Renovales walked excitedly around the portrait. Sometimes this laborer's work was tolerable, when he was painting beautiful women and men whose faces had the light of intelligence. But the vulgar politicians, the rich men that looked like porters, the stout dames with dead faces that he had to paint! When he let his love for truth overcome him and copied the model as he saw it, he won another enemy, who paid the bill grumblingly and went away to tell everyone that Renovales was not so great as people thought. To avoid this he lied in his painting, having recourse to the methods employed by other mediocre artists and this base procedure tormented his conscience, as if he were robbing his inferiors who deserved respect for the very reason that they were less endowed for artistic production than he.
"Besides, that is not painting, the whole of painting. We think we are artists because we can reproduce a face, and the face is only a part of the body. We tremble with fear at the thought of the nude. We have forgotten it. We speak of it with respect and fear, as we would of something religious, worthy of worship, but something we never see close at hand. A large part of our talent is the talent of a dry-goods clerk. Cloth, nothing but cloth; garments. The body must be carefully wrapped up or we flee from it as from a danger."
He ceased his nervous walking to and fro and stopped in front of the picture, fixing his gaze on it.
"Imagine, Pepe," he said in an undertone, looking first instinctively toward the door, with that eternal fear of being heard by his wife in the midst of his artistic raptures. "Imagine, if that woman would undress; if I could paint her as she certainly is."
Cotoner burst into laughter with a look like a knavish friar.
"Wonderful, Mariano, a masterpiece. But she won't. I'm sure she would refuse to undress, though I admit she isn't always particular."
Renovales shook his fists in protest.
"And why won't they? What a rut! What vulgarity!"
In his artistic selfishness he fancied that the world had been created without any other purpose than supporting painters, the rest of humanity was made to serve them as models, and he was shocked at this incomprehensible modesty. Ah, where could they find now the beauties of Greece, the calm models of sculptors, the pale Venetian ladies painted by Titian, the graceful Flemish women of Rubens, and the dainty, sprightly beauties of Goya? Beauty was eclipsed forever behind the veils of hypocrisy and false modesty. Women had one lover to-day, another to-morrow and still they blushed at recalling the woman of other times, far more pure than they, who did not hesitate to reveal to the public admiration the perfect work of God, the chastity of the nude.
Renovales lay down on the divan again, and in the twilight he talked confidentially with Cotoner in a subdued voice, sometimes looking toward the door as if he feared being overheard.
For some time he had been dreaming of a masterpiece. He had it in his imagination complete even to the least details. He saw it, closing his eyes, just at it would be, if he ever succeeded in painting it. It was Phryne, the famous beauty of Athens, appearing naked before the crowd of pilgrims on the beach of Delphi. All the suffering humanity of Greece walked on the shore of the sea toward the famous temple, seeking divine intervention for the relief of their ills, cripples with distorted limbs, repulsive lepers, men swollen with dropsy, pale, suffering women, trembling old men, youths disfigured in hideous expressions, withered arms like bare bones, shapeless elephant legs, all the phases of a perverted Nature, the piteous, desperate expressions of human pain. When they see on the beach Phryne, the glory of Greece, whose beauty was a national pride, the pilgrims stop and gaze upon her, turning their backs to the temple, that outlines its marble columns in the background of the parched mountains; and the beautiful woman, filled with pity by this procession of suffering, desires to brighten their sadness, to cast a handful of health and beauty among their wretched furrows, and tears off her veils, giving them the royal alms of her nakedness. The white, radiant body is outlined on the dark blue of the sea. The wind scatters her hair like golden serpents on her ivory shoulders; the waves that die at her feet, toss upon her stars of foam that make her skin tremble with the caress from her amber neck down to her rosy feet. The wet sand, polished and bright as a mirror, reproduces the sovereign nakedness, inverted and confused in serpentine lines that take on the shimmer of the rainbow as they disappear. And the pilgrims, on their knees, in the ecstasy of worship, stretch out their arms toward the mortal goddess, believing that Beauty and eternal Health have come to meet them.
Renovales sat up and grasped Cotoner's arm as he described his future picture, and his friend nodded his approval gravely, impressed by the description.
"Very fine! Sublime, Mariano!"
But the master became dejected again after this flash of enthusiasm.
The task was very difficult. He would have to go and take up quarters on the shore of the Mediterranean, on some secluded beach at Valencia or in Catalonia; he would have to build a cabin on the very edge of the sand where the water breaks with its bright reflections, and take woman after woman there, a hundred if it was necessary, in order to study the whiteness of their skin against the blue of the sea and sky, until he found the divine body of the Phryne he had dreamed.
"Very difficult," murmured Renovales. "I tell you it is very difficult. There are so many obstacles to struggle against."
Cotoner leaned forward with a confidential expression.
"And besides, there's the mistress," he said in a quiet voice, looking at the door with a sort of fear. "I don't believe Josephina would be very much pleased with this picture and its pack of models."
The master lowered his head.
"If you only knew, Pepe! If you could see the life I lead every day!"
"I know what it is," Cotoner hastened to say, "or rather, I can imagine. Don't tell me anything."
And in his haste to avoid the sad confidences of his friend, there was a great deal of selfishness, the desire not to disturb his peaceful calm with other men's sorrows that excite only a distant interest.
Renovales spoke after a long silence. He often wondered whether an artist ought to be married or single. Other men, of weak, hesitating character needed the support of a comrade, the atmosphere of a family.
He recalled with relish the first few months of his married life; but since then it had weighed on him like a chain. He did not deny the existence of love; he needed the sweet company of a woman in order to live, but with intermissions, without the endless imprisonment of common life. Artists like himself ought to be free, he was sure of it.
"Oh, Pepe, if I had only stayed like you, master of my time and my work, without having to think what my family will say if they see me painting this or that, what great things I should have done!"
The old man, who had failed in all his tasks, was going to say something when the door of the studio opened and Renovales' servant came in, a little man with fat red cheeks and a high voice which, according to Cotoner, sounded like the messenger of a monastery.
Cotoner jumped out of his armchair. Those models didn't like to see people in the studio. How could he get out? Renovales helped him to find his hat, coat and cane, which with his usual carelessness he had left in different corners of the studio.
The master pushed him out of a door that led into the garden. Then, when he was alone, he ran to an old Venetian mirror, and looked at himself for a moment in its deep, bluish surface, smoothing his curly gray hair with his fingers.
She came in with a great rustling of silks and laces, her least step accompanied by the frou-frou of her skirts, scattering various perfumes, like the breath of an exotic garden.
"Good afternoon, mon cher maitre."
As she looked at him through her tortoise-shell lorgnette, hanging from a gold chain, the gray amber of her eyes took on an insolent stare through the glasses, a strange expression, half caressing, half mocking.
He must pardon her for being so late. She was sorry for her lack of attention, but she was the busiest woman in Madrid. The things she had done since luncheon! Signing and examining papers with the secretary of the "Women's League," a conference with the carpenter and the foreman (two rough fellows who fairly devoured her with their eyes), who had charge of putting up the booths for the great fair for the benefit of destitute working women; a call on the president of the Cabinet, a somewhat dissolute old gentleman, in spite of his gravity, who received her with the airs of an old-fashioned gallant, kissing her hand, as they used to in a minuet.
"We have lost the afternoon, haven't we, maitre? There's hardly sun enough to work by now. Besides, I didn't bring my maid to help me."
She pointed with her lorgnette to the door of an alcove that served as a dressing-room for the models and where she kept the evening gown and the flame-colored cloak in which he was painting her.
Renovales, after looking furtively at the entrance of the studio, assumed an arrogant air of swaggering gallantry, such as he used to have in his youth in Rome, free and obstreperous.
"You needn't give up on that account. If you will let me, I'll act as maid for you."
The countess began to laugh loudly, throwing back her head and shoulders, showing her white throat that shook with merriment.
"Oh, what a good joke! And how daring the master is getting. You don't know anything about such things, Renovales. All you can do is paint. You are not in practice."
And in her accent of subtle irony, there was something like pity for the artist, removed from mundane things, whose conjugal virtue everyone knew. This seemed to offend him for he spoke to the countess very sharply as he picked up the palette and prepared the colors. There was no need of changing her dress; he would make use of what little daylight remained to work on the head.
Concha took off her hat and then, before the same Venetian mirror in which the painter had looked at himself, began to touch up her hair. Her arms curved around her golden head, while Renovales contemplated the grace of her back, seeing at the same time her face and breast in the glass. She hummed as she arranged her hair, with her eyes fixed on their own reflection, not letting anything distract her in this important operation.
That brilliant, striking golden hair was probably bleached. The painter was sure of it, but it did not seem less beautiful to him on that account. The beauties of Venice in the olden times used to dye their hair.
The countess sat down in an armchair, a short distance from the easel. She felt tired and as long as he was not going to paint anything but her face, he would not be so cruel as to make her stand, as he did on days of real sittings. Renovales answered with monosyllables and shrugs of his shoulders. That was all right—for what they were going to do. An afternoon lost. He would limit himself to working on her hair and her forehead. She might take it easy, looking anywhere she wanted to.
