Cleto's Proposal to Sotileza
[Sotileza is a poor waif, adopted by a worthy family, and has turned out to be a charming and admirable character. The name is derived from a very fine, strong cord, used in the apparatus of the fishermen. Cleto belongs to a family of sardine-sellers, the terror and scandal of the street; but he himself aspires to higher things.]
Sotileza continued her sewing on the garment of Pachuca, by the light of the candle which she had just set in its socket on the wall. Cleto, now in her presence, actually felt the tremendous difficulty which he had trusted to conjure away by his boldness and resolution. The gift of speech—the confounded gift of gab, that was always denied him—was lacking to him at this moment more than ever.
"I was passing by," he began to stammer, trembling with his diffidence, "I—happened to be passing along this way, and so—er—as I was passing this way, I says to myself, says I, 'I'll just stop into the shop a minute.' So that's the way I happened to come—My! but that's a good skirt you're sewing there, Sotileza. Yours, is it?"
Sotileza told him it was not; and out of politeness, asked him to sit down.
Cleto took a seat a good distance away from her; then, looking and looking at her a long while, as if he were trying to intoxicate himself through the medium of his eyesight to a sufficient extent to break the trammels that held his tongue, he at length succeeded in saying:—
"Sotileza, once you sewed on a button for me. Do you recollect about it?"
"I'm afraid too many other things have happened since," she returned smilingly, without looking up from her work.
"Well, for me, it's just the same thing as if it took place yesterday."
"Well, what of it, supposing it was so?"
"Why—er—why, you see, after that button—It was like a jewel to me; and I've got it yet, right here on the waistband of these breeches. Look at it; do you see it? After that button, I kept coming back and coming back to this house, for there's no staying in mine; and by gracious! well, you know that, Sotileza, that isn't what you might call a habitation at all, nor are those female kin of mine women like other women, nor is that man there a man. Well, then, I had never known anything better than that kind of folks, and for want of knowing better, I gave you a slap in the face one day; you remember about that. Holy jinks! if you only knew how sorry I've been for that slap, ever since."
Sotileza began to be overcome with astonishment at the discourse she was listening to; for never had anything even remotely like to this proceeded from Cleto's lips. She fixed her eyes with interest upon his; but the effect of this was, that she cut short not only the poor fellow's words but the very breath of his body.
"But why are you saying these things to me now?" she demanded.
"Because I've got to, Sotileza," Cleto plucked up heart to respond; "that's the reason:—and because nobody else would be willing to come to you and say them for me. I hope it's no offense. Now, see here, Sotileza, just see what's happening to me. I did not know till lately, myself, what was the matter with me; and I let them go on,—that kind of griping feeling in my insides and that dizzy feeling in my head, that got hold of me when I came in here. And you kept on growing up and getting prettier every day: heavens, what new rail you kept whipping on nearly every time I saw you! No offense in looking on at it, was there? at least I hope not; and no more was there, either, in warming up my heart with a glimpse of this shop now and then. Over there in our tenement there was nothing of the kind, by a long chalk: filth and brutishness, the good name of every person they spoke of pitched head first out of the balcony, not a scrap of decency about anything they did. By thunder! it's enough to give a fellow a bad temper, even if he was born with one like sugar. That's the way I came to give you that slap, Sotileza; if it wasn't, I would tell you so, honestly. Why, if any one was to say to me, right here and how, 'Cleto, you go and jump off the ramparts for Sotileza,' I would do it. Sotileza, if it could be of the slightest service to you, even if I got nothing out of it but my broken neck. I never had any of this kind of feeling before. Here you have a full account of it without asking for it—and without offense, I hope. You see how it was; it wasn't my fault. I liked those feelings too, in spite of the pain,—I liked them immensely; they made my disposition of the purest honey, as if I had never had any other. I was filled up, filled full with them, till it seemed as if my body wouldn't hold any more. Then afterwards a tumble here and a stumble there—a heavy surf, as it were, rolling round inside of me; little sleep of nights, and a lump in my throat all the time. Look you, Sotileza, I used to think there were no more troubles than those I had at home; but now I can see that I slept better, twice over, than since all this trouble began about you. I—I—don't offend anybody, do I, in talking this way, Sotileza? And then—er, while all that was going on that I was telling you just now, I got to getting fonder and fonder of you every day, and I got to having more and more respect for you; and I tried harder every day to see if I couldn't read your wishes in your eyes, so that I could go and serve you somehow without your having to tell me.
