AN ENVOY EXTRAORDINARY DISHES THE DIRT
A garrulous ambassador, bless his heart, lays it out for us.
IN A DIPLOMATIC communiqué to the Elector of Saxony1 I have found the following interesting remarks (which I believe pertain to Sly, referred to only as ‘the beast’), that illuminate an extraordinary political landscape. The correspondent has recorded his observations of some fascinating behaviors. The cozy preamble (not included here) reinforces my suspicion that the author is an intimate of the recipient. This is not the usual starched report. The man gets straight to the court gossip:
. . . . . As to the beast, never was an animal so cherished. He is the adored companion of a supremely disingenuous man, a jaunty cocksure, of large presence. He has the King’s encouragement in whatever he cares to pursue. He is everywhere, watching everything. His eyes disclose a disquieting intelligence. I feel myself evaluated; it is an eerie feeling. I feel compelled to tip my hat to him and wish him good day.
. . . . There is unrest here; we must encourage it. I have given up on the old man, he ducks me. Having been led to believe that he is firmly in our camp, I have importuned him too boldly. I have spooked him. He will not have me near him. He is terrified of me.
. . . . . Let the princeling be helped to the throne, he is more malleable. If he has a smidgen 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 dervish2 you sent her, which she dresses up, like a doll, 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 capable 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, in order to infuriate his treasurer, the tight-fisted d’Ollot, whom the Queen, annoyed at her small allowance, 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 bankruptcy, for this is what he does. The number of those willing to extend credit to the man diminishes steadily.
. . . . . Rupert has been soliciting tracts from every bookseller in Europe – an allowable indulgence, he argues, information being vital to one who would govern wisely. Treatises on every subject are received. I get this by way of the pages, my cadre of snoops. The Queen suspects that the flurry of purchases is intended to delight a mistress. d’Ollet has obviously shown her bills for frou-frou which has not been awarded to her. She reportedly suspects the Countess of Guiche, who visits mysteriously often. 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 point to a dalliance. I hope the old fool does have a mistress 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 comely nubile plays up to a lonely old goat. A novice temptress has the instincts to admire a perceived passion for knowledge (La! Plato! I adore Plato!) for, when he escapes into the gardens in pursuit of a nap, he carries some impressive prop, he means to tackle a difficult passage, he must not be disturbed. We all play along. One must not humiliate the King.
. . . . . Wonder of wonders! The strumpet adores philosophy! They are kindred spirits! After her long workday, she sits up late at her few precious essays, trying to make something of them. The outlay on tapers is tremendous! A studious shop-girl finds his intellectual proclivities highly attractive, with the inevitable result. They meet regularly in a gazebo. She expects to be showered with bracelets and earrings, or at least with money for candles. Instead, she is inundated with books! Is it not 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 close-guarded 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 have a comical hide and seek going here.
. . . . . The heir is told nothing that might ready 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 new formulations that deliver an extraordinary taste, an item which, marketed properly, will capture a market share anywhere it is offered for sale.
. . . . . The French disdain foreign manufacture, it is a point of honor with them, along with being a solid protectionist trade policy. They do not take kindly to Bittor’s proselytizing. The Spanish produce cheese as well, but they are not so touchy about imports. Phillip gets a tariff off it. His own economy is 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 owns 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 – clear skin, good teeth, strong nails – 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! To our local ambrosia! 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 rebuff him without ceremony. I thought I had found a way to get the fool off my back without offending him. Your 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 Francophile regions are in direct competition with your own manufacture. Through your dedication to ewe-husbandry, superior nourishment, all 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 your enterprise by fair means or foul.
. . . . . First, it will be slurs: Does not the substance leave an odd taste in the mouth? And: Take care! I have found the delectable 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 become the Prince’s best friend in order to monitor the situation. Suddenly, I too am a devotee of all things ovine. I admire him. I shall congratulate him on his initiative. 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. He is become a sheep breeder! A cheese maker! These are not the occupations of a Prince! The zany receives no encouragement for his amusing vocation 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. This is the key to his silly soul. Interview experts. I desire to be able to present Bittor with the very latest thinking on the subject. If they have nothing 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 unsavory interests. She styles herself a second Catherine di’ Medici, calling the shots for a weakling son. When he should finally grace 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 M. Sylvester, the 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 do nothing but 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, namely, what of the flood of books? The explanation for the books is, alas, mundane. Although Jakome proclaims a thirst for knowledge, it is all talk; he is no scholar. The diplomats posted here are of the first water; this is a sensitive border. The King feels keenly his lack of learning. Someone has pushed him to address his deficiencies. Perhaps he meant to apply himself, he had good intentions. Well, he has lost heart. Whoever is advising his selection of texts has done him a disservice. He has been directed to volumes far over his head.
. . . . . I hear, by way of my tattles, that he piles books on every surface in his private chambers, many propped open on handsome stands, all of them well book-marked, so that it looks like he is busy at his studies. He begins to rival our friend Dr. Dee in owning one of the largest private libraries in Europe. It looks impressive, until one realizes that he has never seen the man hunkered down, immersed in one of his treasures. It’s the cat that pours over them, hours on end. The merry story is all over the palace.
. . . . . This comes to me via my brisk boys, my pages whom I have cultivated so assiduously: the cat appears to particularly relish works on mathematics. We shall have a good joke of it. Present the erudite animal with a selection from your father’s celebrated library – may I suggest al-Khwarizmi’s al-jabr,3 one of your rarities. You won’t miss it. We both know that your tastes run to smut. So do mine, but this is about to change. I am about to become the pre-eminent Saxonian expert on sheep.
. . . . . I shall unveil your astonishing offering at the Christmas ball. Dust the pages liberally with catnip, so that 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 feline, 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 has a vote! He shoots up a paw, or growls, 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 will not have it reported.
. . . . . 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.4 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 professionally. If he can train a cat, he can train anything.
Your obedient servant,
Envoy Extraordinary to the Court of Haute-Navarre
Ignatius Graph von Muhlenbach
- Augustus (31 July 1526 – 11 February 1586) was Elector of Saxony from 1553 to 1586. My source is a letter in a museum archive, discovered on-line.
- The ‘cunning dervish’, a monkey named Sha Sha, figures prominently in book five of this story.
- A seminal work on algebra.
- Elizabeth, of course.