Familiar Spanish Travels, by William Dean Howells

Burgos and the Bitter Cold of Burgos

It appears to be the use in most minor cities of Spain for the best hotel to send the worst omnibus to the station, as who should say, “Good wine needs no bush.” At Burgos we were almost alarmed by the shabbiness of the omnibus for the hotel we had chosen through a consensus of praise in the guide-books, and thought we must have got the wrong one. It was indeed the wrong one, but because there is no right hotel in Burgos when you arrive there on an afternoon of early October, and feel the prophetic chill of that nine months of winter which is said to contrast there with three months of hell.


The air of Burgos when it is not the breath of a furnace is so heavy and clammy through the testimony of all comers that Burgos herself no longer attempts to deny it from her high perch on the uplands of Old Castile. Just when she ceased to deny it, I do not know, but probably when she ceased to be the sole capital and metropolis of Christian Spain and shared her primacy with Toledo sometime in the fourteenth century. Now, in the twentieth, we asked nothing of her but two rooms in which we could have fire, but the best hotel in Burgos openly declared that it had not a fireplace in its whole extent, though there must have been one in the kitchen. The landlord pointed out that it was completely equipped with steam-heating apparatus, but when I made him observe that there was no steam in the shining radiators, he owned with a shrug that there was truth in what I said. He showed us large, pleasant rooms to the south which would have been warm from the sun if the sun which we left playing in San Sebastian had been working that day at Burgos; he showed us his beautiful new dining-room, cold, with the same sunny exposure. I rashly declared that all would not do, and that I would look elsewhere for rooms with fireplaces. I had first to find a cab in order to find the other hotels, but I found instead that in a city of thirty-eight thousand inhabitants there was not one cab standing for hire in the streets. I tried to enlist the sympathies of some private carriages, but they remained indifferent, and I went back foiled, but not crushed, to our hotel. There it seemed that the only vehicle to be had was the omnibus which had brought us from the station. The landlord calmly (I did not then perceive the irony of his calm) had the horses put to and our baggage put on, and we drove away. But first we met our dear Chilians coming to our hotel from the hotel they had chosen, and from a search for hearthstones in others; and we drove to the only hotel they had left unvisited. There at our demand for fires the landlord all but laughed us to scorn; he laid his hand on the cold radiator in the hotel as if to ask what better we could wish than that. We drove back, humbled, to our own hotel, where the landlord met us with the Castilian cairn he had kept at our departure. Then there was nothing for me but to declare myself the Prodigal Son returned to take the rooms he had offered us. We were so perfectly in his power that he could magnanimously afford to offer us other rooms equally cold, but we did not care to move. The Chilians had retired baffled to their own hotel, and there was nothing for us but to accept the long evening of gelid torpor which we foresaw must follow the effort of the soup and wine to warm us at dinner. That night we heard through our closed doors agonized voices which we knew to be the voices of despairing American women wailing through the freezing corridors, “Can’t she understand that I want boiling water?” and, “Can’t’ we go down-stairs to a fire somewhere?” We knew the one meant the chambermaid and the other the kitchen, but apparently neither prayer was answered.



As soon as we had accepted our fate, while as yet the sun had not set behind the clouds which had kept it out of our rooms all day, we hurried out not only to escape the rigors of our hotel, but to see as soon as we could, as much as we could of the famous city. We had got an excellent cup of tea in the glass-roofed pavilion of our beautiful cold dining-room, and now our spirits rose level with the opportunities of the entrancing walk we took along the course of the Arlanson. I say course, because that is the right word to use of a river, but really there was no course in the Arlanzon. Between the fine, wide Embankments and under the noble bridges there were smooth expanses of water (naturally with women washing at them), which reflected like an afterglow of the evening sky the splendid masses of yarn hung red from the dyer’s vats on the bank. The expanses of water were bordered by wider spaces of grass which had grown during the rainless summer, but which were no doubt soon to be submerged under the autumnal torrent the river would become. The street which shaped itself to the stream was a rather modern avenue, leading to a beautiful public garden, with the statues and fountains proper to a public garden, and densely shaded against the three infernal months of the Burgos year. But the houses were glazed all along their fronts with the sun-traps which we had noted in the Basque country, and which do not wait for a certain date in the almanac to do the work of steam-heating. They gave a tempting effect to the house-fronts, but they could not distract our admiration from the successive crowds of small boys playing at bull-fighting in the streets below, and in the walks of the public garden. The population of Burgos is above thirty-seven thousand and of the inhabitants at least thirty-six thousand are small boys, as I was convinced by the computation of the husband and brother of the Chilian ladies which agreed perfectly with my own hasty conjecture; the rest are small girls. In fact large families, and large families chiefly of boys, are the rule in Spain everywhere; and they everywhere know how to play bull-fighting, to flap any-colored old shawl, or breadth of cloth in the face of the bull, to avoid his furious charges, and doubtless to deal him his death-wound, though to this climax I could not bear to follow.

