Home  »  Pepita Jimenez  »  March 22d

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

Part I.—Letters from My Nephew

March 22d

March 22d.

FOUR days ago I arrived in safety at this my native village, where I found my father, and the reverend vicar, as well as our friends and relations, all in good health. The happiness of seeing them and conversing with them has so completely occupied my time and thoughts that I have not been able to write to you until now.

You will pardon me for this.

Having left this place a mere child, and coming back a man, the impression produced upon me by all those objects that I had treasured up in my memory is a singular one. Everything appears to me more diminutive, much more diminutive, but also more pleasing to the eye, than my recollection of it. My father’s house, which in my imagination was immense, is, indeed, the large house of a rich husbandman, but still much smaller than the seminary. What I now understand and appreciate better than formerly is the country around here. The orchards, above all, are delightful. What charming paths there are through them! On one side, and sometimes on both, crystal waters flow with a pleasant murmur. The banks of these streams are covered with odorous herbs and flowers of a thousand different hues. In a few minutes one may gather a large bunch of violets. The paths are shaded by majestic trees, chiefly walnut and fig trees; and the hedges are formed of blackberry bushes, roses, pomegranates, and honeysuckle.

The multitude of birds that enliven grove and field is marvelous.

I am enchanted with the orchards, and I spend a couple of hours walking in them every afternoon.

My father wishes to take me to see his olive plantations, his vineyards, his farmhouses; but of all this we have as yet seen nothing. I have not been outside of the village and the charming orchards that surround it.

It is true, indeed, that the numerous visits I receive do not leave me a moment to myself.

Five different women have come to see me, all of whom were my nurses, and have embraced and kissed me.

Every one gives me the diminutive “Luisito,” or “Don Pedro’s boy,” although I have passed my twenty-second birthday; and every one inquires of my father for “the boy,” when I am not present.

I imagine I shall make but little use of the books I have brought with me to read, as I am not left alone for a single instant.

The dignity of squire, which I supposed to be a matter for jest, is, on the contrary, a serious matter. My father is the squire of the village.

There is hardly any one here who can understand what they call my caprice of entering the priesthood, and these good people tell me, with rustic candor, that I ought to throw aside the clerical garb; that to be a priest is very well for a poor young man; but that I, who am to be a rich man’s heir, should marry, and console the old age of my father by giving him half a dozen handsome and robust grandchildren.

In order to flatter my father and myself, both men and women declare that I am a splendid fellow, that I am of an angelic disposition, that I have a very roguish pair of eyes, and other stupid things of a like kind, that annoy, disgust, and humiliate me, although I am not very modest, and am too well acquainted with the meanness and folly of the world to be shocked or frightened at anything.

The only defect they find in me is that I am too thin through overstudy. In order to have me grow fat they propose not to allow me either to study or even to look at a book while I remain here; and, besides this, to make me eat of as many choice dishes of meats and confectionery as they know how to concoct in the village.

It is quite clear—I am to be stall-fed. There is not a single family of our acquaintance that has not sent me some token of regard. Now it is a sponge-cake, now a meat-salad, now a pyramid of sweetmeats, now a jug of syrup. And these presents, which they send to the house, are not the only attentions they show me. I have also been invited to dinner by three or four of the principal persons of the village.

To-morrow I am to dine at the house of the famous Pepita Jiménez, of whom you have doubtless heard. No one here is ignorant of the fact that my father is paying her his addresses.

My father, notwithstanding his fifty-five years, is so well preserved that the finest young men of the village might feel envious of him. He possesses, besides, the powerful attraction, irresistible to some women, of his past conquests, of his celebrity, of his—of course exaggerated—reputation as a modern rival to that national rake, Don Juan Tenorio.