The master did not feel any desire to work either. A dull anger disturbed him; he was irritated by the ironical accent of the countess who saw in him a man different from other men, a strange being who was incapable of acting like the insipid young men who formed her court and many of whom, according to common gossip, were her lovers. A strange woman, provoking and cold! He felt like falling on her, in his rage at her offence, and beating her with the same scorn that he would a low woman, to make her feel his manly superiority.
Of all the ladies whose pictures he had painted, none had disturbed his artistic calm as she had. He felt attracted by her mad jesting, by her almost childish levity, and at the same time he hated her for the pitying air with which she treated him. For her he was a good fellow, but very commonplace, who by some rare caprice of Nature possessed the gift of painting well.
Renovales returned this scorn by insulting her mentally. That Countess of Alberca was a fine one. No wonder people talked about her. Perhaps when she appeared in his studio, always in a hurry and out of breath, she came from a private interview with some one of those young bloods that hung around her, attracted by her still fresh, alluring maturity.
But if Concha spoke to him with her easy freedom, telling him of the sadness she said she felt and allowing herself to confide in him, as if they were united by a long standing friendship, that was enough to make the master change his thoughts immediately. She was a superior woman of ideals, condemned to live in a depressing aristocratic atmosphere. All the gossip about her was a calumny, a lie forged by envious people. She ought to be the companion of a superior man, of an artist.
Renovales knew her history; he was proud of the friendly confidence she had had in him. She was the only daughter of a distinguished gentleman, a solemn jurist, and a violent Conservative, a minister in the most reactionary cabinets of the reign of Isabel II. She had been educated at the same school as Josephina, who in spite of the fact that Concha was four years her senior, retained a vivid recollection of her lively companion. "For mischief and deviltry you can't beat Conchita Salazar." It was thus that Renovales heard her name for the first time. Then when the artist and his wife had moved from Venice to Madrid, he learned that she had changed her name to that of the Countess of Alberca by marrying a man who might have been her father.
He was an old courtier who performed his duties as a grandee of Spain with great conscientiousness, proud of his slavery to the royal family. His ambition was to belong to all the honorable orders of Europe and as soon as he was named to one of them, he had his picture painted, covered with scarfs and crosses, wearing the uniform of one of the traditional military Orders. His wife laughed to see him, so little, bald and solemn, with high boots, a dangling sword, his breast covered with trinkets, a white plumed helmet resting in his lap.
During the life of isolation and privation with which Renovales struggled so courageously, the papers brought to the artist's wretched house the echoes of the triumphs of the "fair Countess of Alberca." Her name appeared in the first line of every account of an aristocratic function. Besides, they called her "enlightened," and talked about her literary culture, her classic education which she owed to her "illustrious father," now dead. And with this public news there reached the artist on the whispering wings of Madrid gossip other tales that represented the Countess of Alberca as consoling herself merrily for the mistake she had made in marrying an old man.
At Court, they had taken her name from the lists, as a result of this reputation. Her husband took part at all the royal functions, for he did not have a chance every day to show off his load of honorary hardware, but she stayed at home, loathing these ceremonious affairs. Renovales had often heard her declare, dressed luxuriously and wearing costly jewels in her ears and on her breast, that she laughed at his set, that she was on the inside, she was an anarchist! And he laughed as he heard her, just as all men laughed at what they called the "ways" of the Alberca woman.
When Renovales won success and, as a famous master, returned to those drawing rooms through which he had passed in his youth, he felt the attraction of the countess who in her character as a "woman of intellect," insisted on gathering celebrated men about her. Josephina did not accompany him in this return to society. She felt ill; contact with the same people in the same places tired her; she lacked the strength to undertake even the trips her doctors urged upon her.
The countess enrolled the painter in her following, appearing offended when he failed to present himself at her house on the afternoons on which she received her friends. What ingratitude to show to such a fervent admirer! How she liked to exhibit him before her friends, as if he were a new jewel! "The painter Renovales, the famous master."
At one of these afternoon receptions, the count spoke to Renovales with the serious air of a man who is crushed beneath his worldly honors.
"Concha wants a portrait done by you, and I like to please her in every way. You can say when to begin. She is afraid to propose it to you and has commissioned me to do it. I know that your work is better than that of other painters. Paint her well, so that she may be pleased."
And noticing that Renovales seemed rather offended at his patronizing familiarity, he added as if he were doing him another favor.
"If you have success with Concha, you may paint my picture afterward. I am only waiting for the Grand Chrysanthemum of Japan. At the Government offices they tell me the titles will come one of these days."
Renovales began the countess's portrait. The task was prolonged by that rattle-brained woman who always came late, alleging that she had been busy. Many days the artist did not take a stroke with his brush; they spent the time chatting. At other times the master listened in silence while she with her ceaseless volubility made fun of her friends and related their secret defects, their most intimate habits, their mysterious amours, with a kind of relish, as if all women were her enemies. In the midst of one of these confidential talks, she stopped and said with a shy expression and an ironical accent:
"But I am probably shocking you, Mariano. You, who are a good husband, a staunch family-man."
Renovales felt tempted to choke her. She was making fun of him; she looked on him as a man different from the rest of men, a sort of monk of painting. Eager to wound her, to return the blow, he interrupted once brutally in the midst of her merciless gossip.
"Well, they talk about you, too, Concha. They say things that wouldn't be very pleasing to the count."
He expected an outburst of anger, a protest, and all that resounded in the silence of the studio was a merry, reckless laugh that lasted a long time, stopping occasionally, only to begin again. Then she grew pensive, with the gentle sadness of women who are "misunderstood." She was very unhappy. She could tell him everything because he was a good friend. She had married when she was still a child; a terrible mistake. There was something else in the world besides the glare of fortune, the splendor of luxury and that count's coronet, which had stirred her school-girl's mind.
"We have the right to a little love, and if not love, to a little joy. Don't you think so, Mariano?"
Of course he thought so. And he declared it in such a way, looking at Concha with alarming eyes, that she finally laughed at his frankness and threatened him with her finger.
"Take care, master. Don't forget that Josephina is my friend and if you go astray, I'll tell her everything."
Renovales was irritated at her disposition, always restless and capricious as a bird's, quite as likely to sit down beside him in warm intimacy as to flit away with tormenting banter.
Sometimes she was aggressive, teasing the artist from her very first words, as had just happened that afternoon.
They were silent for a long time—he, painting with an absent-minded air, she watching the movement of the brush, buried in an armchair in the sweet calm of rest.
But the Alberca woman was incapable of remaining silent long. Little by little her usual chatter began, paying no attention to the painter's silence, talking to relieve the convent-like stillness of the studio with her words and laughter.
The painter heard the story of her labors as president of the "Women's League," of the great things she meant to do in the holy undertaking for the emancipation of the sex. And, in passing, led on by her desire of ridiculing all women, she gaily made sport of her co-workers in the great project; unknown literary women, school teachers, whose lives were embittered by their ugliness, painters of flowers and doves, a throng of poor women with extravagant hats and clothes that looked as though they were hung on a bean-pole; feminine Bohemians, rebellious and rabid against their lot, who were proud to have her as their leader and who made it a point to call her "Countess" in sonorous tones at every other word, in order to flatter themselves with the distinction of this friendship. The Alberca woman was greatly amused at her following of admirers; she laughed at their intolerance and their proposals.
"Yes, I know what it is," said Renovales breaking his long silence. "You want to annihilate us, to reign over man, whom you hate."
The countess laughed at the recollection of the fierce feminism of some of her acolytes. As most of them were homely, they hated feminine beauty as a sign of weakness. They wanted the woman of the future to be without hips, without breasts, straight, bony, muscular, fitted for all sorts of manual labor, free from the slavery of love and reproduction. "Down with feminine fat!"
"What a frightful idea! Don't you think so, Mariano?" she continued. "Woman, straight in front and straight behind, with her hair cut short and her hands hardened, competing with men in all sorts of struggles! And they call that emancipation! I know what men are; if they saw us looking like that, in a few days they would be beating us."
No, she was not one of them. She wanted to see a woman triumph, but by increasing still more her charm and her fascination. If they took away her beauty what would she have left? She wanted her to be man's equal in intelligence, his superior by the magic of her beauty.
"I don't hate men, Mariano, I am very much a woman, and I like them. What's the use of denying it?"
"I know it, Concha, I know it," said the painter, with a malicious meaning.
"What do you know? Lies, gossip that people tell about me because I am not a hypocrite and am not always wearing a gloomy expression."
And led on by that desire for sympathy that all women of questionable reputation experience, she spoke once more of her unpleasant situation. Renovales knew the count, a good man in spite of his hobbies, who thought of nothing but his honorary trinkets. She did everything for him, watched out for his comfort, but he was nothing to her. She lacked the most important thing—heart-love.
