Strong as Death (Catherine LeVendeur) (8 page)

BOOK: Strong as Death (Catherine LeVendeur)
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They camped that night near the priory of Saint Marcel, where the party from Cluny was staying. It was at the end of the Gorges du Tarn, the cliffs jutting up sharply from the Lot River. Tomorrow they would have to turn southeast and cross the Ouche and the Dourdou, following another valley to Conques.
There wasn’t much space for them to set up camp. The land sloped upward almost as soon as it left the river. Catherine was pleased that she didn’t have to go very far to fetch water. Edgar, Solomon and two of the Germans managed to catch enough fish to feed the party. Eliazar’s eyes lit when he realized that Solomon had caught trout and not allowed any of the Christians to touch it. It would be good to have proper food again.
Maruxa and Roberto paid for their dinner with stories. Mindful of the reason for the journey, they recited lives of the saints. Then Maruxa sang the song Mondete had requested:
Jherusalem grant damage me fais
. It had always puzzled Catherine. It was supposed to be a lamentation for the Holy City, but it seemed to be more of a song of lost love. She was well aware that earthly love is only a shallow reflection of divine love and that the terminology of the two were interwoven, but this song seemed firmly rooted in the corporeal. Perhaps she just wasn’t spiritual enough. The voices of the singers were passionate:
Quant me remembre del douz viare cler
Que je soloie baisier acoler,
Grant merveilie est que je ne sui dervee
Catherine moved closer to Edgar and leaned her head on his shoulder. “‘When I remember your sweet face that I have so often kissed and caressed, it is a wonder that I have not gone mad,’” she repeated. No, it was not religious fervor that she
felt. In the darkness, Edgar took her hand and set it on his lap. Catherine smiled. It was evident that he shared her interpretation of the song. She thought of how nice it was that they had found a spot a little away from the others to sleep tonight.
They had climbed to a sheltered ledge surrounded by trees and laid out their blankets. Edgar tied branches together and leaned them against the rock face to protect them should the weather change.
“I don’t think it will, though,” he said. “Everyone told us it would be freezing and drizzly here, but it’s been warmer than Paris.”
“Almost anything would be.” Catherine had endured her share of springs in Paris and the rheum and chilblains that went with them.
“No one can see us from here. Do you think it’s mild enough to sleep without your shift on?” Edgar asked.
Catherine started untying the drawstring at her neck. “As long as you can think of some other way to keep me warm,” she told him. “From your reaction to the music, I’m confident you can come up with something.”
It was late into the night, between moonset and sunrise, that Catherine awoke to the sound of a great roaring. For a moment, she couldn’t remember where she was. The sound was like a thousand waterwheels turning at once. Then from below, there were shouts of alarm. The roaring grew louder. It was coming from farther up the valley, the route they had traveled the day before.
“Edgar, what is it?” she cried as he stood to look.
“Saint Columba’s creaking curragh!” Edgar said. “The river! It’s pouring out of the gorge. Catherine, stay here.” He started down the hillside, pulling his shift over his head as he went.
From below, the sounds of confusion and panic were increasing. People had been awakened by icy water splashing over their faces. Those nearest the river had no chance even to
stand as the sudden rush encircled them, pushing them downstream with the flow.
Catherine struggled into her clothes. “Edgar!” she called. “Wait! Edgar! Where is my father?”
As she ran down after him, stones and branches cutting her feet, Catherine tried to think of a saint she could beg for help—but all she could feel was anger at heaven for its cruel way of reminding them who was in charge.
At the southern end of the Gorges du Tarn. The cusp of dawn, Saturday, May 2, 1142; The Feast of Saint Athanasius, stubborn bishop and exile.
… et simul imbres cadant, flumina increscant, maria sedibus suis excita procurrant et omnia uno agmine ad exitum humani generis incumbant.
… and at the same time the rains will fall, the rivers flood, the seas will rush forth wildly from their beds and all as one concerted force will concentrate itself upon the destruction of the human race.
—Seneca, Naturales Quaestiones
Book III, 27. 1
dgar, sliding down the hill, had met Hubert hurrying up. “Don’t let her follow!” Edgar had yelled. “Where’s Solomon?”
“We were all camped on high ground,” Hubert panted, “but at the first roar, he leaped up and went off in search of that
. I came to find you. Eliazar is taking care of the horses and moving the luggage up to the priory.”
“I don’t understand this,” Edgar shouted above the roar. “It hasn’t been raining. Why should the river suddenly flood?”
“Ask the Almighty,” Hubert shouted back.
“After I find Solomon.” Edgar continued his slide.
Hubert found Catherine half-dressed, trying to negotiate the slope without falling. He took her firmly by the elbow and led her back up.
“Father, there are people down there who need help,” she remonstrated.
“There’s little we can do now,” Hubert told her. “Those who were carried away in the first rush are beyond our help, and everyone else is wandering about in soggy confusion. We would only add to it.”
