by Desmond Warzel
The crowd in Saint Peter’s Square had begun to form just after dawn, and though its composition varied from hour to hour, it eventually assumed a mood of its own, equal parts melancholy and hope.
Within the confines of the Sistine Chapel, the attitude of the assemblage–a hundred Cardinals and twice again as many attendants–mirrored in large part that of the throng outside, though there was also an overlay of nervous tension. This was understandable; they had gathered here for the express purpose of committing a historical act. And though each Cardinal easily maintained his necessary air of contemplative peace, as a body the College of Cardinals shared an unspoken trepidation all their own. This, too, was forgivable; their souls bore a weight that was not shared with their subordinates.
It was well into the afternoon of the conclave’s first–and likely final–day. Oaths had been taken, lunch served, prayers recited, and ballots distributed. At the back of the chamber sat Cardinal Taglieri, nervously fingering his ballot paper. His two attendants stood to one side, engaged in whispered conversation, which tapered off as the door was locked and the voting began.
In the days leading up to the conclave, there had occurred among the Cardinals numerous clandestine discussions suggesting–half-seriously–that each should vote for himself, to force a tie and prolong the proceedings. These mutterings carried no weight, of course; leaving aside the oath each Cardinal would swear as he presented his ballot to the Scrutineer, promising that he had voted his conscience, such a tactic would only delay the inevitable unpleasantness.
That which had to be done, would be done.
In the empty white space beneath the declaration Eligo in Summum Pontificem, Cardinal Taglieri filled in the name of Cardinal Manzano. Most of the others would do likewise; Manzano was loved and respected throughout the Church, and the late Pope, on his deathbed, had all but named him successor.
And so it was done. The ballots were collected, counted, tabulated. Cardinal Manzano stood and accepted his election, smiling a sad smile, meeting no one’s gaze. The ballots were taken to be burned; Manzano was whisked away to pray, select his vestments, and address the waiting crowd. The chamber emptied rapidly. Only the College of Cardinals–now numbering ninety-nine–remained behind, on the pretext of a final prayer.
No one spoke; the single sound within the chamber was the labored breathing of some of the older men.
The second election of the day was imminent, but this time there would be only one elector. They could only wait.
Taglieri wiped a single bead of sweat from his forehead. Though the walls were of cold stone and admitted almost no sunlight, the air in the chamber felt warm and thick.
Some of the others had begun silent prayer. Taglieri followed suit.
He prayed that the new Pope would enjoy good health and long life; long enough that he, himself, would be safely at rest when the next conclave took place.
He prayed that somehow, in some way, the centuries-old bargain would be forgotten or forgiven this time.
Knowing the hopelessness of this, he prayed for absolution, for though he had not made the bargain, he was as culpable as those who had done so, all those years ago. It stained his soul.
And furtively, almost reflexively, he prayed that it would not be he who was selected.
Ashamed, he ceased his entreaties and ventured a glance around the chamber. A few of the Cardinals stared resolutely at the floor; most clamped their eyes tightly shut. Nearly all were soaked with perspiration; the air was barely breathable and the furniture and walls were hot to the touch.
Any time, now.
Taglieri closed his eyes, tried to ready his soul in case his lot was drawn.
He was calm.
What was one soul weighed against six billion? What price too dear to stave off the end of the world for another few years?
Centuries ago, the Adversary had decreed that a single, righteous soul, freely given, was inducement enough to delay his return to Earth.
At each conclave, the pact was renewed: the Cardinals selected from among their number the new servant of the Lord; the Adversary, as befitted his station, chose second.
As a blistering wind rushed through the chamber, Taglieri prayed for the souls of all those Cardinals who had been taken over the centuries. There was no knowing what torment they suffered in their diabolical prison, what unspeakable power the Adversary drew from their presence in his realm.
The floor burned his feet. The wind grew stronger, bringing with it foul vapors and the faint screams of the damned.
Something brushed his cheek; a stray ballot paper, perhaps. Or the caress of the Adversary himself as he moved among the candidates, judging them by his unknowable standard.
Let it even be me, prayed Taglieri, only let it be soon.
Some minutes later, the wind died away, the deathly heat began to fade.
When the Cardinals opened their eyes again, they were ninety-eight.
It had been Cardinal Mulroney. A good man; indeed, the best of them, or the Adversary would not have selected him as his prize.
Mulroney’s attendants would have to be found and sworn to secrecy. His Archdiocese would be told that he had died peacefully in his sleep.
Outside, the crowd in Saint Peter’s Square cheered as one, the sound of their merriment reverberating across all of Rome; they had witnessed the column of white smoke that heralded the successful election of a new Pope. Soon the former Cardinal Manzano would appear and give his inaugural address, and a new era of Church history would commence.
The Cardinals retired to their individual quarters, their duties now discharged. As they filed out, a faint, sulfurous odor wafted from the chamber but quickly dissipated and was gone.
Taglieri lay upon his thin mattress, listening to the wild ovation that greeted the new Pontiff.
Long may he reign.
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