Pere Guibert strode restlessly through the cloisters of Forlebene, his face set in a forbidding scowl. It was bad enough that five of the brothers had died here during the winter, but with an ancient Abbot with a wandering mind, the Brothers lacked direction and many felt their vocation faltering. This was not the report that Cardinal Seulfleuve would welcome when Pere Guibert returned to Avignon. He tried to compose his thoughts by turning them to a contemplation of the Holy Spirit, but that only intensified his burden of guilt and failure.
"Pere Guibert...?" said a pleasant voice in the adjoining ambulatory.
"Yes?" He looked around sharply. "Who calls me?"
It was not a proper response for one Brother to give another, but the man who replied did not point this out. "I was told you were at your meditations here. If I intrude, I will beg your pardon and leave."
Inwardly appalled at his own behavior, Pere Guibert attempted to make amends. He came up to the stranger and offered his hand in blessing, and was puzzled to find the movement returned. "I must beg your pardon; my thoughts were elsewhere."
The stranger, in the tan-and-white habit of an Augustinian, bowed his head. "I fear your concerns are of a worldly nature, mon Pere."
"Uh..." Pere Guibert blinked in surprise.
"So are my thoughts turning," the Augustinian went on, apparently unaware of Pere Guibert's discomfort. "Those of us who revere our vows and our Church must be consumed with worldly thought, whether we will or no." He stepped into the cloister garden where several clumps of dried twigs gave promise of summer herbs.
Where had this man come from? Pere Guibert wondered. The Abbot, old and feeble, had said nothing of a stranger in the monastery. He should have been informed if there were a new Brother in the community, let alone an Augustinian with a peculiar accent. "I fear, mon Frere, that you have the advantage of me."
The Augustinian turned to look at Pere Guibert. "I must. I am Pere Bartolimieu Reiter. Although in the Cantons, we are called Padre, not Pere."
"Padre Bartolimieu," Pere Guibert acknowledged, more confused than ever.
"I came here seeking ... sanctuary?" He was tall, this Swiss priest, lantern-jawed and spade-handed. He was between forty and fifty years of age, his fringe of hair almost completely white, as was the tangle of his eyebrows. "Pere Guibert, may I speak with you? It has been long since I have had the counsel of any thoughts by my own..."
Pere Guibert folded his hands. "Of course. But, Padre, why did you, a priest, come to a monastery for sanctuary?" It was a tactless question, but Pere Guibert was in no mood for endless, polite, evasive conversation. "If your fears are worldly, there are other places where sanctuary is more ... appropriate, though la Virge knows you are isolated here." He paused.
"L'Etivaz, where I had my church..." Padre Bartolimieu reached up and shaded his eyes against the glare of the sun as the scattered clouds opened. "When Rome and Avignon became ... enemies, there was much distress. The Cantons are wary both of Italy and France, and no one knew where our loyalty lay. Within the town there were those who favored Rome and those who thought the right was with Avignon. In seeking to find the way, we abused the faith of our people, and for this we..." He coughed. "God strengthen my resolve."
Pere Gilbert frowned. "I don't ... Padre, you are difficult to follow."
"Yes. May God forgive me for this cowardice, as I have had to beg His forgiveness for so many other sins." He crossed himself and for a little time was lost in prayer. "There was Plague three years ago. This district suffered then, as well, didn't it?"
"Praise to the Mercy of God for sparing so many," Pere Guibert said quickly, hoping to placate the ire he recalled all too vividly. "It has been worse, before."
"So they have said. They have also said that so many died already that there are not enough left to die now." He pulled absently at the ends of his belt. "We were mad with folly then, thinking that the Plague would pass over more quickly if we determined where we must ally ourselves. For this neglect, we were sorely tried and punished, for the Flagellants came ... You have encountered Flagellants?"
"Thanks be to God, not directly," Pere Guibert said with deep sincerity. "There were some not too far from here, at Romans-sur-Isere, and at Valence." He stopped, not knowing what more to say.
"They brought catastrophe," Padre Bartolimieu whispered. "They razed my church, and those whom the Plague had not claimed, they buried in the rubble, smashing their limbs with the candlesticks from the altar before pressing them with stones."
Pere Guibert crossed himself slowly. "And you?"
"To my everlasting shame, I ran," Padre Bartolimieu admitted. "It is hard to speak of it, but silence is worse. When the Flagellants broke down the church doors and began first to defecate on the rushes, I fought them. Then they lit fires, and after they started to break up the central pillars, I ran. I have petitioned both the Pope at Rome and the Pope at Avignon to assign me penance for my crime, but there has yet to be a response from either See."
"Do you know if your petitions were delivered?" Pere Guibert asked, not wanting to pursue the priest's transgressions unless he had to.
