The Last Lion by Vicente Blasco Ibanez
TRANSLATED FROM THE ORIGINAL SPANISH BY ISAAC GOLDBERG
SCARCELY had the meeting of the honorable guild of blanquers
come to order within its chapel near the towers of Serranos, when Señor
Vicente asked for the floor. He was the oldest tanner in Valencia. Many
masters recalled their apprentice days and declared that he was the
same now as then, with his white, brush-like mustache, his face that
looked like a sun of wrinkles, his aggressive eyes and cadaverous
thinness, as if all the sap of his life had been consumed in the daily
motions of his feet and hands about the vats of the tannery.
He was the only representative of the guild's glories, the sole
survivor of those blanquers who were an honor to Valencian
history. The grandchildren of his former companions had become
corrupted with the march of time; they were proprietors of large
establishments, with thousands of workmen, but they would be lost if
they ever had to tan a skin with their soft, business-man's hands. Only
he could call himself a blanquer of the old school, working
every day in his little hut near the guild house; master and toiler at
the same time, with no other assistants than his sons and
grandchildren; his workshop was of the old kind, amid sweet domestic
surroundings, with neither threats of strikes nor quarrels over the
The centuries had raised the level of the street, converting Señor
Vicente's shop into a gloomy cave. The door through which his ancestors
had entered had grown smaller and smaller from the bottom until it had
become little more than a window. Five stairs connected the street with
the damp floor of the tannery, and above, near a pointed arch, a relic
of medieval Valencia, floated like banners the skins that had been hung
up to dry, wafting about the unbearable odor of the leather. The old
man by no means envied the moderns, in their luxuriously
appointed business offices. Surely they blushed with shame on passing
through his lane and seeing him, at breakfast hour, taking the
sun,his sleeves and trousers rolled up, showing his thin arms and
legs, stained red,with the pride of a robust old age that permitted
him to battle daily with the hides.
Valencia was preparing to celebrate the centenary of one of its
famous saints, and the guild of blanquers, like the other
historic guilds, wished to make its contribution to the festivities.
Señor Vicente, with the prestige of his years, imposed his will upon
all the masters. The blanquers should remain what they were. All
the glories of their past, long sequestrated in the chapel, must figure
in the procession. And it was high time they were displayed in public!
His gaze, wandering about the chapel, seemed to caress the guild's
relics; the sixteenth century drums, as large as jars, that preserved
within their drumheads the hoarse cries of revolutionary Germania; the
great lantern of carved wood, torn from the prow of a galley; the red
silk banner of the guild, edged with gold that had become greenish
through the ages.
All this must be displayed during the celebration, shaking off the
dust of oblivion; even the famous lion of the blanquers!
The moderns burst into impious laughter. The lion, too?...
Yes, the lion, too. To Señor Vicente it seemed a dishonor on the part
of the guild to forget that glorious beast. The ancient ballads, the
accounts of celebrations that might be read in the city archives, the
old folks who had lived in the splendid epoch of the guilds with their
fraternal camaraderie,all spoke of the blanquers' lion; but
now nobody knew the animal, and this was a shame for the trade, a loss
to the city.
Their lion was as great a glory as the silk mart or the well of San
Vicente. He knew very well the reason for this opposition on the part
of the moderns. They feared to assume the rôle of the lion.
Never fear, my young fellows! He, with his burden of years, that
numbered more than seventy, would claim this honor. It belonged to him
in all justice; his father, his grandfather, his countless ancestors,
had all been lions, and he felt equal to coming to blows with anybody
who would dare dispute his right to the rôle of the lion, traditional
in his family.
With what enthusiasm Señor Vicente related the history of the lion
and the heroic blanquers! One day the Barbary pirates from Bujia
had landed at Torreblanca, just beyond Castellón, and sacked the
church, carrying off the Shrine. This happened a little before the time
of Saint Vicente Ferrer, for the old tanner had no other way of
explaining history than by dividing it into two periods; before and
after the Saint... The population, which was scarcely moved by the
raids of the pirates, hearing of the abduction of pale maidens with
large black eyes and plump figures, destined for the harem, as if this
were an inevitable misfortune, broke into cries of grief upon learning
of the sacrilege at Torreblanca.
The churches of the town were draped in black; people went through
the streets wailing loudly, striking themselves as a punishment. What
could those dogs do with the blessed Host? What would become of the
poor, defenseless Shrine?... Then it was that the valiant blanquers
came upon the scene. Was not the Shrine at Bujia? Then on to Bujia in
quest of it! They reasoned like heroes accustomed to beating hides all
day long, and they saw nothing formidable about beating the enemies of
God. At their own expense they fitted out a galley and the whole guild
went aboard, carrying along their beautiful banner; the other guilds,
and indeed the entire town, followed this example and chartered other
The Justice himself cast aside his scarlet gown and covered himself
with mail from head to foot; the worthy councilmen abandoned the
benches of the Golden Chamber, shielding their paunches with scales
that shone like those of the fishes in the gulf; the hundred archers of
la Pluma, who guarded la Señera filled their quivers with
arrows, and the Jews from the quarter of la Xedrea did a rushing
business, selling all their old iron, including lances, notched swords
and rusty corselets, in exchange for good, ringing pieces of silver.
