The Legend of the Engulphed Convent
by Washington Irving
BY GEOFFREY CRAYON, GENT.
At the dark and melancholy period when Don Roderick the Goth and his chivalry were overthrown on the banks of the Guadalete, and all Spain was overrun by the Moors, great was the devastation of churches and convents throughout that pious kingdom. The miraculous fate of one of those holy piles is thus recorded in one of the authentic legends of those days.
On the summit of a hill, not very distant from the capital city of Toledo, stood an ancient convent and chapel, dedicated to the invocation of Saint Benedict, and inhabited by a sisterhood of Benedictine nuns. This holy asylum was confined to females of noble lineage. The younger sisters of the highest families were here given in religious marriage to their Saviour, in order that the portions of their elder sisters might be increased, and they enabled to make suitable matches on earth, or that the family wealth might go undivided to elder brothers, and the dignity of their ancient houses be protected from decay. The convent was renowned, therefore, for enshrining within its walls a sisterhood of the purest blood, the most immaculate virtue, and most resplendent beauty, of all Gothic Spain.
When the Moors overran the kingdom, there was nothing that more excited their hostility than these virgin asylums. The very sight of a convent-spire was sufficient to set their Moslem blood in a foment, and they sacked it with as fierce a zeal as though the sacking of a nunnery were a sure passport to Elysium.
Tidings of such outrages committed in various parts of the kingdom reached this noble sanctuary and filled it with dismay. The danger came nearer and nearer; the infidel hosts were spreading all over the country; Toledo itself was captured; there was no flying from the convent, and no security within its walls.
In the midst of this agitation, the alarm was given one day that a great band of Saracens were spurring across the plain. In an instant the whole convent was a scene of confusion. Some of the nuns wrung their fair hands at the windows; others waved their veils and uttered shrieks from the tops of the towers, vainly hoping to draw relief from a country over-run by the foe. The sight of these innocent doves thus fluttering about their dove-cote, but increased the zealot fury of the whiskered Moors. They thundered at the portal, and at every blow the ponderous gates trembled on their hinges.
The nuns now crowded round the abbess. They had been accustomed to look up to her as all-powerful, and they now implored her protection. The mother abbess looked with a rueful eye upon the treasures of beauty and vestal virtue exposed to such imminent peril. Alas! how was she to protect them from the spoiler! She had, it is true, experienced many signal inter-positions of providence in her individual favor. Her early days had been passed amid the temptations of a court, where her virtue had been purified by repeated trials, from none of which had she escaped but by a miracle. But were miracles never to cease? Could she hope that the marvelous protection shown to herself would be extended to a whole sisterhood? There was no other resource. The Moors were at the threshold; a few moments more and the convent would be at their mercy. Summoning her nuns to follow her, she hurried into the chapel; and throwing herself on her knees before the image of the blessed Mary, “Oh, holy Lady!” exclaimed she, “oh, most pure and immaculate of virgins! thou seest our extremity. The ravager is at the gate, and there is none on earth to help us! Look down with pity, and grant that the earth may gape and swallow us rather than that our cloister vows should suffer violation!”
The Moors redoubled their assault upon the portal; the gates gave way, with a tremendous crash; a savage yell of exultation arose; when of a sudden the earth yawned; down sank the convent, with its cloisters, its dormitories, and all its nuns. The chapel tower was the last that sank, the bell ringing forth a peal of triumph in the very teeth of the infidels.
Forty years had passed and gone, since the period of this miracle. The subjugation of Spain was complete. The Moors lorded it over city and country; and such of the Christian population as remained, and were permitted to exercise their religion, did it in humble resignation to the Moslem sway.
At this time, a Christian cavalier, of Cordova, hearing that a patriotic band of his countrymen had raised the standard of the cross in the mountains of the Asturias, resolved to join them, and unite in breaking the yoke of bondage. Secretly arming himself, and caparisoning his steed, he set forth from Cordova, and pursued his course by unfrequented mule-paths, and along the dry channels made by winter torrents. His spirit burned with indignation, whenever, on commanding a view over a long sweeping plain, he beheld the mosque swelling in the distance, and the Arab horsemen careering about, as if the rightful lords of the soil. Many a deep-drawn sigh, and heavy groan, also, did the good cavalier utter, on passing the ruins of churches and convents desolated by the conquerors.
