Unable to rest, I had not bothered to undress, and so was ready when a tap at my door announced Anselm’s presence.
The monastery was quiet, in the way that all large institutions grow quiet at night; the rapid pulse of the day’s activities has dropped, but the heartbeat goes on, slower, softer, but unending. There is always someone awake, moving quietly through the halls, keeping watch, keeping things alive. And now it was my turn to join the watch.
The chapel was dark except for the burning of the red sanctuary lamp and a few of the clear white votive candles, flames rising straight in still air before the shadowed shrines of saints.
I followed Anselm down the short center aisle, genuflecting in his wake. The slight figure of Brother Bartolome knelt toward the front, head bowed. He didn’t turn at the faint noise of our entrance, but stayed motionless, bent in adoration.
The Sacrament itself was almost obscured by the magnificence of its container. The huge monstrance, a sunburst of gold more than a foot across, sat serenely on the altar, guarding the humble bit of bread at its center.
Feeling somewhat awkward, I took the seat Anselm indicated, near the front of the chapel. The seats, ornately carved with angels, flowers, and demons, folded up against the wooden panels of the backing to allow easy passage in and out. I heard the faint creak of a lowered seat behind me, as Anselm found his place.
“But what shall I do?” I had asked him, voice lowered in respect of night and silence as we had approached the chapel.
“Nothing, ma chère,” he had replied, simply. “Only be.”
So I sat, listening to my own breathing, and the tiny sounds of a silent place; the inaudible things normally hidden in other sounds. The settling of stone, the creak of wood. The hissing of the tiny, unquenchable flames. A faint skitter of some small creature, wandered from its place into the home of majesty.
It was a peaceful place, I would grant Anselm that. In spite of my own fatigue and my worry over Jamie, I gradually felt myself relaxing, the tightness of my mind gently unwinding, like the relaxation of a clock spring. Strangely, I didn’t feel at all sleepy, despite the lateness of the hour and the strains of the last few days and weeks.
After all, I thought, what were days and weeks in the presence of eternity? And that’s what this was, to Anselm and Bartolome, to Ambrose, to all the monks, up to and including the formidable Abbot Alexander.
It was in a way a comforting idea; if there was all the time in the world, then the happenings of a given moment became less important. I could see, perhaps, how one could draw back a little, seek some respite in the contemplation of an endless Being, whatever one conceived its nature to be.
The red of the sanctuary lamp burned steadily, reflected in the smooth gold. The flames of the white candles before the statues of St. Giles and the Blessed Mother flickered and jumped occasionally, as the burning wicks yielded an occasional imperfection, a momentary sputter of wax or moisture. But the red lamp burned serene, with no unseemly waver to betray its light.
And if there was eternity, or even the idea of it, then perhaps Anselm was right; all things were possible. And all love? I wondered. I had loved Frank; I still did. And I loved Jamie, more than my own life. But bound in the limits of time and flesh, I could not keep them both. Beyond, perhaps? Was there a place where time no longer existed, or where it stopped? Anselm thought so. A place where all things were possible. And none were necessary.
And was there love there? Beyond the limits of flesh and time, was all love possible? Was it necessary?
The voice of my thoughts seemed to be Uncle Lamb’s. My family, and all I knew of love as a child. A man who had never spoken love to me, who had never needed to, for I knew he loved me, as surely as I knew I lived. For where all love is, the speaking is unnecessary. It is all. It is undying. And it is enough.
Time passed without my awareness of it, and I was startled by the sudden appearance of Anselm before me, coming through the small door near the altar. Surely he had been sitting behind me? I glanced behind, to see one of the young monks whose name I didn’t know genuflecting near the rear entrance. Anselm bowed low before the altar, then motioned to me with a nod toward the door.
“You left?” I said, once outside the chapel. “But I thought you weren’t supposed to leave the, er, the Sacrament, alone?”
He smiled tranquilly. “I didn’t, ma chère. You were there.”
I repressed the urge to argue that I didn’t count. After all, I supposed, there was no such thing as a Qualified Official Adorer. You only had to be human, and I imagined I was still that, though I barely felt it at times.
