Part 4 out of 5
"Give me a slice to take away my toothache!"
"And another one to me!" added Manuel.
The husband of the speechmaker, an old fellow wearing a very long
raglan and standing amidst the crowd of spectators listening with the
greatest respect to what his better half was saying, grew indignant
and speaking but half Spanish, cried:
"If I catch you your teeth'll ache for fair."
"This gentleman came from Archipipi," interrupted the Orphan.
The old codger tried to catch one of the urchins. Manuel and the
Orphan ran off, dodging the man in the raglan and planting themselves
"Impudent rascals," shouted the gentleman. "I'll give you a hiding and
maybe your teeth won't really ache by the time I'm through with you."
"But they hurt already," chorused the ragamuffins.
The old fellow, exasperated beyond endurance, gave frantic chase to
the urchins; a group of idlers and news-vendors jostled against him as
if by accident, and the pursuer, perspiring freely and wiping his face
with his handkerchief, went off in search of an officer.
"Fakir, froggie, beggar!" shouted the Orphan derisively at him.
Then, laughing at their prank, they returned to the barracks and took
place at the end of a line composed of poverty-stricken folk and
tramps who were waiting for a meal. An old woman who had already eaten
lent them a tin in which to place their food.
They ate and then, in company of other tattered youngsters climbed the
sandy slopes of San Blas hill to get a view from that spot of the
soldiers on Atocha avenue.
Manuel stretched out lazily in the sun, filled with the joy of finding
himself absolutely free of worriment, of gazing upon the azure sky
which extended into the infinite. Such blissful comfort induced in him
a deep sleep.
When he awoke it was already mid-afternoon and the wind was chasing
dark clouds across the heavens. Manuel sat up; there was a knot of
gamins close by, but the Orphan was nowhere to be seen.
A dense black cloud came up and blotted out the sun; shortly afterward
it began to rain.
"Shall we go to Cojo's cave?" asked one of the boys.
The entire band of ragamuffins broke into a run in the direction of
the Retiro, with Manuel hard after them. The thick raindrops fell in
slanting, steel-hued lines; a stray sunbeam glittered from the sky
through the dark violet clouds which were so long that they looked
like huge, motionless fishes.
Ahead of the ragamuffins, at an appreciable distance, ran two women
and two men.
"They're Rubia and Chata with a couple of hayseeds," said one of the
"They're running to the cave," added another.
The boys reached the top of the hill; before the entrance to the cave,
which was nothing but a hole dug out of the sand, sat a one-legged man
smoking a pipe.
"We're going in," announced one of the urchins to Cojo.
"You can't," he replied.
"And why not?"
"Because you can't."
"Man! Let's get in until the rain stops."
"Why? Are Rubia and Chata inside?"
"What do you care if they are?"
"Shall we give those hayseeds a scare?" asked one of the ragamuffins,
whose ears were covered by long black locks.
"Just try it and see," growled Cojo, seizing a rock.
"Come on to the Observatory," said another. "We won't get wet there."
The gang turned back, hurdled a wall that stood in their path and took
refuge in the portico of the Observatory on the Atocha side. The wind
was blowing from the Guadarrama range so that they were in the lee.
For the afternoon and part of the evening the rain came pouring down;
they passed the time chatting about women, thefts and crimes. Two or
three of these youngsters had a home to go to, but they didn't care to
go. One, who was called El Mariane, related a number of notable tricks
and swindles; others, who displayed prodigious skill and ingenuity,
roused the gathering to enthusiasm. After this theme had been
exhausted, a few suggested a game of cane, and the idler with the long
black locks, whom they called El Canco, sang in a low feminine voice
several _flamenco_ songs.
At night, as it grew cold, they lay down quite close to each other
upon the ground and continued their conversations. Manuel was repelled
by the malevolent spirit of the gang; one of them told a story about
an aged fellow of eighty, "old Rainbow," who used to sleep furtively
in the Manzanares laundry in a hole formed by four mats; one night
when an icy cold wind was blowing they opened two of his mats and the
next day he was found frozen to death; El Mariane recounted how he had
been with a cousin of his, a cavalry sergeant, in a public house and
how the sergeant mounted upon a naked woman's back and gashed her
thighs with his spurs.
"The fact is," concluded El Mariane, "there's nothing like making
women suffer if you want to keep 'em satisfied."
Manuel listened in astonishment to this counsel; his mind reverted to
that seamstress who came to the landlady's house, and then to Salome,
and it occurred to him that he would not care to have made them love
him by inflicting pain. He fell asleep with these notions whirling in
When he awoke he felt the cold penetrating to his very marrow. Day was
breaking and the rain had ceased; the sky, still dim, was strewn with
greyish clouds. Above a hedge of shrubs shone a star in the middle of
the horizon's pale band, and against this opaline glow stood out the
intertwined branches of the trees, which were still without leaves.
The whistles of the locomotives could be heard from the nearby
station; toward Carabanchel the lantern lights were paling in the dark
fields, which could be glimpsed by the vague luminosity of nascent
Madrid, level, whitish, bathed in mist, rose out of the night with its
many roofs, which cut the sky in a straight line; its turrets, its
lofty factory chimneys; and amidst the silence of the dawn, the city
and the landscape suggested the unreality and the motionlessness of a
The sky became clearer, growing gradually blue. Now the new white
houses stood out more sharply; the high partition-walls, pierced
symmetrically by tiny windows; the roofs, the corners, the
balustrades, the red towers of recent construction, the army of
chimneys, all enveloped in the cold, sad, damp, atmosphere of morning,
beneath a low zinc-hued sky.
Beyond the city proper, afar, rolled the Madrilenian plain in gentle
undulations, toward the mists of dawn; the Manzanares meandered along,
as narrow as a band of silver; it sought the Los Angeles hill,
crossing barren fields and humble districts, finally to curve and lose
itself in the grey horizon. Towering above Madrid the Guadarrama
loomed like a lofty blue rampart, its summits capped with snow.
In the midst of this silence a church bell began its merry pealing,
but the chimes were lost in the somnolent city.
Manuel felt very cold and commenced pacing back and forth, rubbing his
shoulders and his legs. Absorbed in this operation, he did not see a
man in a boina, with a lantern in his hand, who approached him and
"What are you doing here?"
Without replying, Manuel broke into a run down the hill; shortly
afterward the rest of the gang came scurrying down, awaked by the
kicks of the man in the boina.
As they reached the Velasco Museum, El Mariane said:
"Let's see if we can't play a dirty trick on that damned Cojo."
"Yes. Come on."
By a side path they climbed back to the spot where they had been on
the previous afternoon. From the caves of San Blas hill came a few
ragamuffins crawling out on all fours; frightened by the sound of
voices and thinking, doubtless, that the police had come to make a
raid, they set off on a mad run, naked, with their ragged clothing
under their arms.
They made their way to Cojo's cave; El Mariane proposed that as a
punishment for his not having let them go in the day before, they
should pile a heap of grass before the entrance to the cave and set
fire to the place.
"No, man, that's monstrous," objected El Canco. "The fellow hires out
his cave to Rubia and Chata, who hang around here and have customers
in the barracks. He has to respect his agreements with them."
"Well, we'll have to give him a lesson," retorted El Mariane. "You'll
see." Whereupon he crawled into the cave and reappeared soon with El
Cojo's wooden leg in one hand and a stewpot in the other.
"Cojo! Cojo!" he shouted.
At these cries the cripple stuck his head out of the entrance to the
cave, dragging himself along on his hands, bellowing blasphemies in
"Cojo! Cojo!" yelled El Mariane again, as if inciting a dog. "There
goes your leg! And your dinner's following after!" As he spoke, he
seized the wooden leg and the pot and sent them rolling down the
Then they all broke into a run for the Ronda de Vallecas. Above the
heights and valleys of the Pacifico district the huge red disk of the
sun rose from the earth and ascended slowly and majestically behind a
cluster of grimy huts.
Meeting with Roberto--Roberto Narrates the Origin of a Fantastic
Manuel was compelled to return to the bakery in quest of work, and
there, thanks to Karl's intercession with the proprietor, the boy
spent a while as a substitute for a delivery-man.
Manuel understood that this was hardly a suitable thing for him as a
regular position, and that it would get him nowhere; but he was at a
loss what to do, what road to take.
When he was left without a job, he managed to exist as long as he had
enough to pay for a chop-house meal. There came a day when he was
stranded without a centimo and he resorted to the Maria Cristina
For two or three days he had been taking up his position among the
beggars of the breadline, when once he caught sight of Roberto
entering the barracks. He did not go over to him, as he feared to lose
his place, but after eating he waited until Roberto came out.
"Don Roberto!" hailed Manuel.
The student turned deathly pale; at sight of Manuel he regained his
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"You can see for yourself. I come here to eat. I can't find work."
"Ah! You come here to eat?"
"Well, I come for the same reason," murmured Roberto, laughing.
"Yes. I have been cheated out of my rightful fortune."
"And what are you doing now?"
