The Making of a Bullfighter
[JUAN BELMONTE is a name that is known to every man and woman in Spain. Probably it is one of the bestloved names in Spain also, because Belmonte is something that belongs to every Spaniard; he is a genius, a creator, an idol, an institution; and I have seen ‘Viva Belmonte’ scrawled on the walls of Cádiz and Toledo and Sevilla and Córdoba and the pavings of the Alhambra in Granada, even though there is n’t so much room for compliments these days with all the other battle cries chalked on the walls and signed with the hammer and sickle. And once in the Feria of Sevilla, in a novillada of bulls from Belmonte’s own ranch, after Pascual Márquez had performed a superb faena on his second bull, and the stands were a snow field of handkerchiefs waving for him, they began to shout for Belmonte. He had to come down from his box into the arena and bow to the president, and embrace Pascual, and run all the way round the arena with Pascual while the crowd cheered and clapped him.
I don’t know how long it went on, but it seemed to go on forever, until we could n’t shout any more; and it was like a concentration of the emotion, not of one bullfight, but of all bullfighting. Because Juan Belmonte is bullfighting, in a way that you could never have said that Jack Dempsey was boxing, or Tilden was tennis, or Babe Ruth was baseball. Bullfighting is not a sport, and you can’t compare it with one. Bullfighting, whether you like it or not, whether you approve of it or not, is an art, like painting or music, and you can only judge it as an art: its emotion is spiritual, and it touches depths which can only be compared with the depths that are touched in a man who knows and understands and loves music by a symphony orchestra under a great conductor.
Belmonte is the greatest of all bullfighters, and this is his story.
— LESLIE CHARTERIS,Translator]
I BELIEVE that the earliest thing I can remember is the death of El Espartero. It happened when I was only a little more than two years old. I was riding on the coachman’s box of a carriage, which my family had probably hired for a Sunday-afternoon drive. Someone rushed up as the carriage stopped at the door of a house.
Copyright 1937, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.
‘Don’t you know?’ he blurted out. ‘A bull has killed El Espartero!’
Everyone tumbled out of the carriage to ask for details, and I was left alone on the box. What little intelligence I had at the time framed its first question. What had happened? ‘A bull has killed El Espartero! . . . A bull has killed El Espartero!’ I heard it repeated over and over again. I did n’t understand. I did n’t know then what a bull was, or who was El Espartero, or what was death. But those words, and the startling effect of them, above all because of the way in which they suddenly took everyone away from me and left me so suddenly alone and frightened without understanding why, are indelibly graven on my memory.
And then, after this, my memory may have been carved deeper by the pomp and ceremony with which in those days Sevilla used to honor the death of a great torero. After the funeral processions they composed sad little songs in tango rhythm to recall him: —
The coach of El Espartero . . .
And mournful pasodobles: —
He who was king
Of all toreros . . .
My whole infancy was colored by this popular glorification of the heroic death of the torero. It was the most important happening of my childhood. Years after, when I understood it all, groups of little girls who gathered in the small squares at dusk would still sing about that glorious death.
I was always getting into trouble. My excursions reached as far afield as the Alameda, which was the meeting place of all the good-for-nothings of the district. At the end of the Alameda there was a pavilion called the Recreo. A ramp with a wall on either side ran up to the entrance, and the walls were artistically crowned by two bronze sphinxes which the people of Sevilla called ‘the sirens’ — nobody knows why. The favorite game of the boys who hung around the Alameda was to climb on to the wall, walk along the edge until they reached the sirens (which were at a considerable height), mount the crupper of the siren, and embrace it from behind so that their hands reached its cold hard breasts.
One afternoon, when I was trying to get my short arms around the big bronze torso of the siren, I fell and cut my head open. They took me to the hospital in the Plaza de San Lorenzo. I was streaming with blood. There was a fat assistant sitting out in the square, and with great tranquillity he gathered up his chair, his Panama hat, and his newspaper, and prepared to attend to me.
‘It’s going to hurt you a lot, youngster,’ he said.
With his great fleshy fingers he proceeded to bathe my head and sew up the wound, without getting a whimper out of me. It was my first experience of torn flesh, of physical anguish, of gauze and bandages; and the truth is that I did n’t find it too disagreeable. I can still remember that painful treatment with great complacency, the imperturbability of the assistant, and the softness of the evening in the Plaza de San Lorenzo as I met it when I came out of the hospital with my head bound up.
‘This child is getting more incorrigible every day’ — I had already heard the refrain so often that it was becoming an obsession. They sent me to school as a punishment. It really was a punishment, that dismal barrack of a building, the damp and gloomy rooms, and the bad-tempered masters, whom we could never credit with any human feeling. It was said that the school building had been one of the prisons of the Inquisition, and it was whispered among the boys that they still kept the inquisitors’ instruments of torture in the cellars. It gave the school a very sinister atmosphere. Toward the schoolmaster we were as hostile and desperate as a cage of tigers. Only the real fear of a thrashing, and the vague terror of I don’t know what fearful tortures of the Inquisition which our imaginations conjured up, kept us pinned down on the hard benches.
I was only at school from the age of four until I was eight years old. They taught me to read and write — very painfully, I’m sure, but very conscientiously. That was all my academic education.
We moved to Triana, a suburb of Sevilla, where we settled into a lodging house in the Calle Castilla. My mother died there.
I remember no more of her than that she was very young and very pretty. When she died, the women put a shroud on her and loosened her braids, spreading her great length of hair over the pillow. I remember how beautiful her face was that day, and the black hair spread out over the peaked shoulders and sunken breast. They put her bed next to a window which opened on to a corridor, and all morning the neighbors filed past and wept for her. The women of the neighborhood stopped their work and trooped along with their sleeves rolled up and their brats dragging along behind to stand in front of our window and look at my dead mother, to mourn for her and admire her beautiful hair. Nobody took any notice of me. When, little by little, I crept up closer, a relative or a neighbor would push me gently away and say: ‘Go on, Juan. Run along down the street and play with the children.’
Like most boys whose mothers die when they are young, I grew up long before my time. I left school and helped my father in his shop. It was a shop which we had to put together every day at dawn, setting it up in the street with planks and trestles and boxes of merchandise. On Thursdays we took it to pieces and moved it over in a hand barrow to the Calle de la Feria. An uncle of mine who was about the same age as I was helped to push the barrow. On the downward slopes we would fit the wheels into the tram lines and go careering away at breakneck speed, having the time of our lives.
We used to close the stall early. My father and I would go to the Calle Sierpes and saunter slowly along it, stopping every few minutes at one of the groups which gathered at the doors of cafés and saloons. At that time the whole life of Sevilla could be seen unfolding itself in that street. The more or less moneyed gentry would be lounging against the doors of the casinos having their shoes shined, while others less fortunate approached them for references and introductions. At the marble tables of the Café Central ranchers and business men closed their deals, and bullfighters signed their contracts; at the Café Nacional you found government officials and moneylenders, municipal employees and vestrymen; and, in the middle of the street, grain merchants with specimens wrapped up in bits of old newspaper would discuss prices for hours on end, and men in the olive-oil business would be holding their tubes of samples up to the light — all this in the midst of a swirling crowd of shrimp peddlers, bootblacks, and vendors of lottery tickets.
