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A FINE KETTLE OF FISH
Sly was glum, glum as he’d ever been. Ever, in his life.
THE STAIR WAS STEEP, without a comfortable footing for a man with long dogs. There had been a wooden railing hooked into the wall but it was long fallen away. It was lit by three slits of grille from above, but the lowered sun failed to illuminate the stairwell to any useful degree. Sly, with his better vision, had begged to precede, to coach the descent–broken step here, sir–but the old man had charged ahead.
Sly had followed his embattled superior down to a door providing easy access to serene formal gardens. The remnant of a beautiful spring day ought to have soothed their anxiety but it did not. The man replied to every query with listless mutters punctuated by explosive harrumpts.
They had spent the best part of the afternoon with a panel of officials, until the embattled recipient of earnest counsels and irritated exhortations had leapt up. Exclaiming Umeak! Isilik oiloak pixa egin arte! (Children! Be quiet until the chickens pee!),1 he’d turned and bolted without any hint of intention to his stunned assistant. Sly had rushed after him, trailing the fugitive down a long corridor to a cul-de-sac harboring a hidden door.
They’d negotiated the descent calmly, and had slipped out into a jewel-like landscape, bursts of early blooms everywhere. The recently woken garden was normally a source of delight but they were too agitated to pay it heed. Lately, any unpleasantness kicked up the same well-litigated dispute. Batten the hatches, boy, Sly told himself. You’re in for a real blow this time. Keep your trap shut. Smile. Nod. Don’t make things worse.
“Lord On High,” he groaned. “Enough for one day. No more, please.” They were about to have – the conversation, he called it – yet again. He tried a diversionary tactic, a string of acidic quips assessing the intellects of the men they’d been sparring with. In response, he got annoyed shrugs, and snorts and snarls aplenty.
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. Let’s shrug off this sour mood and enjoy what’s left of a beautiful day. 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 nose to nose with his diminutive associate. The other hand clutched his cloak tight at his throat. His thin lips were contorted in a deep frown. “Look here,” he spat. “You would abandon me to those fat-heads? I refuse to believe it.”
The hunched form, poorly braced, tettered, but his underling 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 more concerned with making a point.
“Let me slip away,” he hissed. “It’s all my fault. Those fools are in revolt against me, not you. The most of them are good men. I am willing to assign them the least vile of motives; they are fearful. You and I have been too flagrant in our unnatural association. That bastard has given them an issue to rally around. The passive accord of ones normally at each other’s throats is the closest they dare come to a bald rebuke. Once I’m out of the picture they’ll revert to their fractious ways, for this proposal is, unquestionably, indecent.”
“Don’t leave me!” begged the anguished ancient. He lurched toward a stone bench, collapsed onto it, and buried his face into shaking hands. “Holy Mother,” he moaned, “steel my spine, as you did that of my ancestor, the Friar of Carcassonne.”2
Sly dipped his head in a show of respect. “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. This stunt was a fit of temper, to be sure, but also a declaration of newfound sway. How else does he dare to tip his hand? Part of me says he was trying to get your goat, and he knows damn well how to go about it. Take his threat seriously, he’ll be delighted, you’re a bigger fool than he’d thought. No! Laugh it off. Look the other way.”
“Part of you says! What does the rest of you say?”
“His stunt–please, don’t blow your top over an observation–all questions of decency aside, it’s a damn ingenious idea. We would do well to assume the worst. We don’t know why the scoundrel chose to tattle on himself so publicly, but he does nothing without a purpose. I’ll see what I can dig up on it.”
“I must talk to Bittor.”
“Do no such thing. It was a jest, that’s your stance. You have better things to worry about. Haven’t you longed to be rid of M. d’Ollot for years? Give the idiot his free rein. I’ll keep an eye on him and intervene as necessary. I have my own nasty ways and you know it.”
“Do I not!” moaned the grizzard.3
“I can’t predict the exact nature of my disruption but whatever happens, you need not fear retaliation. 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, please. 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 thought best to keep mum.
“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 in turn with a single wide, accusatory eye. That and a sneering twist to the corner of his mouth had unsettled them quite spectacularly. His friend had not understood the reason for the frozen faces for a good while. He’d thought it due to his masterful counterpoint, and had congratulated himself on his lithe rebuttal.
