Tears for a Virgin

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A Miracle?

Father Benard remained in the centre of the square as it slowly emptied. The sun had risen over the high roof of the church, throwing its light onto the bar and shops on the far side of the square and leaving the statue, in its niche above the doorway, in a pool of deep shadow. Antoine Bonagard, in his long white apron, appeared at the door of Cafe Couronne at the same moment as Martin Sarget emerged from his bar with a pastis already in his hand. They waved to the priest simultaneously and crossed the square to join him.

'This is a wonderful day for Couronne,' Bonagard said, wiping his damp hand on the apron that was his badge of office as the only restaurateur in the town. In greeting, he held out the soft, podgy hand that matched his short, rotund physique shaped by the rich sauces he served his customers and regularly consumed himself.

'This is a wonderful day for Sarget,' the bar-keeper bellowed with a great guffaw of laughter and far less hypocrisy. 'Couronne will come alive at last and we shall all make our fortunes.' He slapped the restaurateur on the back. 'Even Bonagard will have to admit to that possibility,' he roared. Sarget was tall, dark and hairy, with broad shoulders. He drank heavily, chased women mercilessly and feared no man. His bar was at the centre of any trouble that occurred in the town, though he usually dealt with it himself in a way that left heads cracked, ribs bruised and ego's dented. He was a ruffian and a braggart but for all his faults, Father Benard had a soft spot for the man, his basic honesty offsetting his excesses.

'Don't count your fortune before it is made, my friends,' Benard counselled. 'There is much to do before the Church can confirm a miracle.'

'Don't you want a miracle, Father,' Sarget asked, nudging the priest conspiratorially. 'Just think of what it will do for your church - for you!' He held his arms wide and swept them around the square. 'Bishop Benard of Couronne!' He roared with laughter at his suggestion. 'Come and have a pastis, Father. You look like a man who has found ten centimes and lost a fortune!'

Bonagard winced at his companion's brashness but Father Benard only smiled.

'Perhaps I have the look of a man who must try and explain things to his Bishop,' he replied. 'Thank you for your offer, Sarget, but the task demands a clear head.'

He left them and walked through the bright morning sunlight towards his house. The heat was already oppressive and the broad rim of his hat barely shielded the back of his neck. He stepped into the welcoming coolness of the Presbytery and slipped his coat from his shoulders, pushed his head around the door of the kitchen and asked Madame Fischer to make him a jug of lemonade.

'You have a visitor, Father,' the housekeeper said, looking up from her baking. 'I put her in your salon.'

'A visitor? A lady?' Madame Fischer grinned. 'Yes, a lady. Ma'mselle Brigide Bichon de Couronne...waiting in your salon.'

'Mon Dieu,' he sighed. Was there no end to the surprises of the morning. He hurried from the kitchen and opened the door to the salon.

The lady was sitting on the edge of his wing-back arm chair, very erect, her hands clasped primly in her lap. She was well over eighty, tall and slim, her white hair piled high on her crown and fixed in place by a host of coloured pins. Her face was lined and heavily rouged and she wore spectacles that sat on the very edge of her nose, pinching her nostrils.

Ma'mselle Brigide was the last in a long line of the family who had dominated the town since there had been a town. They had survived the revolution but could not compete with the social changes of the twentieth century and as their fortune had dwindled, so had the members of the family. In the golden days of her childhood she had been addressed as Ma'mselle and still, today, unmarried and in her eighty-first year, so she remained, still respected and representing an influence that had more to do with tradition and habit than authority in their small community.

'What is this nonsense about a miracle?' she demanded the moment he appeared

He sighed. The Mayor he had expected, the shop-keepers and tradesmen he could anticipate, but he had given no thought to the first family.

'To call it a miracle is rather premature,' he replied defensively.

'There must be no miracle,' she proclaimed.

'No miracle,' he repeated, and almost laughed aloud as he realised that this instruction was just about as absurd as the premature pronouncements of the Mayor.

'This town has managed for four hundred years without a miracle and does not need one now,' she said firmly. 'You must arrange that there is no miracle.'

'But Ma'mselle....' he started to say, but she raised a hand interrupting him, an action he instinctively obeyed. ‘Do you realise what a miracle would do for this town, Father?' She took off her spectacles and held them in her hand, using them as a weapon to point and prods the air as she spoke. 'We would be over-run with tourists, with cars and huge buses; the grocery store would be turned into a gift shop before you could snap your fingers; there'd be Miracle cafes, Miracle hotels and Miracle milk bars from the foot of the valley to the church door and that fool of a mayor would have us all selling post cards, religious tracts and plastic statuettes.

No, we cannot allow a miracle. You must stop it now before it gets out of hand.' She rose, picked up her handbag and moved to the door, her orders issued. Despite the change in her circumstances, reflected in the loss of the family chateau and lands, she had never lost her ability to command and still saw it as her task in life, and though she now seldom had any influence over decisions taken at the Mairie, she regularly gave her views in the form of instructions.

