Familiar Spanish Travels, by William Dean Howells

The Variety of Valladolid

When you leave Burgos at 3.29 of a passably sunny afternoon you are not at once aware of the moral difference between the terms of your approach and those of your departure. You are not changing your earth or your sky very much, but it is not long before you are sensible of a change of mind which insists more and more. There is the same long ground-swell of wheat-fields, but yesterday you were followed in vision by the loveliness of the frugal and fertile Biscayan farms, and to-day this vision has left you, and you are running farther and farther into the economic and topographic waste of Castile. Yesterday there were more or less agreeable shepherdesses in pleasant plaids scattered over the landscape; to-day there are only shepherds of three days’ unshornness; the plaids are ragged, and there is not sufficient compensation in the cavalcades of both men and women riding donkeys in and out of the horizons on the long roads that lose and find themselves there. Flocks of brown and black goats, looking large as cows among the sparse stubble, do little to relieve the scene from desolation; I am not sure but goats, when brown and black, add to the horror of a desolate scene. There are no longer any white farmsteads, or friendly villages gathering about high-shouldered churches, but very far away to the eastward or westward the dun expanse of the wheat-lands is roughed with something which seems a cluster of muddy protuberances, so like the soil at first it is not distinguishable from it, but which as your train passes nearer proves to be a town at the base of tablelands, without a tree or a leaf or any spear of green to endear it to the eye as the abode of living men. You pull yourself together in the effort to visualize the immeasurable fields washing those dreary towns with golden tides of harvest; but it is difficult. What you cannot help seeing is the actual nakedness of the land which with its spindling stubble makes you think of that awful moment of the human head, when utter baldness will be a relief to the spectator.


At times and in places, peasants were scratching the dismal surfaces with the sort of plows which Abel must have used, when subsoiling was not yet even a dream; and between the plowmen and their ox-teams it seemed a question as to which should loiter longest in the unfinished furrow. Now and then, the rush of the train gave a motionless goatherd, with his gaunt flock, an effect of comparative celerity to the rearward. The women riding their donkeys over

The level waste, the rounding gray

in the distance were the only women we saw except those who seemed to be keeping the stations, and one very fat one who came to the train at a small town and gabbled volubly to some passenger who made no audible response. She excited herself, but failed to rouse the interest of the other party to the interview, who remained unseen as well as unheard. I could the more have wished to know what it was all about because nothing happened on board the train to distract the mind from the joyless landscape until we drew near Valladolid. It is true that for a while we shared our compartment with a father and his two sons who lunched on slices of the sausage which seems the favorite refection of the Latin as well as the Germanic races in their travels. But this drama was not of intense interest, and we grappled in vain with the question of our companions’ social standard. The father, while he munched his bread and sausage, read a newspaper which did not rank him or even define his politics; there was a want of fashion in the cut of the young men’s clothes and of freshness in the polish of their tan shoes which defied conjecture. When they left the train without the formalities of leave-taking which had hitherto distinguished our Spanish fellow-travelers, we willingly abandoned them to a sort of middling obscurity; but this may not really have been their origin or their destiny.

That spindling sparseness, worse than utter baldness, of the wheat stubble now disappeared with cinematic suddenness, and our train was running past stretches of vineyard, where, among the green and purple and yellow ranks, the vintagers, with their donkeys and carts, were gathering the grapes in the paling light of the afternoon. Again the scene lacked the charm of woman’s presence which the vintage had in southern France. In Spain we nowhere saw the women sharing the outdoor work of the men; and we fancied their absence the effect of the Oriental jealousy lingering from centuries of Moorish domination; though we could not entirely reconcile our theory with the publicity of their washing clothes at every stream. To be sure, that was work which they did not share with men any more than the men shared the labor of the fields with them.

It was still afternoon, well before sunset, when we arrived at Valladolid, where one of the quaintest of our Spanish surprises awaited us. We knew that the omnibus of the hotel we had chosen would be the shabbiest omnibus at the station, and we saw without great alarm our Chilian friends drive off in an indefinitely finer vehicle. But what we were not prepared for was the fact of octroi at Valladolid, and for the strange behavior of the local customs officer who stopped us on our way into the town. He looked a very amiable young man as he put his face in at the omnibus door, and he received without explicit question our declaration that we had nothing taxable in our trunks. Then, however, he mounted to the top of the omnibus and thumped our trunks about as if to test them for contraband by the sound. The investigation continued on these strange terms until the officer had satisfied himself of our good faith, when he got down and with a friendly smile at the window bowed us into Valladolid.

