Friday, April 06, 2007 3:12:00 PM
by Neil Grant
|Follows the adventures of Alex Campbell a year after the conclusion of Campbell's Reivers. This novel begins on the European mainland but Alex is destined to leave Zeeland for the shores of his native Scotland on a dangerous mission.
Francisco Pacheco de Toledo stood, feet apart, with his back to a roaring log fire which was spitting and hissing in the huge fireplace of his withdrawing room on the ground floor of the grand, white limestone cathedral of the city of Burgos in Castile, which city stands some 2,800 ft (850 m) above sea level on a mountainous plateau overlooking the Arlanzón River. Normally the city, which was the seat of the county of Castile under the kings of León and became the capital of the kingdom of Castile under Ferdinand I, has some of the coldest winters of any Spanish city, and this December night in the Year of Our Lord, Fifteen Hundred and Seventy-Three, was no exception. Outside the cathedral, the air temperature was well below freezing but here, inside, the area around the great fireplace was bearable. Cardinal Pacheco, now sixty-five years, greying, and a little stooped, stood surrounded by the exquisitely decorated walls of his room, a high, vaulted room full of colourful hangings, paintings and plaster works created by some of Spain’s finest artists – a tribute to the vitally important part played by the Church in the hearts and minds of its people, and the monies thereby lavished on such an important building.
The cardinal stood reading a letter that had been brought to him by a servitor. The author of the letter, his black-dyed, woolen cloak still wrapped around him against the cold, stood waiting in the great, high hallway of the cathedral. Pacheco read by the light, not of the fire but of some twenty tall candles. The contents of the letter, written in a spidery hand in Latin, intrigued him. Stepping to his left he picked up a small, silver bell that softly tinkled when he lifted and shook it. The servitor quietly and patiently re-entered the room.
“Go and fetch Father Ignatius from his devotions. I may have need of his wisdom in this present matter,” ordered the Cardinal.
While his manservant went to fetch the old priest, who was both friend and confidant, the cardinal donned a red silken robe which rustled softly as he donned it over the white cassock, his usual informal dress while relaxing after evening Mass. He picked up his red hat, symbol of cardinal rank since the 13th century when Pope Innocent the Fourth had shown his support for the hat by proclaiming it as a symbol of distinction, ordaining that all cardinals from that time onwards should wear the scarlet hat. The significance of scarlet was to indicate to the world the wearer’s willingness to shed their own blood in the cause of their faith. He placed it on his head.
Father Ignatius, on arriving at his friend’s side, was urged to read the letter. The old man’s sight was failing and, when he faltered, the Cardinal reached for the document and completed its reading.
“Is it possible that I should help this man?” the old priest was asked.
“If he is to be believed and his faith and intentions are true ,” replied the other, “Then would I have him serve Holy Church and enable him to destroy the enemies of Spain. Your Eminence will surely know on fuller investigation of this person if he speaks the truth.”
Francisco Pacheco de Toledo nodded his head. “I will see him now,” he said. “Have him brought to me here. Wait while I speak with him. Our friendship and your skills bring with you to this meeting tonight and guide me if you deem necessary.” Father Ignatius mumbled his agreement and made for the great hallway.
He found the man staring upwards, towards the galleries above which were dimly lit as befitted the time of evening. The old priest approached the stranger and, speaking quietly, invited him to follow to the presence of His Eminence. The tall, dark stranger nodded and followed the old priest.
In the withdrawing room Cardinal Pacheco was seated to the side of the hot, crackling fire. The man approached him and, dropping to one knee, took his hand between his own, kissing the holy ring and saying with a strong, steady, cultured voice, “Your Eminence. I am yours to command. My hope is that you are not inconvenienced in any way by my unusual approach. But I can assure you that my written words are correct. May God strike me dead here before you now if my letter speaks not the truth.”
“Be seated across from me, my son. Warm yourself at my fire,” replied the cardinal. “You are of Toledo?” he asked the man, knowing this from the letter.
“I am surely of that city, Your Eminence.”
“Myself, I am of the same city,” said Pacheco.
“Your Eminence, I know this well and it is the reason for my approach to you now,” continued the dark man, who removed his cloak at the beckoning of the old priest standing between the two speakers, “You and I are of the same lineage, of the same descent of family. From the line of the Campeador, the Cid don Rodrigo, whose venerated body lies within these hallowed walls.”
El Cid’s name was respected through all the multitude of Spanish territories and it was to this great hero of Spain that every young lad of noble birth, who wished to pursue a military career, was brought up to revere as the ultimate rôle model.
Thereafter followed a deep discussion between the stranger and the Cardinal, which encompassed each and every detail of the man’s letter. Eventually, the writer of the letter was asked to leave his Eminence’s presence and to return to his apartments in two days time, at the same time in the evening, to have further discussion on the matter. When he was gone, the two men of the Church talked well into the night. A mission of faith and revenge was discussed. Was it likely to succeed? Did the man have the knowledge of which he averred? Would he hold strong to his purpose? The enemies of King Philip II of Spain were also enemies of the true Faith. The two priests talked long into the night, then made their decision.
On the evening of the second day, as requested, the second meeting took place and Cardinal Pacheco, in his wisdom, took the stranger into his safekeeping. He confided in the grateful Toledan and granted him permission to pursue his mission, giving him monies enough to travel and placing him in possession of two most unusual jewels and a letter. One jewel was to be worn on arrival at his destination for purposes of personal safety and the other he must keep secreted on his person as means of proof of being a follower of the true faith. The latter jewel was a medal, issued by the Pope to commemorate the events in Paris of the previous year, bearing an image on the obverse of Gregory XIII and, on the reverse, under the legend Vgonotiorum Strages (overthrow of the Huguenots) stands an angel with cross and drawn sword, killing the aforesaid Huguenots! No further explanations were given and all three items were carefully secreted about the man’s person, which person was then blessed by both cardinal and priest before he, most naturally, offered them both his profuse thanks before retiring from room.
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