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Mercedes Of Castile - Or, The Voyage To Cathay

( Originally Published Early 1900's )[an error occurred while processing this directive]

The voyage of Columbus in search of Cathay, the name given by Marco Polo, a Venetian traveler of the thirteenth century, to a region in eastern Asia, supposed to be northern China, furnishes the setting for this story. Columbus believed that he could reach Cathay as well as other eastern countries by sailing westward, being firmly convinced of the rotundity of the earth. This led to the discovery of America, although Columbus died in the belief that the lands he had found were parts of India, as is shown in his designation of their inhabitants as Indians. The love-story of Mercedes and the Conde de Llera is only incidental.

GRANADA had fallen, and the victorious monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, had come out in royal magnificence from Santa Fe and were preparing, in sight of the towers of the Alhambra, to enter the city. A great crowd—soldiers, priests, monks, and citizens, the war having had the character of a crusade—were gathered on the hills to witness the ceremony, the throng being densest around the person of the Queen. Among them was a friar who was respectfully addressed by the grandees as Father Pedro. He was accompanied by a youth of an air so superior to that of most of those on foot as to attract general attention. Though not more than twenty, his muscular frame and sunbrowned cheeks showed that he was acquainted with exposure, while his mien and bearing were evidently military. It was noted that he was graciously received by the Queen, whose hand he was even permitted to kiss, a favor bestowed usually only on those illustrious from their birth.

The two had wandered in the throng for some time, en-gaged in earnest conversation, when the friar suddenly demanded :

"Dost see that man, Luis?"

"By my veracity, I see a thousand, Father. Would it be indiscreet to ask which one?"

"I mean yonder person of high and commanding stature, in whom gravity and dignity are mingled with an air of poverty! He is better clad than I remember ever to have seen him—yet he is evidently not of the rich or noble."

"I perceive him, Father, a grave and reverend man. I see nothing extravagant or ill-placed either in his attire or in his bearing. He hath the air and dress of a superior navigator or pilot—of one accustomed to the sea."

"Thou are right, Don Luis, for such is his calling. He cometh of Genoa, and his name is Cristobal Colon; or, as they term it in Italy, Cristoforo Colombo."

"I have heard of an admiral of that name, who led a fleet into the far East."

"This is not he, but one of humbler habits, though possibly of the same blood. This is no admiral, though he would fain become one—ay, even a king!"

"Thou stirrest my curiosity, Father. Who and what is he?"

"It is now seven years since this man came among us. He pretends that, by steering into the ocean westerly a great distance, he can reach the farther Indies, with the rich island of Cipango and the kingdom of Cathay, of which Marco Polo tells."

"By St. James! the man must be short of his wits!" said Don Luis. "How could this be, unless the earth were round?"

"That hath been often objected, but he hath ready answers to much weightier arguments."

"What weightier can be found? Our own eyes tell us that the earth is flat."

"It seemeth so to the eye, but this Colon, who hath voyaged much, thinketh otherwise. He contendeth that the earth is a sphere, and that by sailing west he can reach points already attained by journeying east."

"By San Lorenzo! the idea is a bold one. I would fain

speak with this Colon. I will go tell him that I too am some-

what of a navigator, and would know more of his ideas." "And in what manner wilt thou open the acquaintance?" By telling him that I am Don Luis de Bobadilla, the nephew of the Dona Beatriz of Moya, and a noble of one of the best houses of Castile."

"No, no, my son; that may do with most map-sellers, but it will have no effect with Colon. Leave the mode to me, and we will see what can be accomplished."

Fray Pedro and his companion threaded their way through the mass of spectators until they came near enough to the Genoese to speak, when the friar stopped and waited patiently to catch his eye. Don Luis, volatile and never forgetful of his birth, chafed at thus dancing attendance on a mere map-seller and pilot; but presently Columbus observed the friar and saluted him courteously. After a brief conversation on general topics, Fray Pedro introduced Don Luis as a kinsman who had heard of his noble projects, and was burning to learn more from his own lips.

