1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 16 

Chapter 9

Convent of the Dames Blanches, Louvain, The Low Countries

“Your Highne — I mean, Sister Isabella?”

The urgency in the novitiate’s tone caused the Infanta Isabella to start — that, and a brief pulse of religious guilt. Once again, Isabella’s thoughts had drifted away from her devotions and novenas and veered into memories of her long-dead husband Albert and poignant fantasies of a family that might have been. “What is it, my child?”

“There is a . . . a penitent here to see you.”

“A penitent?” Isabella sat a bit straighter. Sister Marie was neither a very mature nor a very wise novitiate, but she certainly knew that only priests could hear confessions and that they generally did not situate themselves at convents to do so. So this “penitent” was clearly someone traveling incognito, a subtlety which had obviously eluded, and therefore baffled, the country-bred novitiate.

Isabella smoothed her habit, touched her neck as if to assure herself that it was still there, and nodded. “Show the ‘penitent’ in.”

If the young nun was surprised that the Sister who was also the archduchess of the Spanish Lowlands was willing to receive a “penitent” in the unusually well-furnished room that had been set aside for her biweekly retreats, she gave no sign of it.

But when Sister Marie returned, she was decidedly flustered.

“Sister Isabella . . . this penitent . . . I am not sure. That is, I think . . . I fear I have –“

“Yes, he is a man. Do not be alarmed, child. None of the men I know bite. At least, they don’t bite nuns. Usually.”

Sister Marie first flushed very red, then blanched very white. She made a sound not unlike a whimpering squeak, then nodded herself out and the visitor in.

Isabella smiled as she turned. So which one of her many renegade charges had been resourceful enough to find her here –?

She stopped: a large figure draped in a cloak of grey worsted had already entered and sealed the room. The cloak was ragged at the edges, loosely cowled over the wearer’s face. Whatever else Isabella had expected, this rough apparel and stealthy approach was not merely discomfiting but downright —

Then the hood went back and she breathed out through tears that, at her age, came too readily and too quickly for her to stop. “Hugh.” And suddenly, in place of what the wool had revealed — a square chin, strong straight nose, and dark auburn hair — she saw:

— the cherubic face of her newest page, sparkling blue eyes taking in the wonders of her formal, or “high,” court for the first time. Sunbeams from the towering windows marked his approach with a path of luminous shafts, which, as he walked through each one, glanced back off his reddish-brown hair as flashes of harvest gold. When summoned, his final approach to the throne was composed, yet there was mischief hiding behind the tutored solemnity of his gaze.

Isabella had affected a scowling gravity with some difficulty. “Are you sure you are prepared to be a page in this court, young Conde O’Donnell?”

“Your Grace, I’m sure I’m not!” His voice was high, but strong for his age. “But I will grow into this honor, just as I grow into the clothes you and the good Archduke always send me.” And then Albert had laughed, and so had she, and the little boy smiled, showing a wonderful row of —

His white teeth were still as bright now as then, she realized as she reached out and put two, veined, wrinkled hands on either side of Hugh’s face. “My dear boy. You have returned.”

“Dearest godmother, I have.”

And the pause told her, in the language of people who have long known each others’ hearts, that he had not just returned from Grantville, but from the long, dark travail that had started when he had turned away from his young wife’s winter grave almost five months ago. There was light in those dark blue eyes once again.

“Tell me of your trip to Grantville.”

He did. She listened, nodded several times. “And so you have decided to leave Spanish service.”

He blinked. “You have your copy of the letter? Already?”

“Of course. And you most certainly make an eloquent appeal for the home rule of the Netherlands, and link it to your own cause most cleverly.”

“So you think well of this?”

“Of the letter? The writing is like music, the idea eminently sound, and sure to save thousands of lives. And, of course, Philip will not countenance it.”

“Perhaps not. But I must try. Even though Olivares is obstinate about retaking the United Provinces.”

“So now you have ears at Philip’s court, too?”

“No, but I see what’s happening to his treasury. Yet he remains dedicated to spending countless reales to retain lands that have already been, de facto, lost to the crown. Once Fernando declared himself ‘King in the Low Countries,’ no other political outcome was possible. But Olivares has no prudence in the matter of the Lowlands. He spends money like a drunken profligate to prop up the economy while slashing even basic provisioning for its tercios. His fine faculties no longer determine how he reacts to events here. He is driven by pride and obstinacy.”

