Authors: Julia O'Faolain
‘No,’ said Monsignor Mastai, adding that excessive humility was a form of pride.
‘Detach yourself from creatures.’ But could one not serve God in creatures? ‘I,’ she told the abbess, ‘did a little nursing in my uncle’s parish. Should we not concern ourselves with people’s bodies so as to help their souls?
The abbess said we must raise the matter with our new bishop. ‘How are you getting on,’ she asked, ‘with the new confessor?’
‘I think I frightened him.’
The priest had been baffled by Sister Paola. Had she not been His Holiness’s penitent, he would, he told the abbess, have thought her unstable.
‘Would you say the saints were all stable?’
‘But they were saints!’
‘Do you think those around them could tell?’
The abbess looked at the chubby face in front of her. Twenty-five years old? Twenty-six? ‘Father,’ she gave him the title without satiric intent. However, he blushed. ‘You should know that Sister Paola’s instability is due not to herself but to history. Shocking things happened in ’31. His Holiness used to discourage her dwelling on them. You may have your own ideas …’
Again the priest reddened and within days word came from the bishop that a new confessor would be sent. The first one wasn’t, it seemed, up to being a secular priest at all and was now thinking of becoming a monk. The bishop expressed regret.
‘What,’ the abbess asked Sister Paola with curiosity, ‘upset him?’
‘He asked me to confess a sin from my past life. I told him about the child.’
‘Ah.’ The abbess had been led to suppose that Sister Paola was suffering from a lapse of memory with regard to the child and that this was a mercy.
‘I have the evidence of my senses to remind me,’ said the nun. ‘Marks on my stomach.’
‘Do you worry about the baby?’
‘No. I was promised that it was being looked after and would be better off without me. I should like to help people who have nobody to look after them.’
Sister Paola was now thirty-one years old and knew her own mind.
Shortly after this the abbess arranged for her to study nursing with a French nun who claimed a connection with the Bonapartes and talked of them eagerly, especially of Louis Napoleon, who had so much of the family ambition that he had wrecked a plan to marry his cousin by embarking on a
which failed. Princess Mathilde – the cousin – had had to learn from the public press that her betrothal was off and her intended leaving for an enforced exile in the United States.
‘What a shock,’ said the nun, ‘for a young girl. He’s back, you know. Now. In Paris. He may yet come to power.’
‘Show me how to make a plaster.’
‘You haven’t an ounce of romance!’
Sister Paola did not mention her own meeting with Louis Napoleon but found her mind returning to that time and to her uncle’s death.
Coming in from the glitter of noon, she had sensed rather than seen him in the gloom of his curtained, walnut bed.
The housekeeper had warned: ‘He’s raving. The Bonaparte riffraff did for him.’
‘No,’ whispered the dying man and the whites of his eyes were phosphorescent. ‘It was her! She fornicated with them!’
The woman pulled at the girl’s arm and both saw a gleam of malice in the dying eyes.
But he was. The malice was the fixity of death.
Again she brought up the idea of giving money to the housekeeper. But the abbess said, ‘My dear, leave the poor wretch alone. Don’t go piling coals of fire on her head and shaming her. She has probably made some sort of life for herself. Forget her. You’re ashamed of hating her …’
‘I don’t …’
‘You do. It’s jealousy. I do think you were right when you said we should work in a practical way – nurse, help the poor and so forth. His Holiness expected so much and we were so eager to satisfy him that we’ve had a tendency here to
the spiritual life. Practical charity is easier to measure …’
‘You mean we’ve been lying? To him – and to God?’
‘I don’t think that’s as rare as you think,’ said the abbess tranquilly. ‘I suppose the housekeeper was your uncle’s concubine? Well, the truth may be that they were both saving him from incest. Think of him as wanting to protect you. Think of her as helping him.’
‘I suppose I do hate her.’
‘That’s your sin: the one you never told His Holiness.’
‘Maybe women’s confessors should be women?’
