S H O R T S T O R Y
THE TALL WOMAN
b y p e d r o a n t o n i o d e a l a r c ó n ~ s p a i n , 1 8 8 1
'WHAT DO we know, my friends? What do we know?' exclaimed Gabriel, the distinguished mining engineer, sitting down under a pine tree near a fountain, on the slope of Guadarrama, about six miles from the Escorial Palace and just on the boundary line between the provinces of Madrid and Segovia. I know the place, the fountain, and the pine tree very well. I can see them still, but I cannot remember the name.
'Let's all sit down and rest here,' said Gabriel. 'We've agreed to enjoy the lovely weather as best we can in this charming place, famous for the tonic qualities of this sparkling fountain and for the picnics which have taken place here, where great scientists have come to observe Nature and to find an appetite from time to time. Sit down and I'll tell you a true story to bear out my theory. You call me a materialist, but I still maintain that in this world in which we live strange things happen—things so strange that no reason can account for them, nor can science or philosophy give any explanation of such things. Surely there are more mysteries in heaven and on earth than all our philosophy can account for—to alter slightly the words of Hamlet.'
Gabriel was addressing five friends of various ages, none of them very young and only one elderly. Three of them, like him, were mining engineers, the fourth was an artist, and the fifth something of a writer. All of us had come up with Gabriel, who was the youngest, on hired mules from the village of San Lorenzo, to spend the day in hunting for specimens in the lovely woods of Peguerinos, gathering interesting forest plants under the pine trees, catching butterflies in gauze nets, finding rare beetles under the bark of the decayed trees, and in all these occupations giving a fair amount of attention to the well-filled hamper of cold provisions and the skin of wine, to the cost of which all contributed in equal shares.
This was in the middle of the hot summer of 1875. I am not sure if it was the festival of Santiago or that of San Luis, but it was a holiday of some sort—I think San Luis. In any case, the day was very hot, and the shade of the pine wood and murmur of the fountain were delicious after climbing the mountainside. Up there, mind, heart, body, and especially appetite were refreshed by the pure air and the stillness, so sweet after the busy life of the plains which we had left far below us.
The six friends sat in the shade of the pine trees, and Gabriel continued:
'You may call me a visionary if you like, but it has been my fortune or misfortune in life that I have always been regarded as a materialist, a man of modern thought, not believing in things unseen. In fact, a positivist. Well, I may be so, but my positivism includes an acknowledgment of the mysterious influences of Nature—all the strange and inexplicable facts which are facts because they happen; all the emotions of the mind which are inseparable from the life of every reasoning creature. I believe in all these things because they are material and natural. They cannot be explained, but still they happen. Now, as to other things which are supernatural, or extra-natural—just listen, and then judge for yourselves. I was not the hero of the strange occurrence which I'm going to relate to you—but listen, and then tell me what explanation you can give me—natural, physical, scientific, whatever you think will best explain the case, if explanation is at all possible.'
'Perhaps you may have heard of an engineer of Public Works named Telesforo de Ruiz. He died in 1860.'
'No, I never heard of him.'
'So have I. He was an Andalusian, very dark and handsome. He was engaged to be married to the daughter of the Marquis of Moreda, and he died of gastric fever.'
'Yes, that he was,' replied Gabriel. 'Well, until about six months before he did, my friend Telesforo was a brilliant young man—as every one said. Tall, strong, handsome, talented and with a first-class diploma from the School of Mines, and excellent prospects, he was very much sought after in the way of his profession by both public and private enterprises, and he was just as much sought after in private life by the fair sex, marriageable or unhappily married, and even by some charming widows anxious to tempt Providence again. One of these was a well-known conquest of his, who would gladly have accompanied my friend to the altar. However, she does not enter in this story, and indeed Telesforo merely amused himself in her case by flirting with her. If she did make herself a bit cheap to him…Well, he was all the time deeply and seriously in love with the girl to whom he was engaged, poor Joaquina de Moreda, and so the poor widow merely filled a temporary gap—'
'Now, now, Don Gabriel! No scandal allowed.'
