Mission of fools
Lack of sleep and the desire to be underway, led Fra Pietro to be uncharitably short with the boy. It seemed to take an age to pack up their belongings and prepare the horses for departure. In the meantime, the merchant’s wife babbled incessantly about the weather, about unjust taxation, about her husband’s achievements or lack of them and about the cost of various things. None of it was of the slightest interest to the friar but because her conversation accompanied the preparation of what seemed to be a sumptuous series of food packages for the journey, he nodded and smiled where he thought appropriate. She didn’t seem to notice that his attention was elsewhere; it was one of those occasions where merely having an audience was just as important. She rarely got the chance to express her views to someone who hadn’t already heard them and in that sense, Pietro acted as sounding board for all her woes.
Eventually the woman’s endless chatter stretched his patience to the limit. He snapped at Angelo once more, was curt in his thanks for their hospitality to the merchant and his effusive wife and as they rode through the village, meanly dug his heels into his horse’s flanks. None of it was deliberate; he regretted his quick temper as soon he saw the boy’s head hanging in abject misery and patted the horse’s neck as it too showed resentment. The truth was, he was confused and irritated with himself at having been thrown off balance by the events of the last few days. Here was one of the more respected and yes, some may say feared priests in northern Italy being distracted by superstition and shadows. He knew it was the Devil’s work; knew he was being waylaid and tempted by irrelevance but was angry with himself for succumbing to imagination.
The dead man and his room last night were just that, a usurer dying in deserved misery, amongst his ill-gotten gains. The brother would rightfully inherit if he used his common sense and that was that. There were no demons. Death itself had not appeared in the doorway and there was no angel by the bed praying for the man’s soul. So why had he allowed himself to be persuaded that the struggle between good and evil was being played out in his presence? It was nonsensical! The same applied to that dream in the hag’s cottage. It was vivid enough, he could remember every detail but it was caused by bad food, of that there was no doubt. The worries and doubts about his faith were signs of weakness and if he wanted the Devil to succeed in diverting him from his task then he should continue giving them credibility. He spurred his horse once more and was nearly unseated as the beast reacted with the same irritation that he himself had shown.
His task was clear; to find out as much as possible about the painter Hieronymus van Aken, known as Bosch. If the man had been an heretic, Pietro would discover that fact, it was the one thing in which he was expert and his services in that area were much in demand. That was his primary task. However, his allegiance was not only to the art-loving cardinal in Venice; though Grimani was almost certainly aware of the fact. He also had his orders from even higher sources. The church was on the brink of a schism, he could feel it, all the signs pointed to an enormous revolt against the established order but if he could be instrumental in slowing that down in any way, he had been instructed to do his duty.
The threats were emerging from many sources but despite the need for constant vigilance, the recidivist sinners of daily life were the least of the problems the church faced. The Ottoman expansion in the east was a threat and would be difficult to stop, requiring Europe’s strongest armies and leaders to work together. Pietro thought that that was highly unlikely but it wasn’t his problem and could be left to the politicians like Grimani. A greater danger came from the so-called reformers in the north; the men like Zwingli and Luther, who were attracting followers like bees round a honey pot and the self-named humanists who advocated far too much free will. Here, he could do something. Information was vital and those who were prepared and well informed could strike before the rebellious spark became a conflagration. His present journey was as much a fact-finding mission for Rome as a personal quest for Grimani. Distractions such as those of the past few days therefore, were to be ignored; if ever he needed to be single minded it was now. Besides which, the sooner he achieved his goal in this cold and wet region, the sooner he could return to Italy and the comforts of that land. Angelo wasn’t the only one whose body craved for warmth.
As if responding to the needs of the two men and their horses, the wind gradually increased in the early part of their journey, sending the clouds scudding across the sky and letting the sun break through. By the end of the morning, it was unseasonably warm and both men and beasts needed to rest.
“I need to remove some of my clothes father; it is so hot!”
“Don’t exaggerate Angelo; it’s not that warm.”
Nevertheless, he envied the boy as he stripped off his cloak and outer garments and tied them to his saddle. It was indeed very warm though it would not be fitting for a cleric of his standing to ride unclothed through the countryside. He would just have to endure.
