The Cabinet of Curiosities (9 page)

BOOK: The Cabinet of Curiosities
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Lukas was getting distracted again. Dorantes was telling them how the Inca beast of burden – a long-necked donkey-like creature called a llama – could often be seen wearing gold hoops in its pierced ears.

Those brown eyes were looking straight at him and he grasped for a conversational straw. ‘I’m sure your mother was pleased to have your father back,’ he said.

‘She died the year before he returned,’ said Celestina reproachfully. ‘I told you of it – don’t you remember?’

Lukas blushed bright red. ‘I am so sorry,’ he said.

‘You’re hopeless,’ she chided, ‘but you’ll have to do. Besides, I want you to show me around the Castle. You’ve been here a while now, and I’m sure you know all the nooks and crannies.’

Lukas was astonished. A high-born girl would never ask to go out alone with a boy of her own age. It was unheard of. She must have noticed the look on his face. His eyebrows had almost flown off the top of his forehead. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I’m being too forward.’ She leaned towards him and whispered, ‘My father is always chastising me for it. I meant, would you be so kind as to show Perpetua, she’s my maid, and me around the Castle?’

She was looking right at him, in a way that most adults would consider too bold. Something about her excited Lukas in a way he did not really understand.

.

As the night drew on, the guests drifted away in dribs and drabs. Celestina gave him that look again when Lukas said goodbye. He talked excitedly with Anselmus all the way back to their rooms. His uncle smiled indulgently. ‘It is good for you to meet others of your own age within the Castle, Lukas. I sometimes wonder if you can be happy here in a world full of old men like me!’

Lukas assured him he was thrilled to be there, learning such a fascinating profession. He took to his bed and fell asleep thinking of Celestina’s brown eyes and the soft scent of her skin.

.

Krohl stayed late at the gathering to finish his wine. He did not want to return to his dreary little house on Golden Lane, among all the crackpot alchemists and servants. Dorantes came over and filled up his glass.

‘I hear His Excellency is attended by the finest physicians in the Empire,’ he said.

‘His Majesty is attended by noble men,’ murmured Krohl. ‘They are good Christian souls. Indeed I know them all –’ his voice dropped to a whisper – ‘although it should be said that some are more tolerant of heresy than others. And they especially seem to be rewarded with His Majesty’s highest affection and the most prestigious dwellings in the heart of the Castle.’

‘Tolerance of heresy?’ said Dorantes softly, playing the sympathetic listener with accomplished ease. ‘
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves
. Surely the Emperor would not accept such men in his midst?’

Krohl sensed he had gone too far. ‘It would be dishonourable to say more,’ he mumbled. ‘I must be away.’

‘They are all good, learned men,’ he added hastily, as he stumbled out of the room.

.

Chapter Fifteen

The next time Lukas saw Celestina she looked right through him, even though he said hello as she passed. Not a flicker.

That night he tried to remember every detail of their conversation at Doktor Grunewald’s. How she had looked and the way she had stared into his eyes. No girl had ever done that to him before. He wondered if he’d said something to her that had upset her or caused her to think twice about seeing him again.

He went to Anselmus for advice, although he suspected his uncle was not the best person to ask about anything concerning the fairer sex. ‘Women are strange fickle creatures, my lad,’ he said. ‘You must resign yourself to this simple truth, unless you intend to spend the rest of your life in a remote monastery.’

Lukas nodded, but when his uncle was out, he asked Otka.

She smiled. ‘This girl, she shy,’ she whispered. ‘Then she bold,’ she shouted. ‘Now she shy again,’ she whispered. ‘Maybe next week, she bold.’ She roared with laughter at Lukas’s bewildered face. He was no wiser.

