“You have been gone from your place for nearly a year. Your first husband will have begun to reconcile himself to your loss. Much as he may have loved you, loss is common to all men, and we are given means of overcoming it for our good. He will have started, perhaps, to build a new life. Would it do good for you to desert the man who needs you so deeply, and whom you love, to whom you are united in the bonds of holy matrimony, to return and disrupt this new life? And in particular, if you were to go back from a sense of duty, but feeling that your heart is given elsewhere—no.” He shook his head decisively.
“No man can serve two masters, and no more can a woman. Now, if that were your only valid marriage, and this”—he nodded again toward the guest wing—“merely an irregular attachment, then your duty might lie elsewhere. But you were bound by God, and I think you may honor your duty to the chevalier.
“Now, as to the other aspect—what you shall do. That may require some discussion.” He pulled his feet from the water, and dried them on the skirt of his habit.
“Let us adjourn this meeting to the abbey kitchens, where perhaps Brother Eulogius may be persuaded to provide us with a warming drink.”
Finding a stray bit of bread on the ground, I tossed it to the carp and stooped to put my sandals on.
“I can’t tell you what a relief it is to talk to someone about it,” I said. “And I still can’t get over the fact that you really do believe me.”
He shrugged, gallantly offering me an arm to hold while I slipped the rough straps of the sandal over my instep.
“Ma chère, I serve a man who multiplied the loaves and fishes”—he smiled, nodding at the pool, where the swirls of the carps’ feeding were still subsiding—“who healed the sick and raised the dead. Shall I be astonished that the master of eternity has brought a young woman through the stones of the earth to do His will?”
Well, I reflected, it was better than being denounced as the whore of Babylon.
The kitchens of the abbey were warm and cavelike, the arching roof blackened with centuries of grease-filled smoke. Brother Eulogius, up to his elbows in a vat of dough, nodded a greeting to Anselm and called in French to one of the lay brothers to come and serve us. We found a seat out of the bustle, and sat down with two cups of ale and a plate containing a hot pastry of some kind. I pushed the plate toward Anselm, too preoccupied to be interested in food.
“Let me put it this way,” I said, choosing my words carefully. “If I knew that some harm was going to occur to a group of people, should I feel obliged to try to avert it?”
Anselm rubbed his nose reflectively on his sleeve; the heat of the kitchen was beginning to make it run.
“In principle, yes,” he agreed. “But it would depend also upon a number of other things—what is the risk to yourself, and what are your other obligations? Also what is the chance of your success?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea. Of any of those things. Except obligation, of course—I mean, there’s Jamie. But he’s one of the group who might be hurt.”
He broke off a piece of pastry and passed it to me, steaming. I ignored it, studying the surface of my ale. “The two men I killed,” I said, “either of them might have had children, if I hadn’t killed them. They might have done—” I made a helpless gesture with the cup, “—who knows what they might have done? I may have affected the future…no, I have affected the future. And I don’t know how, and that’s what frightens me so much.”
“Um.” Anselm grunted thoughtfully, and motioned to a passing lay brother, who hastened over with a fresh pasty and more ale. He refilled both cups before speaking.
“If you have taken life, you have also preserved it. How many of the sick you have treated would have died without your intervention? They also will affect the future. What if a person you have saved should commit an act of great evil? Is that your fault? Should you on that account have let that person die? Of course not.” He rapped his pewter mug on the table for emphasis.
“You say that you are afraid to take any actions here for fear of affecting the future. This is illogical, Madame. Everyone’s actions affect the future. Had you remained in your own place, your actions would still have affected what was to happen, no less than they will now. You have still the same responsibilities that you would have had then—that any man has at any time. The only difference is that you may be in a position to see more exactly what effects your actions have—and then again, you may not.” He shook his head, looking steadily across the table.
“The ways of the Lord are hidden to us, and no doubt for good reason. You are right, ma chère; the laws of the Church were not formulated with situations such as yours in mind, and therefore you have little guidance other than your own conscience and the hand of God. I cannot tell you what you should do, or not do.
