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Historical Tales: Spanish by  Charles Morris


 

 

THE STORY OF QUEEN EXILONA

[40] WHEN Roderic overthrew the ancient dynasty of Spain and made himself king, he had the defences of the cities thrown down that they might not give shelter to his enemies. Only the walls of the frontier cities were left, and among these was the ancient city of Denia, on the Mediterranean shores. Dread of the Moorish pirates was felt in this stronghold, and a strong castle was built on a high rock that overlooked the sea. To the old alcaide who served as governor of Denia word was brought, at the end of a day of fierce tempest, that a Moorish ship was approaching the shore. Instantly the bells were rung to rouse the people, and signal fires were kindled on the tower that they might flash from peak to peak the news of an invasion by the Moors.

But as the ship came closer it was seen that alarm had been taken too soon. The vessel was alone and had evidently been in the grip of the tempest. It was seen to be a bark rich in carving and gilding, adorned with silken banderoles, and driven through the water by banks of crimson oars; a vessel of state and ceremony, not a ship of war. As it came nearer it was perceived to have suffered severely in the ruthless grasp of the storm. Broken were its masts and shattered its oars, while there fluttered in the wind the torn remnants of its banners and sails. [41] When at length it grounded on the sands below the castle the proud bark was little better than a shattered wreck.

It was with deep curiosity that the Spaniards saw on the deck of the stranded bark a group of high-born Moors, men and maidens dressed in robes of silk rich with jewels, and their features bearing the stamp of lofty rank. In their midst stood a young lady of striking beauty, sumptuously attired, and evidently of the highest station, for all paid her reverence, and a guard of armed Moors stood around her, scimitar in hand.

On landing, a venerable Moor approached the alcaide, who had descended to meet the strangers, and said, in such words of the Gothic language as he could command,—

"Worthy sir, we beg your protection and compassion. The princess under our care is the only daughter of the king of Algiers, on her way to the court of the king of Tunis, to whom she is betrothed. The tempest has driven us to your shores. Be not, we implore you, more cruel than the storm, which has spared us and our precious charge."

The alcaide returned a courteous answer, offering the princess and her train the shelter of the castle, but saying that he had not the power to release them. They must hold themselves the captives of Roderic, the king of the Goths, to whom his duty required him to send them. The fate of a royal captive, he said, could be decided only by the royal voice.

Some days afterwards Elyata, the Moorish princess, entered Toledo in a procession more like that of [42] a triumphant heroine than of a captive. A band of Christian horsemen preceded the train. The Moorish guard, richly attired, followed. In the midst rode the princess, surrounded by her maidens and dressed in her bridal robes, which were resplendent with pearls, diamonds, and other gems. Roderic advanced in state from his palace to receive her, and was so struck with her beauty and dignity of aspect that at first sight warm emotions filled his heart.


[Illustration]

TOLEDO, WITH THE ALCAZAR.

Elyata was sadly downcast at her captivity, but Roderic, though not releasing her, did all he could to make her lot a pleasant one. A royal palace was set aside for her residence, in whose spacious apartments and charming groves and gardens the grief of the princess gradually softened and passed away. Roderic, moved by a growing passion, frequently visited her, and in time soft sentiments woke in her heart for the handsome and courteous king. When, in the end, he begged her to become his bride her blushes and soft looks spoke consent.

On thing was wanting. Roderic's bride should be a Christian. Taught the doctrines of the new faith by learned bishops, Elyata's consent to the change of faith was easily won, and the princess was baptized as a Christian maiden under the new name of Exilona. The marriage was celebrated with the greatest magnificence, and was followed by tourneys and banquets and all the gayeties of the time. Some of the companions of the princess accepted the new faith and remained with her. Those who clung to their old belief were sent back to Africa with rich presents from the king, an embassy going with them [43] to inform the monarch of Algiers of his daughter's marriage, and to offer him the alliance and friendship of Roderic the Gothic king.

Queen Exilona passed a happy life as the bride of the Gothic monarch, but many were the vicissitudes which lay before her, for the Arab conquest was near at hand and its effects could not but bear heavily upon her destiny. After the defeat and death of Roderic a considerable number of noble Goths sought shelter in the city of Merida, among them the widowed queen. Thither came Musa with a large army and besieged the city. It was strongly and bravely defended, and the gallant garrison only yielded when famine came to the aid of their foes.