"I'm working on a newspaper, waiting until there's a vacancy. At the
barracks I made friends with a sculptor who comes here for his meals,
too, and we both live in a garret. I laugh at such things, for I am
convinced that some day I'm going to be wealthy, and when I am, I'll
recall these hard times with pleasure."
"He's beginning to rave already," thought Manuel.
"Then you don't believe that I'm going to be a rich man some day?"
"Certainly. Of course I do!"
"Where are you going?" asked Roberto.
"Nowhere in particular."
"Let's take a stroll."
They walked down to Alfonso XII Street and went into the Retiro; when
they had gone as far as the end of the carriage drive they sat down on
"We'll drive along here in a carriage when I become a millionaire,"
"You mean you.... As for me...." replied Manuel.
"You, too. Do you imagine that I'm going to let you stand in the
barrack's bread line when I have my millions?"
"He's truly a bit off his base," thought Manuel, "but he has a kind
heart." Then he added. "Have your affairs been making much progress?"
"No, not much. The question is still pretty well tangled. But it will
be straightened out, mark my word."
"Do you know that that circus chap with the phonograph showed up one
day with a woman named Rosa?" said Manuel. "I went hunting for you to
see whether she was the one you were talking about."
"No. The one I was looking for is dead."
"Then your case is all cleared up?"
"Yes. But I need money. Don Telmo was ready to lend me ten thousand
duros on condition that I'd give him half of the fortune as soon as I
entered into possession of it, if I won. But I refused."
"What's more, he wants me to marry his niece."
"And you didn't want to?"
"But she's pretty."
"Yes. But she's not to my taste."
"What? Are you still thinking of the Baroness's daughter?"
"How could I forget her! I've seen her. She is exquisite."
"Yes. She's certainly good-looking."
"Only good-looking! Don't blaspheme. The moment I saw her, my mind was
made up. It's sink or swim for me."
"You run the risk of being left with nothing."
"I know that. I don't care. All or nothing. The Hastings have always
been men of will and resolution. And I'm inspired by the example of
one of my relatives. It's an invigorating case of pertinacity. You'll
"My uncle, the brother of my grandfather, was employed in a London
business house and learned, through a sailor, that a chest filled with
silver had been dug up on one of the islands in the Pacific; it was
supposed that it came from a vessel that had left Peru for the
Philippines. My uncle succeeded in finding out the exact spot where
the ship had been wrecked, and at once he gave up his position and
went off to the Philippines. He chartered a brig, reached the spot
indicated,--a reef of the Magellan archipelago,--they sounded at
several points and after hard work dredged up only a few shattered
chests that contained not a trace of anything. When their food supply
gave out they were forced to return, and my uncle reached Manila
without a farthing. He got a position in a business house. After a
year of this a fellow from the United States proposed that they should
go out together in quest of the treasure, and my uncle accepted, on
the condition that they'd share the profits equally. On this second
voyage they brought up two huge, very heavy chests, one filled with
silver ingots, the other with Mexican gold pieces. The Yankee and my
uncle divided the money and each one's share amounted to more than one
hundred thousand duros. But my uncle, who was an obstinate fellow,
returned to the site of the shipwreck and this time he must have
located the treasure, for he came back to England with a colossal
fortune. Today the Hastings, who still live in England, are
millionaires. Do you remember that Fanny who came to the tavern in Las
Injurias with us?"
"Well, she's one of the wealthy Hastings of England."
"Then why didn't you ask them for some money?" queried Manuel.
"No, never. Not even if I were dying of hunger, and this despite the
fact that they've often offered to help me. Before coming to Madrid I
sailed almost around the world in a yacht belonging to Fanny's
"And this fortune that you expect to own, is it also on some island?"
"It seems to me that you're of the kind that have no faith," answered
Roberto. "Before the crowing of the cock you would deny me three
"No. I know nothing of your affairs; but if you should ever need me,
I'll be ready to serve you, and gladly."
"But you doubt my destiny, and are wrong to do so. You imagine that
I'm a bit daft."
"No, no, sir."
"Bah! You think that this fortune that I'm to inherit is all a hoax."
"I don't know."
"Well, it isn't. The fortune exists. Do you remember I was once
talking with Don Telmo, in your presence, about a conversation I had
with a certain book-binder in his house?"
"Yes, sir. I remember."
"Well, that conversation furnished me with the clew to all the
investigations I afterward conducted; I won't tell you how I went
about collecting data and more data, little by little, for that would
bore you. I'll put the thing for you in a nutshell."
As he finished his sentence Roberto arose from the bench upon which
they were seated and said to Manuel:
"Let's be going; that fellow yonder is hanging around trying to hear
what we're talking about."
Manuel got up, surer than ever that Roberto was crazy on that point;
they walked by El Angel Caido, reached the Meteorological Observatory
and from there left for the hills that lie opposite the Pacifico and
the Dona Carlota districts.
"We can talk here," murmured Roberto. "If any one comes along, let me
"Don't worry on that score," assured Manuel.
"Well, as I was telling you, that conversation provided the foundation
of a fortune that will soon be mine; but see how clumsy a fellow can
be and how ill things look when they're too near. Until a full year
after I had had that conversation I made no attempt to start my case.
The first efforts I made about two years ago. The idea came to me on
one Carnival day. I was giving lessons in English and studying at the
University; of the little money I earned I had to send some to my
mother and the rest went toward my upkeep and my tuition fees. This
Carnival day,--a Tuesday, I remember,--I had no more than three
pesetas to my name; I had been working so hard and so steadily,
without a moment's let-up, that I said to myself: 'Yes, sir. Today I'm
going to do something foolish. I'm going to disguise myself. And
surely enough, on San Marcos Street I hired a domino and a mask for
three pesetas, and I went out on to the street with not a centimo in
my pocket. I began to walk down toward La Castellana and as I reached
the Cibeles fountain I stopped and asked myself in astonishment: 'Why
did I have to spend the little money I had on me for a disguise, when
I know nobody anyway?'
"I was about to return and get rid of my disguise, but there were so
many people in the crowd that I had to float with the tide. I don't
know whether you've ever noticed how lonesome one feels on these
Carnival days amidst the throngs of people. This solitude in the crowd
is far more intense than solitude in a forest. It brought to my mind
the thousand absurdities one commits; the sterility of my own life.
'I'm going to waste my life in some grubbing profession,' I said to
myself. 'I'll wind up by becoming a teacher, a sort of English
instructress. No; never that. I must seek an opportunity and the means
to emancipate myself from this petty existence, or else plunge into
tragic life.' It also occurred to me that it was very possible that
the opportunity had come to me without my knowing how to take
advantage of it, and at once I recalled my conversation with that
book-binder. I decided to go into the matter until I saw it more
clearly. Without any hope, you'll understand, but simply as an
exercise of the will. 'I need more will-power,' I said to myself,
'with which to conquer the details that come up every moment rather
than to perform some great sacrifice or be capable of an instant of
abnegation. Sublime moments, heroic acts, are rather the deeds of an
exalted intelligence than of the will; I have always felt it in me to
perform some great deed such as taking a trench or defending a
barricade or going to the North Pole; but, would I be capable of
finishing a daily stint, composed of petty provocations and dull
routine? Yes,' said I to myself, and with this resolution I mingled
with the masked merrymakers and returned to Madrid while the rest were
at the height of their fun."
"And have you been working ever since?"
"Ever since, and with rapid persistency. The book-binder didn't care
to give me any details, so I installed myself in the Casa de
Canonigos, asked for the Libro de Turnos and there from day to day I'd
look over list after list until I found the date of the lawsuit; from
there I went to Las Salesas, located the archive and I spent an entire
month in a garret opening dockets until I found the documents. Then I
had to get baptismal certificates, seek recommendations from a bishop,
run hither and thither, intrigue, scurry to this place and that, until
the question began to clear up, and with all my documents properly
arranged I presented my claim at London. During these two years I laid
the foundations for the tower to the top of which I'll climb yet."
"And are you sure that the foundations are solid?"
"Certainly. They're all facts. Here they are," and Roberto drew from
his pocket a folded paper. "This is the genealogical tree of my
family. This red circle is Don Fermin Nunez de Latona, priest of
Labraz, who goes to Venezuela at the end of the seventeenth century,
and returns to Spain during the Trafalgar epoch. On his journey home
an English vessel captures the Spanish ship on which the priest is
sailing and takes him and the other passengers prisoner, transporting
them to England. Don Fermin reclaims his fortune of the English
government, it is returned to him and he deposits it in the Bank of
England, and sails back to Spain during the War of Independence. As
money was none too safe in Spain at that time, Don Fermin leaves his
fortune in the Bank of England, and on one occasion, desiring to
withdraw a large sum for the purchase of certain estates, he goes to
England with a cousin's niece;--the cousin was his only relation and
was named Juan Antonio. This niece--" and Roberto pointed to a circle
upon the sheet, "marries an Irish gentleman, Bandon, and dies after
three years. The priest Don Fermin decides to return to Spain and
orders his fortune to be remitted to the San Fernando Bank, but before
the money is transferred Don Fermin dies. Bandon, the Irishman,
presents a will in which the priest names his niece as sole heir, and
proves, moreover, that he had a son by his wife, who died directly
after baptism. Don Fermin's cousin, Juan Antonio, of Labraz, brings
suit against Bandon, and the suit lasts for nearly twenty years. Juan
Antonio dies and the Irishman is thus enabled to collect part of the
"Juan Antonio's other daughter marries a cousin of hers, a merchant of
Haro, and has three children, two boys and a girl. The girl enters a
nunnery, one of the boys dies in the Carlist war and the other goes
into business and leaves for America.
