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BOOK: The Cabinet of Curiosities
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.

Chapter Thirteen

Lukas decided he should not go back to the Three Violins. But as the week wore on he thought how much he’d enjoyed meeting his old friend. It was a shame the tavern was the best place to see him.

He was beginning to find his evenings with Anselmus something of a chore. His uncle always wanted to talk about serious things, and by nine o’clock Lukas was keen to escape to his room. But Anselmus would often ask him to stay up a while longer to keep him company. He especially enjoyed a game of chess. Lukas did not have the patience to play well, and his impulsive manoeuvres would make his uncle tut with scorn. Then Anselmus would sit there stroking his beard and spending an age deciding on his next move, as the clock ticked away the evening and Lukas’s eyelids began to droop.

A fortnight after he had been to the Three Violins he saw Dusan and Radek – the Vikings – in the Old Town Square. They slapped him on the back and greeted him like a friend.

After that, whenever he had a bit of money to spare, Lukas would venture into the Three Violins. He would peer cautiously around the inn to see who was there. If Etienne was with Strom and his gang, and he usually was, he would join them. If he wasn’t, he would slink out again, hoping the others hadn’t seen him.

He didn’t go very often. Much of his meagre apprentice wages had gone on buying a new pair of boots, and he had to ask Anselmus for money for the most basic essentials. ‘
The man who’s careful when he borrows has few cares and fewer sorrows,
’ recited Anselmus. ‘You must learn to live within your means.’

He pointed out that Lukas had a place to live and food on his plate, so what else did he need to spend money on? Lukas wanted to say, ‘My friend,’ but sensed this would lead to awkward questions.

Etienne was always good company but the rest of the gang still made him feel uneasy. Now they knew he worked in the Castle, they wasted no time asking about the ‘Treasure’ reported to be kept there. Lukas wondered if this was what Otka had told him about. He played it down, saying, ‘Aren’t all castles full of treasures?’

Strom leaned forward to speak in a low voice. ‘This one has a series of chambers they call the Cabinet of Curiosities. It’s got everything you could ever imagine. Pearls from the Orient, gold from New Spain, jewels from the four corners of the Earth . . . And then there’s the really special stuff. Nails from the cross . . .’ Here he crossed himself, which surprised Lukas as Strom was one of the most ungodly people he had ever met. ‘. . . all three of them. The eye of the Cyclops, the Golden Fleece, the robe Judas was wearing when he betrayed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane . . . it’s all priceless. They say there are thousands of treasures up there, and any one of them could keep a man fed for the rest of his life.’

Oldrich elbowed Lukas in the ribs and gave a dim chuckle. ‘You keep your eyes peeled, our friend Lukas.’ He paused to belch noisily. Lukas was surprised to hear himself called a friend. It was the first time Oldrich had spoken to him. ‘Anything you see there that’s lying around, you bring it to us. We’ll get you a good price for it.’

Lukas couldn’t imagine Oldrich getting a good price for anything. He was relieved when an altercation at the next table distracted them. A Flemish couple were talking loudly in their own language, assuming no one else around them would understand. The woman was drunkenly berating the man for his wandering eye. ‘She wouldn’t be interested in a flabby old goat like you,’ she said, her head cocked towards Jenka. She thumped him hard in the gut. The man doubled up, spilling his beer, and let out a string of curses.

Lukas translated the tale into German to his new friends and felt pleased with himself when they roared with laughter. Unfortunately the man spoke German too and stood up angrily, challenging Lukas to come outside and fight him in the street.

Strom looked him over and told him he’d have to fight all of them. The man started swearing in Flemish, half to himself, half at them, and his wife grabbed him by the arm and pulled him towards the door. Passing Radek, she spat at him, but he just looked at her as if to say, ‘Is that the best you can do?’

As Lukas was leaving, Etienne sidled up to him. ‘If they knew you were apprentice to the Emperor’s physician, you’d never hear the last of it. And don’t think you’ll get a fair price for anything you bring to them. If you want to make some money, let’s go fortune-telling again.’