“Then what is Edgar doing?” Catherine asked, still prepared to descend into the maelstrom.
Hubert hesitated. “Your cousin ran off after that
in the black shroud. Edgar has gone to find him and bring him back.”
“Did you see where she was camped?” Catherine asked.
Hubert shook his head, not in denial, but in worry. “Among the rocks at the water’s edge,” he said. “The dampest, most uncomfortable place possible.”
“But then she would have been—” Catherine stopped.
“He won’t find her,” Hubert said. “It’s too late. I tried to tell him. The first rush came like a just-opened millrace, sweeping everything before it; then the force of the water subsided. But it’s still high, and slowly rising again. I’m afraid the road up to the priory will be covered by the time there’s enough light to see it. However, it’s no longer gushing. Don’t worry,
ma douce
. Edgar is in no danger, and I hope Solomon has more sense than to jump into floodwaters.”
“Then we can only wait.” Catherine sat down.
If the emperor of Byzantium had appeared at his side selling the gilded fingertips of Saint John Chrysostom, Hubert could not have been more surprised. Catherine suggesting patience?
“Are you ill, daughter?” he asked.
She looked up at him with a sad smile. “No, Father, and not pregnant again, either. Just intimidated, I think. We tempted fate. We were enjoying something that is supposed to be an act of expiation.” She sighed. “But it does seem a cruel trick. Don’t you think God could give us more gentle lessons?”
Hubert had no answer for that, so he sat next to her, and wrapping a blanket around her, held her as he had when she was little and he could explain everything.
Abbot Peter had not been awakened by the tumult down below. He had finished saying the Night Office and Lauds with the community of Saint-Marcel and was spending the brief time before Prime going over a copy of the instructions he had left for the management of Cluny in his absence. The cell he had been given was solid against the cliff wall, and no sound from the world intruded.
So he was surprised at the rapid knock at the door and the disheveled appearance of Brother James.
“Are our people all accounted for?” Peter asked when the monk had explained the situation.
“As far as we can tell,” Brother James said. “But the pilgrims who camped in the valley are in disarray. Several of them were caught by the flood and carried away. We don’t know if
they are living yet or not. Some of those who managed to save themselves have lost what little they brought to survive the journey.”
“Find out from the prior the state of the supplies of Saint-Marcel,” Peter said. “Then you and Brother Rigaud go down and discover the degree of the need. We must at least provide these people with bread. And send Brother Savaric to me.”
Brother James left at once and went to fetch Brother Savaric, the almoner. Normally, Savaric handled only the charitable activities of the monastery, but for this trip he had been given charge of all the funds. James explained again what had happened while all those above slept.
Brother Savaric blessed himself. “Those poor souls,” he said. “I’m sure we can find enough to clothe them again, at least. I shall consult with the abbot on how the aid may best be distributed. Will you and Brother Rigaud report your findings to me at once?”
“Of course.”
Shortly after that, the two monks made their way down the path from the priory to the river. They could see that the current was much stronger than it had been on the previous day. It rushed now over rocks that had provided a place for campfires the night before. From the scum and debris, it was also clear that the water had once been much higher. People were standing in stunned groups or disconsolately scraping the mud from the belongings they had salvaged.
Brother Rigaud was surprised to find that he felt relief upon seeing that Gaucher, Hugh and Rufus were among the survivors. But that relief did not extend to giving a warm welcome when Gaucher rushed up to him.
“We can’t find the Lady Griselle!” the knight greeted him. “No one remembers where she was last night. We think she’s been drowned.”
“If you mean Griselle of Lugny,” Brother James told him, “she and her maid were given shelter in the priory guest quarters last night. Her late husband, Bertran, willed all his property to Cluny at her counsel, with the proviso that Lady Griselle be allowed the use of it until her death. We consider
that means she is under the protection of the abbey at all times.”
“She argued the point most forcefully herself,” Brother Rigaud said. “The woman should have been an advocate.”
Gaucher’s shoulders sagged. He ought to have known that the damned woman would have found herself a dry bed. And the news that her land would go to Cluny at her death was most disappointing. Still, he brightened; she wasn’t that old, a few years past thirty, he guessed. A man could spend his last years quite comfortably in her care—if he could get around her cutting tongue, Gaucher reflected as he returned to tell the others.
The monks continued their survey of the damage. They concluded that three people were missing: two of the Germans and the woman known as Mondete Ticarde. Others had suffered some loss of goods or had their clothing soaked in mud, but were otherwise unharmed.
Brother Rigaud approached a man who was helping Maruxa, the
, scrape off her blankets. Next to them, her husband was making a forlorn attempt to blow silt from his pipes. Brother James followed his companion a few paces behind. The man straightened as they came up to him and smiled cautiously through his greying black beard.
