A.F.Th. van der Heijden – The Morning Gift
The executioner was growing impatient. Though the trial had been summary, time was allotted to grant the condemned man’s last wish: to remove the buttons from his shirt. They were made of gold – I assumed he wanted to ask one of the town councillors to give them to his relatives, none of whom were present in the courtyard of the town hall.
‘No weeping and wailing,’ Christoffel van den Bergh, the magistrate, had declared beforehand.
His fingers trembled so much that former burgomaster Roukens didn’t make a very good job of his last task in this life. Finding that he couldn’t remove one button, his hands shakily moved down to the next. One of the two buttons he was clutching in one hand fell to the ground, so that the old man had to stoop to retrieve it, his stiff joints protesting. The executioner bent down and picked up the small, shiny object.
‘Thank you,’ Roukens said hoarsely. ‘God will reward you.’
‘Not with gold shirt buttons,’ Van den Bergh, standing next to me, whispered. ‘Only with a head… and he’ll have to hand that straight back.’
I didn’t chuckle, or even smile. The political battle between Nijmegen’s two ruling regent factions – the Old Plooi and the New Plooi – had turned violent. Roukens had done wrong to attack the town hall along with his associates from the Old Plooi, demanding to sit once again among the councillors of the New Plooi, but I felt sorry for him. Roukens wasn’t a bad man, and as burgomaster he had done a lot for Nijmegen. He was now about to die for his political beliefs. Old Plooi, New Plooi… what difference did it make? As town clerk I happened to be on the right side, for as long as it lasted, anyway. The revolt had been crushed. The bodies of the five conspirators now dangled from the facade of the town hall, and their leader’s head would soon bounce across the cobbles of the courtyard. The new Plooi had triumphed.
Perhaps we should be grateful to Roukens and his rebels: a conflict that had smouldered for three years had now flared up and been smothered. Peace would soon return. Though my son, a physician, would have his hands full for the time being, patching up the wounded. Putto had promised to dine with me this evening. It might well be late at this rate. I wondered if he would still have an appetite after rooting about with tweezers in open wounds, digging for lead pellets.
Keen to get started, the executioner wrapped both hands around the hilt of his sword. I thought I heard a low growl coming from his powerful chest. The blade was curved rather than pointed at the tip, as if to emphasise that it was meant for chopping, rather than stabbing. Despite the size of the man’s leather-clad fists, the handle easily allowed space for another five fingers. That space, a Nijmegen magistrate had once told me, was reserved for the hand of God, which was after all helping to guide the executioner’s sword in its righteous trajectory. The blade was double-edged, not fork-tongued. It meted out sharp justice right and left with equal conviction.
Meanwhile, old Roukens was still fiddling with his buttons. Like the executioner, I began to feel impatient. I could hardly bear to watch this procrastination any longer. They had not only stripped the former city father of his luxuriant wig, but had even shaved his neck, as if the thin, lifeless hair could have resisted the blade. The executioner appeared to be weighing the sword. His lips moved, just below the edge of his mask, as if he were calculating the condemned man’s weight and how much force would be required. All too often he’d been called upon to carry out mock executions – an extra punishment for malefactors who, unaware they’d been sentenced to life imprisonment, were treated to the sensation of a blade whistling towards them, close enough to feel a puff of air on their necks, before being thrown into the dungeons. The man had refined this deathly pantomime to such an art that people called him the Flag Waver. Even those who hadn’t been there could tell you in detail how the Flag Waver had made the steel sing above the criminal’s shaking head, causing his hair to stand on end with fright.
And now that he’d at last been assigned a real beheading, the miserable wretch had to stand there plucking at his buttons and holding things up. Justice had to be done, certainly, but first the gold had to be secured.
The executioner’s cap covered all his features except his mouth, to make him unrecognisable. But I was fairly sure he was the same man who had killed my friend and rival Hendrik Stampioen, over thirty years ago. Not by separating his head from his body. No, Hendrik was buried in one piece – though outside the churchyard, of course. Because of the unspeakable nature of Stampioen’s crime, his judges had deemed it better not to sully the sword of justice with sinful blood. One of the magistrates had even suggested that the executioner keep his riveted gauntlets on while strangling the condemned man, for reasons of hygiene. But the majority had voted that Stampioen be throttled with bare hands, as a sign of ignominy. Without ceremony. And what was all this nonsense about hygiene? Stampioen suffered from a disease that could be caught just by mentioning it, and which was ultimately fatal.
