The Bible in Spain, by George Borrow

Chapter 7

The Druids’ Stone — The Young Spaniard — Ruffianly Soldiers — Evils of War — Estremoz — The Brawl — Ruined Watch Tower — Glimpse of Spain — Old Times and New.

After proceeding about a league and a half, a blast came booming from the north, rolling before it immense clouds of dust; happily it did not blow in our faces, or it would have been difficult to proceed, so great was its violence. We had left the road in order to take advantage of one of those short cuts, which, though possible for a horse or a mule, are far too rough to permit any species of carriage to travel along them. We were in the midst of sands, brushwood, and huge pieces of rock, which thickly studded the ground. These are the stones which form the sierras of Spain and Portugal; those singular mountains which rise in naked horridness, like the ribs of some mighty carcass from which the flesh has been torn. Many of these stones, or rocks, grew out of the earth, and many lay on its surface unattached, perhaps wrested from their bed by the waters of the deluge. Whilst toiling along these wild wastes, I observed, a little way to my left, a pile of stones of rather a singular appearance, and rode up to it. It was a druidical altar, and the most perfect and beautiful one of the kind which I had ever seen. It was circular, and consisted of stones immensely large and heavy at the bottom, which towards the top became thinner and thinner, having been fashioned by the hand of art to something of the shape of scollop shells. These were surmounted by a very large flat stone, which slanted down towards the south, where was a door. Three or four individuals might have taken shelter within the interior, in which was growing a small thorn tree.

I gazed with reverence and awe upon the pile where the first colonies of Europe offered their worship to the unknown God. The temples of the mighty and skilful Roman, comparatively of modern date, have crumbled to dust in its neighbourhood. The churches of the Arian Goth, his successor in power, have sunk beneath the earth, and are not to be found; and the mosques of the Moor, the conqueror of the Goth, where and what are they? Upon the rock, masses of hoary and vanishing ruin. Not so the Druids’ stone; there it stands on the hill of winds, as strong and as freshly new as the day, perhaps thirty centuries back, when it was first raised, by means which are a mystery. Earthquakes have heaved it, but its copestone has not fallen; rain floods have deluged it, but failed to sweep it from its station; the burning sun has flashed upon it, but neither split nor crumbled it; and time, stern old time, has rubbed it with his iron tooth, and with what effect let those who view it declare. There it stands, and he who wishes to study the literature, the learning, and the history of the ancient Celt and Cymbrian, may gaze on its broad covering, and glean from that blank stone the whole known amount. The Roman has left behind him his deathless writings, his history, and his songs; the Goth his liturgy, his traditions, and the germs of noble institutions; the Moor his chivalry, his discoveries in medicine, and the foundations of modern commerce; and where is the memorial of the Druidic races? Yonder: that pile of eternal stone!

We arrived at Arroyolos about seven at night. I took possession of a large two-bedded room, and, as I was preparing to sit down to supper, the hostess came to inquire whether I had any objection to receive a young Spaniard for the night. She said he had just arrived with a train of muleteers, and that she had no other room in which she could lodge him. I replied that I was willing, and in about half an hour he made his appearance, having first supped with his companions. He was a very gentlemanly, good-looking lad of seventeen. He addressed me in his native language, and, finding that I understood him, he commenced talking with astonishing volubility. In the space of five minutes he informed me that, having a desire to see the world, he had run away from his friends, who were people of opulence at Madrid, and that he did not intend to return until he had travelled through various countries. I told him that if what he said was true, he had done a very wicked and foolish action; wicked, because he must have overwhelmed those with grief whom he was bound to honour and love, and foolish, inasmuch as he was going to expose himself to inconceivable miseries and hardships, which would shortly cause him to rue the step he had taken; that he would be only welcome in foreign countries so long as he had money to spend, and when he had none, he would be repulsed as a vagabond, and would perhaps be allowed to perish of hunger. He replied that he had a considerable sum of money with him, no less than a hundred dollars, which would last him a long time, and that when it was spent he should perhaps be able to obtain more. “Your hundred dollars,” said I, “will scarcely last you three months in the country in which you are, even if it be not stolen from you; and you may as well hope to gather money on the tops of the mountains as expect to procure more by honourable means.” But he had not yet sufficiently drank of the cup of experience to attend much to what I said, and I soon after changed the subject. About five next morning he came to my bedside to take leave, as his muleteers were preparing to depart. I gave him the usual Spanish valediction (Vaya usted con Dios), and saw no more of him.

At nine, after having paid a most exorbitant sum for slight accommodation, I started from Arroyolos, which is a town or large village situated on very elevated ground, and discernible afar off. It can boast of the remains of a large ancient and seemingly Moorish castle, which stands on a hill on the left as you take the road to Estremoz.

