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CHAPTER III

THE Gitanos not unfrequently made their appearance in considerable numbers, so as to be able to bid defiance to any force which could be assembled against them on a sudden; whole districts thus became a prey to them, and were plundered and devastated.

It is said that, in the year 1618, more than eight hundred of these wretches scoured the country between Castile and Aragon, committing the most enormous crimes. The royal council despatched regular troops against them, who experienced some difficulty in dispersing them.

But we now proceed to touch upon an event which forms an era in the history of the Gitanos of Spain, and which for wildness and singularity throws all other events connected with them and their race, wherever found, entirely into the shade.

THE BOOKSELLER OF LOGRONO

About the middle of the sixteenth century, there resided one Francisco Alvarez in the city of Logrono, the chief town of Rioja, a province which borders on Aragon. He was a man above the middle age, sober, reserved, and in general absorbed in thought; he lived near the great church, and obtained a livelihood by selling printed books and manuscripts in a small shop. He was a very learned man, and was continually reading in the books which he was in the habit of selling, and some of these books were in foreign tongues and characters, so foreign, indeed, that none but himself and some of his friends, the canons, could understand them; he was much visited by the clergy, who were his principal customers, and took much pleasure in listening to his discourse.

He had been a considerable traveller in his youth, and had wandered through all Spain, visiting the various provinces and the most remarkable cities. It was likewise said that he had visited Italy and Barbary. He was, however, invariably silent with respect to his travels, and whenever the subject was mentioned to him, the gloom and melancholy increased which usually clouded his features.

One day, in the commencement of autumn, he was visited by a priest with whom he had long been intimate, and for whom he had always displayed a greater respect and liking than for any other acquaintance. The ecclesiastic found him even more sad than usual, and there was a haggard paleness upon his countenance which alarmed his visitor. The good priest made affectionate inquiries respecting the health of his friend, and whether anything had of late occurred to give him uneasiness; adding at the same time, that he had long suspected that some secret lay heavy upon his mind, which he now conjured him to reveal, as life was uncertain, and it was very possible that he might be quickly summoned from earth into the presence of his Maker.

The bookseller continued for some time in gloomy meditation, till at last he broke silence in these words:- 'It is true I have a secret which weighs heavy upon my mind, and which I am still loth to reveal; but I have a presentiment that my end is approaching, and that a heavy misfortune is about to fall upon this city: I will therefore unburden myself, for it were now a sin to remain silent.

'I am, as you are aware, a native of this town, which I first left when I went to acquire an education at Salamanca; I continued there until I became a licentiate, when I quitted the university and strolled through Spain, supporting myself in general by touching the guitar, according to the practice of penniless students; my adventures were numerous, and I frequently experienced great poverty. Once, whilst making my way from Toledo to Andalusia through the wild mountains, I fell in with and was made captive by a band of the people called Gitanos, or wandering Egyptians; they in general lived amongst these wilds, and plundered or murdered every person whom they met. I should probably have been assassinated by them, but my skill in music perhaps saved my life. I continued with them a considerable time, till at last they persuaded me to become one of them, whereupon I was inaugurated into their society with many strange and horrid ceremonies, and having thus become a Gitano, I went with them to plunder and assassinate upon the roads.

'The Count or head man of these Gitanos had an only daughter, about my own age; she was very beautiful, but, at the same time, exceedingly strong and robust; this Gitana was given to me as a wife or cadjee, and I lived with her several years, and she bore me children.

'My wife was an arrant Gitana, and in her all the wickedness of her race seemed to be concentrated. At last her father was killed in an affray with the troopers of the Hermandad, whereupon my wife and myself succeeded to the authority which he had formerly exercised in the tribe. We had at first loved each other, but at last the Gitano life, with its accompanying wickedness, becoming hateful to my eyes, my wife, who was not slow in perceiving my altered disposition, conceived for me the most deadly hatred; apprehending that I meditated withdrawing myself from the society, and perhaps betraying the secrets of the band, she formed a conspiracy against me, and, at one time, being opposite the Moorish coast, I was seized and bound by the other Gitanos, conveyed across the sea, and delivered as a slave into the hands of the Moors.

'I continued for a long time in slavery in various parts of Morocco and Fez, until I was at length redeemed from my state of bondage by a missionary friar who paid my ransom. With him I shortly after departed for Italy, of which he was a native. In that country I remained some years, until a longing to revisit my native land seized me, when I returned to Spain and established myself here, where I have since lived by vending books, many of which I brought from the strange lands which I visited. I kept my history, however, a profound secret, being afraid of exposing myself to the laws in force against the Gitanos, to which I should instantly become amenable, were it once known that I had at any time been a member of this detestable sect.

'My present wretchedness, of which you have demanded the cause, dates from yesterday; I had been on a short journey to the Augustine convent, which stands on the plain in the direction of Saragossa, carrying with me an Arabian book, which a learned monk was desirous of seeing. Night overtook me ere I could return. I speedily lost my way, and wandered about until I came near a dilapidated edifice with which I was acquainted; I was about to proceed in the direction of the town, when I heard voices within the ruined walls; I listened, and recognised the language of the abhorred Gitanos; I was about to fly, when a word arrested me. It was Drao, which in their tongue signifies the horrid poison with which this race are in the habit of destroying the cattle; they now said that the men of Logrono should rue the Drao which they had been casting. I heard no more, but fled. What increased my fear was, that in the words spoken, I thought I recognised the peculiar jargon of my own tribe; I repeat, that I believe some horrible misfortune is overhanging this city, and that my own days are numbered.'

