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Love, friendship, a wholesome moral atmosphere, spiritual light, sympathy, an easy interchange of ideas and feelings, these were what Pepe Rey's nature imperatively demanded. Deprived of them, the darkness that shrouded his soul grew deeper, and his inward gloom imparted a tinge of bitterness and discontent to his manner. On the day following the scenes described in the last chapter, what vexed him more than any thing was the already prolonged and mysterious seclusion of his cousin, accounted for at first by a trifling indisposition and then by caprices and nervous feelings difficult of explanation.
Rey was surprised by conduct so contrary to the idea which he had formed of Rosarito. Four days had passed during which he had not seen her; and certainly it was not because he did not desire to be at her side; and his situation threatened soon to become humiliating and ridiculous, if, by boldly taking the initiative, he did not at once put an end to it.
"Shall I not see my cousin to-day, either?" he said to his aunt, with manifest ill-humor, when they had finished dining.
"No, not to-day, either. Heaven knows how sorry I am for it. I gave her a good talking to this morning. This afternoon we will see what can be done."
The suspicion that in this unreasonable seclusion his adorable cousin was rather the helpless victim than the free and willing agent, induced him to control himself and to wait. Had it not been for this suspicion he would have left Orbajosa that very day. He had no doubt whatever that Rosario loved him, but it was evident that some unknown influence was at work to separate them, and it seemed to him to be the part of an honorable man to discover whence that malign influence proceeded and to oppose it, as far as it was in his power to do so.
"I hope that Rosarito's obstinacy will not continue long," he said to Dona Perfecta, disguising his real sentiments.
On this day he received a letter from his father in which the latter complained of having received none from Orbajosa, a circumstance which increased the engineer's disquietude, perplexing him still further. Finally, after wandering about alone in the garden for a long time, he left the house and went to the Casino. He entered it with the desperate air of a man about to throw himself into the sea.
In the principal rooms he found various people talking and discussing different subjects. In one group they were solving with subtle logic difficult problems relating to bulls; in another, they were discussing the relative merits of different breeds of donkeys of Orbajosa and Villahorrenda. Bored to the last degree, Pepe Rey turned away from these discussions and directed his steps toward the reading-room, where he looked through various reviews without finding any distraction in the reading, and a little later, passing from room to room, he stopped, without knowing why, at the gaming-table. For nearly two hours he remained in the clutches of the horrible yellow demon, whose shining eyes of gold at once torture and charm. But not even the excitement of play had power to lighten the gloom of his soul, and the same tedium which had impelled him toward the green cloth sent him away from it. Shunning the noise, he found himself in an apartment used as an assembly-room, in which at the time there was not a living soul, and here he seated himself wearily at a window overlooking the street.
This was very narrow, with more corners and salient angles than houses, and was overshaded throughout its whole extent by the imposing mass of the cathedral that lifted its dark and time-corroded walls at one end of it. Pepe Rey looked up and down and in every direction; no sign of life—not a footstep, not a voice, not a glance, disturbed the stillness, peaceful as that of a tomb, that reigned everywhere. Suddenly strange sounds, like the whispering of feminine voices, fell on his ear, and then the rustling of curtains that were being drawn, a few words, and finally the humming of a song, the bark of a lap-dog, and other signs of social life, which seemed very strange in such a place. Observing attentively, Pepe Rey perceived that these noises proceeded from an enormous balcony with blinds which displayed its corpulent bulk in front of the window at which he was sitting. Before he had concluded his observations, a member of the Casino suddenly appeared beside him, and accosted him laughingly in this manner:
"Ah, Senor Don Pepe! what a rogue you are! So you have shut yourself in here to ogle the girls, eh?"
The speaker was Don Juan Tafetan, a very amiable man, and one of the few members of the Casino who had manifested for Pepe Rey cordial friendship and genuine admiration. With his red cheeks, his little dyed mustache, his restless laughing eyes, his insignificant figure, his hair carefully combed to hide his baldness, Don Juan Tafetan was far from being an Antinous in appearance, but he was very witty and very agreeable and he had a happy gift for telling a good story. He was much given to laughter, and when he laughed his face, from his forehead to his chin, became one mass of grotesque wrinkles. In spite of these qualities, and of the applause which might have stimulated his taste for spicy jokes, he was not a scandal-monger. Every one liked him, and Pepe Rey spent with him many pleasant hours. Poor Tafetan, formerly an employe in the civil department of the government of the capital of the province, now lived modestly on his salary as a clerk in the bureau of charities; eking out his income by gallantly playing the clarionet in the processions, in the solemnities of the cathedral, and in the theatre, whenever some desperate company of players made their appearance in those parts with the perfidious design of giving representations in Orbajosa.