One or two of the bull-fighters offered to leave the national sport and show us the House of Miranda, but it was the cathedral which was dominating our desire, as it everywhere dominates the vision, in Burgos and out of Burgos as far as the city can be seen. The iron-gray bulk, all flattered or fretted by Gothic art, rears itself from the clustering brown walls and roofs of the city, which it seems to gather into its mass below while it towers so far above them. We needed no pointing of the way to it; rather we should have needed instruction for shunning it; but we chose the way which led through the gate of Santa Maria where in an arch once part of the city wall, the great Cid, hero above every other hero of Burgos, sits with half a dozen more or less fabled or storied worthies of the renowned city. Then with a minute’s walk up a stony sloping little street we were in the beautiful and reverend presence of one of the most august temples of the Christian faith. The avenue where the old Castilian nobles once dwelt in their now empty palaces climbs along the hillside above the cathedral, which on its lower side seems to elbow off the homes of meaner men, and in front to push them away beyond a plaza not large enough for it. Even this the cathedral had not cleared of the horde of small boys who followed us unbidden to its doors and almost expropriated those authorized blind beggars who own the church doors in Spain. When we declined the further company of these boys they left us with expressions which I am afraid accused our judgment and our personal appearance; but in another moment we were safe from their censure, and hidden as it were in the thick smell of immemorial incense.


It was not the moment for doing the cathedral in the wonted tiresome and vulgar way; that was reserved for the next day; now we simply wandered in the vast twilight spaces; and craned our necks to breaking in trying to pierce the gathered gloom in the vaulting overhead. It was a precious moment, but perhaps too weird, and we were glad to find a sacristan with businesslike activity setting red candlesticks about a bier in the area before the choir, which here, as in the other Spanish cathedrals, is planted frankly in the middle of the edifice, a church by itself, as if to emphasize the incomparable grandeur of the cathedral. The sacristan willingly paused in his task and explained that he was preparing the bier for the funeral of a church dignitary (as we learned later, the dean) which was to take place the next day at noon; and if we would come at that hour we should hear some beautiful music. We knew that he was establishing a claim on our future custom, but we thanked him and provisionally feed him, and left him at his work, at which we might have all but fancied him whistling, so cheerfully and briskly he went about it.

Outside we lingered a moment to give ourselves the solemn joy of the Chapel of the Constable which forms the apse of the cathedral and is its chief glory. It mounted to the hard, gray sky, from which a keen wind was sweeping the narrow street leading to it, and blustering round the corner of the cathedral, so that the marble men holding up the Constable’s coat-of-arms in the rear of his chapel might well have ached from the cold which searched the marrow of flesh-and-blood men below. These hurried by in flat caps and corduroy coats and trousers, with sashes at their waists and comforters round their necks; and they were picturesque quite in the measure of their misery. Some whose tatters were the most conspicuous feature of their costume, I am sure would have charmed me if I had been a painter; as a mere word-painter I find myself wishing I could give the color of their wretchedness to my page.


