Of Swans and Swine
Flanders, October 1522
The mist thickened, the treetops faded out of sight and the crimping air forced the breath back in his throat. The horse whinnied at the change, bellowed clouds of steamy breath from its nostrils and reluctantly pressed forward under its rider’s urging heels. Fra Pietro was grateful for the fine, woollen scarf, which he could pull up around his mouth and the thickness of his winter coat, which kept the worst of the cold from seeping into his body. His exposed knees ached from the insinuating dampness and glancing back, he could see Angelo gradually fading from view as the boy lagged behind, unwillingness reflected in his hunched shoulders and stooped back.
“Come on boy. Stay closer. The track is disappearing in this infernal fog.”
Angelo’s looked up, his face reflecting his misery.
‘Wondering, no doubt, why he has been forced to leave Florence for this, ’
Fra Pietro grimaced. He too began to ponder the wisdom of travelling north in the late autumn but he had his orders and there was no going back. They would shelter in the next village and the boy would get some comfort there. They pressed on along anonymous tracks for some time until the gathering dusk and the mist made landmarks hard to distinguish. Angelo was all for continuing, however dark it got, until they reached the next settlement but the priest realised that they would need to find shelter soon, or run the risk of becoming lost. He feared wolves and marauding bands of brigands but above all, he feared the lack of orientation that the dark would bring. Just ahead looked to be a forest; they would be better off under the shelter of trees at least. With no great confidence, he urged his unwilling horse forward.
They had travelled just a short distance further when they came across a meagre and ramshackle dwelling just inside the wood. Fra Pietro decided, against his squire’s advice that however uncomfortable it looked, it would have to provide shelter for the night from the mist and encroaching gloom. There was little point in attempting to go further; the journey would have to be completed the next day. The roof straw was missing at the apex, exposing the rotting, skeletal timbers and the wattle and daub on the walls had largely flaked away, revealing the willow withe frames. A window shutter hung loose and fungus proliferated from the stoop. There was nothing to indicate that it was inhabited, or had been for some while. The priest was partly relieved that he wouldn’t need to communicate with the local peasantry, of whom he’d heard little good but at the same time realised that without life, there would be no food and they had few enough rations as it was. He prayed that there might be a well, or a stream somewhere nearby as his thirst was greater than his hunger. Ignoring Angelo’s whimpering, he wrenched at the bar on the door, pushed it open and made his way in, though being wary of everything in this land, he kept a firm grip on the dagger inside his coat.
Like a sombre muslin drape, the mist had also permeated the interior and Pietro could see little as he stepped gingerly forward. Cobwebs brushed his face and he turned to instruct Angelo to strike a spark for light. The screech when it came, caused him to jump so wildly that he lost his balance and fell backwards on top of his coat-clutching squire. Angelo’s yelp was countered by yet another high-pitched and disembodied wail. Both priest and servant froze, certain that they were facing a demonic presence and praying that the inevitable ripping of diabolical teeth would bring swift release. Angelo’s gargled prayers and the priest’s laboured breath, mingled with the sounds of clicking, like claws on a marble floor, accompanied by bestial grunts. Angelo whimpered beneath him and Fra Pietro noted that real fear had a distinct odour. What sort of creature had they disturbed? What sort of perverse demon made them wait before launching its attack?
Suddenly there was light!
Looking towards its source, he was hardly reassured that they were going to be safe.
He had observed humanity in many forms but nothing as twisted and malformed as the flint-clutching creature that faced them now. That it was female was only evident from the wrinkled and empty breast protruding from her rags. The matted, straw-like hair and cracked filth coating her flesh, gave her the appearance of having been created from the very stuff of the cottage itself. One eye and one eye only glared at them malevolently in the light of the torch; the other side of the face was disfigured and scarred and a toothless leer gave her a demonic aspect, which to his obvious discomfort, was enough to cause Angelo’s bladder to give way. The results of his fear made the woman cackle and point and begin a strange, unbalanced dance of mirth. She hobbled towards them, ranting in a language the priest didn’t recognise and he determined to finish this once and for all. Clutching his dagger, he prepared himself but she veered away, reaching up and slotting the torch in an iron bracket on the wall. Picking up another fakkel of tar-soaked twigs, she lit it and handed it to him, gesturing that he should place it similarly on the opposite wall. Fearing the plague and still deeply suspicious that witchcraft may be at work, he looked into that baleful eye. Although the urge to sink the knife between her ribs was still powerful, he suddenly felt a compassion you would reserve for a wounded animal. After all, their arrival had probably been as great a shock to her as it was to them. He couldn’t help remembering the malformed cat he had once rescued from the cruel taunts of his boyhood friends; a beast which had more than repaid his kindness by ridding their house of vermin. She then dragged a wooden bench from under a pile of rotting twigs, motioned for them to sit and then, with that strange lurching walk, went outside.
“Is she gone Father?”
“I’m not sure Angelo but I don’t think we have too much to fear from her.”
Fra Pietro looked down at his squire and smiled benevolently.
“She gave you quite a shock didn’t she?”
The boy hung his head and mumbled,
“I’m sorry father, I didn’t mean to lose courage so easily.”
”Don’t be ashamed boy; I nearly messed myself too. Take the wet things off and wrap yourself in your cloak. There is wood over there for a fire; the smoke will escape through the roof. Your clothes will dry more easily then.”
He was pleased to have given the boy something to distract him from his fears but was also pleased he was there. The dancing shadows on the walls by the flickering torches were setting his nerves on edge and he tried to picture himself in his own courtyard, the warm Tuscan sun casting soft shadows through the lacy vines dripping with grapes.
