Spain – Pilgrims Of Saint James

“In Galice at Seint Jame, and at Coloigne, She koude muchel of wandrynge by the weye.”

CHAUCER : Canterbury Tales.

” Pilgrimes and palmers plihten hem to-gederes For to seche Seint ame. ”

-LANGLAND : Piers Plowman.

” I am Saint Jaques’ pilgrim, thither gone.”

-SHAKESPEARE : All’s Well that Ends Well.

FROM Leon to Coruna is a journey of some eighteen hours by rail. Degenerate pilgrims that we were, we had taken a first-class carriage reserved for ladies, not so comfortable as the average third-class carriage on an English road. We hoped for space, at least, and solitude, but people who choose to pry into out-of-the-way corners of Spain need not expect to find any slavish deference to rights of place and property. The conductor had planned to dine and sleep in this particular compartment, which was a shade cleaner than the rest, and re-moved his kit from the rack with natural disappointment. Why should ladies be going to Galicia? But the general first-class compartment, next to ours, was unoccupied, and he resignedly transferred his belongings thither. The numerous third-class carriages were crowded with raw recruits, who had all jumped down, boy fashion, on the Leon platforms, and came scrambling back at the starting bell in noisiest confusion. Just as the train was puffing out, a station official threw open our door with a smiling, ” Only to the next stop, ladies ! ” and precipitated upon us three belated warriors. We groaned inly with dark foreboding, for third-class occupancy of a first-class carriage is apt to leave lively souvenirs behind. Our three young soldiers, each with his personal effects bundled up in an enormous red and yellow handkerchief, were of the rudest peasant type, hardly lifted above animal and clod. Only one was able to spell out anything of the newspaper we offered. He labored over a large-lettered advertisement with grimy thumb, twisting brows, and muttering lips, but soon gave it up in sheer exhaustion. The hulking fellow beyond him was continually on the point of spitting, — a regular Spanish pas-time in travel ; but, determined that the carriage should not suffer that offence, I kept strict watch on this chrysalis hero, and embarrassed him into stark paralysis with questions on the landscape whenever he was quite prepared to fire. The third conscript was a ruddy, fair-haired boy of seventeen, who had in rudimentary form the social instincts of a Spaniard, and in his intervals of blue-eyed staring at the tawdry splendors about him hammered our ears with some harsh dialect, his one theme being the indignities and hardships of a Spanish soldier’s lot. Yet dull as they were, and ignorant of railway customs, they knew enough to prefer broad cushions, whose variety of stains did not trouble their enviable simplicity, to the rough and narrow benches of the overcrowded third-class carriages, and at the ” first stop ” they unanimously forgot to change. But they were not unkindly lads, and after I had explained to them a dozen times or so that my friend was suffering from a headache and needed to lie down, and had, further-more, lawlessly suggested that they could make themselves equally comfortable in the other first-class carriage, which was not “reserved for ladies,” they promised to leave us at the second station; but their slow peasant hands fumbled at the door so clumsily that the train was under way again before the latch had yielded. It was not until we had been fellow-travellers for two or three hours that they finally stumbled into the neighboring compartment. From this the conductor, who had been blind and deaf to past proceedings, promptly ejected them, having no mind to let them make acquaintance with his wine bottle, and our poor exiles cast reproachful glances at us as they were hustled off to their own place.

We have sometimes talked enthusiastically of democracy, but we did not discuss such exalted subjects then. Indeed, we had enough to do in guarding our doors, often by frank exercise of muscle, from further intrusion, and in trying to provide ourselves with food and water. A struggling mob of soldier boys besieged the refreshment stalls at every station, and drained the jars of the water-venders long before these could arrive at the car windows. At last, by a union of silver and violence, we succeeded in gaining from an astounded little girl, who was racing after the departing carriages, all her stock in trade, even the great russet jar itself, with its treasure of cold spring water. The historian possesses a special genius for cooking over an alcohol lamp on a rocking mountain train, and having augmented our knapsack stores with scalded milk and knobby bread from a tavern near one of the depots, we lived like feudal barons ” of our own ” for the rest of that memorable journey.

