The Teeth of the GaleJoan Aiken
About the Book
About the Author
Also by Joan Aiken
About the Book
A terrible danger is brewing!
An unknown menace lurks at Villaverde. Don Francisco has sent word that Felix must return immediately, but his reasons are shrouded in secrecy.
Despite warnings of a conspiracy and his own suspicions of a trap, Felix fearlessly plunges into a plot thick with intrigue and danger. His grandfather said it was a matter of life and death – but whose?
Go saddle the sea, put a bridle on the wind, before you choose your place.
In which I receive a message from home; travel with Pedro; am followed by Sancho the Spy; see a spoiled child and her fat father; give our pursuers the slip; and witness a fearsome landslide
It was on some saint’s day – whose, I don’t remember – that Pedro came knocking at the door of my lodging in Salamanca. The townspeople had been celebrating since dawn, with processions, fireworks, bullfights, and dancing in the streets; the students at the University had a holiday, and most of them had been out, waving banners and demanding more liberal laws. Many of them had by this time been arrested and were probably in bad trouble. By nightfall, most of the town’s activities were concentrated in the Plaza Mayor, the main square, on to which my window faced. People who still had the energy – and there were plenty of them – were dancing; the older citizens sat at tables under trees in the middle of the plaza and drank wine and coffee and talked.
People talk more, in Salamanca, I have heard it said, than in any other town in the world. The sound of their conversation came up through my window – open, for it was a mild spring evening – in a solid clatter, like the tide breaking on a pebbled shore, just sometimes overborne by bursts of music on pipe, drum, and guitar.
For this reason it was some time before I noticed the tapping and scratching at my door, and heard Pedro’s voice.
‘Felix, Felix! Are you in there? Ay, Dios, what a struggle I’ve had, shoving my way here through the crowd –’ as I opened the door and let him in. ‘I reckon the whole town is packed into the square down below. Why aren’t you out there, drinking and dancing with the girls? Or carrying placards with the students? Mind, I’m just as glad you are not; it would be like trying to find one leaf in a forest.’
‘Pedro! What in the wide world are you doing here, in Salamanca?’
It was at least eighty leagues from home, two and a half days’ riding at a horse’s best pace. And Pedro, I knew, could not easily be spared these days; he had risen from stable-boy to a position in the estate office under Rodrigo, my grandfather’s steward, and everybody was very pleased with his work. So what was he doing here, such a distance from Villaverde?
‘Quick – tell me – there’s nothing the matter with Grandfather?’
‘No, no, set your mind at rest; Don Francisco is in good health; at least his mind is as active as ever, if his body isn’t.’ For many years my grandfather had been confined to a wheelchair because of rheumatism and wounds from old battles.
‘Then why – ?’
‘He wants you home, and in double-quick time, too. We must leave tomorrow at dawn. It’s a bit hard, I must say,’ grumbled Pedro, ‘year in, year out, I’m stuck up there on a windy hilltop in the middle of the sierra, not a girl to pass the time of day with, apart from country bumpkins smelling of goats’ milk. And when I do get sent to what looks like a decent town, full of jolly senoritas, I’m obliged to turn straight round and gallop home, not even allowed time to buy a gift for Aunt Prudencia.’
‘You can buy her something tomorrow while I see my tutor. Why does Grandfather want me home so urgently?’
‘How should I know? A letter came –’
‘From France?’ My heart leapt – foolishly, I knew.
‘No, from Bilbao.’
In deep anxiety I asked, ‘Is it politics?’
Pedro shrugged. ‘I don’t know, I’m telling you! But, half an hour later, I was ordered off to fetch you back as fast as the Devil left St Dunstan’s dinner table. The Conde didn’t even take time to write you a note.’
‘Well, he writes so slowly these days, with his stiff hands. But you’d think he could have got Don Jacinto to do it.’
