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Trevor Wedlake's Writings
Two Bridges

Just occasionally, a writer has the power to tell a story that stays with its readers, almost haunting them, down many years. The Bridge at San Luis Rey is one such. The author, Thornton Wilder, a 30 year-old American intellectual, published it in 1927, and dedicated it to his mother. In 1928 it won the Pulitzer Prize, and, in 1998 was adjudged by the Editorial Board of the American Modern Library, one of the 100 best novels of the 20C.

The story is quite concisely told, not a great, rambling symphony of a book, more like a baroque fugue in that respect, and, as the fugue demands of its listeners, so this story requires the close attention of its readers.

The story is set in the early 18C in the old Spanish colony of Peru. The bridge at San Luis Rey was on the high road between Lima and the old Inca capital of Cuzco. It had been there for more than a century, woven by the Inca of osier, with handrails of dried vines. Horses, coaches and chairs crossed on rafts over the narrow river below, otherwise everyone used it regularly; “even the Viceroy used it, even the Archbishop used it.” But at noon on the 20th July, 1714, it snapped, and five people on it fell to their deaths in the gorge below. Even in a country acquainted with disaster and pestilence, the fall of the bridge provoked a massive shock wave among a population who knew that any of them might have been victims, and they spoke of it in whispers, and made the sign of the cross.
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Brother Juniper, walking near the bridge, heard a great twanging sound, and looked up just as the bridge fell. Brother Juniper was a small, red-headed Franciscan, out from northern Italy to convert the Indians, and had been feeling quite pleased with the way things were going. He’d opened a new mud church and a few more Indians were coming to Mass. He was of that breed of men who firmly believes that the whole of life and the world are ordered and planned, that there was nothing, not even a feather falling from a sparrow’s wing, that was not known to God. And he asked himself “why these five people had been chosen to be on the bridge at that critical moment”. So it was that he determined to enquire into the lives of the five to discover the answer to his question.

Over the next 6 years he knocked on hundreds of doors and asked thousands of questions, some of them seemingly completely irrelevant. Out of all this came a great book with his findings and conclusions. However, some judges deemed it and its author to be heretical and one sunny morning after a night in gaol, Juniper and his book were taken and burned together in public.

But a secret copy of the book survived. Juniper, for whom we should probably have an unflattering name nowadays, had actually tried his exercise previously. When a great pestilence had visited his 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 of their value sub specie aeternitatis. Each soul rated upon a basis of it as regards goodness, its diligence in religious observance, and its importance to the family.”

From his findings he found that the victims were 5 times more worthy of saving than the survivors, and he tore it all up and threw it into the sea. Undaunted, he embarked on his great book to prove there was no element of doubt in his theories.

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The Marquesa Doňa Maria de Montmayor was an exceedingly rich eccentric, often drunk, aristocrat, estranged from her daughter, Clara, who lived in Spain. But she longed for her love. The marquesa kept up a barrage of letters which took 6 months to arrive. They were written at great length following a specially observed sobering up period. They were so formal, styled and drafted, that, a century later, they were found in every Spanish classroom as models of Spanish literature. In a reply to her mother one day, Doňa Clara remarked, without embellishment, “my child is due in October.” This news threw the marquesa into a great panic. All the local taboos and superstitions must be strictly observed. She refused to have a knot tied in the house. All the even stairs were marked with red chalk, and must not be stepped on. The maids were forbidden to tie up their hair, candles were kept lighted above her daughter’s bed. “She concealed on her person all the ridiculous symbols of a happy delivery.” Finally, she felt obliged to make one last observance: she must make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Santa Maria de Cluxambuqua.

And thus she was carried on her chair across the bridge at San Luis Rey, taking with her Pepita, the charming, self-effacing, long-suffering teenager she had ‘borrowed’ from the Abbess of the convent on an almost permanent basis. Pepita was always homesick for the convent of Santa Maria Rosa del la Rosas and the Abbess, her ‘mother in God’, and longed to return and not to be forgotten. At the shrine, Pepita told the porters where to place the altar, tapestries and pictures. After the day praying in church, the marquesa emerged saying “It is in other hands now. I can do no more.” Two days later they set off home and they were on the bridge at San Luis Rey when “the accident which we know befell them.”

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Twin baby boys were found one morning abandoned at the door of the convent. The abbess quickly took them in, found a wet nurse, and named them Estaban and Manuel. They were identical, no one ever knew them apart. When they grew up they worked cleaning and polishing all the churches in Lima. Everyone knew them. When a priest took the sacrament to the sick, one of them would be striding behind swinging the censer. Later they became scribes and made a good living writing letters and copying music for the choirmasters. Manuel wrote very intimate letters for Camila Perichole, the most famous actress in Lima, swearing “by the Virgin Mary” that he would tell no one, not even Esteban.

The twins were now 22, and Manuel had become a little infatuated with Camila. Since the two boys had always been excessively possessive of one another, this aroused jealousy and friction. Esteban accused Manuel of being in love. Manuel called him a fool. What chance could he possibly have with this famous woman, mistress of the Viceroy. He said he would never write for her again. Shortly after this, one evening Manuel tore open the flesh of his leg on a piece of metal. It became infected and he was delirious with the pain. Esteban treated the wound with hot towels for 3 nights, but the situation rapidly deteriorated, and Esteban sent for the priest and “amidst the enormous shadows” Manuel received the sacrament and died. Esteban was distraught and could not be comforted. He followed the funeral cortege from a parallel street “as it passed, with its hoods and masks and candles.”

