Did you ever have the feeling you wanted to go,
and then you had the feeling you wanted to stay?
– Jimmy Durante
THE STEEP DROP of circular steps would have been a challenge for anyone, let alone an old wreck with bad knees. A wooden hand-hold was fallen away, only the supports remained. The thick stone wall was pierced by staggered slits of grille which failed to illuminate the space to any useful degree. Sly’s vision in deep dim far superior to that of his companion, he had begged to precede, to coach the descent–broken step here, sir–but the fugitive had ignored him.
They’d spent the best part of the afternoon with a panel of officials, until the recipient of irritating exhortations culminating in a disturbing proposal had leapt up, exclaiming “Umeak! Isilik oiloak pixa egin arte!” (Children! Be quiet until the chickens pee!)1 He’d bolted without any hint of intention to his stunned associate, who’d trailed him down a series of corridors to a little-known exit.
At the foot of the stair, a door provided direct access to serene formal gardens. The recently woken garden was normally a source of delight for both but they were too agitated to pay it heed. Sly knew what was in store for him. Lately, any unpleasantness kicked up the same long-litigated dispute. Batten the hatches, boy, he told himself. You’re in for a real blow this time.
He groaned, “Enough upset for one day. No more, please.” He unleashed a string of quips assessing the intellects of those they’d been sparring with. Instead of the chuckles his wit usually earned him, he got annoyed shrugs. In his best nothing-fazes-me voice he exclaimed, “Sir! This is a bad business. We must ponder a response, certainly, but I’m not up to it just now. We’ll go at it tomorrow. What do you say?”
The old man tramped sullenly along the brickwork path. Behind a dense hedge the graybeard bent low, a hand cupped on one knee to steady himself. Thin lips contorted in a deep frown, he spat, “You would abandon me to those fat-heads? I refuse to believe it.”
The hunched form tottered, but his aide did not back off. Small of stature, nowhere near the other’s heft, and far from possessing a youthful agility himself, he disdained to act on a very reasonable anticipation of personal injury. He was focused on making a point.
“Let me go,” he hissed. “It’s my fault. Those loons, I am willing to assign them the least vile of motives; they are fearful. We have pushed them too far, we have been too flagrant in our unnatural dealings. No outcry raised by anyone at that table other than yourself against an insanity certainly sends a message–we let this creep do as he pleases, we will not interfere. Me out of the picture, they’ll revert to their at-odds ways. Sir! Whatever Gusto is up to, he seems to have lured Bitts into the foolery. That’s what worries me most.”
The unsettled ancient lurched to a stone bench, collapsed onto it, and buried his face in his hands. “Holy Mother,” he moaned, “steel my spine, as you did that of my ancestor of Carcassonne.”2
Sly sighed. “A fine kettle of fish,” he muttered. “The spark,” he growled, “emboldened by some exchange with your silly son, feels he has an ally there.”
“Impossible! Bittor despises him!”
“Be that as it may, d’Ollot sees his star rising. That stunt was a declaration of newfound sway. How else does he dare tip his hand? Sure, part of me says he was trying to get your goat, and he knows damn well how to rile you. Laugh it off. Look the other way.”
“Part of you says! What does the rest of you say?”
“Frankly, it’s a damn ingenious idea. Now, why would he tattle on himself so publicly? Stealth would seem to be essential. But the creep does nothing without a reason.”
“I must speak to Bittor.”
“No! Play dumb. It was a jest, that’s your stance. You have better things to worry about. Give the idiot his free rein. I’ll keep an eye on him. Leave containment to me. I have my own nasty ways and you know it.”
“Do I not!” moaned the oldster.
“I can’t predict the exact nature of my involvement but, whatever I do, no blame will be laid at your door. I’ll see to that.”
“No blame? What do I say to Saint Peter, standing sentry on the door to Joy Eternal, when the inevitable hour overtakes me?”
“Let’s not dig into that bucket of worms. I’ve had my fill of nonsense for one day.”
“Your fill of nonsense! That’s rich! You, with your ideas! That I always listen to respectfully, do you dare deny it?”
Sly did dare deny it, but resisted the impulse.
“By the way, thanks so much for your intervention earlier. What would I have done without it?”
Sly had sat side-by-side with Jakome, that’s the man’s name, fixing each speaker with a single wide, accusatory eye. That and a twist to the corner of his mouth had unsettled them spectacularly. Jak had not understood the reason for the frozen faces. He’d thought it due to his agile rebuttal and had congratulated himself on holding his own, until he’d caught on to his advisor’s actions.
