Down the slopes of the neighbouring mountains were heard the stirring sounds of the bagpipes and drums, and at short intervals a halfpenny rocket would explode in mid-air, streaking the blue sky with a wreath of smoke.
Nearer and nearer came the sounds, and the villagers stood at their cottage doors waiting for the musicians to pass. Next to the firing of rockets nothing can be more heart-stirring than the martial sound of the pipes and drums. The big drum was, on this occasion, played most masterly by the auctioneer and clown of the parish church, called José Carcunda, or Joseph the Hunchback.
José Carcunda was dressed in his gala uniform—cocked hat, scarlet coat with rich gold lace embroidery, white trousers, and red morocco slippers. He was a clever man, and could take many parts in the church plays acted in public for the benefit of the faithful. Sometimes he was Herod, at others, St. Joseph; again he would appear as Judas, and then as Solomon; but in this latter capacity he had given some offence to the vicar by appearing on the stage under the influence of drink.
Of all the weaknesses to which human flesh is heir, none is more despised in Portugal than drunkenness. Wine is emblematical of that stream which flowed from the Crucified on Calvary, and the abuse of such a precious gift is not easily overlooked.
Within the narrow bounds of their primitive way of thinking are cast some of the finest traits in the character of the Portuguese peasantry, although, in many instances, to this very same source must be attributed some of their peculiar ideas as to fate. They are fatalists to a very great extent.
In Roman Catholic countries, the Sabbath is remembered by attending mass in the morning, and by amusements in the afternoon. No public-house, with its glittering lights within, with its bright and cosy fire, and with its grand display of mirrors and pictures, invites the peasant to step inside and gossip about his neighbours, while sipping the genial juice of the grape, or the fire-water that gives to the eye a supernatural brightness, and to the tongue a rush of foolish language. There is no law against such houses, but there is a popular prejudice.
José Carcunda was heard to say, after he had been guilty of drinking to excess when attired as Solomon, that his faithful dog Ponto refused to accompany him home on that occasion; “And as the creature stared at me,” said he, “I could see shame and sorrow mingling in his eyes.”
“There comes the Carcunda!” exclaimed the village belle, Belmira. “He is half hidden by the drum; but to-morrow we shall see him at early mass, when the good St. Anthony is to be raised to the rank of major.”
“Yes,” said her lover, Manoel; “and it will be a grand sight, for the priest showed me the Gazette in which is the king’s warrant. St. Anthony’s regiment is to arrive to-morrow, and after the image has donned the uniform the soldiers will present arms, the bombs will explode, rockets will be fired, and the band will play.”
As the musicians entered the village, heralding the grand entertainment to be held next day, the people cheered them heartily, and followed them to the church, situated on the top of a small hill, around which bonfires were in course of preparation for the night.
A cart laden with water-melons, another with a pipe of green wine, and a few stalls where sweetstuff was exposed for sale, formed the principal feature of the fair.
The door of the church was thrown open, and the main altar was lit up with many lights. The chapels on each side were festooned with garlands of flowers; but that dedicated to the miraculous St. Anthony, junior major in the 10th regiment of infantry, was the grandest of all, with its magnificent silk draperies, and the altar decorated with flowers.
José Carcunda was a proud man that day. He had presided over all the arrangements, and they had given great satisfaction. Belmira had set the other girls the example of showing him their gratitude by kissing him. He was so overwhelmed by their caresses that he tried to get clear of them, lest his wife might be jealous; but it was of no use trying to free himself, for they made him sit on a stone bench, and, handing him a guitar, requested him to extemporize some verses:—
“No, I cannot sing just now; I am too happy,” exclaimed the hunchback. “I feel like the rich miser of Santillana, when he recollected that he would be buried at the expense of the parish. So as my helpmate Joanna come not here, I care not how long the troops delay in arriving. Ah, Joanna is too good for me, as the runaway criminal said of the gallows; and the older she gets the more I recognize it! Yes, Joanna is too good for me and for this world; but we don’t make ourselves—no, we don’t do that.”
