Part Five

Perhaps an Intention

A new bridge of stone has been built in the place of the old, but the event has not been forgotten. It has passed into proverbial expressions. “I may see you Tuesday,” says a Limean, “unless the bridge falls.” “My cousin lives by the bridge of San Luis Rey,” says another, and a smile goes around the company, for that also means: under the sword of Damocles. There are some poems about the accident, classics to be found in every Peruvian anthology, but the real literary monument is Brother Juniper’s book.

There are a hundred ways of wondering at circumstance. Brother Juniper would never have arrived at his method had it not been for his friendship with a certain master in the University of San Martín. This student’s wife had stolen away one morning on a boat for Spain, following a soldier, and had left him the care of two daughters in their cradle. He was possessed of all the bitterness that Brother Juniper lacked, and derived a sort of joy from the conviction that all was wrong in the world. He whispered into the Franciscan’s ear such thoughts and anecdotes as belied the notion of a guided world. For a moment a look of distress, almost of defeat, would come into the Brother’s eyes; then he would begin patiently explaining why such stories held no difficulty for a believer. “There was a queen of Naples and Sicily,” the student would say, “who discovered that she was carrying an angry tumor in her side. In great dismay she commanded her subjects to fall to their prayers and ordered that all the garments in Sicily and Naples be sewn with votive crosses. She was well loved by her people and all their prayers and embroideries were sincere, but ineffectual. Now she lies in the splendor of Monreale, and a few inches above her heart may be read the words: ‘I shall fear no evil.’ ”

It was by dint of hearing a great many such sneers at faith that Brother Juniper became convinced that the world’s time had come for proof, tabulated proof, of the conviction that was so bright and exciting within him. When the pestilence visited his dear village of Puerto and carried off a large number of peasants, he secretly drew up a diagram of the characteristics of fifteen victims and fifteen survivors, the statistics of their value sub specie aeternitatis. Each soul was rated upon a basis of ten as regards its goodness, its diligence in religious observance, and its importance to its family group. Here is a fragment of this ambitious chart:

Goodness Piety Usefulness
Alfonso G. 4 4 10
Nina 2 5 10
Manuel B. 10 10 0
Alfonso V. −8 −10 10
Vera N. 0 10 10

The thing was more difficult than he had foreseen. Almost every soul in a difficult frontier community turned out to be indispensable economically, and the third column was all but useless. The examiner was driven to the use of minus terms when he confronted the personal character of Alfonso V., who was not, like Vera N., merely bad: he was a propagandist for badness and not merely avoided church but led others to avoid it. Vera N. was indeed bad, but she was a model worshipper and the mainstay of a full hut. From all this saddening data Brother Juniper contrived an index for each peasant. He added up the total for victims and compared it with the total for survivors, to discover that the dead were five times more worth saving. It almost looked as though the pestilence had been directed against the really valuable people in the village of Puerto. And on that afternoon Brother Juniper took a walk along the edge of the Pacific. He tore up his findings and cast them into the waves; he gazed for an hour upon the great clouds of pearl that hang forever upon the horizon of that sea, and extracted from their beauty a resignation that he did not permit his reason to examine. The discrepancy between faith and the facts is greater than is generally assumed.

But there was another story of the master of San Martín (not so subversive, this one) that probably gave to Brother Juniper the hint for his procedure after the fall of the bridge of San Luis Rey.

This master was one day walking through the Cathedral of Lima and stopped to read the epitaph of a lady. He read with an increasingly prominent lower lip that she had been for twenty years the centre and joy of her home, that she had been the delight of her friends, that all who met her went away in astonishment at her goodness and beauty, and that there she lay awaiting the return of her Lord. Now on the day that he read these words, the master of San Martín had had much to fret him, and raising his eyes from the tablet he spoke aloud in his rage: “The shame of it, the persecution of it! Everyone knows that in the world we do nothing but feed our wills. Why perpetuate this legend of selflessness? Why keep this thing alive, this rumour of disinterestedness?”

