2. The Miser
Summary: Bishop Latour returns from Rome with four young priests fresh from seminary, one of whom, Father Taladrid, he sends to assume leadership of the Taos parish from Martínez. Martínez and his friend Lucero establish a schismatic church, with Trinidad as their shared curate. Father Vaillant reads letters of excommunication against the two schismatic priests. Martínez eventually dies, unrepentant; but as Lucero nears his death, Trinidad calls for Vaillant to come and administer last rites. Upon reaching Arroyo Hondo, Vaillant finds Lucero more concerned about the money he has hoarded away during his lifetime, including money that Martínez gave him to pay for Masses to be said for Martínez’s soul. Assured that his money will be disposed of according to his wishes, Lucero makes a final confession, renounces his heresy of departing from the Church, and receives the Sacrament. His last words, however, are spiteful words directed at his old friend, Martínez: “Eat your tail, Martínez, eat your tail!” The legend grows that, at the moment of death, Lucero peered into the next world and saw Martínez suffering the torments of eternal damnation.
Analysis: We are told that Martínez and Lucero “had not one train in common… except the love of authority” (p. 160). If Father Martínez represents the sin of lust in Cather’s novel, Father Lucero represents the sin of greed. Indeed, Lucero himself makes this equation explicit: “You see… my way is better than old José Martínez’s… [A woman’s] petticoat is not much good to him any more. But I can still rise upright”—doubtless his euphemistic reference to arousal—“at the sight of a dollar. With a new piece of money in my hand I am happier than ever; and what can he do with a pretty girl but regret?” (p. 161). The irony, of course, is that Lucero seems to live with plenty of regrets of his own, brought on by the hoarding of wealth. After all, he spends his latter years sleeping with a knife under his bed, in fear of thieves who will break in to take his treasure; indeed, hours from his death, he momentarily thinks that Trinidad is such a thief when he has only come to kneel before the crucifix in Lucero’s chamber: “after that the old man lay with one eye open, and no one dared go near the crucifix” (p. 170). As with the mention of the crucifix in Martínez’s room (V.1), this reference may carry symbolic weight: Lucero’s avarice is keeping people away from Christ—most importantly, Lucero himself. He tells Vaillant “a man does not let go of this world so easily” (p. 168)—but, of course, such release is precisely what Jesus called his followers to do in the New Testament: “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8:34-37, KJV). To his credit, even as Martínez is not an unambiguous character, neither is Lucero. He is not the tyrant that his counterpart in Taos was. “He was grasping, but not oppressive, and he wrung more pesos out of Arroyo Seco and Questa than out of his own arroyo” (p. 160). But he is a life-long miser, trusting in his wealth and not his God (he is more concerned with the status of his money than with receiving the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, p. 168); loving his money and not the people whom he has taken a vow to serve. He may call to mind the rich fool of Jesus’ parable in Luke 12:16-21, who builds bigger barns to store his worldly goods only to hear God’s judgment: “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?” (Luke 12:20). Lucero himself seems to evoke this passage when he laments, on his deathbed, “Oh, why did God not make some way for a man to protect [what is] his own after death? Alive, I can do it with my knife, old as I am. But after—?” (p. 167). (Lucero is conveniently forgetting that it was a nighttime struggle with a thief that occasioned his rapid decline and death, p. 162).
Father Lucero’s death offers the novel its first chance to reflect at some length on mortality—readers may naturally expect, given the book’s title, that death will be a major thematic concern for the text. We are told that death is regarded as more than the cessation of bodily functions: it is “a dramatic climax, a moment when the soul made its entrance into the next world, passing in full consciousness through a lowly door into an unimaginable scene” (p. 170). The emphasis on Father Lucero’s last words establish the expectation that, when death comes for the archbishop at the novel’s end, his last words will also prove of thematic significance. For Lucero’s part, his last words are just as unenlightening as his life has been. They are petty words of hate that testify to the fact that the one who speaks them was as miserly with his heart as he was with his money.