The Bible in Spain, by George Borrow

Chapter 39

The Two Gospels — The Alguazil — The Warrant — The Good Maria — The Arrest — Sent to Prison — Reflections — The Reception — The Prison Room — Redress Demanded.

At length the Gospel of Saint Luke in the Gypsy language was in a state of readiness. I therefore deposited a certain number of copies in the despacho, and announced them for sale. The Basque, which was by this time also printed, was likewise advertised. For this last work there was little demand. Not so, however, for the Gypsy Luke, of which I could have easily disposed of the whole edition in less than a fortnight. Long, however, before this period had expired, the clergy were up in arms. “Sorcery!” said one bishop. “There is more in this than we can dive into,” exclaimed a second. “He will convert all Spain by means of the Gypsy language,” cried a third. And then came the usual chorus on such occasions, of Que infamia! Que picardia! At last, having consulted together, away they hurried to their tool the corregidor, or, according to the modern term, the gefe politico of Madrid. I have forgotten the name of this worthy, of whom I had myself no personal knowledge whatever. Judging from his actions, however, and from common report, I should say that he was a stupid wrong-headed creature, savage withal — a melange of borrico, mule, and wolf. Having an inveterate antipathy to all foreigners, he lent a willing ear to the complaint of my accusers, and forthwith gave orders to make a seizure of all the copies of the Gypsy Gospel which could be found in the despacho. The consequence was, that a numerous body of alguazils directed their steps to the Calle del principe; some thirty copies of the book in question were pounced upon, and about the same number of Saint Luke in Basque. With this spoil these satellites returned in triumph to the gefatura politica, where they divided the copies of the Gypsy volume amongst themselves, selling subsequently the greater number at a large price, the book being in the greatest demand, and thus becoming unintentionally agents of an heretical society. But every one must live by his trade, say these people, and they lose no opportunity of making their words good, by disposing to the best advantage of any booty which falls into their hands. As no person cared about the Basque Gospel, it was safely stowed away, with other unmarketable captures, in the warehouses of the office.

The Gypsy Gospels had now been seized, at least as many as were exposed for sale in the despacho. The corregidor and his friends, however, were of opinion that many more might be obtained by means of a little management. Fellows, therefore, hangers-on of the police office, were daily dispatched to the shop in all kinds of disguises, inquiring, with great seeming anxiety, for “Gypsy books,” and offering high prices for copies. They, however, returned to their employers empty-handed. My Gallegan was on his guard, informing all who made inquiries, that books of no description would be sold at the establishment for the present. Which was in truth the case, as I had given him particular orders to sell no more under any pretence whatever.

I got no credit, however, for my frank dealing. The corregidor and his confederates could not persuade themselves but that by some means mysterious and unknown to them, I was daily selling hundreds of these Gypsy books, which were to revolutionize the country, and annihilate the power of the Father of Rome. A plan was therefore resolved upon, by means of which they hoped to have an opportunity of placing me in a position which would incapacitate me for some time from taking any active measures to circulate the Scriptures, either in Gypsy or in any other language.

It was on the morning of the first of May, if I forget not, that an unknown individual made his appearance in my apartment as I was seated at breakfast; he was a mean-looking fellow, about the middle stature, with a countenance on which knave was written in legible characters. The hostess ushered him in, and then withdrew. I did not like the appearance of my visitor, but assuming some degree of courtesy, I requested him to sit down, and demanded his business. “I come from his excellency the political chief of Madrid,” he replied, “and my business is to inform you that his excellency is perfectly aware of your proceedings, and is at any time able to prove that you are still disposing of in secret those evil books which you have been forbidden to sell.” “Is he so,” I replied; “pray let him do so forthwith, but what need of giving me information?” “Perhaps,” continued the fellow, “you think his worship has no witnesses; know, however, that he has many, and respectable ones too.” “Doubtless,” I replied, “and from the respectability of your own appearance, you are perhaps one of them. But you are occupying my time unprofitably; begone, therefore, and tell whoever sent you, that I have by no means a high opinion of his wisdom.” “I shall go when I please,” retorted the fellow; “do you know to whom you are speaking? Are you aware that if I think fit I can search your apartment, yes, even below your bed? What have we here,” he continued; and commenced with his stick poking a heap of papers which lay upon a chair; “what have we here; are these also papers of the Gypsies?” I instantly determined upon submitting no longer to this behaviour, and taking the fellow by the arm, led him out of the apartment, and then still holding him, conducted him downstairs from the third floor in which I lived, into the street, looking him steadfastly in the face the whole while.

