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The Devil's DoorA Catherine LeVendeur Mystery
By Newman, Sharan
Forge BooksCopyright © 2004 Newman, Sharan
All right reserved.
Beside her, there was a minor explosion as when wine ferments too long in the cask and suddenly erupts from the bung hole. Sister Bertrada should be grateful the pillows were so flimsy for Catherine was sorely tempted to smother her with one.
Outside the rain dripped gently from the roof. It was the deepest part of night, Compline long past and Vigils nowhere near. All the women slept. Catherine lay awake and wondered why she had come back to the convent from Paris.
She had not wanted to venture out of the cloister in the first place, but had gone at the request of the abbess, Héloïse. However, in following that request Catherine had found that the world was something she could not hide from, however inexplicable or frightening it might be. And it had been both. In the three months she had been away, her world had been turned inside out. Her family, whom she thought she knewas well as the lines of her own hand, had proved to be strangers. People she loved and trusted had dark, unsettling secrets. Even, no, especially, her own parents.
My mother has gone insane and believes me risen to heaven and worthy of her prayers and my father is a Jewish apostate. She tried thinking it calmly, but she couldn't yet. How could anyone? It was too absurd to even say aloud. Oh, why had she ever left the cloister? Outside the walls of the Paraclete, life had so many complications.
Of course, one of the complications she had found had been Edgar. And that was not something she wished to avoid.
She smiled in the darkness, remembering the reaction of the convent to her announcement of her intention to marry Edgar. Mother Héloïse had been warned in advance in a letter from Master Abelard. She was doubtful, but sympathetic. But others were not so kind.
"You think because you've gone and become betrothed that I will give up trying to save your soul," Sister Bertrada had told her the day she returned. "You are mistaken again, Catherine. Until you are wrapped tight in the marriage bed, I will keep up the struggle."
Sister Bertrada had kept her word, watching Catherine every moment, catching every fault; catching faults that didn't exist; berating her for folding her hands incorrectly at prayer, for appearing at None in a torn robe. To remind her that there was no place for frivolity in a discussion of Saint Veronica, Catherine spent a day away from her books, embroidering the white crosses on the veils of the consecrated virgins instead.
"You see what you'll lose by this willful act?" the novice mistress asked, holding up the veil Catherine had just completed. "Marry now, and even if you crawl back to us, as I believe you will, you will never be able to consecrate your virginity to God. You'll always be less than perfect in his eyes."
Catherine forbore reminding her that their own Abbess Héloïse had been married and borne a son before she became a nun. Did God love her less for that?
Perhaps, a voice in her mind had whispered, How do you know who God loves?
Catherine had admitted to herself that the affections of the Almighty were not known to her and held her tongue.
Every day had been a new diatribe, every night a cacophonous concert. Sister Bertrada was a foretaste of purgatorial torment. And yet, Catherine was happy she had returned to the Paraclete before her marriage. She needed the wisdom of Mother Héloïse and her sisters in Christ to help her come to terms with all she had learned. The revelations about her father's ancestry, the pathetic madness of her mother, what would they mean to her life? And Roger, the uncle she had loved and who had shown himself possessed by an insanity even worse than her mother's, what if it should touch her, too? Would Edgar still want to marry her?
No sane man would, her voices said. So it's likely he's possessed.by his own kind of lunacy. Have you told him yet that your own mind argues with you?
Catherine desperately tried to squelch such traitorous thoughts. One of her greatest desires was to control the doubts that tormented her as greatly as Sister Bertrada's snoring.
The sounds from the next bed began to take on the fury of a tempest, one that might toss a ship like a toy upon the waves. Even now, Edgar might be somewhere on that dark water, making his way back to her from his family in Scotland, tossed and spun at the whim of Nature.
Catherine sat up. This would not do. Another hour between Sister Bertrada and her own unruly mind would certainly cause the dementia she feared. Better to make her body work, instead. She stuck a stockinged toe out from under the cover. The cold sent a shock through her and she drew her foot back under the blanket and felt around with her hands for her slippers. Quietly she put them on and eased from the cot, keeping the blanket wrapped about her, her unbelted skirts trailing the wooden planks of the floor.
The darkness was almost complete but Catherine knew the way. At the end of the dormitory was a narrow staircase down to the cloister, only a step from the oratory where the sisters prayed and recited the office. She would go down now. In the silence and the darkness, she would pray for the serenity and forbearance she so lacked. If the bell rang for Vigils while she was still there, perhaps her nocturnal devotion would impress Sister Bertrada.
Not likely, her voices reminded her. She'll be more inclined to say you need extra prayers more than the others and make you do this every night.
Catherine sighed as she came to the top of the steps to the cloister. It didn't seem fair that her own thoughts, trained to question, should spend all their time questioning the ideas that would give her the most peace. It was even worse in that they were often right.
