Strong as Death (Catherine LeVendeur) (2 page)

BOOK: Strong as Death (Catherine LeVendeur)
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He looked at Edgar. “What about you?” he asked. “Are you regretting having returned to France to marry Catherine?”
Edgar slumped forward on his bench. His pale hair hung limply on his shoulders. His hands were scarred from various attempts at manual labor over the last two years. His clothes were in the somber tones of a penitent, made of thick wool but without design, and grimy from days of travel.
“I doo’t believe our marriage was a sin,” he told Astrolabe. “Nor even a mistake, as some have suggested. I thought Catherine had recovered fairly well after we lost the first child. But when no others came … Her brother’s wife, Marie, says it’s starting them and losing them that’s hardest. I know it happened to Marie, before their son was born. Perhaps she behaved like this, too.”
He emptied his cup and stared at the dregs. “I don’t know what to do to help her,” he said. “We can’t spend our days wandering from shrine to shrine in the hope of a miracle.”
“There are people who do,” Astrolabe observed.
Edgar banged the cup on the table. A sleepy serving boy jumped up and refilled it. Edgar drained it in one gulp.
“If I were dying, I might seek the aid of relics,” he admitted, “but I don’t think so. It seems a waste of the life we’ve been given to pass it constantly begging for something else. In any case, how can one ever be sure which saint will intercede for him, which relic is genuine?”
Astrolabe, used to conversations with his father, knew the question was rhetorical.
Edgar went on. “Perhaps the fault is mine. My faith isn’t strong enough. I would go to the antipodes if I truly believed it would help Catherine.”
“And you?” Astrolabe asked. “Don’t tell me this hasn’t worried you.”
Edgar was silent for a long moment. Then he sighed. “I grieve as well,” he said. “The first child was a girl, you know, perfectly formed. I never knew they could be that small and still have each finger and toe in place. Burying her was the hardest thing I ever did. How many times can we go through that? And don’t tell me that everyone does. I know that. It brings me no comfort. Obviously, the only answer is to be celibate.”
“I don’t believe that would be an attainable goal for you at the moment,” Astrolabe observed.
Edgar smiled ruefully. “
Mea culpa
,” he said.
The bells began for Compline and the two men went up to the church to get Catherine. There, Astrolabe bid them good night.
“If you can, come see Father,” he told them. “His old students don’t seem comfortable visiting him now and he says he doesn’t mind, but I think he would like to see you.”
On the walk back, Catherine was unusually quiet.
Edgar took her hand. She mustn’t continue brooding in this way. “Home,” he said. “Tomorrow.”
“Yes,” Catherine agreed. “We’ve been gone too long. But first we must go to Saint-Marcellus and say good-bye to our master.”
“Yes,” Edgar said, “we must.”
In spite of his sadness at the reason for the journey, Edgar felt a flicker of hope. This was the first time in weeks that Catherine had taken notice of anything outside her own despair.
They were both so wrapped up in each other that neither one noticed the figure in the black cloak moving silently in the shadows behind them. It followed almost to the door of the guest house, then slipped away noiselessly.
 
Gaucher of Macon got up from the table and said good night to his companions. They didn’t notice. Norbert was either dead or meditating. The others had drifted into blurred renditions of tavern songs and parodies of hymns. Rufus was stuck on the
bibits
, muttering “
bibit ille, bibit illa
” over and over in a hoarse croak. He had sunk cross-legged to the floor, resembling nothing so much as an ancient toad pontificating on its lily pad. Gaucher patted his smooth head fondly before heading up to the sleeping loft.
Gaucher and Rufus were exactly the same age, but Gaucher had always felt that keeping his hair made him the younger. His teeth were mostly accounted for as well. Therefore, he not only thought Hugh was being pompous in his declamations about this being their last great adventure, but also premature. Gaucher had a number of plans for the future of which this pilgrimage was only the beginning. And a profitable beginning as well, he believed.
He was humming along with the drone below when he entered the chamber. There were already a few men rolled up on the straw pallets on one side of the room. Gaucher fumbled in the darkness for his blanket and pack, left with the others in the corner. He put his hand into the bag, rummaging for his second-best tunic. Instead, he touched something cold and sticky. He recoiled, dropping the bag.
Resisting the impulse to shake whatever it was out the nearest window, Gaucher carefully picked up his bag and carried it downstairs. He set it next to the fire and slowly pulled on the string to open it.
“Whassa matter, Gaucher?” Rufus peered up from the floor. “Someone steal your jewels?”