And off sped the Valencian galleys, with their jib-sails spread to
the wind, convoyed by a shoal of dolphins, which sported about in the
foam of their prows!... When the Moors beheld them approaching, the
infidels began to tremble, repenting of their irreverence toward the
Shrine. And this, despite the fact that they were a set of hardened old
dogs. Valencians, headed by the valiant blanquers! Who, indeed,
would dare face them!
The battle raged for several days and nights, according to the tale
of Señor Vicente. Reinforcements of Moors arrived, but the Valencians,
loyal and fierce, fought to the death. And they were already beginning
to feel exhausted from the labor of disembowelling so many infidels,
when behold, from a neighboring mountain a lion comes walking down on
his hind paws, for all the world like a regular person, carrying in his
forepaws, most reverently, the Shrine,the Shrine that had been stolen
from Torreblanca! The beast delivered it ceremoniously into the hands
of one of the guild, undoubtedly an ancestor of Señor Vicente, and
hence for centuries his family had possessed the privilege of
representing that amiable animal in the Valencian processions.
Then he shook his mane, emitted a roar, and with blows and bites in
every direction cleared the field instantly of Moors.
The Valencians sailed for home, carrying the Shrine back like a
trophy. The chief of the blanquers saluted the lion, courteously
offering him the guild house, near the towers of Serranos, which he
could consider as his own. Many thanks; the beast was accustomed to the
sun of Africa and feared a change of climate.
But the trade was not ungrateful, and to perpetuate the happy
recollection of the shaggy-maned friend whom they possessed on the
other shore of the sea, every time the guild banner floated in the
Valencian celebrations, there marched behind it an ancestor of Señor
Vicente, to the sound of drums, and he was covered with hide, with a
mask that was the living image of the worthy lion, bearing in his hands
a Shrine of wood, so small and poor that it caused one to doubt the
genuine value of Torreblanca's own Shrine.
Perverse and irreverent persons even dared to affirm, to the great
indignation of Señor Vicente, that the whole story was a lie. Sheer
envy! Ill will of the other trades, which couldn't point to such a
glorious history! There was the guild chapel as proof, and in it the
lantern from the prow of the vessel, which the conscienceless wretches
declared dated from many centuries after the supposed battle; and there
were the guild drums, and the glorious banner; and the moth-eaten hide
of the lion, in which all his predecessors had encased themselves, lay
now forgotten behind the altar, covered with cobwebs and dust, but it
was none the less as authentic and worthy of reverence as the stones of
[Note 1: A belfry in Valencia.]
And above all there was his faith, ardent and incontrovertible,
capable of receiving as an affront to the family the slightest
irreverence toward the African lion, the illustrious friend of the
The procession took place on an afternoon in June. The sons, the
daughters-in-law and the grandsons of Señor Vicente helped him to get
into the costume of the lion, perspiring most uncomfortably at the mere
touch of that red-stained wool. Father, you're going to
roast.Grandpa, you'll melt inside of this costume.
The old man, however, deaf to the warnings of the family, shook his
moth-eaten mane with pride, thinking of his ancestors; then he tried on
the terrifying mask, a cardboard arrangement that imitated, with a
faint resemblance, the countenance of the wild beast.
What a triumphant afternoon! The streets crowded with spectators;
the balconies decorated with bunting, and upon them rows of variegated
bonnets shading fair faces from the sun; the ground covered with
myrtle, forming a green, odorous carpet whose perfume seemed to expand
The procession was headed by the standard-bearers, with beards of
hemp, crowns and striped dalmatics, holding aloft the Valencian banners
adorned with enormous bats and large L's beside the coat of arms; then,
to the sound of the flageolet, the retinue of brave Indians, shepherds
from Belen, Catalans and Mallorcans; following these passed the dwarfs
with their monstrously huge heads, clicking the castanets to the rhythm
of a Moorish march; behind these came the giants of the Corpus and at
the end, the banners of the guilds; an endless row of red standards,
faded with the years, and so tall that their tops reached higher than
the first stories of the buildings.
Flom! Rotoplom! rolled the drums of the blanquers,instruments of barbarous sonority, so large that their weight forced
the drummers to bow their necks. Flom! Rotoplom! they resounded, hoarse
and menacing, with savage solemnity, as if they were still marking the
tread of the revolutionary German regiments, sallying forth to the
encounter with the emperor's young leader,that Don Juan of Aragón,
duke of Segorbe, who served Victor Hugo as the model for his romantic
personage Hernani! Flom! Rotoplom! The people ran for good
places and jostled one another to obtain a better view of the guild
members, bursting into laughter and shouts. What was that? A monkey?...
