The Alhambra, by Washington Irving

A Fete in the Alhambra.

THE SAINT’S day of my neighbor and rival potentate, the count, took place during his sojourn in the Alhambra, on which occasion he gave a domestic fate; assembling round him the members of his family and household, while the stewards and old servants from his distant possessions came to pay him reverence and partake of the good cheer, which was sure to be provided. It presented a type, though doubtless a faint one, of the establishment of a Spanish noble in the olden time.

The Spaniards were always grandiose in their notions of style. Huge palaces; lumbering equipages, laden with footmen and lackeys; pompous retinues, and useless dependents of all kinds; the dignity of a noble seemed commensurate with the legions who loitered about his halls, fed at his expense, and seemed ready to devour him alive. This, doubtless, originated in the necessity of keeping up hosts of armed retainers during the wars with the Moors, wars of inroads and surprises, when a noble was liable to be suddenly assailed in his castle by a foray of the enemy, or summoned to the field by his sovereign.

The custom remained after the wars were at an end, and what originated in necessity was kept up through ostentation. The wealth which flowed into the country from conquests and discoveries fostered the passion for princely establishments. According to magnificent old Spanish usage, in which pride and generosity bore equal parts, a superannuated servant was never turned off, but became a charge for the rest of his days; nay, his children, and his children’s children, and often their relatives to the right and left, became gradually entailed upon the family. Hence the huge palaces of the Spanish nobility which have such an air of empty ostentation from the greatness of their size compared with the mediocrity and scantiness of their furniture, were absolutely required in the golden days of Spain, by the patriarchal habits of their possessors. They were little better than vast barracks for the hereditary generations of hangers on, that battened at the expense of a Spanish noble.

These patriarchal habits of the Spanish nobility have declined with their revenues; though the spirit which prompted them remains, and wars sadly with their altered fortunes. The poorest among them have always some hereditary hangers on, who live at their expense, and make them poorer. Some who, like my neighbor the count, retain a modicum of their once princely possessions, keep up a shadow of the ancient system, and their estates are overrun and the produce consumed by generations of idle retainers.

The count held estates in various parts of the kingdom, some including whole villages, yet the revenues collected from them were comparatively small; some of them, he assured me, barely fed the hordes of dependents nestled upon them, who seemed to consider themselves entitled to live rent free and be maintained into the bargain, because their forefathers had been so since time immemorial.

The saint’s day of the old count gave me a glimpse into a Spanish interior. For two or three days previous preparations were made for the fete. Viands of all kinds were brought up from town, greeting the olfactory nerves of the old invalid guards, as they were borne past them through the Gate of Justice. Servants hurried officiously about the courts; the ancient kitchen of the palace was again alive with the tread of cooks and scullions, and blazed with unwonted fires.

When the day arrived I beheld the old count in patriarchal state, his family and household around him, with functionaries who mismanaged his estates at a distance and consumed the proceeds; while numerous old worn-out servants and pensioners were loitering about the courts and keeping within smell of the kitchen.

It was a joyous day in the Alhambra. The guests dispersed themselves about the palace before the hour of dinner, enjoying the luxuries of its courts and fountains, and embosomed gardens, and music and laughter resounded through its late silent halls.

The feast, for a set dinner in Spain is literally a feast, was served in the beautiful Morisco Hall of “Las Dos Hermanas.” The table was loaded with all the luxuries of the season; there was an almost interminable succession of dishes; showing how truly the feast at the rich Camacho’s wedding in Don Quixote was a picture of a Spanish banquet. A joyous conviviality prevailed round the board; for though Spaniards are generally abstemious, they are complete revellers on occasions like the present, and none more so than the Andalusians. For my part, there was something peculiarly exciting in thus sitting at a feast in the royal halls of the Alhambra, given by one who might claim remote affinity with its Moorish kings, and who was a lineal representative of Gonsalvo of Cordova, one of the most distinguished of the Christian conquerors.

The banquet ended, the company adjourned to the Hall of Ambassadors. Here every one endeavored to contribute to the general amusement, singing, improvising, telling wonderful tales, or dancing popular dances to that all-pervading talisman of Spanish pleasure, the guitar.

The count’s gifted little daughter was as usual the life and delight of the assemblage, and I was more than ever struck with her aptness and wonderful versatility. She took a part in two or three scenes of elegant comedy with some of her companions, and performed them with exquisite point and finished grace; she gave imitations of the popular Italian singers, some serious, some comic, with a rare quality of voice, and, I was assured, with singular fidelity; she imitated the dialects, dances, ballads, and movements and manners of the gipsies, and the peasants of the Vega, with equal felicity, but every thing was done with an all-pervading grace and a lady-like tact perfectly fascinating.

The great charm of every thing she did was its freedom from pretension or ambitious display, its happy spontaneity. Every thing sprang from the impulse of the moment; or was in prompt compliance with a request. She seemed unconscious of the rarity and extent of her own talent, and was like a child at home revelling in the buoyancy of its own gay and innocent spirits. Indeed I was told she had never exerted her talents in general society, but only, as at present, in the domestic circle.

Her faculty of observation and her perception of character must have been remarkably quick, for she could have had only casual and transient glances at the scenes, manners and customs, depicted with such truth and spirit. “Indeed it is a continual wonder to us,” said the countess, “where the child (la Nina) has picked up these things; her life being passed almost entirely at home, in the bosom of the family.”

Evening approached; twilight began to throw its shadows about the halls, and the bats to steal forth from their lurking-place and flit about. A notion seized the little damsel and some of her youthful companions, to set out, under the guidance of Dolores, and explore the less frequented parts of the palace in quest of mysteries and enchantments. Thus conducted, they peeped fearfully into the gloomy old mosque, but quick drew back on being told that a Moorish king had been murdered there; they ventured into the mysterious regions of the bath, frightening themselves with the sounds and murmurs of hidden aqueducts, and flying with mock panic at the alarm of phantom Moors. They then undertook the adventure of the Iron Gate, a place of baleful note in the Alhambra. It is a postern gate, opening into a dark ravine; a narrow covered way leads down to it, which used to be the terror of Dolores and her playmates in childhood, as it was said a hand without a body would sometimes be stretched out from the wall and seize hold of the passers by.

The little party of enchantment hunters ventured to the entrance of the covered way, but nothing would tempt them to enter, in this hour of gathering gloom; they dreaded the grasp of the phantom arm.

At length they came running back into the Hall of Ambassadors in a mock paroxysm of terror; they had positively seen two spectral figures all in white. They had not stopped to examine them; but could not be mistaken, for they glared distinctly through the surrounding gloom. Dolores soon arrived and explained the mystery. The spectres proved to be two statues of nymphs in white marble, placed at the entrance of a vaulted passage. Upon this a grave, but, as I thought, somewhat sly old gentleman present, who, I believe, was the count’s advocate or legal adviser, assured them that these statues were connected with one of the greatest mysteries of the Alhambra; that there was a curious history concerning them, and moreover, that they stood a living monument in marble of female secrecy and discretion. All present entreated him to tell the history of the statues. He took a little time to recollect the details, and then gave them in substance the following legend.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/i/irving/washington/i72a/part36.html

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