‘Look, Roukens is waving his own flag now,’ the councillor next to me whispered. In order to work the last two buttons loose, the condemned man had pulled his shirt out of his breeches. It hung loosely round his torso, now only covered by an undershirt. Suddenly Roukens turned to me. He took my arm and poured the gold buttons from his hand into mine, rather like the baker used to do with a portion of raisins. Which wasn’t as easy as it sounds, because just like the raisins, a few buttons stuck to the sweaty palm of the generous donor. He shook them free.
‘Sonmans,’ Roukens said with a weak voice, ‘wear these in memory of me.’
All eyes were fixed on me. There I stood, with a handful of gold given to me by a traitor and enemy, a member of the Old Plooi, a criminal who was on the point of losing his head. My New Plooi comrades looked at me questioningly, if not downright suspiciously. My mind raced, desperately trying to fathom the reason for this gift. When I started out as town clerk under Roukens, one of the city’s two burgomasters, I was his confidant, more or less, but when the rift arose later between the Old and the New Plooi, I had sided squarely with the New. Admittedly, when Roukens became spokesman for the Old faction, I hadn’t fallen out with him, despite our political differences. Did he want to reward me for that loyalty? That was all well and good, but now it looked to the whole town council as if he wanted to reward a spy in their midst.
My instinct was to refuse the buttons. To give them back. But…could you refuse the last wish of a condemned man? I considered pressing the little gold objects back into his hand, but the executioner was already dragging him off to an improvised scaffold. Wear them in memory of me. Accept, refuse… under the circumstances, both options seemed equally painful. I froze.
The executioner pushed Roukens gently down onto his knees. Although his whole body was trembling, the old man calmly laid his head sideways on the block. Whatever thoughts were coursing through his brain in anticipation of the pitiless stroke, they could have little influence now. A man’s spirit and heart could only be harmed by fearful fantasies that had long had free rein. Reasoning in this way, I tried to ward off the inevitability of what was about to happen.
The great sword was raised. I tried to look away from the block, but it was as if two strong hands held my unwilling head in a vice-like grip. My eyelids seemed to lack the moisture needed to veil my gaze. I watched with dry, fixed eyes as the head was separated from the body. The sound had nothing squelchy about it – there was only the swoosh of the sword cleaving the air, followed by a hard, dry tap of metal on wood. The force of the blow made the head roll a long way from the body – not bouncing, as I had expected, but spinning quickly across the cobbles – until it wobbled to a halt, at last, and lay still.
There was no trail of blood. The executioner had done his work so perfectly that the neck – at both head and body –was revealed in flawless cross-section: pink and white, with blue marbling. I’d attended many an anatomy lesson as a student, and on a less sorry occasion I might have paused to appreciate this skilled dissection.
Now the blood began to spout from both halves of the neck, which lay six feet apart, as if bleeding towards each other in posthumous nostalgia. Just as the head had rolled away, a quiver had passed through the body, an involuntary shudder, giving the confused spectator the impression that the body had bowled away its topmost part.
No blood dripped from the sword. You could only see – if you had eyes for it – a damp discolouration halfway along the blade, which shone less brightly than before. The executioner passed the sword to his boy, who polished the blade with a scrap of cloth, while he himself wrapped the dripping head in a piece of canvas.
Meanwhile servants from the town hall were manhandling the rest of the body, its neck still spouting blood, into a simple pine coffin whose seams had been daubed with tar, as if to make it seaworthy. The executioner put the swaddled head in with the corpse. A physician pronounced, superfluously, that death had taken place.
* * *
Up four flights to the second floor: that much I knew without consulting Master Valentijn’s architectural plans.
A band of musicians struck up downstairs, and the din of voices and tinkling glass in the high chambers below me grew so loud that I could no longer hear the creaking of the steps and the thud of my boots. I flew up the stairs with boyish high spirits. I could almost have laughed aloud. If the letter tucked into my waistband was to be believed, I would be the first to cash in – very literally – on the new-minted peace.
Onto the landing and left into the corridor. It was getting harder now. But who better placed to find the new wing of the Egmond residence than the onlooker who’d watched the architect’s index finger zig-zagging across the plans, right up to the big dog-ear in the corner?
‘Here, Sonmans, do you see?’ Master Valentijn had pointed out. A passageway leading to the new wing. On the garden side.
