I met Luis Colmenares in Venice, not having seen him for years. He is a Mexican exile living on the scanty remains of what was once wealth, and eking out a poor and lonely existence by being a painter. But his art is only a sedative to him. He wanders about like a lost soul, mostly in Paris or in Italy, where he can live cheaply. He is rather short, rather fat, pale, with black eyes, which are always looking the other way, and a spirit the same, always averted.
“Do you know who is in Venice?” he said to me. “Cuesta! He is in the Hôtel Romano. I saw him bathing yesterday on the Lido.”
There was a world of gloomy mockery in this last sentence.
“Do you mean Cuesta, the bull-fighter?” I asked.
“Yes. Don’t you know, he retired? Do you remember? An American woman left him a lot of money. Did you ever see him?”
“Once,” said I.
“Was it before the revolution? Do you remember, he retired and bought a hacienda very cheap from one of Madero’s generals, up in Chihuahua? It was after the Carranzista, and I was already in Europe.”
“How does he look now?” I said.
“Enormously fat, like a yellow, round, small whale in the sea. You saw him? You know he was rather short and rather fat always. I think his mother was a Mixtec Indian woman. Did you ever know him?”
“No,” said I. “Did you?”
“Yes. I knew him in the old days, when I was rich, and thought I should be rich for ever.”
He was silent, and I was afraid he had shut up for good. It was unusual for him to be even as communicative as he had been. But it was evident that having seen Cuesta, the toreador whose fame once rang through Spain and through Latin America, had moved him deeply. He was in a ferment, and could not quite contain himself.
“But he wasn’t interesting, was he?” I said. “Wasn’t he just a — a bullfighter — a brute?”
Colmenares looked at me out of his own blackness. He didn’t want to talk. Yet he had to.
“He was a brute, yes,” he admitted grudgingly. “But not just a brute. Have you seen him when he was at his best? Where did you see him? I never liked him in Spain, he was too vain. But in Mexico he was very good. Have you seen him play with the bull, and play with death? He was marvellous. Do you remember him, what he looked like?”
“Not very well,” said I.
“Short, and broad, and rather fat, with rather a yellow colour, and a pressed-in nose. But his eyes, they were marvellous, also rather small, and yellow, and when he looked at you, so strange and cool, you felt your inside melting. Do you know that feeling? He looked into the last little place of you, where you keep your courage. Do you understand? And you felt yourself melting. Do you know what I mean?”
“More or less, perhaps,” said I.
Colmenares’ black eyes were fixed on my face, dilated and gleaming, but not really seeing me at all. He was seeing the past. Yet a curious force streamed out of his face; one understood him by the telepathy of passion, inverted passion.
“And in the bull-ring he was marvellous. He would stand with his back to the bull, and pretend to be adjusting his stockings, while the bull came charging on him. And with a little glance over his shoulder, he would make a small movement, and the bull had passed him without getting him. Then he would smile a little, and walk after it. It is marvellous that he was not killed hundreds of times, but I saw him bathing on the Lido today, like a fat, yellow, small whale. It is extraordinary! But I did not see his eyes . . . .”
A queer look of abstracted passion was on Colmenares’ fat, pale, clean-shaven face. Perhaps the toreador had cast a spell over him, as over so many people in the old and the new world.
“It is strange that I have never seen eyes anywhere else like his. Did I tell you, they were yellow, and not like human eyes at all? They didn’t look at you. I don’t think they ever looked at anybody. He only looked at the little bit inside your body where you keep your courage. I don’t think he could see people, any more than an animal can: I mean see them personally, as I see you and you see me. He was an animal, a marvellous animal. I have often thought, if human beings had not developed minds and speech, they would have become marvellous animals like Cuesta, with those marvellous eyes, much more marvellous than a lion’s or a tiger’s. Have you noticed a lion or a tiger never sees you personally? It never really looks at you. But also it is afraid to look at the last little bit of you, where your courage lives inside you. But Cuesta was not afraid. He looked straight at it, and it melted.”
“And what was he like, in ordinary life?” said I.
“He did not talk, was very silent. He was not clever at all. He was not even clever enough to be a general. And he could be very brutal and disgusting. But usually he was quiet. But he was always SOMETHING. If you were in a room with him, you always noticed him more than anybody, more than women or men, even very clever people. He was stupid, but he made you physically aware of him; like a cat in the room. I tell you, that little bit of you where you keep your courage was enchanted by him; he put over you an enchantment.”
“Did he do it on purpose?”
