of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 27 - El Convento de
GRAY daylight was
struggling through the mullioned windows of the nunnery of Santa Cruz de
Jarciejo, which stood close on the skirts of the wood, when the portress
was aroused from her straw pallet by a loud peal at the bell, which hung
in the porch. On withdrawing the wooden cover of the vizzy-hole in the
outer door, she crossed herself, and turned up her eyes; and instead of
attending to those without, ran to tell the lady abbess that a British
officer on horseback, bearing in his arms a dead woman, had been led
thither by the old padre Ignacio el Pastor, who was demanding admittance.
The abbess, who in the convent was known as El Madre Santa Martha, had
many scruples about opening the gates to them, but another tremendous peal
at the bell, seconded by a blow which Ronald dealt with the basket-hilt of
his sword on the iron-studded door, put an end to the matter, and she
desired the portress to usher them into the parlatorio. Entering the
gateway in the massive wall surrounding the gardens of the convent, they
were led through the formal lines of flower-beds and shrubbery to the main
building, where a carved Gothic door in a low round archway, on the
keystone of which appeared a mouldered cross, gave them admittance to the
chamber called the parlatorio, where the sisters were allowed to receive
the visits of their friends at the iron gratings in a stone screen which
crossed the room, completely separating it from the rest of the convent.
These grates were strong bars of iron, crossed and recrossed with wire, so
as to preclude all possibility of touching the inmates, who now crowded
close to them, all gazing with amazement and vague apprehension at the
corse of the young lady, which the officer deposited gently on a wooden
bench, and seated himself beside it in apathetic sorrow, unmindful of the
many pitying eyes that were fixed upon him. Meanwhile the lady abbess, a
handsome woman about twenty, with a stately figure, a remarkably fine
face, and soft hazel eyes, entered the apartment, and advanced to where
Catalina lay, with the tenderest commiseration strongly marked on her
features, which, like those of the sisterhood, were pale and sallow from
explanation of the scene before her, she turned to the decrepit old priest
Ignacio el Pastor, or the Shepherd, a name which he had gained in
consequence of his having become a guardian of Merino sheep among the
mountains of the Lina on the demolition of his monastery, which had been
destroyed by the French troops when Marshal Massena was devastating the
country in his retreat.
Interlarding his narrative with many a Spanish
proverb, he related the tale of Catalina's assassination. The querulous
tones of his voice were interrupted by many a soft expression of pity and
pious ejaculation from the sisters at the grating, gazing with morbid
curiosity on the fair form of the dead, whose high bosom was covered with
coagulated blood, and the long spiral curls of whose ringlets swept the
pavement of the chamber.
The lady abbess, who was far from being one of
those sour, ancient dames that the superiors of convents are generally
reputed to be, seated herself by Ronald's side, and seeing that, although
his proud dark eyes were dry and tearless, he was deeply afflicted, she
prayed him to be comforted ; but he hid his face among the thick tresses
of the dead, and made no immediate reply.
' She is indeed most beautiful! As she now
lies, her features wear a sublimity which might become an image of Our
Lady,' observed the abbess, passing her hand softly over the cold white
brow of Catalina. 'She seems only to sleep,her white eyelids and long
black lashes are so placidly closed ! And this is the sister of the noble
Cavalier de Villa Franca, of whom we hear so much? If man can avenge, Don
Alvaro will do it amply.'
'Avenge her!' muttered Ronald, through his
clenched teeth. 'Noble senora, that task shall be mine.'
'Alas! cavalier,' interrupted the abbess, we
commit a deadly sin in talking thus.'
'Echemos pelillos a la mar. says the proverb ;
we must forget and forgive,' chimed in El Pastor. 'Vengeance belongs not
to this earth, 'tis not ours, miserable reptiles as we are. What sayeth
the holy writ? Lo, you now------'
'Peace, Ignacio; I would speak. You are
getting into the burden of come old sermon of yours, and it is a wonder
you put so many words together without another proverb,' said the lady
abbess, as she took Ronald's hand kindly within her own, which indeed was
a very soft and white one. 'El Pastor's account of this affair is somewhat
confused: Tell me, senor, how long it is since this dreadful deed was
yesternightonly yesternight. To me it appears as if a thousand years had
elapsed since then, and the events of years ago seem to have passed hut
yesterday. All is confusion and chaos in my mind.'
