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There is nothing more entertaining than to search for the cause of some interesting event which surprises or agitates us, and nothing more satisfactory than to discover it. When, seeing violent passions in open or concealed conflict, and led by the natural intuitive impulse which always accompanies human observation we succeed in discovering the hidden source from which that turbulent river had derived its waters, we experience a sensation very similar to the delight of the explorer or the discoverer of an unknown land.
This delight Providence has now bestowed upon us; for, exploring the hidden recesses of the hearts which beat in this story, we have discovered an event that is assuredly the source of the most important events that we have narrated; a passion which is the first drop of water of the impetuous current whose course we are observing.
Let us go on with our story, then. To do so, let us leave Senora de Polentinos, without concerning ourselves in regard to what may have happened to her on the morning of her conversation with Maria Remedios. Returning to her house, full of anxiety, she found herself obliged to endure the apologies and the civilities of Senor Pinzon, who assured her that while he lived her house should not be searched. Dona Perfecta responded haughtily, without deigning to look at him, for which reason he asked her politely for an explanation of her coldness, to which she replied requesting Senor Pinzon to leave her house, deferring to a future occasion the explanation which she would require from him of his perfidious conduct while in it. Don Cayetano arriving at this moment, words were exchanged between the two gentlemen, as between man and man; but as we are more interested at present in another matter, we will leave the Polentinos and the lieutenant-colonel to settle matters between them as best they can, and proceed to examine the question of the sources above mentioned.
Let us fix our attention on Maria Remedios, an estimable woman, to whom it is indispensably necessary to devote a few words. She was a lady, a real lady—for, notwithstanding her humble origin, the virtues of her uncle, Senor Don Inocencio, also of low origin, but elevated by his learning and his estimable qualities, had shed extraordinary lustre over the whole family.
The love of Remedios for Jacinto was one of the strongest passions of which the maternal heart is capable. She loved him with delirium; her son's welfare was her first earthly consideration; she regarded him as the most perfect type of beauty and talent ever created by God, and to see him happy and great and powerful she would have given her whole life and even a part of the life to come. The maternal sentiment is the only one which, because of its nobility and its sanctity, will admit of exaggeration; the only one which the delirium of passion does not debase. Nevertheless it is a singular phenomenon, frequently observed, that this exaltation of maternal affection, if not accompanied with absolute purity of heart and with perfect uprightness is apt to become perverted and transformed into a lamentable frenzy, which may lead, like any other ungoverned passion, to great errors and catastrophies.
In Orbajosa Maria Remedios passed for a model of virtue and a model niece—perhaps she was so in reality. She served with affection all who needed her services; she never gave occasion for gossip or for scandal; she never mixed herself up in intrigues. She carried her religion to the extreme of an offensive fanaticism; she practised charity; she managed her uncle's house with the utmost ability; she was well received, admired and kindly treated everywhere, in spite of the almost intolerable annoyance produced by her persistent habit of sighing and speaking always in a complaining voice.
But in Dona Perfecta's house this excellent lady suffered a species of capitis diminutio. In times far distant and very bitter for the family of the good Penitentiary, Maria Remedios (since it is the truth, why should it not be told?) had been a laundress in the house of Polentinos. And let it not be supposed that Dona Perfecta looked down upon her on this account—nothing of the kind. She behaved to her without any haughtiness; she felt a real sisterly affection for her; they ate together; they prayed together; they confided their troubles to each other; they aided each other in their charities and in their devotions as well as in domestic matters; but, truth to say, there was always a something, there was always a line, invisible but which could not be crossed between the improvised lady and the lady by birth and ancestry. Dona Perfecta addressed Maria as "thou," while the latter could never lay aside certain ceremonial forms. Maria Remedios always felt herself so insignificant in the presence of her uncle's friend that her natural humility had acquired through this feeling a strange tinge of sadness. She saw that the good canon was a species of perpetual Aulic councillor in the house; she saw her idolized Jacintillo mingling on terms of almost lover-like familiarity with the young lady, and nevertheless the poor mother and niece visited the house as little as possible. It is to be observed that Maria Remedios' dignity as a lady suffered not a little in Dona Perfecta's house, and this was disagreeable to her; for in this sighing spirit, too, there was, as there is in every living thing, a little pride. To see her son married to Rosarito, to see him rich and powerful; to see him related to Dona Perfecta, to the senora—ah! this was for Maria Remedios earth and heaven, this life and the next, the present and the future, the supreme totality of existence. For years her mind and her heart had been filled by the light of this sweet hope. Because of this hope she was good and she was bad; because of it she was religious and humble, or fierce and daring; because of it she was whatever she was—for without this idea Maria, who was the incarnation of her project, would not exist.
