Spain - Within The Alhambra
( Originally Published 1905 )
"The Sierra Nevada, an enormous dove which shelters under its most spotless wings Saracen Granada." —ALARCON : Los Seis Velos.
OUR surprises were by no means over. We had come to Granada to bask in the quintessence of earthly sunshine, and we found bleak rains, dark skies, and influenza. The Moorish palace was indeed as wonderful as our lifelong dream of it,—arched and columned halls of exquisite fretwork, walls of arabesque where flushes and glints of color linger yet, ceilings crusted with stalactite figures of tapering caprice, but all too chill, even if the guides would cease from troubling, for tarrying revery. We tarried, nevertheless, were enraptured, and caught cold. We were dwelling in the village on the Alhambra hill, within the circuit of the ruined fortress, in a villa kept by descendants of the Moors, but the insolent grippe microbe respected neither ancient blood nor republican. During the month of our residence, every member of the household was brought low in turn, and there were days when even the stubborn Yankees retreated to their pillows, lulled by the howling of as wild March winds as ever whirled the grasshopper vane on Faneuil Hall. From beyond the partition sounded the groans of our fever-smitten hostess, and from the kitchen below arose the noise of battle between our sturdy host and the rebel spoons and sauce-pans. If we could not always swallow his bold experiments in gruel and porridge, we could always enjoy the roars of laughter with which that merry silversmith plied his unaccustomed labors. It is said that there are only three months of the year when Granada is fit to live in, and certainly February and March are not of these. But our delighted spirits had no thought of surrender to our discomfited bodies. We would not go away. It is better to ache in beautiful Granada than to be at ease elsewhere.
At the first peep of convalescence, we fled out of doors in search of a sunbeam and discovered, again to our surprise, this immemorial Alhambra hill as young as springtime. The famous fragments of towers, with their dim legends of enchantment, all those tumbled masses of time-worn, saffron-lichened masonry, are tragically old, yet the tender petals of peach blossoms, drifting through the fragrant air, lay pink as baby touches against those hoary piles. We rested beside many an ancient ruin overclambered by red rosebuds or by branches laden with the fresh gold of oranges, where thrushes practised songs of welcome for the nightingales. We were too early for these sweetest minstrels of the Alhambra, who, like the Moors of long ago, were yearning on the edge of Africa for the Vega of Granada.
One expects, shut in by the crumbling walls of the Alhambra, in shadow of the ruddy towers, in sound of the Moslem fountains, to live with dreams and visions for one's company, to have no associates less dignified than the moonlight cavalcades of shadowy Arabian warriors, whom the mountain caverns cast forth at stated seasons to troop once more in their remembered ways, or Iustrous-eyed, lute-playing sultanas, or, at least, a crook-backed, snow-bearded magician, with a wallet full of talismans, and footsteps that clink like the gold of buried treasure. But here again the eternal fact of youth in the world disconcerts all venerable calculations. The Alhambra dances and laughs with children — ragamuffins, most of them, but none the less radiant with the precious joy of the morning.
They are gentle little people, too. It became well known on the hill that we were Americans, yet not a pebble or rude word followed us from the groups of unkempt boys among whom we daily passed. Once a mimic regiment, with a deafening variety of unmusical instruments and a genuine Spanish flag, charged on me roguishly and drew up in battle square about their prisoner, but it was only to troll the staple song of Spanish adolescence : " I want to be a soldier," and when I had munificently rewarded the captain with a copper, the youngsters doffed their varied headgear, dipped their banner in martial salute, and contentedly re-formed their ranks. It was seldom that we gave money, but we usually carried dulces for the little ones, who, even the dirtiest, have their own pretty standard of manners.
Some half-dozen pequenitos, not one of whom was clearly out of petticoats, were 'scampering off one day, for instance, their thanks duly spoken, and their bits of candy just between hand and mouth, when they turned with one accord, as if suddenly aware of an abruptness in their leave-taking, and trotted back to bow them low, their tatters of cap sweeping the ground, and lisp with all Spanish gravity, " Good afternoon, senora." One chubby hidalgo tipped over with the profundity of his obeisance, but the others righted him so solemnly that the dignity of the ceremonial was unimpaired.
