The Bible in Spain, by George Borrow

Chapter 12

Lodging at Madrid — My Hostess — British Ambassador — Mendizabal — Baltasar — Duties of a National — Young Blood — The Execution — Population of Madrid — The Higher Orders — The Lower Classes — The Bull-fighter — The Crabbed Gitano.

It was the commencement of February when I reached Madrid. After staying a few days at a posada, I removed to a lodging which I engaged at No. 3, in the Calle de la Zarza, a dark dirty street, which, however, was close to the Puerta del Sol, the most central point of Madrid, into which four or five of the principal streets debouche, and which is, at all times of the year, the great place of assemblage for the idlers of the capital, poor or rich.

It was rather a singular house in which I had taken up my abode. I occupied the front part of the first floor; my apartments consisted of an immense parlour, and a small chamber on one side in which I slept; the parlour, notwithstanding its size, contained very little furniture: a few chairs, a table, and a species of sofa, constituted the whole. It was very cold and airy, owing to the draughts which poured in from three large windows, and from sundry doors. The mistress of the house, attended by her two daughters, ushered me in. “Did you ever see a more magnificent apartment?” demanded the former; “is it not fit for a king’s son? Last winter it was occupied by the great General Espartero.”

The hostess was an exceedingly fat woman, a native of Valladolid, in Old Castile. “Have you any other family,” I demanded, “besides these daughters?” “Two sons,” she replied; “one of them an officer in the army, father of this urchin,” pointing to a wicked but clever looking boy of about twelve, who at that moment bounded into the room; “the other is the most celebrated national in Madrid: he is a tailor by trade, and his name is Baltasar. He has much influence with the other nationals, on account of the liberality of his opinions, and a word from him is sufficient to bring them all out armed and furious to the Puerta del Sol. He is, however, at present confined to his bed, for he is very dissipated and fond of the company of bull-fighters and people still worse.”

As my principal motive for visiting the Spanish capital was the hope of obtaining permission from the government to print the New Testament in the Castilian language, for circulation in Spain, I lost no time, upon my arrival, in taking what I considered to be the necessary steps.

I was an entire stranger at Madrid, and bore no letters of introduction to any persons of influence, who might have assisted me in this undertaking, so that, notwithstanding I entertained a hope of success, relying on the assistance of the Almighty, this hope was not at all times very vivid, but was frequently overcast with the clouds of despondency.

Mendizabal was at this time prime minister of Spain, and was considered as a man of almost unbounded power, in whose hands were placed the destinies of the country. I therefore considered that if I could by any means induce him to favour my views, I should have no reason to fear interruption from other quarters, and I determined upon applying to him.

Before talking this step, however, I deemed it advisable to wait upon Mr. Villiers, the British ambassador at Madrid; and with the freedom permitted to a British subject, to ask his advice in this affair. I was received with great kindness, and enjoyed a conversation with him on various subjects before I introduced the matter which I had most at heart. He said that if I wished for an interview with Mendizabal, he would endeavour to procure me one, but, at the same time, told me frankly that he could not hope that any good would arise from it, as he knew him to be violently prejudiced against the British and Foreign Bible Society, and was far more likely to discountenance than encourage any efforts which they might be disposed to make for introducing the Gospel into Spain. I, however, remained resolute in my desire to make the trial, and before I left him, obtained a letter of introduction to Mendizabal.

Early one morning I repaired to the palace, in a wing of which was the office of the Prime Minister; it was bitterly cold, and the Guadarama, of which there is a noble view from the palace-plain, was covered with snow. For at least three hours I remained shivering with cold in an ante-room, with several other aspirants for an interview with the man of power. At last his private secretary made his appearance, and after putting various questions to the others, addressed himself to me, asking who I was and what I wanted. I told him that I was an Englishman, and the bearer of a letter from the British Minister. “If you have no objection, I will myself deliver it to His Excellency,” said he; whereupon I handed it to him and he withdrew. Several individuals were admitted before me; at last, however, my own turn came, and I was ushered into the presence of Mendizabal.