My father usually went to the Café América and the Café Madrid. The latter had a broad cool patio at the back with huge billiard tables, where they played the games that were popular at the time — ‘Forty-one,’ ‘Round the World,’ and ‘Match.’ My father was a great player. While my father was playing, 1 would spend my time foraging around the café, eating any lumps of sugar I could find on the tables and drinking with great relish the tiny glasses of milk and licor de rasa which the café used to stand its clients.
I went with him to the cafés from the time I was eight until I was eleven. But as I grew older my father began to put me on one side. When I was eleven he stopped taking me to the café; I did n’t interest him any more. Instead of me, he took my brother Manolo. The same thing happened with all his sons. When they grew older he did n’t want any more to do with them.
The shop would be closed in the evening, my father would go off to the café to play his games of billiards, and I would find myself in the Altozano, where we were living then, without knowing what to do or where to go. I had no friends of my own age. I was a brat whose mind had grown up lopsidedly in the atmosphere of the café, without any of the moderating influence which school friends might have given me. My brother Manolo was so small that he was no use except to take the part of the bull when we played at bullfighting. The Plaza del Altozano was frequented by many budding bullfighters, and I used to play at bullfighting there without any idea of making it my profession. It would be untrue to say that I had thought, of that yet. I simply played at bullfighting because it was the natural thing for me to do: in those days all the boys of my age did it, just as to-day they are always playing football. I acquired quite a reputation as a drawing-room torero. I practised my passes on anything that came to hand — dogs, chairs, carriages, or cyclists. I would give a media verónica and a recorte 1 to a street corner, a parson, or the evening star.
One day when I was still quite small my family went out for a meal to an inn in La Pañoleta. The inn had a small courtyard where one could fight calves,2 and as soon as I knew it I tied a red cloth around my waist and went along with my people with the secret determination to try my hand. It turned out that the becerro was quite unplayable. The aficionados had long ago given it up as impossible, but the landlord had refused to get rid of it. While my family were eating their meal in the sun in front of the inn I went in search of the yard where the becerro was kept, slipped over the wall, got out my red cloth, and tried to induce the animal to charge.
The pen was hardly nine feet long by a couple of yards wide. I stood at one end with my little cape spread out, and the becerro stood backed up against the other end and looked at me with startled eyes. I cited 3 it again and again without result. While this was going on, my family missed me and began to search for me all over the inn. When they found me I was kneeling in front of the becerro with my cloth spread out under its very nose. Nobody could understand why it had n’t bitten my head off.
I don’t know when it was that I really made up my mind to be a torero. I practised bullfighting because I was influenced by my surroundings, because it amused me, because the risk and adventure of that hazardous profession fitted in with my own instinctive leaning toward uncertainty and adventure — because, with the cape in my hands, I, who was such a small and insignificant person, felt myself so much superior to the other boys who were physically stronger than I.
I liked bulls and disliked bullfighters. The more enthusiastic I became about bullfighting, the less use I had for the conventional type of young torero. In the beginning it was merely indignation, wounded vanity if you like, which drove me away from the accepted standards and the steps by which tradition decreed that the ladder of the professional must be climbed. The art of bullfighting is so mature, so hidebound, so rigidly and exhaustively hemmed in by canons of immemorial antiquity, that the would-be torero has to submit to a code of immutable rules and an inexorable discipline for which I was quite unfitted. I realized this clearly from the very start. So far from being ready to bow to the ancient gospels, I believed that I was the prophet of a new revelation.
So I joined up with the lads of San Jacinto, who all had the same protestant and revolutionary attitude as myself. They were a wild lot who had broken heroically away from everything. They never went to the tentaderos to be put through their paces, they wore no pigtails, and they made no effort to catch the eyes of the impresarios in the cafés of the Calle Sierpes. They had no respect for reputations, they had no patrons, and they had no practical ambitions in life. They were embittered and cruel, with a supreme contempt for everything they looked at. Bombita and Machaquito were at that time the greatest figures in bullfighting, but to us they were just clowns.
Perhaps I was driven to join up by the reaction of any normal highspirited young man who wants to assert his personality and finds himself pushed back by others stronger and better off than himself. The arrogant self-sufficiency of these mutineers and their contempt for all established values consoled me for my humiliations. And there was the pride of pioneering, the joy of smashing the old idols, the glory of breaking loose from all the old complicated conventions in which the art of bullfighting had been smothered.
The conquest of these rebels was by no means easy, for they were just as jealous of their integrity as any of the orthodox cliques, and even more particular about whom they admitted into their exclusive circle. I had to go through a grueling initiation to win their good will. The first thing I had to learn was never to be without tobacco: these heretics, whose principles in bullfighting were incorruptible, could themselves be corrupted with a cigarette. And then I had to run their errands, put up with their bloodthirsty practical joking, and perform a hundred and one menial services. Also I had to go on long expeditions into the country to find out if there were bulls in the corrals and pastures.
These lads had a new way of practising bullfighting. They went out into the country to fight the rancher’s bulls without his permission and in defiance of the guards. They met at our refreshment stand and fixed the time of our departure so that the moon would be well up when we reached the pastures. We had to take the footpaths to avoid encountering any of the Guardia Civil, and we had to do without a proper cloak because that would have been evidence against us if we were stopped. We used a coat belonging to Riverito, whom we all acknowledged as the most proficient.
To cross the river we would prowl through the cornfields until we found a boat. We would push it out into the stream with the mud sucking around our ankles, put out the oars, and paddle jubilantly away. One of us would lean over the side and spit at the reflection of the moon in the rippling water and begin to sing some soft and haunting gypsy song which reached no further than the reeds along the bank where our wake whispered and curdled. Sometimes we would pass a barge, laden with melons, tied up in a bend of the stream while the bargeman slept. We would help ourselves to a few of the melons and go on our way nibbling them contentedly, with the juice running down our chins.
When we reached Tablada the pasture would be bathed in the milky-blue light of the moon. As we approached the enclosure we would fall silent; the oars would move quietly with short slow strokes until the boat grounded in the mud. One of us would get out first to reconnoitre, and if he reported that there was no one else in sight we would all disembarkand wriggle through the barbed wire into the enclosure. We would move on cautiously, taking as much cover as we could among the bushes and cactus, until we heard the silence suddenly broken by the tinkling movement of a belled ox.
‘There are bulls!’ we would breathe triumphantly.
Then would come the hard labor of running all over the field, which bristled with thorns and thistles, in order to separate the bull which we wanted to play, tire it out, and drive it into a corner.
Riverito played it first, which was his privilege as the leader. When he had finished, he would pass the coat to the next man, and so we would follow each other in strict order. The best fighter took the coat first; the least expert was relegated inexorably to the last place.
