No, she must be given tasks commensurate with her capabilities and calling! All this, of course, was in no way apparent in her personal appearance, instances of which can be observed in universal nature, which are too common to notice but which are absolutely indespensible to the whole chain of being.
“Yes, Mother. Every scientific analysis and technique has been applied, giving full satisfaction that there must be more panels. No other tapestry of the chronological type has ever ended so abruptly, without out an expected and alluded to conclusion.”
“Don’t you mean to say, “were” such panels? How can you assume they still exist? After all, you know how damp and moldy our climate over here is! Fabrics don’t last as long as they ought, not half as long, as they do in drier climates. ‘Tis a pity, but God made it so.”
“True, all true, Mother. But I must consider that this great tapestry was extremely valued by its keepers and the commissioning bishop. It is unconceivable that they would permit any known harm to damage it, if they had any means to avoid it. If there are additional panels-—and I believe there were—they would be similarly protected and preserved, somewhere over in Caen where the Bayeux Tapestry was last known to have been kept.”
“But it is dangerous, child, to be looking for such things, particularly in that area, now that the allied forces seem about to attack the godless Nazi Germans.“ Her eyes rolled upwards at the thought. “What if you should land yourself in the very thick of a battle if it should break forth there? You’d be violated, if not killed on the spot! They demonstrate no respect for our feminine sex and our holy calling.”
Sister Holm-Barrow did not respond for a long moment. Obviously, the danger was very much on her mind. But she was of that type of research scholar whose courage was equal to her quest for the truth. “I have considered the various hazards, mother, and my life is of no significance. If I can serve the interests of the truth and the Holy Mother Church, that will be sufficient epitaph for me, if I should get caught somehow in the crossfire.”
The older woman shook her head. This vibrant young woman before her, who seemed to bring a breath of fresh air from America with her, she sensed in her bones was a naive fool in her heart and a wise man in her head-—a clear set up for a bad fall of some kind. But there was a role for a mother superior to play that suited the situation. She simply acted the mother to this risky female centaur from America the academics of the Church had thrust upon her.
“Oh, my daughter, let’s not talk of sacrificing yourself to truth! Truth doesn’t require YOUR life, my dear. That is simple presumption--the anteroom to Mortal Pride and Vanity. What does it matter if the world doesn’t find out for sure about these missing panels that you allege were sewn and then removed from the original tapestry for reasons unknown?”
She might have continued in this sentimental, stupid, maternal vein, but she glimpsed the deep pain and disappointment, even a certain pity for an inferior, badly educated intelligence, in her hearer’s eyes. She paused, considering whether she had been unduly rude and philistine to one who was so ardent a scholar as this sister evidently was. It well might require more than she had in her arsenal of basics at the moment. Well, then, how best to rein the prancing wild horse of Sister Holm-Barrow in? If not an appeal to the heart—the chief deficiency of this one—what kind of brain-to-brain agreement could she devise?
Nothing, really! Again, she greatly deplored her own limited scholastic bent-—how could she be of any real help or provide a necessary curb to headstrong sisters such as Holm-Barrow? Obviously, she couldn’t, and she might have to let her go to her certain doom!
“You must pardon an old woman’s foolish fears for your safety, my dear child! I cannot help it! This is, after all, a foreign culture, an alien element, for one such as you. I just want you to be very, very sure about your need for risking your life and, ah, virginity. If you still feel it is necessary, I will respect your decision and honor it with all the help we can give, considering the war time austerity programme. Well?”
The relief on the applicant's face told the mother superior she had struck the right note in seeming to give in. The young woman was going her way once again and might be turned ever so slightly into safe waters.
“Yes, I really think I must go! Someone must find out, one way or other, what has happened to the missing panels, and also record what they contain! If there is someone else, let him or her go. But I seem to be the only one at present, mother superior.”
The mother superior was thinking fast. Should she give the she-centaur, this daughter of Chiron, a nudge in the right direction now? Yes! her instincts told her. It was now or never.
“So you seem! So you seem! I see the picture clearly now, what must be done at once! I fully identify with your ardent dedication and spirit! We need more of your kind, to be sure, in our lack-lustre midst. That is why I wish you would consider staying on a bit, to be a sort of ‘leavening” agent among the poor, uninspired sisters here. You might be able to help them rise to another level, not only of spirit but of the intellect. You’ve seen us. We desperately need that sort of example, which only you can give. Well, will you? You are very much needed here, for we haven’t anyone like you at present, nor will we likely get anyone of your education and breeding. Why is it that the religious life seems to attract so much despirited mediocrity? Oh, there's more than enough obedience--to be sure. Mediocrity always aims to please, or at least seem to. I have never been able to understand it, unless we are so deathly afraid of entering into pride and presumption, we never risk ourselves, never venture beyond the mundane into the extraordinary. Fear, too, is a damning sin! Mediocrity is no concealing shroud for fear in the Lord's eyes! But then...back to the business at hand. Pardon my little fit of preaching! Of course, my daughter, you understand that you would be obeying the Lord, doing your duty as we have seen fit to make it known to you?”
