Man and mule were both hot, tired and thirsty as they moved slowly through the harsh landscape of dusty scrub and dry grass sprinkled over its low undulations interspersed with dry valleys and flat topped mesas.The thorny cacti in particular repelled the man, although he was accustomed to them. They appeared to him as upthrust fingers of Satan arising from Hell, contorted into obscene gestures and writhing to grasp sinners to be dragged down to destruction. An unsought thought came to him that a flower at the tip of one of these fingers was like the chalice of an unholy Mass being sneeringly offered to him by the Evil One. Such fancies had disturbed his travels for some time, but now they were becoming stronger. Perhaps they indicated incipient sunstroke, but he felt that they were delusions of the Devil, snares to divert his soul and distract his mind from holiness and duty, although they might be an obscure indication and warning that evil had laid a strong hand on this land and its people, and more of it was about to flower.
Much as he - and the mule - would have preferred to have been in green pastures beside cooling streams he put aside such foolish thoughts, well knowing that there would be no relief for him or his mule until they reached their next destination, which he expected to do around nightfall.Then it would be time to rest and share the simple hospitality of his hosts, putting such visions behind him. He resumed telling his rosary beads as the mule continued to plod forward, both absorbed in their tasks.
It was indeed dark before the priest reached his destination, the monastery of San Geronimo, guided over the final kilometres by a local peasant. The porter took him to the Abbot's parlour. Inside they found the Abbot, a thin man in middle age, who was seated at an old wooden desk bearing a lighted candle which sufficiently illuminated the room for those near the desk to see each other clearly. He rose and greeted them, repeating the porter's welcome, before dismissing him and inviting the priest to be seated with him beside the desk.
Carefully the priest took a packet of waxed cloth from inside his robe, opened it and unfolded a document written on heavy paper adorned with florid calligraphy and bearing a large seal of blood-red wax impressed with an elaborate armorial design. "Father Abbot", he began, as he extended the document for inspection. "My name is Mendoza and I am an emissary from His Eminence Cardinal Ximenes. As you can see, this is my commission and introduction to you and the other Religious in the province. His Eminence requests that you will assist me in carrying out a task which he has assigned to me." Slowly the abbot ran his eyes over the letter, pausing to examine the ornate flourishes of the signature and the intricate elaborations of the seal thoughtfully, before lifting them to regard his visitor.
"Naturally, I will be happy to assist you and His Eminence. What is it that you require?"
Thus he was quite unsurprised when a peasant arrived at the monastery a few days later bearing an invitation from Don Roberto Baltassar, the most considerable landowner in the district, and his wife Dona Maria, for him to visit and stay at their hacienda for a week.
This journey was far less tiring than the previous one had been. Both Father Mendoza and his beast (whose name we may reveal to be Nicodemus) were reinvigorated, spruced up and looking forward to their outing. The priest was no glutton and was used to the spartan fare and physical exertion of monastic and peasant life, but he admitted that it was pleasant to occasionally be treated to the table and conversation of a gentleman.
That evening, pleasantly refreshed, he dined with his hosts and their other guests from the local gentry.The roast beef they were served was succulent and a welcome change from the almost entirely vegetarian diet of his recent travels, as was the selection of wines which accompanied it. His interest in local history had been gratified by the conversation of his host and the other guests, who in turn had eagerly received such sketchy and outdated news of the wider world and its important people as his membership of the retinue of His Eminence had granted him before he had left the provincial capital several months ago. It turned out that Dona Maria had a cousin who was related by marriage to the family of one of the Canons there, so she knew something of its society and they had several acquaintances in common. He had not known of this in advance, but had been fairly confident that something of the sort would emerge once his presence in the district had become known to some of the local gentry and he had been invited to meet them. It usually did. His host and the other gentlemen had entertained him with old tales about the valour and piety of their ancestors and how they had obtained and settled their lands and the subsequent squabbles which made up local politics. Don Roberto's great-great grandfather had actually served the legendary Don Arturo,leader of the Reconquista, and had been granted a wide estate by him. His descendants' prowess, shrewdness and political agility had enabled them to hang on to most of it.
The Old City
Don Roberto was pleased by the priest's interest in his family and in local history and offered to show him some places of interest on his estate. He was well spoken and reasonably well born, with the manners of a gentleman and connections to high ecclesiastical authority, and his visit allowed a diversion in the somewhat monotonous social routine of country life; so the Don was pleased to entertain him for a few days and to gratify as far as he could his interest in old books and antiquities. The priest on his mule accompanied Don Roberto and several of his men on horseback as they went to see the sights of the area. As the Don talked and pointed out places of interest Mendoza felt his pride and love of this harsh landscape made and kept fertile and beautiful in places by the unremitting efforts of men.The Don mentioned that there were some unimpressive ruins, known to the locals as the 'Old City' and offered to take him there."The peasants think it is haunted", he said. They don't like to go there. They think that the ghosts live there. There's a few slaves who hang around there. Certainly only ghouls or bandits or slaves would be willing to live there."
As the Don had intimated, the ruins were not impressive. Amidst the scrub there were the low broken concrete walls of a few buildings which had fallen into dilapidation or been destroyed long ago. They drifted slowly and silently through this desolation for a few minutes until the Don noticed a patch of corn and other crops growing adjacent to one of the more prominent ruins. As they approached it became evident that this was a small kitchen garden, presumably watered by a well and tended by one or more of those elusive 'ghouls bandits or slaves'. The priest noticed that there were also some exotic garden plants and bushes as if someone was trying to maintain a humble imitation on a tiny scale of the Don's magnificent estate, perhaps using plants stolen from there.