He stood behind a table covered with papers, on which his eyes were intently fixed. He took not the slightest notice when I entered, and I had leisure enough to survey him: he was a huge athletic man, somewhat taller than myself, who measure six feet two without my shoes; his complexion was florid, his features fine and regular, his nose quite aquiline, and his teeth splendidly white: though scarcely fifty years of age, his hair was remarkably grey; he was dressed in a rich morning gown, with a gold chain round his neck, and morocco slippers on his feet.

His secretary, a fine intellectual looking man, who, as I was subsequently informed, had acquired a name both in English and Spanish literature, stood at one end of the table with papers in his hands.

After I had been standing about a quarter of an hour, Mendizabal suddenly lifted up a pair of sharp eyes, and fixed them upon me with a peculiarly scrutinizing glance.

“I have seen a glance very similar to that amongst the Beni Israel,” thought I to myself. . . .

My interview with him lasted nearly an hour. Some singular discourse passed between us: I found him, as I had been informed, a bitter enemy to the Bible Society, of which he spoke in terms of hatred and contempt, and by no means a friend to the Christian religion, which I could easily account for. I was not discouraged, however, and pressed upon him the matter which brought me thither, and was eventually so far successful, as to obtain a promise, that at the expiration of a few months, when he hoped the country would be in a more tranquil state, I should be allowed to print the Scriptures.

As I was going away he said, “Yours is not the first application I have had; ever since I have held the reins of government I have been pestered in this manner, by English calling themselves Evangelical Christians, who have of late come flocking over into Spain. Only last week a hunchbacked fellow found his way into my cabinet whilst I was engaged in important business, and told me that Christ was coming. . . . And now you have made your appearance, and almost persuaded me to embroil myself yet more with the priesthood, as if they did not abhor me enough already. What a strange infatuation is this which drives you over lands and waters with Bibles in your hands. My good sir, it is not Bibles we want, but rather guns and gunpowder, to put the rebels down with, and above all, money, that we may pay the troops; whenever you come with these three things you shall have a hearty welcome, if not, we really can dispense with your visits, however great the honour.”

Myself. — There will be no end to the troubles of this afflicted country until the gospel have free circulation.

Mendizabal. — I expected that answer, for I have not lived thirteen years in England without forming some acquaintance with the phraseology of you good folks. Now, now, pray go; you see how engaged I am. Come again whenever you please, but let it not be within the next three months.

“Don Jorge,” said my hostess, coming into my apartment one morning, whilst I sat at breakfast with my feet upon the brasero, “here is my son Baltasarito, the national; he has risen from his bed, and hearing that there is an Englishman in the house, he has begged me to introduce him, for he loves Englishmen on account of the liberality of their opinions; there he is, what do you think of him?”

I did not state to his mother what I thought; it appeared to me, however, that she was quite right calling him Baltasarito, which is the diminutive of Baltasar, forasmuch as that ancient and sonorous name had certainly never been bestowed on a more diminutive personage: he might measure about five feet one inch, though he was rather corpulent for his height; his face looked yellow and sickly, he had, however, a kind of fanfaronading air, and his eyes, which were of dark brown, were both sharp and brilliant. His dress, or rather his undress, was somewhat shabby: he had a foraging cap on his head, and in lieu of a morning gown, he wore a sentinel’s old great coat.

“I am glad to make your acquaintance, senor nacional,” said I to him, after his mother had departed, and Baltasar had taken his seat, and of course lighted a paper cigar at the brasero. “I am glad to have made your acquaintance, more especially as your lady mother has informed me that you have great influence with the nationals. I am a stranger in Spain, and may want a friend; fortune has been kind to me in procuring me one who is a member of so powerful a body.”

Baltasar. — Yes, I have a great deal to say with the other nationals; there is none in Madrid better known than Baltasar, or more dreaded by the Carlists. You say you may stand in need of a friend; there is no fear of my failing you in any emergency. Both myself and any of the other nationals will be proud to go out with you as padrinos, should you have any affair of honour on your hands. But why do you not become one of us? We would gladly receive you into our body.

Myself. — Is the duty of a national particularly hard?

Baltasar. — By no means; we have to do duty about once every fifteen days, and then there is occasionally a review, which does not last long. No! the duties of a national are by no means onerous, and the privileges are great. I have seen three of my brother nationals walk up and down the Prado of a Sunday, with sticks in their hands, cudgelling all the suspicious characters, and it is our common practice to scour the streets at night, and then if we meet any person who is obnoxious to us, we fall upon him, and with a knife or a bayonet generally leave him wallowing in his blood on the pavement: no one but a national would be permitted to do that.

