Spain - Vigo And Away
( Originally Published 1905 )
Hasta la Vista !
OUR plan for the summer included a return trip across Spain, via Valladolid, Salamanca, and Saragossa to Barcelona and the Balearic Isles ; but the bad food and worse lodging of Galicia, the blazing heat and the incessant, exhausting warfare against vermin, had begun to tell. That Spanish fever with which so many foreigners make too intimate acquaintance was at our doors, and we found our-selves forced at last to sacrifice enthusiasm to hygiene. The most eccentric train which it was ever my fortune to en-counter shunted and switched us across country to Vigo in about the time it would have taken to make the journey donkeyback. Here we tarried for a week or so, gathering strength from the Atlantic breezes, and when, one sunny August day, a stately steamboat called for an hour at Vigo harbor on her way from Buenos Ayres to Southampton, we went up over the side. Our shock of astonishment at the cleanliness around us could not, however, divert our attention long from the receding shores of Spain, toward which one of us, at least, still felt a stubborn longing.
They lay bright in the midday sunshine, those green up-lands of Galicia, mysterious with that patient peasant life of which we had caught fleeting, baffling glimpses. Still we seemed to see the brown-legged women washing in the brook and spreading their coarse-spun, gay-bordered garments on the heather ; children, with the faces of little Pats and little Biddies, tugging a bleating sheep across the stepping-stones, or boosting an indignant goat over the wall ; lean pigs poking their noses out of the low, stone doorways, where babies slept on wisps of hay ; girls in cream-colored kerchiefs, starred with gold, bearing loads of fragrant brush or corded fagots on their heads. As the evening should come on, and the sea-breeze stir the tassels of the maize, we knew how the fields would be dotted with impromptu groups of dancers, leaping higher and higher and waving their arms in ever wilder merriment, — a scene pastoral down to the pigs, and poetic up to those gushes of song that delight the listener.
"I went to the meadow
North-wind, North-wind, Strong as wine !
"The Virgin is spreading handkerchiefs
The Virgin washes handkerchiefs,
It was only now and then that we had realized a touch of genuine fellowship with these Galician peasants. I remember a little thirteenth-century church, gray crosses topping its low gray towers, one of which was broken off as if a giant hand had snapped it. In the porch a white-headed woman, in a gold-edged blue kerchief and poppy-red skirt, was holding a dame-school. It took her all the morning session, she told us, to get the fifty faces washed, but in the afternoon the children learned to read and knit and play the choral games. She had ten cents a month for every child, when the parents were able to pay. From a convenient hollow in a pillar of Arabic tradition she proudly drew her library, — a shabby primer and a few loose leaves of a book of devotion. As we talked, the midgets grew so restless and inquisitive that she shook her long rod at them with a mighty show of fierceness, and shooed them out of the porch like so many chickens. Then she went on eagerly with the story of her life, telling how she was married at fifteen, how her husband went " to, serve the king " in the second Carlist war, and never came back, and how her only daughter had borne nine children, of whom eight died in babyhood, " angelitos al cielo," having known on earth "only the day and the night." The last and youngest had been very ill with the fever, and the afflicted grandmother had promised that noble Roman maiden, the martyr saint of the little gray church, to go around the edifice seven times upon her knees, if only the child might live. The vow had been heard, as the presence of a thin-faced, wistful tot by the old woman's side attested, but so far only three of the seven circuits had been made. "It tires the knees much." But even with the words she knelt again, kissing the sacred threshold, and began the painful, heavy, shuffling journey around the church, while the baby, with wondering gray eyes, trotted beside her, clinging to the wrinkled hand. When at last, with puffs and groanings, the old dame had reached the carven doorway again, she rose wearily, rubbing her knees.
" A sweet saint ! " she said, " but ay de mi ! such gravel!"
We ought, of course, to have been impressed in Galicia with its debasing ignorance and superstition, and so, to a certain extent, we were. We went to see a romeria, a pilgrimage to a hilltop shrine, on one of our last afternoons in Vigo, and found a double line of dirty, impudent beggars, stripped half naked, and displaying every sort of hideous deformity, —a line that reached all the way from the carriage-road up the rugged ascent to the crest. We had to run the gantlet, and, it was like traversing a demoniac sculpture-gallery made up of human mockeries. We had to push our way, moreover, through scene after scene of vulgar barter in things divine, and when at last the summit was achieved, the shrine of the Virgin seemed robbed of its glory by the ugliness, vice, and misery it overlooked. Spain is mediaeval, and the modern age can teach her much. But with all her physical foulness and mental folly, there still dwells in her that mediaeval grace for which happier countries may be searched in vain.
