The Strand Magazine/Volume 1/Issue 3/The Architect's Wife
The Architect's Wife.
From the Spanish of Antonio Trueba.
[Antonio Trueba, who is still alive, was born on Christmas Eve, 1821, at Sopuerta, in Spain. As in the case of Burns, his father was a peasant, and Antonio, as a child, played in the gutters with the other village urchins, or worked with his father in the fields. But at fifteen, one of his relations, who kept a shop at Madrid, made him his assistant. By day he waited on the customers; by night he studied in his room. Genius like that of Burns and of Trueba cannot be kept down. Like Burns, the boy began to put forth songs, strong, sweet, and simple, which stirred the people's hearts like music, and soon were hummed in every village street. His fame spread; it reached the Court; and Queen Isabella bestowed upon him the lofty title of Queen's Poet. He wrote also, and still writes, prose stories of all kinds, but mostly such as, like the following, belong to the romance of history, and are rather truth than fiction.]
OWARDS the middle of the fourteenth century, Toledo was laid under siege by Don Enrique de Trastamara; but the city, faithful to the King surnamed "the Cruel," offered a brave and obstinate resistance.
Often had the loyal and valiant Toledans crossed the magnificent bridge of San Martin—one of the structures of greatest beauty of that city of splendid erections—and had cast themselves on the encampment of Don Enrique, which was pitched on the Cigarrales, causing sad havoc to the besieging army.
In order to prevent the repetition of these attacks, Don Enrique resolved upon destroying the bridge.
The Cigarrales, upon which the army was camped, were beautiful lands enclosing luxuriant orchards, pleasure gardens, and summer residences. The fame of their beauty had inspired Tirso and many Spanish poets to sing its praises.
One night the luxuriant trees were cut down by the soldiers of Don Enrique, and heaped upon the bridge. At day-dawn an immense fire raged on the bridge of San Martin, which assumed huge proportions, its sinister gleams lighting up the devastating hordes, the flowing current of the Tagus, the Palace of Don Rodrigo, and the little Arab Tower. The crackling of the strong and massive pillars, worked with all the exquisite skill of the artificers who created the marvels of the Alhambra, sounded like the piteous cry of Art oppressed by barbarism.
The Toledans, awakened by this terrible spectacle, ran to save the beautiful erection from the utter ruin which menaced it, but all their efforts were unavailing. A tremendous crash, which resounded throughout the creeks and valleys watered by the Tagus, told them that the bridge no longer existed.
Alas! it was too true!
"Maidens returned sorrowfully with empty pitchers."
When the rising sun gilded the cupolas of the Imperial City, the Toledan maidens who came down to the river to fill their pitchers from the pure and crystal stream, returned sorrowfully with empty pitchers on their heads; the clear waters had become turbid and muddy, for the roaring waves were carrying down the still smoking ruins of the bridge.
Popular indignation rose to its highest pitch, and overflowed all limits; for the bridge of San Martin was the only path that led to the lovely Cigarrales.
Joining their forces for one supreme effort, the Toledans made a furious onslaught on the camp, and, after blood had flowed in torrents, compelled the army to take flight.
Many years passed since the bridge of San Martin had been destroyed.
Kings and Archbishops had projected schemes to replace it by another structure, of equal strength and beauty; but the genius and perseverance of the most famous architects were unable to carry out their wishes. The rapid, powerful currents of the river destroyed and swept away the scaffolding and framework before the gigantic arches could be completed.
Don Pedro Tenorio, Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo, to whom the city owes her glory almost as much as to her Kings, sent criers throughout the cities and towns of Spain, inviting architects, Christian and Moorish, to undertake the reconstruction of the bridge of San Martin; but with no result. The difficulties to be encountered were judged insurmountable.
At length one day a man and a woman, complete strangers to the place, entered Toledo through the Cambron Gate. They carefully inspected the ruined bridge. Then they engaged a small house near the ruins, and proceeded to take up their quarters there.
On the following day the man proceeded to the Archbishop's Palace.
His Eminence was holding a conference of prelates, learned men, and distinguished knights, who were attracted by his piety and wisdom.
Great was his joy when one of his attendants announced that an architect from distant lands solicited the honour of an audience.
The Cardinal Archbishop hastened to receive the stranger. The first salutations over, his Eminence bade him be seated.
"My Lord Archbishop," began the stranger, "my name, which is unknown to your Eminence, is Juan de Arèvalo, and I am an architect by profession."
"Are you come in answer to the invitation I have issued calling upon skilful architects to come and rebuild the bridge of San Martin, which in former times afforded a passage between the city and the Cigarrales?"
"It was indeed that invitation which brought me to Toledo."
