How Beelzebub Came to the Convent

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How Beelzebub Came to the Convent  (1913) 
by Ethel Watts Mumford

From The Century Magazine, Vol 64, 1913. Illustrated by N. C. Wyeth

The reverend Mother's colorless lips moved. At first no sound issued from them. Then, with strange forceful vibration, her voice broke the waiting stillness.
"Woe!" she cried. "Woe! 'The Fiend, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour!'"


Author of "The Eyes of the Heart", "Whitewash," etc.


SISTER EULALIA rose from the bench by the door in answer to Sister Teresa's call. The broken pavement in the outer patio of the Convent of La Merced echoed the tapping of her stick as she slowly made her way to the arch leading to the interior of the building. Sister Eulalia was blind, but as nearly the whole seventy years of her life had been passed within these same gray walls familiarity supplied the defect of vision. Her daily tasks never had been interrupted since, a full half-century before, a wind-driven cactus-thorn had robbed her of sight. She wore with simple dignity the white woolen garb of the order, with its band of blue ribbon from which depended a silver cross, the snowy coif framing her saintly face with smooth bands that contrasted with the wrinkled surface of her skin. To the eye of an artist, her frail figure in its quaint surroundings of Spanish architecture, dating from the early years of the seventeenth century, would have made an irresistible appeal. But no artist ever sought that remote, almost forgotten city, and for the few Indians and half-breeds who have inherited the fallen glories of Antigua de Guatemala, the moribund convent held no interest. Occasionally one of the older "Indigenes" whose conscience troubled him would leave an offering of food at the twisted iron gate and mumble a request for prayers of intercession; or the dark-eyed half-Spanish children would stare with something of both fascination and fear at the five white-clad ancient women who, morning and evening, crossed the patio to the chapel: Sister Eulalia on the arm of Sister Teresa, Sister Rose de Lima and Sister Catalina, one on each side of the Mother Superior. To these two younger sisters—their years were but sixty-six and sixty-nine—had fallen, by common consent, the care of the Mother Superior, whose age no one knew, so great it was, and whose infirmities the nuns loyally concealed. By them her wandering sentences were received as divine revelations, and indeed her strange, thin voice, as it repeated Latin texts with level insistence, conveyed a weird, Delphic impression.

The Mother Superior had been a woman of learning, of beauty, and of high birth, but all that had been long ago. Now she was but a pale shade repeating vaguely the words learned in a former life. Her features remained fine and fair, as if preserved in some crystalline substance. Her skin was unlined, for care and sorrow could reach her no more.

Unless she were being conducted to and from the chapel by her devoted handmaidens, or lay at rest in the state bed of the visitors' room, she sat in the high carved seat at the end of the refectory table, her thin hands folded, her eyes fixed on the symbolic cross on her breast, unconscious of those who came and went about her, or of the echoing aisles and lofty pillared porticos that surrounded her abstracted existence.

As the blind nun crossed the court and entered the refectory, she became conscious of an unusual stir. She divined the presence of each of the sisters, divined them strangely intent and not a little agitated. The voice of Sister Rose de Lima reached her in a whisper of portent.

"The reverend Mother has spoken—in Spanish!"

A pause followed the announcement. There was a slight sound from the white prophetess. Sister Teresa and Sister Catalina, who stood beside her, drew insensibly closer. Their hands were joined, finger-tip to finger-tip, in the prayerful pose of medieval funereal statues; their withered faces were drawn with expectation. At the opposite end of the table stood Sister Rose, leaning forward breathlessly. Sister Eulalia remained at the entrance, rigid, as if turned into stone. The moments lengthened. The sunlight danced in golden motes through the long windows, innocent now of their olden glories of painted glass, and showed the worn carving of memorial stones emblazoned with coats of arms, half erased by the passing of many sandaled feet. The stone walls betrayed by protruding nails the absence of their wood-carvings and panels. The badly repaired rifts in the earthquake-torn walls showed garishly. The white figures, as in a tableau, remained still and unmoving, and the seated form of the Mother Superior appeared as lifeless as the waxen figure of Jesus under its shade of glass on the little altar.