'I am not going to talk scandal. Those of you who knew the young couple will remember that poor Joaquina died suddenly when taking the waters of Santa Agueda at the end of the summer of 1859. I was in Pau when the sad news came, and I was very much affected because of my friendship for Telesforo. I had only met the girl once, at the house of her aunt, General Lopez's widow, and her extreme pallor, almost a bluish tint, struck me as an indication of weak health, such as one sees in sufferers from aneurism. But she was very graceful, refined, and gentle looking, and in addition to her personal charms she was to inherit her father's title, as she was the only child, and she would also have a good deal of money. When I heard of her death I knew that her sweetheart would be inconsolable, and when I got back to Madrid, about three weeks later, I went to see him early one morning. He had a charming flat in the Calle del Lobo, near the Plaza San Jerónimo. He lived there and had his office under the same roof.
'He looked very sad, but he was calm and evidently master of his grief, as he sat working with his assistants at some plan of a railway. He was dressed in deep mourning, and when I entered he embraced me in silence then turned to give some instructions to one of his staff respecting the work in hand. I waited until, taking my arm, he led me to his private sitting-room at the other end of the house, saying as we went:
' "I'm so glad you have come. I cannot tell you how much I have missed you in my present state of mind. Something very strange and unaccountable has happened to me, and I want to tell you about it, for only a friend who knows me as you do will be able to judge if I am mad or a fool. I urgently need a sane, calm opinion, as I know yours will be.
' "Sit down here," he went on when we had reached the sitting-room, "and don’t be afraid that I'm going to weary you by describing my grief, which can only end with my life. You have not had much personal experience of sorrow or human suffering, but you can imagine what I suffer and must always suffer. I do not seek or wish for consolation now or later on, or ever in all time. That subject is ended now. What I want to tell you is something so strange, so terrible, that I must speak of it to someone of calm judgment, someone will listen and advise me. The whole adventure is like an awful seal set on my present misery, on the agony of my life, and it tortures me to the point of despair. It is all a most frightful mystery, and I think it will alarm you too."
' "Tell me," I replied, feeling vaguely anxious and more than half wishing that I had not come to see my unhappy friend. His expression of terror struck a chill to my heart and made me fear for his reason.
' "Listen then," said he, wiping the perspiration from his forehead.
' "I do not know if it is a mental twist which I have always had, or if it is the effect of some of those silly tales which old nurses use to frighten children into quiet and obedience, but ever since I was very young nothing has caused me so much fright and horror as the sight, or even the thought, of a woman alone out of doors at a late hour of the night.
' "You can testify that I have never been a coward. Like every other man of the world, I have always been ready to fight a duel if it became necessary to do so, and not very long after I had left the School of Mines I was obliged to quell a dangerous revolt among my workmen on my first important piece of work with blows and even shots, so that singlehanded I reduced them to obedience. All my life, in Jaén, in Madrid, and elsewhere, I was accustomed to go about the streets at any hour of the night, alone and unarmed, and if by chance I did meet any late wanderers of suspicious appearance, I knew they were merely thieves or human prowlers in search of prey, and I simply avoided them or let them pass without notice. But if the solitary form was that of a woman, walking or standing, then, if I was alone or there was no one else in sight, I was in the most abject state of terror possible to imagine. You may laugh if you like, but my agony of mind was dreadful; I shivered from head to foot, thought of ghosts or lost souls, apparitions from the other world, wraiths of persons still alive; in fact, of all the terrible superstitious ideas which have ever been invented to torture the credulous, and which at any other time or in any other circumstances would have only provoked my ridicule. Then I would hasten by steps or turn back; I would make all kinds of detours to avoid meeting the lonely figure, and overcome by repulsion and horror, I would rush back to my home, never stopping until I was safe within its doors.