Father Benard said nothing as he escorted her to the front door. There was no use arguing with the lady, even had he disagreed with her; he just smiled and bowed her out as she launched herself into the bright sunlight.

He turned towards his study. He had to phone the Bishop before another crisis arose or someone else interrupted him. He had his hand on the instrument when it suddenly burst into life, shattering the silence. He raised the receiver and announced himself. It was the Bishop's secretary.

He had never liked Father Chassagne but could not identify to what degree his aversion was influenced by jealousy and how much was the result of the younger man's unpleasant demeanour. He was conceited and condescending, took every opportunity to exploit his position at the right hand of the Bishop and was well known for his ability to exaggerate the shortcomings of his colleagues in chats with his superior whilst ostensibly praising them. His was the last voice Benard wanted to hear on the line at that particular moment, no less because it suggested that someone had already made the call he knew, subconsciously, he had been putting off for some time.

'His Lordship wishes to speak to you, Father,' Chassagne said and then, lowering his voice, added, 'He is rather annoyed that he has not heard from you on the matter of your little problem at Couronne.'

Benard was about to make his excuses when he realised that would have played right into the secretary's hands. Instead, he just grunted his acknowledgement and waited.

'I'll put you through,' Chassagne said when he realised nothing more was forthcoming.

'Ah, Jean-Paul!' the Bishop greeted him, with no evidence of the annoyance promised by the secretary. 'I have had quite a remarkable conversation with Monsieur Leroy, your mayor.'

Benard saw his cue to apologise, 'I have been trying to get to the telephone to speak to you for hours but have had to deal with one crisis after another,' he added.

'I can imagine, although I would have preferred to have heard of this business from your lips,' the Bishop admonished. 'Perhaps you would tell me what has occurred.'

Father Benard recounted the events of the last twenty-four hours, described the conflicts already breaking out and his endeavours to keep the happening in perspective. 'Despite my pleas, the mayor and the child's father have insisted on interpreting it as a miracle and have set the town in a fervour.'

'And what do you believe?' The Bishop asked quietly.

Benard hesitated. The words burned into his brain...What do you believe - not what do you think or what is your interpretation - what do you believe! But what did he believe and what would the Bishop expect him to believe?

'I knelt in prayer with the girl before the statue, but of course, I saw nothing,' he replied evasively.

'Of course,' the Bishop said, 'One would not expect anyone but the child to receive the visitation.' Benard thought - he's accepted it as fact. He wants a miracle too.

'Did you feel nothing, no sense of a holy presence?'

The priest replied carefully, aware, now, of his superior's inclination; 'I felt deeply moved. Even in the midst of the crowd she seemed to be surrounded by a deep silence.'

He wondered how far he should go to give the Bishop what he wanted to hear. He felt the edge of anger nibble at him with the realisation of the fraud he could so easily perpetrate solely to ingratiate himself.

The Bishop's voice became brusque and business-like. 'It will be necessary for me to set up an immediate enquiry into the event but judging by what I have so far learned, your church has been granted a rare and wonderful gift.'

He paused, then, softly asked: 'The child is a virgin, I assume.' Benard smiled but did not allow the smile to colour his voice; 'It would appear so.'

'Your congregation have already accepted the vision - the first critical test. To believe in a myth demands the ultimate act of faith but our Church is built on faith and is strengthened each time it is called into question. Facts, easily proved, become history demanding nothing more than it takes to read a book or gaze at a painting, but an act of faith is the supreme test and your little church on its hill in Couronne will give the world-wide family of Catholics that extension of our faith.'

Father Benard sensed the change in the bishop's attitude as he moved from conversation to homily. He said nothing. He felt trapped. Was he the only one who doubted the possibility that a miracle had occurred?

'What steps have you taken so far?' the Bishop finally asked.

Benard explained that he had insisted that Dominique's parents keep the girl at home until the Church committee of enquiry had the opportunity to investigate.

The Bishop said: 'Good. Splendid! I can envisage great things for you, Father, and your church at Couronne. I will let you know as soon as I have news of who will visit you and when.'

Father Benard thanked him and after a few pleasantries the conversation was ended. He sank into his chair.

So the Church were ready to accept a miracle! He supposed, on reflection, it needed something mysterious to counter the pressures of twentieth century secularism, technology and science and something was moving as the vision of a young girl kneeling before a stone effigy in an unknown town in Southern France would provide true Christians with the challenge that would demand a re-kindling of their faith.

But why was it not having that effect on him? Was he too near the people whose lives would be inevitably changed by an explosion of pilgrims? How would the old people who had sat dreaming in their doorways for decades handle the parade of tourists tramping past their doors? What would happen to the sleepy, peaceful town he suddenly realised he loved, when the world drove through its narrow streets? Like a slow awakening he realised that it was his desire to protect these people and this place that was proving the challenge to his faith. The realisation made him smile with relief. His doubts were not all the result of a breakdown of his faith. He drew his notebook towards him. The lesson he had learnt could be passed on to his congregation and help still the excitement that had gripped the town.

He gave little heed to the knock at the front door and the response of Madame Fische's hurried footsteps, until she burst into his study, a look of anguish on her face.

