The Capital of the World

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◄  The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway
The Capital of the World
written by Ernest Hemingway
The Snows of Kilimanjaro  ►
Charles Scribner's Sons 1966 [1938] (pages 38-51)




MADRID is full of boys named Paco, which is the diminutive of the name Francisco, and there is a Madrid joke about a father who came to Madrid and inserted an advertisement in the personal columns of El Liberal which said: PACO MEET ME AT HOTEL MONTANA NOON TUESDAY ALL IS FORGIVEN PAPA and how a squadron of Guardia Civil had to be called out to disperse the eight hundred young men who answered the advertisement. But this Paco, who waited on table at the Pension Luarca, had no father to forgive him, nor anything for the father to forgive. He had two older sisters who were chambermaids at the Luarca, who had gotten their place through coming from the same small village as a former Luarca chambermaid who had proven hardworking and honest and hence given her village and its products a good name; and these sisters had paid his way on the auto-bus to Madrid and gotten him his job as an apprentice waiter. He came from a village in a part of Extramadura where conditions were incredibly primitive, food scarce, and comforts unknown and he had worked hard ever since he could remember.

He was a well built boy with very black, rather curly hair, good teeth and a skin that his sisters envied, and he had a ready and unpuzzled smile. He was fast on his feet and did his work well and he loved his sisters, who seemed beautiful and sophisticated; he loved Madrid, which was still an unbelievable place, and he loved his work which, done under bright lights, with clean linen, the wearing of evening clothes, and abundant food in the kitchen, seemed romantically beautiful.

There were from eight to a dozen other people who lived at the Luarca and ate in the dining room but for Paco, the youngest of the three waiters who served at table, the only ones who really existed were the bullfighters.

Second-rate matadors lived at that pension because the address in the Calle San Jeronimo was good, the food was excellent and the room and board was cheap. It is necessary for a bull fighter to give the appearance, if not of prosperity, at least of respectability, since decorum and dignity rank above courage as the virtues most highly prized in Spain, and bullfighters stayed at the Luarca until their last pesetas were gone. There is no record of any bullfighter having left the Luarca for a better or more expensive hotel; second-rate bullfighters never became first rate; but the descent from the Luarca was swift since any one could stay there who was making anything at all and a bill was never presented to a guest unasked until the woman who ran the place knew that the case was hopeless.

At this time there were three full matadors living at the Luarca as well as two very good picadors, and one excellent banderillero. The Luarca was luxury for the picadors and the banderilleros who, with their families in Seville, required lodging in Madrid during the Spring season; but they were well paid and in the fixed employ of fighters who were heavily contracted during the coming season and the three of these subalterns would probably make much more apiece than any of the three matadors. Of the three matadors one was ill and trying to conceal it; one had passed his short vogue as a novelty; and the third was a coward.

The coward had at one time, until he had received a peculiarly atrocious horn wound in the lower abdomen at the start of his first season as a full matador, been exceptionally brave and remarkably skillful and he still had many of the hearty mannerisms of his days of success. He was jovial to excess and laughed constantly with and without provocation. He had, when successful, been very addicted to practical jokes but he had given them up now. They took an assurance that he did not feel. This matador had an intelligent, very open face and he carried himself with much style.

The matador who was ill was careful never to show it and was meticulous about eating a little of all the dishes that were presented at the table. He had a great many handkerchiefs which he laundered himself in his room and, lately, he had been selling his fighting suits. He had sold one, cheaply, before Christmas and another in the first week of April. They had been very expensive suits, had always been well kept and he had one more. Before he had become ill he had been a very promising, even a sensational, fighter and, while he himself could not read, he had clippings which said that in his debut in Madrid he had been better than Belmonte. He ate alone at a small table and looked up very little.

The matador who had once been a novelty was very short and brown and very dignified. He also ate alone at a separate table and he smiled very rarely and never laughed. He came from Valladolid, where the people are extremely serious, and he was a capable matador; but his style had become old-fashioned before he had ever succeeded in endearing himself to the public through his virtues, which were courage and a calm capability, and his name on a poster would draw no one to a bull ring. His novelty had been that he was so short that he could barely see over the bull’s withers, but there were other short fighters, and he had never succeeded in imposing himself on the public’s fancy.