“Belief shared by millions, nonsense? Simon Peter, nonsense? I’ll tell you what the Cephas will say! He’s not called Rock for nothing. Play dumb, while d’Ollot is plotting a crime beyond contemplation? Peter will condemn me on the spot: You saw to your own interests? You looked the other way while faith was mocked? Worse, you failed to hinder the corruption of the innocents? Begone, scoundrel. The pearly gate will be slammed in my face. No! I will not tolerate the deviltry. Never!”
Sly crept into a swath of greenery as, arms shot skyward, his mentor pledged frenzied allegiance to the expanse of blue slowly dulling to grey, the perhaps observant, possibly occasionally responsive region rumored to be the safe harbor after the storm-tossed sea of life, referred to by multitudes as the heavens.
The man’s wails brought attendants running.
* * *.
ATTENDANTS! Is the fellow an inmate of an asylum? You will think so when I tell you he’s talking to a cat. Now, anyone can talk to a cat. I talk to my cat all the time. This cat–hold onto your hats, he talks back. He talks words, same as you and me. Swallow that–I’ll have powerful arguments in support of the allegation by and by–and nothing else in my tale will throw you.
Jakome is a gentle soul. He hasn’t a ruthless bone in his body. And, poor guy, he’s easily rattled. He’s a sad-sack, but no ordinary sad-sack. He’s a sad-sack king. The meeting he just fled was a session of his Cabinet of Ministers.
* * *.
Always timid, he’d become increasingly withdrawn. His new habit was to brush hair forward into his eyes, using the heavy crown to hold the fringe in place, to conceal the panic that pinched his brow whenever he was forced to speak officially.3
He dared not give his opinion on any matter until the cat hopped onto his lap, whereupon the two seemed to confer. His adherents held that he took comfort in the presence of a beloved pet and played at confiding in it. Others insisted it was a way to humiliate favor-seekers and annoy adversaries. Many used the term dotty freely, in private.
If the conduct were a strategy, it demonstrated no unifying principle. To call it circumspect was generous in the extreme. It could not realistically be branded judicious temporizing, nor cunning dissimulation, nor, as much as one wished to believe it, an unremarkable royal fatuity. (Royal fatuity in those days encompassed some outrageous behaviors.) His supporters knew he was unfit to rule, but they propped him on the throne. Crown Prince Bittor would be far harder to manage.
* * *.
JAKOME’S TINY KINGDOM occupied a strategic position in a contentious Europe. Buffeted by hulking neighbors, Spain to the south, France to the north, it was peopled by a tribe that claimed to be in a pristine pre-Visigoth state. The people of the lowlands, overrun again and again, were mongrels. The Navarrese maintained that they conserved the undiluted blood of, according to legend, the offspring of Tubal, son of Japeth, Noah’s grandson.
This was the mountainous territory to which the first Iberians had been driven by waves of late-comers. Though both remote and inaccessible, it had intermittently been subdued by foreign forces, but the people had never reconciled themselves to outside governance.4 Belligerence was their birthright, but active resistance did not suit them; their revolt consisted of pugnacious inertia. In the end, it was not worth the effort necessary to bludgeon them into a true submission.
The annexation of Haute-Navarre by Castile (not yet Spain; a whole-peninsula patria was not yet a reality, though it was on the monarch’s wish list) would have added little to Phillip’s wealth, and he had his hands full courting more desirable hold-outs. France, a far more centralizing and homogenizing state, was divided into more than twenty provinces and sovereign territories. French unification was proceeding apace, but the Gallic way was to expand through dynastic alliance. That possibility seemed comfortingly remote. In no way could Prince Bittor be considered a ‘catch’ for the mighty Valois.
* * *
A HARSH CLIMATE and a thin soil provided a poor living; the economy was built on sheep: wool, sheared and spun, and on the item for which the region was best known, its ewe’s milk cheese. The only city, a settlement of five thousand situated on the side of a steep hill, was a warren of cramped, gable-roofed houses and narrow streets. An upper town and a lower town, held together and also separated by a system of walls, housed a crafty populace–you never lost the feeling of being watched from behind every curtain–that greeted you and cheated you with the same show of hearty welcome.
They communicated with a great deal of gesticulation, seeming to convey what they would not suffer to be plainly spoken, affording them the opportunity to un-say what had never been cleanly articulated. A visitor often gained an impression of approval and agreement, only later to realize that no accord had been achieved. This was a place to be gotten to and gotten through unless you had business to conduct.
The environment supported all the variety of the acts that in sum total pass for living, but there was a seethe of discontent to the place. Everything about it said, leave us be. The difficult local dialect challenged the best of linguists. Those who gained a grasp of grammar were stymied by the wholesale dropping of syllables and a lightening-quick delivery.
