Pearls and Roses, chapter 8
A building whose cornerstone was laid in 1100 has a way of dwarfing the people around it. Of it you can say, It is nine hundred years old, almost a thousand, and those statements will both be true even while a century is overlooked in that gap and little lives, swallowed in a century, go on their little courses now. It is impossible to summarize little lives in huge neat numbers. It wouldn’t make sense; life is more complex than that. A girl and her baby become a woman and her teen son, Trish’s young daughters start school, Frank Boyd dies of cancer, Peter is fifty-nine and has been married to Elaine for twenty years. And all these people have lived lifetimes in every year. A little life does not imply a dull one. Each one has had triumphs and embarrassments, each one has learned "how much grief feels like fear." Each one has kissed lovers in the dark, even if no one else was there. Each one still thinks of himself as just starting out, really, with the possible exception of Peter, who did not have an American education and so cannot help agreeing with the Guardian that, indeed, the age of majority in America seems to be about the mid-thirties. All the time in the world. Meanwhile Fontevrault is nine hundred years old, almost a thousand. All true.
Nine hundred years after the laying of its foundations by Blessed Robert of Arbrissol, some of the walls at the Abbey stood with their feet in water, and the French government at last called in Peter Shepstone, soils engineer, to help with the commission established to preserve the site. Bureaucracies had moved slowly, elections were held, ministers shifted about in the seats of provincial power, but at last in the spring of 1997 he was asked to come back, for everything needful so far had been approved and the work – even if only the work of listening to him – could begin. Alice was thirty-four. He had been called to help at other monuments in other places since his talk with Frank Boyd years before. He had worked in Spain, in Petersburg. (Who would have thought Petersburg would become Leningrad and then revert to Petersburg? It took less than a century.) His own native town had built a new church in these years, and he went there and tried to be open-minded but felt nothing but a tired, wondering disgust.
Of course the town didn’t have much money. Even the architect who built it had to grit his teeth at some of the required economies. But the little building was an absolute carbuncle. It never failed to remind Peter of Fontevrault, merely by its architectural poverty in comparison. What had happened to human beings in nine hundred years, that they could no longer build beautiful houses of worship? What, was it all just money? Were we so much poorer now? He missed half the comfort in contemplation he was looking for, because he was too busy, during prayers, looking sideways up at the walls and ceiling and then down at the floors and finding everything wanting.
The modern architect had no need to pay any respects to the sunlight, that surely was the main problem. Light came from bulbs, and so his town’s new church was like any other small-town attempt at grandeur lit by bulbs. It was a big cardboard square, meant to be sleek and non-threatening but only as a result windowless, spotted down below with mauve carpeting and mauve chairs. It hunched over its worshippers like a poor tent in a desert, shooting warm desert air at them in winter, and trapping the warm air around them in summer. Fontevrault’s stone piers, each like ten tree trunks melded together, the quiet light flooding through its clerestory, its cool broad floors fit for a giant to walk upon, made him understand the medieval architect’s very mind across nine hundred years. He fancied it made him even think with it. It was an adult mind and a worshipping one, a mind filled with beauty. A mind that demanded beauty.
This building, the new church, did not come from such a mind. Where it came from he could not fathom, trapped child of the civilization that he was. Anyway this new church would hardly last forty years without major problems. And it had been hideously expensive to build. The parish could barely afford the grandeur it had bought – that was why it looked so poor.
At any rate Fontevrault required preserving not only for its own sake but because it was an important tourist stop among the fabulous chateaux of the lovely Loire valley. There is always a coterie of romantically minded Anglo-Saxon tourist ladies who know a little about medieval queens, and perhaps a little more about medieval heroines like Joan of Arc, and who want to see the abbey where Eleanor of Aquitaine lies buried, or the well in the town square of Chinon where Joan the peasant maid mounted her horse. (Never mind the gap of three hundred years separating them. Tourists visit America to see both colonial Williamsburg and Disneyworld.)
