Familiar Spanish Travels, by William Dean Howells

San Sebastian and Beautiful Biscay

Even at Irun, where we arrived in Spain from Bayonne, there began at once to be temperamental differences which ought to have wrought against my weird misgivings of my whereabouts. Only in Spain could a customs inspector have felt of one tray in our trunks and then passed them all with an air of such jaded aversion from an employ uncongenial to a gentleman. Perhaps he was also loath to attempt any inquiry in that Desperanto of French, English, and Spanish which raged around us; but the porter to whom we had fallen, while I hesitated at our carriage door whether I should summon him as Mozo or Usted, was master of that lingua franca and recovered us from the customs without question on our part, and understood everything we could not, say. I like to think he was a Basque, because I like the Basques so much for no reason that I can think of. Their being always Carlists would certainly be no reason with me, for I was never a Carlist; and perhaps my liking is only a prejudice in their favor from the air of thrift and work which pervades their beautiful province, or is an effect of their language as I first saw it inscribed on the front of the Credit Lyonnais at Bayonne. It looked so beautifully regular, so scholarly, so Latin, so sister to both Spanish and Italian, so richly and musically voweled, and yet remained so impenetrable to the most daring surmise, that I conceived at once a profound admiration for the race which could keep such a language to itself. When I remembered how blond, how red-blond our sinewy young porter was, I could not well help breveting him of that race, and honoring him because he could have read those words with the eyes that were so blue amid the general Spanish blackness of eyes. He imparted a quiet from his own calm to our nervousness, and if we had appealed to him on the point I am sure he would have saved us from the error of breakfasting in the station restaurant at the deceitful table d’hote, though where else we should have breakfasted I do not know.


One train left for San Sebastian while I was still lost in amaze that what I had taken into my mouth for fried egg should be inwardly fish and full of bones; but he quelled my anxiety with the assurance, which I somehow understood, that there would be another train soon. In the mean time there were most acceptable Spanish families all about, affably conversing together, and freely admitting to their conversation the children, who so publicly abound in Spain, and the nurses who do nothing to prevent their publicity. There were already the typical fat Spanish mothers and lean fathers, with the slender daughters, who, in the tradition of Spanish good-breeding, kept their black eyes to themselves, or only lent them to the spectators in furtive glances. Both older and younger ladies wore the scanty Egyptian skirt of Occidental civilization, lurking or perking in deep-drooping or high-raking hats, though already here and there was the mantilla, which would more and more prevail as we went southward; older and younger, they were all painted and powdered to the favor that Spanish women everywhere come to.

When the bad breakfast was over, and the waiters were laying the table for another as bad, our Basque porter came in and led us to the train for San Sebastian which he had promised us. It was now raining outside, and we were glad to climb into our apartment without at all seeing what Irun was or was not like. But we thought well of the place because we first experienced there the ample ease of a Spanish car. In Spain the railroad gauge is five feet six inches; and this car of ours was not only very spacious, but very clean, while the French cars that had brought us from Bordeaux to Bayonne and from Bayonne to Irun were neither. I do not say all French cars are dirty, or all Spanish cars are as clean as they are spacious. The cars of both countries are hard to get into, by steep narrow footholds worse even than our flights of steps; in fact, the English cars are the only ones I know which are easy of access. But these have not the ample racks for hand-bags which the Spanish companies provide for travelers willing to take advantage of their trust by transferring much of their heavy stuff to them. Without owning that we were such travelers, I find this the place to say that, with the allowance of a hundred and thirty-two pounds free, our excess baggage in two large steamer-trunks did not cost us three dollars in a month’s travel, with many detours, from Irun in the extreme north to Algeciras in the extreme south of Spain.


