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Don Fernando – XII

Non-Fiction > Don Fernando >


I wish it had been to my purpose to write an essay on mysticism. It is a fruitful subject. I have but tried to set down a few things about certain devout persons that might help me to some understanding of the religious spirit that was more than a background, that was the framework, in which the Spanish life of this particular period pursued its variegated activity. I do not suppose that at any time in the world's history religion entered so much into the common round of every day as in Spain just then. The main business of the Spaniard's life was his salvation. The picaroon heard mass on his way to commit one of his mean crimes and the pimp, the blackmailer, the hired bravo when he was wounded in a fray cried frantically for a priest to shrive him. Don Juan himself, the scoffer, when the statue's fiery grip fastened on him begged for a brief respite that he might make his peace with God. The Spaniards of the Golden Age looked upon the Catholic Church as the country of their souls; it inspired them indeed with the emotion made up of pride and affection, trust and nostalgia, which Dr. Johnson described as the last refuge of a scoundrel.

But by this time I thought I had gathered together sufficient material for my purpose. In the course of my reading I had collected a number of incidents to give movement to my narrative and I had on the brink of my consciousness a variety of personages who only awaited their call to take part in its action. Nothing remained for me but to sit down and start writing. Then a very unfortunate thing happened to me. Finding myself once in Cadiz I went to the picture gallery. It is on the first floor of an old palace, rather shabby, not at all extensive, and most of the pictures are by modern Spanish painters. They are deplorable. But in one room is a collection of pictures by Zurbaran which have been removed from the Carthusian monastery near Jerez. Zurbaran is not a painter for whom many people feel enthusiasm. You have to know him well, and study him, to realise how remarkable an artist he was. He had power, and that is a quality you seldom find in painters. But this is not the place to say much of him and my immediate business is only with these portraits. They purport to be portraits of various personages whose piety illustrated the Carthusian order; it seems probable that they are in fact portraits, and one would say speaking likenesses, of the monks who were in the monastery when Zurbaran went there to paint the pictures that were to adorn its walls. They are painted with the tightness that characterised him. Those white robes do not seem made of wool, but of a material as rigid as baize, and the folds have none of the yielding quality of stuff; they might be carved in wood. But the harshness, the stiffness, of the manner gives you rather a curious feeling. It may be repellent, but it does not leave you indifferent. There is something very impressive about this series of Carthusian saints and beatified monks. One, representing the Blessed John Houghton, strangely moved me. I could not but believe that it was an English monk and not a Spanish one that had been the model of this great-souled Englishman of whom his biographer says that he was shy in look, modest in manner, sweet in speech, chaste in body, humble of heart, amiable and beloved by all. There was here the well-bred refinement, the clear-cut, delicately beautiful features that you sometimes find in a certain sort of Englishman of gentle birth. The hair, the little of it that was left round the shaven skull, seemed to be of a reddish brown. For a moment I asked myself idly who was this unknown compatriot that had wandered so far from his native country to the monastery in Andalusia and, obedient to his Superior, sat to the painter for a portrait of another Englishman.

It was a face of great distinction, thin as though from long fasting, and with a tension that was restless and eager. On the cheeks was a hectic flush. The skin was darker than ivory, though with the warmly supple hue of ivory and paler than olive, yet with something of that colour's morbid delicacy. One wasted hand was clasped to his breast and in the other he held heart. Round his neck, fastened by a knot, was the rope of discipline.

I could not get the face out of my mind. Months passed, a year, two years, and the character that gradually acquired substance to undergo the adventures and suffer the experiences for which I had made these studies, took on the ascetic features, the thin, suffering, eager and ecstatic look of that unknown monk. He had the same spiritual air and his eyes in just the same way were intent on an ineffable mystery. I thought nothing of it; but when I came to close quarters with my subject I saw that this was not the sort of man to do at all. In the first place this was not a man of robust humour. I suspected that before entering religion he had had some sense of it, but of a thin, donnish kind that found a false quantity very ridiculous and in his moments of abandon led him to make witty quotations from Virgil. I could see him smile dryly, and a trifle superciliously, I could not imagine that he ever laughed out loud. I could imagine that he was capable of love, but not of sensuality, and if he fell in love it would be tragically. I could see him eating his heart out for some light woman to whose worthlessness his idealism blinded him, or in tortured silence for honour or God renouncing a happiness that was his for the asking. I could not see him tumbling a serving wench on a bed or deceiving the jealous lover of a pretty actress. I thought it possible that he would with pleasure converse with Lope de Vega on the intricacies of versification, but he would consider the drama no more than the entertainment of the vulgar. He would pass through the student's life at Salamanca without communication with any but a few serious and high-born gentlemen and I think he would only despise the Horatian nostalgia of the petulant Luis de Leon. If he read the picaresque novels it would be as an idle pastime. He was not curious to see for himself the life they described. He left that to his lacqueys. With his exquisite manners he kept the busy, bustling, sordid and picturesque world at arm's length.

