“May God grant you health to send many children to glory.” Such was the salutation given by Juan Perez, the dandy par excellence and the best songster of the village of Chiclana, as he entered, guitar in hand, to take a prominent part in the song and dance, customary on such occasions amongst the lower orders in Spain.
And what was the motive for congratulation? The death of an infant. It was conceived to have been regenerated by baptism, was too young to have known sin, and therefore its soul was believed to be at once admitted to eternal bliss: no Hades, no purgatory for that lamb without blemish. It had left this sad world of passing joys and prolonged sorrows, of fleeting smiles and many tears, of trials, temptations, and struggles, of sickness and pain, and had soared in happy flight to heaven.
No outward garb of mourning is worn in Spain on the demise of a child under seven years of age; but it is only on the death of a young infant that the salutation is congratulatory, instead of sympathetic, and the reunion of relatives and friends a joyous one, and not one of condolence.
The room was scrupulously clean ; the walls were freshly whitewashed; the brick floor was of a bright red; black painted low chairs with rush-bottom seats were closely ranged in a circle; a charcoal brazier in its wide-rimmed wooden stand (which serves as a footstool) was placed in the centre. In one corner a “velador,” or very small but high circular table, used exclusively as a stand for the “velon,” a brass lamp of a quaint and very ancient form, jutting out into three light holders from the centre, and fed with a triune wick, the same as those used by the Jews in their synagogues from the time of the Levitical law ; as also with them the triangular chandelier, everything being a type of the Trinity — the Three in One — whether prophetical as with the Jews, or in memoriam by the primitive Christians. Many of the iron and clay Roman lamps were of the same triune form, though without the pedestal.
This room opened into the kitchen. Copper saucepans, bright as burnished gold, were hung against the wall, and within the large chimney were suspended strings of onions and garlic; and in a netted bag the far-famed sausages, one of the principal ingredients of the “olla,” the daily and universal dish. On a wooden table in the middle of the room was a large porous jar full of water, one tray of sweet biscuits and cakes, and another of “panales,” a sweetmeat made of white of egg and sugar, which it is customary to take before or whilst drinking water.
There was no light in this room, yet it was bright from that reflected from the other, not by the solitary velon on its tripod stand, but from the blaze of light in the opposite corner.
The parents were poor; but they would, if necessary, have pawned everything they possessed, rather than not have purchased the eight large wax lights, that illumined the image of the Virgin and Child on an improvised altar, and the features of the dead in its little open coffin, placed on trestles: on the corner of each trestle was fixed a candle, and four others on the altar: both were strewed with fresh flowers.
The babe was dressed in its christening clothes, its little hands clasped over its chest, and holding some everlastings and a tiny rude wooden crucifix. The long black eye-lashes rested on its dark pallid cheek, and the ebon curls pressed out from the toca (muslin shawl), put over its head and crossed over the breast.
One chair was placed out of the circle at the foot of the wee coffin, and there had sat the young mother until the arrival of the guests, when she placed herself by her husband’s side to receive the reiterated salutation, “May God grant you health to send many children of the same age to glory.” A short gracias (“thank you”) was the father’s reply, as he puffed his paper cigar. The mother smiled a ‘welcome, but the quivering lip and stifled sigh proved how great was the effort to control her grief.
Juan Perez stood at the door installing himself as master of the ceremonies. He was the best barber, the best singer, and the best dancer in the village, handsome too withal, and a bachelor; and many a rustic beauty’s eye beamed with pleasure as she received a passing compliment when he stood at his porch, or a flower for her hair from his little garden. Ho was now in his element.
“Your eyes are large as my desires, dark as. my despair,” he half whispered to one.
“Your breath is like orange-flowers distilled through pearls and rubies,” he said to a girl whose coral lips and white teeth deserved the simile, as she smiled on saluting him.
“I trust your skirt is sufficiently short to show that taper ankle and well-formed pantorilla when you dance the first fandango with me.”
A happy nod of acquiescence, as the first to dance with the village favourite, was the reply. For each, as she passed the porch, he had an appropriate compliment, and his speaking eyes acquiesced in the admiration he expressed.
Almost every woman brought in her hand a bunch of flowers, which she strewed over the babe as she passed the coffin, until it was embedded in their bright colours, forming a startling contrast to the dark hue death was spreading over that little face. The room was full, and the wild song commenced; each singing a verse in rotation to the inspiring accompaniment of the guitar and the shout of “Bien cantao Morena! ” “Buen salero!” “Viva la gracia!” &c., issued from the men as a witty or loving verse struck their fancy.
Soon, however, the castanets were adjusted, and Juanito sprang from his seat. A fandango was called for, and he claimed his promised partner. No one who has not witnessed it can conceive the mad enthusiasm of the lower orders in Spain for their national music and dances. They are the language of love in all its phases.
The verses which commenced in rotation became a chorus; every one keeping time by clapping their hands, if they had no castanets; until Juanito and Pepa sat down breathless with their exertions, amidst a round of applause. “Boleros, Seguidillas, and Zapateados” followed, when Dolores (or the “Arab-eyed,” as she was generally named), was called upon to dance the “Vito.”
She was about eighteen years of age, rather short in stature, but might have served as a model to a sculptor, so round and beautifully moulded was every limb; and so elastic her step, that she scarcely seemed to rest her diminutive foot on the ground as she walked.
She stood up, and took from Juanito his hat and neckerchief; the first she put on her head, the second round her throat, and threw herself into all kinds of beautiful and graceful attitudes,sometimes using the hat as a tambourine, the neckerchief as a wreath, her large dark eyes full of fire, or disdain; now soft as a summer breeze, full of tenderness and love, new wooingly advancing, now coquettishly retreating, until at last, of the hat she made a shield, and the neckerchief she twisted up as a sword, and feigned to kill Juanito.
Alas! no feigning for him; his heart and soul lay prostrate at her feet, but she loved another. Her affections were fixed on the sailor boy she had known from her infancy, and to whom she was betrothed. Deafening was the burst of enthusiasm when the “Vito” was finished.
“Blessed be the God who formed anything so divine. We adore him in adoring you.”
“Well may the sun say as you look up, ’Fly, for you, you burn me,’ and hide behind a cloud.”
“The houris Mahomet promises to the faithful can’t be compared to you, glory of my soul.”
“The land the Blessed Virgin favours must bring forth divine flowers.”
Such were some of the exclamations that could be heard amidst the din of voices. The only silent one was Juanito. Where was his ready wit? Deep feeling had paralysed it, but his dark eye dilated as he gazed on her; his cheek was pale his lips tightly compressed, to keep back the longing, hopeless sigh that burned in his heart. He clenched his hands, and turned quickly to the adjoining room and gulped a large tumbler of cold water. The rest followed and partook of the frugal refreshments above described.
But what sound broke on their cars, at a momentary pause in their merry-making? The young mother apostrophising and sobbing over her first-born and lost babe. She had left the merry circle as soon as the song commenced; and, unseen and unheeded, had sat down to pray, with her rosary in her hand, at the foot of the coffin; but when they retired to the next room, and she was alone, the rush of feeling so long pent up burst forth.
’Tis true her darling’s soul was in Heaven, but was she not on earth? She saw before her the little form that a few hours ago she had hugged to her heart warm with life, buoyant in health. With such agony she had brought it into the world; with such love had welcomed it! One passing convulsion seized it whilst nestled in her bosom, and in one short hour she gazed, for the first time, on Death!
Silently they gathered round her, and the eyes which, a few minutes since, sparkled with mirth, were suffused with tears as they bade her good night and left her. The men returned the next morning to accompany the babe to its last resting-place.
Author: Soy Yo.