The Governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, is so impressed with the hard work of Cortés as clerk-treasurer that he secures a high political position for him in the colony—he backs him for mayor of Santiago, which is the capital of Cuba at the time. In this position Cortés continues to build a reputation as a daring and bold leader and forges alliances with the Governor’s secretary, Andreas de Duero and the King’s accountant, Almador de Lares—two men who will be instrumental in advancing the Conqueror’s exploits.
This position of power also makes him a new source of leadership, to which opposing political forces in the colony could then turn—a fact confirmed when he was twice re-elected as mayor. Cortés even leads a group which demands that more laborers be assigned to the settlers, resulting in the importation of black slaves since the natives were considered frail and in short supply after a lengthy war of attrition.
Cortés, the ladies man, also manages to find time to pursue that pastime. His own Indian slave girls willingly serve him and there seems to be a mutual attraction. Cortés is handsome, cuts a dashing figure and is relatively gentle master. The Indians females are quite different from pale Spanish women, not only in their coloring but in their direct open manner, since they possess none of the feminine wiles of European women. As many other men have discovered it is a case of opposites attract.
As time goes by however, Cuba becomes more settled and a fair number of Spanish women join the colony, providing Cortés a ‘target-rich’ environment for his pursuits. One of the most valuable of those targets is about to come his way, a fact he learns first hand from the Governor.
“Hernando I have a very important task for you.” Velázquez tells him after summoning him to his office.
It should be pointed out here that Velázquez is not only arguably the most pompous man in all of the West Indies but has an obsession with his version of what should pass for proper etiquette to the point that not even the most distinguished persons in the colony would dare sit uninvited in his presence.
“Of course sir.” Cortés says as he judiciously remains standing.
“An emissary from the Royal Court will be traveling here next month. This lady, Maria de Toledo who is a relative of our King, wishes to examine the conditions of the natives. While we certainly don’t need any meddling in our affairs, we don’t have a choice. Since you seem to get along with the native population, I’d like you to take the lead on this.”
“Certainly sir.” Cortés is leery since Velázquez is widely known to treat the Indians harshly. While it appears his boss is trying to hide behind him, he can’t pass up a chance to meet a member of the royal family.
“And that’s not all. There is a family of the name Juarez who will be accompanying her. Three sisters named Maria, Leonor, and Catalina are acting as her ladies in waiting. So you will be expected to look after a group of three ladies. Can I count on you?”
“Of course Governor.” He replies, and sets about arranging for the women’s arrival, to the point of having them stay on his personal estate.
So this Maria de Toledo, a relative of the King of Spain, and three of her lady friends are being entrusted to him, Cortés thinks to himself. And the ever ambitious Cortés quickly recognizes this is his chance not only to win more favor with the Governor, but also get an ‘in’ to the royal court!
When the party arrives Cortés sees to them personally, but Maria de Toledo consumes all of his time as she immediately sets about investigating the slavery of the natives. Despite his best efforts she indeed meddles into the colony’s affairs, eventually resulting in a decree from the King prohibiting using the native Indians as slave labor.
In the meantime the three sisters are being courted by seemingly every man in Cuba. While Maria Juarez rejects all potential suitors to assist Maria de Toledo, Leonor catches the eye of the Governor, leaving Cortés to press his inside advantage with Catalina. Unfortunately, Catalina Juarez is not a beautiful woman. Although she possesses alabaster skin and fancy European gowns, no amount of finery will cover her horse-like features.
Still and all, the tighter Leonor and Velázquez become, the more likely they will be married and if Cortés pursues Catalina, he could end up as part of the Governor’s family. So he grits his teeth and courts her.
At a grand party a few days later the Governor has thrown to present the ladies formally to the colony, Cortés finds himself studying the three sisters. Maria is plain and Catalina is just plain unattractive while the delicately beautiful Leonor seems to have received all the looks in the family.
Unable to help himself, Cortés recklessly flirts with Leonor and is rewarded with some mutual interest. But this begins to incur the wrath of the Governor and before long it is clear she has eyes on the bigger prize anyway. Guided by his blinding ambition, he has little choice but to outwardly continue his liaison with Catalina by day while secretly bedding his Indian women at night.
A few weeks later Governor Velázquez summons Cortés again.
“I have decided to wed Miss Leonor. We will be announcing our engagement next month. ”
“Congratulations Governor.” Cortés replies, pleased he is privy to this news but also wondering why.
“She has expressed her desire for a double wedding with Catalina.”
This statement floors Cortés! He can barely look at the woman and it is much too soon. He needs to get used to her before even considering marriage. For once Cortés is at a loss for words.
“Do you not find her a suitable wife?” Velázquez questions him in the roaring silence.
What could he say—that he finds the Governor’s future sister-in-law ugly?
“Well, yes, I mean she is good material, but…” Cortés stammers.
“But what? What’s the problem then?”
“Well we hardly know each other and I’m not even sure Miss Catalina would accept my proposal.” Cortés tries.
“Oh, I have it on very good authority that Catalina would accept your proposal of marriage.” The Governor smiles briefly. “You know Hernando, you are a gentleman of means and importance in the colony, taking a wife will polish your image and help elevate your social status.”
“I understand sir.” Cortés replies lamely.
“Cuba is civilized now and we all need to settle down. A wife will do wonders for you—better than those native women of yours.”
Cortés cringes a little at the jab.
“And remember, anything that makes my future wife happy will make me happy.” The Governor fires off his last shot to nods from Cortés as he makes his leave.
The Conqueror returns to his office deep in thought and soon commits himself in the direction he must take. A marriage into the Governor’s family will do wonders for him and certainly cement his status not only in the colonies but back in Spain. That evening as he returns to his estate he is determined to see it through and propose to Catalina.
But when he sets eyes on that horse face, he just can’t bring himself to do it.