' "Once in the shelter of my own house, I could laugh at my silly fears, and console myself by reflecting that at any rate no one of my acquaintance knew of such folly on my part. I would feel sure then that as I did not believe in fairies or witches or apparitions of any sort there was no need to have been frightened by the sight of the poor solitary creature, whose want, or vice, or some other cruel spur, had driven from shelter on such a night and at such an hour. I felt that I should have offered her assistance if she was in need of it, or alms if I had waited for her to ask me for them. But all this solid reasoning did not prevent my acting in just the same way when the next solitary female form was sighted. When I was twenty-five years of age, I met many such lonely nocturnal wanderers, and though I had always fled from them in the same way, I never had the slightest reason to think that they intended me any harm or were able to injure me in any way, or had I ever any notable or disagreeable adventure with any one I met in the street late at night. But my fear was indomitable, only vanishing when I was safe at home and could laugh at or scold myself for my lack of common sense. If I were not alone of if there were other people in the street, the case was different, for I did not care then. The incident attracted no one's notice, and was soon forgotten, as children forget their terrors of the dark when they have companions by their side.
' "Now, this brings me to one night about three years ago. I have only too good a reason to remember the exact date. It was the 16th of November, at three o'clock in the morning. At that time I was living in a little flat in the Calle de los Jardines, near the Calle de la Montera. The night was terribly cold and wet, and I was alone. You will ask me what I was doing out of doors at that hour on a November morning. Well, you will be surprised to hear that I had just left a sort of gambling saloon, unknown as such to the police, but where many people had already been ruined. I had been induced to go there the night before the first and last time. Gambling was never a vice of mine, and the inducement held out to me by the friend who took me there, and who was a bit of a scamp, was that I would see something of the smart night life of the capital, and make the acquaintance of some interesting members of Bohemian society and ultra-fashionable actresses and other stars of the demi-monde, who dropped in to win or lose a few crowns at the roulette.
' "Well, about midnight the fun waxed furious. People of all classes dropped in, apparently after the theatre or late receptions; play grew high, and I, like all novices, threw prudence to the winds, and staked my all, winning at first and then losing steadily, until at last, after being severely handled by cruel Fortune, I came away without a single coin in my pockets, and with debts to my friend and others, the amounts of which I had jotted down without having any very clear idea of what they amounted to but feeling certain that it was utterly out of my power ever to discharge them.
' "I was going home, half dead with weariness, annoyance and disgust at my own folly, freezing with cold, and also very hungry. I did not know what to do, except to write to my poor father, who was very ill, asking him to send me money, and that would not only grieve but surprise him, for he believed that I was doing well in my profession and already in comfortable circumstances. Overcome by these sad thoughts, I was just crossing the corner of the Calle de los Peligros to reach my own street, and was about to pass a newly-erected house at the corner, when on looking up, I became aware that in the doorway, erect and still as a pine tree, stood a very tall, large woman, about sixty years of age, whose bold, malignant, and lashless eyes were fixed on me like two daggers, while her huge toothless mouth grinned at me horribly.
' "The terror, or rather, the mad panic, which seized on me then surpassed all I have ever experienced previously. I stood staring at this horrible figure, and each line of her form, each of the smallest details of her dress, were indelibly branded in my recollection. The lamp at the street corner shone steadily on the scene, and the apparition, or whatever it might be, and I were the only occupants of the entire street. I forgot my ruined position, I forgot my folly of that night, there was only room in my brain for one thought, if thought it could be called—a crazy terror of the woman who seemed to fill the whole doorway beside me.
' "Oh, don't be alarmed, my friend. I was not really mad; I am not mad now. But what will I be if some consolation is not found for me, some solution to my distress? It is for that reason that I have asked you to listen to me and to bear with me.
' "The first surprising thing about this woman, as I must call her, was her great height and breadth of her bony shoulders; next the size and roundness of her enormous owl-like eyes, the size of her nose, and the hideous gap which served her as a mouth, made still more hideous by the malignant grin which should have disfigured the fairest mouth in existence, and finally, the strange coquetry of her dress; the bright-coloured handkerchief which was draped over her ugly forehead and fastened beneath the chin, and a very small fan which she held open in her hand, and which she flirted in an affectation of modesty before her face and figure.
