At the hour when time began to slow, I genuflected in the aisle of the chapel of St. Giles. Anselm was there, elegant shoulders straight beneath his habit, but no other. He neither moved nor looked around, but the living silence of the chapel embraced me.
I remained on my knees for a moment, reaching out to the quiet darkness, staying my mind from its hurry. Only when I felt my heart slow to the rhythms of the night did I slide into a seat near the back.
I sat rigid, lacking the form and ritual, the liturgical courtesies that eased the brothers into the depths of their sacred conversation. I did not know how to begin. Finally, I said, silently, bluntly, I need help. Please.
And then I let the silence fall back in waves around me, lapping me like the folds of a cloak, comforting against the cold. And I waited, as Anselm had told me, and the minutes passed by uncounted.
There was a small table at the back of the chapel, covered with a linen cloth, bearing the stoup of holy water, and beside it, a Bible and two or three other inspirational works. For use by adorers for whom the silence was too much, I supposed.
It was becoming too much for me, and I rose and got the Bible, bringing it back to the prie-dieu with me. I was hardly the first person to have recourse to the sortes Virgilianae in time of confusion or trouble. There was sufficient light from the candles for me to read, turning the flimsy pages carefully and squinting over the lines of fine black type.
“…and he smote them with emerods, and they were very sore.” No doubt they were, I thought. What in hell were emerods? Try Psalms, instead.
“But I am a worm, and no man…I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.” Well, yes, a competent diagnosis, I thought, with some impatience. But was there some treatment?
“But be not thou far from me, O Lord: O my strength, haste thee to help me. Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” Hmm.
I turned to the Book of Job, Jamie’s favorite. Surely if anyone was in a position to offer helpful advice.…
“But his flesh upon him shall have pain, and his soul within him shall mourn.” Mmm, yes, I thought, and turned the page.
“He is chastened also with pain upon his bed, and the multitude of his bones with strong pain.…His flesh is consumed away, that it cannot be seen; and his bones that were not seen stick out.” Spot on, I thought. What next?
“Yea, his soul draweth near unto the grave, and his life to the destroyers.” Not so good, but the next bit was more heartening. “If there be a messenger with him, an interpreter, one among a thousand, to shew unto man his uprightness: Then he is gracious unto him, and saith, Deliver him from going down to the pit: I have found a ransom. His flesh shall be fresher than a child’s: he shall return to the days of his youth.” And what was the ransom, then, that would buy a man’s soul, and deliver my darling from the power of the dog?
I closed the book and my eyes. The words muddled together, blurring with my urgent need. An overriding misery struck me when I spoke Jamie’s name. And yet there was some small peace there, a lessening of tension when I said, as I did over and over again, “O Lord, into thy hands I commend the soul of your servant James.”
The thought came to me that perhaps Jamie would be better off dead; he had said he wanted to die. I was morally sure that if I left him as he wished, he would be dead soon, whether from the aftereffects of torture and illness, from hanging, or in some battle. And I was in no doubt that he knew it as well. Ought I to do as he said? Damned if I will, I said to myself. Damned if I will, I said fiercely to the sunburst on the altar and opened the book again.
It was some time before I became aware that my thread of petition was no longer a monologue. In fact, I knew it only when I realized that I had just answered a question I had no memory of asking. In my trance of sleepless misery, something had been asked of me, I wasn’t sure just what, and I had answered without thinking, “Yes, I will.”
I stopped all thought abruptly, listening to the ringing silence. And then, more cautiously, repeated, voiceless, “Yes. Yes, I will,” and thought fleetingly, The conditions of sin are these: first, you must give your full consent to it.…And the conditions of grace as well, came an echo of Anselm’s quiet voice.
There was a feeling, not sudden, but complete, as though I had been given a small object to hold unseen in my hands. Precious as opal, smooth as jade, weighty as a river stone, more fragile than a bird’s egg. Infinitely still, live as the root of Creation. Not a gift, but a trust. Fiercely to cherish, softly to guard. The words spoke themselves and disappeared into the groined shadows of the roof.
I genuflected to the Presence then, and left the chapel, never doubting, in the eternity of the moment when time stops, that I had an answer, but having no idea what that answer was. I knew only that what I held was a human soul; my own or another’s, I could not tell.
