Familiar Spanish Travels, by William Dean Howells

The Great Gridiron of St. Lawrence

It seems a duty every Protestant owes his heresy to go and see how dismally the arch-enemy of heresy housed his true faith in the palace-tomb-and-church of the Escorial. If the more light-minded tourist shirks this act of piety, he makes a mistake which he will repent afterward in vain. The Escorial is, for its plainness, one of the two or three things worthiest seeing among the two or three hundred things worth seeing in Spain. Yet we feigned meaning to miss it after we returned to Madrid from Toledo, saying that everybody went to the Escorial and that it would be a proud distinction not to go. All the time we knew we should go, and we were not surprised when we were chosen by one of our few bright days for the excursion, though we were taken inordinately early, and might well have been started a little later.

I

Nothing was out of the common on the way to the station, and our sense of the ordinary was not relieved when we found ourselves in a car of the American open-saloon pattern, well filled with other Americans bent upon the same errand as ourselves; though I am bound to say that the backs of the transverse seats rose well toward the roof of the car with a certain originality.

When we cleared the city streets and houses, we began running out into the country through suburbs vulgarly gay with small, bright brick villas, so expressive of commuting that the eye required the vision of young husbands and fathers going in at the gates with gardening tools on their shoulders and under their arms. To be sure, the time of day and the time of year were against this; it was now morning and autumn, though there was a vernal brilliancy in the air; and the grass, flattered by the recent rains, was green where we had last seen it gray. Along a pretty stream, which, for all I know may have been the Manzanares, it was so little, files of Lombardy poplars followed away very agreeably golden in foliage; and scattered about were deciduous-looking evergreens which we questioned for live-oaks. We were going northward over the track which had brought us southward to Madrid two weeks before, and by and by the pleasant levels broke into rough hills and hollows, strewn with granite boulders which, as our train mounted, changed into the savage rock masses of New Castile, and as we drew near the village of Escorial gave the scene the look of that very desolate country. But it could not be so gloomy in the kind sunlight as it was when lashed by the savage storm which we had seen it cowering under before; and at the station we lost all feeling of friendlessness in the welcome of the thronging guides and hotel touters.

Our ideal was a carriage which we could keep throughout the day and use for our return to the train in the afternoon; and this was so exactly the ideal of a driver to whom we committed ourselves that we were somewhat surprised to have his vehicle develop into a motor-omnibus, and himself into a conductor.

When we arrived at the palace some miles off, up a winding way, he underwent another change, and became our guide to the Escorial. In the event he proved a very intelligent guide, as guides go, and I really cannot now see how we could have got on without him. He adapted the Spanish names of things to our English understanding by shortening them; a patio became a pat’, and an old master an old mast’; and an endearing quality was imparted to the grim memory of Philip II. by the diminutive of Philly. We accepted this, but even to have Charles V. brought nearer our hearts as Charley Fif, we could not bear to have our guide exposed to the mockery of less considerate travelers. I instructed him that the emperor’s name was Charles, and that only boys and very familiar friends of that name were called Charley among us. He thanked me, and at once spoke again of Charley Fif; which I afterward found was the universally accepted style of the great emperor among the guides of Spain. In vain I tried to persuade them out of it at Cordova, at Seville, at Granada, and wherever else they had to speak of an emperor whose memory really seems to pervade the whole land.

II

The genuine village of Escorial lies mostly to the left of the station, but the artificial town which grew up with the palace is to the right. Both are called after the slag of the iron-smelting works which were and are the vital industry of the first Escorial; but the road to the palace takes you far from the slag, with a much-hoteled and garden-walled dignity, to the plateau, apparently not altogether natural, where the massive triune edifice stands in the keeping of a throng of American women wondering how they are going to see it, and lunch, and get back to their train in time. Many were trying, the day of our visit, to see the place with no help but that of their bewildering Baedekers, and we had constant reason to be glad of our guide as we met or passed them in the measureless courts and endless corridors.

