The thing which is most ardently desired by a man who steps into a stagecoach, bent upon a long journey, is that his companions may be agreeable, that they may have the same tastes, possibly the same vices, be well educated and know enough not to be too familiar.
When I opened the door of the coach I felt fearful of encountering an old woman suffering with the asthma, an ugly one who could not bear the smell of tobacco smoke, one who gets seasick every time she rides in a carriage, and little angels who are continually yelling and screaming for God knows what.
Sometimes you may have hoped to have a beautiful woman for a traveling companion; for instance, a widow of twenty or thirty years of age (let us say, thirty-six), whose delightful conversation will help you pass away the time. But if you ever had this idea, as a reasonable man you would quickly dismiss it, for you know that such good fortune does not fall to the lot of the ordinary mortal. These thoughts were in my mind when I opened the door of the stagecoach at exactly eleven o’clock on a stormy night of the Autumn of 1844. I had ticket No. 2, and I was wondering who No. 1 might be. The ticket agent had assured me that No. 3 had not been sold.
It was pitch dark within. When I entered I said, “Good evening,” but no answer came. “The devil!” I said to myself. “Is my traveling companion deaf, dumb, or asleep?” Then I said in a louder tone: “Good evening,” but no answer came.
All this time the stagecoach was whirling along, drawn by ten horses.
I was puzzled. Who was my companion? Was it a man? Was it a woman? Who was the silent No. 1, and, whoever it might be, why did he or she not reply to my courteous salutation? It would have been well to have lit a match, but I was not smoking then and had none with me. What should I do? I concluded to rely upon my sense of feeling, and stretched out my hand to the place where No. 1 should have been, wondering whether I would touch a silk dress or an overcoat, but there was nothing there. At that moment a flash of lightning, herald of a quickly approaching storm, lit up the night, and I perceived that there was no one in the coach excepting myself. I burst out into a roar of laughter, and yet a moment later I could not help wondering what had become of No. 1.
A half hour later we arrived at the first stop, and I was just about to ask the guard who flashed his lantern into the compartment why there was no No. 1, when she entered. In the yellow rays I thought it was a vision: a pale, graceful, beautiful woman, dressed in deep mourning.
Here was the fulfillment of my dream, the widow I had hoped for.
I extended my hand to the unknown to assist her into the coach, and she sat down beside me, murmuring: “Thank you, sir. Good evening,” but in a tone that was so sad that it went to my very heart.
“How unfortunate,” I thought. “There are only fifty miles between here and Malaga. I wish to heaven this coach were going to Kamschatka.” The guard slammed the door, and we were in darkness. I wished that the storm would continue and that we might have a few more flashes of lightning. But the storm didn’t. It fled away, leaving only a few pallid stars, whose light practically amounted to nothing. I made a brave effort to start a conversation.
“Do you feel well?”
“Are you going to Malaga?”
“Did you like the Alhambra?”
“You come from Granada?”
“Isn’t the night damp?”
To which questions she respectively responded:
“Thanks, very well.”
It was quite certain that my traveling companion was not inclined to conversation. I tried to think up something original to say to her, but nothing occurred to me, so I lost myself for the moment in meditation. Why had this woman gotten on the stage at the first stop instead of at Granada? Why was she alone? Was she married? Was she really a widow? Why was she so sad? I certainly had no right to ask her any of these questions, and yet she interested me. How I wished the sun would rise. In the daytime one may talk freely, but in the pitch darkness one feels a certain oppression, it seems like taking an unfair advantage.
My unknown did not sleep a moment during the night. I could tell this by her breathing and by her sighing. It is probably unnecessary to add that I did not sleep either. Once I asked her: “Do you feel ill?” and she replied: “No, sir, thank you. I beg pardon if I have disturbed your sleep.”
“Sleep!” I exclaimed disdainfully. “I do not care to sleep. I feared you were suffering.”
“Oh, no,” she exclaimed, in a voice that contradicted her words, “I am not suffering.”
At last the sun rose. How beautiful she was! I mean the woman, not the sun. What deep suffering had lined her face and lurked in the depths of her beautiful eyes!
