Chapter 15 of Eva’s Secret
15. the Awful Alcazar
Casa Cerra: Thursday, September 1, 1513
Eva started by arranging the things neatly. First, she had to remove the carpets piled over and under the rest of the bric-a-brac. Eva hauled the largest out to the salon, where there was more floor space. She spread the rug flat over the one already on the floor, grateful that the main room was so sparsely furnished.
She got on her knees and rolled the carpet toward the far wall, sneezing at the dust that puffed from its woolen fibers. At the last turn her nose bumped into the huge chest that squatted against the wall. Eva straightened and looked at it more closely. It was made of dark wood, almost black, wrapped around with iron bands. Double latches, one at each band junction, warned her against any prying. It had a malevolent air about it.
Eva stood and looked around. The room was large, but Alcazar had not bothered to furnish it with much. There was a bench, one chair and a small table. Stacked in the corner were two round leather poufs of the sort they called ottomans. The majordomo clearly did not expect to entertain guests in his quarters.
There was a window seat with a moth-eaten cushion. Eva opened the shutters to see a narrow enclosed space between the building and another wall, so high that Eva supposed it must be the city rampart. What was once an intimate little garden was full of dry weeds and a few tenacious bushes. Further down the same wall was another window—that must open onto the bedchamber.
She went back into the store-room to drag out the next carpet. Beneath it was a nest of mice, two of which Tabita got while the others escaped—for the minute. They had chewed a hole the size of her hand in the carpet. Eva took it by the corner and hauled it to the salon for rolling.
Eva moved bales of fabrics, shaking them out, folding and stacking according to the amount of damage. A round table with one leg broken had been upended against the back wall. Eva shoved it off a crumpled carpet and saw that the top was beautifully inlaid with mother-of-pearl marquetry. When she dragged the carpet away, she found four matching chairs.
“Miaow.” Tabita pawed her skirt. The cat rose on her hind legs to present her with Eva’s share of the hunt: the bottom half of a mouse.
“Why thank you, Tabita!” Eva accepted the gruesome gift with enthusiasm. “I’ll just take this to the kitchen for cooking.”
The kitchen was the little room off the entry where she had found Tabita last night. There was nothing in it except a counter along one wall with a hearth built into it. Beneath that was the hole Tabita had emerged from, and next to it a long-handled hoe for shoving ash down the pipe. Eva used it to shove the half-eaten mouse.
On the way back through the entry, she noticed the stairs that ran up to the office for Casa Cerra. Beneath them was a small door. Eva opened it and saw that it contained a commode and covered pot. She sniffed. Men! They splattered. Why, oh why, couldn’t they just sit?
A wave of memory hit her: Iago de Pazia, chasing her into the guarderobe next to her bedchamber. She hated him! And then another, fresh as yesterday: the crackle of flames and her father’s screams.
No! Eva hurried back to her task, stacking the packing crates, rolling carpets, arranging dusty bric-a-brac into piles to be cleaned or thrown out. After two hours, Eva was breathing hard and coughing at the dust, but the room was beginning to take on some form of order.
There was a knock at the door. Eva went to open it, and found Jose the cook.
“The majordomo has left with the caravan. So I brought you a good breakfast. Where shall I put it?”
“I’ll take it. Alcazar forbade me to let anyone in his rooms.” Eva reached for the tray, realized her hands were filthy, and tried to wipe them on her apron. “I’m sorry I’m so dirty, I was cleaning.”
Jose put the tray on the bottom step. “To give you work, today of all days! Alcazar is a foul beast.”
His sympathy brought fresh tears to Eva’s eyes. “It’s all right—I don’t mind having work to do. It keeps me from thinking about it.”
He examined her with solicitous concern. “Is there any way I can help?”
Jose seemed so eager to be useful that Eva had an inspiration. “Wait.” She ran into the salon where the round marquetry table was propped on its side against a wall. With a little difficulty she was able to roll it through the entry-drape to the door. “Can you find somebody to fix this table leg?”
“I will call my son, who is a carpenter in the woodworker’s street. And while he is here, he can tend to anything wood that needs polishing and refinishing. Shelves, stools, chests?” Jose peered around her, trying to see through the crack in the entry drape.
Of course, the chest. Everyone wanted a look at it. Eva thought of Alcazar’s warning: “—you will tell the staff nothing—absolutely nothing—of what does or does not happen behind this curtain. Is that clear?”
