A Christmas Eve in Spain
The last gleam of the sun is dying away, and the air is terribly sharp. It seems as if the barren fields were shivering with cold. The neighboring chimneys send out puffs of smoke, which are swiftly whirled away by the icy north wind that leaves some snow-flakes in exchange. The startled black-bird chirps complainingly from her perch on the wall, or calls anxiously to her mate from the top of an apple-tree. From time to time is heard the melancholy and monotonous cry of the laborer calling his cattle; occasionally the scurrying of wooden shoes over the stones in the alley is perceived, and you need listen no longer, for no other sound indicates that there is any life in that pale and somber landscape.
In the broad porch of one of the houses that adorn it are two little chaps stretched out upon a heap of dried rushes. They are lying on their stomachs, their faces rest upon their hands, and they are looking into each other's eyes. As they have passed the afternoon frolicking over the yielding material upon which they are now resting, to overcome the cold which they scarcely feel, poorly clad as they are, they need only to blow upon their fingers from time to time.
One of the boys belongs in the house; the other, next door. It is the first one who suddenly exclaims:
"I'm going to have fritters to eat, aha!"
"So am I, too," replies the other.
"But I'm going to have honey with mine."
"I'll have something better than that—sugar!"
"Well, in our house we're going to have a meat stew and some wheat bread to go with it."
"My father brought yesterday two fishes—tremendous big ones!"
"My mother is down in the town now to get some lard, some wheat bread, and some cake, and this noon my father brought two jars of white wine, the very best kind. And all the eggs we've had this week are kept for to-day, more than fifteen, as big as that! I tell you what, we're going to spend to-night all of a dollar and thirty-five cents which are saved up!"
"What does all that amount to! Why, my father brought up from the harbor four dollars, and forty cents besides, and we're going to lay out the whole of it to-night. I say, will you keep a taste of the stew for me, if I'll give you a piece of the fish?"
"You needn't think I care anything about that! But you have not got a brother who is a student and who is coming home on a vacation this very afternoon, the way I have."
"But I have got a splendid young bull, and a cow that gives three quarts of milk. Oh, what a lot of it we've got for to-night!"
"Milk, did you say! Do you want to see two jars of milk right away? I'll show you some worth looking at."
Up springs the eager boy, with the other one after him, and together they go into the kitchen, looking cautiously about lest Uncle Jeromo, the master of the establishment, should be anywhere about.
The evening is already coming on, and the boy of the house catches up a brand from the hearth. By dint of much blowing upon it he produces a flickering flame, and by its light they go up to a smoke-begrimed chest that stands underneath a shelf, also blackened by smoke. They raise the cover, and there on the bottom, between heaps of flour, bran, and half of a ham, are seen two large jars filled with milk. The boy of the house looks at his friend with an air of triumph. Both of them fasten their eager eyes upon the jars. Both of them stretch out their right hand, and both moisten their forefinger in the milk, each in his own jar. Continuing to move as if by a common impulse, they draw their arms out of the chest, and stand face to face, sucking their fingers.
"That's good milk!" says the boy of the house.
"It's better cream, though," replies his comrade.
"Did you get the cream?"
"What do you suppose! I got up every bit of it on my finger."
At that moment the former recalls with alarm the fearful disturbance his father makes whenever the cream is missing from the daily supply of milk, and remembers the witness to such troubles left on his own ribs by his father's hand. For that reason, fearing a fresh drubbing, and in order to make his own innocence perfectly clear, he flings the brand into the fire, grasps his friend by the trousers, and begins to call out in a tone of the greatest anguish:
But the sybaritic prisoner, seized with mortal terror, gives a terrific twist to his jailer's hands, and scuttles out through the yard, licking his chops.
Uncle Jeromo, who is tiring a wheel out behind the house, hurries in at the sound of the cries, and, not believing his boy's story about the theft of the cream, thinks that the fellow himself has skimmed it, and gives him a couple of resounding blows. The boy shrieks, and the father threatens him with more of the same. In the midst of the cries and warnings the voice of Aunt Simona is heard in the doorway.
