There were hardly any servants in Catesby’s London mansion, as secrecy necessitated. The Lord’s valet took on most domestic duties. The cook and maid hardly came out of the kitchen, if only for cleaning, leaving Lord Wintour’s valet to rest. After a week, the small round monk became almost invisible to the inhabitants and guests of Lord Catesby. When their voices hushed as he entered the room, Brother Glynn understood. Lord Wintour, who brought him in to tend to the priest, explained bluntly that the less the friar knew the safer he would be if he was ever tortured. It was enough that these men stood up against Lord Cecil, even if, he suspected, their methods were not explicitly in the spirit of God’s Love. Brother Glynn escaped this moral dilemma by focusing on his moody patient.
The house was alive despite the lateness of the hour. The maid’s light footsteps told the cleric that the fires in the rooms were being lit. By the sound of several doors opening and closing, he dared to guess that Lord Wintour will be staying tonight, maybe also Mr. Johnson...
He heard a giggle as the maid ran into one of the valets on his habitual route, checking the windows. The muffled ebb and flow of animated discussion filtered from downstairs. Lord Catesby frequently had these “guests” who discussed, debated, celebrated or mourned. Lord Wintour stayed most nights, while grim Mr. Johnson came and went.
As the night approached, the old man was beginning to doze off. Lulled by the peaceful sounds of the house, he struggled to keep his eyes open. The calm contrasted with the presence of the heavily injured priest next to him. Gerard’s blackout was a result of his fatigue. He regained his senses quickly, and fell back asleep almost immediately. The medic still monitored him at Catesby’s request, but there was no sign of trouble.
Brother Glynn was a patient man, but his patience was tried in the last week more times than he cared to remember. He was not angry. He was, however, worried. The young priest was in such a hurry to feel better.
The friar’s eyes scanned the sleeping man in front of him. There was color in his sunken cheeks now, his chest rose and fell with slow deep breaths. Gerard was indeed recovering, surprisingly well for someone of his constitution and all his attempts to run before he could walk. But not all wounds scab over so easily.
It was clear as day – Gerard flinched away from any touch. By now, he was sure, it was not the collateral pain from doctor’s ministrations; the discomfort came from the damaged spirit taking precedence over the man’s mind. The friar did not have a remedy for that. Only time, safety, and kindness had any effect on this affliction. From what he knew, all three conditions were hardly to be met any time soon.
Gerard woke up during the night to the dog’s desperate barking behind the window. He heard a curse, a shuffle and a whine from the animal. The small commotion drew his attention. He was getting stronger, and long naps resulted in lighter sleep. Brother Glynn, dozing off on an improvised cot made of two chairs and a plank, blinked at the sound of him moving in his bed.
In the low orange light of the hearth, the friar saw the thin figure trying to sit up. Gerard was getting better at it. He lowered his legs, turned onto his left shoulder, and gradually pulled his body up sideways.
— This is so slow… — the man breathed out by way of greeting.
The fuss outside had subsided. Brother Glynn could not suppress a chuckle.
— If you are bored, you are definitely recovering, — he watched Gerard just sit quietly, looking down at his bare feet. The priest appeared to consider and reconsider his options. — Do not try to stand up on your own, Father!
Gerard’s tired face looked up at the monk with a sad smile. He pulled up his left hand, but the right one only dragged along the sheets at an odd angle when he moved his whole body.
— I should not be that ambitious yet, it seems, — he settled more comfortably. — You are a very good doctor. The pain is getting manageable.
— It is the willow bark tincture. Lord Catesby also got us some turmeric. It helps with fever and pain. You should try to have some more now. And let me bring you something to eat before you do, — Brother Glynn picked through his bottles and jars which were lined up on the table in a neat row.
— Your remedies are very innovative, — Brother Glynn’s hands stopped for a moment, then continued their ministrations in silence. The man was carefully weighing his response. Finally, he looked up from his task.
— They are not new. My father was… schooled in the old ways, — he appeared calm, but out of the corner of his eye he watched Gerard’s brows rise.
— He was accused of witchcraft. The abbot of our monastery took him in.
— Harbored a sorcerer…?
Gerard’s face wavered between apprehension and curiosity.
— Our abbot said, my father conversed with angels, — the priest’s eyes widened taking in the unusual thought, but no objection passed his lips, so the monk continued, — I am not sure if my father thought so as well.
— …but he lived to serve the ones in need. We found our sanctuary in the monastery and he continued his work at the infirmary until his last days.
— Are you… — an obvious question hung unspoken in the air. There was even a sense of trepidation in the young man’s face.
— Father said, my path is with Jesus, — the friar’s face mellowed. — The spirits never called out to me.
A shiver run down Gerard’s spine at the unfamiliar phrasing, the twitch did not escape the monk’s attention.
It was not the first time Gerard met people who followed a path different from him, yet appeared to move in the same direction. In over a decade of travels for Vatican, he learned to rely on the kindness nondiscriminatory of its source, seeing in it the mercy of his Lord. It also taught him to focus on what people did, not in whose name they did it. It did not take him long to see through Father Garnet’s convenient rhetoric, and drove him to join Lord Catesby’s cause.
— Your father accepted the faith that threatened him… — Gerard’s voice was low and pained.
— The Lord did good by us, Father, — the priest smiled, then his face fell. — The king’s men raided the monastery a few years ago… — he trailed off.
Gerard leaned into the headboard. His convalescence was almost a respite from the ever-present suffering. Yet, it was never too far away.