The fellow had left his sombrero on the table, which I dispatched to him by the landlady, who delivered it into his hand as he stood in the street staring with distended eyes at the balcony of my apartment.

“A trampa has been laid for you, Don Jorge,” said Maria Diaz, when she had reascended from the street; “that corchete came here with no other intention than to have a dispute with you; out of every word you have said he will make a long history, as is the custom with these people: indeed he said, as I handed him his hat, that ere twenty-four hours were over, you should see the inside of the prison of Madrid.”

In effect, during the course of the morning, I was told that a warrant had been issued for my apprehension. The prospect of incarceration, however, did not fill me with much dismay; an adventurous life and inveterate habits of wandering having long familiarized me to situations of every kind, so much so as to feel myself quite as comfortable in a prison as in the gilded chamber of palaces; indeed more so, as in the former place I can always add to my store of useful information, whereas in the latter, ennui frequently assails me. I had, moreover, been thinking for some time past of paying a visit to the prison, partly in the hope of being able to say a few words of Christian instruction to the criminals, and partly with the view of making certain investigations in the robber language of Spain, a subject about which I had long felt much curiosity; indeed, I had already made application for admittance into the Carcel de la Corte, but had found the matter surrounded with difficulties, as my friend Ofalia would have said. I rather rejoiced then in the opportunity which was now about to present itself of entering the prison, not in the character of a visitor for an hour, but as a martyr, and as one suffering in the holy cause of religion. I was determined, however, to disappoint my enemies for that day at least, and to render null the threat of the alguazil, that I should be imprisoned within twenty-four hours. I therefore took up my abode for the rest of the day in a celebrated French tavern in the Calle del Caballero de Gracia, which, as it was one of the most fashionable and public places in Madrid, I naturally concluded was one of the last where the corregidor would think of seeking me.

About ten at night, Maria Diaz, to whom I had communicated the place of my retreat, arrived with her son, Juan Lopez. “O senor,” said she on seeing me, “they are already in quest of you; the alcalde of the barrio, with a large comitiva of alguazils and such like people, have just been at our house with a warrant for your imprisonment from the corregidor. They searched the whole house, and were much disappointed at not finding you. Wo is me, what will they do when they catch you?” “Be under no apprehensions, good Maria,” said I; “you forget that I am an Englishman, and so it seems does the corregidor. Whenever he catches me, depend upon it he will be glad enough to let me go. For the present, however, we will permit him to follow his own course, for the spirit of folly seems to have seized him.”

I slept at the tavern, and in the forenoon of the following day repaired to the embassy, where I had an interview with Sir George, to whom I related every circumstance of the affair. He said that he could scarcely believe that the corregidor entertained any serious intentions of imprisoning me: in the first place, because I had committed no offence; and in the second, because I was not under the jurisdiction of that functionary, but under that of the captain-general, who was alone empowered to decide upon matters which relate to foreigners, and before whom I must be brought in the presence of the consul of my nation. “However,” said he, “there is no knowing to what length these jacks in office may go. I therefore advise you, if you are under any apprehension, to remain as my guest at the embassy for a few days, for here you will be quite safe.” I assured him that I was under no apprehension whatever, having long been accustomed to adventures of this kind. From the apartment of Sir George, I proceeded to that of the first secretary of embassy, Mr. Southern, with whom I entered into conversation. I had scarcely been there a minute when my servant Francisco rushed in, much out of breath, and in violent agitation, exclaiming in Basque, “Niri jauna (master mine), the alguaziloac and the corchetoac, and all the other lapurrac (thieves) are again at the house. They seem half mad, and not being able to find you, are searching your papers, thinking, I suppose, that you are hid among them.” Mr. Southern here interrupting him, inquired of me what all this meant. Whereupon I told him, saying at the same time, that it was my intention to proceed at once to my lodgings. “But perhaps these fellows will arrest you,” said Mr. S., “before we can interfere.” “I must take my chance as to that,” I replied, and presently afterwards departed.

Ere, however, I had reached the middle of the street of Alcala, two fellows came up to me, and telling me that I was their prisoner, commanded me to follow them to the office of the corregidor. They were in fact alguazils, who, suspecting that I might enter or come out of the embassy, had stationed themselves in the neighbourhood. I instantly turned round to Francisco, and told him in Basque to return to the embassy and to relate there to the secretary what had just occurred. The poor fellow set off like lightning, turning half round, however, to shake his fist, and to vent a Basque execration at the two lapurrac, as he called the alguazils.

