Authors: James Runcie
Tags: #Historical, #Fantasy, #Modern, #Romance
lthough it is true that I have been considered lunatic on many occasions in the last five hundred years, it must be stated, at the very beginning of this sad and extraordinary tale, that I have been most grievously misunderstood. The elixir of life was drunk in all innocence and my dog had nothing to do with it.
Let me explain.
Having once embarked on a precarious and often dangerous quest, I have now been condemned to roam the world, unable to die. I have lost all trace of my friends and family and have been separated from the only woman that I have ever loved. And although it might seem a blessing to be given the possibility of eternal life and to taste its delights without end, taking pleasure where one will and living without judgement or morality, it is, in fact, an existence of unremitting purgatory. I cannot believe that this has happened to me and have only decided to tell my story so that others who might seek to cheat death and live such a life should be alert to its dangers.
My troubles began at the age of twenty when I, Diego de Godoy, notary to the Emperor Charles V, first crossed the
Atlantic as a young man in search of fame and fortune. The year was fifteen hundred and eighteen.
Of course it was all for love.
Isabella de Quintallina, a lady of sixteen years who lived, like me, in Seville, had taken possession of my soul. Although our temperaments seemed ideally suited, my lack of noble birth put me at a considerable disadvantage, and, after six months of prolonged and ardent courtship, I began to doubt if I could ever win her love. I was further dismayed when Isabella set me the following challenge.
If we were to be joined in matrimony, I would have to hazard everything I owned – all my prospects, all my safety and all my future – on one bold venture. She asked me to travel with the conquistadors, and return, not only with the gold and riches on which our future life together would depend, but also with a gift which no man or woman had ever received before, a true and secret treasure which only we would share. Isabella had heard that in the New World gold and silver could be plucked from the earth in abundance. Pepper, nutmegs and cloves could be harvested in all seasons; cinnamon had been found within the bark of a tree; and strange insects could render up vibrant tints to dye her silks the deepest scarlet. She was convinced that I would be able to find a love token that was both spectacular and unique, and would wait for me for two years, suffering the attentions of no other man, until the arrival of her eighteenth birthday. Succeed, and Isabella vowed the world would be mine; if I failed, however, she would have no choice but to seek the hand of another and never look upon me again.
Two years! This was more than all the time in which we had known one another.
Despair entered the very fabric of my being, and I do not think that I had ever felt so alone. My sweet mother had died when I was an infant, and my poor blind father was too distressed to counsel me, terrified that I would never return from such a journey.
But there was no choice.
I must live or die for love.
After presenting me with her portrait in a miniature silver case, Isabella took pity on my plight and gave me her pet greyhound to act as a companion on the long voyage ahead. Tears welled up in her eyes, the hound whimpered in accompaniment, and my beloved implored me to see the sacrifice she had made, asking me to believe that such generosity surely proved her love, since there was nothing she valued more in the world than Pedro’s devoted and unquestioning loyalty.
This was extremely awkward because, in truth, I did not actually want the dog. I have always detested the manner in which such animals fawn upon their owners, bite the heels of strangers, soil gardens, and rut at the most inopportune moments. But this young puppy was forced into my arms without any suspicion that he might be the last thing in the world that I required. In short, I was landed with him, and could only declare that he was indeed the true testament of her love, and that I would endeavour to return with an equivalent prize.
And so, after a tearful and prolonged farewell with my father, I took my leave. Isabella threw herself into my arms, pressing her breasts against my chest, her blonde ringlets falling on my shoulders, and then watched from the quayside as I boarded the caravel
. Great cries of
‘A Dios, a Dios’
rose from the ship, and the crowds called out,
‘Buen viaje, buen viaje’
. Slowly, and with a terrible inevitability, the ship pulled away and the sight of my beloved began to recede into the distance. It was as if we were being stretched apart from each other for ever. I clasped Isabella’s portrait to my bosom and felt a great weight behind my eyes as the tears welled up. All that had previously defined me was swept away by the journey down the Guadalquivir River and out to sea towards the Americas.