Catesby’s face appeared within his mind’s eye, handsome and lost. Gerard believed in the words he spoke today, believed in being in the right place. However, even if he believed his own words, he wished there was no need to second-guess every step they were taking. He wished he could take some of the weight of the man shoulders.
Brother Glynn studies the priest in silence, apprehensive of the young man’s reaction. The brows were tense, but there was no fear or disgust.
The friar slipped out of the room to get the medicine and food, leaving his patient to digest the facts. As he returned, he helped Gerard to sit up again, feeling a tired, reflexive twitch under his palms. The transparent eyes, however, held no fear or judgment.
— My head itches, and I cannot do anything about it, it is excruciating! — the air was clearing.
— I will prepare some hot water and a basin so you could wash up properly tomorrow.
— That would be wonderful, — the priest responded with a genuine smile, and another nervous tick. Sipping soup and medicine was a familiar struggle, every swallow a calculated exercise.
— Please, could you not, — he rolled his shoulders and the friar’s hand obediently fell away.
— I don’t know how to stop this, — Gerard fisted his left hand in the thin fabric of his drawers, with apologetic mortified face. — I try, but to no avail!
— It will get better with time, — the friar sighed.
— Lord Catesby … what happened that night? What did he do?
— I noticed, his touch hardly disturbs you.
— This is so… confusing… — and then a terrified, — He should not know!
Objection hung off the friar’s lips, but he swallowed it, wary of the reaction.
— What happened to me that night? — the priest’s eyes were black, reflecting the orange of the embers, shadows hollowed out the already thin face. He looked skeletal, otherworldly, like the strange paintings by the Greek artist he glimpsed in Spain on one of his pilgrimages (*).
— Fever overtook your mind, Father. You were hurting yourself, trying to run away from your visions. And I could not hold you down, — Brother Glynn distracted Gerard with the words as he tried to make him drink the tea. Half of it ended on the floor anyway. Without missing a beat, the friar added more into the cup. — Lord Catesby heard the commotion and came to help. He helped me hold you.
— Hold me down?
— No… You asked him and he prayed for you… He also held you, — the friar weighted his next words carefully. — He held you… like one would a child, — the monk made a movement rocking an imaginary baby in his arms, and forced himself to meet Gerard’s blue eyes.
Even in the low light he could see desperate embarrassment flood the young man’s face with color. Apparently, it was a good idea to omit any further details.
— His voice and prayers calmed you down, — the old cleric shrugged, spreading his arms in defeat. — I don’t know why, but he could get through to you. Maybe with his help, you can gradually overcome this…
— If only I could remember… — Gerard’s eyes fixed on the crucifix over the bed.
— I don’t think it is any good to recall. You were in so much pain.
— But it feels like it holds the key to this… this affliction!
— Maybe if he prayed with you, it could help, — the monk smiled sadly, helpless to alleviate his charge’s distress. — Our Lord heard him that night. He brought you back, without fever, without lasting injury… it was truly a miracle!
Gerard looked down at his useless hands.
— He called my name…
— What? Oh… yes, I think he did?
A shiver ran down Gerard’s spine. The sensational memory of a caress through agony of his wounds caught him off guard.
— If only I could remember, God…! — Gerard almost cursed, catching a swear at the tip of his tongue with a guilty grimace. — Oh… — he lowered his eyes, hands twitched in his lap as he instinctively tried to lift them to cover his face.
The friar’s hand on his back startled him into another sharp jolt that echoed with familiar pain throughout his tired, sore frame. He looked up into the old man’s kind face. It held concern and understanding.
— It will not be easy, but it will become better. I am not sure if Lord Catesby is the conduit to your recovery, but you should try everything, Father.
Gerard could not find it in himself to reply or make a decision at this point. Brother Glynn was neither pressuring nor even asking. He only gave another soft smile then got himself busy with helping the priest to retire for the night.
Guido followed Thomas with his eyes. He hadn’t seen the familiar face in sunlight since their return from Spain. How haggard the man looked now… There were deep shadows under light eyes. The skin had paled and lost the healthy sheen that the Spanish sun gave him. During their journey, Guido got used to reading his companion. While neither really were eager to share their past, by force of necessity in the present, Guido and Thomas were very well acquainted with each other’s habits and moods. This knowledge assured survival, it also seemed to dilute the loneliness that dogged their every step.
Thomas would take a short trek to the window, squint at the pale sunlight, then lower his gaze to the floor and his feet, as he walked back to the table. Repeat. Every other time, Wintour would take a sip of the wine or carry the pewter cup with him.
Catesby left before sunrise, with a plan to rent the cellars under the parliament building and confirm shipments of gunpowder. Routine. No difficulties were expected, so it was not that which bothered him. But it seemed personal, so Guido was reluctant to ask. Then again, Thomas made his mood so obvious, almost coaxing the inquiry out of him. The silence between them was becoming uncomfortable.
— What is going on? — Guido gave up, breaking the pace of the pantomime with a deadpan question. The mood swing was jarring. Just the other day, coming back from the estate, Wintour was exhilarated with the new recruitment and acquisition of horses. Another step of the plan accomplished smoothly. Yet a day later, he was wearing out the soles of his boots in front of Guido.
Thomas seemed not to hear him.
— Hey, Wintour, is there something I need to know?
— No, — the man finally looked at him. — No, it is personal.