She opened her eyes, if such a slow unclosing of the lids could be so called, revealing two wells of opaque blackness. A quick sigh escaped the lips of the three nuns. Sister Eulalia heard, and slowly knelt, ready to receive the word should such be sent.

The reverend Mother's colorless lips moved. At first no sound issued from them. Then, with strange forceful vibration, her voice broke the waiting stillness.

"Woe!" she cried. "Woe! 'The Fiend, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour!'"

Four withered hands hastily made the sign of the cross.

Heavily as they had lifted, the waxen lids closed over the opaque black eyes. The rigid body relaxed slightly, and the Mother Superior relapsed into her wonted insensibility.

"We are surely to be tempted!" said Sister Eulalia. "Sisters, we must be strong to resist the Fiend." Sister Teresa nodded. "We are warned," she added.

Sister Rose crossed herself again.

Very gently Sister Catalina assured herself of the comfort of the reverend Mother, and the four aged nuns turned to their tasks again, but with beating hearts. The Fiend would beset them soon, and in some dreadful guise. Sister Rose breathed a prayer for strength, as she filled the tiny red lamp burning ever before the waxen image. Sister Teresa hurriedly began "Aves," as she peeled an onion; Sister Catalina's "paternosters" preceded her into the garden; and Sister Eulalia's beads slipped hastily through her knotted fingers as she returned to the mechanical perfection of her work at the loom.

"As a roaring lion!"—Sister Eulalia's blind eyes could conjure more dreadful sights than the faded vision of her less afflicted companions would ever see. Now she brought them before her in endless array of horror. She would know him only by his roar, she thought, and he might creep up close noiselessly. Her ear was alert to the lightest sound. But the day wore on and no roaring beast came with hellish clamor to affright the gentle recluse.

Sister Catalina entered the patio from the garden-close, a yellow hill-rose in her hand to pleasure her afflicted companion with its subtle peppery scent; an act not sanctioned by the drastic rules of the convent. But years upon years had rolled by, bringing a gentle sagging of discipline. Occasionally one of the few priests who still clung to the wrecked cathedrals came to hear confessions of puerile and trifling misdemeanors, and a severer penance than a dozen "Aves" was unknown and unmerited. Sister Eulalia inhaled the rose's fragrance gratefully. Her blunt, weaving-calloused fingers sought and found the soft petals of the flower with loving touch.

It was thus that the Rev. Dr. Joel McBean saw them. He paused, delighted. What a characteristic picture! How well composed; how symbolical of a decaying faith! His kodak was instantly leveled, and with a snap the sisters were immortalized. For Dr. McBean was known far and wide on the west coast for his lectures on the benighted people of other lands. His present visit to Central America combined his vacation with a search for new material for his winter tour.

The click of the camera caused Eulalia, the sightless, to turn sharply. Catalina, who was slightly deaf, seeing her companion's movement, looked about and stood still in open-mouthed amazement. Then she made the gesture common to all women in all lands, and emitted the sound that accompanies it when the invading hen must be incited to flight.

"Shoo!" she cried. "Shiss—shiss!" and waved her garden apron at the intruder.

Sister Eulalia grasped the hem of Carolina's flowing sleeve.

"What is it? Oh, what is it?" she gasped.

"A man! A strange man!" came the answer in a frightened whisper.

The gentleman in question realized that he was distinctly de trop, but he strongly desired to gather more lecture material from this promising source. Setting down the camera, he took out his well-thumbed volume of "Handy Spanish" and sought for a suitable phrase of explanation and introduction. There were headings about "The Hotel," "The Laundry," "The Eating and Procuring of Meals," "At the Railway Station," "The Diligence," "The Physician"; but among the thousand useful phrases, not one seemed to offer itself aptly. At last he found the heading he sought: "Cameras—Films—Developing, etc." "Have you any cyanide?" did not fit. "Have you a dark-room in this hotel?" seemed ambiguous. "Direct me to the photographer" would not do. Ah! Eureka! "May I take your picture?" He bowed politely, approached the now thoroughly frightened nuns, and with carefully spaced utterance made his request. "May I take your picture?" he repeated, with a graceful sweep of his white hand. "Fotografia—cuadro—"

Sister Rose appeared in the doorway, followed by Teresa. His gesture included them also, and the ancient gateway, the columned portico, and the quaint facade of the little chapel.