The last was a rhetorical question, of course! It would have been most rude to reply, which would have been instantly construed as a challenge to divinely ordained authority.
The mother superior waited, assured she could insist if need be—just enough to keep the horse from bolting out into the wide, wild world! But then something very strange happened the moment the heavy, unscalable brick wall of Church Duty and Ecclesiastical Authority had been lowered between Sister Holm-Barrow and her prized objective It caught the mother superior quite by surprise, though she hadn’t imagined after her lifetime of drudgery in the dirt she could ever be surprised by human beings. Without reply, Sister Holm-Barrow seemed to check the words that nearly escaped her ready tongue, falling deathly silent in order to think the more deeply—right through the Mother Superior in front of her—-as if the older woman were a mere transparent husk of a leaf, or through the gaps in a trodden, wave-worn, cracked shell from the seashore that would never be anybody’s cherished trinket. Catching the import without there being any exchange of words, the mother superior, surely the voice of experience in this interview, was obliged to draw on her third fount of basic wisdom: how to accept defeat gracefully-—and wait a better opportunity to steal a victory thereby.
Sister Holm-Barrow stared at the Mother Superior as if she couldn’t believe her own ears. The tension was terrible for a moment or two, as the younger woman considered what she had heard, whether to accept their sincerity or not.
The sister knelt, suddenly kissing the mother superior’s hand. “I will see that you are not disappointed. I-—“ The mother superior, feeling a twinge of shame for performing so cynical and controlling in her holy office, tried to rise from her chair but could not. The things she had to do for the sake of the Holy Mother and the Church! But there was no choice for her kind, she knew. Denying her own distastes, she knew the facts must be faced and respected--and cultivated, no matter what! Obedience, not originality, was everything. She had done what she had to do, the thing the Church commanded of her, and she must see it to the end. This sister and her utopian and romantic nature must be brought to heel-—it was that simple! And by such tactics as she had used, she knew it could be done, despite how it looked to run to the contrary outcome at the moment.
“Run along, you must have much to do,” she said to Sister Holms-Barrow. “And—-one more thing-—leave us a little paper just in case, should you not return to us, regarding the disposition of your things. It is a mere formality, just requires your signature and my official seal—-“
The sister did not waver a fraction of a degree, which the mother superior had counted on. Instead, she nodded, smiled, and hurried out the door of the mother’s room, permission in the mother superior’s own word for her to be let go, if not writ in hand.
At the window the mother superior watched Sister Holms-Barrow scurry across the courtyard. She wondered how long the young woman would cry and sulk when she finally realized no written permission would be coming. By the next year at this time, it would be over-—this terrible war with all its needless and cruel bloodshed. Then, only then, would Sister Holm-Barrow, be freed to go and do all the research her heart-—rather, her trained, specialized mind desired and demanded.
Even as the mother superior was thinking in this vein, something was telling her deep within she was playing the fool, a very old one at that! An inner voice reprimanded her: “How can you keep her back like this, when you know she has an appointed task to do, no matter what impending dangers to her womanhood were affixed to the present moment? Who else but her can do it, or is brave enough to attempt it? Who? No, you must stop playing with destinies that lie beyond your graps. You must release her at once!”
Her itinerary firmly in mind, she quickly made her way to the city center, where she found the bus she wanted. Soon, without stopping for rest in a hotel, she was on her way to Caen. They were stopped a number of times for passport checks by Nazi soldiers, who were brusque and somewhat intimidating and arrogant, but that was to be expected of a conqueror ruling a subdued people. Otherwise, there was no sign of a world war going on. The French countryside appeared sublimely peaceful, shining in the full beauty of mid-summer. What fragrances entered the window, which she cracked open so she could breathe fresh air, instead of the infernal smoke of cigarettes and cheap cigars all the men seemed to indulge.
Hours later, they stopped for the evening, and they all got out to find various lodgings. Sister Janet turned in at a cathedral, and was directed by the nuns to a large convent, where she was warm hospitality, even if the meal was pathetically meager due to war time requisitions of food supplies by the Nazi war machine. Sister Janet felt ashamed of her comparatively plump cheeks as she looked about at her pale, thin French sisters. They all appeared so wan and almost too slender even in their full gowns and habits. Were they being slowly starved to death? Why were they all insisting that she take additional portions, when none of them took any? She couldn’t enjoy the meal, such as it was. Mostly greens, a bit of pork to flavor them, a tiny fish, a slice of bread and no butter, a tiny, finger-sized thimble of wine—that was all. Yet the sisters acted as if it were a banquet for royalty and arranged their tidbits on their plates so artistically a Parisian hotel restaurant such as Maxims might have nodded approval.
