Chapter One of The Last Crusader: A Novel about Don Juan of Austria | Louis de Wohl | Ignatius Insight | Part One | Part Two
Prevost carefully folded the document and returned it to his pocket. Only then did he look up. "I trust this will suffice to establish my identity and the purpose of my visit to you. Where is the boy, Señora Massy?"
"He ... he'll be home soon", stammered the woman. "It'll be time for his evening meal." She gulped. "You have come ... to inquire about his progress?"
There was little hope in her voice. When the blow fell, it was no more than the confirmation of her fears .
"I have come to take him with me. What he must learn now, he cannot learn here."
Ana Massy began to cry softly. The old priest patted her shoulder. His hand, crippled and deformed by arthritis, was like that of a mummy.
Prevost produced a small silk bag. "I've brought another year's payment in recognition of your services", he said not unkindly. "Fifty ducats."
Her eyes lit up. "So you won't take him away at once, señor—you will leave him with me for a time . . . a little time ... "
"No, señora. He must leave today."
She pushed the bag away. "I don't want your gold." She turned away. "He's been ... like a son to me. It would be like ... selling him."
"Selling him?" Prevost was outraged.
"He's all I have left", she said in a trembling voice. "My husband—"
"I heard about your loss", Prevost interposed quickly.
"The good padre told me. I am sorry to have to add to your troubles, but I am under orders—we're all under orders."
Even now she would not accept defeat. "Surely, if his father could do without him all these years, it should not matter to him so very much if the boy stays a little longer with me."
Prevost rose majestically. His enormous, obese figure seemed to fill the room. "Señora Massy, you do not realize your position. Adrian de Bues is a personal servant of the Emperor and my mission has been entrusted to me by the puissant Don Luiz Mendez Quixada himself, Majordomo of His Imperial Majesty. You will not presume, I trust, to resist his explicit orders."
This time she gave in completely, with a fluttering, helpless gesture of both hands, and Prevost, not unaffected by her misery, took out his handkerchief and blew his nose. "Come, come, my good woman—it's only for the boy's good. Where is he?"
"Jerome is just behind you, señor", stammered the woman. "He slipped in a moment ago."
Prevost turned round. Seven or eight years old. Fair-haired. Blue eyes. The "Christian" leader, carrying a little harquebus.
Prevost realized that he had suspected it all the time: a boy of seven or eight—leading all the others, some of them years older and twice as strong. He smiled.
"I have come to take you with me on a journey."
The boy looked at him from unblinking eyes. "I won the battle", he said. "Did you see me win the battle?"
"Good", said the boy. "I will come with you on the journey, but first I must eat. I am hungry."
If Prevost was amused, he did not show it. He stalked to the door, opened it, and barked orders. The groom and one of the outriders appeared with tablecloth, linen napkins, silver, and a well-filled hamper. Prevost supervised the laying of the table and then turned once more to the boy.
"The meal is served" , he announced.
The boy sat down and began to eat, as if a roast partridge, white bread, and delicious honey cakes had been his daily fare for years. But after a bite or two he asked: "Is Señora Massy not going to eat?"
Ana Massy started crying again, and at once the boy got up and walked over to her. "He said it was for my good, didn't he?" he asked. "Why do you cry then?"
"It's all right", sobbed the woman. "Qu—quite all right, Jerome. Just eat your nice food."
He obeyed without too much eagerness. Prevost carved the partridge for him with experienced hands and later changed the plates. When the boy had finished, Prevost sent the groom with silver and linen back to the carriage.
"Now we must leave", he announced quietly.
The boy nodded. Ana Massy rushed up to him and threw her arms around him. "Jerome, my sweet little Jerome ... "
He was embarrassed, but he was moved, too. There were tears in the blue eyes. He kissed the woman's cheeks and he bowed to receive Padre Vela's blessing. Then he picked up his harquebus.
"No need to take anything with you." Prevost smiled. But Jerome marched on with his harquebus. When they emerged from the house, the street was packed with people. The whole village had assembled.
Jerome went up to a boy almost a head taller than he and pressed the harquebus into his hands. "Take it", he said with great dignity. "It shoots fairly straight, but you must allow for the wind, of course."
The leader of the "Moors" stood fingering the weapon. He muttered his thanks and received a quick smile in exchange. Then the boy stepped into the carriage and Prevost followed him. The groom closed the door with a bang and rushed round to take his place beside the coachman. The whip cut through the air and with a jerk the carriage began to move, followed at once by both "Christians" and "Moors" in noisy unity.
Ana Massy rushed out of the house in a frenzy, her hair disheveled. "My son! Jerome ... Jerome ... my son... "
Some of the villagers laughed, but many looked at her with compassion. The old priest caught up with her. "Control yourself, my daughter", he murmured. "He is not your son. Do not persuade yourself that he is; it will do you no good."
She pushed the hair out of her face. "You're right, Padre Vela. He isn't my son. He never was. I am just a foolish woman. But, mark my words: he isn't the son of Adrian de Bues either."
Padre Vela stared at her. "What do you mean?"
She laughed hysterically. "Don't pretend, good Father. You've seen the way that man treated him—with respect, with more than respect—with deference. Jerome isn't the son of Adrian de Bues, the son of a lackey. Shall I tell you who I think he is?"
The old man was afraid now. "Don't shout, my daughter. People will hear you and ..."
"I don't care." But she dropped her voice. "He is no ordinary boy, Padre. I think he is the son of a great nobleman—and from what Señor Prevost said today, I think he is the son of Don Luiz Mendez Quixada himself."
"You have no right to accuse anyone." For the first time the voice of the old priest sounded firm and strong. "Whoever the boy's father was, he was first and foremost a sinner and needs God's mercy."
The carriage had left the village behind and was rumbling down toward the plain.
Prevost looked at the boy who was sitting beside him, erect, silent, with great, luminous eyes. "You don't seem surprised about the turn your life has taken."
"No!" Prevost frowned. "What do you know about your birth?"
Prevost tried again. "How is it that you are not surprised?"
The boy looked straight ahead. "I always knew this would happen one day."
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Louis de Wohl (1903-1961) was a distinguished and internationally respected Catholic writer whose books on Catholic saints were bestsellers worldwide. He wrote over fifty books; sixteen of those books were made into films. Pope John XXIII conferred on him the title of Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great.
Read de Wohl's thoughts about being a Catholic and a novelist.
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