The Bible in Spain, by George Borrow

Chapter 9

Badajoz — Antonio the Gypsy — Antonio’s Proposal — The Proposal Accepted — Gypsy Breakfast — Departure from Badajoz — The Gypsy Donkey — Merida — The Ruined Wall — The Crone — The Land of the Moor — The Black Men — Life in the Desert — The Supper.

I was now at Badajoz in Spain, a country which for the next four years was destined to be the scene of my labour: but I will not anticipate. The neighbourhood of Badajoz did not prepossess me much in favour of the country which I had just entered; it consists chiefly of brown moors, which bear little but a species of brushwood, called in Spanish carrasco; blue mountains are however seen towering up in the far distance, which relieve the scene from the monotony which would otherwise pervade it.

It was at this town of Badajoz, the capital of Estremadura, that I first fell in with those singular people, the Zincali, Gitanos, or Spanish gypsies. It was here I met with the wild Paco, the man with the withered arm, who wielded the cachas (shears) with his left hand; his shrewd wife, Antonia, skilled in hokkano baro, or the great trick; the fierce gypsy, Antonio Lopez, their father-inlaw; and many other almost equally singular individuals of the Errate, or gypsy blood. It was here that I first preached the gospel to the gypsy people, and commenced that translation of the New Testament in the Spanish gypsy tongue, a portion of which I subsequently printed at Madrid.

After a stay of three weeks at Badajoz, I prepared to depart for Madrid: late one afternoon, as I was arranging my scanty baggage, the gypsy Antonio entered my apartment, dressed in his zamarra and high-peaked Andalusian hat.

Antonio. — Good evening, brother; they tell me that on the callicaste (day after tomorrow) you intend to set out for Madrilati.

Myself. — Such is my intention; I can stay here no longer.

Antonio. — The way is far to Madrilati: there are, moreover, wars in the land and many chories (thieves) walk about; are you not afraid to journey?

Myself. — I have no fears; every man must accomplish his destiny: what befalls my body or soul was written in a gabicote (book) a thousand years before the foundation of the world.

Antonio. — I have no fears myself, brother; the dark night is the same to me as the fair day, and the wild carrascal as the market-place or the chardy (fair); I have got the bar lachi in my bosom, the precious stone to which sticks the needle.

Myself. — You mean the loadstone, I suppose. Do you believe that a lifeless stone can preserve you from the dangers which occasionally threaten your life?

Antonio. — Brother, I am fifty years old, and you see me standing before you in life and strength; how could that be unless the bar lachi had power? I have been soldier and contrabandista, and I have likewise slain and robbed the Busne. The bullets of the Gabine (French) and of the jara canallis (revenue officers) have hissed about my ears without injuring me, for I carried the bar lachi. I have twenty times done that which by Busnee law should have brought me to the filimicha (gallows), yet my neck has never yet been squeezed by the cold garrote. Brother, I trust in the bar lachi, like the Calore of old: were I in the midst of the gulph of Bombardo (Lyons), without a plank to float upon, I should feel no fear; for if I carried the precious stone, it would bring me safe to shore: the bar lachi has power, brother.

Myself. — I shall not dispute the matter with you, more especially as I am about to depart from Badajoz: I must speedily bid you farewell, and we shall see each other no more.

Antonio. — Brother, do you know what brings me hither?

Myself. — I cannot tell, unless it be to wish me a happy journey: I am not gypsy enough to interpret the thoughts of other people.

