The very acute and lively Spanish critic who signs himself Clarin, and is known personally as Don Leopoldo Alas, says the present Spanish novel has no yesterday, but only a day-before-yesterday. It does not derive from the romantic novel which immediately preceded that: the novel, large or little, as it was with Cervantes, Hurtado de Mendoza, Quevedo, and the masters of picaresque fiction.
Clarin dates its renascence from the political revolution of 1868, which gave Spanish literature the freedom necessary to the fiction that studies to reflect modern life, actual ideas, and current aspirations; and though its authors were few at first, "they have never been adventurous spirits, friends of Utopia, revolutionists, or impatient progressists and reformers." He thinks that the most daring, the most advanced, of the new Spanish novelists, and the best by far, is Don Benito Perez Galdos.
A JOURNEY IN THE HEART OF SPAIN
When they had proceeded some distance on their way and had left behind them the hovels of Villahorrenda, the traveller, who was young and handsome spoke thus:
" Tell me, Senor Solon-"
" Licurgo, at your service."
" Senor Licurgo, I mean. But I was right in giving you the name of a wise legislator of antiquity. Excuse the mistake. But to come to the point. Tell me, how is my aunt?"
" As handsome as ever," answered the peasant, pushing his beast forward a little. "Time seems to stand still with Senora Dona Perfecta. They say that God gives long life to the good, and if that is so that angel of the Lord ought to live a thousand years. If all the blessings that are showered on her in this world were feathers, the senora would need no other wings to go up to heaven with."
" And my cousin, Senorita Rosario?"
" The senora over again!" said the peasant. "What more can I tell you of Dona Rosarito but that that she is the living image of her mother? You will have a treasure, Senor Don Jose, if it is true, as I hear, that you have come to be married to her. She will be a worthy mate for you, and the young lady will have nothing to complain of, either. Between Pedro and Pedro the difference is not very great."
" And Senor Don Cayetano?"
" Buried in his books as usual. He has a library bigger than the cathedral; and he roots up the earth, besides, searching for stones covered with fantastical scrawls, that were written, they say, by the Moors."
" How soon shall we reach Orbajosa?"
" By nine o'clock, God willing. How delighted the senora will be when she sees her nephew! And yesterday, Senorita Rosario was putting the room you are to have in order. As they have never seen you, both mother and daughter think of nothing else but what Senor Don Jose is like, or is not like. The time has now come for letters to be silent and tongues to talk. The young lady will see her cousin and all will be joy and merry-making. If God wills, all will end happily, as the saying is."
" As neither my aunt nor my cousin has yet seen me," said the traveller smiling, "it is not wise to make plans."
" That's true; for that reason it was said that the bay horse is of one mind and he who saddles him of another," answered the peasant. "But the face does not lie. What a jewel you are getting! and she, what a handsome man!"
The young man did not hear Uncle Licurgo's last words, for he was preoccupied with his own thoughts. Arrived at a bend in the road, the peasant turned his horse's head in another direction, saying:
" We must follow this path now. The bridge is broken, and the river can only be forded at the Hill of the Lilies."
" The Hill of the Lilies," repeated the cavalier, emerging from his revery. "How abundant beautiful names are in these unattractive localities! Since I have been travelling in this part of the country the terrible irony of the names is a constant surprise to me. Some place that is remarkable for its barren aspect and the desolate sadness of the landscape is called Valleameno (Pleasant Valley). Some wretched mud-walled village stretched on a barren plain and proclaiming its poverty in diverse ways has the insolence to call itself Villarica (Rich Town); and some arid and stony ravine, where not even the thistles can find nourishment, calls itself, nevertheless, Valdeflores (Vale of Flowers). That hill in front of us is the Hill of the Lilies? But where, in Heaven's name, are the lilies? I see nothing but stones and withered grass. Call it Hill of Desolation, and you will be right. With the exception of Villahorrenda, whose appearance corresponds with its name, all is irony here. Beautiful words, a prosaic and mean reality. The blind would be happy in this country, which for the tongue is a Paradise and for the eyes a hell."