In person, Maria Remedios could not be more insignificant than she was. She was remarkable for a surprising freshness and robustness which made her look much younger than she really was, and she always dressed in mourning, although her widowhood was now of long standing.
Five days had passed since the entrance of Caballuco into the Penitentiary's house. It was evening. Remedios entered her uncle's room with the lighted lamp, which she placed on the table. She then seated herself in front of the old man, who, for a great part of the afternoon, had been sitting motionless and thoughtful in his easy chair. His fingers supported his chin, wrinkling up the brown skin, unshaven for the past three days.
"Did Caballuco say he would come here to supper to-night?" he asked his niece.
"Yes, senor, he will come. It is in a respectable house like this that the poor fellow is most secure."
"Well, I am not altogether easy in my mind, in spite of the respectability of the house," answered the Penitentiary. "How the brave Ramos exposes himself! And I am told that in Villahorrenda and the surrounding country there are a great many men. I don't know how many men——What have you heard?"
"That the soldiers are committing atrocities."
"It is a miracle that those Hottentots have not searched the house! I declare that if I see one of the red-trousered gentry enter the house, I shall fall down speechless."
"This is a nice condition of things!" said Remedios, exhaling half her soul in a sigh. "I cannot get out of my head the idea of the tribulation in which Senora Dona Perfecta finds herself. Uncle, you ought to go there."
"Go there to-night? The military are parading the streets! Imagine that some insolent soldier should take it into his head to——The senora is well protected. The other day they searched the house and they carried off the six armed men she had there; but afterward they sent them back to her. We have no one to protect us in case of an attack."
"I sent Jacinto to the senora's, to keep her company for a while. If Caballuco comes, we will tell him to stop in there, too. No one can put it out of my head but that those rascals are plotting some piece of villany against our friend. Poor senora, poor Rosarito! When one thinks that this might have been avoided by what I proposed to Dona Perfecta two days ago——"
"My dear niece," said the Penitentiary phlegmatically, "we have done all that it was in human power to do to carry out our virtuous purpose. More we cannot do. Convince yourself of this, and do not be obstinate. Rosarito cannot be the wife of our idolized Jacintillo. Your golden dream, your ideal of happiness, that at one time seemed attainable, and to which like a good uncle, I devoted all the powers of my understanding, has become chimerical, has vanished into smoke. Serious obstructions, the wickedness of a man, the indubitable love of the girl, and other things, regarding which I am silent, have altered altogether the condition of affairs. We were in a fair way to conquer, and suddenly we are conquered. Ah, niece! convince yourself of one thing. As matters are now, Jacinto deserves something a great deal better than that crazy girl."
"Caprices and obstinate notions!" responded Maria, with an ill-humor that was far from respectful. "That's a pretty thing to say now, uncle! The great minds are outshining themselves, now. Dona Perfecta with her lofty ideas, and you with your doubts and fears—of much use either of you is. It is a pity that God made me such a fool and gave me an understanding of brick and mortar, as the senora says, for if that wasn't the case I would soon settle the question."
"If she and you had allowed me, it would be settled already."
"By the beating?"
"There's no occasion for you to be frightened or to open your eyes like that. There is no question of killing any body. What an idea!"
"Beating," said the canon, smiling, "is like scratching—when one begins one doesn't know when to leave off."
"Bah! say too that I am cruel and blood-thirsty. I wouldn't have the courage to kill a fly; it's not very likely that I should desire the death of a man."
"In fine, child, no matter what objections you may make, Senor Don Pepe Rey will carry off the girl. It is not possible now to prevent it. He is ready to employ every means, including dishonor. If Rosarito—how she deceived us with that demure little face and those heavenly eyes, eh!—if Rosarito, I say, did not herself wish it, then all might be arranged, but alas! she loves him as the sinner loves Satan; she is consumed with a criminal passion; she has fallen, niece, into the snares of the Evil One. Let us be virtuous and upright; let us turn our eyes away from the ignoble pair, and think no more about either of them."
"You know nothing about women, uncle," said Remedios, with flattering hypocrisy; "you are a holy man; you do not understand that Rosario's feeling is only a passing caprice, one of those caprices that are cured by a sound whipping."
