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The Wandering Arm
By Sharan Newman
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1995 Sharan Newman
All rights reserved.
The keep at Vielleteneuse, north of Paris, Feast of Saint Julian: martyr; and Saint Basilisa, his wife: virgin, Thursday, January 9, 1141
Ele va par ses chanbres, se le duet molt li ciés, Ses dens estraint ensanle, ses mal et enforciés. Les dames qui soufroient des enfans les mesciés Savant bien le malage, ...
She goes to her rooms, and she suffers greatly there, Her teeth clenched together, her pain increases. Women who suffer the pains of childbirth They know the agony well, ...
—La Naissance du Chevalier au Cygne lines 1241–1244
In the room just below, Edgar leaped to his feet in an effort to reach her. Two strong pairs of arms restrained him.
"Let go of me!" he shouted. "They're hurting her!"
His father-in-law, Hubert, pushed him firmly back in his chair. Warily, Guillaume, Catherine's brother, and Solomon, her cousin, released their hold on him.
"I promise you, Edgar," Guillaume said. "She doesn't want to see you now."
"Of course she does," Edgar insisted. "She's calling my name."
Catherine screamed again. "Edgar!"
The hands descended on his shoulders once more.
"Damn you, Edgar!" Catherine's voice echoed down the staircase. "Damn you for an English bastard. Damn you and your family and the boat that brought you here! Edgarde! Maledicite! Edgarde, viescat verpa tua!"
Upstairs Catherine took another breath and screamed with the contraction. "Verrucosaque fiat verpa tua!" Then lower, as the pain subsided momentarily. "In tres partes confracta canibus devoretur verpa tua!! And the same to every man from Adam on. And damn Eve, too. ..."
Edgar sank back, his face even paler than usual. Hubert chuckled.
"Don't worry, boy," he said. "If she can still make a noise like that, she's fine."
"But did you hear what she said?" Edgar asked.
"I didn't catch all of it," Hubert admitted. "Catherine has a marvelous vocabulary. I suppose it's from all those years in the convent."
Edgar shook his head in awe. "She never learned those words at the Paraclete. Are you sure she's all right?"
Guillaume nodded. "When our first child was born, I sat in the next room and listened until I thought I deserved gelding for putting Marie through all that. For the second, I went hunting. It's better not to know what your wife thinks of you at these times. She won't remember it afterward, or that's what she'll tell you."
"But it's been hours," Edgar said.
"Only since dawn," Hubert assured him. "Here, have some more wine."
Involuntarily the four men glanced out the window, where the short winter afternoon was ending. Solomon, who wasn't married, relaxed. Hubert and Guillaume didn't. Catherine was nineteen and strong. But it had been all day and, by the midwife's reckoning, it was a month too soon. Guillaume poured more wine and wished he'd taken Edgar hunting, despite his protests.
Upstairs in the birthing room, Catherine's imprecations were greeted with cheers.
"That's right, dear," the midwife said. "Sons of whores, the lot of 'em. Yell all you like. But don't blame poor Eve; she was beguiled by a serpent, just like we all were. Samonie, warm a little more oil to rub her stomach with and drip some onto my hands. She needs a bit of help. Then you'd best bring that bowl of holy water Father Anselm left. Put it on the floor here."
Catherine's servant did as she was told. Over Catherine's bowed head she exchanged a worried glance with Guillaume's wife, Marie. The pains were close enough. More should be happening. As Samonie put the oil on the midwife's hands, the old woman whispered to her.
"Give the girl a few sips of the hot ale and dittany." She shook her head in worry. "Then be ready to hold her. I've got to turn it." Samonie bit her tongue to keep from crying. Catherine sat on the birthing stool, dark curls plastered to her face, too exhausted to blink as the sweat rolled into her eyes. Samonie signaled to Marie what must be done. Marie closed her eyes a moment and began reciting a prayer to the Virgin, begging her to summon the child forth safely. But she knew from her own experience of three stillbirths that the Virgin and the saints didn't always heed such supplications.
Catherine had said nothing for several minutes. She ached all over from trying to rid herself of this baby. The rim of the birthing stool was digging into her buttocks. Her hands and feet were freezing despite frequent rubbings with vinegar and salt. Even her eyes hurt. The room blurred and shimmered every time she opened them.
Someone forced a warm liquid down her throat. She gagged on it, then swallowed. Arms went around her shoulders and Marie's cheek pressed against hers.
"Mother of God, care for your daughter," she chanted. Catherine weakly nodded agreement.
"Ready?" the midwife said.
"We have her," Samonie answered.
The midwife put her hand in to push up the tiny foot that had just appeared.
Catherine screamed again. Then there was silence.
In the room below the men looked up, hardly daring to breathe, hoping for the feeble wail of new life. They only heard the rustle of feet in the rushes on the floor above. Edgar buried his face in his hands.