“You have free choice; so have all the others in this world. And history, I believe, is the cumulation of all those actions. Some individuals are chosen by God to affect the destinies of many. Perhaps you are one of those. Perhaps not. I do not know why you are here. You do not know. It is likely that neither of us will ever know.” He rolled his eyes, comically. “Sometimes I don’t even know why I am here!” I laughed and he smiled in return. He leaned toward me across the rough planks of the table, intense.
“Your knowledge of the future is a tool, given to you as a shipwrecked castaway might find himself in possession of a knife or a fishing line. It is not immoral to use it, so long as you do so in accordance with the dictates of God’s law, to the best of your ability.”
He paused, drew a deep breath, and blew it out in an explosive sigh that ruffled his silky mustache. He smiled.
“And that, ma chère madame, is all I can tell you—no more than I can tell any troubled soul who comes to me for advice: put your trust in God, and pray for guidance.”
He shoved the fresh pastry toward me.
“But whatever you are to do, you will require strength for it. So take one last bit of advice: when in doubt, eat.”
When I came into Jamie’s room in the evening, he was asleep, head pillowed on his forearms. The empty broth bowl sat virtuously on the tray, the untouched platter of bread and meat beside it. I looked from the innocent, dreaming face to the platter and back. I touched the bread. My finger left a slight depression in the moist surface. Fresh.
I left him asleep and went in search of Brother Roger, who I found in the buttery.
“Did he eat the bread and meat?” I demanded, without preliminaries.
Brother Roger smiled in his fluffy beard. “Yes.”
“Did he keep it down?”
I eyed him narrowly. “You didn’t clean up after him, I hope.”
He was amused, the round cheeks pink above his beard. “Would I dare? No, he took the precaution of having a basin ready, in case.”
“Damn wily Scot,” I said, laughing despite myself. I returned to his chamber and kissed him lightly on the forehead. He stirred, but didn’t wake. Heeding Father Anselm’s advice, I took the platter of fresh bread and meat back to my chamber for my own supper.
Thinking I would give Jamie time to recover, both from pique and indigestion, I stayed in my own room most of the next day, reading an herbal Brother Ambrose had provided me. After lunch I went to check on my recalcitrant patient. Instead of Jamie, though, I found Murtagh, sitting on a stool tilted back against the wall, wearing a bemused expression.
“Where is he?” I said, looking blankly around the room.
Murtagh jerked a thumb toward the window. It was a cold, dark day, and the lamps were lit. The window was uncovered and the chilly draft set the little flame fluttering in its dish.
“He went out?” I asked incredulously. “Where? Why? And what on earth is he wearing?” Jamie had remained largely nak*d over the last several days, since the room was warm and any pressure on his healing wounds was painful. He had worn a monk’s outer robe when leaving his room on necessary short excursions, with the support of Brother Roger, but the robe was still present, neatly folded at the foot of the bed.
Murtagh rocked his stool forward and regarded me owlishly.
“How many questions is that? Four?” He held up one hand, index finger pointing up.
“One: aye, he went out.” The middle finger rose. “Two: Where? Damned if I know.” The fourth finger joined its companions. “Three: Why? He said he was tired of bein’ cooped up indoors.” The little finger waggled briefly. “Four: Also damned if I know. He wasna wearin’ anything at all last time I saw him.”
Murtagh folded all four fingers and stuck out his thumb.
“Ye didna ask me, but he’s been gone an hour or so.”
I fumed, at a loss as to what to do. Since the offender wasn’t available, I snapped at Murtagh instead.
“Don’t you know it’s near freezing out there, and snow coming on? Why didn’t you stop him? And what do you mean he isn’t wearing anything?”
The diminutive clansman was tranquil. “Aye, I know it. Reckon he does, too, not bein’ blind. As for stoppin’ him, I tried.” He nodded at the robe on the bed.