The habit of begging, that plague of tourist resorts, is an incessant nuisance on the Alhambra hill. Half-grown girls and young women were the most shameless and persistent of our tormentors. Age can be discouraged, and babyhood diverted, while the Spanish boy, if his importunities are met by smile and jest, will break into a laugh in the midst of his most pathetic appeals and let you off till next time.
"A little money for our Blessed Lady's sake, senora. I am starving."
" Wouldn't you rather have a cigarette ? "
"And that I would."
"Then you are not starving, little brother. Run away. I have no cigarettes."
" But you have money for me, senora."
" No, nor enough for myself, not enough to buy one tile of the Alhambra."
" Then may God take care of you ! "
"And of you ! "
But the wild-haired, jet-eyed gypsy girl from the Albaicin is impervious to mirth and untouched by courtesy. She would not do us the honor of believing our word, even when we were telling the truth.
"Five centimos to buy me a scarlet ribbon ! Five centimos!" " Not to-day, excuse me. I have no change."
" Hoh ! You have change enough. Look in your little brown bag and see."
" I have no change."
" Then give me a peseta. Come, now, a whole peseta ! "
" But why should I give you a peseta ? "
The girl stares like an angry hawk.
"But why shouldn't you ? " Darting away, she hustles together a group of toddlers, hardly able to lisp, and drives them on to the attack.
" Beg, Isabelita ! Beg of the lady, little Conception ! Beg, Alfonsito ! Beg, beg, beg ! Beg five centimos, ten centimos ! Beg a peseta for us all ! "
And out pop the tiny palms, and the babble of baby voices makes a pleading music in the air. It is for such as these that the little brown bag has learned to carry dulces.
Before the month was over we had, in a slow, grippe-chastened fashion, " done our Baedeker." We had our favorite courts and corridors in the magical maze of the Moorish palace ; we knew the gardens and fountains of the Generalife, even to that many-centuried cypress beneath whose shade the Sultana Zoraya was wont to meet her Abencerrage lover ; our fortunes had been told in the gypsy caves of the Albaicin ; we had visited the stately Renaissance cathedral where, in a dim vault, the " Catholic Kings," Ferdinand and Isabella, take their royal rest ; we had made a first acquaintance with the paintings of the fire-tempered Granadine, Alonso Cano, and paid our dubious respects to the convent of Cartuja, with its over-gorgeous ornament and its horrible pictures of Spanish martyrdoms inflicted by that "devil's bride," Elizabeth of England. We had explored the parks and streets of the strange old city, where we possessed, according to the terms of Spanish hospitality, several houses ; but better than the clamorous town we liked our own wall-girdled height, with its songful wood of English elms, planted by the Duke of Wellington, its ever murmuring runlets of clear water, its jessamines and myrtles, its Arabian Nights of mosque and tower, and its far outlook over what is perhaps the most entrancing prospect any hill of earth can show. The sunset often found us leaning over the ivied wall beneath the Torre de la Vela, that bell-tower where the first cross was raised after the Christian conquest, gazing forth from our trellised garden-nook on a vast panorama of gray city all quaintly set with arch and cupola, of sweeping plain with wealth of olive groves, vineyards, orange orchards, pomegranates, aloes, and cypresses, bounded by glistening ranks of snow-cloaked mountains. From the other side of the Alhambra plateau, the fall is sheer to the silver line of the Darro. Across the river rises the slope of the Albaicin, once the chosen residence of Moorish aristocracy, but now dotted over, amid the thickets of cactus and prickly pear, with white-washed entrances to gypsy caves. Beyond all shine the resplendent summits of the great Sierras.
Yet it is strange how homely are many of the memories that spring to life in me at the name of the Alhambra, — decorous donkeys, laden with water-jars, trooping up the narrow footpath to the old Fountain of Tears, herds of goats clinging like flies to the upright precipice, a lurking peasant darting out on his wife as she passes with a day's earnings hidden in her stocking and holding her close, with laughter and coaxing, while he persistently searches her clothing until he finds and appropriates that copper hoard, and our own cheery little house-drudge washing our linen in a wayside rivulet and singing like a bird as she rubs and pounds an unfortunate handkerchief between two haphazard stones : —
" I like to live in Granada, It pleases me so well When I am falling asleep at night To hear the Vela bell."
