Santa Maria Maior de Lisboa
August 15, 1769
The Se’, as the great Cathedral was called, was one of the few buildings within the city not totally rebuilt. The mighty earthquake and fire of the previous decade had largely spared it. A miracle, no doubt. The King had fled the capitol and in the years since, the ”enlightened" despotism of the Marquis d'Pombal had swept away the remnants of the Church’s political power, much as it swept away the rubble of death and disaster. The politically involved Orders had been banned outright, while the more contemplative adherents either remained behind their crumbling walls in prayer, like the sister of Captain Andor's missing informant, or thronged the steps of the last great Cathedral, begging for alms or lay preaching...depending on the strictures of their cloth.
It was all one to Jen.
She leaned against one of the fat Roman inner pillars of front portico, as the crowds of the city moved and swirled about. Street cries carried from the gleaming new plaza, crowds of the "devout" of all classes moved through the Gothic ambulatory, eager to see and be seen. Wealthy ladies gowned and veiled in lace, walked on the arms of peacock-like men. Nuns in grey habits, dogs, rosary sellers, praying monks, beggars, and street urchins picking pockets, all filled the spaces between the pillars.
Her interest was only piqued by the pickpockets.....
Good hunting, irmãozinhos, she thought.
.....and the considerable number of soldiers. Many armed men were in the red and gold of the Royal Army, but a nearly equal number wore the gold-trimmed black of Pombal's personal guard. She could not help but notice that their swords gave the appearance of being the lighter, sharper, and better used.
The cries of the street sellers mingled with the prayers of the mendicants.
"Rosas, rosas frescas!"
"Fragmentos da cruz verdadeira!"
"Wait for me here," Captain Andor had said, "my interview at the Monastery di Odivelas has been granted for but one hour and only one man at a time is permitted in the interview chamber."
"How very inconvenient," she observed, "perhaps there is still time for Mr. Kay to bring you your razor? I am sure between the two of us we could manage you into stays."
How she should be garbed for this venture had been the object of much strategy.
More than a fortnight ago, when she was directly and roughly brought from the hands of her jailers to a pleasant small house on the outskirts of London.....where precisely was still unclear to her, as she had been blindfolded for the duration of the journey.....she had been presented with a trunk of women's clothing and toiletries. Two English gowns, one of brown stuff, fit for a better sort of house servant and one of blue chintz. Petticoats,...one of quilted Matillaise,....chemises, kerchiefs and caps appropriate to each, one set of serviceable front-laced jumps and another set of fashionable stays and two pairs of shoes- one sturdy leather with pattens and one finer, with very good buckles. All of these had fitted her most exactly. She had been quite torn between a certain tactile happiness.....it had been long since she had had any but the roughest clothing....and a profound unease that her precise dimensions were so well known to persons of whom she had no previous knowledge. Her feelings had been equally divided about the steaming tub of hot water, combs, brushes and fine quality soap.....most profoundly welcome......and the two rather phlegmatic maidservants there to ensure her rigorous use of the same.....considerably less welcome.
This treasure trove, to her, of clothing had been eclipsed by the contents of three trunks that the dour Mr. Kay had brought out into the main cabin of the Princess's Fortune shortly after they docked.
Dear God, she thought, how many women have you had aboard this wretched ship and how many of them swam away naked?
There were fine gowns and plain ones, a changeable silk polinaise in shimmering colors, jackets, ribbons, jewelry, French panniers, stays and rumps of various fashions, what looked to be a nun's habit and more. She thought she saw a faint smile on Andor's face as he observed her clear discomfiture.
"No," she said, flatly.
In the end, another trunk was brought, containing clothes suitable to a boy of roughly her size. There were sufficient long binding cloths to render stays or jumps unnecessary, decent moleskin breeches, a lined waistcoat, good jacket with pressed buttons, a cravat and trimmed hat. With the addition of clocked stockings and low-heeled shoes, with good but not fine buckles, she made a fine servant boy of the better sort, fit to work for a ships captain, which seemed to be Andor's guise.
"Will you dress yourself here, Miss Erso, or do you require more privacy?" the towering Kay asked, blandly.
"Pray, how much privacy, am I to be allotted on this venture sir?" she snarled, "being unaccustomed to it, I should dislike to overspend my account."
"Kay!" Andor reprimanded the man sharply. "Miss Erso can make use of my cabin .”…it adjoined…..”to prepare herself, and we will wait for her here."
The giant shrugged, as if the matter were of no further concern, and excused himself to consult the dockmaster.
Andor unlocked the cabin door and held it for her.
"My apologies," he said. "You must believe me when I tell you, though it will often seem otherwise, he quite genuinely means no insult."
