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A short story by Mrs. Andrew Lang

The Adventures Of A Spanish Nun

Title:     The Adventures Of A Spanish Nun
Author: Mrs. Andrew Lang [More Titles by Lang]

If you had visited the convent of St. Sebastian in the Spanish town of the same name at the end of the sixteenth century, you would have found there a merry, naughty, clever little girl called Catalina de Erauso, the torment and delight of all the nuns. Catalina had been sent to the convent when she was quite a baby, because her father, like many other gentlemen in the Spain of those days, was too poor to provide for his daughters as well as his sons. And in general the girls were happy enough in the life into which they had been thrust without any will of their own, and were allowed a certain amount of pleasure and could see their relations from time to time.

The Señor de Erauso, Catalina's father, had fixed on this particular convent out of the many he had for choice, because his sister-in-law was the Mother Superior. Like the rest of the nuns she was very fond of the child who was so ready with her tongue, so clever with her hands, so quick to forgive an injury done her, if only the offender would say she was sorry! Some day, no doubt, Catalina would take her place as abbess, and her aunt felt that under her rule all would go well, for unruly as the child often was, she had the gift of winning love from everybody.

But if she had only known, Catalina had not the smallest intention of spending her days in the convent overlooking the Bay of Biscay. From her father and brothers she heard stories of the wars which had quite lately been raging in France between the Catholics and Huguenots; how a few years earlier several of her own kinsmen had gone down in the great storm which had sunk so many of the ships of the huge Armada, sent to conquer England. Something, too, she picked up of the wonders of the lands beyond the ocean, discovered a hundred years ago by Christopher Columbus. All this and much more, Catalina stored in her head, and, though she said nothing even to her closest friends, soon began to play in her mind at 'escaping from the convent.'

At first she was only in fun, and enjoyed, as many of us do, making up stories about herself. Then gradually the idea of taking part in the big world beyond the gates became too precious to set aside, and at last it so possessed her, that she only waited for the chance of carrying it out.

This happened when she was fifteen--a tall, strong, handsome girl full of energy and courage, and quick to decide whatever question came before her.

* * * * *

One day the nuns assembled as usual for vespers or evening prayers, and just as they were all going into chapel the Superior discovered that she had left her psalm-book upstairs, locked in her writing-table. Summoning Catalina, she handed her a key, and bade her unlock the drawer in which the book was kept, and bring it to her as fast as possible. The girl ran upstairs, but when she saw lying in the locked drawer, not only the book, but the key of the convent gate, it darted into her mind that now, if ever, was her opportunity to quit the convent. Yet even at that moment, she did not let her excitement get the better of her. She snatched up some loose money from the drawer and a small work-case that lay on a table and hid it in her dress, and without stopping a moment ran down to the great door of the convent, which she unlocked. She next rejoined her aunt who was waiting for her, and asked if she might go straight to bed, as she had a bad headache.

In this manner she secured to herself a good start, as no one would think about her for hours to come. She passed through the door carefully, locking it after her, and crept cautiously along by the wall till she reached a chestnut wood on the outskirts of the town. Here she flung herself down on a heap of dry leaves and slept till sunrise. This, fortunately for her, was very early, as she had much to do before she continued her journey. Her dress would have told any passer-by that she was a nun, or at least that she had come from a convent, and that was the last thing they must ever guess! Slipping off therefore her white petticoat, Catalina began at once to turn it into trousers such as men then wore, and in three or four hours had finished a pair which, if not exactly fashionable, would pass unnoticed. She next managed to change her long robe into a cloak, and satisfied that she would do well enough, the girl started on a walk to a town not far off, where she had resolved to try and find shelter with an elderly cousin.

It took her two days to arrive at his house, and all that time she had nothing but wild fruits and berries to live on. Of course she did not tell the cousin who she was, but merely asked if he would give hospitality to a traveller for a short time, which the kind old man was glad to do. Here Catalina rested after the fatigues she had undergone, but life in the town house was far more dull than life in the convent, and the girl had not run away for that! So in a few days she was again missing, and a handful of dollars also. Not very many, but just enough to take her on her way.

* * * * *

We meet Catalina next in the famous city of Valladolid, where King Philip III. was holding his court. Here she found things much more to her taste, and like what she had pictured. Men were walking through the streets in huge felt hats, with flowing cloaks over their fine clothes. Coaches drawn by mules jolted along and inside she caught a glimpse of ringleted heads and small bodies lost under hooped petticoats. There were soldiers, too, in abundance and bands playing music--the first Catalina had ever heard outside the convent chapel. It so delighted her that she stopped to listen, and at that moment some idle men began to laugh at her clumsy garments, and even threw stones at her. This was more than any Spanish girl could bear, even if she had been brought up in a convent. She could--and did--throw stones too, with a better aim than theirs, and very soon blood from cut heads was streaming on the roads. But the Spanish police who hurried to the spot on hearing the cries of the wounded men, did not stop to inquire into the rights of the quarrel, and would have straightway flung Catalina into prison, had not a young officer who had been watching the fight from his windows hastened to interfere, and insisted that the stranger should be released.