Reaching the bottom of the staircase, she froze as a sudden light flashed across her eyes. Someone was coming across the cloister in a great hurry, the lantern she carried swinging dangerously as she ran.
Knowing that wandering about alone at night was unsuitable behavior, Catherine stepped back into the shadows as Sister Thecla, the portress, rushed by on her way to the cell of Abbess Héloïse.
Forgetting rules in her intense curiosity, Catherine followed the portress out into the rain, stopping only to stick her feet into a pair of wooden sabots from the row kept by the door. She must find out what was going on. What sort of visitor would arrive in the middle of the night? It could only be something serious, a missive of terrible urgency. Irrationally, she thought of Edgar. His ship had been lost; brigands had cut his throat. Worry for him was so much on her mind that she didn't stop to think that she was not important enough for someone to come racing through the night to relay such a thing to her.
The abbess appeared only a moment after Sister Thecla had entered. She wrapped her scarf around her head as she followed the portress through the cloister, out into the yard and into the portress's lodge by the gate.
Catherine knew the trouble she would be in if she were discovered, but she followed them all the same. She covered her head with the blanket, slinking after them like a misplaced shadow, trying to keep her feet from squelching in the mud.
The two women entered the gatehouse. Catherine crept up to the door to hear what was going on.
"She must have someone with her constantly," a man's voice commanded. "Have the priest within call for last rites. I don't know how she survived this long with what those bastards did to her."
"She will not be left alone for a moment, my lord," Héloïse said softly. "We will see that she is well taken care of."
"Good," the voice answered, as if dismissing her. "And I will do the same for Walter of Grancy."
"Are you quite sure it was Walter?" she heard Héloïse ask.
"He was seen escaping. We found her soon afterwards, in the woods just outside the castle. Not," he added, "that it is any concern of yours."
Catherine's mouth dropped open. How dare this man speak to the abbess so rudely! She thought she recognized the man's voice and half expected the roof to open and a well-aimed divine curse to fall upon Raynald of Tonnerre.
She was so outraged that she didn't hear the next words and wasn't prepared for the door to be suddenly thrown open. Catherine found herself face to face with the man who had spoken. Startled, she tried to step back, but the sabot was stuck where she had been standing and she fell backwards into the mud.
Raynald, Count of Tonnerre, stepped over her with complete indifference. He pulled on his gloves, fastened his cloak and went down the path to the stables by the guesthouse.
As Catherine struggled to get up, another figure appeared in the doorway. The lamp illumined the face of Mother Héloïse. Normally its expression was gentle, if a bit sad. But Catherine took one look at her now and knew to the depths of her soul what it must be like to face the wrath of God.
The abbess stood over her. With some difficulty Catherine released herself from the grip of the earth and got up. She was hampered by her efforts to get her foot back into the still-stuck sabot and, at the same time, cover her head with her blanket. She opened her mouth to explain. Héloïse cut her off with a gesture.
"There is nothing you can say to excuse your being here, at this hour, and in such a state, so don't waste my time trying," she said.
"No, Mother; yes, Mother. I'm sorry, Mother," Catherine stuttered.
One corner of Héloïse's mouth twitched. Catherine exhaled in relief. No punishment was worse than Mother Heloise being angry with her.
"I know very well that you are sorry only at being found in such a state, not for the curiosity that brought you to it," Héloïse continued. "We will discuss your correction tomorrow.
"For now," she added as Catherine turned to go back to the dormitory, "you can utilize your wakefulness in being of service. Go wash as much of yourself as you can and change into clean robes. Come to the infirmary when you are fit for Christian eyes."
"Yes, Mother," Catherine gulped. The water would be as cold as Lucifer's heart but worth enduring to find out what all this was about. In the brief glimpse, she had confirmed her guess that the man was Raynald. And, she was also certain that under his cloak had been the gleam of chain mail. But who had he brought for the nuns to take care of and why at such an hour?
Several icy minutes later she presented herself, shivering and damp, but clean, at the door of the infirmary.
Sister Thecla admitted her and then went out, back to her station. Catherine took a step into the room and stopped in astonishment.
Abbess Héloïse was sitting at the side of a bed on which lay a woman. Her head was swathed in bandages, her face swollen and dark with bruises. The arm that lay across the coverlet was also wrapped tightly, her fingers white and still. The two lay sisters who had carried her to the infirmary were just leaving with the litter.
"Come over here and sit down," Héloïse told her. "Sister Melisande is upstairs preparing the medicine she will need. It will take her a few more minutes. As long as you are awake, Catherine, I want you to remain here and give any help that is needed. I will send one of the other lay sisters also. Can you remain alert until Matins?"
