The Bible in Spain, by George Borrow

Chapter 34

Departure from Oviedo — Villa Viciosa — The Young Man of the Inn — Antonio’s Tale — The General and his Family — Woful Tidings — To-morrow we Die — San Vincente — Santander — An Harangue — Flinter the Irishman.

So we left Oviedo and directed our course towards Santander. The man who accompanied us as guide, and from whom I hired the pony on which I rode, had been recommended to me by my friend the merchant of Oviedo. He proved, however, a lazy indolent fellow; he was generally loitering two or three hundred yards in our rear, and instead of enlivening the way with song and tale, like our late guide, Martin of Rivadeo, he scarcely ever opened his lips, save to tell us not to go so fast, or that I should burst his pony if I spurred him so. He was thievish withal, and though he had engaged to make the journey seco, that is, to defray the charges of himself and beast, he contrived throughout to keep both at our expense. When journeying in Spain, it is invariably the cheapest plan to agree to maintain the guide and his horse or mule, for by so doing the hire is diminished at least one third, and the bills upon the road are seldom increased: whereas, in the other case, he pockets the difference, and yet goes shot free, and at the expense of the traveller, through the connivance of the innkeepers, who have a kind of fellow feeling with the guides.

Late in the afternoon we reached Villa Viciosa, a small dirty town, at the distance of eight leagues from Oviedo: it stands beside a creek which communicates with the Bay of Biscay. It is sometimes called La Capital de las Avellanas, or the capital of the Filberts, from the immense quantity of this fruit which is grown in the neighbourhood; and the greatest part of which is exported to England. As we drew nigh we overtook numerous cars laden with avellanas proceeding in the direction of the town. I was informed that several small English vessels were lying in the harbour. Singular as it may seem, however, notwithstanding we were in the capital of the Avellanas, it was with the utmost difficulty that I procured a scanty handful for my dessert, and of these more than one half were decayed. The people of the house informed me that the nuts were intended for exportation, and that they never dreamt either of partaking of them themselves or of offering them to their guests.

At an early hour on the following day we reached Colunga, a beautiful village on a rising ground, thickly planted with chestnut trees. It is celebrated, at least in the Asturias, as being the birth-place of Arguelles, the father of the Spanish constitution.

As we dismounted at the door of the posada, where we intended to refresh ourselves, a person who was leaning out of an upper window uttered an exclamation and disappeared. We were yet at the door, when the same individual came running forth and cast himself on the neck of Antonio. He was a good-looking young man, apparently about five and twenty, genteelly dressed, with a Montero cap on his head. Antonio looked at him for a moment, and then with a Ah, Monsieur, est ce bien vous? shook him affectionately by the hand. The stranger then motioned him to follow him, and they forthwith proceeded to the room above.

Wondering what this could mean, I sat down to my morning repast. Nearly an hour elapsed, and still Antonio did not make his appearance; through the boards, however, which composed the ceiling of the kitchen where I sat, I could hear the voices of himself and his acquaintance, and thought that I could occasionally distinguish the sound of broken sobs and groans; at last there was a long pause. I became impatient, and was about to summon Antonio, when he made his appearance, but unaccompanied by the stranger. “What, in the name of all that is singular,” I demanded, “have you been about? Who is that man?” “Mon maitre,” said Antonio, “c’est un monsieur de ma connoissance. With your permission I will now take a mouthful, and as we journey along I will tell you all that I know of him.”

“Monsieur,” said Antonio, as we rode out of Colunga, “you are anxious to know the history of the gentleman whom you saw embrace me at the inn. Know, mon maitre, that these Carlist and Christino wars have been the cause of much misery and misfortune in this country, but a being so thoroughly unfortunate as that poor young gentleman of the inn, I do not believe is to be found in Spain, and his misfortunes proceed entirely from the spirit of party and faction which for some time past has been so prevalent.

