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The Islands of Unwisdom, Page 2

Robert Graves

  The Colonel staggered aboard, three parts drunk with chicha, the maize liquor of Peru—for this was the feast of Our Lady of Joy—slipped on a pool of oil, caught his scabbard between his legs and went flying, head first, into the scuppers; not a second before the Boatswain, though a most respectable old man, burst into a hoarse cackle of laughter at the Ensign’s tale. I laughed too, till the tears flowed, being young and gay and no longer so devout as when I was Fray Junipero’s acolyte.

  ‘God’s blood!’ cried the Colonel, hauling himself to his feet with the help of the bulwarks and a loaded stick he still grasped in his hand. ‘God’s blood and nails!’

  The Boatswain gasped: ‘Upside-down, by the miraculous Virgin of Pilar, upside-down! That’s wonderful! Ho! ho! ho!’

  I tried to move off quietly. To tell the truth, I had no right to be gossiping on deck on so busy a morning and only three days before we were to sail. My place was below, checking the stores as they were piled in the hold: this forenoon, five hundred tubs of salt beef and four tons of biscuit, together with a ton of chick-peas, fifty jars of vinegar and a ton and a half of dried beans were being fetched aboard. But the Colonel roared at me to come back. ‘You, sir, with the fat cheeks! You too laughed at me when I slipped and fell!’ he cried. ‘To sneak off and leave your companions to bear the brunt of my wrath is certainly the act of a coward. Are you a rat, sir, or are you a man?’

  I swept off my plumed hat and made him a deep obeisance. ‘My lord,’ I said, ‘I am no rat: I am the General’s assistant secretary and your very humble servant. But I fear that you have caught the wrong bull by the horns. I was laughing at a droll tale told me by the Ensign, and since I did not observe your lordship’s fall, I had no occasion, as I should not have had the presumption, to laugh at your lordship.’

  The Ensign supported me boldly: ‘What Andrés Serrano has told your lordship is the plain truth, and if it had been otherwise I should have at once defended your lordship’s honour.’

  The Colonel glared at the two of us and fired a thunderous broadside at the Boatswain, whose face was still wreathed in smiles. ‘As for you, you Aragonese snail-guzzler, you tall, tottering, rotten ladder, will you also deny that it was at me you laughed? “Upside-down, by the Virgin of Pilar, upside-down!”—were not those your very words, you tarry-tailed dog, you Jew’s bastard?’

  The Boatswain was not used to be treated with such contumely. His captains had always trusted him, his crews spoke well of him, and he had grown old in the King’s service. For the Colonel to revile him in the hearing of the sailors, indeed in the hearing of the whole port of Callao, because Don Pedro Merino had the most powerful parade-ground voice I ever heard in my life, was hard to bear in silence. He kept his temper but strode close up to the Colonel, who was a little turkey-cock of a man, and looked down on him with his head gravely bent. Then he said in his atrocious Castilian, his mother-tongue being a sort of Languedoc French: ‘With the greatest respect to your lordship, I was referring not to your unfortunate posture, but to that of a fine Bolognian sausage which figured in the Ensign’s tale; and I should be glad to think that I misheard your lordship a moment ago and that the evil names you pronounced were meant for the same sausage, not for the Boatswain of the San Geronimo.’

  The Colonel, though he understood that he had made a fool of himself, was too far gone in drink to take the opportunity of honourable retreat which the Boatswain offered him. Standing on his yard and a half of dignity, he roared back: ‘The Devil fly off with your fine Bolognian sausage! Do you expect me to believe this trumpery lie? You laughed at me, you sweepings of an ass-stall, you scurfy-headed camelopard—instead of drumming me aboard with the respect due to my rank and honours, you laughed at me—at me, Don Pedro Merino de Manrique y Castellon, the Colonel appointed by the Viceroy himself to command the troops of this expedition! What is more, my fall, which might have broken both my legs, was caused by your unseamanlike slovenliness. My foot slid on oil slopped over the deck by your ruffianly sailors!’