"I am always happy," said Columbus with simplicity and dignity, "to yield to the praiseworthy wishes of the young and adventurous, and will cheerfully communicate all your friend may desire to know. But Senor, you have forgotten to give me the name of the cavalier."

"It is Don Luis de Bobadilla, whose best claim to your notice is, besides his adventurous and roving spirit, that he may call your honored friend, the Marchioness of Moya, his aunt."

"Either would be sufficient, Father. I love the spirit of adventure in the youthful. Then I esteem Dona Beatriz among my fastest friends. Her kinsman therefore will be certain of my esteem and respect. Don Luis hath visited foreign lands, you say, Father, and hath a craving for the wonders and dangers of the ocean?"

"Such hath been either his merit or his fault, Senor. Had he listened to my advice, he would not have thrown aside his knightly career for one so little in unison with his training and birth."

"Nay, Father, you treat the youth with unmerited severity. He who passeth a life on the ocean cannot be said to pass it in either an ignoble or a useless' manner."

Their conversation was interrupted by the elevation on the towers of the Alhambra of the great silver cross and the banners of Castile and of St. James, and the Te Deum of the choirs opening the magnificent religious and martial pageant; but it proved the beginning of an acquaintance that ripened into friendship and had important results.

Among the throng that moved through the scenes of almost magical beauty in the courts of the Alhambra was Beatriz de Bobadilla, the wife of Don Andres de Cabrera, but generally known as the Marchioness of Moya, the constant and confidential friend of the Queen. On her arm leaned lightly a youthful maiden, Dona Mercedes de Valverde, one of the noblest and richest heiresses of Castile, her relative, ward, and .adopted daughter. On the other side of the noble matron walked Luis de Bobadilla.

"This is a marvel, Luis," said Dona Beatriz, "that thou, a rover thyself, shouldst now have heard for the first time of this Colon! He has been soliciting their Highnesses these many years for their royal aid. His schemes, too, have been solemnly debated at Salamanca; and he hath not been without believers at the court itself."

"Among whom is Dona Beatriz de Cabrera," said Mercedes. "I have often heard her Highness declare that Colon hath no truer friend in Castile."

"Her Highness is seldom mistaken, child. I do uphold the man and that which he proposes. Think of our becoming acquainted with the nations of the other side of the earth, and of imparting to them the consolations of Holy Church!"

"Ay, Senora my aunt," said Luis, laughing, "and of walking in their company with our heels in the air and our heads downward. I hope this Colon hath not neglected to practise in the art, for it will need time to gain a sure foot in such circumstances."

Mercedes looked serious at this sally, and threw at him a glance which he felt to be reproachful. To win the love of his aunt's ward was the young man's most ardent wish; and under the influence of that look he felt it necessary to try to repair the wrong he had done himself.

"The Dona Mercedes is of the discovering party, I see. This Colon hath had more success with the dames than with the nobles of Castile."

"Is it extraordinary, Don Luis," asked the pensive-looking girl, "that women should have more confidence in merit, more generous impulses, more zeal for God than men?"

"It must be even so, since you and my aunt side with the navigator. To be honest with you, I have been much struck with this noble idea; and if Senor Colon doth sail in quest of Cathay and the Indies, I shall pray their Highnesses to let me be one of the party."

"If thou shouldst really go on this expedition," said Dona Beatriz, with grave irony, "there will be at least one human being topsy-turvy, in case you should reach Cathay. But here comes an attendant—I doubt not her Highness desires my presence."

Don Luis laughed, and Dona Beatriz smiled as she kissed her ward and left the room. Luis was the declared suitor and sworn knight of Mercedes de Valverde; but, though favored by birth and fortune, there existed serious impediments to his success in the scruples of Dona Beatriz herself. Don Luis, whose mother was of an illustrious French family, had little of the Castilian gravity of character; and by many his animal spirits were mistaken for lightness of disposition and levity of thought. A consciousness that he was so viewed at home had driven him abroad; and nothing but his early and ever-increasing love for Mercedes had induced him to return, a step he had taken fortunately in time to aid in the reduction of Granada. His prowess in the field and in the tourney was so marked as to give him a high military character, and he had won fame by unhorsing Alonzo de Ojeda, accounted the most expert lance in Spain.

