Authors: Julia O'Faolain
‘It’s heavy,’ said the Irish boy. ‘I think there’s something inside it. Something hard.’
‘Nonsense!’ rallied the priest who had given them the job. ‘Three strapping fellows like you can manage that. Hanging it will be trickier. We’ll have to rig up a pulley. I’ll get some ropes.’
He left. The three gave a concerted heave and …
‘Cover them! Quick! Roll it up!’
‘Shouldn’t we …?’
Best pretend we never opened it!’ Martelli kept watch while the other two rerolled the stiff parcel. Grotesques, embowering greenery and their awful find, were re-enclosed and the ropes feverishly reknotted as the three recoiled from unmanageable knowledge.
When the priest came back in consternation to say that this particular item should have gone elsewhere, his charges’ red faces could be ascribed to vain efforts to pull off the ropes.
‘Those guns …’
‘Listen! Either they were brought to make trouble for the Society or else a few firebrands
are planning trouble for …’
Martelli’s listeners goggled.
‘I won’t listen,’ said the Irish boy whose name was Gilmore. He was big, slow and pious.
Martelli was impatient. What they should know, he said, was that there was some very desperate plotting going on among men who would do anything to get this pope to change his policies. ‘The Jesuits are thought to be in the thick of it and if they’re
then something could be done to make them come in. This is just the sort of thing – plant guns on them and let them be “discovered”, maybe during the Pope’s visit! Can you imagine the scandal!’
Austria, Martelli explained, needed an excuse to send in troops and a disturbance here in Rome would serve perfectly. Troops would ‘rescue’ the Holy Father, then dictate terms to him and stay until they had restored the old Gregoriani to power.
‘These tapestries will be hard to get rid of. For the Collegio’s sake we should let one of the moderate ministers know.’
The other two were out of their depth. Could the Jesuits truly be against the Pope? And if they could not, what harm could come of doing what Martelli said?
‘We can’t tell anyone here,’ he argued, ‘because we don’t know who knows already. It could be dangerous to tell the wrong person.’
Unexpectedly the Irish boy nodded. Yes, he agreed, remembering stories of Ribbon men back home.
So, decided Martelli, they’d tell the police. The minister in charge of them was a friend of his cousin. They could come in discreetly to look about – after all, with His Holiness expected here on the 27th, what could be more natural? They could take the things out the way they came in. No scandal.
‘Gilmore can take a note out on his way home to the Irish College.’
‘No,’ said the Irish boy. ‘Not me. Sorry, no.’
‘Oh all right then. I’ll manage myself – but you two hold your tongues. Will you?’
What Martelli could not know was that Gilmore, returning every evening to his own college, escaped
influence and surrendered to a nervous hysteria brought on by starvation. For some time now, the Hibernici had been eating very little in order to save and send money to their country, where a famine was raging.
Hunger gave Gilmore insomnia and insomnia scruples, and after three nights of staring at the small, screened window above his bed, he became convinced that it was his duty to denounce Martelli.
‘Cleanse my heart and lips, oh God,’ he prayed, ‘who didst cleanse the lips of the prophet Isaiah with a live coal.’
Then he went to see the Prefect of Studies at the Romano.
The Prefect was not in his study and Gilmore was put to wait in an ante-room lined with bookcases. Nervously, he examined the books behind the wire netting. There were several copies of one by the late pope entitled
Outside in the courtyard, work had begun on the floral mosaic and containers were being set in place. Light ricocheted off glass and made Gilmore sway. His hands shook with hunger. Perhaps there was a harmless explanation for the guns? On the 27th, the papal guard would accompany the Pope. Could they have been delivered for their use? Treachery had a queer repellent attraction. Gilmore savoured the thought of hurting Martelli and Nicola whom he liked. It was because he did that the thought appealed. He wanted to get close and hurt them so that he could then succour them or at least share their hurt. Missionary tales of martyrs were his source. You suffered torture together. Your blood mingled and your bodies opened. The mind was blasted into extinction and you were freed from your beastly separate self.
