The Bible in Spain, by George Borrow

Chapter 5

The College — The Rector — Shibboleth — National Prejudices — Youthful Sports — Jews of Lisbon — Bad Faith — Crime and Superstition — Strange Proposal.

One afternoon Antonio said to me, “It has struck me, Senhor, that your worship would like to see the college of the English —.” “By all means,” I replied, “pray conduct me thither.” So he led me through various streets until we stopped before the gate of a large building in one of the most elevated situations in Lisbon; upon our ringing, a kind of porter presently made his appearance, and demanded our business. Antonio explained it to him. He hesitated for a moment; but presently, bidding us enter, conducted us to a large gloomy-looking stone hall, where, begging us to be seated, he left us. We were soon joined by a venerable personage, seemingly about seventy, in a kind of flowing robe or surplice, with a collegiate cap upon his head. Notwithstanding his age there was a ruddy tinge upon his features, which were perfectly English. Coming slowly up he addressed me in the English tongue, requesting to know how he could serve me. I informed him that I was an English traveller, and should be happy to be permitted to inspect the college, provided it were customary to show it to strangers. He informed me that there could be no objection to accede to my request, but that I came at rather an unfortunate moment, it being the hour of refection. I apologised, and was preparing to retire, but he begged me to remain, as, in a few minutes, the refection would be over, when the principals of the college would do themselves the pleasure of waiting on me.

We sat down on the stone bench, when he commenced surveying me attentively for some time, and then cast his eyes on Antonio. “Whom have we here?” said he to the latter; “surely your features are not unknown to me.” “Probably not, your reverence,” replied Antonio, getting up and bowing most profoundly. “I lived in the family of the Countess — at Cintra, when your venerability was her spiritual guide.” “True, true,” said the old gentleman, sighing, “I remember you now. Ah, Antonio, things are strangely changed since then. A new government — a new system — a new religion, I may say.” Then looking again at me, he demanded whither I was journeying? “I am going to Spain,” said I, “and have stopped at Lisbon by the way.” “Spain, Spain!” said the old man; “surely you have chosen a strange time to visit Spain; there is much bloodshedding in Spain at present, and violent wars and tumults.” “I consider the cause of Don Carlos as already crushed,” I replied; “he has lost the only general capable of leading his armies to Madrid. Zumalacarregui, his Cid, has fallen.” “Do not flatter yourself; I beg your pardon, but do not think, young man, that the Lord will permit the powers of darkness to triumph so easily; the cause of Don Carlos is not lost; its success did not depend on the life of a frail worm like him whom you have mentioned.” We continued in discourse some little time, when he arose, saying that by this time he believed the refection was concluded.

He had scarcely left me five minutes when three individuals entered the stone hall, and advanced slowly towards me; — the principals of the college, said I to myself! and so indeed they were. The first of these gentlemen, and to whom the other two appeared to pay considerable deference, was a thin spare person, somewhat above the middle height; his complexion was very pale, his features emaciated but fine, his eyes dark and sparkling; he might be about fifty — the other two were men in the prime of life. One was of rather low stature; his features were dark, and wore that pinched and mortified expression so frequently to be observed in the countenance of the English —: the other was a bluff, ruddy, and rather good-looking young man; all three were dressed alike in the usual college cap and silk gown. Coming up, the eldest of the three took me by the hand and thus addressed me in clear silvery tones:—

“Welcome, Sir, to our poor house; we are always happy to see in it a countryman from our beloved native land; it will afford us extreme satisfaction to show you over it; it is true that satisfaction is considerably diminished by the reflection that it possesses nothing worthy of the attention of a traveller; there is nothing curious pertaining to it save perhaps its economy, and that as we walk about we will explain to you. Permit us, first of all, to introduce ourselves to you; I am rector of this poor English house of refuge; this gentleman is our professor of humanity, and this (pointing to the ruddy personage) is our professor of polite learning, Hebrew, and Syriac.”

Myself. — I humbly salute you all; excuse me if I inquire who was the venerable gentleman who put himself to the inconvenience of staying with me whilst I was awaiting your leisure.

Rector. — O! a most admirable personage, our almoner, our chaplain; he came into this country before any of us were born, and here he has continued ever since. Now let us ascend that we may show you our poor house: but how is this, my dear Sir, how is it that I see you standing uncovered in our cold damp hall?

Myself. — I can easily explain that to you; it is a custom which has become quite natural to me. I am just arrived from Russia, where I have spent some years. A Russian invariably takes off his hat whenever he enters beneath a roof, whether it pertain to hut, shop, or palace. To omit doing so would be considered as a mark of brutality and barbarism, and for the following reason: in every apartment of a Russian house there is a small picture of the Virgin stuck up in a corner, just below the ceiling — the hat is taken off out of respect to her.

Quick glances of intelligence were exchanged by the three gentlemen. I had stumbled upon their shibboleth, and proclaimed myself an Ephraimite, and not of Gilead. I have no doubt that up to that moment they had considered me as one of themselves — a member, and perhaps a priest, of their own ancient, grand, and imposing religion, for such it is, I must confess — an error into which it was natural that they should fall. What motives could a Protestant have for intruding upon their privacy? What interest could he take in inspecting the economy of their establishment? So far, however, from relaxing in their attention after this discovery, their politeness visibly increased, though, perhaps, a scrutinizing observer might have detected a shade of less cordiality in their manner.

