But next morning the sky was dark
with clouds; people looked up dubiously when I asked
the way and distance to Marchena, prophesying rain.
Fetching my horse, the owner of the stable robbed me
with peculiar callousness, for he had bound my hands
the day before, when I went to see how Aguador
was treated, by giving me with most courteous ceremony
a glass of aguardiente; and his urbanity was
then so captivating that now I lacked assurance to
protest. I paid the scandalous overcharge with
a good grace, finding some solace in the reflection
that he was at least a picturesque blackguard, tall
and spare, grey-headed, with fine features sharpened
by age to the strongest lines; for I am always grateful
to the dishonest when they add a certain aesthetic
charm to their crooked ways. There is a proverb
which says that in Ecija every man is a thief and
every woman-no better than she should be:
I was not disinclined to believe it.
I set out, guided by a sign-post,
and the good road seemed to promise an easy day.
They had told me that the distance was only six leagues,
and I expected to arrive before luncheon. Aguador,
fresh after his day’s rest, broke into a canter
when I put him on the green plot, which the old Spanish
law orders to be left for cattle by the side of the
highway. But after three miles, without warning,
the road suddenly stopped. I found myself in
an olive-grove, with only a narrow path in front of
me. It looked doubtful, but there was no one
in sight and I wandered on, trusting to luck.
Presently, in a clearing, I caught
sight of three men on donkeys, walking slowly one
after the other, and I galloped after to ask my way.
The beasts were laden with undressed skins which they
were taking to Fuentes, and each man squatted cross-legged
on the top of his load. The hindermost turned
right round when I asked my question and sat unconcernedly
with his back to the donkey’s head. He looked
about him vaguely as though expecting the information
I sought to be written on the trunk of an olive-tree,
and scratched his head.
‘Well,’ he said, ’I
should think it was a matter of seven leagues, but
it will rain before you get there.’
‘This is the right way, isn’t it?’
‘It may be. If it doesn’t lead to
Marchena it must lead somewhere else.’
There was a philosophic ring about
the answer which made up for the uncertainty.
The skinner was a fat, good-humoured creature, like
all Spaniards intensely curious; and to prepare the
way for inquiries, offered a cigarette.
’But why do you come to Ecija
by so roundabout a way as Carmona, and why should
you return to Seville by such a route as Marchena?’
His opinion was evidently that the
shortest way between two places was also the best.
He received my explanation with incredulity and asked,
more insistently, why I went to Ecija on horseback
when I might go by train to Madrid.
‘For pleasure,’ said I.
‘My good sir, you must have come on some errand.’
‘Oh yes,’ I answered,
hoping to satisfy him, ’on the search for emotion.’
At this he bellowed with laughter and turned round
to tell his fellows.
‘Usted es muy guasón,’
he said at length, which may be translated: ‘You’re
a mighty funny fellow.’
I expressed my pleasure at having
provided the skinners with amusement and bidding them
farewell, trotted on.
I went for a long time among the interminable
olives, grey and sad beneath the sullen clouds, and
at last the rain began to fall. I saw a farm
not very far away and cantered up to ask for shelter.
An old woman and a labourer came to the door and looked
at me very doubtfully; they said it was not a posada,
but my soft words turned their hearts and they allowed
me to come in. The rain poured down in heavy,
The labourer took Aguador to
the stable and I went into the parlour, a long, low,
airy chamber like the refectory of a monastery, with
windows reaching to the ground. Two girls were
sitting round the brasero, sewing; they offered
me a chair by their side, and as the rain fell steadily
we began to talk. The old woman discreetly remained
away. They asked about my journey, and as is
the Spanish mode, about my country, myself, and my
belongings. It was a regular volley of questions
I had to answer, but they sounded pleasanter in the
mouth of a pretty girl than in that of an obese old
skinner; and the rippling laughter which greeted my
replies made me feel quite witty. When they smiled
they showed the whitest teeth. Then came my turn
for questioning. The girl on my right, prettier
than her sister, was very Spanish, with black, expressive
eyes, an olive skin, and a bunch of violets in her
abundant hair. I asked whether she had a novio,
or lover; and the question set her laughing immoderately.
