It is the common lamentation of Spanish historiographers, that, for an obscure and melancholy space of time immediately succeeding the conquest of their country by the Moslems, its history is a mere wilderness of dubious facts, groundless fables, and rash exaggerations. Learned men, in cells and cloisters, have worn out their lives in vainly endeavoring to connect incongruous events, and to account for startling improbabilities, recorded of this period. The worthy Jesuit, Padre Abarca, declares that, for more than forty years during which he had been employed in theological controversies, he had never found any so obscure and inexplicable as those which rise out of this portion of Spanish history, and that the only fruit of an indefatigable, prolix, and even prodigious study of the subject, was a melancholy and mortifying state of indecision.1 During this apocryphal period, flourished PELAYO, the deliverer of Spain, whose name, like that of William Wallace, will ever be linked with the glory of his country, but linked, in like manner, by a bond in which fact and fiction are inextricably interwoven.
The quaint old chronicle of the Moor Rasis, which, though wild and fanciful in the extreme, is frequently drawn upon for early facts by Spanish historians, professes to give the birth, parentage, and whole course of fortune of Pelayo, without the least doubt or hesitation. It makes him a son of the Duke of Cantabria, and descended, both by father and mother’s side, from the Gothic kings of Spain. I shall pass over the romantic story of his childhood, and shall content myself with a scene of his youth, which was spent in a castle among the Pyrenees, under the eye of his widowed and noble-minded mother, who caused him to be instructed in everything befitting a cavalier of gentle birth. While the sons of the nobility were revelling amid the pleasures of a licentious court, and sunk in that vicious and effeminate indulgence which led to the perdition of unhappy Spain, the youthful Pelayo, in his rugged mountain school, was steeled to all kinds of hardy exercise. A great part of his time was spent in hunting the bears, the wild boars, and the wolves, with which the Pyrenees abounded; and so purely and chastely was he brought up, by his good lady mother, that, if the ancient chronicle from which I draw my facts may be relied on, he had attained his one-and-twentieth year, without having once sighed for woman!
Nor were his hardy contests confined to the wild beasts of the forest. Occasionally he had to contend with adversaries of a more formidable character. The skirts and defiles of these border mountains were often infested by marauders from the Gallic plains of Gascony. The Gascons, says an old chronicler, were a people who used smooth words when expedient, but force when they had power, and were ready to lay their hands on every thing they met. Though poor, they were proud; for there was not one who did not pride himself on being a hijo-dalgo, or the son of somebody.
At the head of a band of these needy hijodalgos of Gascony, was one Arnaud, a broken-down cavalier. He and four of his followers were well armed and mounted; the rest were a set of scamper-grounds on foot, furnished with darts and javelins. They were the terror of the border; here to-day and gone to-morrow; sometimes in one pass, sometimes in another. They would make sudden inroads into Spain, scour the roads, plunder the country, and were over the mountains and far away before a force could he collected to pursue them.
Now it happened one day, that a wealthy burgher of Bordeaux, who was a merchant, trading with Biscay, set out on a journey for that province. As he intended to sojourn there for a season, he took with him his wife, who was a goodly dame, and his daughter, a gentle damsel, of marriageable age, and exceeding fair to look upon. He was attended by a trusty clerk from his comptoir, and a man servant; while another servant led a hackney, laden with bags of money, with which he intended to purchase merchandise.
When the Gascons heard of this wealthy merchant and his convoy passing through the mountains, they thanked their stars, for they considered all peaceful men of traffic as lawful spoil, sent by providence for the benefit of hidalgos like themselves, of valor and gentle blood, who lived by the sword. Placing themselves in ambush, in a lonely defile, by which the travellers had to pass, they silently awaited their coming. In a little while they beheld them approaching. The merchant was a fair, portly man, in a buff surcoat and velvet cap. His looks bespoke the good cheer of his native city, and he was mounted on a stately, well-fed steed, while his wife and daughter paced gently on palfreys by his side.