But in this sordid detail I am keeping the reader from the scenery. It had been growing more and more striking ever since we began climbing into the Pyrenees from Bayonne; but upon the whole it was not so sublime as it was beautiful. There were some steep, sharp peaks, but mostly there were grassy valleys with white cattle grazing in them, and many fields of Indian corn, endearingly homelike. This at least is mainly the trace that the scenery as far as Irun has left among my notes; and after Irun there is record of more and more corn. There was, in fact, more corn than anything else, though there were many orchards, also endearingly homelike, with apples yellow and red showing among the leaves still green on the trees; if there had been something more wasteful in the farming it would have been still more homelike, but a traveler cannot have everything. The hillsides were often terraced, as in Italy, and the culture apparently close and conscientious. The farmhouses looked friendly and comfortable; at places the landscape was molested by some sort of manufactories which could not conceal their tall chimneys, though they kept the secret of their industry. They were never, really, very bad, and I would have been willing to let them pass for fulling-mills, such as I was so familiar with in Don Quixote, if I had thought of these in time. But one ought to be honest at any cost, and I must own that the Spain I was now for the first time seeing with every-day eyes was so little like the Spain of my boyish vision that I never once recurred to it. That was a Spain of cork-trees, of groves by the green margins of mountain brooks, of habitable hills, where shepherds might feed their flocks and mad lovers and maids forlorn might wander and maunder; and here were fields of corn and apple orchards and vineyards reddening and yellowing up to the doors of those comfortable farmhouses, with nowhere the sign of a Christian cavalier or a turbaned infidel. As a man I could not help liking what I saw, but I could also grieve for the boy who would have been so disappointed if he had come to the Basque provinces of Spain when he was from ten to fifteen years old, instead of seventy-four.

It took our train nearly an hour to get by twenty miles of those pleasant farms and the pretty hamlets which they now and then clustered into. But that was fast for a Spanish way-train, which does not run, but, as it were, walks with dignity and makes long stops at stations, to rest and let the locomotive roll itself a cigarette. By the time we reached San Sebastian our rain had thickened to a heavy downpour, and by the time we mounted to our rooms, three pair up in the hotel, it was storming in a fine fury over the bay under them, and sweeping the curving quays and tossing the feathery foliage of the tamarisk-shaded promenade. The distinct advantage of our lofty perch was the splendid sight of the tempest, held from doing its worst by the mighty headlands standing out to sea on the right and left. But our rooms were cold with the stony cold of the south when it is cooling off from its summer, and we shivered in the splendid sight.


The inhabitants of San Sebastian will not hesitate to say that it is the prettiest town in Spain, and I do not know that they could be hopefully contradicted. It is very modern in its more obvious aspects, with a noble thoroughfare called the Avenida de Libertad for its principal street, shaded with a double row of those feathery tamarisks, and with handsome shops glittering on both sides of it. Very easily it is first of the fashionable watering-places of Spain; the King has his villa there, and the court comes every summer. But they had gone by the time we got there, and the town wore the dejected look of out-of-season summer resorts; though there was the apparatus of gaiety, the fine casino at one end of the beach, and the villas of the rich and noble all along it to the other end. On the sand were still many bathing-machines, but many others had begun to climb for greater safety during the winter to the street above. We saw one hardy bather dripping up from the surf and seeking shelter among those that remained, but they were mostly tenanted by their owners, who looked shoreward through their open doors, and made no secret of their cozy domesticity, where they sat and sewed or knitted and gossiped with their neighbors. Good wives and mothers they doubtless were, but no doubt glad to be resting from the summer pleasure of others. They had their beautiful names written up over their doors, and were for the service of the lady visitors only; there were other machines for gentlemen, and no doubt it was their owners whom we saw gathering the fat seaweed thrown up by the storm into the carts drawn by oxen over the sand. The oxen wore no yokes, but pulled by a band drawn over their foreheads under their horns, and they had the air of not liking the arrangement; though, for the matter of that, I have never seen oxen that seemed to like being yoked.


When we came down to dinner we found the tables fairly full of belated visitors, who presently proved tourists flying south like ourselves. The dinner was good, as it is in nearly all Spanish hotels, where for an average of three dollars a day you have an inclusive rate which you must double for as good accommodation in our States. Let no one, I say, fear the rank cookery so much imagined of the Peninsula, the oil, the pepper, the kid and the like strange meats; as in all other countries of Europe, even England itself, there is a local version, a general convention of the French cuisine, quite as good in Spain as elsewhere, and oftener superabundant than subabundant. The plain water is generally good, With an American edge of freshness; but if you will not trust it (we had to learn to trust it) there are agreeable Spanish mineral waters, as well as the Apollinaris, the St. Galmier, and the Perrier of other civilizations, to be had for the asking, at rather greater cost than the good native wines, often included in the inclusive rate.

