After the exertions which have brought me no small honour through France and beyond, I am now blessed to spend my last years at the Abbey of Saint Faith, in shining Conques. Here is where my low and miserable life was early transformed by the mightiest of saints, just as Conques itself was transformed.
What was Conques before the saint? The poorest and narrowest of gullies, a gash in the wide, green Aveyron, ignored by settlement, which sought instead the rich valleys of the Garonne and Lot. One guilt plagued hermit was finally joined by a few others, and a pitiful religious community took root. Who could dream that such a drab hamlet would one day boast this splendid monastery, and that the very Way of Saint James would bend its course, drawn by the golden-rose splendour of Conques?
My life has long been dedicated to Saint Faith, and, since I now have the expert scribal services of young Brother Peter, it is right that I leave an accurate account of that obscure period before the saint touched my existence.
Firstly, let us call to mind the terrible, holy child who guides and defends this abbey, and who is venerated by the millions of pilgrims who have made their way here, some passing on the Way of Saint James, others coming for the cult of Saint Faith alone.
Scholars have determined all the events of her life and death with great exactitude. She lived some days journey from this abbey, in Agen, and her death occurred in the Year of Our Lord 287. She was buried, as all know, in Agen, where a basilica was finally erected to honour and house her remains. Of course, that paltry commercial town and its basilica could not forever hold the remains of such a powerful, exigent saint. Only Conques is adequate to her cult and service.
The twelve year old girl who defied an empire is not herself to be defied. All know how this stubborn, violent and cheeky adolescent was required by the Romans to sacrifice to their gods. She refused, thus exposing herself to immediate and brutal execution. Scholars have determined that the Romans were unwilling to proceed with the punishment, but that the taunts and sneers of Saint Faith forced them to make an example of her. When they attempted to grill her over a bed of coals, their efforts were frustrated by rain. This led to yet another volley of insults and ridicule from their proposed victim. So the Romans were forced to decapitate her, thus preserving her body parts, which would be of such importance to all of Christendom but more especially to this abbey.
Those who make a promise to Saint Faith have learned that they must keep that promise perfectly. Shirkers are well advised to make their compacts with feebler saints, for Faith will rain such pranks and humiliations on them that their original predicament will seem far milder than her lightest punishment. Often she takes more than is promised, and in ingenious ways, so that her reputation for divine capriciousness is maintained. In her lightest moods, she will still be feared.
But woe to those who deliberately withhold! Recall the case of the lord who gave a ring to his second wife after the first wife had pledged it to Saint Faith as she lay dying. Did not that ring cause the new wife’s finger to swell and cause her insufferable pain? Did this not make consummation of the second marriage impossible? And when the lord and his young wife finally grovelled before the saint they had cheated, was not the ring loosened by a mighty sneeze, and expelled from the wife’s finger with such force that it lodged in the stone of the walls?
A grower of fava beans had promised the abbey a cartload of his produce if the saint would grant him a good season. The rain and sunshine gave him a perfect harvest – which he sold off in its entirety, forgetful of his pledge. Soon, all who ate his beans began to fart so fearfully that whole villages shook with the din of belching. Stomachs swelled and ached through the night, none could find sleep. The farmer’s house was besieged by his furious customers. Only by donating silver, to the value of his whole crop, to the abbey, and by distributing a flatulence cure of caraway oil – purchased from the abbey at great cost – was he able to placate Saint Faith.
Exorcists know that demons who gain control of adolescent females are all the more fearsome for the vessel they have chosen. Likewise, when the Holy Spirit imbues the soul of a twelve year old girl, an awesome force is generated, expressed in many moods, caprices and tantrums, beyond the understanding of elderly males such as myself. I do not strive to understand her.
All must simply submit, and learn to love and fear Saint Faith!
I was born a ponot, an inhabitant of Le Puy-en-Velay, a city famed as the main head of pilgrimage for those who pledge to make their way to the tomb of Saint James, far away in western Spain. My family home was in view of the marvellous Cathedral of Our Lady, but closer to the chapel of Saint Michael, which sits high on its needle of rock. (Scholars now affirm that these needles were formed when hell was first excavated, the existing subterranean cavities being too narrow for so many fallen angels. The theory that the needles resulted from Our Lord’s later harrowing is now disproved by the best approved science.)
I was raised in a pious family, my parents were industrious but poor. While my father laboured in the lentil fields beyond the town, my mother made intricate lace, most of it for sale by others in far off Paris. When neighbours were able to throw out their old straw and replace it every year, I looked with shame on the rotting mess which covered our floor. The smell of pork and chicken wafting from other people’s windows, as I sat at our usual meal of gruel and lentils, was an almost monthly torment.
Unable to settle in my father’s strenuous occupation, and then in any occupation, I began to succumb to the great temptation of all young people who are raised in a city which is a major centre for pilgrimage. The constant passing of outsiders, so many of them replete with funds at the start of their pilgrimage – which is especially the case with Le Puy – offers endless opportunity to the immoral and idle.
I was already a grief and a disgrace to my family when I finally took to the streets of Le Puy, living above wine shops and then in brothels, paying my way with daily thefts, begging, pimping and other such low activities. Selling fingernail clippings and locks of hair as relics to pilgrims provided a good part of my income, yet, it must be said, I was less comfortable perpetrating religious frauds. Perhaps this was due to my upbringing, or to the fact that I had lived my formative years in the shadow of Saint Michael, such a combative and stern guardian of religion.
Like all habitual offenders, I was known to the bishoprical authorities. (Le Puy is administered and effectively ruled by its bishop.) The punishment of having brine smeared on the feet before goats are allowed to lick them may seem slight, but I suffered it twice, and found whipping to be preferable. Several times I was placed in the stocks, and this was especially shameful because of the stern virtue of my family; my unmarried sisters found their opportunities reduced by my public shaming and foul reputation. Yet nothing was more odious to me than labouring for a living, so I persisted in a life of petty crime, a creature of the alleys and dark corners.
Very early one February morning, I happened to be sneaking between a wine shop where I had fallen asleep and the disguised brothel where I maintained a mistress. I knew that my woman had taken a pilgrim as client the evening before, and that by getting drunk I may have missed the opportunity to burst in on the pair and pretend to be an outraged husband. (This was a good way to extort money, because pilgrims tend to be both ignorant of the locale and prone to quick remorse.) Fearing I had missed my chance and continuing in a stupor from much wine, I began to make my way through the frozen and still dark streets.
There, lumbering before me, was the figure of an obese and heavily clad pilgrim, his staff rattling on the cobbles, and a choice wallet swinging at his fat haunch. Protruding from the wallet was the rim of a gold chalice. Soon I was close behind the pilgrim and, being very nimble, even when half-drunk, I was able to run my knife along the bottom stitching of the wallet without being heard or seen. (I always preferred this method to fumbling about from the top.) Sure enough, a chalice fell through, along with an elaborate communion platter. With long practiced skill, I caught both objects and was treading softly backwards when a heavy crucifix dropped out and clattered on the pavement. The owner turned about, faced me – and he was no common pilgrim!
It was our bishop, dressed as pilgrim and penitent. Though his head was covered in ashes, I recognised him. Of course! It was Ash Wednesday, and he was making his way alone, as our special tradition of Lenten Abjection demanded, to Saint Michael’s Chapel from the cathedral, in order to celebrate mass for a small group of chosen invalids and paupers.