The travellers had advanced some distance in the defile, when the Bandoleros rushed forth and assailed them. The merchant, though but little used to the exercise of arms, and unwieldy in his form, yet made valiant defence, having his wife and daughter and money-bags at hazard. He was wounded in two places, and overpowered; one of his servants was slain, the other took to flight.
The freebooters then began to ransack for spoil, but were disappointed at not finding the wealth they had expected. Putting their swords to the breast of the trembling merchant, they demanded where he had concealed his treasure, and learned from him of the hackney that was following, laden with, money. Overjoyed at this intelligence, they bound their captives to trees, and awaited the arrival of the golden spoil.
On this same day, Pelayo was out with his huntsmen among the mountains, and had taken his stand on a rock, at a narrow pass, to await the sallying forth of a wild boar. Close by him was a page, conducting a horse, and at the saddle-bow hung his armor, for he was always prepared for fight among these border mountains. While thus posted, the servant of the merchant came flying from the robbers. On beholding Pelayo, he fell on his knees, and implored his life, for he supposed him to be one of the band. It was some time before he could be relieved from his terror, and made to tell his story. When Pelayo heard of the robbers, he concluded they were the crew of Gascon hidalgos, upon the scamper. Taking his armor from the page, he put on his helmet, slung his buckler round his neck, took lance in hand, and mounting his steed, compelled the trembling servant to guide him to the scene of action. At the same time he ordered the page to seek his huntsmen, and summon them to his assistance.
When the robbers saw Pelayo advancing through the forest, with a single attendant on foot, and beheld his rich armor sparkling in the sun, they thought a new prize had fallen into their hands, and Arnaud and two of his companions, mounting their horses, advanced to meet him. As they approached, Pelayo stationed himself in a narrow pass between two rocks, where he could only be assailed in front, and bracing his buckler, and lowering his lance, awaited their coming.
“Who and what are ye,” cried he, “and what seek ye in this land?”
“We are huntsmen,” replied Arnaud, “and lo! our game runs into our toils!”
“By my faith,” replied Pelayo, “thou wilt find the game more readily roused than taken: have at thee for a villain!”
So saying, he put spurs to his horse, and ran full speed upon him. The Gascon, not expecting so sudden an attack from a single horseman, was taken by surprise. He hastily couched his lance, but it merely glanced on the shield of Pelayo, who sent his own through the middle of his breast, and threw him out of his saddle to the earth. One of the other robbers made at Pelayo, and wounded him slightly in the side, but received a blow from the sword of the latter, which cleft his skull-cap, and sank into his brain. His companion, seeing him fall, put spurs to his steed, and galloped off through the forest.
Beholding several other robbers on foot coming up, Pelayo returned to his station between the rocks, where he was assailed by them all at once. He received two of their darts on his buckler, a javelin razed his cuirass, and glancing down, wounded his horse. Pelayo then rushed forth, and struck one of the robbers dead: the others, beholding several huntsmen advancing, took to flight, but were pursued, and several of them taken.
The good merchant of Bordeaux and his family beheld this scene with trembling and amazement, for never had they looked upon such feats of arms. They considered Don Pelayo as a leader of some rival band of robbers; and when the bonds were loosed by which they were tied to the trees, they fell at his feet and implored mercy. The females were soonest undeceived, especially the daughter; for the damsel was struck with the noble countenance and gentle demeanor of Pelayo, and said to herself: “Surely nothing evil can dwell in so goodly and gracious a form.”
Pelayo now sounded his horn, which echoed from rock to rock, and was answered by shouts and horns from various parts of the mountains. The merchant’s heart misgave him at these signals, and especially when he beheld more than forty men gathering from glen and thicket. They were clad in hunters’ dresses, and armed with boar-spears, darts, and hunting-swords, and many of them led hounds in long leashes. All this was a new and wild scene to the astonished merchant; nor were his fears abated, when he saw his servant approaching with the hackney, laden with money-bags; “for of a certainty,” said he to himself, “this will be too tempting a spoil for these wild hunters of the mountains.”
