Characters tend to be either for or against the quest. If they assist it, they are idealized as simply gallant or pure; if they obstruct it, they are characterized as simply villainous or cowardly. Hence every typical character . . . tends to have his moral opposite confronting him, like black and white pieces in a chess game.
—Anatomy of Criticism
Montglane Abbey, France Spring 1790
A FLOCK OF NUNS CROSSED THE ROAD, THEIR CRISP WIMPLES fluttering about their heads like the wings of large sea birds. As they floated through the large stone gates of the town, chickens and geese scurried out of their path, flapping and splashing through the mud puddles. The nuns moved through the darkening mist that enveloped the valley each morning and, in silent pairs, headed toward the sound of the deep bell that rang out from the hills above them.
They called that spring le Printemps Sanglant, the Bloody Spring. The cherry trees had bloomed early that year, long before the snows had melted from the high mountain peaks. Their fragile branches bent down to earth with the weight of the wet red blossoms. Some said it was a good omen that they had bloomed so soon, a symbol of rebirth after the long and brutal winter. But then the cold rains had come and frozen the blossoms on the bough, leaving the valley buried thick in red blossoms stained with brown streaks of frost. Like a wound congealed with dried blood. And this was said to be another kind of sign.
High above the valley, the Abbey of Montglane rose like an enormous outcropping of rock from the crest of the mountain. The fortresslike structure had remained un- touched by the outside world for nearly a thousand years. It was constructed of six or seven layers of wall built one on top of the other. As the original stones eroded over the centuries, new walls were laid outside of old ones, with flying buttresses. The result was a brooding architectural melange whose very appearance fed the rumors about the place. The abbey was the oldest church structure standing intact in France, and it bore an ancient curse that was soon to be reawakened.
As the dark-throated bell rang out across the valley, the remaining nuns looked up from their labors one by one, put aside their rakes and hoes, and passed down through the long, symmetrical rows of cherry trees to climb the precipitous road to the abbey.
At the end of the long procession, the two young novices Valentine and Mireille trailed arm in arm, picking their way with muddy boots. They made an odd complement to the orderly line of nuns. The tall red-haired Mireille with her long legs and broad shoulders looked more like a healthy farm girl than a nun. She wore a heavy butcher’s apron over her habit, and red curls strayed from beneath her wimple. Beside her Valentine seemed fragile, though she was nearly as tall. Her pale skin seemed translucent, its fairness accentuated by the cascade of white-blond hair that tumbled about her shoulders. She had stuffed her wimple into the pocket of her habit, and she walked reluctantly beside Mireille, kicking her boots in the mud.
The two young women, the youngest nuns at the abbey, were cousins on their mothers’ side, both orphaned at an early age by a dreadful plague that had ravaged France. The aging Count de Remy, Valentine’s grandfather, had commended them into the hands of the Church, upon his death leaving the sizable balance of his estate to ensure their care.
The circumstance of their upbringing had formed an inseparable bond between the two, who were both bursting with the unrestrained abundant gaiety of youth. The abbess often heard the older nuns complain that this behavior was unbecoming to the cloistered life, but she understood that it was better to curb youthful spirits than to try to quench them.
Then, too, the abbess felt a certain partiality to the orphaned cousins, a feeling unusual both to her personality and her station. The older nuns would have been surprised to learn that the abbess herself had sustained from early childhood such a bosom friendship, with a woman who had been separated from her by many years and many thousands of miles.
Now, on the steep trail, Mireille was tucking some unruly wisps of red hair back under her wimple and tugging her cousin’s arm as she tried to lecture her on the sins of tardiness.
“If you keep on dawdling, the Reverend Mother will give us a penance again,” she said.
Valentine broke loose and twirled around in a circle. “The earth is drowning in spring,” she cried, swinging her arms about and nearly toppling over the edge of the cliff. Mireille hauled her up along the treacherous incline. “Why must we be shut up in that stuffy abbey when everything out-of-doors is bursting with life?”
“Because we are nuns,” said Mireille with pursed lips, stepping up her pace, her hand firmly on Valentine’s arm. “And it is our duty to pray for mankind.” But the warm mist rising from the valley floor brought with it a fragrance so heavy that it saturated everything with the aroma of cherry blossoms. Mireille tried not to notice the stirrings this caused in her own body.