I have not yet made the acquaintance of Pepita Jiménez. Every one says she is very beautiful. I suspect she will turn out to be a village beauty, and somewhat rustic. From what I have heard of her I can not quite decide whether, ethically speaking, she is good or bad; but I am quite certain that she is possessed of great natural intelligence. Pepita is about twenty years old, and a widow; her married life lasted only three years. She was the daughter of Doña Francisca Galvez, the widow, as you know, of a retired captain,

  • “Who left her at his death,
  • As sole inheritance, his honorable sword,”
  • as the poet says. Until her sixteenth year Pepita lived with her mother in very straitened circumstances—bordering, indeed, upon absolute want.

    She had an uncle called Don Gumersindo, the possessor of a small entailed estate, one of those petty estates that, in olden times, owed their foundation to a foolish vanity. Any ordinary person, with the income derived from this estate, would have lived in continual difficulties, burdened by debts, and altogether cut off from the display and ceremony proper to his rank. But Don Gumersindo was an extraordinary person—the very genius of economy. It could not be said of him that he created wealth himself, but he was endowed with a wonderful faculty of absorption with respect to the wealth of others; and in regard to dispensing, it would be difficult to find any one on the face of the globe with whose maintenance, preservation, and comfort, Mother Nature and human industry ever had less reason to trouble themselves. No one knows how he lived; but the fact is that he reached the age of eighty, saving his entire income, and adding to his capital by lending money on unquestionable security. No one here speaks of him as a usurer; on the contrary, he is considered to have been of a charitable disposition, because, being moderate in all things, he was so even in usury, and would ask only ten per cent a year, while throughout the district they ask twenty and even thirty per cent, and still think it little.

    In the practise of this species of industry and economy, and with thoughts dwelling constantly on increasing instead of diminishing his capital, indulging neither in the luxury of matrimony and of having a family, nor even of smoking, Don Gumersindo arrived at the age I have mentioned, the possessor of a fortune considerable anywhere, and here regarded as enormous, thanks to the poverty of these villages, and to the habit of exaggeration natural to the Andalusians.

    Don Gumersindo, always extremely neat and clean in his person, was an old man who did not inspire repugnance.

    The articles of his modest wardrobe were somewhat worn, but carefully brushed and without a stain; although from time immemorial he had always been seen with the same cloak, the same jacket, and the same trousers and waistcoat. People sometimes asked each other in vain if any one had ever seen him wear a new garment.

    With all these defects, which here and elsewhere many regard as virtues, though virtues in excess, Don Gumersindo possessed excellent qualities; he was affable, obliging, compassionate; and did his utmost to please and to be of service to everybody, no matter what trouble, anxiety, or fatigue it might cost him, provided only it did not cost him money. Of a cheerful disposition, and fond of fun and joking, he was to be found at every feast and merry-making around that was not got up at his expense, which he enlivened by the amenity of his manners, and by his discreet although not very Attic conversation. He had never had any tender inclination for any one woman in particular, but, innocently and without malice, he loved them all; and was the most given to complimenting the girls, and making them laugh, of any old man for ten leagues around.

    I have already said that he was the uncle of Pepita. When he was nearing his eightieth year she was about to complete her sixteenth. He was rich; she, poor and friendless.

    Her mother was a vulgar woman of limited intelligence and coarse instincts. She worshiped her daughter, yet lamented continually and with bitterness the sacrifices she made for her, the privations she suffered, and the disconsolate old age and melancholy end that awaited her in the midst of her poverty. She had, besides, a son, older than Pepita, who had a well-deserved reputation in the village as a gambler and a quarrelsome fellow, and for whom, after many difficulties, she had succeeded in obtaining an insignificant employment in Havana; thus finding herself rid of him, and with the sea between them. After he had been a few years in Havana, however, he lost his situation on account of his bad conduct, and thereupon began to shower letters upon his mother, containing demands for money. The latter, who had scarcely enough for herself and for Pepita, grew desperate at this, broke out into abuse, cursed herself and her destiny with a perseverance but little resembling the theological virtue, and ended by fixing all her hopes upon settling her daughter well, as the only way of getting out of her difficulties.

