Letters from Spain

Letters from Spain
(addressed to the Director of the “Revue de Paris”)

Transcribed from Carmen, and Letters from Spain. New York: Minton, Balch and co., 1931.
For educational use only.

:  First Letter: The Bullfights
:  Second Letter: An Execution
:  Third Letter: The Robbers
:  Fourth Letter: The Spanish Witches

First Letter: The Bullfights

Madrid, 25 October 1830.

Bullfights are still very much in fashion in Spain. Among Spaniards of the upper classes there are few who do not feel a sort of shame in admitting their taste for a type of entertainment said to be exceedingly cruel, and so they seek several serious reasons to justify it. In the first place, it is a national sport. The word national, by itself, would suffice, for drawing-room patriotism is as strong in Spain as in France. Then, they say, the Romans were more barbarous than we, since they made men fight against men. Finally, the economists add, agriculture profits by this custom : the high price of fighting bulls makes it worth while for the landowners to raise large herds. We must remember that not all bulls have the faculty of attacking men and horses; out of twenty, scarcely one is brave enough to appear in the arena : the other nineteen serve for agriculture. The only argument which no one dares advance, and which, furthermore, would be unanswerable, is this : cruel or not, the spectacle is no interesting and rouses such powerful emotions, that if one can bear the shock of the first seance, one cannot give it up. Foreigners who enter the arena for the first time with a certain horror and only in order to do their duty as travellers conscientiously, are soon as enthusiastic about bull-fighting as the Spaniards themselves. It must be admitted, to the shame of humanity, that war, too, with all its horrors, has extraordinary charms, especially for those who contemplate it from a safe distance.

St. Augustine relates that in his youth he had an extreme distaste for gladiatorial combats, never having seen one. Forced by a friend to accompany him to one of these pompous butcheries, he vowed to close his eyes as long as it lasted. At first he kept to his word well enough, and forced himself to think of other things; but when the populace cried out at a celebrated gladiator’s fall, he opened his eyes—opened them, and could not close them again. From then on until his conversion, he was one of the most passionate enthusiasts about these games.

After so great a saint I blush to cite myself; yet you know that I am not a man of bloodthirsty tastes. The first time I took my seat in the Madrid area, I was afraid of being unable to support the sight of the blood which flows there so freely. My sensibility, which I especially distrusted, was likely to make me ridiculous before the hardened amateurs who had given me a seat in their box. Nothing of the sort happened. The first bull that appeared was killed; I thought no more of leaving. Two hours passed without the slightest intermission, and I was not yet tired. No tragedy had ever held my interest to this extent. During my stay in Spain I have no missed a single fight, and blushingly admit that I prefer a fight to the death to one in which the bulls, their horns padded, are merely tormented : the difference being the same as that between mortal combats and tournaments with blunted lances. In the latter there is almost no danger for the men; otherwise the two sorts of fight are much alike.

The festivities begin the evening before. In order to avoid accidents the bulls are driven into the stable (encierro) only by night; and the day preceding the combat they pasture in a field not far from Madrid (el arroyo). Often they have been brought from a great distance, and excursions are made to see them.

A great number of carriages, horsemen and pedestrians, set out for the arroyo. On this occasion many young men wear the elegant costume of the Andalusian majo,1 (1. Majo : A lower class dandy.) and display a luxury and magnificence which the simplicity of our ordinary garments does not allow.

This excursion, furthermore, is not without danger. The bulls are at liberty; it is not easy for the drovers to make them obey; the curious must look out for themselves and beware of horns.

There are plazas in almost all the great cities of Spain. These edifices are very simply, not to say rudely, constructed. As a rule they are merely great wooden barracks, and the amphitheatre of Rhonda, entirely built of stone, is thought to be a marvel. It is the most beautiful in Spain, as Thundertentronkh Castle was the most beautiful in Westphalia : because it had a door and windows. But what matters the decoration of a theatre if the play is good ?

The Madrid arena holds about seven thousand spectators who come and go through a great many doors without disorder. One sits on stone or wooden benches; certain boxes have chairs, but only that of his Catholic Majesty is rather elegantly decorated.

The arena is surrounded by a strong fence about five and a half feet high. All the way around, on both sides of the fence, two feet above the ground, runs a wooden ledge : a sort of footboard which helps the toreador in flight to get over the barrier more easily. The first row of spectators is as high as this barrier, separated from it by a narrow corridor, and further protected by a double rope help up by strong stakes. This precaution dates from only a few years ago, when a bull not only jumped over the barrier, which happens frequently, but plunged into the audience, killing or mutilating a number of spectators. The stretched rope is thought to be sufficient to prevent a recurrence of such accidents.

Four gates open into the arena; one communicating with the stable (toril), another leading to the slaughter-house (matadero), where the bulls are skinned and cut up, the other two for the human actors in this tragedy.

Shortly before the fight, the toreadors gather in a room adjoining the arena. Nearby are the horse-stables. Further along there is an infirmary, with a surgeon and a priest on hand, to minister to the wounded.

The room which serves as a waiting room is adorned with a painted madonna before which candles burn; beneath it is a table with a little brazier of live coals. Each toreador, as he comes in, first doffs his hat to the image, hastily murmurs a bit of prayer, then takes a cigar from his pocket, lights it at the brazier, and smokes with his comrades and the amateurs who come before the fight to discuss the merits of the bulls.

Meanwhile in an inner court those who are to fight on horseback prepare for the encounter by trying out their horses. They gallop them straight at a wall which they stave off, using a long pole instead of a lance; they hold firm against it and practise wheeling their mounts rapidly, keeping as close as possible. Later on you will see that this exercise is worth while. They use cast-horses bought at a low price, which, before entering the arena, lest they be terrified by the shouts of the crowd and the sight of the bulls, are blindfolded and made deaf by means of plugs of moistened tow.

The arena presents a most animated appearance. Well before the fight, the amphitheatre is filled, the tiers and boxes a confused mass of heads. There are two kinds of seats, the most expensive and comfortable in the shade; but the sunny side is always occupied by intrepid enthusiasts. There are many more men than women, and most of the latter belong to the manola class (grisettes). Nevertheless, some elegantly dressed women may be seen in the boxes, but few of them are young.1 (1. The contrary is true to-day.) Lately French and English novels have perverted the Spanish, taking away their respect for old customs. I do not believe that churchmen are forbidden to be present at these spectacles; I myself, however, have seen only on in his cloth (in Seville). I have been told that several go disguised.

At a signal given by the President of the fight, an alguazil mayor and two subordinates attired like Crispin enter on horseback, followed by a detachment of cavalry. They empty the arena and the narrow corridor that separates it from the seats. When they have retired with their suite, a herald escorted by a notary and another alguazil on foot comes out into the centre, and reads a bann1 (1. Since the re-establishment of the constitution, the bann of “the King, our Lord,” is no longer read.) forbidding the public to throw anything into the arena or to distract from the combatants by shouts, gestures, etc. Scarcely has he appeared than, in spite of the formal injunction—In the name of the King, our Lord, whom God preserve—everyone boos and whistles; this lasts as long as the reading of the rule, which, furthermore, is never observed. In the bull ring, and there only, the people is sovereign, and may say and do what it likes.

There are two principal classes of toreros : the picadors, who fight on horseback armed with a lance, and the pedestrian chulos, who tease the bull by waiving bright-coloured capes; the latter include the banderilleros and the matadors, of whom I shall speak presently. All are in Andalusian dress, approximately that of Figaro in The Barber of Seville; but in place of breeches and silk stockings the picadors have heavy leather trousers reinforced with wood and iron, to protect their legs and thighs from the horns. On foot, they walk with legs apart like compasses, and if they are thrown they can scarcely get up unaided by the chulos. Their saddles are very high, Moorish in form, with iron stirrups rather like sabots, entirely covering the foot. They have two-inch spurs, to govern their bags. Their lances are thick and very strong, with a sharp iron point; but since the pleasure must by made to last, this point is fitted with a guard of cord which lets only about an inch of it enter the bull’s body.

One of the alguazils on horseback catches in his hat a key thrown to him by the President. This key unlocks nothing, but he carries it non the less to the man who is to open the toril, and gallops off, while the crowd shouts to him that the bull is already out and chasing him. The joke repeated at every fight.

Meanwhile, the picadors have taken their places. There are usually two on horseback in the arena; two or three others wait outside to replace them in case of accidents, such as death, serious injury, etc. A dozen chulos on foot are scattered about the place ready to give general assistance.1 (1. I saw one day a picador thrown off; he would have been killed if his comrade, in order to free him, had not held back the bull by beating him over the nose with his lance. The circumstances excused it. Nevertheless I heard some old enthusiasts cry out, “For shame! A blow on the nose! He ought to be driven out of the ring!”)

The chulos approach, wave their brilliant capes, and try to draw the bull toward one of the picadors. If the beast is game, it attacks him unhesitantly. The picador, with the lance under his arm, gathers his horse well under him; takes his place exactly in front of the bull; seizes the moment at which the head is lowered for the charge to fix the lance in the neck, and not elsewhere; bears down with the full weight of the body and at the same time wheels his horse to the left, so as to leave the bull on the right. If all these movements are well executed, if the picador is vigorous and his horse responsive, the bull, carried by his own impetus, goes by without touching him. Then the duty of the chulos is to distract the bull until the picador has had time to get out of the way, but often the animals knows only too well which is his real aggressor; brusquely he swings about, makes for the horse at a rush, and runs his horn into the belly, overthrowing both horse and rider. The latter is immediately rescued by the chulos. Some pick him up, others wave their capes before the bull’s eyes, draw him toward themselves, and, leaping over the barrier with surprising agility, make their escape. The Spanish bull is as fast as a horse; and, if the chulo is far away from the fence, he barely reaches it. Therefore, the horseman, whose life must depend on the chulos’ agility, does not often venture into the middle of the ring; when he does, it passes for an extraordinary feat of daring.

Once again on his feet, the picador, if he can get his horse up, remounts. Though the poor beast may be losing streams of blood, though its entrails drag on the ground and twine about its legs, it must face the bull as long as it can stand. When it is down to stay, the picador leaves the ring and returns immediately on a fresh mount.

I have said that the lances can only make a flesh-wound and serve only to infuriate the bull. Nevertheless, the impact of the horse and the rider, the bull’s own efforts, above all the shock of pulling up short on his hocks, tire him rather promptly. Often, also, the pain of the lance-wounds disheartens him. At last, he no longer dares attack the horses, or, to use the technical term, he refuses to “enter.” By that time, if he is vigorous, he had already killed four or five horses. The picadors rest; the signal is given to plan the banderillas.