Eva thanked Jose and saw him out. If the ominous chest should need work, Alcazar must arrange for it himself.
She ventured into the bedroom and was at once assaulted by the scent of mold, coming from the large mattress on the bed. Goodness, they must have stuffed it when the hay was not completely dry! And the cushions on the window-seat, too!
There were hardly any furnishings in the bedroom either. There was a clothing chest, still left half-open, one sleeve of a doublet hanging out. Eva tucked it away, noticing that the majordomo’s clothing was plain but of good quality. Next to the large four-poster bed stood an austere little table with a lamp and books on it. Eva picked one up.
It was poetry, written right-to-left like Arabic on battered parchment that had plainly been rubbed out and re-used. Eva wondered if this was the same handmade copy that Cerra had found his new purchase reading, back when Baseel was only a goat-boy.
She put it back, feeling a little ashamed, like she had seen him naked when he did not know there was anyone watching. She picked up another book, this one in Spanish, but it was hard to read. And no wonder; the light from the window was lost in the dimness of a ceiling stained dark from candle-soot. It would be much easier to read, day or night, if the room were properly whitewashed.
She took another turn around the apartment, storeroom to salon to kitchen to entry. The whole place needed a whitewash. At Casa de Pazia, Eva saw that every room was painted once a year. This place looked like it hadn’t been done for a decade. Whitewash was a messy job, one that would keep her mind too occupied to think about yesterday. Besides, if she was exhausted then tonight there would be no nightmares.
As she stood, the scent of fresh bread made her suddenly ravenous. She washed her hands in the basin, sat on the stairs next to Jose’s tray and lifted the lid to find a new loaf, a hard-boiled egg and a small pot of crushed olive tapenade. Eva ate, planning the familiar task.
Rain or even dew would be very unusual at this time of year, so a day or two outside would do the apartment contents no harm. The furniture could go out to the central court to be polished and sanded. The rugs, too must be beaten outside. The drapes had to be taken down, or they would get splattered—they should be washed, if Matron wouldn’t mind running the laundry cauldrons another day.
No sooner had Eva stepped into the central courtyard than Mario Hussein came hurrying over. “Eva, are you all right?”
Her face must still be puffy from last night’s weeping. “I am fine.”
“Well, you have time to recover, now. The pack string left this morning for Malaga. The majordomo won’t be back until Monday at the earliest.”
Eva heaved a sigh of relief. Five days, at the least, would give her enough time. “Mario Hussein, do you know where the supplies of whitewash are?”
“He has set you to that?!” Mario Hussein gave Eva no time to explain that the idea was her own. “Painting walls is not a task for a gently-raised girl. I will send two of my stable boys to do it.”
“I have to do it myself. The majordomo doesn’t want anyone in his apartment,” Eva explained again. “Just have them mix the whitewash and bring it to the door. But there are carpets I can drag as far as the entry. Could your boys hang them and beat out the dirt?”
“Ah, carpets! For that we will need old Mustapha. He is our expert rug restorer.” Mario Hussein turned and called to a youth. “Paco! Bring the carpet washing frames to the hammam, they are kept in the last stall on the right.”
“Oh no, that is too much,” Eva protested. “I know Alcazar didn’t expect—”
“We will surprise him.” Mario Hussein winked at her. “If he is pleased, he will go easier on you. Do not worry, Mustapha will start at once, and with this hot weather they will be dry before the majordomo returns.”
“Thank you.” And Eva also thanked Jesu, who must be working on all these people, that they should show her such surprising favor. “Where can I find cleaning things?”
“Matron will know. I am sure she will help, too.”
Eva crossed the court to the women’s dormitorio.
“Oh, cariña, I am so sorry!” Matron enveloped her in a motherly hug. “I would have spared you, if I could. But Cerra’s orders must be obeyed. Was it so very bad for you?”
Eva thought about the flames, the smell of roasting flesh. “It was the most horrible experience I have ever endured.”
“It is always bad, the first time. But after that, it gets better.”
Eva did not want to think about any future autos-da-fé. “Matron, I need cleaning things, a broom, buckets. And I will need the wash-cauldrons heated. There is so much to be laundered, the mattress and cushion covers, the drapes—it will use up all the drying-lines.”
“What a monster that man is, giving you all that work after putting you through a night like that! Wait here.” Matron bustled off.
Eva was puzzled. The auto-da-fé was yesterday afternoon, not at night. Less than a minute later, Matron was back with Analina.
