And I told him. Everything. Who I was and how I came there. About Frank, and about Jamie. And about the young English dragoon with the pale, spotty face, dying against the snow.
He showed no change of expression while I spoke, except that the round brown eyes grew rounder still. When I finished, he blinked once or twice, opened his mouth as though to speak, closed it again, and shook his head as though to clear it.
“No,” I said patiently. I cleared my throat again; I croaked like a bullfrog. “You haven’t been hearing things. And you’re not imagining it, either. Now you see why I wanted you to hear it under the seal of confession?”
He nodded, a bit abstractedly.
“Yes. Yes, to be sure. If…but yes. Of course, you wished me to tell no one. And also, since you tell it to me under the seal of the sacrament, then you expect that I must believe it. But…” He scratched his head, then looked up at me. A wide smile spread slowly across his countenance.
“But how marvelous!” he exclaimed softly. “How extraordinary, and how wonderful!”
“ ‘Wonderful’ isn’t precisely the word I would have chosen,” I said dryly, “but ‘extraordinary’ is all right.” I coughed and reached for more wine.
“But it is…a miracle,” he said, as though to himself.
“If you insist,” I said, sighing. “But what I want to know—what ought I to do? Am I guilty of murder? Or adultery, for that matter? Not that there’s much to be done about it in either case, but I’d like to know. And since I am here, how ought I to act? Can I—should I, I mean—use what I know to…change things? I don’t even know if such a thing is possible. But if it is, have I the right?”
He rocked back on his stool, considering. Slowly he raised both index fingers, placed them tip to tip and stared at them for a long time. Finally, he shook his head and smiled at me.
“I don’t know, ma bonne amie. It is not, you will appreciate, a situation one is prepared to encounter in the confessional. I will have to think, and to pray. Yes, assuredly to pray. Tonight I will contemplate your situation when I hold my watch before the Blessed Sacrament. And tomorrow perhaps I can advise you.”
He motioned me gently to kneel.
“But for now, my child, I will absolve you. Whatever your sins might be, have faith that they will be forgiven.”
He lifted one hand in blessing, placing the other on my head. “Te absolvo, in nomine Patri, et Filii,…”
Rising, he lifted me to my feet.
“Thank you, Father,” I said. Unbeliever that I was, I had used confession only to force him to take me seriously, and was somewhat surprised to feel a lightening of the burden on my spirits. Perhaps it was only the relief of telling someone the truth.
He waved a hand in dismissal. “I will see you tomorrow, chère madame. For now, you should rest more, if you can.”
He headed for the door, winding his stola up neatly into a square. At the doorway, he paused for a moment, turning to smile at me. A childlike excitement lighted his eyes.
“And perhaps tomorrow…” he said, “perhaps you could…tell me what it is like?”
I smiled back.
“Yes, Father. I’ll tell you.”
After he left, I staggered down the hall to see Jamie. I had seen any number of corpses in much better condition, but his chest rose and fell regularly, and the sinister green tinge had faded from his skin.
“I’ve been waking him every few hours, just long enough to swallow a few spoonfuls of broth.” Brother Roger was at my elbow, speaking softly. He moved his gaze from the patient to me, and recoiled noticeably at my appearance. I should probably have combed my hair. “Er, perhaps you would…like some?”
“No, thank you. I think…I think perhaps I will sleep a bit more, after all.” I no longer felt weighed down by guilt and depression, but a drowsy, contented heaviness was spreading through my limbs. Whether it was due to the effects of confession or of wine, I found to my surprise that I was looking forward to bed and to oblivion.
I leaned forward to touch Jamie. He was warm, but with no trace of fever. I gently stroked his head, smoothing the tumbled red hair. The corner of his mouth stirred briefly and fell back into place. But it had turned up. I was sure of it.
