Seen like that from the roof, the spectacle in the Hall of Columns was an exceedingly curious one. The table at which the twelve poor old men were sitting was hardly visible; but the table for the twelve old women was just opposite the windows in the ceiling and everything that happened at it could be clearly seen. And how embarrassed the poor things looked in their new woolen dresses and shawls and new head handkerchiefs, shocked to find themselves in such a scene of pomp, served by the Queen herself—they who only the day before had been begging a sad penny outside some Church door. They never lifted their eyes from their plates except to stare with alarm at the personages who served them. Some of them even shed tears, more of distress than of gratitude—for their situation among the powerful of the earth as recipients of this formal charity was one more calculated to humiliate them than to make them proud. …
Trays of food were brought to the door by men servants and handed to the distinguished persons who acted as waiters on this pious occasion. These ladies and gentlemen formed a chain and passed the trays along until they reached the hands of the King and Queen, who presented the food to the poor people with a certain air of benevolence and courtesy, which was the only sympathetic note in their theatrical farce. But the unfortunate creatures at the table did not eat; they were much too frightened. Their trembling hands could hardly have found the way to the mouths. So after the food had been placed before them, other men servants went about collecting it again and packing it into the baskets which were placed behind each poor person’s chair. Shortly afterwards, when the Royalties and nobles had left the Hall, the old men and women went out too carrying their baskets. And near the Palace Confectionery various Madrid inn-keepers and other people in the catering trade were waiting to buy the food they had been given for a few duros.
The descriptions given, some through the eyes of children, play up how small and trivial the ceremony ends up being. The children view the charade from high up in the palace Hall of Columns, close to the ceilings, where the
“figures which decorate them are monstrous and the painting looks very coarse. Huge angels and nymphs stretch their enormous legs out towards Scotland, riding on clouds which look like bales of gray cotton. Other figures seem to be lifting the framework of the ceiling into the air with the force of their colossal muscles; while the flowers of the carpet far below look like flowers painted in a miniature.”
The farce turns out to be insignificant in many ways but it terrified more than just the chosen poor. Among the children fighting for a view was little Isabelita Bringas, a “weak, rickety, clever child”. The choice of her name, a namesake of the Queen, heightens Galdós’ criticism. The little Isabel is troubled by the ceremonial farce, experiencing fevers and delirium during her sleep. Her nightmares confuse actual incidents during the day and the monstrous figures from the Hall’s ceilings. The dreams become more absurd and cause a reaction (and a troubling reassurance from her mother):
At this point the poor child felt her whole being wrapped up in this idea of whiteness, and at the same time felt a horrible fullness and obstruction, as if all the scenes and objects her mind was producing were contained in side her small stomach. With agonized convulsions she threw it all out; and the delirium decreased and she felt an immense relief. Her mother had sprung from her bed to come to her assistance; and Isabelita, now wide awake, could hear the affectionate voice say: “It’s all over now, darling. It was nothing.”
The Spendthrifts by Benito Pérez Galdós; translation by Gamel Woolsey; illustrations by Charles Mozley. Farrar Straus & Young Inc.: New York, 1952.