Yet Spain is far from unhappy. It is beautiful to see out of what scant allowance of that which we call well-being, may be evolved wisdom and joy, poetry and religion. Wearied as we two bookish travellers were with lectures and libraries, we rejoiced in this wild Galician lore that lives on the lips of the people. The written Spanish literature, like other Spanish arts, is of the richest, nor are its laurels limited to the dates of Cervantes and Calderon. The modern Spanish novel, for instance, as Mr. Howells so generously insists, all but leads the line. But Spain herself is poetry. What does one want of books in presence of her storied, haunted vistas, — warrior-trod Asturian crags, opalescent reaches of Castilian plain, orange-scented gardens of Andalusia ? A circle of cultivated Spaniards is one of the most charming groups on earth, but Spaniards altogether innocent of formal education may be walking anthologies of old ballads, spicy quatrains, riddles, proverbs, fables, epigrams. The peasant quotes "Don Quixote" without knowing it; the donkey-boy is as lyric as Romeo; the devout shepherd tells a legend of the Madonna that is half the dream of his own lonely days among the hills. Where Spanish life is most stripped of material prosperity, it seems most to abound in suggestions of romance. This despised Galicia, the province of simpletons, is literary in its own way. The hovel has no bookshelf, but the children's ears drink in the grandmother's croon
"On a morning of St. John
"I will give thee all my ships,
What care I for masted ships,
On the morning of St. John
"' I commend the sea to God,
And well it was for this bold mariner that he did not take up the Devil's offer, for everybody knows that those who have signed away their souls to the Devil turn black in the moment of dying, and are borne, black and horrible, to the sepulchre.
In this northwestern corner of Spain are many mountain-songs as well as sea-songs. One of the sweetest tells how the blue-robed Virgin met a young shepherdess upon the hills and was so pleased with the maiden's courtesy that she straight-way bore her thence to Paradise, not forgetting, this tender Mary of Bethlehem, to lead the flock safely back to the sheepfold. The love of the Galician peasantry for " Our Lady " blends childlike familiarity with impassioned devotion.
"As I was telling my beads,
Her rank in their affections is well suggested by another of the popular coplas.
"In the porch of Bethlehem,
'With their saints these Spanish peasants seem almost on a household footing, not afraid of a jest because so sure of the love that underlies it.
"St. John and Mary Magdalen
Yet there is no lack of fear in this rustic religion. There is many a " shalt not " in the Galician decalogue. One must not try to count the stars, lest he come to have as many wrinkles as the number of stars he has counted. Never rock an empty cradle, for the next baby who sleeps in it will die. So often as you name the Devil in life, so often will he appear to you in the hour of death. If you hear another name him, call quickly, before the Devil has time to arrive, " Jesus is here." It is ill to dance alone, casting your shadow on the wall, because that is dancing with the Devil. But the Prince of Darkness is not the only supernatural being whom Galicians dread. There is a bleating demon who makes fun of them, cloudy giants who stir up thunderstorms, and are afraid only of St. Barbara, witches who cast the evil eye, but most of all the " souls in pain." For oftentimes the dead come back to earth for their purgatorial penance. You must never slam a door, nor close a window roughly, nor kick the smallest pebble from your path, because in door or stone or window may be a suffering soul. To see one is to die within the year. If you would not be haunted by your dead, kiss the shoes which the body wears to the burial.
It is well to go early to bed, for at midnight all manner of evil beings prowl up and down the streets. Who has not heard of that unlucky woman, who, after spinning late and long, stepped to the window for a breath of air exactly at twelve o'clock ? Far off across the open country she saw a strange procession of shining candles drawing nearer and nearer, although there were no hands to hold them and no sound of holy song. Straight toward her house came those uncanny lights, moving silently through the meadow mists, and halted beneath her window. Then the foremost one of all begged her to take it in and keep it care-fully until the midnight following. Scarcely knowing what she did, she closed her fingers on the cold wax and, blowing out the flame, laid away the taper in a trunk, but when, at daybreak, after a sleepless night, she raised the lid, before her lay a corpse. Aghast, she fled to the priest, who lent her all the relics of the sacristy ; but their united power only just availed to save her from the fury of the spirits when they returned at midnight to claim the taper, expecting, moreover, to seize upon the woman and " turn her to fire and ashes."
Sometimes a poor soul is permitted to condense the slow ages of Purgatory into one hour of uttermost torment. Galicians tell how a young priest brought his serving-maid to sorrow and how, to escape the latter burning, she shut herself, one day when the priest was engaged in the ceremonial of High Mass, into the red-hot oven. On his return, he called her name and sought her high and low, and when, at last, he opened the oven door, out flew a white dove that soared, a purified and pardoned soul, into the blue of heaven. The science of this simple folk is not divorced from poetry and religion. The rainbow drinks, they say, in the sea and in the rivers. The Milky Way, the Road to Santiago, is trodden every night by pale, dim multitudes who failed to make that blessed pilgrimage, from which no one of us will be excused, in time of life. When the dust stirs in an empty house, good St. Ana is sweeping there. When babies look upward and laugh, they see the cherubs at play. Tuesday is the unlucky day in Spain, whereas children born on Friday receive the gift of second-sight, and those who enter the world on Good Friday are marked by a cross in the roof of the mouth and have the holy touch that cures diseases. It is a fortunate house beneath whose eaves the swallow builds,
For swallows on Mount Calvary
The Galicians, butt of all Spain for their dulness, are shrewd enough in fact. It is said that those arrant knaves, the gypsies, dare not pass through Galicia for fear of being cheated. Like other unlettered peasants, Gallegos whet their wits on rhyming riddles.
" Who is the little pigeon,
" A tree with twelve boughs and four nests on a bough,
In many of their proverbial sayings one gets the Spanish tang at its best. "A well-filled stomach praises God."
" Why to Castile
And I fear if my comrade were to speak, in Spanish phrase, of our return to Galicia, she would bid St. James expect us "on Judgment Day in the afternoon."