"This fellow, Juan Manuel Nunez makes a regular fortune and marries a
native and has two daughters: Augusta and Margarita. Augusta, the
younger, marries my father, Ricardo Hasting, who was a madcap and ran
away from his home; Margarita weds a soldier, colonel Buenavida. They
all come to Spain with plenty of money; my father plunges into
disastrous business schemes, and after he has been utterly ruined he
learns, I don't know how, that the fortune of the priest Nunez de
Latona is at the disposition of the heirs. He goes to England, enters
his claim; they demand his documents, he brings forth the baptismal
records of his wife's ancestors and it is found that the priest Don
Fermin's birth registration is missing. Soon my father gives up
writing and years and years go by; at the end of more than ten we
receive a letter telling us that he has died in Australia.
"Margarita, my mother's sister, is left a widow with a daughter,
marries a second time, and her husband turns out a rascal of the worst
brand who leaves her without a centimo. Rosa, the daughter of the
first marriage, unable to put up with her step-father, elopes with an
actor and nothing more is heard of her.
"If," added Roberto, "you have followed my explanations, you will have
seen that the only remaining relatives of Don Fermin Nunez de Latona
are my sisters and I, because Margarita's daughter Rosa Nunez has
"Now, the point is to prove this relationship, and this relationship
is proved, for I have the baptismal documents that show our descent in
a direct line from Juan Antonio, Fermin's brother. But why doesn't
Fermin Nunez de Latona's name appear in the parish register of Labraz?
That's what's been bothering me, and I've settled it. That Irishman
Bandon, when his rival Juan Antonio died, sent to Spain an agent named
Shaphter, who caused the disappearance of Don Fermin's baptismal
certificate. How? I don't know as yet. In the meantime, I'm continuing
the claim in London, just to keep the case in the courts, and the
Hastings are the ones who are pushing the suit."
"And how much does this fortune amount to?" asked Manuel.
"Reckoning principal and interest, to a million pounds sterling."
"And is that much?"
"Without allowing for exchange, about one hundred million reales;
allowing for exchange, a hundred and thirty."
Manuel burst out laughing.
"And all for you alone?"
"For me and my sisters. You can just imagine, when I collect that sum,
what these cheap carriages and such things will mean to me. Nothing at
"And now, in the meantime, you haven't a peseta."
"Such is life. You've got to wait. It can't be helped. Now, when
nobody believes me, I enjoy the recognition of my own strength more
than I'll enjoy my subsequent triumph. I have reared a whole mountain;
a dense mist prevents people from seeing it; tomorrow the clouds will
scatter and the mountain will stand forth with snow-crowned crests."
Manuel thought it silly to be talking of all this opulence when
neither of them had enough to buy a meal. Pretending important
matters, he took leave of Roberto.
Dolores the Scandalous--Pastiri's Tricks--Tender Savagery--A
Modest Out-of-the-way Robbery.
After a week spent in sleeping in the open Manuel decided one day to
rejoin Vidal and Bizco and to take up their evil ways.
He inquired after his friends in the taverns on the Andalucia
cart-road, at La Llorosa, Las Injurias, and a chum of El Bizco, who
was named El Chingui, told him that El Bizco was staying at Las
Cambroneras, at the home of a well-known thieving strumpet called
Dolores the Scandalous.
Manuel went off to Las Cambroneras, asked for Dolores and was shown a
door in a patio inhabited by gipsies.
Manuel knocked, but Dolores refused to open the door; finally, after
hearing the boy's explanations, she allowed him to come in.
Dolores' home consisted of a room about three metres square; in the
rear could be made out a bed where El Bizco was sleeping in his
clothes, beside a sort of vaulted niche with a chimney and a tiny
fireplace. The furnishings of the room consisted of a table, a trunk,
a white shelf containing plates and earthenware pots, and a pine
wall-bracket that supported an oil-lamp.
Dolores was a woman of about fifty; she wore black clothes, a red
kerchief knotted around her forehead like a bandage and another of
some indistinct colour over her head.
Manuel called to El Bizco and, when the cross-eyed fellow awoke, asked
"He'll be here right away," said El Bizco, and then, turning upon the
old lady, he growled: "Hey, you, fetch my boots."
Dolores was slow in executing his orders, whereupon El Bizco, wishing
to show off his domination over the woman, struck her.
The woman did not even mumble; Manuel looked coldly at El Bizco, in
disgust; the other averted his gaze.
"Want a bite?" asked El Bizco of Manuel when he had got out of bed.
"If you have anything good...."
Dolores drew from the fire a pan filled with meat and potatoes.
"You take good care of yourselves," murmured Manuel, whom hunger had
made profoundly cynical.
"They trust us at the butcher's," said Dolores, to explain the
abundance of meat.
"If you and I didn't work hard hereabouts," interjected El Bizco,
"much we'd be eating."
The woman smiled modestly. They finished their lunch and Dolores
produced a bottle of wine.
"This woman," declared El Bizco, "just as you behold her there, beats
them all. Show him what we have in the corner."
"Not now, man."
"And why not?"
"Suppose some one should come?"
"I'll bolt the door."
El Bizco bolted the door. Dolores pushed the table to the middle of
the room, went over to the wall, pulled away a scrap of kalsomined
canvas about a yard square, and revealed a gap crammed with ribbons,
cords, lace edging and other objects of passementerie.
"How's that?" said El Bizco. "And it's all of her own collecting."
"You must have quite a bit of money there."
"Yes. It's worth quite a bit," agreed Dolores. Then she let the strip
of canvas fall into place against the excavation in the wall, fastened
it and drew up the bed before it. El Bizco unbolted the door. In a few
moments there was a knock.
"That must be Vidal," said El Bizco, adding in a low voice, as he
turned to Manuel, "See here, not a word to him."
Vidal strutted in with his carefree air, expressed his pleasure at
Manuel's coming, and the three left for the street.
"Are you going to be around here?" asked the old woman.
"Don't come late, then, eh?" added Dolores, addressing Bizco.
The cross-eyed bully did not deign to make any reply.
The three chums went to the square that faces Toledo bridge; near by,
at a stand owned by Garatusa, a penitentiary graduate who ran a
"fence" for thieves and didn't lose any money at it, they had a drink
and then, walking along Ocho Hilos Avenue they came to the Ronda de
The vicinity of El Rastro was thronged with Sunday crowds.
Along the wall of Las Grandiosas Americas, in the space between the
Slaughter-house and the Veterninary School, a long row of itinerant
hawkers had set up their stands.
Some, garbed like beggars, stood dozing motionless against the wall,
indifferently contemplating their wares: old pictures, new
chromographs, books; useless, damaged, filthy articles which they felt
sure none of the public would purchase. Others were gesticulating and
arguing with their customers; several repulsive, grimy old women with
huge straw hats on their heads, dirty hands, arms akimbo and
indecencies quivering upon their lips, were chattering away like
The gipsy women in their motley garments were combing their little
brunettes and their black-skinned, large-eyed _churumbeles_ in
the sun; a knot of vagrants was carrying on a serious discussion;
mendicants wrapped in rags, maimed, crippled, were shouting, singing,
wailing, and the Sunday throng, in search of bargains, scurried back
and forth, stopping now and then to question, to pry, while folks
passed by with faces congested by the heat of the sun,--a spring sun
that blinded one with the chalky reflection of the dusty soil,
glittering and sparkling with a thousand glints in the broken mirrors
and the metal utensils displayed in heaps upon the ground. To add to
this deafening roar of cries and shouts, two organs pierced the air
with the merry wheeze of their blending, interweaving tones.
Manuel, El Bizco and Vidal strolled to the head of El Rastro and
turned down again. At the door of Las Americas they met Pastiri
sniffing around the place.
Catching sight of Manuel and the other two, the fellow of the three
cards approached and said:
"Shall we have some wine?"
They entered one of the taverns of the Ronda. Pastiri was alone that
day, as his companion had gone off to the Escorial; since he had no
one to act as his confederate in the game he hadn't made a centimo.
Now, if they would consent to act as bait to induce the inquisitive
onlookers to play, he'd give them a share of the profits.
"Ask him how much?" said El Bizco to Vidal.
"Don't be an idiot."
Pastiri explained the matter for El Bizco's benefit; the confederates
were to place bets and then proclaim in a loud voice that they had
won. Then he'd see to making the spectators eager to play.
"All right. We know what to do," said Vidal.
"You agree to the scheme?"
Pastiri gave them three pesetas apiece and the four left the tavern,
crossed the Ronda and made their way in the crowds of El Rastro.