They conducted me to the gefatura or office of the corregidor, where they ushered me into a large room, and motioned me to sit down on a wooden bench. They then stationed themselves on each side of me: there were at least twenty people in the apartment beside ourselves, evidently from their appearance officials of the establishment. They were all well dressed, for the most part in the French fashion, in round hats, coats, and pantaloons, and yet they looked what in reality they were, Spanish alguazils, spies, and informers, and Gil Blas, could he have waked from his sleep of two centuries, would, notwithstanding the change of fashion, have had no difficulty in recognizing them. They glanced at me as they stood lounging about the room; they gathered themselves together in a circle and began conversing in whispers. I heard one of them say, “he understands the seven Gypsy jargons.” Then presently another, evidently from his language an Andalusian, said, “Es muy diestro (he is very skilful), and can ride a horse and dart a knife full as well as if he came from my own country.” Thereupon they all turned round and regarded me with a species of interest, evidently mingled with respect, which most assuredly they would not have exhibited had they conceived that I was merely an honest man bearing witness in a righteous cause.

I waited patiently on the bench at least one hour, expecting every moment to be summoned before my lord the corregidor. I suppose, however, that I was not deemed worthy of being permitted to see so exalted a personage, for at the end of that time, an elderly man, one however evidently of the alguazil genus, came into the room and advanced directly towards me. “Stand up,” said he. I obeyed. “What is your name?” he demanded. I told him. “Then,” he replied, exhibiting a paper which he held in his hand, “Senor, it is the will of his excellency the corregidor that you be forthwith sent to prison.”

He looked at me steadfastly as he spoke, perhaps expecting that I should sink into the earth at the formidable name of prison; I however only smiled. He then delivered the paper, which I suppose was the warrant for my committal, into the hand of one of my two captors, and obeying a sign which they made, I followed them.

I subsequently learned that the secretary of legation, Mr. Southern, had been dispatched by Sir George, as soon as the latter had obtained information of my arrest, and had been waiting at the office during the greater part of the time that I was there. He had demanded an audience of the corregidor, in which he had intended to have remonstrated with him, and pointed out to him the danger to which he was subjecting himself by the rash step which he was taking. The sullen functionary, however, had refused to see him, thinking, perhaps, that to listen to reason would be a dereliction of dignity: by this conduct, however, he most effectually served me, as no person, after such a specimen of uncalled-for insolence, felt disposed to question the violence and injustice which had been practised towards me.

The alguazils conducted me across the Plaza Mayor to the Carcel de la Corte, or prison of the court, as it is called. Whilst going across the square, I remembered that this was the place where, in “the good old times,” the Inquisition of Spain was in the habit of holding its solemn Autos da fe, and I cast my eye to the balcony of the city hall, where at the most solemn of them all, the last of the Austrian line in Spain sat, and after some thirty heretics, of both sexes, had been burnt by fours and by fives, wiped his face, perspiring with heat, and black with smoke, and calmly inquired, “No hay mas?” for which exemplary proof of patience he was much applauded by his priests and confessors, who subsequently poisoned him. “And here am I,” thought I, “who have done more to wound Popery, than all the poor Christian martyrs that ever suffered in this accursed square, merely sent to prison, from which I am sure to be liberated in a few days, with credit and applause. Pope of Rome! I believe you to be as malicious as ever, but you are sadly deficient in power. You are become paralytic, Batuschca, and your club has degenerated to a crutch.”

We arrived at the prison, which stands in a narrow street not far from the great square. We entered a dusky passage, at the end of which was a wicket door. My conductors knocked, a fierce visage peered through the wicket; there was an exchange of words, and in a few moments I found myself within the prison of Madrid, in a kind of corridor which overlooked at a considerable altitude what appeared to be a court, from which arose a hubbub of voices, and occasionally wild shouts and cries. Within the corridor which served as a kind of office, were several people; one of them sat behind a desk, and to him the alguazils went up, and after discoursing with him some time in low tones, delivered the warrant into his hands. He perused it with attention, then rising he advanced to me. What a figure! He was about forty years of age, and his height might have amounted to some six feet two inches, had he not been curved much after the fashion of the letter S. No weazel ever appeared lanker, and he looked as if a breath of air would have been sufficient to blow him away; his face might certainly have been called handsome, had it not been for its extraordinary and portentous meagreness; his nose was like an eagle’s bill, his teeth white as ivory, his eyes black (Oh how black!) and fraught with a strange expression, his skin was dark, and the hair of his head like the plumage of the raven. A deep quiet smile dwelt continually on his features; but with all the quiet it was a cruel smile, such a one as would have graced the countenance of a Nero. “Mais en revanche personne n’etoit plus honnete.” “Caballero,” said he, “allow me to introduce myself to you as the alcayde of this prison. I perceive by this paper that I am to have the honour of your company for a time, a short time doubtless, beneath this roof; I hope you will banish every apprehension from your mind. I am charged to treat you with all the respect which is due to the illustrious nation to which you belong, and which a cavalier of such exalted category as yourself is entitled to expect. A needless charge, it is true, as I should only have been too happy of my own accord to have afforded you every comfort and attention. Caballero, you will rather consider yourself here as a guest than a prisoner; you will be permitted to roam over every part of this house whenever you think proper. You will find matters here not altogether below the attention of a philosophic mind! Pray, issue whatever commands you may think fit to the turnkeys and officials, even as if they were your own servants. I will now have the honour of conducting you to your apartment — the only one at present unoccupied. We invariably reserve it for cavaliers of distinction. I am happy to say that my orders are again in consonance with my inclination. No charge whatever will be made for it to you, though the daily hire of it is not unfrequently an ounce of gold. I entreat you, therefore, to follow me, cavalier, who am at all times and seasons the most obedient and devoted of your servants.” Here he took off his hat and bowed profoundly.