    In this distressing situation Don Gumersindo began to frequent the house of Pepita and her mother, and to pay attentions to the former with more ardor and persistence than he had shown in his attentions to other girls. Nevertheless, to suppose that a man who had passed his eightieth year without wishing to marry, should think of committing such a folly, with one foot already in the grave, was so wild and improbable a notion that Pepita’s mother, still less Pepita herself, never for a moment suspected the audacious intentions of Don Gumersindo.

    Thus it was that both were struck one day with amazement when, after a good many compliments, between jest and earnest, Don Gumersindo, with the greatest seriousness and without the least hesitation, proposed the following categorical question:

    “Pepita, will you marry me?”

    Although the question came at the end of a great deal of joking, and might itself be taken for a joke, Pepita, who, inexperienced though she was in worldly matters, yet knew by a certain instinct of divination that is in all women, and especially in young girls, no matter how innocent they may be, that this was said in earnest, grew as red as a cherry and said nothing. Her mother answered in her stead:

    “Child, don’t be ill-bred; answer your uncle as you should: ‘With much pleasure, uncle—whenever you wish.’”

    This “with much pleasure, uncle—whenever you wish,” came then, it is said, and many times afterward, almost mechanically from the trembling lips of Pepita, in obedience to the admonitions, the sermons, the complaints, and even the imperious mandate of her mother.

    I see, however, that I am enlarging too much on this matter of Pepita Jiménez and her history; but she interests me, as I suppose she should interest you too, since, if what they affirm here be true, she is to be your sister-in-law and my stepmother.

    I shall endeavor, notwithstanding, to avoid dwelling on details, and to relate briefly what perhaps you already know, though you have been away from here so long.

    Pepita Jiménez was married to Don Gumersindo. The tongue of slander was let loose against her, both in the days preceding the wedding and for some months afterward.

    In fact, from the point of view of morals, this marriage was a matter that will admit of discussion; but, so far as the girl herself is concerned, if we remember her mother’s prayers, her complaints, and even her commands—if we take into consideration the fact that Pepita thought by this means to procure for her mother a comfortable old age, and to save her brother from dishonor and infamy, constituting herself his guardian angel and his earthly providence, we must confess that our condemnation will admit of some abatement. Besides, who shall penetrate into the recesses of the heart, into the hidden secrets of the immature mind of a young girl, brought up, probably, in the most absolute seclusion and ignorance of the world, in order to know what idea she might have formed to herself of marriage? Perhaps she thought that to marry this old man meant to devote her life to his service, to be his nurse, to soothe his old age, to save him from a solitude and abandonment embittered by his infirmities, and in which only mercenary hands should minister to him; in a word, to cheer and illumine his declining years with the glowing beams of her beauty and her youth, like an angel who has taken human form. If something of this, or all of this, was what the girl thought, and if she failed to perceive the full significance of her act, then its morality is placed beyond question.

    However this may be, leaving aside psychological investigations that I have no authority for making, since I am not acquainted with Pepita Jiménez, it is quite certain that she lived in edifying harmony with the old man during three years, that she nursed him and waited upon him with admirable devotion, and that in his last painful and fatal sickness she ministered to him and watched over him with tender and unwearying affection, until he expired in her arms, leaving her heiress to a large fortune.

    Although more than two years have passed since she lost her mother, and more than a year and a half since she was left a widow, Pepita still wears the deepest mourning. Her sedateness, her retired manner of living, and her melancholy, are such that one might suppose she lamented the death of her husband as much as though he had been a handsome young man. Perhaps there are some who imagine or suspect that Pepita’s pride, and the certain knowledge she now has of the not very poetical means by which she has become rich, trouble her awakened and more than scrupulous conscience; and that, humiliated in her own eyes and in those of the world, she seeks, in austerity and retirement, consolation for the vexations of her mind, and balm for her wounded heart.