The Abbess then remembered Captain Alvarado and sought his help and advice. “I want strong fellows like you to sail with me,” he told Esteban. “Wouldn’t you like to come ? It’s hard work, but good pay, and a long way from Peru. We just do the best we can, you know, Esteban. We push on, it isn’t long. Time passes quickly”. Esteban, who with his brother had always respected the captain, asked for his wages for the trip in advance so he could give the Abbess Madre Maria del Pilar a goodbye present. They collected up all their luggage and set off together for Lima. When they reached the bridge at San Luis Rey, the captain descended to the river below to supervise the crossing of some merchandise, but Esteban crossed by the bridge and fell with it.

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Uncle Pio was the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman, who left his father’s hacienda and ran off to Madrid at the age of 10, and lived on his wits. He had contempt for the rich, for whom he ran errands, distributed handbills and so on. He lived with travelling circuses, had fights, and was attached to all the theatres in town. His main ambition was to be in or near them. He also loved, and was well-versed in, Spanish literature, and, by borrowing and stealing, had discovered its treasures. He was contemptuous of all those well-off people who had no feel for it. When life became over-complicated, and following a row in a brothel, he moved out to Peru. His real adventure came when he discovered the actress Camila Perichole (real name Micaela Villagas). He always worshipped beautiful women, “he needed their company almost as much as oxygen.” He became her critic, advisor, confidante, errand boy, secretary. He arranged all her performances. She was an actress always in search of perfection. Camila was much admired by the Viceroy, and became his mistress. At the palace she learned the art of fine living, and produced 3 children by him, the youngest of whom was Jaime, a frail, delicate little boy. The Viceroy also discovered Uncle Pio and recognised his many talents. He invited him, along with a sea-going figure named Captain Alvarado, and the Archbishop to late-night parties when they would talk lovingly of Spain. They felt a bit at the end of the world, out in the colony. “If Christ rode again into Jerusalem, how long would it take the news to get to Peru ?”

Camila became too grand for the stage, and aspired to a more elevated social position. She acquired a duenna and some footmen, and would not be seen with Uncle Pio. She grew rather stout, and the news got about that she had smallpox. Many there were who hoped the impairment of her beauty would “return her to the class from which she had escaped.”

One day, Uncle Pio arrived at her villa in the hills, and begged, through her maid, to be allowed to speak to her. She met him in the French garden at sunset. “What do you have to say to me ?” she snapped. “You are mad, Uncle Pio, if you think I will return to the stage.” Uncle Pio, now 50, told her he had always loved her. “Don’t be absurd,” she said, “that kind of love exists only in the theatre. Jaime is ill today.” So Uncle Pio came to the essence of his visit. “Please let me take Jaime away to Lima,” he said, “where I can teach him the Castilian and Latin, and fencing and music.” And so it was, after much discussion, it should be so.

The next day they set off in a cart. When the jolting became too much for the boy, Uncle Pio carried him on his shoulder, and promised him that, when they had crossed the bridge at San Luis Rey, they would sit down and rest “but it turned out to be unnecessary.” A great service was held in the cathedral with the Archbishop present. A new stone bridge has replaced the old one.
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Throughout this sombre tale, the author has gone out of his way to make plain his familiarity with the church and its nature. There are, variously, mentions of the Dies Irae, the Kyrie, a Latin quotation from Psalm 91 and the composer Tomàs Luis Vittoria, who wrote only for the church. The story is really all about love, lost love, unrequited love, longed for love, and this reader, who first encountered the book 70 years ago, feels that the tale is permeated with the fragrance of St Paul’s message on the subject in the best-remembered of all his letters from Rome - “love is very patient, very kind, knows no jealousy, seeks no reward, is always eager to believe the best, never glad when others go wrong, never disappears. Furthermore, the author refers to one of the marquesa’s letters to her daughter as her “First Corinthians”.

Then there is the way the story concludes. One day, about a year after the fall of the bridge, and still feeling in a cul-de-sac of grief and remorse, Camila learns that the Abbess of the convent was also bereaved by the fall of the bridge. Now all alone, and robbed of her beauty by smallpox, she shyly makes her way to the convent, “and the whole tide of her long despair found its rest in the Abbess’s friendly lap.” She went on to become a helper at the convent hospital, where the deaf and dumb, the blind, the insane, and thers with no hope of recovery were in the care of the Abbess, who had made it her life’s work.

About this time, Doňa Clara was over from Spain and sought out the Abbess on a similar mission. She made “a long, passionate defence of her mother.” At last, the Abbess told her of Pepita and Esteban, and of Camila’s visit, and invited her to see the work of the hospital. The Abbess excused herself to say a few words to her patients for them to think of when they could not sleep. “But, as she was talking to them, 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 all die and all memory of these five will have gone, and we shall be loved for a while, and forgotten. But 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.’ “

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Trevor Wedlake
May 2015