‘Didn’t want Don Jacinto to know, maybe. And I’ve half killed three mounts on the way,’ said Pedro, glancing round my room, ‘and I’m half dead myself. Is there somewhere I can sleep? And I’d not say no to a glass of wine and a mouthful of ham –’
‘Of course.’ I fetched food from a closet and said, ‘You can have my bed when you’re finished. I’ll sleep on the floor.’
He was scandalised.
‘What? You, the Conde’s grandson – and an English milord as well – Lord Saint Winnow,’ he mouthed the English syllables distastefully, ‘give up your bed to the cook’s nephew?’
‘Try not to be more of a numbskull than you are,’ I said, pushing him on to the cot, which was narrow and hard enough, certainly, no ducal couch. ‘Go to sleep, you’re tired out. And I’ve bedded down in plenty of worse places.’
He argued no more, but kicked off his boots. ‘Beggarly sort of lodgings for a Cabezada,’ he grunted, looking disparagingly round my small untidy room.
‘I like the view. And money’s not so plentiful these days. You know that.’
‘Ay, ay. Since our dear king was put back on the throne, with all those French and Russians to hold him there and see he doesn’t get pushed off again
‘Hush, you fool!’
‘Who could hear, with all that blabber going on outside? And the taxes going up crippling high, and your granda’s Mexican estates lost in the uprising there – times are bad – ’ Pedro gave a great yawn and closed his eyes. In two minutes he was asleep.
I pulled my clothes out of the chest, ready for packing, piled them into a heap on the floor, and flung myself down on top of it.
Hours had dawdled by, though, before I slept. It was not the roar of chat from the Plaza Mayor, nor the lumpy layers of shirts and breeches below me, but sheer worry that kept me awake.
Was Grandfather in trouble with the authorities? He made no secret of the fact that he despised King Ferdinand, now back on the Spanish throne, and all the men chosen for his ministers. Villaverde was a tiny, unimportant place, high on the sierra and far from Madrid; but that made no difference. All over Spain men lived in fear these days. My grandfather’s crippled condition, his old age, his noble birth, and known patriotic fervour would be no protection. Empecinado, who had bravely led guerrilla troops against Napoleon, had been imprisoned at Roa for ten months, brought out on market days in an iron cage to be spat on by the peasants. A lady of aristocratic family had been put under arrest, simply because she had permitted patriotic songs to be sung in her house. Men had been sent to the galleys at Malaga, just for having Colonel Riego’s picture on their walls.
And Riego had been my grandfather’s close friend from boyhood.
If Grandfather was in danger of arrest, his future did not bear thinking about.
What could have been in that letter from Bilbao, that caused him to send for me at such
Long before daylight, we were up. Seeing me put on my hat and jacket, Pedro said, ‘I suppose you’ll want to say goodbye to your sweetheart?’
I answered rather shortly. ‘I have no sweetheart in Salamanca.’
‘Oh, ay,’ he muttered, ‘there was that French girl. I forget. Years ago, that was, though . . .’
To which I made no reply. Juana was not French, I thought, she was Basque. Pedro, seeing my face, I suppose, smiled his wide apologetic grin – his teeth fanned out like a hand of cards, but the effect was not unpleasing – and said, ‘I’m sorry, Senor Felix. You know me – I’m a clod. What I say is nothing but nonsense. Would there be any breakfast?’
‘Buy yourself what you like.’ I tossed him a couple of coins. ‘I have to see my tutor and explain that I shan’t be able to attend his classes for a while. I’ll not be long – back in twenty minutes.’
Having descended the three flights of stairs I set off running along the Rua Mayor which led to the University.
I found my tutor, as I had expected, already in the classroom where, two hours later, we would assemble for his lecture on the Greek drama. His own lodgings were small and frightfully cold – the pay of a university lecturer was not high – so he often came into the school halls long before dawn.
‘Glory be to God!’ he exclaimed at the sight of me, hot and panting, ‘here’s one of my students shows real enthusiasm at last! And thankful I am to see you weren’t one of those hotheads who are now cooling their heels in the jail.’
