His father, who scarcely let a day pass without riding out into the country, had to-day wished to take Don Luis with him; but he had excused himself, on the pretext of a headache, and Don Pedro had gone without him. Don Luis had spent the whole morning alone, delivered up to his melancholy thoughts, and continuing firm as a rock in his resolution of blotting from his soul the image of Pepita, and of consecrating himself wholly to God.
Let it not be supposed, however, that he did not love the young widow. We have already, in his letters, seen the proof of the vehemence of his passion for her, but he continued his efforts to curb it by means of the devout sentiments and elevated reflections of which he has given us in his letters so extended a specimen, and of which we may here omit a repetition, in order not to appear prolix.
Perhaps, if we examine into this matter closely, we shall find that the reasons which militated in the breast of Don Luis against his love for Pepita were not only his vow to himselfwhich, though unconfirmed, was binding in his eyesor the love of God, or respect for his father, whose rival he did not wish to be; or, finally, the vocation which he felt himself to have for the priesthood. There were other reasons of a more doubtful character than these.
Don Luis was stubborn; he was obstinate; he had that quality of soul which, well directed, constitutes what is called firmness of character, and there was nothing that lowered him more in his own eyes than to feel himself obliged to change his opinions or his conduct. The purpose of his lifea purpose which he had declared and maintained on all occasionshis moral ideal, in a word, was that of an aspirant to holiness, of a man consecrated to God, of one imbued with the sublimest religious teachings. All this could not fall to earth, as it would fall if he allowed himself to be carried away by his love for Pepita, without great discredit. Although the price, indeed, was in this case incomparably higher, yet Don Luis felt that, should he yield to his passion, he would be following the example of Esau, selling his birthright, and bringing opprobrium on his name.
Men, as a rule, allow themselves to be the playthings of circumstances; they let themselves be carried along by the current of events, instead of devoting all their energies to one single aim. We do not choose our part in life, but accept and play the part allotted us, that which blind fortune assigns to us. The profession, the political faith, the entire life of many men, depend on chance circumstances, on what is fortuitous, on the caprice and the unexpected turns of fate.
Against all this the pride of Don Luis vigorously rebelled. What would be thought of him, and, above all, what would he think of himself, if the ideal of his life, the new man that he had created in his soul, if all his plans of virtue, of honor, and even of holy ambition, should vanish in an instant, should melt away in the warmth of a glance, at the fugitive flame of a pair of beautiful eyes, as the hoar-frost melts in the yet mild ray of the morning sun?
These and other egotistic reasons militated against the young widow, side by side with others more weighty and legitimate, but every argument clothed itself in the same religious garb, so that Don Luis himself was unable to recognize and distinguish between them, believing to be the love of God not only what was in truth the love of God, but also self-love. He recalled to mind, for instance, the examples of many saints who had resisted greater temptations than his, and he did not wish to be less than they. And he recalled to mind, above all, the notable firmness of St. Chrysostom, who was able to disregard the caresses of a good and tender mother, and her tears and gentle entreaties, and all the eloquent and touching words she spoke to him, in the very room where he was born, to the end that he might not abandon her and become a priest. And after reflecting on this, Don Luis could not tolerate in himself the weakness of being unable to reject the entreaties of a woman who was a stranger to him, whom he had known for so short a time, and of still wavering between his duty and the attractions of one who perhaps, after all, did not really love him, but was only a coquette.
Don Luis then reflected on the supreme position of the sacerdotal dignity to which he was called, regarding it in his thoughts as superior to all the dignities and unsatisfying honors of the world, since it was founded neither by any mortal man, nor by the caprice of the variable and servile populace, nor by the irruption or invasion of barbarians, nor by the violence of rebellious armies urged on by greed, nor by angel nor archangel, nor by any created power; but by the Paraclete Himself. How for a motive so unworthy, for a mere woman, for a tear or two, feigned perhaps, scorn that august dignity, that authority which was not conceded by God even to the archangels nearest to His throne? How should he descend to be one of the obscure people, become one of the flockhe, who had dreamed of being the shepherd, tying and untying on earth what God should tie and untie in Heaven, pardoning sins, regenerating the people by water and by the spirit, teaching them in the name of an infallible authority, pronouncing judgments that should be ratified and confirmed by the Lord of the heavenhe, the instructor and the minister in tremendous mysteries inscrutable by human reason, calling down from Heaven, not, like Elias, the flame that consumes the victim, but the Holy Spirit, the Word made flesh, the river of grace that purifies hearts and makes them clean like unalloyed gold?
But the wings of his imagination soon drooped, and the spirit of Don Luis touched earth again. Again he saw Pepita, so graceful, so young, so ingenuous, and so enamored. Pepita combated in his soul his firmest and most deep-seated resolutions, and Don Luis feared that in the end she would put them all to flight.
Currito, who had held his cousin in very slight esteem so long as he was only a student of theology, now regarded him with wonder and veneration, looking upon him, from the moment when he had seen him manage Lucero so skilfully, as something more than human.
To know theology and not know how to ride, had discredited Don Luis in the eyes of Currito; but when Currito saw that, in addition to his learning, and to all those other matters of which he himself knew nothing, although he supposed them to be difficult and perplexing, Don Luis could also keep his seat so admirably on the back of a fiery horse, his veneration and his affection for his cousin knew no bounds. Currito was an idler, a good-for-nothing, a very block of wood; but he had an affectionate and loyal heart.
