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THERESA OF AVILA, THE GIRL OF THE SPANISH SIERRAS
[Afterward known as St. Theresa of Avila]
 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
 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
"SO, RUNAWAYS, WE HAVE FOUND YOU." CRIED BROTHER
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
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.
To Pedro, then, Theresa confided her belief that, if forever was so long a time as "always," it
would be most unpleasant to suffer "always," if by any chance they should do any thing wrong. It
would be far better, so argued this little logician, to die now and end the problem, than to live
and run so great a risk. She told him, too, that, as they knew from their mother's tales, the most
beautiful, the most glorious way to die was as a martyr among the infidel Moors. So she proposed to
Pedro that she and he should not say a word to any one, but just start off at once as crusaders on
their own accounts, and lose their lives but save their souls as martyrs among the Moors.
The suggestion had all the effect of novelty to the little Pedro, and while he did not altogether
relish the idea of losing his life among the Moors, still the possibility of a change presented
 all the attractions that the thought of trying something new always has for children. Besides, he
had great respect for his sister's judgment.
"Well, let us be crusaders," he said, "and perhaps we need not be martyrs, sister. I don't think
that would be so very pleasant, do you? Who knows; perhaps we may be victorious crusaders and
conquer the Infidels just as did Ruy Diaz the Cid.
See here, Theresa; I have my sword and you can take your cross, and we can have such a nice crusade,
and may be the infidel Moors will run away from us just as they did from the Cid and leave us their
cities and their gold and treasure? Don't you remember what mother read us, how the Cid won
Castelon, with its silver and its gold?"
And the little fellow spouted most valiantly this portion of the famous poem of the exploits of the
Cid (the Poema del Cid), with the martial spirit of which stirring rhyme his romantic mother
had filled her children:
"Smite, smite, my knights, for mercy's sake—on boldly to the war;
I am Ruy Diaz of Bivar, the Cid Campeador!
Three hundred lances then were couched, with pennons streaming gay;
Three hundred shields were pierced through—no steel the shock might
Three hundred hauberks were torn off in that encounter sore;
Three hundred snow-white pennons were crimson-dyed in gore;
Three hundred chargers wandered loose—their lords were overthrown;
The Christians cry 'St. James for Spain!' the Moormen cry 'Mahoun!'"
Theresa applauded her little brother's eloquent recitation, and thought him a very smart boy; but
she said rather sadly: "I fear me it will not be that way, my Pedro; for martyrdom means, as mother
has told us, the giving up of our life rather than bow to the false faith of the Infidel, and thus
to save our souls and have a crown of glory."
"The crown would be very nice, I suppose, sister," said practical young Pedro, "especially if it was
all so fine as the one they say the young King Carlos
wears—Emperor, too, now, is he not? Could we be emperors, too, sister, if we were martyrs, and
had each a crown? But we must be crusaders first, I suppose. Come, let us go at once."
The road from granite-walled Avila to the south is across a wild and desolate waste, frowned down
upon on either hand by the savage crests of the grim sierras of the Guadarrama. It winds along
 gorges and ravines and rocky river-beds, and has always been, even in the days of Spanish power and
glory, about as untamed and savagely picturesque a road as one could well imagine.
Along this hard and desolate road, only a few days after their determination had been reached, to
start upon a crusade the brother and sister plodded. Theresa carried her crucifix, and Pedro his toy
sword, while in a little wallet at his side were a few bits of food taken from the home larder. This
stock of food had, of course, been taken without the knowledge of the mother, who knew nothing of
their crusade, and this, therefore, furnished for Theresa another sin, for which she must do
penance, and another reason for the desired martyrdom.
They had really only proceeded a few miles into the mountains beyond Avila, but already their sturdy
little legs were tired, and their stout little backs were sore. Pedro thought crusading not such
very great fun after all; be was always hungry and thirsty, and Theresa would only let him take a
bite once in a while.
"Don't you suppose there is a Moorish castle somewhere around here that we could capture, and so get
plenty to eat?" he inquired of his sister. "That is what the Cid was always finding. Don't you
remember how nicely he got into Alcacer and slew eleven Infidel knights, and found ever so much
 gold and things to eat? This is what he said, you know:
"'On, on, my knights, and smite the foe!