Besides this convention of the French cuisine there is almost everywhere a convention of the English language in some one of the waiters. You must not stray far from the beaten path of your immediate wants, but in this you are safe. At San Sebastian we had even a wider range with the English of the little intellectual-looking, pale Spanish waiter, with a fine Napoleonic head, who came to my help when I began to flounder in the language which I had read so much and spoken so little or none. He had been a year in London, he said, and he took us for English, though, now he came to notice it, he perceived we were Americans because we spoke “quicklier” than the English. We did not protest; it was the mildest criticism of our national accent which we were destined to get from English-speaking Spaniards before they found we were not the English we did not wish to be taken for. After dinner we asked for a fire in one of our grates, but the maid declared there was no fuel; and, though the hostess denied this and promised us a fire the next night, she forgot it till nine o’clock, and then we would not have it. The cold abode with us indoors to the last at San Sebastian, but the storm (which had hummed and whistled theatrically at our windows) broke during the first night, and the day followed with several intervals of sunshine, which bathed us in a glowing-expectation of overtaking the fugitive summer farther south.


In the mean time we hired a beautiful Basque cabman with a red Basque cap and high-hooked Basque nose to drive us about at something above the legal rate and let us not leave any worthy thing in San Sebastian unseen. He took us, naturally, to several churches, old and new, with their Gothic and rococo interiors, which I still find glooming and glinting among my evermore thickening impressions of like things. We got from them the sense of that architectural and sculptural richness which the interior of no Spanish church ever failed measurably to give; but what their historical associations were I will not offer to say. The associations of San Sebastian with the past are in all things vague, at least for me. She was indeed taken from the French by the English under Wellington during the Peninsular War, but of older, if not unhappier farther-off days and battles longer ago her history as I know it seems to know little. It knows of savage and merciless battles between the partisans of Don Carlos and those of Queen Isabella so few decades since as not to be the stuff of mere pathos yet, and I am not able to blink the fact that my beloved Basques fought on the wrong side, when they need not have fought at all. Why they were Carlists they could perhaps no more say than I could. The monumental historic fact is that the Basques have been where they are immeasurably beyond the memories of other men; what the scope of their own memories is one could perhaps confidently say only in Basque if one could say anything. Of course, in the nature of things, the Phoenicians must have been there and the Greeks, doubtless, if they ever got outside of the Pillars of Hercules; the Romans, of course, must have settled and civilized and then Christianized the province. It is next neighbor to that province of Asturias in which alone the Arabs failed to conquer the Goths, and from which Spain was to live and grow again and recover all her losses from the Moors; but what the share of San Sebastian was in this heroic fate, again I must leave the Basques to say. They would doubtless say it with sufficient self-respect, for wherever we came in contact that day with the Basque nature we could not help imagining in it a sense of racial merit equaling that of the Welsh themselves, who are indeed another branch of the same immemorial Iberian stock, if the Basques are Iberians. Like the Welsh, they have the devout tradition that they never were conquered, but yielded to circumstances when these became too strong for them.

Among the ancient Spanish liberties which were restricted by the consolidating monarchy from age to age, the Basque fueros, or rights, were the oldest; they lasted quite to our own day; and although it is known to more ignorant men that these privileges (including immunity from conscription) have now been abrogated, the custodian of the House of Provincial Deputies, whom our driver took us to visit, was such a glowing Basque patriot that he treated them as in full force. His pride in the seat of the local government spared us no detail of the whole electric-lighting system, or even the hose-bibs for guarding the edifice against fire, let alone every picture and photograph on the wall of every chamber of greater or less dignity, with every notable table and chair. He certainly earned the peseta I gave him, but he would have done far more for it if we had suffered him to take us up another flight of stairs; and he followed us in our descent with bows and adieux that ought to have left no doubt in our minds of the persistence of the Basque fueros.