— Really? You have personal?... — he lifted a brow at that. After Spain, Guido would have known, if there was “personal” in his companion’s life. Thomas was hell bent on changing the world. He would die trying. Guido tilted his head, emphasizing the silent point he was making.
— It is not mine, and it is personal, so it is both none of your business and it is none of my business to talk about it.
— Mystery solved, — Fawkes nodded with a smile.
— Could not really imagine you with a “personal” …
— I see, — Thomas refused to take a bait, — at least Robin will not get soaked again…
— …, — apparently Wintour was not keen on elaborating.
— You trust him, why are you worried?
— Yes! — finally Guido got his attention. — I trust him with my life, my country, and my God! —the non-answer was too hasty for Guido’s taste. So personal was troubling Thomas and it was Catesby’s personal.
— That is a heavy burden, — dark eyes met light grey in a long appraising gaze. Thomas looked away first, realizing that his friend was reading him. Somewhere along the line, Guido became what Robin should have been to him: an attentive friend.
Years ago, on a Spanish battlefield of a meaningless long war, God guided him out of the massacre and gave him strength to crawl out of the haphazardly heaped bodies of his compatriots and enemies. He woke up in a small monastery, was given shelter, help, and council, despite his uniform and language. There he discovered a new purpose. There was a bloody war in his own country against people who served the God that saved him. Guided to this revelation, he converted to Catholicism and came back to fight the righteous battle.
Sharing forbidden faith made him closer to his cousin. He observed how the plan formed in Catesby’s head during all their long discussions; first tentative then more and more daring and concrete. He believed in it because he saw the hand of God, leading him to the true and only cause.
He needed Guido to see that there was no doubt in him.
— I trust him, — he looked into the dark eyes of his friend. — What is troubling me, has nothing to do with the plan, — for now a small almost-not-a-lie had to suffice.
— I trust you, my friend, — Guido nodded. He saluted with a cup, dropping the subject. — How is the priest?
— He seems much better, — Thomas jumped at the leeway. — I saw him yesterday. Still weak, but recovering very fast.
— He has to be transported somewhere else soon, — Fawkes looked at his hands. Staying in London, the priest was a danger to them and himself.
— He cannot yet take care of himself… — he was repeating Catesby’s words. — Maybe in a fortnight?
— The sooner the better for all of us, including the padre. The latest dates for Parliament are in early November.
Thomas stopped his pacing and sat at the table. More wine was poured, but he pushed the cup away. A secret not his own was eating at him, and there was no way of sharing it with Fawkes.
Guido’s large hands fidgeted with his own cup, face set with intent and suspicion. This man’s trust did not come easy, and Wintour was violating it now.
He was afraid to formulate his concern even to himself. Some sins God forgave easier than men.
Anne once said after Catherine died Catesby was not himself. Thomas only knew him that way: driven, angry, and proud. This was the man whom he started to call his friend. They shared conviction. Robin possessed the focus to turn desperation into a complex and precise plan. Each detail of the plan he would attack ferociously with his mind, dismantling it into single steps. He found ways to make each step possible, then found and persuaded people he needed for this utter madness to work.
— Catesby is doing what no one else could do… — Thomas looked at Guido again. — He sacrificed everything for this.
Guido nodded, acknowledging his defeat. The mystery remained a mystery. He accepted Thomas’s conviction as an answer yet again. At least he trusted Wintour where he did not trust Catesby.
Thomas took another trip to the window and stayed there, gaze fixed on nothing.
Robin was never easy.
They were drinking to Thomas’s departure for Europe, saluting in hope for success. Winter night made bearable with a good helping of liquor, they were on their way back to Catesby’s residence. The plan was set in motion. There was hope and apprehension, alcohol heightening both. It was hitting Thomas in stages, perhaps ill-advised on the evening before departure. He was dizzy; steadying himself with a hand on a brick wall, he tried to formulate an answer to Robin’s barrage of ideas and questions.
— Do you think we can save… anyone? — Robin looked up into his face, his breath came out in white puffs, saturated with warm alcohol fumes. The man was pressing him into the uneven bricks, switching from passionate tirade about how no one had ever used gunpowder like this before, to sudden melancholic intent on Thomas.
In the dim frosty light of a December back alley the dark eyes were hungrily seeking in Thomas alleviation of his doubts. Too close. Catesby’s breath tickling his neck, Thomas used his height, looking above the shorter man’s head, to escape the questioning, feverish eyes. He felt the other’s body leaning into him, heavy and warm. A moment later, with a slow blink, Catesby woke up from his haze, and moved away. As his warmth dissipated, Thomas felt the cold potholed wall behind his back. The strangeness of the moment seeped away into its chill.
Thomas locked the door behind himself that night.
The knock never came.
Come morning, the soldier almost managed to persuade himself that alcohol played a trick on him, were it not for Robin’s apologetic, cautious distance. Thomas felt a treacherous twinge of relief as he boarded the ship, headed for Spain, leaving England and Catesby’s ambiguity behind.
Guido’s voice brought him back, — What is happening? — The house was mostly empty, but something heavy was being carried up and down the stairs.
— Brother Glynn wanted to help Father Gerard to wash up. Must be hot water?
Thomas shrugged at Guido’s raised brows.
