He was tied to the stake and the faggots piled around him so that he
was almost hidden from view. When a torch was held to the wood, there
was an almighty crackling and the kindling caught light immediately and
burned with a fierce glow. My father had nodded in approval; sometimes, he
explained, if the authorities feel merciful, they allow green wood to be used
for the pyre, so that the prisoner will often suffocate from the smoke before
he truly suffers the sting of the flames. But for the worst kind of heretics
witches, sorcerers, blasphemers, Lutherans, the Benandanti they would
be sure the wood was as dry as the slopes of Monte Cicala in summer, so
that the heat of the flames would tear at the offender until he screamed out
to God with his last breath in true repentance.
I wanted to look away as the flames rushed to devour the mans face, but
my father was planted solidly beside me, his gaze unflinching, as if watching
the poor wretchs agonies were an essential part of his own duty to God,
and I did not want to appear less manly or less devout than he. I heard the
mangled shrieks that escaped the condemned mans torn mouth as his eyeballs
popped, I heard the hiss and crackle as his skin shrivelled and peeled
away and the bloody pulp beneath melted into the flames, I smelled the
charred flesh that reminded me horribly of the boar that was always roasted
over a pit at street festivals in Nola. Indeed, the cheering and exultation of
the crowd when the heretic finally expired was like nothing so much as a
saints day or public holiday. On the way home I asked my father why the
man had had to die so horribly. Had he killed someone, I wondered? My father
told me that he had been a heretic. When I pressed him to explain what
a heretic was, he said the man had defied the authority of the pope by denying
the existence of Purgatory. So I learned that, in Italy, words and ideas are
considered as dangerous as swords and arrows, and that a philosopher or a
scientist needs as much courage as a soldier to speak his mind.
Somewhere in the dormitory building I heard a door slam violently.
They are coming, I whispered frantically to Paolo. Where the devil
is my cloak?
Here. He handed me his own, pausing a moment to tuck it around my
shoulders. And take this. He pressed into my hand a small bone- handled
dagger in a leather sheath. I looked at him in surprise. It was a gift from my
father, he whispered. You will have more need of it than I, where you are
going. And now, sbrigati. Hurry.
The narrow window of our cell was just large enough for me to squeeze
myself onto the ledge, one leg at a time. We were on the first floor of the
building, but about six feet below the window the sloping roof of the lay
brothers reredorter jutted out enough for me to land on it if I judged the
fall carefully; from there I could edge my way down a buttress and, assuming
I could make it across the garden without being seen, climb the outside
wall of the monastery and disappear into the streets of Naples under cover
I tucked the dagger inside my habit, slung my oilskin pack over one
shoulder, and climbed to the ledge, pausing astride the windowsill to look
out. A gibbous moon hung, pale and swollen, over the city, smoky trails of
cloud drifting across its face. Outside there was only silence. For a moment
I felt suspended between two lives. I had been a monk for thirteen years;
when I lifted my left leg through the window and dropped to the roof below,
I would be turning my back on that life for good. Paolo was right; I would
be excommunicated for leaving my order, whatever other charges were levelled
at me. He looked up at me, his face full of wordless grief, and reached
for my hand. I leaned down to kiss his knuckles when I heard again the emphatic
stride of many feet thundering down the passageway outside.
A Man Called Intrepid author dies aged 89(Dec 03 2013) William Stevenson, a journalist and author who drew on his close ties with intelligence sources to write two best-selling books in the 1970s, A Man Called...