The Bible in Spain, by George Borrow

Chapter 28

Skippers of Padron — Caldas de los Reyes — Pontevedra — The Notary Public — Insane Barber — An Introduction — Gallegan Language — Afternoon Ride — Vigo — The Stranger — Jews of the Desert — Bay of Vigo — Sudden Interruption — The Governor.

After a stay of about a fortnight at Saint James, we again mounted our horses and proceeded in the direction of Vigo. As we did not leave Saint James till late in the afternoon, we travelled that day no farther than Padron, a distance of only three leagues. This place is a small port, situate at the extremity of a firth which communicates with the sea. It is called for brevity’s sake, Padron, but its proper appellation is Villa del Padron, or the town of the patron saint; it having been, according to the legend, the principal residence of Saint James during his stay in Galicia. By the Romans it was termed Iria Flavia. It is a flourishing little town, and carries on rather an extensive commerce, some of its tiny barks occasionally finding their way across the Bay of Biscay, and even so far as the Thames and London.

There is a curious anecdote connected with the skippers of Padron, which can scarcely be considered as out of place here, as it relates to the circulation of the Scriptures. I was one day in the shop of my friend the bookseller at Saint James, when a stout good-humoured-looking priest entered. He took up one of my Testaments, and forthwith burst into a violent fit of laughter. “What is the matter?” demanded the bookseller. “The sight of this book reminds me of a circumstance”: replied the other, “about twenty years ago, when the English first took it into their heads to be very zealous in converting us Spaniards to their own way of thinking, they distributed a great number of books of this kind amongst the Spaniards who chanced to be in London; some of them fell into the hands of certain skippers of Padron, and these good folks, on their return to Galicia, were observed to have become on a sudden exceedingly opinionated and fond of dispute. It was scarcely possible to make an assertion in their hearing without receiving a flat contradiction, especially when religious subjects were brought on the carpet. ‘It is false,’ they would say; ‘Saint Paul, in such a chapter and in such a verse, says exactly the contrary.’ ‘What can you know concerning what Saint Paul or any other saint has written?’ the priests would ask them. ‘Much more than you think,’ they replied; ‘we are no longer to be kept in darkness and ignorance respecting these matters:’ and then they would produce their books and read paragraphs, making such comments that every person was scandalized; they cared nothing about the Pope, and even spoke with irreverence of the bones of Saint James. However, the matter was soon bruited about, and a commission was dispatched from our see to collect the books and burn them. This was effected, and the skippers were either punished or reprimanded, since which I have heard nothing more of them. I could not forbear laughing when I saw these books; they instantly brought to my mind the skippers of Padron and their religious disputations.”

Our next day’s journey brought us to Pontevedra. As there was no talk of robbers in these parts, we travelled without any escort and alone. The road was beautiful and picturesque, though somewhat solitary, especially after we had left behind us the small town of Caldas. There is more than one place of this name in Spain; the one of which I am speaking is distinguished from the rest by being called Caldas de los Reyes, or the warm baths of the kings. It will not be amiss to observe that the Spanish Caldas is synonymous with the Moorish Alhama, a word of frequent occurrence both in Spanish and African topography. Caldas seemed by no means undeserving of its name: it stands on a confluence of springs, and the place when we arrived was crowded with people who had come to enjoy the benefit of the waters. In the course of my travels I have observed that wherever warm springs are found, vestiges of volcanoes are sure to be nigh; the smooth black precipice, the divided mountain, or huge rocks standing by themselves on the plain or on the hill side, as if Titans had been playing at bowls. This last feature occurs near Caldas de los Reyes, the side of the mountain which overhangs it in the direction of the south being covered with immense granite stones, apparently at some ancient period eructed from the bowels of the earth. From Caldas to Pontevedra the route was hilly and fatiguing, the heat was intense, and those clouds of flies, which constitute one of the pests of Galicia, annoyed our horses to such a degree that we were obliged to cut down branches from the trees to protect their heads and necks from the tormenting stings of these bloodthirsty insects. Whilst travelling in Galicia at this period of the year on horseback, it is always advisable to carry a fine net for the protection of the animal, a sure and commodious means of defence, which appears, however, to be utterly unknown in Galicia, where, perhaps, it is more wanted than in any other part of the world.

