The Bible in Spain. Volume 1 of 2
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I pursued my route to Estremoz, passing by Monte Moro Novo, which is a tall dusky hill, surmounted by an ancient edifice, probably Moorish. The country was dreary and deserted, but offering here and there a valley studded with cork-trees and azinheiras. After midday the wind, which during the night and morning had much abated, again blew with such violence as nearly to deprive me of my senses, though it was still in our rear.
I was heartily glad when, on ascending a rising ground, at about four o’clock, I saw Estremoz on its hill at something less than a league’s distance. Here the view became wildly interesting; the sun was sinking in the midst of red and stormy clouds, and its rays were reflected on the dun walls of the lofty town to which we were wending. Not far distant to the south-west rose Serra Dorso, which I had seen from Evora, and which is the most beautiful mountain in the Alemtejo. My idiot guide turned his uncouth visage towards it, and, becoming suddenly inspired, opened his mouth for the first time during the day, I might almost say since we had left Aldea Gallega, and began to tell me what rare hunting was to be obtained in that mountain. He likewise described with great minuteness a wonderful dog, which was kept in the neighbourhood for the purpose of catching the wolves and wild boars, and for which the proprietor had refused twenty moidores.
At length we reached Estremoz, and took up our quarters at the principal inn, which looks upon a large plain or market-place occupying the centre of the town, and which is so extensive that I should think ten thousand soldiers at least might perform their evolutions there with ease.
The cold was far too terrible to permit me to remain in the chamber to which I had been conducted; I therefore went down to a kind of kitchen on one side of the arched passage, which led under the house to the yard and stables. A tremendous withering blast poured through this passage, like the water through the flush of a mill. A large cork-tree was blazing in the kitchen beneath a spacious chimney; and around it were gathered a noisy crew of peasants and farmers from the neighbourhood, and three or four Spanish smugglers from the frontier. I with difficulty obtained a place amongst them, as a Portuguese or a Spaniard will seldom make way for a stranger, till called upon or pushed aside, but prefers gazing upon him with an expression which seems to say, “I know what you want, but I prefer remaining where I am.”
I now first began to observe an alteration in the language spoken; it had become less sibilant, and more guttural; and, when addressing each other, the speakers used the Spanish title of courtesy usted, or your worthiness, instead of the Portuguese high-flowing vossem se,6464
I had not been seated long before the blazing pile, when a fellow, mounted on a fine spirited horse, dashed from the stables through the passage into the kitchen, where he commenced displaying his horsemanship, by causing the animal to wheel about with the velocity of a mill-stone, to the great danger of everybody in the apartment. He then galloped out upon the plain, and after half an hour’s absence returned, and having placed his horse once more in the stable, came and seated himself next to me, to whom he commenced talking in a gibberish of which I understood very little, but which he intended for French. He was half intoxicated, and soon became three parts so, by swallowing glass after glass of aguardiente. Finding that I made him no answer, he directed his discourse to one of the contrabandistas, to whom he talked in bad Spanish. The latter either did not or would not understand him; but at last, losing patience, called him a drunkard, and told him to hold his tongue. The fellow, enraged at this contempt, flung the glass out of which he was drinking at the Spaniard’s head, who sprang up like a tiger, and unsheathing instantly a “snick and snee” knife, made an upward cut at the fellow’s cheek, and would have infallibly laid it open, had I not pulled his arm down just in time to prevent worse effects than a scratch above the lower jaw-bone, which, however, drew blood.
The smuggler’s companions interfered, and with much difficulty led him off to a small apartment in the rear of the house, where they slept, and kept the furniture of their mules. The drunkard then commenced singing, or rather yelling, the Marseillois hymn; and after having annoyed every one for nearly an hour, was persuaded to mount his horse and depart, accompanied by one of his neighbours. He was a pig merchant of the vicinity, but had formerly been a trooper in the army of Napoleon, where, I suppose, like the drunken coachman of Evora, he had picked up his French and his habits of intoxication.6565
From Estremoz to Elvas the distance is six leagues. I started at nine next morning; the first part of the way lay through an inclosed country, but we soon emerged upon wild bleak downs, over which the wind, which still pursued us, howled most mournfully. We met no one on the route; and the scene was desolate in the extreme; the heaven was of a dark grey, through which no glimpse of the sun was to be perceived. Before us, at a great distance, on an elevated ground, rose a tower – the only object which broke the monotony of the waste. In about two hours from the time when we first discovered it, we reached a fountain, at the foot of the hill on which it stood; the water, which gushed into a long stone trough, was beautifully clear and transparent, and we stopped here to water the animals.
