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The Alcazar

Arriving at Seville the recollection of Cordova took me quickly to the Alcazar; but I was a little disappointed. It has been ill and tawdrily restored, with crude pigments, with gold that is too bright and too clean; but even before that, Charles V. and his successors had made additions out of harmony with Moorish feeling. Of the palace where lived the Mussulman Kings nothing, indeed, remains; but Pedro the Cruel, with whom the edifice now standing is more especially connected, was no less oriental than his predecessors, and he employed Morisco architects to rebuild it. Parts are said to be exact reproductions of the older structure, while many of the beautiful tiles were taken from Moorish houses.

The atmosphere, then, is but half Arabic; the rest belongs to that flaunting, multi-coloured barbarism which is characteristic of Northern Spain before the union of Arragon and Castile. Wandering in the deserted courts, looking through horseshoe windows of exquisite design at the wild garden, Pedro the Cruel and Maria de Padilla are the figures that occupy the mind.

Seville teems with anecdotes of the monarch who, according to the point of view, has been called the Cruel and the Just. He was an amorist for whom platonic dalliance had no charm, and there are gruesome tales of ladies burned alive because they would not quench the flame of his desires, of others, fiercely virtuous, who poured boiling oil on face and bosom to make themselves unattractive in his sight. But the head that wears a crown apparently has fascinations which few women can resist, and legend tells more frequently of Pedro's conquests than of his rebuffs. He was an ardent lover to whom marriage vows were of no importance; that he committed bigamy is certain--and pardonable, but some historians are inclined to think that he had at one and the same time no less than three wives. He was oriental in his tastes.

In imitation of the Paynim sovereigns Pedro loved to wander in the streets of Seville at night, alone and disguised, to seek adventure or to see for himself the humour of his subjects; and like them also it pleased him to administer justice seated in the porch of his palace. If he was often hard and proud towards the nobles, with the people he was always very gracious; to them he was the redressor of wrongs and a protector of the oppressed; his justice was that of the Mussulman rulers, rapid, terrible and passionate, often quaint. For instance: a rich priest had done some injury to a cobbler, who brought him before the ecclesiastical tribunals, where he was for a year suspended from his clerical functions. The tradesman thought the punishment inadequate, and taking the law into his own hands gave the priest a drubbing. He was promptly seized, tried, condemned to death. But he appealed to the king who, with a witty parody of the rival Court, changed the punishment to suspension from his trade, and ordered the cobbler for twelve months to make no boots.

On the other hand, the Alcazar itself has been the scene of Pedro's vilest crimes, in the whole list of which is none more insolent, none more treacherous, than that whereby he secured the priceless ruby which graces still the royal crown of England. There is a school of historians which insists on finding a Baptist Minister in every hero--think what a poor-blooded creature they wish to make of the glorious Nelson--but no casuistry avails to cleanse the memory of Pedro of Castille: even for his own ruthless age he was a monster of cruelty and lust. Indeed the indignation with which his biographers have felt bound to charge their pens has somewhat obscured their judgment; they have so eagerly insisted on the censure with which themselves regard their hero's villainies, that they have found little opportunity to explain a complex character. Yet the story of his early life affords a simple key to his maturity. Till the age of fifteen he lived in prisons, suffering with his mother every insult and humiliation, while his father's mistress kept queenly state, and her children received the honours of royal princes. When he came to the throne he found himself a catspaw between his natural brothers and ambitious nobles. His nearest relatives were ever his bitterest enemies, and he was continually betrayed by those he trusted; even his mother delivered to the rebellious peers the strongholds and the treasures he had left in her charge and caused him to be taken prisoner. As a boy he had been violent and impetuous, yet always loyal: but before he was twenty he became suspicious and mistrustful; in his weakness he made craft and perfidy his weapons, practising to compose his face, to feign forgetfulness of injury till the moment of vengeance; he learned to dissemble so that none could tell his mind, and treated no courtiers with greater favour than those upon whose death he had already determined.

Intermingled with this career of vice and perfidy and bloodshed is the love of Maria de Padilla, whom the king met when he was eighteen, and till her death loved passionately--with brief inconstancies, for fidelity has never been a royal virtue; and she figures with gentle pathos in that grim history like wild perfumed flowers on a storm-beaten coast. After the assassination of the unfortunate Blanche, the French Queen whom he loathed with an extraordinary physical repulsion, Pedro acknowledged a secret marriage with Maria de Padilla, which legitimised her children; but for ten years before she had been treated with royal rights. The historian says that she was very beautiful, but her especial charm seems to have been that voluptuous grace which is characteristic of Andalusian women. She was simple and pious, with a nature of great sweetness, and she never abused her power; her influence, as runs the hackneyed phrase, was always for good, and untiringly she did her utmost to incline her despot lover to mercy. She alone sheds a ray of light on Pedro's memory, only her love can save him from the execration of posterity. When she died rich and poor alike mourned her, and the king was inconsolable. He honoured her with pompous obsequies, and throughout the kingdom ordered masses to be sung for the rest of her soul.

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The guardians of the Alcazar show you the chambers in which dwelt this gracious lady, and the garden-fountain wherein she bathed in summer. Moralists, anxious to prove that the way of righteousness is hard, say that beauty dies, but they err, for beauty is immortal. The habitations of a lovely woman never lose the enchantment she has cast over them, her comeliness lingers in their empty chambers like a subtle odour; and centuries after her very bones have crumbled to dust it is her presence alone that is felt, her footfall that is heard on the marble floors.

Garish colours, alas! have driven the tender spirit of Maria de Padilla from the royal palace, but it has betaken itself to the old garden, and there wanders sadly. It is a charming place of rare plants and exotic odours; cypress and tall palm trees rise towards the blue sky with their irresistible melancholy, their far-away suggestion of burning deserts; and at their feet the ground is carpeted with violets. Yet to me the wild roses brought strangely recollections of England, of long summer days when the air was sweet and balmy; the birds sang heavenly songs, the same songs as they sing in June in the fat Kentish fields. The gorgeous palace had only suggested the long past days of history, and Seville the joy of life and the love of sunshine; but the old quiet garden took me far away from Spain, so that I longed to be again in England. In thought I wandered through a garden that I knew in years gone by, filled also with flowers, but with hollyhocks and jasmine; the breeze carried the sweet scent of the honeysuckle to my nostrils, and I looked at the green lawns, with the broad, straight lines of the grass-mower. The low of cattle reached my ears, and wandering to the fence I looked into the fields beyond; yellow cows grazed idly or lay still chewing the cud; they stared at me with listless, sleepy eyes.

But I glanced up and saw a flock of wild geese flying northwards in long lines that met, making two sides of a huge triangle; they flew quickly in the cloudless sky, far above me, and presently were lost to view. About me was the tall box-wood of the southern garden, and tropical plants with rich flowers of yellow and red and purple. A dark fir-tree stood out, ragged and uneven, like a spirit of the North, erect as a life without reproach; but the foliage of the palms hung down with a sad, adorable grace.


William Somerset Maugham