About a mile from Arroyolos I overtook a train of carts escorted by a number of Portuguese soldiers, conveying stores and ammunition into Spain. Six or seven of these soldiers marched a considerable way in front; they were villainous looking ruffians upon whose livid and ghastly countenances were written murder, and all the other crimes which the decalogue forbids. As I passed by, one of them, with a harsh, croaking voice, commenced cursing all foreigners. “There,” said he, “is this Frenchman riding on horseback” (I was on a mule), “with a man” (the idiot) “to take care of him, and all because he is rich; whilst I, who am a poor soldier, am obliged to tramp on foot. I could find it in my heart to shoot him dead, for in what respect is he better than I? But he is a foreigner, and the devil helps foreigners and hates the Portuguese.” He continued shouting his remarks until I got about forty yards in advance, when I commenced laughing; but it would have been more prudent in me to have held my peace, for the next moment, with bang — bang, two bullets, well aimed, came whizzing past my ears. A small river lay just before me, though the bridge was a considerable way on my left. I spurred my animal through it, closely followed by my terrified guide, and commenced galloping along a sandy plain on the other side, and so escaped with my life.

These fellows, with the look of banditti, were in no respect better; and the traveller who should meet them in a solitary place would have little reason to bless his good fortune. One of the carriers (all of whom were Spaniards from the neighbourhood of Badajoz, and had been despatched into Portugal for the purpose of conveying the stores), whom I afterwards met in the aforesaid town, informed me that the whole party were equally bad, and that he and his companions had been plundered by them of various articles, and threatened with death if they attempted to complain. How frightful to figure to oneself an army of such beings in a foreign land, sent thither either to invade or defend; and yet Spain, at the time I am writing this, is looking forward to armed assistance from Portugal. May the Lord in his mercy grant that the soldiers who proceed to her assistance may be of a different stamp: and yet, from the lax state of discipline which exists in the Portuguese army, in comparison with that of England and France, I am afraid that the inoffensive population of the disturbed provinces will say that wolves have been summoned to chase away foxes from the sheepfold. O! may I live to see the day when soldiery will no longer be tolerated in any civilized, or at least Christian, country!

I pursued my route to Estremoz, passing by Monte Moro Novo, which is a tall dusky hill, surmounted by an ancient edifice, probably Moorish. The country was dreary and deserted, but offering here and there a valley studded with cork trees and azinheiras. After midday the wind, which during the night and morning had much abated, again blew with such violence as nearly to deprive me of my senses, though it was still in our rear.

I was heartily glad when, on ascending a rising ground, at about four o’clock, I saw Estremoz on its hill at something less than a league’s distance. Here the view became wildly interesting; the sun was sinking in the midst of red and stormy clouds, and its rays were reflected on the dun walls of the lofty town to which we were wending. Nor far distant to the south-west rose Serra Dorso, which I had seen from Evora, and which is the most beautiful mountain in the Alemtejo. My idiot guide turned his uncouth visage towards it, and becoming suddenly inspired, opened his mouth for the first time during the day, I might almost say since we had left Aldea Gallega, and began to tell me what rare hunting was to be obtained in that mountain. He likewise described with great minuteness a wonderful dog, which was kept in the neighbourhood for the purpose of catching the wolves and wild boars, and for which the proprietor had refused twenty moidores.

At length we reached Estremoz, and took up our quarters at the principal inn, which looks upon a large plain or market-place occupying the centre of the town, and which is so extensive that I should think ten thousand soldiers at least might perform their evolutions there with case.

The cold was far too terrible to permit me to remain in the chamber to which I had been conducted; I therefore went down to a kind of kitchen on one side of the arched passage, which led under the house to the yard and stables. A tremendous withering blast poured through this passage, like the water through the flush of a mill. A large cork tree was blazing in the kitchen beneath a spacious chimney; and around it were gathered a noisy crew of peasants and farmers from the neighbourhood, and three or four Spanish smugglers from the frontier. I with difficulty obtained a place amongst them, as a Portuguese or a Spaniard will seldom make way for a stranger, till called upon or pushed aside, but prefers gazing upon him with an expression which seems to say, I know what you want, but I prefer remaining where I am.

I now first began to observe an alteration in the language spoken; it had become less sibilant, and more guttural; and, when addressing each other, the speakers used the Spanish title of courtesy usted, or your worthiness, instead of the Portuguese high flowing vossem se, or your lordship. This is the result of constant communication with the natives of Spain, who never condescend to speak Portuguese, even when in Portugal, but persist in the use of their own beautiful language, which, perhaps, at some future period, the Portuguese will generally adopt. This would greatly facilitate the union of the two countries, hitherto kept asunder by the natural waywardness of mankind.

I had not been seated long before the blazing pile, when a fellow, mounted on a fine spirited horse, dashed from the stables through the passage into the kitchen, where he commenced displaying his horsemanship, by causing the animal to wheel about with the velocity of a millstone, to the great danger of everybody in the apartment. He then galloped out upon the plain, and after half an hour’s absence returned, and having placed his horse once more in the stable, came and seated himself next to me, to whom he commenced talking in a gibberish of which I understood very little, but which he intended for French. He was half intoxicated, and soon became three parts so, by swallowing glass after glass of aguardiente. Finding that I made him no answer, he directed his discourse to one of the contrabandistas, to whom he talked in bad Spanish. The latter either did not or would not understand him; but at last, losing patience, called him a drunkard, and told him to hold his tongue. The fellow, enraged at this contempt, flung the glass out of which he was drinking at the Spaniard’s head, who sprang up like a tiger, and unsheathing instantly a snick and snee knife, made an upward cut at the fellow’s cheek, and would have infallibly laid it open, had I not pulled his arm down just in time to prevent worse effects than a scratch above the lower jawbone, which, however, drew blood.

