Armando Palacio Valdés: “He would be better with a pickaxe in his hand, and more useful to his country”
Armando Palacio Valdés
From The Grandee (1893)
Translated by Rachell Challice
He had a military bearing and quite a martial aspect, with his white moustache, large rolling eyes, thick eyebrows, and powerful hands. Nevertheless, there was not a kinder man in the Spanish dominions. His career had been cast in Exchequer offices, and he always expressed strong opinions against the power of the army. He maintained that the blood-suckers of the State were not those employed in civil functions, but the army and navy. The fact was demonstrated by the production of figures and notes on the subject, when he would quite lose himself in bureaucratic divagations. He said that war was caused by the thirst for blood emanating from the superfluous energy of the nation. This was a phrase he had read in the Boletin de Contribuciones Indirectas and appropriated as his own with marked effect. He said soldiers were vagrants, and his aversion to all uniforms and epaulettes was extreme. When the Corporation of Lancia talked of applying to the government for a regiment to garrison the city, he, as councillor, opposed the measure most resolutely.
What was the good of bringing a lot of spongers into the neighbourhood? Instead of having the comfort of being at some distance from a regiment, they would have all the disadvantages of harbouring one. Everything would get dear, for the colonels and officers liked to live well and have the best of everything, “after all the hard work they did to earn it,” he added, ironically…
Mateo gnashed his teeth, and gave utterance to sounds indicative of his hatred of the armed force, and then exclaimed in an ironical tone:
“How delightful to see warriors in time of peace!”
“You are quite cracked about them, Don Cristobal. Soldiers are very useful.”
“Useful!” exclaimed the Pensioner, in a rage. “What use are they I should like to know? How are they useful?”
“They keep the peace, man.”
“They keep war, you mean. The Civil Guard can keep us from rogues, but they foment dissensions and cause the ruin of the country. Directly they see the enemy appear, they take care to go off in another direction, and then they get appointments, crosses, and pensions. I maintain that as long as there are soldiers, there will be no peace in Spain.”
“But, Don Cristobal, supposing a foreign nation attacked us?”
The Pensioner gave an ironical smile and shook his head several times before replying.
“Get along, silly; why the only country that could attack us by land is France, and if France should ever do so, what good would these stupid little officers in uniform be to us?”
“Well, apart from that, soldiers are good for trade. The shops profit by them, and the hotel-keepers benefit also.”
Manuel Antonio only defended the military to aggravate Mateo, but there was a shade of irony in his present remarks that was excessively aggravating.
“That is just what it is! And it is that which annoys me so, for where does the money come from that they spend, you foolish fellow? Why, from you and from me, and from that gentleman; in fact, from every one who pays anything to the State in one form or another. The result is that they spend without producing, and so set a bad example in the towns; for idleness is a corrupting influence to those that are inclined to be lazy. Do you know what the army costs? Why, the naval and military Ministers take between them half of the national grant. That is to say, justice, religion, the expenses of the maintenance of our relations with other countries, and the working of all material interests, do not take as much to keep as these scarlet trousered young gentlemen. If other nations of Europe have a great army, what is that to do with it? Let them have it. Besides, they can allow themselves this luxury because they have money. But we are a poor little nation with only outside show. Besides, in other countries there are international complications, from which we are fortunately free. France is too afraid of the intervention of other countries to attack us, but if perchance it did attack us, it would conquer us just as much with an army as without one.”
The Pensioner was very emphatic in his arguments, which, with his eyes blazing with anger, he enforced with vehement gesticulations of the hands.
Manuel Antonio was delighted at seeing him get into a rage; and at that moment the little company of officers passed near with a polite “Good-day,” which they all returned excepting Don Cristobal, who took no notice of the greeting.
“I really think you go too far, Don Cristobal. Now what do you think of Captain Nuñez who has just gone by? Is he not a perfect gentleman with courteous, pleasant manners?”
“He would be better with a pickaxe in his hand, and more useful to his country,” returned the Pensioner crossly.