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Juan Valera (1824–1905). Pepita Jimenez.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Part I.—Letters from My Nephew

April 8th

April 8th.

THE AMUSEMENTS of the country, in which, very much against my will, I am compelled to take part, still go on.

My father has taken me to see almost all his plantations, and he and his friends are astonished to find me not altogether ignorant in matters pertaining to the country. It would seem as if, in their eyes, the study of theology, to which I have dedicated myself, were incompatible with a familiarity with Nature. How much have they not wondered at my knowledge, on seeing me discriminate, among the vines that have only just begun to sprout, the common from the choice varieties! How much have they not wondered, too, at my being able to distinguish, among the young plants in the fields, the shoots of the barley from those of the bean; at my being familiar with many fruit and shade trees; at my knowing the names of many plants, even, that grow spontaneously in the woods, as well as something of their properties and virtues!

Pepita Jiménez, who has heard through my father of the delight I take in the gardens here, has invited me to visit one that she owns at a short distance from the village, and eat the early strawberries that grow there. This caprice of Pepita’s to show so many little attentions to my father, while at the same time she declines his addresses, seems to me at times to partake somewhat of coquetry, and to be worthy of reprobation. But whenever I see her, and find her so natural, so frank, and so simple, this bad opinion is dispelled, and I can not believe her to have any other end in view than to maintain the friendly relations that exist between her and our family.

Be this as it may, yesterday afternoon we went to Pepita’s garden. It is charmingly situated, and as delightful and picturesque a place as one can imagine. The river, that by means of innumerable drains waters almost all these gardens, falls into a deep ravine, bordered on both sides by white and black poplars, willows, flowering oleanders, and other leafy trees. The waterfall, clear and transparent, precipitates itself into this ravine, sending up a cloud of spray, and then follows its tortuous course by a channel formed for it by Nature herself, enameling its banks with a thousand plants and flowers, and just now covering them with a multitude of violets. The declivity at the end of the garden is full of walnut, hazel, fig, and other fruit trees; and in the level portion are beds planted with strawberries and vegetables, tomatoes, potatoes, beans, and peppers. There is also a little flower-garden, with a great abundance of flowers, of the kinds most commonly cultivated here. Roses especially abound, and of these there are innumerable varieties. The gardener’s house is prettier and cleaner than the houses of its class that one is accustomed to see in this part of the country; and near it there is another, smaller building, dedicated to the use of the mistress of the place, where Pepita regaled us with a sumptuous collation. The pretext for this collation was the strawberries, to eat which was the chief purpose of our visit. The quantity of strawberries, considering the earliness of the season, was astonishing. They were served with the milk of goats, which belonged likewise to Pepita.

There were present at this banquet the doctor, the notary, my aunt Casilda, my father, and myself, and of course the indispensable vicar, spiritual father, and, more than spiritual father, admirer and perpetual eulogist of Pepita.

By a sort of Sybaritic refinement, it was not by the gardener, nor his wife, nor the son of the gardener, nor by any other rustic, that we were served at this banquet, but by two lovely girls, confidential servants, in a manner, of Pepita’s, dressed like peasants, but with the greatest neatness and even elegance. They wore gowns of gay-colored cotton, short and confined at the waist, and around their shoulders silk handkerchiefs. Their lustrous and abundant black hair, without covering, was braided and arranged in a knot behind; and in front they wore curls confined to the head by large hairpins, here called Caracols. Above the knot, or chignon, they each displayed a bunch of fresh roses.

Pepita’s attire, except that it was black and of rich material, was equally unpretending. Her merino gown, made in the same style as those of her maids, without being short, was yet not long enough to catch the dust of the ground. A modest handkerchief of black silk covered also, according to the usage of the country, her shoulders and bosom; and on her head she wore no other ornament, either flower or jewel, than that of her own blond tresses.

The only particular, with respect to Pepita, in which I observed a certain fastidiousness, and in which she departed from the customs of the country people, was in wearing gloves. It is evident that she takes great care of her hands, and is, perhaps, to a certain extent, vain of their beauty and whiteness, as well as of her rose-colored and polished nails; but if this be so, it is to be pardoned to the weakness of the flesh; and indeed, if I remember aright, I think that St. Theresa, in her youth, had this same species of vanity, which did not prevent her, however, from becoming a great saint.