Lukas walked home feeling uneasy. In his heart he knew he was keeping dangerous company. But he was lonely at the Castle, and these men were the nearest thing he had to friends. And he felt bad about the incident with the Flemish couple. The man had been humiliated for a cheap laugh. He also worried about the gang finding out what he really did. He hoped Etienne would never tell them.

.

‘Uncle,’ said Lukas the next afternoon, when Anselmus had been particularly pleased with an elixir he had prepared, ‘is it true that there is a room in the Castle full of extraordinary things?’

Anselmus was evasive. ‘Hmmmm? Most of the Castle is full of extraordinary things. What made you ask such a question?’

‘I just remembered Otka telling me, when she showed me round, that there was a room full of treasure. I’ve been curious about it, that’s all.’

‘Never could keep a secret, that girl,’ said Anselmus indulgently.

‘Have you seen the treasure, Uncle?’

‘Seen it?’ Anselmus was affronted. ‘Of course I’ve seen it. I’m curator of the collection!’

Lukas was astonished. ‘So you go out and collect things for this treasure?’ he said. ‘What a fantastic job! Can I come with you when you do it again?’

‘It is not a treasure, it is a Cabinet of Curiosities,’ Anselmus said rather sniffily. ‘I serve the Emperor in many ways,’ he continued. ‘Attending to the Cabinet is one of them. Collectors and charlatans are always coming to the castle with items for the Emperor. It is my job to decide whether or not to purchase. My friend Doktor Grunewald sometimes assists me. He has a special interest in the manuscripts and printed books of the collection.’

‘I should very much like to see the Cabinet,’ said Lukas.

‘It is open only to imperial scholars and artists. It is not a fairground attraction,’ said Anselmus.

Lukas was due to take his first Pharmacy exam in a week’s time. ‘Uncle,’ he said tentatively, ‘if I succeed in my examination, will you show me the Cabinet?’

Anselmus said he would consider it.

.

The week after Lukas’s glowing report from the Board of Apothecaries, Anselmus casually mentioned over breakfast that His Imperial Highness the Emperor was on one of his rare trips away from the Castle, and that this afternoon they might, just might, pay a visit to the Cabinet. After all, he said airily, ‘I have duties to attend to therein.’

For the rest of the morning Lukas could not sit or stand still. His friends from the tavern had talked about it again with wide-eyed wonder – how it was the most extraordinary collection of treasures on Earth. It was said that some who gazed upon it were so overcome by its magnificence and strangeness they went mad. Now he, the disgraced printer’s son from Ghent, was going to see this wonder of the world too.

Lukas was still unsure where the Cabinet was – or even what it was. It couldn’t possibly be just a cabinet. The collection was too large.

That afternoon they headed off on their usual route towards the imperial chambers. But instead of taking the stairs to the second floor, where the Emperor’s quarters were, they stopped at a large door on the first floor.

Anselmus produced a bunch of keys from his cloak and unlocked the door. It opened with an unearthly groan and they entered a modest anteroom, with a high vaulted ceiling. The walls were painted with brilliant and beautiful images of earth, fire, air and water. The twelve astrological signs of the Zodiac also decorated the room, each one magnificently depicted in bold colours. Overlooking it all was a vast painting of Jupiter. ‘His Highness feels a close affinity with the King of the Gods,’ said Anselmus, as Lukas gawped in astonishment.

In front of them was a huge double door. Anselmus reached again for his keys and unlocked it. He leaned on the handle on the right and pushed with all his might against the great weight of the door.

As it swung open Lukas could see a space the size of a ballroom, flooded with light from great south-facing windows and crammed from floor to ceiling with everything he could ever have imagined and many more things besides.

The room was like a vast repository of missing treasure troves. It was impossible to take in what he was seeing. Every one of the thousands of things that assaulted his senses would have made a fabulous ornament and endless talking point for anyone who possessed it.