They came across a wide river, which Pietro assumed to be the Meuse. According to the merchant and his wife, there were rumours of plague in Liége and Namur, so they had bypassed those places and headed for Brussels. After that, it was in Mechelen that Pietro planned to begin his investigation but he had letters of introduction to certain people in Brussels too. The real work was about to begin but not today and when Angelo implored him to let him swim in the river he acceded, deciding to rest the horses and himself, give in to mild temptation and partake of some of the merchant’s wife’s cooked meats and pies.
In search of a place on the bank, under the trees and out of the sun, they approached a bend in the meandering river but were halted by the sound of people in the distance. Both priest and page froze in a mixture of fear and expectation, jolted out of their reverie by the unknown.”
“Listen father, that is the sound of rejoicing, not anger. Let me go on ahead and see who they are. If necessary we can leave the river and go past them without their knowing.”
Fra Pietro smiled inwardly. This trip was making a man of Angelo. This was different behaviour from the timid and foppish boy who had been coerced into joining him on his journey north.
“Go ahead but be careful. I will wait here.”
The boy had seen strange things too and the friar made a mental note to investigate the effects of that but if this courage was an indication of how his character was being strengthened, then he had few fears that the boy’s soul had been corrupted.
He suddenly realised also that these days spent travelling were bringing him a rare peace of mind. Normally a man of action who was known for his energy in applying himself to several tasks at once, it struck him that the enforced rest brought about by travel was refreshing. He didn’t have to concern himself with the cauldron of petty disputes, vendettas and plots that characterised life in Venice, or Florence, or Milan and decided to use the time to reappraise what was important in life. After all, surrounded by God’s creations in their simpler forms, there was time to enjoy and let his faith be refreshed before the complexities to come.
Angelo returned in a state of barely controlled excitement.
“There are people there Father and they are no danger to us. There’s a boat and it’s just anchored by the bank with people in it. They are celebrating something and swimming too. There are about thirteen or fourteen people and there’s a priest and a monk I think and even a nun too and by the looks of it they’ve been drinking quite a lot of wine and…”
Pietro had to laugh; the page’s expression was so serious but the words came tumbling out in a flurry of enthusiasm and his eyes betrayed his eagerness to join the party by the river. Well, perhaps it would do no harm, for a short time. Although his own mission was a serious one and his position required controlled and decent behaviour, he could hardly expect the boy to be a model of decorum the whole time. He had barely had time to be a normal boy in his own life. Being in service to monks could sometimes be an onerous task. If he judged the situation to be safe, why shouldn’t Angelo swim for a while? They could proceed in the afternoon when the sun was less warm and should find shelter before nightfall. Trying to keep a straight face, he therefore urged the impatient Angelo to lead the way.
What he saw was exactly what the page had described but he was alarmed by the bizarre behaviour unfolding in front of them and quickly determined that this was no place for Angelo. The devil was clearly at work. He had to think quickly; the boy had to be removed from the scene and he had to take action himself but how?
“Angelo, I’m sorry but this is no place for us. I want you to take the horses further along the river and let them drink and then they need grooming; the sweat pours from them and they are clearly not comfortable in the heat. You can also partake of that good woman’s provisions and rest yourself but you are not to swim in the river do you hear? It seems to me foul and you will certainly catch the fevers if you enter it. Now hurry along, I will follow as soon as I have spoken with these people.”
Angelo’s expression was a mixture of puzzlement and disappointment but Pietro was counting on him not to question direct orders; it was a forlorn hope; the page had developed a mind of his own.
“Surely not Father! You promised I could swim. It is so warm and we can see to the horses later; maybe they would like to come in the water too. I’m sure the water is not foul. Look, further out it is fast flowing and there is no green weed by the banks; it seems as fresh as could be. What is it Father? There is something wrong; I can see it in your face. Are we in danger after all? If so, I want to stay and help you. Two swords are better than one so they say.”
The priest was torn between admonishing him severely and praising his spirit. His loyalty was admirable but the fact remained that this was no place for the young and innocent and he adopted the sternest expression he could muster.
“You have your instructions boy; I will not repeat them again.”
Angelo’s shoulders and head slumped and he looked hurt but nevertheless obeyed and after he was completely out of sight with the horses, Fra Pietro turned to the task in hand.
