I set out in the morning early, with saddle-bags fixed on either side and poncho strapped to my pommel. A loaded revolver, though of course I never had a chance to use it, made me feel pleasantly adventurous. I walked cautiously over the slippery cobbles of the streets, disturbing the silence with the clatter of my horse's shoes. Now and then a mule or a donkey trotted by, with panniers full of vegetables, of charcoal or of bread, between which on the beast's neck sat perched a man in a short blouse. I came to the old rampart of the town, now a promenade; and at the gate groups of idlers, with cigarettes between their lips, stood talking.
An hospitable friend had offered lodging for the night and food; after which, my ideas of the probable accommodation being vague, I expected to sleep upon straw, for victuals depending on the wayside inns. I arrived at the Campo de la Cruz, a tiny chapel which marks the same distance from the Cathedral as Jesus Christ walked to the Cross; it is the final boundary of Seville.
Immediately afterwards I left the high-road, striking across country to Carmona. The land was already wild; on either side of the bridle-path were great wastes of sand covered only by palmetto. The air was cool and fresh, like the air of English country in June when it has rained through the night; and Aguador, snorting with pleasure, cantered over the uneven ground, nimbly avoiding holes and deep ruts with the sure-footedness of his Arab blood. An Andalusian horse cares nothing for the ground on which he goes, though it be hard and unyielding as iron; and he clambers up and down steep, rocky precipices as happily as he trots along a cinder-path.
I passed a shepherd in a ragged cloak and a broad-brimmed hat, holding a crook. He stared at me, his flock of brown sheep clustered about him as I scampered by, and his dog rushed after, barking.
'Vaya Usted con Dios!'
I came to little woods of pine-trees, with long, thin trunks, and the foliage spreading umbrella-wise; round them circled innumerable hawks, whose nests I saw among the branches. Two ravens crossed my path, their wings heavily flapping.
The great charm of the Andalusian country is that you seize romance, as it were, in the act. In northern lands it is only by a mental effort that you can realise the picturesque value of the life that surrounds you; and, for my part, I can perceive it only by putting it mentally in black and white, and reading it as though between the covers of a book. Once, I remember, in Brittany, in a distant corner of that rock-bound coast, I sat at midnight in a fisherman's cottage playing cards by the light of two tallow candles. Next door, with only a wall between us, a very old sailor lay dying in the great cupboard-bed which had belonged to his fathers before him; and he fought for life with the remains of that strenuous vigour with which in other years he had battled against the storms of the Atlantic. In the stillness of the night, the waves, with the murmur of a lullaby, washed gently upon the shingle, and the stars shone down from a clear sky. I looked at the yellow light on the faces of the players, gathered in that desolate spot from the four corners of the earth, and cried out: 'By Jove, this is romance!' I had never before caught that impression in the very making, and I was delighted with my good fortune.
The answer came quickly from the American: 'Don't talk bosh! It's your deal.'
But for all that it was romance, seized fugitively, and life at that moment threw itself into a decorative pattern fit to be remembered. It is the same effect which you get more constantly in Spain, so that the commonest things are transfigured into beauty. For in the cactus and the aloe and the broad fields of grain, in the mules with their wide panniers and the peasants, in the shepherds' huts and the straggling farm-houses, the romantic is there, needing no subtlety to be discovered; and the least imaginative may feel a certain thrill when he understands that the life he leads is not without its aesthetic meaning.
* * *
I rode for a long way in complete solitude, through many miles of this sandy desert. Then the country changed, and olive-groves in endless succession followed one another, the trees with curiously decorative effect were planted in long, even lines. The earth was a vivid red, contrasting with the blue sky and the sombre olives, gnarled and fantastically twisted, like evil spirits metamorphosed: in places they had sown corn, and the young green enhanced the shrill diversity of colour. With its clear, brilliant outlines and its lack of shadow, the scene reminded one of a prim pattern, such as in Jane Austen's day young gentlewomen worked in worsted. Sometimes I saw women among the trees, perched like monkeys on the branches, or standing below with large baskets; they were extraordinarily quaint in the trousers which modesty bade them wear for the concealment of their limbs when olive-picking. The costume was so masculine, their faces so red and weather-beaten, that the yellow handkerchief on their heads was really the only means of distinguishing their sex.
But the path became more precipitous, hewn from the sandstone, and so polished by the numberless shoes of donkeys and of mules that I hardly dared walk upon it; and suddenly I saw Carmona in front of me—quite close.
[Sidenote: By the Road—I]
The approach to Carmona is a very broad, white street, much too wide for the cottages which line it, deserted; and the young trees planted on either side are too small to give shade. The sun beat down with a fierce glare and the dust rose in clouds as I passed. Presently I came to a great Moorish gateway, a dark mass of stone, battlemented, with a lofty horseshoe arch. People were gathered about it in many-coloured groups, I found it was a holiday in Carmona, and the animation was unwonted; in a corner stood the hut of the Consumo, and the men advanced to examine my saddle-bags. I passed through, into the town, looking right and left for a parador, an hostelry whereat to leave my horse. I bargained for the price of food and saw Aguador comfortably stalled; then made my way to the Nekropolis where lived my host. There are many churches in Carmona, and into one of these I entered; it had nothing of great interest, but to a certain degree it was rich, rich in its gilded woodwork and in the brocade that adorned the pillars; and I felt that these Spanish churches lent a certain dignity to life: for all the careless flippancy of Andalusia they still remained to strike a nobler note. I forgot willingly that the land was priest-ridden and superstitious, so that a Spaniard could tell me bitterly that there were but two professions open to his countrymen, the priesthood and the bull-ring. It was pleasant to rest in that cool and fragrant darkness.
My host was an archaeologist, and we ate surrounded by broken earthenware, fragmentary mosaics, and grinning skulls. It was curious afterwards to wander in the graveyard which, with indefatigable zeal, he had excavated, among the tombs of forgotten races, letting oneself down to explore the subterranean cells. The paths he had made in the giant cemetery were lined with a vast number of square sandstone boxes which had contained human ashes; and now, when the lid was lifted, a green lizard or a scorpion darted out. From the hill I saw stretched before me the great valley of the Guadalquivir: with the squares of olive and of ploughed field, and the various greens of the corn, it was like a vast, multi-coloured carpet. But later, with the sunset, black clouds arose, splendidly piled upon one another; and the twilight air was chill and grey. A certain sternness came over the olive-groves, and they might well have served as a reproach to the facile Andaluz; for their cold passionless green seemed to offer a warning to his folly.
At night my host left me to sleep in the village, and I lay in bed alone in the little house among the tombs; it was very silent. The wind sprang up and blew about me, whistling through the windows, whistling weirdly; and I felt as though the multitudes that had been buried in that old cemetery filled the air with their serried numbers, a vast, silent congregation waiting motionless for they knew not what. I recalled a gruesome fact that my friend had told me: not far from there, in tombs that he had disinterred the skeletons lay huddled spasmodically, with broken skulls and a great stone by the side; for when a man, he said, lay sick unto death, his people took him, and placed him in his grave, and with the stone killed him.
* * *
In the morning I set out again. It was five-and-thirty miles to Ecija, but a new high road stretched from place to place and I expected easy riding. Carmona stands on the top of a precipitous hill, round which winds the beginning of the road; below, after many zigzags, I saw its continuation, a straight white line reaching as far as I could see. In Andalusia, till a few years ago, there were practically no high roads, and even now they are few and bad. The chief communication from town to town is usually an uneven track, which none attempts to keep up, with deep ruts, and palmetto growing on either side, and occasional pools of water. A day's rain makes it a quagmire, impassable for anything beside the sure-footed mule.
I went on, meeting now and then a string of asses, their panniers filled with stones or with wood for Carmona; the drivers sat on the rump of the hindmost animal, for that is the only comfortable way to ride a donkey. A peasant trotted briskly by on his mule, his wife behind him with her arms about his waist. I saw a row of ploughs in a field; to each were attached two oxen, and they went along heavily, one behind the other in regular line. By the side of every pair a man walked bearing a long goad, and one of them sang a Malaguena, its monotonous notes rising and falling slowly. From time to time I passed a white farm, a little way from the road, invitingly cool in the heat; the sun began to beat down fiercely. The inevitable storks were perched on a chimney, by their big nest; and when they flew in front of me, with their broad white wings and their red legs against the blue sky, they gave a quaint impression of a Japanese screen.
