WHILE Antoñona went about turning over and arranging in her mind all these things, Don Luis had no sooner been left alone than he repented of having proceeded with so much haste, and weakly consenting to the interview Antoñona had asked of him. As he reflected upon it it seemed to him full of peril. He saw before him all the danger to which he was exposing himself, and he could perceive no advantage whatever in thus making a visit to the beautiful widow in secret and by stealth.
To go and see her in order to succumb to her attractions and fall into her snares, making a mockery of his vows, and placing not only the bishop, who had endorsed his petition for a dispensation, but even the holy Pontiff, who had conceded it, in a false position, by relinquishing his purpose of becoming a priest, seemed to him very dishonorable. It was, besides, a treason against his father, who loved Pepita and desired to marry her; and to visit her in order to undeceive her in regard to his love for her, seemed to him a greater refinement of cruelty than to depart without saying anything.
Influenced by these considerations, the first thought of Don Luis was to fail, without excuse or warning, to keep his appointment, and leave Antoñona to wait in vain for him in the hall; but then, as Antoñona had, in all probability, already announced his visit to her mistress, he would, by failing to go, unpardonably offend, not only Antoñona, but Pepita herself.
He then resolved on writing Pepita a very affectionate and discreet letter, excusing himself from going to see her, justifying his conduct, consoling her, manifesting his tender sentiments toward her, while letting her see that duty and Heaven were before everything, and endeavoring to inspire her with the courage to make the same sacrifice as he himself was making.
He made four or five different attempts to write this letter. He blotted a great deal of paper which he afterward tore up, and could not, in the end, succeed in getting the letter to his taste. Now it was dry, cold, pedantic, like a poor sermon or a schoolmasters discourse; now its contents betrayed a childish apprehension, as if Pepita were a monster lying in wait to devour him; now it had other faults not less serious. In fine, after wasting many sheets of paper in the attempt, the letter remained unwritten.
He comforted his spirit with the hope that his self-control would not forsake him during the coming interview, and that God would endow his lips with eloquence to persuade Pepita, who was so good, that it was she herself who, sacrificing her earthly love, urged him to fulfill his vocation, resembling in this those holy women, of whom there are not wanting examples, who not only renounced the society of a bridegroom or a lover, but even the companionship of a husband, as is narrated, for instance, in the life of St. Edward of England, whose queen lived with him as a sister.
Don Luis felt himself consoled and encouraged by this thought, and he already pictured himself as St. Edward, and Pepita as Queen Edith. And under the form and in the character of this virgin queen Pepita appeared to him, if possible, more graceful, charming, and romantic than ever.
Don Luis was not, however, altogether so secure of himself, or so tranquil; as he should have been, after forming the resolution of following the example of St. Edward. There seemed to him something almost criminal, which he could not well define, in the visit he was about to make to Pepita without his fathers knowledge. He felt tempted to awaken him from his nap, and to reveal everything to him; two or three times he rose from his chair with this purpose, then he stopped, feeling that such a revelation would be dishonoring and a disgraceful exhibition of childishness. He might betray his own secrets, but to betray those of Pepita, in order to set himself right with his father, seemed to him contemptible enough. The baseness and ridiculous meanness of the action were still further increased in his eyes by the reflection that what prompted him to it was the fear of not being strong enough to resist temptation.
More than this, he did not even feel that he had the confidence and composure necessary to present himself before his father, with the consciousness of this secret interview interposing itself as a barrier between them. He was, indeed, so excited and so beside himself, under the influence of the contending emotions that disputed the possession of his soul, that he felt as if the room, though a large one, was too small to contain him. Starting to his feet, he paced with rapid strides up and down the floor, like some wild animal in his cage, impatient of confinement. At last, althoughbeing summerthe window was open, he felt as if he could remain here no longer, lest he should suffocate for want of air; as if the roof pressed down upon his head; as if, to breathe, he needed the whole atmosphere; to walk, he required space without limits; to lift up his brow and exhale his sighs and elevate his thoughts, to have nothing less than the immeasurable vault of heaven above him.