"Are you aware of the difficulties of its construction?"
"I am well aware of them. But I can surmount them."
"Where did you study architecture?"
"And what erection have you to show me as a proof of your skill?"
"None whatever, my lord."
The Archbishop made a gesture of impatience and distrust which was noticed by the stranger.
"I was a soldier in my youth," continued he, "but ill-health compelled me to leave the ardous profession of arms and return to Castille, the land of my birth, where I dedicated myself to the study of architecture, theoretical and practical."
"I regret,' replied the Archbishop, "that you are unable to mention any work of skill that you have carried out."
"There are some erections on the Tormes and the Duero of which others have the credit, but which ought to honour him who now addresses you."
"I do not understand you."
"I was poor and obscure," rejoined Juan de Arèvalo, "and I sought only to earn bread and shelter. Glory I left to others."
"I deeply regret," replied Don Pedro Tenorio, "that you have no means of assuring us that we should not trust in you in vain."
"My lord, I can offer you one guarantee which I trust will satisfy your Eminence."
"What is that?"
"When the framework of the centre arch shall be removed, I, the architect, will stand upon the keystone. Should the bridge fall, I shall perish with it."
"I accept the guarantee."
"My lord, trust me, and I will carry out the work!"
The Archbishop pressed the hand of the architect, and Juan de Arèvalo departed, his heart full of joyous expectation. His wife was anxiously awaiting his return. She was young and handsome still, despite the ravages of want and suffering.
"Catherine! my Catherine!" cried the architect, clasping his wife to his arms, "amid the monuments that embellish Toledo there will be one to transmit to posterity the name of Juan de Arévalo!"
Time passed. No longer could the Toledans say, on approaching the Tagus across the rugged cliffs and solitary places where in former times stood the Garden of Florinda, "Here once stood the bridge of San Martin." Though the new bridge was still supported by solid scaffolding and massive frames, yet the centre arch already rose to view, and the whole was firmly planted on the ruins of the former.
The Archbishop, Don Pedro Tenorio, and the Toledans were heaping gifts and praises on the fortunate architect whose skill had joined the central arch, despite the furious power of the surging currents, and who had completed the gigantic work with consummate daring.
It was the eve of the feast of San Ildefonso, the patron saint of the city of Toledo. Juan de Arèvalo respectfully informed the Cardinal Archbishop that nothing was now wanting to conclude the work, but to remove the woodwork of the arches and the scaffolding. The joy of the Cardinal and of the people was great. The removal of the scaffolding and frames which supported the masonry was a work attended with considerable danger; but the calmness and confidence of the architect who had pledged himself to stand on the keystone and await the consequences of success or lose his life, inspired all with perfect trust.
The solemn blessing and inauguration of the bridge of San Martin was fixed to take place on the day following, and the bells of all the churches of Toledo were joyously ringing in announcement of the grand event appointed for the morrow. The Toledans contemplated with rejoicing from the heights above the Tagus the lovely Cigarrales, which for many years had remained solitary and silent—indeed, almost abandoned—but which on the day following would be restored to life.
Towards nightfall Juan de Arèvalo mounted the central arch to see that all was ready for the opening ceremony. He went humming to himself as he inspected all the works and preparations. But, suddenly, an expression of misgiving overspread his countenance. A thought had struck him—a thought that froze his blood. He descended from the bridge and hastened home.
At the door his wife received him with a joyous smile and a merry word of congratulation. But on beholding his troubled face she turned deadly pale.
"Good heavens!" she cried, affrighted, "are you ill, dear Juan?"
"No, dear wife," he replied, striving to master his emotion.
"Do not deceive me! your face tells me that something ails you?"
"Oh! the evening is cold and the work has been excessive."
"Come in and sit down at the hearth and I will get the supper ready, and when you have had something to eat and are rested you will be at ease again!"
"At ease!" murmured Juan to himself, in agony of spirit, whilst his wife busied herself in the preparation of the supper, placing the table close to the hearth, upon which she threw a faggot.
Juan made a supreme effort to overcome his sadness, but it was futile. His wife could not be deceived.
"For the first time in our married life," she said, "you hide a sorrow from me. Am I no longer worthy of your love and confidence?"
"Catherine!" he exclaimed, "do not, for heaven's sake, grieve me further by doubting my affection for you!"
"Where there is no trust," she rejoined in feeling tones, "there can be no true love."
"Then respect, for your own good and mine, the secret I conceal from you."
"Your secret is a sorrow, and I wish to know it and to lighten it."
"To lighten it? That is impossible!"
"To such a love as mine," she urged, "nothing is impossible."