In the absence of any specific record in my notebook I do not know just how it was between this first glimpse of the cathedral and dinner, but it must have been on our return to our hotel, that the little interpreter who had met us at the station, and had been intermittently constituting himself our protector ever since, convinced us that we ought to visit the City Hall, and see the outside of the marble tomb containing the bones of the Cid and his wife. Such as the bones were we found they were not to be seen themselves, and I do not know that I should have been the happier for their inspection. In fact, I have no great opinion of the Cid as an historical character or a poetic fiction. His epic, or his long ballad, formed no part of my young study in Spanish, and when four or five years ago a friend gave me a copy of it, beautifully printed in black letter, with the prayer that I should read it sometime within the twelvemonth, I found the time far too short. As a matter of fact I have never read the poem to this day, though. I have often tried, and I doubt if its author ever intended it to be read. He intended it rather to be recited in stirring episodes, with spaces for refreshing slumber in the connecting narrative. As for the Cid in real life under his proper name of Rodrigo de Vivas, though he made his king publicly swear that he had had no part in the murder of his royal brother, and though he was the stoutest and bravest knight in Castile, I cannot find it altogether admirable in him that when his king banished him he should resolve to fight thereafter for any master who paid him best. That appears to me the part of a road-agent rather than a reformer, and it seems to me no amend for his service under Moorish princes that he should make war against them on his personal behalf or afterward under his own ungrateful king. He is friends now with the Arabian King of Saragossa, and now he defeats the Aragonese under the Castilian sovereign, and again he sends an insulting message by the Moslems to the Christian Count of Barcelona, whom he takes prisoner with his followers, but releases without ransom after a contemptuous audience. Is it well, I ask, that he helps one Moor against another, always for what there is in it, and when he takes Valencia from the infidels, keeps none of his promises to them, but having tortured the governor to make him give up his treasure, buries him to his waist and then burns him alive? After that, to be sure, he enjoys his declining years by making forays in the neighboring country, and dies “satisfied with having done his duty toward his God.”

Our interpreter, who would not let us rest till he had shown us the box holding the Cid’s bones, had himself had a varied career. If you believed him he was born in Madrid and had passed, when three years old, to New York, where he grew up to become a citizen and be the driver of a delivery wagon for a large department-store. He duly married an American woman who could speak not only French, German, and Italian, but also Chinese, and was now living with him in Burgos. His own English had somewhat fallen by the way, but what was left he used with great courage; and he was one of those government interpreters whom you find at every large station throughout Spain in the number of the principal hotels of the place. They pay the government a certain tax for their license, though it was our friend’s expressed belief that the government, on the contrary, paid him a salary of two dollars a day; but perhaps this was no better founded than his belief in a German princess who, when he went as her courier, paid him ten dollars a day and all his expenses. She wished him to come and live near her in Germany, so as to be ready to go with her to South America, but he had not yet made up his mind to leave Burgos, though his poor eyes watered with such a cold as only Burgos can give a man in the early autumn; when I urged him to look to the bad cough he had, he pleaded that it was a very old cough. He had a fascination of his own, which probably came from his imaginative habit of mind, so that I could have wished more adoptive fellow-citizens were like him. He sympathized strongly with us in our grief with the cold of the hotel, and when we said that a small oil-heater would take the chill off a large room, he said that he had advised that very thing, but that our host had replied, with proud finality, “I am the landlord.” Whether this really happened or not, I cannot say, but I have no doubt that our little guide had some faith in it as a real incident. He apparently had faith in the landlord’s boast that he was going to have a stately marble staircase to the public entrance to his hotel, which was presently of common stone, rather tipsy in its treads, and much in need of scrubbing.

There is as little question in my mind that he believed the carriage we had engaged to take us next morning to the Cartuja de Miraflores would be ready at a quarter before nine, and that he may have been disappointed when it was not ready until a quarter after. But it was worth waiting for if to have a team composed of a brown mule on the right hand and a gray horse on the left was to be desired. These animals which nature had so differenced were equalized by art through the lavish provision of sleigh-bells, without some strands of which no team in Spain is properly equipped. Besides, as to his size the mule was quite as large as the horse, and as to his tail he was much more decorative. About two inches after this member left his body it was closely shaved for some six inches or more, and for that space it presented the effect of a rather large size of garden-hose; below, it swept his thighs in a lordly switch. If anything could have added distinction to our turnout it would have been the stiff side-whiskers of our driver: the only pair I saw in real life after seeing them so long in pictures on boxes of raisins and cigars. There they were associated with the look and dress of a torrero, and our coachman, though an old Castilian of the austerest and most taciturn pattern, may have been in his gay youth an Andalusian bull-fighter.