It did not appear to be an answer to prayer, when I woke to the resumption of ordinary time in the morning to find a lay brother standing over me, telling me that Jamie was burning with fever.
“How long has he been like this?” I asked, laying a practiced hand on brow and back, armpit and groin. No trace of relieving sweat; only the dry stretched skin of persistent parching, fiery with heat. He was awake, but heavy-eyed and groggy. The source of the fever was plain. The shattered right hand was puffy, with a foul-smelling ooze soaking the bandages. Ominous red streaks ran up the wrist. A bloody infection, I thought to myself. A filthy, suppurating, blood poisoning, life-threatening infection.
“I found him so when I came to look in on him after Matins,” replied the serving brother who had come to fetch me. “I gave him water, but he began to vomit just after dawn.”
“You should have fetched me at once,” I said. “Still, never mind. Bring me hot water, raspberry leaves, and Brother Polydore, as quickly as possible.” He left with the assurance that he would see some breakfast was brought for me as well, but I waved such amenities aside, reaching for the pewter jug of water.
By the time Brother Polydore appeared, I had tried the internal application of water, only to have it violently rejected, and was applying it externally instead, soaking the sheets and wrapping them loosely over the hot skin.
Simultaneously, I set the infected hand to soak in fresh-boiled water, as hot as could be stood without burning the skin. Lacking sulfa drugs or modern antibiotics, heat was the only defense against a bacterial infection. The patient’s body was doing its best to supply that heat by means of high fever, but the fever itself posed a serious danger, wasting muscle and damaging brain cells. The trick was to apply sufficient local heat to destroy the infection, while keeping the rest of the body cool enough to prevent damage, and sufficiently hydrated to maintain its normal functions. A bloody three-tier balancing act, I thought bleakly.
Neither Jamie’s state of mind nor his physical discomfort were relevant any longer. It was a straightforward struggle to keep him alive until the infection and the fever ran their course; nothing else mattered.
In the afternoon of the second day, he began to hallucinate. We tied him to the bed with soft rags to prevent his hurling himself to the floor. Finally, as a desperate measure to break the fever, I sent one of the lay brothers out to bring in a bushel basket of snow, which we packed around him. This resulted in a violent shivering fit that left him drained and exhausted, but did briefly bring his temperature down.
Unfortunately, the treatment had to be repeated at hourly intervals. By sunset, the room looked like a swamp, with puddles of melted snow standing on the floor, tussocks of sodden sheeting mounded among them, and steam like marsh gas rising from the brazier in the corner. Brother Polydore and myself were sodden, too, soaked with sweat, chilled with snow water, and near to exhaustion, in spite of the helpful assistance of Anselm and the lay brothers. Febrifuges such as coneflower, goldenseal, catnip, and hyssop had been tried, without effect. Willowbark tea, which might have helped with its content of salicylic acid, could not be consumed in amounts large enough to matter.
In one of his increasingly rare lucid intervals, Jamie asked me to let him die. I answered curtly, as I had the night before, “Damned if I will,” and went on with what I was doing.
As the sun went down, there was a stir of approaching men in the corridor. The door opened and the abbot, Jamie’s uncle Alex, came in, accompanied by Brother Anselm and three other monks, one carrying a small cedarwood box. The abbot came over to me and blessed me briefly, then took one of my hands in his.
“We are going to anoint the lad,” he said, his deep voice kind. “Do not be frightened.”
He turned toward the bed and I looked wildly to Anselm for explanation.
“The sacrament of Extreme Unction,” he explained, moving close so that his low tones would not disturb the monks gathered around the bed. “The Last Anointing.”
“Last Anointing! That’s for people who are dying!”
“Ssh.” He drew me farther away from the bed. “It might more properly be called anointing of the sick, though in fact it is usually reserved for those in danger of death.” The monks had turned Jamie gently onto his back, arranging him tenderly so that he might lie with the least hurt to his raw shoulders.
“The purpose of the sacrament is twofold,” Anselm went on, murmuring in my ear as the preparations went on. “First, it is intended as a sacrament of healing; we pray that the sufferer may be restored to health, if that be God’s will for him. The chrism, the consecrated oil, is used as a symbol of life and healing.”