It was to such a powerful embodiment of the local patriotism that our driver had brought us from another civic palace overlooking the Plaza de la Constitution, chiefly notable now for having been the old theater of the bull-fights. The windows in the houses round still bear the numbers by which they were sold to spectators as boxes; but now the municipality has built a beautiful brand-new bull-ring in San Sebastian; and I do not know just why we were required to inspect the interior of the edifice overlooking this square. I only know that at sight of our bewilderment a workman doing something to the staircase clapped his hands orientally, and the custodian was quickly upon us in response to a form of summons which we were to find so often used in Spain. He was not so crushingly upon us as that other custodian; he was apologetically proud, rather than boastfully; at times he waved his hands in deprecation, and would have made us observe that the place was little, very little; he deplored it like a host who wishes his possessions praised. Among the artistic treasures of the place from which he did not excuse us there were some pen-drawings, such as writing-masters execute without lifting the pen from the paper, by a native of South America, probably of Basque descent, since the Basques have done so much to people that continent. We not only admired these, but we would not consent to any of the custodian’s deprecations, especially when it came to question of the pretty salon in which Queen Victoria was received on her first visit to San Sebastian. We supposed then, and in fact I had supposed till this moment, that it was Queen Victoria of Great Britain who was meant; but now I realize that it must have been the queen consort of Spain, who seems already to have made herself so liked there.

She, of course, comes every summer to San Sebastian, and presently our driver took us to see the royal villa by the shore, withdrawn, perhaps from a sense of its extreme plainness, not to say ugliness, among its trees and vines behind its gates and walls. Our driver excused himself for not being able to show us through it; he gladly made us free of an unrestricted view of the royal bathing-pavilion, much more frankly splendid in its gilding, beside the beach. Other villas ranked themselves along the hillside, testifying to the gaiety of the social life in summers past and summers to come. In the summer just past the gaiety may have been interrupted by the strikes taking in the newspapers the revolutionary complexion which it was now said they did not wear. At least, when the King had lately come to fetch the royal household away nothing whatever happened, and the “constitutional guarantees,” suspended amidst the ministerial anxieties, were restored during the month, with the ironical applause of the liberal press, which pretended that there had never been any need of their suspension.



All pleasures, mixed or unmixed, must end, and the qualified joy of our drive through San Sebastian came to a close on our return to our hotel well within the second hour, almost within its first half. When I proposed paying our driver for the exact time, he drooped upon his box and, remembering my remorse in former years for standing upon my just rights in such matters, I increased the fare, peseta by peseta, till his sinking spirits rose, and he smiled gratefully upon me and touched his brave red cap as he drove away. He had earned his money, if racking his invention for objects of interest in San Sebastian was a merit. At the end we were satisfied that it was a well-built town with regular blocks in the modern quarter, and not without the charm of picturesqueness which comes of narrow and crooked lanes in the older parts. Prescient of the incalculable riches before us, we did not ask much of it, and we got all we asked. I should be grateful to San Sebastian, if for nothing else than the two very Spanish experiences I had there. One concerned a letter for me which had been refused by the bankers named in my letter of credit, from a want of faith, I suppose, in my coming. When I did come I was told that I would find it at the post-office. That would be well enough when I found the post-office, which ought to have been easy enough, but which presented certain difficulties in the driving rain of our first afternoon. At last in a fine square I asked a fellow-man in my best conversational Spanish where the post-office was, and after a moment’s apparent suffering he returned, “Do you speak English?” “Yes.” I said, “and I am so glad you do.” “Not at all. I don’t speak anything else. Great pleasure. There is the post-office,” and it seemed that I had hardly escaped collision with it. But this was the beginning, not the end, of my troubles. When I showed my card to the poste restante clerk, he went carefully through the letters bearing the initial of my name and denied that there was any for me. We entered into reciprocally bewildering explanations, and parted altogether baffled. Then, at the hotel, I consulted with a capable young office-lady, who tardily developed a knowledge of English, and we agreed that it would be well to send the chico to the post-office for it. The chico, corresponding in a Spanish hotel to a piccolo in Germany or a page in England, or our own now evanescing bell-boy, was to get a peseta for bringing me the letter. He got the peseta, though he only brought me word that the authorities would send the letter to the hotel by the postman that night. The authorities did not send it that night, and the next morning I recurred to my bankers. There, on my entreaty for some one who could meet my Spanish at least half-way in English, a manager of the bank came out of his office and reassured me concerning the letter which I had now begun to imagine the most important I had ever missed. Even while we talked the postman came in and owned having taken the letter back to the office. He voluntarily promised to bring it to the bank at one o’clock, when I hastened to meet him. At that hour every one was out at lunch; I came again at four, when everybody had returned, but the letter was not delivered; at five, just before the bank closed, the letter, which had now grown from a carta to a cartela, was still on its way. I left San Sebastian without it; and will it be credited that when it was forwarded to me a week later at Madrid it proved the most fatuous missive imaginable, wholly concerning the writer’s own affairs and none of mine?

