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Calle de las Sierpes

In Seville the Andalusian character thrives in its finest flower; and nowhere can it be more conveniently studied than in the narrow, sinuous, crowded thoroughfare which is the oddest street in Europe. The Calle de las Sierpes is merely a pavement, hardly broader than that of Piccadilly, without a carriage-way. The houses on either side are very irregular; some are tall, four-storeyed, others quite tiny; some are well kept and freshly painted, others dilapidated. It is one of the curiosities of Seville that there is no particularly fashionable quarter; and, as though some moralising ruler had wished to place before his people a continual reminder of the uncertainty of human greatness, by the side of a magnificent palace you will find a hovel.

At no hour of the day does the Calle de las Sierpes lack animation, but to see it at its best you must go towards evening, at seven o'clock, for then there is scarcely room to move. Fine gentlemen stand at the club doors or sit within, looking out of the huge windows; the merchants and the students, smoking cigarettes, saunter, wrapped magnificently in their capos. Cigarette-girls pass with roving eyes; they suffer from no false modesty and smile with pleasure when a compliment reaches their ears. Admirers do not speak in too low a tone and the fair Sevillan is never hard of hearing.

Newspaper boys with shrill cries announce evening editions: 'Porvenir! Noticiero!' Vendors of lottery-tickets wander up and down, audaciously offering the first prize: 'Quien quiere el premio gardo?' Beggars follow you with piteous tales of fasts improbably extended. But most striking is the gente flamenca, the bull-fighter, with his numerous hangers-on. The toreros--toreador is an unknown word, good for comic opera and persons who write novels of Spanish life and cannot be bothered to go to Spain--the toreros sit in their especial cafe, the Cerveceria National, or stand in little groups talking to one another. They are distinguishable by the coleta, which is a little plait of hair used to attach the chignon of full-dress: it is the dearest ambition of the aspirant to the bull-ring to possess this ornament; he grows it as soon as he is full-fledged, and it is solemnly cut off when the weight of years and the responsibility of landed estates induce him to retire from the profession. The bull-fighter dresses peculiarly and the gente flamenca, imitates him so far as its means allow. A famous matador is as well paid as in England a Cabinet Minister or a music-hall artiste. This is his costume: a broad-brimmed hat with a low crown, which is something like a topper absurdly flattened down, with brims preposterously broadened out. The front of his shirt is befrilled and embroidered, and his studs are the largest diamonds; not even financiers in England wear such important stones. He wears a low collar without a necktie, but ties a silk handkerchief round his neck like an English navvy; an Eton jacket, fitting very tightly, brown, black, or grey, with elaborate frogs and much braiding; the trousers, skin-tight above, loosen below, and show off the lower extremities when, like the heroes of feminine romance, the wearer has a fine leg. Indeed, it is a mode of dress which exhibits the figure to great advantage, and many of these young men have admirable forms.

In their strong, picturesque way they are often very handsome. They have a careless grace of gesture, a manner of actors perfectly at ease in an effective part, a brutal healthiness; there is a flamboyance in their bearing, a melodramatic swagger, which is most diverting. And their faces, so contrasted are the colours, so strongly marked the features, are full of interest. Clean shaven, the beard shows violet through the olive skin; they have high cheek bones and thin, almost hollow cheeks, with eyes set far back in the sockets, dark and lustrous under heavy brows. The black hair, admirably attached to the head, is cut short; shaved on the temples and over the ears, brushed forward as in other countries is fashionable with gentlemen of the box: it fits the skull like a second, tighter skin. The lips are red and sensual, the teeth white, regular and well shaped. The bull-fighter is remarkable also for the diamond rings which decorate his fingers and the massive gold, the ponderous seals, of his watch-chain.

Who can wonder then that maidens fair, their hearts turning to thoughts of love, should cast favourable glances upon this hero of a hundred fights? The conquests of tenors and grand-dukes and fiddlers are insignificant beside those of a bull-fighter; and the certainty of feminine smiles is another inducement for youth to exchange the drudgery of menial occupations for the varied excitement of the ring.

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At night the Sierpes is different again. Little by little the people scatter to their various homes, the shops are closed, the clubs put out their lights, and by one the loiterers are few. The contrast is vivid between the noisy throng of day-time and this sudden stillness; the emptiness of the winding street seems almost unnatural. The houses, losing all variety, are intensely black; and above, the sinuous line of sky is brilliant with clustering stars. A drunken roysterer reels from a tavern-door, his footfall echoing noisily along the pavement, but quickly he sways round a corner; and the silence, more impressive for the interruption, returns. The night-watchman, huddled in a cloak of many folds, is sleeping in a doorway, dimly outlined by the yellow gleam of his lantern.

Then I, a lover of late hours, returning, seek the guardia. Sevillan houses are locked at midnight by this individual, who keeps the latch-keys of a whole street, and is supposed to be on the look-out for tardy comers. I clap my hands, such being the Spanish way to attract attention, and shout; but he does not appear. He is a good-natured, round man, bibulous, with grey hair and a benevolent manner. I know his habits and resign myself to inquiring for him in the neighbouring dram-shops. I find him at last and assail him with all the abuse at my command; he is too tipsy to answer or to care, and follows me, jangling his keys. He fumbles with them at the door, blaspheming because they are so much alike, and finally lets me in.

'Buena noche. Descanse v bien.'


William Somerset Maugham