The worst is: our bishop recognised me! He had ordered me punished a number of times, and had once given audience, in my presence, to my mother, who was pleading for remission of my sentencing to branding, a stain which would make my sisters’ marriages all but impossible.
He had recognised me, and now my life was forfeit. Adding sacrilege upon his person to sacrilege upon implements of the mass, my offence would be capital. Not only would I be hanged, but, before that, there would be such searing and tearing of my flesh, such snapping and shattering of my bones, that the hanging would be a mercy.
Within the hour, soldiers would be scouring the city to find me. Nimbleness of mind and body were my only resources. I dropped the precious items so that the bishop would be distracted for the few moments I would need to make an escape in the one direction which offered hope of survival. The woman for whom I was pimping had a pilgrim as client, who was possibly snoring away naked beside her at this hour. That pilgrim was my chance.
Being careful of the ice which crusted the streets, I ran quietly till I reached the house where my mistress was entertaining her guest. Like a lithe cat, I crept in. The two were asleep. Fortunately, I was used to casting my eyes about in poor light for things to steal. Soon I found what I needed, right at the foot of the bed: the robe, the staff, the gourd, the wide hat…everything I needed to become a pilgrim. Grabbing the bundle without a sound, I rushed from the house and found a niche in a nearby alley where I could effect my transformation in private.
When I stepped solemnly from that niche into the growing light, nobody would have recognised me, no soldier would have considered stopping and questioning me. A ceremonious figure, I now represented the very life-blood of Le Puy-en-Velay. I was a pilgrim. Not only had I changed my aspect, but a quick fossick through the sleeves of the stolen garment produced a small scroll, declaring my pilgrim status, signed by the very bishop whose soldiers were now searching me out. As to the wallet I had taken with the other items, my mistress had emptied it of its coin – a disappointment, but hardly a surprise. I counted myself lucky that there had even been a pilgrim to fleece, at such a dead time of year for pilgrimage.
Drawing on my thief’s flair for the theatrical, I walked as a foreigner through my own town, affecting that muffled pomposity – or snobbish humility? – which I had observed in so many pilgrims. Because it was a time of year when the way west is often impassable due to snow and foul conditions, there would be but few pilgrims daring the Aubrac Plateau before a risky descent toward the valley of the Lot. Yet I had no choice but to proceed west out of town, an heroic and isolated figure of piety, and begin the long ascent to the winter-locked plateau.
I was a nimble and fine bodied type, but only used to quick dashes about the streets of Le Puy, between debauches. Consequently, the long uphill trudge had me stumbling and gasping by the time the land levelled a little. Then I faced a new problem: wind. Where the track skirted the high ridge above the brook of La Roche, I needed to crawl to advance, so strong was the blast. My pilgrim robes swelled and acted as sails, threatening to drag me into the rocky abyss.
On arriving at the village of Saint Christopher, I was tempted to show my pilgrim pass at the church to obtain food and a place to rest. I was, however, still too close to Le Puy. In my mind, I could picture soldiers advancing along the pilgrim trail, searching for a known thief who had stolen a pilgrim’s garb – though I hoped that the victim’s embarrassment might stop him reporting this last little crime of mine, or that my mistress would delay him.
No, so terrible was the punishment I faced for double sacrilege, that, after a brief rest out of the wind behind the church wall, I decided to press on.
Hunched against that glacial blast, dreading the possibility of sleet, I moved more quickly through the flatter country of cattle enclosures and lentil fields, now deserted in the late winter. Though I knew nothing of the countryside, I knew from long experience of pilgrims that one could find food and shelter, sometimes for free, all along the Way of Saint James. The coin I had left from my last night’s debauch would have to suffice till I could thieve a little more money; improvised piety would supply the rest. As I moved along, I rehearsed the solemn movements and speech of the more conceited type of pilgrim encountered in Le Puy. My lack of knowledge of religious ritual and dogma could be concealed by babbling, raptures and other such saintly eccentricities.
I was able to beg a little cheese and stale bread form a village wife I passed on the track. I thanked her with pompous blessings while feigning a foreign accent, and was rather pleased with my effort. With enough food to sustain me for the evening, I continued to stride out till the sky began to darken. At last, just before a long descent was indicated, into a river gorge which I guessed must be that of the Allier, I found an abandoned chapel with a strange broken tower above it. This, with my small stock of food, would suffice me for the night.
I ate most of what I had, leaving a few scraps for morning pangs, then huddled in the darkest corner of the crumbling chapel. I was not used to the intense cold and discomfort of a building without straw, and without other humans and animals giving warmth. Yet my pilgrim robe was thick, and, by making a rough bed of dead leaves and twigs, I would surely find sleep in my exhausted state.
As darkness fell, and as I was beginning to drowse, there was a clatter from the doorway, then the reek of pitch, and a sudden flare of light. Two men entered, one small and wiry, with a torch in his hand and long sword scraping at his side. The other, a giant, was carrying something which, even in the poor light, I recognised as a favoured weapon of ruffians, a hefty staff of blackthorn with many nobbles and a fat club-end.
It took them only seconds to locate me, and I had the impression that scouring the locale for pilgrims was a routine for them. The smaller intruder drew near, thrusting his torch forward to inspect me. His rodent features and sour smirk, the stench of onions and stale wine, were instantly repellent. I tried not to let my fear show, as he spoke.
“Brother Pilgrim, may we join you?”
“The place is not mine, as you must know, but I should be happy of any cheer on such a night.”
“And we shall avail ourselves of your kind invitation. But tell me, Brother Pilgrim, can you afford some small emolument for two poor soldiers who can find no employment since the region came under this foreign lord, this Count Raymond?”
“I am the poorest of the poor, thus you see me so humbly lodged with barely a piece of stale bread.”
“And yet, Brother Pilgrim, your robe is of fine quality, and your staff well-crafted. How does your tender conscience bear to see us so ill-clad?”
“The robe is a fine one, but it is all I have.”
“Then we will accept your robe. And perhaps there is a pilgrim passport tucked into the sleeve of that robe? An authentic pass will find a price among those who need a change of identity and free passage through this region of suspicious burgers and pious farmers.”
“Without my robe, I should be dead by morning.”
“And with it, death will come much sooner. Draco! Help our friend to undress, but see to his modesty. Leave him with a cloth for his loins…unless it be a fine cloth, of some value.”
The giant stepped forward and leaned over me. His gaze was absent, mouth and nose were flattened, so that his face was an expressionless smear. I have seen public executioners. The giant called Draco was one such.
As he loomed over me, I considered my chances. The door was blocked by the other bandit, the one window too high and small. These men were well practised in brawling, while I had done little more than scuffle and run in my most violent encounters; yet if I were to surrender my robe to spare myself injury, survival through such a winter night was unlikely.
I looked for signs of relenting, even pity, in the faces of the two bandits; but one face showed only a cruel relish, the other was empty of humanity, a bored hangman’s face.
My short, worthless life was done, unless some device should come to mind.
Gathering a fragment of stone in my hand, I stood up, and began to pull at my robe, as if undressing. Perhaps the men were unprepared for a nimble city thief in pilgrim disguise, perhaps if they were to relax their vigilance for a moment…keeping my hand low and out of view, I cast the stone toward the opposite wall. Their eyes followed the sound.
Then I made my dash.
