The Solitaire

The Solitaire
(El solitario)
by Horacio Quiroga

Kassim was a sickly man, a jeweler by profession, though he had no established shop. He worked for the big houses, his specialty being the mounting of precious stones. There were few who had hands like his for delicate settings. With more ambition and commercial ability, he would have been rich. But at the age of thirty five he went on as he always had, a fixture in his workshop under the window.

Kassim, with his wart-covered body, his bloodless face darkened by a sparse black beard, had a beautiful and fiercely passionate wife. The young woman, a child of the streets, had hoped to use her beauty to marry up. She had hoped this for twenty years, provoking men and the other neighborhood women with her body. But, fearful at the end, she had nervously accepted Kassim.

But now, no more dreams of luxury. Her husband, though skilled—an artist, even–completely lacked the character for making a fortune. So while the jeweler worked hunched over his tools, she, leaning on her elbows, would maintain on her husband an intense, drawn-out stare, later to abruptly tear herself away and turn her gaze through the window at some passerby who could have been her husband.

Whatever Kassim earned, however, was for her. He worked Sundays, too, for the extra money. When Maria wanted a piece of jewelry—and with what passion she would want it!—he worked nights. Afterwards, he would pay with coughs and stabbing pains in his side; but Maria had her sparkly bauble.

Little by little the daily exposure to gems gave her a love for the work of the craftsman, and she studied passionately the intimate delicacies of a setting. But when the piece was finished–he had to send it off, it wasn’t for her–she regretted more deeply the deception of her marriage. She would try on the jewelry, posing before the mirror. At last she would leave it there, and go to her room. Kassim would arise on hearing her sobs, and would find her on the bed, ignoring him.

“But I do as much as I can for you,” he would say at last, sadly.

Her sobs would grow louder at this, and the jeweler would slowly reinstall himself at his bench.

This scene was repeated, so much so that Kassim no longer got up to console her. Console her! For what? But this did not prevent Kassim from prolonging his evenings even more, to make bigger bonuses.

He was an indecisive man, irresolute and quiet. His wife now regarded his mute tranquility with an even more intense fixity.

“And you think you’re a man!” she murmured.

Kassim did not pause the movement of his fingers upon his work.

“You’re not happy with me, Maria,” he said after a while.

“Happy! You have the nerve to say that! Who could be happy with you? Not the last woman on earth… Poor devil!” Concluding her speech with a nervous laugh, she left.

Kassim worked that night until three in the morning, and then his wife had new sparkles, which she considered for an instant with pursed lips.

“Hmmm…it’s not an impressive diadem!…When did you do it?”

“I’ve been working on it since Tuesday.” He gazed at her with feeble tenderness. “While you were sleeping.”

“Oh, you could have gone to bed!…Such huge diamonds!”

For her passion was for the immense stones that Kassim set for his clients. She followed his work with a crazed hunger for it to be finished then and there, and the piece would hardly be completed before she would run with it to the mirror. Then, a fit of sobs.

“Anyone, any husband, the least of them, would make sacrifices to please his wife. But you…you…not even one miserable dress do I have to wear!”

Once she has lost enough respect for him, a woman is capable of saying to her husband the most incredible things.

Kassim’s wife crossed that line with a passion at least equal to the passion she felt for diamonds. One afternoon, while locking up his jewels, Kassim noticed that a brooch was missing–two solitaires worth five thousand pesos. He looked through his drawers again.

“You haven’t seen the brooch, have you Maria? I left it here.”

“Yes I saw it.”

“Where is it?” he responded, surprised.

“Here!”

His wife stood there, with burning eyes and a mocking smile, wearing the brooch.

“It looks good on you,” Kassim said after a moment. “Let’s put it away.”

Maria laughed.

“Oh no! It’s mine.”

“Are you joking?”

“Yes, it’s a joke! A joke, yes! How it hurts to think it could be mine…Tomorrow I’ll give it to you. Tonight I’m wearing it to the theater.”

Kassim’s expression changed.

“You can’t do that….they could see you. They would lose all trust in me.”

“Oh!” Without another word, she left in an infuriated huff, slamming the door shut violently.

On returning from the theater, she put the brooch on the nightstand. Kassim picked it up and locked it away in his workshop. When he came back, his wife was sitting on the bed.

“That means you’re afraid that I’ll steal it! That I’m a thief!”

“Don’t look at me like that… you’ve been reckless, nothing more.”

