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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Maria’s Way to Perfection
By Armando Palacio Valdés (1853–1938)
 
From ‘Marta y María’: Translation of William Henry Bishop

ONE evening, after the retirement of the family and servants, mistress and maid were together in Maria’s boudoir up in the tower. Maria was reading by the light of the polished metal astral lamp, while Genoveva was sitting in another chair in front of her, knitting a stocking. They would often pass an hour or two thus before going to bed, the señorita having been long accustomed to read to the small hours of the morning.  1
  She did not seem so much occupied as usual with her reading; but would frequently put the book on the table and remain pensive for a while, her cheek resting on her hand. She would take it up in a hesitating way, but only presently to lay it down again. It was evident too by the creaking chair, as she often changed position, that she was nervous. From time to time she would fix upon Genoveva a long gaze, that seemed to betray a timid and uneasy desire, and a certain inward conflict with some thought striving for utterance. On the other hand, Genoveva, that evening, was more engrossed than usual with her stocking; weaving in among its meshes, no doubt, a multitude of more or less philosophical considerations that made it desirable for her to give convulsive nods every now and then, very much as when one is going to sleep.  2
  At last the señorita concluded to break the silence.  3
  “Genoveva, will you read for me this passage from the life of St. Isabel?” she asked, handing her the book.  4
  “With all the pleasure in the world, señorita.”  5
  “See, begin here where it says: ‘When her husband—’”  6
  Genoveva commenced to read the paragraph to herself, but Maria quickly interrupted her with—  7
  “No, no: read it aloud.”  8
 
  [Thereupon the maid reads a passage of some twenty lines, in the characteristic pious and mystical style of the Bollandist Lives of the Saints. The gist of it is that the young and lovely princess and saint, Isabel, would pass her nights and days in the practice of the most austere penances. Of these the wearing a hair-cloth shirt, and having herself scourged with the discipline by her damsels, were a portion.]  9
 
