SO you have finally condescended to come and take leave of me before your departure, said Pepita; I had already given up the hope that you would do so. The part Don Luis had to perform was a serious one; and, besides, in this kind of dialogue, the man, not only if he be a novice, but even when he is old in the business and an expert, is apt to begin with some piece of folly. Let us not too freely condemn Don Luis, therefore, because he began unwisely.
Your complaint is unjust, he said. I came here with my father to take leave of you, and, as we had not the pleasure of being received by you, we left cards. We were told that you were somewhat indisposed, and we have sent every day since to inquire about you. We were greatly pleased to learn that you were improving. I hope you are now much better.
I am almost tempted to say I am no better, answered Pepita, but, as I see that you have come as the ambassador of your father, and I do not want to distress so excellent a friend, it is but right that I should tell you, that you may repeat it to him, that I am much better now. But it is strange that you have come alone. Don Pedro must be very much occupied indeed, not to accompany you.
My father did not accompany me, because he does not know that I have come to see you. I have preferred to come without him, because my farewell must be a serious, a solemn, perhaps a final one, and his would naturally be of a very different character. My father will return to the village in a few weeks; it is possible that I may never return to it, and, if I do, it will be in a very different condition from my present.
Pepita could not restrain herself. The happy future of which she had dreamed vanished into air. Her unalterable resolution to vanquish this man, at whatever cost, the only man she had loved in her life, the only one she felt herself capable of loving, seemed to have been made in vain. She felt herself condemned at twenty years of age, with all her beauty, to perpetual widowhood, to solitude, to an unrequited lovefor to love any other man seemed impossible to her.
The character of Pepita, in whom obstacles only strengthened and rekindled her desires, with whom a determination, once taken, carried everything before it until it was fulfilled, showed itself now in all its violence and without restraint. She must conquer, or die in the attempt. Social considerations, the fixed habit of guarding and concealing the feelings, acquired in the great world, which serve as a restraint to the paroxysms of passion, and which veil in ambiguous phrases and circumlocution the most violent explosion of undisciplined emotion, had no power with Pepita. She had had but little intercourse with the world, she knew no middle way; her only rule of conduct hitherto had been to obey blindly her mother and her husband while they lived, and afterward to command despotically every other human being.
Thus it was that on this occasion Pepita spoke her thoughts and showed herself such as she really was. Her soul, with all the passion it contained, took form in her words; and her words, instead of serving to conceal her thoughts and her feelings, gave them substance. She did not speak as a woman of the world would have spoken, with circumlocutions and attenuations of expression, but with that idyllic frankness with which Chloe spoke to Daphnis, and with the humility and the complete self-abandonment with which the daughter-in-law of Naomi offered herself to Boaz.
Do you persist in your purpose? she asked. Are you sure of your vocation? Are you not afraid of being a bad priest? Don Luis, I am going to make a supreme effort. I am going to forget that I am an uncultured girl; I am going to dispense with all sentiment and to reason as coldly as if it were concerning the matter most indifferent to me. Things have taken place that may be explained in two ways; both explanations do you discredit. I will tell you what I think:
If a woman who, with her coquetriesnot very daring ones, in truthalmost without a word, and but a few days after seeing and speaking to you for the first time, has been able to provoke you, to move you to look at her with glances which reveal a profane love, and has even obtained from you such a proof of that love as would be a fault, a sin, in any one, but is so especially in a priestif this woman be, as she indeed is, a simple country girl, without education, without talent, and without elegance, what may not be feared for you when in great cities you see and converse with other women a thousand times more dangerous? Your head will be turned when you are thrown into the society of the great ladies who dwell in palaces, who tread on soft carpets, who dazzle the eye with their diamonds and pearls, who are clad in silks and laces instead of muslin and cotton, who display their white and well-formed throat instead of covering it with a plebeian and modest handkerchief, who are adepts in all the arts of flirtation, and who, by reason of the very ostentation, luxury, and pomp that surround them, are all the more desirable for being apparently more inaccessible. Yes, these elegant and beautiful women discuss politics, philosophy, religion, and literature; they sing like canaries; they are enveloped, as it were, in clouds of incense, adoration, and homage, set upon a pedestal of triumphs and of victories, glorified by the prestige of an illustrious name, enthroned in gilded drawing-rooms, or secluded in voluptuous boudoirs; and there enter only the blessed ones of the earth, its titled ones, perhaps, who only to their most intimate friends are Pepita, Antoñona, or Angelita, and to the rest of the world, Her Grace the Duchess, or The Marchioness.