His dream was interrupted by the sudden reappearance of the woman clutching a grimy, cloth-covered trug. She howled with laughter again at the sight of a half-undressed and embarrassed Angelo, who once more stumbled in a heap on the floor. Fra Pietro had to laugh with her, especially when she attempted to pull the horrified squire to his feet and he warmed to her when she patted the spluttering boy on his back and gestured that the fire he had made was a good thing. Turning to the priest and giving a jerky bow, she pulled the cover off the basket and pointed to the roots, herbs, fungi and rough bread inside. It was meagre fare but he nodded his appreciation and smiled, reaching inside his coat for a coin. He still wasn’t feeling safe enough to pull out the whole pouch but selected one that, from its size, he knew would be appropriate reward. He felt secure from the moment she took it, examined it and handed it back to him; gesturing with a bony hand that it wouldn’t be necessary. Since the first outburst, she hadn’t spoken a word to them, nor they to her, so he tried to introduce himself in simple Latin. Inclining her head like a dog towards him, she listened intently but it was clear there was little real understanding, just a frustrating impasse so he attempted to use sign language to indicate who they were.
It was stuttering French but they realised it would be enough and communication was established.
Both master and servant nodded vigorously and the boy was instructed to go to the horses and fetch the remaining strips of salted meat for added flavour. Angelo’s expression showed his reluctance but his face, when the woman grabbed at his sleeve and handed him a wooden bucket was enough to make Fra Pietro laugh out loud for the third time.
“You…boy, water in, near animals, yes?”
Angelo nodded and rushed outside before his courage could desert him again.
The pot of stew looked grey and unappetising and the smell was pervasive but man and boy were not complaining, even when they had to take turns ladling it into their mouths. In fact, each mouthful was beginning to taste better than the last. Fra Pietro had insisted that the woman join them, partly out of concern that she should be fed and partly to reassure himself that it was safe to eat. They made a strange sight all three crouched around the same bowl and the priest surmised what his courtly friends would make of it all. He had to admit, the food was amazingly nourishing and began to feel that it had been accompanied by copious amounts of wine. After some time, during which it seemed that the stew pot was as full as when they had started, he sat back for a moment. The other two continued to take their turns but he found his head swimming. Their forms began blurring in the light. Glowing warmth filled his head and he had the disconcerting, though not unpleasant sensation that he was losing control of his limbs. The urgent need to sleep he put down to the surfeit of food. His rational consciousness however, resisted the descent into lethargy and needing fresh air, he made the effort to stand. With the accompanying echoes of his companions’ laughter, he took the necessary staggering steps. Once outside, moisture bathed his skin but he wasn’t cold; the inner warmth had spread to all parts of his body and seemed to relax him, yet he was sharply alert at the same time. He looked to where the horses were grazing and marvelled at the wisps of steam coming from their bodies; wondrous spirals drifting lazily into the windless air. He watched their nostrils flaring and their lips retreating as they chewed, revealing uneven rows of stained teeth. Looking away his gaze penetrated the mist-drenched forest and discovered the dew drops hanging from the leaf tips on the trees; small globules of perfection, stretching and expanding until their weight caused them to drop, exploding on autumn leaves and dissipating as they enriched the soaked soil. A tiny, almost imperceptible movement on the trunk of a gnarled Oak caught his attention and he focussed until he could come ever closer to the ravines and canyons of the bark. Whether it was a reality or not, he imagined he could see his own face reflected in the glossy back of a beetle, as it scurried upwards, its mission unclear but relentless. He took full pleasure from the enhanced clarity of his vision, not questioning for a moment why such insights were being revealed to him. Such wonders however, were interrupted by intrusive voices. Angelo and the woman had emerged from the hut and were speaking to him but the words were unintelligible; they seemed to fade from his hearing. His head felt indefinably light and a sensation of floating overwhelmed him. The last thing he saw in this world was the old woman smiling; her flaxen hair framing high-boned cheeks and enticing lips, her laughing eyes sparkling in the sunlight and above all, her dancing away and beckoning him to follow and follow he must.
Fra Pietro stared across the meadow to where the woman was now frolicking with a group of peasants and was astounded to see a laughing Angelo running to join them. The snarling wail of bagpipes drifted across the lush grass as they linked hands and danced. He could smell the grass, even the flowers of summer. It was summer then? A horse, his horse, whinnied in the distance beside a small copse separated from the field by a neatly trimmed hedge and at first, the world seemed at peace. He knew he didn’t belong but felt at ease, his memories fading and his past becoming a mirage. He knew he was a priest and that remained but he couldn’t find a reason for being here, let alone an understanding of the place from where he’d come. The pressing need was to accept, to acknowledge that somehow he had attained new existence, the purpose of which would be revealed with the passing of time. What he wasn’t sure of was whether this was a dream or some sort of hallucination. Undoubtedly, the food had been to blame. Was he now under some sort of spell cast by a witch? Yet the reality of this existence was evident; he could feel the ground, smell the grass and the heady scent of clover and hear all sounds. Initial confusion and doubts were gradually dismissed but not by him, not consciously. He was overwhelmed by the sense of place, of momentous events, of the need to explore and discover some truth and with this paramount in his mind; he strode forward across the field, past the carousing peasants and towards a ruined building not far away. He barely noticed his squire, now unclothed but for a white sheet and turban on his head mounting the horse, spear in hand and riding off towards the distant sound of shouting and thundering hooves.
The ruins drew him towards their centre: a portal, dark and forbidding, a contrasting blemish against the whiteness of the sun-drenched stones. To enter, he would have to pass through but he had no doubts; something lay beyond which he sensed would give him hitherto unknown knowledge. Pausing before a leering gargoyle he shuddered before proceeding into the darkness. The light beyond flooded into a courtyard but he found his progress impeded. Feathery hands brushed his face, like living cobwebs and insistent whispers called his name.
