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Days of the Discoverers Part 6

"Not a soul."

"Would you like to sail with us?"

"Will a wolf bite? Why do you suppose I told you all this?"

"Bite your tongue then, wolf-cub, until I have seen the Admiral. Where shall I find you if I want you?"

"Tia Josefa over there lets me sleep in the courtyard."

"Very well--now, off with you."

The Admiral said exactly what the pilot had thought he would say. He knew himself to be looked upon with envy and dislike, as a Genoese, and the Spaniards who made up his three crews had been collected as with a rake from the unwilling Andalusian seaports. It was decided that the mutinous sailors should be scattered so that they could not easily act together. Pedro was taken on as cabin-boy, for he was thirteen, and wiser than his age.

On that May day when Christoval Colon,[1] the hare-brained foreigner whom the King and Queen had made an Admiral, read the royal orders in the Church of San Jorge in Palos, there was amazement, wrath and horror in that small seaport. Queen Ysabel had indeed been so rash as to pledge her jewels to meet the cost of this expedition; but the royal treasurers, looking over their accounts, noted that Palos owed a fine to the Crown which had never been paid. Very good; let Palos contribute the use and maintenance of two ships for two months, and let the magistrates of the Andalusian ports hunt up shipmasters and crews and supplies. The officers of the government came with Colon to enforce this order.

In vain did the Pinzon brothers, who had really been convinced by the arguments of Colon, use all their influence to secure him a proper equipment. Even after they had themselves enlisted as captains, with their own ship the _Nina_, they could not get men enough to go on so doubtful a venture. The royal officers finally took to the reckless course of pardoning all prisoners guilty of any crime short of murder or treason, on condition of their shipping for the voyage. At least half the sailors of the three ships were pressed men.

The _Santa Maria_, largest of the three caravels, was ninety feet long and twenty broad. She was a decked ship; the others had only the tiny cabin and forecastle. A caravel was never intended for long voyages into unknown seas. Her builders designed her for coasting trade, not for a quick voyage independent of wind and tide; but on the other hand she was cheaper to build and to sail than a Genoese galley. The Admiral believed that in the end the smallness of the ships would be no disadvantage.

Among the estuaries, bays and groups of islands which he expected to find, they could go anywhere. Including shipmasters, pilots and crews the fleet carried eighty-seven men and three ship-boys, besides the personal servants of the Admiral, a physician, a surgeon, an interpreter and a few adventurers. The interpreter was a converted Jew who could speak not only several European languages but Arabic and Chaldean.

"A retinue of servants indeed!" observed Fonseca, the bishop, when the door had closed upon the Admiral of the Indies. "Since all enlisted in the expedition are at his service, why does he demand lackeys?"

But the head of the Genoese navigator had not been turned by his honors.

No man cared less for display than he did, personally. He knew very well, however, that unless he maintained his own dignity the rabble under his command might be emboldened to cut his throat, seize the ships and become pirates. The men whom he could trust were altogether too few to control those he could not, if it came to an open fight,--but it must not be allowed to come to that. It was not agreeable to squabble with Fonseca about the number of servants he was allowed to have, but he must have personal attendants who were not discharged convicts.

On the open seas, removed from their lamenting and despondent relatives, the crews gradually subsided into a state of discipline. The quarter-deck is perhaps the severest test of character known. Despite themselves the sailors began to feel the serene and kindly strength of the man who was their master.

With a tact and understanding as great as his courage and self-command Colon told his men more than they had ever known of the Indies. The East had for generations been the enchanted treasure-house of Europe. Arabic, Venetian, Genoese and Portuguese traders had brought from it spices, rare woods, gold, diamonds, pearls, silk, and other foreign luxuries.

But the wide and varied reading of the Admiral had given him more definite information. He told of the gilded temples of Cipangu, the porcelain towers of Cathay, rajahs' elephants in gilded and jeweled trappings, golden idols with eyes of great glowing gems, thrones of ebony inlaid with patterns of diamonds, emeralds and rubies, rich cargoes of spices, dyewood, fine cotton and silk, pearl fisheries, the White Feast of Cambalu and the Khan's great hall where six thousand courtiers gathered. Portugal already was reaching out toward these Indies, groping her way around the African coast. Were they, Spaniards and Christians, to be outdone by Portuguese and Arab traders? No men ever had so great a future. Not only the wealth of the Indies, but the glory of winning heathen empires to abandon their idols for the Christian faith, was the adventure to which they were pledged; and he strove to kindle their spirits from his own.

To Pedro the cabin-boy, listening in silence, it was like an entrance into another world. When he asked to be taken on he had been moved simply by a boy's desire to go where he had not been before. Now he served a demigod, who led men where none had dared go. The Admiral might have the glory of rediscovering the western route to the Indies; his cabin-boy was discovering him.

The sea was beautifully calm, and there was time for talk and speculation. A drifting mast, to which nobody would have given two thoughts anywhere else, was pointed out as an evil omen. Pedro grinned cheerfully and elevated his nose.

