No matter how hard the rider tried to restrain his rough-haired nag – cajoling it with soothing words, tugging at its single rein of thin rope – the villain persisted in going down the hill at something between a stomach-churning trot and a mad, uneven gallop. And that hill on the high road from Santiago to Orense was certainly steep. Travellers would shake their heads and grumble about the gradient far exceeding whatever was permitted by law, while others muttered about the road engineers having known only too well what they were doing, and about some political bigwig in the neighbourhood – someone with real clout at election-time – having had a hand in it somewhere.
The rider’s face was bright red – not like a pepper, but with that strawberry flush so typical of lymphatic people. Indeed, at first sight one might have taken him for a boy – he was young, beardless and slightly built – had not his priestly appearance contradicted such an assumption. One could see, despite the yellow dust raised by the hack’s trot, that his suit was made of plain black cloth, cut in the loose, graceless fashion that marks the clothes of a priest. And sticking out from under his shapeless frock-coat was about an inch of clerical collar embroidered with beads. His leather gloves, already frayed by the rough rein, were also black, as well as new, like his stiff round hat. This he wore pulled down to his eyebrows for fear that with so much bouncing it would fall off, which for him would simply have been the end of the world. His face, meanwhile, showed as much fear of the nag as if it had been a fiery, uncontrollable stallion – for he was hardly a master of horsemanship, and, as he leaned forward, his legs sticking out, he seemed on the brink of tumbling headlong to the ground.
At the bottom of the hill the horse resumed its normal steady pace and the rider was able to straighten up on the pack-saddle – which was so inordinately wide that it jarred his pelvis. He drew in his breath and removed his hat. The sun was now falling at an angle over the brambles and hedgerows, and he welcomed the cool afternoon air on his wet brow. A labourer in shirtsleeves, his jacket hung over a milestone, was hacking lazily with a mattock at the weeds growing along the edge of the ditch. The rider drew in the rein and his mount stopped at once, for it was tired after the downhill trot. The workman raised his head, and the gilt badge of a municipal roadman glittered for an instant on his hat.
‘Would you be kind enough to tell me if it’s far to the marquis of Ulloa’s house?’
‘To the manor house?’ replied the labourer, repeating the question.
‘The manor’s over there,’ he mumbled, indicating a point on the horizon. ‘If yer beast’s got good legs it won’t take yer long. Keep goin’ till yer gets to that there pine wood, see? Then turn left, and then down to th’ right, that’s the short cut to the stone cross. Once there yer can’t go wrong, ’cos yer can see it. Great big building it is.’
‘But . . . exactly how much further is it?’ asked the clergyman anxiously.
The labourer shook his sunburnt head.
‘Not more’ an a mite.’ And without any further explanation he returned to his weary task, wielding the mattock as if it weighed a ton.
Abandoning any hope of finding out how many miles made a ‘mite’, the traveller spurred on his horse. The pine wood was not far, and rider and mount disappeared into its dense shadows, along a narrow winding track that proved almost impassable. But the horse was Galician and, true to the special qualities of the breed, it pressed on with its head down, cautiously feeling its way and carefully avoiding the pot-holes made by cart-wheels, rocks, and tree-trunks felled and left where they were least required. The clergyman made steady progress and soon began to leave behind the narrow track and take a clearer path, which gradually emerged into the open, among the young pine-trees and gorse-covered hills. He had not until then perceived any form of cultivation, not even a cabbage-patch, that would point to the presence of human life, but suddenly the horse’s hooves fell silent as they sank into a soft carpet. It was the layer of vegetable compost spread out, as was customary in that country, in front of a peasant’s hut. At the door of the hut a woman was suckling a baby. The rider stopped.
‘Señora, is this the right road for the marquis of Ulloa’s house?’
‘This is the road, ay.’
‘And is there much further to go?’
Her ambiguous reply, in the local dialect, came with a raising of eyebrows and an apathetic yet curious stare.
‘It’s no more ’n a dog’s trot away.’
‘Not exactly encouraging,’ thought the traveller. Although he was not quite sure how far a dog’s trot was, he had a feeling that it was a sizeable distance for a horse. But at least when he arrived at the stone cross he would be able to see the manor. All he had to do was find the short cut, of which, however, there was no sign. The path became wider and the land more mountainous, dotted with a few oaks and chestnut-trees laden with fruit, while dark patches of heather grew here and there on either side of the path. The rider felt ill at ease in a way that was hard to define – but pardonable in someone born and bred in a quiet, sleepy town, who finds himself for the first time face to face with the majestic solitude of Nature, and who remembers tales of travellers robbed, and of people murdered in deserted places.
‘What a land of wolves!’ he said gloomily, though nevertheless impressed. His spirits rose, however, when he found the short cut – a narrow, steep path just discernible between a double stone wall that marked the boundaries between two hills. He was on his way down, trusting in the horse’s skill not to stumble, when he caught sight of something that made him shudder – a wooden crucifix painted black with white stripes, half-fallen and propped against the thick wall, so close he could almost touch it with his hand. The priest knew that these crucifixes marked the spot where a man had met with a violent death. He made the sign of the cross and muttered the Lord’s Prayer.
Meanwhile the horse, no doubt scenting a fox, trembled slightly and, raising its ears, broke into a steady trot which soon brought them to a crossroads. There, framed by the branches of a colossal chestnut-tree, stood the stone cross, so crudely carved it looked like a Romanesque relic, though it was in fact only a hundred years old – the work of some quarryman with aspirations to being a sculptor. At that hour of the day, however, and under the natural canopy of the magnificent tree, the rustic monument seemed beautiful and poetic.
The rider, feeling calmer and full of devotion, removed his hat and uttered these words: ‘We adore Thee, O Lord Jesus Christ, and we bless Thee, for Thou hast delivered the world through Thy Holy Cross.’
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