Caustic soap irritated Gerard’s skin. He’d expected the familiar bite to give him a sense of normalcy. His body, however, thought differently. The necessity to hold himself still twisted the muscles under his pale skin to the point of spasming. Most distressing was the heat that made him lightheaded, made it harder to keep track of Brother Glynn’s ministrations. From time to time, he jerked, forgetting to expect another swipe of the washcloth. Gerard almost stopped breathing, holding head high; he refused to look down at the marks on his body, exposed in their entirety. Palpitating heart and light nausea chipped at his composure. He sat up straighter, squeezing his eyes shut, as Brother Glynn poured hot water over his head and back, washing off the suds into the deep basin. The friar was talking to Gerard amicably, attempting to distract him with words. By the end of it, the priest had no more air to spare for answers. He just nodded, breathing through clenched teeth.
An extra pair of eyes, watching his every move from behind his back did not help either. The servant’s uncouth curiosity pained him more than the occasional crack of wet scabs. The scrutinizing eyes and straining neck loomed in the polished side of the water pitcher, a distorted garish gargoyle. A suffocating fit of anger blindsided him. Weakened with the exercise, he was biting the inside of him cheek to hold himself from an outburst. Sharp words sat in his throat refusing to be swallowed down.
Wintour’s valet was eyeing the scars on his back. As the water softened and disturbed the wounds, some of the deeper ones cracked and bled. Pain, humiliation, and disorienting heat materialized Lord Wade’s face. The memory was so vivid that Gerard drowned in it, unable to shake off what his mind’s eye was forcing onto him.
Wade’s whip would strike him, then the man would walk around to hold his face up, sometimes with humiliating tenderness, sometimes with degrading roughness. He would look into Gerard’s eyes, ask him again and again the same questions, but get the same answer. Gerard prayed for his soul in Latin, while the invisible Cecil’s calm quiet voice translated it for Wade.
His tormentor passed the whip to another executioner while he remained in front of Gerard, eyes locked on the priest. He would nod gently to signal the next strike, watching how the thin body would flinch, inching away from the anticipated blow. Wade would cock his head expectantly, tracing with an empty gaze how his victim’s head was falling backwards, back arching momentarily and then sagging, whole body weight skinning the mangled wrists and twisting shoulders.
Refilling the pitcher, Brother Glynn caught Gerard’s frantic empty gaze a moment before a low sob escaped from his clenched throat. The friar got in his face, locking eyes.
— Father… Gerard! John!!!
— Please… — soul slipped back behind the priest’s eyes.
— Would you like to get out of the water?
— …make him…
— …go away, — barely a whisper. Gerard’s resolve crumbled without warning. Suddenly tears were streaming down his face. He shook violently, curling into himself. Darkness at the edge of his vision filled with colorful dots. He tasted sour as bile burned its way up the esophagus.
Brother Glynn turned to the servant, shifting his doting focus from the patient and noticing the ruthless attention.
— Get out, — his voice was quiet yet definitive. Gerard would have felt mortified at such a patronizing tone, but at this point his pride, for once, was overshadowed by gratitude. He heard the man retreat. — Forgive me… I did not realize, — the cleric turned to him.
Even his tormentors could not humiliate him as much as this simpleton, who looked at the wounds as if they were a spectacle. An execution crowd of one, breathing heavily in perverse excitement, anticipating the trapdoor opening beneath the man’s feet, a dagger cutting into quivering abdomen, a steaming spill of intestines.
Gerard looked down at the suds in the water, gaze falling onto the burn marks. His face contorted, eyes glassy and wet. As the door closed, he had just enough spirit left to slowly bend over the rim of the basin and finally allowed himself to be violently ill until nothing was left inside, and his heart was empty. After purging, pain and a rush of weakness gave him respite from the angry hopeless noise in his head.
Pride… all this pain was from his pride. It was just a sin that he could not overcome. His cruel imagination – his endless penance for his own weakness.
Tears stopped, deep shuddering breaths making him lightheaded. He slipped deeper into the cooling water, raising his knees to his chest and hiding his face.
Brother Glynn silently kneeled next to him. Everything in him wanted to touch the crumbling man, hold the thin body that curled onto itself.
— Let’s get out of the water, Father, — fragile and awkward body with long legs and arms that hung limply along his narrow emaciated frame unfolded, standing up heavily. The friar supported him as much as the man allowed him. Stepping over the high rim of the basin was a struggle, but they managed. Wrapped in a linen sheet, Gerard curled on the bed. His healing left shoulder nearly allowed him to rest on that side. He pulled up his knees, bathwater soaking through the bedsheets.
At loss as to what to do, the old cleric resolved to cleaning. The remaining washing rags were used to wipe up the vomit, the bucket taken out behind the door. The large basin required assistance, but it could wait.
Unsure if it was wise to leave Gerard alone, he looked over the motionless bundle on the bed. The priest’s body was still, only his ribcage rose and fell, breaths growing steadier. Taking his chances, the old cleric walked down the stairs for the calming brew. In the dining room, Lord Wintour and the man he knew as Johnson met him with inquisitive eyes. He must have been quite a spectacle, leaving wet footprints on the floor. One side of his robes, where Gerard leaned into him, was soaked and dripping. He did not comment, only a brief exchange of niceties, and he proceeded to the kitchens.
For a moment, the friar stopped in front of the door. Helplessness flooded him and then ebbed gently, replaced with dedication. At times like this, he felt his father behind his shoulder. He ventured in.
At first glance, the priest looked asleep, yet the strain in the neck and shoulders betrayed his alertness. The friar’s approaching footsteps sent a shiver down the long bumpy line of his spine. The white linens were stained with several blooming red spots.
— I should have died… — the wet sound of a breath drawn through tears accentuated the bitter words.