And so saying he resolved to expose this conspiracy of the stonecutters. The lady had been dead only twelve years. He sought out her servants, her children and her friends. And everywhere he went, like a perfume, her dear traits had survived her and wherever she was mentioned there arose a suffering smile and the protest that words could not describe the gracious ways of her. Even the eager youth of her grandchildren, who had never seen her, was made more difficult by the news that it was possible to be as good as that. And the man stood amazed; only at last he muttered: “Nevertheless, what I said was true. This woman was an exception, perhaps an exception.”

In compiling his book about these people, Brother Juniper seemed to be pursued by the fear that in omitting the slightest detail he might lose some guiding hint. The longer he worked the more he felt that he was stumbling about among great dim intimations. He was forever being cheated by details that looked as though they were significant if only he could find their setting. So he put everything down on the notion perhaps that if he (or a keener head) reread the book twenty times, the countless facts would suddenly start to move, to assemble, and to betray their secret. The Marquesa de Montemayor’s cook told him that she lived almost entirely on rice, fish and a little fruit and Brother Juniper put it down on the chance that it would some day reveal a spiritual trait. Don Rubío said of her that she used to appear at his receptions without invitation in order to steal the spoons. A midwife on the edge of the town declared that Doña María called upon her with morbid questions until she had been obliged to order her away from the door like a beggar. The bookseller of the town reported that she was one of the three most cultivated persons in Lima. Her farmer’s wife declared that she was absentminded, but compact of goodness. The art of biography is more difficult than is generally supposed.

Brother Juniper found that there was least to be learned from those who had been most closely associated with the subjects of his inquiry. Madre María del Pilar talked to him at length about Pepita, but she did not tell him of her own ambitions for her. The Perichole was at first difficult of approach, but presently even liked the Franciscan. Her characterization of Uncle Pio flatly contradicted the stores of unsavory testimonies that he had acquired elsewhere. Her allusions to her son were few and conceded with pain. They closed the interview abruptly. The Captain Alvarado told what he could of Esteban and of Uncle Pio. Those who know most in this realm venture least.

I shall spare you Brother Juniper’s generalizations. They are always with us. He thought he saw in the same accident the wicked visited by destruction and the good called early to Heaven. He thought he saw pride and wealth confounded as an object lesson to the world, and he thought he saw humility crowned and rewarded for the edification of the city. But Brother Juniper was not satisfied with his reasons. It was just possible that the Marquesa de Montemayor was not a monster of avarice, and Uncle Pio of self-indulgence.

The book being done fell under the eyes of some judges and was suddenly pronounced heretical. It was ordered to be burned in the Square with its author. Brother Juniper submitted to the decision that the devil had made use of him to effect a brilliant campaign in Peru. He sat in his cell that last night trying to seek in his own life the pattern that had escaped him in five others. He was not rebellious. He was willing to lay down his life for the purity of the church, but he longed for one voice somewhere to testify for him that his intention, at least, had been for faith; he thought there was no one in the world who believed him. But the next morning in all that crowd and sunlight there were many who believed, for he was much loved.

There was a little delegation from the village of Puerto, and Nina (Goodness 2, Piety 5, Usefulness 10) and others stood with drawn puzzled faces while their little friar was given to the congenial flames. Even then, even then, there remained in his heart an obstinate nerve insisting that at least St. Francis would not utterly have condemned him, and (not daring to call upon a greater name, since he seemed so open to error in these matters) he called twice upon St. Francis and leaning upon a flame he smiled and died.

The day of the service was dear and warm. The Limeans, their black eyes wide with awe, poured through the streets into their Cathedral and stood gazing at the mound of black velvet and silver. The Archbishop, enclosed in his wonderful and almost wooden vestments, perspired upon his throne, lending from time to time a connoisseur’s ear to the felicities of Vittoria’s counterpoint. The choir had restudied the pages that, as his farewell to music, Tomás Luis had composed for his friend and patron, the Empress of Austria, and all that grief and sweetness, all that Spanish realism filtering through an Italian mode, rose and fell above the sea of mantillas. Don Andrés, under the colours and feathered hangings of his office, knelt, ill and troubled. He knew that the crowd was furtively glancing at him, expecting him to play the father who has lost his only son. He wondered whether the Perichole was present. He had never been obliged to go so long without smoking. The Captain Alvarado pushed in from the sunny square for a moment. He looked across the fields of black hair and lace at the trooping of the candles and the ropes of incense. “How false, how unreal,” he said and pushed his way out. He descended to the sea and sat on the edge of his boat, gazing down into the clear water. “Happy are the drowned, Esteban,” he said.