    People here, as everywhere, have a great love of money. Perhaps I am wrong in saying, as everywhere; in populous cities, in the great centres of civilization, there are other distinctions which are prized as much as, or even more than money, because they smooth the way to fortune, and give credit and consideration in the eyes of the world; but in smaller places, where neither literary nor scientific fame, nor, as a rule, distinction of manners, nor elegance, nor discretion and amenity in intercourse, are apt to be either valued or understood, there is no other way by which to adjust the social hierarchy than the possession of more or less money, or of something worth money. Pepita, then, in the possession of money, and beauty besides, and making a good use, as every one says, of her riches, is to-day respected and esteemed in an extraordinary degree. From this and the surrounding villages the most eligible suitors, the wealthiest young men, have crowded to pay their court to her. But, so far as as can be seen, she rejects them all, though with the utmost sweetness, for she wishes to make no one her enemy; and it is commonly supposed that her soul is filled with the most ardent devotion, and that it is her fixed intention to dedicate her life to practises of charity and religious piety.

    My father, according to the general opinion, has not succeeded better than her other suitors; but Pepita, to fulfil the adage that “courtesy and candor are consistent with each other,” takes the greatest pains to give him proofs of a frank, affectionate, and disinterested friendship. She is unremitting in her attentions to him, and when he tries to speak to her of love she brings him to a stop with a sermon delivered with the most winning sweetness, recalling to his memory his past faults, and endeavoring to undeceive him in regard to the world and its vain pomps.

    I confess that I begin to have some curiosity to know this woman, so much do I hear her spoken of! nor do I think my curiosity is without foundation, or that there is anything in it either vain or sinful. I myself feel the truth of what Pepita says; I myself desire that my father, in his advanced years, should enter upon a better life; should forget, and not seek to renew, the agitations and passions of his youth; and should attain to the enjoyment of a tranquil, happy, and honorable old age. I differ from Pepita’s way of thinking in one thing only: I believe my father would succeed in this rather by marrying a good and worthy woman who loved him, than by remaining without a wife. For this very reason I desire to become acquainted with Pepita, in order to know if she be this woman; for I am to a certain extent troubled—and perhaps there is in this feeling something of family pride, which, if it be wrong, I desire to cast out—by the disdain, however honeyed and gracious, of the young widow.

    If my situation were other than it is, I should prefer my father to remain unmarried. Then, being the only child, I should inherit all his wealth, and, as one might say, nothing less than the position of squire of the village. But you already know how firm is the resolution I have taken. Humble and unworthy though I be, I feel myself called to the priesthood, and the possessions of this world have but little power over my mind. If there is anything in me of the ardor of youth, and the vehemence of the passions proper to that age, it shall all be employed in nourishing an active and fecund charity. Even the many books you have given me to read, and my knowledge of the history of the ancient civilizations of the peoples of Asia, contribute to unite within me scientific curiosity with the desire of propagating the faith, and invite and animate me to go forth as a missionary to the far East. As soon as I leave this village, where you, my dear uncle, have sent me to pass some time with my father, and am raised to the dignity of the priesthood, and, ignorant and sinner as I am, feel myself invested by free and supernatural gift, through the sovereign goodness of the Most High, with the power to absolve from sin, and with the mission to teach the peoples—as soon as I receive the perpetual and miraculous grace of handling with impure hands the very God made man, it is my purpose to leave Spain, and go forth to distant lands to preach the Gospel.

    I am not actuated in this by vanity. I do not desire to believe myself superior to other men. The power of my faith, the constancy of which I feel myself capable, everything after the favor and grace of God, I owe to the judicious education, to the holy teaching, and to the good example I have received from you, my dear uncle.

    There is something I hardly dare confess to myself, but which, against my will, presents itself with frequency to my mind; and, since it presents itself to my mind, it is my desire, it is my duty to confess it to you: it would be wrong for me to hide from you even my most secret and involuntary thoughts. You have taught me to analyse the feelings of the soul; to search for their origin, if it be good or evil; to make, in short, a scrupulous examination of conscience.

