BOOK THREE: DELIVERANCE
SLY UNDERTAKES TO HONOR A COMMITMENT
.to deliver his temporary ward to a grandfather in Paris.
THEY SPENT THAT NIGHT under a bridge outside a small town. They were free, but far from safe. Spies would be on the look-out for a Spanish-speaking youngster of Pedro’s age and general description. He was in grave danger.
It’s a market day. The road is crowded with wagons piled high, headed into town. Every dog that can draw a cart pulls its weight of foodstuffs. The district is alive with farmers and farmers’ wives looking forward to cheerful commerce and profitable gossip. Touts cry their wares. Here is a hoop-toss offering shoddy prizes, there, a swath of grass groomed for bowls. In the plaza, lined with shops and stalls, a street entertainment occupies a prime location.
Sly, gone off to investigate the area, returns exhilarated. “We’re in luck!” he announces, as he hands the boy a warm baguette he’d managed to latch onto. “We will travel under the protection of the Cirque Luzak. A Spaniard will not stand out amongst Danes, Turks and etcetera and a Duke will not be suspected to consort with down-at-the-heels scum. We’ll have to keep a good eye on them. I’d say they’re not above picking a pocket. We have enough trouble as it is. We don’t want to end up in the clink.”
Pedro scowls. “There you go, criticizing behaviors you engage in yourself. You didn’t pay for this loaf, I don’t believe.”
“The difference is, I can get away with it. I’m a cat.”
“I see, one’s ethics consist of what can be gotten away with. Sounds like my uncle.”
This circus, I call it, was nothing like the circuses we see today. This was no extravaganza, high flying trapeze artists, walls of elephants hooked trunk to tail. It was street theater, hastily put up and pulled down, a few crudely painted backdrops, an animal act, some mediocre athleticism, and so on. It was on the order of the small carnivals we see in a church parking lot, a dismal affair, but the people for whom it’s intended do not care. Any amusement, even a ragged one, pleases them no end.
The company, living on the fringe of society, supplements meager earnings with what day labor comes their way. They travel the countryside in fine months; in late fall they settle into cheap lodgings to winter over. They are generally welcomed in rural settings by folk with few diversions, and by merchants who knew that a colorful show drawing a crowd is good for business.
The matriarch of the entertainment lounges in the door of her brightly painted wagon. A few performers are sent onto the plaza as touts. There is always an open space steps away where more intricate acts can set up. A fee paid for the privilege buying protection from official harassment.
The show is, by any yardstick, the bottom of the barrel in terms of professional presentation, but the apprentices, farmers, servants and lay-abouts who patronize the amusement do not see this as a drawback. A few extra-special acts are enclosed by tarps, you pay to enter, but it’s a minor amount. No one of standing would be in attendance at a pauper’s frolic. No one of importance would wonder about Pedro’s refined manner, nor his dainty habits, nor his soft, smooth hands. “Let’s get gloves on those pretty paws,” Sly directs, “‘until some honest work toughens them up.”
The circus-master is not eager to take them on, but Sly exhibits, under Pedro’s direction, such marvelous behaviors that the man agrees to a trial engagement. The cat clowns winningly. He executes twirls astride a prancing pony while fitted out in a huge yellow ruff. “I’ll never live this down!” he moans as he is laced into his costume. “I hope no one recognizes me.” There had been many French visitors to Haute-Navarre during his tenure there.
Their debut is a triumph. Pedro coaxes him through various feats, cracking a whip. After a particularly strenuous routine, made rather peevish by nonstop commands, (Pedro enjoys his brief ascendancy and takes over-advantage of it) Sly turns tables on his trainer and wallops him with items from a box of balls and hoops in place for the next performance. When Pedro turns to acknowledge the warm response, the cat lunges at him. He’d been bent in a deep bow, one foot advanced, one arm raised, swinging his hat flamboyantly, his balance uncertain. He stumbled forward and fell on his face. The audience roared approval. Comic payback became a staple of the act.
The show presented an interesting range of talents. One or two were clearly destined for, if not greatness, at least greater acclaim than they had heretofore obtained. Another two or three were aged individuals in the nadir of their careers, their only goal, to eat regularly. Most of the acts were going nowhere, and they knew it. No one would admit it, mind you. The supper table talk was of a bit more polish, of some new business in development. Six months on, they would be ready for bigger and better.
The cat, employing his friend as go-between, offers constructive criticism which is not gracefully received. The troupe did not appreciate advice from an outsider. Still, many of the suggestions had merit. The performances improved. But Sly was not a miracle worker.
. . . . . “They’re hopeless!” the boy declared. One particularly dreadful afternoon, several performers had been booed.
. . . . . “Sad but true,” agreed the cat.
. . . . . “You concur?”
. . . . . “What can I tell you? They stink.”
. . . . . “What’s this nonsense, the provinces are a waste of time, one makes a name in Paris?”
. . . . . “Be flat-out frank and we’ll never reach your grandfather.”
. . . . . “The closer to Paris, the more sophisticated the audiences. That’s when they’ll really be mocked. They’ll blame me, not you, for misleading them.”
. . . . . “What do you care? You’ll be long gone.”
. . . . . “I may, I may not.”
. . . . . “You may not!” The cat sat bolt upright.
