The Astronomer

The Astronomer

by Lawrence Goldstone


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Paris, 1534. A student at the Catholic Collège de Montaigu, serving as a courier for the Inquisition, is murdered by members of an extreme Lutheran sect for the packet of letters he is carrying. His friend and fellow classmate Amaury de Faverges—the illegitimate son of the Duke of Savoy and an expert in astronomy and natural science—is recruited as his replacement and promised a decree of legitimacy if he can uncover the secret that threatens to overturn Catholicism and the reign of François I. Working undercover, Amaury journeys south to the liberal court of the king's sister, Marguerite of Navarre, the alleged heart of the conspiracy. The deeper he probes, the more Amaury is forced to confront his own religious doubts; and when he discovers a copy of Copernicus's shocking manuscript showing the sun at the center of the universe, he knows the path he must follow. Replete with characters and events from history—from the iconoclastic Rabelais to the burning of heretics in Paris to preacher John Calvin and Copernicus himself—The Astronomer is a powerful novel of love and betrayal, and a thrilling portrait of what might well have happened at a hinge point in history when science and ancient religious belief collided.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781681775517
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Publication date: 11/07/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Lawrence Goldstone began life on Wall Street and has now written over a dozen books. His latest is Drive!: Henry Ford, George Selden, and the Race to Invent the Auto Age. The first book in this series of innovation histories was Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies. He and his wife, author Nancy Goldstone, live in East Hampton, New York.

Read an Excerpt

The Astronomer

A Novel of Suspense
By Lawrence Goldstone


Copyright © 2010 Lawrence Goldstone
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8027-1986-7

Chapter One

Paris, La Ville. February 19, 1534

The gaunt man in the gray robes of a Franciscan friar walked the chill streets for most of the day, the coarse wool of his cloak bristling against his legs and his sandals echoing a soft clack-clack on the stone. He certainly looked the mendicant, all hollow cheeks, stubble, and deepset eyes, and thus experienced little difficulty in arousing the guilt of the many stylish Parisians who passed him by. As the late-winter sun dipped below the towers of the Louvre, Frère Jean-Marie, as he called himself, had taken in the princely sum of ten silver francs. He deposited the munificence in the boîte des pauvres, the poor box, in église des Celestins. The needy, after all, were the needy, even if they were Catholic.

When the last traces of daylight had vanished, the Franciscain ventured to rue des Bales to choose the most strategic location for his vigil. He had hoped to scrutinize the comings and goings from the safety of shadows, but the moon was full in a cloudless sky. At last he settled on a niche next to the doorway of a tavern at the bend of the street on the southern side. He was visible, but at least his features would remain indistinct in the reflected moonlight.

The Franciscain squatted, his back against the cold stone of the wall, and extended his begging bowl in front of him. The paving stones inclined downward from the buildings to form a crude drain at the center of the street. The smell of waste, both animal and human, permeated the air. After a few moments, his thighs began to burn. A lance of pain shot through his knees each time he shifted his weight. Five years before, when Frère Jean-Marie was not simply a nom de guerre, he had often remained in this position, without relief, for as long as eight hours. Such a fool he had been, he thought, begging for alms while the elders grew fat.

By reflex, his hand started to the tingling bare spot at the crown of his skull, the tonsure he had shaved the previous day. He quickly jerked it back. Followers of Saint Francis were inured to the tonsure. Rubbing might be a small thing, but small things were noticed. Even here, he might be the observed as well as the observer. Any misstep could mean betrayal to the Inquisition, and then imprisonment, torture, and slow roasting at the stake.

But he had chosen well. A steady flow of traffic to and from the tavern camouflaged what appeared to be just another of the Lord's beggars attempting to capitalize on the shame of Christians about to break the Commandments. In less than an hour, he noted with irony, four more coins had been dropped into his bowl.

