The Bible in Spain, by George Borrow

Chapter 33

Oviedo — The Ten Gentlemen — The Swiss again — Modest Request — The Robbers — Episcopal Benevolence — The Cathedral — Portrait of Feijoo.

I must now take a considerable stride in my journey, no less than from Muros to Oviedo, contenting myself with observing, that we proceeded from Muros to Velez, and from thence to Giyon, where our guide Martin bade us farewell, and returned with his mare to Rivadeo. The honest fellow did not part without many expressions of regret, indeed he even expressed a desire that I should take him and his mare into my service; “for,” said he, “I have a great desire to run through all Spain, and even the world; and I am sure I shall never have a better opportunity than by attaching myself to your worship’s skirts.” On my reminding him, however, of his wife and family, for he had both, he said, “True, true, I had forgotten them: happy the guide whose only wife and family are a mare and foal.”

Oviedo is about three leagues from Giyon. Antonio rode the horse, whilst I proceeded thither in a kind of diligence which runs daily between the two towns. The road is good, but mountainous. I arrived safely at the capital of the Asturias, although at a rather unpropitious season, for the din of war was at the gate, and there was the cry of the captains and the shouting. Castile, at the time of which I am writing, was in the hands of the Carlists, who had captured and plundered Valladolid in much the same manner as they had Segovia some time before. They were every day expected to march on Oviedo, in which case they might perhaps have experienced some resistance, a considerable body of troops being stationed there, who had erected some redoubts, and strongly fortified several of the convents, especially that of Santa Clara de la Vega. All minds were in a state of feverish anxiety and suspense, more especially as no intelligence arrived from Madrid, which by the last accounts was said to be occupied by the bands of Cabrera and Palillos.

So it came to pass that one night I found myself in the ancient town of Oviedo, in a very large, scantily-furnished, and remote room in an ancient posada, formerly a palace of the counts of Santa Cruz. It was past ten, and the rain was descending in torrents. I was writing, but suddenly ceased on hearing numerous footsteps ascending the creaking stairs which led to my apartment. The door was flung open, and in walked nine men of tall stature, marshalled by a little hunchbacked personage. They were all muffled in the long cloaks of Spain, but I instantly knew by their demeanour that they were caballeros, or gentlemen. They placed themselves in a rank before the table where I was sitting. Suddenly and simultaneously they all flung back their cloaks, and I perceived that every one bore a book in his hand; a book which I knew full well. After a pause, which I was unable to break, for I sat lost in astonishment, and almost conceived myself to be visited by apparitions, the hunchback, advancing somewhat before the rest, said in soft silvery tones, “Senor Cavalier, was it you who brought this book to the Asturias?” I now supposed that they were the civil authorities of the place come to take me into custody, and, rising from my seat, I exclaimed, “It certainly was I, and it is my glory to have done so; the book is the New Testament of God: I wish it was in my power to bring a million.” “I heartily wish so too,” said the little personage with a sigh. “Be under no apprehension, Sir Cavalier, these gentlemen are my friends; we have just purchased these books in the shop where you placed them for sale, and have taken the liberty of calling upon you, in order to return you our thanks for the treasure you have brought us. I hope you can furnish us with the Old Testament also.” I replied that I was sorry to inform him that at present it was entirely out of my power to comply with his wish, as I had no Old Testaments in my possession, but did not despair of procuring some speedily from England. He then asked me a great many questions concerning my biblical travels in Spain, and my success, and the views entertained by the Society, with respect to Spain, adding that he hoped we should pay particular attention to the Asturias, which he assured me was the best ground in the Peninsula for our labour. After about half an hour’s conversation, he suddenly said, in the English language, “Good night, Sir,” wrapped his cloak around him, and walked out as he had come. His companions, who had hitherto not uttered a word, all repeated “Good night, Sir,” and, adjusting their cloaks, followed him.

In order to explain this strange scene, I must state that in the morning I had visited the petty bookseller of the place, Longoria, and having arranged preliminaries with him, I sent him in the evening a package of forty Testaments, all I possessed, with some advertisements. At the time he assured me that, though he was willing to undertake the sale, there was, nevertheless, not a prospect of success, as a whole month had elapsed since he had sold a book of any description, on account of the uncertainty of the times, and the poverty which pervaded the land; I therefore felt much dispirited. This incident, however, admonished me not to be cast down when things look gloomiest, as the hand of the Lord is generally then most busy; that men may learn to perceive, that whatever good is accomplished is not their work but his.

Two or three days after this adventure, I was once more seated in my large scantily-furnished room; it was about ten, of a dark melancholy morning, and the autumnal rain was again falling. I had just breakfasted, and was about to sit down to my journal, when the door was flung open and in bounded Antonio.

“Mon maitre,” said he, quite breathless, “who do you think has arrived?”

“The pretender, I suppose,” said I, in some trepidation; “if so, we are prisoners.”

“Bah, bah!” said Antonio, “it is not the pretender, but one worth twenty of him; it is the Swiss of Saint James.”

“Benedict Mol, the Swiss!” said I, “What! has he found the treasure? But how did he come? How is he dressed?”

