Historical Tales: 7—Spanish - Charles Morris

The Knight of the Exploits

The dull monotony of sieges, of which there were many during the war with Granada, was little to the taste of the valorous Spanish cavaliers. They burned for adventure, and were ever ready for daring exploits, the more welcome the more dangerous they promised to be. One day during the siege of Baza, a strong city in El Zagal's dominions, two of these spirited young cavaliers, Francisco de Bazan and Antonio de Cueva, were seated on the ramparts of the siege works, bewailing the dull life to which they were confined. They were overheard by a veteran scout, who was familiar with the surrounding country.

"Seņors," he said, "if you pine for peril and profit and are eager to pluck the beard of the fiery old Moorish king, I can lead you where you will have a fine opportunity to prove your valor. There are certain hamlets not far from the walls of El Zagal's city of Guadix where rich booty awaits the daring raider. I can lead you there by a way that will enable you to take them by surprise; and if you are as cool in the head as you are hot in the spur you may bear off spoils from under the very eyes of the king of the Moors."

He had struck the right vein. The youths were at once hot for the enterprise. To win booty from the very gates of Guadix was a stirring scheme, and they quickly found others of their age as eager as themselves for the daring adventure. In a short time they had enrolled a body of nearly three hundred horse and two hundred foot, well armed and equipped, and every man of them ready for the road.

The force obtained, the raiders left the camp early one evening, keeping their destination secret, and made their way by starlight through the mountain passes, led by the adalid, or guide. Pressing rapidly onward by day and night, they reached the hamlets one morning just before daybreak, and fell on them suddenly, making prisoners of the inhabitants, sacking the houses, and sweeping the fields of their grazing herds. Then, without taking a moment to rest, they set out with all speed for the mountains, which they hoped to reach before the country could be roused.

Several of the herdsmen had escaped and fled to Guadix, where they told El Zagal of the daring ravage. Wild with rage at the insult, the old king at once sent out six hundred of his choicest horse and foot, with orders for swift pursuit, bidding them to recover the booty and bring him as prisoners the insolent marauders. The Christians, weary with their two days and nights of hard marching, were driving the captured cattle and sheep up a mountain-side, when, looking back, they saw a great cloud of dust upon their trail. Soon they discerned the turbaned host, evidently superior to them in number, and man and horse in fresh condition.

"They are too much for us," cried some of the horsemen. "It would be madness in our worn-out state to face a fresh force of that number. We shall have to let the cattle go and seek safety in flight."

"What!" cried Antonio and Francisco, their leaders; "abandon our prey without a blow? Desert our foot-soldiers and leave them to the enemy? Did any of you think El Zagal would let us off without a brush? You do not give good Spanish counsel, for every soldier knows that there is less danger in presenting our faces than our backs to the foe, and fewer men are killed in a brave advance than in a cowardly retreat."

Some of the cavaliers were affected by these words, but the mass of the party were chance volunteers, who received no pay and had nothing to gain by risking their lives. Consequently, as the enemy came near, the diversity of opinions grew into a tumult, and confusion reigned. The captains ordered the standard-bearer to advance against the Moors, confident that any true soldiers would follow his banner. He hesitated to obey; the turmoil increased; in a moment more the horsemen might be in full flight.

At this critical juncture a horseman of the royal guards rode forward,—the good knight Hernan Perez del Pulgar, governor of the fortress of Salar. Taking off the handkerchief which, in the Andalusian fashion, he wore round his head, he tied it to a lance and raised it in the air.

"Comrades," he cried, "why do you load yourself with arms if you trust for safety to your feet? We shall see who among you are the brave men and who are the cowards. If it is a standard you want, here is mine. Let the man who has the heart to fight follow this handkerchief."

Waving his improvised banner, he spurred against the Moors. Many followed him. Those who at first held back soon joined the advance. With one accord the whole body rushed with shouts upon the enemy. The Moors, who were now close at hand, were seized with surprise and alarm at this sudden charge. The foremost files turned and fled in panic, followed by the others, and pursued by the Christians, who cut them down without a blow in return. Soon the whole body was in full flight. Several hundred of the Moors were killed and their bodies despoiled, many were taken prisoners, and the Christians returned in triumph to the army, driving their long array of cattle and sheep and of mules laden with booty, and bearing in their front the standard under which they had fought.

