Welcome to our board! Log In Create A New Profile
Use mobile view

Advanced

Bones of Saint-Sang (JaOctGoHoNo)

October 31, 2022 11:09AM
Blurb: Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby go sightseeing in France, with disastrous results. A JaOctGoHoNo challenge. 2022 prompt is Betton Woods.

The Bones of Saint-Sang


By NocturnalNefarious Spook

"That which walks in Betton Wood
Knows why it walks or why it cries."
M. R. James, A Neighbour's Landmark


John Willoughby did not like his wife. Some men lived their lives in ignorant bliss and died happy men without ever thinking such a thought but poor Willoughby was convinced of it before his first wedding anniversary.

The fault for this was possibly as much his own as it was hers but still it chafed!

She had known of his dalliances and seductions from when he was a bachelor and yet she never wavered in her commitment to their engagement. He had interpreted that as a willingness to allow him to keep his old, familiar habits but apparently she had expected him to leave his inclinations behind and settle into drab matrimony. And she was not above tasking the servants to keep watch over him or interrogating his friends to see if his alibi was truthful in her attempts to keep him faithful.

If only he had chosen better! But alas, there was no second chances now. And the news of Brandon's engagement was a galling reminder of past happiness. His present disappointment in Marianne Dashwood -- that such a bright, young, passionate girl would throw herself away on that dull and sanctimonious old fool -- could only explain how Mrs. Willoughby had coerced him into taking her to Paris. He thought it would be a relief to get out of London for a bit, until the colonel's engagement had been replaced by a fresh piece of gossip.

After enduring a choppy passage, however, he was beginning to rethink it. His wife felt sickly as soon as they boarded the ship; she constantly called out for his companionship. He, who had neither the skill nor the inclination, was called upon to act as nursemaid throughout the sailing. And when they finally reached the French shore and he hoped to place her in a hotel room for the rest of the day while he finally had some peace, her condition had remarkably improved and she wouldn't leave him alone.

So they sat side-by-side in sullen silence in the inn's common room, a cautionary tale to anyone who might see them. Willoughby was unhappy and wished with all his heart that his life was different.

A serving girl approached them with a welcoming smile on her face. She greeted them in French and English and, upon listening to their replies, kept to her native tongue. After collecting their order, she gave John a wink and walked away.

The maid was just as flirtatious when she brought out the ale, and again when she delivered the tea, and once more when she set a plate of biscuits and cold sandwiches on the table. By now, Mrs. Willoughby had noticed the girl's attention and was beginning to sour to it. She snapped at the maid in irritation and set her away.

"The nerve of that French girl," she fumed quietly at the girl's retreating back.

"She is just trying to make sure we are well cared for," John chided her. "It means more money for her in the end, nothing more," but his wife scowled her distrust to the whole room.

A man dressed austerely in black soon approached them as they pecked at the sandwiches and introduced himself as Père Roche, the town's pastor. He apologized for the interruption but pointed out that the southbound coach to Paris was currently boarding. If the couple were to be on it, they needed to move right away. On the other hand, if they planned to stay overnight in Barre, perhaps they would allow him to show them some of the local sites.

Having already expected that Mrs. Willoughby would need more time to recover, they had made no arrangements to leave today. It was barely midday and already John was sorely tired of his wife's constant presence, willing to throw himself into a stranger's company to avoid her. He thanked the priest for his kind offer and accepted it. "You will be fine here, my love. I am certain the staff will see to your needs," he said to his wife. Even if he tired of the stranger after the first hour, he decided that he wouldn't come back to the hotel until night had fallen and his wife was sound asleep.

"And why do not you expect me to come with you?" she asked, her pretty features marred by a frown. She had not trusted him in England and she saw no reason why France should be any different. She would keep an eye on him despite any discomfort. "Any illness I felt on the ship has dissipated. I am perfectly able to admire the area's treasures. And I am certain the fresh air will do me good."