Jamie’s candle still burned as I passed his door, and I caught the rustle of turning pages. I would have stopped, but Anselm went on, to leave me at the door of my own chamber. I paused there to bid him good night, and to thank him for taking me to the chapel.
“It was…restful,” I said, struggling to find the right word.
He nodded, watching me. “Oui, madame. It is.” As I turned to go, he said, “I told you that the Blessed Sacrament was not alone, for you were there. But what of you, ma chère? Were you alone?”
I stopped, and looked at him for a moment before answering.
“No,” I said. “I wasn’t.”
TO RANSOM A MAN’S SOUL
In the morning, I went as usual to check Jamie, hoping that he had managed some breakfast. Just short of his room, Murtagh slid out of a wall alcove, barring my way.
“What is it?” I said abruptly. “What’s wrong?” My heart began to beat faster and my palms were suddenly wet.
My panic must have been obvious, for Murtagh shook his head in reassurance. “Nay, he’s all right.” He shrugged, “Or as much all right as he’s been.” He turned me with a light hand under the elbow and began to walk me back down the corridor. I thought with a moment’s shock that this was the first time Murtagh had ever deliberately touched me; his hand on my arm was light and strong as a pelican’s wing.
“What’s the matter with him?” I demanded. The little man’s seamed face was as expressionless as usual, but the crinkled eyelids twitched at the corners.
“He doesna want to see ye just yet,” he said.
I stopped dead and pulled my arm from his grasp.
“Why not?” I demanded.
Murtagh hesitated, as though choosing his words carefully. “Weel, it’s just…he’s decided as it would be best for ye to leave him here and go back to Scotland. He—”
The rest of what he was saying was lost as I pushed my way rudely past him.
The heavy door swung shut with a soft thump behind me. Jamie was dozing, facedown on the bed. He was uncovered, clad only in a novice’s short gown; the charcoal brazier in the corner made the room comfortably warm, if smoky.
He started violently when I touched him. His eyes, still glazed with sleep, were sunk deep and his face was haunted by dreams. I took his hand between both of mine, but he wrenched it away. With a look of near-despair, he shut his eyes and buried his face in the pillow.
Trying not to exhibit any outward sign of disturbance, I quietly pulled up a stool and sat down near his head. “I won’t touch you,” I said, “but you must talk to me.” I waited for several minutes while he lay unmoving, shoulders hunched defensively. At last he sighed and sat up, moving slowly and painfully, swinging his legs over the edge of the cot.
“Aye,” he said flatly, not looking at me, “aye, I suppose I must. I should have done so before…but I was coward enough to hope I need not.” His voice was bitter and he kept his head bowed, hands clasped loosely around his knees. “I didna used to think myself a coward, but I am. I should have made Randall kill me, but I did not. I had no reason to live, but I was not brave enough to die.” His voice dropped, and he spoke so softly I could hardly hear him. “And I knew I would have to see you one last time…to tell you…but…Claire, my love…oh, my love.”
He picked up the pillow from the bed and hugged it to him as though for protection, a substitute for the comfort he could not seek from me. He rested his forehead on it for a moment, gathering strength.
“When ye left me there at Wentworth, Claire,” he said quietly, head still bowed, “I listened to your footsteps, going away on the flags outside, and I said to myself, I’ll think of her now. I’ll remember her; the feel of her skin and the scent of her hair and the touch of her mouth on mine. I’ll think of her until that door opens again. And I’ll think of her tomorrow, when I stand on the gallows, to give me courage at the last. Between the time the door opens, and the time I leave this place to die”—the big hands clenched briefly and relaxed—“I will not think at all,” he finished softly.
In the small dungeon room, he had closed his eyes and sat waiting. The pain was not bad, so long as he sat still, but he knew it would grow worse soon. Fearing pain, still he had dealt with it often before. He knew it and his own response to it well enough that he was resigned to endurance, hoping only that it would not exceed his strength too soon. The prospect of physical violation, too, was only a matter of mild revulsion now. Despair was in its own way an anesthetic.
