Chapter XXV.
 

Casa Grande held three jealous women. The situation had its comic aspect, but was tragic enough to the actors.

In the evening the lingering guests of the house and the neighbors of the town assembled as usual for the dance. Only Estenega absented himself. Valencia stood her ground: she would not go while Estenega remained. Chonita moved proudly among her guests, and never had been more gracious. Valencia dared not meet her eyes nor mine, but, seeing that Prudencia was watching her, avenged her own disquiet by enhancing that of the bride. Never did she flirt so imperiously with Reinaldo as she did that fateful night; and Reinaldo, who was man's vanity collected and compounded, devoted himself to the dashing beauty. Her cheeks burned with excitement, her eyes were restless and flashing.

The music stopped. The women were eating the dulces passed by the Indian servants. The men had not yet gone into the dining-room. Valencia dropped her handkerchief; Reinaldo, stooping to recover it, kissed her hand behind its flimsy shelter.

Then Prudencia arose. She trailed her long gown down the room between the two rows of people staring at her grim eyes and pressed lips; her little head, with its high comb, stiffly erect. She walked straight up to Reinaldo and boxed his ears before the assembled company.

"Thou wilt flirt no more with other women," she said, in a loud, clear voice. "Thou art my husband, and thou wilt not forget it again. Come with me."

And, amidst the silence of mountain-tops in a snow-storm, he stumbled to his feet and followed her from the room.

I could not sleep that night. In spite of the amusement I had felt at Prudencia's coup-d'etat, I was oppressed by the chill and foreboding which seemed to emanate from Chonita and pervade the house. I knew that terrible calm was like the menacing stillness of the hours before an earthquake. What would she do in the coming convulsion? I shuddered and tormented myself with many imaginings.

I became so nervous that I rose and dressed and went out upon the corridor and walked up and down. It was very late, and the moon was risen, but the corners were dark. Figures seemed to start from them, but my nerves were strong; I never had given way to fear.

My thoughts wandered to Estenega. Who shall judge the complex heart of a man? the deep, intense, lasting devotion he may have for the one woman he recognizes as his soul's own, and yet the strange wayward wanderings of his fancy,--the nomadic assertion of the animal; the passionate love he may feel for this woman of all women, yet the reserve in which he always holds her, never knowing her quite as well as he has known other women; the last test of highest love, passion without sensuality? And yet the regret that she does not gratify every side of his nature, even while he would not have her; regret for the terrible incongruity of human nature, the mingling of the beast and the divine, which cannot find satisfaction in the same woman; whatever the fire in her, she cannot gratify the instincts which rage below passion in man, without losing the purity of mind which he adores in her. She, too, feels a vague regret that some portion of his nature is a sealed book to her, forever beyond her ken. But her regret is nothing to his: he knows, and she does not.

My meditations were interrupted suddenly. I heard a door stealthily opened. I knew before turning that the door was that of Chonita's room, the last at the end of the right wing. It opened, and she came out. It was as if a face alone came out. She was shrouded from head to foot in black, and her face was as white as the moon. Possessed by a nameless but overwhelming fear, I turned the knob of the door nearest me and almost fell into the room. I closed the door behind me, but there was no key. By the strip of white light which entered through the crevice between the half-open shutters I saw that I was in the room of Valencia Menendez; but she slept soundly and had not heard me.

I stood still, listening, for many minutes. At first there was no sound; I evidently had startled her, and she was waiting for the house to be still again. At last I heard some one gliding down the corridor. Then, suddenly, I knew that she was coming to this room, and, possessed by a horrible curiosity and growing terror, I sank on my knees in a corner.

The door opened noiselessly, and Chonita entered. Again I saw only her white face, rigid as death, but the eyes flamed with the terrible passions that her soul had flung up from its depths at last. Then I saw another white object,--her hand. But there was no knife in it. Had there been, I think I should have shaken off the spell which controlled me: I never would see murder done. It was the awe of the unknown that paralyzed my muscles. She bent over Valencia, who moved uneasily and cast her arms above her head. I saw her touch her finger to the sleeping woman's mouth, inserting it between the lips. Then she moved backward and stood by the head of the bed, facing the window. She raised herself to her full height and extended her arms horizontally. The position gave her the form of a cross--a black cross, topped and pointed with malevolent white; one hand was spread above Valencia's face. She was the most awful sight I ever beheld. She uttered no sound; she scarcely breathed. Suddenly, with the curve of a panther, her figure glided above the unconscious woman, her open hand describing a strange motion; then she melted from the room.

Valencia awoke, shrieking.

"Some one has cursed me!" she cried. "Mother of God! Some one has cursed me!"

I fled from the room, to faint upon my own bed.