Finally, on the opposite side of the street, the door to the shop opened. The boy who emerged appeared slight, fragile, as if he might be carried away by a gust of wind. The hose, short doublet, cape, and soft cap he was wearing hung on him, as though borrowed and not his own. The friar ran a hand across his cheek. He had not been told he would be following a child.

As the door closed, the boy glanced nervously up and down the street. After a moment, he stepped out gingerly, and then, gathering himself, turned left, away from where the friar had established his post.

The Franciscain left the coins from his bowl on the street lest they jingle in his cloak, then forced himself stiffly to his feet, taking care not to appear hurried. Measuring the distance between himself and the youth, he set off in the same direction, remaining on the opposite side of the street.

The boy proceeded apace but then stopped abruptly at the corner. He felt at his sides, seeming to have forgotten something. This gave him the excuse to turn about and check behind. The friar continued to walk up the road, his empty bowl extended to three revelers who were at that moment fortuitously heading for the tavern. Feeling the boy's eyes on him, Frère Jean-Marie stepped in front of the three and pushed the bowl aggressively at the man in the middle. The man was thickset and bearded, in the manner of King Francois, who was famous throughout France for his beard.

"For God's grace," the friar brayed, his bowl practically under the man's chin.

"God's grace, indeed," the bearded man replied angrily. His breath smelled of sausage and cheap wine. "A body cannot walk four paces in this city without one of you offering God's grace. As long as it's paid for, of course." The Franciscain did not move. "Oh, all right," the man sniffed, "here ..." He pulled a tiny coin from his purse. "God's grace will be cheap tonight," he grunted. He dropped the coin in the bowl and maneuvered around the friar as his friends did likewise.

Only after they had passed him did Frère Jean-Marie look up. The boy in the cape was gone.

Te friar was certain he would have noticed had the boy crossed the road to go left. Frère Jean-Marie hurried to the corner and looked to the right. Candlelight seeped from the windows, illuminating his quarry scurrying away in small, quick steps. The friar followed at a distance, staying close to the buildings to remain in shadow. The boy at first made a number of twists and turns onto side streets, glancing over his shoulder. But soon he straightened his route and ceased to look back.

It occurred to Frère Jean-Marie that the boy was feeling the same dread, the same intensity to have the episode done with as was he. The boy, he decided, had spent so much time exercising total vigilance that now, with completion so close at hand, he was desperate for these last few moments to pass. Desperation bred a need for speed. Speed bred carelessness.

The friar was thus able to close the distance between them as they neared le Monastère des Religieuses de Zion. He exploded in perspiration. His cloak clung to him, the cold, bristly wool prickling in a thousand places against his skin.

The boy picked up his pace. When he reached the corner of the ancient monastery, he spun on his heel and turned right on grand rue Saint-Denis.

The friar turned into an alley that would lead him to where he might intercept the boy. Just short of breaking into a run, Frère Jean-Marie reached the wide boulevard just before his quarry emerged from the shadows. He took a position that would require the boy to pass in front of him and extended his begging bowl.

The friar waited until the youth was almost upon him, and then said in Latin, softly but in a manner that would command attention, "Subsiste, frater! Halt, brother!" The youth froze. "Go no further, if you value your life." Then, in a louder voice, in French: "Sir, for God's grace ..." Frère Jean-Marie shoved his bowl under the boy's chin.

The youth remained rigid. He was dark haired, with just a sparse frill of whiskers; handsome but unformed, like a sculpture not quite finished. His eyes fixed on the figure of the friar before him. A quiver appeared on his upper lip.

Frère Jean-Marie kept his bowl extended, staring into the boy's eyes. The boy nodded finally and fumbled in his purse for some coins. When he leaned forward to place them in the bowl, the friar whispered sharply, again in Latin, "Tuproditus es": "You have been betrayed."

The boy's eyes flitted from side to side. His breathing was audible in the night air.

"I have been sent to help," Frère Jean-Marie whispered. "You will not reach your destination alive unless you come with me."

"Betrayed by whom?" The boy's voice squeaked, high-pitched.