On the floor, where space allowed, there were statues from Ancient Greece and Rome, and a great marble sculpture of a lion mauling a horse, its eyes wide and nostrils flared. It was so real Lukas could almost hear the poor creature neighing in terror. Then there were strange stuffed animals of dragon-like appearance, and massive antlered beasts that Lukas had never seen before. They stared at him with sightless eyes. Propped up, or hanging from the walls, were huge lurid paintings of naked women.

Great solid wooden tables ran down the centre of the room, covered in astronomical instruments. ‘Look through here,’ said Anselmus, indicating a strange arrangement of lenses, one larger than the other, held in place along a brass rod, and Lukas peered through the smaller lens.

In the swimming, distorted image he could see a detail in a painting at the far end of the room, almost as if he was standing right next to it. The experience startled him. ‘It is as if the eye has been transported thirty paces ahead!’ explained Anselmus.

‘What a strange phenomenon,’ said Lukas. ‘Perhaps it could be used to examine the heavens.’ He was remembering the conversation about the difficulties of stargazing that his uncle had had with the Emperor. But Anselmus had wandered off and Lukas thought no more about it.

Most arresting of all were the great cases. There were at least twenty in this room alone. Some were shelved with glass doors, so the objects within could be seen. Others were like an apothecary’s storage cabinet, with scores of little drawers, each with a tiny parchment label slotted into a minute iron frame. All of them were beautifully decorated with inlaid mother-of-pearl or different types of wood.

‘I could spend years in here and still not see everything,’ Lukas said. Anselmus beamed indulgently. His nephew was a bright young lad, he thought. It was only right to expose him to these wonders while his mind was fresh and ready to absorb it all.

They walked along, each step revealing further treasures. There was a violin made of glass, and a bizarre timepiece which drew their attention as it rattled and whirred as they passed.

‘Look, here is the very dagger used to kill Julius Caesar. This has long been one of the Emperor’s favourite artefacts.’ Lukas was disappointed to see there was no blood on it, although it still looked sharp enough to cut your meat at table.

His eyes alighted on a sinister-looking monkey, dressed as a court musician and clutching a life-size violin. All at once it gave a strange creaking noise and turned its head towards him. He nearly jumped out of his skin.

‘What the devil is that?’ he said to his uncle, trying hard to quell his fear.

‘Ah, the Emperor is a great admirer of automata,’ said Anselmus. ‘His collection of mechanical creatures is the greatest in Europe. This one was built in Prague. I met its maker once – a strange man. There was something missing about him; I can’t remember what.’

‘But that
thing
turned to look at me,’ said Lukas, who wasn’t really listening. He pointed to the monkey with a trembling hand.

‘A last contraction of the mechanism. Like the final spasm of a dying man. It must have been operated recently,’ said Anselmus. ‘The spring must have had a certain amount of life force left in it.’

‘You mean it’s alive?’ said Lukas. He was feeling a little revolted.

‘All cogs and flywheels and chains and levers, my boy,’ said Anselmus. ‘If you wind the spring inside, it gives artificial life to the mechanism. It is most ingenious.’

Lukas looked at the monkey again. It was so lifelike he supposed it had been made from the stuffed body of a real monkey. What a strange fate that would be. To be killed and then have your body reanimated by a mechanical contraption. To have your limbs and mouth and eyes move again in a way they had never been able to while you were a living, breathing creature.

Lukas didn’t like the monkey at all. He much preferred the peacock standing on the floor close by. It was an iron creature, mechanical in every way, save for its tail, which was fashioned from real peacock feathers.

‘That one is my favourite,’ said Anselmus as they passed it. ‘It struts around and makes its mating call, then fans out its feathers.’

‘Can we see?’ said Lukas.

‘Perhaps I will show you one day,’ Anselmus replied.

The monkey had unnerved Lukas. ‘Uncle,’ he said, ‘maybe we should go. I feel privileged, but perhaps for now I have seen enough.’

Anselmus nodded. He too was feeling uneasy, with no real business to be there.

.

