Having seen his brother and sister in faith perish, their mangled bodies made spectacle for a bloodthirsty crowd, Gerard had little doubt about where his own path would lead him, sooner or later. He prayed and prepared to follow in their step into martyrdom, hoping however, that his demise would serve the cause. Yet with Wade’s hand grasping his neck, sealing his impending end, he would be lying if he said he felt prepared. He did not want to die… However, he was a practical man, he knew he did not matter.
With a sickening clatter the chains secured him, stretching him out vulnerable to his tormentors. The quiet business-like voices of the torturers apprised him. Wade touched him proprietarily; opening his shirt, prodding his ribs and stomach while consulting with other guards how much and for how long this pathetic body would hold. He inquired on what torture would provide the most effect without immediately killing him. Gerard drowned out the gruesome details with the comfort of sacred Latin. After all he had been through, words of prayer still maintained their sway over him.
Gerard had no doubt in God and in the faith of his father. Since childhood, God filled his life with a sense of dispersed shapeless love that felt like his mother’s silk skirts, smelled of lavender and incense, and echoed in the mysterious prayers that his father taught him. When he was five, his father disappeared, and when he returned, he was a changed man, limping, weak and melancholic. This new father placed Gerard onto a cleric’s path. Gerard felt gratified to be entrusted with his father’s God. In his innocence he found joy, pouring over the pages of the manuscripts in the college and Jesuit libraries; the fantastic bright colors, flowers, people, angels revealing to him the realms filled with His Grace. Later, he attended a seminary in Rome and the Vatican, surrounded by the splendor of Divine Light in countless churches, cathedrals and chapels filled with luminous paintings and frescoes, echoing with solemn hymns that rose through the high ceilings.
Gerard never doubted God, however, he grew to doubt the men who served Him. His father wrote to him regularly, confiding in his son the perils that befell the Catholics in England. How could he avert his gaze when his family and many more were singled out and persecuted with growing severity for any meager transgression! The decision came easy to him, having finished his studies and receiving the sacrament, he traded the comforts of Catholic countries and came back to fight for the true God on his native soil. He was detained, investigated, and had to learn to hide and fire a musket. Initially, his high status and relatives sheltered him from the worst of it. Yet when the king retracted his policy of leniency towards Catholics and the real terror began, The Lord revealed to him the hypocrisy of those who spoke at length without taking action. The weakness of Father Garnet, in Gerard’s eyes, appeared no less than an insult to the God whose Love the man evoked whenever it suited him. God could be both merciful and punishing, and as is He, in times of crisis, those who serve God were obliged to rise up in arms. Was it not His will that Gerard finally met these fearless people, who now led him alongside England to salvation?
Gerard breathed into his intent. The words of the prayer, the lull of the chant allowed him to fall back into familiar trance. He would meet his Lord in a few hours, and he had to go with honor. He prayed to the merciful mother of God to watch over his mind and to stave off delirium, lest he reveals the names or plans of his companions. He was a practical man; he prayed for an accidental death. His body was weak, it would not hold if the torturers slipped up. His cause would be safe then. The verses he chanted under his breath started to merge into screams when his tormentors began, yet they did not become words of betrayal.
Spanish water torture did not leave marks on his body, but it tore his chest from the inside – he was drowning. Black and red burst behind his eyelids, bile rose up to his throat, burning the esophagus, yet they were careful not to let him die just yet. Wade perfected his art, reading the man’s body effortlessly.
Tears streamed down his face as the stench of his own seared flesh choked his throat. How much time had passed? Was it hours or days? Maybe years… maybe he had lived for years, wrought with pain, and did not notice? At some point, his body stopped differentiating the pain levels and agony became a constant. When the chains were pulled and his joints were popping out, one after another, wrists, shoulders…. he simply wailed the prayers, like a windup musical automaton, his mouth moving around syllables that his lungs pushed out in a continuous scream. Then his vocal chords gave out…
He was being asked something. Wade held his face almost gently – the pervasive smell of his bad teeth made Gerard dry heave. He refused again and again to respond to the questions. By now, his torturers could easily pray in Latin if they so desired, but he was losing his coherency. The small short delirious gasps that the priest’s breath had become, came out of his mouth with a string of saliva; they were not enough to form words even if he wanted to. Blood rushed down, his head emptied, filled only with the rapid heartbeat that rose from his throat. Gerard’s world swam in the white light; his suffering was coming to an end… Praised be the Lord in His Mercy...
Pain brought him back when his shoulder collided with the cell floor. His consciousness seemed dislocated, existing in a different timeline, and his body did not feel real. The pain lit up every mangled joint of his shoulders and wrists, burst in the stretched and bruised legs and hips, in the torn fingernails, and enveloped his lashed back. Suffering was becoming reassuring, all encompassing, almost elating. It didn’t register as foreign to his body anymore, and he surrendered to it. His mind was drifting; the chill of the cell, the fire of his fever all mixed into the final white light behind his eyelids. He still tried to pray, and found calm in thinking the rack surely would push his heart over the edge. If it would stop there, he would stop being a threat in his half-conscious state. His eyes were becoming unfocussed, the walls letting his gaze slip through as he prayed for death.
