In Saunt-Vitre-lo-Sur most of the houses were deserted; rye and oats stood unharvested in the frost-shriveled fields. Lean pigs and half-starved children scavenged the vineyards for grapes long since turned to raisins. At the door of the squat stone church, four women waited, three with listless infants in their arms, for the priest to bring them the thin, meatless stew charity required he provide them. A dank, neglected odor hung over the place, lending an inward chill to the February afternoon where shadows like bruises lay across the ground.
There was one marginally brighter spot in the desolation: some little distance beyond the village rose the cracking whitewashed walls of Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion where the Assumptionist Sisters had attempted to keep the soil tilled and the orchards bearing almonds and fruit. A century before there had been more than eighty nuns at the convent - now there were fewer than fifty, and those women who remained worked as strenuously as the hardiest farmers.
From her place under the barren trees, Seur Marguerite, who tended the hives, was the first to notice the wagon approaching, its sides heavily curtained so that even the portly monk who drove the pair of steaming horses could not see his passenger. The nun stood absolutely still, as if she were a doe attempting to hide from a hunter. Torpid bees settled on the frayed linen of her coif, but she made no move to brush them away. As the wagon turned up the lane to the convent, Seur Marguerite sighed and crossed herself, muttering a prayer to la Virge for her protection.
"Hola!" shouted the monk as he got down from the driver's box at the convent gate. "Open up here, good Sisters!"
There was no response; the thick-hewn doors remained shut.
The monk began to pace, rubbing his thick hands together to warm them, chafing at the deep, reddened groves left by the rein. His back was sore from the hours of jolting over hard, rutted roads and he was in no mood to be denied his well-earned food and rest. "Open! In le Bon Nom!" His voice was hoarse with fatigue and too much wine. He cleared his throat and tried again. "You there! Hola!"
From a grilled window to the side of the doors came a discreet cough. "God be with you, Frere."
"And with your soul," he answered automatically.
"What do you seek here?"
"It is not I who seek anything. I come to bring to you what you have sought," he answered brusquely as he strode toward the voice. "The Cardinal himself has sent me to you, in answer to your prayers." His husky laughter was taunting, more flirtatious than was proper for a monk addressing a nun.
"What prayers are those?" asked the voice, suddenly haughty.
"Why, for a new Mere, of course. Is there anything else you wanted that I do not know about? Would other recompense answer your prayers?" He winked, but was wise enough not to face the grilled window when he did.
"A Mere?" the unseen nun repeated, as if she dared not believe what she heard.
"That's what I said. Cardinal Seulfleuve himself has entrusted me to bring her to you, with all speed."
"With what escort?" the nun demanded.
"I am he," the monk replied, offended at her reasonable surprise.
Frere Odo hawked and spat. "There were none to spare. You insisted that you needed your Superior as soon as possible, and so..."
"But to travel without armed escort..." the nun began, shock quieting her words.
"It was that or wait until spring. Your priest said the need was urgent," the monk insisted, turning sullen.
"But to come now, without escort..."
"All the more reason to think that your new Mere is in the favor of Heaven. Our passage was safe enough."
"For which you should humbly thank God and His Saints for their care," the nun on the far side of the grille snapped. She was prepared to continue her admonition, and had just drawn a deep breath when another voice whispered behind her and there was a brief, barely audible exchange.
"Well? What is it to be then?" the monk called out. "Do you open the doors to your Mere or do we wait here for Pere Guibert or Pere Foutin to come and insist that we be permitted to enter." He was annoyed at having been ignored longer than he liked; he deserved their attention for his good act, not this cold reception.
"In a moment," the nun called with less certainty than before.
"Your Mere is weary with travel. As am I," he added.
"Oh. Yes. Of course. At once." This was another nun, more flustered than the first and younger, by the sound of her.
"And do something for the horses, will you? The beasts have got to carry me to Avignon again the day after tomorrow." He had learned long ago to seize any opportunity offered him, and he recognized that this was one such. "They're hungry and thirsty."
"We will tend to them, Frere," the second nun promised him.
"Yes. Yes. At once. We will."
There were more voices now, some shrill, some scolding, and the sound of hurrying footsteps. The heavy bolt on the inside of the doors was tugged noisily back, then the enormous iron hinges moaned as the doors were slowly pulled open to allow the wagon to enter the courtyard of the convent.
It was an old building, built around a square courtyard. On the east was the hospice, the tallest part of the convent, rising almost three stories from the old flagging. At right angles, on the north, was the nuns' quarters, the refectory at one end, the rest of the two levels given over to the chapel and to the individual cells. Next to that was a more recent addition, with storerooms, still-rooms, and at the far end, a stable. The wall on the south completed the square and closed out the world.
The monk dragged on the reins, making sure the wagon was safely within the courtyard, then gave a gesture to close the doors.
There were about thirty women gathered now, all in grey habits. Two of them had removed their coifs and rolled up their sleeves - clearly these Sisters worked in the convent's kitchen. Gradually all of them clustered around the wagon, most of them afraid to speak louder than a whisper.
