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ON THE PLAZA de CATALUNYA
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Men he detested, yes, indeedy.

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ONE SUCH COMES TO MIND MOST PARTICULARLY. Let’s poke our noses into an apartment on the Plaza de Catalunya, just down from the impressively upright cathedral, a structure combining the spired Gothic style with an earlier Romanesque fortress-like base. (The Moors had nearly made it this far north during their ascendancy.)

The resident of these premises is a man of nice taste. The walls are hung with art and lined with shelves of curiosities; the fellow is a collector. A recovering collector myself, I’d wager that the trove of oddments is the response to an inner deficit, and a way to keep disappointment with life at bay.

What I can deduce from this accumulation? The pieces are carefully arranged, the hallmark of an obsessive personality. That fits with what I know of him. They are clustered, not on the basis of type, ceramics, silver, etc., but by shape, color, pattern, in pleasing convivialities. I see nothing that would not, as situated, make a charming still-life. He has an eye.

There’s not a spec of dust (that I can see), a feat, what with all these dust-catchers. This individual tidies the room himself; a servant would not caretake so lovingly. Such commitment to spic-n-span is not healthy. When one is so insistent on an orderly surround, the inner life is in turmoil, it is a coping mechanism. He cannot be at his ease here, he’s always fluffing a pillow or shaking out a rug. He always finds something amiss.

A dinner is just underway in the next room. It will be a fine one. This personage–he is clearly one to be reckoned with–has access to the skills of an outstanding chef. Near neighbors, both aging bachelors, both fond of good food, both sustained by creative interests, literary leanings in the one case, the pursuit of arresting objects in the other, have formed an unlikely alliance. A swindler and a churchman have bonded.

The swindler (actually, the son of a swindler) is a transplanted Burgundian. His father had held high office at a court rivaling that of the Valois for extravagance. He makes much of it, dropping names, claiming close acquaintance on the basis of a word or two. Despite his many achievements, he feels, as you and I might put it, less than. The churchman (actually, His Excellency, the Archbishop of Haute-Navarre, canon of the cathedral overwhelming the plaza) radiates a serenity the other envies with all his heart.

Gustave d’Ollot is very aware that his driven acquiring is an attempt to fill a hole in his soul. Evenings of good fellowship with Burutzagi Zumaya have darned that hole, a bit. They have a considerable sympathy, developed over a considerable period. A remarkable idea has seeded itself in both their brains and put down roots, while good sense, a less aggressive growth, has been overarched by showier vernation which has thrived due to the liberal application of absinthe.1

D’Ollot may live wonderfully well in the hardscrabble south, but he longs to set up in some measure of splendor in Paris. Zagi, as he is known, hopes to reinvent himself also. His dream is that his plays be acclaimed in the cultural center of Europe. If he panders to the pretensions of his comrade, it is because he hopes letters of introduction from one on a first-name basis with the elite will one day open doors. Zagi has reason to think his companion has pull, robust self-promotion aside. The man has magnificent miniatures in his possession that are very possibly what they are proclaimed to be, the residue of a grand lineage. He’s not willing to rule out that a few outstanding pieces are inherited from illustrious forbears, and that the man might truly have not-so-very-distant cousins well placed Seine-side.

If d’Ollot wants so badly to conquer Parisian society, why doesn’t he sell off his choicer holdings to finance the maneuver? This exquisite dragon-shaped stem goblet, for instance. Early Venetian cristallo, I’m thinking. One of a set of ten, and there is a carafe, it ought to fetch a pretty penny. Well, he can’t. To get a top price, the stuff would have to go to auction in Paris, where it would be recognized. His best pieces are fenced goods. That they were inherited is as true as it can be, inherited from his father, a noteworthy charlatan. His father had furnished an opulent lifestyle on the cheap. The drab accountant has never measured up to his Papa, who dreamed his dreams and acted on them, decisively. . 

This house sits in the best street in the prosperous upper town. D’Ollot ought to fit in here, cheek by jowl with other high officials, yet he does not. D’Ollot pere had purchased a level of acceptance which d’Ollot fils has eroded with his aggressive business dealings. His personality–secretive, resentful–hasn’t helped. 

To be elevated to honors and dignities in the manner of the noble and virtuous men of the kingdom, one has to meet strict requirements: evidence of noble blood to the fourth generation, an “Old Christian” (no converts), imbued with a profound sense of justice (in practice this was frequently overlooked), strong in body and spirit, loving his autonomy (he has that covered), and, tricky for him, of a family that had not engaged in a trade or, in the parlance of the time, the mechanical occupations. Morality aside, where does swindler fit into this? Is that not a trade?

In addition to his seat on the royal council, he is a notary of the common court, handling civil work and tax cases, and prosecuting debt. Misfortune is a source of rich pickings. Objects of beauty turn up even in modest circumstances. The middle-class, never a sure perch, is especially frantic to save face, praying to recover their financial footing, their names unblemished.