“Mon maitre,” said Antonio, “he came on foot if we may judge by his shoes, through which his toes are sticking; and as for his dress, he is in most villainous apparel.”

“There must be some mystery in this,” said I; “where is he at present?”

“Below, mon maitre,” replied Antonio; “he came in quest of us. But I no sooner saw him, than I hurried away to let you know.”

In a few minutes Benedict Mol found his way up stairs; he was, as Antonio had remarked, in most villainous apparel, and nearly barefooted; his old Andalusian hat was dripping with rain.

“Och, lieber herr,” said Benedict, “how rejoiced I am to see you again. Oh, the sight of your countenance almost repays me for all the miseries I have undergone since I parted with you at Saint James.”

Myself. — I can scarcely believe that I really see you here at Oviedo. What motive can have induced you to come to such an out-of-the-way place from such an immense distance?

Benedict. — Lieber herr, I will sit down and tell you all that has befallen me. Some few days after I saw you last, the canonigo persuaded me to go to the captain-general to apply for permission to disinter the schatz, and also to crave assistance. So I saw the captain-general, who at first received me very kindly, asked me several questions, and told me to come again. So I continued visiting him till he would see me no longer, and do what I might I could not obtain a glance of him. The canon now became impatient, more especially as he had given me a few pesetas out of the charities of the church. He frequently called me a bribon and impostor. At last, one morning I went to him, and said that I had proposed to return to Madrid, in order to lay the matter before the government, and requested that he would give me a certificate to the effect that I had performed a pilgrimage to Saint James, which I imagined would be of assistance to me upon the way, as it would enable me to beg with some colour of authority. He no sooner heard this request, than, without saying a word or allowing me a moment to put myself on my defence, he sprang upon me like a tiger, grasping my throat so hard that I thought he would have strangled me. I am a Swiss, however, and a man of Lucerne, and when I had recovered myself a little, I had no difficulty in flinging him off; I then threatened him with my staff and went away. He followed me to the gate with the most horrid curses, saying that if I presumed to return again, he would have me thrown at once into prison as a thief and a heretic. So I went in quest of yourself, lieber herr, but they told me that you were departed for Coruna; I then set out for Coruna after you.

Myself. — And what befell you on the road?

Benedict. — I will tell you: about half-way between Saint James and Coruna, as I was walking along, thinking of the schatz, I heard a loud galloping, and looking around me I saw two men on horseback coming across the field with the swiftness of the wind, and making directly for me. Lieber Gott, said I, these are thieves, these are factious; and so they were. They came up to me in a moment and bade me stand, so I flung down my staff, took off my hat and saluted them. “Good day, caballeros,” said I to them. “Good day, countryman,” said they to me, and then we stood staring at each other for more than a minute. Lieber himmel, I never saw such robbers; so finely dressed, so well armed, and mounted so bravely on two fiery little hakkas, that looked as if they could have taken wing and flown up into the clouds! So we continued staring at each other, till at last one asked me who I was, whence I came, and where I was going. “Gentlemen,” said I, “I am a Swiss, I have been to Saint James to perform a religious vow, and am now returning to my own country.” I said not a word about the treasure, for I was afraid that they would have shot me at once, conceiving that I carried part of it about me. “Have you any money?” they demanded. “Gentlemen,” I replied, “you see how I travel on foot, with my shoes torn to pieces; I should not do so if I had money. I will not deceive you, however, I have a peseta and a few cuartos,” and thereupon I took out what I had and offered it to them. “Fellow,” said they, “we are caballeros of Galicia, and do not take pesetas, much less cuartos. Of what opinion are you? Are you for the queen?” “No, gentlemen,” said I, “I am not for the queen, but, at the same time, allow me to tell you that I am not for the king either; I know nothing about the matter; I am a Swiss, and fight neither for nor against anybody unless I am paid.” This made them laugh, and then they questioned me about Saint James, and the troops there, and the captain-general; and not to disoblige them, I told them all I knew and much more. Then one of them, who looked the fiercest and most determined, took his trombone in his hand, and pointing it at me, said, “Had you been a Spaniard, we would have blown your head to shivers, for we should have thought you a spy, but we see you are a foreigner, and believe what you have said; take, therefore, this peseta and go your way, but beware that you tell nobody any thing about us, for if you do, carracho!” He then discharged his trombone just over my head, so that for a moment I thought myself shot, and then with an awful shout, they both galloped away, their horses leaping over the barrancos, as if possessed with many devils.

Myself. — And what happened to you on your arrival at Coruna?

Benedict. — When I arrived at Coruna, I inquired after yourself, lieber herr, and they informed me that, only the day before my arrival, you had departed for Oviedo: and when I heard that, my heart died within me, for I was now at the far end of Galicia, without a friend to help me. For a day or two I knew not what to do; at last I determined to make for the frontier of France, passing through Oviedo in the way, where I hoped to see you and ask counsel of you. So I begged and bettled among the Germans of Coruna. I, however, got very little from them, only a few cuarts, less than the thieves had given me on the road from Saint James, and with these I departed for the Asturias by the way of Mondonedo. Och, what a town is that, full of canons, priests, and pfaffen, all of them more Carlist than Carlos himself.