No one had noticed their arrival because almost all were too intoxicated and absorbed in sinful activity and foolishness. There was indeed a boat, which lay deep in the water because of the number of people in it. Pietro surmised that it was permanently moored in that position because the mast had sprouted leaves and was rapidly developing into a tree. He hated the pennant with its crescent moon that fluttered atop the mast; surely that was the symbol of the infidel Turk? A man was climbing the mast in a vain attempt to cut down a roasted goose that was tied there. Another, dressed in Fool’s clothes, was slurping wine whilst perched on a branch that acted as the rudder. Beneath him was someone vomiting his excesses into the water. Three other men in the boat attempted choral harmonies but were so drunken that the noise was a Devil’s cacophony. Beside them, a swaying woman attempted to revive the amorous spirits of a man slumped in the prow but he looked incapable of response. He was only intent on keeping a grip on the sack of wine that hung over the side. Nothing here was new; such drunken feasting was universal and Pietro was a realist and appreciated how hard life could be. It was sinful foolishness but there were worse sins. Sometimes the attractions of alcohol could assuage the miseries of the daily drudge but what shocked him most was the sight of the two central characters in the vessel.
A tonsured monk and a lute-playing nun were vying with each other to bite into a Lenten pancake that hung down before their faces. On the board between them, lay a plate of ripe cherries, the lustful implications of which were not lost on Fra Pietro. They were clearly also under the influence of strong drink and the tune she played was as far away from suitable music as one could get. It was music that led the singers into discordant disarray, full of missed notes and strident chords. The devil’s own fingers were clearly at work.
Yet two other naked men were in the water, one holding up a cup demanding more wine. A more dissolute scene Pietro could not imagine though what he thought he could see through the bushes further along the river was even more disturbing. They had erected what seemed to be a tent and although he wasn’t certain, through the opening flapping in the breeze, he thought he could see a priest seducing or being seduced by a woman. More drunken revellers in the water, were mocking and keeping afloat, a fat man who was blowing a trumpet whilst pissing through the hole in the top of a floating barrel. They had placed a funnel on his head to emphasise his gullibility. Clothes and remnants of food lay strewn along the mossy bank and he was convinced he was witness to a scene of unnatural gluttony and lust. The friar was reminded of Das Narrenschiff, a book written by a theologian in Basel, Sebastian Brant. He had read it the previous year and had been highly amused by its satirical woodcuts and sharp criticism of lewd and foolish behaviour. It was of special interest because there were various people who suspected Brant of heresy. Fra Pietro had duly investigated the man. His conclusion was that Brant was a conservative and loyal to Rome, despite having friends among the Humanist movement. He had written a very clever and popular allegory and in the vernacular and that was sometimes enough to inspire jealousy and accusations. However, what he could now see was indeed a ‘Ship of Fools’; the Devil must be clapping his hands in joy. It was time to intercede!
Even above the general hubbub, his voice was enough to halt proceedings. He had long ago learned that a deep and resonant voice could convey authority and had developed different tones for different situations.
“In the name of the true church and in the name of God, stop what you’re doing at once! Your sins condemn you to the eternal fires!”
If he were intervening in purely a civil matter, he would have been more nervous about confronting a drunken group but this was God’s business and he had his duty, especially as other members of the church were clearly involved. As far as he was concerned, his motives were just; therefore, there should be no fear. However, he had to admit to some apprehension as the mood of the group changed from drunken frivolity to anger and resentment. One of the naked youths in the water snarled at him.
“And who are you to tell us what to do? We don’t need no more priests, we have enough of our own and they ain’t exactly passing judgement!”
With that, he and his friends guffawed loudly and pushed each other under the water. Without their support, the man on the barrel threw his arms in the air and causing an enormous splash, rolled ignominiously into the water,. This gave rise to more peals of laughter but the mood was still tense.
The man in the Fool’s costume at the head of the boat began chanting;
“Pretty priest, how stern he looks,
Yet has no law without his books.
Sober man with chiselled chin,
Let him cast a stone, if he’s without sin!”
For his troubles, he too was dragged from the mast and unceremoniously dumped in the water. Meanwhile, the lascivious woman had clambered out of the boat and crawled ashore, her skirts hitched up around her waist revealing her nakedness underneath. Inebriated as she was, she swayed with exaggerated sensuality towards Fra Pietro and without warning grabbed his groin.
“Come on priest, you’re as much of a man as the rest of them, probably more; that wouldn’t be difficult!”
More catcalls and whistles from the men encouraged her to go further and she rubbed herself against Pietro’s thigh whilst maintaining a grip on his balls. He acted quickly because he had no choice. With his free hand, he slid out his dagger and held it to her throat.
“Remove your hands from me you filthy whore, or I’ll slit your throat where you stand.”