A farmhouse such as this seems to me always a type of the Spanish impenetrability. I have been over many of them, and know the manner of their rooms and the furniture, the round of duties there performed and how the day is portioned out; but the real life of the inhabitants escapes me. My knowledge is merely external. I am conscious that it is the same of the Andalusians generally, and am dismayed because I know practically nothing more after a good many years than I learnt in the first months of my acquaintance with them. Below the superficial similarity with the rest of Europe which of late they have acquired, there is a difference which makes it impossible to get at the bottom of their hearts. They have no openness as have the French and the Italians, with whom a good deal of intimacy is possible even to an Englishman, but on the contrary an Eastern reserve which continually baffles me. I cannot realise their thoughts nor their outlook. I feel always below the grace of their behaviour the instinctive, primeval hatred of the stranger.
Gradually the cultivation ceased, and I saw no further sign of human beings. I returned to the desert of the previous day, but the land was more dreary. The little groves of pine-trees had disappeared, there were no olives, no cornfields, not even the aloe nor the wilder cactus; but on either side as far as the horizon, desert wastes, littered with stones and with rough boulders, grown over only by palmetto. For many miles I went, dismounting now and then to stretch my legs and sauntering a while with the reins over my shoulder. Towards mid-day I rested by the wayside and let Aguador eat what grass he could.
Presently, continuing my journey, I caught sight of a little hovel where the fir-branch over the door told me wine was to be obtained. I fastened my horse to a ring in the wall, and, going in, found an aged crone who gave me a glass of that thin white wine, produce of the last year's vintage, which is called Vino de la Hoja, wine of the leaf; she looked at me incuriously as though she saw so many people and they were so much alike that none repaid particular scrutiny. I tried to talk with her, for it seemed a curious life that she must lead, alone in that hut many miles from the nearest hamlet, with never a house in sight; but she was taciturn and eyed me now with something like suspicion. I asked for food, but with a sullen frown she answered that she had none to spare. I inquired the distance to Luisiana, a village on the way to Ecija where I had proposed to lunch, and shrugging her shoulders, she replied: 'How should I know!' I was about to go when I heard a great clattering, and a horseman galloped up. He dismounted and walked in, a fine example of the Andalusian countryman, handsome and tall, well-shaved, with close-cropped hair. He wore elaborately decorated gaiters, the usual short, close-fitting jacket, and a broad-brimmed hat; in his belt were a knife and a revolver, and slung across his back a long gun. He would have made an admirable brigand of comic-opera; but was in point of fact a farmer riding, as he told me, to see his novia, or lady-love, at a neighbouring farm.
I found him more communicative and in the politest fashion we discussed the weather and the crops. He had been to Seville.
'Che maravilla!' he cried, waving his fine, strong hands. 'What a marvel! But I cannot bear the town-folk. What thieves and liars!'
'Town-folk should stick to the towns,' muttered the old woman, looking at me somewhat pointedly.
The remark drew the farmer's attention more closely to me.
'And what are you doing here?' he asked.
'Riding to Ecija.'
'Ah, you're a commercial traveller,' he cried, with fine scorn. 'You foreigners bleed the country of all its money. You and the government!'
'Rogues and vagabonds!' muttered the old woman.
Notwithstanding, the farmer with much condescension accepted one of my cigars, and made me drink with him a glass of aguardiente.
We went off together. The mare he rode was really magnificent, rather large, holding her head beautifully, with a tail that almost swept the ground. She carried as if it were nothing the heavy Spanish saddle, covered with a white sheep-skin, its high triangular pommel of polished wood. Our ways, however, quickly diverged. I inquired again how far it was to the nearest village.
'Eh!' said the farmer, with a vague gesture. 'Two leagues. Three leagues. Quien sabe? Who knows? Adios!'
He put the spurs to his mare and galloped down a bridle-track. I, whom no fair maiden awaited, trotted on soberly.
[Sidenote: By the Road—II]
The endless desert grew rocky and less sandy, the colours duller. Even the palmetto found scanty sustenance, and huge boulders, strewn as though some vast torrent had passed through the plain, alone broke the desolate flatness. The dusty road pursued its way, invariably straight, neither turning to one side nor to the other, but continually in front of me, a long white line.
Finally in the distance I saw a group of white buildings and a cluster of trees. I thought it was Luisiana, but Luisiana, they had said, was a populous hamlet, and here were only two or three houses and not a soul. I rode up and found among the trees a tall white church, and a pool of murky water, further back a low, new edifice, which was evidently a monastery, and a posada. Presently a Franciscan monk in his brown cowl came out of the church, and he told me that Luisiana was a full league off, but that food could be obtained at the neighbouring inn.
The posada was merely a long barn, with an open roof of wood, on one side of which were half a dozen mangers and in a corner two mules. Against another wall were rough benches for travellers to sleep on. I dismounted and walked to the huge fireplace at one end, where I saw three very old women seated like witches round a brasero, the great brass dish of burning cinders. With true Spanish stolidity they did not rise as I approached, but waited for me to speak, looking at me indifferently. I asked whether I could have anything to eat.
The hostess, a tall creature, haggard and grim, shrugged her shoulders. Her jaws were toothless, and when she spoke it was difficult to understand. I tied Aguador to a manger and took off his saddle. The old women stirred themselves at last, and one brought a portion of chopped straw and a little barley. Another with the bellows blew on the cinders, and the third, taking eggs from a basket, fried them on the brasero. Besides, they gave me coarse brown bread and red wine, which was coarser still; for dessert the hostess went to the door and from a neighbouring tree plucked oranges.
When I had finished—it was not a very substantial meal—I drew my chair to the brasero and handed round my cigarette-case. The old women helped themselves, and a smile of thanks made the face of my gaunt hostess somewhat less repellent. We smoked a while in silence.
'Are you all alone here?' I asked, at length.
The hostess made a movement of her head towards the country. 'My son is out shooting,' she said, 'and two others are in Cuba, fighting the rebels.'
'God protect them!' muttered another.
'All our sons go to Cuba now,' said the first. 'Oh, I don't blame the Cubans, but the government.'
An angry light filled her eyes, and she lifted her clenched hand, cursing the rulers at Madrid who took her children. 'They're robbers and fools. Why can't they let Cuba go? It isn't worth the money we pay in taxes.'
She spoke so vehemently, mumbling the words between her toothless gums, that I could scarcely make them out.
'In Madrid they don't care if the country goes to rack and ruin so long as they fill their purses. Listen.' She put one hand on my arm. 'My boy came back with fever and dysentery. He was ill for months—at death's door—and I nursed him day and night. And almost before he could walk they sent him out again to that accursed country.'
The tears rolled heavily down her wrinkled cheeks.
* * *
Luisiana is a curious place. It was a colony formed by Charles III. of Spain with Germans whom he brought to people the desolate land; and I fancied the Teuton ancestry was apparent in the smaller civility of the inhabitants. They looked sullenly as I passed, and none gave the friendly Andalusian greeting. I saw a woman hanging clothes on the line outside her house; she had blue eyes and flaxen hair, a healthy red face, and a solidity of build which proved the purity of her northern blood. The houses, too, had a certain exotic quaintness; notwithstanding the universal whitewash of the South, there was about them still a northern character. They were prim and regularly built, with little plots of garden; the fences and the shutters were bright green. I almost expected to see German words on the post-office and on the tobacco-shop, and the grandiloquent Spanish seemed out of place; I thought the Spanish clothes of the men sat upon them uneasily.
The day was drawing to a close and I pushed on to reach Ecija before night, but Aguador was tired and I was obliged mostly to walk. Now the highway turned and twisted among little hills and it was a strange relief to leave the dead level of the plains: on each side the land was barren and desolate, and in the distance were dark mountains. The sky had clouded over, and the evening was grey and very cold; the solitude was awful. At last I overtook a pedlar plodding along by his donkey, the panniers filled to overflowing with china and glass, which he was taking to sell in Ecija. He wished to talk, but he was going too slowly, and I left him. I had hills to climb now, and at the top of each expected to see the town, but every time was disappointed. The traces of man surrounded me at last; again I rode among olive-groves and cornfields; the highway now was bordered with straggling aloes and with hedges of cactus.
At last! I reached the brink of another hill, and then, absolutely at my feet, so that I could have thrown a stone on its roofs, lay Ecija with its numberless steeples.
The central square, where are the government offices, the taverns, and a little inn, is a charming place, quiet and lackadaisical, its pale browns and greys very restful in the twilight, and harmonious. The houses with their queer windows and their balconies of wrought iron are built upon arcades which give a pleasant feeling of intimacy: in summer, cool and dark, they must be the promenade of all the gossips and the loungers. One can imagine the uneventful life, the monotonous round of existence; and yet the Andalusian blood runs in the people's veins. To my writer's fantasy Ecija seemed a fit background for some tragic story of passion or of crime.