In truth, I can understand, even though I do not excuse, this little piece of vanity. It is so distinguished, so aristocratic, to possess a beautiful hand! I even think, at times, that there is something symbolic in it. The hand is the instrument by which we execute our works, the sign of our nobility, the means by which the intellect gives form and shape to its artistic conceptions, by which it gives reality to the mandates of its will, by which it exercises the dominion that God conceded to man over all other creatures. The rough, strong, sinewy, horny hand—it may be, of a laborer, a workman—testifies nobly to this dominion, but on its rudest and least intellectual side. The hands of Pepita, on the contrary, transparent almost, like alabaster, but rosy-hued, and in which one can almost see the pure and subtle blood circulate that gives to the veins their faint bluish tinge—these hands, I say, with their tapering fingers and unrivaled purity of outline, seem the symbol of the magic power, the mysterious dominion, that the human spirit holds and exercises, without the intervention of material force, over all those visible things that are the creation of God by a direct act of His will, and which man, as the instrument of God, improves and completes. It would be impossible to suppose that any one with hands like Pepita’s should have an impure thought, a gross desire, an unworthy purpose at variance with the purity of her hands that would be called upon to put them into effect.

It is unnecessary to say that my father appeared as much charmed with Pepita, and she as attentive and affectionate toward him, as always; though her affection seemed, perhaps, of a character more filial than he could have wished. The fact is, that my father, notwithstanding the reputation he has of being in general but little respectful or reverent toward women, treats this one woman with such respect and consideration that not even Amadis, in the most devoted period of his wooing, showed greater toward Oriana. Not a single word that might shock the ear, no indelicate or inopportune compliment, no coarse jest, of the kind the Andalusians permit themselves so frequently to employ, does he ever indulge in. Hardly does he dare say to Pepita, “What beautiful eyes you have!” and, indeed, should he say so, he would only speak the truth, for Pepita’s eyes are large, green as those of Circe, expressive, and well-shaped. And what enhances their beauty is that she seems unaware of all this, for there is not to be detected in her the slightest wish to please or attract any one by the sweetness of her glances.

One would say she thought eyes were only made to see with, and for no other purpose—the contrary of what I suppose to be the opinion, according to what I have heard, of the greater number of young and pretty women, who use their eyes as a weapon of offense, or as a sort of electric battery, by means of which to subdue hearts and captivate them. Not like those, indeed, are Pepita’s eyes, wherein dwell a peace and a serenity as of heaven. And yet it can not be said that there is anything of coldness in their glance. Her eyes are full of charity and sweetness. They rest with tenderness on a ray of light, on a flower, on the commonest object in Nature; but with greater tenderness still, with signs of a softer feeling, more human and benign, do they rest on her fellow man, without his daring to imagine in that tranquil and serene glance, however young or handsome or conceited he may happen to be, anything more than charity and love toward a fellow man, or, at most, a friendly preference.

I sometimes wonder if all this can be studied, and if Pepita be, in truth, an accomplished actress; but the acting would be so perfect, and so purposeless the play, that it seems to me, after all, impossible that this should be the case. Nature herself it is, then, who serves as teacher and as type for that glance and for those eyes. First, Pepita loved her mother; then circumstances led her to love Don Gumersindo through duty, as the companion of her existence; and then, doubtless, all passion that any earthly object could inspire was extinguished in her breast, and she loved God, and loved material objects for the love of God; and so arrived at last at a peaceful and even enviable condition of spirit, in which, if there be anything to censure, it is perhaps a certain vanity of which she is herself unconscious. It is very convenient to love in this mild fashion, without allowing ourselves to be disturbed by our feelings, to have no passion to combat, to make of our love and affection for others an addition to, and, as it were, the complement of self-love.

I ask myself at times if, when I censure this state of mind in Pepita, it be not myself I censure. How do I know what passes in the soul of this woman that I should censure her? Perhaps, in thinking I behold her soul, it is my own soul that I behold. I never had, nor have I now, any passion to conquer. All my virtuous inclinations, all my instincts, good or bad, tend, thanks to your wise teachings, without obstacle or impediment, to the furtherance of the one purpose. In the fulfilment of this purpose, I should satisfy not only my noble and disinterested desires, but my selfish ones also—my love for distinction, my desire for knowledge, my curiosity to see distant lands, my longing for name and fame. All these are centred in the completing of the career upon which I have entered. I fancy at times that, in this respect, I am more worthy of censure than Pepita, supposing her even to deserve censure at all.