“Well! It is hard to say. But he knew he could do it. To some people, perhaps, he could not do it. But he never saw such people. He only saw people who were in his enchantment. And of course, in the bull-ring, he mesmerised everybody. He could draw the natural magnetism of everybody to him — everybody. And then he was marvellous, he played with death as if it were a kitten, so quick, quick as a star, and calm as a flower, and all the time, laughing at death. It is marvellous he was never killed. But he retired very young. And then suddenly it was he who killed the bull, with one hand, one stroke. He was very strong. And the bull sank down at his feet, heavy with death. The people went mad! And he just glanced at them, with his yellow eyes, in a cool, beautiful contempt, as if he were an animal that wrapped the skin of death round him. Ah, he was wonderful! And today I saw him bathing on the Lido, in an American bathing-suit, with a woman. His bathing-suit was just a little more yellow than he is. I have held the towel when he was being rubbed down and massaged often. He had the body of an Indian, very smooth, with hardly any hair, and creamy-yellow. I always thought it had something childish about it, so soft. But also, it had the same mystery as his eyes, as if you could never touch it, as if, when you touched it, still it was not he. When he had no clothes on, he was naked. But it seemed he would have many, many more nakednesses before you really came to HIM. Do you understand me at all? Or does it seem to you foolish?”
“It interests me,” I said. “And women, of course, fell for him by the thousand?”
“By the million! And they were mad because of him. Women went mad, once they felt him. It was not like Rudolf Valentino, sentimental. It was madness, like cats in the night which howl, no longer knowing whether they are on earth or in hell or in paradise. So were the women. He could have had forty beautiful women every night, and different ones each night, from the beginning of the year to the end.”
“But he didn’t, naturally?”
“Oh no! At first, I think, he took many women. But later, when I knew him, he took none of those that besieged him. He had two Mexican women whom he lived with, humble women, Indians. And all the others he spat at, and spoke of them with terrible, obscene language. I think he would have liked to whip them, or kill them, for pursuing him.”
“Only he must enchant them when he was in the bull-ring,” said I.
“Yes. But that was like sharpening his knife on them.”
“And when he retired — he had plenty of money — how did he amuse himself?”
“He was rich, he had a big hacienda, and many people like slaves to work for him. He raised cattle. I think he was very proud to be haciendado and padrón of so many people, with a little army of his own. I think he was proud, living like a king. I had not heard of him for years. Now, suddenly, he is in Venice with a Frenchwoman who talks bad Spanish —”
“How old is he?”
“How old? He is about fifty, or a little less.”
“So young! And will you speak to him?”
“I don’t know. I can’t make up my mind. If I speak to him, he will think I want money.”
There was a certain note of hatred now in Colmenares’ voice.
“Well, why shouldn’t he give you money? He is still rich, I suppose?”
“Rich, yes! He must always be rich. He has got American money. An American woman left him half a million dollars. Did you ever hear of it?”
“No. Then why shouldn’t he give you money? I suppose you often gave him some, in the past?”
“Oh, that — that is QUITE the past. He will never give me anything — or a hundred francs, something like that! Because he is mean. Did you never hear of the American woman who left him half a million dollars, and committed suicide?”
“No. When was it?”
“It was a long time ago — about 1914 or 1913. I had already lost all my money. Her name was Ethel Cane. Did you never hear of her?”
“I don’t think I did,” I said, feeling it remiss not to have heard of the lady.
“Ah! You should have known her. She was extraordinary. I had known her in Paris, even before I came back to Mexico and knew Cuesta well. She was almost as extraordinary as Cuesta: one of those American women, born rich, but what we should call provincial. She didn’t come from New York or Boston, but somewhere else. Omaha or something. She was blonde, with thick, straight, blonde hair, and she was one of the very first to wear it short, like a Florentine page-boy. Her skin was white, and her eyes very blue, and she was not thin. At first, there seemed something childish about her — do you know that look, rather round cheeks and clear eyes, so false-innocent? Her eyes especially were warm and naïve and false-innocent, but full of light. Only sometimes they were bloodshot. Oh, she was extraordinary! It was only when I knew her better I noticed how her blonde eyebrows gathered together above her nose, in a diabolic manner. She was much too much a personality to be a lady, and she had all that terrible American energy! Ah, energy! She was a dynamo. In Paris she was married to a dapper little pink-faced American who got yellow at the gills, bilious, running after her when she would not have him. He painted pictures and wanted to be modern. She knew all the people, and had all sorts come to her, as if she kept a human menagerie. And she bought old furniture and brocades; she would go mad if she saw someone get a piece of velvet brocade with the misty bloom of years on it, that she coveted. She coveted such things with lust, and would go into a strange sensual trance, looking at some old worm-eaten chair. And she would go mad if someone else got it, and not she: that nasty old wormy chair of the quattrocento! Things! She was mad about ‘things’. But it was only for a time. She always got tired, especially of her own enthusiasms.
“That was when I knew her in Paris. Then I think she divorced that husband, and, when the revolutions in Mexico became quieter, she came to Mexico. I think she was fascinated by the idea of Carranza. If ever she heard of a man who seemed to have a dramatic sort of power in him, she must know that man. It was like her lust for brocade and old chairs and a perfect æsthetic setting. Now it was to know the most dangerous man, especially if he looked like a prophet or a reformer. She was a socialist also, at this time. She no longer was in love with chairs.
