The Bible in Spain. Volume 1 of 2
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We now began to descend the valley by a broad and excellent carretera or carriage-road, which was cut out of the steep side of the mountain on our right. On our left was the gorge, down which tumbled the runnel of water which I have before mentioned. The road was tortuous, and at every turn the scene became more picturesque. The gorge gradually widened, and the brook at its bottom, fed by a multitude of springs, increased in volume and in sound; but it was soon far beneath us, pursuing its headlong course till it reached level ground, where it flowed in the midst of a beautiful but confined prairie. There was something sylvan and savage in the mountains on the farther side, clad from foot to pinnacle with trees, so closely growing that the eye was unable to obtain a glimpse of the hillsides, which were uneven with ravines and gulleys, the haunts of the wolf, the wild boar, and the corso,260260
But notwithstanding the wildness of these regions, the handiworks of man were visible. The sides of the gorge, though precipitous, were yellow with little fields of barley, and we saw a hamlet and church down in the prairie below, whilst merry songs ascended to our ears from where the mowers were toiling with their scythes, cutting the luxuriant and abundant grass. I could scarcely believe that I was in Spain, in general so brown, so arid and cheerless, and I almost fancied myself in Greece, in that land of ancient glory, whose mountain and forest scenery Theocritus261261
At the bottom of the valley we entered a small village, washed by the brook, which had now swelled almost to a stream. A more romantic situation I had never witnessed. It was surrounded, and almost overhung, by mountains, and embowered in trees of various kinds; waters sounded, nightingales sang, and the cuckoo’s full note boomed from the distant branches, but the village was miserable.The huts were built of slate stones, of which the neighbouring hills seemed to be principally composed, and roofed with the same, but not in the neat tidy manner of English houses, for the slates were of all sizes and seemed to be flung on in confusion. We were spent with heat and thirst, and sitting down on a stone bench, I entreated a woman to give me a little water. The woman said she would, but added that she expected to be paid for it. Antonio, on hearing this, became highly incensed, and speaking Greek, Turkish, and Spanish, invoked the vengeance of the Panhagia on the heartless woman, saying, “If I were to offer a Mahometan gold for a draught of water he would dash it in my face; and you are a Catholic, with the stream running at your door.” I told him to be silent, and giving the woman two cuartos, repeated my request, whereupon she took a pitcher, and going to the stream, filled it with water. It tasted muddy and disagreeable, but it drowned the fever which was devouring me.
We again remounted and proceeded on our way, which, for a considerable distance, lay along the margin of the stream, which now fell in small cataracts, now brawled over stones, and at other times ran dark and silent through deep pools overhung with tall willows, – pools which seemed to abound with the finny tribe, for large trout frequently sprang from the water, catching the brilliant fly which skimmed along its deceitful surface. The scene was delightful. The sun was rolling high in the firmament, casting from its orb of fire the most glorious rays, so that the atmosphere was flickering with their splendour; but their fierceness was either warded off by the shadow of the trees, or rendered innocuous by the refreshing coolness which rose from the waters, or by the gentle breezes which murmured at intervals over the meadows, “fanning the cheek or raising the hair” of the wanderer. The hills gradually receded, till at last we entered a plain where tall grass was waving, and mighty chestnut trees, in full blossom, spread out their giant and umbrageous boughs. Beneath many stood cars, the tired oxen prostrate on the ground, the cross-bar of the pole which they support pressing heavily on their heads, whilst their drivers were either employed in cooking, or were enjoying a delicious siesta in the grass and shade. I went up to one of the largest of these groups and demanded of the individuals whether they were in need of the Testament of Jesus Christ. They stared at one another, and then at me, till at last a young man, who was dangling a long gun in his hands as he reclined, demanded of me what it was, at the same time inquiring whether I was a Catalan, “for you speak hoarse,” said he, “and are tall and fair like that family.” I sat down amongst them, and said that I was no Catalan, but that I came from a spot in the Western Sea, many leagues distant, to sell that book at half the price it cost; and that their souls’ welfare depended on their being acquainted with it. I then explained to them the nature of the New Testament, and read to them the parable of the Sower. They stared at each other again, but said that they were poor, and could not buy books. I rose, mounted, and was going away, saying to them, “Peace bide with you.” Whereupon the young man with the gun rose, and saying, “Caspita! this is odd,” snatched the book from my hand, and gave me the price I had demanded.