King Ferdinand was so delighted with this exploit, and in particular with the gallant action of Perez del Pulgar, that he conferred knighthood upon the latter with much ceremony, and authorized him to bear upon his escutcheon a golden lion in an azure field, showing a lance with a handkerchief at its point. Round its border were to be depicted the eleven alcaides defeated in the battle. This heroic deed was followed by so many others during the wars with the Moors that Perez del Pulgar became in time known by the flattering appellation of "He of the exploits."

The mast famous exploit of this daring knight took place during the siege of Granada,—the final operation of the long war. Here single combats and minor skirmishes between Christian and Moorish cavaliers were of almost daily occurrence, until Ferdinand strictly forbade all such tilts, as he saw that they gave zeal and courage to the Moors, and were attended with considerable loss of life among his bravest followers.

This edict of the king was very distasteful to the fiery Moorish knights, who declared that the crafty Christian wished to destroy chivalry and put an end to heroic valor. They did their best to provoke the Spanish knights to combat, galloping on their fleet steeds close to the borders of the camp and hurling their lances over the barriers, each lance bearing the name of its owner with some defiant message. But despite the irritation caused by these insults to the Spanish knights, none of them ventured to disobey the mandate of the king.

Chief among these Moorish cavaliers was one named Tarfe, a man of fierce and daring spirit and a giant in size, who sought to surpass his fellows in acts of audacity. In one of his sallies towards the Christian camp this bold cavalier leaped his steed over the barrier, galloped inward close to the royal quarters, and launched his spear with such strength that it quivered in the earth close to the tents of the sovereigns. The royal guards rushed out, but Tarfe was already far away, scouring the plain on his swift Barbary steed. On examining the lance it was found to bear a label indicating that it was intended for the queen, who was present in the camp.

This bravado and the insult offered Queen Isabella excited the highest indignation among the Christian warriors. "Shall we let this insolent fellow outdo us?" said Perez del Pulgar, who was present. "I propose to teach those insolent Moors a lesson. Who will stand by me in an enterprise of desperate peril?" The warriors knew Pulgar well enough to be sure that his promise of peril was likely to be kept, yet all who heard him were ready to volunteer. Out of them he chose fifteen,—men whom he knew he could trust for strength of arm and valor of heart.

His proposed enterprise was indeed a perilous one. A Moorish renegade had agreed to guide him into the city by a secret pass. Once within, they were to set fire to the Alcaiceria and others of the principal buildings, and then escape as best they could.

At dead of night they set out, provided with the necessary combustibles. Their guide led them up a channel of the river Darro, until they halted under a bridge near the royal gate. Here Pulgar stationed six of his followers on guard, bidding them to keep silent and motionless. With the others he made his way up a drain of the stream which passed under a part of the city and opened into the streets. All was dark and silent. Not a soul moved. The renegade, at the command of Pulgar, led the adventurers to the principal mosque. Here the pious cavalier drew from under his cloak a parchment inscribed in large letters with AVE MARIA, and nailed this to the door of the mosque, thus dedicating the heathen temple to the Virgin Mary.

They now hurried to the Alcaiceria, where the combustibles were placed ready to fire. Not until this moment was it discovered that the torch-bearer had carelessly left his torch at the door of the mosque. It was too late to return. Pulgar sought to strike fire with flint and steel, but while doing so the Moorish guard came upon them in its rounds. Drawing his sword and followed by his comrades, the bold Spaniard made a fierce assault upon the astonished Moors, quickly putting them to flight. But the enterprise was at an end. The alarm was given and soldiers were soon hurrying in every direction through the streets. Guided by the renegade, Pulgar and his companions hastened to the drain by which they had entered, plunged into it, and reached their companions under the bridge. Here mounting their horses, they rode back to the camp.

The Moors were at a loss to imagine the purpose of this apparently fruitless enterprise, but wild was their exasperation the next morning when they found the "Ave Maria" on the door of a mosque in the centre of their city. The mosque thus sanctified by Perez del Pulgar was actually converted into a Christian cathedral after the capture of the city.