I cannot guess yet why it was withheld from me, but since the incident brought me that experience of Spanish politeness, I cannot grieve for it. The young banker who left his region of high finance to come out and condole with me, in apologizing for the original refusal of my letter, would not be contented with so little. Nothing would satisfy him but going with me, on my hinted purpose, and inquiring with me at the railroad office into the whole business of circular tickets, and even those kilometric tickets which the Spanish railroads issue to such passengers as will have their photographs affixed to them for the prevention of transference. As it seemed advisable not to go to this extreme till I got to Madrid, my kind young banker put himself at my disposal for any other service I could imagine from him; but I searched myself in vain for any desire, much less necessity, and I parted from him at the door of his bank with the best possible opinion of the Basques. I suppose he was a Basque; at any rate, he was blond, which the Spaniards are mostly not, and the Basques often are. Now I am sorry, since he was so kind, that I did not get him to read me the Basque inscription on the front of his bank, which looked exactly like that on the bank at Bayonne; I should not have understood it, but I should have known what it sounded like, if it sounded like anything but Basque.

Everybody in San Sebastian seemed resolved to outdo every other in kindness. In a shop where we endeavored to explain that we wanted to get a flat cap which should be both Basque and red, a lady who was buying herself a hat asked in English if she could help us. When we gladly answered that she could, she was silent, almost to tears, and it appeared that in this generous offer of aid she had exhausted her whole stock of English. Her mortification, her painful surprise, at the strange catastrophe, was really pitiable, and we hastened to escape from it to a shop across the street. There instantly a small boy rushed enterprisingly out and brought back with him a very pretty girl who spoke most of the little French which has made its way in San Sebastian against the combined Basque and Spanish, and a cap of the right flatness and redness was brought. I must not forget, among the pleasures done us by the place, the pastry cook’s shop which advertised in English “Tea at all Hours,” and which at that hour of our afternoon we now found so opportune, that it seemed almost personally attentive to us as the only Anglo–Saxon visitors in town. The tea might have been better, but it was as good as it knew how; and the small boy who came in with his mother (the Spanish mother seldom fails of the company of a small boy) in her moments of distraction succeeded in touching with his finger all the pieces of pastry except those we were eating.


The high aquiline nose which is characteristic of the autochthonic race abounds in San Sebastian, but we saw no signs of the high temper which is said to go with it. This, indeed, was known to me chiefly from my first reading in Don Quixote, of the terrific combat between the squire of the Biscayan ladies whose carriage the knight of La Mancha stopped after his engagement with the windmills. In their exchange of insults incident to the knight’s desire that the ladies should go to Toboso and thank Dulcinea for his delivery of them from the necromancers he had put to flight in the persons of two Benedictine monks, “‘Get gone,’ the squire called, in bad Spanish and worse Biscayan, ‘Get gone, thou knight, and Devil go with thou; or by He Who me create . . . me kill thee now so sure as me be Biscayan,’” and when the knight called him an “inconsiderable mortal,” and said that if he were a gentleman he would chastise him: “‘What! me no gentleman?’ replied the Biscayan. ‘I swear thou be liar as me be Christian. . . . Me will show thee me be Biscayan, and gentleman by land, gentleman by sea, gentleman in spite of Devil; and thou lie if thou say the contrary.’”

It is a scene which will have lived in the memory of every reader, and I recurred to it hopefully but vainly in San Sebastian, where this fiery threefold gentleman might have lived in his time. It would be interesting to know how far the Basques speak broken Spanish in a fashion of their own, which Cervantes tried to represent in the talk of his Biscayan. Like the Welsh again they strenuously keep their immemorial language against the inroads of the neighboring speech. How much they fix it in a modern literature it would be easier to ask than to say. I suppose there must be Basque newspapers; perhaps there are Basque novelists, there are notoriously Basque bards who recite their verses to the peasants, and doubtless there are poets who print their rhymes: and I blame myself for not inquiring further concerning them of that kindly Basque banker who wished so much to do something for me in compensation for the loss of my worthless letter. I knew, too cheaply, that the Basques have their poetical contests, as the Welsh have their musical competitions in the Eisteddfod, and they are once more like the Welsh, their brothers in antiquity, in calling themselves by a national name of their own. They call themselves Euskaldunac, which is as different from the name of Basque given them by the alien races as Cymru is from Welsh.

