The Bible in Spain, by George Borrow

Chapter 42

Liberation from Prison — The Apology — Human Nature — The Greek’s Return — Church of Rome — Light of Scripture — Archbishop of Toledo — An Interview — Stones of Price — A Resolution — The Foreign Language — Benedict’s Farewell — Treasure Hunt at Compostella — Truth and Fiction.

I remained about three weeks in the prison of Madrid, and then left it. If I had possessed any pride, or harboured any rancour against the party who had consigned me to durance, the manner in which I was restored to liberty would no doubt have been highly gratifying to those evil passions; the government having acknowledged, by a document transmitted to Sir George, that I had been incarcerated on insufficient grounds, and that no stigma attached itself to me from the imprisonment I had undergone; at the same time agreeing to defray all the expenses to which I had been subjected throughout the progress of this affair.

It moreover expressed its willingness to dismiss the individual owing to whose information I had been first arrested, namely, the corchete or police officer who had visited me in my apartments in the Calle de Santiago, and behaved himself in the manner which I have described in a former chapter. I declined, however, to avail myself of this condescension of the government, more especially as I was informed that the individual in question had a wife and family, who, if he were disgraced, would be at once reduced to want. I moreover considered that, in what he had done and said, he had probably only obeyed some private orders which he had received; I therefore freely forgave him, and if he does not retain his situation at the present moment, it is certainly no fault of mine.

I likewise refused to accept any compensation for my expenses, which were considerable. It is probable that many persons in my situation would have acted very differently in this respect, and I am far from saying that herein I acted discreetly or laudably; but I was averse to receive money from people such as those of which the Spanish government was composed, people whom I confess I heartily despised, and I was unwilling to afford them an opportunity of saying that after they had imprisoned an Englishman unjustly, and without a cause, he condescended to receive money at their hands. In a word, I confess my own weakness; I was willing that they should continue my debtors, and have little doubt that they had not the slightest objection to remain so; they kept their money, and probably laughed in their sleeves at my want of common sense.

The heaviest loss which resulted from my confinement, and for which no indemnification could be either offered or received, was in the death of my affectionate and faithful Basque Francisco, who having attended me during the whole time of my imprisonment, caught the pestilential typhus or gaol fever, which was then raging in the Carcel de la Corte, of which he expired within a few days subsequent to my liberation. His death occurred late one evening; the next morning as I was lying in bed ruminating on my loss, and wondering of what nation my next servant would be, I heard a noise which seemed to be that of a person employed vigorously in cleaning boots or shoes, and at intervals a strange discordant voice singing snatches of a song in some unknown language: wondering who it could be, I rang the bell.

“Did you ring, mon maitre,” said Antonio, appearing at the door with one of his arms deeply buried in a boot.

“I certainly did ring,” said I, “but I scarcely expected that you would have answered the summons.”

“Mais pourquoi non, mon maitre?” cried Antonio. “Who should serve you now but myself? N’est pas que le sieur Francois est mort? And did I not say, as soon as I heard of his departure, I shall return to my functions chez mon maitre, Monsieur Georges?”

“I suppose you had no other employment, and on that account you came.”

“Au contraire, mon maitre,” replied the Greek, “I had just engaged myself at the house of the Duke of Frias, from whom I was to receive ten dollars per month more than I shall accept from your worship; but on hearing that you were without a domestic, I forthwith told the Duke, though it was late at night, that he would not suit me, and here I am.”

“I shall not receive you in this manner,” said I; “return to the Duke, apologize for your behaviour, request your dismission in a regular way; and then if his grace is willing to part with you, as will most probably be the case, I shall be happy to avail myself of your services.”