Through the fog he saw two jailers coming towards his cell. The next thing that happened he attributed to his fevered mind. He blinked once, and suddenly, strong hands were lifting him up; the warm body pressed into his for support, as Catesby’s familiar voice, so close it almost sounded in his head, confusing him for a moment, was asking if he could walk. He couldn’t if he was honest with himself, but he had to.
The will to fight woke his broken body, rage and gratitude lifted him off the dirty cell floor, and pushed him out. Gerard was taller, but so thin it posed no problem for Robin to practically lift him to his feet, manipulating him like a pliant string-less marionette. It was a strange luck that his torture was so recent; every joint was secured within the cushion of the inflammation. His useless dislocated shoulders and arms were draped around Catesby, Gerard felt how the muscles on his friend’s back and side shifted and strained under his weight, as he bodily pulled and supported him, while the priest’s legs shuffled and skidded, yet by miracle moved on.
Sloshing through shit, his mind was going blank from the fumes, but the almost hysterical fire of God’s love burned him from the inside. He focused on the stocky figure that led him, pulled him, pushed him, and supported his every step; not letting go, whispering into his ear a prayer just for him. Catesby called his name, not Father Gerard, but John, John, like no one had called him since the seminary. The warmth of his name was pulling the priest out of the stupor again and again. Gerard sloshed through the dirt with tears streaming down his cheeks, blinding him. Catesby led the way, powerful and luminous.
Gerard finally passed out in the boat. The ordeal was behind him, or postponed. For now, he was safe, his face pressed into the shit smeared shoulder of his savior.
His mind spirited him away from the suffering his body could not bear anymore. Childhood dreams returned, colorful and so real. He dreamt of laying on the warm carpet of needles and dry grass of a forest clearing. He smelled the pines in the warm air, and felt the faint breeze and the soothing touch of an angel’s hands on his hair. He remembered this place from his early childhood, when his father was still with him. Wild blueberries in a wicker basket lay next to him. Nothing had changed the strong feeling of love. He stood up and walked on, towards someone’s voice, towards light and warmth.
A voice was calling his name…
The awkward body was laid out naked in front of Robin. The elderly medic Brother Glynn was fussing over the countless injuries that marked the pale skin, the hairless chest, the concaved abdomen, the blue-black shoulders, arms, and mangled wrists. He knew there were lash lines on the long narrow back that was currently bleeding onto the linen. The lower body was not as affected, apart from angry bloody circles on the ankles from the manacles. After their trip through the sewer, the inflammation was a great concern. The medic soaked strips of cloth into his potions, murmuring, wrapping, dabbing. His low voice calmed Robin’s anger at Wade and his clique, turning it onto himself and his doubt in the man.
Catesby helped wash the wounds, glad that Gerard was unconscious when they were soaking off the shirt off his back, or peeling it off the burns on his chest. It took countless rags and vats of hot water to wash off the shit, the dirt, the blood, and every layer of gunk and clothes revealed more and more details of the priest’s time in The Tower.
For the first time Catesby managed to tear out someone from the executioner’s hands. But as he thought back on the reason, guilt ate at him… He let Lady Dibdale be squashed like a bug, he saw the angel-like child-priest be butchered like a pig; was it because they were not a threat to the plot. But now, with the fate of England on his shoulders, they went after the priest. Catesby could not allow this thin, fragile looking man to break under the torture, and doom England, God, his pride... When the jailer replied to him the blood-curdling “nothing”, the wash of the relief was rapidly replaced with shame, as sharp as a slap in the face. He had to do it. God gave him time to make sure that Gerard was either safe or safely dead before the tortures would get serious.
But Wade was serious, and yet the priest did not break… With his arms akimbo and this gaunt bruised body, Gerard looked like a crucified Christ. Robin felt his knees buckle, and he sat heavily on the bed. A nervous laughter was rising in his chest. There was relief, underscored with disgust at himself, and beneath it all Faith that God was on their side, giving them this man and many martyrs who came before as a beacon. He touched the ankle over the shackle mark, sliding the hand up, feeling how thin and bony it was, almost delicate.
A chill ran down his spine with recollection of Gerard’s feverish whisper in the boat, the priest’s face tucked into Robin’s neck, lips ghosting over his skin: “Praised be our Lord, Jesus Christ… Robin…”
He bent onto himself, almost touching the bony knee with his forehead, clutching at his chest, and shaking. Guilt, shame and doubt in himself and his judgement engulfed him.
