Samuel studies Classics at the University of Oxford. When he's not reading Greek Tragedies he's probably watching a Pixar film.
This is a translation I did some years back of this ghoulish Spanish legend. I hope you enjoy.
It was the night of the dead and from my slumber I awoke - at what hour I could not tell - to the tolling of the bells. The mechanical and perpetual nature of their ringing revived in my mind this tradition that I heard not so long ago in Soria.
I tried once more to sleep. Impossible! Once stung, the imagination is a horse that races away and reining it in comes to nothing. Whiling away the time, I resolved to write it down, which is precisely what I did.
For the perusers of El Contemporáneo who at the midday mark, are found after a good meal with a cigar in the mouth, the tale will not carry such potency. I heard it in the selfsame location in which it occurred and, as I have been writing it down, I have taken to glancing fearfully behind me, sensing the creaking of my glass veranda trembling in the cool air of night.
Make of this tale what you will, for there it goes like the Knight of Cups.
- Leash the hounds, blow the trumpets and give the call for the hunters to unite so that we can start our journey around the city. The night draws near, it is All Saint's Day and we are on the mountain of the Spirits.
- So soon!
- Were it any other day, I would not stop until I had taken care of that pack of wolves which the snows of Moncayo have driven from their dens; but today it is impossible. Presently, the prayer shall resound from the Templar, and the spirits of the dead will commence the ringing of their bell in the mountain's chapel.
- In that broken down chapel! Bah! You want to scare me?
- No sweet cousin. You forget how much goes on in this country because a year has not yet passed since you came here from far off lands. Steady your mare, I too will bring mine to a saunter, and while we are on the road, I shall recount for you that tale.
The attendants assembled into cheerful and vociferous groups. The counts of Borges and Alcudiel straddled their magnificent horses and as one unit they followed behind their children, Beatriz and Alonso, who headed the entourage by some distance.
As the road continued on, Alonso told the promised story along these lines:
- That mountain which today they call the Mountain of the Spirits once belonged to the Templars whose monastery you see over there, on the bank of the river. The Templars were warriors and worshippers alike. After Soria had conceded defeat to the Arabs, the King bade the Templars leave their distant lands and defend the city on the side of the bridge, and in doing so he did an extraordinary wrong by the nobility of Castilla who would have been quite capable of defending the city alone seeing that they had conquered it alone. An intense hatred seethed for several years at the heart of the new and powerful order of Knights and the Patricians of the city and, in the end, it blew up. The former branded that mountain out of bounds and preserved the wealth of its game to accomodate their needs and supplement their indulgences. The latter resolved to conduct a great raid on the reserve, irrespective of the severity of the prohibitions which the 'spurred-clergymen' (a name given to the Knights by their enemies) had laid down for them. The voice of provocation grew and there was no-one left to stop the one faction in their mania for hunting and the other in their determination to get in its way. The orchestrated expedition was carried out. The feral beasts did not remember it. Before that, it would remain in the memories of the mothers, all of whom were left consumed by grief for their sons. That was no hunt. It was a terrifying battle: the mountain was left bespattered with corpses. The wolves, who were the target of extermination, had a bloody feast. At long last, the authority of the King intervened; the mountain, the accursed occasion for so much misfortune, was declared abandoned, and the monks' chapel, situated on that same mountain, began to crumble away, and so did its atrium where allies and enemies lay buried together. Ever since that time they say that when the Night of the Dead arrives you can hear the solitary tolling of that chapel-bell, and that the spirits of the dead, swathed in the tatters of their shroud, run through the thickets and brambles in imitation of a fantastical hunt. The deer bleat frightened, the wolves howl, the snakes are given to horrible hissing sounds, and the other day, impressed into the snow, the tracks of the skeletons' emaciated feet were sighted. This is why in Soria we call it the mountain of the Spirits, and this is why I have been anxious to get away from it before night closes in.
Alonso's narration came to an end just as the two youngsters reached the end of the bridge which opened up on one side a passageway to the city. There, they waited for the rest of the procession, which, once the two riders had appended themselves to it, disappeared down the narrow and dark streets of Soria.
The servants were finishing taking up table cloths; the immense, gothic fireplace in the palace of the counts of Alcudiel was giving out a vital radiance, illuminating the dames and noblemen who were conversing freely in their groups around the fire, and the wind was lashing against the stained glass windows of the parlour's ogive.
Only two people seemed distant from the general conversation: Beatriz and Alonso. Beatriz was following the fanciful movements of the flame with her eyes, preoccupied with a vague thought. Alonso was watching the reflection of the conflagration flash in the azule of Beatriz' pupils.
For a long time both kept a profound silence.
The landlords, in keeping with the night of the dead, recounted frightful tales in which the spectres and apparitions played the part of the protagonist; and the church bells were tolling a sad, mechanical tune in the distance.