All this lore I have easily accumulated from the guide-books since leaving San Sebastian, but I was carelessly ignorant of it in driving from the hotel to the station when we came away, and was much concerned in the overtures made us in a mixed Spanish, English, and French by a charming family from Chili, through the brother to one of the ladies and husband to the other. When he perceived from my Spanish that we were not English, he rejoiced that we were Americans of the north, and as joyfully proclaimed that they were Americans of the south. We were at once sensible of a community of spirit in our difference from our different ancestral races. They were Spanish, but with a New World blitheness which we nowhere afterward found in the native Spaniards; and we were English, with a willingness to laugh and to joke which they had not perhaps noted in our ancestral contemporaries. Again and again we met them in the different cities where we feared we had lost them, until we feared no more and counted confidently on seeing them wherever we went. They were always radiantly smiling; and upon this narrow ground I am going to base the conjecture that the most distinctive difference of the Western Hemisphere from the Eastern is its habit of seeing the fun of things. With those dear Chilians we saw the fun of many little hardships of travel which might have been insupportable without the vision. Sometimes we surprised one another in the same hotel; sometimes it was in the street that we encountered, usually to exchange amusing misfortunes. If we could have been constantly with these fellow-hemispherists our progress through Spain would have been an unbroken holiday.

There is a superstition of travelers in Spain, much fostered by innkeepers and porters, that you cannot get seats in the fast trains without buying your tickets the day before, and then perhaps not, and we abandoned ourselves to this fear at San Sebastian so far as to get places some hours in advance. But once established in the ten-foot-wide interior of the first-class compartment which we had to ourselves, every anxiety fell from us; and I do not know a more flattering emotion than that which you experience in sinking into your luxurious seat, and, after a glance at your hand-bags in the racks where they have been put with no strain on your own muscles, giving your eyes altogether to the joy of the novel landscape.

The train was what they call a Rapido in Spain; and though we were supposed to be devouring space with indiscriminate gluttony, I do not think that in our mad rush of twenty-five miles an hour we failed to taste any essential detail of the scenery. .But I wish now that I had known the Basques were all nobles, and that the peasants owned many of the little farms we saw declaring the general thrift. In the first two hours of the six to Burgos we ran through lovely valleys held in the embrace of gentle hills, where the fields of Indian corn were varied by groves of chestnut trees, where we could see the burrs gaping on their stems. The blades and tassels of the corn had been stripped away, leaving the ripe ears a-tilt at the top of the stalks, which looked like cranes standing on one leg with their heads slanted in pensive contemplation. There were no vineyards, but orchards aplenty near the farmhouses, and all about there were other trees pollarded to the quick and tufted with mistletoe, not only the stout oaks, but the slim poplars trimmed up into tall plumes like the poplars in southern France. The houses, when they did not stand apart like our own farmhouses, gathered into gray-brown villages around some high-shouldered church with a bell-tower in front or at one corner of the fagade. In most of the larger houses an economy of the sun’s heat, the only heat recognized in the winter of southern countries, was practised by glassing in the balconies that stretched quite across their fronts and kept the cold from at least one story. It gave them a very cheery look, and must have made them livable at least in the daytime. Now and then the tall chimney of one of those manufactories we had seen on the way from Irun invited belief in the march of industrial prosperity; but whether the Basque who took work in a mill or a foundry forfeited his nobility remained a part of the universal Basque secret. From time to time a mountain stream brawled from under a world-old bridge, and then spread a quiet tide for the women to kneel beside and wash the clothes which they spread to dry on every bush and grassy slope of the banks.