We have yet to describe the sequel of this exploit. On the succeeding day a powerful train left the Christian camp and advanced towards the city walls. In its centre were the king and queen, the prince and princesses, and the ladies of the court, surrounded by the royal body-guard,—a richly dressed troop, composed of the sons of the most illustrious families of Spain. The Moors gazed with wonder upon this rare pageant, which moved in glittering array across the vega to the sound of martial music; a host brilliant with banners and plumes, shining arms and shimmering silks, for the court and the army moved there hand in hand. Queen Isabella had expressed a wish to see, nearer at hand, a city whose beauty was of world-wide renown, and the Marquis of Cadiz had drawn out this powerful escort that she might be gratified in her desire. The queen had her wish, but hundreds of men died that she might be pleased.

While the royal dame and her ladies were gazing with delight on the red towers of the Alhambra, rising in rich contrast through the green verdure of their groves, a large force of Moorish cavalry poured from the city gates, ready to accept the gage of battle which the Christians seemed to offer. The first to come were a host of richly armed and gayly attired light cavalry, mounted on fleet and fiery Barbary steeds. Heavily armed cavalry followed, and then a strong force of foot-soldiers, until an army was drawn up on the plain. Queen Isabella saw this display with disquiet, and forbade an attack upon the enemy, or even a skirmish, as it would pain her if a single warrior should lose his life through the indulgence of her curiosity.

As a result, though the daring Moorish horsemen rode fleetly along the Christian front, brandishing their lances, and defying the cavaliers to mortal combat, not a Spaniard stirred. The cavaliers were under the eyes of Ferdinand, by whom such duels had been strictly forbidden. At length, however, they were incensed beyond their powers of resistance. Forth from the city rode a stalwart Moorish horseman, clad in steel armor, and bearing a huge buckler and a ponderous lance. His device showed him to be the giant warrior Tarfe, the daring infidel who had flung his lance at the queen's tent. As he rode out he was followed by the shouts and laughter of a mob, and when he came within full view of the Spanish army the cavaliers saw, with indignant horror, tied to his horse's tail and dragging in the dust, the parchment with its inscription of "Ave Maria" which Hernan Perez del Pulgar had nailed to the door of the mosque.

This insult was more than Castilian flesh and blood could bear. Hernan was not present to maintain his deed, but Garcilasso de la Vega, one of the young companions of his exploit, galloped to the king and earnestly begged permission to avenge the degrading insult to their holy faith. The king, who was as indignant as the knight, gave the desired permission, and Garcilasso, closing his visor and grasping his spear, rode out before the ranks and defied the Moor to combat to the death.

Tarfe asked nothing better, and an exciting passage at arms took place on the plain with the two armies as witnesses. Tarfe was the stronger of the two, and the more completely armed. He was skilled in the use of his weapons and dexterous in managing his horse, and the Christians trembled for their champion.

The warriors met in mid career with a furious shock. Their lances were shivered, and Garcilasso was borne back in his saddle. But his horse wheeled away and he was quickly firm in his seat again, sword in hand. Sword against scimitar, the combatants returned to the encounter. The Moor rode a trained horse, that obeyed his every signal. Round the Christian he circled, seeking some opening for a blow. But the smaller size of Garcilasso was made equal by greater agility. Now be parried a blow with his sword, now he received a furious stroke on his shield. Each of the combatants before many minutes felt the edge of the steel, and their blood began to flow.

At length the Moor, thinking his antagonist exhausted, rushed in and grappled with him, using all his force to fling him from his horse. Garcilasso grasped him in return with all his strength, and they fell together to the earth, the Moor uppermost. Placing his knee on the breast of the Spaniard, Tarfe drew his dagger and brandished it above his throat. Terror filled the Christian ranks; a shout of triumph rose from those of the Moors. But suddenly Tarfe was seen to loosen his grasp and roll over in the dust. Garcilasso had shortened his sword and, as Tarfe raised his arm, had struck him to the heart.

The rules of chivalry were rigidly observed. No one interfered on either side. Garcilasso despoiled his victim, raised the inscription "Ave Maria" on the point of his sword, and bore it triumphantly back, amid shouts of triumph from the Christian army.

By this time the passions of the Moors were so excited that they could not be restrained. They made a furious charge upon the Spanish host, driving in its advanced ranks. The word to attack was given the Spaniards in return, the war-cry "Santiago!" rang along the line, and in a short time both armies were locked in furious combat. The affair ended in a repulse of the Moors, the foot-soldiers taking to flight, and the cavalry vainly endeavoring to rally them. They were pursued to the gates of the city, more than two thousand of them being killed, wounded, or taken prisoners in "the queen's skirmish," as the affair came to be called.