The Bible in Spain, by George Borrow

Chapter 11

The Pass of Mirabete — Wolves and Shepherds — Female Subtlety — Death by Wolves — The Mystery Solved — The Mountains — The Dark Hour — The Traveller of the Night — Abarbenel — Hoarded Treasure — Force of Gold — The Archbishop — Arrival at Madrid

I proceeded down the pass of Mirabete, occasionally ruminating on the matter which had brought me to Spain, and occasionally admiring one of the finest prospects in the world; before me outstretched lay immense plains, bounded in the distance by huge mountains, whilst at the foot of the hill which I was now descending, rolled the Tagus, in a deep narrow stream, between lofty banks; the whole was gilded by the rays of the setting sun; for the day, though cold and wintry, was bright and clear. In about an hour I reached the river at a place where stood the remains of what had once been a magnificent bridge, which had, however, been blown up in the Peninsular war and never since repaired.

I crossed the river in a ferry-boat; the passage was rather difficult, the current very rapid and swollen, owing to the latter rains.

“Am I in New Castile?” I demanded of the ferryman, on reaching the further bank. “The raya is many leagues from hence,” replied the ferryman; “you seem a stranger. Whence do you come?” “From England,” I replied, and without waiting for an answer, I sprang on the burra, and proceeded on my way. The burra plied her feet most nimbly, and, shortly after nightfall, brought me to a village at about two leagues’ distance from the river’s bank.

I sat down in the venta where I put up; there was a huge fire, consisting of the greater part of the trunk of an olive tree; the company was rather miscellaneous: a hunter with his escopeta; a brace of shepherds with immense dogs, of that species for which Estremadura is celebrated; a broken soldier, just returned from the wars; and a beggar, who, after demanding charity for the seven wounds of Maria Santissima, took a seat amidst us, and made himself quite comfortable. The hostess was an active bustling woman, and busied herself in cooking my supper, which consisted of the game which I had purchased at Jaraicejo, and which, on my taking leave of the Gypsy, he had counselled me to take with me. In the meantime, I sat by the fire listening to the conversation of the company.

“I would I were a wolf,” said one of the shepherds; “or, indeed, anything rather than what I am. A pretty life is this of ours, out in the campo, among the carascales, suffering heat and cold for a peseta a day. I would I were a wolf; he fares better and is more respected than the wretch of a shepherd.”

“But he frequently fares scurvily,” said I; “the shepherd and dogs fall upon him, and then he pays for his temerity with the loss of his head.”

“That is not often the case, senor traveller,” said the shepherd; “he watches his opportunity, and seldom runs into harm’s way. And as to attacking him, it is no very pleasant task; he has both teeth and claws, and dog or man, who has once felt them, likes not to venture a second time within his reach. These dogs of mine will seize a bear singly with considerable alacrity, though he is a most powerful animal, but I have seen them run howling away from a wolf, even though there were two or three of us at hand to encourage them.”

“A dangerous person is the wolf,” said the other shepherd, “and cunning as dangerous; who knows more than he? He knows the vulnerable point of every animal; see, for example, how he flies at the neck of a bullock, tearing open the veins with his grim teeth and claws. But does he attack a horse in this manner? I trow not.”

“Not he,” said the other shepherd, “he is too good a judge; but he fastens on the haunches, and hamstrings him in a moment. O the fear of the horse when he comes near the dwelling of the wolf. My master was the other day riding in the despoblado, above the pass, on his fine Andalusian steed, which had cost him five hundred dollars; suddenly the horse stopped, and sweated and trembled like a woman in the act of fainting; my master could not conceive the reason, but presently he heard a squealing and growling in the bushes, whereupon he fired off his gun and scared the wolves, who scampered away; but he tells me, that the horse has not yet recovered from his fright.”

“Yet the mares know, occasionally, how to balk him,” replied his companion; “there is great craft and malice in mares, as there is in all females; see them feeding in the campo with their young cria about them; presently the alarm is given that the wolf is drawing near; they start wildly and run about for a moment, but it is only for a moment — amain they gather together, forming themselves into a circle, in the centre of which they place the foals. Onward comes the wolf, hoping to make his dinner on horse-flesh; he is mistaken, however, the mares have balked him, and are as cunning as himself: not a tail is to be seen — not a hinder quarter — but there stands the whole troop, their fronts towards him ready to receive him, and as he runs around them barking and howling, they rise successively on their hind legs, ready to stamp him to the earth, should he attempt to hurt their cria or themselves.”