Rector. — Beneath the ceiling in every apartment? I think I understood you so. How delightful — how truly interesting; a picture of the BLESSED Virgin beneath the ceiling in every apartment of a Russian house! Truly, this intelligence is as unexpected as it is delightful. I shall from this moment entertain a much higher opinion of the Russians than hitherto — most truly an example worthy of imitation. I wish sincerely that it was our own practice to place an IMAGE of the BLESSED Virgin beneath the ceiling in every corner of our houses. What say you, our professor of humanity? What say you to the information so obligingly communicated to us by this excellent gentleman?

Humanity Professor. — It is, indeed, most delightful, most cheering, I may say; but I confess that I was not altogether unprepared for it. The adoration of the Blessed Virgin is becoming every day more extended in countries where it has hitherto been unknown or forgotten. Dr. W-, when he passed through Lisbon, gave me some most interesting details with respect to the labours of the propaganda in India. Even England, our own beloved country. . . .

My obliging friends showed me all over their “poor house,” it certainly did not appear a very rich one; it was spacious, and rather dilapidated. The library was small, and possessed nothing remarkable; the view, however, from the roof, over the greater part of Lisbon and the Tagus, was very grand and noble; but I did not visit this place in the hope of seeing busts, or books, or fine prospects, — I visited this strange old house to converse with its inmates, for my favourite, I might say, my only study, is man. I found these gentlemen much what I had anticipated, for this was not the first time that I had visited an English — establishment in a foreign land. They were full of amiability and courtesy to their heretic countryman, and though the advancement of their religion was with them an object of paramount importance, I soon found that, with ludicrous inconsistency, they cherished, to a wonderful degree, national prejudices almost extinct in the mother land, even to the disparagement of those of their own darling faith. I spoke of the English — of their high respectability, and of the loyalty which they had uniformly displayed to their sovereign, though of a different religion, and by whom they had been not unfrequently subjected to much oppression and injustice.

Rector. — My dear Sir, I am rejoiced to hear you; I see that you are well acquainted with the great body of those of our faith in England. They are as you have well described them, a most respectable and loyal body; from loyalty, indeed, they never swerved, and though they have been accused of plots and conspiracies, it is now well known that such had no real existence, but were merely calumnies invented by their religious enemies. During the civil wars the English — cheerfully shed their blood and squandered their fortunes in the cause of the unfortunate martyr, notwithstanding that he never favoured them, and invariably looked upon them with suspicion. At present the English — are the most devoted subjects to our gracious sovereign. I should be happy if I could say as much for our Irish brethren; but their conduct has been — oh! detestable. Yet what can you expect? The true — blush for them. A certain person is a disgrace to the church of which he pretends to be a servant. Where does he find in our canons sanction for his proceedings, his undutiful expressions towards one who is his sovereign by divine right, and who can do no wrong? And above all, where does he find authority for inflaming the passions of a vile mob against a nation intended by nature and by position to command them?

Myself. — I believe there is an Irish college in this city?

Rector. — I believe there is; but it does not flourish, there are few or no pupils. Oh!

I looked through a window, at a great height, and saw about twenty or thirty fine lads sporting in a court below. “This is as it should be,” said I; “those boys will not make worse priests from a little early devotion to trap-ball and cudgel playing. I dislike a staid, serious, puritanic education, as I firmly believe that it encourages vice and hypocrisy.”

We then went into the Rector’s room, where, above a crucifix, was hanging a small portrait.

Myself. — That was a great and portentous man, honest withal. I believe the body of which he was the founder, and which has been so much decried, has effected infinitely more good than it has caused harm.

Rector. — What do I hear? You an Englishman, and a Protestant, and yet an admirer of Ignatius Loyola?

Myself. — I will say nothing with respect to the doctrine of the Jesuits, for, as you have observed, I am a Protestant: but I am ready to assert that there are no people in the world better qualified, upon the whole, to be intrusted with the education of youth. Their moral system and discipline are truly admirable. Their pupils, in after life, are seldom vicious and licentious characters, and are in general men of learning, science, and possessed of every elegant accomplishment. I execrate the conduct of the liberals of Madrid in murdering last year the helpless fathers, by whose care and instruction two of the finest minds of Spain have been evolved — the two ornaments of the liberal cause and modern literature of Spain, for such are Toreno and Martinez de la Rosa. . . .

