Gr-r-r! There he goes again! Brother Ambrose could scarce restrain the hatred that seethed and churned in his breast, as his smallish eyes followed Brother Lorenzo headed once more for his beloved geraniums, the inevitable watering-pot gripped in both hands, the inevitable devotions rising in a whispered stream from his saintly lips. The very fact the man lived was a mockery to human justice: God’s blood, but if thoughts could only kill.
The thousand and one injuries of Fray Lorenzo he had borne as a Christian monk should, with humility and charity. But the insults, aye, the insults to faith and reason! They were more than a generous Father could expect His most adoring servant to suffer, weren’t they? To have to sit next to the man, for instance, at evening meal and hear his silly prattle of the weather. Next year’s crop of cork: we can scarcely expect oak-galls, he says. Isn’t petroselinum the name for parsley? (No, it’s Greek, you swine. And what’s the Greek name for Swine’s Snout? I could hurl it at you, like the Pope hurling anathema.) Salve tibi! It sticks in one’s craw to bless him with the rest. Would God our cloister numbered thirty-and-nine instead of forty.
For days now, for weeks, Brother Ambrose had witnessed and endured the false piety of the man. How he’d ever got admitted to the order in the first place beat all supposition. It must have been his sanctimonious apple-cheeks or (Heaven forbid such simony), some rich relative greased the palm of the Prior. Saint, forsooth!
Brother Ambrose recalled just a week previous; they had been outside the walls, a round dozen of the brothers, gathering the first few bushels of grapes to make the good Benedictine wine. And all men tended to their duty in the vineyard--save who? Save lecherous Lorenzo, whose job was to attend the press. Picked the assignment himself, most likely, so he could ogle the brown thighs and browner ankles of Dolores squatting on the Convent bank, gitana slut with her flashing eyes and hint of sweet delight in those cherry-red lips and coquettish tossing shoulders. A man could see she was child of the devil, flesh to tempt to eternal hellfire.
But how skillful Brother Lorenzo had been in keeping the glow in his dead eye from being seen by the others! Only Ambrose had known it was there. Invisible to even the world, perhaps; but lurking just the same in Lorenzo’s feverishly disguised brain. Si, there and lusting beyond a doubt. By one’s faith, the blue-black hair of Dolores would make any weak man itch; and the stories that had floated on the breeze that day, livelily exchanged between her and that roguish Sanchicha, the lavandera; Lorenzo must surely have lapped them all up like a hungry spaniel, though he cleverly turned his head away so you would not guess. After all, Ambrose, scarcely a step closer, could recall clearly every word of the bawdy tales!
Back to the table again; and Brother Ambrose once more noticed how Fray Lorenzo never let his fork and knife lie crosswise, an obvious tribute he, himself, always made in Our Senor’s praise. Nor did Lorenzo honor the Trinity by drinking his orange-pulp in three quiet sips; rather (the Arian heretic) he drained it at a gulp. Now, he was out trimming his myrtle-bush. And touching up his roses.
Gr-r-r, again! Watching his enemy putter away in the deepening twilight that followed the decline of the Andalusian sun, Brother Ambrose recalled the other traps he had lain to trip the hypocrite. Traps set and failed; but, oh, so delicious anyhow, these attempts to send him flying off to Hell where he belonged: a Cathar or a Manichee. That last one, involving the pornographic French novel so scrofulous and wicked. How could it failed to have snared its prey? Especially, when Fray Ambrose had spent such sleepless nights, working out his plot in great detail?
Brother Ambrose allowed himself an inward chortle, as he paced along the portico, recollecting how close to success the scheme had come. The book had had to be read first (or re-read, rather) by Ambrose to determine just which chapter would be most apt to damn a soul with concupiscent suggestion. Gray paper with blunt type, the whole book had been easy enough to grasp for that matter--what with the words so badly spelled out. The cuckoldry tales of Boccaccio and that gay old archpriest, Juan Ruiz de Hita, what dry reading they seemed by comparison--almost like decretals.
As if by misadventure, Brother Ambrose had left the book in Lorenzo’s cell, the pages doubled down at the woeful sixteenth print. Ah, there had been a passage! Simply glancing at it, you groveled hand and foot in Belial’s grip.
But, that twice-cursed Lorenzo must have had the devil’s luck that day. A breeze sprang up to flip the volume closed; and the monk, not knowing the book’s owner and espying only its name, had handed it over to the Prior who had promptly turned the monastery upside down in search of further such adulterous contraband!
Worse fortune followed. The next day, Brother Lorenzo had come down with a temporary stroke of blindness--it lasted only a week; but even so, for seven days Ambrose had been forced to labor in his stead in the drafty library, copying boresome scrolls in a light scarcely less dim than moonlight. Worse still, the Prior had found mistakes: letters dropped, transposed (Latin was so bothersomely regular; compared to the vulgar tongue). For what he called such “inexcusable slovenliness,” the Prior had imposed a penance of bread and water and extra toil.
Slovenliness! Why didn’t the Prior--was he blind, too?--notice the deadly sins that were each day so neatly practised by Brother Lorenzo? They went unpunished. Probably, God’s Angel would even be found to have been asleep when Judgment Day came around and Lorenzo would slip into Heaven by a wink, as one might say.
Obviously, there was no justice, except such as man would make himself, Brother Ambrose had at last decided.
Ave Maria, plena gratia.
Now at last, he was alone in his cell, free finally from the unendurable (sometimes it seemed everlasting) torment of Brother Lorenzo’s presence. Twenty-nine distinct damnations listed in Galatians, if you cared to look up the text; and not one of them could the enemy be made to trip on, a-dying.
In fact, of late, so bad had the situation grown that Brother Ambrose had even once considered pledging his soul to Satan. Oh, not for keeps! No enmity was worth that dread sacrifice. But as a trick, sort of--with a flaw in the indenture that proud Lucifer would miss until it was too late to wriggle out of the bargain.
But that had been two days ago.
Now, a better scheme presented itself to Brother Ambrose, engendered by that forced labor within the dreary precincts of the convent library. For that was where (and when) he had made his delightful discovery, the one that would now redeem him from all his irritations and travail. The discovery that would rid him of Brother Lorenzo for always!
It had happened like this.
Inasmuch as the monastery was over eight hundred years old, many ancient books and moldy scrolls lay forgotten in the cobwebby corners of the great library, especially where the light was gloomy. One afternoon during his week of enforced toil, Brother Ambrose had sought the shelter of one of these ill-lighted and seldom-visited nooks of the building to recover certain lost hours of sleep, hours that had gone astray the night before as he sat up in his lonely cell and brooded over his wrongs. But before his drowsy head could nod off into dreams completely, his eye had chanced to notice a faded scroll that jutted forth from its fellows on the shelves. Starting to push the offender back in place, Ambrose’s fingers had hesitated when he noticed the title: De Necromantiae.
Surely, thought the monk, such a book belonged on the Index. Then, it occurred to him that possibly the copy in front of him was the only one of its kind in the world, in which case not even the Holy Father could be expected to know it existed. Then, how could it be on the Index or be forbidden?