Bishop's Gambit


Albert J. Manachino

Father Angelo Ragonzi, acting Bishop of the Diocese of St. Archimede, in the Albertino Region of Tristoro, genuflected humbly and kissed the ring on the extended finger of his distinguished visitor, the Cardinal Umberto Barbione. The Cardinal, who also happened to be his maternal uncle, was greatly respected ecclesiastically and widely beloved personally by the humble mountain folk of the Alpine duchy. His earthy wit, charm and intelligence made him greatly popular and justly famous far beyond the boundaries of the diocese.

The afternoon light filtering through the stained glass of the sacristy window played on the cardinal's resplendid gray hair. In turn, it was reflected in a silvery nimbus which beholders rarely failed to comment upon. Cardinal Barbione had the finest head of hair in Europe.

"It is not hair," a peasant remarked, "It is a halo. Our cardinal is a saint."

Nor was the conclusion entirely an unreasonable one as His Eminence, never having heard it, said nothing to refute the belief.

"He has come to earth to sow good deeds while we are in life," the peasant said.

In truth, so strongly was the rumor believed that the mere laying on of the cardinal's hands frequently effected a cure where the doctors had failed. His miracles enjoyed as widespread a notability as his hair.

Father Ragonzi did his best to suppress a twinge of unworthy envy at his uncle's resplendid mane.

"God has given so much to so few," he thought with a philosophical sigh.

His own hair was as coarse as nails and as unruly as a fractious schoolboy. The resemblance to an undisciplined boy was more than passing. What hair he possessed stood, or leaned, or lay supine, or waved to each other as the fancy of each individual swatch dictated. The cardinal was graceful of build and as supple as a willow. Father Ragonzi was made like a barrel.

However amicable their relationship might be, the primary purpose of the meeting was a serious one – the exposure and suppression of the heretical practice of witchcraft, which surprisingly resurrected itself after each vigorous offensive launched by the church.

Father Ragonzi complained. "It is unbelievable, Your Eminence. We denounce witches and sorcerers from the pulpit. We reveal the great penalties that await sinners who practice it … in this world and the hereafter. We arrest and castigate these malefactors with the severest of punishments and yet, there always is a resurgence."

"You must remember, dear nephew, that the father of evils is inflexible in his purpose. He does not care how lavishly his tools are expended."

To the cardinal, it was an old story. He did not expect a quick and annihilating victory over the forces of darkness. He suspected the struggle would continue to be waged long after his departure from the earthly plane.

Between them, on a table formerly used by a humble scribe to make copies of such printed works as had escaped the oblivion of time as well as the ravages of superstition, lay one of the most remarkable books His Eminence had ever seen. It would have called attention to itself surrounded by ten thousand volumes. It was as conspicuous as a lighted candle in a darkened room.

"I seem to remember having heard stories about this … object," the cardinal said.

"Indeed, Your Eminence," Father Ragonzi responded eagerly. He was anxious to display to his uncle that the repression of regional heretical forces, the responsibility for which reposed in his industrious hands, had not been entirely misplaced. "This thing is the infamous Molina Cappricio that formerly was the possession of the arch-sorcerer, Scarsi."

Hair grew from the covers of the book as if it was a living human head. The covers were made from the processed skin taken from the head and face of a youth reputed to be one of the sons of the Medusa, so that indeed, the book was more than passing remarkable.

"I recognize it from its reputation," the cardinal said, "it was used in performing barber magic."

"You are familiar with it?" Father Ragonzi remarked somewhat in surprise.

"From passed-on accounts of it. It is as famous in its own way as are the tresses of Sampson."

"Ah, yes! Scarsi was notorious."

"Immodest, in any respect. You have the book; I take it that you also have the magician?"

Ragonzi's smile fell. "Alas, no, Eminence. The constables who sought to arrest him inform me that he disappeared in a pall of smoke and fire when they sought to manacle him."

The cardinal smiled austerely. "More likely, he simply bribed them."

The acting bishop's face darkened; the idea had not occurred to him. "If they have lied to me … His fist clenched ominously.

Cardinal Barbione dismissed the incident with a wave of his hand. "It is nothing. They are simple men and merely recited what they thought to be most pleasing to you. I would suggest an official annotation be added to Scarsi's dossier … the incident as it was reported to you. Our inquisitor brothers delight in fire and brimstone and it is sure to be of great comfort to them. And, of course, it can be used as additional evidence against him when he is captured and brought to trial." Privately, the cardinal thought that the chances of Scarsi being caught were remote indeed.

"You knew him as a youth, did you not, Eminence?"

"Slightly. We were co-seminarians. He was a most devious scalawag even then. I do not imagine that he has changed as he matured except to acquire a polished finish to his wiles. Nephew, if guile was a criterion for ascension, Scarsi would be Pope."

Father Ragonzi was shocked to hear such insouciance directed at the Holy Office. It seemed somehow to smack of indelicacy. But, he thought, a prince of the church could assume small liberties not permissible to the lowlier cadres.

Almost absent-mindedly, Cardinal Barbione opened the book at random. Hair grew from the script on the pages. At least a quarter of an inch sprouted from every letter. As if in a blasphemous parody of the illuminated writing used in transliterating great religious works, the letters beginning every paragraph were limned with red or blond hair. The text was in black.