Our pride in our equipage soon gave way to our interest in the market for sheep, cattle, horses, and donkeys which we passed through just outside the city. The market folk were feeling the morning’s cold; shepherds folded in their heavy shawls leaned motionless on their long staves, as if hating to stir; one ingenious boy wore a live lamb round his neck which he held close by the legs for the greater comfort of it; under the trees by the roadside some of the peasants were cooking their breakfasts and warming themselves at the fires. The sun was on duty in a cloudless sky; but all along the road to the Cartuja we drove between rows of trees so thickly planted against his summer rage that no ray of his friendly heat could now reach us. At times it seemed as if from this remorselessly shaded avenue we should escape into the open; the trees gave way and we caught glimpses of wide plains and distant hills; then they closed upon us again, and in their chill shadow it was no comfort to know that in summer, when the townspeople got through their work, they came out to these groves, men, women, and children, and had supper under their hospitable boughs.

One comes to almost any Cartuja at last, and we found ours on a sunny top just when the cold had pinched us almost beyond endurance, and joined a sparse group before the closed gate of the convent. The group was composed of poor people who had come for the dole of food daily distributed from the convent, and better-to-do country-folk who had brought things to sell to the monks, or were there on affairs not openly declared. But it seemed that it was a saint’s day; the monks were having service in the church solely for their own edification, and they had shut us sinners out not only by locking the gate, but by taking away the wire for ringing the bell, and leaving nothing but a knocker of feeble note with which different members of our indignation meeting vainly hammered. Our guide assumed the virtue of the greatest indignation, though he ought to have known that we could not get in on that saint’s day; but it did not avail, and the little group dispersed, led off by the brown peasant who was willing to share my pleasure in our excursion as a good joke on us, and smiled with a show of teeth as white as the eggs in his basket. After all, it was not wholly a hardship; we could walk about in the sunny if somewhat muddy open, and warm ourselves against the icily shaded drive back to town; besides, there was a little girl crouching at the foot of a tree, and playing at a phase of the housekeeping which is the game of little girls the world over. Her sad, still-faced mother standing near, with an interest in her apparently renewed by my own, said that she was four years old, and joined me in watching her as she built a pile of little sticks and boiled an imaginary little kettle over them. I was so glad even of a make-believe fire that I dropped a copper coin beside it, and the mother smiled pensively as if grateful but not very hopeful from this beneficence, though after reflection I had made my gift a “big dog” instead of a “small dog,” as the Spanish call a ten and a five centimo piece. The child bent her pretty head shyly on one side, and went on putting more sticks under her supposititious pot.

I found the little spectacle reward enough in itself and in a sort compensation for our failure to see the exquisite alabaster tomb of Juan II. and his wife Isabel which makes the Cartuja Church so famous. There are a great many beautiful tombs in Burgos, but none so beautiful there (or in the whole world if the books say true) as this; though we made what we could of some in the museum, where we saw for the first time in the recumbent effigies of a husband and wife, with features worn away by time and incapable of expressing the disappointment, the surprise they may have felt in the vain effort to warm their feet on the backs of the little marble angels put there to support them. We made what we could, too, of the noted Casa de Miranda, the most famous of the palaces in which the Castilian nobles have long ceased to live at Burgos. There we satisfied our longing to see a patio, that roofless colonnaded court which is the most distinctive feature of Spanish domestic architecture, and more and more distinctively so the farther south you go, till at Seville you see it in constant prevalence. At Burgos it could never have been a great comfort, but in this House of Miranda it must have been a great glory. The spaces between many of the columns have long been bricked in, but there is fine carving on the front and the vaulting of the staircase that climbs up from it in neglected grandeur. So many feet have trodden its steps that they are worn hollow in the middle, and to keep from falling you must go up next the wall. The object in going up at all is to join in the gallery an old melancholy custodian in looking down into the patio, with his cat making her toilet beside him, and to give them a fee which they receive with equal calm. Then, when you have come down the age-worn steps without breaking your neck, you have done the House of Miranda, and may lend yourself with what emotion you choose to the fact that this ancient seat of hidalgos has now fallen to the low industry of preparing pigskins to be wine-skins.


