and left the room.
When she entered the drawing-room in the evening like that, the count could not repress a gesture of anger, and cast an interrogative glance at Amalia, who replied to the gesture and look with a provoking smile. And in a loud voice she said that the child's hair had been cut by her orders, for she had noticed that she was beginning to be vain. It is so! and people flatter her so much that she has become unmanageable.
The count, enraged, immediately took the opportunity of repairing to Fernanda's side, where he renewed the conversation of the previous evening. The two were loquacious and affectionate. Fernanda related her life in Paris with no lack of details; and Luis was particularly expansive, not hiding the cheerfulness of his heart, and talking with animation in spite of Amalia's angry glance fixed upon him. During a pause, Fernanda raised her smiling eyes to her ex-fiance and asked him, but not without a slight blush:
"Don't you know why the child's hair has been cut?"
The count looked at her without replying.
"Because I praised it yesterday, and allowed myself to kiss it."
It was the first time that Fernanda took his secret for granted. He felt a great shock; his face grew red, and so did hers. For some time neither of them could speak.
During the following days the count often walked down the Calle de Altavilla, and he spent a great deal of time in the Cafe de Maranon. Lancian society was moved to its very foundation at such an important turn of events, and henceforth he was an object of interest to three hundred pairs of eyes. He gave up going every day to the Quinones' house, and went occasionally to the de Meres' little party, as it continued to be called in Lancia, although only one of the old ladies was now left in this world. Carmelita had died at least three years ago. Only Nuncia the youngest was left, and she was quite paralytic. From the armchair to the bed, and from the bed to the armchair was all that she could manage with great difficulty. She was also deprived of moral support, as in her sister she lost her protector from impulse. Since she was buried there was no one to keep her in order. With the sudden promotion to the category of persons sui juris, the poor "child" was a prey to great distress, everything worried her, everything was an insuperable difficulty. Those sharp scoldings had been less overwhelming to her, for if they had caused tears, they had been salutary in checking her juvenile ebullitions, and so prevented the fatal consequences attending her inexperience. Her guests were a few youths, and several young men of our acquaintance, with a sufficient number of graceful, pretty damsels who came to the house on the look out for a husband. For the "child," in this, and in every respect, kept up religiously the traditions bequeathed by her sister. She was the firm protector of all the courtships that arose in Lancia, however ill-advised they might be. The little house of the Calle del Carpio continued to be the forge, where the conjugal happiness of the worthy neighbours of Lancia was forged. The most constant visitor was Paco Gomez, because the house of the Quinones was closed to him in consequence of one of his remarks. A certain stranger meeting him in Altavilla with a few others asked him how the Grandee came to be paralysed.
"He is not really paralysed," returned Paco, for he is not disabled at all, only his legs can't put up with all the heraldry stuff that he has got in his head, and so they double up rather than take a step.
This came to Quinones' ears through a traitor, and he gave orders he was henceforth not to be received. He was the soul and the delight of the "child's" party, and the incessant way he made fun of Nuncita kept all the guests in a fit of laughter.
"I say, Nuncita, look! Don't talk too much, for do you know I saw your leg, and—and—and——"
The poor octogenarian blushed like a girl of fifteen. Nothing could have confused her more than this inopportune reference to the afternoon of the swing. Luis and Fernanda took to seeing each other there once or twice a week. Away from the angry eyes of Amalia, the count found it very pleasant, and he recovered his serenity of mind. They had long talks in a low voice without being disturbed by anybody. On the contrary the "child" took good care to give them room and opportunity. Nevertheless, he still visited at the Quinones' house, and he saw Amalia secretly when she demanded it, but he was evidently colder and more distant. She was perfectly aware of the change, but she did not show her colours, and she did not mention his ex-fiancee. However, one day she could not help doing so.
"I know that you spend a great deal of time at the de Meres' talking with Fernanda."
He denied it in a cowardly fashion.
"Take care what you do," she continued, fixing her eyes on him, "for treachery may cost you dear."
He was so accustomed to the dominion of this terrible woman that the words sent a chill through him, as if some misfortune were hanging over his head. But when he came out into the street, away from the magnetic influence of those eyes that upset him, he was conscious of an impotent feeling of rage. "Why, after all, should she threaten me? Is she my wife? What right has she to me? What we are doing is a grave sin, it is a crime. Who can deprive me of repentance, of reconciling myself with God and being good?" Repentance had latterly been to him a vague desire due to his love being on the wane, and to his great fear of hell. Now it had changed into a real wish. Certainly it offered several attractions. He would renounce the sin bravely, purify himself, free himself from eternal fire—and then have Fernanda.
For some time past there had been only one bright spot in his criminal connection with Amalia—and that was Josefina. This little creature, white and silent as a snow-drop, sweet as a lily with the innocence of a dove, and the tender melancholy of a moonlight night, was like a delicious, refreshing balsam to his soul—a prey to remorse. How often, when holding her in his arms, he had asked with surprise how such an innocent, pure, divine being could be the child of sin. But that same child caused him fresh cruel torments. Never to see her alone, from day to day, to be obliged to hide his affection for her, to have to kiss her coldly like the others, and more coldly than the others, not to be able to call her the child of his heart, not to hear her lisp the tender name of father, sometimes saddened him to a point of despair. On one or two occasions he had been allowed to take her to the Grange. Then he passed hours in ecstasy, holding her on his knees, and caressing her passionately.
The child had become accustomed to these violent expressions of affection and she liked them. Sometimes she felt her fair head wet with the tears of her friend. Raising her eyes in surprise she would see him smile, then smiling too, she would reach up her coral lips for a kiss.
"Why are you crying, Luis? Have you a pimple?"
Josefina knew no more serious reason in the world for crying. She loved Luis dearly, and his general coldness saddened and surprised her. By degrees she had come to understand with precocious instinct, that the count loved her more than the others did, but he had to hide his feelings. So she, following his example, also adopted an indifferent manner with him when in public. But when they were alone, she reciprocated his expressions of affection with equal enthusiasm, and this without knowing why, without accounting to herself for what she did.
From the day her godmother ordered her hair to be cut, Josefina noticed that she had fallen into disgrace. She was not now kissed with transports of delights, her slightest wishes were not acceded to, and she was no longer the constant source of interest in the house.
Amalia took to scolding her, using a cold, displeased tone towards her, and the servants followed the example of the senora. The poor child, without knowing what the change signified, felt her little heart sink, she explored the faces of those about her with her beautiful deep eyes, and tried to decipher the enigma that they hid. She became daily more grave, more retiring, more timid. And as she found she was denied the toys or the sweetmeats that they used to lavish upon her open-handed, she left off asking for them.
