Days of the Discoverers Part 4



"Those things that you say cannot be true, Fernao! How do you know that the sea turns black and dreadful just behind those heavenly clouds? If there are hydras, and gorgons, and sea-snakes that can swallow a ship, and a great black hand reaching up out of a whirlpool to drag men down, why do we never see them here? Look at that sea, can there be anything in the world more beautiful?"

The vehement small speaker waved her slender hand with a gesture that seemed to take in half the horizon. The old Moorish garden, overrun with the brilliant blossoms that drink their hues from the sea, overlooked the harbor. Across the huddled many-colored houses the ten-year-old Beatriz and her playfellow Fernao could see the western ocean in a great half-circle, bounded by the mysterious line above which three tiny caravels had just risen. The sea to-day was exquisite, bluer than the heavens that arched above it. The wave-crests looked like a flock of sea-doves playing on the sunlit sparkling waters. Fernao from his seat on the crumbling wall watched the incoming ships with the far-sighted gaze of a sailor. Portuguese through and through, the son and grandson of men who had sailed at the bidding of the great Prince Henry, he felt that he could speak with authority.[1]

"Of course I am telling you the truth. You are very wise about the sea--you who never saw it until two weeks ago! Gil Andrade has been to places that you Castilians never even heard of. He has seen whales, and mermaids, and the Sea of Darkness itself! He has been to the Gold Coast beyond Bojador, where the people are fried black like charcoal, and the rivers are too hot to drink."

"Then why didn't he die?" inquired the unbelieving Beatriz.

"Because he didn't stay there long enough. And there are devils in the forest, stronger than ten men, and all covered with shaggy hair--"

"I will not listen to such nonsense! Do you think that because I am Spanish, and a girl, I am without understanding? Tio Sancho, is it true that there is a Sea of Darkness?"

Sancho Serrao was an old seaman, as any one would know by his eyes and his walk. For fifty years he had used the sea, as ship-boy, sailor, and pilot. His daughter Catharina had been the nurse of Beatriz, and he had brought coral, shells and queer toys to the little thing from the time she could toddle to his knee.

"What has Fernao been saying to thee, pombinha agreste?" (little wood-dove) he asked soberly, though his eyes twinkled ever so little. He seated himself as he spoke, on an ancient bench that rested its back against the wall just where the wind was sweetest. Under the fragrances of ripening vineyards and flowering shrubs there was always the sharp clean smell of the sea.

"He believes all that Gil Andrade and Joao Pancado tell him as if it were the Credo," Beatriz began, her words flung out like sparks from a little crackling fire. "He says that there is a Sea of Darkness out away beyond the Falcon Islands, where ships are drawn into a great pit under the edge of the world. And he says that ships cannot go too far south because the sun is so near it would burn them, and they cannot go too far north because the icebergs will catch them and crush them. If I were a man, I would sail straight out there, into the sunset, and show them what my people dared to do!"

Old Sancho was not all Portuguese. In his veins ran the blood of the three great seafaring races of southern Europe--the Genoese, the Lusitanian and the Vizcayan--and their jealousies and rivalries amused him. He had spent most of his life in the feluccas and caravels of Lisbon and Oporto, because when he was young they went where no other ships dared even follow; but he did not believe that the last word in discovery had been said even by Dom Henriques at Sagres, or the Mappe-Monde of Fra Mauro in Venice.

"Not so fast there, velinha (small candle)" he cautioned, raising a whimsical forefinger. "So said many of us in our youth. And when we had sailed for weeks, and all our provisions were mouldy or weevilly, and our water-casks warped and leaking so that we had to catch the rain in our shirts, we began to wonder what it was we had come for. The sea won't be mocked or threatened. She has ways of her own, the old witch, to tame the vainglorious. And 't is true enough," the old pilot went on with a quizzing look at Fernao on his insecure perch, "that sailors have a bad habit of doubling and trebling their recollections when they find anybody who will listen. I don't know why they do it. Maybe it is because having told a perfectly true tale which nobody believed, they think that a little more or a little less will do no harm. For this you must remember, my children,--that at sea many things happen which when told no one believes to be true."