I do not think that a company of hidalgos in complete medieval armor could have moved me more strongly than that first sight of these wine-skins, distended with wine, which we had caught in approaching the House of Miranda. We had to stop in the narrow street, and let them pass piled high on a vintner’s wagon, and looking like a load of pork: they are trimmed and left to keep the shape of the living pig, which they emulate at its bulkiest, less the head and feet, and seem to roll in fatness. It was joy to realize what they were, to feel how Spanish, how literary, how picturesque, how romantic. There they were such as the wine-skins are that hang from the trees of pleasant groves in many a merry tale, and invite all swains and shepherds and wandering cavaliers to tap their bulk and drain its rich plethora. There they were such as Don Quixote, waking from his dream at the inn, saw them malignant giants and fell enchanters, and slashed them with his sword till he had spilled the room half full of their blood. For me this first sight of them was magic. It brought back my boyhood as nothing else had yet, and I never afterward saw them without a return to those days of my delight in all Spanish things.

Literature and its associations, no matter from how lowly suggestion, must always be first for me, and I still thought of those wine-skins in yielding to the claims of the cathedral on my wonder and reverence when now for the second time we came to it. The funeral ceremony of the dean was still in course, and after listening for a moment to the mighty orchestral music of it — the deep bass of the priests swelling up with the organ notes, and suddenly shot with the shrill, sharp trebles of the choir-boys and pierced with the keen strains of the violins — we left the cathedral to the solemn old ecclesiastics who sat confronting the bier, and once more deferred our more detailed and intimate wonder. We went, in this suspense of emotion, to the famous Convent of Las Huelgas, which invites noble ladies to its cloistered repose a little beyond the town. We entered to the convent church through a sort of slovenly court where a little girl begged severely, almost censoriously, of us, and presently a cold-faced young priest came and opened the church door. Then we found the interior of that rank Spanish baroque which escapes somehow the effeminate effusiveness of the Italian; it does not affect you as decadent, but as something vigorously perfect in its sort, somberly authentic, and ripe from a root and not a graft. In its sort, the high altar, a gigantic triune, with massive twisted columns and swagger statues of saints and heroes in painted wood, is a prodigy of inventive piety, and compositely has a noble exaltation in its powerful lift to the roof.

The nuns came beautifully dressed to hear mass at the grilles giving into the chapel adjoining the church; the tourist may have his glimpse of them there on Sundays, and on week-days he may have his guess of their cloistered life and his wonder how much it continues the tradition of repose which the name of the old garden grounds implies. These lady nuns must be of patrician lineage and of fortune enough to defray their expense in the convent, which is of the courtliest origin, for it was founded eight hundred years ago by Alfonso VIII. “to expiate his sins and to gratify his queen,” who probably knew of them. I wish now I had known, while I was there, that the abbess of Las Huelgas had once had the power of life and death in the neighborhood, and could hang people if she liked; I cannot think just what good it would have done me, but one likes to realize such things on the spot. She is still one of the greatest ladies of Spain, though perhaps not still “lady of ax and gibbet,” and her nuns are of like dignity. In their chapel are the tombs of Alfonso and his queen, whose figures are among those on the high altar of the church. She was Eleanor Plantagenet, the daughter of our Henry II., and was very fond of Las Huelgas, as if it were truly a rest for her in the far-off land of Spain; I say our Henry II., for in the eleventh century we Americans were still English, under the heel of the Normans, as not the fiercest republican of us now need shame to own.

In a sense of this historical unity, at Las Huelgas we felt as much at home as if we had been English tourists, and we had our feudal pride in the palaces where the Gastilian nobles used to live in Burgos as we returned to the town. Their deserted seats are mostly to be seen after you pass through the Moorish gate overarching the stony, dusty, weedy road hard by the place where the house of the Cid is said to have stood. The arch, so gracefully Saracenic, was the first monument of the Moslem obsession of the country which has left its signs so abundantly in the south; here in the far north the thing seemed almost prehistoric, almost preglacially old, the witness of a world utterly outdated. But perhaps it was not more utterly outdated than the residences of the nobles who had once made the ancient Castilian capital splendid, but were now as irrevocably merged in Madrid as the Arabs in Africa.