I started by being the last in order, and when all the others had had enough they handed the coat to me to do the best I could with it. Naturally this was n’t much.
But one night something happened that upset all the accepted rules of precedence. Following our custom of playing the largest animal we could find, we had separated a huge bull which attacked from the first moment instead of trying to get away like the others. Accustomed as we were to half-blooded stock which charged only when it was cornered, we were completely disconcerted by the vigorous attack of that mountainous bull which had only to see the shadow of a bullfighter to launch itself at him like a streak of lightning. After four or five rushes it stood alone in the centre of the enclosure with its head in the clouds and its horns goring at the moon, while the gladiators flattened themselves against the fence and urged each other to attract its attention in any direction except their own.
I waited trembling for a few seconds. It was n’t my turn to take the field, but none of my companions would make a move, and the bull was still waiting there. A few paces away lay the coat we were using, which had been lost in the débâcle. I stretched out my arm. When I had the coat in my hand I straightened up and moved slowly toward the bull. It pawed the ground and watched me approach, measuring the distance; and then it hurled itself at me like a hurricane. I stood firm and led it past me with the coat. It turned quickly, kicking up a cloud of dust, and again I made it pass me. I had hardly recovered my position when it was on me again. I felt its quivering mass brushing against my body. Again and again I led it past, until at last I gave it a recorte which left it rooted to the ground and staring at me as if it could n’t make out what had happened to it. I turned my back on it and carelessly threw down the coat for anyone else to play with who felt like it.
After that night I was never again the last to fight. When the leader of the band gave up the coat, I would step forward and take it over as if I were exercising an indisputable right. I had won the position in fair combat, and nobody questioned my superiority.
One night a bull caught one of the boys and left him stretched out unconscious on the ground. We picked him up and carried him toward the river bank. We were all as naked as the day we were born, having swum across the river and left our clothes on the other side. As it was impossible for the injured lad, who was bleeding, to swim back, we had to tramp along the bank looking for a boat. We found one at last and began to carry our comrade toward it.
The tide was out, and between the firm ground and the boat there was a broad belt of mud and reeds where our feet sank up to the ankles. We were moving forward slowly and laboriously when we saw a big full-grown bull with finely developed horns emerge from the river and come toward us. It saw us and stood with its head up, looking at the strange procession. And then it let out a roar and lowered its head as if it were going to charge us.
I believe that the first impulse which flashed through all our minds was to drop our friend and run for our lives. Fortunately the clay in which our feet were embedded paralyzed this instinctive reaction, and whether we liked it or not we stayed there huddled together with the boy on our shoulders. Something similar must have happened to the bull, for its feet were similarly stuck in the slime, checking the attack which it had begun. At that precise moment somebody spoke: —
‘Keep still! Do a Don Tancredo!’4
It was marvelous. Everyone stood still, as if frozen into marble, in the position in which the warning had caught him. Naked, immobile, crushed together, and holding up the inanimate body of our friend, we must have formed a most curious piece of sculpture. Fear gave us an amazing rigidity. One of us was caught with his arm raised, and thus he stayed, absolutely motionless, as if he had been cast in bronze.
The startled bull gazed at us fixedly. Then it stepped forward slowly, lashing its loins with its tail and only waiting for the provocation of the slightest movement. We stood like statues, impassively offering it our naked bodies bathed by the moonlight. The bull took a few more steps, looked at us, and looked at us again, each time seeming a little more puzzled by that strange monument in living flesh which had been erected in its dominions. The brute took a century to convince itself. Again and again, whenever it seemed as if it were going away, it would turn round and look at us again, until at last, after an eternity of time, it finally turned its bored back on us, dragged its hoofs out of the mud one by one, and with maddening deliberation went its leisured way.
The doctor at the emergency hospital in Triana told us that our friend’s wound was not serious. We explained that he had torn himself accidentally on a nail.
We had taken over Tablada for our private school of bullfighting. On
moonlit nights we fought in the corrals, and in the summer we played the bulls in the pasture in broad daylight. This fighting of bulls in the open grazing lands was what we liked best, but it was not a pleasure to be easily achieved. We had to hike for hours through the country under the burning sun, threading our way through the wild cactus with our naked bodies exposed to the pitiless thorns, and sometimes we would spend the whole day in that parched inferno without meeting the difficult combination of circumstances which we needed to practise our sport. Afterward, when I returned home exhausted, my sister had to spend half the night patiently picking out the thorns which were studded all over my body, while I lay on my bed sleeping the sleep of the dead.
Bullfighting was our only outlet, the natural expression of our adventurous and rebellious and danger-loving temperaments in the environment in which we lived. The least important thing in our heroic sorties to Tablada was the bull. Certainly when we did come face to face with it after overcoming all the dangers and difficulties which stood in the way, it was a triumphant moment; but it was only a moment. As a matter of fact, there were many boys who risked their necks with us to go bullfighting who had no great enthusiasm for the fighting itself. Of course the outstanding members of the gang, such as Riverito, Petizo, Pestaña, and another, had genuine pretensions to being bullfighters. I myself began to have. I was concentrating more and more on the technique of bullfighting and its artistic refinements. I enjoyed practising passes in front of a mirror and gradually built up what was later to be my style. Nothing important can have an arbitrary origin; I fought as I did because in the country, and at night, you had to do it like that. You had to follow the whole trajectory of the bull with every bit of your attention, because if it got far away from you it lost itself in the darkness and it was a ticklish business to find it again; and, as we had nothing but an ordinary coat to fight with, you had to keep the bull very close and tightly played. Thus my style developed the qualities which were afterward to be called quite arbitrary characteristics; and yet it was nothing but those circumstances which taught me to fight as I did.
There came a night when I did n’t want to go. I was wearing a new suit which I had managed to buy for Holy Week at the cost of innumerable small economies; but the others persuaded me, and I could n’t resist. So off I went to Tablada again to fight bulls, all dressed up in my Sunday best.
On moonlight nights the Guardia Civil prowled watchfully about the pastures and corrals with their rifles at the ready; but on dark nights their vigilance relaxed, because it was clearly impossible for anyone to play a bull which could n’t be seen a foot away from your nose. So we invented a method of fighting on moonless nights. We got hold of two acetylene lamps, and with their flickering light we managed to fight when neither the Guardia Civil nor anyone else would venture into the pitch-dark fields. We still had to corner our bull in the darkness; and sometimes we had the disagreeable surprise of running our outstretched hands straight into the side of a bull with which we had almost collided as we groped blindly about. We would apologize ceremoniously and hop out of the way as best we could.
This night we were on the job of breaking up the herd when we spotted some suspicious-looking shadows moving stealthily toward us. Thinking it was the Guardia Civil, we scattered rapidly in all directions. I was too slow to scramble over the wall, so I hid myself as best I could and waited to see what would happen. As the figures came closer I soon realized that they were not guardias.