These are sticks about two feet and a half long wrapped in strips of paper, which a sharp point which is barbed in order to stay in the wound. The chulos hold one of these darts in each hand. The most effective way to use them is to come up softly behind the bull and to strike the banderillas together suddenly. The started bull turns about at chance and charges. Just as, with lowered head, he reaches the chulos, the latter plants both banderillas at once on either side of his neck. This can be done only by remaining for an instant right in front of him and almost between his horns; then, slipping aside, letting him go by and flying for safety. A distraction, a movement of hesitation or of fright, and the man would be lost. Connoisseurs, however, consider this role as the least dangerous of all. If by mischance he falls while planting the banderillas, he must not try to rise, but lie where he is, motionless. The bull rarely gores a man on the ground, not at all out of generosity, but because he closes his eyes as he charges, and goes over him without seeing him. Sometimes, however, he stops, sniffs him to make sure he is dead, then, drawing back several steps, lowers his head to toss him. But at this moment the banderillero’s comrades gather about, and distract the beast until he abandons the supposed corpse.

When the bull is cowardly and will not take four thrusts of the lance, the accepted number, the spectators, sovereign judges, condemn him by acclamation to a sort of torture—at the same time a punishment and means of reviving his fury. From all sides goes up a cry of “Feugo! Fuego!” Then, instead of their ordinary arms, the chulos are given banderillas with firecrackers along the shaft1 (1. Sometimes, upon solemn occasions, the shaft of the banderilla is wrapped with a long net of silk containing little living birds; the tip, as it goes into the bull’s neck, cuts the knot which closes the net, and the birds escape after fluttering about the animal’s ears.) and a piece of lighted amadou at the top. As soon as it enters the skin, the amadou lights the fuse : the explosives go off toward the bull, burning him to the quick, and, greatly to the satisfaction of the public, he leaps and plunges. It is, in fact, an admirable sight : this enormous animal, foaming with rage, shaking the flaming sticks, and tossing amid fire and smoke. In spite of milords the poets, I must say that of all the animals I have observed, none has less expression in its eyes than the bull. I should say, changes its expression less; for the bull’s is almost always that of brutal and savage stupidity. Rarely does he express his pain by groaning : wounds enrage or frighten him, but never, if it may be said, does he seem to reflect upon his fate; he never weeps like the stag. Therefore, he inspires pity only when his courage is worthy of remark.

Three or four pairs of banderillas having been placed in the bull’s neck, the time has come to make an end of him. There is a roll of drums. Immediately, the matador, one of the chulos, steps forth from among his comrades. Richly clad with gold and silk, he holds a long sword and a scarlet cloak, fastened to a stick so that it may be handled conveniently. This is called the muleta. He pauses under the President’s box, and with a low bow asks permission to kill the bull. Usually this formality takes place only once for the whole performance. Of course the President nods his consent. The matador cries, “Viva,” pirouettes, throws his hat on the ground, and advances to meet the bull.

Like duelling, these combats are governed by rules, to infringe which is as infamous as to kill one’s adversary treacherously. For example, the matador may strike the bull only where the neck and the back join; the Spaniards call this place the “cross.” The blow must be dealt from above, as one would say, “in second”; never from below. A thousand times better lose one’s life, than to thrust from below, from the side, or from behind. The matador’s sword is long, strong, and double-edged; the hilt, very short, ends in a ball which is pressed against the palm of the hand. The use of this weapon calls for long experience and peculiar skill.

To kill a bull well, one must understand its character thoroughly. Upon this knowledge depends not only a matador’s glory, but his life. As one may imagine, there are as many different natures among bulls as among men; however, they are divided into two distinct groups, the “clear” and the “obscure”—this is the language of the arena. The “clear” attack openly; the “obscure,” on the other hand, are cunning, and try to get their man treacherously. The latter are extremely dangerous.

Before attempting the sword-thrust, the matador displays the muleta, excites the bull, and attentively observes whether he throws himself upon it, or whether he comes quietly, in order to gain ground, and to charge only when the adversary seems too near to avoid the impact. Often the bull is seen to shake his head menacingly, to paw the ground without wanting to come forward, or even to draw back slowly, in an attempt to draw the man to the middle of the ring where he cannot escape. Others, instead of attacking in a straight line, sidle up, feigning exhaustion; but having measured their distance, lunge straight at the man.

For one who understands the art of bull-fighting, this is an interesting sight : the approaches of the matador and the bull who, like two skilful generals, seem to devine each other’s plans and to vary their technique, moment by moment. For an experienced matador, a movement of the head, a sidelong look, a lowered ear, are so many plain indications of his enemy’s projects. Finally, the impatient bull throws himself upon the red flag behind which the matador hides. His force is sufficient to batter down a wall with his horns; but the man slips aside with a light movement; disappears as if by magic; and defying the bull’s fury, leaves only a light cloth uplifted over his head. The impetus of the animal carries him far beyond his opponent; then he stops, pulling up short on stiffened legs; and these abrupt and violent reflexes tire him so greatly that if he procedure were continued, it would be enough to kill him. Thus Romero, the famous master, says that a good matador ought to be able to kill eight bulls with seven thrusts, the eighth dying of rage and exhaustion.

After a number of passes, the matador understands his antagonist thoroughly, and prepares to give the final thrust. He stands firmly, immobile, at the proper distance. The sword is held in the right hand, the right elbow at the height of the head; the left arm holds the muleta out in front where, almost on the ground, it induces the bull to lower his head. The is the moment that the matador gives the mortal thrust with all the force of his arm; and if the thrust is well-directed the man has nothing more to fear : the bull stops short; the blood scarcely flows; he lifts his head; his legs tremble; and he collapses in a great mass. Immediately the arena rings with deafening “Vivas!” Handkerchiefs are waved, the hats of the majos fly everywhere, and the conquering hero modestly throws kisses in all directions.

Formerly, they say, more than one thrust never had to be given, but everything degenerates; and now it is rare to see a bull fall at the first blow. If, however, he appears to be mortally wounded, the matador does not repeat the stroke; helped by the chulos, he makes the bull turn round and round, tormenting him with the capes until he falls in a stupor. Then a chulo despatches him by driving a dagger into the neck, and the animal expires instantly.

It may be observed that almost all bulls keep returning to one spot in the ring. This is called the querencia. Usually it is the gate by which they have entered.

Often a bull, carrying the fatal sword, of which the hilt only is to be seen on his shoulder, crosses the ring with slow steps, disdaining the chulos and the bright cloths. He has but one thought : to die at ease. He hunts the spot he prefers, kneels, lies down, stretches forth his head, and unless a dagger stroke is given, dies tranquilly.

If the bull refuses to charge, the matador runs up to him, and then, as before, at the moment his head is lowered, drives the sword home (estocada de volapié); but if he will not even lower his head, or keeps on running away, it is necessary to resort to a very cruel practice. A man armed with a long pole, ending in a sharp crescent-shaped blade (media luna), treacherously hamstrings him from behind; and as soon as he is down, he is despatched with the dagger. This is the only episode in these combats which disgusts everyone. It is a sort of assassination. Fortunately, it is rarely necessary to go to such lengths to kill a bull.

The death is announced by a flourish of trumpets. Immediately three harnessed mules are trotted into the ring; a rope is tied around the bull’s horns; a hook is passed through it; and the mules drag him off at a gallop. In two minutes the carcass of the bull and those of the horses have disappeared from the arena.

Each fight lasts about twenty minutes, and usually eight bulls are killed in an afternoon. If the entertainment has been poor, the President, at the request of the public, grants one or two extra fights.

The torero’s profession is obviously quite dangerous. Throughout Spain an average of two or three die each year. Few of them reach an advanced age. If they do not die in the arena, they are soon obliged to retire on account of their wounds. The famous Pepe Illo was gored twenty-six times; the last wound killed him. The rather high salary paid these people is not the only reason which makes them embrace this dangerous profession. They face death for glory and applause. It is so sweet to triumph before five or six thousand people! So it is not uncommon to see enthusiasts of distinguished birth partake of the dangers and the fame of the professional toreros. At Seville I was a marquis and a count act as picadors in a public fight.

It is true that the audience is hardly indulgent toward the toreros. The least timidity is punished by boos and whistles. Atrocious insults shower from all sides; sometimes, even, by the order of the people—and this is the most terrible mark of its indignation—an alguazil goes up to the toreador and orders him, upon pain of imprisonment, to attack the bull at once.

One day, the actor Maïquez, incensed by a Matador’s hesitation before the most obscure of bulls, berated him injuriously. “Señor Maïquez,” said the matador, “don’t you see, this is not make-believe as it is on your stage.”

The applause, and the desire to make a reputation or two retain one already made, induce the toreadors to refine upon the dangers to which they are naturally exposed. Pepe Illo, and after him Romero, faced the bull with their feet in irons. There is something miraculous in the self-possession of these men in the most extreme dangers. Recently a picador named Francisco Sevilla was thrown and his horse disemboweled by an Andalusian bull, prodigiously strong and agile. This bull, undeterred by the chulos, threw himself upon the man, trampled him, and hooked him in the legs again and again; but realizing that they were too well protected by their trousers of leather and iron, turned about and lowered his head to run a horn through his chest. Then Sevilla with a desperate effort lifted himself up, grasped the bull’s ear in one hand, thrust the fingers of the other into the nostrils, all the while pressing his head close under that of the furious beast. In vain the bull shook him, trampled him, and dashed him against the ground, but could not make him let go. With our hearts in our throats, we watched this unequal struggle. It was the death agony of a hero; we almost wished that it would end; we could not cry out, nor breathe, nor look away from the horrible scene : it lasted almost two minutes. But at last, the bull, conquered by the man in close combat, abandoned him and went after the chulos. Everyone expected to see Sevilla carried out. He was helped up; scarcely on his feet, he snatched a cape and tried to draw the bull, in spite of his heavy boots and the awkward armour on his legs. The cape had to be taken away from him, or he would have met certain death. A horse was brought to him; he leaped up on it, wild with rage, and attacked the bull in the middle of the arena. The impact of these two valiant opponents was so terrible that horse and bull fell to their knees. Oh, if you had heard the “Vivas,” if you had seen the frantic joy, the sort of drunkenness of the crowd at the sight of so much courage and so much luck, you have envied, as I did, Sevilla’s fate! This man is an immortal in Madrid….