As she spoke she looked up, with a longing idealism that would have made anyone but Renovales smile.
"In this situation," she said slowly, looking into space, "it isn't strange that a woman seeks happiness where she can find it. But I am very unhappy, Mariano; I don't know what love is. I have never loved."
Ah, she would have been happy, if she had married a man who was her superior. To be the companion of a great artist, of a scholar, would have meant happiness for her. The men who gathered around her in her drawing-rooms were younger and stronger than the poor count, but mentally they were even weaker than he. There was no such thing as virtue in the world, she admitted that; she did not dare to lie to a friend like the painter. She had had her diversions, her whims, just as many other women who passed as impregnable models of virtue, but she always came out of these misdoings with a feeling of disenchantment and disgust. She knew that love was a reality for other women, but she had never succeeded in finding it.
Renovales had stopped painting. The sunlight no longer came in through the wide window. The panes took on a violet opaqueness. Twilight filled the studio, and in the shadows there shone dimly like dying sparks, here the corner of a picture frame, beyond the old gold of an embroidered banner, in the corners the pummel of a sword, the pearl inlay of a cabinet.
The painter sat down beside the countess, sinking into the perfumed atmosphere which surrounded her with a sort of nimbus of keen voluptuousness.
He, too, was unhappy. He said it sincerely, believing honestly in the lady's melancholy despair. Something was lacking in his life; he was alone in the world. And as he saw an expression of surprise on Concha's face, he pounded his chest energetically.
Yes, alone. He knew what she was going to say. He had his wife, his daughter. About Milita he did not want to talk; he worshiped her; she was his joy. When he felt tired out with work, it gave him a sweet sense of rest to put his arms around her neck. But he was still too young to be satisfied with this joy of a father's love. He longed for something more and he could not find it in the companion of his life, always ill, with her nerves constantly on edge. Besides, she did not understand him. She never would understand him; she was a burden who was crushing his talent.
Their union was based merely on friendship, on mutual consideration for the suffering they had undergone together. He, too, had been deceived in taking for love what was only an impulse of youthful attraction. He needed a true passion; to live close to a soul that was akin to his, to love a woman who was his superior, who could understand him and encourage him in his bold projects, who could sacrifice her commonplace prejudices to the demands of art.
He spoke vehemently, with his eyes fixed on Concha's eyes that shone with light from the window.
But Renovales was interrupted by a cruel, ironical laugh, while the countess pushed back her chair, as if to avoid the artist who slowly leaned forward toward her.
"Look out, you're slipping, Mariano! I see it coming. A little more and you would have made me a confession. Heavens! These men! You can't talk to them like a good friend, show them any confidence without their beginning to talk love on the spot. If I would let you, in less than a minute you would tell me that I am your ideal, that you worship me."
Renovales, who had moved away from her, recovering his sternness, felt cut by that mocking laugh and said in a quiet tone:
"And what if it were true? What if I loved you?"
The laugh of the countess rang out again, but forced, false, with a tone that seemed to tear the artist's breast.
"Just what I expected! The confession I spoke of! That's the third one I've received to-day. But isn't it possible to talk with a man of anything but love?"
She was already on her feet, looking around for her hat, for she could not remember where she had left it.
"I'm going, cher maitre. It isn't safe to stay here. I'll try to come earlier next time so that the twilight won't catch us. It's a treacherous hour; the moment of the greatest follies."
The painter objected to her leaving. Her carriage had not yet come. She could wait a few minutes longer. He promised to be quiet, not to talk to her, as long as it seemed to displease her.
The countess remained, but she would not sit down in the chair. She walked around the studio for a few moments and finally opened the organ that stood near the window.
"Let's have a little music; that will quiet us. You, Mariano, sit still as a mouse in your chair and don't come near me. Be a good boy now."
Her fingers rested on the keys; her feet moved the pedals and the Largo of Handel, grave, mystic, dreamy, swelled softly through the studio. The melody filled the wide room, already wrapped in shadows, it made its way through the tapestries, prolonging its winged whisper through the other two studios, as though it were the song of an organ played by invisible hands in a deserted cathedral at the mysterious hour of dusk.
Concha felt stirred with feminine sentimentality, that superficial, whimsical, sensitiveness that made her friends look on her as a great artist. The music filled her with tenderness; she strove to keep back the tears that came to her eyes,—why, she could not tell.
Suddenly she stopped playing and looked around anxiously. The painter was behind her, she fancied she felt his breath on her neck. She wanted to protest, to make him draw back with one of her cruel laughs, but she could not.
"Mariano," she murmured, "go sit down, be a good boy and mind me. If you don't I'll be cross."
But she did not move; after turning half way around on the stool, she remained facing the window with one elbow resting on the keys.
They were silent for a long time; she in this position, he watching her face that now was only a white spot in the deepening shadow.
The panes of the window took on a bluish opaqueness. The branches of the garden cut them like sinuous, shifting lines of ink. In the deep calm of the studio the creaking of the furniture could be heard, that breathing of wood, of dust, of objects in the silence and shadow.
Both of them seem to be captivated by the mystery of the hour, as if the death of day acted as an anaesthetic on their minds. They felt lulled in a vague, sweet dream.
She trembled with pleasure.
"Mariano, go away," she said slowly, as if it cost her an effort. "This is so pleasant, I feel as if I were in a bath, a bath that penetrates to my very soul. But it isn't right. Turn on the lights, master. Light! Light! This isn't proper."
Mariano did not listen to her. He had bent over her, taking her hand that was cold, unfeeling, as if it did not notice the pressure of his.
Then, with a sudden start, he kissed it, almost bit it.
The countess seemed to awake and stood up, proudly, angrily.
"That's childish, Mariano. It isn't fair."
But in a moment she laughed with her cruel laugh, as if she pitied the confusion that Renovales showed when he saw her anger. "You are pardoned, master. A kiss on the hand means nothing. It is the conventional thing. Many men kiss my hand."
And this indifference was a bitter torment for the artist, who considered that his kiss was a sign of possession.
The countess continued to search in the darkness, repeating in an irritated voice:
"Light, turn on the light. Where in the world is the button?"
The light was turned on without Mariano's moving, before she found the button she was looking for. Three clusters of electric lights flashed out on the ceiling of the studio, and their crowns of white needles, brought out of the shadows the golden picture frames, the brilliant tapestries, the shining arms, the showy furniture and the bright-colored paintings.
They both blinked, blinded by the sudden brightness.
"Good evening," said a honeyed voice from the doorway.
The countess ran toward her, embracing her effusively, kissing her bright red, emaciated cheeks.
"How dark you were," continued Josephina with a smile that Renovales knew well.
Concha fairly stunned her with her flow of chatter. The illustrious master had refused to light up, he liked the twilight. An artist's whim! They had been talking about their dear Josephina, while she was waiting for her carriage to come. And as she said this, she kept kissing the little woman, drawing back a little to look at her better, repeating impetuously:
"My, how pretty you are to-day. You look better than you did three days ago."
Josephina continued to smile. She thanked her. Her carriage was waiting at the door. The servant had told her when she came downstairs, attracted by the distant sound of the organ.
The countess seemed to be in a hurry to leave. She suddenly remembered a host of things she had to do, she enumerated the people who were waiting for her at home. Josephina helped her to put on her hat and veil and even then the countess gave her several good-by kisses through the veil.
"Good-by, ma chere. Good-by, mignonne. Do you remember our school days? How happy we were there! Good-by, maitre."
She stopped at the door to kiss Josephina once more.
And finally, before she disappeared, she exclaimed in the querulous tone of a victim who wants sympathy:
"I envy you, cherie. You, at least, are happy. You have found a husband who worships you. Master, take lots of care of her. Be good to her so that she may get well and pretty. Take care of her or we shall quarrel."
Renovales had finished reading the evening papers in bed as was his custom, and before putting out the light he looked at his wife.
She was awake. Above the fold of the sheet he saw her eyes, unusually wide open, fixed on him with a hostile stare, and the little tails of her hair, that stuck out under the lace of her night-cap straight and sedate.
"Aren't you asleep?" the painter asked in an affectionate tone, in which there was some anxiety.
And after this hard monosyllable, she turned over in the bed with her back to him.
Renovales remained in the darkness, with his eyes open, somewhat disturbed, almost afraid of that body, hidden under the same sheet, lying a short distance from him, which avoided touching him, shrinking with manifest repulsion.
Poor little girl! Renovales' better nature felt tormented with a painful remorse. His conscience was a cruel beast that had awakened, angry and implacable, tearing him with scornful teeth. The events of the afternoon meant nothing, a moment of thoughtlessness, of weakness. Surely the countess would not remember it and he, for his part, was determined not to slip again.
