Strong as Death (Catherine LeVendeur) (4 page)

BOOK: Strong as Death (Catherine LeVendeur)
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Norbert made up his mind. When Gaucher came back, he was going to propose that they change their route. This road was too easy, too protected. They would head south and start from Lyon, going across the plateau and the mountains. There were many holy places along that trail. Conques, for one. Norbert had always had a fondness for Saint Foy, the little-girl martyr whose body rested in the church there.
Norbert had always had a fondness for little girls.
 
Once again the Jews of Paris had managed to survive Easter week. Hubert had not dared to visit Solomon or his own brother, Eliazar, and sister-in-law, Johannah, during that time. It was better not to advertise friendships between Jew and Christian while all were being reminded daily of the Crucifixion. But news had arrived the following week that sent him hurrying from his house on the Right Bank to that of his brother on the Île de la Cité.
“She’s insane!” he shouted before the door was barely opened.
He stopped at Johannah’s shocked expression.
“A blessing upon all in this place,” he said quickly. “I tell you she’s gone mad and taken that English boy with her. And they say Peter Abelard suggested it! Everyone knows he’s been addled for years. How can we stop them?”
“May you be blessed as well, Brother,” Johannah said calmly. “Come and sit down in the solar. Eliazar will be right down. I’ll have the maid bring you a basin to wash your hands in, and then some wine and cheese.”
“Johannah, I’ve no time for this,” Hubert said. “Catherine
intends to go to Spain! She’ll never survive the trip. What am I to do?”
“You and Eliazar just sent Solomon to Spain in the dead of winter without a qualm,” Johannah answered. “Why are you so concerned about Catherine making the journey in the spring?”
She guided him to a chair. “Sit. Eat. Then we’ll talk.”
Hubert followed her orders mechanically. When Johannah insisted, one obeyed. By the time he had finished his wine and cheese, he was somewhat more composed.
Eliazar had been given a quick explanation before he entered. “
Shalom
, Brother,” he said, kissing Hubert on both cheeks. “So what has this troublesome child of yours decided to do now?”
Hubert repeated as best he could the message Catherine had sent. “She asks me to send clothes and funds for the journey,” he ended. “I would deny her request, but I know her too well. She would simply start out without them. What am I to do? They leave from Lyon next week.”
Eliazar pursed his lips and tugged on his beard. It seemed to provoke more intense concentration. “Solomon has just returned from Spain,” he said at last.
“So your wife reminded me,” Hubert answered.
“For some odd reason, he wants to go back there as soon as possible,” Eliazar said. “He says he wants to study Aristotle, or some such.”
“There must be a woman,” Hubert answered. “Our nephew would never commit himself freely to travel for the sake of philosophy.”
“I only know what he tells me,” Eliazar said.
He was silent again. Hubert waited. Eliazar was the elder brother. Sometimes respect must be given.
Eliazar looked up at the ceiling, studying the pattern of the wood, no doubt. “I was thinking,” he said. “It’s been many years since I’ve visited with our brethren in Spain.”
Hubert glanced up sharply. “You would go with her and watch over her?” he asked, hope dawning.
Eliazar kept his eyes focused upward. “Your Catherine has
always needed more care than I could give,” he said. “And I will be occupied in discovering what has so agitated our Solomon that he’s been home barely two weeks and is preparing to leave yet again.”
Hubert finally realized where this was going. To his surprise, he found himself becoming excited at the prospect. “Eliazar, I haven’t been farther than Toulouse in twenty years.”
“It would do you good,” Eliazar said. “You’re getting soft.”
“But my other children … my grandchildren.” Hubert flailed about for an excuse.
“Your other daughter hasn’t spoken to you in months and is quite content living with her mother’s family,” Eliazar said bluntly. “And your son is busy with his own life. He doesn’t need you. I don’t believe your grandchildren will forget you. Bring them presents on your return. They’ll love you all the more.”
“There speaks a man with no children,” Hubert muttered.
Eliazar ignored him. He waited once more.
Hubert got up and paced the room a few times. “We can’t reach Lyon before they go,” he said at last.
“We’ll meet them at Le Puy, then,” Eliazar answered.
Hubert still had one more bolt to his bow. “Johannah is going to kill you if you do this,” he told his brother.
Eliazar nodded. “But she’ll not do it until my return.”
Le Puy, Saturday, April 25, 1142; The Feast of Saint Mark, evangelist.
 