The sky was cold and damp, filling the horizon with a grey blankness that blended into the grey mist of the hills and the grimy cover of last week’s snow, so that the abbey seemed wrapped inside a ball of dirty cotton. Even inside the cloister, the winter’s silence weighed on the inhabitants. The chanting from the Hours of Praise in the chapel was muted, and the thick stone walls seemed to absorb all sound, swaddling the bustle of daily activity.
Jamie slept for nearly two days, waking only to take a little broth or wine. Once awake, he began to heal in the usual fashion of a normally healthy young man, suddenly deprived of the strength and independence usually taken for granted. In other words, he enjoyed the cosseting for approximately twenty-four hours and then became in turn restive, restless, testy, irritable, cranky, fractious, and extremely bad tempered.
The cuts on his shoulders ached. The scars on his legs itched. He was sick of lying on his belly. The room was too hot. His hand hurt. The smoke from the brazier made his eyes burn so that he could not read. He was sick of broth, posset, and milk. He wanted meat.
I recognized the symptoms of returning health, and was glad of them, but was prepared to put up with only so much of this. I opened the window, changed his sheets, applied marigold salve to his back and rubbed his legs with aloe juice. Then I summoned a serving brother and ordered more broth.
“I don’t want any more of this slop! I need food!” He pushed the tray irritably away, making the broth splash onto the napkin cradling the bowl.
I folded my arms and stared down at him. Imperious blue eyes stared right back. He was thin as a rail, the lines of jaw and cheekbone bold against the skin. Though he was mending well, the raw nerves of his stomach would take a little longer to heal. He still could not always keep down the broth and milk.
“You’ll get food when I say you can have it,” I informed him, “and not before.”
“I’ll have it now! D’ye think you can tell me what I’m to eat?”
“Yes, I bloody well do! I’m the doctor here, if you’ve forgotten.”
He swung his feet over the edge of the bed, clearly intending to take steps. I put a hand on his chest and shoved him back.
“Your job is to stay in that bed and do as you’re told, for once in your life,” I snapped. “You’re not fit to be up, and you’re not fit for solid foot yet. Brother Roger said you vomited again this morning.”
“Brother Roger can mind his own business, and so can you,” he said through his teeth, struggling back up. He reached out and got a hold on the table edge. With considerable effort, he made it to his feet, and stood there, swaying.
“Get back in bed! You’re going to fall down!” He was alarmingly pale, and even the small effort of standing had made him break out in a cold sweat.
“I’ll not,” he said. “And if I do, it’s my own concern.”
I was really angry by this time.
“Oh, is it! And who do you think saved your miserable life for you, anyway? Did it all by yourself, did you?” I grabbed his arm to steer him back to bed, but he jerked it away.
“I didna ask ye to, did I? I told ye to leave me, no? And I canna see why ye bothered to save my life, anyway, if it’s only to starve me to death—unless ye enjoy watching it!”
This was altogether too much.
I drew myself to my full height, and pointed menacingly at the cot. With all the authority learned in years of nursing, I said, “Get back in that bed this instant, you stubborn, mulish, idiotic—”
“Scot,” he finished for me, succinctly. He took a step toward the door, and would have fallen, had he not caught hold of a stool. He plumped heavily down on it and sat swaying, his eyes a little unfocused with dizziness. I clenched my fists and glared at him.
“Fine,” I said. “Bloody fine! I’ll order bread and meat for you, and after you vomit on the floor, you can just get down on your hands and knees and clean it up yourself! I won’t do it, and if Brother Roger does, I’ll skin him alive!”
I stormed into the hall and slammed the door behind me, just before the porcelain washbasin crashed into it from the other side. I turned to find an interested audience, no doubt attracted by the racket, standing in the hall. Brother Roger and Murtagh stood side by side, staring at my flushed face and heaving bosom. Roger looked disconcerted, but a slow smile spread over Murtagh’s craggy countenance as he listened to the string of Gaelic obscenities going on behind the door.
“He’s feeling better, then,” he said contentedly. I leaned against the corridor wall, and felt an answering smile spread slowly across my own face.
“Well, yes,” I said, “he is.”
