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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 27 - El Convento de Santa Cruz

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 confinement.

For an 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 perpetrated.'

'But yesternight—only 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 of yours?'

'No. She 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 oath—an oath which may not be broken—that 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 last.'

His form 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 pipes—from 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 century.

Ronald 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 nuns—three 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

a 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?'

'Well, padre.'

''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 says-----'

'Never mind what it says. For Heaven's sake, mi amigo, leave me to write in peace.'

'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 wish—indeed, 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 revenge—deep, 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 gone—days spent in perfect happiness with her—thoughts 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 her—but 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 Fassifern—the 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 it—bread, 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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