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See with what tranquillity Senora Dona Perfecta pursues her occupation of writing. Enter her room, and, notwithstanding the lateness of the hour, you will surprise her busily engaged, her mind divided between meditation and the writing of several long and carefully worded epistles traced with a firm hand, every hair-stroke of every letter in which is correctly formed. The light of the lamp falls full upon her face and bust and hands, its shade leaving the rest of her person and almost the whole of the room in a soft shadow. She seems like a luminous figure evoked by the imagination from amid the vague shadows of fear.
It is strange that we should not have made before this a very important statement, which is that Dona Perfecta was handsome, or rather that she was still handsome, her face preserving the remains of former beauty. The life of the country, her total lack of vanity, her disregard for dress and personal adornment, her hatred of fashion, her contempt for the vanities of the capital, were all causes why her native beauty did not shine or shone very little. The intense shallowness of her complexion, indicating a very bilious constitution, still further impaired her beauty.
Her eyes black and well-opened, her nose finely and delicately shaped, her forehead broad and smooth, she was considered by all who saw her as a finished type of the human figure; but there rested on those features a certain hard and proud expression which excited a feeling of antipathy. As some persons, although ugly, attract; Dona Perfecta repelled. Her glance, even when accompanied by amiable words, placed between herself and those who were strangers to her the impassable distance of a mistrustful respect; but for those of her house—that is to say, for her relations, admirers, and allies—she possessed a singular attraction. She was a mistress in governing, and no one could equal her in the art of adapting her language to the person whom she was addressing.
Her bilious temperament and an excessive association with devout persons and things, which excited her imagination without object or result, had aged her prematurely, and although she was still young she did not seem so. It might be said of her that with her habits and manner of life she had wrought a sort of rind, a stony, insensible covering within which she shut herself, like the snail within his portable house. Dona Perfecta rarely came out of her shell.
Her irreproachable habits, and that outward amiability which we have observed in her from the moment of her appearance in our story, were the causes of the great prestige which she enjoyed in Orbajosa. She kept up relations, besides, with some excellent ladies in Madrid, and it was through their means that she obtained the dismissal of her nephew. At the moment which we have now arrived in our story, we find her seated at her desk, which is the sole confidant of her plans and the depository of her numerical accounts with the peasants, and of her moral accounts with God and with society. There she wrote the letters which her brother received every three months; there she composed the notes that incited the judge and the notary to embroil Pepe Rey in lawsuits; there she prepared the plot through which the latter lost the confidence of the Government; there she held long conferences with Don Inocencio. To become acquainted with the scene of others of her actions whose effects we have observed, it would be necessary to follow her to the episcopal palace and to the houses of various of her friends.
We do not know what Dona Perfecta would have been, loving. Hating, she had the fiery vehemence of an angel of hatred and discord among men. Such is the effect produced on a character naturally hard, and without inborn goodness, by religious exaltation, when this, instead of drawing its nourishment from conscience and from truth revealed in principles as simple as they are beautiful, seeks its sap in narrow formulas dictated solely by ecclesiastical interests. In order that religious fanaticism should be inoffensive, the heart in which it exists must be very pure. It is true that even in that case it is unproductive of good. But the hearts that have been born without the seraphic purity which establishes a premature Limbo on the earth, are careful not to become greatly inflamed with what they see in retables, in choirs, in locutories and sacristies, unless they have first erected in their own consciences an altar, a pulpit, and a confessional.
Dona Perfecta left her writing from time to time, to go into the adjoining room where her daughter was. Rosarito had been ordered to sleep, but, already precipitated down the precipice of disobedience, she was awake.
"Why don't you sleep?" her mother asked her. "I don't intend to go to bed to-night. You know already that Caballuco has taken away with him the men we had here. Something might happen, and I will keep watch. If I did not watch what would become of us both?"
"What time is it?" asked the girl.
"It will soon be midnight. Perhaps you are not afraid, but I am."
Rosarito was trembling, and every thing about her denoted the keenest anxiety. She lifted her eyes to heaven supplicatingly, and then turned them on her mother with a look of the utmost terror.
"Why, what is the matter with you?"
"Did you not say it was midnight?"
"Then——But is it already midnight?"
Rosario made an effort to speak, then shook her head, on which the weight of a world was pressing.
"Something is the matter with you; you have something on your mind," said her mother, fixing on her daughter her penetrating eyes.
"Yes—I wanted to tell you," stammered the girl, "I wanted to say——Nothing, nothing, I will go to sleep."
"Rosario, Rosario! your mother can read your heart like an open book," exclaimed Dona Perfecta with severity. "You are agitated. I have told you already that I am willing to pardon you if you will repent; if you are a good and sensible girl."
"Why, am I not good? Ah, mamma, mamma! I am dying!"
Rosario burst into a flood of bitter and disconsolate tears.