Amalia, instead of delighting as formerly in her infantile ways, appeared to avoid them, she gave orders she was not to be brought to her bed in the morning as usual. When they met on the stairs, she passed by without looking at her. At the most she would go up to her and say in a displeased tone:
"You have not washed yourself yet. Go, see you are put right." Or else, "They tell me you did not know your catechism lesson. You are getting very idle. Take care and be good, because if not I shall lock you in the cellar with the rats."
She had formerly busied herself in teaching her, in putting the needle into her hand, and guiding her little fingers. Now she almost always left this task to the servants. She lived in a state of gloomy preoccupation which did not escape the domestics' notice. Josefina also was conscious that her godmother was changed, not only with regard to herself, but in her whole manner of life. And so her mind gradually conceived the idea that she was sad, and that she was suffering, and that this was the cause of her bad temper. One day the lady was alone in her room. She had flung herself in an armchair and sat motionless with her head thrown back and her hands hanging down, apparently asleep. Nevertheless, Josefina, who passed by the room, and ventured to look through the crack of the door, noticed that her eyes were open, very open, and that she was frowning dreadfully. Without knowing what she did, with the blind confidence that children have in themselves, she pushed open the door and entered the room. She went silently up to the senora, and throwing herself suddenly on to her lap, and looking at her with timid affection, she said:
"Give me a kiss, godmother."
The lady was startled.
"How is it you are here? Who gave you permission to come in? Have I not told you not to come up without you are called?" she asked, frowning still more severely.
"I want to give you a kiss," said Josefina in a subdued voice.
"Don't bother me with kisses, and mind you don't come up again without permission."
But the child, overwhelmed with emotion, not knowing to what to attribute this moroseness, and wishing to overcome it at all costs, began to cry, as she threw herself once more upon her lap and tried to reach her face.
"Give me a kiss, godmother."
"Go! leave me!" replied the lady, preventing her raising herself higher.
The child was obstinate.
"Don't you love me? Give me a kiss."
"Go away, child!" she cried, in a fury. "Go away, at once!"
At the same time she gave her a hard push, and Josefina fell on to the ground where her head came against the leg of a chair.
She got up, raising her hand to where she was hurt, but she did not cry. A feeling of dignity, often shown by childish hearts, gave her strength to keep from crying, although her eyes were filled with tears. She cast one look of unspeakable sadness on her godmother, and then ran from the room. When she reached the staircase, she threw herself down on one of the steps and burst into a fit of sobbing.
The thorns of life were indeed piercing the delicate flesh of that child whose path until then had been strewn with flowers. Amalia's spite grew worse every day, and the reserve and timidity of the child increased in proportion. But as she was only a child, this sadness would vanish when under the impulse of a fancy, and it was at such moments that the coldness and spite of the lady were most evident.
"Senora, Josefina does not want to put on her green frock."
"She says it is dirty."
Amalia then rose, repaired to the child's room, took her by the arm, and shaking her roughly, she said:
"What is this pride? Don't you know, silly, that you are only here out of pity? Take care and don't vex me, or one day, when least expected, I will put you in the street where you came from."
The servants heard these words and always bore them in mind. Until now Josefina had been brought up like a child of the senores, now she was treated like an illegitimate child, and afterwards like a little pariah. The servants now took pleasure in paying off the little attentions they had been formerly obliged to accord her, and the sharp rebukes they had incurred on her account.
Concha in particular, the dwarfish maid, felt an indescribable delight, peculiar to her malignant, spiteful character, every time that the senora evinced in any way her scorn for the adopted child. Josefina had a large, cheerful room looking on to the garden. Although Concha was head maid and dressmaker of the house, she had a duller room that she shared with Maria looking on to the street. Josefina's room had always been an object of envy to her. More than once she had given strong hints on the subject; and now, profiting by her mistress's state of mind, she got permission to sleep in the child's room under the pretext that Paula, who occupied the next bed, snored so loudly. So she installed herself comfortably there, and made use of the little girl's toilet things. A few days later she sent her to sleep with Maria without saying a word to her mistress. When Amalia did know of it, it had been going on for some time, and she heard it without any resentment at not having been told before, and she did nothing to alter what had been done.
Soon after, she thought of another means of degrading the child. Josefina dined at table with the senores. The pompous old Grandee had not consented to this at first, but he at last conceded to the importunities of his wife. Concha, full of spite like her senora, set to intriguing to deprive the foundling of this privilege. Exaggerating what it gave to do, the mess that it made, and the disturbance of the waiting at table, the little girl was finally removed to, and located at, a little table, which was put in the ironing-room near the kitchen. A few days after Amalia, in a fit of bad temper, said that the double service could not be tolerated, and that she was to dine in the kitchen with the servants. Concha sat her on a stool, pushed her a plate of thick soup and a tin spoon saying: "Eat."
The child raised her head in amazement, but seeing the malignant smile in the girl's eyes, she put it down again, and began to eat without any protest whatever. Concha was not pleased at this, for she wanted to see her rebel and cry.
"What is it? Don't you like your spoon? Then, child, you'll have to eat with it as I do, who am quite as good as you. What do you take yourself for, you little fool? Do you think because you wear a fine hat and a cambric chemise you are a young lady? Young ladies don't come in a basket covered over with dirty rags." And so she went on, bursting into sarcastic, insulting laughter until poor Josefina at last began to cry. Although the other servants were not so malignant, they were pleased at the child's humiliation. They ended by taking her part, whilst Concha, relentless and colder and harder than marble, went on persecuting her with the greatest cruelty. A few days later, as Josefina was passing through the ironing-room to the dining-room, she heard Concha say to Maria:
"I say, girl, have you ironed the foundling's clothes?"
She stopped, not knowing of whom they were speaking, and cast an anxious look from one servant to the other, until a simultaneous shout of laughter from them both made her understand that they were speaking of her.
"Why do you call me a foundling?" cried the innocent child, with difficulty repressing her tears. "I will go and tell my godmother."
"Go run and tell her," returned Concha pushing her to the door.
And henceforth she went by that name among the servants. Amalia prohibited her being brought into the drawing-room in the evening. The count, whose only chance of seeing his child was on these occasions, asked for an explanation, and the lady replied that as she had to get up early for her lessons, she required more sleep; but he did not feel satisfied. He knew that some harm was brewing, but fearing a worse evil he had the sense to be silent.
Then Amalia thought of a more direct way of wounding the count. The child whom she had not only deprived of her caresses, but of all her position in the house, was in a fair way to be an extra little servant. In one instant the transformation was completed. The senora gave orders for all her hats and clothes to be put on one side, and for her to be dressed in the poorest, oldest things out of the press; that she was to be treated like the rest of the servants, and perform little offices in the kitchen that were within her power.
