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Letters Of George Borrow by George Borrow

The Charm

'Just Judge and divine Son of the Virgin Maria, who wast born at Bethlehem, a Nazarene, and who wast crucified in the midst of all Jewry! I beseech Thee, O Lord, by virtue of Thy sixth day {137} that the body of me, Francisco, be not caught nor put to death by the hands of Justice! Pazes teco (pax tecum), pazes Cristo. May you receive peace, said Christ to His disciples. If the accursed Justice should distrust me, or have its eye on me, in order to take me, or to rob me, may it have an eye which shall not see me; may it have a mouth which shall not speak to me; may it have an ear which shall not hear me; may it have a hand which shall not seize me; may it have a foot which shall not overtake me; for may I be armed with the arms of Saint George; may I be covered with the cloak of Abraham; and embarked in the ark of Noah; so that it can neither see me, nor hear me, nor draw the blood from my body! I also conjure Thee, O Lord, by those three blessed crosses -- by those three blessed chalices -- by those three blessed clergymen -- by those three consecrated hosts, that Thou give me that sweet company which Thou gavest the Virgin Maria, from the gates of Bethlehem even unto the portals of Jerusalem, that I may go and come with peace and joy with Jesus Christ, Son of the Virgin Maria, the prolific, yet nevertheless the eternal Virgin Maria our Lady.'

The woman of the house and her daughter had similar bags tied to their necks, containing charms, which they said prevented the witches having power to harm them. The belief in witchcraft is very prevalent amongst the peasantry of the Alemtejo, and I believe of other provinces of Portugal. This is one of the relics of the monkish system, the aim of which in all countries where it has existed, or does exist, seems to be to besot the minds of the people that they may be the more easily plundered and misled. The monks of the Greek and Syriac Churches likewise deal in this kind of ware, which they know to be poison, but which, as it brings them a price and fosters delusion by which they are maintained in luxury and idleness, they would rather vend than the wholesome drug.

The Sunday morning was fine, and the plain before the church of the Convent of San Francisco was thronged with people going to mass or returning. After having performed my morning devotions and breakfasted, I went down to the kitchen. The fine girl Geronima was seated by the fire. I asked if she had heard mass; she replied, 'No,' and that she did not intend to hear it. Upon my inquiring her motive for absenting herself, she replied that, since the friars had been expelled from their churches and convents, she had ceased to attend mass or to confess herself, for that the Government priests had no spiritual power, and consequently she never troubled them. She said the friars were holy men and charitable; for that every morning those of the convent over the way had fed forty poor persons with the remains of their meals of the preceding day, but that now these people were allowed to starve. I replied that the friars who had lived upon the dainties of the land could well afford to bestow a few bones on the poor, and that their doing so was not the effect of charity, but merely a part of their artful policy, by which they hoped to secure to themselves friends in time of need. The girl then said that as it was Sunday I should perhaps like to see some of her books, and without waiting for a reply she produced them. They consisted principally of popular stories and lives and miracles of saints, but amongst them was a translation of Volney's Ruins of Empires. I inquired how she became possessed of this book; she said that a young man, a great Constitutionalist, had given it her some months since and had pressed her much to read it, telling her that it was the best book in the world. Whereupon I told her that the author of the book in question was an emissary of Satan and an enemy of Jesus Christ and the souls of mankind; that he had written it with the sole view of bringing all religion into contempt, and that he had inculcated therein the doctrine that there was no future state nor rewards for the righteous nor punishments for the wicked. She made no reply, but going into another room, returned with her apron full of dry brushwood and faggot; all of this she piled upon the fire, and produced a bright blaze. She then took the book from my hand, and placed it upon the flaming pile; then sitting down, took her rosary out of her pocket, and told her beads till the volume was consumed. This was an Auto-da-fe, in the true sense of the word.

On the Monday and Tuesday I paid my usual visits to the fountain, and likewise rode about the neighbourhood for the purpose of circulating tracts. I dropped a great many in the favourite walks of the people of Evora, as I felt rather dubious of their accepting them had I proffered them with my own hands; whereas if they found them on the ground, I thought that curiosity might induce them to pick them up and examine them. I likewise on the Tuesday evening paid a farewell visit to my friend Don Azveto, as it was my intention to leave Evora on the Thursday following; in which view I had engaged a cabriolet of a man who informed me that he had served as a soldier in the Grande Armee of Napoleon, and had been present throughout the Russian campaign. He looked the image of a drunkard; his face was covered with carbuncles, and his breath impregnated with the fumes of strong waters. He wished much to converse with me in French, in the speaking of which language, it seems, he prided himself much; but I refused, and told him to speak the language of the country, or I would hold no discourse with him.

Wednesday was stormy, with occasional rain. On coming down I found that my friend from Palmella had departed, but several contrabandistas had arrived from Spain. They were mostly fine fellows, and, unlike the two I had seen the previous week, who were of much lower degree, were chatty and communicative; they spoke their native language and no other, and seemed to hold Portuguese in great contempt; their magnificent Spanish tones were heard to great advantage amidst the shrill chirping dialect of Portugal. I was soon in deep conversation with them, and was much pleased to find that all of them could read. I presented the eldest of them, a man of about fifty years of age, with a tract in Spanish. He examined it for some time with great attention; he then rose from his seat, and going into the middle of the apartment, began reading it aloud, slowly and emphatically; his companions gathered round him, and every now and then expressed their satisfaction at what they heard. The reader occasionally called upon me to explain particular passages which, as they referred to Scripture, he did not exactly understand, for not one of the party had ever seen either the Old or New Testament. He continued reading for nearly an hour until he had finished the tract, and at its conclusion the whole party were clamorous for similar ones, with which I was happy to be able to supply them. Most of them spoke of priestcraft and the monks with the utmost abhorrence, and said that they should prefer death to again submitting to the yoke which had formerly galled their necks. I questioned them very particularly respecting the opinion of their neighbours and acquaintances on this point, and they assured me that in their part of the Spanish frontier all were of the same mind, and that they cared as little for the Pope and his monks as they did for Don Carlos, for the latter was a dwarf (chicotito) and a tyrant, and the others were plunderers and robbers. I told them that they must beware of confounding religion with priestcraft, and that in their abhorrence of the latter they must not forget that there is a God and a Christ, to whom they must look for salvation, and whose word it was incumbent upon them to study on every occasion; whereupon they all expressed a devout belief in Christ and the Virgin.

These men, though in many respects far more enlightened than the surrounding peasantry, were in others quite as much in the dark; they believed in witchcraft and in the efficacy of particular charms. The night was very stormy, and about nine we heard a galloping towards the door, and then a loud knocking; it was opened, and in rushed a wild-looking man mounted upon a donkey. He wore a jerkin of sheepskin, called in Spanish zamarras, with breeches of the same as far down as his knee; his legs were bare. Around his sombrero, or shadowy hat, was tied a large quantity of the herb called in English rosemary, in Spanish romero, and in the rustic language of Portugal ellecrin, which last is a word of Scandinavian origin, and properly signifies the elfin plant. [It was probably] carried into the south by the Vandals or the Alani. The [man seemed] frantic with terror, and said that the witches had been pursuing him, and hovering over his head, for the last two leagues. He came from the Spanish frontier with meal and other articles; he informed us that his wife was following him and would soon arrive, and within a quarter of an hour she made her appearance, dripping with rain, and also mounted upon a donkey. I asked my friends the contrabandistas why he wore the rosemary in his hat, and they told me that it was good against witches and the mischances of the road. I had no time to argue against this superstition, for as the chaise was to be ready at five o'clock next morning I wished to make the most of the few hours which I could devote to rest.

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