The Bible in Spain, by George Borrow

Chapter 43

Villa Seca — Moorish House — The Puchera — The Rustic Council — Polite Ceremonial — The Flower of Spain — The Bridge of Azeca — The Ruined Castle — Taking the Field — Demand for the Word — The Old Peasant — The Curate and Blacksmith — Cheapness of the Scriptures.

It was one of the most fiercely hot days in which I ever braved the sun, when I arrived at Villa Seca. The heat in the shade must have amounted at least to one hundred degrees, and the entire atmosphere seemed to consist of flickering flame. At a place called Leganez, six leagues from Madrid, and about half way to Toledo, we diverged from the highway, bending our course seemingly towards the south-east. We rode over what are called plains in Spain, but which, in any other part of the world, would be called undulating and broken ground. The crops of corn and barley had already disappeared. The last vestiges discoverable being here and there a few sheaves, which the labourers were occupied in removing to their garners in the villages. The country could scarcely be called beautiful, being perfectly naked, exhibiting neither trees nor verdure. It was not, however, without its pretensions to grandeur and magnificence, like every part of Spain. The most prominent objects were two huge calcareous hills or rather one cleft in twain, which towered up on high; the summit of the nearest being surmounted by the ruins of an ancient castle, that of Villaluenga. About an hour past noon we reached Villa Seca.

We found it a large village, containing about seven hundred inhabitants, and surrounded by a mud wall. A plaza, or market-place, stood in the midst, one side of which is occupied by what is called a palace, a clumsy quadrangular building of two stories, belonging to some noble family, the lords of the neighbouring soil. It was deserted, however, being only occupied by a kind of steward, who stored up in its chambers the grain which he received as rent from the tenants and villanos who farmed the surrounding district.

The village stands at the distance of about a quarter of a league from the bank of the Tagus, which even here, in the heart of Spain, is a beautiful stream, not navigable, however, on account of the sandbanks, which in many places assume the appearance of small islands, and are covered with trees and brushwood. The village derives its supply of water entirely from the river, having none of its own; such at least as is potable, the water of its wells being all brackish, on which account it is probably termed Villa Seca, which signifies “the dry hamlet.” The inhabitants are said to have been originally Moors; certain it is, that various customs are observable here highly favourable to such a supposition. Amongst others, a very curious one; it is deemed infamous for a woman of Villa Seca to go across the market-place, or to be seen there, though they have no hesitation in showing themselves in the streets and lanes. A deep-rooted hostility exists between the inhabitants of this place and those of a neighbouring village, called Vargas; they rarely speak when they meet, and never intermarry. There is a vague tradition that the people of the latter place are old Christians, and it is highly probable that these neighbours were originally of widely different blood; those of Villa Seca being of particularly dark complexions, whilst the indwellers of Vargas are light and fair. Thus the old feud between Moor and Christian is still kept up in the nineteenth century in Spain.

Drenched in perspiration, which fell from our brows like rain, we arrived at the door of Juan Lopez, the husband of Maria Diaz. Having heard of our intention to pay him a visit, he was expecting us, and cordially welcomed us to his habitation, which, like a genuine Moorish house, consisted only of one story. It was amply large, however, with a court and stable. All the apartments were deliciously cool. The floors were of brick or stone, and the narrow and trellised windows, which were without glass, scarcely permitted a ray of sun to penetrate into the interior.

A puchera had been prepared in expectation of our arrival; the heat had not taken away my appetite, and it was not long before I did full justice to this the standard dish of Spain. Whilst I ate, Lopez played upon the guitar, singing occasionally snatches of Andalusian songs. He was a short, merry-faced, active fellow, whom I had frequently seen at Madrid, and was a good specimen of the Spanish labrador or yeoman. Though far from possessing the ability and intellect of his wife, Maria Diaz, he was by no means deficient in shrewdness and understanding. He was, moreover, honest and disinterested, and performed good service in the Gospel cause, as will presently appear.