“She found me again in Mexico: she knew thousands of people, and whenever one of them might be useful to her, she remembered him. So she remembered me, and it was nothing to her that I was now poor. I knew she thought of me as ‘that little Luis Something’, but she had a certain use for me, and found, perhaps, a certain little flavour in me. At least she asked me often to dinner, or to drive with her. She was curious, quite reckless and a dare-devil, yet shy and awkward out of her own milieu. It was only in intimacy that she was unscrupulous and dauntless as a devil incarnate. In public, and in strange places, she was very uneasy, like one who has a bad conscience towards society, and is afraid of it. And for that reason she could never go out without a man to stand between her and all the others.
“While she was in Mexico, I was that man. She soon discovered that I was satisfactory. I would perform all the duties of a husband without demanding any of the rights. Which was what she wanted. I think she was looking round for a remarkable and epoch-making husband. But, of course, it would have to be a husband who would be a fitting instrument for her remarkable and epoch-making energy and character. She was extraordinary, but she could only work through individuals, through others. By herself she could accomplish nothing. She lay on a sofa and mused and schemed, with the energy boiling inside her. Only when she had a group, or a few real individuals, or just one man, then she could start something, and make them all dance in a tragi-comedy, like marionettes.
“But in Mexico, men do not care for women who will make them dance like puppets. In Mexico, women must run in the dust like the Indian women, with meek little heads. American women are not very popular. Their energy, and their power to make other people do things, are not in request. The men would rather go to the devil in their own way than be sent there by the women, with a little basket in which to bring home the goods.
“So Ethel found not a cold shoulder, but a number of square, fat backs turned to her. They didn’t want her. The revolutionaries would not take any notice of her at all. They wanted no women interfering. General Isidor Garabay danced with her, and expected her immediately to become his mistress. But, as she said, she was having NONE OF THAT. She had a terrible way of saying ‘I’m having none of that!’— like hitting a mirror with a hammer. And as nobody wanted to get into trouble over her, they were having none of her.
“At first, of course, when the generals saw her white shoulders and blonde hair and innocent face, they thought at once: ‘Here is a TYPE for us!’ They were not deceived by her innocent look. But they were deceived by what looked like her helplessness. The blood would come swelling into her neck and face, her eyes would go hot, her whole figure would swell with repellent energy, and she would say something very American and very crushing, in French, or in American. None of THAT! Stop THAT!
“She, too, had a lot of power. She could send out of her body a repelling energy, to compel people to submit to her will. Men in Europe or the United States nearly always crumpled up before her. But in Mexico she had come to the wrong shop. The men were a law to themselves. While she was winning and rather lovely, with her blue eyes so full of light and her white skin glistening with energetic health, they expected her to become at once their mistress. And when they saw, very quickly, that she was having NONE OF THAT, they turned on their heels and showed her their fat backs. Because she was clever, and remarkable, and had wonderful energy and a wonderful power for making people dance while she pulled the strings, they didn’t care a bit. They, too, wanted NONE OF THAT. They would, perhaps, have carried her off and shared her as a mistress, except for the fear of trouble with the American Government.
“So, soon, she began to be bored, and to think of returning to New York. She said that Mexico was a place without a soul and without a culture, and it had not even brain enough to be mechanically efficient. It was a city and a land of naughty little boys doing obscene little things, and one day it would learn its lesson. I told her that history is the account of a lesson which nobody ever learns, and she told me the world certainly HAD progressed. Only not in Mexico, she supposed. I asked her why she had come, then, to Mexico. And she said she had thought there was something doing, and she would like to be in it. But she found it was only naughty and mostly cowardly little boys letting off guns and doing mediocre obscenities, so she would leave them to it. I told her I supposed it was life. And she replied that since it was not good enough for her, it was not life to her.
“She said all she wanted was to live the life of the imagination and get it acted on. At that time, I thought this ridiculous. I thought she was just trying to find somebody to fall in love with. Later, I saw she was right. She had an imaginary picture of herself as an extraordinary and potent woman who would make a stupendous change in the history of man. Like Catherine of Russia, only cosmopolitan, not merely Russian. And it is true, she WAS an extraordinary woman, with tremendous power of will, and truly amazing energy, even for an American woman. She was like a locomotive-engine stoked up inside and bursting with steam, which it has to let off by rolling a lot of trucks about. But I did not see how this was to cause a change in the tide of mortal affairs. It was only a part of the hubbub of traffic. She sent the trucks bouncing against one another with a clash of buffers, and sometimes she derailed some unfortunate item of the rolling-stock. But I did not see how this was to change the history of mankind. She seemed to have arrived just a little late, as some heroes, and heroines also, today, always do.
“I wondered always, why she did not take a lover. She was a woman between thirty and forty, very healthy and full of this extraordinary energy. She saw many men, and was always drawing them out, always on the qui vive to start them rolling down some incline. She attracted men, in a certain way. Yet she had no lover.