Frere Odo, now full of self-importance, tugged at the corner of one of the draperies that enclosed the wagon to conceal the passenger. "Mere Leonie," he said in the most imposing way, "we have reached our destination."
"May God bless you as I thank you, Frere Odo," came from behind the hanging. "La Virge will reward your service with her prayers and intercessions."
"Praise be to God," the monk declared, crossing himself deliberately while he glanced over the nuns, hoping that one would catch his eye.
None of the women paid him the slightest attention. All of them were staring at the wagon as the draperies were drawn aside.
The hush that fell was eerie, at least to Frere Odo's ears. He wanted to do something outrageous to dissipate the spell that this new arrival had cast over the convent. It boded ill, he thought, to have nuns so quiet.
"May God send His Peace, which is not of this world, to guide and comfort you," said the tall young woman who climbed, unassisted, out of the wagon. Her voice was low, almost masculine, and in another might have been thought seductive. Though she moved slowly, in solemn grace, she gave the promise of energy, perhaps even zeal. She looked around her. "Oh, very good," she said warmly. "Most surely good."
The Sisters gaped at her, some with relief, some with dismay, for none of them had expected such a replacement for the old and saintly Mere Jacinthe. Most Superiors were of a respectable age and demeanor, grave in countenance and somber of disposition, not glowing and gracious like this newcomer. Even the gorget and wimple could not hide her attractive features, nor disguise the vitality that coursed through her. Two of the older nuns exchanged sharp looks.
"It has been so long," Mere Leonie said softly, speaking to herself or some inner part of her soul. "How I have yearned for this."
Only Seur Elvire heard her clearly, and knew that she would enjoy unusual attention for a day or two as she related this remark to the other nuns. She bowed her head, grateful for the opportunity Mere Leonie had provided her.
The wind whipped around the courtyard, tweaking the hems and cuffs and habits, disarranging coifs and causing the horses to snort.
"Your convent, Mere Leonie," Frere Odo said unnecessarily.
"Yes. Pray God we will do well." She gazed up at the slated roof of the hospice. "There is a need."
It was an awkward moment, for none of the women wanted to put themselves forward, yet all knew that one of their number must greet the new Superior.
One young woman, standing a little apart from the other nuns, spoke up first. "And my Savior send His blessing to guide you, ma Mere," she said in a carrying voice whose accent, as much as her carriage, revealed a noble background.
Mere Leonie crossed herself. "As I most humbly beseech Him every day." She advanced a few steps, meeting the eyes of her nuns forthrightly.
Frere Odo came swaggering along behind her, his coarse features spread over with a smug look that just missed being a grin. He nodded to the nuns around him, sizing them up. One or two showed promise, but he did not want to be hasty. The soft drone of whispered conversations stilled as he passed, and he knew that the nuns were speaking of Mere Leonie - he could hardly blame them for that - and perhaps of him as well. He whistled a hymn tune very quietly through his teeth.
"Ma Mere," said one of the nuns dressed for the kitchen. "It is Seur Lucille who should greet you; she is the oldest of us and the one with the longest vocation. But she is supervising work in the orchard and will not be back for a little while. At Vespers, she'll..." She looked around for aid.
The well-born young nun who had been the first to speak came to her rescue. "Seur Fleurette is right, ma Mere. Seur Lucille is supervising work, as she said. The almond trees did badly for our last harvest."
"It is not important," Mere Leonie said gently. "None of you knew when I was to arrive, and there is no need to disrupt yourselves for me. A good Mother does not set an example by disorder." She looked around her, sensing the doubts of the women she had been sent to lead. "Return to your appointed tasks, my Sisters, and I will wait until the end of the evening meal to speak to you." Her eyes fell on a novice. "Will you guide me, Seur?"
The novice looked up sharply. "I thank God for the honor," she said, but her tone was slightly distracted, as if her mind had been on other matters.
Frere Odo looked up at Mere Leonie's sharp summons. "I need your aid, Frere," she said, nodding toward the wagon that contained the two leather cases she had brought with her. "If you will follow us?"
The monk grumbled, but did as she ordered him. He had decided that he would try to get a few moments alone with one of the younger nuns, a great strapping girl who looked as if she had been raised on a farm doing hard work. Such women, he knew from long experience, were often more than eager to forget their vows for an hour or two, even on a winter's night, if there was a fire close at hand. With his mind still on the possibility of conquest, he climbed up into the wagon and brought down the larger of the cases, then trudged after Mere Leonie.
"The old refectory is in the far wing," the novice was saying to Mere Leonie as Frere Odo caught up with them. "The community being reduced in size, we do not use it often now, and then only as a hospice for travelers."
"And when there is illness?" Mere Leonie inquired. "Is aid provided here?"
"It was, for a time. This valley was much taken by Plague, the last time it swept the land. From what we have been told, we fared less well than many other villages. You must have noticed that half the fields are fallow and..." She looked away, crossing herself in a vague manner. "There were many deaths, you see."
