A Canticle For Leibowitz(24) by Walter M. Miller Jr

“And the substance of the report I’m to deliver, Messér?”

“That Hannegan’s ambition to unite the continent under one dynasty isn’t so wild a dream as we thought. That the Agreement of the Holy Scourge is probably a fraud by Hannegan, and that be means to use it to get both the empire of Denver and Laredan Nation into conflict with the Plains nomads. If Laredan forces are tied up in a running battle with Mad Bear, it wouldn’t take much encouragement for the State of Chihuahua to attack Laredo from the south. After all, there’s an old enmity there. Hannegan, of course, can then march victoriously to Rio Laredo. With Laredo under his thumb, he can look forward to tackling both Denver and the Mississippi Republic without worrying about a stab in the back from the south.”

“Do you think Hannegan can do it, Messér?”

Marcus Apollo started to answer, then closed his mouth slowly. He walked to the window and stared out at the sunlit city, a sprawling disorderly city built mostly of rubble from another age. A city without orderly patterns of streets. It had grown slowly over an ancient ruin, as perhaps someday another city would grow over the ruin of this one.

“I don’t know,” he answered softly. “In these times, it’s hard to condemn any man for wanting to unite this butchered continent. Even by such means as-but no, I don’t mean that.” He sighed heavily. “In any case, our interests are not the interests of politics. We must forewarn New Rome of what may be coming, because the Church will be affected by it, whatever happens. And forewarned, we may be able to keep out of the squabble.”

“You really think so?”

“Of course not!” the priest said gently.

Thon Taddeo Pfardentrott arrived at Marcus Apollo’s study as early in the day as could be construed as evening, and his manner had noticeably changed since the reception. He managed a cordial smile, and there was nervous eagerness in the way he spoke. This fellow, thought Marcus, is after something be wants rather badly, and he’s even willing to be polite in order to get it. Perhaps the list of ancient writings supplied by the monks at the Leibowitzian abbey had impressed the thon more than he wanted to admit. The nuncio had been prepared for a fencing match, but the scholar’s evident excitement made him too easy a victim, and Apollo relaxed his readiness for verbal dueling.

“This afternoon there was a meeting of the faculty of the collegium,” said Thon Taddeo as soon as they were seated. “We talked about Brother Kornhoer’s letter, and the list of documents.” He paused as if uncertain of an approach. The gray dusklight from the large arched window on his left made his face seem blanched and intense, and his wide gray eyes searched at the priest as if measuring him and making estimates.

“I take it there was skepticism?”

The gray eyes fell momentarily, and lifted quickly. “Shall I be polite?”

“Don’t bother,” Apollo chuckled.

“There was skepticism. ‘Incredulity’ is more nearly the word. My own feeling is that if such papers exist, they are probably forgeries dating back several centuries. I doubt if the present monks at the abbey are trying to perpetrate a hoax. Naturally, they would believe the documents valid.”

“Kind of you to absolve them,” Apollo said sourly.

“I offered to be polite. Shall I?”

“No. Go on.”

The thon slid out of his chair and went to sit in the window. He gazed at the fading yellow patches of cloud in the west and pounded softly on the sill while he spoke.

“The papers. No matter what we may believe of them, the idea that such documents may still exist intact-that there’s even a slightest chance of their existing-is, well, so arousing a thought that we must investigate them immediately:”

“Very well,” said Apollo, a little amused. “They invited you. But tell me: what do you find so arousing about the documents?”

The scholar shot him a quick glance. “Are you acquainted with my work?”

The monsignor hesitated. He was acquainted with it, but admitting the acquaintance might force him to admit to an awareness that Thon Taddeo’s name was being spoken in the same breath with names of natural philosophers dead a thousand years and more, while the thon was scarcely in his thirties. The priest was not eager to admit knowing that this young scientist showed promise of becoming one of those rare outcroppings of human genius that appear only a time or two every century to revolutionize an entire field of thought in one vast sweep. He coughed apologetically.