“I wondered even with regard to myself. We were friends, and a great deal together. Certainly I was under her spell. I came running as soon as I thought she wanted me. I did the things she suggested I should do. Even among my own acquaintances, when I found everybody laughing at me and disliking me for being at the service of an American woman, and I tried to rebel against her, and put her in her place, as the Mexicans say — which means to them, in bed with no clothes on — still, the moment I saw her, with a look and a word she won me round. She was very clever. She flattered me, of course. She made me feel intelligent. She drew me out. There was her cleverness. She made ME clever. I told her all about Mexico: all my life: all my ideas of history, philosophy. I sounded awfully clever and original, to myself. And she listened with such attention, which I thought was deep interest in what I was saying. But she was waiting for something she could fasten on, so that she could ‘start something’. That was her constant craving, to ‘start something’. But, of course, I thought she was interested in ME.
“She would lie on a large couch that was covered with old sarapes — she began to buy them as soon as she came to Mexico — herself wrapped in a wonderful black shawl that glittered all over with brilliant birds and flowers in vivid colour, a very fine specimen of the embroidered shawls our Mexican ladies used to wear at a bull-fight or in an open-air fiesta: and there, with her white arms glistening through the long fringe of the shawl, the old Italian jewellery rising on her white, dauntless breast, and her short, thick, blonde hair falling like yellow metal, she would draw me out, draw me out. I never talked so much in my life before or since. Always talk! And I believe I talked very well, really, really very clever. But nothing besides talk! Sometimes I stayed till after midnight. And sometimes she would snort with impatience or boredom, rather like a horse, flinging back her head and shaking that heavy blonde hair. And I think some part of her wanted me to make love to her.
“But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was there, under her influence, in her power. She could draw me out in talk, marvellously. I’m sure I was very clever indeed. But any other part of me was stiff, petrified. I couldn’t even touch her. I couldn’t even take her hand in mine. It was a physical impossibility. When I was away from her, I could think of her white, healthy body with a voluptuous shiver. I could even run to her apartment, intending to kiss her, and make her my mistress that very night. But the moment I was in her presence, it left me. I could not touch her. I was averse from touching her. Physically, for some reason, I hated her.
“And I felt within myself, it was because she was repelling me and because she was always hating men, hating all active maleness in a man. She only wanted passive maleness, and then this ‘talk’, this life of the imagination, as she called it. Inside herself she seethed, and she thought it was because she wanted to be made love to, very much made love to. But it wasn’t so. She seethed against all men, with repulsion. She was cruel to the body of a man. But she excited his mind, his spirit. She loved to do that. She loved to have a man hanging round, like a servant. She loved to stimulate him, especially his mind. And she, too, when the man was not there, she thought she wanted him to be her lover. But when he was there, and he wanted to gather for himself that mysterious fruit of her body, she revolted against him with a fearful hate. A man must be ABSOLUTELY her servant, and only that. That was what she meant by the life of the imagination.
“And I was her servant. Everybody jeered at me. But I said to myself. I would make her my mistress. I almost set my teeth to do it. That was when I was away from her. When I came to her, I could not even touch her. When I tried to make myself touch her, something inside me began to shudder. It was impossible. And I knew it was because, with her inner body, she was repelling me, always really repelling me.
“Yet she wanted me too. She was lonely: lonesome, she said. She was lonesome, and she would have liked to get me making love to her external self. She would even, I think, have become my mistress, allowed me to take her sometimes for a little, miserable humiliating moment, then quickly have got rid of me again. But I couldn’t do it. Her inner body NEVER wanted me. And I couldn’t just be her prostitute. Because immediately she would have despised me, and insulted me if I had persisted in trying to get some satisfaction of her. I knew it. She had already had two husbands, and she was a woman who always ached to tell ALL, everything. She had told me too much. I had seen one of her American husbands. I did not choose to see myself in a similar light: or plight.
“No, she wanted to live the life of the imagination. She said the imagination could master everything; so long, of course, as one was not shot in the head, or had an eye put out. Talking of the Mexican atrocities, and of the famous case of raped nuns, she said it was all nonsense that a woman was broken because she had been raped. She could rise above it. The imagination could rise above ANYTHING, that was not real organic damage. If one lived the life of the imagination, one could rise above any experience that ever happened to one. One could even commit murder, and rise above that. By using the imagination, and by using cunning, a woman can justify herself in anything, even the meanest and most bad things. A woman uses her imagination on her own behalf, and she becomes more innocent to herself than an innocent child, no matter what bad things she has done.”
“Men do that, too,” I interrupted. “It’s the modern dodge. That’s why everybody today is innocent. To the imagination all things are pure, if you did them yourself.”
Colmenares looked at me with quick, black eyes, to see if I were mocking him. He did not care about me and my interruptions. He was utterly absorbed in his recollections of that woman, who had made him so clever, and who had made him her servant, and from whom he had never had any satisfaction.
“And then what?” I asked him. “Then did she try her hand on Cuesta?”
“Ah!” said Colmenares, rousing, and glancing at me suspiciously again. “Yes! That was what she did. And I was jealous. Though I couldn’t bring myself to touch her, yet I was excruciated with jealousy, because she was interested in someone else. She was interested in someone besides myself, and my vanity suffered tortures of jealousy. Why was I such a fool? Why, even now, could I kill that fat, yellow pig Cuesta? A man is always a fool.”
