As the 13th of August approached, all Portugal knew the story of Fatima, although in a variety of versions, some pious, and many profane. The anti-religious press was especially fond of this fairy story that drifted down from the lonely uplands of the Serra da Aire. It was tailored to the talents of the more “enlightened” editorial writers, and so replete with comic possibilities, that almost any working journalist, three paragraphs deep in his daily stint, could shine like a new Voltaire.
If the facts were distorted, it made little difference.
“What facts?” they wanted to know. These children (how many were there, anyhow? ) were the puppets of the Jesuits. Not the Jesuits? Well, then, the clergy in general, or the pope, in particular—luring ignorant and unwary people to the Cova da Iria, in order to fleece them of their money. They didn’t have any money? Well, then, of their political allegiance, so that the humane fabric of the enlightened Republic could be sabotaged to the advantage of Rome and reaction.
The press enjoyed its jolly excursions. The Freemasons were delighted. All loyal supporters of the reigning “New Order” found the increasing humour of the situation as savoury as six angels boiled in a soup.
Less amused than most freethinking citizens was Senhor Arthur Santos, the mayor of Vila Nova de Ourem, the county in which Fatima belonged. He could afford to laugh less than others, because the responsibility of dealing with all this rosary-rattling hysteria was his.
Arthus Santos was by training a tinker, or tin smith. His formal education had been slight, his ambitions large. A self-propelled and intrepid young man, he became the editor of the Ouriense, a local gazette in which his anti-monarchical and anti-religious opinions were expressed with bitter zeal, and likely enough, some talent. In any case, with the advent of the Republic in 1910, Arthur Santos, at the age of twenty-six, was a man of consequence. After being elected to the Masonic Lodge of Leiria, the bustling Senhor founded a separate lodge in his native Vila Nova de Ourem, and was, before long, mayor or administrator of the county. This carried with it the corollary titles of President of the Chamber and Judge Substitute of Comarca. Wearing all these honours, with their companion authority, Senhor Santos was the most feared and influential man in his section of Portugal.
Since he professed not to believe in God, Senhor Santos was in no position to believe in a Virgin Mother as someone likely to appear either in heaven or on top of an oak tree, for the amusement of the ignorant bumpkins of his own community. Either someone was crazy, or there was a wilful attempt to undermine the civic power. The danger was apparent in the fact that some of his constituents already believed there were miracles astir, and he could not imagine what explanation he could provide his political colleagues if this anti-republican witchcraft continued to thrive in his own county. He gave instructions therefore, that those involved in this sham be brought to the City Hall and, for our enlightenment, we have Ti Marto’s own account:
My brother-in-law, Antonio, had received the same summons to appear with his daughter at the Town Hall of Ourem on August 11, at noon. They both came to my house that morning, while I was eating my breakfast, and the first thing Lucia asked me was, “Are Jacinta and Francisco coming?”
Now, what would two small children like that be doing there at the Town Hall, Lucia?” I said. “I’m going down to answer for them myself.”
Well, the next thing I knew, Lucia had rushed inside, and we could hear Jacinta saying to her, “If they’re going to kill you, tell them that Francisco and I are just the same as you, we believe the same thing, and we wished to be killed, too.”
And my little one meant it, but never mind now. I left with Lucia and her father. On the way Lucia fell off the donkey three times, and Antonio, who was full of fear of the mayor, went rushing ahead, so as not to be late. When Lucia and I finally got to the square, we saw Antonio waiting there.
“What happened?” I said to him.
He was all excited. “The door was locked,” he said.
“There’s no one there.” But it wasn’t noon yet, anyhow, so we waited.
After a while we tried the Town Hall. It was still closed. Someone came along about then and told us the mayor didn’t work there any more, so we were taken to him, and the first thing the mayor demanded of me was:
“Where is the child?”
“What child?” I said.
I waited. He didn’t seem to know that there were three children, but, of course, in a while, he caught on.
Now, look, sir,” I told him, “it’s more than nine miles distance to our village and the little children couldn’t walk it. No, sir, and they’re not used to the donkey, either.” I felt like adding a whole lot more, but I was wise enough to hold my tongue. Oh, he was very annoyed, but a lot I cared. He began to question Lucia then, trying to get the secret out of her. A fine chance he had. She wouldn’t tell him a word. Then the mayor turned to my brother-in-law.
“You people in Fatima,” he said to Antonio, “do you believe this stuff?”
“No, sir,” Antonio said, “we believe it’s just women’s talk.”
I interrupted then. I said to the mayor, “I’m right here, your Honour, and I believe everything my children say.”
He looked at me. “You do? You believe it?”
“Yes, I do,” I said.
Well, everyone standing around began to laugh, but it made no difference to me. There were reporters there from the newspapers, and they said they were going to write it up. After a while they let us go, but right up to the end the mayor kept threatening Lucia. He even said that if she didn’t reveal her secret, he would have her killed. I said to him then, as we were leaving, “If you send for us, I know that we’ll have to come, but please remember we have our own lives to lead!”