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Authors: James Runcie

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Surrounded by this chaos, I searched about the treasury. ‘The king’s fifth’ had already been allotted, and was packed in crates ready for our departure. The friar told me that Cortés had claimed one fifth, and that, after double shares for the captains, horsemen and crossbowmen had been allotted, there was virtually nothing left for the common soldier. At this point I must confess that I was filled with a frenzied covetousness, pulling back boxes, peering in chests, casting treasures aside, until at last, in a dark corner, I found the vase with the cacao beans. This I claimed as mine own.

I had discovered the treasure with which I would return and I, alone among my companions, knew its worth. The other soldiers laughed to see me carrying such an object but knew nothing of its contents, and could not imagine the glory it would bring me when I presented it to my betrothed.

I had succeeded in my quest.

Our captains shouted that we should flee, for to defend our position was hopeless, and our most pressing duty was to remove both ourselves and the treasures that we had
secured. Yet when we attempted to make our escape some four thousand Mexican soldiers attacked us.

In the ensuing chaos the city became a place of fear and desperation. It rained heavily, and our horses lost their foothold on the slippery flagstones of the courtyard. Blood and water washed down the streets, and sixteen of our men were killed in the first attack.

In the hell that followed, Montezuma appealed for calm but was stoned to death by his own people. Any attempt at the restoration of order was futile. Cortés returned but had no choice other than retreat. Our horses spurred ahead, fleeing the city, as the Mexicans took to the lake in their canoes, firing at us from all angles, determined that none should live. They broke off sections of the causeway so that we were forced to fight with our bodies chest high in water and could only proceed by holding up our shields, hacking away with the utmost brutality at any who stood in our way. It was a night of blood and rain in which no tactics were effective and the lake slowly filled with the dead, the dying and the terrible remnants of war.

By dawn we had made our way back to the town of Tlaxcala, where we stayed for the next twenty-two days, cauterising our wounds with oil and bandaging them with cotton. We were exhausted, and had no choice but to rest, wash, eat, and recover.

During this time a large section of the gold that we had stored was stolen and the remaining share could not rest in our possession without becoming a source of danger and argument. Cortés took me aside and asked if I would take a group of men back to Spain with the treasure, and put his case for further reinforcements.

I had to follow these orders, and the thought of returning home to Isabella should have filled me with pleasure and relief, but I found that I could think only of Ignacia.

I had to see her again.

The thought of life without her was impossible.

Over the next few nights I began to plan how I might steal away and see her once more. If I was quick, I might be able to return before dawn, without anyone knowing of my departure.

Moving through the creeks and under the trees at nightfall, I knew that any time together would be desperately short, but to part from this land and never see Ignacia again was something I could not tolerate. Pedro checked the route ahead and I crawled through the undergrowth until, at last, we came to the small hut where we had known such happiness.

Ignacia emerged from the doorway, half in sleep and half in fear.

‘It is you.’

‘I had to see you.’

‘You are leaving.’

‘I have come to say farewell.’

‘This was how it had to be. There is too much gold. Too many soldiers.’

I told her that, although I had to obey my orders, nothing mattered more to me than that I should one day see her again.

‘I do not believe you. You will never return.’

‘You must believe me.’

‘No, no. Only remember me. It is not safe for you to stay.’ She turned towards the hut, and fetched a gourd filled with her best criollo cacao beans.

‘Take these, and think of me.’

I had nothing to give her in return, no token of my love.

It was as if I no longer knew who I was.

She looked at me sadly.

‘A princess was left to guard a secret treasure while her husband was away. Enemy soldiers came. They attacked and tortured her, but she did not say where the treasure lay.’

‘This will not happen to you …’

‘Then the soldiers killed her …’

‘No.’

‘Our people say that the cacao plant grew from her blood in the earth.’

She handed me the gourd in which the beans were held.

‘The treasure of the fruit is in the seeds; as bitter as the sufferings of love, as strong as virtue, as red as blood.’

Now she handed me the silver
molinillo
.

‘Go safely.’

