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Authors: Ann Elwood

A Provençal Mystery

BOOK: A Provençal Mystery
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A Proven
çal Mystery

Ann Elwood

To the nuns and fallen women in the Old Regime convents of Notre Dame du Refuge.

Ann Elwood, 2442 Montgomery Avenue,

Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California 92007

[email protected]

ISBN-13: 978-1477692301

ISBN-10: 1477692304


Avignon, France, March 1944

Clicking like a metronome, the scissor blades flashed in the bright light coming through the long glass doors. Naomi cut each thread as if it were an enemy.

Henriette's eyes clouded with tears.

“An adult can disappear into another family. As a sister. Aunt. Brother. A child cannot so easily,” Naomi said, as she pried the cloth star off the small blue coat. “People wonder what happened to the child's parents.”

“We will take good care of her,” replied Henriette, knowing the answer was not enough.

The child, Ruth, played with alphabet blocks under the grand piano. Was she really so intent in arranging a tower that she hadn’t heard what they were talking about?

Threads still clung to the yellow star. Naomi smoothed it out on the palm of her hand and threw it into the heart of the fire burning in the fireplace. Then she handed Henriette an embroidered knitting bag with wide cream-colored celluloid handles; it bulged as if it held a large ball. “This belongs to Ruth,” she said. “Open it only after you reach the convent. Keep it for her.”

“I want to carry it, Mama,” Ruth said.

“It’s too heavy,” Naomi replied. She held the coat out and Ruth put her arms in it..

“You said it’s mine,” Ruth said.

“For your future. Henriette will keep it safe for you.” Naomi knelt down and put a cloth shopping bag in Ruth’s hand. “Here, you can carry this. It has your clothes in it. Your favorite dress. The one with the bunnies embroidered on the yoke. ”

Outside, Ruth strained away from Henriette and toward the departing figure of her mother, who had walked off quickly, despair in every line of her body, and, Henriette thought, hesitant to look back because she might change her mind. Ruth’s fingers felt stiff in hers. A trusting child’s hand nests when you hold it—Henriette, who had cared for her two younger sisters, knew that. She tightened her grip, afraid Ruth would break free, reel away, and fall. Then she crouched down and wrapped her right arm around the child’s body; she could feel the little knobs of her backbone.

Over Ruth’s shoulder, fragile as a bird’s, Henriette saw Naomi disappear through the Porte St. Dominique, an arch in the stone ramparts, leaving blank space behind her. Gone. A family almost entirely gone. Barbara, Ruth’s older sister. Michel Vallebois, her father. Her grandparents. Her mother Naomi would be next. She had already gotten the notice from Vichy. Only Ruth would be left. Four years old. Very young. Too young to die. Henriette didn’t let the thought linger in her head; she, too, at eighteen, was too young to die.

On Ruth's coat, Henriette could see the tiny holes making an outline of a six-pointed star. If not as obvious, the outline was more damning than the star itself. Something had to be done about it. She put down the heavy bag, unbuttoned the coat, put one hand under it, and rubbed her thumb over the top. Hard. Where the holes were. The holes became smaller, but they were still there.

“It’s warm,” she said to Ruth. “I’ll carry your coat for you.” She stood, lifted the coat off Ruth’s shoulders, and folded it over her arm.

Ruth shivered a little. She was wearing a thin brown cotton dress with white smocking. “I’m cold,” she said. “Where did my mama go?”

“We’ll walk fast,” Henriette replied. “That will warm you up.”

She pulled the child along as they walked along the Rhone River outside the ramparts towards the Porte de l’Oulle. The river rolled opaque and silent in the light of the spring evening. The sun’s edge had already dropped down below the arch of the Benezet Bridge. It was wartime, and no young couples lay together on the grassy strip on the river bank—the men were gone off to war or the Resistance. Older couples strolled slowly, waiting to watch the sunset. Henriette and Naomi had chosen this time: it was after business hours, yet still light out, and most people were home getting ready for dinner. Only a few cars, mostly Peugeots, drove the Arles-Orange road. Once a black Daimler on official business roared past, and a shudder of fear ran through Henriette. Out in the open like this. they were vulnerable. At any moment, someone might stop them, figure out who Ruth was, and give them away to Vichy officials.

“Where did mama go?” Ruth said.

“She had something to take care of, my dear one.”