"Niece," said Don Inocencio gravely and sententiously, "when serious things have taken place, caprices are not called caprices, but by another name."
"Uncle, you don't know what you are talking about," responded Maria Remedios, her face flushing suddenly. "What! would you be capable of supposing that Rosarito—what an atrocity! I will defend her; yes, I will defend her. She is as pure as an angel. Why, uncle, those things bring a blush to my cheek, and make me indignant with you."
As she spoke the good priest's face was darkened by a cloud of sadness that made him look ten years older.
"My dear Remedios," he said, "we have done all that is humanly possible, and all that in conscience we can or ought to do. Nothing could be more natural than our desire to see Jacintillo connected with that great family, the first in Orbajosa; nothing more natural than our desire to see him master of the seven houses in the town, the meadow of Mundogrande, the three gardens of the upper farm, La Encomienda, and the other lands and houses which that girl owns. Your son has great merit, every one knows it well. Rosarito liked him, and he liked Rosarito. The matter seemed settled. Dona Perfecta herself, without being very enthusiastic, doubtless on account of our origin, seemed favorably disposed toward it, because of her great esteem and veneration for me, as her confessor and friend. But suddenly this unlucky young man presents himself. The senora tells me that she has given her word to her brother, and that she cannot reject the proposal made by him. A difficult situation! But what do I do in view of all this? Ah, you don't know every thing! I will be frank with you. If I had found Senor de Rey to be a man of good principles, calculated to make Rosario happy, I would not have interfered in the matter; but the young man appeared to me to be a wretch, and, as the spiritual director of the house, it was my duty to take a hand in the business, and I took it. You know already that I determined to unmask him. I exposed his vices; I made manifest his atheism; I laid bare to the view of all the rottenness of that materialistic heart, and the senora was convinced that in giving her daughter to him, she would be delivering her up to vice. Ah, what anxieties I endured! The senora vacillated; I strengthened her wavering mind; I advised her concerning the means she might lawfully employ to send her nephew away without scandal. I suggested ingenious ideas to her; and as she often spoke to me of the scruples that troubled her tender conscience, I tranquillized her, pointing out to her how far it was allowable for us to go in our fight against that lawless enemy. Never did I counsel violent or sanguinary measures or base outrages, but always subtle artifices, in which there was no sin. My mind is tranquil, my dear niece. But you know that I struggled hard, that I worked like a negro. Ah! when I used to come home every night and say, 'Mariquilla, we are getting on well, we are getting on very well,' you used to be wild with delight, and you would kiss my hands again and again, and say I was the best man on earth. Why do you fly into a passion now, disfiguring your noble character and peaceable disposition? Why do you scold me? Why do you say that you are indignant, and tell me in plain terms that I am nothing better than an idiot?"
"Because," said the woman, without any diminution of her rage, "because you have grown faint-hearted all of a sudden."
"The thing is that every thing is going against us, woman. That confounded engineer, protected as he is by the army, is resolved to dare every thing. The girl loves him, the girl—I will say no more. It cannot be; I tell you that it cannot be."
"The army! But do you believe, like Dona Perfecta, that there is going to be a war, and that to drive Don Pepe from the town it will be necessary for one half of the nation to rise up against the other half? The senora has lost her senses, and you are in a fair way to lose yours."
"I believe as she does. In view of the intimate connection of Rey with the soldiers the personal question assumes larger proportions. But, ah, niece! if two days ago I entertained the hope that our valiant townsmen would kick the soldiers out of the town, since I have seen the turn things have taken, since I have seen that most of them have been surprised before fighting, and that Caballuco is in hiding and that the insurrection is going to the devil, I have lost confidence in every thing. The good doctrines have not yet acquired sufficient material force to tear in pieces the ministers and the emissaries of error. Ah, niece! resignation, resignation!"
And Don Inocencio, employing the method of expression which characterized his niece, heaved two or three profound sighs. Maria, contrary to what might have been expected, maintained absolute silence. She showed now neither anger nor the superficial sentimentality of her ordinary life; but only a profound and humble grief. Shortly after the good canon had ended his peroration two tears rolled down his niece's rosy cheeks; before long were heard a few half-suppressed sighs, and gradually, as the swell and tumult of a sea that is beginning to be stormy rise higher and higher and become louder and louder, so the surge of Maria Remedios' grief rose and swelled, until it at last broke forth in a flood of tears.
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