The Bible in Spain, by George Borrow

Chapter 2

Boatmen of the Tagus — Dangers of the Stream — Aldea Gallega — The Hostelry — Robbers — Sabocha — Adventure of a Muleteer — Estalagem de Ladroes — Don Geronimo — Vendas Novas — Royal Residence — Swine of the Alemtejo — Monto Moro — Swayne Vonved — Singular Goatherd — Children of the Fields — Infidels and Sadducees.

On the afternoon of the sixth of December I set out for Evora, accompanied by my servant. I had been informed that the tide would serve for the regular passage-boats, or felouks, as they are called, at about four o’clock, but on reaching the side of the Tagus opposite to Aldea Gallega, between which place and Lisbon the boats ply, I found that the tide would not permit them to start before eight o’clock. Had I waited for them I should have probably landed at Aldea Gallega about midnight, and I felt little inclination to make my entree in the Alemtejo at that hour; therefore, as I saw small boats which can push off at any time lying near in abundance, I determined upon hiring one of them for the passage, though the expense would be thus considerably increased. I soon agreed with a wild-looking lad, who told me that he was in part owner of one of the boats, to take me over. I was not aware of the danger in crossing the Tagus at its broadest part, which is opposite Aldea Gallega, at any time, but especially at close of day in the winter season, or I should certainly not have ventured. The lad and his comrade, a miserable looking object, whose only clothing, notwithstanding the season, was a tattered jerkin and trousers, rowed until we had advanced about half a mile from the land; they then set up a large sail, and the lad, who seemed to direct everything and to be the principal, took the helm and steered. The evening was now setting in; the sun was not far from its bourne in the horizon, the air was very cold, the wind was rising, and the waves of the noble Tagus began to be crested with foam. I told the boy that it was scarcely possible for the boat to carry so much sail without upsetting, upon which he laughed, and began to gabble in a most incoherent manner. He had the most harsh and rapid articulation that has ever come under my observation in any human being; it was the scream of the hyena blended with the bark of the terrier, though it was by no means an index of his disposition, which I soon found to be light, merry, and anything but malevolent, for when I, in order to show him that I cared little about him, began to hum “Eu que sou Contrabandista,” he laughed heartily and said, clapping me on the shoulder, that he would not drown us if he could help it. The other poor fellow seemed by no means averse to go to the bottom; he sat at the fore part of the boat looking the image of famine, and only smiled when the waters broke over the weather side and soaked his scanty habiliments. In a little time I had made up my mind that our last hour was come; the wind was getting higher, the short dangerous waves were more foamy, the boat was frequently on its beam, and the water came over the lee side in torrents; but still the wild lad at the helm held on laughing and chattering, and occasionally yelling out part of the Miguelite air, “Quando el Rey chegou” the singing of which in Lisbon is imprisonment.

The stream was against us, but the wind was in our favour, and we sprang along at a wonderful rate, and I saw that our only chance of escape was in speedily passing the farther bank of the Tagus where the bight or bay at the extremity of which stands Aldea Gallega commences, for we should not then have to battle with the waves of the stream, which the adverse wind lashed into fury. It was the will of the Almighty to permit us speedily to gain this shelter, but not before the boat was nearly filled with water, and we were all wet to the skin. At about seven o’clock in the evening we reached Aldea Gallega, shivering with cold and in a most deplorable plight.

Aldea Gallega, or the Galician Village (for the two words are Spanish, and have that signification), it a place containing, I should think, about four thousand inhabitants. It was pitchy dark when we landed, but rockets soon began to fly about in all directions, illuming the air far and wide. As we passed along the dirty unpaved street which leads to the Largo, or square in which the inn is situated, a horrible uproar of drums and voices assailed our ears. On inquiring the cause of all this bustle, I was informed that it was the eve of the Conception of the Virgin.