Smaller possessions seized for monies owed are sold after a week if the debtor cannot cover his liability. A Notary, privy to deep distress, can step in and take possession of items which often are never redeemed. He operates discreetly, nosy neighbors do not see the negotiations; nor do they hear the goods cried in the market square on the day of reckoning. The caught-short better-offs thank him for salvaging their reputations, and despise him for taking easy advantage of their reversals of fortune.

Tax debt is the worst. People are put in jail for it. Real estate is taxed, of course, and also plate and furniture, every sort of belonging. An accounting is kept of every property, along with its outhouses, amenities (a kiln, an oven, an enclosure for livestock), and its gardens, rents and furniture; this is the basis on which responsibility is determined.2 Gossip is invaluable in discovering other wealth, and you can be sure that d’Ollot is up on who owns what. When disaster strikes a household, he is the first to lend a helping hand, making loans and holding collateral, knowing that many will not be able to pull themselves out of a hole.

With a house full of marvels, his own tax burden must be substantial. Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly) it is not. There is a formula for assessing the worth of movable goods, they are preemptively assigned half the value of the house to compensate by a wide margin for the concealment of assets. But this percentage is far below the worth of d’Ollot’s cache. His acquires are not publicized by the humiliated insolvents, and no one is allowed onto his premises to gawk at his treasures except for Zagi. The maid does not penetrate his inner sanctum. The stronghold is locked shut. His other rooms are nothing beyond well-to-do ease. There may be rumors of opulence, but there are no witnesses to it. He pays his taxes promptly. No Sergeant demanding to take an inventory of disposables will ever come banging on his door.

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It started as a game of What if? He and Zagi had egged each other on: what could we make of a real windfall? They explored that, and the obvious follow-up: How might a windfall large enough to service our combined needs be engineered?

No one jumped up one evening exclaiming, got it! Breaking the idea in slowly, until it lost the gut-churning are-we-mad? quality, they cobbled a plan that felt right, and possible, and morally defensible, a way to lure traffic off the heavily-trodden route to Santiago de Compostela on the coast. They discussed it for a year, framing it as a cunning pastime, a brain-booster equal to chess, a test of their ingenuity. Where were the flaws? What could go wrong? Finally they pronounced it a viable project. That’s when Zagi weakened.

D’Ollot financed an exploratory trip to Paris to buck him up–a smart hotel, introductions to foremost fashionables,3 most notably, a countess4 to go into ecstasies over one of his plays. They took in concerts, ate fancy dinners, all on d’Ollot. Zagi is personally nearly as poor as his poorer parishioners.

The grand plan, scam, scheme, dream, go-for-broke gamble consists of this: a religious extravaganza, not a stingy finger bone to be viewed, nor a site consecrated by a small-potatoes saint. Neither would an apostle do. The resting place of St. James, brother to Jesus, sits directly west. Who beats that? An angel was no good, for a few reasons. Angels are tricky, I’m reading about it now.

Here’s a recent opinion, but I bet this held true then also. From Warnings Concerning Angelic Visitations: Increased Manifestations Require Basic Guidelines, by Pastor John Hamel: “Angel encounters are dangerous. If you pray to see an angel, Satan will gladly accommodate you. He may send a demon disguised as an angel of light to lead you into utter tragedy.” He goes on: “The Bible is clear. Believers are to look to the Holy Spirit for guidance, not to angels. If you think you hear an angel, it is the voice of your own human flesh telling you what you want to hear.”

And: “There are one hundred and four manifestations and visitations to men and women in the Bible.” How many in the years since? Cartloads, surely. I imagine that the reaction to a report of an angel setting down in remote Haute-Navarre would have been on the order of, another angel? I’m supposed to trek for months to the middle of nowhere for another–so they say–angel? I don’t think so.

Zagi had been forced to debunk multiple claims of angel apparitions over the years. One delusional soul prayed for all comers on the church steps and was rewarded for it, a cup filled with coins inspiring a run of copy-cats. Zag put an end to the business with shaming sermons. How was he to approve an angel incident after his scornful response? He’d be laughed out of town.

Another angle, from the site Catholic Answers: Demons flee from the Virgin Mary. In her presence, they suffer excruciating pain. We are urged to get the Holy Mother on board with our exorcisms for a guaranteed banish. I draw this conclusion: What fiend would dare impersonate the Blessed Virgin? Her good name in jeopardy, she’d be after him lie a bat out of hell. And: at that time, visitations by the Mother of God (those recorded, all we have to go by) had been few and far between. So it was a pretty unique idea.

Only after the turn of the nineteenth century did Our Lady get the galloping gallivants, popping up here, there, everywhere. (Fatima, Lourdes, La Salette, the best known.) In the 20th century alone, there were about 386 sightings “reported at a level beyond local rumors,” according to The New York Times. That surely says something about our modern world, don’t know quite what. You think on it. I got better things to do. Like finish this book.

Zagi had previously shown himself to be a hard sell on Marian phenomena. He has some credibility put by. I guess you know where we’re headed. How do we get there? Who knows? Stick with me and we’ll work our way through a maze together.

