This story came about when a group of us were speculating as to how Diego de la Vega and Bernardo met. I thought of an encounter en route to a fencing tournament in a city that I had learned to love...
A note from the Author:
slightly edited July/November, 2001
Heidelberg Castle in Winter
Chapter One -- Chance
Out of the corner of his eye, Bernardo watched the tall, young Spaniard standing at the rail of the ship, as he sat, polishing his master’s boots. The young man, although several years older than his spoiled employer, seemed more exuberant and full of life. He watched as the dark-haired man took in the sights and sounds of the city they were sailing into. A smile never left his lips and it was obvious to Bernardo that he was excited to be on this trip. The mute also felt that he had seen the young caballero somewhere before.
The can of boot blacking slipped out of his hands and before Bernardo could grab it, the tin can had rolled across the deck, bumping against the foot of the young man. Looking down, the caballero picked it up, looked around, and saw only Bernardo. Smiling, he brought the polish over and tossed it casually to the manservant.
"You are missing this, señor?" he asked, congenially.
Bernardo nodded and then pointed out his disability, expecting the young man to show pity and then retreat as many did. He had become used to it over the years.
"But you do hear?" the caballero asked simply. Bernardo nodded.
"Is your patrón Don José Rodriguez of Seville?" Again Bernardo nodded. "He is very good with a blade," the young man commented.
Again Bernardo nodded and signed a query. "Yes, I have crossed blades with him, at a tournament two months ago. I am Diego de la Vega, a student at the university in Madrid."
That was what was familiar about the young man. As the man who had won the Spanish championship, de la Vega was the only man to have bested his master. But Don Diego seemed to have no arrogance about him, only a natural dignity that Don José lacked.
Bernardo was unused to that. Don José was extremely haughty and he still railed against the man who had beaten him. For months, Bernardo had regretted the decision to enter the service contract with his current employer. The young pup was insufferable and intolerable at times. When this inter-European competition had come up, he had been about to take his chances and leave Rodriguez’s employ, knowing full well that such a move would make it extremely difficult to get a good position elsewhere. Menservants who suddenly quit were looked upon with suspicion, as being unsteady and mercurial. Sighing, Bernardo squelched those thoughts as unseemly, since he was still in Don José’s employ.
"I would like to know your name, señor. Are you literate?" Diego asked, breaking into Bernardo’s reverie. Again, Bernardo nodded. Don Diego appeared a bit uncomfortable asking such a personal question, but seemed genuinely interested in knowing more about the mute. Young de la Vega looked around and not seeing anything useful to write with, looked at the can in the mute’s hands. A slightly mischievous gleam came into his eyes.
Quickly, Diego turned over one of the other chairs and pointed to the polish. "Write it for me, por favor." Bernardo couldn’t believe the young man’s audacity, but something compelled him to do as asked. As small as he could with his finger, he wrote ‘Bernardo’ on a slat of the chair.
Diego peered over the mute’s shoulder. "Bernardo," he stated. "Now I can address you properly. Gracias." Taking the rag, he wiped the polish into the grain of the wood. Sudden footsteps quickened his hand and before the other person had come into view, the chair was turned back over and the rag back in the hands of the mute.
Don José Rodriguez came out of the deckhouse and stopped suddenly, recognizing Diego. "Bernardo, are you not done with those yet?" His scowl deepened. "Get out of here. Take them back to my cabin and finish them." Bernardo gathered up everything in quick compliance.
"Señor Rodriguez, it is my fault that your manservant did not finish. I pestered him with a few questions," Diego commented through tightly pressed lips. Bernardo flashed him a quick look of gratitude.
"How I treat or address my servant is my concern, Californio," he spat. The title was said more like a curse than a place name. "But stay away from him and me." Don José turned on his heel and stalked away, like an angry tiger ready to lash out.
In irritation, Diego watched the retreating pair as they descended to the passenger deck. The manservant intrigued him, he seemed quick and intelligent, and Diego perceived a sense of humor that might rival his own. Too bad the mute was stuck with an insufferable lout like Don José as his master.
Seeing how close their approach was to the harbor near the city of Rotterdam, Diego decided that it might be a good idea to go down to the cabin he shared with his teammate and finish packing. Out of deference to his roommate’s higher rank, when he reached the door, he knocked. "Enter," came the answer.
Diego opened the cabin door and walked in, stopping abruptly when the point of his friend’s saber was only one inch from his nose. He simply folded his arms and smiled. "Don Fernando," Diego said, laughing. "You have made your point."
Dropping the blade, Fernando Miguel Carroza y Arana, laughed at Diego’s pun. "Well, Diego, are you coming to the cabin to spar with me or are you simply here to open another book or stare at a chess board?" Fernando asked.
"If we were not so close to disembarking, I would probably be doing a little reading, but as it is, I am here to finish getting my things together," Diego explained. Their easy bantering conversation belied a former rivalry that had bordered on animosity.
Don Fernando was a cousin to King Ferdinand, and at one time intensely disliked the young Californio, who had, in only a short time, shown a propensity for blade work that was almost uncanny. For his part, Diego had felt that Fernando had flaunted his rank more than was necessary, until he had realized that this was fairly normal behavior for members of the royal family. The pair had finally become close friends and Diego had been given the privilege of observing the internal workings of the Spanish monarchy through his association with Fernando.
"I have a favor to ask," Diego said, as he was packing away the few items that were still lying out.
"What is on your mind?" Fernando asked. He looked at Diego in mild curiosity, as the Californio had never prevailed upon him for anything remotely resembling royal favoritism. The tone of Diego’s voice and his demeanor gave the royal cousin the idea that this was no simple request.
