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ODDSFISH!

BY

ROBERT HUGH BENSON

Author of "Come Rack! Come Rope!", "Lord of the World," "Initiation,"
etc.

NEW YORK
DODD, MEAD AND COMPANY

1914
AUTHOR'S NOTE.


I wish to express my gratitude for great help received in the writing of
this book to Miss MacDermot, Miss Stearne and others, as well as to
three friends who submitted to hearing it read aloud in manuscript, and
who assisted me by their criticisms and suggestions.

Further, I think it worth saying that in all historical episodes in this
book I have taken pains to be as accurate as possible. The various
plots, the political movements, and the closing scenes of Charles II's
life are here described with as much fidelity to truth as is compatible
with historical romance. In particular, I do not think that the King
himself is represented as doing or saying anything--except of course to
my fictitious personages--to which sound history does not testify. I
have also taken considerable pains in the topographical descriptions of
Whitehall.




PROLOGUE


The day from which I reckon the beginning of all those adventures which
occupied me in the Courts of England and France and elsewhere, was the
first day of May in the year sixteen hundred and seventy-eight--the day,
that is, on which my Lord Abbot carried me from St. Paul's-without-the-
Walls to the Vatican Palace, to see our Most Holy Lord Innocent the
Eleventh.

It had been a very hot day in Rome, as was to be expected at that
season; and I had stayed in the cloister in the cool, as my Lord Abbot
had bidden me, not knowing whether it would be on that day or another,
or, indeed, on any at all, that His Holiness would send for me. I knew
that my Lord Abbot had been to the Vatican again and again on the
business; and had spoken of me, as he said he would, not to the Holy
Father only, but to the Cardinal Secretary of State and to others; but I
did not know, and he did not tell me, as to whether that business had
been prosperous; though I think he must have known long before how it
would end. An hour before _Ave Maria_, then, he sent to me, as I walked
in the cloisters, and when I came to him, told me, all short, to dress
myself in my old secular clothes, as fine as I could, and to be ready to
ride with him in half an hour, because our Most Holy Lord had consented
to receive me one hour after _Ave Maria_. He said nothing more to me
than that; he did not tell me how I was to bear myself, nor what I was
to say, neither as I stood in his cell, nor as we rode as fast as we
could, with the servants before and behind, into Rome and through the
streets of it. I knew nothing more than this--that since neither I nor
my novice-master were in the least satisfied as to my vocation, and
since I had considerable estates of my own in France (though I was an
Englishman altogether on my father's side), and could speak both French
and English with equal ease, and Italian and Spanish tolerably--that
since, in short, I was a very well-educated young gentleman, and looked
more than my years, and bore myself--(so I was told)--with ease and
discretion in any company, and could act a part if it were required of
me--I might perhaps be of better service to the Church in some secular
employment than in sacred. This was all that I knew. The rest my Lord
Abbot left to my own wits to understand, and to our Holy Father, if he
would, to discover to me: and that, indeed, was presently what he did.

* * * * *

I had been within the Vatican before three or four times, both when I
had first come to Rome four years ago, and once as attendant upon my
Lord Abbot; but never before had I felt of such importance within those
walls; for this time it was myself to whom the Holy Father was to give
audience, and not merely to one in whose company I was. I was in secular
clothes too--the peruke, buckles, sword, and all the rest, which I had
laid aside two years ago, though these were a little old and
tarnished--and I bore myself as young men will (for I was only
twenty-one years old at that time), with an air and a swing; though my
heart beat a little faster as we passed through the great rooms, after
leaving our cloaks in an antechamber and arranging our dress after the
ride; and at last were bidden to sit down while the young Monsignore who
had received us in the last saloon went in to know if the Holy Father
were ready to see us.

It was a smaller room--this in which we sat--than the others through
which we had passed, and in which the crimson liveried servants were;
and its walls were all covered with hangings from cornice to floor. That
which was opposite to me presented, I remember, Jacob receiving the
blessing which his brother Esau should have had; and I wondered, as I
sat there, whether I myself were come, as Jacob, to get a blessing to
which I had no right. Idly Lord Abbot said nothing at all; for he was a
stout man and a little out of breath; and almost before he had got it
again, and before I was sure as to whether I were more like to the liar
Jacob, who won a blessing when he should not, or to unspiritual Esau,
who lost a blessing which he should have had, the young Monsignore in
his purple came back again, and, bowing so low that we saw the little
tonsure on the top of his head, beckoned to us to enter.

