G. A. Henty
By Right of Conquest; Or, With Cortez in Mexico
The conquest of Mexico, an extensive empire with a numerous and warlike population, by a mere handful of Spaniards, is one of the romances of history. Indeed, a writer of fiction would scarcely have dared to invent so improbable a story. Even the bravery of the Spaniards, and the advantage of superior arms would not have sufficed to give them the victory, had it not been that Mexico was ripe for disruption. The Aztecs, instead of conciliating by wise and gentle government the peoples they had conquered, treated them with such despotic harshness that they were ready to ally themselves with the invaders, and to join with them heartily against the central power; so that instead of battling against an empire single-handed, the Spaniards had really only to war with a great city, and were assisted by a vast army of auxiliaries.
Fortunately, the details of the extraordinary expedition of Cortez were fully related by contemporary writers, several of whom were eyewitnesses of the scenes they described. It was not necessary for me, however, to revert to these; as Prescott, in his admirable work on the conquest of Mexico, has given a summary of them; and has drawn a most vivid picture of the events of the campaign. The book far surpasses in interest any volume of fiction, and I should strongly recommend my readers to take the first opportunity that occurs of perusing the whole story, of which I have only been able to touch upon the principal events.
While history is silent as to the voyage of the Swan, it is recorded by the Spaniards that an English ship did, in 1517 or 1518, appear off the port of San Domingo, and was fired at by them, and chased from the islands; but it was not until some twenty or thirty years later that the English buccaneers openly sailed to challenge the supremacy of the Spaniards among the Western Islands, and to dispute their pretensions to exclude all other flags but their own from those waters. It may, however, be well believed that the ship spoken of was not the only English craft that entered the Spanish main; and that the adventurous traders of the West country, more than once, dispatched ships to carry on an illicit trade there. Such enterprises would necessarily be conducted with great secrecy, until the relations between Spain and England changed, and religious differences broke up the alliance that existed between them during the early days of Henry the 8th.
G. A. Henty.
Chapter 1: A Startling Proposal
On March 3rd, 1516, the trading vessel the Swan dropped anchor at Plymouth. She would in our days be considered a tiny craft indeed, but she was then looked upon as a large vessel, and one of which her owner, Master Diggory Beggs, had good reason to be proud. She was only of some eighty tons burden, but there were few ships that sailed out from Plymouth of much larger size; and Plymouth was even then rising into importance as a seaport, having flourished mightily since the downfall of its once successful rival–Fowey. Large ships were not needed in those days, for the only cargoes sent across the sea were costly and precious goods, which occupied but small space. The cloths of the Flemings, the silks and satins of Italy, the produce of the East, which passed first through the hands of the Venetian and Genoese merchants, and the wines of France and Spain were the chief articles of commerce. Thus the freight for a vessel of eighty tons was a heavy venture, and none but merchants of wealth and position would think of employing larger ships. In this respect the Spaniards and the Italian Republics were far ahead of us, and the commerce of England was a small thing, indeed, in comparison with that of Flanders.
In Plymouth, however, the Swan was regarded as a goodly ship; and Master Diggory Beggs was heartily congratulated, by his acquaintances, when the news came that the Swan was sailing up the Sound, having safely returned from a voyage to Genoa.
As soon as the anchor was dropped and the sails were furled, the captain, Reuben Hawkshaw, a cousin of Master Beggs, took his place in the boat, accompanied by his son Roger, a lad of sixteen, and was rowed by two sailors to the landing place. They were delayed for a few minutes there by the number of Reuben's acquaintances, who thronged round to shake him by the hand; but as soon as he had freed himself of these, he strode up the narrow street from the quays to the house of Master Diggory.
Reuben Hawkshaw was a tall, powerfully built man, weatherbeaten and tanned from his many comings and goings upon the sea; with a voice that could be heard in the loudest storm, and a fierce look–but, as his men knew, gentle and kind at heart, though very daring; and having, as it seemed, no fear of danger either from man or tempest.
Roger was large boned and loosely jointed, and was likely some day to fill out into as big a man as his father, who stood over six-feet-two without his shoes.
Reuben was wont to complain that he, himself, was too big for shipboard.
"If a crew were men wholly of my size," he would say, "a ship would be able to carry but a scant crew; for, lie they as close as they would, there would not be room for a full complement below."
For indeed, in those days space was precious, and on board a ship men were packed well-nigh as close as they could lie; having small thought of comfort, and being well content if there was room to turn, without angering those lying next on either side.
The merchant, who was so stout and portly that he offered a strong contrast to his cousin, rose from his desk as the latter entered.
"I am glad, indeed, to see you back, Cousin Reuben; and trust that all has fared well with you."
"Indifferent well, Cousin Diggory. We have a good stock of Italian goods on board; but as, of course, these took up but a small portion of her hold, I put into Cadiz on my way back. There I filled up with three-score barrels of Spanish wine, which will, I warrant me, return good profit on the price I paid for them."