As they drew closer one of the horses snorted. Startled, a man dressed in rags who had been on his knees among the plants using a broken piece of concrete to scrape at the earth around them, jumped up and stared at them before dropping the shard as he fled. At a flick of the Don's head two of his horsemen immediately flowed into graceful pursuit, their horses trampling a path through the crops as the riders unleashed lassos. With the easy skill of long practice they dropped both nooses over the shoulders of the running man, pulled him to the ground and dragged him to lie, bruised, battered, bleeding and even more dishevelled at the feet of the Don."So Abel, we meet again" he said to the figure at his feet. Then to Father Mendoza, "We call him Abel. I've had to have him flogged occasionally for petty theft or drunk and disorderly conduct, but he's not really dangerous, else he'd have been dead long since. He's a bit simple but sometimes useful when there's extra work to be done. He claims that this was the property and home of his ancestors. Well,its mine now, but I let him stay here. You can question him, although I doubt that he'll be able to tell you anything of interest."
Father Mendoza gazed intently at the bound figure in the dust before them, held firmly there by the counterpoised pull of the two ropes. Before the man had dropped his head he had glanced at the priest, who had immediately been struck by the intense gaze of those strange pale blue eyes in the sharp featured face topped by a mop of yellowish-brown hair. Most unusual. "He does look strange, doesn't he?" said the Don. "Under the grime and sunburn I think he's quite pale skinned. There's not many of them left, but very occasionally one sees a slave with even fairer or actually reddish hair. They're dying out now, but my father remembered when great nobles would maintain groups of tall fair haired and blue eyed slaves as footmen because they looked so exotic." To the slave at his feet he said in a kindly tone, "Come round to the back gate tomorrow afternoon and I'll see that the housekeeper sets out some food and old clothes for you Abel." The figure dropped his head still further and muttered his thanks."You can speak to him Father, he understands well enough."
"Look at me Abel!" said the priest. The man raised his head and again Mendoza was struck by the intensity of those strange eyes. "Do you know anything about the Old Times?" he asked."Are there any stories or relics of this place?" Both the priest and the Don noticed the man's furtive glance towards the ruin before he dropped his head again and muttered, "No sir."
Don Roberto extended his hand towards the ruin and said sarcastically "Wouldn't you like to visit the home of one of the former lords of this land? I'm sure Abel will be most hospitable." Whilst the two horsemen continued to hold Abel immobile in the dust the rest of the party dismounted and picked their way to the entrance of the hovel. There was of course no door, but the wreckage above constituted a roof over what had been a ground floor room of the old house. There was also a window space from which any original glazing and metal or wooden frame had vanished long ago, so the place was adequately lit.In one corner was a heap of rags and brush which appeared to be a bed.Under the window was an arrangement of rubble with a flat piece forming a tabletop.On this lay a few cracked and chipped utensils which had obviously been discarded from the Don's house. An old jug contained a little water and there were a few crusts of dried bread on a broken plate. Otherwise the place was bare - except for a small heap of rubble in another corner. This seemed a little out of place as that corner had not collapsed and the rest of the floor had been kept clean and free of obstructions. Idly the priest went over to it and used his foot to move some of the rubble aside. Underneath he saw something strange, a piece of old rag in which something appeared to have been wrapped. Squatting down the priest picked this up and unwrapped it. As Don Roberto and his men moved closer to see what the priest had found, there was the sound of a prolonged howl from Abel and of curses from the horsemen as they moved to suppress his attempt to writhe and rise to his feet.
Ignoring this the men in the room gazed fascinated at what the priest had found. Too surprised to speak they stared at what lay in the hands of the priest. It was something none of them had ever seen, but it was immediately recognisable to at least the priest and the Don.It was an old magazine, a genuine relic of the Old Times! Astonishment of several kinds gripped them all. First, that anything of this sort had survived at all. Second, that it had survived for at least several centuries.Third, that it had survived in such conditions. Fourth, that it was in the possession of a slave. Fifth,to the horsemen, that a mere slave might have a possession and an ability that was beyond them.Sixth, to the Don, that this slave might be literate in a language of which he himself was ignorant. Seventh, to the priest, (who was immediately reminded of his hallucination of being offered a poisoned chalice in the form of the diabolical cactus flower, of beauty and wonder and knowledge and immense achievement combined with corruption,and perversity and horror and outrageous arrogance), that this object might be very dangerous to his soul and those of many others.
"Open it Father" said Don Roberto, and gestured to one of his men to make room on the tabletop. Slowly the dazed priest laid it there and delicately started to turn the pages.It was in far from pristine condition, stained and a bit crumpled and the pages were fragile and coming apart, but the text was still legible and the colours distinct in the numerous photographs - more lifelike depictions of strange objects and situations than any of them had ever seen, - and as the priest slowly turned the pages, the assembled men saw 'wonderful things'.