She was elegantly dressed and evidently belonged to a good family. Every gesture bore the imprint of distinction. She was the kind of a woman you expect to see in the principal box at the opera, resplendent with jewels, surrounded by admirers.
We breakfasted at Colmenar. After that my companion became more confidential, and I said to myself when we again entered the coach: “Philip, you have met your fate. It’s now or never.”
I regretted the very first word I mentioned to her regarding my feelings. She became a block of ice, and I lost at once all that I might have gained in her good graces. Still she answered me very kindly: “It is not because it is you, sir, who speak to me of love, but love itself is something which I hold in horror.”
“But why, dear lady?” I inquired.
“Because my heart is dead. Because I have loved to the point of delirium, and I have been deceived.”
I felt that I should talk to her in a philosophic way and there were a lot of platitudes on the tip of my tongue, but I refrained. I knew that she meant what she said. When we arrived at Malaga, she said to me in a tone I shall never forget as long as I live: “I thank you a thousand times for your kind attention during the trip, and hope you will forgive me if I do not tell you my name and address.”
“Do you mean then that we shall not meet again?”
“Never! And you, especially, should not regret it.” And then with a smile that was utterly without joy she extended her exquisite hand to me and said: “Pray to God for me.”
I pressed her hand and made a low bow. She entered a handsome victoria which was awaiting her, and as it moved away she bowed to me again.
Two months later I met her again.
At two o’clock in the afternoon I was jogging along in an old cart on the road that leads to Cordoba. The object of my journey was to examine some land which I owned in that neighborhood and pass three or four weeks with one of the judges of the Supreme Court, who was an intimate friend of mine and had been my schoolmate at the University of Granada.
He received me with open arms. As I entered his handsome house I could but note the perfect taste and elegance of the furniture and decorations.
“Ah, Zarco,” I said, “you have married, and you have never told me about it. Surely this was not the way to treat a man who loved you as much as I do!”
“I am not married, and what is more I never will marry,” answered the judge sadly.
“I believe that you are not married, dear boy, since you say so, but I cannot understand the declaration that you never will. You must be joking.”
“I swear that I am telling you the truth,” he replied.
“But what a metamorphosis!” I exclaimed. “You were always a partisan of marriage, and for the past two years you have been writing to me and advising me to take a life partner. Whence this wonderful change, dear friend? Something must have happened to you, something unfortunate, I fear?”
“To me?” answered the judge somewhat embarrassed.
“Yes, to you. Something has happened, and you are going to tell me all about it. You live here alone, have practically buried yourself in this great house. Come, tell me everything.”
The judge pressed my hand. “Yes, yes, you shall know all. There is no man more unfortunate than I am. But listen, this is the day upon which all the inhabitants go to the cemetery, and I must be there, if only for form’s sake. Come with me. It is a pleasant afternoon and the walk will do you good, after riding so long in that old cart. The location of the cemetery is a beautiful one, and I am quite sure you will enjoy the walk. On our way, I will tell you the incident that ruined my life, and you shall judge yourself whether I am justified in my hatred of women.”
As together we walked along the flower-bordered road, my friend told me the following story:
Two years ago when I was Assistant District Attorney in ——, I obtained permission from my chief to spend a month in Sevilla. In the hotel where I lodged there was a beautiful young woman who passed for a widow but whose origin, as well as her reasons for staying in that town, were a mystery to all. Her installation, her wealth, her total lack of friends or acquaintances and the sadness of her expression, together with her incomparable beauty, gave rise to a thousand conjectures.
Her rooms were directly opposite mine, and I frequently met her in the hall or on the stairway, only too glad to have the chance of bowing to her. She was unapproachable, however, and it was impossible for me to secure an introduction. Two weeks later, fate was to afford me the opportunity of entering her apartment. I had been to the theater that night, and when I returned to my room I thoughtlessly opened the door of her apartment instead of that of my own. The beautiful woman was reading by the light of the lamp and started when she saw me. I was so embarrassed by my mistake that for a moment I could only stammer unintelligible words. My confusion was so evident that she could not doubt for a moment that I had made a mistake. I turned to the door, intent upon relieving her of my presence as quickly as possible, when she said with the most exquisite courtesy: “In order to show you that I do not doubt your good faith and that I’m not at all offended, I beg that you will call upon me again, intentionally.”