"And you have met with no accidents or adventures, Reuben?"
"Not more than is useful. We had a fight with some Moorish pirates, who coveted the goods with which, as they doubtless guessed, we were laden; but we beat them off stoutly, with a loss of only six men killed among us. We had bad weather coming up the Portugal Coast, and had two men washed overboard; and we had another stabbed in a drunken brawl in the street. And besides these there are, of course, many who were wounded in the fight with the Moors and in drunken frays ashore; but all are doing well, and the loss of a little blood will not harm them, so our voyage may be termed an easy and pleasant one.
"That is well," the merchant said, in a tone of satisfaction. "We cannot expect a voyage like this to pass without accident.
"And how are you, Roger?" he asked, turning to the boy, who was standing near the door with his cap in his hand, until it should please his elders to address him.
"I am well, I thank you, Master Diggory. It is seldom that anything ails with me. I trust that Mistress Mercy and my cousins are well."
"You had best go upstairs, and see them for yourself, Roger. Your father and I have weighty matters to talk over, and would fain be alone."
Roger was glad to escape from the merchant's counting house and, bowing to his cousin, went off with a quiet step; which, after he had closed the door behind him, was changed into a rapid bound as he ascended the stairs.
"Gently, Roger," Mistress Beggs said, as he entered the room where she and her two daughters were sitting, at work. "We are truly glad to see you, but you must remember that we stay-at-home people are not accustomed to the boisterous ways of the sea."
The reproof was administered in a kindly tone, but Roger colored to the hair; for indeed, in his delight at being back again, he had forgotten the manners that were expected from a lad of his age, on shore. However, he knew that, although Mistress Beggs was somewhat precise in her ways, she was thoroughly kind; and always treated him as if he were a nephew of her own, rather than a young cousin of her husband's. He therefore recovered at once from his momentary confusion, and stepped forward to receive the salute Mistress Beggs always gave him, on his return from his voyages.
"Dorothy, Agnes, you remember your Cousin Roger?"
The two girls, who had remained seated at their work–which had, however, made but little progress since their father had run in, two hours before, to say that the Swan was signaled in the Sound–now rose, and each made a formal courtesy, and then held up her cheek to be kissed, according to the custom of the day; but there was a little smile of amusement on their faces that would have told a close observer that, had their mother not been present, their greeting would have been a warmer and less ceremonious one.
"Well, well, Roger," Mistress Beggs went on, "it is marvelous to see how fast you grow! Why, it is scarce six months since you sailed away, and you seem half a head taller than you were when you went! And so the Swan has returned safely, without damage or peril?"
"No damage to speak of, Cousin Mercy, save for a few shot holes in her hull, and a good many patches on her side–the work of a Moorish corsair, with whom we had a sharp brush by the way."
"And was there loss of life, Roger?"
"We have come back nine hands shorter than we sailed with, and there are a few on board still unfit for hard work."
"And did you fight, Cousin Roger?" Dorothy Beggs asked.
"I did what I could with my bow, until I got alongside, and then joined in the melee as well as I could. The heathen fought bravely, but they were not a match for our men; being wanting in weight and strength, and little able to stand up against the crushing blows of our axes. But they are nimble and quick with their curved swords; and the fierceness of their faces, and their shouting, would have put men out of countenance who had less reason to be confident than ours."
"And the trading has gone well?" asked Mistress Beggs, who was known to have a keen eye to the main chance.
"I believe that my father's well satisfied, Cousin Mercy, and that the venture has turned out fully as well as he looked for."
"That is well, Roger.
"Do you girls go on with your work. You can sew while you are listening. I will go and see that the preparations for dinner are going on regularly, for the maids are apt to give way to talk and gossip, when they know that the Swan is in."
As soon as she had left the room, the two girls threw down their work and, running across to Roger, saluted him most heartily.
"That is a much better welcome," Roger said, "than the formal greetings you before gave me. I wonder what Cousin Mercy would have said, had she chanced to come in again."
"Mother guessed well enough what it would be, when we were alone together," Dorothy said, laughing. "She always thinks it right on special occasions to keep us to our manners, and to make us sure that we know how it is becoming to behave; but you know well, Roger, that she is not strict with us generally, and likes us to enjoy ourselves. When we are staying up at the farm with Aunt Peggy, she lets us run about as we will; and never interferes with us, save when our spirits carry us away altogether. I think we should be glad if we always lived in the country.
"But now, Roger, let us hear much more about your voyage, and the fight with the Moors. Are they black men?"
"Not at all, Dorothy. They are not very much darker than our own fishermen, when they are bronzed by the sun and wind. There are black men who live somewhere near their country, and there were several of these fighting with them. These blacks are bigger men than the Moors, and have thick lips and wide mouths. I believe that they live as slaves among the Moors, but those who were with them fought as bravely as they did; and it needed a man with a stout heart to engage with them, so ugly were their faces."
"Were you not terrified, Roger?"