Chapter Fourteen

Over supper Anselmus announced that he had been invited to dine with his friend Doktor Grunewald and some of the Spaniards. ‘Perhaps Grunewald has asked them to discover why they are here at the Castle.’

Lukas listened with great interest. Whenever he saw one of the Spanish party around the palace he felt a shiver of unease. Apart from that beautiful girl, of course.

Anselmus continued: ‘There is one, a Señor Don Jenaro Dorantes, who particularly interests me. He has lately returned from the New World and I would like to discover as much as I can about this fascinating realm. They say the Spanish conquered an entire country with less than two hundred men, two score horses and a single cannon. How extraordinary!’

The day came, and Lukas was surprised and uneasy to discover he was expected to attend too. ‘It will be good for your education,’ said his uncle. ‘You will find it fascinating, I am sure. Do you know much of Spain and its people?’

‘I know about the Spanish Inquisition,’ he said warily.

Anselmus tutted. ‘We cannot assume that all Spanish gentlemen agree with its methods and purpose. I shall make it my mission, where discourse allows, to suggest to our visitors that the Inquisition is too blunt a tool for its purpose. If you wish to win men’s minds, you must persuade them by reason and example.’

‘You know what happened to my father, don’t you?’ said Lukas.

‘Your mother wrote and told me the worst,’ said Anselmus. ‘See how the Devil takes on many forms – even claiming to do God’s work. But what I really want to know about concerns the New World, so I shall not let intercourse with our Spanish guests degenerate into sullen reproaches.’

.

That afternoon they bathed, then dressed in their finest apparel. Lukas felt very grown-up, accompanying his uncle to a meeting of such august men. He was a little intimidated too, until he reminded himself that he met with the Holy Roman Emperor each week.

Grunewald’s chambers were close to the West Gate and a five-minute stroll through the hot late afternoon.

When they arrived everyone was ready for the feast, which was announced in grand style when Grunewald waddled into the room with a beautiful gilded copper model of an ocean-going galleon. From the bottom of its flat hull to the top of its highest mast measured three-quarters of a man’s arm span. Grunewald placed the model on the long dining table and released a little switch. The machine immediately trundled along the table, tipping up and down in its voyage, as if swayed by the motion of the waves. Music filled the room as tiny drums and a pipe organ inside the galleon played a sea shanty. Little figures atop the masts started to strike the crow’s nests, and the air rang with the sound of chiming bells.

Grunewald ran to the end of the table and turned his extraordinary contraption around before it plunged off. ‘Not quite the edge of the world,’ said Anselmus, thinking himself very witty.

The galleon carried on until it reached the middle of the table. Then it stopped and, as the music reached a climax, miniature cannons on both its starboard and larboard sides produced loud explosions and smoke.

The guests were entranced and clapped and cheered. Grunewald had got his party off to a fine start.

A place of honour had been kept for Anselmus, at the centre of the table opposite Don Jenaro Dorantes. Grunewald introduced his friend to the Spanish guests as ‘His Imperial Majesty’s most esteemed physician’. Lukas was ushered to a place at the end, facing an empty chair.

Next to him was Doktor Krohl. When Lukas sat down, Krohl gave him the merest glance before turning his back to him. Cursing his luck, Lukas resolved to just enjoy the food and try to learn as much as possible from the conversation of the others.

From the start it was apparent that Jenaro Dorantes was the most interesting of the Spanish guests. The other two made little attempt to do other than listen to their countryman.

The meal started on an awkward note. Speaking in fluent Latin, Dorantes said he was surprised that there were so many Jews in Prague. His own country, he remarked, had expelled their Jews a century before.

Anselmus and Grunewald both gently suggested that the Jews of Prague had contributed much to the wealth of the city. As Christian teaching held that it was wrong to make money from money, it was Jews who lent money to merchants and enabled them to prosper. Of course they were paid interest, but why should they not be rewarded for their risk?

Grunewald said, ‘People resent the Jews for lending money. It is unjust. It’s like hating a doctor because you need to pay him money to cure you.’

