The Bible in Spain, by George Borrow

Chapter 36

State of Affairs at Madrid — The New Ministry — Pope of Rome — The Bookseller of Toledo — Sword Blades — Houses of Toledo — The Forlorn Gypsy — Proceedings at Madrid — Another Servant.

During my journey in the northern provinces of Spain, which occupied a considerable portion of the year 1837, I had accomplished but a slight portion of what I proposed to myself to effect in the outset. Insignificant are the results of man’s labours compared with the swelling ideas of his presumption; something, however, had been effected by the journey, which I had just concluded. The New Testament of Christ was now enjoying a quiet sale in the principal towns of the north, and I had secured the friendly interest and co-operation of the booksellers of those parts, particularly of him the most considerable of them all, old Rey of Compostella. I had, moreover, disposed of a considerable number of Testaments with my own hands, to private individuals, entirely of the lower class, namely, muleteers, carmen, contrabandistas, etc., so that upon the whole I had abundant cause for gratitude and thanksgiving.

I did not find our affairs in a very prosperous state at Madrid, few copies having been sold in the booksellers’ shops, yet what could be rationally expected during these latter times? Don Carlos, with a large army, had been at the gates; plunder and massacre had been expected; so that people were too much occupied in forming plans to secure their lives and property, to give much attention to reading of any description.

The enemy, however, had now retired to his strongholds in Alava and Guipuscoa. I hoped that brighter days were dawning, and that the work, under my own superintendence, would, with God’s blessing, prosper in the capital of Spain. How far the result corresponded with my expectations will be seen in the sequel. During my absence in the north, a total change of ministers had occurred. The liberal party had been ousted from the cabinet, and in their place had entered individuals attached to the moderado or court party: unfortunately, however, for my prospects, they consisted of persons with whom I had no acquaintance whatever, and with whom my former friends, Galiano and Isturitz, had little or no influence. These gentlemen were now regularly laid on the shelf, and their political career appeared to be terminated for ever.

From the present ministry I could expect but little; they consisted of men, the greater part of whom had been either courtiers or employes of the deceased King Ferdinand, who were friends to absolutism, and by no means inclined to do or to favour anything calculated to give offence to the court of Rome, which they were anxious to conciliate, hoping that eventually it might be induced to recognize the young queen, not as the constitutional but as the absolute Queen Isabella the Second.

Such was the party which continued in power throughout the remainder of my sojourn in Spain, and which persecuted me less from rancour and malice than from policy. It was not until the conclusion of the war of the succession that it lost the ascendancy, when it sank to the ground with its patroness the queen-mother, before the dictatorship of Espartero.

The first step which I took after my return to Madrid, towards circulating the Scriptures, was a very bold one. It was neither more nor less than the establishment of a shop for the sale of Testaments. This shop was situated in the Calle del Principe, a respectable and well-frequented street in the neighbourhood of the Square of Cervantes. I furnished it handsomely with glass cases and chandeliers, and procured an acute Gallegan of the name of Pepe Calzado, to superintend the business, who gave me weekly a faithful account of the copies sold.

“How strangely times alter,” said I, the second day subsequent to the opening of my establishment, as I stood on the opposite side of the street, leaning against the wall with folded arms, surveying my shop, on the windows of which were painted in large yellow characters, Despacho de la Sociedad Biblica y Estrangera; “how strangely times alter; here have I been during the last eight months running about old Popish Spain, distributing Testaments, as agent of what the Papists call an heretical society, and have neither been stoned nor burnt; and here am I now in the capital, doing that which one would think were enough to cause all the dead inquisitors and officials buried within the circuit of the walls to rise from their graves and cry abomination; and yet no one interferes with me. Pope of Rome! Pope of Rome! look to thyself. That shop may be closed; but oh! what a sign of the times, that it has been permitted to exist for one day. It appears to me, my Father, that the days of your sway are numbered in Spain; that you will not be permitted much longer to plunder her, to scoff at her, and to scourge her with scorpions, as in bygone periods. See I not the hand on the wall? See I not in yonder letters a ‘Mene, mene, Tekel, Upharsin’? Look to thyself, Batuschca.”

And I remained for two hours, leaning against the wall, staring at the shop.

A short time after the establishment of the despacho at Madrid, I once more mounted the saddle, and, attended by Antonio, rode over to Toledo, for the purpose of circulating the Scriptures, sending beforehand by a muleteer a cargo of one hundred Testaments. I instantly addressed myself to the principal bookseller of the place, whom from the circumstance of his living in a town so abounding with canons, priests, and ex-friars as Toledo, I expected to find a Carlist, or a servile at least. I was never more mistaken in my life; on entering the shop, which was very large and commodious, I beheld a stout athletic man, dressed in a kind of cavalry uniform, with a helmet on his head, and an immense sabre in his hand: this was the bookseller himself, who I soon found was an officer in the national cavalry. Upon learning who I was, he shook me heartily by the hand, and said that nothing would give him greater pleasure than taking charge of the books, which he would endeavour to circulate to the utmost of his ability.