“We are not nuns yet, thank God,” said Valentine. “We are only novices until we have taken our vows. It’s not too late to be saved. I’ve heard the older nuns whispering that there are soldiers roaming about in France, looting all the monasteries of their treasures, rounding up the priests and marching them off to Paris. Perhaps some soldiers will come here and march me off to Paris, too. And take me to the opera each night, and drink champagne from my shoe!”
“Soldiers are not always so very charming as you seem to think,” observed Mireille. “After all, their business is killing people, not taking them to the opera.”
“That’s not all they do,” said Valentine, her voice dropping to a mysterious whisper. They had reached the top of the hill, the where the road flattened out and widened considerably. Here it was cobbled with flat paving stones and resembled the broad thoroughfares one found in larger towns. On either side of the road, huge cypresses had been planted. Rising above the sea of cherry orchards, they looked formal and forbidding and, like the abbey itself, strangely out of place.
“I have heard,” Valentine whispered in her cousin’s ear, “that the soldiers do dreadful things to nuns! If a soldier should come upon a nun, in the woods, for example, he immediately takes a thing out of his pants and he puts it into the nun and stirs it about. And then when he has finished, the nun has a baby!”
“What blasphemy!” cried Mireille, pulling away from Valentine and trying to suppress the smile hovering about her lips. “You are entirely too saucy to be a nun, I think.”
“Exactly what I have been saying all along,” Valentine admitted. “I would far rather be the bride of a soldier than a bride of Christ.”
As the two cousins approached the abbey, they could see the four double rows of cypresses planted at each entrance to form the sign of the crucifix. The trees closed in about them as they scurried along through the blackening mist. They passed through the abbey gates and crossed the large courtyard. As they approached the high wooden doors to the main enclave, the bell continued to ring, like a death knell cutting through the thick mist.
Each paused before the doors to scrape mud from her boots, crossed herself quickly, and passed through the high portal. Neither glanced up at the inscription carved in crude Frankish letters in the stone arch over the portal, but each knew what it said, as if the words were engraved upon her heart:
Cursed be He who bring these Walls to Earth.
The King is checked by the Hand of God alone.
Beneath the inscription the name was carved in large block letters, “Carolus Magnus.” He it was who was architect both of the building and the curse placed upon those who would destroy it. The greatest ruler of the Frankish Empire over a thousand years earlier, he was known to all in France as Charlemagne.
THE INTERIOR WALLS OF THE ABBEY WERE DARK, COLD, AND wet with moss. From the inner sanctum one could hear the whispered voices of the novitiates praying and the soft clicking of their rosaries counting off the Ayes, Glorias, and Pater Nosters. Valentine and Mireille hurried through the chapel as the last of the novices were genuflecting and followed the trail of whispers to the small door behind the altar where the reverend mother’s study was located. An older nun was hastily shooing the last of the stragglers inside. Valentine and Mireille glanced at each other and passed within.
It was strange to be called to the abbess’s study in this manner. Few nuns had ever been there at all, and then usually for disciplinary action. Valentine, who was always being disciplined, had been there often enough. But the abbey bell was used to convene all the nuns. Surely they could not all be called at once to the reverend mother’s study?
As they entered the large, low-ceilinged room, Valentine and Mireille saw that all the nuns in the abbey were indeed there—more than fifty of them. Seated on rows of hard wooden benches that had been set up facing the Abbess’s writing desk, they whispered among themselves. Clearly everyone thought it was a strange circumstance, and the faces that looked up as the two young cousins entered seemed frightened. The cousins took their places in the last row of benches. Valentine clasped Mireille’s hand.
“What does it mean?” she whispered.
“It bodes ill, I think,” replied Mireille, also in a whisper. “The reverend mother looks grave. And there are two women here whom I have never seen.”
At the end of the long room, behind a massive desk of polished cherry wood, stood the abbess, wrinkled and leathery as an old parchment, but still exuding the power of her tremendous office. There was a timeless quality in her bearing that suggested she had long ago made peace with her own soul, but today she looked more serious than the nuns had ever seen her.
