Book 2 Chapter 1
Book II: Missionary Journeys
1. The White Mules
Summary: Father Vaillant, returning from a missionary journey to Albuquerque on a horse much worse for wear, stops at the estate of Manuel Lujon, a wealthy Mexican, to conduct weddings for his unmarried servants who are living together and to baptize their children. During his stay at the rancho, Vaillant takes note of two of Lujon’s finest mules, named Contento and Angelica. Lujon attempts to make a gift of Contento to Vaillant; however, Vaillant refuses on the grounds that it would not be seemly for him, a lowly vicar, to be riding such a fine animal while Bishop Latour has no such steed. Somewhat reluctantly, but eventually yielding to Vaillant’s persuason, Lujon presents both Contento and Angelica to Vaillant, the better for the priests “to carry the word of God about this heathen country.”
Analysis: This charming chapter opens the second book of Cather’s novel by directly focusing on Father Vaillant, and showing us ways in which he, too, is different from the authority figures the native peoples and Mexican settlers of New Mexico have known in the past. For instance, we learn that Vaillant’s Indian congregations have not brought their children for baptism, for “[t]he Spaniards had treated them very badly long ago” (p. 53). We also see the amusing scandal Vaillant causes by insisting upon cooking his own meal in the kitchen, that area of the house Lujon dismisses as filled with “too many women” (p. 57). And while Vaillant has “not much respect for a priest who either plays cards or manages to get rich” (pp. 58-59), he is not a pleasure-denying ascetic, either, for he is receptive to Lujon’s suggestion of dominoes and brandy. Like Latour, Vaillant does not hold himself aloof from the people he has come to New Mexico to serve. He may be “ugly,” as the women of the rancho note, but, also as they note, he is also “very holy” (p. 55), precisely because he is not “holier than thou.” He does not hold himself at arms’ length from anyone—Indian or Spanish, rich or poor—and he continually practices humility. Even his rationale for Lujon’s gift of both mules, while an undeniably shrewd move and spoken in good humor, bespeaks the truth about Vaillant: he and the Bishop do indeed see themselves, as Lujon recognizes, as “a pair of common parish priests” (p. 63). “I could not go about,” Vaillant tells Lujon, “on a mule like this when my Bishop rides a common hack” (p. 62). Again, this humility encourages an identification of the two clerics with Jesus—and, in this chapter, even with the pair of mules Vaillant obtains! Mules are common, hard-working animals—yet these particular mules are “rare creatures” (p. 60), who go about the business of the Church (in this chapter, normalizing the marital relations of Lujon’s servants, p. 55) and the work of bringing people to faith, diligently, faithfully, and humbly.
Consequently, one of those “miracles” Latour identified at the end of the previous chapter occurs at the end of this one, as Lujon is convinced to open his heart and give away something very dear to him, the two mules: “On my whole estate there is nothing I prize like those two” (p. 63). Biblically minded readers may think of the New Testament story of the rich young ruler, whom Jesus instructed to sell all that he had and give it to the poor. The rich young ruler was unable to do so, and so departed from Jesus, who noted, “How hard it will be for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God” (see Luke 18:18-23 and parallels). Lujon has “miraculously” been touched by love and has had his perception enlarged, and responds, unlike the rich young ruler, in generosity: “You will be all the happier,” Vaillant tells him, addressing him as “Manuelito,” an affectionate, diminutive form of his name, appropriate for a child—perhaps to emphasize that he, like his servants, is a child of God, and that he ought not lord himself over anyone else (p. 63). Lujon’s act can be seen as a “miracle” of sharing in a situation of supposed scarcity. Even Lujon seems to grasp that the transaction has been something special, and out of the ordinary: “Father Vaillant had forced his hand, but he was rather glad of it” (p. 63). Unlike the rich young ruler, Lujon has been brought not far from the kingdom.