Of the picadors one was a thin, hawk-faced, gray-haired man, lightly built but with legs and arms like iron, who always wore cattlemen’s boots under his trousers, drank too much every evening and gazed amorously at any woman in the pension. The other was huge, dark, brown-faced, good-looking, with black hair like an Indian and enormous hands. Both were great picadors although the first was reputed to have lost much of his ability through drink and dissipation, and the second was said to be too headstrong and quarrelsome to stay with any matador more than a single season.

The banderillero was middle-aged, gray, cat-quick in spite of his years and, sitting at the table he looked a moderately prosperous business man. His legs were still good for this season, and when they should go he was intelligent and experienced enough to keep regularly employed for a long time. The difference would be that when his speed of foot would be gone he would always be frightened where now he was assured and calm in the ring and out of it.

On this evening every one had left the dining room except the hawk-faced picador who drank too much, the birthmarked-faced auctioneer of watches at the fairs and festivals of Spain, who also drank too much, and two priests from Galicia who were sitting at a corner table and drinking if not too much certainly enough. At that time wine was included in the price of the room and board at the Luarca and the waiters had just brought fresh bottles of Valdepeñas to the tables of the auctioneer, then to the picador and, finally, to the two priests.

The three waiters stood at the end of the room. It was the rule of the house that they should all remain on duty until the diners whose tables they were responsible for should all have left, but the one who served the table of the two priests had an appointment to go to an Anarcho-Syndicalist meeting and Paco had agreed to take over his table for him.

Upstairs the matador who was ill was lying face down on his bed alone. The matador who was no longer a novelty was sitting looking out of his window preparatory to walking out to the café. The matador who was a coward had the older sister of Paco in his room with him and was trying to get her to do something which she was laughingly refusing to do. This matador was saying “Come on, little savage.”

“No,” said the sister. “Why should I?”

“For a favor.”

“You’ve eaten and now you want me for dessert.”

“Just once. What harm can it do?”

“Leave me alone. Leave me alone, I tell you.”

“It is a very little thing to do.”

“Leave me alone, I tell you.”

Down in the dining room the tallest of the waiters, who was overdue at the meeting, said “Look at those black pigs drink.”

“That’s no way to speak,” said the second waiter. “They are decent clients. They do not drink too much.”

“For me it is a good way to speak,” said the tall one. “There are the two curses of Spain, the bulls and the priests.”

“Certainly not the individual bull and the individual priest,” said the second waiter.

“Yes,” said the tall waiter. “Only through the individual can you attack the class. It is necessary to kill the individual bull and the individual priest. All of them. Then there are no more.”

“Save it for the meeting,” said the other waiter.

“Look at the barbarity of Madrid,” said the tall waiter. “It is now half-past eleven o’clock and these are still guzzling.”

“They only started to eat at ten,” said the other waiter. “As you know there are many dishes. That wine is cheap and these have paid for it. It is not a strong wine.”

“How can there be solidarity of workers with fools like you?” asked the tall waiter.

“Look,” said the second waiter who was a man of fifty. “I have worked all my life. In all that remains of my life I must work. I have no complaints against work. To work is normal.”

“Yes, but the lack of work kills.”

“I have always worked,” said the older waiter. “Go on to the meeting. There is no necessity to stay.”

“You are a good comrade,” said the tall waiter. “But you lack all ideology.”

Mejor si me falta eso que el otro,” said the older waiter (meaning it is better to lack that than work). “Go on to the mitin.”

Paco had said nothing. He did not yet understand politics but it always gave him a thrill to hear the tall waiter speak of the necessity for killing the priests and the Guardia Civil. The tall waiter represented to him revolution and revolution also was romantic. He himself would like to be a good Catholic, a revolutionary, and have a steady job like this, while, at the same time, being a bullfighter.

“Go on to the meeting, Ignacio,” he said. “I will respond for your work.”

“The two of us,” said the older waiter.

“There isn’t enough for one,” said Paco. “Go on to the meeting.”

Pues, me voy,” said the tall waiter. “And thanks.”

