Pro Deo

Chapter 1

Margriete woke in the freezing darkness to hear a sound like rushing water, as if the canal were flooding. For a moment she thought the rain had started again, and then the sounds resolved themselves into shouts. The roar got louder, and she could pick out the low shuffle of feet, and the high shouts, and an occasional thud of stone on stone. Blasted young fools disturbing decent people, Margriete thought, and considered saying aloud. She lay still for a moment, keeping her eyes closed and her breathing steady, trying to imagine the rush of the river in sunshine, the running feet as the pattern of a dance....Crack. Someone had fired an arquebus.

Margriete sat up, swung her legs over the side of the bed, and felt her way to the window, aware that she was doing something foolish but too angry to care. She had always liked having a room that looked out on the street instead of one of the inner ones facing the garden. It made her feel alive. But noise was one of the drawbacks. "Shut up!" she yelled. "People are trying to sleep!"

Her voice echoed around the stuffy room, but there was no way that it could reach the street. She began to struggle with the shutters. The wooden bar, damp with November rains, stuck fast. Margriete threw her entire weight against it, heedless of injury, and felt it give. The shutters swung back, just as Beatrix reached the top of the stairs, panting. "What are you doing?"

The indignant inquiry of Margriete's downstairs neighbor was lost in the swelling uproar as the shutters swung back. Moonlight and torches filtered into the little room, and the two old women, their eyes accustomed to darkness, had a suddenly vivid view of the mob in the street below. "Sons of pigs!" Margriete screamed, hanging out the window. "Be quiet, why can't you?"

"Margriete!" Beatrix was sobbing, dragging at her arm. "How can you make a noise like that?"

"How can I make noise?" Margriete demanded, impatient with her neighbor's frequent tears. "What about them?"

"The tercios are back." Beatrix moaned. "They'll burn us in our beds. Holy Mary, Mother of God, protect us!" She sank to her knees babbling prayers, and Margriete, unencumbered and unsympathetic leaned out the window again, making use of her limited Spanish in case Beatrix turned out to be right. "Malditos desgraciados! Take your - " Thwack.

A stone clattered against the windowframe, inches from Margriete's head. She drew back, still more startled than afraid, as it was followed by a mouldy cabbage. She realized that most of the mob was heading along the canal to the Vrijdag Markt, coming from the shadowy outline of the castle. But they seemed to slow and bunch around her window instead of merely pouring by. For a moment she wondered why, and then she heard the crash of breaking glass, and saw the dark shadows of stones flung against the wall to her right. "Long live the True Faith!" She finally made out words in the cacophony of shouts.

"The chapel," Beatrix moaned. "They're smashing the statues again."

For the first time Margriete felt a little shiver of apprehension. "We have toleration," she said. "The Prince of Orange and His Grace said so." Her tone was not as convinced as it might have been, but Beatrix (so Margriete told herself hopefully) had never been sensitive to tone of voice. After all, Margriete added silently. It's been ten years since they destroyed the Cathedral. More than ten years. And the tercios are gone now. There's no reason for it. Not much reason anyhow.

A pebble bounced against the window ledge, and then rolled onto Beatrix's wimple. The old woman snivelled. Margriete seized the missile, flung it downwards into the crowd, and slammed the shutters closed, fear giving her strength. "Damned heretics! Picking on defenseless women!" she spat. "Why don't they go after the fat priests?"

"Margriete!" Beatrix crossed herself, and sniffled. "How can you s-say such a thing about m-men of G-God."

Fifteen years ago, Margriete would have answered, "because they deserve it" but time had made her prudent. The Holy Office had been vicious in the last years of Spanish rule, and a woman who was neither young nor wealthy could be taken up as a witch all too easily. And even without the threat of the inquisition, she owed her home, such as it was, to her good behavior. If Master Pieter or the governors of Sint Lucas House heard any whisper that she was impious they might well expel her from the godshuis. Like all the godshuizen, the "houses of God" for poor citizens, Sint Lucas had its rules and regulations, and foremost among them was the piety and devotion of its residents. While its rules were sometimes irksome, the Sint Lucas godshuis was the only home she had. She hoped anger had not made her too vehement with Beatrix. "It's better to attack poor widows?" she demanded, hoping to turn Beatrix's thoughts.