Drunken or not, she recognised the veracity of his threats, sheepishly removed her hand and stood still. The rest were silent, waiting to see what would happen next but the atmosphere was laden with menace. Pietro was not deterred.
“You…” he pointed at the monk in the boat, “You’re a Franciscan and you disgrace your order. You are certainly condemned to Hell. The demons will feed you Lenten loaves until you fatten and burst and then torment your soul and repeat their tortures for eternity and you mistress, are no better. I will report you both to your abbot and abbess. You will be cast out of your orders and forced to wander the land as beggars. The rest of you are fools and sinners but can repent and seek God’s forgiveness but you, the whoremonger in the tent, come out and show yourself.”
The flaps of the tent had fallen shut as soon as the fuss began but now they opened and a man walked out. Pietro had at first taken him for a monk or priest but had been deceived by the shadows and could now see by his clothes and demeanour that it was a man of some distinction.
‘No less the sinner,’ he thought to himself.
The rest fell silent; this was clearly someone with authority. His voice was deep and deceptively quiet; Pietro had to strain to understand the French but felt the underlying menace immediately.
“Who are you priest, to disturb our gathering? By what authority do you dare to interrupt our celebrations. Give me a good reason why I should not run you through with my sword.”
The others leered and adopted lewd postures, as if relieved that the priest was being put in his place. Both the nun and the monk took advantage of the shift of attention by trying to quietly slip away but Pietro was having none of it. Where he got his courage from he wasn’t at all sure but righteous indignation and the all consuming faith in the laws of the church, were powerful stimulants to bravado.
“Before you slink away like the cowards and sinners you both are, be assured that I will be visiting your abbey and convent shortly. You will not escape retribution.”
Some of the crowd giggled nervously, others remained quiet and glanced at their leader to see his reaction. That was predictable. Irritated at Pietro’s refusal to answer his questions directly, he stepped forward and drew a sword from under his robe.
“Now that’s enough priest. Not only do you insult and threaten my guests and bring them discomfort but you offend me greatly. You clearly do not realise who I am but that does not excuse your manners. You will either apologise to all here or you will pay the penalty for trespass on the end of my sword.”
Fra Pietro had met many bullies before and decided that this was yet one more. It was a question of willpower. He must stand his ground and surely the man would give way. Despite the sorry state of his own clothes, it was clear that he was a man of the cloth and no one would openly murder a priest in front of so many witnesses; or at least that was what he assumed.
“I don’t care who you are sir. You may be the greatest lord or the humblest peasant. In the eyes of God, we are all one and must all face his judgement for our actions. You give the impression of being a knight or lord, with some authority and influence in the region, yet in place of setting a fine example to your tenants, you consort openly with your whore and condone scandalous and blasphemous behaviour in your presence. That, sir, makes you accomplice to all sins in the eyes of God. You ask with what authority I dare to criticise but I would have thought that was plain to see. I speak with the authority of the Holy Father, the Church and God himself, whose rules of behaviour shape our lives. I need no authority from my fellow man to chastise the sinner; that is the duty of us all. I will not threaten further but you have undoubtedly heard of the Inquisition and its ability to draw out the lies and falsehoods of sinners. The Inquisition has reached these parts has it not? I believe the emperor Charles himself appointed Frans van Holly, Inquisitor General earlier this year. I know him well.”
From the nervous expressions on several faces, Pietro knew that he had struck a chord but he was also aware that he had placed himself in greater danger by stimulating fear of the auto da fe. He might have backed himself into a corner because they would perhaps decide that it was easier to kill him than bring the wrath of the Inquisition upon their shoulders. He glared at the nobleman and challenged him to make the next move. To his great surprise, the man burst into guffaws of laughter. The others joined in, not quite sure at what they were laughing but reacting as the tension was broken.
“The arrogance of you priests never ceases to amaze me. What makes you think I would be afraid of an investigation by master van Holly? I think you need to be a little better informed priest and I will be happy to do that before I kill you. Believe me; no court in the land would convict me for ridding the world of such a troublesome cleric. Perhaps I might steal all the indulgences you undoubtedly have in your pockets and buy myself free passage into Heaven, or are your bags already full of coins because you have sold so many to the simple souls around here?