As regards this career, I have already begun it. I have cast out from my soul the vanities of the world; I have received the tonsure; I have consecrated myself to the service of the altar. I have a future full of ambition before me, and I dwell with pleasure on the thought that this future is within my reach. I please myself in thinking that the conditions I possess for it are real and efficacious, though I call humility to my aid, at times, to save me from an overweening self-confidence.

To what, on the other hand, does this woman aspire, and what are her hopes? I censure her for the care she takes of her hands, for regarding her beauty, perhaps, with complacency; I almost censure her for her neatness, for the attention she bestows on her dress; for a certain indefinable coquetry there is in the very modesty and simplicity of her attire. But must virtue be slovenly? Must holiness be unclean? Can not a pure and clean soul rejoice in the cleanliness and purity of the body also? Is there not something reprehensible in the displeasure with which I regard the neatness and purity of Pepita? Is this displeasure, perchance, because she is to be my stepmother? But perhaps she does not wish to be my stepmother. Perhaps she does not love my father! It is true, indeed, that women are incomprehensible. It may be that in her secret heart she already feels inclined to return my father’s affection, and marry him, though, in accordance with the saying that “what is worth much costs much,” she chooses first to torment him with her affected coldness, to reduce him to unquestioning submission, to put his constancy to the proof, and then means to end by quietly saying Yes. We shall see.

What there is no question about is, that our garden party was decorously merry. We talked of flowers, of fruit, of grafts, of planting, and of innumerable other things relating to husbandry, Pepita displaying her knowledge of agriculture in rivalry with my father, with myself, and with the reverend vicar, who listens with open mouth to every word she utters, and declares that in the seventy odd years of his life, and during his many wanderings, in the course of which he has traversed almost the whole of Andalusia, he has never known a woman more discreet or more judicious in all she thinks and says.

On returning home from any of these excursions, I renew my entreaties to my father to allow me to go back to you, in order that the wished-for moment may at last arrive in which I shall see myself elevated to the priesthood. But my father is so pleased to have me with him, he is so happy here in the village, taking care of his plantations, exercising the judicial and executive authority of squire, paying homage to Pepita, and consulting her in everything as his Egeria, that he always finds, and will find perhaps for months to come, some plausible pretext to keep me here. Now he has to clarify the wine of I know not how many casks; now he has to bottle more wine still; now it is necessary to hoe around the vines; now to plow the olive groves and dig around the roots of the olives; in short, he keeps me here against my wishes—though I should not say “against my wishes,” for it gives me great pleasure to be with my father, who is so good to me.

The evil is that, with this way of life, I fear I shall grow too material. I am conscious in my devotions of a certain aridity of spirit. My religious fervor diminishes; common life begins to penetrate, to infiltrate my nature. When I pray, I suffer distractions; in my solitary meditations, when the soul should raise itself up to God, I can no longer concentrate my thought as formerly. My sensibility of heart, on the other hand, which refuses to occupy itself with any worthy object, or employ and consume itself on its legitimate ends, wells forth, and, as it were, overflows at times for objects and under circumstances which are almost puerile, which seem to me ridiculous, and of which I am ashamed. If I awaken in the silence of the night, and hear by chance some lovelorn rustic singing, to the sound of his badly played guitar, a verse of a song, neither very original nor very poetical, nor very delicate, I am wont to be affected as if I were listening to some celestial melody.

A feeling of pity, childish, even absurd, comes over me at times. The other day the children of my father’s overseer stole a nestful of young sparrows, and on seeing the little birds, not yet fledged, torn thus violently from their tender mother, I felt a sudden pang of anguish, and I confess I could not restrain my tears. A few days before this a peasant had brought in from the fields a calf that had broken its leg. He was about to carry it to the slaughter-house, and came to ask my father what part he wished for his table, My father answered, “The head and the feet, and a few pounds of the flesh.” I was touched by compassion on seeing the calf, and but that shame prevented me, would have bought it from the man, in the hope of curing and keeping it alive. In short, my dear uncle, nothing less than the confidence I have in you would make me recount to you these signs of an extravagant and restless emotion, so that you may judge by them how necessary it is that I should return to my former way of life, to my studies, to my lofty speculations, and be at last elevated to the priesthood, in order to provide with its fit and proper aliment the fire that consumes my soul.