Two strangers, both large-boned young women with big hands, loomed at either side of her like avenging angels. One had pale skin, dark hair, and luminous eyes, while the other bore a strong resemblance to Mireille, with a creamy complexion and chestnut hair only slightly darker than Mireille’s auburn locks. Though both had the bearing of nuns, they were not wearing habits, but plain gray traveling clothes of nondescript nature.
The abbess waited until all the nuns were seated and the door had been closed. When the room was completely silent she began to speak in the voice that always reminded Valentine of a dry leaf being crumbled.
“My daughters,” said the abbess, folding her hands before her, “for nearly one thousand years the Order of Montglane has stood upon this rock, doing our duty to mankind and serving God. Though we are cloistered from the world, we hear the rumblings of the world’s unrest. Here in our small corner, we have received unfortunate tidings of late that may change the security we’ve enjoyed so long. The two women who stand beside me are bearers of those tidings. I introduce Sister Alexandrine de Forbin”—she motioned to the dark haired woman—”and Marie-Charlotte de Corday, who together direct the Abbaye-aux-Dames at Caen in the northern provinces. They have traveled the length of France in disguise, an arduous journey, to bring us a warning. I therefore bid you hark unto what they have to say. It is of the gravest importance to us all.”
The abbess took her seat, and the woman who had been introduced as Alexandrine de Forbin cleared her throat and spoke in a low voice so that the nuns had to strain to hear her. But her words were clear.
“My sisters in God,” she began, “the tale we have to tell is not for the faint-hearted. There are those among us who came to Christ hoping to save mankind. There are those who came hoping to escape from the world. And there are those who came against their will, feeling no calling whatever.” At this she turned her dark, luminous eyes directly upon Valentine, who blushed to the very roots of her pale blond hair.
“Regardless what you thought your purpose was, it has changed as of today. In our journey, Sister Charlotte and I have passed the length of France, through Paris and each village in between. We have seen not only hunger but starvation. People are rioting in the streets for bread. There is butchery; women carry severed heads on pikes through the streets. There is rape, and worse. Small children are murdered, people are tortured in public squares and torn to pieces by angry mobs . . .” The nuns were no longer quiet. Their voices rose in alarm as Alexandrine continued her bloody account.
Mireille thought it odd that a woman of God could recount such a tale without blanching. Indeed, the speaker had not once altered her low, calm tone, nor had her voice quavered in the telling. Mireille glanced at Valentine, whose eyes were large and round with fascination. Alexandrine de Forbin waited until the room had quieted a bit, then continued.
“It is now April. Last October the king and queen were kidnapped from Versailles by an angry mob and forced to return to the Tuilleries at Paris, where they were imprisoned. The king was made to sign a document, the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man,’ proclaiming the equality of all men. The National Assembly in effect now controls the government; the king is powerless to intervene. Our country is beyond revolution. We are in a state of anarchy. To make matters worse, the assembly has discovered there is no gold in the State Treasury; the king has bankrupted the State. In Paris it is believed that he will not live out the year.”
A shock ran through the rows of seated nuns, and there was agitated whispering throughout the room. Mireille squeezed Valentine’s hand gently as they both stared at the speaker. The women in this room had never heard such thoughts expressed aloud, and they could not conceive such things as real. Torture, anarchy, regicide. How was it possible?
The abbess rapped her hand flat upon the table to call for order, and the nuns fell silent. Now Alexandrine took her seat, and Sister Charlotte stood alone at the table. Her voice was strong and forceful.
“In the assembly there is a man of great evil. He is hungry for power, though he calls himself a member of the clergy. This man is the Bishop of Autun. Within the Church at Rome it is believed he is the Devil incarnate. It is claimed he was born with a cloven hoof, the mark of the Devil, that he drinks the blood of small children to appear young, that he celebrates the Black Mass. In October this bishop proposed to the assembly that the State confiscate all Church property. On November second his Bill of Seizure was defended before the Assembly by the great statesman Mirabeau, and it passed. On February thirteenth the confiscation began. Any clergy who resisted were arrested and jailed. And on February sixteenth, the Bishop of Autun was elected president of the Assembly. Nothing can stop him now.”