“Ah! And they trust you with it! You! And when your wife asks you for just a little gratification, and she wants… you call me a thief! Disgraceful!”

She fell asleep at last. But Kassim did not sleep.

Later on, they sent Kassim a solitaire to mount, the most magnificent diamond that had ever passed through his hands.

“Look Maria, what a stone. I’ve never seen another like it.”

His wife said nothing; but Kassim felt her breathing deeply over the solitaire.

“Such admirable clarity,” he continued. “It must cost nine or ten thousand pesos.”

“A ring!” Maria murmured at last.

“No, it’s for a man… A stickpin.”

In time to the mounting of the solitaire, Kassim felt on his laboring back all the burning resentment and frustrated vanity of his wife. Ten times a day she would interrupt her husband to stand with the diamond in front of the mirror. Then she would try it with different outfits.

“If you want to do that afterwards….” Kassim ventured. “This is a rush job.”

He waited for a response, in vain; his wife opened the doors to the balcony.

“Maria, they can see you!”

“Take it! There’s your stone!”

The solitaire, flung violently away, rolled along the floor.

Kassim, pale, examined it as he picked it up, then raised his eyes from the floor to his wife.

“Well, why do you look at me like that? Did something happen to your stone?”

“No,” said Kassim. And he resumed his work at once, although his hands trembled piteously.

But at last he had to get up to see his wife in the bedroom, having a complete nervous breakdown. Her hair had fallen loose and her eyes bulged from their sockets.

“Give me the diamond!” she cried. “Give it to me! We’ll run away! It’s mine! Give it to me!”

“Maria…” Kassim stammered, trying to extricate himself.

“Ah!” his crazed wife screamed. “You are the thief, you miserable dog! You’ve stolen my life, you thief…thief! And you thought I wouldn’t get even… you thought I wouldn’t find someone else! Aha! Look at me… it never occurred to you, eh? Ah!” And she raised both hands to her choking throat. But when Kassim turned to go, she jumped from the bed and tripped, grasping for her prize.

“It doesn’t matter! The diamond, give it to me! That’s all I want! It’s mine, Kassim, you wretch!”

Kassim helped her up, pale.

“You’re not well, Maria. We’ll talk later… go to bed.”

“My diamond!”

“All right, we’ll see if it’s possible… go to bed.”

“Give it to me!”

And the bile rose again in her throat.

Kassim resumed working on the solitaire. Since his hands had a mathematical precision, he only needed a few more hours.

Maria arose to eat, and Kassim showed her the same attention as usual. At the end of the dinner his wife looked him straight in the face.

“It’s a lie, Kassim,” she said.

“Oh!” said Kassim, smiling. “It’s nothing.”

“I swear it’s a lie!” She insisted.

Kassim smiled again, patting her hand with awkward affection.

“Silly! I told you it’s all forgotten.”

And he got up and went back to work. His wife, with her face between her hands, continued to watch him.

“And he won’t say more than that…” she murmured. And with a deep nausea for that clingy, limp, inert creature who was her husband, she went to her room.

She did not sleep well. She awoke late in the evening and saw light in the workshop; her husband was still working. An hour later, he heard a shriek.

“Give it to me!”

“Yes it’s for you; just a little left to do, Maria,” he said hurriedly, getting up. But his wife, after that shout from her nightmare, fell back asleep. At two in the morning Kassim was finished; the diamond gleamed, secure and virile in its setting. With silent steps he went to the bedroom and turned on the bedside lamp. Maria slept on her back, in the icy whiteness of her nightgown and the sheet.

He went to the workshop and returned again. For a moment he contemplated her almost completely exposed breast, and with a faint smile he nudged her loose nightgown down a little more.

His wife did not feel it.

There was not much light. Kassim’s face suddenly acquired a hard immobility. For an instant he suspended the jewel high above her naked breast, and then, holding it firmly and perpendicular like a nail, he sank the entire pin into his wife’s heart.

There was a sudden opening of her eyes, followed by a slow drop of her eyelids. Her fingers arched, and nothing more.

The jewel, shaken by the convulsions of her wounded nervous system, trembled for an unsteady instant. Kassim waited a moment; and when the solitaire at last remained perfectly still, then he withdrew, closing the door after himself without a sound.


From the collection Cuentos de amor de locura y de muerte (Stories of love, madness and death), 1917.

Translated by Nina Zumel

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