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Authors: Álvaro Enrigue

Sudden Death (4 page)

The Boleyn Balls

S
carcely had Jean Rombaud disembarked at Franciscopolis—such was the ridiculous name of the port of Le Havre until the death of King Francis I—before he began to spread the rumor that he was in possession of the darksome braids of Anne Boleyn and that he would make tennis balls with them that would at last gain him entry to the closed courts, where the nobility sweated through one shirt per game, five per set, and fifteen per match. He had always felt that his fresh-washed lion's mane gave him the right to hardwood and tile: to play for sport rather than money.

By the time the ball maker delivered the four most bewitching balls in the history of Europe, a multitude of buyers had approached Rombaud, offering prices out of all proportion to the size of his treasure: one hundred cows, a villa in Provence, two African slaves, six horses. He declined all invitations to discuss, except that of Philippe de Chabot, minister to the king.

To this negotiation he brought only the fourth ball, a bit smaller and more tightly wound than the others, which from the start he had decided to keep for himself as an amulet. He
brought it wrapped in a silk cloth, deep in his purse, which for greater security he had sewn into the lining of his cloak.

Chabot received him in his bedchamber as he was being dressed. It wasn't the first time they had met. Jean Rombaud had prepared a brief discourse that didn't skimp on the honeyed rhetoric of a sloe-eyed villain, and which progressed from pleading to blackmail. The minister didn't ask him to sit, nor did he allow him to make his case. He didn't even turn to look at him, focused as he was on his servants swaddling him in linens and velvets. What do you want for the balls of the heretic pig, he asked, staring intently at the point of his shoe. I've brought one with me as a sample, replied Rombaud, drawing it clumsily from his cloak. The minister brushed a wisp of cloth from his knee, ignoring the object that the executioner held out to him reverently from across the room. We are assured, said Chabot without turning to look at the ball, that they are authentic, because the ambassador of the king of Spain tried to secure the braids for his own conjurations and flew into a rage when he learned that the trophy was on its way to France. I want neither money nor possessions, said Rombaud. The minister lifted his palms in a gesture conveying both interrogation and exasperation. I want a modest title and a position in the royal court as master of fencing and tennis. It can be arranged, but first bring me the balls. I want the king himself to grant me both things; I want it to be in the presence of witnesses and I want him to look me in the eye. The minister glanced at him for the first time, raising his eyebrows in ironic puzzlement. The king is a little busy taking back Savoy, he said, but we'll call for you when he comes through Paris; the balls will make a nice treat for him;
bring them with you the day my messenger commands you to appear at the Louvre.

Seventy-three days later, Jean Rombaud was received by King Francis I in the Salon Bleu, which was crammed with members of the court, petitioners, and financiers. The future fencing and tennis master was wearing a pompous fitted costume that he'd had made for the occasion. For once in his life he was rid of his intolerable three-day beard, and he had combed his bejeweled hair into a tail that he thought was elegant—and in its grave-digger way, it was, though possibly too Spanish for the salons of the king of France.

He didn't have to wait long in courtyards or antechambers: the king sent for him shortly after he presented himself, and showed a scarcely regal impatience to see the Boleyn balls. Jean Rombaud wasn't allowed to deliver the lengthy address that he had prepared for this day either. Queen Eleanor approached to witness the great moment, trailing a train of ermine among the filthy boots of her husband's men. Francis I's eyes nearly glowed when he opened the carved wooden box that the mercenary had spent a fortune to have made—on credit, of course—and which had seemed magnificent at the inn where he lived but in the palace now looked small and paltry.

The king took one of the balls, weighed it with the calculation of a seasoned tennis player, squeezed it, and turned it in his hand. He pretended to toss it in the air and hit a serve with an imaginary racket. He felt the ball again, then discomfited his wife by putting his nose to it and inhaling deeply, revealing the urge—however remote—to lose himself in the braids that had been the downfall of King Henry and whose spell had snatched
England from the pope. Looking at Rombaud, he said at last: They say she was beautiful, yes? Even with a shorn head, Your Majesty, were the only words the poor man was able to speak to his king. Francis tossed the ball into the air and caught it gracefully. He looked out over the salon, cleared his throat as if to request the attention he always had, and said: The new fencing master is rather more handsome than I'd been told; he'll teach tennis at the court, too, so watch your daughters. The breath of polite laughter moved like a wave through the Salon Bleu. We grant him his request, said the king. He looked Rombaud in the eye: With privileges for life; we have spoken.

“In a New World and Land”

T
he fourth of October, 1599, was a sunny day in Rome. There's no evidence that Francisco de Quevedo was in the city on that particular day, but nor is there evidence that he was anywhere else. It is a fact that he did not occupy chair 58 in the solemn ceremony for the awarding of bachelor of arts degrees at the University of Alcalá de Henares, outside Madrid, where he certainly ought to have been.

The most often repeated theory regarding Quevedo's absence from his own graduation assumes that he was fleeing after a never-resolved murder—probably committed in Madrid—in which he played a part, along with his friend and protector Pedro Téllez Girón, Duke of Osuna and Marquis of Peñafiel.

Quevedo had met Girón many years earlier, when Francisco was a boy and Pedro a very young diplomat's apprentice in the service of the duke of Feria. Both were members of the extravagant delegation headed by the infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia, sent to the Estates-General of France to petition for the Crown of France. No crossing of the Pyrenees could have been more ridiculous, no convoy of high and low nobility more grotesque.