Here José Carcunda shook his head very wisely, and looked at his slippered feet with some pardonable pride.
“Look you here,” said one of his fair companions, “you are very stupid to-day; you will not sing, nor will you dance. Will you, then, tell us the tale about the sorrowful mule, and what befell her, or about the merry friar who turned highwayman to enrich the Church, or about the palaces of the enchanted Moors?”
“I will tell you something that happened to me when I was a young man,” answered the hunchback.
“Know, then,” continued José Carcunda, “that in my younger days I was an almocreve (muleteer), and owned six of the finest mules in the province of the Beira. I used to attend the weekly fair held at the university city, Coimbra, where I found a good market for my earthenware with which I loaded the mules.
“Fortune had favoured me, and I had saved some gold crowns; and on Sundays, when I had shaved and put on clean linen, I was the pride of the village.
“One summer’s day, as I was leading my six mules, fully laden with pots and pans, to Coimbra, a student, who was on the roadside, saluted me and said—
“‘Good José, I have a great favour to ask of you, and one that I know you will not deny me.’
“‘Your excellency,’ said I, ‘has but to order, and I will obey, so long as you place not my eternal happiness in jeopardy.’
“‘The saints forbid,’ answered the student, ‘that I should ask you to do anything but what a Christian man should do! No, friend José, my errand is indeed a strange and sad one; but I feel that I must be as true to (with your leave) a mule as my profession requires me to be to a human being.’
“‘What!’ exclaimed I, ‘are you under some spell, some wicked enchantment, that you make promises to (with your excellency’s leave) a mule, which is the accursed animal since the days of Bethlehem?’
“‘No, good friend,’ continued the sorrowful student; ‘I am under no spell, but under a vow; for I have promised to convey some sad news to (with your leave) that mouse-coloured mule of yours, and I feel that I must break it gently to her.’
“‘Sir,’ said I, ‘you see before you a man who knows not the difference between the Credo and the Paternoster when they are written; and though I have heard say that if you want to see thieves you must get inside a prison and look at the passers-by, still am I not inclined to think that if you desire to see knaves you must look in at the windows of the university. My mule (with your excellency’s permission) is but a mule, and has no knowledge of sorrow or of language; therefore, of what avail to speak to her?’
“‘You are much mistaken,’ answered the student, who now had tears in his eyes, ‘for it is well known that even the irrational animals have feelings, and they have been heard to speak. Good friend, grant me my request, for, as I said before, I am under a vow.’
“‘Have your way, dear sir,’ said I; ‘but if the animal bites you, blame not me. She is but a stubborn thing at the best of times.’
“The six mules were tied one to the other, and each had a big load of pots and pans. They were standing in the middle of the road with their gay trappings and bells about them; and as I looked at the mouse-coloured one, I wondered what the student could have to say to her and how he would say it; but, as you know, these men who frequent the university are so learned that they can repeat the Credo backwards way, which is the great secret in the black art.
“The student, having obtained my permission to speak to the mouse-coloured mule, approached her gradually, exclaiming at intervals, ‘Poor creature, how she will take it to heart! But I am under a vow. I must tell her—I must; but it is so painful!’
“‘Senhor,’ I exclaimed, ‘you remind me of the Alcaide of Montijo, who hesitated to approach his mother-in-law until she was gloved. What you have to say, that say, and let me go my way.’
“‘Unthoughtful man!’ cried the student; ‘little you wot of the sad news I have to break to that poor creature! To you a mule is but a four-legged creature, the cathedral bell but a thing of brass, and the university but the abode of the black art. You are absolutely ignorant, sir,’ continued the student, ‘for which you have much to be thankful; for if you were a student you would not sell earthenware pans, and would therefore lose the profit which you now make; and were you a student, you would at this moment be all of a tremble, for you would then know that we are at this present moment standing over a frightful abyss that will soon yawn to receive its prey.’
