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DOM JOÃO, THE FIFTH monarch so named on the royal list, will pay a visit this night to the bedchamber of the Queen, Dona Maria Ana Josefa, who arrived more than two years ago from Austria to provide heirs for the Portuguese crown, and so far has shown no signs of becoming pregnant. Already there are rumours at court, both within and without the royal palace, that the Queen is barren, an insinuation that is carefully guarded from hostile ears and tongues and confided only to intimates. That anyone should blame the King is unthinkable, first because infertility is an evil that befalls not men but women, who for that very reason are often disowned and second, because there is material evidence, should such a thing be necessary, in the horde of bastards produced by the royal semen, who populate the kingdom and even at this moment are forming a procession in the square. Moreover, it is not the King but the Queen who spends all her time in prayer, beseeching a child from heaven, for two good reasons. The first reason is that a king, especially a king of Portugal, does not ask for something that he alone can provide, and the second reason is that a woman is essentially a vessel made to be filled, a natural supplicant, whether she pleads in novenas or in occasional prayers. But neither the perseverance of the King who, unless there is some canonical or physiological impediment, vigorously performs his royal duty twice weekly, nor the patience and humility of the Queen, who, besides praying, subjects herself to total immobility after her husband's withdrawal, so that their generative secretions may fertilise undisturbed, hers scant from a lack of incentive and time, and because of her deep moral scruples, the King's prodigious, as onemight expect from a man who is not yet twenty-two years of age, neither the one factor nor the other has succeeded so far in causing Dona Maria Ana's womb to become swollen. Yet God is almighty.
Almost as mighty as God is the replica of the Basilica of St Peter in Rome that the King is building. It is a construction without a base or foundation, resting on a table-top, which does not need to be very solid to take the weight of a model in miniature of the original basilica, the pieces lying scattered, waiting to be inserted by the old method of tongue and groove, and they are handled with the utmost reverence by the four footmen on duty. The chest in which they are stored gives off an odour of incense, and the red velvet cloths in which they are separately wrapped, so that the faces of the statues do not scratch against the capitals of the columns, reflect the light cast by the huge candelabras. The building is almost ready. All the walls have been hinged together, and the columns have been firmly slotted into place under the cornice with the name and title of Paolo V Borghese inscribed in Latin which the King no longer reads, although it always gives him enormous pleasure to observe that the ordinal number after the Pope's name corresponds to the V that comes after his own. In a king, modesty would be a sign of weakness. He starts to place the effigies of prophets and saints into the appropriate grooves on top of the walls and the footman gives a low bow as he removes each statue from its precious velvet wrappings. One by one, he hands the King a statue of some prophet lying face down, or of some saint turned the wrong way around, but no one heeds this unintentional irreverence as the King proceeds to restore the order and solemnity that befits sacred objects and turning them upright, he inserts each vigilant statue into its rightful position. What the statues see from their lofty setting is not St Peter's Square but the King of Portugal and his retinue of footmen. They see the floor of the dais and the screens looking on to the Royal Chapel, and tomorrow at early Mass, unless they have already been wrapped up and put back in the chest, the statues will see the King devoutly attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with his entourage, different nobles from those who are with him at present, for the week is ending and others are due to take their place. Beneath the dais where we are standing, there is a second dais, also hidden by screens, but there are no pieces here waiting to be assembled, it is an oratory or a chapel where the Queen attends Mass privately, yet not even this holy place has been conducive to pregnancy. Now all that remains to be set in position is the dome by Michelangelo, a copy of that remarkable achievement in stone which, becauses of its massive proportions, is kept in a separate chest and, as the final, and crowning piece, is treated with special care. The footmen make haste to assist the King and, with a resounding clatter, the tenons and mortises are fitted together and the job is finished. If the overwhelming noise that echoes throughout the chapel should penetrate the long corridors and spacious apartments of the palace into the chamber where the Queen is waiting, she will know that her husband is on his way.
Let her wait. The King is still preparing himself before retiring for the night. His footmen have helped him to undress and have garbed him in the appropriate ceremonial robes, each garment passing from hand to hand with as much reverence as if they were the relics of holy virgins, and this ceremony is enacted in the presence of other servants and pages, one opens the huge chest, another draws back the curtains, one raises the candle, while another trims the wick, two footmen stand to attention, and two more follow suit, while several others hover in the background with no apparent duties to fulfil. At long last, thanks to their combined labours, the King is ready, one of the nobles in attendance straightens a last fold, another adjusts the embroidered nightshirt, and any moment now, Dom João V will be heading for the Queen's bedchamber. The vessel is waiting to be filled.