A pretty situation for a father of a family, for a man whose youth was past, compromising himself in a love affair, getting melancholy in the twilight, kissing a white hand like an enamored troubadour! Good God! How his friends would have laughed to see him in that posture! He must purge himself of that romanticism which sometimes mastered him. Every man must follow his fate, accepting life as he found it. He was born to be virtuous, he must put up with the relative peace of his domestic life, must accept its limited pleasures as a compensation for the suffering his wife's illness caused him. He would be content with the feasts of his thought, with the revels in beauty at the banquets served by his fancy. He would keep his flesh faithful though it amounted to perpetual privation. Poor Josephina! His remorse at a moment of weakness which he considered a crime, impelled him to draw closer to her, as if he sought in her warmth and contact a mute forgiveness.
Her body, burning with a slow fever, drew away as it felt his touch, it shriveled like those timid molluscs that shrink and hide at the least touch. She was awake. He could not hear her breathing; she seemed dead in the profound darkness, but he fancied her with her eyes open, a scowl on her forehead and he felt the fear of a man who has a presentiment of danger in the mystery of the darkness.
Renovales too remained motionless, taking care not to touch again that form which silently repelled him. The sincerity of his repentance brought him a sort of consolation. Never again would he forget his wife, his daughter, his respectability.
He would give up forever the longings of youth, that recklessness, that thirst for enjoying all the pleasures of life. His lot was cast; he would continue to be what he always had been. He would paint portraits and everything that was given to him as a commission; he would please the public; he would make more money, he would adapt his art to meet his wife's jealous demands, that she might live in peace; he would scoff at that phantom of human ambition which men call glory. Glory! A lottery, where the only chance for a prize depended on the tastes of people still to be born! Who knew what the artistic inclinations of the future would be? Perhaps it would appreciate what he was now producing with such loathing; perhaps it would laugh scornfully at what he wanted to paint. The only thing of importance was to live in peace, as long as he could be surrounded by happiness. His daughter would marry. Perhaps her husband would be his favorite pupil, that Soldevilla, so polite, so courteous, who was mad over the mischievous Milita. If it was not he, it would be Lopez de Sosa, a crazy fellow, in love with his automobiles, who pleased Josephina more than the pupil because he had not committed the sin of showing talent and devoting himself to painting. He would have grandchildren, his beard would grow white, he would have the majesty of an Eternal Father and Josephina, cared for by him, restored to health by an atmosphere of affection, would grow old too, freed from her nervous troubles.
The painter felt allured by this picture of patriarchal happiness. He would go out of the world without having tasted the best fruits which life offers, but still with the peace of a soul that does not know the great heat of passion.
Lulled by these illusions, the artist was sinking into sleep. He saw in the darkness, the image of his calm old age, with rosy wrinkles and silvery hair, at his side a sprightly little old lady, healthy and attractive, with wavy hair, and around them a group of children, many children, some of them with their fingers in their noses, others rolling on their backs on the floor, like playful kittens, the older ones with pencils in their hands, making caricatures of the old couple and all shouting in a chorus of loving cries: "Grandpa, dear! Pretty grandma!"
In his sleepy fancy, the picture grew indistinct and was blotted out. He no longer saw the figures, but the loving cry continued to sound in his ears, dying away in the distance.
Then it began to increase again, drew slowly nearer, but it was a complaint, a howl like that of the victim that feels the sacrificer's knife at its throat.
The artist, terrified by this moan, thought that some dark animal, some monster of the night was tossing beside him, brushing him with its tentacles, pushing him with the bony points of its joints.
He awoke and with his brain still cloudy with sleep, the first sensation he experienced was a tremble of fear and surprise, reaching from his head to his feet. The invisible monster was beside him, dying, kicking violently, sticking him with its angular body. The howl tore the darkness like a death rattle.
Renovales, aroused by his fear, awoke completely. That cry came from Josephina. His wife was tossing about in the bed, shrieking while she gasped for breath.
The electric button snapped and the white, hard light of the lamp showed the little woman in the disorder of her nervous outbreak; her weak limbs painfully convulsed, her eyes, staring, dull with an uncanny vacancy; her mouth contracted, dripping with foam.
The husband, dazed at this awakening, tried to take her in his arms, to hold her gently against him, as if his warmth might restore her calm.
"Let me—alone," she cried brokenly. "Let go of me. I hate you!"
And though she asked him to let go of her, she was the one who clung to him, digging her fingers into his throat, as if she wanted to strangle him. Renovates, insensible to this clutch which made little impression on his strong neck, murmured with sad kindness:
"Squeeze! Don't be afraid of hurting me. Relieve your feelings!"
Her hands, tired out with this useless pressure on that muscular flesh, relaxed their grasp with a sort of dejection. The outbreak lasted for some time, but tears came and she lay exhausted, inert, without any other signs of life than the heaving of her breast and a constant stream of tears.
Renovales had jumped out of bed, moving about the room in his night clothing, searching on all sides, without knowing what he was looking for, murmuring loving words to calm his wife.
She stopped crying, struggling to enunciate each syllable between her sobs. She spoke with her head buried in her arms. The painter stopped to listen to her, astounded at the coarse words that came from her lips, as if the grief that stirred her soul had set afloat all the shameful, filthy words she had heard in the streets that were hidden in the depth of her memory.
"The ——!" (And here she uttered the classic word, naturally, as if she had spoken thus all her life.) "The shameless woman! The ——!"
And she continued to volley a string of interjections which shocked her husband to hear them coming from those lips.
"But whom are you talking about? Who is it?"
She, as if she were only waiting for his question, sat up in bed, got onto her knees, looking at him fixedly, shaking her head on her delicate neck, so that the short, straight locks of hair whirled around it.
"Whom do you suppose? The Alberca woman. That peacock! Look surprised! You don't know what I mean! Poor thing!"
Renovales expected this, but when he heard it, he assumed an injured expression, fortified by his determination to reform and by the certainty that he was telling the truth. He raised his hand to his heart in a tragic attitude, throwing back his shock of hair, not noticing the absurdity of his appearance that was reflected in the bedroom mirror.
"Josephina, I swear by all that I love most in the world that your suspicions are not true. I have had nothing to do with Concha. I swear it by our daughter!"
The little woman became more irritated.
"Don't swear, don't lie, don't name my daughter. You deceiver! You hypocrite! You are all alike!"
Did he think she was a fool? She knew everything that was going on around her. He was a rake, a false husband, she had discovered it a few months after their marriage; a Bohemian without any other education than the low associations of his class. And the woman was as bad; the worst in Madrid. There was a reason why people laughed at the count everywhere. Mariano and Concha understood each other; birds of a feather; they made fun of her in her own house, in the dark of the studio.
"She is your mistress," she said with cold anger. "Come now, admit it. Repeat all those shameless things about the rights of love and joy that you talk about to your friends in the studio, those infamous hypocrisies to justify your scorn for the family, for marriage, for everything. Have the courage of your convictions."
But Renovales, overwhelmed by this fierce outpouring of words that fell on him like a rain of blows, could only repeat, with his hand on his heart and the expression of noble resignation of a man who suffers an injustice:
"I am innocent. I swear it. Your suspicions are absolutely groundless."
And walking around to the other side of the bed, he tried again to take Josephina in his arms, thinking he could calm her, now that she seemed less furious and that her angry words were broken by tears.
It was a useless effort. The delicate form slipped out of his hands, repelling them with a feeling of horror and repugnance.
"Let me alone. Don't touch me. I loathe you."
Her husband was mistaken if he thought that she was Concha's enemy. Pshaw! She knew what women were. She even admitted (since he was so insistent in his protestations of innocence) that there was nothing between them. But if so, it was due solely to Concha—she had plenty of admirers and, besides, her old time friendship would impel her not to embitter Josephina's life. Concha was the one who had resisted and not he.
"I know you. You know that I can guess your thoughts, that I read in your face. You are faithful because you are a coward, because you have lacked an opportunity. But your mind is loaded with foul ideas; I detest your spirit."
And before he could protest, his wife attacked him; anew, pouring out in one breath all the observations she had made, weighing his words and deeds with the subtlety of a diseased imagination.
She threw in his face the expression of rapture in his eyes when he saw beautiful women sit down before his easel to have their portraits painted; his praise of the throat of one, the shoulders of another; the almost religious unction with which he examined the photographs and engravings of naked beauties, painted by other artists whom he would like to imitate in his licentious impulses.
"If I should leave you! If I should disappear! Your studio would be a brothel, no decent person could enter it; you would always have some woman stripped in there, painting some disgraceful picture of her."
And in the tremble of her irritated voice there was revealed the anger, the bitter disappointment she had experienced in the constant contact with this cult of beauty, that paid no attention to her, who was aged before her time, sickly, with the ugliness of physical misery, whom each one of these enthusiastic homages wounded like a reproach, marking the abyss between her sad condition and the ideal that filled the mind of her husband.
"Do you think I don't know what you are thinking about. I laugh at your fidelity. A lie! Hypocrisy! As you get older, a mad desire is mastering you. If you could, if you had the courage, you would run after these creatures of beautiful flesh that you praise so highly. You are commonplace. There's nothing in you but coarseness and materialism. Form! Flesh! And they call that artistic? I'd have done better to marry a shoemaker, one of those honest, simple men that takes his poor little wife to dinner in a restaurant on Sunday and worships her, not knowing any other."