Perhaps the whole world might be searched in vain for a spot whose natural charms could rival those of this plain or valley of Bembibre,262262
Three hours passed away, and we were in another situation. We had halted and refreshed ourselves and horses at Bembibre, a village of mud and slate, and which possessed little to attract attention. We were now ascending, for the road was over one of the extreme ledges of those frontier hills which I have before so often mentioned; but the aspect of heaven had blackened, clouds were rolling rapidly from the west over the mountains, and a cold wind was moaning dismally. “There is a storm travelling through the air,” said a peasant, whom we overtook mounted on a wretched mule, “and the Asturians had better be on the look-out, for it is speeding in their direction.” He had scarce spoken when a light, so vivid and dazzling that it seemed as if the whole lustre of the fiery element were concentrated in it, broke around us, filling the whole atmosphere, and covering rock, tree, and mountain with a glare not to be described. The mule of the peasant tumbled prostrate, while the horse I rode reared himself perpendicularly, and, turning round, dashed down the hill at headlong speed, which for some time it was impossible to check. The lightning was followed by a peal almost as terrible, but distant, for it sounded hollow and deep; the hills, however, caught up its voice, seemingly repeating it from summit to summit, till it was lost in interminable space. Other flashes and peals succeeded, but slight in comparison, and a few drops of rain descended. The body of the tempest seemed to be over another region. “A hundred families are weeping where that bolt fell,” said the peasant when I rejoined him, “for its blaze has blinded my mule at six leagues’ distance.” He was leading the animal by the bridle, as its sight was evidently affected. “Were the friars still in their nest above there,” he continued, “I should say that this was their doing, for they are the cause of all the miseries of the land.”
I raised my eyes in the direction in which he pointed. Halfway up the mountain, over whose foot we were wending, jutted forth a black frightful, crag, which, at an immense altitude, overhung the road, and seemed to threaten destruction. It resembled one of those ledges of the rocky mountains in the picture of the Deluge, up to which the terrified fugitives have scrambled from the eager pursuit of the savage and tremendous billows, and from whence they gaze down in horror, whilst above them rise still higher and giddier heights, to which they seem unable to climb. Built on the very edge of this crag stood an edifice, seemingly devoted to the purposes of religion, as I could discern the spire of a church rearing itself high over wall and roof. “That is the house of the Virgin of the Rocks,” said the peasant, “and it was lately full of friars, but they have been thrust out, and the only inmates now are owls and ravens.” I replied, that their life in such a bleak, exposed abode could not have been very enviable, as in winter they must have incurred great risk of perishing with cold. “By no means,” said he; “they had the best of wood for their braseros and chimneys, and the best of wine to warm them at their meals, which were not the most sparing. Moreover, they had another convent down in the vale yonder, to which they could retire at their pleasure.” On my asking him the reason of his antipathy to the friars, he replied, that he had been their vassal, and that they had deprived him every year of the flower of what he possessed. Discoursing in this manner, we reached a village just below the convent, where he left me, having first pointed out to me a house of stone, with an image over the door, which, he said, once belonged to the canalla263263
The sun was setting fast, and, eager to reach Villafranca,264264
Hours again passed away. It was now night, and we were in the midst of woodlands, feeling our way, for the darkness was so great that I could scarcely see the length of a yard before my horse’s head. The animal seemed uneasy, and would frequently stop short, prick up his ears, and utter a low mournful whine. Flashes of sheet lightning frequently illumined the black sky, and flung a momentary glare over our path. No sound interrupted the stillness of the night, except the slow tramp of the horses’ hoofs, and occasionally the croaking of frogs from some pool or morass. I now bethought me that I was in Spain, the chosen land of the two fiends – assassination and plunder – and how easily two tired and unarmed wanderers might become their victims.