As the priest closed the final page Don Roberto turned to one of his men, whose dress appeared cleanest, and to the man's bewilderment, told him to take off his shirt. The Don apologised for the inconvenience and promised him a better shirt of his own in compensation. It was necessary to have something clean in which to protect and carry home this very precious object and he would be honoured by association with it. They emerged slowly through the doorway like a procession, led by Father Mendoza bearing their carefully wrapped find in his outstretched hands as if carrying a holy object or even a holy child. Abel slumped with his face in the dust when he saw them and his guards stared in curiosity at what had kept them for so long in the hovel of this slave and what they could possibly have found that would be of the slightest interest or value.
Mendoza's heart and mind were in tumult. Bizarre, incongruous, conflicting and even blasphemous images ideas and comparisons tumbled through him.He saw himself as if at some counterpart of the Holy Birth, carrying this unholy child in swaddling clothes from its manger in the lair of beasts and slaves. He saw in front of him a tableau of three unwise men, not bearing gifts, unless the awe and curiosity of everyone present counted as some sort of gift in the order of myrrh and frankincense and gold.The ranch hands approximated to shepherds. Momentarily the twigs in front of Abel's head appeared as a crown of thorns whilst his wrecked garden was behind him. The priest knew that the route from Abel's Gethsemane to his Calvary would not be long. Alarmingly he had a feeling that Don Roberto and himself might qualify as two thieves to be crucified alongside Abel.
The Holy or Unholy Book
Huge excitement was felt throughout the district in the following days as news of the amazing discovery reverberated throughout the villages and estates. People flocked to see it or talk to those who had seen it. Tales about it spread rapidly, and lost nothing in the telling. Ladies and gentlemen were allowed into the house to see it as it lay in state on a table in one of Don Roberto's waiting rooms, under constant armed guard. No one but the priest was allowed to touch it, but once a day he would approach and slowly turn the delicate pages under the awed gaze of the assembled gentry.At other times, to prevent the peasantry from becoming too clamorous, they were allowed to file slowly past it when its table was carefully borne outside and placed on a veranda under additional guard. Many of them genuflected or crossed themselves as they passed the magic book, muttering prayers.
Abel had not lasted long under interrogation. He denied knowing of any other ancient objects. He claimed that this had been his only heritage from the past, handed down from those he thought to have been his ancestors. It had always been associated with the old house, so far as he knew. He had no descendants and only remote relatives among the other slaves. So far as he knew, no one else had known anything about it. It had been kept buried as it had been found, to protect it from animals and thieves who would destroy it. He had only a rudimentary knowledge of the language, gained from his parents but never used with the other slaves; although he thought that previous generations of slaves had spoken it. He had even less understanding of the pictures and of the situations and society which they portrayed and could not make much sense of what the articles meant. He had only the vaguest conception of who these people had been or what they had done, but he was convinced that they were his ancestors and that they had been greater and more powerful than those living nowadays. He had found solace in his hard life from making his little garden on what he considered to have been his ancestral property, and had experienced the same awe and wonder that the public now felt, from just holding and occasionally looking through this last literary fragment of his cultural inheritance. He had not thought of telling any of the other slaves about it, and assumed that after his death, it, like the house, would just continue to crumble away.That at least is how Father Mendoza and Don Roberto understood him.They had not meant to kill him; that just happened as a result of Don Roberto's men applying more enthusiasm than skill in their efforts to beat additional information out of him. By Don Roberto's orders he was buried quietly in his little garden, with as headstone a piece of the rubble from the house upon which a mason carved his name, ABEL. Neglected, the garden soon died also.
The Don and the priest had expected that the discovery would be a nine day's wonder and that life in the district would soon resume its slow pace and even tenor. They were mistaken.
The gentry were impressed by the find. They were amazed by the intensely realistic depictions of an entirely different way of life, repugnant as much of it may have been. They were awed by the seemingly impossible pictures of natural phenomena.They were astounded by the obvious and casual revelation of wealth and power apparently commonplace among the vulgar.They were puzzled by the proliferation of strange mechanisms whose functions and means of operation were opaque. The more intellectual of them understood that the language was probably an antiquated version of English; but English, ancient or modern, was of no relevance and little interest in the modern world, and none of them knew of any scholars who might be able to translate the writing.
The reaction of the peasantry was much stronger and more emotional. Among them excitement turned into hysteria. Something long buried but not quite dead seemed to have come to life in their emotional and superstitious nature. They were fascinated by the discovery of a 'magic book' and convinced that it contained great secrets of sorcerous power,- as obviously it must- since it pertained to the fabulous and sinister Old Times. They were in any case hag-ridden by fears of ghosts and suspicious that each man's, and more particularly each woman's, neighbour, was a sorcerer devoted to the service of the Devil and cunning in afflicting their good neighbours -i.e. themselves - with illness,loss, crop failures, child death and animal disease, and indeed mishap of every kind. The appearance of the 'magic book' from the earth of the accursed Old City or City of the even-more-accursed Old Ones, the feared but fabled Gringos, whose evil had resulted in their destruction and the reduction of their descendants to the status of despised and miserable slaves, had a powerful impact on them. It seemed an awesome portent of some inscrutable power for evil or good. The fact that was written in an unknown tongue, supposedly that of the Gringos of old, added greatly to its power and prestige. Some of them had a nodding acquaintance with written Spanish, the language of the books owned by some of their superiors and of the religious texts of their priests. That the language of the Gringos was as much a mystery to their religious and secular superiors as it was to themselves added to the imagined potency of the magic book. Furthermore, according to the tales told by those who had seen it, the magic book did not deal with religious matters; instead it seemed devoted to sensuous pleasure and how to obtain much more of every variety of pleasure and desire. Knowledge of how to obtain such things had surely been the property of very powerful sorcerers. It must have been their influence which had kept this knowledge safely concealed for so long in the earth of the Forbidden City. Perhaps the influence of these dead sorcerers was ending, just as the number of their descendants was dwindling away, and that was why the magic book had now made its appearance among them. Perhaps Abel had been the last degenerate scion of their line and since his death the power of the book might have been freed to seek new masters - or servants! Was this a sign that it wished its power to again be known and put to use, and that some of them might prove worthy to attain it, or on a more modest level, just to share in its beneficence? Their ordinary lives became subordinated to this new excitement.