It is reasonable to expect that after having been subjected to an imprisonment which my enemies themselves admitted to be unjust, I should in future experience more liberal treatment at their hands than that which they had hitherto adopted towards me. The sole object of my ambition at this time was to procure toleration for the sale of the Gospel in this unhappy and distracted kingdom, and to have attained this end I would not only have consented to twenty such imprisonments in succession, as that which I had undergone, but would gladly have sacrificed life itself. I soon perceived, however, that I was likely to gain nothing by my incarceration; on the contrary, I had become an object of personal dislike to the government since the termination of this affair, which it was probable I had never been before; their pride and vanity were humbled by the concessions which they had been obliged to make in order to avoid a rupture with England. This dislike they were now determined to gratify, by thwarting my views as much as possible. I had an interview with Ofalia on the subject uppermost in my mind: I found him morose and snappish. “It will be for your interest to be still,” said he; “beware! you have already thrown the whole corte into confusion; beware, I repeat; another time you may not escape so easily.” “Perhaps not,” I replied, “and perhaps I do not wish it; it is a pleasant thing to be persecuted for the Gospel’s sake. I now take the liberty of inquiring whether, if I attempt to circulate the word of God, I am to be interrupted.” “Of course,” exclaimed Ofalia; “the church forbids such circulation.” “I shall make the attempt, however,” I exclaimed. “Do you mean what you say?” demanded Ofalia, arching his eyebrows and elongating his mouth. “Yes,” I continued, “I shall make the attempt in every village in Spain to which I can penetrate.”

Throughout my residence in Spain the clergy were the party from which I experienced the strongest opposition; and it was at their instigation that the government originally adopted those measures which prevented any extensive circulation of the sacred volume through the land. I shall not detain the course of my narrative with reflections as to the state of a church, which, though it pretends to be founded on Scripture, would yet keep the light of Scripture from all mankind, if possible. But Rome is fully aware that she is not a Christian church, and having no desire to become so, she acts prudently in keeping from the eyes of her followers the page which would reveal to them the truths of Christianity. Her agents and minions throughout Spain exerted themselves to the utmost to render my humble labours abortive, and to vilify the work which I was attempting to disseminate. All the ignorant and fanatical clergy (the great majority) were opposed to it, and all those who were anxious to keep on good terms with the court of Rome were loud in their cry against it. There was, however, one section of the clergy, a small one, it is true, rather favourably disposed towards the circulation of the Gospel though by no means inclined to make any particular sacrifice for the accomplishment of such an end: these were such as professed liberalism, which is supposed to mean a disposition to adopt any reform both in civil and church matters, which may be deemed conducive to the weal of the country. Not a few amongst the Spanish clergy were supporters of this principle, or at least declared themselves so, some doubtless for their own advancement, hoping to turn the spirit of the times to their own personal profit; others, it is to be hoped, from conviction, and a pure love of the principle itself. Amongst these were to be found, at the time of which I am speaking, several bishops. It is worthy of remark, however, that of all these not one but owed his office, not to the Pope, who disowned them one and all, but to the Queen Regent, the professed head of liberalism throughout all Spain. It is not, therefore, surprising that men thus circumstanced should feel rather disposed than not to countenance any measure or scheme at all calculated to favour the advancement of liberalism; and surely such an one was a circulation of the Scriptures. I derived but little assistance from their good will, however, supposing that they entertained some, as they never took any decided stand nor lifted up their voices in a bold and positive manner, denouncing the conduct of those who would withhold the light of Scripture from the world. At one time I hoped by their instrumentality to accomplish much in Spain in the Gospel cause; but I was soon undeceived, and became convinced that reliance on what they would effect, was like placing the hand on a staff of reed which will only lacerate the flesh. More than once some of them sent messages to me, expressive of their esteem, and assuring me how much the cause of the Gospel was dear to their hearts. I even received an intimation that a visit from me would be agreeable to the Archbishop of Toledo, the Primate of Spain.

Of this personage I can say but little, his early history being entirely unknown to me. At the death of Ferdinand, I believe, he was Bishop of Mallorca, a small insignificant see, of very scanty revenues, which perhaps he had no objection to exchange for one more wealthy; it is probable, however, that had he proved a devoted servant of the Pope, and consequently a supporter of legitimacy, he would have continued to the day of his death to fill the episcopal chair of Mallorca; but he was said to be a liberal, and the Queen Regent thought fit to bestow upon him the dignity of Archbishop of Toledo, by which he became the head of the Spanish church. The Pope, it is true, had refused to ratify the nomination, on which account all good Catholics were still bound to consider him as Bishop of Mallorca, and not as Primate of Spain. He however received the revenues belonging to the see, which, though only a shadow of what they originally were, were still considerable, and lived in the primate’s palace at Madrid, so that if he were not archbishop de jure, he was what many people would have considered much better, archbishop de facto.