At this distance of time and place we seem to have hurried first to the gorgeous burial vault where the kings and queens of Spain lie, each one shut in a gilded marble sarcophagus in their several niches of the circular chamber, where under the high altar of the church they have the advantage of all the masses said above them. But on the way we must have passed through the church, immense, bare, cold, and sullener far than that sepulcher; and I am sure that we visited last of all the palace, where it is said the present young king comes so seldom and unwillingly, as if shrinking from the shelf appointed for him in that crypt shining with gold and polished marble.

It is of death, not life, that the Escorial preaches, and it was to eternal death, its pride and gloom, and not life everlasting, that the dark piety of Philip voluntarily, or involuntarily, consecrated the edifice. But it would be doing a wrong to one of the greatest achievements of the human will, if one dwelt too much, or too wholly, upon this gloomy ideal. The Escorial has been many times described; I myself forbear with difficulty the attempt to describe it, and I satisfy my longing to set it visibly before the reader by letting an earlier visitor of my name describe it for me. I think he does it larger justice than modern observers, because he escapes the cumulative obligation which time has laid upon them to find the subjective rather than the objective fulfilment of its founder’s intention in it. At any rate, in March, 1623, James Howell, waiting as secretary of the romantic mission the bursting of the iridescent love-dream which had brought Charles Stuart, Prince of Wales, from England to woo the sister of the Spanish king in Madrid, had leisure to write one of his most delightful “familiar letters” concerning the Escorial to a friend in London.

“I was yesterday at the Escorial to see the monastery of St. Lawrence, the eighth wonder of the world; and truly considering the site of the place, the state of the thing, the symmetry of the structure, with diverse other rareties, it may be called so; for what I have seen in Italy and other places are but baubles to it. It is built among a company of craggy hills, which makes the air the hungrier and wholesomer; it is all built of freestone and marble, and that with such solidity and moderate height that surely Philip the Second’s chief design was to make a sacrifice of it to eternity, and to contest with the meteors and time itself. It cost eight millions; it was twenty-four years abuilding, and the founder himself saw it furnished and enjoyed it twelve years after, and carried his bones himself thither to be buried. The reason that moved King Philip to waste so much treasure was a vow he had made at the battle of St. Quentin, where he was forced to batter a monastery of St. Lawrence friars, and if he had the victory he would erect such a monument to St. Lawrence that the world had not the like; therefore the form of it is like a gridiron, the handle is a huge royal palace, and the body a vast monastery or assembly of quadrangular cloisters, for there are as many as there be months of the year. There be a hundred monks, and every one hath his man and his mule, and a multitude of officers; besides there are three libraries there full of the choicest books for all sciences. It is beyond all expression what grots, gardens, walks, and aqueducts there are there, and what curious fountains in the upper cloisters, for there be two stages of cloisters. In fine, there is nothing that is vulgar there. To take a view of every room in the house one must make account to go ten miles; there is a vault called the Pantheon under the high altar, which is all paved, walled, and arched with marble; there be a number of huge silver candlesticks taller than I am; lamps three yards compass, and diverse chalices and crosses of massive gold; there is one choir made all of burnished brass; pictures and statues like giants; and a world of glorious things that purely ravished me. By this mighty monument it may be inferred that Philip the Second, though he was a little man, yet he had vast gigantic thoughts in him, to leave such a huge pile for posterity to gaze upon and admire in his memory.”


THE TOWN AND MONASTERY OF ESCORIAL

III

Perhaps this description is not very exact, but precision of statement is not to be expected of a Welshman; and if Howell preferred to say Philip built the place in fulfilment of that vow at the battle of St. Quentin, doubtless he believed it; many others did; it has only of late been discovered that Philip was not at St. Quentin, and did not “batter a monastery of St. Lawrence friars” there. I like to think the rest is all as Howell says down to the man and mule for every monk. If there are no men and mules left, there are very few monks either, after the many suppressions of convents. The gardens are there of an unquestionable symmetry and beauty, and the “company of craggy hills” abides all round the prodigious edifice, which is at once so prodigious, and grows larger upon you in the retrospect.