The book began to appear in the dreams of some of them, offering vital but indecipherable advice and instruction, warnings of hellfire or promises of spells which would control this very hellfire and place the chief demons under their personal command. Other rumours flew about it. Soon it was being said that prayer to the magic book had cured illness and disease, and the sick and infirm began to make their way to Don Roberto's house begging for a chance to see and even to touch what had quickly transformed itself in the popular mind from a 'magic book' to a 'holy book'. Already sects and dissensions were appearing amongst those who believed in its power. There were those who accepted its power but believed this to be derived from evil sources; in bitter dispute with the more optimistic who expected that it would lead them to long life, wealth, power and happiness and place them on a par with the favoured ones of the Old Times,if not in this life, then in another.
Crowds besieged the Villa Baltazzar and became a nuisance to the conduct of its normal life and business. Don Roberto's men could push them back, but they always returned, and he was no longer confident in the loyalty of all his men. The crowds and the lurid stories soon attracted further pests. Entertainers, jugglers, pick-pockets, tumblers and touts, all manner of loud voiced carnival barkers, liars, hucksters and thieves came to infest the area along with the literal dung flies as the crowds turned the vicinity of his house into a dung heap and cesspit. Crowds in search of water and sustenance invaded and trampled his garden and committed depredations on his crops and livestock. He and his family were outraged but could do little whilst the hysteria lasted. Don Roberto was not a patient man. He was used to being obeyed and treated with the utmost respect by the common people, and not slow to apply physical chastisement when he deemed it necessary. In normal times legally and practically his word was pretty much the first and last word on all matters in the district, particularly in relation to his people and on his property. The time was no longer normal. He knew that if he pushed the crowd it could easily turn into an enraged mob which would storm his house, killing himself and his family and servants and such of his men as remained loyal, before looting and destroying everything in sight. God or the Devil knew what they might do after that, particularly if the 'Holy Book', which he now regretted ever having had anything to do with, remained in existence and in the possession of some rabble-rouser. The mob might ignite a fire of religious excitement which could consume the whole country.Already some of his servants had slipped away, anticipating disaster.
He knew that this situation had to be calmed quickly, probably by the departure of the 'Unholy Book' as he now thought of it. When their excitement deflated to disappointment and boredom the people would drift back to their normal ways. If they did not, he knew that he would be in fatal trouble. Already, peasants and servants from his neighbour's estates had slipped away to join the excited rabble around his house, adding to the emotion and chaos of eschatological expectation, which must soon boil over or be snuffed out. God forbid that it should be dispersed into further regions by mobs of excited peasants driven to madness by religious fear or enthusiasm. The life of the district was being disturbed, normal work was no longer being done, and he knew whom his neighbours would blame for their losses. Reports and rumours would be spreading to other areas and would soon come to the attention of higher authority. He well knew whom they would blame for disturbances in his area. He understood the sneers that would be circulating, 'a nobleman who cannot even obtain the normal respect due to his rank is surely no nobleman!' 'If he cannot maintain order and tranquillity in his district he is surely unworthy of his estates and position, and someone more worthy should have them'. 'A nobleman who causes expense and inconvenience to the state and to his neighbours because he fails to control the disorders of the common people is a liability not an asset of the body politic, and should be eliminated before his example infects others.' The Church would also be displeased, and that was not a displeasure which could be lightly borne.
The priest was even more alarmed, for the souls as well as the bodies of everyone involved. The theological implications of these developments appalled him. He felt responsible, and knew that the Church would hold him responsible, for unleashing a pack of heresies to endanger the souls of very many people. He foresaw that he would be condemned as a heresiarch and probably burnt, if the mob didn't do it before he fell under the condemnation of the Church.He was surprised at the speed of developments. These people had not had more than a glimpse of the magazine. They had not even seen its contents before they fell into the clutches of error, and errors moreover which were not even those stated in the text so far as he had been able to guess at the contents.This in itself was suggestive of an immense power to cause evil. He continued to be tormented by imaginations, visions or hallucinations which he believed were sent by the Devil.In one he became, or was forced by the mob to become, the Priest of the Book, being borne across the country as leader or prisoner of the dionysiac rout, preaching a mad collection of vile heresies to the mob as it laid waste to towns and villages, plantations and estates, robbing, burning, raping and looting as an ever swelling horde, until disease, dissension, starvation and finally an army of nobles and professional soldiers put an end to their existence, and his
own. A variant of this was that the mob succeeded in overwhelming or converting the entire country and he became hailed as the founder of a new religion which would be spread across the whole world by his successors. In another he was martyred by the mob and managed to become both martyr and heresiarch and also to end in hell burning for eternity.None of his imaginings contained any hint of salvation, although he now spent all his waking hours in heartfelt grief and prayer, for everyone around him including the mob and all those unknown to him who would be affected by these terrible occurrences, as well as for his own soul.
