Page 81

“Thank you,” I said. “I’m most grateful for your help.”

The monk waved a graceful hand, dismissing my thanks.

“I was pleased to be able to assist you,” he said, and I noticed that he spoke excellent English, though with a faint French accent. “I was passing through the guest wing on my way to the chapel of St. Giles when I heard the screaming.”

I winced at the memory of that screaming, hoarse and dreadful, and hoped I would not hear it again. Glancing at the window at the end of the corridor, I saw no sign of dawn behind the shutter.

“To the chapel?” I said, surprised. “But I thought Matins were sung in the main church. And it’s surely a bit early, in any case.”

The Franciscan smiled. He was fairly young, perhaps in his early thirties, but his silky brown hair was threaded with grey. It was short and neatly tonsured and he had a brown beard, finely trimmed to a point that just skimmed the deep rolled collar of his habit.

“Very early, for Matins,” he agreed. “I was on my way to the chapel because it is my turn for the perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at this hour.” He glanced back into Jamie’s room, where a clock candle marked the time as half past two.

“I’m very late,” he said. “Brother Bartolome will be wanting his bed.” Raising his hand, he quickly blessed me, turned on a sandaled heel, and was through the swinging door at the end of the corridor before I could muster wits enough to ask his name.

I stepped into the room and bent to check Jamie. He was asleep again, breathing lightly, with a slight frown creasing his brow. Experimentally, I ran my hand lightly over his hair. The frown eased a bit, and then resumed. I sighed and tucked the blankets more securely around him.

I felt much better in the morning, but Jamie was hollow-eyed and queasy after the broken night. He emphatically rejected any suggestion of caudle or broth for breakfast, and snapped irritably at me when I tried to check the dressings on his hand.

“For Christ’s sake, Claire, will ye no leave me alone! I dinna want to be poked at any more!”

He yanked his hand away, scowling. I turned away without speaking and went to busy myself with tidying the small pots and packets of medicines on the side table. I arranged them into small groups, sorted by function: marigold ointment and poplar balm for soothing, willowbark, cherry bark and chamomile for teas, St. John’s wort, garlic, and yarrow for disinfection.

“Claire.” I turned back, to find him sitting on the bed, looking at me with a shamefaced smile.

“I’m sorry, Sassenach. My bowels are griping, and I’ve a damn evil temper this morning. But I’ve no call to snarl at ye. D’ye forgive me?”

I crossed to him swiftly and hugged him lightly.

“You know there’s nothing to forgive. But what do you mean, your bowels are griping?” Not for the first time, I reflected that intimacy and romance are not synonymous.

He grimaced, bending forward slightly and folding his arms over his abdomen. “It means,” he said, “that I’d like ye to leave me to myself for a bit. If ye dinna mind?” I hastily complied with his request, and went to find my own breakfast.

Returning from the refectory a bit later, I spotted a trim figure in the black robes of a Franciscan, crossing the courtyard toward the cloister. I hurried to catch up with him.

“Father!” I called, and he turned, smiling when he saw me.

“Good morning,” he said. “Madame Fraser; is that the name? And how is your husband this morning?”

“Better,” I said, hoping it was true. “I wanted to thank you again for last night. You left before I could even ask your name.”

Clear hazel eyes sparkled as he bowed to me, hand over his heart. “François Anselm Mericoeur d’Armagnac, Madame,” he said. “Or so I was born. Known now only as Father Anselm.”

“Anselm of the Merry Heart?” I asked, smiling. He shrugged, a completely Gallic gesture, unchanged for centuries.

“One tries,” he said, with an ironic twist of the mouth.

“I don’t wish to keep you,” I said, glancing toward the cloister. “I only wanted to thank you for your help.”

“You do not detain me in the least, Madame. I was delaying going to my work, in fact; indulging most sinfully in idleness.”