In its way nothing could have been more charming; and we rather liked being left by the omnibus about a block from our hotel, on the border of a sort of promenade where no vehicles were allowed. We had been halted near a public fountain, where already the mothers and daughters of the neighborhood were gathered with earthen jars for the night’s supply of water. The jars were not so large as to overburden any of them when, after just delay for exchange of gossip, the girls and goodwives put them on their heads and marched erectly away with them, each beautifully picturesque irrespective of her age or looks.

The air was soft, and after Burgos, warm; something southern, unfelt before, began to qualify the whole scene, which as the evening fell grew more dramatic, and made the promenade the theater of emotions permitted such unrestricted play nowhere else in Spain, so far as we were witness. On one side the place was arcaded, and bordered with little shops, not so obtrusively brilliant that the young people who walked up and down before them were in a glare of publicity. A little way off the avenue expanded into a fine oblong place, where some first martyrs of the Inquisition were burned. But the promenaders kept well short of this, as they walked up and down, and talked, talked, talked in that inexhaustible interest which youth takes in itself the world over. They were in the standard proportion of two girls to one young man, or, if here and there a girl had an undivided young man to herself, she went before some older maiden or matron whom she left altogether out of the conversation. They mostly wore the skirts and hats of Paris, and if the scene of the fountain was Arabically oriental the promenade was almost Americanly occidental. The promenaders were there by hundreds; they filled the avenue from side to side, and

The delight of happy laughter
The delight of low replies

that rose from their progress, with the chirp and whisper of their feet cheered the night as long as we watched and listened from the sun balcony of our hotel.


There was no more heat in the radiators of the hotel there than at Burgos, but for that evening at least there was none needed. It was the principal hotel of Valladolid, and the unscrubbed and unswept staircase by which we mounted into it was merely a phase of that genial pause, as for second thought, in the march of progress which marks so much of the modern advance in Spain, and was by no means an evidence of arrested development. We had the choice of reaching our rooms either through the dining-room or by a circuitous detour past the pantries; but our rooms had a proud little vestibule of their own, with a balcony over the great square, and if one of them had a belated feather-bed the other had a new hair mattress, and the whole house was brilliantly lighted with electricity. As for the cooking, it was delicious, and the table was of an abundance and variety which might well have made one ashamed of paying so small a rate as two dollars a day for bed and board, wine included, and very fair wine at that.

In Spain you must take the bad with the good, for whether you get the good or not you are sure of the bad, but only very exceptionally are you sure of the bad only. It was a pleasure not easily definable to find our hotel managed by a mother and two daughters, who gave the orders obeyed by the men-servants, and did not rebuke them for joining in the assurance that when we got used to going so abruptly from the dining-room into our bedrooms we would like it. The elder of the daughters had some useful French, and neither of the younger ladies ever stayed for some ultimate details of dishabille in coming to interpret the mother and ourselves to one another when we encountered her alone in the office. They were all thoroughly kind and nice, and they were supported with surpassing intelligence and ability by the chico, a radiant boy of ten, who united in himself the functions which the amiable inefficiency of the porters and waiters abandoned to him.

When we came out to dinner after settling ourselves in our almost obtrusively accessible rooms, we were convinced of the wisdom of our choice of a hotel by finding our dear Chilians at one of the tables. We rushed together like two kindred streams of transatlantic gaiety, and in our mingled French, Spanish, and English possessed one another of our doubts and fears in coming to our common conclusion. We had already seen a Spanish gentleman whom we knew as a fellow-sufferer at Burgos, roaming the streets of Valladolid, and in what seemed a disconsolate doubt, interrogating the windows of our hotel; and now we learned from the Chilians that he had been bitterly disappointed in the inn which a patrician omnibus had borne him away to from our envious eyes at the station. We learned that our South American compatriots had found their own chosen hotel impossible, and were now lodged in rapturous satisfaction under our roof. Their happiness penetrated us with a glow of equal content, and confirmed us in the resolution always to take the worst omnibus at a Spanish station as the sure index of the best hotel.