She smiled. “I will make a prince of you yet, my dear Earl of Tyrconnell. You have a head for this game.”

“That is because I have a peerless tutoress. Whose many wiles still surprise me: how did you get hold of my letter weeks before my man was to deliver it?”

“Dear boy, do you not think that I know what confidential agents you employ, and that I keep them better paid than you can afford?”

She saw surprise in his eyes and remembered how the first sight of them had been a salve to her wounded soul. He had arrived in her privy court as a stumbling toddler, shortly after she had lost her third — and last — child in infancy. In those days, she thought her attention to little Hugh’s education and fortunes was merely a clever self-distraction from her own sorrows. But now, being surprised by him like this, and finding her heart leaping up with a simple joy, she realized, perhaps for the first time, that he had been a surrogate for her losses, her childlessness. And he — fatherless a year after he arrived, and his mother a shadow figure trapped in the English court — had been, for all intents and purposes, an orphan, as beautiful and bright a child as might have stepped out of Eden. But there had been ambitious serpents all around, serpents sly and protected by titles, so she had often been compelled to protect him by employing methods as subtle and devious as theirs.

And she would still need to protect him now. “I must say that the timing of your decision to leave Philip’s employ is . . . dismaying, my dear.”

“Not as dismaying as finding that my godmother’s intelligence network includes my own servitors.”

“Hush, Hugh. How else could I know if one of them had finally been suborned by enough English pounds to betray you? But this time, it simply alerted me to your impending departure.”

Hugh’s eyes dropped. “What I found in Grantville left me no choice but to depart. Even if I was willing to go on to the fate those histories foretold, I cannot also lead my countrymen into pointless deaths. But I know well enough that Philip will not deem those sufficient grounds for my departure, not even if he were to suddenly give full credence to the revelations of Grantville. All that he will see is that I have become a base ingrate.”

Isabella smiled. “Perhaps. But here is what I see.” She laid one hand back on his cheek, hating the palsied quiver in it that she could not still. “I see a man who blamed himself, and maybe the Spanish clergy’s initial nonsense about the ‘satanic’ Americans, for his wife’s death. And I see a nobleman who had to discover and act upon what the future held in store for his land and his people. And so you went to Grantville. And you have acted as you must. Now, tell me: having visited twice, what did you think of the Americans?”

“They are . . . very different from us.” Hugh looked up. “But I had suspected that, particularly after they sent me both condolences for Anna and an invitation to visit them all in one letter.”

“Yes, their manners are often — curious. Sometimes even crude. But on the other hand, so many of our courtesies have lost the gracious intentions that engendered them. The American manners are — well, they may be simple, but they are not empty. But enough of this. If you come to me disguised in this rude garb, I presume we cannot have much time, so — to business.”

“Yes, Godmother. In part, I had come to tell you to expect the copy of my letter to Philip within the week. Which you have had for over a month, I gather. But I also came to tell you something else.”

“Yes?” Such hesitancy was most unlike Hugh, and she felt her fingers become active and tense.

“My men will not all stay in your employ.”

She closed her eyes, made sure her voice remained neutral. It would not do to impart the faintest hint to Hugh that she knew more about his most recent activities and the condition of his tercio than he did. “I presumed some of your men might wish to leave, since Philip has not sent sufficient pay in many months. A reasonable number are free to go at once. I will see to their release from service. But I cannot afford to have an entire tercio disband overnight. It will take some months to achieve a full release. And we will have to weather a torrent of displeasure from Madrid.”

“And my many thanks for bearing the brunt of Philip’s imperial temper, but that is still not what I came to tell you.”

Isabella became nervous again. Her intelligence on Hugh’s movements and meetings was uncommonly good and multi-sourced. But surprises were still possible, and at this point, the smallest surprise could derail the delicate plans she had set in motion.

“Godmother, it may yet transpire that Philip will think worse of me than merely being an ingrate. Though Spain may have made some temporary alliances of convenience, her interests are still ranged against almost every other nation of Europe. And so, if my employ is not with Philip, I might find myself confronting his banners, rather than beneath them.”

Despite anticipating this, Isabella still felt a stab at her heart, wondered if it was emotion or the frailty of age. “Dear boy, this is dire news.”