The little village of Alenza boasts thirty houses. It is divided into three neighborhoods, and in each one of these there is a perfect model of what I call a spinning-bee. Let us single out any one of the three, by chance; say the one in Uncle Selmo Lombío's house.
Selmo, or Anselmo, Lombío is a poor workingman, who has hard work to raise corn enough to last him through the year; consequently he is not so much as what is called a well-to-do person. But he has never known what it is to be in a bad temper, he has no vices nor anything of the kind, nor has he, much to his sorrow, any children to ask bread of him, although for more than thirty years he has been united in honorable marriage to Aunt Ramona Maizales. Her character is cut after the same pattern as his.
Both of them profess true and earnest faith in the saying that "human folks were made for intercourse and friendship;" and, in short, do not at all agree that the poor man, exhausted by his daily labor, should have no other comfort than to fall a-snoring upon a wretched bed at the hour when the chickens go to roost. And in proof that they do not say so for the mere pleasure of opening their mouths, no sooner is the corn harvested, and the fall grass cut, and the wheat threshed, and no sooner do the thatched roofs begin to weep down drop by drop in the morning the dew that has fallen in the night, than you find them inviting to their kitchen every neighbor who may choose to favor it with his presence. And the people round about, exceedingly careful not to slight the invitation, eagerly accept it, and even make it the fashion to do so in that rustic society.
If you ask about Uncle Selmo's spinning-bees, his neighbors will tell you, one after another, or all together if you prefer it,
"Magnificent! The very best!"
In that hospitable kitchen were infallibly to be found every night throughout the winter, besides chance visitors, the following notabilities:
Tanasio Mirojos. He is a man well along in years, of a tall figure, though not of a very elegant bearing, only a middling workman, but a most excellent carter. He likes very much to be posted as to all that is going on in the world, and he is a perfect storehouse of stories and tales.
Pólito Redondo. He is a square-shouldered fellow, with a narrow forehead, shaggy hair and beard, a complexion like a lemon, and an understanding of the thickest.
Lencio, Cencio, Delencio, or Endilencio, whichever you choose, for he will answer to any name except the one he was baptized with, namely, Indalecio. He is hardly forty-five years old, never smokes, nor votes, nor gets angry. His forte is oratory, and as he is also a man of great learning, he answers off-hand all the scientific, historical, orthographical, and etymological questions about which he is consulted. He can wield the pen like a school-master, and no problem can balk him, from simple and long division up to fractions and partnership inclusive.
Gorio Tejares. An ex-soldier of the national army, he has knocked about extensively, and allows no one to make fun of him. He was intimate, while he was in the service, with all the Generals you can ask him about.
Polido. Short, with flabby and crooked legs and protruding lips, badly dressed and worse fed. His passion is to make others believe, at all hours of the day, that he has just dined, and that he is bursting with satiety.
Uncle Ginojo. Older than the small-pox, stone-deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other, and without a glimmer of memory; he falls asleep as soon as he sits down.
Aunt Cimiana. Tanasio's wife; she has "glory in her hands" for cutting petticoats and waists, and for that reason is the only dressmaker in the village.
Sabel. A strong and buxom girl, with broad shoulders and hips, laughing eyes and a ready tongue.
Chiscona. A worthy mate for Pólito, and there is no need of saying anything more about her.
Clavellina. The opposite of Sabel, tiny, blushing, very neat, and somewhat retiring.
Mari-Juana. A woman six feet tall, thin and faded, famous for her knack at salting pork and curing illness.
And Rijiosa. Polido's estimable better-half, with a dreadful temper, but with peculiar skill in sowing grain in furrows, and dressing flax.
That is to say, the choicest of the good society of the neighborhood.
The women go to the spinning-bee with distaffs and hanks of cleaned flax. The only exception is Aunt Cimiana, who usually takes along something for her needle and scissors to work at. The men carry nothing, or, at the most, pieces of wood from which to whittle out lynch-pins, or a bunch of twisted osiers to be turned into the rough leggins of the province. For the accommodation of the guests, there are three long oak benches in Uncle Selmo's kitchen, well smoke-stained, and they, together with the seat built into the wall, form a roomy rectangle, within which burns the fire right upon the floor.