In the meantime, upstairs, the sister of Paco had gotten out of the embrace of the matador as skilfully as a wrestler breaking a hold and said, now angry, “These are the hungry people. A failed bullfighter. With your ton-load of fear. If you have so much of that, use it in the ring.”

“That is the way a whore talks.”

“A whore is also a woman, but I am not a whore.”

“You’ll be one.”

“Not through you.”

“Leave me,” said the matador who, now, repulsed and refused, felt the nakedness of his cowardice returning.

“Leave you? What hasn’t left you?” said the sister. “Don’t you want me to make up the bed? I’m paid to do that.”

“Leave me,” said the matador, his broad good-looking face wrinkled into a contortion that was like crying. “You whore. You dirty little whore.”

“Matador,” she said, shutting the door. “My matador.”

Inside the room the matador sat on the bed. His face still had the contortion which, in the ring, he made into a constant smile which frightened those people in the first rows of seats who knew what they were watching. “And this,” he was saying aloud. “And this. And this.”

He could remember when he had been good and it had only been three years before. He could remember the weight of the heavy gold-brocaded fighting jacket on his shoulders on that hot afternoon in May when his voice had still been the same in the ring as in the cafe, and how he sighted along the point-dipping blade at the place in the top of the shoulders where it was dusty in the short-haired black hump of muscle above the wide, wood-knocking, splintered-tipped horns that lowered as he went in to kill, and how the sword pushed in as easy as into a mound of stiff butter with the palm of his hand pushing the pommel, his left arm crossed low, his left shoulder forward, his weight on his left leg, and then his weight wasn’t on his leg. His weight was on his lower belly and as the bull raised his head the horn was out of sight in him and he swung over on it twice before they pulled him off it. So now when he went into kill, and it was seldom, he could not look at the horns and what did any whore know about what he went through before be fought? And what had they been through that laughed at him? They were all whores and they knew what they could do with it.

Down in the dining room the picador sat looking at the priests. If there were women in the room he stared at them. If there were no women he would stare with enjoyment at a foreigner, un inglés, but lacking women or strangers, he now stared with enjoyment and insolence at the two priests. While he stared the birth-marked auctioneer rose and folding his napkin went out, leaving over half the wine in the last bottle he had ordered. If his accounts had been paid up at the Luarca he would have finished the bottle.

The two priests did not stare back at the picador. One of them was saying, “It is ten days since I have been here waiting to see him and all day I sit in the ante-chamber and he will not receive me.”

“What is there to do?”

“Nothing. What can one do? One cannot go against authority.”

“I have been here for two weeks and nothing. I wait and they will not see me.”

“We are from the abandoned country. When the money runs out we can return.”

“To the abandoned country. What does Madrid care about Galicia? We are a poor province.”

“One understands the action of our brother Basilio.”

“Still I have no real confidence in the integrity of Basilio Alvarez.”

“Madrid is where one learns to understand. Madrid kills Spain.”

“If they would simply see one and refuse.”

“No. You must be broken and worn out by waiting.”

“Well, we shall see. I can wait as well as another.”

At this moment the picador got to his feet, walked over to the priests’table and stood, gray-headed and hawk-faced, staring at them and smiling.

“A torero,” said one priest to the other.

“And a good one,” said the picador and walked out of the dining room, gray-jacketed, trim-waisted, bow-legged, in tight breeches over his high-heeled cattlemen’s boots that clicked on the floor as he swaggered quite steadily, smiling to himself. He lived in a small, tight, professional world of personal efficiency, nightly alcoholic triumph, and insolence. Now he lit a cigar and tilting his hat at an angle in the hallway went out to the café.

The priests left immediately after the picador, hurriedly conscious of being the last people in the dining room, and there was no one in the room now but Paco and the middle-aged waiter. They cleared the tables and carried the bottles into the kitchen.

In the kitchen was the boy who washed the dishes. He was three years older than Paco and was very cynical and bitter.

“Take this,” the middle-aged waiter said, and poured out a glass of the Valdepeñas and handed it to him.

“Why not?” the boy took the glass.

“Tu, Paco?” the older waiter asked.

“Thank you,” said Paco. The three of them drank.