Mere Leonie also crossed herself, her face grave as she listened. "Is that the extent of it, or has there been worse?"
"There is always worse. Mercenaries sacked Mou Courbet last year - "
"Mou Courbet?" Mere Leonie repeated.
"The village at the end of the valley, just where the road turns toward the pass. It was more than twice the size ten years ago, or so I'm told." She frowned once more. "We have prayed to God and the Virgin for aid, but it has not been granted us. Mere Jacinthe, toward the end, warned us that our sins would cost us all dearly if we did not forsake them and repent."
"Is the convent so full of wickedness?" Mere Leonie marveled, permitting herself a gentle smile.
"We must be," the novice answered. "If not, then the wickedness is elsewhere, and I dare not think ... that God, being just, would ... require that..." She was unable to finish.
"Well, in Rome they would say it is because we are faithful to the true Pope at Avignon, though Rome has seen the Plague of late." Her head turned away from the novice. "Is that the chapel, Seur?"
"One of them. There is a larger one, where Pere Guibert says Mass for us twice a week. This chapel is for our own devotions." She stood aside so that Mere Leonie could inspect the little stone-floored room. "When there were more of us, and there were three priests at the church in Saunt-Vitre, we had Masses every day, Matins and Vespers, but there is only Pere Foutin now, and he has the village to attend to. Pere Guibert arranged..."
"Very good of him," Mere Leonie said as she left the chapel. "May I know your name, Seur?"
The novice blushed. "Seur Philomine, ma Mere. I've taken only tertiary vows, so that if my family should..." She almost said "relent," but stopped herself in time.
Mere Leonie nodded. "You family has suffered much?"
"As have all families, in these days," Seur Philomine said at once, not wishing to appear self-pitying.
"And for which we must pray all the more for God's Grace," Mere Leonie added in a careless way. "Do your relatives believe that you are safer here than you would be with them, or have their fortunes suffered reverses?"
Seur Philomine blushed. "There have been some reverses," she admitted with difficulty.
"It must be similar for many of the nuns," Mere Leonie said sympathetically. "I should learn these things, that I may better fulfill my duties toward you all," she added as explanation. "Doubtless you have heard, even here, that since the Church has been weakened by the ... rift between Rome and Avignon, many tasks have been neglected that - "
Seur Philomine shook her head in confusion. "Ma Mere, it is not my place to hear these things."
"Forgive me," Mere Leonie said at once, then turned back to motion to Frere Odo. "Where shall he put this trunk? I have brought a few books and several lengths of cloth which I was told were needed here."
Once again Seur Philomine was surprised to have the new Superior confide in her. "Your cell and study are at the end of this hall, to the side of the chapel."
"Excellent," Mere Leonie exclaimed. "Take those cases - the one you carry and the one remaining in the wagon - to the study."
Groaning a feeble protest, Frere Odo moved to do as he had been told.
"But don't you wish to see your quarters?" Seur Philomine asked, unable to conceal her puzzlement.
"Not at the moment. There are more important things for me to see, aren't there?" She smiled at Seur Philomine. "I will need to see the grounds and the storerooms as well as the buildings being used at the moment. Will you guide me, or should I ask for other escort?"
"I suppose I may guide you," Seur Philomine told her, wondering why she had been chosen to do this when there were other nuns who would believe themselves more entitled to the privilege.
"God send you His blessing for your service," Mere Leonine said at once. "Do you read and write?"
"Sufficiently for the demands of our service," Seur Philomine said, averting her eyes from the new Superior. "I was not the first daughter, and so..."
"And your older sisters?" Mere Leonie inquired as they came to another turn in the hallway.
"They married, as was arranged, but ... then they died." She crossed herself and coughed once. "It is not a thing that I wish to speak of, Mere Leonie."
"It was not meant unkindly, ma Seur," Mere Leonie said with a touch of sternness about her mouth as she spoke. "As Superior, I am required to acquaint myself with the lives of those in my charge. In the name of Mere Marie, give me your understanding and forgiveness."
Seur Philomine knew already that she had behaved improperly, and she accepted her rebuke with all the humility she could find within her. "It was wrong of me to question you, ma Mere. It is I who must be forgiven."
"Of course. With the times the way they are, it is not astonishing that all of you here would be cautious of a newcomer, even one sent to lead you." Her faint, equivocal smile, framed as it was by gorget, wimple and coif, was strangely sinister, a thing out of place in that handsome face. "I pray that you and your Sisters will guide me in the days that are to come."
"Amen to that, ma Mere," Seur Philomine said as she opened a door and stood aside. "Here is the ante-chamber to our kitchen. When it is possible, we offer charity to those in greatest need, especially to travelers and women with children."
"But the priests in Saunt-Vitre-lo-Sur, don't they provide for..." Mere Leonie made a gesture that implied that it was not the responsibility of the nuns to do such work.
"For the village itself, yes they do, but there are others who live here, and those who are without homes and shelter who pass this way. Mere Jacinthe enforced all the devotional offices required of us. Before the Plague came the last time, it was not as urgent a need. Now, you ... well, you saw how it was, didn't you?"