Behind the screen the Abbess sat among her girls. The night before she had torn an idol from her heart, and the experience had left her pale but firm. She had accepted the fact that it was of no importance whether her work went on or not; it was enough to work. She was the nurse who tends the sick who never recover; she was the priest who perpetually renews the office before an altar to which no worshippers come. There would be no Pepita to enlarge her work; it would relapse into the indolence and the indifference of her colleagues. It seemed to be sufficient for Heaven that for a while in Peru a disinterested love had flowered and faded. She leaned her forehead upon her hand, following the long tender curve that the soprano lifts in the Kyrie. “My affection should have had more of that colour, Pepita. My whole life should have had more of that quality. I have been too busy,” she added ruefully and her mind drifted into prayer.

Camila had started from the farm to attend the service. Her heart was filled with consternation and amazement. Here was another comment from the skies; that was the third time she had been spoken to. Her smallpox, Jaime’s illness, and now the fall of the bridge⁠—oh, these were not accidents. She was as ashamed as though letters had appeared on her forehead. An order from the Palace announced that the Viceroy was sending her two daughters to a convent-school in Spain. That was right. She was alone. She gathered a few things together mechanically and started to the city for the service. But she fell to thinking of the crowds gaping over her Uncle Pio and over her son; she thought of the vast ritual of the church, like a chasm into which the beloved falls, and of the storm of the dies irae where the individual is lost among the millions of the dead, features grow dim and traits fade. At a little more than half the journey, at the mud church of San Luis Rey she slipped in and knelt against a pillar to rest. She wandered through her memory, searching for the faces of her two. She waited for some emotion to appear. “But I feel nothing,” she whispered to herself. “I have no heart. I am a poor meaningless woman, that’s all. I am shut out. I have no heart. Look, I won’t try and think of anything; let me just rest here.” And scarcely had she paused when again that terrible incommunicable pain swept through her, the pain that could not speak once to Uncle Pio and tell him of her love and just once offer her courage to Jaime in his sufferings. She started up wildly. “I fail everybody,” she cried. “They love me and I fail them.” She returned to the farm and carried for a year the mood of her self-despair. One day she casually heard that the wonderful Abbess had lost in the same accident two persons whom she loved. Her sewing fell from her hand: then she would know, she would explain. “But no, what would she say to me? She would not even believe that such a person as I could love or could lose.” Camila decided to go to Lima and look at the Abbess from a distance. “If her face tells me that she would not despise me, I will speak to her,” she said.

Camila lurked about the convent church and fell humbly in love with the homely old face, though it frightened her a little. At last she called upon her.

“Mother,” she said, “I⁠ ⁠… I⁠ ⁠…”

“Do I know you, my daughter?”

“I was the actress, I was the Perichole.”

“Oh, yes. Oh, I have wished to know you for a long while, but they told me you did not wish to be seen. You too, I know, lost in the fall of the bridge of San⁠ ⁠…”

Camila rose and swayed. There! again that access of pain, the hands of the dead she could not reach. Her lips were white. Her head brushed the Abbess’s knee: “Mother, what shall I do? I am all alone. I have nothing in the world. I love them. What shall I do?”

The Abbess looked at her closely. “My daughter, it is warm here. Let us go into the garden. You can rest there.” She made a sign to a girl in the cloister to bring some water. She continued talking mechanically to Camila. “I have wished to know you for a long while, señora. Even before the accident I had wished much to know you. They told me that in the autos sacrementales you were a very great and beautiful actress, in Belshazzar’s Feast.”

“Oh, Mother, you must not say that. I am a sinner. You must not say that.”

“Here, drink this, my child. We have a beautiful garden, do you not think so? You will come and see us often and some day you will meet Sister Juana who is our gardener-in-chief. Before she entered religion she had almost never seen a garden, for she worked in the mines high up in the mountains. Now everything grows under her hand. A year has gone by, señora, since our accident. I lost two who had been children in my orphanage, but you lost a real child of your own?”