“How did she meet the bull-fighter?” I asked. “Did you introduce him to her?”
“She went once to the bull-fight, because everyone was talking about Cuesta. She did not care for such things as the bull-ring; she preferred the modern theatre, Duse and Reinhardt, and ‘things of the imagination’. But now she was going back to New York, and she had never seen a bull-fight, so she must see one. I got seats in the shade — high up, you know — and went with her.
“At first she was very disgusted, and very contemptuous, and a little bit frightened, you know, because a Mexican crowd in a bull-ring is not very charming. She was afraid of people. But she sat stubborn and sulky, like a sulky child, saying: ‘Can’t they do anything more subtle than this, to get a thrill? It’s on such a low level!’
“But when Cuesta at last began to play with a bull, she began to get excited. He was in pink and silver, very gorgeous, and looking very ridiculous, as usual. Till he began to play; and then there really was something marvellous in him, you know, so quick and so light and so playful — do you know? When he was playing with a bull and playing with death in the ring, he was the most playful thing I have ever seen: more playful than kittens or leopard cubs: and you know how they play; do you? Oh, marvellous! More gay and light than if they had lots of wings all over them, all wings of playing! Well, he was like that, playing with death in the ring, as if he had all kinds of gay little wings to spin him with the quickest, tiniest, most beautiful little movements, quite unexpected, like a soft leopard cub. And then at the end, when he killed the bull and the blood squirted past him, ugh! it was as if all his body laughed, and still the same soft, surprised laughter like a young thing, but more cruel than anything you can imagine. He fascinated me, but I always hated him. I would have liked to stick him as he stuck the bulls.
“I could see that Ethel was trying not to be caught by his spell. He had the most curious charm, quick and unexpected like play, you know, like leopard kittens, or slow sometimes, like tiny little bears. And yet the perfect cruelty. It was the joy in cruelty! She hated the blood and messiness and dead animals. Ethel hated all that. It was not the life of the imagination. She was very pale, and very silent. She leaned forward and hardly moved, looking white and obstinate and subdued. And Cuesta had killed three bulls before she made any sign of any sort. I did not speak to her. The fourth bull was a beauty, full of life, curling and prancing like a narcissus-flower in January. He was a very special bull, brought from Spain, and not so stupid as the others. He pawed the ground and blew the breath on the ground, lowering his head. And Cuesta opened his arms to him with a little smile, but endearing, lovingly endearing, as a man might open his arms to a little maiden he really loves, but, really, for her to come to his body, his warm, open body, to come softly. So he held his arms out to the bull, with love. And that was what fascinated the women. They screamed and they fainted, longing to go into the arms of Cuesta, against his soft, round body, that was more yearning than a fico. But the bull, of course, rushed past him, and only got two darts sticking in his shoulder. That was the love.
“Then Ethel shouted, Bravo! Bravo! and I saw that she, too, had gone mad. Even Cuesta heard her, and he stopped a moment and looked at her. He saw her leaning forward, with her short, thick hair hanging like yellow metal, and her face dead-white, and her eyes glaring to his, like a challenge. They looked at one another, for a second, and he gave a little bow, then turned away. But he was changed. He didn’t play so unconsciously any more: he seemed to be thinking of something, and forgetting himself. I was afraid he would be killed; but so afraid! He seemed absent-minded, and taking risks too great. When the bull came after him over the gangway barrier, he even put his hand on its head as he vaulted back, and one horn caught his sleeve and tore it just a little. Then he seemed to be absent-mindedly looking at the tear, while the bull was almost touching him again. And the bull was mad. Cuesta was a dead man it seemed, for sure: yet he seemed to wake up and WAKED himself just out of reach. It was like an awful dream, and it seemed to last for hours. I think it must have been a long time, before the bull was killed. He killed him at last, as a man takes his mistress at last because he is almost tired of playing with her. But he liked to kill his own bull.
“Ethel was looking like death, with beads of perspiration on her face. And she called to him: ‘That’s enough! That’s enough now! Ya es bastante! Basta!’ He looked at her, and heard what she said. They were both alike there, they heard and saw in a flash. And he lifted his face, with the rather squashed nose and the yellow eyes, and he looked at her, and though he was so far away, he seemed quite near. And he was smiling like a small boy. But I could see he was looking at the little place in her body, where she kept her courage. And she was trying to catch his look on her imagination, not on her naked body inside. And they both found it difficult. When he tried to look at her, she set her imagination in front of him, like a mirror they put in front of a wild dog. And when she tried to catch him in her imagination, he seemed to melt away, and was gone. So neither really had caught the other.
“But he played with two more bulls, and killed them, without ever looking at her. And she went away when the people were applauding him, and did not look at him. Neither did she speak to me of him. Neither did she go to any more bull-fights.