Pontevedra, upon the whole, is certainly entitled to the appellation of a magnificent town, some of its public edifices, especially the convents, being such as are nowhere to be found but in Spain and Italy. It is surrounded by a wall of hewn stone, and stands at the end of a creek into which the river Levroz disembogues. It is said to have been founded by a colony of Greeks, whose captain was no less a personage than Teucer the Telemonian. It was in former times a place of considerable commerce; and near its port are to be seen the ruins of a farol, or lighthouse, said to be of great antiquity. The port, however, is at a considerable distance from the town, and is shallow and incommodious. The whole country in the neighbourhood of Pontevedra is inconceivably delicious, abounding with fruits of every description, especially grapes, which in the proper season are seen hanging from the “parras” in luscious luxuriance. An old Andalusian author has said that it produces as many oranges and citron trees as the neighbourhood of Cordova. Its oranges are, however, by no means good, and cannot compete with those of Andalusia. The Pontevedrians boast that their land produces two crops every year, and that whilst they are gathering in one they may be seen ploughing and sowing another. They may well be proud of their country, which is certainly a highly favoured spot.

The town itself is in a state of great decay, and notwithstanding the magnificence of its public edifices, we found more than the usual amount of Galician filth and misery. The posada was one of the most wretched description, and to mend the matter, the hostess was a most intolerable scold and shrew. Antonio having found fault with the quality of some provision which she produced, she cursed him most immoderately in the country language, which was the only one she spoke, and threatened, if he attempted to breed any disturbance in her house, to turn the horses, himself, and his master forthwith out of doors. Socrates himself, however, could not have conducted himself on this occasion with greater forbearance than Antonio, who shrugged his shoulders, muttered something in Greek, and then was silent.

“Where does the notary public live?” I demanded. Now the notary public vended books, and to this personage I was recommended by my friend at Saint James. A boy conducted me to the house of Senor Garcia, for such was his name. I found him a brisk, active, talkative little man of forty. He undertook with great alacrity the sale of my Testaments, and in a twinkling sold two to a client who was waiting in the office, and appeared to be from the country. He was an enthusiastic patriot, but of course in a local sense, for he cared for no other country than Pontevedra.

“Those fellows of Vigo,” said he, “say their town is a better one than ours, and that it is more deserving to be the capital of this part of Galicia. Did you ever hear such folly? I tell you what, friend, I should not care if Vigo were burnt, and all the fools and rascals within it. Would you ever think of comparing Vigo with Pontevedra?”

“I don’t know,” I replied; “I have never been at Vigo, but I have heard say that the bay of Vigo is the finest in the world.”

“Bay! my good sir. Bay! yes, the rascals have a bay, and it is that bay of theirs which has robbed us all our commerce. But what needs the capital of a district with a bay? It is public edifices that it wants, where the provincial deputies can meet to transact their business; now, so far from there being a commodious public edifice, there is not a decent house in all Vigo. Bay! yes, they have a bay, but have they water fit to drink? Have they a fountain? Yes, they have, and the water is so brackish that it would burst the stomach of a horse. I hope, my dear sir, that you have not come all this distance to take the part of such a gang of pirates as those of Vigo.”

“I am not come to take their part,” I replied; “indeed, I was not aware that they wanted my assistance in this dispute. I am merely carrying to them the New Testament, of which they evidently stand in much need, if they are such knaves and scoundrels as you represent them.”

“Represent them, my dear sir. Does not the matter speak for itself? Do they not say that their town is better than ours, more fit to be the capital of a district, que disparate! que briboneria! (what folly! what rascality!)”

“Is there a bookseller’s shop at Vigo?” I inquired.

“There was one,” he replied, “kept by an insane barber. I am glad, for your sake, that it is broken up, and the fellow vanished; he would have played you one of two tricks; he would either have cut your throat with his razor, under pretence of shaving you, or have taken your books and never have accounted to you for the proceeds. Bay! I never could see what right such an owl’s nest as Vigo has to a bay.”

No person could exhibit greater kindness to another, than did the notary public to myself, as soon as I had convinced him that I had no intention of siding with the men of Vigo against Pontevedra. It was now six o’clock in the evening, and he forthwith conducted me to a confectioner’s shop, where he treated me with an iced cream and a small cup of chocolate. From hence we walked about the city, the notary showing the various edifices, especially, the Convent of the Jesuits: “See that front,” said he, “what do you think of it?”