And falter not, I pray;
For by the grace of God, I trow,
The town is ours this day!' "
"O Pedro, dear, why will you think so much of things to eat," groaned Theresa. "Do you not know that
to be hungry is one way to be a martyr. And besides, it is, I doubt not, our just punishment for
having taken any thing to eat without letting mother know. We must suffer and be strong, little
"That's just like a girl," cried Pedro, a trifle scornfully. "How can we be strong if we suffer? I
can't, I know."
But before Theresa could enter upon an explanation of this most difficult problem—one that has
troubled many older heads than little Pedro's,—both the children started in surprise, and then
involuntarily shrunk closer to the dark gray rock in whose shadow they were resting. For there, not
a hundred yards distant, coming around a turn in the road, was one of the very Infidels they had
come out to meet and conquer, or be martyred by.
He was a rather imposing-looking but not a formidable old man. His cloak or mantle of brown stuff
was worn and ragged, his turban was quite as dingy, but the long white beard that fell upon his
 breast made his swarthy face look even fiercer than it really was, and the stout staff, with which
he helped himself over the uneven road, seemed to the little crusaders some terrible weapon of
torture and of martyrdom.
But Pedro was a valiant little fellow after all. The fighting spirit of his father the Don burned
within him, and few little folks of seven know what caution is. He whispered to his sister, whose
hand he had at first clutched in terror, a word of assurance.
"Be not afraid, sister mine," he said. "Yonder comes the Infidel we have gone forth to find. Do you
suppose he has a whole great army following him? Hold up your crucifix, and I will strike him with
my sword. The castle can't be far away, and perhaps we can conquer this old Infidel and find a good
dinner in his castle. That 's just what the Cid would have done. You know what he said:
"'Far from our land, far from Castile
We here are banished;
If with the Moors we battle not,
I wot we get no bread.'
Let us battle with him at once."
And before his sister with restraining hand, could hold him back the plucky young crusader
flourished his sword furiously and charged down upon the old Moor, who now in turn started in
sur-  prise and drew aside from the path of the determined little warrior.
"Now yield thee, yield thee, pagan prince.
Or die in crimson gore;
I am Ruy Diaz of Bivar,
The Cid Campeador!"
shouted the little crusader, charging against his pagan enemy at a furious rate.
"O spare him, spare my brother, noble emir. Let me die in his stead," cried the terrified Theresa,
not quite so confident now as to the pleasure of martyrdom.
The old man stretched out his staff and stopped the headlong dash of the boy. Then laying a hand
lightly on his assailant's head he looked smilingly toward Theresa.
"Neither prince nor emir am I, Christian maiden," he said, "but the poor Morisco Abd-el-'Aman of
Cordova, seeking my son Ali, who, men say, is servant to a family in Valladolid. Pray you if you
have aught to eat give some to me, for I am famishing."
This was not exactly martyrdom; it was, in fact, quite the opposite, and the little Theresa was
puzzled as to her duty in the matter. Pedro, however, was not at all undecided.
"Give our bread and cake to a nasty old Moor?" he cried; "I should say we will not, will we, sister?
 We need it for ourselves. Besides, what dreadful thing is it that the Holy Inquisition does to
people who succor the infidel Moors?"
Theresa shuddered. She knew too well all the stories of the horrible punishments that the Holy
Office, known as the Inquisition of Spain, visited upon those who harbored Jews or aided the now
degraded Moors. For so complete had been the conquest of the once proud possessors of Southern
Spain, that they were usually known only by the contemptuous title of "Moriscoes," and were despised
and hated by their "chivalrous" Christian conquerors.
But little Theresa de Cepeda was of so loving and generous a nature that even the plea of an outcast
and despised Morisco moved her to pity. From her earliest childhood she had delighted in helpful and
generous deeds. She repeatedly gave away, so we are told, all her pocket-money in charity, and any
sign of trouble or distress found her ready and anxious to extend relief. There was really a good
deal of the angelic in little Theresa, and even the risk of arousing the wrath of the Inquisition,
the walls of whose gloomy dungeon in Avila she had, so often looked upon with awe, could not
withhold her from wishing to help this poor old man who was hunting for his lost son.