' "Nothing could be more grotesque or ridiculous than the sight of that tiny fan in those enormous hands, like a sceptre of weakness for a giantess so old, so bony, so hideous. The same effect was produced by the gay cotton handkerchief in contrast to the huge deformed nose, and the coarse face which made me ask myself for a moment if this were not a man in woman's dress. But no. The expression was that of a wicked woman, of a witch, of a sorceress, of one of the Fates, of a Fury.
' "I cannot express my exact thought, but in that instant I felt that this was the cause and the justification of all the unreasonable fears which had overcome me when I had seen a woman, however innocent looking, alone in the street at night. It would seem that, from my very birth, I had foreseen the horror of this encounter, and that I feared it by instinct, as all living creatures are given the instinct to recognize their natural enemies, even by their approach, before ever they have received any injury from them.
' "When I saw now, for the first time, this sphinx of my whole life, I did not run away—less through shame or manly pride than because I dreaded unreasoningly that my very fear would reveal to the creature that it was I, her victim, who fled, and would give her wings to pursue me, to seize me, to…I could not tell what I feared. Panic is a thing of itself, and has no form of thought even to shape the thing it fears or to put into words its own madness.
' "The house where I lived was at the extreme end of the street, which, as you know, is very long and narrow. Not another soul was to be seen. I was alone, utterly alone, with that awful statue-like figure, which might annihilate me with a word. How was I to get away, to get home? I looked along to where I saw the broad well-lighted Calle de la Montera, where policemen and watchmen are on the beat at all times.
' "Finally, I don't remember how, I resolved to do something to escape from the horrible obsession which dominated me—not to take flight, but to creep by degrees down the street, even at the cost of years of life and health, and thus, little by little, to get nearer and nearer to my home, exerting myself to the utmost not to fall fainting on the ground before I reached it.
' "I had moved slowly about twenty steps along the street towards my house when all at once a new spasm of terror seized me. I did not dare stop, I could not look around, but what if my enemy were following me? Dare I look around? I stopped and tried to reason calmly.
' " 'One thing or another must happen,' I thought quickly. 'Either I have good cause for this fear, or else it is sheer madness. In the first case, this terrible witch is following me, she will overtake me, and nothing in the whole world can save me. But if this is only a craze, a mania, an access of folly, a groundless panic, then let me face it out, convince myself of its unreality, and thus be cured once for all, and never have to suffer in this way again. I shall feel certain of my silly conduct if I find that this poor old woman is still standing in the doorway sheltering from cold, or waiting for the door to be opened. Then I shall go home, and never again will I permit such groundless fears to torment me.'
' "Having almost calmed myself, I stood still and turned my head.
' "Oh, Gabriel, Gabriel, how shall I convey my feelings to you at what I saw? The tall woman had followed me with soundless footsteps, she was towering over me, almost touching me with her fan, her head bent so that it nearly touched my shoulder.
' "Why? And why, indeed? Was she a pickpocket? Was it a man in disguise? Or was it only a spiteful old woman who saw that I was frightened and wanted to terrify me more? Was it the spectral reflection of my own cowardice? Was it the sum total of all the deceptions and shortcomings of our human nature?
' "To tell you all the ideas which ran through my mind at that moment would be impossible. I managed to scream, which roused me from my stupor as from a nightmare, and I ran like a terrified child of four year years old and did not stop until I was in the Calle de la Montera.
' "Once there, all my fear fell away from me. And yet the Calle de la Montera was deserted too. I looked all along the Calle de los Jardines, the whole of which I could see, and which was sufficiently well lighted by its three lamp-posts and by the reflection from the calle de los Peligros. It would not be possible for the tall woman to hide if she had gone in that direction, but I give you my word there was not a cat or the shadow of a mouse to be seen in the whole street, not to speak of a giantess like my tormentor.
' " 'She has gone into some other doorway,' I thought. 'But she will not be able to get away without my seeing her if she moves while the lamps are lit.'
' "Just then I saw a night-watchman coming along the Calle del caballero de Gracia, and I shouted to him without moving from where I stood. To explain my call and put him on the alert, I told him that there was a man disguised as a women in the Calle de los Jardines, that he had gone into that street by the Calle de los Peligros, and must have gone off towards the Calle de la Aduana; that I would remain where I was if he would go to the other end of the street, and that in that way he would not be able to escape. It would be well for us both to capture him, I said, for he must be a robber or worse to go about disguised at that hour.