The nuns were in a state of extreme agitation, their voices raised in fearful exclamations and protests, but Charlotte’s voice carried above all.
“Long before the Bill of Seizure, the Bishop of Autun had made inquiries into the location of the Church’s wealth in France. Though the bill specifies that priests are to fall first and nuns to be spared, we know the bishop has cast his eye upon Montglane Abbey. It is around Montglane that many of his inquiries have centered. This, we have hastened here to tell you. The treasure of Montglane must not fall into his hands.”
The abbess stood and placed her hand upon the strong shoulder of Charlotte Corday. She looked out over the rows of black-clad nuns, their stiff starched hats moving like a sea thick with wild seagulls beneath her, and she smiled. This was her flock, which she had shepherded for so long and which she might not see again in her lifetime once she had revealed what she now must tell.
“Now you know as much of our situation as I,” said the abbess. “Though I have known for many months of our plight, I did not wish to alarm you until I had chosen a path. In their journey responding to my call, our sisters from Caen have confirmed my worst fears.” The nuns had now fallen into a silence like the hush of death. Not a sound could be heard but the voice of the abbess.
“I am an old woman who will perhaps be called to God sooner than she imagines. The vows I took when I entered the service of this convent were not only vows to Christ. Nearly forty years ago upon becoming Abbess of Montglane, I vowed to keep a secret, to preserve it with my life if necessary. Now the time has come for me to keep that vow. But in doing so, I must share some of the secret with each of you and vow you to secrecy in return. My story is long, and you must have patience if I am slow in telling. When I have finished, you will know why each of us must do what must be done.”
The abbess paused to take a sip of water from a silver chalice that sat before her on the table. Then she resumed.
“Today is the fourth day of April, Anno Domini 1790. My story begins on another fourth of April many years ago. The tale was told me by my predecessor, as it was told by each abbess to her successor on the event of her initiation, for as many years as this abbey has stood. And now I tell it to you. . . .”
The Abbess’s Tale
On the fourth of April in the year 782, a wondrous festival was held at the Oriental Palace at Aachen to honor the fortieth birthday of the great King Charlemagne. He had called forth all the nobles of his empire. The central court with its mosaic dome and tiered circular staircases and balconies was filled with imported palms and festooned with flower garlands. Harps and lutes were played in the large halls amid gold and silver lanterns. The courtiers, decked in purple, crimson, and gold, moved through a fairyland of jugglers, jesters, and puppet shows. Wild bears, lions, giraffes, and cages of doves were brought into the courtyard. All was merriment for weeks in anticipation of the king’s birthday.
The pinnacle of the festival was the day itself. On the morning of this day the king arrived in the main courtyard surrounded by his eighteen children, his queen, and his favorite courtiers. Charlemagne was exceedingly tall, with the lean grace of a horseman and swimmer. His skin was tanned, his hair and mustache streaked blond with the sun. He looked every inch the warrior and ruler of the largest kingdom in the world. Dressed in a simple woolen tunic with a close-fitting coat of marten skins and wearing his ever-present sword, he passed through the court greeting each of his subjects and bidding them partake of the lavish refreshments that were placed on groaning boards about the hall.
The king had prepared a special treat for this day. A master of battle strategy, he had a special fondness for one game. Known as the game of war, the game of kings, it was the game of chess. On this, his fortieth birthday, Charlemagne proposed to play against the best chess player in his kingdom, a soldier known as Garin the Frank.
Garin entered the courtyard with blaring trumpets. Acrobats bounced before him, young women strewed palm fronds and rose petals in his path. Garin was a slender, pale young man with serious countenance and gray eyes, a soldier in the western army. He knelt when the king rose to greet him.
The chess service was borne into the great hall on the shoulders of eight black servants dressed in Moorish livery. These men, and the chessboard they carried aloft, had been sent as a gift of Ibn-al-Arabi, the Moslem governor of Barcelona, in thanks for the king’s aid against the Pyrenees Basques four years earlier. It was during retreat from this famous battle, at the Roncesvalles Pass in Navarre, that the king’s beloved soldier Hruoland had been killed, hero of the “Chanson de Roland.” As a result of this unhappy association, the king had never played upon the chess service, nor brought it before his people.