Quator vie sunt que ad Sanctum Jacobum tendentes, in unum ad Pontem Regine, in horis Yspanie, coadunantur: alia per Sanctum Egidium et Montem Pessulanum et Thosolam et Portus Asperi tendit; alia per Sanctam Mariam Podii et Sanctam Fidem de Conquis et Sanctum Petrum de Moyssaco incedit; …
 
There are four roads leading to Saint James, which become one at Puenta la Reina in the lands of Spain. One goes through Saint-Gilles and Montpellier and Toulouse and the Somport Pass; another through Saint-Marie at Le Puy and Saint-Foi of Conques and Saint-Peter of Moissac … .
Codex Calistinus, Book IV
The Pilgrim’s Guide to Saint James
 
 
N
ow that a way had been shown to her and she was in the process of following it, Catherine’s mood changed remarkably. She had always loved travel from the time her father had decided she was old enough to accompany him to the fairs at Saint-Denis, Provins and Troyes. Then she had ridden behind him, gripping his belt for dear life and thinking in delight of how far above the ground she was from her perch on the back of his horse. While on the road with Hubert, the rules of deportment were slack and the world a pageant created just for her entertainment. Now Catherine was eager to share it all with Edgar.
She had never been as far as Le Puy before, and the area around the town enchanted her, with the strange volcanic cones rising up above the valley. Le Puy was also much more a pilgrim town than Lyon, and she felt it to be the true beginning to their journey. The first day there, she and Edgar climbed the twisting staircase of the pillar of Saint Michel D’Aiguilhe to the small Carolingian church at the top. It was on the ascent that Catherine began to realize the scope of the adventure she was about to become a part of.
The stairs winding up the side of the pillar had only a low wall to divide the pilgrims from the air and the ground far below. There were so many pilgrims making their way to and from the top that a monk had been stationed at each bend to keep them moving in good order. Those who had vowed to climb on their knees were told bluntly to either get to their feet or come back in the middle of the night, when the congestion was less severe.
Despite the glare from the monk waiting for them at the
top, Catherine paused before entering the church to look out over the edge to the valley below, with the river winding through it. Directly across from them, on another pinnacle, she could see the cathedral, with its own line of pilgrims. She and Edgar would climb the stairs of that next.
She bent over the edge, trying to make out the trail between the two sites. At that point, her arm was pulled roughly and she was spun about to face the angry monk.
“No dawdling!” he said. “No leaning over. We haven’t had anyone miraculously saved from falling in over a century, and I for one don’t want to waste my prayers on you.”
“Yes, Brother,” Catherine replied. “I ask your pardon.”
She looked around for Edgar, but didn’t see him. Odd. It wasn’t like him to go on without her.
She found him at last in a curve of the church. The building was small and round, with fading frescoes. The sunlight coming through the many narrow windows turned the room to gold. Usually Edgar would have been busy studying the carvings on the capitals, but now he was on his knees, eyes closed, lips moving silently.
Catherine felt a pang of guilt. She had been enjoying the view and here he was concentrating on the purpose of their pilgrimage. She would have knelt beside him but there was no room, so she laid a hand on his shoulder and added her prayers to his.
The monk stationed at the door was still glaring at them. Gently, Catherine squeezed Edgar’s shoulder. He didn’t respond. She bent over and whispered in his ear.

