The Cabinet of Curiosities (7 page)

BOOK: The Cabinet of Curiosities
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Chapter Eleven

Dawn came with a light frost. Anselmus and Lukas worried that they would fall from their perches like frozen sparrows. But soon after first light, the lion keeper entered the garden with a piece of meat. ‘Taman,’ he called. The creature lolloped over to him and even let him fuss with its mane as it began to eat.

While the lion was distracted the keeper placed a heavy iron chain around its collar. Then the two of them trotted back towards the lion cage in the Emperor’s menagerie.

Anselmus called, ‘Ahoy! Are there any more lions loose in this garden?’

The keeper came over and stared up, bemused. ‘Your Eminence . . .’

‘We came here last night to pick medicinal herbs. Then we were set upon by a lion,’ said Anselmus, in a tone that suggested this sort of thing happened to him all the time.

‘Taman does break out of his cage some evenings,’ said the keeper. ‘He hasn’t eaten anybody yet. I keep telling the Custodian of the Royal Gardens we need to strengthen that door . . .’

They found Lukas’s boot close to the gate. It had been chewed to pieces – a fate they both felt they had narrowly avoided.

.

That afternoon Lukas spent a tedious hour grinding roots and herbs with a pestle and mortar, and carefully separating each one into a small bone-china dish. The herbs were boiled and the oils siphoned off, then mixed with lemon juice and spirit of wine.

‘The medicine must be drunk before meals, and only when the moon is in Cancer, Leo or Virgo,’ said Anselmus.

Lukas was not really paying attention. He was tired and in a foul mood. Anselmus had offered to lend him money to buy some more boots. Lukas thought it wasn’t his fault he’d had to throw his boot away. His uncle had brought him to the garden. Surely he should buy him another pair. Lukas didn’t feel brave enough to mention it, but he did think ill of Anselmus for not offering.

At supper that evening Anselmus was in high spirits. He ignored his nephew’s surly mood. ‘When we have done the preparation, I will present this new medicine to the Emperor and tell him of its effectiveness. If the Pope himself recommends it, I am sure that Rudolph will be prepared to take it. Besides, he must surely be growing tired of Doktor Krohl’s magnetic remedies.’

Lukas could not be angry with his uncle for long, so he smiled and told him how much he was enjoying his studies. He knew he was living in a privileged world. Anselmus had even cleared some space in one of the smaller rooms for him. It was barely big enough for a rickety bed and table, but Lukas thought it was marvellous to have a room of his own. He felt that all he lacked was someone his own age to talk to.

He liked being his uncle’s protégé and he didn’t even mind Anselmus’s determination to teach him good manners. ‘You must have picked up some bad habits on your travels. If you live and work at court, you cannot behave as you would in a low tavern full of villains and women of light behaviour.’

Every mealtime he provided a running commentary on Lukas’s more regrettable behaviour. ‘Do not fall on your food as though you were a hungry dog . . . Do not fart and belch as if you were performing to an audience . . . Do not sneeze in people’s faces . . . and when you blow your nose, do not look into your handkerchief, as if you were expecting to find diamonds or emeralds.’ Lukas paid close attention. He was clever enough to realise this was the way to advancement in the world.

.

The medicine was prepared and ready for the Emperor’s next weekly examination. As they walked to the imperial chambers clutching several bottles they passed two Spanish courtiers, who watched them with clear curiosity.

‘They’re still here,’ said Anselmus, when they were out of earshot. ‘No doubt wanting an audience with the Emperor. They’ll have to be patient.’

As they waited for their summons Lukas had never seen his uncle in such a state of excitement. ‘I am convinced this is the remedy for His Highness’s melancholy,’ Anselmus said.

They were ushered into the royal presence and waited for Rudolph to turn away from the window and acknowledge them.

‘We hear you have met our friend Taman,’ said the Emperor. When they looked puzzled he chuckled. ‘Our lion,’ he explained. He obviously found the episode amusing.

‘It was a most . . . remarkable . . . evening,’ said Anselmus. He was doing his best to hide his exasperation, but the Emperor noticed and his mood changed in an instant. It was like a chilly draught stealing across the room.

Anselmus braced himself. He was determined to mention his new remedy. ‘Your Excellency,’ he said, ‘might I recommend a cure for your condition which I have just discovered.’

Lukas tried to hide a smirk. Clearly Grunewald was not going to get the credit for this.

‘It comes from the Pope’s physician. His Holiness greatly benefited from it.’

But Rudolph was no longer in a receptive frame of mind. He turned his back on them again.

They waited in awkward silence. The sun came out, then went in. A horse and cart scuttered across the cobbled courtyard below. The fire crackled in its grate.