“I will be going,” said the middle-aged waiter.

“Good night,” they told him.

He went out and they were alone. Paco took a napkin one of the priests had used and standing straight, his heels planted, lowered the napkin and with head following the movement, swung his arms in the motion of a slow sweeping verónica. He turned, and advancing his right foot slightly, made the second pass, gained a little terrain on the imaginary bull and made a third pass, slow, perfectly timed and suave, then gathered the napkin to his waist and swung his hips away from the bull in a media-verónica.

The dishwasher, whose name was Enrique, watched him critically and sneeringly.

“How is the bull?” he said.

“Very brave,” said Paco. “Look.”

Standing slim and straight he made four more perfect passes, smooth, elegant and graceful.

“And the bull?” asked Enrique standing against the sink, holding his wine glass and wearing his apron.

“Still has lots of gas,” said Paco.

“You make me sick,” said Enrique.

“Why?”

“Look.”

Enrique removed his apron and citing the imaginary bull he sculptured four perfect, languid gypsy verónicas and ended up with a rebolera that made the apron swing in a stiff arc past the bull’s nose as he walked away from him.

“Look at that,” he said. “And I wash dishes.”

“Why?”

“Fear,” said Enrique. “Miedo. The same fear you would have in a ring with a bull.”

“No,” said Paco. “I wouldn’t be afraid.”

Leche!” said Enrique. “Every one is afraid. But a torero can control his fear so that he can work the bull. I went in an amateur fight and I was so afraid I couldn’t keep from running. Every one thought it was very funny. So would you be afraid. If it wasn’t for fear every bootblack in Spain would be a bullfighter. You, a country boy, would be frightened worse than I was.”

“No,” said Paco.

He had done it too many times in his imagination. Too many times he had seen the horns, seen the bull’s wet muzzle, the ear twitching, then the head go down and the charge, the hoofs thudding and the hot bull pass him as he swung the cape, to re-charge as he swung the cape again, then again, and again, and again, to end winding the bull around him in his great media-verónica, and walk swingingly away, with bull hairs caught in the gold ornaments of his jacket from the close passes; the bull standing hypnotized and the crowd applauding. No, he would not be afraid. Others, yes. Not he. He knew he would not be afraid. Even if he ever was afraid he knew that he could do it anyway. He had confidence. “I wouldn’t be afraid,” he said.

Enrique said, “Leche,” again.

Then he said, “If we should try it?”

“How?”

“Look,” said Enrique. “You think of the bull but you do not think of the horns. The bull has such force that the horns rip like a knife, they stab like a bayonet, and they kill like a club. Look,” he opened a table drawer and took out two meat knives. “I will bind these to the legs of a chair. Then I will play bull for you with the chair held before my head. The knives are the horns. If you make those passes then they mean something.”

“Lend me your apron,” said Paco. “We’ll do it in the dining room.”

“No,” said Enrique, suddenly not bitter. “Don’t do it, Paco.”

“Yes,” said Paco. “I’m not afraid.”

“You will be when you see the knives come.”

“We’ll see,” said Paco. “Give me the apron.”

At this time, while Enrique was binding the two heavy-bladed razor-sharp meat knives fast to the legs of the chair with two soiled napkins holding the half of each knife, wrapping them tight and then knotting them, the two chambermaids, Paco’s sisters, were on their way to the cinema to see Greta Garbo in Anna Christie. Of the two priests, one was sitting in his underwear reading his breviary and the other was wearing a nightshirt and saying the rosary. All the bullfighters except the one who was ill had made their evening appearance at the Café Fornos, where the big, dark-haired picador was playing billiards, the short, serious matador was sitting at a crowded table before a coffee and milk, along with the middle-aged banderillero and other serious workmen.

The drinking, gray-headed picador was sitting with a glass of cazalas brandy before him staring with pleasure at a table where the matador whose courage was gone sat with another matador who had renounced the sword to become a banderillero again, and two very houseworn-looking prostitutes.