The gambit worked. Beatrix adored being a poor widow, and took every opportunity to feel sorry for herself. "They'll murder us all," she moaned. "Their God tells them that the weak should be trampled underfoot."

Under other circumstances Margriete would have smiled at this, remembering the Lutheran Wilfred whom Miguel had called "Fredo el filósofo" expounding on the similarities of Christian doctrine in front of a camp fire in the strange mixture of Spanish and German that the two men used for private communication. But given the increasing frequency of crashes and cries outside the closed shutters, the situation was not funny. "We're in brick buildings," she said, shortly because Beatrix's fear was infectious no matter how ridiculous it might be. "They can't burn us. And the gates are closed."

"B-but they'll s-smash the s-statues of Our Lady," Beatrix whimpered.

"It's already quieting down," Margriete snapped. "Stop snivelling and go back to sleep."

Although she had spoken more to calm her hysterical neighbor than from conviction, Margriete was right. By the time she succeeded in persuading Beatrix that the most sensible thing to do was go downstairs and go back to sleep, the only sounds audible were faint snatches of song.

Once more alone in the dark, Margriete worked her way under the blanket again and started to shiver. The cold got into her bones nowadays, and the wool was more threadbare than it had been ten years ago when she had entered Sint Lucas. She knew that sleep would not come now. In their early days together Miguel had teased her that a regiment could march by without waking her, but now she seemed to sleep more and more lightly, as well as less and less. She wondered what the mob had been so happy about. They were happy, she was sure, in spite of the thrown stones. They had yelled slogans, not obscenities. And their roars were not accompanied by the screams of pain of their victims. We'll find out in the morning, she told herself, rubbing her hands together and blowing on them. But the morning would be a long time in coming, during the short days of autumn, and Margriete could not help trying to guess. Optimistic guesses helped to keep her warm. Perhaps news had come from Madrid. Perhaps His Majesty had finally confirmed religious freedom for all. Perhaps there would be real peace now, and the Protestant merchants would come back, and bring wealth back to the city. Perhaps there would be no more war in the north. Perhaps....

"Margriete!" It was Beatrix, standing over her disapproving, the terrors of the night forgotten. "Get up! You'll be late for morning prayers."

Margriete sat up, hissing as the cold air invaded the blanket and made her back twinge. She dressed as quickly as her protesting muscles would allow, and followed Beatrix down the narrow staircase to the room below. Beatrix's home was the twin of Margriete's, except that the bed was made, the hearth was scrubbed, and the floor swept. Like the upstairs room, it had a window on the street. Opposite the window, a door lead into the cloistered courtyard of Sint Lucas House. The two women left the little building, and hurried through the gray dawn drizzle along the path skirting the courtyard's garden to the chapel.

The chapel was already full when they arrived, even though the bell summoning the residents of the Sint Lucas House to Matins had barely rung when they reached the doors. Attendance at morning mass was compulsory, but usually the priest gave an unofficial grace period of a few minutes for the elderly residents, especially as the weather got colder. This morning he needed to make no allowances for latecomers, but he did have to wait for anything resembling quiet. The chapel was a handsome brick building, nearly new, and an ugly hole in the window facing the street had set Margriete's fellow pensioners gabbling excitedly, like a flock of geese in hunting season, Margriete thought with disgust.

"...heard the noise in the night and said to myself 'it will be something like this...'"

"....young people today have no respect for what's right...."

" better themselves, for all they talk about the Spanish in Antwerp..."

"It would never have happened in the Emperor's day. I remember the year he came...."

"I thought my hour had come!" Beatrix had wormed her way into a circle of women, and stood quivering, not so much listening as waiting for a chance to speak. When old Jenijn began to reminisce yet again about the tournament in which she had seen the old Emperor himself she interrupted without pity, knowing that the rest of her audience would be grateful. "My window faces the street, and I could hear every movement of those hooligans!"

Liesbet, Anna and Lieve, who all had rooms at the back of the godshuis that faced onto the courtyard, fell silent with due respect for an eyewitness. Even Jenijn was quiet, although in her case it might have been simply a feeling that she had lost her audience. Beatrix continued with her drama. "I went upstairs to warn Margriete. She hadn't even realized the danger, and she had her window open, and a stone actually came through it."