— Lord makes no mistakes, — the bed creaked as the old friar lowered himself onto it with a small grunt, careful not to touch him, — accept that your journey isn’t over,
— Better people died…
— If we start asking such questions, we would end up judging God… — the cleric put the cup onto the small table. The brew was spreading the sweetly stifling scent of chamomile and valerian. — Your martyrdom inspires, and your salvation gives hope to many of us. The hand of God guides you. Please, accept help that is offered to you. Do not squander the miracle of your deliverance.
A watery glance cast over the shoulder, acknowledged the friar. He continued:
— Lord Catesby risked his life for you, I am sure he is willing to help.
Gerard smiled sadly. But yes, at the end of the day, Catesby saved his life and valued it. The priest attempted to sit up. Gerard struggled to lift his left hand again, to reach for the offered cup. The sheet fell around his shoulders, revealing healing burns and protruding ribs. He succeeded in placing the hand on the bent elbow of the medic. Surprisingly, this contact did not disturb him. He bunched the rough fabric of the friar’s robes in his fingers, gratified by the small success.
— Thank you, — Gerard’s hand fell away.
— You will heal, another week, and you will be able to tend to yourself.
Fatigue dulled even Gerard’s flight response, and the warm liquid slid down his throat with less resistance than usual. He stopped a few times to catch his breath and chase the nausea away.
— Anger is good, — the friar said, — anger is better than fear.
— I’m so weak!
— Your heart will need more time than your body, maybe years. But there is always hope.
— Brother, I…
— I will ask Lord Catesby to visit you for a prayer when he is back.
The cleric sized him up with unrelenting eyes.
— God placed him in your path for a reason, — he nodded with single-minded conviction.
And Gerard wanted to believe… yet…
— Please, rest now, and I think in the evening we can try to walk around the house. Your legs need exercise, and a distraction won’t hurt.
— Yes, — that sounded almost enthusiastic. By now Brother Glynn learned how to manipulate his stubborn charge. He had seen many proud young men. This one was no exception to the rule; headstrong and reluctant to accept help, missing the bigger picture.
— The more obstinate you are, the more time you will require to heal, — the friar pushed his agenda a step further.
Gerard looked at him, color rising in his face. Carefully, yet ruthlessly, his pride was being trampled on. A retort barely bitten down, he felt some of this energy warming his limbs again.
— …, — it took effort to swallow his indignation.
The friar lifted his bushy grey brows unapologetically.
— I see, you agree with me, Father, — almost through the door, his voice mellowed, — You don’t have to be alone.
Gerard nodded reluctantly, more to appease than to agree. The last words resonated in the hollow of his tired heart. Eyes drifting out of focus, he allowed himself to acknowledge how clean his skin felt with a deep sigh.
Catesby nursed a mug of stale beer, looking across the tavern’s dimly lit hall.
Luck followed him these past several days. He planned for a failure, yet so far, everything had worked out almost too well, one step at the time, slowly, yet without fail. The cellars under the parliament were available for rent. He hardly had to push, only use the name of Thomas Percy. The gunpowder was on its way, ordered on a name that would not draw attention. The storage rooms were ready, and even the lacking horses were arranged, through Thomas’s diligence. Lord Percy would assure Lord Northumberland’s assistance, guaranteeing leniency towards Catholics after the success of the revolt. Catesby refused to think in “if’s” anymore, only “when”. “When” gave him strength to face another morning.
Other errands took Catesby out of London and stranded him in this cheap inn for the night. His horse needed rest and so did he.
His idle glance stopped at the corner, where whores stood in a small, conspicuous group. Colorful clothes and low décolletage, not to mention they were the only women in the room. Among them was a handsome boy, apparently not a client. Tall and lanky, he had a head of short light hair that looked red in the dim light of the oil-lanterns.
With a practiced eye, Robin noticed him at once, even before the youth joined the gaggle of women. A force of habit, despite all these years of abstinence. The boy-whore walked lightly, swiping the clients in the hall with hungry, clever eyes. Here on the crossroads, it was easy for men who would consider his company to take their chances. No one was here to judge them. Fatigue and melancholy exhausted Catesby’s usual defenses. He caught himself following the boy with eager eyes.
His fanciful imagination undressed the narrow frame, placed him silhouetted in moonlight, the lanky body would straddle him, the long neck… His head would roll to the side, offering the straining tendons, his pulse on Robin’s lips. Only there would be no pain, no desperation…
Just a daydream – a moment of respite, he told himself. The thin body rocking slowly over his, transparent blue eyes and reddish hair bleached by moonlight. The familiar face, striking, but not beautiful – narrow, angular, with sharp shadows on hollow cheeks, lips parted in abandon, calling Robin’s name.
— John, — the sound of his own whisper jolted Catesby out of his reveries, urging the choking realization. The lull of his fatigue, pried open the doors he closed behind himself when he married.
Were the powers of darkness leading him astray?
He looked at the rent-boy again and closed his eyes in a horrified, desperate prayer. In his youth, he had explored his peculiar desires. With time, he learned to keep them in check. Since he met Catherine such temptations did not bother him anymore. He was cured… And with her death, no one could fill the void inside him. The grief became a safe harbor. The emptiness drove him for over a decade; he focused on it and turned it into the fuel for the conspiracy.
Now Gerard edged his way into the smarting hole in his heart. Gerard, who was so close to God, so… incorruptible, so impossible! The enormity and wrongness of the situation was reaching him in excruciating waves. Surprise washed away with horror, ebbing into crushing shame.
