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The Dom Tower carillon announces the half hour when I see baron Renswou alighting from his carriage. He takes a pinch of snuff from a small jewelled box, then enters one of the coffee houses on the north side of the Domkerkhof. I take up position against the ruined wall, underneath a relief showing three women spinning a single thread. The pagan image depicting the inevitability of fate seems fitting all of a sudden.
I try to keep an eye on the entire street. This is not a reputable area, and already I see some drunks brawling on a nearby corner. High above me I hear the tower custos screaming again. He must have a clear view of the men using the place as a rendezvous spot. I pull my hat down over my forehead. The cheap wig and smelly clothes I’m wearing belong to the wine merchant’s assistant. I must avoid another confrontation with the night watch.
When Renswou comes out, I follow him as he makes his way past the tower to Oudmunsterkerkhof square, and on through the cloister gate. He turns right, so I go left, staying in the shadows, hurrying along the walls surrounding the moonlit courtyard. On the other side I slow down and lean against the cloister wall, hands behind my back, one leg casually crossing the other—the way I’ve seen them do it, the baron’s boys.
Other men walk past, arms akimbo, elbows stuck out with clear intent, trying to catch my eye, but I carefully ignore them. I’ve been here so often, but suddenly it feels like the first time again, the day after Raphael had explained what was going on, giving advice, warning about who to avoid.
From the corner of my eye I see Renswou approaching. Heart pounding in my throat, I force myself to relax. The wig itches fiercely.
He walks past me, and I remain motionless, waiting. A moment later he approaches again, closer this time. Then I feel his shoe stepping on my toes.
I push up the brim of my hat. He looks into my eyes. For a moment I’m afraid he will see me instead of the simple boy I’m pretending to be. But his hunger is unmistakable. Suddenly I feel pity, followed by misgivings over what I’m about to do.
He turns and walks off. I push myself away from the wall.
In his carriage, riding slowly through the countryside just outside the city, the old baron mutters what he wants me to do, and what his driver is going to pay me afterwards. He turns around and pulls aside his justaucorps. I make as if to oblige, but instead I lay my hand over his mouth, push him into the cushions and whisper, “I don’t want money.” He struggles, but not very hard. He is used to this game. Gently I pull off his wig, exposing a blotched pate. I can feel his surprise. “I want information.”
Without his wig he looks thin and frail in the little moonlight that enters the carriage. “You should make inquiry at the Magistrates’ Court.”
“I have. They won’t tell me anything.”
He shakes his head. “What do you think I can do, boy?”
“You have influence in government. You could find out. . . .”
“I can tell you what they will probably do to your friend if he confesses to his unspeakable sin. At best he will spend the rest of his life rasping brazilwood, or he will be banished. More likely, being a Jew, he will be executed.”
I am stunned. While Renswou fumbles for his snuff box, I try to regain my voice. “His unspeakable sin, but . . . it’s your sin as well.” And mine.
“How dare you?” he snaps. “What I do is of no concern to the likes of you. Anyway,” he lifts a thumb tipped with sweet-smelling powder to his nose, “no doubt your friend is in solitary confinement under City Hall by now. He will be tried in secret and extra ordinaris.” He inhales and closes his eyes, the better to enjoy the tobacco. “If he is found guilty, you will not hear of him again.”
I do not know which Ilurtibas I will meet when I walk into his contubernium—the boy, the soldier, or the sage. He sits hunched over his parchment like an archetype, scribbling with his reed pen, observing, measuring, and fixing the history of his subterranean world.
“Those tunnels outside the gate,” I ask him. “Where do they lead? How far?”
For a moment I’m afraid he won’t answer me. But when he looks up, his face is that of the soldier. It isn’t unfriendly, but it looks tired and resigned.
“I don’t know,” he says, and he puts down his pen with a controlled and patient movement, as if he is a busy father who knows he must make time for his children. “I am not allowed to leave the castellum. I must guard. . . .”