'You are a brave boy,' he said, 'and if you like to be my page, I will gladly take you into my house.'

Catalina was grateful for the offer and remained there for three months, feeling very proud of herself in her page's dress of dark-blue velvet. She would have stayed with the young don for much longer, had she not been frightened out of her wits one night at dusk by the appearance, in the dark little ante-room where she sat, of her own father.

He did not know her, of course; how should he? But all the same, he had come to tell of her escape to Catalina's master, who was in a sort of way lord of the convent. Waiting in the ante-room, the girl heard all their conversation, and in dread lest she should fall into the hands of the Church and be sent back to St. Sebastian she resolved to run off before there was any risk of her being traced.

Now at that time a fleet was being fitted out for Peru, and was to sail from a seaport in the South. The scraps of talk on the subject which she had overheard in the house of the young don had fired her with the wish to go with the army in search of adventures. At the time there seemed little chance of her doing so, but while crossing the dark streets of Valladolid in her flight, the idea occurred to her that if she could manage to get on board one of the ships, she would be out of reach of capture. It was a long way to travel--almost the whole length of Spain--but by joining first one party and then another, Catalina at last found herself in the port of San Lúcar. All volunteers were welcome, and convent-bred though she was, Catalina soon managed to pick up a good deal of seamanship, while her clever hands and her strength combined made her quickly useful. Even with fair winds it was months before they reached the coast of Peru for which they were bound, and when they were almost there, their troubles began. A frightful storm arose that blew the fleet in all directions, and the vessel in which Catalina was serving was flung on a coral reef. The sea was running high, and the ship had a deep hole in her side, and all on board knew that twenty-four hours at farthest would see her sucked beneath the water.


At the prospect of this awful doom the sailors grew frantic, and hastened to lower the long-boat and scramble into it. The captain alone refused to leave the ship, and Catalina refused to leave him. Instead, she hurriedly lashed a few spars together so as to form a raft which, even if it would not support the weight of both, would at least give them something to cling to while they swam ashore. As she was working at the raft with all her might, a vivid flash of lightning showed an enormous wave breaking over the distant boat and sweeping away the crew, who disappeared for ever.

* * * * *

A fit of despondency had seized on the captain, and it was in vain that the girl tried to put some of her own spirit into him. At length she realised that she had only herself to depend on, and left him alone. As soon as the raft was ready, she went down to his cabin and broke open a box of gold, out of which she took a handful of coins, tying them up in a pillow-case and fastening them securely to the raft, for she dare not put them on her own person lest the weight should sink her when once she found herself in the sea.

The moment Catalina appeared again on deck, she saw that the ship was sinking fast, and that no time was to be lost. She lowered the raft and, calling to the captain to follow her, plunged into the sea. He obeyed her, but did not give the vessel a sufficiently wide berth, and, falling against a jutting spar, was struck senseless and sucked under the vessel. Catalina had managed better. She contrived to get on the raft and was gently washed on shore by the rising tide, though she was too much exhausted by all she had gone through to have been able to swim there for herself.

For a while she lay upon the sand almost unconscious, but the hot sun which appeared suddenly above the horizon warmed her body and dried her clothes, and awoke her usual energy. She soon sat up and looked about her, but the prospect was not cheering; a desolate track stretched away north and south, and she did not know on which side stood the town of Paita whither the fleet had been bound. However, she reflected she would never find it by sitting still, and got up and climbed a rock to enable her to see farther. Great was her joy at beholding that the raft, with the money on it, had stuck in a cleft some way off along the beach, and after she had placed the coins in her own pockets she perceived a barrel of ship's biscuits at a little distance. To be sure, the biscuits were half soaked with sea water, but even so they tasted quite nice to a starving girl.