“Pietro, pause a moment; Pietro stay with us. Let us tempt you Pietro. See what we can offer.”
For a second he could sense a thousand delicious temptations, powerful, will-sapping promises, assaulting his senses and coursing through his body. Reluctantly, he resisted and concentrated on the light. The promise of new truths was stronger and his identity as priest strengthened his resolve. The demons sighed with frustration, as he broke through and entered the courtyard.
Seated on an upturned basket in front of a small fire, was a short man in a simple robe. He held up a damp white cloth, in an attempt to dry it. At first Fra Pietro couldn’t fully see the face, draped as it was with a black cowl and hidden in the shadows of a rudimentary and seemingly hastily constructed awning, incongruous against the walls.
“What is this place sir?”
The man looked up, his eyes darting and unsure.
“Don’t you know? This is King Solomon’s palace; isn’t it clear?”
The priest looked at the ruins and then at the axe hanging in the struts of the awning and told himself to be wary of this man.
“I see. You seem nervous. Please don’t be on my account. I mean you no harm.”
”I’m not nervous of you. Why should I be? You, like all the strangers, mean nothing to me today. I must dry this cloth for my child, my new-born baby, so that he avoids the chill.”
“How wonderful. You have been blessed then?”
Fra Pietro looked around and then back at the man.
“Where are your wife and child? Maybe I can bless them for you?”
The man sniggered.
“Bless them! Well join the line then, for there are greater than you and lesser have come to bless them this day. Over there if you want to see; now leave me, I have my work.”
The man gestured beyond the ruins towards where two other men were standing, staring beyond his view. One stood cloaked in red and the other knelt in black velvet He knew he must meet them but first he said his farewells.
“My name is Pietro, I wish you well with your task.”
“I’m Joseph and my task will be accomplished quicker without well-wishers.”
The priest nodded and walked on.
As he left the ruin, he began to experience the strangest sensation, as if filling with light, pure life-giving light. It made him feel humble, unworthy, unsure; a sensibility reinforced by the scene which met his eyes as he found himself once more in front of the old woman’s cottage, its dilapidation enhanced by the summer sunlight. Without hesitation, he fell to his knees and trembled in awe and wonder.
“Kneel and repent, for you are witness to elements of the inception of your faith.”
Pietro looked up to find the man with the carmine robe standing above him, his face benign and benevolent, wreathed in light. He had addressed Pietro but not directly, maintaining an unmoving gaze on the scene ahead of them. Though he had never met this man before, the priest gasped in recognition,
“Saint Peter, Holy Father, I am not worthy…”
“You’re not worthy and yet you are the worthiest. I am not worthy, yet I am here. I am not of this time, yet I am here. I know of this scene, yet have never seen it: all miracles, yet the humblest of tableaux. You are the donor, yet you have nothing to bring. What do we make of it all? Do we need to know? Acceptance my friend; that’s all that is necessary; is that not the basis of faith?”
Fra Pietro fell silent and trembled as he knelt, trying to absorb the saint’s words. He stared at the group gathered around the cottage and despite the saint’s advice, struggled to rationalise what he saw.
It was indeed the woman’s cottage in which they’d taken shelter that night but the extraordinary group, both outside under its crumbling roof and within, were clearly participants in the Nativity. They were amongst the holiest and most sacred characters he could imagine; people of whom he had dreamed and prayed to and yet were here in front of his disbelieving eyes. The Virgin sat holding the Christ child on a swaddling cloth. The baby Jesus who looked upon his visitors with regal grace, his pale nakedness in stark contrast to his mother’s black robes, his eyes bright and shining, radiating interest in the assembled group. Before them were three men offering gifts, evidently the Magi. Fra Pietro found himself struggling for breath. Acceptance, the saint had said and yet how could he accept what he saw? Was this a dream world or a reality? He looked back questioningly at Saint Peter, who merely nodded and indicated that he should pay attention to the proceedings.
The first of the magi knelt, his balding pate shining in the sunlight, his crimson robe seeming to weigh him down, emphasising his role as supplicant. Placing a golden sculpture representing Abraham’s sacrifice in front of the Madonna and child, he bowed deeply. The priest was shocked to notice the four horned toads forming the sculpture’s feet. Of all demonic familiars, was the toad not the worst? He had also noticed a painting of a toad near where Joseph had been drying the infant’s sheet. Did this mean that the whole scene was infused with evil and corruption? Was the gift corrupt? Confused, he inspected the group more closely.
Balthazar was followed by Melchior, whose rich robes were illustrated with scenes of the Queen of Sheba’s triumphant visit to King Solomon. Fra Pietro instinctively interpreted this as a tribute to the Holy Mother’s journey to Bethlehem and was impressed. The offer of Frankincense was made and was followed by what Pietro saw as the most impressive tribute of all. The Negro giant Caspar came forward, clothed in ivory robes, embroidered with fantastic birds and fruit and holding in one hand, an illustrated vase in which the priest assumed was Myrrh. The other hand delicately presented a strawberry to the child. Again, Fra Pietro felt disquiet. Caspar was so ornately dressed, yet with what the priest saw as inappropriate symbols on his clothing. These surely represented eroticism and sinfulness. Was the King renouncing these things? Then surely, he would have been dressed more simply. Was it a warning of the temptations Christ would have to face, or was it symbolic of the evil that would surround and test him and all his followers? Pietro felt an uncomfortably vague link to the present.
