But if Ronda itself is a somewhat dull and unsympathetic place with nothing more for the edification of the visitor than a melodramatic chasm, the surrounding country is worthy the most extravagant epithets. The mountains have the gloomy barrenness, the slate-grey colour of volcanic ranges; they encircle the town in a gigantic amphitheatre, rugged and overbearing like Titans turned to stone. They seem, indeed, to wear a sombre insolence of demeanour as though the aspect of human kind moved them to lofty contempt. And in their magnificent desolation they offer a fit environment for the exploits of Byronic heroes. The handsome villain of romance, seductive by the complexity of his emotions, by the persistence of his mysterious grief, would find himself in that theatrical scene most thoroughly at home; nor did Prosper Mérimée fail to seize the opportunity, for the mountains of Ronda were the very hunting-ground of Don Josè, who lost his soul for Carmen. But as a matter of history they were likewise the haunts of brigands in flesh and blood--malefactors in the past had that sense of the picturesque which now is vested in the amateur photographer--and this particular district was as dangerous to the travelling merchant as any in Spain.
The environs of Ronda are barren and unfertile, the olive groves bear little fruit. I wandered through the lonely country, towards the mountains; the day was overcast and the clouds hung sluggishly overhead. As I walked, suddenly I heard a melancholy voice singing a peasant song, a malagueña. I paused to listen, but the sadness was almost unendurable; and it went on interminably, wailing through the air with the insistent monotony of its Moorish origin. I struck into the olives to find the singer and met a swineherd, guarding a dozen brown pigs, a youth thin of face, with dark eyes, clothed in undressed sheep-skins; and the brown wool gave him a singular appearance of community with the earth about him. He stood among the trees like a wild creature, more beast than man, and the lank, busy pigs burrowed around him, running to and fro, with little squeals. He ceased his song when I approached and looked up timidly. I spoke to him but he made no answer, I offered a cigarette but he shook his head.
I went my way, and at first the road was not quite solitary. Two men passed me on donkeys. 'Vaya Usted con Dios!' they cried--'Go you with God': it is the commonest greeting in Spain, and the most charming; the roughest peasant calls it as you meet him. A dozen grey asses went towards Ronda, one after the other, their panniers filled with stones; they walked with hanging heads, resigned to all their pain. But when at last I came into the mountains the loneliness was terrible. Not even the olive grew on those dark masses of rock, windswept and sterile; there was not a hut nor a cottage to testify of man's existence, not even a path such as the wild things of the heights might use. All life, indeed, appeared incongruous with that overwhelming solitude.
Daylight was waning as I returned, but when I passed the olive-grove, where many hours before I had heard the malagueña, the same monotonous song still moaned along the air, carrying back my thoughts to the swineherd. I wondered what he thought of while he sang, whether the sad words brought him some dim emotion. How curious was the life he led! I suppose he had never travelled further than his native town; he could neither write nor read. Madrid to him was a city where the streets were paved with silver and the King's palace was of fine gold. He was born and grew to manhood and tended his swine, and some day he would marry and beget children, and at length die and return to the Mother of all things. It seemed to me that nowadays, when civilisation has become the mainstay of our lives, it is only with such beings as these that it is possible to realise the closeness of the tie between mankind and nature. To the poor herdsman still clung the soil; he was no foreign element in the scene, but as much part of it as the stunted olives, belonging to the earth intimately as the trees among which he stood, as the beasts he tended.
* * * * * * *
When I came near the town the sun was setting. In the west, tempestuous clouds were massed upon one another, and the sun shone blood-red above them; but as it sank they were riven asunder, and I saw a great furnace that lit up the whole sky. The mountains were purple, unreal as the painted mountains of a picture. The light was gone from the east, and there everything was chill and grey; the barren rocks looked so desolate that one shuddered with horror of the cold. But the sun fell gold and red, and the rift in the clouds was a kingdom of gorgeous light; the earth and its petty inhabitants died away, and in the crimson flame I could almost see Lucifer standing in his glory, god-like and young; Lucifer in all majesty, surrounded by his court of archangels, Beelzebub, Belial, Moloch, Abaddon.
* * * * * * *
I had discovered in the morning, from the steeple of Santa Maria, a queer ruined church, and was oddly impressed by the bare façade, with the yawning apertures of empty windows. I went to it, but every entrance was bricked up save one, which had a door of rough boards fastened by a padlock; and in a neighbouring house I found an old man with a key. It was a spot of utter desolation; the roof had gone or had never been. The custodian could not tell whether the church was the wreck of an old building or a framework that had never been completed; the walls were falling to decay. Along the nave and in the chapels trees were growing, shrubs and rank weeds; it was curious the utter ruin in the midst of the populous town. Pigs ran hither and thither, feeding, with noisy grunts, as they burrowed about the crumbling altar.
The old man inquired whether I wished to buy the absolute uselessness of the place fascinated me. I asked the price. He looked me up and down, and seeing I was foreign, suggested a ridiculous sum. And while I amused myself with bargaining, I wondered what on earth one could do with a ruined church in Ronda. Half a dozen fantastic notions passed through my mind, but they were really too melodramatic.
And now when the sun had set I returned. Notwithstanding his suspicions, I induced the keeper to give me his key; he could not understand what I desired at such an hour in that solitary place, and asked if I wished to sleep there! But I calmed his fears with a peseta--money goes a long way in Spain--and went in alone. The pigs had been removed and all was silent. A few bats flitted to and fro quickly. The light fell away greyly, the cold descended on the ruin, and it became very strange and mysterious. Presently, the roofless chapels seemed to grow alive with weird invisible things, the rank weeds exhaled chill odours; and in the lonely silence a mass began. At the ruined altar ghostly priests officiated, passing quietly from side to side, with bows and genuflections. The bell tinkled as they raised an invisible host. Soon it became quite dark, and the moon shone through the great empty windows of the façade.
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