You don’t see it do you? These people are not only simple fools, they are lunatic and vagrants. They are not wanted in their towns and villages because they make life uncomfortable for the good burgers who live there. They come to me in their carts and live on my boats because they are unemployable and have incurable sicknesses of the mind. It happens everywhere priest; surely you know that! I provide a service by solving the towns’ problem and taking it off their hands. These people beg for a living and you would deny their souls salvation? How uncharitable for a priest! You would deny them the little pleasure that cheap beer brings? You would sink the ships of fools and condemn them all to Hell? Well let’s see who arrives at the gates of Hell first priest.”
With that, he lunged forward with his sword. Pietro instinctively reached for his own dagger and that very act saved his life, for the sword sliced through the folds of his robe and not his skin. Nevertheless, he was in mortal danger and it was unlikely that the man would miss again. He hitched up his robe and prepared to run. The sword was still entangled in the cloth however and because the man wouldn’t let go, he stumbled forward and fell on top of the startled priest, who in his turn, fell to the ground. The onlookers had meanwhile all gathered round and were cheering and clapping their champion, their faces twisted into grimaces of pleasure and hatred. They jumped up and down, spitting and kicking where they thought they could get a clear blow in on Pietro. Unfortunately, as much of the saliva and as many of the kicks landed on the attacker as on the priest. The man cursed them in vain as he tried to get a better grip but they were losing control and were fully caught up in the heat of the moment. In his struggles to break free, Pietro had to acknowledge that he had misjudged these people from the beginning; this was clearly a group of the insane but that made the situation no less dangerous. His life was still in mortal danger and even more so when the man managed to raise himself into a position from where he could strike at Pietro’s throat. He prepared himself in that split second for the coup de grâce; his only regret being that he was destined to die in such a God forsaken place. The onlookers gasped in anticipation and then fell eerily silent. Pietro stared defiantly into the man’s eyes in the vain hope that he might experience pangs of conscience and that moment was enough to save his life. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the log arcing through the air and catching his attacker on the temple. After a brief look of surprise, he keeled over to the side and Pietro could scramble to his feet. Whether he was unconscious or dead was of little consequence, Pietro’s only instinct was to escape. Out of the trees burst Angelo on horseback, galloping at full pelt and yelling at the top of his voice. Leading the other horse he came quickly in between the priest and the crowd of peasants, who were too stunned to react. For a man of his age, Pietro showed remarkable agility in leaping astride his horse and in no time they put distance between themselves and danger. As they rode away, they heard an unearthly howling as the small mob realised what had happened. It was the sort of sound a dog makes when abandoned by its master and it chilled them to the bone.
Without communicating, they rode for some distance at full pelt, before exhaustion brought them to a weary halt on a sloping hillside with a good view of the surrounding countryside. In the distance, the drifting smoke from the chimneys of a small hamlet and the last insects plundering pollen from the clover under their feet, made their recent experience seem even more bizarre but the adrenalin was finally used up and it was time to take stock of their situation.
“I’m not exactly sure where we are Angelo but from the position of the sun and its low trajectory suggest we are still heading in the right direction but also that the afternoon is almost over. We may have to find lodgings in that village for the night, though I had hoped to be much nearer Brussels by the end of today. Although it is sinful to crave material comforts, I long for a soft bed in civilised surroundings and I suppose you feel the same way?”
Angelo looked at him askance. He didn’t know what to expect but had at least hoped for some form of thanks from his master; some sign that his efforts had been recognised but as yet nothing was forthcoming. Their relationship was unchanged, remaining master and servant and he was disappointed. He too had noticed the change in his personality and the maturity gained from his experiences of the last few weeks. He thought back to how he was a few months ago and couldn’t imagine that that was the same youth who now charged at the enemy in a noble quest and without fear or question. Some acknowledgement from the ungrateful priest would be nice; some sign that he was becoming a person in his own right and not just a subservient pupil.
“That is for certain Father but would you mind telling me what happened back there? I could see you from where I was hiding but I couldn’t understand what was going on.”