The court marveled at the magnificent chess service as it was set upon a table in the courtyard. Though made by Arabic master craftsmen, the pieces bore traces of their Indian and Persian ancestry. For some believed this game existed in India over four hundred years before the birth of Christ and came into Arabia through Persia during the Arabic conquest of that country in 640 A.D.
The board, wrought entirely of silver and gold, measured a full meter on each side. The pieces of filigreed precious metals were studded with rubies, sapphires, diamonds, and emeralds, uncut but smoothly polished, some the size of quails’ eggs. Flashing and sparkling in the lamplight of the courtyard, they seemed to glow with an inner light that hypnotized the beholder.
The piece called Shah, or King, was fifteen centimeters high and depicted a crowned man riding upon the back of an elephant. The Queen, or Ferz, was seated within a covered sedan chair embroidered with jewels. The Bishops were elephants with saddles encrusted in rare gems; the Knights were wild Arabian steeds. The Rooks, or Castles, were called Rukhkh, the Arabic word for “chariot”; these were large camels with towerlike chairs upon their backs. The pawns, or peons, as we call them now, were humble foot soldiers seven centimeters high with small jewels for eyes and gems flecking the hilts of their swords.
Charlemagne and Garin approached the board from either side. Then the king, raising his hand aloft, spoke words that astounded those of the court who knew him well.
“I propose a wager,” he said in a strange voice. Charles was not a man for wagers. The courtiers glanced at one another uneasily.
“Should my soldier Garin win a game of me, I bestow upon him that portion of my kingdom from Aachen to the Basque Pyrenees and the hand of my eldest daughter in marriage. Should he lose, he will be beheaded in this same courtyard at dawn.”
The court was in commotion. It was known that the king so loved his daughters that he had begged them never to marry during his lifetime.
The king’s dearest friend, the Duke of Burgundy, seized him by the arm and drew him aside. “What manner of wager is this?” he whispered. “You have proposed a wager befitting a sottish barbarian!”
Charles seated himself at the table. He appeared to be in a trancelike state. The duke was mystified. Garin was himself confused. He looked into the duke’s eyes, then without a word took his place at the board, accepting the wager. The pieces were selected, and as luck would have it, Garin chose white, giving him the advantage of the first move. The game began.
Perhaps it was the tension of the situation, but it appeared as the game progressed that the two players moved their pieces with a force and precision that transcended a mere game, as if another, an invisible hand, hovered above the board. At times it even seemed as if the very pieces carried out the moves of their own accord. The players themselves were silent and pale, and the courtiers hovered about them like ghosts.
After nearly one hour of play the Duke of Burgundy observed that the king was acting strangely. His brow was furrowed, and he seemed inattentive and distracted. Garin too was possessed by an unusual restlessness, his movements quick and jerking, his forehead beaded in cold sweat. The eyes of the two men were fixed upon the board as if they could not look away.
Suddenly Charles leaped to his feet with a cry, upsetting the board and knocking all the pieces to the floor. The courtiers pushed back to open the circle. The king had flown into a black and horrible rage, tearing at his hair and beating his chest like a wild beast. Garin and the Duke of Burgundy rushed to his side, but he knocked them away. It required six nobles to restrain the king. When at last he was subdued, he looked about in bewilderment, as if he had just awakened from a long sleep.
“My lord,” said Garin softly, picking up one of the pieces from the floor and handing it to the king, “perhaps we should withdraw from this game. The pieces are all in disarray, and I cannot recall a single move that was made. Sire, I fear this Moorish chess service. I believe it is possessed by an evil force that compelled you to make a wager upon my life.”
Charlemagne, resting upon a chair, put one hand wearily to his forehead but did not speak.
“Garin,” said the Duke of Burgundy cautiously, “you know that the king does not believe in superstitions of this sort, thinking them pagan and barbaric. He has forbidden necromancy and divination at the court—”
Charlemagne interrupted, but his voice was weak as if from strenuous exhaustion. “How can I bring the Christian enlightenment to Europe when soldiers in my own army believe in witchcraft?”