The courtship of Fernanda and the count was getting more conspicuous every day. Although they abstained from talking intimately in the house of Quinones before the jealous Valencian, she was not oblivious to what was going on. Her eyes, like two rays of light, seemed to pierce her lover's brain and read what was there: Luis was in love with his old betrothed. The adulterous connection weighed on his mind like a heavy stone. She, the loved and preferred of former days, was now old and faded beside that splendid rose who had just reached perfection. If he had not given her up already, it was through his weakness of character, through the powerful ascendant she had managed to get over him during the seven years of their liaison. But he wanted nothing better than to break with her. She read it perfectly in his furtive glances, and in the gloomy abstraction that weighed upon him, in his sudden, unnatural cheerfulness, in his fear and servility which increased every time he came near her. One evening the count asked for a glass of water. A sudden light came into Amalia's eyes—the longed-for moment had arrived. She pulled the bell, and said in a peculiar tone to the maid who answered it:
"Paula, send a glass of water."
A few minutes afterwards Josefina came in, poorly clad, with a little coarse linen apron, and shod with rough shoes. Her little hands had difficulty in carrying a tray with water, and sugar, and sugar-tongs. The guests were astounded, and Luis turned pale. The child advanced to the middle of the room looking timidly at her godmother, who signed to her to go to the count. The count staggered as if he had had a blow, but seeing the little creature standing before him, he hastened to take the glass, and raised it with trembling hand to his lips. Amalia's eyes meanwhile looked cold and indifferent, but the imperceptible trembling of her lips betrayed the cruel delight she was feeling. A significant silence pervaded the gathering whilst this scene was being enacted.
Directly Josefina had left, the Senora de Quinones explained this change to her guests with perfect naturalness. Some punishment had been found necessary for the arrogance that the child had taken to showing towards the servants. It would not be for long. Nevertheless, it was a daily struggle with the will of Quinones, who objected to her being brought up with so much indulgence.
"The fact is," she concluded in a tone so natural that it would have reflected credit on an actress—"the fact is, sometimes I am obliged to put her in her place in my house. What good is it to raise her to a position she cannot maintain? Any day we may die, and the poor thing will have to support herself by work, if she does not find a husband before then. And what husband would take a girl with many requirements, and no money?"
The guests were not deceived. She really did not expect that they would be. All that was a pure sop to conventionality, but nobody was deceived as to the real facts. The count left soon after, being unable to control his vexation.
"This business of Luis is not going on very well," said Manuel Antonio to a little party going home by the Calle de Altavilla consisting of Maria Josefa, the Pensioner, and his daughter Jovita. "If ever the marriage of Fernanda does come to anything, it will be at the cost of much unpleasantness."
"Do you think so?" asked Maria Josefa, to draw him out.
"Madre! Are you mad, woman? Don't you know Amalia as well as I do?"
"And what has Amalia to do with Luis' marriage?" asked Jovita, to whose maidenhood simplicity seemed befitting in spite of her two-and-thirty years.
"Ay! It is true there is this little girl here," exclaimed the Chatterbox with comic, mocking gestures. "I did not think of that! Nothing, nothing, little monkey; go on in front, these are matters for grown-up people."
The Pensioner's daughter was pricked to the quick at this remark and made an insolent retort. Manuel Antonio repaid it with another, and a regular quarrel was started, in which bitter pointed words were banded and it lasted as far as the house of the Pensioner, who had made fruitless efforts to re-establish peace between them. As usual, the Chatterbox got the best of it, for his remarks combined the vigour of a male with the subtle spite of a female.
The next day the count had an interview with Amalia in which he expressed his vexation at the scene of the preceding evening. The lady was amiable and condescending, and justified her conduct by its being for the welfare of the child. But Luis noticed that she spoke in a peculiar manner, and he detected a tone of bitterness and irony in her words that astonished him. He left her in a preoccupied and uneasy frame of mind, and for some days he could not shake off the unpleasant impression of the interview. But his love was rapidly taking possession of every corner of his soul and finally conquered even that preoccupation. He was profoundly in love. And as it always happens his timidity increased in proportion to his love. At first he seemed serene and courteous in his long conversations with Fernanda, losing no opportunity of demonstrating his admiration and devotion to his ex-fiancee. But he suddenly lost his aplomb, and he shunned all reference to his own feelings; and he avoided all gallant remarks, but Fernanda was not deceived. This love had at last come after the lapse of all that time. Ah! how many tears it had cost her!
Although their conversations were on commonplace subjects, they had a delicate, exquisite savour. They talked for hours and hours without being tired, and for the pleasure of being near to, and listening to, each other. Fernanda chatted in all the joy of her heart without minding the timidity of her adorer, and with the enjoyment of seeing the puerile pains he took to avoid his confession of love, knowing that she could have him at her feet directly she gave the sign. The moment came at last. One day the beautiful widow determined to declare herself. They were talking of marriage and second marriages. Luis began to get excited, and to give his opinion in a trembling voice, trying to change the conversation. Suddenly Fernanda said with perfect calmness and in a determined tone:
"I shall not marry a second time."
He turned pale. His face became so sad that the girl, repressing a smile with difficulty, repeated the remark with still greater decision:
"I shall not be led into a second marriage—unless it be with you."
The count gazed at her in delight.
"Is it really so?" he finally asked, in a trembling voice.
"Yes, it is really so!" she returned, looking at him with a smile.
"Give me your hand, Fernanda."
"Take it, Luis."
They held each other's hands affectionately for some moments. Then the count rose without saying another word. When he arrived home he wrote her a long letter of six pages, describing his passion in the most glowing colours, giving her fervent thanks, and three or four times calling himself an unworthy fellow. The marriage was arranged to take place at the end of the year of mourning, of which there were still two months to run. They decided to keep the matter secret, and not to have the ceremony in Lancia. A few days before the wedding-day she was to go to Madrid, where he would join her, and there at the capital they were to be united for ever.
It is very difficult in little towns to hide anything, and to conceal a projected marriage is impossible. Every pair of eyes and every pair of ears seemed magnified to a hundred, so intensely were sight and hearing concentrated on the couple. By their gait, looks, and manner of greeting, and leaving each other, the ingenious Lancians guessed by veritable magic of what the couple was thinking, and they calculated exactly the progress of the affair that excited such interest in them.
As Manuel Antonio was passing the old-world dwelling of the count, he saw a maid come out with a cardboard box in her hand. The Chatterbox at once scented a wedding, so he took breath and followed her.
"How do you do, Laura?" he said, passing her. Then turning quickly, he said in a careless sort of way:
"How is your master?"
"The senor is not ill."
"Ah! But I was told—well, have not seen him for two days. Are you going shopping for the senora?"
"They are shirts for the senor conde."
"From Ramiro's? Let me see them, as I have to get some too."