Every once in a while Pastiri would stop, thinking he had caught sight
of a prospective dupe; El Bizco or Manuel would place a bet; but the
fellow who looked like an easy victim would smile as he saw them lay
the snare or else pass on indifferently, quite accustomed to this type
Soon Pastiri noticed a group of rustics with their broad hats and
"_Aluspiar_, here come a few birds and we may work them for
something," he said, and he planted himself and his card table
directly in the path of the country-folk and began his game.
El Bizco bet two pesetas and won; Manuel followed suit with the same
"This fellow is a cinch," said Vidal in a loud voice, turning to the
group of hayseeds. "Have you seen all the money he's losing? That
soldier there just won six duros."
Hearing this, one of the rustics drew near, and seeing that Manuel and
El Bizco were winning, he wagered a peseta and won. The fellow's
companions advised him to retire with his winnings; but his greed got
the best of him and he returned to bet two pesetas, losing them.
Then Vidal bet a duro.
"Here's a five-peseta piece," he declared, ringing the coin upon the
ground, He picked out the right card and won.
Pastiri made a gesture of anoyance.
The rustic wagered another duro and lost; he glanced anxiously at his
fellow countrymen, extracted another duro and lost that, too.
At this moment a guard happened along and the group broke up; noting
Pastiri's movement of flight, the hayseed tried to seize him, grabbing
at his coat, but the trickster gave a rude tug and escaped in the
Manuel, Vidal and El Bizco made their way across the Plaza del Rastro
to Embajadores Street.
El Bizco had four pesetas, Manuel six and Vidal fourteen.
"And what are we going to return to that guy?" asked El Bizco.
"Return? Nothing," answered Vidal.
"Why, that would be robbing him of his whole year's profits," objected
"What of it? Deuce take him," retorted Vidal. "We came darn near
getting caught ourselves, with nothing for our trouble."
It was lunch hour and they wondered where to go; Vidal settled it,
saying that as long as they were on Embajadores Street, the Society of
the Three, in plenary session, might as well continue on the way down
till they got to La Manigua restaurant.
The suggestion was accepted and the associates spent that Sunday
afternoon in royal fashion; Vidal was splendid, spending Pastiri's
money right and left, inviting several girls to their table and
dancing all the _chulo_ steps.
To Manuel this beginning of his free life seemed not at all bad. At
night the three comrades, somewhat the worse for wine, ambled up
Embajadores Street, turning into the surrounding road.
"Where am I going to sleep?" asked Manuel.
"Come over to my house," answered Vidal.
When they came in sight of Casa Blanca, El Bizco left them.
"Thank the Lord that tramp has gone," muttered Vidal.
"Have you had a scrap with him?"
"He's a beastly fellow. He lives with La Escandalosa, who's an old fox
in truth, sixty years at the very least, and spends everything she
robs with her lovers. But she feeds him and he ought to have some
consideration for her. Nothing doing, though; he's always kicking her
and punching her and pricking her with his dirk, and one time he even
heated an iron and wanted to burn her. If he takes her money, well and
good; but what's the sense of his burning her?"
They reached Casa Blanca, a squalid section consisting of a single
street; Vidal opened a door with his key; he lighted a match and the
pair climbed up to a tiny room with a mattress placed on the bricks.
"You'll have to sleep on the floor," said Vidal. "This bed belongs to
"Take this for your head," and he threw him a woman's rolled-up skirt.
Manuel pillowed his head against the skirt and fell asleep. He awoke
at dawn. He opened his eyes and sat down upon the floor without a
thought as to where he might be. Through a tiny window came a pale
glow. Vidal, stretched out on the mattress, was snoring; beside him
slept a girl, breathing with her mouth wide open; long streaks of
rouge stained her cheeks.
Manuel felt nauseated by the excess of the previous day's drink; he
was deeply dejected. He gave serious thought to his life-problems.
"I'm not made for this," he told himself. "I'm neither a savage like
Bizco nor a brazen, carefree lout like Vidal. What am I going to do,
A thousand things occurred to him, for the most part impossible of
attainment; he imagined all manner of involved projects. Within him,
vaguely, his maternal inheritance, with its respect for all
established custom, struggled against his anti-social, vagrant
instincts that were fed by his mode of living.
"Vidal and Bizco," he said to himself, "are luckier chaps than myself.
They don't hesitate; they have no scruples. They've got a start on
In the end, he considered, they would come to the gallows or to the
penitentiary; but in the meantime the one experienced no suffering
because he was too beastly to know what it meant, and the other
because he was too lazy, and both of them let themselves float
tranquilly with the stream.
Despite his scruples and his remorse, Manuel spent the summer under
the protection of El Bizco and Vidal, living in Casa Blanca with his
cousin and his cousin's mistress, a girl who sold newspapers and
practised thievery at the same time.
The Society of the Three carried on its operations in the suburbs and
Las Ventas, La Prosperidad and the Dona Carlota section, the Vallecas
bridge and the Four Roads; and if the existence of this society never
came to be suspected and never figured in the annals of crime, it is
because its misdemeanours were limited to modest burglaries of the
sort facilitated by the carelessness of property owners.
The three associates were not content to operate in the suburbs of
Madrid; they extended the radius of their activities to the nearby
towns and to all places in general where crowds came together.
The market and the small squares were test localities, for the booty
might be of a larger quantity but on the other hand the police were
In general, they exploited the laundries more than any other place.
Vidal, like the clever fellow he was, managed to Convince El Bizco
that he was the most gifted of the three for the work. The cross-eyed
thug, out of sheer vanity, always undertook the most difficult part of
the task, seizing the booty, while Vidal and Manuel kept a sharp
Vidal would say to Manuel, at the very moment of the robbery, when El
Bizco already had the stolen sheet or chemise under his coat:
"If anyone happens along, don't say a word; nothing. Let them arrest
him; we'll shut up tight as clams, absolutely motionless; if they ask
anything, we know nothing. Right-o?"
Sheets, chemises, cloaks and all the other articles they robbed they
would sell at the second-hand shop on La Ribera de Curtidores, which
Don Telmo used to visit. The owner, employe or whatever he was of the
shop, would purchase everything the thieves brought, at a very low
This "fence," which profited by the oversight of some base officer
(for the police lists did not bother with these things), was presided
over by a fellow called Uncle Perquique. He spent his whole life
passing to and fro in front of his establishment. To deceive the
municipal guard he sold shoe-laces and bargains that came from the
old-clothes shop he conducted.
In the spring this fellow would don a cook's white cap and cry out his
tarts with a word that he scarcely pronounced and which he liked to
alter constantly. Sometimes the word seemed to be Perquique!
Perquique! but at once it would change sound and be transformed into
Perqueque or Parquique, and these phonetic modifications were extended
The origin of this word Perquique, which cannot be found in the
dictionary, was as follows: The cream tarts sold by the man in the
white cap brought five centimos apiece and he would cry "_A perra
chica! A perra Chica!_ Only five pesetas apiece! A five-peseta
piece!" As a result of his lazy enunciation he suppressed the first A
and converted the other two into E, thus transforming his cry into
"_Perre chique! Perre chique!_" Later, _Perre chique_ turned
The "fence" guard, a jolly soul, was a specialist in crying wares; he
shaded his cries most artistically; he would go from the highest notes
to the lowest or vice versa. He would begin, for example, on a very
high note, shouting:
"Look here! A real! Only one real! Ladies' and gents' hosiery at a
real a pair! Look-a-here now! A real a pair!" Then, lowering his
register, he would continue, gravely: "A nice Bayonne waistcoat. A
splendid bargain!" And as a finale, he would add in a basso profundo:
"Only twenty pesetas!"
Uncle Perquique knew the Society of the Three, and he would favour El
Bizco and Vidal with his advice.
Safer and more profitable than dealing with the stolen-goods
purchasers of the second-hand shop was the plan followed by Dolores la
Escandalosa, who sold the ribbons and the lace that she pilfered to
itinerant hawkers who paid very well. But the members of the Society
of the Three were eager to get their dividends quickly.
The sale completed, the three would repair to a tavern at the end of
Embajadores avenue, corner of Las Delicias, which they called the
The associates were especially careful not to rob twice in the same
place and never to appear together in those vicinities where
unfavourable surveillance was suspected.
Some days, which did not come often, when theft brought no plunder,
the three companions were compelled to work in the Campillo del Mundo
Nuevo, scattering heaps of wood and gathering it together with rakes
after it had been properly aired and dried.
Another of the Society's means of subsistence was cat-hunting. El
Bizco, who was endowed with no talent (his head, as Vidal said, was a
salted melon) had a really great gift for catching cats. All he needed
was a sack and a stick and he did famously. Every living cat in sight
was soon in his game-bag.
The members made no distinction between slender or consumptive cats,
or pregnant tabbies. Every puss that came along was devoured with the
same ravenous appetite. They would sell the skins in El Rastro; when
there were no ready funds, the innkeeper of the Handkerchief Corner
would let them have wine and bread on tick, and the Society would
indulge in a Sardanapalesque banquet....