A deputation from the city sought the Arab camp and was conducted to the splendid pavilion of Musa, whom the deputies found to be an old man with long white beard and streaming white hair. He received them kindly, praised them for their valor, and offered them favorable terms. They returned the next day to complete the conditions. On this day the Mohammedan fast of Ramadhan ended, and the Arabs, who had worn their meanest garb, were now in their richest attire, and joy had everywhere succeeded penitent gloom. As for Musa, he seemed transformed. The meanly dressed and hoary ancient of the previous visit now appeared a man in the prime of life, his beard dark-red in hue, and his robes rich with gold and jewels. The Goths, to whom the art of dyeing the hair was unknown, looked on the transformation as a miracle.

"We have seen," they said on their return, "their [44] king, who was an old man, become a young one. We have to do with a nation of prophets who can change their appearance at will and transform themselves into any shape they like. Our advice is that we should grant Musa his demands, for men like these we cannot resist."

The stratagem of the Arab was successful, the gates were opened, and Merida became a captive city. The people were left their private wealth and were free to come and go as they would, with the exception of some of their noblest, who were to be held as hostages. Among these was the widowed Queen Exilona.

She was still young and beautiful. By paying tribute she was allowed to live unmolested, and in this way she passed to the second phase of her romantic career. Arab fancy has surrounded her history with many surprising incidents, and Lope de Vega, the Spanish dramatist, has made her the heroine of a romantic play, but her actual history is so full of interest that we need not draw contributions from fable or invention.

When Musa went to Syria at the command of the caliph he left his son Abdul-Aziz as emir or governor of Spain. The new emir was a young, handsome, and gallant man. He had won fame in Africa, and gained new repute for wisdom and courage in Spain. The Moorish princess who had become a Gothic queen was now a hostage in his hands, and her charms moved his susceptible heart. His persuasive tongue and attractive person were not without their effect upon the fair captive, who a second time lost her [45] heart to her captor, and agreed once more to become a bride. Her first husband had been the king of Gothic Spain. Her second was the ruler of Moorish Spain. She declined to yield her Christian creed, but she became his wife and the queen of his heart, called by him Ummi-Assam, a name of endearment common in Arab households.

Exilona was ambitious, and sought to induce her new husband to assume the style of a king. She made him a crown of gold and precious stones which her soft persuasion induced him to wear. She bowed in his presence as if to a royal potentate, and to oblige the nobles to do the same she induced him to have the door-way of his audience chamber made so low that no one could enter it without making an involuntary bow. She even tried to convert him to Christianity, and built a low door to her oratory, so that any one entering would seem to bow to the cross.

These arts of the queen proved fatal to the prince whom she desired to exalt, for this and other stories were told to the caliph, who was seeking some excuse to proceed against the sons of Musa, whose ruin he had sworn. It was told him that Abdul-Aziz was seeking to make Spain independent and was bowing before strange gods. Soliman asked no more, but sent the order for his death.

It was to friends of the emir that the fatal mandate was sent. They loved the mild Abdul, but they were true sons of Islam, and did not dare to question the order of the Commander of the Faithful. The emir was then at a villa near Seville, whither he was [46] accustomed to withdraw from the cares of state to the society of his beloved wife. Near by he had built a mosque, and here, on the morning of his death, he entered and began to read the Koran.

A noise at the door disturbed him, and in a moment a throng burst into the building. At their head was Habib, his trusted friend, who rushed upon him and struck him with a dagger. The emir was unhurt, and sought to escape, but the others were quickly upon him, and in a moment his body was rent with dagger strokes and he had fallen dead. His head was at once cut off, embalmed, and sent to the caliph. The cruel use made of it we have told.

A wild commotion followed when the people learned of this murder, but it was soon quelled. The power of the caliph was yet too strong to be questioned, even in far-off Spain. What became of Exilona we do not know. Some say that she was slain with her husband; some that she survived him and died in privacy. However it be, her life was one of singular romance.

As for the kindly and unfortunate emir, his memory was long fondly cherished in Spain, and his name still exists in the title of a valley in the suburbs of Antequera, which was named Abdelaxis in his honor.


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