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Paz Marquez Benitez

Through the open window the air-steeped outdoors passed into his room, quietly enveloping him, stealing him into his very thought. Esperanza, Julia, the sorry mess he had made of life, the years to come even now beginning to weigh down, to crush-they lost concreteness, diffused into formless melancholy. The tranquil murmur of conversation issued from the brick-tiled azotea where Don Julian and Carmen were busy pottering away among the rose pots.
"Papa, and when will the 'long table' be set?"
"I don't know yet. Alfredo is not very specific, but I understand Esperanza wants it to be next month."
Carmen sighed impatiently. "Why is he not a bit more decided, I wonder. He is over thirty, is he not? And still a bachelor! Esperanza must be tired waiting."
"She does not seem to be in much of a hurry either," Don Julian nasally commented, while his rose scissors busily snipped away.
"How can a woman be in a hurry when the man does not hurry her?" Carmen returned, pinching off a worn with a careful somewhat absent air. "Papa, do you remember how much in love he was?"
"In love? With whom?"
"With Esperanza of course. He has not have another love affair that I know of," she said with a good-natured contempt of an attractive woman for a brother who is apathetic of feminine charms. "What I mean is that at the beginning he was enthusiastic-flowers, serenades, notes, and things like that-"
Alfredo remembered that period with a wonder not unmixed with shame. That was less than four years ago. He could not understand those months of great hunger that was not of the body or yet of the mind, a craving that had seized him one quiet night when the moon was abroad; and under the dappled shadow of the trees in the plaza, man wooed maid. Was he being cheated by life? Lo0ve-he seemed to have missed it. Or was the love that others told about a mere fabrication of perfervid imagination, an exaggeration of the common place, a glorification of insipid monotonies such as made up his love life? Was love a combination of circumstances, or sheer native capacity of soul? In those days love was, for him, still the eternal puzzle; for love, as he knew it, was a stranger to love as he divined it to be.
Sitting quietly in his room now, he could almost revive the restlessness of those days, the feeling of tumultuous haste, such as he knew so well in his boyhood when something beautiful was going somewhere and was trying to get there in time to see, "Hurry, hurry, or you will miss it," someone had seemed to urge in his ears. So he had avidly seized on the shadow of Love and deluded himself for a long while in the way of humanity from time immemorial. In the meantime, he became very much engaged to Esperanza.
Why would men so mismanage their lives? Greed, he thought was what ruined so many. Greed-the desire to crowd into moment all the enjoyment it will hold, to squeeze from the hour all the emotion it will yield. Men commit themselves when but half-meaning to do so, sacrificing possible future fullness of ecstasy to the craving for immediate excitement. Greed-mortgaging the future for the sake of a present interesting reaction. Greed-forcing the hand of Time, or of Fate.
"What do you think happened?" asked Carmen pursuing her thought.
"I suppose long-engaged people are like that: warm now, cool tomorrow. I think they are oftener cool than warm. The very fact that an engagement has been allowed to prolong itself argues a certain placidity of temperament-or of affection-on the part of either, or both." Don Julian loves to philosophize. He was talking now with an evident relish for words, his resonant, very nasal voice toned down to monologue pitch. "That phase you were speaking of is natural enough for a beginning. Besides, that, as I see it, was Alfredo's last race with escaping youth-"
Carmen laughed aloud at the thought of her brother's perfect physical repose-almost indolence-disturbed in the role suggested by her father's figurative language. 
"A last spurt of hot blood," finished the old man.
Few certainly would credit Alfredo Salazar with hot blood. Even his friends had amusedly diagnosed his blood as cool and thin, citing incontrovertible evidence. Tall and slender, he moved with an indolent ease that verged on grace. Under straight recalcitrant hair, a thin face a satisfying breadth of forehead, slow dreamers eyes, and astonishing freshness of lips-indeed Alfredo Salazar's appearance betokened little of exuberant masculinity; rather a poet with wayward humor, a fastidious artist with keen, clear brain.
He rose and quietly went out the house. He lingered a moment on the stone steps; then went down the path shaded with immature acacias, through the little tarred gate which he left swinging back and forth, now opening, now closing the gravel road bordered along the farther side by madre de cacao hedge in tardy lavender bloom.