'The noble senora was, perhaps, some relation
is of Spain,I, of Scotland.'
'Your wife, possibly, senor?'
'My wedded wife indeed she would have been,
had she lived; but that resolve came too late !' he replied in a troubled
voice, as he pressed the hand of Catalina to his lips. 'But, senoritas, I
must not spend longer time in childish sorrow,' he added, starting up and
erecting his stout and handsome figure before the eyes of the sisterhood,
who, in spite of their veils and hoods, knew how to admire a smart young
soldier with a war-worn suit of harness. 'It would not become me to do so,
and my duties call me elsewhere. Every means must be taken to bring
retribution on the head of the demon Narvaez; and I trust that the great
Power which suffers no crime to pass unpunished will aid me in discovering
him one day before I leave Spain. Divine vengeance will again place him at
my mercy, as he has been twice before, when, but for my ill-timed
interference, Don Alvaro had slain him,and my heart leaps within me at
the thought of having his base blood upon my weapon. Yes, senoritas, his
blood, shed with my own hands, and streaming hot and thick upon them, can
alone avenge the death of Catalina. Some fatality seems continually to
throw this monster in my way; and if ever we cross each other again, most
fully, amply, and fearfully shall this unfortunate be revenged ; for I
have sworn a secret oathan oath which may not be brokenthat wherever I
meet Cifuentes within the realm of Spain, on moor or mountain, in city,
camp, or field, there will I slay him, though the next moment should be my
appeared to dilate while he spoke, and his eyes sparkled with a keen and
fiery expression, which attested the firmness of his determination and the
bold recklessness of his heart. The excitement under which he laboured
imparted a new eloquence to his tones, and grace to his gesture : but he
panted rather than breathed while he spoke ; and the fierce glitter of his
eye, together with the strange ferocity of the words which his love and
sorrow prompted, caused the timid nuns of Santa Cruz to shrink back from
the iron gratings.
'Ah! senor,' said the abbess, laying her hand upon his shoulder, 'I have
already said vengeance is not ours. But you have spoken gallantly!'
'A noble cavalier! Viva!' cried El Pastor, in
a chuckling tone. 'Hernandez de Cordova could not have spoken more
bravely. Bueno como el pan, as the old proverb tells us.'
But when this burst of passion evaporated, he
was again the sad and sorrowful young man that he had at first appeared.
As he refused to partake of any refreshment, although pressed by the
abbess to do so, the padre El Pastor led him out to the convent garden,
while the nuns made preparations for the entombment of Catalina in their
oratory, or chapel. It was a bright sunshine morning; but Ronald was
careless of its beauty and of the fragrance of the flowers freshly
blooming in the morning dew; the beautiful arrangements of the place, the
arbours, the sparkling fountains, the statues of stone and marble,he
passed them all by unheeded.
That night Catalina was buried in the chapel.
The building was brilliantly illuminated with coloured lamps, the softened
lights of which were reflected from the gilded columns,from the organ
with its tall row of silver trumpet-like pipesfrom the rich altars and
statues of polished metal placed in niches, where golden candlesticks bore
tall twinkling tapers, which from their recesses cast a strange light on
the marble tombs of knights and long-departed warriors, whose rusty
swords, spurs, and faded banners were yet in some places hung over them,
and whose deeds were represented on the ancient pieces of mouldy and
moth-eaten tapestry which hung gloomily on the side-walls of the chapel,
contrasted strongly with the glittering images and gorgeously-coloured
scripture-pieces, many of them said to be the productions of Alonza Cano,
the Michael Angelo of Spain, who flourished during the seventeenth
Stuart, the only mourner there, walked by the side of the shell, or basket
of wicker-work, which contained all that remained of Catalina, and which
was borne through the chapel and deposited on the high altar by six of the
youngest nunsthree on each side, carrying it by handles projecting from
the sides of the frame.