  ‘Believe what you are in the humour to believe, but permit me to remind your lordship that it is not customary in any royal ship for a military officer, be he ever so exalted, to abuse a boatswain except with the permission, and in the presence, of the ship’s master; and even then not before the crew. I humbly beg pardon for not having drummed your lordship aboard, but arriving at an awkward moment as you did, unannounced by tuck of drum, you were on deck in an instant. Moreover, deeply though I regret your lordship’s fall, I cannot offer apologies as the person responsible, since my men have handled no oil-jars. If you seek satisfaction, your complaint had best be directed to Doña Ysabel, the General’s lady, whose servants have been carrying oil aft to her private larder.’

  ‘O sweet Saint Barbara and all the loud artillery of Heaven!’ burst out the Colonel. ‘If this is not insolence beyond any remedy but death!’ He clapped his hand to the pommel of his sword and would certainly have spitted the Boatswain like a sucking-pig had I not darted forward, with Miguel Llano the General’s secretary, and caught at his wrist, while Father Antonio and the Ensign between them hustled the Boatswain away.

  We could not long restrain this raving officer, he struggled and swore so hard, spitting in our faces like a llama, but the Boatswain had escaped below deck before the Colonel could free his sword and go charging after him, hallooing as loudly as a Morisco on a feast day.

  Doña Ysabel stood on the half-deck watching the scene below her with impassive face, but her blue eyes danced like stars under her crown of wheat-coloured hair. As I went off to the forecastle, giving her the respectful salute to which both beauty and rank entitled her, the Chief Pilot, Don Pedro Fernandez of Quiros, who stood by her side, gestured to me to wait; I suppose he wished to question me about the origin of the affray. I obeyed, and could not but overhear what Doña Ysabel said to him: ‘Our Colonel is a man of more than usual severity. If this is the way he means to assert his position throughout the voyage, he may, of course, come to a good end, but I think that most improbable.’

  Pedro Fernandez shook his head glumly. ‘I am forced to agree with your ladyship,’ he said. ‘I only wish that he might be given a warning before it is too late.’

  ‘And why not?’ she answered lightly. ‘The sooner the better.’

  The Colonel, finding that his quarry had gone to earth, sheathed his sword and marched towards the forecastle, still puffing fire and smoke. Doña Ysabel called down to him: ‘Why, Colonel, what has come over you this fine morning? What savage insect of the tropics has found its way into your peascod-bellied doublet? By the violent way you behave I can only conclude that something has bitten you where you are ashamed to scratch. But listen to me, my lord: if my husband comes to hear of this morning’s doings, I undertake that he will be little pleased to know that his ship’s officers are treated with contumely, and served with language that would better suit the mouth of a brothel-keeper than a Colonel with the King’s commission; especially when so slight an occasion for your outburst has been offered.’

  The Colonel turned half about when Doña Ysabel began to address him. Now he grimaced like a schoolboy and, jerking his thumb over his shoulder, cried with great insolence to the sergeant who attended him: ‘Why, upon my word, what have we there on the poop?’

  This lubberly retort brought the Chief Pilot into the quarrel. He grew indignant, and with good reason. ‘My lord,’ he said, ‘in the absence of the General it devolves on me to resent the gross insult that you have offered the virtuous and high-born Doña Ysabel. It were better for you to ask her pardon publicly; for every one of us respects her, not only as the General’s Lady, but as the flower and glory of the womanhood of His Most Christian Majesty’s possessions overseas.’

  ‘Hold your tongue, insolent Portuguee!’ the Colonel roared back. ‘I offered Doña Ysabel no insult. My remark was meant for that fabulous Bolognian sausage, hanging upside-down—though upon my honour, it would puzzle me to distinguish one end of a sausage from t
he other—not for any woman whatsoever, least of all the General’s distinguished Lady. But I do not hesitate to insult you, as suits your inferior rank and calling. Understand, numbskull, that I am the Colonel, and that if we sail together in this ship I command her in battle, and if it pleases me to order you to run her upon a rock, what then? Answer me, dog, what then? Will you obey my order?’

  The Chief Pilot made a politic reply: ‘When that time comes, your lordship, I shall do whatever seems best, but the case is a hypothetic and dubious one. As things stand, I recognize no superior in naval affairs except his Excellency the General, to whose high-born Lady, though you protest that you intended no insult, you have at least failed to render the civilities due from every nobleman to every noblewoman. The General has appointed me to navigate this vessel, and to act as her master while he controls the movements of the flotilla as a whole; when he comes aboard, as I trust he soon will before this scandal grows worse, he must define my powers in so far as a conflict of authority may arise between your lordship and myself. But you may believe me when I tell you, without oaths and objurgations, that if it is your aim to become lord and master of all lands which we hope to discover, I will resign my appointment at once rather than come under the orders of an officer who takes so much upon himself and shows so little discretion.’