On my way back to the main building from a morning spent in the herbary, I met Anselm coming from the cloister near the library. His face lighted when he saw me, and he hurried to join me in the courtyard. We walked together through the abbey grounds, talking.
“Yours is an interesting problem, to be sure,” he said, breaking a stick from a bush near the wall. He examined the winter-tight buds critically, then tossed it aside, and glanced up at the sky, where a feeble sun poked its way through the light cloud layer.
“Warmer, but a good way to go until the spring,” he observed. “Still, the carp should be lively today—let us go down to the fish pools.”
Far from being the delicate ornamental structures I had imagined them to be, the fish pools were little more than utilitarian rock-lined troughs, placed conveniently near to the kitchens. Stocked with carp, they provided the necessary food for Fridays and fast days, when the weather was too rough to permit ocean fishing for the more customary haddock, herring, and flounder.
True to Anselm’s word, the fish were lively, the fat fusiform bodies gliding past each other, white scales reflecting the clouds overhead, the vigor of their movements occasionally stirring up small waves that sloshed against the sides of their rocky prison. As our shadows fell on the water, the carp turned toward us like compass needles surging toward the north.
“They expect to be fed, when they see people,” Anselm explained. “It would be a shame to disappoint them. One moment, chère madame.”
He darted into the kitchens, returning shortly with two loaves of stale bread. We stood on the lip of the pool, tearing crumbs from the loaves and tossing them to the endlessly hungry mouths below.
“You know, there are two aspects to this curious situation of yours,” Anselm said, absorbed in tearing bread. He glanced aside at me, a sudden smile lighting his face. He shook his head in wonderment. “I can scarcely believe it still, you know. Such a marvel! Truly, God has been good, to show me such things.”
“Well, that’s nice,” I said, a bit dryly, “I don’t know whether He’s been quite so obliging to me.”
“Really? I think so.” Anselm sank down on his haunches, crumbling bread between his fingers. “True,” he said, “the situation has caused you no little personal inconvenience—”
“That’s one way of putting it,” I muttered.
“But it may also be regarded as a signal mark of God’s favor,” he went on, disregarding my interruption. The bright brown eyes regarded me speculatively.
“I prayed for guidance, kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament,” he went on, “and as I sat in the silence of the chapel, I seemed to see you as a shipwrecked traveler. And it seems to me that that is a good parallel to your present situation, is it not? Imagine such a soul, Madame, suddenly cast away in a strange land, bereft of friends and familiarity, without resources save what the new land can provide. Such a happening is disaster, truly, and yet may be the opening for great opportunity and blessings. What if the new land shall be rich? New friends may be made, and a new life begun.”
“Yes, but—” I began.
“So”—he said authoritatively, holding up a finger to hush me—“if you have been deprived of your earlier life, perhaps it is only that God has seen fit to bless you with another, that may be richer and fuller.”
“Oh, it’s full, all right,” I agreed. “But—”
“Now, from the standpoint of canon law,” he said frowning, “there is no difficulty regarding your marriages. Both were valid marriages, consecrated by the church. And strictly speaking, your marriage to the young chevalier in there antedates your marriage to Monsieur Randall.”
“Yes, ‘strictly speaking,’ ” I agreed, getting to finish a sentence for once. “But not in my time. I don’t believe canon law was constructed with such contingencies in mind.”
Anselm laughed, the pointed end of his beard quivering in the slight breeze.
“More than true, ma chère, more than true. All that I meant was that, considered from a strictly legal standpoint, you have committed neither sin nor crime in what you have done regarding these two men. Those were the two aspects of your situation, of which I spoke earlier: what you have done, and what you will do.” He reached up a hand and took mine, tugging me down to sit beside him, so our eyes were on a level.
“That is what you asked me when I heard your confession, is it not? What have I done? And what shall I do?”
“Yes, that’s it. And you’re telling me that I haven’t done anything wrong? But I’ve—”
He was, I thought, nearly as bad as Dougal MacKenzie for interrupting.