Impelled by this necessity, he took his hat and cane and went out into the street. Thence, avoiding every one he knew, he passed on into the country, plunging into the leafiest and most sequestered recesses of the gardens and walks that encompass the village and make for a radius of more than half a league a paradise of its surroundings.
We have said but little, thus far, concerning the personal appearance of Don Luis. Be it known, then, that he was in every sense of the word a handsome fellowtall, well-formed, with black hair, and eyes also black and full of fire and tenderness. His complexion was dark, his teeth were white, his lips delicate and curling slightly, which gave his countenance an appearance of disdain; his bearing was manly and bold, notwithstanding the reserve and meekness proper to the sacred calling of his election. The whole mien of Don Luis bore, in a word, that indescribable stamp of distinction and nobility that seems to bethough this is not always the casethe peculiar quality and exclusive privilege of aristocratic families.
Don Luis hurried on with precipitate steps in the course he had taken, jumping across brooks and hardly glancing at surrounding objects, almost as a bull stung by a hornet might do. The countrymen he met, the market-gardeners who saw him pass, very possibly took him for a madman.
Tired at last of walking on so aimlessly, he sat down at the foot of a stone cross near the ruins of an ancient convent of St. Francis de Paul, almost two miles from the village, and there plunged anew into meditation, but of so confused a character that he himself was scarcely conscious of what was passing in his mind.
The sound of the distant bells, calling the faithful to prayer, and reminding them of the salutation of the angel to the Most Holy Virgin, reached him in his solitude through the evening air, and at last drew Don Luis from his meditations, recalling him once more to the world of reality.
The sun had just sunk behind the gigantic peaks of the neighboring mountains, making their summitsin the shape of pyramids, needles, and broken obelisksstand out in bold relief against a background of topaz and amethystfor such was the appearance of the heavens, gilded by the beams of the setting sun. The shadows began to deepen over the plain, and on the mountains opposite to those behind which the sun was sinking the more elevated peaks shone like flaming gold or crystal.
The windows and the white walls of the distant sanctuary of the Virgin, patroness of the village, situated on the summit of a hill, and of another small temple or hermitage situated on a nearer hill called Calvary, still shone like two beacon lights touched by the oblique rays of the setting sun.
Nature exhaled a poetic melancholy, and all things seemed to intone a hymn to the Creator, with that silent music heard only by the spirit. The slow tolling of the bells. softened and almost lost in the distance, hardly disturbed the repose of the earth, and invited to prayer without distracting the senses by their noise. Don Luis uncovered his head, knelt down at the foot of the cross, the pedestal of which had served him as a seat, and repeated with profound devotion the Angelus Domini.
The shades of evening were gathering fast, but when Night unfolds her mantle, and spreads it over those favored regions, she delights to adorn it with the most luminous stars and with a still brighter moon. The vault of heaven did not exchange its cerulean hue for the blackness of night; it still retained it, though it had assumed a deeper shade. The atmosphere was so clear and pure that myriads of stars could be descried shining far into the limitless depths of space. The moon silvered the tops of the trees, and touched with its splendor the waters of the brooks that gleamed, luminous and transparent, with colors as changeful and iridescent as the opal. In the leafy groves the nightingales were singing. Herbs and flowers shed a rich perfume. Countless multitudes of glowworms shone like diamonds or carbuncles among the grass and wild flowers along the banks of the brooks. In this region the fire-fly is not found, but the common glowworm abounds, and sheds a most brilliant light. Fruit trees still in blossom, acacias, and roses without number perfumed the air with their rich fragrance.
Deviating often from the straight path, hesitating at times whether he should not rather push forward to the source of the river, where, at the foot of a mountain and in the midst of the most enchanting surroundings, the crystal torrent that waters the neighboring gardens and orchards bursts from the living rock, he turned back, with slow and lingering step, in the direction of the village.
