Liss / THE DAY OF ATONEMENT
I am not a kind person. That much, I believe, I have established in the previous account of enraged rival-pummeling. If I am a monster, however, then I am monster made, not born.
Indeed, I was made by men such as the priest who stood before me.
A man might live in London all his life, might upon a daily basis risk encounters with cutpurses and toughs, renegados who would slit a stranger’s throat for no reason but the thrill of murder, and for all that never cross paths with anyone as dangerous as a Portuguese priest. Here was the real devil.
Standing in the gloom on the Falmouth packet ship, I watched his movements, the half-laugh and calculated smile as he peered through my cabin door. The priest’s expression revealed nothing, for deception was the way of his kind, as natural to him as lying down at day’s end is to you. But it could be my way too. I had not come to Lisbon to kill this particular priest, but I would kill him all the same if the need arose and not regret it. I’d never killed anyone in my life, but I knew I could. Refraining from murder, not the murder itself, had always been the difficult part.
The priest was not five feet in height, and so plump that he looked like a ball for a child’s fairground game. His eyes were wide and bloodshot; his nose large and red from, I supposed, a healthy appreciation of Portuguese wine; and his ears comically massive and hairy. It was impossible to conceive of a countenance less threatening than that of this stunted man with his fleshy fingers, thick as carrot stubs, wiggling as though he played upon an invisible pianoforte. The priest’s masters had chosen him for his task precisely because he seemed harmless and bumbling, the very thing to soften the Englishman’s fear of papists, a mistrust bred into his roast-beef heart since the days of Bloody Mary.
The ship upon which I had arrived had been at anchor only a few hours now, and it was necessary to undergo this little dance with the priest before I could set foot on dry land. I made no complaint. I was not yet ready to leave, though I had watched from the deck as we approached the City of Seven Hills, as Lisbon styled itself. (The claim, of course, was rubbish. There were far more than seven hills, but the great men of the capital liked to shave off a few insignificant mounds of earth, all the better to suggest a similarity to imperial Rome. Rather like suggesting a monkey resembles a lion because they both have tails, but of the city’s many crimes, an inclination to boast was among the more forgivable.)
First the packet had anchored by the stout watchtower at Belém so the health inspector might take a cursory tour through the small ship, looking into our eyes and mouths, making certain we were not spotted or vomiting or covered with boils. There we had been treated to a bit of theater. Act I: the health inspector finds much in the crew’s appearance to alarm him—sallow complexions, coughing here and there, some alarming smells from the chamber pots. These sailors, he concludes, must never be allowed to spread their contagion ashore. Act II: The captain presses into the inspector’s hands a purse bursting with silver. Act III: The inspector, upon closer examination, decides that the crew is healthy indeed, and the packet is given permission to continue. The curtain falls, and all applaud.
As we continued on our way, I had watched as the distant palaces and monasteries and cathedrals glittered into view. Then, as we had moved east into the Tagus, came my first glimpse of the white stone and blue tiles and red terracotta roofs. There were the clusters of poor hovels in the Baixa and the Alfama. There were the flashes of green from the juniper and Mediterranean oaks and olive and lemon trees. There was the distant sound of a thousand churches ringing their bells at once.
The August sun had warmed my face as the ship sliced through the sapphire water toward this city, so strange and so familiar. In my memory, Lisbon was a place of looming dusk, its sky forever domed by sooty clouds. It was a land cast in gloom eternal, where shadows had more substance than men. Now the sunlight and the swirl of color, the indifferent beauty of the city and the sea, struck me as a species of mockery, one more deception from Lisbon’s endless supply. That was well enough. This time, I had a few deceptions of my own.
Even for the wary, a category that describes nearly every Englishman who arrives in Portugal, the city exuded its charms. Lisbon had seduced its share of pinch-faced and scornful Anglicans, come to spend a year or two, but who remained for as many decades. Poverty and despair and injustice were hidden from this distance. They were not on the skin of the beast, but in its lifeblood, flowing through secret channels and arteries, so that from the Tagus the eye fell only upon beauty paid for with Brazilian gold and diamonds. Domes and towers and arches jutted forth to announce that here was greatness, here was power. This was the story the Portuguese liked to tell themselves. If they spoke the words often enough, perhaps they could shout down the truth.