One afternoon in August Vidal, who had dined in Las Ventas the
previous day with his girl, proposed to his comrades a scheme to rob
an abandoned house on the East Road.
The project was discussed in all seriousness, and on the afternoon of
the following day the three went out to look the territory over.
It was Sunday, there was a bull-fight; omnibuses and street cars,
packed with people, rolled along Alcala Street beside open hacks
occupied by harlots in Manila mantles and men of knavish mien.
Outside the bull-ring the throng was denser than ever; from the street
cars came pouring streams of people who ran for the entrance; the
ticket-speculators rushed upon them with a shout; amidst the black
multitude shone the white helmets of the mounted guards. From the
inside of the ring came a muffled roar like the tide.
Vidal, El Bizco and Manuel, chagrined that they could not go in,
continued on their way, passed Las Ventas and took the road to
Vicalvaro. The south wind, warm and sultry, laid a white sheet of dust
over the fields; along the road from different directions drove black
and white hearses, for adults and children respectively, followed by
gigs containing mourners.
Vidal indicated the house: it stood back from the road and seemed
abandoned. It was fronted by a garden with its gate; behind extended
an orchard planted with leafless saplings, with a water-mill. The
orchard-wall was low and could be scaled with relative facility; no
danger threatened; there were neither prying neighbours nor dogs; the
nearest house, a marbler's workshop, was more than three hundred
From the neighbourhood of the house could be made out the East
cemetery, girded by arid yellow fields and barren hillocks; in the
opposite direction rose the Bull Ring with its bright banner and the
outlying houses of Madrid. The dusty road to the burial-ground ran
between ravines and green slopes, among abandoned tile-kilns and
excavations that showed the reddish ochre bowels of the earth.
After a minute examination of the house and its surroundings, the
three returned to Las Ventas. At night they felt like going back to
Madrid, but Vidal suggested that they had better remain where they
were, so that they could commit the robbery at dawn of the next day.
This was decided upon and they lay down in a tile-kiln, in the
passageway formed by two walls of heaped-up bricks.
A cold wind blew violently throughout the night. Manuel was the first
to awake and he roused the other two. They left the passageway formed
by the walls of bricks. It was still night; from time to time a
segment of the moon peered through the dark clouds; now it hid, now it
seemed to rest upon the bosom of one of those dense clouds which it
silvered so delicately.
In the distance, above Madrid a bright glow began to appear,
irradiated by the lights of the city; a few tombstones in the cemetery
cast a pallid shimmer.
Dawn was already tinting the heavens with its melancholy flush when
the three robbers approached the house.
Manuel's heart was pounding with agitation.
"Ah, by the way," said Vidal. "If by any accident we should be
surprised, we mustn't run; we've got to stick right in the house."
El Bizco burst into laughter; Manuel, who knew that his cousin wasn't
talking just for the sake of hearing his voice, asked:
"Because if they catch us in the house it's only a balked attempt at
robbery, and the punishment isn't severe; on the other hand, if they
catch us in flight, that would be a successful robbery and the penalty
would be great. So I was told yesterday."
"Well, I'll escape if I can."
"Do as you please."
They scaled the wall; Vidal remained astride of it, leaning forward
and watching for signs of any one. Manuel and El Bizco, making their
way astraddle along the wall, approached the house and, entrusting
their feet to the roof of a shed, jumped down to a terrace with a
bower slightly higher than the orchard.
The rear door and the balconies of the ground floor led to this
gallery; but both the door and the balconies were so well fastened
that it was impossible to open them.
"Can't you make it?" whispered Vidal from his perch.
"Here, take my knife." And Vidal threw it dawn to the gallery.
Manuel tried to pry the balconies open with the knife but met with no
success; El Bizco attempted to force the door with his shoulder and it
yielded enough to leave a chink, whereupon Manuel introduced the blade
of the knife and worked the catch of the lock back until he could open
the door. El Bizco and Manuel then went in.
The lower floor of the house consisted of a vestibule, which formed
the bottom of a staircase leading to a corridor, and two rooms whose
balconies overlooked the orchard.
The first thing that came to Manuel's head was to open the lock of the
door that led to the road.
"Now," said El Bizco to him, after admiring this prudent precaution,
"let's see what there is in the place."
They set about calmly and deliberately to take an inventory of the
house; there wasn't three ochavos' worth of material in the entire
establishment. They were forcing the dining-room closet when of a
sudden they heard the bark of a dog close by and they ran in fright to
"What's the matter?" they asked Vidal.
"A damned dog's begun to bark and he'll certainly attract somebody's
"Throw a stone at him."
"Where'll I get it?"
"He'll bark all the more."
"Jump down here, or they'll surely see you."
Vidal jumped down into the orchard. The dog, who must have been a
moral animal and a defender of private property, continued his loud
"But the deuce!" growled Vidal at his friends. "Haven't you finished
The three returned to the rooms trembling; they seized a napkin and
stuffed into it whatever they laid hands upon: a copper clock, a white
metal candlestick, a broken electric bell, a mercury barometer, a
magnet and a toy cannon.
Vidal climbed up the wall with the bundle.
"Here he is," he whispered in fright.
"I'll go down first," mumbled Manuel, and placing the knife between
his teeth he let himself drop. The dog, instead of setting upon him,
withdrew a short distance, but he continued his barking.
Vidal did not dare to jump down with the bundle in his hands; so he
threw it carefully upon some bushes; as it fell, only the barometer
broke; the rest was already broken. El Bizco and Vidal then jumped
down and the three associates set out on a cross-country run, pursued
by the canine defender of private property, who barked at their heels.
"What damned fools we are!" exclaimed Vidal, stopping. "If a guard
should see us running like this he'd certainly arrest us."
"And if we pass the city gate they'll recognize what we're carrying in
this bundle and we'll be stopped," added Manuel.
The Society halted to deliberate and choose a course of action. The
booty was left at the foot of a wall. They lay down on the ground.
"A great many rag-dealers and dustmen pass this way," said Vidal, "on
the road to La Elipa. Let's offer this to the first one that comes
"For three duros," corrected El Bizco.
"Why, of course."
They waited a while and soon a ragpicker hove into view, bearing an
empty sack and headed for Madrid. Vidal called him over and offered to
sell their bundle.
"What'll you give us for these things?"
The ragdealer looked over the contents of the bundle, made a second
inventory, and then in a jesting tone, with a rough voice, asked:
"Where did you steal this?"
The three associates chorused their protestation, but the ragpicker
paid no heed.
"I can't give you more than three pesetas for the whole business."
"No," answered Vidal. "Rather than accept that we'll take the bundle
"All right. The first guard I meet I'll inform against you and tell
him that you're carrying stolen goods on your person."
"Come across with the three pesetas," said Vidal. "Take the bundle."
Vidal took the money and the ragdealer, laughing, took the package.
"The first guard we see we'll tell that you've got stolen goods in
your sack," shouted Vidal to the ragdealer. The man with the sack got
angry and gave chase to the trio.
"Hey there! Come back! Come back!" he bellowed.
"What do you want?"
"Give me my three pesetas and take your bundle."
"Nix. Give us a duro and we won't say a word."
"Give us only two pesetas more."
"Here's one, you rascal."
Vidal seized the coin that the ragdealer threw at him, and, as none
was sure of himself, they made off hurriedly. When they reached
Dolores' house in Las Cambroneras, they were bathed in perspiration,
They ordered a flask of wine from the tavern, "A rotten bungle we made
of it, hang it all," grumbled Vidal.
After the wine was paid for there remained ten reales; this they
divided among the three, receiving eighty centimos apiece. Vidal
summed up the day's work with the remark that this committing
robberies in out-of-the-way spots was all disadvantages and no
advantages, for besides exposing oneself to the danger of being sent
to the penitentiary almost for life and getting a beating and being
chewed up by a moral dog, a fellow ran the risk of being wretchedly
Gutter Vestals--The Troglodytes.
"No use. We've got to get rid of that beastly Bizco. Every time I see
him hate him more and he disgusts me more."
"Because he's a brute. Let him go off to his old fox, Dolores. You and
I can go to the theatre every night."
"With the claque. We don't have to pay. All we have to do is applaud
when we get the signal."
This condition seemed to Manuel so easy to fulfil that he asked his
"But listen. How is it, then, that everybody doesn't go to the theatre
"Because they don't all know the head of the claque as I do."
And as a matter of fact they went to the Apollo. For the first few
days all Manuel could do was think of the plays and the actresses.
Vidal, with his superior manner in all things, learned the songs right
away; Manuel secretly envied him.
Between the acts the members of the claque would adjourn to a tavern
on Barquillo Street, varying this occasionally with a visit to another
place on the Plaza, del Rey. This latter resort was the rendezvous of
the claquers that worked in Price's Circus.
Almost all the legion of applauders were youngsters; a few of them
worked in shops here and there; for the most part they were loafers
and organgrinders who wound up by becoming supernumeraries, chorus men
There were among them effeminate, clean-shaven types with a woman's
face and a shrill voice.