He couldn’t help the resentment in his voice and his question came out more sharply than he had intended. Pietro of course, understood what the boy wanted but was in two minds whether to give him the thanks he deserved or not. He would soon be meddling in dangerous affairs and murky waters and his policy had always been that the fewer people who had information the better. It was important that Angelo remained an innocent bystander, his servant, page and nothing more. For that, it was necessary that he obeyed instructions implicitly and to the letter and thus the idea of a closer relationship between the two was absolutely undesirable. If he gave the boy his gratitude now, that would imply that they were closer to being equals, comrades in arms so to speak. Not that he wasn’t grateful, far from it, he was full of admiration for the boy’s unsuspected bravery. He had always thought him somewhat foppish and soft; ideal material for service at a bishop’s court or entry into the priesthood but little more. In fact, he was maturing by the day and Pietro was beginning to formulate new ideas for his future but for now, he needed to know his place. It was with some regret then that he answered coolly,
“You performed your duty well Angelo but the fact is that you disobeyed my order. I told you to do something and you ignored me in favour of your own ideas. The fact that through your actions we were able to escape is neither here nor there. I expect you to carry out instructions without question in the future, is that clear? We had the misfortune to come across a group of lunatics and sinners and I was forced to reprimand them in the strongest terms. It may not be the last time that we find ourselves in such situations thus it is vital that you do as you’re told, otherwise you will bring us both in danger, do you understand?”
The boy nodded, bit his lip, turned away and hung his head. Pietro allowed the muffled and muttered response to go unchallenged but was sure he heard a bitter,
“You can look after your own neck the next time then!”
The friar secretly hoped that if there were a next time, his page would forget his anger and do precisely the same again; in fact, he relied on it.
Chapter 6 Part 1
Appointment in Brussels
The river meandered through flat and treeless land and Angelo remained sullen as they rode along its banks but the priest was quite glad of the chance to rest his mind. He pulled the brim of his hat down over his eyes to shade out the setting sun, which flashed over the tops of the golden reeds and caused blinding reflections on the water. Following the river’s course, geese and ducks flew relentlessly south and a chill wind ruffled its surface into wavelets, signifying that the day might have been fine but it was nevertheless the end of October and winter was on its way. In the crystal-clear light, everything was thrown into sharp relief for miles around. He knew they would reach the next village before nightfall but almost regretted leaving the barren beauty and peace of this countryside for the stifling fires of peasant accommodation. There was such a different light here and he could see why the scenes painted by the Flemish artists held such an attraction for Grimani and other Italian collectors. The softness and lazy lasciviousness of the Italian countryside was as different to this as chalk from cheese. Here the essence of an object or a scene was highlighted by the light and not obscured by the heat hazes of Tuscany or Umbria, or the shimmering mists of Venice. He paused and observed a stray duck slicing through the water; every detail of its head and feathers and the folds of the wake caused by its passing, sharp to the eye. He had seen prints by Dürer, where you could almost stroke the fur of a Hare and now he understood from where the inspiration had come, remarkable!
They had found clean and dry lodgings with a middle aged widow who was glad of the few coins and the night had passed without incident. Both were exhausted and slept deeply and neither reported the disturbance of dreams the next morning. Angelo was by no means his normal cheerful self but was at least responding to questions and instructions without open resentment, though clearly with a certain reserve. The friar resolved to restore the boy’s confidence by means of a few carefully placed words of encouragement during the day. He regretted the necessity for sternness because he genuinely liked the boy and was concerned for his well-being but now was not the time to soften the master servant relationship; the success of his mission may yet depend on it.
Their horses rested, watered and laden with fresh provisions, they set off at a brisk pace. From what they’d heard, Brussels was but six or seven hours ride away and Pietro was determined that he would arrange his first appointment before the day was out. This time the road was good and there was no need for diversions across difficult countryside, which was just as well because the weather showed every sign of changing again. Clouds were building up layer upon layer from the North and the early morning sun rapidly disappeared, to be replaced by a bank of grey that looked laden with moisture. Before disappearing from view, they noticed that the distant hills though certainly of no great elevation, were dusted with a layer of early snow. All the more reason then, to reach the city as soon as possible.
The nearer they came towards Brussels, the more fellow travellers they met on the way. The packed earth was about wide enough for a wagon and more than once they came across a blockage where traffic was coming from both directions. Because of the moisture in the ground, the road was becoming increasingly rutted, so Pietro directed that they ride the horses just off the road itself, where the grass had been scythed back for some distance on either side. They passed various groups of pilgrims heading apparently towards Aachen and were passed in their turn by several merchants in some haste to deliver their goods before the town gates closed for the night. Most people travelled in groups or at least in pairs but occasionally, there were solo travellers; tinkers, or beggars, who for their own reasons were heading for Brussels, or making their way south. Small groups of soldiers galloped past, yelling at them to get out of the way, or were to be seen resting by the roadside. Pietro had been firmly told, as if he didn’t know already, that this could be lawless country, full of brigands and highwaymen though the sheer volume of traffic meant that the road itself was safe during the daylight hours. The various bands of peasants filling the potholes with gravel or cut branches highlighted the importance of this highway and it was clearly maintained on a regular basis. It was even corded off in low-lying areas, where the unwary might stray into the boggy ground.