"Very well: then hear me. To-morrow my life and honour will be lost. The bridge must fall into the river, and I on the keystone shall perish with the fabric which, with so much anxiety and so many hopes, I have erected!"
"No, no!" cried Catherine, as she clasped her husband in her arms with loving tenderness, smothering in her own heart the anguish of the revelation.
"Yes, dear wife! When I was most confident of my triumph, I discovered that, owing to an error in my calculations, the bridge must fall to-morrow when the framework is removed. And with it perishes the architect who projected and directed it."
"The bridge may sink into the waters, but not you, my loved one. On bended knees I will beseech the noble Cardinal to release you from your terrible engagement."
"What you ask will be in vain. Even should the Cardinal accede to your entreaty, I refuse life destitute of honour."
"You shall have life and honour both, dear husband," replied Catherine.
It was midnight. Juan, worn out with grief and anxious work, at last had fallen asleep; a feverish sleep that partook more of the character of a nightmare than of Nature's sweet restorer.
Meanwhile his wife had for some time made a show of sleeping. But she watched her husband anxiously. When she felt certain that he had at length succumbed to a deep sleep, she softly rose, and scarcely daring to breathe, crept out into the kitchen. She opened the window gently and looked out.
The night was dark; now and again vivid flashes of lightning lit up the sky. No sound was heard save the roar of the rushing currents of the Tagus, and the sighing of the wind as it swept in and out among the scaffolding and complicated framework of the bridge.
Catherine noiselessly closed the window. From the hearth she took one of the half-burnt faggots which still smouldered, and throwing a cloak over her shoulders went out into the silent streets, her heart beating wildly.
Where was she proceeding? Was she carrying that burning faggot as a torch to light her path in the dense darkness of a moonless night? It was indeed a dangerous track, covered as it was with broken boulders, and uneven ground. Yet she strove rather to conceal the lighted wood beneath her cloak.
At last she reached the bridge. The wind still sighed and whistled, and the river continued to break its current against the pillars, as though irritated at meeting obstacles which it could no longer sweep away.
Catherine approached the buttress of the bridge. An involuntary shudder of terror passed through her frame. Was it because she stood on the edge of that abyss of roaring waters? Or was it because her hand, only accustomed hitherto to deeds of goodness, was now brandishing the torch of destruction? Or rather did she tremble because a tremendous peal of thunder at that moment resounded through the vault of heaven.
Waving the torch to kindle it afresh, she applied it to the dry, resinous wood of the scaffolding. The wood quickly ignited, and the flame, fanned by the wind, ascended with fearful rapidity, spreading and involving arches and framework and the whole structure of the bridge.
"The flame ascended with fearful rapidity."
Then she quitted the scene swiftly. Aided by the glare of the conflagration and the vivid flashes of lightning which lit up the sky, Cath- erine soon traversed the space which separated her from her home. She entered as noiselessly she had left it, and closed the door. Her husband still slept soundly, and had not missed her. Catherine again pretended to be fast asleep, as though she had never left her bed.
A few moments later, a noise of many people running arose within the city, while from every belfry the bells rang forth the terrible alarm of fire. A tremendous crash succeeded, followed by a cry of anguish such as had been uttered years before, when the besieging army wrecked the former bridge.
Juan awoke in terror; Catherine lay at his side, apparently sleeping calmly. He dressed himself in haste, and ran out to learn the reason of the uproar. To his secret joy he beheld the ruin of the burning bridge.
The Cardinal Archbishop and the Toledans attributed the disaster to a flash of lightning which had struck the central arch, and had, moreover, ignited the whole structure. The general sorrow was intense. Great also was the public sympathy with the despair which the calamity must have caused the architect, who was on the eve of a great triumph. The inhabitants never knew whether it was fire from heaven, or an accident that had caused the conflagration; but Juan de Arévalo, who was good and pious, and firmly believed in the protection of heaven, never wavered for an instant in the belief that the bridge had really been destroyed by lightning.
"At his right hand sat the architect and his noble wife."
The destruction of the bridge, however, only retarded Juan's triumph for a twelve-month. On the following year, on the same festival of San Ildefonso, his new bridge was solemnly thrown open by the Cardinal; and the joyous Toledans once more crossed the Tagus to visit the lovely grounds of the Cigarrales, which they had been deprived of for so many years. On that auspicious day the Cardinal celebrated the event by giving a magnificent banquet. At his right hand sat the architect and his noble wife; and after a highly complimentary speech from the Cardinal, the whole company, amidst a tumult of applause, conducted Juan and Catherine to their home.
Five hundred years have passed since then, but Juan's bridge still stands secure above the rushing waters of the Tagus. His second calculation had no error. The following illustration shows its appearance at the present day.