Now Dom Nuno da Cunha, the bishop who heads the Inquisition makes his entrance accompanied by an elderly Franciscan friar. Before he approaches the King to deliver his news, there is an elaborate ritual to be observed with reverences and salutations, pauses and retreats, the established protocol when approaching the monarch, and these formalities we shall treat as having been duly observed, given the urgency of the bishop's visit and the nervous tremors of the elderly friar. Dom João V and the Inquisitor withdraw to one side, and the latter explains, The friar who stands before you is Friar Antony of St Joseph, to whom I have confided Your Majesty's distress at the Queen's inability to bear you children. I begged of him that he should intercede on Your Majesty's behalf, so that God may grant you succession, and he replied that Your Majesty will have children if he so wishes, and then I asked him what he meant by these obscure words, since it is well known that Your Majesty wishes to have children, and he replied in plain words that if Your Majesty promises to build a convent in the town of Mafra, God will grant you an heir, and after delivering this message, Dom Nuno fell silent and bade the friar approach.
The King inquired, Is what His Eminence the bishop has just told me true, that if I promise to build a convent in Mafra I shall have heirs to succeed me and the friar replied, It is true, Your Majesty, but only if the convent is entrusted to the Franciscan Order and the King asked him, How do you know these things and Friar Antony replied, I know, although I cannot explain how I came to know, for I am only the instrument through which the truth is spoken, Your Majesty need only respond with faith, Build the convent and you will soon have offspring, should you refuse, it will be up to God to decide. The King dismissed the friar with a gesture and then asked Dom Nuno da Cunha, Is this friar a man of virtue, whereupon the bishop replied, There is no man more virtuous in the Franciscan Order. Reassured that the pledge requested of him was worthy, Dom João, the fifth monarch by that name, raised his voice so that all present might hear him speak, and so that what he had to say would be reported throughout the city and the realm the following day, I promise, by my royal word, that I shall build a Franciscan convent in the town of Mafra if the Queen gives me an heir within a year from this day, and everyone present rejoined, May God heed Your Majesty, although no one knew who or what was to be put to the test, Almighty God Himself, the virtue of Friar Antony, the King's potency, or the Queen's questionable fertility.
Meanwhile, Dona Maria Ana is conversing with her Portuguese chief lady-in-waiting, the Marchioness de Unhão. They have already discussed the religious devotions of the day, their visit to the convent of the discalced Carmelites of the Immaculate Conception at Cardais, and the novena of St Francis Xavier, which is due to start tomorrow in the parish of St Roch, the conversation one might expect between a queen and a woman of noble birth, exclamatory and at the same time fearful, as they invoke the names of saints and martyrs, their tones becoming poignant whenever the conversation touches on the trials and sufferings of holy men and women, even if these simply consisted in mortifying the flesh by means of fasting and wearing hairshirts. The King's imminent arrival, however, has been announced, and he comes with burning zeal, eager and excited at the thought of this mystical union of his carnal duty and the pledge he has just made to Almighty God through the mediation and good offices of Friar Antony of St Joseph. The King enters the Queen's bedroom accompanied by two footmen, who start to remove his outer garments, the Marchioness, assisted by a lady-in-waiting of equal rank who came with the Queen from Austria, doing the same for the Queen, passing each garment to another noblewoman, the participants in this ritual make quite a gathering, their Royal Highnesses bow solemnly to each other, the formalities seem interminable, until finally the footmen depart through one door and the ladies-in-waiting through another where they will wait in separate anterooms until the act is over and they are summoned to escort the King back to his apartments which were occupied by the Dowager Queen when the King's late father was still alive, and the ladies-in-waiting come to settle Dona Maria Ana under the eiderdown that she also brought from Austria, for she cannot sleep without it, be it summer or winter. This eiderdown is so suffocating, even during the chilly nights of February, that Dom Joáo V finds it impossible to spend the entire night with the Queen, although it was different during the first months of marriage, when the novelty outweighed the considerable discomfort of waking to find himself bathed in perspiration, his own as well as that of the Queen, who slept with the covers pulled over her head, her body accumulating odours and secretions. Accustomed to a northern climate, Dona Maria Ana cannot bear the torrid heat of Lisbon. She covers herself from head to foot with the huge, overstuffed eiderdown, and there she remains, curled up like a mole that has found a boulder in its path and is trying to decide on which side it should continue to burrow its tunnel.
The King and Queen are wearing long nightshirts that trail on the ground, the King's has an embroidered hem, while the Queen's has much more elaborate trimmings, so that not even the tip of her big toe can be seen, for of all the immodesties known to man, this is probably the most audacious. Dom João guides Dona Maria Ana by the hand to the bed, like a gentleman leading his partner on to the dance floor. Before ascending the steps, each kneels on his or her respective side of the bed and says the prescribed prayers, for fear of dying unconfessed during sexual intercourse, Dom João V determined that his efforts should bear fruit on this occasion, his hopes redoubled as he trusts in God's assistance and in his own virile strength, and protesting his faith, he begs the Almighty to give him an heir. As for Dona Maria Ana, one may assume that she is imploring the same divine favour, unless for some reason she enjoys special dispensations under the seal of the confessional.