"Would you be willing to approach Don José Rodriguez about hiring his manservant, Bernardo?" Diego asked. "I have a pretty good idea what he would say if I went to him with such an offer."
Fernando laughed. "I most certainly do know what he would say, and I will not repeat it. Why the interest in a manservant, all of a sudden? And I suppose you are referring to the mute? Would your interest be that of wanting a hardworking servant, or in your case, you backward colonial, someone compatible. Or do you simply feel sorry for the poor man? "
Diego had a quick retort on his tongue, but stopped before saying anything. He pondered his reasons. "I really cannot say, except that I like Bernardo’s personality; he is not stuffy or condescending," Diego added, trying to understand his thoughts himself. "And depending on how much I might have to come up with for severance pay, would you be good for it?"
"Hmm, I suppose, but it will cost you, Diego de la Vega." He laughed at the puzzled look on his roommate’s face. "A few less hours with the studies and a few more with the blade."
"I wholeheartedly concur, Don Fernando," said a voice from the open door. "Regardless of your wonderful talent, Diego, you must continue to practice. The competition at this tournament will not be as easy as at other tournaments."
"Sí, General de Silva," Diego agreed. He hastily bid his mentor enter and made room on the small bed for the general.
"I was just checking to see if you two would soon be ready to disembark. We will be taking a coach along a route that roughly parallels the Rhein River almost the whole way to Heidelberg," the general said. The man was in his early fifties, but was still trim and well able to handle a sword. His prodigious skill in all aspects of fencing had earned him his post at one of the most prestigious universities in Spain, and he was generally considered to be one of the most skilled fencing masters in Europe.
General Juan Morales de Silva y Montez had intense blue eyes that could pick out the slightest flaw in the stance of any fencer. His steel gray hair and small trim beard just added to the aristocratic bearing that seemed to be an internal and unconscious part of his being. Not in the least arrogant, he was very self assured and confident in his skills. In height, he was several inches shorter than Diego, but the caballero always felt that he was looking up at the General, so powerful was his personality. In some ways, General de Silva reminded Diego of his own father.
"Hopefully, we will get to Heidelberg several days before the tournament takes place. That way you will be able to practice and get any travel stiffness out of your muscles," the general informed them.
The trip would have been faster overland, through France, but owing to the strained relations between France and Spain, since Napoleon had deposed the king some years earlier, that route was not even considered.
King Ferdinand had regained power in 1814, but was still angry at the audacity of Spain’s neighbor. Thus the journey included a trip by brigantine sailing vessel to the Netherlands.
"Do not indulge in any undo pleasures along the way, gentlemen, specifically the Frauleins or Ratskellers." General de Silva looked meaningfully at Fernando, who was something of a ladies’ man, but he also favored Diego with a glance. "And do not disobey the curfew. I want my team rested, not hung over and exhausted."
Later that day, the trio disembarked and made their way to an inn for the night. Fernando approached Rodriguez with his offer to hire Bernardo as his personal manservant, but was rebuffed; the excuse being that the mute was a necessity on this trip. Offering a handsome severance pay didn’t sway the man, so Fernando simply thanked him and left. Diego was disappointed, but not surprised.
"I think he may have an idea what we are up to, Don Fernando," Diego said with a sigh.
"We will try again in Heidelberg, Diego." Fernando answered simply.
The trip from the flatlands of the Netherlands to the Baden-Württemburg area of Germany was one of enchantment for Diego. The countryside reminded him of parts of Spain, but was greener and full of continuous low mountains. The coach went up and the coach went down in a constant motion, the only variance being that the mountains became a little taller as they approached the university town of Heidelberg. Diego’s native California was more full of contrasts: flat, verdant areas alternating with wild, arid mountains.
Occasionally, he happened to bump into Bernardo as in the time in Köln, when the servant was entertaining some street urchins with a magic trick. Leaning against a building, Diego watched the joy that passed from the Spanish manservant to the German children, without regard to the differences in national origin. After awhile, Bernardo looked up, saw Diego watching him and smiled a greeting.
Bernardo was startled by the approach of a Polizist, "Wer bist du?" the man growled at him. The mute shook his head, not knowing any German. Diego walked over to the policeman, hoping his skill in the language would be sufficient for the situation.
"Sir, he is the manservant of one of the Spanish fencers," Diego told the policeman. "He is unable to answer you because he is mute."
The German nodded, scowling. "Tell him to not loiter around on the corners," he said and left. Diego could see where Bernardo could possibly get into a difficult situation, if he was not careful. The political climate had recently changed in Germany, too, and some officials were still suspicious of what might be seen as alien influences. Diego explained the situation to the manservant, as they walked back to the inn that Don José was staying in.
"I suppose I had better leave you," Diego told him as they neared the inn. But before leaving him, he decided to take a chance. "Bernardo, would you like to change employers?"
Startled by the question, which so closely mirrored his own thoughts recently, Bernardo looked into Diego’s face. He pointed to the caballero.
"Sí, Bernardo, I would like you to work for me," Diego said quietly. He was worried that he might have misinterpreted some of his observations, and overstepped his bounds.
Bernardo looked up at him, smiling, and nodded, then he gave a few quick signs.
"Slow down, Bernardo. You agree, but I do not understand the rest." Diego looked intently at the mute’s hands and facial expressions to try to comprehend. "Something about fencing?" Bernardo looked a bit impatient as he repeated himself again.
"Oh! When the tournament is over and we return to Spain," Diego correctly interpreted. "Very well, on the return trip home." With a smile, Diego left Bernardo and returned to the square, where he had been wandering. Both men were unaware that the entire incident had been closely watched from a short distance away.