I dined, unromantically enough, with a pair of commercial travellers, a post-office clerk, and two stout, elderly men who appeared to be retired officers. Spanish victuals are terrible and strange; food is even more an affair of birth than religion, since a man may change his faith, but hardly his manner of eating: the stomach used to roast meat and Yorkshire pudding rebels against Eastern cookery, and a Christian may sooner become a Buddhist than a beef-eater a guzzler of olla podrida. The Spaniards without weariness eat the same dinner day after day, year in, year out: it is always the same white, thin, oily soup; a dish of haricot beans and maize swimming in a revolting sauce; a nameless entree fried in oil—Andalusians have a passion for other animals' insides; a thin steak, tough as leather and grilled to utter dryness; raisins and oranges. You rise from table feeling that you have been soaked in rancid oil.
My table-companions were disposed to be sociable. The travellers desired to know whether I was there to sell anything, and one drew from his pocket, for my inspection, a case of watch-chains. The officers surmised that I had come from Gibraltar to spy the land, and to terrify me, spoke of the invincible strength of the Spanish forces.
'Are you aware,' said the elder, whose adiposity prevented his outward appearance from corresponding with his warlike heart, 'Are you aware that in the course of history our army has never once been defeated, and our fleet but twice?'
He mentioned the catastrophes, but I had never heard of them; and Trafalgar was certainly not included. I hazarded a discreet inquiry, whereupon, with much emphasis, both explained how on that occasion the Spanish had soundly thrashed old Nelson, although he had discomfited the French.
'It is odd,' I observed, 'that British historians should be so inaccurate.'
'It is discreditable,' retorted my acquaintance, with a certain severity.
'How long did the English take to conquer the Soudan?' remarked the other, somewhat aggressively picking his teeth. 'Twenty years? We conquered Morocco in three months.'
'And the Moors are devils,' said the commercial traveller. 'I know, because I once went to Tangiers for my firm.'
After dinner I wandered about the streets, past the great old houses of the nobles in the Calle de los Caballeros, empty now and dilapidated, for every gentleman that can put a penny in his pocket goes to Madrid to spend it; down to the river which flowed swiftly between high banks. Below the bridge two Moorish mills, irregular masses of blackness, stood finely against the night. Near at hand they were still working at a forge, and I watched the flying sparks as the smith hammered a horseshoe; the workers were like silhouettes in front of the leaping flames.
At many windows, to my envy, couples were philandering; the night was cold and Corydon stood huddled in his cape. But the murmuring as I passed was like the flow of a rapid brook, and I imagined, I am sure, far more passionate and romantic speeches than ever the lovers made. I might have uttered them to the moon, but I should have felt ridiculous, and it was more practical to jot them down afterwards in a note-book. In some of the surrounding villages they have so far preserved the Moorish style as to have no windows within reach of the ground, and lovers then must take advantage of the aperture at the bottom of the door made for the domestic cat's particular convenience. Stretched full length on the ground, on opposite sides of the impenetrable barrier, they can still whisper amorous commonplaces to one another. But imagine the confusion of a polite Spaniard, on a dark night, stumbling over a recumbent swain:
'My dear sir, I beg your pardon. I had no idea....'
In old days the disturbance would have been sufficient cause for a duel, but now manners are more peaceful: the gallant, turning a little, removes his hat and politely answers:
'It is of no consequence. Vaya Usted con Dios!'
The intruder passes and the beau endeavours passionately to catch sight of his mistress' black eyes.
* * *
Next day was Sunday, and I walked by the river till I found a plot of grass sheltered from the wind by a bristly hedge of cactus. I lay down in the sun, lazily watching two oxen that ploughed a neighbouring field.
I felt it my duty in the morning to buy a chap-book relating the adventures of the famous brigands who were called the Seven Children of Ecija; and this, somewhat sleepily, I began to read. It required a byronic stomach, for the very first chapter led me to a monastery where mass proceeded in memory of some victim of undiscovered crime. Seven handsome men appeared, most splendidly arrayed, but armed to the teeth; each one was every inch a brigand, pitiless yet great of heart, saturnine yet gentlemanly; and their peculiarity was that though six were killed one day seven would invariably be seen the next. The most gorgeously apparelled of them all, entering the sacristy, flung a purse of gold to the Superior, while a scalding tear coursed down his sunburnt cheek; and this he dried with a noble gesture and a richly embroidered handkerchief! In a whirlwind of romantic properties I read of a wicked miser who refused to support his brother's widow, of the widow herself, (brought at birth to a gardener in the dead of night by a mysterious mulatto,) and of this lady's lovely offspring. My own feelings can never be harrowed on behalf of a widow with a marriageable daughter, but I am aware that habitual readers of romance, like ostriches, will swallow anything. I was hurried to a subterranean chamber where the Seven Children, in still more elaborate garments, performed various dark deeds, smoked expensive Havanas, and seated on silken cushions, partook (like Freemasons) of a succulent cold collation.
The sun shone down with comfortable warmth, and I stretched my legs. My pipe was out and I refilled it. A meditative snail crawled up and observed me with flattering interest.
I grew somewhat confused. A stolen will was of course inevitable, and so were prison dungeons; but the characters had an irritating trick of revealing at critical moments that they were long-lost relatives. It must have been a tedious age when poor relations were never safely buried. However, youth and beauty were at last triumphant and villainy confounded, virtue was crowned with orange blossom and vice died a miserable death. Rejoicing in duty performed I went to sleep.
[Sidenote: Wind and Storm]
But next morning the sky was dark with clouds; people looked up dubiously when I asked the way and distance to Marchena, prophesying rain. Fetching my horse, the owner of the stable robbed me with peculiar callousness, for he had bound my hands the day before, when I went to see how Aguador was treated, by giving me with most courteous ceremony a glass of aguardiente; and his urbanity was then so captivating that now I lacked assurance to protest. I paid the scandalous overcharge with a good grace, finding some solace in the reflection that he was at least a picturesque blackguard, tall and spare, grey-headed, with fine features sharpened by age to the strongest lines; for I am always grateful to the dishonest when they add a certain aesthetic charm to their crooked ways. There is a proverb which says that in Ecija every man is a thief and every woman—no better than she should be: I was not disinclined to believe it.
I set out, guided by a sign-post, and the good road seemed to promise an easy day. They had told me that the distance was only six leagues, and I expected to arrive before luncheon. Aguador, fresh after his day's rest, broke into a canter when I put him on the green plot, which the old Spanish law orders to be left for cattle by the side of the highway. But after three miles, without warning, the road suddenly stopped. I found myself in an olive-grove, with only a narrow path in front of me. It looked doubtful, but there was no one in sight and I wandered on, trusting to luck.
Presently, in a clearing, I caught sight of three men on donkeys, walking slowly one after the other, and I galloped after to ask my way. The beasts were laden with undressed skins which they were taking to Fuentes, and each man squatted cross-legged on the top of his load. The hindermost turned right round when I asked my question and sat unconcernedly with his back to the donkey's head. He looked about him vaguely as though expecting the information I sought to be written on the trunk of an olive-tree, and scratched his head.
'Well,' he said, 'I should think it was a matter of seven leagues, but it will rain before you get there.'
'This is the right way, isn't it?'
'It may be. If it doesn't lead to Marchena it must lead somewhere else.'
There was a philosophic ring about the answer which made up for the uncertainty. The skinner was a fat, good-humoured creature, like all Spaniards intensely curious; and to prepare the way for inquiries, offered a cigarette.
'But why do you come to Ecija by so roundabout a way as Carmona, and why should you return to Seville by such a route as Marchena?'
His opinion was evidently that the shortest way between two places was also the best. He received my explanation with incredulity and asked, more insistently, why I went to Ecija on horseback when I might go by train to Madrid.
'For pleasure,' said I.
'My good sir, you must have come on some errand.'
'Oh yes,' I answered, hoping to satisfy him, 'on the search for emotion.'
At this he bellowed with laughter and turned round to tell his fellows.
'Usted es muy guason,' he said at length, which may be translated: 'You're a mighty funny fellow.'
I expressed my pleasure at having provided the skinners with amusement and bidding them farewell, trotted on.
I went for a long time among the interminable olives, grey and sad beneath the sullen clouds, and at last the rain began to fall. I saw a farm not very far away and cantered up to ask for shelter. An old woman and a labourer came to the door and looked at me very doubtfully; they said it was not a posada, but my soft words turned their hearts and they allowed me to come in. The rain poured down in heavy, oblique lines.