Renovales began to feel irritated at this attack that was no longer based on his actions but on his thoughts. That was worse than the Inquisition. She had spied on him constantly; always on the watch, she picked up his least words and expressions, she penetrated his thoughts, making his inclinations and enthusiasms a subject for jealousy.
"Stop, Josephina. That's despicable. I won't be able to think, to produce. You spy on me and pursue me even in my art."
She shrugged her shoulders scornfully. His art! She scoffed at it.
And she began again to insult painting, repenting that she had joined her lot to an artist's. Men like him ought not to marry respectable women, what people call "homebodies." Their fate was to remain single or to join with unscrupulous women who were in love with their own form and were capable of exhibiting it in the street, taking pride in their nakedness.
"I used to love you; did you know it?" she said coldly. "I used to love you, but I no longer love you. What's the use? I know that even if you swore to me on your knees, you would never be faithful to me. You might be tied to my apron strings but your thoughts would go wandering off to caress those beauties you worship. You've got a perfect harem in your head. I think I am living alone with you and when I look at you, the house is peopled with women that surround me, that fill everything and mock at me; all fair, like children of the devil all naked, like temptations. Let me alone, Mariano, don't come near me. I don't want to see you. Put out the light."
And seeing that the artist did not obey her command, she pressed the button herself. The cracking of her bones could be heard as she wrapped herself up in the bed-clothes.
Renovales was left in utter darkness, and feeling his way, he got into bed too. He no longer implored, he remained silent, angry. The tender compassion that made him put up with his wife's nervous attacks had disappeared. What more did she expect of him? How far was it going to go? He lived the life of a recluse, restraining his healthy passion, keeping a chaste fidelity out of habit and respect, seeking an outlet in the ardent vagaries of his fancy, and even that was a crime! With the acumen of a sick woman, she saw within him, divining his ideas, following their course, tearing off the veil behind which he concealed those feasts of fancy with which he passed his solitary hours. This persecution reached even his brain. He could not patiently endure the jealousy of that woman who was embittered by the loss of her youthful freshness.
She began her weeping again in the darkness. She sobbed convulsively, tossing the clothes with the heaving of her breast.
His anger made him insensible and hard.
"Groan, you poor wretch," he thought with a sort of relish. "Weep till you ruin yourself. I won't be the one to say a word."
Josephina, tired out by his silence, interjected words amid her sobs. People made fun of her. She was a constant laughing-stock. How his friends who hung on his words, and the ladies who visited him in his studio, laughed when they heard him enthusiastically praising beauty in the presence of his sickly, broken-down wife! What did she amount to in that house, that terrible pantheon, that home of sorrow? A poor housekeeper who watched out for the artist's comforts. And he thought that he was fulfilling his duty by not keeping a mistress, by staying at home, but still abusing her with his words that made her an object of derision. If her mother were only alive! If her brothers were not so selfish, wandering about the world from embassy to embassy, satisfied with life, paying no attention to her letters filled with complaints, thinking she was insane because she was not contented with a distinguished husband and with wealth!
Renovales, in the darkness, lifted his hands to his forehead in despair, infuriated at the sing-song of her unjust words.
"Her mother!" he thought. "It's lucky that intolerable old dame is under the sod forever. Her brothers! A crowd of rakes that are always asking me for something whenever they get a chance. Heavens! Give me the patience to stand this woman, the calm resignation to keep a cool head and not to forget that I am a man!"
He scorned her mentally in order to maintain his indifference in this way. Bah! A woman! and a sick one! Every man carries his cross and his was Josephina.
But she, as if she penetrated his thoughts, stopped crying and spoke to him slowly in a voice that shook with cruel irony.
"You need not expect anything from the Alberca woman," she said suddenly with feminine incoherence. "I warn you that she has worshipers by the dozen, young and stylish, too, something that counts more with women than talent."
"What difference does that make to me?" Renovales' voice roared in the darkness with an outbreak of wrath.
"I'm telling you, so that you won't fool yourself. Master, you are going to suffer a failure. You are very old, my good man, the years are going by. So old and so ugly that if you had looked the way you do when I met you, I should never have been your wife in spite of all your glory."
After this thrust, satisfied and calm, she seemed to go to sleep.
The master remained motionless, lying on his back with his head resting on his arms and his eyes wide open, seeing in the darkness a host of red spots that spread out in ceaseless rotation, forming floating, fiery rings. His wrath had set his nerves on edge; the final thrust made sleep impossible. He felt restless, wide-awake after this cruel shock to his pride. He thought that in his bed, close to him, he had his worst enemy. He hated that frail form that he could touch with the slightest movement, as if it contained the rancor of all the adversaries he had met in life.
Old! Contemptible! Inferior to those young bloods that swarmed around the Alberca woman; he, a man known all over Europe, and in whose presence all the young ladies that painted fans and water-colors of birds and flowers, grew pale with emotion, looking at him with worshiping eyes!
"I will soon show you, you poor woman," he thought, while a cruel laugh shook silently in the darkness. "You'll soon see whether glory means anything and people find me as old as you believe."
With boyish joy, he recalled the twilight scene, the kiss on the countess's hand, her gentle abandon, that mingling of resistance and pleasure which opened the way for him to go farther. He enjoyed these memories with a relish of vengeance.
Afterwards, his body, as he moved, touched Josephina, who seemed to be asleep, and he felt a sort of repugnance as if he had rubbed against a hostile creature.
She was his enemy; she had distorted and ruined his life as an artist, she had saddened his life as a man. Now he believed that he might have produced the most remarkable works, if he had not known that little woman who crushed him with her weight. Her silent censure, her prying eyes, that narrow, petty morality of a well-educated girl, blocked his course and made him turn out of his way. Her fits of temper, her nervous attacks, made him lose his bearings, belittling him, robbing him of his strength for work. Must he always live like this? The thought of the long years before him filled him with horror, the long road that life offered him, monotonous, dusty, rough, without a shadow or a resting place, a painful journey lacking enthusiasm and ardor, pulling at the chain of duty, at the end of which dragged the enemy, always fretful, always unjust, with the selfish cruelty of disease, spying on him with searching eyes in the hours when his mind was off its guard, while he slept, violating his secrecy, forcing his immobility, robbing him of his most intimate ideas, only to parade them before his eyes later with the insolence of a successful thief. And that was what his life was to be! God! No, it was better to die.
Then in the black recesses of his brain there rose, like a blue spark of infernal gleam, a thought, a desire, that made a chill of terror and surprise run over his body.
"If she would only die!"
Why not? Always ill, always sad, she seemed to darken his mind with the wings that beat ominously. He had a right to liberty, to break the chain, because he was the stronger. He had spent his life in the struggle for glory, and glory was a delusion, if it brought only cold respect from his fellows, if it could not be exchanged for something more positive. Many years of intense existence were left; he could still exult in a host of pleasures, he could still live, like some artists whom he admired, intoxicated with worldly joys, working in mad freedom.
"Oh, if she would only die!"
He recalled books he had read, in which other imaginary people had desired another's death that they might be able to satisfy more fully their appetites and passions.
Suddenly he felt as though he were awakening from a bad dream, as though he were throwing off an overwhelming nightmare. Poor Josephina! His thought filled him with horror, he felt the infernal desire burning his conscience, like a hot iron that throws off a shower of sparks when touched. It was not tenderness that made him turn again towards his companion; not that; his old animosity remained. But he thought of her years of sacrifice, of the privations she had suffered, following him in the struggle with misery, without a complaint, without a protest, in the pains of motherhood, in the nursing of her daughter, that Milita who seemed to have stolen all the strength of her body and perhaps was the cause of her decline. How terrible to wish for her death! He hoped that she would live. He would bear everything with the patience of duty. She die? Never, he would rather die himself.
But in vain did he struggle to forget the thought. The atrocious, monstrous desire, once awakened, resisted, refused to recede, to hide, to die in the windings of his brain whence it had arisen. In vain did he repent his villainy, or feel ashamed of his cruel idea, striving to crush it forever. It seemed as though a second personality had arisen within him, rebellious to his commands, opposed to his conscience, hard and indifferent to his sympathetic scruples, and this personality, this power, continued to sing in his ear with a merry accent, as if it promised him all the pleasures of life.
"If she would only die! Eh, master? If she would only die!"
At the coming of spring Lopez de Sosa, "the intrepid sportsman," as Cotoner called him, appeared at Renovales' house every afternoon.
Outside the entrance gate stood his eighty-horsepower automobile, his latest acquisition, of which he was intensely proud, a huge green car, that started and backed under the hand of the chauffeur while its owner was crossing the garden of the painter's house.
Renovales saw him enter the studio, in a blue suit with a shining visor over his eyes, affecting the resolute bearing of a sailor or an explorer.