“It was Cuesta who spoke to me of her, when I met him at Clavel’s house. He said to me in his very coarse Spanish: ‘And what about your American skirt?’ I told him, there was nothing to say about her. She was leaving for New York. So he told me to ask her if she would like to come and say good-bye to Cuesta, before she went. I said to him: ‘But why should I mention your name to her, She has never mentioned yours to me.’ He made an obscene joke to me.
“And it must have been because I was thinking of him that she said that evening: ‘Do you know Cuesta?’ I told her I did, and she asked me what I thought of him. I told her I thought he was a marvellous beast, but he wasn’t really a man. ‘But he is a beast with imagination,’ she said to me. ‘Couldn’t one get a response out of him?’ I told her I didn’t know, but I didn’t want to try. I would leave Cuesta to the bullring. I would never dream of trying my imagination on him. She said, always ready with an answer: ‘But wasn’t there a marvellous THING in him, something quite exceptional?’ I said, maybe! But so has a rattlesnake a marvellous thing in him: two things, one in his mouth, one in his tail. But I didn’t want to try to get response out of a rattlesnake. She wasn’t satisfied, though. She was tortured. I said to her: ‘Anyhow, you are leaving on Thursday.’ ‘No, I’ve put it off,’ she said. ‘Till when?’ ‘Indefinite,’ she said.
“I could tell she was tormented. She had been tormented ever since she had been to the bull-fight, because she couldn’t get past Cuesta. She couldn’t get past him, as the Americans say. He seemed like a fat, squat, yellow-eyed demon just smiling at her, and dancing ahead of her. ‘Why don’t you bring him here?’ she said at last, though she didn’t want to say it. —‘But why? What is the good of bringing him here? Would you bring a criminal here, or a yellow scorpion?’—‘I would if I wanted to find out about it.’— ‘But what is there to find out about Cuesta? He is just a sort of beast. He is less than a man.’—‘Maybe he’s a schwarze Bestie,’ she said, ‘and I’m a blonde Bestie. Anyway, bring him.’
“I always did what she wanted me, though I never wanted to myself. So it was now. I went to a place where I knew Cuesta would be, and he asked me: ‘How is the blonde skirt? Has she gone yet?’ I said, ‘No. Would you like to see her?’ He looked at me with his yellow eyes, and that pleasant look which was really hate undreaming. ‘Did she tell you to ask me?’ he said. ‘No,’ I said. ‘We were talking of you, and she said, bring the fabulous animal along and let us see what he really is.’—‘He is the animal for her meat, this one,’ he said, in his vulgar way. Then he pretended he wouldn’t come. But I knew he would. So I said I would call for him.
“We were going in the evening, after tea, and he was dressed to kill, in a light French suit. We went in his car. But he didn’t take flowers or anything. Ethel was nervous and awkward, offering us cocktails and cigarettes, and speaking French, though Cuesta didn’t understand any French at all. There was another old American woman there, for chaperon.
“Cuesta just sat on a chair, with his knees apart and his hands between his thighs, like an Indian. Only his hair, which was done up in his little pigtail, and taken back from his forehead, made him look like a woman, or a Chinaman; and his flat nose and little yellow eyes made him look like a Chinese idol, maybe a god or a demon, as you please. He just sat and said nothing, and had that look on his face which wasn’t a smile, and wasn’t a grimace, it was nothing. But to me it meant rhapsodic hate.
“She asked him in French if he liked his profession, and how long he had been doing it, and if he got a great kick out of it, and was he a pure-blood Indian? — all that kind of thing. I translated to him as short as possible, Ethel flushing with embarrassment. He replied just as short, to me, in his coarse, flat sort of voice, as if he knew it was mere pretence. But he looked at her, straight into her face, with that strange, far-off sort of stare, yet very vivid, taking no notice of her, yet staring right into her: as if all that she was putting forward to him was merely window-dressing, and he was just looking way in, to the marshes and the jungle in her, where she didn’t even look herself. It made one feel as if there was a mountain behind her, Popocatepetl, that he was staring at, expecting a mountain-lion to spring down off a tree on the slopes of the mountain, or a snake to lean down from a bough. But the mountain was all she stood for, and the mountain-lion or the snake was her own animal self, that he was watching for, like a hunter.
“We didn’t stay long, but when we left she asked him to come in whenever he liked. He wasn’t really the person to have calling on one: and he knew it, as she did. But he thanked her, and hoped he would one day be able to receive her at her — meaning his — humble house in the Guadalupe Road, where everything was her own. She said: ‘Why, sure, I’ll come one day. I should love to.’ Which he understood, and bowed himself out like some quick but lurking animal: quick as a scorpion, with silence of venom the same.
“After that he would call fairly often, at about five o’clock, but never alone, always with some other man. And he never said anything, always responded to her questions in the same short way, and always looked at her when he was speaking to the other man. He never once SPOKE to her — always spoke to his interpreter, in his flat, coarse Spanish. And he always looked at her when he was speaking to someone else.