Gaucher paid him no mind. Hugh and Norbert stared over their bowls at him with a stupefied lack of interest. Slowly Gaucher inverted the bag. Two bloody gobbets squelched onto the hearth.
Rufus leaned back, wrinkling his nose at the smell. Hugh peered at the lumps in confusion, then suddenly realized what they were. Automatically, he checked between his legs and sighed in relief. At his age, he feared he might not notice they were gone.
“Looks like Gaucher’s the one with the jewels,” Rufus laughed. “Not yours, I presume? A gift from a friend?”
Gaucher wasn’t laughing. With his boot, he scraped the things into the coals, where they sizzled horrifyingly.
“The same fate awaits us all,” Hugh intoned, “if we do not repent our sins on this earth.”
Norbert blinked and came to life. “What are you talking about?” he asked sharply. “What have you put in the fire, Gaucher, that makes such a stink?”
Gaucher turned on all of them. “Which one of you did it?” he roared. “This is no joke!”
Hugh covered his ears with his hands. “None of us did it,” he told Gaucher. “We haven’t been apart all the last night and day. You know that.”
Gaucher did know, but he was too angry to wait to find someone else to blame. He took the rest of his things from the bag and held up the tunic. “Look at this!” he shouted. “It’s ruined!
“Will someone tell me what you’re talking about?” Norbert repeated. He sniffed. “Is someone cooking bacon?”
Rufus started laughing, then put his hand over his mouth. He crawled toward the doorway, but got only halfway there before he vomited. In the corner, the serving boy groaned, knowing who would have to mop up after him.
Hugh leaned over to his friend and said in what he thought was a whisper, “Pig’s testicles, Norbert. Someone’s left a pair with Gaucher. Can’t imagine why. He always insists his own still function just fine.”
Gaucher saw that he would get no sense or sympathy from
his friends. In a fury, he threw the bloody tunic on the fire as well, then stomped out into the night.
The serving boy waited for a few minutes, then retrieved the tunic, barely scorched. Only a madman would waste good wool.
In their curtained corner of the room above, Catherine and Edgar heard nothing.
The swelling moon shone down on the town and into the tiny window over Catherine’s head. She twitched in her sleep and cried out once. Edgar pulled her closer without waking.
Eventually all four of the knights slept, Rufus stretched out under the table, still reeking of vomit.
 
Catherine woke up shaking.
“Edgar …” She nudged him partially awake and curled herself against his body, drawing his warmth to her in the early morning chill. “I’ve had a dream, Edgar. A dream inside a dream, actually.”
Edgar opened one eye, rolled to his side to face her and wrapped his free arm around her. He smiled and brushed an errant black curl back behind her ear. At that moment he had no trouble remembering why he had abandoned home and family for marriage in a foreign land.
“I need to tell you about it.” Catherine tilted her head so that she could see his eyes. “It was a true dream, I think, but I don’t understand it.”
She stopped. His hand cupped her cheek, his little finger vibrating against the rapid pulse in her neck. With the ease of habit, he traced her collarbone and the curve of her breast.
“So tell me,” he said, still smiling. “What about it has upset you?”
“I can’t tell you if you keep moving your hand like that,” she scolded. “This is serious.”
“I’m seriously listening,” he promised, leaving his hand where it was. “What was your dream?”
“Very well.” She took a deep breath. “Please, Edgar, pay attention. It was vague at first, then suddenly very clear, as if I were watching from somewhere far above. I was walking on a
narrow road, a cliff on one side and a chasm on the other. The wind was cold and cut through my cloak. The only one with me was our son.”
She could feel him go abruptly still, his fingers tightening painfully. “How did you know it was ours?” he asked. There was no trace of teasing in his voice now.
Catherine didn’t answer, but continued her story. “The road was steep but not difficult at first. Then we went around a bend and came to a place where there was no more road, only a wooden board stretched between two rocks. It was as narrow as the span of my hands and rattled in the wind. We had to cross it. We couldn’t go back.”
Edgar put his arms around her, holding her so tightly that she could barely breathe. She pressed against him, wishing that they could merge somehow and be truly one flesh, Eve returned to Adam’s side. She turned her face so he could hear her.
“On the other side there was an old man, a holy man,” she said. “He was watching us, waiting for us to cross. He wouldn’t come to us.”
“What was his name?” Edgar asked. “Did you recognize him?”