At the entrance to the theatre Vidal and Manuel made the acquaintance
of a group of girls, from thirteen to eighteen years of age, who
wandered about Alcala Street approaching well-to-do pillars of the
middle class; they pretended to be news-vendors and always had a copy
of the _Heraldo_ with them.
Vidal cultivated the intimacy of the girls; they were almost all
homely, but this did not interfere with his plans, which consisted of
extending the radius of his activities and his knowledge.
"We must leave the suburbs and work our way toward the centre," said
Vidal wished Manuel to help him, but Manuel had no gift for it. Vidal
came to be the cadet for four girls who lived together in Cuatro
Caminos and were named, respectively, La Mella, La Goya, La Rabanitos
and Engracia; they had come to form, together with Vidal, El Bizco and
Manuel another Society, though this one was anonymous.
The poor girls needed protection; they were pursued more than the
other loose women by the police because they paid no graft to the
inspectors. They would be forever fleeing from the guards and agents,
who, whenever there was a round-up, would take them to the station and
thence to the Convento de las Trinitarias.
The thought of being immured in the convent struck genuine terror into
"To think of never seeing the street," they moaned, as if this were a
most horrible punishment.
And the abandonment at night in the unprotected thoroughfares, which
inspired horror in others; the cold, the rain, the snow,--were to them
liberty and life.
They all spoke in a rough manner; their grammar and word-forms were
incorrect; language in them leaped backwards into a curious atavic
They spiced their talk with a long string of theatrical lines and
The four led a terrible life; they spent the morning and the afternoon
in bed sleeping and didn't go to sleep again till dawn.
"We're like cats," La Mella would say. "We hunt at night and sleep by
La Mella, La Goya, La Rabanitos and Engracia would go at night to the
centre of Madrid, accompanied by a white-bearded beggar with a smiling
face and a striped cap.
The old man came to beg alms; he was a neighbour of the girls and they
called him Uncle Tarrillo, bantering him upon his frequent sprees. He
was utterly daft and loved to talk upon the corruption of popular
La Mella said that Uncle Tarrillo had tried, one night after they had
returned alone from the Jardinillos del Deposito de Agua, to violate
her and that he had made her laugh so much that it was impossible.
The mendicant would wax indignant at the tale and would pursue the
indiscreet maid with all the ardour of an old faun.
Of the four girls the ugliest was La Mella; with her big, deformed
head, her black eyes, her wide mouth and broken teeth, her dumpy
figure, she looked like the lady-jester of some ancient princess. She
had been on the point of becoming a chorus-girl; she was balked,
however, for despite her good voice and excellent ear for music, she
could not pronounce the words clearly because of her missing teeth.
La Mella was always in high spirits, singing and laughing at all hours
of the day and night. She carried in her apron-pocket a tiny
powder-puff with a mirror on the inside of the cover; she would stop
at every other step to gaze at herself by the light of a
street-lantern and powder her face.
She was affectionate and kind-hearted. Her excessive ugliness made
Manuel gag. The lass was eager to win him but Vidal advised his cousin
not to take up with her; La Goya suited him better, for she made more
La Mella was not at all to Manuel's taste, despite her affectionate
caresses; but La Goya was compromised with El Soldadito, a man with a
position, as she said, for when he went to work he turned the crank of
This organ-grinder took all the receipts of La Goya, who, as the
prettiest of the quartet, enjoyed the most numerous patronage; El
Soldadito watched her and when she went off with anybody, followed,
waiting for her to come out of the house of assignation so that he
could collect her earnings.
Vidal, of the four, condescended to choose La Rabanitos and Engracia
as the objects of his protection; the two girls were forever disputing
over him. La Rabanitos looked like a pocket-edition of a woman; a
white little face with blue streaks about her nose and her mouth; a
rachetic, wizened body; thin lips and large eyes of schlerotic blue;
she dressed like an old woman, with her sombre little cloak and her
black dress; such was La Rabanitos. She was bothered with frequent
hemorrhages; she spoke with all the mannerisms of a granny, making
queer twists and turns, and she spent all her spare change on dry salt
tunny fish, caramels and other dainties.
Engracia, Vidal's other favourite, was the typical brothel inmate: her
face was white with rice powder; her dark, flashing eyes had an
expression of purely animal melancholy; as she spoke she showed her
blue teeth, which contrasted with the whiteness of her powdered
countenance. She leaped from joy to dejection without transition. She
could not smile. Her face was as soon darkened by stupidity as it was
illuminated by a ribald merriment, insulting and cynical.
Engracia had little to say and when she spoke it was to utter
something particularly bestial and filthy, of involved cynicism and
pornography. Her imagination was of monstrous fertility.
A macabrous sculptor might have hit upon a work of genius by cutting
the thoughts of this girl into the stone representing some infernal
Dance of Death.
Engracia could not read. She wore loud waists, blue and pink; a white
kerchief on her head and a coloured apron; she trotted along with a
swaying movement, so that the coins in her purse kept jingling. She
had been eight years in this brothel life, and was only sixteen in
all. She was sorry to have grown up, for she said that she had earned
far more as a little girl.
The friendship of Manuel and Vidal with these girls lasted a couple of
months; Manuel could not make up his mind to take up with La Mella;
she was too repulsive; Vidal widened the horizons of his activity,
tippled with a gang of _chulos_ and devoted himself to the
conquest of a flower-girl who sold carnations.
Engracia and La Rabanitos conceived a violent hatred for the lass.
"That strumpet?" La Rabanitos would say. "Why, she's already as
disreputable as us...."
One night Vidal did not put in his usual appearance at Casa Blanca,
and two or three days later he showed up at the Puerta del Sol with a
tall, buxom woman garbed in grey.
"Who's that?" asked Manuel of his cousin.
"Her name's Violeta; I've taken up with her."
"And the other one, at Casa Blanca?"
Vidal shrugged his shoulders.
"You can have her if you wish," he said.
Vidal's former sweetheart likewise disappeared from Casa Blanca and,
after he had been unable to collect the two weeks' rent, the
administrator put Manuel out into the street and sold the furnishings:
a few empty bottles, a stew-pot and a bed.
For several days Manuel slept upon the benches of the Plaza de Oriente
and on the chairs of La Castellana and Recoletos. It was getting
toward the end of summer and he could still sleep in the open. A few
centimos that he earned by carrying valises from the stations helped
him to exist, though badly, until October.
There were days when the only thing he ate was the cabbage stalks that
he picked up in the marketplaces; other days, on the contrary, he
treated himself to seventy-eight centimo banquets in the chop-houses.
October came around and Manuel began to feel cold at night; his eldest
sister gave him a frayed overcoat and a muffler; but despite these,
whenever he could find no roof to shelter him he almost froze to death
in the street.
One night in the early part of November Manuel stumbled against El
Bizco at the entrance to a cafe on La Cabecera del Rastro; the
cross-eyed ragamuffin was bent over, almost naked, his arms crossed
against his chest, barefoot; he presented a painful picture of poverty
Dolores La Escandalosa had left him for another.
"Where can we go to sleep?" Manuel asked him.
"Let's try the caves of La Montana," answered El Bizco.
"But can we get in there?"
"Yes, if there aren't too many."
"Come on, then."
The two crossed through the Puerta de Moros and Mancebos Street to the
Viaduct; they traversed the Plaza de Oriente, following along Bailen
and Ferraz Streets, and, as they reached the Montana del Principe Pio,
ascended a narrow path bordered by recently planted pines.
El Bizco and Manuel went along in the dark from one side to the other,
exploring the hollows of the mountain, until a ray of light issuing
from a crevice in the earth betrayed one of the caves.
They approached the hole; from within came the interrupted hum of
By the flickering light of a candle which was held in position on the
ground by two rocks, more than a dozen outcasts, some seated and some
on their knees, formed a knot of card-players. In the corners might be
discerned the hazy outlines of men stretched out on the sand.
A fetid vapour was exhaled by the cave.
The flame flickered, illuminating now a corner of the den, now the
pale face of one of the players, and as the light blinked, the shadows
of the men grew long or short on the sandy walls. From time to time
was heard a curse or a blasphemy.
Manuel thought that he had beheld something like this before in one of
his feverish nightmares.
"I'm not going in," he said to El Bizco.
"Why?" asked his companion.
"I'd rather freeze."
"As you please, then. I know one of these fellows. He's El
"And who is this Interprete?"
"The captain of all the mountain vagabonds."
Despite these assurances Manuel hesitated.
"Who's there?" came a voice from inside.
"I," answered El Bizco.
Manuel dashed off at full speed. Near the cave stood a group of two or
three huts, with a yard in the middle, surrounded by a rough stone
This, according to the ironic name given to it by the ragamuffins, was
the Crystal Palace, the nest of some low-flying turtledoves who
frequented the Montana barracks and who, at night, were joined by
friendly hawks and gerfalcons.
The entrance to the yard was closed by a double-panelled door.
Manuel examined it to see if it yielded, but it was strong, and was
armoured with tins that were stretched out and nailed down upon mats.