“She tried every possible manner in which to touch his imagination: but never with any success. She tried the Indians, the Aztecs, the history of Mexico, politics, Don Porfirio, the bull-ring, love, women, Europe, America — and all in vain. All she got out of him was Verdad! He was utterly uninterested. He actually HAD no mental imagination. Talk was just noise to him. The only spark she roused was when she talked of money. Then the queer half-smile deepened on his face, and he asked his interpreter if the Señora was very rich. To which Ethel replied she didn’t really know what he meant by rich: he must be rich himself. At which he asked the interpreter friend if she had more than a million American dollars. To which she replied that perhaps she had — but she wasn’t sure. And he looked at her so strangely, even more like a yellow scorpion about to sting.
“I asked him later, what made him put such a crude question? Did he think of offering to marry her? ‘Marry a ——?’ he replied, using an obscene expression. But I didn’t know even then what he really intended. Yet I saw he had her on his mind.
“Ethel was gradually getting into a state of tension. It was as if something tortured her. She seemed like a woman who would go insane. I asked her: ‘Why, whatever’s wrong with you?’ ‘I’ll tell you, Luis,’ she said, ‘but don’t you say anything to anybody, mind. It’s Cuesta! I don’t know whether I want him or not.’—‘You don’t know whether he wants YOU or not,’ said I. —‘I can handle that,’ she said, ‘if I know about myself: if I know my own mind. But I don’t. My mind says he’s a nada-nada, a dumb-bell, no brain, no imagination, no anything. But my body says he marvellous, and he’s got something I haven’t got, and he’s stronger than I am, and he’s more an angel or a devil than a man, and I’m too merely human to get him — and all that, till I feel I shall just go crazy, and take an overdose of drugs. What am I to DO with my body, I tell you? What am I to DO with it? I’ve got to master it. I’ve got to be MORE than that man. I’ve got to get all round him, and past him. I’ve GOT to.’—‘Then just take the train to New York to-night, and forget him,’ I said. —‘I can’t! That’s side-tracking. I WON’T sidetrack my body. I’ve got to get the best of it. I’ve got to.’—‘Well,’ I said, ‘you’re a point or two beyond me. If it’s a question of getting all round Cuesta, and getting past him, why, take the train, and you’ll forget him in a fortnight. Don’t fool yourself you’re in love with the fellow.’—‘I’m afraid he’s stronger than I am,’ she cried out. —‘And what then? He’s stronger than I am, but that doesn’t prevent me sleeping. A jaguar even is stronger than I am, and an anaconda could swallow me whole. I tell you, it’s all in a day’s march. There’s a kind of animal called Cuesta. Well, what of it?’
“She looked at me, and I could tell I made no impression on her. She despised me. She sort of wanted to go off the deep end about something. I said to her: ‘God’s love; Ethel, cut out the Cuesta caprice! It’s not even good acting.’ But I might just as well have mewed, for all the notice she took of me.
“It was as if some dormant Popocatepetl inside her had begun to erupt. She didn’t love the fellow. Yet she was in a blind kill-me-quick sort of state, neither here nor there, nor hot or cold, not desirous nor undesirous, but just simply INSANE. In a certain kind of way, she seemed to want him. And in a very definite kind of way she seemed NOT to want him. She was in a kind of hysterics, lost her feet altogether. I tried might and main to get her away to the United States. She’d have come sane enough, once she was there. But I thought she’d kill me, when she found I’d been trying to interfere. Oh, she was not quite in her mind, that’s sure.
“‘If my body is stronger than my imagination, I shall kill myself,’ she said. —‘Ethel,’ I said, ‘people who talk of killing themselves always call a doctor if they cut their finger. What’s the quarrel between your body and your imagination? Aren’t they the same thing?’—‘No!’ she said. ‘If the imagination has the body under control, you can do anything, it doesn’t matter what you do, physically. If my body was under the control of my imagination, I could take Cuesta for my lover, and it would be an imaginative act. But if my body acted without my imagination, I— I’d kill myself.’— ‘But what do you mean by your body acting without your imagination?’ I said. ‘You are not a child. You’ve been married twice. You know what it means. You even have two children. You must have had at least several lovers. If Cuesta is to be another of your lovers, I think it is deplorable, but I think it only shows you are very much like the other woman who fall in love with him. If you’ve fallen in love with him, your imagination has nothing to do but accept the fact and put as many roses on the ass’s head as you like.’ She looked at me very solemnly, and seemed to think about it. Then she said: ‘But my imagination has not fallen in love with him. He wouldn’t meet me imaginatively. He’s a brute. And once I start, where’s it going to end? I’m afraid my body has fallen — not fallen in love with him, but fallen FOR him. It’s abject! And if I can’t get my body on its feet again, and either forget him or else get him to make it an imaginative act with me — I— I shall kill myself.’—‘All right,’ said I. ‘I don’t know what you are talking about, imaginative acts and unimaginative acts. The act is always the same.’—‘It isn’t!’ she cried, furious with me. ‘It is either imaginative or else it’s IMPOSSIBLE— to me.’ Well, I just spread my hands. What could I say, or do? I simply hated her way of putting it. Imaginative act! Why, I would hate performing an imaginative act with a woman. Damn it, the act is either real, or let it alone. But now I knew why I had never touched her, or even kissed her, not once: because I couldn’t stand that imaginative sort of bullying from her. It is death to a man.
