Home  »  Pepita Jimenez  »  May 4th

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

Part I.—Letters from My Nephew

May 4th

May 4th.

IT is strange that in so many days I should not have had time to write to you, but such is the fact. My father does not let me rest a moment, and I am besieged by visitors.

In large cities it is easy to avoid seeing visitors, to isolate one’s self, to create for one’s self a solitude, a Thebaid in the midst of the tumult; in an Andalusian village, and, above all, when one has the honor of being the son of the squire, it is necessary to live in public. Not only now to my study, but even to my bedroom, do the reverend vicar, the notary, my cousin Currito, the son of Doña Casilda, and a hundred others, penetrate without any one daring to oppose them, waken me if I am asleep, and carry me off with them wherever they wish.

The clubhouse here is not a place of amusement for the evening only, but for all the hours of the day. From eleven o’clock in the morning it is full of people, who chat, glance over a paper to learn the news, and play at ombre, which, I have come to the conclusion, is the Spaniard’s favorite game of cards; there are persons here who spend ten or twelve hours a day at it. In short, there is as much enjoyment here as one could well desire. In order that this enjoyment may be uninterrupted there are a great many amusements. Besides ombre, there are many other games at cards. Draughts, chess, and dominoes are not neglected. And, finally, there is a decided passion for cock-fighting.

All this, together with making calls, going to the fields to inspect the work, settling accounts every night with the overseer, visiting the wine-vaults and cask-stores, superintending the clarifying, rebottling, and perfecting of the wines, treating with gipsies and horsedealers for the purchase, sale, or barter of horses, mules, and donkeys, or with dealers from Xeres who come to buy our wine in order to convert it into sherry, are here the daily occupation of the gentry, squirearchy, or whatever else they may choose to call themselves. On extraordinary occasions there are other tasks and amusements that give a greater appearance of animation to everything: as in harvest-time, at the vintage, and the gathering in of the olives; or when there is a fair or a bull-fight, either here or in a neighboring village; or when there is a pilgrimage to the sanctuary of some miraculous image of the Holy Virgin, where, if it be true that many go through curiosity, or to amuse themselves, and give to their sweethearts a fairing of a Cupid or a rosary, many more go through devotion, or in fulfilment of a vow or promise. One of these sanctuaries is situated at the top of a very high mountain, yet there is no lack of delicate women who, to reach it, will climb, with bare feet wounded by the stones and brambles, the steep and rugged path that leads to it.

There is a certain charm in the life here. For one who has no desire for fame, no ambition, I can understand that it might be a very easy and agreeable life. Even solitude may be obtained by an effort. As I am here only for a short time, I can neither make this effort, nor ought I to do so; but if I were settled here, I should find no difficulty in secluding myself—and that, too, without offending any one—for several hours, or for the whole day, if it were necessary, in order to devote myself to my studies and meditations.

Your last letter has troubled me a little. I see that you persist in your suspicions, and I know not what answer to make in order to justify myself but the answer I have already made you.

You say that the victory, in a certain kind of warfare, consists in flight; that to fly is to conquer. Why should I seek to deny what the Apostle and so many holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church have said? But you well know that, in this case, flight does not depend upon me. My father is resolved that I shall not go; he keeps me here against my will, and I must obey him. The victory must be gained by other means, then, than by flight.

To set your mind at rest, I repeat that matters have not gone so far as you think; that you see them in a much more advanced stage than they really are.

There is not the slightest sign that Pepita Jiménez loves me. And even did she love me, it would be in a different way from that in which these women loved whom you cite as a salutary warning to me. A lady of our times, virtuous and well brought up, is neither so susceptible nor so wanting in decorum as those matrons of whose adventures ancient history is full.

The passage you cite from St. John Chrysostom is indeed worthy of consideration; but it is not altogether applicable to the circumstances. The great lady who in On, Thebes, or Diospolis Magna, fell in love with the favorite son of Jacob, was in all probability extremely handsome. By such a supposition only can one comprehend the words of the saint, that it was a greater miracle that Joseph should have passed through this ordeal unscathed, than that the three young men whom Nebuchadnezzar caused to be placed in the fiery furnace were not reduced to ashes!

