Authors: Michel Benôit
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The Thirteenth Apostle
first published in French as
Le secret du treiziÃ¨me apÃ´tre
Albin Michel in 2006
First published in English by Alma Books Ltd by in 2007
Reprinted five times in 2007
This revised and expanded edition first published by Alma Books Ltd in 2008
Copyright Â© Michel BenoÃ®t, 2006
English translation Â© Andrew Brown, 2007
This book is supported by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as part of the Burgess Programme run by the Cultural Department of the French Embassy in London.
Ouvrage publiÃ© avec le concours du MinistÃ¨re franÃ§ais chargÃ© de la culture â Centre National du Livre
Michel BenoÃ®t asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Printed in Great Britain by Cox & Wyman Ltd, Reading, Berkshire
eBook ISBN: 978-1-84688-120-6
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the publisher. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not be resold, lent, hired out or otherwise circulated without the express prior consent of the publisher.
the son I would like to have had
The narrow path, clinging to the steep mountainside, looked out over a valley. Down in the far distance, you could sense a rushing spring that collected the mountain rains. I had left my camper van at the end of the forest road â it couldn't go any further than that. In the Italy of tourists and everyday toil, the mountain range of the Abruzzi seemed as wild and deserted as in the earliest days of humankind.
As I emerged from a grove of pine trees, the bottom of the coomb came into view: a sharp slope rising to a fringe of trees that hid the incline facing the Adriatic. Birds of prey were soaring lazily above, and the solitude was absolute; I was tens of miles away from the busy roads filled with holidaymakers, none of whom would venture here.
It was then that I met him: he was dressed in a sort of smock, with a sickle in his hand, leaning over a clump of gentians. The white hair floating around his shoulders brought out his fragility. When he straightened up, I noticed an unkempt beard and two clear, almost aquatic eyes â the eyes of a child, as naive and tender as they were as piercing and alert. His gaze stripped me to my very soul.
“So here you areâ¦ I heard you arriving. Sounds carry a long way here, and nobody ever comes to this valley.”
“You speak French?”
He straightened up, slipped the handle of his sickle into the belt around his smock and said, without offering me his hand:
“Father Nil. I am â or rather, was â a monk in a French abbey. That was before.”
His smooth face was furrowed by a malicious smile. Without asking me who I was, or how I had managed to reach this remote spot, he added:
“You need a drink, it's a hot summer. Some herbal tea. I'll mix this gentian with mint and rosemary â it'll taste bitter but refreshing. Come along.”
It was a command, but given in an almost affectionate tone of voice. I followed him. He was slender and erect, and his steps were light. At times the sunshine filtering through the spruce trees cast bright patterns on his gleaming silvery hair.
The path narrowed, then suddenly broadened out into a tiny terrace overlooking the sheer cliff. Barely emerging from the mountainside was a faÃ§ade of dry stones, a low door and a window.
“You'll need to lower your head going in: this hermitage is a converted cave, as those in Qumran must have been.”
Was I supposed to be familiar with Qumran? Father Nil asked no questions and gave no explanations. His mere presence created an order in things that was simple and obvious. The appearance of a goblin or a fairy at his side would have seemed perfectly natural to me.
I spent the whole day with him. When the sun reached its zenith, we sat on the parapet overlooking the abyss and shared a meal of bread, goat's cheese and exquisite sweet-smelling herbs. When the shadows on the opposite slope just started to fall on the hermitage, he said to me:
“I'll walk you back to the forest path. The water running in the stream there is pure, you can drink it.”
Everything seemed pure after contact with him. I told him of my desire to camp for a few days in these mountains.
“You won't need to lock your vehicle,” he said. “Nobody comes here, and the wild animals respect everything. Come along tomorrow morning, I'll have some fresh cheese.”
I lost count of the time. The following day, his goats made their appearance on the terrace, and came to eat the crumbs from our hands.
“They were observing you yesterday, though you didn't see them. If they are prepared to show themselves in your presence, I can tell you my story. You will be the first to hear it.”
And Father Nil told me his story. In this adventure, he was the main protagonist: yet he did not tell me about himself, but about a man whose traces in history he had uncovered â a Judaean of the first century. And behind that man, I perceived the luminous shadow of yet another man, of whom he spoke little, but who explained the clarity of his limpid gaze.
