For all the rider tried to rein in his shaggy mount, pulling with all his strength on the single cord of rope and whispering calming and gentle words, it was still intent on descending the slope at a hasty trot which rattled his insides, if not running at irregular intervals at a crazy gallop. And that incline on the royal highway to Ourense was a steep downhill, such that tradesmen when they went by would shake their heads, muttering that it had a gradient a good bit more than the percentage allowed by the law and that, no doubt, when the engineers brought the road that way they must have known how it would turn out, and some political faction, some electoral influence of considerable calibre, must have had a hand in it.
The rider was as red, not as a pepper, but as a strawberry, with the flush of a phlegmatic temperament. Being young and delicate of build and having no beard, he would have looked like a child if the presumption of his priest’s clothing had not contradicted that impression. Although he was covered with the yellow dust raised up by the trotting horse, it was clear to see that his suit was of plain, black cloth, cut loose and with that lack of style which distinguishes the street clothes worn by the clergy. His gloves, torn up already by contact with the bridle were also black and new, the same as the bowler hat, which was pulled down to his eyebrows, for fear that the bumping of the ride would knock it to the ground, which would have been the worst event in the world. Under the collar of the inelegant frock coat a finger’s width of dog-collar showed, embroidered with small beads. The rider showed his poor horsemanship: canted over the pommel, with his legs bent and within an inch of flying free of the stirrups, in his face there was such a fear of his four-year old that he might have been an indomitable stallion breathing ferocity and energy.
When they had come down the slope, the horse returned to its normal leisurely pace, and the rider could straighten up on the round saddle rig, the immeasurable breadth of which had loosened all the bones of his sacroiliac region. He breathed, took off his hat and felt the cool evening air on his sweaty forehead. The rays of the sun now fell obliquely through the brambles and thickets and a shirt-sleeved workman on the road, with his jacket lying across a milestone, was leisurely working away with a pick at the grasses in the dip at the edge of the road. The rider pulled on his reins to halt his mount which, having left all desire to trot on the slope behind it, stopped immediately. The workman raised his head and the gilded disk of his hat shone a moment.
“Would you have the goodness to tell me, sir, if the house of the Marquess of Ulloa is far from here?”
“The house of Ulloa?” replied the workman, repeating the question.
“The manor house of Ulloa is over there,” he muttered, stretching out his hand to indicate a point on the horizon. “If your horse is good, you’ll make the rest of the journey quickly. Now, you have to go to that pine wood, do you see? And then you must turn left, and then you must go down on the right-hand side, by a short cut to the roadside cross… From the cross you can’t get lost, because you can see the manor houses, a set of very big buildings.”
“But how much is left?” the priest asked nervously.
The workman shook his suntanned head.
“A mere bite. A mere bite.”
And with no more explanations he went back to his tedious work, handling the pick as though it weighed a hundredweight.
The traveller resigned himself to keep going without knowing how many leagues make up ‘a mere bite’ and spurred his horse on. The pine wood was not too far, and a very narrow stretch went winding through the middle of its dark bulk, where the horse and rider just squeezed through. The path, buried in the dark depths of the pine wood, was almost impassable but the horse, which lived up to the reputation of its Galician breed for negotiating bad terrain, went forward with extreme caution with its head down, testing out with its hooves to carefully examine the furrows made by cartwheels, the stones, the felled pine trunks left lying where they were least needed. They went forward little by little and emerged from the tight and choked pathway into the open amongst young pine trees and hills covered with broom, without having come upon a single bit of worked land, when they came upon a field of cabbages which revealed human life. Suddenly the horse’s hooves stopped their noise and buried themselves in soft carpet: it was a bed of vegetable compost spread out according to local custom in front of a labourer’s hut. At the door a mother was nursing a child at her breast. The rider stopped.
“My lady, do you know if I am on the right path to get to the house of the Marquess of Uloa?”
“You’re going right, yes…”
“And is it far?”