"Beautiful!" he cried. "Multo bueno! Hermosa, hermosa—muy hermosa!"

He wanted to take their picture! The nuns were completely at sea. Why should this stranger, this man with queer apparel and strange speech, want their picture? They possessed only one—the portrait of Our Lady of Mercy above the little altar of the chapel—and why should any one want a thing that so obviously it was impossible for them to give? Bewildered, they looked from one to another. Sister Rose, being the youngest and most mentally alert, became aware of the sacerdotal character of their visitor: the gold cross at the end of his chain, the wide-bordered felt hat which he waved so gracefully, the neat black clothes, the breviary that bulged from his pocket; but, more than all, the expression of his smiling face and gentle, near-sighted eyes.

"He is a priest—see you not?" she said excitedly. "His dress, his manner, bespeak it. He comes from some foreign land. Alas! that the reverend Mother cannot speak with him in Latin!"

"It is true," said Catalina. "Pardon, reverend Father," she quavered, "I did not know! Our picture—you shall see it."

She turned toward the chapel, but the visitor waved her back. The group before him was irresistible, just as they were. Catalina instinctively obeyed his gesture, marveling.

"Are—are there any more of you?" he inquired in his halting Spanish.

Now at last they understood. The reverend Father was making the rounds of the clerical houses in order to make his report to the bishop. That had happened once before. Sister Rose launched into explanations.

"No. We are all that are left, except the Mother Superior," she told him. "We are allowed here on sufferance only, for as, of course, the reverend Father knows, the churches have all been taken by the state, and but for the reverend Mother, who was kinswoman to some one great in the land, we should have been sent forth. Alas! our numbers have dwindled—grave upon grave we have made, each nun for herself, and now all are filled save five. We have not, it is quite true, turned the holy sod of our last sleeping-places as often as is the rule; but we have grown old, and the work is hard—"

It was the lecturer's turn to be utterly confused and routed; the sudden change of manner, the deference shown to him all at once; above all the avalanche of Spanish was too much for him, but he still retained his amateur photographer's zeal. With a hand raised to draw their attention, but which the nuns mistook for pastoral blessing, he steadied the camera against his narrow chest, and snapped a second picture. With a polite "Thank you" and a sigh of satisfaction, he wound the reel, heartily regretting the while that the limits of the camera's focus must necessarily leave out the perfection of the setting—the towering, smoking peak of the Volcan de Fuego on the right, stained red and yellow by its sulphurous outpourings, and the menacing green inactivity of Agua's deadly summit; all the gloom and glow of those earthquake-seamed walls, and tottering, carved gateways.

"Mil gracias!" He thanked them awkwardly. "I—well—goodness! how does one say it?" He seized upon the "Handy Spanish Phrases" again, and ran his finger down the line of camera sentences. "Please make me six prints." "This is over-exposed." "You have fogged the plate."—"Tut, tut!" he exclaimed impatiently, "how in the world do you say 'I'll give you a blue-print'?—blue-print—blue-print—Ah! this will do. 'An excellent portrait'—presented—for you," he explained, and supplemented the statement with an elaborate pantomime. The nuns watched his gesticulations with breathless interest. He pointed to each in turn, made a circle around his own face, smiling blandly and nodding appreciation.

The sisters conferred.

"It clears!" said Sister Rose. "He asks us have we broken the rules and looked at ourselves in a looking-glass." She advanced toward Dr. McBean and spoke for the sisterhood with deep earnestness. "Oh, no, reverend Father, we have not seen our own reflections for fifty years, and more—oh, never! There never has been a mirror on the walls of La Merced. Vanity is not our sin. Thanks be to Our Lady, not even in the convent well have we looked to see our faces reflected. Oh, no!"

Dr. McBean caught a word here and there, and felt that he was being vehemently reassured about something, probably that the nuns would be grateful for his kindness; that the elderly virgins knew nothing whatever of such a thing as a camera, and had no idea of the use to which he put his black box, would have seemed so ridiculous that the possibility of it never occurred to him. With more bows, and renewed and halting thanks, he took his departure.

