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Authors: Samuel Shellabarger,Internet Archive

Tags: #Cortés, Hernán, 1485-1547, #Spaniards, #Inquisition, #Young men

Captain from Castile

BOOK: Captain from Castile
13.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


Part One

On the evening of June 28th, 1518, young Pedro de Vargas, aged nineteen, confessed his sins of the month to Father Juan Mendez. He took them more seriously than the priest, who had been hearing confessions for hours, and was ready for supper. Besides, Father Juan knew the young man so well that he could have guessed beforehand what he would tell him.

"I, Pedro, confess to Almighty God, to Blessed Mary . . ."

Though the wall of the confessional separated them, Father Juan had as clear a picture of the penitent as if they had been face to face. In imagination, he could see Pedro's bronze-colored hair, short and curly; the greenish-blue eyes set well apart; a sunburned face and strong mouth; the high cheekbones with hollows under them. Pedro's folded hands, big and brown, though shapely, held a paper with a list of sins in poor handwriting.

"I accuse myself of forgetting my prayers on the night when Campeador came."

"Who is Campeador, son?"

"My new horse, Father, a good horse, sired by..."

"You must not forget the Blessed Virgin because of a horse, my son."

"No, Father."

"What next?"

"I accuse myself of falling asleep during the Bishop's sermon on St. John's Day."

"Hm-m," said the priest, overcoming a smile.

"I have disobeyed my father by frequenting the Rosario tavern in the mountains."

"An evil place. There is none worse in the province of Jaen. The resort of bandits and rascals."

"Yes, I have sinned. Moreover, I kissed a certain girl there— a dancer."


"Yes," gulped Pedro.

"And afterwards?"

"Nothing, por Dios!"

"Do not swear."

"I'm sorry. . . . No, there was nothing. Father."

"Go on."

"I accuse myself of drawing a knife over cards."

"You did not use it?"

"No, Father."

"What next?"

"I made fun of my sister, Mercedes, for reading saints' legends. I told her that they were not the equal of Amadis de Gaula."

The priest muttered: "Woe unto them through whom offenses come! It were better for them if a millstone were tied around their necks."

"Yes, Father. I repent. I have been impertinent to my mother."

"Alas! What next?"

When Pedro had finished. Father Juan, struggling with a yawn, absolved him. His penance consisted in part of reading five saints' legends that evening and of an interdict against Amadis for a month.

The next morning, therefore, on June 29th, day sacred to his name saint and patron. Saint Peter, he was clean spiritually as a hound's tooth, and climbed up through the narrow streets of Jaen with his family to take communion in the cathedral church under the castle.

From the side of the nave, Father Juan, who at that mass had no duties at the altar, watched the procession of the de Vargases down the center aisle. First, a page boy carrying prayer cushions; then Don Francisco with Dona Maria on his arm; then Pedro with his sister Mercedes, a girl of twelve.

As father confessor, the priest knew them all well. An honorable family, a credit to Jaen. His eyes followed them affectionately. Don Francisco, tall, erect, lean as whip leather, with a hawk nose too large for his face, and his lower lip jutting out. Though sixty and retired, he still looked his reputation as one of Spain's foremost cavaliers; a soldier of the Marquis of Cadiz in the Moorish wars; knighted by King Ferdinand at Granada; stirrup comrade of the Great Captain, Gonsalvo de Cordoba, in Italy; survivor of more forays and pitched battles than anyone in the province. He was well known among the soldiery of Europe. Even such a champion as the French knight, Bayard, called him friend. With a head grown partly bald from the rubbing of his helmet, a stiff knee crushed at the battle of Ravenna, almost every one of his features was a trophy of war. Even his wife, Dofia Maria, might be considered a trophy. Florentine by birth and belonging to the great Strozzi family, she had married Don Francisco twenty years before during a lull between campaigns. She had since grown plump, maternal, and forty; but her husband treated her still with scrupulous gallantry. She walked beside him now like a dignified pouter pigeon beside a falcon.

Father Juan shook his head as he glanced at Mercedes de Vargas Too slender and frail. Her delicate health gave concern to her family. He liked Pedro's manner with her, protective and smiling, as they went down the aisle.

