Juan Gallardo breakfasted early as was his custom on the days of a bull-fight. A little roast meat was his only dish. Wine he did not touch, and the bottle remained unopened before him. He had to keep himself steady. He drank two cups of strong black coffee and then, lighting an enormous cigar, sat with his elbows resting on the table and his chin on his hands, watching with drowsy eyes the customers who, little by little, began to fill the dining-room.
For many years past, ever since he had been given "la alternativa" in the Bull-ring of Madrid, he had always lodged at that same hotel in the Calle de Alcala, where the proprietors treated him as one of the family, and waiters, porters, kitchen scullions, and old chambermaids all adored him as the glory of the establishment.
There also had he stayed many days, swathed in bandages, in a dense atmosphere of iodoform and cigar smoke, as the result of two bad gorings—but these evil memories had not made much impression. With his Southern superstition and continual exposure to danger he had come to believe that this hotel was a "Buena Sombra," and that whilst staying there no harm would happen to him. The risks of his profession he had to take, a tear in his clothes perhaps, or even a gash in his flesh, but nothing to make him fall for ever, as so many of his comrades had fallen. The recollection of these tragedies disturbed his happiest hours.
On these days, after his early breakfast, he enjoyed sitting in the dining-room watching the movements of the travellers, foreigners or people from distant provinces, who passed him by with uninterested faces and without a glance, but who turned with curiosity on hearing from the servants that the handsome young fellow with clean-shaven face and black eyes, dressed like a gentleman, was Juan Gallardo, the famous matador, called familiarly by everybody "El Gallardo."
In this atmosphere of curiosity he whiled away the wearisome wait until it was time to go to the Plaza. How long the time seemed! Those hours of uncertainty, in which vague fears rose from the depths of his soul, making him doubtful of himself, were the most painful in his profession. He did not care to go out into the street—he thought of the fatigues of the Corrida and the necessity of keeping himself fresh and agile. Nor could he amuse himself with the pleasures of the table, on account of the necessity of eating little and early, so as to arrive in the Plaza free from the heaviness of digestion.
He remained at the head of the table, his face resting on his hands, and a cloud of perfumed smoke before his eyes which he turned from time to time with a self-satisfied air in the direction of some ladies who were watching the famous torero with marked interest.
His vanity as an idol of the populace made him read praises and flatteries in those glances. They evidently thought him spruce and elegant, and he, forgetting his anxieties, with the instinct of a man accustomed to adopt a proud bearing before the public, drew himself up, dusted the ashes of his cigar from his coat sleeves with a flick, and adjusted the ring which, set with an enormous brilliant, covered the whole joint of one finger, and from which flashed a perfect rainbow of colours as if its depths, clear as a drop of water, were burning with magic fires.
His eyes travelled complaisantly over his own person, admiring his well-cut suit, the cap which he usually wore about the hotel now thrown on a chair close by, the fine gold chain which crossed the upper part of his waistcoat from pocket to pocket, the pearl in his cravat, which seemed to light up the swarthy colour of his face with its milky light, and his Russia leather shoes, which showed between the instep and the turned-up trouser openwork embroidered silk socks, like the stockings of a cocotte.
An atmosphere of English scents, sweet and vague, but used in profusion, emanated from his clothes, and from the black, glossy waves of hair which he wore curled on his temples, and he assumed a swaggering air before this feminine curiosity. For a torero he was not bad. He felt satisfied with his appearance. Where would you find a man more distinguished or more attractive to women?
But suddenly his preoccupation reappeared, the fire of his eyes was quenched, his chin again sank on his hand, and he puffed hard at his cigar.
His gaze lost itself in a cloud of smoke. He thought with impatience of the twilight hours, longing for them to come as soon as possible,—of his return from the bull-fight, hot and tired, but with the relief of danger overcome, his appetites awakened, a wild desire for pleasure, and the certainty of a few days of safety and rest. If God still protected him as He had done so many times before, he would dine with the appetite of his former days of want, he would drink his fill too, and would then go in search of a girl who was singing in a music-hall, whom he had seen during one of his journeys, without, however, having been able to follow up the acquaintance. In this life of perpetual movement, rushing from one end of the Peninsula to the other, he never had time for anything.
Several enthusiastic friends who, before going to breakfast in their own houses, wished to see the "diestro," had by this time entered the dining-room. They were old amateurs of the bull-ring, anxious to form a small coterie and to have an idol. They had made the young Gallardo "their own matador," giving him sage advice, and recalling at every turn their old adoration for "Lagartijo" or "Frascuelo." They spoke to the "espada" as "tu," with patronising familiarity and he, when he answered them, placed the respectful "don" before their names, with that traditional separation of classes which exists between even a torero risen from a social substratum and his admirers.
These people joined to their enthusiasm their memories of past times, in order to impress the young diestro with the superiority of their years and experience. They spoke of the "old Plaza" of Madrid, where only "true" toreros and "true" bulls were known, and drawing nearer to the present times, they trembled with excitement as they remembered the "Negro." That "Negro" was Frascuelo.
