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Paying The Piper
Part Five in a series of novellas chronicling the astonishing life
of an extraordinary individual in late sixteenth-century Europe.
Sylvester (Sly) Boots
is my head-to-toe revamp of a nursery icon. Per usual, he’s a do-gooder offering semi-astute advice to creeps, cranks, and kings, this go-round in a joyfully arch characterization. He’s a smart-mouth (highly verbal, when he wants to be). He’s a striver, of powerful intellectual proclivities. He’s been underestimated his whole life; he obsesses over manifold past (comical, natch) injustices and indignities.
He’s a cat! In boots! (On special occasions)
He’s adorable for sure. But bed-time, read-the-little-insects-to-sleep material, you ain’t gonna find it here.
A heads up:
In The Rogue Decamps, Sly had worn out his welcome in a small southern kingdom, where he had advised a dotty ruler for a decade. The straw that broke the camel’s back was his mastermind of a phony Visitation of the Virgin Mary, his goal a commendable one, to coax religious tourism to a stony-broke backwater realm.
In A Fool In Love he obstructs an assassination plot against Queen Elizabeth, and is feted at court until he makes advances on her beloved capuchin monkey Sha-Sha. In addition to being Queen of England, Gloriana demanded to be hailed the Queen of Love. No courtier was permitted to admire another female openly, to do so was to insult her. Sly had imagined that, as a cat, he was exempt from that requirement. He was not.
In Paying the Piper, he and the scientist-mathematician John Dee answer a plea for a rodent exterminator in a North German town. This is another well-loved tale run off the road and kicked over the cliff. Any resemblance to the original is purely coincidental.
THE HOUR THAT THE SHIP COMES IN
Friefrau Annette von Drost-Deckenbrock counted herself blessed.
HER HUSBAND having done her the boon of dropping dead, she had settled into widowhood with a prayer of thanks in her heart. She had long lived under autocrats, her father lording over her, then her spouse. Her newly of-age son was trying to continue in the mold, but she was free as a bird for the first time and would not tolerate his interference in her affairs.
This was an era in which rapidly sequential pregnancies were the norm. Annette, having fulfilled her husband’s core requirement early by producing a healthy son, subsequently squeezing out three babes stillborn, or dead in infancy or soon thereafter, in her dotage (in terms of fecundity) finally having achieved a second success in the form of a surviving girl-child, treasured the latecomer as a miracle, a comfort to her old age, and an ornament to be polished and displayed.
Heinz-Helmut Wackenroder was the girl’s tutor. Smart as a whip. Drop-dead handsome. A talented raconteur. Attentive to a fault. Best of the best. Best for the daughter, a stubborn child, needing considerable guidance. Best for the Mama, for the age-old reasons.
Annette intended her daughter to have the superior education she’d not gotten. She had interviewed a stream of scholars and had hired the applicant whose educational philosophy was most in accord with her own. Heinz-Helmut had approved her radical ideas immediately, suggesting the pleasant prospect of a charming intellectual fellowship.
The reality of the time was the unpredictability of existence. Population centers were death traps, prone to epidemic diseases and the illnesses caused by poor sanitation and dirty water. People saw the hand of God everywhere, and the frenzied belief in a compassionate and/or vengeful deity slid easily into superstition, which was the mindset of the Mama, and the source of her solid sympathy for a man whose treatises had earned him renown.
Annette had taken pains to conceal her serious interests during her husband’s reign for the sake of peace in the household. Hans-Detlef had responded to any consequential remark with Pray, do not tax your female brain with weighty thoughts. Thinking in women causes wrinkles. The timid bride had complied. The seasoned wife, grown into herself – as we tend to do, no? – had chafed. The merry widow had vowed to devote her remaining span to refuting the fallacy of the incapable female brain, and was grooming her daughter to be the embodiment of her vision and values.
She was a big proponent of broadening travel, Heinz-Helmut accompanying her as a protective presence and to give daily lessons to a pupil. Now, roving, even for the well-heeled, was a complicated business. Progress by coach was slow, uncomfortable, and serviced by more-or-less despicable inns. Roads were dreadful, the worst of them, those of Germany. For most, journeying was limited to pilgrimage, the hardships considered an integral feature of the redemptive experience.
Annette, like any seeker, viewed inconvenience as part of the process and was not deterred by it. She celebrated ‘the imaginative faculty’, ‘the domain of wonder and insight’, ‘the poetic’. These terms put an artistic face on her true fascination. To dabble in a romantic mysticism was a vogue among a certain class of female.
Annette does not dabble; she is an ardent disciple.
