BEFORE I had any intention of doing so, my dear uncle, my father persuaded me to ride Lucero. Yesterday, at six in the morning, I mounted the beautiful wild beast, as my father calls Lucero, and we set out for the country. My father rode a spirited chestnut.
I rode so well, I kept so firm a seat, and looked to such advantage on the superb animal, that my father could not resist the temptation of showing off his pupil; and about eleven in the morning, after resting at a farm he owns half a league distant from here, he insisted on our returning to the village and entering by the most frequented street, which we did, our horses hoofs clattering loudly on the paving stones. It is needless to say that we rode by Pepitas house, who for some time past is to be seen occasionally at her window, and who was then seated at the grating of a lower window, behind the green shutter.
Hardly had Pepita heard the noise we made than, lifting up her eyes and seeing us, she rose, laid down the sewing she had in her hands, and set herself to observe us. Lucero, who has the habit, as I learned afterward, of prancing and curveting when he passes the house of Pepita, began to show off, and to rear and plunge. I tried to quiet him, but as there was something unfamiliar to him in the ways of his present rider, as well as in the rider himself, whom perhaps he regarded with contempt, he grew more and more unmanageable, and began to neigh and prance, and even to kick. But I remained firm and serene, showing him that I was his master, chastising him with the spur, touching his breast with the whip, and holding him in by the bridle. Lucero, who had almost stood up on his hind legs, now humbled himself so far as to bend his knees gently and make a reverence.
My triumph was great and assured, although unsuited to my character. The unfitness of the triumph covered me with confusion. Shame brought the blood to my cheeks. I must have turned as red as scarlet, or redder, when I saw that Pepita was applauding and saluting me graciously, while she smiled and clapped her beautiful hands.
My father could not be prouder or happier than he is. He declares that he is completing my education; that in me you have sent him a book full of wisdom, but uncorrected and unbound, and that he is now making a fair copy, and putting it between covers.
Do not suppose that I did not call to mind what so many moralists and ascetics recommend in like cases, but in my inmost thoughts I believed they exaggerated the danger. Those words of the Holy Spirit, that it is as dangerous to touch a woman as a scorpion, seem to me to have been said in another sense. In pious books, no doubt, many phrases and sentences of the Scriptures are, with the best intentions, interpreted harshly. How are we to understand otherwise the saying that the beauty of woman, this perfect work of God, is always the cause of perdition? Or how are we to understand, in a universal and invariable sense, that woman is more bitter than death? How are we to understand that he who touches a woman, on whatever occasion or with whatsoever thought, shall not escape without stain?
However, I made answer rapidly within my own mind to these and other similar counsels; I took the hand that Pepita kindly extended to me, and pressed it in mine. Its softness made me comprehend all the better the delicacy and beauty of the hand that until now I had known only by sight.
According to the usages of the world, the hand, once given, should always be given on entering a room and on taking leave. I hope that in this ceremony, in this evidence of friendship, in this manifestation of kindness, given and accepted in purity of heart, and without any mixture of levity, you will see nothing either evil or dangerous.
As my father is often obliged of an evening to see the overseer and others of the country people, and is seldom free until half-past ten or eleven, I take his place with Pepita at the card-table. The reverend vicar and the notary are generally the other partners, and we play for very small stakes, so that not more than a piastre or two changes hands.
As the game thus possesses but little serious interest, we interrupt it constantly with pleasant conversation, and even with discussions on matters foreign to the game itself, in all which Pepita displays such clearness of understanding, such liveliness of imagination, and such extraordinary grace of expression as to astonish me.
I find no sufficient motive to change my opinion with respect to what I have already said in answer to your suspicions that Pepita perhaps feels a certain liking for me. She manifests towards me the affection she would naturally entertain for the son of her suitor, Don Pedro de Vargas, and the timidity and shyness that would be inspired by a man in my position, who, though not yet a priest, is soon to become one.