The Don saw that day by day the crowd was becoming more organised and more aware of itself as a powerful entity. Already they had regular speakers or leaders and through them had demanded that each day he and the priest would appear on a balcony bearing the 'Holy Book' and hold it up before them for their veneration, and as assurance that it was still there. He expected that tomorrow they would demand possession of the object and keep it under their own guard. He must act that very night. Dona Maria secretly sewed a bag to contain the magazine, which the priest could wear around his neck and under his robe. There was no difficulty in taking it because the Don no longer had sufficient loyal men to guard it at night. Nicodemus was well rested, fed and watered, ready for another long journey. As most of the people in and around the Villa Baltazzar slept that night, the Don, disguised in peasant garb, led Father Mendoza and his mule quietly away from the back of the villa, choosing the route that was likely to least frequented through the estate and its environs.The Don had supplied Father Mendoza with food and water as well as cash and advice on a route to take him away from the area whilst avoiding attention. They parted with whispered good wishes from the Don and an unstated but heartfelt wish that he would never again see either the priest or his 'Unholy Book'. Silently and stealthily Mendoza and Nicodemus faded into the hills and Don Roberto returned to his back gate where Dona Maria was waiting to admit him.
That afternoon, just before he expected the delegation from the crowd to arrive, the Don appeared on his balcony wearing his most sober black clothes. He appeared to have been weeping, and continued to raise his anguished face and his imploring hands to the heavens, uttering mingled cries of sorrow and joy. He faced the gathering crowd with his arms outspread and cried, "Attend me closely my people! Draw closer so that you may hear. I have great and miraculous news for you. It is both a sorrow and a joy." He broke off for a while as more and more people came to join the swelling crowd, whilst he continued to show signs of the most intense and mixed emotions.As the crowd thickened and grew still he resumed his speech. " In recent days we have been blessed by a miraculous occurrence, the appearance of the Holy Book among us.But, as you know, miraculous events may not last for long, lest people become used to them and forget their holiness. Our Lord Himself was only on earth for a few years, and the people who lived to see Him were specially blessed. We have been specially blessed by the appearance of the Holy Book among us, but like Our Lord it can only be here for a short time." Murmurs started. "Where is the Book? Show us the Holy Book!" Don Roberto raised a hand imperiously and the crowd fell silent. "Listen well, my people. Let me tell you what has happened. Jesus could only stay for a few years and He was far more holy than the Book, which could only stay with us for a short time. That time has already passed." He raised his arms again as a louder clamour of sighs, groans, queries and demands arose. "The Book has gone!" Over the immediate hubbub he shouted "That is the sorrow for which I weep and join you in weeping. Now let me tell you about the joy." Curiosity vied with sorrow, surprize, anger and suspicion in the faces and voices of the crowd. Again he gestured for silence."At dawn, as the priest and I were kneeling in prayer before the Holy Book, an angel of The Lord in glorious robes of light appeared behind the table. As we trembled before him and marvelled, he said 'Peace be upon you, and upon all the people of the Book. The time of this book has passed. It must now depart.Weep, but not too much. The priest shall go with the book to be instructed in its wisdom and to impart it to others when it may be time for the book to appear to other people far from here.You Don Roberto must remain here to tell the people what has happened and to ease their sorrow. Tell them that they have been specially blessed and will not be forgotten, although they shall not see the book again. They were accounted worthy to have been the first to see it for many years. Let this experience lead them to behave with increased piety and additional charitable good works'". The people were silent, absorbed in his story of the angel. He drew renewed breath and continued boldly," The Holy Angel then told me that part of the reason for the appearance before us of the Holy Book was to bless the Old City and to thus remove the curse that had lain upon it for so long. No longer should you fear it as a haunt of ghosts. Instead, it has been sanctified. Let the hovel of Abel, where the Holy Book was found be made into a shrine for the book. Let those who treasure its memory visit the shrine regularly and pray there." Here the Don paused again, glad to see that the people were silent, most of them happily approving his story of the angel and its good news, already adjusting to the loss of the book. He raised his arms again and said, "My people, this is indeed good news. Now let me claim the honour of being the first among you to perform a charitable deed for the sake of the Holy Book. I will raise the Shrine of the Holy Book on behalf of us all and bestow a suitable memorial. I will also request the good brothers of San Geronimo to bless and consecrate the site. You may feel safe in going to pray there." Some of the people, although silent were eyeing him strangely, yet most of the crowd seemed happy. He felt that he had negotiated the tricky corners and was well into the home straight, so he drew another deep breath and made a dash for the finishing line."As the Angel finished speaking it became even more brilliant so that its light covered the Holy Book and the priest and I could no longer see them. I fell into a swoon, and when I awoke the Angel and the Holy Book and the priest had all vanished. That is the news which I have for you. It is sorrowful and also joyful and most wonderful." A final inspiration came to him and he grasped it as a means of sending the crowd home happy. "Before we part to resume our normal lives and to pray over these Holy things that have been revealed to us, let me also announce a pious deed as the Angel commanded. In this we can all share. I declare that each year on the anniversary of this day there shall be a procession to the Shrine of the Holy Book, where additional prayers and offerings may be made." That seemed to please them, right enough. It would also disperse them for a year . "Now let us depart in peace, giving praise and thanks to the Lord and all the saints, and to the Holy Book." He bowed his head as if in prayer as the crowd slowly dispersed. "Thank you Lord" he whispered sincerely as he saw the people drift away to resume their normal lives, "I think that you really saved me there."