Brussels with its, countless roofs and spires, made a welcome sight and the towering town hall with its intricate spire and statue of St. Michel fighting the dragon, could be seen from well outside the city. St. Michel’s cathedral could also be seen, though there was obviously building work being done. That the city was expanding and thriving was obvious. Thanks to England’s expansion of its woollen cloth production and the subsequent trade agreements, Brussels had successfully entered the market of tapestry weaving. That, along with its growing fame as a centre of silk production and lace, was bringing wealth and employment to the city. Fra Pietro noted that Hapsburg rule was bringing the benefit of stability. Peaceful times always led to an increase in wealth for the ordinary citizen. Houses of all sorts had spread far beyond the city walls and Pietro readily believed a peddler who informed him that the city had accumulated nearly fifty thousand inhabitants.
Once through the city gates, he asked one of the soldiers on duty to direct him to the Rue de Chapitre. It was only late afternoon and he believed he was in plenty of time to make his first call. It was just beginning to rain but Pietro felt truly optimistic. He was on familiar ground on the streets of a city and found them far less intimidating than the wide open spaces of the countryside, or the intimacy of the smaller hamlets. Not far from the large and imposing Guild houses in the centre, they found the address they were looking for. The friar sent Angelo off with a letter of introduction for the Cistercian abbot at the Abbaye de la Cambre, where hopefully their lodgings would be assured and then straightened his robe, brushing off as many flecks of mud as he could. He would have preferred to wash off the grime of travel first and make a more imposing entrance but really wanted to arrange this appointment before anything else. With some luck, he could return the next day for his meeting, fully refreshed and looking the part.
It was some time before the door creaked open.
Pietro couldn’t be sure whether this was the person he was seeking or merely a man servant. If it was a servant, then the way he was looking Pietro up and down with a semblance of a sneer was certainly insolent. Then again, the friar knew he looked less than his best and there would be few clues in his appearance that he was a Cardinal’s emissary.
“I seek Master Erasmus.”
“As do many men,” was the reply. “Who seeks the Master and why?”
This was a servant then; Pietro could afford to be less careful with his tone.
“My name is Fra Pietro and I come from Venice at the express wish of Cardinal Grimani, from whom I have a letter of introduction for your master. As to why I am here, that is none of your business and It would be wise of you to deliver my message as speedily as possible to master Erasmus.”
The older man recognised the authority but didn’t apologise for his brusqueness.
“I will deliver your letter as soon as I can but the Master is not at home at the moment and I don’t know when he will return. Maybe you can return tomorrow but after that will be useless for we are making preparations to return to Basle on the day after.”
The hint of triumph in his voice was noted by the Friar but he let it go. What did it matter if he and Erasmus’ servant took an instant dislike to each other? It was disturbing news though and there was a chance that he would miss the celebrated man. He had no desire to make a detour via Basle on the return journey, though that was possible if necessary.
“I will return early tomorrow then, for it is most important that I speak to Master Erasmus.”
“Not too early would be my advice; the master likes to sleep past nine if possible.”
Pietro fought down the urge to strike the man and turned to leave. The rain was now coming down in torrents and he gathered his tunic ready to hurry to his horse, hoping the abbey wasn’t too far.
Just as he stepped once more into the street, he narrowly avoided colliding with a hooded figure, single mindedly heading for the same house. He immediately had a good idea who it was.
Erasmus looked none too pleased to be accosted on his doorstep when all he wanted to do was get out of the rain.
“Indeed yes but come inside to make your introductions; this weather is for dogs only!”
Pietro couldn’t resist a smug smirk, as Erasmus ushered him past the scowling manservant and into the panelled foyer. Having disposed of both his and the friar’s dripping cloaks, he turned, clasped his hands and cracked his knuckles.
“Now master friar, you clearly know me but I’m afraid I cannot recall having made your acquaintance. How can I be of service?”