The saint’s voice interrupted his thoughts,
“You are right to wonder. Look closer and then look beyond. Is it all you imagined? Should we have realised the presence of evil from the very beginning?”
Pietro looked again and noticed figures observing the scene from inside the cottage. Their leader, a tall, turbaned and bearded man, naked except for a cloak, stood in the doorway and smiled enigmatically at the mother and child. Fra Pietro took an instant dislike to him based on nothing more than an instinctive reaction. The smile didn’t look genuine or compassionate; it seemed to mask his real intent. Who was he? Looking more closely, the priest noticed the golden bracelet on his arm and the transparent, crystalline cylinder covering what seemed to be a gangrenous sore on his ankle. What he had thought was an Ottoman turban was actually a bulbous crown, yet this man was clearly not one of the Magi. He was smiling yet the smile seemed to Pietro to be filled with menace. There was rottenness within, yet he was a close witness to purity, why? His clamouring followers were held inside the hut and emanated hostility. Pietro felt the urge to rush forward and warn the Virgin, to pull her away even, for she seemed to be in mortal danger.
“Have faith brother. Have faith. Don’t you think that Christ is aware of the dangers that surround him?”
Perturbed at the saint’s reading of his thoughts, Pietro held himself back.
“But it is so close,” he protested, “ I never realised. This scene should be filled with love and light and joy, there should be no room for anything else.”
“Are you sure of what you see? Is this a true version of events, or just one of many versions? If you are of the true faith then you must know that the mother and child are in no danger. Their fundamental goodness is enough to dispel all evil. Don’t we believe that without question? Yet look further. Confirm your suspicions, confirm your doubts.”
Beyond the hut, two women had arrived. To his surprise the first woman was in fact once more, the crone, inexplicably young and modestly dressed in black with a white wimple. She knelt revealing the lady behind clutching a bible and clearly of saintly bearing. Again, he glanced behind him.
“The woman you know is your partner and your antithesis, your guide and your nemesis. The other is Agnes of God, see her lamb and her shepherd’s crook.”
Indeed, a little further away, a lamb rested by a hedge and on the ground was a white staff, yet not far from these was a blasted oak and in the distance a frightened woman seemingly running for her life. From a different angle, he could see curious peasants peeking out from behind the hut and yet two more on the roof clutching bagpipes, the instrument of sin and as much absorbed with each other as the scene below. Pietro was shaken to the core. What did it mean? Of course he believed in the untouchable piety of what was in front of him but he sensed the encroachment of evil all around. The unmistakeable spires of Jerusalem dominated the horizon and the guiding star twinkled in the sky, yet the landscape was unmistakeably Flemish. To the right and to the left, in the far distance across the fields, he could see armies rushing towards each other, undoubtedly the armies of the kings who had come to pay homage. He worried about Angelo, who he had seen running headlong to join them. Was this then the fabled time when it was foretold that the armies of the Magi would fall upon each other at the end of days? Yet how could it be the beginning and the end all at the same time? Was it an allegory for him to decipher? He slumped back confused and distraught; the impact of sin was almost as great as the holy event itself. His thoughts wrestled and tumbled amongst each other and he felt light-headedness once more. The scene became vague and a thick mist began clouding his vision.
“What are your conclusions? What have you learned?”
The saint was mopping the beads of sweat from his brow with the hem of his robe. Pietro felt nauseous, again unworthy and unable to think with any clarity at all.
“I…don’t know. I have no conclusions, only questions, so many questions.”
“A natural reaction, yet heretical by your own standards. Are you a heretic Pietro? Shouldn’t you blindly accept? Why are you questioning, looking within yourself for answers? What do you believe you have seen? What do you believe you believe? There is no lucidity in your mind, where is your faith? You have much to do. Have you the strength to resist and the determination to accept?”
“I don’t know,” the priest shouted, “I don’t know. There are so many conundrums; too many contradictions. Give me the answers I seek, please, I beg of you.”
“Father, Father, wake up, please wake up.”
The back of his head was cold and wet and the front felt as though it had been stamped on by a horse but Fra Pietro forced his eyes to open. Angelo peered down at him concernedly.
“Father, I was so worried. I couldn’t revive you. You must come inside where it is warm. Come, let me help you up.”
With the boy’s aid, the priest struggled to his feet and stumbled inside the cottage, where the blaze of the fire offered immediate comfort. Angelo brought him some water. Fra Pietro looked at the ladle and then at the boy, who just laughed.
“Don’t worry Father, it is just water. I have to tell you of the strangest dream I had…”
The priest’s head was pounding as image after image came flooding back. He hardly heard the boy as, accompanied by ever increasing gestures, he told of his dream; instead, he gazed into the flames and imagined he saw all manner of creatures both heavenly and demonic. The old woman sat in the corner, rocking gently and humming to herself; he could have sworn it was a lullaby.
The Dutch Series
Death and the Magician
Partly due to the discomfort of a hard floor, partly due to an urgent need to piss and partly because of dreams and a painful ache above his eyes, Fra Pietro had risen with the first light. They still had a considerable distance to travel and the earlier the start they made, the greater the distance they would cover. The mysteries of the previous evening were set aside for later consideration but now it was important to get underway.
His squire and the old woman had snored in unison in the corner where she cradled his head on her lap, her toothless mouth hanging open and dribbling relentlessly over his face. Slightly revolted, Pietro saw it as almost a corruption of the innocent and shook him vigorously until he awoke, spluttering and cursing in a manner ill befitting his years.
Their departure had been inelegantly hasty but despite her mumbled protestations, Fra Pietro had left her a coin. He sincerely wondered if she would use it. Material possessions seemed to be of no consequence whatsoever to her but either way, he felt she’d been rewarded for her hospitality and left with a clear conscience, if not a clear head.
