Lenobia's Vow

Page 3

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“It is a shame his faith was not as great as his clumsiness. He almost burned my stables to the ground. It has naught to do with me that after an injury of his own causing he renounced his charge to our priesthood and retreated home to the wealth of his family.”

“Jean tells a very different story. He says he confronted you about your cruel treatment of his fellow novices and your anger was so great that you set him, and the stables around him, afire.”

Charles felt the rage begin to burn within him, and as he spoke, the flames of the candles in their ornate silver holders that sat at either end of the dining table flickered wildly, growing brighter with each word. “You will not come into my church and make accusations against me.”

The old priest’s eyes widened as he stared at the growing flames. “It is true what they are saying about you. I did not believe it until now.” But instead of retreating or reacting in fear, as Charles had come to expect, de Juigne reached into his robes and pulled out a folded parchment, holding it before him like a warrior’s shield.

Charles stroked the ruby cross that sat hot and heavy on his chest. He had actually begun to move his other hand—to flick his fingers toward the nearest candle flame, which writhed brighter and brighter, as if beckoning his touch—but the thick leaden seal on the parchment sent ice through his veins.

“A papal bull!” Charles felt his breath leave him with his words, as if the seal had, indeed, been a shield that had been hurled against his body.

“Yes, His Holiness sent me. His Holiness knows I am here and, as you may read for yourself, if I or any in my party meet with an unfortunate fiery accident, his mercy will turn to retribution and his vengeance against you will be swift. Had you not been so distracted with defiling the chancel you would have noticed my escort was not made up of priests. The Pope sent his own personal guard with me.”

With hands that trembled, Charles took the bull and broke the seal. As he read, the Archbishop’s voice filled the chamber around him as if narrating the younger priest’s doom.

“You have been watched closely for almost one year. Reports have been made to His Holiness, who has come to the decision that your predilection for fire may not be the manifestation of demonic influence, as many of us believe. His Holiness is willing to give you an opportunity to use your unusual affinity in service of the church by protecting those who are most vulnerable. And nowhere is the church more vulnerable than in New France.”

Charles came to the end of the bull and looked up at the Archbishop. “The Pope is sending me to New Orleans.”

“He is.”

“I will not go. I will not leave my cathedral.”

“That is your decision to make, Father Charles. But know that if you choose not to obey, His Holiness has commanded that you be seized by his guards, excommunicated, found guilty of sorcery, and then we shall all see if your love of fire is as great when you are bound to a stake and set ablaze yourself.”

“Then I have no choice at all.”

The Archbishop shrugged and then stood. “It is more of a choice than I advised you be given.”

“When do I leave?”

“You must leave here immediately. It is a two-day carriage ride to Le Havre. In three days the Minerva sets sail. His Holiness charges that your protection of the Catholic Church begins the moment you step upon the soil of the New World, where you will take up the seat of Bishop of the Cathedral Saint Louis.” Antoine’s smile was disdainful. “You will not find New Orleans as generous as Évreux, but you may find that the parishioners in the New World are more forgiving of your, shall we say, eccentricities.” The Archbishop began to shuffle toward the door, but he paused and looked back at Charles. “What are you? Tell me truly and I will say nothing to His Holiness.”

“I am a humble servant of the church. Anything else has been exaggerated by the jealousy and superstition of others.”

The Archbishop shook his head and said no more before leaving the room. As the door closed, Charles fisted both of his hands and smashed them into the table, causing the cutlery and plates to tremble and the flames of the candles to writhe and spill wax down their sides as if they wept with pain.

* * *

For the two-day journey from the Château de Navarre to the port of Le Havre, mist and rain wrapped Lenobia’s carriage in a veil of gray that was so thick and impenetrable, it seemed to Lenobia that she had been carried from the world she knew and the mother she loved to an unending purgatory. She spoke to no one during the day. The coach paused briefly only for her to attend to the most basic of bodily functions, and then they continued until dark. Each of the two nights, the driver stopped at lovely roadside inns where the madams of the establishments would take charge of Cecile Marson de La Tour d’Auvergne, clucking about her being so young and unchaperoned and, almost beyond her hearing, gossip with the serving girls about how atroce and effrayant it must be to be on her way to marry a faceless stranger in another world.

