Chapter XXIV.
 

A rodeo was held the next day,--the last of the festivities;--Don Guillermo taking advantage of the gathering of the rancheros. It was to take place on the Cerros Rancho, which adjoined the Rancho de las Rocas. We went early, most of us dismounting and taking to the platform on one side of the circular rodeo-ground. The vaqueros were already galloping over the hills, shouting and screaming to the cattle, who ran to them like dogs; soon a herd came rushing down into the circle, where they were thrown down and branded, the stray cattle belonging to neighbors separated and corralled. This happened again and again, the interest and excitement growing with each round-up.

Once a bull, seeing his chance, darted from his herd and down the valley. A vaquero started after him; but Reinaldo, anxious to display his skill in horsemanship, and being still mounted, called to the vaquero to stop, dashed after the animal, caught it by its tail, spurred his horse ahead, let go the tail at the right moment, and, amidst shouts of "Coliar!" "Coliar!" the bull was ignominiously rolled in the dust, then meekly preceded Reinaldo back to the rodeo-ground.

After the dinner under the trees most of the party returned to the platform, but Estenega, Adan, Chonita, Valencia, and myself strolled about the rancho. Adan walked at Chonita's side, more faithful than her shadow. Valencia's black eyes flashed their language so plainly to Estenega's that he could not have deserted her without rudeness; and Estenega never was rude.

"Adan," said Chonita, abruptly, "I am tired of thee. Sit down under that tree until I come back. I wish to walk alone with Eustaquia for awhile."

Adan sighed and did as he was bidden, consoling himself with a cigarito. Taking a different path from the one the others followed, we walked some distance, talking of ordinary matters, both avoiding the subject of Diego Estenega by common consent. And yet I was convinced that she carried on a substratum of thought of which he was the subject, even while she talked coherently to me. On our way back the conversation died for want of bone and muscle, and, as it happened, we were both silent as we approached a small adobe hut. As we turned the corner we came upon Estenega and Valencia. He had just bent his head and kissed her.

Valencia fled like a hare. Estenega turned the hue of chalk, and I knew that blue lightning was flashing in his disconcerted brain. I felt the chill of Chonita as she lifted herself to the rigidity of a statue and swept slowly down the path.

"Diego, you are a fool!" I exclaimed, when she was out of hearing.

"You need not tell me that," he said, savagely. "But what in heaven's name--Well, never mind. For God's sake straighten it out with her. Tell her--explain to her--what men are. Tell her that the present woman is omnipotently present--no, don't tell her that. Tell her that history is full of instances of men who have given one woman the devoted love of a lifetime and been unfaithful to her every week in the year. Explain to her that a man to love one woman must love all women. And she has sufficient proof that I love her and no other woman: I want to marry her, not Valencia Menendez. Heaven knows I will be true to her when I have her. I could not be otherwise. But I need not explain to you. Set it right with her. She has brain, and can be made to understand."

I shook my head. "You cannot reason with inexperience; and when it is allied to jealousy--God of my soul! Her ideal, of course, is perfection, and does not take human weakness into account. You have fallen short of it to-day. I fear your cause is lost."

"It is not! Do you think I will give her up for a trifle like that?"

"But why not accept this break? You cannot marry her--"

"Oh, do not refer to that nonsense!" he exclaimed, harshly. "I shall peel off her traditions when the time comes, as I would strip off the outer hulls of a nut. Go! Go, Eustaquia!"

Of course I went. Chonita was not at the rodeo-ground, but, escorted by her father, had gone home. I followed immediately, and when I reached Casa Grande I found her sitting in her library. I never saw a statue look more like marble. Her face was locked: only the eyes betrayed the soul in torment. But she looked as immutable as a fate.

"Chonita," I exclaimed, hardly knowing where to begin, "be reasonable. Men of Estenega's brain and passionate affectionate nature are always weak with women, but it means nothing. He cares nothing for Valencia Menendez. He is madly in love with you. And his weakness, my dear, springs from the same source as his charm. He would not be the man he is without it. His heart would be less kindly, his impulses less generous, his brain less virile, his sympathies less instinctive and true. The strong impregnable man, the man whom no vice tempts, no weakness assails, who is loyal without effort,--such a man lacks breadth and magnetism and the power to read the human heart and sympathize with both its noble impulses and its terrible weaknesses. Such men--I never have known it to fail--are full of petty vanities and egoisms and contemptible weaknesses, the like of which Estenega could not be capable of. No man can be perfect, and it is the man of great strength and great weakness who alone understands and sympathizes with human nature, who is lovable and magnetic, and who has the power to rouse the highest as well as the most passionate love of a woman. Such men cause infinite suffering, but they can give a happiness that makes the suffering worth while. You never will meet another man like Diego Estenega. Do not cast him lightly aside."

"Do I understand," said Chonita, in a perfectly unmoved voice, "that you are counseling me to marry an Estenega and the man who would send me to Hell hereafter? Do you forget my vow?"

I came to myself with a shock. In the enthusiasm of my defense I had forgotten the situation.

"At least forgive him," I said, lamely.

"I have nothing to forgive," she said. "He is nothing to me."

I knew that it was useless to argue with her.

"I have a favor to ask of you," she said. "Most of our guests leave this afternoon: will you let me sleep alone to-night?"

I should have liked to put my arm about her and give her a woman's sympathy, but I did not dare. All I could do was to leave her alone.