Three days passed before I got up sufficient courage to accept her invitation. Yes, I was madly in love with her; accustomed as I am to analyze my own sensations, I knew that my passion could only end in the greatest happiness or the deepest suffering. However, at the end of the three days I went to her apartment and spent the evening there. She told me that her name was Blanca, that she was born in Madrid, and that she was a widow. She played and sang for me and asked me a thousand questions about myself, my profession, my family, and every word she said increased my love for her. From that night my soul was the slave of her soul; yes, and it will be forever.
I called on her again the following night, and thereafter every afternoon and evening I was with her. We loved each other, but not a word of love had ever been spoken between us.
One evening she said to me: “I married a man without loving him. Shortly after marriage I hated him. Now he is dead. Only God knows what I suffered. Now I understand what love means; it is either heaven or it is hell. For me, up to the present time, it has been hell.”
I could not sleep that night. I lay awake thinking over these last words of Blanca’s. Somehow this woman frightened me. Would I be her heaven and she my hell?
My leave of absence expired. I could have asked for an extension, pretending illness, but the question was, should I do it? I consulted Blanca.
“Why do you ask me?” she said, taking my hand.
“Because I love you. Am I doing wrong in loving you?”
“No,” she said, becoming very pale, and then she put both arms about my neck and her beautiful lips touched mine.
Well, I asked for another month and, thanks to you, dear friend, it was granted. Never would they have given it to me without your influence.
My relations with Blanca were more than love; they were delirium, madness, fanaticism, call it what you will. Every day my passion for her increased, and the morrow seemed to open up vistas of new happiness. And yet I could not avoid feeling at times a mysterious, indefinable fear. And this I knew she felt as well as I did. We both feared to lose one another. One day I said to Blanca:
“We must marry, as quickly as possible.”
She gave me a strange look. “You wish to marry me?”
“Yes, Blanca,” I said, “I am proud of you. I want to show you to the whole world. I love you and I want you, pure, noble, and saintly as you are.”
“I cannot marry you,” answered this incomprehensible woman. She would never give a reason.
Finally my leave of absence expired, and I told her that on the following day we must separate.
“Separate? It is impossible!” she exclaimed. “I love you too much for that.”
“But you know, Blanca, that I worship you.”
“Then give up your profession. I am rich. We will live our lives out together,” she said, putting her soft hand over my mouth to prevent my answer.
I kissed the hand and then, gently removing it, I answered: “I would accept this offer from my wife, although it would be a sacrifice for me to give up my career; but I will not accept it from a woman who refuses to marry me.”
Blanca remained thoughtful for several minutes; then, raising her head, she looked at me and said very quietly, but with a determination which could not be misunderstood: “I will be your wife, and I do not ask you to give up your profession. Go back to your office. How long will it take you to arrange your business matters and secure from the government another leave of absence to return to Sevilla?”
“A month? Well, here I will await you. Return within a month, and I will be your wife. To-day is the fifteenth of April. You will be here on the fifteenth of May?”
“You may rest assured of that.”
“You swear it?”
“I swear it.”
“You love me?”
“More than my life.”
“Go, then, and return. Farewell.”
I left on the same day. The moment I arrived home I began to arrange my house to receive my bride. As you know I solicited another leave of absence, and so quickly did I arrange my business affairs that at the end of two weeks I was ready to return to Sevilla.
I must tell you that during this fortnight I did not receive a single letter from Blanca, though I wrote her six. I started at once for Sevilla, arriving in that city on the thirtieth of April, and went at once to the hotel where we had first met.
I learned that Blanca had left there two days after my departure without telling anyone her destination.
Imagine my indignation, my disappointment, my suffering. She went away without even leaving a line for me, without telling me whither she was going. It never occurred to me to remain in Sevilla until the fifteenth of May to ascertain whether she would return on that date. Three days later I took up my court work and strove to forget her.
A few moments after my friend Zarco finished the story, we arrived at the cemetery.