The maid opened the box, and the Chatterbox examined the contents.
"They are very fine; they would be too dear for me."
"Yes, senor, they are dear, and yet the senor does not think they are good enough. He wants them of silk, at whatever cost, and although I have been to every shop I can't get them. There is nothing for it but to order them."
"Of silk? Madre! Then he is going to be married!"
"I don't know about that, senorito," the maid hurriedly replied, with signs of confusion.
"Get along, little hypocrite!" he returned, laughing; "you know as well as I do, as well as everybody. And when is it to be?"
"I tell you I know nothing."
But the Chatterbox insisted so much, and was so eloquent and familiar, that after some time the servant let out what she knew.
"But look here, I cannot tell you anything for certain of what is going on, but I think he will marry shortly, from some remarks I heard the other day of the senora countess."
"She said to the housekeeper that when her son married she would go for a time to the Grange, and afterwards, looking through the keyhole, I saw her crying. Then Fray Diego was in the house the day before yesterday—but I don't know whether I ought to say."
"Get along, woman; what does it matter. Do you think I am a gossip?"
"Well, I heard him say when he was leaving: 'No, no, they are quite right, it is much better for them to do it in Madrid. This is a very spiteful place.'"
The pleasure that Columbus felt at the discovery of the New World was nothing in comparison to that of our Chatterbox. He not only knew without any kind of doubt, that they were going to be married, but he had ascertained where the ceremony was to take place. Overwhelmed with such splendid news, and wishing to pour it forth to somebody, he stopped to consider where it would have the most effect. His thoughts went straight to Amalia; so to the Palace of Quinones he directed his mincing little steps.
It was the hour of twilight. The senora was sitting in her boudoir, doubtless absorbed in one of those intense, mournful meditations to which she had for some time been a prey. Manuel Antonio was jovial and chatty, and set about cheering her up as much as possible, making the blood circulate with renewed energy in that ulcerated heart, so that the shock should be more painful when it came. He asked for chocolate, and they took it together with pleasant conversation. Amalia seemed to forget her worries, and when she was just becoming quite cheerful, zas! the bomb fell. But it fell gently, with that infinite art known only to men endowed with a feminine mind.
The only thing he regretted was not being able to see her face. The room was almost dark. But he was quite conscious of the gravity of the explosion by the sound of her voice and the coldness of her hand as she bade him good-bye. Amalia remained standing for a long time, rigid and motionless. She leaned against the heavy curtain to look into the street, and measured the height of the drop. She tried to open her desk to get a bottle of essence, but she turned the key too roughly and hampered the lock. Then she left the room and wandered about the dark passages and staircase in a vague, uncertain way like a phantom. Then, far away, she saw a point of light, and involuntarily made her way to it like a moth.
It was the dining-room, and seated at the table playing with some little clay shepherdesses, the remains of past possessions, was Josefina. The shade of the lamp concentrated a bright light upon the little head, round and yellow as an orange. Amalia stopped an instant and looked at her with an ardent gaze, devouring that grave melancholy face which bore such a striking resemblance to Luis. She made a step, and the child turned her head. The expression of her blue eyes was equally sweet and sad, and the movement of her eyelashes the same. The wife of the Grandee covered the distance between them with two steps, and fell upon her like a hungry tiger. She struck, bit, and tore her, and that open face soon bore large purple marks from her hands, and blood began to flow. The child, mad with fear, uttered piercing cries. She had scarcely had time to see her godmother, and she did not know what had happened. Amalia, insatiable, went on striking and hurting. The cries of the victim increased her fury; at last she paused.
"Godmother, what are you doing?" exclaimed the poor child, running into a corner.
This question, and the look of anguish which accompanied it, infuriated the lady afresh, and she beat her again unmercifully. The little creature covered her face with her hands. Then she caught her by the ears and nearly dragged them off. Not satisfied with that, and angry at not being able to hurt her face, she took up a feather broom that was on the table, and hit her sharply on the hands with the handle, leaving them black and blue. At last the child managed to escape. The servants who had gathered to witness the scene with astonishment, let her pass and run down the passages to the staircase. The street door was open. The coachman on taking the horses to water, had left it so. Josefina went out of the house, fled down the street of Santa Lucia, passed under the archway of Santa Barbara, crossed the Archbishop's Square and so to the gate of San Joaquin, to the Sarrio Road.
Evening had closed in. A fine but very fast rain was falling, which soon made her wet to the bones. The wretched little creature ran for some time, and at last stopped from sheer fatigue. The side wall of the road being low at that part, she sat down, and then began to feel the pain from the blows. She put her hands to her head, then to her face, from which she felt a hot liquid pouring that she thought at first was rain. She soon saw it was blood. Blood! the thing in all the world of which she had the greatest fear! Still a prey to terror, she did not moan. She took a fold of her little frock and dried herself, or rather she washed her face, for the frock was wet; but what she felt most, and what hurt her in a horrible way, were her hands. Not knowing what to do to alleviate the pain she began to blow on them. Then she sucked them. But the pain was so intense that at last she exclaimed, sobbing:
"Oh! my hands!"
At this moment there arose before her, amid the shadows of the night, two enormous figures that froze her with horror. One of them stooped down and took her by the arm.
"What are you doing here?" he said, in a rough voice.
THE BARON'S JUSTICE
In a large room in the dreary house of the los Oscos, furnished with four old pieces of furniture, and carpeted with two inches of dust, two of our acquaintances in this story were seated at an oak table. One was the baron, the master of the house, the other, his friend Fray Diego. They had an empty jar of gin before them, another half full, and some drinking-cups.
Neither table-cloth, table-cover, nor tray were there. The table was only covered with many-shaped stains of gin and wine, which, in happy conjunction with the dust, had been left during the course of years and months. The room is dull because the Calle del Pozo is dull, and the dirty window-panes have not been cleaned for years, and the evening is closing in.
By the little light that penetrated, it could be seen that the faces of both men were excessively red, so red that it seemed wonderful that blood did not burst from their bloodshot eyes. The baron had arrived at the apotheosis of fiery and fearful ugliness. The crimson scar across his cheek stood out so sharp and black with corrugations, that it was fearful to see it. His fierce, waxed moustache was more white than black. He was dressed in black sheep skin, and he had a red flat cap on his head, of which the great tassel fell sometimes over his ears and sometimes over his nose, according to the movement of the ogre-like body. They were silent for some time. Fray Diego occasionally raised his hand to the bottle of gin, filled his friend's glass, then his own, which he gravely drank at one draught. The baron was not so quick; he took his glass, raised it to the level of his eyes, and made a series of faces at it, which were sometimes horrible to witness. Then he touched it with the edge of his lips, made faces again, touched it again, and finally, after many attempts and vacillations, decided to swallow it. It was in this grave, quiet way that the two old soldiers spent nearly every evening of the year. The town knew it, and it was a subject of bets with the jocose inhabitants which of the two would die first from apoplexy. Fray Diego had served in the ranks of the Pretender. Then he became a friar and went to the Philippines, and finally he left the monastic rule, and lived in Lancia as an independent priest. They had not known each other during the war, but when they came to Lancia they became united with indissoluble ties of friendship by their ideas being the same, by the recollection of the glorious battles in which they had taken part—and by the gin.