“Mon maitre, as I have often told you, I have lived in many houses and served many masters, and it chanced that about ten years ago I served the father of this gentleman, who was then a mere boy. It was a very high family, for monsieur the father was a general in the army, and a man of large possessions. The family consisted of the general, his lady, and two sons; the youngest of whom is the person you have just seen, the other was several years older. Pardieu! I felt myself very comfortable in that house, and every individual of the family had all kind of complaisance for me. It is singular enough, that though I have been turned out of so many families, I was never turned out of that; and though I left it thrice, it was of my own free will. I became dissatisfied with the other servants or with the dog or the cat. The last time I left was on account of the quail which was hung out of the window of madame, and which waked me in the morning with its call. Eh bien, mon maitre, things went on in this way during the three years that I continued in the family, out and in; at the end of which time it was determined that the young gentleman should travel, and it was proposed that I should attend him as valet; this I wished very much to do. However, par malheur, I was at this time very much dissatisfied with madame his mother about the quail, and I insisted that before I accompanied him the bird should be slaughtered for the kitchen. To this madame would by no means consent; and even the young gentleman, who had always taken my part on other occasions, said that I was unreasonable: so I left the house in a huff, and never entered it again.

“Eh bien, mon maitre, the young gentleman went upon his travels, and continued abroad several years; and from the time of his departure until we met him at Colunga, I have not set eyes upon, nor indeed heard of him. I have heard enough, however, of his family; of monsieur the father, of madame, and of the brother, who was an officer of cavalry. A short time before the troubles, I mean before the death of Ferdinand, monsieur the father was appointed captain-general of Coruna. Now monsieur, though a good master, was rather a proud man, and fond of discipline and all that kind of thing, and of obedience. He was, moreover, no friend to the populace, to the canaille, and he had a particular aversion to the nationals. So when Ferdinand died, it was whispered about at Coruna, that the general was no liberal, and that he was a better friend to Carlos than to Christina. Eh bien, it chanced that there was a grand fete, or festival at Coruna, on the water; and the nationals were there, and the soldiers. And I know not how it befell, but there was an emeute, and the nationals laid hands on monsieur the general, and tying a rope round his neck, flung him overboard from the barge in which he was, and then dragged him astern about the harbour until he was drowned. They then went to his house and pillaged it, and so ill-treated madame, who at that time happened to be enceinte, that in a few hours she expired.

“I tell you what, mon maitre, when I heard of the misfortune of madame and the general, you would scarcely believe it, but I actually shed tears, and was sorry that I had parted with them in unkindness on account of that pernicious quail.

“Eh bien, mon maitre, nous poursuivrons notre histoire. The eldest son, as I told you before, was a cavalry officer and a man of resolution, and when he heard of the death of his father and mother, he vowed revenge. Poor fellow! but what does he do but desert, with two or three discontented spirits of his troop, and going to the frontier of Galicia, he raised a small faction, and proclaimed Don Carlos. For some little time he did considerable damage to the liberals, burning and destroying their possessions, and putting to death several nationals that fell into his hands. However, this did not last long, his faction was soon dispersed, and he himself taken and hanged, and his head stuck on a pole.

“Nous sommes deja presque au bout. When we arrived at the inn, the young man took me above, as you saw, and there for some time he could do nothing but weep and sob. His story is soon told:— he returned from his travels, and the first intelligence which awaited him on his arrival in Spain was, that his father was drowned, his mother dead, and his brother hanged, and, moreover, all the possessions of his family confiscated. This was not all: wherever he went, he found himself considered in the light of a factious and discontented person, and was frequently assailed by the nationals with blows of sabres and cudgels. He applied to his relations, and some of these, who were of the Carlist persuasion, advised him to betake himself to the army of Don Carlos, and the Pretender himself, who was a friend of his father, and remembered the services of his brother, offered to give him a command in his army. But, mon maitre, as I told you before, he was a pacific young gentleman, and as mild as a lamb, and hated the idea of shedding blood. He was, moreover, not of the Carlist opinion, for during his studies he had read books written a long time ago by countrymen of mine, all about republics and liberties, and the rights of man, so that he was much more inclined to the liberal than the Carlist system; he therefore declined the offer of Don Carlos, whereupon all his relations deserted him, whilst the liberals hunted him from one place to another like a wild beast. At last, he sold some little property which still remained to him, and with the proceeds he came to this remote place of Colunga, where no one knew him, and where he has been residing for several months, in a most melancholy manner, with no other amusement than that which he derives from a book or two, or occasionally hunting a leveret with his spaniel.

“He asked me for counsel, but I had none to give him, and could only weep with him. At last he said, ‘Dear Antonio, I see there is no remedy. You say your master is below, beg him, I pray, to stay till tomorrow, and we will send for the maidens of the neighbourhood, and for a violin and a bagpipe, and we will dance and cast away care for a moment.’ And then he said something in old Greek, which I scarcely understood, but which I think was equivalent to, ‘Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!’