"Yes," Mere Leonie answered thoughtfully. "Yes."
* * * *
"She troubles me," Seur Catant whispered to the woman on her right. "Look at her. If she were not tranquil, she would be..." She stopped, breaking her small, flat loaf and placing it on the wooden trencher before her as the blessing was invoked for their simple evening meal.
Beside Seur Catant, Seur Elvire listened with slight attention; Seur Catant was known to be discontented with her lot and often gave vent to her feelings through petty outbursts of spite.
The voice of Mere Leonie rose above the others, bringing the whispers of conversation to an end. "I am saddened to see you so lax in the Rule of Order," she said, turning this observation into subtle and damning condemnation. "In these times, with war and the might of the Plague around us, we must be the more rigorous in our devotions, to ward off the evil which has been so long visited upon us. God will not forgive our lapses now, or at any time. We are His sheep, and He our shepherd. If we do not follow our Shepherd, then we will each be alone, at the mercy of the ravening beasts that stalk us. 'Who among us is safe?' you ask when you pray, and do not trust God to care for you, though He promised His care, and gave the life of His Son in bond."
The nuns looked around uneasily, and one of them made a sound that could have been jeering laughter or a choked sob.
"Yes, think of what you do, and remember that we have been given the consolation of our faith, where others of this dreadful world must wander in darkness, without guidance and without hope of life everlasting." Mere Leonie rose. "I have been with you for seven days, and I have wanted to speak each of those days, for all that I saw distressed me more than I have the capacity to express." Her hands pressed at her thighs through the shapeless drapery of her habit. "It is not that you have fallen into sin and worse, for it that were the case, it would be easily dealt with; the Church would only have to file complaints of heresy against you and the matter would be at an end. The convent would be closed and rites of purification carried out so that once again worship could be given cleanly. But that is not what concerns us." She paused, her eyes measuring the women before her. "What has happened here is more insidious than simple heresy, and it is the more dangerous to all of us. You have fallen into the error of liberality, which leads to corruption and such vileness that I cannot speak of it. You have been lax in the exercise of your faith because you believe that the ordeals of these dreadful times excuse you from the strictness of your observations and vows. This is a fault, and you have all succumbed to it. I cannot inform the Pope in Avignon that you have served your vocations well; you have not."
One of the nuns, the thin and nervous Seur Odile, had begun to weep, but the others did not dare make so obvious a display of their emotions. The room was entirely quiet now, for Seur Odile did not sob.
"Let me advise you and I will ask you to renew the fervor and full dedication of your vows, and I will petition the Church for a strict review of the practices here. It does not become me to speak ill of one who has led you, but in good faith I must protest that Mere Jacinthe did not do all that she might to instill in you the gravity of your position. There are those who believe that the Plague which has ravened through the land was sent to test you and that the suffering it has brought will expunge much of the worldliness that infects us even as the Plague has done. This is false, my Sisters, for outward ills cannot pardon inward loathsomeness. It will not bring credit to you or this Order if you permit your thoughts to be thus led astray. You must search inwardly for your failings and imperfections and do all that you can to eradicate them from your character, so that la Virge in Heaven may look upon you as handmaids deserving of honor, handmaids who have preserved themselves in perfect trust through the years of suffering and trial that have been sent to this despairing world. For that reason, I wish each of you to pray for one hour each day, fully prostrate, in the chapel, alone or with one other companion so that it can be determined that the simplicity and purity of our Order is restored and each of you is once again secure in her vows."
Two of the younger nuns stared at the new Superior, one of them not able to conceal the panic that had entered her eyes.
"Let each of you accuse herself of her transgressions, and where you have the most offended, let you scourge that fault from body and soul. If gluttony or lust or melancholy have taken hold of you, it must be the body that pays the price, for these are sins of the body. We are only permitted to chastise with willow branches, but see that you use them with a will, so that you may be the more preserved against greater offence. Those who have sinned with the soul, through greed or rage or vanity or envy, you must give yourself to contemplation of your errors, for if even one of you taints her soul, all her Sisters must be diminished."
There was a soft, terrible cry from one of the nuns. "Oh, ma Mere," Seur Marguerite wailed, unable to contain herself. "I have seen too much - Plague, yes, and all that it does, I have seen it. You must not condemn me to remember those things. You cannot, in charity, demand that of me. I came here to find refuge!" She lifted her clasped hands to Mere Leonie and her lined and well-worn face was seamed with tears.
The Superior studied the old nun and recalled all that she had heard about her. "Come, bring your heart to me, Seur Marguerite. You have endured much, and it may be that there are other devotions that will aid you. The prostrate prayers are required of all Sisters here, and you must not seek to avoid them. But if you fear damnation for what has been in your life, then meditation on damnation may answer to grace as well."