"Oh, was there ever such folks as you! This is the way I always find you."
"Oh dear, mother, mother!" exclaims the boy, running to cling to the good woman's skirts.
"What are you crying for, my boy? Who has been beating you?"
"Mo-mo-mother! It was fa-fa-father!"
"And you'll get some more of it," murmured the latter, going out to the stable to look after the cattle. "I will teach you to guzzle the cream!"
"I didn't take it, I tell you! It was Tonu, Tonu Zancuda—oh, dear!"
"Very likely it was, little angel! He is the sneakingest creature! Come, here's some chestnuts. Now don't cry any more. Your father is too quick. Has the student come?"
"God grant that a wolf may not eat him up on the way! But where is your sister?"
"She went to the fountain."
"The gadabout! I'll go out and settle her accounts. No, though, I won't, it's no fun going out into the cold at this time of day. Oh that boy of Lambiona's, what a thing he is! Worse luck to him!"
Muttering words like these, Aunt Simona leaves her sabots at the door of the closet, takes off the baize skirt which she had thrown over her shoulders, hangs it upon a plow-handle which depends from one of the attic floor-beams, and goes into the kitchen, closely followed by the little fellow. The basket which she had brought in under the folds of the skirt she sets down by the fire, throwing on some dried thistles to add to the flame. Then she lights a candle, and takes from the basket a little lard, a jar of honey, and two cents' worth of cinnamon. All these she places upon the shelf within easy reach of her hand, and sets about preparing the Christmas supper. In that operation her daughter soon comes in to aid her, bringing home her two jars of water, and protesting that she has not stopped to talk with a living being, she vows she had not, and no one ever found a lie in her mouth!
Uncle Jeromo comes in a little later, and takes his seat near the fire, so as to help the family in the important affair; for the country-people of this part of Spain, of simple habits both by necessity and by custom, take as much delight in witnessing the preparation of the Christmas supper as in eating it. The sputtering of the lard in the frying-pan, the cutting out of the fritters, the breaking and beating of the eggs, and the soaking of the bread in them, the sprinkling of the sugar over the fritters as they come piping hot out of the frying-pan, the pouring of milk or honey over them—all these processes, and the thought, furthermore, that all this fine food, together with the jar of wine saved up sacredly for the occasion, is to be luxuriously enjoyed by the poor family of laboring people looking on, arouse in them such delightful feelings that—well, you would only need to look at the faces of Uncle Jeromo's family! The affair of the cream is entirely forgotten now. What demonstrative faces! What evident happiness! Aunt Simona, grasping the handle of the frying-pan in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other, and crouching down upon the bare floor, feels more important than the emperor of China, and regards her task as more difficult and critical than that of an ambassador of peace between two powerful nations engaged in desperate fighting. A great pity it was that the student had not arrived, in order fittingly to celebrate Christmas Eve. For there are many peculiar features of that festival in the country. After the pleasure of preparing and eating the supper, comes that of the arrival of the marzantes, for whom the little fellow of the beating has already inquired many times. If the truth must be told, he is much more concerned about them than about the delay of his brother in getting home. This is because the unlucky boy has never heard them, either at Christmas Eve or at New Year or at Epiphany, as he has always fallen asleep before they reach the door; thus it is that he believes in the marzantes just as he does in the other world, simply from what he has been told.
You must not imagine that Uncle Jeromo is a rich man, taking the word in its literal sense, simply because he has a son who is away as a student; Aunt Simona's husband, for a laboring man, is middling well off, as he would say. But a chaplaincy belongs to the family, and Uncle Jeromo gladly parted with some of his property in order to meet the expense of his oldest son's education for the priesthood, in the hope of his obtaining the living. He did this, but at the same time he said plainly to his son:
"If you spend this pretty penny I got from the sale of my land, without making yourself a priest, Heaven help you, for, as far as I am concerned, I will cut you in two pieces."