“Now that Aliya-Noor is off to her new husband, we have more time,” Analina said. “Do not fret, we will help you. If Alcazar is happy, we are all better off.”
Soon the laundry cauldrons were bubbling. Matron had everyone from the women’s dormitorio running back and forth as Eva handed out whatever could be washed: cushion-covers, mattress ticking, unbaled fabrics from the store room, and last, after she had tacked canvas up as a temporary screen, the heavy drapes from the entry doorway.
Jose’s son appeared with an apprentice, and Eva brought the furniture into the courtyard to be mended, pumiced or polished according to need.
Mario Hussein’s stable-boys brought smoking buckets of whitewash and bore the carpets off. Soon the rhythmic ‘thwock’ of rug beaters echoed from behind the hammam.
The apartment was almost empty. Eva took up the long-handled whitewash brush and began with the salon. Even though she was used to helping at Casa de Pazia, this task made all her muscles scream with protest. She gritted her teeth and leaned into the effort as a penance. It kept her thoughts of yesterday at bay.
She kept the windows open to air the acrid fumes. Outside, in the narrow strip of garden, Enrique the kitchen boy was cutting weeds.
Eva finished her bucket of whitewash. She set it on the window-seat. “Enrique,” she called. “Could you take this to Mario Hussein and tell him I need more mixed?”
The boy paused, hand on the handle. “Señorita Eva, I wish to tell you a thing.”
Eva stretched her tired arms. “You don’t need to call me señorita, Enrique. I’m just a slave.”
“You are a good woman. Me, I am a thief. But I steal no more!” Enrique looked at her earnestly. “I get caught.”
Eva remembered the screams from the courtyard that first day. “Are you the kitchen boy who was whipped?”
He nodded. “I want for you to know something about Alcazar, so you do not be so afraid. The majordomo, when he first take over three weeks ago, he check the spices and find out I steal them. He ask, would I rather be whipped, or thrown back to the streets. The old majordomo, he would not have asked.”
“And you chose the whipping.” Eva’s perception of Baseel changed. That was a kindness, although it still did not absolve him of the severity of the beatings, or that he took pleasure in laying it on with his own hand.
“Yes. The majordomo, he tell me, very secret, that the louder I yell, the lighter he hit. So I scream very loud, and he crack the whip—an expert he is, with that whip.” Enrique shook his head in admiration. “It make much noise, but only sting a little. It was for example to all, you see.”
“Yes, I see. Thank you, Enrique.”
“You will not tell?” Enrique looked at her anxiously. “This is very secret. I break a promise for you.”
Eva reassured him, and then went back to work with all her strength, keeping the horror of the auto-da-fé at bay with activity. Her urgency infected everyone, and they weeded and washed and fetched and carried for her, anything that they could do without actually entering the majordomo’s quarters.
Evening saw every room in the apartment coated with drying whitewash. “You must sleep in the garden, tonight. To breathe the fumes will unbalance your humors,” Matron declared. She waved a lumpy apparition past the door.
“I stuffed this mattress with grass hay,” Enrique’s voice issued from under the lump. “No stiff straws will poke you tonight.”
“The ticking is clean, so I brought this manta to put under it.” Analina snapped a canvas square onto the now-bare strip of garden.
Enrique flung down the mattress. “It is extra fluffy, like sleeping on a cloud. Here, señorita Eva, you must try it!”
Eva stretched out willingly. She meant to thank them. But the next thing she knew, Tabita was kneading her chest, and it was dawn.
Eva knelt in prayer. Again she confessed her guilt, and again she heard the gentle voice: Be clean.
She splashed water on her face at the center well and went into the quarters. Early light, bouncing off the pristine walls and ceilings, illuminated the years of grime that had built up on the floor tiles.
All Friday Eva scraped and scrubbed. Her efforts revealed tile mosaics. Even the memory of the burnings could not damp her pleasure in the traditional zellige patterns.
In between buckets of scrub-solution, she gave an appreciative ear to Jose the cook’s garrulous carpenter son where he worked in the courtyard. He showed her the secrets of delicate marquetry work, then expanded on how best to sand and oil the plainer pieces. Her admiration inspired him to new heights; by afternoon, he was converting the empty packing-boxes into tables and stands.