Père Roche was too pleased by the addition for Willoughby to protest it. He settled for letting his expression sour in full view of his wife. If she was going to insist on coming, he would let her know how unwelcome she was.

"Let me get a carriage. I'll be back in a quarter hour. Will that be enough time for you?" the priest offered.

The less time that Willoughby spent alone with his wife, the better, so he agreed and sent the man away to make arrangements.

.o8o.

The carriage turned out to be a humble pony cart. It was completely fitting for a small town man of the cloth, too common for Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby normally.

Mrs. Willoughby balked at the sight of it. "Why do we need a ride? Cannot we just walk to whatever you want to show us?"

"Everything in Barre is an easy walk, Madame," Roche conceded, "but a few miles away is l'Église du Saint-Sang de Betton. The ville of Betton was abandoned but maintaining its old church is part of the responsibilities of the pastor of Barre. Saint-Sang was built over six hundred years ago and has far more historical significance than the church in Barre."

"My dear, if you'd rather stay at the inn while I accompany Père Roche --" Willoughby began, but he was too blatant in his attempt to separate from his wife.

Mrs. Willoughby wanted to protest that she was not interested in old churches but her quarrel was with her husband, not this helpful Frenchman. She would go solely for the purpose of denying her husband the freedom of going without her. She held out her hand to the priest and let him place her in the cart. Willoughby followed, then Roche leapt to his post with the agility of a crow. Without bothering to check on his passengers, he flicked the rein and set the cart in motion. The Willoughbys were jerked backwards into the worn padding and jostled together as the mare picked up her pace.

Years of giving sermons has prepared Père Roche to speak on any topic at short notice. He regaled his two passengers with the history of Barre and the most scintillating gossip of its current inhabitants. They left the center of town and the scenery grew more rural until no buildings were in sight. The road wound through a copse of trees that became a proper forest.

The cart trundled past an old tree growing in the center of a ring of lowly mounded earth. The mound itself was covered in leaves and other forest debris and would not reach the top of Willoughby's boots. With a start, Mrs. Willoughby realized that the lines of the mound were too perfect, almost drawing out the foundation of a farmhouse.

"What is that?" she exclaimed.

Roche chuckled at her. "Madame, this used to be Betton. We are nearly to the church."

"What happened here?" she asked with some concern.

"Betton was abandoned in the middle of the 14th century when Barre was merely a family farm. As Barre grew, the people would often come to Betton to harvest the bricks and stone for their own homes. And of course the trees had no one to cut them back. But we have preserved the church most beautifully."

Willoughby blinked and tried to find more signs of the town. Now that he knew to look for them, the little mounds were everywhere.

"But why was Betton abandoned?" he wondered.

"Because the peste noire came to the ville," explained Père Roche. "Unfortunately, the records from that time are lost. All we know is what was written down elsewhere, or after. Barre was only a small farm then, as I said, and very isolated which no doubt saved it from the same sickness. But one could hear the Betton church bells in Barre when the wind was quiet. One day the farmer heard the bells tolling a death, but it kept tolling -- two deaths, three deaths, four deaths. Something bad had happened. It was a difficult time for the farm and the farmer knew he could not provide substantial aid, so he stayed away. For weeks, the bells would toll and then they stopped and rang no more. The farmer decided that his family would stay away from Betton until the bells rang again but that did not happen until nearly two years later and by then the town was totally abandoned."

"Who rang the bell if Betton was abandoned?" Mrs. Willoughby asked, irritated at the inconsistency.

"The bishop sent a young man named Père Oswald to the ville. It had been a long time since the Catholic Church had heard from the local pastor. They should have sent someone sooner but the plague was everywhere and no one could be spared at first. When Père Oswald arrived, there was no one alive."

They could see the church now. It might have looked impressive next to other buildings when the village was inhabited but it was dwarfed by nearby oak trees now.

"Je vous présente l'Eglise du Saint-Sang de Betton," Père Roche announced as he slowed the pony cart to a stop before leaping to the ground.