“Terrible … frightening…” Lenobia would repeat. Then she’d hold her mother’s rosary beads and pray, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women…” over and over again, just as her mother had for as long as she could remember, until the sounds of the servants’ whispering were drowned out by the memory of her mother’s voice.

On the third morning they arrived in the port city of Le Havre and, for a fleeting moment, the rain stopped and the mist parted. The scent of fish and the sea permeated everything. When the driver finally stopped and Lenobia stepped from the carriage down to the dock, a brisk, cool breeze chased away the last of the clouds and the sun beamed as if in welcome, flashing on a lavishly painted frigate that bobbed restlessly at anchor nearby in the bay.

Lenobia stared at the ship in awe. All across the top of the hull was a band of blue on which intricate gold filigree was painted that reminded her of flowers and ivy. She could see orange and black and yellow decorating other parts of the hull, as well as the deck. And facing her was the figurehead of a goddess, arms outstretched, gown flowing fiercely in carved and captured wind. She was helmeted as if for war. Lenobia had no idea why, but the sight of the goddess had her breath catching and her heart fluttering.

“Mademoiselle d’Auvergne? Mademoiselle? Excusez-moi, êtes vous Cecile Marson de La Tour d’Auvergne?”

The flapping of the nun’s brown habit caught Lenobia’s attention before her words were truly understandable. Am I Cecile? With a jolt Lenobia realized that the Sister had been calling to her from across the dock, and in getting no response, the nun had broken from a group of richly dressed young women and approached her, concern clear in her expression as well as her voice.

“It—it is beautiful!” Lenobia blurted the first thought that fully formed in her mind.

The nun smiled. “It is, indeed. And if you are Cecile Marson de La Tour d’Auvergne you will be pleased to know that it is more than just beautiful. It is the means by which you will embark upon an entirely new life.”

Lenobia drew a deep breath, pressed her hand to her breast so that she could feel the pressure of her mother’s rosary beads, and said, “Yes, I am Cecile Marson de La Tour d’Auvergne.”

“Oh, I am so glad! I am Sister Marie Madeleine Hachard, and you are the last of the mademoiselles. Now that you are here we can board.” The nun’s brown eyes were kind. “Is it not a lovely omen that you brought the sun with your arrival?”

“I hope so, Sister Marie Madeleine,” Lenobia said, and then had to walk quickly to catch up with the nun as she hurried, with a flutter of her robes, back to the waiting, staring girls.

“It is Mademoiselle d’Auvergne, and we are now all arrived.” The nun motioned imperiously to several dockhands who were standing about doing nothing more than sneaking curious looks at the group of girls. “Allons-y! Take us to the Minerva, and be careful and quick about it. Commodore Cornwallis is eager to sail with the tide.” As the men were scrambling to do her bidding and get a rowboat ready to transport them to the ship, the nun turned back to the girls. With a sweep of her hand she said, “Mademoiselles, let us step into the future!”

Lenobia joined the group, quickly scanning the girls’ faces, holding her breath and hoping that none of them would be familiar to her. She breathed a long, shaky sigh of relief when all she recognized was the similarity of their fearful expressions. Even so, she purposefully remained on the outskirts of the women, focusing her gaze and her attention on the ship and the rowboat that would take them to it.

“Bonjour, Cecile.” A girl who looked as if she could not be older than thirteen spoke to Lenobia with a soft, shy voice. “Je m’appelle Simonette LaVigne.”

“Bonjour,” Lenobia said, trying to smile.

The girl moved closer to her. “Are you very, very afraid?”

Lenobia studied her. She was certainly beautiful, with long, dark hair curling over her shoulders and a smooth, guileless face the color of new cream, her complexion marred only by two bright pink spots on her cheeks. She was terrified, Lenobia realized.

