Thursday, 25 August 2011
Bishop Osric rode up the hill on the little jennet without fanfare or fuss. It was as he preferred. When the monks at St Cuthbert's had protested that he was a bishop he remarked that the little jennet was fine for him as an ass had been for the Virgin when the Holy Family had fled from Herod. That one witty monk had remarked that Christ himself had entered a city on Palm Sunday to much fanfare and fuss the bishop had only a smile and a wagging finger.
"Very good Brother Simon, very good. Nonetheless, less fuss is liable to attract less bandits," he remarked.
For there were still outlaws in the great forests of England then and not all of them as kindly as Robin in the Hood. Bishop Osric was not afraid of outlaws particularly, he was as broad and stout as an oak church door and his faith was such that little but the anger of the Lord was liable to frighten him. In His wisdom He had not seen fit to scare Osric yet. Osric was a tall man, with dark bushy hair and sparkling blue eyes. He looked like a knight - indeed he had been one in his young days, more like to fight than befriend. Perhaps because of his youth he was compassionate and gentle, slow to judge and to anger. He had been a good bishop, well-loved at St Cuthbert's, but when the call came to move onwards to Sainte Marie de la Rose he took up what little he had and the jennet riding to the coast and to France. The crossing from England had been calm and inspired in him all the memories of earlier times. As a bishop rather than a knight travel was easy enough and he was fluent in Latin, the language mainly used at the time. He blessed the ship and the crew and arriving at Calais he had mounted upon his jennet and rode south towards Sainte Marie de la Rose.
When he had climbed the first rise on foot and leading the placid jennet, speaking kind words of encouragement the view that rewarded him was of a walled town on a far hill with the tall spired cathedral above the houses at the centre of the town. Like a shepherd looking over his sheep, Osric had told the jennet with a slow smile. Then they had slowly and cautiously headed down into the valley, Osric taking care not to lead the jennet along paths unsuitable for it's hooves. The valley was a patchwork of fields in varying shades of green for it was the middle of spring. Between them the road was a dusty dark reddish colour that spoke of iron ore in the soil. Good for plants, Osric told himself remembering his books on gardening. He had led the jennet down to the valley where they rested at an inn. The jennet feasted on oats and the bishop on a roasted fowl and a bottle of good wine. Two men, merchants by the look of them joined him and in the conversation Osric revealed that he was for the abbey of Sainte Marie de la Rose. The conversation suddenly became brittle and bright like thin ice, but nothing Osric could ask would induce the men to say anything more of the abbey. Only their nervous glances at each other told him anything he cared to guess at.
Osric was no fool, he did not like to make conclusions without any facts and it seemed to him that all he could do was continue on his way. He changed the subject to farming and the iron rich soil instead and a farmer, overhearing the conversation joined them. They did not speak Latin but the language of the Occitan, which Osric had learned as a knight. When the words were spoken the language came back to him, haltingly at first then fluent as an undammed stream. He revelled in the sounds of the words in his mouth, generous sounds that reminded him of Baudoin his friend whom he had not seen for many years.
When he left the men he was in largely contented mood, helped by the fowl and the wine. The jennet he walked up the hill into the town and through the streets with their noise and bustle. He noticed the open, friendly faces of the people and their conversations about him cheered him. He arrived at the abbey in a good and happy mood therefore. He was met by a monk who hearing that he was the bishop called for the monks to come. The little jennet was led away to a stable and Osric's belongings were carried inside. At the right of the hallway was a small spiralling staircase that Osric glanced at.
"Where does that go?" he asked in Occitan.
The monk suddenly seemed afraid and pretended - openly pretended not to understand. Osric let it go, he was just arrived and no doubt there was much to learn. He was led to a finely appointed apartment, his belongings placed on the rug in the main chamber. His aide a small intense man called Brother Philippe came to him and asked if he had eaten. He replied that he had and said that he would speak with Brother Philippe about the abbey. During the conversation, the small staircase came up.
Brother Philippe smiled tightly and sighed,
"Perhaps we can come back to that your Grace," he said tactfully.
But Osric had the distinct feeling that after all the discussions nothing would be heard of it again.
"Perhaps not, Brother Philippe. If there is something I need to know then I would prefer the fears of other men not prevent me from knowing it," he remarked.
Brother Philippe gazed down at his feet and when he raised his eyes to the bishop he seemed to have aged a thousand years at least.