The subterfuge almost worked, but the smaller of the men held his ground at the door. When I tried to bustle him aside he fell, but held hard to my legs with wiry fingers. Soon the giant had hold of me, and I could see, in the glare from the fallen torch, that a slight smile was twisting the edges of his smeary mouth. The other, dusting himself, growled.
“Not yet, Draco. You can amuse yourself all you like once you have his garment off him. If there is a passport in the sleeve I don’t want it damaged. Lay him down there on the floor, and be careful of that robe! A few taps about his knees and shins will ensure he runs no more.”
Like a butcher readying a carcass, the giant stretched me out. Whatever horrors he was about to inflict on me after the other shattered my legs, I could see the thought filled him with pleasant anticipation.
There was a loud thud. The giant seemed to freeze for a moment, then he toppled across me.
Next I heard the rushed unsheathing of a sword, then a crack of bone. Then silence.
Whatever had happened, it had taken only seconds. Rolling the inert body of the giant off my own, I rose on my elbows to look about. Once again, the torch, now sputtering out, lay on the ground. What I saw was the figure of a pilgrim, standing staff in hand, above the unmoving body of the smaller bandit. Next a strange, composed voice.
“Both rogues are dead. To merely chasten such men is to leave them free to murder more pilgrims. The ground is too hard to bury them. We will find a tree and dangle their corpses in the morning, as a warning to other rogues.”
“But who are you, Brother Pilgrim? Are you alone? You have dispatched these two villains to the afterlife as if you had a whole company of warriors with you.”
“I can use a staff. Now, we should rest. Help me to drag these bodies outside. Rub some pitch from the torch over them, so the wolves stay away.”
After smearing and removing the dead rogues some distance from our sleeping place, we went back inside. I attempted conversation with the stranger.
“Brother Pilgrim my name is…”
“Tell me no names, not even true ones. A winter pilgrim is often a man with trouble behind him. His robe may be stolen, his pass from the bishop stolen or a forgery. He may feel himself to be no true pilgrim. And yet…Saint James has clasped him, even when he thinks to mock Saint James.”
“But Brother Pilgrim…”
“Sssh. Sleep now. The Allier River is raging high. We will need our strength to cross it in the morning.”
When light came, I woke to find a small dish of figs, hard cheese and a little bread beside me. The stranger was not in the chapel, but his staff and hat still lay where he had slept. I did not wait to be invited to eat all the offered food.
When I tried to stand, my legs throbbed terribly. It had been the first truly strenuous day since the short time spent in the lentil fields with my father.
The stranger re-entered, and I thanked him for the food. He noticed my stiffness.
“Move about a little, to soften the muscles of your legs. The descent to the river gorge is long and steep.”
“I have just now strung their bodies up high. Their companions will learn that the Way of Saint James has its protectors.”
“Brother Pilgrim, are you then one of the Knights of the Temple of Solomon, this new order pledged to our safeguarding?”
“I am what you first called me. I am a brother and pilgrim. Now ready yourself to go.”
As we set out from the chapel, I could see birds wheeling above a spot in the distance. No doubt that was where the stranger had posted his terrible warnings to bandits.
Immediately, the track descended, and very sharply. The sound of the river was audible even from a great distance. For a painful half-hour, I slid and stumbled behind my companion, who kept his feet easily and was able to catch me several times without unbalancing himself. It was as if Saint James, in the person of this other, really did have me in his clasp.
The land grew less steep as we approached the roaring Allier. At last, we stood on its bank; and how such a torrent is crossed was a mystery to me, a ponot who had scarcely touched water in his life, except to drink it. The stranger led me along the bank to a place where the water rushed hardest, over large rocks near the surface. A sturdy rope had been tied from one side of the river to the other, between mature pine trees. Terrified, I watched how the stranger placed the crook of his staff over the rope and began to advance from rock to rock. He turned round and spoke more loudly, to be heard over the din of water.
“Do as I do, ponot. When you cross the Allier, you leave your past behind.”
“But…how do you know I am a ponot? How do you know of my past?”
“I know the many accents of languedoc. And I know men. Come now. Carry but half of yourself, and Saint James will carry the rest.”
So I advanced, with the sudden feeling that all the events of the last day were somehow destined. As the river lunged then tugged at my feet and the staff wobbled on the rope, I was fearful, yet aware that my life had already been lost twice since the sun rose on the previous day. Once I was saved by my wits, the second time by a man. Now I was to trust this saint of the pious posturers I had spent my life deceiving and robbing. Ah, well – a third time, then!
The stranger crossed deftly, as if strolling, then turned about. His fine but weathered features seemed to flutter between mockery and encouragement. Who was this man? I kept my gaze on him and kept advancing. Each time I slid from a rock, I hugged my staff and trusted the rope and crook to keep me safely suspended till a footing could be found.
By the time I neared the other shore I had acquired a sense of timing and balance for the task. The stranger nodded his satisfaction – or maybe amusement? He seemed to be ever in advance of me, not just bodily.
“Your past is back there. You are a pilgrim now.”
“Enough. Your intention may have been flight. Saint James had a different intention. Come, pilgrim. It’s a long climb into wolf country, and once there we will need to be vigilant.”
“You’d make a skimpy but tasty meal for a hungry pack. Have you not wondered why there are so few winter pilgrims? But come.”
The uphill trudge began almost immediately in such a narrow valley. We came to a Magdalen chapel hollowed out in the side of the hill, and the stranger stopped there a moment, knelt, and fell quickly into rapturous prayer. I was tempted to imitate him, but decided I should not strive to impress or deceive this man. Perhaps I really had abandoned certain of my ways upon crossing the Allier River.
We proceeded amid rain and sleet. I was glad of the broad hat and detachable leather shell about the shoulders of my robe. Perhaps I even felt a little sorry for the pilgrim I had robbed of such expensive and functional garb. What was the man’s situation now?
We regained the Aubrac Plateau on the other side of the Allier, and once again the wind gnawed at us. After some hours of flatter walking we entered a forested region. The stranger did not alter his pace, but his head seemed to roll, as if he were continually watching for something.
There was movement to our sides, black things dashing between black pine trunks. But what? In my nervousness, I needed to ask.
“Are these the wolves of which you spoke? They seem like dark phantoms.”
“As we approach the region called Gevaudan, these beasts appear. They are wolves which have bred with big hunting dogs long ago, and are far worse than wolves. When they approach, I will show you what to do. Stay close to me, ponot.”
Even in the city, the term Beasts of Gevaudan was familiar, perhaps through overheard tavern talk. Now I was in their midst, and their soundless shifting, their lack of full visibility, made them that much more terrible.
Moving dog shapes appeared ahead, stopped in sight, but to the sides of the trail, like sentinels. Soon animals showed themselves on our flanks, and the stranger cast his head behind a couple of times.
“The beasts will come mostly from the rear, but we won’t let them. When I tell you, we will stand back to back, so that our vision, between two of us, is a complete circle. They will sense that my staff is the greater danger, so they will attack more on your side. So we’ll rotate, but not in an even way which they can predict. Try to enjoy this, little pilgrim of Le Puy.”
By ones and twos, the beasts showed themselves and formed a crescent-shaped escort, with the bulk of them in the rear. The broken circle moved in tighter, keeping perfect pace with our steps. Now those in our view showed their fangs and began to caper a little.