“And the second purpose?” I asked, already knowing.
Anselm nodded. “If it is not God’s will that he should recover, then he is given absolution of sins, and we commend him to God, that his soul may depart in peace.” He saw me tighten in protest, and laid a warning hand on my arm.
“These are the last rites of the Church. He is entitled to them, and to whatever peace they may bring him.”
The preparations were complete. Jamie lay on his back, a cloth modestly draped across his loins, with lighted candles at the head and the foot of the bed that reminded me most unpleasantly of grave lights. Abbot Alexander sat at the bedside, accompanied by a monk who held a tray with a covered ciborium, two small silver bottles containing holy water and chrism, and a white cloth draped across both forearms. Like a bloody wine steward, I thought crossly. The whole procedure unnerved me.
The rites were conducted in Latin, the soft antiphonal murmuring soothing to the ear, though I did not understand the meaning. Anselm whispered softly to me the meaning of some parts of the service; others were self-explanatory. At one point, the Abbot motioned to Polydore, who stepped forward and held a small vial under Jamie’s nose. It must have contained spirits of ammonia or some other stimulant, because he jerked and turned his head away sharply, eyes still closed.
“Why are they trying to wake him?” I whispered.
“If possible, the person should be conscious in order to give assent to the statement that he is sorry for any sins committed during his life. Also, if he is capable of receiving it, the Abbot will give him the Blessed Sacrament.”
The Abbot stroked Jamie’s cheek softly, turning his head back to the vial, speaking quietly to him. He had dropped from Latin into the broad Scots of their family, and his voice was gentle.
“Jamie! Jamie, lad! It’s Alex, lad. I’m here wi’ ye. Ye must wake a bit now, only for a bit. I shall be givin’ ye the absolution now, and then the Blessed Sacrament of Our Lord. Take a wee sup, now, so ye can answer me when ye must.” The monk called Polydore held the cup against Jamie’s lips, carefully pouring the water a drop at a time, until the parched tongue and throat could take more. His eyes were open, still heavy with fever, but alert enough.
The Abbot went on then, the questions in English, but pitched so low that I could scarcely catch them. “Do ye renounce Satan and all his works?” “Do ye believe in the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ?” and so on. To each one, Jamie answered “Aye,” in a scratchy whisper.
Once the sacrament had been given, Jamie lay back with a sigh, closing his eyes once more. I could see his ribs as the deep-sprung chest moved with his breathing. He had wasted dreadfully, between the sickness and the fever. The Abbot, taking the vials of holy water and chrism in turn, made the sign of the Cross on his body, anointing forehead, lips, nose, ears, and eyelids. Then, in turn, he made the sign of the Cross with the holy oil in the hollow of the chest over the heart, on the palm of each hand, and the arch of each foot. He lifted the injured hand with infinite care, brushing the oil across the wound lightly and laying the hand back on Jamie’s chest, where it lay below the livid slash of the knife scar.
The anointing was quick and immeasurably gentle, a feather touch by the Abbot’s rapidly moving thumb. “Superstitious magic,” said the rational side of my brain, but I was deeply moved by the love on the faces of the monks as they prayed. Jamie’s eyes were open once more, but very calm, and his face was peaceful for the first time since we had left Lallybroch.
The ceremony concluded with a brief prayer in Latin. Laying his hand on Jamie’s head, the Abbot said in English, “Lord, into thy hands we commend the soul of your servant, James. Heal him, we pray, if that be Thy will, and strengthen his soul, that he may be filled with grace, and know Thy peace throughout eternity.”
“Amen,” replied the other monks. And so did I.
By dark, the patient had lapsed into semiconsciousness again. As Jamie’s strength waned, it was all we could do to rouse him for the sips of water that were keeping him alive. His lips were cracked and peeling, and he could no longer talk, though he would still open glazed eyes when shaken roughly. He no longer recognized us; his eyes stared fixedly, then gradually closed as he turned his head away, moaning.
I stood by the bed looking down at him, so exhausted from the rigors of the day that I felt no more than a sort of dull despair. Brother Polydore touched me gently, bringing me out of my daze.