‘Who are you?’ I hailed them.
‘We are aficionados,’ answered a small piping voice.
They turned out to be some youngsters of ten or twelve who had pluckily set out to try their luck in Tablada, bringing with them a real bullfighters’ cloak. It was n’t so extraordinary — the legend of our nocturnal raids on the pastures had spread all over Triana.
I sent the boys off to tell the rest of the gang that there was no danger, and also told them where to find our acetylene lamps so that they could bring them along on their way back. Meanwhile I tried to round up a bull which we had previously separated from the herd. They were a long time getting back; and while they were away I managed to run the bull into a corner, where I kept it moving restively about in the hope that we should be able to fight it.
At last the boys returned to tell me that they had n’t been able to find the rest of the gang or the place where we kept our lamps. It was a pity, because the bull was there, rearing about and butting its head angrily against the fence. But the others must have gone home, and it was impossible to fight without lights on such a dark night.
All the same, there was the bull, getting more furious every minute; and although it was completely invisible when it moved a few inches away from the fence, I was beginning to feel an irresistible yearning to fight it. I had the cape which the children had brought in my hands, and every time I leaned over the fence and flipped it over the bull I could feel its splendid response to the challenge. The nearness of the bull and the feel of a genuine torero’s cape in my hands obliterated all other considerations. I began to persuade myself that I could really see, when it was only my anxiety to fight which helped me to guess the movements of the bull,
I could n’t hold out any longer. I swung myself over the fence and opened the cape to the vast blackness of the night, pretending that I could penetrate it like a cat. I felt the bull launch its attack, I saw or guessed its rush toward me, and I turned my body. The black thunderbolt leapt momentarily out of the night and vanished instantly into the night again, brushing my waist as it went by. It turned and passed close to me again, led past by the folds of the cape, like a meteor flung at me out of the shadows; but on the third charge the bull did n’t see the cape and I did n’t see the bull. I felt myself hurled into the air with a terrific shock; it caught me again between its horns and flung me savagely to the ground.
I lay curled up there without knowing where I was. I could n’t see the bull. The night had swallowed it up again. Then I heard the children beginning to cry, and from the sound of their sobs I managed to get my bearings. I started to try to drag myself toward the fence; but I had scarcely begun to move when the bull flung itself on me again out of the darkness. Again I felt myself hurled into the air, bounced, shaken, and thrown away like a rag. My face was wet with blood. I lay pressed against the stones, listening to the children, who were weeping pitifully. I must have been two or three yards from the fence; but nearer than that, much nearer, the menacing white horns of the bull loomed over me. Those two white curves were the only thing that stood out clearly from the black void of the night. Again I tried to get away, and again the horns fell on me like lightning. But that time, as I fell, I actually bumped against the boards of the fence, and with a desperate effort I dragged myself to safety.
The only reason the bull had n’t killed me must have been that my time had not yet come.
The terrified children picked me up and touched my bloodstained face, asking me frantically if I was still alive.
I felt myself. It was all I could do to pull myself together. My face was skinned, my body was bruised all over, and — my suit was in ribbons. My suit for Holy Week! I was seized with an inhuman fury. I tore myself out of the hands of the boys who were trying to comfort me and climbed back over the fence. I rushed at the bull like a madman, shrieking abuse at it and raining blows on it with hands and feet. Before that storm of kicks and punches which beat over its head, the poor bull must have been completely flabbergasted. Instead of taking up the challenge, it began to retreat. ‘This is not reasonable,’ it must have thought to itself.
They talked about it in the Altozano for days afterwards with bated breath.
Meanwhile my home was coming nearer to beggary every day, while I was incapable of lifting a finger to prevent it. My father could n’t get any more out of his business: the stock that he had on hand barely managed to pay for our food, and that was rapidly becoming exhausted. I would get homo from Tablada in the early morning and try to keep out of my father’s way — sometimes I went to sleep under the bed so that he would n’t see me. My sister hid me, my stepmother scolded, and whenever my father did manage to catch sight of me he would tell me his opinion of me without mincing his words. I would listen to him shamefacedly, without being able to make any reply, because in my heart I knew that he was right; but I was unable to change my life.
My father and Calderón the banderillero were bosom friends. Calderón was a great character — an incorrigible show-off, a tremendous braggart, with all the sententiousness and swagger of the old-style torero. My father was very fond of him, and I can remember seeing him standing by the stall, preening himself and chaffing the women who came to buy. When my struggles to become a bullfighter drove my family to distraction, my father consulted Calderón about it. Calderón took me off and gave me his advice.
‘Give up this business of chasing bulls at night with that gang of loafers, and go to a good tentadero to show yourself off.’
I did n’t want to do it, but Calderón insisted that there was no other way. He offered to recommend me to a rancher and let me know the date of the trial, since these events were then held with great secrecy in the hope of eluding the would-be fighters who invariably descended on them in swarms.
There was nothing else for it; so off I had to go one day to the Urcola ranch.
Don Félix Urcola was a brusque and serious man who personally directed the trials on his ranch with the assistance of a group of good aficionados, among whom were Zuloaga, Don José Tejero, Don José Manuel del Mazo, and other experts.
Some of the usual would-be bullfighters had arrived and were making a hubbub. The rancher promptly ordered them off. I associated myself, as always, with the rabble, and I started to go with them; but Urcola, either on account of Calderón’s introduction or because I seemed less obstreperous than the others, called me back.
‘You can stay. We’ll see what you can do with the cows.’
So I stayed behind; and when the time came I was able to fight to my heart’s content.
They gave me a very brave cow; but as I was accustomed to fighting halfblooded animals and did my verónica and media verónica standing very close and with my hands very low, as we used to do in the country, the cow, which was very spirited and quick to turn, was always on top of me, giving the impression that at any moment it might toss me into the clouds.
My work produced a good impression on the small group of select aficionados. Their verdict was that I was a courageous fighter, but that I lacked the necessary skill to lead the bulls away from me — and, above all, that I kept my elbows too close to my body, so that the movements of my arms seemed stiff and ungraceful by their old-established standards.
When the trial was over, the experts condescended to give me a great deal of good advice. One of them has since reminded me of that incident and chuckled over the memory of how they solemnly advised me to do exactly the opposite of what was later to arouse their wildest enthusiasm. They invited me to dine with them; and Francisco Palomares, ‘El Marino,’ a colorful and immensely likable character who wanted to be a bullfighter, an aviator, and I don’t know what else, made me a present of a cape and a muleta.5
Calderón was my first champion. After the tentadero at Urcola’s, because of his friendship with my father, because he approved of the way I fought, and also partly because he loved to know more than anybody else, he began to praise me lavishly in bullfighting circles. Whenever the subject of bulls came up, Calderón would announce, with that magnificent arrogance of his and all the incontrovertible assurance that characterized him: —
‘The fellow who really does fight well, the fellow who really is a phenomenon, is that boy Belmonte.’
And at last a contract came my way.