Now that I am this good distance away, and cannot bring myself to book by a second experience, I feel it safe to say that I had a feeling of St. Peter’s-like immensity in the church of the Escorial, with more than St. Peter’s-like bareness. The gray colorlessness of the architecture somberly prevails in memory over the frescoes of the painters invited to relieve it in the roof and the retablo, and thought turns from the red-and-yellow jasper of altar and pulpit, and the bronze-gilt effigies of kneeling kings and queens to that niche near the oratory where the little terrible man who imagined and realized it all used to steal in from his palace, and worship next the small chamber where at last he died. It is said he also read despatches and state papers in this nook, but doubtless only in the intervals of devotion.

Every one to his taste, even in matters of religion; Philip reared a temple to the life beyond this, and as if with the splendor of the mausoleum which it enshrines he hoped to overcome the victorious grave; the Caliph who built the mighty mosque at Cordova, which outlasts every other glory of his capital, dedicated it to the joy of this life as against the gloom of whose who would have put it under the feet of death. “Let us build,” he said to his people, “the Kaaba of the West upon the site of a Christian temple, which we will destroy, so that we may set forth how the Cross shall fall and become abased before the True Prophet. Allah will never place the world beneath the feet of those who make themselves the slaves of drink and sensuality while they preach penitence and the joys of chastity, and while extolling poverty enrich themselves to the loss of their neighbors. For these the sad and silent cloister; for us, the crystalline fountain and the shady grove; for them, the rude and unsocial life of dungeon-like strongholds; for us, the charm of social life and culture; for them, intolerance and tyranny; for us, a ruler who is our father; for them, the darkness of ignorance; for us, letters and instruction as wide-spread as our creed; for them, the wilderness, celibacy, and the doom of the false martyr; for us, plenty, love, brotherhood, and eternal joy.”

In spite of the somewhat vaunting spirit of his appeal, the wager of battle decided against the Arab; it was the Crescent that fell, the Cross that prevailed; in the very heart of Abderrahman’s mosque a Christian cathedral rises. Yet in the very heart of Philip’s temple to the spirit of the cloister, the desert, the martyrdom, one feels that a great deal could be said on Abderrahman’s side. This is a world which will not be renounced, in fact, and even in Christian Spain it has triumphed in the arts and sciences beyond its earlier victories in Moslem Spain. One finds Philip himself, with his despatches in that high nook, rather than among the bronze-gilt royalties at the high altar, though his statue is duly there with those of his three wives. The group does not include that poor Bloody Mary of England, who should have been the fourth there, for surely she suffered enough for his faith and him to be of his domestic circle forever.

IV

It is the distinct merit of the Escorial that it does not, and perhaps cannot take long in doing; otherwise the doer could not bear it. A look round the sumptuous burial chamber of the sovereigns below the high altar of the church; a glance at the lesser sepulchral glories of the infantes and infantas in their chapels and corridors, suffices for the funereal third of the trinity of tomb and temple and palace; and though there are gayer constituents of the last, especially the gallery of the chapter-house, with its surprisingly lively frescoes and its sometimes startling canvases, there is not much that need really keep you from the royal apartments which seem the natural end of your visit. Of these something better can be said than that they are no worse than most other royal apartments; our guide led us to them through many granite courts and corridors where we left groups of unguided Americans still maddening over their Baedekers; and we found them hung with pleasing tapestries, some after such designs of Goya’s as one finds in the basement of the Prado. The furniture was in certain rooms cheerily upholstered in crimson and salmon without sense of color, but as if seeking relief from the gray of the church; and there are battle-pieces on the walls, fights between Moors and Christians, which interested me. The dignified consideration of the custodian who showed us through the apartments seemed to have adapted to our station a manner left over from the infrequent presence of royalty; as I have said, the young king of Spain does not like coming to the Escorial.