The boys stared after Monsignor Amandi. They were bored. Rain had prevented their going to the open ground outside the city, where they could have played ball or watched the games of seminarians whose cassocks swooped like shuttlecocks. Just past Porta Pia was their place. It was near the priests’ promenade where you could see cardinals stroll, while their carriages lumbered behind and footmen clung to them like grasshoppers. Towards sunset, the red of Their Eminences’ wraps could seem to run like dye and sounds turn tinny in the air. The grass in summer went as dry as plush.
‘He didn’t ask for you, Santi!’
A slim boy mimed mock despair: hands folded, chin on chest. He had picked up tricks like that from being regularly cast as an angel in the Christmas play where, until recently, his weight had been no strain for the flying-machines. The Jesuits were famous for their amateur
. Nicola’s tactics, when teased, were evasive and even girlish, but this went unremarked at the Collegio where masters, after all, wore skirts which they tucked up to play games and the laybrothers who looked after the boys’ domestic needs were described as having ‘motherly hearts’. Clerical Rome, on excluding women, had borrowed their characteristics.
‘Didn’t you say he was a cardinal?’
No, said Nicola, but a priest,
Monsignor Amandi with Cardinal Amat of Rimini, had tried to get Nicola to intercede with him for a favour. It had been the day the old pope died. Last spring. They’d gone on an excursion to the Villa d’Este and Tivoli.
It had been a luminous drive. The sky had throbbed with larks and the villa had been like a vision: a place of rainbows where terraced fountains foamed in celebration of the insubstantial. Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, making the most of his mortal span, had had it built in the sixteenth century and now five hundred fountains played for forty black-hatted
adolescents in rusty uniforms. News of Pope Gregory’s death reached them there and impromptu prayers heightened the sly voluptuousness of the place, while moss dampened the knees of their trousers.
News kept coming from the city and the school party mingled more with others than the Jesuits would normally have thought fit. Some secular priests and foreigners joined in conversation. What, asked the foreigners, would happen now? They were told that there would be a conclave and the college of cardinals elect one of themselves.
‘His patron’s one.’ A boy pointed to Nicola Santi who, as talk raced on, had no chance to clear up the error. The priests were hoping for a pope who could handle change. A young, fresh-faced one pointed at the fountains. Only ice could arrest
Disapprovingly, the Father Prefect moved his charges away and, when the others caught up, talk turned to other matters. Tivoli had been the Tibur of ancient Rome and the fresh-faced priest lowered his voice to say that this was where Propertius’s girl was buried. Nicola, pleased to show off, quoted:
Midnight, and Cynthia’s urgent note to say
I’m here at Tibur: come without delay …
The urgency pleased him and so did a glimmering guess as to what had made the poet ready to brave his fear of brigands and set off on the road to Cynthia – the very road which the Collegio charabancs had taken this morning.
The one braving things just now was Nicola, for the poem was not on the school curriculum. I’m here at Tibur, he thought. Yearning for urgency, he could not decide whether to think of himself as the imperious Cynthia or her lover.
The young priest’s name was Padre Rampolla. His party was turning back to Rome and, as he regretted missing the cascades, the Father Prefect offered him a seat in a charabanc. The sound of the great natural falls was audible long before they could be seen.
Here it was: plunging from its altitudes with a white tumultuous flourish. Its water possessed petrifying properties and a descent into the caves led past rocks hung with stony vegetation.
The horses’ heads were now turned towards Rome and the Father Prefect took his place in the leading charabanc, whence choruses of Ave Marias were soon floating on the breeze. In the second vehicle, however, where Padre Rampolla was sitting next to Nicola Santi, things were
different, for he kept the boys entertained all the way with jokes and poems. They were dazzled.
Next day when Nicola was called to the parlour, he was elated because he scarcely ever got visits. Padre Rampolla was sitting, with a lively smile, under the cheese-coloured bust of some forgotten cardinal. For some minutes, he chatted about their meeting yesterday, quoted some lines from Propertius and, just as he was starting to win Nicola’s ready and vulnerable heart, got down to business. He wanted a favour.
‘Our acquaintance,’ he apologised, ‘is recent, but …’ The priest’s sudden diffidence amazed the schoolboy. He hoped, he said, that Nicola could see his way to asking his patron to let Rampolla make himself useful to him during the coming conclave. ‘He hasn’t been living in Rome and will need men to fill temporary posts. These are ephemeral appointments but draw attention to the men chosen. If you could drop my name …’
‘With my patron?’