These last brooding thoughts I had indulged in from my cabin. I had already seen enough of Lisbon at a distance that morning, and I was not yet ready to return to the place I had lived for the first thirteen years of my life. Lisbon had been my home and my cruel master. Lisbon had taken my parents and stolen from me my friends. Now, I would soon walk its streets. I wished I had not hidden away Gabriela’s scarf, saved all these years, for I wanted to hold it. That ragged bit of cloth had become the sole monument to all I had lost, and I thought it would, at the very least, fire my determination.
The priest was but the first test, the first coin to deposit at a long and ever greedier series of tollhouses. He had appeared outside my open cabin door in his black coat and white cravat, grinning cheerfully and knocking with a lively flick of the wrist as though he were an old friend come to call. I turned to face him, and it was at that moment that I truly understood, perhaps for the first time, that I had placed myself in an impossibly dangerous situation. This thought cheered me.
“Now then, you must be Sebastian Foxx,” the priest said in native English. His voice contained only warmth. Like his appearance, it was meant to announce that this was a harmless man, jolly and good-hearted, no one to fear. This was no agent of a corrupt and degenerate institution, its maw set on devouring good Protestants and shitting out papist turds. No, no, he was just a jolly fat man, and who doesn’t love one of those?
“I am Foxx.” I stooped slightly as I spoke, for I am tall, and the cabin’s ceiling was low enough to brush my wig. A typical Englishman, on his way to Lisbon to engage in trade, might think of the cabin as a prison cell, and the beckoning city outside as freedom. I knew the precise opposite to be true.
The priest stepped into the gloomy chamber and reached out to take my hand, which he clasped with familiar warmth. His skin was sweaty and not at all pleasant to the touch. I wished I had put on my gloves. I would make a point never again to touch a priest without them.
“I am delighted to meet all newly arrived Englishmen,” he assured me, “but as you are the only one on this packet, today I am especially delighted to meet you. You have rescued me from a very dull afternoon.”
I had seen priests in London—many of them and regularly—though these were generally of the Church of England. From time to time I had also spied clerics of the Romish church, but upon English soil such men were utterly impotent, deprived of rights and privileges, and more despised than Jews. They were frightened, skittish things, prone at any time to be struck with dead rats hurled by gleeful children raised not to understand entirely the difference between a Catholic priest and Satan. Here, in Portugal, it was another matter. This affable man could have anyone he pleased arrested upon suspicion of any crime, or, if he chose, no crime at all. A stranger upon the street whom the priest cared mark with a jab of his thick finger would find himself clapped in chains and dragged to the dungeons of the Palace of the Inquisition. The Inquisitions of France and Italy, even the notorious Inquisition of Spain—they were all dead or toothless. In Portugal, the Inquisition continued unabated, deadly and pervasive and merciless.
I laughed nervously, for I did not wish to appear at my ease. My long apprenticeship under the great thief taker, Benjamin Weaver, had given me many skills. Most of them could be best witnessed as I thrashed a defenseless man in a London alley, but there were skills of a subtler nature too. For example, I knew how to pretend to be someone I was not, and this was more than simply making claims about oneself. A man’s nature was conveyed by a thousand means, by movements of hands and eyes and mouth, by how he stood or sat, by what he looked at and looked like. I little doubted my ability to make the priest believe I was what I wished him to see.
I returned the priest’s handshake, though my hand threatened to slip from his well-greased grip. “I very much doubt I shall relieve you from dullness, for I’ve little to say that will prove entertaining.”
“That’s where you are wrong, my son,” the priest said. “I love nothing above meeting new gentlemen.” Then he released my hand, and I was glad of it.
I invited the priest to sit in one of the rough wooden chairs bolted to the floor. The vessel had not been built for the comfort of its passengers. The packet’s chief purpose was to convey goods and mail from Lisbon to Falmouth and back again on behalf of the English Factory. Sometimes the packet carried many voyagers, sometimes but one or two, and none of these enjoyed any particular luxury. My cabin contained only two chairs, a table, a bed, and a trunk for storing a few articles of clothing. When upon the seas, it was near impossible to move without knocking into the furnishings, and my shins bore bruises from unsteady efforts to dress or use the privy.
“Now then. Sebastian Foxx,” the priest said, consulting a little book full of notes written in a dense hand, each stroke neat and fully articulated. “This is your first voyage to Lisbon, I see.”