The street-cars, which in Valladolid are poetically propelled through lyre-shaped trolleys instead of our prosaic broomstick appliances, groaned unheeded if not unheard under our windows through the night, and we woke to find the sun on duty in our glazed balcony and the promenade below already astir with life: not the exuberant young life of the night before, but still sufficiently awake to be recognizable as life. A crippled newsboy seated under one of the arcades was crying his papers; an Englishman was looking at a plan of Valladolid in a shop window; a splendid cavalry officer went by in braided uniform, and did not stare so hard as they might have expected at some ladies passing in mantillas to mass or market. In the late afternoon as well as the early morning we saw a good deal of the military in Valladolid, where an army corps is stationed. From time to time a company of infantry marched through the streets to gay music, and toward evening slim young officers began to frequent the arcades and glass themselves in the windows of the shops, their spurs clinking on the pavement as they lounged by or stopped and took distinguished attitudes. We speculated in vain as to their social quality, and to this day I do not know whether “the career is open to the talents” in the Spanish army, or whether military rank is merely the just reward of civil rank. Those beautiful young swells in riding-breeches and tight gray jackets approached an Italian type of cavalry officer; they did not look very vigorous, and the common soldiers we saw marching through the streets, largely followed by the populace, were not of formidable stature or figure, though neat and agreeable enough to the eye.

While I indulge the record of these trivialities, which I am by no means sure the reader will care for so much, I feel that it would be wrong to let him remain as ignorant of the history of Valladolid as I was while there. My ignorance was not altogether my fault; I had fancied easily finding at some bookseller’s under the arcade a little sketch of the local history such as you are sure of finding in any Italian town, done by a local antiquary of those always mousing in the city’s archives. But the bookseller’s boy and then the boy’s mother could not at first imagine my wish, and when they did they could only supply me with a sort of business directory, full of addresses and advertisements. So instead of overflowing with information when we set out on our morning ramble, we meagerly knew from the guide-books that Valladolid had once been the capital of Castile, arid after many generations of depression following the removal of the court, had in these latest days renewed its strength in mercantile and industrial prosperity. There are ugly evidences of the prosperity in the windy, dusty avenues and streets of the more modern town; but there are lanes and alleys enough, groping for the churches and monuments in suddenly opening squares, to console the sentimental tourist for the havoc which enterprise has made. The mind readily goes back through these to the palmy prehistoric times from which the town emerged to mention in Ptolemy, and then begins to work forward past Iberian and Roman and Goth and Moor to the Castilian kings who made it their residence in the eleventh century. The capital won its first great distinction when Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile were married there in 1469. Thirty-five years later these Catholic Kings, as one had better learn at once to call them in Spain, let Columbus die neglected if not forgotten in the house recently pulled down, where he had come to dwell in their cold shadow; they were much occupied with other things and they could not realize that his discovery of America was the great glory of their reign; probably they thought the conquest of Granada was. Later yet, by twenty years, the dreadful Philip II. was born in Valladolid, and in 1559 a very famous auto da fe wag celebrated in the Plaza Mayor. Fourteen Lutherans were burned alive for their heresy, and the body of a woman suspected of imperfect orthodoxy after her death was exhumed and burned with them. In spite of such precautions as these, and of all the pious diligence of the Holy Office, the reader will hardly believe that there is now a Spanish Protestant church in Valladolid; but such is the fact, though whether it derives from the times of the Inquisition, or is a modern missionary church I do not know. That auto da fe was of the greatest possible distinction; the Infanta Juana presided, and the universal interest was so great that people paid a dollar and twenty-five cents a seat; money then worth five or six times as much as now. Philip himself came to another auto when thirteen persons were burned in the same place, and he always liked Valladolid; it must have pleased him in a different way from Escorial, lying flat as it does on a bare plain swept, but never thoroughly dusted, by winds that blow pretty constantly over it.

While the Inquisition was purging the city of error its great university was renowning it not only throughout Spain, but in France and Italy; students frequented it from those countries, and artists came from many parts of Europe. Literature also came in the person of Cervantes, who seems to have followed the Spanish court in its migrations from Valladolid to Toledo and then to Madrid. Here also came one of the greatest characters in fiction, for it was in Valladolid that Gil Blas learned to practise the art of medicine tinder the instruction of the famous Dr. Sangrado.


I put these facts at the service of the reader for what use he will while he goes with us to visit the cathedral in Valladolid, a cathedral as unlike that of Burgos as the severest mood of Spanish renaissance can render it. In fact, it is the work of Herrera, the architect who made the Escorial so grim, and is the expression in large measure of his austere mastery. If it had ever been finished it might have been quite as dispiriting as the Escorial, but as it has only one of the four ponderous towers it was meant to have, it is not without its alleviations, especially as the actual tower was rebuilt after the fall of the original seventy years ago. The grass springs cheerfully up in the crevices of the flagging from which the broken steps falter to the portal, but within all is firm and solid. The interior is vast, and nowhere softened by decoration, but the space is reduced by the huge bulk of the choir in the center of it; as we entered a fine echo mounted to the cathedral roof from the chanting and intoning within. When the service ended a tall figure in scarlet crossed rapidly toward the sacristy. It was of such imposing presence that we resolved at once it must be the figure of a cardinal, or of an archbishop at the least. But it proved to be one of the sacristans, and when we followed him to the sacristy with half a dozen other sightseers, he showed us a silver monstrance weighing a hundred and fifty pounds and decked with statues of our first parents as they appeared before the Fall. Besides this we saw, much against our will, a great many ecclesiastical vestments of silk and damask richly wrought in gold and silver. But if we were reluctant there was a little fat priest there who must have seen them hundreds of times and had still a childish delight in seeing them again because he had seen them so often; he dimpled and smiled, and for his sake we pretended a joy in them which it would have been cruel to deny him. I suppose we were then led to the sacrifice at the several side altars, but I have no specific recollection of them; I know there was a pale, sick-looking young girl in white who went about with her father, and moved compassion by her gentle sorrowfulness.