The other women gasped in horror. "But couldn't you close your window?" Lieve asked Margriete, her voice shocked. "Was it so dangerous to even go near?"

"Of course I closed it. Who do you think opened it?" Margriete snapped more than she intended to, partly because she was still sleepy, partly because she disliked being a prop in one of Beatrix's stories, and partly because she was both ashamed and angry to think that Beatrix had been right about the danger. "I wanted to find out what was going on. Does anyone know?"

There was an embarrassed pause. No one wanted to admit that she too wanted to know what had happened. Still less did anyone want to confess that she still did not know. The lull in their conversation happened at the same moment as a break in several others, and Pastoor Joos, hearing his opportunity, cleared his throat loudly and launched into the mass. No more talk was possible.

It was at moments like these that Margriete hated living in a godshuis. She had always thought that the elderly inhabitants of Ghent's many homes for the poor were very fortunate. After all, how many poor widows were given a home and a monthly food and fuel allowance, in return for nothing more than praying for the souls of the dead? "A stroke of luck, if you can manage it," she had joked as a young woman, and even when she had entered Sint Lucas house it had seemed like luck, at least as far as anything could seem lucky in the hellish months after Miguel and Blanca had died. She still knew that many were far worse off than she was, but there were times when she hated the soul-crushing monotony of life behind the protective walls. No chance to go to the market and have a good gossip to find out what was happening. No chance of making up for morning prayers by attending in the evening or vice versa. Never any change from Beatrix's showy piety and Jenijn's quavering stories, and Lieve's unending quarrel with Susana. No escape from the watchful eyes of Maria, Master Pieter's spy, and never any occupation to make the daily round of prayers and gardening and gossip more bearable.

She sat and listened to the mass, and wondered what was happening in the Vrijdag Markt. Had the Spanish come back? Or were they gone from the Low Countries for good? Margriete felt a tightness in her chest. There were whispers in the marketplaces that the Spanish army had done unforgivable things in Antwerp a year ago. And some of Alba's mercenaries had been no better than highwaymen. Still, for the Spanish to disappear the way some of the market women seemed to wish....This is my home now, Margarita, Miguel's voice echoed in her memory, over the chanting of Pastoor Joos. Here, with you.

The hum of the familiar ritual was a monotonous drone like the cries of the market women as Margriete sat and thought. She needed to get out to the Vrijdag Markt. The women of Sint Lucas House were not allowed to go gadding about the city without reason. Begging was as strictly forbidden as working, for all their needs were met. She had no money to buy bread, and would have none until Sunday. If the sky cleared later in the day she might plausibly do laundry, but though she had been a laundress in her youth, scrubbing sheets was hard work at her age, and no one would credit her being mad enough to do it in the rain. That left her with only one option. She had nothing to bring him, and she hated to go to Johan empty handed, since his master might think it a request for charity, but waiting for the city's gossip to filter through the gates of the godshuis was unthinkable. Besides, Margriete thought. I have to see that he's safe, after all the noise last night.

She took the trouble to make her bed, and tidy her room before leaving, unwilling to risk Maria denying her permission, but she did not bother to breakfast. The rain had stopped, although the sky was still gray as she slipped out into the courtyard a second time that day. Beatrix was working in her little garden plot, conscientiously mulching the soil. (Beatrix loved her garden, and spent as much time as she could in it. Margriete forgave her for endless stories about the delights of weeding and pruning in exchange for the extra endives that Beatrix was always able to coax from her tiny patch.) But the rest of the godshuis gardens were deserted, although Margriete's was not the only plot that could have used more attention. No smoke rose from the chimneys of the little white houses, although that was only to be expected. It was All Saints Day, and Master Pieter, the representative of the Sint Lucas House governors, did not begin distributing cords of wood until the following Sunday. The complex looked eerily deserted.

"Going out?" To Margriete's surprise, the voice that greeted her at the archway leading to the street was not Maria's self-important bluster, but Old Jenijn's quavering tones.

Margriete nodded. "That's right. To visit my grandson, Johan," she spoke loudly, so that Jenijn would be sure to hear her.

