THE CITY OF THE VISIGOTHS
A chorus of piteous whines went up. But La Senora was firm. She checked the ready hands of the juveniles. "Children should not be encouraged to pursue this wretched life. We should give only to blind men, because here is a great and evident affliction; and to old women, because they look so lonely about the boots." The exposition was so subtle and logical that it admitted no reply. The old women and the blind men shuffled away with their pennies, and we began to chaff the sturdy and rosy children.
A Spanish beggar can bear anything but banter. He is a keen physiognomist, and selects his victims with unerring acumen. If you storm or scowl at him, he knows he is making you uncomfortable, and hangs on like a burr. But if you laugh at him, with good humor, he is disarmed. A friend of mine reduced to confusion one of the most unabashed mendicants in Castile by replying to his whining petition, politely and with a beaming smile, "No, thank you. I never eat them." The beggar is far from considering his employment a degrading one. It is recognized by the Church, and the obligation of this form of charity especially inculcated. The average Spaniard regards it as a sort of tax to be as readily satisfied as a toll-fee. He will often stop and give a beggar a cent, and wait for the change in maravedises. One day, at the railway station, a muscular rogue approached me and begged for alms. I offered him my sac-de-nuit to carry a block or two. He drew himself up proudly and said, "I beg your pardon, sir; I am no Gallician." An old woman came up with a basket on her arm. "Can it be possible in this far country," said La Senora, "or are these - yes, they are, deliberate peanuts." With a penny we bought unlimited quantities of this levelling edible, and with them the devoted adherence of the aged merchant. She immediately took charge of our education. We must see Santa Maria la Blanca, - it was a beautiful thing; so was the Transito. Did we see those men and women grubbing in the hillside? They were digging bones to sell at the station. Where did the bones come from? Quien sabe? Those dust-heaps have been there since King Wamba. Come, we must go and see the Churches of Mary before it grew dark. And the zealous old creature marched away with us to the synagogue built by Samuel Ben Levi, treasurer to that crowned panther, Peter the Cruel. This able financier built this fine temple to the God of his fathers out of his own purse. He was murdered for his money by his ungrateful lord, and his synagogue stolen by the Church. It now belongs to the order of Cala-trava.
But the other and older synagogue, now called Santa Maria la Blanca, is much more interesting. It stands in the same quarter, the suburb formerly occupied by the industrious and thriving Hebrews of the Middle Ages until the stupid zeal of the Catholic kings drove them out of Spain. The synagogue was built in the ninth century under the enlightened domination of the Moors. At the slaughter of the Jews in 1405 it became a church. It has passed through varying fortunes since then, having been hospital, hermitage, stable, and warehouse; but it is now under the care of the provincial committee of art, and is somewhat decently restored. Its architecture is altogether Moorish. It has three aisles with thick octagonal columns supporting heavy horseshoe arches. The spandrels are curiously adorned with rich circular stucco figures. The soil you tread is sacred, for it was brought from Zion long before the Crusades; the cedar rafters above you preserve the memory and the odors of Lebanon.
A little farther west, on a fine hill overlooking the river, in the midst of the ruined palaces of the early kings, stands the beautiful votive church of San Juan de los Reyes. It was built by Ferdinand and Isabella, before the Columbus days, to commemorate a victory over their neighbors the Portuguese. During a prolonged absence of the king, the pious queen, wishing to prepare him a pleasant surprise, instead of embroidering a pair of impracticable slippers as a faithful young wife would do nowadays, finished this exquisite church by setting at work upon it some regiments of stone-cutters and builders. It is not difficult to imagine the beauty of the structure that greeted the king on his welcome home. For even now, after the storms of four centuries have beaten upon it, and the malignant hands of invading armies have used their utmost malice against it, it is still a won-drously perfect work of the Gothic inspiration.
We sat on the terrace benches to enjoy the light and graceful lines of the building, the delicately ornate door, the unique drapery of iron chains which the freed Christians hung here when delivered from the hands of the Moors. A lovely child, with pensive blue eyes fringed with long lashes, and the slow sweet smile of a Madonna, sat near us and sang to a soft, monotonous air a war-song of the Carlists. Her beauty soon attracted the artistic eyes of La Senora, and we learned she was named Francisca, and her baby brother, whose flaxen head lay heavily on her shoulder, was called Jesus Mary. She asked, Would we like to go into the church? She knew the sacristan and would go for him. She ran away like a fawn, the tow head of little Jesus tumbling dangerously about. She reappeared in a moment; she had disposed of mi nino, as she called it, and had found the sacristan. This personage was rather disappointing. A sacristan should be aged and mouldy, clothed in black of a decent shabbiness. This was a Toledan swell in a velvet shooting-jacket, and yellow peg-top trousers. However, he had the wit to confine himself to turning keys, and so we gradually recovered from the shock of the shooting-jacket.