* * * * *

By the time that, behind my Lord Abbot, I had performed the three
genuflections and, at the third, was kissing the ring of our Most Holy
Lord, I had already taken into my mind something of the room I was in
and of him who sat there, wheeled round in his chair to greet us. The
room was far more plain than I had thought to find it, though pretty
rich too. The walls had sacred hangings upon them; but it was so dark
with the shuttered windows that I could not make out very well what
their subjects were. A dozen damask and gilt chairs stood round the
walls, and three or four tables; and, in the centre of all, where I was
now arrived, stood the greatest table of all, carved of some black wood,
and at the middle of one side the chair in which sat the Holy Father
himself.

He had very kind but very piercing eyes: this was the first thing that I
thought; his hair beneath his cap, as well as his beard, was all
iron-grey; his complexion was a little sallow, and seemed all the more
sallow because of his red velvet cap and white soutane; (for he wore no
cloak because of the heat). As soon as I had kissed his ring he bade me
stand up--(speaking in Italian, as he did all through the audience)--and
then beckoned me to a chair opposite to his, and my Lord Abbot to
another on one side. And then at once he went on to speak of the
business on which we were come--as if he knew all about it, and had no
time to spend on compliments.

Now our Holy Father Innocent the Eleventh was, I suppose, one of the
greatest men that ever sat in Peter's Seat. I would not speak evil, if I
could help it, of any of Christ's Vicars; but this at least I may
say--that Pope Innocent reformed a number of things that sorely needed
it. He would have no nepotism at the Papal Court; men stood or fell by
their own merits: so I knew very well that my estates in France, even
if they had been ten times as great, would serve me nothing at all. He
was very humble too--(he asked pardon, it was said, even of his own
servants if he troubled them)--so I knew that no swashbuckling air on my
part would do me anything but harm--(and, indeed, that was all laid
aside, willy nilly, so soon as I came in)--since, like all humble men he
esteemed the pride, even of kings, at exactly its proper worth, which is
nothing at all. He was, too, a man of great spirituality, so I knew that
my having come to St. Paul's as a novice and now wishing to leave it
again, would scarcely exalt me in his eyes. I felt then a very poor
creature indeed as I sat there and listened to him.

"This, then, is Master Roger Mallock," he said to my Lord Abbot, "of
whom your Lordship spoke to me."

"This is he, Holy Father," said my Lord.

"He has been a novice for two years then; and his superiors are not sure
of his vocation?"

"Yes, Holy Father."

The Pope looked again at me then, and I dropped my eyes.

"And you yourself, my son?" he asked.

"Holy Father," I said, "I am sure that at present I have no vocation.
What God may give me in the future I do not know. I only know what He
has not given me in the present."

Innocent tightened his lips at that; but I think it was to prevent
himself smiling.

"And he is an English gentleman," he went on presently, "and he has
estates in France that bring him in above twenty thousand francs yearly;
and he is twenty-one years of age; and he is accustomed to all kinds of
society, and he is a devoted son of Holy Church, and he speaks French
and English and Italian and Spanish and German--"

"No, Holy Father, not German--except a few words," I said.

"And he is discreet and courageous and virtuous--"

"Holy Father--" I began in distress, for I thought he was mocking me.

"And he desires nothing; better than to serve his spiritual superiors
in any employment to which they may put him--Eh, my son?"

I looked into the Pope's face and down again; but I said nothing.

"Eh, my son?" he said again with a certain sharpness.

"Holy Father, I have been taught never to contradict my superiors; but
indeed in this--"

"Bravo!" said Innocent.

Then he turned to my Lord Abbot, as if I were no longer in the room.

"The question," he said, "is not only whether this young gentleman is
capable of hearing everything and saying nothing, of preserving his
virtue, of handling locked caskets without even desiring to look inside
unless it is his business, of living in the world yet not being of
it--but whether he is willing to do all this without being paid for
it--except perhaps his bare expenses."

My Lord Abbot said nothing.

"I can have a thousand paid servants," said Innocent, "who are worth
exactly their wages; but, since money cannot buy virtue or discretion or
courage, in such servants I cannot demand those things.



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Keywords: thought, vatican, superiors, because, looked, estates, gentleman, italian, english, vocation
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