"Nay, brother," she said to little Pedro, "it can
 be not so very great a crime to give food to a starving man"; and much to Pedro's disgust, she
opened the wallet and emptied their little store of provisions into the old beggar's hand.
"And wither are ye bound, little ones?" asked this "tramp" of the long ago, as the children watched
their precious dinner disappear behind his snowy beard.
"We are on a crusade, don Infidel," replied Pedro, boldly. "A crusade against your armies and
castles, perhaps to capture them, and thus gain the crown of martyrdom."
The old Moor looked at them sadly. "There is scarce need for that, my children," he said. "My people
are but slaves; their armies and their castles are lost; their beautiful cities are ruined, and
there is neither conquest nor martyrdom for Christian youths and maidens to gain among them. Go
home, my little ones, and pray to Allah that you and yours may never know so much of sorrow and of
trouble as do the poor Moriscoes of Spain this day."
This was news to Theresa. No martyrdom to be obtained among the Moors? Where then was all the truth
of her mother's romances,—where was all the wisdom of her father's savage faith? She had
always supposed that the Moors were monsters and djins, waiting with great fires and racks and
 sharpest cimeters to put to horrible death all young Christians who came amongst them, and now here
was one who begged for bread and pleaded for pity like any common beggar of Avila. Evidently
something was wrong in the home stories.
As for little Pedro, he waxed more valiant as the danger lessened. He whetted his toy sword against
the granite rocks and looked savagely at the old man.
"You have eaten all my bread, don Infidel," he said, "and now you would lie about your people and
your castles. You are no beggar; you are the King of Cordova come here in this disguise to spy out
the Christian's land. I know all about you from my mother's stories. So you must die. I shall send
your head to our Emperor by my sister here, and when he shall ask her who has done this noble deed
she will say, just as did Alvar Fanez to King Alfonso:
'My Cid Campeador, O king, it was who girded brand:
The Paynim king he hath o'ercome, the mightiest in the land
Plenteous and sovereign is the spoil he from the Moor hath won;
This portion, honored king and lord, he sendeth to your throne.'
"So, King of Cordova, bend down and let me cut off your head."
The "King of Cordova" made no movement of compliance to this gentle invitation, and the
head-  strong Pedro, springing toward him, would have caught him by the beard, had not his gentle sister
"I do believe he is no king, my Pedro," she said, "but only, as he says, a poor Morisco beggar. Let
us rather try to help him. He hath no castles I am sure, and as for his armies——"
"His armies! there they come; look, sister!" cried little Pedro, breaking into his sister's words;
"now will you believe me?" and following his gaze, Theresa herself started as she saw dashing down
the mountain highway what looked to her unpractised eye like a whole band of Moorish cavalry with
glimmering lances and streaming pennons.
Pedro faced the charge with drawn sword. Theresa knelt on the ground with silver crucifix upraised,
expecting instant martyrdom, while the old Moorish tramp, Abd-el-'Aman, believing discretion to be
the better part of valor, quietly dropped down by the side of the rocky roadway, for well he
understood who were these latest comers.
The Moorish cavalry, which proved to be three Spaniards on horseback, drew up before the young
"So, runaways, we have found you," cried one of them, as he recognized the children. "Come, Theresa,
what means this folly? Whither are you and Pedro bound?"
 "We were even starting for a crusade against the Moor, Brother Jago," said Theresa, timidly, "but
our Infidel friend here—why, where hath he gone?—says that there are neither Infidel
castles nor Moorish armies now, and that therefore we may not be crusaders."
"But I know that he doth lie, Brother Jago," cried little Pedro, more valiant still when he saw to
what his Moorish cavalry was reduced. "He is the King of Cordova, come here to spy out the land, and
I was about to cut off his head when you did disturb us."
Big brother Jago de Cepeda and the two servants of his father's house laughed long and loudly.
"Crusaders and kings," he cried; "why, we shall have the Cid himself here, if we do but wait long
"Hush, brother," said young Pedro, confidentially, "say it not so loudly. I did tell the Infidel
that I was Ruy Diaz of Bivar, the Cid Campeador—and he did believe me."