“I need to get to into the City Hall cellars,” I interrupt him. “Northwest of here. Maybe one hundred thirty passus.”
He frowns. “The gate road,” he says. “Just outside the porta sinistra. It runs west to the vicus. There’s a path north, along the wall. But it only leads down to the river.”
“River? What river?”
He shows me a plan of the castellum and the vicinity, in brown ink on parchment. I try to reconcile his topography with my crowded Utrecht inner city. I feel faint, unsteady, as if I am torn between two realities. A river ran there, hundreds of years ago?
But I see Raphael’s face before me, and imagining what they’ll do to him is worse than actually knowing. “Show me that path,” I say. “Please.”
Again we follow the via principalis to its end. As he pulls open the gate, he looks back at me. “What if you get caught?”
“I won’t,” I say, desperately feeling for the certainty in those words.
“Is this friend really that important to you?”
“I . . .” What more can I tell him that I haven’t already? What language does he understand? “He is my brother-in-arms.”
He is silent. Then he turns away and points into the dark. “Go then, fool. There’s your path.” Before I know it he is gone, leaving me standing with a small oil lamp in my hand.
“Ilurtibas!” I call after him, but the corridor has already disappeared.
The only sounds in the damp tunnel are my breath and the shuffling of my shoes on the sandy floor. I don’t know how far I walk before it forks into a number of narrower passages with small holes in the walls. I press my eye to one of them and draw a sharp breath. Three women are sitting chained to the floor of a bare room.
Dungeons. I must be under City Hall already. Frantically I start looking through every one of the spy holes.
I hardly recognise his face under layers of grime. Raphael lies alone in a tiny cell. His lower legs are blackened and bloody.
I have to call his name four times before he reacts.
“Father?” he whispers. “Have you come?”
The dullness of his voice scares me. “It’s me. Gysbert. Are you hurt?”
“Gysbert?” He rolls aside, curls up and turns away, as if he does not want me to see him. Then he reaches out one hand to me. “Gysbert, I’ve written letters, I’ve asked the warden, but . . .” A tremor in his voice. “Everyone here calls me filthy names. Father won’t come. He won’t see me. I’ve begged him to, I only ask for a visit. A clean shirt. A bit of money. But he won’t . . .” His voice breaks and he falls silent.
“What have they done? Why are you here?” My teeth are chattering, but not from the cold. What happened to the cheerful, insouciant young man I knew? How have they managed to break his spirit so thoroughly?
“Thumb screws,” he whispers. “Flogging. Shin screws. But after the strappado, I couldn’t hold out any longer. Gave them names. May have given them yours, can’t . . . can’t remember.” After a while he continues, “Why won’t father come see me? Just once? Maybe bring a clean shirt?”
“Raphael! Listen! What’s going to happen? Is there a date set for the trial?”
The painful sound in his throat is laughter, I realise. “Trial? Trial was last week. Our sin isn’t tried in public.”
“But, then . . . what?”
“Tomorrow . . .” he whispers. He pushes himself up to look at me. I try not to recoil from the naked desperation in his eyes. “Go. Ask father to come quickly. Please. Ask him to bring a clean shirt.”
But Raphael’s father is out of town. When I call at his house, Gideon Peixoto is in Antwerp and will not be back for some days. His wife tells me that no letters have arrived from City Hall. She immediately starts writing a request to the Magistrates’ Court, dismissing me with an accusatory look that suggests my bad influence is entirely to blame for her son’s predicament.
Back in my room, I sit motionless on a stool. The darkness swirls around me, conjuring up images of Raphael’s torture, mingled with visions of Ilurtibas’s “hidden history.” I’m so exhausted I can’t tell which is which.
Noise from downstairs startles me awake. Gruff, insistent male voices interspersed with the habitual sarcasm of the wine merchant’s wife. Then they come stumbling up the stairs. And I remember Raphael’s words, ominous in their simplicity. I may have given them your name. Before the consequences of that remark sink in, I’m at the side window, pushing up the sash. Someone raps on the door. “Mister Coolsaet?”