Antonio. — All last night I lay awake, thinking of the affairs of Egypt; and when I arose in the morning I took the bar lachi from my bosom, and scraping it with a knife, swallowed some of the dust in aguardiente, as I am in the habit of doing when I have made up my mind; and I said to myself, I am wanted on the frontiers of Castumba (Castile) on a certain matter. The strange Caloro is about to proceed to Madrilati; the journey is long, and he may fall into evil hands, peradventure into those of his own blood; for let me tell you, brother, the Cales are leaving their towns and villages, and forming themselves into troops to plunder the Busne, for there is now but little law in the land, and now or never is the time for the Calore to become once more what they were in former times; so I said, the strange Caloro may fall into the hands of his own blood and be ill-treated by them, which were shame: I will therefore go with him through the Chim del Manro (Estremadura) as far as the frontiers of Castumba, and upon the frontiers of Castumba I will leave the London Caloro to find his own way to Madrilati, for there is less danger in Castumba than in the Chim del Manro, and I will then betake me to the affairs of Egypt which call me from hence.

Myself. — This is a very hopeful plan of yours, my friend; and in what manner do you propose that we shall travel?

Antonio. — I will tell you, brother; I have a gras in the stall, even the one which I purchased at Olivencas, as I told you on a former occasion; it is good and fleet, and cost me, who am a gypsy, fifty chule (dollars); upon that gras you shall ride. As for myself, I will journey upon the macho.

Myself. — Before I answer you, I shall wish you to inform me what business it is which renders your presence necessary in Castumba; your son-inlaw, Paco, told me that it was no longer the custom of the gypsies to wander.

Antonio. — It is an affair of Egypt, brother, and I shall not acquaint you with it; peradventure it relates to a horse or an ass, or peradventure it relates to a mule or a macho; it does not relate to yourself, therefore I advise you not to inquire about it — Dosta (enough). With respect to my offer, you are free to decline it; there is a drungruje (royal road) between here and Madrilati, and you can travel it in the birdoche (stage-coach) or with the dromale (muleteers); but I tell you, as a brother, that there are chories upon the drun, and some of them are of the Errate.

Certainly few people in my situation would have accepted the offer of this singular gypsy. It was not, however, without its allurements for me; I was fond of adventure, and what more ready means of gratifying my love of it than by putting myself under the hands of such a guide. There are many who would have been afraid of treachery, but I had no fears on this point, as I did not believe that the fellow harboured the slightest ill intention towards me; I saw that he was fully convinced that I was one of the Errate, and his affection for his own race, and his hatred for the Busne, were his strongest characteristics. I wished, moreover, to lay hold of every opportunity of making myself acquainted with the ways of the Spanish gypsies, and an excellent one here presented itself on my first entrance into Spain. In a word, I determined to accompany the gypsy. “I will go with you,” I exclaimed; “as for my baggage, I will despatch it to Madrid by the birdoche.” “Do so, brother,” he replied, “and the gras will go lighter. Baggage, indeed! — what need of baggage have you? How the Busne on the road would laugh if they saw two Cales with baggage behind them.”

During my stay at Badajoz, I had but little intercourse with the Spaniards, my time being chiefly devoted to the gypsies, with whom, from long intercourse with various sections of their race in different parts of the world, I felt myself much more at home than with the silent, reserved men of Spain, with whom a foreigner might mingle for half a century without having half a dozen words addressed to him, unless he himself made the first advances to intimacy, which, after all, might be rejected with a shrug and a no intendo; for, among the many deeply rooted prejudices of these people, is the strange idea that no foreigner can speak their language; an idea to which they will still cling though they hear him conversing with perfect ease; for in that case the utmost that they will concede to his attainments is, Habla quatro palabras y nada mas (he can speak four words, and no more).

Early one morning, before sunrise, I found myself at the house of Antonio; it was a small mean building, situated in a dirty street. The morning was quite dark; the street, however, was partially illumined by a heap of lighted straw, round which two or three men were busily engaged, apparently holding an object over the flames. Presently the gypsy’s door opened, and Antonio made his appearance; and, casting his eye in the direction of the light, exclaimed, “The swine have killed their brother; would that every Busno was served as yonder hog is. Come in, brother, and we will eat the heart of that hog.” I scarcely understood his words, but, following him, he led me into a low room in which was a brasero, or small pan full of lighted charcoal; beside it was a rude table, spread with a coarse linen cloth, upon which was bread and a large pipkin full of a mess which emitted no disagreeable savour. “The heart of the balichow is in that puchera,” said Antonio; “eat, brother.” We both sat down and ate, Antonio voraciously. When we had concluded he arose:— “Have you got your li?” he demanded. “Here it is,” said I, showing him my passport. “Good,” said he, “you may want it; I want none, my passport is the bar lachi. Now for a glass of repani, and then for the road.”