“I must admit that I haven’t read a good deal of-”

“Never mind.” Pfardentrott waved off the apology. “Most of it is highly abstract, and tedious to the layman. Theories of electrical essence. Planetary motion. Attracting bodies. Matters of that sort. New Kornhoer’s list mentions such names as Laplace, Maxwell, and Einstein-do they mean anything to you?”

“Not much. History mentions them as natural philosophers, doesn’t it? From before the collapse of the last civilization? And I think they’re named in one of the pagan hagiologies, aren’t they?”

The scholar nodded. “And that’s all anyone knows about them, or what they did. Physicists, according to our not-so-reliable historians. Responsible for the rapid rise of the European-American culture, they say. Historians list nothing but trivia. I had nearly forgotten them. But Kornhoer’s descriptions of the old documents they say they have are descriptions of papers that might well be taken from physical science texts of some kind. It’s just impossible!”

“But you have to make certain?”

“We have to make certain. Now that it’s come up, I wish I had never heard of it.”

“Why?”

Thon Taddeo was peering at something in the street below. He beckoned to the priest. “Come here a moment. I’ll show you why.”

Apollo slipped from behind the desk and looked down at the muddy rutted street beyond the wall that encircled the palace and barracks and buildings of the collegium cutting off the mayoral sanctuary from the seething plebeian city. The scholar was pointing at the shadowy figure of a peasant leading a donkey homeward at twilight. The man’s feet were wrapped in sackcloth, and the mud had caked about them so that he seemed scarcely able to lift them. But he trudged ahead in one slogging steep after another, resting half a second between footfalls. He seemed too weary to scrape off the mud.

“He doesn’t ride the donkey,” Than Taddeo stated, “because this morning the donkey was loaded down with corn. It doesn’t occur to him that the packs are empty now. What is good enough for the morning is also good enough for the afternoon.”

“You know him?”

“He passes under my window too. Every morning end evening. Hadn’t you noticed him?”

“A thousand like him.”

“Look. Can you bring yourself to believe that that brute is the lineal descendant of men who supposedly invented machines that flew, who traveled to the moon, harnessed the forces of Nature, built machines that could talk and seemed to think? Can you believe there were such men?”

Apollo was silent.

“Look at him!” the scholar persisted. “No, but it’s too dark now. You can’t see the syphilis outbreak on his neck, the way the bridge of his nose is being eaten away. Paresis. But he was undoubtedly a moron to begin with. Illiterate superstitious, murderous. He diseases his children. For a few coins he would kill them. He will sell them anyway, when they are old enough to be useful. Look at him, and tell me if you see the progeny of a once-mighty civilization? What do you see?”

“The image of Christ,” grated the monsignor, surprised at his own sudden anger. “What did you expect me to see?”

The scholar huffed impatiently. “The incongruity. Men as you can observe them through any window, and men as historians would have us believe men once were. I can’t accept it. How can a great and wise civilization have destroyed itself so completely?”

“Perhaps,” said Apollo, “by being materially great and materially wise, and nothing else.” He went to light a tallow lamp, for the twilight was rapidly fading into night. He struck steel and flint until the spark caught and he blew gently at it in the tinder.

“Perhaps,” said Thon Taddeo, “but I doubt it.”

“You reject all history, then, as myth?” A flame edged out from the spark.

“Not ‘reject.’ But it must be questioned. Who wrote your histories?”

“The monastic Orders, of course. During the darkest centuries, there was no one else to record them.” He transferred flame to wick.

“There! You have it. And during the time of the antipopes, how many schismatic Orders were fabricating their own versions of things, and passing off their versions as the work of earlier men? You can’t know, you can’t really know. That there was on this continent a more advanced civilization then we have now-that can’t be denied. You can look at the rubble and the rotted metal and know it. You can dig under a strip of blown sand and find their broken roadways. But where is there evidence of the kind of machines your historians tell us they had in those days? Where are the remains of self-moving carts, of flying machines?”