When he went into the city centre one late afternoon a few days later, to purchase supplies for Anselmus, he saw Etienne in the main square. Lukas had expected gentle mockery when he asked Etienne’s advice, but his friend was surprisingly kind to him. ‘She does sound beautiful,’ he said. ‘No wonder you feel disappointed. I think she’s embarrassed. She was forward when she met you. Now she feels she has to be aloof, so you won’t think she’s too bold. I’d just ignore her too. If she thinks you’re desperate to get to know her, she’ll lose interest.’

That made more sense than the advice anyone else had given him.

Lukas suggested they go to the Stone Table tavern, close by the square. He wanted to see his friend on his own. But Etienne insisted they go to the Three Violins. ‘I know the villains in there,’ he winked, ‘so I feel safer.’

The others were gathered round their usual table, and Lukas decided he would join them for a little while, then go home. After all, he was carrying valuable materials from the apothecary. There was space at the table next to a fellow in early middle age who seemed to know them all. Lukas sat down there. The man had the dark complexion of someone from further south – Servia or Wallachia perhaps – and a little pointed beard. Lukas noticed his left ear was missing. Something about him made Lukas feel uneasy.

‘This is Mister Hlava,’ said Etienne. ‘He joins us from time to time. We help him out with errands, little jobs . . .’

Lukas had learned not to ask Etienne’s friends the standard questions on introduction, such as ‘What do you do?’ But on this occasion Etienne offered the information. ‘Mister Hlava is a mechanical-instrument maker.’

Hlava turned away and began talking to Strom. Lukas became distracted by Jenka – admiring the way she dealt with her more obnoxious customers.

‘Get me a mutton pie, wench,’ said one rotund drunk as he grabbed her round the waist. ‘I need sustenance before I go home to entertain my mistress.’

‘Buy two pies,’ said Jenka, prising his hand away. ‘Then you may entertain her twice.’

Hlava noticed how Lukas’s eyes followed the serving girl. He saw how his face tightened into a scowl when men patted her on the bottom or put an arm around her waist, and how he looked away when she flirted with other customers.

‘What’s her name?’ he asked.

‘Who?’ said Lukas, embarrassed that his interest had been noticed. ‘Jenka.’ Hlava held his gaze. He felt the need to say more. ‘She works here most days.’

Lukas and the newcomer fell into conversation. Hlava turned away from the others, saying he could hear much better on his right side. ‘It’s difficult to catch everything in a noisy tavern,’ he said. ‘You’re a cut above, aren’t you?’ he went on quietly. ‘I can tell by the way you speak. You’ve had an education – not like this lot!’ He winked. ‘I could use a boy like you – to help with some of my jobs. I pay generously – they’ll all tell you.’ He gestured around.

Hlava turned to address the rest of the group. They all leaned closer so they could hear him. ‘I need some ivory, boys, and some good-quality malachite. Keep your ears and eyes open.’ They all nodded.

As an afterthought he added, ‘Oh, and I have something special for you all. Something that will make us a lot of money.’

Then he left for another rendezvous, without elaborating further.

‘What happened to his ear?’ said Lukas.

Etienne dropped his voice. The others clearly had a lot of respect for Hlava. ‘There’s a whole chapter to write about that. Some say he was savaged by a dog; he certainly doesn’t like Belphegor. Others say a rival bit it off in a tavern fight. I’ve also heard he used to be employed in the court in Vienna. When he left he took several books that belonged to the Archduke. He’s lucky he wasn’t hanged for it. In fact, he’s lucky he only lost one ear.

‘Be careful with him,’ urged Etienne as quietly as he could. ‘He’s a useful man to know, especially if you’re short of a few pfennigs, and he seems to know some important people, but . . .’ He shrugged, leaving the rest to Lukas’s imagination.

Lukas had had enough of the Three Violins. He abandoned his beer and walked home.

.

Chapter Sixteen

Don Jenaro Dorantes had been at the court for six weeks before he accepted that the stories he had heard about Rudolph were true. He had not expected to meet His Excellency the Holy Roman Emperor immediately. That was understood. He was an ambassador. His Excellency was the Emperor. Patience was part of his vocation. But six weeks was too long to keep anyone waiting – even an under-procurator from the court of the Duchy of Hessen-Rumpenheim – let alone an emissary from the Spanish Emperor.