There was no window in the room by which to judge the time. It had been late afternoon when he was brought to the dungeon, but his sense of time was unreliable. How many hours could it be until dawn? Six, eight, ten? Until the end of everything. He thought with grim humor that Randall at least had done him the favor of rendering death welcome.
When the door opened, he had looked up, expecting—what? There was only a man, slightly built, handsome, and a little disheveled, linen shirt torn and hair disarranged, leaning against the wood of the door, watching him.
After a moment, Randall had crossed the room unspeaking and stood beside him. He rested a hand briefly on Jamie’s neck, then bent and freed the trapped hand with a jerk of the nail that brought Jamie to the edge of fainting. A glass of brandy was set before him, and a firm hand raised his head and helped him to drink it.
“He lifted my face then, between his hands, and he licked the drops of brandy from my lips. I wanted to pull back from him, but I’d given my word, so I just sat still.”
Randall had held Jamie’s head for a moment, looking searchingly into his eyes, then released him and sat down on the table next to him.
“He sat there for quite a time, not saying anything, just swinging one leg back and forth. I had no idea what he wanted, and wasn’t disposed to guess. I was tired and feeling a bit sick from the pain in my hand. So after a time I just laid my head down on my arms and turned my face away.” He sighed heavily.
“After a moment, I could feel a hand on my head, but I didn’t move. He began to stroke my hair, very gently, over and over. There wasn’t any sound but the big fellow’s hoarse breathing and the crackle of the fire in the brazier, and I think…I think I went to sleep for a few moments.”
When he woke, Randall was standing in front of him.
“Are you feeling a bit better?” Randall had asked in a remote, courteous tone.
Wordless, Jamie had nodded, and stood up. Randall had stripped him, careful of the wounded hand, and led him to the bed.
“I’d given my word not to struggle, but I did not mean to help, either, so I just stood, as though I were made of wood. I thought I would let him do as he liked, but I’d take no part in it—I would keep a distance from him, in my mind at least.” Randall had smiled then, and gripped Jamie’s right hand, hard enough to make him sink onto the bed, sick and dizzy with the sudden stab of pain. Randall had knelt then on the floor before him, and taught him, in a few shattering minutes, that distance is an illusion.
“When he rose up, he took the knife and drew it across my chest, from one side to the other. It was not a deep cut, but it bled a bit. He watched my face a moment, then reached out a finger and dipped it in the blood.” Jamie’s voice was unsteady, tripping and stammering from time to time. “He licked my blood off his finger, with little flicks of his tongue, like a c-cat washing itself. He smiled a bit, then—very kind, like—and bent his head to my chest. I was not bound at all, but I could not have moved. I just…sat there, while he used his tongue to…It did not hurt, precisely, but it felt verra queer. After a time, he stood up and cleaned himself careful with a towel.”
I watched Jamie’s hand. With his face turned away, it was the best indicator of his feelings. It clenched convulsively on the edge of the cot as he went on.
“He—he told me that.…I was delicious. The cut had almost stopped bleeding, but he took the towel and scrubbed it hard over my chest to open the wound again.” The knuckles of the clenched hand were knobs of bloodless bone. “He unbuttoned his breeches then, and smeared the fresh blood on himself, and said it was my turn now.”
Afterward, Randall held his head and helped him to be sick, wiped his face gently with a wet cloth, and gave him brandy to cleanse his mouth of foulness. And so, by turns vicious and tender, bit by bit, using pain as his weapon, he had destroyed all barriers of mind and body.
I wanted to stop Jamie, to tell him that he didn’t need to go on, must not go on, but I bit my lip hard to keep from speaking and clasped my own hands tight together to keep from touching him.
He told me the rest of it, then; the slow and deliberate whipstrokes, interspersed with kisses. The shocking pain of burns, administered to drag him from the brink of a desperately sought unconsciousness to face further degradations. He told me everything, with hesitations, sometimes with tears, much more than I could bear to hear, but I heard him out, silent as a confessor. He glanced quickly up at me, then away.
