The furniture of this apartment was simple, but comfortable and in good taste. The curtains and the covering of the easy-chairs, the sofas, and the armchairs, were of a flowered cotton fabric. On a mahogany table were writing materials and papers, and in a bookcase, also of mahogany, were many books of devotion and history. The walls were adorned with picturesengravings of religious subjects, but with this peculiarity in their selectionunheard-of, extraordinary, almost incredible in an Andalusian villagethat, instead of being bad French lithographs, they were engravings in the best style of Spanish art, as the Spasimo di Sicilia of Raffael; the St. Ildefonso and the Virgin, the Conception, the St. Bernard, and the two Lunettes of Murillo.
On an antique oak table, supported by fluted columns, was a small writing-desk, or escritoire, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, ivory, and brass, and containing a great many little drawers, in which Pepita kept bills and other papers. On this table were also two porcelain vases filled with flowers; and, finally, hanging against the walls were several flower-pots of Seville Carthusian ware, containing ivy, geraniums, and other plants and three gilded cages, in which were canaries and larks.
This apartment was the retreat of Pepita, where no one entered during the daytime except the doctor and the reverend vicar; and in the evening only the overseer, to settle accounts. This apartment was called the study, and served the purpose of one.
She had just risen, and was attired in a light summer wrapper. Her blond hair, not yet arranged, looked even more beautiful in its disorder. Her countenance, somewhat pale, and showing dark circles under the eyes, still preserved its fresh and youthful aspect, and looked more beautiful than ever under the influence of the trouble which robbed it of color.
I ought not to have sent for you, father. I should have gone to the church myself instead, to speak with you in the confessional, and there confess my sins. But, unhappily, far from repenting of them, my heart has hardened itself in wickedness. I have neither the courage nor the desire to speak to the confessor, but only to the friend.
Holy Virgin! Dont talk nonsense, child; the demons most to be feared who take possession of the soul are three, and none of them, I am certain, can have dared to enter into yours. One is Leviathan, or the spirit of Pride; the other is Mammon, or the spirit of Avarice; and the other is Asmodeus, or the spirit of Unholy Love.
Would to God it were so! The contrary, unhappily for me, is the case. I am avaricious, because I possess riches, and do not perform the works of charity I ought to perform; I am proud, because I scorn the addresses of my many suitors, not through virtue, not through modesty, but because I thought them unworthy of my love. God has punished me; God has permitted the third enemy you have named to take possession of me.
How is this, child? What diabolical notion has entered into your mind! Have you by chance fallen in love? And, if you have, what harm is there in that? Are you not free? Get married, then, and stop talking nonsense. I am certain it is my friend Don Pedro de Vargas who has wrought the miracle. That same Don Pedro is the very Devil! I confess I am surprised. I did not think matters had gone quite so far as that already.
Pepita rose from her seat, went to the door, opened it, looked to see if any one was listening outside, drew near to the reverend vicar, and with signs of the deepest distress, in a trembling voice and with tears in her eyes, said, almost in the ear of the good old man:
The consternation and astonishment of the reverend vicar here reached their highest pitch. If the saint of his most fervent devotions had been suddenly cast down from the altar before him, and had fallen, broken into a thousand fragments, at his feet, the reverend vicar could not have felt greater consternation. He still looked at Pepita with in-credulity, as if doubting whether what she had said were true, or only a delusion of feminine vanity, so firmly did he believe in the holiness and mysticism of Don Luis.
What should have happened? That he is dear to me; that I love him; that I adore him; that he loves me, too, although he strives to conquer his love, and in the end may succeed in doing so; and that you, without knowing it, are very much to blame for it all!
With the extreme goodness which is characteristic of you, you have done nothing but praise Don Luis to me; and I am sure that you have pronounced still greater eulogies on me to him, although very much less deserved. What is the natural consequence? Am I of bronze? Have I not the passions of youth?