Such a person was not of the least use to me. I set myself to think of another. I wanted someone gay, intelligent but urbane, with a lively sense of humour, religious of course, but with a spark of scepticism, eager for adventure and interested in all the ideas he came across, a man who could make himself at home in any company, as much at his ease discussing the modern drama with the poets as making merry with the players or carousing with picaroons, a man who could tell a good story, make love to a pretty woman, draw his sword at a slight, hold his own in diplomatic intrigue and yet hankered, wistful and reluctant, for the beauty the mystics told of. I did not think there would be any difficulty in fashioning a youth to suit my purpose. liked the idea of his having reddish hair and the ivory olive skin that sometimes goes with it. I gave him the thin face, the eager eyes, the clear-cut feature that would correspond with his love of art and his interest in the things of the spirit. I did not want him too big and beefy, for that suggested a coarseness of disposition that was not in my idea of him; I wanted him to be elegant in appearance and well-proportioned, slender but strong, with the beautiful, long hands that El Greco would have been so charmed to paint. And when I had done with him I discovered to my dismay that I had described over again the white-robed Carthusian who sat for the portrait of the Blessed John Houghton. I began once more. The same thing happened to me; I left it for a while; I went back to it; it was no good; try as I would it was impossible for me to see him with any lineaments but those of that confounded monk. One might have supposed that an author could give a character any traits, physical and mental, that he chose. It is not so. The author does not create a character, at all events it is not his awareness that creates him; on the contrary he creates himself, it may be as in this case from a picture, it may be from the recollection of some one seen in the street or in past time known; and then his distinctive features grow round him, coming, I suppose, from the depths of the author's subconscious but without any impulse of his will. Once there the author can do nothing but accept him. He cannot, without making him unreal, change the colour of his hair or the shape of his mouth. The man is what he is because he is exactly so tall and he will do such and such a thing and feel such and such an emotion because he has just that look in his eyes. Pascal said that it would have changed the history of the world if Cleopatra's nose had been longer; he might have added that it would have changed too the plausible harmony which was her character. I was obliged to face the fact that the protagonist of the book I had in mind to write could be none other than this unknown monk. But this made it a book that I very well knew I could not write. It was not even a book that it much interested me to write. It would be somewhat excessively cultured, a trifle anæmic, and to me certainly of no particular significance. In fact I saw it as a kind of modern Marius the Epicurean with a setting in the Spain of the sixteenth century. That was not my cup of tea.

I struggled a little, but it availed me nothing. The hound of heaven pursued me. My character had killed my story. I resigned myself at last and made up my mind not to write my book after all. I was disappointed because I had worked at it desultorily for years and with application for three; I had read between two and three hundred books. I could only console myself by thinking that perhaps they had been of profit to me. The author cannot improve himself by a deliberate effort, for as I grow older I am more and more convinced that it is not he that writes but what they call his subconscious, and his aim must be to train and to enrich this in every way he can. This, I think, he can do by taking thought. There are some words of St. Teresa that can hardly fail to echo in the artist's heart: 'I am like one who hears a voice from afar off,' she says,' but although hearing the voice cannot distinguish the words; for at times I do not understand what I say, yet it is the Lord's pleasure that it should be well said, and if at times I talk nonsense that is because it is natural to me to make a mess of everything.' I cannot believe that my long wandering through the Spanish country of to-day and through the spiritual country of the Golden Age, tedious as this sometimes was, has left me entirely as I was before. It has seemed to me that perhaps a reader here and there might be interested in the simple story of my journey.