As it was not the custom of the people at the inn to furnish provisions for the guests, I wandered about in search of food; and at last seeing some soldiers eating and drinking in a species of wine-house, I went in and asked the people to let me have some supper, and in a short time they furnished me with a tolerable meal, for which, however, they charged three crowns.

Having engaged with a person for mules to carry us to Evora, which were to be ready at five next morning, I soon retired to bed, my servant sleeping in the same apartment, which was the only one in the house vacant. I closed not my eyes during the whole night. Beneath us was a stable, in which some almocreves, or carriers, slept with their mules; at our back, in the yard, was a pigsty. How could I sleep? The hogs grunted, the mules screamed, and the almocreves snored most horribly. I heard the village clock strike the hours until midnight, and from midnight till four in the morning, when I sprang up and began to dress, and despatched my servant to hasten the man with the mules, for I was heartily tired of the place and wanted to leave it. An old man, bony and hale, accompanied by a barefooted lad, brought the beasts, which were tolerably good. He was the proprietor of them, and intended, with the lad, who was his nephew, to accompany us to Evora.

When we started, the moon was shining brightly, and the morning was piercingly cold. We soon entered on a sandy hollow way, emerging from which we passed by a strange-looking and large edifice, standing on a high bleak sand-hill on our left. We were speedily overtaken by five or six men on horseback, riding at a rapid pace, each with a long gun slung at his saddle, the muzzle depending about two feet below the horse’s belly. I inquired of the old man what was the reason of this warlike array. He answered, that the roads were very bad (meaning that they abounded with robbers), and that they went armed in this manner for their defence; they soon turned off to the right towards Palmella.

We reached a sandy plain studded with stunted pine; the road was little more than a footpath, and as we proceeded, the trees thickened and became a wood, which extended for two leagues, with clear spaces at intervals, in which herds of cattle and sheep were feeding; the bells attached to their necks were ringing lowly and monotonously. The sun was just beginning to show itself; but the morning was misty and dreary, which, together with the aspect of desolation which the country exhibited, had an unfavourable effect on my spirits. I got down and walked, entering into conversation with the old man. He seemed to have but one theme, “the robbers,” and the atrocities they were in the habit of practising in the very spots we were passing. The tales he told were truly horrible, and to avoid them I mounted again, and rode on considerably in front.

In about an hour and a half we emerged from the forest, and entered upon a savage, wild, broken ground, covered with mato, or brushwood. The mules stopped to drink at a shallow pool, and on looking to the right I saw a ruined wall. This, the guide informed me, was the remains of Vendas Velhas, or the Old Inn, formerly the haunt of the celebrated robber Sabocha. This Sabocha, it seems, had, some sixteen years ago, a band of about forty ruffians at his command, who infested these wilds, and supported themselves by plunder. For a considerable time Sabocha pursued his atrocious trade unsuspected, and many an unfortunate traveller was murdered in the dead of night at the solitary inn by the wood-side, which he kept; indeed, a more fit situation for plunder and murder I never saw. The gang were in the habit of watering their horses at the pool, and perhaps of washing therein their hands stained with the blood of their victims; the lieutenant of the troop was the brother of Sabocha, a fellow of great strength and ferocity, particularly famous for the skill he possessed in darting a long knife, with which he was in the habit of transfixing his opponents. Sabocha’s connection with the gang at length became known, and he fled, with the greater part of his associates, across the Tagus to the northern provinces. Himself and his brothers eventually lost their lives on the road to Coimbra, in an engagement with the military. His house was razed by order of the government.

The ruins are still frequently visited by banditti, who eat and drink amidst them, and look out for prey, as the place commands a view of the road. The old man assured me, that about two months previous, on returning to Aldea Gallega with his mules from accompanying some travellers, he had been knocked down, stripped naked, and all his money taken from him, by a fellow whom he believed came from this murderers’ nest. He said that he was an exceedingly powerful young man, with immense moustaches and whiskers, and was armed with an espingarda, or musket. About ten days subsequently he saw the robber at Vendas Novas, where we should pass the night. The fellow on recognising him took him aside, and, with horrid imprecations, threatened that he should never be permitted to return home if he attempted to discover him; he therefore held his peace, as there was little to be gained and everything to be risked in apprehending him, as he would have been speedily set at liberty for want of evidence to criminate him, and then he would not have failed to have had his revenge, or would have been anticipated therein by his comrades.

