Man and mule were both hot, tired and thirsty as they moved slowly through the harsh landscape of dusty scrub and dry grass sprinkled over its low undulations interspersed with dry valleys and flat topped mesas.The thorny cacti in particular repelled the man, although he was accustomed to them. They appeared to him as upthrust fingers of Satan arising from Hell, contorted into obscene gestures and writhing to grasp sinners to be dragged down to destruction. An idle thought came to him that a flower at the tip of one of these fingers was like the chalice of an unholy communion being sneeringly offered to him by the Evil One. He wondered whether such fancies were themselves delusions of the Devil, snares to divert his soul and distract his mind from holiness and duty, or whether they might be an obscure indication and warning that evil had laid a strong hand on this land and its people, and more of it was about to flower.
Much as he – and the mule – would have preferred to have been in green pastures beside cooling streams he put aside such foolish thoughts, well knowing that there would be no relief for him or his mule until they reached their next destination, which he expected to do before nightfall.Then it would be time to rest and share the simple hospitality of his hosts. He resumed telling his rosary beads as the mule continued to plod forward, both absorbed in their tasks.
It was indeed evening when the priest rode his stoical mule in the lesser heat of twilight along the more defined track which served as a street for the village at which he had arrived. A group of ragged peasants squatting outside the open door of one of the mud huts which comprised the village had silently observed his approach. “Good evening my sons” he said, making the sign of the cross as he reached them. “Can you direct me to the monastery of San Geronimo?” Their dark eyes continued to stare impassively at him until he raised his eyebrows. “Let me show you the way, Father” said one of the men as he slowly stood up.Together, peasant and mule plodded through the gathering darkness until they reached a more substantial structure a kilometre or so down another track, where they halted in front of a stout wooden door.
Thankfully the priest dismounted and stretched, stamping his feet and shaking his black robe to dislodge some of the accumulated dust. He raised his face to the sky for a moment, awed as always by the sight of the Creator’s mighty handiwork strewn brilliantly across the night sky. “Thank you my son”, he said, apparently including both man and mule in his gratitude, “let us see whether the the brothers will welcome weary travelers”. Suiting action to words he thumped his fist energetically on the door and then tugged the rope of a bell-pull which protruded through a small hole in the wall beside the door.
Eventually the door was opened by a small elderly man in the dark habit of a monk. He glanced at his visitors; then to the priest he said, “Good evening Father. Please come in. You are most welcome to our hospitality.” To the peasant he said, “Thank you Jorge. You have performed a good deed in guiding this guest to our door. Please take his mule round to the stable and make it comfortable with some water and fodder before you leave.” The priest raised his hand and blessed the peasant who then led the mule away without a word.
The monk stood back and gestured for the priest to follow him. He closed the door and led the way along a dark corridor to another door at which he knocked until a voice within bade him enter. Inside they found the Abbot, a thin man in middle age, who was seated at an old wooden desk bearing a lighted candle which sufficiently illuminated the room for those near the desk to see each other clearly. He rose and greeted them, repeating the porter’s welcome, before dismissing him and inviting the priest to be seated with him beside the desk.
Carefully the priest took a packet of waxed cloth from inside his robe, opened it and unfolded a document written on heavy paper adorned with florid calligraphy and bearing a large seal of blood-red wax impressed with an elaborate armorial design. “Father Abbot”, he began, as he extended the document for inspection. “My name is Mendoza and I am an emissary from His Eminence Cardinal Ximenes. As you can see, this is my commission and introduction to you and the other Religious in the province. His Eminence requests that you will assist me in carrying out a task which he has assigned to me.” Slowly the abbot ran his eyes over the letter, pausing to examine the ornate flourishes of the signature and the intricate elaborations of the seal thoughtfully, before lifting them to regard his visitor. “Naturally, I will be happy to assist you and His Eminence. What is it that you require?”
