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“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, naked, 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.
* * *
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.