Meanwhile, the boy noticed his interest and started heading his way. He came to Catesby’s table, and bent down. There was some strange perfume on him. Sharp, as if masking another smell.
— My Lord? — unexpectedly warm and intelligent brown eyes were smiling at Robin merry with alcohol.
Lost in his own misery, Catesby bolted up with a clatter, attracting bemused stares. Catching his eye, the boy took a hurried step back. Unfinished dinner forgotten on the table, Catesby’s feet carried him out of the stifling crowded hall. The prostitute did not attempt to follow. At least he could take the hint.
Breathing in earthy smell of the autumn evening, Catesby prayed fervently, asking for forgiveness, asking for a sign. People walking past him to the privy, glanced at him with curiosity or contempt. He failed to notice. Breath clouding in the autumn chill, he looked into the clear night sky, strewn with icy stars, and a low new moon. It felt like someone was listening to him, and he begged and begged for clarity, for absolution.
Rubbing frigid hands, he stepped back into the tavern. Hunger forgotten, Catesby headed straight to his room. Sleep claimed him instantly, despite the turmoil. He dreamt of Gerard – a vivid dream, he could hardly recollect in the morning. But his heart became lighter filled with a lingering sense of the priest’s presence. God was testing him, and his feelings would not taint the bond they have. He would transform desire into Christian love, into gratitude and courage. Perhaps, hope would be a better fuel than despair and loss.
Finding solace in a crude crucifix over his bed; he put his hand over his chest and dared to hope. The premonition of his death no longer scared him. He would lay his life, and claim forgiveness for his sacrifice. His legacy would live on. In Gerard, in the new England, in the return of God to this country.
Nights were colder and days were getting windier. Weather was changing, tearing the leaves off the branches, spurring the steps of the servants, shuttling across the yard. Early morning clouded Catesby’s breath, steam rose from the horse’s sides. The beast was nickering and talking to Robin, muzzling his hand, chewing on his hair and shoulder. Brisk air filled him with energy, he breathed in chilly lung-fulls. Outside of London it was not putrid with pervasive miasma of the lived-in city and the rotting Thames.
The rent-boy from last night sat on the threshold, yawning and stretching. He looked harassed – hair mussed, clothes wrinkled. By the looks of it, he did find someone to keep his bed warm and pockets lined, so the evening wasn’t wasted. He nodded at Catesby in recognition, yet without any interest. In the light of the budding morning he looked nothing like Gerard. Catesby imagined waking up to this face next to him. Objectively, he was more handsome with sharp cheekbones, narrow face that was balanced well, divided by a straight nose, crowned with defined brows, and his brown eyes looked warm, mellowing the chill of the morning.
He nodded back at the boy as he got onto the horse.
Suddenly the boy spoke. His voice had a low, soft timbre that carried to Catesby.
— He is a lucky man… — the prostitute smiled with a shared vice behind his eyes.
Catesby showed no reaction, as he rode out of the gate, heading towards London. He sat just a little bit too straight in the saddle, knees squeezing the horse’s sides, until his hip joints spasmed, and he had to shift his weight, losing the rhythm. But by that time, there was no one to see him.
He forced himself not to hurry back.
Brother Glynn woke up in his charge’s room again. After the morning commotion and overall defeatist attitude that Gerard adopted lately, the friar felt it was a good idea to monitor the man for nightmares. Surprisingly, the priest slept relatively well. He woke up several times, and could not fall asleep for over an hour, but he did not have nightmares. This piqued Brother Glynn’s medical interest. It also gave him hope that, maybe, after all, the priest’s heart was healing.
Gerard spent part of the evening trying to lift his hand. He could lift it at the elbow easily now, although the shoulder still did not support its weight. He could grasp, and hold a cup with the elbow settled on the table.
They took a slow walk along the corridor. The friar did his best to tire the man out, hoping for a calmer night.
Gerard was no longer in danger of remaining disabled. Brother Glynn suspected that returning his mobility would help him overcome his fear of touch by restoring his control over it. Control meant a lot to the young man. He struggled to maintain what, to him, seemed like dignity, and to Bother Glynn, like an absence of common sense. Youth… the cleric thought, youth is prideful. The man had a singlemindedness in him that defined him and fueled his courage.
Autumn day was beginning with a chilly red sunrise. Yet another night the improvised cot served Brother Glynn as bed. His back was complaining. The friar fidgeted, listening to the slow breath of his patient. A thought he worked hard to ignore most days, wormed its way into the forefront of his mind. A chilling thought that he might end up burying all these young men who came and went through Catesby’s house. Staking their lives against Lord Cecil, they were ready for martyrdom. Gerard almost lost his life already. The friar was closing in on seventy, living on borrowed time. He never had to sacrifice a future for anyone or anything; a real tangible future, like one has at thirty.
He prayed for the young priest and Lord Catesby and Wintour. He prayed, repeating familiar words again and again, trying to drown out the impending sense of despair.
That afternoon, with his horse tied in the stable, Catesby knocked on the door of his London lodgings and answered the valet’s greetings with a wide yawn. Sending the man to tend to the tired animal, he strode into the kitchens. Gerard’s bone soup sat on the hot coals, thickened with some vegetables. So the priest was feeling better. Hearing him rummaging, the kitchen maid hurried to gather a meal for him.
