The Bible in Spain, by George Borrow

Chapter 32

Martin of Rivadeo — The Factious Mare — Asturians — Luarca — The Seven Bellotas — Hermits — The Asturian’s Tale — Strange Guests — The Big Servant — Batuschca

“What may your business be?” said I to a short, thick, merry-faced fellow in a velveteen jerkin and canvas pantaloons, who made his way into my apartment, in the dusk of the evening.

“I am Martin of Rivadeo, your worship,” replied the man, “an alquilador by profession; I am told that you want a horse for your journey into the Asturias tomorrow, and of course a guide: now, if that be the case, I counsel you to hire myself and mare.”

“I am become tired of guides,” I replied; “so much so that I was thinking of purchasing a pony, and proceeding without any guide at all. The last which we had was an infamous character.”

“So I have been told, your worship, and it was well for the bribon that I was not in Rivadeo when the affair to which you allude occurred. But he was gone with the pony Perico before I came back, or I would have bled the fellow to a certainty with my knife. He is a disgrace to the profession, which is one of the most honourable and ancient in the world. Perico himself must have been ashamed of him, for Perico, though a pony, is a gentleman, one of many capacities, and well known upon the roads. He is only inferior to my mare.”

“Are you well acquainted with the road to Oviedo?” I demanded.

“I am not, your worship; that is, no farther than Luarca, which is the first day’s journey. I do not wish to deceive you, therefore let me go with you no farther than that place; though perhaps I might serve for the whole journey, for though I am unacquainted with the country, I have a tongue in my head, and nimble feet to run and ask questions. I will, however, answer for myself no farther than Luarca, where you can please yourselves. Your being strangers is what makes me wish to accompany you, for I like the conversation of strangers, from whom I am sure to gain information both entertaining and profitable. I wish, moreover, to convince you that we guides of Galicia are not all thieves, which I am sure you will not suppose if you only permit me to accompany you as far as Luarca.”

I was so much struck with the fellow’s good humour and frankness, and more especially by the originality of character displayed in almost every sentence which he uttered, that I readily engaged him to guide us to Luarca; whereupon he left me, promising to be ready with his mare at eight next morning.

Rivadeo is one of the principal seaports of Galicia, and is admirably situated for commerce, on a deep firth, into which the river Mirando debouches. It contains many magnificent buildings, and an extensive square or plaza, which is planted with trees. I observed several vessels in the harbour; and the population, which is rather numerous, exhibited none of those marks of misery and dejection which I had lately observed among the Ferrolese.

On the morrow Martin of Rivadeo made his appearance at the appointed hour with his mare. It was a lean haggard animal, not much larger than a pony; it had good points, however, and was very clean in its hinder legs, and Martin insisted that it was the best animal of its kind in all Spain. “It is a factious mare,” said he, “and I believe an Alavese. When the Carlists came here it fell lame, and they left it behind, and I purchased it for a dollar. It is not lame now, however, as you shall soon see.”

We had now reached the firth which divides Galicia from the Asturias. A kind of barge was lying about two yards from the side of the quay, waiting to take us over. Towards this Martin led his mare, and giving an encouraging shout, the creature without any hesitation sprang over the intervening space into the barge. “I told you she was a facciosa,” said Martin; “none but a factious animal would have taken such a leap.”

We all embarked in the barge and crossed over the firth, which is in this place nearly a mile broad, to Castro Pol, the first town in the Asturias. I now mounted the factious mare, whilst Antonio followed on my own horse. Martin led the way, exchanging jests with every person whom he met on the road, and occasionally enlivening the way with an extemporaneous song.

We were now in the Asturias, and about noon we reached Navias, a small fishing town, situate on a ria or firth; in the neighbourhood are ragged mountains, called the Sierra de Buron, which stand in the shape of a semi-circle. We saw a small vessel in the harbour, which we subsequently learned was from the Basque provinces, come for a cargo of cider or sagadua, the beverage so dearly loved by the Basques. As we passed along the narrow street, Antonio was hailed with an “Ola” from a species of shop in which three men, apparently shoemakers, were seated. He stopped for some time to converse with them, and when he joined us at the posada where we halted, I asked him who they were: “Mon maitre,” said he, “ce sont des messieurs de ma connoissance. I have been fellow servant at different times with all three; and I tell you beforehand, that we shall scarcely pass through a village in this country where I shall not find an acquaintance. All the Asturians, at some period of their lives, make a journey to Madrid, where, if they can obtain a situation, they remain until they have scraped up sufficient to turn to advantage in their own country; and as I have served in all the great houses in Madrid, I am acquainted with the greatest part of them. I have nothing to say against the Asturians, save that they are close and penurious whilst at service; but they are not thieves, neither at home nor abroad, and though we must have our wits about us in their country, I have heard we may travel from one end of it to the other without the slightest fear of being either robbed or ill treated, which is not the case in Galicia, where we were always in danger of having our throats cut.”