“Belief shared by millions, nonsense? Simon Peter, nonsense?” The old man was turned red in the face. “I’ll tell you what the Cephas will say!” he screamed. “He’s not called Rock for nothing. Play dumb, while d’Ollot is inciting 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. No, my oh-so-clever friend. No! I will not tolerate the deviltry. Never!”
Sly crept into a swath of greenery as his companion, arms shot skyward, pledged frenzied allegiance to the expanse of blue slowly dulling to grey, the perhaps observant, possibly responsive celestial space widely rumored to be the safe harbor, after the storm-tossed sea of life, commonly known as heaven.4
His wails brought attendants running.
Attendants! Is the wobble an inmate of an asylum? You will think so when I tell you that he’s been talking to a cat. Now, anyone can talk to a cat. I talk to my cat all the time. This cat, Sly, Sylvester Boots, hold onto your hats, he talks back. Using words, same as you and me. Swallow that–I’ll have arguments in support of the allegation by and by–and nothing else in my tale will throw you.
Jakome is no ordinary sad-sack. He’s a king, I’m afraid, a not terribly effective one. He’s a gentle soul. He hasn’t a ruthless bone in his body. That’s not good when you’re king, not good at all. Jak was not the monarch he’d been, and what he’d been had never been impressive. Always timid, he had become alarmingly withdrawn. His new habit was to brush long bangs 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.5
The man would not give his opinion on any matter until the cat hopped onto his lap, whereupon the two would seem to confer. His adherents held that a beleaguered old man took comfort from 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. A few attempted to call it circumspection. His enemies used the term dotty freely, but privately, among themselves.
If the conduct were a strategy, it demonstrated no unifying principle. 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 behavior.) His advisors concurred that he was unfit to rule, but they propped him on the throne. The son, by all indications, will 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 peoples of the lowlands, overrun again and again, were mongrels. The Navarrese considered 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.6 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.
At this time the political situation was benign. The annexation of Haute-Navarre by Castile (not yet Spain; a whole-peninsula patria was not yet a fact, 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 defiantly situated on the side of a precipitous 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 clearly articulated. A visitor often gained an impression of approval and agreement, only later to understand that no accord had been achieved. This was a place to be gotten to and gotten through unless you had business to conduct. Everything was too close together, except when it was too far apart. There were better places to be than the wind-battered hills of Haute-Navarre. For the inhabitants, 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 amount of rational rebuttal. Foreigners were suspected spies (why else would they be there?) and every innkeep tried to sell information to perplexed patrons, while simultaneously badgering them for loose-lipped intelligence. The nobility followed suit, only 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 disputatious the next. Hounded for a statement, he frequently exploded. One ambassador wrote home in frustration: “When I see him enraged against any person whatsoever, I wish myself in Calcutta.”7 All of this, of course, is no more than an amusing footnote to the more dangerous animosities of the day.
The fear of being stripped of their autonomy was validated, somewhat. The eastern branch of the predatory house of Hapsburg, based in Austria, was always trying to nibble at French territory by means of secret alliances or sudden, petite invasions. 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 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 an imperial 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 Castile8 when it suited him. Spain produced innumerable important written works. The cat counted himself among the letrados, the lettered elite,9 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 political and spiritual unrest to the detriment of stable relations with their European cousins. Diplomats gossiped freely about strategies for an overdue comeuppance. It was an open secret that Spain was preparing to invade the British Isles. The question was when and where.
Sly was subjected to diatribes against his homeland10 and was forbidden by the king to respond to them. When he could take no more knocks, he would grumble to Jakome, “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 ire 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.
- He’s a grizzled old man with a long, scrawny neck, a bit buzzard-like. He’s a grizzard, for my money. I don’t get to have fun with words? You’re going to be very irritated by what I’ve concocted.
- Sly’s view, and a source of considerable contention between the two.
- I am a fan of nineteenth-century fiction, from which I’ve extracted tasty phrases for decades. I never jotted attributions; I wrote for my own entertainment. I am cobbling credits as best I can. 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 country 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. From 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 passed in the service of a foreign government, engaged in a close personal relationship with a crowned head, his primary allegiance never wavered. He remained ferociously loyal to the Virgin Queen.