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On the Plain In Spain

ISSUE:  Winter 1982

Editor’s note: In August 1919, Dudley Poore and John Dos Passos, both freshly discharged from the U.S. Army, met in Paris and headed south with the intention of crossing into Spain, where they planned to remain for some months—they set no precise limits on their stay. Although Dos Passos had a Spanish visa, Poore had none, so he entered the land illegally by wading across the Bidassoa River, which marked the national border, near the town of Hendaye. During the fall and winter they journeyed widely while living primarily in Madrid, Granada, then Madrid again. Much of the time a third American, Arthur McComb, a friend of theirs from Harvard, resided with them. Frequently they enjoyed the company of Spanish acquaintances, chief among them being Jose Giner y Pantoja, whom Dos Passos had known during the fall of 1916 and the first months of 1917. Dos Passos and McComb departed Madrid early in the spring of 1920; Poore remained some weeks longer to absorb the life of Spain before he too departed to rejoin Dos Passos in Paris.

What follows is an excerpt from a longer piece that Poore has written about this stay in a Spain largely untouched by the ravages of World War 1 and as yet unaffected by the industrialization that was overtaking the rest of Western Europe. For him, as for his friends, it was an idyllic moment after the horrors he and Dos Passos had witnessed as ambulance drivers on the Western Front and later in the mountains along the Austrian border in Italy. They were aspiring writers; they admired the Spanish character; and they were free to move about as they pleased.

Dudley Poore, born in 1893, was a sophomore at Harvard the spring of 1915 when he met Dos Passos. They soon became fast friends and were part of a group that included McComb, E. E. Cummings, Robert Hillyer, and Stewart Mitchell. Poore was graduated from college in 1917 and immediately joined the American Field Service as an ambulance driver. After the war and his sojourn in Spain, he became a free-lance writer during the twenties, publishing frequently in the Dial. From 1930—1939 he taught at Harvard and Radcliffe, then free-lanced until 1944, when he joined the Department of State, where he served until his retirement in 1961. He now resides in Winter Haven, Florida, during the winter and Marietta, New York, during the summer.

Soon after Christmas in 1919, alone with Dos Passos— Dos to me—and his friend José Giner y Pantoja, I shared a series of weekly excursions that took us deep into the vast treeless plain that stretches southward from Madrid to La Mancha, a land swept by icy gales in winter and in summer by blasts of searing heat. Content with the life that went on within its crumbling walls, each and every one of its obscure but proud and ancient towns considered itself the center of the universe and prided itself on the possession of some unique feature, be it an altarpiece signed by a great if unrecognized name, a ruined castle of the rarest architectural merit, the tomb of a beatified nun, a form of pottery made nowhere else, or a variety of pastry admitted by all good judges to be the best in Spain. That the inhabitants looked on all strangers with suspicion need hardly be added; they regarded outlanders in the next town as barbarians of uncouth speech and manners. Any native who consorted with them was a renegade certain to end badly. As right-thinking citizens, they approved the views expressed in the folksongs I had heard in the north: there is no happiness for the man who leaves his native place, the plainsman cannot live on the mountain, the goodness of a man’s heart is of one substance with his own soil and family.

To all this region, poor in altarpieces of the first rank, devoid of architectural masterpieces, and hence passed over with scanty mention in books of travel, a guide better informed than Giner or more companionable would have been hard to find. At first, because of his dignity, his exquisitely formal courtesy, and something of the hidalgo (nobleman) in his manner, I took him to be older than he was. After a little, observing how his warm brown eyes looked at us with playful affection over his brown beard, I saw that he was younger than I had thought, perhaps not much older than we. If at first we never addressed one another in the familiar second person singular, if it was only after some time that we ventured to call him Pepe as his Spanish intimates did, the enduring attachment that grew up between us on these long walks was evident enough in other ways. It was through him, when he took us to his family home at El Pardo, that I had my only glimpse of a Spanish interior, a favor rarely accorded to foreigners in those days. There stays with me the picture of his smiling elderly parents in their armchairs beside a dying log fire in the twilight of the winter afternoon; of his austere bedroom no bigger than a monk’s cell with its bare walls and narrow cot covered with a rough blanket, its reading lamp and heaps of books on chair and floor, among them Cossio’s classic study of El Greco, Beruete’s Velazquez, and an assortment of scholarly works on Spanish art and archaeology.

