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A Desperate and Despicable Dwarf: Section Twenty Seven

       Last updated: Wednesday, October 27, 2004 02:14 EDT



Chapter Four. Cardinals, Courts, Cooks, and Colorists.

    Not resting on my laurels, upon departing the villa I immediately made my way to the Palazzo Megatherio, ancestral home and current residence of Guido Inmense, Cardinal Megatherio. For I remembered well my uncle Giotto's advice to seek work from at least two, preferably several, of the high dignitaries of the Church.

    "Never pays to depend on one client," my uncle explained. "And besides, they're an envious lot, your Ecclesiarchs—get two or more of them matching their art collections, you'll be rich and famous in no time, mark my words." And he should know!

    My immediate impressions of Cardinal Megatherio, however—I will say it straight out—were decidedly inferior to those produced by his arch-rival, Ignomini. To begin with, my most immediate impression of all was the inordinate difficulty of obtaining an audience with the fellow. For first I was required to wait by the gate for some two hours. Then, gaining entrance to the Palazzo itself, waiting another three hours in the drafty receiving hall, surrounded by a horde of petitioners and favor-seekers. Then, deducing at length that spiritual considerations alone would leave me dead of old age in that wretched antechamber—and indeed, two bodies were hauled away as I waited—I finally gained admittance to the Cardinal's presence by means of a bribe to the appointments secretary.

    Rather, to be more exact, I was admitted into the chamber next to the chamber wherein, so I was led to believe, rested the Cardinal. And there I stood—for there were not even chairs!—for another two hours. In point of fact, I had developed dark thoughts on my uncle's advice and was on the verge of departing, when the door to the adjacent chamber was pushed open from within and a gnarled and simpering chap, naming himself the Cardinal's Privy Counselor, motioned me in.

    "Privy Counselor," thought I to myself. "That sounds promising!" But I was soon disabused, for upon passing through the chamber beyond into the chamber beyond, I was made immediately aware that, at least in the Palazzo Megatherio, words mean what they say.

    My first thought, that the theory of continental drift was now proved beyond question, gave way to the realization that I stood finally face to face with the Great Man himself. Or rather, not to put too fine a point on it, I stood face to bum with the Great Man himself. For in fact he was, even at that moment, hiking up his vast robes of office and attempting to position himself—more properly, given his stupendous obesity, that necessary portion of himself—over a chamber pot.

    One would think, given the circumstances, that my attention would be inexorably fixed upon the ecclesiastical arse, the more so as the arse in question could easily serve as the great plain whereupon the dead multitudes will gather on Judgement Day. But no—I am an artist, with a craftsman's eye, and so my gaze was drawn rather to the chamber pot itself.

    For this pot was no cheap clay vessel, suited only for mundane use. Neither was it a ceramic bowl, nor even a pot of bronze or silver. Of style and ornamentation it was completely lacking, as well—not a nymph, not a dryad, not a faun, not any slightest hint of cunning or design in its workmanship.

    No, what reposed on the floor beneath the Cardinal's posterior, which even now descended like a calving glacier, was simply a massive nugget of solid gold, in the center of which a rough hollow had been crudely carved for an obvious purpose. Fortunately, a large hollow. For the sounds and smells which shortly filled the chamber gave me to reflect that, if the saints be correct, that one's place in Heaven is determined by the profane dross left behind by the soul, the Cardinal was surely destined to sit at the right hand of God.

    These reflections were of short duration, however, for the Cardinal proved to be one of that rare breed who can do two things at once. I myself, were I in the Cardinal's position, could have concentrated on nothing but the process of evacuation, given that the process in this instance rivaled in scope and ambition the reclamation of great marshlands or the excavation of buried pyramids, tasks to which lesser men have devoted entire careers. Yet he was able to speak.

    "What do you want? For that measly bribe, you get two minutes."

    Seizing the moment, I replied:

    "Holy Father, as an artist I cannot help but observe that the chamber pot whose function you are even at this moment putting to use is a huge, but most crudely worked, nugget of solid gold."

