The Alhambra, by Washington Irving

A Ramble Among the Hills.

I USED frequently to amuse myself towards the close of the day, when the heat had subsided, with taking long rambles about the neighboring hills and the deep umbrageous valleys, accompanied by my historiographic squire, Mateo, to whose passion for gossiping I on such occasions gave the most unbounded license; and there was scarce a rock, or ruin, or broken fountain, or lonely glen, about which he had not some marvellous story; or, above all, some golden legend; for never was poor devil so munificent in dispensing hidden treasures.

In the course of one of these strolls Mateo was more than usually communicative. It was toward sunset that we sallied forth from the great Gate of Justice, and ascended an alley of trees until we came to a clump of figs and pomegranates at the foot of the Tower of the Seven Floors (de los Siete Suelos), the identical tower whence Boabdil is said to have issued, when he surrendered his capital. Here, pointing to a low archway in the foundation, Mateo informed me of a monstrous sprite or hobgoblin, said to infest this tower, ever since the time of the Moors, and to guard the treasures of a Moslem king. Sometimes it issues forth in the dead of the night, and scours the avenues of the Alhambra, and the streets of Granada, in the shape of a headless horse, pursued by six dogs with terrible yells and howlings.

“But have you ever met with it yourself, Mateo, in any of your rambles?” demanded I.

“No, senor, God be thanked! but my grandfather, the tailor, knew several persons that had seen it, for it went about much oftener in his time than at present; sometimes in one shape, sometimes in another. Every body in Granada has heard of the Belludo, for the old women and the nurses frighten the children with it when they cry. Some say it is the spirit of a cruel Moorish king, who killed his six sons and buried them in these vaults, and that they hunt him at nights in revenge.”

I forbear to dwell upon the marvellous details given by the simple-minded Mateo about this redoubtable phantom, which has, in fact, been time out of mind a favorite theme of nursery tales and popular tradition in Granada, and of which honorable mention is made by an ancient and learned historian and topographer of the place.

Leaving this eventful pile, we continued our course, skirting the fruitful orchards of the Generalife, in which two or three nightingales were pouring forth a rich strain of melody. Behind these orchards we passed a number of Moorish tanks, with a door cut into the rocky bosom of the hill, but closed up. These tanks, Mateo informed me, were favorite bathing-places of himself and his comrades in boyhood, until frightened away by a story of a hideous Moor, who used to issue forth from the door in the rock to entrap unwary bathers.

Leaving these haunted tanks behind us, we pursued our ramble up a solitary mule-path winding among the hills, and soon found ourselves amidst wild and melancholy mountains, destitute of trees, and here and there tinted with scanty verdure. Every thing within sight was severe and sterile, and it was scarcely possible to realize the idea that but a short distance behind us was the Generalife, with its blooming orchards and terraced gardens, and that we were in the vicinity of delicious Granada, that city of groves and fountains. But such is the nature of Spain; wild and stern the moment it escapes from cultivation; the desert and the garden are ever side by side.

The narrow defile up which we were passing is called, according to Mateo, el Barranco de la tinaja, or the ravine of the jar, because a jar full of Moorish gold was found here in old times. The brain of poor Mateo was continually running upon these golden legends.

“But what is the meaning of the cross I see yonder upon a heap of stones, in that narrow part of the ravine?”

“Oh, that’s nothing — a muleteer was murdered there some years since.”

“So then, Mateo, you have robbers and murderers even at the gates of the Alhambra?”

“Not at present, senor; that was formerly, when there used to be many loose fellows about the fortress; but they’ve all been weeded out. Not but that the gipsies who live in caves in the hillsides, just out of the fortress, are many of them fit for any thing; but we have had no murder about here for a long time past. The man who murdered the muleteer was hanged in the fortress.”

Our path continued up the barranco, with a bold, rugged height to our left, called the “Silla del Moro,” or Chair of the Moor, from the tradition already alluded to, that the unfortunate Boabdil fled thither during a popular insurrection, and remained all day seated on the rocky summit, looking mournfully down on his factious city.

We at length arrived on the highest part of the promontory above Granada, called the mountain of the sun. The evening was approaching; the setting sun just gilded the loftiest heights. Here and there a solitary shepherd might be descried driving his flock down the declivities, to be folded for the night; or a muleteer and his lagging animals, threading some mountain path, to arrive at the city gates before nightfall.