When he first arrived, he sent out a request for an audience every morning via the court herald. Every evening he smarted with the humiliation of not having received a reply. Now he thought it prudent to request his audience every three or four days, just to remind His Majesty that he was still there and waiting.

After three weeks a reply came. ‘His Majesty,’ said a page, ‘will see you in due course.’

That could mean anything from tomorrow to some time in the next century. But other members of the Spanish party had been gathering intelligence. When they met to discuss their findings the news was both good and bad. The Emperor, it was widely known, was a recluse who saw only those he chose to see. He spent a great deal of time alone, either in his Cabinet of Curiosities or his own chambers. Both places, it was whispered disapprovingly, were rumoured to be filled with paintings of a decidedly immodest character. But then, so were many of the open courtrooms of the palace, where Dorantes and his party were permitted to go.

Sometimes, it was said, Rudolph chose to see no one but his physicians. Even his mistress, who had reputedly borne him six children, did not see him for weeks on end. One of Dorantes’s retinue gave a ribald laugh at that point. ‘He obviously prefers to gaze upon his fleshy pictures,’ he said with a smirk. The others, taking their cue from Dorantes, looked on with frosty disapproval.

Such works inflamed the humours. Dorantes had already taken to bathing in icy water and had scourged his back with a birch to purge himself of the excess of yellow bile such inflammation created.

‘Our task here is too
delicate
for a written approach,’ said Dorantes to his cohorts. ‘We must persist in our attempts to meet the Emperor. I have it on the highest authority that he is a good Christian soul, and I am sure that once we are able to present our case to him, face to face, we will have no trouble in persuading him to return to the true path.’

Later, alone in his study, Dorantes considered his strategy. The physician Anselmus, the one who had been so interested in his sojourn in Peru – perhaps he would help him to talk to the Emperor. He could ask Anselmus about his inflamed humours too.

But he would have to approach him with caution. After all, he might be one of the heretics that the cheerless Doktor Krohl had talked about.

.

Dorantes called on Anselmus the next day and spoke plainly of his desire to see the Emperor. ‘I come with instructions from the Emperor of Spain,’ he declared. ‘He wishes me to talk to Rudolph personally on a matter of the utmost importance. I come to you, as you are so highly regarded both by His Majesty and the gentlemen of the court, to humbly ask your advice.’

Dorantes understood when to flatter and when to cajole. It was his job. He knew when to confide and when to conceal. He suspected Anselmus knew his purpose in Prague. He was uncertain, however, as to whether this peculiar man was friend or foe.

‘Your Eminence,’ said Anselmus, ‘let us speak plainly. I have a fairly clear idea of your purpose. It is said around the Castle that you intend to persuade the Emperor to support the Pope and the work of the Inquisition in the suppression of heresy.’ He searched the Spaniard’s face for a clue.

Dorantes remained impassive. ‘Are you a follower of the true faith?’ he asked.

‘Indeed I am,’ said Anselmus, ‘but here in Prague you will find there is a degree of tolerance not found in other parts of the Empire. Does it not say in John:
In my Father’s house are many mansions
?’

Dorantes said nothing, but the expression on his face remained pleasingly open and he gestured for Anselmus to continue, which he did.

‘Our Church of Rome has done much to discourage the natural curiosity of learned men. Despite my own adherence to the Church, that I cannot agree with. God gave us brains to think, not to accept everything our masters tell us.’

Dorantes nodded his head, as if in agreement.

Anselmus was surprised by such a positive response. He felt moved to say more.

‘His Majesty has also done his utmost to ensure that his Catholic and Protestant subjects, and even his Jews, all live together in peace and harmony. Indeed, were we not at war with the Ottoman Muslims, I am sure he would also tolerate the followers of Allah.’

