Chapter 14: The Devil's Chessboard
Once upon a time in the Pyrenees there lived an old widow, whose daughter, Marie, is said to have met the Devil himself and struck a bargain with the Prince of Darkness.
Marie, like her mother, had the dark eyes and high colour of her heretic ancestors, but despite her beauty, she chose to remain by her mother's side, ignoring her countless suitors and remaining chaste and pure as her biblical namesake. By day, she tended the land and the diminishing herd of goats and by night, when she could afford to burn a candle, she would pour over the old books left by her deceased father in the hope of mastering the secrets of reading and writing, so that she might better her position in the world and satisfy her natural curiosity about the world outside her village.
Now times were hard, this being the latter part of the 19th century, and Marie's mother was forced to take in a lodger to help make ends meet. Being a God-fearing sort, the widow was at pains to find a tenant whose ways were as frugal and virtuous as her own, sifting through any number of candidates and finding each one wanting.
On June 1st 1885, a tall man dressed in black, a broad-brimmed hat on his head and a battered valise in one hand, dismounted from a passing coach and started on foot up the hill. Berenger Sauniere was a man of the cloth, a young priest, whose outspoken anti-Republican sermons had caused him no end of trouble in his previous parish, and had lead to his punative posting to the rural backwater of Rennes le Chateau, a constituency of fewer than forty houses.
He was just the kind of man Marie's mother had been looking for and before long, he found himself securely ensconced in the widow's austere homestead. Deciding to make the best of his reduced circumstances, Sauniere set about winning over the hearts and minds of his congregation, who found his words carried an unusual humour and emotion, as if the young firebrand really cared about what he was saying and not just going through the motions like so many priests before him.
The village church had fallen into disrepair and Sauniere set about its immediate restoration, having become aware of a small fund set aside for this purpose by the town mayor. It was barely sufficient to stabilize the dilapidated building and much of the initial work was carried out by Sauniere himself and volunteers from his congregation. One of these volunteers, a venerable gentleman with a drooping silver moustache, whose name, Captier, in our tongue means simply 'Keeper', had been bellringer and sacristan since time out of mind and took a personal interest in the matter, fussily tidying up after the workmen had left and the young priest had repaired to his lodgings for the simple evening meal prepared by Marie and her mother.
Finding the altar had been shifted off true, Master Captier stayed on after ringing the Angelus one evening to set matters right, and in the course of his solitary labour found to his surprise that the ancient column had in fact been hollow all along. There was a glass tube hidden within the cavity containing a number of jumbled, nonsensical documents apparently drafted by one of Sauniere's predecessors. The bellringer duly handed them over to the younger priest and at first thought nothing of it, but something about the parchments seemed to capture Sauniere's imagination. Marie couldn't help watching over his shoulder as he struggled to decipher them and she saw the light burning beneath his door at all hours of the night.
The actual parchments are lost to us now, and indeed might never have existed, but there are many who believe Berenger Sauniere found the key he was searching for. What is certain is that he consulted his peers on the matter - Antoine Gelis, the aging priest of Coustassa, a neighbouring village set on a hilltop overlooking the coiling River Aude, and the Reverend Boudet, who hailed from Rennes le Bains, a crumbling spa town on the far side of the plateau, where the Romans had once come to take the waters in search of a cure for leprosy.
Boudet fancied himself as a poet and an amateur archaeologist. He was also the author of an extremely strange (some would say impenetrable) book entitled LaVraie Langue Celtique ('The True Celtic Tongue'), which purports to be an academic work cataloguing of the standing stones and sundry prehistoric sites in the area, but written in a spiralling, allusive manner concealing any number of codes and punning word games, not dissimilar to the parchments themselves. Whether it was Boudet who helped find the key, or whether Sauniere was simply 'inspired', is impossible to know nor can we be certain the solution handed down to us is anything like the truth.
It is said the vital clue was found in the ancient rules of chess, and that by making a series of knight's moves, starting from a fixed point on the parchment, the following can be deciphered:
"Shepherdess no temptation peace 187 Poussin Teniers hold the key by this cross and horse of God I complete or conjure the guardian of the Daemon at noon Blue Apples"
A second parchment contains the scrambled phrase:
"To Dagobert II and to Zion belongs this treasure and he is there - dead"
Leaving all other esoteric speculation aside for a moment, it behooves me to remind the constant reader that the Sicambrians, the ancestors of the Frankish Merovingians, worshipped the mother Goddess, Cybele, as Diana of the Nine Fires or as Arduina - the Goddess of the Ardennes. The huge Diana / Arduina idol, which once towered over Carignan in northeastern France, between the black virgin sites of Orval, Avioth, Mezieres and Stenay, where the Merovingian king and saint Dagobert II was murdered in 679, points to a link between the two cults. One of Dagobert's most important acts when he accepted the throne after his Irish exile and education in Tara was to continue the ancient tradition of Gaul, the worship of the black virgin.
