Authors: Julia O'Faolain
‘Rat’s harsh. Let’s say squirrel:
Sounds slimy enough!’
The outing turned out to be the last for quite a while. Shortly afterwards the boys left for the Society’s villa in the country and when they returned the streets had become so precarious that they were hardly let out at all.
The other reason for Nicola’s nickname was connected with a jar of white stones.
Emulation was encouraged at the Collegio whose pupils belonged to two rival armies. It had been especially keen just before the Pope’s visit
and, as marks for athletic and academic performance drew even, it was Nicola who persuaded the Father Prefect that spiritual acts be counted too. Anyone performing one was to drop a white stone in a jar. Since such acts were private, honour had to be relied on and, at the final count, his own was put in doubt. He was the custodian of his army’s jar which, filling suddenly, tipped the balance for his side. Challenged, he swore to his good faith and, although the losing army protested, teachers turned a deaf ear. Hush! No grousing. Here we were all one big family. Testing times were upon us and our enemies at the gates.
This was true. A five-volume work maligning the Society had been printed in Switzerland and smuggled into the peninsula and the Pope had not condemned it. It looked as though his visit, seen first as a sign of support, had instead exhausted his goodwill. The worst sign of all came when in July the Austrians crossed the Po and occupied his city of Ferrara. The Pope protested and immediately rumours spread of an ‘Austro-Jesuit plot’ to assassinate him.
‘My dear sons and brothers in Christ,’ said the Society’s General, Father Roothan, in a special address to the community, ‘what sane, sober mind could believe such fancies?’
It seemed that few minds just now were sober or sane, for many did believe that a disturbance had been planned to furnish Metternich with a pretext to send troops to Rome.
‘But even if this were so, why connect it with us?’ asked the General. ‘What possible shred of evidence …’
Nicola, remembering Martelli’s note to his cousin, now began to get nightmares and awoke whimpering in the night. Was he a traitor? Were the Jesuits? The mob had taken to screaming that they were. ‘
’ was the shout out in the streets as lumps of dried dung were hurled against the Collegio windows, along with crumpled broadsheets showing Jesuits armed with phials of poison and bloody daggers. They had murdered Pope Ganganelli with slow poison when he condemned them in 1773. Beware, warned the broadsheets, lest they do the same to Papa Mastai! Cartoons, showing Jesuits with foxes’ tails sticking from under their soutanes, were pasted on walls, torn down by the police, then stuck up again. The Society’s claim to be politically neutral fell on deaf ears and expectations in Liberal circles were that the Pope would soon banish it ‘to prevent bloodshed’.
It was Flavio who brought this gossip which the Collegio pupils would not otherwise have heard.
‘I’m Flavio. From the orphanage. Don’t you remember?’
At first Nicola didn’t. He had been summoned to the porter’s lodge with his congregation’s basket of supplies for the deserving poor and had not recognised the orphan who was taller now and better dressed.
‘I brought these,’ he told Nicola, as they packed clothes and foodstuffs into bags. ‘Here.’ He slipped folded broadsheets into Nicola’s now empty basket. ‘Thought you’d be interested. Tell me, is it true the Jesuits brew up slow poisons which leave no trace?’
‘I don’t think you should take our charity and then spread idiotic tales like that.’
‘Who says they’re idiotic? Everyone believes them. I go out to work now and I hear a lot. I’ve been apprenticed to a bag-maker.’
‘What’s all this whispering?’ The doorkeeper, an ancient laybrother in a black bonnet, was standing over them. ‘Pishpishpish!’ he mimicked.
This old man was the Collegio’s link with the outer world. His nickname – as key-keeper – was Brother Peter. ‘Well,’ he sucked in his draw-string mouth, ‘hearing each other’s confessions, are we? There are professionals for that.’
‘Brother, is it true that the Fathers might get sent away like they were before?’
The doorkeeper, proud of being the last man alive to remember this event, was easily roused to reminisce. The Jesuits, he droned, were the Pope’s first line of defence and if there was, once again, a move to persuade the Holy Father to be rid of them, there was no need to ask who was behind it. Brother Peter’s finger was a divining rod blasted with old knowledge.
‘Satan!’ he quivered. He was as thin as sticks.
Flavio nudged Nicola. ‘Satan?’ he encouraged.
