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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Red-Letter Days in Spain

By John Hay (1838–1905)

[Castilian Days. 1871.]

WITH the long days and cooler airs of the autumn begin the different fairs. These are relics of the times of tyranny and exclusive privilege, when for a few days each year, by the intervention of the Church, or as a reward for civic service, full liberty of barter and sale was allowed to all citizens. This custom, more or less modified, may be found in most cities of Europe. The boulevards of Paris swarm with little booths at Christmas-time, which begin and end their lawless commercial life within the week. In Vienna, in Leipsic, and other cities, the same waste-weir of irregular trade is periodically opened. These fairs begin in Madrid with the autumnal equinox, and continue for some weeks in October. They disappear from the Alcalá to break out with renewed virulence in the avenue of Atocha, and girdle the city at last with a belt of booths. While they last they give great animation and spirit to the street-life of the town. You can scarcely make your way among the heaps of gaudy shawls and handkerchiefs, cheap laces and illegitimate jewels, that cumber the pavement. When the Jews were driven out of Spain, they left behind the true genius of bargaining. A nut-brown maid is attracted by a brilliant red and yellow scarf. She asks the sleepy merchant nodding before his wares, “What is this rag worth?” He answers with profound indifference, “Ten reals.”

“Hombre! Are you dreaming or crazy?” She drops the coveted neck-gear and moves on, apparently horror-stricken.

The chapman calls her back peremptorily: “Don’t be rash! The scarf is worth twenty reals, but for the sake of Santissima Maria I offered it to you for half-price. Very well! You are not suited. What will you give?”

“Caramba! Am I a buyer and seller as well? The thing is worth three reals; more is a robbery.”

“Jesus! Maria! José! and all the family! Go thou with God! We cannot trade. Sooner than sell for less than eight reals I will raise the cover of my brains! Go thou! It is eight of the morning, and still thou dreamest.”

She lays down the scarf reluctantly, saying, “Five?” But the outraged mercer snorts scornfully, “Eight is my last word! Go to!”

She moves away, thinking how well that scarf would look in the Apollo Gardens, and casts over her shoulder a Parthian glance and bid, “Six!”

“Take it! It is madness, but I cannot waste my time in bargaining.”

Both congratulate themselves on the operation. He would have taken five, and she would have given seven. How trade would suffer if we had windows in our breasts!…

The true Carnival survives in its naïve purity only in Spain. It has faded in Rome into a romping day of clown’s play. In Paris it is little more than a busier season for dreary and professional vice. Elsewhere all over the world the Carnival gayeties are confined to the salon. But in Madrid the whole city, from grandee to cordwainer, goes with childlike earnestness into the enjoyment of the hour. The Corso begins in the Prado on the last Sunday before Lent, and lasts four days. From noon to night the great drive is filled with a double line of carriages two miles long, and between them are the landaus of the favored hundreds who have the privilege of driving up and down free from the law of the road. This right is acquired by the payment of ten dollars a day to city charities, and produces some fifteen thousand dollars every Carnival. In these carriages all the society of Madrid may be seen; and on foot, darting in and out among the hoofs of the horses, are the young men of Castile in every conceivable variety of absurd and fantastic disguise. There are of course pirates and Indians and Turks, monks, prophets, and kings, but the favorite costumes seem to be the devil and the Englishman. Sometimes the Yankee is attempted, with indifferent success. He wears a ribbon-wreathed Italian bandit’s hat, an embroidered jacket, slashed buckskin trousers, and a wide crimson belt—a dress you would at once recognize as universal in Boston.

Most of the maskers know by name at least the occupants of the carriages. There is always room for a mask in a coach. They leap in, swarming over the back or the sides, and in their shrill monotonous scream they make the most startling revelations of the inmost secrets of your soul. There is always something impressive in the talk of an unknown voice, but especially is this so in Madrid, where every one scorns his own business, and devotes himself rigorously to his neighbor’s. These shrieking young monks and devilkins often surprise a half-formed thought in the heart of a fair Castilian and drag it out into day and derision. No one has the right to be offended. Duchesses are called Tu! Isabel! by chin-dimpled school-boys, and the proudest beauties in Spain accept bonbons from plebeian hands. It is true, most of the maskers are of the better class. Some of the costumes are very rich and expensive, of satin and velvet heavy with gold. I have seen a distinguished diplomatist in the guise of a gigantic canary-bird, hopping briskly about in the mud with bedraggled tail-feathers, shrieking well-bred sarcasms with his yellow beak.

The charm of the Madrid Carnival is this, that it is respected and believed in. The best and fairest pass the day in the Corso, and gallant young gentlemen think it worth while to dress elaborately for a few hours of harmless and spirituelle intrigue. A society that enjoys a holiday so thoroughly has something in it better than the blasé cynicism of more civilized capitals. These young fellows talk like the lovers of the old romances. I have never heard prettier periods of devotion than from some gentle savage, stretched out on the front seat of a landau under the peering eyes of his lady, safe in his disguise if not self-betrayed, pouring out his young soul in passionate praise and prayer; around them the laughter and the cries, the cracking of whips, the roll of wheels, the presence of countless thousands, and yet these two young hearts alone under the pale winter sky. The rest of the Continent has outgrown the true Carnival. It is pleasant to see this gay relic of simpler times, when youth was young. No one here is too “swell” for it. You may find a duke in the disguise of a chimney-sweep, or a butcher-boy in the dress of a Crusader. There are none so great that their dignity would suffer by a day’s reckless foolery, and there are none so poor that they cannot take the price of a dinner to buy a mask and cheat their misery by mingling for a time with their betters in the wild license of the Carnival.