"A Conquest"

by

Horacio Quiroga



HE

Every four or five days, and for the past two months, I receive letters from a stranger who, between traits of ingenuity and esprit, agitates me more than I would like.

These are not the first letters of feminine admiration that I receive, you understand. Any middling writer has a large file of such letters. Literary girls who read a lot and do not write, are usually the most specialized in this mysterious correspondence, rarely artistic, almost always sentimental, and usually sterile.

As a critic, I am favored with admiring and perfumed epistles, where you aspire to the language of the girl who is about to embark on writing, or who, already writing, mellifluously anticipate the judgment of your next book.

With a little practice, you get to know by the first line exactly what the effusive correspondent is looking for. Hence, there are very kind letters that we are relieved to respond well to, and others that are placid, serious--almost theosophical--that we hasten to answer with a long, drawn-out smile.

But of this anonymous and candid fan I did not know what to think. Twice I have slipped cautiously, and by the absurd naivete of her answer I have understood my mistake.

What the hell does she mean? To tie me hand and foot to read a manuscript?

Neither, from what I see. I have asked her to send me her portrait; very nice change of photographs. She told me that having four or five portraits of mine cut out of the magazines at the head of her bed, she feels fully satisfied about it. This is fine with me. As for herself, she is "hardly a gallant girl, unworthy of being closely watched by a man of as good taste as I am".

Not too silly, right?

But she seeks to read me a little novel...or something else. If being ugly calls for nothing but praise, I should be disappointed after my first warning, because there is no woman capable of making mistakes about the illusions of a fashionable writer, when he insists on writing to a humble girl who admires him.

It's cute, then; she writes novels in sheets torn from a notebook, and has set out to conquer a critic. Let's help her.

I just sent her four lines in these terms or something like them:

"Miss: Don't you think it's time for us to meet? With all the esteem that I profess, I wouldn't be able to continue a correspondence that exposes me to leave in it more illusions of what I'm supposed to receive. You're not ugly, are you, miss? I trust that you will not give me the displeasure of letting me keep guessing, denying me the pleasure of seeing you."

Voilá. I'm not unaware of what I'm presenting in this letter. If the girl is not truly cute, she doesn't interest me. And this is to say nothing of her indignation at the Don Juan-like ultimatum that this note comes with. From "Maestro", with a capital M, I become "critic," and I will not find an enemy more heated and stubborn than my admirer of yesterday.

But if she seriously wants to write, and God has given her one of those little faces that are given to the eyes of a man like a mute and regal business card, she will quail before the homage of her great man.

Here is the answer. She just arrived. She grants me the requested disgust of a new disappointment; and for her, the honor of seeing it in my suddenly cold eyes.

Perfect. I am going to meet you, tasting the next moment when that card will be presented to me, and from one moment to the next I will have to take it in my hands.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

When, my God! I have her before me, looking at me blushing, and I repeat to myself incessantly about looking at her and speaking to her: When, when!

I have some experience as a "man of taste", and I master the expression of my eyes well. But now I feel them tremble in an imperceptible flutter, while I follow the lines of her mouth when speaking, and I inhale all the perfume from her.

And that beauty, having delayed for two months the spell of feeling it cut before me, calling me with a deep voice: "Master!"

-Oh, no, I do not write! -she tells me-. I read a lot, and I'm very happy when I have a good book.

-A novel?

-And also verses. But I do not understand much about verse ... What I love is the criticism. When I find a masterly opinion expressed by a writer what I feel with a reading that I can not define, oh, I consider myself truly happy!

-And of that happiness, does not a little bit reach your critic?

She looks at me then sideways, smiling with a new blush:

-Figure that out for yourself!

And as this happens, I ask myself incessantly how and why this beautiful girl has resisted for two months the pride of feeling very close to the man whose art she admires to the point of giving her total adoration: "Master!"

Too much admiration, that's what it is. And now I appreciate the absurd naivete of her response to the insinuation that I noted.

But if there is nothing else, why did she refuse to see me, and tell me that she was ugly, and why does she have five portraits of me stuck on her wall?

This is what I should clarify in another conversation.

Another one? ... Maybe; but not right there, in the middle of the street. And she makes me realize then that she is not free, even though she has allowed me to call her a lady until that moment.

-I am married.

I look at her then and sketch inside me a long and vague smile. But she reads the wrong thing in my eyes.

"Oh, I did not mean that, sir! ... I'm not a hypocrite, nor could I be with you, Master! My husband would also take a lot of pleasure in knowing you. He knows that I wrote to him...And he respects you so much!

"Ah, little devil!" I keep telling myself while I listen to her. "I'm sure you could not be hypocritical with me...Yes, I understand!"

"Madam ..." I bow gravely.

But she says, barely touching my arm:

"You wouldn't want to avoid getting acquainted with him, would you? Here he comes ... He knows we're both here ... And how he's going to like it! He will come, I don't know, agitated ... The poor man works so much! He's a salesman ... Oh, no! He works in a store, far from the center of things ... He's already here! Do you see him? Epamí! Here!

And Epaminondas crosses the street to shake my hand, with respectful joy.

Nor does he have any pride in feeling close to me. I observe first one and then the other, the small, happy predestined shop-dependent, and his little woman, who continues to blush with bliss.

Time passes, however, and the spouses look at each other. They seem to have a difficult secret to get rid of.

- Yes, Estercita? he timidly insinuates.

-But it's clear! she replies with a new blush. It is you who must do it!

And Epaminondas dares at last: to invite me to go to his house. Oh, well they know that masters criticism like me, do not frequent small houses like his every night ... But there are also other reasons. He, Epaminondas, understands very well that, in view of the honor I have given his wife to correspond with her, it is only fair that we would want to talk about those things. But people do not understand, and they would judge us badly by often seeing us together in the street. Why not go to their house, to their poor little house, which would be so honored with my presence?

-Enchanted ... -he exclaimed.

- Don't you notice, fool? She takes herself tenderly from Epaminondas's arm, blushing for the hundredth time when she notices that I look her all the way down.

-Magnificent! he says. And why not start this very night? Don't you think, Estercita?

We are all alike. And the spouses say goodbye to me, happy with my promise, while I remain motionless, following the eyes from the ankle to the curls at the nape of the neck, to that splendid and morbid creature that arches and hangs back a little, under the pressure of Epaminondas, who leans on her arm.

"Ah, little devil! I murmur again. You have given me the luxury of deceiving me two months in a row ... when I jumped in surprise at the naivety of your letters. I have met very smart women; but like you, none. Epaminondas, Estercita ... Perfectly. In two months of blushing, dimples of laughter and the sweet education of your husband, you have managed to offer me his home ... infinitely less dangerous than the street. Yes, little one, I'll go tonight ... "

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

We finished dinner--for I was invited to dinner-- and we simply went to the living room, where the owner of the house served us coffee. And she, retiring:

"You men should be alone for a moment," she looks at me, radiant, with a new dimple in her smile.

SHE

From here, through the half-open door, I see them quite well. I do not make the slightest movement. Epamí turns his back on me, and reads. He's reading his little novel, finally...and he's happy, now...completely happy!

OMG! What I had to do to get this bit of happiness!

In front of me, legs crossed and with cigar in his hand, he is motionless.

Poor maestro! It seems to me that I have not done well at all with him. His eyes are narrowed and his eyes are fixed on Epamí. He only moves his arm to take the cigar to his mouth from time to time, and the smoke envelops him without erasing a line from his face.

I would give something to know what you are thinking. OMG! Epamí would ha ve died if he did not get to read the first critic's novel to the master of criticism... and I sacrificed myself for this.





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