In the early morning, just before departure, she was given a breakfast of an unbuttered slice of bread, a glass of fresh, cold water, and, of all things, a plate of sliced, not-so-ripe tomatoes! Then off she went to the bus that would take her on her last leg of the journey.
When late in the evening the bus reached Caen, Sister Holm-Barrow gazed out with travel-weary features on a city she couldn’t have described, it proved so dreary, so unFrenchlike. What have the Nazis done that it should look like this? She wondered, amazed.
An old nag of a horse, pulling a wagon with orchard tree branches and grape vine cuttings for sale as fuel. No cars or trucks in the city center of the great city, just this horse and truck. A detachment of Nazi soldiers marching through stiffly and without expression as if they were mechanical metal toys. A loudspeaker sounding, blasting forth one more of Shickelgruber’s speeches to the French people! Where were the flower venders? The crowded sidewalk cafes? The Gypsy fortune tellers in their bright dresses and beguiling smiles? The rich in their limousines out for pleasure, the young lovers strolling hand in hand—-there was nothing of such to greet her eye. It was all so drab, threatening, vulgar, and-—was the word “retrograde”? Wonderful, old, elegant France, in Nazi hands, had slipped back into a state of grinding, brutal, Stone Age like conditions!
Walking on the route drawn out for her in advance, she approached the cathedral, then walked round it to the convent. Here the city center, which had hitherto shown no war damage, suddenly gaped at her with numerous pits, bombshell-blasted holes where noble buildings—palaces, merchant town-houses, hospitals, and hotels-- had once stood. The sidewalk ended in a non-man’s land of utter desolation. She had to crawl and climb over piles of rubble to reach the convent. Part was demolished, but she found the remaining portion occupied by the nuns. After introductions, she was shown her bed, and various arrangements for the following day were made by the mother superior. They too were very glad she could speak French so well-—it helped speed her settling in immeasurably.
In the morning an appointed guide turned out to be an old man, who could clamber up and over mounds of debris like a nimble goat, she found. It was slower going for herself, unfortunately, despite her advantage in years. Sliding down into a bomb crater, which seemed unusually vast to her eyes and rather dangerous to traverse, the old man vanished. She had to follow or be lost in the ruins, so she followed suit, getting very dirty on her descent. The bottom was muddy and treacherous with sharp objects, and she was almost afraid she might not make it through safely when a hand waved at her from the crater’s far lip. That was all she needed. She gave a lung, scrambling up the far side, hoping her momentum would carry her up and over, and it did! Gasping with her effort, and feeling some measure of victory, she found herself on a firm, paved floor. It turned out to be the second floor of a Franciscan edifice going back to the early Middle Ages. But her guide was not in sight!
Moving into the church, she found no one. It seemed completely deserted. Had she lost her way? She called out. Her voice sounded like the echo in a cavern. Terrified, she truck her head into what seemed like a cavern where the wall suddenly gave way. She was met by the old man’s smiling face.
“This way, Sister!” he cried. She gladly followed, stepping through the gaping hole made by an artillery shell. There she was surprised to be met by a nun, who looked at her gravely.
Then the nun took a few steps and pointed. Sister Janet looked and saw what she meant. Just beyond lay a vast cavern, blown out by in incomprehensible bomb or opened up by one—it was hard to tell at first sight. “How can anyone go down there?” Sister Janet asked the nun and guide. “I would need to be a mountain climber with equipment, I think.”
The nun made no sign she agreed, one way or the other, and the guide shrugged.
“If you wish to see the things you seek, you must get to that door half-way down. How you do it is your own business! We weren’t prepared to take you all the way. You yourself must figure out how to do it.”
Sister Janet could scarcely believe her ears. No wonder why the nun had given her such a dolorous greeting! She hadn’t been exaggerating in the least! Her heart pounding, she leaned over as far as she could manage and spied what seemed to be the door. A great deal of masonry was exposed of various types leading down, with signs that there had once been rooms or monastic cells, together with supporting pillars of Norman and Romanesque vintage. With her trained eye she knew that the artifacts were, indeed, lying in the stratum that would chronologically bear such things. But how in the world would she get to them? She had no ropes, nothing at all that would do the job. And she hadn’t trained for this!
The nun and guide turned, acting as if they would leave her. “
No, you aren’t going,, are you?” Sister Barrow protested. “Can’t you at least stay until I decide how I will make the attempt? I require a guide to show me the way out of here at least.”
The nun shook her head. “The authorities wouldn’t permit us to travel back the same way together, and would demand a full report, then find errors in it, enough to justify our arrests. No, you must return to the convent singly or not at all! You should have known what you were getting into, coming over here at this time. It is your mistake, not ours. When we heard you were coming, it was too late to warn you, and now here you have it. Make of it what you can. Au revoir!” Sister Janet, her intellect insulted beyond words and herself reduced almost to tears, tried to argue with them, but they left her anyway without another word.