It came through a man in Sevilla who earned a precarious living as a bullfighters’ manager — his chief claim to the title was that he had it printed on his notepaper. His method was to send round circular letters to the managements of small bull rings, offering them the incomparable attractions of cuadrillas which did n’t exist and famous matadors that nobody had ever heard of. With one of these circular letters he had managed to make an impression on the impresario of a small Portuguese village, Elvas, where he had contracted for a bullfight in which two famous cuadrillas, one from Sevilla and the other from Triana, were to exhibit their skill. He had already given the names of the performers, the posters had been printed, and the people of Elvas were waiting expectantly to see the achievements of these celebrated gladiators; but at the last moment the chief of the Triana cuadrilla — a certain Valdivieso who fought under the name of Montes II — had flatly refused to go. Finding himself in this dilemma, the manager set out to find a substitute; and having heard rumors that there was a boy called Belmonte in Triana who fought with much style, he got hold of me and offered me the job.
I call it a ‘job,’ although the conditions were that I should fight according to Portuguese rules, that I should pay for the hire of my costume out of my own pocket, that I should also provide a banderillero on the same terms, that I should receive no payment, and finally that I should have to perform, not under my own name, but under the name of Montes II, since the posters had already been issued. That is to say, I should receive neither money nor glory.
In spite of everything, the offer seemed tempting, and I accepted it. I managed to get hold of a costume by promising to pay for the hire in installments, and one of my friends agreed to take the job of the unpaid banderillero. Before leaving for Elvas I had the idea of getting myself photographed in the costume.
Getting to Elvas was far from easy. Our manager, who came with us, had only enough money to pay our fares as far as Badajoz; and he was unable to pay for one of the banderilleros at all. We smuggled him on to the train and hid him under the seat; but he was discovered by the conductor and we had to empty our own pockets to the last céntimo to save him from being handed over to the police. However, I managed to keep one peseta hidden in my shoe.
In Badajoz we were stranded. It occurred to the manager to telegraph to Elvas and suggest that it would be a good idea to send a carriage for us, because it would be a good advertisement if the cuadrillas made a spectacular entrance into the town. Elvas is hardly any distance from the frontier; but although we received a reply saying that the carriage would leave immediately to fetch us, hours went by without any sign of it. It became time for a meal, but we had no money to buy one. The famous cuadrillas from Sevilla and Triana yawned hungrily under the walls of Badajoz. I winked at my banderillero, and we detached ourselves inconspicuously from the others; with the peseta which I had saved in my shoe we bought some bread and sausage and ate them with great secrecy. When we rejoined the party, they somehow guessed that we had eaten. With that sharp and exquisite sense of smell which hunger gives, they even divined that we had eaten sausage. They considered that we had cheated them, and quarreled bitterly with us. There and then began the rivalry between the two cuadrillas — the one from Triana which had eaten sausage and the one from Sevilla which had not eaten.
We were almost in despair when the carriage from Elvas at last appeared. The man who had come to fetch us said that he had spent several hours searching for us all over Badajoz; but he was expecting to find us dressed as bullfighters, and although he had actually passed us two or three times it had n’t occurred to him that those poor devils who were gaping with hunger on the benches by the roadside could be the gallant Spanish toreros.
In Elvas they took us straight to the inn and showed us into a large dining room where, at a table promisingly laid for a banquet, the impresario formally proceeded to welcome us. Very solemnly and very eloquently he expressed his hope that we should achieve resounding triumphs, and sang the glories of Spanish bullfighting in a spirited discourse which seemed as if it would never end. While he was talking, the brave gladiators edged up closer to the table and got hold of the rolls and gobbled them up in the twinkling of an eye, meanwhile nodding their courteous agreement with the loquacious impresario’s oration. When at last the speeches and presentations were over and the waiters brought in the soup, the landlord was startled to discover that not a single roll remained on the table. We ate like starving animals. It must have made a shocking impression.
When my banderillero unpacked his borrowed costume, we found that the coat was stained and discolored, and most of the sequins had been torn off; there were holes in the jacket where the cloth was missing as well as the trimmings; and the padding was unashamedly coming out of the shoulders.
‘You can’t fight like that,’ I told him. ‘ You look like a scarecrow.’
‘What about yourself?’ he retorted.
I looked at myself. Perhaps I was a little better than he was, but I certainly was n’t presentable. Nothing fitted me — not the coat, nor the waistcoat, nor even the shoes. My banderillero was a frail, thin boy, and I myself was nothing to look at. With our lack of presence and our ancient costumes we were a miserable contrast to the other cuadrilla, who were smart, well-dressed, and well-set-up young fellows. We mended my banderillero’s costume as best we could and painted with ink the places where the lining showed through to make it match the rest of the material. This worked fairly well, except that when he sweated during the fight the ink ran and stained his body all over. But as soon as we came out into the arena the spectators observed the difference between the two teams — the one from Sevilla, which was nicely dressed, and the one from Triana, which looked as if it had just been dug up.
Montes II — that is to say, myself — was solemnly committed to perform a trick which is very popular with the Portuguese. He had to place banderillas á porta gayola. The obligation was serious, because in Portuguese bullfights the tricks which each bullfighter is to perform are previously announced on the posters. I had never heard of this trick; but our manager promised to show me. Before the bull came out, he placed me in the centre of the arena facing the pen with the banderillas in my hand. I was n’t so sure about that; and since the bull did not appear at once I started to edge obliquely away toward the side of the ring, where I thought I should have a better chance of placing the banderillas. The public observed my cautious manœuvre and started a frightful uproar. The door of the pen was closed again so that the bull should n’t come out while I was not in the required position, and again the director placed me firmly in the centre of the ring. Again I sneaked off toward the barrera, and the shouting and booing were terrific. Eventually I did place the banderillas — not á porta gayola, as they wanted me to, but simply as best I could. My reputation promptly sank to zero.
Later on, however, the situation changed. The points of the bulls’ horns were padded, in the Portuguese style, but one of them managed to land a blow in the eye of the chief of the Sevilla cuadrilla which was sufficiently serious to send him to the infirmary. As there was nobody else to take his place, I was left sole master of the arena. I stopped worrying about the Portuguese tastes, even managed to forget the shabbiness of my costume; and, since the bulls were brave, I set out to fight with all my soul and gave the public the best I had. I ended up by earning their loud and enthusiastic applause, having proved that smart clothes were not everything.
I returned to Sevilla as the hero of our party, but without a céntimo in my pockets. All I ever got out of that fight, in which I wore a bullfighter’s costume for the first time, was the memory of those miraculously vanishing rolls at the inn and an endless dunning from the owner of the costume, who came every week to collect his two pesetas.
Calderén’s friends managed to get me into a novillada without picadors, organized by a casual impresario who took the ring on his own account when the management was not giving corridas. I fought in Sevilla for the first time with Bombita IV and Pilín. I think I did well; the aficionados who afterward carried me shoulder-high to my house must have thought so, too; but the trouble is that it had no effect. None of the critics wrote about my work, and the impresario did n’t feel called upon to give me any money.