“You know I have no one. Mother is gone, poisoned, as I would have been if I hadn’t eaten too many pears that afternoon and gone early to bed with a stomach ache. I missed the pudding that has always been my favorite. I’ve never met my grandfather. He may not give a hoot about me.” Pedro looked the cat in the eye. “The Luzaks treat me like a son. My real Mama never fussed over me like Mama Berthe does. Oh, I’m not saying that my mother didn’t love me but it wasn’t at all the same.
“I hardly saw her. Every day at four we had our chat, and our dinner. She never tucked me into bed. I didn’t mind, it was all I knew. Mama Berthe is my oh-so-busy Mama and my sweet old Nana, who sang to me, and cuddled me, and took me to pick violets, rolled into one. My Mother once said, My life consists of much pleasure, and little enjoyment. I didn’t understand her. Now I do. There’s more enjoyment here, in a thin chicken stew than in all her piled-high platters. I’ve never been happier.”
“What’s this?” howled Sly. “You’d refuse a dukedom for a shabby street show? My boy! One does not relinquish such an inheritance on a whim.”
“It’s brought me nothing but misery.”
“Don’t you do something you’ll live to regret. Where’s your rage? Don’t you want revenge? Where’s your good sense? You’re hunted, boy! Your uncle won’t relax until you’re dead. You, a performer, ranging north, south, here, there. Will you not, at some point, be recognized? Must you not eventually be taken? Then too, am I not a major part of your small success? Stop kidding yourself. I’m the star here and, I, sir, have other plans. How will you fare without me?”
Pedro turned his back, a move that really set the cat off. “Hold it, numbscull,” he spat. “I’m far from done!”
“When are you ever done?” sneered the boy.
“Hand to mouth, you find it amusing now. A year from now you’ll be whistling another tune. You will marry. There will be a family to support. The sight of your children slurping porridge six days a week when they might have had steak will eat at you. You may hope, ten years hence, to reverse yourself. This is highly unlikely. The usurper will be firmly entrenched. He will attack you as an impostor. If you live that long.”
Pedro sulked, but he capitulated. “Damn you! You could talk a mouse out of its hole. I’ll take your advice, on one condition. There was some bad business between Grandpapa and my mother. I got the impression he’s a nasty one. If I don’t like what I see of him, I return to Mama Berthe.”
“Picture this,” purred the cat. “You’re come into your legacy. You do as you choose. Put these folks on your payroll. Share your good fortune.”
“Yes! ” squealed the boy. “Mama’s rheumatism won’t torment her in a snug chateau as it does in a cold wagon. And if she sours on this huggle-muggle, I’ll make her my chief of staff.”
“Don’t let’s be ridiculous,” sniffed Sly.
“Well! That’s typical of you, isn’t it? You’re won’t waste your time getting to know these losers. Your arrogance, again! Mama has a good head on her shoulders, in addition to having a good heart. You haven’t figured that out, have you? That’s how brilliant you are. I see it. If you weren’t so stand-offish, you’d have seen it too. When have you spent a half hour hearing what these people have to say? Despite their problems, they manage to be gay. Sit with them. Hear them out, politely, no snickers, please. I’ll tell you one thing: their sharp-eyed assessments deflate pomposity. They’d have your number in a heartbeat.
“I’m pompous, am I?” muttered Sly.
“Pompous! Selfish! Smug! Close-minded! Self-important! It wears me out!”
“I’ve carried the weight of the world on my shoulders for ten years. It’s a hard habit to break.”
“Relax! Get your nose out of your books! Roll in the grass, smell the flowers!”
Sly was working his way through a book on astrology, much snorting punctuating his progress, whether of approval or derision, it was hard to say. Astrology was an esteemed field back then. Hardy anyone disputed that the stars had an effect on one’s physical well-being. It was taught in faculties of medicine and even in Jesuit colleges. The volume which Sly had latched onto was not the daunting theory of a university course, but a lighter work meant for popular consumption, borrowed from Mama Berthe’s wagon.
“Spend time with Mama B. You’ll like her. She’s a wise old wag, with a laugh that shakes loose your worries and sends them packing. You don’t give her half the credit she deserves. She’s boss here, not The Louse, not Stanislaus. To get us to Paris, work on her.”
“I mean to,” said Sly. He’d watched the woman. He’d come to the conclusion that she was a simple soul, but clear-sighted, no one pulls the wool over her eyes. Her contribution to the show is, she casts horoscopes, and reads palms. She surely looks the part, in her flowing purple robe. She paints her eyes Cleopatra-style. She dabs her face with an olive powder. A large banner cries her services with the slogan: Madame Haptchepsut. A Sensitive of Great Gifts. Ask Anything. Discretion Assured. There is a signboard with an exotic face crowned by a gaudy striped turban. The violently pigmented art is planted at the entrance to her place of business, and matches exactly the yellow and purple and black and green paint job of the wagon.
The come-on can be seen from every corner of a large plaza, even amidst the bustle of a market day. Above her raised roof flutters a large orange pennant with an all-perceiving (that the intent of the depiction) big black eye. If one were informed that an exotic seer is in the vicinity, and wonders where she might be found, he does not wonder long.
The interpretation of signs, so long as it fell short of the prediction of the future, a more dangerous territory in terms of church teaching, is widely practiced, and widely accepted and, more importantly, widely believed. The authorities might frown, but no one tries to shut it down. The elites are glad to patronize diviners. Wise heads claim it is for entertainment only. The same fun could hardly be denied to the base-born. Well, it could. Of course it could. If you were dirt-poor, you had no rights. But the town fathers, for the most part, choose to look the other way.