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Juan Dekos, the Blockhead (Tontua)


LIKE many others in the world, there was a gentleman and lady who had a son. When he was grown up his father found that (his intellect) was not awakened, although he had finished his education. What does he do? He buys a ship for him, and takes a captain and a crew, and loads the ship with sand, and sends his son in it as master. [2] They all set off, and go very, very far away, and they come to a country where there was no sand. They sell theirs very dear, and our Juan Dekos went to take a walk in that place.

               One day, passing before the door of the church, he sees that all passers-by used to spit on something; he goes up and asks why they do that. They say to him:

               "It is a dead man who is there, and if no one pays his debts, he will remain there until he rots away." [3]

               What does Juan Dekos do? With all the money that he had he pays this man's debts. The whole crew and the officers were in a red-hot rage, because they had all their money there. He goes back again with his ship, and they arrived in their own city. The father from a distance had recognised his son's ship, and comes to meet him. The sailors from a long way off shout out to him what he had done with the money. The father was not pleased, but he sends the ship off again loaded with iron. They go on, and at length arrive at a place where he sells his iron for a great deal of money. When they were walking about in this city, he sees Christians being sold by the savages in the market-place. There were eight of them for sale; and he buys all the eight, and employs all the money which he had made with his iron in buying them. He sends seven of them to their own homes, and keeps with him a young girl whose name was Marie Louise. She was very beautiful. He returns home with his ship, and his crew, and Marie Louise. The father comes to meet him, and the sailors tell him before Juan Dekos what he had done with the money. His father was very angry, and will not give anything more to his son; he may do what he likes.

               Juan Dekos had a portrait of Marie Louise made for the figure-head of his ship; and the men agree to go to the country of Marie Louise. They set out then. The second in command of the ship was lame, and he was very jealous of Juan Dekos and of Marie Louise. He did not know what to do.

               One day he sent for Juan Dekos on deck, saying that he wished to show him a strange fish that was in the water. When he had got him quite close to him, he throws him into the sea. Nobody was there when he did that. When the meal-time comes they all asked where Juan Dekos was, and nobody knew what was become of him. The lame man was delighted, thinking that Marie Louise would be his. He pays her all sorts of attention.

               Juan Dekos was taken by an angel and placed upon a rock, and he brought him there every day what was necessary for his maintenance. The ship at length arrived in the country of Marie Louise. As she was the king's daughter everybody recognised her, and that easily, from a distance by her portrait. The king was quickly told of it, and goes to meet his daughter, and you may imagine what rejoicings he made. He has all the men conducted to his house and treats them all well. Marie Louise tells how she had been bought by Juan Dekos, and how good he had been to her, and that she does not know what had become of him. She said also that the second officer had taken very great care of her. This second officer wished beyond all things to marry her, and the father wished it too, to show his gratitude, because it was he who had brought his daughter back to him, and because he had not known Juan Dekos. They tormented Marie Louise so much that she promised that, at the end of a year and a day, if Juan Dekos did not make his appearance, she would marry him.

               A year and a day passed, and there was no news of Juan Dekos. They were to be married then, and Juan Dekos was still upon his rock. The sea-weed was growing upon his clothes, and he had a monstrous beard. And the angel [4] said to him:

               "Marie Louise is married to-day. Would you like to be there?"

               He says, "Yes."

               "You must give me your word of honour that, at the end of a year, you will give me half the child that Marie Louise will bear to you."

               He promises it, and he takes him and carries him to the door of Marie Louise's house. This angel was the soul which he had saved of the man who was lying at the gates of the church for his debts. He asks for alms. Marie Louise's father was very charitable; they therefore give him something. He asks again if they would not let him go in to warm himself at the fire. They tell him "No," that he would be in the way on that day. They go and ask the master, and the master bids them to let him come in and to give him a good dinner.

               Marie Louise was already married when Juan Dekos arrived. He had a handsome handkerchief which Marie Louise had given him, and when she passed he showed it in such a way that she could not help seeing it. She saw it clearly, and after looking closely at him she recognises Juan Dekos. Marie Louise goes to find her father, and says to him:

               "Papa, you must do me a pleasure."

               "Yes, yes, if I can do so."

               "You see that poor man? I wish to have him to dine with us to-day."

               The father says, "That cannot be; he is filthy and disgusting."

               "I will wash him, and I will put him some of your new clothes on."

               The father then says, "Yes," and he makes them do as Marie Louise wished. They place him at table, but Marie Louise alone recognised him. After dinner they asked Juan Dekos to tell a story in his turn like the rest.

               He says, "Yes, but if you wish to hear my story you must shut all the doors and give me all the keys."

               They give them to him.

               He begins: "There was a father and a mother who had a son who was not very bright, and they decide that they must send him to sea. They load a ship with sand for him. He sells this sand very well, and pays the heavy debts of a dead man whom they were keeping at the church doors (without burial)."

               When the second officer saw and heard that, he perceived that his life was in danger, and that it was all up with him, and he begs the king for the key of the door, saying that he must go out; but he could not give it him, so he was forced to remain, and not at all at his ease. Juan Dekos begins again:

               "His father loaded the ship again with iron, and he sells it and bought with this money seven Christians, and," pointing to the king's daughter, "there is the eighth."

               The king knew this story already from his daughter. What do they do then? When they see how wicked the second officer had been, they had a cartload of faggots brought into the middle of the market-place, they put a shirt of sulphur upon him, and burn him in the midst of the place.

               Juan Dekos and Marie Louise marry and are very happy. They had a child, and at the end of a year an angel comes to fetch the half of it. Juan Dekos was very sorry, but as he had given his word he was going to cut it in half. The angel seizes him by the arm, and says to him:

               "I see your obedience; I leave you your child."

               If they lived well, they died well too.



[1] This name was written thus phonetically from the Basque, and it was not till I saw the Gaelic tale that it struck me that it is simply “Jean d’Ecosse”—“John of Scotland,” or “Scotch John.” In the analogous tale in Campbell, “The Barra Widow’s Son,” Vol. II., p. 111, we read—“It was Iain Albanach” (literally, Jean d’Ecosse) “the boy was called at first; he gave him the name of Iain Mac a Maighstir” (John, master’s son) “because he himself was master of the vessel.” This seems decisive that in some way the Basques have borrowed this tale from the Kelts since their occupation of the Hebrides. The Spanish versions, too, are termed “The Irish Princess” (Patrañas, p. 234).

[2] See note on preceding page, and Campbell, Vol. II., p. 3.

[3] Whether this refers to any real custom about dead men’s debts, we cannot say. It occurs in the Gaelic, in “Ezkabi,” and in other tales and versions, notably in the Spanish; see as above, and “The White Blackbird,” below, p. 182.

[4] In other versions it is the soul of the man whose debts he had paid, either in the shape of a hermit or a fox. In the Gaelic it is left vague and undetermined. He is called “one,” or “the asker.” (Campbell, Vol. II., pp. 119 and 121.) The same contract is made in each case, and with the same result.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Juan Dekos, the Blockhead (Tontua)
Tale Author/Editor: Webster, Wentworth
Book Title: Basque Legends
Book Author/Editor: Webster, Wentworth
Publisher: Griffith and Farran
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1879
Country of Origin: France (Basque)
Classification: ATU 505: The Grateful Dead

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