“When he said he was goin’ out, I said he wasna fit for it, and you’d have my head, did I let him go. I snatched up his gown and set my back against the door, and told him he wasna leavin’, unless he was prepared to go through me.”
Murtagh paused, then said irrelevantly, “Ellen MacKenzie had the sweetest smile I ever saw; would warm a man to the backbone just to see it.”
“So you let her fat-headed son go out and freeze to death,” I said impatiently. “What’s his mother’s smile to do with it?”
Murtagh rubbed his nose meditatively. “Weel, when I said I wouldna let him pass, young Jamie just looked at me for a moment. Then he gave me a smile looked just like his ma’s, and stepped out of the window in naught but his skin. By the time I got to the window, he was gone.”
I rolled my eyes heavenward.
“Reckoned I should let ye know where he’d gone,” Murtagh continued, “so ye’d no be worrit for him.”
“So I’d no be worrit for him!” I muttered under my breath as I strode toward the stables. “He’d better be ‘worrit,’ when I catch up to him!”
There was only the one main road heading inland. I rode along it at a good pace, keeping an eye on the fields as I passed. This part of France was a rich farming area, and luckily most of the forest had been cleared; wolves and bears would not be as much a danger as they might be further inland.
As it happened, I found him barely a mile beyond the gates of the monastery, sitting on one of the ancient Roman mile-markers that dotted the roads.
He was barefoot, but otherwise clad in a short jerkin and thin breeches, the property of one of the stable lads, to judge from the stains on them.
I reined up and stared at him for a moment, leaning on the pommel. “Your nose is blue,” I remarked conversationally. I glanced downward. “And so are your feet.”
He grinned and wiped his nose on the back of his hand.
“So are my balls. Want to warm them for me?” Cold or not, he was plainly in good spirits. I slid off the horse and stood in front of him, shaking my head.
“It’s no use at all, is it?” I asked.
“What isn’t?” He rubbed his hand on the ragged breeches.
“Being angry with you. You don’t care a bit whether you give yourself pneumonia, or get eaten by bears, or worry me half to death, do you?”
“Well, I’m no much worrit about the bears. They sleep in the winter, ye know.”
I lost my temper and swung my hand at him, intending to slap his ear through the side of his head. He caught my wrist and held it without difficulty, laughing at me. After a moment’s fruitless struggle, I gave up and laughed too.
“Are you coming back, now?” I asked. “Or have you got anything else to prove?”
He gestured back along the road with his chin. “Take the horse back to that big oak tree and wait for me there. I’ll walk that far. Alone.”
I bit my tongue to repress the several remarks I felt bubbling to the surface, and mounted. At the oak tree, I got off and looked down the road. After a moment, though, I found I couldn’t bear to watch his labored progress. When he fell the first time, I clutched the reins tight in my gloved hands, then resolutely turned my back, and waited.
We barely made it back to the guests’ wing, but managed, staggering through the corridor, his arm looped over my shoulder for support. I spotted Brother Roger, anxiously lurking in the hall, and sent him. scampering for a warming pan, while I steered my awkward burden into the chamber and dumped him onto the bed. He grunted at the impact, but lay still, eyes closed, as I proceeded to strip the filthy rags off him.
“All right; in you get.”
He rolled obediently under the covers I held back for him. I thrust the warming pan hastily between the sheets at the foot of the bed and shoved it back and forth. When I removed it, he stretched his long legs down and relaxed with a blissful sigh as his feet reached the pocket of warmth.
I went quietly about the room, picking up the discarded clothes, straightening the trifling disorder on the table, putting fresh charcoal in the brazier, adding a pinch of elecampane to sweeten the smoke. I thought he was asleep, and was startled when he spoke behind me.
“I love you.”
“Oh.” I was mildly surprised, but undeniably pleased. “I love you too.”
He sighed, and opened his eyes halfway.
“Randall,” he said. “Toward the end. That’s what he wanted.” I was even more startled by this, and replied cautiously.
“Aye.” His eyes were fixed on the open window, where the snow clouds filled the space with a deep, even grey.