She raised her eyebrows and looked at him with apathetic curiosity, replying ambiguously in dialect:
“A dog’s run from here…”
“That’s great, that is,” thought the traveller, who if he was not capable of guessing how far a dog could run, imagined it would be a good ride for a horse. Well, when he got to the cross he would see the houses of Ulloa… It all depended on finding the short-cut to the right… Not a sign of it. The track was broadening as it entered mountainous territory spotted around with the dark patches of oak wood and here and there the odd chestnut still weighed down with fruit; to right and left scattered dark clumps of heather were growing. The rider felt a vague unease, forgivable in one who, born and raised in a quiet and dreamy town, finds himself for the first time face-to-face with the harsh and majestic loneliness of nature and recalls tales of travellers robbed and people murdered in deserted places.
“What a wolves’ country!” he said to himself, overcome with dark thoughts.
His heart was cheered at the sight of the short-cut, which could be made out on the right, narrow and steep between the double stone wall of the edges of two hills. He was going down, trusting in the ability of his horse to avoid tripping, when saw something almost within touching distance that made him shudder: a black painted wooden cross with white adornments half toppling from the broad wall it was raised on. The priest knew that these crosses marked the spot where some man had met a violent death and, crossing himself, he said the Our Father whilst the horse, no doubt because it could smell the scent of some fox, trembled lightly with its ears pricked and took up an agitated trot that quickly brought them to a crossroads. In the frame made by the branches of an enormous chestnut tree the roadside cross was raised.
Rough hewn of common stone, it was so poorly worked that at first sight it seemed like a Romanesque monument, although it was really only a hundred years old, the work of a quarrymen with aspirations to be a sculptor. The cross in that place and at that moment under the natural canopy of the magnificent tree was poetic and beautiful. The rider, feeling calmer and full of devotion, took off his hat and said: “We adore you, Christ, and we bless you since by your most holy cross you redeemed the world,” and as he prayed, his gaze sought out the manor house of Ulloa in the distance, which had to be that great rectangular building with towers away at the end of the valley. His contemplation was brief, and the priest nearly fell to the ground when his horse was put to flight, its ears back, crazed by fear. There was good reason for this: very close by two shots had been fired.
The rider was cold with shock, gripping the pommel, without even daring to look around in the undergrowth to see where his attackers might be hiding but his anguish was short-lived because already from the riverbank behind the cross a group of three men was coming, preceded by three hunting dogs, whose presence was enough to show that the guns of their owners were only a threat to the vermin of the mountain.
The leading hunter seemed to be about twenty eight or thirty: tall with a good beard, his neck and face burnt by the sun; but as he was coming bare-chested and with his hat in his hand the whiteness of his skin where it had not been exposed to the elements could be seen on his forehead and chest, the diameter of which spoke of a robust physique. This supposition was confirmed by the little tuft of curly hair in the middle of his breast. His legs were protected by new leather gaiters, buckled up to the thigh; on his right thigh hung the string net of a full game bag, and on his left shoulder rested a modern, double-barrelled shotgun. The second hunter seemed to be a man of low condition, a servant or tenant-farmer: he had neither buckles on his boots, nor anything more for game than a simple burlap sack; his hair was shaved to the scalp; he had an old-fashioned musket tied up with string and in his shaved and lean face with its strong, straight features there was an expression of canny wisdom, of savage cunning, more becoming a red Indian than a European. As for the third hunter, the rider was surprised to see he was a priest. How did he recognise this? Certainly not in his tonsure, matted over with a thicket of grey hogs hair, nor even in the shaving of his face since the tough grey sprouts of his bluish beard were at least a month old; less still in the dog-collar which he did not wear, or the clothes which were like those of his hunting companions, with the addition of some patent leather riding boots that were very worn and torn at the creases. However, he was clearly a priest, showing the formidable seal of ordination, which not even the flames of hell can annihilate, in some indefinable expression of his face, in the manner and posture of his body, in his gaze, his walk, in everything. There was no doubt: he was a priest.