Eventually the Emperor turned to face them.

‘Cure? We are weary of your cures, Anselmus Declercq,’ he said, his voice a low, threatening hiss. ‘We followed your advice on the lapis lazuli stones we received. We wore this confounded necklace –’ he wrenched it from his neck and threw it at the window, which cracked but did not break – ‘and it has made not the slightest difference.

‘Then we took the ground-stones potion – as you suggested. If you think two days of chronic dyspepsia and a day of burning flux a fine cure for melancholy, then we have to disagree with you.’

Lukas looked at Anselmus from the corner of his eye, trying to gauge his reaction. His uncle was standing there, head cocked to one side, wearing his usual ‘listening’ expression.

When he was sure the Emperor had finished speaking he said, ‘I am sorry Your Excellency has experienced an unfortunate reaction to my cure. I can assure Your Highness that the remedy has benefited many of my previous patients.’

‘You have many patients who have the wealth and opportunity to ingest lapis lazuli?’ said Rudolph incredulously. ‘Then you hardly have need of our patronage.’

He stood glowering. The sun had come out again and was shining directly through the window, leaving him in silhouette so that Anselmus and Lukas could not see the expression on his face.

After a further silence Anselmus perkily suggested the Emperor might still like to try this new concoction. ‘There are no ground stones – only herbs picked at the most advantageous moment of the lunar cycle.’

‘This medicine does not interest us,’ said Rudolph wearily, his rage spent. ‘Doktor Krohl’s cures may be equally ineffective, but at least they do not cause such unpleasantness . . . And if we ever experience a similar disorder of the innards again, from anything you may prescribe, we shall suspect that our most favoured court physician is trying to poison us and have him sent to Daliborka Tower.’

He turned his back, picked up his little handbell and rang it. The examination had been forgotten and the audience was over.

As they walked back to his apartment, Lukas noticed how Anselmus had gone a chalky colour.

‘The symptoms His Excellency describes are not unusual in any course of medicine. He must know that . . .’ he said. Then he lowered his voice, as if imparting a great confidence. ‘That was him on a bad day, but I’ve seen worse – babbling, tears, tearing hair. He’ll probably be pleasant the next time we see him.’

.

Chapter Twelve

Rudolph was cold with them when they came again, but on their following visit he was anxious to show Anselmus his latest acquisition: a polished brass armillary sphere for studying the heavens. They fell into conversation about the difficulties of stellar observation and the strain staring at tiny dots of light placed on the eyes. Anselmus had been forgiven. As they walked back to their chambers, Lukas noticed his uncle seemed almost giddy with relief. Otka was waiting for them, and her face lit up when she saw Anselmus looking happy. Lukas sensed a strong bond between them.

Lukas increasingly missed having friends his own age to talk to. The Spanish party was still at the Castle and one of them in particular had caught his attention. She was around his age and had jet-black hair, but unlike most of her compatriots who were olive-skinned, hers was milky-white. Whenever he saw her, he could not take his eyes off her. She even began to visit him in his dreams – little interludes that he would remember in fragments throughout the day. He longed to be able to talk to her – to show off about the extraordinary things he was seeing and doing.

Aside from Anselmus and Otka, the only other person he saw regularly was Anselmus’s older sister – his Aunt Elfriede. Once or twice a week he was sent to her house with bread and meat. She lived close to the river in Mala Strana, twenty minutes’ walk from the Castle. Her home was as cramped as the tiny houses on Golden Lane. The only good thing was you could heat it with a small kitchen stove.

Elfriede made her dislike obvious, greeting Lukas sourly and never asking him in. He didn’t mind. She was old and frail. Every day he visited her with provisions was another day when she wasn’t living with him and his uncle. Anselmus was devoted to her though. She had taught him his craft. Even now, at her age, people would come to see her when they fell sick. She cost a lot less than a real doctor, and her cures were just as effective.

This was a mixed blessing for Elfriede. She made enough money to keep her independence, but she also courted trouble. A few months before Lukas had arrived, a boy had fallen ill with a fever. The parents were too poor for a doctor. Their prayers and offerings to St Nicholas, the patron saint of children, had come to nothing. So they went to Elfriede, who gave a potion to the child, but he died soon after. Wild with grief, the parents whipped their effigy of St Nicholas and threw it in the Vltava. Then they turned on Elfriede, accusing her of wishing their son dead.

No one took them seriously enough to bring her to trial, but her customers were not so plentiful and the taint of witchcraft hung in the air. She even had a black cat – Marushka. It was the only living thing she seemed to have any affection for.

Lukas was shrewd enough not to complain about her. Anselmus seemed increasingly pleased with him and he wanted to keep things that way. ‘You are an inquisitive young man,’ his uncle had told him. ‘That is important in a boy. Intelligence and quick-wittedness are all very well, but God has also given us brains to think and to question!’

