Arturo Perez-Reverte
 
CAPTAIN ALATRISTE

1 The Tavern of the Turk

He was not the most honest or pious of men, but he was courageous. His name was Diego Alatriste y Tenorio, and he had fought in the ranks during the Flemish wars. When I met him he was barely making ends meet in Madrid, hiring himself out for four maravedís in employ of little glory, often as a swordsman for those who had neither the skill nor the daring to settle their own quarrels. You know the sort I mean: a cuckolded husband here, outstanding gambling debts there, a petty lawsuit or questionable inheritance, and more troubles of that kind. It is easy to criticize now, but in those days the capital of all the Spains was a place where a man had to fight for his life on a street corner lighted by the gleam of two blades.

In all this Diego Alatriste played his part with panache. He showed great skill when swords were drawn, even more when with ­left-­handed cunning he wielded the long, narrow dagger some call the vizcaína, a weapon from Biscay that professionals often used to help their cause along. If a knife will not do it, the vizcaína will, was the old saying. The adversary would be concentrating on attacking and parrying, and suddenly, quick as lightning, with one upward slash, his gut would be slit, so fast he would not have time to ask for confession. Oh yes, Your Mercies, those were indeed harsh times.

Captain Alatriste, as I was saying, lived by his sword. Until I came into the picture, that “Captain” was more an honorary title than a true rank. His nickname originated one night when, serving as a soldier in the king’s wars, he had to cross an icy river with ­twenty-­nine companions and a true captain. Imagine, Viva España and all that, with his sword clenched between his teeth, and in his shirtsleeves to blend into the snow, all to surprise a Hollandish contingent. They were the enemy at the time because they were fighting for independence. In fact, they did win it in the end, but meanwhile we gave them a merry chase.

Getting back to the ­captain—­the plan was to stay there on the riverbank, or dike, or whatever the devil it was, until dawn, when the troops of our lord and king would launch an attack and join them. To make a long story short, the heretics were duly dispatched without time for a last word. They were sleeping like marmots when our men emerged from the icy water, nearly frozen, shaking off the cold by speeding heretics to Hell, or wherever it is those accursed Lutherans go. What went wrong is that the dawn came, and the morning passed, and the expected Spanish attack did not materialize. A matter, they told later, of old jealousies among the generals and officers in the field. Fact is, ­thirty-­one men were abandoned to their fate, amid curses and vows, surrounded by Low Dutch disposed to avenge the slashed throats of their comrades. With less chance than the Invincible Armada of the good King Philip the Second.

It was a long and very hard day. And in order that Your Mercies may picture what happened, only two of the Spanish made it back to the other bank of the river by the time night fell. Diego Alatriste was one of them, and as all day long he had commanded the ­troops—­the authentic captain having been rendered hors de combat in the first skirmish with two handspans of steel protruding from his ­back—­the title fell to him, though he had no opportunity to enjoy the honor. ­Captain-­for-­a-­day of troops fated to die, and paying their way to Hell at the cost of their hides, one after another, with the river to their backs and blaspheming in good Castilian Spanish. But that is the way of war and the maelstrom. That is the way it goes with Spain.

Well, then. My father was the other Spanish soldier who returned that night. His name was Lope Balboa; he was from the province of Guipuzcoa, and he, too, was a courageous man. They say that Diego Alatriste and he were very good friends, almost like brothers, and it must be true, because later, on the bulwarks of Julich, where my father was killed by a ball from a ­harquebus—­which was why Diego Velázquez did not include him in his painting of the Surrender of Breda, as he did his friend and fellow Diego, Alatriste, who is indeed there, behind the ­horse—­he swore that he would look after me when I grew out of childhood. And that is why, when I turned thirteen, my mother supplied me with shirt and breeches, and a rosary and a crust of bread tied up in a kerchief, and sent me to live with the captain, taking advantage of a cousin who was traveling to Madrid. Thus it was that I came to enter the service, at a rank somewhere between servant and page, of my father’s friend.

A confidence: I very much doubt whether, had she known him well, the mother who gave me birth would so gaily have sent me to his service. But I suppose that the title of captain, though apocryphal, added sheen to his character. Besides, my poor mother was not well and she had two daughters to feed. By sending me off she had one fewer mouth at table and at the same time was giving me the opportunity to seek my fortune at court. So, without bothering to ask further details, she packed me off with her cousin, together with a long letter written by the priest of our town, in which she reminded Diego Alatriste of his promise and his friendship with my deceased father.