This is only a small plot of ground covered with a veritable forest of crosses and surrounded by a low stone wall. As often happens in Spain, when the cemeteries are very small, it is necessary to dig up one coffin in order to lower another. Those thus disinterred are thrown in a heap in a corner of the cemetery, where skulls and bones are piled up like a haystack. As we were passing, Zarco and I looked at the skulls, wondering to whom they could have belonged, to rich or poor, noble or plebeian.
Suddenly the judge bent down, and picking up a skull, exclaimed in astonishment:
“Look here, my friend, what is this? It is surely a nail!”
Yes, a long nail had been driven in the top of the skull which he held in his hand. The nail had been driven into the head, and the point had penetrated what had been the roof of the mouth.
What could this mean? He began to conjecture, and soon both of us felt filled with horror.
“I recognize the hand of Providence!” exclaimed the judge. “A terrible crime has evidently been committed, and would never have come to light had it not been for this accident. I shall do my duty, and will not rest until I have brought the assassin to the scaffold.”
My friend Zarco was one of the keenest criminal judges in Spain. Within a very few days he discovered that the corpse to which this skull belonged had been buried in a rough wooden coffin which the grave digger had taken home with him, intending to use it for firewood. Fortunately, the man had not yet burned it up, and on the lid the judge managed to decipher the initials: “A.G.R.” together with the date of interment. He had at once searched the parochial books of every church in the neighborhood, and a week later found the following entry:
“In the parochial church of San Sebastian of the village of ——, on the 4th of May, 1843, the funeral rites as prescribed by our holy religion were performed over the body of Don Alfonzo Gutierrez Romeral, and he was buried in the cemetery. He was a native of this village and did not receive the holy sacrament, nor did he confess, for he died suddenly of apoplexy at the age of thirty-one. He was married to Doña Gabriela Zahara del Valle, a native of Madrid, and left no issue him surviving.”
The judge handed me the above certificate, duly certified to by the parish priest, and exclaimed: “Now everything is as clear as day, and I am positive that within a week the assassin will be arrested. The apoplexy in this case happens to be an iron nail driven into the man’s head, which brought quick and sudden death to A.G.R. I have the nail, and I shall soon find the hammer.”
According to the testimony of the neighbors, Señor Romeral was a young and rich landowner who originally came from Madrid, where he had married a beautiful wife; four months before the death of the husband, his wife had gone to Madrid to pass a few months with her family; the young woman returned home about the last day of April, that is, about three months and a half after she had left her husband’s residence to go to Madrid; the death of Señor Romeral occurred about a week after her return. The shock caused to the widow by the sudden death of her husband was so great that she became ill and informed her friends that she could not continue to live in the same place where everything recalled to her the man she had lost, and just before the middle of May she had left for Madrid, ten or twelve days after the death of her husband.
The servants of the deceased had testified that the couple did not live amicably together and had frequent quarrels; that the absence of three months and a half which preceded the last eight days the couple had lived together was practically an understanding that they were to be ultimately separated on account of mysterious disagreements which had existed between them from the date of their marriage; that on the date of the death of the deceased, both husband and wife were together in the former’s bedroom; that at midnight the bell was rung violently and they heard the cries of the wife; that they rushed to the room and were met at the door by the wife, who was very pale and greatly perturbed, and she cried out: “An apoplexy! Run for a doctor! My poor husband is dying!” That when they entered the room they found their master lying upon a couch, and he was dead. The doctor who was called certified that Señor Romeral had died of cerebral congestion.
Three medical experts testified that death brought about as this one had been could not be distinguished from apoplexy. The physician who had been called in had not thought to look for the head of the nail, which was concealed by the hair of the victim, nor was he in any sense to blame for this oversight.
The judge immediately issued a warrant for the arrest of Doña Gabriela Zahara del Valle, widow of Señor Romeral.
“Tell me,” I asked the judge one day, “do you think you will ever capture this woman?”
“I’m positive of it.”
“Because in the midst of all these routine criminal affairs there occurs now and then what may be termed a dramatic fatality which never fails. To put it in another way: when the bones come out of the tomb to testify, there is very little left for the judge to do.”