'What is it?' he asked anxiously.

'It's the Farner girl, Father. They have sent her sister to beg you to go to her. I think she is ill. The child said Dominique has collapsed.'

He leapt from his chair and with the youngster at his heels, rushed coatless through the streets to Henri Farner's small house. The street door was open and he walked straight in. In the kitchen a neighbour hugged the youngest Farner daughter and told him to go straight upstairs to Dominique's room. He took the narrow stairs two at a time and followed the sound of weeping into a small room at the top.

From the doorway every detail of the scene that greeted him registered in an instant, like a camera locking it into his memory. The sun shone directly through a small window, reflecting off the buttercup paint of the walls to fill the room with a bright glow.

The souvenirs and mementoes of a teenage girl were everywhere; posters of pop stars, photographs of her school class, dolls from her childhood, now discarded as playthings, placed on window sill and shelves as decorations, and books and teenage magazines piled beside the bed. In the midst of these signs of young life Dominique lay like a pale, fragile doll on a narrow bed, her fair hair, released from its constricting band, spread over the pillow.

Her father knelt beside the bed grasping her hand. He turned a lost, confused look towards the priest as he entered. Monique Farner stood gazing down at her daughter, weeping openly. The doctor leaned over the child, a finger raising an eyelid as he peered into the dull lifeless eye through an ophthalmoscope. Suddenly he dropped the instrument and held two fingers to her neck, feeling for a pulse, then her wrist, then he tore at the buttons of her dress and opened it to place his stethoscope on her heart.

All the sounds of the world were suspended in those few frantic seconds. No-one in the room breathed. Madame Farner's crying ceased as she stared, round eyed and disbelieving, at the doctors hands, realising the terrible significance of their movements. Father Benard, newly arrived on the scene, could hardly believe what he was seeing.

Slowly the doctor straightened up. He looked despairingly at the priest and shook his head.

Monique Farner threw herself across the small body with a heart rending cry.

Tears welled up in Henri Farner's eyes and he raised the small hand he clutched, to his lips.

The doctor stepped away from the bed, making room for the priest to gently move the stricken mother from the body of her eldest daughter and sink to his knees beside the bed. Yet again the feeling of inadequacy swept over him as realised that in rushing from the presbytery with no concept of the tragedy that would greet him, he had left behind his cherished oils with which he should have anointed the dying child. With the mother's weeping ringing in his ears he raised his hand to Dominique's forehead and made the sign of the cross in conditional absolution and performed the last rights.

Later, priest and doctor stood alone outside the room, the parents left alone with their lost child:

'I can't believe the terrible suddenness of it,' Benard said. 'A couple of hours ago she seemed fine. She was a frail child but... this?'

The doctor stroked his chin and gazed at the closed door.

'In circumstances like these it is difficult to identify the cause of death and I can't be certain without a pathologist's examination, but I would say that she suffered a massive cerebral haemorrhage. There would be some warning signs but when it struck it would have had an instant effect. A terrible tragedy. So young, so young...

'Do you know what happened?'

The doctor shook his head. 'Unfortunately I was eight kilometres away when they sent word. It took my wife some time to contact me. By the time I got here she had lapsed into unconsciousness. Apparently she complained of a terrible headache and was violently sick. That's when they called me. Once she had collapsed she never recovered consciousness.

'These warning signs you speak of,' Benard asked. 'Would they not have helped save her life if they had been spotted and reported to you?'

'Possibly. They take different forms, some more serious than others and therefore more easily identifiable as symptoms. Some, it is possible, would not have been thought to be significant.'

'Such as?'

'Well, if she had suffered from blackouts they would have certainly been worried and called me in, but if there were just a series of headaches it is possible they would have simply been treated with aspirin. Sometimes the sufferer gets bouts of double vision or hallucinates and in those cases it would be odds on I would be consulted.'

Father Benard stared blindly at the doctor. Instinctively he grasped his arm, half to stop him speaking and partly for support as he felt his own body sag and his legs buckle beneath him under the realisation of the meaning of the doctor's words.

'What's the matter, Father,' the doctor asked.

'Hallucination. You said she may have suffered from hallucination!'

The doctor nodded.

'Oh, Mon Dieu,' the priest cried. 'The poor child. Poor, poor Dominique! We were all so obsessed by the mysticism of the vision she described, all so anxious for a miracle that no-one gave any thought to her health.'

'You mean..this business with the statue was Dominique?' the doctor asked. He must have been one of the few people in the town not to know every detail of the vision.

'Yes, it was Dominique. She must have been hallucinating. She should have come to you instead of me, to her doctor rather than her priest. You would have saved her life. I failed her completely.'

He sank down onto the top step. His strength slowly drained away. He grasped the cross from around his neck and held it to his blazing forehead. He felt the sorrow build to a pain in his chest until he thought his heart would burst, and then his throat constricted around a great sob that slowly forced itself to his lips.

And Father Jean-Paul Benard wept. His tears fell for a virgin for whom, perhaps, the stone Madonna had also wept.

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