Aunt Ramona's greatest happiness is to see the last of her guests arrive, and then to contemplate them filling the three benches in her kitchen. In order fittingly to celebrate such joyful moments, she takes from the heap of wood in the corner the best thorn-branch, and throws it upon the large brands which are beginning to kindle upon the earthen floor. The feeble, flickering flame seizes upon the dry thorns, and quickly a column of fire goes crackling up to the very flooring of the garret, lighting up the faces of the company against the dark, gleaming background of the smoky, walls, in a way that would delight Rembrandt, if he could come back from the dead to look upon the scene.
With this ceremony the reception is opened every night. The women take advantage of the light to get their skeins ready; the men, their games, knives, and bits of wood. The next thing is very often the reciting of the prayers of the rosary, winding up with a petition for every one who has died in the village. In any case, it is certain that, before a half-hour has passed, things will take about the following course:
"Now, Uncle Tanasio, one of your good ones!"
"Something to make us laugh!"
"Let it be about robbers and witchcraft, for that is the most interesting kind."
"Let it be whatever he wishes, you great teasers!"
"If you said it would be what I know, you would be nearer the truth."
Tanasio is a man who likes to be urged, in such cases, as he thinks that otherwise his talent will not be properly appreciated.
"Pshaw! Don't say that. You know more stories than anybody alive."
"But I have told them all to you already."
"All but those which you have left in your head."
"I am a good deal afraid there isn't one left. However, if I must, let us see if, by squeezing and squeezing, something or other won't come out."
A profound silence. Tanasio is meditating. After a bit, he says,
"Well, then, I will tell you the story of a shepherd. There was a shepherd in the land of the Gentiles; and being a shepherd——"
"What are Gentiles?" asks Pólito.
"Why, Gentiles," responds Tanasio, somewhat put to it, and looking at Cencio, "Gentiles, in my way of looking at it, must be—this way—as one would say—isn't that so, Cencio? What'll you bet Cencio doesn't know it, too?"
Cencio, with an air of the most inflated importance, unceremoniously thrusts in the following explanation:
"Gentiles, it is well known, are some people who live in aquatic islands, and are giants, very strong in their bodily appearance, and—and they have no churches nor priests either, and they eat each other, when they take a notion."
"Do you hear that, Pólito? Why, the very children in the school know as much as that."
"But I never went to school, and that's the reason I ask. Now I know all about it."
"Are you sure you do?"
"You needn't think I am so stupid! Why, the thing doesn't seem to me to need much study. The Gentiles are some bodily beings that live in churches and eat aquatic giants."
"What, is not that it?"
"Oh, yes, man alive, yes!"
"I thought from your laughing so that I had got it wrong. And what is this aquatic—no offence meant by the question? I suppose it must be some kind of caramel or candy."
"Aquatic," responds Endilencio seriously, "comes from the great seas—for these islands of the Gentiles are in the midst of the waters of the seas——"
"So then, the islands are a sort of boats."
"Islands," adds the learned man, "are some places that are uncultivated, where there are many thickets; and there are almost as many aquatic as solid islands; only then they call them Philippines because they are in the land of the Moors."
The difficulty is thus settled, and Tanasio goes on:
"Being a shepherd in the land of the Gentiles, this shepherd they say knew all the plants that grow, and wrought cures with them in a way that you would like to see. If you have a pain anywhere, he just rubs you with the herb that is called for, and there you are, well. If that man there has a boil, well, sir, on goes the herb, and off with it in a minute. And so the fact was that everybody thought everything of the shepherd on account of his medicines, and for that reason all the surgeons and apothecaries for twenty leagues around couldn't bear him.
"Well, sir, you must know that this shepherd did not go down to the village except on Sundays, and as he was very good-looking and a splendid dancer, after the rosary he used to go to the dancing-ground, and there he used to dance all the afternoon with the same girl, on account of which the two got very fond of each other and agreed that, if he was not drafted, they would be married.
