I am not going to enter into any humanitarian discussion on the subject of bull-fighting, nor shall I raise any argument in connection with Sunday amusements. I am simply going to take you to see the Spaniards reveling in their national sport, and we must go to the fiesta on the usual day devoted to its celebration. As we are in Madrid, we will visit the bull-ring there, for it is famous as one of the two great centres where the best bull-fights take place, the other famous home of this pastime being Seville.
It is Sunday morning. We make our way to the booking-office in the city to secure our tickets. Even at this early hour we feel the glare and heat more than a little trying, and when we take our places in the auditorium of the bull-ring, the sun will have had several more hours in which to scorch the air, and will then be doing his worst to dazzle and frizzle. Readily do we see the advantage of paying a little extra for a boletin de sombre—a "ticket in the shade."
Soon after lunch we join the bubbling stream of excited folk wending towards the arena. There is no necessity to ask the way; everyone is going in the same direction with the same object. We have only to join the throng and move with it, and so infectious is its enthusiasm that we shall press forward much too eagerly to be in any risk of getting left behind. We walk far, but the distance does not seem long—there is so much to interest us all around. A constant pro-cession of carriages fills the roadway: fashionable Madrid is driving to the scene of its great national drama. All the nobility and gentry have turned out for the occasion in their most gorgeous carriages, attended by their flunkeys in smartest livery; all the cavaliers are groomed to perfection; all the ladies are. arrayed in exquisite Parisian gowns of the latest model, but every one of them has resisted the temptation of putting on the chic Parisian hat that goes so well with her costume, for to-day the mantilla must be worn in honour of so distinguished a national ceremony. And constantly our attention is drawn from the classes to the masses, from the carriage-folk to the teeming majority of pedestrians that surges along the streets. To-day we can see the populace of Madrid, of its environs, of the far and distant neighbouring towns and villages, displaying the splendour of national costume in its picturesque local varieties of dress, headgear, and jewels.
The multitude leads us beyond the city and up a boulevard slope on the outskirts. Now we are in the heart of a gala scene: the stately carriages have been joined by all manner of plebeian conveyances; refreshment-stalls to right and left are already doing a brisk trade; impish little ragamuffins, vagabondish cheap-jacks, and experienced pedlars, are all vying with each other to dispose of fans displaying the most dramatic scenes of the ring, pictures of the afternoon's principal performers, and paper rosettes in the colours of the day's heroes.
We pass through a gate in the high boundary-walls of the arena, and find ourselves in a spacious circular corridor, with numerous side-tracks leading into the lower tiers of the auditorium. Our reserved places are in the upper part of this open house, and as we mount flight after flight of steps, and pass story after story of lofty arcades, we begin to feel we are in a huge building. But it is impossible to realize the colossal scale on which this sports-ground is laid out until we are seated aloft, looking far down into the vast arena, taking a sweeping glance of the auditorium, which encircles it tier beyond tier, and noticing the densely packed thousands that are already massed together between the great vacant spaces which are waiting to accommodate the thousands more spectators who are flocking to the scene. It is a merry throng in whose midst we find ourselves—a gaily-dressed, excited democracy, in which aristocrat and peasant are united by common interests, common enthusiasm, common pride. We are in a thoroughly sporting atmosphere, but Spain is a most sober country so far as drinking is concerned, so we are not distracted by any rowdyism, any brawling, any side-shows of fisticuffs.
The period of waiting passes all too quickly in these surroundings, where the spectators in themselves constitute a most vivid and interesting drama of life. The appointed hour for the great spectacle of the day has arrived. The president has entered the presidential box, the signal is given, the opening ceremony begins.
Forth into the arena march the performers, grouped in picturesque array. The procession is headed by two caballeros, solemn-looking figures in black velvet costumes, mounted on black steeds. They are followed, on foot, by the two espadas, the principal actor and his understudy, whose part is a single-handed contest with the bull in the last scene; these heroes of the day are gaily attired in their sporting colours—crimson and gold, orange and purple, blue and red, or some equally striking combination. Behind the espadas ride half a dozen picadores, clad in broad-brimmed felt hats, short cloaks, and long, steel-plated leathern leggings, and carrying spears. Next in the procession walk the eight banderilleros, a most conspicuous and gorgeous group in knee-breeches, who lavishly splash the scene with colour; their waists are girdled with silk sashes of the brightest dyes, their legs are clad in stockings of vivid and varied shades, and in their hands are curiously-shaped darts, ornamented with rainbow-hued ribbon streamers. The rear is brought up by stablemen leading the horses which are to drag the carcasses out of the arena, and which are dressed for their part in fine trappings and rich plumes.
The procession wends its way slowly across the ring, salutes the president, and breaks up, those who are to take part in the first act distributing themselves about the arena, the others retiring behind the scenes. The caballeros remain facing the president; again they salute, a shrill trumpet-cry rings out, and the president throws down the key of the toril—the bulls' den. A few moments later the first beast dashes into the arena. The sport has begun in real earnest; bull and men have met together in the ring to fight to the death. It is universally known that the bull's fate is already sealed, but none can yet tell how drastically the beast will avenge its own death ere it draws its last breath.