He was a small, round-faced, red-haired Irishman, with a soft voice and more learning in him than I would be able to pick up in several lifetimes. His name was Lucius Redmond.
He smiled at me very kindly as I began to gulp out my explanations.
‘N-no, sir – I’m afraid it’s not – though I am enthusiastic – and I would have been out with a placard but I promised my grandfather – the thing is, he has summoned me home, most urgently –’
‘Is it the politics?’ He gave a quick, wary glance round the ill-lit, empty classroom – at whose battered desks students had been sitting for more than 300 years. Craftsmen built good desks in the sixteenth century!
‘I – I can’t tell, sir.’
‘Eh well – let’s hope not.’ He crossed himself. So did I. Politics had closed down the whole University at Salamanca for several years after King Ferdinand returned to Spain from exile, and, when it did reopen, a number of the teachers were missing, and never reappeared. ‘Give my very kind regards to the Conde,’ said Dr Redmond, who had occasionally corresponded with my grandfather on learned subjects. ‘And return to us as soon as ye can, Felix, dear boy, to take your degree. We’ll miss ye, faith, in the classes. Like a sunbeam, ye’ve been.’
‘And – and I’ll miss the classes too, sir! But sir – please tell me one thing –’ I had been reading the plays of Sophocles that week, and for a moment thirst for information made me forget the urgency to be gone – ‘why, why did all those troubles fall on poor Oedipus? None of it was his fault – he did not know that Laius was his father and Jocasta his mother –’
‘Yerrah, dear boy, ye’ve read the classics with me now for three years and ye still expect justice in human affairs? Divil a bit will ye find in this world – justice is only guaranteed in the world to come! No, no,’ Redmond went on, shepherding me out of the door, across the cloisters, and out into the street ‘ – I’ll walk with ye a step of the road and take my breakfast coffee in the Plaza Mayor; no, my child, the misfortunes that fell on poor King Oedipus were kin to those that have fallen on poor Spain. Whose fault? Nobody’s, that we can see. Who could guess, when the English drove out Napoleon and kicked his brother Joseph off the Spanish throne, and brought back the rightful king Ferdinand, that the man would turn into such a bloody tyrant?’
‘Oh, sir, mind what you are saying, for God’s sake!’
‘Ne’er fret your head, boy. ’Tis early for the Gardai to be about.’
Indeed the night was still black. The streets were empty. No Civil Guards were to be seen.
‘’Deed and I sometimes think,’ went on Dr Redmond, ‘that the ancient tales, such as that of Oedipus, were given us so that we may measure our own troubles against the ills of former times. That way, our own lot may not seem so bad.’
‘What can help Spain now, sir?’
‘Time alone is the cure,’ he answered gravely. ‘No use expecting a sudden rescue, for there won’t be one. Maybe in a hundred years . . . Ye have English kin, have ye not?’
‘Ay, sir, a grandfather living near Bath. But he is old, and out of his wits.’
‘If it were not for the Conde,’ he muttered, ‘I’d say, take ship for England, and live there where folk of liberal views may speak as loud as they please. But ye’d not want to leave your granda.’
‘Indeed I would not!’
‘Well, God go with you, my child. Vaya con Dios!’ he added, breaking into Spanish – hitherto we had spoken English, to lessen the risk of being overheard – ‘ye have been one of my brightest students, don’t forget what ye have learned.’ He waved me a friendly goodbye as he turned into one of the cafés that lined the square, just beginning to open for business.
Back at my lodgings I found that Pedro had capably packed up my clothes and books, and had ready a pair of mules which stood waiting to take us on the first stage of our journey.
‘Mules?’ I said. ‘Was that the best you could do?’
‘Now who’s being high and mighty? These are a good pair, from la Mancha, they can outpace any of your high-stepping Arabs; and will take longer to tire. Also – ’ he glanced about the street – ‘mounted on a pair of mules, we won’t attract such notice.’
‘Well: there’s something to that.’
