The Bible in Spain, by George Borrow

Chapter 25

Villafranca — The Pass — Gallegan Simplicity — The Frontier Guard — The Horse-shoe — Gallegan Peculiarities — A Word on Language — The Courier — Wretched Cabins — Host and Guests — Andalusians.

“Ave Maria,” said the woman; “whom have we here? This is not Gil the clock-maker.” “Whether it be Gil or Juan,” said I, “we are in need of your hospitality, and can pay for it.” Our first care was to stable the horses, who were much exhausted. We then went in search of some accommodation for ourselves. The house was large and commodious, and having tasted a little water, I stretched myself on the floor of one of the rooms on some mattresses which the woman produced, and in less than a minute was sound asleep.

The sun was shining bright when I awoke. I walked forth into the market-place, which was crowded with people, I looked up, and could see the peaks of tall black mountains peeping over the tops of the houses. The town lay in a deep hollow, and appeared to be surrounded by hills on almost every side. “Quel pays barbare!” said Antonio, who now joined me; “the farther we go, my master, the wilder everything looks. I am half afraid to venture into Galicia; they tell me that to get to it we must clamber up those hills: the horses will founder.” Leaving the market-place I ascended the wall of the town, and endeavoured to discover the gate by which we should have entered the preceding night; but I was not more successful in the bright sunshine than in the darkness. The town in the direction of Astorga appeared to be hermetically sealed.

I was eager to enter Galicia, and finding that the horses were to a certain extent recovered from the fatigue of the journey of the preceding day, we again mounted and proceeded on our way. Crossing a bridge, we presently found ourselves in a deep gorge amongst the mountains, down which rushed an impetuous rivulet, overhung by the high road which leads into Galicia. We were in the far-famed pass of Fuencebadon.

It is impossible to describe this pass or the circumjacent region, which contains some of the most extraordinary scenery in all Spain; a feeble and imperfect outline is all that I can hope to effect. The traveller who ascends it follows for nearly a league the course of the torrent, whose banks are in some places precipitous, and in others slope down to the waters, and are covered with lofty trees, oaks, poplars, and chestnuts. Small villages are at first continually seen, with low walls, and roofs formed of immense slates, the eaves nearly touching the ground; these hamlets, however, gradually become less frequent as the path grows more steep and narrow, until they finally cease at a short distance before the spot is attained where the rivulet is abandoned, and is no more seen, though its tributaries may yet be heard in many a gully, or descried in tiny rills dashing down the steeps. Everything here is wild, strange, and beautiful: the hill up which winds the path towers above on the right, whilst on the farther side of a profound ravine rises an immense mountain, to whose extreme altitudes the eye is scarcely able to attain; but the most singular feature of this pass are the hanging fields or meadows which cover its sides. In these, as I passed, the grass was growing luxuriantly, and in many the mowers were plying their scythes, though it seemed scarcely possible that their feet could find support on ground so precipitous: above and below were drift-ways, so small as to seem threads along the mountain side. A car, drawn by oxen, is creeping round yon airy eminence; the nearer wheel is actually hanging over the horrid descent; giddiness seizes the brain, and the eye is rapidly withdrawn. A cloud intervenes, and when again you turn to watch their progress, the objects of your anxiety have disappeared. Still more narrow becomes the path along which you yourself are toiling, and its turns more frequent. You have already come a distance of two leagues, and still one-third of the ascent remains unsurmounted. You are not yet in Galicia; and you still hear Castilian, coarse and unpolished, it is true, spoken in the miserable cabins placed in the sequestered nooks which you pass by in your route.

Shortly before we reached the summit of the pass thick mists began to envelop the tops of the hills, and a drizzling rain descended. “These mists,” said Antonio, “are what the Gallegans call bretima; and it is said there is never any lack of them in their country.” “Have you ever visited the country before?” I demanded. “Non, mon maitre; but I have frequently lived in houses where the domestics were in part Gallegans, on which account I know not a little of their ways, and even something of their language.” “Is the opinion which you have formed of them at all in their favour?” I inquired. “By no means, mon maitre; the men in general seem clownish and simple, yet they are capable of deceiving the most clever filou of Paris; and as for the women, it is impossible to live in the same house with them, more especially if they are Camareras, and wait upon the Senora; they are continually breeding dissensions and disputes in the house, and telling tales of the other domestics. I have already lost two or three excellent situations in Madrid, solely owing to these Gallegan chambermaids. We have now come to the frontier, mon maitre, for such I conceive this village to be.”