The boy's entrance into the Seminary was hastened by the advice of the Lord of the Manor. This individual had studied a bit of Latin in his youth, and was so great a pedant that, simply in order to have some one with whom to show off his knowledge, he kept at Uncle Jeromo day after day, until at last he got him to decide that the boy should learn Latin. And so proud is the great man of his learning, and such is his pedantry, that since Uncle Jeromo's eldest born has entered the Seminary, he has several times wanted to give up his vacations so as not to have to face his neighbor at home, who lies in wait for him with Latin talk that is a perfect riddle, as the student says.
Thus it is that the Seminarist, dreading to meet him in some alley or seated on the bench before his father's door, has left the Seminary late so as to reach the village in the evening. This explains the delay which is causing Aunt Simona so much anxiety.
But what she did not know, and what the student himself could not suspect, was that, when he stepped into the tavern hard by to spend sixpence in quenching his thirst, the first person he was to meet, after the tavern-keeper, would be none other than the Lord of the Manor. No sooner did the latter catch sight of the student than he launched at him an "amice, quo modo vales," which bereft the poor fellow even of his thirst.
"The deuce take the man!" he muttered, hastening to pick up again the bundle of clothes which he had laid down on a bench as he came in.
"Unde venis? Quorsum tendis!"
"Oh, see here, I say! I've come four leagues on foot, and have no mind for joking of that kind. Goodby."
"Wait a moment, man! Why are you always so unsociable?"
"You're such a Paul Pry! One of these fine days I'll set you a sticker in Latin that you won't see into in a year. For, as far as that goes, I know a thing or two. Why, if I get you into theology once, we'll see what a figure you'll cut."
"Parce mihi, incipiens sacerdo."
"Be careful what you say, I tell you, for, though you may think I do not understand, I know how to translate. I can't stand everything."
"You are a weak creature, without a bit of the virum fortem. Oh, don't hurry off so! Why, I want to walk along with you to your home."
It was all of no avail. The Seminarist quickened his pace, cursing his evil star; he left the importunate great man in the middle of the road, and did not stop until safe inside his father's kitchen, where he presented himself in the worst possible temper.
"The deuce take that man!" was his only greeting as he found himself in the bosom of his family.
"Why, what has happened?" asks Uncle Jeromo.
"The same old thing! That crack-brained fellow—with his everlasting Latin!"
"But what trouble is that to you? Haven't you studied three years now? Why didn't you answer him?"
"Because I am not such a braggart as he. And besides, he has studied in a different way. My Latin doesn't have all those catches that he knows. I tell you, I wish he'd try me in psychology once! I'm perfectly at home in that."
"But when are you going to say your first mass?" asks Aunt Simona, lost in wonder, while the two children are gazing at the student with open eyes. "Why, the place is going to ruin—the priest is so old."
"And he doesn't know a thing, mother. If it was only one of us students now! We are learning such a lot! You ought to see the sermons I deliver when it comes my turn!"
As it is by no means our main object to draw the portrait of Uncle Jeromo's eldest son, we may leave out entirely the dialogue brought on by his outburst against the Lord of the Manor, and go on again with the matter we had in hand, witnessing the supper of this worthy family on Christmas Eve. The student takes from the fire the pot containing the stew, in order that the flame may dry the mud upon his trousers. His sister has carefully gathered up his cloak and shirts. Then he takes the jar of milk, his father attending to the sugar, and is ready to help his mother and sister in making the toast, enlivening the work with tales of his achievements and adventures as a student.
When every delicacy is "fit to be eaten by an angel," as Aunt Simona avers, so perfectly prepared is it, and while all are carefully keeping close to the fire for the sake of the warmth, another operation is got under way, no less important than the supper itself: namely, setting the lazy table.
This table is only a rectangular board, fastened to the kitchen wall by a hinge at one end; the other end is held up to the same wall by a strap. When this is loosened, the table comes down like the portcullis of a fortress, and is kept in a horizontal position by means of a foot, or prop, hanging down from the board itself. This kind of table is used in the country only on occasions of festival importance, or when there is a wedding in the house. Therefore we should not be surprised at the tumult caused in Uncle Jeromo's kitchen by the operation of lowering it.
"Don't let it fall on you!"
"Help me with this side!"
"Take away that bench!"
"Pick up that spoon!"