But the most curious thing about Don Juan Tafetan was his liking for pretty girls. He himself, in the days when he did not hide his baldness with half a dozen hairs plastered down with pomade, when he did not dye his mustache, when, in the freedom from care of youthful years, he walked with shoulders unstooped and head erect, had been a formidable Tenorio. To hear him recount his conquests was something to make one die laughing; for there are Tenorios and Tenorios, and he was one of the most original.
"What girls? I don't see any girls," responded Pepe Rey.
"Yes, play the anchorite!"
One of the blinds of the balcony was opened, giving a glimpse of a youthful face, lovely and smiling, that disappeared instantly, like a light extinguished by the wind.
"Yes, I see now."
"Don't you know them?"
"On my life I do not."
"They are the Troyas—the Troya girls. Then you don't know something good. Three lovely girls, the daughters of a colonel of staff, who died in the streets of Madrid in '54."
The blind opened again, and two faces appeared.
"They are laughing at me," said Tafetan, making a friendly sign to the girls.
"Do you know them?"
"Why, of course I know them. The poor things are in the greatest want. I don't know how they manage to live. When Don Francisco Troya died a subscription was raised for them, but that did not last very long."
"Poor girls! I imagine they are not models of virtue."
"And why not? I do not believe what they say in the town about them."
Once more the blinds opened.
"Good-afternoon, girls!" cried Don Juan Tafetan to the three girls, who appeared, artistically grouped, at the window. "This gentleman says that good things ought not to hide themselves, and that you should throw open the blinds."
But the blind was closed and a joyous concert of laughter diffused a strange gayety through the gloomy street. One might have fancied that a flock of birds was passing.
"Shall we go there?" said Tafetan suddenly.
His eyes sparkled and a roguish smile played on his discolored lips.
"But what sort of people are they, then?"
"Don't be afraid, Senor de Rey. The poor things are honest. Bah! Why, they live upon air, like the chameleons. Tell me, can any one who doesn't eat sin? The poor girls are virtuous enough. And even if they did sin, they fast enough to make up for it."
"Let us go, then."
A moment later Don Juan Tafetan and Pepe Rey were entering the parlor of the Troyas. The poverty he saw, that struggled desperately to disguise itself, afflicted the young man. The three girls were very lovely, especially the two younger ones, who were pale and dark, with large black eyes and slender figures. Well-dressed and well shod they would have seemed the daughters of a duchess, and worthy to ally themselves with princes.
When the visitors entered, the three girls were for a moment abashed: but very soon their naturally gay and frivolous dispositions became apparent. They lived in poverty, as birds live in confinement, singing behind iron bars as they would sing in the midst of the abundance of the forest. They spent the day sewing, which showed at least honorable principles; but no one in Orbajosa, of their own station in life, held any intercourse with them. They were, to a certain extent, proscribed, looked down upon, avoided, which also showed that there existed some cause for scandal. But, to be just, it must be said that the bad reputation of the Troyas consisted, more than in any thing else, in the name they had of being gossips and mischief-makers, fond of playing practical jokes, and bold and free in their manners. They wrote anonymous letters to grave personages; they gave nicknames to every living being in Orbajosa, from the bishop down to the lowest vagabond; they threw pebbles at the passers-by; they hissed behind the window bars, in order to amuse themselves with the perplexity and annoyance of the startled passer-by; they found out every thing that occurred in the neighborhood; to which end they made constant use of every window and aperture in the upper part of the house; they sang at night in the balcony; they masked themselves during the Carnival, in order to obtain entrance into the houses of the highest families; and they played many other mischievous pranks peculiar to small towns. But whatever its cause, the fact was that on the Troya triumvirate rested one of those stigmas that, once affixed on any one by a susceptible community, accompanies that person implacably even beyond the tomb.
"This is the gentleman they say has come to discover the gold-mines?" said one of the girls.
"And to do away with the cultivation of garlic in Orbajosa to plant cotton or cinnamon trees in its stead?"
Pepe could not help laughing at these absurdities.
"All he has come for is to make a collection of pretty girls to take back with him to Madrid," said Tafetan.
"Ah! I'll be very glad to go!" cried one.
"I will take the three of you with me," said Pepe. "But I want to know one thing; why were you laughing at me when I was at the window of the Casino?"
These words were the signal for fresh bursts of laughter.
"These girls are silly things," said the eldest.
"It was because we said you deserved something better than Dona Perfecta's daughter."
"It was because this one said that you are only losing your time, for Rosarito cares only for people connected with the Church."
"How absurd you are! I said nothing of the kind! It was you who said that the gentleman was a Lutheran atheist, and that he enters the cathedral smoking and with his hat on."