The Friefrau is just disembarked . . .
from a schooner put into the port of Bremen after a visit to the university town of Leiden, where she and Heinz had enjoyed themselves attending lectures and hosting top professors at in the best restaurants in the city. The exposure of Fräulein Drusilla to extraordinary minds, the excuse for the frolic, had failed to impact her in any desirable way. The last leg of the trip, a three-day journey from Bremen to Hameln, will be very different.
Elizabeth of England, Dee’s for-ten-years patroness.
Problem was, she didn’t pay.
To make ends meet, her Royal Astrologer held seances
for rich females with a taste for the occult.
John Dee, having fallen out of favor . . .
with his employer, has fled England in search of other opportunities. Dee has discharged into the same port on the self-same morning, a lucky happenstance for all of us. His home in England abuts a river that is the important north/south roadway. His plan is to catch a pleasure craft such as operates on the Thames, float south serenely, enjoy the scenery, and arrive in Hameln rested and relaxed. He craves a period of calm after the tumultuous carriage ride from Emden.1
Dee sits in the common room of a tavern, a space seating fifty or sixty guests just off or soon onto a vessel, plus their mounded boxes and baggage. The room is a maze to be negotiated. And it’s stifling. Germans consider it the height of hospitality to warm their guests to a lather.2
Zum Roten Bären (the Red Bear), the premier gathering spot on the dock-side, is none so grand. The façade is freshly painted, but inside, in the dim, that touch had been deemed unnecessary. Rudolph Bingle has made one concession to travelers of the finer sort. He has partitioned a corner of the big dining room for the use of those he judges to be betters. Thus it is that John Dee and his unhappily boxed-up companion come to be seated next to a well-dressed female of forty and her party.
Annette, observing a man at the adjoining table engrossed in a book, is well-disposed toward him immediately. A few words of conversation confirm the impression. When he mentions his goal is to reach the city of Hameln as painlessly as possible and asks for advice on how to go at it, she advises him to hire a coach. Barges ply the river, but at a glacial pace.
John Dee, the foremost scientist/mathematician of the era.
He invented tools of navigation that put England on the path to empire.
“I am summoned,” says Dee, “to Hameln,
to assist with a situation.”
“The rats!” exclaims Annette, in her halting English.
“We have tried everything,” moans the woman. “We are a grain-distribution point for the region. The rats eat well off us, I can tell you.”
“You are a resident of the besieged burg?”
“All my life, sir.”
“You are on your way home. How do you proceed?”
The woman is more than half inclined to offer him to share her private carriage. She expects to be collected at any time.
“Let me introduce myself,” says Dee. “I am Doctor John Dee, Royal Astrologer to Her Majesty of England,3 come to render to the utmost of my ability assistance in the struggle against your local scourge. Your city council awaits my arrival. I can show you the contract of employment with the town seal.”
A contract, a seal, excellent recommendations. But it is not this information that causes Annette to catch her breath. “Dr. John Dee! Can it be? Doctor, I have only recently read your pamphlet Divers Authenticke Rich Discoveries. Merciful heaven! I speak to the author himself! Herr Doctor! I insist you remove with me, in my personal conveyance. I would be thrilled to have you to myself for a bit, for once we arrive in Hameln you will be lionized.”
“You are kind, Ma’am. I accept, but I must inform you that I carry a dear friend with me, whom some object to. In this carry-case beside me I transport my cat, as cunning a foe of all rodentia as ever walked God’s green earth, and a darling beast to boot. And he is a comfort to me, a calming influence. His peaceful presence helps me to focus on any problem.”
“I warn you – ours is no ordinary curse. It has baffled many.”
“I have a plan to deal with the infestation using methods available to myself alone. The rats, Madame, like Pharaoh’s men, will be drowned4 or otherwise dealt with. You may count on it.”
A loud harummpt! issues from the container on the chair beside him.
“Is that your cat?” squeals Drusilla. “Let me see him!”
“Nein!” admonishes the Mama. “Liebling, our ride is here.” Through the window can be seen porters loading her bulk-baggage into the rear hatch of a magnificent vehicle. Her driver, shown to her table, hoists her close-carried belongings and lumbers away. Those effects stashed under seats and overhead, he is stationed at the coach door ready to hand her up as she confronts the wrought iron three-step boost.
- Dee, his family, and associates had been landed at Emden and had continued east by coach. He has separated from the group in Bremen.
- My thanks to Erasmus of Rotterdam for recording his impressions of German hospitality.
- Dee had been given the boot by the English queen but sees no need to admit it.
- In the original tale, the rats drowned in the Weser.