Myself. — Of course none but persons of liberal opinions are to be found amongst the nationals?

Baltasar. — Would it were so! There are some amongst us, Don Jorge, who are no better than they should be; they are few, however, and for the most part well known. Theirs is no pleasant life, for when they mount guard with the rest they are scouted, and not unfrequently cudgelled. The law compels all of a certain age either to serve in the army or to become national soldiers on which account some of these Godos are to be found amongst us.

Myself. — Are there many in Madrid of the Carlist opinion?

Baltasar. — Not among the young people; the greater part of the Madrilenian Carlists capable of bearing arms departed long ago to join the ranks of the factious in the Basque provinces. Those who remain are for the most part grey-beards and priests, good for nothing but to assemble in private coffee-houses, and to prate treason together. Let them prate, Don Jorge; let them prate; the destinies of Spain do not depend on the wishes of ojalateros and pasteleros, but on the hands of stout gallant nationals like myself and friends, Don Jorge.

Myself. — I am sorry to learn from your lady mother, that you are strangely dissipated.

Baltasar. — Ho, ho, Don Jorge, she has told you that, has she; what would you have, Don Jorge? I am young, and young blood will have its course. I am called Baltasar the gay by all the other nationals, and it is on account of my gaiety and the liberality of my opinions that I am so popular among them. When I mount guard I invariably carry my guitar with me, and then there is sure to be a function at the guard-house. We send for wine, Don Jorge, and the nationals become wild, Don Jorge, dancing and drinking through the night, whilst Baltasarito strums the guitar and sings them songs of Germania:

“Una romi sin pachi Le peno a su chindomar,” &c., &c.

That is Gitano, Don Jorge; I learnt it from the toreros of Andalusia, who all speak Gitano, and are mostly of Gypsy blood. I learnt it from them; they are all friends of mine, Montes Sevilla and Poquito Pan. I never miss a function of bulls, Don Jorge. Baltasar is sure to be there with his amiga. Don Jorge, there are no bull-functions in the winter, or I would carry you to one, but happily tomorrow there is an execution, a funcion de la horca; and there we will go, Don Jorge.

We did go to see this execution, which I shall long remember. The criminals were two young men, brothers; they suffered for a most atrocious murder, having in the dead of night broke open the house of an aged man, whom they put to death, and whose property they stole. Criminals in Spain are not hanged as they are in England, or guillotined as in France, but strangled upon a wooden stage. They sit down on a kind of chair with a post behind, to which is affixed an iron collar with a screw; this iron collar is made to clasp the neck of the prisoner, and on a certain signal it is drawn tighter and tighter by means of the screw, until life becomes extinct. After we had waited amongst the assembled multitude a considerable time, the first of the culprits appeared; he was mounted on an ass, without saddle or stirrups, his legs being allowed to dangle nearly to the ground. He was dressed in yellow sulphur-coloured robes, with a high-peaked conical red hat on his head, which was shaven. Between his hands he held a parchment, on which was written something, I believe the confession of faith. Two priests led the animal by the bridle; two others walked on either side, chanting litanies, amongst which I distinguished the words of heavenly peace and tranquillity, for the culprit had been reconciled to the church, had confessed and received absolution, and had been promised admission to heaven. He did not exhibit the least symptom of fear, but dismounted from the animal and was led, not supported, up the scaffold, where he was placed on the chair, and the fatal collar put round his neck. One of the priests then in a loud voice commenced saying the Belief, and the culprit repeated the words after him. On a sudden, the executioner, who stood behind, commenced turning the screw, which was of prodigious force, and the wretched man — was almost instantly a corpse; but, as the screw went round, the priest began to shout, “pax et misericordia et tranquillitas,” and still as he shouted, his voice became louder and louder, till the lofty walls of Madrid rang with it: then stooping down, he placed his mouth close to the culprit’s ear, still shouting, just as if he would pursue the spirit through its course to eternity, cheering it on its way. The effect was tremendous. I myself was so excited that I involuntarily shouted “misericordia,” and so did many others. God was not thought of; Christ was not thought of; only the priest was thought of, for he seemed at that moment to be the first being in existence, and to have the power of opening and shutting the gates of heaven or of hell, just as he should think proper. A striking instance of the successful working of the Popish system, whose grand aim has ever been to keep people’s minds as far as possible from God, and to centre their hopes and fears in the priesthood. The execution of the second culprit was precisely similar; he ascended the scaffold a few minutes after his brother had breathed his last.