Pietro fumbled in the pockets of his tunic and produced the slightly soggy letter of introduction from his Venetian mentor. Erasmus’ eyebrows rose slightly in recognition of the seal and he peered for a second at the friar, as if weighing him up before opening the letter. Pietro guessed that they were both roughly the same age, though perhaps the Hollander was further into his fifties than himself. He had a slightly mischievous look, as if he were the keeper of a private joke. Under arched eyebrows, his eyes were relatively close together flanking a sharp and slightly upturned nose and he gave the impression of alertness and perceptiveness. His lips were thin but not mean and were not dragged down at the corners like so many of his age but gave a hint of a wry smile. Much of his white hair was gone from the crown but was plentiful and curly at the sides and over the ears and all in all Pietro liked him instantly though knew to beware first impressions.
Erasmus quickly scanned the letter and returned it to the Friar.
“So, Fra Pietro, you have travelled far enough to visit me. Have you lodgings for the night? How is Grimani? Still the sly fox he always was? Have you a servant with you? Is he waiting outside? Gerrit will see to his needs. How is Venice at this time of year? I was there in the late summer once; so beautiful; what a light! Oh what remiss of me, I forget my manners; come through, sit, rest, drink, eat; we have much to discuss.”
Without waiting for an answer, Erasmus swept through the hall and into a side room. Pietro had no choice but to follow but had had to compose himself. The man had bombarded him with questions and given him no chance to answer even a single one. This could well be a difficult meeting and he hoped he could rearrange it for the next day, though if Erasmus was leaving for Switzerland this may be his only chance. One thing was certain; from what Grimani had hinted Desiderius Erasmus was not a man to be underestimated or lightly treated; he was reputed to be one of the most intelligent men in Christendom and a diplomat through and through. That the master in manipulation Grimani should point that out was noteworthy in itself. Pietro thought he would have liked to have been a fly on the wall at a meeting of those two.
After Erasmus had sent his grumbling servant into the rain to inform Angelo of the situation, the two men sat at a long table decked with bread, meat and wine and near a smouldering hearth, where newly added logs began to flicker into life. Cases and trunks, both sealed and open lay scattered around the room and Pietro surmised, throughout the house. Clearly he had been lucky to catch Erasmus in Brussels. His investigatory instincts made him determined to establish the reasons for a move to Basle and if it was temporary or permanent. On the other hand, Erasmus was a renowned traveller and had a better knowledge of the great centres of learning than most.
Little was said while they ate, both men were clearly in need of sustenance and through the medium of small talk they sparred with each other a while until Erasmus came to the point.
“What exactly does my friend Grimani want to know? I assume this is not merely a social visit.”
Pietro was ready with his reply.
“As I explained, the Cardinal’s main wish is to know more about the painter Bosch. He is a great admirer of his work and desires to learn about the man’s life and his affinities. There are many who accuse him of heretical thought expressed through complex symbolism and my task is to find out if there is any truth to verify the suspicions. As Brussels is on the way, the Cardinal asked me to call and convey his greetings to someone he holds in high regard, nothing more. I intend to do the same in Mechelen, where I have letters for the Regent Margaretha. I count it fortunate that I have caught you before you depart for Basle and I am very grateful for the chance to deliver my message and the Cardinal’s letter.”
“Very well rehearsed Pietro and completely plausible but I know Grimani of old and he does nothing without reason. The fact that the esteemed cardinal wishes you to determine the truth behind Bosch’s motives shows his regard for your skills; I assume therefore that there must be more to your arrival than just an exchange of pleasantries. What information do I have that he needs?”
“No, I assure you, the cardinal does not seek information from you master Erasmus…”
This much was true but certain figures in Rome certainly did.
“…he has far too much respect for your reputation than to insult you by sending a mere friar to ask questions he would not be afraid to ask himself. However, if you would grant me a little of your time, I am personally very interested in talking with you. Everyone has heard the name of Erasmus and I have had the honour of reading some of your work. It is fascinating and I would dearly like to discuss one or two points, though I can well imagine that my request is an irritation when you have such a long journey ahead. I will understand completely if you regard this as an imposition on your time.”
“There is no need to be so obsequious Pietro. If I did not wish to talk with you, you would not be sitting here now. I am also not such an ungracious host that I would dismiss a guest so brusquely nor is my reputation so high that I can assume the airs and graces of kings and cardinals. Let us talk a while; the wine is good and it is warm in here. If it is too much to bear you will most certainly hear it and then we can retire for the night, until then ask me what you want to know. Which of my scribblings have you read?”