Reminders of the pilgrims were all along our route. Over-flowing as Santiago’s young knights were with martial and romantic spirit, when the brigands did not give their steel sufficient sport they would break lances for the love of ladies or on any other conceivable pretext. We passed the bridge of twenty arches, where ten companions in arms once posted themselves for ten successive days, and challenged to the tilt every cavalier who came that way in journey to the Compostela jubilee.

All the afternoon we were climbing into the hill-country. The waste slopes were starred with purple clumps of heather, and crossed by light-footed maids, who balanced great bunches of bracken on their heads. The patches of green valley, walled in by those barren steeps, held each a few tumble-down old houses, while elsewhere we noticed human dwellings that seemed scarcely more than nests of mud plastered to the stone. Yet the soil appeared to be cultivated with the most patient thrift, — wheat and potatoes growing wherever wheat and potatoes might. The view became a bewildering medley of Scottish hills, Italian skies, and Gothic castles, with occasion-ally a tawny and fantastic rock from the Garden of the Gods. The city of Astorga, whose cathedral was founded, so the pilgrims used to say, by St. James in his missionary tour, greeted us from the midst of the flinty hills. These are the home of a singular clan known as the Maragatos. They wear a distinctive dress, marry only among themselves, and turn a sullen look upon their neighbors.

As night came on, the road grew so rough that we had to cork our precious water-jar with a plump lemon. The historian was sleeping off her headache, except as I woke her at the stations to aid in the defence of our ignoble luxury. We remembered that queen of Portugal who made the pilgrimage to Compostela on foot, begging her way. In the close-packed third-class carriages it must have been a cramped and weary night, and we did not wonder that young socialists occasionally tried to raid our fortress. But we clung stoutly to the door-handles, lustily sounding our war cry of ” Ladies only ” in lieu of “Santiago,” and early in the small hours had the shamefaced pleasure of seeing the herd of drowsy con-scripts, with their red and yellow bundles, driven into another train, where they were tumbled two or three deep, the under layer struggling and protesting. One little fellow, nearly smothered in the hurly-burly about the steps, cried out pitifully ; but the conductor silenced him with angry sarcasm: ” Dost mean to be a soldier, thou ? Or shall we put thee in a sugar-bowl and send thee back to mamma ? ”

There was less need of sentry duty after this, but the night was too beautiful for sleep. We were crossing the wild Asturian mountains, the Alps of Spain, and a full moon was pouring down white lustre on crag, cascade, and gorge. By these perilous ways had streamed the many-bannered pilgrim hosts, — men and women of all countries and all tongues seeking the Jerusalem of the West. Each nation had its own hymn to Santiago, and these, sung to the mingled music of bagpipes, timbrels, bugles, flutes, and harps, must have pealed out strangely on many a silver night. The poor went begging of the rich, and often a mounted crusader cast his purse of broad gold pieces on the heather, trusting Santiago and his own good sword to see him through. Up and down these sheer ravines stumbled the blind and lame, sure of healing if only they could reach the shrine. Deaf and dumb went in the pilgrim ranks, the mad, the broken-hearted, the sin-oppressed; only the troop of lepers held apart. Some of those foot-sore wayfarers, most likely the raggedest of all, carried a secret treasure for the saint. Some staggered under penitential weights of lead and stone, and others bore loads of bars and fetters in token of captivity from which St. James had set them free.

But these pathetic shapes no longer peopled the moonlight. Since it was the nineteenth century, a first-class passenger might as well lie down and watch the gracious progress of the moon across the heavens, —

” Oft, as if her head she bowed, Stooping through a fleecy cloud.”

But the clouds perversely made of themselves wayside crosses, urns, cathedral towers ; and just as one sky-creature, ” backed like a weasel ” but with the face of Santiago, began to puff a monstrous cigarette, I roused my dozing senses and discovered that we were entering Lugo, the capital of Galicia, and once, under Roman rule, of all Spain.

