"I HAD her on my lap," said my friend Martinez, "and the warm weight of her healthy body was beginning to tire me.
"The scene... same as usual in such places. Mirrors with blemished surfaces, and names scratched across them, like spiders' webs; sofas of discolored velvet, with springs that creaked atrociously; the bed decorated with theatrical hangings, as clean and common as a sidewalk, and on the walls, pictures of bull-fighters and cheap chromos of angelic virgins smelling a rose or languorously contemplating a bold hunter.
"The scenery was that of the favorite cell in the convent of vice; an elegant room reserved for distinguished patrons; and she was a healthy, robust creature, who seemed to bring a whiff of the pure mountain air into the heavy atmosphere of this closed house, saturated with cheap cologne, rice powder and the vapor from dirty washbasins.
"As she spoke to me she stroked the ribbons of her gown with childish complacency; it was a fine piece of satin, of screaming yellow, somewhat too tight for her body, a dress which I recalled having seen months before on the delicate charms of another girl, who had since died, according to reports, in the hospital.
"Poor girl! She had become a sight! Her coarse, abundant hair, combed in Greek fashion, was adorned with glass beads; her cheeks, shiny from the dew of perspiration, were covered with a thick layer of cosmetic; and as if to reveal her origin, her arms, which were firm, swarthy and of masculine proportions, escaped from the ample sleeves of her chorus-girl costume.
"As she saw me follow with attentive glance all the details of her extravagant array, she thought that I was admiring her, and threw her head back with a petulant expression.
"And such a simple creature!... She hadn't yet become acquainted with the customs of the house, and told the truth,--all the truth--to the men who wished to know her history. They called her Flora; but her real name was Mari-Pepa. She wasn't the orphan of a colonel or a magistrate, nor did she concoct the complicated tales of love and adventure that her companions did, in order to justify their presence in such a place. The truth; always the truth; she would yet be hanged for her frankness. Her parents were comfortably situated farmers in a little town of Aragón; owned their fields, had two mules in the barn, bread, wine, and enough potatoes for the year round; and at night the best fellows in the place came one after the other to soften her heart with serenade upon serenade, trying to carry off her dark, healthy person together with the four orchards she had inherited from her grandfather.
"'But what could you expect, my dear fellow?... I couldn't bear those people. They were too coarse for me. I was born to be a lady. And tell me, why can't I be? Don't I look as good as any of them?...'
"And she snuggled her head against my shoulder, like the docile sweetheart she was,--a slave subjected to all sorts of caprices in exchange for being clothed handsomely.
"' Those fellows,' she continued, 'made me sick. I ran off with the student,--understand?--the son of the town magistrate, and we wandered about until he deserted me, and I landed here, waiting for something better to turn up. You see, it's a short tale.... I don't complain of anything. I'm satisfied.'
"And to show how happy she was, the unhappy girl rode astride my legs, thrust her hard fingers through my hair, rumpling it, and sang a tango in horrible fashion, in her strong, peasant voice.
"I confess that I was seized with an impulse to speak to her 'in the name of morality,'--that hypocritical desire we all possess to propagate virtue when we are sated and desire is dead.
"She raised her eyes, astonished to see me look so solemn, preaching to her, like a missionary glorifying chastity with a prostitute on his knees; her gaze wandered continually from my austere countenance to the bed close by. Her common sense was baffled before the incongruity between such virtue and the excesses of a moment before.
"Suddenly she seemed to understand, and an outburst of laughter swelled her fleshy neck.
"'The deuce!... How amusing you are! And with what a face you say all these things! Just like the priest of my home town....'
"No, Pepa, I'm serious. I believe you're a good girl; you don't realize what you've gone into, and I'm warning you. You've fallen very low, very low. You're at the bottom. Even within the career of vice, the majority of women resist and deny the caresses that are required of you in this house. There is yet time for you to save yourself. Your parents have enough for you to live on; you didn't come here under the necessity of poverty. Return to your home, and the past will be forgotten; you can tell them a lie, invent some sort of tale to justify your flight, and who knows?... One of the fellows that used to serenade you will marry you, you'll have children and you'll be a respectable woman.
"The girl became serious when she saw that I was speaking in earnest. Little by little she began to slip from my knees until she was on her feet, eyeing me fixedly, as if she saw before her some strange person and an invisible wall had arisen between the two.
"'Go back to my home!' she exclaimed in harsh accents. 'Many thanks. I know very well what that means. Get up before dawn, work like a slave, go out in the fields, ruin your hands with callouses. Look, see how my hands still show them.'
"And she made me feel the rough lumps that rose on the palms of her strong hands.
"'And all this, in exchange for what? For being respectable?... Not a bit of it! I'm not that crazy. So much for respectability!'
"And she accompanied these words with some indecent motions that she had picked up from her companions.
"Afterwards, humming a tune, she went over to the mirror to survey herself, and smilingly greeted the reflection of her powdered hair, covered with false pearls, which shone out of the cracked mirror. She contracted her lips, which were rouged like those of a clown.
"Growing more and more firm in my virtuous rôle, I continued to sermonize her from my chair, enveloping this hypocritical propaganda in sonorous words. She was making a bad choice; she must think of the future. The present could not be worse. What was she? Less than a slave; a piece of furniture; they exploited her, they robbed her, and afterwards... afterwards it would be still worse; the hospital, repulsive diseases....
"But again her harsh laughter interrupted me.
"'Quit it, boy. Don't bother me.'
"And planting herself before me she wrapped me in a gaze of infinite compassion.
"'Why my dear fellow, how silly you are! Do you imagine that I can go back to that dog's life, after having tasted this one?... No, sir! I was born for luxury.'
"And, with devoted admiration sweeping her glance across the broken chairs, the faded sofa, and that bed which was a public thoroughfare, she began to walk up and down, revelling in the rustle of her train as it dragged across the room, and caressing the folds of that gown which seemed still to preserve the warmth of the other girl's body."