The labourer took Aguador to the stable and I went into the parlour, a long, low, airy chamber like the refectory of a monastery, with windows reaching to the ground. Two girls were sitting round the brasero, sewing; they offered me a chair by their side, and as the rain fell steadily we began to talk. The old woman discreetly remained away. They asked about my journey, and as is the Spanish mode, about my country, myself, and my belongings. It was a regular volley of questions I had to answer, but they sounded pleasanter in the mouth of a pretty girl than in that of an obese old skinner; and the rippling laughter which greeted my replies made me feel quite witty. When they smiled they showed the whitest teeth. Then came my turn for questioning. The girl on my right, prettier than her sister, was very Spanish, with black, expressive eyes, an olive skin, and a bunch of violets in her abundant hair. I asked whether she had a novio, or lover; and the question set her laughing immoderately. What was her name? 'Soledad—Solitude.'
I looked somewhat anxiously at the weather, I feared the shower would cease, and in a minute, alas! the rain passed away; and I was forced to notice it, for the sun-rays came dancing through the window, importunately, making patterns of light upon the floor. I had no further excuse to stay, and said good-bye; but I begged for the bunch of violets in Soledad's dark hair and she gave it with a pretty smile. I plunged again into the endless olive-groves.
It was a little strange, the momentary irruption into other people's lives, the friendly gossip with persons of a different tongue and country, whom I had never seen before, whom I should never see again; and were I not strictly truthful I might here lighten my narrative by the invention of a charming and romantic adventure. But if chance brings us often for a moment into other existences, it takes us out with equal suddenness so that we scarcely know whether they were real or mere imaginings of an idle hour: the Fates have a passion for the unfinished sketch and seldom trouble to unravel the threads which they have so laboriously entangled. The little scene brought another to my mind. When I was 'on accident duty' at St. Thomas's Hospital a man brought his son with a broken leg; it was hard luck on the little chap, for he was seated peacefully on the ground when another boy, climbing a wall, fell on him and did the damage. When I returned him, duly bandaged, to his father's arms, the child bent forward and put out his lips for a kiss, saying good-night with babyish pronunciation. The father and the attendant nurse laughed, and I, being young, was confused and blushed profusely. They went away and somehow or other I never saw them again. I wonder if the pretty child, (he must be eight or ten now,) remembers kissing a very weary medical student, who had not slept much for several days, and was dead tired. Probably he has quite forgotten that he ever broke his leg. And I suppose no recollection remains with the pretty girl in the farm of a foreigner riding mysteriously through the olive-groves, to whom she gave shelter and a bunch of violets.
* * *
I came at last to the end of the trees and found then that a mighty wind had risen, which blew straight in my teeth. It was hard work to ride against it, but I saw a white town in the distance, on a hill; and made for it, rejoicing in the prospect. Presently I met some men shooting, and to make sure, asked whether the houses I saw really were Marchena.
'Oh no,' said one. 'You've come quite out of the way. That is Fuentes. Marchena is over there, beyond the hill.'
My heart sank, for I was growing very hungry, and I asked whether I could not get shelter at Fuentes. They shrugged their shoulders and advised me to go to Marchena, which had a small inn. I went on for several hours, battling against the wind, bent down in order to expose myself as little as possible, over a huge expanse of pasture land, a desert of green. I reached the crest of the hill, but there was no sign of Marchena, unless that was a tower which I saw very far away, its summit just rising above the horizon.
I was ravenous. My saddle-bags contained spaces for a bottle and for food; and I cursed my folly in stuffing them with such useless refinements of civilisation as hair-brushes and soap. It is possible that one could allay the pangs of hunger with soap; but under no imaginable circumstances with hair-brushes.
It was a tower in the distance, but it seemed to grow neither nearer nor larger; the wind blew without pity, and miserably Aguador tramped on. I no longer felt very hungry, but dreadfully bored. In that waste of greenery the only living things beside myself were a troop of swallows that had accompanied me for miles. They flew close to the ground, in front of me, circling round; and the wind was so high that they could scarcely advance against it.
I remembered the skinner's question, why I rode through the country when I could go by train. I thought of the Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street, where persons more fortunate than I had that day eaten hearty luncheons. I imagined to myself a well-grilled steak with boiled potatoes, and a pint of old ale, Stilton! The smoke rose to my nostrils.
But at last, the Saints be praised! I found a real bridle-path, signs of civilisation, ploughed fields; and I came in sight of Marchena perched on a hill-top, surrounded by its walls. When I arrived the sun was setting finely behind the town.
[Sidenote: Two Villages]
Marchena was all white, and on the cold windy evening I spent there, deserted of inhabitants. Quite rarely a man sidled past wrapped to the eyes in his cloak, or a woman with a black shawl over her head. I saw in the town nothing characteristic but the wicker-work frame in front of each window, so that people within could not possibly be seen; it was evidently a Moorish survival. At night men came into the eating-room of the inn, ate their dinner silently, and muffling themselves, quickly went out; the cold seemed to have killed all life in them. I slept in a little windowless cellar, on a straw bed which was somewhat verminous.
But next morning, as I looked back, the view of Marchena was charming. It stood on the crest of a green hill, surrounded by old battlements, and the sun shone down upon it. The wind had fallen, and in the early hour the air was pleasant and balmy. There was no road whatever, not even a bridle-track this time, and I made straight for Seville. I proposed to rest my horse and lunch at Mairena. On one side was a great plain of young corn stretching to the horizon, and on the other, with the same mantle of green, little hills, round which I slowly wound. The sun gave all manner of varied tints to the verdure—sometimes it was all emerald and gold, and at others it was like dark green velvet.
But the clouds in the direction of Seville were very black, and coming nearer I saw that it rained upon the hills. The water fell on the earth like a transparent sheet of grey. Soon I felt an occasional drop, and I put on my poncho.
The rain began in earnest, no northern drizzle, but a streaming downpour that soaked me to the skin. The path became marsh-like, and Aguador splashed along at a walk; it was impossible to go faster. The rain pelted down, blinding me. Then, oddly enough, for the occasion hardly warranted such high-flown thoughts, I felt suddenly the utter helplessness of man: I had never before realised with such completeness his insignificance beside the might of Nature; alone, with not a soul in sight, I felt strangely powerless. The plain flaunted itself insolently in face of my distress, and the hills raised their heads with a scornful pride; they met the rain as equals, but me it crushed; I felt as though it would beat me down into the mire. I fell into a passion with the elements, and was seized with a desire to strike out. But the white sheet of water was senseless and impalpable, and I relieved myself by raging inwardly at the fools who complain of civilisation and of railway-trains; they have never walked for hours foot-deep in mud, terrified lest their horse should slip, with the rain falling as though it would never cease.
The path led me to a river; there was a ford, but the water was very high, and rushed and foamed like a torrent. Ignorant of the depth and mistrustful, I trotted up-stream a little, seeking shallower parts; but none could be seen, and it was no use to look for a bridge. I was bound to cross, and I had to risk it; my only consolation was that even if Aguador could not stand, I was already so wet that I could hardly get wetter. The good horse required some persuasion before he would enter; the water rushed and bubbled and rapidly became deeper; he stopped and tried to turn back, but I urged him on. My feet went under water, and soon it was up to my knees; then, absurdly, it struck me as rather funny, and I began to laugh; I could not help thinking how foolish I should look and feel on arriving at the other side, if I had to swim for it. But immediately it grew shallower; all my adventures tailed off thus unheroically just when they began to grow exciting, and in a minute I was on comparatively dry land.
I went on, still with no view of Mairena; but I was coming nearer. I met a group of women walking with their petticoats over their heads. I passed a labourer sheltered behind a hedge, while his oxen stood in a field, looking miserably at the rain. Still it fell, still it fell!
And when I reached Mairena it was the most cheerless place I had come across on my journey, merely a poverty-stricken hamlet that did not even boast a bad inn. I was directed from place to place before I could find a stable; I was soaked to the skin, and there seemed no shelter. At last I discovered a wretched wine-shop; but the woman who kept it said there was no fire and no food. Then I grew very cross. I explained with heat that I had money; it is true I was bedraggled and disreputable, but when I showed some coins, to prove that I could pay for what I bought, she asked unwillingly what I required. I ordered a brasero, and dried my clothes as best I could by the burning cinders. I ate a scanty meal of eggs, and comforted myself with the thin wine of the leaf, sufficiently alcoholic to be exhilarating, and finally, with aguardiente regained my equilibrium.
But the elements were against me. The rain had ceased while I lunched, but no sooner had I left Mairena than it began again, and Seville was sixteen miles away. It poured steadily. I tramped up the hills, covered with nut-trees; I wound down into valleys; the way seemed interminable. I tramped on. At last from the brow of a hill I saw in the distance the Giralda and the clustering houses of Seville, but all grey in the wet; above it heavy clouds were lowering. On and on!
The day was declining, and Seville now was almost hidden in the mist, but I reached a road. I came to the first tavern of the environs; after a while to the first houses, then the road gave way to slippery cobbles, and I was in Seville. The Saints be praised!