I dismounted and went up to the place, and saw the vestiges of a fire and a broken bottle. The sons of plunder had been there very lately. I left a New Testament and some tracts amongst the ruins, and hastened away.

The sun had dispelled the mists and was beaming very hot; we rode on for about an hour, when I heard the neighing of a horse in our rear, and our guide said there was a party of horsemen behind; our mules were good, and they did not overtake us for at least twenty minutes. The headmost rider was a gentleman in a fashionable travelling dress; a little way behind were an officer, two soldiers, and a boy in livery. I heard the principal horseman, on overtaking my servant, inquiring who I was, and whether French or English. He was told I was an English gentleman, travelling. He then asked whether I understood Portuguese; the man said I understood it, but he believed that I spoke French and Italian better. The gentleman then spurred on his horse and accosted me, not in Portuguese, nor in French or Italian, but in the purest English that I ever heard spoken by a foreigner; it had, indeed, nothing of foreign accent or pronunciation in it; and had I not known, by the countenance of the speaker, that he was no Englishman, (for there is a peculiarity in the countenance, as everybody knows, which, though it cannot be described, is sure to betray the Englishman), I should have concluded that I was in company with a countryman. We continued discoursing until we arrived at Pegoens.

Pegoens consists of about two or three houses and an inn; there is likewise a species of barrack, where half a dozen soldiers are stationed. In the whole of Portugal there is no place of worse reputation, and the inn is nick-named Estalagem de Ladroes, or the hostelry of thieves; for it is there that the banditti of the wilderness, which extends around it on every side for leagues, are in the habit of coming and spending the money, the fruits of their criminal daring; there they dance and sing, eat fricasseed rabbits and olives, and drink the muddy but strong wine of the Alemtejo. An enormous fire, fed by the trunk of a cork tree, was blazing in a niche on the left hand on entering the spacious kitchen. Close by it, seething, were several large jars, which emitted no disagreeable odour, and reminded me that I had not broken my fast, although it was now nearly one o’clock, and I had ridden five leagues. Several wild-looking men, who if they were not banditti might easily be mistaken for such, were seated on logs about the fire. I asked them some unimportant questions, to which they replied with readiness and civility, and one of them, who said he could read, accepted a tract which I offered him.

My new friend, who had been bespeaking dinner, or rather breakfast, now, with great civility, invited me to partake of it, and at the same time introduced me to the officer who accompanied him, and who was his brother, and also spoke English, though not so well as himself. I found I had become acquainted with Don Geronimo Joze D’Azveto, secretary to the government at Evora; his brother belonged to a regiment of hussars, whose headquarters were at Evora, but which had outlying parties along the road, — for example, the place where we were stopping.

Rabbits at Pegoens seem to be a standard article of food, being produced in abundance on the moors around. We had one fried, the gravy of which was delicious, and afterwards a roasted one, which was brought up on a dish entire; the hostess, having first washed her hands, proceeded to tear the animal to pieces, which having accomplished, she poured over the fragments a sweet sauce. I ate heartily of both dishes, particularly of the last; owing, perhaps, to the novel and curious manner in which it was served up. Excellent figs, from the Algarves, and apples concluded our repast, which we ate in a little side room with a mud floor, which sent such a piercing chill into my system, as prevented me from deriving that pleasure from my fare and my agreeable companions that I should have otherwise experienced.

