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The hall was long and broad. At one end of it was the door of the room occupied by the engineer, in the centre that of the dining-room, and at the other end were the staircase and a large closed door reached by a step. This door opened into a chapel in which the Polentinos performed their domestic devotions. Occasionally the holy sacrifice of the mass was celebrated in it.
Rosario led her cousin to the door of the chapel and then sank down on the doorstep.
"Here?" murmured Pepe Rey.
From the movements of Rosarito's right hand he comprehended that she was blessing herself.
"Rosario, dear cousin, thanks for allowing me to see you!" he exclaimed, embracing her ardently.
He felt the girl's cold fingers on his lips, imposing silence. He kissed them rapturously.
"You are frozen. Rosario, why do you tremble so?"
Her teeth were chattering, and her whole frame trembled convulsively. Rey felt the burning heat of his cousin's face against his own, and he cried in alarm:
"Your forehead is burning! You are feverish."
"Are you really ill?"
"And you have left your room——"
"To see you."
The engineer wrapped his arms around her to protect her from the cold, but it was not enough.
"Wait," he said quickly, rising. "I am going to my room to bring my travelling rug."
"Put out the light, Pepe."
Rey had left the lamp burning in his room, through the door of which issued a faint streak of light, illuminating the hall. He returned in an instant. The darkness was now profound. Groping his way along the wall he reached the spot where his cousin was sitting, and wrapped the rug carefully around her.
"You are comfortable now, my child."
"Yes, so comfortable! With you!"
"With me—and forever!" exclaimed the young man, with exaltation.
But he observed that she was releasing herself from his arms and was rising.
"What are you doing?"
A metallic sound was heard. Rosario had put the key into the invisible lock and was cautiously opening the door on the threshold of which they had been sitting. The faint odor of dampness, peculiar to rooms that have been long shut up, issued from the place, which was as dark as a tomb. Pepe Rey felt himself being guided by the hand, and his cousin's voice said faintly:
They took a few steps forward. He imagined himself being led to an unknown Elysium by the angel of night. Rosario groped her way. At last her sweet voice sounded again, murmuring:
They were beside a wooden bench. Both sat down. Pepe Rey embraced Rosario again. As he did so, his head struck against a hard body.
"What is this?" he asked.
"Rosario—what are you saying?"
"The feet of the Divine Jesus, of the image of Christ crucified, that we adore in my house."
Pepe Rey felt a cold chill strike through him.
"Kiss them," said the young girl imperiously.
The mathematician kissed the cold feet of the holy image.
"Pepe," then cried the young girl, pressing her cousin's hand ardently between her own, "do you believe in God?"
"Rosario! What are you saying? What absurdities are you imagining?" responded her cousin, perplexed.
Pepe Rey felt drops of moisture on his hands.
"Why are you crying?" he said, greatly disturbed. "Rosario, you are killing me with your absurd doubts. Do I believe in God? Do you doubt it?"
"I do not doubt it; but they all say that you are an atheist."
"You would suffer in my estimation, you would lose your aureole of purity—your charm—if you gave credit to such nonsense."
"When I heard them accuse you of being an atheist, although I could bring no proof to the contrary, I protested from the depths of my soul against such a calumny. You cannot be an atheist. I have within me as strong and deep a conviction of your faith as of my own."
"How wisely you speak! Why, then, do you ask me if I believe in God?"
"Because I wanted to hear it from your own lips, and rejoice in hearing you say it. It is so long since I have heard the sound of your voice! What greater happiness than to hear it again, saying: 'I believe in God?'"
"Rosario, even the wicked believe in him. If there be atheists, which I doubt, they are the calumniators, the intriguers with whom the world is infested. For my part, intrigues and calumnies matter little to me; and if you rise superior to them and close your heart against the discord which a perfidious hand would sow in it, nothing shall interfere with our happiness."
"But what is going on around us? Pepe, dear Pepe, do you believe in the devil?"
The engineer was silent. The darkness of the chapel prevented Rosario from seeing the smile with which her cousin received this strange question.
"We must believe in him," he said at last.
"What is going on? Mamma forbids me to see you; but, except in regard to the atheism, she does not say any thing against you. She tells me to wait, that you will decide; that you are going away, that you are coming back——Speak to me with frankness—have you formed a bad opinion of my mother?"
"Not at all," replied Rey, urged by a feeling of delicacy.
"Do you not believe, as I do, that she loves us both, that she desires only our good, and that we shall in the end obtain her consent to our wishes?"