"Philippe Sevrier," Frère Jean-Marie replied, blurting out the first name that came into his head. "A spy at the college."

"I don't know any Philippe Sevrier," the boy protested. He was frightened of heeding the friar and frightened of ignoring him.

"But he knows you," said the friar, getting quickly to his feet. "The meeting has been changed. I'm Frère Jean-Marie. I'm to take you by a safe route. You can give your communication then. You have it, yes?"

The boy patted his doublet. Frère Jean-Marie took one step back to the north. The boy did not move. This was the moment—would the boy give in to authority and follow or, because of suspicion, fear, or just ordinary stubbornness, refuse and continue along his original route? The youth teetered on the possibilities as the friar stood, his hand outstretched, as if offered to a drowning man.

I've lost him, the friar thought. But then, no. The boy strode after him.

"We must hurry," whispered Frère Jean-Marie as they moved east, away from the foot traffic. "Our enemies are near."

They passed into darkened streets. The friar felt a tug on his cloak.

"Where are we going?" the boy asked. "This is the wrong way."

"We are going to enclos du Temple," the friar said sharply, cocking his head in the direction of the complex that held the great fortress of the Knights Templar. Without waiting for a reply, the friar resumed walking. "Magister Ory himself awaits you."

"Magister Ory? At the Temple? Why?" The boy, having ceded prerogative, hustled along, whispering, as if to cement the conspiracy. "How did he find out?"

Frère Jean-Marie did not break stride. "The heretic dog Sévrier was persuaded to confess. It is lucky for you that he did." They had come to a small, narrow street. The friar turned in. "Quickly," he said, "in here. It leads directly to our destination."

The boy hesitated only a fraction of a second before following. Frère Jean-Marie had steeled himself for what had to come next, but nonetheless felt his heart beating so rapidly that it felt as though it would explode from his chest. I must do it, he thought. Now.

The friar spun. Before the boy could see the dagger that had been concealed in the sleeve of his cloak, Frère Jean-Marie had plunged it into his abdomen, just below the breastbone. The friar withdrew and struck again, in almost the same spot.

Blood, warm and syrupy, spread over the friar's hand and wrist. The boy, his eyes wide and uncomprehending, reeled back against the wall. He opened his mouth to cry out, but all that came forth was a soft gurgle. The boy shook his head feebly once or twice, then slid slowly to the ground. Within seconds, he was dead.

Frère Jean-Marie stared, partly in horror, partly in wonder, at what he had done. Then he glanced up and down the alley. There was no one, but exposure could come at any second. He reached frantically into the boy's doublet. There were the two sheaves wrapped in oilcloth. The smaller had been given to the boy at the shop. The larger contained the great secret, the discovery that would change Christianity forever.

The friar removed both packets. Blood covered the wrappers. They were sticky to the touch. The friar jammed the parcels into his sleeve where the dagger had been. He stood and checked once more to the left and right. Still no one. No sound. He had the vague feeling of having forgotten something, but could not think what. The friar stuffed his gore-soaked right hand into his left sleeve and walked quickly from the alley in the opposite direction from the way he had entered. If he could make it to the street, he would be safe.

At the end of the alley, he peered out. God was with him. The road was deserted. He stepped out and made his way north. A huge breath escaped him as he passed into Saint-Antoine. He could leave this filthy city in safety. He had passed his mission unobserved.

Or so he thought.

Chapter Two

Universite de Paris, College deMontaigu, February 20,1534

Amaury de Faverges grasped the icy metal door handle and then leaned gently against the cracked, pitted wood. A squeal of rusted hinges could betray him as quickly as a sentry. Flogging and a month in isolation on prayer, bread, and water in a bleak, airless, unheated cell would follow. But God was with him and the door gave way. Slowly and silently, Amaury pushed it open just wide enough to squeeze through. He had been dubious when Bernard, by all appearances nothing more than an amiable half-wit, had been recommended as an utterly reliable accomplice. But Giles had been correct. If Bernard was paid to see that a lock was disengaged at two hours after midnight, disengaged it would be. Four months and Bernard had not failed him once.