The other nuns, hearing this, exchanged uneasy glances. All of them were aware that Seur Marguerite was not entirely sane, and could not be held to the same code of behavior as the rest of them; nevertheless, they could not suppress a twinge of guilt at the thought that Mere Leonie might grant her an exemption when the rest of them were being castigated. Seur Elvire almost drummed her fingers on the table, but could not summon the courage for so outrageous an act.
"Ma Mere," said one of the nuns in a tone that suggested dissatisfaction, "why do you require this of us now, when - "
Mere Leonie turned toward the upstart. "Were you moved to speak by the fullness of your heart, or is this petulance?"
The young nun set her jaw. "I am not used to - "
"Seur Aungelique," Mere Leonie cut her short, "when you have finished your meal, you are to go to the chapel where you will find a willow scourge waiting for you. Use it when your prayers are done."
Seur Aungelique flushed with indignation. "I am the daughter of le Baron Michau d'Ybert who is - "
"Titles of the world have no meaning here," Mere Leonie reminded her. "Recall that you are not free of vanity while you try to purge yourself of gluttony and lust."
For once, Seur Aungelique was too shocked to speak. She wanted all the nuns to look at her with sympathy, and at the same time, she was shamed by the rebuke she had received and wished she could become invisible.
"For the rest of you," Mere Leonie went on, "I will expect to speak to each of you alone in my cell, where you may unburden your souls of the doubts that have festered there and so together we may find remedy for your afflictions." She looked around the room in that keen, searching way that impressed and worried the nuns. The long tables were no longer full of Sisters; the walls that were once whitewashed and pristine were now dingy from neglect. "There is much to be done if we are to overcome our enemies and the destruction of our faith. Those of you who have heard of the conflicts between Rome and Avignon and have thought that these debates were above them commit a gross error. Those 'debates' as they are being called are the very essence of the Church, and from the outcome will all of Christianity take shape. Those who believe that it is of small consequence if Rome or Avignon makes the Pope forget that it is the Pope who speaks for God on earth, and if we harken to false counsel, then we damn ourselves as surely as if we had made a pact with Satan and signed it with our life's blood. You must pray for the wisdom to decide in these matters, for although we are only women, and live out of the world, our mission takes us above those of our sex who live for the duty of home and children. We are required to show the acumen of men in the conduct of our vocation, to seek ways to glorify God that honors Him as He demands."
Seur Elvire dropped her wooden cup and looked about guiltily at the noise it made.
"You have not had scripture read to you at meals for over a year, or so I have been told. That will be remedied at once. You." She pointed across the room to Seur Aungelique.
"Mere?" the young nun asked.
"In preparation for your evening penance, you will read from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah," Mere Leonie ordered, motioning to one of the nuns to bring the large, unused Bible. "You will kneel and read, Seur Aungelique."
"Deo gratias," Seur Aungelique muttered as she came forward, glaring at the Superior. "I am poor at my letters."
Mere Leonie smiled. "Where you falter, I will help you." She dropped gracefully to her knees and gestured to Seur Aungelique to do the same. "You may begin where you like, Seur Aungelique."
* * * *
Seur Aungelique lay on her bed, feeling the hempen slats through the two blankets that served as a mattress. She could not sleep. Her thighs and belly ached where the willow had lashed them, bringing pain at first, but now something else, a sensation that was less than hurt but more than discomfort. Seur Aungelique rolled onto her side, but the disturbing ... warmth did not subside. It shut out all other thought; not even prayer could banish it. Impetuously, Seur Aungelique threw back the heavy wool blanket she was permitted in the cold of winter, and drew up her shift as far as her waist in the vain hope that the chill February air would give her a measure of peace. Her cell was dark, and so she used her hands to assess what the willow wands had done to her.
There were a number of sensitive tracks across her abdomen and on her thighs, and when she touched them, no matter how gingerly, pain spurted through her. She gave a little gasp, but it was not entirely for hurt - the touch of her hand had awakened other aches, deep, abiding pangs that she feared now would not be banished with prostrate prayers and willow switches.
It was a sin to touch herself, Seur Aungelique knew that from the many harangues she had endured since before her breasts had been bee-sting bumps on her skinny chest. Her father's priests had railed at her for sins of the flesh then, and Pere Guibert had admonished her, with more than a little despair, to resist the urges of her flesh so that the Devil would have no means to take her soul.
Her fingers slipped - of their own account, it seemed - between her legs, to the strange little nubbin that jumped for ecstasy at her ministrations.
"Virge Mere Marie," she whispered as her fingers rubbed and plucked, "you were a woman. You bore a Son. Surely you knew what it was to have ... oh! Jesu, Jesu ... to be filled with ... ah! ... It is not lust, Mere Marie. It is not lust. It is too ... Dieu, Dieu! ... not lust." Her brow was slick with sweat, her prayers jumbled in her mind as she writhed and tried to keep from moaning aloud. Under her wimple, her short-cropped hair was damp, and though she trembled, it was not from the icy embrace of the night, but from rapture that her fingers wrung from her.