Don Geronimo had been educated in England, in which country he passed his boyhood, which in a certain degree accounted for his proficiency in the English language, the idiom and pronunciation of which can only be acquired by residing in the country at that period of one’s life. He had also fled thither shortly after the usurpation of the throne of Portugal by Don Miguel, and from thence had departed to the Brazils, where he had devoted himself to the service of Don Pedro, and had followed him in the expedition which terminated in the downfall of the usurper and the establishment of the constitutional government in Portugal. Our conversation rolled chiefly on literary and political subjects, and my acquaintance with the writings of the most celebrated authors of Portugal was hailed with surprise and delight; for nothing is more gratifying to a Portuguese than to observe a foreigner taking an interest in the literature of his nation, of which, in many respects, he is justly proud.

At about two o’clock we were once more in the saddle, and pursued our way in company through a country exactly resembling that which we had previously been traversing, rugged and broken, with here and there a clump of pines. The afternoon was exceedingly fine, and the bright rays of the sun relieved the desolation of the scene. Having advanced about two leagues, we caught sight of a large edifice towering majestically in the distance, which I learnt was a royal palace standing at the farther extremity of Vendas Novas, the village in which we were to pass the night; it was considerably more than a league from us, yet, seen through the clear transparent atmosphere of Portugal it appeared much nearer.

Before reaching it we passed by a stone cross, on the pedestal of which was an inscription commemorating a horrible murder of a native of Lisbon, which had occurred on that spot; it looked ancient, and was covered with moss, and the greater part of the inscription was illegible, at least it was to me, who could not bestow much time on its deciphering. Having arrived at Vendas Novas, and bespoken supper, my new friend and myself strolled forth to view the palace; it was built by the late king of Portugal, and presents little that is remarkable in its exterior; it is a long edifice with wings, and is only two stories high, though it can be seen afar off, from being situated on elevated ground; it has fifteen windows in the upper, and twelve in the lower story, with a paltry-looking door, something like that of a barn, to which you ascend by one single step; the interior corresponds with the exterior, offering nothing which can gratify curiosity, if we except the kitchens, which are indeed magnificent, and so large that food enough might be cooked in them, at one time, to serve as a repast for all the inhabitants of the Alemtejo.

I passed the night with great comfort in a clean bed, remote from all those noises so rife in a Portuguese inn, and the next morning at six we again set out on our journey, which we hoped to terminate before sunset, as Evora is but ten leagues from Vendas Novas. The preceding morning had been cold, but the present one was far colder, so much so, that just before sunrise I could no longer support it on horseback, and therefore dismounting, ran and walked until we reached a few houses at the termination of these desolate moors. It was in one of these houses that the commissioners of Don Pedro and Miguel met, and it was there agreed that the latter should resign the crown in favour of Donna Maria, for Evora was the last stronghold of the usurper, and the moors of the Alemtejo the last area of the combats which so long agitated unhappy Portugal. I therefore gazed on the miserable huts with considerable interest, and did not fail to scatter in the neighbourhood several of the precious little tracts with which, together with a small quantity of Testaments, my carpet bag was provided.

The country began to improve; the savage heaths were left behind, and we saw hills and dales, cork trees, and azinheiras, on the last of which trees grows that kind of sweet acorn called bolotas, which is pleasant as a chestnut, and which supplies in winter the principal food on which the numerous swine of the Alemtejo subsist. Gallant swine they are, with short legs and portly bodies of a black or dark red colour; and for the excellence of their flesh I can vouch, having frequently luxuriated upon it in the course of my wanderings in this province; the lombo, or loin, when broiled on the live embers, is delicious, especially when eaten with olives.

We were now in sight of Monte Moro, which, as the name denotes, was once a fortress of the Moors; it is a high steep hill, on the summit and sides of which are ruined walls and towers; at its western side is a deep ravine or valley, through which a small stream rushes, traversed by a stone bridge; farther down there is a ford, over which we passed and ascended to the town, which, commencing near the northern base, passes over the lower ridge towards the north-east. The town is exceedingly picturesque, and many of the houses are very ancient, and built in the Moorish fashion. I wished much to examine the relics of Moorish sway on the upper part of the mountain, but time pressed, and the short period of our stay at this place did not permit me to gratify my inclination.