“Will not your doing so bring you into odium with the clergy?”

“Ca!” said he; “who cares? I am rich, and so was my father before me. I do not depend on them, they cannot hate me more than they do already, for I make no secret of my opinions. I have just returned from an expedition,” said he; “my brother nationals and myself have, for the last three days, been occupied in hunting down the factious and thieves of the neighbourhood; we have killed three and brought in several prisoners. Who cares for the cowardly priests? I am a liberal, Don Jorge, and a friend of your countryman, Flinter. Many is the Carlist guerilla-curate and robber-friar whom I have assisted him to catch. I am rejoiced to hear that he has just been appointed captain-general of Toledo; there will be fine doings here when he arrives, Don Jorge. We will make the clergy shake between us, I assure you.”

Toledo was formerly the capital of Spain. Its population at present is barely fifteen thousand souls, though, in the time of the Romans, and also during the Middle Ages, it is said to have amounted to between two and three hundred thousand. It is situated about twelve leagues (forty miles) westward of Madrid, and is built upon a steep rocky hill, round which flows the Tagus, on all sides but the north. It still possesses a great many remarkable edifices, notwithstanding that it has long since fallen into decay. Its cathedral is the most magnificent of Spain, and is the see of the primate. In the tower of this cathedral is the famous bell of Toledo, the largest in the world with the exception of the monster bell of Moscow, which I have also seen. It weighs 1,543 arrobes, or 37,032 pounds. It has, however, a disagreeable sound, owing to a cleft in its side. Toledo could once boast the finest pictures in Spain, but many were stolen or destroyed by the French during the Peninsular war, and still more have lately been removed by order of the government. Perhaps the most remarkable one still remains; I allude to that which represents the burial of the Count of Orgaz, the masterpiece of Domenico, the Greek, a most extraordinary genius, some of whose productions possess merit of a very high order. The picture in question is in the little parish church of San Tome, at the bottom of the aisle, on the left side of the altar. Could it be purchased, I should say it would be cheap at five thousand pounds.

Amongst the many remarkable things which meet the eye of the curious observer at Toledo, is the manufactory of arms, where are wrought the swords, spears, and other weapons intended for the army, with the exception of fire-arms, which mostly come from abroad.

In old times, as is well known, the sword-blades of Toledo were held in great estimation, and were transmitted as merchandise throughout Christendom. The present manufactory, or fabrica, as it is called, is a handsome modern edifice, situated without the wall of the city, on a plain contiguous to the river, with which it communicates by a small canal. It is said that the water and the sand of the Tagus are essential for the proper tempering of the swords. I asked some of the principal workmen whether, at the present day, they could manufacture weapons of equal value to those of former days, and whether the secret had been lost.

“Ca!” said they, “the swords of Toledo were never so good as those which we are daily making. It is ridiculous enough to see strangers coming here to purchase old swords, the greater part of which are mere rubbish, and never made at Toledo, yet for such they will give a large price, whilst they would grudge two dollars for this jewel, which was made but yesterday”; thereupon putting into my hand a middle-sized rapier. “Your worship,” said they, “seems to have a strong arm, prove its temper against the stone wall; — thrust boldly and fear not.”

I HAVE a strong arm and dashed the point with my utmost force against the solid granite: my arm was numbed to the shoulder from the violence of the concussion, and continued so for nearly a week, but the sword appeared not to be at all blunted, or to have suffered in any respect.

“A better sword than that,” said an ancient workman, a native of Old Castile, “never transfixed Moor out yonder on the sagra.”

During my stay at Toledo, I lodged at the Posada de los Caballeros, which signifies the inn of the gentlemen, which name, in some respects, is certainly well deserved, for there are many palaces far less magnificent than this inn of Toledo. By magnificence it must not be supposed, however, that I allude to costliness of furniture, or any kind of luxury which pervaded the culinary department. The rooms were as empty as those of Spanish inns generally are, and the fare, though good in its kind, was plain and homely; but I have seldom seen a more imposing edifice. It was of immense size, consisting of several stories, and was built something in the Moorish taste, with a quadrangular court in the centre, beneath which was an immense algibe or tank, serving as a reservoir for rain-water. All the houses in Toledo are supplied with tanks of this description, into which the waters in the rainy season flow from the roofs through pipes. No other water is used for drinking; that of the Tagus, not being considered salubrious, is only used for purposes of cleanliness, being conveyed up the steep narrow streets on donkeys in large stone jars. The city, standing on a rocky mountain, has no wells. As for the rain-water, it deposits a sediment in the tank, and becomes very sweet and potable: these tanks are cleaned out: twice every year. During the summer, at which time the heat in this part of Spain is intense, the families spend the greater part of the day in the courts, which are overhung with a linen awning, the heat of the atmosphere being tempered by the coolness arising from the tank below, which answers the same purpose as the fountain in the southern provinces of Spain.