However, the corrida did raise my stock among the aficionados of Triana. Suddenly I realized that I was the centre of our group, the most important personage in the gang. Anything I said suddenly took on an importance which it had never had before. I began to hear that flattering undercurrent of ‘Juan said . . .’ and ‘Juan does n’t like . . which it took me a long time to get accustomed to. Also I began to notice that I had new friends. I was beginning to acquire the satellites who gather round a coming torero in the same way that they gather round coming politicians when it is rumored that there is going to be a change of power.
At last I could call myself a professional bullfighter. I began to put on airs. And I fell in love with a married woman, pretty and temperamental, who was ready to risk her security and reputation for love of a nameless and penniless torero. This affected me so deeply that it changed the whole trend of my life. Perhaps for the first time in my life I relaxed. I was liberated for a little while from the merciless drive of my old restless ambitions. I had a future as a torero. I had a woman who loved me. What did anything else matter? But Calderón, the seasoned veteran, became the voice of conscience. He saw clearly that success was within my grasp and watched over me as jealously as if I were something of his own creation.
At six o’clock in the morning he arrived at my house and dragged me out of bed to put me through a course of training which he considered essential for success in bullfighting. I didn’t dare to confess that when he came to call me it was only a couple of hours since I had crept into bed after spending the night in the sweet indulgence of my love. Half asleep, with rings under my eyes and my whole body limp with an unconquerable lassitude, I had to set out to stagger after the tireless Calderón on long tramps which were supposed to strengthen me and actually only exhausted what little strength I had left. The training would have been perfect if it had been combined with a reasonable diet and a sufficient amount of sleep; but there was hardly any food at home, and my nights were given up to anything but rest.
In that condition I set out to fight in Sevilla.
It was a novillada in which Pacorro was to play two becerros, after which there were four novillos for formal combat, two of which I had to kill.
The two bulls which fell to me were big and clumsy and difficult to play, and the little energy which I had left was all used up on the first one. The public booed me to the skies; but somehow or other I managed to get rid of it.
But the second bull came out, a big animal with very erect and wide-open horns, and to make that worse it had no spirit for the fight. As soon as I had given it one pass with the cape it ran away, and I had to chase it all round the ring. By the time I took over the sword and muleta I was exhausted. At the first pass it ran away again. I folded the muleta and set off after it.
I had to chase it twice round the ring, and my lungs were bursting by the time I caught it up. When it did stop at last and I spread the muleta before it, it charged once and ran away again, I felt I was going to die. After chasing it for a few more miles I caught it again, and without even getting it into position I tried to kill it on the spot. Of course, its head was up in the clouds, and even if I stood on tiptoe I could n’t see the place where I had to put the sword. I dived in to kill as if I were diving into the sea. It jerked up its head and hurled me to the ground.
I closed my eyes and curled up where I lay. Some seconds passed — I don’t know how many. I wondered what was happening. Surely, I decided, the others had n’t been able to take it away yet. I continued to lie there with my eyes shut. How beautiful it was to lie down! At least I had a chance to breathe. When at last they lured the bull away, Calderón lifted me up and asked anxiously if I was hurt. No, I was n’t — unfortunately.
‘Then get going,’ he said and put the sword and muleta back in my hands.
Again I chased the bull, until I felt as if my lungs were in ribbons. Again I hurled myself in for the kill, and again it caught me between its horns and flung me to the ground.
But in a few seconds Calderón was there, to pick me up like a wet rag and give me the sword again.
The third time I got in front of the bull I was so desperate that when I went in to kill I threw myself bodily over its horns with the idea that if I did n’t kill it then it might at least kill me. But it did n’t. Once again I sailed through the air and fell at its feet. I had already learned by experience that if I lay still it would n’t attack me, and it was so lovely to relax there with the bull standing over me like a guardian angel.
But again the relentless Calderón arrived, this time thoroughly annoyed with me.
‘What do you think you’re doing there? Get up! Get up!’
One spectator has since told me that it seemed as if I were a mechanical doll which Calderón kept winding up and putting on its feet to send it after the bull.
The bull had just tossed me for the twentieth time when I heard the sound of the third aviso.6 I was suddenly seized with an uncontrollable rage and desperation. Without sword or muleta, which had been of no use to me, I threw myself on my knees in front of the bull and defied it like a lunatic.
‘Kill me!’ I screamed. ‘Kill me, damn you! ’
I crawled up to the bull on my knees until I was almost underneath it. I caught it by the horns, spat at it, hit at its face with my bare hands, while I went on sobbing in a kind of delirium: ‘Kill me, then! . . . Kill me, damn you . . . kill me!’
Calderón and the mozo de espadas tried to drag me away. The mozo de espadas pulled my arm and Calderón grabbed me by the scruff of the neck while I was still on my knees between the horns of the bull.
My failure in Sevilla was the ruin of all my illusions. Everyone turned against me — my protectors, friends, and even my family. I was discredited. I had nothing left in the world except my love. I put aside my dreams of bullfighting and set to work. Since I had no technical training of any kind, I had to enlist as a day laborer in the hardest work that there was in Sevilla. They were cutting a channel to change the course of the Guadalquivir, and there I managed to find a humble job pumping air down to a diver who was working at the bottom of the river.
I had few companions and no friends. I was in no mood for those things. I buried myself blindly in my
work and thought of nothing but collecting my pay and taking it to my stepmother to alleviate the misery of my home. I wore any old rags I could find, I did n’t smoke or drink, and I had no other diversion or happiness than the love of that wonderful woman who stood by me without regard for my vanished glory. That winter tested my will power to the limit.
The spring came round, and with it a reawakening of the old fascination of bullfighting. The pasture was close to where I was working; and many evenings after the day’s labor was finished I would set off into the country to get my hand in again. And always, while I was citing a bull with my workman’s blouse, and feeling it pass me again and again so close that its horns grazed my skin, I would be thinking: ‘I’m not afraid. The bulls don’t frighten me. Why can’t I be a bullfighter?’
Only Calderón’s faith in me remained unshaken. One day he almost knocked me over with a proposition: —
‘Would you like to go and fight at Valencia?’
His friend the impresario had written to him and asked him to send me. I scraped some money together and got on the train. All my luggage was tied up between the four corners of a handkerchief.
I arrived in Valencia full of hope and without a céntimo. It was spring. The orange blossom was in bloom, and I was in love and ready to gamble my life cheerfully. Anything was better than returning to be a laborer again. I went to the Bombita Club in search of Don Vicente Calvo, the impresario who had written to Calderón for me. And with that my hopes tumbled down like a house of cards. I had arrived too late.
Calvo had sent for me to take the place of a novillero called El Mestizo in a corrida which had been arranged at Castellón; but after writing to Calderón he had begun to doubt whether I should arrive in time and had contracted to substitute Torerito de Valencia. Not knowing what to do with me, Calvo suggested that I should come along as a second string, and we made the journey together.