Throughout the day, the piles outside the door grew: laundered sheets, cushion-ticks, and bolts of fabric. Analina and Josemona did wonders patching the moth-eaten fabric from the storeroom with spangles and designs, stitching them into cushion-covers and tablecloths.
The stable-boys, not to be outdone by all the busy stitchery of the women’s dormitorio, took on the discarded metal pieces from the storeroom trove. They heated a forge and soldered split seams, repaired handles and reattached broken legs. Hammered copper and ornamented brass vessels had dents smoothed, then they were polished with sand until the pitchers, lampstands, braziers, trays and water-vessels sparkled. There were basin-and-ewer sets for her room and the big bedroom, and one in the entry, too.
Eva admired each effort and creation when she hauled the buckets out to exchange dirty water. Jose the cook set up boards and trestles in the central court and provided simple, hearty fare for everyone. He set aside special morsels for Eva, and stood over her insisting she try them.
Just before night fell, she finished the last of the floors. Eva dragged her newly-filled mattress back into her little room and collapsed onto it without even taking the time to undress.
She slept so soundly that the sun was well up before she opened her eyes. Saturday! There was still so much to do!
The heavy drapes were dry at last. Standing on a chair, Eva re-hung them in the entry arch and the bedroom doorway. It took all her strength to lift each end of the rod and drop it into the bracket.
Enrique proved to be an exemplary mattress and cushion-stuffer, making sure that the hay was completely dry and carefully removing every cocklebur, filling cushions to plump softness but packing the leather poufs tight as a drum. The canvas manta beside the door was piled high with his efforts, waiting along with the shining furniture for the carpets to be laid.
After dinner that night, Old Mustapha took her behind the hammam to see what had been done. Three large carpets and eight smaller ones lay on drying racks. In the sunset light, the colors were so jewel-bright that Eva refused to believe these were the same rejected rolls she had sent off with the stable-hands. Mustapha grinned widely and showed her the places where he had patched the mouse-chewed holes.
Matron put her head out the back door of the hammam. “Mustapha, we will need more wood on the boiler; the women have used all the hot water and there must be some for Evita!”
Mustapha nodded and led Eva into the hammam. There she found the women of Casa Cerra in various states of undress.
Josemona followed her shocked gaze toward the old man shuffling off to the boiler-room. “Oh, Mustapha? You needn’t worry about him—he’s a eunuch, didn’t you know?”
“Come on, Eva, after all the cleaning you need a cleaning!” Analina urged.
“Yes, you have worked the hardest. We have arranged a massage, too!”
She was too tired to protest. Who cared if they saw her toe? Eva let them undress her, chattering like magpies: Usually we women bathe Friday, but the hammam pool was full of carpet frames and boys scrubbing—here, pour another pitcher on her hair, these bits of dried whitewash are so stubborn—but don’t worry, Evita, we don’t mind the extra work—move over, Analina, I have to get her back—now at least all the hardest tasks are done—Get the dirt under her nails, here’s a shaped stick—even Alcazar, the brute, will have to be pleased when he gets back—oh, these cracked fingers, we must rub in lotions—
They had even brought her fresh clothing. Eva blessed their thoughtfulness as she tied the waist-string of the clean braies. She picked up the chemise when Matron stopped her.
“No, not yet the chemise—even the braies are not needed, but we know you are body-shy. Come lie here, face down. Always, Mustapha starts with the knots in the shoulders.”
They pushed her onto a cushioned bench. Eva felt the gnarled hands on her upper back. A distant part of her mind wondered how it could be so relaxing to have a stranger handling her in this unclothed state.
But it felt wonderful. It was hard to believe that one so old and stringy could have such strength. Mustapha rolled and pushed and pulled every joint and muscle until Eva felt like jelly.
She did not remember falling asleep.
She woke to the distant sound of cathedral bells. Eva was still lying, face-down, on the massage bench; someone had thrown a light cover over her. She sat up, still counting. Ten strokes—later even than yesterday! Thank Jesu that Alcazar was not here to see how lazy she had become!
Eva dressed and made her way out the back door to check if the carpets had finished drying. The frames were gone.
Mustapha must be waiting for her to take them into the apartment! Eva ran across the center court, deserted except for a lone guard at the gate.
“Good morning, Juan Omar. Where is everybody?”
“A very good morning, señorita Eva. They are all gone to church. After Wednesday, it was thought advisable to make a good show.”
Eva looked toward the canvas-covered stacks just outside the majordomo’s door; they were unchanged from yesterday. “Where are the carpets?”