There is the proud young mother, too, whom we came upon by chance over behind the Tower of the Princesses, where her pot of puchero was bubbling above a miniature bonfire, while the velvet-eyed baby boy sucked his thumb in joyous expectation. She often made us welcome, after that, to her home, — a dingy stone kitchen and bedroom, unfurnished save for pallet, a few cooking-utensils, a chest or two, and, fastened to the wall, a gaudy print of La Virgen de las Angustias, the venerated Patrona of Granada. But this wretched abode, the remains of what may once have been a palace, opened on a lordly pleasure-garden with walls inlaid with patterns of rain-bow tiles, whose ,broken edges were hidden by rose bushes. There were pedestals and even fragments of images in this wild Eden, jets of sparkling water and walks of variegated marble. In the course' of the month, English and Spanish callers climbed the hill to us and encompassed us with kindness, but we still maintained our incorrigible taste for low society and used to hold informal receptions on sunny benches for all the tatterdemalions within sight. Swarthy boys, wearied with much loafing, would thriftily lay aside their cigarettes to favor us with conversation, asking many questions about America, for whose recent action they gallantly declined to hold us responsible. " It was not the ladies that made the war," said these modern cavaliers of the Alhambra.
Their especial spokesman was a shambling orphan lad of some fifteen summers, with shrewd and merry eyes. Nothing pleased him better than to give an ornamental hitch to the shabby, bright-colored scarf about his thin, brown throat, and proceed to expound the political situation.
" You admire the Alhambra? I suppose you have no palaces in America. because your Government is a republic. That is a very good thing. Our Government is the worst possible. All the loss falls on the poor. All the gain goes to the rich. But there are few rich in Spain. America is the richest country of all the world. When America fought us it was as a rich man, fed and clothed, fighting a poor man weak from famine. And the rich man took from the poor man all that he had. Spain has nothing left — nothing."
" Oh, don't say that ! Spain has the Alhambra, and beautiful churches, beautiful pictures."
" Can one eat churches and pictures, my lady ? "
" And a fertile soil. What country outblooms Andalusia?"
His half-shod foot kicked the battle-trampled earth of the immortal hill contemptuously.
"Soil! Yes. All the world has soil. It serves to be buried in."
This budding politician graced us with his company one Sunday afternoon, when we went down into Granada to see a religious procession. Our Lady of Lourdes, escorted by a distinguished train of ecclesiastical and civic dignitaries, with pomp of many shining lights and sonorous instruments, with peal of church bells and incongruous popping of fireworks, passed through extended ranks of candle-bearing worshippers, along thronged streets, where every balcony was hung with the national red and yellow, to the Church of Mary Magdalene. There the sacred guest was entertained with a concert, and thence conducted, with the same processional state, amid the same reverent salutations of the multitude, back to her own niche. Our youthful guide showed himself so devout on this occasion, kneeling whenever the image, borne aloft in a glory of flowers and tapers, passed us, and gazing on every feature of the pageant with large-eyed adoration, that we asked him, as we climbed the hill again, if he would like to be a priest. But he shrugged his shoulders. There are better Christians in Spain than the priests," he answered.
The son of the house, Don Pepe, a young man of five and twenty, who usually attended us on any difficult excursion, was also frankly outspoken in his disapproval of the clergy. He could hardly hold his countenance in passing a Franciscan friar. " There walks the ruin of Spain," he muttered once, with bitter accent, turning to scowl after the bareheaded, brown-frocked figure so common in Granada streets. We had, indeed, our own little grudge against the friars, for they were the only men of the city who forced us off the narrow sidewalks out into the rough and dirty road. All other Granadines, from dandies to gypsies, yielded us the strip of pavement with ready courtesy, but the friars, three or four in Indian file, would press on their way like graven images and drive us to take refuge among the donkeys.