I recall that when I attached myself to the captain, not much time had passed since his return from Flanders, because he carried an ugly wound in his side received at Fleurus, still fresh, and the source of great pain. Newly arrived, timid, and as easily frightened as a mouse, on my pallet at night I would listen to him pace back and forth in his room, unable to sleep. And at times I heard him softly singing little verses, interrupted by stabs of pain: Lope’s verses, then a curse or a comment to himself, partly resigned and almost amused. That was typical of the captain: to face each of his ills and misfortunes as if they were a kind of inevitable joke that an old, perverse acquaintance found entertaining to subject him to from time to time. Perhaps that was the origin of his peculiar sense of harsh, unchanging, despairing humor.

That was a long time ago, and I am a bit muddled regarding dates. But the story I am going to tell you must have taken place around sixteen hundred and ­twenty-­something. It is the adventure of masked men and two Englishmen, which caused not a little talk at court, and in which the captain not only came close to losing the ­patched-­up hide he had managed to save in Flanders, and in battling Turkish and Barbary corsairs, but also made himself a pair of enemies who would harass him for the rest of his life. I am referring to the secretary of our lord and king, Luis de Alquézar, and to his sinister Italian assassin, the silent and dangerous swordsman named Gualterio Malatesta, a man so accustomed to killing his victims from behind that when by chance he faced them, he sank into deep depressions, imagining that he was losing his touch. It was also the year in which I fell in love like a bawling calf, then and forever, with Angélica de Alquézar, who was as perverse and wicked as only Evil in the form of a blonde eleven- or ­twelve-­year-­old girl can be. But we will tell everything in its time.

My name is Íñigo. And my name was the first word Captain Alatriste uttered the morning he was released from the ancient prison in the castle, where he had spent three weeks as a guest of the king for nonpayment of debts. That he was the king’s “guest” is merely a manner of speak­ing, for in this as in other prisons of the time, the only ­luxuries—­and food was included as ­such—­were those a prisoner paid for from his own purse. Fortunately, although the captain had been incarcerated nearly innocent of any funds, he had a goodly number of friends. So thanks to one and then another fellow who came to his aid during his imprisonment, his stay was made more tolerable by the stews that Caridad la Lebrijana, the mistress of the Tavern of the Turk, sometimes sent by way of me, and by the four reales sent by his companions don Francisco de Quevedo and Juan Vicuña, among others.

As for the rest of it, and here I am referring to the hardships of prison life itself, the captain knew better than any how to protect himself. The practice of relieving one’s wretched ­companions-­in-­misfortune of their wealth, clothes, even their shoes, was notorious at that time. But Diego Alatriste was quite well known in Madrid, and any who did not know him soon found it was better for their health to approach him with caution. According to what I later learned, the first thing he did, once inside the walls, was to go straight to the most dangerous ruffian among the prisoners and, after greeting him politely, press the cold blade of that lethal vizcaí­na—which he had kept thanks to the transfer of a few maravedís to the ­jailer—­to the thug’s gullet. It worked like a sign from God. After this unmistakable declaration of principles, no one dared lift a hand against the captain, who from then on slept in peace, wrapped in his cape in a reasonably clean corner of the establishment and protected by his reputation as a man with steel in his spine.

Later, his generous sharing of La Lebrijana’s stews, as well as bottles of wine bought from the warden with the assistance of friends, helped secure him solid loyalties, even from the lowlife of that first day, a man from Córdoba with the unfortunate name of Bartolo Cagafuego. Although carry­ing the burden of a name like Bartolo Shitfire was reason enough to get him into trouble as regularly as a pious old dame goes to ­mass—­and though he had spent more than his share of time in the king’s ­galleys—­he was not a rancorous fellow. It was one of Diego Alatriste’s virtues that he could make friends in Hell.

It seems unreal. I do not remember the exact ­year—­it was the ­twenty-­second or ­twenty-­third year of the ­century—­but what I am sure of is that the captain emerged from the prison on one of those blue, luminous Madrid mornings so cold that it takes your breath away. From that ­day—­though neither of us yet knew ­it—­our lives were going to change greatly.