“I said to Cuesta: ‘Why do you go to Ethel? Why don’t you stay away, and make her go back to the United States? Are you in love with her?’ He was obscene, as usual. ‘Am I in love with a cuttlefish, that is all arms and eyes, and no legs or tail! That blonde is a cuttlefish. She is an octopus, all arms and eyes and beak, and a lump of jelly.’—‘Then why don’t you leave her alone?’— ‘Even cuttlefish is good when it’s cooked in sauce,’ he said. ‘You had much better leave her alone,’ I said. —‘Leave her alone yourself, my esteemed Señor,’ he said to me. And I knew I had better go no further.
“She said to him one evening, when only I was there — and she said it in Spanish, direct to him: ‘Why do you never come alone to see me? Why do you always come with another person? Are you afraid?’ He looked at her, and his eyes never changed. But he said, in his usual flat, meaningless voice: ‘It is because I cannot speak, except Spanish.’—‘But we could understand one another,’ she said, giving one of her little violent snorts of impatience and embarrassed rage. ‘Who knows!’ he replied, imperturbably.
“Afterwards, he said to me: ‘What does she want? She hates a man as she hates a red-hot iron. A white devil, as sacred as the communion wafer!’—‘Then why don’t you leave her alone?’ I said. — ‘She is so rich,’ he smiled. ‘She has all the world in her thousand arms. She is as rich as God. The Archangels are poor beside her, she is so rich and so white-skinned and white-souled.’— ‘Then all the more, why don’t you leave her alone?’ But he did not answer me.
“He went alone, however, to see her. But always in the early evening. And he never stayed more than half an hour. His car, well-known everywhere, waited outside: till he came out in his French-grey suit and glistening brown shoes, his hat rather on the back of his head.
“What they said to one another, I don’t know. But she became always more distraught and absorbed, as if she were brooding over a single idea. I said to her: ‘Why take it seriously? Dozens of women have slept with Cuesta, and think no more of it. Why take him seriously?’—‘I don’t,’ she said. ‘I take myself seriously, that’s the point.’—‘Let it be the point. Go on taking yourself seriously, and leave him out of the question altogether.’
“But she was tired of my playing the wise uncle, and I was tired of her taking herself seriously. She took herself so seriously, it seemed to me she would deserve what she got, playing the fool with Cuesta. Of course she did not love him at all. She only wanted to see if she could make an impression on him, make him yield to her will. But all the impression she made on him was to make him call her a squid and an octopus and other nice things. And I could see their ‘love’ did not go forward at all.
“‘Have you made love to her?’ I asked him. —‘I have not touched the zopilote,’ he said. ‘I hate her bare white neck.’
“But still he went to see her: always, for a very brief call, before sundown. She asked him to come to dinner with me. He said he could never come to dinner, nor after dinner, as he was always engaged from eight o’clock in the evening onwards. She looked at him as much as to tell him she knew it was a lie and a subterfuge, but he never turned a hair. He was, she put it, utterly unimaginative: an impervious animal.
“‘You, however, come one day to your poor house in the Guadalupe Road,’ he said — meaning his house. He had said it, suggestively, several times.
“‘But you are always engaged in the evening,’ she said.
“‘Come, then, at night — come at eleven, when I am free,’ he said, with supreme animal impudence, looking into her eyes.
“‘Do you receive calls so late?’ she said, flushing with anger and embarrassment and obstinacy.
“‘At times,’ he said. ‘When it is very special.’
“A few days later, when I called to see her as usual, I was told she was ill, and could see no one. The next day, she was still not to be seen. She had had a dangerous nervous collapse. The third day, a friend rang me up to say Ethel was dead.
“The thing was hushed up. But it was known she had poisoned herself. She left a note to me, in which she merely said: ‘It is as I told you. Good-bye. But my testament holds good.’
“In her will, she had left half her fortune to Cuesta. The will had been made some ten days before her death — and it was allowed to stand. He took the money —”
Colmenares’ voice tailed off into silence.
“Her body had got the better of her imagination, after all,” I said.
“It was worse than that,” he said.
He was a long time before he answered. Then he said: “She actually went to Cuesta’s house that night, way down there beyond the Volador market. She went by appointment. And there in his bedroom he handed her over to half a dozen of his bull-ring gang, with orders not to bruise her. Yet at the inquest there were a few deep, strange bruises, and the doctors made reports. Then apparently the visit to Cuesta’s house came to light, but no details were ever told. Then there was another revolution, and in the hubbub this affair was dropped. It was too shady, anyhow. Ethel had certainly encouraged Cuesta at her apartment.”
“But how do you know he handed her over like that?”
“One of the men told me himself. He was shot afterwards.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10