A descendant of 19th-century liberals (Francisco Giner de los Rios who had been imprisoned by the Bourbons for his efforts in the cause of secular education, was, I gathered, a family connection), he shared with his kind a horror of the bullfight and of militarism. His disapproval of uniforms I encountered on one of our expeditions. Leaning from the window of our train to watch a cavalry detachment in blue and scarlet coats galloping through the sunlight and shadow of a pine wood, I turned to see Giner looking at me with a grave face. “Are you a militarist?” he asked not unkindly but with more than a touch of reproof. Too late I saw that by taking a detached pleasure in the scene before us I had lowered myself in his regard. It saddened him to find me capable of indulging in a luxury of the eye at the sight of those blue and scarlet coats, while remaining, as it seemed, indifferent to all the evil their existence implied. That this cavalry exercise was a mimic battle carried out in preparation for a real one he could not overlook. I had wounded and disappointed him. In time, I think, I was able to convince him that I was hardly warlike. Luckily he never learned how I once came to have a bullfighter for a roommate, an episode I kept quite secret. Knowing his unbounded kindness, I believe he would have forgiven me even that. How it happened that I took no active steps to avoid an association so degrading he could hardly be expected to understand.

From the liberalism of his forebears Giner differed in one respect: he was untouched by any vestige of French or other anticlericalism. On our ramblings he never failed to make the dutiful gesture at each sacred spot. The beatified nun in her dusty tomb received the reverence of his bended knee. Yet when the Civil War came this did not help him. Though he had taken no part in politics, his family traditions were remembered at the time of the Civil War. This, and I presume also his dislike of generals, even when Catholic, forced him to choose between exile and assassination. All goodness and benevolence, he took me under his protection in 1920 when my American friends had left Madrid. Few days passed when he failed to stop at my door in Nuñez de Arce and, if I were absent, leave a scribbled message on a visiting card bordered with a black band. His passion for music, the equal of mine, led us to meet often at concerts during my last months in Madrid. Then as always his good humor was irresistible. Smiling through his beard, he would ask to see my passport photo and say, shaking his head, “Tan ingenuoso” as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. Precocious in some ways and not easily taken in, I was younger than my years in others and doubtless showed it. I am still not certain whether it was evidence of this discrepancy or something else that so amused him.

Our habit on the morning of these expeditions was to leave Madrid before daylight. As on a day in Christmas week when Dos and I went to Toledo, we were far out on the plain before the rising sun reddened the passengers’ faces and flushed with pink the walls of distant houses till then hidden by winter fog. Arriving at our chosen station did not mean that we had reached the town for which it was named. In the days of railroad-building, jealous of their separateness, scornful of the world outside, indifferent to the supposed advantages of commerce, the townspeople had not allowed any railway to come too close. Once out of the train what we saw a mile or more away was a huddle of dust-colored houses crouching low round an over-sized church. Then, with the altarpiece by Carlo Coello or Alonso Cano examined, the scanty remains of the castle visited, the local pastry sampled, we headed for the next town, as yet a mere pinpoint on the horizon. This moment of setting forth, of putting our feet to the road, more than paintings, tombs, or ruins, was what we had come for: to breathe the smell of moist earth that rose from newly plowed furrows, to see a stork just arrived from Africa trailing long legs overhead or a raven straining against a moving cloud, to feel a biting wind on our cheeks and in the same moment the sun hot on our shoulders, to see our boots little by little whiten with road-dust. Slowly the tower on the horizon, at first no wider than the point of a needle, lifted itself from the plain as the one behind us shrank down and was lost to sight. Arrived at length in the new town, we gave it such attention as it seemed to deserve and went on. Our lunch we ate when we were hungry, sitting by the roadside or, if the wind were sharp, in the hollow of a ditch. On the first day this was usually the cold potato omelette, the bread and cheese and wine we had brought with us. By the second we were content with what we could find where we had slept or trusted to a luck that did not always favor us.