When the repast was concluded, Lopez thus addressed me:— “Senor Don Jorge, your arrival in our village has already caused a sensation, more especially as these are times of war and tumult, and every person is afraid of another, and we dwell here close on the confines of the factious country; for, as you well know, the greater part of La Mancha is in the hands of the Carlinos and thieves, parties of whom frequently show themselves on the other side of the river: on which account the alcalde of this city, with the other grave and notable people thereof, are desirous of seeing your worship, and conversing with you, and of examining your passport.” “It is well,” said I; “let us forthwith pay a visit to these worthy people.” Whereupon he conducted me across the plaza, to the house of the alcalde, where I found the rustic dignitary seated in the passage, enjoying the refreshing coolness of a draught of air which rushed through. He was an elderly man, of about sixty, with nothing remarkable in his appearance or his features, which latter were placid and good-humoured. There were several people with him, amongst whom was the surgeon of the place, a tall and immensely bulky man, an Alavese by birth, from the town of Vitoria. There was also a red fiery-faced individual, with a nose very much turned on one side, who was the blacksmith of the village, and was called in general El Tuerto, from the circumstance of his having but one eye. Making the assembly a low bow, I pulled out my passport, and thus addressed them:—

“Grave men and cavaliers of this city of Villa Seca, as I am a stranger, of whom it is not possible that you should know anything, I have deemed it my duty to present myself before you, and to tell you who I am. Know, then, that I am an Englishman of good blood and fathers, travelling in these countries for my own profit and diversion, and for that of other people also. I have now found my way to Villa Seca, where I propose to stay some time, doing that which may be deemed convenient; sometimes riding across the plain, and sometimes bathing myself in the waters of the river, which are reported to be of advantage in times of heat, I therefore beg that, during my sojourn in this capital, I may enjoy such countenance and protection from its governors as they are in the habit of affording to those who are of quiet and well-ordered life, and are disposed to be buxom and obedient to the customs and laws of the republic.”

“He speaks well,” said the alcalde, glancing around.

“Yes, he speaks well,” said the bulky Alavese; “there is no denying it.”

“I never heard any one speak better,” cried the blacksmith, starting up from a stool on which he was seated. “Vaya! he is a big man and a fair complexioned like myself. I like him, and have a horse that will just suit him; one that is the flower of Spain, and is eight inches above the mark.”

I then, with another bow, presented my passport to the alcalde, who, with a gentle motion of his hand, appeared to decline taking it, at the same time saying, “It is not necessary.” “Oh, not at all,” exclaimed the surgeon. “The housekeepers of Villa Seca know how to comport themselves with formality,” observed the blacksmith. “They would be very loth to harbour any suspicion against a cavalier so courteous and well spoken.” Knowing, however, that this refusal amounted to nothing, and that it merely formed part of a polite ceremonial, I proffered the passport a second time, whereupon it was instantly taken, and in a moment the eyes of all present were bent upon it with intense curiosity. It was examined from top to bottom, and turned round repeatedly, and though it is not probable that an individual present understood a word of it, it being written in French, it gave nevertheless universal satisfaction; and when the alcalde, carefully folding it up, returned it to me, they all observed that they had never seen a better passport in their lives, or one which spake in higher terms of the bearer.

Who was it said that “Cervantes sneered Spain’s chivalry away?” I know not; and the author of such a line scarcely deserves to be remembered. How the rage for scribbling tempts people at the present day to write about lands and nations of which they know nothing, or worse than nothing. Vaya! It is not from having seen a bull-fight at Seville or Madrid, or having spent a handful of ounces at a posada in either of those places, kept perhaps by a Genoese or a Frenchman, that you are competent to write about such a people as the Spaniards, and to tell the world how they think, how they speak, and how they act! Spain’s chivalry sneered away! Why, there is every probability that the great body of the Spanish nation speak, think, and live precisely as their forefathers did six centuries ago.

In the evening the blacksmith, or, as he would be called in Spanish, El Herrador, made his appearance at the door of Lopez on horseback. “Vamos, Don Jorge,” he shouted. “Come with me, if your worship is disposed for a ride. I am going to bathe my horse in the Tagus by the bridge of Azeca.” I instantly saddled my jaca Cordovesa, and joining him, we rode out of the village, directing our course across the plain towards the river. “Did you ever see such a horse as this of mine, Don Jorge?” he demanded. “Is he not a jewel — an alaja?” And in truth the horse was a noble and gallant creature, in height at least sixteen hands, broad-chested, but of clean and elegant limbs. His neck was superbly arched, and his head towered on high like that of a swan. In colour he was a bright chestnut, save his flowing mane and tail, which were almost black. I expressed my admiration, whereupon the herrador, in high spirits, pressed his heels to the creature’s sides, and flinging the bridle on its neck, speeded over the plain with prodigious swiftness, shouting the old Spanish cry, Cierra! I attempted to keep up with him, but had not a chance. “I call him the flower of Spain,” said the herrador, rejoining me. “Purchase him, Don Jorge, his price is but three thousand reals. 20 I would not sell him for double that sum, but the Carlist thieves have their eyes upon him, and I am apprehensive that they will some day make a dash across the river and break into Villa Seca, all to get possession of my horse, ‘The Flower of Spain.’”