“No,” Catherine answered. “But in the dream, I knew him. I put our child on the bridge before me. I was afraid I couldn’t keep my balance if I carried him. I stepped onto the bridge, holding the boy’s shoulders to guide him. But halfway across, something went wrong. The wind or our weight—something—made the board shake and bend. The end on the other side slipped away from its mooring and we began to fall.”
“No!” Edgar was becoming more unsettled by this dream.
Catherine went on. “I screamed and caught hold of a crevice in the cliff with one hand and reached out for our son with the other, but he fell away from me. As I was about to let go and follow him into the chasm, the old man reached out and caught the boy. I saw him gather the child up and put him on his shoulders.
“So I knew our son was safe on the other side, but I was still hanging onto the side of the cliff. My fingers were slipping.
I could see there was a way to edge over and return to the road I had come up, but between me and the other side there were only tiny fingerholds. I reached out for one and almost grasped it. My hand scraped the rock. I can feel the roughness even now. But I couldn’t hold on. I screamed over and over as I fell. I thought I would fall forever. Then I woke up.”
She shivered.
Edgar kissed the top of her head. “That is frightening. But you’re safe now,” he said shakily. “It was only a bad dream. Nothing more.”
“No, Edgar.” Catherine pushed away. “That wasn’t the end. That was only the inner dream. I woke up within the dream; my arms stretched out and you were there. You were with me,” she repeated more softly. “You held me and swore that you would always be there. And I believed you. But I knew that our son was still on the other side of the bridge … and I knew we would have to go find him.”
She exhaled. “And then I did wake up. But, Edgar, it was a true dream. I believe it. There was a message in it.”
“But what does it mean?” Edgar asked. “Why couldn’t you reach the other side? Are we doomed never to have a living child? We came all the way here to Vézelay to ask the blessed Marie Madeleine to help us. What else can we do? What more could be expected of us? And have you considered that only part of the dream was a sending? Are you sure the boy with you wasn’t created from your own desire?”
“I’m not sure of anything, Edgar,” she answered, “but I know we’ve been told to go somewhere, to do something together. And if we don’t, the child I saw will never be born.”
The Cluniac Priory of Saint Marcellus, Chalon-sur-Saône, Saturday, March 21, 1142; The Feast of Saint Benedict, abbot.
 
Tali nobiscum vir simplex et rectus, timens deum, et recedens a malo, tali inquam per aliquantum temporis conversatione, ultimos vitae suae dies consecrans deo, pausandi gratia, nam plus solito, scabie et quibusdam corporis incommoditatibus gravabatur, a me Cabilonem missus est.
 
Thus he lived among us, a simple and upright man, fearing God and shunning evil, and so he remained for some time, dedicating the final days of his life to God, for the sake of contemplation, for he was suffering more than ordinarily from scabies and other distresses of the flesh until I sent him to Chalons.
—Peter, Abbot of Cluny, to
Héloïse, abbess of the Paraclete,
on the death of Peter Abelard
 
 
C
atherine had imagined that he would be lying on a cot in the infirmary, attended by watchful monks eager to record any last confession from him or vision of the next life. Instead, the doorkeeper told them that Master Abelard was in the scriptorium, working, and would join them shortly.
“Perhaps his health has improved?” she suggested to Astrolabe.
The philosopher’s son smiled sadly. “I doubt it. He’s been working there ever since he arrived. He stops only to say the Divine Office, they tell me. He will likely die with his cheek against the page of a book.”
It seemed appropriate to Catherine, who had once wished no more for her own last moments. “No one has sent for Mother Héloïse?” she asked.
“It hasn’t been suggested,” Astrolabe said. “I don’t know if either one of them could bear it.”
Catherine wondered how Astrolabe’s mother would bear it in any case. She remembered Heloise’s great, burning eyes that could not hide the passion she still felt for Peter Abelard. Heloise was now a woman in her forties, the competent and respected director of a monastic house. Her formidable intelligence was totally focused on its survival. She allowed herself no weakness. She professed herself satisfied with her life. But it had been the desperate grief in those eyes that had convinced Catherine to risk losing her place in heaven for a life in the world with Edgar.
Had she been wrong?
Astrolabe and Edgar were talking quietly as they waited.
Without looking at her, Edgar put his arm around her waist, resting his hand on her hip. He continued talking in the same casual tone, apparently oblivious to her presence. Catherine could feel her heart beating rapidly as the warmth of his hand spread through her.
Isn’t it about time you admitted, Catherine, that a hundred years in an anchorage wouldn’t make you chaste as far as this man is concerned?