She would have to confess, when Pere Guibert came, she would have to confess that she had failed again, that she had succumbed to her body. It was worse, somehow, that she had done so after prayer and penance. It would make her error more enormous and her sin more damning. She knew this, but rebelled at it as she began again to search out that unimaginable release that she knew was wrong, terribly wrong, but so very, very sweet. Her hand teased and pressed; it was easy to imagine that it was not her hand at all, but someone else's, something else that pleasured her. Surely the sin was not so grievous if someone else had forced it from her. Surely she would be less to blame if the joy that shivered through her was forced upon her, not sought on her own. Did not the Saints themselves often wrestle with demons, combating lust as well as terror? She was secretly horrified that she compared herself to Saints, for that could be heresy or worse. She might be branded apostate if her feelings were known. Bad enough that her carnal desires should be known, but - Her thoughts dissolved in a burst of pleasure that drove her beyond caviling argument to thrashing release.
In the floating, sated tranquility that followed, she at last found some little sleep, and for that short time between her satisfaction and the call to morning devotions, Seur Aungelique was not troubled - not by the banked fires of her needy body, nor the stern dictates of her enforced calling. In sleep, she found a kind of peace that eluded her in her waking hours.
* * * *
Pere Guibert gazed warily across the courtyard of la Couvent de la Tres Saunt Annunciacion. His eyes ached, and his feet had long since stopped hurting and become numbed. His mule sighed with almost human exasperation and refused to move again until Pere Guibert climbed out of the saddle and drew the animal forward with the curve of the reins. With thumb and forefinger the priest rubbed at his gritty-feeling eyes. For more than twenty years he had striven to do honor to his Order and to his God, but of late he had found it ever more difficult to accommodate all the demands of his calling. It troubled him more than he could admit, and increasingly he wished for a reduction of his duties so that he could devote himself to contemplation and prayer that would restore his soul. A noise distracted him; he saw Seur Ranegonde come toward him from the hospice door, her habit in some disorder. "God keep you, good Sister, and send you His Peace," the priest said, blessing her in a mildly distracted way.
"I thank you most humbly," the nun answered, crossing herself before she came nearer.
It was a chore for him to summon up the necessary phrases, and he did not bother to do so, but glowered deeply. "Is the stable ready for this beast?" Pere Guibert asked testily, more worried now about his aching muscles and empty stomach than the courtesy that should be observed in convents.
"Of course, mon Pere," Seur Ranegonde said, as if there was nothing churlish in his behavior. "Let me take him for you." She was a small woman, and thinner than the last time the priest had come to hear confessions.
"How do you go on, Seur Ranegonde?" Pere Guibert inquired, not relinquishing the reins as he realized belatedly that his manners were hardly worthy of his calling.
"I do as God wishes me to," she responded, waiting for the mule, her hands trembling. By now, Pere Guibert began to feel shame for his brusque words. "You have taken the decoction that Pere Sannule..."
"Of course, and I thank God for it," she said, then looked over her shoulder.
The hospice door had opened again, and this time Seur Aungelique came out, approaching the priest in an unusually subdued way.
"God be with you, ma Seur," Pere Guibert murmured and automatically gave her his blessing. He was startled to see how pale the young woman looked, how deeply her eyes had sunk into livid shadows.
"And with your soul," she responded. "We did not think to see you for a day or so. There is so much going on that..."
"Excellent," Pere Guibert said, recalling the apathy that had seized the convent after the death of Mere Jacinthe.
"Yes. Yes, we have much to do now that Mere Leonie is here," Seur Ranegonde said quickly.
"Yes. Your new Superior." He patted the neck of his mule. "I don't wish to trouble Seur Ranegonde, who plainly has yet to return to blooming health. If you would be kind enough..."
Seur Aungelique nodded at once. "Yes, mon Pere. Deo gratias." She took the proffered reins and tugged the mule toward the little thatch-roofed stable.
Pere Guibert gazed after her, thinking that he had never seen Seur Aungelique so tractable. If that was evidence of the rule of the new Superior, he would be disposed to admire her for her dedication and discipline.
"I would have been willing to take the mule, mon Pere," Seur Ranegonde murmured. "I do not want to shirk my duties and put greater burdens on my Sisters."
"Naturally," Pere Guibert said, falling back into his usual demeanor of stern benevolence, as was required of him by the duties of his Order. "You are a nun of rare vocation, Seur Ranegonde, and it is an example of your vocation that you do not wish to give burdens to others. But you must also accept the mandates of God, and to attempt tasks that are for a time beyond you only show pride, not vocation."
Seur Ranegonde lowered her eyes at this reprimand. "I will pray to be worthy of my Order and my faith."
"It is not God's way to burden you..." He stopped, trying to forget the last time he had so admonished a nun, for it had been during a visitation of the Plague that had ravaged the kingdom of France and the lands around it not so many years ago. His strength had been at its farthest ebb then, and in faulting the Ambrosian Sister, he had appalled himself: there had been times when he had longed for the Plague to take him, too, so that he would not have to endure the suffering around him. What had that burden shown him, and why had God put it upon him? The question was like a mouse in his thoughts, gnawing, gnawing with sharp little teeth. He was not entitled to fault the nun for her errors.
