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Full Online Book HomeEssaysThe Spanish Nun - Part 1
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The Spanish Nun - Part 1 Post by :welshbeef Category :Essays Author :Thomas De Quincey Date :May 2012 Read :1413

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The Spanish Nun - Part 1

Why is it that _Adventures are so generally repulsive to people of meditative minds? It is for the same reason that any other want of law, that any other anarchy is repulsive. Floating passively from action to action, as helplessly as a withered leaf surrendered to the breath of winds, the human spirit (out of which comes all grandeur of human motions) is exhibited in mere _Adventures_, as either entirely laid asleep, or as acting only by lower organs that regulate the _means_, whilst the _ends are derived from alien sources, and are imperiously predetermined. It is a case of exception, however, when even amongst such adventures the agent reacts upon his own difficulties and necessities by a temper of extraordinary courage, and a mind of premature decision. Further strength arises to such an exception, if the very moulding accidents of the life, if the very external coercions are themselves unusually romantic. They may thus gain a separate interest of their own. And, lastly, the whole is locked into validity of interest, even for the psychological philosopher, by complete authentication of its truth. In the case now brought before him, the reader must not doubt; for no memoir exists, or personal biography, that is so trebly authenticated by proofs and attestations direct and collateral. From the archives of the Royal Marine at Seville, from the autobiography or the heroine, from contemporary chronicles, and from several official sources scattered in and out of Spain, some of them ecclesiastical, the amplest proofs have been drawn, and may yet be greatly extended, of the extraordinary events here recorded. M. de Ferrer, a Spaniard of much research, and originally incredulous as to the facts, published about seventeen years ago a selection from the leading documents, accompanied by his _palinode as to their accuracy. His materials have been since used for the basis of more than one narrative, not inaccurate, in French, German and Spanish journals of high authority. It is seldom the case that French writers err by prolixity. They _have done so in this case. The present narrative, which contains no sentence derived from any foreign one, has the great advantage of close compression; my own pages, after equating the size, being as 1 to 3 of the shortest continental form. In the mode of narration, I am vain enough to flatter myself that the reader will find little reason to hesitate between us. Mine at least, weary nobody; which is more than can be always said for the continental versions.

On a night in the year 1592, (but which night is a secret liable to 365 answers,) a Spanish '_son of somebody_,' (Footnote: _i.e. 'Hidalgo') in the fortified town of St. Sebastian, received the disagreeable intelligence from a nurse, that his wife had just presented him with a daughter. No present that the poor misjudging lady could possibly have made him was so entirely useless for any purpose of his. He had three daughters already, which happened to be more by 2+1 than _his reckoning assumed as a reasonable allowance of daughters. A supernumerary son might have been stowed away; but daughters in excess were the very nuisance of Spain. He did, therefore, what in such cases every proud and lazy Spanish gentleman was apt to do--he wrapped the new little daughter, odious to his paternal eyes, in a pocket handkerchief; and then, wrapping up his own throat with a good deal more care, off he bolted to the neighboring convent of St. Sebastian, not merely of that city, but also (amongst several convents) the one dedicated to that saint. It is well that in this quarrelsome world we quarrel furiously about tastes; since agreeing too closely about the objects to be liked and appropriated would breed much more fighting than is bred by disagreeing. That little human tadpole, which the old toad of a father would not suffer to stay ten minutes in his house, proved as welcome at the nunnery of St. Sebastian as she was odious elsewhere. The superior of the convent was aunt, by the mother's side, to the new-born stranger. She, therefore, kissed and blessed the little lady. The poor nuns, who were never to have any babies of their own, and were languishing for some amusement, perfectly doated on this prospect of a wee pet. The superior thanked the hidalgo for his very splendid present. The nuns thanked him each and all; until the old crocodile actually began to cry and whimper sentimentally at what he now perceived to be excess of munificence in himself. Munificence, indeed, he remarked, was his foible next after parental tenderness.

What a luxury it is sometimes to a cynic that there go two words to a bargain. In the convent of St. Sebastian all was gratitude; gratitude (as aforesaid) to the hidalgo from all the convent for his present, until at last the hidalgo began to express gratitude to _them for their gratitude to _him_. Then came a rolling fire of thanks to St. Sebastian; from the superior, for sending a future saint; from the nuns, for sending such a love of a plaything; and, finally, from papa, for sending such substantial board and well-bolted lodgings, 'from which,' said the malicious old fellow, 'my pussy will never find her way out to a thorny and dangerous world.' Won't she? I suspect, son of somebody, that the next time you see 'pussy,' which may happen to be also the last, will not be in a convent of any kind. At present, whilst this general rendering of thanks was going on, one person only took no part in them. That person was 'pussy,' whose little figure lay quietly stretched out in the arms of a smiling young nun, with eyes nearly shut, yet peering a little at the candles. Pussy said nothing. It's of no great use to say much, when all the world is against you. But if St. Sebastian had enabled her to speak out the whole truth, pussy _would have said: 'So, Mr. Hidalgo, you have been engaging lodgings for me; lodgings for life. Wait a little. We'll try that question, when my claws are grown a little longer.'

