"I shall grease my poems with the fat of the pig
So that gnat Góngora cannot chew off a piece. . . ."
He began to improvise there on the spot, weaving a little, hand still clutching the hilt of his sword, while the strangers tried to apologize and the captain and his table companions held on to don Francisco to keep him from drawing his sword and going for the offenders.
"But by God, that is an insult," the poet cried, trying to loose the right hand his friends were gripping so tightly, while with his free hand he adjusted his twisted eyeglasses. "A bit of steel will make things, hic, right."
"That is too much steel to squander so early in the day, don Francisco," Diego Alatriste sensibly interceded.
"It seems very little to me." Without taking his eyes off his perceived tormentors, the poet ferociously smoothed his mustache. "But we will be generous: one hand's breadth of steel for each of these hijosdalgo, who are sons of something, no doubt, but very certainly not sons of hidalgos."
These were fighting words, so the strangers made as if to claim their swords and go outside. The captain and the other friends, helpless to prevent the confrontation, asked them please to make allowances for the poet's alcoholic state and simply quit the field, adding that there was no glory in fighting a drunk opponent, or shame in withdrawing prudently to prevent greater harm.
"Bella gerant alii," suggested Dómine Pérez, trying to temporize.
Dómine Pérez was a Jesuit priest who tended his flock in the nearby church of San Pedro y San Pablo. His kindly nature and his Latin phrases tended to have a soothing effect, for he spoke them in a tone of unquestionable good sense. The two strangers, however, knew no Latin, and the insult of being called sonsofsomethingorother was difficult to brush off. Besides, the cleric's mediation was undercut by the scoffing banter of Licenciado Calzas, a clever, cynical rascal who haunted the courts, a specialist in defending causes he could convert into endless trials that bled his clients of their last maravedís. The licenciado loved to stir things up, and he was always goading every Juan, José, and Tomasillo.
"You do not want to lose face, don Francisco," he said in a low voice. "They will pay the court costs, defend your honor."
So all those gathered round prepared to witness an event that would appear the next day in the sheets of Avisos y noticias, the city's purveyor of notices and news. And Captain Alatriste, failing in his efforts to calm his friend, but knowing he would not leave don Francisco alone in the fray, began to accept as inevitable that he would be crossing swords with these strangers.
"Aio te vincere posse," Dómine Pérez concluded with resignation, as Licenciado Calzas hid his laughter by snorting into his jug of wine. With a deep sigh, the captain started to get up from the table. Don Francisco, who already had drawn four fingers of his sword from its scabbard, shot him a comradely look of thanks, and even had the brass to direct a couplet to him.
"You, Diego, whose sword so nobly defends
The name and honor of your family . . ."
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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