"Mon Pere?" Seur Ranegonde ventured, her face not quite averted and her eyes downcast.
"I am tired," he offered as an explanation, though it was no answer at all. "The sun is dropping in the sky and my soul turns inward. Forgive me."
Seur Ranegonde nodded. "Thus does God touch our lives." Then she looked away toward the hospice again. "If I may not tend your mule, would you permit me to lead you to our new Superior so that she may greet you?"
"I would be most grateful." He did not wish to be alone with his memories any longer. He permitted Seur Ranegonde to lead the way. "It will be Vespers soon," he observed so that Seur Ranegonde would feel free to speak to him.
"It will. My Sisters will come together for devotions then." She stood aside so that he might enter the building ahead of her. "Mere Leonie spends this time in the chapel at her devotions."
"I will wait for her; I do not wish to distract her." This information surprised him, since he could remember the many times Mere Jacinthe excused her nuns from strict exercise of faith. Undoubtedly there was a new spirit in Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion. He was more curious than before about the new Superior.
At the door to the chapel, Seur Ranegonde once again stood aside. "Mere Leonie is at prayer," she said, and bowed her head before turning away.
"You need not wait, Seur Ranegonde," Pere Guibert said, his attention already on the prostrate form of Mere Leonie.
"Deo gratias," Seur Ranegonde whispered, her trembling hands fluttering in her full sleeves. She waited a moment in case there should be any other service required of her, then hastened away.
Pere Guibert stepped inside the chapel, crossing himself and sinking to his knees a little distance behind Mere Leonie. He quietly began to recite his beads while studying the figure in grey who lay face-down with arms outstretched in front of the altar. He was struck, as he had been with increasing frequency, with the anonymity of religious life. Even the habit conspired to remove all trace of the person who wore it. At one time it had seemed laudable to the priest but now he no longer trusted the garments; there might be anything inside them. He stifled a sound in his throat, and was not entirely displeased to see Mere Leonie look up.
"God be with you," she said as she got swiftly to her feet.
"And with your soul," he answered, caught off-guard.
"You are our priest? Pere ... Guibert?"
He liked her confusion; it made her less of a puzzle to him. "I am a day or two early. I could not reach Forlebene, and so I came directly here. The monks will have to wait until the road is passable."
"Has the winter been so severe?" Mere Leonie inquired.
"Apparently so. They have been much troubled by their isolation." He felt that he had to explain his lack of tenacity a bit more completely. "If I still had my escort, then it would have been another matter."
"Of course," Mere Leonie agreed. She knelt for his blessing. "You are thrice welcome here, Pere Guibert. My Sisters have great need of you, I fear. With so much despair and suffering around us, there is..." She made a gesture of resignation. "There is much to ... to pray for," she finished, though Pere Guibert had the oddest feeling that she had intended to say something else. "I am grateful you have come."
Such a forthright declaration was disconcerting to Pere Guibert, who was used to more subservient nuns. "Mere Leonie - "
"I do not mean to overstep myself, mon Pere," she interrupted him, "but my concern prompts me to tell you of my worry." She looked up, as if appealing to Heaven itself. "These nuns, this convent ... all are ... neglected."
This touched so closely to Pere Guibert's doubts that he almost spoke of his own anguish, but frowned deeply and made a compromise admission. "There are many such. We have reason to worry."
"Yes. I have seen that. Yet though I pray for the salvation of all mankind, as we are enjoined to do by the Savior, it is this convent that has been entrusted to me, and before I turn my eyes and my prayers to the world, I must first tend to the well-being of my Sisters, for if I cannot bring some peace to them here, what chance has the world?" Her eyes flashed and Pere Guibert had the sensation of being challenged. "You must see that my duty demands this of me. My Lord sets each of us tasks."
"Mere Leonie, you..." He stood back and blessed himself a second time. "If we must speak of this, rise and - "
"We may come to my study. Doubtless that is where Mere Jacinthe spoke to you, and it is fitting that we should converse there." Her manner was entirely accommodating, but the way in which Mere Leonie directed the course of their speech bothered the Cistercian. She stood aside for him, but nothing suggested that she was prepared to render him unending and humble service. "When our evening devotions begin, I will have to return here. It is not fitting that I should shirk the duties I require of my nuns."
"Certainly." Her attitude was entirely correct, Pere Guibert thought as he went down the hall ahead of her. There had been many times he had wished that Superiors would not take advantage of their exalted position to avoid the more strenuous demands of their Order. Still he longed for a more deferential attitude from Mere Leonie. "It is wise to observe all the rites." His tone was measured, even ponderous, but he felt as if he had lost all direction with the young Superior. "A true Mere imposes upon herself all the exercises she requires of her charges, but to take on more or less is improper, for this distinguishes you and causes rancor to rise in the hearts of your Sisters. Our Lord - "
"Be pleased to enter," Mere Leonie cut in, opening the door to her study. "I will take the stool so you may have the chair."