‘Satanassa,’ confirmed the old man. The fiend had started wreaking havoc after Pope Ganganelli suppressed the Society in 1773. In no time they’d had a revolution in France. Then Napoleon Bonaparte had come here to take a pope prisoner. A pope! The old man’s speech was asthmatic with excitement. ‘Pius the S-s-sixth. He wasn’t a day under eighty and paralysed in both legs but off they trundled him regardless. In February. Over the Alps.’ Brother Peter’s tremulous hands scaled peaks.
‘You’re older than that yourself, Brother, aren’t you?’
‘I am. But I’m not being bumped over icy roads and hope not to be. Do you know who the Holy Father’s companion was on his Calvary? An ex-Jesuit. Father Marotti! His
Yes. “Faithful to the
faithless” should be our motto. Have you packed your stuff? Well, off with you, then!’
As Flavio was leaving, another old Jesuit appeared. A transparent man with white hair-tufts in his nose and ice-pale eyes, he was known as ‘the Russian’ because, having lived in Russia when the suppressed Society had found refuge there, he could sometimes be persuaded to tell stories full of frozen, snowy wastes.
Flavio, who had been walking with his head turned to hear the doorkeeper’s last remarks, bumped into this frail man who might have fallen if Nicola had not steadied, then helped him to a chair.
‘Are you all right, Father? Well, we’ll be off then.’
‘Wait!’ The Russian stared at Flavio. ‘Who are you? he wanted to know. ‘What’s your family name?’
‘Rest yourself, Father!’ said the doorkeeper and whispered, ‘He’s nervous. A stone flew in his window last week. Stones they’re throwing now.’
He was herding Flavio out the door when the Russian asked again: ‘What’s your name?’
Flavio was clearly tempted to tell some magnificent lie. Instead, looking mortified, he admitted that his was a foundling’s name, Diodato, meaning God’s gift.
Well, the Jesuit persisted, did he know who his father was? No? Nor even his mother? Flavio, sulkily, shook his head. And how old was he? Seventeen. The old Jesuit nodded. ‘I
know something about you,’ he said. ‘Don’t start hoping. It’s a long shot, but worth looking into. Come and see me tomorrow – no, the day after. What time do you stop work?’
Flavio told him.
‘Good,’ said the old man. ‘Come and see me then.’
For some time after that, Nicola did not see Flavio, but the thought of what had happened kept running through his mind. He had dreamed of something like it happening to himself and felt Flavio had stolen his luck. Could this be a punishment for his initiative in the matter of the white stones? What had happened there was this. Nicola’s side had so fallen behind in the contest as to have no hope of winning by work or sport. It was also too late to catch up by spiritual acts but, since
currency was outside time, he decided that they could be counted in advance. There and then, he filled the jar with unearned stones and
now, months later, was furtively and single-handedly paying off the debt. It was a sort of spiritual slavery.
His patron’s feast day was coming up and Nicola had been encouraged to prepare an address in Latin verse. Will he be coming to hear it? he wondered.
But it seemed unlikely that Monsignor Amandi would come. There was a curl to the Father Prefect’s lip. Fair-weather friends were keeping their distance, for the Pope, whose policies had led to an impasse, seemed likely to sacrifice the Society. Last Sunday our preacher at the Gesù had thundered, ‘One cannot make a pact with the devil!’ He meant the Constitutional Liberals with whom Mastai was on dangerously good terms. There was a pent silence while the preacher’s eloquent eyebrows rose, then descended. ‘Even,’ he whispered piercingly, ‘to defeat a greater devil!’ The hush was now breathless. The Party of Revolution was the greater devil.
The church had been crowded and several great families had turned out to show their support for the Jesuits. Silken bonnets and
mantillas caught the gleam of votive candles, but the Civic Guard, which was on duty, had to restrain students from the Sapienza University from assaulting the preacher. Another time – this was on everyone’s mind – the guards might fraternise. They had been freshly recruited from among the citizens and were dangerously forbearing with the blackguards who continued to disturb the peace outside the Collegio windows.
Sometimes the boys caught glimpses of these. Dark mouths nuzzled the air and the mob’s faces seemed stunned by a conundrum. On his election, eighteen months ago, the Pope had promised to improve their lot and now it was worse.