"And so all that was going on month in and month out, and year after year; I was slowly foundering, and there was no way of getting afloat again. For you see, Sotileza, it's one thing for a man to be chock full of feelings like this, and another thing for him to speak up and tell his girl about them, if he's tongue-tied like me and can't put two words together. It knocks me all out when I think what you are, and then what I am,—the very mud of the gutter, in comparison. Well, I just couldn't hold it all in any longer, and I went to some folks that understand how to talk about this kind of thing, to get them to come and see you for me. But what do you think? they wouldn't do it. There's a nice charitable lot of parties, isn't it, to lend a hand when a man was in such sore straits as I was? You are attending, aren't you, Sotileza, to all this I'm telling you? Well, the upshot of it was, that since nobody would come and speak to you for me, I had to come and speak to you myself, and—and—now I'm doing it."
It was no news to Sotileza that Cleto was in love with her; for she had read it clearly in all his looks and actions for some time past. She was not surprised, therefore, at his avowal; but she was surprised, and not a little, that he should have mustered the courage to make it. Looking at him with her serene gaze, she said to him:—
"Of course there's no offense in what you say to me, Cleto; but in the name of all the saints, what possesses you to make you say it to me just now?"
"My stars! what always possesses people to tell such things? So they can be known."
"Well, I know them, Cleto, I know them: now are you satisfied?"
"Hum—er—why, no, not altogether. That is not enough, Sotileza."
"And what do you wish more?"
"What do I wish more? Gracious goodness! I wish to be a man like another; I want to live a different kind of life from what I've been living: you yourself have been the light that has shown me what another kind of life could be. I want to live the way life goes on in this little shop of yours; I am dying to work for you, and to be neat and clean and decent-spoken, like you. I would kiss the ground you walk on, and try and get you the very mermaids from the sea, whom no one has ever set eyes on, if you wanted them. Is it too little that I offer?"
He was veritably transfigured at this moment; and Sotileza could not but marvel at the change.
"I have never seen you so lively and so talkative as to-day," was her answer.
"The mounting wave has burst," he rejoined, getting bolder still; "and I myself believe I am not what I was before. I've set myself down sometimes for a regular idiot; but by the living gracious! I swear I am so no longer, with this that is going on inside of me, and that makes me talk in spite of myself. If you can work such a miracle as this without even knowing it, what miracles could you not work with me when you really put your mind on it? Now just look at me, Sotileza: I've got no vices; I never was afraid of work; I haven't a grudge against a person in the world; I am accustomed to do with little; and picking out the very best I've had in my life, it has never been anything but pain and trouble. Seeing here, about you, something so entirely different, you know what a value I set on it—and whose fault it is that I do. There's a man needed in this house. Are you taking in what I am telling you, Sotileza?"
Sotileza was giving heed to it only too well. For that very reason she replied with a certain curtness:—
"Yes, I am; but what of it?"
"Again? Confound it! you make me that answer again," cried Cleto angrily. "Or is this your way of saying no, without saying it directly?"
"Come, Cleto," said Sotileza coldly, "I am not under obligations to answer all the questions you choose to put me on such particulars, or any others. I live quietly here in my house without speaking ill of anybody. I have none but the kindest wishes towards you, and I know your value full well; nevertheless I have my own way of thinking and feeling, and I wish to make no change in my life at present."
"What have you said, Sotileza?" exclaimed Cleto in dismay. "Oh, this is boring a big auger-hole into the hull. I am wrecked, I am lost."
"Don't put it in that way; it is not so bad as that. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that if, instead of the no, Cleto, which you dread to hear, I should say the yes you ask of me, how would you be the gainer by that? You have to steal into this house, carefully hiding your movements from your family over in yours, even if you come here but for an instant, just to pass the time of day. If such is the case now, what would it be if—if the plan you are so anxious for came to pass?"
"You've hit it, Sotileza: that's just what the other folks told me. But is there any sense and right in such a state of things? I didn't choose the family that I belong to."