“No, you have not,” he said firmly. “It is possible to act in strict accordance with God’s law and with one’s conscience, you comprehend, and still to encounter difficulties and tragedy. It is the painful truth that we still do not know why le bon Dieu allows evil to exist, but we have His word for it that this is true. ‘I created good,’ He says in the Bible, ‘and I created evil.’ Consequently, even good people sometimes, I think, especially good people,” he added meditatively, “may encounter great confusion and difficulties in their lives. For example, take the young boy you were obliged to kill. No,” he said, raising a hand against my interruption, “make no mistake. You were obliged to kill him, given the exigencies of your situation. Even Holy Mother Church, which teaches the sanctity of life, recognizes the need for defense of oneself and of one’s family. And having seen the earlier condition of your husband”—he cast a look back at the guests’ wing—“I have no doubt that you were obliged to take the path of violence. That being so, you have nothing with which to reproach yourself. You do, of course, feel pity and regret for the action, for you are, Madame, a person of great sympathy and feeling.” He gently patted the hand that rested on my drawn-up knees.
“Sometimes our best actions result in things that are most regrettable. And yet you could not have acted otherwise. We do not know what God’s plan for the young man was—perhaps it was His will that the boy should join him in heaven at that time. But you are not God, and there are limits to what you can expect of yourself.”
I shivered briefly as a cold wind came round the corner, and drew my shawl closer. Anselm saw it, and motioned toward the pool.
“The water is warm, Madame. Perhaps you would care to soak your feet?”
“Warm?” I gaped incredulously at the water. I hadn’t noticed before, but there were no broken sheets of ice in the corners of the trough, as there were on the holy water fonts outside the church, and small green plants floated in the water, sprouting from the cracks between the rocks that lined the pool.
In illustration, Anselm slipped off his own leather sandals. Cultured as his face and voice were, he had the square, sturdy hands and feet of a Normandy peasant. Hiking the skirt of his habit to his knees, he dipped his feet into the pool. The carp dashed away, turning almost at once to nose curiously at this new intrusion.
“They don’t bite, do they?” I asked, viewing the myriad voracious mouths suspiciously.
“Not flesh, no,” he assured me. “They have no teeth to speak of.”
I shed my own sandals and gingerly inserted my feet into the water. To my surprise, it was pleasantly warm. Not hot, but a delightful contrast to the damp, chilly air.
“Oh, that’s nice!” I wiggled my toes with pleasure, causing considerable consternation among the carp.
“There are several mineral springs near the abbey,” Anselm explained. “They bubble hot from the earth, and the waters hold great healing powers.” He pointed to the far end of the trough, were I could see a small opening in the rocks, half obscured by the drifting water plants.
“A small amount of the hot mineral water is piped here from the nearest spring. That is what enables the cook to maintain live fish for the table at all seasons; normally the winter weather would be too bitter for them.”
We paddled our feet in congenial silence for a time, the heavy bodies of the fish flicking past, occasionally bumping into our legs with a surprisingly weighty impact. The sun came out again, bathing us in a weak but perceptible warmth. Anselm closed his eyes, letting the light wash over his face. He spoke again without opening them.
“Your first husband—Frank was his name?—he, too, I think, must be commended to God as one of the regrettable things that you can do nothing about.”
“But I could have done something,” I argued. “I could have gone back—perhaps.”
He opened one eye and regarded me skeptically.
“Yes, ‘perhaps,’ ” he agreed. “And perhaps not. You need not reproach yourself for hesitating to risk your life.”
“It wasn’t the risk,” I said, flicking my toes at a big black-and-white splotched carp. “Or not entirely. It was—well, it was partly fear, but mostly it was that I—I couldn’t leave Jamie.” I shrugged helplessly. “I—simply couldn’t.”
Anselm smiled, opening both eyes.
“A good marriage is one of the most precious gifts from God,” he observed. “If you had the good sense to recognize and accept the gift, it is no reproach to you. And consider…” He tilted his head to one side, like a brown sparrow.