‘I will return.’

‘The city will be destroyed. There will be nothing left.’

‘What will you do?’

‘If I have nothing then I will go to Chiapas. If you come back, you may find me there. I know the people.’

I looked into her eyes.

‘Wherever you are, I will find you.’

Ignacia took a gold bangle from her arm, and placed it round my wrist. It was as if she was stripping everything away from herself and giving it to me. ‘The world is larger than you think.’

‘But not large enough for the love we have.’

I had become so well versed in the practice of courtship that now, when I felt more than I had ever felt before, I
could not describe my emotions. Everything that I wanted to say seemed as if it came from the
Libro de Buen Amor
.

‘You have so many words …’ she said.

‘And all are true. What can I say to make you believe me?’

‘That love never tires.’

She looked at me as if she truly believed that she would never see me again. Her voice was filled with the expectation of disappointment, now fulfilled.

‘I am no longer myself when I am with you,’ I said softly, ‘for you have changed me. I am only afraid that something might happen, some terrible disaster which might prevent us seeing each other again, and this I cannot bear …’

‘You must not be afraid of death. One day you will know that we only come to dream; we only come to sleep. That is one of our songs. It is not true, it is not true that we come to live on earth …’

Pedro barked, urging me to return to the boat, and I leaned forward to try and kiss Ignacia once more.

‘Wait …’ She broke off, and turned to fetch a small container from the hut.

‘Drink this when you begin your voyage home.’

‘What is it?’

‘My gift to you. Drink it if you truly think we love each other.’

‘Is it
chocolatl
?’

‘There are other spices. Drink it as you leave this country, and trust me to do the same.’

‘I will drink it now.’

‘No. It is better for our luck to drink it when we are apart. If you plan to return it will help you.’

‘I will return. I promise.’

‘You have sworn?’

‘I have sworn.’

‘Then let us trust each other. If you are alive then I am alive. Never cease in your search of me.’

We kissed, as if for the last time, as if I might have no other future beyond this moment and my life would be suspended until I saw her again.

‘Quien bien ama tarde olvida
. He who loves truly forgets slowly.’

Ignacia held me to her.

‘Say it.’

‘Quien bien ama tarde olvida,’
I repeated.

She rested her hands on my shoulders, and looked into my eyes.

‘Love me. Never forget me. Never doubt me.’

‘I will always love you.’

‘Remember the love we have, however long we are apart.’

We kissed until we could not stand the sorrow any more.

I turned to walk away and then ran, with Pedro ahead, away from the glade to the waiting boat, remembering the first time that Ignacia had brought us here and all the joy that we had shared. I could not bear it. Desperate to escape the gulf between memory and reality, I rowed away from the plantation to join my colleagues, aching with pain and loss, knowing that all my former happiness was past, and that there was no means of avoiding the terrible anguish that now engulfed me.

The next day I was compelled to return to my role as a conquistador. No longer could I live in the world of dream. My responsibilities were clear. I must leave for the coast with sixty men and begin preparations for the return to Spain. Losing oneself in work and duty was, it seemed, the recommended means of forgetting the pains of love, and I set about my tasks like a man possessed, believing that the harder I laboured the more difficult it would be for bitter reality to reach me. At Vera Cruz we worked at a brisk pace, gaining anchors, sails, rigging, cables and tow with such zeal that within a few weeks we were able to set sail for home.

I tried to recall everything that had happened to me, and thought at first of the good fortune that I had enjoyed, my life having been spared by God’s grace. But no matter how extraordinary these travels may have been, I could not help but feel that my life would never again be so enthralling. The memory of Ignacia invaded my consciousness. Each night was filled with dreams and memories: the smell of her hair, the taste of the
chocolatl
on her lips, the softness of her skin. One night I dreamed that she was standing in front of the shelter in the glade. She walked towards me and took my hand – as if in search of treasure. We found ourselves behind the dwelling and Ignacia began to dig a hole in the earth with a trowel, bringing out a small wooden box.