Monte Moro is the head of a range of hills which cross this part of the Alemtejo, and from hence they fork east and south-east, towards the former of which directions lies the direct road to Elvas, Badajos, and Madrid; and towards the latter that to Evora. A beautiful mountain, covered to the top with cork trees, is the third of the chain which skirts the way in the direction of Elvas. It is called Monte Almo; a brook brawls at its base, and as I passed it the sun was shining gloriously on the green herbage on which flocks of goats were feeding, with their bells ringing merrily, so that the tout ensemble resembled a fairy scene; and that nothing might be wanted to complete the picture, I here met a man, a goatherd, beneath an azinheira, whose appearance recalled to my mind the Brute Carle, mentioned in the Danish ballad of Swayne Vonved:—

“A wild swine on his shoulders he kept,

And upon his bosom a black bear slept;

And about his fingers with hair o’erhung,

The squirrel sported and weasel clung.”

Upon the shoulder of the goatherd was a beast, which he told me was a lontra, or otter, which he had lately caught in the neighbouring brook; it had a string round its neck which was attached to his arm. At his left side was a bag, from the top of which peered the heads of two or three singular-looking animals, and at his right was squatted the sullen cub of a wolf, which he was endeavouring to tame; his whole appearance was to the last degree savage and wild. After a little conversation such as those who meet on the road frequently hold, I asked him if he could read, but he made me no answer. I then inquired if he knew anything of God or Jesus Christ; he looked me fixedly in the face for a moment, and then turned his countenance towards the sun, which was beginning to sink in the west, nodded to it, and then again looked fixedly upon me. I believe that I understood the mute reply; which probably was, that it was God who made that glorious light which illumes and gladdens all creation; and gratified with that belief, I left him and hastened after my companions, who were by this time a considerable way in advance.

I have always found in the disposition of the children of the fields a more determined tendency to religion and piety than amongst the inhabitants of towns and cities, and the reason is obvious, they are less acquainted with the works of man’s hands than with those of God; their occupations, too, which are simple, and requiring less of ingenuity and skill than those which engage the attention of the other portion of their fellow-creatures, are less favourable to the engendering of self-conceit and sufficiency so utterly at variance with that lowliness of spirit which constitutes the best foundation of piety. The sneerers and scoffers at religion do not spring from amongst the simple children of nature, but are the excrescences of overwrought refinement, and though their baneful influence has indeed penetrated to the country and corrupted man there, the source and fountainhead was amongst crowded houses, where nature is scarcely known. I am not one of those who look for perfection amongst the rural population of any country; perfection is not to be found amongst the children of the fall, wherever their abodes may happen to be; but, until the heart discredits the existence of a God, there is still hope for the soul of the possessor, however stained with crime he may be, for even Simon the magician was converted; but when the heart is once steeled with infidelity, infidelity confirmed by carnal wisdom, an exuberance of the grace of God is required to melt it, which is seldom manifested; for we read in the blessed book that the Pharisee and the wizard became receptacles of grace, but where is there mention made of the conversion of the sneering Sadducee, and is the modern infidel aught but a Sadducee of later date?

It was dark night before we reached Evora, and having taken leave of my friends, who kindly requested me to consider their house my home, I and my servant went to the Largo de San Francisco, in which the muleteer informed me was the best hostelry of the town. We rode into the kitchen, at the extreme end of which was the stable, as is customary in Portugal. The house was kept by an aged gypsy-like female and her daughter, a fine blooming girl about eighteen years of age. The house was large; in the upper storey was a very long room, like a granary, which extended nearly the whole length of the house; the farther part was partitioned off and formed a chamber tolerably comfortable but very cold, and the floor was of tiles, as was also that of the large room in which the muleteers were accustomed to sleep on the furniture of the mules. After supper I went to bed, and having offered up my devotions to Him who had protected me through a dangerous journey, I slept soundly till the morning.

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