Thomas loomed in the doorway until his cousin nodded him in. Sending a piece of bread into his mouth, the man looked Catesby over. Robin yawned again and then offered his report, which was received with agreeable grunts. It was past noon and the heavy autumn sun was starting to lean towards the horizon, but despite the early morning, Catesby’s fatigue was chased out with the excitement of the discussion.
With the second pot of tea, the conversation started to ebb. Robin resolutely refrained from asking about Gerard. Thomas filled him in on Guido’s recent news, finally mentioning in passing, that there was no lasting damage and that the priest did not faint again. His cousin’s pointed squint did not escape Catesby’s notice. He discreetly led the conversation away, until the two of them found themselves sharing an amicable silence. The coals, barely glowing through the thick of white ash in the hearth, crackled quietly.
The peace was interrupted with uneven footsteps on the stairs, followed by Brother Glynn’s alarmed voice and Gerard’s quiet decisive retort. The shuffling resumed, now distinctly descending the creaking steps. With a few ohhs and a couple short quiet prayers uttered in a tone more suitable for an exasperated hearty swear, Brother Glynn appeared in the doorframe with Gerard loosely holding at the friar’s elbow.
The friar acknowledged Catesby with a surprised bow.
— My Lord, you are back already? — he spoke with a smile. For some reason Gerard pulled his hand away, instead leaning onto the doorframe, face complicated. — Are we interrupting you, gentlemen? – the medic continued.
— Please, join, — Thomas moved, to make space while the monk helped Gerard to settle on the side of a bench. — Father, you look stronger.
— Indeed, he is, — the friar nodded in agreement.
Catesby looked the priest over. Gerard sat quietly with a distant look, watching the exchange between the medic and the lords. He looked tired, and the reddish stubble was turning into a beard. It strangely suited his narrow face, making the priest look roguish and dashing. However, there were a few crumbs stuck close to the corner of the resolute mouth.
Brother Glynn broke the awkward silence with a small talk, asking about the lord’s journey. If he was tired, if the inn had clean bedding. The atmosphere was softening, Thomas piped in with a joke or two. The friar bustled around the kitchen, conjuring some heady tea.
Catesby turned to Gerard, supporting the man’s loose grip and holding the cup to his mouth. He felt Thomas’s gaze, but as he turned towards the man, his cousin appeared nonchalantly chatting up the monk.
When Gerard started to lean a bit too heavily on the table, the men fussed that he had to go up soon, or someone would need to carry him. To that the priest bristled, and stood up by himself, deftly stepping around the bench, but wavered, having to support himself on the doorframe. Brother Glynn sighed indignantly. Thomas made a step forward to help, but Robin beat him to it, offering his shoulder.
With a quick glance at the friar, Gerard turned his attention to Catesby, thanking him quietly with a nod. The two men started up the stairs, Brother Glynn closing the procession. Thomas followed them with a lingering gaze. Gerard still limped, but was stronger on his feet and managed to maintain his balance even on the stairs. Catesby mostly just steadied him with a hand on the small of his back.
At the end of the stairs, they stopped to catch a breath. With a grateful nod, Gerard extricated himself from Catesby and proceeded to his door.
The priest stopped and waited for the door to be opened. Catesby obliged, but hesitated, unsure if he was invited. The small friar, motioned him inside, under a surprised lingering look from Gerard, who however, chose not to object.
Catesby settled on the chair, looking at the sullen priest who sat somewhat awkwardly on the unmade bed. The monk busied himself with the fire, and then exited to tend to other errands.
— Thank you, — Catesby looked up at the speaking man.
— What for?
— You are very kind to spare your time on helping me, — the priest twitched his shoulders in an attempt to shrug.
— You are the one who helped me.
Gerard just looked at him. Dismissing an attempt at keeping tabs with a raised brow, the priest changed the subject.
— Did you get the gunpowder?
— Yes, as a matter of fact, everything went smoother than expected, — Catesby’s smile softened and he finally met the blue gaze. — It does feel like the higher power is on our side, — he settled on the chair to only jump up a moment later.
— Is it prudent for me to know?
— It would be an honor to share with you, — hands fluttering through the air, accentuating the words, excitement and anxiety spurring his restless legs, Catesby retold most of what he already told Thomas. The priest listened, nodded. He questioned his decisions and offered commentary. Catesby found himself on the defensive, Gerard had doubts about involving so many people whom he only knew through other members. His own smile caught the priest off guard. The discussion was heating up, he felt the familiar thrill much like during his missions from Vatican. The conversation did not just distract him, with every detail, his respect for Catesby’s ability to formulate the plan and enforce it grew. Strange, how he was only now truly rediscovering this man, whom he called his friend for a while now.
— I heard, Lord Percy met the king… — Catesby nodded at him, leaning lightly on a mantelpiece, catching the warmth of the fading embers on his back. Gerard gave him time to settle then continued, — I wonder what kind of a man would unleash such terror on his own subjects?
— Something happened between them, — Robin shrugged. — From Lord Percy’s words, the king is beyond reason, and frequents the torture chambers.
— He was not there during my… interrogation… Cecil was, — the priest fidgeted, face scrunching into a complicated unhappy frown. — The more I think of it… we should be weary of success.
— We should. Even if we do God’s work.
— Even if, my friend, — Gerard looked up at him with a sad smile, — I am afraid, with them is the Devil.
Catesby rubbed at the smear of ash on the floor with the toe of his boot, eyes growing distant. Gerard failed to catch his gaze.
— I wish, I could help you more. I am useless, like that, — the damaged hand was cradled in his lap. — Does Father Garnet know the details?