She opened it for me to admire and I could see that it was lined with silver and filled with cacao beans. But then she began to walk away, carrying the still open box, and I found that I was unable to follow her. She receded into the distance until I could see that she was standing at the edge
of a lake, far away, where she could not hear me and could hardly see me.

Then she tipped the contents of the box into the lake.

Was she pouring our love away? Or was she suggesting that I discard my gift to Isabella?

My dreams were filled with the loss of our love.

Reaching into my knapsack I found the drink that she had given me, full of peppers,
chocolatl
and chillies, and quaffed as if it were the last drink that I might enjoy on earth. It tasted strangely sweet, as if there was some extra ingredient, cardamom perhaps, and I wished that I had asked Ignacia what it was – there was so much that remained unsaid, so much more that we needed to know about each other.

Pedro licked the goblet clean, and we stared out to sea. Looking back now, as I write, I can hardly remember that journey, so numb were my senses, so lost in dreams had I become. At times I took out Isabella’s portrait, attempting to look forward to my return, but found that nothing could revive my affection for her. I had become a different man and she must surely be a different woman.

II

I
t was a strange homecoming. My father had died and I had little in common with the friends who had remained in the city. Their lives had scarcely changed and they did not seem interested in my travels, preferring to keep the raw experiences of war, death and adventure outside the genteel confines of the court.

On approaching Isabella’s house I was filled with an overwhelming depression. I could not see the point of anything in my life, and the love that I tried to recall, however faintly or insincerely, had vanished for ever. I was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong woman.

Isabella was a pale and delicate stranger, as if she had never seen the sun or walked outdoors. She held out her hand and I stooped to kiss its tiny and fragile form, thinking that this must surely be a dream.

‘My lady …’

‘You are much changed,’ Isabella ventured.

‘I have travelled many miles.’

‘And with a beard?’

Her right eyebrow raised itself in amusement and contempt.

‘It is the sailor’s custom.’

Pedro remained in the doorway, alert, watchful, and unmoved. After two years’ absence he no longer knew Isabella. She called to him, but he simply lay down, his head between his paws. Even after she had crossed the room and held him to her, Pedro remained aloof.

‘It seems you have corrupted my dog.’

‘He has seen much violence, and learned to fear strangers,’ I replied wearily. It was as if all my emotions had vanished.

‘My poor Pedro.’

‘I thought that you had given him to me.’

‘He will always be my Pedro.’

An awkward silence followed. After all the perils of separation Isabella and I had nothing to say to each other. Even today, as I write, I cannot understand how endless those two years apart had seemed at the time, and how swift and immediate was the disillusion when we were reunited.

‘I long to hear of your endeavours,’ she said at last. ‘I did believe that you might lose your life.’

‘You sound as if you might have wanted this to be so.’

‘Only in the most romantic sense.’

We spoke as strangers reciting lines from
The Romance of Durandarte
or as performers in a play in which we had been given the wrong parts. Perhaps she thought me uncouth, for, having seen such suffering, I was no longer the effete young gentleman she had known; and I was saddened, realising that, although I had changed, Isabella had not.

Out of boredom, I reached into my knapsack and pulled out a gold ingot.

Isabella gasped and held out her hand, which then sank under its weight.

‘Is this the treasure?’

‘It is a present, my love, but the true secret follows …’

‘And where shall I find it?’

‘If you will come to my house …’

She sat for a moment and smiled. Her canary sang in the corner, heartlessly beautiful.

‘What is that you wear upon your wrist?’ she asked accusingly. I had brushed my hair from my eyes, and the bangle Ignacia had given me had fallen forward. For the first time, I felt the need to defend myself.

‘It is nothing, my lady, a trifle.’

‘It looks like a love token.’

‘Believe me, it is no such thing.’

‘I think indeed it is.’

‘It is merely medicinal. It holds the pain at bay.’

‘I have never heard people tell of such a thing. Give it to me.’

‘I cannot.’

‘You would deny me?’

‘I must. It is fixed to my wrist. It cannot be removed.’

‘Would you cut your hand off for me?’