It was Pedro himself, with his reddish hair and scarlet doublet standing out in the dimness of the church, who most fixed the priest's attention. A man of the world before he had taken orders, Juan Mendez could not but admire the erect figure, narrow hips, and broad shoulders. He realized suddenly that here was no longer the boy he had known, but a young man on the threshold of his career as a soldier. Pedro's naive confessions the evening before contrasted strangely with the impression he now made.

The Processional began; the priest turned to devotion.

Kneeling between his father and mother, young de Vargas did his best to pray. His eyes rested on the huge, black, fearsome crucifix newly brought from Seville. But his thought drifted to the crusades. There were still infidels—in Tangier, in the Indies. Some of his father's friends had sailed with the Admiral, Christopher Columbus . . .

He returned to prayer, but soon found himself gazing up at the votive banners overhanging the nave. He tried to make out the quarterings. There was Leon, there Mendoza; that was the banner Queen Isabella left when she held her court at Jaen. Becoming too much absorbed, and gaping upwards, he received a poke in the ribs from the gold knob of his father's cane. On Pedro's other side, his mother frowned and shoved a half of her book at him.

The Bishop took his throne, the celebrant bowed to the altar, the servers kneeled, puffs of incense rose from the thurible.

"Kyrie eleison. Kyrie eleison. Kyrie eleison"

From now on, Pedro did his best to keep his mind on the service. .On other days some inattention might be allowed; but today he was receiving the sacrament after confession—if unworthily, to his eternal loss; if worthily, to the fortifying of his soul—and he had been wasting precious minutes, which should have been spent in preparation.

Earnestly he followed his mother's forefinger across the page of the missal, as it accompanied the priest's singsong.

A subtle anguish began between his shoulder blades. A flea, with the cunning of its race, was attacking him in the most unreachable spot, and he could do nothing. A cavalier did not scratch in public. He could only wriggle his shoulders, which seemed to provoke the enemy. But a sudden thought struck him. Was it an ordinary flea? Was not Beelzebub himself the lord of fleas? Wasn't it probable that the Fiend had sent a familiar to attack the soul of Pedro de Vargas through the flesh? Vaya, he defied the demon! As a result, he did not miss a word of the Epistle, and the temptation passed, a fact which showed that he had gauged it correctly.

Some late-comers took their places among the kneeling congregation, but Pedro kept his eyes on the book. If the devil sought to destroy him this morning, he must not be given another loophole. Only at the munda cor meum, ac labia mea, Pedro happened to look up.

For Dios! That girl who had just passed down the side aisle, wasn't she—? He stared intently. Yes, indeed! Satan still prowled. It was Catana Perez, the dancer at the Rosario. The wildest girl in the mountains! She could dance a zarahanda to make blood boil, could throw a knife like a gipsy, could swear like a man. Church was hardly the place where he expected to see her.

He watched the sway of her hips along the aisle, then ducked his head, glancing furtively at his sister, Mercedes, who knelt on the other side of Dona Maria, to see if she had noticed his lapse. And of course she had.

"Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church,'' intoned the priest. Pedro could hardly feel that he had been appropriately named for the stanch apostle.

Then suddenly his eyes, again straying from the page, widened. Until that moment he had not noticed the girl to his left near the side column. From where he kneeled, he could see only the pear-shaped pearl dangling under one ear, and the curve of her cheek. Madonna! That Luisa de Carvajal appeared at early mass on his name-day was indeed an event.

A year ago she had returned from her convent in Seville because her father, the Marquis de Carvajal, was lonely and wanted her at home after his wife's death. For some time, Pedro de Vargas had admired her at a distance befitting her rank and unapproachableness. Once he had met her at the Bishop's palace—an affair of ceremony, but they had had a word or two. Another time he had passed her on the church steps, and she had smiled and looked down.

But this morning she seemed nearer, less forbidden. Watching her at her prayers, he felt a delicious tenderness steal over him. That she was here on his name-day seemed very significant. He could not take his eyes from her. If he had admired her before, he now realized that he adored her.

And at that point, a miracle happened.

To his glowing imagination, it could not be called anything else. A ray of light, slanting through one of the narrow windows, rested on her face, illumined it, and then, intercepted by a cloud, gradually faded.

He held his breath. It was a manifest revelation that here was his destined lady of ladies, the mistress of his life. She had been revealed to him on his name-day by a special act of heaven.