But before taking my leave of him I should like to tell him one more thing. While I was pursuing these studies I read a great many narratives of travellers in Spain during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; I hoped from them to learn something of the manners and customs of the people and what the places looked like that the writers passed through. For the most part they are dull reading. We sigh now when we read the jokes of the facetious traveller who looks upon a journey into a strange country as an opportunity to exercise his wit and we yawn over the gushing word pictures of the artist in prose. It may be that in three hundred years they will have their interest. Alas, we shall all be long since dead. The travellers of the sixteenth century seem to have had no curiosity. Sometimes they sought to instruct and then gave a certain amount of information about the trade and manufactures of the places they visited. They seldom thought it worth while to note a picturesque detail. What was strange to them seemed on the whole unpleasant. I have referred two or three times to A Journey into Spain by van Aarssens. He is one of the most interesting. His description of Madrid is vigorous. He had a certain acid humour. But the greater part of his book is concerned with the intrigues of the Court, the political situation, and an account of various people of importance in their day; and much of it now is of no great moment. Most of the travellers confined themselves to recording the number of miles from stage to stage and to mentioning the names of the persons who treated them with civility. They were nearly always in a bad temper. And they had cause to be. In book after book the same complaints recur of the badness of the roads, the danger of brigands, the difficulties of supply and the verminous condition of the inns. Even St. Teresa, notwithstanding her passion to mortify the flesh, found these sometimes intolerable. Once, in a room with no window, the bed was so bad that she preferred to sleep on the floor.

Now among the books I read was one which had really nothing to do with me, for it was an account of a pilgrimage made to various holy places by an Armenian bishop at the end of the fifteenth century and this was hundred years before the period with which I was concerned. But I saw the title in a bibliography and it excited my curiosity. It was Relation d'un Voyage fait en Europe. It was published in Paris in 1827 and the translation is by a Monsieur J. Saint Martin. It is a slim book, rather musty, its pages stained by time, and the French and the Armenian face one another. It begins with these words–I translate from the French:

'I, Martyr, but only by name, born at Arzendjan, and bishop, living in the hermitage of Saint Ghiragos at Norkiegh (the new village) had long wished to visit the tomb of the holy prince of the Apostles. When the time had come for me, unworthy though I was, to deserve this honour, which I never ceased to desire, without however ever having made known to anyone the intention in my heart, I went forth from my monastery on the twenty-ninth of October in the year 938 of the Armenian Era. Travelling by short stages, I arrived at Stamboul. There by the grace of God I found a ship on which I embarked with the deacon Verthanes.'

The date mentioned corresponds to 1489 of our era. It was on the third of August, 1492, that Christopher Columbus set sail from Palos to discover a new route to the Indies.

I think he must have been a remarkable man, Martyr, Bishop of Arzendjan. Arzendjan was a busy and populous city and Euphrates, the famous river, ran through it. It was in a plain, rich with orchards and vineyards, surrounded by hills in which dwelt wild tribes subjected to no authority. In the Euphrates, not far from the city, St. Gregory the illuminator baptised the Armenian king and the nobles of his court; an event the results of which were very unfortunate for the Armenians and highly embarrassing to the Concert of Europe. The bishop made his way to Rome and here the Pope gave him a letter of recommendation which was of great service to him on his arduous journey. He made his way north and at Bale he and his companion were arrested as spies. He makes no comment. On their release, following the course of the Rhine they reached Cologne where they saw the tombs of the Three Kings. When they got to Flanders, being unacquainted with the language, they had great difficulty in making themselves understood. For the same reason they found themselves in a quandary when they came to England, and he says nothing of it but that the English were fish-eaters. But reaching Paris, where he lodged at an inn, he cries: 'What man could describe the beauty of this city! It is a very great and splendid city.' That is farther than he goes often, for mostly he only tells how he went from place to place and what shrines he visited. He tells you nothing of the people he meets. It is the dryest reading possible and yet you read on because you have a sense of the man's indomitable courage. In Paris the deacon Verthanes left him. He sought for another companion, but could, it appears, find no one willing to share the risks and hardships of the way. 'Putting my trust then in the prayers of St. James and in Almighty God I continued my journey in great affliction.' No dangers daunt him. He endures cold and hunger. Going on foot, by himself, a man no longer young, he accepts without a murmur whatsoever befalls him. When he arrives at a town he is entertained in a monastery, but if he finds himself in the open country he is prepared to sleep on the bare ground. He travelled through a multitude of towns, being received everywhere with great honour, and at St. Sebastian the host of the inn and his wife treated him with boundless charity. It is the only good that I have ever read of a Spanish innkeeper. Two collections were made on his behalf, for whatever money he started with must have been long since spent. Of St. Sebastian he says, very surprisingly: 'I did not see a pretty face in this town.' And at last, very tired and weak, but sustained by the help of God, he came to the famous city where St. James had chosen his last resting place.

