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Close beside the black cassock was a fresh and rosy face, that seemed fresher and rosier from the contrast. Jacinto saluted our hero, not without some embarrassment.
He was one of those precocious youths whom the indulgent university sends prematurely forth into the arena of life, making them fancy that they are men because they have received their doctor's degree. Jacinto had a round, handsome face with rosy cheeks, like a girl's, and without any beard save the down which announced its coming. In person he was plump and below the medium height. His age was a little over twenty. He had been educated from childhood under the direction of his excellent and learned uncle, which is the same as saying that the twig had not become crooked in the growing. A severe moral training had kept him always straight, and in the fulfilment of his scholastic duties he had been almost above reproach. Having concluded his studies at the university with astonishing success, for there was scarcely a class in which he did not take the highest honors, he entered on the practice of his profession, promising, by his application and his aptitude for the law, to maintain fresh and green in the forum the laurels of the lecture-hall.
At times he was as mischievous as a boy, at times as sedate as a man. In very truth, if Jacinto had not had a little, and even a great deal of liking for pretty girls, his uncle would have thought him perfect. The worthy man preached to him unceasingly on this point, hastening to clip the wings of every audacious fancy. But not even this mundane inclination of the young man could cool the great affection which our worthy canon bore the charming offspring of his dear niece, Maria Remedios. Where the young lawyer was concerned, every thing else must give way. Even the grave and methodical habits of the worthy ecclesiastic were altered when they interfered with the affairs of his precocious pupil. That order and regularity, apparently as fixed as the laws of a planetary system, were interrupted whenever Jacinto was ill or had to take a journey. Useless celibacy of the clergy! The Council of Trent prohibits them from having children of their own, but God—and not the Devil, as the proverb says—gives them nephews and nieces in order that they may know the tender anxieties of paternity.
Examining impartially the qualities of this clever boy, it was impossible not to recognize that he was not wanting in merit. His character was in the main inclined to uprightness, and noble actions awakened a frank admiration in his soul. With respect to his intellectual endowments and his social knowledge, they were sufficient to enable him to become in time one of those notabilities of whom there are so many in Spain; he might be what we take delight in calling hyperbolically a distinguished patrician, or an eminent public man; species which, owing to their great abundance, are hardly appreciated at their just value. In the tender age in which the university degree serves as a sort of solder between boyhood and manhood, few young men—especially if they have been spoiled by their masters—are free from an offensive pedantry, which, if it gives them great importance beside their mamma's arm-chair, makes them very ridiculous when they are among grave and experienced men. Jacinto had this defect, which was excusable in him, not only because of his youth, but also because his worthy uncle stimulated his puerile vanity by injudicious praise.
When the introduction was over they resumed their walk. Jacinto was silent. The canon, returning to the interrupted theme of the pyros which were to be grafted and the vites which were to be trimmed, said:
"I am already aware that Senor Don Jose is a great agriculturist."
"Not at all; I know nothing whatever about the subject," responded the young man, observing with no little annoyance the canon's mania of supposing him to be learned in all the sciences.
"Oh, yes! a great agriculturist," continued the Penitentiary; "but on agricultural subjects, don't quote the latest treatises to me. For me the whole of that science, Senor de Rey, is condensed in what I call the Bible of the Field, in the 'Georgics' of the immortal Roman. It is all admirable, from that grand sentence, Nec vero terroe ferre omnes omnia possunt—that is to say, that not every soil is suited to every tree, Senor Don Jose—to the exhaustive treatise on bees, in which the poet describes the habits of those wise little animals, defining the drone in these words:
"'Ille horridus alter Desidia, latamque trahens inglorius alvum.'
"'Of a horrible and slothful figure, dragging along the ignoble weight of the belly,' Senor Don Jose."
"You do well to translate it for me," said Pepe, "for I know very little Latin."
"Oh, why should the men of the present day spend their time in studying things that are out of date?" said the canon ironically. "Besides, only poor creatures like Virgil and Cicero and Livy wrote in Latin. I, however, am of a different way of thinking; as witness my nephew, to whom I have taught that sublime language. The rascal knows it better than I do. The worst of it is, that with his modern reading he is forgetting it; and some fine day, without ever having suspected it, he will find out that he is an ignoramus. For, Senor Don Jose, my nephew has taken to studying the newest books and the most extravagant theories, and it is Flammarion here and Flammarion there, and nothing will do him but that the stars are full of people. Come, I fancy that you two are going to be very good friends. Jacinto, beg this gentleman to teach you the higher mathematics, to instruct you concerning the German philosophers, and then you will be a man."