Disappointment, therefore, was gathering ahead. But for the present there was nothing of the kind. That noble old crocodile, papa, was not in the least disappointed as regarded _his expectation of having no anxiety to waste, and no money to pay, on account of his youngest daughter. He insisted on his right to forget her; and in a week _had forgotten her, never to think of her again but once. The lady superior, as regarded _her demands, was equally content, and through a course of several years; for, as often as she asked pussy if she would be a saint, pussy replied that she would, if saints were allowed plenty of sweetmeats. But least of all were the nuns disappointed. Everything that they had fancied possible in a human plaything fell short of what pussy realized in racketing, racing, and eternal plots against the peace of the elder nuns. No fox ever kept a hen-roost in such alarm as pussy kept the dormitory of the senior sisters; whilst the younger ladies were run off their legs by the eternal wiles, and had their chapel gravity discomposed, even in chapel, by the eternal antics of this privileged little kitten.

The kitten had long ago received a baptismal name, which was Kitty; this is Catharine, or Kate, or _Hispanice Catalina. It was a good name, as it recalled her original name of pussy. And, by the way, she had also an ancient and honorable surname, viz., _De Erauso_, which is to this day a name rooted in Biscay. Her father, the _hidalgo_, was a military officer in the Spanish service, and had little care whether his kitten should turn out a wolf or a lamb, having made over the fee simple of his own interest in the little Kate to St. Sebastian, 'to have and to hold,' so long as Kate should keep her hold of this present life. Kate had no apparent intention to let slip that hold, for she was blooming as a rose-bush in June, tall and strong as a young cedar. Yet, notwithstanding this robust health and the strength of the convent walls, the time was drawing near when St. Sebastian's lease in Kate must, in legal phrase, 'determine;' and any _chateaux en Espagne_, that the Saint might have built on the cloisteral fidelity of his pet Catalina, must suddenly give way in one hour, like many other vanities in our own days of Spanish bonds and promises. After reaching her tenth year, Catalina became thoughtful, and not very docile. At times she was even headstrong and turbulent, so that the gentle sisterhood of St. Sebastian, who had no other pet or plaything in the world, began to weep in secret--fearing that they might have been rearing by mistake some future tigress--for as to infancy, _that_, you know, is playful and innocent even in the cubs of a tigress. But _there the ladies were going too far. Catalina was impetuous and aspiring, but not cruel. She was gentle, if people would let her be so. But woe to those that took liberties with _her_! A female servant of the convent, in some authority, one day, in passing up the aisle to matins, _wilfully gave Kate a push; and in return, Kate, who never left her debts in arrear, gave the servant for a keepsake a look which that servant carried with her in fearful remembrance to her grave. It seemed as if Kate had tropic blood in her veins, that continually called her away to the tropics. It was all the fault of that 'blue rejoicing sky,' of those purple Biscayan mountains, of that tumultuous ocean, which she beheld daily from the nunnery gardens. Or, if only half of it was _their fault, the other half lay in those golden tales, streaming upwards even into the sanctuaries of convents, like morning mists touched by earliest sunlight, of kingdoms overshadowing a new world which had been founded by her kinsmen with the simple aid of a horse and a lance. The reader is to remember that this is no romance, or at least no fiction, that he is reading; and it is proper to remind the reader of real romances in Ariosto or our own Spenser, that such martial ladies as the _Marfisa_, or _Bradamant of the first, and _Britomart of the other, were really not the improbabilities that modern society imagines. Many a stout man, as you will soon see, found that Kate, with a sabre in hand, and well mounted, was but too serious a fact.