— Sir, you need to rest, sir! You look like you are about to faint, — the doctor was at his side, shrouding him in the scent of herbs and honey, — Please, wash up and rest, you have done enough, I will stay the night…
— Thank you…
— He is an inspiration to us all, sir… and so are you, — the warm round hand patted his back.
Catesby tried to get up, to only sit back down almost toppling over the naked body and causing more damage. The doctor steadied him and called Thomas to help him get back to his room.
— Who would have thought, — his cousin glanced at Gerard’s prostrate form. The medic went back to trying to fit the wrists into their sockets. — Tough little man…
— He is not little… — Robin whispered.
— Aye, you are littler, — his cousin chuckled, slapping his head, which reached just a little bit over Thomas’s shoulder. — God was on our side today. Let’s celebrate! Also, you stink, cousin.
Having washed up, Catesby tried to join the men. Indeed, they had to count their blessings in such times. He raised his glass, feigning mirth. But neither food nor drink seem to settle well with Catesby and his companions’ high praise of his valiant rescue of the priest didn’t sit well with him either. The image of the prone body seared in his mind. The half-dead form in the next room that spelled out so much suffering did not feel like a success. It was so different from Gerard in his cell, the one covered in layers of clothes and dirt, yet responding to Catesby with this strange light in his eyes.
Thomas praised Gerard with his toasts, again and again, and the men were repeating the same sentiment. No one expected the “little priest” to hold out. Someone commented that Gerard looked like a little Jew rather than a Catholic priest, and would not look good as an etching of a martyr on the pamphlets that are sure to be printed. Everyone laughed.
Catesby stood up, and walked out.
Night brought fever.
Gerard thrashed, sweating, rasping through the damaged throat. Brother Glynn’s attempts to hold him down only did more damage. In his dream, he was trying to run from the pain, but it chased him relentlessly, and spurred him on. Fever robbed him of reason; he was unable to break away from the engulfing stifling nightmare, even though his eyes were open, staring blindly in front of himself.
Catesby woke up to the commotion of servants shuffling up and down the corridor, carrying water and utensils. He walked into a hellish scene, choking on the heavy hot air rancid with bodily fluids and sickness. For a moment the sight threw him back to another room, where a broken frail body lay still on sullied sheets, baby’s cries resonating beneath high ceiling.
— He is hurting himself, — the medic’s voice rose high in desperation as Catesby froze on the threshold. However, the servant in the corner wouldn’t budge, and only made the sign of cross over his chest. To the ignorant man the priest looked possessed.
Gerard lost the gravitas of a crucified Christ. The cracked lips parted, and a string of exhausted bile went over the bed’s edge, most of it ending up on the bunched up covers. The man who was always so composed in his quiet dignity, who covered his thin body neck to toe in black robes should not have been the contorted naked body on the blood, sweat, and probably piss-soaked linens. The elderly medic did not have bodily strength to hold the priest down, only succeeding in smothering Gerard’s horrified face into the covers. It must have gone on for some time, as the Brother looked exhausted and lost. The servant slipped out of the room.
— Please, sir, can you help me, hold him up? I need to re-bandage his back and secure his shoulders…
Robin stepped out of his boots and sat down on the bed, sliding next to the man, who curled now onto himself in a fetal position that elevated his crisscrossed back, but rested heavily on the damaged shoulder. Bony legs were moving restlessly, like a dreaming dog’s – in his nightmare he was running away. Catesby aligned himself clumsily, back to the headboard and tried to sneak his hands around the priest. With desperation and anger in wide unseeing eyes, the priest shrunk away from his touch. He held on, lifted Gerard up gently, circling his arms around the narrow ribcage, trying to save the damaged shoulders. Unable to put any strength in his useless hands and fight, Gerard was twitching, bodily trying to escape. Robin settled the convulsing body into a careful hug, allowing the priest to lie on top of him, face tucked into the crook of his neck. He pulled him up more, guiding the long naked legs to fold securely on both sides of his thighs, revealing the back. The doctor looked at them uncomfortably.
— Don’t touch him yet, — Robin whispered to the medic.
— Robin… — a faint rasp under his ear.
— John, don’t leave us, John… — Catesby ran his hands along the sides, feeling ribs expanding and contracting rapidly and the desperate thud of the other man’s heart. His palms were soothing the twitching long body like the hurt animal that Gerard had become. His mind regressed to fear and pain that he tried to stave off in front of his torturers. It was let out now, as the fever crumbled all walls in his mind and smashed reservations.
— Yes, yes, it’s me, you are safe!