“Halt, ponot, and stand with your back to mine. Use your staff by sweeping it low, back and forth. I’ll swing mine higher, so they don’t collide. Now!”
Speed of movement and understanding were among my few assets. I quickly understood how we were to keep the animals at bay. How we were to escape them finally was something I would leave to the stranger.
The stratagem worked. Unable to attack from behind, the beasts’ instincts were thwarted. As they skipped to avoid the sweeping of my staff with its heavy crooked head, the stranger would occasionally vary his stroke and land a successful blow on a muzzle or leg. We rotated as he suggested, so the point of attack remained uncertain for the pack.
In time, they appeared to exhaust themselves, or to realise that no progress was to be made. The circle widenened and thinned, tails dropped. They scattered. The stranger now spoke.
“They’ll try again, but for the moment we can advance.”
“Perhaps they can be persuaded not to return, Big Brother Pilgrim!”
I conceived one of my sudden ideas. Reaching below the stolen robe into my original street garments, I drew out a leather sling, lifelong weapon of choice, though used more for mischief than defense. My skill with this “coward’s fist”, as they call it, was legendary through Le Puy-en-Velay.
There were many suitable stones lying in the half-thawed slush of the trail. I chose the best, rubbed it dry on my robe, then placed it in the sling. As I began to whirl the sling, the unaccustomed sound and motion seemed to bewilder the retreating animals. The largest of them stopped snarling and faced me, either in curiosity or defiance. His snout made a fine target as I released the stone.
He howled when hit fair in the head, staggered about and fell lifeless. The others ran yelping away, tails in a stiff, downward position.
Now the stranger did something new: he grinned. So I grinned with him, full of pride that, for one time, I had been able to please or surprise him – or both.
“I don’t laugh at any death, ponot. But you have likely saved a few pilgrim lives by giving a little fear or hesitation to these Beasts of Gevaudan. Come now, our lodgings for the night are near.”
They say it can be too cold to snow. Certainly, I have never felt greater chill than when staggering along the Aubrac as that day drew to to its close. The combination of wind and sleet in plateau country must surely be one of the choice reserved punishments of hell. Wading several shallow streams caused my cramping legs to go numb. Could I endure till this promised accommodation?
As I looked despairingly toward a solitary farmhouse, the stranger turned from the trail and headed toward it. Yet I was now too weary to feel hope or relief. I followed without thought, like one of those animated corpses which are said to rise from English graveyards, when the feast of Saint Walpurga falls on a Friday and full moon.
The last few steps to the house took the last of my strength. Upon arriving, I leaned my back against the wall, lifting and shaking each leg in turn, to regain feeling in them.
The stranger knocked and a door opened. The rush of warmth wafting the aroma of stewing meats at that moment provoked a sensation I will never forget. In some dim way, I was being shown a contrast: the empty wandering of my first existence, with the chill of age numbing its pointless freedoms; and then this new enclosing warmth of…of what? Truly, I had the feeling that my accidental pilgrimage was now out of my hands, and into the hands of a force I could only call Saint James. In fact, it crossed my mind that the stranger, in some half real way, was the vicar or mirror of James. Or even the very person?
The stranger entered and I staggered after him.
A proper home, warmth and a hearth, and two smiling, elderly faces: I had forgotten such things, yet it was only two days since my flight from the city. In that period I had come close to death three times, and had now poured out my whole sum of strength.
The fire drew me, I drank its warmth. As feeling came back to my limbs, I listened to the cheerful talk of the others and became aware that the stranger was well acquainted with our venerable hosts. Soon we were seated and consuming a fragrant soup of lentils, herbs and mixed innards, made thicker and more starchy with pummeled barley and even some mashed hazels. Only by knowing such cold and hunger first, could I know then such intensity of appetite, such relish in the mere steam from a bowl.
We gave an account of the events of the two previous days, though I was not asked about my origins or intentions. (I was later to learn that this forms part of the etiquette of pilgrimage.) The old farming couple seemed horrified by the tale of the two bandits, but burst into laughter when the stranger told them, with shrewd humour, of my accuracy with a sling. Clearly, these Beasts of Gevaudan are no common wolves, and are a great terror to all who pass and all who live in the region.
When the stranger went outside in order to, as he said most solemnly, pee and pray, I took the opportunity to ask our hosts how they knew him and what they knew about him. (At the time I did not know that these are not questions to be asked bluntly when on pilgrimage.) The old farmer answered, though his wife’s pursed lips and tight posture indicated I would and should be told little:
“Little Pilgrim, this man you call a stranger we call Unnamed. We know him to be an annual pilgrim these ten years past, and that he is such a fierce protector of the Way that many have called him a living Saint Michael. He is not without means, yet lives humbly; he pays too much for all he receives, practices the strictest monastic virtue, lives freely with lords and ragamuffins; lastly, in the abbeys and monasteries that line the Way, he is received as a bishop, though he has no rank or occupation. As to how all this can be, you who have travelled with him can know best. Truly, we do not know who he is, or what he is.”
When the stranger returned, there were more prayers, and I attempted to follow the example of the others as they muttered and bowed. What harm?
When we took leave of our hosts the next morning, we strode into a mist that promised a radiant day. Food, sleep and warmth, allied with youth, had restored and even invigorated me. For the first time, I was aware of my breath and movements, and what I can only call their sufficiency. The lifelong quest for stimulation and diversion had blotted out all consciousness of my simple existence, of simply being. Was this pilgrimage?
Here, beyond the Gevaudan and the fringes of the Margeride forests, the plateau became a starved heath, furry and fur-coloured, crossed by fast, shallow streams. Here the Aubrac was wildest, poorest…and most beautiful. The open and simple landscape was the opposite of all I had known. Everything now was the opposite of all I had known. Was this pilgrimage?
In the warmer late morning, I began to keep stride with the stranger. Perhaps I would soon be able to bound past him at will, since he was a much older man, though one of those whose age can never be surmised.
Truly, as I had never exercised, never filled my lungs with pure air so constantly, never felt the blood course fast and freely through my limbs, I had never known youth to be anything but a kind of corrupt coinage, to be frittered in exchange for distraction, to be squandered hurriedly in advance of decay. But this other youth was a progress to maturity, not a rotting but a fermentation.
Next I thought of the many soldiers and huntsmen I had seen, and of their fresher appearance and greater muscularity. Could I become such a specimen of the open air and free country, drawing women by my hale complexion, my simple physique rather than by long fatigues of flattery, jests, deceptive promises and stolen gifts? So, now the pious and carnal were mixing in my mind, and I was plotting more honest lechery than I had practiced in the inns and stews of the city. Did the devil keep stride with pilgrims?
I wanted to question the stranger about such matters, but could not find the words for the flood of new sensations. Moreover, it was not his meagrely dispensed words which formed the bond between us these last days. Pilgrimage required not the flow of words, but the flow of blood and air through long neglected chambers of the body. So I kept moving with him, allowing the thoughts – vain or consequential, lascivious or wholesome – to gush unfiltered, till they were dominated by the sanity of simple thirst and sane appetite. And was this pilgrimage?
A twinge in the knee. A sudden pain, then a steady throb.
As I began to fall behind my companion, all the thoughts that had crowded my brain for the last hours evaporated. Now my whole body and being moved on a single pivot of pain. And I did not ask if this sudden and complete deflation was pilgrimage. My only conscious question was: why did the stranger, after several backward glances which would make obvious my distress, seem completely indifferent to my predicament? Was he waiting for me to howl, to fall down?