"Your Grace has no doubt heard of the phrase 'esprit d'escalier', a Norman phrase meaning literally the spirit of the staircase. On that staircase it is said - no, there is literally a spirit. It has asked anyone who dares to use the stairs a question. And pitched anyone who has not the answer to a terrible death. Nobody has correctly answered the question. By accident, someone listening at the bottom of the stairs heard the question shortly before another unfortunate victim was thrown down the stairs to their death. I forget it accurately now, but I am sure I can find it for you. The previous bishop on being told insisted on climbing the stairs to meet the challenge. You are his replacement, your grace. So you may understand why anyone wishes to speak of it," Philippe told him.
"I am grateful nonetheless. Had I unknowing gone up those stairs I might have been the spirit's next victim. Do please let me know what the question is. Perhaps by studying it we can find an answer to it and put an end to this spirit's fatal haunting," Osric answered.
That evening, as Osric stood at the bottom of the small staircase he said a prayer for the victims of the spirit. Then calling up the stairs he said angrily,
"You ought to be ashamed to kill those who cannot answer a question. Be you devil or ghost you shall not last."
He turned away and down the stairs came the distinct sound of laughter. He growled and walked away. He would fight the battle, but on his terms as much as possible. In the evening after supper as he strolled in the fine library of the abbey enjoying the books, Brother Philippe came to him.
"Your Grace the question the spirit asks is this, 'How do eggs backwards conquer everything?' A most peculiar question you will admit. An egg backwards is an egg still. It conquers nothing, unless it may mean that we are born of eggs in our mothers and have the capacity to conquer everything. Which is foolish as your Grace knows. Only God conquers everything," the young aide remarked.
Even as he spoke Osric turned to the windows and smiled. At the young man's last remark he suddenly burst out into laughter. Outside the spring evening was darkening. Cloud shadows crawled or dashed across the landscape and the sun was going down in the west.
"Where is the top of the staircase, Brother Philippe?" Osric asked him.
"Why at the far end of the corridor outside your chamber your Grace," Philippe told him.
"Will you have my vestments ready at the foot of the staircase in the morning," Osric asked.
"Your Grace, vestments? Or a coffin? Surely your Grace is not going to dare the spirit?" Philippe asked him.
"If that is the only question he asks then certainly I shall," Osric answered quietly.
"I beg your Grace to reconsider. You have only just arrived and there is much to do - so much to do. At least wait until after a year," Philippe begged him.
"Yes, the garden is to be dealt with and we need to raise funds for the vestry and there is more work to be done to help the poor in the city. Have my vestments and a jug of coffee in my office. We shall have work to do indeed," Osric answered.
"But your Grace, I implore you," Philippe cried out.
"Is that the only question he asks?" Osric turned to ask his aide and his blue eyes were firm.
"That was the question heard your Grace but if there is another, we know not," was the answer.
"Then obey me and trust in God," Osric answered.
Seeing the distress on the young man's face he embraced him and sent him to his bed. But the next morning when Osric opened the door of his apartment he found Brother Philippe asleep across the threshold. He smiled and covering the young man with a quilt he left the apartment and trod quietly along the corridor. About him were bound pillows and quilts, especially about his head and neck. He began to descend the stairs, in the dark for nobody dared light the lanterns. He wished he had brought a taper but still he continued until he became aware that something or someone else was present on the stairs with him.
"Answer my question and you descend the stairs alive. Fail and you descend into the other place," a hollow and solemn voice demanded of him.
"If I answer the question, you will leave this place and all in it never to return. And for all those you have killed you will undoubtedly go to the place below," Osric answered.
The presence of something became someone he was sure, for he felt his arms gripped as if by someone made of iron himself. The being laughed and agreed,
"But you must answer my question first," it said inexorably.
"By the Good God then ask it," Osric answered coolly.
"How do eggs backwards conquer everything?" the being asked him.
"By being Love," Osric said quietly, "Eggs in Latin is ova from the singular ovum. Backwards it is avo the sign lovers wear on their jewellery meaning Amor vincit omnia - Love conquers everything. Now, in the name of He who is Love I command you leave and never return."
The being shrieked once a sound that seemed to shatter the very stones around them.
"I bid you remember Jehan of the Well. Even I loved and for it I was pelted with eggs from this stair by her friends. Since then I have sought revenge for the affronts offered to me!" the being wailed.
Then the grip on his arms was no longer there and Osric felt that he was alone again. Quietly and thoughtfully he descended the stairs to the astonishment of those who met him. He put on his vestments and blessed them all. Turning to the stairs he blessed also the memory of Jehan of the Well and went into breakfast with his fellows.