Leaving Navias, we proceeded through a wild desolate country, till we reached the pass of Baralla, which lies up the side of a huge wall of rocks, which at a distance appear of a light green colour, though perfectly bare of herbage or plants of any description.

“This pass,” said Martin of Rivadeo, “bears a very evil reputation, and I should not like to travel it after sunset. It is not infested by robbers, but by things much worse, the duendes of two friars of Saint Francis. It is said that in the old time, long before the convents were suppressed, two friars of the order of Saint Francis left their convent to beg; it chanced that they were very successful, but as they were returning at nightfall, by this pass, they had a quarrel about what they had collected, each insisting that he had done his duty better than the other; at last, from high words they fell to abuse, and from abuse to blows. What do you think these demons of friars did? They took off their cloaks, and at the end of each they made a knot, in which they placed a large stone, and with these they thrashed and belaboured each other till both fell dead. Master, I know not which are the worst plagues, friars, curates, or sparrows:

“May the Lord God preserve us from evil birds three: From all friars and curates and sparrows that be; For the sparrows eat up all the corn that we sow, The friars drink down all the wine that we grow, Whilst the curates have all the fair dames at their nod: From these three evil curses preserve us, Lord God.”

In about two hours from this time we reached Luarca, the situation of which is most singular. It stands in a deep hollow, whose sides are so precipitous that it is impossible to descry the town until you stand just above it. At the northern extremity of this hollow is a small harbour, the sea entering it by a narrow cleft. We found a large and comfortable posada, and by the advice of Martin, made inquiry for a fresh guide and horse; we were informed, however, that all the horses of the place were absent, and that if we waited for their return, we must tarry for two days. “I had a presentiment,” said Martin, “when we entered Luarca, that we were not doomed to part at present. You must now hire my mare and me as far as Giyon, from whence there is a conveyance to Oviedo. To tell you the truth, I am by no means sorry that the guides are absent, for I am pleased with your company, as I make no doubt you are with mine. I will now go and write a letter to my wife at Rivadeo, informing her that she must not expect to see me back for several days.” He then went out of the room singing the following stanza:

“A handless man a letter did write, A dumb dictated it word for word: The person who read it had lost his sight, And deaf was he who listened and heard.”

Early the next morning we emerged from the hollow of Luarca; about an hour’s riding brought us to Caneiro, a deep and romantic valley of rocks, shaded by tall chestnut trees. Through the midst of this valley rushes a rapid stream, which we crossed in a boat. “There is not such a stream for trout in all the Asturias,” said the ferryman; “look down into the waters and observe the large stones over which it flows; now in the proper season and in fine weather, you cannot see those stones for the multitude of fish which cover them.”

Leaving the valley behind us, we entered into a wild and dreary country, stony and mountainous. The day was dull and gloomy, and all around looked sad and melancholy. “Are we in the way for Giyon and Oviedo?” demanded Martin of an ancient female, who stood at the door of a cottage.

“For Giyon and Oviedo!” replied the crone; “many is the weary step you will have to make before you reach Giyon and Oviedo. You must first of all crack the bellotas: you are just below them.”

“What does she mean by cracking the bellotas?” demanded I of Martin of Rivadeo.

“Did your worship never hear of the seven bellotas?” replied our guide. “I can scarcely tell you what they are, as I have never seen them; I believe they are seven hills which we have to cross, and are called bellotas from some resemblance to acorns which it is fancied they bear. I have often heard of these acorns, and am not sorry that I have now an opportunity of seeing them, though it is said that they are rather hard things for horses to digest.”