I swung myself on to one of the long-eared beasts and Pedro, doing likewise, added with a grin, ‘Anyway, I seem to remember that you weren’t too proud to leave home on a mule, once before.’
Laughing, I kicked my mount into a swinging lope. It was true that, six years ago, at the age of twelve, I had run away from home, riding a canny, cross-grained mule from my grandfather’s stable, who had been my faithful companion through various hair-raising adventures, and had saved my life at least twice.
‘Everything you say is perfectly correct, Pedro. Did you manage to buy a keepsake for your aunt?’
‘Got the old girl a bit of lace from a stall in the Calle de Zamora.’ He patted his saddlebag.
So we set out northwest, along the highway to Leon and Oviedo.
For a couple of hours we rode in silence. As Pedro had foretold, the mules went well, covering the ground at a smooth, steady amble, five leagues to the hour. By the time full day had dawned we were well away from Salamanca, in open country. Then Pedro’s tongue was loosened, and he chattered with his usual vivacity, telling me all the news of Villaverde, my grandfather’s household, the great fortified house, and the tiny town that clung to one side of it and was encircled by the same massive wall, high on the Picos de Ancares. Who had been married to whom, who was sick, who was well, he related, which horses had foaled, how my grandfather did these days, and my five aged great-aunts; no, only four of them now, Great-aunt Feliciana had been carried off by the croup at the age of ninety-four last month, leaving Natividad, Adoracion, Josefina, and Visitacion. And Dona Mercedes, my grandmother, Pedro said, was now like a little child, had to have the simplest matters explained to her, and asked the same question five times in as many minutes.
‘It’s hard on your grandfather,’ Pedro concluded. ‘But everybody else in the household finds it a change for the better. Such a Tartar she used to be! Now she’s peaceable as a duckling, smiles and pats your head if you so much as pick up her fan.’
Pity she wasn’t like that fifteen years ago when I was a young child in her household, I thought; many was the beating she ordered for me then.
‘So how do you like college, Felix?’ Pedro asked. ‘Are you growing mighty learned?
Are you going to be a great man of law? I reckon it’s better than being rapped on the knuckles twenty times a day by old Father Tomas, eh?’
‘Just about ten thousand times better. I like it very well. Though there’s a deal to learn. The full course of study for a barrister takes thirteen years.’
‘Thirteen years?’ Pedro turned to me a face of horror. ‘You’re joking, Senor Felix!’
I shook my head. ‘It’s true. But you have to be aged twenty-five before you can apply . . . I’m just working for a bachelor’s degree. I’d like to be a barrister, though. You have to swear to defend the poor for nothing –’
‘You always were mad on finding out about things that are no use,’ Pedro said rather disparagingly. ‘Now I – ’ he thumped his chest – ‘I can only reckon if I can see the things right there in front of me. Or know they are in the barn: so many head of goats, so many tons of hay.’
Pedro, I remembered, was lightning-quick at figures; calculation always had a great appeal for him. So I told him that, back in the fifteenth century, Cristoforo Colombo had travelled to Salamanca to ask the astronomers and mathematicians there for help in planning his voyage in search of the New World.
‘Is that true?’ he said, only half believing, and when I said yes he burst into ribald song:
Una grasa Senora
Se senta en mi sombrero!
Then he asked, ‘But you aren’t studying astronomy are you, Felix? That would be really useless!’
‘No, only law. And some other things which I hope will come in useful.’ Like plays of Sophocles, I thought, and fell silent, recalling, as I had many times, the day when it had been decided that I should attend the University at Salamanca.
I had been out on the grasslands, beyond the town wall, exercising a half-schooled Andalusian colt, when Pepe, one of the stable-boys, came racing to tell me that Grandfather wanted me urgently. And indeed, as I cantered towards the arched gate in the wall, I saw the Conde come through it, pushed in his wheelchair by Manuel, his personal servant. There was a stretch of paved road outside the wall, and here they halted. My grandfather made urgent beckoning gestures, and motioned Manuel to go back inside, so I dismounted and tied my horse to a stanchion in the wall.