Dorantes nodded and agreed that his host presented a persuasive argument. An awkward silence fell over the room until Anselmus invited Dorantes to tell his fellow diners about the Incas of Peru. He smiled indulgently.

‘They had no writing, but instead recorded their daily business by a system of knots in slender ropes. The wheel also was unknown to them. Yet they cannot be dismissed as savages, for their buildings are constructed with extraordinary precision. And they farm their land, which is mostly steep hills, so the arable fields are layered in terraces, with ingenious systems of irrigation.’

Anselmus asked Dorantes if he knew of the Fountain of Youth – whose waters made the old young again. It had been discovered in one of the new lands, he had heard. Was it the one the Spanish call Florida?

Dorantes shook his head. He had heard of such a marvel but did not know where it was.

Lukas was so fascinated he did not notice someone had sat down in the empty chair opposite him. Only when she tapped him lightly on the arm and said, ‘Would you please pass me the water pitcher?’ did he actually look across the table.

It was her. The girl he had seen around the Castle. Up close he could see that she had deep brown eyes. She was wearing a black velvet gown with silver and gold embroidery and pearls sewn around the neckline, which was cut in such a fashion as to reveal the soft skin of her neck and the swell of her breast.

Recovering his senses, Lukas bowed his head low. She gave him a little smile and offered him a hand, which had a faint scent of flowers, to kiss.

‘It is an honour to meet you,’ said Lukas, dimly remembering what he was supposed to say on such occasions to a girl he had never spoken to before.

‘My name is Celestina Dorantes,’ she said. ‘I am the daughter of Don Jenaro Dorantes, ambassador to the court of Philip II. That’s my father in the middle of the table, doing most of the talking.’

She was speaking in Flemish rather than Latin, much to Lukas’s relief. He knew Latin well enough to listen, but he was not fluent enough for rapid conversation.

‘And I’m –’ began Lukas.

‘You’re Lukas Declercq. I know!’ she said with a giggle. ‘You’re the nephew of Anselmus Declercq, the greatest physician in the Castle, or so I’ve been told.’

Lukas flushed with pleasure, knowing that she had gone to the trouble of finding out who he was.

‘And do you like Prague?’ he asked her.

‘This whole country is not to my liking,’ she said quietly, looking around to make sure no one was listening.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Lukas with a smile. ‘I don’t think anyone else here speaks Flemish, apart from my uncle, and he’s paying far too much attention to your father to be eavesdropping on us! So why is it that you speak Flemish?’

‘I was born in the Low Countries. We moved back to Madrid when my father was posted to the province of Peru.’

‘Did you and your mother not think to go with him?’ said Lukas, uncertain whether he was prying or just making conversation.

‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘My mother refused to go. I can still remember them arguing about it. She said it was suicide. The crossing is terribly dangerous – pirates, storms, scurvy, shipwrecks – well, you can imagine. She said if he wanted to risk his life then that was his business, but she wasn’t risking mine or my two brothers’. And even when you got there, heaven knows what might happen. You could die of some strange sickness. Or get yourself murdered by savages.

‘The sad thing is, my brothers died anyway. We went back to Madrid and we hadn’t been there three weeks when they caught the smallpox.’

She looked distant and a little sad. ‘So, anyway, there’s just me left now.’ Lukas felt for her.

‘I had a younger sister,’ he said. ‘I’d feed her bread and milk in front of the fire. I don’t know why she died – I was still very young – but I remember the funeral on a freezing winter’s day, and the tiny coffin, and feeling it was wrong to place her in the cold earth when what she loved most was to play close to the hearth.’

It was a painful memory. For the rest of his childhood Lukas had felt an emptiness, especially when he lay awake at night in his room, listening to the children in the house next door running around in their excitement and roaring with laughter.

She reached over and squeezed his arm. Then she gave him a cheery smile. ‘It’s so nice to be speaking Flemish again,’ she said. ‘When we left the Low Countries I thought I might forget it. But we had a neighbour in Madrid who had a Flemish wife, and she and I would talk together when she was homesick. So I haven’t forgotten.’