My resentment began to match my pain, which was extreme. I began to push forward, to ignore all but the next step, or, at most, the next few steps toward any little landmark or turn in the trail. My other leg and the rest of my body adjusted in some degree, and I discovered things about pain and persistence that were new. This narrowing and this concentration of thought were also new.
I could not tell if the other relented or if I sped up, but we were soon pacing together again. At the beginning of a rise, I was almost disgusted when the stranger accelerated and went ahead again, till he was quite out of sight after the first turning. So be it. I also accelerated, finding new pain with the different angle of tread. I learned to take shorter, more frequent steps for the uphill, and to keep my lungs well and deeply supplied with air. As before, the pain did not relent, but the task became more accustomed, my body made its many and tiny adjustments, and, even more than before, thought narrowed, concentrated, till even my resentment found little room.
Adapting, narrowing, keeping at things, till even pain turned about or changed its face…was this pilgrimage? For a street rascal who had lived only for distraction, it was certainly new.
Arriving at the top of the long rise, I found the stranger, Unnamed, leaning against a wall. Inserted low down in the stone was a gushing fountain; above it, a large scallop shell in white limestone. At the very base of the wall I saw words inscribed which were so familiar I could actually read them, or, more exactly, recognise them. “Thank you, Saint Roch” is such a frequent expression in my region that the very words in written Latin can be distinguished as easily as a symbol or picture. I had always regarded Roch as the feeblest of saints, one who attends to the whining of pious crones and pilgrims gone lame.
Unnamed wore the faintest of smiles .
“Put it under the fountain, Little Brother.”
“You…believe in Saint Roch?”
“Believe? I have few beliefs. I am a pilgrim. I move a lot, I watch. Put your knee under the water, but not for too long, since cold is not good for sore joints.”
“If cold is not good, and if you do not yourself believe…”
He shrugged; I shrugged in reply. Lifting my robe, I crouched down and let the sore knee be splashed a moment by the fountain. Both the crouching and straightening caused it to twinge more sharply. There was anything but relief, yet I said nothing. The two of us drank a little from our gourds, then headed off.
He seemed concerned to stay abreast of me now, and even began to converse.
“Little Brother, do you like jests in the form of stories?”
“Have you heard the story of the elderly couple who had not had amorous relations for thirty years?”
“Why, I think not…” I was shocked by this change of tone. But what idle ponot does not enjoy some tavern humour? Unnamed went on:
“Well, as they lay abed one spring night, the old husband began to feel his wife in ways and places that could only indicate amorous intent. This went on for some time, until his caresses ceased very suddenly…Little Brother, you are walking quite well. Is your leg better?”
“Why, there appears to be no pain. No pain at all. Could it be that Saint Roch…?”
“Who can say? You were still in pain after you washed it in the fountain, so who can say?”
“But…it’s quite miraculous. I’m walking freely. I must thank Saint Roch. Yes, at the very next chapel, I must thank him. And, Big Brother Pilgrim, will you now finish your story?”
“My story? It is quite gone from my head, as your pain is gone from your knee.”
He stopped abruptly and fixed me.
“Perhaps, ponot, there are very few things we can command.”
And that was all he said for the rest of that day. I wondered whether this was the true or final lesson of pilgrimage. But I had felt that about every experience since I fled from the city.
We ended at yet another farmhouse. There a family received us not just willingly but with a certain reverence for the pilgrim named – if such can be – Unnamed.
The next day involved descent from the Aubrac Plateau. For some reason, on this western fringe there was far more snow, both old and fresh. Without the company of an experienced pilgrim, I should have been in danger of taking a wrong turn when the atmosphere whited out: a common cause of death in this part of the Aubrac. The winter pilgrim enjoys a rare experience, but survival is not certain. Of course, there are hazards throughout the year, which is why all are expected to make a will before departing, even in the warmer months.
Where the snow line blended with the tree line, there were charms. Being from a city near agricultural fields, I had little experience of true forests; the beauty and density of the slopes above the valley of the Lot surprised me.
After some hours of difficult trudging in snow to our knees and above, there was an abrupt transition to clear soil and gravel. We descended more freely for some time, then arrived in the valley of the Lot, near one of its tributaries.
Warmer and less troubled by terrain, we were able to stride out along the riverside paths. As with the snow-hung forest above, I began to feel pleasure in the new surroundings. This apparently useless delight in wild and natural things was as strange as every other experience of my pilgrimage, and I surrendered to it. The birds and animals which made their way to the water were a particular fascination. How long had I spent on earth without distinguishing one type from another? The shrubs and trees began to differentiate themselves to my eye; they showed subtle variations even when they appeared to be of the same species.
And then we came to the great river, the Lot, flanked by forest or meadow, and so wide that its serene movements could not be seen, until the curious eye became trained to it.
We stayed the night in the very fine monastery of Perse, which had lately come under the authority of the great monastery of Conques, that jewel which still lay before us on the Way. Even a street ruffian in far-off Le Puy had heard of the splendour of Conques. This monastery of Perse, not far from the banks of the Lot, was certainly worthy of its senior institution.
I must have spent an hour in the last of the light attending to the stories etched on the entry to the adjacent church. In especial, I lingered over the tale of Saint Hilarian, decapitated by Saracens, who carried his own head to a fountain in order to wash it. With the fading of the light, I entered the church itself and did my devotions to Saint Roch: though I was still not pious, I had become fond of the saint and quite enjoyed the private little rite I had invented for the two of us. General prayer and ceremony were mystifying and a bore.
Having grown very attentive to the motions and words of Unnamed, I noticed a certain gloom or unease in him that evening. Though our supper with the monks of Saint Perse was most cordial, and though he had been received as a dignitary, Unnamed seemed preoccupied. For the first time in our acquaintance, it was I who was observing him.
Whatever the cause of this mood, it had evaporated when we strode out the next morning. Not far down the track, I saw a marvel of which I had but vaguely heard: the new castle of the Lord Calmont, built upon the river, with a special design to resist all missiles, troops or siege engines. Truly, it looked impregnable, and scholars have affirmed that such a structure will forever make vain any military contrivance, be it Roman or of some future race of warriors. It is certain that such a fastness will last and withstand till the Doom.
The track left the river at many places and wound through green hills, past numerous hamlets and farms, and through areas of forest. When people greeted Unnamed, all seemed to know and esteem him. For me, having lived my life in one place, there was one oddity: though all spoke languedoc, they spoke it most strangely.
Later in the day, we began to ascend, till the air was chill and snow could be glimpsed on hills far to the north. It would be a long tramp, for, as Unnamed explained, he wished to reach a certain fortress where the lord, an acquaintance, was due to receive an illustrious bishop. It was a meeting and celebration at which his presence was desired, if not expected. Though I had never considered that Unnamed was walking to a plan or schedule, it was not hard to fit such purposeful timing to his resolute character.
Before dark, we came to a scarred but robust fortress, our destination for the evening. After such an effort, I hoped earnestly for another cordial reception; for short religious services, abundant viands and long sleep.
Obviously, I had no experience of high manners. From the moment we arrived at the castle of Senergues, the pomp and formality astonished me. My companion was received as a prince of the region or of the church, the lord seemed to regard him as an equal. My own treatment was so improbably exalted that I was paralysed by uncertainty as to the proper responses.