Of these quick glimpses into a town, a number remain with me only as place names—Ocaña, Anover, Olias del Rey—or as disconnected scenes. In one, glimpsed from across the Tagus, there appeared the pink walls of the palace at Aranjuez shining in wintry sunlight among the bare elms and plane trees of its park. In the dark church at Yepes there rose before us a vast smoke-blackened retablo by Luis Tristan, pupil of El Greco, in which the master’s elongated forms, exaggerated to the verge of parody, might have passed for a nest of squirming whitish larvae. Entering ocaa on a Sunday afternoon, we surprised the entire population in the midst of a paseo. Round and round the square two closely packed groups were circulating, fathers and sons in one, wives and daughters in the other. Since in those days the sexes could not mingle in public, the paseo was an important ceremony, an opportunity not to be missed for a boy and a girl to exchange a glance of meaning, for matrons to note who was absent and set about finding out why, for gossip to rise and spread. At Bargas by the feeble glow of a naked electric bulb we tried vainly to see the Saint Francis by El Greco that stood above a side altar. To give us more light the custodian opened the wide church door; then, as this did not greatly help us, he invited us to climb the altar itself for a nearer view. “No hay profanation?” said Giner anxiously before consenting. Assured that the altar was no longer in use, that the Sacrament had been removed, and that the act could not be held impious, each of us climbed up in turn, powdering our knees with the yellow dust that had accumulated under the lace altarcloth. Against a dark background the kneeling Saint, robed in silvery gray, eyes lifted to heaven till they appeared about to enter his head, was delicately fondling a skull in tapering fingers. The canvas, crudely tacked to a panel, showed wrinkles in the upper section. Below on the left a monk looked upward with hands reverently clasped. Down in the right-hand corner on a bit of white parchment, rendered as almost to deceive the eye, the artist’s signature appeared in small Greek characters as fresh as if painted an hour ago. Much elated, Giner displayed all the pleasure natural to a curator of paintings at the Prado. The inspection had convinced him that this was the first and best of a series of related compositions now widely scattered, A good number of them, including one in the Prado itself, were almost certainly inferior school pieces.

Of the walk we took on a weekend in February I have a more connected recollection. This time we let our morning train carry us to Mascaraque on the border of La Mancha. In its empty streets not a living creature stirred, not even a cat. To Mora, by contrast, prosperity had come in the shape of a soap factory. There was life in the streets, a casino, a public garden, excellent pastries. Women crowded the fountain and filled water-jars of a design peculiar to the place. Against low white walls there passed as on a frieze a procession of donkeys carrying sacks of olives to the factory, while evidence abounded that the riches spilling from the soap-vats had overflowed into the church. Six priests now served it, we were proudly told, where one had sufficed before. The original windows had been given a new shape. On the old stonework of the nave a design representing masonry had been painted in gold and black. Crystal chandeliers lighted the choir, and beside the altar steps a pair of armchairs upholstered in rose damask offered solace to aged ecclesiastical bones.

At Orgaz, where we arrived a little before nightfall, we found ourselves back in a 17th-century world of galleried inns and strolling players. Delighted by the group of windmills outside the town—a sign that we were approaching La Mancha or already in it—and by the ancient look of the inn as we entered its patio, we were unprepared to be denied admittance. Looking at us suspiciously from under her black kerchief, the proprietress shook her head. No, she did not admit tinkers, gypsies, or comicos, this last being her word for actors. She had just broken her rule by taking pity on a small troupe and did not want any more. We had better keep on to Sonseca. There would be a moon later. In any case we had only to follow the road.

Giner stood his ground. We were not comicos but respectable professors of art and letters visiting this ancient and famous region to admire its architectural glories and other wonders. Though he poured the honey somewhat thickly, she did not find it too sweet. Slowly, over the muttered warnings of her bearded mother, she began to soften and at last consented to receive us. Once she had made her decision, she did not look back but treated us with increasing warmth, showed us our rooms—cold, windowless cubicles furnished with clean if lumpy beds and prickly blankets— and entered into consultation with Giner as to what she might be able to offer us in the way of food.