“We’ll talk about that later.” Henriette felt Ruth’s hand go slack and knew the child had sensed something was very wrong and was gathering energy for another escape attempt. She was ready for it when it came and quickly drew Ruth back to her. After putting down the bag, she pointed up and said, “Look, there’s the Palace,” thinking to distract her.

Avignon’s Papal Palace, with its deep yellow stones, loomed above them on a hill inside the ramparts. Its square towers were crenellated, convenient for archers taking aim; in the waists of the tower gaped rows of dark openings through which stones or boiling oil could cascade down on enemies. Henriette saw the Palace every day, and every day, now particularly, she had the feeling that God had never lived there.

“I want my mama,” Ruth said. “Let me go.”

“Shhh. You must be quiet,” Henriette said. Anxiety made her too quick to speak: “If you don’t come quietly with me, something very bad might happen.” It was the wrong thing to say, even if it was the truth. Ruth lowered her eyebrows, her lips drooped, and tears stood unshed in her eyes. Henriette wanted to cry with her. Trust me, Ruth, she thought, trying to send a silent message. Forget what I said. I often speak before I think. “We’ll walk quickly,” she finally said. “Quick. Quick. Like a rabbit? A rabbit game.”

“A rabbit game?” Ruth peered up through her glasses.

“Let’s skip,” Henriette said. “Can you skip?”

A little smile broke out on Ruth’s face. “Yes,” she said proudly, “I can skip.” With the palm of her hand, she pushed her long, dark hair off her face, as if she were brushing away her tears. The movement put her glasses askew, and she straightened them.

“Come on, then! We’ll skip like rabbits.”

“Rabbits don’t skip,” the little girl said. “They hop.”

“But we’re magic rabbits!”

Ruth smiled wider. Magic? She understood that.

The slapping of their leather soles as they hit the stones was loud in Henriette’s ears. Maybe it had been a mistake to lure the child into skipping; it made the two of them conspicuous. A tantrum would be worse, though. Henriette adjusted her speed to the child’s. It had seemed so simple—to lead Ruth to safety at the convent, where she would spend the night. She had not counted on Ruth’s reactions.

As the sun was plunging down into the Rhone, they turned through the arch at Porte de l’Oulle, into the Place Crillon, and then on to the little street leading to the convent. The shadow of the hill above turned the street into a cavern. The darkness was no better, perhaps worse, than the terrible openness of the space outside the ramparts. Here, evil things could happen without witnesses.

In the window of Jean and Marie’s bakery only a few pastries sat on glass shelves. The butcher’s shop was shuttered. He had sold the last of his meat on Tuesday. The rack outside the tabac stood empty; somehow Monsieur Le Brun always ran out of newspapers—those newspapers, controlled by Vichy, whose headlines proclaimed Nazi victories that clandestine radio broadcasts pronounced defeats.

“We’ll be there soon,” said Henriette.

Ruth said nothing. Concentrating on skipping, she looked down delightedly at her feet as if they were not hers. It was Henriette who saw that the print shop, Imprimerie Vallebois, now stood empty, a shell, except for a litter of ink-stained crumpled paper on the floor. All the shades but one had disappeared from the windows, and that one hung crazily askew. The presses were gone from the floor. Nobody knew where Jacob Vallebois, Ruth’s grandfather, had been taken after someone had denounced him as a Jew. Everyone knew who that someone was, though. And everyone knew who had looted Jacob’s place of business, the business that had been in the family for almost three hundred years. But what could they do?

“Listen,” Henriette said, panting, but only a little and that more from fear than exertion, “this game has two parts.” She wanted to distract the child from seeing what had happened to her grandfather’s place. “At the convent, we have a nice little cot for you to sleep in. Then tomorrow someone will take you to a village in the Luberon mountains, a place called Oppède.”

“I don’t want to go there,” Ruth said.

“But you’ll see very old ruined houses in Oppède. Like playhouses. You’ll stay on a farm. It has goats and chickens. Certainly rabbits. You like rabbits. Dogs and cats. And tonight you can play with the kittens we have at the convent.”

“I don’t want to. I want Mama,” Ruth said, but Henriette heard interest in her voice. “Will Mama be there?”

”No, not now. Your mama has to go away. But she will come for you soon, I think.”

Ruth stopped skipping. “I don’t believe you.”

Oh, God, Henriette thought, children are supposed to believe. “Please, Ruth. Please come with me.”

Ruth's eyes had gone opaque, her face still. She was hiding inside herself, Henriette knew, and she no longer believed in the game. One foot moved forward and she took a step. Then she moved the other foot.