Rampolla looked put out. Nicola must not think he was moved by personal ambition. No, what he wanted was to be in a position to
Evil forces were mobilising. Father Rampolla’s tone grew hectoring, then, remembering that he was here for a favour, he stopped, smiled, then began to explain himself with pleading sweetness. Soon, however, he was excited again and began to walk about so that his cassock swished with eloquence. Zeal, he concluded, was needed as never before and he didn’t want his to wither while he wasted his youth performing trivial tasks.
‘Will you speak to the cardinal?’
‘I don’t know any cardinal.’
The priest looked hurt.
‘I don’t know why you should think I do.’ Nicola had forgotten the misinformation given by his schoolmate yesterday. ‘My patron is
Martelli roared with mirth. ‘Ah, the scheming priest! I wish I’d seen his face. What had he hoped for anyway? Did you find out?’
Nicola had. It seemed that, since conclavists must stay locked up until they had chosen a new pope, each needed a priest to bring him meals and the job was hotly sought.
‘Sacred scullions!’ quipped Martelli, who was a newcomer in Nicola’s line, having been in the senior one until he got sent back as a bone-head – which he wasn’t. What he was – and this amazed his classmates – was contemptuous of the Collegio curriculum whose excellence nobody, until now, had challenged in their hearing.
The Collegium Romanum thought of itself as the brains of Rome and was housed near the Pantheon in a great, barracks-like,
building which smelled of chalk, mutton fat, boiled greens and unwashed boy. It contained a boarding school, a day school, a famous observatory and the Gregorian University, and catered for twelve hundred youths whose waking hours were taken up with the study of dead languages and pious practices, wholesome games, and the pursuit of gentlemanly accomplishments. It was the only home Nicola had and he was pleasurably shocked by Martelli’s irreverence.
Martelli’s chief claim to fame was that last year he and another boy from a Liberal family, having been found doing nobody knew what, had each received fifty strokes on the buttocks from the school janitor on whose behalf each of their families had then been presented with a bill for five solidi. The other boy’s family had forthwith withdrawn him from the school and sued it for battery, a doomed manoeuvre since all courts were run by the Church.
When the litigious parents’ case had been duly quashed, the Father Minister had delivered a sermon castigating their failure to understand their son’s true interests. Martelli’s father, by contrast, was praised and Martelli acquired a halo of merit as though the strokes on his backside had ennobled him. He was now allowed more leeway than anyone else.
‘Well,’ he teased Nicola, ‘the would-be scullion muffed his shot because your patron is the Pope’s best friend. Cardinal or not, he’s a man to keep in with – and so are you!’ Laughing, he flung his arms around Nicola, then jumped away as he saw a priest hover in the corridor. Touching was forbidden. Even at football it was a foul to put a hand on another player and the word oozed contagiously through other prohibitions. Thus gestures took on force. Not linking arms became a link in itself.
This time, though, there was no reprimand. The priest had moved off. Something was changing in the Collegio. There had been other signs, small slacknesses which registered in that well-regulated place, as dust might do in the mechanism of a clock. Lately, some priests had grown stricter and others more affectionate. Hoping, perhaps to bind their community close? Accounts, read at meals, of the Society’s times
of heroic trial, described a beleaguered exaltation which might start out like this.
Pope Pius was to visit here shortly and preparations were in full, bustling swing. Did that mean that rumours of a rift between him and the Society of Jesus were false – or so true that a visit was necessary? Yesterday a Collegio boy had been spat on by a woman shouting, ‘Jesuit vermin!’ He had been the last in a group to file down one of those dark lanes canopied by laundry, and when they reached the sun there was a sparkle of saliva on his black uniform. Nicola, reliving the scene in his mind, imagined the spittle landing on his own trouser leg and
the pleasure he sometimes felt when checking a tantrum. He was quick-tempered but, somewhere in his body, an opiate, triggered by stifled rage, could procure a strangely soothing languour.