Pere Guibert did as he was told, and tried to convince himself that he was not, in fact, obeying an order, but taking his rightful place in the room. "You have begun well, Mere Leonie."
"If it appears so, it is to the credit of my Sisters, who are sincerely devoted to their calling and the Glory of God."
"Of course. It is true that those who are unworthy are..." He fumbled with his beads as he strove to bring order to his thoughts. He sighed and began again. "Mere Leonie, you have accepted a great task here, for it is the Will of God who..."
When Pere Guibert fell silent, Mere Leonie folded her hands and waited. There was the unrealized hint of a smile in the curve of her mouth, an air of expectation. "I have taken the liberty of imposing stricter penance than my predecessor did," she volunteered once the stillness had become intolerable.
"But..." He broke off again. "Do the Sisters acknowledge their sins through their penance?"
"There are a stubborn few. Seur Aungelique was one, but she has bowed to the necessity. Hers is a nature much given to the flesh, and her soul needs purging." She saw Pere Guibert nod. "Seur Elvire is not of a patient disposition, and so I have assigned her to keep the night watches in the hospice chapel, where she may consider her life more calmly. Seur Fleurette is given to folly; I have told her that she must care for the ailing children that the women bring us from the village. Seur Marguerite ... well, God has deprived her of half her wits, and so we must accept her ways. She continues to tend the hives, but I have required that she sing psalms, as she works, to the Praise of God. Seur Philomine is only a tertiary, and I have not the authority to impose upon her, but I would wish to require her to contemplate the suffering of the Saints, that she may be more sure of her vocation or lack of it. Seur Odile is of uneven disposition, and for this she is set to mend clothes and prepare bandages, so that she may soon come to see that it is steadiness in small things that gives merit in Heaven. Seur Lucille, who is advanced in years, has come to believe that she has greater - "
"Mere Leonie," Pere Guibert protested, holding up his hands to stop her. "May God grant you strength for your tasks in years to come equal to what you show now." He caught himself wanting to reprove her for giving penance, for over the years, he had come to regard that as properly his own work. Mere Jacinthe had left such matters to him, though she might well have done so on her own authority. He felt usurped, and begged God to pardon him for his ambition and vanity. He would have to do penance himself for the resentment Mere Leonie awoke in him. "Let me first hear confession, so that we may discover what improvement your rule has wrought here. If the penances have corrected error, then God will reward you for your diligence, but if there have been lapses, we will decide upon another course."
"As you wish, mon Pere," she said without expression.
In order to mitigate his warning, he went on. "You do not come from France, do you, Mere Leonie?"
She shook her head. "No, mon Pere. I am from Dalmatia, that thrives under the banner of the Venetians. My family is distinguished." She looked away from him. "It is of no consequence here, and it was not for pride that I told you. But I know I am young, and you have reason to question my right to..." She crossed herself. "We have long been devoted to the service of Our Lord."
"Most commendable," Pere Guibert said, delighted to have found that hint of pride in her. He would watch her for more evidence of sin.
"It pleased Heaven to bring me here, to tend to these women in the time of our faith's greatest travail. I do not know what I will do, if Rome is victorious over Avignon in the end." She wrung her hands, distress in her handsome features. "I look to you for guidance."
This was more the attitude that Pere Guibert expected, and his initial impression was mollified. "In your zeal, ma Fille, you bring too great importance to yourself, which is an error. It is not for us, but God to bring humanity to salvation. All we may do is pray for that wonderful fulfillment and live as we were enjoined to live by Our Lord. God sees our lives and His power guides the world. Do you think that He will permit evil to rule forever?"
"No. Not forever." Mere Leonie crossed herself again. "I thank you, mon Pere, for all you have said to me. I will keep your thoughts foremost in my mind. And may le Bon Dieu and la Virge bless us."
"Amen to that, with all my heart," Pere Guibert agreed. He took on a more indulgent manner. "You must not be too anxious, ma Fille," he added, pleased that he had seen how determined she was to obtain his approval.
"I will pray for tranquility, mon Pere," she vowed. "I wish to impart something of myself to my Sisters. If I am distracted, I will fail as surely as if I were venal and corrupt."
"Oh, that is too harsh, surely," Pere Guibert chided her. "Who among us has been free of the taint of sin? To believe any but Our Lord is so is as great a fault as venality."
"Where there is the greatest sanctity, there is the greatest danger," she murmured. Then she looked directly at the priest. "Forgive me, mon Pere, here we are so much isolated that it is an easy thing to magnify the sins I find around me and respond to them as if they were enough to bring down the world to the fires of Hell itself."
At last Pere Guibert permitted himself to relax his guard. "Your devotion is most admirable, especially in so young a woman, but those of us who have been about the world a little longer know that error cannot be uprooted in a day, and we must remain steadfast in our faith, trusting to the Will of God to see us to the Light of His Grace."
Mere Leonie looked toward the crucifix hanging over her prie-dieu. "No; you are right. Evil cannot be uprooted in a day."
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