The Bible in Spain, by George Borrow

Chapter 27

Compostella — Rey Romero — The Treasure-seeker — Hopeful Project — The Church of Refuge — Hidden Riches — The Canon — Spirit of Localism — The Leper — Bones of St. James.

At the commencement of August, I found myself at St. James of Compostella. To this place I travelled from Coruna with the courier or weekly post, who was escorted by a strong party of soldiers, in consequence of the distracted state of the country, which was overrun with banditti. From Coruna to St. James, the distance is but ten leagues; the journey, however, endured for a day and a half. It was a pleasant one, through a most beautiful country, with a rich variety of hill and dale; the road was in many places shaded with various kinds of trees clad in most luxuriant foliage. Hundreds of travellers, both on foot and on horseback, availed themselves of the security which the escort afforded: the dread of banditti was strong. During the journey two or three alarms were given; we, however, reached Saint James without having been attacked.

Saint James stands on a pleasant level amidst mountains: the most extraordinary of these is a conical hill, called the Pico Sacro, or Sacred Peak, connected with which are many wonderful legends. A beautiful old town is Saint James, containing about twenty thousand inhabitants. Time has been when, with the single exception of Rome, it was the most celebrated resort of pilgrims in the world; its cathedral being said to contain the bones of Saint James the elder, the child of the thunder, who, according to the legend of the Romish church, first preached the Gospel in Spain. Its glory, however, as a place of pilgrimage is rapidly passing away.

The cathedral, though a work of various periods, and exhibiting various styles of architecture, is a majestic venerable pile, in every respect calculated to excite awe and admiration; indeed, it is almost impossible to walk its long dusky aisles, and hear the solemn music and the noble chanting, and inhale the incense of the mighty censers, which are at times swung so high by machinery as to smite the vaulted roof, whilst gigantic tapers glitter here and there amongst the gloom, from the shrine of many a saint, before which the worshippers are kneeling, breathing forth their prayers and petitions for help, love, and mercy, and entertain a doubt that we are treading the floor of a house where God delighteth to dwell. Yet the Lord is distant from that house; he hears not, he sees not, or if he do, it is with anger. What availeth that solemn music, that noble chanting, that incense of sweet savour? What availeth kneeling before that grand altar of silver, surmounted by that figure with its silver hat and breast-plate, the emblem of one who, though an apostle and confessor, was at best an unprofitable servant? What availeth hoping for remission of sin by trusting in the merits of one who possessed none, or by paying homage to others who were born and nurtured in sin, and who alone, by the exercise of a lively faith granted from above, could hope to preserve themselves from the wrath of the Almighty?

Rise from your knees, ye children of Compostella, or if ye bend, let it be to the Almighty alone, and no longer on the eve of your patron’s day address him in the following strain, however sublime it may sound:

“Thou shield of that faith which in Spain we revere, Thou scourge of each foeman who dares to draw near; Whom the Son of that God who the elements tames, Called child of the thunder, immortal Saint James!

“From the blessed asylum of glory intense, Upon us thy sovereign influence dispense; And list to the praises our gratitude aims To offer up worthily, mighty Saint James.

“To thee fervent thanks Spain shall ever outpour; In thy name though she glory, she glories yet more In thy thrice-hallowed corse, which the sanctuary claims Of high Compostella, O, blessed Saint James.

“When heathen impiety, loathsome and dread, With a chaos of darkness our Spain overspread, Thou wast the first light which dispell’d with its flames The hell-born obscurity, glorious Saint James!

“And when terrible wars had nigh wasted our force, All bright ‘midst the battle we saw thee on horse, Fierce scattering the hosts, whom their fury proclaims To be warriors of Islam, victorious Saint James.

“Beneath thy direction, stretch’d prone at thy feet, With hearts low and humble, this day we intreat Thou wilt strengthen the hope which enlivens our frames, The hope of thy favour and presence, Saint James.

“Then praise to the Son and the Father above, And to that Holy Spirit which springs from their love; To that bright emanation whose vividness shames The sun’s burst of splendour, and praise to Saint James.”

At Saint James I met with a kind and cordial coadjutor in my biblical labours in the bookseller of the place, Rey Romero, a man of about sixty. This excellent individual, who was both wealthy and respected, took up the matter with an enthusiasm which doubtless emanated from on high, losing no opportunity of recommending my book to those who entered his shop, which was in the Azabacheria, and was a very splendid and commodious establishment. In many instances, when the peasants of the neighbourhood came with an intention of purchasing some of the foolish popular story-books of Spain, he persuaded them to carry home Testaments instead, assuring them that the sacred volume was a better, more instructive, and even far more entertaining book than those they came in quest of. He speedily conceived a great fancy for me, and regularly came to visit me every evening at my posada, and accompanied me in my walks about the town and the environs. He was a man of considerable information, and though of much simplicity, possessed a kind of good-natured humour which was frequently highly diverting.