    I have often reflected on two different methods of education: that of those who endeavor to keep the mind in innocence, confounding innocence with ignorance, and believing evil that is unknown to be avoided more easily than evil that is known; and that of those, on the other hand, who courageously, and as soon as the pupil has arrived at the age of reason, show him, with due regard for modesty, evil in all its hideous ugliness and repulsive nakedness, to the end that he may abhor and avoid it.

    According to my way of thinking, it is necessary to know evil in order the better to comprehend the infinite Divine goodness, the ideal and unattainable end of every virtuously born desire. I am grateful to you that you have made me to know, with the honey and the butter of your teaching, as the Scripture says, both good and evil, to the end that I should aspire to the one and condemn the other, knowingly and with discreet ardor. I rejoice that I am no longer in a state of mere innocence, and that I shall go forward in the progress toward virtue, and, in so far as is permitted to humanity, toward perfection, with a knowledge of all the tribulations, all the asperities that there are in the pilgrimage we are called upon to make through this valley of tears; as I am not ignorant, on the other hand, of how smooth, how easy, how pleasant, how flowery the road is in appearance that leads to perdition and eternal death.

    Another thing for which I feel bound to be grateful to you is the indulgence, the toleration—not condescending nor lax, but, on the contrary, serious and thoughtful—with which you have been able to inspire me for the errors and the sins of my fellow men.

    I say all this to you because I wish to speak to you on a subject of so delicate a nature that I hardly find words in which to express myself concerning it. In short, I often ask myself whether the resolution I have adopted had not its origin, in part at least, in the character of my relations with my father. In the bottom of my heart have I been able to pardon him his conduct toward my poor mother, the victim of his errors?

    I consider this matter carefully, and I can not find an atom of hatred in my breast. On the contrary, gratitude fills it entirely. My father has brought me up affectionately. He has tried to honor in me the memory of my mother, and one would have said that in my bringing up, in the care he took of me, in the indulgence with which he treated me, in his devotion to me as a child, he sought to appease her angry shade—if the shade, if the spirit of her who was on earth an angel of goodness and gentleness, could be capable of anger.

    I repeat, then, that I am full of gratitude toward my father; he has acknowledged me, and, besides, he sent me at the age of ten years to you, to whom I owe all that I am.

    If there is in my heart any germ of virtue, if there is in my mind any element of knowledge, if there is in my will any honorable and good purpose, to you it is I owe it.

    My father’s affection for me is extraordinary; the estimation in which he holds me is far superior to my merits. Perhaps vanity may have something to do with this. In paternal love there is something selfish; it is, as it were, a prolongation of selfishness. If I were possessed of any merit, my father would regard it all as a creation of his own, as if I were an emanation of his personality, as much in spirit as in body. Be this as it will, however, I believe that my father loves me, and that there is in his affection something self-sustaining, and superior to all this pardonable selfishness of which I have spoken.

    I experience a great consolation, a profound tranquillity of conscience—and for this I return most fervent thanks to God—when I discern the fact that the power of blood, the tie of nature, that mysterious bond that unites us, leads me, without any consideration of duty, to love my father and to reverence him. It would be horrible not to love him thus—to be compelled to force myself to love in order to obey a Divine command. Nevertheless—and here comes back my doubt—does my purpose of becoming a priest or a friar, of not accepting, or of accepting only a very small part of, the immense fortune that will be mine by inheritance, and which I might enjoy even during my father’s lifetime; does this proceed solely from my contempt of the things of this world, from a true vocation for a religious life, or does it not also proceed from pride, from hidden rancor, from resentment, from something in me that refuses to forgive what my mother herself, with sublime generosity, forgave? This doubt assails and torments me at times, but almost always I resolve it in my favor, and come to the conclusion that I have no feeling of pride toward my father. I think I would accept from him all he has, if I were to need it, and I rejoice to be as grateful to him for little as for much.

    Farewell, uncle. In future I will write to you often, and as much at length as you desire, if not quite so much so as to-day, lest I should appear prolix.