Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Angel of the Sacred Heart

Sequel to "The Bohemian Princess"

The pilgrim was lost. He came to consciousness slowly in the back of a horse-drawn wagon on the road to Lublin, but he could not remember whence he came and whither he was going. He gazed at the sky, as it curiously turned from charcoal grey to a beclouded powder blue, until drops of rain soaked his eyes with the blood and grime caked on his face. He half-consciously wondered if he was in hell or purgatory. Both the sins of his youth and the love of his life flickered in his mind like Platonic flames against a cave wall, the one image pulling him into a dark pit and the other raising him aloft toward the aforementioned clouds. Despite his dire condition, he could not forget the woman of his dreams. It’s as if she beckoned him from the land of the living to return to his body. Her image, like Dido waving to Aeneas from the African shore, filled him with longing.

A decade after the Great Conflagration had swallowed up village after village in a fireball of religious fanaticism and territorial ambition, yet another war broke out on a late spring day, pitting two opposing armies on a rain-swept battlefield at the behest of their respective preachers and princes. Grim-faced warriors had faced off on the border of Bohemia and Poland emboldened by vainglorious slogans and grandiloquent rhetoric. A salvo of musket fire in the distance added more smoke to the damp air, but the pilgrim wouldn't know it; his senses were on overload and he stood at death's door.

The wretched soul had become a reluctant soldier of fortune after losing his position as rector at the Latin School on charges of heresy. Starvation and a hunger for adventure pressed him on, though he would never admit to the latter motivation. Before our protagonist comes to his full faculties (and that's not a foregone conclusion at this point); before he remembers his name and the sad state of affairs that put him on a wagon awash with blood and bound for Lublin; yes, before he becomes conscious of the gaping wound in his left thigh, compliments of a fiery-eyed Landsknecht with a steady hand and sharp aim, let us pick up where we last left off.

The reader will recall that the bishop and cathedral chapter had castigated our pilgrim as a heretic. They conspired and plotted, colluded and connived. "Let us see what this Soperite has to say for himself at the Council of Thorp," they scoffed.  "We'll escort him to the assembly, force the heretic to renounce his wicked doctrines, and make sure he tastes the flames of his own iniquity....at the stake!" By virtue of his independent mind and unquenchable thirst for God, the pilgrim unwittingly risked his life. Dear reader, do not fool yourself into thinking that intolerance is a relic of the distant past, an archaic age in which priests and kings set men aflame for their thoughts and deeds, for the words of Plautus are as true today as they were in the days of yore: homo homini lupus.

Only moments after the pilgrim had spoken to the woman who stole his heart in the previous episode, minions of the papal court, with the approval of the duke, placed him in fetters and transported him to the Grand Castle of Thorp. As fate or providence would have it, the pilgrim escaped the clutches of the papal retainers and avoided the pyre awaiting him at the Council. As the party was making its way through the Moravian Forest, masked men cut down the pilgrim’s captors with rapier and halberd before they knew what hit them. Unbeknownst to the pilgrim, he had a couple of friends in high places, namely the sons of the erstwhile princess of Bohemia who, though estranged from their mother after their wicked father banished her to the cloistered life, had received a message from her via a pigeon imploring them to save the pilgrim from imminent doom. The noble youths would do anything for their beloved mother.

After freeing him from his chains, his liberators told the pilgrim to lose himself in the forest before the duke sends his personal army after him. He never knew the identity of these two brave souls who risked their lives to free him, but he swore that someday he would find out who they are and repay them for their kindness. As the pilgrim emerged from the forest, a contingent of Bohemian troops pressed him into military service and, without much luck as a scholar, he didn’t put up much resistance.

All the while, the pilgrim harbored a deep love for the woman he thought he would never again see. As the bedraggled soldiers brought their dead and wounded to a place of sanctuary, to wit, a hamlet tucked away on the border, women in white scarves and blue habits approached the men to nurse back to health those who were still alive. The Daughters of the Sacred Heart, an order founded by St. Eva in the eighth century and located in a cloister near the clear water of Diamond Lake, devoted their lives to prayer and the healing arts. One of them approached the pilgrim and knelt down to clean his wounds. Once our protagonist regained his sight, his eyes beheld the princess, who looked as radiant as Beatrice guiding Dante through heaven.

“Am I dreaming or is this real?” he asked himself. “You must surely be an angel sent from God to heal a wretched sinner, a wayfarer who has lost his way.” She was just as shocked as he was. Did destiny bring them together? Was it written in the stars? “Tell me one thing, princess,” he said. “Don’t speak,” she responded. “You’re in pain, and you will only speak of things that cannot be.” The princess paused in thought as she changed his dressings. “I do love you, but I am neither a princess nor a duchessmost certainly not an angel.  I am an abandoned woman who has devoted herself to God with the Daughters of the Sacred Heart.” She went on to explain that her ex-husband, Duke William the Arse, disinherited their two sons thanks to the machinations of their insane stepmother. Moreover, both the duke and his wife made sure the youths would never see their biological mother again. The pilgrim only heard her affirmation of love and could hardly contain his joy. He let out a wide smile, no small feat considering the austere face that adversity had forced him to wear these many years. With his leg bandaged, the princess moved on with her “sisters” to another village where more wounded awaited with damaged limbs and broken bones.

Like Voltaire’s Candide a few centuries later, the pilgrim would ponder over the trials and tribulations he had faced and wonder if an ultimate purpose lies behind such suffering in the world. More than anything, however, he asked himself why he and the princess had ever crossed paths. Is life so cruel that they can never be together? Alas! Would that it were not so!