A week later the priest and his beast were both rested and refreshed. He had accomplished his business with the monks and had taken the opportunity to visit the village several times. He had examined their small stock of books but had found nothing of interest. It was just the usual religious works to be expected in such a place, so he had no interesting reading with which to while away his time whilst resting. He had spoken again to Jorge and to the village headman. On Sunday he had conducted Mass for the villagers in their little church, which did not have a regular priest to serve it. As he expected, attendance had been high because news of his arrival had spread and everyone wanted to see this curiosity, a visitor from afar in this remote village where new faces and events were rare and a source of wonder and excitement.He had taken the opportunity to ‘spread the word’, both God’s and others’.
Thus he was quite unsurprised when a peasant arrived at the monastery a couple of days later bearing an invitation from Don Roberto Baltassar, the most considerable landowner in the district, and his wife Dona Maria, for him to visit and stay at their hacienda for a few days.
This journey was far less tiring than the previous one had been. Both Father Mendoza and his beast (whose name we may reveal to be Nicodemus) were reinvigorated, spruced up and looking forward to their outing. The priest was no glutton and was used to the spartan fare and physical exertion of monastic and peasant life, but he admitted that it was pleasant to occasionally be treated to the table and conversation of a gentleman. An early start had brought them, Mendoza, Nicodemus and the peasant who had been sent as guide, to the Villa Baltassar after only walking for half a day, so they were still relatively fresh and in good spirits when they reached the estate. The well watered and tended fields around the elegantly designed and well maintained villa, with beautiful avenues and groves of trees and a secluded garden full of flowering plants and resonant with the sound of fountains, was in contrast to the usual drab peasant villages and desolate scrub and semi-desert land through which the priest’s travels normally took him, and all the more welcome for that.
He was greeted at the door by the major-domo who escorted him to a waiting room and went to announce his arrival to the master and mistress of the house, before returning to escort him into their presence in a drawing room where he was courteously greeted and offered the refreshment of a glass of wine and some conversation before his host and hostess withdrew and a servant showed him to his bedroom. There he could lie down and partake of a comfortable siesta after performing his ablutions in a washbasin filled with warm water accompanied by a cake of sweet smelling soap – two luxuries which peasants and monastics seldom afforded or allowed themselves. A mattress not filled with straw, and down-filled pillows with fine linen sheets were further evidence that his hostess was a lady of wealth and refinement.
That evening, pleasantly refreshed, he dined with his hosts and their other guests from the local gentry.The roast beef they were served was succulent and a welcome change from the almost entirely vegetarian diet of his recent travels, as was the selection of wines which accompanied it. His interest in local history had been gratified by the conversation of his host and the other guests, who in turn had eagerly received such sketchy and outdated news of the wider world and its important people as his membership of the retinue of His Eminence had granted him before he had left the capital several months ago. It turned out that Dona Maria had a cousin who was related by marriage to the family of one of the Canons there, so she knew something of society in the provincial capital and they had several acquaintances in common. He had not known of this in advance, but had been fairly confident that something of the sort would emerge once his presence in the district had become known to some of the local gentry and he had been invited to meet them. It usually did. His host and the other gentlemen had entertained him with old tales about the valour and piety of their ancestors and how they had obtained and settled their lands and the subsequent squabbles which made up local politics. Don Roberto’s great-great grandfather had actually served the legendary Don Arturo,leader of the Reconquista, and had been granted a wide estate by him. His descendants’ prowess, shrewdness and political agility had enabled them to hang on to most of it.
The morning after the night before Father Mendoza and the rest of the household arose late and somewhat hungover. He spent the afternoon comfortably ensconced in his host’s library, browsing through his collection of books. It was much as he had expected of a member of the provincial lesser nobility; outdated works of fiction which had been popular in his youth, or that of his father, a few of the classics probably left over from schooldays, an atlas and a popular encyclopaedia, manuals of estate management, first aid, civil law, heraldry, political and military histories and biographies, collections of old magazines. There were also some books on technical matters, with diagrams, probably intended for the training of artisans serving the family. The small shelf of hagiographies and manuals of devotion most likely belonged to Dona Maria. There was nothing of much interest or particular relevance to his quest, but he spent a pleasant afternoon browsing and dozing, awaking refreshed and ready for more serious conversation with his host after dinner.