"Who are the other folks that told you the same thing that I have?" now inquired Sotileza quickly, ignoring the woe-begone lamentations of the poor young fellow.
"Father Polinar, in the first place" [the parish schoolmaster].
"Father Polinar? And who next?"
"Don Andres" [a young man of the upper class, in love with Sotileza himself].
"And you went to—to that person, with this pretty tale? What did he say to you, pray?"
"He abused me like a pickpocket. He left me for dead, as you might say, when he got through with me."
"Well, you see then. When was this?"
"You deserved all you got. Why do you go to any one with that nonsense?"
"Great heavens! don't I keep telling you? My liking for you choked me; I lacked courage to tell you, and I looked around for some one else to do it for me. I shall not look any further, now that I have got the trick of speaking up for myself. But this is not to the point, Sotileza."
"What is the point?"
"Why, that because my folks across the way are a bad lot, I should have to get the mitten from the only girl I ever loved."
"I haven't given you the mitten, have I?"
"Of course it amounts to that, if you shut your door against me on account of my family over there."
"I did not even say I was going to do that; I merely put you the case as a supposition: now do you understand?"
"I'm afraid I do,—born to bad luck that I am. But tell me clearly, for that is what I came to-day to find out. Don't be afraid to speak up and say the worst."
"I beg of you not to make me speak."
"No, it will be better to speak than keep silent. See here, Sotileza,—for this is the kind of a person I am: come now, do you think me of too little account? Then tell me how you would like me to be, and I shall be only too glad to become that, cost what it may. Is there some one else who has got the inside track with you? is that the reason? I tell you I would be a dozen times as good a man as he, no matter who he is, if you would take an interest in me."
"There's a nice piece of conceit, I must say."
"My very life is bound up in this matter, Sotileza: would I dare to talk so, otherwise? Oh, I beseech you—The whole thing is to have a little kindness for me in your heart, and all the rest will follow as if upon wheels. You will only have to say to me, 'You've got to do this or do that, or go here or go there,' and I will jump and do it on the instant. I shall not disturb you the least bit; a mere corner of the house will do for me, and the farthest corner at that, even if it be worse than the one I have now. I will eat the scraps you leave over, of what I gain for you with my hardest daily toil, so that you may live at leisure like a lady. I can live on just nothing at all, Sotileza; for as sure as God is in heaven, what makes me fatter than anything is to have a little order, a grain of human kindness, a scrap or two of jolly good-nature, in the house. By the powers, how I should enjoy that kind of thing! So now you see what I beg of you, what I beseech of you. And you won't be offended, will you? And you will say yes, Sotileza? I know you will; for one cannot be allowed to beg in this way for what is impossible."
The desperate energy of the poor youth only caused Sotileza to smile. He persisted, but in vain, in trying to draw out a definite answer from her. His obstinacy in the end annoyed her; and she showed it. Then Cleto, scowling with his disappointment and wretchedness, said:—
"Will you even admit to me that what I have said to you does not merely go in at one ear and out at the other?"
"And you, animal, what difference does it make to you?" snapped out Sotileza, in a nettled, offensive manner that froze the very blood in his veins. "Who and what are you, anyway, to bring me to book in this way?"
"Nothing, nothing; the very dust under your feet," he answered with abject humility, conscious too late of the rudeness and lack of tact he had been guilty of. "The trouble I am in blinded me, and I spoke without thinking. Don't be put out with me: it was only that; I swear to you by all—"
"Leave me in peace."
"Yes, but promise not to lay up a dislike against me," pleaded Cleto.
"Get out of here, get away from here, for I can hardly endure the sight of you."
"Oh, what an unlucky wretch am I," he groaned. "And will you never pardon me?"
"No, unless you leave here instantly."
"Don't be too hard with me: I'm going; I'm gone."
And with this, Cleto, heavy and woe-begone, sallied forth from the little shop, whence he had more than half believed in advance he should sally forth triumphant and joyful.
[Cleto makes various long voyages, returns a much more accomplished and presentable person, without losing his kindly and upright nature: and in course of time, Sotileza, having the good sense to feel that this is a much better match for her than one with Andres in the higher station, marries him.]