"Long live the Pope, the head of all the kings of the earth!" exclaimed Fray Diego after a long silence, in which they both appeared to be asleep. At the same time he gave a great thump to the table which made all the glasses and bottles ring.
The baron took hardly any notice. He went on winking at the glass he had before him, and after swallowing the contents very leisurely, and licking his lips three or four times, he said:
"Gently, gently, Fray Diego! You don't know what the Popes are."
"Long live the Pope, the head of all the kings of the earth!" repeated the cleric, giving a still louder thump upon the table.
"Take care, Fray Diego! The Popes have always been very ambitious."
"Senor baron!" exclaimed the priest in a voice so emphatic as to be comic; "you have a soul as ugly as your face!"
The baron was unmoved at the insult, and after a time he said, with perfect tranquillity:
"Don't be a fool. What has my face to do with the matter? I am catholic, apostolic, Roman; but if to-morrow the king our senor" (here he raised his hand to his cap) "were to send me with a detachment to Rome, I would go like the Constable of Bourbon, sack it, and take the Pope."
"And I say that if his Holiness sent me to put a bayonet through the stomach of that constable, you may be sure I would put two."
"How no?" roared the chaplain, getting in a rage.
"Because the constable died three centuries ago."
"I am glad of it, for he has then been burning three centuries in hell."
"All this is very well, Pater, but the king is always to the fore, and others have only to be silent and obey."
"The Pope is never silent, senor baron."
"Then he must be gagged."
"I should like to see it done! Presumption! presumption! a hundred times presumption! Who would dare to do it if Fray Diego de Areces were near?" cried the cleric convulsed with rage, and jumping up, whilst his eyes blazed with fury.
"Sit down, Pater, and calm yourself, and take another glass, for Fray Diego de Areces is only a common vessel."
The chaplain instantly calmed down, delicately poured out the liquor into the two glasses, and swallowed his own share with pleasure, after which his head fell on his breast, his eyelids dropped, and he was asleep. The baron, radiant with delight, looked at him sharply with cunning eyes, then, profiling by his companion's temporary obliviousness, he took another glass, saying, "The nones."
It was a peculiar feature of those delightful sessions that the gin changed the character of both. The irascible, impetuous temper of the baron was softened in a remarkable way whilst the beneficial effects of alcohol lasted. He was cheerful, communicative, conciliatory, nobody's remarks upset him, nothing seemed worth getting angry about. Fray Diego, on the contrary, who, in his normal condition, was always a jovial, jocose priest, turned into a very devil for disputing and nagging, and he betrayed a combative disposition that nobody would have suspected under his round, placid face and pious calling.
He roused himself at the end of a few minutes, looked at the baron fixedly for some moments with strange ferocity, and said stammeringly:
"Will the senor baron kindly explain to me what he means by a common vessel?"
"Come, I've done with that. Are we to go on about that? What does it signify to you what the one or the other means?"
"Because I choose to know; we must understand one another."
"We have understood each other. You have two pints of gin inside you and I another two, or perhaps more," he added, with several winks.
"It is not so, senor baron, it is not so! We must understand each other once for all, stupid!"
"Here there are no barons and no priests," exclaimed the noble in an excess of good humour, jumping up from his seat. "Here we are only Uncle Francisco—that is I, and Uncle Diego, that is you—are we not? Your hand upon it."
Advancing with his hand extended he staggered, but kept his feet.
"Give me your hand, my brave fellow!"
The cleric was pacified, and they shook hands.
"Now an embrace for the legitimate King of Spain."
"Don't speak to me of embraces," cried the priest, again getting angry. "I recollect Vergarra's embrace, fool!"
"Don't bother yourself, my friend, for we shall pay him out.
"Ay, ay, ay! mutila Chaplen gorria."
And he began to sing the Carlist hymn in a hoarse voice, but soon interrupting himself, he said:
"Well, Uncle Diego, sing! Give over tears now!"
His friend was in fact shedding great tears as he recalled the treachery of Vergarra.
"Cheer up, soldier! A drink to the extermination of the negroes would not come amiss."
Fray Diego admitted by a movement of his head that he would willingly be a party to this consolatory toast, but he did not move from his seat. They quaffed another glass, and the effect upon the emotional soul of the baron was so marvellous, that immediately he began dancing an English breakdown on the table, which did not stop Fray Diego's copious flow of tears.
"Hum! I don't care for this foreign dance," he observed at last with a final jump. "I prefer the danza prima.[K] Come here, Uncle Diego."
Whereupon he took the priest by force by both hands, dragged him from his chair, and made some turns with him, intoning one of the long monotonous songs of the country. Fray Diego felt rejuvenated as he was reminded of the spring-time of his life in the country, when his uncle, the Cure of Areces, thrashed him well for getting out of the window by night to pay court to the girls of the neighbouring villages.
"Listen, Diego," said the baron stopping suddenly. "Don't you think before we go on we had better drink a glass to the souls of our betters?"
The priest willingly assented, but the glasses and the empty bottles were rolling on the ground. The baron opened a cupboard and drew from thence fresh elements of spiritual life. This funereal glass inspired him with the happy idea of covering the chaplain's head with his own flat cap and adorning his own with the other's shovel-hat which was lying upon a chair. So clad they went on dancing, making a very remarkable pair. But the baron slipped and fell.
"Help me up, Uncle Diego."
The priest took him by his outstretched hands and pulled him up. But the weight of the noble was too much for him, and they both rolled on the ground together.
"Rise, Uncle Diego!"
"Up, Uncle Francisco!"
They both rolled over with barbarous shouts of laughter. At last the baron regained his footing. The cleric soon followed his example. But his soul, which had been momentarily illumined by the recollections of his youth, suddenly reverted to blood and extermination. He turned fiercely on his friend:
"Let us understand once for all, fool! Why did you call me a common vessel just now? eh? eh? Why?"
"I will explain to you presently, man," returned the baron calmly, "but we will drink first a toast to all faithful Christians, whose visible head is the Pope—I say, if you like."
The chaplain made no objection.
"Well, then, I called you a common vessel because a common vessel you know is used for cooked potatoes."
So saying the baron fell into such a violent fit of merriment that he very nearly choked. In the meanwhile the prominent eyes of his comrade looked at him with such a menacing expression that they nearly dropped from their sockets and fell upon him, as they visibly increased in size like a locust's.