They turned the corner. The high stone wall of the convent loomed ahead. It would be dark soon, though a little light lingered.

Someone smoking a pipe stood near the door. A familiar shape in the half dark. The seigneur.

“Henriette? Is that you?” came a voice, “Why aren’t you wearing your habit?”

After a moment of hesitation, she said, “You know about the shortage of cloth. My habit is being mended. What are you doing here in Avignon, sir?” Oh, no, she thought, the game is up.

“Business. And who is this with you?”

“A new little pensioner for the convent.”

“What do you have in the bag, child? Something precious?” he asked.

Ruth, suspicious, merely nodded.

“Will you show me?”

“No.” the child said, avoiding his eyes. She hugged the bag close to her body and looked up at Henriette. Henriette, afraid that the seigneur would ask why Ruth wasn’t wearing her coat, said nothing.

The seigneur crouched down and stared into the child’s face. “Please,” he said, but his voice commanded, with a command that came from centuries of authority. Reluctantly, Ruth handed him the bag. He took a brief look inside and shoved his arm down into its depths. Henriette knew that all he could feel was cloth. She tried to will into invisibility the heavy embroidered bag she herself was carrying.

“Is this the man who will take me on the rest of the rabbit trip?” Ruth said. “I don’t like him.”

“Tell me about the rabbit trip,” said the seigneur.

“We are going to a very safe place,” said the child. “It’s in the mountains.”

It’s all over, thought Henriette.

“Safe journey,” said the seigneur.


Chapter 1

Avignon, France, January, 1990

“Hell has come to this convent,” read the first sentence. The French, “
L’enfer est arrivé à cet couvent
,” sounded even more ominous than my translation. I found myself saying it half-aloud, stressing the hissing consonants, the dying vowel moan in
. I didn’t care if the other readers in the archive heard me. This was something! An actual thrill—a frisson, the French would call it—ran through me.

At first I restrained myself. I cleared a space by shoving aside my laptop and a haphazard stack of convent books. Then I lay the sheaf of pages down and leafed through them. There were at least twenty, browned and faded with time, each covered with the same precise, tiny handwriting, so embellished with flourishes it would be difficult to read. The last page ended in the middle of a sentence. Somewhere there must be more. On the cover, one loose piece of paper that folded around the pages, the writer identified herself as Sister Rose, the year as 1659. This looked to be a nun's diary, a very rare thing.

A big involuntary smile came over my face. Treasure— historian’s treasure. That first sentence promised an astonishing story. I felt as I did when poised on top of a wave, standing on the Pacific before riding it down, a long joyous slide. I wanted to jump up from the chair, leap up on the wooden library table, and let loose with a long surfer yell.

But historians, even enthusiastic native Californian historians, are not supposed to jump on tables and yell. Especially in the quiet reading room at Avignon’s Archives de Vaucluse, part of a cluster of imposing buildings meant to make humans feel small. Even inside this room, I felt the presence of the massive yellow-stone Papal Palace next door. Its shadow fell over the archive, as it fell over the enormous cobble-stoned plaza fronting it. You couldn’t ride down that history, that towering authority.

So I didn’t yell—or even proclaim my excitement in a loud voice—in spite of the fact I would have loved to see the other readers’ heads snap up, their faces turning horrified as, emboldened by their shock, I jumped up and danced on the table. Who knows? Maurice Chateaublanc, the grumpy archivist, thinking I'd gone mad, would probably call the police. I  didn’t relish the notion of French justice, which was not noted for respecting people's rights.

“Look what I found!” I wanted to say to someone, even if it had to be in a normal voice. But to whom? Most of the long tables in the large reading room stood empty. On a good day in summer, twenty to twenty-five people might be at work. On this winter day there were seven, including me. No point in showing the diary to the French couple researching their families’ histories or the two Mormons in suits and ties who were recording souls for Mormon heaven. They wouldn’t understand its significance. Of the four regulars, only the two other Americans were there. I didn’t trust Jack Leach, the Rutgers graduate student working on his PhD dissertation. And Rachel Marchand was standoffish—after all, she was a rising star in the academic firmament, a full professor at Green Valley, a small but prestigious university in the Midwest, while I was a nobody. The other regulars, Sister Agatha and Madeleine Fabre, had not yet arrived.

