I don't know if you keep up with those notes and letters that come flying out of Rome like wasps out of a nest struck by an innocent mashie on a backswing in the rough. If so, you know that one of Rome's idees fixes is that the importance of what's known in the trade as "episcopal dignity" should be talked up at every opportunity.
I could see now that the chaps in Rome had a point. Crouching behind the sofa in Cardinal Fratricidelli's study, my own episcopal dignity was in need of all the bucking up Rome could dish out, and I wouldn't have turned up my nose at a kind word from Constantinople, either.
It would be a mistake, however, to believe I was entirely occupied during my ordeal with thoughts of the universal Church. I beguiled a good deal of time considering particular responses to Mother M. Dahlia the next time her blasted spiritual son got it up his nose to lecture the Pope on the failings of his Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in re canon law, moral theology, and the sacraments.
On the bright side – it is the Booster nature to search out the bright side – listening to the papal nuncio chat with his assistant made me for the first time grateful I had turned down an opportunity to study in Italy after my ordination. Had I done so, I would surely have been able to understand more of their conversation. Judging by the full-bodied Italian laughter, scored for both quantity and quality, that followed the two words I did understand – "Vescovo Booster" – it was not a conversation I would have enjoyed, even if I weren't listening to it while hiding behind the furniture.
After six or seven years, the pleasantries were interrupted by the sound of a bell offstage. The assistant, I supposed, left the room, and within a month or two returned to announce, "Bishop Webster and Bishop, ah..."
"Becksmith," supplied a voice.
It was, in fact, the voice of Beaky himself, though if he hadn't spoken his own name – thereby providing the final clue to the puzzle – I may not have recognized it. It contained a certain whatsit one does not ordinarily associate with Beaky's voice.
"Welcome, my dear brothers," Cardinal Fratricidelli said, using words I had never heard when fewer than forty other bishops were present.
"Hello, Calvino," Ronnie Webster replied. He is the USCCB president, and justly so, yet I must say he rose several notches in my estimation simply by daring to look the cardinal in the eye and call him by his first name. At least, I assume he looked him in the eye. I couldn't see it myself from my vantage point. "I apologize for not calling ahead –"
"I'm here to hand deliver a letter," Beaky's voice interrupted. Steel, I realized. A hint of steel was the new note Beaky had added to his speech. It seemed so out of place, I was tempted to peek over the top of the sofa to see if he still kept his lower jaw unhinged while listening to others.
"Hand deliver?" The cardinal's voice sounded as surprised as I was at Beaky's tone.
"I have written a letter that I wish you to read and forward to the Holy Father," Beaky explained with measured care, like a man speaking to a maitre d' who had misplaced his luncheon reservation for twenty. "I had mailed a copy of it to you, but now I wish to deliver it to you personally. I have it on good authority that someone soon will make an attempt, if he has not already, to steal the copy I mailed."
"Extraordinary!" Cardinal Fratricidelli said, and I couldn't have agreed more. "Who would want to steal your letter?"
"A certain snake with legs, your Eminence, someone whom in the days of my innocence I considered a friend. I refer to that blot on the Apostles' escutcheon, Bishop William Booster."
"Booster?" If the cardinal was attempting to register utter surprise at this denunciation, he would not have been called back for a second audition.
"It's unclear, Calvino," Ronnie put in, "exactly what William might have had in mind, if indeed there is anything to this."
"But this is a simple matter to make clear," Cardinal Fratricidelli said, and if the delivery of his previous line was somewhat flat, there was something in the way he spoke these words that interested me strangely. "Let us merely ask Bishop Booster what his intentions are. He has been lying behind that sofa, for reasons of health perhaps, since I entered this room half an hour ago. Shall we wake him and put the question to him?"