Identical doors stretched away to the left and right, illuminated by the weak flicker of lanterns on the walls. The garden must be on my left, but I could see no passageway. Looking more closely, I saw that each door bore a different coat of arms – save one, whose blank cast-iron escutcheon had yet to be painted. I tried to recall the architect’s plans, their sprawling lines branching out in all directions. The corridor came to a dead end. This must be the right place.
I hesitated, my hand on the doorknob. Supposing it led to one of the diplomats’ chambers? I’d find myself face to face with a startled manservant, who would certainly raise the alarm.
I opened the door. A dark passage stretched out before me. In the distance I could see a long, vertical strip of light. Without letting go of the knob I stretched my free hand out to the nearest lantern and took it down from the bracket to light my way. But it proved to be attached to the wall with a chain that had only a yard or so of slack, so I was forced to replace it.
Downstairs the noise of the party was getting louder. The deafening clamour of peace. It sounded as if some of the company were spilling out of the packed chamber, up the stairs. The laughter seemed to be getting nearer. I didn’t dare leave the door open, for fear of drawing attention. So I set off down the dark passage, heading for the thin column of light. My hand grazed the rough brick of the wall. Peace had dawned so suddenly that the French hadn’t had time to plaster the new building.
The light was coming from a door, which stood ajar. Close up the gleam was much weaker than I’d first thought. Perhaps the source was just a candle in a neighbouring building, or starlight falling through an unshuttered window.
For quite a while I lingered on the threshold, listening to the muffled drumbeat of my heart, before scraping up the courage to push the door open wider. The hinges screeched like a band of pipers, accompanying the thudding in my chest. But no-one appeared. How was I to get back the money – the fugitive tax I’d been forced to pay the French ever since Sara fled the city? Hadn’t Caloyanni instructed some underling to hand it over? Perhaps he wanted to keep it off the books. The letter I carried with me might be the only record of this transaction. For all I knew, he’d just left it here in an envelope.
Behind the door, across a small antechamber, I spied a parallel door, which stood slightly wider ajar. Through it I could see a large chamber. It seemed bigger than it was – many-armed candelabras had been placed in front of a couple of full-length gilt mirrors, so that they reflected the light of dozens of candles. Apart from the occasional candle flame flaring up erratically, nothing moved.
I opened the connecting door a fraction wider, and saw a four-poster bed whose curtains had been pushed back. From the imprint on the silk bedspread, it seemed that someone – no heavyweight, I concluded – had recently lain curled up on it. The din of the peace revelry didn’t penetrate here; all was hushed. So when the silence was broken by a brief hiss – twice repeated – I started. The sound had come from a sparsely-lit side chamber, which was fast growing darker. A shadow glided through the darkness. A floating wisp of mist, which evaporated after a fourth hiss. Someone, about to retire to bed, had been snuffing out candles with a spit-wetted thumb and index finger. I quickly retreated two steps, back to the threshold of the apartment. The door hinges squeaked a shrill, out-of-tune warning: an intruder.
‘Ez?’ A woman’s voice. ‘No point trying to surprise me. The peace treaty’s been signed. Old news. Amélie beat you to it.’
She spoke affected French, but with a local accent. The acrid odour of the snuffed candles drifted towards me through the half-open doors, carried on the current of air. Quenched with spit, wicks give off a more powerful smell.
‘I seek Monsieur Caloyanni,’ I called back, in French.
Light footsteps sounded in the room. Clothing rustled against the connecting door. ‘Monsieur Caloyanni’s chambers are in the east wing,’ said the voice, sounding agitated all of a sudden. ‘On this floor, but the other side of the stairwell. You’ll know them by the arms on the door – a fox’s head.’
Had she been briefer, I might not have recognised her voice. She betrayed herself by a slight slip – confusing armée and arme – which she stumbled to correct. (‘You’ll know them by the army, I mean the arms…’) She quickly closed the connecting door.
‘Monsieur Caloyanni’ – I raised my voice – ‘bade me come here. I was told something would be ready for me.’
I realised I’d switched from French to Low German. I stepped into the little antechamber and
tried to open the connecting door.
‘Stop it,’ said the voice on the other side, in the same language. ‘Leave me alone. There’s nothing here for anybody.’
Her rebelliousness – I could feel it through the door handle even – had something touching about it. I could not bring myself to force the door open. I let go and waited. The door handle remained pointing downwards, as if lamed.