Hearing that this personage was a personal friend of Ofalia, who was said to entertain a very high regard for him, I determined upon paying him a visit, and accordingly one morning betook myself to the palace in which he resided. I experienced no difficulty in obtaining an interview, being forthwith conducted to his presence by a common kind of footman, an Asturian, I believe, whom I found seated on a stone bench in the entrance hall. When I was introduced the Archbishop was alone, seated behind a table in a large apartment, a kind of drawing-room; he was plainly dressed, in a black cassock and silken cap; on his finger, however, glittered a superb amethyst, the lustre of which was truly dazzling. He rose for a moment as I advanced, and motioned me to a chair with his hand. He might be about sixty years of age; his figure was very tall, but he stooped considerably, evidently from feebleness, and the pallid hue of ill health overspread his emaciated features. When he had reseated himself, he dropped his head, and appeared to be looking on the table before him.

“I suppose your lordship knows who I am?” said I, at last breaking silence.

The Archbishop bent his head towards the right shoulder, in a somewhat equivocal manner, but said nothing.

“I am he whom the Manolos of Madrid call Don Jorgito el Ingles; I am just come out of prison, whither I was sent for circulating my Lord’s Gospel in this kingdom of Spain?”

The Archbishop made the same equivocal motion with his head, but still said nothing.

“I was informed that your lordship was desirous of seeing me, and on that account I have paid you this visit.”

“I did not send for you,” said the Archbishop, suddenly raising his head with a startled look.

“Perhaps not: I was, however, given to understand that my presence would be agreeable; but as that does not seem to be the case, I will leave.”

“Since you are come, I am very glad to see you.”

“I am very glad to hear it,” said I, reseating myself; “and since I am here, we may as well talk of an all-important matter, the circulation of the Scripture. Does your lordship see any way by which an end so desirable might be brought about?”

“No,” said the Archbishop faintly.

“Does not your lordship think that a knowledge of the Scripture would work inestimable benefit in these realms?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is it probable that the government may be induced to consent to the circulation?”

“How should I know?” and the Archbishop looked me in the face.

I looked in the face of the Archbishop; there was an expression of helplessness in it, which almost amounted to dotage. “Dear me,” thought I, “whom have I come to on an errand like mine? Poor man, you are not fitted to play the part of Martin Luther, and least of all in Spain. I wonder why your friends selected you to be Archbishop of Toledo; they thought perhaps that you would do neither good nor harm, and made choice of you, as they sometimes do primates in my own country, for your incapacity. You do not seem very happy in your present situation; no very easy stall this of yours. You were more comfortable, I trow, when you were the poor Bishop of Mallorca; could enjoy your puchera then without fear that the salt would turn out sublimate. No fear then of being smothered in your bed. A siesta is a pleasant thing when one is not subject to be disturbed by ‘the sudden fear.’ I wonder whether they have poisoned you already,” I continued, half aloud, as I kept my eyes fixed on his countenance, which methought was becoming ghastly.

“Did you speak, Don Jorge?” demanded the Archbishop.

“That is a fine brilliant on your lordship’s hand,” said I.

“You are fond of brilliants, Don Jorge,” said the Archbishop, his features brightening up; “vaya! so am I; they are pretty things. Do you understand them?”

“I do,” said I, “and I never saw a finer brilliant than your own, one excepted; it belonged to an acquaintance of mine, a Tartar Khan. He did not bear it on his finger, however; it stood in the frontlet of his horse, where it shone like a star. He called it Daoud Scharr, which, being interpreted, meaneth light of war.”

“Vaya!” said the Archbishop, “how very extraordinary; I am glad you are fond of brilliants, Don Jorge. Speaking of horses, reminds me that I have frequently seen you on horseback. Vaya! how you ride; it is dangerous to be in your way.”

“Is your lordship fond of equestrian exercise?”

“By no means, Don Jorge; I do not like horses; it is not the practice of the church to ride on horseback. We prefer mules: they are the quieter animals; I fear horses, they kick so violently.”

“The kick of a horse is death,” said I, “if it touches a vital part. I am not, however, of your lordship’s opinion with respect to mules: a good ginete may retain his seat on a horse however vicious, but a mule — vaya! when a false mule tira por detras, I do not believe that the Father of the Church himself could keep the saddle a moment, however sharp his bit.”