For his part Peter was glad of a new challenge, and happy to travel. He bid a swift goodbye to Elaine, planning now only to stay a few days to have a look at what was wanted of him. He traveled by the Chunnel to France, and drove to Chinon, to the Hostellerie Gargantua, a lovely, crumpled little rose-trellised pile of an inn there, which he loved. The following day, a commonplace Wednesday in April, he drove to Fontevrault, parked, got out, and walked around.
He was usually not as romantically-minded as Anglo-Saxon ladies, but he had to admit that each time he came here he felt a chill, an aristocratic ghostliness about the place that forced itself upon his imagination, and made him stop, and wait, every time. Wait for what? Almost for permission to intrude, as if the ghostly wimpled head of a twelfth-century abbess must peek out at him from an upper window, and recognize his sex and his harmlessness before she would let him go on. This was very much a precinct of ladies, he knew. It had actually been founded, on the text "Behold thy mother," as a double monastery in which monks and nuns lived apart but under the rule of the abbess only, an abbess who had to be a noblewoman of the outside world, not a nun drawn from within the cloister.
An odd rule, but it helped bring in many a capable ex-queen, many a superfluous duchess. Medieval women too well-connected to be simply immured or brutalized, or those who had already been immured and brutalized regardless, flocked to this rich and important refuge when their medieval men no longer wanted them for one reason and another. Failure to produce a male heir, failure to be a male heir were often the reasons. Here they joined a pleasant society full of their own kind. Here the fallen and poor came also. Here all were safe.
There were five thousand nuns here in 1150, five thousand. Those who came entirely to pray could pray. Those who still had visions of power in the world could watch the busy roads from Poitiers and Chinon, and keep abreast of events. Eleanor, nothing less than the queen of England, had her younger children reared here while she was in her forties, avoided being made abbess here against her will – immured – in her fifties, beat a path to safety here in her seventies. And died here. "1204: In hoc anno obiit Alianor." Here in the church she lies buried, her effigy startlingly, garishly painted, along with the husband who found her superfluous, and their son called Lion-Heart, and a sad exhausted daughter.
Peter kept on pacing deliberately about the grounds. There was the convent, the hospital, the Madeleine for repentant women. It was hard to believe what life had once been lived here, what life. "One can almost take oath that in this, one knew life once, and has never so fully known it since. Never so fully known it since!" Henry Adams, in Mont St Michel and Chartres. Splendid book, if one may overlook its precisely three nasty cracks about Jews. Still, belaying that, why does the modern tourist look a rag doll in comparison even to ghosts? Probably because the ghosts built buildings like this, Peter thought, and we do not, not for God anyway.
He walked toward the church. Little was left of it but its bare form. It was of massive piers and arches, all white-gray, unornamented stone, its walls scraped down and battered, but its nave still washed with light, as the architect knew it must be. He was still alive in this, wasn’t he, his mind was still alive. He was still here. The high capitals carved in foliage and complex netting patterns, the smaller arches a little mozarabic in style, gave the only indications of what must once have been the sanctuary’s elegance. Any statues were gone, of course, as were banners and lamps and people, and probably God.
He tried to imagine the place thronged with people, the smells, the murmurings, the flickering candles amid colored vestments, the hooded peasants and cowled nuns and perhaps the silk and furs of the great. In the silence, now, incongruous warped metal handrails spoked out here and there on the bare walls, put in to guide the modern tourist – or by the look of them, the nineteenth-century tourist – or warn him away from the dangers of falling masonry, he supposed. The medieval congregation would not have needed that.
His footsteps ground pleasantly on the floors and gravel pathways. There was the well-known monastery garden, rather spindly in the early spring, and there were two great coach-buses already parked on the lot and disgorging their modern day sightseers. Well, he was one of them. And there were the famous Romanesque kitchens, endowed by Eleanor herself, so it was said. They made an odd-looking, sand-castle apse to the refectory, shaped vaguely like an octagon, and thrusting up dozens of nestled turreted chimneys about the big cone-chimney. Enormous. Meals for a thousand at a time.
