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The Adventures Of A Spanish Nun

from The Strange Story Book





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 Senor 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 Lucar. 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 Senora 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 Senora; 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: 'Senor, 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 Senora'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 Senora 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.'


HIMSELF, IT WOULD HAVE GONE HARDLY WITH CATALINA]

'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!





Next: The Arabian Nights

Previous: The Boyhood Of A Painter



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