“You cannot do any more for him now,” he said, leading me firmly away. “You must go and rest.”
“But—” I began, then stopped. He was right, I realized. We had done everything possible. Either the fever would break soon of itself, or Jamie would die. Even the strongest body could not endure the consuming ravages of high fever for more than a day or two, and Jamie had little strength left to see him through such a siege.
“I will stay with him,” Polydore said. “Go to your bed. I’ll summon you if…” He didn’t finish the sentence, but waved me gently in the direction of my own chamber.
I lay sleepless on my cot, staring at the beamed ceiling. My eyes were dry and hot, and my throat ached, as though I were coming down with a fever as well. Was this the answer to my prayer, that we would die here together?
At last I rose, and took up the jug and basin from the table by the door. I set the heavy pottery dish in the center of the floor and filled it carefully, letting the water swell up over the thickened rim into a trembling bubble.
I had made a short detour to Brother Ambrose’s stillroom on the way to my chamber. I undid the small packets of herbs and scattered the contents into my brazier, where the myrrh leaves gave off a fragrant smoke, and the crumbs of camphor flamed with tiny blue tongues between the red glow of the charcoal sticks.
I set the candlestick behind my reflecting pool, took my place before it, and sat down to summon a ghost.
The stone corridor was cold and dark, lit at intervals by dimly flickering oil lamps hung from the ceiling. My shadow stretched forward under my feet as I passed beneath each one, lengthening until it seemed to dive headfirst and disappear into the dark ahead.
In spite of the cold, I was barefoot and wearing only a coarse white cotton nightrobe. A small envelope of warmth moved with me under the robe, but the chill from the stones crept up my feet and legs.
I knocked once, softly, and pushed open the heavy door without waiting for an answer.
Brother Roger was with him, sitting by the bed, telling beads with bowed head. The wooden rosary rattled as he looked up, but his lips continued to move silently for a few seconds, finishing the Ave Maria before acknowledging my presence.
He met me near the door, speaking quietly, though it was clear that he could have shouted without disturbing the motionless figure on the bed.
“No change. I’ve just put fresh water in the hand bath.” A few drops gleamed on the sides of the small pewter kettle on the brazier, freshly filled.
I nodded and put a hand on his arm in thanks. It was startlingly solid and warm after the imaginations of the last hour, and somehow comforting.
“I’d like to stay with him alone, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course. I’ll go to the chapel—or should I stay near in case…” His voice trailed off, hesitant.
“No.” I tried to smile reassuringly. “Go to the chapel. Or better yet, go to bed. I can’t sleep; I’ll stay here ’til morning. If I need help, I’ll send for you.”
Still dubious, he glanced back at the bed. But it was very late, and he was tired; there were shadows under the kind brown eyes.
The heavy door squeaked on its hinges, and I was alone with Jamie. Alone and afraid, and very, very doubtful about what I proposed to do.
I stood at the foot of the bed, watching him for a moment. The room was dimly lit by the glow of the brazier and by two enormous candlesticks, each nearly three feet tall, that stood on the table at the side of the room. He was nak*d, and the faint light seemed to accentuate the hollows left by the wasting fever. The multicolored bruise over the ribs stained the skin like a spreading fungus.
A dying man takes on a faint greenish tinge. At first just a touch at the edge of the jaw, this pallor spreads gradually, over the face and down the chest as the force of life begins to ebb. I had seen it many times. A few times, I had seen that deadly progress arrested and reversed, the skin flush with blood once more, and the man live. More often…I shook myself vigorously and turned away.
I brought my hand out of the folds of my robe and laid on the table the objects I had collected in a surreptitious visit to Brother Ambrose’s darkened workshop. A vial of spirits of ammonia. A packet of dried lavender. Another of valerian. A small metal incense burner, shaped like an open blossom. Two pellets of opium, sweet scented and sticky with resin. And a knife.
The room was close and stuffy with smoke from the brazier. The only window was covered with a heavy tapestry, one showing the execution of Saint Sebastian. I eyed the saint’s upturned face and arrow-punctured torso, wondering afresh at the mentality of the person who had chosen this particular decoration for a sickroom.