' "The night-watchman did as I advised. He went down to the Calle de la Aduana, and when I saw his lantern gleam at the other end of the Calle de los Jardines I went along the other side and down the next street to meet him.
' "Neither of us had seen anything in the shape of a human being, although both of us had looked into the doorway of every house.
' " 'He must have gone into some house,' said the watchman.
' " 'I expect so,' I replied, opening my own door, with the firm determination to change to another street next day.
' "I ascended the stairs to my flat on the third floor, and opened the outer door with my latch-key. I never made my good servant José sit up for me.
' "However, this time, he was waiting for me. My troubles were not over yet.
' " 'Is there anything wrong?' I asked him in surprise.
' "He seemed rather agitated.
' " 'Sir,' he said, 'Captain Falcón was here from eleven o'clock until half-past two. He said he would come back after daylight, and that if you came back you were to wait up for him, because he must see you.'
' "Those words filled me with new terrors. I felt as if my own death were at hand. Certainly something very serious was on foot. My dear old father had been very ill for a long time, and as he had seemed to be much worse lately, I had written to my brothers in Jaén, where all my family lived, that if matters became very serious they were to telegraph to my friend, Captain Falcón, who would let me know at once what had happened. I had no doubt now that my father was dead.
' "I sat in an armchair, waiting for the dawn and my friend who was to be the bearer of sad news. How can I tell now what I suffered in those long hours of waiting? Three things, all of terribly painful association, kept repeating themselves in my mind, as being inextricably connected with one another, standing apart from the rest of the world in a monstrous and terrifying group: my ruin at play, the meeting with the tall woman, and the death of my revered father.
' "As six o'clock struck, Captain Falcón entered my sitting-room, and looked at me in silence. I flung myself into his arms in a hysterical outburst, and he said, essaying to calm my grief:
' " 'Weep, my friend. You have indeed cause to weep, for such a loss as this can only come once in a lifetime.' " '
'My friend Telesforo,' continued Gabriel, after he had drained another glass of wine, 'paused when he reached this point of his story. After a silence of some minutes he went on:
' "If this were all I had to tell you, you might not find anything strange or supernatural in it, and you might tell me what others have told me—men of much common sense have said that everyone with a lively and ardent imagination has his or her pet subject of unreasoning terror; that mine was the idea of solitary female nightwalkers, and that the old woman in the Calle de los Jardines was only some poor old creature who tried to ask me for alms when she was without home or food, and whom I had alarmed by my own strange demeanour; that at the worst, she could only be an associate of thieves or other bad characters, waiting in a quiet street for her companions, and fearful of their being discovered by the night watchman.
' "I, too, wished to believe this, and after hearing it constantly repeated I did almost come to believe it at the end of some months. Still I would have given years of my life for the certainty of never again seeing the tall woman! And now I would give everything I have just to be able to see her once more!"
' "But why?"
' "Just to be able to strangle her!"
' "I don't understand."
' "You will understand when I tell you that I met her again three weeks ago, a few hours before I received the fatal news of the death of my poor Joaquina."
' "Well, tell me about it."
' "There is not much more to tell. It was about five o'clock in the morning, and I had been to an entertainment where I had not been much entertained. I had the unpleasant task of breaking the news of my approaching marriage to a lady with whom I had had a very pronounced flirtation, and who took the news very ill. I had to stand many reproaches and even tears when I explained that the position was inevitable; my resolution was taken, and my wedding-day fixed. And at that moment, though I did not know it, they were burying my promised wife in Santa Agueda.
' "It was not yet daylight, but there was that faint light in the sky which shows the night is weakening. The street lamps had been extinguished and the watchmen had retired when, as I was passing by the Plaza de las Cortes to get to my flat in the Calle del Lobo, at the corner of the Calle de Santa Ana who should cross my path but the terrible woman whom I had seen in the Calle de los Jardines.