"Not surely, no. Yet the messengers who took the petitions went under guard, and on behalf of the Bishop of my district, in order to report what ... happened." He leaned against the empty fountain at the center of the garden. "Now, I have come here, and will stay here until I have other instructions."
"I doubt if the Flagellants will come here; it's too remote. And the Plague has already been here for the decade." He rubbed his face with trembling hands. "I must make some compensation. Contrition is not enough."
"No," Pere Guibert agreed sadly.
"Yet I lack guidance." He gave Pere Guibert a long look. "I have confessed already and done what was required, but my soul is foul with my act, and it is not enough."
"Abbe Christolfe has ... much need of aid here," was his first tentative suggestion.
"I will do what is needed," Padre Bartolimieu said at once. "But this is not my Order, and the Brothers follow another Rule. What can I do?" His helplessness went far beyond the immediate situation, and Pere Guibert had nothing to offer him as solace.
"We must await a..." His voice softened. "God requires the faith of all of us, and when the world is most benighted, when we are most severely tested, then our faith is the brighter and our salvation the more glorious." He had preached this lesson many times and most of the time believed it, but looking at the other priest, he knew his consolation was inadequate.
"I have prayed and meditated," Padre Bartolimieu protested, plainly untouched by what Pere Guibert had said. "Nothing has changed. I am ... what I am. I suppose it was God's will that I flee, but He has not revealed to me how I am to live with this failure."
Pere Guibert could find no heartening sentiments to lay before the troubled Swiss priest. "Each of us must face trials some time in his life." It was a more dreadful failure than his last attempt at comfort. "Flagellants and the rest of your suffering, there is not one who could come through such an ordeal unscathed."
"I have told myself that for days on end, for months, and there are times I almost think it is true. But at night, in my dreams, I see my parish and the Flagellants with their whips, and I watch my church fall, and the guilt comes back." He folded his hands. "While I am here, I want to strive for tranquility, but there is so much guilt on my soul that I despair, and that is a greater sin ... I fear that I am lost, Pere Guibert. In my heart, I cannot find the courage to go on."
"Then you must beg God to show you His Plan. Prayer is never unanswered." It was another lesson he had repeated so many times that it no longer had meaning, and he said it without thought.
"I know. I have trusted in that. But of late, I have started to wonder if it may be that the answer God has for me is 'no'." The Augustinian crossed himself as if to protect himself from these heretical doubts. "One day, it will be plain to me. That much I can still have faith in, and live in hope. But on that day, if it should be that I no longer ... God does not desert man; man deserts God," Padre Bartolimieu said with harsh emphasis. "Only my failure will..."
A portative organ wheezed in the chapel and the sound of the first monks gathering for Holy Service rustled through the cloisters.
"I should attend," Padre Bartolimieu said half-heatedly.
"As should I," Pere Guibert seconded. "It will do my soul good to hear Mass with these Brothers. I have not done so for some little time." He hoped that this simple ordinary observation would lessen the other man's despair.
Padre Bartolimieu looked away, out of the cloisters toward the distant peaks in the east. "Will it?"
Though this denial was offensive to Pere Guibert he kept his words mild. "But mon Padre, that was the promise given in the Body of Christ." He crossed himself and waited for Padre Bartolimieu to do the same.
"Yes." He let his breath out slowly; his hands remained still. "But that was so long ago."
* * * *
Six men-at-arms accompanied le Duc de Parcignonne to the doors of Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion, remaining in the saddle when le Duc dismounted and strode to the grilled window to announce his arrival. He had been riding steadily since dawn, and it was now past midday. He had two errands to discharge and both of them troubled him, making him move more slowly than he usually did. He was of a good height and burly, carrying his armor and weapons with habitual ease. His square face was seamed on the left cheek by a jagged scar, giving him a severe aspect that many found disquieting. "Good Sister!" he shouted through the grille.
After a brief silence, he was answered by an unseen woman who was still breathless. "Traveler, pray enter at the doors of this hospice. We do not give admittance here."
"I am no traveler, I seek no shelter or lodging, either for myself or my men. I am here at the request of my cousin, le Baron Michau d'Ybert, newly made Vidame de Figeac, who has charged me to speak to his daughter on his behalf. She is known here as Seur Aungelique." He slung his weight into the hip where his sword rested.
"Sieur le Duc," Seur Odile began, her nervousness causing her words to rumble out in choked whispers. "I must ... get the permission of our Superior to ... permit you to - "
"Then do that," Pierre said testily. "I have little time for this ... foolishness. The sooner I have completed my commission, the better." He made no apology for what he had said and chose to ignore the scandalized silence that his opinion inspired.
"I'll seek Mere Leonie at once," Seur Odile said at her most prim.