If you have yielded to the arts of a mere country girl when you were on the eve of being ordained, and in spite of all the enthusiasm for your calling that you may naturally be supposed to entertainif you have thus yielded, urged by a passing impulse, am I not right in foreseeing that you will make an abominable priest, impure, worldly, and of evil influence, and that you will yield to temptation at every step?
On such a supposition as this, believe me, Don Luisand do not be offended with me for saying soyou are not even worthy to be the husband of an honest woman. If, with all the ardor and tenderness of the most passionate lover, you have pressed the hand of a woman, if you have looked at one with glances that foretold a heaven, an eternity of love; if you have even kissed a woman who inspired you with no other feeling than one that for me has no namethen go, in Gods name and do not marry her! If she is virtuous, she will not desire you for a husband, nor even for a lover. But, for Gods sake, do not become a priest either! The Church needs men more serious, more capable of resisting temptation, as ministers of the Most High.
If, on the other hand, you have felt a noble passion for the woman of whom we are speaking, although she be of little worth, why abandon and deceive her so cruelly? However unworthy she may be, if she has inspired this great passion, do you not suppose that she must share it, and be the victim of it? For, when a love is great, elevated, and passionate, does it ever fail to make its power felt? Does it not irresistibly vanquish and subjugate the beloved object? By the extent of your love for her you may measure hers for you. How then can you avoid fearing for her, if you abandon her? Has she the masculine energy, the firmness of character produced by the wisdom learned from books, the attraction of fame, the multitude of splendid projects, and all the resources of your cultured and exalted intellect, to distract her mind, and turn her away without destructive violence, from every other earthly affection? Can you not see that she will die of grief, and that you, called by your destiny to offer up bloodless sacrifices, will begin by pitilessly sacrificing her who most loves you?
I too, returned Don Luis, endeavoring to conquer his emotion, and to speak with firmnessI too am obliged to make a great effort in order to answer you with the calmness necessary to one who opposes argument to argument, as in a controversy; but your accusation is supported by so many reasons and you have invested those reasonspardon me for saying sowith so specious an appearance of truth, that I have no choice left me but to disprove them by other reasons. I had no thought of being placed in the necessity of maintaining a discussion here, and of sharpening my poor wits for that purpose; but you compel me to do so, unless I wish to pass for a monster. I am going to reply to the two extremes of the cruel dilemma in which you have placed me.
Though it is true that my youth was passed in my uncles house and in the seminary, where I saw nothing of women, do not therefore think me so ignorant, or possessed of so little imagination, that I can not picture to myself how lovely, how seductive they may be. My imagination, on the contrary, went far beyond the reality. Excited by the reading of the sacred writers and of profane poets, it pictured woman more charming, more graceful, more intelligent, than they are commonly to be found in real life. I knew then, and I even exaggerated to myself, the cost of the sacrifice I was making, when I renounced the love of those women for the purpose of elevating myself to the dignity of the priesthood. I know well how much the charms of a beautiful woman are enhanced by rich attire, by splendid jewels, by being surrounded with all the arts of refined civilization, all the objects of luxury produced by the indefatigable labor and the skill of man. I knew well, too, how much the natural cleverness of a woman is increased, how much her natural intelligence is sharpened, quickened and brightened by intercourse with learned men, by the reading of good books, even by the familiar spectacle of the wealth and splendor of great cities, and of the monuments of the past that they contain. All this I pictured to myself with so much vividness, my fancy painted it in such glowing colors, that you need have no doubt that, should I be thrown into the society of those women of whom you speak, far from feeling the adoration and the transports you prophesy, I shall rather experience a disenchantment on seeing how great a distance there is between what I dreamed of and the truth, between the living reality and the picture of it that my fancy drew.