We left the room, the door of which he locked, hiding the key beneath a loose brick in a corner of the passage. “Go into the street, brother, whilst I fetch the caballerias from the stable.” I obeyed him. The sun had not yet risen, and the air was piercingly cold; the grey light, however, of dawn enabled me to distinguish objects with tolerable accuracy; I soon heard the clattering of the animals’ feet, and Antonio presently stepped forth leading the horse by the bridle; the macho followed behind. I looked at the horse and shrugged my shoulders: as far as I could scan it, it appeared the most uncouth animal I had ever beheld. It was of a spectral white, short in the body, but with remarkably long legs. I observed that it was particularly high in the cruz or withers. “You are looking at the grasti,” said Antonio; “it is eighteen years old, but it is the very best in the Chim del Manro; I have long had my eye upon it; I bought it for my own use for the affairs of Egypt. Mount, brother, mount and let us leave the foros — the gate is about being opened.”

He locked the door, and deposited the key in his faja. In less than a quarter of an hour we had left the town behind us. “This does not appear to be a very good horse,” said I to Antonio, as we proceeded over the plain. “It is with difficulty that I can make him move.”

“He is the swiftest horse in the Chim del Manro, brother,” said Antonio; “at the gallop and at the speedy trot there is no one to match him; but he is eighteen years old, and his joints are stiff, especially of a morning; but let him once become heated and the genio del viejo (spirit of the old man) comes upon him and there is no holding him in with bit or bridle. I bought that horse for the affairs of Egypt, brother.”

About noon we arrived at a small village in the neighbourhood of a high lumpy hill. “There is no Calo house in this place,” said Antonio; “we will therefore go to the posada of the Busne, and refresh ourselves, man and beast.” We entered the kitchen and sat down at the boards, calling for wine and bread. There were two ill-looking fellows in the kitchen, smoking cigars; I said something to Antonio in the Calo language.

“What is that I hear?” said one of the fellows, who was distinguished by an immense pair of moustaches. “What is that I hear? is it in Calo that you are speaking before me, and I a Chalan and national? Accursed gypsy, how dare you enter this posada and speak before me in that speech? Is it not forbidden by the law of the land in which we are, even as it is forbidden for a gypsy to enter the mercado? I tell you what, friend, if I hear another word of Calo come from your mouth, I will cudgel your bones and send you flying over the house-tops with a kick of my foot.”