Time has gone by and water has flowed beneath the bridges of the Manzanares, but I can still see Diego Alatriste, thin and unshaven, stepping across the threshold with the heavy ­iron-­studded door closing behind him. I recall him perfectly, squinting in the blinding light, thick mustache covering his upper lip, slim silhouette wrapped in his cape, and beneath the shadow of his ­wide-­brimmed hat, bedazzled eyes that seemed to smile when he glimpsed me sitting on a bench in the plaza. There was something very unusual about the captain’s gaze; on the one hand, his eyes were very clear and very cold, a ­greenish-­gray like the water in puddles on a winter morning. On the other, they could suddenly break into a warm and welcoming smile, like a blast of heat melting a skim of ice, while the rest of his face remained serious, inexpressive, or grave. He had another, more disturbing, smile that he reserved for moments of danger or sadness: a kind of grimace that twisted his mustache down slightly toward the left corner of his mouth, a smile as threatening as cold ­steel—­which nearly always ­followed—­or as funereal as an omen of death when it was strung at the end of several bottles of wine, those the captain dispatched alone in his days of silence. The first one or two downed without taking a breath, then that gesture of wiping his mustache with the back of his hand while staring at the wall before him. Bottles to kill the ghosts, he always said, although he was never able to kill them completely.

The smile he directed at me that morning when he found me waiting belonged to the first category: the one that lighted his eyes, refuting the imperturbable gravity of his face and the harshness he often intentionally gave to his words, even when he was far from feeling it. He looked up and down the street, appeared to be satisfied when he did not see any new creditor lurking about, walked toward me, removed his cape, despite the cold, and tossed it to me, wadded into a ball.

“Íñigo,” he said. “Boil this. It is crawling with bedbugs.”

The cape stunk, as did he. His clothing held enough bugs to chew the ear off a bull, but all that was resolved less than an hour later in Mendo el Toscano’s bathhouse. A native of Tuscany, the barber had been a soldier in Naples when only a lad, and he admired Diego Alatriste greatly, and trusted him. When I arrived with a change of clothing—the only other full outfit the captain kept in the battered old cupboard that served us as a clothespress—I found him standing in a wood tub overflowing with dirty water, drying himself. El Toscano had trimmed his beard for him, and the short, wet chestnut hair combed back and parted in the middle revealed a broad forehead tanned by the sun of the prison courtyard but marred by a small scar that ran down to his left eyebrow. As he finished drying and putting on the clean breeches and shirt, I observed other scars I was already familiar with. One in the shape of a ­half-­moon between his navel and his left nipple. A long one that zigzagged down a thigh. Both had been made by a cutting blade, a sword or dagger, unlike a fourth on his back, which had formed the telltale star left by a musket ball. The fifth was the most recent, still not completely healed, the one that kept him from sleeping well every night: a violet gash almost a hand’s breadth wide on his left side, a souvenir of the battle of Fleurus. It was months old, and at times it opened and oozed pus, although that day as its owner stepped out of the tub it did not look too bad.

I helped him as he dressed, slowly and carelessly: dark gray doublet and knee breeches of the same color, tight at the knees over the buskins that hid the ladders in his hose. Then he buckled on the leather belt that I had carefully oiled during his absence, and into it thrust the sword with the large quillons, whose blade and guard showed the nicks, knocks, and scratches of other days and other blades. It was a good sword, long, intimidating, and of the best Toledo steel, and as it was drawn or sheathed it gave off a long metallic sssssss that would give you gooseflesh. He studied his reflection in a dim ­half-­length mirror for a moment, and smiled a weary smile.

“’Sblood,” he muttered, “I feel thirsty.”

Without another word he preceded me down the stairs and along Calle Toledo toward the Tavern of the Turk. As he had no cloak, he walked along the sunny side, head high, with the frazzled red plume in the band of his hat dipping and waving. He touched his hand to the wide brim to greet some acquaintance, or swept the hat off as he passed a lady of a certain status. I followed, distracted, taking in everything: the urchins playing in the street, the vegetable vendors in the arcades, and the groups of gossiping idlers sitting in the sun beside the Jesuit church. Although I had never been overly innocent, and the months I had been living in the neighborhood had had the virtue of opening my eyes, I was still a young and curious pup who looked at the world with an astonished gaze, trying not to miss a single detail.

As for the carriage, all I noticed at first were the hoofbeats of a team of mules and the sound of wheels approaching behind us. I scarcely paid attention; seeing coaches and carriages was a normal occurrence, because the street was the principal route to the Plaza Mayor and the castle, the Alcázar Real. But when I looked up for an instant as the carriage caught up to us, I saw a door without a shield and, in the small window, the face of a girl with blond hair combed into corkscrew curls, and the bluest, clearest, and most unsettling eyes I have ever seen. Those eyes met mine for an instant, and then the enchanting creature was borne off down the street.

I shuddered, not knowing why. But my shudder would have been even stronger had I known that I had just been gazed upon by the Devil.



 



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