“What is your work?” I asked, intrigued. Plainly this man was a visitor to the monastery, his black Franciscan robes conspicuous as an inkblot among the brown of the Benedictines. There were several such visitors, or so Brother Polydore, one of the serving brothers, had told me. Most of them were scholars, here to consult the works stored in the abbey’s renowned library. Anselm, it seemed, was one of these. He was, as he had been for several months, engaged in the translation of several works by Herodotus.

“Have you seen the library?” he asked. “Come, then,” he said, seeing me shake my head. “It is really most impressive, and I am sure the Abbot your uncle would have no objection.”

I was both curious to see the library, and reluctant to go back at once to the isolation of the guest wing, so I followed him without hesitation.

The library was beautiful, high-roofed, with soaring Gothic columns that joined in ogives in the multichambered roof. Full-length windows filled the spaces between columns, letting an abundance of light into the library. Most were of clear glass, but some had deceptively simple-looking stained-glass parables. Tiptoeing past the bent forms of studying monks, I paused to admire one of the Flight into Egypt.

Some of the bookshelves looked like those I was used to, the books nestling side by side. Other shelves held the books laid flat, to protect the ancient covers. There was even one glass-fronted bookshelf holding a number of rolled parchments. Overall, the library held a hushed exultation, as though the cherished volumes were all singing soundlessly within their covers. I left the library feeling soothed, and strolled slowly across the main courtyard with Father Anselm.

I tried again to thank him for his help the night before, but he shrugged off my thanks.

“Think nothing of it, my child. I hope that your husband is better today?”

“So do I,” I said. Not wanting to dwell on that subject, I asked, “What exactly is perpetual adoration? You said that was where you were going last night.”

“You are not a Catholic?” he asked in surprise. “Ah, but I forgot, you are English. So of course, I suppose you would be Protestant.”

“I’m not sure that I’m either one, in terms of belief,” I said. “But technically, at least, I suppose I am a Catholic.”

“Technically?” The smooth eyebrows shot up in astonishment. I hesitated, cautious after my experiences with Father Bain, but this man did not seem the sort to start waving crucifixes in my face.

“Well,” I said, bending to pull a small weed from between the paving stones, “I was baptized as a Catholic. But my parents died when I was five, and I went to live with an uncle. Uncle Lambert was…” I paused, recalling Uncle Lambert’s voracious appetite for knowledge, and that cheerfully objective cynicism that regarded all religion merely as one of the earmarks by which a culture could be cataloged. “Well, he was everything and nothing, I suppose, in terms of faith,” I concluded. “Knew them all, believed in none. So nothing further was ever done about my religious training. And my…first husband was Catholic, but not very observant, I’m afraid. So I suppose I’m really rather a heathen.”

I eyed him warily, but rather than being shocked by this revelation, he laughed heartily.

“Everything and nothing,” he said, savoring the phrase. “I like that very much. But as for you, I am afraid not. Once a member of Holy Mother Church, you are eternally marked as her child. However little you know about your faith, you are as much a Catholic as our Holy Father the Pope.” He glanced at the sky. It was cloudy, but the leaves of the alder bushes near the church hung still.

“The wind has dropped. I was going for a short stroll to clear my brain in the fresh air. Why do you not accompany me? You need air and exercise, and I can perhaps make the occasion spiritually beneficial as well, by enlightening you as to the ritual of Perpetual Adoration as we go.”

“Three birds with one stone, eh?” I said dryly. But the prospect of air, if not light, was enticing, and I went to fetch my cloak without demur.

With a glance at the form within, head bent in prayer, Anselm led me past the quiet darkness of the chapel entrance and down the cloister, out to the edge of the garden.

Beyond the possibility of disturbing the monks within the chapel, he said, “It’s a very simple idea. You recall the Bible, and the story of Gethsemane, where Our Lord waited out the hours before his trial and crucifixion, and his friends, who should have borne him company, all fell fast asleep?”

“Oh,” I said, understanding all at once. “And he said ‘Can you not watch with me one hour?’ So that’s what you’re doing—watching with him for that hour—to make up for it.” I liked the idea, and the darkness of the chapel suddenly seemed inhabited and comforting.