June, 1843. P.S.

Alas, what do I learn! Franciso Sevilla died last year. He did not perish in the arena as he should have, but was carried off by a disease of the liver. It was at Caravanchel that he died, near those fine trees that I love so, far from the public for which he had risked his life again and again.

I saw him last in 1840 in Madrid, as brave, as intrepid as upon the day of which you have just read. More than twenty time I had seen him roll in the dust again, under his disemboweled horse; and watched him break countless lances and measure his strength with the terrible bulls of Gavira. “If Francisco Savilla had horns,” they said in the arena, “not one toreador would fare to face him.” The habit of victory inspired him with incredible insolence. Face to face with a bull, he was indignant if the beast was not afraid of him. “So you don’t know me ?” he would cry furiously. And indeed it was not long before he showed them with whom they had to deal.

My friends gave me the pleasure of dining with Sevilla; he ate and drank like the heroes of Homer, and was the best company in the world. His Andalusian manners, his jovial humour and his dialect full of picturesque metaphors, in a giant who seemed to have been created by nature to destroy everything, had a particular charm.

A Spanish lady, fleeing from Madrid, when it was ravaged by cholera, to Barcelona, was in the same diligence with Sevilla, who was going there for a fight announced long in advance. On the way, his politeness, his gallantry, and delicate attentions, did not flag for an instant. At the gate of Barcelona the Health Officers, stupid as they all are, announced to the travellers a ten days’ quarantine, except for Sevilla, whose presence was necessary enough for the sanitary laws to be set aside; but the generous picador rejected altogether this privilege so advantageous to him. “If Madame and my companions cannot pass,” said he resolutely, “I shall do no bull-fighting,” Between the fear of contagion and that of missing a good fight, there could be no hesitation. The quarantine officers gave in, and did well : for if they had insisted, the mob would have burned the pest-house and them as well.

Having paid my tribute of praise and regret to the shade of Sevilla, I ought to speak of another glory which now reigns unrivalled in the arena. What happens in Spain is so little know in France, that there may be on this side of the Pyrenees people to whom the name of Montes is still unknown.

What fame has proclaimed, true or false, about the classic matadors, Pepe Illo and Pablo Romero, Montes exhibits every Monday in the National Arena, as they call it today. Courage, grace, self-possession, miraculous skill, he embodies them all. His presence in the ring enlivens and transports both actors and spectators. There are no more ball bulls, no more timid chulos; each surpasses himself. Toreadors of dubious courage, led by Montes, become heroes; for they know that with him there is no danger. A sign from him is enough to turn aside the most furious animal, just about to gore a picador on the ground. The media luna is never seen in the ring where he is fighting. “Clear” or “obscure,” one bull is as good as another; he fascinates them, he transforms them, he kills them when and how he likes. He is the first matador that I have seen gallear el toro : that is to say, turn his back on the maddened animal, letting it pass under his arm. Scarcely does he deign to turn his head when the bull rushes upon him. Sometimes, throwing the cape over his shoulders, he crosses the arena followed by the enraged bull. The bull pursues him in vain—though so close that at each toss the hem of the toreador’s cape is lifted on his horns. Such is the confidence which Montes inspires that the spectators lose all thought of danger : their one feeling is admiration.

Montes is supposed to have opinions unfavourable to the present political order. They say that he was a royalist volunteer and is a crab, congrejo, that is to say, a moderate. Though good patriots are pained by this, they cannot escape from the general enthusiasm. I have seen descalzos (riff-raff), feverishly throwing him their hats, begging him to put them on his head for a moment : such were the customs of the sixteenth century. Brantôme says somewhere: “I have known numbers of noblemen who first, before putting on their silk stockings, begged their ladies and mistresses to try them and wear them, in their stead, some eight or ten days, more or less, and then wore them in great veneration and contentment of body and soul.”

Montes has the air of a gentleman; he lives nobly and devotes himself to his family, whose fortune is assured by his talent. His aristocratic manners displease certain toreadors who are jealous of him. I remember that he declined to dine with us when we invited Sevilla. Upon this occasion, Sevilla gave us his opinion of Montes with his usual candor. “Montes no fué realista, es buen companero, luciente matador, atiende à los picadores, pero es un p….” This means that he wears a frock coat outside the arena, that he never goes out at night, and behaves much too well.

Sevilla was the Marius of bull-fighting; Montes is its Caesar.

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Second Letter: An Execution

Valencia, November 15, 1830.


I have described a bull-fight for you, and according to the admirable rule of the puppet theatre, “always from bad to worse”, I can only regale you now with an execution. I have just seen one, and will give you an account of it, if you have courage to read.

In the first place I must explain what made me attend an execution. In foreign countries, fearful of being cheated of some curious foreign trait by a moment’s indolence or distaste, one is obliged to see everything. Furthermore, the story of the unfortunate man about to be hanged had interested me. I wanted to have a look at his face; I was glad to experiment with my nerves.

This is the story of the man they hanged (I neglected to ask his name). He was a peasant from the neighbourhood of Valencia, esteemed and feared on account of his rash, enterprising character. He was the cock of the walk in his village. No one danced better than he, or threw the bar farther, or knew more old romances. He was not quarrelsome, but it was well-known that it took little to make his blood boil. When, with his carabine at his side, he accompanied travellers, not a robber dared to attack them, though their valises were full of doubloons. So it was a pleasure to see this young man, velvet vest over his shoulder, swaggering down the road with an air of superiority. In short, he was a majo in the full sense of the word. A majo is both a lowerclass dandy and a man excessively fastidious about a point of honour.

The Castilians have a proverb against the Valencians, which, in my opinion, is quite false. Here it is : “In Valencia the meat is grass, the grass is water, the men are women, and the women are nothing”. I can testify that Valencian cooking is excellent, and the women are extremely pretty and much whiter-skinned than in any other kingdom of Spain. You shall see what the men are.

There was a bull-fight. The majo wanted to see it, but he had not a reale in his belt. He counted upon one of his friends, a royal-volunteer who was on guard that day, to let him in. Not at all. The soldier was inflexibly conscientious. The majo insisted, the volunteer persisted : hard words on both sides. In short, the volunteer pushed him back rudely with a blow of his musket-butt in the stomach. The majo withdrew, but those who noticed his pallor, his fists violently clenched, his dilated nostrils, and the expression of his eyes, all felt quite sure that something unpleasant was going to happen.

Fifteen days later this brutal volunteer was sent with a detachment in pursuit of some smugglers. He spent the night in a lonely inn (venta). That night, he heard a voice calling him : “Open, I have a message from your wife.” The volunteer went down half-dressed. Scarcely had he opened the door, when a musket-shot, burning a hole in his shirt, left a dozen bullets in his chest. The murdered disappeared. Who did it ? Nobody could imagine. Certainly it was not the majo who killed him; for a dozen devout and very royalist ladies were ready to swear by their saints, kissing their thumbs, that they had seen him, each in her own village, exactly at the hour and the minute of the crime.

And the majo appeared in public with the serene look of a man who has just cleared up some troublesome business. Thus in Paris one goes to Tortoni’s in the evening after a duel in which one has bravely broken some impertinent fellow’s arm. Note in passing that here assassination is the poor man’s duel : a duel considerably more serious than ours, since as a rule it is followed by two deaths, while in good society men are more often scratched than killed.

All went well, until a certain alguazil, with an excess of zeal (according to some, because he was new to his duties—according to others, because he was in love with a lady who preferred the majo), decided that he would like to arrest this charming fellow. So long as he did no more than threaten, his rival only laughed at him; but when at last he tried to lay hands on him, he made him swallow a bull’s tongue. This local expression means to inflict a knife-wound. Does self-defence justify causing a vacancy in the ranks of the police ?

Alguazils are greatly respected in Spain, almost as much as constables in England. To mistreat one is a hanging matter. Therefore, the majo was bodily apprehended, put in prison, judged and condemned, after a very long trial; for the course justice here is even slower than in our country.

With a little good will you will be able to see, as well as I, that this man did not deserve his fate; that he was the victim of destiny; and that the judges, without burdening their consciences too heavily, could have given him back to society, whose ornament he would surely have become (style of the lawyer for the defence). But judges rarely indulge in these poetical and lofty considerations; they condemned him to death unanimously.

One evening, happening to pass through the market-place, I had seen some workmen engaged in putting up, by torch-light, a bizarre combination of joists which formed approximately a II. A ring of soldiers around them held back the curious. This is why : the gallows (for gallows it was), is erected by forced labour; and the conscripted workmen cannot refuse their services without being held guilty of rebellion. As a sort of compensation, the authorities take care they their work, which public opinion regards as almost dishonourable, shall be more or less secretly done. For this purpose soldiers surround them and keep the crowd at a distance, and they work only at night; so that it is almost impossible to recognise them, and they run no risk of being called gallows-carpenters.

In Valencia, an old Gothic tower serves as the prison. Architecturally it is rather fine, especially the facade which faces the river. It is situated at a far end of the town, and forms one of its principal gates. It is called La Puerta de los Serranos. From the platform on top may be seen the course of the Guadalquiver, with the five bridges which span it, the walls of Valencia, and the smiling countryside all around. It is rather a sad pleasure to look out over the fields when shut up between four walls, but still it is a pleasure; and one must be grateful to the jailor who allows his charges to go up there. To the prisoners, the least pleasure is very dear.

Out of this prison the condemned man was to come, mounted upon an ass, and proceed through the crowded streets to the market-place, and there leave this world.

In good time, very kindly accompanied by a Spanish friend, I took my place before the Puerta de los Serranos. I had expected a considerable crowd to gather early in the morning, but I was mistaken. The artisans were peacefully working in their shops; the peasants had sold their vegetables and were leaving town. There was no sign that anything out of the ordinary was going to happen, unless it were the presence of a dozen dragoons drawn up at the prison gate. The indifference of the Valencians toward the spectacle of an execution must not be attributed, I think, to excess of sensibility. Neither do I know whether to agree with my guide, that they have seen it too often, and it has lost its charm. Perhaps their indifference results simply from the fact that they are such hard-working folk. The love of work and of money distinguishes them, not only among the peoples of Spain, but among those of the whole of Europe.