This is indeed specious reasoning, exclaimed Pepita. How can I deny that what you have pictured in your imagination is, in truth, more beautiful than what exists in reality? But who will deny, either, that the real possesses a more seductive charm than that which exists only in the imagination? The vague and ethereal beauty of a phantasm, however ever great, can not compete with what is palpable and visible to the senses. I can understand that holy images might triumph over worldly dreams, but I fear they would scarcely be able to vanquish worldly realities.
And why except me? Such an exception gives room to another suspicion. The idea you have of me, the idea which you love, may be but the creation of this potent fancy of yours, and an illusion that resembles me in nothing.
No, this is not the case. You may be assured that this idea resembles you in everything. It may be that it is innate in my soul, that it has existed in it since it was created by God, that it is a part of its essence, the best and purest part of its being, as the perfume is of the flower.
No, Pepita; do not amuse yourself by tormenting me. What I love is youand you such as you really are; but what I love is also so beautiful, so pure, so delicate that I can not understand how it should have reached my mind, in a material manner, through the senses. I take it for granted. then, and it is my firm belief, that it must have had an innate existence there. It is like the idea of God which is inborn in my soul, which has unfolded and developed itself within me, and which, nevertheless, has its counterpart in reality, superior, infinitely superior to the idea. As I believe that God exists, so do I believe that you exist, and that you are a thousand times superior to the idea that I have formed of you.
No, Pepita; before I saw you, I had felt in imagination what might be the magic power, the fascination, of a woman beautiful of soul and graceful in person. There is no duchess or marchioness in Madrid, no empress in all the world, no queen or princess on the face of the globe, to be compared to the ideals and fantastic creations with whom I have lived.
These were inhabitants of the castles and boudoirs, marvels of luxury and taste, that I pleased myself in boyhood by erecting in my fancy, and that I afterward gave as dwelling-places to my Lauras, Beatrices, Juliets, Marguerites, and Leonoras; to my Cynthias, Glyceras, and Lesbias. I crowned them in my imagination with coronets and Oriental diadems; I clothed them in mantles of purple and gold, and surrounded them with regal pomp like Esther and Vashti. I endowed them, like Rebecca and the Shulamite, with the bucolic simplicity of the patriarchal age; I bestowed on them the sweet humility and the devotion of Ruth; I listened to them discoursing like Aspasia, or Hypatia, mistresses of eloquence. I enthroned them in luxurious drawing-rooms, and cast over them the splendor of noble blood and illustrious lineage, as if they had been the proudest and noblest of patrician maidens of ancient Rome. I beheld them graceful, coquettish, gay, full of aristocratic ease and manner, like the ladies of the time of Louis XIV, in Versailles; and I adorned them, now with the modest stola, inspiring veneration and respect; now with diaphanous tunics and peplums, through whose airy folds were revealed all the plastic perfections of their graceful forms; now with the transparent coa of the beautiful courtezans of Athens and Corinth, showing the white and roseate hues of the finely molded forms that glowed beneath their vaporous covering.
But what are the joys of the senses, what the glory and magnificence of the world, to a soul that burns and consumes itself in Divine love, as I believed mine, perhaps with too much arrogance, to burn and consume itself? As volcanic fires, when they burst into flame, send flying into air, shattered in a thousand fragments, the solid rocks, the mountainside itself, which obstruct their passage, so, or with even greater force, did my spirit cast from itself the whole weight of the universe and of created beauty that lay upon it and imprisoned it, preventing it from soaring up to God, as the centre of its aspirations.
No; I have rejected no delight, no sweetness, no glory, through ignorance. I knew them all, and valued them all at more than their worth, when I rejected them all for a greater delight, a greater sweetness, a greater glory. The profane love of woman presented itself to my fancy, clothed, not only with all its own charms, but with the sovereign and almost irresistible charms of the most dangerous of all temptationof that which the moralists call virginal temptationwhen the mind, not yet undeceived by experience and by sin, pictures to itself in the transports of love a supreme and ineffable delight immeasurable superior to all reality.