To Don Luis, who was the idol of Currito, happened what happens with all superior natures when inferior persons take a liking to them. Don Luis permitted himself to be lovedthat is to say, he was governed despoticallyby Currito in matters of little importance. And as for men like Don Luis there are hardly any matters of importance in common daily life, the result was that Don Luis was led about by Currito like a little dog.
I have come for you, the latter said, to take you with me to the clubhouse, which is full of people to-day, and unusually gay. What is the use of sitting here alone gazing into vacancy, as if you were waiting to catch flies?
Don Luis, without offering any resistance, took his hat and cane, as though the words were a command, and saying, Let us go wherever you wish, followed Currito, who led the way, very well pleased with the influence he exercised over his cousin.
The clubhouse was full of people, owing to the festivities of the morrow, which was St. Johns day. Besides the gentry of the village many strangers were there, who had come in from the neighboring villages to be present at the fair and the vigil in the evening.
The principal point of reunion was the courtyard, which was paved with marble. In its centre played a fountain, which was adorned with flower pots containing roses, pinks, sweet basil, and other flowers. Around this courtyard ran a corridor or gallery supported by marble columns, in which, as well as in the various saloons that opened into it, were tables for ombre, others with newspapers lying on them, others where coffee and other refreshments were served, and finally, lounges, benches, and several easy-chairs. The walls were like snow, from frequent whitening; nor were pictures wanting for their adornment. There were French colored lithographs, a minute explanation of the subject of each being written, both in French and in Spanish below. Some of them represented scenes in the life of Napoleon, from Toulon to St. Helena; others, the adventures of Matilda and Malek-Adel; others, incidents in love and war, in the lives of the Templar, Rebecca, Lady Rowena, and Ivanhoe; and others, the gallantries, the intrigues, the lapses and the conversions of Louis XIV. and Mademoiselle de la Valliere.
Currito took Don Luis, and Don Luis allowed himself to be taken, to the saloon where were gathered the cream of the fashion, the dandies and cocodés of the village and of the surrounding district. Prominent among these was the Count of Genazahar, of the neighboring city of . The Count was an illustrious and much admired personage. He had made visits of great length to Madrid and Seville, and, whether as a country dandy or as a young nobleman, was always attired by the most fashionable tailors.
The Count of Genazahar was a little past thirty. He was good-looking, and he knew it; and could boast of his prowess in peace and in war, in duels and in love-making. The Count, howeverand this notwithstanding the fact that he had been one of the most persistent suitors of Pepitahad received the sugar-coated pill of refusal that she was accustomed to bestow on those who paid their addresses to her and aspired to her hand.
The wound inflicted on his pride by this rejection had never quite healed. Love had turned into hatred, and the Count lost no occasion of giving utterance to his feelings, holding Pepita up on such occasions to ridicule as a prude.
The Count was engaged in this agreeable exercise when, by an evil chance, Don Luis and Currito approached and joined the crowd that was listening to the odd species of panegyric, which opened to receive them. Don Luis, as if the Devil himself had had the arrangement of the matter, found himself face to face with the Count, who was speaking as follows:
Shes a cunning one, this same Pepita Jiménez, with more fancies and whims than the Princess Micomicona. She wants to make us forget that she was born in poverty, and lived in poverty until she married that accursed usurer, Don Gumersindo, and took possession of his dollars. The only good action this same widow has performed in her life was to conspire with Satan to send the rogue quickly to hell, and free the earth from such a contamination and plague. Pepita now has a hobby for virtue and for chastity. All that may be very well; but how do we know that she has not a secret intrigue with some plow-boy, and is not deceiving the world as if she were Queen Artemisia herself?
People of quiet tastes, who seldom take part in reunions of men only, may perhaps be scandalized by this language. It may appear to them indecent and brutal even to the point of incredibility; but those who know the world will confess that language like this is very generally employed in it, and that the most amiable and agreeable women, the most honorable matrons, if they chance to have an enemy, or even if they have none, are often made the subjects of accusations no less infamous and vile than those made by the Count against Pepita; for scandal, or, to speak more accurately, disrespect and insult are often indulged in for the purpose of showing wit and effrontery.
Don Luis had from childhood been accustomed to the consideration and respect of those around him, first, of the servants and dependents of his father, who gratified him in all his wishes, and then of every one in the seminary, not only because he was a nephew of the dean, but also on account of his own merits, and when he heard the insolent Count thus drag in the dust the name of the woman he loved, he felt as if a thunderbolt had fallen at his feet.
But how undertake her defense? He knew, indeed, that although he was neither husband, brother, nor other relative of Pepitas he might yet come forward in her defense as a man of honor; but he saw what scandal this would give rise to, since, far from saying a word in her favor, all the other persons present joined in applauding the wit of the Count. He, already the minister, almost, of a God of peace, could not be the one to give the lie to this ruffian, and thus expose himself to the risk of a quarrel.
Don Luis was on the point of departing in silence; but his heart would not consent to this, and striving to clothe himself with an authority which was justified neither by his years nor by his countenance, where the beard had scarcely begun to make its appearance, nor by his presence in that place, he began to speak with earnest eloquence in denunciation of all slanderers, and to reproach the Count, with the freedom of a Christian and in severe accents, with the vileness of his conduct.
This was to preach in the desert, or worse. The Count answered his homily with gibes and jests; the bystanders, among whom were many strangers, took the part of the jester, notwithstanding the fact that Don Luis was the son of the squire. Even Currito, who was of no account whatever, and who was, besides, a coward, although he did not laugh, yet made no effort to take the part of his friend, and the latter was obliged to withdraw, disturbed and humiliated by the ridicule he had drawn on himself.