The worthy ecclesiastic laughed at his own wit, while Jacinto, delighted to see the conversation turn on a theme so greatly to his taste, after excusing himself to Pepe Rey, suddenly hurled this question at him:
"Tell me, Senor Don Jose, what do you think of Darwinism?"
Our hero smiled at this inopportune pedantry, and he felt almost tempted to encourage the young man to continue in this path of childish vanity; but, judging it more prudent to avoid intimacy, either with the nephew or the uncle, he answered simply:
"I can think nothing at all about the doctrines of Darwin, for I know scarcely any thing about him. My professional labors have not permitted me to devote much of my time to those studies."
"Well," said the canon, laughing, "it all reduces itself to this, that we are descended from monkeys. If he had said that only in the case of certain people I know, he would have been right."
"The theory of natural selection," said Jacinto emphatically, "has, they say, a great many partisans in Germany."
"I do not doubt it," said the ecclesiastic. "In Germany they would have no reason to be sorry if that theory were true, as far as Bismarck is concerned."
Dona Perfecta and Senor Don Cayetano at this moment made their appearance.
"What a beautiful evening!" said the former. "Well, nephew, are you getting terribly bored?"
"I am not bored in the least," responded the young man.
"Don't try to deny it. Cayetano and I were speaking of that as we came along. You are bored, and you are trying to hide it. It is not every young man of the present day who would have the self-denial to spend his youth, like Jacinto, in a town where there are neither theatres, nor opera bouffe, nor dancers, nor philosophers, nor athenaeums, nor magazines, nor congresses, nor any other kind of diversions or entertainments."
"I am quite contented here," responded Pepe. "I was just now saying to Rosario that I find this city and this house so pleasant that I would like to live and die here."
Rosario turned very red and the others were silent. They all sat down in a summer-house, Jacinto hastening to take the seat on the left of the young girl.
"See here, nephew, I have a piece of advice to give you," said Dona Perfecta, smiling with that expression of kindness that seemed to emanate from her soul, like the aroma from the flower. "But don't imagine that I am either reproving you or giving you a lesson—you are not a child, and you will easily understand what I mean."
"Scold me, dear aunt, for no doubt I deserve it," replied Pepe, who was beginning to accustom himself to the kindnesses of his father's sister.
"No, it is only a piece of advice. These gentlemen, I am sure, will agree that I am in the right."
Rosario was listening with her whole soul.
"It is only this," continued Dona Perfecta, "that when you visit our beautiful cathedral again, you will endeavor to behave with a little more decorum while you are in it."
"Why, what have I done?"
"It does not surprise me that you are not yourself aware of your fault," said his aunt, with apparent good humor. "It is only natural; accustomed as you are to enter athenaeums and clubs, and academies and congresses without any ceremony, you think that you can enter a temple in which the Divine Majesty is in the same manner."
"But excuse me, senora," said Pepe gravely, "I entered the cathedral with the greatest decorum."
"But I am not scolding you, man; I am not scolding you. If you take it in that way I shall have to remain silent. Excuse my nephew, gentlemen. A little carelessness, a little heedlessness on his part is not to be wondered at. How many years is it since you set foot in a sacred place before?"
"Senora, I assure you——But, in short, let my religious ideas be what they may, I am in the habit of observing the utmost decorum in church."
"What I assure you is——There, if you are going to be offended I won't go on. What I assure you is that a great many people noticed it this morning. The Senores de Gonzalez, Dona Robustiana, Serafinita—in short, when I tell you that you attracted the attention of the bishop——His lordship complained to me about it this afternoon when I was at my cousin's. He told me that he did not order you to be put out of the church only because you were my nephew."
Rosario looked anxiously at her cousin, trying to read in his countenance, before he uttered it, the answer he would make to these charges.
"No doubt they mistook me for some one else."
"No, no! it was you. But there, don't get angry! We are talking here among friends and in confidence. It was you. I saw you myself."
"You saw me!"
"Just so. Will you deny that you went to look at the pictures, passing among a group of worshippers who were hearing mass? I assure you that my attention was so distracted by your comings and goings that—well, you must not do it again. Then you went into the chapel of San Gregorio. At the elevation of the Host at the high altar you did not even turn around to make a gesture of reverence. Afterward you traversed the whole length of the church, you went up to the tomb of the Adelantado, you touched the altar with your hands, then you passed a second time among a group of worshippers, attracting the notice of every one. All the girls looked at you, and you seemed pleased at disturbing so finely the devotions of those good people."
"Good Heavens! How many things I have done!" exclaimed Pepe, half angry, half amused. "I am a monster, it seems, without ever having suspected it."