If you could only have seen him!... But probably you and those of your day were still at the breast or were not yet born.
Other enthusiasts kept coming into the dining-room, men of wretched appearance and hungry faces, obscure reporters of papers only known to the bull-fighters, whom they honoured with their praise or censure: people of problematic profession who appeared as soon as the news of Gallardo's arrival got about, besieging him with flatteries and requests for tickets. The general enthusiasm permitted them to mix with the other gentlemen, rich merchants and public functionaries, who discussed bull-fighting affairs with them hotly without being troubled by their beggarly appearance.
All of them, on seeing the espada, embraced him or clasped his hand, to a running accompaniment of questions and exclamations:
"Juanillo!... How is Carmen?"
"Quite well, thank you."
"And your mother? the Señora Angustias?"
"Famous, thanks. She is at La Rincona."
"And your sister and the little nephews?"
"In good health, thanks."
"And that ridiculous fellow, your brother-in-law?"
"Well, also. As great a talker as ever."
"And, a little family? Is there no hope?"
"No—not that much——." And he bit his nails in expressive negation.
He then turned his enquiries on the stranger, of whose life, beyond his love for bull-fighting, he was completely ignorant.
"And your own family? Are they also quite well?—Come along, I am glad to meet you. Sit down and have something."
Next he enquired about the looks of the bulls with which he was going to fight in a few hours' time, because all these friends had just come from the Plaza, after seeing the separation and boxing of the animals, and with professional curiosity he asked for news from the Café Ingles, where many of the amateurs foregathered.
It was the first "Corrida" of the Spring season, and Gallardo's enthusiastic admirers had great hopes of him as they called to mind all the articles they had read in the papers, describing his recent triumphs in other Plazas in Spain. He had more engagements than any other torero. Since the Corrida of the Feast of the Resurrection, the first important event in the taurine year. Gallardo had gone from place to place killing bulls. Later on, when August and September came round, he would have to spend his nights in the train and his afternoons in the ring, with scarcely breathing time between them. His agent in Seville was nearly frantic—overwhelmed with letters and telegrams, and not knowing how to fit so many requests for engagements into the exigencies of time.
The evening before this he had fought at Ciudad Real and, still in his splendid dress, had thrown himself into the train in order to arrive in Madrid in the morning. He had spent a wakeful night, only sleeping by snatches, boxed up in the small sitting accommodation that the other passengers managed, by squeezing themselves together, to leave for the man who was to risk his life on the following day.
The enthusiasts admired his physical endurance and the daring courage with which he threw himself on the bull at the moment of killing it. "Let us see what you can do this afternoon," they said with the fervour of zealots, "the fraternity expects great things from you. You will lower the Mona of many of our rivals. Let us see you as dashing here as you were in Seville!"
His admirers dispersed to their breakfasts at home in order to go early to the Corrida. Gallardo, finding himself alone, was making his way up to his room, impelled by the nervous restlessness which overpowered him, when a man holding two children by the hand, pushed open the glass doors of the dining-room, regardless of the servant's enquiries as to his business. He smiled seraphically when he saw the torero and advanced, with his eyes fixed on him, dragging the children along and scarcely noticing where he placed his feet. Gallardo recognised him, "How are you, Comparé?"
Then began all the usual questions as to the welfare of the family, after which the man turned to his children saying solemnly:
"Here he is. You are always asking to see him. He's exactly like his portraits, isn't he?"
The two mites stared religiously at the hero whose portraits they had so often seen on the prints which adorned the walls of their poor little home, a supernatural being whose exploits and wealth had been their chief admiration ever since they had begun to understand mundane matters.
"Juanillo, kiss your Godfather's hand," and the younger of the two rubbed a red cheek against the torero's hand, a cheek newly polished by his mother in view of this visit.
Gallardo caressed his head abstractedly. This was one of the numerous godchildren he had about Spain. Enthusiasts forced him to stand godfather to their children, thinking in this way to secure their future, and to have to appear at baptisms was one of the penalties of his fame. This, particular godson reminded him of bad times at the beginning of his career, and he felt grateful to the father for the confidence he had placed in him at a time when others were still doubtful of his merits.
"And how about your business, Comparé?" enquired Gallardo, "Is it going on better?"
The aficionado shrugged his shoulders. He was getting a livelihood, thanks to his dealings in the barley market—just getting a livelihood, nothing more.
Gallardo looked compassionately at his threadbare Sunday-best clothes.
"Would you like to see the Corrida, Comparé? Well go up to my room and tell Garabato to give you a ticket.—— Good-bye, my dear fellow. Here's a trifle to buy yourselves some little thing," and while the little godson again kissed his right hand, with his other hand the matador gave each child a couple of duros.
The father dragged away his offspring with many grateful excuses, though he did not succeed in making clear, in his very confused thanks, whether his delight was for the present to the children, or for the ticket for the bull-fight which the diestro's servant would give him.
Gallardo waited for some time so as not to meet his admirer and the children in his room. Then he looked at his watch. Only one o'clock! What a long time it still was till the bull-fight!