On Friday, July 20, 1714, the bridge of San Luis Rey, the most famous bridge in Peru, collapses, hurling five travelers into the deep gorge below. Present at the time of the tragedy is Brother Juniper, who sees in the event a chance to prove, scientifically and accurately, the wisdom of that act of God. He spends all his time investigating the lives of the five who had died, and he publishes a book showing that God had a reason to send each one of them to his or her death at exactly that moment. The book is condemned by the church authorities, and Brother Juniper is burned at the stake. He went too far in explaining God’s ways to humanity. Through a strange quirk of fate, one copy of the book is left undestroyed, and it falls into the hands of the author. From it, and from his own knowledge, he reconstructs the lives of the five persons.
The Marquesa de Montemayor was an ugly child and was still homely when she matured. Because of the wealth of her family, she was fortunately able to marry a noble husband, by whom she had a lovely daughter, Doña Clara. As she grew into a beautiful young woman, the Marquesa’s daughter became more and more disgusted with her crude and unattractive mother, whose possessive and overexpressive love left Doña Clara cold and uncomfortable. The daughter finally married a man who took her to Spain. Separated from her one joy in life, the Marquesa became more eccentric than ever and spent her time writing long letters to her daughter in Spain. In order to free herself of some of her household cares, the Marquesa went to the Abbess Madre María del Pilar and asked for a girl from the Abbess’s school to come and live with her, so Pepita, unhappy that her beloved teacher was sending her away from school, went to live with the Marquesa.
When the Marquesa learned by letter that Doña Clara was to have a child, she was filled with concern. She wore charms, bought candles for the saints, said prayers, and wrote all the advice she could discover to her daughter. As a last gesture, she took Pepita with her to pay a visit to a famous shrine from which she hoped her prayers would surely be heard. On the way, the Marquesa happened to read one of Pepita’s letters to her old mistress, the Abbess. From the letter, the Marquesa learns just how heartless she was in her treatment of the girl, how thoughtless and egotistic. She realized that she was guilty of the worst kind of love toward her daughter, love that was sterile, self-seeking, and false. Aglow with her new understanding, she wrote a final letter to her daughter, telling her of the change in her heart, asking forgiveness, and showing in wonderful language the change that came over her. She resolved to change her life, to be kind to Pepita, to her household, to everyone. The next day she and Pepita, while crossing the bridge of San Luis Rey, fell to their deaths.
Esteban and Manuel were twin brothers who were left as children on the doorstep of the Abbess’s school. She brought them up as well as she could, but the strange relationship between them was such that she could never make them talk much. When the boys were old enough, they left the school and took many kinds of jobs. At last they settled down as scribes, writing letters for the uncultured people of Lima. One day Manuel, called in to...
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write some letters for La Périchole, fell in love with the charming actress. Never before did anything come between the brothers, because they were always sufficient in themselves. For his brother’s sake, Manuel pretended that he cared little for the actress. Shortly afterward, he cut his leg on a piece of metal and became very sick. In his delirium, he let Esteban know that he really was in love with La Périchole. The infection grew worse and Manuel died.
Esteban was unable to do anything for weeks after his brother’s death. He could not face life without him. The Abbess finally arranged for him to go on a trip with a sea captain who was about to sail around the world. The captain had lost his only daughter, and the Abbess believed he would understand Esteban’s problem and try to help him. Esteban left to go aboard ship, but on the way, he fell with the others when the bridge broke.
In Spain, before he came to Peru, Uncle Pio found a young girl singing in a tavern. After years of his coaching and training, she became the most popular actress of the Spanish world. She was called La Périchole, and Uncle Pio’s greatest pleasure was to tease her and anger her into giving consistently better performances. All went well until the viceroy took an interest in the vivacious and beautiful young actress. When she became his mistress, she began to feel that the stage was too low for her. After living as a lady and becoming prouder and prouder as time passed, she contracted smallpox. Her beauty was ruined, and she retired to a small farm outside town to live a life of misery over her lost loveliness.
Uncle Pio had a true affection for his former protégé and tried time and again to see her. One night, by a ruse, he got her to talk to him. She refused to let him help her, but she allowed him to take Jaime, her illegitimate son, so that he could be educated as a gentleman. The old man and the young boy set off for Lima. On the way, they came to the bridge and died in the fall when it collapsed.
At the cathedral in Lima, a great service is held for the victims. Everyone considers the incident an example of a true act of God, and many reasons are offered for the various deaths. Some months after the funeral, the Abbess is visited by Doña Clara, the Marquesa’s daughter. Doña Clara finally learns what a wonderful woman her mother was. The last letter teaches the cynical daughter all that her mother so painfully learned. The daughter, too, learned to see life in a new way. La Périchole also comes to see the Abbess. She gives up bemoaning her own lost beauty, and she begins a lasting friendship with the Abbess. Nothing can positively be said about the reason for the deaths of those five people on the bridge. Too many events are changed by them; one cannot number them all. The old Abbess, however, believes that the true meaning of the disaster is the lesson of love for those who survive.