Catherine sighed. Her conscience had the loudest, most annoying voice in Christendom. It always amazed her that no one else could hear it.
The doorkeeper returned to tell them that Abelard was waiting for them in the prior’s chamber.
The last time Edgar and Catherine had seen their old master was two years before, at Sens, where his work had been roundly condemned by Bernard of Clairvaux and a group of bishops. Abelard had vowed to take his case to Rome, but Bernard had sent messengers to the pope, and the confirmation of the judgment made at Sens had reached Abelard at Cluny, barely a month after the council. Broken in spirit, the philosopher had decided to take the offer of sanctuary from Abbot Peter and, by all accounts, he had become a model monk.
Catherine blinked as they entered the room. Even with the warning, she wasn’t prepared. Next to her, she could feel Edgar start as well.
Her former master’s skin was roughened by the scabies, but he had had that before. He was frail, but not much more so than when they had last seen him. No, the change was internal. Something had happened to his spirit. In Paris, it was said that the arrogant Peter Abelard had finally been humbled, and many thought it not soon enough. But Catherine did not see a man defeated by the world; rather, one who had transcended it. She knelt for his blessing.
Abelard put his hand on her head. “
Benedicite
,” he said.
“Dominus tecum.”
She looked up and he smiled. Her eyes filled with tears.
Edgar knelt beside her. “Thank you for granting us an audience, Master,” he said. “We are honored to see you again.”
Abelard paused, his hand over Edgar’s head. “Is this the boy who once told me that he could see no sense to my argument and that he didn’t believe there was any?”
Edgar bent his head lower. Catherine stared at him in surprise. “I was much younger then, Master,” Edgar mumbled. “I ask your pardon for my arrogance.”
Behind them, Astrolabe laughed and Abelard joined him.
“I am delighted to see both of you again.” He gestured for them to rise. “And you, renegade daughter of the Paraclete, are you still happy to be living with my old student?”
“Sinfully so,” Catherine admitted.
“But there is something wrong, isn’t there?” Abelard looked at both of them.
“We would like your advice, Master,” Edgar said.
“I have always been happy to give it,” Abelard told them. “But why don’t you let my son take you to the hospice, where you can wash and be fed first? After None, we can speak again.”
He swayed a little as he stood and all three of them leaped forward to help him, but he waved them away. “My faith supports me now,” he said. “I need nothing more.”
“Can you now understand what I was trying to tell you?” Astrolabe asked them after his father had left. “Do you see how he has changed?”
“Yes,” Edgar said. “The difference frightens me, but it awes me as well. I almost felt that I could see light shining through him.”
“It’s as if he’s already looking into the next world,” Catherine said. “I don’t see how he can remain in this one much longer. If anyone can tell us what my dream meant, it will be the Master.”
Edgar agreed. He only hoped the interpretation would be one they could accept.
 
Peter of Montboissier, abbot of Cluny, at the age of fifty already styled “Venerable” by his contemporaries, not for his years but for his authority, was receiving a guest, Bishop Stephen of Osma. The bishop was being given all respect due
to his office, but to Peter he was really no more than an emissary from Alfonso VII, self-proclaimed emperor of Spain. Bishop Stephen had been entrusted by the emperor with an invitation to the abbot that Peter found most opportune.
“The emperor would be honored if I would consent to come to Spain?” Peter said. “And there a meeting would be arranged for us to discuss …”
“Mutual welfare,” Bishop Stephen replied. “The elimination of the Arab heresy from our lands. The reconversion of those poor souls recently recovered from Saracen territories. And then there would be the opportunity for you to visit the third most holy pilgrimage site in the world, Santiago de Compostela. Have you never wished to worship at the shrine of the Apostle James?”
Peter put his fingertips together and sat for a moment, opening and closing his hands like a spider on a mirror.
“It has been brought to my attention,” he said thoughtfully, “that the most noble emperor’s grandfather, Alfonso the Sixth, many years ago generously pledged to the abbey of Cluny an annual donation of two thousand
metcales.
According to my secretary, this pledge hasn’t been paid since the present emperor’s election.”
The bishop shrugged an apology. “My Lord Alfonso has needed all his funds in his continuing struggle against the enemies of Christ,” he explained. “You could not disapprove of such a use of his resources. But he has authorized me to say that his financial situation is better now, although there is still a threat of invasion from the south, especially from those lands near Galicia.”
“I was not aware that Portugal was made up of infidels,” Peter observed.