* * * * *

A walk of three days brought her to Paita, where she bought some fresh clothes and obtained a situation as clerk to a merchant. But she did not keep this very long, as she incurred the jealousy of a young man who owed money to her employer. He picked a violent quarrel with Catalina, who had to fight a duel with him. Without intending to kill him, her sword passed through his body, with the result that she soon found herself in the hands of the police. By a mixture of cunning and good fortune, Catalina managed to escape from the prison in which she was confined, and making her way through the narrow streets to the harbour, she got into a small boat moored there and hoisted a sail. She was afraid to use the oars as she had no means of muffling them. The wind was behind her and she was quickly swept far out to sea,--in what direction she had not the least idea. For hours she saw nothing, and was wondering if she had escaped so many dangers only to die of hunger and thirst, when towards sunset she beheld a ship coming straight across her path. With her heart in her mouth she waved her handkerchief, though it seemed hardly possible that so small a thing should be visible in that vast expanse of sea. But it was, and the ship lay to, waiting for the boat to be blown up to her, which happened just after the sun had set beneath the horizon, and the short twilight of the tropics was over. Then it occurred to Catalina that if the name of her boat was seen she might be traced as having come from Paita, and be given up for murder. So standing up she rocked it gently from side to side till it was filled with water, then giving it a final kick to make sure it would sink, snatched at the rope which was dangling down the ship's side, and was hauled on board.

The vessel was on her way to Chili and was filled with recruits for the war then raging with the Indians, and Catalina of course at once declared her wish to throw in her lot with them. When at length they arrived at the port for which they were bound, a cavalry officer came to inspect the newly enlisted soldiers before they were landed, and Catalina was startled to hear him addressed by her own name. It was, though he was quite unaware of it, her eldest brother, who had last seen her when she was three years old. Yet, though from first to last he never guessed the truth, he took an immediate fancy to 'Pedro Diaz'--for so Catalina called herself--and, as soon as he heard that Pedro was a native of his own province of Biscaya, greeted him kindly and placed him in his own regiment. But much as she longed to tell him who she was, she dared not do so, for who could tell, if it were once known that she was a woman and had run away from a convent, what the consequences might be?

* * * * *

Years passed away and Catalina--or 'Pedro Diaz'--had distinguished herself on many occasions as a cavalry officer. Then a terrible thing occurred. A lieutenant in her own regiment came to her and begged her to be his 'second' in a duel to be fought at eleven that night under the walls of a monastery. Catalina, though ready enough with her own sword if her hot temper was roused, had no fancy for duelling, and somehow felt more than usually unwilling to be mixed up with this affair. However, the young man begged her so earnestly not to refuse his request that at last she consented. When the moment arrived it was so dark that the two 'principals' were forced to tie white handkerchiefs round their arms, in order to see where to attack; and as they were afraid of arousing the attention of the monks, hardly a word was spoken. The signal was given by the other second, and the duel began--a duel 'to the death.' After a sharp struggle both principals fell to the ground, wounded mortally, and according to the code of honour, which lasted nearly a hundred years longer, it was necessary for the seconds to fight in order to avenge them. To Catalina, who had no quarrel with any one, this custom was hateful, and she tried only to defend herself without touching her adversary. But in the dark her foot slipped and the point of her sword entered his side.

'Villain! You have killed me!' he cried. They were his last words, and the voice that uttered them was the voice of Catalina's brother!

Too much horrified to stir, the poor woman remained glued to the spot, till she found herself suddenly seized by the monks who had been awakened by the clash of weapons and by de Erauso's dying shriek. The glare of their torches revealed that out of the four men who had met on the ground half an hour earlier only one survived, and that one was too crushed by the dreadful fate which had befallen her to be able to give any explanation. The monks kept her safely in their chapel for a few days, and then, when her mind and body had partly recovered from the shock, they provided her with a horse and a knapsack filled with food, and bade her farewell. But where to go she knew not. After the awful thing that had happened she could never return to her regiment.

* * * * *

After three days' riding she came suddenly upon two soldiers who had deserted from the Spanish army, and were almost starving. As soon as Catalina had shared her food with them and they felt revived, they all agreed that their best plan was to climb over the great mountain chain of the Andes, which runs the whole length of South America, and once on the other side they would be safe and free to go where they would.

They little knew what they were undertaking. Many of the peaks are over 20,000 feet high, and are covered with perpetual snow. There was rarely to be found any material for a fire, and if by any chance they did come on a few sticks, they were ignorant of the Indians' secret of kindling a flame. Soon, even the wild berries of the lower regions were left behind; there was nothing for them to eat, and very shortly it became evident that the day of the deserters was done.

By this time they were among masses of rocks which stood out in black groups from the snow, and for an instant hope rose again in their hearts at the sight of a man leaning against a tall pillar of stone, with a gun in his hand. There was something to shoot then in this fearful white solitude! An eagle perhaps, or, better still, a bear; and with a cry of joy to her companions, Catalina hastened on to greet the stranger. At the news, fresh life seemed to pour into their veins and they stumbled after her as fast as their weakness would allow. They were a little surprised that the man never appeared to see or hear them as they approached, but imagined that the snow had deadened the sound of their footsteps. Was he asleep? In that position? It was not likely! Certainly there was something very odd about him, and Catalina, striding on before the two soldiers, touched him on the shoulder. With a clatter the gun fell to the ground beside him, but he himself did not stir. Then the frightful truth burst upon her. The man was frozen to death!