The black virgin of Mauriac dates from 507 when Theodechilde, daughter of Clovis, first Christian king of the Franks, found, haloed by light in a forest clearing, a statuette guarded by a lioness and her cubs. Clovis met his queen, Clotilde, at Ferrieres, the first Christian village in Gaul, where the cult of the black virgin had its origin in AD 44. Not long after the destruction of the church and town by Attila (AD 461), the Merovingian dynasty lavishly restored and augmented the cult and its last reigning members made it their place of residence (Irrelevant admittedly, but I can't help mentioning that the Merovingian dynasty traced its own origin not to the union of Christ and Mary Magdalene, as some contemporary authors would have it, but to the somewhat more Lovecraftian legend of its original matriarch having been raped by a tendrelled sea monster named Merovee, described by contemporary commentators as having been ‘like unto a quinotaur’ – whatever the hell that is...).
Whether this made any more sense to Sauniere than it does to you and me is a moot point, but the young priest seems to have set to work with renewed vigour. Recruiting the help of the aging bellringer, he shifted the altar aside and pried loose the stone it rested on to reveal a further inscription, a pre-Christian bas relief showing a faceless knight and a woman with long hair and severere countenance gazing into a shining, ceremonial mirror. Later Master Captier claimed to have seen bones and shiny things glinting in the hollow beneath the stones, but he had no chance to examine them before the priest hastly dismissed him and locked the church doors to ensure his privacy. Later when questioned on the matter by the town mayor, Sauniere dismissed the rumours concerning the so-called 'treasure', insisting that the 'shiny things' had been worthless 'Lourdes medallions'.
Instead he dug franticly deeper. Working alone with pick and spade, Sauniere excavated a narrow flight of stone steps that lead steeply downwards into a partly flooded natural cavity beneath the plateau. In the flickering light of his guttering oil lamp he glimpsed what looked like ancient tombs carved with coiling serpents and other less familiar creatures, eight-legged like spiders or octopi. One of the sarcophagi was larger than the others, its slab sealed with curious glyphs and unfamiliar geometric markings. Using his pick as a lever the priest summoned his nerve to push the slab aside, blanching at the foul air that came from within, the dust of centuries!
Speculation was rife in the parish about Sauniere's labours and he knew he had to hurry, that it was only a matter of time before the mayor tried to intervene and in his haste he grew careless. He did not hear Marie's footfalls or sense her hooded eyes watching from the shadows, following his every move and inwardly noting every tiny, incongruous detail, as she had from the day the handsome preacher first arrived in her isolated world. Whether she confronted him with what she knew as he emerged from the vault, realizing she finally had a power over him or whether (as some of the locals believe) she was forced to come to Sauniere's rescue after he either slipped or became endangered by rising floodwaters, caused by the subterranean river's phreatic source, is hard to say just as it is impossible to know at this distance in time when they first became lovers. Certainly he had no choice but to either silence her forever or make her his partner and co-conspirator in all that followed. Pledging herself to the man she loved, Marie vowed to keep his secret come Hell or high water!
It was decided Sauniere should leave town for a while until the gossip died down, and taking leave of his baffled congregation he set out for Carcassonne and then Paris, where it is claimed he consulted with various high ranking individuals in certain fin de siecle occult lodges, in addition to purchasing a number of reproductions of paintings by Poussin and Teniers, as well as more traditional images of Saint Anthony and the Magdalene. It has never been established exactly what Berenger Sauniere found beneath the church or how he came into his sudden wealth, but on his return to his diocese, he began to spend considerable amounts of money, far more than he could have dreamed of on the stipend accorded to him as a priest, enough to make him a multi-millionaire by our standards.
His first priority was to seal the entrance to the cavity as firmly as possible and to build a high wall around the property with impregnable steel gates. Having made the area safe, he set to work in earnest redecorating the church in a flamboyant, wildly off-kilter manner as if driven by Poe's Imp of the Perverse to not only hide his crime but to simultaneously draw attention to its hiding. The chapel floor was redesigned to resemble a chessboard...