"If you believe it, I do too. Your mama adores us both. But, dear Rosario, it must be confessed that the devil has entered this house."
"Don't jest!" she said affectionately. "Ah! Mamma is very good. She has not once said to me that you were unworthy to be my husband. All she insists upon is the atheism. They say, besides, that I have manias, and that I have the mania now of loving you with all my soul. In our family it is a rule not to oppose directly the manias that are hereditary in it, because to oppose them aggravates them."
"Well, I believe that there are skilful physicians at your side who have determined to cure you, and who will, in the end, my adored girl, succeed in doing so."
"No, no; a thousand times no!" exclaimed Rosario, leaning her forehead on her lover's breast. "I am willing to be mad if I am with you. For you I am suffering, for you I am ill; for you I despise life and I risk death. I know it now—to-morrow I shall be worse, I shall be dangerously ill, I shall die. What does it matter to me?"
"You are not ill," he responded, with energy; "there is nothing the matter with you but an agitation of mind which naturally brings with it some slight nervous disturbances; there is nothing the matter with you but the suffering occasioned by the horrible coercion which they are using with you. Your simple and generous soul does not comprehend it. You yield; you forgive those who injure you; you torment yourself, attributing your suffering to baleful, supernatural influences; you suffer in silence; you give your innocent neck to the executioner, you allow yourself to be slain, and the very knife which is plunged into your breast seems to you the thorn of a flower that has pierced you in passing. Rosario, cast those ideas from your mind; consider our real situation, which is serious; seek its cause where it really is, and do not give way to your fears; do not yield to the tortures which are inflicted upon you, making yourself mentally and physically ill. The courage which you lack would restore you to health, because you are not really ill, my dear girl, you are—do you wish me to say it?—you are frightened, terrified. You are under what the ancients, not knowing how to express it, called an evil spell. Courage, Rosario, trust in me! Rise and follow me. That is all I will say."
"Ah, Pepe—cousin! I believe that you are right," exclaimed Rosario, drowned in tears. "Your words resound within my heart, arousing in it new energy, new life. Here in this darkness, where we cannot see each other's faces, an ineffable light emanates from you and inundates my soul. What power have you to transform me in this way? The moment I saw you I became another being. In the days when I did not see you I returned to my former insignificance, my natural cowardice. Without you, my Pepe, I live in Limbo. I will do as you tell me, I will arise and follow you. We will go together wherever you wish. Do you know that I feel well? Do you know that I have no fever: that I have recovered my strength; that I want to run about and cry out; that my whole being is renewed and enlarged, and multiplied a hundred-fold in order to adore you? Pepe, you are right. I am not sick, I am only afraid; or rather, bewitched."
"That is it, bewitched."
"Bewitched! Terrible eyes look at me, and I remain mute and trembling. I am afraid, but of what? You alone have the strange power of calling me back to life. Hearing you, I live again. I believe if I were to die and you were to pass by my grave, that deep under the ground I should feel your footsteps. Oh, if I could see you now! But you are here beside me, and I cannot doubt that it is you. So many days without seeing you! I was mad. Each day of solitude appeared to me a century. They said to me, to-morrow and to-morrow, and always to-morrow. I looked out of the window at night, and the light of the lamp in your room served to console me. At times your shadow on the window was for me a divine apparition. I stretched out my arms to you, I shed tears and cried out inwardly, without daring to do so with my voice. When I received the message you sent me with the maid, when I received your letter telling me that you were going away, I grew very sad, I thought my soul was leaving my body and that I was dying slowly. I fell, like the bird wounded as it flies, that falls and, falling, dies. To-night, when I saw that you were awake so late, I could not resist the longing I had to speak to you; and I came down stairs. I believe that all the courage of my life has been used up in this single act, and that now I can never be any thing again but a coward. But you will give me courage; you will give me strength; you will help me, will you not? Pepe, my dear cousin, tell me that you will; tell me that I am strong, and I will be strong; tell me that I am not ill, and I will not be ill. I am not ill now. I feel so well that I could laugh at my ridiculous maladies."
As she said this she felt herself clasped rapturously in her cousin's arms. An "Oh!" was heard, but it came, not from her lips, but from his, for in bending his head, he had struck it violently against the feet of the crucifix. In the darkness it is that the stars are seen.
In the exalted state of his mind, by a species of hallucination natural in the darkness, it seemed to Pepe Rey not that his head had struck against the sacred foot, but that this had moved, warning him in the briefest and most eloquent manner. Raising his head he said, half seriously, half gayly:
"Lord, do not strike me; I will do nothing wrong."