“I could have stood being hurt, no matter how bad it was. I expected to be…used, and I thought I could stand that too. But I couldn’t…I…he…” I dug my nails fiercely into my palms in the struggle to keep quiet. He shook soundlessly for a time, then his voice came again, thick, but desperately steady.
“He did not just hurt me, or use me. He made love to me, Claire. He hurt me—hurt me badly—while he did it, but it was an act of love to him. And he made me answer him—damn his soul! He made me rouse to him!” The hand bunched into a fist and struck the bedframe with an impotent rage that made the whole bed tremble.
“The…first time, he was verra careful with me. He used oil, and took a long time, rubbing it all over me…touchin’ me gentle in all my parts. I could no more stop myself rising to his touch than I could stop myself bleeding when he cut me.” Jamie’s voice was weary and wretched with despair. He paused, and looked directly at me for the first time since I had come in.
“Claire, I did not want to think of you. I couldna bear to be there, nak*d, and…like that…and to remember loving you. It was blasphemy. I meant to wipe you from my mind, and only to…exist, so long as I must. But he would not allow it.” Wetness shone on his cheeks, but he was not crying now.
“He talked. All during it, he talked to me. Partly it was threats, and partly it was love talk, but often it was you.”
“Me?” My voice, unused for so long, came out of my strained throat as little more than a croak. He nodded, looking down at the pillow again.
“Aye. He was most terribly jealous of you, you know.”
“No. No, I didn’t know.”
He nodded again. “Oh, yes. He would ask me—while he touched me—he would ask, ‘Does she do this for you? Can your woman r-rouse you like this?” His voice trembled. “I wouldna answer him—I couldn’t. And then, he’d ask how I thought you would feel to see me…to see me…” He bit his lip hard, unable to go on for a moment.
“He’d hurt me a bit, then stop and love me ’til I began to rouse…and then he’d hurt me fierce and take me in the midst of the hurting. And all the time, he would talk of you, and keep you before my eyes. I fought, in my mind…I tried to keep myself from him, to keep my mind apart from my body, but the pain broke through, again and again, past every barrier I could put up. I tried, Claire—God, I tried so hard, but…”
He sank his head in his hands, fingers digging hard into his temples. He spoke abruptly. “I know why young Alex MacGregor hanged himself. I’d do the same, did I not know it to be mortal sin. If he’s damned me in life, he’ll not do so in heaven.” There was a moment’s silence while he struggled to control himself. I noticed automatically that the pillow on his knees was blotched with dampness, and wanted to get up and change it for him. He shook his head slowly, still gazing down at his feet.
“The…it’s all linked for me now. I canna think of you, Claire, even of kissing you or touching your hand, without feeling the fear and the pain and the sickness come back. I lie here feeling that I will die without your touch, but when you touch me, I feel as though I will vomit with shame and loathing of myself. I canna even see you now without…” His forehead rested on knotted fists, knuckles dug hard into his eye-sockets. The tendons of his neck were sharply etched with strain, and his voice came half-muffled.
“Claire, I want you to leave me. Go back to Scotland, to Craigh na Dun. Go back to your place, to your…husband. Murtagh will take you safe, I’ve told him.” He was silent for a moment, and I did not move.
He looked up again with desperate bravery, and spoke very simply.
“I will love you as long as I live, but I cannot be your husband any longer. And I will not be less to you.” His face began to break apart. “Claire, I want you so badly that my bones shake in my body, but God help me, I am afraid to touch you!”
I started up to go to him, but he stopped me with a sudden motion of his hand. He was half doubled up, face contorted with internal struggle, and his voice was strangled and breathless.
“Claire…please. Please go. I’m going to be verra sick, and I don’t want you to see it. Please.”
I heard the pleading in his voice and knew I must spare him this one indignity, at least. I rose, and for the first time in my professional life, left a sick man to his own devices, helpless and alone.
I left his chamber, numbed, and leaned against the white stone wall outside, cooling my flushed cheek against the unyielding blocks, ignoring the stares of Murtagh and Brother William. God help me, he had said. God help me, I am afraid to touch you.
I straightened and stood alone. Well, why not? Surely there was no one else.