Of the University, which we visited next, I recall only the baroque facade; the interior was in reparation and I do not know whether it would have indemnified us for not visiting the University of Salamanca. That was in our list, but the perversity of the time-table forbade. You could go to Salamanca, yes, but you could not come back except at two o’clock in the morning; you could indeed continue on to Lisbon, but perhaps you did not wish to see Lisbon. A like perversity of the time-table, once universal in Spain, but now much reformed, also kept us away from Segovia, which was on our list. But our knowledge of it enabled us to tell a fellow-countrywoman whom we presently met in the museum of the University, how she could best, or worst, get to that city. Our speech gave us away to her, and she turned to us from the other objects of interest to explain first that she was in a hotel where she paid only six pesetas a day, but where she could get no English explanation of the time-table for any money. She had come to Valladolid with a friend who was going next day to Salamanca, but next day was Sunday and she did not like to travel on Sunday, and Segovia seemed the only alternative. We could not make out why, or if it came to that why she should be traveling alone through Spain with such a slender equipment of motive or object, but we perceived she was one of the most estimable souls in the world, and if she cared more for getting to Segovia that afternoon than for looking at the wonders of the place where we were, we could not blame her. We had to leave her when we left the museum in the charge of two custodians who led her, involuntary but unresisting, to an upper chamber where there were some pictures which she could care no more for than for the wood carvings below. We ourselves cared so little for those pictures that we would not go to see them. Pictures you can see anywhere, but not statuary of such singular interest, such transcendant powerfulness as those carvings of Berruguete and other masters less known, which held us fascinated in the lower rooms of the museum. They are the spoil of convents in the region about, suppressed by the government at different times, and collected here with little relevancy to their original appeal. Some are Scriptural subjects and some are figures of the dancers who take part in certain ceremonials of the Spanish churches (notably the cathedral at Seville), which have a quaint reality, an intense personal character. They are of a fascination which I can hope to convey by no phrase of mine; but far beyond this is the motionless force, the tremendous repose of the figures of the Roman soldiers taken in the part of sleeping at the Tomb. These sculptures are in wood, life-size, and painted in the colors of flesh and costume, with every detail and of a strong mass in which the detail is lost and must be found again by the wondering eye. Beyond all other Spanish sculptures they seemed to me expressive of the national temperament; I thought no other race could have produced them, and that in their return to the Greek ideal of color in statuary they were ingenuously frank and unsurpassably bold.


It might have been the exhaustion experienced from the encounter with their strenuousness that suddenly fatigued us past even the thought of doing any more of Valladolid on foot. At any rate, when we came out of the museum we took refuge in a corner grocery (it seems the nature of groceries to seek corners the world over) and asked the grocer where we could find a cab.

