Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Mount St Bernard Abbey, Leicestershire

It had snowed heavily, but that was not something likely to trouble Lady March. We had agreed on what she called a 'winter picnic'. This involved my car, a large hamper in which plum brandy was to be found and at least four blankets and three shawls.

"There is no reason to be cold, even at a picnic," she observed.

As we had agreed on the picnic, my Lady was determined it should happen. She insisted that the snow should not spoil an agreed engagement and so it was that I drove up to the Hotel Royale to collect her. My car, the grand and heavy Ligniere IV had belonged to my father and on his retirement with my mother some years ago it had come to me. Lady March had three bellboys in attendance. She smiled on all of them and more to the point gave them each a generous tip.

"I have always loved to be waited on by gorgeous young boys," she said as we drove away.

I did not comment. I merely inquired after the news, for my Lady is better than the Gazette and much better informed than the Journal. I listened then to the news as I drove the Ligniere out of town and towards Cambreaux Hill. There we stopped and having parked the car overlooking the Vale I got into the back with Lady March and we gazed delightedly over the snowy landscape. In the distance was Silverdale Village and White Carn, but it was the imposing presence of the ruined Cambreaux Abbey that filled the more immediate foreground.

The abbey was a fine ruin, still apparently owned by the Rangiferens, a medieval order of monks in their pale brown habits with white fronts. The Abbey had been built by local worthies for the monks on condition that the monks would pray for the local community. They agreed, the Rangiferens praying not only for their own sins but those of others, out of compassion. So the abbey was built, though now it is a ruin fit only for the deer to roam about in.

"Do you know how the abbey came to be a ruin, Mr Pelland?" Lady March asked.

I admitted that I did not and sensing a tale, which my Lady knows I love, I poured another glass of plum brandy for us both and settled back so that I should see both the abbey and my dear friend. She was old now, but as robust as a bear. Her hair was long and soft and white as the snow that surrounded us. Her eyes were still bright and dark and I smiled to think that I had been lucky to have her friendship for so long. She too settled into the seat and gazed down upon the abbey.

"Soon after it had been built - about the 1400s I think, the then bishop wished to extend the abbey," she began.

"On one side were peasant farms, but the monks would not build there. But to the other side as there still is, is Cambreaux Forest. The bishop thought that some of this woodland might be cleared and the abbey extended that side. The peasants advised the monks that this would be extremely dangerous for the wood was full of bluebells and that most definitely meant a faerie wood. But the bishop and the monks dismissed the very idea of the faeries. They cleared the trees and used the wood to make beams for the extension. The bishop placed iron crucifixes all around the site to keep the faeries out, for he had read up on faerie-lore.

Well as you may imagine, the faeries were furious, but could not stand against the cold iron. They made the rest of the wood very dangerous for anyone in any religious order. A visiting bishop was turned into a hedge-pig and three nuns were turned into swans. Then the faeries found a friend, a young woman. She had been brought up in the village of Cambreaux, for there was a village in those days. This young woman was called Marianne la Louvainoise for it was widely believed that her mother was from Louvain. Marianne tore up the iron crosses and made a gap in their wall. Through it, the faeries swarmed and took vengeance upon the Rangiferens Order. The bishop they turned into a goat, but the monks they turned into reindeer. Yes, Mr Pelland, those deer who roam about the ruin are the descendants of the monks who once lived at the abbey.

They made ivy grow and tear the stones of the abbey into fragments. They made oaks and beeches push up through the foundations and broke up the abbey so that it should always be a ruin. Even now, nobody will dare to renovate it for fear of what may happen. The developer Armand Snodgrass had thought of buying up the land, but his lawyers advised against it and indeed, local opinion was against him too.

As for why Marianne had done such a thing, well that came out soon enough. It seems the bishop had taken a fancy to her mother and in her confession, he had begotten on her a child. When the unfortunate woman raised up her anger and accusation, he condemned her as a witch and had her burned at the stake. Marianne's father had fled in terror taking his children with him, but Marianne was the child of the bishop and was brought up to know it. She kept her anger simmering until she saw her chance, living wild in the forest like an animal. When her chance came for revenge of her own, she let the faeries take it for her. The bishop who had been turned into a goat, she tied up and burned as the bishop had her mother. After that she left Cambreaux and came to the city. I don't entirely know what became of her there," Lady March said softly.

I had caught that word, 'entirely', but I knew that she would not discuss it and it would have been considered vulgar had I pursued it. She would tell me in her own time I had no doubt. We finished our brandy and leaning across I kissed her face softly. She smiled and patted my hand.

"A little coffee perhaps my dear?" she suggested.

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