As I was going away, I said, “And with respect to the Gospel, your lordship; what am I to understand?”

“No se,” said the Archbishop, again bending his head towards the right shoulder, whilst his features resumed their former vacant expression. And thus terminated my interview with the Archbishop of Toledo.

“It appears to me,” said I to Maria Diaz, on returning home; “it appears to me, Marequita mia, that if the Gospel in Spain is to wait for toleration until these liberal bishops and archbishops come forward boldly in its behalf, it will have to tarry a considerable time.”

“I am much of your worship’s opinion,” answered Maria; “a fine thing, truly, it would be to wait till they exerted themselves in its behalf. Ca! the idea makes me smile: was your worship ever innocent enough to suppose that they cared one tittle about the Gospel or its cause? Vaya! they are true priests, and had only self-interest in view in their advances to you. The Holy Father disowns them, and they would now fain, by awaking his fears and jealousy, bring him to some terms; but let him once acknowledge them and see whether they would admit you to their palaces or hold any intercourse with you: ‘Forth with the fellow,’ they would say; ‘vaya! is he not a Lutheran? Is he not an enemy to the Church? A la horca, a la horca!’ I know this family better than you do, Don Jorge.”

“It is useless tarrying,” said I; “nothing, however, can be done in Madrid. I cannot sell the work at the despacho, and I have just received intelligence that all the copies exposed for sale in the libraries in the different parts of Spain which I visited, have been sequestrated by order of the government. My resolution is taken: I shall mount my horses, which are neighing in the stable, and betake myself to the villages and plains of dusty Spain. Al campo, al campo: ‘Ride forth because of the word of righteousness, and thy right hand shall show thee terrible things.’ I will ride forth, Maria.”

“Your worship can do no better; and allow me here to tell you, that for every single book you might sell in a despacho in the city, you may dispose of one hundred amongst the villages, always provided you offer them cheap: for in the country money is rather scant. Vaya! should I not know? am I not a villager myself, a villana from the Sagra? Ride forth, therefore; your horses are neighing in the stall, as your worship says, and you might almost have added that the Senor Antonio is neighing in the house. He says he has nothing to do, on which account he is once more dissatisfied and unsettled. He finds fault with everything, but more particularly with myself. This morning I saluted him, and he made me no reply, but twisted his mouth in a manner very uncommon in this land of Spain.”

“A thought strikes me,” said I; “you have mentioned the Sagra; why should not I commence my labours amongst the villages of that district?”

“Your worship can do no better,” replied Maria; “the harvest is just over there, and you will find the people comparatively unemployed, with leisure to attend and listen to you; and if you follow my advice, you will establish yourself at Villa Seca, in the house of my fathers, where at present lives my lord and husband. Go, therefore, to Villa Seca in the first place, and from thence you can sally forth with the Senor Antonio upon your excursions. Peradventure, my husband will accompany you; and if so, you will find him highly useful. The people of Villa Seca are civil and courteous, your worship; when they address a foreigner they speak to him at the top of their voice and in Gallegan.”

“In Gallegan!” I exclaimed.

“They all understand a few words of Gallegan, which they have acquired from the mountaineers, who occasionally assist them in cutting the harvest, and as Gallegan is the only foreign language they know, they deem it but polite to address a foreigner in that tongue. Vaya! it is not a bad village, that of Villa Seca, nor are the people; the only ill-conditioned person living there is his reverence the curate.”

I was not long in making preparations for my enterprise. A considerable stock of Testaments were sent forward by an arriero, I myself followed the next day. Before my departure, however, I received a Benedict Mol.

“I am come to bid you farewell, lieber herr; I return to Compostella.”

“On what errand?”

“To dig up the schatz, lieber herr. For what else should I go? For what have I lived until now, but that I may dig up the schatz in the end?”

“You might have lived for something better,” I exclaimed. “I wish you success, however. But on what grounds do you hope? Have you obtained permission to dig? Surely you remember your former trials in Galicia?”