The grocer was young and kind, and not so busy but he could give willing attention to our case. He said he would send for a cab, and he called up from his hands and knees a beautiful blond half-grown boy who was scrubbing the floor, and despatched him on this errand, first making him wipe the suds off his hands. The boy was back wonderfully soon to say the cab would come for us in ten minutes, and to receive with self-respectful appreciation the peseta which rewarded his promptness. In the mean time we feigned a small need which we satisfied by a purchase, and then the grocer put us chairs in front of his counter and made us his guests while his other customers came and went. They came oftener than they went, for our interest in them did not surpass their interest in us. We felt that through this we reflected credit upon our amiable host; rumors of the mysterious strangers apparently spread through the neighborhood and the room was soon filled with people who did not all come to buy; but those who did buy were the most, interesting. An elderly man with his wife bought a large bottle which the grocer put into one scale of his balance, and poured its weight in chick-peas into the other. Then he filled the bottle with oil and weighed it, and then he gave the peas along with it to his customers. It seemed a pretty convention, though we could not quite make out its meaning, unless the peas were bestowed as a sort of bonus; but the next convention was clearer to us. An old man in black corduroy with a clean-shaven face and a rather fierce, retired bull-fighter air, bought a whole dried stock-fish (which the Spaniards eat instead of salt cod) talking loudly to the grocer and at us while the grocer cut it across in widths of two inches and folded it into a neat pocketful; then a glass of wine was poured from a cask behind the counter, and the customer drank it off in honor of the transaction with the effect also of pledging us with his keen eyes; all the time he talked, and he was joined in conversation by a very fat woman who studied us not unkindly. Other neighbors who had gathered in had no apparent purpose but to verify our outlandish presence and to hear my occasional Spanish, which was worth hearing if for nothing but the effort it cost me. The grocer accepted with dignity the popularity we had won him, and when at last our cab arrived from Mount Ararat with the mire of the subsiding Deluge encrusted upon it he led us out to it through the small boys who swarmed upon us wherever we stopped or started in Valladolid; and whose bulk was now much increased by the coming of that very fat woman from within the grocery. As the morning was bright we proposed having the top opened, but here still another convention of the place intervened. In Valladolid it seems that no self-respecting cabman will open the top of his cab for an hour’s drive, and we could not promise to keep ours longer. The grocer waited the result of our parley, and then he opened our carriage door and bowed us away. It was charming; if he had a place on Sixth Avenue I would be his customer as long as I lived in New York; and to this moment I do not understand why I did not bargain with that blond boy to come to America with us and be with us always. But there was no city I visited in Spain where I was not sorry to leave some boy behind with the immense rabble of boys whom I hoped never to see again.


After this passage of real life it was not easy to sink again to the level of art, but if we must come down it there could have been no descent less jarring than that which left us in the exquisite patio of the College of San Gregorio, founded for poor students of theology in the time of the Catholic Kings. The students who now thronged the place inside and out looked neither clerical nor poverty-stricken; but I dare say they were good Christians, and whatever their condition they were rich in the constant vision of beauty which one sight of seemed to us more than we merited. Perhaps the facade of the college and that of the neighboring Church of San Pablo may be elsewhere surpassed in the sort of sumptuous delicacy of that Gothic which gets its name of plateresque from the silversmithing spirit of its designs; but I doubt it. The wonderfulness of it is that it is not mechanical or monotonous like the stucco fretting of the Moorish decoration which people rave over in Spain, but has a strength in its refinement which comes from its expression in the exquisitely carven marble. When this is grayed with age it is indeed of the effect of old silver work; but the plateresque in Valladolid does not suggest fragility or triviality; its grace is perhaps rather feminine than masculine; but at the worst it is only the ultimation of the decorative genius of the Gothic. It is, at any rate, the finest surprise which the local architecture has to offer and it leaves one wishing for more rather than less of it, so that after the facade of San Gregorio one is glad of it again in the walls of the patio, whose staircases and galleries, with the painted wooden beams of their ceilings, scarcely tempt the eye from it.

We thought the front of San Pablo deserved a second visit, and we were rewarded by finding it far lovelier than we thought. The church was open, and when we went in we had the advantage of seeing a large silver-gilt car moved from the high altar down the nave to a side altar next the door, probably for use in some public procession. The tongue of the car was pulled by a man with one leg; a half-grown boy under the body of it hoisted it on his back and eased it along; and a monk with his white robe tucked up into his girdle pushed it powerfully from behind. I did not make out why so strange a team should have been employed for the work, but the spectacle of that quaint progress was unique among my experiences at Valladolid and of a value which I wish I could make the reader feel with me. We ourselves were so interested in the event that we took part in it so far as to push aside a bench that blocked the way, and we received a grateful smile from the monk in reward of our zeal.

We were in the mood for simple kindness because of our stiff official reception at the Royal Palace, which we visited in the gratification of our passion for patios. It is now used for provincial or municipal offices and guarded by sentries who indeed admitted us to the courtyard, but would not understand our wish (it was not very articulately expressed) to mount to the cloistered galleries which all the guide-books united in pronouncing so noble, with their decorative busts of the Roman Emperors and arms of the Spanish provinces. The sculptures are by the school of Berruguete, for whom we had formed so strong a taste at the museum; but our disappointment was not at the moment further embittered by knowing that Napoleon resided there in 1809. We made what we could of other patios in the vicinity, especially of one in the palace across from San Gregorio, to which the liveried porter welcomed us, though the noble family was in residence, and allowed us to mount the red-carpeted staircase to a closed portal in consideration of the peseta which he correctly foresaw. It was not a very characteristic patio, bare of flower and fountain as it was, and others more fully appointed did not entirely satisfy us. The fact is the patio is to be seen best in Andalusia, its home, where every house is built round it, and in summer cooled and in winter chilled by it. But if we were not willing to wait for Seville, Valladolid did what it could; and if we saw no house with quite the patio we expected we did see the house where Philip II. was born, unless the enterprising boy who led us to it was mistaken; in that case we were, Ophelia-like, the more deceived.