What was her name? ‘Soledad-Solitude.’
I looked somewhat anxiously at the
weather, I feared the shower would cease, and in a
minute, alas! the rain passed away; and I was forced
to notice it, for the sun-rays came dancing through
the window, importunately, making patterns of light
upon the floor. I had no further excuse to stay,
and said good-bye; but I begged for the bunch of violets
in Soledad’s dark hair and she gave it with a
pretty smile. I plunged again into the endless
It was a little strange, the momentary
irruption into other people’s lives, the friendly
gossip with persons of a different tongue and country,
whom I had never seen before, whom I should never see
again; and were I not strictly truthful I might here
lighten my narrative by the invention of a charming
and romantic adventure. But if chance brings
us often for a moment into other existences, it takes
us out with equal suddenness so that we scarcely know
whether they were real or mere imaginings of an idle
hour: the Fates have a passion for the unfinished
sketch and seldom trouble to unravel the threads which
they have so laboriously entangled. The little
scene brought another to my mind. When I was
‘on accident duty’ at St. Thomas’s
Hospital a man brought his son with a broken leg;
it was hard luck on the little chap, for he was seated
peacefully on the ground when another boy, climbing
a wall, fell on him and did the damage. When
I returned him, duly bandaged, to his father’s
arms, the child bent forward and put out his lips for
a kiss, saying good-night with babyish pronunciation.
The father and the attendant nurse laughed, and I,
being young, was confused and blushed profusely.
They went away and somehow or other I never saw them
again. I wonder if the pretty child, (he must
be eight or ten now,) remembers kissing a very weary
medical student, who had not slept much for several
days, and was dead tired. Probably he has quite
forgotten that he ever broke his leg. And I suppose
no recollection remains with the pretty girl in the
farm of a foreigner riding mysteriously through the
olive-groves, to whom she gave shelter and a bunch
I came at last to the end of the trees
and found then that a mighty wind had risen, which
blew straight in my teeth. It was hard work to
ride against it, but I saw a white town in the distance,
on a hill; and made for it, rejoicing in the prospect.
Presently I met some men shooting, and to make sure,
asked whether the houses I saw really were Marchena.
‘Oh no,’ said one.
’You’ve come quite out of the way.
That is Fuentes. Marchena is over there, beyond
My heart sank, for I was growing very
hungry, and I asked whether I could not get shelter
at Fuentes. They shrugged their shoulders and
advised me to go to Marchena, which had a small inn.
I went on for several hours, battling against the
wind, bent down in order to expose myself as little
as possible, over a huge expanse of pasture land, a
desert of green. I reached the crest of the hill,
but there was no sign of Marchena, unless that was
a tower which I saw very far away, its summit just
rising above the horizon.
I was ravenous. My saddle-bags
contained spaces for a bottle and for food; and I
cursed my folly in stuffing them with such useless
refinements of civilisation as hair-brushes and soap.
It is possible that one could allay the pangs of hunger
with soap; but under no imaginable circumstances with
It was a tower in the distance, but
it seemed to grow neither nearer nor larger; the wind
blew without pity, and miserably Aguador tramped
on. I no longer felt very hungry, but dreadfully
bored. In that waste of greenery the only living
things beside myself were a troop of swallows that
had accompanied me for miles. They flew close
to the ground, in front of me, circling round; and
the wind was so high that they could scarcely advance
I remembered the skinner’s question,
why I rode through the country when I could go by
train. I thought of the Cheshire Cheese
in Fleet Street, where persons more fortunate than
I had that day eaten hearty luncheons. I imagined
to myself a well-grilled steak with boiled potatoes,
and a pint of old ale, Stilton! The smoke rose
to my nostrils.
But at last, the Saints be praised!
I found a real bridle-path, signs of civilisation,
ploughed fields; and I came in sight of Marchena perched
on a hill-top, surrounded by its walls. When I
arrived the sun was setting finely behind the town.