The Circle of Affection and Other Pieces in Prose and Verse

by Duncan Campbell Scott


 

A NIGHT IN CORDOBA


 

THE TRAIN WAS HALF-EMPTY when it left Seville, but, as it came up through the open fields, each hamlet added to its load, and, gradually, as it approached Cordoba, it became ominously crowded. The Spanish peasants seemed bent on having a holiday, judged by their numbers. Their costumes were drab, and were unrelieved by any high colour, and there was no excitement, and no volubility, but the holiday quest was evident. It was late in May, and, filling all the sky, was the ringing bell-note of Spanish sunlight. One could not escape from its vibration, mild, but penetrating, that went through the landscape, though the people and your own being with a quiet persistence. It seemed a medium in which life was floated, like a silent music under the main complexity of an audible music. The humanity that was rolling along to Cordoba seemed absorbed and dull, with a festive intention surely, but without joyousness. To the traveller who had no accommodation secured in the strange city, the crowd was a menace. Where was Cordoba to house all these visitors? But the thought that they were peasants was reassuring, they would not demand the high luxuries of hotels warmly recommended by the guide-books. The thought was delusive. I had come up with the peasants, but the señors had preceded them and had taken all the rooms in all the hotels, even in those too inferior to be mentioned in guide-books. A hurried examination of the town, in the company of a local courier, with polyglot pretensions, self-introduced, and burdened with the name Miguel de Molina, proved that I was unexpected, unprovided, shut out. The dolorous occasion to persons who had come to see the famous mosque was some sort of annual fair, complicated with a bull fight.

    The air was filled with hot dust; even the gold-brown light under the awnings in the Conde Gondomar was thick with it.

    The courier disappeared on a final, desperate quest; if he were unsuccessful, all that remained was the hope of a vacant chair in the hall of the hotel and a night of vigil. While he was searching the obscure lodging-houses or unheard-of pensions of Cordoba, I wandered about the streets, hidden in the crowd. In the throng there was an absence of rhythm, not even a distant sound of guitars, only the shuffling of feet and rolling of Spanish. The one dumb Canadian in the crowd suddenly felt the pressure of this people as a sort of menace, so indifferent were they, not only to him and his small miseries, but even to themselves and their own pleasures. Just as he resolved to escape, and take asylum in the hotel, the courier broke through with a happy face, gesticulating, and made plain in four languages that he had found a nook of refuge, a poor place, but absolutely the last, highly expensive, but reduced by parley and expert bargaining to the ultimate peseta, if the “gentlemen” would deign to accept it! Evidently he wished me to become as excited as he appeared to be, and I followed him down a narrow lane off the Pasco del Gran Capitan, as he dashed through an arched gateway into a wide yard, took a sharp turn, rushed up a flight of steps, and stood agitated and breathless in a bare ill-lighted room.

    “This?”

    “Not at all, the room before—beyond!”

    The “beyond” room was a large, vaulted chamber, forty feet square, lighted by one window in an alcove, a huge fireplace, great blue flagstones on the floor, bare, grey-washed walls. In the center of this desolation was a doubtful-looking brown bedstead, and an antiquated washstand, with a basin and ewer. The alcove was curtained by two ill-assorted draperies, one of rough drugget, in horizontal stripes of red and blue, the other a piece of crimson brocade, magnificent enough for a cardinal’s audience chamber. Delicate reference was made to the bed. The bed was an honorable bed, time-worn, but immaculate; as easy to capture a goldfish in the Sahara desert as to find one! No more to be said.

    “The rate?”

    “A mere nothing,— 30 pesetas for the night.”

    “A monstrous charge.”

    “Consider the pain I suffered to find this nook—30 pesetas for the night and 10 pesetas for the day.”

    “Scandalous!”

    The courier, Miguel de Molina, leaned against the huge chimney-brace, hid his face, and showed signs of deep grief.

    “Consider the traditions!”

    “The traditions, what traditions?”

    “In the old years this was a palace, part of one great palace-house,—rich life here in the old years.”

    “Well, I suppose one should pay for lodging in a palace; bring the luggage.”

    The ponderous key of the outer door was delivered over,—turn it in the huge oak lock, and I would be safely immured as in a fortress, for it was the only entrance. The window was covered by a grating, morticed into the outer wall. On the other side of the lane, I saw, seated on a low, iron balcony, an old woman, and a young woman, one in white, one in black. The young one had an oval, ivory-pale face, and wore a red rose in her night-black hair.

