A Celebration of Women Writers

"A Glimpse of Modern Spain." by Miss Laura Bell.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 516-520.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 516] 



So much has been said and written during the last few months about the history of Spain at the close of the fifteenth century, the time when we as a country first came into historical contact with the civilized world, that I think we are all more familiar with the customs of the Spain of that period than we are with the Spain of today.

Entering Spain from France and crossing the Pyrenees, the first interesting place at which to stop is San Sebastian, the noted fashionable Spanish watering place. The Court removes there in the summer, and in fine weather the little King can be seen daily driving to and from the new chateau, which has been built for him, at the extreme end of the town, and which commands a beautiful view of La Concha, the shell-shaped harbor lying below, and the beetling crags opposite, with houses clinging to the steep hillsides. The bath-houses are ranged along the beach, and being on wheels, can easily be run into the water, thus avoiding the disagreeable walk across the sand. The King's bath-house is larger than the others, more like a little summer pavilion with a piazza around it; the windows are hung with pretty curtains, the roof and sides are painted yellow and red, the Spanish colors, and surmounted with a crown. A railroad has been constructed down into the water for his bath-house to run over, making a still more agreeable way of reaching the surf. Poor little King! May his path thro' life be smooth and pleasant.

On the way to Madrid, everyone spends a few hours in Burgos, so as to visit the ancient cathedral and to gaze respectfully on the receptacle of the bones of the Cid, that venerable personage about whom there is so comparatively little known, but whose memory is held in such high repute by his countrymen. I think, however, the "beggars" of Burgos made as much of an impression upon me as did these two recognized sights of the town. A little squad of ragged and forlorn humanity, varying in number, by actual count, from half a dozen to twenty-three, followed in our wake, displaying mutilated limbs and sores of every description, too distressing to look upon, and yet so difficult too escape from doing so, for in Spain beggary is a profession, requiring a license, and parents often maim their children in infancy so as to be certain of procuring a livelihood for them in the future. Such crippled objects as are always seen in the streets would not, in our own country, be tolerated out of a hospital or an asylum, and yet they drag themselves about, presenting a tray for alms to every passer-by. They even besiege the open street cars, where they pass around their little waiter, collecting nearly as many coins thereon as does the conductor himself. The first time I saw this done I really thought it was a new way of collecting fare! I was told a story about a valued servant girl leaving her mistress to be married. The lady was naturally interested in the welfare of the girl, and on inquiring what her future husband's prospects were, was told with great pride that he had been a poor workman, but now was very well off, indeed, as he had a profession; in fact, he was a beggar with a license. So we see that professional beggars occupy a very different status in different countries.

Proceeding to Madrid, one finds there many things of interest, though here, as elsewhere, the capital has more cosmopolitan than distinctively national features. In the one instance of wearing mantillas, fewer are seen in Madrid than farther south, as [Page 517]  the ladies here copy Parisian toilets, and wear hats and bonnets, which do not seem to accord so well with the languorous air of the Spanish beauties as the clinging, graceful fall of lace. Among the commoner people, however, and by elderly ladies, the mantilla is still worn and never loses its charm, softening the features and adding a coquettish touch to any dress. It seems a great pity that the younger element should be gradually discarding it. Nowhere else in Spain can be found so magnificent a collection of the works of Spanish artists as in the world-famous gallery of Madrid, and one can spend hours before the masterpieces of Velasquez and Murillo, as well as in studying the pictures of other painters, such as Goya and Ribera. The former, by-the-by, was so wedded to bull-fights, as well as to his art, that when in later life his home was in Bordeaux, he would take a long journey back to his own country every week or two to witness one of these bloody conflicts. A journey in Spain, I would say, is no small undertaking, for the trains invariably start at an unearthly hour in the morning, the express trains run but three times a week; and as the average rate of speed is from fifteen to eighteen miles per hour, ten hours would easily be consumed in going the short distance of a hundred and fifty miles–a marked contrast to our rapid way of spinning across the continent, where the very fastest trains, with every luxury of modern skill and appliance, is all too slow for the active American. Everyone travels with a lunch basket in Spain, and on opening it its contents are displayed and offered to all the occupants of the car. Of course one merely bows and thanks and declines the proffered courtesy, but this ceremony has to be performed every time a fresh piece of bread is eaten, another wing of a chicken devoured, or another pull is taken at the bottle of red wine which always accompanies the repast. This wine has a very acrid taste, produced by being kept in skins which have the hair left on the inside; and one can easily imagine the unpleasant and bitter taste, the indescribable flavor imparted to the liquid within. Goat's milk is used almost everywhere, and the butter is consequently very athletic. I fear that joke is but a feeble one, not nearly so strong as the butter itself! Cows are not often seen, but occasionally two or three are found cooped up in a wooden stall, and a sign with "Cow's Milk" advertised is a rarity. The cow is milked before you if you wish, so as to show you that you are getting the genuine article. Perhaps last season was a remarkably dry one in Spain, but some of the rivers which were marked on the map, and carefully bridged over, did not appear to the naked eye, as in some places the bed of the river was quite dry, with patches of grass growing here and there, and goats grazing about; white clothes, which had been washed in some shallow pools, were left on the shore on one side, and were spread out to dry on what would ordinarily have been mid-stream. As Charles Dudley Warner happily remarks, in regard to the slippery river called the Eel, in Nova Scotia, "I never knew how much water had to do with a river until I saw one without!" However, in the spring these rivers can become turbulent and dangerous streams, and in the narrow streets of Seville tiles are inserted in the walls of the houses to mark the height to which the water has attained in the freshets of different years when the Guadalquiver has overleaped its natural bounds. Tiles are also placed higher up the walls bearing the names of the streets, one letter on each tile, so that the names can be distinctly seen.