In spite of the hopes of my friend, Gabriela was not found, and three months later she was, according to the laws of Spain, tried, found guilty, and condemned to death in her absence.
I returned home, not without promising to be with Zarco the following year.
That winter I passed in Granada. One evening I had been invited to a great ball given by a prominent Spanish lady. As I was mounting the stairs of the magnificent residence, I was startled by the sight of a face which was easily distinguishable even in this crowd of southern beauties. It was she, my unknown, the mysterious woman of the stagecoach, in fact, No. 1, of whom I spoke at the beginning of this narrative.
I made my way toward her, extending my hand in greeting. She recognized me at once.
“Señora,” I said, “I have kept my promise not to search for you. I did not know I would meet you here. Had I suspected it I would have refrained from coming, for fear of annoying you. Now that I am here, tell me whether I may recognize you and talk to you.”
“I see that you are vindictive,” she answered graciously, putting her little hand in mine. “But I forgive you. How are you?”
“In truth, I don’t know. My health—that is, the health of my soul, for you would not ask me about anything else in a ballroom—depends upon the health of yours. What I mean is that I could only be happy if you are happy. May I ask if that wound of the heart which you told me about when I met you in the stagecoach has healed?”
“You know as well as I do that there are wounds which never heal.”
With a graceful bow she turned away to speak to an acquaintance, and I asked a friend of mine who was passing: “Can you tell me who that woman is?”
“A South American whose name is Mercedes de Meridanueva.”
On the following day I paid a visit to the lady, who was residing at that time at the Hotel of the Seven Planets. The charming Mercedes received me as if I were an intimate friend, and invited me to walk with her through the wonderful Alhambra and subsequently to dine with her. During the six hours we were together she spoke of many things, and as we always returned to the subject of disappointed love, I felt impelled to tell her the experience of my friend, Judge Zarco.
She listened to me very attentively and when I concluded she laughed and said: “Let this be a lesson to you not to fall in love with women whom you do not know.”
“Do not think for a moment,” I answered, “that I’ve invented this story.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt the truth of it. Perhaps there may be a mysterious woman in the Hotel of the Seven Planets of Granada, and perhaps she doesn’t resemble the one your friend fell in love with in Sevilla. So far as I am concerned, there is no risk of my falling in love with anyone, for I never speak three times to the same man.”
“Señora! That is equivalent to telling me that you refuse to see me again!”
“No, I only wish to inform you that I leave Granada to-morrow, and it is probable that we will never meet again.”
“Never? You told me that during our memorable ride in the stagecoach, and you see that you are not a good prophet.”
I noticed that she had become very pale. She rose from the table abruptly, saying: “Well, let us leave that to Fate. For my part I repeat that I am bidding you an eternal farewell.”
She said these last words very solemnly, and then with a graceful bow, turned and ascended the stairway which led to the upper story of the hotel.
I confess that I was somewhat annoyed at the disdainful way in which she seemed to have terminated our acquaintance, yet this feeling was lost in the pity I felt for her when I noted her expression of suffering.
We had met for the last time. Would to God that it had been for the last time! Man proposes, but God disposes.
A few days later business affairs brought me to the town wherein resided my friend Judge Zarco. I found him as lonely and as sad as at the time of my last visit. He had been able to find out nothing about Blanca, but he could not forget her for a moment. Unquestionably this woman was his fate; his heaven or his hell, as the unfortunate man was accustomed to saying.
We were soon to learn that his judicial superstition was to be fully justified.
The evening of the day of my arrival we were seated in his office, reading the last reports of the police, who had been vainly attempting to trace Gabriela, when an officer entered and handed the judge a note which read as follows:
“In the Hotel of the Lion there is a lady who wishes to speak to Judge Zarco.”
“Who brought this?” asked the judge.
“Who sent him?”
“He gave no name.”
The judge looked thoughtfully at the smoke of his cigar for a few moments, and then said: “A woman! To see me? I don’t know why, but this thing frightens me. What do you think of it, Philip?”
“That it is your duty as a judge to answer the call, of course. Perhaps she may be able to give you some information in regard to Gabriela.”
“You are right,” answered Zarco, rising. He put a revolver in his pocket, threw his cloak over his shoulders and went out.