"And why cooked potatoes? I have as much courage as you, fool! as I showed in the action of Orduna and Unza, and besides, I have six crosses at home."
"You? you?" said the gentleman, unable to resist a smile. "You never served excepting at the mess of the company."
The fury of the brother at hearing this was unbounded. He halloed, he stamped, he thumped the table. Finally he rushed to the door, from the threshold of which he began to apostrophise his friend with excited gestures.
"You say this because you are in your own house! Come out and say it here! Come out with me!"
The baron looked at him with smiling curiosity.
"Calm yourself, calm yourself, Uncle Diego."
"Come out and fight with me! with sword, pistol, or what you like."
"Very well, man, very well. We will come out and kill each other; but it will only be to please you."
He then went with uncertain steps to the cupboard, and with some difficulty, for it was now completely dark, he put his hands into the press, and feeling about, drew forth two large cavalry swords.
"Take one," he said, handing one to the chaplain.
Fray Diego drew it from its sheath and began to fence with it. Whilst making these experiments Don Francisco regarded him with great satisfaction.
"Well, let us go," said the priest returning the weapon to its sheath. "Quick, march."
And taking his shovel-hat that was lying on the floor, and concealing the sword under his robes, he passed out of the door. The baron caught up his cap, put on a heavy overcoat and followed him.
"Stop!" he exclaimed, before he had gone four steps. "Don't you think that we have left some liquor behind?"
Fray Diego gave an affirmative grunt. They re-entered the room, and feeling on the floor they came against the jar of gin that was not completely empty. This they poured into the glasses, and drank up all there was. Their next act was to sally into the street. The rough-stoned pavement was wet. A fine rain was falling, but it was so thick that it penetrated clothing as much as a sharp shower. Night had completely closed in; and as, according to the municipal customs, it wanted a good half-hour before the celebrated oil-lamps were lighted, darkness enveloped the rain-driven town. The two heroes, animated by a warlike spirit, perambulated the Calle del Pozo with determination, the cleric before, the noble behind, both muffled up to the eyes, each with the instrument of murder under his arm. They entered the Calle de las Hogueras, passed under the walls of the fortress and out by the road that runs by the old wall of the town. As the water filtered through their clothes, it refreshed their bodies, and partially equilibriated their tempers. Fray Diego became visibly calmer, and the black clouds of depression that oppressed him gradually dispersed, but the baron's haughty, cruel spirit became meanwhile a prey to the morbid conditions of the other. But both facing the prospect of death pursued their intrepid course through the night and rain. They went for some distance by the old wall until they came to the Sarrio road, which they took. They had not proceeded five minutes along it when they heard a groan. They stopped at once, and approaching the side-wall they caught sight of a bundle, which, on coming nearer, they found to be a child.
"What are you doing here?" said the baron, seizing her by the arm.
"Pardon!" exclaimed Josefina, overwhelmed with terror. "For goodness' sake don't beat me, senor! I have already been beaten so much."
The gentleman immediately loosened his hold, and changing his voice and tone, said:
"No, my child, no; nobody shall beat you. How do you come to be here at this hour?"
"My godmother has beaten me a good deal, and I ran away from home."
"Have you not a father?"
"Do you live in Lancia?"
"Who is your godmother?"
"What is her name?"
"By Jove!" exclaimed Fray Diego, striking his forehead with his hand. "It is the adopted child of Don Pedro Quinones."
"Is not Don Pedro the husband of your godmother?"
"Come, get up, my child. You can't stay there. Come with us."
"Oh, no, for God's sake! Don't take me to my godmother."
"No, we won't go there. You are wet, little creature," he added, touching her clothes. "Come, come."
The two heroes had meanwhile put their swords on the wall, and when they went off to Lancia with the child between them, they left them there regardless of the damp tarnishing and rusting the steel.
"And why did your godmother beat you?" asked Fray Diego as they walked slowly to accommodate their steps to those of the child.
"Because I was playing with the sheep."
"The sheep! But do Don Pedro's sheep come and sleep in the house?"
"Yes, senor, they sleep in the cardboard box."
"Look here, child, what are you saying?" said the cleric stopping.
When the inquiry led to the understanding that the sheep were of clay, Fray Diego resumed his walk, protecting the fragile form of the little creature with his long cloak. But his hand happening to touch her face, he noticed with surprise that the moisture on his fingers was warm. He communicated this fact to the baron, and as they had now reached the first houses of the town, they put the child in a doorway, lighted a match and had a look at her. Her whole face was bathed in blood and cut across with deep gashes, whilst her hands were covered with bruises. The heroes looked at each other in horror, and the same wave of indignation inflamed their cheeks. The baron then gave vent to a string of strong imprecations. These, and his fearfully ugly face, made such an impression on Josefina, that she fled crying to a corner. They managed with some trouble to tranquillise her, and after drying her face with a handkerchief, Fray Diego took her up in his arms (the baron had attempted it in vain), covered her with his cloak, and set off for the ancient house of the los Oscos.
Here they took her in hand. The baron, who had attained some knowledge of surgery in the campaign, carefully washed her wounds, closed them with plaister, and dressed the contusions with a very efficacious ointment that he had by him. The touch of the rough hands of those veterans seemed as soft as velvet as they came in contact with the child's skin. A woman could not have tended her with more delicacy, attention, and devotion.
Josefina soon forgot her fears. That ugly gentleman was not bad. She ventured to ask for water. The baron replied that the best thing she could have to strengthen her would be a glass of sherry. One was brought, and whilst the child drank it, the two champions of the legitimate king retired into a corner of the room to deliberate.
They decided that the thing to be done was to take the child to the house of the Quinones. The baron undertook to take the little creature back, and then he would tell her godmother what he thought of her; he would tell her she was an infamous woman, a vile, perverse creature, and if she dared ill-treat the poor helpless child again, he would go to her house, slit her ears, and then tie her by the hair to the tail of his horse, and so drag her through the town. Fray Diego did not agree to so much cruelty, but the baron declared that nothing would induce him to swerve from his sinister plan of making a terrible example of her.
It cost some trouble to make Josefina go with them. They only managed it by promising she should not be beaten again, and that in truth her godmother would be very kind to her for the future. That was all she wanted! And they added that if she dared touch a hair of her head, lightning of God! he would wring her neck like a chicken's! and would give her a sound whipping with his horse's bridle. And the countenance of that gentleman was so fearful as he uttered these threats that the child never doubted for an instant that they would be fulfilled.