The Spaniards are naturally not an energetic race, but are inclined to leave everything to be done tomorrow which could so easily be done today, and manana, tomorrow, is the accepted rule of action. They trust greatly in the help of nature, and what the sun does not accomplish for them in the way of cultivating their land remains for the most part undone. Immense olive farms, however, flourish in the south, and the grapes are delicious beyond expression, being meat and drink and perfume all in one. The poorer people in summer live on bread and grapes to a great extent, occasionally indulging in meat bought cheap from the carcases of the bulls killed in the weekly bull-fights. It is as natural for the Spaniard to smoke as it is for him to take his cup of aromatic chocolate on arising, and his siesta of three or four hours after his substantial breakfast at noon. He is wider awake from midnight until 3 or 4 o'clock [Page 518]  in the morning than at any other time of the day, and then the chief streets and plazas are thronged with gay crowds, who walk about, sing and drink at the out-door cafés until the morning dawns.

In Madrid and Seville are large tobacco factories at each of which three or four thousand women are employed making cigarettes. These women are usually very fond of flowers, especially of the heavily perfumed tuber-rose, possibly on account of the scent counteracting the odor of tobacco, and they have a pretty custom of wearing one or two with a sprig of geranium in their hair. These flowers are sold in the streets, stuck on small wooden sticks, ready prepared to put in the hair like a hair-pin. In looking around the various rooms of these factories one is not impressed with the beauty of the women, for in Andalusia especially, where the dark-haired, dark-eyed type prevails, and where one naturally thinks that every woman living beneath these sunny skies should be a beauty, the face is often dull and heavy, the upper lip is sometimes shaded with a slight mustache, and many imperfections in the eyes are noticeable. Whether this is attributable to the tobacco surroundings I do not know, but the close air which is breathed by so many all day long is so strongly impregnated with tobacco that it makes one's eyes sting, and until accustomed to the atmosphere one can scarcely breathe without sneezing every few minutes.

The handsome señoras and señoritas are not to be forgotten when once seen, and a good time to see them in Seville, for instance, is about 6 o'clock in the evening, when they drive up and down the beautiful avenue facing the river. It is an odd sight to see carefully groomed mules attached to their stylish drags and carts, for it is at present a "fad" to own and drive the heavy-footed, plebeian mule instead of the dainty stepping and more aristocratic horse. Even in the royal stables at Madrid, with over three hundred fine horses, mules have the place of honor. On the principal drive of Seville, to which I have alluded, fronts the palace of the Duc de Montpensier, and it is there that the Infanta Eulalia, who has so recently been the guest of our country, sometimes makes her home; and a charming spot it is, with the large park surrounding it, filled with flowering plants and tropical trees.