At eleven o’clock the prison gate opened. Immediately there appeared a rather large procession of Franciscan monks. At the head of it a penitent carried a large Crucifix; two acolytes escorted him, each with a lantern fastened on the end of a long pole. The Crucifix, life-size, was of papier-maché painted with extraordinary realism. Seeking always to make religion terrible, the Spanish excel in the portrayal of the wounds, the bruises, the marks of torture, which their martyrs have endured. In the making of this Crucifix, worthy of martyrdom, no blood and flowing pus and livid tumours had been spared. It was the most hideous piece of anatomy that one could imagine.

The bearer of this horrible object stopped outside the gate. The soldiers had drawn a little closer. A hundred spectators, more or less, were grouped behind them, near enough to miss nothing of what was to be said and done, when, in the company of his confessor, the condemned man appeared.

Never shall I forget his face. He was very tall and very thin, and looked about thirty years old. His forehead was high; his hair thick, jet-black, and as straight as the bristles in a brush. His eyes were large, but set deep in his head, and they seemed to burn. He was barefoot, dressed in a long black robe with a blue and red cross sewed on it over his heart. This is the insignia of those about to die. The neck of his shirt, pleated in a ruff, fell over his shoulders and his chest. A fine, whitish robe, perfectly distinguishable against the black cloth, was wound several time around his body, and, with complicated knots, held his arms and hands in the attitude of prayer. Between his hands there was a little Crucifix and an image of the Virgin. His confessor was plump, short, thick-set, red-faced, and looked like a good man, but a man who has done this work for years and is no longer moved by it.

After the prisoner came a pale man, lank and weak, with a mild, timid face. His jacket was brown, his trousers and stockings black. I should have taken him for a notary or alguazil out of uniform, had he not worn on his head a broad-brimmed grey hat, such as the picadors wear in the bull-fights. At the sight of the Crucifix, he respectfully doffed his hat, and then I noticed a little ivory ladder attached to the crown, like a cockade. It was the hangman.

As soon as he was outside the gate the prisoner, who had been obliged to stoop under the wicket, drew himself up to his full height, opened his eyes, until they seemed abnormally large, swept the crowd with a rapid glance, and took a deep breath. It seemed to me that he inhaled the open air with pleasure, like one who has been too long in a narrow and suffocating cell. His expression was strange : not that of fear, but of uneasiness. He seemed resigned, without arrogance or any affectation of courage. I said to myself that on a like occasion I should be proud of such a bearing.

His confessor told him to kneel before the Crucifix; he obeyed, and kissed the hideous image’s feet. At that moment, all those present were moved, and there was a deep silence. The confessor, noticing it, lifted his hands to free them from the long sleeves which would have hampered his oratorical gestures, and began to deliver a discourse which he had probably made use of more than once, in a voice which, though strong and emphatic, was made monotonous by the regular return of the same intonations. He pronounced the words clearly, his accent was good, and he expressed himself in pure Castilian which the condemned man probably but half understood. He began each phrase on a shrill note which rose to falsetto, but finished always in a grave, low tone.

In substance, he said to the criminal, whom he called his brother : “You thoroughly deserve to die; it was indeed very indulgent to condemn you only to the gallows, for your crimes are enormous.” Here he referred to the murders in question, and dwelt at great length on the penitent’s irreligious youth, which alone had brought about his downfall. Then, warming to his subject by degrees : “But what is the thoroughly deserved torment that you must now endure, compared with the unimaginable anguish that our Divine Saviour suffered for you ? Consider this blood, these wounds,” etc. A very detailed account of the Passion followed, described with all the exaggeration which the Spanish language allows, and illustrated by means of the afore-mentioned detestable statue. The peroration was worth more than the exordium. He said, though at too great a length, that the mercy of God was infinite and a true repentance could disarm His anger.

The condemned man stood up, fixed the priest with a rather wild look, and said to him: “Father, it would have been enough to tell me that I am making a good end. Let us go on!”

The confessor went back into the prison well satisfied with his discourse. Two Franciscan monks took his place beside the condemned man; they were not to leave him until the last moment.

Then they laid him down on a mat that the executioner pulled toward him a little, but without violence, and as if by a tacit agreement between them. This is a mere ceremony, in order to appear to be carrying out to the letter the sentence which reads : “To be hanged, after having been dragged on a hurdle.”

This done, the miserable man was hoisted on to an ass that the executioner led by the halter. On either side walked the two Franciscans, preceded by two long files of monks of this order and by laymen belonging to the brotherhood of Desamparados. The banners, the crosses, were not forgotten. Behind the ass came a notary and two alguazil dressed in black in the French style, breeches and silk stockings and swords buckled at their sides, mounted on two wretched, poorly saddled ponies. A picket of cavalry brought up the rear. As the procession advanced very slowly, the monks sang litanies in a dull voice, and some men in cloaks circulated in the audience, holding out silver plates and asking alms for the poor man (por el pobre). This money is spent upon the masses for the repose of his soul; and for a good Catholic about to be hanged it must be a consolation to see the plates fill up quite rapidly with pennies. Everyone contributes. Godless as I am, I gave my offering with a feeling of respect.

In truth, I love these Catholic ceremonies, and would like to believe in them. On such an occasion they impress the crowd much more deeply than our cart and our gendarmes, that mean and ignoble train which accompanies executions in France. Furthermore, and it is for this above all that I love these crosses and processions, they must contribute greatly to alleviate the last moments of the condemned. For one this, this melancholy pomp flatters his vanity, the sentiment that in the human breast dies last. Then these monks whom he has revered from childhood and who are praying for him, the songs, and the voices of the men who are taking up the collection so that masses shall be said : all this must daze him, distract him, and prevent him from reflecting upon the fate which awaits him. If he turns his head to the right, the Franciscan on that side speaks to him of the infinite mercy of God. On the left, the other Franciscan is all ready to promise him the powerful intercession of St. Francis. He marches to his execution like a conscript between two officers who keep watch over him and exhort him. He has not a moment’s repose—a philosopher might protest. So much the better. The continual agitation in which he is kept protects him from thoughts of his own that would be an infinitely greater torment.

So I understood why the monks, and above all those of the mendicant orders, exercise so much influence over the lower classes. They are in reality (if intolerant liberals will permit me to say so) the support and consolation of the unfortunate from birth until death. What a miserable duty it must be to converse for three days with a man about to be executed! I think that if I should have the misfortune to be hanged, I should not be sorry to have two Franciscans to talk to.

The procession took a very tortuous route in order to pass through the broadest streets. With my guide I went by a more direct way, in order to see the condemned man one more as he passed. I noticed that in the short interval between his coming out of the prison and his arrival in the street where I saw him the second time, he seemed to have grown less tall : his body sagged little by little; his head drooped over upon his chest, as if it were held only by the skin of his neck. However, I observed in his features no trace of fear; he looked fixedly at the image in his hand, and if he lifted his eyes, it was to rest them upon the two Franciscans to whom he listened with apparent interest.

I should have withdrawn then, but was urged to go on to the market-place where I would be quite free to watch the execution from a balcony, or avoid the end of the spectacle by retiring into the apartment. So I followed the procession. The square was far from full. The women who sell fruits and vegetables had not troubled to move. One could easily walk about. The gallows, surmounted by the arms of Aragon, had been erected before an elegant Moorish building, the Silk Exchange (la Lonia de Seda). The market-place is long. The houses which surround it are small though many-storied, and each row of windows has its iron balcony. From a distance one is reminded of a great cage. Many of these balconies were not occupied by spectators. On the one where I was given a place, I found two young ladies of sixteen or eighteen years, comfortably seated in chairs and fanning themselves with the most casual air in the world. Both of them were very pretty, and by their very tidy black silk dresses, their satin slippers, and their lace-edges mantillas, I concluded that they must be daughters of some prosperous middle-class family. This opinion was confirmed by the fact that, though they addressed each other in the Valencian dialect, they understood Spanish and spoke it correctly.

In the corner of the market-place a little chapel had been erected. This chapel and the gallows not far away were enclosed in a great square formed by royal-volunteers and troops of the line. The soldiers having opened their ranks to receive the procession, the condemned man was helped down off the ass and led before the altar of which I have just spoken. The monks surrounded him; he was on his knees, repeatedly kissing the steps of the altar; I do not know what he said. Meanwhile the executioner examined his rope and his ladder, and, when satisfied, drew near the prostrate criminal, laid a hand on his shoulder and said to him, according to usage : “Brother, it is time.”

All the monks but one had not abandoned him, and the hangman, it appeared, took possession of his victim. As he led him along, he carefully held his great hat before the poor man’s eye, so as to hide the gallows; but the latter apparently tried to push away the hat with his head, to show that he had courage enough to face the instrument of his death. It struck noon as the hangman climbed the fatal steps, pulling after him his victim who, because he was going backwards, moved with difficulty. The steps were wide, with a railing only on the left. The monk kept on the left; the hangman and the condemned went up at the right. The monk spoke all the time, making many gestures. When they got to the top of the steps, the executioner passed the rope around the victim’s neck with extraordinary rapidity, while the monk made him recite the credo. Then raising his voice, he cried : “My brothers, join your prayers to those of this poor sinner.” I heard a sweet voice beside me say, with deep emotion : “Amen.” I turned my head and saw one of my pretty Valencians, whose cheeks were a little redder, fluttering her fan hurriedly. She gazed with great attention in the direction of the gallows. My eyes followed hers : the monk was coming down the stairs, and the poor man was hanging in the air, the executioner on his shoulders and an assistant pulling at his feet.

P.S. I do not know whether your patriotism will allow you to pardon my partiality for Spain. Since we are on the subject of criminals, I may say that I like Spanish executions better than ours, I also greatly prefer their prisons to those to which we sent about twelve hundred rascals every year. Please note that I do not refer to the African presidios, which I have not seen. In Toledo, in Seville, in Granada, in Cadiz, I saw a great many prison inmates who did not seem to me too miserable. They work at building or repairing roads. They are rather poorly clad, but their faces express none of that sombre despair which I have noticed in France. Out of great kettles they eat the same puchero as the soldiers who guard them, and they, too, smoke cigars in the shade. But what above all pleases me is that the people here, unlike the French, have no aversion to them. The reason for this is simple : in France every man sent to prison has stolen or done worse; in Spain, on the contrary, at different epochs, very decent men have been condemned to pass their life in confinement for having held opinions other than those of the government. Though the number of these political victims is infinitely small, it is still sufficient to change public opinion toward all the men in prison. It is, of course, better to treat a rascal too well than to lack consideration for a gallant gentleman. So their cigars are lighted for them, and they are called “my friend” or “comrade”. Nor do their guards make them feel that they belong to another species.