“You would do right,” said his companion; “the insolence of these gypsies is no longer to be borne. When I am at Merida or Badajoz I go to the mercado, and there in a corner stand the accursed gypsies jabbering to each other in a speech which I understand not. ‘Gypsy gentleman,’ say I to one of them, ‘what will you have for that donkey?’ ‘I will have ten dollars for it, Caballero nacional,’ says the gypsy; ‘it is the best donkey in all Spain.’ ‘I should like to see its paces,’ say I. ‘That you shall, most valorous!’ says the gypsy, and jumping upon its back, he puts it to its paces, first of all whispering something into its ears in Calo, and truly the paces of the donkey are most wonderful, such as I have never seen before. ‘I think it will just suit me,’ and after looking at it awhile, I take out the money and pay for it. ‘I shall go to my house,’ says the gypsy; and off he runs. ‘I shall go to my village,’ say I, and I mount the donkey. ‘Vamonos,’ say I, but the donkey won’t move. I give him a switch, but I don’t get on the better for that. ‘How is this?’ say I, and I fall to spurring him. What happens then, brother? The wizard no sooner feels the prick than he bucks down, and flings me over his head into the mire. I get up and look about me; there stands the donkey staring at me, and there stand the whole gypsy canaille squinting at me with their filmy eyes. ‘Where is the scamp who has sold me this piece of furniture?’ I shout. ‘He is gone to Granada, Valorous,’ says one. ‘He is gone to see his kindred among the Moors,’ says another. ‘I just saw him running over the field, in the direction of — with the devil close behind him,’ says a third. In a word, I am tricked. I wish to dispose of the donkey; no one, however, will buy him; he is a Calo donkey, and every person avoids him. At last the gypsies offer thirty rials for him; and after much chaffering I am glad to get rid of him at two dollars. It is all a trick, however; he returns to his master, and the brotherhood share the spoil amongst them. All which villainy would be prevented, in my opinion, were the Calo language not spoken; for what but the word of Calo could have induced the donkey to behave in such an unaccountable manner?”

Both seemed perfectly satisfied with the justness of this conclusion, and continued smoking till their cigars were burnt to stumps, when they arose, twitched their whiskers, looked at us with fierce disdain, and dashing the tobacco-ends to the ground, strode out of the apartment.

“Those people seem no friends to the gypsies,” said I to Antonio, when the two bullies had departed, “nor to the Calo language either.”

“May evil glanders seize their nostrils,” said Antonio; “they have been jonjabadoed by our people. However, brother, you did wrong to speak to me in Calo, in a posada like this; it is a forbidden language; for, as I have often told you, the king has destroyed the law of the Cales. Let us away, brother, or those juntunes (sneaking scoundrels) may set the justicia upon us.”

Towards evening we drew near to a large town or village. “That is Merida,” said Antonio, “formerly, as the Busne say, a mighty city of the Corahai. We shall stay here to-night, and perhaps for a day or two, for I have some business of Egypt to transact in this place. Now, brother, step aside with the horse, and wait for me beneath yonder wall. I must go before and see in what condition matters stand.”

I dismounted from the horse, and sat down on a stone beneath the ruined wall to which Antonio had motioned me; the sun went down, and the air was exceedingly keen; I drew close around me an old tattered gypsy cloak with which my companion had provided me, and being somewhat fatigued, fell into a doze which lasted for nearly an hour.

“Is your worship the London Caloro?” said a strange voice close beside me.

I started and beheld the face of a woman peering under my hat. Notwithstanding the dusk, I could see that the features were hideously ugly and almost black; they belonged, in fact, to a gypsy crone, at least seventy years of age, leaning upon a staff.

“Is your worship the London Caloro?” repeated she.

“I am he whom you seek,” said I; “where is Antonio?”

“Curelando, curelando, baribustres curelos terela,” 2 said the crone: “come with me, Caloro of my garlochin, come with me to my little ker, he will be there anon.”

I followed the crone, who led the way into the town, which was ruinous and seemingly half deserted; we went up the street, from which she turned into a narrow and dark lane, and presently opened the gate of a large dilapidated house; “Come in,” said she.

“And the gras?” I demanded.

“Bring the gras in too, my chabo, bring the gras in too; there is room for the gras in my little stable.” We entered a large court, across which we proceeded till we came to a wide doorway. “Go in, my child of Egypt,” said the hag; “go in, that is my little stable.”

“The place is as dark as pitch,” said I, “and may be a well for what I know; bring a light or I will not enter.”

“Give me the solabarri (bridle),” said the hag, “and I will lead your horse in, my chabo of Egypt, yes, and tether him to my little manger.” She led the horse through the doorway, and I heard her busy in the darkness; presently the horse shook himself: “Grasti terelamos,” said the hag, who now made her appearance with the bridle in her hand; “the horse has shaken himself, he is not harmed by his day’s journey; now let us go in, my Caloro, into my little room.”