"I would believe anything you told me, Tio Sancho," promised Beatriz, all love and confidence in her little glowing face.

"Ay, would you now? What if I said that I have seen a ship with all sail set coming swiftly before the wind, in a place where no wind was, to stir our hair who beheld it--and sailing moreover through the air at the height of a tall mast-head above the sea? And a mountain of ice half a league long and as high as the Giralda at Seville, floating in a sea as blue as this one, and as warm? And islands with mountains that smoke, appearing and disappearing in broad daylight? Yet all of these are common sights at sea."

"But is there a Sea of Darkness, verily, verily, tio caro?" persisted Beatriz. The old man shook his head, with a little quiet smile.

"I'll not say there is not. And I'll not say there is. I saw a Sea of Darkness on the second voyage that ever I made, but that's all."

"Oh, tell us all the story!" begged Beatriz, and Fernao silently slid from the wall and came closer.

"The commander of our ship was Gonsales Zarco, one of Dom Henriques'

gentlemen. Years before he'd been caught by a gale on his way to Africa, and driven north on to an island that he named because of that, Puerto Santo (Holy Haven). So when he came that way again he stopped to see how the settlement that was planted there prospered, and found the people in great trouble of mind. They showed him that a thick black cloud hung upon the sea to the northwest of the island, filling the air to the very heavens and never going away; and out of this cloud, they said, came strange noises, not like any they had heard before. They dared not sail far from their island, for they said that if a man lost sight of land thereabouts it was a miracle if he ever returned. They believed that place to be the great abyss, the mouth of hell. But learned men held the opinion that this cloud hid the island of Cipango, where the Seven Bishops had taken refuge from the Moors and the Saracens.

"Certainly the cloud was there, for we all saw it, and when the Commander said that he would stay to see whether it would change when the moon changed, we liked it not, I can tell you. And when we learned that he was minded to sail straight into the darkness and see what lay behind it, why, there were some who would have run away--if they could have run anywhere but into the sea.

"But we had a Spanish pilot, Morales, who had once been a prisoner in Morocco, and there he knew two Englishmen who had sailed these seas in time past. Their ship had been lying ready to sail for France, when late at night Robert Macham, a gentleman of their country, came hurriedly aboard with his lady love whom he had carried off from her home in Bristol, and between dark and dawn the captain weighed anchor and was off. Then being driven from the course the ship was cast on a thickly wooded island with a high mountain in the middle, where they dwelt not long, for the lady died, and Macham died of grief. The crew left the island and were wrecked in Morocco and made slaves. All this was many years before, for the Englishmen had grown old in slavery, and Morales himself had grown old since he heard the tale.

"It was the belief of Morales that this was the island of which they told, and that the cloud which hung above the waters was the mist arising from those dense woods which covered it. The upshot was that the commander set sail one morning early and steered straight for the cloud.

"The nearer we came the higher and thicker looked the darkness that spread over the sea, and we heard about noon a great roaring of the waves. Still Gonsales held his course, and when the wind failed he ordered out the boats to tow the ship into the cloud, and I was one of those who rowed. As we got closer it was not quite so dark, but the roaring was louder, although the sea was smooth. Then through the darkness we beheld tall black objects which we guessed to be giants walking in the water, but as we came nearer we saw that they were great rocks, and before us loomed a high mountain covered with thick woods.

"We found no place to land but a cave under a rock that overhung the sea, and that was trodden all over the bottom by the sea-wolves, so that Gonsales named it the Camera dos Lobos. The island, because of its forests, he called Madeira. When we came back, having taken possession of the island for the King, he sent a colony to settle upon it, and the first boy and girl born there were named Adam and Eva. The people set fire to the trees, which were in their way, and could not put out the fire, so that it burned for seven years and all the trees were destroyed. And the King gave our commander the right to carry as supporters on his coat-of-arms two sea-wolves."

Beatriz drew a long breath. "Weren't you very scared, Tio Sancho?"