— Pray for me…
Catesby turned into the man’s temple, lips to his ear, and began a long quiet prayer, rocking side to side. The body in his arms shook, teeth chattering. He went on and on, one prayer after another, then anew. Doctor froze, afraid to aggravate Gerard any further. The lull of Catesby’s voice, however, was doing the trick, and the thrashing subsided. Now sobs rocked Gerard in painful waves, but he stopped struggling. Edging closer, the doctor got to cleaning the back with careful round hands, covering the wounds in honey. The convulsions were merging slowly into pained whimpers and moans, saliva and tears pooled in the crook of Catesby’s neck trickling down his chest. He did not notice. The doctor was almost done now and Gerard seemed to be losing the strength to hold up the emotional high. The rasping breaths became longer, deeper… sometimes Robin heard his name, sometimes names of saints or Jesus. Robin carefully lifted the prone torso, supporting the lolling head, allowing the medic to tighten the bandages around the damaged flesh. Then white stripes secured purple shoulders and bloodied wrists.
The doctor let out a long breath and finally spoke in a hushed voice:
— He is so lucky; no bones were actually broken. If the back heals well, the joints are just a question of time. The fever seems to be going down; maybe it came from his mind. Holding the pain inside may do more damage than a whip.
Robin let Gerard’s body settle into him again, now drifting into sleep. The man was hot and heavy, draped over him in an intimate embrace that the priest would do good not to remember.
The medic sat down next to the two men, resting his eyes on the strange sight. It would have looked obscene, but stone faced Lord Catesby appeared to negate any implication. Were they close before? Why did the priest calm down like that? Must be the prayers, Lord heard them… Quiet settled over them, exhaustion gripping the old physician’s limbs; he looked away, rubbing at his eyes.
— I would not dare to ask, but could you stay like this a moment longer? Let me think of how to lay him out better, — he was shrinking by the moment from a commanding doctor into a small old man.
— His chest is less damaged? — Catesby’s voice sounded as tired as Brother Glynn’s.
— Yes… we need to change the sheets too, — the medic rubbed the damp dirty cloth between his fingers in tired disgust and stood up to call the servants.
— Give him a moment, I am afraid to wake him up. — his mental strain left, and Robin felt empty
— Yes… yes, — the doctor nodded. It wouldn’t do to be seen like this.
For several long minutes they just sat, unable to move, sharing a moment of quiet understanding. The safety they felt after such a long battle was but ephemeral; a wounded man could become a liability if they were attacked again. Yet at this moment, it felt like a blessing, the life in his arms. Catesby’s right palm was still moving up and down along the priest’s ribcage, left was supporting the head on his shoulder. Gerard’s slow breath rasped quietly, moving the hair behind Robin’s ear.
Catesby carefully maneuvered their bodies, until he could lift the man up, wrapping a cleaner sheet around him to preserve the delayed modesty. He sat gingerly onto a chair, holding the taller body like an oversized child, while servants changed the linen, throwing sidelong glances at their lord with his burden. Catesby stared them back with heavy dark eyes, to the uneducated religious folk he must have looked like a sorcerer or saint. The tall tales of him exorcising the priest will doubtlessly spread come morning.
— He lost a lot of fluids sweating, but he may need to urinate at some point. The bowels are empty at least… — the doctor shook his grey round head.
— I will stay the night, — not a twitch on the lord’s stoic face. — I have been to war, there is nothing a human body can do that would surprise or upset me.
— That is a good outlook on life, my lord, — a tired smile. — If you do not mind, I will rest in the next room for an hour.
Lastly, they settled the prone body with his back upwards, arranging a nest of pillows to keep the airflow open and elevate the strain from the shoulders. Catesby insisted on putting Gerard’s drawers on, the doctor shrugged and agreed. Robin pulled the sheet up around the priest, and sat down on the bed. Gerard’s face was turned to the side, mouth parted just a fraction. Catesby touched the forehead, covered in beads of sweat, as a low-grade fever was cleansing the body of residue infection, but he breathed slowly, deeply.
— You are a fighter, Father, — he traced high cheekbone with his fingers, brushing the mussed damp hair off the pale face. There were a few gray strands on the temple he didn’t notice before. There were a lot of things he did not notice about this man before.
An uncomfortable thought wormed its way into Robin’s head. Losing him to fever now would not have hurt their cause, perhaps make Gerard’s martyrdom even more poignant, but Catesby felt queasy imagining it. His faith led too many to their gruesome deaths, and he hadn’t noticed when, but somewhere along the line he stopped believing that they would survive the plot. Moving on the momentum of anger and pride, deaths became an almost welcome fuel for his hatred and righteousness.
It was when Gerard’s body began to quiet down in his arms, that Robin felt that life mattered for the first time, that having someone live mattered. It felt like hope, and the closest he ever felt to God. It must have been a sign. He needed this man alive, if only to believe that it was possible to survive the insanity of the world around them, that Gerard’s Faith could give hope.
Throwing a few pillows to the floor, he settled and rested his head on the side of the bed, listening to the rasping breath that measured time in pre-dawn silence.