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and Barcelona, whose names are household words, and who, ere they are five-and-twenty, may hope to be welcomed with tumultuous cheers in Mexico and Buenos Ayres, and to possess, say, a couple of hundred thousand pesetas as savings, more or less lawful, on their exhibition games. The Spanish youth has a passion for the ball. This explains the many notices on convent and church walls, of a seducingly blank kind, warning him that if he plays 'pelota' against the consecrated bricks he will be fined as much as two pesetas. But he often defies holy church and the police, nevertheless.
Madrid has three or four frontones,' and the company that runs them does so well that it is likely to build others. Daily in the summer, at half-past four in the afternoon, you may go to this or that hall, and see at least one stern game of fifty up. The bill before me while I write intimates that on May 29, 1896, there will, in the Fronton Jai-Alai, take place a great game between the famous players Pedro Legarrigartu (Mondragon) and Vicente Aguirre (reds) against José Sarasua and Luis Araquistain (blues). Pray mark the names here. They remind us of an interesting fact—namely, that the Basques are quite at the top of the tree as professional' pelotaris.'
This is just as it ought to be. Apart from the exceptional encouragement in athletic exercises they receive from the climate in their highland nooks, the modern game of 'pelota' with the cestus was born in their midst-across the frontier, to be precise, in Ascain. From France it speedily ran into Spain, the Basques even nowadays caring as little for territorial boundaries as for kings and queens. Its inventor, one Lacarra, made a fortune, and has helped others to fortunes, and yet others to beggary. Long before the game got applied for exhibition purposes, and the stout Basque peasants to their astonishment saw extraordinary careers of emolument open for their accomplished little ballplayers of sons, it was accepted in the Pyrenees as merely a local happy method of defeating ennui. I am sorry to add that quite early the mountaineers discovered that it was a game excellently adapted for speculative purposes. Madrid and Buenos Ayres, in staking and financing their thousands of dollars in an afternoon on the duel between four players, do but follow the lead in this matter of these thick-set rustics with the incomprehensible patois. The Basque clergy, we are told, were as keen on betting at 'pelota' as any of their flock; many of them being themselves skilful players. They never missed a game, although this
necessitated long and wearisome journeys, in which they were generally accompanied by the greater part of their parishioners; for in those days a "pelota" match, like a provincial bull-fight now, was an event that excited an entire district.' While approving this ardour of the Church for sport's sake, one can only hope the different parish priests laid down hard-and-fast laws about a maximum of pesetas to be risked. Else, it is difficult not to suppose that the homeward journeys of the enthusiasts after a game were often more sensational than pacific and pleasant.
One thing it is excusable to conjecture about. The sad feature of 'pelota,' as now played in Spain, is the admitted crookedness of certain of the players; not a large percentage, indeed, but quite large enough to abate one's interest in the exhibition games. When did this vice creep into 'pelota'-before or only after its transplantation from the breezy uplands, with their chestnut woods and sliding meadows, into the midst of crowded cities, where cheating and chicane run rampant? The power of the parish priest in such sequestered spots as the Basque villages is immense, and he, like the rest of us, has his weak and lamentable moments. However, this is merely irrelevant trifling, and deserves consideration only as such.
And now let us see how 'pelota' is played, and under what spectacular conditions, in the year of grace 1896. The Fronton Jai-Alai, near the Botanical Gardens of Madrid, will serve our purpose as the field of play.
By a quarter-past four in the summer afternoon there will be perhaps a thousand persons assembled in this tasteful building of bricks, iron, and glass. The playing-ground occupies a longitudinal half of the enclosed and roofed space. The other half is devoted to boxes arranged amphitheatrically, a sort of pit space under the lowest of the tiers and a number of chairs which in successive rows approach perilously near to the line which marks the limit of the players' territory. There is, of course, a refreshment-room, where you need not pay more than a penny for a glass of fair red or white wine. But it does not obtrude itself. The same cannot be said of the score or so of servants of the company that runs the hall. These men are busy with their note-books several minutes before the players begin. They are, be it said, only intermediaries. They do not establish the odds, but merely echo those whispered or shouted to them by their patrons the public. It is for other members of the public to accept these bets or refuse them. The settlements are effected afterwards, when
the administration deducts a commission of four per cent. from the moneys won. It is this commission, added to the entrance money, that pays the players, and also puts dividends into the pockets of the shareholders of the company.