It may be as well to observe here, that within a month from this period, my friend the herrador, not being able to find a regular purchaser for his steed, entered into negotiations with the aforesaid thieves respecting him, and finally disposed of the animal to their leader, receiving not the three thousand reals he demanded, but an entire herd of horned cattle, probably driven from the plains of La Mancha. For this transaction, which was neither more nor less than high treason, he was cast into the prison of Toledo, where, however, he did not continue long; for during a short visit to Villa Seca, which I made in the spring of the following year, I found him alcalde of that “republic.”

We arrived at the bridge of Azeca, which is about half a league from Villa Seca; close beside it is a large water-mill, standing upon a dam which crosses the river. Dismounting from his steed, the herrador proceeded to divest it of the saddle, then causing it to enter the mill-pool, he led it by means of a cord to a particular spot, where the water reached half way up its neck, then fastening a cord to a post on the bank, he left the animal standing in the pool. I thought I could do no better than follow his example, and accordingly procuring a rope from the mill, I led my own horse into the water. “It will refresh their blood, Don Jorge,” said the herrador; “let us leave them there for an hour, whilst we go and divert ourselves.”

Near the bridge, on the side of the river on which we were, was a kind of guard-house, where were three carbineers of the revenue, who collected the tolls of the bridge; we entered into conversation with them: “Is not this a dangerous position of yours,” said I to one of them, who was a Catalan; “close beside the factious country? Surely it would not be difficult for a body of the Carlinos or bandits to dash across the bridge and make prisoners of you all.”

“It would be easy enough at any moment, Cavalier,” replied the Catalan; “we are, however, all in the hands of God, and he has preserved us hitherto, and perhaps still will. True it is that one of our number, for there were four of us originally, fell the other day into the hands of the canaille: he had wandered across the bridge amongst the thickets with his gun in search of a hare or rabbit, when three or four of them fell upon him and put him to death in a manner too horrible to relate. But patience! every man who lives must die. I shall not sleep the worse to-night because I may chance to be hacked by the knives of these malvados tomorrow. Cavalier, I am from Barcelona, and have seen there mariners of your nation; this is not so good a country as Barcelona. Paciencia! Cavalier, if you will step into our house, I will give you a glass of water; we have some that is cool, for we dug a deep hole in the earth and buried there our pitcher; it is cool, as I told you, but the water of Castile is not like that of Catalonia.”

The moon had arisen when we mounted our horses to return to the village, and the rays of the beauteous luminary danced merrily on the rushing waters of the Tagus, silvered the plain over which we were passing, and bathed in a flood of brightness the bold sides of the calcareous hill of Villaluenga and the antique ruins which crowned its brow. “Why is that place called the Castle of Villaluenga?” I demanded.

“From a village of that name, which stands on the other side of the hill, Don Jorge,” replied the herrador. “Vaya! it is a strange place, that castle; some say it was built by the Moors in the old times, and some by the Christians when they first laid siege to Toledo. It is not inhabited now, save by rabbits, which breed there in abundance amongst the long grass and broken stones, and by eagles and vultures, which build on the tops of the towers; I occasionally go there with my gun to shoot a rabbit. On a fine day you may descry both Toledo and Madrid from its walls. I cannot say I like the place, it is so dreary and melancholy. The hill on which it stands is all of chalk, and is very difficult of ascent. I heard my grandame say that once, when she was a girl, a cloud of smoke burst from that hill, and that flames of fire were seen, just as if it contained a volcano, as perhaps it does, Don Jorge.”