This escort of ours, formally a Catholic, was no more a lover of State than of Church. He was eager to get to work in the world and, finding no foothold, charged up his grievance against the Government. He was firmly persuaded that Madrid had sold the Santiago and Manila victories to Washington for sums of money down,—deep down in official pockets. But his talk, however angry, would always end in throwing out the hands with a gesture of despair.
" But what use in revolutions? Spain is tired —tired of tumult, tired of bloodshed, tired of deceit and disappointment. A new government would only mean the old dogs with new collars. We, the people, are always the bone to be gnawed bare. What use in anything ? Let it go as God wills."
The Silvela and Polavieja ministry came in during our stay at Granada, and the Liberal and Republican chorus against what was known as the Reactionary Government swelled loud. " It means the yoke of the Jesuits," growled our burly host. Our Alhambra dream suffered frequent jars from these ignoble confusions of to-day. When we were musing comfortably on the melancholy fortunes of Boabdil, a cheap newspaper would be thrust before our eyes with an editorial headed " Boabdil Sagasta." It is always best to do what one must. Since we could not be left in peace to the imagination of plumy cavaliers, stars of Moslem and Christian chivalry, who sowed this mount so thick with glorious memories, we turned our thoughts to the poor soldiers from Cuba, especially during the week throughout which they paraded the cities of Spain in rag-tag companies under rude flags with the ruder motto: " Hungry Repatriados." Their appearance was so woful that it became a by-word. A child, picking up from a gutter one day a mud-stained, dog-eared notebook, cried gleefully, " It's a repatriado." There was no glamour here, but the courage and sacrifice, the love and anguish, held good.
Granada had borne her share in Spain's last war sorrow. So many of her sons were drafted for the Antilles that her anger against America waxed hot. A few months before our arrival every star-spangled banner that could be hunted out in shop or residence was trampled and burned in the public squares. The Washington Irving Hotel hastened to take down its sign, and even the driver of its omnibus was sternly warned by the people to erase those offensive American names from his vehicle on pain of seeing it transformed into a chariot of fire. A shot, possibly accidental, whistled through the office of the English consul, who was given to understand, in more ways than one, that Spain made little difference between " the cloaked enemy " and the foe in the field. Meanwhile, month after month, the recruits were marched to the station, and the City Fathers, who came in all municipal dignity to bid the lads godspeed, were so overwhelmed by the weeping of the women that they forgot the cream of their speeches.
Among the new tales of Spanish valor told us on the Alhambra hill was this: —
When lots were drawn for military service, one blithe young scapegrace found in his hand a fortunate high number, but, walking away in fine feather over his luck, he met the mother of a friend of his, sobbing wildly as she went. Her son had been drafted, and the two hundred dollars of redemption money was as far beyond her reach as those dazzling crests of the Sierra Nevada are above the lame beggar at the Alhambra gate. Then the kindly fellow, troubled by her grief and mindful of the fact that, orphan as he was, his own parting would be at no such cost of tears, offered to serve in her boy's stead. Her passion of gratitude could not let his service go all unrecompensed. Poorest of the poor, she went about among her humble friends, lauding his deed, until she had collected, peseta by peseta, the sum of sixteen dollars, which she thrust into his hands to buy comforts for the campaign. But another sobbing mother sought him out. He had saved her neighbor's son; would he not save hers? Laughing at her logic and moved by her faith in him, he answered : "I am only one man, senora. I cannot go in place of two. But here are sixteen dollars. If you can find a substitute at such a price, the money is yours."
Sixteen dollars is a fortune to hunger and nakedness, and the substitute was found. As the year wore on those two mothers did not let the city forget its light-hearted hero, and a great assembly gathered at the station to honor his return. A remnant of his comrades descended from the train, but as for him, they said, he had died in Cuba of the fever months before.
His was no poetic death like that of the Abencerrages. Happy Abencerrages ! They knew the Alhambra in the freshness of her beauty. Their last uplifted glances looked upon the most exquisite ceilings in the world. Their blood left immortal stains on the marble base of the fountain. But this young Spaniard, in his obscure Cuban grave, only one out of the eighty thousand, will promptly be forgotten. No importa. There must be something better than glory for the man who does more than his duty.