Carissime
, we must allow others to make their devotions here.” His eyes remained tightly shut, his head bent over clasped hands. Catherine tried again. “Edgar, the good brother here is insisting that we go back down. We’ll have many more chances for supplication as we continue the journey.”
She shook him more roughly. Edgar lifted his head and lowered his hands to his sides. A shudder passed through his body as he rose.
“Edgar?” Catherine felt a tinge of panic. “What’s wrong? Are you ill? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“No,” he said, “I’m fine.”
She didn’t believe him. He was even more pale than usual. Beneath the glow of the golden sunlight there was a greenish cast to his skin, and his lips were tight, as if holding back nausea.
“Edgar, we’re going back to the hostel at once,” Catherine told him, taking his arm. The sudden tensing of his muscles frightened her even more. Edgar was never sick. She guided him to the door.
At the threshold he stopped, causing the pilgrim behind him to stumble with a not-quite-muffled curse. Catherine dragged Edgar out onto the narrow walkway leading to the stairs.
“Help me!” she ordered the annoyed man. “Can’t you see that my husband has been taken ill?”
Instead of helping, the man gave a gasp of horror and backed as far away as possible, which led to a number of other collisions. All those within hearing range followed his example.
“Catherine!” Edgar growled between clenched teeth. “Stop it. I’m not sick.”
“What!” she said. “Then what is it?”
Before he could answer, the monk who had been glaring at them came and took Edgar’s other arm.
“Don’t worry, young man,” he said quietly. “I understand. I struggle with it myself every time I’m sent up here. Just lean on me and look at the ground.”
Edgar exhaled in relief and obeyed the monk’s command. Catherine followed them, bewildered. As they descended, she continued to peer over the edge whenever the chance came.
“Oh, look!” she exclaimed. “There’s our hostel. Gracious, I didn’t know we were so close to the river. I wonder how often they get spring floods here. Edgar, look over there. Aren’t those four old men down by the hostel the ones we saw at Vézelay? What could they be doing here? Edgar?”
Edgar didn’t answer. The monk shot her a poisoned glance over his shoulder. Catherine subsided.
When they reached the field at the bottom, Edgar sat heavily upon the grass. He reached in his pilgrim’s scrip and found a coin for the monk.
“A thousand blessings on you and your order,” he said. “Thank you.”
The monk smiled. “Don’t look so ashamed,” he said. “You’re not the only one. It happens every day, especially to us low-landers. I’m from Picardie. They had to carry me all the way down the first time I went up.”
He gave Edgar a sympathetic pat on the shoulder and returned to his duties. Catherine sat down next to her husband.
“Will you please tell me what that was all about?” She tried not to sound annoyed but didn’t entirely succeed. “I thought you were dying.”
“So did I,” he said. “Halfway up, the crowd pushed me close to the wall, so that I was almost pressed over it. I looked down and felt a great black wave wash over me. I couldn’t move. I knew I was going to fall and part of me just wanted to step over the edge and be done with it. Horrible.”
Catherine put her arm across his shoulders. It took her a few minutes to piece this out, the concept was so new to her. “Edgar,” she said at last, “do you mean that you were frightened?”
“That is a singular understatement,” he answered. He sighed and Catherine could feel his muscles relax. “I was never fond of high places, but there aren’t many in my part of Scotland. I didn’t know how bad it was until Master Abelard sent me to work at Saint-Denis while they were building the tower. I went up on the scaffolding to take some measurements for the statues. They almost had to dismantle the thing to get me down.”
“And you never said a word to me.” Catherine shook her head. “But, Edgar, it’s not unreasonable to be afraid on a narrow scaffold. Workmen fall to their death all the time.”
“Thank you, Catherine,” he said. “That’s a great consolation.”
She tried to think of a way to extricate herself from that,
but couldn’t come up with anything that wouldn’t make matters worse.
Edgar got to his feet. “Let’s go back to the hostel,” he said.
Catherine took his arm again, this time for her own comfort. She didn’t understand it. He wasn’t afraid of anything. She had seen him in real danger of death and he hadn’t flinched. Why should being somewhere high up disturb him so profoundly?
He had been wondering about her as well. “You weren’t frightened at all on the pinnacle, were you?” he asked.
“No, of course not,” she answered—as usual, without thinking. “It was exciting to see the world from above. I felt like an eagle. It was all I could do to keep from flying away, soaring higher and higher.”
This was the first time in their lives together that Edgar had no way to understand Catherine’s heart. Her face was glowing with the memory. Then her expression changed to one of deep concern.
“Edgar,” she said, “we’ll have to go home now. We can’t possibly finish the pilgrimage. Do you know how many mountains there are between here and Compostela?”
Edgar nodded. “We will cross them all,” he said, and she knew there would be no more discussion. “That is part of my offering to Saint James.”
At that moment, Catherine loved him more than she had ever believed possible.
 
