“Great heavens! What a woman!” cried the captain, and stamped with fury. “Not without reason have I been trembling and in fear of her from the first time I saw her! It must have been a warning of fate that I stopped playing écarté with her. It was also a bad omen that I passed so many sleepless nights. Was there ever mortal in a worse perplexity than I am? How can I leave her alone without a protector, loving her, as I do, more than my own life? And, on the other hand, how can I marry her, after all my declaimings against marriage?”
Then turning to Augustias—”What would they say of me in the club? What would people say of me, if they met me in the street with a woman on my arm, or if they found me at home, just about to feed a child in swaddling clothes? I—to have children? To worry about them? To live in eternal fear that they might fall sick or die? Augustias, believe me, as true as there is a God above us, I am absolutely unfit for it! I should behave in such a way that after a short while you would call upon heaven either to be divorced or to become a widow. Listen to my advice: do not marry me, even if I ask you.”
“What a strange creature you are,” said the young woman, without allowing herself to be at all discomposed, and sitting very erect in her chair. “All that you are only telling to yourself! From what do you conclude that I wish to be married to you; that I would accept your offer, and that I should not prefer living by myself, even if I had to work day and night, as so many girls do who are orphans?”
“How do I come to that conclusion?” answered the captain with the greatest candor. “Because it cannot be otherwise. Because we love each other. Because we are drawn to each other. Because a man such as I, and a woman such as you, cannot live in any other way! Do you suppose I do not understand that? Don’t you suppose I have reflected on it before now? Do you think I am indifferent in your good name and reputation? I have spoken plainly in order to speak, in order to fly from my own conviction, in order to examine whether I can escape from this terrible dilemma which is robbing me of my sleep, and whether I can possibly find an expedient so that I need not marry you—to do which I shall finally be compelled, if you stand by your resolve to make your way alone!”
“Alone! Alone!” repeated Augustias, roguishly. “And why not with a worthier companion? Who tells you that I shall not some day meet a man whom I like, and who is not afraid to marry me?”
“Augustias! let us skip that!” growled the captain, his face turning scarlet.
“And why should we not talk about it?”
“Let us pass over that, and let me say, at the same time, that I will murder the man who dares to ask for your hand. But it is madness on my part to be angry without any reason. I am not so dull as not to see how we two stand. Shall I tell you? We love each other. Do not tell me I am mistaken! That would be lying. And here is the proof: if you did not love me, I, too, should not love you! Let us try to meet one another halfway. I ask for a delay of ten years. When I shall have completed my half century, and when, a feeble old man, I shall have become familiar with the idea of slavery, then we will marry without anyone knowing about it. We will leave Madrid, and go to the country, where we shall have no spectators, where there will be nobody to make fun of me. But until this happens, please take half of my income secretly, and without any human soul ever knowing anything about it. You continue to live here, and I remain in my house. We will see each other, but only in the presence of witnesses—for instance, in society. We will write to each other every day. So as not to endanger your good name, I will never pass through this street, and on Memorial Day only we will go to the cemetery together with Rosa.”
Augustias could not but smile at the last proposal of the good captain, and her smile was not mocking, but contented and happy, as if some cherished hope had dawned in her heart, as if it were the first ray of the sun of happiness which was about to rise in her heaven! But being a woman—though as brave and free from artifices as few of them—she yet managed to subdue the signs of joy rising within her. She acted as if she cherished not the slightest hope, and said with a distant coolness which is usually the special and genuine sign of chaste reserve:
“You make yourself ridiculous with your peculiar conditions. You stipulate for the gift of an engagement-ring, for which nobody has yet asked you.”
“I know still another way out—for a compromise, but that is really the last one. Do you fully understand, my young lady from Aragon? It is the last way out, which a man, also from Aragon, begs leave to explain to you.”
She turned her head and looked straight into his eyes, with an expression indescribably earnest, captivating, quiet, and full of expectation.
The captain had never seen her features so beautiful and expressive; at that moment she looked to him like a queen.
“Augustias,” said, or rather stammered, this brave soldier, who had been under fire a hundred times, and who had made such a deep impression on the young girl through his charging under a rain of bullets like a lion, “I have the honor to ask for your hand on one certain, essential, unchangeable condition. Tomorrow morning—today—a soon as the papers are in order—as quickly as possible. I can live without you no longer!”
The glances of the young girl became milder, and she rewarded him for his decided heroism with a tender and bewitching smile.
“But I repeat that it is on one condition,” the bold warrior hastened to repeat, feeling that Augustias’s glances made him confused and weak.
“On what condition?” asked the young girl, turning fully round, and now holding him under the witchery of her sparkling black eyes.
“On the condition,” he stammered, “that, in case we have children, we send them to the orphanage. I mean—on this point I will never yield. Well, do you consent? For heaven’s sake, say yes!”
“Why should I not consent to it, Captain Veneno?” answered Augustias, with a peal of laughter. “You shall take them there yourself, or, better still, we both of us will take them there. And we will give them up without kissing them, or anything else! Don’t you think we shall take them there?”
Thus spoke Augustias, and looked at the captain with exquisite joy in her eyes. The good captain thought he would die of happiness; a flood of tears burst from his eyes; he folded the blushing girl in his arms, and said:
“So I am lost?”
“Irretrievably lost, Captain Veneno,” answered Augustias.
One morning in May, 1852—that is, four years after the scene just described—a friend of mine, who told me this story, stopped his horse in front of a mansion on San Francisco Avenue, in Madrid; he threw the reins to his groom, and asked the long-coated footman who met him at the door:
“Is your master at home?”
“If your honor will be good enough to walk upstairs, you will find him in the library. His excellency does not like to have visitors announced. Everybody can go up to him directly.”
“Fortunately I know the house thoroughly,” said the stranger to himself, while he mounted the stairs. “In the library! Well, well, who would have thought of Captain Veneno ever taking to the sciences?”
Wandering through the rooms, the visitor met another servant, who repeated, “The master is in the library.” And at last he came to the door of the room in question, opened it quickly, and stood, almost turned to stone for astonishment, before the remarkable group which it offered to his view.
In the middle of the room, on the carpet which covered the floor, a man was crawling on all-fours. On his back rode a little fellow about three years old, who was kicking the man’s sides with his heels. Another small boy, who might have been a year and a half old, stood in front of the man’s head, and had evidently been tumbling his hair. One hand held the father’s neckerchief, and the little fellow was tugging at it as if it had been a halter, shouting with delight in his merry child’s voice:
“Gee up, donkey! Gee up!”