We entered the village, which stood on the summit of the mountain, and as our horses and ourselves were by this time much fatigued, we looked round for a place in which to obtain refreshment. Close by the gate stood a building which, from the circumstance of a mule or two and a wretched pony standing before it, we concluded was the posada, as in effect it proved to be. We entered: several soldiers were lolling on heaps of coarse hay, with which the place, which much resembled a stable, was half filled. All were exceedingly ill-looking fellows, and very dirty. They were conversing with each other in a strange-sounding dialect, which I supposed to be Gallegan. Scarcely did they perceive us when two or three of them, starting from their couch, ran up to Antonio, whom they welcomed with much affection, calling him companheiro. “How came you to know these men?” I demanded in French. “Ces messieurs sont presque tous de ma connoissance,” he replied, “et, entre nous, ce sont des veritables vauriens; they are almost all robbers and assassins. That fellow, with one eye, who is the corporal, escaped a little time ago from Madrid, more than suspected of being concerned in an affair of poisoning; but he is safe enough here in his own country, and is placed to guard the frontier, as you see; but we must treat them civilly, mon maitre; we must give them wine, or they will be offended. I know them, mon maitre — I know them. Here, hostess, bring an azumbre of wine.”

Whilst Antonio was engaged in treating his friends, I led the horses to the stable; this was through the house, inn, or whatever it might be called. The stable was a wretched shed, in which the horses sank to their fetlocks in mud and puddle. On inquiring for barley, I was told that I was now in Galicia, where barley was not used for provender, and was very rare. I was offered in lieu of it Indian corn, which, however, the horses ate without hesitation. There was no straw to be had; coarse hay, half green, being the substitute. By trampling about in the mud of the stable my horse soon lost a shoe, for which I searched in vain. “Is there a blacksmith in the village?” I demanded of a shock-headed fellow who officiated as ostler.

Ostler. — Si, Senhor; but I suppose you have brought horse-shoes with you, or that large beast of yours cannot be shod in this village.

Myself. — What do you mean? Is the blacksmith unequal to his trade? Cannot he put on a horse-shoe?

Ostler. — Si, Senhor; he can put on a horse-shoe if you give it him; but there are no horse-shoes in Galicia, at least in these parts.

Myself. — Is it not customary then to shoe the horses in Galicia?

Ostler. — Senhor, there are no horses in Galicia, there are only ponies; and those who bring horses to Galicia, and none but madmen ever do, must bring shoes to fit them; only shoes of ponies are to be found here.

Myself. — What do you mean by saying that only madmen bring horses to Galicia?

Ostler. — Senhor, no horse can stand the food of Galicia and the mountains of Galicia long, without falling sick; and then if he does not die at once, he will cost you in farriers more than he is worth; besides, a horse is of no use here, and cannot perform amongst the broken ground the tenth part of the service which a little pony mare can. By the by, Senhor, I perceive that yours is an entire horse; now out of twenty ponies that you see on the roads of Galicia, nineteen are mares; the males are sent down into Castile to be sold. Senhor, your horse will become heated on our roads, and will catch the bad glanders, for which there is no remedy. Senhor, a man must be mad to bring any horse to Galicia, but twice mad to bring an entero, as you have done.

“A strange country this of Galicia,” said I, and went to consult with Antonio.

It appeared that the information of the ostler was literally true with regard to the horse-shoe; at least the blacksmith of the village, to whom we conducted the animal, confessed his inability to shoe him, having none that would fit his hoof: he said it was very probable that we should be obliged to lead the animal to Lugo, which, being a cavalry station, we might perhaps find there what we wanted. He added, however, that the greatest part of the cavalry soldiers were mounted on the ponies of the country, the mortality amongst the horses brought from the level ground into Galicia being frightful. Lugo was ten leagues distant: there seemed, however, to be no remedy at hand but patience, and, having refreshed ourselves, we proceeded, leading our horses by the bridle.

We were now on level ground, being upon the very top of one of the highest mountains in Galicia. This level continued for about a league, when we began to descend. Before we had crossed the plain, which was overgrown with furze and brushwood, we came suddenly upon half a dozen fellows armed with muskets and wearing a tattered uniform. We at first supposed them to be banditti: they were, however, only a party of soldiers who had been detached from the station we had just quitted to escort one of the provincial posts or couriers. They were clamorous for cigars, but offered us no farther incivility. Having no cigars to bestow, I gave them in lieu thereof a small piece of silver. Two of the worst looking were very eager to be permitted to escort us to Nogales, the village where we proposed to spend the night. “By no means permit them, mon maitre,” said Antonio, “they are two famous assassins of my acquaintance; I have known them at Madrid: in the first ravine they will shoot and plunder us.” I therefore civilly declined their offer and departed. “You seem to be acquainted with all the cut-throats in Galicia,” said I to Antonio, as we descended the hill.