At one end, a statue of Christ peers mutely down and at the other squats the grotesque life-sized effigy of a shrieking daemon, commonly identified as Asmodeus, the guardian of Solomon's temple, who fought the arch-mage after he lost his seal and was wounded in one knee before being cast out into the wasteland. Esoterically he is the guardian and teacher of all occult knowledge.
Above the daemon which serves as a font are the words: "By this sign you will conquer him" and a bas relief depicting five angels, who appear to be making the sign of the cross, but it isn't hard even for an untrained eye to notice they are really forming a pentagram. On the wall beside them and directly above the confessional is a three-dimensional tableau of the sermon on the mount, traditional enough save that the mount is depicted as hollow and the cave beneath it filled with sacks of gold that have no place in the biblical episode they are supposed to illustrate.
A second cave appears on a bas relief on the altar itself, lovingly hand-painted by Sauniere himself. An image of the Magdalene or what might just as well be young Marie kneeling in a grotto before a grinning skull, the silhouette of what Sauniere claimed was Jerusalem visible on the distant horizon. Time forbids a fuller listing of the décor's oddities and inherent contradictions, which include any number of images of Saint Anthony, a personage known for his temptations both daemonic and sexual. Two of the scariest cherubs imaginable adorn the wooden doors above which appears the maxim:
Terribilis locus iste, as in "Terrible is this place (Genesis 28:17)", being the words Jacob spoke on awakening from his dream of the ladder. Beside this phrase appears another statue of the Magdalene, again bearing an uncanny resemblance to Sauniere's nubile 'housekeeper' and the legend: Mea domus orationis vocatibur, as in "My house is called the house of prayer" - innocent enough, unless you trace it to source where it continues: "And you have turned it into a den of thieves!"
Not that the increasingly disorientated parishioners needed to be given any further clues as to the diabolic origins of Sauniere's newfound largesse. The secretive priest and his young neophyte had been spotted working alone at night in the graveyard, digging up and moving some marker stones while obliterating the inscriptions on others, leaving signs to draw attention to themselves while deliberately hiding other already existing clues, a seemingly pathological activity all too familiar to long term aficionados of the esoteric. Graverobbing and necromancy were the least of the accusations made against Sauniere, initially behind his back and later more openly when the enraged mayor demanded an official investigation from his superiors in Carcassonne.
The increasingly physical relationship between Sauniere and Marie had become an open secret and she publicly disported herself wearing jewellery and expensive, daringly cut gowns that would have put her mother to shame, had not the good widow passed suddenly that spring just after the priest's return. The causes are obscure, but she at least died in her own bed with her beloved daughter at her side and Sauniere himself in attendance to hear her confession. Nor was she the only one to have lost her life that season under less than certain circumstances...
Sauniere had severed all ties with his fellow priests, Henri Boudet and Antoine Gelis, who was said to have become irrationally frightened of something he either couldn't comprehend or dared not explain to his friends and family. Indeed he had become so paranoid that he refused to leave his rectory and barred the door to all comers, save his niece and nephew who brought his food and tended to the laundry. His precautions however were in vain. On Hallow’een night, 1897, someone managed to get to him. Somewhere around midnight there was a fierce struggle and Gelis was bludgeoned with a poker before being finished off with an axe, while apparently trying to crawl to the window to scream for help. When the local authorities finally dared to enter the house, they found the elderly priest's mutilated remains layed out in a strange, reputedly ritualistic manner. A pack of Russian cigarettes were retrieved from the floor beside the corpse on which someone had hastily pencilled the words ‘Viva Angelina.’ If Berenger Sauniere was in any ways implicated in these events then he showed no sign of attempting to flee the scene of the crimes. If anything, he appeared to be digging in, commissioning a magnificent new residence facing the church, where he intended to live with Marie as man and wife.
No expense was spared in furnishing the weird art deco mansion that he named the Villa Bethania, its interiors decorated by gold leaf, swirling mosaics and distinctly psychedelic velvet wallpaper. The Villa's windows and those of the greenhouse that abutted it were fashioned from a deep, lustrous stained glass that caught the Meridional sunshine, and filled the fallen priest's domain with every incandescent shade of red and deep pools of midnight blue that seemed to remain cool even in summertime... But this was only the beginning of his grand design.