The mist had lifted and a watery sun was struggling to break through the layers of clouds but the bitter and wet wind whistling through the trees, seemed to hold the promise of snow. For the moment it was just a threat but as they rode along the badly-defined, forest track, the low hanging branches dripped water over them as they brushed past; before long both men and horses were soaked.
“We must make haste and reach a town soon. We need to travel with dry clothes and we certainly need good food in our bellies. I’m not absolutely certain where we are but hopefully we will reach Namur or even Liège before the day is out.”
Angelo nodded fiercely; his grim expression and dripping nose giving Fra Pietro little hope that the journey could proceed with much lighthearted banter.
“Cheer up Angelo; think of this as a great adventure. With God’s will we will reach our destination safely.”
“With God’s will you say? That’s what I’m afraid of Father; is this not the most God forsaken land you’ve ever seen? How do people live in this eternal cold and wetness?”
“It is wintertime; even in Italy we have our grey and joyless days but look, the sun’s breaking through. Don’t worry, we’ll soon be in amongst people again and we can find an inn or hostelry to offer us warmth and hospitality.”
Angelo grunted and for the next hour or so, little was said between the two men as their horses led them out of the forest and into a more open landscape. The weather was certainly improving and the sun seemed to be gaining ascendancy over the clouds, though the wind still blew fiercely cold.
“There, look, a town! At last a town.”
The squire’s enthusiasm was boundless and it was all the friar could do to hold him back before he kicked his horse into a gallop and raced off.
“Wait boy, have you taken leave of your senses. We don’t go rushing into places, you know that; you don’t know what’s waiting there. In any case, it’s hardly a town, more a hamlet and there’s absolutely no sign of life so far as I can see; though in this weather that’s not surprising.”
“Yes but Father look, there is smoke coming from the chimneys, so we know there are people and more importantly we know they’ve got fires and I really need a fire to warm myself by.”
As they urged their horses forward across a small bridge over a fast-flowing stream, Fra Pietro was also pleased to see that the tiny cottages and larger houses made up a village rather than a hamlet. He had underestimated its size but it would only be a temporary stop; it certainly wasn’t Namur or Liège and strangely, there was nobody to be seen, not even a dog.
At the end of the row of dwellings and on the corner of a crossroads, they saw a swan-emblazoned, wooden board, clearly advertising an inn and headed optimistically towards it. The priest dismounted and rapped on the door with an impatient Angelo, holding the horses and shuffling his feet behind him. There was no answer so he knocked again, somewhat harder this time.
“This is strange indeed; where is everybody?”
“Listen Father, listen; I hear voices. They’re coming from behind the inn.”
Fra Pietro stopped his knocking and listened. The boy was right; there was activity somewhere behind the building. Cautiously and with his hand close to his dagger, he motioned Angelo to stay behind him and they made their way around the whitewashed wall of the inn and along a narrow, walled passageway leading to what seemed to be a small courtyard at the back.
In front of a crumbling stone wall, where mosses and grasses struggled to survive the early onslaught of winter, stood a motley group of people seemingly entranced by the activities of a street magician. The friar and his squire’s arrival was timely but went unnoticed because the man was at the climax of his performance and inducing sighs and gasps from his public. From the cups and beans on the table he had set up it was clear that he was not only playing thimblerig, always guaranteed to draw a crowd but also conjuring frogs from an old man’s mouth. Angelo was mightily impressed.
“How does he do that Father? It makes me want to retch but it’s amazing; I’ve never seen such a trick before. Look at his dog in the clown costume; it’s so sweet. Can we play Father? I want to see him do more tricks.”
Fra Pietro frowned at the boy’s childish enthusiasm.
“Don’t be fooled Angelo; this is no innocent clown or street entertainer. Look more closely; this is the Devil’s work. See, in his basket, there’s an owl and that is no sign of good intentions. Is his nose not also abnormally long?”
“Father, with the greatest of respect, sometimes I think you exaggerate. You see the devil’s work in everything. This is just an entertainer; you can see him in every town and village and the people here are fascinated, as am I. I’ve never seen that frog trick before.”
“Are you absolutely sure young man? Maybe you shouldn’t be so quick to judge me; I have a little more experience of life than you. Look more closely, can’t you see what is happening here? Look at the child’s windmill and then tell me what you see.”
“Now Father, it’s but a child’s toy…oh, wait…oh…I see! I look at the windmill, then the boy and then at what the boy is looking at. The child sees the real trick here and the trickster! That monk must be the conjuror’s accomplice. Look, he is lifting the old man’s purse while he is distracted…”
“…and he is praying to God at the same time to forgive him his sins; foul hypocrite!”
“What should we do Father; must we intervene?”
“Certainly Angelo but not quite yet. No one can get past us. I want you to learn a lesson here and see men’s weaknesses for what they are. Folly leads inexorably to evil. That simple child, in his naivety, sees what the others don’t see. It is often so; the innocent and simple minded are often better able to judge those around them but look at the other people; do you notice anything else?”
The squire studied the others who, still desperate to gamble on which cup hid the bean, were crowded around the table. His mission almost accomplished, the magician gave them one last chance to lose their money while the old man was still spewing frogs.
“It seems that man at the back is intent on wooing the lady, though she doesn’t seem interested.”
“Oh she’s interested,” replied the Friar laconically, “She’s just waiting until he offers the right price.”
“How do you know that? She seems to be a proper lady to me.”
“Trust me Angelo, I know and hopefully you will soon be able to tell the difference too.”
The boy hung his head.
“I don’t know Father; I’m happy to be in your service; I don’t want to think of marriage just yet.”