I expressed to him the admiration which I really felt, and by so doing entirely won the good notary’s heart: “I suppose there is nothing like that at Vigo?” said I. He looked at me for a moment, winked, gave a short triumphant chuckle, and then proceeded on his way, walking at a tremendous rate. The Senor Garcia was dressed in all respects as an English notary might be: he wore a white hat, brown frock coat, drab breeches buttoned at the knees, white stockings, and well blacked shoes. But I never saw an English notary walk so fast: it could scarcely be called walking: it seemed more like a succession of galvanic leaps and bounds. I found it impossible to keep up with him: “Where are you conducting me?” I at last demanded, quite breathless.

“To the house of the cleverest man in Spain,” he replied, “to whom I intend to introduce you; for you must not think that Pontevedra has nothing to boast of but its splendid edifices and its beautiful country; it produces more illustrious minds than any other town in Spain. Did you ever hear of the grand Tamerlane?”

“Oh, yes,” said I, “but he did not come from Pontevedra or its neighbourhood: he came from the steppes of Tartary, near the river Oxus.”

“I know he did,” replied the notary, “but what I mean to say is, that when Enrique the Third wanted an ambassador to send to that African, the only man he could find suited to the enterprise was a knight of Pontevedra, Don — by name. Let the men of Vigo contradict that fact if they can.”

We entered a large portal and ascended a splendid staircase, at the top of which the notary knocked at a small door: “Who is the gentleman to whom you are about to introduce me?” demanded I.

“It is the advocate — ” replied Garcia; “he is the cleverest man in Spain, and understands all languages and sciences.”

We were admitted by a respectable-looking female, to all appearance a housekeeper, who, on being questioned, informed us that the Advocate was at home, and forthwith conducted us to an immense room, or rather library, the walls being covered with books, except in two or three places, where hung some fine pictures of the ancient Spanish school. There was a rich mellow light in the apartment, streaming through a window of stained glass, which looked to the west. Behind the table sat the Advocate, on whom I looked with no little interest: his forehead was high and wrinkled, and there was much gravity on his features, which were quite Spanish. He was dressed in a long robe, and might be about sixty; he sat reading behind a large table, and on our entrance half raised himself and bowed slightly.

The notary public saluted him most profoundly, and, in an under voice, hoped that he might be permitted to introduce a friend of his, an English gentleman, who was travelling through Galicia.

“I am very glad to see him,” said the Advocate, “but I hope he speaks Castilian, else we can have but little communication; for, although I can read both French and Latin, I cannot speak them.”

“He speaks, sir, almost as good Spanish,” said the notary, “as a native of Pontevedra.”

“The natives of Pontevedra,” I replied, “appear to be better versed in Gallegan than in Castilian, for the greater part of the conversation which I hear in the streets is carried on in the former dialect.”

“The last gentleman which my friend Garcia introduced to me,” said the Advocate, “was a Portuguese, who spoke little or no Spanish. It is said that the Gallegan and Portuguese are very similar, but when we attempted to converse in the two languages, we found it impossible. I understood little of what he said, whilst my Gallegan was quite unintelligible to him. Can you understand our country dialect?” he continued.

“Very little of it,” I replied; “which I believe chiefly proceeds from the peculiar accent and uncouth enunciation of the Gallegans, for their language is certainly almost entirely composed of Spanish and Portuguese words.”

“So you are an Englishman,” said the Advocate. “Your countrymen have committed much damage in times past in these regions, if we may trust our histories.”

“Yes,” said I, “they sank your galleons and burnt your finest men-of-war in Vigo Bay, and, under old Cobham, levied a contribution of forty thousand pounds sterling on this very town of Pontevedra.”

“Any foreign power,” interrupted the notary public, “has a clear right to attack Vigo, but I cannot conceive what plea your countrymen could urge for distressing Pontevedra, which is a respectable town, and could never have offended them.”

“Senor Cavalier,” said the Advocate, “I will show you my library. Here is a curious work, a collection of poems, written mostly in Gallegan, by the curate of Fruime. He is our national poet, and we are very proud of him.”

We stopped upwards of an hour with the Advocate, whose conversation, if it did not convince me that he was the cleverest man in Spain, was, upon the whole, highly interesting, and who certainly possessed an extensive store of general information, though he was by no means the profound philologist which the notary had represented him to be.

When I was about to depart from Pontevedra in the afternoon of the next day, the Senor Garcia stood by the side of my horse, and having embraced me, thrust a small pamphlet into my hand: “This book,” said he, “contains a description of Pontevedra. Wherever you go, speak well of Pontevedra.” I nodded. “Stay,” said he, “my dear friend, I have heard of your society, and will do my best to further its views. I am quite disinterested, but if at any future time you should have an opportunity of speaking in print of Senor Garcia, the notary public of Pontevedra, — you understand me, — I wish you would do so.”