Pelayo, however, took no more notice of the gold than if it had been so much dross; at which the honest burgher marvelled exceedingly. He ordered that the wounds of the merchant should be dressed, and his own examined. On taking off his cuirass, his wound was found to be but slight; but his men were so exasperated at seeing his blood, that they would have put the captive robbers to instant death, had he not forbidden them to do them any harm.
The huntsmen now made a great fire at the foot of a tree, and bringing a boar which they had killed, cut off portions and roasted them, or broiled them on the coals. Then drawing forth loaves of bread from their wallets, they devoured their food half raw, with the hungry relish of huntsmen and mountaineers. The merchant, his wife, and daughter, looked at all this, and wondered, for they had never beheld so savage a repast.
Pelayo then inquired of them if they did not desire to eat; they were too much in awe of him to decline, though they felt a loathing at the thought of partaking of this hunter’s fare; but he ordered a linen cloth to be spread under the shade of a great oak, on the grassy margin of a clear running stream; and to their astonishment, they were served, not with the flesh of the boar, but with dainty cheer, such as the merchant had scarcely hoped to find out of the walls of his native city of Bordeaux.
The good burgher was of a community renowned for gastronomic prowess: his fears having subsided, his appetite was now awakened, and he addressed himself manfully to the viands that were set before him. His daughter, however, could not eat: her eyes were ever and anon stealing to gaze on Pelayo, whom she regarded with gratitude for his protection, and admiration for his valor; and now that he had laid aside his helmet, and she beheld his lofty countenance, glowing with manly beauty, she thought him something more than mortal. The heart of the gentle donzella, says the ancient chronicler, was kind and yielding; and had Pelayo thought fit to ask the greatest boon that love and beauty could bestow, doubtless meaning her fair hand, she could not have had the cruelty to say him nay. Pelayo, however, had no such thoughts: the love of woman had never yet entered his heart; and though he regarded the damsel as the fairest maiden he had ever beheld, her beauty caused no perturbation in his breast.
When the repast was over, Pelayo offered to conduct the merchant and his family through the defiles of the mountains, lest they should be molested by any of the scattered band of robbers. The bodies of the slain marauders were buried, and the corpse of the servant was laid upon one of the horses captured in the battle. Having formed their cavalcade, they pursued their way slowly up one of the steep and winding passes of the Pyrenees.
Toward sunset, they arrived at the dwelling of a holy hermit. It was hewn out of the living rock; there was a cross over the door, and before it was a great spreading oak, with a sweet spring of water at its foot. The body of the faithful servant who had fallen in the defence of his lord, was buried close by the wall of this sacred retreat, and the hermit promised to perform masses for the repose of his soul. Then Pelayo obtained from the holy father consent that the merchant’s wife and daughter should pass the night within his cell; and the hermit made beds of moss for them, and gave them his benediction; but the damsel found little rest, so much were her thoughts occupied by the youthful champion who had rescued her from death or dishonor.
Pelayo, however, was visited by no such wandering of the mind; but, wrapping himself in his mantle, slept soundly by the fountain under the tree. At midnight, when every thing was buried in deep repose, he was awakened from his sleep and beheld the hermit before him, with the beams of the moon shining upon his silver hair and beard.
“This is no time,” said the latter, “to be sleeping; arise and listen to my words, and hear of the great work for which thou art chosen!”
Then Pelayo arose and seated himself on a rock, and the hermit continued his discourse.
“Behold,” said he, “the ruin of Spain is at hand! It will be delivered into the hands of strangers, and will become a prey to the spoiler. Its children will be slain or carried into captivity; or such as may escape these evils, will harbor with the beasts of the forest or the eagles of the mountain. The thorn and bramble will spring up where now are seen the cornfield, the vine, and the olive; and hungry wolves will roam in place of peaceful flocks and herds. But thou, my son! tarry not thou to see these things, for thou canst not prevent them. Depart on a pilgrimage to the sepulchre of our blessed Lord in Palestine; purify thyself by prayer; enroll thyself in the order of chivalry, and prepare for the great work of the redemption of thy country; for to thee it will be given to raise it from the depth of its affliction.”