The narrow alley is pitch dark.
“Mister Coolsaet! By order of the bailiff of the city of Utrecht . . .” When I let myself drop, a cart breaks my fall, but I cry out as my foot doubles under me.
A hoarse shout above me. Then, someone at the window. “He’s down there! Get him!”
Ignoring the pain in my ankle, I limp into the dark as fast as I can. Behind me I hear pounding on the locked alley door. I curse myself for my carelessness—but I’m also stunned. How can this be happening to me, a respectable citizen from a reputable family?
The other end of the alley opens on the Old Canal. Escape, for now. But nauseating fear gnaws its way up out of my stomach. There is nowhere to go. My friends, my family—the bailiff’s men may be lying in wait anywhere.
“He betrayed you,” says Ilurtibas the soldier.
“He was tortured.”
“But he wasn’t strong enough. He betrayed you and yet you wish to save him.”
I know I should flee, leave the city, maybe even the country. If I have committed a crime, then the fact that I committed it with a Jew makes it twice as grave. Why am I still here? “But I can’t leave him to his fate,” I say. “I owe him this.”
I expect disapproval in his eyes, but to my surprise I see understanding: friendship means loyalty. He nods resolutely. “Then it’s your duty.”
And somehow his words transform it into a commitment, weighing on my shoulders like chainmail. Fleeing the bailiff wouldn’t be half as difficult as fleeing my responsibility now. I close my eyes. “But how?”
That sounds like a request for help, which I tell myself wasn’t intentional. But the words are hanging between us now, and there I leave them.
Of course it’s not that easy. When I open my eyes again, the young Ilurtibas stands before me with a brooding look on his face. “You’ve met the old one,” he says.
“The . . . yes.”
He bites his lip. “You see? He thinks I don’t know. He thinks he is the end of everything. But I write the historia too, and I read his words. They’re always conclusions. As if he is the end of everything, and after him there’s nothing.”
I remain silent.
He takes hold of my shoulders. “Do you understand what that means for me?” he asks ferociously. “I’m only here to support his decisions. As if I only exist to give meaning to his life.” There is a fierce longing in his eyes now. “I had a life, myself. I was a legionary. We are from Hispania, pia fidelis, faithful and loyal. We’re only auxiliaries, without rights in Rome. They promised us citizenship after our service is done. But how can I earn that honour when I’m buried here?” He grabs my head with both hands and pulls it even closer. “Your friend betrayed you. And now you want to help your betrayer. I have never witnessed such an act of . . . friendship, of humanity.” He steps back and turns away. “You must save him.”
“For me,” he whispers.
The only sound in the room is the crackle from the fireplace. I feel I should go. Find Raphael and get him out, somehow. No plan, no courage, but I take a deep breath and step towards the door.
The old man Ilurtibas blocks my way. He looks past my shoulder. “It’s more difficult for some, you know,” he says pensively. “Especially the boy . . . he isn’t used to seeing people. You’ve given him things to think about. Is that good? We will see. He is still dreaming. Just like you. As he gets older he will learn the meaning of duty, and it will chafe him like a pair of ill-fitting caligae, but it will also give him purpose. He will find tranquility in the daily watch, in the compiling of the historia.”
There is a note in his voice that makes me wish it was that simple for me. But my task is of a different order. “And you?” I ask.
He produces a sheet of parchment covered in diagrams and symbols. I recognise the layout of the castellum, but with a map of the city superimposed. The route to City Hall is outlined in red ink. A web of narrow tunnels is drawn between and underneath the prison cells. One of the cells is marked with a strange sigil.
The ink is still wet. I look up.
“Me?” He smiles. “My task is nearly done. I only have to make sure there’s a proper ending. As always.”
