The Cabinet of Curiosities (2 page)

BOOK: The Cabinet of Curiosities
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Chapter Two

Lukas traipsed behind Etienne in gloomy silence as steady drizzle turned to rain. All his papers – his passport, his permission to travel and his letter of introduction from Uncle Anselmus at his destination, Prague – had gone with the robbers, along with his money. But, he told himself, at least he was still alive, unlike poor Herr and Frau Koberger.

‘Do you think the robbers were from round here?’ said Lukas, just to make conversation.

‘No,’ said Etienne. ‘Those accents were from all over – Flemish, south German – I’d guess they were soldiers. Deserters probably. They seemed too rough and ready with their blades to be run-of-the-mill vagrants. Soldiers get a taste for living off civilians . . . I think we can say for certain they weren’t pilgrims.’

Lukas was surprised to find himself smiling.

‘My mother told me to sew coins into the lining of my coat,’ he said, ‘so I’d be all right if brigands turned out my pockets. I don’t suppose it occurred to her that they’d steal the coat as well. And my bag. She made this horrible ointment from garlic, hollowleek and butter and ladled it into a little box. It’s supposed to cure blisters and chilblains and it stinks like a dead dog. She hid some money in that. She thought if a robber opened the box they’d be so disgusted by the smell they’d drop it at once.’

As they walked down the muddy road the wind carried a great solid stench their way. Two or three furlongs ahead was a sprawling encampment. Choking smoke drifted from spluttering wet wood fires, and the inhabitants sheltered in makeshift tents of tattered canvas and branches. ‘Put your cowl up, quickly!’ said Etienne, and they both raised the thick woollen hoods of their habits over their heads. ‘Don’t look at them.’

It was a wise precaution. Lukas knew from his travels that most of them would be farm labourers desperate for work and food. They could guide an ox and plough the earth, but that was little use in a foundry or builders’ yard.

A small group of men was loitering by the roadside, sitting on a fallen tree. Lukas noticed with horror that one of them was wearing his tunic. Closer to, he could even see the blood on it. ‘Is that them?’ he whispered to Etienne.

‘Keep going. Don’t stop for anything,’ said Etienne.

Two of the men began to walk towards them. Lukas could just see them on the edge of his vision and fought the urge to remove his cowl so he could get a better look. His legs felt stiff with fear as he willed himself to keep moving. What could he do? He had no weapon. Even if he managed to outrun these men, he would be scurrying straight back to the monks who were also pursuing them.

Children’s voices rang in his ears. A handful of ragged urchins rushed towards them, hands cupped in the universal gesture of the starving beggar.

‘I am sorry, my children,’ said Etienne. He was trying to sound grown-up and benevolent, but Lukas could hear the fear in his voice. ‘We are as poor as church mice.’

The men clearly thought them not worth the trouble and walked sullenly back to the edge of the road, watching them pass with dull, resentful eyes.

The boys listened for any sound that would indicate the men had recognised them. Lukas could sense their eyes boring into his back. But there were no cries or footfalls. The urge to turn around and look was so powerful he had to pinch his hand hard to distract himself from doing so.

The road took a turn, and when he felt they were safely out of sight Etienne said, ‘The man in your tunic – he was the hog’s turd who robbed me.’ He looked white with fear. ‘He’s obviously bullied it off the one who stole it from you.’

Lukas nodded, too frozen with fear to answer.

Two hours later they arrived in Rocourt. Within minutes they were sitting in a tavern by a roaring fire, tucking into a hot stew. Lukas marvelled at Etienne’s knack of getting people to give him things.

He had explained to the innkeeper that they were penniless disciples of God, going north to a monastery in Aachen. When the man had asked them why they had not shaved their heads in the customary monk’s tonsure, Etienne said that, as he could see by their youth, they were novices and would do so only when they were fully admitted to the order.

The keeper told them it would be an honour to provide them with board and lodgings and would they please say prayers for the good of his soul. Lukas thought this was a fine place to stay but Etienne, anxious to get away from Momalle, said they had to move on.

‘So where are we going to sleep tonight?’ Lukas muttered. He could see them shivering in a barn somewhere, or even a ditch, when they could have been curled up in front of a roaring log fire.

‘We?’ scoffed Etienne. That was enough to remind Lukas that he had promised to travel with him only as far as the next town. But then he winked and placed his hands together in prayer. ‘The Lord will provide,’ he said.

As they scraped their bowls clean, Etienne asked where Lukas was going. It was the first time he had shown any curiosity about him.

