This poor realm is rich in ridiculous woes.
May the Lord God forgive me, I am chuckling my head off.
– Ignatius Graph von Mühlenbach..
A garrulous ambassador, bless his heart, lays it out for us.
FROM A DISPATCH unearthed in a museum archive, I have extracted the following comments, including what I believe is a reference to Sly (referred to as ‘the beast’). The correspondent has done us a considerable service in recording his reactions to an unusual political landscape.
In this letter, addressed to the Elector of Saxony, the wording is astonishingly convivial, as opposed to the typical diplomatic report. This amusing communication is positively chatty. I suspect a personal connection of some kind. I shall continue to investigate. Check back for updates.
How is a speaker of modern-day German able to grasp the sixteenth-century Saxon dialect? Today’s German derives from the language used in the administrative offices of Saxony at that time. My German husband was able to deduce a fair amount, and I embroidered a good deal. This is, after all, a work of fiction.
von Mühlenbach wrote:
AS TO THE BEAST, never was an animal so cherished. He is the King’s adored companion, therefore a cocksure, of large presence. He is everywhere, watching everything. I feel myself evaluated; it is an eerie feeling. I feel compelled to tip my hat to him and wish him good day.
I have given up on the old man. Having been led to believe that he is firmly in our camp, I have importuned him too boldly. He will not have me near him. I believe he is terrified of me. Let the princeling be helped to the throne. I have forged a connection there. He is easily understood, and easily played. If he has a soup-spoon of brain between his ears, I’m a monkey’s cousin.
By the way, the English ambassador tells me that his Glorious Mistress dotes on the cunning dervish1 you sent her, which she dresses every bit as magnificently as she attires herself. The lady relishes her oddities! I am wrong to make light of it; doubtless the foolery soothes the uneasy soul of one whose notable fits and fatigues stem–is there any doubt of it?–from the refusal to share the burden of state with a consort, and to assume the secondary role befitting the weaker vessel.
You have asked me to explain the situation here more fully. I will try. The King lavishes gifts on a cat to infuriate his treasurer, whom the Queen supports in his rage for austerity. Queen Zamanthe is furious that her husband spends freely while she is forbidden to gratify herself with the latest frivols from Paris.
D’Ollot has been instructed by her (so I surmise) to spread rumors of the crown’s essential bankruptcy, for this is what he does. The result is that the number of those willing to extend credit to the man is greatly reduced, most notably, dealers in gemstones.
Booksellers are more lenient. Jakome solicits tracts from across Europe–an allowable indulgence, he argues, information being vital to one with the burden of governance. It is all talk; he is no scholar. Treatises on every subject are received. I get this by way of my cadre of snoops.
The diplomats posted here are of the first water; this is a sensitive border. He feels keenly his lack of learning. He avoids conversation of any substance, far the less does he willingly engage in discussions pertaining to politics.
The Queen suspects her husband of maintaining a mistress. D’Ollot has obviously shown her bills for frou-frou which has not been awarded to her. She names the Countess of Guiche, who visits mysteriously often, as the likely party. Ridiculous! That one has bigger fish to fry. The bracelets, at least, end up around the neck of the cat. Everyone knows it except, apparently, the Queen.
The books–many a volume of love poetry among them–do suggest a dalliance. I hope the old fool has a woman tucked away, he has not much joy in his life, one sees it on his face. This is certainly the reason for the demented attachment to a cat.
She would be a local, a tradesman’s daughter, I think, who can come and go quietly. She is a blooming girl, but no staggering beauty who might look to do better by grabbing a prominent husband. A novice temptress has the instincts to admire a perceived passion for knowledge (Plato! I adore Plato!) for, when he escapes into the garden in pursuit of a nap, he carries a prop, he means to tackle a difficult passage, he must not be disturbed. We play along. One must not humiliate the King.
Wonder of wonders! The strumpet adores philosophy! They are kindred spirits! After her workday, a shop-girl sits up late at her few essays, trying to make something of them. They meet regularly in one of the gazebos that dot the property. She expects to be showered with bracelets and earrings, but she has overplayed her hand. Instead, she is inundated with books. Would that not be too, too delicious?
I know a dear little pudge, just the one to warm old bones. She commands the counter in her father’s bakeshop in the upper town. She’s a moist little muffin, with adorable hot-cross buns. The Queen is mad for their cream tarts, a recipe that cannot be bribed out of them. She has one trundled up the hill every other day. The palace sugar-baker makes the item, of course he does, but it’s not half so good.
A lummox of a boy runs it up. I will inform the establishment that the mannerly girl at the cash box must be sent instead, the boy has been flirting with the scullery maids and the cook won’t have it. I’ll befriend the chit. With my coaching she might help us with the sensitive matter that is my mission here. I’ve been unable to pry a commitment from the King, who runs from me like the devil from the holy water. I myself flee the son, whose brain, if the skull should one day be cracked open, will be found to consist of ewe’s milk cheese. We three play a comical hide and seek.
The heir is taught nothing that might prepare him to take the reins of government. His sole function is to push the country’s dairy products to the foreign community, that they might carry a good word home, boosting demand. This is busy-work, to occupy his time, but Prince Bittor does not regard it as such. He claims to be developing formulations that deliver an extraordinary taste which, marketed properly, will capture a market share anywhere it is offered for sale. He has his successes, and his failures. So-so batches are dumped on the Monastery of San Fermin.
The French disdain foreign manufacture, it is a point of honor with them. The Spanish produce cheese as well, but they are not so touchy about imports. Phillip gets a tariff off it. His economy collapsed from galloping inflation, he takes what he can get. And he seeks to please the entrepreneurial prince, whose friendship he courts with an eye to the day when the affable loon wears the crown.