“Worse than the he-wolf,” said the soldier, “is the female, for as the senor pastor has well observed, there is more malice in women than in males: to see one of these she-demons with a troop of the males at her heels is truly surprising: where she turns, they turn, and what she does that do they; for they appear bewitched, and have no power but to imitate her actions. I was once travelling with a comrade over the hills of Galicia, when we heard a howl. ‘Those are wolves,’ said my companion, ‘let us get out of the way;’ so we stepped from the path and ascended the side of the hill a little way, to a terrace, where grew vines, after the manner of Galicia: presently appeared a large grey she-wolf, deshonesta, snapping and growling at a troop of demons, who followed close behind, their tails uplifted, and their eyes like fire-brands. What do you think the perverse brute did? Instead of keeping to the path, she turned in the very direction in which we were; there was now no remedy, so we stood still. I was the first upon the terrace, and by me she passed so close that I felt her hair brush against my legs; she, however, took no notice of me, but pushed on, neither looking to the right nor left, and all the other wolves trotted by me without offering the slightest injury or even so much as looking at me. Would that I could say as much for my poor companion, who stood farther on, and was, I believe, less in the demon’s way than I was; she had nearly passed him, when suddenly she turned half round and snapped at him. I shall never forget what followed: in a moment a dozen wolves were upon him, tearing him limb from limb, with howlings like nothing in this world; in a few moments he was devoured; nothing remained but a skull and a few bones; and then they passed on in the same manner as they came. Good reason had I to be grateful that my lady wolf took less notice of me than my poor comrade.”

Listening to this and similar conversation, I fell into a doze before the fire, in which I continued for a considerable time, but was at length aroused by a voice exclaiming in a loud tone, “All are captured!” These were the exact words which, when spoken by his daughter, confounded the Gypsy upon the moor. I looked around me, the company consisted of the same individuals to whose conversation I had been listening before I sank into slumber; but the beggar was now the spokesman, and he was haranguing with considerable vehemence.

“I beg your pardon, Caballero,” said I, “but I did not hear the commencement of your discourse. Who are those who have been captured?”

“A band of accursed Gitanos, Caballero,” replied the beggar, returning the title of courtesy, which I had bestowed upon him. “During more than a fortnight they have infested the roads on the frontier of Castile, and many have been the gentleman travellers like yourself whom they have robbed and murdered. It would seem that the Gypsy canaille must needs take advantage of these troublous times, and form themselves into a faction. It is said that the fellows of whom I am speaking expected many more of their brethren to join them, which is likely enough, for all Gypsies are thieves: but praised be God, they have been put down before they became too formidable. I saw them myself conveyed to the prison at -. Thanks be to God. Todos estan presos.”

“The mystery is now solved,” said I to myself, and proceeded to despatch my supper, which was now ready.

The next day’s journey brought me to a considerable town, the name of which I have forgotten. It is the first in New Castile, in this direction. I passed the night as usual in the manger of the stable, close beside the Caballeria; for, as I travelled upon a donkey, I deemed it incumbent upon me to be satisfied with a couch in keeping with my manner of journeying, being averse, by any squeamish and over delicate airs, to generate a suspicion amongst the people with whom I mingled that I was aught higher than what my equipage and outward appearance might lead them to believe. Rising before daylight, I again proceeded on my way, hoping ere night to be able to reach Talavera, which I was informed was ten leagues distant. The way lay entirely over an unbroken level, for the most part covered with olive trees. On the left, however, at the distance of a few leagues, rose the mighty mountains which I have already mentioned. They run eastward in a seemingly interminable range, parallel with the route which I was pursuing; their tops and sides were covered with dazzling snow, and the blasts which came sweeping from them across the wide and melancholy plains were of bitter keenness.