"Yes, Mother." Suddenly Catherine felt the urge to yawn. She suppressed it as she brought her stool to the side of the bed. Hesitantly, she reached toward the injured woman's hand.
"It's the Countess Alys, isn't it?" she asked.
Héloïse nodded. "She was brutally attacked, as you can see, a few days ago as she was returning from a visit to her mother in Quincy. The count thought she could be better cared for here. He has the right. When she gave us lands five years ago, the countess specifically requested that she be allowed to retire to our convent someday or at least, if that were not possible, to be buried with us."
"You don't think she'll live?"
"It doesn't seem very likely," Héloïse answered. "She hasn't woken since she was found. Her arm was broken, the bones are splinters in her flesh. You can see how her face was battered. I understand that the rest of her body is also badly bruised."
The abbess bent over to tuck in the coverlet more securely. In the lamplight, Catherine saw the tears glitter.
"You should use the time to prepare rags to replace the bandages," Héloïse said steadily. "You may have to use them before anyone comes. The countess also miscarried as a result of this attack. The women at the castle haven't been able to stop the bleeding. Call Sister Melisande if you feel unequal to the task."
"I know what to do," Catherine assured her.
After Héloïse had left, Catherine sat staring at the unconscious woman. The little oil lamp cast shadows across the bed, making the bandages seem grotesque. Only the rasp of her breath showed that the Countess Alys still lived. Catherine took a cloth and dipped it in a cup of water mixed with vinegar. She pressed it against the woman's dry lips and dampened as much of her face as was visible. She felt so useless. There was nothing more she could do.
"Sanctissime confessor Domini," she asked Saint Benedict. "Monachorum pater et dux, Benedicte, intercede pro sua salute."
She started to stroke the uninjured hand, but at the first touch, Alys jerked away with a cry.
"Allder!" Her scream was harsh but weak, the words garbled through her battered face, a string of syllables Catherine couldn't understand, then, "Harou! No! Lord, lord! No!"
Nervously, Catherine tried to calm her. Alys would injure herself more if she didn't stop moving about. Catherine lifted the coverlet to smooth it. A red stain had blossomed like a rose onto the sheet. Catherine swallowed. She wasn't upset by the mess but she was terrified that she would jolt the countess while cleaning her and cause her to become worse.
As she stood staring down at the sheet and wondering if she should interrupt the infirmarian to ask for help, Catherine suddenly felt a tap on her shoulder.
"Arrp!" She inhaled a shriek and turned.
The woman standing behind her signed an apology, but she was clearly amused at Catherine's reaction.
"Paciana!" Catherine whispered. "I didn't hear you come in. I'm glad you're here; I need help changing her bedding."
The laughter in the lay sister's face vanished as she looked beyond Catherine to the woman on the bed. She closed her eyes a moment, blessed herself and then rolled up her sleeves and went to work.
Paciana's touch produced a much more soothing effect than Catherine's. The countess Alys lay still and limp while they moved her as gently as possible and peeled off the blood-soaked rags. The lay sister signed to Catherine when she needed help, and Catherine, for once, was quiet too, although her most frequent infraction was breaking the rule of silence. While Paciana lifted Alys, Catherine washed her and applied clean rags. No wonder the poor woman had miscarried, the bruises on her stomach were worse than those on her face. There were cuts, too, which ought to be cleansed.
"That's odd," Catherine said, forgetting silence again. "Look at this, Paciana. Do you see?"
The lay sister leaned over to look. A spasm of anger flashed across her face, then she took a deep breath and regained her customary calm. The body of the countess was ribboned with thin white lines of scars, along with raised welts of mishealed flesh.
"These wounds weren't made at the same time," Catherine continued. "There are bruises here that have almost healed and these marks on her legs and buttocks must be from something long ago. It looks as though she's been whipped, over and over. See how they overlap?"
Catherine felt a spasm of anger, too. But she didn't try to control it. Swiftly, she finished her job. The two women wrapped and settled the countess, Catherine's jaw set in fury. Who could have treated the poor woman so? She turned to the lay sister.
"Have you ever met the count of Tonnerre?" she asked.
Paciana shook her head.
Across the cloister the bell was ringing for Matins. Catherine washed her hands.
"You'll stay with her?" she asked.
Paciana nodded, then her fingers made the sign for the number seven and seven again. Catherine sighed.
"I know that one should forgive seventy times seven, but only those who sin against us. And the sinner should first repent, I think. Mine is a righteous anger, Paciana. The proud and haughty need to be brought low, especially the haughty count Raynald."