‘But there are Muslims here in Prague,’ said Dorantes. ‘I have seen them in the market.’

‘Indeed there are a bold few,’ said Anselmus. ‘I myself have met Muslim alchemists and natural philosophers. They have much to tell us about the workings of the world.’

Anselmus did not have the calling or the character of a diplomat. He found it difficult to conceal his feelings. ‘I know at first hand of the activities of the Inquisition,’ he told his visitor. ‘Sometimes, in our persecution of our fellow creatures, I wonder if we are any better than the savages you spoke of, with their sacrificial knives.’

Dorantes suppressed his anger and shifted uneasily in his seat. He saw no value in pointing out that in their burnings the Inquisition was performing a holy duty, whereas the savages enacted their cruel rituals to pagan ends.

He now knew he was wasting his time. And he would definitely not be asking Anselmus about his humours. Still, it was his business to leave every door open. ‘Good sir, there have been excesses, only a fool would deny it. But we do God’s work, and sometimes only the severest punishments can save the world from Satan’s legions.’

At that moment Lukas returned from an errand. He bowed, as he had been taught to when gentlemen of repute were present.

‘Señor Dorantes is just leaving,’ said Anselmus chirpily. ‘Would you see him to the palace gate.’

Dorantes beamed at the sight of Lukas. ‘So this is your nephew,’ he said warmly. ‘I remember the lad from that night we dined together. My foolish daughter talked of nothing else the following day. So, you are from Ghent? I know the town well from my days in the Low Countries.’

They walked down the stairs together and Dorantes stopped by the gate of the palace and beckoned Lukas closer. ‘My daughter is very lonely here,’ he said quietly. ‘I am sure, as a relative of the great physician Anselmus Declercq, I can trust you to show her around the Castle. Perhaps also to escort her to the city so she can see the wonders of the town square. I have told her of the Astronomical Clock and the twin towers of Our Lady before Tyn.’ Then he spoke even more softly. ‘Celestina is taken with melancholy. She has been like this since her mother died. I’m sure the company of someone young like herself will bring some happiness back into her life – in the presence of her maid, of course.’

Lukas smiled brightly. Of course he would be delighted to escort Celestina around, he assured Dorantes. He would like nothing better. He walked back to his uncle’s apartment thinking that fate was a funny thing and perhaps it was smiling upon him now. He felt nervous about meeting her again, of course, but he told himself that as long as he didn’t suggest she try some of Anselmus’s melancholy medicine, things would go well.

Three days later a letter appeared on the doormat. It was from Don Dorantes, thanking Anselmus for his hospitality and asking if he could spare his apprentice for an hour or two to show his daughter the Castle.

Anselmus was pleased. Lukas had met so few people of his own age in Prague. He knew about Etienne, whom Lukas had mentioned once or twice. That was permissible, though he worried a little about Lukas going to taverns, but the Ambassador’s daughter would surely be a more suitable companion.

.

The Doranteses’ quarters were a mere three minutes from Anselmus’s rooms. Lukas walked there with some trepidation. He had not spoken to Celestina since Grunewald’s party.

When he knocked on the door he heard the sound of excited barking. There was a scuffle and shouting and footsteps. The barking stopped and the door was opened by a stern young woman. She bowed, asked if he was Lukas and introduced herself: ‘I am Perpetua – the Señorita’s maid.’

She was not ugly – that was too strong a word – but her sturdy features had a sourness about them. Maybe it was the business of being maid to a girl only five years younger. Or perhaps Celestina was a difficult mistress.

‘He’s here,’ she shouted into the next room. Celestina appeared, wearing a beautiful gown of silk and velvet – pale green in colour, with an intricately embroidered floral motif on the bodice and pleated sleeves. Lukas was about to compliment her on it when she said, ‘Perpetua, please do not call me like that when I have a visitor. You are to come and find me and then say, “Señorita, your guest has arrived.”’

