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Orbajosa slept. The melancholy street-lamps were shedding their last gleams at street-corners and in by-ways, like tired eyes struggling in vain against sleep. By their dim light, wrapped in their cloaks, glided past like shadows, vagabonds, watchmen, and gamblers. Only the hoarse shout of the drunkard or the song of the serenader broke the peaceful silence of the historic city. Suddenly the "Ave Maria Purisima" of some drunken watchman would be heard, like a moan uttered in its sleep by the town.
In Dona Perfecta's house also silence reigned, unbroken but for a conversation which was taking place between Don Cayetano and Pepe Rey, in the library of the former. The savant was seated comfortably in the arm-chair beside his study table, which was covered with papers of various kinds containing notes, annotations, and references, all arranged in the most perfect order. Rey's eyes were fixed on the heap of papers, but his thoughts were doubtless far away from this accumulated learning.
"Perfecta," said the antiquary, "although she is an excellent woman, has the defect of allowing herself to be shocked by any little act of folly. In these provincial towns, my dear friend, the slightest slip is dearly paid for. I see nothing particular in your having gone to the Troyas' house. I fancy that Don Inocencio, under his cloak of piety, is something of a mischief-maker. What has he to do with the matter?"
"We have reached a point, Senor Don Cayetano, in which it is necessary to take a decisive resolution. I must see Rosario and speak with her."
"See her, then!"
"But they will not let me," answered the engineer, striking the table with his clenched hand. "Rosario is kept a prisoner."
"A prisoner!" repeated the savant incredulously. "The truth is that I do not like her looks or her hair, and still less the vacant expression in her beautiful eyes. She is melancholy, she talks little, she weeps—friend Don Jose, I greatly fear that the girl may be attacked by the terrible malady to which so many of the members of my family have fallen victims."
"A terrible malady! What is it?"
"Madness—or rather mania. Not a single member of my family has been free from it. I alone have escaped it."
"You! But leaving aside the question of madness," said Rey, with impatience, "I wish to see Rosario."
"Nothing more natural. But the isolation in which her mother keeps her is a hygienic measure, dear Pepe, and the only one that has been successfully employed with the various members of my family. Consider that the person whose presence and voice would make the strongest impression on Rosarillo's delicate nervous system is the chosen of her heart."
"In spite of all that," insisted Pepe, "I wish to see her."
"Perhaps Perfecta will not oppose your doing so," said the savant, giving his attention to his notes and papers. "I don't want to take any responsibility in the matter."
The engineer, seeing that he could obtain nothing from the good Polentinos, rose to retire.
"You are going to work," he said, "and I will not trouble you any longer."
"No, there is time enough. See the amount of precious information that I collected to-day. Listen: 'In 1537 a native of Orbajosa, called Bartolome del Hoyo, went to Civita-Vecchia in one of the galleys of the Marquis of Castel Rodrigo.' Another: 'In the same year two brothers named Juan and Rodrigo Gonzalez del Arco embarked in one of the six ships which sailed from Maestricht on the 20th of February, and which encountered in the latitude of Calais an English vessel and the Flemish fleet commanded by Van Owen.' That was truly an important exploit of our navy. I have discovered that it was an Orbajosan, one Mateo Diaz Coronel, an ensign in the guards, who, in 1709, wrote and published in Valencia the 'Metrical Encomium, Funeral Chant, Lyrical Eulogy, Numerical Description, Glorious Sufferings, and Sorrowful Glories of the Queen of the Angels.' I possess a most precious copy of this work, which is worth the mines of Peru. Another Orbajosan was the author of that famous 'Treatise on the Various Styles of Horsemanship' which I showed you yesterday; and, in short, there is not a step I take in the labyrinth of unpublished history that I do not stumble against some illustrious compatriot. It is my purpose to draw all these names out of the unjust obscurity and oblivion in which they have so long lain. How pure a joy, dear Pepe, to restore all their lustre to the glories, epic and literary, of one's native place! And how could a man better employ the scant intellect with which Heaven has endowed him, the fortune which he has inherited, and the brief period of time on earth allowed to even the longest life. Thanks to me it will be seen that Orbajosa is the illustrious cradle of Spanish genius. But what do I say? Is not its illustrious ancestry evident in the nobleness and high-mindedness of the present Urbs Augustan generation? We know few places where all the virtues, unchoked by the malefic weeds of vice, grow more luxuriantly. Here all is peace, mutual respect, Christian humility. Charity is practised here as it was in Biblical times; here envy is unknown; here the criminal passions are unknown, and if you hear thieves and murderers spoken of, you may be sure that they are not the children of this noble soil; or, that if they are, they belong to the number of unhappy creatures perverted by the teachings of demagogues. Here you will see the national character in all its purity—upright, noble, incorruptible, pure, simple, patriarchal, hospitable, generous. Therefore it is that I live so happy in this solitude far from the turmoil of cities where, alas! falsehood and vice reign. Therefore it is that the many friends whom I have in Madrid have not been able to tempt me from this place; therefore it is that I spend my life in the sweet companionship of my faithful townspeople and my books, breathing the wholesome atmosphere of integrity, which is gradually becoming circumscribed in our Spain to the humble and Christian towns that have preserved it with the emanations of their virtues. And believe me, my dear Pepe, this peaceful isolation has greatly contributed to preserve me from the terrible malady connatural in my family. In my youth I suffered, like my brothers and my father, from a lamentable propensity to the most absurd manias; but here you have me so miraculously cured that all I know of the malady is what I see of it in others. And it is for that reason that I am so uneasy about my little niece."