I was walking late one night alone in the Alameda of Saint James, considering in what direction I should next bend my course, for I had been already ten days in this place; the moon was shining gloriously, and illumined every object around to a considerable distance. The Alameda was quite deserted; everybody, with the exception of myself, having for some time retired. I sat down on a bench and continued my reflections, which were suddenly interrupted by a heavy stumping sound. Turning my eyes in the direction from which it proceeded, I perceived what at first appeared a shapeless bulk slowly advancing: nearer and nearer it drew, and I could now distinguish the outline of a man dressed in coarse brown garments, a kind of Andalusian hat, and using as a staff the long peeled branch of a tree. He had now arrived opposite the bench where I was seated, when, stopping, he took off his hat and demanded charity in uncouth tones and in a strange jargon, which had some resemblance to the Catalan. The moon shone on grey locks and on a ruddy weather-beaten countenance which I at once recognized: “Benedict Mol,” said I, “is it possible that I see you at Compostella?”

“Och, mein Gott, es ist der Herr!” replied Benedict. “Och, what good fortune, that the Herr is the first person I meet at Compostella.”

Myself. — I can scarcely believe my eyes. Do you mean to say that you have just arrived at this place?

Benedict. — Ow yes, I am this moment arrived. I have walked all the long way from Madrid.

Myself. — What motive could possibly bring you such a distance?

Benedict. — Ow, I am come for the schatz — the treasure. I told you at Madrid that I was coming; and now I have met you here, I have no doubt that I shall find it, the schatz.

Myself. — In what manner did you support yourself by the way?

Benedict. — Ow, I begged, I bettled, and so contrived to pick up some cuartos; and when I reached Toro, I worked at my trade of soap-making for a time, till the people said I knew nothing about it, and drove me out of the town. So I went on and begged and bettled till I arrived at Orense, which is in this country of Galicia. Ow, I do not like this country of Galicia at all.

Myself. — Why not?

Benedict. — Why! because here they all beg and bettle, and have scarce anything for themselves, much less for me whom they know to be a foreign man. O the misery of Galicia. When I arrive at night at one of their pigsties, which they call posadas, and ask for bread to eat in the name of God, and straw to lie down in, they curse me, and say there is neither bread nor straw in Galicia; and sure enough, since I have been here I have seen neither, only something that they call broa, and a kind of reedy rubbish with which they litter the horses: all my bones are sore since I entered Galicia.

Myself. — And yet you have come to this country, which you call so miserable, in search of treasure?

Benedict. — Ow yaw, but the schatz is buried; it is not above ground; there is no money above ground in Galicia. I must dig it up; and when I have dug it up I will purchase a coach with six mules, and ride out of Galicia to Lucerne; and if the Herr pleases to go with me, he shall be welcome to go with me and the schatz.

Myself. — I am afraid that you have come on a desperate errand. What do you propose to do? Have you any money?

Benedict. — Not a cuart; but I do not care now I have arrived at Saint James. The schatz is nigh; and I have, moreover, seen you, which is a good sign; it tells me that the schatz is still here. I shall go to the best posada in the place, and live like a duke till I have an opportunity of digging up the schatz, when I will pay all scores.

“Do nothing of the kind,” I replied; “find out some place in which to sleep, and endeavour to seek some employment. In the mean time, here is a trifle with which to support yourself; but as for the treasure which you have come to seek, I believe it only exists in your own imagination.” I gave him a dollar and departed.

I have never enjoyed more charming walks than in the neighbourhood of Saint James. In these I was almost invariably accompanied by my friend the good old bookseller. The streams are numerous, and along their wooded banks we were in the habit of straying and enjoying the delicious summer evenings of this part of Spain. Religion generally formed the topic of our conversation, but we not unfrequently talked of the foreign lands which I had visited, and at other times of matters which related particularly to my companion. “We booksellers of Spain,” said he, “are all liberals; we are no friends to the monkish system. How indeed should we be friends to it? It fosters darkness, whilst we live by disseminating light. We love our profession, and have all more or less suffered for it; many of us, in the times of terror, were hanged for selling an innocent translation from the French or English. Shortly after the Constitution was put down by Angouleme and the French bayonets, I was obliged to flee from Saint James and take refuge in the wildest part of Galicia, near Corcuvion. Had I not possessed good friends, I should not have been alive now; as it was, it cost me a considerable sum of money to arrange matters. Whilst I was away, my shop was in charge of the ecclesiastical officers. They frequently told my wife that I ought to be burnt for the books which I had sold. Thanks be to God, those times are past, and I hope they will never return.”