Two hours later he returned.
I saw at once by his face that some great happiness must have come to him. He put his arms about me and embraced me convulsively, exclaiming: “Oh, dear friend, if you only knew, if you only knew!”
“But I don’t know anything,” I answered. “What on earth has happened to you?”
“I’m simply the happiest man in the world!”
“But what is it?”
“The note that called me to the hotel was from her.”
“But from whom? From Gabriela Zahara?”
“Oh, stop such nonsense! Who is thinking of those things now? It was she, I tell you, the other one!”
“In the name of heaven, be calm and tell me whom you are talking about.”
“Who could it be but Blanca, my love, my life?”
“Blanca?” I answered with astonishment. “But the woman deceived you.”
“Oh, no; that was all a foolish mistake on my part.”
“Listen: Blanca adores me!”
“Oh, you think she does? Well, go on.”
“When Blanca and I separated on the fifteenth of April, it was understood that we were to meet again on the fifteenth of May. Shortly after I left she received a letter calling her to Madrid on urgent family business, and she did not expect me back until the fifteenth of May, so she remained in Madrid until the first. But, as you know, I, in my impatience could not wait, and returned fifteen days before I had agreed, and not finding her at the hotel I jumped to the conclusion that she had deceived me, and I did not wait. I have gone through two years of torment and suffering, all due to my own stupidity.”
“But she could have written you a letter.”
“She said that she had forgotten the address.”
“Ah, my poor friend,” I exclaimed, “I see that you are striving to convince yourself. Well, so much the better. Now, when does the marriage take place? I suppose that after so long and dark a night the sun of matrimony will rise radiant.”
“Don’t laugh,” exclaimed Zarco; “you shall be my best man.”
“With much pleasure.”
Man proposes, but God disposes. We were still seated in the library, chatting together, when there came a knock at the door. It was about two o’clock in the morning. The judge and I were both startled, but we could not have told why. The servant opened the door, and a moment later a man dashed into the library so breathless from hard running that he could scarcely speak.
“Good news, judge, grand news!” he said when he recovered breath. “We have won!”
The man was the prosecuting attorney.
“Explain yourself, my dear friend,” said the judge, motioning him to a chair. “What remarkable occurrence could have brought you hither in such haste and at this hour of the morning?”
“We have arrested Gabriela Zahara.”
“Arrested her?” exclaimed the judge joyfully.
“Yes, sir, we have her. One of our detectives has been following her for a month. He has caught her, and she is now locked up in a cell of the prison.”
“Then let us go there at once!” exclaimed the judge. “We will interrogate her to-night. Do me the favor to notify my secretary. Owing to the gravity of the case, you yourself must be present. Also notify the guard who has charge of the head of Señor Romeral. It has been my opinion from the beginning that this criminal woman would not dare deny the horrible murder when she was confronted with the evidence of her crime. So far as you are concerned,” said the judge, turning to me, “I will appoint you assistant secretary, so that you can be present without violating the law.”
I did not answer. A horrible suspicion had been growing within me, a suspicion which, like some infernal animal, was tearing at my heart with claws of steel. Could Gabriela and Blanca be one and the same? I turned to the assistant district attorney.
“By the way,” I asked, “where was Gabriela when she was arrested?”
“In the Hotel of the Lion.”
My suffering was frightful, but I could say nothing, do nothing without compromising the judge; besides, I was not sure. Even if I were positive that Gabriela and Blanca were the same person, what could my unfortunate friend do? Feign a sudden illness? Flee the country? My only way was to keep silent and let God work it out in His own way. The orders of the judge had already been communicated to the chief of police and the warden of the prison. Even at this hour the news had spread throughout the city and idlers were gathering to see the rich and beautiful woman who would ascend the scaffold. I still clung to the slender hope that Gabriela and Blanca were not the same person. But when I went toward the prison I staggered like a drunken man and was compelled to lean upon the shoulder of one of the officials, who asked me anxiously if I were ill.
We arrived at the prison at four o’clock in the morning. The large reception room was brilliantly lighted. The guard, holding a black box in which was the skull of Señor Romeral, was awaiting us.