I was alone with no one to talk to. The sudden realization made me see myself as someone else might: bent over a document, in a scholarly but taut pose, red hair lit by the Provencal sun that slanted in the high windows. An American woman. A middle-aged woman whose hair turned frizzy when she didn't use the “product” her hair cutter recommended, overweight by ten pounds—her faded blue jeans straining at their seams. A scholar, Dr. Pandora (a.k.a. Dory) Ryan of Carlsbad West College, California, not yet tenured, possibly never to be tenured.

Though my parents hadn’t thought of the curious girl in the myth when they called me Pandora (they just liked the sound), the name suited me more than they could have imagined. I was prone to take the lid off every box I found, sometimes with dramatic results—and often with disastrous ones.

The diary could be one of those boxes. Speculation about it was foreplay, heightening the excitement of opening it up again and reading further. Savoring the moment of discovery, I turned the document over. No blue stamp reading “Archives de Vaucluse.” How had it gotten into H42, the leather-bound record book of entries to Our Lady of Mercy? It hadn’t been there the day before, when I had used H42 as a source for the names and entry dates of novices that I copied into a chart on my laptop. Maybe someone else had taken the diary from H42 before I first requested it, looked at it, and put it back after I had left the archive the day before. H42 was so old—more than three hundred years old—that its leather ties had turned partly to powdery dust. I handled it carefully as I leafed through its pages looking for a white square, evidence, like that left by a leaf pressed in a book, that the diary had been nested there in one place for years. Nothing. The pages were a more-or-less uniform sepia.

At last, titillated to the point where I couldn’t stand it any more, I gave in and began to read, as the mistral, that nasty French wind made famous (or infamous) by Peter Mayle and Danielle Steele, assaulted the archive windows in gusts.

* * * * *

27 May, 1659

Hell has come to this convent. I know it.

Last night, a fire burned in the chapel. It blazed most fiercely on the new wooden statue of Saint Marie Magdelaine on the stone shelf near the altar. I could hear the flames licking it and things softly falling. I smelled paint burning. Bright shadows of the fire fell on the walls of the chapel and moved there. A tear of resin rolled down the saint’s cheek. Antoinette would call it a miracle. She finds miracles everywhere. I knew it was resin, and nothing more. Though I believe in miracles, they have to be good ones. The statue flamed. Smoke rose. The saint’s face distorted into unimaginable pain. Her limbs blackened and thinned. Finally she disappeared into the fire, as if burned alive. On the shelf where the statue had been only the copper reliquary holding Mother Catherine’s head quivered in the hot light.

A creature flew out of the smoke. Its ribbed leather wings made a sucking sound as they rose above its meager shoulders. I think the creature was a demon. It saw me, smiled with evil, and glided towards me. Its breath was hot on my face, burning the skin. Its scaly tail curled around me and wrapped my body like swaddling. I could not move. I could barely breathe. The red pupils of its snake eyes held me. The eyes were very alive, and I could not look away.

The demon laughed

I told it to begone. It cursed me. Its tail wrapped more tightly around my body. My breath came faster as its grip constricted my lungs.

Holy Mary, protect me.

I reached for the crucifix at my waist.

Then I woke here in my cot, in my cell. My nightdress was wrapped around my body, and my hand was stiff. At first I thought I had been dreaming, but when I looked down at my palm, I saw a cross imprinted there. The imprint of the cross slowly disappeared when I straightened my fingers. My crucifix was hanging on the hook with my habit. If I had been dreaming, how did the crucifix get from the hook to my hand and back again? Perhaps it was a little miracle, the cross in my flesh. I  do think miracles are rare. I wonder about those who come upon them all the time. My father taught me that. And miracles certainly do not come often to us humble converse nuns, who do the manual labor of the convent. But how else to explain it?

* * * * *

“Yes! Yes!” I said in a loud voice.

The other readers looked up, and Chateaublanc, the archivist, raised his gray eyebrows. Even Rachel Marchand turned to stare at me. Quick, shadowy, a little smile came over her face, then died; she lowered her head and went back to work.

After a moment, Jack Leach rose from his chair and walked over to my table, all gangling legs and flailing arms. He didn’t seem to care—not then, at least—that I had broken an unspoken historians’ rule: don’t display too much enthusiasm for a find, any find, not even if it’s Hitler’s lost diary, or all the inquisition registers of a Spanish city, or a physician’s records of a plague year in Marseille. I often wonder why this is. Historians seem to associate enthusiasm with naivité. A certain blasé attitude goes along with the briefcase and the PhD, except among close friends. I had no close friends at the archive, even though I had been there mid-December. My “yesses” had been a great breach of archive propriety.