  The Colonel gestured to the sergeant. ‘Up into the pulpit, fellow,’ he said, ‘and bring me down that gabbling Portuguese preacher. I mean to beat the Devil’s tattoo on his hide with this stick of mine!’

  The sergeant saluted, shouldered his weapon and started reluctantly for the quarter-deck; but before he could execute his orders, two of Doña Ysabel’s brothers, Captain Don Lorenzo de Barreto and Ensign Don Diego de Barreto came rushing up with drawn swords, having been warned of what was afoot. Don Diego hauled the sergeant off the ladder by a leg, and Don Lorenzo kicked him across the deck, where he stumbled into the Colonel and sent him flying once more. Then they went up to their sister and each kissed one of her hands deferentially, before turning to the Chief Pilot and clapping him on the back. ‘Sir,’ Don Diego said, ‘you may be only a Portuguese, but for the bold and honourable way in which you championed our sister against the rudeness of that soused Bombastes yonder, you deserve to be a Spaniard. Our swords will always be at your disposal, should you ever have need of them in the course of this voyage.’

  Pedro Fernandez thanked them gravely and declared that he valued their goodwill beyond measure. ‘Nevertheless, my lords, I could never consent to join a faction within an enterprise that will succeed only if perfect unanimity exists between all who serve in it.’

  Doña Ysabel smiled pleasantly at the Chief Pilot, who was a fine-looking man, above the usual height, slim but muscular, with clear grey eyes and a short, curly beard; he was then in the thirty-sixth year of his life. When he excused himself, pleading great press of business, and kissed her hand with ceremony, she said in a voice that had a keen edge to it: ‘As for what I told you a few minutes ago, my friend: I am now convinced that it is against God’s will and wholly impossible for the Colonel’s end to be in the least degree fortunate.’ Doña Ysabel was a Galician through and through, and having already had close dealings with that bold, tenacious, clannish, close-fisted, secretive people, who are three parts Suevian and one part aboriginal devil, I crossed myself involuntarily and thought: ‘That drunkard’s life is not worth a maravedi2 if he sails in Doña Ysabel’s company.’

  The Chief Pilot came down from the quarter-deck and taking me affectionately by the arm, said in urgent tones: ‘Little Andrés, for the love of the Saints, help me to repair this mischief. Take the Colonel below to his quarters and sober him up by any means you please, but be careful to humour him as though he were a Duchess with the jaundice; and make sure that he is recovered before the General comes aboard.’

  The Colonel had been struck insensible by his fall against the port bulwarks. The sergeant had now lifted him on to a coil of rope abaft the mainmast and was supporting his bruised and lolling head with both hands. Among the gaping crowd I saw our barber and called him to me; together we carried the Colonel below, where he vomited a good quart of drink. Then the barber bled him and gave him restoratives; so that he was soon sitting up in his bunk, sober enough, but weak and confused. Being well-intentioned at heart, he repeatedly exclaimed in our hearing: ‘Ai, ai! If only this had not happened!’ And once he groaned: ‘But in the name of God, what was I to do? Those swine would not allow me an honourable retreat from the position into which they had forced me. They should have seen that I had a skinful of fiery chicha and was not to be crossed; they should have treated me with greater regard. For the officers I do not care a fig, but that I should have failed in respect to a lady of high rank, who is also young and beautiful, and the wife of the leader of this expedition—man, that is a catastrophe!’ He felt the disgrace keenly in his chivalrous soul, and after repairing his bruises with a plaster and further sobering himself with cups of a hot Turkish drink, he dressed in his best clothes—those that he wore being stained with oil and tar from his tumbles—and went to the Great Cabin to offer his apologies to Doña Ysabel, but found her gone ashore.

  Fate, like Love, the poets say, is blind; yet her fingers are all the defter for that, like those of the Blind Girl of Panama.