To go from Seville to Granada is like coming out of the sunshine into deep shadow. I arrived, my mind full of Moorish pictures, expecting to find a vivid, tumultuous life; and I was ready with a prodigal hand to dash on the colours of my admiration. But Granada is a sad town, grey and empty; its people meander, melancholy, through the streets, unoccupied. It is a tradeless place living on the monuments which attract strangers, and like many a city famous for stirring history, seems utterly exhausted. Granada gave me an impression that it wished merely to be left alone to drag out its remaining days in peace, away from the advance of civilisation and the fervid hurrying of progress: it seemed like a great adventuress retired from the world after a life of vicissitude, anxious only to be forgotten, and after so much storm and stress to be nothing more than pious. There must be many descendants of the Moors, but the present population is wan and lifeless. They are taciturn, sombre folk, with nothing in them of the chattering and vivacious creatures of Arab history. Indeed, as I wandered through the streets, it was not the Moors that engaged my mind, but rather Ferdinand of Arragon and Isabella of Castille. Their grim strength over-powered the more graceful shadows of Moordom; and it was only by an effort that I recalled Gazul and Musa, most gallant and amorous of Paynim knights, tilting in the square, displaying incredible valour in the slaughter of savage bulls. I thought of the Catholic Kings, in full armour, riding with clank of steel through the captured streets. And the snowy summits of the Sierra Nevada, dazzling sometimes under the sun and the blue sky, but more often veiled with mist and capped by heavy clouds, grim and terrifying, lent a sort of tragic interest to the scene; so that I felt those grey masses, with their cloak of white, (they seemed near enough to overwhelm one,) made it impossible for the town built at their very feet, to give itself over altogether to flippancy.
And for a while I found little of interest in Granada but the Alhambra. The gipsy quarter, with neither beauty, colour, nor even a touch of barbarism, is a squalid, brutal place, consisting of little dens built in the rock of the mountain which stands opposite the Alhambra. Worse than hovels, they are the lairs of wild beasts, foetid and oppressive, inhabited by debased creatures, with the low forehead, the copper skin, and the shifty cruel look of the Spanish gipsy. They surround the visitor in their rags and tatters, clamouring for alms, and for exorbitant sums proposing to dance. Even in the slums of great cities I have not seen a life more bestial. I tried to imagine what sort of existence these people led. In the old days the rock-dwellings among the cactus served the gipsies for winter quarters only, and when the spring came they set off, scouring the country for something to earn or steal; but that is long ago. For two generations they have remained in these hovels—year in, year out—employed in shoeing horses, shearing, and the like menial occupations which the Spaniard thinks beneath his dignity. The women tell fortunes, or dance for the foreigner, or worse. It is a mere struggle for daily bread. I wondered whether in the spring-time the young men loved the maidens, or if they only coupled like the beasts. I saw one pair who seemed quite newly wed; for their scanty furniture was new and they were young. The man, short and squat, sat scowling, cross-legged on a chair, a cigarette between his lips. The woman was taller and not ill-made, a slattern; her hair fell dishevelled on her back and over her forehead; her dress was open, displaying the bosom; her apron was filthy. But when she smiled, asking for money, her teeth were white and regular, and her eyes flashed darkly. She was attractive in a heavy sensual fashion, attractive and at the same time horribly repellant: she was the sort of woman who might fetter a man to herself by some degrading, insuperable passion, the true Carmen of the famous story whom a man might at once love and hate; so that though she dragged him to hell in shame and in despair, he would never find the strength to free himself. But where among that bastard race was the splendid desire for freedom of their fathers, the love of the fresh air of heaven and the untrammeled life of the fields?
At first glance also the cathedral seemed devoid of charm. I suppose travellers seek emotions in the things they see, and often the more beautiful objects do not give the most vivid sensations. Painters complain that men of letters have written chiefly of second-rate pictures, but the literary sentiment is different from the artistic; and a masterpiece of Perugino may excite it less than a mediocre work of Guido Reni.
The cathedral of Granada is said by the excellent Fergusson to be the most noteworthy example in Europe of early Renaissance architecture; its proportions are evidently admirable, and it is designed and carried out according to all the canons of the art. 'Looking at its plan only,' he says, 'this is certainly one of the finest churches in Europe. It would be difficult to point out any other, in which the central aisle leads up to the dome, so well proportioned to its dimensions, and to the dignity of the high altar which stands under it.' But though I vaguely recognised these perfections, though the spacing appeared fine and simple, and the columns had a certain majesty, I was left more than a little cold. The whitewash with which the interior is coated gives an unsympathetic impression, and the abundant light destroys that mystery which the poorest, gaudiest Spanish church almost invariably possesses. In the Capilla de los Reyes are the elaborate monuments of the Catholic Kings, of their daughter Joan the Mad, and of Philip her husband; below, in the crypt, are four simple coffins, in which after so much grandeur, so much joy and sorrow, they rest. Indeed, for the two poor women who loved without requite, it was a life of pain almost unrelieved: it is a pitiful story, for all its magnificence, of Joan with her fiery passion for the handsome, faithless, worthless husband, and her mad jealousy; and of Isabella, with patient strength bearing every cross, always devoted to the man who tired of her quickly, and repaid her deep affection with naught but coldness and distrust.
Queen Isabella's sword and sceptre are shown in the sacristry, and in contrast with the implement of war a beautiful cope, worked with her royal hands. And her crown also may be seen, one of the few I have come across which might really become the wearer, of silver, a masterpiece of delicate craftsmanship.
But presently, returning to the cathedral and sitting in front of the high altar, I became at last conscious of its airy, restful grace. The chancel is very lofty. The base is a huge arcade which gives an effect of great lightness; and above are two rows of pictures, and still higher two rows of painted windows. The coloured glass throws the softest lights upon the altar and on the marble floor, rendering even quieter the low tints of the pictures. These are a series of illustrations of the life of the Blessed Virgin, painted by Alonzo Cano, a native of Valladolid, who killed his wife and came to Granada, whereupon those in power made him a prebendary. In the obscurity I could not see the paintings, but divined soft and pleasant things after the style of Murillo, and doubtless that was better than actually to see them. The pulpits are gorgeously carved in wood, and from the walls fly great angels with fine turbulence of golden drapery. And in the contrast of the soft white stone with the gold, which not even the most critical taste could complain was too richly spread, there is a delicate, fascinating lightness: the chancel has almost an Italian gaiety, which comes upon one oddly in the gloomy town. Here the decoration, the gilded virgins, the elaborate carving, do not oppress as elsewhere; the effect is too debonair and too refreshing. It is one colour more, one more distinction, in the complexity of the religious sentiment.
* * *
But if what I have said of Granada seems cold, it is because I did not easily catch the spirit of the place. For when you merely observe and admire some view, and if industrious make a note of your impression, and then go home to luncheon, you are but a vulgar tripper, scum of the earth, deserving the ridicule with which the natives treat you. The romantic spirit is your only justification; when by the comeliness of your life or the beauty of your emotion you have attained that, (Shelley when he visited Paestum had it, but Theophile Gautier, flaunting his red waistcoat tras los montes, was perhaps no better than a Cook's tourist,) then you are no longer unworthy of the loveliness which it is your privilege to see. When the old red brick and the green trees say to you hidden things, and the vega and the mountains are stretched before you with a new significance, when at last the white houses with their brown tiles, and the labouring donkey, and the peasant at his plough, appeal to you so as to make, as it were, an exquisite pattern on your soul, then you may begin to find excuses for yourself. But you may see places long and often before they are thus magically revealed to you, and for myself I caught the real emotion of Granada but once, when from the Generalife I looked over the valley, the Generalife in which are mingled perhaps more admirably than anywhere else in Andalusia all the charm of Arabic architecture, of running water, and of cypress trees, of purple flags and dark red roses. It is a spot, indeed, fit for the plaintive creatures of poets to sing their loves, for Paolo and Francesca, for Juliet and Romeo; and I am glad that there I enjoyed such an exquisite moment.
[Sidenote: The Alhambra]
From the church of San Nicolas, on the other side of the valley, the Alhambra, like all Moorish buildings externally very plain, with its red walls and low, tiled roofs, looks like some old charter-house. Encircled by the fresh green of the spring-time, it lies along the summit of the hill with an infinite, most simple grace, dun and brown and deep red; and from the sultry wall on which I sat the elm-trees and the poplars seemed very cool. Thirstily, after the long drought, the Darro, the Arab stream which ran scarlet with the blood of Moorish strife, wound its way over its stony bed among the hills; and beyond, in strange contrast with all the fertility, was the grey and silent grandeur of the Sierra Nevada. Few places can be more charming than the green wood in which stands the stronghold of the Moorish kings; the wind sighs among the topmost branches and all about is the sweet sound of running water; in spring the ground is carpeted with violets, and the heavy foliage gives an enchanting coldness. A massive gateway, flanked by watch-towers, forms the approach; but the actual entrance, offering no hint of the incredible magnificence within, is an insignificant door.