"To-morrow," he called. "Mañana—I will bring the blue-prints—mañana. Adios! Gracias!"

The nuns watched his departure in silence, but as the sound of his tripping footsteps died away, they turned to one another excitedly.

"Tell me, you who have eyes—what was he like?" begged Eulalia.

The others turned to her pityingly.

"Thou shalt hear. We had forgotten thine affliction, poor sister. He is thin of the leg and round above. He wears glasses on a small nose. His eyes are blue, and his hands are beautiful and white, like the hands of Father Ignatius—the saints rest his soul! He wore black, with a cassock very short indeed; and a round white collar, and a gold cross hung at his waist. He bore a small black box, that doubtless contained a holy relic, for ofttimes he clasped it to his bosom and cared for it most lovingly."

"How strange," mused Eulalia, "that the reverend Fathers should send one to question us thus unannounced, and one who also speaks so strangely! His words were confusing, and I caught not often the sense, though I listened with all my ears. Had it not been for Sister Rose, I never should have guessed his mission."

"Had'st thou seen him, thou would'st have known," said Sister Teresa. "His calling was not to be mistaken; moreover, with the reliquary he blessed us."

They had great food for speculation. Such excitement had not come into their lives in unnumbered years. The dreadful prophecy of the Mother Superior was forgotten. For the first time in a decade Eulalia was heard to lament her loss of sight. Try as she would, she could not make a satisfactory mental picture from her companions' descriptions of their visitor. These were vivid and detailed enough, but somehow she could not bring them to take definite shape. Over and over again they discussed the form and face, the manners and raiment of Dr. Joel McBean. Not a gesture they did not speculate upon and imitate, not a sentence of his incoherent Spanish that was not dissected, analyzed, and wondered about. In particular, why did he want their picture, and then leave without it?

But "to-morrow" he had said, to-morrow he would come; then perhaps they would understand.

The sunlight turned copper-red, warning them of the lateness of the hour and putting a sudden end to their excited converse. Suddenly sobered and recalled to its own world, the flustered dove-cote subsided. With stately tread they sought the reverend Mother. She suffered herself to be lifted from her chair, and with eyes downcast took her slow way to the chapel, with the help and guidance of her two faithful attendants.

The perspiration stood in great beads upon the brow of Joel McBean as he emerged from a black, unventilated closet in the Posada del Rey, a tray of chemicals in his hand. He held the developed films up to the light and nodded with satisfaction. The pictures were excellent, clear and sharp, well composed, excellently suited to the enlargement of the stereopticon. He examined each with minute care, but found none requiring the intensifier. There at last they were fixed forever, the replicas of this strange land of contradictions—pictures that should make his audiences realize how fortunate they were to be able to stay, at home in comfort while an intrepid and intelligent explorer braved the trials of arduous travel in order to bring the simulacrum of these other lands to their very doors, together with enlightening and well-turned elucidations of the manners and customs of these benighted dwellers in lands forgotten. Already he felt glowing sentences stirring in his brain, sonorous and uplifting words, at once pitying and broad-minded. "Tolerance"—that was the motto of his discourses; tolerance always, but coupled with the well-directed searchlight of comparison. What a point he would make of these aged, recluse women—their ignorance, their useless lives, their abasement before the Juggernaut of outworn rules! He flattered himself that his presence, momentary as it was, had brought new impetus, and a realization of other and more intelligent peoples, to these remnants of obsolete conditions. "Obsolete conditions"—ah, a good expression!

He slipped the sensitized paper under the films in their wooden cases, and set them for a moment on the rim of his balcony overlooking the cobbled pavement of the unfrequented King's Highway, upon which the tropic sun beat with white fury. A moment only sufficed, and he withdrew the prints. They proved marvelously good; as portraits they could not have been excelled. He smiled with satisfaction. How pleased these benighted little sisters would be, he thought, for he was a kindly man. He slipped the photographs between the leaves of his "Handy Spanish Phrases," and, walking along the red-tiled gallery, made his way across the blue-and-white-walled patio, and while parrots shrieked at him and capuchin monkeys chattered, he passed from their cages toward the great, sweating water-jars, and emerged into the glare of the street.