This city of tumultuous history, stormed by one wild race after another, and twice sacked in our own century, first by the French and then by the Carlists, lay very peacefully under the white dawn. While the chivalrous Spanish sun rose unobtrusively, so as not to divert attention from the fading graces of the moon, the historian made sustaining coffee, and we tried to look as if we liked Galicia. This far north-western province is the Boeotia of Spain ; its stupid, patient peasantry are the butt of all the Peninsula, and to be called a Gallego is to be called a fool. The country, as we saw it from the train, was broken and hilly, but the Alpine majesty of Asturias was gone. In the misty drizzle of rain, which soon hushed the pipings of the birds, all the region looked wretchedly poor. It was a wooded, watered, well-tilled land, with tufts of heather brightly fringing every bank; but the houses were mere cabins, where great, gaunt, dark-colored pigs pushed in and out among bedraggled hens and half-clad children. Women were working in the fields by five o’clock in the morning, their saffron and carmine kerchiefs twisted into horns above the forehead. Women were serving as porters at the stations, carrying heavy trunks and loads of valises on their heads. Women were driving the plough, swinging the pickaxe in the quarries, mending the railway tracks. Short, stout, vigorous brownies they were, and most of them looked old.

It was mid-forenoon when we reached Coruna, the seaport whence sailed the Invincible Armada. We had meant to rest there for the afternoon and night before undertaking the forty-mile drive to Santiago, but the hotel was so filthy that, tired as we were, there was nothing for it but to go on. Tarrying only for bath and breakfast, we took our places in a carriage which, setting out at one, promised to bring us into Santiago in time for the eight o’clock dinner.

This conveyance was a species of narrow omnibus, which an Andalusian, an Englishman, a son of Compostela returning home after a long sojourn in foreign parts, his young wife of Jewish features, and our weary selves filled to over-flowing. Our Jehu had agreed to transport the six of us, with our effects, for the sum of sixteen dollars ; but deep was our disgust when he piled our handbags, shawl straps, and all our lesser properties in upon our wedged and helpless forms, and crammed six rough Gallegos, with a reeling load of trunks and boxes, on the roof. Remonstrance would be futile. The places in the regular diligence were not only taken for the afternoon but engaged for several days ahead, and carriages are rare birds in Galicia. The Spanish gentle-men merely shrugged their shoulders, the Englishman had but that morning landed in Spain and could not speak a word of the vernacular, and feminine protest was clearly out of order. The four puny horses took the top-heavy vehicle at a rattling pace down the granite-paved streets of Coruna, but hardly were we under way when our griefs began.

On our arrival that forenoon, a fluent porter had over-persuaded us to leave our trunk at the station, letting him retain the check in order to have the baggage ready for us when we should pass the depot en route for Santiago. We had been absent scarcely three hours, but meanwhile the trunk had disappeared. A dozen tatterdemalions ran hither and thither, making as much noise as possible, all the top fares shouted contradictory suggestions, and our porter, heaping Ossa-Pelions of execration upon the (absent) railroad officials, declared that they in their most reprobate stupidity had started the trunk on that eighteen-hour journey back to Leon. They were dolts and asses, the sons of imbecile mothers; but we had only to leave the check with him, and in the course of an indefinite number of “to-morrows” he would recover our property. We had grown sadder and wiser during the last five minutes, however, and insisted on taking that soiled inch of paper into our own keeping. At this the porter flew into a Spanish rage, flung back his fee into my lap, and so eloquently expressed himself that we left Coruna with stinging ears.

It was the historian’s trunk, stored with supplies for the camera, as well as with sundry alleviations of our pilgrim lot, but she put it in the category of spilled milk, and turned with heroic cheerfulness to enjoy the scenery. The horses had now drooped into the snail’s pace which they consistently maintained through the rest of their long, uphill way, for the city of the Apostle stands on a high plateau. As we mounted more and more, Coruna, lying between bay and sea, still shone clear across the widening reach of smiling landscape. Maize and vines were everywhere. So were peasants, who trudged along in family troops toward Compostela. But whether afoot or astride donkeys of antique countenance, they could always outstrip our lumbering coach, and we were an easy prey for the hordes of childish bandits who chase vehicles for miles along the pilgrim road, shrieking for pennies in the name of Santiago.

About two leagues out of Coruna we did pass something, — a group composed of a young Gallego and the most diminutive of donkeys. The peasant, walking beside his beast, was trying to balance across its back an object unwonted to those wilds.