Whilst making their way to the house of the Quinones, the baron continued to break out into insulting expressions and threats of murder against the wife of the Grandee. Fray Diego made futile attempts to calm him. But his murderous feelings had so got the upper hand, that the ex-Brother, fearing a catastrophe, left him at the door of the palace. The baron pulled the bell. As he was not acquainted with the feudal custom of the house, he did not pull more than once, so, as he was thought to be a plebeian, the door was not opened immediately. The surprise of the servant was great when he saw that terrible senor, who inspired such respect in the town, and he hastened to ask pardon for not having admitted him more promptly. The baron asked for Don Pedro Quinones.
He was requested to enter, and the servant preceded him up the large stone staircase. On arriving at the first floor, he was asked to wait whilst he was announced.
A few minutes afterwards Amalia appeared. She cast a sharp, angry glance at the child, whom the baron held by the hand, and turning to the gentleman she said in a cold, haughty tone:
"What do you want?"
"I came to bring this child that I found in the street—and at the same time to have a few words with Don Pedro or with you."
With this last remark the baron's voice perceptibly changed.
"Do you not know me?" he added, seeing that the lady looked at him fixedly without replying.
In little places everybody knows everybody, especially persons of position, although they may not be intimate with them, but Amalia replied in a barefaced manner:
"I have not that honour."
"I am the baron de los Oscos."
The lady bowed.
"Paula," she said, turning to a servant who had entered, "take this child. And Pepe, light the lamps in the blue room."
"Senora," began the baron, "I found this child in the Sarrio road, covered with blood and contusions. I asked her who had brought her to that pass, and she told me that it was her godmother. I cannot believe it."
"Then you can believe it, for it is true," said Amalia interrupting him.
The baron stopped speechless and confused. Then he continued:
"It is possible that you had some reason for punishing her, but I am deeply sorry."
Here Amalia again interrupted him:
"And I am sorry that you are sorry."
"My object in coming here," said the baron, who was fast losing his aplomb, "was to warn you, was to beg you—as I have been told you have had the charity to take this foundling—to continue the good work by protecting, sheltering and educating her, and when it is necessary to punish her will you do so with kindness, for the poor little creature is delicate and weak, and the blows might put an end to her life."
"Is this all you have to say to me?" asked the lady, coldly.
The dreadful face of the baron contorted suddenly on hearing this question; his eyes flashed, the deep wound stood out on his face by reason, no doubt, of his great internal emotion. Formidable sounds were heard in his throat, low rumblings presaged a coming storm. But those noises finally calmed down, the signs of disturbance ceased, and instead of the crater giving forth, as it was feared, a stream of burning lava, rocks, and ashes, it only weakly emitted the two words:
"Very well, then. I take this opportunity of bidding you welcome to the house in the name of Quinones and myself."
At the same time she pulled the bell rope and rose from her seat. The baron also rose muttering words of thanks and proffers of service.
"Pepe, take the senor baron down."
He made a profound reverence, which Amalia returned in a lesser degree, and the gentleman turned on his heels and left. As he descended the staircase quite nonplussed, his face on fire, and his eyes aflame, it was a great relief to think of the drawing and quartering, the loss of eyes, the horse's tail and other fearful punishments of the Visigoth epoch, to which the senora belonged by virtue of her barbarous behaviour and her cruel, arrogant spirit.
Scarcely had the door been shut behind the baron when Amalia had the child brought into her presence.
"Come here, senorita, come here! We have not seen each other for some time! How have you spent it? Have you got on well? The baron is very gallant with ladies, is he not?"
The child uttered a sharp cry.
"Oh! my ear!"
"Go on your knees, you grub! Ah! Then does all I have done for you count for nothing? Are you going to show your teeth before you have finished sucking? On your knees, you little rogue! You bad girl!"
Josefina fell in a heap in a corner of the room. Amalia kept her burning gaze fixed upon her for some time. At last, removing her eyes from her, she asked Concha and Paula, who had brought the child in, how she came to escape. The coachman was to blame. Then ensued strong language against the coachman, who was said to be drunk, and with threats of his dismissal if such an act of carelessness occurred again. Then followed many remarks upon the baron's appearance. What was that brute doing at such an hour in the Sarrio road? Who was the cleric who was with him? After these came a very sad survey of the ingratitude and naughtiness of the child who fled from the house which had given her shelter and made her protectors a laughing-stock. The servants agreed that she deserved a very sharp punishment. The lady then dismissed them, and stopped them with an imperious gesture when they were going to take the child. Once alone, Amalia took a book and began to read quietly by the light of a lamp, whilst the child, on its knees in the darkest corner, sobbed bitterly. Three or four times she raised her head and darted an angry glance at the dark corner, expecting a louder groan from the child so that she could spring upon her. An hour went by—an hour and a half. At last she shut the book, went out, and returned in a few minutes. She began slowly to undress. When half undressed she took the lamp, and approaching the child, obliged her to get up, when she conducted her to the bed, and showing her the floor, she said:
"This is your bed. You will sleep here in your clothes."
When she had finished undressing, the child said in a weak voice:
"Forgive me, godmother, I won't do it again."
But these words fell on deaf ears, and she got into bed and put out the light.
Her eyes remained open in the darkness. The hours chiming their quarters and their halves in a melancholy tone from the clock of the neighbouring cathedral did not close them. They were like two mysterious lamps, only giving light within as they illuminated a thousand sinister and tormenting ideas. Dark thoughts and fierce desires crowded and pressed under that low forehead. She considered the marriage of Luis an abominable treachery. Without recollecting her own want of honour towards the poor old paralysed man God had given her for a husband, nor thinking how her sin had spoilt the life of the count, threatened to die in solitude, without family ties to cheer his latter days, she made him entirely accountable for the wrong, and for all the bitterness she was now feeling in losing the only pleasure that had brightened her gloomy, monotonous existence. The only pleasure. Her love did not deserve any other name. In that ardent, despotic, restless spirit there had never been a question of tenderness. She was completely ignorant of the delicious, poetic thoughts that ennoble a passion and make it pardonable. Her life had been passed in insane excitement, tormented by the idea of being happy at all costs. She had lived for the last seven years under the sway of her licentious, insatiable passion. Never did a melancholy thought of remorse bear witness in that depravity to a single moral sentiment. Her thirst for pleasure drove her into a thousand extravagant and dangerous courses. She was not contented with gathering under her roof all the youth of Lancia and dancing occasionally as a condescension, but she required for her enjoyment company every day, picnics, masquerades, &c., and she liked to dance until she nearly fell with exhaustion, like a country lass of fifteen summers. She found it necessary to contrive secret interviews with her lover at most extraordinary hours, and on most unheard of occasions. Her ungovernable passion led her to defy public opinion, and delight in making light of precaution. If the count gave her a word of warning, she flew into a rage. She lost more than he did. Slander never hurts the man, but only the woman, who has to bear all the disgrace. But she went into fits of laughter at the thoughts of slander or disgrace. If she were at all put out, she was quite capable of proclaiming her sin in Altavilla when there was a gathering of people. The count got more and more alienated from this woman, who upset all his moral, theological, and social ideas, and finally inspired him with dread. This turned to terror and insufferable foreboding, that made him long for his liberty, especially after Amalia smilingly made a certain revelation to him.