While the ceremonious nature of our reception at first baffled me, I learned, or began to absorb, something which was contradictory to all I had thought. It would come to me how much easier common intercourse is made by the careful observation of courtesies and formalities. What I had deemed to be mere social obstacles, fit only to be manipulated and aped, were instead the great lubricants of any society, high or low. This understanding has stayed with me, and contributed much to my character and to my acknowledged achievements through that complex wider world we call Europe.
The religious services, the banquet, the entertainments were of a kind to appeal to the high bred. Of interest to me, apart from the aromatic and spiced game meats, was the artfully sung story of Roland, and of his exploits against the Saracens. To this day, I have a great love of story, whether in the form of play acting, sermons, tavern gossip, poems or carved stone. Of course, Conques was not far from Senergues, and, within a day, I was to see stories and drama in paint which would surpass all entertainments I had yet experienced.
Aside from Unnamed, the honoured guest of the evening was a bishop, though his name was not mentioned to me. His excellency sat left of Unnamed at the head table, who sat left of the lord of Senergues. That my brother pilgrim should be seated between two such dignitaries was now hardly a surprise, since he seemed to be held in high esteem everywhere we came. What I found odd was the increasing gravity of his manner, his quietly exchanged words, now with one lord, then the other; and the way both of them at times crowded into him, speaking intensely as they jabbed and gestured with their hands.
Who was this stranger who had saved my life, then transformed my life, and who appeared to rank so high without possessing any rank? If not the vicar or the very incarnation of Saint James or Saint Michael – then what?
At the end of the evening I was escorted by two servants to a room high in one tower. To my astonishment, there was a large bed upon high legs, something I had heard of but never seen, with a number of coverlets, the top one embroidered. Near it, the wall was warm with heat from the kitchens below. What truly shocked me was the moment the servants turned about to leave me in this large room, with this large bed – alone!
I was left to sleep alone! To aid me in preparing for sleep, a candle had been left burning, and from its lack of odour I could only surmise that it was of pure beeswax, or, at least, of some grease far more precious than tallow. Only one week before, in the midst of such careless sumptuosity, my mind would have fallen to thoughts of pilfering, as water must fall from a height. Yet, just as I had been restrained in the consumption of so much free food and wine, something was inspiring me still to take all that was given me as freely as if it were my own – but to take no more. Another lesson of pilgrimage?
My senses are sharp. A murmur of voices in the courtyard came to my ears. From the window, draped doubly in heavy cloth, I was able to peep down.
In the glow from an open door below, Unnamed stood talking with the bishop and lord of Senergues, and a captain of the castle whom I had observed at the banquet. For such men to stand outside unattended was odd, especially on a winter’s night.
One conclusion alone was possible. These men were discussing something of great importance, and something that might, but must not, be overheard in a reverberating chamber of the castle, with many shadows and niches and servants.
We left the next morning with much ceremony, but the departure was otherwise like that of all previous days since I met the stranger, in that deserted chapel above the Allier River. We strode out unaccompanied, two common pilgrims with scallop shell, staff, gourd and wallet. At first, the country was wide and green, like so much of the Aveyron region.
The stranger, who had always seemed so equable, so light of mind, was now pensive. His stride was a touch impatient, his conversation, rare as ever, was less humorous, more distracted. Yet our short day’s journey was to bring us to that great jewel of the Way, the village of Conques and the great Abbey-Church of Saint Faith.
Eventually, the trail dipped. To my surprise, the main approach to Conques from the east was an eroded gully, rather than some majestic high road: a reminder that this splendour began as an inaccessible retreat for the most severe of hermits.
But then, Conques.
The place of my birth, Le Puy-en-Velay is a fine city, but I had never seen such harmony of architecture till I first viewed Conques. This happy blending does not consist only in shapes and patterns of structures; the very colour of the stones and even of the valley sides is a consistent golden-rose. The construction and maintenance of humbler private dwellings show a far greater care than is normal, as if nothing in the town must chime falsely with the nobility of the great building at its heart. The poorest house seems dressed for a perpetual feast day.
And there it was, set neither low nor high in its village: the abbey-church of the little girl, Faith – the most powerful, stormy and capricious of all saints, as I would soon come learn.
As we proceeded, Unnamed was greeted with even more reverence than before. Here he seemed known by every inhabitant, and twice he stopped to give money, though not solicited. One old man knelt at his feet for a blessing he was unwilling to give, having no rank in the church. Instead, Unnamed spoke very kindly to the man, then, after helping him to his feet, gave him a coin which, to my amaze, had the glint of silver. Silver to beggars who do not even beg! Who – and what- was this companion of mine?
The abbott was quickly informed of our arrival. February being a very quiet time of year for pilgrimage, as well as for most ritual and practical duties, our arrival was the main interest of that day. Unnamed had become renowned as protector and promoter of the Way for the last decade, and in no place more than Conques was his fame greater or more touted.
Yet still, as we waited in an antechamber of the abbey to be received by its illustrious head, the calm drollery of Unnamed seemed to have given way to a vague distraction, even to unease. Others may not have noticed, but, as a kind of adopted son or pilgrim’s apprentice, much was now apparent to me – more than my great mentor realised, perhaps.
We were ushered in to the abbot’s splendid quarters, where preciously bound books and lavish objects of devotion filled every wall. Yet the pilfering urge in me was dead. Somewhere, perhaps above the raging waters of the Allier, that great temptation of my life had fallen away from me.
After courteous chatter with the abbot – which, once again, did not touch on my identity or motives – Unnamed was pleased to relate our encounter with the Beasts of Gevaudan. The abbot was delighted to hear how I had cowed the animals with my sling; those hybrid wolves were obviously a great terror and an obstacle of the Way in an era when so many Christians wished to follow in the steps of Charlemagne by traversing the Aubrac Plateau.
We had much free time before the evening services and following banquet. I knew what I wanted to do with that time. In passing, I had glimpsed the famed tympanum of the Last Judgement at the entry to the church, and now yearned to pore over its vivid carvings and the dramatic stories attached to them. While Unnamed, who had seen the marvel many times, went to perform his devotions and then to read from the abbey’s library, I proceeded to the wonderful portal of Saint Faith’s church and was immediately transfixed by the colour and suggested movement of its tympan. If, in some future age, men discover a way to make portrayed figures move, they will not be able to match the life-crammed beauty of our sublime portal.
Being young and wild of imagination, I was most drawn to the horrors seen on my right. With sharp thief’s eyes, from below I could absorb every awful detail of each demon and monster. The pit which awaits the damned was meant to be a lesson to pilgrims and sinners, and it was, perhaps. Yet never have I been so entertained, with such loss of self. Even now, these many decades later, I linger at that portal, with a fascination not altogether holy. I suspect that many others feel the same.
With the encroachment of dark, the low western sun painted new colours on the tympanum, and different shadows made for new dramas. Suggested movement seemed fitfully to be actual movement in the brief chiaroscuro. Then, with the dark, I tore myself away to prepare for the evening. If it were possible to be back at first light, I would seize the chance, even though the sun would be rising behind the great church. Such is youth, or the part of youth I miss most.
Our banquet was quiet, for the time of year was quiet. Yet there was game-meat on the table, something I was beginning to relish, and wine from further west, near Cahors, called “Ink of the Lot”, which was so completely black that it showed no colour even when held near the light. I had the honour of sitting with Unnamed and the senior clergy of the abbey.