“With respect to those two fellows,” he replied, “I knew them when I lived as cook in the family of General Q-, who is a Gallegan: they were sworn friends of the repostero. All the Gallegans in Madrid know each other, whether high or low makes no difference; there, at least, they are all good friends, and assist each other on all imaginable occasions; and if there be a Gallegan domestic in a house, the kitchen is sure to be filled with his countrymen, as the cook frequently knows to his cost, for they generally contrive to eat up any little perquisites which he may have reserved for himself and family.”

Somewhat less than half way down the mountain we reached a small village. On observing a blacksmith’s shop, we stopped, in the faint hope of finding a shoe for the horse, who, for want of one, was rapidly becoming lame. To our great joy we found that the smith was in possession of one single horse-shoe, which some time previously he had found upon the way. This, after undergoing much hammering and alteration, was pronounced by the Gallegan vulcan to be capable of serving in lieu of a better; whereupon we again mounted, and slowly continued our descent.

Shortly ere sunset we arrived at Nogales, a hamlet situate in a narrow valley at the foot of the mountain, in traversing which we had spent the day. Nothing could be more picturesque than the appearance of this spot: steep hills, thickly clad with groves and forests of chestnuts, surrounded it on every side; the village itself was almost embowered in trees, and close beside it ran a purling brook. Here we found a tolerably large and commodious posada.

I was languid and fatigued, but felt little desire to sleep. Antonio cooked our supper, or rather his own, for I had no appetite. I sat by the door, gazing on the wood-covered heights above me, or on the waters of the rivulet, occasionally listening to the people who lounged about the house, conversing in the country dialect. What a strange tongue is the Gallegan, with its half singing half whining accent, and with its confused jumble of words from many languages, but chiefly from the Spanish and Portuguese. “Can you understand this conversation?” I demanded of Antonio, who had by this time rejoined me. “I cannot, mon maitre,” he replied; “I have acquired at various times a great many words amongst the Gallegan domestics in the kitchens where I have officiated as cook, but am quite unable to understand any long conversation. I have heard the Gallegans say that in no two villages is it spoken in one and the same manner, and that very frequently they do not understand each other. The worst of this language is, that everybody on first hearing it thinks that nothing is more easy than to understand it, as words are continually occurring which he has heard before: but these merely serve to bewilder and puzzle him, causing him to misunderstand everything that is said; whereas, if he were totally ignorant of the tongue, he would occasionally give a shrewd guess at what was meant, as I myself frequently do when I hear Basque spoken, though the only word which I know of that language is jaunguicoa.”

As the night closed in I retired to bed, where I remained four or five hours, restless and tossing about; the fever of Leon still clinging to my system. It was considerably past midnight when, just as I was sinking into a slumber, I was aroused by a confused noise in the village, and the glare of lights through the lattice of the window of the room where I lay; presently entered Antonio, half dressed. “Mon maitre,” said he, “the grand post from Madrid to Coruna has just arrived in the village, attended by a considerable escort, and an immense number of travellers. The road they say, between here and Lugo, is infested with robbers and Carlists, who are committing all kinds of atrocities; let us, therefore, avail ourselves of the opportunity, and by midday tomorrow we shall find ourselves safe in Lugo.” On hearing these words, I instantly sprang out of bed and dressed myself, telling Antonio to prepare the horses with all speed.

We were soon mounted and in the street, amidst a confused throng of men and quadrupeds. The light of a couple of flambeaux, which were borne before the courier, shone on the arms of several soldiers, seemingly drawn up on either side of the road; the darkness, however, prevented me from distinguishing objects very clearly. The courier himself was mounted on a little shaggy pony; before and behind him were two immense portmanteaux, or leather sacks, the ends of which nearly touched the ground. For about a quarter of an hour there was much hubbub, shouting, and trampling, at the end of which period the order was given to proceed. Scarcely had we left the village when the flambeaux were extinguished, and we were left in almost total darkness; for some time we were amongst woods and trees, as was evident from the rustling of leaves on every side. My horse was very uneasy and neighed fearfully, occasionally raising himself bolt upright. “If your horse is not more quiet, cavalier, we shall be obliged to shoot him,” said a voice in an Andalusian accent; “he disturbs the whole cavalcade.” “That would be a pity, sergeant,” I replied, “for he is a Cordovese by the four sides; he is not used to the ways of this barbarous country.” “Oh, he is a Cordovese,” said the voice, “vaya, I did not know that; I am from Cordova myself. Pobrecito! let me pat him — yes, I know by his coat that he is my countryman — shoot him, indeed! vaya, I would fain see the Gallegan devil who would dare to harm him. Barbarous country, io lo creo: neither oil nor olives, bread nor barley. You have been at Cordova. Vaya; oblige me, cavalier, by taking this cigar.”