"God reward you." He heard movement on the other side of the grille and nodded to himself in satisfaction. "You might as well dismount," he told his men-at-arms as he went back to them. "I fear it will take longer than I supposed. We'll be lucky if we get to Mou Courbet by nightfall."
"Trouble?" one of the men asked.
"Difficulties, nothing more. Get down."
His men did as they were told, and passed the time walking their lathered horses back and forth in front of the convent in order to cool them. None of them had a change of mount at hand and knew that the beasts they rode had a distance to go before they rested.
"Too bad there isn't a stream," one of the soldiers said. "I could use a drink."
"As could your horse," Pierre added. "There is one, the other side of the orchard, as I remember. Wait for me there. These poor women probably think they're under siege with so many knights at the door." He laughed at his own rough humor. "You. Antois. You're in charge." He signaled his men to move, then added, "When you go through the orchard, leave the hives alone. I was told that the nun who tends them is mad."
The men accepted this at once, dreading the attention of those who were crazed in their wits.
As soon as the men-at-arms and their horses were away from the gate, it opened and Pierre Fornault found himself facing a tall young woman in the stark and shapeless grey habit of the Assumptionist Order. "God give you good day, Sieur le Duc."
"And to you ... um..." He waited for the nun to introduce herself.
"I am Mere Leonie, Superior of this convent. I bid you enter and will permit you to speak to Seur Aungelique on behalf of her father. However," Mere Leonie added sharply as she took a step closer to Pierre, "since Seur Aungelique has transgressed most seriously, you are not to inquire anything of her but what her father requires. All other intercourse is forbidden. Do you accept this?"
Pierre was not used to such forthright speech from a woman, but he gave it his consideration. "I will try to respect your instructions," he answered with more caution than usual. "Will we be observed?"
"Perhaps." Mere Leonie stared hard at him. "Perhaps."
* * * *
Fasting and long vigils at night in the chapel had reduced Seur Aungelique's body to gauntness and made her strangely light-headed, so that when she first heard Pierre's voice in the hall, she thought it was another one of the pleasant dreams she had been enjoying more and more often of late. She had already begun to weave a tale about him in her thoughts when Seur Philomine tapped on the door of her cell. "What?" she called out, forgetting the proper forms for address.
"God be with you, Seur Aungelique," Seur Philomine said in gentle correction.
"And with your soul," Seur Aungelique answered, recalling herself. "What is it now, good Sister?"
"There is a person to see you. He is in the Sisters' chapel." Seur Philomine waited to give Seur Aungelique escort, for Mere Leonie had given orders that Seur Aungelique was to go nowhere unaccompanied unless stripped first.
"Very well. I am coming." Seur Aungelique's head swam as she got from her knees to her feet, and she steadied herself against the wall before going the few steps toward the door. It was difficult for her to acknowledge the presence of Seur Philomine when the door opened, since it divided her already scattered thoughts.
"Your guest has come far to speak with you," Seur Philomine said pleasantly as she fell into step beside Seur Aungelique. "Mere Leonie would not ordinarily allow this opportunity."
"Wouldn't she?" Seur Aungelique asked vaguely. "Is she afraid that I will run away again? I don't think I could. She'd make me go naked, wouldn't she? How could I do that?" Her eyes moved uncertainly from Seur Philomine to the corridor walls, now freshly whitewashed.
"Surely..." Seur Philomine began, then faltered, recalling the severity of the Superior's attitude toward Seur Aungelique's transgression. "In time, when it is readily apparent to all that you have repented your sins, you will have the same ease of commerce we all have under Mere Leonie." Since she had heard Mere Leonie make just such a promise, she was confident in repeating it.
"For that, God will forgive you, ma Seur, because you do not deceive with malice," Seur Aungelique said in sing-song tones. "This is to be my oubliette; my father and the Superior have determined upon it."
This accusation shocked Seur Philomine deeply. "You are not yourself, Seur Aungelique, and have endured much, and so I will not listen to what you say. Your vigils and fasting have brought about this fancy, and in time you will see that you ... " - she reached the door of the chapel and stood aside respectfully - "Do not fear, Seur Aungelique."
She could not remember the proper response to give Seur Philomine, but it hardly mattered. She caught sight of Pierre Fornault standing near the altar, his head lowered in thought. It was the stance that she felt was most characteristic of him, and seeing it, she held back, dizziness fingering her. It was an effort for her to speak aloud, for fear that he would vanish and another, quite ordinary, person take his place.
In the door, Seur Philomine saw Seur Aungelique's confusion. "Here is your kinswoman, Sieur le Duc," she announced before leaving the two alone.
Pierre had turned at the words, and stood, arms folded belligerently, brow creased. "God futter the Saints!" he ejaculated at the sight of Seur Aungelique. "What has happened to you?"