Some of the palaces looked down from the narrow street along the hillside above the cathedral, but only one of them was kept up in the state of other days; and I could not be sure at what point this street had ceased to be the street where our guide said every one kept cows, and the ladies took big pitchers of milk away to sell every morning. But I am sure those ladies could have been of noble descent only in the farthest possible remove, and I do not suppose their cows were even remotely related to the haughty ox-team which blocked the way in front of the palaces and obliged xis to dismount while our carriage was lifted round the cart. Our driver was coldly disgusted, but the driver of the ox-team preserved a calm as perfect as if he had been an hidalgo interested by the incident before his gate. It delayed us till the psychological moment when the funeral of the dean was over, and we could join the formidable party following the sacristan from chapel to chapel in the cathedral.

We came to an agonized consciousness of the misery of this progress in the Chapel of the Constable, where it threatened to be finally stayed by the indecision of certain ladies of our nation in choosing among the postal cards for sale there. By this time we had suffered much from the wonders of the cathedral. The sacristan had not spared us a jewel or a silvered or gilded sacerdotal garment or any precious vessel of ceremonial, so that our jaded wonder was inadequate to the demand of the beautiful tombs of the Constable and his lady upon it. The coffer of the Cid, fastened against the cathedral wall for a monument of his shrewdness in doing the Jews of Burgos, who, with the characteristic simplicity of their race, received it back full of sand and gravel in payment of the gold they had lent him in it, could as little move us. Perhaps if we could have believed that he finally did return the value received, we might have marveled a little at it, but from what we knew of the Cid this was not credible. We did what we could with the painted wood carving of the cloister doors; the life-size head of a man with its open mouth for a key-hole in another portal; a fearful silver-plated chariot given by a rich blind woman for bearing the Host in the procession of Corpus Christi; but it was very little, and I am not going to share my failure with the reader by the vain rehearsal of its details. No literary art has ever reported a sense of picture or architecture or sculpture to me: the despised postal card is better for that; and probably throughout these “trivial fond records” I shall be found shirking as much as I may the details of such sights, seen or unseen, as embitter the heart of travel with unavailing regret for the impossibility of remembering them. I must leave for some visit of the reader’s own the large and little facts of the many chapels in the cathedral at Burgos, and I will try to overwhelm him with my sense of the whole mighty interior, the rich gloom, the Gothic exaltation, which I made such shift as I could to feel in the company of those picture-postal amateurs. It was like, say, a somber afternoon, verging to the twilight of a cloudy sunset, so that when I came out of it into the open noon it was like emerging into a clear morrow. Perhaps because I could there shed the harassing human environment the outside of the cathedral seemed to me the best of it, and we lingered there for a moment in glad relief.


One house in some forgotten square commemorates the state in which the Castilian nobles used to live in Burgos before Toledo, and then Valladolid, contested the primacy of the grim old capital of the northern uplands. We stayed for a moment to glance from our carriage through the open portal into its leafy patio shivering in the cold, and then we bade our guide hurry back with us to the hot luncheon which would be the only heat in our hotel. But to reach this we had to pass through another square, which we found full of peasants’ ox-carts and mule-teams; and there our guide instantly jumped down and entered into a livelier quarrel with those peaceable men and women than I could afterward have believed possible in Spain. I bade him get back to his seat beside the driver, who was abetting him with an occasional guttural and whom I bade turn round and go another way. I said that I had hired this turnout, and I was master, and I would be obeyed; but it seemed that I was wrong. My proud hirelings never left off their dispute till somehow the ox-carts and mule-teams were jammed together, and a thoroughfare found for us. Then it was explained that those peasants were always blocking that square in that way and that I had, however unwillingly, been discharging the duty of a public-spirited citizen in compelling them to give way. I did not care for that; I prized far more the quiet with which they had taken the whole affair. It was the first exhibition of the national repose of manner which we were to see so often again, south as well as north, and which I find it so beautiful to have seen. In a Europe abounding in volcanic Italians, nervous Germans, and exasperated Frenchmen, it was comforting, it was edifying to see those Castilian peasants so self-respectfully self-possessed in the wrong.