In this manner we proceeded for several hours, up hill and down dale, but generally at a very slow pace. The soldiers who escorted us from time to time sang patriotic songs, breathing love and attachment to the young Queen Isabel, and detestation of the grim tyrant Carlos. One of the stanzas which reached my ears, ran something in the following style:—

“Don Carlos is a hoary churl,

Of cruel heart and cold;

But Isabel’s a harmless girl,

Of only six years old.”

At last the day began to break, and I found myself amidst a train of two or three hundred people, some on foot, but the greater part mounted, either on mules or the pony mares: I could not distinguish a single horse except my own and Antonio’s. A few soldiers were thinly scattered along the road. The country was hilly, but less mountainous and picturesque than the one which we had traversed the preceding day; it was for the most part partitioned into small fields, which were planted with maize. At the distance of every two or three leagues we changed our escort, at some village where was stationed a detachment. The villages were mostly an assemblage of wretched cabins; the roofs were thatched, dank, and moist, and not unfrequently covered with rank vegetation. There were dunghills before the doors, and no lack of pools and puddles. Immense swine were stalking about, intermingled with naked children. The interior of the cabins corresponded with their external appearance: they were filled with filth and misery.

We reached Lugo about two hours past noon: during the last two or three leagues, I became so overpowered with weariness, the result of want of sleep and my late illness, that I was continually dozing in my saddle, so that I took but little notice of what was passing. We put up at a large posada without the wall of the town, built upon a steep bank, and commanding an extensive view of the country towards the east. Shortly after our arrival, the rain began to descend in torrents, and continued without intermission during the next two days, which was, however, to me but a slight source of regret, as I passed the entire time in bed, and I may almost say in slumber. On the evening of the third day I arose.

There was much bustle in the house, caused by the arrival of a family from Coruna; they came in a large jaunting car, escorted by four carabineers. The family was rather numerous, consisting of a father, son, and eleven daughters, the eldest of whom might be about eighteen. A shabby-looking fellow, dressed in a jerkin and wearing a high-crowned hat, attended as domestic. They arrived very wet and shivering, and all seemed very disconsolate, especially the father, who was a well-looking middle-aged man. “Can we be accommodated?” he demanded in a gentle voice of the man of the house; “can we be accommodated in this fonda?”

“Certainly, your worship,” replied the other; “our house is large. How many apartments does your worship require for your family?”

“One will be sufficient,” replied the stranger.

The host, who was a gouty personage and leaned upon a stick, looked for a moment at the traveller, then at every member of his family, not forgetting the domestic, and, without any farther comment than a slight shrug, led the way to the door of an apartment containing two or three flock beds, and which on my arrival I had objected to as being small, dark, and incommodious; this he flung open, and demanded whether it would serve.

“It is rather small,” replied the gentleman; “I think, however, that it will do.”

“I am glad of it,” replied the host. “Shall we make any preparations for the supper of your worship and family?”

“No, I thank you,” replied the stranger, “my own domestic will prepare the slight refreshment we are in need of.”

The key was delivered to the domestic, and the whole family ensconced themselves in their apartment: before, however, this was effected, the escort were dismissed, the principal carabineer being presented with a peseta. The man stood surveying the gratuity for about half a minute, as it glittered in the palm of his hand; then with an abrupt Vamos! he turned upon his heel, and without a word of salutation to any person, departed with the men under his command.

“Who can these strangers be?” said I to the host, as we sat together in a large corridor open on one side, and which occupied the entire front of the house.

“I know not,” he replied, “but by their escort I suppose they are people holding some official situation. They are not of this province, however, and I more than suspect them to be Andalusians.”

In a few minutes the door of the apartment occupied by the strangers was opened, and the domestic appeared bearing a cruse in his hand. “Pray, Senor Patron,” demanded he, “where can I buy some oil?”

“There is oil in the house,” replied the host, “if you want to purchase any; but if, as is probable, you suppose that we shall gain a cuarto by selling it, you will find some over the way. It is as I suspected,” continued the host, when the man had departed on his errand, “they are Andalusians, and are about to make what they call gaspacho, on which they will all sup. Oh, the meanness of these Andalusians! they are come here to suck the vitals of Galicia, and yet envy the poor innkeeper the gain of a cuarto in the oil which they require for their gaspacho. I tell you one thing, master, when that fellow returns, and demands bread and garlic to mix with the oil, I will tell him there is none in the house: as he has bought the oil abroad, so he may the bread and garlic; aye, and the water too for that matter.”

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