"Well, I didn't invent it; that is what Suspiritos told me yesterday."
"And who is this Suspiritos who says such absurd things about me?"
"Girls," said Tafetan, with smiling countenance, "there goes the orange-vender. Call him; I want to invite you to eat oranges."
One of the girls called the orange-vender.
The conversation started by the Troyas displeased Pepe Rey not a little, dispelling the slight feeling of contentment which he had experienced at finding himself in such gay and communicative company. He could not, however, refrain from smiling when he saw Don Juan Tafetan take down a guitar and begin to play upon it with all the grace and skill of his youthful years.
"I have been told that you sing beautifully," said Rey to the girls.
"Let Don Juan Tafetan sing."
"I don't sing."
"Nor I," said the second of the girls, offering the engineer some pieces of the skin of the orange she had just peeled.
"Maria Juana, don't leave your sewing," said the eldest of the Troyas. "It is late, and the cassock must be finished to-night."
"There is to be no work to-day. To the devil with the needles!" exclaimed Tafetan.
And he began to sing a song.
"The people are stopping in the street," said the second of the girls, going out on the balcony. "Don Juan Tafetan's shouts can be heard in the Plaza—Juana, Juana!"
"Suspiritos is walking down the street."
"Throw a piece of orange-peel at her."
Pepe Rey looked out also; he saw a lady walking down the street at whom the youngest of the Troyas, taking a skilful aim, threw a large piece of orange-peel, which struck her straight on the back of the head. Then they hastily closed the blinds, and the three girls tried to stifle their laughter so that it might not be heard in the street.
"There is no work to-day," cried one, overturning the sewing-basket with the tip of her shoe.
"That is the same as saying, to-morrow there is to be no eating," said the eldest, gathering up the sewing implements.
Pepe Rey instinctively put his hand into his pocket. He would gladly have given them an alms. The spectacle of these poor orphans, condemned by the world because of their frivolity, saddened him beyond measure. If the only sin of the Troyas, if the only pleasure which they had to compensate them for solitude, poverty, and neglect, was to throw orange-peels at the passers-by, they might well be excused for doing it. The austere customs of the town in which they lived had perhaps preserved them from vice, but the unfortunate girls lacked decorum and good-breeding, the common and most visible signs of modesty, and it might easily be supposed that they had thrown out of the window something more than orange-peels. Pepe Rey felt profound pity for them. He noted their shabby dresses, made over, mended, trimmed, and retrimmed, to make them look like new; he noted their broken shoes—and once more he put his hand in his pocket.
"Vice may reign here," he said to himself, "but the faces, the furniture, all show that this is the wreck of a respectable family. If these poor girls were as bad as it is said they are, they would not live in such poverty and they would not work. In Orbajosa there are rich men."
The three girls went back and forward between him and the window, keeping up a gay and sprightly conversation, which indicated, it must be said, a species of innocence in the midst of all their frivolity and unconventionality.
"Senor Don Jose, what an excellent lady Dona Perfecta is!"
"She is the only person in Orbajosa who has no nickname, the only person in Orbajosa who is not spoken ill of."
"Every one respects her."
"Every one adores her."
To these utterances the young man responded by praises of his aunt, but he had no longer any inclination to take money from his pocket and say, "Maria Juana, take this for a pair of boots." "Pepa, take this to buy a dress for yourself." "Florentina, take this to provide yourself with a week's provisions," as he had been on the point of doing. At a moment when the three girls had run out to the balcony to see who was passing, Don Juan Tafetan approached Rey and whispered to him:
"How pretty they are! Are they not? Poor things! It seems impossible that they should be so gay when it may be positively affirmed that they have not dined to-day."
"Don Juan, Don Juan!" cried Pepilla. "Here comes a friend of yours, Nicolasito Hernandez, in other words, Cirio Pascual, with this three-story hat. He is praying to himself, no doubt, for the souls of those whom he has sent to the grave with his extortion."
"I wager that neither of you will dare to call him by his nickname."
"It is a bet."
"Juana, shut the blinds, wait until he passes, and when he is turning the corner, I will call out, 'Cirio, Cirio Pascual!'"
Don Juan Tafetan ran out to the balcony.
"Come here, Don Jose, so that you may know this type," he called.
Pepe Rey, availing himself of the moment in which the three girls and Don Juan were making merry in the balcony, calling Nicolasito Hernandez the nickname which so greatly enraged him, stepped cautiously to one of the sewing baskets in the room and placed in it a half ounce which he had left after his losses at play.
Then he hurried out to the balcony just as the two youngest cried in the midst of wild bursts of laughter, "Cirio, Cirio Pascual!"
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