    "Yes, yes, it's the famous Pot of Tureen, wrought by the gentle monks of St. Shriven-on-the-Moor and presented to Cardinal Rapazzio some three hundred years past, to promote the greater glory of the Church. And what of it? It has served me well, and other prelates before my time."

    "Quite so, Your Grace. Yet it remains—I speak frankly and to the point, so as not to waste your expensive—I mean valuable—time, of an uncouth and grossly utilitarian design, saved only from the mundane by the fact that it is made of that most noble of metals. And," I added hastily, "graced by the most noble of posteriors."

    Sensing a gambit well underway, I continued in this vein:

    "It goes without saying, of course, that despite its vulgar exterior this device has gained immortality, due not only to its noble substance but to its noble use, but consider still, Your Eminence, how much more suited it would be to its ordained purpose if you would allow me to bring its inherent—what word is most apt?—soul, yes! its soul—to shine forth upon its surface."

    "How so?" grunted His Grace.

    "Why, by the transformation of this holy receptacle into a thing of beauty and refinement, an artistic treasure—say rather, a sacred relic—the which will astonish the highborn and dazzle the lowborn. I foresee this great pot, not as it is now—a lump—but as the embodiment of the very spirit of the Ecclesiarchy itself. I envision the body as a great golden spiral upon which is depicted the long travail of the soul. Atop this spiral, forming the rim, I see the visages of the Twelve Popes, facing in all directions with most benign and saintly gaze. At the bottom, cunningly etched and carved into the three legs which I imagine as the base of the masterpiece, will I depict the faces of the common multitude, peering up with awe and devotion, their hands stretched forth bearing gifts for the greater glory of God. Finally, upon the inside of the bowl itself—that portion, that is to say, which must retain its utilitarian function—I would etch the figure of Joe, so that each succeeding day, throughout Your Grace's life and that of the Eminences to follow, might the triumph of sanctity over savagery be properly re-enacted. Such, in short, is the outline of my vision."

    Cardinal Megatherio pondered deeply upon my words. Or so, at least, I chose to interpret the scrunching up of his features, the deep and hoarse breathing, the moans from his lips. I admit, an alternate interpretation is possible.

    But whatever the case, my proposal met in the end with the prelate's approval. And so it was I was commissioned to create the famous Bassinet of Beatitude, nee Pot of Tureen. The deciding factor in His Grace's agreement, I suspect, was my refusal of any monetary recompense for my labor.

    "What?" he had demanded. "Nothing at all? Not even for your expenses?"

    Exhibiting that modest countenance which my uncle had made me practice for countless hours, I replied that the blessings of the Ecclesiarchs were more than reward enough. Upon hearing this, and no doubt thinking me an idiot, the Cardinal agreed with my plan.

    Of course, my offer was conditioned by my knowledge of the ancient and long-established custom know as the droit dell'artiste. According to this most honorable tradition, the various scraps, shavings, particles, dust specks, slivers, splinters and so forth which, of necessity, must fall from the objet d'art during the process of creation, belong entirely to the artist himself. So massive was the nugget which composed the Pot of Tureen, from which I would construct so sleek and svelte a Bassinet of Beatitude, that I stood to make a fortune and gain a reputation for piety in the bargain!



    You can imagine my high spirits when I left the Palazzo Megatherio! In one short day, newly arrived in a strange city, I had obtained commissions of such weight and prestige as to have turned even my uncle Giotto's face green with envy!

    Or, so I thought. In the event, as you will shortly discover, my plans went awry. And I will admit that, in the years which came after—the dungeons, the galleys, the racks, the bastinadoes—there was nothing so unbearable as my uncle's sarcasm.

    Even on his deathbed, the old wretch wouldn't stop cackling about it.