As far as beauty is concerned, I confess frankly that I can not think that the wife of the Egyptian prince, chamberlain of the palace of the Pharaohs, or whatever else may have been his title, was in any degree superior to Pepita Jiménez. But neither am I endowed with as many gifts and excellences as was Joseph, nor is Pepita a woman without religion and without decorum. And even were the circumstances such as he relates, were all those horrors true, I can only account for the exaggerated language of St. John Chrysostom by the fact that he lived in the corrupt capital, half Gentile still, of the Lower Empire, in the midst of that Court whose vices he so harshly censures, and where the Empress Eudoxia herself gave an example of scandal and corruption.

But in our day, when the morality taught in the Gospel has penetrated more deeply into the strata of society, it seems to me an exaggeration to think the chaste scorn of the son of Jacob any more miraculous than the material incombustibility of the three young men of Babylon.

There is one point on which you touch in your letter that encourages and pleases me greatly. You condemn, as is right, the exaggerated sentimentality, and the tendency to be easily moved and to weep from childish motives, from which I told you that I suffered at times; but since this disposition of soul, so necessary to combat, exists in me, you rejoice that it does not affect my prayers and meditations and contaminate them. You recognize and praise in me the virile energy that should animate the passions and the mind that seek to elevate themselves to God.

The intelligence that strives to comprehend Him must be a vigorous one; the will that submits itself entirely to Him must first have triumphed, fighting bravely against every appetite, and defeating and putting to flight every temptation over self. The very passion which, purified and ardent, has power, even in weak and miserable mortals, to exalt itself, by an ecstasy of love, to God Himself, attaining by a supernatural illumination to the knowledge of Him, is the offspring of a steadfast and upright character, as well as of the Divine grace. This languor, this debility of the will, this morbid tenderness have nothing in them in common with charity, with piety, or with Divine love. The former are the attributes of a nature less than feminine; the latter are passions, if passions they can be called, of angels rather than of men. God will be my surety, and with His help I will fight for my own salvation. But should I sink into perdition, not in disguise nor by capitulation shall the enemies of the soul and the sins of the flesh enter into the fortress of my conscience, but with banners flying, laying waste everything before them by fire and sword, and after a desperate conflict.

In the past few days I have had occasion to practise patience in an extreme degree, and to mortify my self-love in the most cruel manner. My father, wishing to return Pepita’s compliment of the garden-party, invited her to visit his villa at the Pozo de la Solana. The excursion took place on the 22d of April. I shall not soon forget the date.

The Pozo de la Solana is about two leagues distant from the village, and the only road to it is a bridle-path. We all had to go on horseback. As I never learned to ride, I had on former occasions accompanied my father mounted on a pacing mule, gentle, and, according to the expression of Dientes the muleteer, as good as gold, and of easier motion than a carriage. On the journey to the Pozo de la Solana I went in the same manner.

My father, the notary, the apothecary, and my cousin Currito were mounted on good horses. My aunt, Doña Casilda, who weighs more than two hundred and fifty pounds, rode on a large and powerful donkey, seated in a commodious side-saddle. The reverend vicar rode a gentle and easy mule like mine.

As for Pepita Jiménez, who, I supposed, would go also mounted on a donkey, in the same sort of easy saddle as my aunt—for I was ignorant that she knew how to ride—she surprised me by making her appearance on a black and white horse full of fire and spirit. She wore a riding-habit, and managed her horse with admirable grace and skill.

I was pleased to see Pepita look so charming on horseback, but I soon began to foresee and to be mortified by the sorry part I would play, jogging on in the rear beside my corpulent aunt Casilda and the vicar, all three as quiet and tranquil as if we were seated in a carriage, while the gay cavalcade in front would caracole, gallop, trot, and make a thousand other displays of their horsemanship.

I fancied on the instant that there was something of compassion in Pepita’s glance as she noted the pitiable appearance I no doubt presented, seated on my mule. My cousin Currito looked at me with a mocking smile, and immediately began to make fun of me and to tease me.