Presently the deep tones of the cathedral bell came swelling up the defiles, proclaiming the hour of “oration” or prayer. The note was responded to from the belfry of every church, and from the sweet bells of the convents among the mountains. The shepherd paused on the fold of the hill, the muleteer in the midst of the road, each took off his hat and remained motionless for a time, murmuring his evening prayer. There is always something pleasingly solemn in this custom, by which, at a melodious signal, every human being throughout the land unites at the same moment in a tribute of thanks to God for the mercies of the day. It spreads a transient sanctity over the land, and the sight of the sun sinking in all his glory, adds not a little to the solemnity of the scene.

In the present instance the effect was heightened by the wild and lonely nature of the place. We were on the naked and broken summit of the haunted mountain of the sun, where ruined tanks and cisterns, and the mouldering foundations of extensive buildings, spoke of former populousness, but where all was now silent and desolate.

As we were wandering about among these traces of old times, we came to a circular pit, penetrating deep into the bosom of the mountain; which Mateo pointed out as one of the wonders and mysteries of the place. I supposed it to be a well dug by the indefatigable Moors, to obtain their favorite element in its greatest purity. Mateo, however, had a different story, and one much more to his humor. According to a tradition, in which his father and grandfather firmly believed, this was an entrance to the subterranean caverns of the mountain, in which Boabdil and his court lay bound in magic spell; and whence they sallied forth at night, at allotted times, to revisit their ancient abodes.

“Ah, senor, this mountain is full of wonders of the kind. In another place there was a hole somewhat like this, and just within it hung an iron pot by a chain; nobody knew what was in that pot, for it was always covered up; but every body supposed it full of Moorish gold. Many tried to draw it forth, for it seemed just within reach; but the moment it was touched it would sink far, far down, and not come up again for some time. At last one who thought it must be enchanted touched it with the cross, by way of breaking the charm; and faith he did break it, for the pot sank out of sight and never was seen any more.

“All this is fact, senor; for my grandfather was an eye-witness.”

“What! Mateo; did he see the pot?”

“No, senor, but he saw the hole where the pot had hung.”

“It’s the same thing, Mateo.”

The deepening twilight, which, in this climate, is of short duration, admonished us to leave this haunted ground. As we descended the mountain defile, there was no longer herdsman nor muleteer to be seen, nor any thing to be heard but our own footsteps and the lonely chirping of the cricket. The shadows of the valley grew deeper and deeper, until all was dark around us. The lofty summit of the Sierra Nevada alone retained a lingering gleam of daylight; its snowy peaks glaring against the dark blue firmament, and seeming close to us, from the extreme purity of the atmosphere.

“How near the Sierra looks this evening!” said Mateo; “it seems as if you could touch it with your hand; and yet it is many long leagues off.” While he was speaking, a star appeared over the snowy summit of the mountain, the only one yet visible in the heavens, and so pure, so large, so bright and beautiful, as to call forth ejaculations of delight from honest Mateo.

“Que estrella hermosa! que clara y limpia es! — No pueda ser estrella mas brillante!” (”What a beautiful star! how clear and lucid — a star could not be more brilliant!”)

I have often remarked this sensibility of the common people of Spain to the charms of natural objects. The lustre of a star, the beauty or fragrance of a flower, the crystal purity of a fountain, will inspire them with a kind of poetical delight; and then, what euphonious words their magnificent language affords, with which to give utterance to their transports!

“But what lights are those, Mateo, which I see twinkling along the Sierra Nevada, just below the snowy region, and which might be taken for stars, only that they are ruddy, and against the dark side of the mountain?”

“Those, senor, are fires, made by the men who gather snow and ice for the supply of Granada. They go up every afternoon with mules and asses, and take turns, some to rest and warm themselves by the fires, while others fill the panniers with ice. They then set off down the mountains, so as to reach the gates of Granada before sunrise. That Sierra Nevada, senor, is a lump of ice in the middle of Andalusia, to keep it all cool in summer.”

It was now completely dark; we were passing through the barranco, where stood the cross of the murdered muleteer; when I beheld a number of lights moving at a distance, and apparently advancing up the ravine. On nearer approach, they proved to be torches borne by a train of uncouth figures arrayed in black: it would have been a procession dreary enough at any time, but was peculiarly so in this wild and solitary place.

Mateo drew near, and told me, in a low voice, that it was a funeral train bearing a corpse to the burying-ground among the hills.

As the procession passed by, the lugubrious light of the torches, falling on the rugged features and funeral-weeds of the attendants, had the most fantastic effect, but was perfectly ghastly, as it revealed the countenance of the corpse, which, according to the Spanish custom, was borne uncovered on an open bier. I remained for some time gazing after the dreary train as it wound up the dark defile of the mountain. It put me in mind of the old story of a procession of demons bearing the body of a sinner up the crater of Stromboli.