"Good afternoon, Don Mariano, I have come for the ladies."
And Milita came down stairs in a long gray coat, with a white cap, around which she wound a long blue veil. After her came her mother clad in the same fashion, small and insignificant beside the girl, who seemed to overwhelm her with her health and grace.
Renovales approved of these trips. Josephina's legs were troubling her; a sudden weakness sometimes kept her in her chair for days at a time. Finding any sort of movement difficult, she liked to ride motionless in that car that fairly ate up space, reaching distant suburbs of Madrid without the least effort, as if she had not moved from the house.
"Have a good time," said the painter with a sort of joy at the prospect of being left alone, completely alone, without the disturbance of feeling his wife's hostility near him. "I entrust them to you, Rafaelito; be careful, now."
And Rafaelito assumed an expression of protest, as if he were shocked that anyone could doubt his skill. There was no danger with him.
"Aren't you coming, Don Mariano? Lay down your brushes for a while. We're only going to the Pardo."
The painter declined; he had a great deal to do. He knew what it was, and he did not like to go so fast. There was no pleasure in swallowing space with your eyes almost closed, unable to see anything but a hazy blur of the scenery, amid clouds of dust and crushed stone. He preferred to look at the landscape calmly, without haste, with the reflective quiet of the student. Besides he was out of place in things that did not belong to his time; he was getting old and these frightful novelties did not agree with him.
Milita, lifting her veil, put out her red, tempting lips, showing her bright teeth as she smiled. After this kiss came the other, formal and cold, exchanged with the indifference of habit, without any novelty except that Josephina's mouth drew back from his, as if she wanted to avoid any contact with him.
They went out, the mother leaning on Rafaelito's arm with a sort of languor, as if she could hardly drag her weak body,—her pale face unrelieved by the least sign of blood.
When Renovales found himself alone in the studio he would feel as happy as a school-boy on a holiday. He worked with a lighter touch, he roared out old songs, delighting to listen to the echoes that his voice awakened in the high-studded rooms. Often when Cotoner came in, he would surprise him by the serene shamelessness with which he sang some one of the licentious songs he had learned in Rome, and the painter of the Popes, smiling like a faun, joined in the chorus, applauding at the end these ribald verses of the studio.
Tekli, the Hungarian, who sometimes spent an afternoon with him, had departed for his native land with his copy of Las Meninas, but not before lifting Renovales' hands several times to his heart, with extravagant terms of affection and calling him "noble master." The portrait of the Countess of Alberca was no longer in the studio; in a glittering frame it hung on the walls of the illustrious lady's drawing-room, where it received the worship of her admirers.
Sometimes of an afternoon when the ladies had left the studio and the dull mumble of the car and the tooting of the horn had died away, the master and his friend would talk of Lopez de Sosa. A good fellow, somewhat foolish, but well-meaning; this was the judgment of Renovales and his old friend. He was proud of his mustache that gave him a certain likeness to the German emperor, and when he sat down, he took care to show his hands, by placing them prominently on his knees, in order that everyone might appreciate their vigorous hugeness, the prominent veins, and the strong fingers, all this with the naive satisfaction of a ditch-digger. His conversation always turned on feats of strength and before the two artists he strutted as if he belonged to another race, talking of his prowess as a fencer, of his triumphs in the bouts, of the weights he could lift with the slightest effort, of the number of chairs he could jump over without touching one of them. Often he interrupted the two painters when they were eulogizing the great masters of art, to tell them of the latest victory of some celebrated driver in the contest for a coveted cup. He knew by heart the names of all the European champions who had won the immortal laurel, in running, jumping, killing pigeons, boxing or fencing.
Renovales had seen him come into the studio one afternoon, trembling with excitement, his eyes flashing, and showing a telegram.
"Don Mariano, I have a Mercedes; they have just announced its shipment."
The painter looked blank. Who was that personage with the woman's name? And Rafaelito smiled with pity.
"The best make, a Mercedes, better than a Panhard; everyone knows that. Made in Germany; sixty thousand francs. There isn't another one in Madrid."
And the artist shrugged his shoulders and went on painting.
Lopez de Sosa was wealthy. His father, a former manufacturer of canned goods, had left him a fortune that he administered prudently, never gambling, nor keeping mistresses (he had no time for such follies) but finding all his amusement in sports that strengthen the body. He had a coach-house of his own, where he kept his carriages and his automobiles which he showed to his friends with the satisfaction of an artist. It was his museum. Besides, he owned several teams of horses, for modern fads did not make him forget his former tastes, and he took as much pride in his past glories as a horseman as he did in his skill as a driver of cars. At rare intervals, on the days of an important bull-fight or when some sensational races were being run in the Hippodrome, he won a triumph on the box by driving six cabs, covered with tassels and bells, that seemed to proclaim the glory and wealth of their owner with their noisy course.
He was proud of his virtuous life; free from foolishness or petty love affairs, wholly devoted to sports and show. His income was less than his expenses. The numerous personnel of his stable-garage, his horses, gasoline and tailors' bills ate up even a part of the principal. But Lopez de Sosa was undisturbed in this ruinous course,—for he was conscious of the danger, in spite of his extravagance. It was a mere youthful folly, he would cut down his expenses when he married. He devoted his evenings to reading, for he could not sleep quietly, unless he went through his classics (sporting-papers, automobile catalogs, etc.), and every month he made new acquisitions abroad, spending thousands of francs and, complaining, like a serious business man, of the rise in the Exchange, of the exorbitant customs charges, of the stupidity of the Government that so shackled the development of the country. The price of every automobile was greatly increased on crossing the frontier. And after that, politicians expected progress and regeneration!
He had been educated by the Jesuits at the University of Deusto and had his degree in law. But that had not made him over-pious. He was liberal, he lived the modern spirit; he had no use for fanaticism nor hypocrisy. He had said good-by to the good Fathers as soon as his own father, who was a great admirer of them, had died. But he still preserved a certain respect for them because they had been his teachers and he knew that they were great scholars. But modern life was different. He read with perfect freedom, he read a great deal; he had in his house a library composed of at least a hundred French novels. He purchased all the volumes that came from Paris with a woman's picture on the cover and in which, under pretext of describing Greek, Roman, or Egyptian customs, the author placed a large number of youths and maidens without any other decorations of civilization than the fillets and the caps that covered their heads.
He insisted on freedom, perfect freedom, but for him, men were divided into two castes, decent people and those who were not. Among the first figured en masse all the young fellows of the Gran Pena, the old men of the Casino, together with some people whose names appeared in the papers, a certain evidence of their merit. The rest was the rabble, despicable and vulgar in the streets of the cities, repulsive and displeasing on the road, whom he insulted with all of the coarseness of ill-breeding and threatened to kill when a child ran in front of his car with the vicious purpose of letting itself be crushed under the wheels, to stir up trouble with a decent person, or when some workingman, pretending he could not hear the warnings of his horn, would not get out of the way and was run over—as if a man who makes two pesetas a day were superior to machines that cost thousands of francs! What could you do with such ignorant, commonplace people! And some wretches were still talking about the rights of man and revolutions!
Cotoner, who expended incredible care in keeping his single suit presentable for calls and dinners, questioned Lopez de Sosa with astonishment in regard to the progress of his wardrobe.
"How many ties have you now, Rafael?"
"About seven hundred." He had counted them recently. And ashamed that he did not yet own the longed-for thousand, he spoke of fitting himself out on his next trip to London when the principal British automobilists were to contend for the cup. He received his boots from Paris, but they were made by a Swiss boot-maker, the same one who provided the foot-gear of Edward of England; he counted his trousers by the dozen, and never wore one pair more than eight or ten times; his linen was given to his valet almost before it was used, his hats all came from London. He had eight frock-coats made every year, that often grew old without ever being worn, of different colors to suit the circumstances and the hours when he must wear them. One in particular, dead black with long skirts, gloomy and austere, copied from the foreign illustrations that represented duels, was his uniform on solemn occasions, which he wore when some friend looked him up at the Pena, to get his assistance in representing him with his customary skill in affairs of honor.
His tailor admired his talent, his masterly command in choosing cloth and deciding on the cut among the countless designs. Result, he spent something like five thousand dollars a year on his clothes, and said ingenuously to the two artists,
"How much less can a decent person spend if he wants to be presentable?"
Lopez de Sosa visited Renovales' house as a friend after the latter had painted his portrait. In spite of his automobiles, his clothes, and the fact that he chose his associates among people who bore noble titles, he could not succeed in getting a foothold in society. He knew that behind his back people nicknamed him, "Pickled Herring," alluding to his father's trade, and that the young ladies, who counted him as a friend, rebelled at the idea of marrying the "Canned-goods Boy," which was another of his names. The friendship of Renovales was a source of pride.