We at last cleared the woodlands, and, after proceeding a short distance, the horse gave a joyous neigh, and broke into a smart trot. A barking of dogs speedily reached my ears, and we seemed to be approaching some town or village. In effect we were close to Cacabelos, a town about five miles distant from Villafranca.
It was near eleven at night, and I reflected that it would be far more expedient to tarry in this place till the morning than to attempt at present to reach Villafranca, exposing ourselves to all the horrors of darkness in a lonely and unknown road. My mind was soon made up on this point; but I reckoned without my host, for at the first posada which I attempted to enter I was told that we could not be accommodated, and still less our horses, as the stable was full of water. At the second, and there were but two, I was answered from the window by a gruff voice, nearly in the words of Scripture: “Trouble me not: the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot arise to let you in.” Indeed, we had no particular desire to enter, as it appeared a wretched hovel, though the poor horses pawed piteously against the door, and seemed to crave admittance.
We had now no choice but to resume our doleful way to Villafranca, which we were told was a short league distant, though it proved a league and a half. We found it no easy matter to quit the town, for we were bewildered amongst its labyrinths, and could not find the outlet. A lad about eighteen was, however, persuaded, by the promise of a peseta, to guide us: whereupon he led us by many turnings to a bridge, which he told us to cross, and to follow the road, which was that of Villafranca; he then, having received his fee, hastened from us.
We followed his directions, not, however, without a suspicion that he might be deceiving us. The night had settled darker down upon us, so that it was impossible to distinguish any object, however nigh. The lightning had become more faint and rare. We heard the rustling of trees, and occasionally the barking of dogs, which last sound, however, soon ceased, and we were in the midst of night and silence. My horse, either from weariness or the badness of the road, frequently stumbled; whereupon I dismounted, and leading him by the bridle, soon left Antonio far in the rear.
I had proceeded in this manner a considerable way, when a circumstance occurred of a character well suited to the time and place.
I was again amidst trees and bushes, when the horse, stopping short, nearly pulled me back. I know not how it was, but fear suddenly came over me, which, though in darkness and in solitude, I had not felt before. I was about to urge the animal forward, when I heard a noise at my right hand, and listened attentively. It seemed to be that of a person or persons forcing their way through branches and brushwood. It soon ceased, and I heard feet on the road. It was the short staggering kind of tread of people carrying a very heavy substance, nearly too much for their strength, and I thought I heard the hurried breathing of men over-fatigued. There was a short pause, during which I conceived they were resting in the middle of the road; then the stamping recommenced, until it reached the other side, when I again heard a similar rustling amidst branches; it continued for some time, and died gradually away.
I continued my road, musing on what had just occurred, and forming conjectures as to the cause. The lightning resumed its flashing, and I saw that I was approaching tall black mountains.
This nocturnal journey endured so long that I almost lost all hope of reaching the town, and had closed my eyes in a doze, though I still trudged on mechanically, leading the horse. Suddenly a voice at a slight distance before me roared out, “Quien vive?” for I had at last found my way to Villafranca. It proceeded from the sentry in the suburb, one of those singular half soldiers, half guerillas,265265
The alley led directly to what appeared to be the market-place, at a corner house of which our guide stopped and knocked. After a long pause an upper window was opened, and a female voice demanded who we were. The old man replied, that two travellers had arrived who were in need of lodgings. “I cannot be disturbed at this time of night,” said the woman; “they will be wanting supper, and there is nothing in the house; they must go elsewhere.” She was going to shut the window, but I cried that we wanted no supper, but merely a resting-place for ourselves and horses – that we had come that day from Astorga, and were dying with fatigue. “Who is that speaking?” cried the woman. “Surely that is the voice of Gil, the German clockmaker from Pontevedra. Welcome, old companion; you are come at the right time, for my own is out of order. I am sorry I have kept you waiting, but I will admit you in a moment.”
The window was slammed to, presently a light shone through the crevices of the door, a key turned in the lock, and we were admitted.
“Ave Maria,” said the woman; “whom have we here? This is not Gil the clockmaker.” “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 marketplace, 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 driftways, 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.
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