The day is come--the evening is come--when our poor Kate, that had for fifteen years been so tenderly rocked in the arms of St. Sebastian and his daughters, and that henceforth shall hardly find a breathing space between eternal storms, must see her peaceful cell, must see the holy chapel, for the last time. It was at vespers, it was during the chanting of the vesper service, that she finally read the secret signal for her departure, which long she had been looking for. It happened that her aunt, the Lady Principal, had forgotten her breviary. As this was in a private 'scrutoire, she did not choose to send a servant for it, but gave the key to her niece. The niece, on opening the 'scrutoire, saw, with that rapidity of eye-glance for the one thing needed in any great emergency, which ever attended her through life, that _now was the moment for an attempt which, if neglected, might never return. There lay the total keys, in one massive _trousseau_, of that fortress impregnable even to armies from without. Saint Sebastian! do you see what your pet is going to do? And do it she will, as sure as your name is St. Sebastian. Kate went back to her aunt with the breviary and the key; but taking good care to leave that awful door, on whose hinge revolved her whole life, unlocked. Delivering the two articles to the Superior, she complained of a headache--(Ah, Kate! what did you know of headaches, except now and then afterwards from a stray bullet, or so?)--upon which her aunt, kissing her forehead, dismissed her to bed. Now, then, through three- fourths of an hour Kate will have free elbow-room for unanchoring her boat, for unshipping her oars, and for pulling ahead right out of St. Sebastian's cove into the main ocean of life.

Catalina, the reader is to understand, does not belong to the class of persons in whom chiefly I pretend to an interest. But everywhere one loves energy and indomitable courage. I, for my part, admire not, by preference, anything that points to this world. It is the child of reverie and profounder sensibility who turns _away from the world as hateful and insufficient, that engages _my interest: whereas Catalina was the very model of the class fitted for facing this world, and who express their love to it by fighting with it and kicking it from year to year. But, always, what is best in its kind one admires, even though the kind be disagreeable. Kate's advantages for her _role in this life lay in four things, viz., in a well-built person, and a particularly strong wrist; 2d, in a heart that nothing could appal; 3d, in a sagacious head, never drawn aside from the _hoc age (from the instant question of life) by any weakness of imagination; 4th, in a tolerably thick skin--not literally, for she was fair and blooming, and decidedly handsome, having such a skin as became a young woman of family in northernmost Spain. But her sensibilities were obtuse as regarded _some modes of delicacy, _some modes of equity, _some modes of the world's opinion, and _all modes whatever of personal hardship. Lay a stress on that word _some_--for, as to delicacy, she never lost sight of the kind which peculiarly concerns her sex. Long afterwards she told the Pope himself, when confessing without disguise her sad and infinite wanderings to the paternal old man (and I feel convinced of her veracity), that in this respect, even then, at middle age, she was as pure as is a child. And, as to equity, it was only that she substituted the equity of camps for the polished (but often more iniquitous) equity of courts and towns. As to the third item--the world's opinion--I don't know that you need lay a stress on _some_; for, generally speaking, _all that the world did, said, or thought, was alike contemptible in her eyes, in which, perhaps, she was not so _very far wrong. I must add, though at the cost of interrupting the story by two or three more sentences, that Catalina had also a fifth advantage, which sounds humbly, but is really of use in a world, where even to fold and seal a letter adroitly is not the least of accomplishments. She was a _handy girl. She could turn her hand to anything, of which I will give you two memorable instances. Was there ever a girl in this world but herself that cheated and snapped her fingers at that awful Inquisition, which brooded over the convents of Spain, that did this without collusion from outside, trusting to nobody, but to herself, and what? to one needle, two hanks of thread, and a very inferior pair of scissors? For, that the scissors were bad, though Kate does not say so in her memoirs, I knew by an _a priori argument, viz., because _all scissors were bad in the year 1607. Now, say all decent logicians, from a universal to a particular _valet consequentia_, _all scissors were bad: _ergo_, _some scissors were bad. The second instance of her handiness will surprise you even more:--She once stood upon a scaffold, under sentence of death--(but, understand, on the evidence of false witnesses). Jack Ketch was absolutely tying the knot under her ear, and the shameful man of ropes fumbled so deplorably, that Kate (who by much nautical experience had learned from another sort of 'Jack' how a knot _should be tied in this world,) lost all patience with the contemptible artist, told him she was ashamed of him, took the rope out of his hand, and tied the knot irreproachably herself. The crowd saluted her with a festal roll, long and loud, of _vivas_; and this word _viva of good augury--but stop; let me not anticipate.

