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Authors: James Runcie

Tags: #Historical, #Fantasy, #Modern, #Romance

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BOOK: The Discovery of Chocolate
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One of the girls walked up to me and touched my beard (which I had grown in an attempt to look swarthy). She wore a short skirt, but her chest was naked, and as she caressed my face I looked down and saw how close her breasts were to my bare arms. They seemed so full and round, so perfect and inviting, that I could only just restrain myself from touching them. I had always assumed that my thoughts of Isabella would remain pure and in the forefront of my mind and was somewhat surprised that, at the first sight of such beautiful women, I should find myself
becoming so swiftly overcome by passion. Perhaps I had little resistance to beauty, and fidelity might not be one of my strongest characteristics?

I sought out our friar, and confessed that my thoughts had become lustful and depraved. Although I was pledged to Isabella, it was difficult to love faithfully when I could no longer see the object of my heart’s desire.

The friar answered that such ardent yearning for that which we cannot see should be redirected towards the love and promise of eternity offered by our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. I must stand firm and reject the snares of the devil.

This was difficult, because at that moment a group of naked Indian women began to play a game of leapfrog outside our camp.

‘You see?’ I cried. ‘How can anyone avoid the temptation of such flesh?’

‘One must not think of these things,’ the friar answered firmly, placing his hands together inside his cloak.

‘But what can I do to assuage my lustful thoughts?’ I asked.

‘Think of St Agatha, who lost her breasts for our Lord.’

I suddenly remembered a painting I had seen in Seville of a dark-haired woman holding a tray of pears.
That
was what they were.

‘You must have thought about St Agatha a very great deal,’ I observed.

‘Do not torment me,’ the priest replied distractedly, fumbling under his cloak. ‘It is a daily agony.’

Perhaps he had a persistent itch, or was cleaning his dagger?

‘What must we do?’ I asked.

‘Look to the Lord,’ the friar replied, his voice rising in pitch. ‘Only look to the Lord.’

His face was red; his eyes had a faraway look.

Then he gasped.

The man was of no help at all.

I decided to go in search of Pedro for consolation. That was the point of a dog, I had always been told. They offered unquestioning loyalty.

After calling his name several times, I found myself in a small turkey farm. By its side, penned in a small area, were several hairless dogs. Pedro spent a short time snapping and biting at their heels, and then selected a companion for what can only be described as a prolonged act of mating.

All those around me were now involved in acts of lust and bestiality. Was I the only man who had resolved to keep himself pure for his beloved?

After several days we moved on towards the town of Tlaxcala. These people had heard that we were on the march, and it soon became clear that they would not be so easily convinced of our divine status. They had vowed to put our mortality to an immediate test by killing as many of us as possible, their leader Xicotenga informing us that his idea of peace would be to eat our flesh and drink our blood.

We were savagely attacked, and a bloody battle ensued. Pedro was terrified by the noise and I had never seen such slaughter. Our forces only just managed to hold to our formation in the face of some forty thousand warriors. If
we had not possessed gunpowder I am sure that we would have been defeated.

Cortés then dispatched messengers to ask for safe passage through their country, and threatened that if they did not agree to this we would be forced to kill all of their people. Exhausted by our bravery, and fearing a further attack, the Tlaxcalans finally surrendered. They bowed their heads, prostrated themselves before Cortés, and begged forgiveness.

That night we attended a great banquet of turkey and maize cakes, cherries, oranges, mangoes and pineapple, served by the most comely women. After the meal the Tlaxcalans proceeded to display their treasures, some of which would be gifts, some of which we must trade. There were feather mantles, obsidian mirrors, silver medallions, and decorated purses I know Isabella would have treasured; gold saltcellars, gilded beads, wooden scissors, sewing needles, strings, combs, coats, capes and dresses. There were two small alabaster vessels filled with stones that must have been worth two thousand ducats, together with gilded masks, earrings, bracelets, necklaces and pendants.

Yet still I saw nothing that was sufficiently unique to secure my love.

At the end of the ceremonies Chief Xicotenga said to Cortés: ‘This is my daughter. She is unmarried and a virgin. You must take her and her friends as your wives. For you are so good and brave that we wish to be your brothers.’

Cortés replied that he was flattered by the gift, but that he would be unable to partake of such hospitality since he was already married and it was not his custom to marry more than one woman.

Then he looked at me.

This was, indeed, a beautiful girl. I realised that the longer we stayed here the harder I would find it to resist such attractions. It was already difficult to recall Isabella’s voice, the fall of her hair, the light in her eyes, or the manner in which she walked. It was as if she only existed in her portrait, whereas these women were vibrant and alive, singing into the night sky, building fires, carrying water, and laughing gaily.

It had been so long since I had heard a woman laugh.

Cortés brought the woman over to me. ‘Take her,’ he ordered.

I could not believe it. These people were so keen to give away their women. Surely this could not be right? How could I remain faithful now?

I looked at Doña Marina.

‘Do as he says,’ she said.

‘But Isabella …’ I pleaded, ‘my betrothed …’

‘You will be the better prepared to love her …’ she continued, ‘and no one need know.’

The girl led me into a small dark room with a low bed. A fire burned in the corner, and rose petals lay strewn around the floor.

She took off her skirt and lay down on the bed, motioning me to do likewise.

I did not know what to do, but began to remove my doublet. The girl pulled at my breeches and removed my stockings.

Then she placed her naked body against me.