With diminishing optimism, they varied their cry: Long live Pius the Ninth
Down with bad advisers!
So now the advisers were looking for scapegoats.
This was no sillier than their other notions. Take ‘progress’: a sad trick, said the Prefect of Studies, whereby unbelievers consoled
for their loss of faith. It related, he said, to the presumptuous anarchy of Protestantism and other -isms which meant as little to his pupils as the contagions afflicting sheep: Indifferentism, Pantheism, malignant pustules, Febronianism, carbuncular fever … ‘Ism, -ism,’ he lisped and his mouth puckered. Eczema, rabies, mange … The Prefect’s
face was the colour of bone. His hands hung like damp napkins. Was it not clear, he asked, that as mankind had fallen from grace and Rome from greatness, decline, not progress, must be nature’s law? How, in this metropolis, which had shrivelled and shrunk within its walls, could that be put in doubt? Did the walls’ marooned circumference speak of improvement? Did the fact that ancient Rome had covered three times the present city’s site? Cows now grazed in the Forum. Vineyards smothered the approaches to the Colosseum, navel of the ancient city.
‘Alas, my sons,’ and his damp-damask hands dangled with limp grace, ‘we come too late to plot the way our enemies suppose.’
His martyred melancholy caught at their hearts, and they longed to rush out and thrash these enemies – but the essence of martyrdom was
fighting; so dreams of giving back as good as you got had to be quashed.
There is comfort in passivity too, and Nicola sometimes surrendered to it during services in Saint Ignatius’ Church, where perspectives drew the eye towards the brown vortex of its cupola. The cupola was false. The Jesuits had never got around to building a real one, so torpid reveries were apt to liven into speculation about the technicalities of
Most of the Prefect’s colleagues would have thought this a good thing. Boys’ minds should be kept busy and the school day was a system of vents and checks designed to prevent any overheating of their inner life.
Unmixed feelings were dangerous – even family affections. Indeed, to the priests’ minds, families, though a necessary source of supply, were propagators of moral contagion for youths who had been insufficiently hardened. Like seedlings, it was a risk to remove them from shelter, and visits home were discouraged. Only during the annual vacation, starting in mid-September, were pupils supposed to go home and, even then, many were persuaded to go instead to the Society’s villa where sporting events, picnics and other wholesome activities were on offer. Thus Nicola had not suffered much through being an orphan. That is, he had not until now. And now there was talk of pupils being sent home. Home? To him it was unknown territory. Friends, when questioned about it, mentioned getting up late and eating pancakes. Indolence and gluttony seemed to sum up their nostalgia, as though they too were apprentice travellers in that foreign sphere.
Sometimes, at the end of a vacation, he had glimpsed one of their mothers through a carriage window, crushing her bonnet as she hugged her son goodbye. Then, off she would be driven and, for months, be as
remote as the Virgin Mary. ‘Queen of Heaven, Lily of the Valley … pray for us!’ Women were mediators and ambiguous. Real lilies of the valley were modest blooms sold by ragged vendors in the spring: girls from the Agro Romano who wore long gold pins in their hair with which, if you trifled with them, they would, it was said, unhesitatingly stab you through the heart.
Where, if the Jesuits were exiled, would Nicola go? Monsignor Amandi was his only connection outside the Collegio, so Nicola planned to use his Latin address to remind him of himself and, citing the old anagram for Collegium Romanum –
a place wondrous to an angel – invite him to visit.
It was, surely, time that Amandi told Nicola who his parents were.
The reasons for his lordship’s reticence might be painful. Nicola was braced, especially as everyone else was reticent too, including his confessor, Father Curci.
‘My son,’ he had answered when Nicola brought the matter up. ‘You have a family right here.’
‘I know, Father, and I’m grateful. But I must have had a real one too.’
‘What do you mean by “real”?’
Blood, said the confessor, was a mere animal link. ‘If your natural father turns out to be a Turk, will you become a Muhammadan? No? Well then …’
Cornered, Nicola admitted that he hoped to be – the word was hard to bring out – loved. This upset the confessor, who asked whether Nicola believed that a man who unthinkingly scattered his seed loved the fruit of it better than the one who chose to devote his life to the care of the young. ‘Why,’ he asked, ‘do you think we are called “fathers”?’