"Very good. My beloved friends, it happened one afternoon that my shepherd was on the mountain when a traveller came up to him who was as finely dressed as you could see. And he quickly says to the shepherd, 'I say, good friend, can you perhaps tell me where a shepherd is who they say lives around here and cures all sorts of diseases?' 'You are talking to him, good traveller,' says the shepherd. The other jumps when he hears that, and says, 'Do you want to come with me and earn as much money as you can think of?' 'If it is not far, I will go right away.' 'It is to the king's palaces.' 'Who is sick there?' 'A daughter of mine whom I love like the skin of my heart. Two years she has been in bed, all the best doctors have treated her, I have spent more than a hundred-and-fifty dollars on them, and the girl is only worse and worse and worse. A diviner told me that only you could cure her, and I have been looking for you all over.' 'And who are you?' then put in the shepherd. 'I am the king of the Gentiles,' replied the traveller, very like a king.
"Friends, when the shepherd heard that, he saw that his fortune was made, and he resolved to follow the king in the hope of earning at least three hundred dollars to hire a substitute in case he should be drafted. So they went off together, after the king had helped him get in his cattle so as to be ready sooner, and they walked and walked till after three days they reached the palaces. And when they reached the palaces, they went to see the sick girl, who they say was as beautiful as the sun, so beautiful she was, lying on that silver bed with its gilded mattress. The shepherd only looked at her, and, without touching her or anything, said: 'The girl has this and that. We'll give her such a herb in this way and the other, and in two weeks' time she will be as strong as she ever was.'
"While all this was going on, the good shepherd was lodged in a room beautifully furnished, had a flowing robe put on like those of the chief lords, had whatever he wanted to eat, with his stew of peas and meat every day, his wine at ten cents a bottle, and candy and cake just scattered over the floor, as you might say. With all this high living, the shepherd, who was good-looking anyway, got to be a fearfully handsome fellow, and as he used to go so often into the room of the king's daughter, she fell desperately in love with him. So much so that after a week she was hemming handkerchiefs for him and brushing his clothes.
"Well, beloved friends, the king's daughter kept getting better and better and better, until before the two weeks were up she went out to take the sun in a glass balcony which opened into the king's garden. And one day the girl says to the king, 'Father, I am in love with the one who has cured me, and if you please, I would like to marry him.' And the king says to her, for he was very good and thought the world of her, that he has no objection to it; only, the marriage must not take place till she is as sound as a bell, and if, supposing a case, she should die from a relapse, the shepherd was to be hung.
"Well, beloved friends, as the shepherd was very certain of the medicines he was giving, he signed the agreement before the notary, without once thinking of that poor girl who was waiting for him at home as anxiously as for the rain in May. This girl knew nothing about what was going on, but a witch who was a neighbor of hers called her in and told her all about it, whereupon she was dreadfully distressed. Seeing this, the wicked witch says to her that she has vengeance in her own hand if she wants it, and then she gives her a large pin and a figure like a wax saint, and says to her, 'Wherever you stick this pin into the figure, there the king's daughter will have a pain; only be very careful, for, if you stick it into the heart, she will die.'
"Well, my beloved friends, what did the girl do, as she wanted to put off that marriage, but begin to stick the pin here and there in the figure, and lo and behold at the same time the king's daughter begins to say, 'Oh, I've got a pain here, oh, it hurts me there,' until she had to take to her bed again. The shepherd went almost crazy looking for herbs out in the fields, and could not make out why the relapse had come. And while he was trying to cure her, two months passed by, and then two months more passed by, and the girl in the village seeing that her shepherd did not come, began to get very nervous with her sorrow, and going to prick the figure a little, her hand slipped and the pin touched the heart. At that moment the king's daughter died. And the same day that she was buried, the shepherd was hung in front of the City Hall.
"The news went about, and when the girl heard it, she went to the king's palaces to demand justice against the witch. And the constables went out in all directions, and caught the wicked creature, and burned her up with the wax figure. Thereupon the king, as he had no other daughter than the one who had died, took a great fancy to the afflicted girl who had demanded justice of him. And as he took a fancy to her, he carried her off to his palaces, and afterward married her. So when the girl was queen of the Gentiles, she called all her relations and made them great folks, and to the least of her neighbors she gave forty acres of land and a pair of oxen, and paid their taxes for two years. And as she was a Christian and very cunning, she converted all the Gentiles after a while, and lived in peace and happiness."