At the same moment Rosario took the young man's hand and pressed it against her heart. A voice was heard, a pure, grave, angelic voice, full of feeling, saying:
"Lord whom I adore, Lord God of the world, and guardian of my house and of my family; Lord whom Pepe also adores; holy and blessed Christ who died on the cross for our sins; before thee, before thy wounded body, before thy forehead crowned with thorns, I say that this man is my husband, and that, after thee, he is the being whom my heart loves most; I say that I declare him to be my husband, and that I will die before I belong to another. My heart and my soul are his. Let not the world oppose our happiness, and grant me the favor of this union, which I swear to be true and good before the world, as it is in my conscience."
"Rosario, you are mine!" exclaimed Pepe Rey, with exaltation. "Neither your mother nor any one else shall prevent it."
Rosario sank powerless into her cousin's arms. She trembled in his manly embrace, as the dove trembles in the talons of the eagle.
Through the engineer's mind the thought flashed that the devil existed; but the devil then was he. Rosario made a slight movement of fear; she felt the thrill of surprise, so to say, that gives warning that danger is near.
"Swear to me that you will not yield to them," said Pepe Rey, with confusion, observing the movement.
"I swear it to you by my father's ashes that are—"
"Under our feet."
The mathematician felt the stone rise under his feet—but no, it was not rising; he only fancied, mathematician though he was, that he felt it rise.
"I swear it to you," repeated Rosario, "by my father's ashes, and by the God who is looking at us——May our bodies, united as they are, repose under those stones when God wills to take us out of this world."
"Yes," repeated the Pepe Rey, with profound emotion, feeling his soul filled with an inexplicable trouble.
Both remained silent for a short time. Rosario had risen.
"Already?" he said.
She sat down again.
"You are trembling again," said Pepe. "Rosario, you are ill; your forehead is burning."
"I think I am dying," murmured the young girl faintly. "I don't know what is the matter with me."
She fell senseless into her cousin's arms. Caressing her, he noticed that her face was covered with a cold perspiration.
"She is really ill," he said to himself. "It was a piece of great imprudence to have come down stairs."
He lifted her up in his arms, endeavoring to restore her to consciousness, but neither the trembling that had seized her nor her insensibility passed away; and he resolved to carry her out of the chapel, in the hope that the fresh air would revive her. And so it was. When she recovered consciousness Rosario manifested great disquietude at finding herself at such an hour out of her own room. The clock of the cathedral struck four.
"How late it is!" exclaimed the young girl. "Release me, cousin. I think I can walk. I am really very ill."
"I will go upstairs with you."
"Oh, no; on no account! I would rather drag myself to my room on my hands and feet. Don't you hear a noise?"
Both were silent. The anxiety with which they listened made the silence intense.
"Don't you hear any thing, Pepe?"
"Pay attention. There, there it is again. It is a noise that sounds as if it might be either very, very distant, or very near. It might either be my mother's breathing or the creaking of the vane on the tower of the cathedral. Ah! I have a very fine ear."
"Too fine! Well, dear cousin, I will carry you upstairs in my arms."
"Very well; carry me to the head of the stairs. Afterward I can go alone. As soon as I rest a little I shall be as well as ever. But don't you hear?"
They stopped on the first step.
"It is a metallic sound."
"Your mother's breathing?"
"No, it is not that. The noise comes from a great distance. Perhaps it is the crowing of a cock?"
"It sounds like the words, 'I am going there, I am going there!'"
"Now, now I hear," murmured Pepe Rey.
"It is a cry."
"It is a cornet."
"Yes. Let us hurry. Orbajosa is going to wake up. Now I hear it clearly. It is not a trumpet but a clarionet. The soldiers are coming."
"I don't know why I imagine that this military invasion is going to be advantageous to me. I feel glad. Up, quickly, Rosario!"
"I feel glad, too. Up, up!"
In an instant he had carried her upstairs, and the lovers took a whispered leave of each other.
"I will stand at the window overlooking the garden, so that you may know I have reached my room safely. Good-by."
"Good-by, Rosario. Take care not to stumble against the furniture."
"I can find my way here perfectly, cousin. We shall soon see each other again. Stand at your window if you wish to receive my telegraphic despatch."
Pepe Rey did as he was bade; but he waited a long time, and Rosario did not appear at the window. The engineer fancied he heard agitated voices on the floor above him.
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