He thought that nobody could be there and tried to climb the wall; he
scaled the low rubble inclosure and as he advanced, got caught in a
wire; a stone fell noisily from the wall, a dog began to bark
furiously, and a curse echoed from inside.
Manuel, convinced that the nest was not empty, took to flight. He
sought shelter in a doorway that was somewhat protected from the rain
and huddled down to sleep.
It was still night when he awoke shivering with the cold, trembling
from head to foot. He started to run so as to warm himself; he reached
the Paseo de Rosales and strode up and down several times.
It seemed that the night would never end.
The rain ceased; the sun came out in the morning; Manuel took refuge
in a hollow on the slope of the embankment. The sun began to warm him
most deliciously. Manuel dreamed of a very white, exceedingly
beautiful woman with golden tresses. Frozen almost to death, he drew
near the lady, and she wrapped him in her golden strands and he
nestled tenderly, ever so tenderly in her lap....
Senor Custodio and His Establishment--The Free Life.
... And he was in the midst of the most ravishing dreams when a harsh
voice recalled him to the bitter, impure realities of existence.
"What are you doing there, loafer?" some one was asking him.
"I!" mumbled Manuel, opening his eyes and staring at his questioner.
"I'm not doing anything."
"Yes, I can see that. I can see that."
Manuel got up; before him he beheld an old man with greyish hair and
gloomy mien, with a sack across his shoulder and a hook in his hand.
The fellow wore a fur cap, a sort of yellowish overcoat and a reddish
muffler rolled around his neck.
"Have you a home?" asked the man.
"And you sleep in the open?"
"Well, as I haven't any home...."
The ragpicker began to rake over the ground, fished up some objects
and various papers, shoved them into the sack and turning his gaze
again upon Manuel, added:
"You'd be better off if you went to work."
"If I had work, I'd work; but I haven't, so ..."--and Manuel, wearied
of these useless words, huddled into his corner to continue his
"See here," said the ragdealer, "you come along with me. I need a boy
... I'll feed you."
Manuel looked at the man without replying.
"Well, do you want to or not? Hurry up and decide."
Manuel lazily arose. The rag man, sack slung across his shoulder,
climbed the slope of the embankment until he reached Rosales Street,
where he had a cart drawn by two donkeys. The man told them to move on
and they ambled down toward the Paseo de la Florida, thence through
Virgen del Puerto Avenue to the Ronda de Segovia. The cart, with its
license plate and number, was a tumbledown affair, held together by
strips of brass, and was laden with two or three sacks, buckets and
The ragman, Senor Custodio,--that was what he gave as his
name,--looked like a good-natured soul.
From time to time he would bend over, pick up something from the
street and throw it into the cart.
Underneath the cart, attached to it by a chain, jogged along in
leisurely fashion a dog with yellowish locks, long and lustrous,--an
amiable creature who appeared to Manuel as good a canine as his master
was a human being.
* * * * *
Between the Segovia and Toledo bridges, not far from the head of
Imperial Avenue, there opens a dark depression with a cluster of two
or three squalid, wretched huts. It is a quadrangular ditch, blackened
by smoke and coal dust, hemmed in by crumbling walls and heaps of
As he reached the edge of this depression, the rag-dealer stopped and
pointed out to Manuel a hovel standing next to a broken-down
merry-go-round and some swings, saying:
"That's my house; take the cart down there and unload it. Can you do
"Yes, I think so."
"Are you hungry?"
"Very well. Then tell my wife to give you a bite."
Manuel accompanied the cart into the hollow over an embankment of
rubbish. The ragdealer's house was the largest in the vicinity and had
a yard as well as an adjoining shed.
Manuel stopped before the door of the hut; an old woman came out to
"What do you want, kid?" she asked. "Who sent you here?"
"Senor Custodio. He told me to ask you where to put the stuff that's
in the cart."
The woman pointed out the shed.
"He told me also," added the boy, "to say that you should give me
something to eat."
"I know you, you foxy creature," mumbled the old woman. And after
grumbling for a long time and waiting for Manuel to dump out the
contents of the cart, she gave him a slice of bread and a piece of
The woman unharnessed the two mules and released the dog, who began to
bark and play with contentment; he snapped playfully at the mules, one
black and the other a silvery grey, who turned their eyes upon him and
showed their teeth; desperately he gave chase to a white cat with a
tail that bristled like a feather-duster, then approached Manuel, who,
seated in the sun, was nibbling at his bit of cheese and his slice of
bread, waiting for something. They both had lunch.
Manuel walked around the dwelling and looked it over. One of its
narrow sides was composed of two bathing-houses.
These two bathing-houses were not joined, but left between them a
space filled in by a rusty iron door such as is used to fasten shops.
The two longer walls of the ragdealer's hovel were formed of stakes
paid with pitch, and the wall opposite to that built of the
bathing-houses was constructed of thick, irregular rocks and curved
outward with a swelling like that of a church presbytery. Within, this
curve corresponded to a hollow in the manner of a wide vaulted niche
occupied by the hearth.
The house, despite its tiny size, had no uniform system of roofing; in
some spots tiles were substituted by strips of tin with heavy rocks
holding them in place and the interstices chinked with straw; in
others, the slate was mortared together with mud; in still others,
sheets of zinc provided protection.
The construction of the house betrayed each phase of its growth. As
the shell of the tortoise augments with the development of the
reptile, so did the rag-dealer's hovel little by little increase. At
first it must have been a place for only one person, something like a
shepherd's hut; then it widened, grew longer, divided into rooms,
afterwards adding its annexes, its shed and its yard.
Before the door to the dwelling, on a flat stretch of tamped earth,
stood a carrousel surrounded by a low, octagonal impalement; the
stakes, decayed by the action of moisture and heat, still showed a
vestige of their original blue paint.
Those poor merry-go-round steeds, painted red, offered to the gaze of
the indifferent spectator the most comical, and at the same time the
most pathetic sight. One of the coursers was of indeterminate hue; the
other must have forgotten his paws in his mad race; one of them, in a
most elegantly uncomfortable pose, symbolized humble sadness and
honest, refined modesty.
At the side of the merry-go-round rose a frame formed of two tripods
upon which rested a beam, whose hooks served as the support of swings.
The black ditch harboured three other hovels, all three constructed of
tins, rubbish, planks, ruins and other similar building materials. One
of the shacks, owing either to old age or deficient architecture,
threatened to collapse, and the owner, no doubt, had sought to prevent
its fall by sinking a row of stakes along one of the walls, against
which it leaned like a lame man upon his crutch; another house
flaunted like a flagstaff a long stick on its roof with a pot stuck on
After eating Manuel informed the old woman that Senor Custodio had
told him he might remain there.
"Tell me whether there's anything else for me to do," he concluded.
"All right. Stay here. Take care of the fire. If the pot boils, let
it; if it doesn't, throw a bit of coal into the flames. Reverte!
Reverte!" shouted the woman to the dog. "Let him remain here."
She went off and Manuel was left alone with the dog. The stew boiled
merrily. Manuel, followed by Reverte, made an inspection tour of the
house. It was divided into three compartments: a tiny kitchen and a
large room into which the light entered through two high, small
In this room or store-room, on all sides, from the walls and from the
ceiling, hung old wares of various hue, white clothes, red boinas and
Catalonian caps, strips of crape cloaks. On the shelves and on the
floor, separated according to class and size, were flasks, bottles,
jars, canisters, a veritable army of glass and porcelain pots; the
ranks were broken by those huge, green, dropsical pharmacy bottles,
and several heavy-paunched demi-johns; then came half-gallon bottles,
tall and dark; straw-covered vases; this was followed by the section
devoted to medicinal waters, the most varied and numerous of all, for
it included Seltzer-water siphons, oxygenized-water siphons, bottles
of gaseous water, Vichy, Mondariz, Carabana; after this came the small
fry, the perfume phials, the pots, the cold-cream jars, the cosmetic
In addition to this department of bottles there were others:
canned-goods tins and pans ranged on shelves; buttons and keys kept in
chests; remnants, ribbons and laces rolled around spools or cardboard.
All this struck Manuel as quite pleasant. Everything was in its proper
place, relatively spick and span; the hand of a methodical, neat
person was in evidence.
In the kitchen, which was kalsomined, shone the few scullery utensils.
On the hearth, above the white ashes, an earthenware stew-pot was
boiling away with a gentle purring.
From outside there scarcely came the distant noises of the city, which
filtered in like a pale sound; it was as quiet as in a remote hamlet;
now and then a dog would bark, some cart would creak as it bumped
along the road, then silence would be restored and in the kitchen
nothing would be heard save the _glu glu_ of the pot, like a
soft, confidential murmur....
Manuel cast a look of satisfaction through the chink of the door to
the dark ditch outside. In the corral the hens were scratching the
earth; a hog was rooting about, running in fright from one side to the
other, grunting and quivering with nervous tremours; Reverte was
yawning, blinking gravely, and one of the donkeys was wallowing
delightedly amidst broken pots, decayed baskets and heaps of refuse,
while the other, as if scandalized by such unrefined comportment,
contemplated him with the utmost surprise.