"Do you know, dear," she said, "I nearly did such a mad thing this morning. Quinones sent me to pour out his drops of arsenic that he has taken for some time. I took up the bottle quickly and, as if pushed by the elbow by an invisible hand, I poured half of the contents into the glass. Don't tremble, coward, for there was no motive in the matter. I never felt anything like it. I swear to you that my will was not party to it. I was controlled by a superior will which strove to overpower mine. I put the glass upon the table, looked at it for an instant, and held it up to the light. There was nothing, not the slightest sign to denote that it was an instrument of death. I put it on the tray and walked with it towards the library without considering what I was doing. But suddenly in the passage I came to myself like awakening from a nightmare. I suddenly saw the blunder I was going to make, and I let the glass fall on the ground."
"It was not a blunder, it was a horrible crime you were about to commit," said the count angrily, as a sweat of horror came over him.
"Very well, crime or blunder, or whatever it was, it was stupid in every way, you know, for one would see by the symptoms that it was a question of poison."
Those words, uttered in a tone of assumed levity, made more impression on the count than any former ones, and henceforth he could not go near her without experiencing a strange feeling of repugnance.
Her youth passed, but she paid no attention to the fact until the arrival of Fernanda. Having no rivals in Lancia, her carelessness of her personal appearance daily increased, and she completely lost the subtle coquetry by which women perpetuate the charm of their person. It was only the sight of the splendid beauty of the daughter of Estrada-Rosa that made her give a thought to herself. She then began to think about the adornment of herself. She procured all kinds of cosmetics, she sent for dresses to Madrid, and availed herself of all the arts of elegance. It was late. That miserable, neglected body, worn out by years and ill-health, could not regain its freshness and grace.
This idee fixe corroded her brain during her long, wretched vigil. No longer to inspire love! To be old, and an object of repugnance! Her mind was torn with a thousand fears. Luis was marrying. Why? Had she not sacrificed to him her youth, honour, and salvation, if there was anything after this life but the infernal regions?
What was the good of it? At the first sign of decay in her face all his promises had vanished like a dream; the seven years of love had disappeared in the abyss of time without leaving the most insignificant sign. But she had not wrinkles yet; she was not so old—five-and-thirty, not more. She suddenly put her hand on the table by her side, lighted the candle, and jumped out of bed. She went to the looking-glass and looked at herself for some time, passing her fingers over the surface of her face to ascertain that the much-feared wrinkles were not there.
A groan from behind made her turn her head. She raised the candle and fixed an angry glance upon the child, stretched upon the ground, trembling with fear. The child could not sleep. Her feverish eyes looked at her anxiously, her lips again murmured: "Pardon."
Without paying her any attention, the wife of Don Pedro went back to bed and put out the light. The rays of the morning sun, as they penetrated the room, fell upon the two sleepless beings. With God's daylight commenced the barbarous torture of an innocent creature.
Her fertile, diabolical imagination set to inventing torments with which to feed the hate which consumed her. The sight of suffering was a necessity to her. Josefina was sent down barefooted with a pencilled note to Concha. The missive said: "Concha, I send you this little rogue. Punish her as you think fit."
Amalia knew what an executioner the maid would be, and, in fact, she expressed satisfaction at receiving this note, which flattered her vanity and her instincts.
"Do you know what this paper says?" she asked, in an aggressive tone.
Josefina made a negative sign. She read writing badly, especially when written as carelessly as that of the senora. The sempstress, however, made her spell out the words until she quite understood them.
"There, you see, you are sent for me to punish you for what you did yesterday."
On saying this she smiled sweetly, as if she were saying that she had something nice to give her.
The child looked at her in surprise.
"Punish me? Godmother has already made me sleep on the floor."
"It does not matter, that is very little for such naughtiness as running away from home. You will have to have a whipping. I am sorry, my child, because you have never had this punishment, and it will hurt you very much. Young ladies have delicate flesh; they are not like us who are accustomed as babies to intemperance and blows. Come along!"
At the same time she drew from her stays one of the formidable whalebones then in vogue.
The child drew back in alarm, but the needlewoman caught her by the arm.
"Don't think of escaping, for then you will come in for a double share."
Josefina seized her hand, weeping bitterly.
"Don't beat me, for God's sake, Concha! You know my godmother beat me yesterday. Look, look at my hands. My head also hurts me. The ground was so hard. I love you very much. I have never blamed you to godmother."
"Silence! silence!" returned the sempstress, trying to disengage herself gently from the little hands. "There is nothing to be done but obedience. The senora gives the order."
"No, por Dios! Concha, no, por Dios!" replied the little creature between her sobs. "I love you very much, and godmother too. If you don't beat me I will give you my box of sheep."
"Really?" said Concha, mollified.
"Yes; now, directly, if you like."
"And your housewife?"
"And the little cupboard with the mirror?"
"Yes, the little cupboard too."
Concha gave signs of giving in. The child looked at her with anxious eyes.
"And you promise always to be good?"
"Yes, I promise always to be good."
"Never to run away again."
"Very well," she said, in an affectionate, condescending tone; "then if you promise to be good, and you don't tell the senora, and you give me all that you say, then—then—go on child!"
And in one instant she pulled her clothes off and began to beat her unmercifully, laughing like a mad woman with delight.
The screams of the child reached the second floor. The wife of the Grandee was standing before the glass arranging her hair. She stopped. A singular shiver ran through her, a certain indefinable, vague emotion like a tickling sensation that one can't with certainty term pleasant or unpleasant. Anyhow it was something that modified that insufferable fever that the frenzy of rage had raised in her heart. She stood motionless until the cries had ceased. Her eyes shone, her pulse beat higher.
It is thus they say that the heart of a wild beast beats at the sight of its victim. It was the commencement of the child's martyrdom. Under the weakest pretexts she inflicted the cruellest punishments, giving evidence of an imagination so fertile that it would have delighted the executioners of the Holy office. Not only did she strike her for the most innocent offences and pinch her and bite her, but she delighted in keeping her in continual dread of dreadful punishments, and so making her suffer day and night. She made her go barefooted into the garden on the coldest mornings to fetch her a flower, or she kept her whole hours with her head in the sun to keep the birds from picking at a currant bush. She made her sleep on the ground by the side of her bed, when she sent her several times down into the kitchen for water. She reduced her to eating food she knew she did not like, and deprived her of what she knew she liked.