I have visited most of the principal capitals of the world, but upon the whole none has ever so interested me as this city of Madrid, in which I now found myself. I will not dwell upon its streets, its edifices, its public squares, its fountains, though some of these are remarkable enough: but Petersburg has finer streets, Paris and Edinburgh more stately edifices, London far nobler squares, whilst Shiraz can boast of more costly fountains, though not cooler waters. But the population! Within a mud wall, scarcely one league and a half in circuit, are contained two hundred thousand human beings, certainly forming the most extraordinary vital mass to be found in the entire world; and be it always remembered that this mass is strictly Spanish. The population of Constantinople is extraordinary enough, but to form it twenty nations have contributed; Greeks, Armenians, Persians, Poles, Jews, the latter, by the by, of Spanish origin, and speaking amongst themselves the old Spanish language; but the huge population of Madrid, with the exception of a sprinkling of foreigners, chiefly French tailors, glove-makers and peruquiers, is strictly Spanish, though a considerable portion are not natives of the place. Here are no colonies of Germans, as at Saint Petersburg; no English factories, as at Lisbon; no multitudes of insolent Yankees lounging through the streets as at the Havannah, with an air which seems to say, the land is our own whenever we choose to take it; but a population which, however strange and wild, and composed of various elements, is Spanish, and will remain so as long as the city itself shall exist. Hail, ye aguadores of Asturia! who, in your dress of coarse duffel and leathern skull-caps, are seen seated in hundreds by the fountain sides, upon your empty water-casks, or staggering with them filled to the topmost stories of lofty houses. Hail, ye caleseros of Valencia! who, lolling lazily against your vehicles, rasp tobacco for your paper cigars whilst waiting for a fare. Hail to you, beggars of La Mancha! men and women, who, wrapped in coarse blankets, demand charity indifferently at the gate of the palace or the prison. Hail to you, valets from the mountains, mayordomos and secretaries from Biscay and Guipuscoa, toreros from Andalusia, riposteros from Galicia, shopkeepers from Catalonia! Hail to ye, Castilians, Estremenians and Aragonese, of whatever calling! And lastly, genuine sons of the capital, rabble of Madrid, ye twenty thousand manolos, whose terrible knifes, on the second morning of May, worked such grim havoc amongst the legions of Murat!

And the higher orders — the ladies and gentlemen, the cavaliers and senoras; shall I pass them by in silence? The truth is I have little to say about them; I mingled but little in their society, and what I saw of them by no means tended to exalt them in my imagination. I am not one of those who, wherever they go, make it a constant practice to disparage the higher orders, and to exalt the populace at their expense. There are many capitals in which the high aristocracy, the lords and ladies, the sons and daughters of nobility, constitute the most remarkable and the most interesting part of the population. This is the case at Vienna, and more especially at London. Who can rival the English aristocrat in lofty stature, in dignified bearing, in strength of hand, and valour of heart? Who rides a nobler horse? Who has a firmer seat? And who more lovely than his wife, or sister, or daughter? But with respect to the Spanish aristocracy, the ladies and gentlemen, the cavaliers and senoras, I believe the less that is said of them on the points to which I have just alluded the better. I confess, however, that I know little about them; they have, perhaps, their admirers, and to the pens of such I leave their panegyric. Le Sage has described them as they were nearly two centuries ago. His description is anything but captivating, and I do not think that they have improved since the period of the sketches of the immortal Frenchman. I would sooner talk of the lower class, not only of Madrid but of all Spain. The Spaniard of the lower class has much more interest for me, whether manolo, labourer, or muleteer. He is not a common being; he is an extraordinary man. He has not, it is true, the amiability and generosity of the Russian mujik, who will give his only rouble rather than the stranger shall want; nor his placid courage, which renders him insensible to fear, and at the command of his Tsar, sends him singing to certain death. 7 There is more hardness and less self-devotion in the disposition of the Spaniard; he possesses, however, a spirit of proud independence, which it is impossible but to admire. He is ignorant, of course; but it is singular that I have invariably found amongst the low and slightly educated classes far more liberality of sentiment than amongst the upper. It has long been the fashion to talk of the bigotry of the Spaniards, and their mean jealousy of foreigners. This is true to a certain extent: but it chiefly holds good with respect to the upper classes. If foreign valour or talent has never received its proper meed in Spain, the great body of the Spaniards are certainly not in fault. I have heard Wellington calumniated in this proud scene of his triumphs, but never by the old soldiers of Aragon and the Asturias, who assisted to vanquish the French at Salamanca and the Pyrenees. I have heard the manner of riding of an English jockey criticized, but it was by the idiotic heir of Medina Celi, and not by a picador of the Madrilenian bull ring.