“This magic has been practiced in Arabia and throughout the East from the beginning of time,” Garin replied. “I do not believe in it, nor do I understand it. But”—Garin bent over the king and looked into his eyes—“you felt it, too.”
“I was consumed by the rage of fire,” Charlemagne admitted. “I could not control myself. I felt as one feels upon the morn of battle just as the troops are charging into the fray. I cannot explain it.”
But all things of heaven and of earth have a reason,” said a voice from behind the shoulder of Garin. He turned, and there stood a black Moor, one of the eight who had borne the chess service into the room. The king nodded for the Moor to continue.
“From our Watar, or birthplace, come an ancient people called the Badawi, the ‘dwellers in the desert. ’Among these peoples, the blood wager is considered the most honorable. It is said that only the blood wager will remove the Habb, the black drop in the human heart which the archangel Gabriel removed from the breast of Muhammed. Your Highness has made a blood wager over the board, a wager upon a man’s life, the highest form of justice. Muhammed says, ‘Kingdom endureth with Kufr, infidelity to al-Islam, but Kingdom endureth not with Zulm, which is injustice.”
“A wager of blood is always a wager of evil,” replied Charlemagne. Garin and the Duke of Burgundy looked at the king in surprise, for had he not himself proposed such a wager only an hour before?
“No!” said the Moor stubbornly. “Through the blood wager one can attain Ghutah, the earthly oasis which is Paradise. If one makes such a wager over the board of Shatranj, it is the Shatranj itself that carries out the Sar!”
“Shatranj is the name that the Moors give to the game of chess, my lord,” said Garin.
“And what is ‘Sar’?” asked Charlemagne, rising slowly to his feet. He towered over everyone around him.
“It is revenge,” replied the Moor without expression. He bowed and stepped back from the king.
“We will play again,” the king announced. “This time, there will be no wagers. We play for love of a simple game. There is nothing to these foolish superstitions invented by barbarians and children.” The courtiers began to set up the board again. There were murmurs of relief coursing through the room. Charles turned to the Duke of Burgundy and took his arm.
“Did I really make such a wager?” he said softly.
The duke looked at him in surprise. “Why, yes, my lord,” he said. “Do you not remember it?”
“No,” the king replied sadly.
Charlemagne and Garin sat down to play again. After a remarkable battle, Garin emerged victorious. The king awarded him the property of Montglane in the Bas-Pyrenees and the title of Garin de Montglane. So pleased was the king with Garin’s masterful command of chess that he offered to build him a fortress to protect the territory he had won. After many years, the king sent Garin the special gift of the marvelous chess service upon which they had played their famous game. It was called ever after “the Montglane Service.”
“THAT IS THE STORY OF MONGTLANE ABBEY,” THE ABBESS SAID, concluding her tale. She looked across the sea of silent nuns. “For after many years, when Garin de Montglane lay ill and dying, he bequeathed to the Church his territory of Montglane, the fortress which was to become our abbey, and also the famous chess set called the Montglane Service.”
The abbess paused a moment, as if uncertain whether to proceed. At last she spoke again.
“But Garin had always believed that there was a terrible curse connected with the Montglane Service. Long before it passed into his hands he had heard rumors of evils associated with it. It was said that Charlot, Charlemagne’s own nephew, had been murdered during a game played upon this very board. There were strange stories of bloodshed and violence, even of wars, in which this service had played a part.
“The eight black Moors who had first conveyed the service from Barcelona into Charlemagne’s keeping had begged to accompany the pieces when they passed over to Montglane. And so the king had permitted. Soon Garin learned that mysterious night ceremonies were being conducted within the fortress, rituals in which he felt certain the Moors had been involved. Garin grew to fear his prize as if it were a tool of the Devil. He had the service buried within the fortress, and asked Charlemagne to place a curse upon the wall to guard against its ever being removed. The king behaved as though it were a jest, but he complied with Garin’s wish in his own fashion, and thus we find the inscription over our doors today.”
The abbess stopped and, looking weak and pale, reached for the chair behind her. Alexandrine stood and helped the abbess to her seat.
“And what became of the Montglane Service, Reverend Mother?” asked one of the older nuns who was seated in the front row.