The requiem for the dead was now chanted, and
the dulcet notes of the lofty organ, blending in one delightful strain
with the melodious voices of the nuns, ringing among the pillared aisles,
echoing in the hollow vaults, and dying away in the distant arches of the
cloisters, produced such heavenly sounds as subdued the heart of Stuart,
softening and soothing his sorrow. He listened in a sort of ecstasy,
almost deeming that the thrilling voice of Catalina was mingled with the
inspiring harmony he heard. He was moved to tears, tears of sadness and
enthusiasm, and almost involuntarily he sunk on his knees at the marble
steps of the altar, an attitude which raised him immensely in the
estimation of El Pastor and the sisterhood, while the bright eyes of the
mitred abbess sparkled as she stretched her white hands glittering with
jewels over him, as if welcoming him to that Church, the tenets of which
he had never yet inquired into. He had knelt down thus merely from excess
of veneration and a holy feeling, with which the sublime service of the
Roman Catholic Church had inspired him. The music arose to its utmost
pitch at that moment ; the voices of the nuns and choristers mounted to
the full swell; the trumpets of the organ pealed along the groined roof,
and caused the massive columns and the pavement beneath them to tremble
and vibrate with the soul-stirring grandeur of the sound.
In the chancel, before the great altar, a
pavement-stone had been raised and a deep grave dug, the soil of which lay
piled in a gloomy heap on the lettered stones around its yawning mouth.
On the chant being ended, four priests bore
the bier of Catalina to the side of the grave which was to receive her.
The wicker coffin or shell had no lid, and Ronald now looked upon her pale
and still beautiful features for the last time. She was not enveloped in a
ghastly shroud, but, after the fashion of her own country, had been
arrayed by the nuns in a dress of the whitest muslin, adorned with the
richest lace and edgings of needle-work. Her fine hair was disposed over
her neck and bosom. A large chaplet of freshly-gathered white roses
encircled her forehead, giving her the appearance of a bride dressed for
the bridal rather than a corse for the tomb; and, but for the mortal
paleness of her complexion, one would have supposed that she only slept,
so placidly did her closed eyelashes repose upon her soft cheek.
While a slow, sad, but exquisitely melancholy
dirge arose, the barefooted priests proceeded to lower her into the cold
damp grave, but in a manner so peculiar and revolting, that the lover, who
had never witnessed
Spanish interment before, almost sprung forward to stay their proceeding.
Instead of lowering the coffin into the grave, they took out the body,
permitting it to sink gently into its narrow bed without other covering
than the lace and muslin, part of which El Pastor drew over her face and
ringlets, to hide them from mortal eyes for ever. Each monk now seized a
shovel, and rapidly the coffinless remains were covered up with dry sand,
provided for the purpose.
The feelings of poor Ronald were sadly
outraged at the barbarous mode of interment common in Spain for those not
of the families of grandees, but remonstrance would have been unavailing.
The scraping and jarring of the iron shovels on the pavement, as they
hurled in decayed bones, damp red clay, stones, and sand on that fair and
unprotected form, grated horribly on his ears ; but how did he shrink and
revolt from the pommeling of the body ! A stout padre, seizing a billet of
wood, shod with an iron ferule like a pavier's rammer, began to tread upon
the grave and rapidly beat down the earth into it, so that all that had
been taken out should be again admitted. He had not given a dozen strokes
in this disgusting manner before Ronald shook off his apathy ; and
grasping him by the cope, dragged him fiercely backwards, commanding them
at once to desist from a proceeding so distressing. Two priests, with the
aid of iron levers, deposited a slab of marble above the tomb, and it was
closed for ever. It bore the hastily-carved legend:
Aqui yace Catalina de Villa Franca.
The slab probably remains yet in the chapel,
if the convent of Santa Cruz has escaped the wars of the Carlists and
Christinos. As soon as this sad ceremony was concluded, Ronald retired.
Two-and-thirty years have now elapsed since
the tomb closed over Catalina, but time has not yet effaced from Stuart's
memory the emotions which he felt when hearing the sound of the dull, cold
earth falling on her unshrouded bosom! In the parlatorio he composed
himself to write a long letter to Donna Inesella, giving an account of her
cousin's destruction, and bitterly upbraiding himself as being the leading
cause in the affair, although in reality he was not. The reader will
remember that it was her own desire and determination to confide herself
to the care of the pretended priest at Almarez.
Owing to the tumult in his mind, Ronald found
the composition of the letter no easy task, especially as that garrulous
old man, El Pastor, remained at his elbow, chattering away on unconnected
subjects, and bringing out now and then some musty Spanish proverb.