A wild man?... Ah! The faith of the past was truly laughable.
The young members of the trade, their shirts open at the neck and
their sleeves rolled up, took turns at carrying the heavy banner,
performing feats of jugglery, balancing it on the palms of their hands
or upon their teeth, to the rhythm of the drums.
The wealthy masters had the honor of holding the cords of the
banner, and behind them marched the lion, the glorious lion of the
guild, who was now no longer known. Nor did the lion march in careless
fashion; he was dignified, as the old traditions bade him be, and as
Señor Vicente had seen his father march, and as the latter had seen his
grandfather; he kept time with the drums, bowing at every step, to
right and to left, moving the Shrine fan-wise, like a polite and
well-bred beast who knows the respect due to the public.
The farmers who had come to the celebration opened their eyes in
amazement; the mothers pointed him out with their fingers so that the
children might see him; but the youngsters, frowning, tightened their
grasp upon their mothers' necks, hiding their faces to shed tears of
When the banner halted, the glorious lion had to defend himself with
his hind paws against the disrespectful swarm of gamins that surrounded
him, trying to tear some locks out of his moth-eaten mane. At other
times the beast looked up at the balconies to salute the pretty girls
with the Shrine; they laughed at the grotesque figure. And Señor
Vicente did wisely; however much of a lion one may be, one must be
gallant toward the fair sex.
The spectators fanned themselves, trying to find a momentary
coolness in the burning atmosphere; the horchateros bustled
among the crowds shouting their wares, called from all directions at
once and not knowing whither to go first; the standard-bearers and the
drummers wiped the sweat off their faces at every restaurant door, and
at last went inside to seek refreshment.
[Note 2: Vendors of horchata, iced orgeat.]
But the lion stuck to his post. His mask became soft; he walked with
a certain weariness, letting the Shrine rest upon his stomach, having
by this time lost all desire to bow to the public.
Fellow tanners approached him with jesting questions.
How are things going, so Visent?
And so Visent roared indignantly from the interior of his
cardboard disguise. How should things go? Very well. He was able to
keep it up, without failing in his part, even if the parade continued
for three days. As for getting tired, leave that to the young folks.
And drawing himself proudly erect, he resumed his bows, marking time
with his swaying Shrine of wood.
The procession lasted three hours. When the guild banner returned to
the Cathedral night was beginning to fall.
Plom! Retoplom! The glorious banner of the blanquers returned
to its guild house behind the drums. The myrtle on the streets had
disappeared beneath the feet of the paraders. Now the ground was
covered with drops of wax, rose leaves and strips of tinsel. The
liturgic perfume of incense floated through the air. Plom! Retoplom!
The drums were tired; the strapping youths who had carried the
standards were now panting, having lost all desire to perform balancing
tricks; the rich masters clutched the cords of the banner tightly, as
if the latter were towing them along, and they complained of their new
shoes and their bunions; but the lion, the weary lion (ah, swaggering
beast!), who at times seemed on the point of falling to the ground,
still had strength left to rise on his hind paws and frighten the
suburban couples, who pulled at a string of children that had been
dazzled by the sights.
A lie! Pure conceit! Señor Vicente knew what it felt like to be
inside of the lion's hide. But nobody is obliged to take the part of
the lion, and he who assumes it must stick it out to the bitter end.
Once home, he sank upon the sofa like a bundle of wool; his sons,
daughters-in-law and grandchildren hastened to remove the mask from his
face. They could scarcely recognize him, so congested and scarlet were
his features, which seemed to spurt water from every line of his
They tried to remove his skins; but the beast was oppressed by a
different desire, begging in a suffocated voice. He wished a drink; he
was choking with the heat. The family, warning against illness,
protested in vain. The deuce! He desired a drink right away. And who
would dare resist an infuriated lion?...
From the nearest café they brought him some ice-cream in a blue cup;
a Valencian ice cream, honey-sweet and grateful to the nostrils,
glistening with drops of white juice at the conical top.
But what are ice creams to a lion! Haaam! He swallowed it at
a single gulp, as if it were a mere trifle! His thirst and the heat
assailed him anew, and he roared for other refreshment.
The family, for reasons of economy, thought of the horchata
from a near-by restaurant. They would see; let a full jar of it be
brought. And Señor Vicente drank and drank until it was unnecessary to
remove the skins from him. Why? Because an attack of double pneumonia
finished him inside of a few hours. The glorious, shaggy-haired
uniform of the family served him as a shroud.
Thus died the lion of the blanquers,the last lion of
And the fact is that horchata is fatal for beasts.... Pure