Vainly were the rich wedding presents heaped upon a table; neither the diamonds in their cases of blue velvet, nor the piña embroideries, nor the rolls of silk, drew the gaze of Maria Clara. Without reading or even seeing it the maiden sat staring at the newspaper which gave an account of the death of Ibarra, drowned in the lake.
Suddenly she felt two hands placed over her eyes to hold her fast and heard Padre Damaso’s voice ask merrily, “Who am I? Who am I?”
Maria Clara sprang from her seat and gazed at him in terror.
“Foolish little girl, you’re not afraid, are you? You weren’t expecting me, eh? Well, I’ve come in from the provinces to attend your wedding.”
He smiled with satisfaction as he drew nearer to her and held out his hand for her to kiss. Maria Clara approached him tremblingly and touched his hand respectfully to her lips.
“What’s the matter with you, Maria?” asked the Franciscan, losing his merry smile and becoming uneasy. “Your hand is cold, you’re pale. Are you ill, little girl?”
Padre Damaso drew her toward himself with a tenderness that one would hardly have thought him capable of, and catching both her hands in his questioned her with his gaze.
“Don’t you have confidence in your godfather any more?” he asked reproachfully. “Come, sit down and tell me your little troubles as you used to do when you were a child, when you wanted tapers to make wax dolls, You know that I’ve always loved you, I’ve never been cross with you.”
His voice was now no longer brusque, and even became tenderly modulated. Maria Clara began to weep.
“You’re crying, little girl? Why do you cry? Have you quarreled with Linares?”
Maria Clara covered her ears. “Don’t speak of him not now!” she cried.
Padre Damaso gazed at her in startled wonder.
“Won’t you trust me with your secrets? Haven’t I always tried to satisfy your lightest whim?”
The maiden raised eyes filled with tears and stared at him for a long time, then again fell to weeping bitterly.
“Don’t cry so, little girl. Your tears hurt me. Tell me your troubles, and you’ll see how your godfather loves you!”
Maria Clara approached him slowly, fell upon her knees, and raising her tear-stained face toward his asked in a low, scarcely audible tone, “Do you still love me?”
“Then, protect my father and break off my marriage!” Here the maiden told of her last interview with Ibarra, concealing only her knowledge of the secret of her birth. Padre Damaso could scarcely credit his ears.
“While he lived,” the girl continued, “I thought of struggling, I was hoping, trusting! I wanted to live so that I might hear of him, but now that they have killed him, now there is no reason why I should live and suffer.” She spoke in low, measured tones, calmly, tearlessly.
“But, foolish girl, isn’t Linares a thousand times better than—”
“While he lived, I could have married—I thought of running away afterwards—my father wants only the relationship! But now that he is dead, no other man shall call me wife! While he was alive I could debase myself, for there would have remained the consolation that he lived and perhaps thought of me, but now that he is dead—the nunnery or the tomb!”
The girl’s voice had a ring of firmness in it such that Padre Damaso lost his merry air and became very thoughtful.
“Did you love him as much as that?” he stammered.
Maria Clara did not answer. Padre Damaso dropped his head on his chest and remained silent for a long time.
“Daughter in God,” he exclaimed at length in a broken voice, “forgive me for having made you unhappy without knowing it. I was thinking of your future, I desired your happiness. How could I permit you to marry a native of the country, to see you an unhappy wife and a wretched mother? I couldn’t get that love out of your head even though I opposed it with all my might. I committed wrongs, for you, solely for you. If you had become his wife you would have mourned afterwards over the condition of your husband, exposed to all kinds of vexations without means of defense. As a mother you would have mourned the fate of your sons: if you had educated them, you would have prepared for them a sad future, for they would have become enemies of Religion and you would have seen them garroted or exiled; if you had kept them ignorant, you would have seen them tyrannized over and degraded. I could not consent to it! For this reason I sought for you a husband that could make you the happy mother of sons who would command and not obey, who would punish and not suffer. I knew that the friend of your childhood was good, I liked him as well as his father, but I have hated them both since I saw that they were going to bring about your unhappiness, because I love you, I adore you, I love you as one loves his own daughter! Yours is my only affection; I have seen you grow—not an hour has passed that I have not thought of you—I dreamed of you—you have been my only joy!”
Here Padre Damaso himself broke out into tears like a child.
“Then, as you love me, don’t make me eternally wretched. He no longer lives, so I want to be a nun!”
The old priest rested his forehead on his hand. “To be a nun, a nun!” he repeated. “You don’t know, child, what the life is, the mystery that is hidden behind the walls of the nunnery, you don’t know! A thousand times would I prefer to see you unhappy in the world rather than in the cloister. Here your complaints can be heard, there you will have only the walls. You are beautiful, very beautiful, and you were not born for that—to be a bride of Christ! Believe me, little girl, time will wipe away everything. Later on you will forget, you will love, you will love your husband—Linares.”
“The nunnery or—death!”
“The nunnery, the nunnery, or death!” exclaimed Padre Damaso. “Maria, I am now an old man, I shall not be able much longer to watch over you and your welfare. Choose something else, seek another love, some other man, whoever he may be—anything but the nunnery.”
“The nunnery or death!”
“My God, my God!” cried the priest, covering his head with his hands, “Thou chastisest me, so let it be! But watch over my daughter!”
Then, turning again to the young woman, he said, “You wish to be a nun, and it shall be so. I don’t want you to die.”
Maria Clara caught both his hands in hers, clasping and kissing them as she fell upon her knees, repeating over and over, “My godfather, I thank you, my godfather!”
With bowed head Fray Damaso went away, sad and sighing. “God, Thou dost exist, since Thou chastisest! But let Thy vengeance fall on me, harm not the innocent. Save Thou my daughter!”