'Look ye, senor,' said he, regardless of the
blots and blunders that his interruptions caused Stuart to make ; ' do you
see that image of our Holy Lady in the niche yonder?'
''Tis the work of Alonza Cano.'
'Pshaw! what is that to me? I never heard of
the gentleman before.'
'He was the first of Spanish architects and
painters, and with his own hands adorned many of our finest churches and
palaces. He was born at Grenada in the year 1600, and as the proverb
mind what it says. For Heaven's sake, mi amigo, leave me to write in
'Did you but
know that he lost the woman he loved by a dagger-stroke from a matador,
you would probably care more for the story of his singular misfortunes.'
'Pardon me, padre,' said Ronald, with a
melancholy interest; ' what were they?'
'The full career of Alonza's glory was cut
short thus. One evening, on returning home, he found his wife, a most
beautiful woman, lying-dead, with a dagger planted in her heart. His
servant, a vile Italian, the perpetrator of the deed, had fled, and by
order of the alcalde mayor, Alonza was arrested, and charged with having
slain the lady in a fit of jealousy. The dagger which the assassin used
was known to be that of Alonza; he was a man naturally of a fierce and
jealous temper, and had kept watchful eyes on the senora, who was the
handsomest woman that ever promenaded on the Prado, or Plaza, at Madrid;
and the compliments paid her by the gay cavaliers and guardsmen of the
capital were as molten lead poured into the heart of her husband, though
of course very proud of her, for she was a fine creature,Como un palmito,
as the old proverb says.'
'Is this all the story, Ignacio?'
'The rest is yet to come. The tail is the
worst, senor; as the old saw says,Aun le falta la cola por desollar.'
'The devil take your saws and proverbs! You
are as full of them as your countryman Sancho Panza.'
'Well, senor; Alonza was racked without mercy
to extort confession, and he endured the most horrible torments without
uttering a word to criminate himself. By the king's order he was set free,
and died at a great age, a poor priest like myself. In his dying hour,
when a brother held a crucifix before his glazing eyes, he desired him to
remove it, saying the image of our Saviour was so clumsily done, that the
sight of it pained him; as the proverb says, senor, De paja------'
But Ronald did not permit him to finish the
adage, requesting him to retire in a manner that was not to be disputed.
Early next morning he was despatched to Idanha-a-Velha, bearing the letter
for Donna Inesella. He resolutely refused to take a single maravedi to
defray his expenses, although the journey was a very long one. So simple
were his habits of living, learned while a shepherd among the mountains,
that he could easily subsist on charity and what he could pick up by the
wayside, where ripe oranges, luscious grapes, and juicy pumpkins grew
wild, or by chanting songs to the sound of the rebeck,a primitive kind of
guitar, having only three strings.
'I am accustomed to a wandering life, senor,'
said he, as he bade Ronald adieu; 'it suits and squares with me
perfectly,Quadrado y esquinado, as the proverb has it. Frail and withered
as I appear, I can well bear fatigue, and am as tough as an old toledo,
and will undertake to reach Idanha-a-Velha almost as soon as if mounted on
the best mule that ever bore the sign of the cross on its back.'
To keep his promise, pledged to Catalina,
Ronald paid into the treasury of the convent two golden onzas, to obtain
masses for her departed spirit. Let it not be imagined for a moment that
he believed in their efficacy; but he remembered that it was Catalina's
wishindeed, almost her last request, that such should be done, and he
paid the onzas rather as a duty of affection than religion. This act left
him in indifferent pecuniary circumstances, as it carried off the whole
month's subsistence which he had received from the regimental paymaster
after the storm of Almarez. Pay was a scarce matter with the Peninsular
troops, who, at the time the battle of Vittoria was fought, had not
received a single farthing for upwards of six months.
An apartment opening off the parlatorio had
been fitted up for Ronald by the orders of the lady abbess, and perhaps
this was the only occasion ever known of a man sleeping under the roof of
the convent of the Holy Cross,an event which, had it happened during the
days of the terrible inquisition, would probably have been the means of
dooming the abbess to death, and her nuns to some severe penance.
