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

Part I.—Letters from My Nephew

May 7th

May 7th.

PEPITA, as I mentioned to you before, receives every evening, from nine to twelve.

Four or five married ladies of the village, and as many more unmarried ones, including Aunt Casilda, are frequent visitors; as well as six or seven young men, who play at forfeits with the girls. Three or four engagements are the natural result.

The sedate portion of the company are the same as usual. These are, as one may say, the high functionaries of the village—my father, who is the squire, the apothecary, the doctor, and the vicar.

Pepita plays ombre with my father and the vicar and a fourth player.

I am at a loss to know in which division to place myself. If I join the young people, my gravity proves a hindrance to their games and flirtations; if I stay with the elders, I must play the part of a looker-on in things I have no knowledge of. The only games of cards I know are simple and old-fashioned, and do not seem to be in vogue here, in polite society.

The best course for me to pursue would be to absent myself from the house altogether, but my father will not hear of this. By doing so, according to him, I should make myself ridiculous.

My father shows many signs of wonder when he sees my ignorance in certain things. That I should not know how to play even ombre fills him with astonishment.

“Your uncle has brought you up quite out of the world,” he says to me, “cramming you with theology, and leaving you in the dark about everything else you ought to know. For the very reason that you are to be a priest, and can neither dance nor make love in society it is necessary that you should know how to play ombre. Otherwise how are you going to spend your time, unhappy boy?”

To these and other arguments of a like kind I have been obliged to yield, and my father is teaching me at home to play ombre, so that, as soon as I have learned it, I may play it at Pepita’s. He wanted also, as I already told you, to teach me to fence, and afterward to smoke and shoot and throw the bar; but I have consented to nothing of all this.

“What a difference,” my father exclaims, “between your youth and mine!”

And then he adds, laughing:

“In substance it is the same thing. I, too, had canonical hours in my regimental quarters: a cigar was the censer; a pack of cards, the hymn-book; and there were never wanting other devotions and exercises of a more or less spiritual character.”

Although you had warned me of my father’s levity of disposition, on account of which I have lived with you for twelve years of my life—from the age of ten to that of twenty-two—yet his sayings, altogether too free at times, perturb and mortify me. But what is to be done? Although I can not reprove him for making use of them, I do not, on the other hand, applaud or laugh at them. The strangest part of it is, that my father is altogether another person when he is in the house of Pepita. Never, even by chance, does he utter a single phrase, a single jest of the kind he is so prodigal of at other times. At Pepita’s my father is propriety itself. He seems, too, to become every day more attached to her, and to cherish greater hopes of success.

My father continues greatly pleased with me as his pupil in horsemanship. He declares that in four or five days I shall have mastered the art, and that I shall then mount Lucero, a black horse bred from an Arab horse and a mare of the race of Guadalcazar, full of fire and spirit, and trained to all manner of curvetings.

“Whoever succeeds in getting on the back of Lucero,” my father says to me, “may venture to compete in horsemanship with the centaurs themselves; and that you shall do very soon.”

Although I spend the whole day out of doors on horseback, in the clubhouse, or at Pepita’s, I yet steal a few hours from slumber, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes because I can not sleep, to meditate on my situation and to examine my conscience. The image of Pepita is always present to my mind. “Can this be love?” I ask myself.

The moral obligation I am under, the vow I have made to consecrate myself to the service of the altar, although not confirmed, is nevertheless in my eyes full and binding. If anything opposed to the fulfilment of this vow has entered into my soul, it must be combated.

I note, too—and you must not accuse me of arrogance because I mention this to you—that the empire of my will, which you have taught me to exercise, is complete over my senses. While Moses on the top of Mount Sinai conversed with God, the rebellious people on the plain below adored the golden calf. Notwithstanding my youth, my spirit has no fears of falling into a like rebelliousness. I might commune with God in full security, if the enemy did not come to attack me in the sanctuary itself. But the image of Pepita presents itself to my soul. It is a spirit that makes war against my spirit. It is the idea of her beauty, in all its spiritual purity, that stands before the sanctuary of the soul, where God resides, and prevents me from reaching Him.

I do not shut my eyes to the truth, however; I can see clearly; I can reason; I do not deceive myself.

Above and beyond this spiritual inclination that draws me to Pepita, is the love of the Infinite and of the Eternal. Although I represent Pepita to myself as an idea, as a poem, it is still the idea, the poetry of something finite, limited, concrete; while the love of God and the conception of God embrace everything. But notwithstanding all my efforts, I am unable to give form in my mind to this supreme conception—this object of the highest love—in order that it may combat the image, the memory of the frail and ephemeral reality that continually besets me.

Fervently do I implore Heaven to awaken within me the power of the imagination, that it may create a likeness, a symbol of this conception, that shall be all-embracing, and absorb and efface the image of Pepita. This highest conception, on which I desire to centre my love, is vague, shadowy, indescribable, like the blackness of darkness; while Pepita’s image presents itself to me in clearly defined outlines, bright, palpable, luminous with the subdued light that may be borne by the eyes of the spirit, not bright with the intense light that for the eyes of the spirit is as darkness.

Every other consideration, every other object, is of no avail to destroy her image. It rises up between the crucifix and me; between the most sacred image of the Virgin and me; I see it on the page of the religious book I am reading.

Yet I do not believe that my soul is invaded by what in the world is called love. And even if this were so, I would do battle against this love, and conquer in the end.

The daily sight of Pepita, the hearing her praises sounded continually, even by the reverend vicar, preoccupy me; they turn my spirit toward profane things, and withdraw it from its proper meditations. But no—I do not yet love Pepita; I will go away from here and forget her.

While I remain here I will battle valiantly. I will wrestle with the Lord in order to prevail with Him by love and submission. My cries shall reach Him like burning arrows, and shall break down the buckler wherewith He defends and hides Himself from the eyes of my soul. I will fight like Israel in the silence of the night and the Lord shall wound me in the thigh, and shall humble me in the conflict, in order that, being vanquished, I may become the victor.