Having dismounted, I left the guide, and proceeded to ascend the hill on which the tower stood. Though the ascent was very gentle, I did not accomplish it without difficulty; the ground was covered with sharp stones, which, in two or three instances, cut through my boots and wounded my feet; and the distance was much greater than I had expected. I at last arrived at the ruin, for such it was. I found it had been one of those watch-towers or small fortresses called in Portuguese atalaias; it was square, and surrounded by a wall, broken down in many places. The tower itself had no door, the lower part being of solid stonework; but on one side were crevices at intervals between the stones, for the purpose of placing the feet, and up this rude staircase I climbed to a small apartment, about five feet square, from which the top had fallen. It commanded an extensive view from all sides, and had evidently been built for the accommodation of those whose business it was to keep watch on the frontier, and at the appearance of an enemy to alarm the country by signals – probably by a fire. Resolute men might have defended themselves in this little fastness against many assailants, who must have been completely exposed to their arrows or musketry in the ascent.
Being about to leave the place, I heard a strange cry behind a part of the wall which I had not visited, and hastening thither, I found a miserable object in rags, seated upon a stone. It was a maniac – a man about thirty years of age, and I believe deaf and dumb; there he sat, gibbering and mowing, and distorting his wild features into various dreadful appearances. There wanted nothing but this object to render the scene complete; banditti amongst such melancholy desolation would have been by no means so much in keeping. But the maniac, on his stone, in the rear of the wind-beaten ruin, overlooking the blasted heath, above which scowled the leaden heaven, presented such a picture of gloom and misery as I believe neither painter nor poet ever conceived in the saddest of their musings. This is not the first instance in which it has been my lot to verify the wisdom of the saying, that truth is sometimes wilder than fiction.
I remounted my mule, and proceeded till, on the top of another hill, my guide suddenly exclaimed, “There is Elvas!” I looked in the direction in which he pointed, and beheld a town perched on the top of a lofty hill. On the other side of a deep valley towards the left rose another hill, much higher, on the top of which is the celebrated fort of Elvas, believed to be the strongest place in Portugal. Through the opening between the fort and the town, but in the background and far in Spain, I discerned the misty sides and cloudy head of a stately mountain, which I afterwards learned was Albuquerque, one of the loftiest of Estremadura.
We now got into a cultivated country, and following the road, which wound amongst hedgerows, we arrived at a place where the ground began gradually to shelve down. Here, on the right, was the commencement of an aqueduct, by means of which the town on the opposite hill was supplied; it was at this point scarcely two feet in altitude, but, as we descended, it became higher and higher, and its proportions more colossal.
Near the bottom of the valley it took a turn to the left, bestriding the road with one of its arches. I looked up, after passing under it; the water must have been flowing near a hundred feet above my head, and I was filled with wonder at the immensity of the structure which conveyed it. There was, however, one feature which was no slight drawback to its pretensions to grandeur and magnificence: the water was supported not by gigantic single arches, like those of the aqueduct of Lisbon, which stalk over the valley like legs of Titans, but by three layers of arches, which, like three distinct aqueducts, rise above each other. The expense and labour necessary for the erection of such a structure must have been enormous; and when we reflect with what comparative ease modern art would confer the same advantage, we cannot help congratulating ourselves that we live in times when it is not necessary to exhaust the wealth of a province to supply a town on a hill with one of the first necessaries of existence.
Arrived at the gate of Elvas, an officer came out of a kind of guard-house, and, having asked me some questions, despatched a soldier with me to the police-office, that my passport might be vis?, as upon the frontier they are much more particular with respect to passports than in other parts. This matter having been settled, I entered an hostelry near the same gate, which had been recommended to me by my host at Vendas Novas, and which was kept by a person of the name of Joz? Rosado. It was the best in the town, though, for convenience and accommodation, inferior to a hedge alehouse in England. The cold still pursued me, and I was glad to take refuge in an inner kitchen, which, when the door was not open, was only lighted by a fire burning somewhat dimly on the hearth. An elderly female sat beside it in her chair, telling her beads: there was something singular and extraordinary in her look, as well as I could discern by the imperfect light of the apartment. I put a few unimportant questions to her, to which she replied, but seemed to be afflicted to a slight degree with deafness. Her hair was becoming grey, and I said that I believed she was older than myself, but that I was confident she had less snow on her head.
“How old may you be, cavalier?” said she, giving me that title which in Spain is generally used when an extraordinary degree of respect is wished to be exhibited. I answered that I was near thirty. “Then,” said she, “you were right in supposing that I am older than yourself; I am older than your mother, or your mother’s mother: it is more than a hundred years since I was a girl, and sported with the daughters of the town on the hillside.” “In that case,” said I, “you doubtless remember the earthquake.” “Yes,” she replied, “if there is any occurrence in my life that I remember, it is that: I was in the church of Elvas at the moment, hearing the Mass of the king, and the priest fell on the ground, and let fall the Host from his hands. I shall never forget how the earth shook; it made us all sick; and the houses and walls reeled like drunkards. Since that happened I have seen fourscore years pass by me, yet I was older then than you are now.”