“Eh bien, mon maitre, I told him that you were a serious gentleman who never took any amusement, and that you were in a hurry. Whereupon he wept again, and embraced me and bade me farewell. And now, mon maitre, I have told you the history of the young man of the inn.”

We slept at Ribida de Sela, and the next day, at noon, arrived at Llanes. Our route lay between the coast and an immense range of mountains, which rose up like huge ramparts at about a league’s distance from the sea. The ground over which we passed was tolerably level, and seemingly well cultivated. There was no lack of vines and trees, whilst at short intervals rose the cortijos of the proprietors, — square stone buildings surrounded with an outer wall. Llanes is an old town, formerly of considerable strength. In its neighbourhood is the convent of San Cilorio, one of the largest monastic edifices in all Spain. It is now deserted, and stands lone and desolate upon one of the peninsulas of the Cantabrian shore. Leaving Llanes, we soon entered one of the most dreary and barren regions imaginable, a region of rock and stone, where neither grass nor trees were to be seen. Night overtook us in these places. We wandered on, however, until we reached a small village, termed Santo Colombo. Here we passed the night, in the house of a carabineer of the revenue, a tall athletic figure who met us at the gate armed with a gun. He was a Castilian, and with all that ceremonious formality and grave politeness for which his countrymen were at one time so celebrated. He chid his wife for conversing with her handmaid about the concerns of the house before us. “Barbara,” said he, “this is not conversation calculated to interest the strange cavaliers; hold your peace, or go aside with the muchacha.” In the morning he refused any remuneration for his hospitality. “I am a caballero,” said he, “even as yourselves. It is not my custom to admit people into my house for the sake of lucre. I received you because you were benighted and the posada distant.”

Rising early in the morning, we pursued our way through a country equally stony and dreary as that which we had entered upon the preceding day. In about four hours we reached San Vincente, a large dilapidated town, chiefly inhabited by miserable fishermen. It retains, however, many remarkable relics of former magnificence: the bridge, which bestrides the broad and deep firth, on which stands the town, has no less than thirty-two arches, and is built of grey granite. It is very ancient, and in some part in so ruinous a condition as to be dangerous.

Leaving San Vincente behind us, we travelled for some leagues on the sea-shore, crossing occasionally a narrow inlet or firth. The country at last began to improve, and in the neighbourhood of Santillana was both beautiful and fertile. About a league before we reached the country of Gil Blas, we passed through an extensive wood, in which were rocks and precipices; it was exactly such a place as that in which the cave of Rolando was situated, as described in the novel. This wood has an evil name, and our guide informed us that robberies were occasionally committed in it. No adventure, however, befell us, and we reached Santillana at about six in the evening.

We did not enter the town, but halted at a large venta or posada at the entrance, before which stood an immense ash tree. We had scarcely housed ourselves when a tremendous storm of rain and wind commenced, accompanied with thunder and lightning, which continued without much interruption for several hours, and the effects of which were visible in our journey of the following day, the streams over which we passed being much swollen, and several trees lying uptorn by the wayside. Santillana contains four thousand inhabitants, and is six short leagues’ distance from Santander, where we arrived early the next day.

Nothing could exhibit a stronger contrast to the desolate tracts and the half ruined towns through which we had lately passed, than the bustle and activity of Santander, which, though it stands on the confines of the Basque provinces, the stronghold of the Pretender, is almost the only city in Spain which has not suffered by the Carlist wars. Till the close of the last century it was little better than an obscure fishing town, but it has of late years almost entirely engrossed the commerce of the Spanish transatlantic possessions, especially of the Havannah. The consequence of which has been, that whilst Santander has rapidly increased in wealth and magnificence, both Coruna and Cadiz have been as rapidly hastening to decay. At present it possesses a noble quay, on which stands a line of stately edifices, far exceeding in splendour the palaces of the aristocracy at Madrid. These are built in the French style, and are chiefly occupied by the merchants. The population of Santander is estimated at sixty thousand souls.

