INFLUENCE OF TRADITION IN SPANISH LIFE
Intelligent Spaniards with whom I have conversed on political matters have often exclaimed, "Ah, you Americans are happy! you have no traditions." The phrase was at first a puzzling one. We Americans are apt to think we have traditions, - a rather clearly marked line of precedents. And it is hard to see how a people should be happier without them. It is not anywhere considered a misfortune to have had a grandfather, I believe, and some very good folks take an innocent pride in that very natural fact. It was not easy to conceive why the possession of a glorious history of many centuries should be regarded as a drawback. But a closer observation of Spanish life and thought reveals the curious and hurtful effect of tradition upon every phase of existence.
In the commonest events of every day you will find the flavor of past ages lingering in petty annoyances. The insecurity of the middle ages has left as a legacy to our times a complicated system of obstacles to a man getting into his own house at night. I lived in a pleasant house on the Prado, with a minute garden in front, and an iron gate and railing. This gate was shut and locked by the night watchman of the quarter at midnight, - so conscientiously that he usually had everything snug by half past eleven. As the same man had charge of a dozen or more houses, it was scarcely reasonable to expect him to be always at your own gate when you arrived. But by a singular fatality I think no man ever found him in sight at any hour. He is always opening some other gate or shutting some other door, or settling the affairs of the nation with a friend in the next block, or carrying on a chronic courtship at the lattice of some olive-cheeked soubrette around the corner. Be that as it may, no one ever found him on hand; and there is nothing to do but to sit down on the curbstone and lift up your voice and shriek for him until he comes. At two o'clock of a morning in January the exercise is not improving to the larynx or the temper. There is a tradition in the very name of this worthy. He is called the Sereno, because a century or so ago he used to call the hour and the state of the weather, and as the sky is almost always cloudless here, he got the name of the Sereno, as the quail is called Bob White, from much iteration. The Sereno opens your gate and the door of your house. When you come to your own floor you must ring, and your servant takes a careful survey of you through a latticed peep-hole before he will let you in. You may positively forbid this every day in the year, but the force of habit is too strong in the Spanish mind to suffer amendment.
This absurd custom comes evidently down from a time of great lawlessness and license, when no houses were secure without these precautions, when people rarely stirred from their doors after nightfall, and when a door was never opened to a stranger. Now, when no such dangers exist, the annoying and senseless habit still remains, because no one dreams of changing anything which their fathers thought proper. Three hundred thousand people in Madrid submit year after year to this nightly cross, and I have never heard a voice raised in protest, nor even in defence of the custom.
There is often a bitterness of opposition to evident improvement which is hard to explain. In the last century, when the eminent naturalist Bowles went down to the Almaden silver-mines, by appointment of the government, to see what was the cause of their exhaustion, he found that they had been worked entirely in perpendicular shafts instead of following the direction of the veins. He perfected a plan for working them in this simple and reasonable way, and no earthly power could make the Spanish miners obey his orders. There was no precedent for this new process, and they would not touch it. They preferred starvation rather than offend the memory of their fathers by a change. At last they had to be dismissed and a full force imported from Germany, under whose hands the mines became instantly enormously productive.
I once asked a very intelligent English contractor why he used no wheelbarrows in his work. He had some hundreds of stalwart navvies employed carrying dirt in small wicker baskets to an embankment. He said the men would not use them. Some said it broke their backs. Others discovered a capital way of amusing themselves by putting the barrow on their heads and whirling the wheel as rapidly as possible with their hands. This was a game which never grew stale. The contractor gave up in despair, and went back to the baskets. But it is in the official regions that tradition is most powerful. In the budget of 1870 there was a curious chapter called "Charges of Justice." This consisted of a collection of articles appropriating large sums of money for the payment of feudal taxes to the great aristocracy of the kingdom as a compensation for long extinct seigniories. The Duke of Rivas got thirteen hundred dollars for carrying the mail to Victoria. The Duke of San Carlos draws ten thousand dollars for carrying the royal correspondence to the Indies. Of course this service ceased to belong to these families some centuries ago, but the salary is still paid. The Duke of Almodovar is well paid for supplying the baton of office to the Alguazil of Cordova. The Duke of Osuna - one of the greatest grandees of the kingdom, a gentleman who has the right to wear seventeen hats in the presence of the Queen - receives fifty thousand dollars a year for imaginary feudal services. The Count of Altamira, who, as his name indicates, is a gentleman of high views, receives as a salve for the suppression of his fief thirty thousand dollars a year. In consideration of this sum he surrenders, while it is punctually paid, the privilege of hanging his neighbors.