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 had been 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.
Enthusiastic but random searches for further antiquities were conducted by Don Roberto’s neighbours, and by the peasants. Nothing that came to public notice was ever found.The Don believed Abel, but ordered cursory checks in and around the other ruins of the Old City, just to make sure.Throughout the area slaves were seized, beaten and tortured in greedy searches for any potentially valuable object or knowledge of antiquity which they might have retained. The results were nugatory, except for inflaming quarrels with owners whose slaves had been beaten or killed by others.
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. Those who prided themselves on their liberality and open mindedness became curious about what life had been like in this ancient society from a lost world suddenly revealed though long rumoured, like Atlantis risen from the waves, and how its power had been founded and maintained. They considered that such topics might be worth serious study if more finds, and more funds to find and study them, could be made available. Those of a sentimental disposition, usually ladies with insufficient to occupy their attention, and an inclination to form earnest committees where they could give give high minded speeches to each other, as well as offering practical charity to the poor,- began to wonder whether the slaves, (a breed dying on the margins of existence and interest) might have more to them than the usually unattractive appearance that met the eye. They wondered whether their social condition, manners and morals could and should be ameliorated by reform associations to be organised by themselves, who would thus have further exciting opportunities to lobby, fund-raise and harangue and to feel good about all the good they were doing to others. The more conservative and religiously inclined doubted the effectiveness or necessity of such efforts. They were repelled by rather than attracted to these descriptions or depictions of an alien people and their disgusting ways. They considered that absorption in them would be more productive of sin and error than of grace. Such ancient artifacts were clearly snares of the Devil and it was fortunate that the Church in its wisdom had long since prohibited and destroyed such things. This one should obviously be taken away by the Church; perhaps to be studied by men of wisdom if they could thereby learn to better guard against the wiles of the Devil and his deceitful tricks, and certainly to remove it far from any chance to disturb their peace, pollute their land and contaminate the souls of those exposed to its evil radiations. The initial excitement began to turn to bickering. The less polite among those least friendly to Don Roberto began to suppose, and even to hint, that it should be burned – along with those who had exposed it. Don Roberto began to weary of the matter and of his neighbours.
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 concern.
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 Baltassar 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 tranquility 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.
If his physical life survived the mob, but the disturbances spread much further his social economic and political lives would be threatened by his peers and superiors. Not far behind them the Church would be waiting for his soul. His detractors and political rivals would see that he and his family would lose everything. Anything of him that evaded the Mob and survived the State would be condemned by the Church. He was in a very dangerous position, worse than being only between the Devil and the deep blue sea.