“What mountains are those?” I inquired of a barber-surgeon, who, mounted like myself on a grey burra, joined me about noon, and proceeded in my company for several leagues. “They have many names, Caballero,” replied the barber; “according to the names of the neighbouring places so they are called. Yon portion of them is styled the Serrania of Plasencia; and opposite to Madrid they are termed the Mountains of Guadarama, from a river of that name, which descends from them; they run a vast way, Caballero, and separate the two kingdoms, for on the other side is Old Castile. They are mighty mountains, and though they generate much cold, I take pleasure in looking at them, which is not to be wondered at, seeing that I was born amongst them, though at present, for my sins, I live in a village of the plain. Caballero, there is not another such range in Spain; they have their secrets too — their mysteries — strange tales are told of those hills, and of what they contain in their deep recesses, for they are a broad chain, and you may wander days and days amongst them without coming to any termino. Many have lost themselves on those hills, and have never again been heard of. Strange things are told of them: it is said that in certain places there are deep pools and lakes, in which dwell monsters, huge serpents as long as a pine tree, and horses of the flood, which sometimes come out and commit mighty damage. One thing is certain, that yonder, far away to the west, in the heart of those hills, there is a wonderful valley, so narrow that only at midday is the face of the sun to be descried from it. That valley lay undiscovered and unknown for thousands of years; no person dreamed of its existence, but at last, a long time ago, certain hunters entered it by chance, and then what do you think they found, Caballero? They found a small nation or tribe of unknown people, speaking an unknown language, who, perhaps, had lived there since the creation of the world, without intercourse with the rest of their fellow creatures, and without knowing that other beings besides themselves existed! Caballero, did you never hear of the valley of the Batuecas? Many books have been written about that valley and those people. Caballero, I am proud of yonder hills; and were I independent, and without wife or children, I would purchase a burra like that of your own, which I see is an excellent one, and far superior to mine, and travel amongst them till I knew all their mysteries, and had seen all the wondrous things which they contain.”

Throughout the day I pressed the burra forward, only stopping once in order to feed the animal; but, notwithstanding that she played her part very well, night came on, and I was still about two leagues from Talavera. As the sun went down, the cold became intense; I drew the old Gypsy cloak, which I still wore, closer around me, but I found it quite inadequate to protect me from the inclemency of the atmosphere. The road, which lay over a plain, was not very distinctly traced, and became in the dusk rather difficult to find, more especially as cross roads leading to different places were of frequent occurrence. I, however, proceeded in the best manner I could, and when I became dubious as to the course which I should take, I invariably allowed the animal on which I was mounted to decide. At length the moon shone out faintly, when suddenly by its beams I beheld a figure moving before me at a slight distance. I quickened the pace of the burra, and was soon close at its side. It went on, neither altering its pace nor looking round for a moment. It was the figure of a man, the tallest and bulkiest that I had hitherto seen in Spain, dressed in a manner strange and singular for the country. On his head was a hat with a low crown and broad brim, very much resembling that of an English waggoner; about his body was a long loose tunic or slop, seemingly of coarse ticken, open in front, so as to allow the interior garments to be occasionally seen; these appeared to consist of a jerkin and short velveteen pantaloons. I have said that the brim of the hat was broad, but broad as it was, it was insufficient to cover an immense bush of coal-black hair, which, thick and curly, projected on either side; over the left shoulder was flung a kind of satchel, and in the right hand was held a long staff or pole.

There was something peculiarly strange about the figure, but what struck me the most was the tranquillity with which it moved along, taking no heed of me, though of course aware of my proximity, but looking straight forward along the road, save when it occasionally raised a huge face and large eyes towards the moon, which was now shining forth in the eastern quarter.

“A cold night,” said I at last. “Is this the way to Talavera?”

“It is the way to Talavera, and the night is cold.”

“I am going to Talavera,” said I, “as I suppose you are yourself.”

“I am going thither, so are you, Bueno.”

The tones of the voice which delivered these words were in their way quite as strange and singular as the figure to which the voice belonged; they were not exactly the tones of a Spanish voice, and yet there was something in them that could hardly be foreign; the pronunciation also was correct; and the language, though singular, faultless. But I was most struck with the manner in which the last word, bueno, was spoken. I had heard something like it before, but where or when I could by no means remember. A pause now ensued; the figure stalking on as before with the most perfect indifference, and seemingly with no disposition either to seek or avoid conversation.