Such was the speech of the alcayde of the prison of Madrid; a speech delivered in pure sonorous Castilian, with calmness, gravity, and almost with dignity; a speech which would have done honour to a gentleman of high birth, to Monsieur Basompierre, of the Old Bastile, receiving an Italian prince, or the high constable of the Tower an English duke attainted of high treason. Now, who in the name of wonder was this alcayde?

One of the greatest rascals in all Spain. A fellow who had more than once by his grasping cupidity, and by his curtailment of the miserable rations of the prisoners, caused an insurrection in the court below only to be repressed by bloodshed, and by summoning military aid; a fellow of low birth, who, only five years previous, had been DRUMMER to a band of royalist volunteers!

But Spain is the land of extraordinary characters.

I followed the alcayde to the end of the corridor, where was a massive grated door, on each side of which sat a grim fellow of a turnkey. The door was opened, and turning to the right we proceeded down another corridor, in which were many people walking about, whom I subsequently discovered to be prisoners like myself, but for political offences. At the end of this corridor, which extended the whole length of the patio, we turned into another, and the first apartment in this was the one destined for myself. It was large and lofty, but totally destitute of every species of furniture, with the exception of a huge wooden pitcher, intended to hold my daily allowance of water. “Caballero,” said the alcayde, “the apartment is without furniture, as you see. It is already the third hour of the tarde, I therefore advise you to lose no time in sending to your lodgings for a bed and whatever you may stand in need of, the llavero here shall do your bidding. Caballero, adieu till I see you again.”

I followed his advice, and writing a note in pencil to Maria Diaz, I dispatched it by the llavero, and then sitting down on the wooden pitcher, I fell into a reverie, which continued for a considerable time.

Night arrived, and so did Maria Diaz, attended by two porters and Francisco, all loaded with furniture. A lamp was lighted, charcoal was kindled in the brasero, and the prison gloom was to a certain degree dispelled.

I now left my seat on the pitcher, and sitting down on a chair, proceeded to dispatch some wine and viands, which my good hostess had not forgotten to bring with her. Suddenly Mr. Southern entered. He laughed heartily at finding me engaged in the manner I have described. “B-,” said he, “you are the man to get through the world, for you appear to take all things coolly, and as matters of course. That, however, which most surprises me with respect to you is, your having so many friends; here you are in prison, surrounded by people ministering to your comforts. Your very servant is your friend, instead of being your worst enemy, as is usually the case. That Basque of yours is a noble fellow. I shall never forget how he spoke for you, when he came running to the embassy to inform us of your arrest. He interested both Sir George and myself in the highest degree: should you ever wish to part with him, I hope you will give me the refusal of his services. But now to other matters.” He then informed me that Sir George had already sent in an official note to Ofalia, demanding redress for such a wanton outrage on the person of a British subject. “You must remain in prison,” said he, “to-night, but depend upon it that tomorrow, if you are disposed, you may quit in triumph.” “I am by no means disposed for any such thing,” I replied. “They have put me in prison for their pleasure, and I intend to remain here for my own.” “If the confinement is not irksome to you,” said Mr. Southern, “I think, indeed, it will be your wisest plan; the government have committed themselves sadly with regard to you; and, to speak plainly, we are by no means sorry for it. They have on more than one occasion treated ourselves very cavalierly, and we have now, if you continue firm, an excellent opportunity of humbling their insolence. I will instantly acquaint Sir George with your determination, and you shall hear from us early on the morrow.” He then bade me farewell; and flinging myself on my bed, I was soon asleep in the prison of Madrid.

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