The gravel road narrowed as it slanted up to the house on the hill, whose wide, open porches he could glimpse through the heat-shrivelled tamarinds in the Martinez yard.
Six weeks ago that house meant nothing to him save that it was the Martinez house rented and occupied by Judge del Valle and his family. Six weeks ago Julia Salas meant nothing to him; he did not even know his name; but now-
One evening he had gone "neighboring" with Don Julian; a rare enough occurrence, since it made him a point to avoid all appearance of currying favor with the Judge. This particular evening, however, he had allowed himself to be persuaded." A little mental relaxation now and is beneficial," the old man had said." Besides a judge's good will, you know;" the rest of the thought-"is worth a rising young lawyer's trouble"-Don Julian conveyed through a shrug and a smile that derided his own worldly wisdom.
A young woman had met them at the door. It was evident from the excitement of the Judge's children that she was a recent and very welcome arrival. In the characteristic Filipino way formal introduction had been omitted-the Judge limiting himself to a casual "Ah, ya se conocen?"-with the consequence that Alfredo called her Miss del Valle throughout the evening.
He was puzzled that she should smile with evident delight every time he addressed her thus. Later Don Julian informed him that she was not the Judge's sister, as he had supposed, but his sister-in-law and that her name was Julia Salas. A very dignified, rather austere name, he thought. Still, the young lady should have corrected him. As it was he was greatly embarrassed, and felt that he should explain.
To his apology, she replied, "That is nothing. Each time I was about to correct you, but I remembered a similar experience I had once before."
"Oh," he drawled out vastly relieved.
"A man named Manalang-I kept calling him Manalo. After the tenth time or so, the young man rose from his seat and said suddenly, 'Pardon me, but my name is Manalang, Manalang.' You know, I never forgave him!"
He laughed with her.
"The best thing to do under the circumstances, I have found out," she pursued, "is to pretend not to hear, and to let the other person find out his mistake without help."
"As you did this time. Still, you looked amused everytime I-"
"I was thinking of Mr. Manalang."
Don Julian and his uncommunicative friend, the Judge, were absorbed in a game of chess. The young man had tired of playing appreciative spectator and desultory conversationalist, so he and Julia Salas had gone off to chat in the vine-covered porch. The lone piano in the neighborhood alternately tinkled and banged away as the player's moods altered. He listened, and wondered irrelevantly if Miss Salas could sing' she had such a charming speaking voice.
He was mildly surprised to note now that from her appearance she was unmistakably a sister of the Judge's wife, although Dona Adela was of a different type altogether. She was small and plump, with wide brown eyes, clearly defined eyebrows and lips, but she was much darker, of a smooth rich brown with underlying tones of crimson which heightened the impression she gave of abounding vitality.
On Sunday morning after mass, father and son would go crunching up the gravel road to the house on the hill. The Judge's wife invariably offered them beer, which Don Julian enjoyed and Alfredo did not. After a half hour or so, the chessboard would be brought out; then Alfredo and Julia Salas would go out to the porch to chat. She say in the low hammock and he in a rocking chair, and the hours-warm, quiet March hours-sped by. He enjoyed talking with her and it was evident that she liked his company; yet what feeling there was between them was so undisturbed that it seemed a matter of course. Only when Esperanza chanced to ask him indirectly about those visits did some uneasiness creep into his thoughts of the girl next door.
Esperanza had wanted to know if he went straight home after mass. Alfredo suddenly realized that for several Sundays now he had not waited for Esperanza to come out of the church as he had been wont to do. He had been eager to go "neighboring:"
He answered that he went home to work. And, because he was not habitually untruthful, added, "Sometimes I go with Papa to Judge del Valle's."
She dropped the topic. Esperanza was not prone to indulge in unprovoked jealousies. She was a believer in the regenerative virtue of institutions, in their power to regulate feeling as well as conduct. If a man were married, why of course he loved his wife; if he were engaged, he could not possibly love another woman.
That half-lie told him what he had not admitted openly to himself; that he was giving Julia Salas something which he was not free to give. He realized that; yet something that would not be denied beckoned imperiously, and he followed on. 
It was so easy to forget up there, away from the prying eyes of the world, so easy and so poignantly sweet. The beloved woman, he standing close to her, the shadows around, enfolding,
"Up here I find-something-"
He and Julia Salas stood looking out into the quiet night. Sensing unwonted intensity, she laughed, woman-like, asking "Amusement?"