"What are these tears about?" said her mother, embracing her. "If they are tears of repentance, blessed be they."
"I don't repent, I can't repent!" cried the girl, in a burst of sublime despair.
She lifted her head and in her face was depicted a sudden inspired strength. Her hair fell in disorder over her shoulders. Never was there seen a more beautiful image of a rebellious angel.
"What is this? Have you lost your senses?" said Dona Perfecta, laying both her hands on her daughter's shoulders.
"I am going away, I am going away!" said the girl, with the exaltation of delirium.
And she sprang out of bed.
"Rosario, Rosario——My daughter! For God's sake, what is this?"
"Ah, mamma, senora!" exclaimed the girl, embracing her mother; "bind me fast!"
"In truth you would deserve it. What madness is this?"
"Bind me fast! I am going away—I am going away with him!"
Dona Perfecta felt a flood of fire surging from her heart up to her lips. She controlled herself, however, and answered her daughter only with her eyes, blacker than the night.
"Mamma, mamma, I hate all that is not he!" exclaimed Rosario. "Hear my confession, for I wish to confess it to every one, and to you first of all."
"You are going to kill me; you are killing me!"
"I want to confess it, so that you may pardon me. This weight, this weight that is pressing me down, will not let me live."
"The weight of a sin! Add to it the malediction of God, and see if you can carry that burden about with you, wretched girl! Only I can take it from you."
"No, not you, not you!" cried Rosario, with desperation. "But hear me; I want to confess it all, all! Afterward, turn me out of this house where I was born."
"I turn you out!"
"I will go away, then."
"Still less. I will teach you a daughter's duty, which you have forgotten."
"I will fly, then; he will take me with him!"
"Has he told you to do so? has he counselled you to do that? has he commanded you to do that?" asked the mother, launching these words like thunderbolts against her daughter.
"He has counselled me to do it. We have agreed to be married. We must be married, mamma, dear mamma. I will love you—I know that I ought to love you—I shall be forever lost if I do not love you."
She wrung her hands, and falling on her knees kissed her mother's feet.
"Rosario, Rosario!" cried Dona Perfecta, in a terrible voice, "rise!"
There was a short pause.
"This man—has he written to you?"
"And have you seen him again since that night?"
"And you have written to him!"
"I have written to him also. Oh, senora! why do you look at me in that way? You are not my mother.
"Would to God that I were not! Rejoice in the harm you are doing me. You are killing me; you have given me my death-blow!" cried Dona Perfecta, with indescribable agitation. "You say that this man—"
"Is my husband—I will be his wife, protected by the law. You are not a woman! Why do you look at me in that way? You make me tremble. Mother, mother, do not condemn me!"
"You have already condemned yourself—that is enough. Obey me, and I will forgive you. Answer me—when did you receive letters from that man?"
"What treachery! What infamy!" cried her mother, roaring rather than speaking. "Had you appointed a meeting?"
"Here, here! I will confess every thing, every thing! I know it is a crime. I am a wretch; but you who are my mother will take me out of this hell. Give your consent. Say one word to me, only one word!"
"That man here in my house!" cried Dona Perfecta, springing back several paces from her daughter.
Rosario followed her on her knees. At the same instant three blows were heard, three crashes, three reports. It was the heart of Maria Remedios knocking at the door through the knocker. The house trembled with awful dread. Mother and daughter stood motionless as statues.
A servant went down stairs to open the door, and shortly afterward Maria Remedios, who was not now a woman but a basilisk enveloped in a mantle, entered Dona Perfecta's room. Her face, flushed with anxiety, exhaled fire.
"He is there, he is there!" she said, as she entered. "He got into the garden through the condemned door."
She paused for breath at every syllable.
"I know already," returned Dona Perfecta, with a sort of bellow.
Rosario fell senseless on the floor.
"Let us go down stairs," said Dona Perfecta, without paying any attention to her daughter's swoon.
The two women glided down stairs like two snakes. The maids and the man-servant were in the hall, not knowing what to do. Dona Perfecta passed through the dining-room into the garden, followed by Maria Remedios.
"Fortunately we have Ca-Ca-Ca-balluco there," said the canon's niece.
"In the garden, also. He cli-cli-climbed over the wall."
Dona Perfecta explored the darkness with her wrathful eyes. Rage gave them the singular power of seeing in the dark peculiar to the feline race.
"I see a figure there," she said. "It is going toward the oleanders."
"It is he!" cried Remedios. "But there comes Ramos—Ramos!"
The colossal figure of the Centaur was plainly distinguishable.
"Toward the oleanders, Ramos! Toward the oleanders!"
Dona Perfecta took a few steps forward. Her hoarse voice, vibrating with a terrible accent, hissed forth these words:
"Cristobal, Cristobal—kill him!"
A shot was heard. Then another.
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