Robert Harris


© 2016

To Charlie

Author’s Note

Although for the sake of authenticity I have used real titles throughout this novel (Archbishop of Milan, Dean of the College of Cardinals, and so on), I have used them in the sense that one might when writing about a fictitious U.S. President or British Prime Minister. The characters I have created to fill these offices are not intended to bear any resemblance to their present-day incumbents: if I have erred, and if there are some coincidental similarities, I apologise. Nor, despite certain superficial resemblances, is the late Holy Father depicted in Conclave meant to be a portrait of the current Pope.

‘I thought it wiser not to eat with the cardinals. I ate in my room. At the eleventh ballot I was elected Pope. O Jesus, I too can say what Pius XII said when he was elected: “Have mercy on me, Lord, according to thy great mercy.” One would say that it is like a dream and yet, until I die, it is the most solemn reality of all my life. So I’m ready, Lord, “to live and die with you”. About three hundred thousand people applauded me on St Peter’s balcony. The arc-lights stopped me from seeing anything other than a shapeless, heaving mass.’


‘I was solitary before, but now my solitariness becomes complete and awesome. Hence the dizziness, like vertigo. Like a statue on a plinth – that is how I live now.’



1 Sede vacante

CARDINAL LOMELI LEFT his apartment in the Palace of the Holy Office shortly before two in the morning and hurried through the darkened cloisters of the Vatican towards the bedroom of the Pope.

He was praying: O Lord, he still has so much to do, whereas all my useful work in Your service is completed. He is beloved, while I am forgotten. Spare him, Lord. Spare him. Take me instead.

He toiled up the cobbled slope towards the Piazza Santa Marta. The Roman air was soft and misty, yet already he could detect the first faint chill of autumn. It was raining slightly. The Prefect of the Papal Household had sounded so panicked on the telephone, Lomeli was expecting to be met by a scene of pandemonium. In fact, the piazza was unusually quiet, apart from a solitary ambulance parked a discreet distance away, silhouetted against the floodlit southern flank of St Peter’s. Its interior light was on, the windscreen wipers scudding back and forth, close enough for him to be able to make out the faces of both the driver and his assistant. The driver was using a mobile phone, and Lomeli thought with a shock: they haven’t come to take a sick man to the hospital, they’ve come to take away a body.

At the plate-glass entrance to the Casa Santa Marta, the Swiss Guard saluted, a white-gloved hand to a red-plumed helmet. ‘Your Eminence.’

Lomeli, nodding towards the car, said, ‘Will you please make sure that man isn’t calling the media?’

The hostel had an austere, antiseptic atmosphere, like a private clinic. In the white-marbled lobby, a dozen priests, three in dressing gowns, stood around in bewilderment, as if a fire alarm had sounded and they were unsure of the correct procedure. Lomeli hesitated on the threshold, felt something in his left hand and saw that he was clutching his red zucchetto. He couldn’t remember picking it up. He unfolded it and placed it on his head. His hair was damp to the touch. A bishop, an African, tried to intercept him as he walked towards the elevator, but Lomeli merely nodded in his direction and moved on.

The car took an age to come. He ought to have used the stairs, but he was too short of breath. He sensed the others looking at his back. He should say something. The elevator arrived. The doors slid open. He turned and raised his hand in benediction.

‘Pray,’ he said.

He pressed the button for the second floor; the doors closed and he began to ascend.

If it is Your will to call him to Your presence and leave me behind, then grant me the strength to be a rock for others.

In the mirror, beneath the yellow light, his cadaverous face was grey and mottled. He yearned for a sign, for some infusion of strength. The elevator lurched to an abrupt halt but his stomach seemed to go on rising, and he had to grip the metal handrail to steady himself. He remembered riding with the Holy Father in this very car early in his papacy when two elderly monsignors had got in. Immediately they had fallen to their knees, stunned to find themselves face-to-face with Christ’s representative on earth, at which the Pope had laughed and said, ‘Don’t worry, get up, I’m just an old sinner, no better than you…’

The cardinal raised his chin. His public mask. The doors opened. A thick curtain of dark suits parted to let him through. He heard one agent whisper into his sleeve, ‘The dean is here.’

Diagonally across the landing, outside the papal suite, three nuns, members of the Company of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, were holding hands and crying. Archbishop Woźniak, Prefect of the Papal Household, came forward to meet him. Behind his steel-rimmed glasses his watery grey eyes were puffy. He lifted his hands and said helplessly, ‘Eminence…’

Lomeli took the archbishop’s cheeks in his hands and pressed gently. He could feel the younger man’s stubble. ‘Janusz, your presence made him so happy.’

Then another bodyguard – or perhaps it was an undertaker: both professions dressed so alike – at any rate, another figure in black opened the door to the suite.

The little sitting room and the even smaller bedroom beyond it were crowded. Afterwards Lomeli made a list and came up with more than a dozen names of people present, not counting security – two doctors, two private secretaries, the Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations, whose name was Archbishop Mandorff, at least four priests from the Apostolic Camera, Woźniak, and of course the four senior cardinals of the Catholic Church: the Secretary of State, Aldo Bellini; the Camerlengo – or Chamberlain – of the Holy See, Joseph Tremblay; the Cardinal Major Penitentiary, or confessor-in-chief, Joshua Adeyemi; and himself, as Dean of the College of Cardinals. In his vanity he had imagined that he had been the first to be summoned; in fact, he now saw, he was the last.

He followed Woźniak into the bedroom. It was the first time he had seen inside it. Always before, the big double doors had been shut. The Renaissance papal bed, a crucifix above it, faced into the sitting room. It took up almost all the space – square, heavy polished oak, far too big for the room. It provided the only touch of grandeur. Bellini and Tremblay were on their knees beside it with their heads bowed. Lomeli had to step over the backs of their legs to get round to the pillows where the Pope lay slightly propped up, his body concealed by the white counterpane, his hands folded on his chest above his plain iron pectoral cross.

He was not used to seeing the Holy Father without his spectacles. These lay folded on the nightstand beside a scuffed travel alarm clock. The frames had left red pinch-marks on either side of the bridge of his nose. Often the faces of the dead, in Lomeli’s experience, were slack and stupid. But this one seemed alert, almost amused, as if interrupted in mid-sentence. As he bent to kiss the forehead, he noticed a faint smudge of white toothpaste at the left corner of the mouth, and caught the smell of peppermint and the hint of some floral shampoo.

‘Why did He summon you when there was still so much you wanted to do?’ he whispered.

‘Subvenite, Sancti Dei…’

Adeyemi began intoning the liturgy. Lomeli realised they had been waiting for him. He lowered himself carefully to his knees on the brightly polished parquet floor, cupped his hands together in prayer and rested them on the side of the counterpane. He burrowed his face into his palms.

‘… occurrite, Angeli Domini…’

Come to his aid, Saints of God; race to meet him, Angels of the Lord…

The Nigerian cardinal’s basso profundo reverberated around the tiny room.

‘… Suscipientes animam eius. Offerentes eam in conspectu Altissimi…’

Receive his soul and present it in the presence of the Most High…

The words buzzed in Lomeli’s head without meaning. It was happening more and more often. I cry out to You, God, but You do not answer. Some kind of spiritual insomnia, a kind of noisy interference, had crept over him during the past year, denying him that communion with the Holy Spirit he had once been able to achieve quite naturally. And, as with sleep, the more one desired meaningful prayer, the more elusive it became. He had confessed his crisis to the Pope at their final meeting – had asked permission to leave Rome, to give up his duties as Dean and retreat to a religious order. He was seventy-five, retirement age. But the Holy Father had bee ...

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