The man charged with presenting the infanta's impossible
candidacy was the duke of Feria. Pedro Téllez Girón—at the time only the marquis of Peñafiel, because his lackluster father was still alive—figured as his secretary. Francisco de Quevedo, aged eight, had come along because children traveled with their parents and he was the son of a lady-in-waiting to the infanta, present on the expedition. Quevedo's sister was there too; she was a child attendant, something like a lapdog.

What a crossing: carts bulging with items of a luxury smothering enough to enable the infanta to feel at home in any inn; carriages crammed with ladies in towering coiffures trailing lineages so lengthy that they spilled out the windows; the men ahead and on horseback, in breastplates trimmed with American gold as if to remind Paris that the world belonged to them, though Philip hadn't been as good as his father, Charles, at holding on to it; the children, and there must have been many, shoehorned in between chests and throwing clods and slabs of dirt at one another amid much hilarity. The purpose of this whole circus was to demand that the Estates-General crown Isabel Clara Eugenia, a thing that simply could not happen. France hadn't been governed by a woman since Salic law was adopted in 1316. Not to mention that the infanta was Spanish, left-handed, fat, a bit slow, chewed her fingernails, and picked her nose and ate it.

The list of personages who made the trip is preserved in the archives of the National Library of Spain, and Quevedo and Girón's names appear on it. There is also a travel log. In the diary of the secretary to the duke of Feria's mother, an entry made in Gerona dated June 27 laments that the delegation's delays and the inability of the poor infanta to command respect were
turning the convoy into a carnival. The secretary writes: “Girón, never in earnest, goes about everywhere with a little maggot who calls Her Majesty ‘La Elefanta.'” Who else could it be?

Girón and Quevedo met again many years later in Alcalá de Henares. Pedro Téllez Girón—by now duke of Osuna, a grandee of Spain—was, like his friend, a man of ready tongue and insatiable urges; a drunk and a brawler from first to last. A man who knew how to get himself into trouble—and out of it.

In the autumn of 1599 he was dogged by three trials. The first was a result of keeping company with the actress Jerónima de Salcedo, whom he had set up in his house in Alejos with her father and husband. Osuna got only a minor reprimand, but the actress and her family were sentenced to flogging, feathering, and parading, she for being a kept woman, her father for being a pimp, and her husband for being a cuckold.

Another trial, thornier this time, involved an uncle of Osuna's—a bastard son but an influential man—who had been his tutor. Juan de Ribera, Viceroy of Valencia, had accused this uncle of murdering his own wife and replacing her in the nuptial bed with a young page, with whom he apparently did the nefarious deed with scandalous enthusiasm and frequency.

Osuna's uncle and the page were garroted in the plaza and their bodies burned. Though it seemed that all Valencia could testify to their amours, Pedro Téllez Girón stood in his tutor's defense until the end and escaped unscathed, though he was sentenced to house arrest—where he must not have had such a bad time, because the actress and her family were still awaiting the conclusion of their own trial.

The third trial must have been by far the worst, because not
a single official record is left of the crime he committed with another scoundrel, who might have been Quevedo. During this trial Osuna was jailed in Arévalo Prison and then locked up in his house in Osuna under the strict watch of four bailiffs. Historians and assorted amateurs have put two and two together and surmised that the sin for which Girón ended up in Arévalo was the murder of one or more soldiers in a dispute over a racket game.

In his
Account of Occurrences in the Court of Spain
, the historian Luis Cabrera de Córdoba reports that on August 6, 1599, while under house arrest, Osuna asked for leave to go to Madrid to kiss the king's hand, and, “having been granted it, he used it to go to Seville, and even—it is said—to Naples, to indulge his urges.” It's more than likely that he brought along his comrade in revelry, who was also under house arrest at the time.

In Seville, Quevedo—his position vastly more precarious than Osuna's—must have tried to convince him that they should go to New Spain, like the narrator of
El Buscón
, an autobiographical novel he wrote soon afterward (though he never acknowledged authorship). “Seeing that this matter was of long duration,” says his protagonist, “and that ill fortune pursued me ever more adamantly, I determined to remove myself to the Indies, not because I had learned my lesson—I am not so level-headed—but out of weariness, as an inveterate sinner, in hopes that in a new world and land, my luck would improve.”

It's very likely that, once in Seville, they did travel on to the south of Italy—which was within the comfortable embrace of empire yet not within easy reach of the bailiffs of Philip III. At the time, the viceroy of Naples and the Two Sicilies was the
duke of Lerma, a close relative of Osuna's and protector of Quevedo's family. In the end—and this does show up in a number of documents—it was the wife of the viceroy of Naples, the duchess of Lerma, who obtained the royal pardon for the young Francisco, which allowed him eventually to receive his bachelor's degree and return to the halls of the university for a doctorate in jurisprudence and grammar.

There was no need for a royal pardon for Osuna. In the countries where Spanish is spoken, nothing ever happens to the bearers of great names, unless they entangle themselves with bearers of even greater names—and the poor slain soldiers were not that.

Neither the duke nor the poet was the sort to stay put: under the protection of the viceroy of Naples, they must have ranged farther. The allure of Rome at the turn of the seventeenth century was irresistible. No matter the day—October 4, 1599, included—anyone would have been better off in Rome than at a graduation ceremony.

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