Pelayo would have inquired farther into the evils thus foretold, but the hermit rebuked his curiosity.
“Seek not to know more,” said he, “than heaven is pleased to reveal. Clouds and darkness cover its designs, and prophecy is never permitted to lift up but in part the veil that rests upon the future.”
The hermit ceased to speak, and Pelayo laid himself down again to take repose, but sleep was a stranger to his eyes.
When the first rays of the rising sun shone upon the tops of the mountains, the travellers assembled round the fountain beneath the tree and made their morning’s repast. Then, having received the benediction of the hermit, they departed in the freshness of the day, and descended along the hollow defiles leading into the interior of Spain. The good merchant was refreshed by sleep and by his morning’s meal; and when he beheld his wife and daughter thus secure by his side, and the hackney laden with his treasure close behind him, his heart was light in his bosom, and he carolled a chanson as he went, and the woodlands echoed to his song. But Pelayo rode in silence, for he revolved in his mind the portentous words of the hermit; and the daughter of the merchant ever and anon stole looks at him full of tenderness and admiration, and deep sighs betrayed the agitation of her bosom.
At length they came to the foot of the mountains, where the forests and the rocks terminated, and an open and secure country lay before the travellers. Here they halted, for their roads were widely different. When they came to part, the merchant and his wife were loud in thanks and benedictions, and the good burgher would fain have given Pelayo the largest of his sacks of gold; but the young man put it aside with a smile. “Silver and gold,” said he, “need I not, but if I have deserved aught at thy hands, give me thy prayers, for the prayers of a good man are above all price.”
In the mean time the daughter had spoken never a word. At length she raised her eyes, which were filled with tears, and looked timidly at Pelayo, and her bosom throbbed; and after a violent struggle between strong affection and virgin modesty, her heart relieved itself by words.
“Senor,” said she, “I know that I am unworthy of the notice of so noble a cavalier; but suffer me to place this ring upon a finger of that hand which has so bravely rescued us from death; and when you regard it, you may consider it as a memorial of your own valor, and not of one who is too humble to be remembered by you.”
With these words, she drew a ring from her finger and put it upon the finger of Pelayo; and having done this, she blushed and trembled at her own boldness, and stood as one abashed, with her eyes cast down upon the earth.
Pelayo was moved at the words of the simple maiden, and at the touch of her fair hand, and at her beauty, as she stood thus trembling and in tears before him; but as yet he knew nothing of woman, and his heart was free from the snares of love. “Amiga,” (friend,) said he, “I accept thy present, and will wear it in remembrance of thy goodness;” so saying, he kissed her on the cheek.
The damsel was cheered by these words, and hoped that she had awakened some tenderness in his bosom; but it was no such thing, says the grave old chronicler, for his heart was devoted to higher and more sacred matters; yet certain it is, that he always guarded well that ring.
When they parted, Pelayo remained with his huntsmen on a cliff, watching that no evil befell them, until they were far beyond the skirts of the mountain; and the damsel often turned to look at him, until she could no longer discern him, for the distance and the tears that dimmed her eyes.
And for that he had accepted her ring, says the ancient chronicler, she considered herself wedded to him in her heart, and would never marry; nor could she be brought to look with eyes of affection upon any other man; but for the true love which she bore Pelayo, she lived and died a virgin. And she composed a book which treated of love and chivalry, and the temptations of this mortal life; and one part discoursed of celestial matters, and it was called “The Contemplations of Love;” because at the time she wrote it, she thought of Pelayo, and of his having accepted her jewel and called her by the gentle appellation of “Amiga.” And often thinking of him in tender sadness, and of her never having beheld him more, she would take the book and would read it as if in his stead; and while she repeated the words of love which it contained, she would endeavor to fancy them uttered by Pelayo, and that he stood before her.