A few days after his wedding Cervantes must already have suspected that he had made a mistake.
His wife was pretty and passably wealthy but he couldn’t stand her little town. How was he going to spend the rest of his life on a farm? He had wasted his youth first marching around Italy and then playing cards in an old Turkish bath in Algiers while he was a prisoner of the pirates. Would he waste the next best years being a country gentleman, hunting partridges and rabbits and husbanding vineyards?
Every chance he got he left the farm and went to Madrid to see old friends, including maybe his lover La Franca and their daughter.
But it seemed like it was always time to return to the damned farm.
Wasn’t he glad to see his young wife? No one knows. Perhaps he really loved her, perhaps he had only married her for her money. However that was, after nineteen months he pulled out of Esquivias.
“I’m going down to Seville to look for a job,” he told Catalina.
He had a good friend there, a former comic actor named Tomás. Tomás had decided that making monkey shines on a stage was never going to bring him much money so he left Madrid and went home to Seville, where he ran an inn now. It wasn’t just any inn—it was probably the most luxurious one in Seville. The best people in town stopped in there—nobles, rich empresarios, high government officials. “Come on down south and stay at my place,” Tomás had written to Cervantes. “Good jobs are dealt out here at my tables over drinks. I can introduce you to some very important people. Probably in less than a week you will nail something.” Cervantes had grown up in Seville and loved the booming city. It was the biggest, the busiest city in Spain at the time. “Save me a room,” he wrote Tomás. “I’m coming.”
He stayed at Tomás’s inn for two weeks. What kind of talk did he hear? Spain had just beaten the Portuguese in a decisive naval battle and everyone was euphoric—cocky. “That’s one enemy down,” said the men at the inn. “Now let’s go get those damned English.” They had heard about the execution of the Catholic Queen Mary Stuart and wanted revenge on the Protestants. “And we’re getting sick and tired of those English pirates, who have been getting away with murder for decades. It’s time to hang the whole lot—right boys?” And they would raise glasses of wine and vow to undo the English. King Philip saw that the whole country was in a mood of revenge and heroism and he decided to take advantage of it. “How many ships do you think we can assemble?” he asked the Duke of Alba. “The time is right to win back England for the Church.” For the Crown too.
One day while the inn was crowded with customers Tomás called Cervantes over. “See those two men by the window? The fat one is Antonio de Guevara. The King has just appointed him Head Comissary for a great Armada. That other fellow is Diego de Valdivia, Guevara’s adjutant. I’m going to introduce you to them. They are looking for commissaries to collect provisions for the fleet. The money is very good.”
The two nobles told Cervantes exactly what he would have to do. “The King needs wheat and oil to make the sailors’ biscuits. Of course the Crown cannot afford the huge sums necessary to pay for all that. But His Majesty is sure every Spaniard will want to cooperate in the undertaking, which the Almighty has surely ordained.”
“I see,” said Cervantes. “Requisitioning. The grain and oil will be collected by force.”
“Correct,” said the big Guevara. “Our commissaries will collect from each landowner an amount that we have fixed. You will simply go to his residence and present the official writ. Then at the granary you will supervise the actual transferral of the grain and oil to the King’s siloes. The Crown will pay you twelve reales a day.”
“And if the landowner or farmer refuses to open his bins?”
“As His Majesty’s commissary you will have full powers to oblige him to do so. Should the man refuse to cooperate, you will have him imprisoned.”
Cervantes was back on the farm when his offical appointment came through. What did he tell Catalina as he prepared to go south? Neither knew he would spend the next fifteen years collecting taxes in all the towns and villages of Andalucía. “Your mother wanted me to administer your family fortune, right?” he must have said. “Well, within two years I will double it—or my name is Charlie.”
He did and he didn’t. At one time he had thousands of maravedis in his hands but they disappeared mysteriously. “There are really only two ways he could have lost that money,” says a biographer. “Either he made bad investments or he gambled it away.”
“Cervantes must have been quite a card-shark,” says another of his biographers, “after all those years in the army and in the Turkish bath. In his stories he shows familiarity with all the games of the time.”
Perhaps at the gaming table they called him Charlie.