“Strange to see a steamer trunk here ! ” I remarked, turning to the historian ; but she was already leaning out from the window, inspecting that label-speckled box with an eagle gaze.

“It’s mine!” she exclaimed, and in a twinkling had startled the driver into pulling up his horses, had leapt from the coach, and was running after the peasant, who, for his part, swerving abruptly from the main road, urged his panting donkey up a steep lane. Nobody believed her. Even I, her fellow-pilgrim, thought her wits were addling with our penitential fasts and vigils, and did not attempt to join in so mad a chase. As for the scandalized Spaniards, inside and out, they shouted angrily that the thing was impossible and the senora was to come back. The coachman roared loudest of all. But on she dashed, ran down her man, and bade him, in inspired Galician, bring that trunk to the omnibus at once. He scratched his head, smiled a child’s innocent and trustful smile, and, like a true Gallego, did as he was told. By this time masculine curiosity had been too much for the driver and most of the fares, and they had scrambled after, so that the few of us who kept guard by the carriage presently beheld an imposing procession advancing along the road, consisting of a Galician peasant with a steamer trunk upon his head, a group of crestfallen Spaniards, and a Yankee lady, slightly flushed, attended by an applauding Englishman.

Beyond a doubt it was her trunk. Her name was there, a New York hotel mark, which she had tried to obliterate with a blot of Leon ink, and the number corresponding to the number of our check. ” By Jove ! ” said the Englishman. As for the peasant, he said even less, but in some way gave us to understand that he was taking the trunk to a gentleman from Madrid. Thinking that there might have been a confusion of checks in the station, we gave this childlike native a peseta and a card with our Santiago address in case “the Madrid gentleman ” should suspect us of highway robbery. Our fellow-passengers took the tale to Santiago, however; it made a graphic column in the local paper, and none of the several Spaniards who spoke to us of the matter there doubted that the trunk was stolen by collusion between the porter and the peasant.

Our next adventure was more startling yet. The coach-man had been heard, at intervals, vehemently expostulating with a roof passenger who wanted to get down. “Man alive ! By the staff of Santiago ! By your mother’s head ! By the Virgin of the Pillar!” Whether the malcontent had taken too much wine, whether he was under legal arrest, whether it was merely a crossing of whims, we could not learn from any of the impassioned actors in the drama ; but, apparently, he found his opportunity to slip unnoticed off the coach. For suddenly the driver screamed to his horses, and, like a bolt from the blue, a handsome, athletic fellow leapt to the ground and rushed back along the dusty road, brandishing clenched fists and stamping his feet in frenzy. In mid-career he paused, struck a stage attitude, tore open his pink shirt, gasped, and shook with rage. “Irving isn’t in it,” quoth the Englishman. Then appeared, lurking by the roadside, a slouchy youth, on whom our tragic hero sprang like a tiger, threw him down, and stood panting over him with a gesture as if to stab. An instant later he had seized his victim by the collar, dragged him up, and was running him back to the coach. ” You hurt me,” wailed the truant, ” and I don’t want to go.” But go he must, being bundled back in short order on the roof, where harmony seemed to be immediately restored. While the men were struggling, a lordly old peasant, stalking by, surveyed them with a peasant’s high disdain. We had already noted the Irish look of the Galicians, but this magnificent patriarch, with dark green waistcoat over a light green shirt, old gold knicker bockers and crushed strawberry hose, had as Welsh a face, dark and clean-cut, as Snowdon ever saw.

Long sunset shadows lay across the hills ; we had shared with our companions our slight stores of sweet chocolate, bread, and wine, and still we were not halfway to Santiago. It was nine o’clock before our groaning equipage drew up at a wretched little inn, incredibly foul, where it was necessary to bait the exhausted horses. Mine host welcomed the party with pensive dignity, and served us, in the midst of all that squalor, with the manners of a melancholy count. Shutting eyes and noses as far as we could, and blessing eggs for shells and fruit for rind, we ate and gathered strength to bear what St. James might yet have in store for us.