Such things do not really matter; the guide-book’s object of interest is seldom an object of human interest; you may miss it or ignore it without real personal loss; but if we had failed of that mystic progress of the silver car down the nave of San Pablo we should have been really if not sensibly poorer. So we should if we had failed of the charming experience which awaited us in our hotel at lunch-time. When we went out in the morning we saw a table spread the length of the long dining-room, and now when we returned we found every chair taken. At once we surmised a wedding breakfast, not more from the gaiety than the gravity of the guests; and the head waiter confirmed our impression: it was indeed a boda. The party was just breaking up, and as we sat down at our table the wedding guests rose from theirs. I do not know but in any country the women on such an occasion would look more adequate to it than the men; at any rate, there in Spain they looked altogether superior. It was not only that they were handsomer and better dressed, but that they expressed finer social and intellectual quality.


All the faces had the quiet which the Spanish face has in such degree that the quiet seems national more than personal; but the women’s faces were oval, though rather heavily based, while the men’s were squared, with high cheek-bones, and they seemed more distinctly middle class. Men and women had equally repose of manner, and when the women came to put on their headgear near our corner, it was with a surface calm unbroken by what must have been their inner excitement. They wore hats and mantillas in about the same proportion; but the bride wore a black mantilla and a black dress with sprigs of orange blossoms in her hair and on her breast for the only note of white. Her lovely, gentle face was white, of course, from the universal powder, and so were the faces of the others, who talked in low tones around her, with scarcely more animation than so many masks. The handsomest of them, whom we decided to be her sister, arranged the bride’s mantilla, and was then helped on with hers by the others, with soft smiles and glances. Two little girls, imaginably sorry the feast was over, suppressed their regret in the tutelage of the maiden aunts and grandmothers who put up cakes in napkins to carry home; and then the party vanished in unbroken decorum. When they were gone we found that in studying the behavior of the bride and her friends we had not only failed to identify the bridegroom, but had altogether forgotten to try.


The terrible Torquemada dwelt for years in Valladolid and must there have excogitated some of the methods of the Holy Office in dealing with heresy. As I have noted, Ferdinand and Isabella were married there and Philip II. was born there; but I think the reader will agree with me that the highest honor of the city is that it was long the home of the gallant gentleman who after five years of captivity in Algiers and the loss of his hand in the Battle of Lepanto, wrote there, in his poverty and neglect, the first part of a romance which remains and must always remain one of the first if not the very first of the fictions of the world. I mean that

Dear son of memory, great heir of fame,

Michael Cervantes; and I wish I could pay here that devoir to his memory and fame which squalid circumstance forbade me to render under the roof that once sheltered him. One can never say enough in his praise, and even Valladolid seems to have thought so, for the city has put up a tablet to him with his bust above it in the front of his incredible house and done him the homage of a reverent inscription. It is a very little house, as small as Ariosto’s in Ferrara, which he said was so apt for him, but it is not in a long, clean street like that; it is in a bad neighborhood which has not yet outlived the evil repute it bore in the days of Cervantes. It was then the scene of nightly brawls and in one of these a gentleman was stabbed near the author’s house. The alarm brought Cervantes to the door and being the first to reach the dying man he was promptly arrested, together with his wife, his two sisters, and his niece, who were living with him and who were taken up as accessories before the fact. The whole abomination is matter of judicial record, and it appears from this that suspicion fell upon the gentle family (one sister was a nun) because they were living in that infamous place. The man whose renown has since filled the civilized world fuller even than the name of his contemporary, Shakespeare (they died on the same day), was then so unknown to the authorities of Valladolid that he had great ado to establish the innocence of himself and his household. To be sure, his Don Quixote had not yet appeared, though he is said to have finished the first part in that miserable abode in that vile region; but he had written poems and plays, especially his most noble tragedy of “Numancia,” and he had held public employs and lived near enough to courts to be at least in their cold shade. It is all very Spanish and very strange, and perhaps the wonder should be that in this most provincial of royal capitals, in a time devoted to the extirpation of ideas, the fact that he was a poet and a scholar did not tell fatally against him. In his declaration before the magistrates he says that his literary reputation procured him the acquaintance of courtiers and scholars, who visited him in that pitiable abode where the ladies of his family cared for themselves and him with the help of one servant maid.