I do not know why any one comes there, and I search my consciousness in vain for a better reason than the feeling that I must come, or would be sorrier if I did not than if I did. The worthy Howell does not commit himself to any expression of rejoicing or regretting in having done the Escorial. But the good Theophile Gautier, who visited the place more than two hundred years after, owns frankly that he is “excessively embarrassed in giving his opinion” of it. “So many people,” he says, “serious and well-conditioned, who, I prefer to think, have never seen it, have spoken of it as a chef d’oeuvre, and a supreme effort of the human spirit, so that I should have the air, poor devil of a facilletoniste errant, of wishing to play the original and taking pleasure in my contrary-mindedness; but still in my soul and conscience I cannot help finding the Escorial the most tiresome and the most stupid monument that could be imagined, for the mortification of his fellow-beings, by a morose monk and a suspicious tyrant. I know very well that the Escorial had a serious and religious aim; but gravity is not dryness, melancholy is not marasm, meditation is not ennui, and beauty of forms can always be happily wedded to elevation of ideas.” This is the Frenchman’s language as he goes into the Escorial; he does not cheer up as he passes through the place, and when he comes out he has to say: “I issued from that desert of granite, from that monkish necropolis with an extraordinary feeling of release, of exultation; it seemed to me I was born into life again, that I could be young once more, and rejoice in the creation of the good God, of which I had lost all hope in those funeral vaults. The bland and luminous air wrapt me round like a soft robe of fine wool, and warmed my body frozen in that cadaverous atmosphere; I was saved from that architectural nightmare, which I thought never would end. I advise people who are so fatuous as to pretend that they are ever bored to go and spend three or four days in the Escorial; they will learn what real ennui is and they will enjoy themselves all the rest of their lives in reflecting that they might be in the Escorial and that they are not.”

That was well toward a century ago. It is not quite like that now, but it is something like it; the human race has become inured to the Escorial; more tourists have visited the place and imaginably lightened its burden by sharing it among their increasing number. Still there is now and then one who is oppressed, crushed by it, and cannot relieve himself in such ironies as Gautier’s, but must cry aloud in suffering like that of the more emotional De Amicis: “You approach a courtyard and say, ‘I have seen this already.’ No. You are mistaken; it is another. . . . You ask the guide where the cloister is and he replies, ‘This is it,’ and you walk on for half an hour. You see the light of another world: you have never seen just such a light; is it the reflection from the stone, or does it come from the moon? No, it is daylight, but sadder than darkness. As you go on from corridor to corridor, from court to court, you look ahead with misgivings, expecting to see suddenly, as you turn a corner, a row of skeleton monks with hoods over their eyes and crosses in their hands; you think of Philip II. . . . You remember all that you have read about him, of his terrors and the Inquisition; and everything becomes clear to your mind’s eye with a sudden light; for the first time you understand it all; the Escorial is Philip II. . . . He is still there alive and terrible, with the image of his dreadful God. . . . Even now, after so long a time, on rainy days, when I am feeling sad, I think of the Escorial, and then look at the walls of my room and congratulate myself. . . . I see again the courtyards of the Escorial. . . . I dream of wandering through the corridors alone in the dark, followed by the ghost of an old friar, crying and pounding at all the doors without finding a way of escape.”

I am of another race both from the Frenchman and the Italian, and I cannot pretend to their experiences, their inferences, and their conclusions; but I am not going to leave the Escorial to the reader without trying to make him feel that I too was terribly impressed by it. To be sure, I had some light moments in it, because when gloom goes too far it becomes ridiculous; and I did think the convent gardens as I saw them from the chapter-house window were beautiful, and the hills around majestic and serious, with no intention of falling upon my prostrate spirit. Yes, and after a lifelong abhorrence of that bleak king who founded the Escorial, I will own that I am, through pity, beginning to feel an affection for Philip II.; perhaps I was finally wrought upon by hearing him so endearingly called Philly by our guide.


THE PANTHEON OF THE KINGS AND QUEENS OF SPAIN, UNDER THE HIGH ALTAR OF THE CHURCH, ESCORIAL

Yet I will not say but I was glad to get out of the Escorial alive; and that I welcomed even the sulkiness of the landlord of the hotel where our guide took us for lunch. To this day I do not know why that landlord should have been so sour; his lunch was bad, but I paid his price without murmuring; and still at parting he could scarcely restrain his rage; the Escorial might have entered into his soul. On the way to his hotel the street was empty, but the house bubbled over with children who gaped giggling at his guests from the kitchen door, and were then apparently silenced with food, behind it. There were a great many flies in the hotel, and if I could remember its name I would warn the public against it.