Just now there were plenty of occasions for turning the other cheek. Mobs had been throwing dung at the Collegio windows. One of these nights, they yelled, they would burn it down. Why? The Collegio pupils, who studied no modern history, could not imagine. Their teachers had kept them in ignorance of today’s world and the mob too was ignorant. Now, like baffled zoo creatures, the two herds confronted each other.
Nobody knew why – except, perhaps, for Martelli who had raffish connections and got secret news. Shrugging and putting his hands in his pockets – another forbidden act – he sauntered off.
Over the next few days, preparations for the papal visit speeded up, as borrowed tapestries were delivered, half-moon-shaped portraits of past pupils who had achieved distinction inserted into the courtyard arches, and chalk and string lines drawn where, at the last moment, mosaics of fresh flowers would be arranged. Into these would be incorporated Pope Pius’s initials and coat of arms – a gold-crowned lion rampant on a ball – and various emblems indicative of Jesuit loyalty to the Holy See. Martelli claimed that secret preparations were also afoot and that it was not only the mob which engaged in nocturnal sorties. Jesuits had been making trips to a graveyard where one of their most revered bretheren had been buried, a man who had struggled to save the Society from Pope Ganganelli’s dissolution order in 1773.
If the corpse were to be found intact or, better, smelling of roses, this would show him to have been a saint and Ganganelli wrong to have given in to the pressures of free-thinkers. Those now attacking the Jesuits would receive a set-back and the Pope turn a deaf ear to their arguments. That, said Martelli, was the plan.
How did he know? He laid a finger to his nose. Attar of roses, he
assured, had been sprinkled on the grave after Father Grassi had been seen leaving here in a carriage with two muscular novices and a bag of picks and shovels. However, the corpse, or rather skeleton, had proven putrid and had to be reburied fast. The attar of roses was cover for the stench. The trick had not come off.
‘Martelli, you’re a little rat! Here we are besieged by a rabble and you …!’
‘Have you no loyalty?’
But his stories held them. Among fifteen-year-olds there are always some who hope to discover that the world is full of surprises. Martelli, a Prince of Darkness, went so far as to sneak candles into his friends’ cubicles at night, open locked doors and lead forays to view the besieging mob. Nor did it stop there. One thing led to another and soon they were rolling dice and accepting dares. This was how Nicola, one evening after lights out, found himself in a forbidden part of the Collegio whence he must, by the terms of the dare, bring back proof of his incursion. He was dodging down a dark corridor when he heard the Rector’s voice and, stepping backwards, felt himself pulled into an alcove. The Rector and another Jesuit passed by.
‘Sh!’ whispered a voice, ‘Spies must stick together.’
When the coast was clear, his rescuer pulled back a curtain and, by moonlight, Nicola saw a balding man with hard, close-set eyes. ‘You were spying?’ supposed the man.
‘No. I came for a dare.’
‘Ah. Well, I saved you from trouble anyway. Will you post a letter for me?’
‘I can’t go out alone. We’re not allowed.’
‘Give it to someone who can. Milk boy. Day boy. There’s always someone. Well, will you? Or are you the timid sort? A rabbit?’
‘I’ll take it.’
‘Good. Wait.’ The man disappeared, then came back with a letter. ‘I’ve been wondering whom to give it to,’ he said. ‘Stroke of luck. That’s a good sign. Once luck starts it stays a while. Don’t tell anyone you saw me. Hurry now. They’ll be at their prayers for a bit. Go.’
‘But I promised,’ he cried, as Martelli broke the seal. However, his protest already seemed part of a world of scruple which was now childishly obsolete.
‘This is in code!’ Martelli read: ‘“Resurrection urgent!” I have friends who’ll be interested.’ He had a Liberal cousin who was said to be close to the Pope.
‘We can’t post it with a broken seal.’
‘We are not going to post it.’ Martelli put the letter in the lining of his jacket.
Next morning the two had the task of helping hang a very large tapestry which smelled of the sooty, private palace from whence it came. It had been rolled into a cylinder and so tightly roped that at first they couldn’t undo it. At last a stretch of it uncoiled and motifs became visible – a border of grotesques whose bodies, like tadpoles, tailed off below the bust. Then the thing stuck fast. A third, more muscular youth, a day boy from the Irish College, was summoned to help, but the roll remained jammed between islands of immovable furniture.