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The two naval officers acknowledged the introduction with characteristic brevity. Their eyes were fixed on the arena, and the scene was probably worth their attention, for there are parts of a bull fight which cannot be termed revolting, at least, by those who have actually witnessed them.
A lithe, well-favoured man, picturesquely attired, skipped into the ring, holding a crimson cape in one hand, and a couple of little decorated darts in the other. It was his business to strike them into the neck or shoulder of the bull, but nowhere else, while their points were calculated to do no more than exasperate it. The beast watched him savagely, pawing up the sand, and the chances appeared somewhat against the man, since to reach its neck he must approach his silk-covered breast within an inch or two of the gleaming horns, one of which was suspiciously reddened.
Austin could not quite see how he did it, for his motions were bewilderingly rapid, but he saw the wave of the gaudy cloak and heard its crisp rustle that was lost in the roar. Then the man was running round the ring for his life, and the bull thundering along with lowered head and a dart bristling in its neck, a yard or two behind him. He had no time to swing himself over the barricade, as hard pressed banderilleros now and then did, for the deadly horns were almost in the small of his back. It was a frantic test of speed, highly trained human agility and endurance against the strength of the beast, and there was dead silence while they went round the arena once, the man running desperately, with tense, set face, while Austin fancied he could hear his gasping breath through the roar of the hoofs. Then, with a splendid bound, he drew a yard ahead, and another man with a green cape hurled himself through the opening. Somehow he escaped destruction, and the bull slid onward with hoofs ploughing up the sand, and the gaudy silk fluttering about its head. There was a roar of plaudits that could have been heard miles away at sea, and while from tiers of benches the hats came sailing down, the bull, which shook the cape off, tore the coloured rags to fragments.
"That fellow has good nerves," said one of the navy men. "I don't see anything very brutal in it, after all. They both start level, and take their chances, you know."
Jacinta looked at Austin over her fan, and there was a faint flush in as much of her face as he could see, as well as a little gleam in her eyes.
"I'm afraid it – is – a little barbarous," she said. "Everybody says so. Still, wasn't that banderillero splendid! You see, I have put on Castilian notions with my clothes. Of course, as an Englishwoman, I could never venture here."
Austin was a little annoyed to feel that he was smiling sardonically. "Well," he said, "I should almost have fancied that you were too super-refined and ethereal to admire that kind of thing, but I really believe you do."
Jacinta waved her fan. "Do not be deceived, my friend.There is a good deal of the primitive in us all, and it shows up now and then." Then she laughed. "I wonder how they all get their right hats back again."
Austin could not tell her, for it was a thing he could never understand; but while the attendants were still flinging the black sombreros into the air another banderillero approached the bull. He planted one dart and then dashed across the ring, but either his nerve failed him, or he could not trust his speed, for he grasped the top of the barricade and swung himself over. In another moment the bull struck it with a crash, and then stood still, half stunned, apparently endeavouring to make out where the man had gone. There was a storm of hisses and opprobrious cries.
"That banderillero," said Jacinta, sweetly, "should have been driven out of the ring. He ought never to have undertaken a thing that was too big for him."
"Isn't that a little hard upon the man?" said Austin. "He probably didn't know it was too big until he had undertaken it."
"That's sensible, Miss Brown," said one of the navy men. "When he found he couldn't run as fast as the bull could what was he to do?"
"What did a certain gunboat's men do when they found themselves quite unexpectedly in front of the African headman's battery?"
The navy man flushed a little, for he was young. "Oh," he said, "that was different. They set their lips and went in, though I don't suppose any of them liked it. Still, you see, that was what they were there to do."
"Exactly!" and Jacinta laughed a little, though there was still a gleam in her eyes, and it was Austin she looked at. "They did the obvious, as well as the most artistic thing. It fortunately happens that they're often very much the same."
"I'm not quite sure I understand you," said the young officer. "People who want me to have to talk plain. Still, I suppose one has always a certain sympathy for the fellow who gets himself killed decently."
Then, for a time, they became absorbed in the play of the banderilleros, who, flashing here and there, with cloaks of red, and gold, and green, passed the bull from one to another up and down the trampled arena. Now, one of them escaped annihilation by a hairsbreadth, while the thundering vivas went up to the glaring sky, and a comrade turned the tormented beast again. Now, a silk-clad athlete swept through the two-foot gap between deadly horns and flying man, and the bull swung round with a bellow to pursue him, or stood still, temporarily blinded with the gaudy cloak about its horns. It was a fascinating exhibition of human nerve and skill, and Austin saw that Jacinta watched it with slightly parted lips and a gleam in her eyes, until at last the bugles rang, and most of the men withdrew, leaving the bull alone in the middle of the arena, with the foam flakes dripping from its muzzle and its brawny neck bristling with the little darts. Then there was a general movement and a great hum of voices rose from the close-packed benches. Jacinta waved her fan, and touched Austin's arm as she looked about her.
"Surely that is Macallister. But whatever is he doing there?" she said.