“Ah! senor,” cried Mateo, “I could tell you a story of a procession once seen among these mountains, but then you’d laugh at me, and say it was one of the legacies of my grandfather the tailor.”

“By no means, Mateo. There is nothing I relish more than a marvellous tale.”

“Well, senor, it is about one of those very men we have been talking of, who gather snow on the Sierra Nevada.

“You must know, that a great many years since, in my grandfather’s time, there was an old fellow, Tio Nicolo (Uncle Nicholas) by name, who had filled the panniers of his mule with snow and ice, and was returning down the mountain. Being very drowsy, he mounted upon the mule, and soon falling asleep, went with his head nodding and bobbing about from side to side, while his surefooted old mule stepped along the edge of precipices, and down steep and broken barrancos, just as safe and steady as if it had been on plain ground. At length, Tio Nicolo awoke, and gazed about him, and rubbed his eyes — and, in good truth, he had reason. The moon shone almost as bright as day, and he saw the city below him, as plain as your hand, and shining with its white buildings, like a silver platter in the moonshine; but, Lord! senor, it was nothing like the city he had left a few hours before! Instead of the cathedral, with its great dome and turrets, and the churches with their spires, and the convents with their pinnacles, all surmounted with the blessed cross, he saw nothing but Moorish mosques, and minarets, and cupolas, all topped off with glittering crescents, such as you see on the Barbary flags.

“Well, senor, as you may suppose, Tio Nicolo was mightily puzzled at all this, but while he was gazing down upon the city, a great army came marching up the mountains, winding along the ravines, sometimes in the moonshine sometimes in the shade. As it drew nigh, he saw that there were horse and foot all in Moorish armor. Tio Nicolo tried to scramble out of their way, but his old mule stood stock still, and refused to budge, trembling, at the same time, like a leaf — for dumb beasts, senor, are just as much frightened at such things as human beings. Well, senor, the hobgoblin army came marching by; there were men that seemed to blow trumpets, and others to beat drums and strike cymbals, yet never a sound did they make; they all moved on without the least noise, just as I have seen painted armies move across the stage in the theatre of Granada, and all looked as pale as death. At last, in the rear of the army, between two black Moorish horsemen, rode the Grand Inquisitor of Granada, on a mule as white as snow. Tio Nicolo wondered to see him in such company, for the Inquisitor was famous for his hatred of Moors, and indeed, of all kinds of Infidels, Jews, and Heretics, and used to hunt them out with fire and scourge.

“However, Tio Nicolo felt himself safe, now that there was a priest of such sanctity at hand. So making the sign of the cross, he called out for his benediction, when hombre! he received a blow that sent him and his old mule over the edge of a steep bank, down which they rolled, head over heels, to the bottom! Tio Nicolo did not come to his senses until long after sunrise, when he found himself at the bottom of a deep ravine, his mule grazing beside him, and his panniers of snow completely melted. He crawled back to Granada sorely bruised and battered, but was glad to find the city looking as usual, with Christian churches and crosses.

“When he told the story of his night’s adventure, every one laughed at him; some said he had dreamed it all, as he dozed on his mule; others thought it all a fabrication of his own — but what was strange, senor, and made people afterwards think more seriously of the matter, was, that the Grand Inquisitor died within the year. I have often heard my grandfather, the tailor, say that there was more meant by that hobgoblin army bearing off the resemblance of the priest, than folks dared to surmise.”

“Then you would insinuate, friend Mateo, that there is a kind of Moorish limbo, or purgatory, in the bowels of these mountains, to which the padre Inquisitor was borne off.”

“God forbid, senor! I know nothing of the matter. I only relate what I heard from my grandfather.”

By the time Mateo had finished the tale which I have more succinctly related, and which was interlarded with many comments, and spun out with minute details, we reached the gate of the Alhambra.

The marvellous stories hinted at by Mateo, in the early part of our ramble about the Tower of the Seven Floors, set me as usual upon my goblin researches. I found that the redoubtable phantom, the Belludo, had been time out of mind a favorite theme of nursery tales and popular traditions in Granada, and that honorable mention had even been made of it by an ancient historian and topographer of the place. The scattered members of one of these popular traditions I have gathered together, collated them with infinite pains, and digested them into the following legend; which only wants a number of learned notes and references at bottom to take its rank among those concrete productions gravely passed upon the world for Historical Facts.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/i/irving/washington/i72a/part28.html

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