Dont torment yourself, father; for Gods sake, dont torment yourself! You see now how perverse I am. I commit the greatest sins, and I want to throw the responsibility of them on the best and the most virtuous of men. It is not the praises you have recited to me of Don Luis that have been my ruin, but my own eyes, and my want of circumspection. Even though you had never spoken to me of the good qualities of Don Luis, I should still have discovered them all by hearing him speak; for after all, I am not so ignorant, nor so great a fool. And in any case, I myself have seen the grace of his person, the natural and untaught elegance of his manners, his eyes full of fire and intelligencehis whole self, in a word, which seems to me altogether amiable and desirable. Your eulogies of him have indeed pleased my vanity, but they did not awaken my inclinations. Your praises charmed me because they coincided with my own opinion, and were like the flattering echodeadened, indeed, and faintof my thoughts. The most eloquent encomium you have pronounced in my hearing on Don Luis was far from being equal to the encomiums that I, at each moment, at each instant, silently pronounced upon him in my own soul.
But what a difference between your encomiums and my thoughts! For you, Don Luis was the exemplary model of the priest, the missionary, the apostle; now preaching the Gospel in distant lands, now endeavoring in Spain to elevate Christianity, so degraded in our day through the impiety of some, and the want of virtue, of charity, and of knowledge of others. I, on the contrary, pictured him to myself, handsome, loving, forgetting God for me, consecrating his life to me, giving me his soul, becoming my stay, my support, my sweet companion. I longed to commit a sacrilegious theft: I dreamed of stealing him from God and from His temple, like a thief, the enemy of Heaven, who robs the sacred monstrance of its most precious jewel. To commit such a theft I have put off the mourning garments of the widow and orphan, and have decked myself with profane adornments; I have abandoned my seclusion; I have sought company and gathered it around me; I have tried to make myself look beautiful; I have cared for every part of this miserable body, that must one day be lowered into the grave and be converted into dust, with an unholy devotion; and finally, I have looked at Don Luis with provoking glances, and on shaking hands with him I have sought to transmit from my veins to his the inextinguishable fire that is consuming me.
But there is still more, resumed Pepita. I succeeded in making Don Luis love me. He declared it to me with his eyes. Yes, his love is as profound, as ardent as mine. His virtues, his aspirations toward heavenly things, his manly energy have all urged him to conquer this insensate passion. I sought to prevent this. Once, at the end of many days during which he had stayed away, he came to see me, and found me alone. When he gave me his hand, I wept; I could not speak; but hell inspired me with an accursed, mute eloquence that told him of my grief that he had scorned me, that he did not return my love, that he preferred another lovea love without a stainto mine. Then he was unable to resist the temptation. and he approached his lips to my face to kiss away my tears. Our lips met. If God had not willed your approach at that moment, what would have become of me?
Pepita covered her face with both hands and began to sob like a Magdalen. Her hands were in truth beautiful, more beautiful even than Don Luis had described them to be in his letters: their whiteness, their pure transparency, the tapering form of the fingers, the roseate hue, the polish and the brilliancy of the pearl-like nails, all were such as might turn the head of any man.
Child! he exclaimed, dont cry so! It breaks my heart to see you. Calm yourself; Don Luis has no doubt repented of his sin; do you repent likewise, and nothing more need be said. God will pardon you both, and make a couple of saints of you. Since Don Luis is going away the day after to-morrow, it is a sure sign that virtue has triumphed in him, and that he flees from you, as he should, that he may do penance for his sin, fulfil his vow, and return to his vocation.
That is all very well, replied Pepita; fulfil his vow, return to his vocation, after giving me my death-wound! Why did he love me, why did he encourage me, why did he deceive me? His kiss was a brand; it was as a hot iron with which he marked me and stamped me as his slave. Now that I am marked and enslaved, he abandons and betrays and destroys me. A good beginning to give to his missions, his preachings, and Gospel triumphs! It shall not be! By Heaven, it shall not be!
Pepita had risen. Her attitude, her gesture, had something in them of tragic animation. Her eyes gleamed like daggers; they shone like two suns. The vicar was silent, and regarded her almost with terror. She paced the apartment with hasty steps. She did not now seem like a timid gazel, but like an angry lioness.
What! she said, once more facing the vicar, has he nothing to do but laugh at me, tear my heart to pieces, humiliate it, trample it under foot, after having cheated me out of it? He shall remember me! He shall pay me for this! If he is so holy, if he is so virtuous, why did he with his glance promise me everything? If he loves God so much, why does he seek to hurt one of Gods poor creatures? Is this charity? Is this religion? No; it is pitiless selfishness.