"Sailors must not be scared, little one. Or if they are, they must never let their arms and legs be scared. We knew that we had to obey orders or be dead, so we obeyed. I have been glad many a time since that I sailed with Gonsales and old Morales to the discovery of Madeira."

"What are sea-wolves?" asked Fernao.

"Like no beast that ever you saw, my son. They have the fore part of the body like a dog or bear, the hind part ending in a tail like a fish, but with hair, not scales, on the body; the head has a thick mane, and the jaws are large and strong. They are no more seen on that island, for they went there only because it was never visited by men."

"Did they try to drive the people away?"

"No; they do not fight men unless men attack them. But the settlers were once driven off Puerto Santo by animals, and not very fierce animals at that." The old pilot grinned. "They were driven away by rabbits.

Somebody brought rabbits there and let them loose, and in a few years there were so many that everything that was planted was eaten green. The people who live on that island now have made a strict rule about rabbits."

The children's laughter echoed the dry chuckle of the old man. Then Fernao, unwilling to abandon his authorities,--

"But if the Sea of Darkness and the great abyss are not in the western ocean, why haven't they found out what really is there?"

"That, my son, is more than I can tell you," said Sancho Serrao, getting up. "I sailed where I was told, and I never was told to sail due west from Lisbon. But here is a man who can answer your question, if any one can. Welcome to my humble dwelling, Senhor Colombo! Shall we go into the house, or will you find it pleasanter in the garden?"

The new-comer was a tall man of middle age, although at first sight he looked older, because of his white hair. The fresh complexion, alert walk, and keen thoughtful blue eyes were those of a man not old in either mind or body. He smiled in answer to the greeting, and replied with a quick wave of the hand. "Do not disturb yourself, I beg of you, my friend. The garden is very pleasant. I have come on an errand of my own this time. Did you ever see, in your voyages to Africa or elsewhere, any such carving as this?"

He held out a curious worm-eaten bit of reddish brown wood, rudely ornamented with carved figures in relief. Old Sancho took it and turned it about, examining it with narrowed attentive eyes.

"Where did it come from?" he asked, finally.

"From the beach at Puerto Santo. My little son Diego picked it up, the day before I came away from the island."

"Now that is curious. I was just telling the young ones about an adventure of my youth, when Gonsales Zarco touched there on his way to Madeira. With your good permission I will leave you for a few minutes and rummage in an old sea-chest, and see whether there is any flotsam in it to compare with this."

Left alone with the stranger, Fernao and Beatriz looked at him with shy curiosity. They had seen him before, and knew him to be a mapmaker in the King's service, but he had never before been within speaking distance. He seemed to like children, for he smiled at them very kindly and spoke to them almost at once.

"And you were hearing about the discovery of Madeira?"

"Ay, Senhor," Beatriz answered with demure dignity.

"I live not very far from that island. It seems like living on the western edge of the world."

"Senhor," asked Fernao with sudden daring, "what is beyond the edge of the world?"

"There is no edge, my boy. The world is round--like an orange."[2]

In all their fancies they had never thought of such a thing as that.

Beatriz looked at the tall man with silent amazement, and Fernao looked as if he would like to ask who could prove the statement. The stranger's smile was amused but quite comprehending, as if he was not at all surprised that they should doubt him.

"See," he went on, taking an orange from the basket that stood by, "suppose this little depression where the stem lost its hold to be Jerusalem, the center of our world; then this is Portugal--" he traced with the point of a penknife the outline of the great western peninsula.

"Here you see are the capes--Saint Vincent, Finisterre, the great rock the Arabs call Geber-al-Tarif--the Mediterranean--the northern coast of Africa--so. Beyond are Arabia and India, and the Spice Islands which we do not know all about--then Cathay, where Marco Polo visited the Great Khan--you have heard of that? Yes? On the eastern and southern shore of Cathay is a great sea in which are many islands--Cipangu here, and to the south Java Major and Java Minor. We are told in the Book of Esdras that six parts of the earth are land and one part water, so here we cut away the skin where there is any sea,--"

The miniature globe took form, like fairy mapmaking, under the cosmographer's skilful fingers, and the children watched, fascinated.


Chapter end

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