From time to time in the opener spaces we had got into the sun from the chill shadow of the narrow streets, but now it began to be cloudy, and when we re-entered our hotel it was almost as warm indoors as out. We thought our landlord might have so far repented as to put on the steam; but he had sternly adhered to his principle that the radiators were enough of themselves; and after luncheon we had nothing for it but to go away from Burgos, and take with us such scraps of impression as we could. We decided that there was no street of gayer shops than those gloomy ones we had chanced into here and there; I do not remember now anything like a bookseller’s or a milliner’s or a draper’s window. There was no sign of fashion among the ladies of Burgos, so far as we could distinguish them; there was not a glowering or perking hat, and I do not believe there was a hobble-skirt in all the austere old capital except such as some tourist wore; the black lace mantillas and the flowing garments of other periods flitted by through the chill alleys and into the dim doorways. The only cheerfulness in the local color was to be noted in the caparison of the donkeys, which we were to find more and more brilliant southward. Do I say the only cheerfulness? I ought to except also the involuntary hilarity of a certain poor man’s suit which was so patched together of myriad scraps that it looked as if cut from the fabric of a crazy-quilt. I owe him this notice the rather because he almost alone did not beg of us in a city which swarmed with beggars in a forecast of that pest of beggary which infests Spain everywhere. I do not say that the thing is without picturesqueness, without real pathos; the little girl who kissed the copper I gave her in the cathedral remains endeared to me by that perhaps conventional touch of poetry.

There was compensation for the want of presence among the ladies of Burgos, in the leading lady of the theatrical company who dined, the night before, at our hotel with the chief actors of her support, before giving a last performance in our ancient city. It happened another time in our Spanish progress that we had the society of strolling players at our hotel, and it was both times told us that the given company was the best dramatic company in Spain; but at Burgos we did not yet know that we were so singularly honored. The leading lady there had luminous black eyes, large like the head-lamps of a motor-car, and a wide crimson mouth which she employed as at a stage banquet throughout the dinner, while she talked and laughed with her fellow-actors, beautiful as bull-fighters, cleanshaven, serious of face and shapely of limb. They were unaffectedly professional, and the lady made no pretense of not being a leading lady. One could see that she was the kindest creature in the world, and that she took a genuine pleasure in her huge, practicable eyes. At the other end of the room a Spanish family — father, mother, and small children, down to some in arms — were dining and the children wailing as Spanish children will, regardless of time and place; and when the nurse brought one of the disconsolate infants to be kissed by the leading lady one’s heart went out to her for the amiability and abundance of her caresses. The mere sight of their warmth did something to supply the defect of steam in the steam-heating apparatus, but when one got beyond their radius there was nothing for the shivering traveler except to wrap himself in the down quilt of his bed and spread his steamer-rug over his knees till it was time to creep under both of them between the glacial sheets.

We were sorry we had not got tickets for the leading lady’s public performance; it could have been so little more public; but we had not, and there was nothing else in Burgos to invite the foot outdoors after dinner. From my own knowledge I cannot yet say the place was not lighted; but my sense of the tangle of streets lying night long in a rich Gothic gloom shall remain unimpaired by statistics. Very possibly Burgos is brilliantly lighted with electricity; only they have not got the electricity on, as in our steam-heated hotel they had not got the steam on.


We had authorized our little interpreter to engage tickets for us by the mail-train the next afternoon for Valladolid; he pretended, of course, that the places could be had only by his special intervention, and by telegraphing for them to the arriving train. We accepted his romantic theory of the case, and paid the bonus due the railroad agent in the hotel for his offices in the matter; we would have given anything, we were so eager to get out of Burgos before we were frozen up there. I do not know that we were either surprised or pained to find that our Chilian friends should have got seats in the same car without anything of our diplomacy, by the simple process of showing their tickets. I think our little interpreter was worth everything he cost, and more. I would not have lost a moment of his company as he stood on the platform with me, adding one artless invention to another for my pleasure, and successively extracting peseta after peseta from me till he had made up the sum which he had doubtless idealized as a just reward for his half-day’s service when he first told me that it should be what I pleased. We parted with the affection of fellow-citizens in a strange monarchical country, his English growing less and less as the train delayed, and his eyes watering more and more as with tears of com-patriotic affection. At the moment I could have envied that German princess her ability to make sure of his future companionship at the low cost of fifty pesetas a day; and even now, when my affection has had time to wane, I cannot do less than commend him to any future visitor at Burgos, as in the last degree amiable, and abounding in surprises of intelligence and unexpected feats of reliability.


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