"So then," says Pólito, "all this is about a king who hung his daughter because a shepherd fell in love with a witch who cured him with herbs."
"Just so," he was answered, so as to have done with him.
"The story," observes Gorio Tejares, "is a very good one of its kind, though you will be thinking that the part about a king's daughter falling in love with a common man is hard to swallow. But that's a very ordinary thing, and if the man is a soldier, so much the better. In the lands through which I have travelled, I have had occasion to notice that; and if I had been like other people, tempted by covetousness or vanity, I might have got out of my uniform, I will not say a princess, but anyhow an Infanta—in short, something pretty fine."
After the stories are over, for Tanasio tells several, comes the turn for riddles. These are always propounded by the learned Cencio. This is the kind:
"Riddle me, riddle me, ree, he's sharp who guesses me. Goes on, and goes on, and never gets to Canton."
Uncle Ginojo just dies for riddles. He wakes up a little as he hears the first one, rubs his eyes, and asks,
"What did you say, Cencio?"
"Goes on and goes on, and never gets to Canton?"
"I tell you, that is a sticker! If you had said, stops and stops—why, then, supposing a case—but that about goes on and goes on!"
"Goes on and goes on," repeats Pólito, pounding his head; "what the mischief can it be? An ox!"
"It is not you, stupid ox!" says Cencio.
"Goes on and goes on," hums Gorio—"the Chiclana regiment of light infantry!"
"Goes on and goes on," sighs Polido, "it must be—pshaw! I'm so stuffed that I can't see into the thing at all."
"Goes on and goes on," murmurs Tanasio; "oh, if it is not wrong to ask, is it something to eat?"
"Is it an animal or a man?"
"It is something that moves all by itself, and is a piece of property upon which no local tax can be levied," answers Cencio, with his customary air of importance.
"It stops and stops and yet gets to the town," muttered the forgetful Uncle Ginojo.
"Not at all; it goes on and goes on and never gets to Canton."
"But who knows where Canton is?"
"That's so," says Sabel, "if it were Santander, we should know that better, and it might be——"
"The marketman," suggests Mari-Juana.
"Or the diligence," says Chiscona.
"I said that it is something that moves all by itself, and that a local tax cannot be levied upon it," repeats Cencio.
"Well, I give it up," exclaims Uncle Ginojo.
"So do I—and I—and I," add others.
"But I don't," says Pólito, striking his knees violently with his fist. "How does it begin?"
"With m," answers Cencio.
"M, m, m," repeats Uncle Gorio. "If it were n, now, supposing a case, why then—but m, m, that's a sticker."
"Emigrant!" shouts Pólito, as if the difficulty were settled at last.
"I said it began with m."
"Well, that's all the same."
"Does emigrant begin with m, stupid?"
"Well, if it doesn't I'd like to know——"
"Come, I'll make it a little plainer for you; mi, mi, mi——"
"Miller!" two voices cry out.
"You are getting near."
"Mill!" shouts the whole company.
"I declare! Isn't that funny?"
"Well, I am not satisfied," protests Pólito, "for you can get to the mill in four jumps, and you said that it never gets to Canton."
"Heavens! What sort of a mind has that man got! I said, goes on and goes on and never gets to Canton. Doesn't the mill turn and turn the whole day long without stirring from the spot?"
"Yes, that's so."
"Well, now you see how it can never get to Canton, or anywhere else."
"What an easy riddle that is!" growls Uncle Ginojo. "Waking one up for that!"
"Didn't you say it was such a sticker?"
"The way you gave it out, yes."
"Well, if you have got to have it all plain from the beginning, it wouldn't take any skill at all to guess it."
"Oh, don't tell me that! That sort of talk is not worth a pin."
So saying, Uncle Ginojo buries his feet in the warm ashes, and falls a-nodding again.
Two or three other riddles test the wits of the company, though not one is guessed until Cencio gives half the name of the thing in question.