I said nothing for several long seconds as I scratched at crystallized salt upon the splintering arm of my chair. It was something an anxious man might do. Indeed, it was something I ought to do in earnest, for what I planned to do was madness. I ought to be terribly anxious.
“Forgive me,” I said, affecting mild embarrassment. “I was surprised to hear you are an Englishman, or you speak as one at the very least.”
“Henry Winston, originally of Marylebone,” the little man said with an easy smile and a new round of spasmodic finger wiggling. “And now I am here, in Lisbon. It is the place for an Englishman of my religion.”
“It is what I have heard. Indeed, I ought not to be surprised to meet you, but it is one thing to be told there are English priests in Lisbon and quite another to encounter one.”
“Most Englishmen regard my religion as a form of plague,” said Winston. “They do not wish to get too close for fear I shall infect them with my Romishness.” His laugh sounded decidedly practiced.
“It seems foolish to recoil from Catholics in Lisbon,” I noted, like a man trying to ingratiate himself. “They are everywhere. Or so I am made to understand.”
“It is a devout city, and with no small share of priests, true enough. And we must do our duty.” The ship pitched a bit upon a wave, and Winston lashed out to take hold of his chair. He looked positively abashed an instant later. “You must think little of me, but even anchored upon the river, I do not much care for the feel of a ship upon the water.”
It was admittedly a bit choppy, but I had grown used to movement of the seas. The weather had been much rougher on the passage from Falmouth. Once we had come upon a summer storm and there had been general fear of foundering. Ill content to cower in my cabin and hope we remained afloat, I had joined with the sailors in securing the deck. While my attention had been fixed upon loose riggings that whipped around with strength enough to snap a man’s bones, a great wave had collided with the ship, sweeping torrents of blood-warm water across the deck. I had grabbed a rope an instant before the water slammed into me, blasting my body twenty feet into the air. The wind screamed in my ears. Lightning flashed, illuminating the frantic efforts of the seamen below. For a moment I was aloft, flapping like a standard. It seemed I might be up there forever or might as easily let go, losing myself in the tempest, merging with it, not in truth dying, but simply changing form to wind and rain and lightning. My hands were raw, and bursts of light illuminated the bloodstained rope. I could not hold on much longer, so perhaps I should choose the moment rather than leaving it to uncaring chance. Was there not some merit in making the decision myself? Was there not honor in surrendering to the elements?
Then, for no more than a heartbeat, the wind paused, and I fell, colliding against the wet wood of the deck. I was briefly insensible, but I soon awoke with a dull ache down one side of my body and the taste of blood in my mouth, my hands stinging. The pain was nothing but distant noise compared to the spiteful satisfaction of knowing the wave and the wind were gone, and I yet remained.
To the priest I said, “In time, a man grows used to the waves.”
“I am not a sailing man. I made the voyage here once, and shall never return.”
I nodded slowly, showing the priest the unease and caution he would expect, and then a bit more beside. About now he would begin to suspect that I had something to hide. I would appear to do my best to make conversation, but not chat easily. I would affect comfort, but my actions would betray a man unskilled at keeping secrets. If he was a perceptive fellow, and they would have no other kind in this role, he would see it all.
He clapped his hands together. “To business then. Portugal is a Roman Catholic kingdom, as you are aware. The open practice of other religions is not tolerated. You may not bring Protestant prayer books or Bibles into the country. You may not discuss your religion with anyone not already a declared Protestant, and then only within a private residence, and never upon the streets or within a public building. You must show respect for all members of the Church, all processionals and displays of faith, even when they are not led by a representative of the Church. Failure to do so will be to invite the attention of the Inquisition, which you wish to avoid. The Inquisition has the power to arrest anyone on Portuguese soil for any reason it may choose. Being English or wealthy offers no immunity if you are guilty of heresy.”
I knew all of this very well, but did not, of course, indicate the depth of my understanding. Instead I told him that the captain had explained these details previously.
The priest then smiled, perhaps to soften his message. “It is by no means a difficult thing for an Englishman to spend his time here unmolested by the Inquisition, but respect for our ways and a willingness to be forthcoming are necessary. So, to begin, you must tell me why you have come to Lisbon.”
“I am to engage in business,” I answered, letting the prepared lie roll off my tongue, savoring this first course. “I have come into an inheritance and now wish to establish myself as a factor, perhaps to work my way into the Factory.”