‘Prague,’ said Lukas.

‘Why?’ asked Etienne.

‘My Uncle Anselmus is taking me as his apprentice. He’s a physician at the court of Emperor Rudolph.’

‘The mad one?’ said Etienne, his eyebrows shooting up in delight and surprise. ‘I’ve heard the Emperor has an army of overpaid alchemists searching for the elixir of eternal youth.’

‘And I’ve heard the Emperor is a generous master,’ said Lukas, ‘although he is also a man of dark humours. And where do you plan to go?’

Etienne smiled and said, ‘I don’t know. Where it suits me.’ He turned and looked directly at Lukas. ‘I might even go to Prague.’

Lukas felt uneasy. ‘What would you do there?’

Etienne moved his head from side to side. ‘This and that.’

They finished their meal and thanked the innkeeper. Lukas noticed how charming Etienne could be. He made a point of asking the man for directions to Aachen.

‘That should send them in the wrong direction,’ said Etienne, ‘if someone from Momalle comes here looking for us.’

They took the main road south. Etienne did not mention Lukas’s tagging along.

‘I once contemplated a life in medicine, but lost patience with the Latin and Greek,’ he said. ‘It’s quite enough to speak French, German and Italian.’

‘So what did you choose to do instead?’ asked Lukas.

‘Swindle people,’ said Etienne boldly.

Lukas laughed but Etienne was looking at him without the trace of a smile.

‘It’s called trade – my father was a merchant – and it’s all within the law. Well, most of it, anyway.’

‘And what does your father do now?’ Lukas asked.

‘He’s dead, I think. Murdered, probably. They say he crossed someone over a consignment of furs and then he went missing. Ended up in the river, most likely. The body was never found. But everyone in Amiens thought the worst.’

As they walked, Etienne became quite animated. ‘It’s a golden age we live in, Lukas. These days you can buy goods from around the world. In the big market towns and the cities there are merchants to sell you furs from Muscovy, glass from Venice, spices from the Levant, even potatoes from the Americas! But there’s only so much you can say with your hands and a shrug.

‘So that’s where I come in. I can speak German and Italian, and a lot of people speak a little French – even you,’ he mocked. ‘I’m going where I can learn to speak another couple of tongues and I’m going to make my fortune helping one merchant speak to another. The world is my oyster. Every quayside, market square and merchants’ fair will find me invaluable. And if I can do a bit of my own business on top of that, then I’ll soon be rich.’

He was clearly enjoying having such an attentive audience.

‘And more people have money to spend on things to make them feel important – not just their next meal and a roof over their head,’ he went on. ‘Pride is one of the seven deadly sins. But business would be nowhere without it! Nor greed, nor envy, nor gluttony. Wrath and sloth I can do without, and murder, although I’m willing to make an exception for some people, but I’m all in favour of the other deadly sins. You’re not pious, are you, Lukas?’ he said with a raised eyebrow.

‘My father was burned alive by the Inquisition,’ said Lukas quietly. ‘I’m not pious at all.’

Etienne gave him a sympathetic smile and they walked along in companionable silence. As dusk began to fall he said, ‘I shall make an arrangement with you, Lukas. We shall travel together. But you must help me. Here we are, with just the clothes we stand up in. Only human kindness stands between us and starvation. But, as you can see, I am not troubled, because the world is full of people who are kind.’

‘And what will you expect me to do?’ said Lukas warily.

‘You’re going to be a physician. So you’ll speak Latin, won’t you?’ said Etienne. ‘Well, you can start by teaching me some of that. I know it’s not as common these days among the merchants, but I hear it is still a necessity in the east, where the tongues men speak are far more varied. As for any other favours, I shall tell you when the time comes.’

Lukas looked anxious. Etienne smiled. ‘Nothing nasty. You are to be your uncle’s apprentice. Well, first you shall be mine.’

He placed an avuncular arm around Lukas’s shoulders and, as they walked down the road together, Etienne hummed a merry gavotte.

.

That evening they reached a small town, but only the third inn Etienne approached would offer them hospitality. And then only the stables.

The keeper showed them a space among the horses and gave them a blanket apiece. ‘Now, good sirs,’ he said, ‘come and sit by the fire and we shall find some refreshment for you.’

‘You are most generous,’ said Etienne, ‘but our holy orders forbid us to drink and to frequent taverns. If you could provide us with water and a plain meal here in the stable, we shall pray for you.’