All this black earth filled Manuel with an impression of ugliness, yet
at the same time with a sense of tranquillity and shelter; it seemed a
proper setting for him. This soil formed the daily deposits of the
dumping-place; this earth, whose sole products were old sardine-cans,
oyster shells, broken combs and shattered pots; this earth, black and
barren, composed of the detritus of civilization, of bits of lime and
mortar and factory refuse, of all that the city had cast off as
useless, seemed to Manuel a place made especially for him, for he
himself was a bit of the flotsam and jetsam likewise cast adrift by
the life of the city.
Manuel had seen no other fields than the sad, rocky meadows of Soria
and the still sadder ones of the Madrilenian suburbs. He did not
suspect that in spots uncultivated by man there were green meadows,
leafy woods, beds of flowers; he thought that trees and flowers were
born only in the gardens of the rich....
Manuel's first days in Senor Custodio's house seemed too burdened; but
as there is plenty of free roaming in the ragdealer's life, he soon
grew accustomed to it.
Senor Custodio arose when it was still night, woke Manuel, and they
both harnessed the two donkeys to the cart and took the direction to
Madrid, on their daily hunt for the old boot and the discarded tatter.
Sometimes they went by way of Melancolicos Avenue; others, by the
Rondas or through Segovia Street.
Winter was coming on; at the hour when they sallied forth Madrid was
in complete darkness. The ragdealer had his fixed itinerary and his
schedule of call stations. When he went by way of the Rondas and drove
up Toledo Street, which was his most frequent route, he would halt at
the Plaza de la Cebada and the Puerta de Moros, fill his hamper with
vegetables and continue toward the heart of the city.
On other days he travelled through Melancolicos Avenue to the Virgen
del Puerto, from here to La Florida, then to Rosales Street, where he
rummaged in the rubbish deposited by the tip-carts, continuing to the
Plaza de San Marcial and arriving at the Plaza de los Mostenses.
On the way Senor Custodio let nothing escape his eye; he would examine
it and keep it if it were worth the trouble. The leaves of vegetables
went into the hampers; rags, paper and bones went into the sacks; the
half-burned coke and coal found a place in a bucket and dung was
thrown into the back of the cart.
Manuel and the ragdealer returned early in the morning; they unloaded
the cart on the flat earth before the door, and husband, wife and the
boy would separate and classify the day's collection. The rag-dealer
and his wife were amazingly skilful and quick at this work.
On rainy days the assorting was done in the shed. During such weather
the depression became a dismal, repellant swamp, and in order to cross
it one had to sink into the mud, in places half way up to the knee.
Everything would drip water; the hog in the yard would wallow in mire;
the hens would appear with their wings all black and the dog scampered
about coated with mud to the ears.
After the sorting of the collection, Senor Custodio and Manuel, each
with a basket, would wait for the dump-carts to arrive, and as the
refuse was tipped out, they would set about sorting it on the very
dumping-grounds: pasteboard, rags, glass and bones.
In the afternoon Senor Custodio would go to certain stables in the
Argueelles district to clean out the manure and take it to the orchards
on the Manzanares.
Between one thing and another Senor Custodio made enough to live in a
certain comfort; he had a firm grasp upon his business and as he was
under no compulsion to sell his wares promptly, he would wait for the
most opportune occasion so that he could sell with advantage.
The paper that he thus stored up was purchased by the pasteboard
factories; they gave him from thirty or forty centimos per arroba. The
manufacturers required the paper to be perfectly dry, and Senor
Custodio dried it in the sun. As they tried at times to get the best
of him in weight, he used to place in each sack two or three full
arrobas, weighed with a steelyard; on the cloth of the sack he would
inscribe a number in ink, indicating the amount of arrobas it
contained, and these sacks he held in a sort of cellar or ship's hold
that he had dug into the ground of the shed.
When there was a great quantity of paper he sold it to a pasteboard
factory on Acacias Avenue. Senor Custodio's journey was not in vain,
for in addition to selling the goods at a fancy price, he would, on
the way back, drive his cart in the direction of a pitch factory of
the vicinity, and there he picked up from the ground a very fine coal
that burned excellently and gave as much heat as slag.
He sold the bottles to wine houses, to liquor and beer distilleries;
the medicine flasks he disposed of to pharmacists; the bones went to
the refineries and the rags to the paper factories.
The bread leavings, vegetable leaves and fruit cores were reserved for
the feed of the pigs and hens, and what was of no use at all was cast
into the rotting-place, converted into manure and sold to the orchards
near the river.
On the first Sunday that Manuel spent there, Senor Custodio and his
wife took the afternoon off. For many a day they had never gone out
together because they were afraid to leave the house alone; this day
they dressed up in their best and went on a visit to their daughter,
who worked as a modiste in a relative's shop.
Manuel was glad to be left by himself with Reverte, contemplating the
house, the yard, the ditch; he turned the carrousel round and it
creaked ill-humouredly; he climbed up the swing frame, looked down at
the hens, teased the pig a little and then ran up and down with the
dog chasing after him barking merrily in feigned fury.
This dark depression attracted Manuel somehow or other, with its
rubbish heaps, its gloomy hovels, its comical, dismantled
merry-go-round, its swings, and its ground that held so many
surprises, for a rough, ordinary pot burgeoned from its depths as
easily as a lady's elegant perfume phial; the rubber bulb of a prosaic
syringe grew side by side with the satin, scented sheet of a love
This rough, humble life, sustained by the detritus of a refined,
vicious existence; this almost savage career in the suburbs of a
metropolis, filled Manuel with enthusiasm. It seemed to him that all
the stuff cast aside in scorn by the capital,--the ordure and broken
tubs, the old flower-pots and toothless combs, buttons and sardine
tins,--all the rubbish thrown aside and spurned by the city, was
dignified and purified by contact with the soil.
Manuel thought that if in time he should become the owner of a little
house like Senor Custodio's, and of a cart and donkeys, and hens and a
dog, and find in addition a woman to love him, he would be one of the
almost happy men in this world.
Senor Custodio's Ideas--La Justa, El Carnicerin, and El Conejo.
Senor Custodio was an intelligent fellow of natural gifts, very
observant and quick to take advantage of a situation. He could
neither read nor write, yet made notes and kept accounts; with
crosses and scratches of his own invention he devised a substitute
for writing, at least for the purposes of his own business.
Senor Custodio was exceedingly eager for knowledge, and if it
weren't that the notion struck him as ridiculous, he would have set
about learning how to read and write. In the afternoon, work done,
he would ask Manuel to read the newspapers and the illustrated
reviews that he picked up on the streets, and the ragdealer and his
wife listened with the utmost attention.
Senor Custodio had, too, several volumes of novels in serial form
that had been left behind by his daughter, and Manuel began to read
The comment of the ragdealer, who took this fiction for historic
truth, was always perspicacious and just, revelatory of an instinct
for reasoning and common sense. The man's realistic criticism was
not always to Manuel's taste, and at times the boy would make bold
to defend a romantic, immoral thesis. Senor Custodio, however, would
at once cut him short, refusing to let him continue.
For professional reasons the ragdealer was much preoccupied with
thought of the manure that went to waste in Madrid. He would say to
"Can you imagine how much money all the refuse that comes from
Madrid is worth?"
"Then figure it out. At seventy centimos per arroba, the millions of
arrobas that it must amount to in a year.... Spread this over the
suburbs and have the waters of the Manzanares and the Lozoya
irrigating all these lands, and you'd see a world of gardens and
Another of the fellow's fixed ideas was that of reclaiming used
material. It seemed to him that lime and sand could be extracted
from mortar refuse, live plaster from old, dead plaster, and he
imagined that this reclamation would yield a huge sum of money.
Senor Custodio, who had been born near the very depression in which
his house was situated, felt for his particular district, and for
Madrid in general, a deep enthusiasm; the Manzanares, to him, was as
considerable a river as the Amazon.
Senor Custodio had two children, of whom Manuel knew only Juan, a
tall, swarthy sport who was married to the daughter of a laundry
proprietress in La Bombilla. The ragdealer's daughter, Justa by
name, was a modiste in a shop.
During the first few weeks neither of the children came to their
parents' home. Juan lived in the laundry and Justa with a relative
of hers who owned a workshop.
Manuel, who spent many hours in conversation with Senor Custodio,
noted very soon that the rag-dealer, though fully aware of his very
humble condition, was a man of extraordinary pride and that as
regarded honour and virtue he had the ideas of a mediaeval nobleman.
One Sunday, after he had been living there a month Manuel had
finished his meal and was standing at the door when he saw a girl
with her skirts gathered come running down the slope of the
dumping-ground. As she approached and he got a close look at her,
Manuel went red and then blanched. It was the lass that had come two
or three times to the lodging-house to fit the Baroness's dresses;
but she had since then grown to womanhood.
She drew near, raising her skirt and her starched petticoats,
careful not to soil her patent-leather slippers.
"What can she be coming here for?" Manuel asked himself.