I looked with wonder at this surprising female, and could scarcely believe her words. I was, however, assured that she was in fact upwards of a hundred and ten years of age, and was considered the oldest person in Portugal. She still retained the use of her faculties in as full a degree as the generality of people who have scarcely attained the half of her age. She was related to the people of the house.
As the night advanced, several persons entered for the purpose of enjoying the comfort of the fire, and for the sake of conversation, for the house was a kind of news-room, where the principal speaker was the host, a man of some shrewdness and experience, who had served as a soldier in the British army. Amongst others was the officer who commanded at the gate. After a few observations, this gentleman, who was a good-looking young man of five and twenty, began to burst forth in violent declamation against the English nation and government, who, he said, had at all times proved themselves selfish and deceitful, but that their present conduct in respect to Spain was particularly infamous, for though it was in their power to put an end to the war at once, by sending a large army thither, they preferred sending a handful of troops, in order that the war might be prolonged, for no other reason than that it was of advantage to them. Having paid him an ironical compliment for his politeness and urbanity, I asked whether he reckoned amongst the selfish actions of the English government and nation, their having expended hundreds of millions of pounds sterling, and an ocean of precious blood, in fighting the battles of Spain and Portugal against Napoleon. “Surely,” said I, “the fort of Elvas above our heads, and still more the castle of Badajoz6666
As he was not ready with his answer, I took up a plate of fruit which stood on the table beside me, and said, “What do you call these fruits?” “Pomegranates and bolotas,” he replied. “Right,” said I, “a homebred Englishman could not have given me that answer; yet he is as much acquainted with pomegranates and bolotas as your lordship is with the line of conduct which it is incumbent upon England to pursue in her foreign and domestic policy.”
This answer of mine, I confess, was not that of a Christian, and proved to me how much of the leaven of the ancient man still pervaded me; yet I must be permitted to add that I believe no other provocation would have elicited from me a reply so full of angry feeling: but I could not command myself when I heard my own glorious land traduced in this unmerited manner. By whom? A Portuguese! A native of a country which has been twice liberated from horrid and detestable thraldom by the hands of Englishmen. But for Wellington and his heroes, Portugal would have been French at this day; but for Napier and his marines, Miguel would now be lording it in Lisbon. To return, however, to the officer: every one laughed at him, and he presently went away.
The next day I became acquainted with a respectable tradesman, of the name of Almeida, a man of talent, though rather rough in his manners. He expressed great abhorrence of the papal system, which had so long spread a darkness, like that of death, over his unfortunate country; and I had no sooner informed him that I had brought with me a certain quantity of Testaments, which it was my intention to leave for sale at Elvas, than he expressed a great desire to undertake the charge, and said that he would do the utmost in his power to procure a sale for them amongst his numerous customers. Upon showing him a copy, I remarked, “Your name is upon the title-page;” the Portuguese version of the Holy Scriptures,6767
After having accomplished this matter, I proceeded to survey the environs of the place, and strolled up the hill to the fort on the north side of the town. The lower part of the hill is planted with azinheiras, which give it a picturesque appearance, and at the bottom is a small brook, which I crossed by means of stepping-stones. Arrived at the gate of the fort, I was stopped by the sentry, who, however, civilly told me that if I sent in my name to the commanding officer, he would make no objection to my visiting the interior. I accordingly sent in my card by a soldier who was lounging about, and, sitting down on a stone, waited his return. He presently appeared, and inquired whether I was an Englishman; to which having replied in the affirmative, he said, “In that case, sir, you cannot enter; indeed, it is not the custom to permit any foreigners to visit the fort.” I answered that it was perfectly indifferent to me whether I visited it or not; and, having taken a survey of Badajoz from the eastern side of the hill, descended by the way I came.
This is one of the beneficial results of protecting a nation, and squandering blood and treasure in its defence. The English, who have never been at war with Portugal, who have fought for its independence on land and sea, and always with success, who have forced themselves, by a treaty of commerce,6868
There is no country in which the English are so popular as in France;6969
The fortifications of Elvas are models of their kind, and, at the first view, it would seem that the town, if well garrisoned, might bid defiance to any hostile power; but it has its weak point: the western side is commanded by a hill, at the distance of half a mile, from which an experienced general would cannonade it, and probably with success. It is the last town in this part of Portugal, the distance to the Spanish frontier being barely two leagues. It was evidently built as a rival to Badajoz, upon which it looks down from its height across a sandy plain and over the sullen waters of the Guadiana; but, though a strong town, it can scarcely be called a defence to the frontier, which is open on all sides, so that there would not be the slightest necessity for an invading army to approach within a dozen leagues of its walls, should it be disposed to avoid them. Its fortifications are so extensive that ten thousand men at least would be required to man them, who, in the event of an invasion, might be far better employed in meeting the enemy in the open field. The French, during their occupation of Portugal, kept a small force in this place, who, at the approach of the British, retreated to the fort, where they shortly after capitulated.
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