Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1178
A young poet is writing a poem on love on a scrap of paper. The time is eleven o’clock at night. Suddenly a violent, protracted rapping sounds on the door. As he goes to answer, he takes with him a piece of bread. Opening the door, he is confronted by the leader of a patrol of armed men in dirty uniforms. The leader states that they have come for him.
At eight o’clock on a warm springlike evening in November, Eugenia Rague comes down the stairs for a final inspection of the setting for her fiesta. English by birth but Argentine by adoption, she dominates her aristocratic surroundings as Cardinal Wolsey, whose portrait adorns her salon, dominated his. There passes through her head the memory of the lack of respect shown her by Lord Burglay and Lady Gower during her visit to London. However, she has to concentrate on her guests about to arrive.
Others in the house react differently to the hot evening. In another room, her husband, George, tries to concentrate on acquiring culture through a phonograph record, but he keeps thinking of how he could persuade Señor Raíces, after dinner, to sign a profitable stock purchase. Should delays result, he might lose everything. Intruding into these thoughts are those of his treadmill life, his wife’s incessant pressure, and his own desire to relax and perhaps to dream. The arrival of the butler with the afternoon mail interrupts and infuriates him. Then it is time for him to prepare for the party. Marta, the older daughter, lies naked on her bed, wondering why she spurned a highborn lover.
At nine, the lights are turned on, the orchestra tunes up, and the first guests arrive, the elite of Argentine society. Their conversation is frivolous: the latest scandalous behavior of some politician, the proposal to exterminate the unimportant lower class. The reception, with its empty conversation and the borrowed phrases from the world of ideas, reveals the waste of these people’s lives.
Meanwhile, Marta makes her entrance, prepared for a boring and perhaps detestable evening among unexciting people she fully comprehended years earlier. Several young men bring her drinks, and her father welcomes her assistance in his social duties. When Raíces appears, Rague gives the signal to proceed to the dining room. In perplexity, the poet questions the armed men, asking what they could possibly want with him.
At the reception the painter Lintas rushes in, late as usual, but in time for the chilled consommé. As he drinks it, he becomes attracted to Marta. Her sudden smile shows her reaction to him, but a pseudophilosophic discussion prevents any words. Lintas notices her distraught expression when her mother mentions the fact that Brenda is not there. Only Marta knows of the appeal from Brenda to come immediately to give her assistance. While dismissing her curiosity about the identity of the man across the table from her, she tries to imagine what help her sister could need. The characters become involved in their own thoughts.
After the meal, dancing begins in the garden. Lintas finds himself dancing with Marta as though they are enemies. Later, more friendly, they discuss some of his paintings. Then she remembers Brenda, and without a word of explanation she leaves. Meanwhile, the leader of the patrol begins to lose patience. His men glare at the young man who is wasting their time. They prepare to march their prisoner away.
Marta’s flight takes her to a shabby house and into a stench-filled room, where she finds Brenda recovering from an abortion. Brenda needs her sister’s help to conceal her situation from her parents and to supply additional money for the operation, which cost more than the previous one. Marta leaves the house and heads for home.
At the fiesta, no one notices Marta’s absence. Rague and Raíces are discussing stock, and Raíces is trying to explain why he does not want to rush into the transaction. Eugenia Rague maneuvers Lintas into visiting her art gallery to pass judgment on some new purchases. Amid a group of interested guests, he pronounces them fakes. Lintas knows that he creates a conflict because Eugenia would prefer a comfortable lie to the unpleasant truth. Marta, returning as Lintas is leaving the fiesta, offers to take him home.
Through the door, the poet sees a fighting cock belonging to a neighbor. He tries to imagine what is going to happen to him. He is suddenly frightened.
In the car, Marta feels impelled to talk. She protests against the sterility of the civilized universe and the difficulty people find in trying to communicate. When they reach Lintas’s home, he invites her in. The screams of a neighboring woman start him on the story of his life. Poverty engendered in him a hatred for people like her. He tells her of a gang of ruffians who beat up an old bookseller because he was foreign and was selling “subversive books.” It is his widow who screamed. This atrocity, making him feel for the first time involved in humanity, increases his loathing for the governing class that permits such crimes to go unpunished. They continue their discussion during a walk at dawn through the woods. As she leaves, they realize that neither has convinced the other of his or her beliefs.
The prisoner asks for permission to get his hat. What he really wants is time.
Marta hates to go home. Brenda will be in a troubled sleep; her father will be snoring, and her mother will be sneaking down to the kitchen for a snack. Marta knows that in other parts of the world vigils more painful than hers are going on. She now realizes that her trouble is a hatred of herself because of an unsatisfied yearning for something. Suddenly, the thought comes to her that she, who is always served, ought to serve others. She pauses at a church, but it offers no promise of relief. She stops next at a coffee shop. Though sensing herself out of place among the customers, eventually she begins to feel a comprehension of them and a oneness with them all. She goes home. In her room, she takes stock of herself. She feels a resemblance to her country with its variety and abundance. Before she falls asleep, she decides that a true change from the horrors of life must come from the tormented people themselves.
The poet’s cousin was already arrested and shot, and his family was denied permission to bury him. The poet joins the patrol, protesting, but the only reply is rifle butts in his face. When they reach a deserted house and an open space, he tries to run. The patrol fires after him. He falls to the ground and blood soaks the piece of bread he drops. One of the men turns over the body to make sure the poet is dead. The patrol, leaving him lying on the ground, walks away, loathing one another.
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