One day I went to the bishop’s palace and spoke to him, telling him I was a pilgrim from Saint James, and requesting assistance. He told me, however, that he could not relieve me, and as for my being a pilgrim from Saint James, he was glad of it, and hoped that it would be of service to my soul. So I left Mondonedo, and got amongst the wild mountains, begging and betting at the door of every choza that I passed, telling all I saw that I was a pilgrim from Saint James, and showing my passport in proof that I had been there. Lieber herr, no person gave me a cuart, nor even a piece of broa, and both Gallegans and Asturians laughed at Saint James, and told me that his name was no longer a passport in Spain. I should have starved if I had not sometimes plucked an ear or two out of the maize fields; I likewise gathered grapes from the parras and berries from the brambles, and in this manner I subsisted till I arrived at the bellotas, where I slaughtered a stray kid which I met, and devoured part of the flesh raw, so great was my hunger. It made me, however, very ill, and for two days I lay in a barranco half dead and unable to help myself; it was a mercy that I was not devoured by the wolves. I then struck across the country for Oviedo: how I reached it I do not know; I was like one walking in a dream. Last night I slept in an empty hog-sty about two leagues from here, and ere I left it, I fell down on my knees and prayed to God that I might find you, lieber herr, for you were my last hope.

Myself. — And what do you propose to do at present?

Benedict. — What can I say, lieber herr? I know not what to do. I will be guided in everything by your counsel.

Myself. — I shall remain at Oviedo a few days longer, during which time you can lodge at this posada, and endeavour to recover from the fatigue of your disastrous journeys; perhaps before I depart, we may hit on some plan to extricate you from your present difficulties.

Oviedo contains about fifteen thousand inhabitants. It is picturesquely situated between two mountains, Morcin and Naranco; the former is very high and rugged, and during the greater part of the year is covered with snow; the sides of the latter are cultivated and planted with vines. The principal ornament of the town is the cathedral, the tower of which is exceedingly lofty, and is perhaps one of the purest specimens of Gothic architecture at present in existence. The interior of the cathedral is neat and appropriate, but simple and unadorned. I observed but one picture, the Conversion of Saint Paul. One of the chapels is a cemetery, in which rest the bones of eleven Gothic kings; to whose souls be peace.

I bore a letter of recommendation from Coruna to a merchant of Oviedo. This person received me very courteously, and generally devoted some portion of every day to showing me the remarkable things of Oviedo.

One morning he thus addressed me: “You have doubtless heard of Feijoo, the celebrated philosophic monk of the order of Saint Benedict, whose writings have so much tended to remove the popular fallacies and superstitions so long cherished in Spain; he is buried in one of our convents, where he passed a considerable portion of his life. Come with me and I will show you his portrait. Carlos Tercero, our great king, sent his own painter from Madrid to execute it. It is now in the possession of a friend of mine, Don Ramon Valdez, an advocate.”

Thereupon he led me to the house of Don Ramon Valdez, who very politely exhibited the portrait of Feijoo. It was circular in shape, about a foot in diameter, and was surrounded by a little brass frame, something like the rim of a barber’s basin. The countenance was large and massive but fine, the eyebrows knit, the eyes sharp and penetrating, nose aquiline. On the head was a silken skull-cap; the collar of the coat or vest was just perceptible. The painting was decidedly good, and struck me as being one of the very best specimens of modern Spanish art which I had hitherto seen.

A day or two after this I said to Benedict Mol, “tomorrow I start from hence for Santander. It is therefore high time that you decide upon some course, whether to return to Madrid or to make the best of your way to France, and from thence proceed to your own country.”

“Lieber herr,” said Benedict, “I will follow you to Santander by short journeys, for I am unable to make long ones amongst these hills; and when I am there, peradventure I may find some means of passing into France. It is a great comfort, in my horrible journeys, to think that I am travelling over the ground which yourself have trodden, and to hope that I am proceeding to rejoin you once more. This hope kept me alive in the bellotas, and without it I should never have reached Oviedo. I will quit Spain as soon as possible, and betake me to Lucerne, though it is a hard thing to leave the schatz behind me in the land of the Gallegans.”

Thereupon I presented him with a few dollars.

“A strange man is this Benedict,” said Antonio to me next morning, as, accompanied by a guide, we sallied forth from Oviedo; “a strange man, mon maitre, is this same Benedict. A strange life has he led, and a strange death he will die, — it is written on his countenance. That he will leave Spain I do not believe, or if he leave it, it will be only to return, for he is bewitched about this treasure. Last night he sent for a sorciere, whom he consulted in my presence; and she told him that he was doomed to possess it, but that first of all he must cross water. She cautioned him likewise against an enemy, which he supposes must be the canon of Saint James. I have often heard people speak of the avidity of the Swiss for money, and here is a proof of it. I would not undergo what Benedict has suffered in these last journeys of his, to possess all the treasures in Spain.”

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