“But their sympathies lie in that direction,” Stephen assured him. “And their politics are in turmoil. The people there could easily be lost to the Faith without proper guidance. The archbishopric of Santiago is vacant at the moment, you are aware of that? The emperor feels that Berengarius of Salamanca would be an excellent candidate for the see.”
“I have heard no ill of him,” Peter admitted. “Actually, I hear little of him at all. In any case, I certainly can have no influence on the election.”
“You are too modest,” the bishop said truthfully. “Your approval of Berengarius would carry a great deal of weight with the deciding bishops and with Pope Innocent.”
“Even if that were so, I’m afraid I know too little of his capabilities,” Peter answered. “I could not in good conscience recommend a man merely on hearsay.”
“Another reason for you to come,” Stephen said. “To meet him and judge for yourself. You would give us such joy if you would agree. The emperor would get down on his knees and weep with gratitude if only I could tell him you would soon be in his presence. The people of the land would greet you with flowers and prayers.”
“It is a most kind offer,” said Peter, who had already decided to set out after Easter. “I will consider it.”
When the bishop had been shown to his quarters, Peter sent for his secretary. He needed to dictate a few letters. It was true that the restoration of the Spanish tithes would be most welcome to Cluny and its building projects. But Peter had another reason for going, one that was just as close to his heart.
“Pierre,” he told his secretary, “send messages to our houses in Spain. Tell them to start looking for men who are proficient in both Latin and Arabic, and for someone who understands the subtleties of the lies of the infidels. I want to hire them for as many months as necessary to translate the books of Mohammad into a Christian tongue.”
 
That afternoon Catherine sat once again at the feet of the master and told him of her dream. Edgar sat at her side, listening quietly.
“It was so clear, Master Abelard,” she said. “I don’t believe it was merely the result of
ventris plenitudine
.”
“Looking at you, Catherine,” Abelard replied, “it’s clear that you have not been indulging in gluttony. But it may have been the result of fasting.”
“Fasting is supposed to release the mind to apprehend true
revelatione
,” Catherine objected. “But it was not that, either. I had eaten well enough that night. I don’t think it was an illusion or a demonic sending, but a gift. The old man in the dream didn’t seem evil to me, but protective of the child.”
“Ah, yes.” Abelard leaned back. “But that might have been a deliberate deception on the part of Satan to lull you so that he could attack. Tell me again the progress of this dream. You say you were on a steep cliff and the wind howled around you?”
“Yes, and it was so cold.” Catherine shivered at the memory.
“And the old man, you said he seemed holy. How did you know?”
Catherine frowned. “I can’t remember. He had a beard, I think, like the patriarchs on tympana. But it wasn’t by any outward sign. I just knew.”
“Very well,” Abelard answered. “Now, try to remember. When the board broke and the child fell, what happened?”
Catherine scrunched her eyes tightly, trying to see back into the dream. Edgar took her hand. Slowly the memory was becoming clear. Yes. That was it.
“The board didn’t break,” she told them. “It shook horribly, perhaps from the wind, or from someone behind me shaking it. I don’t know. It flew up and I was pushed against the cliff, but my child was tossed into the air. The old man reached out and caught him.”
“How?” Abelard asked. “In his arms? Why didn’t the man fall as well?”
“I don’t … Wait.” Catherine stumbled on her breath in the effort to remember. “There was something, something in his hands. It was white and the child landed in it.”
“What did it look like?” Edgar asked. “You didn’t tell me this before.”
“I didn’t remember,” Catherine said. “It happened so quickly and I was frightened for myself as well as for our son. But now I can see it. The man held out his arms and there was this thing in them.”
“Like a basket?” Abelard asked.
“No,” Catherine answered, and she seemed puzzled. “It was smooth and white, and there were ripples at the edge. It was hard and shallow; the boy lay on it, not in it.”
Abelard asked no more questions. The two waited. Finally, he leaned forward again. He took Catherine’s chin in his hand and turned her face up to his.
“I believe I know the meaning of your dream,” he said. “I may be mistaken, but I must agree that this was no corporeal illusion brought on by mere sensations of the body. You have had a true sending. The holy man you saw was, I believe, the blessed apostle, Saint James the Greater. He has rescued your son in the scallop shell of his shrine. If your prayers will ever be answered, I believe you must go to Compostela, Catherine.”
Edgar jumped to his feet. “Master, that’s a month’s journey or more over hard roads, among wolves and robbers. Catherine isn’t well enough to survive it.”
BOOK: Strong as Death (Catherine LeVendeur)
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