While somewhere outside the ingredients were being collected and the meal prepared, we explored the town. The moon, if there was really going to be one, had not risen. In the empty streets where now and again the shadow of a carved escutcheon or a wrought iron window-grating slanted on a white wall, a member of the Guardia Civil asked us who we were. Satisfied with Giner’s reply, he became friendly and without irony urged us to accept the hospitality of the police station when we wished to warm ourselves. Beyond the last houses, nothing but night around us, we were startled by the array of stars overhead. As we stood there, silenced by the sight, from somewhere on an invisible road rose the voice of a donkey boy singing an ancient air of the region. The song lifted in a slow curve, paused, descended by unexpected intervals, and ended with a curly figure and a long-drawn note. “What are the words?” I said to Giner. “En el hombre manda Dios y en el burro mando yo” he replied. “God leads my way, I my donkey’s,” or so, freely rendered, I took this to mean.

Back in the kitchen of the inn, where three or four muleteers were eating from a communal bowl, spearing crusts with their knives, we were invited to warm ourselves under the wide overhang of the chimney-place. We now stood in high favor. Leona the proprietress, well-pleased to have us under her roof on what were doubtless profitable terms, appeared eager to efface all memory of earlier ungraciousness. Her mother turned from blowing up the fire with a pair of bellows to give us a toothless smile, and the muleteers examined us with an undisguised curiosity in which there was nothing unfriendly. The comicos, whom we now met, welcomed us as a possible addition to their hoped-for audience. There were four of them: the actor who took the leading parts, his travel-worn but lively, undefeated wife Anastasia, a faintly pretty younger woman, and a consumptive youth, all undernourished. While Anastasia cooked a mess of potatoes, the husband expanded in his resonant actor’s voice on the many cities he had known between Irun and Cadiz, praising some for their culture, damning others for their indifference to the arts. From this he passed to the story of his life. Tiring of the seminary after eleven years, he had run away. “I suppose your wife had something to do with that,” said one of the muleteers. As Anastasia replied to this in kind, a brisk exchange of fire followed, several volleys coming from the muleteers and several more from Anastasia herself, yet none with a trace of hostility. Had George Borrow been present in our place, all this might have gone straight into The Bible in Spain without the need to change a word.

To our regret, just as we were wishing for more, Leona called us away to supper in the cold inside room she called the comedor. It was not fitting that persons of quality should eat anywhere but in a dining room. She brought us garlic soup, potatoes in a saffron sauce, a loaf of bread, some hard cheese, and a bottle of wine. Then, standing over us in her straight gown, her lips curled in a sly smile, her eyes bright with malice under her black kerchief, she told us about the wedding party being held that same evening somewhere in the town and described with relish certain unforeseen obstacles which had delayed the signing of the marriage contract. Some time later, huddled in our cold beds as we sought a position where the lumps in the mattress did not cut too sharply, we heard the marriage party going home. Then cocks crowed, early bells rang, bowls of chocolate steamed in the kitchen, and we were on a road in the frosty morning. Somewhere a slow bell, deeper than the others, tolled with a muffled, underground note; level sunlight burned on the tower of a distant castle, and the windmills of Orgaz grew small behind us.

Once again a number of remote towns lay before us, beads loosely threaded on a string of little-traveled roads, each like the next at first glance, each different at closer view. At Sonseca our need to sample the local pastries known as marquesitas, a choice variety of marzipan, cost us the sight of an admired altarpiece. By the time we reached the church, a priest in a green and gold cape, assisted by two small acolytes bearing lighted candles on tall poles, had begun to say mass. Outside the town gate, where blindfolded mules walked round and round drawing water from a well, three smiling recruits, undernourished boys hardly old enough to be soldiers, ran after us holding out their new caps. Custom allowed them to beg for a week and with the sum so collected hold a party before going off to die in some now-forgotten war with Morocco. We bent against an icy wind, the sun hot on our shoulders, the gray reaches of the plain all about us, and walked on. Ajofrin boasted a plateresque grille, once the possessor of two works by El Greco, but it had lost the better part of its claim to note, or so we thought on finding the paintings removed to the cathedral at Toledo. Somewhere between these places a cheeky young fellow joined us for a while, dressed in a corduroy suit with a red geranium behind his ear. Finding his attempt to learn who and what we were thwarted by Giner’s short answers, he became cautious and soon left us. A chulo (dandy), Giner called him afterwards, giving the word an unflattering sense.