Jenijn nodded. "Nearly everyone's gone to see what the fuss was about. Maria told me to wait here and watch the door."

"She's gone as well?"

"She told me it was to see Master Pieter about firewood. I was to watch the door." Jenijn sounded sad.

Margriete felt a sudden pang. Jenijn was the oldest resident of Sint Lucas House. She had lived there for fifteen years, longer even than Margriete. She was too feeble to leave the grounds anymore, and she never had visitors. Her children were dead, and her surviving grandchildren had moved away or forgotten her. She claimed to remember the celebrations at the birth of the old Emperor, and would describe them at the drop of a hat to anyone who would listen. Margriete knew she would be the last to find out what had happened because no one liked to talk to her. She never seemed to listen, although Margriete had never been sure if that was because she was a little deaf, or simply not very interested in what other people had to say. "I'll tell you all the news when I come back," she promised, regretting the words even as they came out of her mouth.

Jenijn thanked her without enthusiasm, but Margriete knew her words had been noted, and that she was committed to more time in the old woman's company. She escaped into the street along the canal annoyed with herself for being trapped into talking with Jenijn, and ashamed of her own annoyance. That's how they'll talk about me, when I get feeble, she thought, avoiding the horrifying idea that perhaps she was already talked about that way. She would have a thousand times preferred to be hated for her sharp tongue and scandalous past than despised for her dullness and pitied for her decrepitude.

Margriete had intended to go first to the Vrijdag Markt to ask for news, but the spectre of being abandoned like Jenijn made her skirt the huge square and slip down one of the side streets to check on her grandson's wellbeing first. Even away from the main square the town had a holiday air. The streets were crowded, and the people talked and laughed loudly. Some of the shops were even closed. Margriete wondered for a moment what she would do if Johan's master had declared a holiday as well, but when she reached Willem Claus's narrow fronted bakery smoke was rising from the chimney, and the smell of fresh bread beckoned the strolling crowds as always.

Elisabeth, one of the master baker's daughters, was in the shop front attending a customer. She recognized Margriete, and nodded to her when the other woman left. "Good morning, Mrs. Daviles. Johan's tending the oven, in back, if you'd like to see him."

"If he's not busy." Margriete watched the young woman capably make a tally of the loaves her recently departed customer had purchased, and thought (not for the first time) how pleasant it was to see a healthy, prosperous, contented young thing like Elisabeth. "I was afraid he'd be out. It seems to be some sort of celebration today."

"You haven't heard the news?" Elisabeth was pleased to tell someone. "It was decided by the aldermen and the Lord of Ryhove last night. We're a Republic now. Free and independent."

"A Republic," Margriete repeated slowly, unwilling to admit that Elisabeth was using a word whose meaning she did not know. "Then the noise last night...?"

"News came late to the crews pulling down the Spaniards' castle," Elisabeth spoke easily. "And they got a bit excited. My father and Johan were at the Vrijdag Markt until late, I know that. They say the predikants there were wonderful." She sighed, eyes glowing. "My father says it will be like in the old days, when guildsmen had a say in the running of the city, not like now, where it's all priests and foreigners. And it will be a good thing for honest workmen to have someone to speak up for them. 'The laborer is worthy of his hire,' you know."

Margriete nodded, relieved. Elisabeth's father, Willem, had been a friend of Johan's father, and was sponsoring his apprentice for full guild membership. Margriete had been both proud and touched by Master Claus's agreement to take Johan as an apprentice when he was orphaned. But Willem himself had cautioned her. "Don't think guild membership means what it used to. Since the Emperor destroyed the privileges in '40, we don't have a say in anything. Lucky if we can set our own wages." Margriete smiled, remembering the airs of the guild members' daughters in her youth. "God and our Lady willing," she said.

For a moment Elisabeth looked annoyed. Then she seemed to remember who Margriete was. "I wouldn't know about that," she said, in the tone of voice people used to Jenijn and Beatrix, and that always infuriated Margriete. "We don't hold with the old religion here, you know."

"It's just something my husband used to say," Margriete apologized. She had not meant to embarrass the girl.

"Johan's in the back," Elisabeth was still courteous, but faintly offended.

Margriete nodded, and went to find her grandson, before the conversation became more awkward.