Must I sir? I should hate then to hear how he speaks when offense is his goal, she thought.
Feigned indifference seemed by far the wisest course, so she merely shrugged and gathered the garments up, intending to pass into the cabin without further conversation.
"Please have patience,” the Captain said, dropping his arm to slow her way, as if her understanding of the matter was somehow of great importance to him, "Kay is a unique man. He cannot, I think, measure as the rest of humanity does. Matters of....distinction...." he spoke, pausing often, as if to search for the right word to convey his thoughts, "niceties of rank and….. preference between persons, have almost no meaning for him. This can make him seem very harsh in his manners but....there is…… an equality of regard in him that is...can be.... almost admirable ...once understood."
What an odd pairing they were, this smooth and careful assassin and his violent, blunt and tactless companion.
Attempting to pass him in the doorway, she found herself looking up at eyes both dark and utterly serious, and felt obliged to be serious in turn.“Tell me, do you find this “equality of regard” to be an advantage in a servant, Captain?"
"He is not my servant," Andor said, "Advantage or no, he is my friend. Kay, is exactly as Nature has made him to be.....no more , no less. How many people can say so? You and I cannot, certainly, Miss Erso. We are what a wicked world has made of us.”
He moved aside then to let her pass and closed the door, giving her the time and solitude to transform herself.
Less than an hour later Jen met him on the deck and they disembarked, to present themselves as a British merchant captain and his servant boy.
Despite his protestations, the natural Mr. Kay was to remain aboard, lest his unique appearance draw attention.
Among the cacophony of voices, one impressed itself, cutting through her thoughts.
"Young woman! Shall I bless your necklace?"
She turned, startled, seeking the source of the voice.
Her eyes now fell upon a figure she had seen before, but had hardly marked among the crowd of beggars sitting in the shade of the inner portico. A bowl lay on the stones in front of him, with a few coins inside, while a battered staff lay alongside it. The man was dressed in the robes of a Franciscan but belted with the soldiers red sash, and presented both a beardless face and head close-shorn of peppered dark hair. He faced up at her now with a wide, pleasant smile and eyes silvered white with cataracts, sightless.
How had he known her English?
How did he know her a woman?
How could he have perceived her necklace?
She glanced around herself, alert to danger, but no one else seemed to mark the beggar's words. The blind man gestured for her to approach.
"The cross you wear has many tales to tell, young lady, do you know them?"
She stepped close to him, telling herself later that it was only to forstall further revealation of her disguise, but in truth out of sheer fascination. Involuntarily she laid her hand against the pendant concealed beneath the linen of the borrowed shirt.
She had preserved this ornament, on a waxed leather cord around her neck, through every trial and torment that had befallen her. Had it seemed made from any material more valuable than wood, it would have been taken from her long ago, had it had any form other than that of a religious character, being carved into a rounded cross roughly the size of a gold sovereign, it would have been questioned. As it was, the flat diamond-shaped stone within the center was hardly to be seen anymore, so carefully had she kept the precious thing varnished with wax to preserve it from damp and misadventure. It was her only talisman, her sole memento.
Once they had lived in a fine house in an English city. She could no longer distinctly remember which city. One dark night, arms had lifted her up from her bed, and all of her dolls were left behind. She recalled traveling on boats and a miserable succession of carriages before arriving at a new and strange “home” on the Cornish coast. It was near a small village they only seldom walked out to. What work her father had obtained in such a strange and isolated spot she could no longer recall, even had she ever truly known it. Her memory contained sketched recollection of a small isolated farmhouse, a garden that she and her father had planted together, a view of the seacoast that both thrilled and terrified her and the books her mother read her. It had been a child’s paradise. There must have been more servants, but she recalled only one tall thin girl who helped with the laundry and a cook who sang beautifully in English of such an odd accent that Jen thought it another language. An old man brought letters and newspapers with regularity from town, but she recalled only because he had a dappled pony she fed carrots to. Her father and mother took it in turns to wait by the road for his coming, in all weathers. They played odd games. She and her mother would sometimes take a small lantern to play “Pixies-in-the-mound.” The game entailed dashing as quickly as possible out of the house, while Papa tried to spy them from various vantage points, out to an old cistern, hardly to be seen behind the hill mounds at the far end of the gardens. There were child-high grey stones that stood around the mounds, and the laundry girl always crossed herself when passing them, as Jen recalled. Child and mother would lift a grass-covered wooden tray that covered the mouth of the dry stone well, climb down a ladder within and sit. Mama always brought a great bag of beads, which was the “hoard” in the game, and they would blow out the lantern and name all the stones by touch alone, in the dark. After a time, sometimes a very long time, Papa would “discover” them. They must not come out before he did, or the sun would melt them. By the time she was seven she had sensed, by some means, that this was not in any sense merely a childish game, but being a self-possessed and obedient little girl, she did as her mother asked without question.