But then, then you are immediately transported to a magic palace, existing in some uncertain age of fancy, which does not seem the work of human hands, but rather of Jin, an enchanted dwelling of seven lovely damsels. It is barely conceivable that historical persons inhabited such a place. At the same time it explains the wonderful civilisation of the Moors in Spain, with their fantastic battles, their songs and strange histories; and it brings the Arabian Nights into the bounds of sober reality: after he has seen the Alhambra none can doubt the literal truth of the stories of Sinbad the Sailor and of Hasan of Bassorah.
* * *
From the terrace that overlooks the city you enter the Court of Myrtles—a long pool of water with goldfish swimming to and fro, enclosed by myrtle hedges. At the ends are arcades, borne by marble columns with capitals of surpassing beauty. It is very quiet and very restful; the placid water gives an indescribable sensation of delight, and at the end mirrors the slender columns and the decorated arches so that in reflection you see the entrance to a second palace, which is filled with mysterious, beautiful things. But in the Alhambra the imagination finds itself at last out of its depth, it cannot conjure up chambers more beautiful than the reality presents. It serves only to recall the old inhabitants to the deserted halls.
The Moors continually used inscriptions with great effect, and there is one in this court which surpasses all others in its oriental imagery, in praise of Mohammed V.: Thou givest safety from the breeze to the blades of grass, and inspirest terror in the very stars of heaven. When the shining stars quiver, it is through dread of thee, and when the grass of the field bends down it is to give thee thanks.
But it is the Hall of the Ambassadors which shows most fully the unparalleled splendour of Moorish decoration. It is a square room, very lofty, with alcoves on three sides, at the bottom of which are windows; and the walls are covered, from the dado of tiles to the roof, with the richest and most varied ornamentation. The Moorish workmen did not spare themselves nor economise their exuberant invention. One pattern follows another with infinite diversity. Even the alcoves, and there are nine, are covered each with different designs, so that the mind is bewildered by their graceful ingenuity. All kinds of geometrical figures are used, enlacing with graceful intricacy, intersecting, combining and dissolving; conventional foliage and fruit, Arabic inscriptions. An industrious person has counted more than one hundred and fifty patterns in the Hall of the Ambassadors, impressed with iron moulds on the moist plaster of the walls. The roof is a low dome of larch wood, intricately carved and inlaid with ivory and with mother-of-pearl; it has been likened to the faceted surface of an elaborately cut gem. The effect is so gorgeous that you are oppressed; you long for some perfectly plain space whereon to rest the eye; but every inch is covered.
Now the walls have preserved only delicate tints of red and blue, pale Wedgwood blues and faded terracottas, that make with the ivory of the plaster most exquisite harmonies; but to accord with the tiles, their brilliancy still undiminished, the colours must have been very bright. The complicated patterns and the gay hues reproduce the oriental carpets of the nomad's tent; for from the tent, it is said, (I know not with what justification,) all oriental architecture is derived. The fragile columns upon which rest masses of masonry are, therefore, direct imitations of tent-poles, and the stalactite borders of the arches represent the fringe of the woven hangings. The Moorish architect paid no attention to the rules of architecture, and it has been well said that if they existed for him at all it was only that he might elaborately disregard them. His columns generally support nothing; his arcades, so delicately worked that they seem like carved ivory, are of the lightest wood and plaster.
And it is curious that there should be such durability in those dainty materials: they express well the fatalism of the luxurious Moor, to whom the past and future were as nothing, and the transient hour all in all; yet they have outlasted him and his conqueror. The Spaniard, inglorious and decayed, is now but the showman to this magnificence; time has seen his greatness come and go, as came and went the greatness of the Moor, but still, for all its fragility, the Alhambra stands hardly less beautiful. Travellers have always been astonished at the small size of the Alhambra, especially of the Court of Lions; for here, though the proportion is admirable the scale is tiny; and many have supposed that the Moors were of less imposing physique than modern Europeans. The Court is surrounded by exquisite little columns, singly, in twos, in threes, supporting horseshoe arches; and in the centre is that beautiful fountain, borne by twelve lions with bristly manes, standing very stiffly, whereon is the inscription: O thou who beholdest these lions crouching, fear not. Life is wanting to enable them to show their fury.
Indeed, their surroundings have such a delicate and playful grace that it is hard to believe the Moors had any of our strenuous, latter-day passions. Life must have been to them a masque rather than a tragi-comedy; and whether they belong to sober history or no, those contests of which the curious may read in the lively pages of Gines Perez de Hita accord excellently with the fanciful environment. In the Alhambra nothing seems more reasonable than those never-ending duels in which, for a lady's favour, gallant knights gave one another such blows that the air rang with them, such wounds that the ground was red with blood; but at sunset they separated and bound up their wounds and returned to the palace. And the king, at the relation of the adventure, was filled with amazement and with great content.
* * *
Yet, notwithstanding, I find in the Alhambra something unsatisfying; for many an inferior piece of architecture has set my mind a-working so that I have dreamed charming dreams, or seen vividly the life of other times. But here, I know not why, my imagination helps me scarcely at all. The existence led within these gorgeous walls is too remote; there is but little to indicate the thoughts, the feelings, of these people, and one can take the Alhambra only as a thing of beauty, and despair to understand.
I know that it is useless to attempt with words to give an idea of these numerous chambers and courts. A string of superlatives can do no more than tire the reader, an exact description can only confuse; nor is the painter able to give more than a suggestion of the bewildering charm. The effect is too emotional to be conveyed from man to man, and each must feel it for himself. Charles V. called him unhappy who had lost such treasure—desgraciado el que tal perdio—and showed his own appreciation by demolishing a part to build a Renaissance palace for himself! It appears that kings have not received from heaven with their right divine to govern wrong the inestimable gift of good taste; and for them possibly it is fortunate, since when, perchance, a sovereign has the artistic temperament, a discerning people—cuts off his head.
[Sidenote: Boabdil the Unlucky]
He was indeed unhappy who lost such treasure. The plain of Granada smiles with luxuriant crops, a beautiful country, gay with a hundred colours, and in summer when the corn is ripe it burns with vivid gold. The sun shines with fiery rays from the blue sky, and from the snow-capped mountains cool breezes temper the heat.
But from his cradle Boabdil was unfortunate; soothsayers prophesied that his reign would see the downfall of the Moorish power, and his every step tended to that end. Never in human existence was more evident the mysterious power of the three sisters, the daughters of Night; the Fates had spun his destiny, they placed the pitfalls before his feet and closed his eyes that he might not see; they hid from him the way of escape. Allah Achbar! It was destiny. In no other way can be explained the madness which sped the victims of that tragedy to their ruin; for with the enemy at their very gates, the Muslims set up and displaced kings, plotted and counterplotted. Boabdil was twice deposed and twice regained the throne. Even when the Christian kingdoms had united to consume the remnant of Moorish sovereignty the Moors could not cease their quarrelling. Boabdil looked on with satisfaction while the territory of the rival claimant to his crown was wrested from him, and did not understand that his turn must inevitably follow. Verily, the gods, wishing to destroy him, had deranged his mind. It is a pitiful history of treachery and folly that was enacted while the Catholic Sovereigns devoured the pomegranate, seed by seed.
To me history, with its hopes bound to be frustrated and its useless efforts, sometimes is so terrible that I can hardly read. I feel myself like one who lives, knowing the inevitable future, and yet is powerless to help. I see the acts of the poor human puppets, and know the disaster that must follow. I wonder if the Calvinists ever realised the agony of that dark God of theirs, omniscient and yet so strangely weak, to whom the eternal majesty of heaven was insufficient to save the predestined from everlasting death.
* * *
On March 22, 1491, began the last siege of Granada.
Ferdinand marched his army into the plain and began to destroy the crops, taking one by one the surrounding towns. He made no attempt upon the city itself, and hostilities were confined to skirmishes beneath the walls and single combats between Christian knights and Muslim cavaliers, wherein on either side prodigies of valour were performed. Through the summer the Moors were able to get provisions from the Sierra Nevada, but when, with winter, the produce of the earth grew less and its conveyance more difficult, famine began to make itself felt. The Moors consoled themselves with the hope that the besieging army would retire with the cold weather, for such in those days was the rule of warfare; but Ferdinand was in earnest. When an accidental fire burned his camp, he built him a town of solid stone and mortar, which he named Santa Fe. It stands still, the only town in Spain wherein a Moorish foot has never trod. Then the Muslims understood at last that the Spaniard would never again leave that fruitful land.