Outside, the sun abolished edges. Its glitter fused the figures of
boys. Gilmore’s eyelids blazed when closed and, when he opened them, red flames floated like those in a devotional painting.
Coming in, the Father Prefect found him with his head between his knees.
‘Well?’ The priest, visibly in a hurry, was carrying papers and his old soutane was rubbed shiny in several places. The boy saw this with unusual clarity.
‘You wanted to see me?’
‘Father, I … wanted to report someone.’ The boy felt as though he had been taken over by a part of himself which he didn’t wish to know. A traitor? A spy? The shock of these names jerked him awake.
‘I’m sorry. That wasn’t what I meant to say.’
‘Well, you’ve said it.’
‘I’m sorry, Father. I’ve been ill. Dizzy. There’s nothing really to report.’
The priest looked keenly at him. ‘You’ve lost your nerve!’ he accused. ‘You don’t like to denounce a fellow pupil. Yet might it not be for his good?’ He paused. ‘You may rely on my discretion.’
‘I know, Father.’
‘As I have explained to you all, it is your companions’ souls you should consider …’ The priest spoke rapidly. He was busy. The building was being metamorphosed; images of harmony must be laboriously invoked and an effort made to show that the Society could work with this dangerous pope. Now here was this boy, not even one of our own boarders, but clearly in need of attention …
‘Father Prefect.’ Someone stood at his door.
‘One moment.’ He told the boy, ‘Come to confession to me tomorrow.’
‘It’s Martelli,’ said the youth in a nervous rush. He spoke as if racing himself and was ungainly, all knobbly wrists and with feet like fetlocks under his outgrown cassock.
‘A delivery!’ The messenger at the door made urgent gestures. Downstairs, carriages were arriving in a stream, workmens’ drays making deliveries and the square outside in such a tangle that …
‘Yes,’ said the Father Prefect. Then, to the boy, ‘Tomorrow then. Now I have to go.’
The boy walked down the stairs.
Outside, a party of papal guards waited while their officer explained something to the porter. As Gilmore passed, the officer took back a paper which the old man had been studying and ordered his men to enter the building.
The porter shook his head. ‘An inspection, if you please. As if there wasn’t enough confusion.’
Gilmore rushed off into the hot afternoon.
‘Can you believe he’s blown the gaff?’ Martelli was caught between mirth and indignation. ‘Half-blown it! He started to snitch then stopped. Who? The Irish testicle and testifier:
It seems he mentioned my name, then lost his nerve. Anyway, it was too late. I’d already reported
Nicola was horrified.
They were in chapel. The rector, Father Manera, had, said Martelli, summoned him but was being cautious. ‘My cousin’s going to be on the
Pope’s Advisory Council, so …’ Papal guards, he confided, had removed you-know-what after dark.
sang the choir hopefully.
Scurellus was Nicola Santi’s nickname and there were two stories as to how he got it. One turned on a small spiritual swindle and the other had a whiff of the midden. It happened in that same summer of ’47. There had been food riots in the northern Legations; half Rome was living on charity and he and some classmates were sent with alms to an orphanage. This institution caricatured their own. It was a vast, draughty place with outsize pilasters and pediments and peeling baroque flourishes and, in its vestibule, between grubby busts of dead cardinals, a braided whip, made of ligaments from bullocks’ necks, hung prominently on a nail.
When Nicola entered one of the workrooms, a boy was kneeling in the middle of the floor. The overseer motioned him back to his place and Nicola saw that he had been kneeling on dried beans.
The alms were received politely but there was mockery in the recipients’ eyes. These were boys from the streets. Driven off them by the bad times and dearth of foreign tourists, they must know more about life than the Collegio pupils could imagine.
Shyly, the donors delivered their message. At their request, the orphans were to have a half holiday. All were to meet in chapel and celebrate with a Te Deum. Impatiently, the monk in charge of the workroom cut in with a roar. Work tools must first be put away and if he caught anyone stealing any, he’d personally flay the hide off him. Then all must proceed in an orderly manner. He barked this out with the domineering relish of a non-commissioned officer and it struck the Jesuit boys that that was precisely what monks like this were: low-level bullies in the Church’s army. It shocked them, for their own teachers were gentlemen and they watched with shame as the tools were accounted for under the monk’s grudging and suspicious eye. Hammers, awls, waxed thread, and needles were locked up and the key secured to his rosary beads.