“A young man like you, so very industrious. I am made to understand you are but three and twenty, but you conduct yourself as a man older and wiser. I admire that, sir. Tell me the truth. Have you brought any illegal books here, Mr. Foxx?”
“Certainly not,” I said. The discomfort in my voice was feigned and had nothing to do with the illegal book I had indeed brought with me. The volume I had hidden away was, in fact, far more shocking than anything the priest might suppose me to own.
The priest leaned forward and smiled, perhaps warmly, perhaps malevolently. It was hard to say. “You are certain?”
“I have no wish to begin my career in Lisbon by running afoul of the law,” I assured him.
The priest leaned back and studied me with the particular attention of a man well practiced at detecting liars. He squinted slightly as he examined my face. For in my dark eyes and strong features, I believe Winston recognized something not entirely English, something strangely familiar. “I know how attached the English can be to their sacred books. We will, of course, search your possessions.”
I did not doubt it. It was why I had not chanced bringing a wide array of weapons with me and had come on the ship unarmed but for a single blade. One dagger of sentimental value would raise no suspicions. Of course, I would have to procure more blades, and perhaps firearms as well. Some grenados, if I could find them, might come in handy. If not, a few barrels of gunpowder could be of service. I was not quite sure what I would need, but it would be better to have more than I required than less. I’d been known to enjoy making things explode from time to time, and what better place than this to indulge? I would rather level the entire city than let the man I sought escape.
“Come, sir,” the priest continued. “It is wise to tell us now, for possessing illegal books is not a crime while you are still on the ship.”
Having lost myself in a reverie of gunpowder, I returned my attention to the priest’s concern about the rather less explosive power of the Book of Common Prayer. “I chose not to bring what I could not keep.”
“I will take you at your word, sir, for the time being. Tell me, what is your religion? Are you Church of England, or a member of one of the colorful dissenting sects?”
I did not answer, and this time my hesitation was genuine. I had prepared my response, practiced it in the silence of my cabin every day since leaving England. It was the first step down a path that, even now, I was not certain I wished to take. I might still retreat. I might choose a safer, less permanent course, but then the image came to my mind again. The man in the alley, Mr. Nunes, his face distorted in pain, his head knocked hard against stone, his eyes wide with terror at this beast that had set upon him. Behind him, Leonora DeCosta, witness to it all.
That memory had brought me this far, and it would take me along the rest of this journey. There were but two options before me now. I could remain the thing I had become, or I could cleanse myself in the very fires that had forged me. If I but said the words, I would inevitably draw out the man I wanted—the man who was said to loathe Englishmen above all else. Pedro Azinheiro. I depended upon my recollection of the man, that he could not resist the bait I was prepared to dangle.
The priest attempted to put me at my ease. “You are in no danger. We do not expect Englishmen to share our views—at first, at any rate. Ha-ha! You need only answer the question.”
I remained silent. Winston must work for his answer so that when he received the gift, it would be all the more believable.
The priest leaned forward until his face was close to mine. His breath smelled of onions and fish, and his body reeked of old sweat. “I am beginning to lose my patience, sir.”
I wanted him to stoke the fires of his expectation, to create the tension of the unfulfilled, the way a good playwright makes the audience long for the murder or the marriage that is all but inevitable. When I said the words, it would be like uttering an enchantment in a child’s story. Portals to other worlds would open. The gate to hell itself would swing wide.
My voice was hardly more than a whisper as I spoke the lie. “I am a Roman Catholic.”
The priest said nothing for a long moment. He stared as though looking at something impossible, a prodigy or a vision. He worked his lips like a man doing sums in his head. Then, at last, he stood and walked over to the cabin door with deliberate steps. Pressing the door closed, he turned back to me. The room was now considerably gloomier, and it filled rapidly with the priest’s unwashed odor. “It says in my account that you are a member of the national church. We ask as a matter of form, but we know things, Mr. Foxx. We always know. Why do we not know this?”
I closed my eyes for an instant too long for it to be a blink. “I have deceived people all my life.” I sighed and lowered my gaze. “A man of the Roman church can get nowhere in England. My parents were very careful to hide their religion, that we might cleave to the Church and yet not suffer for it. I came here to Lisbon in an attempt to establish myself in trade, but I will fail before I can begin if my countrymen discover my true religion. You must know that.”
“And yet you tell me the truth?” the priest said.
“I do not wish to lie to a priest,” I said. “That would be a sin.”