‘Caspar? You can’t … you must leave.’
I pushed a fingertip against the door, which swung open. She was standing in the middle of the chamber, her eyes cast downwards. It was her, and yet it wasn’t her. Her body seemed to be rounder, fleshier than I remembered, but maybe that was because of all the layers of clothing. Her blue silk gown was cut away at thigh level, revealing an undergown of silk brocade, hemmed with gold lace. My gaze travelled along the diaphanous folds of her sleeves, where my eye was caught by the nervous movement of one of her hands. The tips of her thumb and index finger were tapping together, as if imitating the clattering of a bird’s beak, or applauding ironically for a performance that did not deserve it. She must have been absently feeling the sticky smear of wax left after snuffing the candles. She started to rub thumb and finger together until a little white ball, just like a mistletoe berry, bounced on the floor. It rolled over the flagstones and disappeared into a crack.
Only then did she raise her small head and look at me. Oh yes, she had aged. Over six years had passed since her disappearance. Sara still had that sharp little face, but the sharpness now lay more in its expression than in the skin, formerly so taut over her jaw and cheekbones. Her cheeks had grown fuller. Her eyes weren’t a whit smaller, though. They remained as wide open as ever, like the eyes of a fish. There was always something fixed about her gaze: she stared at you till you had to look down. This time I resisted. Instead I looked up at her smooth, slightly shiny forehead and her hair, still unruly. For a moment I thought it had gone prematurely white, but now I saw it was ash blonde.
‘At home I have a locket with some of your hair. Your old colour, that is. I see you bleach it now with…’
The lines of her mouth, too, had remained sharp. Her lower lip would have pouted, had it been fuller. The little cracks at the corners were new. Luckily they didn’t prevent her from smiling, albeit rather sadly. Instinctively she looked upwards, as if she could inspect her own hair. A faint blush spread over her artificially whitened face.
‘Oh, I have a lady’s maid for that. I make her drink buckets of small beer, so I can use her piss to bleach it. Blonde ale for blonde hair…. It smells, though, because of the malt.’ Sara grinned. ‘And the girl complains it’s making her as fat as a sow.’
‘When a lady wants to be beautiful, her maid must suffer, of course. But have a care with that white paint. A portrait painter once told me it has lead in it, and sheep’s gall – a poisonous concoction. It eats away the skin in the end. He couldn’t understand, he said, why some women tried to enhance their beauty by putting on a death mask.’
‘Your painter needs to be careful that he doesn’t rub his brush against his nose then ….’
Her dress had a plunging neckline that revealed the topmost curve of her breasts. She had given birth – and given suck – so there, too, she had filled out. Her chest was so white that the pearl necklace had the semblance of raised skin. Like collarbones, only rounder. She must just have got dressed in the side chamber.
‘Are you about to join the peace revels?’
I was relieved that Sara was no longer the slender girl I’d spent that one unforgettable night with, whose memory I’d carried with me all these years. Her sudden physical presence was overwhelming enough. Had she been unaltered, it would have been unbearable.
‘I never go downstairs.’
‘You’re expecting someone.’
I looked round the room. No sign of an envelope or a package. Then, on a low table, I caught sight of a rectangular box, covered with rough silk. The letter had made no mention of this, but it might well contain the promised money. Feeling under my jacket, I plucked the letter from my waistband.
‘All the same, I was directed to come here.’
Sara took the letter from me.
‘That’s not my hand.’
‘Indeed – I don’t need you to tell me that. Deciphering your illegible scrawl has been my chief employment of late. Nor is it the hand of the French envoy Caloyanni who, according to the letter, wants to pay back the fugitive tax he owes me.’
‘What do you mean? How do you know that he hasn’t written this?’ Sara asked, her eyes no longer staring fixedly, but rapidly scanning the letter.
‘I’ve seen Caloyanni write many a confession in my name, which I was expected to sign on the spot. When a document pronounces judgment on the one you love, you never forget the hand.’
‘So who did write this, then?’
‘The person to whom Caloyanni – or you – dictated it.’
‘What do you take me for, Caspar? It’s all Greek to me. What is fugitive tax?’
‘There is another possibility. The writer might be trying to lure me into a trap. You’ve read it now – am I in the right spot?’
‘Yes, this is the place they mean.’
‘Well here I am, then. Caught in the trap.’
Translated by Jane Hedley-Prole