We entered the house and found ourselves in a vast room, which would have been quite dark but for a faint glow which appeared at the farther end; it proceeded from a brasero, beside which were squatted two dusky figures.

“These are Callees,” said the hag; “one is my daughter and the other is her chabi; sit down, my London Caloro, and let us hear you speak.”

I looked about for a chair, but could see none; at a short distance, however, I perceived the end of a broken pillar lying on the floor; this I rolled to the brasero and sat down upon it.

“This is a fine house, mother of the gypsies,” said I to the hag, willing to gratify the desire she had expressed of hearing me speak; “a fine house is this of yours, rather cold and damp, though; it appears large enough to be a barrack for hundunares.”

“Plenty of houses in this foros, plenty of houses in Merida, my London Caloro, some of them just as they were left by the Corahanoes; ah, a fine people are the Corahanoes; I often wish myself in their chim once more.”

“How is this, mother,” said I, “have you been in the land of the Moors?”

“Twice have I been in their country, my Caloro, — twice have I been in the land of the Corahai; the first time is more than fifty years ago, I was then with the Sese (Spaniards), for my husband was a soldier of the Crallis of Spain, and Oran at that time belonged to Spain.”

“You were not then with the real Moors,” said I, “but only with the Spaniards who occupied part of their country.”

“I have been with the real Moors, my London Caloro. Who knows more of the real Moors than myself? About forty years ago I was with my ro in Ceuta, for he was still a soldier of the king, and he said to me one day, ‘I am tired of this place where there is no bread and less water, I will escape and turn Corahano; this night I will kill my sergeant and flee to the camp of the Moor.’ ‘Do so,’ said I, ‘my chabo, and as soon as may be I will follow you and become a Corahani.’ That same night he killed his sergeant, who five years before had called him Calo and cursed him, then running to the wall he dropped from it, and amidst many shots he escaped to the land of the Corahai, as for myself, I remained in the presidio of Ceuta as a suttler, selling wine and repani to the soldiers. Two years passed by and I neither saw nor heard from my ro; one day there came a strange man to my cachimani (wine-shop), he was dressed like a Corahano, and yet he did not look like one, he looked like more a callardo (black), and yet he was not a callardo either, though he was almost black, and as I looked upon him I thought he looked something like the Errate, and he said to me, ‘Zincali; chachipe!’ and then he whispered to me in queer language, which I could scarcely understand, ‘Your ro is waiting, come with me, my little sister, and I will take you unto him.’ ‘Where is he?’ said I, and he pointed to the west, to the land of the Corahai, and said, ‘He is yonder away; come with me, little sister, the ro is waiting.’ For a moment I was afraid, but I bethought me of my husband and I wished to be amongst the Corahai; so I took the little parne (money) I had, and locking up the cachimani went with the strange man; the sentinel challenged us at the gate, but I gave him repani (brandy) and he let us pass; in a moment we were in the land of the Corahai. About a league from the town beneath a hill we found four people, men and women, all very black like the strange man, and we joined ourselves with them and they all saluted me and called me little sister. That was all I understood of their discourse, which was very crabbed; and they took away my dress and gave me other clothes, and I looked like a Corahani, and away we marched for many days amidst deserts and small villages, and more than once it seemed to me that I was amongst the Errate, for their ways were the same: the men would hokkawar (cheat) with mules and asses, and the women told baji, and after many days we came before a large town, and the black man said, ‘Go in there, little sister, and there you will find your ro;’ and I went to the gate, and an armed Corahano stood within the gate, and I looked in his face, and lo! it was my ro.