And presently they began to talk of surrender; Spanish gold worked its way with Boabdil's councillors, and before winter was out the capitulation was signed.
On the second day of the new year the final scene of the tragedy was acted. Early in the morning, before break of day, Boabdil had sent his mother and his wife with the treasure to precede him to the Alpuxarras, in which district, by the conditions of the treaty, Ferdinand had assigned him a little kingdom. Himself had one more duty to perform, and at the prearranged hour he sallied forth with a wretched escort of fifty knights. On the Spanish side the night had been spent in joy and feasting; but how must Boabdil have spent his, thinking of the inevitable morrow? To him the hours must have sped like minutes. What must have been the agony of his last look at the Alhambra, that jewel of incalculable price? Mendoza, the cardinal, had been sent forward to occupy the palace, and Boabdil passed him on the hill.
Soon he reached Ferdinand, who was stationed near a mosque surrounded by all the glory of his Court, pennons flying, and knights in their magnificent array. Boabdil would have thrown himself from his horse in sign of homage to kiss the hand of the king of Arragon, but Ferdinand prevented him. Then Boabdil delivered the keys of the Alhambra to the victor, saying: 'They are thine, O king, since Allah so decrees it; use thy success with clemency and moderation.' Moving on sadly he saluted Isabella, and passed to rejoin his family; the Christians processioned to the city with psalm-singing.
But when Boabdil was crossing the mountains he turned to look at the city he had lost, and burst into tears.
'You do well,' said his mother, 'to weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man.'
'Alas!' he cried, 'when were woes ever equal to mine?'
It was not to be expected that the pious Kings of Castille and Arragon would keep their word, and means were soon invented to hound the wretched Boabdil from the principality they had granted. He crossed to Africa, and settled in Fez, of which the Sultan was his kinsman. It is pathetic to learn that there he built himself a palace in imitation of the Alhambra. At last, after many years, he was killed in an obscure battle fighting against the Sultan's rebels, and the Arab historian finishes the account of him with these words: 'Wretched man! who could lose his life in another's cause, though he dared not die in his own! Such was the immutable decree of destiny. Blessed be Allah, who exalteth and abaseth the kings of the earth according to His divine will, in the fulfilment of which consists that eternal justice which regulates all human affairs.'
In the day of El Makkary, the historian of the Moorish Empire, Boabdil's descendants had so fallen that they were nothing but common beggars, subsisting upon the charitable allowances made to the poor from the funds of the mosques.
One generation passeth away and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
[Sidenote: Los Pobres]
People say that in Granada the beggars are more importunate than in any other Spanish town, but throughout Andalusia their pertinacity and number are amazing. They are licensed by the State, and the brass badge they wear makes them demand alms almost as a right. It is curious to find that the Spaniard, who is by no means a charitable being, gives very often to beggars—perhaps from superstitious motives, thinking their prayers will be of service, or fearing the evil eye, which may punish a refusal. Begging is quite an honourable profession in Spain; mendicants are charitably termed the poor, and not besmirched, as in England, with an opprobrious name.
I have never seen so many beggars as in Andalusia; at every church door there will be a dozen, and they stand or sit at each street corner, halt, lame and blind. Every possible deformity is paraded to arouse charity. Some look as though their eyes had been torn out, and they glare at you with horrible bleeding sockets; most indeed are blind, and you seldom fail to hear their monotonous cry, sometimes naming the saint's day to attract particular persons: 'Alms for the love of God, for a poor blind man on this the day of St. John!' They stand from morning till night, motionless, with hand extended, repeating the words as the sound of footsteps tells them some one is approaching; and then, as a coin is put in their hands, say gracefully: 'Dios se lo pagara! God will repay you.'
In Spain you do not pass silently when a beggar demands alms, but pray his mercy for God's love to excuse you: 'Perdone Usted por el amor de Dios!' Or else you beseech God to protect him: 'Dios le ampare!' And the mendicant, coming to your gate, sometimes invokes the Immaculate Virgin.
'Ave Maria purissima!' he calls.
And you, tired of giving, reply: 'Y por siempre! And for ever.'
He passes on, satisfied with your answer, and rings at the next door.
It is not only in Burgos that Theophile Gautier might have admired the beggar's divine rags; everywhere they wrap their cloaks about them in the same magnificent fashion. The capa, I suppose, is the most graceful of all the garments of civilised man, and never more so than when it barely holds together, a mass of rags and patches, stained by the rain and bleached by the sun and wind. It hangs straight from the neck in big simple lines, or else is flung over one shoulder with a pompous wealth of folds.
There is a strange immobility about Andalusian beggars which recalls their Moorish ancestry. They remain for hours in the same attitude, without moving a muscle; and one I knew in Seville stood day after day, from early morning till midnight, with hand outstretched in the same rather crooked position, never saying a word, but merely trusting to the passer-by to notice. The variety is amazing, men and women and children; and Seville at fair-time, or when the foreigners are coming for Holy Week, is like an enormous hospital. Mendicants assail you on all sides, the legless dragging themselves on their hands, the halt running towards you with a crutch, the blind led by wife or child, the deaf and dumb, the idiotic. I remember a woman with dead eyes and a huge hydrocephalic head, who sat in a bath-chair by one of the cathedral doors, and whenever people passed, cried shrilly for money in a high, unnatural voice. Sometimes they protrude maimed limbs, feetless legs or arms without hands; they display loathsome wounds, horribly inflamed; every variety of disease is shown to extort a copper. And so much is it a recognised trade that they have their properties, as it were: one old man whose legs had been shot away, trotted through the narrow streets of Seville on a diminutive ass, driving it into the shop-doors to demand his mite. Then there are the children, the little boys and girls that Murillo painted, barely covered by filthy rags, cherubs with black hair and shining eyes, the most importunate of all the tribe. The refusal of a halfpenny is followed impudently by demands for a cigarette, and as a last resort for a match; they wander about with keen eyes for cigar-ends, and no shred of a smoked leaf is too diminutive for them to get no further use from it.
And beside all these are the blind fiddlers, scraping out old-fashioned tunes that were popular thirty years ago; the guitarists, singing the flamenco songs which have been sung in Spain ever since the Moorish days; the buffoons, who extract tunes from a broomstick; the owners of performing dogs.
They are a picturesque lot, neither vicious nor ill-humoured. Begging is a fairly profitable trade, and not a very hard one; in winter el pobre can always find a little sunshine, and in summer a little shade. It is no hardship for him to sit still all day; he would probably do little else if he were a millionaire. He looks upon life without bitterness; Fate has not been very kind, but it is certainly better to be a live beggar than a dead king, and things might have been ten thousand times worse. For instance, he might not have been born a Spaniard, and every man in his senses knows that Spain is the greatest nation on earth, while to be born a citizen of some other country is the most dreadful misfortune that can befall him. He has his licence from the State, and a charitable public sees that he does not absolutely starve; he has cigarettes to smoke—to say that a blind man cannot enjoy tobacco is evidently absurd—and therefore, all these things being so, why should he think life such a woeful matter? While it lasts the sun is there to shine equally on rich and poor, and afterwards will not a paternal government find a grave in the public cemetery? It is true that the beggar shares it with quite a number of worthy persons, doubtless most estimable corpses, and his coffin even is but a temporary convenience—but still, what does it matter?
[Sidenote: The Song]
But the Moorish influence is nowhere more apparent than in the Spanish singing. There is nothing European in that quavering lament, in those long-drawn and monotonous notes, in those weird trills. The sounds are strange to the ear accustomed to less barbarous harmonies, and at first no melody is perceived; it is custom alone which teaches the sad and passionate charm of these things. A malaguena is the particular complaint of the maid sorrowing for an absent lover, of the peasant who ploughs his field in the declining day. The long notes of such a song, floating across the silence of the night, are like a new melody on the great harpsichord of human sorrow. No emotion is more poignant than that given by the faint sad sounds of a Spanish song as one wanders through the deserted streets in the dead of night; or far in the country, with the sun setting red in the cloudless sky, when the stillness is broken only by the melancholy chanting of a shepherd among the olive-trees.
An heritage of Moordom is the Spanish love for the improvisation of well-turned couplets; in olden days a skilful verse might procure the poet a dress of cloth-of-gold, and it did on one occasion actually raise a beggar-maid to a royal throne: even now it has power to secure the lover his lady's most tender smiles, or at the worst a glass of Manzanilla. The richness of the language helps him with his rhymes, and his southern imagination gives him manifold subjects. But, being the result of improvisation—no lady fair would consider the suit of a gallant who could not address her in couplets of his own devising—the Spanish song has a peculiar character. The various stanzas have no bearing upon one another; they consist of four or seven lines, but in either case each contains its definite sentiment; so that one verse may be a complete song, or the singer may continue as long as the muse prompts and his subject's charms occasion. The Spanish song is like a barbaric necklace in which all manner of different stones are strung upon a single cord, without thought for their mutual congruity.