A curious scene, which witnessing makes one feel as if living in the Middle Ages, is every day enacted on the Rambla, the main thoroughfare of Barcelona: scribes are seated at tables along the street, ready to write letters for passers-by, seem so out of date, when here typewriters have almost superseded pens. It is surprising to watch the people who employ the writing-masters' services, not only sailors from the vessels, but well dressed and seemingly educated people, who thus betray the lamentable fact that they are either unable to write, which is generally the case, or else too averse to the exertion. Even men in business, what they call active business, too, carry on their affairs without correspondence, waiting in a leisurely manner until agents from France, Germany, Italy, etc., visit them, which occurs two or three times a year, to get orders for foreign goods; and if anything should be needed in the meantime, it is done without rather than to write a letter, so I imagine the proportion of stamps sold in Spain is much less than in other countries of its size and wealth. It is a fine country, and could be one of the wealthiest if only the warm skies and soothing air did not make one more indolent than in a more bracing climate. The people know how to accommodate themselves to their climate, and take life easily; when the noon-day sun beats down pitilessly on the pale-colored houses, the occupants protect themselves from the glare and heat by having awnings spread above the open patios or courtyards around which their houses are built, and also stretched across the narrow streets from house to house, so that it is possible to walk around a town like Seville, for instance, in mid-day, without suffering from the direct rays of the sun.

One of the every-day sights in all the principal cities on all the streets is the selling of lottery tickets, and I think it safe to say that every man, woman and child invests in these tissue-paper slips, and as the lottery is sanctioned by the government, it is presumably lucrative for it, if not for the people. The drawing takes place at the mint in Madrid at intervals of ten days or two weeks, or sometimes longer, keeping the pos- [Page 519]  sessors of tickets in uneasy restlessness all that time. Crowds assemble at the mint at the hour appointed, standing in every available spot, even clinging to the windows outside, and about twenty small boys dressed in linen suits are taken in, two by two, to call out the number of the winner and the amount won as the wheel whirls around. Everyone smokes in stolid silence, straining their ears to hear their own number called, and sullen despair takes the place of the look of expectancy on the majority of faces when the drawing closes. Once the crowd parted to let a flushed, disheveled workman in a blue blouse rush excitedly out of the building seeking the open air in which to enjoy his triumph, as he had won a portion of the grand prize, a sum amounting to about a thousand dollars. This love for the lottery is only equaled by the passion for bull-fights, which is inborn in every Spaniard, and so deep a hold has this barbarous amusement attained on the national temperament that it would doubtless cause a revolution if an attempt were made to abolish it.

Sunday is the gala day. Then the bull-ring is filled with thousands of people, and the avenues approaching the buildings are thronged with carriages and horsemen, all wending their way toward the central point. Opening from the ring are the stables for the horses, the inclosures, fenced in with iron, for the bulls, and the chapel in which the toreadors or bull-fighters go to confession before entering the arena. The band strikes up, the procession of those who are to take part in the performance marches in front of the boxes of the royal and judges, saluting the dignitaries seated within; the gate leading to the bulls' inclosure is thrown open, and a bull dashes forward. If he is considered not sufficiently fierce, a rosette is fastened to a sharp-pointed prong which is thrust in his back as he enters, which causes him to lash his tail and to try to escape from this irritating pricking; but every movement makes the sharp instrument sink deeper into the flesh, the blood begins to trickle down, and, still further excited by flaunting of the red capas, or cloaks, on every side, he dashes at the first horse he sees, and usually comes off victorious by goring the animal and often throwing the rider. The horses are so heavily caparisoned and half-blinded that escape is wellnigh impossible, although the rider with his long spear tries to save the steed by planting his lance in the neck of the bull as he advances. Sometimes he succeeds, but the poor animal is doomed to appear before three different bulls, so that it would be charity to have him killed outright at the first encounter rather than to be sponged off and brought in again and again, lamed and crippled, and finally disemboweled. The horses used on these occasions are poor, thin, worn-out animals, to be sure; but to have them thus slaughtered is a most cruel and degrading practice, the constant repetition of which makes men callous to the sight of suffering and dulls their higher nature. The bodies of the brutes are left strewn around the ring where they have fallen until the signal is given that this part of the performance is over, and the next act begins.