"No, I am very well aware that you are a good boy," said Dona Perfecta, observing the canon's expression of unalterable gravity, which gave his face the appearance of a pasteboard mask. "But, my dear boy, between thinking things and showing them in that irreverent manner, there is a distance which a man of good sense and good breeding should never cross. I am well aware that your ideas are——Now, don't get angry! If you get angry, I will be silent. I say that it is one thing to have certain ideas about religion and another thing to express them. I will take good care not to reproach you because you believe that God did not create us in his image and likeness, but that we are descended from the monkeys; nor because you deny the existence of the soul, asserting that it is a drug, like the little papers of rhubarb and magnesia that are sold at the apothecary's—"
"Senora, for Heaven's sake!" exclaimed Pepe, with annoyance. "I see that I have a very bad reputation in Orbajosa."
The others remained silent.
"As I said, I will not reproach you for entertaining those ideas. And, besides, I have not the right to do so. If I should undertake to argue with you, you, with your wonderful talents, would confute me a thousand times over. No, I will not attempt any thing of that kind. What I say is that these poor and humble inhabitants of Orbajosa are pious and good Christians, although they know nothing about German philosophy, and that, therefore, you ought not publicly to manifest your contempt for their beliefs."
"My dear aunt," said the engineer gravely, "I have shown no contempt for any one, nor do I entertain the ideas which you attribute to me. Perhaps I may have been a little wanting in reverence in the church. I am somewhat absent-minded. My thoughts and my attention were engaged with the architecture of the building and, frankly speaking, I did not observe——But this was no reason for the bishop to think of putting me out of the church, nor for you to suppose me capable of attributing to a paper from the apothecary's the functions of the soul. I may tolerate that as a jest, but only as a jest."
The agitation of Pepe Rey's mind was so great that, notwithstanding his natural prudence and moderation, he was unable to conceal it.
"There! I see that you are angry," said Dona Perfecta, casting down her eyes and clasping her hands. "I am very sorry. If I had known that you would have taken it in that way, I should not have spoken to you. Pepe, I ask your pardon."
Hearing these words and seeing his kind aunt's deprecating attitude, Pepe felt ashamed of the sternness of his last words, and he made an effort to recover his serenity. The venerable Penitentiary extricated him from his embarrassing position, saying with his accustomed benevolent smile:
"Senora Dona Perfecta, we must be tolerant with artists. Oh, I have known a great many of them! Those gentlemen, when they have before them a statue, a piece of rusty armor, a mouldy painting, or an old wall, forget every thing else. Senor Don Jose is an artist, and he has visited our cathedral as the English visit it, who would willingly carry it away with them to their museums, to its last tile, if they could. That the worshippers were praying, that the priest was elevating the Sacred Host, that the moment of supreme piety and devotion had come—what of that? What does all that matter to an artist? It is true that I do not know what art is worth, apart from the sentiments which it expresses, but, in fine, at the present day, it is the custom to adore the form, not the idea. God preserve me from undertaking to discuss this question with Senor Don Jose, who knows so much, and who, reasoning with the admirable subtlety of the moderns, would instantly confound my mind, in which there is only faith."
"The determination which you all have to regard me as the most learned man on earth annoys me exceedingly," said Pepe, speaking in his former hard tone. "Hold me for a fool; for I would rather be regarded as a fool than as the possessor of that Satanic knowledge which is here attributed to me."
Rosarito laughed, and Jacinto thought that a highly opportune moment had now arrived to make a display of his own erudition.
"Pantheism or panentheism," he said, "is condemned by the Church, as well as by the teachings of Schopenhauer and of the modern Hartmann."
"Ladies and gentlemen," said the canon gravely, "men who pay so fervent a worship to art, though it be only to its form, deserve the greatest respect. It is better to be an artist, and delight in the contemplation of beauty, though this be only represented by nude nymphs, than to be indifferent and incredulous in every thing. The mind that consecrates itself to the contemplation of beauty, evil will not take complete possession of. Est Deus in nobis. Deus, be it well understood. Let Senor Don Jose, then, continue to admire the marvels of our church; I, for one, will willingly forgive him his acts of irreverence, with all due respect for the opinions of the bishop."
"Thanks, Senor Don Inocencio," said Pepe, feeling a bitter and rebellious sentiment of hostility springing up within him toward the canon, and unable to conquer his desire to mortify him. "But let none of you imagine, either, that it was the beauties of art, of which you suppose the temple to be full, that engaged my attention. Those beauties, with the exception of the imposing architecture of a portion of the edifice and of the three tombs that are in the chapel of the apse, I do not see. What occupied my mind was the consideration of the deplorable decadence of the religious arts; and the innumerable monstrosities, of which the cathedral is full, caused me not astonishment, but disgust."