All in all this was a day of cold and hunger, memorable for a loaf of bread and a surprise at the end. We trusted we would find food on the way so had brought nothing with us from Orgaz. Cold and famished, unable to find so much as an orange or a dried fig, we came in a happy moment upon a bakery whence issued a fragrance that surpassed even the celestial lilies from a saint’s tomb, I remember few things more toothsome than the warm, crusty, delicately browned loaf we found there. The baker took pity on us and gave us a bottle of wine from his private store. These unexpected gifts of fortune we ate and drank on the edge of a plowed field, our backs against an almond tree, while withered petals showered us and gathered in the newly opened furrows. The surprise at the day’s end lay in the manner of our approach to Toledo. Judging by the hour and the distance we had walked, the city should have been near at hand, yet no sign of it appeared. The explanation when it came was simple enough: the plain we were crossing was higher than the town. I was puzzled when I saw just ahead of us four conical objects resembling oversized candle-snuffers, which before my eyes transformed themselves into the four turrets of the Alcazar. A few more steps and we stood on the brink of a crater and saw the roofs of the city below us in the pale sunlight of the winter afternoon, circled by the flooded Tagus in its deep gorge.

We had now to scramble down a steep path into the dusk of the crater, the angry voice of the river growing louder as we descended. A signal of the ferryman on the other side, a wait in an appalling uproar of waters till he reached us on straining toothpick oars, then we crowded into a shallow skiff as thin and brittle as a dried leaf. The hideous yellow current that foamed at our gunnels seized us in its grasp, swept us into midstream, played a while with the notion of breaking an oar and taking us into the rapids below, but changed its mind and allowed our impassive boatman to make shore, pocket his fee without looking at it, and wish us good night. Content with the miles we had covered, we were glad to catch the first train to Madrid. Once in my seat, drugged with fresh air, footsore and happy, I promptly fell asleep and knew nothing till the train stopped and I felt my friends poking me in the ribs and telling me to wake up.

Another different journey I made with Dos that winter took us to Segovia. Dos’s purpose was to see and talk with the poet Antonio Machado. As I did not wish to intrude on an interview where I could only be in the way, I passed the time exploring the town. On my return to the station a little before train-time, I saw Dos also approaching the station, attended by a little escort of honor, Machado himself in its midst. My impression of the poet is clear. I see a large pear-shaped body in a long double-breasted coat heavily spotted with what appeared to be stains of food. Surmounting this, I see a large pear-shaped face wearing a look of gentle, smiling abstraction. There he stood with something of the shy, overgrown boy in his look, present in the flesh but in the spirit far away, clearly a person with no capacity for meeting the demands of daily life. Trying not to see those distressing spots that afforded literary circles in Madrid too much amusement, I wondered how it came about that no one took the trouble to remove them or provide him with another coat for public occasions. Perhaps, oblivious as he was to the outward aspect of things, a new one would soon have been as soiled as the first. Nothing but good nature required him to come on foot to see a young unknown journalist on his way. While the members of his escort chatted with Dos—who they were I never discovered—he stood in silence till our train left, endearingly patient and unassuming, the absent smile still on his large colorless face. He had been a poor schoolmaster all his life in places as far apart as Soria and Sevilla and was now a poor schoolmaster in Segovia. It was in the nature of things that when the Civil War came, he found himself on the losing side, took refuge in France—if refuge is the word—and died of exposure and starvation among the sand dunes of Argeles, doomed from the start to the kind of end that has often awaited the gentle and unworldly in times such as ours.


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