After this there was no more hope for the two deserters. One sank into the snow first, the other staggered a few yards farther, and upon both came the frozen sleep that knows no waking and which, it is said, is painless.

* * * * *

So Catalina was left to pursue her way alone, wondering all the while how soon her strength also would fail her, and her bones be left to whiten with the rest. There was something more dreadful to her in the solitude and stillness of the mountains than there ever had been in the solitude of the sea, on the lonely coast of Peru. Yet she went on blindly, almost unconsciously, till she was awakened from her half-paralysed state by the sight of a belt of olive trees lying below her. Where there were trees, there was probably water; possibly, even men! And down she went, stumbling over stones, sliding along the edge of precipices, till she fell, senseless from exhaustion, under their shadow.

It was hours before she came to herself again, and she might have slept on still longer, had not the sound of horses' hoofs aroused her. The wood was thick and the horsemen might have passed without noticing the figure in the tall grass, had not a ray of sunshine suddenly struck on some silver lace of Catalina's uniform. Jumping instantly to the ground, they examined her closely and guessed at the reasons of her plight. Taking out a skin bottle, one poured brandy down her throat--though it was no light matter to force her teeth open--and another rubbed her temples. After she had shown signs of life they placed her on a horse, supporting her in the saddle, for she was still too weak and dazed to sit upright.

It was a long time--or it seemed so to Catalina--before the little company drew up at the door of a large house, and a girl ran out to see how it was that the servants who had been sent by her mother to the nearest town should have returned so soon. The poor wanderer received from both ladies the kindest welcome; and food, a warm bed, and rest soon set her to rights, and of course nobody dreamed that she was anything but the soldier she appeared. For a while Catalina was thankful to remain where she was, basking in the sun and enjoying the company of the Señora and her daughter.

It was the first time since she left Valladolid that she had ever been inside a home.

Yet, grateful as she was for all the kindness shown her, Catalina felt she could not remain for ever a guest of the widowed Señora; and she was glad when the lady proposed that they should all visit a large town lying to the south, for purposes of business. 'And,' Catalina thought to herself, 'it will be easy for me, when I am once there, to invent some excuse for bidding them farewell. I cannot pass my life in a hammock under trees, thankful though I am for the rest which has been given me.' But she did not guess that the 'excuse' she wanted was to be obtained only at the risk of her own neck.

Wandering about the town, she fell in with some Portuguese, and as she was fond of cards she was readily persuaded by them to sit down and gamble. Very soon, her suspicions were roused that they were not playing fair, and she watched them more closely.

'Yes; I was sure of it,' she thought, and grew so angry that she would have liked to challenge the whole twelve on the spot. Luckily, she contrived with great difficulty to restrain herself, and resolved only to fight the man who had won most of her money.

When this person left the gambling saloon, Catalina kept him in sight, but did not attempt to speak to him till she saw him stop before one of the houses in a dark street. Then she quickened her steps, and, tapping him on the shoulder, remarked: 'Señor, you are a robber.'

'It is possible,' answered the Portuguese, turning coolly; 'but I don't care about being told so,' and drew his sword.

Catalina drew hers, and, after a quick sharp fight, dealt him a mortal blow. As he fell, she looked round hastily, fearing that some of his friends might be at hand to avenge him, but all was silent. Satisfied that nobody was watching her, she tried the door, which opened instantly, and dragged the body into the passage. This done she went back to the Señora's house, and getting into bed slept soundly, only awakening the following morning to find her room filled with police.

Catalina never knew exactly how her fight with the dead man had been discovered, and as she was instantly put in prison to await her trial, perhaps it did not much matter. False witnesses were easily found who trumped up a story of vengeance, and it was useless for Catalina to swear that she had never seen the Portuguese gentleman till that evening, and knew nothing at all about him. The fact that the dead man was a native of the place, while she was a stranger, told heavily against her, and sentence was passed that she should be hanged in the public square in eight days' time.

Wearing her lieutenant's uniform from which she steadily declined to be parted, Catalina walked firmly up the ladder to the gallows on the appointed day. The executioner was new to his work, and bungled the noose which he had to place round Catalina's neck.