“I will,” said I.

It was a pleasant afternoon’s ride from Pontevedra to Vigo, the distance being only four leagues. As we approached the latter town, the country became exceedingly mountainous, though scarcely anything could exceed the beauty of the surrounding scenery. The sides of the hills were for the most part clothed with luxuriant forests, even to the very summits, though occasionally a flinty and naked peak would present itself, rising to the clouds. As the evening came on, the route along which we advanced became very gloomy, the hills and forests enwrapping it in deep shade. It appeared, however, to be well frequented: numerous cars were creaking along it, and both horsemen and pedestrians were continually passing us. The villages were frequent. Vines, supported on parras, were growing, if possible, in still greater abundance than in the neighbourhood of Pontevedra. Life and activity seemed to pervade everything. The hum of insects, the cheerful bark of dogs, the rude songs of Galicia, were blended together in pleasant symphony. So delicious was my ride, that I almost regretted when we entered the gate of Vigo.

The town occupies the lower part of a lofty hill, which, as it ascends, becomes extremely steep and precipitous, and the top of which is crowned with a strong fort or castle. It is a small compact place, surrounded with low walls, the streets are narrow, steep, and winding, and in the middle of the town is a small square.

There is rather an extensive faubourg extending along the shore of the bay. We found an excellent posada, kept by a man and woman from the Basque provinces, who were both civil and intelligent. The town seemed to be crowded, and resounded with noise and merriment. The people were making a wretched attempt at an illumination, in consequence of some victory lately gained, or pretended to have been gained, over the forces of the Pretender. Military uniforms were glancing about in every direction. To increase the bustle, a troop of Portuguese players had lately arrived from Oporto, and their first representation was to take place this evening. “Is the play to be performed in Spanish?” I demanded. “No,” was the reply; “and on that account every person is so eager to go; which would not be the case if it were in a language which they could understand.”

On the morning of the next day I was seated at breakfast in a large apartment which looked out upon the Plaza Mayor, or great square of the good town of Vigo. The sun was shining very brilliantly, and all around looked lively and gay. Presently a stranger entered, and bowing profoundly, stationed himself at the window, where he remained a considerable time in silence. He was a man of very remarkable appearance, of about thirty-five. His features were of perfect symmetry, and I may almost say, of perfect beauty. His hair was the darkest I had ever seen, glossy and shining; his eyes large, black, and melancholy; but that which most struck me was his complexion. It might be called olive, it is true, but it was a livid olive. He was dressed in the very first style of French fashion. Around his neck was a massive gold chain, while upon his fingers were large rings, in one of which was set a magnificent ruby. Who can that man be? thought I; — Spaniard or Portuguese, perhaps a Creole. I asked him an indifferent question in Spanish, to which he forthwith replied in that language, but his accent convinced me that he was neither Spaniard nor Portuguese.

“I presume I am speaking to an Englishman, sir?” said he, in as good English as it was possible for one not an Englishman to speak.

Myself. — You know me to be an Englishman; but I should find some difficulty in guessing to what country you belong.

Stranger. — May I take a seat?

Myself. — A singular question. Have you not as much right to sit in the public apartment of an inn as myself?

Stranger. — I am not certain of that. The people here are not in general very gratified at seeing me seated by their side.

Myself. — Perhaps owing to your political opinions, or to some crime which it may have been your misfortune to commit?

Stranger. — I have no political opinions, and I am not aware that I ever committed any particular crime, — I am hated for my country and my religion.

Myself. — Perhaps I am speaking to a Protestant, like myself?

Stranger. — I am no Protestant. If I were, they would be cautious here of showing their dislike, for I should then have a government and a consul to protect me. I am a Jew — a Barbary Jew, a subject of Abderrahman.

Myself. — If that be the case, you can scarcely complain of being looked upon with dislike in this country, since in Barbary the Jews are slaves.

Stranger. — In most parts, I grant you, but not where I was born, which was far up the country, near the deserts. There the Jews are free, and are feared, and are as valiant men as the Moslems themselves; as able to tame the steed, or to fire the gun. The Jews of our tribe are not slaves, and I like not to be treated as a slave either by Christian or Moor.

Myself. — Your history must be a curious one, I would fain hear it.

Stranger. — My history I shall tell to no one. I have travelled much, I have been in commerce and have thriven. I am at present established in Portugal, but I love not the people of Catholic countries, and least of all these of Spain. I have lately experienced the most shameful injustice in the Aduana of this town, and when I complained, they laughed at me and called me Jew. Wherever he turns, the Jew is reviled, save in your country, and on that account my blood always warms when I see an Englishman. You are a stranger here. Can I do aught for you? You may command me.