The smuggler’s companions interfered, and with much difficulty led him off to a small apartment in the rear of the house, where they slept, and kept the furniture of their mules. The drunkard then commenced singing, or rather yelling, the Marseillois hymn; and after having annoyed every one for nearly an hour, was persuaded to mount his horse and depart, accompanied by one of his neighbours. He was a pig merchant of the vicinity, but had formerly been a trooper in the army of Napoleon, where, I suppose, like the drunken coachman of Evora, he had picked up his French and his habits of intoxication.

From Estremoz to Elvas the distance is six leagues. I started at nine next morning; the first part of the way lay through an enclosed country, but we soon emerged upon wild bleak downs, over which the wind, which still pursued us, howled most mournfully. We met no one on the route; and the scene was desolate in the extreme; the heaven was of a dark grey, through which no glimpse of the sun was to be perceived. Before us, at a great distance, on an elevated ground, rose a tower — the only object which broke the monotony of the waste. In about two hours from the time when we first discovered it, we reached a fountain, at the foot of the hill on which it stood; the water, which gushed into a long stone trough, was beautifully clear and transparent, and we stopped here to water the animals.

Having dismounted, I left the guide, and proceeded to ascend the hill on which the tower stood. Though the ascent was very gentle I did not accomplish it without difficulty; the ground was covered with sharp stones, which, in two or three instances, cut through my boots and wounded my feet; and the distance was much greater than I had expected. I at last arrived at the ruin, for such it was. I found it had been one of those watch towers or small fortresses called in Portuguese atalaias; it was square, and surrounded by a wall, broken down in many places. The tower itself had no door, the lower part being of solid stone work; but on one side were crevices at intervals between the stones, for the purpose of placing the feet, and up this rude staircase I climbed to a small apartment, about five feet square, from which the top had fallen. It commanded an extensive view from all sides, and had evidently been built for the accommodation of those whose business it was to keep watch on the frontier, and at the appearance of an enemy to alarm the country by signals — probably by a fire. Resolute men might have defended themselves in this little fastness against many assailants, who must have been completely exposed to their arrows or musketry in the ascent.

Being about to leave the place, I heard a strange cry behind a part of the wall which I had not visited, and hastening thither, I found a miserable object in rags, seated upon a stone. It was a maniac — a man about thirty years of age, and I believe deaf and dumb; there he sat, gibbering and mowing, and distorting his wild features into various dreadful appearances. There wanted nothing but this object to render the scene complete; banditti amongst such melancholy desolation would have been by no means so much in keeping. But the maniac, on his stone, in the rear of the wind-beaten ruin, overlooking the blasted heath, above which scowled the leaden heaven, presented such a picture of gloom and misery as I believe neither painter nor poet ever conceived in the saddest of their musings. This is not the first instance in which it has been my lot to verify the wisdom of the saying, that truth is sometimes wilder than fiction.

I remounted my mule, and proceeded till, on the top of another hill, my guide suddenly exclaimed, “there is Elvas.” I looked in the direction in which he pointed, and beheld a town perched on the top of a lofty hill. On the other side of a deep valley towards the left rose another hill, much higher, on the top of which is the celebrated fort of Elvas, believed to be the strongest place in Portugal. Through the opening between the fort and the town, but in the background and far in Spain, I discerned the misty sides and cloudy head of a stately mountain, which I afterwards learned was Albuquerque, one of the loftiest of Estremadura.

We now got into a cultivated country, and following the road, which wound amongst hedgerows, we arrived at a place where the ground began gradually to shelve down. Here, on the right, was the commencement of an aqueduct by means of which the town on the opposite hill was supplied; it was at this point scarcely two feet in altitude, but, as we descended, it became higher and higher, and its proportions more colossal. Near the bottom of the valley it took a turn to the left, bestriding the road with one of its arches. I looked up, after passing under it; the water must have been flowing near a hundred feet above my head, and I was filled with wonder at the immensity of the structure which conveyed it. There was, however, one feature which was no slight drawback to its pretensions to grandeur and magnificence; the water was supported not by gigantic single arches, like those of the aqueduct of Lisbon, which stalk over the valley like legs of Titans, but by three layers of arches, which, like three distinct aqueducts, rise above each other. The expense and labour necessary for the erection of such a structure must have been enormous; and, when we reflect with what comparative ease modern art would confer the same advantage, we cannot help congratulating ourselves that we live in times when it is not necessary to exhaust the wealth of a province to supply a town on a hill with one of the first necessaries of existence.

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