The corrida duly took place; and Torerito de Valencia was gored by the first bull, leaving Vaquerito and me alone in the ring. From that moment I set out to try to convince Vaquerito that he would have to let me kill a bull. At first he said yes, but afterward he kept on putting me off until I realized that he had no intention of keeping his word. When the last novillo of the afternoon came out, I ran after it as soon as it entered the ring, opened my cape, and gave it various passes with all the enthusiasm and courage of which I was capable. Later on, in the quites, I worked so close to the bull that the public rose to their feet and cheered me.
Those who saw that corrida said afterward that it brought them out in a cold sweat to watch the fighting of that ‘shabby and weedy little boy’ — meaning me. I gave them the impression that I must have been either drunk or crazy — in short, that I was simply a harebrained lunatic playing ducks and drakes with his life without knowing what he was doing. When the time came for the kill, I asked Vaquerito to give me the sword and muleta. He objected; but in the end he went with me to petition the president to let me make the kill, although with a very bad grace. Meanwhile the public was vociferously taking part in the dispute. The bloodthirsty ones wanted me to make the kill; but the more kindhearted ones wanted me to be saved from the consequences of my own rashness and tried to shout down the others, considering that I was nothing but a poor suicide who was heading for a certain goring. Such was the impression that my way of fighting had made on them. The president took the side of the kindhearted ones and refused to let me make the kill.
Vicente Calvo took me back with him to Valencia and promised to use his influence to try to get me a contract, but the weeks went by and nobody offered me a job, in spite of his recommendations. Day after day I went on desperately begging for a contract — until at last they almost took my breath away by telling me that I might achieve my ambition of fighting in Valencia.
But on what conditions! Six bulls had been collected in the pens — so big, so ugly, and with such impossibly developed horns that nobody else would take them on. But I was so anxious to get a fight at any cost that for eighty pesetas I undertook to kill two of these mastodons.
I hurried off to try to find someone who would rent me a costume, but there I was faced with another setback. The reputation I had earned as a determined suicide, combined with the awful aspect of the bulls which were already in the corrals, guaranteed that no bullfighter’s tailor or renter of costumes would run the risk of covering my body with clothes that would certainly come back to him in ribbons. If my hide did n’t matter to me, their embroidered silks mattered a lot to them.
The Saturday before the corrida arrived, and I still had n’t been able to solve the problem. That afternoon, when I went to the bull ring once again to gaze gloomily at those hideous bulls, an old banderillero came up and spoke to me. With his experience of the game, he naturally had a benevolent interest in my state of mind. I told him what had happened. I had come to Valencia to triumph, and I had n’t been able to hire a costume. I had no costume, no cuadrilla, no money to pay my boarding-house bill, no friends to turn to — nothing. All I had was bulls. And what bulls!
The old banderillero took me by the arm like a father.
‘See here, my boy,’ he said kindly, ‘the best thing you can do is to go straight to the station and catch the first train back to Sevilla. With what you’ve got here’ — he pointed to the bulls — ‘you can’t hope for anything, unless it’s a horn in your belly.’
I left the corrals with no hope. On the way to the boarding house I ran into an acquaintance; and in a moment of inspiration he suggested that we might try to find a costume in the wardrobe room of a theatre, since the people there probably would n’t know much about bullfighting and would n’t have heard about my reputation as a suicide and what ferocious beasts were waiting for me at the bull ring. And that’s how we did find a costume — a girl’s costume of flimsy silk, decorated with absurd embroidery. I took it home and tried it on. It was much as I had suspected. If I did n’t have enough room in the shoulders, I had more than enough around the bottom. The seams were so fragile that they burst under the slightest strain, the sequins rained off it if you just shook it, and the tassels on the hat were sadly out of curl. Still, it was a costume. I asked for a needle and thread and tried to make the best of it. The girls of the inn took pity on my clumsiness and helped me until they were too sleepy to go on. In the end I was left alone, stitching away by the light of a candle.
I worked like an automaton, trying to distract my thoughts from the fate that was waiting for me; but in the end I was overcome with irresistible despair. The memory of the bulls which I had to kill, the prudent advice of the old banderillero, and the realization of the grotesqueness of those rags which I was laboriously stitching together and in which I could never look anything but ridiculous, united to convince me that I was committed to an absurd adventure which could only result in my final discredit as a torero or in a goring which would just as effectively put an end to my career.
I worked until the small hours of the morning, and by that time I was resolved to die. The conviction became so vivid that I began with the greatest seriousness to set my affairs in order, as if there were no doubt that in a few hours my life would come to an end. I had a packet of letters, infinitely precious to me; I read them over again, and my heart overflowed with grief. One by one I burned them in the flame of the candle. I sat on the edge of the bed, mentally bade farewell to my friends and relatives, laid my costume over a chair, blew out the candle, and lay down for my last earthly sleep with a serenity of mind which even surprised myself. That afternoon I was going to die. It was ordained. . . .
That bull must have measured a yard and a half from horn to horn. Wondering how I could go in to make the kill without being gored, I trotted panting after it. At every step I felt my jacket, wondering if it had come unsewn. How on earth was I going to finish that bull? When the chance came and I poised myself, I glanced quickly around to see if I could find any way to escape with a whole skin after the thrust. There was none. I shut my eyes and plunged after the sword with all my soul. It seemed to me that I felt the blade bury itself into the animal’s flesh, but simultaneously I was caught in the stomach and flung into the air. When I came to myself and found myself lying on the ground, the first thing I noticed was that the sword was still gripped in my hand.
I got up thinking that I should never manage to kill the bull and convinced that I was doomed to make the same exhibition of myself as I had done in Sevilla. I picked up the muleta again, resolved to continue the unequal battle even though I knew I could never win; and then to my amazement I saw that the immense bulk was swaying, going down like a sinking ship. . . . I saw that its head was bowed, its feet spread wide. . . . It stepped back a little — and then, as if it had been struck by lightning, it fell!
Never in my life have I heard such an ovation as the one which broke out at that instant. The bull lay at my feet, dead from the one thrust I had given it; and then I understood that I had been holding the sword so tightly that I was unable to release it when the bull tossed me, so that I had pulled it out again as I sailed into the air.
From that moment my credit as a torero was reëstablished.
The second bull was as big and illfavored as the first. I played it with cape and muleta with great enthusiasm; but as I was giving it a pase de rodillas it hooked and gored me in the leg. They took me to the infirmary; but my honor was restored, and the Valencians nearly broke their hands applauding me as I was carried away in the arms of the attendants.
I was a month in hospital, and when I came out I found that I was a young torero of some standing. In one corrida I substituted for Limeño, who had been injured. I contracted for two more novilladas, one without picadors and the other at night; I got eighty pesetas for each of them, which I sent home to my people. I did well in both, and the critics praised me highly. One of them said that I was a diamond in the rough.