It this letter does not seem enormously long, I will tell you about a man I met not long ago, a story which will shown you how people here behave toward the presidierios.

On my way from Granada to Baylen, I met a tall man with alpargates on his feet, walking at a good military pace. He was followed by a little spaniel. His garments were oddly cut, different from those of the peasants I had met. Though I trotted my horse, he followed me without difficulty, and engaged in conversation. Soon we were good friends, and my guide addressed him as “Sir” or “Your Grace” (Usted); they spoke of a certain Senor So-and-so of Granada, governor of the jail, whom they both knew. When it came time to lunch, we stopped before a house where we procured wine. The man with the dog drew a piece of salt cod out of a sack and offered me some. I suggested that we share our provisions, and all three of us ate with good appetite. I must admit to you that we drank out of the same bottle, for the simple reason that there were no glasses within a league. I asked him why he troubled to take so young a dog with him on his journey. He told me that his journey was for the dog, which his commandant was sending by him to one of his friends in Jaen. Seeing him without a uniform, and hearing him mention his commandant, I asked : “Are you a solider then ?” “No, I am in prison.” I was somewhat surprised. My guide exclaimed, “What, didn’t you see that by his clothes ?” The manner of the guide, who was an honest muleteer, did not change in the least. He offered the bottle first to me, as a caballero, then presented it to the prisoner, and drank last himself. In short, he treated him with all the politeness that the people in Spain show among themselves.

“How did you happen to be sent to prison ?” I asked my travelling companion.

“Oh, sir, for a misfortune. I happened to be present at several deaths.” (Fué por una desgracia. Me hallé en unas muertes).

“What the devil does that mean ?”

“This is how the thing happened. I was a soldier. With about twenty of my companions I was escorting a band of prisoners from Valencia. On the road some friends of theirs tried to set them free, and at the same time our prisoners revolted. Our captain was altogether at a loss : if the prisoners escaped, he would be held responsible for all the harm they might do. He made up his mind and shouted to us : “Fire on the prisoners.” We fired and killed fifteen of them; whereupon we drove off their friends. That happened when he had the Constitution. When the French came back and took it away from us, they tried us, all of us, poor soldiers, because among the dead presidierios there had been several royalist gentlemen (caballeros) that the constitutionalists had put in prison. Our captain was dead, so we were held responsible. My time will soon be up, and as my commandant has confidence in me because of my good conduct, he has sent me to Jaen to give this letter and this dog to the commandant of the prison there.”

My guide was a royalist, and it was clear that the prisoner was a constitutionalist; nevertheless, they remained on the best of terms. When we resumed our journey, the spaniel was so tired that the prisoner had to carry him on his back, wrapped in his vest. This man’s conversation amused me extremely. As for him, the cigars which I had given him and the lunch we had shared, had so affected him that he wanted to follow me as far as Baylen.

“The road is not safe,” he told me. “I will get a musket from one of my friends in Jaen, and even if we meet half-a-dozen brigands, they shall not rob you of a handkerchief.”

“But,” said I, “if you do not get back to the presidio, your sentence is sure to be prolonged, by a year, perhaps.”

“Bah! What does a year matter ? Anyway, you will give me a paper certifying that I accompanied you. What is more, I should have no peace if I let you go alone on that road…”

I should have permitted him to accompany me if he had not quarrelled with my guide. This was the cause of it :

After going eight Spanish leagues on foot behind our horses whom we trotted whenever the road permitted, he took it into his head to say that he could still follow if we galloped. My guide laughed at him. Our horses were not exactly nags, we had before us a stretch of a quarter of a league across a plain, and the prisoner was carrying his dog upon his back. My guide dared him to do it. We set out, but that devil of a man really had soldier’s legs, and our horses could not outstrip him. The vanity of my guide, their master, could not pardon the presidierio for this affront. He refused to speak to him, and by the time we got to Campillo de Arenas, he went so far that the prisoner, with a discretion typical of the Spanish, understood that his presence was no longer desired, and withdrew.

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Third Letter: The Robbers

Madrid, November, 1830.


Here I am back in Madrid after several month, having traveled all about Andalusia, that classic realm of robbers, without meeting one. I am almost ashamed of it. I was quite ready to be attacked—not prepared to defend myself, but to talk with them and question them very politely about their way of life. Looking at my coat, out at the elbows, and my skimpy luggage, I regret having missed these gentlemen. The pleasure of seeing them, even if it had cost me a light suitcase, would not have been too dear.

But, though I saw no robbers, I was compensated by hearing nothing else talked about. At every stop to change mules, the postillons and inn-keepers tell you lamentable tales of assassinated travellers, kidnapped women. The event in question has always taken place the preceding night on the very stretch of road that is before you. By all these accounts, the traveller who does not yet know Spain, and who has not had time to acquire the sublime Castillian indifference, la flema castellana, however incredulous he may be on the whole, is bound to be somewhat impressed. Night falls much more rapidly than in our northern climates; here the dusk lasts but a moment : then, especially in the neighbourhood of mountains, a wind rises, which might well be warm in Paris, but which, by comparison with the burning heat of the day, seems cold and disagreeable. While you are wrapping yourself in your cloak and pulling your travelling cap down over your eyes, you notice that the men of your escort (escopeteros) are emptying their fire-arms without reloading them. Astonished by this singular proceeding, you ask for an explanation, and these heroes reply from the top of the coach where they are perched, that they are courageous as possible, but cannot be expected to hold off a whole band of robbers by themselves.

In case of attack, our only hope of being spared lies in being able to prove that we never had any intention of defending ourselves.

Then why bother with these men and their useless guns ? “Oh, they are very fine against rateros, that is to say, amateur brigands who rifle travellers when they get a chance; you never meet more than two or three of those at a time.”

Then the traveller regrets having brought so much money with him. He looks at his costly Breguet watch, thinks that it may never tell him the time again, and wishes that it were in Paris, hanging peacefully over his mantelpiece. He asks the chief coachman (mayoral) if the robbers take people’s clothes.

“Sometimes, sir. Last month the Seville diligence was stopped near Carlota, and all the passengers arrived at Ecija like so many little angels.”

“Little angels! And what do you mean by that ?”

“I mean that the bandits had taken all their clothes, not leaving them as much as a shirt.”

“The devil!” cries the traveller, buttoning up his riding-coat.

But he gets up a little courage, and even smiles, upon seeing an Andalusian girl, his travelling companion, piously kiss her thumb and sigh : “Jesus, Jesus!” (It is well known that those who kiss their thumbs after crossing themselves never come to grief.)

The night has quite fallen, but fortunately the moon rises bright in a cloudless heaven. Now in the distance can be seen the opening of a fearful gorge, no less than half a league long.

“Mayoral! Is that the place where the diligence was stopped before?”

“Yes, sir, and a traveller killed. Postillion,” the mayoral adds, “stop cracking your whip, lest you arouse them.”

“Who ?” asks the traveller.

“The robbers, replies the mayoral.

“The devil!” exclaims the traveller.

“Look, sir, over there where the road turns… Aren’t those men ? They’re hiding in the shadow of that great rock.”

“Yes, madame; one, two, three, six men on horseback!”

“Oh, Jesus, Jesus!…” (More crossing and thumb-kissing.)

“Mayoral, do you see that ?”


“There’s one with a club, perhaps it’s a musket ?”

“It is a musket.”

“Are they good fellows (buena gente), do you think ?” the young Andalusian enquires anxiously.

“Who knows ?” replies the mayoral, shrugging his shoulders and drawing down his mouth at the corners.

“God help us all, then!” And she buries her face in the vest of the traveller, who is doubly moved.

The coach drawn by eight sturdy mules at a full trot goes like the wind. The horsemen stop : draw up in a line—this is to bar the way. No, they open up, three take the left of the road and three the right—this is to surround the coach on all sides.

“Postillion, stop your mules if those fellows tell you to; don’t go bringing down a volley of rifle-shots on us!”

“Have no fear, sir. My skin is worth as much to me as yours is.”

At last, the six horsemen are so near that their large hats can be made out, as well as their Moorish saddles and white leather gaiters. If only their features were to be seen! What eyes and beards and scares they must have! No doubt of it : they are robbers, for they are all armed.

The first robber touches the rim of his fat, and speaks in a deep soft voice : “Vayan Vds. con Dios!” (God be with you!) This is every traveller’s greeting on the road. “Vayan Vds. con Dios,” the other horsemen say in turn, drawing aside politely to let the carriage pass; for they are honest farmers returning late from the Ecijo market to their village, going in an armed band on account of the general preoccupation with robbers of which I have already spoken.

After a few encounters of this kind you soon cease to believe in robbers. The peasants’ rather wild look grows so familiar that you would take a veritable brigand to be merely some honest workman who has not shaved lately. A young Englishman whose acquaintance I made in Granada, after travelling without an accident over all the worst roads in Spain, had come to deny obstinately the existence of robbers. One day two evil-looking armed men stopped him. He imagined that they were joking peasants who meant only to frighten him.

To all their demands for his money, he replied laughingly that he saw through their game. One of these genuine bandits, to disillusion him, had to give him a blow on the head with the butt of his musket; he still bore the scare of it three months later.

Except in rare instances the Spanish brigands do not use travellers badly. Often they content themselves with what money is handed over to them, without searching persons or opening any trunks; it best, however, not to count upon this. A young man of fashion in Madrid on his way to Cadiz, took with him two dozen fine shirts for which he had sent to London. The brigands stopped him near Carolina; and after taking all the onzas he has in his purse, not to mention the rings, chains, and love-tokens with which a man of such social consequence is bound to be equipped, the chief of the robbers politely called to his attention their linen, which, as they were obliged to avoid centres of civilization, was in great need of laundering. The two dozen shirts were unfolded and admired; and the captain saying, like the Turkish valet in Molière’s play, that “among gentlemen such liberties must be taken,” put some of them in his knapsack, took off the filthy rags which he had been wearing for six weeks at least, and joyously adorned himself with his prisoner’s best batiste; and his fellow-robbers did likewise : so that the unfortunate traveller, stripped of his wardrobe in an instant, found himself in possession of a heap of rags that he would not have dared to touch with the end of his cane. Furthermore, he had to put up with the jeering of the robber-band. The captain took leave of him with that solemn mockery which the Andalusians affect, saying that he would never forget how obliging the man had been, and would take pains to return the shirts so kindly lent him, and to call for his own, just as soon as he should have the pleasure of meeting him again.

“Above all,” he concluded, “don’t forget to send these gentlemen’s shirts to the laundry. We’ll pick them up on your return to Madrid.”