"Good cousin?" Seur Aungelique said with sudden joy. "Have you really come for me?" If it were true and not just another wondrous dream, she thought that her trials since her return to the convent were well paid.
"By Marie's Tits." He came toward her with urgent, angry steps. "What has happened to you, little bee? You look ready for your winding sheet." He grabbed her by the shoulders, pressing his fingers hard against her, making her wince as he scrutinized her face.
The dream was muddled in her mind and Seur Aungelique shook her head to protest his roughness. "You must be gentle ... good cousin," she said, suddenly unable to catch her breath.
"Are you ill?" Pierre shouted. It was bad enough that he had to speak to this girl - it always disquieted him. To find her in this state made it worse. He did not want to have to tell her father that she was near death. "Aungelique, are you ... what is wrong?" She was dressed in her engulfing habit and so there was no way he could determine if the dreaded Tokens were on her. She did not have the bright warning flags in her cheeks that revealed fever. "You're ... dazed."
"Am I?" She brought up on unsteady hand. "Release me, good cousin, I pray you."
Pierre realized that he was not handling her well. His large, calloused hands dropped to his side. "Forgive me, good Sister. Long acquaintance caused me to forget your vows from my ... concern." He took two deliberate steps back from her. "Your Superior did not tell me ... you were not quite ... yourself." Already he was seething, forming his interview with Mere Leonie in his mind.
"There is no reason she should. Is there?" Now that he no longer touched her, Seur Aungelique longed to provoke him, to find the secret words that would bring her into his arms. "I have had penance to do. I pray and I fast, so that temptation will not come to me again."
"Nom du Nom!" Pierre growled. "Why? I've had prisoners in my dungeons who have been less..." He saw too late that there were tears in her eyes. "Forgive my clumsiness, Seur Aungelique. If your soul has been in peril and this has saved it, no doubt it was little enough to - "
"I haven't repented," Seur Aungelique said in a small voice. "I try, but ... I would do it again. I would run away to Un Noveautie and live there, if I could."
Pierre smacked one fist into his other hand. "Aungelique, what now? You were the one who told your father to send you here, and now you are here, you disobey and bring shame to your House. Why? What purpose?"
Seur Aungelique looked around her in confusion. She had not meant to speak aloud. Her thoughts had provoked him; she should not have spoken. "I didn't want to come here," she reminded him, looking at a spot on the empty wall. "My father made me choose."
"By God, Aungelique!" Pierre rounded on her, fearing that her wits had turned.
"I was told I would have to marry Jeoffroi, or wear the veil. You have seen Jeoffroi. You know what he is. I refused him. Anyone would refuse him, wouldn't she? He is old and drunken and stinking and keeps that hunchback woman for his pleasure. I ... couldn't. I don't want him." She crossed herself in case anything she said might be thought blasphemous.
"Aungelique, your father did not arrange that match from caprice." He explained it patiently. "Jeoffroi is not the most delightful bridegroom, but he is very noble and powerful and his estates are enormous and prosperous. If the Plague had not claimed so many, there could have been another for you, but your father had few choices that did not disgrace our name." It was the most sensible argument he could offer, and though he knew Aungelique had heard it many times before, he repeated it as if it were new.
"It need not be Jeoffroi. I would have accepted another." She folded her arms, some of her old stubbornness returning to her. This was not what she had longed for, and she would not have her dream perverted.
"There is no one else!" Pierre bellowed.
"There was you!" she shouted back at him.
Pierre sagged as if from a blow. "Aungelique ... Don't."
"There was!" she insisted, color coming at last to her waxen face.
"The Church forbade such a match." His voice was very quiet now.
"That was before the Plague. There are others, many others, who have had dispensations since. Why not you? Why should you not wed me instead of Jeoffroi?" At last she looked at him squarely.
He shook his head. "Aungelique, you aren't well ... You aren't aware of all the difficulties that..." He fell silent.
"I know that you have said that you do not want me." She reminded him with defiance, but her heart was leaden as she said it.
This was one of the possibilities that Pierre had dreaded when he agreed to bring Michau's message to Aungelique. "It isn't possible, Aungelique. Dispensations are granted to those where only one or two sons have survived the Plague. I have three brothers. You have two brothers. There are no grounds for dispensations. Your father ... It is not in his hands." He rubbed the stubble on his face. "If there is war, and more deaths, then in time your father might wish to try again, but it would mean that there were more losses. Why not forget this and accept your father's will? Other girls do. My sisters all married without a trace of regret and the husbands they received were men my father - "
Seur Aungelique could stand this no longer. "They were not Jeoffroi, those men. They did not have bastards and mistresses in every village for ten leagues in every direction. They said that Jeoffroi has Venus' lice, and I would expect it."
"Half the nobility in France have Venus' lice!" Pierre yelled at her, grateful that he was not one of them. "How many nuns have no lice on their bodies?"