The echo of my successes in Valencia reached Sevilla; and Calderón, who was still telling everyone that I was a bullfighting phenomenon, asked me to send him fifty copies of the paper that had that bit about the ‘diamond in the rough’ in it, so that he could stick them under the noses of the people who had refused to believe in me. There was also a man who sold potatoes in the Encarnación market who saw me fight in Valencia and went back to Sevilla saying that I was a great torero.
In this way a very favorable atmosphere was being built up, and the time came when Calderón advised me to go and fight in Sevilla. The religious brotherhoods of Sevilla were organizing some novilladas to collect funds for the processions of Holy Week; they were engaging two well-known novilleros whose names could be counted on to draw the public, and the third place was to be given to any young fighter, obscure or even bad, whose friends undertook to sell the largest number of seats. In this humble position I became part of the programme presented by the Brotherhood of San Bernardo on the twenty-first of July, 1912.
On the eve of the corrida I was walking through Triana with my chest blown out, trying to look as much like a famous bullfighter as I could, accompanied by Calderón and five or six other admirers who had joined the escort. There was a melon stall near the door of my home; and Calderón, as incorrigibly boastful as ever, stopped to give warning to the melon man.
‘If you take my advice,’ he said solemnly, ‘you’ll move your melons somewhere else in the morning, unless you want to lose them all.’
‘Why should I move them?’ growled the other.
‘ Because to-morrow they will be bringing the matador home in triumph,’ said Calderón, ‘and the people will be so blind with enthusiasm that they’ll use your melons for a carpet.’
The melon man looked me up and down and shrugged his shoulders contemptuously, doubtless convinced that we were half-witted. On the following day, as Calderón had prophesied, the crowd that carried me home on their shoulders did n’t leave a single edible melon behind.
At the beginning of that corrida I had a moment of absolute discouragement. When the first bull came out, Larita played it with the cape, very neatly and courageously, and later made a quite which brought a burst of applause. Then Posada fought, and also received an ovation; and then it was my turn. I had hardly opened my cape when the bull charged and tore it out of my hands. Larita shone again with the second bull in a very close quite; and after him Posada, who was frankly out to go one better, earned himself a tremendous ovation. Then again it was my turn; and again, at the first charge, the bull took the cape away from me. When I was able to get it back I attempted another pass, and for the third time the bull carried the cape away on its horns. Larita, a great swashbuckler, reached the bull before me, placed his hand calmly on its head, took off the cape, and handed it back to me with a superb flourish. I was stupefied.
I saw that they were making fun of me, and I was overcome with despair. Where had I got the idea that I was a bullfighter ?
‘You’ve been fooling yourself,’ I thought. ‘Because you had some luck in a couple of novilladas without picadors, you think you can do anything.’
As soon as my bull came out I went up to it, and at the third pass I heard the howl of the multitude rising to their feet. What had I done? All at once I forgot the public, the other bullfighters, myself, and even the bull; I began to fight as I had fought so often by myself at night in the corrals and pastures, as precisely as if I had been drawing a design on a blackboard.
They say that my passes with the cape and my work with the muleta that afternoon were a revelation of the art of bullfighting. I don’t know, and I’m not competent to judge. I simply fought as I believed one ought to fight, without a thought outside my own faith in what I was doing. With the last bull I succeeded for the first time in my life in delivering myself body and soul to the pure joy of fighting without being consciously aware of an audience. When I was playing bulls alone in the country I used to talk to them; and that afternoon I held a long conversation with the bull, all the time that my muleta was tracing the arabesques of the faena. When I didn’t know what else to do with the bull I knelt down under its horns and brought my face close to its muzzle.
‘Come on, little bull,’ I whispered. ‘ Catch me! ’
I stood up again, spread the muleta under its nose, and went on with my monologue, encouraging it to keep on charging: —
‘This way, little bull. Charge me nicely. Nothing’s going to happen to you. . . . Here you are. Here you are,
. . . Do you see me, little bull? . . . What? You’re getting tired? . . . Come on! Catch me! Don’t be a coward. . . . Catch me!’
I was executing the ideal faena, the faena that I had seen so often and in so much detail in my dreams that every line of it was drawn in my brain with mathematical exactness. The faena of my dreams always ended disastrously, because when I went in for the kill the bull invariably caught me in the leg. It must have been some subconscious acknowledgment of my lack of skill in killing that always dictated this tragic conclusion. Nevertheless, I went on realizing my ideal faena, placing myself right between the horns of the bull and hearing the acclamation of the crowd only as a distant murmur; until at last, exactly as I had dreamed it, the bull did catch me and wounded me in the thigh. I was so intoxicated, so outside myself, that I scarcely noticed it. I went in for the kill, and the bull fell at my feet.
The public poured into the arena. I felt myself picked up, lifted above a sea of shouting faces, passed from hand to hand over a wave of humanity. I passed twice round the ring, scrambling over the shoulders of the frenzied mob. I remember that as they bore me toward the Prince’s Gate I saw near the barrera an old aficionado of the classical breed, with his broad-brimmed hat pushed to the back of his head and his hands raised toward the sky, calling heaven to bear witness to the marvel that his eyes had been spared to see, with the tears streaming down his face.
High above the crowd, I crossed the bridge and passed through the streets of Triana. Worn out with emotion and unutterable happiness, half out of my mind with the agony of my wound, which nobody had noticed, I heard for the first time the shout of ‘Long live Belmonte!’ It sounded strange and disconcerting in my ears.
Thus I entered the little patio, borne aloft on the human tide that flowed and jostled right into our miserable room and dropped me like a doll on the only bed we had. The blood was pouring out of my wound, and I felt myself fainting, while my poor family gathered trembling around me, and in the street outside the shout was still thundering from a thousand delirious throats: —
- Even more than the technical terms of most sports, the names of the various passes in bullfighting would be quite meaningless if translated. Anyone who is interested in a fuller description should read Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. — TRANSLATOR↩
- Bulls are given different names according to their age. A bull of any indeterminate size, but usually a young calf, is a res; from one to two years old it is a becerro; from two to three years old it is a novillo; and only when it is three years old is it considered a toro, or full-grown bull.↩
- The word is citar, which might be rendered in English as ‘cite,’ with this special meaning. The torero takes up his position in front of the bull and standing sideways to it, with his cape spread. He shakes the cape, stamps his feet, and shouts ‘Ju!‘ to attract its attention.↩
- The muleta is the smaller red cloth draped over a stick with which the matador executes his faena, the last stage of the fight terminating with the kill.↩
- Avisos are given by trumpet at the discretion of the president on the advice of an asesor, who is an experienced judge of bullfighting. They mark the regular steps through which a bullfight has to pass. There is an aviso for the picadors to be brought on, an aviso for the banderillas, and an aviso for the kill. If the matador fails to complete the kill in a reasonably short time after that, a second aviso is given. If a third aviso is given the bullfighter is considered to have failed, and steers are sent into the arena to lead out the bull.↩