AT A very little distance from Madrid you may already discern against the horizon the outline of the steeple of Coveña, which is one of the handsomest edifices of New Castile; and all the thitherward way it is before you, standing against the sky as a landmark to the traveller.
The people are so proud of having a church which bears so unusual a proportion to the size of their village, that they will not allow it was designed by any architect of less renown than Juan de Herrera, the architect of the Escorial, whom another tradition declares to have had a hand in the works at St. Peter's, in Rome.
Nor are they satisfied with the mere statement; they are also very circumstantial in their account of his connexion with it, though both are declared to be quite apocryphal. They say he was so pleased with this work of his genius that he had it produced entirely under his own eye. He watched while the foundations were laid, while the materials were collected round the spot, while every stone was laid in its place; in fact, he was never tired of looking at it: now he would take a long walk into the country to enjoy its appearance in the distant view; now he would stand in the plaza beneath, and gaze up at the storied decorations with which his fancy had invested it; now he would mount the interior staircase of the tower, and look down from the monument he had raised, upon the insignificant dwellings with which it was surrounded.
On one of these latter expeditions he observed that he was one day followed by Andres, his son, a boy of some fifteen years of age. The circumstance pleased him, because he had noticed with growing sorrow that Andres on many occasions had failed to display that fearless disposition which is the characteristic of a brave and generous spirit. Through an opening in the tracery he turned to watch, from a higher stage, the boy's proceedings. For a certain distance he mounted steadily enough, but in proportion as he got higher and had completed more turnings, giddiness seemed to overcome him. Juan de Herrera began to lose patience. The boy wiped the perspiration from his forehead, and sat down in a recess. Herrera felt so provoked that he could not restrain an impetuous movement; slight as was the attendant noise, it struck upon the boy's excited nerves; he started from his resting-place, trembling like an aspen leaf.
"What's the matter, Andres, my boy?" cried his father, to reassure him: "it is only I, your father."
"I'm all right!" replied Andres, ashamed to be caught under a display of weakness.
"Then come on, boy; and don't sit panting like a broken-winded horse. There, put your head out of that slit in the wall, and look down and see what a fine height I have made this tower. You'll see Dolores and Pepito and Luis and Mariquilla playing in the plaza, and they will look like ants from this high tower."
Andres somewhat recovered from his exertions and his alarm, and, curious to see his playmates looking "like ants," summoned sufficient courage to put his head through the loophole.
For the first time the boy experienced the effect of the giddy height; he hung back and turned pale, then pressed his hands against the wall for support.
"Coward! you don't mean to say you are afraid!" exclaimed Juan de Herrera.
"Oh--no--I'm not afraid," stammered poor Andres, making a convulsive effort to look out through the slit once more.
This time he remained so long opposite the opening and so steadily, that his father hoped he had got over the first fears; but, watching him anxiously, he observed, as he at length turned away, that he had his eyes closed.
Indignant that his son should not have as robust courage as the peasant boys of the village, and still more that he should not be in a condition to enjoy his favourite structure, Juan de Herrera, unable to master his irritation, loaded the boy with reproaches; and Andres slunk away, grieved at having distressed his father, yet unable to summon courage sufficient to satisfy his wishes.
Some days after this, the consecration of the church took place, and the municipal functionaries invited the architect and his son to a banquet on the occasion, at which were assembled all the notabilities of the place, as well as many from neighbouring villages, and even from Madrid. Juan de Herrera deemed, with more zeal than judgment, that this would be a favourable opportunity for curing his son of his weakness, and to effect this narrated to the company the circumstance stated above.
"Father, it was a passing folly," cried the boy, burning with shame; "give me an opportunity, and I will show you that I do not deserve your opinion."
There was a pause, for the boy spoke with such thrilling earnestness that the smile of derision which had been raised at his expense died away from every lip.
"The galera  has just brought down the cross and ball for the summit of the steeple," continued Andres; "let me go up and place it, and I shall have had the merit of crowning your work."
"You will never dare it!" answered Juan de Herrera contemptuously.
"Let me show you I am not so bad," pleaded Andres.
"Bear in mind, boy, that if your courage fails when you get to that height it will cost you your life."
"Don't be afraid; my courage will not be wanting," replied Andres.
"Be it so then," rejoined Juan de Herrera; "to-morrow you shall show what you are worth," and he clasped the boy's hand to encourage him in his courageous resolution, and all round the table applauded his pluck.
The next morning found all who were at the banquet, and many more whose curiosity the report of the story had excited, gathered in the plaza round the Church of Coveña. There at the foot of the steeple lay shining the huge cross and ball, newly clad with gilding and bound with strong ropes, by means of which it was to be hoisted over the ready adjusted pulleys into its place.
"If you don't feel up to the mark, you had better give in, even now!" whispered Juan de Herrera, under the porch. "It is still time; and, mind, it is no easy task!"
"My head is quite steady," answered Andres, piqued to find his father still doubted his daring; and, his head erect, without waiting to hear another word of warning, he commenced the ascent of the spiral stair at a rapid pace.
Not altogether free from uneasiness, Juan de Herrera went out to watch the result from the stone cross in the centre of the plaza. The whole crowd was nearly as breathless and anxious as the father, but before two minutes had elapsed Andres was seen emerging from behind one of the pinnacles of a platform, level with the beam on which the bell had been hung a few days before.
A shudder seized the throng, for some one whispered that he had heard the bell sound as the youth passed by, and the rest took up the words and repeated under their breath with superstitious terror, "La campana ha tocado á muerto !"
Herrera, meantime, stood leaning against the cross a little way from the crowd, and too much absorbed to catch the report. He seemed quite tranquil and had heard no sound.
Most probably the lad had touched the clapper as he passed it.
Meantime Andres was steadily mounting a step-ladder placed on the roof by which the final stage was to be reached, and from the steps was engaged in arranging the support that was to receive the ball.
The workmen below were drawing the pulleys, and the ornament had nearly reached the summit; as it rose, Andres had to mount two steps more. He raised his foot, but his courage failed.
"My son is lost, for he hesitates!" cried the terror-stricken father, in a hoarse voice.
The multitude took up the cry; but, simultaneously with its utterance, the luckless boy was precipitated to the ground, dashing against one of the buttresses as he fell.
Juan de Herrera, adds the tradition, was never seen to smile again.
One day he went up to the top of the lantern of St. Lorenzo of the Escorial, and gazed over towards Coveña. It seemed to him that he saw two fiery eyes glaring upon him from the steeple which had once been his pride.
Eight days after he was found a corpse. It was the anniversary of the death of his son.