Among the ragged youngsters being taught the catechism by Padre Apolinar was a tough ten-year-old called Muergo, or Clam. He lived with Mechelin, a fisherman crippled after years of exposure to the sea. Muergo had for his playmate a barefoot orphan girl named Silda, Mocejon’s ward. One day after school the children and the old fisherman went to the waterfront to await the coming of the steamship Montanesa, arriving from Cuba under Captain Bitadura. The captain’s young son Andres was also there, along with Cleto, Mocejon’s son, and Colo, who was studying for the priesthood.
Silda was badly treated by Mocejon and Carpia, his nineteen-year-old daughter; at Andres’ request Padre Apolinar transferred her to Mechelin’s tenement apartment. There she learned to keep herself neat, even washing her face once a week, until her admiring foster father said she was as dainty as the leader on his fishing line and because of the likeness nicknamed her Sotileza.
Andres wanted to study navigation, but his mother, fearing that the sea would destroy him as it had so many others, apprenticed him to Venancio Liencres, to learn bookkeeping. Luisa, Liencres’ daughter, embarrassed Andres by her admiration for the young man.
Sotileza was not beautiful, but as she grew older she became exciting to men. Although she treated her admirers coldly, she kept a warm affection for ugly Muergo and tried to make him save his money for clothes instead of spending it on drink. She paid no attention to Cleto until the day he came home laden with fishing gear and bumped her out of his way on the stairs, making her nose bleed. She got her revenge by flirting with him. His parents were disturbed; they wanted to have nothing to do with a penniless orphan.
Mechelin was torn between his dislike for Mocejon’s son and his desire to assure Sotileza’s future by marriage to a young man as hardworking as Cleto. Andres also liked Sotileza, though without serious intentions. When his sympathy for crippled Mechelin made him persuade his father to help the fisherman get a small boat of his own, spiteful Carpia spread the gossip that Andres was trying to buy Sotileza. Half believing the report, Cleto begged the priest to intercede with Mocejon for permission to marry the girl.
One day Sotileza decided to accompany the others in Mechelin’s boat. When they went ashore to eat their lunch, Muergo fell asleep. Andres put his arm around Sotileza and tried to make love to her. She repulsed him.
That night, as Andres was on his way to the theater with the Liencres family, Luisa criticized the girl she had seen in his company. Reminded of Sotileza, he sneaked away to see her and to apologize for his behavior. She forgave him but said that she would never have given in, since honor was all she could offer her...
(The entire section is 1158 words.)