Lukas was cold, and a warm fire was just what he needed. As soon as the innkeeper had gone he said, ‘What did you say that for?’ He could barely keep the anger from his voice.

‘Listen and learn, young sir,’ said Etienne. ‘At Rocourt I told the innkeeper we were heading north. Many people saw us dine at the inn. Soon, maybe even now, word will arrive of two youths dressed as monks, wanted for the vile crime of murder back in Momalle. Here, if we keep to the stable, only the landlord will know we are travelling this way. Tomorrow we shall need another disguise.’

Lukas understood. He thought at once of the wheel. He had seen robbers and murderers executed in this manner – their limbs tied and tangled to the spokes of a large wagon wheel and broken with an iron bar. The wheel was hoisted into the air on an axle, like a malevolent giant hogweed, and they were left to the elements to die a slow, agonising death.

As they ate, Etienne asked Lukas if he had been happy to leave home. Lukas lied. He wasn’t going to tell a virtual stranger anything that might be used against him by the Inquisition. ‘I can’t let an opportunity like this go,’ he said cheerily. ‘An apprentice to a physician – who would say no?

‘So why did
you
leave home?’ he asked Etienne. ‘There must be work for interpreters in Amiens.’

‘After my father disappeared, my mother took up with another man,’ said Etienne. ‘He didn’t like me. We fought.’ He shrugged.

It was a cold night and, despite his exhaustion from a day on the road, Lukas slept badly. Etienne snored like a boar so Lukas moved his blanket to another stall. When he woke in the morning, his companion had gone.

.

Chapter Three

Lukas tried not to panic. He was alone in a part of the Empire he knew nothing about and had no idea which way to go, except south. Grabbing a carrot from the pig trough to keep his hunger at bay, he started to walk quickly down the edge of the road.

It was a mild morning, with none of the rain that had soaked the ground for the previous three days. Ten minutes later he heard a low voice in the undergrowth at the side of the road. ‘Lukas! Over here!’

It was Etienne. He was wearing a thick fur-lined coat, breeches and a woollen smock, all a little big on him.

He had a large bag with him. ‘I’ve got something for you too,’ he said, opening the bag to reveal a blue tunic, brown breeches and a hooded cloak.

Lukas was perplexed. ‘Why did you disappear?’ he said, trying not to sound petulant. ‘I thought you wanted me to come with you.’

‘I woke up early and thought I’d have a nose around the inn,’ said Etienne. ‘Found these clothes in one of the rooms. They even left an empty bag for me to carry them! Unfortunately the owner began to stir, so I thought I ought to vanish. Didn’t even have time to go back to the stable and wake you up. Sorry. I thought you’d probably leave as soon as you knew I was gone. So I waited. And here we are!’

Lukas was still angry. He could have been blamed for the theft. He wondered if that had been Etienne’s plan.

As they talked, another problem occurred to Lukas. ‘How are we going to get lodgings for free, if we’re not monks any more?’

‘This lovely coat has a lovely purse in it, with some lovely money,’ said Etienne. ‘We shall pay for our own board and lodging for the next few days. We’ll bury our habits in the woods, and when we’re far enough away from Momalle we’ll take a carriage again.’

Lukas decided he would forgive Etienne. Especially when he thought about the fuss the good citizens of his hometown, Ghent, had made about him – all for a few outspoken words. He didn’t like to think about what would happen if they were caught, but he had a strange confidence in Etienne. And the bolder they grew, the greater the sense of elation he felt when they managed to get away with it.

.

They stopped at an inn that evening and listened with interest as the landlord told them to look out for two desperate young brutes dressed as monks who had murdered seven or eight travellers.

Setting off at first light they walked half a day under a pale winter sky to the next town. Although they were able to walk along the smooth cobbles of a Roman road, the entire route was up and down a series of steep hills. ‘Tomorrow,’ said Etienne, ‘we travel by wagon.’

They reached the town shortly before the church clock struck midday and retired to a gloomy inn where Etienne ordered two plates of stuffed eggs. When they finished eating he said, ‘Watch this. And get ready for a speedy retreat!’ Taking up the plates to carry them back to the kitchen, he passed a stout middle-aged man who was supping alone. Etienne slipped and his spoon fell and bounced off the man’s back.

Etienne was very apologetic. Taking a rag from his pocket, he pretended to clean the man’s fur-lined tunic. In truth there was no food there at all – the spoons and plates had been licked clean.

‘What was that about?’ said Lukas as they left.