' "She did not look at me, and I thought she had not seen me. She wore the same dress, even carried the same little fan as when I had seen her three years ago. And all my previous terror was as nothing in comparison with what took possession of me now. I walked quickly down the Calle del Prado after she had passed, but I did not take my eyes off her to make sure that she did not turn her head; and when I reached the other part of the Calle del Lobo I breathed hard as if I had just breasted an impetuous stream, and my fear giving way to satisfaction I pressed on, thinking that I had narrowly but completely escaped the notice of the hateful witch, and that now I was free from her baleful proximity.
' "But just as I was about to enter my house a new terror stirred in me. Surely she was too cunning to allow me to escape like this, and she was only feigning not to notice me in order to be able to track me with more certainty down the dark and silent street and thus find where I lived.
' "I stopped and looked round. There she was just behind me, her dress almost touching me, her wicked eyes fixed on me, her hideous mouth distended in a spiteful grin of triumph, as she fanned herself with an air of languor, as though ridiculing my childish terror.
' "That fear gave place at once to the most senseless fury, to the rage of desperation, and I flung myself on the vile creature, seized her by the arms and dashed her against the wall. I held her back by the throat, and felt her face, her breast, the straggling locks of her grey hair until I was convinced that she was a human being, and a woman.
' "She had uttered a hoarse cry of mingled pain and rage, and pretended to weep, but I felt that it was only pretense; then fixing her hyena eyes on me, she said:
' " 'Why do you treat me like this?'
' "My anger died away and my fear returned.
' " 'Do you remember,' I said, 'that you have seen me elsewhere?'
' " 'Indeed I do,' she replied sardonically. 'The night of San Eugenio, about three o'clock, in the Calle de los Jardines.'
' "I shivered involuntarily, but I still kept hold of her.
' " 'Who are you?' I asked. 'Why do you run after me like this? What do you want with me?'
' " 'I am only a poor weak woman,' she said with a diabolical grin. 'You hate and fear me without cause or reason. If not, will you please tell me why you were so overcome with fear the first time you saw me?'
' " 'Because I have hated you ever since I was born,' I cried involuntarily. 'Because you are the evil spirit of my life!'
' " 'So you have known me for a long time past? Well, my son, I have known you too.'
' " 'You have known me? Since when?'
' " 'Since before you were born. And when I saw you pass close to me three years ago, I said to myself: "Here he is at last!" '
' " 'But what am I to you? What are you to me?'
' " 'I am Hell,' she said, spitting in my face. And with that she suddenly slipped through my grips, caught up her skirts, and ran from my sight without making the least noise as she disappeared.
' "It would have been madness to try to overtake her. And it was now broad daylight and a good many people were passing in the streets, both in San Jerónimo Square and in the Calle del Prado. The tall woman continued to run, or as it seemed to fly, until she reached the Calle de las Huertas, now gleaming in the morning sun. She stopped there and looked back at me, waving her fan at me in a threatening manner, holding it closed like a dagger, and finally she disappeared round the corner of the last street.
' "No, just wait a moment, Gabriel. Do not give me your opinion yet, for I have not quite finished my strange tale, in which my heart and my life are equally involved. Listen to me for a few minutes longer!
' "When I reached home, whom do you think I found awaiting me but Colonel Falcón (as he is now). He had come to bring me the terrible news that my love, my darling Joaquina, all my hope of happiness and good fortune on this earth, had died the day before in Santa Agueda! Her unhappy father had telegraphed Falcón, knowing what an old friend of ours he was, asking him to break the news to me…to me, who had guessed that a great misfortune was in store for me as soon as ever I set eyes on the curse of my life. Now you know why I want to kill the enemy of my happiness, my born foe, that wicked old sorceress who embodies the cruelty of my destiny.