“I was now terribly frightened lest the student, in his calculations, should have made the mistake of a minute, so I rushed to the foremost mule so as to get her to lead the way out of the danger; but the student prevented me, saying—
“‘Not that way, for you will fall into the pit. Let me first of all whisper my news into the mouse-coloured mule’s ear, and all may yet be well.’
“‘Hurry, then,’ said I, ‘or else we shall all be lost.’
“‘It is a very good thing to be in a hurry when you know what to do,’ answered the student; ‘but we must be cautious. Therefore, step lightly that way until you reach yonder lofty tree and get up it; but, before doing so, fill your pockets with stones.’
“I can assure you that I was not long in carrying out the student’s instructions, and never have I trod so lightly on the ground as I did that day. The student, as soon as he saw me half-way up the tree, shouted out, ‘Here it comes! Oh, this is awful—just as I told her all about it! Oh dear, oh dear!’
“I now noticed that the student was taking long jumps in the direction of the tree up which I had climbed, and at every jump he would call out, ‘Shut your eyes, or you will become blind!’
“Then I heard a most dreadful noise, as if the end of the world had come; but I could still hear the student crying out, ‘Shut your eyes, good friend, or you will be blinded!’
“I have never been so terrified either before or since that day, and I was also in considerable pain, as the stones which I had placed in the pockets of my pants had, with climbing, almost sunk into me.
“After having kept my eyes closed for some time, I ventured on opening them, and then I saw a sight which told me I was a ruined man. My mules were rolling about in the dust, and all my pots and pans were wrecked. The mouse-coloured mule, moreover, seemed to be demented; she rolled and writhed so that it seemed as if she were in awful distress, and there was no doubt but that she had dragged the others down with her.
“Suddenly I heard the voice of the student, and, looking down, I saw that he was seated on a branch just below me. ‘Ah, poor creature,’ said he, ‘how terribly she feels the bereavement! Let us descend,’ continued he, ‘for the danger is now over, and we must, as Christian men, render aid to the poor dumb animals.’ Saying which he slid down the tree, and I after him as well as I could; and as soon as we again got on the road, he bid me try to pacify the mouse-coloured mule, while he would do his utmost to get the leader to get up.
“I saw that all my earthenware was broken, and I gave myself up to grief. ‘Unlucky man that I am!’ I exclaimed. ‘What harm can I have done to have deserved so great a punishment, and what, sir student, did you say to yon mule to make her act so?’
“‘Alas, friend José,’ said he, ‘we of the educated class understand resignation, but to such as you, as well as to the irrational creation, is this virtue denied. You bemoan the loss of your earthenware; and yonder dumb creature, with perhaps a glimmering of humanity about her, but certainly with more reason than you, deplores the loss of a good and beloved parent, who, on his death-bed, implored me to inform his daughter when I should next see her that he had died thinking of her, and that he bequeathed to her all he had to give, namely, the right of pasturage over all the lands in Spain and Portugal, and as much more as she could snatch from her neighbour when in the stable. Good-bye, friend José; my vow is accomplished, and I leave you in peace with your mules.’
“‘And with the broken earthenware,’ said I, ‘and with my fortunes blasted, and with my legs bleeding; and all because I met you!’
“‘Say not so, friend José, for had it not been for me you would most assuredly have been swallowed up by the underground abyss. No, say not so, nor yet complain of your mouse-coloured mule, for to lament the death of a father is but natural.’
“The student walked quietly away, and I then set to making the mules get up, which, after much trouble, I succeeded in doing; but noticing that the mouse-coloured mule kept her head on one side as if in pain, I examined her, and on looking into her ear I discovered the end of a cigarette which that vile student had purposely dropped into it. I now knew that I had been deceived; but the cheat had already disappeared, so, like a wise man, I trudged home, sold my animals to pay my debts, and, having nothing better to do, I married Joanna and became, as you know, the church clown and auctioneer.”
Notes: The book contains 21 folktales from Spain and Portugal.
Author: Charles Sellers
Publisher: Field & Tuer, The Leadenhall Press, E.C.
Simpkin, Marshall & Co.; Hamilton, Adams & Co., London