“O what a strange town it was that I found myself in, full of people who had once been Candore (Christians) but had renegaded and become Corahai. There were Sese and Lalore (Portuguese), and men of other nations, and amongst them were some of the Errate from my own country; all were now soldiers of the Crallis of the Corahai and followed him to his wars; and in that town I remained with my ro a long time, occasionally going out with him to the wars, and I often asked him about the black men who had brought me thither, and he told me that he had had dealings with them, and that he believed them to be of the Errate. Well, brother, to be short, my ro was killed in the wars, before a town to which the king of the Corahai laid siege, and I became a piuli (widow), and I returned to the village of the renegades, as it was called, and supported myself as well as I could; and one day as I was sitting weeping, the black man, whom I had never seen since the day he brought me to my ro, again stood before me, and he said, ‘Come with me, little sister, come with me, the ro is at hand’; and I went with him, and beyond the gate in the desert was the same party of black men and women which I had seen before. ‘Where is my ro?’ said I. ‘Here he is, little sister,’ said the black man, ‘here he is; from this day I am the ro and you the romi; come, let us go, for there is business to be done.’

“And I went with him, and he was my ro, and we lived amongst the deserts, and hokkawar’d and choried and told baji; and I said to myself, this is good, sure I am amongst the Errate in a better chim than my own; and I often said that they were of the Errate, and then they would laugh and say that it might be so, and that they were not Corahai, but they could give no account of themselves.

“Well, things went on in this way for years, and I had three chai by the black man, two of them died, but the youngest, who is the Calli who sits by the brasero, was spared; so we roamed about and choried and told baji; and it came to pass that once in the winter time our company attempted to pass a wide and deep river, of which there are many in the Chim del Corahai, and the boat overset with the rapidity of the current and all our people were drowned, all but myself and my chabi, whom I bore in my bosom. I had now no friends amongst the Corahai, and I wandered about the despoblados howling and lamenting till I became half lili (mad), and in this manner I found my way to the coast, where I made friends with the captain of a ship and returned to this land of Spain. And now I am here, I often wish myself back again amongst the Corahai.”

Here she commenced laughing loud and long, and when she had ceased, her daughter and grandchild took up the laugh, which they continued so long that I concluded they were all lunatics.

Hour succeeded hour, and still we sat crouching over the brasero, from which, by this time, all warmth had departed; the glow had long since disappeared, and only a few dying sparks were to be distinguished. The room or hall was now involved in utter darkness; the women were motionless and still; I shivered and began to feel uneasy. “Will Antonio be here to-night?” at length I demanded.

“No tenga usted cuidao, my London Caloro,” said the Gypsy mother, in an unearthly tone; “Pepindorio 3 has been here some time.”

I was about to rise from my seat and attempt to escape from the house, when I felt a hand laid upon my shoulder, and in a moment I heard the voice of Antonio.

“Be not afraid, ’tis I, brother; we will have a light anon, and then supper.”

The supper was rude enough, consisting of bread, cheese, and olives. Antonio, however, produced a leathern bottle of excellent wine; we despatched these viands by the light of an earthen lamp which was placed upon the floor.

“Now,” said Antonio to the youngest female, “bring me the pajandi, and I will sing a gachapla.”

The girl brought the guitar, which, with some difficulty, the Gypsy tuned, and then strumming it vigorously, he sang:

“I stole a plump and bonny fowl,

But ere I well had dined,

The master came with scowl and growl,

And me would captive bind.

“My hat and mantle off I threw,

And scour’d across the lea,

Then cried the beng 4 with loud halloo,

Where does the Gypsy flee?”

He continued playing and singing for a considerable time, the two younger females dancing in the meanwhile with unwearied diligence, whilst the aged mother occasionally snapped her fingers or beat time on the ground with her stick. At last Antonio suddenly laid down the instrument:—

“I see the London Caloro is weary; enough, enough, tomorrow more thereof — we will now to the charipe (bed).”

“With all my heart,” said I; “where are we to sleep?”

“In the stable,” said he, “in the manger; however cold the stable may be we shall be warm enough in the bufa.”

2 Doing business, doing business — he has much business to do.

3 The Gypsy word for Antonio.

4 Devil.

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