The whole scene changed after we ran out of the Basque country and into the austere landscape of old Castile. The hills retreated and swelled into mountains that were not less than terrible in their savage nakedness. The fields of corn and the orchards ceased, and the green of the pastures changed to the tawny gray of the measureless wheat-lands into which the valleys flattened and widened. There were no longer any factory chimneys; the villages seemed to turn from stone to mud; the human poverty showed itself in the few patched and tattered figures that followed the oxen in the interminable furrows shallowly scraping the surface of the lonely levels. The haggard mountain ranges were of stone that seemed blanched with geologic superannuation, and at one place we ran by a wall of hoary rock that drew its line a mile long against the sky, and then broke and fell, and then staggered up again in a succession of titanic bulks. But stupendous as these mountain masses were, they were not so wonderful as those wheat-lands which in harvest-time must wash their shores like a sea of gold. Where these now rose and sank with the long ground-swell of the plains in our own West, a thin gray stubble covered them from the feeble culture which leaves Spain, for all their extent in both the Castiles, in Estremadura, in Andalusia, still without bread enough to feed herself, and obliges her to import alien wheat. At the lunch which we had so good in the dining-car we kept our talk to the wonder of the scenery, and well away from the interesting Spanish pair at our table. It is never safe in Latin Europe to count upon ignorance of English in educated people, or people who look so; and with these we had the reward of our prudence when the husband asked after dessert if we minded his smoking. His English seemed meant to open the way for talk, and we were willing he should do the talking. He spoke without a trace of accent, and we at once imagined circles in which it was now as chic for Spaniards to speak English as it once was to speak French. They are said never to speak French quite well; but nobody could have spoken English better than this gentleman, not even we who were, as he said he supposed, English. Truth and patriotism both obliged us to deny his conjecture; and when He intimated that he would not have known us for Americans because we did not speak with the dreadful American accent, I hazarded my belief that this dreadfulness was personal rather than national. But he would not have it. Boston people, yes; they spoke very well, and he allowed other exceptions to the general rule of our nasal twang, which his wife summoned English enough to say was very ugly. They had suffered from it too universally in the Americans they had met during the summer in Germany to believe it was merely personal; and I suppose one may own to strictly American readers that our speech is dreadful, that it is very ugly. These amiable Spaniards had no reason and no wish to wound; and they could never know what sweet and noble natures had been producing their voices through their noses there in Germany. I for my part could not insist; who, indeed, can defend the American accent, which is not so much an accent as a whiffle, a snuffle, a twang? It was mortifying, all the same, to have it openly abhorred by a foreigner, and I willingly got away from the question to that of the weather. We agreed admirably about the heat in England where this gentleman went every summer, and had never found it so hot before. It was hot even in Denmark; but he warned me not to expect any warmth in Spain now that the autumn rains had begun.

If this couple represented a cosmopolitan and modern Spain, it was interesting to escape to something entirely native in the three young girls who got in at the next station and shared our compartment with us as far as we went. They were tenderly kissed by their father in putting them on board, and held in lingering farewells at the window till the train started. The eldest of the three then helped in arranging their baskets in the rack, but the middle sister took motherly charge of the youngest, whom she at once explained to us as enferma. She was the prettiest girl of the conventional Spanish type we Lad yet seen: dark-eyed and dark-haired, regular, but a little overfull of the chin which she would presently have double. She was very, very pale of face, with a pallor in which she had assisted nature with powder, as all Spanish women, old and young, seem to do. But there was no red underglow in the pallor, such as gives many lovely faces among them the complexion of whitewash over pink on a stucco surface. She wrapped up the youngest sister, who would by and by be beautiful, and now being sick had only the flush of fever in her cheeks, and propped her in the coziest corner of the car, where she tried to make her keep still, but could not make her keep silent. In fact, they all babbled together, over the basket of luncheon which the middle sister opened after springing up the little table-leaf of the window, and spread with a substantial variety including fowl and sausage and fruit, such as might tempt any sick appetite, or a well one, even. As she brought out each of these victuals, together with a bottle of wine and a large bottle of milk, she first offered it to us, and when it was duly refused with thanks, she made the invalid eat and drink, especially the milk which she made a wry face at. When she had finished they all began to question whether her fever was rising for the day; the good sister felt the girl’s pulse, and got out a thermometer, which together they arranged under her arm, and then duly inspected. It seemed that the fever was rising, as it might very well be, but the middle sister was not moved from her notable calm, and the eldest did not fear. At a place where a class of young men was to be seen before an ecclesiastical college the girls looked out together, and joyfully decided that the brother (or possibly a cousin) whom they expected to see, was really there among them. When we reached Burgos we felt that we had assisted at a drama of family medicine and affection which was so sweet that if the fever was not very wisely it was very winningly treated. It was not perhaps a very serious case, and it meant a good deal of pleasant excitement for all concerned.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56