* * *
Catherine followed the sound of the bells to the chapel, but she stumbled often in her recitation of the office. The only thing she wanted to pray for was the swift smiting of the count of Tonnerre. What sort of man would beat his wife and then try to pass it off as the work of someone else! They found her outside the castle! Who would believe that? Why would she have been travelling alone? Where were her guards? Did Raynald think the nuns were incapable of noticing the difference in the scars? Well, he wouldn't be allowed to continue in his wicked schemes. Mother Héloïse would learn of this.
The office of Matins flowed into Lauds, and from Lauds until the office of Prime, at dawn, the sisters worked quietly by candlelight on sewing or study. Catherine usually read for these hours, the most pleasant of the day for her. But this morning she went over to the abbess's chair and, kneeling next to it, whispered that she must speak with her about the countess. At first Héloïse frowned, then she whispered back.
"You may come to my room, after Prime. We can discuss it then fully."
When they had finished singing the office, Catherine followed Héloïse to her room. The abbess sat down at a table covered with papers, which she regarded wearily. Catherine could tell they were not devotional reading without looking at them. Only the convent accounts caused the abbess to look so tired. Héloïse picked one up and began to read through it.
"Catherine," she said without looking up. "If we are given the rights to berries and apples in the wood between the convent and the monastery of Vauluisant, and fallen trees for fire, but may not cut any standing trees and must maintain the road through as well as leave all acorns for the pigs belonging to the monks, do we have a profit or a liability?"
She handed the paper to Catherine.
Catherine studied for a moment. "There isn't enough information here," she said at last. "How do we feed the men who clear the road? What is the fruit harvest and who gathers it? And how much damage do the pigs do?"
She gave the paper back.
"The pigs!" Héloïse exclaimed. "I knew I was forgetting something. They can turn a road into a morass in no time at all. It would be our responsibility if a cart lost a wheel or a horse stepped in a hole and broke its leg. And we haven't even been given the tolls to that road. Prioress Astane felt there was something suspicious about this offer. Wait until we meet again with the prior of Vauluisant!"
She stopped. "But that's not why you've come. What is troubling you so that you felt the need to speak to me during the Great Silence?"
"Mother, I've found out something dreadful." Catherine told her what she had discovered.
Héloïse listened gravely.
"You are making a very serious accusation," she told Catherine. "What proof do you have that any of the wounds suffered by that poor woman were caused by the count?"
"Who else had the power to use her so severely for so long? Many of those scars were long ago healed over."
Héloïse began to gather up the accounts.
"I can think of many others, her parents or guardians. I don't remember all of her early history. I believe she has a mother and a stepfather. She may have been a recalcitrant child."
"Mother! No child is wicked enough to deserve such treatment!"
Catherine thought of her parents and how recalcitrant a child she had often been. She had endured her share of punishments, but no one had ever hurt her like that.
Héloïse nodded. "I agree. I am only pointing out that there may be other explanations for the scars. Some may even have been self-inflicted. She may have felt the need to subdue the flesh. I do not approve of that practice, either." She forestalled Catherine's objection. "I am simply putting forth another possibility."
Catherine was outargued, but not convinced. She shook her head.
"I understand what you are saying, Mother. I formed a conclusion without studying all possible rational hypotheses. But I feel I am right."
"Ah, my dearest Catherine," Héloïse smiled. "That is the worst fault of the human philosopher. When logic fails, we feel. Or we twist the logic to fit our emotions."
"Then I should ignore my feelings?" Catherine asked.
"Not at all." Héloïse turned back to her desk as she replied. "Often our feelings are sound. But you must analyze them fully and find a rational basis for them. If you can find none, then you must learn to put them aside. The dialectic I have taught you is not for use in the classroom alone. Just because you dislike Count Raynald is not good enough reason to assume he is a monster. You may go."
"Yes, Mother." Catherine waited. "Would you like me to come back before Compline and help with the accounts?"
"No, they can wait."
Héloïse piled up the stacks of papers with little interest. Under the accounts were a few pages of a letter. Catherine only glimpsed the salutation. "Heloisae ancillarum del, ductrici ac magistrae...frater Petrus humilis Cluniacensium abbas, salutem a deo..." Peter, abbot of Cluny! Why would he be writing Héloïse?
No doubt you feel you should be informed of all business between the abbey of Cluny and the Paraclete? Catherine's voices said scornfully.
Feeling well-chastised and completely frustrated, Catherine turned to go.
She stopped. "Yes, Mother?"
"Whatever horrible things have happened to Countess Alys, you have my word that, as long as she is under my care, I will see to it that no one ever hurts her again."
Catherine closed her eyes and swallowed hard.
"Thank you, Mother Héloïse."
But her heart still cried for the countess and her mind still insisted that whoever had hurt her should not be left to God alone.
Copyright 1994 by Sharan Newman
Excerpted from The Devil's Door by Newman, Sharan Copyright © 2004 by Newman, Sharan. Excerpted by permission.
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