‘So you don’t like it here?’ said Lukas. He was surprised by how easy it was to talk to her.

‘Don’t like the food, don’t like the people, don’t like the weather, don’t like the clothes, don’t like our rooms. Can’t understand a word of their wretched language. Even when I say “yes” or “no” in Bohemian they look at me blankly – I might as well be snorting like a pig or braying like a donkey . . .’

‘I can teach you a bit of Bohemian,’ said Lukas, rather too eagerly. She ignored his suggestion and carried on talking.

‘. . . and I get so lonely here now my mother has departed this life. All I have is my little dog, Chico. He keeps me company. What about you? How did you get here? Do you like it?’

Lukas wanted to tell her how his father had been killed by the Inquisition, but he remembered Anselmus’s warning and bit his tongue. ‘My uncle offered to take me on as his apprentice. How could I refuse?’ He whispered, ‘He’s a bit serious, but he’s been very kind to me.’ Then he worried that Krohl would overhear him and changed the subject. ‘I’ve grown to like it here. I’m sure you will, when you get used to it.’

Further up the table he heard someone say, ‘And do they practise human sacrifices?’ That was something most people seemed to have heard about the native inhabitants of New Spain. For a moment they both stopped to listen to Dorantes.

‘There is some evidence that the natives of Peru occasionally sacrifice children,’ he said, to gasps of horror, ‘but they do not practise this abomination on anything like the scale of the Aztecs, to the north. But since you have enquired about the custom, will you permit me to show you something given to me by the Viceroy of New Spain?’

Dorantes placed his hand in his tunic and produced a slim item wrapped in a velvet cloth. As everyone sat in fascinated silence he unwrapped it to produce the most malevolent-looking knife Lukas had ever seen. It had a blade of roughly hewn white stone, which appeared both sharp and brittle, and an elaborately decorated handle, fashioned in the shape of a kneeling man.

Celestina pulled a long face. ‘Not that again,’ she whispered to Lukas. They both giggled, but he was still fascinated.

The blade was a material called chalcedony, explained Dorantes. The handle was mahogany, or some other such dark wood, inlaid with colourful stones and shells.

‘Do the savages not know of metals?’ said Anselmus.

‘They have bountiful supplies of silver and gold,’ said Dorantes, ‘with which they fashion exquisite ornaments. And they are known to make edge weapons of bronze. Of the other metals they have no knowledge.’

Celestina began to talk to Lukas in a low whisper so as not to draw the disapproval of her father.

Lukas tried to listen to both conversations at once.

‘They hold the victim down at the apex of a vast pyramid . . .’

‘The journey here from Madrid was most wearying . . .’

‘. . . and the heart is cut out of the chest . . .’

‘. . . a whole month of dried peas and salted meat on the ship . . .’

‘. . . and held up while it is still beating, to the morning sun . . .’

‘. . . but the sunsets were very pretty . . .’

‘. . . Then the body is cast down the stone steps . . .’

‘. . . and my little Chico took to life at sea like a dogfish . . .’

‘. . . and another is brought forth . . .’

‘. . . like a dogfish . . .’ she repeated, giggling. Then she kicked him under the table, annoyed at his refusal to laugh at her joke.

‘And did they sacrifice him too?’ said Lukas, whose interest in Celestina’s dog had been completely eclipsed by his fascination in her father’s account of human sacrifices.

She kicked him again, hard. ‘You ought to be paying attention to
me
,’ she said archly, ‘not some boring old story about natives.’

‘Were you disappointed that your mother was so determined not to go to Peru?’ said Lukas, suddenly frustrated to be drawn away from the main conversation.

‘Oh no,’ said Celestina. ‘My father was to be away for seven years. He only came back three months ago. I barely recognised him, and he certainly did not know me. But then I was only seven when he left.’

BOOK: The Cabinet of Curiosities
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