The Inheritance of the Centaur

— In listening to the lilt and sway of conversation in the Spanish language, I have often been struck by the resemblance it bears to the trampling of many horses. A certain cantering cadence is characteristic of the easy flow of speech, where all is harmonious, and the topics discussed are, as it were, on the highway. But when it is the fervid eloquence of the Spanish political orator that is under consideration, or the mixed cries and resonances of a Spanish quarrel on the streets, the similitude may even be carried so far as to suggest the cavalry charge. All this might go to show that a nation which has for more than a thousand years lived on horseback must feel the impress which belongs to a race of riders, whose every gathering is a cavalcade, and with whom every battle is a “ storm of steeds.” Nor is this impress restricted to special classes. Any one who has witnessed an encounter between two Spanish beggars in the plaza, or market-place, must have noted with what fervor of courtesy each one calls the other caballero, and seeks to atone by lofty speech and stately gesture for the unpardonable sin of being on foot !

Spanish literature teems with pictures of gayly caparisoned horses mounted by men who ride like centaurs ; while, to proceed to a modern illustration, the grace and ease of the cowboy, or, still more, of the prairie Indian, are by imitation derived direct from his Mexican neighbor, to whom has descended the gift of equitation, as has also the mustang steed whereon he rides.

Lieutenant Revere, writing of California in the ante-aurum days, when Indian, Mexican, and Californian lived and had their being on horseback, relates a mishap which befell the governor of a province. This dignitary, having for once ventured on foot from the residencia to the billiard-room on the other side of the street, fell down and broke his leg, from some cause which history fails to mention. His exclamation revealed his habits, — “ Caramba ! eso es camina sobre tierra.” (This is what comes of walking on the ground !) And Lieutenant Revere here reinforces his views by another anecdote, scarcely so credible, in which a carpenter in a Mexican village was sent to Coventry because he could n’t shove the jack-plane on horseback !

Turning to Spanish literature, what do we see in the famous ballads translated by Lockhart but a history of the loves, adventures, and combats of mounted men ? Nay, more, a not inconsiderable space is devoted to a ballad in which the horse Babieca is the sole character, as in many other poems he is the chief hero. The Avenging Childe is a mounted homicide. Lara, Mudarra, and heroes of every sort and degree, including Bernardo del Carpio and King Roderic himself, wore ornaments of the cavalry of the period. The foot soldier, if any such existed, was probably that discomfited warrior, a dismounted cavalryman, who did much of the fighting, but gained neither glory nor booty. The Wandering Knight, whose plaint is one of the gems of this collection, does his wandering astride his war-horse, and is actually depicted in the accompanying illustration as riding between sea and mountain, in the act of “ kissing thy token ” — on horseback. The doings and happenings of the Cid are very fully recorded ; but if that personage ever dismounted or stood upon the ground, no mention is made of the circumstance ! Among the Moors, Calaynos and Gazul the bull-fighter, or picador, appeared on mettled chargers, which were largely responsible for their prowess.

For something like two thousand years the Spanish horse was bestrode by Celt and Roman, Goth and Christian, varying in name, not at all in their deeds or habits, which were simply those of rough riders. No trait of the Spaniard of olden time, as illustrated in the characteristics of Cortez, Pizarro, or their followers, remains so indelibly fixed upon Mexican and South American as does this same habitude of horseflesh. The clang and clatter of myriad hoofs resound in almost every verse of Spanish heroic poetry ; and even Charles V. is painted on horseback, by Titian, for the Galeria Real of Madrid, probably the only equestrian picture that Titian ever painted.

Don Quixote, although the avowed purpose of the ætiology of this personage was the destruction of a fantastic chivalry whereof the horse was a central figure, goes forth on that mission mounted upon Rosinante, whose fame nearly equaled his own. Even the pathetic tilt against the windmills, typical of so much valorous but hopeless endeavor, was enacted with Rosinante, who was the chief sufferer in the episode. All this communion of man and horse could not fail to produce results ; it would be impossible that two animals so inseparably united should not resemble each other, from mere force of habit as well as community of interest ; and we may recognize something of the horse’s honesty of purpose — shall we say deficient subtlety? — on the part of his long-time rider, the Spaniard, when the latter is contrasted with the lissome-witted Italian, who seldom rides. Spain’s heroes, in the days “ when Spain had heroes,” have indeed too often rushed like the “ unthinking horse ” into battle ; even their warfare partook too often of the kind of strategy which simply hurls thunderbolt after thunderbolt, masses of men and horses against men and horses, to the end that the prowess of the individual knight came to outvalue all considerations of war as a science. Furthermore, we learn from Don Quixote that the romance writers of three hundred years ago actually lied on horseback, as it were, their heroes being knights-errant who rescued maidens, punished tyrants,

“ And made all giants dance ! ”

But with the advancement of those great moral ideas which culminated in the Peace Society,— when swords came to be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruninghooks, — the occupation of knight-errantry, like other forms of irregular justice, passed away. Let us hope, however, that the day is far distant when readers, young and old, will cease to feel an absorbing interest in the doings of that centaur we call Chivalry, or in that language which seems so fitly to describe and typify the Horse and the Rider.