Nevertheless, as I always speak to you in my letters as if I were kneeling before you in the confessional, I desire, as is my duty, to communicate to you a passing impression I have received on two or three occasions. This impression may be but a hallucination or a delusion, but I have none the less felt it.
I have already told you in my former letters that the eyes of Pepita, green as those of Circe, are frank and tranquil in their gaze; she does not seem to be conscious of their power, or to know that they serve for any other purpose than to see with. When she looks at one, the soft light of her glance is so clear, so candid, and so untroubled that, instead of giving rise to any evil thoughts, it seems to give birth to pure thoughts, and leaves innocent and chaste souls in untroubled repose, while it destroys every incitement to evil in souls that are not chaste. There is no trace of ardent passion, no fire to be discovered in Pepitas eyes. Their light is like the mild ray of the moon.
Well, then, notwithstanding all this, I fancied I detected, on two or three occasions, a sudden brightness, a gleam as of lightning, a swift, devouring flame in her eyes as they rested on me. Can this be the result of a ridiculous vanity, inspired by the arch fiend himself?
My father affirms that in affairs of the heart it is the woman, not the man, who takes the first step; but that she takes it without thereby incurring any responsibility, and with the power to disavow or retract it whenever she desires to do so. According to my father, it is the woman who first declares her passion through the medium of furtive glances, which she afterward disavows to her own conscience if necessary, and of which he to whom they are directed divines, rather than reads, the significance. In this manner, by a species of electric shock, by means of a subtle and inexplicable intuition, he who is loved perceives that he is loved; and when at last he makes up his mind to declare himself, he can do so confidently, and in the full security that his passion is returned.
Yet, after all, I say to myself at times, Is the thought so absurd, so incredible, that this illusion should have an existence in reality? And if it had, if I were pleasing in Pepitas eyes otherwise than as a friend, if the woman to whom my father is paying his addresses should fall in love with me, would not my position then be terrible?
What in reality begins to surprise me is my fathers carelessness and complete consciousness of security. Pardon my pride, ask Heaven to pardon it; for at times this consciousness of security piques and offends me. What! I say to myself, is there something so absurd in the thought that it should not even occur to my father that, notwithstanding my supposed sanctity, or perhaps because of my supposed sanctity, I should, without wishing it, inspire Pepita with love?
There is an ingenious method of reasoning by which I explain to myself, without wounding my vanity, my fathers carelessness in this important particular. My father, although he has no reason for doing so, regards himself already in the light of Pepitas husband, and shares that fatal blindness with which Asmodeus, or some other yet more malicious demon, afflicts husbands. Profane and ecclesiastical history is full of instances of this blindness, which God permits, no doubt, for providential purposes. The most remarkable example of it, perhaps, is that of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who had for his wife a woman so vile as Faustina, and though so wise a man and so great a philosopher, remained in ignorance to the end of his days of what was known to every one else in the Roman Empire; so that in the meditations, or memoirs, that he composed, he gives infinite thanks to the immortal gods for having bestowed upon him so faithful and so good a wife, thus provoking the smiles of his contemporaries and of future generations. Every day since that time we see examples of great men, and men of exalted rank, who make those who enjoy the favor of their wives their private secretaries, and bestow honors on them. Thus do I explain to myself my fathers indifference, and his failure to suspect that, even against my will, I might become his rival.
Would it be a want of respect on my part, should I fall into the sin of presumption or insolence, if I were to warn my father of the danger which he himself does not see? But he gives me no opportunity to say anything to him. Besides, what could I say to him? That once or twice I fancy Pepita has looked at me in a way different from that in which she usually does? May not this be an illusion of mine? No; I have not the least proof that Pepita desires to play the coquette with me.
What, then, could I tell my father? Shall I say to him that it is I who am in love with Pepita, that I covet the treasure he already regards as his own? This is not the truth; and, above all, how could I tell this to my father, even if, to my misfortune and through my fault, it were the truth?