It was a gloomy little chamber, with a grated
window, through which came the rays of the moon, and the rich fragrance of
flowers from the garden. A gaudily-painted Spanish bedstead, without
curtains, stood in one corner, and a solitary chair resting in another
constituted its furniture, unless I include a large wooden crucifix reared
against the wall, and a skull placed near it on a bracket. Ronald scarcely
slept during all that night. His mind was alternately a prey to the
deepest sorrow and wildest longings for vengeance that the human heart is
capable of feeling. Many were the plans which his fertile imagination
suggested for the discovery of the matador; but owing to the totally
disorganized state of the country, the subversion of its laws and the
weakness of its civil authorities, he was aware that his attempts would be
alike fruitless and unavailing, and that the cavalier, Don Alvaro, from
the rank of his family, his known bravery, and favour among the populace,
would be more likely to have him brought to justice.
At times, when the outrage which Catalina had
suffered came vividly into his imagination, his blood boiled within him,
and his heart panted with a tiger-like feeling for revengedeep, deadly,
and ample revenge; and nothing short of the blood of Cifuentes, shed with
his own sword, could satisfy the craving he felt for retribution. The next
moment he was all subdued in grief and tenderness, when he remembered the
happy days he had spent with Catalina at Merida, the soft expression of
her eyes, the sweet tones of her voice, their rambles among the ruins and
rich scenery of the city, its sunny streets and shady public walks, where
she was the leading belle, and the glory delight, and admiration of the
cloaked and moustached cavaliers, and the envy of the veiled and stately
donnas who frequented the green Prado in the evening, or promenaded under
the cool arches of the paseo during the hottest part of the day. While the
recollections of these departed moments of transitory enjoyment passed in
quick succession through his mind, Alice Lisle was not forgotten; but the
remembrance of her only added to the tortures of that mental rack on which
Stuart appeared to be stretched.
Thoughts of the days that were gonedays spent
in perfect happiness with herthoughts that he strove in vain to repel,
arose at times, causing his divided heart to swell within his bosom till
its cords seemed about to snap. Love struggled strongly with love in his
breast. He unclasped the miniature of Alice, and gazed upon it by the
light of the moon. He had not looked upon it for many, many months, and
his eyes filled with tears while he did so now, and recalled the joyous
expression of her hazel eye and merry ringing of her girlish laugh ; but
when he thought of Lord Hyndford, the newspaper paragraph, and the cold
conduct of her brother, he closed it with vehemence, and looked upon it no
more that night. Even a long-wished-for slumber, when it came at last, was
disturbed by dreams no less painful than his waking thoughts.
He imagined that he was in the splendid chapel
of Santa Cruz, and that Catalina stood beside him in all her dignity and
beauty, arrayed as he had seen her last, in a profusion of white lace and
muslin. She yet lived! The idea of her death was but a horrible dream. Oh,
what ecstasy was in that thought! No black tomb was yawning in the
chancel, but the aisles were crowded by a gay party, whose forms appeared
wavering, indistinct, and indescribable. But Ronald recked not of them;
Catalina was there, with her eyes sparkling, her cheek blushing, and her
tresses flowing as of old, and orange-buds were entwined with the white
roses of her coronal. He embraced herbut lo! a change came over the
features of the Spanish maiden, and they became the softer but equally
beautiful features of Alice Lisle! A low and heavenly melody stole upon
his ears : he started, and awoke.