“Oh but you must soon turn your attention to the matter young man; your family entrusted me with your development and expect you to make a good match someday.”
Angelo hastily changed the subject. To tell the truth, he was nervous in the presence of women; they seemed a completely different race to him; unpredictable and demanding. He had hoped to join the priesthood eventually but from what Fra Pietro said, his family and thus his mother had other ideas.
“That man in green at the back; the fat one, what do you make of him Father?”
It was an attempt to take Fra Pietro’s mind off his squire’s future but the man did fascinate him and he wasn’t sure why. He stood out from the crowd, wearing a green robe and hat and he paid little attention to the magician, preferring to stroke the arm of the person next to him. Angelo wasn’t sure from a distance if that was a man or a woman but he or she had their eyes closed and seemed to be enjoying the fat man’s patronage.
“If I must make an opinion based on first impressions Angelo, then I would say that he is wealthy. Look at the rings on his fingers. The question as to whether he is a good man is more difficult to answer. My first instinct says no but that is because I don’t like his face; I find it untrustworthy and his smile seems less than sincere. He has the appearance of one who lusts too much after the sins of the flesh and his weakness for gluttony is apparent. Nevertheless, you must always be careful in summing up a man’s character from his looks alone. We all do it but our instincts can frequently mislead us. This may be a god-fearing man who devotes his life to good works and charity; unless we meet him and talk to him we just don’t know and even then, appearances can be deceptive. Always reserve judgement Angelo; people are not always what they seem. Look the show is over; it is now time to see justice is done.
To Angelo’s relief, the ensuing drama was quickly over. The friar’s clothes and demeanour carried some weight wherever they went; he had status and after he had related what they had seen to the public at large, the magician and his assistant were accosted and held and the purse was recovered. After that, a mighty row erupted, the dog began frantically barking and the Friar decided they should leave before things got out of hand. The criminals realised they were not so outnumbered that they couldn’t put up a fight and Fra Pietro didn’t want any part of that.
As they hurried back along the passage beside the inn, they heard running footsteps behind them. Once again, the priest grasped his dagger and for a man of his age, turned surprisingly quickly to confront their pursuer. Fortunately, it was only the old man who had been duped.
“Wait, wait, don’t go so fast. I must thank you for your good deed today. You have saved me my money, not to mention my reputation. What can I do to repay you both?”
“You can surely learn a lesson from your folly. A fool and his money are soon parted.”
Fra Pietro gave as stern an admonition as he could.
“So true,” replied the man, “That would have been a hard lesson learned had you not witnessed the crime but surely I can do something for you in return?”
Angelo could see that the priest was about to let a chance go begging and butted in more rudely than he had intended.
“Yes, you can give us a good meal and drink and let us dry off by your fire.”
He yelped as the friar cuffed him severely about the head but the old man’s face lit up.
“No, no, don’t punish the boy. I can certainly do that for you. My daughter is a famous cook in these parts and you are certainly welcome in my house. Actually, it is most fortuitous as my brother also lies dying and he would welcome your blessing Father. That would be an even greater favour than the one you have just done. For that, you are welcome to eat me out of house and home my boy.”
Angelo beamed and looked at Fra Pietro expectantly. The friar was not entirely sure. He had hoped to make significant progress in their mission today but then again, he also suffered hunger pangs and his damp clothing did nothing for his arthritic joints. A blessing given to a dying man would be but a small price to pay.
“Thank you, yes we will take advantage of your offer but will not overstay our welcome if as you say, a death is imminent in the family.”
The man’s home lay apart from the others, larger and more imposing but undoubtedly smelling of sickness and decay. Angelo’s nose wrinkled as they entered and Fra Pietro had to give him a warning look not to let his distaste become evident. Dust lay everywhere and the whole house gave the impression of being long uncared for. The old man, who had once been a successful cloth merchant, explained that his wife had died some months earlier and all but one of their servants had left fearing the plague. He and his daughter had been forced to move in with his brother who was now dying in his turn. Although he insisted she had died of natural causes, the friar was suspicious; he had been close to plague victims before and the odours here were very similar but then again, there was no real reason to doubt the man’s word and if his brother was also dying, the pervading smell was logical.
They were introduced to his daughter, a surly, large boned woman with a cleft lip, whose lack of looks explained her unmarried status. She was friendly enough though, seeming pleased of the company and took Angelo off to the kitchen to prepare a meal. Meanwhile, the friar was escorted up some narrow steps to a large room at the top of the house. The closer he got, the stronger the impression that his blessing would be just in time. He had to hold his nose as the old man opened the door.
“My brother has gangrene in his leg, amongst other things. His heart is very weak but the principle reason for his ill health is simply his age; he will be sixty seven over Christmastide.”
It was a narrow room with a high, domed, wooden ceiling. A tiny stained glass window with a crucifix embedded within its frame, shone a single beam of light. It was the only natural light in the room and it seemed that from the cross, Christ was urging the dying man to repent but the light fell against drapery and was absorbed before ever reaching the bed. The man lay propped up against a large bolster on a typical boxed bed surrounded by heavy, velvet curtains. Apart from his black skullcap and thin blankets covering his lower body, he was naked and emaciated and looked much older than his sixty-six years.
“Brother, I have been fortunate enough to find a priest for you. He will hear your confession and give you blessing, so you may rest in peace.”
The merchant took the elaborate key hanging from his waist and opened a large wooden chest at the foot of the bed. Taking the purse of money that Fra Pietro had rescued for him, he opened it and slipped the coins into a leather bag that lay open inside. Looking up at the priest, he raised his eyebrows ambiguously. The Italian could only guess his motives. Perhaps he had stolen the money to gamble, or just borrowed it for another purpose and been waylaid by the conjuror at the inn. In any case, he was now returning it in full view of the owner although as it turned out, both theories were wrong.