“I have not forgotten them, lieber herr, nor the journey to Oviedo, nor ‘the seven acorns,’ nor the fight with death in the barranco. But I must accomplish my destiny. I go now to Galicia, as is becoming a Swiss, at the expense of the government, with coach and mule, I mean in the galera. I am to have all the help I require, so that I can dig down to the earth’s centre if I think fit. I— but I must not tell your worship, for I am sworn on ‘the four Evangiles’ not to tell.”

“Well, Benedict, I have nothing to say, save that I hope you will succeed in your digging.”

“Thank you, lieber herr, thank you; and now farewell. Succeed! I shall succeed!” Here he stopped short, started, and looking upon me with an expression of countenance almost wild, he exclaimed: “Heiliger Gott! I forgot one thing. Suppose I should not find the treasure after all.”

“Very rationally said; pity, though, that you did not think of that contingency till now. I tell you, my friend, that you have engaged in a most desperate undertaking. It is true that you may find a treasure. The chances are, however, a hundred to one that you do not, and in that event, what will be your situation? You will be looked upon as an impostor, and the consequences may be horrible to you. Remember where you are, and amongst whom you are. The Spaniards are a credulous people, but let them once suspect that they have been imposed upon, and above all laughed at, and their thirst for vengeance knows no limit. Think not that your innocence will avail you. That you are no impostor I feel convinced; but they would never believe it. It is not too late. Return your fine clothes and magic rattan to those from whom you had them. Put on your old garments, grasp your ragged staff, and come with me to the Sagra, to assist in circulating the illustrious Gospel amongst the rustics on the Tagus’ bank.”

Benedict mused for a moment, then shaking his head, he cried, “No, no, I must accomplish my destiny. The schatz is not yet dug up. So said the voice in the barranco. To-morrow to Compostella. I shall find it — the schatz — it is still there — it MUST be there.”

He went, and I never saw him more. What I heard, however, was extraordinary enough. It appeared that the government had listened to his tale, and had been so struck with Bennet’s exaggerated description of the buried treasure, that they imagined that, by a little trouble and outlay, gold and diamonds might be dug up at Saint James sufficient to enrich themselves and to pay off the national debt of Spain. The Swiss returned to Compostella “like a duke,” to use his own words. The affair, which had at first been kept a profound secret, was speedily divulged. It was, indeed, resolved that the investigation, which involved consequences of so much importance, should take place in a manner the most public and imposing. A solemn festival was drawing nigh, and it was deemed expedient that the search should take place on that day. The day arrived. All the bells in Compostella pealed. The whole populace thronged from their houses, a thousand troops were drawn up in the square, the expectation of all was wound up to the highest pitch. A procession directed its course to the church of San Roque; at its head was the captain-general and the Swiss, brandishing in his hand the magic rattan, close behind walked the meiga, the Gallegan witch-wife, by whom the treasure-seeker had been originally guided in the search; numerous masons brought up the rear, bearing implements to break up the ground. The procession enters the church, they pass through it in solemn march, they find themselves in a vaulted passage. The Swiss looks around. “Dig here,” said he suddenly. “Yes, dig here,” said the meiga. The masons labour, the floor is broken up, — a horrible and fetid odour arises. . . .

Enough; no treasure was found, and my warning to the unfortunate Swiss turned out but too prophetic. He was forthwith seized and flung into the horrid prison of Saint James, amidst the execrations of thousands, who would have gladly torn him limb from limb.

The affair did not terminate here. The political opponents of the government did not allow so favourable an opportunity to escape for launching the shafts of ridicule. The Moderados were taunted in the cortes for their avarice and credulity, whilst the liberal press wafted on its wings through Spain the story of the treasure-hunt at Saint James.

“After all, it was a trampa of Don Jorge’s,” said one of my enemies. “That fellow is at the bottom of half the picardias which happen in Spain.”

Eager to learn the fate of the Swiss, I wrote to my old friend Rey Romero, at Compostella. In his answer he states: “I saw the Swiss in prison, to which place he sent for me, craving my assistance, for the sake of the friendship which I bore to you. But how could I help him? He was speedily after removed from Saint James, I know not whither. It is said that he disappeared on the road.”

Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. Where in the whole cycle of romance shall we find anything more wild, grotesque, and sad, than the easily-authenticated history of Benedict Mol, the treasure-digger of Saint James?

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