Confess that I deserve credit for my resignation and courage. I submitted to everything with a good grace, and Currito’s jests soon ceased when he saw that I was invulnerable to them. But what did I not suffer in secret! The others, now trotting, now galloping, rode in advance of us, both in going and returning. The vicar and I, with Doña Casilda between us, rode on, tranquil as the mules we were seated upon, without hastening or retarding our pace.

I had not even the consolation of chatting with the vicar, in whose conversation I find so much pleasure, nor of wrapping myself up in my own thoughts and giving the rein to my fancy, nor of silently admiring the beauty of the scenery around us. Doña Casilda is gifted with an abominable loquacity, and we were obliged to listen to her. She told us all there is to be told of the gossip of the village; she recounted to us all her accomplishments; she told us how to make sausages, brain-puddings, pastry, and innumerable other dishes and delicacies. There is no one, according to herself, who can rival her in matters pertaining to the kitchen, or to the dressing of hogs, but Antoñona, Pepita’s nurse, and now her housekeeper and general manager. I am already acquainted with this Antoñona, for she goes back and forth between her mistress’s house and ours with messages, and is in truth extremely handy—as loquacious as Aunt Casilda, but a great deal more discreet.

The scenery on the road to the Pozo de la Solana is charming, but my mind was so disturbed during our journey that I could not enjoy it. When we arrived at the villa and dismounted, I was relieved of a great load, as if it had been I who carried the mule, and not the mule who carried me.

We then proceeded on foot through the estate, which is magnificent, of varied character and extensive. There are vines, old and newly planted, all on the same property, producing more than five hundred bushels of grapes; olive trees that yield to the same amount; and, finally, a grove of the most majestic oaks that are to be found in all Andalusia. The water of the Pozo de la Solana forms a clear and deep brook, at which all the birds of the neighborhood come to drink, and on whose borders they are caught by hundreds, by means of reeds smeared with bird-lime, or of nets, in the centre of which are fastened a cord and a decoy. All this carried my thoughts back to the sports of my childhood, and to the many times that I too had gone to catch birds in the same manner.

Following the course of the brook, and especially in the ravines, are many poplars and other tall trees, which, together with the bushes and the shrubs, form a dark and labyrinthine wood. A thousand fragrant wild flowers grow there spontaneously, and it would, in truth, be difficult to imagine anything more secluded and sylvan, more solitary, peaceful, and silent than this spot. Even in the fervor of noonday, when the sun pours down his light in torrents from a heaven without a cloud, the mind experiences the same mysterious terror as visits it at times in the silent hours of the night. One can understand here the manner of life of the patriarchs of old, and of the primitive shepherds and heroes; and the visions and apparitions that appeared to them of nymphs, of gods, and of angels, in the midst of the noonday brightness.

As we walked through this thicket, there arrived a moment in which, I know not how, Pepita and I found ourselves alone together. The others had remained behind.

I felt a sudden thrill pass through me. For the first time, and in a place so solitary, I found myself alone with this woman; while my thoughts were still dwelling on the noontide apparitions, now sinister, now gracious, but always supernatural, vouchsafed to the men of remote ages.

Pepita had left the long skirt of her riding-habit in the house, and now wore a short dress that did not interfere with the graceful ease of her movements. She had on her head a little Andalusian hat, which became her extremely. She carried in her hand her riding-whip, which I fancied to myself to be a magic wand by means of which this enchantress might cast her spells over me.

I am not afraid to transcribe here these eulogies of her beauty. In this sylvan scene she appeared to me more beautiful than ever. The precaution recommended in similar cases by ascetics, to think of her beauty defaced by sickness and old age, to picture her to myself dead, the prey of corruption and of the worm, presented itself, against my will, to my imagination; and I say against my will, for I do not concur in the necessity for such a precaution. No thought of the material, no suggestion of the evil spirit, troubled my reason or infected my will or my senses.

What did occur to me was an argument—at least to my mind—in disproof of the efficacy of this precaution. Beauty, the creation of a Sovereign and Divine Power, may indeed be frail and ephemeral, may vanish in an instant; but the idea of beauty is eternal, and, once perceived by the mind, it lives there an immortal life. The beauty of this woman, such as it manifests itself to-day, will disappear in a few short years; the graceful form, those charming contours, the noble head that raises itself so proudly above her shoulders: all will be food for loathsome worms; but—though the material must of necessity be transformed—its idea, the creative thought—abstract beauty, in a word—what shall destroy this? Does it not exist in the Divine Mind? Once perceived and known by me, must it not continue to live in my soul, triumphing over age and even over death?