The Willoughbys sat in silence for a moment, not knowing what was expected of them then Père Roche asked, "Would you like to go inside?"

Mrs. Willoughby drew in a breath as if to refuse him but Père Roche preempted her. "I assure you, Madame, that there is no danger from the plague."

Rather than waiting to see if his wife was suitably soothed -- trusting, in fact, that she was deeply uncomfortable -- Willoughby jumped down and held a hand up to help her.

Père Roche bounded ahead of them. He paused at the door and turned back to them. “And now, I must ask: do you know why this church is special?”

"We had no idea it even existed until today," Willoughby told him, "and only know what you have already told us. Of course not." He found the man's childlike enthusiasm to be tiring.

Père Roche gathered himself. “When Père Oswald came to the ville, it was abandoned. Anyone who survived or avoided the plague had fled without a trace. The dead, however, remained. A lucky few were buried in the graveyard but then … then not. As I said, there are no written records of what happened. Perhaps the gravediggers died in the first wave of the illness, or perhaps they left. Perhaps people were too sick to dig, or perhaps too many people died too quickly. The bodies were collected in the church --”

Here Mrs. Willoughby shrieked at the horror.

“Madame, do not be frightened,” Père Roche said, holding up a hand in a soothing gesture. “This happened hundreds of years ago; it cannot hurt you now. The bodies were collected in the church. Perhaps the last person in the ville laid down beside his family and breathed his last, or perhaps he went elsewhere and had a very long and happy life. We will never know, so choose to believe whatever you think is best.”

“And the visiting priest discovered all the corpses?” Willoughby said.

“Not exactly. The bodies had been in the church for almost two years. Some foxes or blaireaux or both got into the church and they --” Roche paused to mime a biting gesture -- “they left the bones behind."

Willoughby felt his features fall slack. Somehow the thought of skeletons scattered around the floor seemed worse than dead bodies but, upon considering the effects of decay and rot, perhaps piles of bones would be the better option.

"Ah, Madame, fear not! Be at peace," said the priest upon seeing Mrs. Willoughby's distress. "Oswald stayed at the Barre farm for over a year and came to the church every day to set it to rights. It is a work of art now. But of course no one was willing to move to the town out of silly, superstitious fear. After the church was cleaned again, Père Oswald established the parish in Barre and came to l'église du Saint-Sang every month to look after it. It became a natural part of the duties of the parish to care for this church even though no one lives near it anymore."

Roche took the heavy key from his pocket and held it out like a lure. "Would you like to see inside now?" he asked temptingly.

Willoughby wondered if they should just climb back in the cart and return to Barre but the look of disgust on Mrs. Willoughby's face changed his mind. Had he gone alone with the priest to Betton, he would have been unashamed to turn tail but the thought of denying comfort to his wife spurred him onwards.

"Absolutely!" he answered with simulated enthusiasm.

Suitably encouraged, Roche unlocked the door. It swung open on well-oiled hinges and let daylight pour into the dim space.

Mrs. Willoughby reached for her husband's arm and for once he didn't want to slip away from her. He walked into the space reverently and she followed half a step behind.

Père Roche lingered at the entrance to light some candles. The tall space swallowed the feeble glow at first but eventually the light from the candles was strong enough to overcome the gloom even after the door was shut.

Roche then walked past them to the altar and lit more candles there so that the carved artwork behind the cross was more discernible. The Willoughbys trailed after him.

"Are those…" John began before the words died on his lips. There was no point in asking when the answer was obvious. Those were bones. The wall behind the altar was covered with human bones arrayed in intricate patterns.

As Mrs. Willoughby finally realized what made this church so renowned, her feet refused to take another step and John came to a stop beside her.

"All those bones, those skulls," she gasped. Her grip tightened on her husband's arm before she could speak again. "All these people died in the plague?" There were too many bones to count but the skulls -- there had to be hundreds of them!