They had an upper floor of the house, which stands at the base of a stone terrace dropping from the wide, dusty, fly-blown street, where I stayed long enough to buy a melon (I was always buying a melon in Spain) and put it into my cab before I descended the terrace to revere the house of Cervantes on its own level. There was no mistaking it; there was the bust and the inscription; but it was well I bought my melon before I ventured upon this act of piety; I should not have had the stomach for it afterward. I was not satisfied with the outside of the house, but when I entered the open doorway, meaning to mount to the upper floor, it was as if I were immediately blown into the street again by the thick and noisome stench which filled the place from some unmentionable if not unimaginable source.

It was like a filthy insult to the great presence whose sacred shrine the house should have been religiously kept. But Cervantes dead was as forgotten in Valladolid as Cervantes living had been. In some paroxysm of civic pride the tablet had been set in the wall and then the house abandoned to whatever might happen. I thought foul shame of Valladolid for her neglect, and though she might have answered that her burden of memories was more than she could bear, that she could not be forever keeping her celebrity sweet, still I could have retorted, But Cervantes, but Cervantes! There was only one Cervantes in the world and there never would be another, and could not she watch over this poor once home of his for his matchless sake? Then if Valladolid had come back at me with the fact that Cervantes had lived pretty well all over Spain, and what had Seville done, Cordova done, Toledo done, Madrid done, for the upkeep of his divers sojourns more than she had done, after placing a tablet in his house wall? — certainly I could have said that this did not excuse her, but I must have owned that she was not alone, though she seemed most to blame.


Now I look back and am glad I had not consciously with me, as we drove away, the boy who once meant to write the life of Cervantes, and who I knew from my recollection of his idolatry of that chief of Spaniards would not have listened to the excuses of Valladolid for a moment. All appeared fair and noble in that Spain of his which shone with such allure far across the snows through which he trudged morning and evening with his father to and from the printing-office, and made his dream of that great work the common theme of their talk. Now the boy is as utterly gone as the father, who was a boy too at heart, but who died a very old man many years ago; and in the place of both is another old man trammeled in his tangled memories of Spain visited and unvisited.


It would be a poor sort of make-believe if this survivor pretended any lasting indignation with Valladolid because of the stench of Cervantes’s house. There are a great many very bad smells in Spain everywhere, and it is only fair to own that a psychological change toward Valladolid had been operating itself in me since luncheon which Valladolid was not very specifically to blame for. Up to the time the wedding guests left us we had said Valladolid was the most interesting city we had ever seen, and we would like to stay there a week; then, suddenly, we began to turn against it. One thing: the weather had clouded, and it was colder. But we determined to be just, and after we left the house of Cervantes we drove out to the promenades along the banks of the Pisuerga, in hopes of a better mind, for we had read that they were the favorite resort of the citizens in summer, and we did not know but even in autumn we might have some glimpses of their recreation. Our way took us sorrowfully past hospitals and prisons and barracks; and when we came out on the promenade we found ourselves in the gloom of close set mulberry trees, with the dust thick on the paths under them. The leaves hung leaden gray on the boughs and there could never have been a spear of grass along those disconsolate ways. The river was shrunken in its bed, and where its current crept from pool to pool, women were washing some of the rags which already hung so thick on the bushes that it was wonderful there should be any left to wash. Squalid children abounded, and at one point a crowd of people had gathered and stood looking silently and motionlessly over the bank. We looked too and on a sand-bar near the shore we saw three gendarmes standing with a group of civilians. Between their fixed and absolutely motionless figures lay the body of a drowned man on the sand, poorly clothed in a workman’s dress, and with his poor, dead clay-white hands stretched out from him on the sand, and his gray face showing to the sky. Everywhere people were stopping and staring; from one of the crowded windows of the nearest house a woman hung with a rope of her long hair in one hand, and in the other the brush she was passing over it. On the bridge the man who had found the body made a merit of his discovery which he dramatized to a group of spectators without rousing them to a murmur or stirring them from their statuesque fixity. His own excitement in comparison seemed indecent.


It was now three o’clock and I thought I might be in time to draw some money on my letter of credit, at the bank which we had found standing in a pleasant garden in the course of our stroll through the town the night before. We had said, How charming it would be to draw money in such an environment; and full of the romantic expectation, I offered my letter at the window, where after a discreet interval I managed to call from their preoccupation some unoccupied persons within. They had not a very financial air, and I thought them the porters they really were, with some fear that I had come after banking-hours. But they joined in reassuring me, and told me that if I would return after five o’clock the proper authorities would be there.