I was meditating thus, striving to tranquilize my spirit and dissipate the doubts which you have succeeded in infusing into my mind, when Pepita and I encountered each other. I was pleased and at the same time troubled to find myself alone with her—hoping and yet fearing that the others would join us.

The silvery voice of Pepita broke the silence, and drew me from my meditations, saying:

“How silent you are, Don Luis, and how sad! I am pained to think that it is perhaps through my fault, or partly so at least, that your father has caused you to spend a disagreeable day in these solitudes, taking you away from a solitude more congenial, where there would be nothing to distract your attention from your prayers and pious books.”

I know not what answer I made to this. It must have been something nonsensical, for my mind was troubled. I did not wish to flatter Pepita by paying her profane compliments, nor, on the other hand, did I wish to answer her rudely.

She continued:

“You must forgive me if I am wrong, but I fancy that, in addition to the annoyance of seeing yourself deprived to-day of your favorite occupation, there is something else that powerfully contributes to your ill-humor.”

“And what is this something else?” I said; “since you have discovered it, or fancy you have done so.”

“This something else,” responded Pepita, “is a feeling not altogether becoming in one who is going to be a priest so soon, but very natural in a young man of twenty-two.”

On hearing this I felt the blood mount to my face, and my face burn. I imagined a thousand absurdities; I thought myself beset by evil spirits; I fancied myself tempted by Pepita, who was doubtless about to let me understand that she knew I loved her. Then my timidity gave place to haughtiness, and I looked her steadily in the face. There must have been something laughable in my look, but either Pepita did not observe it, or, if she did, she concealed the fact with amiable discretion; for she exclaimed, in the most natural manner:

“Do not be offended because I find you are not without fault. This that I have observed seems to me a slight one. You are hurt by the jests of Currito, and by being compelled to play—speaking profanely—a not very dignified part, mounted, like the reverend vicar with his eighty years, on a placid mule, and not, as a youth of your age and condition should be, on a spirited horse. The fault is the reverend dean’s, to whom it did not occur that you should learn to ride. To know how to manage a horse is not opposed to the career you intend to follow, and I think, now that you are here, that your father might in a few days give you the necessary instruction to enable you to do so. If you should go to Persia or to China, where there are no railroads yet, you will make but a sorry figure in those countries as a bad horseman. It is possible even that, by this oversight, the missionary himself may come to lose prestige in the eyes of those barbarians, which will make it all the more difficult for him to reap the fruits of his labors.”

This and other arguments Pepita adduced in order to persuade me to learn to ride on horseback; and I was so convinced of the necessity of a missionary’s being a good horseman that I promised her to learn at once, taking my father as a teacher.

“On the very next expedition we make,” I said, “I shall ride the most spirited horse my father has, instead of the mule I am riding to-day.”

“I shall be very glad if you do,” responded Pepita, with a smile of indescribable sweetness.

At this moment we were joined by the rest of the party, at which I was secretly rejoiced, though for no other reason than the fear of not being able to sustain the conversation, and of saying a great many foolish things, on account of the little experience I have had in conversing with women.

After our walk my father’s servants spread before us on the fresh grass, in the most charming spot beside the brook, a rural and abundant collation.

The conversation was very animated, and Pepita acquitted herself with much discretion and intelligence. My cousin Currito returned to his jests about my manner of riding and the meekness of my mule. He called me a theologian, and said that, seated on muleback, I looked as if I were dispensing blessings. This time, however, being now firmly resolved to learn to ride, I answered his jests with sarcastic indifference. I was silent, nevertheless, with respect to the promise I had just made Pepita. The latter, doubtless thinking as I did—although we had come to no understanding in the matter—that silence for the present was necessary to ensure the complete success of the surprise that I would create afterward by my knowledge of horsemanship, said nothing of our conversation. Thus it happened, naturally and in the simplest manner, that a secret existed between us; and it produced in my mind a singular effect.