I had never before contemplated the life of a sailor, and the inconstancy of the voyage disheartened me, for there was not a moment when our ship was still or we could be at peace. The calm seas which we met at the outset of the journey were interrupted by unwelcome and intemperate gusts of wind, and strange currents pulled the ship in directions in which we had not meant to travel. The nights were filled with the fearsome sounds of dragging, moaning and creaking, deep in the hull. Horses neighed below, pigs moved amidst the straw, and rats scuttled past us as we cleaned cannon, arranged sails, and washed down the deck.
But after we had passed Las Islas Canarias we found calm seas and winds in our favour. We sailed as on a river of fresh water, taking much delight in fishing for the glittering dorado that we ate each evening. Pedro ran upon the deck, and even on one occasion swam in the sea, the sailors cheering his adventure, until he lost his confidence and required rescue. Of course it fell to me, as his new owner, to dive in and save him. I dared not think how many fathoms deep the ocean ran beneath us and I was nearly drowned bringing him back on board. But my act of mercy only served to make the hound love me all the more, and I found
his dogged devotion so all-encompassing that I believed that I would never enjoy a moment alone for the rest of my life.
He was a permanent reminder of Isabella, to whom all thoughts returned, like doves at nightfall. Each evening I lay on my hammock with her portrait in my hand and Pedro asleep at my feet, dreaming of the nights that I would one day spend with my beloved rather than her accursed dog. Even in the daytime I found myself quite lost in the memory of her beauty, and I was reprimanded that I should concentrate on my tasks and become more of a man and less of a dreamer.
I steeled myself to concentrate on my duties, but was surprised to find that all seamen were expected to sew. Although this seemed an effeminate occupation, it was taken extremely seriously, and I discovered that the neatest hem-stitchers were even given extra rations, the task of patching and making sails being considered so vital to the success of our endeavours. I was detailed to pick old rope apart and then re-use it to make ladders, or ratlines, by which our men were able to scramble to points aloft. I subsequently found myself spending many hours on deck involved in their construction, proving so adept at the task that I was soon promoted to making lanyards and shroud stays.
After seven weeks, we landed in Cuba.
It was the feast of the Epiphany, fifteen hundred and nineteen. I had expected it to be winter, but the air was filled with the sweet scents of tamarind and jacaranda, hibiscus and bougainvillea. This was, indeed, a New World.
At noon the next day we met the Governor of the islands, Diego de Velázquez, who had been in these lands some five
years. He bid us welcome and informed us that our arrival was timely: there was an expedition underway to discover new territories a few weeks hence, led by one Hernán Cortés.
Of good stature, broad-shouldered and deep-chested, with fair, almost reddish hair, worn long and with a beard, Cortés possessed neither patience nor self-doubt. He determined to use my skills as a notary, and asked me to record every detail of his journey to the Americas, issuing declarations, recording confessions and sending accurate
back to Spain. I would also be called upon to write out and proclaim new oaths of allegiance to Queen Doña Juana and her son, the Emperor Charles V, made by the
, or leaders, of the realms that we would surely conquer.
And so it was that on the tenth of February fifteen hundred and nineteen, just after Mass, I, Diego de Godoy, and my over-eager dog, Pedro the greyhound, boarded the lateen-rigged caravel
and began to sail along the coast of Yucatán in the company of ten other ships under the leadership of the aforementioned Cortés. Diego de Velázquez attempted to recall us from the journey at the very last minute, questioning the legitimate authority of Cortés to colonise further lands without the consent of His Majesty, but our General was in no mood to turn back. The adventure had begun, and I now found myself in the company of friends upon whose abilities my life would come to depend: Antonio de Villaroel, the standard-bearer; Anton de Alaminos, the pilot; Aguilar, the interpreter; Maestre Juan, the surgeon; Andres Nuñez, the boat-builder; Alonso Yañez, the carpenter; together with some thirty-two
crossbowmen, thirteen musketeers, ten gunners, six harquebusiers, two blacksmiths, and, to keep us hearty, Ortiz, the musician, and Juan, the harpist, from Valencia.