"I am rejoiced that the air of Orbajosa has proved so beneficial to you," said Rey, unable to resist the jesting mood that, by a strange contradiction, came over him in the midst of his sadness. "With me it has agreed so badly that I think I shall soon become mad if I remain in it. Well, good-night, and success to your labors."
Pepe went to his room, but feeling neither a desire for sleep or the need of physical repose,—on the contrary, a violent excitation of mind which impelled him to move, to act,—he walked up and down the room, torturing himself with useless cavilling. After a time he opened the window which overlooked the garden and, leaning his elbows on the parapet, he gazed out on the limitless darkness of the night. Nothing could be seen, but he who is absorbed in his own thoughts sees with the mental vision, and Pepe Rey, his eyes fixed on the darkness, saw the varied panorama of his misfortunes unroll itself upon it before him. The obscurity did not permit him to see the flowers of the earth, nor those of the heavens, which are the stars. The very absence of light produced the effect of an illusory movement in the masses of foliage, which seemed to stretch away, to recede slowly, and come curling back like the waves of a shadowy sea. A vast flux and reflux, a strife between forces vaguely comprehended, agitated the silent sky. The mathematician, contemplating this strange projection of his soul upon the night, said to himself:
"The battle will be terrible. Let us see who will come out of it victorious."
The nocturnal insects whispered in his ear mysterious words. Here a shrill chirp; there a click, like the click made with the tongue; further on, plaintive murmurs; in the distance a tinkle like that of the bell on the neck of the wandering ox. Suddenly Rey heard a strange sound, a rapid note, that could be produced only by the human tongue and lips. This sibilant breathing passed through the young man's brain like a flash of lightning. He felt that swift "s-s-s" dart snake-like through him, repeated again and then again, with augmented intensity. He looked all around, then he looked toward the upper part of the house, and he fancied that in one of the windows he could distinguish an object like a white bird flapping its wings. Through Pepe Rey's excited mind flashed instantly the idea of the phoenix, of the dove, of the regal heron, and yet the bird he saw was noting more than a handkerchief.
The engineer sprang from the balcony into the garden. Observing attentively, he saw the hand and the face of his cousin. He thought he could perceive the gesture commonly employed of imposing silence by laying the finger on the lips. Then the dear shade pointed downward and disappeared. Pepe Rey returned quickly to this room, entered the hall noiselessly, and walked slowly forward. He felt his heart beat with violence. He waited for a few moments, and at last he heard distinctly light taps on the steps of the stairs. One, two, three—the sounds were produced by a pair of little shoes.
He walked in the direction whence they proceeded, and stretched out his hands in the obscurity to assist the person who was descending the stairs. In his soul there reigned an exalted and profound tenderness, but—why seek to deny it—mingling with this tender feeling, there suddenly arose within him, like an infernal inspiration, another sentiment, a fierce desire for revenge. The steps continued to descend, coming nearer and nearer. Pepe Rey went forward, and a pair of hands, groping in the darkness, came in contact with his own. The two pairs of hands were united in a close clasp.
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