The horses are dragged off the scene, another bull is let loose, and a man on foot holding in each hand a long stick, decked with ribbons and tipped with steel points, stands ready to place the darts on each side of the neck as the bull charges. This is done until six or eight of these banderillas, as these sticks are called, are waving from the animal's neck, and the crowd applauds as the man thrusts them in two by two, and jumps lightly aside from between the horns of the bull. If he should fail in the attempt the crowd does not fail in signifying disappointment and disapprobation, and to be disgraced in the bull arena is the disgrace of a lifetime, especially in the next and crowning act, when the espada, the principal performer in the drama, with sword in hand, is to give the final lunge which ends the bull's existence. Three are allowed him, and generally so accurate is his aim that at the first trial the bull, after bellowing noisily from the pain inflicted by the banderillas, falls silently and remains motionless when the sword concealed behind the red cloak pierces his heart instantaneously.

These bull-fights begin at 2 or 3 o'clock in the afternoon and last about three hours, or until the six or eight bulls and as many horses are slain, and on special feast days a great many more horses fall to celebrate the occasion. At the close of the fight a young bull with his horns covered so that he cannot injure anyone is let into [Page 520]  the ring, and the spectators are all allowed to try their skill in the various methods of meeting his attacks. Sometimes the younger boys are thrown or are nearly stamped upon, but hundreds rush to their rescue, brush them off, and pat them encouragingly on the shoulder for so early evincing their bravery.

Olives and bull-fights are indigenous to Spanish soil, and it is said that a taste can be cultivated for them by eating three of the former and witnessing three of the latter. For my own part I prefer to remain uncultivated in the matter of bull-fights, and should a desire to see a ferocious and sanguinary conflict ever overcome me, the sight of a foot-ball match, our national game, would probably amply satisfy any such craving, and make the national amusement of the Spaniards an unnecessary institution in America.

Spanish children are taken to the Plaza de Toros, or bull-ring, before they can walk, and are so accustomed to the scene within that they imitate it from their youth up, playing bull-fights at an age when other children would be flying kites or spinning tops. One day, in a narrow street in Toledo, I remember seeing a small boy, not five years old, come out of an open doorway, and flourishing two dinner-knives, evidently just snatched from the dinner-table, he went through all the springs and evolutions of the practiced toreador, and with eyes intent on the imaginary foe, gracefully plunged the knives, the supposed banderillas, into what should have been the animal's neck, but what was in reality nothing but the air. Satisfied with the manner of achieving that feat, he threw down the knives, and, springing aside, tore off his little white shirt, which he used in imitation of the red cloaks flaunted in the face of the bulls, and again picking up one of the knives, which this time was to represent the sword, dexterously concealed it behind the capa, and with equal agility dispatched the animal. Such a look of conscious pride was on the little fellow's face as he turned to bow to the spectral judge–when just then a voice from within calling, "Manuelito, Manuelito," caused the "conquering hero's" look to vanish, to be replaced with the "I don't want to come" expression of reluctant obedience, and the petty little man, entirely unaware of the interested spectator at the other end of the street, tugged away at his shirt, trying to slip it over his head, and as his bright blue dress disappeared through the doorway the future winner of honors in the bull-arena forever vanished from my sight.

I have merely tried to give a brief sketch of impression received during a brief pleasure trip, and would say in conclusion that so long as the cigarette-maker, with her deft fingers, continues to roll fourteen cigarettes a minute, to shatter the nerves and enfeeble the constitution of the male population of Spain, so long as the lottery reigns supreme under the authorization of the government, and this unhallowed, unwholesome gambling takes the place of steady, healthful labor, so long as the child of four years is trained to imitate the acts and poses of the toreador, to incite in him the low ambition of becoming a bull-fighter himself when he is a man, just so long will Spain continue to occupy the position she does at present, that of a once glorious nation not living up to her splendid capabilities.

[Page 516] 

Miss Laura Bell is a resident of Philadelphia, where she was born and educated, and although much of her time has been spent in traveling throughout her own country, Mexico, Europe and Asia, yet she maintains a deep interest in her native city., and is a member of several of its clubs and institutions. From time to time she has written papers on various subjects and has published one volume of verses called "In Verse Proportion." Her postoffice address is 1428 Spencer Street, Philadelphia, Pa.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Kris Kleeberg.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom