The Bible in Spain, by George Borrow

Chapter 15

The Steamer — Cape Finisterre — The Storm — Arrival at Cadiz — The New Testament — Seville — Italica — The Amphitheatre — The Prisoners — The Encounter — Baron Taylor — The Street and Desert.

At the commencement of November, I again found myself on the salt water, on my way to Spain. I had returned to England shortly after the events which have been narrated in the last chapter, for the purpose of consulting with my friends, and for planning the opening of a biblical campaign in Spain. It was now determined by us to print the New Testament, with as little delay as possible, at Madrid; and I was to be entrusted with the somewhat arduous task of its distribution. My stay in England was very short, for time was precious, and I was eager to return to the field of action.

I embarked in the Thames, on board the M— steamer. We had a most unpleasant passage to Falmouth; the ship was crowded with passengers, most of them poor consumptive individuals, and other invalids fleeing from the cold blasts of England’s winter to the sunny shores of Portugal and Madeira. In a more uncomfortable vessel, especially steam ship, it has never been my fate to make a voyage. The berths were small and insupportably close, and of these wretched holes mine was amongst the worst, the rest having been bespoken before I arrived on board; so that to avoid the suffocation which seemed to threaten me should I enter it, I lay upon the floor of one of the cabins throughout the voyage. We remained at Falmouth twenty-four hours, taking in coal, and repairing the engine, which had sustained considerable damage.

On Monday, the seventh, we again started, and made for the Bay of Biscay. The sea was high and the wind strong and contrary; nevertheless, on the morning of the fourth day, we were in sight of the rocky coast to the north of Cape Finisterre. I must here observe, that this was the first voyage that the captain who commanded the vessel had ever made on board of her, and that he knew little or nothing of the coast towards which we were bearing. He was a person picked up in a hurry, the former captain having resigned his command on the ground that the ship was not seaworthy, and that the engines were frequently unserviceable. I was not acquainted with these circumstances at the time, or perhaps I should have felt more alarmed than I did, when I saw the vessel approaching nearer and nearer the shore, till at last we were only a few hundred yards distant. As it was, however, I felt very much surprised; for having passed it twice before, both times in steam vessels, and having seen with what care the captains endeavoured to maintain a wide offing, I could not conceive the reason of our being now so near this dangerous region. The wind was blowing hard towards the shore, if that can be called a shore which consists of steep abrupt precipices, on which the surf was breaking with the noise of thunder, tossing up clouds of spray and foam to the height of a cathedral. We coasted slowly along, rounding several tall forelands, some of them piled up by the hand of nature in the most fantastic shapes. About nightfall Cape Finisterre was not far ahead, — a bluff, brown, granite mountain, whose frowning head may be seen far away by those who traverse the ocean. The stream which poured round its breast was terrific, and though our engines plied with all their force, we made little or no way.

By about eight o’clock at night the wind had increased to a hurricane, the thunder rolled frightfully, and the only light which we had to guide us on our way was the red forked lightning, which burst at times from the bosom of the big black clouds which lowered over our heads. We were exerting ourselves to the utmost to weather the cape, which we could descry by the lightning on our lee, its brow being frequently brilliantly lighted up by the flashes which quivered around it, when suddenly, with a great crash, the engine broke, and the paddles, on which depended our lives, ceased to play.

I will not attempt to depict the scene of horror and confusion which ensued; it may be imagined, but never described. The captain, to give him his due, displayed the utmost coolness and intrepidity; he and the whole crew made the greatest exertions to repair the engine, and when they found their labour in vain, endeavoured, by hoisting the sails, and by practising all possible manoeuvres, to preserve the ship from impending destruction; but all was of no avail, we were hard on a lee shore, to which the howling tempest was impelling us. About this time I was standing near the helm, and I asked the steersman if there was any hope of saving the vessel, or our lives. He replied, “Sir, it is a bad affair, no boat could live for a minute in this sea, and in less than an hour the ship will have her broadside on Finisterre, where the strongest man-of-war ever built must go to shivers instantly — none of us will see the morning.” The captain, likewise, informed the other passengers in the cabin to the same effect, telling them to prepare themselves; and having done so, he ordered the door to be fastened, and none to be permitted to come on deck. I, however, kept my station, though almost drowned with water, immense waves continually breaking over our windward side and flooding the ship. The water casks broke from their lashings, and one of them struck me down, and crushed the foot of the unfortunate man at the helm, whose place was instantly taken by the captain. We were now close to the rocks, when a horrid convulsion of the elements took place. The lightning enveloped us as with a mantle, the thunders were louder than the roar of a million cannon, the dregs of the ocean seemed to be cast up, and in the midst of all this turmoil, the wind, without the slightest intimation, VEERED RIGHT ABOUT, and pushed us from the horrible coast faster than it had previously driven us towards it.