The rider went up to the group and repeated the familiar question:
“Would you mind telling me if I am on the right path to the house of the Marquess of Ulloa?”
The tall hunter turned to the others with familiarity and authority.
“What a piece of luck!” he exclaimed. “Here we have the outsider… You, Primitivo… Well, you have won the lottery; I was thinking of sending you to Cebre tomorrow to meet the gentleman… And you sir abbot of Ulloa… Now you have someone to help you sort out the parish!”
As the rider was still unsure, the hunter added:
“I suppose you are the chap recommended by my uncle, Señor de la Lage.”
“His servant and chaplain,” he relied happily, trying to dismount and aided in that ticky operation by the abbot. “And you…” he exclaimed turning to face his interlocutor, “…are the Marquess?”
“How is my uncle? You… from Cebre on horseback, eh?” the other replied evasively, while the chaplain watched him with interest bordering on lively curiosity.
There was no doubt that seen like this, in manly dishevelment, his skin moist with a light sweat, the shotgun resting on his shoulder, the Marquess was a fine figure of a lad; all the same his arrogant persona gave off a certain wild and uncouth savour , and the hardness of his gaze contrasted with the straightforward and affable welcome.
The chaplain respectfully made his copious explanations.
“Yes, sir, quite… I left the stagecoach in Cebre and they gave this horse which has tackle in a pretty state… Señor de la Lage, so good and with that sense of humour he always has… He would make the stones laugh… And very handsome for his age… It seems to me that if he were your father he could not be more like you… The young ladies, very good, very happy and very healthy… Good news from the young gentleman in Segovia. And before I forget…”
He looked in the inner pocket of his overcoat and brought out a carefully pressed and folded handkerchief, a weekly paper and lastly a wallet of black Morocco leather fastened with an elastic band, from which he withdrew a letter and hand it to the Marquess. The hunting dogs, not needed and panting with tiredness, had sat down at the foot of the cross; the abbot was picking apart a cheap cigar with his nail to roll a cigarette, with the rolling paper stuck by a spot to his lip. Primitivo, resting the musket butt on the floor and his chin on its barrel, drilled his black eyes into the newcomer with an inscrutable intensity. The sun was slowly going down amid the autumnal tranquillity of the landscape. Suddenly the Marquesss cackled with laughter. His laugh was vigorous and piercing and despotic rather than communicative.
“My uncle,” he exclaimed, folding the letter, “always such a famous joker… He says that he is sending me a saint to preach to me and convert me… It seems that one cannot avoid having sins, eh, sir abbot? What do you say to that? Isn’t it true I don’t have any?”
“It’s well known, well known,” muttered the abbot, in a hoarse voice. “Here we all keep the innocence of our baptism.”
And as he said it, he looked at the newcomer through his spiky, savage eyebrows, as a veteran looks at the green recruit, feeling deep inside a disdain for the beardless little priest, with his child’s face, where only the severity of the blond frown and the ascetic expression of his features appeared priestly.
“And your name is Julian Alvarez?” the Marquesss asked.
“Here to serve you for many years.”
“And you couldn’t find the manor house?”
“It was a job finding it. Here the country folk don’t answer one’s questions or give a clear indication of distances. So that…”
“Well, now you will not get lost. Do you want to ride now?”
“Sir! I wouldn’t think of it!”
“Primitivo,” the Marquesss ordered, “take this animal the other way.”
And he set out walking, talking to the chaplain who was following him. Primitivo obediently remained hanging behind, just like the abbot who lit his cigarette with a paper match. The hunter leaned close to the priest.
“And what do you this of the boy then? Tell me. He doesn’t command much respect, eh?”
“Bah!… He’s used to ordering little boys around now… And later, all dog-collars, little gloves, parsley and endives… If I were the archbishop I would send the gloves to the devil!”