He had requested him to make his portrait, paying him without haggling, in order that he might appear at the Exhibition, quite as good a way as any other of introducing his insignificance among the famous men who were painted by the artist. After that he was on intimate terms with the master, talking everywhere about "his friend, Renovales!" with a sort of familiarity, as if he were a comrade who could not live without him. This raised him greatly in the estimation of his acquaintances. Besides, he had felt a real admiration for the master ever since one afternoon when tired out with the account of his prowess as a fencer, Renovales had laid aside his brushes and taking down two old foils, had had several bouts with him. What a man he was! And how he remembered the points he had learned in Rome!
In his frequent visits to the artist's house, he finally felt attracted toward Milita; he saw in her the woman he wanted to marry. Lacking more sonorous titles, it was something to be the son-in-law of Renovales. Besides, the painter enjoyed the reputation of being wealthy, he spoke of his enormous profits, and he still had many years before him, to add to his fortune, all of which would be his daughter's.
Lopez de Sosa began to pay court to Milita, calling on his great resources, appearing every day in a different suit, coming every afternoon, sometimes in a carriage drawn by a dashing pair, sometimes in one of his cars. The fashionable youth won the favor of her mother,—an important part. This was the kind of a husband for her daughter. No painter! And in vain did Soldevilla put on his brightest ties and show off shocking waistcoats; his rival crushed him and, what was worse, the master's wife, who formerly used to have a sort of motherly concern for him and called him by his first name, for she had known him as a boy, now received him coldly, as if she wished to discourage his suit for Milita.
The girl fluctuated between her two admirers with a mocking smile. One seemed to interest her as much as the other. She drove the painter, the companion of her childhood, to despair, at times abusing him with her jests, at others attracting him with her effusive intimacy, as in the days when they played together; and at the same time she praised Lopez de Sosa's stylishness, laughed with him, and Soldevilla even suspected that they wrote letters to each other as if they were engaged.
Renovales rejoiced at the cleverness with which his daughter kept the two young men uncertain and eager about her. She was a terror, a boy in skirts, more manly than either of her worshipers.
"I know her, Pepe," he said to Cotoner. "We must let her do what she wants to. The day she decides in favor of one or the other we'll have to marry her at once. She isn't one of the girls to wait. If we don't marry her soon and to her taste, she's likely to elope with her fiance."
The father excused Milita's impatience. Poor girl! Think what she saw in her home! Her mother always ill, terrifying her with her tears, her cries and her nervous attacks; her father working in his studio, and her only companion the unsympathetic "Miss." He owed his thanks to Lopez de Sosa for taking them outdoors on these dizzy rides from which Josephina returned greatly quieted.
Renovales preferred his pupil. He was almost his son, he had fought many a hard battle to give him fellowships and prizes. He was a trifle displeased at some of his slight infidelities, for as soon as he had won some renown, he bragged about his independence, praising everything that the master thought condemnable behind his back. But even so, the idea of his marrying his daughter pleased him; a painter as a son-in-law; his grandchildren painters, the blood of Renovales perpetuated in a dynasty of artists who would fill history with their glory.
"But, oh, Pepe! I'm afraid the girl will choose the other. After all, she's a woman. And women appreciate only what they see, gallantry and youth."
And the master's words betrayed a certain bitterness, as though he were thinking of something very different from what he was saying.
Then he began to discuss the merits of Lopez de Sosa, as if he were already a member of the family.
"A good boy, isn't he, Pepe? A little stupid for us, unable to talk for ten minutes without making us yawn, a fine fellow, but not our kind."
There was scorn in Renovales' voice as he spoke of the vigorous healthy young men of the present, with their brains absolutely free from culture, who had just assaulted life, invading every phase of it. What people! Gymnastics, fencing, kicking a huge bull, swinging a mallet on horseback, wild flights in an automobile; from the royal family down to the last middle-class scion everyone rushed into this life of childish joy, as if a man's mission consisted merely in hardening his muscles, sweating and delighting in the shifting chances of a game. Activity fled from the brain to the extremities of the body. They were strong, but their minds lay fallow, wrapped in a haze of childish credulity. Modern men seemed to stop growing at the age of fourteen; they never went beyond, content with the joys of movement and strength. Many of these big fellows were ignorant of women, or almost so, at the age when in other times they were turning back, satiated with love. Busy running without direction or end, they had no time nor quiet to think about women. Love was about to go on a strike, unable to resist the competition of sports. The young men lived by themselves, finding in athletic exercise a satisfaction that left them without any desire or curiosity for the other pleasures of life. They were big boys with strong fists; they could fight with a bull and yet the approach of a woman filled them with terror. All the sap of their life was used up in violent exercise. Intelligence seemed to have concentrated in their hands, leaving their heads empty. What was going to become of this new people? Perhaps it would form a healthier, stronger human race, but without love or passion, without any other association than the blind impulse of reproduction.
"We are a different sort, eh, Pepe?" said Renovales with a sly wink. "When we were boys we didn't care for our bodies so well, but we had better times. We weren't so pure, but we were interested in something higher than automobiles and prize cups; we had ideals."
Then he began to talk again of the young man who expected to become one of his family and made sport of his mentality.
"If Milita decides on him, I won't object. The important thing in such matters is that they should be congenial to each other. He's a good boy; I could almost give him my blessing. But I suspect that when the sensation of novelty has worn off, he will go back to his fads and poor Milita will be jealous of those machines that are eating up the greater part of his fortune."
Sometimes, before the light died out in the afternoon, Renovales excused his model, if he had one, and laying aside his brushes went out of the studio. When he came back, he would have on his coat and hat.
"Pepe, let's take a walk."
Cotoner knew where this walk would land them.
They followed the iron fence of the Retiro and went down the Calle de Alcala, walking slowly among the groups of strollers, some of whom turned round behind them to point out the master. "That taller one is Renovales, the painter." In a few minutes, Mariano hastened his step with nervous impatience, he stopped talking and Cotoner followed him with an ill-humored expression, humming between his teeth. When they reached the Cibeles, the old painter knew that their walk was nearly over.
"I'll see you to-morrow, Pepe, I'm going this way. I've got to see the countess."
One day, he did not limit himself to this brief leave-taking. After he had gone a few steps, he came back toward his companion and said hesitatingly:
"Listen, if Josephina asks you where I went, don't say anything. I know that you are prudent but she is always worried. I tell you this so as to avoid any trouble. The two women don't get along together very well. Some woman's quarrel!"
At the opening of spring, when Madrid was beginning to think good weather had really come, and people were impatiently getting out their summer clothes, there was an unexpected and treacherous return of winter that clouded the sky and covered with a coat of snow the muddy ground and the gardens where the first flowers of spring were beginning to sprout.
There was a fire once more in the fireplace in the drawing-room of the Countess of Alberca, where all the gentlemen who formed her coterie gathered to keep warm on days when she was "at home," not having a meeting to preside over or calls to make.
When Renovales came one afternoon, he spoke enthusiastically of the view of Moncloa, covered with snow. He had just been there, a beautiful sight, the woods, buried in wintry silence, surprised by the white shroud when they were beginning to crack with the swelling of the sap. It was a pity that the camera craze filled the woods with so many people who went back and forth with their outfits, sullying the purity of the snow.
The countess was as interested as a child. She wanted to see that, she would go the next day. Her friends tried in vain to dissuade her, telling her the weather would probably change presently. To-morrow the sun would come out, the snow would melt; these unexpected storms were characteristic of the fickle climate of Madrid.
"It makes no difference," said Concha obstinately, "I've got the idea into my head. It's years since I have seen it. My life is such a busy one."
She would go to see the thaw in the morning; no, not in the morning. She got up late and had to receive all those Women's Rights ladies that came to consult her. In the afternoon, she would go after luncheon. It was too bad that Renovales worked at that time and could not go with her. He could appreciate landscapes so well with his artist's eyes and had often spoken to her of the sunset from the palace of Moncloa, a sight almost equal to the one you can see in Rome from the Pinzio at dusk. The painter smiled gallantly. He would try to be at Moncloa the next day; they would meet.
The countess seemed to take sudden fright at this promise and glanced at Doctor Monteverde. But she was disappointed in her hope of being censured for her fickleness and unfaithfulness, for the doctor remained indifferent.
Lucky doctor! How Renovales hated him. He was a young man, as fair and as fragile as a porcelain figure, a combination of such striking beauties that his face was almost a caricature. His hair, parted in two waves over his pale forehead, was black, very black and shining with bluish reflections, his eyes, as soft as velvet, showed the read spot of the lachrymal on the polished ivory of the cornea, veritable odalisque eyes, his bright red lips showed under his bristly mustache, his complexion was as pale as a camellia, and his teeth flashed like pearl. Concha looked at him with ecstatic devotion, talked with her eyes on him, consulting him with her glance, lamenting inwardly his lack of mastery, eager to be his slave, to be corrected by him in all the caprices of her giddy character.
Renovales scorned him, questioning his manhood, making the most atrocious comments on him in his rough fashion.