The King and Queen are now settled in bed. This is the bed that was dispatched from Holland when the Queen arrived from Austria, specially ordered by the King, and it cost him seventy-five thousand cruzados, for in Portugal no craftsmen of such excellence are to be found and were they to be found, they would certainly earn less. An untrained eye would find it difficult to tell that this magnificent piece of furniture is made of wood, concealed as it is under ornate drapes woven with gold threads and lavishly embroidered with rosettes, not to mention the overhanging canopy, which resembles a papal baldachin. When the bed was newly installed, there were no bedbugs although once in use, the warmth of human bodies attracted an infestation, but whether these bedbugs were lurking in the palace apartments or came from the city, no one knows. The elaborate curtains and hangings in the Queen's bedroom made it impractical to smoke them out, so there was no other remedy but to make an offering of fifty réis to St Alexis every year, in the hope that he would rid the Queen and all of us from this plague and the insufferable itching. On nights when the King visits the Queen, the bedbugs come out at a much later hour because of the heaving of the mattress, for they are insects who enjoy peace and quiet and prefer to discover their victims asleep. In the King's bed, too, there are yet more bedbugs waiting for their share of blood, for His Majesty's blood tastes no better or worse than that of the other inhabitants of the city, whether blue or otherwise.
Dona Maria Ana extends a moist hand to the King, which, despite having been heated under the covers, soon grows cold in the chilly atmosphere of the bedchamber and the King, who has already done his duty, and is feeling quite hopeful after a most convincing and skilful performance, gives Dona Maria Ana a kiss as his Queen and as the future mother of his child, unless Friar Antony of St Joseph has been rash with his promises. It is Dona Maria Ana who tugs the bell-pull, whereupon the King's footmen enter from one side and the Queen's ladies-in-waiting from the other. Various odours hover in the air and one of them is unmistakable for without its presence the long-awaited miracle could not possibly take place, and besides, the much-quoted immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary occurred but once so that the world might know that Almighty God, when He so chooses, has no need of men, though He cannot dispense with women.
Notwithstanding constant reassurances from her confessor, on these occasions Dona Maria Ana is overcome by a sense of guilt. Once the King and his retinue have departed, and the ladies-in-waiting, who remain in attendance until she is ready to fall asleep, have withdrawn, the Queen always feels a moral obligation to fall to her knees and pray for forgiveness but at her doctors' insistence she must not stir, lest she disturb the incubation, so she resigns herself to muttering her prayers in bed, the rosary beads slipping ever more slowly through her fingers, until finally she falls asleep in the midst of a Hail Mary full of grace, that Mary for whom it was all so easy, blessed be the fruit of thy womb Jesus, while in her own anguished womb she hopes at least for a son, Dear Lord, at least one son. She has never confessed to this involuntary pride because remote and involuntary, so much so that were she to be called to judgment she would truthfully swear that she had always addressed her prayers to the Virgin and her holy womb. These are the meanderings of her subconscious mind like those other dreams no one can explain, that Dona Maria Ana always experiences when the King comes to her bed, in which she finds herself crossing the Palace Square alongside the slaughterhouses, lifting her skirts before her as she flounders in the slimy mud smelling of men when they relieve themselves, while the ghost of her brother-inlaw, the Infante Dom Francisco, whose former apartments she now occupies, reappears and dances all around her, raised on stilts like a black stork. Neither has she discussed this dream with her confessor, besides, what explanation could he possibly give her in return, since no such case is mentioned in the Manual for a Perfect Confession. Let Dona Maria Ana slumber in peace, submerged under that mountain of draperies and plumes as the bedbugs begin to emerge from every crease and fold, dropping from the canopy above to hasten their journey.
Dom João V will also dream tonight. He will see the Tree of Jesse sprout from his penis, covered with leaves and populated by the ancestors of Christ, and even by Christ Himself, the Heir of All Kingdoms, then the tree will vanish and in its place will appear the tall columns, bell towers, domes, and belfries of a Franciscan convent, which is unmistakable because of the habit worn by Friar Antony of St Joseph, whom the King can see throwing open the church doors. Such dreams are not common amongst kings, but Portugal has been well served by imaginative monarchs.
Excerpted from "Baltasar and Blimunda"
Copyright © 1982 Editorial Caminho, SARL, Lisboa.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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