'Here, let me do it,' she said at last; 'it is plain you have never been at sea.' But all the same, the man's clumsiness had saved her, for before he could pull the knot, an order arrived from the Governor of the State to postpone the execution till fresh inquiries could be made. In the end the truth came out, and Catalina was set free, but was advised by the Governor not to remain in that part of the country for the present.

The advice was felt to be good by them all, but as Catalina had no money the good Señora again came to the rescue, and gave her enough to buy a horse and to take her to a large town, where she might find something to do. When at length Catalina reached the city, which bore the name of Paz or 'Peace,' some soldiers who were lounging in the streets stood up, and stared so hard at her beautiful black horse that Catalina began to suspect that something was the matter. The soldiers said nothing whatever to her, but one of them, catching sight of a gentleman a few paces off, ran up to him and whispered something. The mayor, for such he was, walked up to Catalina, who inquired if she could be of service to him.

'These men,' said he, 'declare that the horse you are riding was stolen from them.'

Catalina did not answer directly, but, leaping to the ground, flung the loose saddle-cloth over the horse's head. 'I bought it and paid for it in La Plata,' she replied; 'but if, your worship, these men really own the horse, they will be able to tell you which is its blind eye.'

'The left,' cried one.

'No; the right,' exclaimed the other.

'Well, it must be one of the two, mustn't it, your worship?' asked she.

'No, no! we remember now,' they replied, consulting each other by a glance and a sign; 'it is the left, of course.'

'Are you sure?' she asked again. 'Yes--quite sure; certain.'

Upon that Catalina whisked off the saddle-cloth, and said gaily to the mayor:

'Now, your worship, if you will take the trouble to look, you will see that the horse has nothing the matter with either eye!'

Then she bowed and rode away to look for a dinner.

* * * * *

Catalina's last adventure in South America was a wild ride to the town of Cuzco, carrying on her saddle a lady whose half-mad husband was seeking to murder her. He was following fast behind, and his horse was laden with no double burden, so that in every way he had the advantage. But Catalina was a better rider, and had some start, so, in spite of a wound in her horse's flank, she won the day and placed the lady in safety in a convent. The husband, arriving just in time to see his victim escape him, at once unsheathed his sword, and inflicted some severe wounds on Catalina. Indeed, had it not been for the interference of the bishop himself, it would have gone hardly with her.

But when, half fainting from loss of blood, she was carried into the palace and a doctor was summoned, she knew that the moment she had dreaded had come, and that she must now confess that, in spite of all her exploits and all her daring, she was only a woman. Always prompt to make up her mind, she asked for an interview with the bishop, who listened to her tale with amazement and sympathy. By his advice she entered a convent till he could write to Spain and to the Pope, and obtain forgiveness for having thrown off her nun's habit, nearly twenty years before. As soon as could be expected, though not till after many months, the answer came: Catalina was to be sent back to Spain.

* * * * *

It was at the end of November 1624 that the ship entered the harbour of Cadiz, and saw a gilded barge approaching, rowed by men in royal livery. Who could it be intended for? There was no one on board either great or famous! At least so they thought, but it appears they were wrong, for there was one person whose adventures had thrilled the hearts of both king and people, and that was Catalina herself. As she left the barge and mounted the steps she beheld the famous Minister Olivarez waiting to receive her, and crowds thronged the streets through which she passed on her way to the palace.

Here she was requested to tell her story to the court, and as some reward for her courage in battle and for her loyalty to the crown, a pension for life was settled upon her. Poor Catalina felt very strange in the stiff uncomfortable dress of a Spanish lady, and far more than her honours and her pension did she value the permission of the Pope (whom she visited at Rome a few months later) to wear on all occasions the uniform of a cavalry officer, together with a sword and spurs.

For ten years Catalina remained in Spain, leading a quiet life, and feeling, if the truth be told, terribly dull. She was forty-three when she heard that an expedition to South America was again being fitted out, and she lost no time in joining the army. Oh, how happy she was to be back in the old life, where, even in the slow voyages of those times, a stirring adventure might befall you at any hour of the day or night! They sailed first to the Gulf of Mexico and stopped in the port of Vera Cruz, where the officers arranged to go on shore and have a grand dinner at the best inn in the place. Catalina was of course to go with them, and jumped into the boat with the rest, laughing and talking in the highest spirits as if twenty years had rolled from her. In a quarter of an hour they reached the inn, but as they gathered round the table, someone inquired: 'Where is Catalina?'

'Catalina? Isn't she here?' was the answer. 'Certainly she was in the boat, for she sat by me!'

'Well, but where has she gone?' Ah! that no one knew--and what is more, no one ever did know!

[The end]
Mrs. Andrew Lang's short story: Adventures Of A Spanish Nun