    "What a jackass! What an imbecile! First, you get a good commission from Ignomini, the most powerful and vindictive Cardinal in the Church, for a nice but modest piece of work. Immediately thereafter—o what a genius!—you sweet-talk his bitterest rival, the second most powerful and vindictive Cardinal in the Ecclesiarchy, into giving you a commission which'll make Ignomini's look like a toadstool, for which humiliation the holy wolf'll burn many a taper late into the night plotting his revenge. Then—o what a sage!—you skim nine-tenths the value from the hugest piece of gold in the world, the pride of the Church and the possession of its greediest prelate! Then—o what a fox!—you think you'll get away with it by prattling about some whittler's custom that'll stymie Church and State in their united rage about as well as a rodent's incisors'll stop a pair of starving cobras! Then—o what a strategist!—you do all this as a newly-arrived foreigner in a town where your only friends are thugs, floozies, drunks, gamblers, thieves and such-like Protectors of the Powerless! Then—"

    Here the horrid invalid fell to hacking and coughing, and spitting up blood. In fact, his heart stopped, and he was technically dead, but he had enough spite to choke out these last gleeful words --

    "—then—and then!—you do all of this in New Sfinctr—of all places!—armpit of the universe! Pesthole of the planet!—where the High Justice is in the hands of Judge Rancor Jeffreys—he whom they call the 'judge hanger' because he hangs judges who don't hang enough lowlifes! O what a plotter! O what a schemer! O—"

    At last, he expired. For my taste, not a moment too soon.

    But I jump ahead of my tale, and all this is hindsight in any event. At the time, my future seemed as bright as the noon-day sun.

    Immediately upon quitting the Cardinals, I hired several local workmen. Soon the shop was humming night and day, as word of my growing fame began to spread. Within a few weeks I was deluged with commissions. Among the more important work, I will mention only the vomitorium ordered by Luigi Carnale, Cardinal Fornacaese, for the use of his guests at the feasting table. Innumerable other such-like masterpieces were demanded of me by the highest of the land, and soon I found it necessary to take on an assistant.

    At the recommendation of Cardinal Ignomini, I hired on a local craftsman by the name of Francesco del Ultimo. Little did I know that this would be my undoing, engineered, I am convinced to this day, by the malignant Ignomini. The true nature of this malefactor's villainy will become clear when the following story is told.

    One day, when all my important projects were progressing smoothly, I went out of an afternoon. No sooner did I leave than Francesco sent word to Cardinal Megatherio that the Bassinet of Beatitude was finally finished. Infamous deed! For while it was true that all of the goldsmithing was done, I had not yet inserted the iron rods which were to fit within the many borings and reamholes with which I had cunningly hollowed out the great nugget.

    You can imagine the scene! No sooner did the Cardinal arrive than he sought to make use of the object. Now as gold is the softest of metals, and as the iron bracing was not yet in place, and as the Cardinal's size would have made him the Alpha Male in any herd of walrus—well! And no sooner had the inevitable transpired—the Cardinal flat on the floor, the Bassinet henceforth known as the Platter of Piety, the freshly deposited contents of the former pot now strewn all over the shop—than Francesco del Ultimo—the base cur of low degree!—seized the almost completed Ignomini Spittoon and began using it to scoop up the pious but malodorous remains of the fiasco, when—by premeditation, I am convinced!—who should enter my shop than Cardinal Ignomini himself! Espying his Spittoon being applied to a most indecorous purpose, the Cardinal took it upon himself to curse Megatherio, who, for his part, responded with phrases which, by all accounts, were uncivil in the extreme. The ensuing exchange of peremptory and cavalier remarks soon became transformed, all accounts agree, into a mutual and harmonious depiction of my own unoffending and absent person which—there was not a dissenting witness on this point—were astonishingly caustic and intemperate.

    Cardinal Ignomini declared that his commission had been grossly defiled and demanded that the full value of the time and material be returned to him, this though he had advanced neither. While, for his part, Megatherio declared himself to have been—as a person, defrauded, as a prelate, deceived, and, as a custodian of a holy relic, despoiled—by a felonious foreign scapegrace. And thus did the two most powerful prelates of the Church in New Sfinctr, bitter rivals though they were, march arm and arm out of my shop, announcing to all the world their intention to seek satisfaction before the bar of Justice.