‘Keep walking, and I’ll tell you when we’re a good distance away.’

Out of sight of the inn Etienne said, ‘He had a plump purse at his belt. I have it now.’

Seeing the worried look on Lukas’s face, Etienne laughed. ‘I’d be more worried if we didn’t have any money.’

‘But that man will go to pay for his next tankard of ale,’ said Lukas, ‘and he’ll realise he’s been robbed.’

‘Maybe,’ said Etienne, ‘but that won’t be for a while. His tankard was freshly filled, I noticed, and he might just think he’s dropped his purse. I know how to pick my targets!’ he added brashly.

They stopped by the road and counted their prize. Six gold florins, and plenty of silver. Enough for several nights’ board and lodging, and the opportunity to travel by wagon, if they could find one that was going their way.

.

As they travelled on, Lukas’s fascination with Etienne slowly grew. He didn’t entirely trust him, and sometimes wondered why he wanted him to tag along, but as they approached another town on their route, towards the end of a warm early-spring day, Etienne said, ‘It’s good to have a companion. I never had a brother or sister.’ The remark touched Lukas. His parents had had a child before him and one after. But both had died young and only he had lived long enough to learn how to talk.

Lukas wondered if Etienne really would come with him to Prague. They talked about it one night around the blazing log fire of a tavern.

‘I like the sound of it,’ explained Etienne. ‘There is wealth – as you’d expect with the Emperor there. And where there is wealth there is trade. And trade brings opportunity! I’m always open to opportunity.’

True to his word, whenever their funds ran low Etienne would concoct some money-making scheme. They played the same trick whenever they were with a fresh bunch of travellers, especially if they were among people just going from one village to the next. They would always sit separately in the wagon, giving no indication that they knew each other. People talked on the journey, as they always did, and Etienne would sit there in silence, pretending to doze while listening intently to his fellow passengers. Then he would join in the conversation. A while after that he would let on that he had the gift of second sight. Lukas would immediately challenge him to tell his fortune.

Etienne would take his hands and examine his palms. ‘You are an adventurous young man,’ he would say, ‘who has travelled far and who does not wait for life to happen to him – he goes and seeks his fate and fortune.’

Someone would always scoff, usually a young man. ‘He’s travelling – of course he’s adventurous. And he has travelled a long way – with an accent like that I’d say he was from way to the north.’

Others would shush the scoffer. Etienne would ignore him and carry on pontificating, knowing that everyone in the wagon was listening.

‘You have the hands of a healer,’ he would say to Lukas. ‘Your destiny is in the healing arts.’

Then Lukas would gasp and say, ‘Well, that’s extraordinary. For I am travelling to be apprenticed to my uncle, who is a physician.’

That would really get everyone’s attention. Then Etienne would say, ‘I see a beautiful woman with long dark hair and eyes like sapphires. She will bring you much happiness and many children.’

Lukas would look delighted and offer Etienne a silver crown. By then the rest of the carriage would be clamouring for this exceptional young man to tell their fortune too.

Etienne would play them like a fiddle, telling the man with a local accent, whose hands were ingrained with soil and as rough as his clothes, that he toiled in the fields but did not get the rewards in life he deserved. One day he too would become a farmer with his own land.

To the plain girl with no wedding ring, who was fast approaching middle years, he would say she had had many disappointments in her life and that someone as good and kind as her had not been properly appreciated. But he could see that her heart line pointed to a promising future, perhaps with a gentle man who was older than her.

To the elderly woman dressed in black he would ask, ‘And have you had a recent loss?’ If she shook her head he would say, ‘I thought not,’ although this rarely happened. Death was usually a safe bet with the elderly. That was the way of the world.

Lukas would tie himself in knots trying not to laugh at these obvious guesses and note how easily Etienne gained the confidence of his victims by flattery and carefully worded questions.

And then, after each telling, they would all reach into their purses or pockets. At the end of that day’s journey, all the passengers would go on their way confident that their lives were soon to change for the better. And Lukas and Etienne would have enough coins for a meal and a bed for the night.

.

When the River Main grew narrow and what had been a broad waterway turned to a fordable stream and then a brook, Etienne declared their journey was coming to an end. ‘We follow the Main into the highlands and then pick up the River Eger into Bohemia. We’re still two or three weeks off our destination, but there’s not long to go now.’

They passed Leitmeritz and when the Eger flowed into the Vltava, they followed it all the way south to Prague.

BOOK: The Cabinet of Curiosities
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