Nicola, who was an orphan himself, shuddered to think he might have ended in a place like this. Just then, the boy who had been kneeling on beans startled him with a wink. On the way out of the chapel he whispered, ‘Is that your livery?’ pinching a fold of Nicola’s sleeve. ‘It’s dangerous nowadays to wear it. Did you know that in the Legations men won’t wear black ribbons in their straw hats. Guess why?’
‘Because black and yellow are the Pope’s colours. He’s not as popular as he was. Nothing lasts, you see. I had a pretty livery once. Covered with gold lace. I was working for an English milord who called me his Roman monkey.’
The exit from the chapel had halted. Too many people were trying to squeeze through.
‘What sort of work did you do?’
Nicola was offended. The boy put a hand on his. ‘It’s myself I’m making fun of. I was his toy. He had funny ways.’
‘Why didn’t you stay with him?’
‘I got consumption and he was afraid he’d catch it. Couldn’t get rid of me fast enough. He used to kiss me, you see, and
carries the disease.’ The boy lowered his voice: ‘Would
kiss me? Would you be afraid?’
‘No,’ said Nicola with defensive scorn. ‘No to both questions.’
‘Do I disgust you?’
‘Of course not.’
‘If I had my gold livery I’d swop it for yours. I like yours. It’s austere. Are you a Jesuit?’
‘How could I be? I’m only a boy.’
‘You think I’m ignorant, don’t you? I’ll bet I know things which would surprise you!’
‘I don’t doubt that.’
The crowd had at last started to move. Nervously, Nicola began to elbow his way forward.
‘They say,’ his companion’s breath was hot on his ear, ‘that the Jesuits will be thrown out of Rome any day now. Thrown out or burnt out. So it’s as well you’re not one, isn’t it?’
‘I couldn’t be!’ Nicola was relieved to have something specific on which to concentrate indignation. ‘I told you. I’m only fifteen! A boy! Like you.’
‘I’m seventeen. I know I don’t look it. It’s the feeding. My mother – if she
my mother – was undernourished, so …’ He made a gesture to indicate his own dwarfishness. ‘My name is Flavio.’
‘Santi!’ The Collegio group was being rounded up. ‘We’re leaving.’
Outside in the sunlight there was the tail-end of a commotion and Nicola’s friends began to tell him what had happened. A drunken beggar had shouted insults at them and mocked their slimy charity. ‘Keep the
best back, don’t you!’ he had cried. ‘Keep it for yourselves!’ Then he put his finger on a gold medal which one boy was wearing. He had probably meant to do no more than touch it, but the boy snatched at the chain and, somehow, the medal flew through the air to land in one of those middens which citizens persisted in leaving in the middle of the most elegant squares. These heaps of rot, excrement – equine and human – old cabbage stumps and the occasional dead animal were often left to ferment through the dog days so that they gave off a smell like gas and, when finally carted off, steamed as though on the point of combustion.
‘I’ll get your medal,’ Nicola told its owner.
‘No,’ called the priest in charge, but already Nicola had a foot on the heap which was piled around a fountain. The stink caught his throat, bringing tears to his eyes. Balancing against the fountain’s statuary, he put his other foot on the rim, leaned into the muck and picked out something which was gleaming in the sun, the medal.
‘I’ll wash it,’ he called, aware that the boy from the orphanage must be watching. It was unclear to himself why, but he felt as though he had recoiled from a challenge and was doing this to make up. Turning, he lost his footing and fell in the filth.
On the walk back, a mock debate started as to whether his act should be castigated or admired. This was the sort of topic which, worked up into Latin verse, could win you a prize in the Collegio. His stink, however, offended the debaters’ nostrils.
sacrifice, my foot.
have to smell him.’
‘Keep to the leeward, Santi! That beggar called us slimy. Santi’s like a drowned rat!’