The auctioneer stood on the street corner talking with friends. The tall waiter was at the Anarcho-syndicalist meeting waiting for an opportunity to speak. The middle-aged waiter was seated on the terrace of the Café Alvarez drinking a small beer. The woman who owned the Luarca was already asleep in her bed, where she lay on her back with the bolster between her legs; big, fat, honest, clean, easy-going, very religious and never having ceased to miss or pray daily for her husband, dead, now, twenty years. In his room, alone, the matador who was ill lay face down on his bed with his mouth against a handkerchief.

Now, in the deserted dining room, Enrique tied the last knot in the napkins that bound the knives to the chair legs and lifted the chair. He pointed the legs with the knives on them forward and held the chair over his head with the two knives pointing straight ahead, one on each side of his head.

“It’s heavy,” he said. “Look, Paco. It is very dangerous. Don’t do it.” He was sweating.

Paco stood facing him, holding the apron spread, holding a fold of it bunched in each hand, thumbs up, first finger down, spread to catch the eye of the bull.

“Charge straight,” he said. “Turn like a bull. Charge as many times as you want.”

“How will you know when to cut the pass?” asked Enrique. “It’s better to do three and then a media.”

“All right,” said Paco. “But come straight. Huh, torito! Come on, little bull!”

Running with head down Enrique came toward him and Paco swung the apron just ahead of the knife blade as it passed close in front of his belly and as it went by it was, to him, the real horn, white-tipped, black, smooth, and as Enrique passed him and turned to rush again it was the hot, blood-flanked mass of the bull that thudded by, then turned like a cat and came again as he swung the cape slowly. Then the bull turned and came again and, as he watched the onrushing point, he stepped his left foot two inches too far forward and the knife did not pass, but had slipped in as easily as into a wineskin and there was a hot scalding rush above and around the sudden inner rigidity of steel and Enrique shouting. “Ay! Ay! Let me get it out! Let me get it out!” and Paco slipped forward on the chair, the apron cape still held, Enrique pulling on the chair as the knife turned in him, in him, Paco.

The knife was out now and he sat on the floor in the widening warm pool.

“Put the napkin over it. Hold it!” said Enrique. “Hold it tight. I will run for the doctor. You must hold in the hemorrhage.”

“There should be a rubber cup,” said Paco. He had seen that used in the ring.

“I came straight,” said Enrique, crying. “All I wanted was to show the danger.”

“Don’t worry,” said Paco, his voice sounding far away. “But bring the doctor.”

In the ring they lifted you and carried you, running with you, to the operating room. If the femoral artery emptied itself before you reached there they called the priest.

“Advise one of the priests,” said Paco, holding the napkin tight against his lower abdomen. He could not believe that this had happened to him.

But Enrique was running down the Calle San Jerónimo to the all-night first-aid station and Paco was alone, first sitting up, then huddled over, then slumped on the floor, until it was over, feeling his life go out of him as dirty water empties from a bathtub when the plug is drawn. He was frightened and he felt faint and he tried to say an act of contrition and he remembered how it started but before he had said, as fast as he could, “Oh, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee who art worthy of all my love and I firmly resolve …,” he felt too faint and he was lying face down on the floor and it was over very quickly. A severed femoral artery empties itself faster than you can believe.

As the doctor from the first-aid station came up the stairs accompanied by a policeman who held on to Enrique by the arm, the two sisters of Paco were still in the moving-picture palace of the Gran Via, where they were intensely disappointed in the Garbo film, which showed the great star in miserable low surroundings when they had been accustomed to see her surrounded by great luxury and brilliance. The audience disliked the film thoroughly and were protesting by whistling and stamping their feet. All the other people from the hotel were doing almost what they had been doing when the accident happened, except that the two priests had finished their devotions and were preparing for sleep, and the gray-haired picador had moved his drink over to the table with the two houseworn prostitutes. A little later he went out of the café with one of them. It was the one for whom the matador who had lost his nerve had been buying drinks.

The boy Paco had never known about any of this nor about what all these people would be doing on the next day and on other days to come. He had no idea how they really lived nor how they ended. He did not even realize they ended. He died, as the Spanish phrase has it, full of illusions. He had not had time in his life to lose any of them, nor even, at the end, to complete an act of contrition. He had not even had time to be disappointed in the Garbo picture which disappointed all Madrid for a week.

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