Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 6
WHAT kind of a band was it that had left the child behind in its flight. Were those fugitives Comprachicos?
We have already noted the measures taken by William III., and passed by Parliament against the malefactors, male and female, called Comprachicos, otherwise Comprapequeños, otherwise Cheylas. There are laws which scatter people to the four corners of the earth. The law enacted against the Comprachicos determined, not only the Comprachicos, but vagabonds of all sorts on a general flight. It was the devil take the hindmost. A large number of Comprachicos returned to Spain, many of them, as we have said, being Basques. The law for the protection of children had at first this strange result,—it caused many children to be abandoned. The immediate effect of the penal statute was to produce a crowd of children, found, or rather lost. The reason is evident. Every wandering gang containing a child was liable to suspicion. The mere fact of the child's presence was in itself a denunciation. "They are probably Comprachicos." This was the very first idea of the sheriff, of the bailiff, and of the constable. Hence arrest and inquiry. People simply unfortunate, reduced to wander and to beg, were seized with a terror of being taken for Comprachicos, although they were nothing of the kind; for the weak have grave fears of possible errors in justice. Besides, these vagabonds are very easily scared.
The charge against the Comprachicos was that they traded in other people's children. But the promiscuousuess caused by poverty and indigence is such that at times it might have been difficult for a father and mother to prove a child their own. How came you by this child? How were they to prove that they had received it from God? The child became a danger: they got rid of it; to fly unencumbered was easier. The parents resolved to leave it,—now in a wood, now on a beach, now down a well. Many children were found drowned in cisterns.
Let us add that in imitation of England all Europe henceforth hunted down the Comprachicos. The impulse of pursuit was given. There is nothing like belling the cat. From that time on the desire to capture Comprachicos caused much rivalry between the police of the different countries, and the alguazil was no less watchful than the constable.
One could still see, twenty-three years ago, on a stone of the gate of Otero, an untranslatable inscription,—the words of the code outraging propriety. In it, however, the difference which existed between the buyers and kidnappers of children is very strongly marked. Here is part of the inscription in somewhat rough Castilian: "Aqui quedan las orejas de los Comprachicos, y las bolsas de los robaniños, mientras que se van ellos al trabajo de mar." The confiscation of ears, etc., did not prevent their owners from going to the galleys. Hence ensued a general rout among all vagabonds. They started frightened; they arrived trembling. On every shore in Europe their furtive advent was closely watched. It was impossible for such a band to embark with a child, since to disembark with one was so dangerous. To lose the child was a much easier matter.
And this child, of whom we first caught a glimpse in the shadow of the Portland cliffs, by whom had he been abandoned? To all appearance by Comprachicos.