Juno Books

An Excerpt From A Mortal Glamour

By Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

[Information on A Mortal Glamour]


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.

"Holá" 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! Holá!"

From a grilled window to the side of the doors came a discreet cough. "God be with you, Frère."

"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 Mère, 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 Mère?" 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.

"No men-at-arms?"

Frère 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 Mère 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 Mère or do we wait here for Père Guibert or Père 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 Mère 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, Frère," the second nun promised him.

"When? Soon?"

"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.

Frère Odo, now full of self-importance, tugged at the corner of one of the draperies that enclosed the wagon to conceal the passenger.

"Mère Léonie," he said in the most imposing way, "we have reached our destination."

"May God bless you as I thank you, Frère 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 Frère 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 Mère 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," Mère Léonie 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 Mère Léonie 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, Mère Léonie," Frère 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 Mère," she said in a carrying voice whose accent, as much as her carriage, revealed a noble background.

Mère Léonie crossed herself. "As I most humbly beseech Him every day." She advanced a few steps, meeting the eyes of her nuns forthrightly.

Frère 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 Mère Léonie--he could hardly blame them for that--and perhaps of him as well. He whistled a hymn tune very quietly through his teeth. "Ma Mère," 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 Mère. Seur Lucille is supervising work, as she said. The almond trees did badly for our last harvest." "It is not important," Mère Léonie 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.

Frère Odo looked up at Mère Léonie's sharp summons. "I need your aid, Frère," 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 Mère Léonie.

"The old refectory is in the far wing," the novice was saying to Mère Léonie as Frère 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?" Mère Léonie 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."

Mère Léonie 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?" Mère Léonie 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. Mère 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?" Mère Léonie 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 Père Guibert says Mass for us twice a week. This chapel is for our own devotions." She stood aside so that Mère Léonie 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 Père Foutin now, and he has the village to attend to. Père Guibert arranged..."

"Very good of him," Mère Léonie said as she left the chapel. "May I know your name, Seur?"

The novice blushed. "Seur Philomine, ma Mère. I've taken only tertiary vows, so that if my family should..." She almost said "relent," but stopped herself in time.

Mère Léonie 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," Mère Léonie 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 difficult "It must be similar for many of the nuns," Mère Léonie 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 Mère, it is not my place to hear these things."

"Forgive me," Mère Léonie said at once, then turned back to motion to Frère 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," Mère Léonie exclaimed. "Take those cases--the one you carry and the one remaining in the wagon--to the study." Groaning a feeble protest, Frère 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," Mère Léonie 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?" Mère Léonie 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, Mère Léonie."

"It was not meant unkindly, ma Seur," Mère Léonie 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 Mère 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 Mère. 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 Mère," 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..."

Mère Léonie 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. Mère 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," Mère Léonie answered thoughtfully. "Yes."

* * *

[Information on A Mortal Glamour]
copyright ©2007 Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, All Rights Reserved

Juno Books
copyright ©2007