Nothing else worth telling occurred during the day.

In the afternoon we returned to the village in the same manner in which we had left it. Yet, seated on my easygoing mule and at the side of my aunt Casilda, I did not experience the same fatigue or sadness as before.

During the whole journey I listened without weariness to my aunt’s stories, amusing myself at times in conjuring up idle fancies. Nothing of what passes in my soul shall be concealed from you. I confess, then, that the figure of Pepita was, as it were, the centre, or rather the nucleus and focus, of these idle fancies.

The noonday vision in which she had appeared to me, in the shadiest and most sequestered part of the grove, brought to my memory all the visions, holy and unholy, of wondrous beings, of a condition superior to ours, that I had read of in sacred authors and in the profane classics. Pepita appeared to the eyes and on the stage of my fancy in the leafy seclusion of the grove, not as she rode before us on horseback, but in an ideal and ethereal fashion—as Venus to Æneas, as Minerva to Callimachus, as the sylph who afterward became the mother of Libusa to the Bohemian Kroco, as Diana to the son of Aristæus, as the angels in the valley of Mamre to the Patriarch, as the hippocentaur to St. Anthony in the solitude of the wilderness.

That the vision of Pepita should assume in my mind something of a supernatural character seems to me no more to be wondered at than any of these. For an instant, seeing the consistency of the illusion, I thought myself tempted by evil spirits; but I reflected that in the few moments during which I had been alone with Pepita near the brook of the Solana, nothing had occurred that was not natural and commonplace; that it was afterward as I rode along quietly on my mule, that some demon, hovering invisible around me, had suggested these extravagant fancies.

That night I told my father of my desire to learn to ride. I did not wish to conceal from him that it was Pepita who had suggested this desire. My father was greatly rejoiced; he embraced me, he kissed me, he said that now not you only would be my teacher, but that he also would have the pleasure of teaching me something. He ended by assuring me that in two or three weeks he would make me the best horseman of all Andalusia; able to go to Gibraltar for contraband goods, and come back laden with tobacco and cotton, after eluding the vigilance of the Custom-house officers; fit, in a word to astonish the riders who show off their horsemanship in the fairs of Seville and Mairena, and worthy to press the flanks of Babieca, Bucephalus, or even of the horses of the sun themselves, if they should by chance descend to earth, and I could catch them by the bridle.

I don’t know what you will think of this notion of my learning to ride, but I take it for granted you will see nothing wrong in it.

If you could but see how happy my father is, and how he delights in teaching me! Since the day after the excursion I told you of, I take two lessons daily. There are days on which the lesson is continuous, for we are on horseback from morning till night. During the first week the lessons took place in the courtyard of the house, which is unpaved, and which served us as a riding-school.

We now ride out into the country, but manage so that no one shall see us. My father does not want me to show myself on horseback in public until I am able to astonish every one by my fine appearance in the saddle, as he says. If the vanity natural to a father does not deceive him, this, it seems, will be very soon, for I have a wonderful aptitude for riding.

“It is easy to see that you are my son!” my father exclaims with joy, as he watches my progress.

My father is so good that I hope you will pardon him the profane language and irreverent jests in which he indulges at times. I grieve for this at the bottom of my soul, but I endure it with patience. These constant and long-continued lessons have reduced me to a pitiable condition with blisters. My father enjoins me to write to you that they are caused by mortification of the flesh.

As he declares that within a few weeks I shall be an accomplished horseman, and he does not desire to be superannuated as a master, he proposes to teach me other accomplishments of a somewhat irregular character, and sufficiently unsuited to a future priest. At times he proposes to train me in bull-fighting, in order that he may take me afterward to Seville, where, with lance in hand, on the plains of Tablada, I shall make the braggarts and the bullies stare. Then he recalls his own youthful days, when he belonged to the bodyguard, and declares that he will look up his foils, gloves, and masks, and teach me to fence. And, finally, as my father flatters himself that he can wield the Sevillian dagger better than any one else, he has offered to teach me even this accomplishment also.