One morning, some two years after these events had passed, a small sleek haired man wearing
spectacles and sober clerical garb, sat alone in a cool room, at a highly polished desk.As his fingers slowly played with his prized family heirloom of an antique fountain pen, so much more impressive than the goose feather quills used by his secretaries and other scriveners, his mind and gaze turned from the view over his palatial gardens where his servants toiled amid the splashing and tinkling of carefully contrived fountains, to the three documents in front of him. One was the notorious ancient magazine or 'Unholy Book'. The second was as detailed an analysis and commentary upon it as Father Mendoza had been able to compile. The third was his own note on the matter. He had determined that all three should be kept together in a locked leather briefcase in a secret archive, and he hoped that none of them would again see the light of day until long after he and all those involved were dead, if ever. He could have destroyed the magazine as almost every other remnant of this remote past had been destroyed, but had decided not to do so for a variety of reasons. He would preserve it in secret and make Father Mendoza, the only man to have fully withstood its influence, its guardian.
The Cardinal accepted responsibility for what had happened. This had been one of many regular journeys of visitation on which he had sent Mendoza and other priests to maintain contact with remote monasteries and parishes, in order to check tendencies to slackness or incipient heresy. They also provided means to maintain social contact and discreet religious surveillance of the provincial gentry and their administration of the peasantry. He had a personal interest in history and antiquities and he took the opportunity of these visits to have his priests seek out any tales or artifacts which might gratify it. He had a small collection of antiquities scavenged by such means, including some stone arrowheads and curious fossils, together with a few small remnants of the Old Times, being fragments of obviously manufactured objects of unknown purpose and means of construction. His most interesting object of this type was a smooth white vessel without handles or ornamentation, made of that cool and slickly surfaced material known to the ancients as 'plastic', although indeed it was not malleable. He attributed it to the Ancient American Plastic Beaker People and it was prominently displayed with such a label in his cabinet of curiosities.
All these objects, especially those that were man-made, exerted a certain fascination. Men of intellect and culture wondered briefly about the circumstances of their creation and use, how and why they had been made and what they might reveal about the attitudes and ways of life of the long dead people who had produced them.The Unholy Book was of an entirely different order of fascination and danger. It was a portal into the minds and souls of those departed people, and posed immense risks for those whose intellectual arrogance and curiosity or whose emotional and sensual desires led them through it. The Cardinal well understood why the Church had destroyed the writings of the ancient Maya, as indeed they had destroyed nearly all the writings and culture of the much more attractive Greeks and Romans and Egyptians. He also understood why, very much later, scattered remnants had been of such interest to men of discernment, including many Princes of the Church, and in spiritually,intellectually, and emotionally diluted form, had acted as a beneficial stimulant on their societies. The ancient Americans had gone into the same darkness, but in distant times after a millennium or several had passed - the Church was patient - similar scattered remnants might have a beneficial purpose, but that time would be long after his own.
His mind turned to the strange influence which the Unholy Book appeared to have had on his priest. The poor man had endured a hellish journey following his hasty departure from the Villa Baltassar. He was in a mentally and spiritually disturbed state and had fallen into delirium, soon losing his way and wandering in the desert, if not for the biblical forty days and forty nights, at least for an extended period. He was beset by intense visions or hallucinations, in which he was convinced that the Devil haunted and taunted, tempted and tainted him. It was about the Unholy Book of course. The visions of power and perversion were more intense than they had been. In his confused state he sometimes felt there was also a female figure who called herself the Soul of America, who both tormented and comforted him, seeming to express the best and worst capacities of that ancient people and who pleaded with him to be allowed to continue influencing people in the present. He would gladly have laid down his burden or destroyed it, but he knew that it was his duty to endure this test and to bear the Unholy Book back to the Cardinal. It was the instinct and endurance of the beast which saved him, bearing him at last out of the desert, far from their starting point, when they were both almost dead of thirst. Fortunately, the people who found them were strangers who had heard nothing about the events we have described. As Good Samaritans they tended man and mule and set them on their way by easy stages back to Santa Fe, but the Father Mendoza who returned was not the same man who had left. His experiences had changed him, and it showed in his face and manner.He had gone through the fire, his mettle had been tested, much that was inessential had been burned away. What was left had the ring of steel.
His Eminence had been alarmed and impressed. He was alarmed at how easily the danger of a
spiritual and social calamity had arisen. At that time he had not heard of what Don Roberto had said to the peasants about the disappearance of the 'Holy Book', but the very fact that there had been no rumours or reports of social upheaval suggested that the wily Don had probably defused the problem. He was concerned for the spiritual and physical well being of Father Mendoza, but he was very impressed by his fortitude and spiritual stamina. He had instructed him to examine it thoroughly and to write a report about his findings. It would serve not only as an intellectual and theological review, but also show whether the priest had fully mastered the power which it initially had had over him, and help him to complete his recovery.