  Chapter 2


  The General had been detained in Lima by the Viceroy, Don Garcia Hurtado de Mendoza, Marquis of Cañete, to whom he had gone to kiss hands at a final leave-taking. The Marquis was never an early riser and today the General was kept cooling his heels in an ante-room until long past noon; but he remained patient, despite the thousand and one affairs that still remained to be settled, and improved the hours by telling his beads many times over. He was confident that he would never again need to wait upon the pleasure of a Viceroy. ‘Of patience,’ he had told me a week or two before, ‘I have a cellarful.’ Then he turned with a smile and took me by the ear: ‘I hear you are a rising poet, little Andrés: how does your inspired fancy picture a cellarful of patience?’

  ‘Your Excellency,’ I answered, ‘I see patience as a virtue compounded of faith, hope and resilience. Its emblem is cork, which when struck a heavy blow springs back undented into shape, though all but flattened, and is light enough to buoy up the heavy heart struggling in dark waters of despair. A cellarful of patience, you say? I see a huge mound of corks, cut to every size, enough to seal all the vials of wrath and indignation that the Devil ever blew in his infernal glass-house.’

  ‘And the cellar itself?’ he asked. ‘How do you picture the cellar?’

  ‘My fancy flags when it comes to that, your Excellency.’

  ‘Then permit me to tell you, my poet,’ he said with much feeling, ‘that the cellar of patience smells of mice and musty cloth and has no other way out than the way in. It is furnished like a viceregal ante-room with handsome but uncomfortable chairs, overrun with gorgeous but surly lackeys, and papered from floor to ceiling with innumerable unread despatches, applications and memorials, all signed with the name and embossed with the seal of General Don Alvaro de Mendaña y Castro, of Neira.’

  When the Marquis, who was a veteran of the Dutch and Milanese wars, hut still in vigorous health and a great dandy, at last summoned the General to the audience chamber, he embraced him and offered many excuses for the delay. An important letter to the Indies Council at Madrid, he said, had called for immediate despatch by way of Panama; the Bishop had paid a visit to notify him that a relapsed heretic would be handed over to the secular authorities on the coming Sunday; and a horde of other matters had unexpectedly forced themselves upon him.

  The General listened politely, though aware that the Bishop was down with fever, that arrangements for accepting the heretic from the hands of the Holy Office had been made on the previous afternoon; and that the Panama packet was not due to sail for another three days. He also knew from Doña Ysabel, who had once been a maid of honour at the Viceregal C
ourt, that the Marquis’s Lady grudged him every minute devoted to business of state rather than to herself and had made him promise to take her off, that very afternoon, for a month’s holiday at Cuzco, high in the hills. This noblewoman was as prudent as she was beautiful and never interfered directly with her husband’s affairs; but when the royal order which forbade the use of carriages in the New World was relaxed in her favour, it became clear who wore the breeches. I happen to know that Doña Ysabel acted as her confidante in many delicate affairs, and that but for these services, which are of no concern to my story, our expedition would never have left Peru.

  The Viceroy clapped his hands for wine and sweet biscuits, which a negro servant brought on a heavy Potosi salver, and proceeded briskly: ‘So you are leaving us at last, Don Alvaro, and upon my word, much as I esteem you and your charming Lady, I shall draw a sigh of relief when I see your pendant disappear over the western horizon.’

  ‘No deeper a sigh, your Excellency, than I shall heave to see the snowy peaks of the Andes bob like distant icebergs in our wake. Only consider my case: no less than twenty-one years have elapsed since His Majesty King Philip II signed these letters patent and wished me God-speed at a brilliant audience. Pray look at the parchment, how yellow it has grown, how faded the ink! And my black beard: streaked with veins of silver. I cannot sufficiently express the emotion with which I now kiss the generous hand that has annulled the animosity of Don Francisco de Toledo—for vipers sting, though dead—and has set my table upon four legs again.’

  ‘It is nothing, my friend,’ said the Viceroy, running a finger around his neck, which was adorned with the largest and laciest ruff in the entire Western hemisphere, and stroking his scented, yellow-dyed beard. ‘It is nothing, or no more than your due, though I agree that my predecessor’s report upon you, of which I have a copy in my archives, can hardly have influenced the Indies Council in your favour. It is based for the most part on the testimony of one Hernan Gallego, your chief pilot, who evidently bore you much ill-will and deposed that you had proved yourself in no way fit to lead another enterprise in those same Southern waters.’