Ever since I reached manhoodthat is to say, for many years past, for my youth was shortI have scorned those delights and that beauty that were but the shadow and the reflex of the archetypal beauty of which I was enamored, of the supreme delight for which I longed. I have sought to die to myself, in order to live in the beloved object; to free, not only my senses, but even my soul itself, from every earthly affection, from illusions and imaginings, in order to be able to say with truth that it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me. Sometimes, no doubt, I sinned through arrogance and self-confidence, and God wished to chastise me; you came across my path, and tempted me and led me astray.
Now you upbraid me, you deride me, you accuse me of levity and weakness; but in upbraiding me and deriding me you insult yourself, for you thus imply that any other woman might have had equal power over me. I do not wish, when I ought to be humble, to fall into the sin of pride, by trying to justify my fault. If God, in chastisement of my pride, has let me fall from His grace, it is possible that any temptation, however slight, might have made me waver and fall. Yet I confess that I do not think so. It may be that I err in my judgment that this is but the consequence of my undisciplined pride, but, I repeat, I do not think so. I can not succeed in persuading myself that the cause of my fall had in it anything either mean or base.
Above all the dreams of my youthful imagination, the reality, such as I beheld it in you, enthroned itself. You towered above all the nymphs, queens, and goddesses of my fancy. Above the ruins of my ideal creations, overthrown and shattered by Divine love, there arose in my soul the faithful image, the exact reproduction of the living beauty which adorns and is the essence of that body and of that soul. There may be even something mysterious, something supernatural in this; for I loved you from the moment I first saw youalmost before I saw you. Long before I was conscious of loving you, I loved you. It would seem as if there were some fatality in thisthat it was decreed, that it was predestination.
And if it were predestined, if it be decreed, said Pepita, why not submit to Fate, why still resist? Sacrifice your purpose to our love. Have not I sacrificed much? Am I not now sacrificing my pride, my modesty, my reserve, in supplicating you thus, in making this effort to overcome your scorn? I too believe that I loved you before I saw you. Now I love you with my whole heart, and without you there is no happiness for me. It is true indeed that in my humble intelligence you can find no rival so powerful as that which I have in yours. Neither with the understanding, nor the will, nor the affections, can I raise myself all at once up to God. Neither by nature nor by grace can I mount, or desire to mount, up to such exalted spheres. My soul, nevertheless, is full of religious devotion, and I know and love and adore God; but I only behold His omnipotence and admire His goodness in the works that have proceeded from His hands. Nor can I, with the imagination, weave those visions that you tell me of.
Yet I too dreamed of some one nobler, more intelligent, more poetic, and more enamored than the men who have thus far sought my hand; of a lover more distinguished and accomplished than any of my adorers of this and the neighboring villages, who should love me, and whom I should love and to whose will I should blindly surrender mine. This some one was you. I had a presentiment of it when they told me that you had arrived at the village. When I saw you for the first time, I knew it. But, as my imagination is so sterile, the picture I had formed of you in my mind was not to be compared, even in the most remote degree, to the reality. I too have read something of romances and poetry. But from all that my memory retained of them, I was unable to form a picture that was not far inferior in merit to what I see and divine in you since I have known you. Thus it is that from the moment I saw you I was vanquished and undone.
If love is, as you say, to die to self, in order to live in the beloved object, then is my love genuine and legitimate, for I have died to myself, and live only in you and for you. I have tried to cast this love away from me, deeming it ill-requited, and I have not been able to succeed in doing so. I have prayed to God with fervor to take away from me this love, or else to kill me, and God has not deigned to hear me. I have prayed to the Virgin Mary to blot your image from my soul, and my prayer has been in vain. I have made vows to my patron, Saint Joseph, to the end that he would enable me to think of you only as he thought of his blessed spouse, and my patron saint has not succored me.
Seeing all this, I have had the audacity to ask of Heaven that you should allow yourself to be vanquished, that you should cease to desire to be a priest, that there might spring up in your soul a love as great as that which is in my heart.