Lenobia glanced at the rest of the girls in the group, this time really seeing them. They were all attractive, well dressed, and about her age. They were also wide-eyed and trembling. A few of them were weeping softly. One of the little blondes was shaking her head over and over and clutching a diamond-encrusted crucifix that hung from her neck on a thick gold chain. They are all afraid, Lenobia thought.

She smiled at Simonette, and this time actually managed more than a grimace. “No, I am not afraid,” Lenobia heard herself say in a voice that sounded much stronger than she felt. “I think the ship is beautiful.”

“B-but I c-cannot swim!” stammered the trembling little blonde.

Swim? I am worried about being discovered as an impostor, never seeing my mother again, and facing life in a strange, foreign land. How could she be worried about swimming? The burst of laughter that escaped Lenobia drew the attention of all the girls, as well as Sister Marie Madeleine.

“Do you laugh at me, mademoiselle?” the girl asked her.

Lenobia cleared her throat and said, “No, of course not. I was only thinking how funny we would all look trying to swim to the New World. We would be like floating flowers.” She laughed again, this time less hysterically. “But is it not better that we have this magnificent ship to swim us there, instead?”

“What is this talk of swimming?” said Sister Marie Madeleine. “None of us need know how to swim. Mademoiselle Cecile was right to laugh at such a thought.” The nun walked to the edge of the dock, where the sailors were waiting impatiently for the girls to begin boarding. “Now, come along. We need to get settled into our quarters so the Minerva can get under way.” Without so much as a backward glance, Sister Marie Madeleine took the hand of the nearest sailor and stepped awkwardly but enthusiastically into the bobbing rowboat. She had taken a seat and was rearranging her voluminous brown habit before she noticed none of the girls had followed her.

Lenobia noted that several of the mademoiselles had taken steps backward, and tears seemed to be spreading like a pestilence through the group.

This isn’t as terrifying as leaving my mother, Lenobia told herself firmly. Nor is it as frightening as being the bastard daughter of an uncaring baron. With no more hesitation, Lenobia strode to the edge of the dock. She held out her hand, as if she were accustomed to servants automatically being there to help her, and before she had time to rethink her boldness, she was in the little boat taking a seat on the bench beside Sister Marie Madeleine. The nun reached over and squeezed her hand briefly but firmly.

“That was well done,” said the Sister.

Lenobia lifted her chin and met Simonette’s gaze. “Come on, little flower! You have nothing to fear.”

“Oui!” Simonette said, picking up her skirts and hurrying forward to take the sailor’s offered hand. “If you can do it, I can do it.”

And that broke the dam of resistance. Soon all of the girls were being handed into the boat. Tears turned to smiles as the confidence of the group built and their terror evaporated, leaving relieved sighs and even some hesitant laughter.

Lenobia wasn’t sure when her own smile changed from something inauthentic that she’d forced to honest pleasure, but as the last girl clambered aboard she realized the tightness in her chest had eased, as if the ache in her heart might actually become bearable.

The sailors had rowed them almost all the way to the ship, and Simonette had been chattering about how even though she was almost sixteen years old, she had never before seen the ocean and perhaps she was just a little bit excited, when a gilded carriage pulled up and a tall, purple-robed man exited. He walked to the edge of the dock and glared from the group of girls to the waiting ship. Everything about him—from his stance to the dark look on his face—appeared angry, aggressive, and familiar. Sickeningly familiar …

Lenobia was staring at him with a growing feeling of disbelief and dismay. No, please, let it not be him!

“His face frightens me.” Simonette spoke softly. She, too, was staring at the man on the distant dock.

Sister Marie Madeleine patted her hand reassuringly and responded. “I was notified just this morning that the lovely Cathedral of Saint Louis will be gaining a new bishop. That must be him.” The nun smiled kindly at Simonette. “There is no reason for you to be frightened. It is a blessing to have the good bishop traveling with us to New Orleans.”

“Do you know which parish he is from?” Lenobia asked, even though she knew the answer before the nun confirmed her dread.

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