Roche laughed benignly. "No, Madame. Père Oswald found the remains of perhaps fifty people when he came to Betton. You can see his original work is the small area directly behind the cross. But after he established the parish in Barre, the farmer there was so moved by his work that he wanted his bones to be added to Saint-Sang. It became a popular tradition in Barre to donate one's bones to the church after death. Even now, I build upon the labor of others," he said, gesturing to the edges where the latest additions were.

"It's stunning," said Willoughby uneasily. Indeed, it was horrifying but he was unable to look away.

"I am pleased that you think so," said Père Roche. "It will ease my conscience greatly."

"What do you mean by that?" Mrs. Willoughby asked sharply.

"Madame," he said, "Monsieur, I brought you here not only to see the bones of Saint-Sang but also to contribute to it."

"Contribute how?" Willoughby asked, on edge. He had expected that the priest would want some honorarium in exchange for the tour but he was beginning to wonder if there was something more sinister afoot.

"After Père Oswald began the work in Saint-Sang, church leaders have always given the parish of Barre to a man who appreciates the artistry, who possesses the skill to maintain and to add to it." With that he picked up a long knife that had been resting flat on the altar. He held it with a well practiced grip, letting the light catch along the blade.

Mrs. Willoughby whimpered and gripped her husband tighter. "You, you cannot be serious," she gasped at him.

"Barre is a prosperous ville, but it has grown slowly over the centuries. It hardly has the population to support this," Roche said, flicking the knife to indicate the bones behind him. "But it does have a constant parade of strangers traveling through it to other places. You are plainly well-to-do and will obviously be missed, but who would look for you here? Who would ever find you?"

As the priest began to walk around the altar toward them, something in Willoughby broke. He had been raised to be a gentleman but also a scoundrel, to behave so that people readily gave him what he wanted. But stronger than any etiquette lesson was the fear of death. Perhaps that made him a coward but it was better to be a living coward than the alternative.

Willoughby jerked out of his wife's hold. He grabbed her by the arm and pushed her towards the priest with such violence that she tripped and fell in his path with a pained shriek.

"Take her!" he shouted wildly. "Take her and let me go!"

He didn't wait for an answer, merely fled as if pursued by the Angel of Death himself. He ran to the church door without looking back.

Like Betton's long-deceased inhabitants, there is no surviving record of what happened to John Willoughby. Perhaps he was murdered in the woods and his bones arranged beside his wife's in the old church. Perhaps he ran all the way to safety and had a very long and happy life. We will never know, so choose to believe whatever you think is best.

// THE END //


Notes:

This is based loosely on a short story I read in high school -- a woman and her lover are in a random Mexican city for Day of the Dead celebrations. She's freaked out by the catacombs and makes him PrOmIsE HeR that he won't leave her behind. And in the last paragraph he's driving away feeling almost mournful and the passenger seat is empty.

Let's just say murder is wrong but. I included a couple points where each of them had to choose between making their spouse happy or unhappy, and they routinely chose the option that led to the church.

Enjoy your holiday however you like best!

-NN
SubjectAuthorPosted

Bones of Saint-Sang (JaOctGoHoNo)

NN SOctober 31, 2022 11:09AM

Re: Bones of Saint-Sang (JaOctGoHoNo)

MichelleRWNovember 05, 2022 01:50AM

Re: Bones of Saint-Sang (JaOctGoHoNo)

Steph DNovember 02, 2022 09:56PM

Re: Bones of Saint-Sang (JaOctGoHoNo)

UlrikeNovember 01, 2022 08:48AM

Re: Bones of Saint-Sang (JaOctGoHoNo)

LisaYOctober 31, 2022 06:34PM



Author:

Your Email:


Subject:


Spam prevention:
Please, solve the mathematical question and enter the answer in the input field below. This is for blocking bots that try to post this form automatically.
Question: how much is 9 plus 16?
Message: