Spain for the Sovereigns
It was growing dark as the cavalcade rode into the silent city of Barcelona on its way to the Palace of the Kings of Aragon. On it went, through streets so narrow that the tall grey houses – to which the smell of sea and harbour clung – seemed to meet over the cobbles.
At the head of this company of horsemen rode a young man of medium height and of kingly bearing. His complexion was fresh and tanned by exposure to the wind and sun; his features were well formed, his teeth exceptionally white, and the hair, which grew far back from his forehead, was light brown with a gleam of chestnut.
When any of his companions addressed him, it was with the utmost respect. He was some twenty-two years old, already a warrior and a man of experience, and only in the determination that all should respect his dignity did he betray his youth.
He turned to the man who rode beside him. ‘How she suffered, this city!’ he said.
‘It is true, Highness. I heard from the lips of the King, your father, that when he entered after the siege he could scarce refrain from weeping – such terrible sights met his eyes.’
Ferdinand of Aragon nodded grimly. ‘A warning,’ he murmured, ‘to subjects who seek to defy their rightful King.’
His companion replied: ‘It is so, Highness.’ He dared not remind Ferdinand that the civil war which had recently come to an end had been fought because of the murder of the rightful heir – Ferdinand’s half-brother Carlos, his father’s son by his first wife. It was a matter best forgotten, for now Ferdinand was very ready to take and defend all that his ambitious father, all that his doting mother, had procured for him.
The little cavalcade had drawn up before the Palace in which John of Aragon had his headquarters, and Ferdinand cried in his deep resonant voice: ‘What ails you all? I am here. I, Ferdinand, have come!’
There was immediate bustle within. Doors were flung open and grooms ran forward surrounding the party. Ferdinand leaped from his horse and ran into the Palace, where his father, who had heard his arrival, came to meet him, arms outstretched.
‘Ferdinand! Ferdinand!’ he cried, and his eyes filled with tears as he embraced his son. ‘Ah, I knew you would not delay your coming. I knew you would be with me. I am singularly blessed. I was given the best of wives, and although she has now been taken from me, she has left me the best of sons.’
The seventy-eight-year-old King of Aragon showed no signs of failing. Still strong and energetic – in spite of recent operations which had restored the sight of both eyes – he rarely permitted himself to show any weakness. But there was one emotion which he always failed to hide; that was the love he had for his dead wife and his son by her: Ferdinand.
His arm about Ferdinand’s shoulder, John led his son into a small apartment and called for refreshment. When it was brought and they were alone Ferdinand said: ‘You sent for me, Father; that was enough to bring me hastening to your side.’
John smiled. ‘But such a newly married husband, and such a charming wife!’
‘Ah, yes,’ said Ferdinand, with a complacent smile. ‘Isabella was loth to lose me, but she is deeply conscious of duty, and when she heard of your need, she was certain that I should not fail you.’
John nodded. ‘And all is well . . . in Castile, my son?’
‘All is well, Father.’
‘And the child?’
‘Healthy and strong.’
‘I would your little Isabella had been a boy!’
‘There will be boys,’ said Ferdinand.
‘Indeed there will be. And I will say this, Ferdinand. When you have a son, may he be so like yourself that all will say: “Here is another Ferdinand come among us.” I cannot wish you better than that.’
‘Father, you think too highly of your son.’ But the young man’s expression belied the charge.
John shook his head. ‘King of Castile! And one day . . . perhaps not far distant, King of Aragon.’
‘For the second title I would be content to wait all my life,’ said Ferdinand. ‘As for the first . . . as yet it is little more than a courtesy title.’
‘So Isabella is the Queen and you the Consort . . . for a time . . . for a time. I doubt not that very soon you will have brought her to understanding.’
‘Mayhap,’ agreed Ferdinand. ‘It is regrettable that the Salic law is not in force in Castile as in Aragon.’
‘Then, my son, you would be undoubted King and Isabella your Consort. Castile should be yours through your grandfather and namesake but for the fact that females are not excluded from the Castilian throne. But Isabella, the female heir, is your wife, my dearest son, and I am sure that this little difficulty is only a temporary one.’
‘Isabella is very loving,’ Ferdinand replied with a smile.
‘There! Then soon all will be as we could wish.’
‘But let us talk of your affairs, Father. They are of greater moment, and it is for this purpose that I have come to you.’
King John looked grave. ‘As you know,’ he said, ‘during the revolt of the Catalans it was necessary for me to ask help of Louis of France. He gave it to me, but Louis, as you know, never gives something for nothing.’
‘I know that the provinces of Roussillon and Cerdagne were placed in his custody as security, and that now they have risen in revolt against this foreign yoke.’
‘And have called to me for succour. Alas, the Seigneur du Lude has now invaded Roussillon with ten thousand infantry and nine hundred lances. Moreover, he has brought supplies that will keep his armies happy for months. The civil war has been long. You know how it has drained the exchequer.’
‘We must raise money, Father, in some way.’
‘That is why I have called you. I want you to go to Saragossa and by some means raise the money for our needs. Defeat at the hands of France would be disastrous.’
Ferdinand was silent for a few seconds. ‘I am wondering,’ he said at length, ‘how it will be possible to wring the necessary funds from the estates of Aragon. How do matters stand in Saragossa?’
