Authors: Howard Fast
Such moments were highly sensual, and very often he occupied them in planning some small pleasure he might grant himself in the hour that remained before his dinner time. He needed to deny himself no such pleasures, and he was fond of saying to his intimates that no passage with a woman was as rewarding or as delightful as that which occurred in the afternoon, before one's evening meal. Today he played with this thought, and created images in those special recesses of his mind reserved for and devoted to this game. He allowed a full massage today. He stretched like a great cat while the oil was poured on him and all the kinks and tensions of the day were rubbed out of his limbs. It was most fitting that he should plan both love and amusement, as well as certain significant matters of state, while this was going on; and when he stood on his feet again, he was stimulated not only by the physical massage, but by the excitement of his thoughts as well. He examined himself with new interest in the mirror. He peered at the flesh over his abdomen, and tested it for any softness or bulk that might indicate approaching middle age.
Age terrified him, even as death terrified him, and his worst moments came when he reflected upon age or death. Recently he had been thinking of both of these unhappy states a little more than the circumstances of his life and position seemed to warrant.
The circumstances in themselves were quite good, for neverâit seemed to himâhad his own position or the position of the country been better. The last pockets of resistance in the land had been eliminated. The menace of communism had been crushed decisivelyâand once and forever; and only a few days before, he had stood proudly and fiercely upon his balcony, facing a great sea of human faces, hundreds and thousands of people pressed together, who roared in unison the thunderous ovation of,
“Duce! Duce! Duce!”
He spoke of what he had achieved for them. He informed them that the Bolshevik menace, the Godless, fanged monster of communism, had been slain, even as once so long ago, the dragons of perfidy had been slain by the champions of chivalry. Italian Bolshevism was dead; Italian communism was dead. There was order all over the land, and for fascism, a thousand fruitful years; during which years the riches of the whole world would reward those who believed, obeyed, and followed.
In spite of this, in spite of the great ovation he had received, in spite of the adulation of everyone around him, in spite of the increased respect he was winning on the diplomatic front from the great nations he so envied and admiredâFrance, Britain and the United States of Americaâin spite of the proof that his physical prowess was undiminished and his ability to play the part of a noble stallion in no way impairedâin spite of all these happy circumstances, he had been unduly depressed of late, and more than a little worried and perturbed that he could not locate the source of his depression.
Only a few nights ago, he had dined with a well known Viennese psychiatristâhe had a compelling if secret admiration for the professionâand had placed before this psychiatrist the question of whether or not he, the psychiatrist, believed that the ancient Roman emperors were convinced of their own godliness and their own immortality?
“Well, sir,” the Viennese had replied,” you must take those two things separately. Godliness and immortality are not synonymous. It is only today that we reward the gods with eternal life. In ancient times, there were gods who lived for exceedingly long periods, and there were others who perished even as men perish. But it is questionable whether the ancient civilizations even conceived of the gods as immortal; they had really never posed this particular problem for themselves, since they were not troubled, as we are, by a hunger for eternal life.
The Dictator wondered whether this was actually the case. Not infrequently, the Dictator identified himself with the ancient rulers of Imperial Rome. A Tuscan sculptors' guild had made him a gift of three busts of Romans of long ago who resembled him so greatly that they might each of them have been his twin. Also, it was not uncommon for him to dream that he was a god, and then in the first hours of waking from such a dream, be unable to separate the god from himself or himself from the god. He would laugh at himself rather easily and good naturedly for indulging his own small fancies, but at the same time he would reserve to himself the conviction that many great mysteries remained unknown to and unsolved by either science or philosophy. Very lightly, with surprising humor, he conveyed this to the Austrian psychiatrist; for he knew that all men talked, and particularly that they liked to gossip about the great, and he had no desire to have it voiced around that he cherished such illusions of himself as intimations of godliness. The Austrian psychiatrist, however, being sensitive to the slightest wish of the Dictator, sensed what was in the Dictator's mind, and pursued the question himself, making it plain to the Dictator that he, the Dictator, had as much right to godliness as any successor of Julius Caesar.
“We know so little about the body,” the psychiatrist said reasonably. “Its mysteries are endless and almost untouched. Consider the ductless glandsâwhat secrets they might reveal if they were ever made to talk to us in their own language of chemistry, is almost beyond man's imagination. Who is to say that man is dust?âout of dust and into dust again? Why do men die? We can only guess. Old age itself is a mystery.”
“But all men do die,” the Dictator argued, pressing the point so that the psychiatrist might lead the conversation further on the same road.
“Do they?” The Viennese raised his brow. “How do we know? Have we a record of the births and deaths of all men? Consider this, sir. Suppose that a man's body and spirit conquered mortality, not mystically, but with its own inner chemistry? He would find that as the years passed, he grew no older; and once the suggestion of such evidence became an actual fact, he would have to meet the situation and cope with it. In other words, though he lived, he would have to simulate death, he would have to disappear, he would have to concoct a suicide, he would have to emigrate, flee, move from city to city. How do we know that this has not been the case with many people? If it were the case, such secrets would be the most carefully kept secrets that any human being could own; for if it were known by the lesser breed who must of a certainty die when their mortal time comes, then they would turn upon the immortal and destroy him as mercilessly as wolves drag down a deer.”
The Dictator hung on every word of this fantastic peroration, and while he tried to mask the eagerness and rapt attention with which he listened, his powers of concealment were less than suited to this particular need.
“But if such a gift were granted to men of power, they would not have to hide and skulk.”