"Incredible!" Barbione thought. "In itself, this is enough to consign him to the stake." To the acting bishop he said, "You have done well, dear nephew. It is not your fault that the master has eluded you. Your tools are dull and in dealing with such dark sagacity, one needs keen blades. Satan guards his chosen assiduously." The cardinal drew on his cowl. Ragonzi recognized this as a sign of his eminent departure.

"I suggest you retain this book and use it as is most advantageous when Scarsi is brought to trial. In the meantime, it is expected you will redouble your admirable efforts in the great war against heresy. Study the devil's methods. Take a leaf from his own book if necessary. God grant you success."

His nephew genuflected again and once more kissed the cardinal's extended ring. "No one shall be more unswerving in our cause," he promised. "God go with you and protect you, dear uncle."

Father Ragonzi accompanied the cardinal to his sedan chair and watched as he was borne away in the sedate dignity befitting an important Papal functionary. The visit invigorated the sagging spirits of Father Ragonzi, for his uncle was genuinely capable of inspiring diligence and steadfastness.

"I will not tolerate the devil in any guise," he promised himself grimly and set to work almost immediately (which for those phlegmatic times translated into a lapse of several weeks).

It was a year later when an aged, impressively liveried servant approached Cardinal Barbione in his luxurious Papal apartments. The cardinal reclined comfortably on a satin covered divan in front of a dignified marble fireplace that was heavily ornamented in the classical Greek tradition. The cardinal had neglected to remove his cowl, and all of his head except his rather prominent nose was invisible.

The servant knelt and whispered, for he recognized from a slackness in his master's deportment that he was deep in important reveries. "Your Eminence, His Grace, the bishop of Tristoro desires an audience at your earliest convenience."

Barbione looked up with a start. "My nephew? At my convenience? In two months, perhaps?"

The servant coughed delicately. I gained an impression he desired to see you immediately."

The cardinal sighed. "Very well, admit him then."

The bishop was unable to entirely suppress the jubilation in his walk. He entered the venerable apartments jauntily, almost with a swagger. The hem of his bishopric robe brushed light-heartedly against the lavish carpets. They met in front of a colossal mosaic window that depicted the triumph of St. Michael over the father of evil. Silhouetted against the late afternoon light, they resembled two gigantic crows … a lean one and a fat one. In the privacy and solitude of the room they overlooked Papal protocol and simply clasped hands warmly.

"Ah, nephew, something tells me that you have been busy."

"Indeed I have, uncle." Father Ragonzi almost gushed in his eagerness. "I took your advice to heart and have applied myself diligently to our great endeavor."

"And what advice was that, dear nephew?' After the lapse of a year, the cardinal understandably had forgotten.

"To study the devil's methods and take a leaf from his book, dear uncle."

Barbione led the bishop to a comfortable chair beside a table and rang for wine. "I rather thought you might have. Tell me, what have you done?"

"First, I devoted myself to accumulating as many of the records and spoken words of the wizard Scarsi as could be found or remembered by his former associates. And I spent weeks … nay, months, in their study. A pattern emerged which I put to the test. If successful, all of Scarsi's previous incantations will be undone. It will be as if they were never uttered." Ragonzi paused as the aged servant placed the wine and two goblets before them.

"Some simple workingman's wine?" the cardinal suggested as he filled the goblets. "You have already put the results of your studies to the test, you say?"

Ragonzi drank appreciatively. The cardinal's workmen fared well indeed to imbibe wine like this. "Yes, uncle. I performed the prescribed rites at the prescribed times … mostly at midnight during the full of the moon." Here the bishop looked up with an expression of remembered annoyance. "I don't understand why it is necessary to lose sleep simply to perform magic."

"In actuality, it isn't necessary. The rites can be performed at noon or whenever you desire. However, midnight is more impressive to his disciples. Psychologically, it stimulates them to be more generous in their offerings."

Ragonzi thought of the midnight masses. Yes, you are right," then he continued, "I followed directions meticulously and observed all the proper precautions." "Hmm!" said the cardinal, "It strikes me that you may have unwittingly courted great peril. Only certain people of a particular inclination may practice magic safely."

"Ah, uncle, no sacrifice is too great … no pitfall is too deep to dare in the advancement of God's work. I protected myself with prayer and the blessed crucifix. At the culmination of the rites, I burned that abominable book. Not an ash of it remains."

"A pity, in a way; it was the only one of its kind in the world and certainly worth a good deal of money to a collector of curiosa."

"So much the better that it is gone, uncle. An artifact of evil which has been irretrievably consigned to limbo. With it gone, the witches and warlocks will lose heart and perhaps then, see the errors of their ways."

The cardinal drummed on the tabletop with one hand as he thought and refilled their glasses with the other. "I trust you will show proper Christian mercy and give them an opportunity to accept the conversional."

"Of course! Of course. Only," and here the bishop smiled slyly. "It all depends upon the efficacy of the ritual I performed. Would it not be wonderful to have every spell ever cast by that evil magician Scarsi undone?"

"I am sure you were successful, nephew." The cardinal rose. His cowl fell back on his shoulders. The light from the great window played about his head and was reflected into an almost blinding aureole from a shiny and naked scalp, "Too successful."

Copyright by
Albert J. Manachino

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