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, Northrop Frye
Montglane Abbey, France
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 rockfrom the crest of the mountain. The fortresslike structure had remained untouched 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.