“Are you not afraid,” said I at last, “to travel these roads in the dark? It is said that there are robbers abroad.”

“Are you not rather afraid,” replied the figure, “to travel these roads in the dark? — you who are ignorant of the country, who are a foreigner, an Englishman!”

“How is it that you know me to be an Englishman?” demanded I, much surprised.

“That is no difficult matter,” replied the figure; “the sound of your voice was enough to tell me that.”

“You speak of voices,” said I; “suppose the tone of your own voice were to tell me who you are?”

“That it will not do,” replied my companion; “you know nothing about me — you can know nothing about me.”

“Be not sure of that, my friend; I am acquainted with many things of which you have little idea.”

“Por exemplo,” said the figure.

“For example,” said I; “you speak two languages.”

The figure moved on, seemed to consider a moment, and then said slowly bueno.

“You have two names,” I continued; “one for the house and the other for the street; both are good, but the one by which you are called at home is the one which you like best.”

The man walked on about ten paces, in the same manner as he had previously done; all of a sudden he turned, and taking the bridle of the burra gently in his hand, stopped her. I had now a full view of his face and figure, and those huge features and Herculean form still occasionally revisit me in my dreams. I see him standing in the moonshine, staring me in the face with his deep calm eyes. At last he said:

“Are you then one of us?”




It was late at night when we arrived at Talavera. We went to a large gloomy house, which my companion informed me was the principal posada of the town. We entered the kitchen, at the extremity of which a large fire was blazing. “Pepita,” said my companion to a handsome girl, who advanced smiling towards us; “a brasero and a private apartment; this cavalier is a friend of mine, and we shall sup together.” We were shown to an apartment in which were two alcoves containing beds. After supper, which consisted of the very best, by the order of my companion, we sat over the brasero and commenced talking.

Myself. — Of course you have conversed with Englishmen before, else you could not have recognized me by the tone of my voice.

Abarbenel. — I was a young lad when the war of the Independence broke out, and there came to the village in which our family lived an English officer in order to teach discipline to the new levies. He was quartered in my father’s house, where he conceived a great affection for me. On his departure, with the consent of my father, I attended him through the Castiles, partly as companion, partly as domestic. I was with him nearly a year, when he was suddenly summoned to return to his own country. He would fain have taken me with him, but to that my father would by no means consent. It is now five-and-twenty years since I last saw an Englishman; but you have seen how I recognized you even in the dark night.

Myself. — And what kind of life do you pursue, and by what means do you obtain support?

Abarbenel. — I experience no difficulty. I live much in the same way as I believe my forefathers lived; certainly as my father did, for his course has been mine. At his death I took possession of the herencia, for I was his only child. It was not requisite that I should follow any business, for my wealth was great; yet, to avoid remark, I followed that of my father, who was a longanizero. I have occasionally dealt in wool: but lazily, lazily — as I had no stimulus for exertion. I was, however, successful in many instances, strangely so; much more than many others who toiled day and night, and whose whole soul was in the trade.

Myself. — Have you any children? Are you married?

Abarbenel. — I have no children though I am married. I have a wife and an amiga, or I should rather say two wives, for I am wedded to both. I however call one my amiga, for appearance sake, for I wish to live in quiet, and am unwilling to offend the prejudices of the surrounding people.

Myself. — You say you are wealthy. In what does your wealth consist?

Abarbenel. — In gold and silver, and stones of price; for I have inherited all the hoards of my forefathers. The greater part is buried under ground; indeed, I have never examined the tenth part of it. I have coins of silver and gold older than the times of Ferdinand the Accursed and Jezebel; I have also large sums employed in usury. We keep ourselves close, however, and pretend to be poor, miserably so; but on certain occasions, at our festivals, when our gates are barred, and our savage dogs are let loose in the court, we eat our food off services such as the Queen of Spain cannot boast of, and wash our feet in ewers of silver, fashioned and wrought before the Americas were discovered, though our garments are at all times coarse, and our food for the most part of the plainest description.

Myself. — Are there more of you than yourself and your two wives?

Abarbenel. — There are my two servants, who are likewise of us; the one is a youth, and is about to leave, being betrothed to one at some distance; the other is old; he is now upon the road, following me with a mule and car.

Myself. — And whither are you bound at present?