My companion, who had continued subdued in mood and conversation, spoke in murmurs with the abbot, who responded with continual grave nods.
After the meal we were conducted through the church, briefly to examine its beauties, before being led into the treasury, where the famed reliquary of Saint Faith – a golden doll, jewel encrusted – is enthroned much as a living monarch.
Though the treasury is one of the most secure in all of France, the saint herself is protected by a steel cage, a sort of curtain composed of the chains of those she has freed from bondage over centuries. This averts any possibility of the reliquary being snatched by a visitor or intruder when the treasury is open.
In the atmosphere of awe which surrounded this saint, and among the dazzling riches she had drawn to her by the power of her will combined with adolescent caprice, I was disarmed. Was it only a week ago I had fled my native city, under a charge of double sacrilege? Even now, I did not know what power I had defied back there. But here, in Conques, I began to know and feel a power which was terrible and which – could it be? – seemed to have drawn me to it. It had found me a vagabond in a crumbling chapel above a flooded river, and it had drawn me here. Or so it seemed in that moment.
I was relieved when the service was finished. I needed to be out of the gaze and emanations from that golden doll; I needed to be away from my fate, and asleep in some remote corner of the vast abbey.
As we were about to go, Unnamed, in his reverent but resolute way, began to perform a sweep of the great treasury room, being particularly observant of the bars on the high windows, and of the two sturdy doors, reinforced with iron. One of these doors connected with the church, the other with the exterior courtyard. As he checked over the exterior door, he appeared to find something. He peered more closely. The abbot, who had been standing back and waiting, approached, and together they continued their examination, as Unnamed tapped and pulled on the massive hinges. Now he said for all to hear:
“Excellency, it is no longer possible to doubt. The rumours up and down the Way are true. Someone is preparing to steal the reliquary of Saint Faith. This door has been forced from the outside to ready it for some final application of force. Perhaps they are preparing to use an engine. Perhaps a mass assault is planned. The reliquary is at risk. Who can doubt it now?”
Those present were struck dumb, each waiting for the other to have a thought. Such a theft, as I would come to learn, would mean the withering of the great abbey. The devotees of Saint Faith would be lost. The Way of Saint James would be diverted from Conques, to the richer river valleys. Though all of this was beyond my understanding, I understood a very great crime was being planned. This explained the whispered and secret conversations on the previous night, the darkening mood of my companion, defender of the Way of Saint James. The abbot found his voice.
“Unnamed Pilgrim, is it so sure? Perhaps a large cart has backed against the door…”
“Excellency, there is no such mark on the outside. I glanced quickly upon arriving this afternoon, since I had reason for suspicion from many things heard and observed along the Way. These hinges have been forced with utensils, and no ordinary utensils, since this is a door fit for a fortress.”
“Then…must we remove the reliquary? But no! To move the saint into a hiding place in the abbey or elsewhere does not avert the risk of theft. What’s worse, we know that Saint Faith can be easily angered if she is translated against her will…She is easily angered by anything, if the truth be told…”
Unnamed stiffened his posture, then spoke so all could hear:
“My fatal moment has come. It will be my task, should the abbot consent, to stand guard till all is secure. If I am here a month or a year till this evil is conjured, so be it. For this I have been brought into the world. All that has come before has been a mere preparation for this.
“If they wish the reliquary – first my life! And if any in this room or beyond this room has been a party to this subversion and subterfuge, let him know that my survival means his death.”
The abbot was confounded for a moment. The others looked to him.
“Unnamed Pilgrim, to leave any man in our treasury is against our rule and long tradition. And you will be armed in some way, no doubt. That is irregular. Moreover, think that you will be completely locked in: the treasury must always be keyed from without. Also, think of how dangerously moody the saint can be.”
“Excellency, let me be a dead man from this moment. Now, will you summon those conquois tradesmen who can help reinforce these doors within the hour? When that is done, lock me in with a jug of water, a little bread, and a warm cloak. I need no sword, just a good dagger and my staff. The young ponot has seen how I can set about with a good piece of wood. I am a great slayer and hanger-up of rogues, am I not, Little Brother?”
It was soon decided. With the help of many skilled locals, the doors were so solidly reinforced from within that only a siege engine or mass-manned battering ram could break them. There was concern that the untidy appearance of the work might offend the saint; however, there is a saying in Conques that one cannot live one’s life in fear of her moods, for one never quite knows what will please or displease her. Saint Faith is a very great saint, but she is also a temperamental adolescent.
Unnamed would be trapped within as surely as all thieves would be excluded. As we left him for the night, he exhorted all to sleep and pray as normal. He asked that the Liturgy of the Hours be strictly observed, and that the treasury not be opened till the regular time, the first devotions being scheduled for between Prime and Terce.
There was nothing to do but go to our rest. The monks would retire after Compline, as always, rising through the night to pray, and I would snore happily through; for all now knew that that the reliquary would be safe until the plot to steal it could be finally thwarted.
Yet I could not sleep. The experiences of the day had been too varied and exciting. Though I should have felt anxious for my companion, locked in the treasury, I was like a child who believes his parents cannot fail, cannot die. Unnamed would avert the threatened evil by his mere presence. Just the rumour of his wrath would suffice, surely.
Aside from the erotic rubbish which flickers continually through the minds of young men, my obsession with the tympanum and its dramatic rendering of the Last Judgement made me yearn for the first light, for any light. How I pitied our remote ancestors whose visual entertainments were so stiff and almost without colour!
When I heard the monks returning from Prime, I knew the dark would soon be dispelled. Though the winter sun might offer little illumination from low in the orient, yet my hungry young senses would find what they craved.
Rushing from my cell, I almost collided with monks retreating to their own cells. They were not shocked, after years of dealing with swarms of pilgrims from odd cultures and backgrounds. Also, it is likely that the monks of Conques are well aware of the excitement generated by the intricate tympanum they are at pains to keep so clean and vividly coloured. (It is strange how so many fine carvings are left bare and bleached by weather, as if the artisans had somehow intended it so. This outrage is not always due to neglect, but to a perverted scholarship, a cloister-mole’s belief that the ancients left their masterworks unpainted – since they are found so!)
In the faint light, the frozen town was yet to stir, the abbey would be silent till Terce. Soon I was standing alone before the tympanum, trying to improve my soul by looking left, toward the great salvation and the bliss of the saints. Ah, but those foul, twisted beings portrayed to the right!
As I stood rapt, there was a sound like shattering, then falling, glass. I paid it no heed, thinking that an early workman was beginning his tasks. This was followed by a cascading of gravel, as if rubble or decayed stone had fallen from a height. My senses being keener than those of most men, I had early learned to react less, to underestimate in such circumstances. Yet a sudden concern flooded my mind. The sound was coming from the direction of the treasury, or a little further. The treasury where my friend sat alone and imprisoned!
I dashed past the church and then across the courtyard fronting the treasury. There had been no damage to its massive door; yet, peeping round the corner, I sensed movement by the far wall, or, more precisely, above the wall. Like a practiced thief, I approached just enough, then stopped, sharpening my vision in the murky light. Before me, a rope or line was swaying, yet there was no breeze. Next, what had seemed a bush or bundle near the end of the rope began to stir. It was a cloaked man. He was clad in a loincloth, with a light shirt. Now I could see that his feet were bare. As he began to move toward me I ducked back into a niche formed by some buttressing. He walked calmly, covering his face and most of his body in the hooded cloak. As he passed near, I saw something within the cloak: a glint, a shape…
I had spent my life thieving. I understood. The criminal, daring and athletic in the extreme, had used an upper window, breaking glass and dislodging the iron bars – if they were not dislodged in advance.