Austin looked up across the long rows of faces, and saw his comrade sitting, spick and span in the blue Spanish mail uniform, among the brilliant officers of the Governor's staff. Macallister was a big man, with a commanding appearance, when he had for the time being done with the engine room, and Austin, who knew that he could make friends with anybody, was not astonished to notice that he seemed very much at home.
"It is rather more than I know," he said. "Still, I should fancy he was telling them something amusing in execrable Castilian, by the way they are laughing. I believe Macallister could get anywhere he wanted. He has, as a matter of fact, dragged me into somewhat astonishing places."
"I shouldn't wonder," said one of the navy men. "George, isn't that big fellow in the uniform yonder the one we saw the other night at the opera?"
"It is," said his comrade, with a little soft laugh, as though he remembered something that had afforded him considerable pleasure.
Jacinta touched Austin with her fan. "I presume you know what he is referring to?"
"Well," said Austin, "what I do know is this. Mack and I went to see the Italian company the other night, and because he, of course, knew everybody about the place, we went behind the scenes. He, unfortunately, became interested in the stage machinery, and when he had made spirited attempts to pull some of it to pieces, I and the improvisatore beguiled him to a chair in the wings. We gave him a cigar to keep him quiet, as well as the libretto, which he could not read, and, as he seemed somewhat sleepy, I was thankful to leave him there. I didn't care about that opera. He never told me what happened after."
The young officer laughed again. "I daresay I can enlighten you. In the middle of the last act one of the wings collapsed, and everybody saw a big Englishman, who had apparently just kicked it over, sitting, half asleep, in a folding chair. He didn't appear to have any legitimate connection with the drama, but he brought the house down when he got up in a hurry and fell over his chair."
Then the shrill call of the bugles rang through the great building, and a tall man, with a scarred face, gorgeously dressed, walked into the arena, holding a three-cornered hat and a long, straight sword. He stood still a moment, an imposing and curiously graceful figure, with bright blade lowered, while a tumultuous shout of "M?stro!" filled the building; and then, taking a cloak from an attendant, approached the bull. It was freely smeared with blood, and as it stood, bellowing, and pawing the sand in murderous rage, it was evident that the M?stro's task was not a particularly pleasant one. There was only one way in which he could kill the bull, and that was to pass his sword over the horns and down into the brawny chest, near the base of the neck. Should he strike elsewhere it was probable that the vast assembly would descend and trample on him, for this was a duel to the death between man and beast, in which the latter was secured what seemed an even chance by punctilious etiquette. The Spaniard displays a good deal of sympathy with a gallant bull.
The beast seemed to understand that this man was different from the banderilleros who had previously tormented it, and backed away from him until he smote it lightly on the nostrils. Then it swept forward in a savage rush but though the man's movements were so quick that one scarcely noticed them, he was not quite where he had been a moment earlier, when the bull thundered past him. Still, one horn had ripped a strip of silk from him. He followed the beast, and struck it with his hand, and for five or six frenzied minutes the vast audience roared. This man never ran. He stepped backwards, or twisted, always with grave gracefulness, in the nick of time, until at last the bull stood still, as though stupefied with rage or uncertain how to attack its elusive persecutor.
Then, as the man walked up to it very quietly and unconcernedly, it seemed to hump itself together for a furious bound and rush with lowered head, and there was no sound in the great building until the bright steel flashed. Man's breast and gleaming horns seemed to meet, but apparently in the same second the gorgeously clad figure had stepped aside, and in the next the bull plunged forward and came down upon its knees.
There was another roar, and once more from all the close-packed benches came the rain of hats, cigars, and bundles of cigarettes.
"Ah," said Jacinta, with a little gasp, "I think I have seen enough. There will be another bull and more picadores now. I never could stand that part of it. Besides, I have done my duty, and patronised the show."
They made their way out while the audience waited for another bull, and certain leather-swathed picadores rode in on decrepit, blindfolded horses, brought there to be killed; and it was an hour later when, as they stood beneath the oleanders in a fonda garden looking down upon the white-walled town, Jacinta mentioned the affair again.
"Of course, it is a little cruel; but, after all, it appeals to rather more than the lower passions and lust of slaughter, don't you think?" she said.
"I never saw anything to equal that M?stro's play in my life," said one of the young officers. "It was cool daring in the superlative degree."
"I fancy," said Austin, "you want us to make excuses for your being there."
Jacinta laughed. "Not exactly! I am rather proud of being a law to myself – and others – you know. Now, I really think that the qualities the M?stro possessed appealed to me, though I naturally mean some and not all of them. I am, after all, as I admitted, a little primitive in some respects."
"You mean that you like a man to be daring?" asked the other officer.
"Of course!" and once more it was Austin Jacinta looked at. "Still, I don't necessarily mean that everybody should go bull-fighting. There are other things more worth while."
"Even than sailing round the Canaries and painting little pictures?" said Austin.
Jacinta glanced at him with a curious smile. "Well," she said, "since you ask me, I almost think there are." Then she stopped a moment, and stood looking out from among the oleanders towards the glittering heave of the Atlantic across the white-walled town. Once more a faint gleam crept into her eyes.
"I wonder," she added, "what Jefferson is doing – out yonder in Africa."