And then the cavalry laughed louder than ever, and swooping down captured the young crusaders and
set the truants before them on their uncomfortable Cordova saddles. Then, turning around, they rode
swiftly back to Avila with the runaways, while the old Moor, glad to have escaped rough handling
 from the Christian riders, grasped his staff and plodded on toward Avila and Valladolid.
So the expedition for martyrdom and crusade came to an ignominious end. But the pious desires of
little Theresa did not. For, finding that martyrdom was out of the question, she proposed to her
ever-ready brother that they should become hermits, and for days the two children worked away trying
to build a hermitage near their father's house.
But the rough and heavy pieces of granite with which they sought to build their hermitage proved
more than they could handle, and their knowledge of mason-work was about as imperfect as had been
their familiarity with crusading and the country of the Moors. "The stones that we piled one upon
another," wrote Theresa herself in later years, "immediately fell down, and so it came to pass that
we found no means of accomplishing our wish."
The pluck and piety, however, that set this conscientious and sympathetic little girl to such
impossible tasks were certain to blossom into something equally hard and unselfish when she grew to
womanhood. And so it proved. Her much-loved but romance-reading mother died when she was twelve
years old, and Theresa felt her loss keenly.
She was a very clever and ambitious girl, and with a mother's guiding hand removed she became
impatient under the restraints which her stern old
 father, Don Alphonso, placed upon her. At sixteen she was an impetuous, worldly-minded, and very
vain though very dignified young lady. Then her father, fearful as to her future, sent her to a
convent, with orders that she should be kept in strict seclusion.
Such a punishment awoke all the feelings of conscientiousness and self-conviction that had so
influenced her when she was a little girl, and Theresa, left to her own thoughts, first grew morbid,
and then fell sick.
During her sickness she resolved to become a nun, persuaded her ever-faithful brother, Pedro, to
become a friar, and when Don Alphonso, their father, refused his consent, the brother and sister,
repeating the folly of their childhood, again ran away from home.
Then their father, seeing the uselessness of resistance, consented, and Theresa, at the age of
twenty, entered a convent in Avila, and became a nun in what was known as the Order of the
The life of these nuns was strict, secluded, and silent; but the conscientious nature of Theresa
found even the severities of this lonely life not sufficiently hard, and attaining to a position of
influence in the order she obtained permission from the Pope in 1562 to found a new order which
should be even more strict in its rules, and therefore, so she
be-  lieved, more helpful. Thus was founded the Order of Barefooted Carmelites, a body of priests and nuns, who
have in their peculiar way accomplished very much for charity, gentleness, and self-help in the
world, and whose schools and convents have been instituted in all parts of the earth.
Theresa de Cepeda died in 1582, greatly beloved and revered for her strict but gentle life, her
great and helpful charities, and her sincere desire to benefit her fellow-men. After her death, so
great was the respect paid her that she was canonized, as it is called: that is, lifted up as an
example of great goodness to the world; and she is to-day known and honored among devout Roman
Catholics as St. Theresa of Avila.
Whatever we may think of the peculiar way in which her life was spent; however we may regard the
story of her troubles with her conscience, her understanding of what she deemed her duty, and her
sinking of what might have been a happy and joyous life in the solitude and severity of a convent,
we cannot but think of her as one who wished to do right, and who desired above all else to benefit
the world in which she lived and labored. Her story is that of a most extraordinary and remarkable
woman, who devoted her life to what she deemed the thing demanded of her. Could we not, all of us,
profitably attempt to live in something
 like a kindred spirit to that helpful and unselfish one that actuated this girl of the Spanish
"Here and there is born a Saint Theresa," says George Eliot, "foundress of nothing, whose loving
heart-beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances,
instead of centring in some long-recognizable deed."
But if a girl or boy, desiring to do right, will disregard the hindrances, and not simply sit and
sob after an unattained goodness—if, instead, they will but do the duty nearest at hand
manfully and well, the reward will come in something even more desirable than a "long-recognizable
deed." It will come in the very self-gratification that will at last follow every act of courtesy,
of friendliness, and of self-denial, and such a life will be of more real value to the world than
all the deeds of all the crusaders, or than even the stern and austere charities of a Saint Theresa.