“A terrible sin,” he agreed. Nevertheless, his voice remained skeptical. He was like a man who finds a diamond in a dung heap. He cannot believe his good fortune, and so he tries, again and again, to prove the diamond nothing more than a piece of glass.
“Convince me,” said the priest, his words now hard and clipped. “Say the Ave Maria.”
I did. Upon command I also said the Paternoster and the Anima Christi. The words were ashes in my mouth, but I spoke them from rote. I had, after all, spent my first thirteen years a faithful adherent of the Church. His faith had been my own.
The priest walked to the door of the cabin and then back again. It was but a few steps, but he was too full of energy to remain still. “You need not worry. You may be sure we know how to value our friends.” The air of jollity had returned.
“I am glad to hear you say so.” I removed a handkerchief from my pocket and began to wipe my brow.
“And,” said the priest, “our friends must know how to value us.”
The priest’s meaning was clear. An Englishman, secretly Catholic, within the circle of the Factory—this was a prize the Inquisition must claim.
“I seek only to engage in trade,” I told him, still wiping at my forehead, my nose, even running the handkerchief under my wig, moving it askew so I looked disordered and, I felt sure, slightly deranged. More importantly, I looked vulnerable. “I have no desire to be caught in intrigues.”
“No intrigues,” the priest said. “Certainly not. Never an intrigue. We would never do anything to harm the prospects of a gentleman if he is of use to us.” The priest nodded as he spoke, as if urging me to agree. “I shall report what I know to my superiors, and you must understand the flow of power here in Portugal. Priests and Englishmen talk, and if the wrong man whispers in the wrong ear, secrets might be difficult to contain. If, on the other hand, you were to declare your willingness to aid the Church, that would be a different thing entirely. A favor done for the Church now and again could help you rise quite rapidly, I assure you.”
I stared ahead blankly, like a man who had wandered mistakenly into a forest darker and more tangled than he had imagined. I allowed nothing of my real thoughts to show, but I considered how this news would move through certain channels in the Palace of the Inquisition. The Inquisitors would whisper and wonder and speculate how this new Englishman might be of use. One priest would speak of it to another until the news came to the man I sought, and he would look up. His eyes would grow wide. He would smirk, never suspecting that it was a trap that scented the air.
Only a few hours in Lisbon, without even setting foot on land, and I had set things in motion. These people—my enemies—already danced upon my string. Unless I dangled upon their rope. That was also a possibility.
I put my face in my hands as though I were overwhelmed, confused, full of regret. Only three and twenty, and I was in waters well out of my depth! I knew not what to do, and wished—oh, how I wished—someone would save me! “Might we not forget this conversation ever took place?” I begged.
“That cannot happen,” the priest told me as he opened the cabin door. Halfway out, he turned back. “Go about your business. You will be contacted when it is convenient, but until that time you may take comfort in the knowledge that you will have the blessing of the Church.” Then he closed the door behind him with dramatic finality.
With the priest gone, I let my false expression fall away, a burnt egg sliding from a pan. I was now in danger, and I welcomed it. The expectation thrummed through me. My skin tingled with the thought of it. All those priests and Inquisitors swarming about me, looking to squeeze me like a lemon, filled me with eagerness and a kind of calm expectation and, indeed, gratitude.
Gratitude, I decided, was most appropriate. Keeping my voice just above a whisper, I spoke the words of the Shehecheyanu, the ancient prayer of thankfulness at auspicious times. In London, I had become a Jew in truth, converting, learning the ancient rites of my people. I had not done so out of devotion, but out of defiance. Always, in the back of my mind, I had dreamed of this moment, when I would do what had been forbidden to my ancestors and forgotten by my parents. How long, I wondered, since Hebrew had been spoken aloud in Lisbon? Perhaps this was the first time in twenty or thirty or forty years. What ghosts did I raise with these words breathed into the musty darkness? The act of defiance, secret and small though it was, pleased me.
Lisbon was the last place upon the whole of the earth I should be, but here I was, and there was no undoing what I had set in motion. I began to gather my things in preparation to leave. There was nothing to do now but to remove myself from the protection of Englishmen and find my way in a city full of villains. They had tried to destroy me once, and they would certainly attempt to do so again. Let them make their best effort. The priests and the Inquisitors, the factors and the traders—they would all discover the man to be much more dangerous than the boy. This time the schemes and the plots and the secrets were mine.