If Lukas continued making progress, Anselmus had said, he could soon take his first-stage apothecary’s examinations.

.

A month after he arrived in Prague, Lukas came home to see Otka curled up on his uncle’s lap, her head resting in the crook of his neck. They were sitting by the fire and were both fast asleep.

As Lukas came into the room Anselmus woke with a start. He seemed flustered and embarrassed to be caught this way, but he put his index finger to his mouth to tell Lukas to keep quiet. Lukas crept to his room, feeling confused. Otka was young enough to be his uncle’s daughter. Lukas thought of the paintings he’d seen showing a lecherous old man embracing a scheming young woman – it was a popular subject.

That evening conversation did not flow. Anselmus was more formal than usual and Lukas went to bed feeling lonely. It was time he started to make some friends around the Castle. He had barely thought of Etienne over the last month and felt a twinge of guilt. But then, Etienne had not sent word to him at the Castle either.

But that was probably a good thing. Lukas had done nothing he felt ashamed of since coming to the Castle – but he had done something bad almost every day when he had been travelling with Etienne.

.

Late the next afternoon, Anselmus sent Lukas to Aunt Elfriede’s with provisions and then into Prague to replenish his medical supplies. He was to go to an apothecary’s shop close to the Old Town Square.

His uncle was lacking opium, hemlock, gall from a castrated boar and treacle. ‘You must take a note with you, from me, or they will not give you these things.’

Lukas walked into the centre of Prague and found the apothecary easily enough. He felt wary of the inhabitants of the city and very conscious of the two gold crowns he carried in his purse. He could feel them chink with each step and felt sure that every ne’er-do-well within fifty paces would hear them too.

And ne’er-do-wells aplenty roamed the streets of Prague. The late-afternoon gloom seemed to bring them out. There were beggars and prostitutes on every street, but Lukas wasn’t afraid of them. It was the villains he had to watch out for.

They said that the creatures of the field grew skittish at dusk, for that was when the hawk was most likely to strike. As he turned back to the Castle, clutching his bags of medicine, he didn’t know which was worse – carrying money or carrying hemlock and opium. He knew these substances had illicit uses.

The Stone Bridge was a lot quieter in the evening, so he began to cross without fear of being killed by a horse and wagon.

Lukas tripped on the uneven cobblestones as light rain drifted down from the dark sky. It was warm for late April. Overhead a flock of birds wheeled by, the underside of their wings catching in the flare of the torches atop the mighty tower on the north side of the bridge. Their plaintive cawing reminded him of the seabirds in Ghent and evening walks on the beach near Vlisseghem with his mother and father when he was younger. He glanced briefly at the rotting heads on the tower parapet and wondered if the robbers at Momalle had had their heads stuck on poles yet.

‘Hey, Lukas,’ came a shout from further up the bridge. As the voice called again he recognised it as Etienne’s. They strode briskly towards each other and hugged. ‘You can buy us a pitcher of beer,’ said Etienne, ‘and I know just the place where we can drink it.’

Lukas did not have any money of his own, just what Anselmus had given him for the medicine. There was enough left for ale, but he felt uneasy about spending it.

The tavern was in Mala Strana, downriver from the bridge, in a side alley and staircase close to the sawmills and tanneries. It was reached by a door that gave little indication of what lay behind. But the Three Violins did not need to advertise for custom. Inside, the low ceiling ensured there would be a comfortable fug, and the log fire in the grate gave off enough heat to thaw the most frozen nightwatchman. Candles on every table and a torch or two on the walls threw out a dim but comforting glow.

Although the place was cosy, the customers were anything but. Lukas immediately felt ill at ease. These were people his instincts told him to avoid. When he ordered a pitcher of beer even the serving girl was awkward – huffy and not eager to please, although she was very pretty.

‘That’s Jenka,’ said Etienne with a wink. ‘Come and join my friends.’ Lukas felt his stomach tighten. He didn’t want to meet any of the people who drank here. Etienne paused and said, ‘Don’t tell them what you do at the Castle. It’s best they don’t know. Say you’re a lowly servant. Errands, sweeping up the horse droppings, that sort of thing.’

He led Lukas to a table close to the fire and introduced him one by one to the five most frightening-looking men in the inn – Radek, Dusan, Oldrich, Strom and Karel. They were all a little older than Etienne and as he ran through their names each one ignored Lukas or gave a curt nod. Lukas could never remember names but they looked like men who would not easily forgive someone who forgot them.