Eliazar was used to being polite to monks; he spent enough time dealing with the abbey of Saint-Denis. But new clerics always made him nervous. Sure enough, the second brother gasped in revulsion when he saw Eliazar, averted his face before Eliazar could even get a look at it, then pulled his cowl down to his nose and retraced his steps to get as far away as possible. Brother Rigaud looked after him in puzzlement, then remembered his mission.
“The abbot of Cluny sends his condolences,” Rigaud told the three. “He wishes to know what he can do to aid you.”
“I and my companions escaped harm.” Eliazar said, “but there are others here who could use the loan of dry clothing and some help in cleaning their own.”
“We could use a hot meal as well,” Maruxa added.
Her husband merely continued blowing glumly into the pipes.
Rigaud finished the rounds of the survivors on the bank. He found Brother James attending to the remaining Germans. “What did you run off for?” Rigaud asked. “I thought we were doing this together.”
Brother James pulled Rigaud aside. “Do you think that man saw me?” he asked. “They can curse you with their eyes, you know.”
“Who?” Rigaud asked. “The players?”
Brother James lowered his voice to a rasping whisper. “That Jew, of course,” he said. “The man with the beard. What is he doing, traveling with honest Christians on a holy mission?”
“Jew?” Rigaud repeated. “Was he? I had heard there were two of them sent by Abbot Suger. I haven’t seen them. How did you know what he was?”
“By the smell, of course,” Brother James answered. “If Suger is protecting them, there’s nothing we can do, but I would stay away from him and his coreligionist. They’re dangerous, deceptive people.”
“So I’ve heard,” Brother Rigaud answered. “Very well. Have you finished questioning the pilgrims as to their needs?”
“Yes, we can take the list to Brother Savaric at once,” Brother James answered. “We should make haste. Charity ought never be sluggardly.”
Maruxa gave the blanket Eliazar was holding one last thump with her hand. “There,” she said. “I’ll beat it again when the mud has dried. That’s the best I can do for now. Thank you.”
Eliazar helped her fold the blanket. Roberto put down the pipe with a forlorn sigh.
“At least we saved the
,” he said. “That isn’t so easy to replace.”
“Cheer up,
,” Maruxa said. “We have our voices yet, our stories, our hands to keep the rhythm and our feet to dance. We will survive much more easily than others.”
“We always do, don’t we?” Roberto smiled. “Very well, no more long faces. Although …”
All three of them looked at the place where Mondete had been sleeping. The flat rock on which she had lain was just visible under the water.
“Poor thing,” Maruxa said, crossing herself. “She had no chance.
Eliazar, has your nephew returned?”
“Not yet,” Eliazar replied. “I share your fear for the poor woman. Wrapped in that heavy garment, she could not have been able to save herself. But Solomon wouldn’t listen. He’s obsessed with her. Thinks she’s hiding the wisdom of the ages under that cloak.”
“How strange,” Maruxa said. “I believe that all that lay inside it was Mondete and her sorrow.”
Eliazar looked downstream where Solomon had gone and Edgar had followed. He saw no sign of either of them.
“I hope my partner’s son-in-law can convince him to come back,” he said. “We mustn’t delay too long here. Once we’re through the gorge and onto the plain, we’ll be out of danger from floods.”
“Yes,” Roberto said. “Then we can return to worrying about wolves and robbers.”
Eliazar left them still sorting out their things. He considered going after Solomon and Edgar, but decided that it would simply mean one more person missing. Farther up, he could make out the figures of Catherine and Hubert. Perhaps from their vantage point, they could see if the other two were on their way back. He went to join them.
Edgar had caught up with Solomon easily. His friend was moving slowly along the edge of the water, scanning both banks for some sign of Mondete.
“Solomon, come back with me,” Edgar said when they met. “The force of the river was too strong. Everything will have been carried miles downstream. You won’t find her, at least not alive.”
“I will,” Solomon answered. “One way or the other.”
“We need your help,” Edgar pleaded. “Everything is in confusion.”
“It can be nothing to the turmoil I feel,” Solomon answered. His eyes never left the water’s edge.
Edgar opened his mouth to argue further, but realized that Solomon would not be persuaded by reason. He and his cousin, Catherine, were alike in so many ways. They both believed themselves to be fortresses of rational thought, but all that logic withered when opposed by passion. Passion for a person, an idea, an answer, it didn’t matter what. When they were in the grip of it, there was nothing to do except try to protect them from the worst of the consequences they were certain to face.
“Very well,” Edgar told Solomon. “The sun has barely raised itself over the edge of the gorge. The road, what’s left of it, follows the river. We can still be at Conques by nightfall, where there is a proper pilgrims’ hostel. If you don’t see us on the road, meet us there. Otherwise, all four of us will come looking for you. You’ll have no rebuttal to Catherine’s scorn then, nor will I protect you from it.”
BOOK: Strong as Death (Catherine LeVendeur)
13.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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