In proportion as he approached it, the terror inspired by the thought of what he was about to do increased. He plunged into the thickest of the wood, hoping there to behold some sign, some wonder, some warning, that should draw him back. He thought often of the student Lisardo, and wished that, like him, he might behold his own burial. But heaven smiled with her thousand lights, and invited to love; the stars twinkled at each other with love; the nightingales sang of love; even the crickets chirped their amorous serenade. All the earth, on this tranquil and beautiful night, seemed given up to love. All was life, peace, joy.
Where was his guardian angel now? Had he abandoned Don Luis as already lost; or, deeming that he ran no risk, did he make no effort to turn him from his purpose? Who can say? Perhaps from the danger that menaced him would in the end result a triumph? St. Edward and Queen Edith presented themselves again to the imagination of Don Luis, and the vision strengthened his resolution.
Engrossed in these meditations, he delayed his return, and was still some distance from the village when ten, the hour appointed for his interview with Pepita, struck from the parish clock. The ten strokes of the bell were ten blows that, falling on his heart, wounded it as with a physical paina pain in which dread and treacherous disquiet were blended with a ravishing sweetness.
The hamlet presented a most animated scene. Young girls flocked to wash their faces at the spring outside the village; those who had sweethearts, that their sweethearts might remain faithful to them; and those who had not, that t hey might obtain sweethearts. Here and there women and children were returning from the fields, with verbena, branches of rosemary, and other plants, which they had been gathering, to burn as a charm. Guitars tinkled on every side, words of love were to be overheard, and everywhere happy and tender couples were to be seen walking together. The vigil and the early morning of St.Johns Day, although a Christian festival, still retain a certain savor of paganism and primitive naturalism. This may be because of the approximate concurrence of this festival and the summer solstice. In any case, the scene to-night was purely mundane and not religious. All was love and gallantry. In our old romances and legends the Moor always carries off the beautiful Christian princess, and the Christian knight receives the reward of his devotion to the Moorish princess on the eve or in the early morning of St.Johns Day; and the traditionary custom of the old romances had been, to all appearances, preserved in the village.
The streets were full of people. The whole village was out of doors, in addition to the strangers from the surrounding country. Progress, thus rendered extremely difficult, was still further impeded by the multitude of little tables laden with almond sweetmeats, honey-cakes, and biscuits, with fruit-stalls, with booths for the sale of dolls and toys, and cake-shops, where gipsies, young and old, fried the doughtainting the air with the odor of oilweighed and served the cakes, responded with ready wit to the compliments of the gallants who passed by, and told fortunes.
Don Luis sought to avoid meeting any of his acquaintances and, when he caught sight by chance of one he knew, turned his steps in another direction. Thus, by degrees, he reached the entrance to Pepitas house without having been stopped or spoken to by any one. His heart now began to beat with violence, and he paused a moment to recover his serenity. He looked at his watch; it was almost half-past ten.
A pretty fellow you are, for a divinity student! Ingrate! Good-for-nothing! Vagabond! I began to think you were not coming. Where have you been, you idiot? How dare you delay, as if you had no interest in the matter, when the salt of the earth is melting for you, and the sun of beauty awaits you?
While Antoñona was giving utterance to these complaints, she did not stand still, but continued to go forward, dragging after her by the arm the now cowed and silent collegian. They passed the grated door, which Antoñona closed carefully and noiselessly behind them. They crossed the courtyard, ascended the stairs, passed through some corridors and two sitting-rooms, and arrived at last at the door of the library, which was closed.
Profound silence reigned throughout the house. The library was situated in its interior, and was thus inaccessible to the noises of the street. The only sounds that reached it, dim and vague, were the clatter of castanets, the thrumming of a guitar, and the murmur of the voices of Pepitas servants, who were holding their impromptu dance in the farmhouse.