The priest, having conversed with him for some time upon particular points of the history that he had related, took his leave, advising him to compose his spirits, as he saw no reason why he should indulge in such gloomy forebodings.

The very next day a sickness broke out in the town of Logrono. It was one of a peculiar kind; unlike most others, it did not arise by slow and gradual degrees, but at once appeared in full violence, in the shape of a terrific epidemic. Dizziness in the head was the first symptom: then convulsive retchings, followed by a dreadful struggle between life and death, which generally terminated in favour of the grim destroyer. The bodies, after the spirit which animated them had taken flight, were frightfully swollen, and exhibited a dark blue colour, checkered with crimson spots. Nothing was heard within the houses or the streets, but groans of agony; no remedy was at hand, and the powers of medicine were exhausted in vain upon this terrible pest; so that within a few days the greatest part of the inhabitants of Logrono had perished. The bookseller had not been seen since the commencement of this frightful visitation.

Once, at the dead of night, a knock was heard at the door of the priest, of whom we have already spoken; the priest himself staggered to the door, and opened it, - he was the only one who remained alive in the house, and was himself slowly recovering from the malady which had destroyed all the other inmates; a wild spectral-looking figure presented itself to his eye - it was his friend Alvarez. Both went into the house, when the bookseller, glancing gloomily on the wasted features of the priest, exclaimed, 'You too, I see, amongst others, have cause to rue the Drao which the Gitanos have cast. Know,' he continued, 'that in order to accomplish a detestable plan, the fountains of Logrono have been poisoned by emissaries of the roving bands, who are now assembled in the neighbourhood. On the first appearance of the disorder, from which I happily escaped by tasting the water of a private fountain, which I possess in my own house, I instantly recognised the effects of the poison of the Gitanos, brought by their ancestors from the isles of the Indian sea; and suspecting their intentions, I disguised myself as a Gitano, and went forth in the hope of being able to act as a spy upon their actions. I have been successful, and am at present thoroughly acquainted with their designs. They intended, from the first, to sack the town, as soon as it should have been emptied of its defenders.

'Midday, to-morrow, is the hour in which they have determined to make the attempt. There is no time to be lost; let us, therefore, warn those of our townsmen who still survive, in order that they may make preparations for their defence.'

Whereupon the two friends proceeded to the chief magistrate, who had been but slightly affected by the disorder; he heard the tale of the bookseller with horror and astonishment, and instantly took the best measures possible for frustrating the designs of the Gitanos; all the men capable of bearing arms in Logrono were assembled, and weapons of every description put in their hands. By the advice of the bookseller all the gates of the town were shut, with the exception of the principal one; and the little band of defenders, which barely amounted to sixty men, was stationed in the great square, to which, he said, it was the intention of the Gitanos to penetrate in the first instance, and then, dividing themselves into various parties, to sack the place. The bookseller was, by general desire, constituted leader of the guardians of the town.

It was considerably past noon; the sky was overcast, and tempest clouds, fraught with lightning and thunder, were hanging black and horrid over the town of Logrono. The little troop, resting on their arms, stood awaiting the arrival of their unnatural enemies; rage fired their minds as they thought of the deaths of their fathers, their sons, and their dearest relatives, who had perished, not by the hand of God, but, like infected cattle, by the hellish arts of Egyptian sorcerers. They longed for their appearance, determined to wreak upon them a bloody revenge; not a word was uttered, and profound silence reigned around, only interrupted by the occasional muttering of the thunder-clouds. Suddenly, Alvarez, who had been intently listening, raised his hand with a significant gesture; presently, a sound was heard - a rustling like the waving of trees, or the rushing of distant water; it gradually increased, and seemed to proceed from the narrow street which led from the principal gate into the square. All eyes were turned in that direction. . . .

That night there was repique or ringing of bells in the towers of Logrono, and the few priests who had escaped from the pestilence sang litanies to God and the Virgin for the salvation of the town from the hands of the heathen. The attempt of the Gitanos had been most signally defeated, and the great square and the street were strewn with their corpses. Oh! what frightful objects: there lay grim men more black than mulattos, with fury and rage in their stiffened features; wild women in extraordinary dresses, their hair, black and long as the tail of the horse, spread all dishevelled upon the ground; and gaunt and naked children grasping knives and daggers in their tiny hands. Of the patriotic troop not one appeared to have fallen; and when, after their enemies had retreated with howlings of fiendish despair, they told their numbers, only one man was missing, who was never seen again, and that man was Alvarez.

In the midst of the combat, the tempest, which had for a long time been gathering, burst over Logrono, in lightning, thunder, darkness, and vehement hail.

A man of the town asserted that the last time he had seen Alvarez, the latter was far in advance of his companions, defending himself desperately against three powerful young heathen, who seemed to be acting under the direction of a tall woman who stood nigh, covered with barbaric ornaments, and wearing on her head a rude silver crown. (18)

Such is the tale of the Bookseller of Logrono, and such is the narrative of the attempt of the Gitanos to sack the town in the time of pestilence, which is alluded to by many Spanish authors, but more particularly by the learned Francisco de Cordova, in his DIDASCALIA, one of the most curious and instructive books within the circle of universal literature.

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