Amaury stepped inside and peered about. No one. He swung the door shut, set the bolt, then padded to the archway that led to the sleeping quarters. Amaury opened the sixth door on the right, again unlocked, with hinges he had greased himself. Only when the door closed behind him did he breathe easy.

He surveyed the cubicle that had been his home for nine years, sighed, and flopped down on the straw bed, poked and prodded by errant shafts. There would be scant time to sleep before he was required at morning prayers.

To put himself in such peril, he thought. Simply to read a book.

Two hours later, Amaury stood in the same dank archway. This time he held a hooded candle in front of him. His empty belly roiled and his eyelids throbbed. But there would be no food for seven hours and no sleep for fifteen. He would spend this day like every other day, in prayer and endless disputation. If his eyelids drooped, even for a few seconds, the leather straps would crack across his back.

The moon had vanished, replaced by a cold late-winter rain—pleut de Paris. Students abhorred the demi-saison—too warm for the ground to freeze, but sufficiently cold for the mud to feel like ice when it oozed over the soles of their sandals. The chapel was easily reached through the passageways, but the college doctors, the magisters, had decreed that inclement weather was God's will. Students were therefore required to walk across the open courtyard. The magisters, of course, kept under shelter.

Amaury suddenly felt a wave of dizziness and grasped the wall for support. Oh, God. To be back outside these walls, in his tiny rented room, exploring the wonders of the heavens—Aristotle's logical formulations and Ptolemy's inspired description of the Lord's astral creations moving around the Earth, embedded in imperceptible spheres. Or pondering the German physician Paracelsus's notion that disease was caused not by imbalance in the humors but by outside agents. Perhaps even to be able to observe a dissection at the school of medicine, where a new theory of human anatomy seemed poised to overthrow a millennium of ignorance.

But instead, Amaury de Faverges languished at College de Montaigu. Where learning was beaten in. How could anyone suppose that true education was attained through pain, deprivation, and forced devotion? That intimidation and abuse brought one closer to God? Yet that was most certainly what the Church fathers did believe. For they had chosen Montaigu, one of the smallest of the forty-two colleges that comprised the University of Paris, to be perhaps the most important center of ecclesiastical education in the Christian world.

Amaury gazed about. The very setting doused illusions of learning. Montaigu was housed in a squalid, centuries-old, three-story stone quadrangle erected around a miasmic courtyard. Green moss covered the roof, giving the configuration the feel of some great bog. The entrance was on rue Saint-Symphorien, a narrow, refuse-strewn thoroughfare also called rue des Chiens—the Street of Dogs. When Amaury arrived to begin his studies nine years before, he had been forced to pick his way along this open sewer to reach the main gate. Once inside, the stink of rot and human waste that covered the college like a shroud hit him full on, but the students scurrying in their hooded robes between the chapel, their bare stone rooms, and the grim classrooms seemed impervious. Amaury had learned to wear the same mask, but was never unaware of his misery.

But while dismal sobriety was prerequisite within the walls, outside they snickered. The great wit and scholar Erasmus, who had fled after a single year as a student here, described Montaigu as a "filthy, bleak barrack, clotted with dirt and reeking of the foulest smells." Rabelais called it Collège de pouillerie—college of filth. But for once, neither Erasmus nor Rabelais had been able to outdo ordinary Parisians. On the streets of the city, Montaigu was commonly known as "the very cleft between the buttocks of Mother Teology."

Crushed in that cleft, Amaury toiled, enduring beatings, feculence, lice, deprivation of sleep, terrible food, and trivial disputations. All to attain a position of "honor." To become one of the doctors himself, a magister in theologia. To wipe away the stain of his birth.


Excerpted from The Astronomer by Lawrence Goldstone Copyright © 2010 by Lawrence Goldstone. Excerpted by permission of WALKER & COMPANY. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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