Everywhere the remains of huge triumphal arches met his eye; enormous buildings of state and vast churches, seamed and cracked by the volcano's upheavals, now flowered with creepers and plumed with growing trees. The silence indicated complete desertion, except where one caught, from time to time, in some shattered palace, a glimpse of an Indian family at their squalid tasks, or the bray of a burro echoing from some stately ruin.

At last the twisted wrought-iron gate and the flanking spiral columns of the gateway of the convent came in sight. Dr. McBean quickened his steps.

He had been eagerly awaited within those solemn walls. After matins the excited sisters had gossiped and chatted over the events of the previous day, and then proceeded—each quietly, in her own cell, and unknown to her fellows—to make an elaborate toilet. The least faded blue ribbons were put on, a fresh coif was found, spots and stains were removed from worn white garments, while the little silver crosses received an unaccustomed furbishing.

Somewhat shamefaced they met, and laughed like children as each realized the worldliness of the others, till again Sister Eulalia's complaint turned them to consolatory condolences. A frown of petulance had settled between Sister Eulalia's brows. To be sure, it was lost in a maze of wrinkles, but it was there. In her old heart was revolt against the sorrow accepted so bravely fifty years before. She did not realize her sin, absorbed as she was in the Great Interest.

When Dr. McBean entered the patio he was met by the four nuns, who advanced smiling, with murmured hopes of a happy sleep of the night before and perfect health to-day.

"I kept my promise, you see," he beamed, handing the prints to Sister Teresa, and speaking in his native tongue. "The pictures are really very good, and I hope you will enjoy having them. Thank you so much—and good-by. I start on my journey again to-day; so I must be off. Good-by, again. Adios—buanos dais!"

The nuns curtsied and bowed. He paused a moment in order to jot in his note-book: "Ignorant peoples invariably gratefully receive and appreciate—all evidences superior civilization"—bowed again and departed.

It was not till any further glimpse of him was denied by the corner wall that they turned to the photographs. They looked in astonishment, which increased to puzzled wonder; then a look of fear crossed Sister Teresa's face. Sister Eulalia, with tears in her eyeless lids, had disconsolately sought her seat on the weaving-bench. These marvels were not for her. For a moment she hated her companions—they were no longer companions. She was alone in her misery.

From the depths of self-pity she was rushed to sudden astounded attention by sounds of wrath, of venomous speech, of resentment and anger. Sister Eulalia could not believe her ears, and the angry conversation gave her no hint of its cause. It seemed the babblings of sheer madness. Sister Teresa had been the first to exclaim.

"See!" she cried, "I cannot understand! This is thy portrait to the life, Sister Catalina, and thine, Sister Rose, also this likeness of Sister Eulalia. But where am I? Who is this strange nun?"

Sister Catalina gazed at the picture in deep perturbation. "But I see thee well," she affirmed. "It is thy very self upon the paper, but it is I who am not there, and this is the strange nun!" She pointed to her own portrait.

Sister Rose intervened. "Foolish! It is thy very self, and Sister Eulalia, and Sister Teresa, yes; but I am not there, and in my place is a stranger!" She pointed to her own semblance. "Who is this?"

Both Sister Teresa and Sister Catalina looked at her scornfully. "It is thyself," they said in one breath.

Sister Rose colored till she symbolized her name, but it was the red of anger that mantled her cheeks.

"Indeed, it is not!" she answered hotly. "I have not a withered face, a jaw like a knife, and such eyes!"

"I tell thee, that"—Sister Catalina pointed, that there be no further mistake—"that is thou! This is the stranger."

"Stranger?" laughed Rose; "then we know thee not!"

It was Sister Catalina's turn to flame with anger. "It is not true!" she cried, stamping her foot with a grotesque parody of infantile rage. "I look like that! I know better! I remember as if it were to-day how I looked in the great mirror in my father's house!"