You can already imagine the answer I make to all this nonsense. My father replies that, in the good old times, not only the priests, but even the bishops themselves, rode about the country on horseback, putting infidels to the sword. I rejoin that this might happen in the Dark Ages, but that in our day the ministers of the Most High should know of no other weapons than those of persuasion.

“And what if persuasion be not enough?” says my father. “Do you think it would be amiss to reenforce argument with a few good blows of a cudgel?”

The complete missionary, according to my father’s opinion, should know how, on occasion, to take recourse to these heroic measures, and as my father has read a great many tales and romances, he quotes various examples in support of his opinion.

He cites, in the first place, St. James, who on his white horse, without ceasing to be an apostle, put more Moors to the sword than he preached to or convinced. He cites a certain Señor de la Vera, who, being sent on an embassy to Boabdil by Ferdinand and Isabella, became entangled in a theological discussion with the Moors in the Court of the Lions, and, having exhausted his arguments, drew his sword and fell upon them with fury in order to complete their conversion. And he finally cites the Biscayan nobleman, Ignatius Loyola, who, in a controversy he had with a Moor regarding the purity of the Holy Virgin, growing weary at last of the impious and horrible blasphemies with which the aforesaid Moor contradicted him, fell upon him, sword in hand, and, if he had not taken to his heels, would have forced conviction upon his soul in a terrible fashion. In regard to the incident relating to St. Ignatius, I answer my father that this was before the saint became a priest; and in regard to the other examples, I answer that historians are not agreed.

In short, I defend myself as best I can against my father’s jests, and I content myself with being a good horseman, without learning other accomplishments unsuited to the clergy, although my father assures me that not a few of the Spanish clergy understand and practise them with frequency in Spain, even in our own day, with a view to contributing to the triumph of the faith, and to the preservation or the restoration of the unity of the Church.

I am grieved to the soul by this levity of my father’s, and that he should speak with irreverence and jestingly about the most serious things; but a respectful son is not called upon to go further than I do in repressing his somewhat Voltairean freedom of speech. I say Voltairean, because I am not able to describe it by any other word. At heart my father is a good Catholic, and this thought consoles me.

Yesterday was the Feast of the Cross, and the village presented a very animated appearance. In each street were six or seven May-crosses covered with flowers, but none of them was so beautiful as that placed by Pepita at the door of her house. It was adorned by a perfect cascade of flowers.

In the evening we went to an entertainment at the house of Pepita. The cross which had stood at the door was now placed in a large saloon on the ground floor, in which there is a piano, and Pepita presented us with a simple and poetic spectacle—one that I had seen when a child, but had since forgotten.

From the upper part of the cross hung down seven bands or broad ribbons, two white, two green, and three red, the symbolic colors of the theological virtues. Small children, five or six years old, representing the seven sacraments, and holding the seven ribbons that hung from the cross, performed with great skill a species of contra-dance. The sacrament of baptism was represented by a child wearing the white robe of a catechumen; ordination, by another child as a priest; confirmation, by a little bishop; extreme unction, by a pilgrim with staff and scrip, the latter filled with shells; marriage, by a bride and bridegroom; and penance, by a Nazarene with cross and crown of thorns.

The dance was a series of reverences, steps, evolutions, and genuflexions, rather than a dance, performed to the sound of very tolerable music, something like a march, which the organist played, not without skill, on the piano.

The little dancers, children of the servants or retainers of Pepita, after playing their parts, went away to bed loaded with gifts and caresses.

The entertainment, in the course of which we were served with refreshments, continued till twelve; the refreshments were syrup served in little cups, and afterward chocolate with sponge-cake, and meringues and sugared water.

Since the return of spring Pepita’s seclusion and retirement are being gradually abandoned, at which my father is greatly rejoiced. In future Pepita will receive every night, and my father desires that I shall be one of the guests.

Pepita has left off mourning, and now appears, more lovely and attractive than ever, in the lighter fabrics appropriate to the season, which is almost summer. She still dresses, however, with extreme simplicity.

I cherish the hope that my father will not now detain me here beyond the end of this month at farthest. In June we shall both join you in the city, and you shall then see how, for from Pepita, to whom I am indifferent, and who will remember me neither kindly nor unkindly, I shall have the pleasure of embracing you, and attaining at last to the happiness of being ordained.