“Oui, madame,” he agreed. “Very simple. We take it in turns to watch, and the Blessed Sacrament on the altar here is never left alone.”

“Isn’t it difficult, staying awake?” I asked curiously. “Or do you always watch at night?”

He nodded, a light breeze lifting the silky brown hair. The patch of his tonsure needed shaving; short bristly hairs covered it like moss.

“Each watcher chooses the time that suits him best. For me, that is two o’clock in the morning.” He glanced at me, hesitating, as though wondering how I would take what he was about to say.

“For me, in that moment…” He paused. “It’s as though time has stopped. All the humors of the body, all the blood and bile and vapors that make a man; it’s as though just at once all of them are working in perfect harmony.” He smiled. His teeth were slightly crooked, the only defect in his otherwise perfect appearance.

“Or as though they’ve stopped altogether. I often wonder whether that moment is the same as the moment of birth, or of death. I know that its timing is different for each man…or woman, I suppose,” he added, with a courteous nod to me.

“But just then, for that fraction of time, it seems as though all things are possible. You can look across the limitations of your own life, and see that they are really nothing. In that moment when time stops, it is as though you know you could undertake any venture, complete it and come back to yourself, to find the world unchanged, and everything just as you left it a moment before. And it’s as though…” He hesitated for a moment, carefully choosing words.

“As though, knowing that everything is possible, suddenly nothing is necessary.”

“But…do you actually do anything?” I asked. “Er, pray, I mean?”

“I? Well,” he said slowly, “I sit, and I look at Him.” A wide smile stretched the fine-drawn lips. “And He looks at me.”

Jamie was sitting up when I returned to the room, and essayed a short trip up and down the hall, leaning on my shoulder. But the effort left him pale and sweating, and he lay down without protest when I turned back the coverlet for him.

I offered him a little broth and milk, but he shook his head wearily. “I’ve no appetite, Sassenach. If I take anything, I think I shall be sick again.”

I didn’t press the matter, but took the broth away in silence.

At dinner I was more insistent, and succeeded in persuading him to try a few spoonsful of soup. He managed quite a bit of it, but didn’t manage to keep it down.

“I’m sorry, Sassenach,” he said, afterward. “I’m disgusting.”

“It doesn’t matter, Jamie, and you are not disgusting.” I set the basin outside the door and sat down beside him, smoothing back the tumbled hair from his brow.

“Don’t worry. It’s only that your stomach is still irritated from the seasickness. Perhaps I’ve pushed you too fast to eat. Let it rest and heal.”

He closed his eyes, sighing under my hand.

“I’ll be all right,” he said, without interest. “What did ye do today, Sassenach?”

He was obviously restless and uncomfortable, but eased a bit as I told him about my explorations of the day; the library, the chapel, the winepress, and finally, the herb garden, where I had at last met the famous Brother Ambrose.

“He’s amazing,” I said enthusiastically. “Oh, but I forgot, you’ve met him.” Brother Ambrose was tall—even taller than Jamie—and cadaverous, with the long, drooping face of a basset hound. And ten long, skinny fingers, every one of them bright green.

“He seems to be able to make anything grow,” I said. “He’s got all the normal herbs there, and a greenhouse so tiny that he can’t even stand up straight inside it, with things that shouldn’t grow at this season, or shouldn’t grow in this part of the world, or just shouldn’t grow. Not to mention the imported spices and drugs.”

The mention of drugs reminded me of the night before, and I glanced out the window. The winter twilight set in early, and it was already full dark outside, the lanterns of the monks who tended the stables and outdoor work bobbing to and fro as they passed on their rounds.

“It’s getting dark. Do you think you can sleep by yourself? Brother Ambrose has a few things that might help.”

His eyes were smudged with tiredness, but he shook his head.

“No, Sassenach. I dinna want anything. If I fall asleep…no, I think I’ll read for a bit.” Anselm had brought him a selection of philosophical and historical works from the library, and he stretched out a hand for a copy of Tacitus that lay on the table.

“You need sleep, Jamie,” I said gently, watching him. He opened the book before him, propped on the pillow, but continued to stare at the wall above it.