‘If I did such a thing I would no longer be able to defend you.’

‘Would you place it in fire?’

I thought of Ignacia making me pledge my love upon the
chocolatl
, and of how all my words with Isabella were of no consequence compared to that memory.

‘I would consign my whole body to the flames if I thought I could win your love …’ I stated, as boldly as I could,
knowing that these rhetorical love games were ridiculous. One could be pledging love and allegiance until Doomsday if one stayed long enough at court. These were amusements of wit, without feeling or passion, and I could not believe that I, who had risked both my life and that of my companions, now lived an existence in which a man’s greatest fear might lie in an inadequate reply.

‘And, my lady, will you come in search of the treasure I have promised? Will you risk the streets of shame and danger to find me waiting for you?’

I was really quite disgusted with myself.

‘The true pleasure lies within my house,’ I continued. ‘I shall expect you to call upon me.’

‘Alone?’ she countered.

‘Only you must see.’

She would have to visit me unchaperoned.

It was clear that there was little love left between us, and that this conversation had become a game that we both wanted to win. But although unnerved by the threat to her dignity, Isabella pretended that it mattered not that we should be alone when she made her visit. She would brave the possibility of scandal and take her part in an encounter for which we had waited for two long years.

‘I will come as night falls and stay for a single hour. You will escort me home after I have seen my treasure?’ she conceded.

‘You may depend upon me.’

‘Then I will leave you to make ready for my arrival.’

I now had the rest of the day to prepare for Isabella’s first taste of
chocolatl
and I headed straight for the marketplace. Walking through stalls selling rugs and furs, trinkets and
jewels, melons and oranges, I could not help but think of Ignacia. Many of the spices we had prepared together in the glade could not be found, but with good honey and vanilla I thought it might at least be possible to make a similar drink to the one she had prepared for me. I would use her best criollo beans, keeping the vase from Montezuma’s court safe for further use should the recipe be a success.

Returning to my lodgings in the Barrio Santa Cruz, I dismissed both maid and cook, determined that I should be alone with Isabella.

Pedro would be our chaperone.

Taking the best beans from the store Ignacia had given me, I began to prepare the paste, mixing the ground cacao with water and stirring the mixture vigorously with my
molinillo
.

I realised that this was my first attempt at cooking unaided.

The thought at first amused me, and then put me into a state of dread, for it soon became clear that all was not proceeding as it might have done. I had been too hasty in dismissing the cook, and found that I was somewhat hapless in the kitchen. The paste before me had the bitterest of tastes and refused to froth; the mixture would not smooth; and even after I had added both vanilla and honey, my creation looked completely unpalatable.

At this moment Isabella arrived, far earlier than I had anticipated.

This was not at all satisfactory.

‘What are you doing?’ she asked.

I confess that I was flustered.

‘This,’ I said, pointing at the mixture before me, ‘is the food of the gods.’

‘And what, pray, is it called?’

I looked back down at the paste.

‘Caca … caca … caca …’ My senses had clearly left me.

She looked at the brown mixture as if she had never been so insulted.

‘It is a glue?’

‘No. It is a most unusual drink.’

‘You expect me to partake of it?’

‘It is not finished. It is not perfected.’

‘And this is the treasure of which no man yet knows?’

‘It is.’ I smiled hopefully.

Isabella looked at me in disbelief.

I did not know whether to laugh or cry, for this was either the most terrible confrontation or the perfect opportunity to escape a match I dreaded.

‘It is a type of drink – the word
atl
is the Mexican for water …’ I explained nervously, looking at the flames of my fire, ‘and
choco
, yes,
choco
means bitter. It is a kind of bitter water. Choco-atl – chocolate.’

Isabella looked at me as if I was a madman.

I began to froth the mixture, and picked out a small spoonful.

‘Try,’ I offered, before realising that I had failed to taste it myself.

Isabella leaned before me and drank.

An expression of sheer revulsion swept across her face.

‘It needs some improvement. I do not have all the ingredients,’ I apologised on seeing the contortion of her facial features.