Myself. — I thank you heartily, but I am in need of no assistance.

Stranger. — Have you any bills, I will accept them if you have?

Myself. — I have no need of assistance; but you may do me a favour by accepting of a book.

Stranger. — I will receive it with thanks. I know what it is. What a singular people? The same dress, the same look, the same book. Pelham gave me one in Egypt. Farewell! Your Jesus was a good man, perhaps a prophet; but . . . farewell!

Well may the people of Pontevedra envy the natives of Vigo their bay, with which, in many respects, none other in the world can compare. On every side it is defended by steep and sublime hills, save on the part of the west, where is the outlet to the Atlantic; but in the midst of this outlet, up towers a huge rocky wall, or island, which breaks the swell, and prevents the billows of the western sea from pouring through in full violence. On either side of this island is a passage, so broad, that navies might pass through at all times in safety. The bay itself is oblong, running far into the land, and so capacious, that a thousand sail of the line might ride in it uncrowded. The waters are dark, still, and deep, without quicksands or shallows, so that the proudest man-of-war might lie within a stone’s throw of the town ramparts without any fear of injuring her keel.

Of many a strange event, and of many a mighty preparation has this bay been the scene. It was here that the bulky dragons of the grand armada were mustered, and it was from hence that, fraught with the pomp, power, and terror of old Spain, the monster fleet, spreading its enormous sails to the wind, and bent on the ruin of the Lutheran isle, proudly steered; — that fleet, to build and man which half the forests of Galicia had been felled, and all the mariners impressed from the thousand bays and creeks of the stern Cantabrian shore. It was here that the united flags of Holland and England triumphed over the pride of Spain and France; when the burning timbers of exploded war-ships soared above the tops of the Gallegan hills, and blazing galleons sank with their treasure chests whilst drifting in the direction of Sampayo. It was on the shores of this bay that the English guards first emptied Spanish bodegas, whilst the bombs of Cobham were crushing the roofs of the castle of Castro, and the vecinos of Pontevedra buried their doubloons in cellars, and flying posts were conveying to Lugo and Orensee the news of the heretic invasion and the disaster of Vigo. All these events occurred to my mind as I stood far up the hill, at a short distance from the fort, surveying the bay.

“What are you doing there, Cavalier?” roared several voices. “Stay, Carracho! if you attempt to run we will shoot you!” I looked round and saw three or four fellows in dirty uniforms, to all appearance soldiers, just above me, on a winding path, which led up the hill. Their muskets were pointed at me. “What am I doing? Nothing, as you see,” said I, “save looking at the bay; and as for running, this is by no means ground for a course.” “You are our prisoner,” said they, “and you must come with us to the fort.” “I was just thinking of going there,” I replied, “before you thus kindly invited me. The fort is the very spot I was desirous of seeing.” I thereupon climbed up to the place where they stood, when they instantly surrounded me, and with this escort I was marched into the fort, which might have been a strong place in its time, but was now rather ruinous. “You are suspected of being a spy,” said the corporal, who walked in front. “Indeed,” said I. “Yes,” replied the corporal, “and several spies have lately been taken and shot.”

Upon one of the parapets of the fort stood a young man, dressed as a subaltern officer, and to this personage I was introduced. “We have been watching you this half hour,” said he, “as you were taking observations.” “Then you gave yourselves much useless trouble,” said I. “I am an Englishman, and was merely looking at the bay. Have the kindness now to show me the fort.” . . .

After some conversation, he said, “I wish to be civil to people of your nation, you may therefore consider yourself at liberty.” I bowed, made my exit, and proceeded down the hill. Just before I entered the town, however, the corporal, who had followed me unperceived, tapped me on the shoulder. “You must go with me to the governor,” said he. “With all my heart,” I replied. The governor was shaving, when we were shown up to him. He was in his shirt sleeves, and held a razor in his hand. He looked very ill-natured, which was perhaps owing to his being thus interrupted in his toilet. He asked me two or three questions, and on learning that I had a passport, and was the bearer of a letter to the English consul, he told me that I was at liberty to depart. So I bowed to the governor of the town, as I had done to the governor of the fort, and making my exit proceeded to my inn.

At Vigo I accomplished but little in the way of distribution, and after a sojourn of a few days, I returned in the direction of Saint James.

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