The map guides me along the threads woven between the cells. Unlike the first time I was here, I see where to go now. In some places the corridors are no broader than shoulder-width. Steep and narrow stairs sometimes make me stumble, almost spilling oil on the parchment. The architecture here seems to shift as I move through. I’m quite sure there are some passages I walk more than once. But when I round the last corner after one particularly twisted series of gangways, there he lies.
Somehow I have entered Raphael’s cell. I look around, feeling the edge of the opening through which I came in, to make sure I can find it again. Ilurtibas’s command of geometry is powerful but unstable.
Raphael lies curled up on his side, facing the wall. I kneel down and gingerly touch his shoulder. “Raphael, it’s me.”
Again it takes me several tries to coax a reaction out of him. When he turns his head and sees me, he closes his eyes. “They’ve got you too,” he whispers. “Gysbert, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. . . .”
“No! I’m here to rescue you. We’re going to leave. Can you get up?”
“There’s no leaving this place.” I can hardly hear his words, whispered into the filthy straw underneath his head. “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.”
“That’s the spirit. Quotes,” I say, joking to ward off his despair, and mine. I start hauling him upright. “Quotes all the way to Paradiso.”
“It’s too late. Listen!” He grabs my wrist. “Can’t you hear them?” He stares at me, his eyes wide open. I hear footsteps approaching in the corridor, muted voices, keys clinking.
No time to lose. “Come on. Now!” I pull his arm over my shoulder and slowly get to my feet, trying to support him at the same time.
A key in the lock. Before we reach the back wall the door swings open. An astonished silence. Then: “What in the name of . . . You! Stand still!”
Another voice: “What’s going on?”
We’ve almost reached the opening. I stretch out one arm to steady us against the wall. But there are swift footsteps behind me. Hands grab my shoulders and pull me back. Raphael slides to the ground. I thrust my free elbow backwards into the guard’s chest, and I hear a satisfying grunt. But before I can reach down to Raphael, something connects with the side of my head. There is a moment of blinding light.
I wake up to the sound of someone breathing heavily. A hard floor presses into my back. The small flame of an oil lamp throws flickering shadows against a rough, tuff-stone wall. I groan.
The heavy breathing ceases. “Awake?” Raphael’s voice.
I turn my head. He is sitting against the wall, his ruined legs in front of him.
“What happened?” I manage. “Where are we?”
Raphael looks at me. “He went back, Gysbert. After carrying us here. He went back. He didn’t need to, but he did.”
“Who?” I ask, though there can be only one answer.
“He appeared out of nowhere, some rift in the wall I’d never seen before. So strange.” He shakes his head. “Knocked them both down, then brought us here.”
Pain throbs in my head when I try to get up. I have to pause and squeeze my eyes shut when I’m sitting on one knee. “How do you feel?” I ask.
“Gysbert . . .” He looks up at me. “He wants me to take his place. Says history must be guarded. Says he shouldn’t have left his . . . his castellum, whatever that means.” His grin is painful. “Like a fairytale, eh? A life for a life. Balance must be maintained, all that. . . . As if there can be anything within Creation that is not in balance. Ethica says . . .” His voice fades to a mumble.
“Shh.” I push myself up the rest of the way. “Rest. I’ll be back for you.”
“But it’s useless. They’ll find us here.”
I see the oil lamp and the map lying next to it, neatly folded. “No, they won’t,” I say grimly. “You’ll be safe here. Sleep.” I grab the lamp and the map, and I start walking.
The early-morning canal service to Amsterdam is packed. Inside the horse-drawn boat no one pays attention to two hungover students, and we try our best to look the part, in our shabby clothes and rumpled hats. The sweet pipe smoke filling the cabin helps me relax and accept the uncertain new reality in which I suddenly find myself.
I don’t want to think beyond the next few hours. Handing Raphael the bottle of wine, I say, “We’ll be there around two. Might as well take our leisure.”
Raphael is still pale. He winces as he tries to arrange his legs more comfortably in his borrowed clothes, without causing the weals on his back to start bleeding again.