As the parallel investigations by the civil and clerical authorities gathered pace, Sauniere contrived to enclose his house, the church, graveyard and a good part of the plateau with a gothic belvedere surmounted by a strange high tower he christened the 'Tour Magdala', and which was to serve as the repository for his burdgeoning library. The tower commanded an extraordinary 360 degree view of the plateau and surrounding valleys and foothills, its narrow windows, patterned after the 'arrow slits' in the abandoned heretic castles faced to the west. At the far end of the belvedere, inclined towards the rising sun, he raised a second tower, a tower of glass whose myriad panes were of the same strange hue as the others already installed in the villa itself. As much work seemed to be going on beneath the ground as above it, and the walled garden became a veritable paradise with any number of rare, exotic species nurtured by an elaborate system of subterranean aqueducts, its orchards bearing strange fruit such as the locals had never seen before.
Shortly after the turn of the century, the incoming bishop of Carcassonne, Lord Bishop De Beausejour, finally succeeded in having Sauniere removed from his position and barred from holding mass in the village church. Engaging the best lawyers he could afford, the rogue preacher blithely ignored his incipient excommunication and continued to hold services in his greenhouse, where he had a statue of Saint Michael erected amidst the prehistoric ferns and orchids. Retreating into their private world Marie and her lover entertained lavishly and received many important guests from Paris and Rome in grand style, plying them with rum imported from Martinique, the lights blazing all night in the Tour Magdala, which had been equipped with scientific novelties, telescopes, microscopes and purportedly a curious 'magic lantern', akin to an early motion picture projector, with which Sauniere hoped to illustrate his hellfire 'sermons'. Among their guests were said to be several members of the Hapsburg dynasty, the legendary chanteuse Emma Calve and two popular authors of the period, Maurice le Blanc and Jules Verne, who frequently holidayed in the area and whose novels contain tantalizing allusions to the miasma of myths and rumours that had already begun to accrue about the priest's beleagured domain.
Two of the Verne titles in question are Le Testament d'un Excentrique and Clovis Dardentor. The latter concerns a byzantine conspiracy surrounding a lost treasure, none other than the gold of Clovis. The story is set on a ship under the command of the heroic Captain Bugarach - seemingly a reference to the farm where Verne spent his holidays, 'Les Capitains', on the slopes of the nearby Mount Bugarach, a dormant volcano in the vicinity of Rennes les Bains. As far as I know neither title has ever been translated into English. The continuing seismic activity would tend to indicate the volcano is far from extinct and tectonic forces have been held to blame for some of the freaky electro-magnetic activity including ball-lightning and other unidentified atmospheric phenomena. The bald mountain was central to local faery lore in days of old and in more recent times has been dubbed a 'window area' by a growing community of 'contactees' and concerned UFOlogists.
While Sauniere couldn't halt the continuing investigation into the mysterious source of his newfound wealth, he was able to deploy sufficient legal muscle to slow the enquiries to a snail's pace and by the onset of the Great War in 1914, the situation remained unchanged, the church remained locked and the disgraced cleric and his lover remained firmly ensconced in the rambling hilltop estate, presiding over a divided village.
An entire generation perished on the battlefields of western Europe and while there was scarcely a household not touched by tragedy, the locals were unable to turn to their minister or attend official services as Sauniere's legal action effectively blocked the appointment of any new priest to the stricken parish. Be it guilt over ill-gotten gains or the sheer stultifying weight of the mounting bureaucracy that clogged his study, but the consequences of the rebel cleric's secrecy exacted a heavy toll. He continued his obsessive construction work as if racing against time, spending the initial years of the war gathering rocks from the bed of the River of Colours and carrying them one basketload at a time up the steep slope of the plateau to construct a 'Lourdes grotto' outside the disused church, insisting that one day the village would become a place of pilgrimage.
At the centre of his handmade cavern he erected another image of the Magdalene, this time resting on the hollow altar column in which the coded documents were said to have been found. In the base of the column he enscribed two simple, but telling words: "Penitence! Penitence!"
In December 1916, while still apparently in good health, Sauniere visited the local undertaker and commissioned a bespoke coffin to be made according to his measurements. He was a tall man with the broad shoulders and barrel chest of a southerner and he wanted to make certain the box would be an easy fit. Shortly thereafterwards he suffered the symptoms of a massive stroke, although there were some who, for obvious reasons, suspected poisoning.
A minister was hastily summoned from the neighbouring parish to hear the dying man's confession and administer the last rites, and it is said he departed Sauniere's bedroom ashen-faced at what he heard and according to popular account, 'never smiled again'. Whether it is true that all the dogs began to howl in the village or that Marie really muttered "Thank God it's over", as Sauniere breathed his last is hard to say. Certainly if she did utter those words, she was hopelessly misguided!
