Every day except Sunday, the little train climbed the vertiginous track up the mountainside from San Bernardina in the valley to the saint’s basilica high on a rocky crag. And on every day except Sunday, pilgrims crowded the carriages and formed orderly queues to kiss the feet of the Madonna of the Sorrowful Countenance.
On Sundays, twice a day, for both the morning and evening devotions, the children of the orphanage in the valley climbed the railway track to the basilica to pray. It was a harsh climb, sweatily suffocating in summer and icily treacherous in winter, but nobody ever thought to give the children a break, and they spent six hours of the day either on the climb or on their knees in silence on the stone floor of the Madonna’s chapel.
At one time it had been suggested that the children might be given a simple noonday meal in the refectory with the monks of the abbey that crouched at the foot of the basilica, thereby saving them from two of the perilous climbs. But it never happened. Father Abbot was a stern man, and a greedy one, who saw no need to share with the thin little children from the valley. So the orphans toiled in the heat of summer and the cold and darkness of winter. None fell by the wayside, because none dared, knowing that nobody cared enough to rescue them should they fall.
And that was how matters stood on a Sunday in December, when the cold was such that even the stern-faced nuns handed their charges extra woollen socks and hot stones wrapped in rabbit skin in the hope of staving off frostbite. The first climb of the day was accomplished in pitch darkness, with only the flickering lanterns carried by the nuns to illuminate the treacherously slippery railway line. To be honest, they almost didn’t make it, with one significant casualty being Mother Superior herself, who was half carried into the abbey by two of the biggest children. Even that would have gone unremarked had there not been a Hellenic doctor attending to Father Abbot’s stomach problems – and, unbeknownst to that worthy, also reporting to the Bishop on the conduct of the basilica and its satellites. This man took one look at Mother’s leg and pronounced it broken. He had the woman carried off to the sanatorium where he splinted the limb and administered laudanum for the pain.
After morning service, Father Abbot regarded the orphans with a jaundiced eye, but even he could see that it would not be possible for them to return for evening service if they went back to the orphanage now. He thought for about five minutes then sent them home with the explicit instruction that they were not to return that day. He also ‘suggested’, although the suggestion was more in the nature of an order, that the choir nuns should remain to attend evensong. He was not an imaginative man, nor a kindly one, so he didn’t see what could possibly go amiss with two novices and a lame postulant leading upwards of thirty children down an icy railway track in the snow.
So the children went, and the nuns stayed.
Night fell and the snow blew into massive drifts that groaned and sighed in the wind.
The Abbot congratulated himself on having had the forethought to send the children home, while the nuns luxuriated in the heat from the great log fires that rendered even the Abbey’s massive stones warm to the touch. Down in the valley there was also warmth, even if it was only found in the kitchens, and, for once, there was sufficient pottage for all.
But nobody gave a thought to the orphans and their minders. What would they? Nobody at either end of the track thought anything was amiss. The inhabitants of the abbey thought the children back in their bare, cold dormitories, and the two old servants left behind in the orphanage naturally assumed that some sort of human compassion had prompted the Abbot to keep the children where they were safe.
The storm raged for three days and three nights before a cold blue dawn when the wind fell away and the sun shone on a pristine scene. Soon after that dawn, the rail crew arrived to clear the tracks so the little train could once again begin its duty of carrying the faithful into the high thin air. The men were about halfway up the mountain when one of them noticed a foot sticking out of the snow that was piled haphazardly on the track and the black pines that bordered it. These men had seen death before, but even so they cleared the snow with care, uncovering the body of an elderly woman in a brown habit. One of the workers had been an inhabitant of the orphanage before his luck changed for the better, and he recognised her.
“That’s Berthe,” he said, “she’s from the orphanage. She was never bright enough to become a nun, but they kept her as a sort of unpaid servant. Wonder what she was doing out here.”
“She weren’t the only one,” came a voice from further up the track.
In the end they uncovered two more bodies, dressed in the blue of novice nuns.
“It’s almost as if,” the foreman mused, “they was bringing the kiddies back down the tracks.”
“Surely not. Surely even Father Abbot has more kindness in him than that. And anyway, where’s the childer?”
“I dursn’t think,” the man who had suffered as an orphan shivered. “But us shan’t know until us gets to the top.”
They worked on in unusually grim silence until they reached the tiny halt at the top of the tracks. One of their number trotted up the steep path to the basilica and its abbey. He returned with puzzlement writ large on his honest features.
“They won’t believe us found three bodies.”
The foreman blew out his formidable moustache.
“Won’t them? Well then us shall just take the deceased down to the valley and put them in the hands of the Constable.”
Which is what they did, and that was just the beginning. The disappearance of thirty-two children, ranging in age from four to fourteen years made worldwide news, but the children were never found. There was an enquiry, and a lot of stern-faced men made a lot of discoveries they could have made years before if they had ever looked. Discoveries that closed the orphanage and replaced the greedy Abbot with a man of grace and humility.
But it was all too late. The basilica passed out of public favour and the little trains no longer plied their trade up and down the vertiginous track.
Today, you can barely discern where the rusted rails once ran, and the basilica and its abbey are no more that tumbled piles of basalt blocks. All is peace on the mountain now, although they do say that cold moonlit nights still see a procession of small figures toiling up the track blowing on their cold fingers and stubbing their frozen toes on the unforgiving wooden sleepers…
©️jane jago 2018