The abbess smiled. “I have told you already that our lives are in great danger if we remain in this abbey. I have told you that the soldiers of France seek to confiscate the treasures of the Church and are, in fact, abroad in that mission even now. I have told you further that a treasure of great value and perhaps great evil was once buried within the walls of this abbey. So it should come as no surprise to you if I reveal that the secret I was sworn to hold in my bosom when first I took this office was the secret of the Montglane Service. It is still buried within the walls and floor of this room, and I alone know the precise location of each piece. It is our mission, my daughters, to remove this tool of evil, to scatter it as far and wide as possible, that it may never again be assembled into the hands of one seeking power. For it contains a force that transcends the law of nature and the understanding of man.
“But even had we time to destroy these pieces or to deface them beyond recognition, I would not choose that path. Something with so great a power may also be used as an instrument of good. That is why I am sworn not only to keep the Montglane Service hidden, but to protect it. Perhaps one day, when history permits it, we shall reassemble the pieces and reveal their dark mystery.”
ALTHOUGH THE ABBESS KNEW THE PRECISE LOCATION OF EACH piece, it required the effort of every nun in the abbey for nearly two weeks before the Montglane Service was exhumed and the pieces cleaned and polished. It required four nuns to lift the board loose from the stone floor. When it had been cleaned, it was found to contain strange symbols that had been cut or embossed into each square. Similar symbols had been carved into the bottom of each chess piece. Also there was a cloth that had been kept in a large metal box. The corners of the box had been sealed with a waxy substance, no doubt to prevent mildew. The cloth was of midnight blue velvet and heavily embroidered with gold thread and jewels in signs that resembled the zodiac. In the center of the cloth were two swirled, snakelike figures twined together to form the number 8. The abbess believed that this cloth had been used to cover the Montglane Service so that it would not be damaged when transported.
Near the end of the second week the abbess told the nuns to prepare themselves for travel. She would instruct each, in private, regarding where she would be sent so that none of the nuns would know the location of the others. This would reduce the risk to each. As the Montglane Service contained fewer pieces than the number of nuns at the abbey, no one but the abbess would know which of the sisters had carried away a portion of the service and which had not.
When Valentine and Mireille were called into the study, the abbess was seated behind her massive writing desk and bade them take a seat opposite her. There on the desk lay the gleaming Montglane Service, partly draped with its embroidered cloth of midnight blue.
The abbess laid aside her pen and looked up. Mireille and Valentine sat hand in hand, waiting nervously.
“Reverend Mother,” Valentine blurted out, “I want you to know that I shall miss you very much now that I am to go away, and I realize that I have been a grievous burden to you. I wish I could have been a better nun and caused you less trouble—”
“Valentine,” said the abbess, smiling as Mireille poked Valentine in the ribs to silence her. “What is it you wish to say? You fear you will be separated from your cousin Mireille—is that what is causing these belated apologies?” Valentine stared in amazement, wondering how the abbess had read her thoughts.
“I shouldn’t be concerned,” continued the abbess. She handed Mireille a sheet of paper across the cherry wood desk. “This is the name and address of the guardian who will be responsible for your care, and beneath it I’ve printed the traveling instructions I have arranged for you both.”
“Both!” cried Valentine, barely able to remain in her seat. “Oh, Reverend Mother, you have fulfilled my fondest wish!”
The abbess laughed. “If I did not send you together, Valentine, I feel certain you would single-handedly find a way to destroy all the plans I’ve carefully arranged, only to remain at your cousin’s side. Besides, I have good reason to send you off together. Listen closely. Each nun at this abbey has been provided for. Those whose families accept them back will be sent to their homes. In some cases I’ve found friends or remote relatives to provide them shelter. If they came to the abbey with dowries, I return these monies to them for their care and safekeeping. If no funds are available, I send the young woman to an abbey of good faith in another country. In all cases, travel and living expenses will be provided to ensure the well-being of my daughters.” The abbess folded her hands and proceeded. “But you are fortunate in several respects, Valentine,” she said. “Your grandfather has left you a generous income, which I earmark for both you and your cousin Mireille. In addition, though you have no family, you have a godfather who has accepted responsibility for you both. I have received written assurance of his willingness to act in your behalf. This brings me to my second point, an issue of grave concern.”