From this sketch of Catalina's character, the reader is prepared to understand the decision of her present proceeding. She had no time to lose: the twilight favored her; but she must get under hiding before pursuit commenced. Consequently she lost not one of her forty-five minutes in picking and choosing. No _shilly-shally in Kate. She saw with the eyeball of an eagle what was indispensable. Some little money perhaps to pay the first toll-bar of life: so, out of four shillings in Aunty's purse, she took one. You can't say _that was exorbitant. Which of us wouldn't subscribe a shilling for poor Katy to put into the first trouser pockets that ever she will wear? I remember even yet, as a personal experience, that when first arrayed, at four years old, in nankeen trousers, though still so far retaining hermaphrodite relations of dress as to wear a petticoat above my trousers, all my female friends (because they pitied me, as one that had suffered from years of ague) filled my pockets with half-crowns, of which I can render no account at this day. But what were my poor pretensions by the side of Kate's? Kate was a fine blooming girl of fifteen, with no touch of ague, and, before the next sun rises, Kate shall draw on her first trousers, and made by her own hand; and, that she may do so, of all the valuables in Aunty's repository she takes nothing beside the shilling, _quantum sufficit of thread, one stout needle, and (as I told you before, if you would please to remember things) one bad pair of scissors. Now she was ready; ready to cast off St. Sebastian's towing-rope; ready to cut and run for port anywhere. The finishing touch of her preparations was to pick out the proper keys: even there she showed the same discretion. She did do no gratuitous mischief. She did not take the wine-cellar key, which would have irritated the good father confessor; she took those keys only that belonged to _her_, if ever keys did; for they were the keys that locked her out from her natural birthright of liberty. 'Show me,' says the Romish Casuist, 'her right in law to let herself out of that nunnery.' 'Show us,' we reply, '_your right to lock her in.'

Right or wrong, however, in strict casuistry, Kate was resolved to let herself out; and _did so; and, for fear any man should creep in whilst vespers lasted, and steal the kitchen grate, she locked her old friends _in_. Then she sought a shelter. The air was not cold. She hurried into a chestnut wood, and upon withered leaves slept till dawn. Spanish diet and youth leaves the digestion undisordered, and the slumbers light. When the lark rose, up rose Catalina. No time to lose, for she was still in the dress of a nun, and liable to be arrested by any man in Spain. With her _armed finger, (aye, by the way, I forgot the thimble; but Kate did _not_)--she set to work upon her amply-embroidered petticoat. She turned it wrong side out; and with the magic that only female hands possess, she had soon sketched and finished a dashing pair of Wellington trousers. All other changes were made according to the materials she possessed, and quite sufficiently to disguise the two main perils--her sex, and her monastic dedication. What was she to do next. Speaking of Wellington trousers would remind _us_, but could hardly remind _her_, of Vittoria, where she dimly had heard of some maternal relative. To Vittoria, therefore, she bent her course; and, like the Duke of Wellington, but arriving more than two centuries earlier, (though _he too is an early riser,) she gained a great victory at that place. She had made a two days' march, baggage far in the rear, and no provisions but wild berries; she depended for anything better, as light-heartedly as the Duke, upon attacking, sword in hand, storming her dear friend's entrenchments, and effecting a lodgment in his breakfast-room, should he happen to have one. This amiable relative, an elderly man, had but one foible, or perhaps one virtue in this world; but _that he had in perfection,--it was pedantry. On that hint Catalina spoke: she knew by heart, from the services of the convent, a few Latin phrases. Latin!--Oh, but _that was charming; and in one so young! The grave Don owned the soft impeachment; relented at once, and clasped the hopeful young gentleman in the Wellington trousers to his _uncular and rather angular breast. In this house the yarn of life was of a mingled quality. The table was good, but that was exactly what Kate cared little about. The amusement was of the worst kind. It consisted chiefly in conjugating Latin verbs, especially such as were obstinately irregular. To show him a withered frost-bitten verb, that wanted its preterite, wanted its supines, wanted, in fact, everything in this world, fruits or blossoms, that make a verb desirable, was to earn the Don's gratitude for life. All day long he was marching and countermarching his favorite brigades of verbs--verbs frequentative, verbs inceptive, verbs desiderative--horse, foot, and artillery; changing front, advancing from the rear, throwing out skirmishing parties, until Kate, not given to faint, must have thought of such a resource, as once in her life she had thought so seasonably of a vesper headache. This was really worse than St. Sebastian's. It reminds one of a French gayety in Thiebault or some such author, who describes a rustic party, under equal despair, as employing themselves in conjugating the verb _s'ennuyer,--Je m'ennuie, tu t'ennuies, il s'ennuit; nous nous ennuyons_, &c.; thence to the imperfect--_Je m'ennuyois, tu t'ennuyois_, &c.; thence to the imperative--_Qu'il s'ennuye_, &c.; and so on through the whole melancholy conjugation. Now, you know, when the time comes that, _nous nous ennuyons_, the best course is, to part. Kate saw _that_; and she walked off from the Don's (of whose amorous passion for defective verbs one would have wished to know the catastrophe), and took from his mantel-piece rather move silver than she had levied on her aunt. But the Don also was a relative; and really he owed her a small cheque on his banker for turning out on his field-days. A man, if he _is a kinsman, has no right to bore one _gratis_.

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