Apropos of bull-fighters:— Shortly after my arrival, I one day entered a low tavern in a neighbourhood notorious for robbery and murder, and in which for the last two hours I had been wandering on a voyage of discovery. I was fatigued, and required refreshment. I found the place thronged with people, who had all the appearance of ruffians. I saluted them, upon which they made way for me to the bar, taking off their sombreros with great ceremony. I emptied a glass of val de penas, and was about to pay for it and depart, when a horrible looking fellow, dressed in a buff jerkin, leather breeches, and jackboots, which came half way up his thighs, and having on his head a white hat, the rims of which were at least a yard and a half in circumference, pushed through the crowd, and confronting me, roared:—

“Otra copita! vamos Inglesito: Otra copita!”

“Thank you, my good sir, you are very kind, you appear to know me, but I have not the honour of knowing you.”

“Not know me!” replied the being. “I am Sevilla, the torero. I know you well; you are the friend of Baltasarito, the national, who is a friend of mine, and a very good subject.”

Then turning to the company, he said in a sonorous tone, laying a strong emphasis on the last syllable of every word, according to the custom of the gente rufianesca throughout Spain:

“Cavaliers, and strong men, this cavalier is the friend of a friend of mine. Es mucho hombre. There is none like him in Spain. He speaks the crabbed Gitano though he is an Inglesito.”

“We do not believe it,” replied several grave voices. “It is not possible.”

“It is not possible, say you? I tell you it is. Come forward, Balseiro, you who have been in prison all your life, and are always boasting that you can speak the crabbed Gitano, though I say you know nothing of it — come forward and speak to his worship in the crabbed Gitano.”

A low, slight, but active figure stepped forward. He was in his shirt sleeves, and wore a montero cap; his features were handsome, but they were those of a demon.

He spoke a few words in the broken Gypsy slang of the prison, inquiring of me whether I had ever been in the condemned cell, and whether I knew what a Gitana 8 was?

“Vamos Inglesito,” shouted Sevilla in a voice of thunder; “answer the monro in the crabbed Gitano.”

I answered the robber, for such he was, and one, too, whose name will live for many a year in the ruffian histories of Madrid; I answered him in a speech of some length, in the dialect of the Estremenian Gypsies.

“I believe it is the crabbed Gitano,” muttered Balseiro. “It is either that or English, for I understand not a word of it.”

“Did I not say to you,” cried the bull-fighter, “that you knew nothing of the crabbed Gitano? But this Inglesito does. I understood all he said. Vaya, there is none like him for the crabbed Gitano. He is a good ginete, too; next to myself, there is none like him, only he rides with stirrup leathers too short. Inglesito, if you have need of money, I will lend you my purse. All I have is at your service, and that is not a little; I have just gained four thousand chules by the lottery. Courage, Englishman! Another cup. I will pay all. I, Sevilla!”

And he clapped his hand repeatedly on his breast, reiterating “I, Sevilla! I— ”

7 At the last attack on Warsaw, when the loss of the Russians amounted to upwards of twenty thousand men, the soldiery mounted the breach, repeating in measured chant, one of their popular songs: “Come, let us cut the cabbage,” &c.

8 Twelve ounces of bread, small pound, as given in the prison.

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