THERESA OF AVILA: THE GIRL OF THE SPANISH SIERRAS.
(Afterward known as St. Theresa of Avila.) A.D. 1525.
It is a stern and gray old city that the sun looks down upon, when once he does show his jolly face above the saw-like ridges of the grim Guadarrama Mountains in Central Spain; a stern and gray old city as well it may be, for it is one of the very old towns of Western Europe—Avila, said by some to have been built by Albula, the mother of Hercules nearly four thousand years ago.
Whether or not it was the place in which that baby gymnast strangled the serpents who sought to kill him in his cradle, it is indeed ancient enough to suit any boy or girl who likes to dig among the relics of the past. For more than eight centuries the same granite walls that now surround it have lifted their gray ramparts out of the vast and granite-covered plains that make the country so wild and lonesome, while its eighty-six towers and gateways, still unbroken and complete, tell of its strength and importance in those far-off days, when the Cross was battling with the Crescent, and Christian Spain, step by step, was forcing Mohammedan Spain back to the blue Mediterranean and the arid wastes of Africa, from which, centuries before, the followers of the Arabian Prophet had come.
At the time of our story, in the year 1525, this forcing process was about over. Under the relentless measures of Ferdinand and Isabella, with whose story all American children, at least, should be familiar, the last Moorish stronghold had fallen, in the very year in which Columbus discovered America, and Spain, from the Pyrenees to the Straits of Gibraltar, acknowledged the mastership of its Christian sovereigns.
But the centuries of warfare that had made the Spaniards a fierce and warlike race, had also filled Spain with frowning castles and embattled towns. And such an embattled town was this same city of Avila, in which, in 1525, lived the stern and pious old grandee, Don Alphonso Sanchez de Cepeda, his sentimental and romance-loving wife, the Donna Beatrix, and their twelve sturdy and healthy children.
Religious warfare, as it is the most bitter and relentless of strifes, is also the most brutal. It turns the natures of men and women into quite a different channel from the one in which the truths they are fighting for would seek to lead them; and of all relentless and brutal religious wars, few have been more bitter than the one that for fully five hundred years had wasted the land of Spain.
To battle for the Cross, to gain renown in fights against the Infidels—as the Moors were then called,—to "obtain martyrdom" among the followers of Mohammed—these were reckoned by the Christians of crusading days as the highest honor that life could bring or death bestow. It is no wonder, therefore, that in a family, the father of which had been himself a fighter of Infidels, and the mother a reader and dreamer of all the romantic stories that such conflicts create, the children also should be full of that spirit of hatred toward a conquered foe that came from so bitter and long-continuing a warfare.
Don Alphonso's religion had little in it of cheerfulness and love. It was of the stern and pitiless kind that called for sacrifice and penance, and all those uncomfortable and unnecessary forms by which too many good people, even in this more enlightened day, think to ease their troubled consciences, or to satisfy the fancied demands of the Good Father, who really requires none of these foolish and most unpleasant self-punishments.
But such a belief was the rule in Don Alphonso's day, and when it could lay so strong a hold upon grown men and women, it would, of course, be likely to work in peculiar ways with thoughtful and conscientious children, who, understanding little of the real meaning of sacrifice and penance, felt it their duty to do something as proof of their belief.
So it came about that little ten-year-old Theresa, one of the numerous girls of the Cepeda family, thought as deeply of these things as her small mind was capable. She was of a peculiarly sympathetic, romantic, and conscientious nature, and she felt it her duty to do something to show her devotion to the faith for which her father had fought so valiantly, and which the nuns and priests, who were her teachers, so vigorously impressed upon her.
She had been taught that alike the punishment or the glory that must follow her life on earth were to last forever. Forever! this was a word that even a thoughtful little maiden like Theresa could not comprehend. So she sought her mother.
"Forever? how long is forever, mother mine?" she asked.
But the Donna Beatrix was just then too deeply interested in the tragic story of the two lovers, Calixto and Melibea, in the Senor Fernando de Rojas' tear-compelling story, to be able to enter into the discussion of so deep a question.
"Forever," she said, looking up from the thick and crabbed black-letter pages, "why forever is forever, child—always. Pray do not trouble me with such questions; just as I am in the midst of this beautiful death-scene too."
The little girl found she could gain no knowledge from this source, and she feared to question her stern and bigoted old father. So she sought her favorite brother Pedro—a bright little fellow of seven, who adored and thoroughly believed in his sister Theresa.