Abarbenel. — To Toledo, where I ply my trade occasionally of longanizero. I love to wander about, though I seldom stray far from home. Since I left the Englishman my feet have never once stepped beyond the bounds of New Castile. I love to visit Toledo, and to think of the times which have long since departed; I should establish myself there, were there not so many accursed ones, who look upon me with an evil eye.

Myself. — Are you known for what you are? Do the authorities molest you?

Abarbenel. — People of course suspect me to be what I am; but as I conform outwardly in most respects to their ways, they do not interfere with me. True it is that sometimes, when I enter the church to hear the mass, they glare at me over the left shoulder, as much as to say — “What do you here?” And sometimes they cross themselves as I pass by; but as they go no further, I do not trouble myself on that account. With respect to the authorities, they are not bad friends of mine. Many of the higher class have borrowed money from me on usury, so that I have them to a certain extent in my power, and as for the low alguazils and corchetes, they would do any thing to oblige me in consideration of a few dollars, which I occasionally give them; so that matters upon the whole go on remarkably well. Of old, indeed, it was far otherwise; yet, I know not how it was, though other families suffered much, ours always enjoyed a tolerable share of tranquillity. The truth is, that our family has always known how to guide itself wonderfully. I may say there is much of the wisdom of the snake amongst us. We have always possessed friends; and with respect to enemies, it is by no means safe to meddle with us; for it is a rule of our house never to forgive an injury, and to spare neither trouble nor expense in bringing ruin and destruction upon the heads of our evil doers.

Myself. — Do the priests interfere with you?

Abarbenel. — They let me alone, especially in our own neighbourhood. Shortly after the death of my father, one hot-headed individual endeavoured to do me an evil turn, but I soon requited him, causing him to be imprisoned on a charge of blasphemy, and in prison he remained a long time, till he went mad and died.

Myself. — Have you a head in Spain, in whom is rested the chief authority?

Abarbenel. — Not exactly. There are, however, certain holy families who enjoy much consideration; my own is one of these — the chiefest, I may say. My grandsire was a particularly holy man; and I have heard my father say, that one night an archbishop came to his house secretly, merely to have the satisfaction of kissing his head.

Myself. — How can that be; what reverence could an archbishop entertain for one like yourself or your grandsire?

Abarbenel. — More than you imagine. He was one of us, at least his father was, and he could never forget what he had learned with reverence in his infancy. He said he had tried to forget it, but he could not; that the ruah was continually upon him, and that even from his childhood he had borne its terrors with a troubled mind, till at last he could bear himself no longer; so he went to my grandsire, with whom he remained one whole night; he then returned to his diocese, where he shortly afterwards died, in much renown for sanctity.

Myself. — What you say surprises me. Have you reason to suppose that many of you are to be found amongst the priesthood?

Abarbenel. — Not to suppose, but to know it. There are many such as I amongst the priesthood, and not amongst the inferior priesthood either; some of the most learned and famed of them in Spain have been of us, or of our blood at least, and many of them at this day think as I do. There is one particular festival of the year at which four dignified ecclesiastics are sure to visit me; and then, when all is made close and secure, and the fitting ceremonies have been gone through, they sit down upon the floor and curse.

Myself. — Are you numerous in the large towns?

Abarbenel. — By no means; our places of abode are seldom the large towns; we prefer the villages, and rarely enter the large towns but on business. Indeed we are not a numerous people, and there are few provinces of Spain which contain more than twenty families. None of us are poor, and those among us who serve, do so more from choice than necessity, for by serving each other we acquire different trades. Not unfrequently the time of service is that of courtship also, and the servants eventually marry the daughters of the house.

We continued in discourse the greater part of the night; the next morning I prepared to depart. My companion, however, advised me to remain where I was for that day. “And if you respect my counsel,” said he, “you will not proceed farther in this manner. To-night the diligence will arrive from Estremadura, on its way to Madrid. Deposit yourself therein; it is the safest and most speedy mode of travelling. As for your animal, I will myself purchase her. My servant is here, and has informed me that she will be of service to us. Let us, therefore, pass the day together in communion, like brothers, and then proceed on our separate journeys.” We did pass the day together; and when the diligence arrived I deposited myself within, and on the morning of the second day arrived at Madrid.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32