Gathered in small clusters about the pillars at the lower extremities of the gold and silver streets in Lisbon, may be observed, about noon in every day, certain strange looking men, whose appearance is neither Portuguese nor European. Their dress generally consists of a red cap, with a blue silken tassel at the top of it, a blue tunic girded at the waist with a red sash, and wide linen pantaloons or trousers. He who passes by these groups generally hears them conversing in broken Spanish or Portuguese, and occasionally in a harsh guttural language, which the oriental traveller knows to be the Arabic, or a dialect thereof. These people are the Jews of Lisbon. Into the midst of one of these groups I one day introduced myself, and pronounced a beraka, or blessing. I have lived in different parts of the world, much amongst the Hebrew race, and am well acquainted with their ways and phraseology. I was rather anxious to become acquainted with the state of the Portuguese Jews, and I had now an opportunity. “The man is a powerful rabbi,” said a voice in Arabic; “it behoves us to treat him kindly.” They welcomed me. I favoured their mistake, and in a few days I knew all that related to them and their traffic in Lisbon.

I found them a vile, infamous rabble, about two hundred in number. With a few exceptions, they consist of escapados from the Barbary shore, from Tetuan, from Tangier, but principally from Mogadore; fellows who have fled to a foreign land from the punishment due to their misdeeds. Their manner of life in Lisbon is worthy of such a goodly assemblage of amis reunis. The generality of them pretend to work in gold and silver, and keep small peddling shops; they, however, principally depend for their livelihood on an extensive traffic in stolen goods which they carry on. It is said that there is honour amongst thieves, but this is certainly not the case with the Jews of Lisbon, for they are so greedy and avaricious, that they are constantly quarrelling about their ill-gotten gain, the result being that they frequently ruin each other. Their mutual jealousy is truly extraordinary. If one, by cheating and roguery, gains a cruzado in the presence of another, the latter instantly says I cry halves, and if the first refuse he is instantly threatened with an information. The manner in which they cheat each other has, with all its infamy, occasionally something extremely droll and ludicrous. I was one day in the shop of a Swiri, or Jew of Mogadore, when a Jew from Gibraltar entered, with a Portuguese female, who held in her hand a mantle, richly embroidered with gold.

Gibraltar Jew (speaking in broken Arabic). — Good-day, O Swiri; God has favoured me this day; here is a bargain by which we shall both gain. I have bought this mantle of the woman almost for nothing, for it is stolen; but I am poor, as you know, I have not a cruzado; pay her therefore the price, that we may then forthwith sell the mantle and divide the gain.

Swiri. — Willingly, brother of Gibraltar; I will pay the woman for the mantle; it does not appear a bad one.

Thereupon he flung two cruzados to the woman, who forthwith left the shop.

Gibraltar Jew. — Thanks, brother Swirl, this is very kind of you; now let us go and sell the mantle, the gold alone is well worth a moidore; but I am poor and have nothing to eat, give me, therefore, the half of that sum and keep the mantle; I shall be content.

Swiri. — May Allah blot out your name, you thief. What mean you by asking me for money? I bought the mantle of the woman and paid for it. I know nothing of you. Go out of my doors, dog of a Nazarene, if not I will pay you with a kick.

The dispute was referred to one of the sabios, or priests; but the sabio, who was also from Mogadore, at once took the part of the Swiri, and decided that the other should have nothing. Whereupon the Gibraltar Jew cursed the sabio, his father, mother, and all his family. The sabio replied, “I put you in ndui,” a kind of purgatory or hell. “I put you in seven nduis,” retorted the incensed Jew, over whom, however, superstitious fear speedily prevailed; he faltered, became pale, and dropping his voice, retreated, trembling in every limb.

The Jews have two synagogues in Lisbon, both are small; one is, however, tolerably well furnished, it has its reading desk, and in the middle there is a rather handsome chandelier; the other is little better than a sty, filthy to a degree, without ornament of any kind. The congregation of this last are thieves to a man; no Jew of the slightest respectability ever enters it.

How well do superstition and crime go hand in hand. These wretched beings break the eternal commandments of their Maker without scruple; but they will not partake of the beast of the uncloven foot, and the fish which has no scales. They pay no regard to the denunciations of holy prophets against the children of sin, but they quake at the sound of a dark cabalistic word, pronounced by one perhaps their equal, or superior, in villainy, as if God would delegate the exercise of his power to the workers of iniquity.

I was one day sauntering on the Caesodre, when a Jew, with whom I had previously exchanged a word or two, came up and addressed me.

Jew. — The blessing of God upon you, brother; I know you to be a wise and powerful man, and I have conceived much regard for you; it is on that account that I wish to put you in the way of gaining much money. Come with me, and I will conduct you to a place where there are forty chests of tea. It is a sereka (a robbery), and the thieves are willing to dispose of it for a trifle, for there is search being made, and they are in much fear. I can raise one half of what they demand, do you supply the other, we will then divide it, each shall go his own way and dispose of his portion.

Myself. — Wherefore, O son of Arbat, do you propose this to me, who am a stranger? Surely you are mad. Have you not your own people about you whom you know, and in whom you can confide?

Jew. — It is because I know our people here that I do not confide in them; we are in the galoot of sin. Were I to confide in my brethren there would be a dispute, and perhaps they would rob me, and few of them have any money. Were I to apply to the sabio he might consent, but when I ask for my portion he would put me in ndui! You I do not fear; you are good and would do me no harm, unless I attempted to deceive you, and that I dare not do, for I know you are powerful. Come with me, master, for I wish to gain something, that I may return to Arbat, where I have children . . .

Such are Jews in Lisbon.

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