She said this with weary, almost pleading, patience. Perpetua was probably new to the job. Lukas was glad she had not spoken sharply to her. That would have disappointed him.

Then she turned to Lukas and offered him her hand to be kissed. ‘Master Declercq,’ she said with a smile and a curtsy, ‘how kind of you to come and visit me.’

Her hand smelled of orchids. The scent, only recently applied, tasted bittersweet on his lips and smarted a little. She was as delicate as china and Lukas felt completely under her spell.

‘May I offer you a glass of wine?’ she said.

Lukas wanted to smile but stopped himself. She was pretending to be grown-up, just as he was. ‘A glass of wine would be welcome,’ he said.

Perpetua trundled off and returned with two glasses of wine. ‘This is
vino de Jerez
,’ said Celestina. ‘We like to drink it in Spain. It reminds me of home.’

Lukas took a sip. It was sweet and strong. He liked it better than his uncle’s wine. That was what you’d call ‘an acquired taste’.

He looked around the apartment. It was sparsely furnished, with no decorations on the wall, no piles of books, no ornaments to make it feel like a home. A lace bobbin lay on one of the chairs. Perpetua stood in the background, hands clasped in front of her, a sharp look upon her face.

Barking started in another room. ‘Oh, Chico,’ she said. They let the dog out and he immediately leaped up at Lukas, desperately demanding his attention. Lukas liked little dogs and was happy to stroke him. Celestina beamed her approval.

‘And are you comfortable here?’ said Lukas.

‘It will do,’ said Celestina with a wan smile. ‘As you can see, there is little here to make it feel like home. My father insists on plain surroundings. He says that ornaments and adornments are vanities and distractions. I miss my home in Madrid. My mother adored her Moorish tiles and Italian tapestries, her portraits and oriental porcelains. I wish we could have brought some of her things with us.’

Lukas took another sip of his wine, feeling warm and a little bit bolder.

‘Will you and your father be staying long in Prague?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know,’ said Celestina, and beckoned him to sit on a couch close to the window. ‘He has come to speak to the Emperor, but I understand there are so many demands on His Majesty, so much imperial business, that he has not been able to find time to see my father yet.’

Lukas smiled. ‘The Emperor has so much business,’ he said, ‘he often retreats from the court and will see no one, save for his physicians, for days on end.’ Then he wondered if he’d said too much. Anselmus had warned him to be careful what he repeated to the Spaniards.

She nodded but said nothing more. They sat there for a while. Lukas was just beginning to wonder what else he could say when she clapped her hands. ‘Come, Master Declercq, it is a beautiful day. Let us see what the Castle looks like in all this sunshine.’

It was one of those June days when the sun was hot enough to burn. Celestina wore a wide hat with a couple of feathers in the brim, and chastised Lukas for not wearing one himself. ‘You’ll get sunstroke!’

Lukas was pleased she cared.

They walked first to the West Gate – as Otka had done with him. Perpetua came with them, of course. It was simply not done for the two of them to be alone – even outdoors. At first Lukas tried to include the maid in the conversation and explanations of parts of the Castle. But she took little interest in what he was saying. After a while Lukas almost forgot she was there.

Celestina seemed to hang on his every word as Lukas pointed out the locations of the Emperor’s quarters and the menagerie in the Royal Gardens. And he could not resist telling her about the Cabinet of Curiosities. ‘It’s supposed to be a great secret,’ he whispered as those brown eyes opened wide in surprise, ‘but everyone seems to know about it. It’s a marvellous collection of fantastical things.’ He was boasting now. The wine and the sun had gone to his head. ‘My uncle, he is the Emperor’s curator. We often go there to work.’

He pointed out the Powder Tower, where alchemists laboured night and day, and she tutted. ‘My father says it is a dark art and those who practise it are hell-bound.’

Lukas could well imagine Celestina’s father sending alchemists to the stake. ‘Do you think that too?’ he said.

BOOK: The Cabinet of Curiosities
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