The priest had calmly accepted and completed this task.The Cardinal and such scholars as he had been able to find, had helped Father Mendoza to improve his knowledge of Ancient English and had been delighted to have an additional text in this archaic tongue. For scholarly and theological reasons they had accepted his right to be the first to study it in depth. They had accepted the need for secrecy which the Cardinal, using the authority of the Church, had urged upon them, so he felt fairly certain that no rumours would be spread from those sources, at least in his lifetime.
He had discussed his report and examined the magazine several times in the company of Father Mendoza, as well as independently, and had compiled his own report which he had not discussed with anyone. Superficially the 'Unholy Book' was just a commonplace object of little importance in its original context. It was just a popular news magazine. Small magazines of a not altogether dissimilar nature had still sporadically appeared in his father's and grandfather's time, although their circulation had been restricted to intellectual, artistic and religious or political groups amongst the gentry and the clergy. This magazine however was much more impressive in several ways. It consisted of far more pages and may have been published as frequently as weekly. It's content seemed aimed at an uneducated audience, more for entertainment than for instruction or to encourage thought or devotion. Amazingly, it seemed to assume widespread basic literacy amongst the common people, and even more amazingly that they had the wealth and interest to spend on such a thing and were allowed to do so. It's topics seemed, well, 'topical', but pertained to the whole globe as if such news and such publications were collected and distributed very rapidly widely and cheaply.Its paper was glossy and it contained much that was vividly coloured. Perhaps its most impressive feature was the large number of beautifully detailed and realistically coloured pictures which it contained, as if viewers were actually looking at the people places and objects right in front of them, rather than seeing paintings of them. Quite obviously it would have been very difficult to make so many drawings so rapidly and distribute them so cheaply. He understood that the technology of printing had survived from ancient times but the quality of production of this trivial ancient object far exceeded anything more recent that he had ever seen. The pictures must be specimens of the lost art of photography. He had felt awe at the casual power and intricate skills deployed to make and distribute vast numbers of things of such charming appearances but such sinister purposes. Here, he was convinced, he was seeing a Devil's picture book where the images were enticements to idolatry, seductions to glorify the senses rather than inspirations to put them to noble uses. It was not entirely bad. The pictures of Nature and of people could in themselves lead to awe and appreciation of the might and majesty of the Creator, but here they seemed to be used to glorify human pride; Pride, the sin of Lucifer which had led to his downfall. In some ways, the impression of the society of these ancient people was that, in line with the Parable of the Talents, they had indeed striven to increase and make full use of their God-given talents, which was admirable; although disturbing in that it implied many such ways were no longer available, or that he and his people were slothfully, like the Foolish Virgins, failing to make good use of their capacities and apply them to the service of Our Lord. However the main objects this publication seemed to serve were human lusts and Titanic pride. Good in the service of Evil became debased, a means of misguiding the unwary.
It would have been a matter of idle historical curiosity to have known the date of the magazine. That part of the page where it was expected had disappeared, perhaps torn off long ago for some unknown reason. So far as he and those experts in the somewhat sketchy history of the late period of the Old Times whom he had consulted could determine, it probably dated to the closing decades of the 20th century or the early 21st.That had been the apogee of American power or even a little past it. This impression was reinforced by the fact that some of the contents referred back nostalgically to the vaunted American Space Programme, which apart from their rapid settling of the continent had been their greatest and most famous achievement.
Some of the academics whom he had consulted were of the opinion that the American Space
Programme had been the re-writing of myth, or an outright diabolical lie. They expressed disdain for the idea of men walking on the moon. They queried the attachment of the name of the ancient Greek god of light and the sun to the programme, and the superstitious coincidence that it had supposedly been the unlucky number thirteen in the sequence of voyages which had come to grief, like Phaeton falling in flames to earth because of his inability to control the Sun's chariot or Icarus flying too close to the sun and melting his wings. After seeing the photographs in the magazine of the Earth seen from space and of strangely garbed men supposedly on the moon, the Cardinal was convinced that the Ancient Americans had indeed had such incredible technology that it would be difficult to discern just what they could or could not have done, in fact rather as the Bible reported of the builders of the Tower of Babel.
As to the other contents of the magazine he was much in agreement with Father Mendoza, whose comment had been that as an educated man, he had been aware that the ancients had had horseless carriages, but he had never seen one or even a picture of one. He was fascinated to see colourful pictures of what appeared to be these self-moving machines, but repulsed by the sinful avarice with which they were advertised, and the expectation that every common man and woman should have at least one of these, surely noisy, and possibly blasphemous, monsters.They appeared to be each made out of many hundred kilogrammes of metal, which must have been a grotesque extravagance. He had never seen so much metal in a single object, yet here were streets filled with them. It was most unsettling to see such a disdainful display of extravagance; all the more so as the arrogant attitudes of the populace would have been hard to take in an assembly of nobles and notables, let alone being quite devoid of the humility and decorum properly expected of common people.Then there was the scandal of the women.
Many of the pages not devoted to pictures of horseless carriages, were given over to beautiful women advertising clothing as scanty as their morals. Even the pictures of the people in the streets showed that ordinarily the women were indecently, and even lasciviously, dressed. Their attitudes were quite brazen. No doubt all of this had contributed to the wrath of the Almighty which had fallen upon them, as upon Sodom and Gomorrah.