“We’ll never find a bed without fleas in it tonight,” Hubert grumbled as they approached Le Puy. “What put it into the mind of Peter of Cluny to travel now?”
“I don’t think he’s taking your bed, Uncle,” Solomon observed. “The abbot usually brings his own.”
“And generally finds a cleric to give him a corner to set it up in,” Eliazar added.
Hubert was not in a mood for literal-mindedness. “Once the abbot announced he was going to Spain, the road became clogged with pilgrims. They all want to travel in his wake.”
“And why not?” Eliazar asked. “They not only benefit from the guards he brings, but from the extra notice Saint Peter is sure to take of them.”
“Do you think we can also hide under the cloak of the patron saint of Cluny?” Hubert asked scornfully.
Eliazar shrugged. “Saint Peter can take care of his own, if he likes. But I wouldn’t mind staying near the guards.”
Hubert didn’t answer. He was appalled by the traffic along the road. How would he ever find Catherine in all this? And which path was he supposed to walk upon when he did find her? On his earlier journeys, he had started out as a Christian from Paris and managed to join with Jewish traders farther south. He feared that this time he would be forced to choose one or the other and keep to it. The problem was that his soul lay in one camp and his heart in the other.
They were coming to the river.
“As I recall,” Solomon said, “the toll at the ferry here is outrageous but there’s no ford for miles and no bridge.”
“Then they can charge anything they like,” Eliazar said.
“And this is only the beginning,” Hubert sighed. “I shall be a pauper by the end, I foresee it. How did this happen to me?”
Solomon grinned. “You were born, Uncle, and from then on, your life was not in your control.”
“Ah yes, your new philosophy,” Hubert said. “It smacks of heresy to me, Nephew. The Almighty sends our joys and sorrows, but how they affect us is our decision.”
“Then I suggest you bear this minor discomfort with more fortitude,” Solomon said. “Or the Lord may decide to test you as He did Job.”
Hubert made a sign with his right hand, warding away evil. “That is not a joking matter,” he said.
Eliazar was concentrating on the immediate problem. “There’s a line at the ferry,” he grumbled. “And as usual, someone seems to be arguing over the fare.”
As they drew closer, they saw that the delay was being caused by a woman on horseback, wearing a widow’s long purple
veil. She was accompanied by two armed men, a maidservant and three pack mules, but it was clear who was in charge.
“Pilgrims are to be allowed free passage on all ferries and toll roads,” she stated. “I refuse to give you a sou.”
The ferryman did not seem upset. “Pilgrims travel with only the clothes they can carry,” he replied. “They bring no money but rely on the charity of those along the route. You are no pilgrim.”
“I most certainly am!” Her voice rose. “What I am not is a fool. No woman would take this road without protection and the money to pay for it. Now let me pass.”
The ferryman shook his head and motioned for the next party to come aboard. This consisted of three people: a
jongleur
and his wife, both carrying their
vielles
strapped to their backs and small tambours hanging from their belts; waiting near them was another woman, barefoot and swathed in a deeply cowled black cloak despite the warmth of the day. As she passed, the ferryman pointed her out to the woman on horseback.
BOOK: Strong as Death (Catherine LeVendeur)
9.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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