The noise is not very great at the outset unless one side of the players is considered markedly superior to the other, when the eagerness to get on the favourites at even money is frantic. One of the pelotaris' may be a man new to Madrid; fresh from America or the Pyrenees. The practice movements of the players have to be studied. The couple of gentlemen who act as judges and sit in most danger of a blow from the four-ounce ball of rubber and leather have not yet given the signal to begin. The ball itself has to be tested and chosen by a player of either side. Nor does it follow that with the greatest skill on one side opposed to mediocre talent on the other the former side will win; the apparent physical condition of the players in so exacting an exercise has to be calculated. It is better to say nothing about the reports that may or may not be murmured confidentially as to the weakness of conscience of this or that player of the four. This knowledge will not, at any rate, be for the general public. The players look very cool at first in their white shirts and trousers and white shoes. They are girt at the waist by sashes of their respective colours. But it is the cestus or sickle-shaped basket-work gauntlet, one of which covers each forearm to the finger-tips, that most attracts the stranger's notice. It seems rather a clumsy object; less safe for play than the naked hand. In a little while, however, one learns otherwise. There is a glove for the fingers outside the fabric, but it is the arm and not the hand that bears the burden of the day. 'Pelota' used to be played with the hand, naked or gloved, or with a club. Opinion in Spain is not altogether unanimous in praising the cestus as the best possible development from the old and simpler methods. But there can be no doubt about its superiority for spectacular purposes. No hand, naked or gloved, could stand the shocks accepted freely by the cestus, or volley those terrific returns that make the public duck their heads and hold their breath when, as often happens, the ball flies at a tangent among the chairs of the 'pelota' patrons. The cestus has brought the element of danger into the game. This also may be reckoned a point in its favour.
The playing-walls are of the dimensions already mentioned. The one facing the players has a rib of metal along it about a yard from the cemented pavement or playing field. It has also
another some 34 or 35 feet high, and the same limit of height is marked on the longitudinal wall opposite the spectators. A ball is only in play when it hits the one wall between these two lines, and the other (by rebound or on its way to the front wall) below the prescribed limit of height.
The cemented arena (if the phrase may be pardoned) is marked off by lines at regular distances of about four yards. There may be fifteen or there may be twenty of these divisions, according to the size of the fronton.' The cestus has such prodigious power over the ball that the tendency is for 'frontones' to increase in size. At present, however, a length of about sixty-four yards from wall to wall is the average. Of the divisional spaces, those from four to seven have a special importance. The ball, when first played at the beginning of the game and after each fault (when the opposing side scores a point), must drop from the front wall between the fourth space and the seventh. The starter's position is generally half-way between the seventh and the eighth space. These regulations are of course to deprive the starting side of some of the inordinate advantage they would otherwise possess. With each round of the game the sides renew their battle on the like conditions.
Still, that the start aids the starting side may soon be apparent. It would be wearisome here fully to describe the various ways of playing the ball. There is, for instance, the 'cruzado,' the 'pared chica,'' carambola,'' dos paredes,' &c. The 'cruzado' is a hard, low delivery, so that the ball strikes the front wall just above the metal line and rebounds towards the longitudinal wall, touching this at a very awkward angle. The nature of the other saques may perhaps be imagined, once the scheme of the 'fronton' has been grasped. Books have been written on 'pelota' with somewhat terrifying charts of the mathematical principles that underly it. One need not, however, suppose that our young friends the reds and blues in the arena have gone through academic courses to get at the secrets of the game. Practice and their native highland wit teach them all that they require in this matter.
Once fairly in swing, the game proceeds with great briskness. The ball flies from the principal wall at terrific speed, high, low, near and far, and all four players have to keep their faculties in good working order. To the novice perhaps the most formidable returns are those which strike the front wall with such force and so high that they rebound all the length of the hall and hit the opposite wall, falling therefrom against the longitudinal wall and
so to the arena. It seems impossible for the 'back,' whose office it is, duly to take such a ball and return it. But in fact these balls are not so difficult as they look. Our friend the back has a pretty trick of catching them in his cestus, holding them for a second or two while he collects his strength, and then slinging them off with extraordinary accuracy. It seems so desperately wearying to him also when he is kept at this sort of thing half a dozen times or more in succession, while his colleague, the forward, stands idle. But the latter is only awaiting his opportunity. He is, in four cases out of five, the master mind. The opposing player gives him his chance at last. He takes the ball before it touches the ground, and, with an express overarm stroke, returns it with a subtle inclination towards the low metal rib of the 'fronton.' The cheers from the populace and the subsequent pause in the game tell of his success. His side is one point more up towards the fifty of the match. The 'forward' in 'pelota' is the controlling player of the two. He takes only the balls he pleases to take. His colleague must do, or try to do, what he declines. A tennis player will readily understand the kind of strokes that are popular with the 'pelota' player and the public, who take delight chiefly in the effective, and only secondarily in strokes that are showy but unsafe. The pelota' player volleys, returns overhead, underhand, with arm at full stretch and half bent, much like the tennis player. There is, however, one kind of stroke seen in the frontones' that is not often seen on English lawns. This is a return with the back towards the wall or goal aimed at. Brought off from the far end of the hall, either overhead or underhand, it excites rapture. Yet conceivably it is only about half as clever as it looks.
What one admires as much as anything in this exhibition 'pelota' is the fine stamina of the men. They are not necessarily herculean to the eye. Some seem too stout and some too small. But they stand the strain of this eighty or ninety minutes' very violent exercise with wonderful ease on the whole. It is permissible for a player to rest three minutes now and then after a vigorous and protracted exchange. They use their privilege in this particular about twice in an afternoon. But many require no rest at all.
It is, of course, wholly an affair of training. When we know that Angel Bilbao, or the Chiquito of Abando, to give him his popular name, aroused admiration in America as a player when only eleven years old, one is not surprised that at nineteen he