The young man, who told me of the adventure himself, confessed that he could more easily have forgiven the loss of his shirts than the robbers’ detestable jokes.

At different epochs the Spanish government had made a serious attempt to rid the country of the highwaymen who, from time immemorial, have infested it. These efforts have never met with marked success. When one band is destroyed, another immediately springs up. Sometimes with great difficulty a captain-general does drive them out of his territory; but the neighbouring provinces to which they flee only suffer the more.

The nature of the country, mountainous and without open roads, makes the entire extermination of the bandits very difficult. In Spain, as in the Vendée, there are many isolated farms miles away from any other habitation. By stationing soldiers on these farms, in these tiny villages, the robbers could shortly be starved into giving themselves up; but how could men and money enough be found?

Obviously it is to the interest of the farmers, who fear the brigand’s vengeance, to keep on good terms with them. The latter, for their part, dependent upon them for their subsistence, humour them, pay them well for whatever they need, and sometimes even share their plunder with them. I should add, furthermore, that highway robbery is not generally regarded as a dishonourable profession. In the opinion of many, it is opposition; that is, a protest against tyrannical laws. He who, with nothing but a gun, hardily defies a whole government, is a man whom other men respect and women admire. It is glorious indeed to be able to declare, as in the old song,

A todos los desafio,
Pues a nadie tengo miedo!

A robber usually begins as a smuggler. The customs officials interfere with his trade. To nine-tenths of the population it seems a crying injustice to torment a gallant fellow who sells better and cheaper than those of the king, and brings the women silks, English merchandise, and all the gossip from ten leagues around. Should a customs official happen to seize or kill his horse, the smuggler is ruined, with an injury to avenge furthermore : he becomes a robber… You ask what has become of a handsome boy who you noticed a few months before, the cock of the walk in some village.

“Alas,” replies a woman, “they made him take to the mountains. It isn’t his fault, poor boy; he was so good-natured; God preserve him!”

These kind souls hold the government responsible for all the harm the robbers do. It is the law, they say, that provokes poor people, who want only to stay at home in peace and live by their trade.

The model Spanish bandit, the heroic prototype of the highway, the Robin Hood or Roque Guinar of our day, is the famous José Maria, otherwise known as the Early Riser. He is the most talked of man from Madrid to Seville, from Seville to Malaga. Handsome, brave, and as courteous as a robber can be, if he stops a diligence he hands the ladies down and takes pains to find them comfortable seats in the shade—for most of his work is done by day. Never an oath or coarse word; quite the contrary, almost respectful attentions, and a natural politeness never at fault. Should he take a lady’s ring : “Ah, Madame,” says he, “so lovely a hand needs no ornament;” and while slipping the ring off the finger, he kisses the hand with such warmth that you would think, as one Spanish lady put it, that the kiss was worth more to him than the ring : the ring he took as if absent-mindedly, but made the kiss last a long time. I have been assured that he leaves every traveller enough money to get to the next village, and always permits a jewel which has sentimental associations to be kept.

José Maria has been described to me as a tall young man of twenty-five or thirty, well-built, with a frank and laughing face, teeth white as pearls, and remarkably expressive eyes. Usually he is dressed like a village dandy, but very richly; his shirts are dazzling white, and his hands would be a credit to any man of fashion in London or Paris.

He has been on the highway only five or six years. He was destined by his parents for the church, and studies theology at the University of Granada; but his religious convictions were not very fervent, as you shall see : for he found his way by night into the room of a young girl of good family. Love, they say, excuses many things; some violence was done or some servant wounded—I have never been able to make out what happened. The father made a great fuss, and the case came up in the criminal courts. José Maria was obliged to flee into exile in Gibraltar. There, as he lacked funds, he struck a bargain with an English trader to distribute a large quantity of contraband goods. His project was revealed by a man whom he had taken into his confidence. The customs authorities, having learned what road he meant to follow, lay in ambush. The mules he was driving were taken; he gave them up, but only after a fierce struggle, during which he killed or wounded several customs officers. From that time on there was nothing else for him to do but to fleece travellers.

To this day, he has had extraordinarily good luck. There is a price upon his head; a description of him is posted at the gate of every town, with the promise of a reward of eight thousand reales for his capture, dead or alive, though it be by one of his accomplices. Nevertheless, José carries on his dangerous trade unhindered, and his expeditions extend from the frontiers of Portugal to the kingdom of Murcia. His band is not large, but the fidelity and courage of every member of it have long been put to the test. One day at the Inn of Gazin, with a dozen picked men, he surprised seventy royal volunteers sent after him, and disarmed them all. Then, in a leisurely fashion, he returned to the mountains, bearing as trophies of his audacity the seventy carbines.

His marksmanship is said to be marvellous. On horseback, at a full gallop, at a distance of 150 feet, he will not miss the trunk of an olive tree. The following episode indicates his skill and his gallantry.

A certain Castro, a very courageous and active officer who hunted the robbers, it is said, quite as much to satisfy personal revenge as in pursuit of his duty, learned from one of his spies that on such a day, in a lonely tavern, José Maria might be found with his mistress. On the day in question he set out on horseback, taking with him only four lancers, in order not to arouse suspicion. Notwithstanding his great precautions, José Maria learned of his coming. Just as Castro, riding out of a deep ravine into a valley, approached the tavern where his enemy and his mistress were, twelve well-mounted men suddenly appeared on his flank, between him and the gorge which was his only possible refuge. The lancers thought themselves lost. A man on a bay horse galloped forward from the robber-band and drew up short, a hundred feet from Castro.

“José Maria is not to be taken by surprise,” he cried. “What harm have I done you, Captain Castro, that you should want to turn me over to the law ? I could easily kill you, but gallant men are rare these days; I will spare you. But you shall have something to remember me by. Your shako!”

And as he spoke he took aim, and put a bullet through the top of the captain’s hat.

Here is another example of his courtesy.

A wedding was being celebrated on a farm in the neighbourhood of Andujar. The newly-married couple had already been congratulated by their friends, and were about to sit down to eat under a great fig-tree before the door; everyone was in good humour, and the scent of jasmine and blossoming orange-trees pleasantly mingled with the more substantial odours of the repast which bent the table under its weight. Suddenly an unknown horseman came out of a thicket within pistol-range of the house. He dismounted briskly, saluted the guests with his hand, and led his horse to the stable. They were expecting no one; but in Spain the passer-by is welcome to any sort of feast. Besides, judging by the stranger’s clothes, he appeared to be a man of consequence. The bridegroom stepped forward at once to ask him to dinner.

While they were all asking in an undertone who he was, one of the guests, the notary at Andujar, turned pale as death. He tried to rise from his place beside the bride, but his knees shook and his legs would not support him. One of the guests, long suspected of having something to do with smuggling, went up to the bride and said :

“It is José Maria; unless I am much mistaken, he has come here to do harm (para hancer una meurte). It is the notary he is after. But what can be done ? Help him to escape ? Impossible; José Maria would soon overtake him. Seize the brigand ? His followers are doubtless close at hand. Besides, there are pistols in his belt, and he is never without his dagger.—Your honour the notary, whatever have you done to him ?”

“Alas, nothing. Absolutely nothing!”

Someone muttered that two months before this the notary had instructed his farmer, if ever José Maria came asking for a drink, to put a good dose of arsenic in his wine.

They were still discussing it, the olla was still untouched, when the stranger reappeared. No doubt of it then; it was José Maria. As he passed, he glared like a tiger at the notary, who began to tremble as if he had a high fever; then he greeted the bride politely, and asked if he might dance at her wedding. Naturally, she did not refuse, and took care not to seem ungracious. Whereupon José Maria drew a cork stool up to the table and without ceremony sat down between the notary, who seemed likely to faint away at any moment, and the bride.

They began to eat. José Maria was elaborately courteous and very attentive to his neighbour. When the wedding wines were served, the bride, taking a glass of montilla (which is better than sherry in my opinion) and touching it to her lips, offered it to the bandit. This is a traditional courtesy to people whom one esteems, and is called una fineza. Unfortunately, it is no longer the rule in good society; for people here are as eager as elsewhere to rid themselves of national customs.

José Maria took the glass and thanked her effusively, begging her to consider him as her servant, and declaring that he would be happy to do whatever she deigned to require.

The bride, trembling all over, murmured in the ear of her terrible guest : “Grant me one favour.”

“A thousand!” he cried.

“Forget, I implore you, the evil intentions with which you may have come. For love of me, promise that you will forgive your enemies, and that there shall be no scandal at my wedding.”

“Notary!” said José Maria, turning toward the cringing lawyer, “thank the señora; but for her I should have killed you before you had digested your dinner. Don’t be frightened now; I will not hurt you.”

Pouring out a glass of wine, he added with a rather wicked smile : “Come on, notary, drink to my health! This wine is good, there is no poison in it.” The unhappy lawyer felt as if he were swallowing a hundred pins. “Come on, children!” cried the robber, “let’s make merry (vaya de droma)! Long live the bride!”

Leaping up then, he went in search of a guitar, and improvised a couplet in honour of the newly wedded pair.

In short, during the rest of the dinner and the ball which followed it, he made himself so agreeable that tears came into the women’s eyes at the thought that so charming a fellow might well end on the gallows. He danced, he sang, he found a way to please each one. Toward midnight, a little twelve-year-old girl, half-dressed in miserable rags, came up to him and said several words in the gypsy dialect. José Maria started, ran to the stable, and came back quickly, leading his fine horse. Then, going up to the bride, with the reins over one arm :

“Farewell,” he said, “child of my soul (hija de mi alma), never shall I forget the moments I have spent beside you. They are the happiest that I have known for many years. Will you be so good as to accept this bagatelle from a poor devil who would like to have a gold mine to offer you ?”

Whereupon he presented her with a pretty ring.

“José Maria,” the bride exclaimed, “as long as there is a loaf of bread in this house, half of it shall be for you.”

The robber shook hands with all the guests, even the notary, kissed all the women; and, springing lightly into the saddle, fled back into the mountains. Only then did the notary breathe freely. Half an hour later there came a detachment of soldiers, but no one had seen the man they sought.

The Spanish people, who sing the exploits of Renaud de Mont Auban and know the romances of the Twelve Peers by heart, are bound to take great interest in the only man who, in so prosaic a day, has revived the chivalrous virtues of old knighthood. Another factor contributes greatly to José Maria’s popularity : he is exceedingly generous. His money costs him nothing, and he spends it freely among the unfortunate. No poor man, they say, has ever appealed to him in vain.