It was on a sultry midsummer evening, that this wandering cavalier, in skirting a hill thickly covered with forest, heard the faint tones of a vesper bell sounding melodiously in the air, and seeming to come from the summit of the hill. The cavalier crossed himself with wonder, at this unwonted and Christian sound. He supposed it to proceed from one of those humble chapels and hermitages permitted to exist through the indulgence of the Moslem conquerors. Turning his steed up a narrow path of the forest, he sought this sanctuary, in hopes of finding a hospitable shelter for the night. As he advanced, the trees threw a deep gloom around him, and the bat flitted across his path. The bell ceased to toll, and all was silence.
Presently a choir of female voices came stealing sweetly through the forest, chanting the evening service, to the solemn accompaniment of an organ. The heart of the good cavalier melted at the sound, for it recalled the happier days of his country. Urging forward his weary steed, he at length arrived at a broad grassy area, on the summit of the hill, surrounded by the forest. Here the melodious voices rose in full chorus, like the swelling of the breeze; but whence they came, he could not tell. Sometimes they were before, sometimes behind him; sometimes in the air, sometimes as if from within the bosom of the earth. At length they died away, and a holy stillness settled on the place.
The cavalier gazed around with bewildered eye. There was neither chapel nor convent, nor humble hermitage, to be seen; nothing but a moss-grown stone pinnacle, rising out of the centre of the area, surmounted by a cross. The greensward around appeared to have been sacred from the tread of man or beast, and the surrounding trees bent toward the cross, as if in adoration.
The cavalier felt a sensation of holy awe. He alighted and tethered his steed on the skirts of the forest, where he might crop the tender herbage; then approaching the cross, he knelt and poured forth his evening prayers before this relique of the Christian days of Spain. His orisons being concluded, he laid himself down at the foot of the pinnacle, and reclining his head against one of its stones, fell into a deep sleep.
About midnight, he was awakened by the tolling of a bell, and found himself lying before the gate of an ancient convent. A train of nuns passed by, each bearing a taper. The cavalier rose and followed them into the chapel; in the centre of which was a bier, on which lay the corpse of an aged nun. The organ performed a solemn requiem: the nuns joining in chorus. When the funeral service was finished, a melodious voice chanted, “Requiescat in pace!”–“May she rest in peace!” The lights immediately vanished; the whole passed away as a dream; and the cavalier found himself at the foot of the cross, and beheld, by the faint rays of the rising moon, his steed quietly grazing near him.
When the day dawned, the cavalier descended the hill, and following the course of a small brook, came to a cave, at the entrance of which was seated an ancient man, clad in hermit’s garb, with rosary and cross, and a beard that descended to his girdle. He was one of those holy anchorites permitted by the Moors to live unmolested in dens and caves, and humble hermitages, and even to practise the rites of their religion. The cavalier checked his horse, and dismounting, knelt and craved a benediction. He then related all that had befallen him in the night, and besought the hermit to explain the mystery.
“What thou hast heard and seen, my son,” replied the other, “is but type and shadow of the woes of Spain.”
He then related the foregoing story of the miraculous deliverance of the convent.
“Forty years,” added the holy man, “have elapsed since this event, yet the bells of that sacred edifice are still heard, from time to time, sounding from under ground, together with the pealing of the organ, and the chanting of the choir. The Moors avoid this neighborhood, as haunted ground, and the whole place, as thou mayest perceive, has become covered with a thick and lonely forest.”
The cavalier listened with wonder to the story of this engulphed convent, as related by the holy man. For three days and nights did they keep vigils beside the cross; but nothing more was to be seen of nun or convent. It is supposed that, forty years having elapsed, the natural lives of all the nuns were finished, and that the cavalier had beheld the obsequies of the last of the sisterhood. Certain it is, that from that time, bell, and organ, and choral chant have never more been heard.
The mouldering pinnacle, surmounted by the cross, still remains an object of pious pilgrimage. Some say that it anciently stood in front of the convent, but others assert that it was the spire of the sacred edifice, and that, when the main body of the building sank, this remained above ground, like the top-mast of some tall ship that has foundered. These pious believers maintain, that the convent is miraculously preserved entire in the centre of the mountain, where, if proper excavations were made, it would be found, with all its treasures, and monuments, and shrines, and reliques, and the tombs of its virgin nuns.
Should any one doubt the truth of this marvelous interposition of the Virgin, to protect the vestal purity of her votaries, let him read the excellent work entitled Espaa Triumphante, written by Padre Fray Antonio de Sancta Maria, a bare-foot friar of the Carmelite order, and he will doubt no longer.