I spent about a week at Toledo, during which time several copies of the Testament were disposed of in the shop of my friend the bookseller. Several priests took it up from the mostrador on which it lay, examined it, but made no remarks; none of them purchased it. My friend showed me through his house, almost every apartment of which was lined from roof to floor with books, many of which were highly valuable. He told me that he possessed the best collection in Spain of the ancient literature of the country. He was, however, less proud of his library than his stud; finding that I had some acquaintance with horses, his liking for me and also his respect considerably increased. “All I have,” said he, “is at your service; I see you are a man after my own heart. When you are disposed to ride out upon the sagra, you have only to apply to my groom, who will forthwith saddle you my famed Cordovese entero; I purchased him from the stables at Aranjuez, when the royal stud was broken up. There is but one other man to whom I would lend him, and that man is Flinter.”

At Toledo I met with a forlorn Gypsy woman and her son, a lad of about fourteen years of age; she was not a native of the place, but had come from La Mancha, her husband having been cast into the prison of Toledo on a charge of mule-stealing: the crime had been proved against him, and in a few days he was to depart for Malaga, with the chain of galley slaves. He was quite destitute of money, and his wife was now in Toledo, earning a few cuartos by telling fortunes about the streets, to support him in prison. She told me that it was her intention to follow him to Malaga, where she hoped to be able to effect his escape. What an instance of conjugal affection; and yet the affection here was all on one side, as is too frequently the case. Her husband was a worthless scoundrel, who had previously abandoned her and betaken himself to Madrid, where he had long lived in concubinage with the notorious she-thug Aurora, at whose instigation he had committed the robbery for which he was now held in durance. “Should your husband escape from Malaga, in what direction will he fly?” I demanded.

“To the chim of the Corahai, my son; to the land of the Moors, to be a soldier of the Moorish king.”

“And what will become of yourself?” I inquired; “think you that he will take you with him?”

“He will leave me on the shore, my son, and as soon as he has crossed the black pawnee, he will forget me and never think of me more.”

“And knowing his ingratitude, why should you give yourself so much trouble about him?”

“Am I not his romi, my son, and am I not bound by the law of the Cales to assist him to the last? Should he return from the land of the Corahai at the end of a hundred years, and should find me alive, and should say, I am hungry, little wife, go forth and steal or tell bahi, I must do it, for he is the rom and I the romi.”

On my return to Madrid, I found the despacho still open: various Testaments had been sold, though the number was by no means considerable: the work had to labour under great disadvantage, from the ignorance of the people at large with respect to its tenor and contents. It was no wonder, then, that little interest was felt respecting it. To call, however, public attention to the despacho, I printed three thousand advertisements on paper, yellow, blue, and crimson, with which I almost covered the sides of the streets, and besides this, inserted an account of it in all the journals and periodicals; the consequence was, that in a short time almost every person in Madrid was aware of its existence. Such exertions in London or Paris would probably have ensured the sale of the entire edition of the New Testament within a few days. In Madrid, however, the result was not quite so flattering; for after the establishment had been open an entire month, the copies disposed of barely amounted to one hundred.

These proceedings of mine did not fail to cause a great sensation: the priests and their partisans were teeming with malice and fury, which, for some time, however, they thought proper to exhibit only in words; it being their opinion that I was favoured by the ambassador and by the British government; but there was no attempt, however atrocious, that might not be expected from their malignity; and were it right and seemly for me, the most insignificant of worms, to make such a comparison, I might say, like Paul at Ephesus, I was fighting with wild beasts.

On the last day of the year 1837, my servant Antonio thus addressed me: “Mon maitre, it is necessary that I leave you for a time. Ever since we have returned from our journeys, I have become unsettled and dissatisfied with the house, the furniture, and with Donna Marequita. I have therefore engaged myself as cook in the house of the Count of — where I am to receive four dollars per month less than what your worship gives me. I am fond of change, though it be for the worse. Adieu, mon maitre, may you be as well served as you deserve; should you chance, however, to have any pressing need de mes soins, send for me without hesitation, and I will at once give my new master warning, if I am still with him, and come to you.”

Thus was I deprived for a time of the services of Antonio. I continued for a few days without a domestic, at the end of which time I hired a certain Cantabrian or Basque, a native of the village of Hernani, in Guipuscoa, who was strongly recommended to me.

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