On a particularly stormy afternoon, as she had been gathering sticks on the high hill above the road, for some infantile building project, she saw a group of men riding on horses, not up from the town but on the steep winding track from the shoreline. Most were cloaked in black or blue against the wind, but one wore a white scarf and hat. A number of other men below were disembarking from dinghies, tossing on the rough shore. Additional horses were being held by other men who seemed to be there waiting for them. It occurred to her in later years that her father had no doubt chosen the house because of this vantage of both the road and the shore. She ran toward her home. Her father must have already seen the men, for he was walking, mist-dampened and hatless from the direction of the cliff. Without a word, he had swept her up in his arms and carried her into the house.
Her mother had been standing at the foot of the stairs. “Lara,” he said, “He is here, he has found us.” Her mother, pale but resolute, had gathered the cloaks and a leather case that, she later recalled had always lain folded and ready by that door. Her father set her down on her feet and kissed her fondly.
“My Star,” he said, for so he always called her, “Everything I do, I do to protect you. Say you understand.”
“I understand,” she answered and embraced him, for she had always been an obedient child.
Her mother seized her hand then, and they ran, as always before, out the back garden toward the mounded hill, beyond the circle and the cistern. This time, however, her mother altered the game. She stopped and knelt beside Jen, just as they reached the grey stones that tilted and leaned at the end of the yard. Removing the the wooden cross she always wore on a chain, from off her own neck she kissed it and then placed the necklace around her daughter’s. “Trust in God, my darling, trust in the truth.” Jen had tried to cling to her then, but her mother held her hands away. “You know where to go, brave girl. Wait until I come, it will not be long.”
“It belonged to my mother,” Jen found herself saying to the blind man, as she drew the ornament out from beneath the folds of her neck scarf and shirt. The man, whether monk, or beggar, held up a hand as if bidding her to keep it concealed.
“The stone is rare and came from the East Indies, or so my father told me,” she said, most startled to find herself speaking remembrances that she had never before uttered aloud, even to Saul. “He said that the marks in it were like writing, and contained prayers and stories in some language that people had forgotten how to read.”
The beggar nodded approvingly.
She became aware, in that moment, that a large, broad-shouldered and swarthy man, roughly dressed, had stepped into the archway beside the beggar and was eyeing her with suspicion.
She stepped awayslightly, only to find that Captain Andor had returned and was standing directly behind her.
“What are you doing?” he said, in the tone of one reprimanding a wayward servant, “You were not sent out here to make friends.” Grasping her elbow, none too gently, he steered her back and away from the beggar, who only smiled and lowered his head, as if returning to prayer.
As the Captain directed her, with a degree of urgency, away from the crowds in the portico and back toward the plaza, she heard the blind man call, “There are words written in the heart of every star that shines.”
“Move!” Andor fairly hissed in her ear. His previously polished manner seemed quite ruffled now.
She looked back to see the swarthy man laying a hand on the blind beggar’s shoulder, and gazing after her darkly.
“Who were they?” Jen enquired, now hurrying her steps to keep pace with the Captain as he maneuvered against the movement of the crowds, away from the bright plaza and toward the shadows of the narrow alleyways beyond it.
Her companion was clearly agitated, looking over his shoulder as if anxious about pursuit. “The city is full of, monks, priests, half-mad missionaries from the colonies, hermits from the hill. With all the abbeys and most of the shrines destroyed, and the Maquiss Guard arresting anyone suspected of being loyal to Rome, or inciting discord of any kind, they cluster around the catherdral, causing difficulties for everyone.”
How? Jen could not help but wonder. We came here to look for Baba Saul, sir. Surely you know that “difficulties” draw him like a flame draws a moth?
“You seem most anxious,” she said, breathless as he hurried them through the back streets. “Did your cloistered novice give you news that disturbed you?”
“We must return to the ship,” he said, brusquely, “Lisbon may find itself shaking again soon.
They had circled around the Plaza by the less-gleaming back ways, but as Jen glanced down a new, straight, avenue she was provided a glimpse across the bright open courtyard and of the classical splendor of the newly built Palacio do Governo. A movement on the ornate cornice of the top story caught her eye. A flicker of a red scarf in one spot, a thin whisp, as if of smoke, there then gone at another.
Gerrere’s men, her heart told her.
“Captain Andor,” she said. His eye had followed hers and his mystified expression indicated that he might be less familiar than she with what was about to occur. “I earnestly hope, sir, that you have prepared some additional plan of escape.”
The Palacio exploded with a deafening roar.