1636: The Cardinal Virtues – Snippet 20
Sacra di San Michele, Savoy
At the ruined abbey of San Michele on the south side of Mount Pirchiriano, two soldiers stamped their feet and blew on their hands to try and keep warm. By the calendar, spring was three weeks old — but the snow on the ground and the icy wind put the lie to it.
“What did we ever do to Monsieur to get posted here, Jacques?” asked the younger soldier. He was tall and trim, and affected the same style of moustache and beard as his master.
The other man, shorter and older, turned aside and spat by way of answer. He had seen a considerably greater number of seasons, and didn’t bother much with fashion. He also didn’t ask questions anywhere near as much.
“Are you sure that he will be here?” Jacques continued.
“He told us he will come, Pierre, then he will come. I know better than to disobey him.” He gave his young companion a hard look as if to say, and if you have any sense, you’d best do the same.
“Why in this God-forsaken place?”
“Hah.” Jacques scratched his beard. It fit that description pretty well: it was a big stone structure with a tall tower and stone outbuildings, sprawling all over the side of the hill — but was also completely abandoned. “God-forsaken. You have the makings of a court fool, my young friend. There hasn’t been very much of a presence up here since some pope or other threw the monks out of here ten or fifteen years ago . . . though I don’t know how blessed it was when there were monks up here. But the answer to your question should be obvious even to a clown — it’s miles from everywhere, but commands a good view of the road that leads over the mountains from the west all the way to Turin. A perfect place for a secret meeting.”
“And we’re here . . .”
“To make sure it stays secret,” Pierre said. “The young bastard will be coming from that way –” he pointed west, toward the road that bent toward the little village of Bussoleno — “and Monsieur is traveling from Tuscany and should come up that way.” He pointed in the other direction. “Then, I would guess, we will journey together to Turin.”
“Seems like a lot of trouble to go to. But maybe he likes the view, Pierre.”
Before Jacques could respond, there was a high-pitched whistle. Jacques and Pierre drew their swords and stepped next to the tower, each looking in a different direction. After a few moments, two horsemen approached, climbing the hill in plain sight. Even from the distance, Jacques could pick out the livery of the house of Vendôme.
The two men put up their swords and approached.
Francois de Vendôme, Duke of Mercoeur, cut a fine figure. Tall and handsome, he was an excellent horseman and — Pierre and Jacques knew — a talented swordsman. During the last few years as he had accompanied Monsieur Gaston, there had been numerous occasions for him to demonstrate that skill in affairs of honor. The soldiers knew their place and stood respectfully as Francois dismounted. He was traveling light and fast, with two gentlemen in waiting and a valet, who dismounted and followed in turn. The servant caught the reins of the horses and led them carefully up the slope behind the others.
“Is he here?” Louis said.
“Not yet, Your Grace,” Pierre said. “We have been watching for him.”
The nobleman turned away, looking down the road and then up toward the towering, broken façade of the abbey.
“God-forsaken place,” he said.
Jacques smirked at Pierre, out of sight of the duke; Pierre scowled at him, then turned to the nobleman. “Yes, My Lord. But it is as His Highness commanded.”
“Yes, yes.” He kicked the base of the tower, loosening mud and snow from his boots. “We’re going to go inside. Keep careful watch and alert me when he approaches.”
“Of course, My Lord.”
He said nothing further, but beckoned to his two gentlemen companions. They began to walk up a narrow stone stair toward an arched portal that led to the interior.
The valet, holding the reins of the horses, looked at Pierre and Jacques, as if they might tell him where to stable them. When they didn’t respond, he led them slowly around the base of the abbey to a place out of the wind and out of sight of the road below.
When Monsieur Gaston arrived a short time later, Louis and his companions had had a chance to walk around the ruins, and had located a place that had probably served as a refectory for the monks. It had a number of broad tables and benches, weather-beaten but largely intact; when the monastery was closed down, the lower windows had been boarded up, keeping most of the weather out. There was evidence that some animals had made their lairs there, and someone not too long ago — probably during this winter — had built a fire in the hearth, but the place was otherwise deserted.
“Charming,” Gaston said as he came down the little stair into the refectory. Louis had been giving his attention to some of the carvings in the stonework while his gentlemen lounged on the benches, their feet up on the tables. They scrambled to their feet and offered a leg to the prince, earning a scowl from Louis; they were supposed to be attending him.
Louis was even more annoyed that the two ruffians set to keep watch hadn’t warned him of Gaston’s arrival. But he was determined to show none of this to the prince.
“Good day, Uncle. I trust you had a pleasant journey.”
Gaston drew off his riding gloves and slapped them on his thigh, then tucked them into his belt. “Oh, yes. Bracing. But this venue will afford us some privacy.”
Louis nodded. “That it will.” He gestured to his retinue. “Go make yourself useless elsewhere.”
They bowed and made their way out of the refectory, closing the heavy wooden doors behind them.
“It’s so hard to find good help,” Gaston said.
“Nearly impossible. But it’s all my father could spare. At least they both speak passable Spanish, so they were helpful eyes and ears in Madrid.”
Gaston gestured to a table, and the two men took seats opposite. “And how was Madrid?”
“Boring. His Majesty scarcely lets anyone see him directly; Olivares makes sure of that. It’s all . . . what is that up-timer expression? ‘Hurry up and wait.’ Even the Count-Duke took more than a week to give me an audience.”
“Cheek. But what you would expect from a Spaniard?”
“What did he say?”
“It is as informative,” Louis answered, “to relate what he did not say. Señor Olivares commended you on your wisdom with regard to support for Cardinal Borja. He allowed that his master the king continued to be troubled by the apparent disrespect shown to his royal sister by your royal brother, and was fretful about the recent actions of some up-timers on Mallorca.”
“Interesting. Did he elaborate on that last?”
“Not in any detail. Apparently some prisoners taken during the — unrest in Rome, as he termed it — had escaped custody, and one of the king’s most trusted hidalgos had accompanied them.”
“Apparently he cannot find enough good help either,” Gaston said, chuckling at his own wit.
“As you say, My Lord. In any case, he is curious as to the effect a male heir might have on the political situation in France, and on your own situation with respect to our King.”
“He knows exactly what a male heir would do,” Gaston said. All trace of humor had left his face. “The Count-Duke de Olivares would be extremely unlikely to receive my envoy should my royal sister-in-law bring a healthy son into the world.”
“He noted that your brother — and the cardinal — are being extremely careful on that account. Indeed, he asked me if we knew anything of Queen Anne’s whereabouts. His master sought to correspond with her, and had been told by his envoy in Paris that such letters could be sent to the cardinal and they would be duly forwarded.”
“I assume King Philip was dissatisfied with that answer.”
“I assume,” Louis said, “that King Philip had not actually posed the question. In any case, Olivares assumes that we know no more about Anne’s location than he did. I demurred, and I hope that I conveyed the sentiment that if we did know, it was nothing we were prepared to share with him at this time.”
“Thank you, Uncle. I don’t know if I convinced him, but I might have planted a seed of doubt. In any case, I made it clear that regardless of the outcome of this . . . diversion . . . you were not prepared to fade into obscurity, and further, you considered the Count-Duke a friend and ally.”