Hernán Cortés may have been an irascible commander, quick to find fault with people in his charge, but his ways were softened by his devoted companion Doña Marina, the daughter of a Mexican
, whom he had been given in the province of Tabasco. A most comely woman, with long dark hair, golden skin and deep brown eyes, Doña Marina had a natural authority. She also seemed unwilling to wear a corset, preferring loose and revealing clothing which fell easily from her body, exposing areas of soft and rounded flesh that were the very essence of temptation. She possessed the most sensual of walks: lilting and slow, with her body arched back and her breasts held high, as if she was quite accustomed to being the most beautiful person wherever she went.
I must confess that I found her disarmingly attractive, and soon could not stop myself thinking about her. Courteous and calm, Doña Marina was someone I needed to befriend, since she and Aguilar were the only people who could speak the native tongue of Nahuatl, and I was certain that I would need her aid if I was to fulfil my quest.
Sailing off the coast of Cempaola, we were greeted in a friendly fashion by some forty Indians in large dugout canoes. They had pierced holes in their lips and ears, and had inserted either pieces of gold or lapis. This jewellery glinted in the light, and both their nakedness and their beauty amazed me. They shouted,
‘Lope luzio, Lope luzio,’
and pulled up alongside our ships, offering fine cotton garments, war clubs, axes and necklaces. As they prepared
to climb aboard, one of them stumbled and let fall from his pack into the sea a handful of what appeared to be dried brown almonds, and became much distressed. Nobody could see clearly what these articles were, but others began to check that they had not done the same, looking about their bodies for these strange dark objects, and counting them in their hands. The leader of the sailors then climbed aboard with several of his officials, and began to point at the land ahead, as if encouraging our men to go there. After weighing anchor, our camp was established on the shore, while I proceeded with Cortés and thirty soldiers to meet the local
, and to begin my written record of our adventures.
The chieftain at Cempaola was the fattest person I had ever seen. He was bare-chested, and an enormous expanse of flesh hung over his skirt and sandals, as if he were nothing less than a man mountain of lard and gold. Making a deep bow to Cortés, he then ordered that a
, or chest, filled with beautiful and richly worked golden objects – necklaces, bracelets, rings, cloaks and skirts – be placed before us. No one had ever seen such treasure before; there were mirrors set with garnets, bracelets of lapis, a helmet of stained mosaic and a maniple of wolfskin. The chest alone would surely have made a man’s fortune, but we were careful to seem unmoved by our first true glimpse of undreamed wealth. The
then unfurled ten bales of the purest white linen, embroidered with gold feathers. I immediately thought that this could have made the most glorious gown for Isabella and would have delved into my knapsack to offer my paltry goods in exchange had I been a more esteemed member of the party. But Cortés had forbidden any of us to converse with the
. He alone was to be the Master of Ceremonies, producing clear, green and twisted Spanish beads, as well as two exquisite holland shirts and a long-piled Flemish hat in return for these new treasures.
The citizens of Cempaola were amazed both by our armour and by our appearance, and now asked if we had come from the east, since, according to their religion, the god of the fifth sun was expected at any moment. Perhaps we were angels, or divine messengers?
Cortés now began to tell the Cempaolans of our Christian belief. He explained that they must accept our faith and cleanse their souls of sin, trusting in the promises of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, who had been sent by God to redeem us from death and grant us eternal life.
Bartolomé de Olmedo, the Mercedarian friar, now ordered that the whole town should take part in a Mass of Thanksgiving. The Cempaolans were given new Spanish names after the saints of our Church and christened in an enormous candle-lit ceremony. Eight Indian girls were then presented to the captains of our ships, who took them away for an altogether different kind of baptism.