Spain: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

Characteristic Scenes

Spain still maintains the old-world institution of night-watchmen. City streets are now brilliantly illuminated by electric lights; many of the smallest towns are lit up by the same bright process, yet almost every municipality has its serenos, whose business it is to parade and serenade the sleeping district allotted to their care. They generally manage to wake up fully half the neighbourhood in the zealous discharge of their duties, for they shout the hours at the top of their voices; to do them justice, however, there is quite a melodious refrain to their cry: "Twelve o'clock, and all serene!"

The serenos  are generally old men, and, truth to tell, they seem naught but an ornamental relic of the dark past in the midst of up-to-date municipal methods for looking after the comfort, convenience, and safety of the populace. They make very picturesque figures as, clad in cloaks with pointed hoods and slouch hats, and carrying javelins and lighted lanterns, they wander about the deserted streets. Occasionally they serve a more practical purpose than that of keeping up an old custom and adding to the romantic charms of Spain: they carry keys to all the street-doors on their round, and if a householder happens to lose his way when returning late from a particularly merry party, a sereno  will guide him home and let him in his own door. And in the out-of-the-way villages, whose rough tracks are not yet sentinelled by standard lamps, the sereno  still fills the all-important part of night-guard.

Picturesque figures, too, are the Civil Guards, but their position in the Spanish Government service is very different from that of the serenos. They are a modern institution in the interests of public safety, and so efficiently and effectively have they carried out their arduous duties in the past, so zealously do they pursue their good offices in the present, that Spain now enjoys the reputation of being a very secure travel-land for both natives and visitors.

The Civil Guards were first organized about the middle of last century, for the purpose of stamping out brigandage. From the outset they seem to have worked together for the honour of their corps, and there is little doubt that they owe their present most honourable position as much to that guiding force as to the courage and excellent deportment for which they are equally renowned. They made themselves so useful in the discharge of their original duties, and won such a splendid reputation for reliability, that they were not disbanded after they had freed the country from the tyranny of brigands.

The present body of picked men numbers about 20,000 foot and 5,000 horse guards, who fill the dual role of policemen and soldiers. They are recruited from experienced army men of high character, and from a cadet college, where the children of Civil Guards who have died for the cause of duty receive a free training for the constabulary. The necessary qualifications for service are an unblemished record for good conduct, fine physique, physical fitness according to the standard of a searching medical examination, and ability to read and write well. Broadly defined, the present duties of the force include the protection of persons and property under every condition of danger, and the men are trained to be just as capable of dealing with the emergencies of flood, fire, or earthquake, as of bringing to justice anyone who defies the law.

The well-groomed Civil Guards look very smart in their uniform. They wear a dark blue tunic, trousers of the same colour, with red stripes down the legs, light buff coloured belts, and a glazed shako; the cavalry carry heavy Dragoon swords of the world-famous Toledo make, revolvers, and short carbines, and the foot guards are armed with English rifles and bayonets.

The Civil Guards always do duty in pairs. A couple are stationed at every town and village in Spain, and constitute quite a common street sight; but it is in the course of railway travelling that the foreigner becomes most familiar with the "twin guards," for a couple of these men meet every train at every station.

The goatherd milkman and his flock make a quaint street picture. The herdsman goes his round walking at the head of his procession of goats. A customer opens a window and calls to him to stop, at the same time lowering a pail attached to a rope. He takes out the coin that comes down in the pail, milks one of the goats till the bucket contains the money's worth, gives the signal to "haul up," and goes on to serve the next customer in the same way.

The method of washing clothes in Spain is by no means peculiar to the country, but in that it is so very different from the English way, it affords a novel spectacle. Washing-day starts with a journey to a favourite stream, generally the one nearest the house. When all the soiled linen has been carried to the scene of action, the actual business of washing begins. The washerwoman kneels down on the bank and uses the stream as wash-tub, the stones as scrubbing-board. When the clothes are clean, they are spread out on the grass to dry, or hung on the bushes and trees. Quite a large party is wont to congregate at one and the same stream, and the banks on either side are often lined for a considerable distance with prostrate figures in various attitudes. Some of the women are kneeling, their backs comparatively straight, their heads bent, as they carefully examine a garment to see whether it is quite clean; some leaning so far over the water's edge to rinse their linen in a clean pool among the stones that they look in imminent peril of losing their balance and getting a rinse themselves; some wringing, others rubbing, all busily chattering, as they pursue the various details that go to make up the family washing-day.

The bullock-cart makes a very pretty picture of country life. The cart itself is a somewhat small vehicle of rough workmanship, but the oxen yoked to it are, as a rule, fine beasts. They walk with slow, stately steps, and the peasant in charge has little to do on the journey beyond leisurely pacing the way a few feet ahead of them.

A most fascinating country scene in the North is a maize-bedecked farmhouse. The Northern regions are very sandy, and many a wide stretch of land glows like purest gold in the brilliant sunlight. Amidst such surroundings you frequently see a house covered with the staple product of the neighbouring fields, harvested for the drying stage: the ears of maize hang in thick orange-hued clusters around all the windows, over the door, and under the projecting roof, and combine with the landscape setting to form a wondrously beautiful study in gold.