“I am repaying a debt and as he is dying, I can tell you that it is with full interest which as you know is illegal but that’s what he demands and he is my brother; I have no option.”
The priest was curious now.
“But why would you take the risk of losing it all to that scoundrel at the inn? If you didn’t lose it at thimblerig, you were destined to lose it by theft and then where would you stand with your brother?”
“You’re right, it was a risk but one I had to take and if I hadn’t been tricked into believing I was possessed by frogs, I might have been more alert. This money is almost all I have. I hoped to double it in the gamble so that my life would not be ruined but thanks to you, I learned my lesson. God gave me a clear sign that I must repay my debt honestly and that I have now done.”
Fra Pietro shook his head,
“To my mind, it is a sad business when your brother demands your last to repay a loan, especially when he is dying. He is a usurer and thus a sinner; very few would blame you if you ignored the obligation and let him die with a little less money to his name. From what I can see in the chest, he would hardly miss your few coins. I would not condone it but I could understand it. You’re an honourable man indeed.”
“Oh Father, if it were only that simple and although I do not have to, I feel my conscience would be clearer if I told you the tale but not here.”
The merchant clasped his rosary and fingered the beads nervously before leading the priest out of the room and into the passageway above the stairs. Both men then leaned against the balustrade and took deep breaths of the fresher air that came from a broken skylight above.
“Although my brother is dying and probably cannot hear me, I would rather tell you my story out of his sight; it will reduce the embarrassment I feel.”
Fra Pietro was suddenly overwhelmed with claustrophobia; the air was stale and full of dust, his stomach was rumbling and even outside the room, the smell of the dying man’s rotting flesh was making him nauseous but he felt he had to hear the merchant out. He had played a part in the unfolding of this story and felt a duty to give him a Christian hearing and if necessary, his blessing or condemnation depending on the facts; besides which, he was insatiably curious.
“You may have noticed the armour on the floor beyond the bed...?”
The priest hadn’t but nodded anyway to ensure the story continued without unnecessary interruption.
“…In his youth, my brother was a notable soldier in these parts and travelled far and wide in the service of various princes. Through this he was able to accumulate some wealth although I should tell you now, he was not known for his valour and courageous deeds; rather he was a skilled killer, an assassin if you like and much in demand for his prowess with a dagger, a phial of poison and his ability to move silently through the shadows. Eventually, he returned to these parts to settle down and marry, though not without the scars of his trade. During his last commission, an irate husband who assumed he was being cuckolded on catching my brother in his bedchamber, stabbed him in the leg. In fact, he was there only as a means of access to other chambers in the house but because of the fuss, decided that it would be better if he were accused of lasciviousness than intended murder. Actually, he came out of that episode with his reputation rather enhanced and people round here initially saw him as quite a dashing rogue. The wound never healed properly though and he was quite unable to work for a living and despite his money, could never attract a suitable wife. Thus embittered, he decided to make his money work for him, in the sure knowledge that it was likely to be his only source of income in years to come. Now you may regard his usury as a despicable sin; the authorities certainly did but the weakness of men meant that he was able to play one off against the other, or purchase immunity from this one or that; he was nothing if not cunning and clever. The armour in the bedroom for instance, points to his past but is not his own; it formed collateral for a particular debt and when its owner disappeared without trace, it became his unquestioned property. Thus has my brother made himself a rich man through the weaknesses and sins of others but I don’t blame him for that; how else was he to survive in a world where a cripple is so quickly dismissed as being useless? That he thrived is due to his skills in manipulating minds and coin and for that he receives my admiration.”
Fra Pietro touched his arm,
“Your admiration for your brother is clear to see, if perhaps misplaced but I don’t understand how you came to be in his debt; surely he didn’t intend to bring his own relative to the point of ruination?”
“Ah, he became a hard man, immune to the emotional pleas of those who could not repay him and that included family but my debt to him saved my life and for that I have to be eternally grateful.”
He paused to wipe the sweat from his brow, despite the draughtiness of the corridor.
“It was many years ago and I was in Aken on business, negotiating the purchase of a considerable shipment of Baltic timber to be brought in through Antwerp. It was a tricky negotiation because I was acting as the intermediary between an artists’ guild and a timber merchant from Hamburg. We met in a private house belonging to a wine merchant from Aken itself and there the problem began.”
The priest leaned forward absorbed in the tale.
“Why was that a problem?”
“A wine merchant has of course, the best wines at hand and to help the discussions along, the wine flowed freely. I must confess that my tongue was also loosened and that I was probably too free with my criticisms but when an argument broke out between the vintner and the Hamburger, I didn’t see how serious it was until I tried to come between them. It became a brawl I’m afraid and in the ensuing fracas, the timber merchant fell, hitting his head on a mantel and dying on the spot. Why I took the blame was partly due to the status of the vintner and to the fact that I was unforgivably rude to the arresting officers but mainly because of a stupid by-law. What I didn’t know was that the vintner’s house came under the law of Hausfrieden, where the house and everyone in it was guaranteed special legal protection within a boundary caused by a line of drops, which fell from the eaves to the ground when it rained. You know of that law in Italy? Anyone breaking this peace, especially a foreigner like myself, incurred harsh penalties and the fact that a murder seemed to have taken place meant that I was facing almost certain execution. My actual innocence could not be proved against the word of the wine merchant and my fate seemed sealed.”
“And your brother came to your rescue I assume but how?”
“I had the greatest of good fortune that my brother was also in the area and that we had already arranged to meet two days later. It was relatively easy to get a message to him and request his assistance.”