    The first I knew of the disaster was when I returned to my shop, gay as a lark, only to find myself seized by a squad of muscular constabulary and hustled down, in a most discourteous manner, to the Royal Gaol. There was I incarcerated for several days, pleading my innocence all the while. But to no avail, for the by now well-known attitude toward myself taken by the implacable Ignomini and Megatherio had alienated all of my patrons. My fellow prisoners avoided me! The very rats remained in their holes!



    And so it was that I came before the Bar of Justice in New Sfinctr. No sooner did I enter the chamber than my heart fell to my boots. For there before me was none other than Judge Rancor Jeffreys himself, notorious throughout Grotum for the extreme rigor of his sentences.

    His very appearance, it seemed to me, boded ill for my future. It was not so much his stony face, his gleaming eyes, his lips like a crevice, his nose like a hatchet, his chin like a spade, his jaws like the very crunch of fate. It was rather his raiment. For while I had expected the gloomy blackness of his robes, I had not foreseen the great necklace of finger bones, the earrings made of babes' skulls, the hangman's noose for a necktie, the scalps woven into his wig, the gavel in the form of a miniature headsman's axe, the tattoo of an Iron Maiden on his forehead, nor the cup of blood from which he refreshed himself throughout the ensuing trial.

    Taking stock of the situation, I determined at once that any attempt at defense was hopeless from the start. Thus, when Judge Jeffreys urged me, in a soft and gentle voice completely at variance with his reputation and appearance, to throw myself upon the mercy of the Court, I complied with haste.

    At once Judge Jeffreys glowered fiercely and announced that the court could show no favors toward ruffians and swindlers. His voice changing in an instant to a wolverine rasp, Jeffreys added that my failure to defend myself demonstrated not only my guilt but my duplicitous nature as well, in that by throwing myself upon the mercy of the Court I was conniving to appeal to the better nature of the Law, the which, Judge Jeffreys assured the courtroom, was not extended to criminals.

    Waxing now in his indignation, Jeffreys went on to point out to the assembled Lords and Ladies that my contempt for the Law was of the most heinous sort, being, as was manifest by the reptilian subtlety of my attempt to undermine the full rigor of its application, but the thin veneer overlaying my profound enmity toward that Social Order which forms the warp and woof of the fabric of civilization. For as the plaintiffs were High Servants of the Lord God in Heaven, and as the State was dependent upon the selfless work of such men of the cloth to preserve its hold over the unruly masses, these latter being by nature inclined to a disreputable life in defiance of all wisdom and authority, my affront could only lead in the end, if unchecked, to the further debasement of this much-needed spiritual tutelage, and thus, like the arrow to its mark, to riot and revolution.

    A bloodhound hot on the trail, Jeffreys suddenly perceived that I was no common anarchist, but rather a cunning and resourceful agitator, a plotter, a cabalist—one of that small band of wicked men and women who make it their business to disrupt the tranquility of great cities and realms with their incessant and nefarious attempts to sow the seeds of social discord among the placid citizenry.

    Come now to the heart of the case, Jeffreys concluded that he had, in good conscience, no recourse but to find in favor of the plaintiffs and to sentence the accused to Imprisonamentia Indefinatus Con Malicia. For those unacquainted with the judicial code of New Sfinctr, this sentence condemns the accused to the dungeons of the city, indeed, to the darkest cell on the lowest, coldest, dampest and most vermin-ridden floor of the dungeon, with the least amount of the poorest food, for a period of years not less than fifty, but to be continued longer if at the end of that time there are found to be in existence any relatives, friends, or simply casual well-wishers of the accused, who might in any way be disposed to succor the criminal upon his release, thus preventing the aged felon from finding his natural death in the gutters.

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