"But not Venus' lice," Seur Aungelique insisted, starting to pout. Her head was sore and she very much wanted to lie down. She would rather dream of Pierre than talk with him at the moment. Her dreams were pleasant and this was not.
"And that has nothing to do with it," Pierre grumbled. "Jeoffroi is not why I am here." He paced down the chapel. "Your father has ... he has received proposal of another match."
"Another match?" Seur Aungelique repeated stupidly. Nothing made sense to here as she spoke to Pierre.
"It was brought to him a month ago and he has given it his consideration. I have been deputized to bring you word of it. You must give me your promise that you will not dismiss the opportunity out of hand."
"And my sisters? Were they not offered for? They are not in convents. Or has that changed in the last year?" She wished she were stronger so that she could give her remarks the force she felt inside herself.
"I ... don't know." It was a lie and they both knew it. "Your father has been informed of your ... time with Comtesse Orienne, and rather than compel you to live here without true vocation, he has..." It had sounded simpler when Michau had explained it to him, and Pierre knew he was discharging his obligation badly. "Your sister Jeuell is not ... marriageable, and Tereson is already promised."
"Not marriageable?" Seur Aungelique demanded. "How is that?"
This was not a thing Pierre wanted to discuss. "She suffered an injury. It doesn't matter, in any case, because..." As soon as he spoke, he knew he had bungled it.
"What accident. Why have I not been told? What happened to her to make her unmarriageable?"
"Ask your father!" he shouted. "There is an offer of marriage for you. It comes from a man of good family and fair reputation, who has honor enough to satisfy the Church and your father. Le Roi has tendered permission if you will accept."
Seur Aungelique was beginning to sweat, and the room felt too close. "Good cousin, I do not know ... My mind is not ... Why did my father send you? Why you? Why not anyone else in the world but you? Pierre?" She started toward him, then fell to his knees.
For the first time, he felt intense personal distress at the sight of her. It was imprudent to aid her, but that did not matter to him. He came to her, dropping onto one knee to steady her, holding her against his chest so that the line of her coif was against his face. "I asked that another be sent to you. Your father thought you might listen to me more willingly than another. He is - " He could feel how slight she was through her shapeless habit and it cut at him. "You must give me your word that you will consider the marriage. At least that."
"Or I will have to stay here, is that correct?" She let her head rest on his shoulder. This was more like the dream she had of him, more what she had hoped for as comfort; it was not enough. "You desire me, don't you?"
"Yes, I desire you," he answered quite calmly. "I desire women with fire in them, and you, Aungelique, little cousin, are a torch. I desire you. And I desire others. God made me lusty." There was little tenderness in his nature, but he had a kind of rough sympathy for Aungelique that moved him now. "Be a good, sensible woman for once in your life, sweet cousin. Listen to your father and accept his wishes. Do not forever be at crossed swords with him."
"Why isn't Jeuell marriageable? Why does my father want me to accept the offer? Who is this bridegroom that you have told me nothing of? Why now?" They were questions that burned in her, yet she did not truly wish to ask them. The closeness she longed for with Pierre would be blighted if he answered.
He wanted to shake her, and then he almost laughed, knowing that what he most desired was to ravish her, make a proper woman of her at last as she had wanted him to do since her first blood came. "That is for your father to tell you."
"Then it is someone dreadful, isn't it?" Her voice was dull, almost hard, and the tears that had made her eyes shine were gone. The dreams she so loved receded in her mind. "And this bridegroom is far away? In the mountains? A swamp? Is that what my father hopes for, an opportunity to have grandchildren and still immure me as much as I am now?"
"Aungelique. Seur Aungelique - " He dropped his hands from her shoulders. "Tell me what message I am to carry back to your father. Are you willing to entertain the suit, or do you wish to stay here?"
Seur Aungelique looked up at his and laughed miserably. "Stay here? What do you think? Would you stay here, given the choice? I would rather ... No, I will not say that for fear my father will have word of it and wish it upon me." She crossed herself out of habit. "I wish to know who the bridegroom is and what it is that my father thinks to gain. If I had that ... I will let him know. But Pierre, for the love of anything you love, don't you bring the message next time, or in despair I might..." She looked away from him as he got to his feet. "My mind is not quite ... clear. I do not sleep much, these nights, for penance, and..."
"And what?" Pierre demanded, knowing that he could not trust himself to stay too near her. "You have been chastised for good reason, little cousin, if what I've been told is true. What possessed you to run away and bring shame on your father and on your Order?" He clapped his hands on his hips. "When I learned of it..."
"From Orienne?" Aungelique asked when he did not go on.