“But how many men of power have there been since history began?” the psychiatrist asked softly. “If we look upon this thing statistically, then we must grant that there have been too few men of power to test itâreal power, I meanâthe indisputable power that once in a millenium is vested in one man of immense strength, wisdom, conviction and control.â¦”
That conversation had been one of the most truly rewarding and wonderful things the Dictator had ever experienced. And the night it took place, he slept like a baby, without fear or presentiment of evilânor did he face any of the cold mental horrors of his own death without resurrection in the lonely moments before he slept.
Today, however, coming out of what should have been the totally satisfying stimulation and relaxation of exercise, bath and massage, he felt gloomy and ill at ease; and he wondered why his peace of mind had fled so suddenly. He was wrapping himself in a great towel-robe, preparatory to going to his dressing room, when his secretary came in with a handful of notes and messages, ready to pursue the business of state as the Dictator dressed.
“Now certainly this can wait today,” the Dictator protested. “I am in no mood for business. Can't you see that I am in no mood for business?”
“Some business. Some will wait; some will not wait.”
They walked together into his dressing room. While he dressed with the help of two attendants, he glanced at some of the business that called for his attention.
“This can wait,” he said. “This certainly can wait. I find it most provoking to be bothered with this kind of thing when I say I don't want to be bothered. Here is a petition for a street car concession from that fat pig Ginetti. We informed him what it would cost him. He pretends not to have heard us, and to have no idea of what it will cost him. That sort of behavior is trying. Send this petition back to him. Tell him I am very annoyed with him, and that he will eat the petition if he doesn't listen to what I say. The Dutch minister can wait. The more indignities I heap upon the Dutch, the more my dislike for the Germans is satisfied. As far as Santani is concerned, I consider him a gangster. I will have nothing to do with him short of one million
. That is his price for respectability, and unless he pays in thirty days, it will become two million. And here again is the case of Sacco and Vanzetti. Am I never to hear the end of this? Will I hear nothing but Sacco and Vanzetti from now until doomsday? At this point, the names make me sick. Let those communist bastards fry in hell! I tell you, the names make me sick! I don't want to hear the names again.”
He finished dressing. His secretary, who had remained with him, waited patiently, and finally said,
“I understand. Nevertheless, Sacco and Vanzetti are important figures to the people.”
“Tell them we have taken the matter under consideration, and will do all in our power to alleviate the severity justly meted out to the two red bastards.”
They walked together toward the office, and on the way they were joined by the Minister of Labor. The secretary and the Ministor of Labor, both walking a pace behind the Dictator, looked at each other, and communicated with brow and eyelash. They dropped four paces behind as the Dictator entered his office, and they waited while he walked twenty paces across the lush carpeting to reach his desk. When he had seated himself and swung to face them, his countenance was dark with anger, and underneath the anger was petulance. They were hounding him. Men like these, his own servants, his own aides, his own sycophants, had become bold enough to hound him, and instead of the next hour being his, to dispose of as he pleased, they were determined to make it theirs.
“Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzettiâ” the secretary began.
“The matter of those two is closed,” the Dictator said firmly.
The Minister of Labor came two steps closer to the Dictator and said, with a mixture of prudence, wariness, and the intimacy of confidence,
“You will not be faced with this matter indefinitely, sir. Tonight, both of these men will be executed. So, to a degree, that finishes it. I mean to indicate that a point has come where this case will complete itself.”
Unable to read clearly or fathom completely the mask of anger the Dictator wore, the Minister of Labor paused, waited, and then inquired,
“May I go on? There are some facts in connection with this case that must be noted, and some things which must be done. But perhaps you would prefer not to hear all the facts?”
“Continue,” the Dictator said shortly.
“Yes. As I said, the matter ends tonight. Both of these men will be executed tonight, and then, whatever the aftermath, it will very quickly die away. It is impossible to conduct an agitational campaign for the dead. The stability of death prevents such a campaign from being effective. Nothing can really be changed by such a campaign, for death is unchangeable.”
“How do you know that the execution will not be postponed again?” the Dictator demanded.
“I can be fairly confident of that. This morning, when the workers came out of the factories for their lunch, there was a demonstration of several thousand people in front of the American embassy. Rocks were thrown, windows were broken, and the automobile of the charge d'affaires of the French embassy, which happened to be standing in front of the American embassy, was overturned and set on fire. The police broke up this demonstration, and twenty-two of the ring leaders were arrested. Two of them, we are fairly certain, are communists. The others, however, are totally new to us and to our files, which gives an indication of how widely the Sacco and Vanzetti agitation has spread, and how cleverly it has been used. It puts the police in a most awkward position, for the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti becomes a matter of national pride and honor. There have been all too many tales of insults and indignities visited upon the Italian immigrants in America lately for the people to be indifferent to this matter. They see this thing as a matter of national honor. Therefore, I issued an order to the police to release all of those arrested, including the two whom we suspect of being communistsâwho, incidentally, we will keep under surveillance, so that they may prove useful to us in that manner. I think you will agree, sir, that this action in this particular connection was the wisest thing which could be done.”
The Dictator agreed. “Continue,” he said.
“At two o'clock, I met with the American Ambassador. He is very devoted to you, and he stated that you might rest easy about this particularly bothersome matter. He said it will very soon be over, and no longer a source of trouble.”
“He said that?” the Dictator inquired, his face less angry than before.
“In precisely those words, in just so many words.”
“The Minister of Labor turned to the secretary for confirmation. “Did I not put it that way beforeâin those exact words?”
“In those exact words,” The secretary nodded.
“You see that no friendship is wasted,” the Dictator said, smiling for the first time since he had gotten off the masseur's table. “However, there are friendships and friendships. A fool builds bridges into a wilderness. A wise man cultivates those who possess influence.”