- Sweet cousin - Alonso at last exclaimed, breaking the long silence in which they found themselves - soon we will part ways, perhaps for ever; the wastelands of Castilla, their crude and militant conventions, their archaic and patriarcal ways, I know they displease you; Many a time I have caught you sighing over some lover possibly from your remote estate.
Beatriz made a gesture of frosty indifference; a woman's whole attitude is communicated through the contemptuous tightening of her narrow lips.
- Perhaps you are missing the pageantry of the French court, where you have lived up till now - the young man hastened to add - . I have a feeling that one way or another very soon I shall lose you. Before we part, I would like you to take something to remember me by. You recall that time we went to the temple to give our thanks to God for restoring you to your health, the reason you came in search of this land? The gemstone that secured the plume to my hat caught your attention. How beautiful it would look holding a veil over your dark hair! It has already served a bride; my father gave it as a present to the one who brought me into this world, and she wore it to the altar... Would you like it?
- I don't know how it is in your country - lovely Beatriz answered - but in mine a gift received is a will compromised. Only on a day of ceremony should a present be accepted from a relative... even one who journeys to Rome just so as not to return empty-handed.
The icy tone with which Beatriz articulated these words momentarily dashed the young man's spirits who, after regaining control of himself, said with sadness:
- I know, cousin; but today commemorates All Saints, and this includes yours; today is a day of ceremonies and presents. Would you accept mine?
Without saying a word, Beatriz bit down lightly on her lips and extended her hand to take the gemstone.
The two youngsters redeemed their silent roles, listening to the tinny voice of the elders as they spoke of witches and goblins, to the humming of the air that caused the glass in the ogive to creak, and the sad, mechanical tolling of the bells.
Several minutes lapsing, the interrupted dialogue resumed itself as follows:
- And before All Saint's Day comes to an end, wherein your Saints are commemorated and so are mine, you may also grant me a memento, that doesn't shackle your will, what do you say? - he spoke, fixing his gaze on his cousin's, whose eyes shone like a flash of lightning, lit up by a diabolical thought.
- Why not? - she exclaimed - bringing her hand to the level of her right shoulder as if to look for something between the folds of her spacious sleeves of velvet and golden embroidery. Then, with a juvenile expression of sentimentality, she added -: Do you remember the blue strip I wore today at the hunt and then because of something pertaining to its colour and meaning you told me that it was the insignia of your soul?
- Well... it's gone! It's gone, and I was of a mind to leave it for you as a keepsake.
- It's gone! But where? - Alonso asked, starting in his seat, an indescribable expression of fear and anticipation on his face.
- I don't know... On the mountain, maybe.
- On the mountain of the Spirits! he murmured, growing pale, sinking in his chair. - On the mountain of the Spirits! he continued, with a voice that was broken and weak -: You know it, because you will have heard it a thousand times. In the city, throughout Castilla, they call me the King of the hunters. Since I have had no occasion to show my mettle in combat-situation, I have put all my energy into that sport, the imitation of war, all the verve of my youth, all the inborn fire in my blood. The rug that your feet walk on are the remains of wild beasts that have died by my hand. I know their hideouts and their habits, I have battled against them day and night, on foot and on horse-back, alone and in raids, and there is not one person who will say that I have been seen running away from danger on any occasion. Any other night I would fly for that strip, and I would fly in rapture as one at a celebration, and... but, this night... this night, why hide it from you? I am scared. Do you hear that? They are ringing the bells, the prayer has resounded in San Juan del Duero, the mountain spirits will be now in the process of bearing their yellowing skulls up through the undergrowth where their bones have lain... The spirits! Their sight alone can freeze the blood of the bravest man from terror, make his hair go white or whisk him away in the furore of their fantastical wandering like a leaf that has been swept up by the wind to no-one knows where.
All the while the young man was talking, an imperceptible smile traced itself on Beatriz' lips, and as she poked about at the fire, from which the kindling jumped and cackled and hurled sparks of a thousand colours, when he had finished, in an uninterested tone she exclaimed:
- Oh! Absolutely, out of the question. What madness! Going to the mountain now for something so trivial! On such a dark night, a night of the dead and a path beset by wolves!
This last phrase she lay on in such spectacular fashion that Alonso could not help but comprehend its bitter irony in its entirety; as though activated by a spring, he got up on his feet, he pressed his hand against his forehead as if to tear himself free from the fear that was in his head and not in his heart, and, addressing that beautiful woman who was still leaning over the hearth, twiddling the fire to amuse herself, in an unwavering voice he exclaimed:
Goodbye, Beatriz, goodbye. Another... time.
Alonso! Alonso! she replied, turning around quickly; but when she bade him stay or appeared to, the young man had vanished.