Dona Beatriz was absent quite two hours with the Queen, during which time Luis so pressed his suit that Mercedes promised to be his on condition of his attaching himself to Columbus and his schemes, and thus winning glory through some act of renown worthy enough to justify Dona Beatriz in bestowing on him the hand of her ward.

But Columbus's time of triumph had not yet come. The Archbishop of Granada, to whom the wily and insincere King Ferdinand referred the scheme of the Genoese, affected to be scandalized at Columbus's demand of the titles of admiral and viceroy with reversion to his descendants, and rejected his conditions. Columbus, disheartened, immediately set out with the avowed determination of presenting his scheme to the court of France. Don Luis accompanied him on the way, and in parting said:

"I here solemnly vow to join you in this voyage, on due notice, sail from whence you may, in whatever bark you shall choose, and whenever you please. In doing this, I trust, first, to serve God and His Church; secondly, to visit Cathay; and lastly, to win Dona Mercedes de Valverde."

The leave-taking of the two was warm, the navigator de-parting with a glow at his heart as he witnessed the sincere and honest emotions of the young man, and Don Luis swelling with indignation at the unworthy treatment his friend had received.

But Columbus had hardly departed on his way to the French court before Queen Isabella began to fear that her counselors had been precipitate in dismissing his claims. The opposition of the King, who declared that the treasury was empty, had had great influence in this; but now the thought that some foreign country might reap the glory which ought to be Spain's, added to the intercession of the friends of Columbus, induced her to change her mind and recall the navigator.

"If the royal treasury be drained," she exclaimed, "my private jewels should suffice for that small sum, and I will freely pledge them as security for the gold, rather than let this Colon depart without putting the truth of his theories to the proof. The result, truly, is of too great magnitude to admit of further discussion."

Don Luis de Bobadilla was hastily sent to recall Columbus, who had already reached the pass of the Bridge of Pinos.

"This is unexpected, Don Luis," said the navigator. "What meaneth thy return?"

"I am sent, Senor, by Dona Isabella, my gracious mistress, to urge your immediate return."

"I cannot forego a single condition already offered."

"It is not expected, Senor. Our generous mistress granteth all you ask, and hath nobly offered to pledge her private jewels rather than that the enterprise fail."

Columbus, deeply touched with this information, covered his face for a moment, as if ashamed to betray his weakness. When he at last looked up, his countenance was radiant with happiness, as he signified his readiness to return to Santa Fe.

How Columbus was received with honor on his return and given the title of Almirante or Admiral, how a fleet of three small vessels was put under his command and made ready for the long voyage, and how he finally sailed from the little port of Palos on the second day of August, 1492, is matter of history. Columbus himself took charge of the Santa Marta, the largest vessel, which had a round-house on her quarter-deck, in which the Admiral and his secretary, Don Luis, had their berths. Don Luis had laid aside his rank on taking service under the Admiral and styled himself Pedro de Munos.

The little fleet sailed first to the Canary Islands, and on the sixth day of September steered westward into the unknown sea. After seventy long days, in which the crews became almost mutinous, Columbus saw a light in the distance one night. Few thought of sleeping, and next morning (Oct. 12, 1492) a sailor on the Pinta first saw the New World. The land discovered was soon recognized as an island, which Columbus believed to be an outlying part of the Indies. The morning sun disclosed a wooded shore with many people running along the beach. Columbus anchored his little fleet and prepared to land with as much state as his limited means allowed. Attired in scarlet and carrying the royal standard, he proceeded in advance, followed by Martin Alonzo Pinzon, commander of the Pinta, and Vicente Yanez Pinzon, of the Nina, with banners bearing the cross and the letters F. and Y., for Fernando and Ysabel. While the astonished natives, who looked upon the ships as winged messengers from heaven, regarded the pageant with wonder, Columbus gave thanks to God for his success and took possession in behalf of their Majesties of Spain.