“I didna tell ye what I dreamed,” he said suddenly.

“You said you dreamed of being flogged.” I didn’t like the look on his face; already pale under the bruises, it was lightly sheened with dampness.

“That’s right. I could look up and see the ropes, cutting into my wrists. My hands had gone almost black, and the rope scraped bone when I moved. I had my face pressed against the post. Then I could feel the lead plummets at the ends of the lashes, cutting through the flesh of my shoulders.

“The lashes kept coming, long past when they should have stopped, and I realized that he didn’t mean to stop. The tips of the cords were biting out small chunks of my flesh. The blood…my blood was running down my sides and my back, soaking into my kilt. I was very cold.

“Then I looked up again, and I could see that the flesh had begun to fall away from my hands, and the bones of my fingers were scrabbling at the wood, leaving long raw scratches behind. The bones of my arms were bare, and only the ropes were holding them together. I think that’s when I began to scream.

“I could hear a strange rattling noise when he hit me, and after a time I realized what it was. He’d stripped all the flesh off my bones, and the plummets of the whip were rattling on my dry rib bones. And I knew that I was dead, but it didn’t matter. He would go on and on, and it would never stop, he would go on until I began to fall to pieces and crumble away from the post, and it would never stop, and…”

I moved to take hold of him and make him hush, but he had already stopped himself, gripping the edge of the book with his good hand. His teeth were set hard in the torn flesh of his lower lip.

“Jamie, I’ll stay with you tonight,” I said. “I can lay a pallet on the floor.”

“No.” Weak as he was, there was no mistaking the basic stubbornness. “I’ll do best alone. And I’m not sleepy now. Do ye go and find your own supper, Sassenach. I’ll…just read for a bit.” He bent his head over the page. After a minute of helplessly watching him, I did as he said, and left.

I was becoming more and more worried by Jamie’s condition. The nausea lingered; he ate almost nothing, and what he did eat seldom stayed with him. He grew paler and more listless, showing little interest in anything. He slept a great deal in the daytime, because of sleeping so little at night. Still, whatever his fears of dreaming, he would not allow me to share his chamber, so that his wakefulness need not impair my own rest.

Not wishing to hover over him, even if he would have allowed it, I spent much of my time in the herbarium or the drying shed with Brother Ambrose, or wandering idly through the Abbey’s grounds, engaged in conversation with Father Anselm. He took the opportunity to engage in a gentle catechism, trying to instruct me in the basics of Catholicism, though I had assured him over and over of my basic agnosticism.

“Ma chère,” he said at last, “do you recall the conditions necessary for the commission of sin that I told you yesterday?”

There was nothing wrong with my memory, whatever my moral shortcomings might be.

“First, that it be wrong, and secondly, that you give full consent to it,” I parroted.

“That you give full consent to it,” he repeated. “And that, ma chère, is the condition for grace to occur, as well.” We were leaning on the fence of the abbey pigsty, watching several large brown hogs huddling together in the weak winter sun. He turned his head, resting his face on his forearms, folded on the fence rail.

“I don’t see how I can,” I protested. “Surely grace is something you have or you don’t. I mean”—I hesitated, not wishing to seem rude—“to you, the thing on the altar in the chapel is God. To me, it’s a bit of bread, no matter how lovely the holder it’s in.”

He sighed with impatience and straightened up, stretching his back.

“I have observed, on my way to my nightly watch, that your husband does not sleep well,” he said. “And consequently, neither do you. Since you are not asleep in any case, I invite you to come with me tonight. Join me in the chapel for an hour.”

I eyed him narrowly. “Why?”

He shrugged. “Why not?”

I had no difficulty in waking up for my appointment with Anselm, largely because I had not been asleep. Neither had Jamie. Whenever I poked my head out into the corridor, I could see the flicker of candlelight from the half-open door of his room, and hear the flip of pages and the occasional grunt of discomfort as he shifted his position.

Tip: You can use left and right keyboard keys to browse between pages.