"I should have left her in the convent," he muttered. "She was happy there, safe. Now I've killed her."
"Don't say that!" Hubert snapped.
Edgar looked up, startled.
"We don't know what's happened," Hubert continued. "She may only be resting between the pains. My daughter is not going to die!"
He turned his back to the others, groping for the wine pitcher. Like Guillaume, he had generally managed to be somewhere else during his wife's confinements. At the moment, he hated Edgar passionately for causing Catherine to be in such danger. Even more, Hubert feared that this was simply a continuation of God's punishment on him. But was the divine retribution for letting himself be baptized rather than slaughtered with his mother and sisters? Or was it for returning to the Jewish faith of his ancestors? If he knew which, he could repent, but no sign had been sent to tell him, so he simply muddled on. And upstairs, Catherine's suffering continued.
The door opened. The men all stood. Solomon put a hand on Edgar's arm.
Marie stood in the doorway. The look in her eyes made Edgar's heart jolt.
"We tried," she said. "The child was turned wrong. We got it out, but it was too late. It had strangled on the cord."
Edgar tried to speak but couldn't get his mouth to move.
"And Catherine?" Guillaume said it for him.
"She's alive," Marie said. She swallowed the lump in her throat. "The bleeding isn't too bad. If we can stop it, if she doesn't get the fever, if she doesn't die of grief, she'll survive to go through this again. I did."
She leaned against the door, worn with the hours of fruitless work, and glared at all of them for being male. Guillaume ignored the look and went to her. She buried her face in his shoulder, crying.
Edgar fell back into his chair, too numb to cry. Catherine was alive; that was all that mattered.
"Can I see her?" he asked.
"We've given her a sleeping potion," Marie told him. "They're cleaning her now and putting her to bed. You may look in on her when they've finished, if you don't wake her."
"And the baby?" Hubert added.
"We can bury her with the ones I lost, in the corner of the garden, by the chapel wall," Marie answered.
They all knew the child couldn't be buried in consecrated ground since it hadn't lived to be baptized.
Edgar lifted his head. "It was a girl?"
"It would have been," Marie said. She wiped her eyes and nose on her husband's sleeve, turned and went back up the stairs.
"Edgar ..." Solomon began. He searched for some words of comfort, thought of none and then realized that Edgar wouldn't have heard them anyway. Instead he sat on the floor next to his friend, hoping that his presence would be comfort enough.
Hubert sighed and left the room, followed by Guillaume. Catherine was alive; that was all that mattered. She was the one child who loved him despite knowing his darkest secret. The one who had his mother's face. Losing her would have been more than he could bear.
But there was nothing more he could do. It was time to return to his own business.
At the final turn in the stairway before the Great Hall, Guillaume caught Hubert's arm.
"Father," he said, "how could you have let that man stay with us at such a time?"
"But Edgar is her husband," Hubert answered, bewildered.
Guillaume glared at him. "Not Edgar, that associate of yours," he said. "That Jew. Did it ever occur to you that he might have done something to make Catherine's pregnancy go wrong?"
"Guillaume!" Hubert was frightened by the vehemence of his son's accusation. He wished he had the courage to tell him that Solomon wasn't some chance trading partner but his own nephew, the son of his lost brother, Jacob, and blood cousin to Catherine and Guillaume himself. Catherine knew and accepted the fact. But his other daughter, Agnes, had found out by accident the summer before and hadn't spoken to him since. This was not the time to enlighten Guillaume about family connections.
"You're speaking nonsense," Hubert said at last. "Solomon is devoted to Catherine. He has been since they were children and played together at the fairs. I could always trust him to look out for her while I was doing business. And he and Edgar are good friends. Solomon would never hurt them."
"But it is known that those people are adept at potions and evil magic," Guillaume responded.
"I don't know it," Hubert answered him sharply. "And neither do you. If that were so, there'd be no children born dead among the Jews. You've only to see their cemetery at Saint-Denis to know that's not true."
Guillaume shook himself as if to rid his head of a nightmare. Reluctantly, he nodded. "Yes, I suppose you're right," he said. "But it seems strange that Solomon showed up the evening before Catherine's pains started."
"He brought a message for me, from the silversmith Baruch at Saint-Denis," Hubert explained. "The abbey has more work for us."
He knew that was a good way to end any conversation with Guillaume. His son was not proud that Hubert's wealth came from trade. Never mind that it had bought Guillaume military training, a wife from the lower nobility and a position as castellan for Abbot Suger. It was embarrassing. Hubert sighed. That was the penalty for raising one's son to better things.
They entered the Great Hall. A little boy broke away from his nurse and ran to them. He was about three years old. He had the golden curls of his mother but dark eyes that made him irresistible to the ladies already, as well as a curve to his nostrils and a tint to his skin that might have betrayed his Jewish ancestry, if anyone had thought to look for it.