"Do you not believe in omens, Pedro?" asked the Admiral, somewhat amused. He had not found many Spaniards who did not.

"One does not believe all one hears, my lord," the youngster answered, coolly. "Tia Josefa saw ill omens a dozen times a week, all sure death; and she is ninety years old. A mast drifting with the current is usual.

When I see one drifting against it I will begin to worry."

The jumpy nerves of the sailors were easily upset. They might have been calmer if the sea had been less calm. It is hard for Spanish blood to endure inaction and suspense together. Day after day a soft strong wind wafted them westward. Ruiz, one of the pilots, bluntly declared that he did not see how they could ever sail back to Spain against this wind, whether they reached the Indies or not.

"Pedro," said the Admiral quietly, "what do you think?"

Pedro hesitated only an instant. "My lord," he answered boldly, "if we cannot go back we must go on--around the world."

"So we can," smiled the Admiral. "But it will not come to that." And Ruiz, reassured and rather ashamed of his fears, told the other grumblers if they had seen as much rough weather as he had they would know when they were well off.

But after a time even the pilots took fright. The compass needle no longer pointed to the North Star, but half a point or more to the northwest of it. They had visions of the fleet helplessly drifting without a guide upon a vast unknown sea. It was not then known that the action of the magnetic pole upon the needle varies in different parts of the earth, but the quick mind of the Admiral found an explanation which quieted their fears. He told them that the real north pole was a fixed point indeed, but not necessarily the North Star. While this star might be in line with the pole when seen from the coast of Spain, it would not, of course, be in the same relative position when seen from a point hundreds of miles to the west.

On September 15 a meteor fell, which might be another omen--nobody could say exactly what it meant. Then about three hundred and sixty leagues from the Canaries the ships began to encounter patches of floating yellow-green sea-weed, which grew more numerous until the fleet was sailing in a vast level expanse of green like an ocean meadow. Tuna fish played in the waters; on one of the patches of floating weed rested a live crab. A white tropical bird of a kind never known to sleep upon the sea came flying toward them, alighting for a moment in the rigging. The owners of the _Pinta_ predicted that they would all be caught in this ocean morass to starve, or die of thirst, for the light winds were not strong enough to drive the ships through it as easily as they had sailed at first. The Admiral, quite undisturbed, suggested that in his experience land-birds usually meant land not very far away.

Colon always answered frankly the questions put to him, but there was one secret which he kept to himself from the beginning. Knowing that he would be likely to have trouble when he reached the seven-hundred-league limit his crews had set for him, he kept two reckonings. One was for his private journal, the other was for all to see. He took the actual figures of each day's run as set down in his private record, subtracted from them a certain percentage and gave out this revised reckoning to the fleet. He, and he alone, knew that they were nearly seven hundred leagues from Palos already, instead of five hundred and fifty. According to Toscanelli's calculation, by sailing west from the Canaries along the thirtieth parallel of latitude he should land somewhere on the coast of Cipangu; but the map of Toscanelli might be incorrect. If the ocean should prove to be a hundred or more leagues wider than the chart showed it, they would have to go on, all the same.

Even after they were out of the seaweed there was something weird and unnatural in the sluggish calm of the sea. Light winds blew from the west and southwest, but there were no waves, as by all marine experience there should have been. On September 25 the sea heaved silently in a mysterious heavy swell, without any wind. Then the wind once more shifted to the east, and carried them on so smoothly that they could talk from one ship to another. Martin Pinzon borrowed the Admiral's chart, and it seemed to him that according to this they must be near Cipangu. He tossed the chart back to the flagship on the end of a cord, and gave himself to scanning the horizon. Ten thousand maravedis had been promised by the sovereigns to the first man who actually saw land.

Suddenly Pinzon shouted, "Tierra! Tierra!" There was a low bank of what seemed to be land, about twenty-five leagues away to the southwest. Even for this Colon hesitated to turn from his pre-arranged course, but at last he yielded to the chorus of pleading and protest which arose from his officers, set his helm southwest and found--a cloud-bank.

Again and again during the following days the eager eyes and strained nerves of the seamen led to similar disappointments. Land birds appeared; some alighted fearlessly on the rigging and sang. Dolphins frolicked about the keels. Flying-fish, pursued by their enemy the bonito (mackerel), rose from the water in rainbow argosies, and fell sometimes inside the caravels. A heron, a pelican and a duck passed, flying southwest. By the true reckoning the fleet had sailed seven hundred and fifty leagues. Colon wondered whether there could be an error in the map, or whether by swerving from their course they had passed between islands into the southern sea. Pedro, as sensitive as a dog to the moods of his master, watched the Admiral's face as he came and went, and wondered in his turn.