‘I cannot believe that you have done this …’ Her expression seemed little short of utter hatred.

‘It is a very great treasure,’ I added simply.

‘You have insulted me,’ she said.

‘No, Isabella, I have not.’

She took a deep breath, and then unleashed her venom.

‘I am glad I came alone, because I could not have borne this humiliation to be witnessed by anyone. I have kept true to you, refusing the offers of Bernaldino Heredia and Francisco de la Cueva, both from good families, and both handsome men, only to find that you have returned with an insult greater than that borne by any other woman in the city: a concoction baser than the excrement of your dog.’

She turned for the doorway, brushing past a surprised Pedro.

‘It is a good drink. It simply needs refinement. Let me see you once more,’ I asked, desperately.

‘From now on, you will only visit me in company, at which I will offer only the customary courtesies. Do not fear; I will not slight you. I am a lady. But I will never forget or forgive you this day, and you can no longer expect any favour from me.’

I was so nervous that I wanted to laugh.

‘Do you think this is funny?’

‘No.’ But the situation was so terrible that I was, indeed, filled with a desperate merriment.

‘Do you?’

‘This is the gift of which no man knows. I have fulfilled my quest.’ I smiled.

‘There can be no greater insult. Think only of how you can redeem yourself, and pray to the Lord in Highest Heaven that he might, after a prolonged period of penance and self-mortification, forgive you this most grievous of sins.’

And then she was gone.

For the next few weeks, together with María and Esperanza, my maid and my cook, I seldom left the house. Pride filled my being and I became obsessed with the desire to make my chocolate recipe a success.

During this period of seclusion I began to learn the art of preparing food to perfection, until I was able, under the watchful eye of Esperanza, to make a few of the finest delicacies a Spaniard could hope to enjoy: tamales, tortillas and menudo; empanada de bacalao, seviche de camarones, and pollo al pibil. Spices arrived in the marketplace from the Orient, from the Indies and from Africa, and I even endeavoured to recreate the Mexican sauce, the
mole poblano
, that Ignacia had cooked for me, filling a turkey with chocolate, chillies, spices, raisins and almonds, in preparation for a future banquet. Furthermore, by proper addition of vanilla, sugar and spices in good measure, the yolk of an egg, and with an impressively insouciant action with the
molinillo
, I was also able to make what seemed to be the perfect chocolate drink.

Esperanza then invited Sylvana, Isabella’s own cook, to share a meal in our company. This large and humourless woman was initially suspicious, and I feared that she might complicate matters by telling her mistress of my plans, but
as the chocolate began to beguile her palate, her face broke out into the broadest of smiles, as if she was a child who had been given the key to a secret treasure chest.

‘Even if I never taste such delights again, I know that I can die a happy woman,’ she declared. ‘Tell me everything you know about this wonderful ingredient. It will change our lives for ever.’

The two women resolved that Isabella should be given a second chance to appreciate the finer points of chocolate. Together, and with my help, they would make a
mole poblano
for the Feast of St James, a day which was to be celebrated by a banquet at the house of Isabella’s duenna.

Here at last was the chance to restore my dignity.

Nights passed in relentless anticipation. I was determined to prove that I had fulfilled my quest, and that I was a true adventurer, worthy of the respect of those who had done little with their lives apart from staying in Seville.

I was a conquistador.

Isabella would not humiliate me.

When the day finally arrived, the kitchens sang out with activity, Maria and Esperanza joining with Sylvana to create a feast for eighty people while I sought out extra provisions from the markets. Almonds, chillies, olive oil, vanilla, aniseed, raisins, sesame were now combined with the last of the criollo beans that I had received from Ignacia. It would be a feast for the gods.

As well as supervising the creation of the meal in secret, I was to be one of the guests, Isabella’s father remaining ignorant of the turbulence of our relationship. However, when the time came to take our seats at the table, I discovered that I was placed as far as possible from my former
love. A slight was clearly intended for I found myself situated between two elderly crones of indeterminate age, both of whom appeared to be profoundly deaf.

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