The oldest sailors on board acknowledged that they had never witnessed so providential an escape. I said, from the bottom of my heart, “Our Father — hallowed be thy name.”

The next day we were near foundering, for the sea was exceedingly high, and our vessel, which was not intended for sailing, laboured terribly, and leaked much. The pumps were continually working. She likewise took fire, but the flames were extinguished. In the evening the steam-engine was partially repaired, and we reached Lisbon on the thirteenth, where in a few days we completed our repairs.

I found my excellent friend W— in good health. During my absence he had been doing everything in his power to further the sale of the sacred volume in Portuguese: his zeal and devotedness were quite admirable. The distracted state of the country, however, during the last six months, had sadly impeded his efforts. The minds of the people had been so engrossed with politics, that they found scarcely any time to think of the welfare of their souls. The political history of Portugal had of late afforded a striking parallel to that of the neighbouring country. In both a struggle for supremacy had arisen between the court and the democratic party; in both the latter had triumphed, whilst two distinguished individuals had fallen a sacrifice to the popular fury — Freire in Portugal, and Quesada in Spain. The news which reached me at Lisbon from the latter country was rather startling. The hordes of Gomez were ravaging Andalusia, which I was about to visit on my way to Madrid; Cordova had been sacked and abandoned after a three days’ occupation by the Carlists. I was told that if I persisted in my attempt to enter Spain in the direction which I proposed, I should probably fall into their hands at Seville. I had, however, no fears, and had full confidence that the Lord would open the path before me to Madrid.

The vessel being repaired, we again embarked, and in two days arrived in safety at Cadiz. I found great confusion reigning there; numerous bands of the factious were reported to be hovering in the neighbourhood. An attack was not deemed improbable, and the place had just been declared in a state of siege. I took up my abode at the French hotel in the Calle de la Niveria, and was allotted a species of cockloft, or garret, to sleep in, for the house was filled with guests, being a place of much resort, on account of the excellent table d’hote which is kept there. I dressed myself and walked about the town. I entered several coffee-houses: the din of tongues in all was deafening. In one no less than six orators were haranguing at the same time on the state of the country, and the probability of an intervention on the part of England and France. As I was listening to one of them, he suddenly called upon me for my opinion, as I was a foreigner, and seemingly just arrived. I replied that I could not venture to guess what steps the two governments would pursue under the present circumstances, but thought that it would be as well if the Spaniards would exert themselves more and call less on Jupiter. As I did not wish to engage in any political conversation, I instantly quitted the house, and sought those parts of the town where the lower classes principally reside.

I entered into discourse with several individuals, but found them very ignorant; none could read or write, and their ideas respecting religion were anything but satisfactory, — most professing a perfect indifference. I afterwards went into a bookseller’s shop and made inquiries respecting the demand for literature, which, he informed me, was small. I produced a London edition of the New Testament in Spanish, and asked the bookseller whether he thought a book of that description would sell in Cadiz. He said that both the type and paper were exceedingly beautiful, but that it was a work not sought after, and very little known. I did not pursue my inquiries in other shops, for I reflected that I was not likely to receive a very favourable opinion from booksellers respecting a publication in which they had no interest. I had, moreover, but two or three copies of the New Testament with me, and could not have supplied them had they even given me an order.

Early on the twenty-fourth, I embarked for Seville in the small Spanish steamer the Betis: the morning was wet, and the aspect of nature was enveloped in a dense mist, which prevented my observing surrounding objects. After proceeding about six leagues, we reached the north-eastern extremity of the Bay of Cadiz, and passed by Saint Lucar, an ancient town near to the spot where the Guadalquivir disembogues itself. The mist suddenly disappeared, and the sun of Spain burst forth in full brilliancy, enlivening all around, and particularly myself, who had till then been lying on the deck in a dull melancholy stupor. We entered the mouth of “The Great River,” for that is the English translation of Oued al Kiber, as the Moors designated the ancient Betis. We came to anchor for a few minutes at a little village called Bonanca, at the extremity of the first reach of the river, where we received several passengers, and again proceeded. There is not much in the appearance of the Guadalquivir to interest the traveller: the banks are low and destitute of trees, the adjacent country is flat, and only in the distance is seen a range of tall blue sierras. The water is turbid and muddy, and in colour closely resembling the contents of a duck-pool; the average width of the stream is from a hundred and fifty to two hundred yards, but it is impossible to move along this river without remembering that it has borne the Roman, the Vandal, and the Arab, and has been the witness of deeds which have resounded through the world and been the themes of immortal songs. I repeated Latin verses and fragments of old Spanish ballads till we reached Seville, at about nine o’clock of a lovely moonlight night.

