“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.
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.