  “That will do: you need not read any further. What do you think of it?”  10
  “I have often read the identical story before.”  11
  “Yes, so you have. But—now what would you think of my trying to do something of the same kind?” she burst forth, with the impetuosity of one who has decided to give utterance to a thought with which she has long been preoccupied.  12
  Genoveva stared at her with wide-open eyes, not taking in her meaning.  13
  “Do you not understand?”  14
  “No, señorita.”  15
  Maria arose, and throwing her arms around her neck, with face aflame with blushes, whispered close in her ear:—  16
  “I mean, you silly thing, that if you would consent to do the office of those damsels of St. Isabel to-night, I for my part would imitate the saint.”  17
  “What office?”  18
  “Oh, you stupid, stupid thing! I mean that of giving me a few lashes, in commemoration of those that our dear Savior received, and all the saints as well, patterning themselves after him.”  19
  “What are you saying, señorita? What put such a thing in your head?”  20
  “I have thought of it because I wish to mortify my flesh, and humiliate myself, at one and the same time. That is true penance, and the kind that is most pleasing in the eyes of God, for the reason that he himself suffered it for us. I have tried to perform it unaided, but I have not been able to; and besides, it is not so effective a humiliation as receiving it from the hands of another. Now you will be so obliging as to gratify this desire of mine, won’t you?”  21
  “No, señorita, not for anything. I cannot do it.”  22
  “Why won’t you, silly thing? Don’t you see that it is for my good? If I should fail to deliver myself from some days of purgatory because you would not do what I ask you, would you not be troubled with remorse?”  23
  “But, my heart’s dove, how could I make up my mind to maltreat you, even if it were for your soul’s good?”  24
  “There is no way for you to get out of it: it is a vow I have made, and I must fulfill it. You have aided me till now on my way to virtue: do not abandon me at the most critical moment. You will not, Genoveva dear; say you will not.”  25
  “For God’s sake, señorita, do not make me do this!”  26
  “Do, do, dearest Genoveva, I beg of you by the love that you bear me.”  27
  “No, no, do not ask it of me: I cannot.”  28
  “Please do, darling! Oh, grant me this favor. You don’t know how I shall feel if you don’t; I shall think that you have ceased to love me.”  29
  Maria exhausted all her resources of invention and coaxing to persuade her. Seating herself on Genoveva’s lap, she lavished upon her caresses and words of affection; at one moment vexed, at another imploring, and all the time fixing upon her a pair of wheedling eyes, which it seemed impossible to resist. She was like a child begging for a toy that is kept back from her. When she saw that her serving-maid was a little softened,—or rather was fatigued with persistent refusing,—she said with a taking volubility:—  30
  “Now, truly, stupid, don’t you go and make it a thing of such great importance. It isn’t half as bad as a bad toothache, and you know I’ve suffered from that pretty often. Your imagination makes you think it is something terrible, when really it is scarcely worth mentioning. You think so just because it isn’t the custom now, for true piety seems banished from the world; but in the good old religious days it was a most ordinary and commonplace affair,—no one who pretended to be a good Christian neglected to do this kind of penance. Come now, get ready to give me this pleasure that I ask of you, and at the same time to perform a good work. Wait a minute: I’ll bring what we want.”  31
  And running to the bureau, she pulled out of a drawer a scourge,—a veritable scourge, with a turned-wood handle and leathern thongs. Then, all in a tremor of excitement and nervousness, that set her cheeks ablaze, she returned to Genoveva and put it in her hand. The maid took it in an automatic way, scarce knowing what she did. She was completely dazed. The fair young girl began anew to caress her, and give her heart with persuasive words, to which she did not answer a syllable. Then the Señorita de Elorza, with tremulous hand, began to let loose the dainty blue-silk wrapper she wore. There shone on her face the anxious, excited foretaste of joy in the caprice which was about to be gratified. Her eyes glowed with an unwonted light, showing within their depths the expectation of vivid and mysterious pleasures. Her lips were as dry as those of one parched with thirst. The circle of shadow around her eyes had increased, and two hectic spots of crimson burned in her cheeks. Her breath came with agitated tremor through her nostrils, more widely dilated than was usual. Her white, patrician hands, with their taper fingers and rosy nails, loosed with strange speed the fastenings of her gown. With a quick movement she shook it off, and stood free.  32
  “You shall see that I mean it,” she said: “I have almost nothing on. I had prepared myself already.”  33
  In truth the next moment she took off, or rather tore off, a skirt, and remained only in her chemise.  34
  She stood so an instant; cast a glance at the implement of torture in Genoveva’s hand; and over her body ran a little shiver, compounded of cold, pleasure, anguish, affright, and anxious expectation, all in one. In a low voice, changed from its usual tones by emotion, she appealed:—  35
  “Papa must not know of this.”  36
  And the light stuff of the chemise slipped down along her body, caught for an instant on the hips, then sank slowly to the floor. She remained nude. Genoveva contemplated her with eyes that could not withhold admiration as well as reverence, and the girl felt herself a little abashed.  37
  “You are not going to be angry with me, Genoveva dear, are you?”  38
  The waiting-maid could only say, “For God’s sake, señorita!”  39
  “The sooner the better, now, for I shall take cold.”  40
  By this consideration she wished to constrain the woman still more forcibly to the task. With a feverish movement she snatched the scourge from her left hand and put it in her right; then throwing her arms again around her neck, and kissing her, she said, very low and affecting a jocose tone:—  41
  “You are to lay it on hard, Genovita; for thus I have promised God that it should be done.”  42
  A violent trembling possessed her body as she uttered these words: but it was a delicious kind of trembling that penetrated to the very marrow of her bones. Then taking Genoveva by the hand, she pulled her along a little towards the table on which stood the effigy of the Savior.  43
  “It must be here, on my knees before our Lord.”  44
  Her voice choked up in her throat. She was pale. She bowed humbly before the image; made the sign of the cross rapidly; crossed her hands over her virginal breast; and turning her face, sweetly smiling, towards her maid, said, “Now you can begin.”  45
  “Señorita, for God’s sake!” once more exclaimed Genoveva, overwhelmed with confusion.  46
  From the eyes of the señorita flashed a gleam of anger, which died away on the instant; but she said in a tone of some slight irritation, “Have we agreed upon this or not? Obey me, and do not be obstinate.”  47
  The maid, dominated by authority, and convinced too that she was furthering a work of piety, now at length obeyed, and began to ply the scourge, but very gently, on the naked shoulders of her young mistress….  48
  The first blows were so soft and inoffensive that they left no trace at all on that precious skin. Maria grew irritable, and demanded that they be more forcibly given.  49
  “No, not like that; harder! harder!” she insisted. “But first wait a moment till I take off this jewelry: it is ridiculous at such a time.”  50
  And she swiftly pulled off the rings from her fingers, snatched the pendants from her ears, and then laid the handful of gold and gems at the foot of the effigy of Jesus. In like manner St. Isabel, when she went to pray in the church, was used to deposit her ducal coronet on the altar.  51
  She resumed the same humble posture; and Genoveva, seeing that there was no escape, began to lacerate the flesh of her pious mistress without mercy. The lamplight shed a soft radiance throughout the room. The gems lying at the feet of the Savior alone caught it sharply, and flung out a play of subtle gleams and scintillations. The silence at that hour was absolute; not even the sighing of a breath of wind in the casements was heard. An atmosphere of mystery and unworldly seclusion filled the room, which transported Maria out of herself, and intoxicated her with pleasure. Her lovely naked body quivered each time that the curling strokes of the lash fell upon it, with a pain not free from voluptuous delight. She laid her head against the Redeemer’s feet, breathing eagerly, and with a sense of oppression; and she felt the blood beating with singular violence in her temples, while the delicate fluff of hair growing at the nape of the neck rose slightly with the magnetism of the extreme emotion that possessed her. From time to time her pale, trembling lips would murmur, “Go on! go on!”  52
  The scourge had raised not a few stripes of roseate hue on her snowy white skin, and she did not ask for truce. But the instant came when the implement of torture drew a drop of blood. Genoveva could not contain herself longer; she threw the barbarous scourge far from her, and weeping aloud, caught the señorita in her arms, covered her with affectionate kisses, and begged her by her soul’s sake never to make her recommence the perpetration of such atrocities. Maria tried to console her, assuring her that the whipping had hurt her very little. And now, her ardor a little cooled, her ascetic impulses somewhat appeased, the young mistress dismissed her servant, and went to her bedroom to retire to rest.  53
 
 
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