Once, as we were walking through the streets of Saint James, he stopped before a church and looked at it attentively. As there was nothing remarkable in the appearance of this edifice, I asked him what motive he had for taking such notice of it. “In the days of the friars,” said he, “this church was one of refuge, to which if the worst criminals escaped, they were safe. All were protected there save the negros, as they called us liberals.” “Even murderers, I suppose?” said I. “Murderers!” he answered, “far worse criminals than they. By the by, I have heard that you English entertain the utmost abhorrence of murder. Do you in reality consider it a crime of very great magnitude?” “How should we not,” I replied; “for every other crime some reparation can be made; but if we take away life, we take away all. A ray of hope with respect to this world may occasionally enliven the bosom of any other criminal, but how can the murderer hope?” “The friars were of another way of thinking,” replied the old man; “they always looked upon murder as a friolera; but not so the crime of marrying your first cousin without dispensation, for which, if we believe them, there is scarcely any atonement either in this world or the next.”

Two or three days after this, as we were seated in my apartment in the posada, engaged in conversation, the door was opened by Antonio, who, with a smile on his countenance, said that there was a foreign GENTLEMAN below, who desired to speak with me. “Show him up,” I replied; whereupon almost instantly appeared Benedict Mol.

“This is a most extraordinary person,” said I to the bookseller. “You Galicians, in general, leave your country in quest of money; he, on the contrary, is come hither to find some.”

Rey Romero. — And he is right. Galicia is by nature the richest province in Spain, but the inhabitants are very stupid, and know not how to turn the blessings which surround them to any account; but as a proof of what may be made out of Galicia, see how rich the Catalans become who have settled down here and formed establishments. There are riches all around us, upon the earth and in the earth.

Benedict. — Ow yaw, in the earth, that is what I say. There is much more treasure below the earth than above it.

Myself. — Since I last saw you, have you discovered the place in which you say the treasure is deposited?

Benedict. — O yes, I know all about it now. It is buried ‘neath the sacristy in the church of San Roque.

Myself. — How have you been able to make that discovery?

Benedict. — I will tell you: the day after my arrival I walked about all the city in quest of the church, but could find none which at all answered to the signs which my comrade who died in the hospital gave me. I entered several, and looked about, but all in vain; I could not find the place which I had in my mind’s eye. At last the people with whom I lodge, and to whom I told my business, advised me to send for a meiga.

Myself. — A meiga! What is that?

Benedict. — Ow! a haxweib, a witch; the Gallegos call them so in their jargon, of which I can scarcely understand a word. So I consented, and they sent for the meiga. Och! what a weib is that meiga! I never saw such a woman; she is as large as myself, and has a face as round and red as the sun. She asked me a great many questions in her Gallegan, and when I had told her all she wanted to know, she pulled out a pack of cards and laid them on the table in a particular manner, and then she said that the treasure was in the church of San Roque; and sure enough, when I went to that church, it answered in every respect to the signs of my comrade who died in the hospital. O she is a powerful hax, that meiga; she is well known in the neighbourhood, and has done much harm to the cattle. I gave her half the dollar I had from you for her trouble.

Myself. — Then you acted like a simpleton; she has grossly deceived you. But even suppose that the treasure is really deposited in the church you mention, it is not probable that you will be permitted to remove the floor of the sacristy to search for it.

Benedict. — Ow, the matter is already well advanced. Yesterday I went to one of the canons to confess myself and to receive absolution and benediction; not that I regard these things much, but I thought this would be the best means of broaching the matter, so I confessed myself, and then I spoke of my travels to the canon, and at last I told him of the treasure, and proposed that if he assisted me we should share it between us. Ow, I wish you had seen him; he entered at once into the affair, and said that it might turn out a very profitable speculation: and he shook me by the hand, and said that I was an honest Swiss and a good Catholic. And I then proposed that he should take me into his house and keep me there till we had an opportunity of digging up the treasure together. This he refused to do.

Rey Romero. — Of that I have no doubt: trust one of our canons for not committing himself so far until he sees very good reason. These tales of treasure are at present rather too stale: we have heard of them ever since the time of the Moors.

Benedict. — He advised me to go to the Captain General and obtain permission to make excavations, in which case he promised to assist me to the utmost of his power.