"I tell thee naught but the truth," exclaimed Sister Teresa, now quite beside herself. "Give me the picture!" She snatched at the print. A tussle ensued, punctuated by the sharp sound of a slap as they fought for the apple of discord.

Sister Catalina being the youngest, and, owing to her daily labors in the garden, the most active of the trio, obtained possession of the photograph, but not till, with a desperate push, she had thrust Sister Teresa so sharply forward that she fell panting against the iron gate. The force of the impact made the rusty iron clang, and Sister Teresa sank to the ground with a faint cry.

Not till then could Sister Eulalia master her fright and nervousness sufficiently to enter the arena. With outstretched hands, forgetful of her crutch, she advanced to the center of the patio. Her first words were sufficiently arresting to bring a sudden cessation of hostilities.

"Oh, my sisters!" she cried, "oh, my sisters—the Fiend! The Fiend!"

Involuntarily three pairs of terror-stricken eyes looked about. The sun-flooded courtyard held no unfamiliar shape; the sky was undarkened by any dreadful wing. No fateful roar broke the morning hush. But Sister Eulalia had sunk to her knees, tears streaming down her cheeks.

"We were warned," she shrilled, "but we were not proof against him. How should we know him in the guise of a holy man?" The listeners gasped. "Look, oh, my sisters, what has happened. I—even I, whom God had blessed with blindness that I might not see—I complained aloud. Envy and hatred were in my heart that ye saw marvels while I lay in darkness. I am ashamed—I am ashamed!"

She rocked backward and forward, a prey to remorse.

With a cry of sudden terror, Sister Catalina flung the crumpled photograph from her. It fluttered like a blown leaf, was caught by a vagrant breeze and wafted toward Sister Teresa, crouching by the gate. As if the white-hot fires of the dreaded volcano had suddenly poured toward her in searing streams, she screamed aloud, dragged herself to her feet with surprising alacrity, and rushed for protection to her former assailant, throwing her arms about Sister Catalina in a paroxysm of fear.

"Ay, cry aloud your terror, sisters," continued Sister Eulalia. "What was this thing of mystery the Fiend brought among ye? In the winking of an eye it brought strife and anger. How wise were they who forbade us looking-glasses. For ye forgot your own images till ye knew them no more. Behold, this thing that showed ye yourselves, as in a glass that was not glass, let in the very spirit of the devil. All the years of our happiness together in God were as nothing before the magic of the Evil One, whom we welcomed. Though we were warned, though we knew him the 'Prince of Disguise'! Pray for pardon—pray quickly, that our souls be not lost forever!"

They knelt in prayer, signing themselves with the cross, surprised, indeed, that their hands did not refuse their mission in punishment for their sin. The noonday sun beat mercilessly upon the veiled heads as they bent in petition. At last Sister Catalina interrupted the droning cadence.

"Sister whom God hath blessed with blindness, I will lead thee to this evil thing. Thine eyes are closed against its wiles. Take it, thou, to the chapel, and there, with a taper lit at the altar, we will burn it, that it may return to the Father of Lies, who sent it."

Sister Eulalia winced with fear, but realizing her peculiar mission she suffered herself to be led by the trembling nun till her fingers closed on the cursed paper. Painfully, on their knees, as one mounts the holy stairs in penance, they crawled to the chapel and prostrated themselves at the rail. With tears of remorse, the sisters embraced. A taper, one of the precious few in the tin box under the altar-lace, was lighted at the flame of the tiny red lamp. The print as it flared up seemed to show the pictured faces in twisted grimace; then it blackened, withered to ash, and dispersed in gray filaments.

For a moment the penitents remained in silent contemplation, then with one accord they crossed the patio to the refectory. Though the reverend Mother hear them not, yet they must make confession.

As they entered they stopped short, spell-bound. The opaque black eyes were open wide, staring at them from the crystalline whiteness of the Mother Superior's face. To the culprits that gaze was as accusing as any clarion voice of Judgment. They bowed their heads.

The reverend Mother's lips moved.

"Vanitas vanitatum!" she cried, and again—"Vanitas vanitatum!"

The echoes took up the sound as a bell that will not be silenced—Vanitatum.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1940, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 82 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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