Everything was too close together, except when it was too far apart. Small, squalid two or three room flats were the norm. The Haves, wary of the Have-nots, locked them out of the well-to-do upper town every night at eight and punished strays severely. There was nothing that could genuinely be termed smart society. The place was full of folk who seemed to go out of their way to be rude. Outlanders were gone as soon as their business concluded.
There were better places to be than the wind-battered hills of Haute-Navarre. For the natives, it was their sacred bit of God’s green earth, cherished with the ferocity that still roils the region today. It was all they knew, and all they cared to know. It was home.
* * *
THE NOTION that Haute-Navarre was lusted after by the adjoining giants had a grip on the national soul that would not be relaxed by any clear-eyed examination of facts. Foreigners were suspected spies. Every innkeeper tried to sell information to perplexed patrons, simultaneously badgering them for loose-lipped intelligence. The nobility followed suit, demanding a vastly higher price. The king did not play the game but, due to his odd behaviors, was reckoned (by neophyte diplomats, not by old hands) a master at it.
His interactions were erratic, composed one minute, shockingly unhinged the next. Pushed to make a statement, he frequently exploded. One ambassador wrote home, “When I see him enraged against any person whatsoever, I wish myself in Calcutta.”5 All of this, of course, is no more than an amusing footnote to the more dangerous antics of the day.
The inhabitants’ fear of being stripped of their autonomy was validated, somewhat. The eastern branch of the predatory house of Hapsburg was always trying to nibble at French territory by means of secret alliances or sudden, petite invasions too nimble and too numerous to be effectively denied. The equally greedy Spanish branch had the same policies, to create small sovereignties within nominally French territory that would be in reality fiefs of the Spanish crown. (Spain, far more laissez-faire in dealing with its constituent parts, would have been the preferable, though still irksome, master.) Haute-Navarre was let be as a haven to which traitors might withdraw while they negotiated a pardon for their latest crime, and as a neutral site in which a risky proposal might be advanced quietly, and, if need be, as quietly withdrawn.
France and Spain were both hereditary enemies of England but in the late sixteenth century Spain posed the graver threat. The crown of Castile housed nearly eighty percent of the inhabitants of the peninsula and, fueled by treasure from New Spain, had become a powerhouse the like of which the world had never seen. Sly held his nose and pushed for counterweight ties to Paris. (He was glad to claim kinship with Castile6 when it suited him.)
Spain produced innumerable important written works. The cat counted himself among the letrados, the lettered elite,7 and he corresponded with several of them. Sadly, he did not live to see the publication of the greatest of Spanish novels–I’ve seen it called the greatest of all novels–Don Quixote, in 1605.
Two Catholic arch-rivals concurred on this much: the English heretics, carriers of a deviant plague, did the devil’s work in actively spreading the contagion, fomenting spiritual unrest to the detriment of stable relations with their European cousins. Diplomats gossiped freely about strategies for an overdue comeuppance. That Spain was preparing to invade the British Isles was well known.
Sly was subjected to diatribes against his homeland8 and was forbidden by the king to respond to them. When he could take no more knocks, he would grumble, “I have a tongue in my head I guess, and I guess I know how to use it.”
The king would admonish him, “You have a brain in your head also, and a good one. It cannot but instruct your tongue to keep still.” And the cat, although spitting mad, would swallow his pride and make nice with men he detested.
* * * * * * * * *
- A Basque proverb, meaning shut up, and stay shut up.(Birds do not pee and poop separately. They plop, as we can readily see on our windshields.)
- Bernard Délicieux, aka the Friar of Carcassonne, battled the corruption of the twelfth century church in a region not far from my Haute-Navarre.
- I’ve extracted tasty phrases from vintage works for decades. I never jotted attributions; I wrote for my own amusement. Using the heavy crown is one of my snags. This is my all-mischief own-up; I’m not trying to get away with anything.
- Haute-Navarre is fictitious, although the kingdom of Navarre did exist in this period.
- This comment was made about Elizabeth I by ‘a French ambassador’ according to several sources.
- Historically correct or not, from here I refer to the conglomerate peninsula as Spain.
- Basque was the language of home and hearth and of the judiciary, but Spanish was the parlance of intellectual life, even in isolationist Haute-Navarre – Speaking of Spain by Antonio Feros, Harvard University Press, 2017.
- He’d been born and raised in Cumbria, in far-northern England. After years abroad, a good chunk of that time in the service of a foreign government, he remained ferociously loyal to the Virgin Queen.