On the day of my arrival I dined at the table d’hote of the principal inn, kept by a Genoese. The company was very miscellaneous, French, Germans, and Spaniards, all speaking in their respective languages, whilst at the ends of the table, confronting each other, sat two Catalan merchants, one of whom weighed nearly twenty stone, grunting across the board in their harsh dialect. Long, however, before dinner was concluded, the conversation was entirely engrossed and the attention of all present directed to an individual who sat on one side of the bulky Catalan. He was a thin man of about the middle height, with a remarkably red face, and something in his eyes which, if not a squint, bore a striking resemblance to it. He was dressed in a blue military frock, and seemed to take much more pleasure in haranguing than in the fare which was set before him. He spoke perfectly good Spanish, yet his voice betrayed something of a foreign accent. For a long time he descanted with immense volubility on war and all its circumstances, freely criticising the conduct of the generals, both Carlists and Christinos, in the present struggle, till at last he exclaimed, “Had I but twenty thousand men allowed me by the government, I would bring the war to a conclusion in six months.”

“Pardon me, Sir,” said a Spaniard who sat at the table, “the curiosity which induces me to request the favour of your distinguished name.”

“I am Flinter,” replied the individual in the military frock, “a name which is in the mouth of every man, woman, and child in Spain. I am Flinter the Irishman, just escaped from the Basque provinces and the claws of Don Carlos. On the decease of Ferdinand I declared for Isabella, esteeming it the duty of every good cavalier and Irishman in the Spanish service to do so. You have all heard of my exploits, and permit me to tell you they would have been yet more glorious had not jealousy been at work and cramped my means. Two years ago I was despatched to Estremadura, to organize the militias. The bands of Gomez and Cabrera entered the province and spread devastation around. They found me, however, at my post; and had I been properly seconded by those under my command, the two rebels would never have returned to their master to boast of their success. I stood behind my intrenchments. A man advanced and summoned us to surrender. ‘Who are you?’ I demanded. ‘I am Cabrera,’ he replied; ‘and I am Flinter,’ I retorted, flourishing my sabre; ‘retire to your battalions or you will forthwith die the death.’ He was awed and did as I commanded. In an hour we surrendered. I was led a prisoner to the Basque provinces; and the Carlists rejoiced in the capture they had made, for the name of Flinter had long sounded amongst the Carlist ranks. I was flung into a loathsome dungeon, where I remained twenty months. I was cold; I was naked; but I did not on that account despond, my spirit was too indomitable for such weakness. My keeper at last pitied my misfortunes. He said that ‘it grieved him to see so valiant a man perish in inglorious confinement.’ We laid a plan to escape together; disguises were provided, and we made the attempt. We passed unobserved till we arrived at the Carlist lines above Bilbao; there we were stopped. My presence of mind, however, did not desert me. I was disguised as a carman, as a Catalan, and the coolness of my answers deceived my interrogators. We were permitted to pass, and soon were safe within the walls of Bilbao. There was an illumination that night in the town, for the lion had burst his toils, Flinter had escaped, and was once more returned to re-animate a drooping cause. I have just arrived at Santander on my way to Madrid, where I intend to ask of the government a command, with twenty thousand men.”

Poor Flinter! a braver heart and a move gasconading mouth were surely never united in the same body. He proceeded to Madrid, and through the influence of the British ambassador, who was his friend, he obtained the command of a small division, with which he contrived to surprise and defeat, in the neighbourhood of Toledo, a body of the Carlists, commanded by Orejita, whose numbers more than trebled his own. In reward for this exploit he was persecuted by the government, which, at that time, was the moderado or juste milieu, with the most relentless animosity; the prime minister, Ofalia, supporting with all his influence numerous and ridiculous accusations of plunder and robbery brought against the too-successful general by the Carlist canons of Toledo. He was likewise charged with a dereliction of duty, in having permitted, after the battle of Valdepenas, which he likewise won in the most gallant manner, the Carlist force to take possession of the mines of Almaden, although the government, who were bent on his ruin, had done all in their power to prevent him from following up his successes by denying him the slightest supplies and reinforcements. The fruits of victory thus wrested from him, his hopes blighted, a morbid melancholy seized upon the Irishman; he resigned his command, and in less than ten months from the period when I saw him at Santander, afforded his dastardly and malignant enemies a triumph which satisfied even them, by cutting his own throat with a razor.

Ardent spirits of foreign climes, who hope to distinguish yourselves in the service of Spain, and to earn honours and rewards, remember the fate of Columbus, and of another as brave and as ardent — Flinter!

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