My first thought was to my friend, who had pledged his life to guard that golden doll. Yet I could do nothing but follow the cloaked figure, who proceeded with normal gait to the road above the abbey: the road east, out of Conques.
And now another question was answered.
I was puzzling why he chose the morning light for his theft and escape, rather than cover of dark. Further up the incline on that road east, I saw a company of horsemen, waiting. Up there, they would not be heard till the barefoot thief joined them. Then a swift escape in sufficient light for a gallop, with one of the greatest treasures of Christendom. All of this, I, a thief myself, understood quickly. There was no time left.
From inside my garments I drew my sling. It was already loaded with a lethal creek stone of perfect size. I had been keeping it at the ready, after so many dangers in those first days. I sensed that a warning would be vain, but still had hopes that this criminal was not also the murderer of my friend. I gave him a chance, as I had been given so many chances this last week.
“Halt, thief. Thief of Saint Faith!”
The figure stopped, turned just slightly, then broke into a swift trot, the cape ballooning behind.
The sling was already whirring when I cried out, now it moaned, just before the release.
It seemed to me that the fleeing figure was at first confused, then he half-understood, all within a tiny moment. He slowed, turning slightly toward the sound…and toward death. The stone crashed into the side of his head, all the more deadly for that slight turn.
I rushed toward him, to retrieve the reliquary. A concentrated clatter of hooves and metal. Up on the rise, the horsemen had seen the event and moved about uncertainly. Perhaps they might have charged down the road to gain the prize, but now monks were rushing forward from the abbey, townsfolk were emerging. After some indecisive jostling, the horsemen turned about and fled.
We were left with the body, and the reliquary of Saint Faith, poking out from a fold of the dead man’s cloak. Yet as the monks clustered about me, horrified or relieved, my only thought was for the occupant of the treasury, the more-than-father who had made a true pilgrim of this gutter-crawling ponot. What did I not owe to that man, if he was but a man?
“Excellency, we must look to Unnamed! I saw the thief emerge from an upper window. There is surely some harm done to my master…He may be in pain…or…”
The abbot, who was crouched over the body, the reliquary cradled in his right arm, now spoke.
“Unnamed is certainly dead, Little Brother.”
“He is dead. You have killed him.”
The abbot pulled the hood from the head of the corpse. The bloodied face I saw was the face of Unnamed.
“Unnamed. My other father! A thief! A trafficker in relics!”
I collapsed to my knees and sobbed. The new life was ebbing from me, the old could not return. I was a shell, and as I ground my forehead against the cobbles, those are the unlikely words which gushed from me.
“I am a shell. I am a shell. Every choice of my life, a plague on myself and others. This was my best choice, I believed he was Saint James, and now – see! – he was a thief. I am empty, a shell, a shell…”
The abbot had moved and now knelt by me. His free arm was around my shoulder. The golden face of the reliquary was turned toward me.
“Your master was the greatest of thieves, the most patient and deceiving of all who commit furta sacra – except for one other. Three hundred years ago, our own Brother Armisdus was despatched to the monastery of Agen. There he prayed and laboured ten years, till he was so trusted that he was able to get his hands on the saint and translate her here.
“You call yourself a shell? The very word, Conques, means ‘shell’ in the old language. We were empty, till the saint consented to come here. And now – see! – she has planned it so that she can stay. The greatest living thief, perhaps in the service of the bishop of Agen…”
“Or even the bishop of Saint Denis!” broke in one of the older monks.
“Brother Justus may be right. This is clearly the most elaborate and expensive attempt at a furtum sacrum. Unnamed may well have been serving those Parisians, whose power is almost without limit. Yet now you know there is a power which exceeds all…
“Little Brother Pilgrim, Saint Faith is violent, unrestrained. Scholars say that, amongst all the blessed, she gives no respect to any but to the Supreme and Our Lady. Even Saint Michael and, as you see, Saint James, must endure her storms and caprices. You must accept her way. You are no shell. You are her vessel.”
“But I have killed a man who was my second father. I have sent him to hell, as a thief!”
“To hell? This noble translator? And do you think our own Brother Armisdus is in hell? Little Brother Pilgrim, those who commit holy thefts, furta sacra, are the instruments of saints. They may gain great renown, or lose their lives. Some, of the lower sort, may indeed be sordid in their motives, but can you believe such a thing of this great man who has been your companion of the Way? What greater discipline than his? What greater patience? No, Little Brother, Unnamed will surely be ranged in heaven with our own Brother Armisdus, and a few other chosen translators of the saints. Moreover, as such a fierce Protector of the Way, he will surely be clasped by Saint James.”
Composing myself a little, I looked up at the abbot and asked:
“My Lord Abbot, those Latin words you use…which refer to such…such holy thefts…May I hear them again?”
“Furta sacra, my son, furta sacra.”
Furta sacra, furta sacra.
Thus was set the pattern of my life. Men must not know all of what I have done. Much was secret, and will remain so. Yet I can hint, can I not?
When Saint Quitterie, head and body, was translated from an obscure and shabby church in Galicia, and brought back to her place of glory in Aire sur l’Adour, to be visited by millions on the Way of Saint James…who may have been the happy translator? Who could have had such skill, such daring and endurance?
And what of a certain saint whose tears flowed over the dead body of our Saviour? The very nose which sniffled back those tears now lies in a sanctuary so rich that even Charlemagne would envy it. Yes, the nose that cures the various rheums and wheezes of the faithful who continue to heap more riches upon its pious guardians…Who may have been the translator of that most sacred of noses?
But I must be silent about the second half of my life. All know what I do, or, at least, what I have done till now. In these coarsening modern times, there are these new men, these larger political entities with rigid laws. Many now lack basic understanding of the translation of saints. Even within the bosom of the church, there are these faddish Cistercians, in particular, who think of relics as mere withered body parts, and question not only their provenance but even their effect! There is no greater crudity than that of the over-educated. Followers of Bernard the Bore! Such nagging, carping finger-waggers, these Cistercians!
I hope that Brother Peter is not writing all of what I say. Perhaps there will be a corrected copy, and this testimony can be kept for all who are true Christians of the old sort, and, in especial, for devotees of the greatest of the saints.
For that is what she is. Saint Faith is the greatest of saints. She meted out insolence to the mightiest of all pagan races, yet, in death, she tolerates not the mildest slight to her sacred person. She is unquestioning faith, never herself to be questioned. She gives always, demands always.
My riches are hers. If she has let me keep some of the overflow, tolerated certain amorous escapades of mine, especially in Italy, it is because I will give all to her if asked. When I leapt into a freezing moat in Spain – with a certain spoon from a certain holy supper – I leapt, not into a moat, but into the arms of Saint Faith.
I am the adopted but honoured son of Conques, the most illustrious citizen of the Shell. I remain faithful to the memory of my mentor, Unnamed, and I am devotee of Saint James, whose Way I protect, improve and enrich.
Above all, I am hers. I am the Thief of Saint Faith.
Sancta Fides, ora pro nobis.