‘There is much lawlessness in Aragon.’
‘Even as in Castile,’ answered Ferdinand. ‘There has been such strife for so long that civil affairs are neglected and rogues and robbers spring up all around us.’
‘It would seem,’ John told him, ‘that a certain Ximenes Gordo has become King of Saragossa.’
‘How can that be?’
‘You know the family. It is a noble one. Ximenes Gordo has cast aside his nobility. He has taken municipal office and has put himself into a position of such influence that it is not easy, from this distance, to deal with him. All the important posts have been given to his friends and relations and those who offer a big enough bribe. He is a colourful rogue and has in some manner managed to win the popular esteem. He makes a travesty of justice and I have evidence that he is guilty of numerous crimes.’
‘His trial and execution should be ordered.’
‘My dear son, to do so might bring civil strife to Saragossa. I have too much on my hands. But if you are going to raise funds for our needs a great deal will depend on Ximenes Gordo.’
‘The King of Aragon dependent on a subject!’ cried Ferdinand. ‘That seems impossible.’
‘Does it not, my son. But I am in dire need, and far from Saragossa.’
Ferdinand smiled. ‘You must leave this matter to me, Father. I will go to Saragossa. You may depend upon it, I will find some means of raising the money you need.’
‘You will do it, I know,’ said John. ‘It is your destiny always to succeed.’
Ferdinand smiled complacently. ‘I shall set off without delay for Saragossa, Father,’ he said.
John looked wistful. ‘So shortly come, so soon to go,’ he murmured.’ Yet you are right,’ he added. ‘There is little time to lose.’
‘Tomorrow morning, at dawn, I shall leave,’ Ferdinand told him. ‘Your cause – as always – is my own.’
On his way through Catalonia to Saragossa there was one call which Ferdinand could not deny himself the pleasure of making.
It must be as far as possible a secret call. There was one little person whom he longed to see and who meant a great deal to him, but he was determined to go to great lengths to conceal his existence from Isabella. He was beginning to realise that it was going to be somewhat difficult to live up to the ideal which his wife had made of him.
He and his followers had rested at an inn and, declaring that he would retire early, he with two of his most trusted attendants went to the room which had been assigned to him.
As soon as they were alone, he said: ‘Go to the stables. Have the horses made ready and I will join you when all is quiet.’
Ferdinand was impatient when they had left him. How long his party took to settle down! He had to resist an impulse to go to them and demand that they retire to their beds immediately and fall into deep sleep.
That would be folly, of course, since the great need was for secrecy. He was not by nature impulsive. He knew what he wanted and was determined to get it; but experience had taught him that it was often necessary to wait a long time for success in one’s endeavours. Ferdinand had learned to wait.
So now he did so, impatient yet restrained, until at last his servant was at the door.
‘All is quiet, Highness. The horses are ready.’
‘That is well. Let us be off.’
It was pleasant riding through the night. He had wondered whether to send a messenger ahead of him to warn her. But no. It should be a surprise. And if he found her with a lover, he did not greatly care. It was not she – beautiful as she was – who called him, it was not merely for her sake that he was ready to make this secret journey, news of which might be brought to the ears of Isabella.
‘Oh, Isabella, my wife, my Queen,’ he murmured to himself, ‘you will have to learn something of the world one day. You will have to know that men, such as I am, who spend long periods away from the conjugal bed, cannot be denied a mistress now and then.’
And from love affairs such as that which he had enjoyed with the Viscountess of Eboli there were often results.
Ferdinand smiled. He was confident of his powers to obtain what he would from all women – even his sedate, and rather alarmingly prim, Isabella.
He was remembering the occasion when he and the Viscountess had become lovers. It was during one of those spells when he was away from Castile, in Catalonia on his father’s business. It was Isabella who had insisted that he leave her. ‘It is your duty to go to your father’s aid,’ she had said.
Duty! he thought. It was a word frequently recurrent in Isabella’s vocabulary.
She would never fail to do her duty. She had been brought up to regard it as of paramount importance. She would risk her life for the sake of duty; she did not know, she must not guess that, when she had allowed her husband to depart into Catalonia, she had risked his fidelity to their marriage bed.
It had happened. And now here he was at the Eboli mansion; the house was stirring and the cry went forth: ‘He is come! The Master is within the gates.’
When he had given his horse to the waiting groom, he said: ‘Softly, I pray you all. This is an unofficial visit. I am passing on my way to Aragon and I but pause to pay a friendly call.’
The servants understood. They knew of the relationship between their mistress and Don Ferdinand. They did not speak of it outside the household. They knew that it was the wish of Don Ferdinand that this should be kept secret, and that it could be dangerous to offend him.
He had stepped into the house.
‘Your mistress?’ he asked of two women who had immediately dropped deep curtsies.
‘She had retired for the night, Highness. But already she has heard of your coming.’
Ferdinand looked up and saw his mistress at the head of the staircase. Her long dark hair fell in disorder about her shoulders; she was wearing a velvet robe of a rich ruby colour draped round her naked body.
She was beautiful; and she was faithful. He saw the joy in her face and his senses leaped with delight as he bounded up the stairs and they embraced.
‘So . . . you have come at last . . .’
‘You know that I would have been here before this, could I have arranged it.’