"Papa!" he shouted as he threw himself into Guillaume's arms. "Do I have a new cousin?"
Guillaume held him close, remembering once again the joyous relief he had felt when they had told him that this child would live.
"No, Gerard," Hubert answered for him. "The baby didn't survive, but Aunt Catherine will be all right."
Clumsily, the boy blessed himself. Guillaume nodded approval. The nurse was doing her job.
"Is it in heaven, then?" Gerard asked.
Guillaume opened his mouth to lie. But he couldn't. "Only Our Lord knows that," he equivocated.
The child seemed satisfied. At this point in his life, God was just a force, like the king or abbot or his father, to be feared or ignored as need dictated.
Hubert smiled on him. He doted on his grandson as well as Guillaume and Marie's second child, a daughter, born the previous summer. It would have been nice for them to have a cousin.
"I have to go meet with the silversmith," Hubert repeated. "I'll be back at first light to see Catherine. Ask Solomon to stay with Edgar for the night. He'll need a friend."
It was past dark when Hubert arrived at the house of Baruch, which was in the town of Saint-Denis, which surrounded the great abbey. He was admitted at once.
"Shalom," Baruch greeted him. "You look terrible. Is anything wrong?"
Hubert told him.
"Thank the Almighty One your daughter survived," Baruch consoled.
"I do," Hubert said. "Now, what is this Solomon was telling me about a parcel of pearls and gold chain?"
"Prior Hervé summoned me to the abbey today," Baruch explained. "It seems that Natan ben Judah has been to see him, offering this parcel at a suspiciously low price."
"What was his story?" Hubert asked.
"Natan told the prior that he had taken the gems as pledge from a nobleman in England who has since lost his lands in the war there and can't redeem them."
"What does Prior Hervé say to that?" Hubert grinned.
"The prior is no fool," Baruch said. "He says the pearls have the look of having been pried loose from something. There are scratches on them, bits of glue. And he suspects the chain may have been part of a censer."
Hubert nodded. "The anarchy in England has allowed many people to acquire church property, some from looting in the course of battle. But I can't imagine Natan entering a church for any reason, even theft. His story could be true. How the nobleman came by the parcel is not his concern."
"I agree," Baruch said. "But if Natan knew the property was stolen from a church, would he have refused to take it, as you and I would? This dealing in their holy objects is bad for all of us. Oh, forgive me, do you want some ale?"
"Yes." Hubert answered the second question first. He took a long draught and set the cup down with a clink. "I don't trust Natan," he said. "He's been known to buy horses and sheep from men who clearly couldn't have been the true owners. But up to now, he's only been an animal trader. This is the first I've heard of his dealing in gems. I wouldn't have thought he knew anything about them. What price did he ask of the prior?"
"Two marks," Baruch answered. "That's what roused Hervé's suspicions."
Hubert smiled. "It's a good thing he went to Hervé and not to Abbot Suger. The prior may not be a scholar, but he's a sharp trader. He knows the tricks. Suger would simply have thought it was another example of good fortune attending his building program."
"Good or bad, who knows?" Baruch said. "I don't like it when the Edomites can point a finger at us, even at one like Natan."
"It's true, he could cause trouble for us all," Hubert said. "Perhaps if the matter is taken up with the entire community of Paris we can exert enough pressure to convince Natan to change his ways. I'll ask my brother."
"Perhaps." Baruch sounded doubtful. "He doesn't seem to care much for the opinion of the community. But for now, what am I to tell Prior Hervé?"
"Don't worry, my friend," Hubert sighed. "I'll speak with him. He has so many other concerns that he should be happy to leave this one to us."
Baruch smiled sadly at his old friend. "You have enough worries of your own, Hubert. This life is too hard on you. Why don't you simply give up the pretense and rejoin us? You can go to my cousin in Arles and start again."
Hubert shook his head as he rose. "It's a kind offer," he said. "But it's too late. I'm not truly a Jew anymore, even if I only move through the rituals of being a Christian. I have responsibilities and people I love. I can't abandon them now. Catherine says that her Master Abelard teaches that it is our intentions that are judged, more than our acts. My only hope is that the Almighty One knows that I'm doing the best I can with what He has given me."
"How could He not?" Baruch asked. "Now, where are you going? Not to bed so soon? Don't you want to sit up a while, have some cheese, play a friendly game of tric-trac?"
"Thank you, no," Hubert said, as he continued on his way to the stairs. "It's been too long a day. I can't bear hearing my child crying out like that and not be able to ease her pain."
"I know," Baruch said. "There's nothing worse. Here, take another cup with you. You may wake up in the night and need it. Sleep well. May your dreams be empty of omens."
Excerpted from The Wandering Arm by Sharan Newman. Copyright © 1995 Sharan Newman. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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