Senor Licurgo either did not hear the young man's words, or, hearing, he paid no attention to them. When they had forded the river, which, turbid and impetuous, hurried on with impatient haste, as if fleeing from its own hands, the peasant pointed with outstretched arm to some barren and extensive fields that were to be seen on the left, and said:
" Those are the Poplars of Bustamante."
" My lands!" exclaimed the traveller joyfully, gazing at the melancholy fields illumined by the early morning light. "For the first time, I see the patrimony which I inherited from my mother. The poor woman used to praise this country so extravagantly, and tell me so many marvellous things about it when I was a child, that I thought that to be here was to be in heaven. Fruits, flowers, game, large and small; mountains, lakes, rivers, romantic streams, pastoral hills, all were to be found in the Poplars of Bustamante; in this favored land, the best and most beautiful on the earth. But what is to be said? The people of this place live in their imaginations. If I had been brought here in my youth, when I shared the ideas and the enthusiasm of my dear mother, I suppose that I, too, would have been enchanted with these bare hills, these arid or marshy plains, these dilapidated farmhouses, these rickety norias, whose buckets drip water enough to sprinkle half a dozen cabbages, this wretched and barren desolation that surrounds me."
" It is the best land in the country," said Senor Licurgo; "and for the chick-pea, there is no other like it."
" I am delighted to hear it, for since they came into my possession these famous lands have never brought me a penny."
The wise legislator of Sparta scratched his ear and gave a sigh.
" But I have been told," continued the young man, "that some of the neighboring proprietors have put their ploughs in these estates of mine, and that, little by little, they are filching them from me. Here there are neither landmarks nor boundaries, nor real ownership, Senor Licurgo."
The peasant, after a pause, during which his subtle intellect seemed to be occupied in profound disquisitions, expressed himself as follows:
" Uncle Paso Largo, whom, for his great foresight, we call the Philosopher, set his plough in the Poplars, above the hermitage, and bit by bit, he has gobbled up six fanegas."
" What an incomparable school!" exclaimed the young man, smiling. "I wager that he has not been the only-philosopher?"
" It is a true saying that one should talk only about what one knows, and that if there is food in the dove-cote, doves won't be wanting. But you, Senor Don Jose, can apply to your own cause the saying that the eye of the master fattens the ox, and now that you are here, try and recover your property."
" Perhaps that would not be so easy, Senor Licurgo," returned the young man, just as they were entering a path bordered on either side by wheat-fields, whose luxuriance and early ripeness gladdened the eye. "This field appears to be better cultivated. I see that all is not dreariness and misery in the Poplars."
The peasant assumed a melancholy look, and, affecting something of disdain for the fields that had been praised by the traveller, said in the humblest of tones:
" Senor, this is mine."
" I beg your pardon," replied the gentleman quickly; "now I was going to put my sickle in your field. Apparently the philosophy of this place is contagious."
They now descended into a canebrake, which formed the bed of a shallow and stagnant brook, and, crossing it, they entered a field full of stones and without the slightest trace of vegetation.
" This ground is very bad," said the young man, turning round to look at his companion and guide, who had remained a little behind. "You will hardly be able to derive any profit from it, for it is all mud and sand."
Licurgo, full of humility, answered:
" This is yours."
" I see that all the poor land is mine," declared the young man, laughing good-humoredly.
As they were thus conversing, they turned again into the high-road. The morning sunshine, pouring joyously through all the gates and balconies of the Spanish horizon, had now inundated the fields with brilliant light. The wide sky, undimmed by a single cloud, seemed to grow wider and to recede further from the earth, in order to contemplate it, and rejoice in the contemplation, from a greater height. The desolate, treeless land, straw-colored at intervals, at intervals of the color of chalk, and all cut up into triangles and quadrilaterals, yellow or black, gray or pale green, bore a fanciful resemblance to a beggar's cloak spread out in the sun. On that miserable cloak Christianity and Islamism had fought with each other epic battles. Glorious fields, in truth, but the combats of the past had left them hideous!
" I think we shall have a scorching day, Senor Licurgo," said the young man, loosening his cloak a little. "What a dreary road! Not a single tree to be seen, as far as the eye can reach. Here everything is in contradiction. The irony does not cease. Why, when there are no poplars here, either large or small, should this be called The...