Don Luis, tell me frankly, has Heaven been deaf to this last prayer also? Or is it, perchance, that to subjugate a soul as weak, as wretched, and as petty as mine, a petty love is sufficient, while to master yours, protected and guarded as it is by vigorous and lofty thoughts, a more powerful love than mine is necessary, a love that I am neither worthy of inspiring, nor capable of sharing, nor even able to understand?
Pepita, returned Don Luis, it is not that your soul is less than mine, but that it is free from obligations, and mine is not. The love you have inspired me with is profound, but my obligations, my vows, the purpose of my whole life so near to its realization, contend against it. Why should I not say it without fearing to offend you? If you succeed in making me love you, you do not humiliate yourself. If I succumb to your love, I both humiliate and abase myself. I leave the Creator for the creature. I renounce the unwavering purpose of my life, I break the image of Christ that was in my soul; and the new man, which I had created in myself at such cost, disappears, that the old man may come to life again. Instead of my lowering myself to the earth, to the impurity of the world that I have hitherto despised, why do not you rather elevate yourself to me by virtue of that very love you entertain for me, freeing it from every earthly alloy? Why should we not love each other without shame, and without sin, and without dishonor? God penetrates holy souls with the pure and refulgent fire of His love, and so fills them with it that, as metal fresh from the forge, without ceasing to be a metal, shines and glitters and is all fire, these souls are filled with joy, and see God, in all things penetrated by God in every part, through the grace of the Divine love. These souls love and enjoy each other, as if they loved and enjoyed God, loving and enjoying Him in truth because they are God. Let us mount together in spirit this steep and mystical ladder. Let our souls ascend, side by side, to this bliss, which even in this mortal life is possible! But to do this we must separate in the body; it is essential that I should go whither I am called by my duty, my vow, and the voice of the Most High, who disposes of His servant, and has destined him to the service of His altar.
Ah, Don Luis, replied Pepita, full of sorrow and contrition, now indeed I see how vile is the metal I am made of, and how unworthy I am that the Divine fire should penetrate and transform me. I will confess everything, casting away even shame.
I am a vile sinner; my rude and uncultured understanding can not grasp these subtleties, these distinctions, these refinements of love. My rebellious will refuses what you propose. I can not even conceive of you but as yourself. For me you are your mouth, your eyes, your dark locks that I desire to caress with my hands; your sweet voice, the pleasing sound of your words that fall upon my ears and charm them through the senses; your whole person, in a word, which charms and seduces me, and through which, and only through which, I perceive the invisible spirit, vague and full of mystery. My stubborn soul, incapable of these mystical raptures, will never be able to follow you to those regions whither you would take it. If you soar up to them, I shall remain alone, abandoned, plunged in the deepest affliction. I prefer to die; I deserve death; I desire it. It may be that after death my soul, loosening or breaking the vile bonds which chain it here, will be able to understand the love with which you desire we should be united.
Kill me, then, in order that we may thus love each other; kill me, and my spirit, set free, will follow you whithersoever you may go, and will journey invisible by your side, watching over your steps, contemplating you with rapture, penetrating your most secret thoughts, beholding your soul as it is, without the intervention of the senses.
But in this life it can not be. I love in you, not only the soul, but the body, and the shadow cast by the body, and the reflection of the body in the mirror and in the water, and the Christian name, and the surname, and the blood, and all that goes to make you such as you are, Don Luis de Vargas; the sound of your voice, your gesture, your gait, and I know not what else besides. I repeat that you must kill me. Kill me without compassion. No, I am not a Christian; I am a material idolater.
I know it; you despise me, and you are right to despise me. By this just contempt you will kill me more surely than with a dagger, and without staining either your hands or your conscience with blood. Farewell! I am about to free you from my odious presence. Farewell forever!
Having said this, Pepita rose from her seat, and, without looking at Don Luis, her face bathed with tears, beside herself, rushed toward the door that led to the inner apartment. An unconquerable tenderness, a fatal pity, took possession of Don Luis. He feared Pepita would die. He started forward to detain her, but it was too late. Pepita had crossed the threshold. Her form disappeared in the darkness within. Don Luis, impelled by a superhuman power, drawn as by an invisible hand, followed her into the unlighted chamber.