"I was frightened at first, Dorothy, and felt a strange weakness in my knees, as they began to swarm up the ship's side; but it passed off when the scuffle began. You see, there was no time to think about it. We all had to do our best, and even had I been frightened ever so badly, I hope that I should not have showed it, for it would have brought shame upon my father as well as myself; but in truth I thought little about it, one way or the other. There they were on the deck, and had to be driven back again; and we set about the work like Englishmen and honest men and, thanks to our pikes and axes, we had not very much trouble about it; especially when we once became fairly angered, on seeing some of our friends undone by the heathen.
"I myself would rather go through two or three such fights, than encounter such another storm as we had off the coast of Portugal, for four days. It seemed that we must be lost, the waves were of such exceeding bigness–far surpassing anything I had ever seen before. My heart was in my mouth scores of times, and over and over again I thought that she would never rise again, so great was the weight of water that poured over her. Truly it was the mercy of God which alone saved us, for I believe that even my father thought the ship would be beaten to pieces, though he kept up a show of confidence in order to inspirit the men. However, at the end of the fourth day the gale abated; but it was days before the great sea went down, the waves coming in long regular hills, which seemed to me as big as those which we have here in Devonshire; but smooth and regular, so that while we rolled mightily, there was naught to fear from them."
"I should not like to be a sailor," Agnes said. "It would be far better, Roger, were you to come into our father's counting house. You know he would take you into his business, did Cousin Reuben desire it."
"I should make but a poor penman, Agnes. I love the sea dearly, and it is seldom that we have such gales to meet as that; and after all, it is no worse to be drowned than it is to come to any other death. I am well content, cousin, with matters as they are; and would not stay ashore and spend my life in writing, not to be as rich as the greatest merchant in Plymouth. I almost wish, sometimes, I had been born a Spaniard or a Portugal; for then I might have a chance of sailing to wondrous new countries, instead of voyaging only in European waters."
"It seems to me that you have plenty to see as it is, Roger," Dorothy said.
"I do not say nay to that," Roger assented; "but I do not see why Spain and Portugal should claim all the Indies, East and West, and keep all others from going there."
"But the pope has given the Indies to them," Dorothy said.
"I don't see that they were the pope's to give," Roger replied. "That might do for the king, and his minister Wolsey, and the bishops; but when in time all the people have read, as we do, Master Wycliffe's Bible, they will come to see that there is no warrant for the authority the pope claims; and then we may, perhaps, take our share of these new discoveries."
"Hush, Roger! You should not speak so loud about the Bible. You know that though there are many who read it, it is not a thing to be spoken of openly; and that it would bring us all into sore trouble, were anyone to hear us speak so freely as you have done. There has been burning of Lollards, and they say that Wolsey is determined to root out all the followers of Wycliffe."
"It will take him some trouble to do that," Roger said, shrugging his shoulders. "Still, I will be careful, Dorothy, for I would not on any account bring trouble upon you, here. But, thank Heaven, England is not Spain, where men are forever being tortured and burned for their religion. The English would never put up with that. It may be that there will be persecution, but methinks it is rather those whose opinions lead them to make speeches that are regarded as seditious, and who stir up the people into discontent, who fall into trouble; and that, as long as folks hold their own opinions in peace and quiet, and trouble not others, neither king nor cardinal will seek to interfere with them.
"It is not so in Spain. There, upon the slightest suspicion that a man or woman holds views differing from those of the priests, he is dragged away and thrown into the prisons of the Inquisition, and tortured and burned."
Mistress Mercy now returned, and she and the girls busied themselves in laying the table for dinner.
That evening, after Mistress Mercy, the girls, and Roger had retired to bed, Reuben Hawkshaw and his cousin had a long talk together, concerning the next voyage of the Swan. After Master Diggory had discussed the chances of a voyage to the low countries, or another trip to the Mediterranean, Reuben, who had been silently listening to him, said:
"Well, Cousin Diggory, to tell you the truth, I have been turning over a project that seems to me to offer a chance of greater profit, though I deem it not without risk. That is the case, of course, with all trading affairs; and, as you know, the greater the risk the greater the profit, so the question to be considered is whether the profit is in fair proportion to the risk run. I think that it is, in this case, and I am ready to risk my life in carrying it out. It is for you to consider whether you are ready to risk your venture."
"What is it, Reuben? There are no other voyages that I know of; unless, indeed, you think of sailing up to Constantinople, and trading with the Grand Turk."
"My thoughts go farther afield still, Diggory. It is a matter I have thought over for some time, and when I was at Cadiz the other day I made many inquiries, and these have confirmed me in my opinions on the matter. You know that the Spaniards are gaining huge wealth from the Indies, and I heard at Cadiz that, after the conquest they made, a year since, of the island they call Cuba, the stores of precious things brought home were vast indeed. As you know, they bring from there gold and spices and precious woods, and articles of native workmanship of all kinds."
"I know all that, Reuben; and also that, like dogs in the manger, they suffer none others to sail those seas; and that no English ship has ever yet traversed those waters."