"No; youth-its spirit-"
"Are you so old?"
"And heart's desire."
Was he becoming a poet, or is there a poet lurking in the heart of every man?
"Down there" he had continued, his voice somewhat indistinct, "the road is too broad, too barren of mystery."
"Down there" beyond the ancient tamarinds lay the road upturned to the stars. In the darkness the fireflies glimmered, while an errant breeze strayed in from the somewhere, bringing elusive, far away sounds as of voices in a dream.
"Mystery-" she answered lightly, "that is so brief-"
"Not in some," quickly. "Not in you."
"You have known me a few weeks; so the mystery."
"I could study you all my life and still find it."
"So long?"
"I should like to."
Those six weeks were now so swift-seeming in the memory, yet had they been so deep in the living, so charged with compelling power and sweetness. Because neither the past nor the future had relevance or meaning, he lived only the present, day by day, lived it intensely, with such a willful shutting out of fact as astounded him in his calmer moments.
Just before Holy Week, Don Julian invited the Judge and his family to spend Sunday afternoon at Tanda where he had a coconut plantation and a house on the beach. Carmen also came with her four energetic children. She and Dona Adela spent most of the time indoors directing the preparation of the merienda and discussing the likable absurdities of their husbands-how Carmen's Vicente was so absorbed in his farms that he would not even take time off to accompany her on this visit to her father; how Dona Adela's Dionisio was the most absent-minded of men, sometimes going out without his collar, or with unmatched socks.
After the merienda, Don Julian sauntered off with the Judge to show him what a thriving young coconut looked like-"plenty of leaves, close set, rich green"-while the children, convoyed by Julia Salas, found unending entertainment in the rippling sand left by the ebbing tide. They were far down, walking at the edge of the water, indistinctly outlined against the gray of out-curving beach.
Alfredo left his perch on the bamboo ladder of the house and followed. Here were her footsteps, narrow, arched. He laughed at himself for his black canvas footwear which he removed forthwith and tossed high up in dry sand.
When he came up, she flushed, then smiled with frank pleasure.
"I hope you are enjoying this," he said with a questioning inflection.
"Very much. It looks like home to me, except that we do not have such a lovely beach."
There was a breeze from the water. It blew the hair away from her forehead, and whipped the tucked-upskirt around her straight, slender figure. In the picture was something of eager freedom as of wings poised in flight. The girl had grace, distinction. Her face was not notably pretty; yet she had a tantalizing charm, all the more compelling because it was an inner quality, an achievement of the spirit. The lure was there, of naturalness, of an alert vitality of mind and body, of a thoughtful, sunny temper, and piquant perverseness which is sauce to charm.
"The afternoon has seemed very short, hasn't it?" Then, "This, I think, is the last time- we can visit."
"The last? Why?"
"Oh, you will be too busy perhaps."
He noted an evasive quality in the answer.
"Do I seem especially industrious to you?"
"If you are, you never look it."
"How do I look?"
"Not perspiring or breathless, as a busy man ought to be."
"Always unhurried, too unhurried, and calm." She smiled to herself.
" I wish that were true," he said after a meditative pause.
She waited.
"A man is happier if he is, as you say, calm and placid."
"Like a carabao in a mud pool," she retorted perversely.
"Who? I?"
"Oh no!"
"You said am calm and placid."
"That is what I think."
"I used to think so too. Shows how little we know ourselves."
It was strange to him that he could be wooing thus: with one look and covert phrase.
"I should like to see your home town."
"There is nothing to see-little crooked streets, yunut roofs with ferns growing on them, and sometimes squashes."
That was the background. It made her seem less detached , less unrelated, yet withal more distant, as if that background claimed ger and excluded him.
"Nothing? There is you."
"Oh me? But I am here."
"I will not go, of course, until you are there."
"Will you come? You will find it dull. There isn't even one American there!"
"Well-Americans are rather essential to my entertainment."
She laughed.
"We live on Calle Luz, a little street with trees."
"Could I find that?"
"If you don't ask for Miss del Valle," she smiled teasingly.
I'll inquire about-"
The house of the prettiest girl in the town."

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