A few minutes later she heard the sound of a horse making off at a galop. Lovely Beatriz, her cheeks coloured with the beaming expression of satisfied pride, followed that sound with attentive ears as it grew weaker, as it died away, as it finally faded to nothing.
The elders, in the meantime, continued with their tales of ghostly sightings; the air made a buzzing sound upon the glass veranda, and the city bells were ringing out in the distance.
One, two, three hours had passed; midnight was about to strike, when Beatriz retired to the oratory. Alonso did not return, he did not return, and if he wanted, he could have been done in less than an hour.
- He will have lost his nerve! - the young woman exclaimed, shutting her prayer book and making her way towards her bed, after trying unsuccessfully to mutter some of the prayers that are hallowed by the Church on the day of the dead, for those who are no longer alive.
Having put out the lamp and folded the double-layered silk drapes, she slept; she slept a sleep that was restless, tenuous, feverish.
The clock of Postigo rang out for twelve. Hearing the vibrations of the bell, heavy, subdued, melancholic, through her slumber, Beatriz half-opened her eyes. She thought she heard, in concert with the vibrations, her name uttered... but distant, very distant, and by a voice that was suffocated and in pain. The wind groaned against the windowpane.
- It's the wind - she said, placing her hand over her heart in an effort to calm herself down.
But her heart thumped each time more violently, the larch doors of the oratory had grinded on their hinges with a penetrating squeal, a strident and protracted sound.
Beginning with a single door and then others closer by, every door that opened up to her room was resounding in succession, some with a dull, grave sound, others with a long, maddening wail. Then, silence; a silence full of peculiar whisperings, the silence of midnight; a monotonous murmuring of distant water, the far away sound of barking dogs, voices nebulous, words unintelligible; the echo of footsteps that come and go, the rustling of clothing brushing over something, sighs that are stifled, laboured breathing which you can almost feel, involuntary shivers that herald the presence of something that you cannot see but the proximity of which you can still detect in the darkness.
Beatriz, frozen, trembling, drew her head forward through the drapes and listened for a moment. She heard a thousand conflicting sounds; she clasped her hand to her brow, she listened again; nothing, silence.
She saw them, with that phosphorescence of the pupil one observes in nervous breakdowns, like silhouetted figures moving in every direction, and when her pupils dilated and she locked them onto a point, nothing; darkness, impenetrable shadows.
- Bah! - she exclaimed, resting her beautiful head on her bed's blue satin pillow - Am I really as timid as those poor folk whose hearts are all aquiver beneath their armour, terrified to hear some ghoulish tale?
And closing her eyes, she tried to sleep..., but for all her efforts it was to no avail. Before long she was sitting up again, more pale, more restless, more appalled. It was no longer an illusion: the brocade hangings over the door had parted and brushed against one another, and slow footsteps sounded over the carpet; the sound of these footsteps was stifled, barely perceptible, but unbroken, and to their beat she heard the rasping of something like wood or bone. And they were approaching, they were drawing nearer, and the prayer stool, which stood beside the bed, stirred. Beatriz gave a sharp cry and wrapping herself in the clothes that covered her she hid her head and held her breath.
The air whipped against the glass veranda; the water from the fountain far away fell down and down whispering eternally and monotously; the barking of the dogs lingered on in the billowing breeze, and the bells of the city of Soria, some close, some distant, tolled sadly for the spirits of the dead.
So it was that an hour, two hours, the night, a century came to pass, because for Beatriz that night seemed an eternity. At last, dawn broke forth. Turning from her fear, she half-opened her eyes to the first rays of light. After a night of sleeplessness and terrors, the clear, white light of day is so beautiful! She disconnected the silk curtains from the bed, glanced calmly around her, and was already inclined to laugh at her previous frights, when suddenly a cold sweat covered her body, her eyes went wild, and a deathly paleness discoloured her cheeks; lying over the prayer-stool, bloody and torn, she had seen the blue strip that she lost on the mountain, the blue strip that Alonso went in search of.
When the servants arrived, horrified, to inform her that the firstborn of Alcudiel was dead, that in the morning he had shown up among the undergrowth devoured by wolves on the mountain of the Spirits, they found her frozen, tense, with both hands clung to one of the ebony columns of the bed, her eyes wild, her mouth half-open, her lips white, her limbs rigid, dead, dead from terror.
They say that after this event, a wayward hunter who passed the night of the dead confined on the mountain of the Spirits, and who was able, the following day, before his death, to relate what he saw, spoke of horrible things. Among them, he assured that he had seen the skeletons of the ancient Templars and of the nobleman of Soria, who were buried in the chapel's atrium, rising up at the prayer's inception with a horrendous clatter, and knights on skeleton-steeds, chasing a beautiful woman as one would a beast, a pale and deranged woman who, with feet bare and bloody, and screaming out in horror, was going round and round the tomb of Alonso.
Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer 1861
Translated by Sam Brookes
© 2020 Samuel Brookes