"There it goes!"
"Fasten it there!"
"Look out for your foot!"
There are little less outcry and greater precautions than if it were a question of launching a three-decker!
The table once set, and the luxuries all on it at last, the student says grace. But we will leave the family to sup in perfect freedom; it is an operation which, save for a few slight differences in the dishes and the vigor of mastication, we all perform in the same manner. Besides, our presence might prevent the good Jeromo from scraping out the gravy from the pot in which the stew was made, or his wife from putting her finger into the dish of toast to mix the sugar well, or the Seminarist from so completely draining his glass of white wine.
Let us return to the same kitchen an hour later. All are more talkative than before, and even the old laboring man has smoothed out his customary wrinkles. The small boy is stretched out on a bench, soundly snoring, and the student is talking Latin, and vowing that, if at that moment the Lord of the Manor were to quiz him, there would be a terrible time. Aunt Simona is humming in a low voice:
"To-night is Christmas Eve,
To-morrow's Christmas holy;
At twelve o'clock the Virgin's babe
Is laid in cradle holy."
Her daughter is preparing to join in the song, when there is heard in the yard a chorus of neighs and a sound on the cobble stones as if twenty horses were coming in.
"Robbers are there!" a frightened city man would say in such circumstances.
Not at all, sir; these are the marzantes—that is to say, a couple of dozen of the young men of the place who go running about from house to house. The noise over the stones and the neighing are produced by the wooden shoes and the lungs of the youths.
This event has a most pleasing effect upon the persons in the kitchen; they are silent as statues, and listen intently.
"Well, Señor Don Jeromo," says a voice from the doorway, speaking in falsetto so as to disguise its true tones, "give us a sight of those shoulders curing there on the pole, and of those rich eggs of the speckled hen that was cackling out in the yard. Come, do it!"
The chorus neighs vigorously in answer to this first onset of algarabía, as the introduction of the marzantes is technically called, and then the voice begs again for a morsel of this and of that, until at last it stops, saying,
"Which will you have? Shall we sing or pray?"
"Pray," says Jeromo.
"Sing, of course!" breaks in the student. "I like these things very much. Come, sing!" he adds, opening the window the merest crack.
This command is received outside with another chorus of neighs, and the marzantes at once begin to sing, in a doleful and unvarying tone, a very long narrative poem, beginning,
"In Bethlehem's manger rude,
The Virgin's child is born,
A babe more rich than gold,
Bright as the sun at morn,"
"To the people of this place,
May victory be given;
In the present life much grace,
And glory then in heaven."
The last verse has a variant which the marzantes are accustomed to use when nothing is given to them, or when they are tricked with food filled with ashes:
"For all in this house,
I wish at this hour
That even their bones
The mange may devour."
The terrific encounters of wit to which this ejaculation usually gives rise, and the by no means despicable ones which are provoked when the marzantes go to the tavern, perhaps meeting others from another neighborhood, perhaps getting into a dispute with some passerby, are doubtless the reason for the leader's disguising his voice, and for his companions keeping in the background.
But in Jeromo's house no tricks are tried upon anybody, and Aunt Simona passes a bit of refreshment to the marzantes; and they, after performing the former verse, march away neighing with delight.
The family gives the finishing blows to the supper, drinking the last drops of the wine. The little fellow wakes up and asks for the marzantes. When he learns that they have come and gone, he fills the kitchen with his howls. His father begins to cuff him, but his mother and the student interpose. The fire goes out, the light of the candle flickers, the girl nods, the cat lazily mews, Jeromo's pipe falls from his mouth more than once, the Seminarist talks stupidly about the phenomena of light; and when the neighing of the marzantes is heard far away, with slow and reluctant steps the family of Uncle Jeromo go to seek in repose the end of the lively and pleasant evening.
Aunt Simona is the last to go. While she is lamenting that prayers had been omitted on account of the extra doings, and vowing that the deficiency shall be made up the next day, she puts away in the chest that we know of the remains of the bread, the sugar, and the lard, so that on Easter day the family would have something to remind them, provided the materials were skillfully handled, of Christmas Eve.