Pepita, child, he said, be reasonable; dont torment yourself in this way. Console yourself with the thought that it was not without a hard struggle he was able to conquer himself; that he has not deceived you; that he loves you with his whole soul, but that God and his duty come first. This life is short, and soon passes. In heaven you will be reunited, and will love each other as the angels love. God will accept your sacrifice; he will reward you, and repay you with interest. Even your self-love ought to be satisfied. How great must be your merit, when you have caused a man like Don Luis to waver in his resolution, and even to sin! How deep must be the wound you have made in his heart! Let this suffice you. Be generous, be courageous! Be his rival in firmness. Let him depart; cast out from your heart the fire of impure love; love him as your neighbour, for the love of God. Guard his image in your memory, but as that of the creature, reserving to the Creator the noblest part of your soul. I know not what I am saying to you, my child, for I am very much troubled; but you have a great deal of intelligence and a great deal of common sense, and you will understand what I mean. Besides, there are powerful worldly reasons against this absurd love, even if the vocation and the vow of Don Luis were not opposed to it. His father is your suitor. He aspires to your hand, even though you do not love him. Does it look well that the son should turn out now to be the rival of his father? Will not the father be displeased with the son for loving you? See how dreadful all this is, and control yourself, for the sake of Jesus and His blessed Mother!
How easy it is to give advice! returned Pepita, becoming a little calmer. How hard for me to follow it, when there is a fierce and unchained tempest, as it were, raging in my soul! I am afraid I shall go mad!
The advice I give you is for your own good. Let Don Luis depart. Absence is a great remedy for the malady of love. In giving himself up to his studies, and consecrating himself to the service of the altar, he will be cured of his passion. When he is far away you will recover your serenity by degrees, and will preserve in your memory only a grateful and melancholy recollection of him that will do you no harm. It will be like a beautiful poem, whose music will harmonize your existence. Even if all your desires could be fulfilled, earthly love lasts, after all, but a short time. The delight the imagination anticipates in its enjoymentwhat is it in comparison with the bitter dregs. How much better is it that your love, hardly yet contaminated, hardly despoiled of its purity, should be dissipated, and exhale itself now, rising up to heaven like a cloud of incense, than that, after it is once satisfied, it should perish through satiety! Have the courage to put away from your lips the cup while you have hardly tasted of its contents. Make a libation of them and an offering to the Divine Redeemer. He will give you, in exchange, the draft He offered to the Samaritana draft that does not satiate, that quenches the thirst, and that gives eternal life!
How good you are, father! Your holy words lend me courage. I will control myselfI will conquer myself. It would be shamefulwould it not?that Don Luis should be able to control and conquer himself, and that I should not be able to do so? Let him depart. He is going away the day after to-morrow. Let him go, with Gods blessing. See his card. He was here, with his father, to take leave of me, and I would not receive him. I will never see him again. I did not even want to preserve the poetical remembrance of him of which you speak. This love has been a nightmare; I will cast it way from me.
Ah, father, God has cast down my pride with this blow! I was insolent in my arrogance, and the scorn of this man was necessary to my self-abasement. Could I be more humbled or resigned than I am now? Don Luis is rightI am not worthy of him. However great the efforts I might make, I could not succeed in elevating myself to him and comprehending him, in putting my spirit into perfect communication with his. I am a rude country girl unlearned, uncultured; and hethere is no science he does not understand, no secret of which he is ignorant, no region of the intellectual world, however exalted, to which he may not soar. Thither on the wings of his genius does he mount; and me he leaves behind in this lower spherepoor, ignorant woman that I amincapable of following him, even in my hopes or with my aspirations!
But, Pepita, for Heavens sake, dont say such things, or think them! Don Luis does not scorn you because you are ignorant, or because you are incapable of comprehending him, or for any other of those absurd reasons that you are stringing together. He goes away because he must fulfil his obligation toward God; and you should rejoice that he is going away, for you will then get over your love for him, and God will reward you for the sacrifice you make.
Pepita, who had left off crying, and had dried her tears with her handkerchief, answered quietly: Very well, father. I shall be very glad of it; I am almost glad now that he is going away. I long for to-morrow to pass, and for the time to come when Antoñona shall say to me when I awake, Don Luis is gone. You shall see then how peace and serenity will spring up again in my heart.
God grant it may be so! said the reverend vicar; and, convinced that he had wrought a miracle, and almost cured Pepitas malady, he took leave of her and went home, unable to repress a certain feeling of vanity at the thought of the influence he had exercised over the noble spirit of this charming woman.