Thereupon the Swiss departed, and I neither saw nor heard anything farther of him during the time that I continued at Saint James.

The bookseller was never weary of showing me about his native town, of which he was enthusiastically fond. Indeed, I have never seen the spirit of localism, which is so prevalent throughout Spain, more strong than at Saint James. If their town did but flourish, the Santiagians seemed to care but little if all others in Galicia perished. Their antipathy to the town of Coruna was unbounded, and this feeling had of late been not a little increased from the circumstance that the seat of the provincial government had been removed from Saint James to Coruna. Whether this change was advisable or not, it is not for me, who am a foreigner, to say; my private opinion, however, is by no means favourable to the alteration. Saint James is one of the most central towns in Galicia, with large and populous communities on every side of it, whereas Coruna stands in a corner, at a considerable distance from the rest. “It is a pity that the vecinos of Coruna cannot contrive to steal away from us our cathedral, even as they have done our government,” said a Santiagian; “then, indeed, they would be able to cut some figure. As it is, they have not a church fit to say mass in.” “A great pity, too, that they cannot remove our hospital,” would another exclaim; “as it is, they are obliged to send us their sick, poor wretches. I always think that the sick of Coruna have more ill-favoured countenances than those from other places; but what good can come from Coruna?”

Accompanied by the bookseller, I visited this hospital, in which, however, I did not remain long; the wretchedness and uncleanliness which I observed speedily driving me away. Saint James, indeed, is the grand lazar-house for all the rest of Galicia, which accounts for the prodigious number of horrible objects to be seen in its streets, who have for the most part arrived in the hope of procuring medical assistance, which, from what I could learn, is very scantily and inefficiently administered. Amongst these unhappy wretches I occasionally observed the terrible leper, and instantly fled from him with a “God help thee,” as if I had been a Jew of old. Galicia is the only province of Spain where cases of leprosy are still frequent; a convincing proof this, that the disease is the result of foul feeding, and an inattention to cleanliness, as the Gallegans, with regard to the comforts of life and civilized habits, are confessedly far behind all the other natives of Spain.

“Besides a general hospital we have likewise a leper-house,” said the bookseller. “Shall I show it you? We have everything at Saint James. There is nothing lacking; the very leper finds an inn here.” “I have no objection to your showing me the house,” I replied, “but it must be at a distance, for enter it I will not.” Thereupon he conducted me down the road which leads towards Padron and Vigo, and pointing to two or three huts, exclaimed “That is our leper-house.” “It appears a miserable place,” I replied: “what accommodation may there be for the patients, and who attends to their wants?” “They are left to themselves,” answered the bookseller, “and probably sometimes perish from neglect: the place at one time was endowed and had rents which were appropriated to its support, but even these have been sequestered during the late troubles. At present, the least unclean of the lepers generally takes his station by the road side, and begs for the rest. See there he is now.”

And sure enough the leper in his shining scales, and half naked, was seated beneath a ruined wall. We dropped money into the hat of the unhappy being, and passed on.

“A bad disorder that,” said my friend. “I confess that I, who have seen so many of them, am by no means fond of the company of lepers. Indeed, I wish that they would never enter my shop, as they occasionally do to beg. Nothing is more infectious, as I have heard, than leprosy: there is one very virulent species, however, which is particularly dreaded here, the elephantine: those who die of it should, according to law, be burnt, and their ashes scattered to the winds: for if the body of such a leper be interred in the field of the dead, the disorder is forthwith communicated to all the corses even below the earth. Such, at least, is our idea in these parts. Lawsuits are at present pending from the circumstance of elephantides having been buried with the other dead. Sad is leprosy in all its forms, but most so when elephantine.”

“Talking of corses,” said I, “do you believe that the bones of St. James are veritably interred at Compostella?”

“What can I say,” replied the old man; “you know as much of the matter as myself. Beneath the high altar is a large stone slab or lid, which is said to cover the mouth of a profound well, at the bottom of which it is believed that the bones of the saint are interred; though why they should be placed at the bottom of a well, is a mystery which I cannot fathom. One of the officers of the church told me that at one time he and another kept watch in the church during the night, one of the chapels having shortly before been broken open and a sacrilege committed. At the dead of night, finding the time hang heavy on their hands, they took a crowbar and removed the slab and looked down into the abyss below; it was dark as the grave; whereupon they affixed a weight to the end of a long rope and lowered it down. At a very great depth it seemed to strike against something dull and solid like lead: they supposed it might be a coffin; perhaps it was, but whose is the question.”

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