The Asturian mountains in this part rise to a considerable altitude. They consist for the most part of dark granite, covered here and there with a thin layer of earth. They approach very near to the sea, to which they slope down in broken ridges, between which are deep and precipitous defiles, each with its rivulet, the tribute of the hills to the salt flood. The road traverses these defiles. There are seven of them, which are called, in the language of the country, Las siete bellotas. Of all these, the most terrible is the midmost, down which rolls an impetuous torrent. At the upper end of it rises a precipitous wall of rock, black as soot, to the height of several hundred yards; its top, as we passed, was enveloped with a veil of bretima. From this gorge branch off, on either side, small dingles or glens, some of them so overgrown with trees and copse-wood, that the eye is unable to penetrate the obscurity beyond a few yards.

“Fine places would some of these dingles prove for hermitages,” said I to Martin of Rivadeo. “Holy men might lead a happy life there on roots and water, and pass many years absorbed in heavenly contemplation, without ever being disturbed by the noise and turmoil of the world.”

“True, your worship,” replied Martin; “and perhaps on that very account there are no hermitages in the barrancos of the seven bellotas. Our hermits had little inclination for roots and water, and had no kind of objection to be occasionally disturbed in their meditations. Vaya! I never yet saw a hermitage that was not hard by some rich town or village, or was not a regular resort for all the idle people in the neighbourhood. Hermits are not fond of living in dingles, amongst wolves and foxes; for how in that case could they dispose of their poultry? A hermit of my acquaintance left, when he died, a fortune of seven hundred dollars to his niece, the greatest part of which he scraped up by fattening turkeys.”

At the top of this bellota we found a wretched venta, where we refreshed ourselves, and then continued our journey. Late in the afternoon we cleared the last of these difficult passes. The wind began now to rise, bearing on its wings a drizzling rain. We passed by Soto Luino, and shaping our course through a wild but picturesque country, we found ourselves about nightfall at the foot of a steep hill, up which led a narrow bridle-way, amidst a grove of lofty trees. Long before we had reached the top it had become quite dark, and the rain had increased considerably. We stumbled along in the obscurity, leading our horses, which were occasionally down on their knees, owing to the slipperiness of the path. At last we accomplished the ascent in safety, and pushing briskly forward, we found ourselves, in about half an hour, at the entrance of Muros, a large village situated just on the declivity of the farther side of the hill.

A blazing fire in the posada soon dried our wet garments, and in some degree recompensed us for the fatigues which we had undergone in scrambling up the bellotas. A rather singular place was this same posada of Muros. It was a large rambling house, with a spacious kitchen, or common room, on the ground floor. Above stairs was a large dining-apartment, with an immense oak table, and furnished with cumbrous leathern chairs with high backs, apparently three centuries old at least. Communicating with this apartment was a wooden gallery, open to the air, which led to a small chamber, in which I was destined to sleep, and which contained an old-fashioned tester-bed with curtains. It was just one of those inns which romance writers are so fond of introducing in their descriptions, especially when the scene of adventure lies in Spain. The host was a talkative Asturian.

The wind still howled, and the rain descended in torrents. I sat before the fire in a very drowsy state, from which I was presently aroused by the conversation of the host. “Senor,” said he, “it is now three years since I beheld foreigners in my house. I remember it was about this time of the year, and just such a night as this, that two men on horseback arrived here. What was singular, they came without any guide. Two more strange-looking individuals I never yet beheld with eye-sight. I shall never forget them. The one was as tall as a giant, with much tawny moustache, like the coat of a badger, growing about his mouth. He had a huge ruddy face, and looked dull and stupid, as he no doubt was, for when I spoke to him, he did not seem to understand, and answered in a jabber, valgame Dios! so wild and strange, that I remained staring at him with mouth and eyes open. The other was neither tall nor red-faced, nor had he hair about his mouth, and, indeed, he had very little upon his head. He was very diminutive, and looked like a jorobado (hunchback); but, valgame Dios! such eyes, like wild cats’, so sharp and full of malice. He spoke as good Spanish as I myself do, and yet he was no Spaniard. A Spaniard never looked like that man. He was dressed in a zamarra, with much silver and embroidery, and wore an Andalusian hat, and I soon found that he was master, and that the other was servant.