The judge took his seat at the head of the long table; the prosecuting attorney sat on his right, and the chief of police stood by with his arms folded. I and the secretary sat on the left of the judge. A number of police officers and detectives were standing near the door.
The judge touched his bell and said to the warden:
“Bring in Doña Gabriela Zahara!”
I felt as if I were dying, and instead of looking at the door, I looked at the judge to see if I could read in his face the solution of this frightful problem.
I saw him turn livid and clutch his throat with both hands, as if to stop a cry of agony, and then he turned to me with a look of infinite supplication.
“Keep quiet!” I whispered, putting my finger on my lips, and then I added: “I knew it.”
The unfortunate man arose from his chair.
“Judge!” I exclaimed, and in that one word I conveyed to him the full sense of his duty and of the dangers which surrounded him. He controlled himself and resumed his seat, but were it not for the light in his eyes, he might have been taken for a dead man. Yes, the man was dead; only the judge lived.
When I had convinced myself of this, I turned and looked at the accused. Good God! Gabriela Zahara was not only Blanca, the woman my friend so deeply loved, but she was also the woman I had met in the stagecoach and subsequently at Granada, the beautiful South American, Mercedes!
All these fantastic women had now merged into one, the real one who stood before us, accused of the murder of her husband and who had been condemned to die.
There was still a chance to prove herself innocent. Could she do it? This was my one supreme hope, as it was that of my poor friend.
Gabriela (we will call her now by her real name) was deathly pale, but apparently calm. Was she trusting to her innocence or to the weakness of the judge? Our doubts were soon solved. Up to that moment the accused had looked at no one but the judge. I did not know whether she desired to encourage him or menace him, or to tell him that his Blanca could not be an assassin. But noting the impassibility of the magistrate and that his face was as expressionless as that of a corpse, she turned to the others, as if seeking help from them. Then her eyes fell upon me, and she blushed slightly.
The judge now seemed to awaken from his stupor and asked in a harsh voice:
“What is your name?”
“Gabriela Zahara, widow of Romeral,” answered the accused in a soft voice.
Zarco trembled. He had just learned that his Blanca had never existed; she told him so herself—she who only three hours before had consented to become his wife!
Fortunately, no one was looking at the judge, all eyes being fixed upon Gabriela, whose marvelous beauty and quiet demeanor carried to all an almost irresistible conviction of her innocence.
The judge recovered himself, and then, like a man who is staking more than life upon the cast of a die, he ordered the guard to open the black box.
“Madame!” said the judge sternly, his eyes seeming to dart flames, “approach and tell me whether you recognize this head?”
At a signal from the judge the guard opened the black box and lifted out the skull.
A cry of mortal agony rang through that room; one could not tell whether it was of fear or of madness. The woman shrank back, her eyes dilating with terror, and screamed: “Alfonzo, Alfonzo!”
Then she seemed to fall into a stupor. All turned to the judge, murmuring: “She is guilty beyond a doubt.”
“Do you recognize the nail which deprived your husband of life?” said the judge, arising from his chair, looking like a corpse rising from the grave.
“Yes, sir,” answered Gabriela mechanically.
“That is to say, you admit that you assassinated your husband?” asked the judge, in a voice that trembled with his great suffering.
“Sir,” answered the accused, “I do not care to live any more, but before I die I would like to make a statement.”
The judge fell back in his chair and then asked me by a look: “What is she going to say?”
I, myself, was almost stupefied by fear.
Gabriela stood before them, her hands clasped and a far-away look in her large, dark eyes.
“I am going to confess,” she said, “and my confession will be my defense, although it will not be sufficient to save me from the scaffold. Listen to me, all of you! Why deny that which is self-evident? I was alone with my husband when he died. The servants and the doctor have testified to this. Hence, only I could have killed him. Yes, I committed the crime, but another man forced me to do it.”
The judge trembled when he heard these words, but, dominating his emotion, he asked courageously:
“The name of that man, madame? Tell us at once the name of the scoundrel!”
Gabriela looked at the judge with an expression of infinite love, as a mother would look at the child she worshiped, and answered: “By a single word I could drag this man into the depths with me. But I will not. No one shall ever know his name, for he has loved me and I love him. Yes, I love him, although I know he will do nothing to save me!”
