About the Author
When the novel was reissued recently by Books & Company Turtle Point Press, the Times observed: "Her classic work [has] been received with almost as much critical enthusiasm as its original publication a generation ago." Again, this echoed the judgment in The Washington Post of her writing as "a kind of dream, a protracted prose poem of singular delicacy, filled with generosity, love, and wisdom."
Read an Excerpt
MORNING: DESCENT INTO THE TREASURE
On the far side of the cloister in the long, chapel-like room called the Treasure, she sits on her thronea small stiff gold figure robed in gold and covered with jewels and crowned with a golden diadem.
Up the hill from there, Jack stands tall beside the fountain behind the little house we have rented for the summer. Here we are once again after several returns, here we are in the month of June, not yet St. John's Day. Jack is about to mend his bicycle tire. This afternoon we arc going to Lunel.
The springwater flows forth through the mouth of a mask deep in a niche in the stone embankment of the hillside and splashes into the round basin below. Sunlight quivers on the surface of the water, and dapples of watery sunshine fly like lunar moths on the stones of the niche above, and across the mottled face of the mask, which resembles the grimacing head that guards the church from the outer wall of the tribune on the north, high above the western entrance. The bells ring for eleven o'clock.
Sunbrowned and strong, Jack takes the inner tube in his competent hands, good hands, and plunges it into the water.
"Ah, mais il est beau! Il est fin! Il est un bon garcon!" old Madame Benoit was saying this morning, smiling her smile of infinite sweetness, her eyes as blue as the sky, her face and her hair as white as the clouds. I was in her tiny apartment in the old convent for a few minutes to pick up a book she wanted to lend me. "I am not afraid of death," she said quietly. "I have my faith." And she lifted her right hand in a gesture like a bird flying off, a gesture so perfect that I could see as she did it how her soul would fly out of the window and up, and she would go down therela basto the cemetery below the church. She waved her hand in that direction. "I have my reservation," she said with a mixture of pride and humor.
Sometimes she speaks triumphantly: "I will go on the cloak of the Virgin," she says.
Just now I remember to tell Jack. "Oh, Madame Benoit was saying earlier this morning, 'Oh, but he is handsome, he is fine, he is a good boy. Everyone agrees!'" Jack laughs, pleased. He will be fifty in November. But Madame Benoit is ninety-one.
"Quatre-vingt-onze et un demi," said my friend Rosalie, correcting me, nodding her head tenderly up and down. (Not in Madame Benoit's presence.)
La Rosalie de bon matin
S'en va t'au jardin
Pour y culir la brioulete
La belle fleur ...
One fine morning Rosalie
Goes out to her garden
To cut the brioulete,
That pretty flower
So sings Madame Benoit, who sings, who sings, who has a song for every occasion, and who, ninety-one and a half, and tiny and plump and limber as a rag doll in her soft clothes, her soft shoes, goes with her cane up and down the steep streets of Conques with a swiftness and agility so remarkable that someoneI could not make out who she was talking about, but someone, another womanhad gotten very excited and somewhat angry, declaring she was on this account "Pas normale." "Pas normale!" she repeated, echoing her friend's anger, and laughing.
The other day when Madame Benoit was walking with her cousin Madame Fabre (from whom we rent our house), out the Rue du Chateau, beyond the old Porte du Foumouze with its Romanesque fountain and, a little farther on, the lacy iron cross that rises above an ancient stone Virgin, now beheaded, there, Madame Fabre told us, Madame Benoit tripped and fell down on her knees in a mud puddle. Madame Fabre lifted her hands to her face to show us how aghast she'd been. But in that very moment, Madame Benoit turned her head and looked up. I am doing the Stations of the Cross," she said.
Madame Benoit is a force. I am moved by her and drawn to her. It makes me feel warm to sit near her. Her breath smells of strawberry jam. Sometimes she says, like a litany, in her warm low voice, "Sainte Foy, holy martyr who died for Christ, Sainte Foy protects us here at Conques" and she smiles her smile of pride.
And besides she has a memory that goes back further than her ninety-one years, straight back through her mother and her grandmother and her great-grandmother, so she can tell you, for instance, the story of the great complot of 1791 when the people of Conques saved the statue of Sainte Foy and the rest of the golden treasure from the soldiers who were coming to confiscate it. "Oh, there was a terrible storm that night," she says. "There was thunder and lightning and the rain fell in torrents, the streets turned into rushing rivers and veritable cascades. No one dared to go out . . ."
The bells ring eleven a second time. It is their way. To the south, a quarter of a mile off and up in the sun-green afternoon, the wooden cross at the high outermost point of the gorge of the Ouche stands tall and thin and slightly askew against the sky. Above us bees hum in the wisteria that grows over the fence along the wall. Below us the stone roofs glint in the sunlight.
Les lauzes they call these stones cut from the schist rock and laid like slates in a scalloped pattern as beautiful as shining fish scales across the steep roofs of Conques. The schist stones are blue-gray with a sheen of silver (mica) or rose-beige with gleams of gold (mica), and the dark lichens and mosses have grown over them, as they have over the craggy rocks that jut forth from the mountainsides here and rise up like castle ruins in the chasms. Cut in irregular slabs and laid on their sides and bound and covered with the pinkish mortar and stucco made from the red sand of the Dourdou, these are the stones from which the houses of Conques are built.
Carrying my notebook and my pencil in my tiny deerskin Indian bag, I descend in among them, down through the roses, down the stairs that form the little streetla ruellethat runs past our house, and down through the narrow stone streets below. From above me, from their kitchens half-shuttered against the noon heat, come the happy voices of the Conquois finishing their lunches.
The Place de l'Eglise is still empty. And it is silent except for the hoarse whistling screeches of the swallows (the dark swifts) soaring, wheeling, darting into and out from the ancient yellowed walls of the basilica; and the splashing of the Plothe spring whose virtues were already praised in the twelfth-century Guide for the Pilgrim to Saint James of Compostela because Sainte Foy of Conques had become a major stop along the Via Podiensis, the route of Notre Dame du Puy, one of the four pilgrim routes that lead across France toward that far Finis-terre (end of the earth) to the west, beyond the Pyrenees, where, toward the end of the eighth century, the body of Saint James was discovered by the hermit Pelayo beneath an ancient shrine on a thickly wooded hill over which a great star hovered.
"The Burgundians and the Teutons who go to Saint James by the Via Podiensis must go to venerate the relics of Sainte Foy, virgin and martyr," writes the author of the Guide (traditionally thought to be Aymery Picaud); and he tells us the manner of her martyr-death at Agen and that of the blessed Caprais, bishop of the town, whom she inspired. "Finally," he writes, "the very precious body of the blessed Faith, virgin and martyr, was entombed with honor in a valley called, in the common speech, Conques (Conquas), and over her sepulcher was built a beautiful basilica, where for the glory of God, even up to our own day, the Rule of Saint Benedict is observed with the greatest care; many graces are granted to those who come to venerate the relics of Sainte Foy, both to those who come in good health and to the sick; in front of the doors of the church there flows forth a most excellent source whose virtues are more admirable than anyone can say. Her fete is celebrated on the sixth of October."