"Yes, from Orienne. She sent me word that you had come. I wanted to ride there myself and bring you back to your father across my saddle. This world does not forget such mischances, cousin, and you ... That your father has decided to find you a husband once again tells you how restrained he is. Another man might have ordered you kept here in your cell or banished you to the remotest keep in Normandy with spinsters and invert soldiers to guard you. Thank God for the Plague that makes daughters valuable, Aungelique, or you would have more to regret than you already do." He was surprised at how much anger he could feel toward the pitiful girl, and could not deny the desire that rode with it.
"Have you said all that you must, or is there more?" Seur Aungelique asked coldly. Her body ached, her eyes burned in her head as if infected, her hands felt as if each joint had been broken. She wanted to throw herself on Pierre and gouge a second scar in his face, anything to give back in part some of the pain he had forced upon her.
"I have ... only your father's wish that you consider the offer and think of your life, Aungelique. He will abide by your decision, he gives his word on that, but he warns you" - this was the part that Pierre despised, that was against every honorable impulse he had - "that if you do not accept this proposed marriage, he will presume it is your preference to live cloistered and chaste." He had warned Michau that Aungelique would not meekly submit to such strictures, but her father had dismissed Pierre's doubts with hardly a chuckle, claiming that a few years in a convent would bring any woman around to a more reasonable attitude toward her suitors. Now Pierre knew that this first feeling had been right and that Aungelique would continue to resist every imposition her father subjected her to.
"I have no inclination to marry a man I know nothing of and have never met. I also do not want to be a nun. I have no vocation. I beg my father," she said through teeth gone tight with fury, "to permit me to go to a worthy court and serve there as a waiting woman. I will not burden him with my support, for that would fall to my mistress. I will not require that he leave me dowered or provisioned beyond what the Church demands of him. Tell him for me, Pierre, that I am not disposed to surrender my - " She pressed her hands to her mouth for fear that she would be sick.
Pierre came nearer to her, aggravated and worried. It was like Aungelique to put him in such a coil. "I will tell him. I will advise him to release you so that you may go to a suitable court. I will do that, Aungelique. I will try to persuade him on your behalf. I will tell him the depth of your conviction, if I can. He may not listen to me; I don't know if it's possible for him."
"I must thank you for that, I suppose," she said as she got to her feet. Once again she strove to keep the dizziness from overwhelming her. "I should return to my cell, good cousin, since you have now delivered my father's message and I have given my reply." She bowed to him, not quite formally, and went toward the door, doing her best to ignore the darkness that hovered around the edges of her vision.
Pierre watched her go, wishing that he could follow her and explain how it had come about that he was charged with so unpleasant a task, to make Aungelique understand the he was not eager to see her and remind her of past disappointments. Underneath these excellent impulses there was something darker, a need to convince her that he had made no error, no matter how much force it took. If she had been one of his squires, he would have taken her by the arm and so twisted it that she bent in half to submit to his will. These contradictory urges held him where he stood, uncertain and outraged at his helplessness. Then he recalled that he had said he would speak to Mere Leonie when he had seen Seur Aungelique. Slowly he went out of the stark chapel.
* * * *
Mere Leonie listened to everything Pierre told her with her face wholly without emotion. Her eyes remained fixed on Pierre, pale and cool as the grey habit she wore.
Pierre shrugged as he finished his report. "I do not know what more I may do, Mere Leonie." He shrugged and shifted on the bench she had provided for him.
"Seur Aungelique said that she had no vocation?" Mere Leonie asked. "Even now, she says that?"
"Yes. And I believe her." This addition was spoken more firmly, more like the capable leader he was.
"Do you suppose her father would agree to send her to court? It is not my wish to have nuns here who are not devoted to their calling." She tapped her long, thin hands together with worldly impatience.
"I am truly sorry, ma Mere, that circumstances have brought us all to this pass." He did not know if he should say more, for fear of overstepping the proper bounds more than he had done already. "I have no say in the matter, unfortunately, or I would see Aungelique wherever she wished to go."
Mere Leonie gave him a look that hinted at a smile. "Would that include taking her to Comtesse Orienne de Hautlimois at Un Noveautie?"
This challenge startled Pierre. "It is not in my hands, ma Mere, no matter what my cousin wants."
"Ah. I see." She nodded once. "And you know la Comtesse?"
"I have met her," Pierre answered, continuing to evade her.
"And what do you think of her? Does she live as you wish to see your cousin live? Well?" Her fingers tapped together again, and Pierre had the uncomfortable feeling that Mere Leonie was taunting him.
"It would not be to the honor of my family if I consented to that," he replied.
"But you. What would you want, Sieur le Duc? Are you so wholly disinterested as you claim, or is there another reason for your compliance in Seur Aungelique's desires?"
"I..." This line of inquiry was vexing him. "My confessor will know of it, if my thoughts are corrupt."
"Certainly," Mere Leonie agreed. "But I must ask, mustn't I? For it may be that your presence recalls old doubts that you play upon, and thus you turn Seur Aungelique from her life here to that sink of perdition that Comtesse Orienne wallows in." Her fixed stare grew more intense. "I must ask, mustn't I?"
"If you perceive your duty that way," Pierre responded shortly. "It is not for me to judge you, ma Mere. Nor you me."
Mere Leonie smoothed the front of her habit, pressing the rough fabric so that some of the lines of her tall body were revealed. "Seur Aungelique's confessor will know of your visit."
"That is fitting." Pierre wanted to look away from her, but that would mean a surrender he had no intention of awarding her. "Is there any word you wish me to carry to le Baron d'Ybert?"
"Only my promise that I will continue to watch over his daughter to the best of my capacity." She stood and turned, letting the shapeless garment swing around her. "I will think over what you have said, Sieur le Duc. No doubt le Bon Dieu will guide my thoughts and bring me wisdom to deal with your cousin."
Pierre was not entirely satisfied with this remark and his pride was smarting from Mere Leonie's high-handed attitude. "It may be that you will find Seur Aungelique is not truly suited to be a nun. If that should be the case, send word to me and I will see that she is spared further ... discomfort."
"Discomfort? Do you think she is not comfortable here?" Mere Leonie did not sound angry so much as teasing.
"Look at her!" Pierre demanded. "She's half-starved and dazed for need of sleep. How would you describe her, then?"
With a sidelong glance, Mere Leonie at last released him from the magnet of her eyes. "But then, there are so many kinds of comfort, aren't there? And not all of them come with soft beds and full bellies. Do they?"
* * * *
The messenger who came in the last dapplings of a spring shower wore the tabard of Avignon and carried a staff topped with the device of the Pope. He drew up his horse before the gates of Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion and called out as custom required, but his voice was husky from other such announcements and it took him several attempts to be heard at all, even by the warder Sister who waited at the grilled window.
"Those true and faithful to the teachings of Christ and His Church, give your attention to the will of your one true Pope, descendant of Saunt Pierre and reigning in glory at Avignon as Clement VII. This is the word of the Pope, repeated faithfully on pain of Hell."
Seur Catant was watching the doors that day, and she heard the messenger with a shock. Until she noticed the man, her mind had been taken up with her various worries stemming from slights and insults that occurred all too often to suit her. She shook herself and came to the grille. "Good traveler, may God be with you."
"And with your soul," said the messenger as he rode closer to the grille. "Your pardon, good Sister, but my voice is failing. Will you give me entrance so that I may speak to your Superior and your Sisters?"
Seur Catant was entranced by the sight of the messenger's tabard and staff. Any objection she might have voiced was lost in her awe of him. "Naturally. At once. It pains me to say that most of the Sisters are working in the fields just now, and there are few present to receive you."
"Just as well. I should find your Superior first." It was not proper for him to dismount until he had entered the courtyard of the convent, but he ignored this and came out of the saddle with a sigh.
"Good Herald," Seur Catant admonished him as she watched through the grille. "I'm surprised that you so much forget yourself."
The messenger had been on the road for three days and had become adept at excuses. "You must forgive me, but my horse suffers from saddle sores and I do not wish to injure him more. The Papal Court does not look with favor on those who misuse their animals." It was a facile lie, one that came easily to his lips, so minor that he doubted he would bother to confess it when he returned to Avignon.
"Oh," Seur Catant said, chastened. "I will open the doors for you, but you must remain in the courtyard until I can find the Superior."
"Yes," the messenger agreed promptly. "I will be pleased to do that." He welcomed the rest, but knew better than to admit it.
"Very well." Seur Catant went to open the doors, then stood aside for the messenger to lead his horse in. She wished now that there had been more nuns about to see this triumph, but consoled herself with the thought that she would be able to tell of the messenger's arrival for several days.
"You were going to fetch your Superior, good Sister?" the messenger prompted her gently.
"Yes. At once. At once." She gathered up the skirts of her habit and scurried away toward the nuns' quarters, breaking almost into a run once she was indoors.
The messenger would have been pleased to have more time than allowed, but very soon he saw one of the inner doors open and the tall figure of Mere Leonie approaching with six other nuns in her wake.
"God be with you, ma Mere," he growled, trying to raise his voice to a more acceptable level.
"And with your soul. Seur Catant tells me you have word from the Holy Father." She looked imposing, though her garments were as plain as the other nuns'. She crossed herself and gave her attention to the messenger. "Be pleased to inform me of the Pope's wishes."
"This is more properly done in chapel." He was not sure how to proceed with this young woman, but he knew his authority was not as great as hers within the walls of the convent. "If you prefer ... I'll read." He reached inside his tabard for the folded parchment he carried.