The pilots and shipmasters were cautious in expressing their fears within hearing of the sailors, for by this time every one in authority knew that open mutiny might break out at any moment. On the evening of October 10 a delegation of anxious officers came to explain to the Admiral that they could not hold the panic-stricken crews. If no land appeared within a week their provisions would not last until they reached home; they had not enough water to last through the homeward voyage even now. The Admiral knew as well as they the horrors of thirst and famine at sea, particularly with a crew of the kind they had been obliged to ship. What did he intend to do?

The Admiral, seated at his table, finished the sentence he was adding in his neat, legible hand to his log, put it aside, put the pen in the case which hung at his belt, closed his ink-horn. His quiet eyes rested fearlessly on their uneasy faces.

"This expedition," he said calmly, "has been sent out to look for the Indies. With God's blessing we shall continue to look for them until we find them. Say to the men, however, that if they will wait two or three days I think they will see land."

Next morning Pedro was engaged in polishing his master's steel corslet and casque, while near by two or three sailors conferred in low tones.

"We have had enough of promises," growled one. "As Rascon says, we are like Fray Agostino's donkey, that went over the mountain at a trot, trying to reach the bunch of carrots hung on a staff in front of his nose."

There was a half-hearted snicker, and one of the men pointed a warning thumb at Pedro.

"Oh!" said the speaker. "You heard, you little beggar?"

"I did," said Pedro.

"Well?"

"Well, I was waiting for the end of the story. As I heard it the Abbot charged the old friar with deceiving the dumb beast, and he said he had to, because he was dealing with a donkey!"

Pedro slung the pieces of gleaming plate-mail to his shoulder and added as he turned to go, "You need not be afraid that I shall tell the Admiral what you were saying. I am not a fool, and he knows how scared you are, already."

More signs of land appeared--river weeds, a thorny branch with fresh berries like rose-hips, a reed, a piece of wood, a carved staff. As always, the vesper hymn to the Virgin was sung on the deck of the flagship, and after service the Admiral briefly addressed the men. He reminded them of the singular favor of God in granting them so quiet and safe a voyage, and recalled his statement made on leaving the Canaries, that after they had made seven hundred leagues he expected to be so near land that they should not make sail after midnight. He told them that in his belief they might find land before morning.

Nobody slept that night. About ten o'clock the Admiral, gazing from the top of the castle built up on the poop of the _Santa Maria_, thought that far away in the warm darkness he saw a glancing light.

"Pedro," he said to the boy near him, "do you see a light out there?

Yes? Call Senor Gutierrez and we will see what he makes of it. I have come to the pass where I do not trust my own eyes."

Gutierrez saw it, but when Sanchez of Segovia came up, the light had vanished. It seemed to come and go as if it were a torch in a fishing-boat or in the hand of some one walking. But at two in the morning a gun boomed from the _Pinta_. Rodrigo de Triana, one of the seamen, had seen land from the mast-head.

The sudden sunrise of the tropics revealed a green Paradise lapped in tranquil seas. The ships must have come up toward it between sunset and midnight. No one had been able to imagine with any certainty what morning would show. But this was no seaport, or coast of any civilized land. People were coming down to the shore to watch the approach of the ships, but they were wild people, naked and brown, and the sight was evidently perfectly new to them.

The Admiral ordered the ships to cast anchor, and the boats were manned and armed. He himself in a rich uniform of scarlet held the royal banner of Castile, while the brothers Pinzon, commanders of the _Pinta_ and the _Nina_, in their boats, had each a banner emblazoned with a green cross and the crowned initials of the sovereigns, Fernando and Ysabel. The air was clear and soft, the sea was almost transparent, and strange and beautiful fruits could be seen among the rich foliage of the trees along the shore. The Admiral landed, knelt and kissed the earth, offering thanks to God, with tears in his eyes; and the other captains followed his example. Then rising, he drew his sword, and calling upon all who gathered around him to witness his action, took possession of the newly-discovered island in the name of his sovereigns, and gave it the name of San Salvador (Holy Savior).

The wild people, terrified at the sight of men coming toward them from these great white-winged birds, as they took the ships to be, ran away to the woods, but they presently returned, drawn by irresistible curiosity. They had no weapons of iron, and one of them innocently took hold of a sword by the edge. They were delighted with the colored caps, glass beads, hawk-bells and other trifles which were given to them, and brought the strangers great balls of spun cotton, cakes of cassava bread, fruits, and tame parrots. Pedro went everywhere, and saw everything, as only a boy could. Later, when the flagship was cruising among the islands, and the Admiral, worn out by long anxiety, lay asleep in his cabin, the helmsman, smothering a mighty yawn, called Pedro to him.

"See here, young chap," he said, "we are running along the shore of this island and there is no difficulty--take my place will you, while I get a nap?"

The boy hesitated. He would have asked his master, but his master was asleep, and must not be awakened. This helmsman, moreover, was one of the men who had been kind to him, ready to answer his questions regarding navigation, and loyal to the Admiral. Moreover it was not quite the first time that Pedro had been allowed to take this responsibility. He accepted it now. The man staggered away and lost himself in heavy sleep almost before he lay down.

Chapter end

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