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.
"We have no choice but to fight," said don Francisco de Quevedo.
The table was littered with empty bottles, and every time that don Francisco was a little too liberal with the wine of San Martín de Valdeiglesiaswhich happened frequentlyhe was ready to call out Christ himself. Quevedo was slightly lame, a poet, a fancier of whores, nearsighted, and a Caballero de Santiago. He was as quick with his wit and his tongue as with his sword, and he was famous at court for his good poems and bad temper. The latter was, all too often, the cause for his wandering from exile to exile and prison to prison. It is well known that though, like all of Madrid, our good lord and king, Philip the Fourth, and his favored Conde de Olivares appreciated the poet's satiric verses, the king liked much less being the subject of them. So from time to time, after the appearance of some sonnet or anonymous poem in which everyone recognized the poet's hand, the magistrate's bailiffs and constables would swarm into the tavern, or Quevedo's domicile, or a place where friends met to exchange gossip, to invite him, respectfully, to accompany them, taking him out of circulation for a few days or months. As he was stubborn and proud, and never learned his lesson, these occurrences were numerous, and served to embitter him.
Quevedo was, nevertheless, an excellent table companion and a good friend to his friends, among whom he included Captain Alatriste. Both went often to the Tavern of the Turk, where they would gather their friends around one of the best tables, which Caridad la Lebrijanawho had been a whore and still was occasionally for the captain, though free of chargeusually reserved for them. That morning, along with don Francisco and the captain, the group was completed by habitués: Licenciado Calzas, Juan Vicuña, Dómine Pérez, and El Tuerto Fadrique, the one-eyed apothecary at the Puerta Cerrada.
"No choice but to fight," the poet insisted.
He was, as I have said, visibly "illuminated" by a bottle or two of Valdeiglesias. He had jumped to his feet, overturning a taboret, and with his hand resting on the pommel of his sword, was sending blazing glances toward the occupants of a nearby table. There, two strangers, whose long swords and capes were hanging on the wall, had just congratulated the poet on a few verses. Unfortunately, those lines actually had been written by Luis de Góngora, Quevedo's most despised adversary in the Republic of Lettersa rival whom, among other insults, he accused of being a sodomite, a dog, and a Jew. The newcomers had spoken in good faith, or at least it seemed so, but don Francisco was not disposed to overlook their words.
From Captain Alatriste by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Copyright 1996 by Arturo Perez-Reverte. All rights reserved. Excerpt reproduced with the permission of the Putnam Publishing.
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