A muleteer told me that, having lost his entire fortune which consisted of a mule, he was just about to throw himself head first into the Guadalquiver, when an unknown person presented his wife with a box containing six gold onzas. No doubt it was a gift from José Maria, whom he had directed to a ford one day when the soldiers were close at his heels.

I shall finish this letter by another example of my hero’s benevolence.

A certain poor peddler in the neighbourhood of Campillo de Arenas was taking a load of vinegar into town. According to the usage of the country, the vinegar was contained in goat-skins and borne by a lean and mangy donkey half starved to death. Upon a narrow path, the peddler met a stranger who, by his costume, might have been taken for a hunter, and who, as soon as he saw the donkey, burst out laughing.

“What a nag!” he cried. “Do you think this is carnival, my friend, to lead forth such a beast ?”

And he continued to laugh.

“Sir,” replied the donkey-man, deeply hurt, “this animal, ugly as it is, still earns my daily bread for me. I am an unfortunate man, sir, and have no money to buy another.”

“What ?” cried the stranger, “that hideous she-ass keeps you from dying from hunger ? She’ll be dead herself before the week’s out. Here,” he went on, presenting him with a rather heavy bag, “old Herrera has a fine mule to sell; he wants fifteen hundred reales for it. Here they are. Buy that mule today, not a minute later, and don’t stop to bargain. If I find you on the road tomorrow with this frightful beast, as sure as my name is José Maria, I’ll throw you both over a precipice.”

The donkey-man, left alone with the sack in his hand, thought it was a dream; but the fifteen hundred reales were all there. Knowing that José Maria was as good as his word, he went at once to see Herrera and hastened to exchange his reales for the fine mule.

The following night old Herrera woke with a start. Two men were there, holding a dark lantern and a dagger before his face.

“Come on, quick—your money!”

“Alas, my good sirs. I haven’t a penny in the house.”

“You lie; you have just sold a mule to So-and-so of Campillo for fifteen hundred reales.”

Their inducements were so irresistible that the fifteen hundred reales were quickly given up—or, if you like, given back.


P.S. José Maria has been dead several years. In 1833, when the young Queen Isabella took her oath, King Ferdinand granted amnesty of which the celebrated bandit was happy to avail himself. As the price of his good behaviour, the government even accorded him a pension of two reales a day. This sum not being sufficient for a man with many elegant vices, he was obliged to seek employment; and as an escopetero was charged with the protection of the diligences he had so often pillaged. All went well for a while : his former comrades feared him or respected him. But one day a more resolute band of robbers held up the Seville coach, though José Maria himself accompanied it. From his place on the roof he harangued them, and his influence over his former accomplices was such that they seemed about to withdraw without violence, when their leader, known as the Gypsy (el Gitano), José Maria’s lieutenant in the old days, fired at him point-blank and killed him.

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Fourth Letter: The Spanish Witches

Valencia, 1830.

Antiquities, above all Roman antiquities, mean very little to me. I do not know how I allowed myself to be persuaded to go to Murviedro to see what is left of Sagonte. I got nothing out of it but fatigue; dined badly, and saw nothing at all. When travelling, one is incessantly tormented by dread of not being able to say “yes” to the inevitable question upon one’s return : “Doubtless you saw… ?” Why should I be forced to see what others have seen ? I do not travel toward a predetermined goal; I am not an antiquarian. My nerves are hardened to sentimental emotions, and I am not sure that I remember the old cypress of Zegris in the Generaliffe with more pleasure than the pomegranates and the excellent seedless grapes that I ate under than venerable tree.

However, my excursion to Murviedro did not bore me. I hired a horse, and a Valencian peasant to accompany me on foot. I found him (the Valencian) to be a great talker, moderately rascally, but good company on the whole and rather amusing. To get an extra reale out of me, over and above the price agreed upon for the hire of the horse, he expended prodigious diplomacy and eloquence; but at the same time defended my interest at the inns with so much vivacity and warmth that one would have sworn he was paying the bill out of his own pocket. In the account which he presented me every morning, there was a terrible series of items : straps mended, nails replaced, and wine to rub down the horse, drunk by himself, no doubt; for all that, it never cost me too much. He had the art of making me buy, wherever we stopped, I don’t know how many useless knick-knacks, above all the knives of each locality. He taught me how to place my thumb on the blade, so as to disembowel a man without cutting my fingers. Soon these fiendish knives seemed to me very heavy. They clashed together in my pockets, bumped against my legs, in short, bothered me so much that the only solution was to rid myself of them by making Vincent a present. His refrain was :

“How happy the friends of your lordship will be when they see all the fine things he has brought them from Spain!”

I shall never forget a bag of sweet acorns which my lordship bought to take back to his friends and, with the assistance of his guide, ate, before getting as far as Murviedro.

Vincent, though he had seen the world, having sold orgeat in Madrid, had his full share of the superstitions of the country. He was very devout, and during the three days that we spent together, I had occasion to see what a very odd religion his was. The Lord God troubled him not a whit, and he spoke of Him only with indifference. But the saints, and especially the Virgin, received his every homage. He made me think of those solicitors grown old at their desks, whose maxim is that it is better to have friends in the office than the vague protection of the Minister himself.

To understand his devotion to the Holy Virgin, you must know that in Spain there are Virgins and Virgins. Each town has its own, and turns up its nose at that of its neighbour. The Virgin of Peniscola, the small town which had given birth to the honourable Vincent, was worth more, according to him, than all the rest put together.

“But,” said I one day, “there is more than one Virgin, then ?”

“No doubt of it; every province has one.”

“And in heaven, how many are there ?”

Apparently the question embarrassed him, but his catechism came to his rescue.

“There is but one,” he replied, with the hesitation of a man repeating a phrase which he does not understand.

“Very well, then,” I continued, “if you broke your leg, to which Virgin would you address your prayers ? To the one in heaven, or to another ?”

“To the very holy Virgin, our Lady of Peniscola, obviously, (por supuesto).”

“But why not to Our Lady of Pilier, in Zaragozza, who performed so many miracles ?”

“Bah, she’s good enough for the Aragonese!”

I wanted to catch him up on his weakess, provincial patriotism.

“If the Virgin of Peniscola is more powerful than Our Lady of Pilier, doesn’t that prove that the Valencians are worse rascals than the Aragonese, since they need so influential a personage to get their sins forgiven ?”

“Ah, sir, the Aragonese are no better than anybody else; only we Valencians, we know the power of Our Lady of Peniscola; and sometimes, in fact, we do depend too much upon it.”

“Vincent, tell me this : don’t you believe that Our Lady of Peniscola speaks Valencian to the Lord God when she implores His Majesty not to damn you for your transgressions ?”

“Valencians ? No indeed, sir,” replied Vincent energetically. “Your lordship knows perfectly well what language the Virgin speaks.”

“Upon my word, I do not.”

“But Latin, obviously.”

…The rather low mountains of the kingdom of Valencia are often crowned by ruined castles. It came into my head one day, passing by one of these places, to ask Vincent if it was haunted. He began to smile, and replied that there were no ghosts in that country; then added, winking as if he were replying to a joke :

“Without doubt, your lordship has seen a great many in his country ?”

In Spanish there is no word which exactly translates into “ghosts.” Duende, which you will find in the dictionary, corresponds rather to our word imp, the French lutin, and thus is also used of a mischievous child. Duendecito (little duende), might refer to a young man hiding behind a curtain in a young lady’s chamber, to frighten her, or for some other purpose. But as for those great pale specters, wrapped in shrouds and dragging chains, you do not see them in Spain, nor do you hear of them. There are still some enchanted Moors whose activities are recounted in the neighbourhood of Granada; but they are generally good ghosts and appear, as a rule, in full daylight, asking very humbly to be baptised, not having had the leisure to do so when alive. If you grant them this privilege, they show you a magnificent treasure for your pains. If you add to this a very hairy were-wolf called el velludo, whose picture may be seen in the Alhambra, and a certain horse without a head,1 (1. El caballo descabezado.) who nevertheless gallops very swiftly over the stones which clutter the ravine between the Alhambra and the Generaliffe, you will have a more or less complete list of all the phantoms with which the Spanish children are frightened, or by which they are amused.

Fortunately, people still believe in sorcerers, especially in sorceresses.

A league away from Murviedro, there is a little isolated tavern. I was dying of thirst, and drew up at the door. A very pretty girl, not too swarthy, brought me a great pot of that porous earthenware which cools the water in it. Vincent, who never passed a tavern without being thirsty and without giving me some good reason for stopping, seemed not to have any desire to go in there. It was getting late, said he; we had a long way to go; a quarter of a league further there was a much better inn where we should find the best wine of the kingdom, with the exception of that in Peniscola. I was inflexible. I drank the water that was offered me. I ate the gaspacho that Senorita Carmencita made with her own hands, and even drew her portrait in my sketch-book. Meanwhile, at the door, Vincent rubbing down his horse and whistling impatiently, seemed to feel a marked aversion toward entering the house.

We resumed our journey. From time to time I spoke of Carmencita. Vincent shook his head.

“A bad house,” said he.

“Bah! And why ? The gaspacho was excellent.”

“There’s nothing remarkable about that. The devil probably made it.”

“The devil ? Do you mean that she did not spare the pepper, or that the good woman really has the devil for a cook ?”

“Who knows ?”

“So… Is she a sorceress ?” Vincent looked around with an anxious air to see whether he was being watched; he hurried my horse with a touch of his switch; and while running along beside me, he threw back his head, opened his mouth, and turned his eyes to the heavens, an ordinary affirmative gesture among these people whom one is often tempted to think silent, such difficulty does one have in getting out of them any answer to a direct question. My curiosity was aroused; and it gave me keen pleasure to see that my guide was not, as I had feared, an utter sceptic.

“So she is a sorceress,” said I, slowing up my horse. “And the girl—what may she be ?”

“Your lordship knows the proverb, Pimero p…; luego alcahueta, pues bruja.1 (1. First a whore, then a procuress, and a witch at last.) The girl is just setting out, and the mother has already reached port.”

“How do you know she’s a witch ? What has she done that proves it ?”

“What they all do. She has the evil eye2, (2. Mal de ojos. In the kingdom of Valencia, a little bracelet of scarlet is often attached to children’s wrists, to protect them from it.) which makes children shrivel up; she burns olive trees, she makes the mules die off, and much other wickedness.”