The grand work of Scripture circulation soon commenced in the Sagra. Notwithstanding the heat of the weather, I rode about in all directions. It was well that heat agrees with my constitution, otherwise it would have been impossible to effect anything in this season, when the very arrieros frequently fall dead from their mules, smitten by sun-stroke. I had an excellent assistant in Antonio, who, disregarding the heat like myself, and afraid of nothing, visited several villages with remarkable success. “Mon maitre,” said he, “I wish to show you that nothing is beyond my capacity.” But he who put the labours of us both to shame, was my host, Juan Lopez, whom it had pleased the Lord to render favourable to the cause. “Don Jorge,” said he, “io quiero engancharme con usted (I wish to enlist with you); I am a liberal, and a foe to superstition; I will take the field, and, if necessary, will follow you to the end of the world; Viva Ingalaterra; viva el Evangelio.” Thus saying, he put a large bundle of Testaments into a satchel, and springing upon the crupper of his grey donkey, he cried “Arrhe burra,” and hastened away. I sat down to my journal.

Ere I had finished writing, I heard the voice of the burra in the courtyard, and going out, I found my host returned. He had disposed of his whole cargo of twenty Testaments at the village of Vargas, distant from Villa Seca about a league. Eight poor harvest men, who were refreshing themselves at the door of a wine-house, purchased each a copy, whilst the village schoolmaster secured the rest for the little ones beneath his care, lamenting, at the same time, the great difficulty he had long experienced in obtaining religious books, owing to their scarcity and extravagant price. Many other persons were also anxious to purchase Testaments, but Lopez was unable to supply them: at his departure, they requested him to return within a few days.

I was aware that I was playing rather a daring game, and that it was very possible that, when I least expected it, I might be seized, tied to the tail of a mule, and dragged either to the prison of Toledo or Madrid. Yet such a prospect did not discourage me in the least, but rather urged me to persevere; for at this time, without the slightest wish to gratify myself, I could say that I was eager to lay down my life for the cause, and whether a bandit’s bullet, or the gaol fever brought my career to a close, was a matter of indifference to me; I was not then a stricken man: “Ride on because of the word of righteousness,” was my cry.

The news of the arrival of the book of life soon spread like wildfire through the villages of the Sagra of Toledo, and wherever my people and myself directed our course we found the inhabitants disposed to receive our merchandize; it was even called for where not exhibited. One night as I was bathing myself and horse in the Tagus, a knot of people gathered on the bank, crying, “Come out of the water, Englishman, and give us books; we have got our money in our hands.” The poor creatures then held out their hands, filled with cuartos, a copper coin of the value of the farthing, but unfortunately I had no Testaments to give them. Antonio, however, who was at a short distance, having exhibited one, it was instantly torn from his hands by the people, and a scuffle ensued to obtain possession of it. It very frequently occurred, that the poor labourers in the neighbourhood, being eager to obtain Testaments, and having no money to offer us in exchange, brought various articles to our habitation as equivalents; for example, rabbits, fruit and barley, and I made a point never to disappoint them, as such articles were of utility either for our own consumption or that of the horses.

In Villa Seca there was a school in which fifty-seven children were taught the first rudiments of education. One morning the schoolmaster, a tall slim figure of about sixty, bearing on his head one of the peaked hats of Andalusia, and wrapped, notwithstanding the excessive heat of the weather, in a long cloak, made his appearance; and having seated himself, requested to be shown one of our books. Having delivered it to him, he remained examining it for nearly half an hour, without uttering a word. At last he laid it down with a sigh, and said that he should be very happy to purchase some of these books for his school, but from their appearance, especially from the quality of the paper and binding, he was apprehensive that to pay for them would exceed the means of the parents of his pupils, as they were almost destitute of money, being poor labourers. He then commenced blaming the government, which he said established schools without affording the necessary books, adding that in his school there were but two books for the use of all his pupils, and these he confessed contained but little good. I asked him what he considered the Testaments were worth? He said, “Senor Cavalier, to speak frankly, I have in other times paid twelve reals for books inferior to yours in every respect, but I assure you that my poor pupils would be utterly unable to pay the half of that sum.” I replied, “I will sell you as many as you please for three reals each, I am acquainted with the poverty of the land, and my friends and myself, in affording the people the means of spiritual instruction have no wish to curtail their scanty bread.” He replied: “Bendito sea Dios,” (blessed be God,) and could scarcely believe his ears. He instantly purchased a dozen, expending, as he said, all the money he possessed, with the exception of a few cuartos. The introduction of the word of God into the country schools of Spain is therefore begun, and I humbly hope that it will prove one of those events, which the Bible Society, after the lapse of years, will have most reason to remember with joy and gratitude to the Almighty.