Mireille had glanced at Valentine when the abbess spoke of a godfather, and now she looked down at the paper in her hand, where the abbess had printed in bold letters, “M. Jacques-Louis David, Painter,” with an address beneath it, in Paris. She had not known Valentine had a godfather.
“I realize,” the abbess went on, “when it is learned I’ve closed the abbey, there will be those in France who will be highly displeased. Many of us will be in danger, specifically from men such as the Bishop of Autun, who will wish to know what we have pried from the walls and carried away with us. You see, the traces of our activities cannot completely be covered. There may be women who are sought out and found. It may be necessary for them to flee. Because of this, I have selected eight of us, each of whom will have a piece of the service but who also will serve as collection points where the others may leave behind a piece if they must flee. Or leave directions how to find it. Valentine, you will be one of the eight.”
“I!” said Valentine. She swallowed hard, for her throat had suddenly become very dry. “But Reverend Mother, I am not . . . I do not . . .”
“What you try to say is that you are scarcely a pillar of responsibility,” said the abbess, smiling despite herself. “I am aware of this, and I rely upon your sober cousin to assist me with that problem.” She looked at Mireille, and the latter nodded her assent.
“I have selected the eight not only with regard for their capabilities,” the abbess continued, “but for their strategic placement. Your godfather, M. David, lives in Paris, the heart of the chessboard which is France. As a famous artist, he commands the respect and friendship of the nobility, but he is also a member of the Assembly and is considered by some to be a fervent revolutionary. I believe him to be in a position to protect you both in case of need. And I have paid him amply for your care to provide him a motive to do so.”
The abbess peered across the table at the two young women. “This is not a request, Valentine,” she said sternly. “Your sisters may be in trouble, and you will be in a position to serve them. I have given your name and address to some who have already departed for their homes. You will go to Paris and do as I say. You have fifteen years, enough to know that there are things in life more crucial than the gratification of your immediate wishes.” The abbess spoke harshly, but then her face softened as it always did when she looked at
Valentine. “Besides, Paris is not so bad a place of sentence,” she added.
Valentine smiled back at the abbess. “No, Reverend Mother,” she agreed. “There is the opera, for one thing, and perhaps there will be parties, and the ladies, they say, wear such beautiful gowns—” Mireille punched Valentine in the ribs again. “I mean, I humbly thank the Reverend Mother for placing such faith in her devout servant.” At this, the abbess burst into a merry peal of laughter that belied her years.
“Very well, Valentine. You may both go and pack. You will leave tomorrow at dawn. Don’t be tardy.” Rising, the abbess lifted two heavy pieces from the board and handed them to the novices.
Valentine and Mireille in turn kissed the abbess’s ring and with great care conveyed their rare possessions to the door of the study. As they were about to depart, Mireille turned and spoke for the first time since they had entered the room.
“If I may ask, Reverend Mother,” she said, “where will you be going? We should like to think of you and send good wishes to you wherever you may be.”
“I am departing on a journey that I have longed to take for over forty years,” the abbess replied. “I have a friend whom I’ve not visited since childhood. In those days—you know, at times Valentine reminds me very much of this childhood friend of mine. I remember her as being so vibrant, so full of life. . . .” The abbess paused, and Mireille thought that if such a thing could be said of so stately a person, the abbess looked wistful. “Does your friend live in France, Reverend Mother?” she asked. “No,” replied the abbess. “She lives in Russia.”
THE FOLLOWING MORNING, IN THE DIM GRAY LIGHT, TWO WOMEN dressed in traveling clothes left the Abbey of Montglane and climbed into a wagon filled with hay. The wagon passed through the massive gates and started across the back bowls of the mountains. A light mist rose, obscuring them from view as they passed down into the far valley.
They were frightened and, drawing their capes about themselves, felt thankful that they were on a mission of God as they reentered the world from which they had so long been sheltered.
But it was not God who watched them silently from the mountaintop as the wagon slowly descended into the darkness of the valley floor below. High on a snow-capped peak above the abbey sat a solitary rider astride a pale horse. He watched until the wagon had vanished into the dark mist. Then he turned his horse without a sound and rode away.