Leach bent his face down to mine, too close, saw me flinch, and stepped back out of deference. His blond curly hair was all awry. He smelled of aftershave, lack of sleep, and old cigarettes, and he did not move far enough away. “What is it?” he asked.

“Nothing you’d be interested in, Jack,” I said, with some pleasure, then felt guilty for hurting his feelings. As I watched his face fall, I remembered too well the psychological intimidation tactics of academics toward graduate students. But what if he decided to appropriate the diary for himself? I wouldn’t put it past him. I suspected he would do anything to succeed. He had to model himself after his adviser, eminent professor Martin Fitzroy, who was due to appear within the week. All Fitzroy’s students felt compelled to do anything for academic success. Crushed for the moment, Leach retreated to his table and opened a document. His hunched body was a study in nervous tension—left knee pumping, head in his hands.

I glanced over at Rachel Marchand, who was sitting with her back to me as she wrote what was probably still another document request, but I hesitated to approach her. When she had arrived at the archive the day after Christmas and handed over her letter of introduction to Chateaublanc, I recognized her immediately. All severity: the lean body dressed in a black skirt and white blouse, the smooth brown hair held back with a square tortoise shell barrette, the long, straight nose that I associated with Greek statues. A tiny key on a chain had swung free, getting in her way as she leaned down to sign a form. Then she had straightened and looked over the reading room, as if to see if someone she knew was there. Her eyes passed right over me. I had never been introduced to her and was just one more face in the audience when she gave her celebrated talk at the Americn Historical Association’s national convention two years before.

I knew Marchand’s personal history through the profession’s grapevine. When she was at Columbia, the other graduate students were jealous of her relentless intellect, and her inability to fawn cost her favor among the faculty. None of that mattered. She wrote a dissertation about French cinema so brilliant that it put her above department politics. Her book, based on the dissertation, became a huge professional and popular success. Historian reviewers raved (as much as historians can be said to rave) because of its exhaustive research, bold but tenable thesis, and elegant writing. Sales to the public put it on the best-seller list for two weeks.

Marchand was a formidable figure.

But deciding to forget that she had rebuffed all of my friendly overtures politely but firmly and remembering her little smile at my “yesses,” I geared myself up, picked up the diary, and walked over to put my hand on her bent rigid shoulder with its fall of hair, surprisingly silky under my fingers. Startled, she jerked away. She did not smile. The key she wore around her neck was now hidden inside her blouse.

“Yes?” she said, with impatience in her voice.

“I wanted to show you this,” I said. I felt like a kindergartner at show-and-tell. Instead of holding out the diary, I grabbed it to my body. “It’s a diary by a seventeenth-century nun.”

She hesitated, as if marshaling her words precisely, then said, “Sorry, I don’t study the seventeenth century, and if you’ll excuse me, I need to order some documents before lunch.” Her neat face had as much expression as a stone; her ginger-colored eyes had gone opaque.

Dismissed, I went back to my place, in both senses of the phrase. I had gone to graduate school at thirty-six, too old to accept the pecking order without question. The elitism of some historians, their snobbery and snubbing of each other, had never ceased to anger and amaze me. “Who do they think they are?” I had once said, full of bravado, to a fellow graduate student. “They live in a closed academic space. Carve out their little fiefdoms there. Why don’t they at least treat each other well? Nobody else in the whole world gives a damn about them. Can’t they see that?” And yet when someone treated me as Marchand just had, I could not help but feel diminished.

* * * * *

28 May, 1659

I started writing this because of my vision of the fire and the demon last night. Mother Superior Fernande would probably not approve. It is forbidden to write personal journals because to do so speaks of pride. I am just a humble gardener, a converse nun, here at the convent though I was born the daughter of a wealthy goldsmith. They call me Sister Rose, my name in God. My name in the world was Anne Berthold. I came here seven years ago at the age of sixteen. I took my vows on All Saints Day four weeks past my eighteenth birthday. I do not regret it and will never leave. I love my trees and plants. I give my work to God.

This morning I was in the garden in the center courtyard, where I spend many hours tending the herbs and flowers and vegetables. As I knelt, weeding under the olive tree, a shadow fell over me. It was the shadow of Mother Superior Fernande of the Assumption. She tapped her foot. The large wooden cross at her waist swung with agitation. Her pale, round face was angry.

And we had this conversation:

BOOK: A Provençal Mystery
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