Seville contains ninety thousand inhabitants, and is situated on the eastern bank of the Guadalquivir, about eighteen leagues from its mouth; it is surrounded with high Moorish walls, in a good state of preservation, and built of such durable materials that it is probable they will for many centuries still bid defiance to the encroachments of time. The most remarkable edifices are the cathedral and Alcazar, or palace of the Moorish kings; the tower of the former, called La Giralda, belongs to the period of the Moors, and formed part of the grand mosque of Seville: it is computed to be one hundred ells in height, and is ascended not by stairs or ladders but by a vaulted pathway, in the manner of an inclined plane: this path is by no means steep, so that a cavalier might ride up to the top, a feat which Ferdinand the Seventh is said to have accomplished. The view from the summit is very extensive, and on a fine clear day the mountain ridge, called the Sierra de Ronda, may be discovered, though upwards of twenty leagues distant. The cathedral itself is a noble Gothic structure, reputed the finest of the kind in Spain. In the chapels allotted to the various saints are some of the most magnificent paintings which Spanish art has produced; indeed the Cathedral of Seville is at the present time far more rich in splendid paintings than at any former period; possessing many very recently removed from some of the suppressed convents, particularly from the Capuchin and San Francisco.

No one should visit Seville without paying particular attention to the Alcazar, that splendid specimen of Moorish architecture. It contains many magnificent halls, particularly that of the ambassadors, so called, which is in every respect more magnificent than the one of the same name within the Alhambra of Granada. This palace was a favourite residence of Peter the Cruel, who carefully repaired it without altering its Moorish character and appearance. It probably remains in much the same state as at the time of his death.

On the right side of the river is a large suburb, called Triana, communicating with Seville by means of a bridge of boats; for there is no permanent bridge across the Guadalquivir, owing to the violent inundations to which it is subject. This suburb is inhabited by the dregs of the populace, and abounds with Gitanos or Gypsies. About a league and a half to the north-west stands the village of Santo Ponce: at the foot and on the side of some elevated ground higher up are to be seen vestiges of ruined walls and edifices, which once formed part of Italica, the birth-place of Silius Italicus and Trajan, from which latter personage Triana derives its name.

One fine morning I walked thither, and having ascended the hill, I directed my course northward. I soon reached what had once been bagnios, and a little farther on, in a kind of valley between two gentle declivities, the amphitheatre. This latter object is by far the most considerable relic of ancient Italica; it is oval in its form, with two gateways fronting the east and west.

On all sides are to be seen the time-worn broken granite benches, from whence myriads of human beings once gazed down on the area below, where the gladiator shouted, and the lion and the leopard yelled: all around, beneath these flights of benches, are vaulted excavations from whence the combatants, part human part bestial, darted forth by their several doors. I spent many hours in this singular place, forcing my way through the wild fennel and brushwood into the caverns, now the haunts of adders and other reptiles, whose hissings I heard. Having sated my curiosity, I left the ruins, and returning by another way, reached a place where lay the carcass of a horse half devoured; upon it, with lustrous eyes, stood an enormous vulture, who, as I approached, slowly soared aloft till he alighted on the eastern gate of the amphitheatre, from whence he uttered a hoarse cry, as if in anger that I had disturbed him from his feast of carrion.

Gomez had not hitherto paid a visit to Seville: when I arrived he was said to be in the neighbourhood of Ronda. The city was under watch and ward: several gates had been blocked up with masonry, trenches dug, and redoubts erected, but I am convinced that the place would not have held out six hours against a resolute attack. Gomez had proved himself to be a most extraordinary man, and with his small army of Aragonese and Basques had, within the last four months, made the tour of Spain. He had very frequently been hemmed in by forces three times the number of his own, in places whence escape appeared impossible, but he had always battled his enemies, whom he seemed to laugh at. The most absurd accounts of victories gained over him were continually issuing from the press at Seville; amongst others, it was stated that his army had been utterly defeated, himself killed, and that twelve hundred prisoners were on their way to Saville. I saw these prisoners: instead of twelve hundred desperadoes, they consisted of about twenty poor lame ragged wretches, many of them boys from fourteen to sixteen years of age. They were evidently camp followers, who, unable to keep up with the army, had been picked up straggling in the plains and amongst the hills.

It subsequently appeared that no battle had occurred, and that the death of Gomez was a fiction. The grand defect of Gomez consisted in not knowing how to take advantage of circumstances: after defeating Lopez, he might have marched to Madrid and proclaimed Don Carlos there, and after sacking Cordova he might have captured Seville.