The music he had heard in his sleep was
filling every part of the convent, announcing that morning matins had
begun. Stuart sprang from the couch, troubled with his visions, and
unrefreshed by his slumbers. He hastily donned his regimentals, and
entering the chapel, seated himself in that part which was separated from
the nuns by a strong but richly gilt iron railing. He was surveyed with no
small interest by the sequestered sisterhood, to whom it was an uncommon
event to have within their walls a male guest, so different from the
bearded and shorn priests who came as privileged individuals. A handsome
young soldado, wearing the martial garb of a land which was, in their
ideas of geography, at an immense distance, and of which they had strange
notions, especially of the ferocity and wildness of its mountaineers, was
an object of thrilling interest to these timid creatures, who trembled at
the very mention of the dangers which their military guest had seen and
dared. He was very different from Pietro, their deformed gardener, or El
Pastor, that budget of proverbs, who was their daily visitor; and many
bright and beautiful eyes, though screened by hood of serge and veil of
lawn, were fixed searchingly upon him from the organ-loft and altar-steps
; but their presence was unheeded and uncared for by Stuart, whose eyes
were bent on the gray slab in the centre of the chancel, while his
thoughts were with the cold and coffinless form that lay beneath it,
bruised and crushed down in that dark and gloomy hole under a load of
earth. It was not until the matins were ended, and the sisters had
withdrawn, that he remembered where he was, and that the sooner he
prepared to rejoin his regiment and apologize for his singular absence the
better. Indeed, he had begun to feel some most unpleasant qualms and
doubts as to the issue of the matter, with so strict a commanding officer
as Cameron of Fassifernthe chief, as he was named by the mess ; and
visions of a general court-martial, a formidable array of charges, and a
sentence to be cashiered,' a sentence of which his Majesty is most
graciously pleased to approve,' arose before him.
He knew not whither the troops might have
marched from Almarez; and he feared that by crossing the Lina hills, which
were many miles distant, he might fall into the hands of the French, who
he knew occupied the adjacent country. For some time he was at a loss how
to act ; but, after due consideration, was led to believe that he might
fall in with some of the British troops at Truxillo, for which place he
determined to depart immediately, remembering at the same time that he
should have to appease the wrath of the Buenos Ayrean campaigner Don
Gonzago, who would undoubtedly be very indignant at his niece's interment
without his knowledge ; but, in fact, Ronald Stuart had totally forgotten
the existence of her uncle, which was the reason of the oversight. As he
left the chapel, he was met by the demure and starched old portress, who
invited him to breakfast with the lady abbess in an arbour in the garden.
It would have been inconsistent with courtesy and gallantry to have
refused, and contrary to his own inclination, for in truth he was half
famished, as he had not ' broken bread' since the night before the capture
of Almarez, and nature demanded nourishment. In the arbours of the garden,
which were formed of heavy masses of blooming rose-trees, honeysuckle, and
vines, supported by green painted trellis-work, the nuns were seated at
their simple repast, which was no sooner over, than they commenced their
daily occupation of making pin-cushions, embroidered shirt-collars,
tinting fans, and working brocade dresses, all of which were sold for the
benefit of the poor, or of the funds of the convent.
In a large arbour, at the back of which a cool spring of sparkling water
bubbled up in a marble basin, the smiling abbess was seated, awaiting her
guest. The table was covered with a white cloth, wrought over with
religious emblems, variously coloured, and in elaborate needlework. A
Spanish breakfast is usually a very simple one, but the abbess had made an
unusual display this morning. There were platters filled with grapes and
oranges, freshly pulled from the branches that formed the roof of the
arbour. A vase of boiled milk, flanked by two silver cups of chocolate so
thick that the spoons stood in itbread, butter, eggs, jellies, and
marmalade, composed the repast; to which was added a flask of the wine of
Ciudad Real, a place long famous for the quality of its produce.
The abbess did the honours of the table with a
grace which showed that, when in the world, she had been accustomed to the
best society in Spain. There was a sweetness in her tones, and an elegance
in every movement, which could not have failed to charm one less absorbed
in other thoughts than Ronald Stuart. However, he could not help remarking
the fine form of her hands, the dazzling whiteness of her arm, and the
beauty of her dark brown curls, which she wore in unusual abundance, and
showed rather more than was quite in character with one of her profession.
Stuart was too full of thought to prove an agreeable companion, and
behaved, I dare say, so very inattentively, that the gay abbess-thought
him a very dull fellow, notwithstanding his Highland uniform, and the
lively account he gave of his own distant home and what he had seen on
service in Spain.
After paying a last visit to the tomb of Catalina, he departed from the
convent. The abbess made a sign of the cross on his forehead, kissed him
on both cheeks, gave him her solemn blessing in Latin, and dismissed him
at the back-gate of the building, which stood on the Truxillo road.
As he rode along, mounted again on Campbell's
horse, many a glance he gave behind him, not at the figure of the
abbess, who waved her kerchief from the gate, but at the Gothic pinnacles
and high stone roof of the chapel, beneath which lay the mortal remains of
the once generous and ardent Catalina.
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