    

If this apartment had ever been swept and garnished, it was after the expulsion of the Moors. The dust spread over the whitewashed walls in a grey film. Some ancient amateur had sketched a human profile in the plaster of the fireplace, and the dust had outlined it in grey-silver. The foot of the bed was toward the fireplace; to the right of the bed, in the corner, there were traces in the wall of what had once been an arched portal, which led to some distant magnificence, but it had been built up solidly long ago. The necessary, obvious furniture stood nakedly there in the midst of this stony chamber, and the group was presided over by one candle in a high, pewter candlestick. Just at dusk I escaped from the dregs of dinner, and went down the lane to the chamber. Temptation had disappeared from the balcony, and I looked at the window-grating with a feeling of safety. By the extinguishment of the candle, I was engulfed in the cavern; there was a moment of terrifying gloom before the eyelids closed, and made the familiar darkness.

     After an interval of how many moments or hours of deep slumber, induced by fatigue, I found myself quietly contemplating a scene that was suspended before my eyes in the glow of a mild, but radiant light. I was looking directly at the huge fireplace, in which a fire was burning without vigour, and without sound. No shadows were thrown by the pervasive light that welled up in the room from some hidden source. I was a musing spectator, curious, not at all apprehensive. Before the fireplace was an oblong table; moving about the table was a dwarf, a woman. She had a mare’s face, long and bony. Her dress was made of coarse drugget, woven in broad stripes of dull blue and red. As if by magic, a cloth appeared in her hands,—heavy with glistening silver thread on a crimson ground. She spread it ceremoniously on the table; it hung stiffly like the covering of an altar. Hardly had she smoothed and adjusted it when she stepped close to the fireplace, her eyes fixed on the wall to the right of the bed. A procession came through the wall, as through a free and ample entrance, pacing gravely and with import. The leader was a tall figure in black, with a clear white ruff around his neck, his face was severe, narrow and pallid. He bore a long, silver-headed staff in his hand. He was followed by a page, who carried a black velvet bag, which he held by a silver cord extended before him. Next came a man whose arms were bound to the staff of a short spear thrust between his elbows behind his back. His sensitive face was agitated, and ghostly white. He was followed by several determined-looking men, whose garb was soldierly, one whom carried a large portfolio. The march was soundless, but rhythmical, as if timed by vanished music. When they reached the fireplace, the soldiers unbound the prisoner, and seated him at the table. The portfolio was slanted before him like a drawing-board, and he took a crayon in his hand. The page gave the bag to the dwarf, who held it while he extracted something from it. He turned and faced the prisoner, holding up a human head, the head of a youth. The profile was of ethereal beauty, the whole form of an ideal contour, blanched and delicate. The clustering black hair was chiseled in crisp waves over the forehead, the lashes on the arched eyelids lay densely on the youthful cheek. The page held the head high, and well in front of his breast, his fingers hidden in the hair between the ears. The prisoner began at once to draw, glancing at the head fearsomely from time to time. On his left hand, which clutched the drawing-board, there was a deep, red stain. He worked skilfully, swiftly, and, as he worked, a change came over the scene. I realized that at first it had been tremulous, with a sort of inward emotion, but it began to steady, and took a beautiful clarity. The expression of the faces changed,—severity passed. The artist grew less and less agitated, and his expression became tranquil, the stain on his hand faded and disappeared. When he had finished, there was a moment of intense and critical examination of the work, although the group behind him was moveless. Then the procession reformed, and, pacing with a satisfied motion, as if returning from an expiatory rite, they disappeared through the portal of the solid wall. The page and the dwarf had vanished. Then a sharp, black shadow, stiff as a steel shield, rose from the floor in front of the fireplace, gathering the firelight as it went, until it cut off the reflection sharp against the ceiling. The dark was intense.

    Settlement was made with Miguel de Molina in broad daylight.

    “I hope the gentlemen had a good night?”

    “Excellent.”

    “The bed?”

    “Impeccable!”

    “The charge you think now altogether not too, too scandalous?” A peculiar shadow came into his eyes.

    “No, after all, Don Miguel de Molina, it was not too, too scandalous.”