'I approached this tomb; I adored it my face to the earth, and I besought the remission of my sins, those of my father and mother, and those of my benefactors. At last I accomplished, with a great effusion of tears, what was the desire of my heart.'

Then he started on his homeward journey.

At last he arrived at a place that he calls Getharia, a port on the coast of Guipuzcoa. It was now 1494. He had been on the road for five years. It was but twelve months since Christopher Columbus had returned to Palos; he had found, not what he sought, but a new world. Now I go on with the bishop's narrative.

'I found in that place a great ship which they told me was of sixty tons burthen. I addressed myself to the priests to say that I should be taken in this ship: "I cannot go on foot any more," I said, "my strength is all gone." They were surprised that I could have come on foot from a country so far away. They went to see the captain of the ship: "this Armenian religious," they said to him, "begs you to take him in your ship: he has come from a far country and he is unable to return by land." They read him the Pope's letter; he listened to it and said: "I will take him in my ship; but tell him that I go to range the universal sea, that my ship carries no merchant, and that all the men who are in her are engaged in her service. As for us, we have made the sacrifice of our lives; we place our hope only in God, and we believe that whithersoever fortune carries us, God will save us. We go to rove the world and it is not possible for us to tell where the winds will carry us. But God knows. For the rest, if it is your wish also to come with us, it is very well; come in my ship, and do not concern yourself with bread, nor with food or drink. For whatever else you need, it is your business, these religious will see to it; since we have a soul, we will provide you with biscuit and all else that God has vouchsafed us."'

For sixty-eight days the intrepid bishop sailed the unknown seas. Contrary winds drove them hither and thither and they came at last to the town 'which is at the end of the world.' They had been so buffeted by violent storms and the great ship so shaken, they were obliged to make their way back to Cadiz for repairs. Here he left her and went on a pilgrimage to Santa Maria de Guadalupe. It was not till Lent in 1496 that he arrived once more in Rome. This is how he ends his narrative: 'I then went to Santa Maria where I took ship and I again endured such misfortunes that I would have preferred death rather than suffer so many dangers.'

But it is not for his own sake that I have written this of Martyr, Bishop of Arzendjan, though I do not think it is wasted time to consider for a little a good and a brave man. It is for the speech that the unknown captain of the ship made him when he asked for a passage, and I like to think that the Armenian bishop thought it a fine speech too, for in the course of his book it is the only one he reports. He mentions only and does not describe his meetings with sundry of the great. For my part I think it is as fine a speech as any that Thucydides gave to the famous men of Greece whose history he wrote. I suppose no one will ever know the name of this sea-captain, who, putting his trust in God, in a craft we know how frail, set out to sail the universal sea. His words have the heroic ring. I like to think that Bishop Martyr, 'by name only,' recognised in him a kindred soul. He too, the unknown captain, was a dedicated priest, but to high adventure, and he too had a fearless heart.

And if I am not mistaken here is the secret of the greatness that was Spain. In Spain it is men that are the poems, the pictures and the buildings. Men are its philosophies. They lived, these Spaniards of the Golden Age; they felt and did; they did not think. Life was what they sought and found, life in its turmoil, its fervour and its variety. Passion was the seed that brought them forth and passion was the flower they bore. But passion alone cannot give rise to a great art. In the arts the Spaniards invented nothing. They did little in any of those they practised, but give a local colour to a virtuosity they borrowed from abroad. Their literature, as I have ventured to remark, was not of the highest rank; they were taught to paint by foreign masters, but, inapt pupils, gave birth to one painter only of the very first class; they owed their architecture to the Moors, the French and the Italians, and the works themselves produced were best when they departed least from their patterns. Their preëminence was great, but it lay in another direction: it was a preëminence of character. In this I think they have be unsurpassed by none and equalled only by the ancient Romans. It looks as though all the energy, all the originality, of this vigorous race had been disposed to one end and one end only, the creation of man. It is not in art that they excelled, they excelled in what is greater than art–in man. But it is thought that has the last word.

THE END
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