Etienne beckoned Lukas to sit down opposite him at the end of table. As he sat he was startled to hear a low growl. There was an enormous brown dog lying at their feet. Lukas’s toes were nestling under its haunches. He felt glad they weren’t anywhere near its slobbery jaws. ‘That’s Belphegor,’ said Etienne. ‘Belongs to Strom. He’s a lurcher. He’ll love you if you buy him a plate of milzwurst.’

Lukas didn’t want anything that size dribbling over him.

The men fell into conversation, showing no interest in Lukas. His attention was drawn back to Jenka, who seemed almost heroically stroppy. A customer on the next table pointed to the chalked menu on the wall and asked, ‘Is the herring hot or cold?’

‘How quickly are you going to eat it?’ she said without a smile.

After a while he realised he was starting to relax. It was good to be away from the palace and back in the company of Etienne and other young men. He always felt he needed to impress his uncle with his intelligence. Here it was quite the opposite. Etienne’s friends’ conversation was punctuated by the sorts of oaths that Lukas’s father had assured him would guarantee a place in hell.

Radek and Dusan were built like berserker warriors – with fierce, angry faces and biceps the size of Lukas’s head. Five or six hundred years ago, it was said, the Vikings had travelled down the waterways of Europe to Bohemia. Maybe these men were their descendants. He could imagine them both leaping from a longboat, swinging great double-headed axes.

Then there was Strom. He had strange tattoos either side of his face – slender geometric patterns, like those found in a book about page motifs that Lukas’s father had kept in his study. Strom said little, which made Lukas uneasy. He watched and waited, occasionally leaping into the conversation to reprimand one of them when he thought they were being foolish. Lukas guessed he was their leader, especially as several of them made a point of ordering milzwurst sausages for Belphegor. It seemed to be their way of paying homage.

Oldrich had long black hair that fell down his back. But when he took off his hat he was bald almost down to his ears and the top of his head was as white as a boiled egg. He sat there looking inscrutable – or maybe there was nothing going on in his head at all.

Finally there was Karel – a wiry man with gaunt cheeks. He was the butt of the others’ jokes, not least because of his name – one given to both girls and boys in Bohemia. Karel began to seethe at their mockery and eventually took out a long curved knife, the sort market traders used to gut fish, and began to clean the dirt from his fingernails.

They turned their attention to Lukas, and he tried not to shrink in his seat.

‘So, what’s a twerp like you doing with a fellow like Etienne?’ said Strom.

Lukas froze, not knowing how to reply.

Etienne answered for him.

‘Lukas is all right,’ he said with a grin. ‘We met on the way to Prague. Ask him nicely and he’ll buy you all a beer.’

Lukas kicked Etienne under the table. He had calculated that Anselmus would not miss the minor outlay of a pitcher of ale, but drinks all round would be far more difficult to explain.

‘Tell him you gave the change to a beggar,’ said Etienne, reading his mind.

‘You’d be telling the truth,’ said Strom, who had instantly understood what their conversation was about. ‘Especially with Karel.’

They all laughed until Karel brought out his knife again and carried on cleaning his nails. Lukas wondered if he was going to draw blood from one of his tormentors, then realised they were looking at him with impatient expectation. He decided it would be safer to buy the drinks and worry about the money later. He would have to earn it back somehow, or tell a lie about losing it.

He left the tavern late in the evening. They had been friendlier to him after he had bought them a drink – even asking him what he did. Remembering Etienne’s advice, Lukas was deliberately vague. ‘I sweep the courtyards, feed the horses,’ he shrugged. ‘Nothing fancy.’

He swaggered alone along the dark streets close to the Castle, no longer feeling the unease that had haunted him earlier in the evening. He had been mixing with villains! Now
he
was someone to be frightened of!

Yes, they had mostly ignored him, but they had been happy to let him sit with them. And it had been good to see Etienne. As he left, his friend had said, ‘You can find us in here most days. We’ll see you again?’

Then Dusan had come out with his bags full of medicines. ‘Hey, you dolt! You forgot these!’ he had said, and slapped him cheerfully on the back.

Lukas’s footsteps echoed around the empty courtyards of the Castle. As he entered the deserted Cathedral square he let out a belch thunderous enough to startle the starlings from their perches. This amused him so much he did not begin to fret about what his uncle was going to say until he approached the door to their quarters.

What would he tell him about his missing change? How angry would he be about his late homecoming? Fortunately Anselmus had retired for the night.

Lukas slumped into bed and was asleep in seconds. The next morning Anselmus casually asked him where he had been and seemed unconcerned when Lukas said he had met an old friend and they had gone for a drink. He thought it best to say nothing about the money he had failed to return and, sure enough, as the day wore on, it seemed that Anselmus had forgotten about it.

BOOK: The Cabinet of Curiosities
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