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, looking out over an extensive vista of gardens and trees ending in a view of hillsides which in the right light could appear purple. This of course was His Eminence Cardinal Xavier Ximenes, known familiarly as Doublecross, not, we must hasten to add, because he was of a notably treacherous disposition, but because he liked to joke that as a Prince of the Church he bore the weight of both sacred and secular concerns and it was reflected in the initials with which he annotated documents.
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 the troubled 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.
The Cardinal accepted responsibility for what had happened. He it was, after all, who had sent Father Mendoza on his mission. Obviously he had not expected anything of this sort to have happened, and he was relieved that it had not turned out worse. 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 was an amateur historian who occasionally enjoyed writing about the past, more for himself and a few friends than for any wider public. 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 surprizing 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, and also 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. He was not strong enough to simply be able to dismiss him and say, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” 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, and he would not fail in his duty whilst he still had any life and strength. 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 guided them 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.He was grave but calm and respectful when he had made his initial report to the Cardinal, and appeared almost recovered. He had handed over his charge without sign of relief, as if he had withstood the worst it could do and he no longer feared it or much cared whether or not he had to carry it any longer.
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. It had dawned on him that he might be dealing with a potential saint. Truth to tell, these were not very common in the Church. They were not comfortable to have around, and it would be difficult to have one reporting to him. He accepted that if Mendoza became a saint, all those around him would be seen only as incidental to his life and judged as having helped or hindered him. He knew that he lacked the spiritual depth and power of this man, and he prayed that he himself would never be put to such a test. He knew that he himself was better equipped in some ways to deal with this object, and he was glad that the priest had brought it to him. Nonetheless, he 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. He did not doubt to whom the power and the skills, the appearances and the purposes belonged. Images could mediate spiritual power. That after all was the purpose of art, to lead to the spiritual via the senses.The images of the saints in churches had always been regarded as a means of instructing and uplifting the ignorant and sinful, although there was the danger that they might themselves be taken too literally and become objects of worship. 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 had regarded that as their cultural equivalent of the Gothic cathedrals of Medieval Europe. Nowadays it was more commonly compared to the Tower of Babel. Hubris had met Nemesis and what had gone up like a rocket came down like its stick.
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 kilograms 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.
The Cardinal felt the Power, although not nearly as strongly as the priest had done.Father Mendoza was strong in spirit. He had immediately seen and clung to the main point, discarding as temptations the nuances and subtleties which made more appeal to the Cardinal. His Eminence had an uneasy feeling that each person who came in contact with the ‘Unholy Book’ was tested according to his own strengths, and he prayed that his own intellectual and social sophistication would not betray him into the hands of the Evil One. His own failure might have longer and wider adverse consequences for his people than would that of a single priest.
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. He was saddened that so much ingenuity and effort went into the pursuit of material form, regardless of its spiritual essence. He knew that the Ancients, especially in their latter days when they had seemed to be running out of it, had been obsessed with the concept of ‘energy’ cheaply or freely available to serve their most trivial whims. They seemed ignorant of any spiritual dimension to this energy, or of any spiritual cost. Gaining the whole world while losing their souls had not been a problem to them. He hesitated to tread on shaky theological ground, but he wondered whether through their selfish and greedy actions they might also have besmirched the soul of Nature, if there was such a thing, and if so whether it might fall to his people to make amends. As a start it would be useful to remember St. Paul’s statement that the struggle is not against men but against Powers and Dominions in the hierarchy of the heavens. Then it might be easier to develop strength and courage like that of Father Mendoza to resist and overcome temptation, and perhaps even to win some good from it.