The diligence had resumed its weary jog; we were all more or less asleep, unconsciously using, in our crowded estate, one another as pillows, when an uproar from the box and a wild lurch of the coach brought us promptly to our waking senses. One of the wheel horses was down, and the others, frightened by the dragging harness, were rearing and plunging. Out we tumbled into the misty night, wondering if we were destined, after all, to foot it to Compostela in proper pilgrim fashion. The poor beast was mad with terror, and his struggles soon brought his mate to the ground beside him. The coachman, so pompous and dictatorial at the outset, stood helplessly in the road, at a safe distance, wringing his hands and crying like a baby : “Alas, poor me ! Poor little me ! 0 holy Virgin ! Santiago ! ” The top fares, who had made good speed to terra firma, were wailing in unison and shrieking senseless counsels. ” Kill thou the horse ! Kill thou the horse ! ” one of them chanted like a Keltic dirge. The coachman supplied the antiphon : ” Kill not my horse ! Kill not my horse ! Ave Maria ! Poor little me!” “Fools ! Sit on his head,” vociferated the Englishman in his vain vernacular. The horses seemed to have as many legs as centipedes, kicking all at once. The coach was toppling, the luggage pitching, and catastrophe appeared inevitable, when Santiago, such an excel-lent horseman himself, inspired one of the roof passengers to unbuckle a few straps. The effect was magical. First one nag, and then the other, struggled to its feet ; the coachman sobbed anew, this time for joy; the Spanish gentlemen, who had been watching the scene with imperturbable passivity, crawled back into the diligence, the silent wife followed with the heavy bag which her husband had let her carry all the way, and the Anglo-Saxon contingent walked on ahead for half an hour to give the spent horses what little relief we might.

The clocks were striking two when we reached the gates of the sacred city, where fresh hindrance met us. The customs officials were on the alert. Who were we that would creep into Compostela de Santiago under cover of night, in an irregular conveyance piled high with trunks and boxes ? Smugglers, beyond a doubt ! But they would teach us a thing or two. We might wait outside till morning.

Delighted boys from a peasant camp beyond the walls ran up to jeer at our predicament. Our coachman, reverting to his dolorous chant, appealed to all the saints. The top fares shrilled in on the chorus; the Spanish gentlemen lighted cigarettes, and after some twenty minutes of dramatic altercation, a soldier sprang on our top step and mounted guard, while the coach rattled through the gates and on to the aduana. Here we were deposited, bag and baggage, on the pavement, and a drowsy, half-clad old dignitary was brought forth to look at us. The coachman, all his social graces restored, imaginatively presented the three Anglo-Saxons as a French party travelling for pleasure. ” But what am I to do with them ? ” groaned the dignitary, and went back to bed. An appalling group of serenos, in slouch hats and long black capes, with lanterns and with staffs topped by steel axes, escorted us into a sort of luggage room, and told us to sit down on benches. We sat on them for half an hour, which seemed to satisfy the ends of justice, for then the serenos gave place to porters, who said they would bring us our property, which nobody had examined or noticed in the slightest, after daybreak, and would now show us the way to our hotel. Our farewell to the coachman, who came beaming up to shake hands and receive thanks, was cold.

We had engaged rooms by letter a week in advance, but they had been surrendered to earlier arrivals, and we were conducted to a private house next door to the hotel. After the delays incident to waking an entire family, we were taken into a large, untidy room, furnished with dining table, sewing machine, and a half dozen decrepit chairs. There was no water and no sign of toilet apparatus, but in an adjoining dark closet were two narrow cots, from which the four daughters of the house had just been routed. Of those beds which these sleepy children were then, with unruffled sweetness and cheeriness, making ready for us, the less said the better. Our indoor hours in Compostela, an incessant battle against dirt, bad smelts, and a most instructive variety of vermon, were t penance that must have met all pilgrim requirements. And yet these people spared no pains to make us comfortable, so far as they understood comfort. At our slightest call, were it only for a match, in would troop the mother, four daughters, maid, dog, and cat, with any of the neighbors who might be visiting, all eager to be of service. The girls were little models of sunny courtesy, and would have been as pretty of face as they were charming in manner, had not skin diseases and eye diseases told the tale of the hideously unsanitary conditions in which their young lives had been passed.

But we had come to the festival of Santiago, and it was worth its price.