"I think of your voice, good Herald," Mere Leonie said quickly. "We will provide you with a soothing draught and a meal as soon as you have finished. I pray you will read to us all." She folded her hands in front of her, setting an example for the nuns.
"As you wish." The messenger capitulated as he opened the parchment and began to read. "'We, Pope Clement VII, reigning in the Name of Christ for the Glory of God, charge those who keep to the True Church and True Succession to give their aid to their beleaguered faith. It has come to Our attention that agents of the perfidious Roman impostor have been found among us, seeking to subvert the devotion of those who adhere to the Rites of Avignon. Often have we been warned of the evil that goes through the world seeking to devour the souls of those who are among those blessed by the One Catholic Church and given to Salvation by the Blood of the Lamb. Truly have we been warned of the evil that strikes at home as well as the evil that strikes from afar. Already we are sorely pressed, tested in ways that try our courage and our souls.
";'Be not suborned by these agents of Satan, for they are no less than that in their desire to supplant Salvation with Damnation and lure our flock to follow the teachings of their anti-Christ whom they exalt as Pope in Rome. To say that this fall is terrible is to minimize the crime it commits, for you, Our children are not heathen, ignorant of Salvation, but baptized Christians who have been taught to love and fear the Word and Will of God.
";'If you fall, you fall twice, and surely your Damnation is the more appalling, for you deny all that God has given you in His Mercy. It is the desire of the Devil to bring the world into his snares so that all will be subjected to his rule. Those who are tormented by doubts are tormented by the Devil, and those doubts, engendered by others or by your errant body, are the very essence of Satan and his demons. Let none of you question this, for to do so is the gravest sin. Rather than become allies of these pernicious forces, immure yourselves in sacred walls and end your lives in prayer.
";'The Devil is everywhere and his minions are going through the land in every disguise, from humble priest to ravening brigand, from simple child to godless soldier. Be vigilant so that this evil';" - the messenger, who had been growing steadily hoarser, paused to cough and clear his throat - ";'may be defeated and your souls, each so precious to Our Savior, may grace His Throne at the Last Judgment that will surely come, where each will answer for his life to the Holy Spirit.' It is signed and fixed with the seal and cipher of the Pope." He folded the parchment, taking care to crease it along already established lines. "I am charged to ask if there have been strangers here attempting to win your support and aid for Rome." He coughed again, and looked about with a dismal expression.
"Seur Ranegonde," Mere Leonie said sharply, "take the messenger and see that he is given food and medication. Seur Adalin, take his horse to the stable. The rest of you come with me to the chapel."
Her orders brought about a flurry of activity, and the messenger was hurried off to the relief he sought while Mere Leonie hastened to the chapel.
* * * *
Seur Philomine bowed her head to the messenger and spoke in a quiet voice. "I have listened to what you have said," she began, "both in repeating the words of the Pope, and in your admonition this morning after Matins. I believe that you speak with sincerity and conviction that comes from great faith. But I am only a tertiary Sister, and it is not appropriate for me to turn myself from doubts."
The messenger glared at her. "You leave by a crack in your faith and the Devil will enter." He did not want to listen to this young nun, or concern himself with what he feared were the trivial questions of an inexperienced woman.
"But might not the cessation of all questions be a sign that the Devil has triumphed, and not God? Isn't it possible that the Devil is as certain as God? Isn't it?" She turned away from him. "I do not have a true vocation, so I do not know what it is to have the love of God pervade my soul; my love is bound to this world and to the love of one ... man. I cannot, in good faith, turn my heart elsewhere, not and do so in truth."
The messenger shook his head. "That is for your confessor and Superior to consider." He wanted to be away from Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion before the day was much older, and he resented being held up in the stable this way. "For your goodness, Sister - "
Seur Philomine stepped back. "I did not mean to intrude. I wished only to know what the Holy Father has said in cases such as mine. If he has said nothing, well, then I must resign myself to doubts and ... all the guidance of the Saints." She crossed herself. "May God speed you, good Herald."
"And guide you, good Sister," he answered automatically as he mounted. "I will return in two months to bring further word from His Holiness." He let the horse walk into the sunlight, frowning at the brightness. His eyes would be sore long before he reached Saunt-Elizair.
Seur Philomine watched the messenger ride away, her eyes shielded by her hand. She was not content, and nothing that had been said to her had resolved the trouble that made her restless and worried. She looked toward the orchard and saw the distant figure of Seur Marguerite bustling among the hives, for all the world like a cook tending her oven, and for a moment Seur Philomine envied her the gentle madness that possessed her. Seur Marguerite had no doubts to contend with now; they had all been driven away by her altered wits. Sighing, she went back into the stable and took down the rake so that she could muck out the stall the messenger's horse had occupied the night before.
P/S: Copyright -->www_novelfreereadonline_Com