The moment I arrived I was warned, for God’s sake, accept no invitation to dine privately with Bittor. You will be served ewe’s milk cheese in a dozen forms, and will have to listen to his twaddle on its health benefits until you are fit to be tied. After a meal of cheese soup, mutton pierced with the crap, apricots stuffed with it, cheese and roasted garlic en croute; a curd and raisin pie or a cheesecake, finally, a huge smile on his face, he hoists a glass: To the crown of cheese-making creation! Take a fat slice away with you for a midnight snack. I have it wrapped and ready!
Bittor is tenacious. Sooner or later he corners you. We must have a good chinwag, you and I, he informs you, grinning ear to ear, as if it is the best news in the world. Over a nibble, eh? You won’t believe what my cook has come up with now! He particularly targets the Teutons. He sees us as more amenable to his efforts than the French, who don’t shirk from rebuffing him. I thought I had found a way to get the fool off my back without offending him. Highness! I whispered, let us not be seen with the heads together. I have uncovered that the French, furious at the growing popularity of your excellent cheese, are spreading lies about it. I propose to investigate on your behalf.
My instruction to him was as follows: The cheeses of the neighboring regions are in direct competition with your manufacture. Through your farsighted experimentations you enhance the flow and flavor of your milk. You, sir, are a threat to the economic stability of French allies. The frogs will fight you by fair means or foul. First, with slurs: Does not the substance leave an odd taste in the mouth? And: Take care! I find the product to insult the digestion. Some compound in the ripening, which delivers the fine flavor, attacks the innards of those who have not been raised on it.
I love to make trouble for the French, who does not? I told the dolt, do not put it past the slug-eaters to serve your cheese to guests adulterated, to support their slander. Haute-Navarre is the tick on the back of the French dog, which it longs to burst. I may have taken my giggle too far. I sense that my silly flea of an idea has made the leap to the Queen’s ear. I am forced to monitor the situation. Suddenly, I too am a devotee of all things ovine. I am, therefore, Bittor’s new best friend.
The Queen, of course, is appalled. The dunce has turned an assignment to advocate for the local dairy industry into a crusade to reinvent the craft. A Prince of the Blood is become a sheep breeder! A cheesemaker! The zany receives no encouragement for his amusing avocation from his mother. He will, from me. Be so kind as to scour the university for material pertaining to sheep-enterprise, and forward all such. I desire to be able to present His Highness with the latest thinking on the subject. Interview experts. If they have nothing new to report, the time-honored ways still serve, tell them, get off your duffs and invent something. And it better be good.
No one here is without a dirk up the sleeve. The Queen prosecutes her own interests. She styles herself a second Catherine di’ Medici, calling the shots for a weakling son. When he finally graces the throne she will be in her glory. If she has her way it will be sooner rather than later.
My suggestion of polluted cheese has laid the groundwork for the French to be accused in the event of a calamity. I look in vain for Monsieur Sylvester, secretary to His Majesty, with whom you have been corresponding, to advise me. He is nowhere to be found. No one, in fact, seems to have heard of him.
I pray I am not an accessory to a regicide. Our simple subterfuge, to get a ruler on Phillip’s doorstep to sign an edict of religious toleration as an example of a courageous conscience that will not be bullied by a tyrant, to shame grander entities who have indicated a willingness to sign but stall and stall. I fear our minor mischief may be forever linked to an atrocity known as ‘The Affair of The Poisoned Sheep Cheese’.
To a lighter matter: the King purchases scholarly tomes hand over fist, but whomever is advising his selection of texts has done him a huge disservice. He has been directed to matter far over his head. I hear from my brisk boys–I have cultivated a fine lot of tattles– that he piles books on every surface in his privy chamber, many propped open on handsome stands, all of them well book-marked, so that it looks like he is busy at his studies. Impressive, until one realizes that he has never seen the man hunkered down, immersed in his treasures. It’s the cat that pours over them hours on end. The merry story is all over the palace.
The animal appears to particularly relish works on mathematics. We shall have a good joke of it. Present the animal with a selection from your father’s library. May I suggest al-Khwarizmi’s al-jabr,2 a rarity, certainly, your great-grandfather’s pride, you’ve told me again and again, but when was it last opened? Who begins to understand it? It’s a fine thing to admire it, but let’s put it to some true usefulness. I shall unveil your astonishing offering at the Christmas ball. Dust the pages with catnip so the prodigy attacks the tome with gusto, affording the company an outstanding entertainment. The prank will prompt high glee.
This is quite a business here. The flea-bag, or, rather, his handler–we know it’s not the cat’s doing–is determined to provoke. The animal sits on the Privy Council. He shoots up a paw in response to a call for yea or nay. This is a closely guarded secret; pray do not betray it. My source imagines that his monarch is sunk into senility, but would have it kept quiet.
I see a sharp political instinct behind it. Jakome loves to infuriate his detractors. And it is never bad to confuse, he takes his cue from the Conniver of Whitehall.3 And I don’t doubt that the embattled man is very fond of dumb creatures, and they of him. His Majesty has missed his true calling; he should work up an animal act and tour with it. If he can train a cat so cleverly, he can train anything.
Your obedient servant,
Envoy Extraordinary to the Court of Haute-Navarre
Ignatius Graph von Muhlenbach
* * * * * * * * *
- The ‘cunning dervish’, a monkey named Sha-Sha, figures prominently in book five of my series.
- A seminal work on algebra.
- Elizabeth, of course.