And what exactly did the modern-day keepers of Fontevrault want him to do here? He retraced his steps a little, back towards the church, and there along the south wall down in a pit exposing the foundation he caught sight of a big pool of water, with yellow plastic tapes fluttering from wooden stakes set into the mud around it. There, evidently, was the problem, or a good enough one for the time being. If there were others beside it, he was sure to hear about them later.
He bade a mental goodbye to the suspicious twelfth-century abbess at her window, walked to his car and drove back to Chinon, to a wonderful little lunch at Gargantua, and an afternoon of phone calls to colleagues to let them know he had seen it. "What do you think must be done?" asked the French government representative that afternoon, during his last phone call.
"I’m afraid the problem is probably going to prove simple enough, but will require an unaesthetic solution," Peter said. "My guess is that we are going to have to break open the floor and either repair or install a – ."
"Aha, that is what we feared. Where?"
"Anywhere and everywhere. It depends. The difficulty lies in the prospect of holes and drains and manhole covers and God knows what in the floor of Fontevrault."
"There are very discreet grates in the floor at Rouen. Original."
"Yes, but are they working? And how big are they? Would they work here?"
"I don’t know. That is very much for you and the commission to advise."
"And we don’t know how sloppy the soil has become elsewhere around the whole precinct. You may have to permit all sorts of testing. That will be expensive and may postpone repair of this one problem. It might also place the abbey off-limits to tourism for a while."
The official sighed. "We could hang a curtain. In Paris while they were repairing Saint Germain des Pres they hung a giant curtain painted with the image of the church. Right in front of the scaffolding, you know."
Peter smiled. "Beautiful. But in the meantime, what will we do behind the curtain?"
"I suppose even very modern drains would be preferable to the tourists getting their feet wet, or having the Plantagenet tombs sitting in their own reflecting pool."
"Perhaps. It could be done and it might answer for the next ten or twenty years. Or you might disguise a new system entirely. A new floor over the old. The old could be made into a kind of sub-floor and the repair work underneath could really be permanent. State of the art, as we say."
There was a small silence from the Paris phone. "I’m not sure...a major construction project underneath a national treasure."
"Everything concerning a national treasure will be major, Monsieur."
"True. But I cannot picture it. You must forgive me, I am a tourist, my education does not bear comparison with yours. Imagine adding a new floor all over the old one in your house. You would be walking, what, how many centimeters too high to reach your sinks and bookshelves? Am I wrong? The structure thrown entirely out of proportion, surely. To resolve a temporary problem, a puddle."
"Oh, I don’t think water outside the walls is a temporary problem. Nothing involving a nine-hundred year old structure can be regarded as temporary. It will always rain again. The beauty of engineering problems, you know, is often that the prudent answer is the most expensive and complex one." His friend on the other end of the line sighed again. "That’s why you have other people on your commission," Peter continued. "Just in case I’m wrong. By the way, do we have puddles elsewhere on the abbey grounds? I didn’t see anything."
"Sometimes, yes. So I am told."
While Peter Shepstone, almost sixty, paced about the torn up grounds of Fontevrault where excavators plowed the earth and white tubes looking like giant medical equipment lay poked into the ground around the abbey, while he silently paced Chinon’s plain archives that summer, glancing into the rooms as if expecting to see somebody there, while Frank Boyd slept with his ancestors and Trish – Diana Patrice Fairfield Markham – in November bought a new biography of Princess Diana, shaking her head in sad wonder over the similarities between the two of them (both blonde, both named Diana, both almost the same age, both mothers of two children), and then left the book on the front seat of her truck while she went into her daughters’ school to confront the handsome fifty-year-old principal over an injustice her children had suffered, while Pat and her husband ate a silent dinner because they disagreed over whether to have more children – while all this was happening, Alice, thirty-four and afficianado of Pie Night, and her jazzed-up newsletter were not yet, completely, elite.
Pearls and Roses, chapter 10