“But do you know anybody who has suffered from her spells ?”

“Do I know anybody ? There is my first cousin, for example, on whom she played a master-trick.”

“Tell me about it, I beg you.”

“He is in Cadiz now, and I hope it won’t bring him bad luck if I tell you…”

I quieted Vincent’s scruples with a good cigar. He found the argument irresistible, and so began :

“You must know, sir, that my cousin is named Henriquez, and that he is a native of Grao de Valencia, sailor and fisher by profession, a good fellow and father of a family, a Christian gentleman like all his relations; and I can boast that I am, too, poor though I am, when there are so many richer people who smell of their low origin. Well, my cousin was a fisherman in a little village near Peniscola, because, though born in Grao, his family lived in Peniscola. He was born in his father’s boat; by which you may know that, being born on the sea, he was a good sailor. He had been to India, to Portugal, in fact everywhere. When he wasn’t sailing on a big ship, he had his own boat, and went fishing. Upon his return, he would attach his boat with a strong hauser to a big pile, and go to bed in peace. Now one morning, setting out to fish, he starts to undo the know in the hauser, and what does he see ?… Instead of the knot that he had tied, a knot such as good sailors know, he finds a knot such as an old woman tethers her she-donkey with. ‘The little rascals must have been playing in my boat last night,’ thought he. ‘If I catch them, I’ll give them a sound thrashing.’

“He sets sail, fishes, and comes back. He made fast his boat, and as a precaution, ties a double knot this time. Very well! The next morning the knot was untied. My cousin is in a fury, but guesses who did it!… However, he takes a new rope, and, undeterred, ties his boat fast again. Bah! The next day, not a bit of the new rope left, but in its place an old strand of rotten cable. Furthermore, the sail was torn, which proves that it had been unfurled in the night. My cousin says to himself : ‘These are no rascally children that went out by night in my boat; they wouldn’t dare spread the sail for fear of capsizing. Surely it’s a robber.’

“What does he do ? He goes that evening and hides in his boat; lies down in the place where he kept his bread and rice when he set out for several days. He covers himself with a worn out cloak, the better to be hid; and there he waits at his ease. At midnight,—take note of the hour, sir—suddenly he hears voices as if a great many people were coming at a run down to the seashore. He sticks his nose out a bit, Sir, and sees—not robbers, Christ! but a dozen old barefooted women with their hair in the wind. My cousin is a resolute fellow, and in his belt he had a good knife well-sharpened for the robbers; but when he saw that it was witches he was going to have to deal with, his courage left him. He hid his head in the cloak, and trusted to Our Lady of Peniscola to keep those villainous women from seeing him.

There he was all huddles and knotted up in his corner, feeling very sorry for himself. Down came the witches, who untied the rope, let out the sail, and headed out to sea. If the boat had been a horse, you might say it took the bit in its teeth. Certainly it seemed to fly over the sea. It sailed and sailed at such a speed that the whistling of the water split your ears, and all the tar melted off it.1 (1. I did not dare to interrupt my guide to ask him to explain this phenomenon. Could it be that the speed of the movement generated heat enough to melt the tar ? It will be seen that my friend Vincent, who had never been at sea, made no very expert use of local colour.) And there is nothing astonishing about that; witches always have as much wind as they want, for the devil blows it for them. Meanwhile my cousin could hear them talking, laughing, frisking about, boasting of all the harm they’d done. There were some of them that he knew; others, who had probably come from a distance, he had never seen. Old Ferrar, the witch in that tavern where you insisted on staying so long, she held the rudder. Finally, after a while, they stopped; the boat grounded; the witches jumped out of it, and made it fast to a big rock on the shore. When my cousin Henriquez heard no more of their voices, he ventured to come out of his hole. The night was rather dark, but still he could see quite clearly, where a rock jutted out from the shore, some great reeds shaken by the wind, and over beyond that, a great fire. You may be sure, that was the place they held their sabbath. Henriquez got up courage enough to jump ashore and cut some of those reeds; then he crept back into his hiding-place with them, and peacefully awaited the witches’ return. After an hour, more or less, back they came, re-embarked, turned the boat about, and sailed away as fast as before. ‘At this rate,’ my cousin said to himself, ‘we’ll soon be in Peniscola.’

“Everything went very well until suddenly one of the women cried out : ‘Sisters, it’s striking three.’

“No sooner had she said it than they all flew off and disappeared. Remember, Sir, it’s only up to three o’clock that they have the power to rove about so.

“The boat was becalmed, and my cousin had to row. God knows how long he was at sea before he saw Peniscola. More than two days! He got back all worn out. As soon as he had eaten a piece of bread and drunk a glass of brandy, he went to see the apothecary of Peniscola, a very learned man who knew all the herbs. He showed him the reeds he had brought back. ‘Where do these come from ?’ was what he asked the apothecary. ‘From America,’ replied the apothecary. ‘Nothing of the king grows anywhere except in America, and you may sow the seed here all you like : nothing will come of it.’

“My cousin did not say another word to the apothecary, but went straight off to see the Ferrer woman. ‘Paca,’ said he as he entered, ‘you are a witch.’ The other began protesting and saying, ‘Jesus, Jesus!’ ‘This is the proof that you are a witch : you go to America and you come back the same night. I went with you last night, and here is the proof of that. Look! Here are the reeds that I gathered over there.'”

Vincent, who had related all this in an emotional voice with great warmth, stretched out his hand toward me at this point, and accompanying his narration with appropriate pantomime, presented me with a handful of grass which he had just gathered. I could not keep from starting, thinking I saw the reeds from America. Vincent went on :

“The witch said : ‘Say not a word, here is a bag of rice : take it, and leave me in peace.’ Henriquez said : ‘No, I will not leave you in peace unless you give me a charm so that I can have a wind whenever I want it, just like that which took us to America.’

“Whereupon the witch gave him a parchment in a gourd which he always carries when he goes to sea; but in his place I should have thrown the parchment and all in the fire long ago, or rather I should have given it to a priest; for he who deals with the devil always makes a bad bargain.”

I thanked Vincent for his story, and added, to pay him back in his coin, that in my country the witches get along without boats; the most usual means of transportation there is a broom, on which these ladies go astride.

“Your lordship knows perfectly well that this is impossible,” Vincent replied coldly.

I was stupefied by his incredulity. It was offensive, furthermore, since I had not cast the least doubt on the truth of his story of the reeds. I expressed all my indignation, and told him very severely that he should not undertake to pass judgment upon things he couldn’t understand, adding that if we were in France I could provide him with as many witnesses of the fact as he wished.

“If your lordship saw it, then it must be true,” replied Vincent; “but if he did not see it, I shall go on saying that it is impossible; for a broom there must always be some twigs crossed, and there you have a cross made; then will you tell me what use a witch can make of it ?”

This argument was unanswerable. I got out of it by saying there were brooms and brooms. That a witch could ride on a birch-broom was clearly inadmissible; but one made of a real broom, whose stalks are straight and stiff, or one made of bristle, nothing could be easier. On such broomsticks as those, obviously, you could go to the end of the world.

“I have always heard said, sir, that there are many sorcerers and witches in your country.”

“That, my friend, is because we haven’t an inquisition.”

“No doubt then, your lordship has met some of those people who sell charms for all sorts of things. I have seen their effects, and with my own eyes.”

“Tell me about them,” said I, as if just those particular instances were unknown to me; “afterwards I will tell you if they are true.”

“Well, sir, they tell me that in your country there are people who sell charms and people who bury them. For a good sack of little coins they sell you a bit of reed knotted at one end with a good cork in the other. In this reed there are little animals (animalitos) by means of which you get whatever you ask for, but you know as well as I how they are fed—on baptised children’s flesh, sir : and when he cannot get any, the master of the reed is obliged to cut off a bit of his own flesh…” (Vincent’s hair was staning on end). “They’ve got to be fed every twenty-four hours, sir.”

“Have you seen one of the reeds in question ?”

“No, sir, to tell the truth; but I knew a certain Romero very well : hundreds of times I have drunk with him (before I knew him for what he is, as I do at present). This Romero was a zagal1 (1. The zagal is a sort of foot-postillion. He holds by the bridle the first two mules in a team, and running in front, leads them at full gallop. If he stops, the coach goes over his body. In the new diligence, the man who attends to the drag, helps to load the carriages, etc. is incorrectly called a zagal. This is the cad of the English coaches.) by trade. He had a sickness as a result of which he lost his wind, so that he could no longer run. He was told to go on a pilgrimage to be cured; but he said : “While I’m away on a pilgrimage, who is going to earn what pays for my children’s bread ?”

“So, not knowing what to do with himself, he got in with the sorcerers and other such scum, who sold him one of the pieces of reed of which I was telling your lordship. Sir, from that time on, Romero could have won a race with a hare. Not one zagal could compare with him. You know what a job that is, how dangerous and fatiguing. Today he runs in front of the mules without missing one puff of his cigar. He can run from Valencia to Murcia without stopping, without breath; but you’ve only to see him to understand what it costs him. His bones come through his skin; and if his eyes got any deeper in his head, he will be able to see out behind him very soon. Those little animals have eaten him all up.

“There are charms which are good for other things than running… Some charms guarantee against lead and steel; make you hard, as they say. Napoleon had one of these; that’s why they couldn’t kill him in Spain, though there was a very easy way…”

“That is to have a silver bullet cast,” I interrupted, remembering the bullet which a good Whig shot into Claverhouse’s shoulder-blade.

“A silver bullet would be all right,” replied Vincent, “if it was cast from a coin on which there was a cross; but what is still better is simply to take a candle which has been on the altar while mass is being said. You melt this blessed wax in bullet-mould, and you may be sure that there is no charm or deviltry or breast-plate which can protect a sorcerer against such a bullet. Jean Colle who was so famous in his time around Tortosa, was killed with the wax bullet that a brave soldier fired; and when he was dead and the soldier searched him, his chest was found to be covered with figures and marks made by gunpowder; and he had parchments hung around his neck, and I don’t know what other baubles. José Maria, of whom they talk so much now in Andalusia, has a charm against bullets; but let him beware if ever they fire on him with wax bullets! You know how he treats the priests and monks who fall into his hands : that is because he knows that some priest is going to bless the wax which will kill him in the end.”

Vincent could have said much more; but at the moment the Castle of Murviedro, coming into sight at a bend of the road, gave another turn to our conversations.

From Carmen, and Letters from Spain. New York: Minton, Balch and co., 1931.
For educational use only.

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