The amazement of all present was profound.
"I cannot endure," continued Pepe, "those glazed and painted images that resemble so much—God forgive me for the comparison—the dolls that little girls pay with. And what am I to say of the theatrical robes that cover them? I saw a St. Joseph with a mantle whose appearance I will not describe, out of respect for the holy patriarch and for the church of which he is the patron. On the altar are crowded together images in the worst possible taste; and the innumerable crowns, branches, stars, moons, and other ornaments of metal or gilt paper have an air of an ironmongery that offends the religious sentiment and depresses the soul. Far from lifting itself up to religious contemplation, the soul sinks, and the idea of the ludicrous distracts it. The great works of art which give sensible form to ideas, to dogmas, to religious faith, to mystic exaltation, fulfil a noble mission. The caricatures, the aberrations of taste, the grotesque works with which a mistaken piety fills the church, also fulfil their object; but this is a sad one enough: They encourage superstition, cool enthusiasm, oblige the eyes of the believer to turn away from the altar, and, with the eyes, the souls that have not a very profound and a very firm faith turn away also."
"The doctrine of the iconoclasts, too," said Jacinto, "has, it seems, spread widely in Germany."
"I am not an iconoclast, although I would prefer the destruction of all the images to the exhibition of buffooneries of which I speak," continued the young man. "Seeing it, one may justly advocate a return of religious worship to the august simplicity of olden times. But no; let us not renounce the admirable aid which all the arts, beginning with poetry and ending with music, lend to the relations between man and God. Let the arts live; let the utmost pomp be displayed in religious ceremonies. I am a partisan of pomp."
"An artist, an artist, and nothing more than an artist!" exclaimed the canon, shaking his head with a sorrowful air. "Fine pictures, fine statues, beautiful music; pleasure for the senses, and let the devil take the soul!"
"Apropos of music," said Pepe Rey, without observing the deplorable effect which his words produced on both mother and daughter, "imagine how disposed my mind would be to religious contemplation on entering the cathedral, when just at that moment, and precisely at the offertory at high mass, the organist played a passage from 'Traviata.'"
"Senor de Rey is right in that," said the little lawyer emphatically. "The organist played the other day the whole of the drinking song and the waltz from the same opera, and afterward a rondeau from the 'Grande Duchesse.'"
"But when I felt my heart sink," continued the engineer implacably, "was when I saw an image of the Virgin, which seems to be held in great veneration, judging from the crowd before it and the multitude of tapers which lighted it. They have dressed her in a puffed-out garment of velvet, embroidered with gold, of a shape so extraordinary that it surpasses the most extravagant of the fashions of the day. Her face is almost hidden under a voluminous frill, made of innumerable rows of lace, crimped with a crimping-iron, and her crown, half a yard in height, surrounded by golden rays, looks like a hideous catafalque erected over her head. Of the same material, and embroidered in the same manner, are the trousers of the Infant Jesus. I will not go on, for to describe the Mother and the Child might perhaps lead me to commit some irreverence. I will only say that it was impossible for me to keep from smiling, and for a short time I contemplated the profaned image, saying to myself: 'Mother and Lady mine, what a sight they have made of you!'"
As he ended Pepe looked at his hearers, and although, owing to the gathering darkness, he could not see their countenances distinctly, he fancied that in some of them he perceived signs of angry consternation.
"Well, Senor Don Jose!" exclaimed the canon quickly, smiling with a triumphant expression, "that image, which to your philosophy and pantheism appears so ridiculous, is Our Lady of Help, patroness and advocate of Orbajosa, whose inhabitants regard her with so much veneration that they would be quite capable of dragging any one through the streets who should speak ill of her. The chronicles and history, Senor Don Jose, are full of the miracles which she has wrought, and even at the present day we receive constantly incontrovertible proofs of her protection. You must know also that your aunt, Dona Perfecta, is chief lady in waiting to the Most Holy Virgin of Help, and that the dress that to you appears so grotesque—went out from this house, and that the trousers of the Infant are the work of the skilful needle and the ardent piety combined of your cousin Rosarito, who is now listening to us."
Pepe Rey was greatly disconcerted. At the same instant Dona Perfecta rose abruptly from her seat, and, without saying a word, walked toward the house, followed by the Penitentiary. The others rose also. Recovering from his stupefaction, the young man was about to beg his cousin's pardon for his irreverence, when he observed that Rosarito was weeping. Fixing on her cousin a look of friendly and gentle reproof, she said:
"What ideas you have!"
The voice of Dona Perfecta was heard crying in an altered accent:
The latter ran toward the house.
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