After lunch our guide lapsed again to our conductor and reappeared with his motor-bus and took us to the station, where he overcame the scruples of the lady in the ticket-office concerning our wish to return to Madrid by the Sud–Express instead of the ordinary train. The trouble was about the supplementary fare which we easily paid on board; in fact, there is never any difficulty in paying a supplementary fare in Spain; the authorities meet you quite half-way. But we were nervous because we had already suffered from the delays of people at the last hotel where our motor-bus stopped to take up passengers; they lingered so long over lunch that we were sure we should miss the Sud–Express, and we did not see how we could live in Escorial till the way-train started; yet for all their delays we reached the station in time and more. The train seemed strangely reduced in the number of its cars, but we confidently started with others to board the nearest of them; there we were waved violently away, and bidden get into the dining-car at the rear of the train. In some dudgeon we obeyed, but we were glad to get away from Escorial on any terms, and the dining-car was not bad, though it had a somewhat disheveled air. We could only suppose that all the places in the two other cars were taken, and we resigned ourselves to choosing the least coffee-stained of the coffee-stained tables and ordered more coffee at it. The waiter brought it as promptly as the conductor collected our supplementary fare; he even made a feint of removing the stains from our table-cloth with a flourish of his napkin, and then he left us to our conjectures and reflections till he came for his pay and his fee just before we ran into Madrid.

VI

The mystery persisted and it was only when our train paused in the station that it was solved. There, as we got out of our car, we perceived that a broad red velvet carpet was laid from the car in front into the station; a red carpet such as is used to keep the feet of distinguished persons from their native earth the world over, but more especially in Europe. Along this carpet were loosely grouped a number of solemnly smiling gentlemen in frock-coats with their top-hats genteelly resting in the hollows of their left arms, and without and beyond the station in the space usually filled by closed and open cabs was a swarm of automobiles. Then while our spirits were keyed to the highest pitch, the Queen of Spain descended from the train, wearing a long black satin cloak and a large black hat, very blond and beautiful beyond the report of her pictures. By each hand she led one of her two pretty boys, Don Jaime, the Prince of Asturias, heir apparent, and his younger brother. She walked swiftly, with glad, kind looks around, and her ladies followed her according to their state; then ushered and followed by the gentlemen assembled to receive them, they mounted to their motors and whirred away like so many persons of a histrionic pageant: not least impressive, the court attendants filled a stage drawn by six mules, and clattered after.

From hearsay and reasonable surmise we learned that we had not come from Escorial in the Sud–Express at all, but in the Queen’s special train bringing her and her children from their autumn sojourn at La Granja, and that we had been for an hour a notable feature of the royal party without knowing it, and of course without getting the least good of it. We had indeed ignorantly enjoyed no less of the honor than two other Americans, who came in the dining-car with us, but whether the nice-looking Spanish couple who sat in the corner next us were equally ignorant of their advantage I shall never know. It was but too highly probable that the messed condition of the car was due to royal luncheon in it just before we came aboard; but why we were suffered to come aboard, or why a supplementary fare should have been collected from us remains one of those mysteries which I should once have liked to keep all Spain.

We had to go quite outside of the station grounds to get a cab for our hotel, but from this blow to our dignity I recovered a little later in the day, when the king, attended by as small a troop of cavalry as I suppose a king ever has with him, came driving by in the street where I was walking. As he sat in his open carriage he looked very amiable, and handsomer than most of the pictures make him. He seemed to be gazing at me, and when he bowed I could do no less than return his salutation. As I glanced round to see if people near me were impressed by our exchange of civilities, I perceived an elderly officer next me. He was smiling as I was, and I think he was in the delusion that the king’s bow, which I had so promptly returned, was intended for him.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:42