He understood that the forces manifest in the ancient people were latent in the souls of himself and his people, and that intellectual and emotional exposure to this ancient object however innocently it had been created and preserved, might re-awake them in a form that was no longer appropriate, if it ever had been. He felt that the Old American Form or Soul, which had dominated the world in its own time, would attempt to do so again if given a chance, and the consequences would not be good. To destroy the magazine was too simple a solution and itself a temptation, as the priest had seen.There was, for instance, no assurance that something similar or even more dangerous might not come to light at any time, and fall into less cautious hands.It would be better to learn from it and be more able to deal with further manifestations - and not least, learn that its temptations could be withstood, with the help of The Lord. Good might be drawn from Evil, and might provide something beneficial or even necessary at some future time.
His Eminence was well aware that the common attitude of the common people would be to see the possibilities inherent in these capacities or technologies as great sorcerous powers which could satisfy their basest desires - perhaps not so different from the attitude of the Ancients to whom the magazine had been addressed. He also knew that the attitude of the Men Of Power would be little different, except that they would treat it as Black Alchemy which would generate wealth and weapons to increase their own power. He wondered indeed, whether the fabled 'Science' and 'Technology', those idols worshiped by the Ancients, had ever been more than Black Magic, in intent and outcome if not in form.
It struck him that the 'oil' which had so obsessed the Ancients and provided them with the financially cheap but spiritually expensive energetic fire which they craved, came from a sort of fiery liquid found under the ground in desert regions.It contrasted with the life-giving effects of water as it only imparted a false form of life to machines.It amused him that the civilizations based on olive oil had been worthy of the name, those based on rock oil, not so much.
The Cardinal knew the lines from an old American song,
'John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
but his soul goes marching on.'
He considered it high time that John Brown's soul rejoined his body and that they were left in peace to continue their mouldering. For his part he would let the Unholy Book, which somehow seemed to express so much of that restless titanic American soul and to induce distorted and disturbing reactions in the soul of his own people, resume its slumber in the darkness of time until change and decay reduced its potency or converted any remaining influence into a fertilising compost.
His Eminence had made cautious enquiries and had been gratified and amused to hear of Don Roberto's speech or sermon and of how events had transpired around the Villa Baltassar. Perhaps an unseen angel had guided him after all. There had been an unexpected consequence. Some of the peasants had been so impressed that they now regarded him as a holy-man, and he was coming to be known as Don Roberto the Blessed. It was even said that he was trying to live up to the name!
It was difficult to find priests for such remote and unfashionable parishes, which is why the vacancy there had remained unfilled for so long, but His Eminence had now ensured that they would have the good offices of a down to earth pastoral priest for at least the next couple of years. He hoped that would help them to avoid any recrudescence of the hysteria that had nearly overcome them and to ensure that lingering memories of the 'Holy Book' did not become a source of heresy and dissension.
The courage and resourcefulness of the Don and the faith and sanctity of the priest had been tested and not found wanting. He wondered why he himself had not been tested so severely, at least as yet, and prayed that he had not already unknowingly failed, and would not do so in future.
He reflected upon Biblical parallels.God had tested Moses by attempting to kill him, and Jacob had gained a blessing and a new name by wrestling an angel of the Lord, despite having a leg put out of joint. It was noteworthy that those who measured up to the test benefited as a result. He could see that it had brought Father Mendoza closer to sainthood. The Don had also survived and enhanced his reputation. It might be that further good might be wrought from further tests. He would preserve the object in secret and make Father Mendoza, the only man to have fully withstood its influence, its guardian.
Finally His Eminence gathered all the documents into a pile before him. He tinkled a small hand-bell and Father Mendoza silently entered the office and stood before him bearing a leather briefcase under his arm and a lighted candle and stick of blood red sealing wax in his hand. The Cardinal inserted the bundle into the briefcase and locked it, removing the key. The priest melted the sealing wax over the lock and the Cardinal impressed his official signet ring into it. Father Mendoza took the briefcase away to lock it in a secure cupboard. Both men turned their attention to other things.
And what of the Shrine of the Holy Book? It is pleasant to note that Don Roberto had been as good as his word. Abel's hovel became a site of local pilgrimage. The garden was re-established and lovingly tended by the local peasants, with a little judicious encouragement from Don Roberto the Blessed, who proudly led a procession there each year and paid for a fete and for regular blessings by the local priest and the brothers of San Geronimo. Memories of the exact nature of the Holy Book faded but it became firmly entrenched in local lore as a beneficent presence. Strange to relate, the slave Abel had a greater career in death than he had in life. Before many years had passed he had become a well loved local celebrity, albeit unrecorded on any list of saints in the Vatican; Saint Abel the Hermit whose Holy Book had cured the afflicted of many ills. In another generation or so his bones were piously dug up and distributed as holy relics, but his sanctity endured. Thus we see how eras may change. The Last American, as he may be termed, found a treasured place in the affections of his successors, not, to be sure, in life, but when death and the tides of time and circumstance had turned his memory into an adornment, 'something rich and strange' that their souls could harbour and honour.
And what of that magazine, the Holy or Unholy Book? It continued undisturbed in peaceful slumber and decay, forgotten in a back storeroom in the Cardinal's palace.Bell, book and candle; had they exorcised the unquiet ghost of America? The sensitive or fanciful soul might intuit a link between the gardens of the Shrine and of the Palace and that their waters perhaps sparkled a little more brightly and that the bees buzzed and the butterflies fluttered a little more sweetly and that the winds sighed with less sorrow, but who can tell everything that goes to make really good compost?