Columbus now visited other islands, among them Cuba and Hayti. In the latter he entertained an ambassador of the Great Cacique, whose name was Guacanagari. In his train was a young chieftain named Mattinao, with whom Luis formed a hasty friendship; and he asked the Admiral to permit him to return with the ambassador, hoping thus to acquire some knowledge of the interior of the island. Columbus gave his consent with reluctance, and as a precaution sent with him a tried sailor named Sancho Mundo. Luis took with him only his trusty sword and a light buckler, but Sancho was armed with an harquebus. Mattinao's canoe followed the coast of the island until the mouth of a river was reached. As they entered this stream, the Indian took from under his cotton robe a circlet of gold and placed it on his head; from this Luis supposed that he had now entered within a territory that acknowledged his will. A few miles up the river they came to a village in a tropical valley, where they were received with eager curiosity and profound respect. The people crowded around the strangers, of whom Sancho seemed to be the favorite, leaving the Count de Llera to the care of Mattinao, who made a sign for him to follow. The cacique led the way to a cluster of dwellings on a lovely terrace, occupying a hill-side commanding a view of the ocean, which Luis recognized as a sort of seraglio, set apart for the wives of the chieftain. After simple refreshments had been served in one of these houses, Mattinao led the way to a second dwelling, where, removing a curtain ingeniously made of seaweed, he entered an inner apartment. It had but a single occupant, an Indian maiden, whom the cacique introduced with a single word, "Ozema." Luis bowed to this Indian beauty with as pro-found a reverence as he would have given to a high-born damsel of Spain; then, with one long look of admiration on the half-frightened young creature, he exclaimed in a tone indicating rapture and astonishment, "Mercedes!"

The cacique, evidently mistaking this for a Spanish term of admiration, repeated it as well as he could, while the maiden, the subject of this wonder, blushed, laughed, and muttered in her soft, musical voice, "Mercedes."

This exclamation had escaped Luis from his recognition in the form and face of this Indian beauty of a decided accidental resemblance to the Mercedes he had left in Spain, so long the idol of his heart. There were of course marked differences between them, but the general likeness was so strong that no person familiar with the face of the one could fail to note it on meeting with the other. Luis felt a sensation like pleasure when he discovered that Ozema was the sister and not the wife of Mattinao, and that she was unmarried. He spent several days with the cacique, who showed him his wives and children, and, though but a few words of each other's language were understood, all showed an interest in the stranger that was unmistakable.

One day Don Luis was talking with Sancho, his sailor attendant, who had remained in the village, when a cry of terror arose.

"Hark!" said Luis, "is not that cry `Caonabo'?"

"The same, Senor! That is the name of the Carib cacique, the terror of these tribes."

"Thy harquebus, Sancho; then join me at the dwellings above. The wives of our good friend must be defended, at all hazards."

Sancho ran toward the town to get his harquebus, and Luis hastened to the dwelling of Mattinao, where he found Ozema and about fifty women, most of whom were uttering the terrible name of "Caonabo." Ozema appeared to be the chief object of solicitude and all urged her to fly lest she should fall into the hands of the Carib chief. From this he gathered that the seizure of the cacique's beautiful sister was the real object of the sudden attack. The family of Mattinao disappeared with the coming of the invaders, but Ozema, who seemed to rely on Luis's prowess to defend her, clung to him. Luis found a position favorable for defense, and placing Ozema behind a fragment of fallen rock, awaited the onset. The Caribs, armed with bows and arrows, war-clubs, and spears, advanced toward him. Their arrows, warded off by his buckler, did not reach him, and when several approached with clubs, he severed the arm of one and the head of another with his keen blade, causing them to fall back in astonishment. Caonabo himself now prepared for a fresh assault, when the report of Sancho's harquebus was heard and an assailant fell dead. This, which seemed a bolt from heaven, decided the day. In two minutes not a Carib was in sight. None of Mattinao's followers was to be seen in any direction, and Luis, determined to save Ozema, hastened to the river to find a canoe. Sancho followed them and they were soon on their way down the river. On reaching the sea Sancho rigged a small sail, and an hour before sunset the canoe entered the bay where the ships had been left. To Don Luis's astonishment and regret, the Santa Maria lay a stranded wreck on the sands, the Pinta had apparently deserted, and the Nina, little more than a felucca, was the only one left of the three vessels. The Nina being too small to carry all away, a sort of fortress was constructed on the shore, many of the stores transferred to it, and a colony left in it, while the remainder prepared to return to Spain.