On the last day my whole world â that of a Westerner brought up in the Christian world â had been up-ended. I left just as the first stars were coming out. Father Nil remained on his natural terrace, a small shadow giving meaning to the whole valley. His goats came with me part of the way. But when I switched on my torch, they turned back.
The train plunged onwards into the November night. He glanced at his watch: as usual, the Rome “express” was two hours behind schedule on the Italian stretch. He sighed: they wouldn't be in Paris until nine in the eveningâ¦
He tried to settle down more comfortably, poking his index finger under his celluloid collar. Father Andrei was not used to this uncomfortable clerical garb, which he wore only on those rare occasions when he left the abbey. And these Italian carriages â they obviously dated back to Mussolini's days! The leather-imitation seats as hard as the benches in a monastery, the windows that could be pulled right down to the very low safety rail, the lack of air conditioningâ¦
Anyway, there was only another hour to go. The lights of the station of Lamotte-Beuvron had just whisked by: it was always on the long straight stretches of the Sologne that the express reached its maximum speed.
Seeing the priest fidgeting, the thickset passenger sitting opposite him raised his brown eyes from his newspaper. The smile he gave Andrei did not light up the rest of his olive-complexioned face.
“He's just smiling with his lips,” thought Andrei. “His eyes are as cold as pebbles on the banks of the Loireâ¦”
The Rome express often carried clerical passengers; sometimes it resembled a branch of the Vatican. But in his compartment there was just himself and these two silent men: the other seats, although they had been reserved, had remained empty ever since their departure. He glanced at the second passenger wedged into the corner seat next to the corridor: a bit older, elegant, with hair as fair as a field of wheat. He seemed to be asleep â his eyes were closed â but every now and then the fingers of his right hand drummed on his knee as if playing the piano, while his left hand struck chords on his thigh. Since their departure, he and Andrei had exchanged nothing more than a few polite words in Italian, and Andrei had noticed his strong foreign accent without being able to place it. Somewhere in Eastern Europe? He had a boyish face, in spite of the scar that stretched from his left ear and vanished into the gold of his hair.
This habit of Andrei's, observing every little detailâ¦ He had doubtless picked it up from spending his whole life poring over the most obscure manuscripts.
He leant his head against the window and gazed out absentmindedly at the road that ran parallel to the railway.
Two months had already elapsed since he should have sent to Rome a translation and analysis of the Coptic manuscript of Nag Hammadi. He had quickly completed the translation â but as for the analysis that was supposed to accompany itâ¦ he had been unable to write it. It was impossible to
, especially in writing.
So they had summoned him to Rome. In the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith â or the Inquisition, as it was known in former days â he had not been able to evade
the questions of his interrogators. He would have preferred not to talk of his hypotheses, and take refuge instead in the technical problems of translation. But the Cardinal, and in particular the formidable
, had forced him into a corner and compelled him to say more than he wanted to. Then they had cross-questioned him about the stone slab of Germigny â that's when their faces had become even more unfriendly.
After that uncomfortable experience, he had gone to the book stacks of the Vatican Library. It was there that the painful history of his family had brutally caught up with him â this was perhaps the price he had to pay for setting eyes at last on the material proof of what he had suspected for so long. Then he had had to leave San Girolamo in a hurry and catch the train back to the abbey: he was in danger. Peace was what he desired â nothing but peace. All these machinations were not for him â he didn't feel at home. But could he call anywhere home these days? Entering the abbey, he had changed his homeland for the second time, and solitude had invaded him.
Now the riddle was solved. What would he say to Father Nil on his return? Nil, who was so reserved, and who had already travelled part of the path aloneâ¦ He would put him on the right road. What he himself had discovered in the course of a whole lifetime of research, Nil would have to discover by himself.
And if anything happened to himâ¦ Nil would be worthy to pass on the secret in his turn.
Father Andrei opened his travel bag and rummaged around in it under the impassive gaze of the passenger opposite. After all, it was rather agreeable to have just three people in a compartment meant for six. He took off his stiff new clerical jacket and placed it, without crumpling it, on the empty seat to his right. Back in his travel bag he eventually found what
he was looking for: a pencil and a small sheet of paper. He jotted down a few words, holding the paper in the hollow of his left hand, then he mechanically folded his fingers across it and threw his head backwards.