Nor is there lack of badinage and repartee—for example, between Gorio and Sabel when he is holding the spindle so that she can reel off what she has spun.
"You are spinning very coarse yarn, Sabel."
"I'm doing it to suit myself, not you."
"You are bending over too much."
"It isn't because I want you to straighten me up."
"It wouldn't be a bad thing if I did."
"I might give you a knock."
"Don't squeeze the spindle so, you'll break the yarn!"
"It's because it tickles the palm of my hand."
"Your skin must be very tender."
"My heart is more so, for just from the displeasure of some one that I know, it is getting rougher than the leather covering of my old knapsack."
Tribute is also paid to the fashions. A bow of ribbon in Sabel's hair, a new gather in the sleeves of Clavellina's waist, which immediately catch Aunt Cimiana's attention, are enough and more than enough to excite the artistic enthusiasm of the rustic modiste.
"Well, if you girls nowadays don't beat all! After one has worn one's self out in cutting a dress, there you come out at the end with, this is lacking and the other is wrong, that isn't the style, this must be turned, and the other twisted. Good gracious! That used to be well liked; why, I tell you, a girl's pride and delight was a flannel skirt and a bombazine waist trimmed with corduroy. In two jerks you would cut out the skirt, baste up the breadths, put it under the straw bed, or better under the mattress if the bed had one, sleep on it three or four times, and then you would take it out and it would be a perfect wonder to see how it would hang!"
In like manner, excursions are made into the field of politics, and then Tanasio sets the pitch. As a carter, he is frequently in Santander, where he has two intimate friends in the guise of stevedores, who keep him informed, in their way, in regard to the most important events that they get news of. Besides, while he is in an office waiting for a bill, he doesn't lose a word of what is said, if the conversation is about politics. In this way, with his facts picked up here and there and from such different sources, the inquisitive carter works out the thread of his political discourses, which are the supreme delight of Selmo, Polido, and Gorio.
"Well, what do they say down yonder?" asks the former, taking advantage of a few moments' silence.
"Well, just now, it seems that they are very much stirred up about the wars."
"Whereabouts?" asks Polido.
"It must be abroad somewhere, from what they say."
"And which way is that, if I may ask?"
Here is the place for Cencio to come in.
"Abroad is in the land of France, and also among the Russians and Prussians."
"But what's the trouble?"
"Well, it seems like," Tanasio goes on, "it all comes from a quarrel between kings."
"Oh, about their whims and their fancies, whether this here is mine or isn't, or whether I want that or don't. It seems that the French one has offered to fight, but the other ones don't want to."
"But who are the other ones?"
"Well, the ones in England, on one side, and on the other the revolutionists who want to shut up all the churches."
"The Lord forbid, amen!" exclaim the women, crossing themselves.
"Why, they say that the Holy Pope in Rome had to go out one day and drive away a lot of heretics who were stoning the palace windows."
"And what's all this goings-on likely to cost the poor laboring man?"
"Well, most likely a few more pennies than he has to pay now."
"But won't they be drafting soldiers every month?"
"They think not, because, as far as that goes, as all the troops in Spain now obey the Queen, we have more than enough to fight all the abroad there is in the world. Of course, that's the reason no one on earth dares meddle with us—except those from the land of the Moors, and they got enough of that not long ago."
Sometimes those who are most fond of cards take a hand at the various games played among peasants. On the evenings of feast-days light refreshments are offered the guests, two quarts of red wine being enough to satisfy the whole company.
With these and other entertainments of the same sort, with sometimes a little song struck up by Silguero at the request of the gathering, the evening passes away, and before eleven each one has gone to his own house in a state of great peace and contentment, blessing the first one who ever thought of that way of passing such agreeable hours at the firelight reception.
Now then, impartial readers, it seems to me that after what you have seen and heard in Uncle Selmo Lembío's house, you cannot do less than admit that, if serving up literature and music and politics, indulging in quips and gallantry, having something to drink and playing games—that if these are the best ways of spending the long evenings in winter, the spinning-bees of the mountain region have nothing to learn of the soirées of "the great world," and nothing to envy them for—unless it be the elegant pen of the Jenkinses who sing their glories in the columns of the aristocratic press.