The judge half rose from his chair and extended his hands beseechingly, but she looked at him as if to say: “Be careful! You will betray yourself, and it will do no good.”
He sank back into his chair, and Gabriela continued her story in a quiet, firm voice:
“I was forced to marry a man I hated. I hated him more after I married him than I did before. I lived three years in martyrdom. One day there came into my life a man whom I loved. He demanded that I should marry him, he asked me to fly with him to a heaven of happiness and love. He was a man of exceptional character, high and noble, whose only fault was that he loved me too much. Had I told him: ‘I have deceived you, I am not a widow; my husband is living,’ he would have left me at once. I invented a thousand excuses, but he always answered: ‘Be my wife!’ What could I do? I was bound to a man of the vilest character and habits, whom I loathed. Well, I killed this man, believing that I was committing an act of justice, and God punished me, for my lover abandoned me. And now I am very, very tired of life, and all I ask of you is that death may come as quickly as possible.”
Gabriela stopped speaking. The judge had buried his face in his hands, as if he were thinking, but I could see he was shaking like an epileptic.
“Your honor,” repeated Gabriela, “grant my request that I may die soon.”
The judge made a sign to the guards to remove the prisoner.
Before she followed them, she gave me a terrible look in which there was more of pride than of repentance.
I do not wish to enter into details of the condition of the judge during the following day. In the great emotional struggle which took place, the officer of the law conquered the man, and he confirmed the sentence of death.
On the following day the papers were sent to the Court of Appeals, and then Zarco came to me and said: “Wait here until I return. Take care of this unfortunate woman, but do not visit her, for your presence would humiliate instead of consoling her. Do not ask me whither I am going, and do not think that I am going to commit the very foolish act of taking my own life. Farewell, and forgive me all the worry I have caused you.”
Twenty days later the Court of Appeals confirmed the sentence, and Gabriela Zahara was placed in the death cell.
The morning of the day fixed for the execution came, and still the judge had not returned. The scaffold had been erected in the center of the square, and an enormous crowd had gathered. I stood by the door of the prison, for, while I had obeyed the wish of my friend that I should not call on Gabriela in her prison, I believed it my duty to represent him in that supreme moment and accompany the woman he had loved to the foot of the scaffold.
When she appeared, surrounded by her guards, I hardly recognized her. She had grown very thin and seemed hardly to have the strength to lift to her lips the small crucifix she carried in her hand.
“I am here, señora. Can I be of service to you?” I asked her as she passed by me.
She raised her deep, sunken eyes to mine, and, when she recognized me, she exclaimed:
“Oh, thanks, thanks! This is a great consolation for me, in my last hour of life. Father,” she added, turning to the priest who stood beside her, “may I speak a few words to this generous friend?”
“Yes, my daughter,” answered the venerable minister.
Then Gabriela asked me: “Where is he?”
“He is absent—”
“May God bless him and make him happy! When you see him, ask him to forgive me even as I believe God has already forgiven me. Tell him I love him yet, although this love is the cause of my death.”
We had arrived at the foot of the scaffold stairway, where I was compelled to leave her. A tear, perhaps the last one there was in that suffering heart, rolled down her cheek. Once more she said: “Tell him that I died blessing him.”
Suddenly there came a roar like that of thunder. The mass of people swayed, shouted, danced, laughed like maniacs, and above all this tumult one word rang out clearly:
At the entrance to the square appeared a man on horseback, galloping madly toward the scaffold. In his hand he waved a white handkerchief, and his voice rang high above the clamor of the crowd: “Pardoned! Pardoned!”
It was the judge. Reining up his foaming horse at the foot of the scaffold, he extended a paper to the chief of police.
Gabriela, who had already mounted some of the steps, turned and gave the judge a look of infinite love and gratitude.
“God bless you!” she exclaimed, and then fell senseless.
As soon as the signatures and seals upon the document had been verified by the authorities, the priest and the judge rushed to the accused to undo the cords which bound her hands and arms and to revive her.
All their efforts were useless, however. Gabriela Zahara was dead.