“I was lying on the floor, and he was lying next to me. He was nak*d by then, too, and both of us were smeared with blood—and other things. I remember trying to lift my head, and feeling my cheek stuck to the stone of the floor with dried blood.” He frowned, a distant look in his eyes as he conjured the memory.
“I was far gone by then; so far that I didna even feel much pain—I was just terribly tired, and everything seemed far away and not very real.”
“Just as well,” I said, with some asperity, and he smiled briefly.
“Aye, just as well. I was drifting a bit, half-fainted, I expect, so I don’t know how long we both lay there, but I came awake to find him holding me and pressing himself against me.” He hesitated, as though the next part were difficult to say.
“I’d not fought him ’til then. But I was so tired, and I thought I couldna bear it again.…anyway, I started to squirm away from him, not really fighting, just pulling back. He had his arms round my neck, and he pulled on me, and buried his face in my shoulder, and I could feel he was crying. I couldna tell what he was saying for a bit, and then I could; he was saying ‘I love you, I love you,’ over and over, with his tears and his spittle running down my chest.” Jamie shuddered briefly, from cold or memory. He blew out a long breath, disturbing the cloud of fragrant smoke that swirled near the ceiling.
“I canna think why I did it. But I put my arms about him, and we just lay still for a bit. He stopped crying, finally, and kissed me and stroked me. Then he whispered to me, ‘Tell me that you love me.’ ” He paused in the recital, smiling faintly.
“I would not do it. I dinna know why. By then I would ha’ licked his boots and called him the King of Scotland, if he’d wanted it. But I wouldna tell him that. I don’t even remember thinking about it; I just—wouldn’t.” He sighed and his good hand twitched, gripping the coverlet.
“He used me again—hard. And he kept on saying it: ‘Tell me that you love me, Alex. Say that you love me.’ ”
“He called you Alex?” I interrupted, not able to hold back.
“Aye. I remember I wondered how he knew my second name. Did not occur to me to wonder why he’d use it, even if he knew.” He shrugged.
“Anyway, I didna move or say a word, and when he’d finished, he jumped up as though he’d gone mad, and started to beat me with something—I could not see what—cursing and shouting at me, saying ‘You know you love me! Tell me so! I know it’s true!” I got my arms up over my head to protect it, and after a bit I must have fainted again, because the pain in my shoulders was the last I remember, except for sort of a dream about bellowing kine. Then I woke, jouncing along belly-down on a horse for a few moments, and then nothing again ’til I came round on the hearthside at Eldridge, with you looking down on me.” He closed his eyes again. His tone was dreamy, almost unconcerned.
“I think…if I had told him that…he would have killed me.”
Some people have nightmares peopled by monsters. I dreamed of genealogical charts, thin black branches, bearing clusters of dates on every stem. The lines like snakes, with death between the brackets of their jaws. Once again I heard Frank’s voice, saying He became a soldier, a good choice for a second son. There was a third brother who became a curate, but I don’t know much about him…I didn’t know much about him, either. Only his name. There were the three sons listed on that chart; the sons of Joseph and Mary Randall. I had seen it many times: the oldest, William; and the second, Jonathan; and the third, Alexander.
Jamie spoke again, summoning me from my thoughts.
“Ye know the fortress I told ye of, the one inside me?”
He smiled without opening his eyes, and reached out a hand for me.
“Well, I’ve a lean-to built, at least. And a roof to keep out the rain.”
I went to bed tired but peaceful, and wondering. Jamie would recover. When that had been in doubt, I had looked no further than the next hour, the next meal, the next administration of medicine. But now I needed to look further.
The abbey was a sanctuary, but only a temporary one. We could not stay here indefinitely, no matter how hospitable the monks. Scotland and England were too dangerous by far; unless Lord Lovat could help—a remote contingency, under the circumstances. Our future must lie on this side of the channel. Knowing what I now knew about Jamie’s seasickness, I understood his reluctance to consider emigration to America—three months of nausea was a daunting prospect to anyone. So what was left?