The death certificate filed in Caracassonne records that on the 17th of January 1917, a date commemorated in the locality as 'Blue Apple Day', Berenger Sauniere, the former priest of Rennes les Chateau, met his maker. The following morning his body was moved to the greenhouse, where it was propped up in an old armchair and exhibited to a procession of anonymous mourners, who were said to have come from as far afield as Paris to pay their respects. Legend has it that each one took a tassel from the hem of his gown as they passed by way of a keepsake.
It was snowing and the ground was frozen, making hard work for Master Captier's eldest son, who had taken over his father's duties, maintaining the locked chapel and the tiny graveyard. How many came to grieve and how many others gathered out of morbid curiosity is a moot point, but those who had expected the secret of Sauniere's wealth to finally become public knowledge were in for an unpleasant surprise. When the contents of his will were divulged, it became clear the rogue cleric had died a pauper, his only income being the meagre stipend accorded to him as village priest. The Villa Bethany, the Tour Magdala, the domain it commanded and the seemingly bottomless bank account that paid for its upkeep had either been signed over or perhaps had always been registered in the name of Sauniere's loyal 'house keeper' Marie Denarnaud, who remained good to her promise and kept her lips stubbornly sealed.
Marie lived on in the big house without servants or family, feared and ostracized by the other villagers, trusting no-one, the garden growing wild, the greenhouses turning into a jungle as one year faded into another and a second war came and went. Set aside from the great events that convulsed Europe, life continued much as it always did in Rennes until the collapse of the Vichy government in 1945, and the decision to reissue the Franc note in order to catch out those who had directly profited from the fascist regime. Unable or perhaps unwilling to explain the source of her cashflow, Marie found herself impoverished overnight and there are stories, doubtless apocryphal, of the aging spinster raking bundles of useless currency together and burning them as if they were leaves in her back garden.
Looking ruin in the face, Marie confided in a recently widowed businessman from Paris, Noel Corbu, that if he bought the Villa and the domain and promised to look after her until the end of her days, she would tell him "a secret that will make you both rich and immensely powerful". Noel wasn't a total sucker, he did his homework first before signing on the dotted line. But in the end, the mystery drew him in to its malignant embrace as surely as a black hole draws in light.
After the elaborate negotiations were completed and the contracts finally exchanged, Marie moved back into her former lodgings, leaving the domain to its new tenants, Noel and his young daughter, Claire, who was little more than a child at the time. Any expectations on the businessman's behalf that he might be the one to finally penetrate the enigma were cruelly dispelled when on the anniversary of Sauniere's demise, Marie suffered identical symptoms, a sudden, violent stroke which left her paralyzed and more crucially, incapable of speech. It is hard to imagine what her final days must have been like as Noel Corbu tried in vain to wrest, tempt, threaten or cajole the secret from her, but at least she died in her mother's bed surrounded by those who cared for her well-being, even if it was for all the wrong reasons. Marie Denarnaud-Barthelemy, to give her full family name as it appears on the headstone, passed on January 29th 1953, without uttering so much as a single coherent syllable.
Some think sheer frustration alone drove Noel to drink or perhaps drove him, well, a little funny. Others believe he was always a little strange to begin with. Like attracts like and the house had found him after all, not the other way round. Not knowing where to dig or even what he was digging for, he sank arbitrary shafts and started on the network of tunnels that honeycomb the plateau to this day, re-opened and reworked by every successive generation to have followed in his hapless steps. Of course he never found a dime but one more piece of the jigsaw did come to light on his shift. In March 1956, the skeletal remains of three men were found buried in the Villa's flowerbed. All three were aged between thirty and forty and had apparently suffered multiple gunshot wounds. The gendarmes were summoned and an inquest opened but no conclusions were handed down. The bodies were never identified and regardless of whether it was local score settling or, as some have suggested, a showdown with a trio of hired assassins, it does tend to indicate not only Marie and Sauniere's skill in defending themselves, but the lengths they were prepared to go to in order to guard their secret.
Noel Corbu was killed in a freak accident on May 20th 1968, when his car left the road while apparently trying to return home to the plateau where his daughter, Claire, awaited him. While speculation over the circumstances of the 'accident' continues, it remains a matter of considerable delicacy. Less than a month later, Abbe Boyer, Vicar General in the Carcassonne diocese and a motivating force behind the ongoing internal enquiry into the Rennes enigma, was himself the victim of an identical accident when his car was apparently forced off the road by persons unknown near a spot on the Carcassonne-Andorra highway known locally as 'the Devil's Bridge'.
After that the trail appeared to go cold. At least for a while...