“What did Renswou say?” he asks.
The baron was none too pleased when I turned up on the doorstep of his townhouse that morning, demanding money and clothes in exchange for my silence about his scandalous behaviour. I feel sullied and ashamed by that bit of blackmail, but I also know Renswou will be the last one to get hurt.
“He told me the Dom Tower custos has been apprehended for disturbing the peace. The man is acting as an informer to save his own hide. There’ll be public prosecutions. But we’ll be safe in Amsterdam, for now.”
“No.” Raphael shakes his head. “No public prosecutions. Not in this God-fearing Protestant country. The peccatum mutum is the sin of Catholics and sybarites. Of the French, the Italians. They’ll never admit its existence in the Republic.”
The boat lurches. Raphael stifles a groan as his back shifts against the wooden boards.
“You could have stayed,” I say softly. “Regain your strength. Guard the labyrinth, like Ilurtibas asked.”
“I refuse that role,” he mutters vehemently. “Let it lie unguarded. I pray for the day when an enterprising antiquary puts his shovel in the ground to open up history as it should. Otherwise nobody will ever know which Utrechtenaar they killed last night. Or how many more they will kill.” He shivers. “They’ll make sure nobody remembers us, you know. They’ll burn our faces and bury us beneath the gallows. They told me that’s how they do it.” He pauses. “I pray for the day when anyone who even hears the word ‘Utrechtenaar’ will remember who they killed here.” Finally he glances at me. “Will Amsterdam really be safe?”
What is “safe”? Did Ilurtibas believe himself safe in his barracks? I think back to the tunnels, the damp darkness, the close corridors magnifying the sounds of my feet and my panting. I run and I run, my lamp unsteady in my hand, the shadows dancing wildly just ahead. When I reach the cell, it’s empty and the door is open. Am I too late? I search the rest of the dungeons, feeling like a ghost moving between the walls.
In the end I hear the execution chamber before I see it, and at first I don’t dare to look through the hole in the wall. Finally I swallow and force myself to peer into the low, vaulted room.
I have seen executions before, large theatrical performances full of pomp and ceremony in front of City Hall: the bewigged magistrates appearing in their black blood-robes with red sashes, the presentation of the rod of justice, bells tolling, and the announcement of the sentence. The minister leading a communal prayer, the family members wailing.
But this is a sober and secret affair. A rabbi is saying the last prayer of the Israelites. A comforter-of-the-sick stands shuffling his feet behind him, and several guards are positioned against pillars. One of the few seated spectators must be the bailiff. A bored executioner leans against the back wall. I have to crane my neck to see the garrote standing next to him, and the person sitting on its narrow plateau.
He is not wearing his regular tunic, but a simple shirt. His hands are bound, lying in his lap, his feet strapped to the post of his seat. He sits upright, the thick rope already coiled around his neck.
How can they not notice this is not their prisoner? I want to call out to them, to set Ilurtibas free . . . only to have them to go searching for Raphael again? I bite my lip and hit the wall with both fists.
The rabbi ends his prayer. The comforter, a layman clearly uneasy about the Jewish rites, steps to the front and asks loudly, “My son, for the sake of your immortal soul, do you repent from your hideous crime against God and nature?”
Ilurtibas stays silent. Then he looks straight at me. I press my forehead against the wall to look into his eyes, and I know he sees me. As the preparations draw to a close, I realise how presumptuous I am to think I could make his choice for him.
The executioner steps forward. Just before a black cloth is thrown over his head, Ilurtibas whispers two words at me. “Mi contubernalis.”
“My brother-in-arms,” I say, as I pat Raphael on his shoulder. Whatever I tell him now, he knows it will only be to reassure him. I gaze out of the cabin’s rear window across the water. The bubbles in the glass distort the silhouette of the Dom Tower receding in the distance, until I’m not sure if I’m seeing the tower, or just a gnarled dead tree trunk sticking up.