"San-ta Ma-ri-a!'' hissed his father. "Will you attend to the service! Do you have to gape at every skirt!"

With a sense of injustice, Pedro returned to the book. He had never felt so religiously uplifted. He thrilled with a new zeal. In the spirit of his hero, Amadis de Gaula, he now prayed: —

"Holy Saint Peter, gracious patron, I thank thee that by thy intercession Dofia Luisa de Carvajal has been designated to me as the lady whom I am ever hereafter to serve and honor as a Christian cavalier. May it be to thy glory and the advancement of chivalry! And herewith I vow to perform this day three deeds for her sake, if thou wilt deign to provide me with the occasion for them. And this I swear by the blessed Cross on the altar. Amen."

They were story-book words, but he meant them. ''Sanguis Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodial animam meam in vitam aeternam." When it came time to approach the altar, he trembled with emotion, and returned to his place a new creature. Or so he thought.

''Dominus vohiscum."

"Et cum spiritu tuof'

Like a runner on the mark, Pedro had one foot under him. At Deo gratiaSy to the concern of his family, he leaped up and hurried out, but stood waiting at the holy-water font in the vestibule of the church.

Having followed the side aisle, Luisa de Carvajal, with her duenna, was among the first to come out. Seeing her approach, Pedro stood lost in admiration.

She was not tall, but beautifully proportioned. In every detail, her small person showed finish—in the arrangement of hair and mantilla, in the modishness of her dress. She carried herself exquisitely. The arch of her eyebrows, the bow of her lips, her pearl-white complexion, were perfect. She had been schooled and polished to become the model of correctness which people expected from the daughter of a grandee.

Only her eyes had not yet been fully disciplined. Even in Andalusia it takes longer than seventeen years for that. They were dark and clear, innocent, angelic. They utterly confused Pedro, who kept just enough presence of mind to dip his two fingers in holy water and present them with a bow. His face was beet-red; he felt gawky as a lout; his salutation stuck in his throat.

''Gracias, serior."

She touched his fingers, made the sign of the cross, and once more her eyes devastated him. He was privileged to read in them almost anything he pleased.

Then she passed on, leaving a momentary breath of rose water. Happily dizzy, Pedro stared after her.

"Have you nothing for me?" said a voice at his elbow.

He had forgotten Catana Perez. She confronted him now, chin up, her eyes challenging. He could have sunk through the pavement—all the more as at that moment his family emerged from the main body of the church.

He hesitated a moment. Should he pretend not to know her? By God, he couldn't do that to a friend like Catana, whatever people thought! It took high courage, though he wouldn't have called it so, to grin back at her under the eyes of his family, return the greeting, and dip his fingers for her in the font; but he did it gallantly.

"As much for you as for anyone, querida."

He was puzzled by the sudden change in her. The devil in her eyes faded; her reckless, swarthy face grew gentle, and her lips tightened. Looking down, she crossed herself quickly. And leaving him nonplused, she hurried out into the glare of the plaza.

"What the deuce!" he thought.

"Who's that trollop?" his mother demanded in a low voice.

"A country girl," he stammered. It wasn't necessary to be too definite.

"I believe you know every wench in the province," Dona Maria went on indignantly. "No shame at all! No propriety! And after el San-tisimo too! At least I thought you might be saluting the Lady Luisa; but no, in the face of the town, you have to disgrace your family with a trull!"

"She isn't a trull, Madrecita."

"What else is she?"

With her head in the air, Doiia Maria waddled out, followed by Mercedes.

Don Francisco's lip drooped—a bad sign. But on the point of speaking, he checked himself. Be hanged if he would correct his son in the presence of the town gossips! Hadn't he been young himself? Como no! To Pedro's relief, he drew himself up, pulled in his lip, and smiled.

"Hombre! A lively-looking filly!" He spoke in a voice for anybody to hear. And taking Pedro's arm, "What's her name?" ,

"Gatana Perez, sir."

"Catana, eh?"

The old cavalier limped stiffly to the door, and adjusted his flat velvet cap with the short plume, reserved for churchgoing.

A wave of affection for his father surged through Pedro. He would have liked to squeeze the sinewy arm that rested on his. Por Dios, it was good to be a de Vargas!

BOOK: Captain from Castile
13.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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