He was a doctor of science and was waiting for a chair at Madrid to be declared vacant, that he might become a candidate for it. The Countess of Alberca had him under her high protection, talking about him enthusiastically to all the important gentlemen who exercised any influence in University circles. She would break out into the most extravagant praise of the doctor in Renovales' presence. He was a scholar and what made her admire him was the fact that all his learning did not keep him from dressing well and being as fair as an angel.
"For pretty teeth, look at Monteverde's," she would say, looking at him in the crowded room, through her lorgnette.
At other times, following the course of her ideas, she would interrupt the conversation, without noticing the irrelevancy of her words.
"But did you notice the doctor's hands? They're more delicate than mine! They look like a woman's hands."
The painter was indignant at these demonstrations of Concha's that often occurred in her husband's presence.
The calm of that honorable gentleman astounded him. Was the man blind? And the count with fatherly good humor always said the same thing.
"That Concha! Did you ever hear such frankness! Don't mind her, Monteverde, it's my wife's way, childishness."
The doctor would smile, flattered at the atmosphere of worship with which the countess surrounded him.
He had written a book on the natural origin of animal organism, of which the fair countess spoke enthusiastically. The painter observed this change in her tastes with surprise and envy. No more music, nor verses, nor plastic arts which had formerly occupied her flighty attention, that was attracted by everything that shines or makes a noise. Now she looked on the arts as pretty, insignificant toys that were fit to amuse only the childhood of the human race. Times were changing, people must be serious. Science, nothing but science; she was the protectress, the good friend, the adviser of a scholar. And Renovales found famous books on the tables and chairs, feverishly run through and laid aside because she grew tired of them or could not understand them after the first impulse of curiosity.
Her coterie, almost wholly composed of old gentlemen attracted by the beauty of the countess, and in love with her though without hope, smiled to hear her talking so weightily about science. Men who were prominent in politics admired her frankly. How many things that woman knew! Many that they did not know themselves. The others, well-known physicians, professors, lawyers, who had not studied anything for years, approved complacently. For a woman it was not at all bad. And she, lifting her glasses to her eyes from time to time to relish the doctor's beauty, talked with a pedantic slowness about protoplasms, and the reproduction of the cells, the cannibalisms of the phagocytes, catarine, anthropoid and pithecoid apes, discoplacentary mammals and the Pithecanthropos, treating the mysteries of life with friendly confidence, repeating strange scientific words, as if they were the names of society folks, who had dined with her the evening before.
The handsome Doctor Monteverde, according to her, was head and shoulders above all the scholars of universal reputation.
Their books made her tired, she could not make anything out of them, in spite of the fact that the doctor admired them greatly. To make up for this, she had read Monteverde's book over and over, and she recommended this wonderful work to her lady friends, who in matters of reading never went beyond the novels in popular magazines.
"He is a scholar," said the countess one afternoon while talking alone with Renovales. "He's just beginning now, but I will push him ahead and he will turn out to be a genius. He has extraordinary talent. I wish you had read his book. Are you acquainted with Darwin? You aren't, are you? Well, he is greater than Darwin, much greater."
"I can believe that," said the painter. "Your Monteverde is as pretty as a baby and Darwin was an ugly old fellow."
The countess hesitated whether to get serious or to laugh, and finally she shook her lorgnette at him.
"Keep still, you horrid man. After all, you're a painter. You can't understand tender friendships, pure relations, fraternity based on study."
How bitterly the painter laughed at this purity and fraternity! His eyes were good and Concha, for her part, was no model of prudence in hiding her feelings. Monteverde was her lover, just as formerly a musician had been, at a period when the countess talked of nothing but Beethoven and Wagner, as if they were callers, and long before that a pretty little duke, who gave private amateur bull-fights at which he slaughtered the innocent oxen after greeting lovingly the Alberca woman, who, wrapped in a white mantilla, and decorated with pinks, leaned out of the box in the grandstand. Her relations with the doctor were almost common talk. That was amply proved by the fury with which the gentlemen of her coterie pulled him to pieces, declaring that he was an idiot and that his book was a Harlequin's coat, a series of excerpts from other men, poorly basted together, with the daring of ignorance. They, too, were stung by envy, in their senile, silent love, by the triumph of that stripling who carried off their idol, whom they had worshiped with a contemplative devotion that gave new life to their old age.
Renovales was angry with himself. He tried in vain to overcome the habit that made him turn his steps every afternoon toward the countess's house.
"I'll never go there again," he would say when he was back in his studio. "A pretty part you're playing, Mariano! Acting as a chorus to a love duet, in the company of all these senile imbeciles. A fine aim in life, this countess of yours!"
But the next day he would go back, thinking with a sort of hope of Monteverde's pretentious superiority, and the disdainful air with which he received his fair adorer's worship. Concha would soon get tired of this mustached doll and turn her eyes on him, a man.
The painter observed the transformation of his nature. He was a different man, and he made every effort to keep his family from noticing this change. He recognized mentally that he was in love, with the satisfaction of a mature man who sees in this a sign of youth the budding of a second life. He had felt impelled toward Concha by the desire of breaking the monotony of his existence, of imitating other men, of tasting the acidity of infidelity, in a brief escape from the stern imposing walls that shut in the desert of married life which was every day covered with more brambles and tares. Her resistance exasperated him, increasing his desire. He was not exactly sure how he felt; perhaps it was merely a physical attraction and added to that the wound to his pride, the bitterness of being repelled when he came down from the heights of virtue, where he had held his position with savage pride, believing that all the joys of the earth were waiting for him, dazzled by his glory and that he had only to hold out his arms and they would run to him.
He felt humiliated by his failure; a dumb rage filled him when he compared his gray hair and his eyes, surrounded by growing wrinkles, with that pretty boy of science who seemed to drive the countess insane. Women! Their intellectual interest, their exaggerated admiration of fame! A lie! They worshiped talent only when it was well presented in a young and beautiful covering.
Impelled by his obstinacy, Renovales was determined to overcome the resistance. He recalled, without the least remorse, the scene with his wife in the bedroom, and her scornful words that foretold his failure with the countess. Josephina's disdain was only another spur to urge him to continue his course.
Concha kept him off and led him on at the same time. There was no doubt that the master's love flattered her vanity. She laughed at his passionate protestations, taking them in jest, always answering them in the same tone: "Be dignified, master. That isn't becoming to you. You are a great man, a genius. Let the boys be the ones to play the part of the lovesick student." But when enraged at her subtle mockery, he took a mental oath not to come back again, she seemed to guess it and she suddenly assumed an affectionate air, attracting him with an interest that made him foresee the near approach of his triumph.
If he was offended and kept silence, she was the one who talked of love, of eternal passions between two beings of lofty minds, based on the harmony of their thoughts; and she did not cease this dangerous conversation until the master, with a sudden renewal of confidence, came forward offering his love, only to be received with that kindly and still ironical smile that seemed to look on him as a child whose judgment was faulty.
And so the master lived, fluctuating between hope and despair, now favored, now repelled, but always incapable of escaping from her influence, as if a crime were haunting him. He sought opportunities to see her alone with the ingenuity of a college boy, he invented pretexts for going to her house at unusual hours, when there were no callers present, and his courage failed him when he ran into the pretty doctor and felt around himself that sensation of uneasiness which always seizes an unwelcome guest.
The vague hope of meeting the countess at Moncloa, of walking with her a whole afternoon, unmolested by that circle of insufferable people who surrounded her with their drooling worship, kept him excited all night and the next morning, as if a real rendezvous were awaiting him. Would she go? Was not her promise a mere whim that she had immediately forgotten? He sent a note to an ex-minister of State, whose portrait he was painting, to ask him not to come to the studio that afternoon, and after luncheon he got into a cab, telling the cabby to beat the horse, to go full speed, for fear of being late.
He knew that it would be hours before she came, if she did come; but a mad, unreasonable impatience filled him. He thought without knowing why that, by arriving ahead of time, he would hasten the countess's coming.
He got out in the square in front of the little palace of Moncloa. The cab disappeared in the direction of Madrid, up hill along an avenue that was lost in the distance behind an arch of dry branches.
Renovales walked up and down, alone in the little square. The sun was shining in a patch of blue sky, among the heavy clouds. In the places which its rays did not reach, it was cold. The water ran down from the foot of the trees, after dripping from the branches and trickling down the trunks; it was melting rapidly. The wood seemed to weep with joy under the caress of the sun, that destroyed the last traces of the white shroud.
The majestic silence of Nature, abandoned to its own power, surrounded the artist. The pines were swinging with the long gusts of wind, filling space with a murmur, like the sound of distant harps. The square was hidden in the icy shadow of the trees. Up above in the front of the palace some pigeons, seeking the sun above the tops of the pines, swept around the old flagpole and the classic busts blackened by the weather. Then, tired of flying, they settled down on the rusty iron balconies, adding to the old building a white fluttering decoration, a rustling garland of feathers. In the middle of the square a marble swan, with its neck violently stretched toward the sky, threw out a jet, whose murmur seemed to heighten the impression of icy cold which he felt in the shadow.