Cardinal Ximenes turned to the window and again surveyed his garden. His ear and eye were drawn to the fountains and rivulets that splashed and ran through it and which gave it life in this hot dry climate.He was aware of the famous gardens of the Villa d’Este, not far from Rome, where a Renaissance cardinal frustrated in his pursuit of the Papacy had created an elaborate garden featuring many splendid fountains. His own garden was more modest and he had no Papal ambitions, but he fell to considering the symbolic importance of water. Our Lord had promised living water to the Woman at the Well. Although some mystics of exceptional strength and purity might stand in spiritual fire, water was much more appropriate for most people. It was the Devil who was usually associated with fire. 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 seemed thus to power a mocking imitation of life, a blasphemous parody of divinely ordained Nature. It was hardly to be wondered at then, that this false creation of the Father of Lies had failed those who had come to rely on it. Fire was fierce and short lived, so it did not surprise him that a culture based on it should rise and fall with extreme rapidity, lasting only a few centuries. He was happy that the older slower technology of water, of fountains and waterwheels and aqueducts and canals had survived and revived. Of course water did not provide so many toys for the people or death dealing machines for their lords, but so much the better for that. It amused him that the civilizations based on olive oil had been worthy of the name, those based on rock-oil, not so much.
His mind drifted to the past. In addition to the ‘Unholy Book’, Father Mendoza had brought back his notes of the stories told by his host and other gentlemen, both at the Villa Baltassar and on earlier stages of his travels. These had contained nothing of great interest, but added to the large collection of anecdotes about the legendary Don Arturo, leader of the Reconquista, who had overthrown the crumbling and faltering United States of the hated and despised Gringos. In the Cardinal’s private view the man had been nothing but a beast, a brigand certainly no better or even as good as the usual run of military dictators. Certainly most of the stories about his gallantry and chivalry were fanciful in the extreme. Aided by upheavals and dissensions in the United States he had managed to loot rape and pillage his way across most of the continent, leaving cities from Houston and New Orleans to Chicago and Cincinnati in flames behind him, until his bloody repulse at Pittsburgh, which the surviving Americans were too weak to follow up.
When a young man the Cardinal had been shown moving pictures purporting to be of some of these events, recorded and displayed on little machines which had since ceased to function, although a few had lasted long enough amongst the nobility to have come down to his time.Thus he thought that he knew that the story of the Don having ridden a white charger into the water of Lake Michigan, and waved his white-plumed helmet in the air as he made a speech proclaiming the Liberation of all the lands from the salt waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the fresh waters of the Great Lakes, whilst Chicago burned in the background, was not quite right. His steed had been one of the horseless carriages, a military command car. His helmet had actually been a peaked cap smothered in gold braid, and his famous proclamation was not only of the liberation of the land, but of the enslavement of all surviving Americans and the confiscation of their property – which was really just an acknowledgement of what had been happening in practice.
Similarly, the ghost stories that so disturbed the peasants often had a basis in facts relating to that time. A great many Americans had been horrifically tortured and slaughtered often by criminals acting on their own account, or by gangs only loosely if at all affiliated to the forces of Don Arturo, and certainly indisposed to accept orders from him or from anyone else, although his own men had not been much better. Hence the ghoulish stories of lost souls crying in the wind, or of tortured victims screaming through the night, or of bones which refused to stay buried, whilst they had long since lost contact with physical reality or probability, retained much emotional force, especially in the sub conscious mentalities of those who knew that their own ancestors had been far from guiltless in these matters and that a hereditary blood debt remained unpaid.
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. He considered the Don to have been much less of a liar than the Don himself and his neighbours seemed to think him. After all whilst not the literal truth, what he had told the peasants had a certain figurative truth and was couched in terms which they could understand and accept and had helped them to recover from a dangerous spiritual and social malady and even turned it into a means for increasing piety. 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 holyman, 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!
All-in-all, things had worked out well. The peasants had encountered a danger which it was beyond their ability to understand or withstand, but their social and spiritual leaders had saved them from it. 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. 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.
He reflected upon Biblical parallels and mused that although he was in no way comparable to Moses or Jacob, their experiences might offer a guide. 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. This might be a similarly severe test of himself and his people. It was noteworthy that those who measured up to it 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 His Eminence was not the final link in the chain. Others might later have greater parts to play. He must neither destroy the magazine, nor allow its influence free rein. He would preserve it 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?