' "But why do I talk like this? Is she really a woman? Is she a human being at all? Why did the presentiment of her existence weigh on me ever since I was born? Why did she recognize me when she saw me first? Why have I only seen her when some great misfortune has happened to me? What or who is she?" '
'Well, my friends, I leave you to imagine what remarks I made and what arguments I used in the effort to calm Telesforo, for all I said was what you are all thinking now and preparing to tell me, to prove to me that there is nothing superhuman or supernatural in my story. You will tell me more than that…you will say that my poor friend was not in his right mind; that he must have been always a little mad, for he evidently suffered from the infirmity which specialists call groundless panic or, as the case may be, intermittent delirium; that even admitting that all that he said about the strange woman was quite true, still it was only a case of a singular series of chance coincides of dates and events; and that perhaps the poor old woman was mad too, and was excited by his mania. She might have been an old rat-catcher abroad at her nightly work, or a beggar, or a procuress—as Telesforo said to himself in an interval of lucidity and common sense.
'Well, you will see that I was wrong in thinking that, as you are wrong now. The only person who was not wrong was Telesforo. Ah! it is much easier to talk of madness than to find an explanation for many things which happen on this earth.'
'A few days after this conversation with Telesforo I was obliged to go to the province of Albacete in my capacity of mining engineer; and not many weeks later I heard from a contractor of public works that my poor friend had been attacked by a very severe gastric fever and jaundice. He was green in hue, unable to move from his chair, and he could not work, nor would he see any one. His grief and melancholy were pitiable, and the doctors despaired of his recovery. Then I knew why he had not answered my letters. I had to resort to Colonel Falcón for news, and reports continued ever more and more depressing.
'After five months of absence, I returned to Madrid on the very day when the news of the battle of Tetuán arrived. I remember it as if it were yesterday. That evening I bought the Correspondencia de España to see the news, and the first thing my eye lighted on was the obituary notice of my poor friend Telesforo, and the invitation to all his friends to attend his funeral on the following day.
'You will readily understand that I would not willingly fail to give him this last tribute. I had a place in one of the carriages nearest to the hearse, and when we alighted in the cemetery of San Luis I noticed a woman of the poorer class, old and very tall, who laughed in a most unseemly manner when the hearse arrived, and who then advanced with an air of triumph towards the pall-bearers pointing out to them with a very small fan the way they were to take to reach the open grave, which was to be my friend's last resting-place.
'At the first glance I recognized, with grief and fear, that this woman corresponded to the description given by Telesforo of his implacable enemy. She was just what he had described, with her enormous nose, her infernal eyes, her hideous mouth, the bright printed cotton handkerchief over her head, and the tiny fan, which in her hands seemed to be the sceptre of profanity and inhuman mockery.
'She perceived at once that I was looking at her, and she fixed her eyes on me in a peculiar way, as if recognizing me while she ascertained that I recognized her, as if she knew that my dead friend had told me all about the scenes in the Calle de los Jardines and the Calle del Lobo, as if defying me, as if declaring that I had inherited the hatred she had borne my unfortunate friend.
'I confess that the fear which overcame me was greater than my surprise at this new coincidence or disaster. it seemed certain that some mysterious connection had existed in some supernatural way between the appalling old woman and Telesforo before this life; but at that moment I saw that my own life, my own good fortune, my own soul even, were in danger if I should inherit the strange and terrible curse.
'The tall woman began to laugh, pointing at me mockingly with her fan, as if she had read my thoughts and wished every one to notice my cowardice. I was obliged to lean on the arm of a friend to avoid falling, and then she made a gesture of contempt or pity, turned on her heels, and walked into the church-yard, still looking at me with her head turned over her shoulder. She fanned herself and signed to me with the fan at one and the same time, walking with mincing steps among the tombs with a sort of infernal coquetry, until at last I saw her disappear for ever in the crowded heart of that great world of the dead.
'I say "for ever" because fifteen years have passed since then, and I have never seen her since that moment: If she were really a human being, she must be dead by now; and if she were not, if she were a supernatural creature, I feel sure that she must have scorned me too much to persecute me.
'Now, my friends! I've told you all I know. Let me have your opinion.'
It is not necessary for me to repeat the remarks made by the group of friends and comrades to Gabriel. For indeed the fact remains that every reader will have his own ideas and beliefs in the matter, and to use his own judgment as to the conclusion to which he comes. So I will say no more. I leave it to the judgment of every one of my readers.
Translated from the Spanish by P.A. Schultz
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