As she pressed her lips to mine, and I could feel her breasts against my skin, my body surged with excitement.
She pulled me down towards her. Her nipples hardened into sharp tips, and she began to move underneath me, pulling me inside her. I was unsure what to do, being, I must confess, a virgin, but let her rock me back and forth. I closed my eyes, imagining that she was Isabella, but then opened them again to look at the rise and fall of her breasts. Her eyes widened and she pushed me deep inside her. Within seconds I was brought to the peak of excitement and exploded like cannon shot. It seemed that we could not be more fully conjoined, our sweat and flesh mingling as one body. For a few minutes we lay panting to regain our breath, until the girl pushed me away from her, put on her skirt, and left the room.

It was over.

I was no longer a youth but a man.

Pedro trotted in through the now open doorway. He sniffed at me, rather contemptuously I thought, and then lay down as if to sleep. I began to dress, and made ready to rejoin the men.

When I finally emerged, with a tired Pedro following reluctantly, I saw that my companions had been waiting for me.

Doña Marina came forward.

‘That didn’t take very long.’ She smiled.

It seemed that nothing I did would ever be secret, and that everyone must know my business.

‘I’m not sure …’ I began.

‘If she was a virgin? I hope she wasn’t …’ Doña Marina replied.

‘I cannot marry her,’ I said firmly.

‘You are not required to do so. Would you like to see her again?’

‘No,’ I said, but then thought of her breasts against me. ‘How long will we be here?’

‘Seven nights.’

Doña Marina looked at me, taking my silence as assent.

‘I will send her every night.’

I did not know whether guilt or excitement was the stronger of the two emotions flowing through my body, but I knew that I had failed the very first test of my quest.

In the next seven days we began to plan our approach to the magnificent city of Mexico, for we had heard that this was where the greatest treasure lay. The Tlaxcalans urged us against such an undertaking, so outnumbered would we be by the forces of that great city. Even if peace was offered, we were not to believe any of the promises made by its chieftain, Montezuma. But Cortés was adamant, arguing that the whole purpose of our journey was to reach Mexico. He then asked the Tlaxcalans about the best path to the city.

A volcano stood before us, impeding our progress. This was Popocatépetl, and the local people held it in great awe as it rose out of the hills, threatening to spew forth rocks and hot lava over all that surrounded it. We had never seen such a sight and I decided that this was the moment to try my bravery. I offered to climb to the top and report on the best possible route ahead.

Cortés was amused by my boldness, asserting that the loss of my virginity had given me renewed courage, and granted me permission for the ascent. Two chiefs from the nearest settlement of Huexotzinco were to be my companions. They
warned that the earth could tremble, and that flames, stones and ash were often flung from the mountain top, killing all in their wake; but I was determined to meet the challenge, whatever the dangers.

It was a difficult ascent and we had to stop at several stages to regain our breath. The light wind seemed to increase the higher we climbed, and the ground was uneven under foot. Pedro picked his way ahead of us, confident despite the sharp stones that lay beneath the snow. At times we had to scramble using our hands across ice and scree, looking down as seldom as we dared. I had never been so far from the level of the sea in my life, and a strange lightness entered my soul, as if I was no longer part of this world. The higher we climbed the smaller things seemed, just as events from our past life recede in the memory and pass into oblivion. Frightened by the unevenness of the ground and the possibility of falling, it seemed at times as if I was dreaming, and I imagined Isabella at the top of the volcano, like the Virgin Mary, dressed in white, judging my infidelity.

As we neared the summit the wind increased, and we could not hear each other speak. But then, looking out into the distance, I saw the gilded city across the plain, shining like a new Jerusalem in the evening light. It was as if I was both in heaven and in hell, and no other land mattered.

The purpose of my journey was clear. Even if I became blind at this moment, I would still have seen the greatest sight on earth. I had done what no man of my country had yet done, and, at the end of my life, when the darkness was closing in, I would be able to say to any man who asked that I, Diego de Godoy, notary to General Cortés, servant
of our Emperor Charles, was the first Spaniard to climb the volcano that guarded Mexico. All roads, all settlements, and everything the eye could discern led across the Elysian fields to that noble city. It seemed to float on the water, a cascade of houses, each with its own battlements, each with its own bridge to its neighbour. I had heard people tell of the Italian city of Venice, but this was surely far finer, stretching out in an eternal immensity, lit by a light from highest heaven, beckoning all who saw it to journey across the plain.

I could not see how anyone could ever vanquish such a place, and understood now, in a moment, how all the surrounding peoples could not but submit to its glory.

Hearing of this vision, Cortés became all the more resolved to leave on the morrow, telling the Tlaxcalans that it was God’s will that he should continue. It was the eighth of November fifteen hundred and nineteen. Everything we had done on this journey, and perhaps even in our lives, had been leading to this moment.

Four chieftains now approached, carrying a bejewelled palanquin, canopied with vibrant green feathers, decorated with gold, silver and pearls, and topped with a turquoise diadem. The interior was adorned with blue jewels, like sapphires, suggesting the night sky. The figure at the centre stared ahead impassively. Men swept the road before him, and none dared look him in the face.

This was the great Montezuma. He was perhaps some forty years old, olive-skinned and with a slim figure. His hair was dark rather than black, and he wore a well-trimmed beard. His eyes were fine; I could not ascertain their colour, but what surprised me most was the mildness of his demeanour. He seemed gentle, despite his power, as if, perhaps,
he never had to raise his voice. Supported on the arms of two chiefs he stepped down and wished our General welcome.

Cortés produced a series of elaborately worked Venetian glass beads, strung on a golden filament and scented with musk. Montezuma bowed to receive them. He then took from his aide a necklace of golden crabs, worked with fabulous intricacy, and hung it on our leader’s neck.

‘You are welcome to my city, and will stay in my father’s house,’ he began. ‘These men will show you the way, and my people will be happy to receive you. Rest a while and then feast with me this evening.’

BOOK: The Discovery of Chocolate
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