There were several booksellers’ shops at Seville, in two of which I found copies of the New Testament in Spanish, which had been obtained from Gibraltar about two years before, since which time six copies had been sold in one shop and four in the other. The person who generally accompanied me in my walks about the town and the neighbourhood, was an elderly Genoese, who officiated as a kind of valet de place in the Posada del Turco, where I had taken up my residence. On learning from me that it was my intention to bring out an edition of the New Testament at Madrid, he observed that copies of the work might be extensively circulated in Andalusia. “I have been accustomed to bookselling,” he continued, “and at one time possessed a small shop of my own in this place. Once having occasion to go to Gibraltar, I procured several copies of the Scriptures; some, it is true, were seized by the officers of the customs, but the rest I sold at a high price, and with considerable profit to myself.”

I had returned from a walk in the country, on a glorious sunshiny morning of the Andalusian winter, and was directing my steps towards my lodging: as I was passing by the portal of a large gloomy house near the gate of Xeres, two individuals dressed in zamarras emerged from the archway, and were about to cross my path, when one, looking in my face, suddenly started back, exclaiming in the purest and most melodious French: “What do I see? If my eyes do not deceive me — it is himself. Yes, the very same as I saw him first at Bayonne; then long subsequently beneath the brick wall at Novogorod; then beside the Bosphorus; and last at — at — Oh, my respectable and cherished friend, where was it that I had last the felicity of seeing your well-remembered and most remarkable physiognomy?”

Myself. — It was in the south of Ireland, if I mistake not. Was it not there that I introduced you to the sorcerer who tamed the savage horses by a single whisper into their ear? But tell me what brings you to Spain and Andalusia, the last place where I should have expected to find you?

Baron Taylor. — And wherefore, my most respectable B-? Is not Spain the land of the arts; and is not Andalusia of all Spain that portion which has produced the noblest monuments of artistic excellence and inspiration? Surely you know enough of me to be aware that the arts are my passion; that I am incapable of imagining a more exalted enjoyment than to gaze in adoration on a noble picture. O come with me! for you too have a soul capable of appreciating what is lovely and exalted; a soul delicate and sensitive. Come with me, and I will show you a Murillo, such as —. But first allow me to introduce you to your compatriot. My dear Monsieur W., turning to his companion (an English gentleman from whom and from his family I subsequently experienced unbounded kindness and hospitality on various occasions, and at different periods at Seville), allow me to introduce to you my most cherished and respectable friend, one who is better acquainted with Gypsy ways than the Chef des Bohemiens a Triana, one who is an expert whisperer and horse-sorcerer, and who, to his honour I say it, can wield hammer and tongs, and handle a horse-shoe with the best of the smiths amongst the Alpujarras of Granada.

In the course of my travels I have formed various friendships and acquaintances, but no one has more interested me than Baron Taylor, and there is no one for whom I entertain a greater esteem and regard. To personal and mental accomplishments of the highest order he unites a kindness of heart rarely to be met with, and which is continually inducing him to seek for opportunities of doing good to his fellow creatures, and of contributing to their happiness; perhaps no person in existence has seen more of the world and life in its various phases than himself. His manners are naturally to the highest degree courtly, yet he nevertheless possesses a disposition so pliable that he finds no difficulty in accommodating himself to all kinds of company, in consequence of which he is a universal favourite. There is a mystery about him, which, wherever he goes, serves not a little to increase the sensation naturally created by his appearance and manner. Who he is, no one pretends to assert with downright positiveness: it is whispered, however, that he is a scion of royalty; and who can gaze for a moment upon that most graceful figure, that most intelligent but singularly moulded countenance, and those large and expressive eyes, without feeling as equally convinced that he is of no common lineage, as that he is no common man. Though possessed of talents and eloquence which would speedily have enabled him to attain to an illustrious position in the state, he has hitherto, and perhaps wisely, contented himself with comparative obscurity, chiefly devoting himself to the study of the arts and of literature, of both of which he is a most bounteous patron.

He has, notwithstanding, been employed by the illustrious house to which he is said to be related in more than one delicate and important mission, both in the East and the West, in which his efforts have uniformly been crowned with complete success. He was now collecting masterpieces of the Spanish school of painting, which were destined to adorn the saloons of the Tuileries.

He has visited most portions of the earth, and it is remarkable enough that we are continually encountering each other in strange places and under singular circumstances. Whenever he descries me, whether in the street or the desert, the brilliant hall or amongst Bedouin haimas, at Novogorod or Stambul, he flings up his arms and exclaims, “O ciel! I have again the felicity of seeing my cherished and most respectable B-.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51