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D’Ollot has the solid business sense. He will sell licenses, collect taxes, accept bribes, then, in charge of bookkeeping, cover his tracks, his old man’s equal at last. Zagi will handle the vetting of a miracle, directing a gentle interrogation of the principals. Two boys, however they might stumble during an inquiry, will have nothing to fear from him. By the time an official arrives from Rome to investigate, the incident will have taken hold with the Simple-Simon masses and no belated condemnation will shake their conviction. He will enforce reverence with staged healings, unless taken-in worshipers accomplish recoveries themselves. The mind works in mysterious ways; add ardent faith to child-like thinking and anything can happen.

At that point the flood of worshipers eager to trammel the sacred site will not be discouraged by an official denunciation, however vigorous. It will be a scandal within the church hierarchy. He may be dismissed. No, it won’t come to that. He can play the brainless provincial as well as anyone. So he’s booted, so what? He’ll decamp to Paris under a new identity. He favors Elissalde Esquivel at the moment but, like a bride-to-be scrawling her new name, he doodles constantly, and each nom de plume is more flamboyant than the last.

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It’s fun, poking around here, eh? But it ain’t making headway plot-wise. C’mon. In the next room two screwballs are fortifying themselves with a notorious mind-meddler. A guest is due, and they are anxious. His Majesty Prince Bittor has expressed dismay on numerous occasions at his father’s captaincy of the sinking ship of state, the vessel that will one day be his to refloat. He has unburdened himself to a mentor whom he has come to rely on, his father’s oldest friend, the Archbishop of Haute-Navarre.

Bittor was invited to dine tonight but declined, unwilling to sit through a many-coursed meal of uneasy conversation with a bookkeeper. But pressured to partake of after-dinner drinks and desert, to settle things once and for all, he will put in an appearance.

That cabinet meeting, d’Ollot had done himself no favor there. Full of venom over a snub, he’d exploded. Horrified by his indiscretion, he’d tried to walk it back. Had he been misunderstood? He proposed to stage an elaborate passion play, nothing more. He’d immediately reverted, in his natural drone, to his report on inadequate revenues unequal to royal extravagance, but the damage had been done.

Bittor, learning of the incident, has freaked. He has been a reluctant participant, recruited by a man who is a second father to him. He has suddenly announced his withdrawal. D’Ollot has halfway expected it. The young man is not the most steadfast, except for that curious hobby of his, and for the highly unsuitable female, for whom, Zagi affirms, he has a sincere regard. That’s something to hold over his head. He’s kept it a secret so far.

The Archbishop would have chosen another career for himself, but was slated for the church at an early age. Having conceived of a second chance at the life he yearns to live, he is more than willing to go for broke. Gustave, less devil-may-care, insists on having an insurance policy in place. Here’s what’s at stake this evening: Bittor must be convinced to support the action in writing.

I’ve got one more thing to say before we crash this tête-à-tête. Look, the to-do that upset the king so terrifically in chapter one, Sly thinks it was an empty jab, to needle an old fool. Even Sly, with his own outrageous ideas, can’t believe the man is serious. I disagree. Knowing what I now know, that the man is into la fée verte, the green fairy, I think him capable of anything. 

D’Ollot made light of his outburst, but not before he’d observed that several of his fellow council members seemed far from dismissive of the only concrete plan they’d heard to replenish the treasury, aside, of course, from Bittor’s idiotic obsession, in comparison to which any nonsense is cast in a better light. D’Ollot had made his usual exacting report, citing figures, making recommendations. The king’s reply had been, We trust in the mercy of the Lord to see us through. This platitude was Jakome’s answer to any challenging situation, but on this occasion the rote refrain was too much to bear. D’Ollot snapped, spewing scorn for a magical mind-set, vowing henceforth to adhere to his father’s own oft expressed credo: God helps those who help themselves.

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Hark! Is that a commotion in the foyer? Ah! Bittor has arrived, on foot, no coach, no attendants, in his Everyman clothes, as if, six feet tall and rail-thin, he might skulk to a rendezvous unremarked. We’ll let him get settled, then edge in and see what’s what. In the meantime, I urge you to read a scrap of letter that I’ve pulled off the web. A wonderful thing, the web. I’ve stumbled across the digitized archives of a museum in Leipzig, which my German husband has translated for me. Thank you, my darling, for your invaluable help on this project, my own idiotic obsession.
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  1. Absinthe was developed in the late eighteenth century. I postulate that a beverage with similar (a bogus claim, I’m aware of it) psychosis-inducing properties existed earlier. I insist on calling it absinthe until I get hold of another name.
  2. This tax info was taken from A Fool And His Money, History of a Partitioned Town, by Ann Wroe. I tracked the author down and asked permission to borrow a few delicious details. Fool was Ms. Wroe’s Ph.D dissertation at Oxford thirty-plus years ago. It is a delight to read. Check it out.
  3. Zagi would know a genuine fashionable foremost from a hole in the wall? I don’t think so.
  4. Actually, the elderly housekeeper of a countess, left to oversee the property during the family’s annual installation at a country estate.
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