The Alhambra, by Washington Irving

Visitors to the Alhambra.

FOR NEARLY three months had I enjoyed undisturbed my dream of sovereignty in the Alhambra: a longer term of quiet than had been the lot of many of my predecessors. During this lapse of time the progress of the season had wrought the usual change. On my arrival I had found every thing in the freshness of May; the foliage of the trees was still tender and transparent; the pomegranate had not yet shed its brilliant crimson blossoms; the orchards of the Xenil and the Darro were in full bloom; the rocks were hung with wild flowers, and Granada seemed completely surrounded by a wilderness of roses; among which innumerable nightingales sang, not merely in the night, but all day long.

Now the advance of summer had withered the rose and silenced the nightingale, and the distant country began to look parched and sunburnt; though a perennial verdure reigned immediately round the city and in the deep narrow valleys at the foot of the snow-capped mountains.

The Alhambra possesses retreats graduated to the heat of the weather, among which the most peculiar is the almost subterranean apartment of the baths. This still retains its ancient Oriental character, though stamped with the touching traces of decline. At the entrance, opening into a small court formerly adorned with flowers, is a hall, moderate in size, but light and graceful in architecture. It is overlooked by a small gallery supported by marble pillars and Morisco arches. An alabaster fountain in the centre of the pavement still throws up a jet of water to cool the place. On each side are deep alcoves with raised platforms, where the bathers, after their ablutions, reclined on cushions, soothed to voluptuous repose by the fragrance of the perfumed air and the notes of soft music from the gallery. Beyond this hall are the interior chambers, still more retired; the sanctum sanctorum of female privacy; for here the beauties of the Harem indulged in the luxury of the baths. A soft mysterious light reigns through the place, admitted through small apertures (lumbreras) in the vaulted ceiling. The traces of ancient elegance are still to be seen; and the alabaster baths in which the sultanas once reclined. The prevailing obscurity and silence have made these vaults a favorite resort of bats, who nestle during the day in the dark nooks and corners, and on being disturbed, flit mysteriously about the twilight chambers, heightening, in an indescribable degree, their air of desertion and decay.

In this cool and elegant, though dilapidated retreat, which had the freshness and seclusion of a grotto, I passed the sultry hours of the day as summer advanced, emerging towards sunset, and bathing, or rather swimming, at night in the great reservoir of the main court. In this way I was enabled in a measure to counteract the relaxing and enervating influence of the climate.

My dream of absolute sovereignty, however, came at length to an end. I was roused one morning by the report of fire-arms, which reverberated among the towers as if the castle had been taken by surprise. On sallying forth, I found an old cavalier with a number of domestics, in possession of the Hall of Ambassadors. He was an ancient count who had come up from his palace in Granada to pass a short time in the Alhambra for the benefit of purer air, and who, being a veteran and inveterate sportsman, was endeavoring to get an appetite for his breakfast by shooting at swallows from the balconies. It was a harmless amusement; for though, by the alertness of his attendants in loading his pieces, he was enabled to keep up a brisk fire, I could not accuse him of the death of a single swallow. Nay, the birds themselves seemed to enjoy the sport, and to deride his want of skill, skimming in circles close to the balconies, and twittering as they darted by.

The arrival of this old gentleman changed essentially the aspect of affairs, but caused no jealousy nor collision. We tacitly shared the empire between us, like the last kings of Granada, excepting that we maintained a most amicable alliance. He reigned absolute over the Court of the Lions and its adjacent halls, while I maintained peaceful possession of the regions of the baths and the little garden of Lindaraxa. We took our meals together under the arcades of the court, where the fountains cooled the air, and bubbling rills ran along the channels of the marble pavement.

In the evenings a domestic circle would gather about the worthy old cavalier. The countess, his wife by a second marriage, would come up from the city accompanied by her step-daughter Carmen, an only child, a charming little being, still in her girlish years. Then there were always some of his official dependents, his chaplain, his lawyer, his secretary, his steward, and other officers and agents of his extensive possessions, who brought him up the news or gossip of the city, and formed his evening party of tresillo or ombre. Thus he held a kind of domestic court, where each one paid him deference, and sought to contribute to his amusement, without, however, any appearance of servility, or any sacrifice of self-respect. In fact, nothing of the kind was exacted by the demeanor of the count; for whatever may be said of Spanish pride, it rarely chills or constrains the intercourse of social or domestic life. Among no people are the relations between kindred more unreserved and cordial, or between superior and dependent more free from haughtiness on the one side, and obsequiousness on the other. In these respects there still remains in Spanish life, especially in the provinces, much of the vaunted simplicity of the olden time.

The most interesting member of this family group, in my eyes, was the daughter of the count, the lovely little Carmen; she was but about sixteen years of age, and appeared to be considered a mere child, though the idol of the family, going generally by the child-like, but endearing appellation of la Nina. Her form had not yet attained full maturity and development, but possessed already the exquisite symmetry and pliant grace so prevalent in this country. Her blue eyes, fair complexion, and light hair, were unusual in Andalusia, and gave a mildness and gentleness to her demeanor in contrast to the usual fire of Spanish beauty, but in unison with the guileless and confiding innocence of her manners. She had at the same time the innate aptness and versatility of her fascinating countrywomen. Whatever she undertook to do she did well and apparently without effort. She sang, played the guitar and other instruments, and danced the picturesque dances of her country to admiration, but never seemed to seek admiration. Every thing was spontaneous, prompted by her own gay spirits and happy temper.

The presence of this fascinating little being spread a new charm about the Alhambra, and seemed to be in unison with the place. While the count and countess, with the chaplain or secretary, were playing their game of tresillo under the vestibule of the Court of Lions, she, attended by Dolores, who acted as her maid of honor, would sit by one of the fountains, and accompanying herself on the guitar, would sing some of those popular romances which abound in Spain, or, what was still more to my taste, some traditional ballad about the Moors.

Never shall I think of the Alhambra without remembering this lovely little being, sporting in happy and innocent girlhood in its marble halls, dancing to the sound of the Moorish castanets, or mingling the silver warbling of her voice with the music of its fountains.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38