The banderilleros seem to play a somewhat cowardly part at first, for as the bull dashes hither and thither, they vault the barrier round the arena to get safely out of its way. We soon discover that they are fully justified in their action. This is a scientific game of skill, and the proceedings have not yet come within the bounds of science. The bull, just let loose from its dark cell, is blinded by the sunlight, and is plunging aimlessly about in a wild revel of freedom; it would be mad folly for one man to meet it single-handed in this mood—there is no sport in an absurdly unequal contest.
Presently the animal grows more accustomed to the light, and, spotting a particular picador, makes a direct attack. The mounted combatant has a sporting chance with his adversary, but even so the banderilleros make ready to back him up should the necessity arise. As the bull comes to close quarters, the picador tries to wound it with his spear. Perhaps he succeeds, and the bull rushes off at a tangent. Maybe he fails, and there is a tense moment as the bull makes a lunge with its horns at the horse, and the rider falls to the ground with his gored steed. The man will surely be killed, you think, and you hold your breath and tremble in an agony of fear. But your neighbours are more enlightened; they know the chances are well in favour of the picador making good his escape. The ladies hide their faces behind their fans in case an accident should happen, but the men shout with excitement at this semi-critical juncture. The banderilleros hasten to draw off the bull by waving red flags before its eyes, the picador is disentangled—if he did not manage to free himself as he was falling—he is assisted to his feet, because he cannot rise unaided in his heavy accoutrements, and the horse is examined. Is the poor hack quite hors de combat? No; it is being coaxed, prodded, and helped into an upright position. As the picador remounts to await another attack, the applause of the multitude rends the air. And the more often he can repeat the whole performance, the greater will be the ovation accorded him when his sorry hack at last lies dead.
But all the horses are not necessarily killed in the fray, and the picadors may not all have been thrown before the president gives the signal which brings the first act of the drama to a close, and heralds the second act. The banderilleros now play the principal part; their business is further to infuriate the bull by sticking their darts into its shoulders. Each in turn, armed with a couple of banderillas, deliberately marches to meet the beast, and with raised arms prepares to run his darts home. In the course of this act there are some really splendid exhibitions of athletic skirl and agility, and it is characterized throughout by a fine display of courage. In the final scene firework banderillas are often used, the explosion taking place within the bull's hide.
Again a signal from the president. The arena is cleared; for a second the bull has the ring to itself. With his trustworthy Toledan blade in one hand and a red flag in the other, the chief espada is standing before the presidential box, formally asking permission to kill the beast, and pledging himself to perform the deed in a manner that shall do honour to Madrid and to the glorious traditions of his profession. A second later a trumpet sounds, and he steps into the arena to meet his adversary in a duel. He is greeted by the audience with wild applause, which suddenly dies into an intense silence as he advances to meet the foe. For a considerable time he plays his adversary, exhibiting many skilful tricks of his profession, and some of the specially courageous and pretty athletic feats that have already won for him a high place of honour as a popular hero; and perhaps the bull attacks him in a way that gives him a chance to try a new feat.
Why does he not strike the death-blow at the first opportunity? Why should he prolong the period during every second of which he is in imminent peril of being done to death himself on the horns of the bull? Remember, this vast crowd around you has not collected for the purpose of seeing a bull tortured and slaughtered; they have come to testify their faith in the national sport. This is the climax of a great sporting drama; the espada is a master of the great art of bull-fighting, and alike to himself and audience he is responsible for seeing that the performance is brought to a close in a truly grand finale.
And the present espada is a great master. See the raging beast charging straight for him, the while he stands his ground, cool and resolute, alert but unflinching; see it getting closer and closer, till now it is actually near enough to make a thrust with its horns. . . . They touch the motionless figure; in another second. . . . No, no! do not hide your eyes; the most wondrous scene is crowded into this second. The man escapes death by a slight sway of his lithe body, puts his foot between the bull's horns, and springs clean over the beast. He has mocked the monster by using its weapons as tools for sport; he has played a game in imitation of the grim tragedy which it was on the very point of enacting. A great master this espada, without a doubt, but he means to be something more. This afternoon he is going to raise himself above his fellow chiefs—to become known throughout the length and breadth of Spain as the hero of heroes, one of the very greatest of all espadas, or die in the attempt. See, he is going to respond to an encore; he is going to throw himself once more. It seems a miracle that he is again able to go through that extraordinary feat, but it is safely accomplished after many a hairbreadth escape; and now at last he is watching for his opportunity to strike the death-blow Presently he is standing face to face with the huge beast; there is a quick flash of steel; the bull staggers, drops on its knees, and falls with a thud on the ground. The fight is finished; human courage and scientific skill have conquered brute force.
The tension is released, deafening cheers ring out, the vast audience roars and surges, whilst the hero walks quietly, unassumingly, towards the president's box. He salutes the master of the ceremonies and bows to the spectators. A bouquet is thrown to him as an official tribute, and for a few minutes the air rains caps, gloves, favours, and even costly gifts, around him in the arena. Then the moments of his magnificent triumph are brought to an end. The band strikes up; horses are led into the ring and harnessed to the carcass of the bull and the mangled remains of the picadores' hacks, which are dragged at galloping speed out of sight; sand is raked over the ring; watering-carts come to lay the dust; and the arena is ready for a repetition of the whole performance.
The afternoon's programme usually consists of six events, all alike, except that the last bulls let loose in the arena are generally the fiercest.