I did not know then what late hours Spain kept in every way; but I concealed my surprise; and I came back at the time suggested, and offered my letter at the window with a request for ten pounds, which I fancied I might need. A clerk took the letter and scrutinized it with a deliberation which I thought it scarcely merited. His self-respect doubtless would not suffer him to betray that he could not read the English of it; and with an air of wishing to consult higher authority he carried it to another clerk at a desk across the room. To this official it seemed to come as something of a blow. Tie made a show of reading it several times over, inside and out, and then from the pigeonhole of his desk he began to accumulate what I supposed corroborative documents, or pieces justificatives. When lie had amassed a heap several inches thick, he rose and hurried out through the gate, across the hall where I sat, into a room beyond. He returned without in any wise referring himself to me and sat down at his desk again. The first clerk explained to the anxious face with which I now approached him that the second clerk had taken my letter to the director. I went back to my seat and waited fifteen minutes longer, fifteen having passed already; then I presented my anxious face, now somewhat indignant, to the first clerk again. “What is the director doing with my letter?” The first clerk referred my question to the second clerk, who answered from his place, “He is verifying the signature.” “But what signature?” I wondered to myself, reflecting that he had as yet had none of mine. Could it be the signature of my New York banker or my London one? I repaired once more to the window, after another wait, and said in polite but firm Castilian, “Do me the favor to return me my letter.” A commotion of protest took place within the barrier, followed by the repeated explanation that the director was verifying the signature. I returned to toy place and considered that the suspicious document which I had presented bore record of moneys drawn in London, in Paris, in Tours, in San Sebastian, which ought to have allayed all suspicion; then for the last time I repaired to the window; more in anger now than in sorrow, and gathered nay severest Spanish together for a final demand: “Do me the favor to give me back my letter without the pounds sterling.” The clerks consulted together; one of them decided to go to the director’s room, and after a dignified delay he came back with my letter, and dashed it down before me with the only rudeness I experienced in Spain.

I was glad to get it on any terms; it was only too probable that it would have been returned without the money if I had not demanded it; and I did what I could with the fact that this amusing financial transaction, involving a total of fifty dollars, had taken place in the chief banking-house of one of the commercial and industrial centers of the country. Valladolid is among other works the seat of the locomotive works of the northern railway lines, and as these machines average a speed of twenty-five miles an hour with express trains, it seemed strange to me that something like their rapidity should not have governed the action of that bank director in forcing me to ask back my discredited letter of credit.


That evening the young voices and the young feet began to chirp again under our sun balcony. But there had been no sun in it since noon and presently a cold thin rain was falling and driving the promenaders under the arcades, where they were perhaps not unhappier for being closely massed. We missed the prettiness of the spectacle, though as yet we did not know that it was the only one of the sort we might hope to see in Spain, where women walk little indoors, and when they go out, drive and increase in the sort of loveliness which may be weighed and measured. Even under the arcades the promenade ceased early and in the adjoining Plaza Mayor, where the autos da fe once took place, the rain still earlier made an end of the municipal music, and the dancing of the lower ranks of the people. But we were fortunate in our Chilian friend’s representation of the dancing; he came to our table at dinner, and did with charming sympathy a mother waltzing with her babe in arms for a partner.

He came to the omnibus at the end of the promenade, when we were starting for the station next morning, not yet shaven, in his friendly zeal to make sure of seeing us off, and we parted with confident prophecies of meeting each other again in Madrid. We had already bidden adieu with effusion to our landlady-sisters-and-mother, and had wished to keep forever our own the adorable chico who, when cautioned against trying to carry a very heavy bag, valiantly jerked it to his shoulder and made off with it to the omnibus, as if it were nothing. I do not believe such a boy breathes out of Spain, where I hope he will grow up to the Oriental calm of so many of his countrymen, and rest from the toils of his nonage. At the last moment after the Chilian had left us, we perceived that one of our trunks had been forgotten, and the chico coursed back to the hotel for it and returned with the delinquent porter bearing it, as if to make sure of his bringing it.

When it was put on top of the omnibus, and we were in probably unparalleled readiness for starting to the station, at an hour when scarcely anybody else in Valladolid was up, a mule composing a portion of our team immediately fell down, as if startled too abruptly from a somnambulic dream. I really do not remember how it was got to its feet again; but I remember the anguish of the delay and the fear that we might not be able to escape from Valladolid after all our pains in trying for the Sud–Express at that hour; and I remember that when we reached the station we found that the Sud–Express was forty minutes behind time and that we were a full hour after that before starting for Madrid.


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