An old peasant is reading in the portico. Eighty-four years have passed over his head, and he is almost entirely deaf; nevertheless he is reading aloud the second of Matthew: three days since he bespoke a Testament, but not being able to raise the money, he has not redeemed it until the present moment. He has just brought thirty farthings; as I survey the silvery hair which overshadows his sunburnt countenance, the words of the song occurred to me, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

I experienced much grave kindness and simple hospitality from the good people of Villa Seca during my sojourn amongst them. I had at this time so won their hearts by the “formality” of my behaviour and language, that I firmly believe they would have resisted to the knife any attempt which might have been made to arrest or otherwise maltreat me. He who wishes to become acquainted with the genuine Spaniard, must seek him not in seaports and large towns, but in lone and remote villages, like those of the Sagra. There he will find all that gravity of deportment and chivalry of disposition which Cervantes is said to have sneered away; and there he will hear, in everyday conversation, those grandiose expressions, which, when met with in the romances of chivalry, are scoffed at as ridiculous exaggerations.

I had one enemy in the village — it was the curate.

“The fellow is a heretic and a scoundrel,” said he one day in the conclave. “He never enters the church, and is poisoning the minds of the people with his Lutheran books. Let him be bound and sent to Toledo, or turned out of the village at least.”

“I will have nothing of the kind,” said the alcalde, who was said to be a Carlist. “If he has his opinions, I have mine too. He has conducted himself with politeness. Why should I interfere with him? He has been courteous to my daughter, and has presented her with a volume. Que viva! and with respect to his being a Lutheran, I have heard say that amongst the Lutherans there are sons of as good fathers as here. He appears to me a caballero. He speaks well.”

“There is no denying it,” said the surgeon.

“Who speaks SO well?” shouted the herrador. “And, who has more formality? Vaya! did he not praise my horse, ‘The Flower of Spain’? Did he not say that in the whole of Ingalaterra there was not a better? Did he not assure me, moreover, that if he were to remain in Spain he would purchase it, giving me my own price? Turn him out, indeed! Is he not of my own blood, is he not fair-complexioned? Who shall turn him out when I, ‘the one-eyed,’ say no?”

In connection with the circulation of the Scriptures I will now relate an anecdote not altogether divested of singularity. I have already spoken of the water-mill by the bridge of Azeca. I had formed acquaintance with the tenant of this mill, who was known in the neighbourhood by the name of Don Antero. One day, taking me into a retired place, he asked me, to my great astonishment, whether I would sell him a thousand Testaments at the price at which I was disposing of them to the peasantry; saying, if I would consent he would pay me immediately. In fact, he put his hand into his pocket, and pulled it out filled with gold ounces. I asked him what was his reason for wishing to make so considerable a purchase. Whereupon he informed me that he had a relation in Toledo whom he wished to establish, and that he was of opinion that his best plan would be to hire him a shop there and furnish it with Testaments. I told him that he must think of nothing of the kind, as probably the books would be seized on the first attempt to introduce them into Toledo, as the priests and canons were much averse to their distribution.

He was not disconcerted, however, and said his relation could travel, as I myself was doing, and dispose of them to the peasants with profit to himself. I confess I was inclined at first to accept his offer, but at length declined it, as I did not wish to expose a poor man to the risk of losing money, goods, and perhaps liberty and life. I was likewise averse to the books being offered to the peasantry at an advanced price, being aware that they could not afford it, and the books, by such an attempt, would lose a considerable part of that influence which they then enjoyed; for their cheapness struck the minds of the people, and they considered it almost as much in the light of a miracle as the Jews the manna which dropped from heaven at the time they were famishing, or the spring which suddenly gushed from the flinty rocks to assuage their thirst in the wilderness.

At this time a peasant was continually passing and repassing between Villa Seca and Madrid, bringing us cargoes of Testaments on a burrico. We continued our labours until the greater part of the villages of the Sagra were well supplied with books, more especially those of Vargas, Coveja, Mocejon, Villaluenga, Villa Seca, and Yungler. Hearing at last that our proceedings were known at Toledo, and were causing considerable alarm, we returned to Madrid.

20 About thirty pounds.

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