“I helped Mustapha take them into the entry. I thought you must have asked him to.”
Eva found the old man unrolling a carpet in the bedroom. “Mustapha, thank you for your help, but you must leave. Alcazar told me no one was to know—”
He looked at her and shook his head, smiling. With his hand, he sketched a small child, and then grew him to adult size.
“You mean—you’ve known the majordomo since he was small?”
He nodded, put his finger to his lips, and winked.
What could he mean?
They rolled the most worn carpet out in Eva’s small room. Last was the largest carpet, the one that had come from the salon. Working each on a side, they unrolled rapidly towards the wall. The last several inches lapped against the great chest.
Mustapha motioned that she was to lift one side of it while he lifted the other, so the carpet edge would lie flat.
Eva picked up her corner. This thing was heavy! Her tired muscles shook, and the handle slipped from her grasp, yanking the old man’s grip loose as well. As the chest thumped onto the carpet, a strange, deep moan issued from it.
Eva started back in horror. Could Alcazar really have something living locked in that box?
Mustapha saw her reaction. He undid the two latches and raised the lid. Inside, stacked two layers deep, were books! And tucked along one side, in a specially-built compartment, was a long cloth-wrapped bundle whose shape was familiar.
Mustapha tapped the bulbous bottom gently. It emitted a little moan—the reverberation of strings and wood.
Eva should have recognized the noise the first time. “A guitarra!” That was what Mario Hussein had been so worried about?
Mustapha nodded, grinning.
“So there never was a woman in the chest. Why would he want the staff to think so?”
Mustapha raised one eyebrow.
“But Mustapha, he’s wrong! It isn’t fear that makes people work for you, it’s love.”
Mustapha nodded his agreement. He put his hands together and fluttered like wings, first on his right shoulder, and then on his left. He waited to see if she understood.
“A good angel sat on the right shoulder, and a bad one on the left?” Eva knew that Saracen belief.
He looked very grim, then touched both fists to his heart and pulled them apart.
“You mean—there’s a battle for his conscience.”
Satisfied that she understood, he held a finger to his lips. Don’t tell him what I told you.
Eva thought of Enrique’s secret. “The louder you yell, the lighter I strike.” And Alcazar’s stern warning: “—you will tell the staff nothing—absolutely nothing—of what does or does not happen behind these doors.”
After Mustapha had helped her move the larger items inside, Eva set herself to decorate in the most pleasing way possible. Cushions, wall-hangings, lamps, wash-stands and ottomans were pushed from here to there until Eva was satisfied with the effect.
This place was lovely. The polished wood and metal reflected the purity of the walls and the bright patterns of the rugs. The acrid scent of whitewash had faded to a background with the clean new hay and dried-lavender smell of the cushions, tinged with lemon-oil and beeswax.
It was done, and she had a day to spare. Maybe several.
The staff insisted that Eva share their after-siesta meal in the big hall off the compound kitchen. It was the first time she had been there, and they treated her like the guest of honor. This was so much better than a banquet, nobody dressed up and everybody friendly and laughing over the simple fare with the camaraderie that came from shared labor.
Eva loved them all, but she deflected their praise. They were so kind to her, while she was a fraud. If they really knew her sordid history, they would shun her completely.
Jose the cook sent her back with a hamper of wine and non-perishable food to have ready to hand. Eva arranged them in the little kitchen and on the sideboard in the salon. And then she sat with nothing else to do.
She must not think of the auto-da-fé. She must not think of Elias’ predicament. If she only had her guitarra, she would play.
Oh, how she missed music! The great chest drew her like a magnet. Really, what would it hurt? How would he ever know? None of the staff would tell, she was sure.
Eva took a deep breath and lifted out the bundle. She carefully unwrapped a plain, worn instrument. It was strung just like her own, although the neck was wider. But the wood was polished and cared for, and the fingerboard and the front beneath the sound-hole showed the wear of much use.
She stroked the strings and was surprised to find it was in tune. The majordomo must have used this very recently.
Eva sat down on the window seat with the instrument in her hands. Burdens and cares rolled away with the familiar chords. She lost herself in the ecstasy of music, unmindful of the passing time.
She began to sing, and the words became a prayer for Alcazar.
No. She might address her new master as majordomo, or Alcazar, or señor. But he had also been a young slave who helped a ten-year-old escape her father’s wrath.
The person she prayed for was named Baseel.