Looking down into the crater or cavern, she looked at her dashed hopes to resolve the scholastic question for which she had researched for over ten years. Had the Mother Superior’s initial misgivings about her mission been correct? Was this as far as she would get? It seemed so!
Slowly, she climbed back through the ruins, in and out of giant craters, and reached solid, civilized ground at last. Dirty and exhausted, she reentered the convent, or what was left of one, and was received by a nun who introduced herself as Sister Theresa, a bubbly soul known to the worldly community as "Sister Champagne" that seemed so out of place in the dismal setting of the half-ruined convent.
“What?” Sister Janet cried. “Where are you taking me? I was already shown the site of the missing panels, wasn’t I?”
The irrepresible, bubbly one shook her head vigorously. “It fools them every time! We put them off the scent that way, you see! Now you get to see the real thing, if you will just be quiet and follow me quickly.”
She stepped into the ruined portion of the convent, climbing down into a bomb crater. In the side of it she entered what appeared to be a cave entrance.
The sister was hard to follow, as she darted swiftly from the “cave entrance” through narrow openings, opening and closing doors, climbing and descending a variety of stairs, finally leading her deep into the underground labyrinth of crypts and buried chapels of ancient churches that lay beneath the convent. They came up against a wooden door squeezed between two barrel-shaped pillars that looked 10-11th century Norman in provenance. The sister-guide took a huge key from her robe and worked at the door, and finally the medieval mechanism of the lock clicked, the door groaned, and it and fell open.
A rush of cool but dry air rushed out. It wasn’t a bit damp down there, Sister Barrow noted with surprise. Despite the thickness of the door’s ancient timbers, the opening beyond was low and narrow, and they had to slid through it, keeping their heads down. Her guide had brought a candle, which she then lit. Sister Barrow had also come prepared and lit her candle.
“I really don’t see why they should interest anyone,” the guide commented. “They don’t show quite the same quality as the ones we had laid out for show before the war. And they fail to portray anything about the Norman Invasion of England, which is the main event, I should say!”
Ignoring the comments, Sister Janet kept taking notes as she pored over the panels and made all the professional observations necessary to determine all the provable data.
As best as she could determine, the panels did not portray the Norman Invasion but something unknown, even futuristic, “The Battle of Britain.” There were twelve in total. Panels 1-7 , were entitled “The Geographical Newe Worlde,” and consisted of chiefly sections which portrayed two great, horribly devastating world wars through a series of “visions” by a nun, Sister Empronia, attached to Bishop Odo’s cathedral and convent. Ill health forced the nun to let the work go to others, who subsequently sewed what she described to them up to her last moments, whispering in a dying voice, on her deathbed.
“But we can’t leave them here like this, can we!”
“We must! Now let us go! Hurry!”
It was the most difficult thing in her life, to stop taking notes and obey her guide. Sister Janet, her mind spinning with a thousand questions, stumbled behind her guide. How she made it back, with no light in hand, she hardly knew, but somehow they both returned to the surface alive. If lost in such depths, could they have been found? Who could hear them down in such a place as held the secret panels? Everyone but the nuns of this convent had no idea it even existed! Sister Janet collapsed in her room, but had to look at her notes. Were they legible? Yes, somehow, she could read them, despite her haste in writing. But what on earth did the panels mean? She had no idea.
The only part that made sense concerned the two great world wars. Surely, that was coherent enough. But what followed was most strange and incomprehensible.
Disappointed, Sister Janet made a copy of her notes, taking one with her, while making arrangements for the other to be kept in the convent to be sent at another time. It seemed to her now that her trip was one huge blunder. All this trouble and expense for what? No one could make any proper sense of the secret panels. No wonder they had been removed from Bishop Odo’s tapestry! They had nothing to do with the Norman Invasion, which was the main theme.
Too much head, not enough heart, perhaps, was her undoing, a dead woman back in England would have declared if she were still living. Not so? Well, where had all her brilliance and learning gotten her? She had evidently lost her grasp on reality, her bright promise withering on the budded stem.
No one but a graduate student or two, looking for something else, ever surveyed the notes on the secret Bayeux panels. What they saw was incomprehensible, of course, a view they shared with the book’s author, Janet Holm-Barrow. “This couldn’t be our world as the nun saw it,” the author had concluded. “Nothing so far fetched stands the ghost of a chance of ever developing on Earth. I wasted considerable time and resources, sorry to say! May students of my field take a sober lesson from my short-comings and failures! If I had to do it over again, I would choose some other field altogether and prove myself a productive sister to the Holy Mother Church. But Time, unlike other things, cannot be turned back, and failure will remain failure.”