Naturally the vast majority of the innumerable couplets thus invented are forgotten as soon as sung, but now and then the fortuitous excellence of one impresses it on the maker's recollection, and it may be preserved. Here is an example which has been agreeably translated by Mr. J. W. Crombie; but neither original nor English rendering can give an adequate idea of the charm which depends on the oriental melancholy of the music:
Dos besos tengo en el alma Que no se apartan de mi: El ultimo de mi madre, Y el primero que te di.
Deep in my soul two kisses rest, Forgot they ne'er shall be: The last my mother's lips impressed, The first I stole from thee.
Here is another, the survival of which testifies to the Spanish extreme love of a compliment; and the somewhat hackneyed sentiment can only have made it more pleasant to the feminine ear:
Salga el sol, si ha de salir, Y si no, que nunca salga; Que para alumbrarme a mi La luz de tus ojos basta.
If the sun care to rise, let him rise, But if not, let him ever lie hid; For the light from my lady-love's eyes Shines forth as the sun never did.
It is a diverting spectacle to watch a professional improviser in the throes of inspiration. This is one of the stock 'turns' of the Spanish music-hall, and one of the most popular. I saw a woman in Granada, who was quite a celebrity; and the barbaric wildness of her performance, with its accompaniment of hand-clapping, discordant cries, and twanging of guitar, harmonised well with my impression of the sombre and mediaeval city.
She threaded her way to the stage among the crowded tables, through the auditorium, a sallow-faced creature, obese and large-boned, with coarse features and singularly ropy hair. She was accompanied by a fat small man with a guitar and a woman of mature age and ample proportions: it appeared that the cultivation of the muse, evidently more profitable than in England, conduced to adiposity. They stepped on the stage, taking chairs with them, for in Spain you do not stand to sing, and were greeted with plentiful applause. The little fat man began to play the long prelude to the couplet; the old woman clapped her hands and occasionally uttered a raucous cry. The poetess gazed into the air for inspiration. The guitarist twanged on, and in the audience there were scattered cries of Ole! Her companions began to look at the singer anxiously, for the muse was somewhat slow; and she patted her knee and groaned; at last she gave a little start and smiled. Ole! Ole! The inspiration had come. She gave a moan, which lengthened into the characteristic trill, and then began the couplet, beating time with her hands. Such an one as this:
Suspires que de mi salgan, Y otros que de ti saldran, Si en el camino se encuentran Que de cosas se diran!
If all the sighs thy lips now shape Could meet upon the way With those that from mine own escape What things they'd have to say!
She finished, and all three rose from their chairs and withdrew them, but it was only a false exit; immediately the applause grew clamorous they sat down again, and the little fat man repeated his introduction.
But this time there was no waiting. The singer had noticed a well-known bull-fighter and quickly rolled off a couplet in his praise. The subject beamed with delight, and the general enthusiasm knew no bounds. The people excitedly threw their hats on the stage, and these were followed by a shower of coppers, which the performers, more heedful to the compensation of Art than to its dignity, grovelled to picked up.
* * *
Here is a lover's praise of the whiteness of his lady's skin:
La neve por tu cara Paso diciendo: En donde no hago falta No me detengo.
Before thy brow the snow-flakes Hurry past and say: 'Where we are not needed, Wherefore should we stay?'
And this last, like the preceding translated by Mr. Crombie, shows once more how characteristic are Murillo's Holy Families of the popular sentiment:
La Virgen lava la ropa, San Jose la esta tendiendo, Santa Ana entretiene el nino, Y el agua se va riendo.
The Virgin is washing the clothes at the brook. And Saint Joseph hangs them to dry. Saint Anna plays with the Holy Babe, And the water flows smiling by.
Jerez is the Andalusian sunshine again after the dark clouds of Granada. It is a little town in the middle of a fertile plain, clean and comfortable and spacious. It is one of the richest places in Spain; the houses have an opulent look, and without the help of Baedeker you may guess that they contain respectable persons with incomes, and carriages and horses, with frock-coats and gold watch-chains. I like the people of Jerez; their habitual expression suggests a consciousness that the Almighty is pleased with them, and they without doubt are well content with the Almighty. The main street, with its trim shops and its cafes, has the air of a French provincial town—an appearance of agreeable ease and dulness.
Every building in Jerez is washed with lime, and in the sunlight the brilliancy is dazzling. You realise then that in Seville the houses are not white—although the general impression is of a white town—but, on the contrary, tinted with various colours from faintest pink to pale blue, pale green; they remind you of the summer dresses of women. The soft tones are all mingled with the sunlight and very restful. But Jerez is like a white banner floating under the cloudless sky, the pure white banner of Bacchus raised defiantly against the gaudy dyes of teetotalism and its shrieking trumpets.
Jerez the White is, of course, the home of sherry, and the whole town is given over to the preparation of the grateful juice. The air is impregnated with a rich smell. The sun shines down on Jerez; and its cleanliness, its prosperity, are a rebuke to harsh-voiced contemners of the grape.
You pass bodega after bodega, cask-factories, bottle-factories. A bottle-factory is a curious, interesting place, an immense barn, sombre, so that the eye loses itself in the shadows of the roof; and the scanty light is red and lurid from the furnaces, which roar hoarsely and long. Against the glow the figures of men, half-naked, move silently, performing the actions of their craft with a monotonous regularity which is strange and solemn. They move to and fro, carrying an iron instrument on which is the molten mass of red-hot glass, and it gleams with an extraordinary warm brilliancy. It twists hither and thither in obedience to the artisan's deft movements; it coils and writhes into odd shapes, like a fire-snake curling in the torture of its own unearthly ardour. The men pass so regularly, with such a silent and exact precision, that it seems a weird and mystic measure they perform—a rhythmic dance of unimaginable intricacy, whose meaning you cannot gather and whose harmony escapes you. The flames leap and soar in a thousand savage forms, and their dull thunder fills your ears with a confusion of sound. Your eyes become accustomed to the dimness, and you discern more clearly the features of those swarthy men, bearded and gnome-like. But the molten mass has been put into the mould; you watch it withdrawn, the bottom indented, the mouth cut and shaped. And now it is complete, but still red-hot, and glowing with an infernal transparency, gem-like and wonderful; it is a bottle fit now for the juice of satanic vineyards, and the miraculous potions of eternal youth, for which men in the old days bartered their immortal souls.
And the effect of a bodega is picturesque, too, though in a different way. It is a bright and cheerful spot, a huge shed with whitewashed walls and an open roof supported by dark beams; great casks are piled up, impressing you in their vast rotundity with a sort of aldermanic stateliness. The whole place is fragrant with clean, vinous perfumes. Your guide carries a glass and a long filler. You taste wine after wine, in different shades of brown; light wines to drink with your dinner, older wines to drink before your coffee; wines more than a century old, of which the odour is more delicate than violets; new wines of the preceding year, strong and rough; Amontillados, with the softest flavour in the world; Manzanillas for the gouty; Marsalas, heavy and sweet; wines that smell of wild-flowers; cheap wines and expensive wines. Then the brandies—the distiller tells you proudly that Spanish brandy is made from wine, and contemptuously that French brandy is not—old brandies for which a toper would sell his soul; new brandies like fusel-oil; brandies mellow and mild and rich. It is a drunkard's paradise.
And why should not the drinker have his paradise? The teetotallers have slapped their bosoms and vowed that liquor was the devil's own invention. (Note, by the way, that liquor is a noble word that should not be applied to those weak-kneed abominations that insolently flaunt their lack of alcohol. Let them be called liquids or fluids or beverages, or what you will. Liquor is a word for heroes, for the British tar who has built up British glory—Imperialism is quite the fashion now.) And for a hundred years none has dared lift his voice in refutation of these dyspeptic slanders. The toper did not care, he nursed his bottle and let the world say what it would; but the moderate drinker was abashed. Who will venture to say that a glass of beer gives savour to the humblest crust, and comforts Corydon, lamenting the inconstancy of Phyllis? Who will come forward and strike an attitude and prove the benefits of the grape? (The attitude is essential, for without it you cannot hope to impress your fellow men.) Rise up in your might, ye lovers of hop and grape and rye—rise up and slay the Egyptians. Be honest and thank your stars for the cup that cheers. Bacchus was not a pot-bellied old sot, but a beautiful youth with vine-leaves in his hair, Bacchus the lover of flowers; and Ariadne was charming.