“Yes, Mother.”

“And a great friend?”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Tell me⁠ ⁠…”

And then the whole tide of Camila’s long despair, her lonely obstinate despair since her girlhood found its rest on that dusty friendly lap among Sister Juana’s fountains and roses.

But where are sufficient books to contain the events that would not have been the same without the fall of the bridge? From such a number I choose one more.

“The Condesa d’Abuirre wishes to see you,” said a lay sister at the door of the Abbess’s office.

“Well,” said the Abbess, laying down her pen, “who is she?”

“She has just come from Spain. I don’t know.”

“Oh, it is some money, Inez, some money for my house for the blind. Quick, bid her come in.”

The tall, rather langorous beauty entered the room. Doña Clara, who was generally so adequate, seemed constrained for once. “Are you busy, dear Mother, may I talk to you for a while?”

“I am quite free, my daughter. You will excuse an old woman’s memory; have I known you before?”

“My mother was the Marquesa de Montemayor.⁠ ⁠…” Doña Clara suspected that the Abbess had not admired her mother and would not let the older woman speak until she herself had made a long passionate defense of Doña María. The languor fell away in her self-reproach. At last the Abbess told her of Pepita and Esteban, and of Camila’s visit. “All, all of us have failed. One wishes to be punished. One is willing to assume all kinds of penance, but do you know, my daughter, that in love⁠—I scarcely dare say it⁠—but in love our very mistakes don’t seem to be able to last long?”

The Condesa showed the Abbess Doña María’s last letter. Madre María dared not say aloud how great her astonishment was that such words (words that since then the whole world has murmured over with joy) could spring in the heart of Pepita’s mistress. “Now learn,” she commanded herself, “learn at last that anywhere you may expect grace.” And she was filled with happiness like a girl at this new proof that the traits she lived for were everywhere, that the world was ready. “Will you do me a kindness, my daughter? Will you let me show you my work?”

The sun had gone down, but the Abbess led the way with a lantern down corridor after corridor. Doña Clara saw the old and the young, the sick and the blind, but most of all she saw the tired, bright old woman who was leading her. The Abbess would stop in a passageway and say suddenly: “I can’t help thinking that something could be done for the deaf-and-dumb. It seems to me that some patient person could⁠ ⁠… could study out a language for them. You know there are hundreds and hundreds in Peru. Do you remember whether anyone in Spain has found a way for them? Well, some day they will.” Or a little later: “Do you know, I keep thinking that something can be done for the insane. I am old, you know, and I cannot go where these things are talked about, but I watch them sometimes and it seems to me⁠ ⁠… In Spain, now, they are gentle with them? It seems to me that there is a secret about it, just hidden from us, just around the corner. Some day back in Spain, if you hear of anything that would help us, you will write me a letter⁠ ⁠… if you are not too busy?”

At last after Doña Clara had seen even the kitchens, the Abbess said: “Now will you excuse me, for I must go into the room of the very sick and say a few words for them to think about when they cannot sleep. I will not ask you to come with me there, for you are not accustomed to such⁠—such sounds and things. And besides I only talk to them as one talks to children.” She looked up at her with her modest rueful smile. Suddenly she disappeared a moment to return with one of her helpers, one who had likewise been involved in the affair of the bridge, and who had formerly been an actress. “She is leaving me,” said the Abbess, “for some work across the city, and when I have spoken here I must leave you both, for the flour-broker will not wait for me any longer, and our argument will take a long time.”

But Doña Clara stood in the door as the Abbess talked to them, the lamp placed on the floor beside her. Madre María stood with her back against a post; the sick lay in rows gazing at the ceiling and trying to hold their breaths. She talked that night of all those out in the dark (she was thinking of Esteban alone, she was thinking of Pepita alone) who had no one to turn to, for whom the world perhaps was more than difficult, without meaning. And those who lay in their beds there felt that they were within a wall that the Abbess had built for them; within all was light and warmth, and without was the darkness they would not exchange even for a relief from pain and from dying. But even while she was talking, other thoughts were passing in the back of her mind. “Even now,” she thought, “almost no one remembers Esteban and Pepita, but myself. Camila alone remembers her Uncle Pio and her son; this woman, her mother. But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”