“Valgame Dios! what an evil disposition had that same foreign jorobado, and yet he had much grace, much humour, and said occasionally to me such comical things, that I was fit to die of laughter. So he sat down to supper in the room above, and I may as well tell you here, that he slept in the same chamber where your worship will sleep to-night, and his servant waited behind his chair. Well, I had curiosity, so I sat myself down at the table too, without asking leave. Why should I? I was in my own house, and an Asturian is fit company for a king, and is often of better blood. Oh, what a strange supper was that. If the servant made the slightest mistake in helping him, up would start the jorobado, jump upon his chair, and seizing the big giant by the hair, would cuff him on both sides of the face, till I was afraid his teeth would have fallen out. The giant, however, did not seem to care about it much. He was used to it, I suppose. Valgame Dios! if he had been a Spaniard, he would not have submitted to it so patiently. But what surprised me most was, that after beating his servant, the master would sit down, and the next moment would begin conversing and laughing with him as if nothing had happened, and the giant also would laugh and converse with his master, for all the world as if he had not been beaten.

“You may well suppose, Senor, that I understood nothing of their discourse, for it was all in that strange unchristian tongue in which the giant answered me when I spoke to him; the sound of it is still ringing in my ears. It was nothing like other languages. Not like Bascuen, not like the language in which your worship speaks to my namesake Signor Antonio here. Valgame Dios! I can compare it to nothing but the sound a person makes when he rinses his mouth with water. There is one word which I think I still remember, for it was continually proceeding from the giant’s lips, but his master never used it.

“But the strangest part of the story is yet to be told. The supper was ended, and the night was rather advanced, the rain still beat against the windows, even as it does at this moment. Suddenly the jorobado pulled out his watch. Valgame Dios! such a watch! I will tell you one thing, Senor, that I could purchase all the Asturias, and Muros besides, with the brilliants which shone about the sides of that same watch: the room wanted no lamp, I trow, so great was the splendour which they cast. So the jorobado looked at his watch, and then said to me, I shall go to rest. He then took the lamp and went through the gallery to his room, followed by his big servant. Well, Senor, I cleared away the things, and then waited below for the servant, for whom I had prepared a comfortable bed, close by my own. Senor, I waited patiently for an hour, till at last my patience was exhausted, and I ascended to the supper apartment, and passed through the gallery till I came to the door of the strange guest. Senor, what do you think I saw at the door?”

“How should I know?” I replied. “His riding boots perhaps.”

“No, Senor, I did not see his riding boots; but, stretched on the floor with his head against the door, so that it was impossible to open it without disturbing him, lay the big servant fast asleep, his immense legs reaching nearly the whole length of the gallery. I crossed myself, as well I might, for the wind was howling even as it is now, and the rain was rushing down into the gallery in torrents; yet there lay the big servant fast asleep, without any covering, without any pillow, not even a log, stretched out before his master’s door.

“Senor, I got little rest that night, for I said to myself, I have evil wizards in my house, folks who are not human. Once or twice I went up and peeped into the gallery, but there still lay the big servant fast asleep, so I crossed myself and returned to my bed again.”

“Well,” said I, “and what occurred next day?”

“Nothing particular occurred next day: the jorobado came down and said comical things to me in good Spanish, and the big servant came down, but whatever he said, and he did not say much, I understood not, for it was in that disastrous jabber. They stayed with me throughout the day till after supper-time, and then the jorobado gave me a gold ounce, and mounting their horses, they both departed as strangely as they had come, in the dark night, I know not whither.”

“Is that all?” I demanded.

“No, Senor, it is not all; for I was right in supposing them evil brujos: the very next day an express arrived and a great search was made after them, and I was arrested for having harboured them. This occurred just after the present wars had commenced. It was said they were spies and emissaries of I don’t know what nation, and that they had been in all parts of the Asturias, holding conferences with some of the disaffected. They escaped, however, and were never heard of more, though the animals which they rode were found without their riders, wandering amongst the hills; they were common ponies, and were of no value. As for the brujos, it is believed that they embarked in some small vessel which was lying concealed in one of the rias of the coast.”

Myself. — What was the word which you continually heard proceeding from the lips of the big servant, and which you think you can remember?

Host. — Senor, it is now three years since I heard it, and at times I can remember it and at others not; sometimes I have started up in my sleep repeating it. Stay, Senor, I have it now at the point of my tongue: it was Patusca.

Myself. — Batuschca, you mean; the men were Russians.

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