“Did he pay your fines then and buy your release?”
“Not exactly; my supposed crime was too serious to warrant a fine alone. He was forced to call in many favours and purchase my release by means of bribes; it was not easy; the authorities were trying to crack down on lawlessness in the city at the time and burning foreigners always set a good example. It was to my advantage that my brother was well respected, if not feared in the region but of course the price was high and I was left in no doubt that, I would have to repay him in full with compound interest. As I say, he had become a ruthless man but I was grateful nonetheless, as I’m sure you can imagine.”
“But you were innocent; it seems a shame that you had to carry such a burden for so long because of something you didn’t do.”
“I’m not so sure of my innocence; either I pushed him, or the vintner pushed him. I have always believed the latter; either way, I helped to cause his death and am thus guilty in one way or another.”
“But not guilty of intent and in the eyes of God that makes a difference and I think that maybe you have been punished enough. Are you your brother’s only kin? Yes? Then you will surely reclaim your debt and more by inheritance after his death?”
“No, that has been denied me through my brother’s express wishes that all his money go elsewhere, though I don’t know where. I stand to gain nothing but at least my debt is clear in the eyes of God.”
“Indeed it is although I think it scandalous that your brother treats you so; maybe he will repent on his death bed. Should we go in and see? I think it would be prudent to give the blessing as soon as possible and I will administer his last rites too if his passing seems imminent.”
The friar pushed at the door, which seemed to resist him and it required some strength to enter. They had only been outside a short while but Fra Pietro felt that the whole atmosphere of the room had changed. The air was thick, oppressive and pungent, infused with the sickly smell of a body in the last stages of life and the priest felt nauseous once more. His head began to swim and he felt light-headed in much the same way he had felt in the crone’s cottage, although this time the cause was undoubtedly the lack of food rather than a surfeit. He grasped the doorframe to steady himself and peered into the room, which seemed suddenly darker and more shadowy than before. He was aware of the merchant pushing past him to go to the foot of the bed but further than that, shadows played tricks on his eyes. Suddenly, the dying brother sat bolt upright in his bed and in a thin reedy voice cried out;
“Where is the priest? I need him now but I will not pay, no I will not pay; there are dispensations enough in the chest. I have bought my salvation and I will enter the kingdom of God but I am afraid. I’m not alone; we are not alone!”
Fra Pietro glanced over at the open chest where the merchant was pulling out scraps of paper and throwing them on the bed, either promissory notes or dispensations bought from unscrupulous priests he wasn’t sure. He moved two paces forward towards the bed; after all, he had a job to do but he couldn’t escape the feeling that the dying man was right; they were not alone! Behind him in the doorway, out of the corner of his eye, he could have sworn he could see a skeleton figure draped in cloth and brandishing a long arrow. It seemed to be aiming straight for the dying man. The priest shuddered and remained rooted to the spot. Was this Death itself, or was it his imagination playing tricks on him? There seemed to be scuttling sounds coming from other parts of the room too: from close to the bed and from under and in the wooden chest although the merchant seemed to be unaware of anything amiss. He imagined he could see grotesque rat-like creatures; undoubtedly demons, rummaging through the dying man’s possessions and accusingly holding up bags of money. Fra Pietro had never been so frightened. His rational mind told him he was suffering delusions brought on by the cloying atmosphere and lack of food and water; maybe his wet clothes had given him a fever too but his deepest fears persuaded him that he was closer to the gates of Hell than anyone should ever be. He closed his eyes tightly and prayed as he had never prayed before, only just remembering as an afterthought, to include the two brothers in his pleas. When he dared to open them again, it seemed that the dying man was bathed in the light of a being to his right. The surge in his heart told him that his prayers might have been answered; this was surely an angel sent by God to redeem the lost soul from the Devil. However, the man was screaming now; a chilling sound that reached deep inside the priest and would give him nightmares for some time to come. In his confusion, he saw the angel imploring the Christ figure in the tiny window above for forgiveness and redemption but it seemed to be a losing battle. The room then plunged for a moment into total darkness and the man died, gurgling his last cries as his lungs gave way to the inevitable. Within a very short time his mind began to clear he found himself with the merchant at his brother’s bedside. The corpse looked so much smaller now; reduced to that which it was, a body bereft of its soul. Fra Pietro had little doubt where the soul had gone but didn’t want to upset the surviving brother further. He was both conscious and ashamed of the wet patch under his gown but much more amazed by the merchant’s composure.
“Were you not terrified? I have to admit; I found it nightmarish and needed all my faith to resist descending into panic.”
“Nightmarish? Not at all, what are you referring to Father? Surely, you have seen death in many forms before. On the contrary, I found it peaceful and touching and I am eternally grateful that you were here to give him his final blessing. Maybe now he will find some peace in God’s loving arms, in the cradle of Heaven. I hope so; he was so tortured in life but I am forgetting my manners; you have done me two great favours in one day, I must see to it that you get dry clothes and are properly fed before you continue your journey. You are also very welcome to stay here the night if you so wish.”
Fra Pietro was speechless and stared unblinkingly at the merchant. The man had seen nothing and experienced nothing, so it must have all been in his own imagination, yet it was all so real and he shuddered at the memory. He clearly needed a good meal and warmth and certainly a rest. Nothing would persuade him to stay the night in that house but his body needed ministration. He bemoaned the idea that he could never be a visionary hermit like John the Baptist, or Saint Anthony; he liked his food and physical comforts far too much. One thing was for sure as he hurried down the stairs after the merchant; the cold chills running up and down his spine were not imaginary and he dared not look back at the room from which they had come.