Meanwhile Ozema had been left with friends ashore. Luis had seen her but once, and then had found her sorrowing and mute, like a withered flower. One evening he was summoned by Sancho to another interview, and to his surprise he found Mattinao with his sister. Ozema appeared no longer sorrowful, and Luis thought he had never seen her so winning and lovely. The secret was not long hidden. Her brother had come to the conclusion, knowing the character of Caonabo, that there was no refuge for Ozema but in flight. As the admiral was desirous of carrying to Spain a party of natives, and had already persuaded three women, one of whom was a kinswoman of Ozema's, to go, he consented that she should be added to the number. "I have given up the principal cabin to them," said the Admiral, "since thou and I can fare rudely a few weeks. Let the girl come, and see thou to her comfort and convenience."

So Ozema, the Indian princess, as she was called, went with Columbus to Spain, where her beauty won universal admiration and aroused the jealousy of Mercedes; and when the Queen, pleased to hear that Don Luis had returned, bearing himself as modestly as if he had no share in the glory, proposed to Mercedes that she should wed Don Luis at once, she hid her face and murmured, almost overcome with emotion:

"No, no, no, Senora; never, never!"

"Canst thou explain this, Beatriz ? " asked the Queen, turning to the Marchioness of Moya in wonder. "I appear to have wounded the heart of this child, when I fancied I was conferring supreme happiness."

"Alas! Senora, Luis, thoughtless and unprincipled boy, hath induced a youthful Indian princess to abandon home and friends, under pretense of swelling the triumph of the Admiral, but really in obedience to those evil caprices that make men what they are, and so often render unhappy women their dupes and victims."

"Ah! Senora," murmured Mercedes, "Luis is not so very culpable. Ozema's beauty, and my own want of the means to keep him true, are alone to blame."

"Ozema's beauty!" repeated the Queen. "Is this young Indian, then, so perfect that my ward need fear or envy her? Can I see her, Beatriz?"

"You have only to command, Senora."

When Ozema was brought into the presence of the Queen, Isabella commanded all others to withdraw, and questioned her guest as well as she was able for an hour; but she could gather little more from her than that she was Luis's wife.

"'Tis even worse than we had imagined, Beatriz," said Isabella, when she recalled the Marchioness. "Thy heartless, inconstant nephew hath already wedded the Indian, and she is, at this moment, his lawful wife."

But when Columbus was questioned concerning a marriage, he denied that any had taken place, and when Luis himself was confronted with Ozema's declaration, he said:

"I deny it altogether. Neither have I wedded her, nor hath the thought of so doing with any but Mercedes ever crossed my mind."

"Hast thou then wronged her," asked the Admiral, "and given her a right to think that thou didst mean wedlock?"

"I have not. Mine own sister would not have been more respected than hath Ozema been respected by me, as is shown by my hastening to place her in the care of my dear aunt and in the company of Dona Mercedes."

When Ozema was questioned more closely, it was discovered that she had regarded the act of Luis in giving her a cross, when they were in peril of death on the return voyage, as equivalent to a Christian marriage.

"I witnessed the offering of that cross," said Columbus, "during a tempest at sea, and it impressed me favorably with the Count's zeal in behalf of a benighted soul. There was no wedlock intended, nor could any but one ignorant of Christian usages have imagined it."

This put at rest the matter so far as Ozema was concerned; and, through the intercession of the Queen, Don Luis and Mercedes were reconciled. Isabella took Ozema under her protection and decreed that she should be paid all the honors due her position; but the climate gradually undermined the health of the Indian princess, and she was laid to rest before Columbus sailed again for the New World. On her death-bed she asked to be made a Christian; and when the Archbishop had performed the ceremony that put her within the pale of salvation, she said:

"Luis marry Mercedes, because he love best—then marry Ozema, second wife—because he love next best. Ozema Christian now."



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