— Not all of them… only that the plan exists. It was a confession, he would not divulge...
— He is not going to help you either. It is inconvenient for him to believe in your cause.
— You are very tough on him, — Catesby smiled and came closer on impulse, but stopped half way to the bed.
— Be careful, — the priest let out a sigh. — I don’t want to speak ill of the man. He believes in what he preaches. God’s love… — Gerard’s voice faltered. — But he also believes, you go against his teaching, as do I.
— I almost believed him, that all of it is just my pride… if it wasn’t for you.
— He is too comfortable with the status quo. Too safe… — Gerard looked at the angry bracelets of scabs and yellowed bruises snaking around his wrists. Catesby squatted in front of him, covering the damage with his wide palm.
— I was trying to remember what happened after you rescued me, but even the way out of the Tower mostly escapes my memory, — Gerard looked at Catesby – the man refused to meet his gaze, still looking down at their hands. — Brother Glynn said, I asked you to pray for me, and Our Lord answered – my fever went down
— You would do best forgetting that… — Catesby stood up to return to his chair. — Lord knows, there are things I wish to forget… sometimes, it is a blessing.
— I seem… to… — Gerard struggled. — My body cannot bear anyone’s touch, — he finally managed, biting at the last word decisively.
— But...? – Catesby made a motion with his hand to Gerard’s lap.
— Yes… —a long heavy pause, the priest failing to pick the right words to phrase the core of the delicate matter.
— I see, — Catesby nodded, with a strange twinge in his chest of a very disturbing kind of gratification. He pushed it down, feeling dirty. — Is this why Brother Glynn didn’t shave you?
— He would end up cutting my throat, — Gerard coughed out a brisk laugh, reverting to his usual gallows’ humor.
Catesby felt his hands grow cold and heartbeat fasten.
— I can help.
— It is not essential, — even and distant.
— You have a piece of turnip in your moustache, — a jibe left his lips before he thought better of it.
— Oh, — a familiar shade of pink rose above the copper stubble. A hand jerked, as Gerard attempted to lift it, but only managed half way.
— Let me get a razor, — Catesby stood up.
— As good time as ever, — comical surprise on the priest’s face made him smile despite his own apprehension.
There was no objection, but the priest’s face was set in a familiar frown, locking inside whatever thoughts he chose not to voice. Catesby fled.
Gerard heard his voice in the corridor, calling out to the valet to bring in hot water and soap to the priest’s room. He felt a shiver run down his spine, when a familiar voice responded. In a few minutes the servant from yesterday stepped in with the washing utensils. This time, Gerard’s direct gaze made the man lower his eyes and hasten to retreat with an awkward bow. He sat, waiting for Catesby to return, torn between gratitude and apprehension. Even now, help was being given to him by a kind and considerate friend without him having to ask. Maybe next time? Next time he could voice it…
He let the Lord guide him; what was happening was happening.
Catesby was so close, close enough to smell the horses and moldy autumn leaves. Gerard instinctively moved away from the cold smear of astringent foam. The first touch of the blade to his throat was… strange. It took his full focus on Catesby’s quiet voice and earthy scent not to move away. At least he did not twitch and cut his throat on the thin strip of deadly metal. The razor scraped along his neck, up to his chin in short swipes. Catesby held his head steady with another hand, eyes squinting, close enough for Gerard to feel his breath.
A thought occurred to the cleric, he could just push forward onto the blade and end this charade. Yet something within him rose in protest. Was he not ready to die…?
Calloused fingers maneuvered his head, careful not to nick the skin. Gerard noticed a light blush on the man’s cheeks, skin almost orange with the setting sun. When Catesby turned away, his eyes reflected it, brown turning a translucent, cattish yellow.
With a growing sense of safety, Gerard’s shoulders slackened. He allowed his eyes to fall shut, letting out a long breath. Guided by the steady warm hand and a gentle push and scrape of the razor, his head fell back. The motion stopped. He heard Catesby stepping towards the washbasin, sloshing the blade briefly. Chasing the touch, the priest leaned forward with a hidden smile on the tight lips. If only, he could keep this, this ease…
The sharp edge returned, colder – a small shiver ran up the priest’s spine. Catesby felt it on his fingertips. He steadied himself, biting the inside of his cheek. Breathed through the stammering heart, shifting on his legs. Gerard’s lips twitched as another smile was kept from him. The locked jaw was slackening. Robin watched the tight lips soften and then part, letting out a small peaceful sigh. Afternoon light filtered through the priest’s hair and eyelashes. Long shadows on the walls merged their two figures into an alien shape. Fireplace crackled softly, the room smelled of herbs and firewood. Shame ran in a piercing rush of chill down Catesby’s spine, as he watched the slow glide of the blade up the long, strained throat. Reddish stubble came off mixed with suds. He wanted to chase the blade’s path with a fingertip, to feel how smooth the skin became, to feel a shiver in response, a twitch of adam’s apple. Catesby licked his lips. As long as he didn’t act on it, as long as Gerard didn’t notice.
When they were done, Catesby scooped the water, and the priest put his face into his cupped hands, allowing the fingers to brush under his chin, behind his ears, slide across the revealed neck. The man had his eyes closed and did not notice how Catesby’s hands trembled, chasing the illusion of a caress.
— Thank you, — the priest shook his head, and lifted his face to be dabbed with the towel.
Catesby nodded, unsure of his voice.
— Brother Glynn suggested that by focusing on the touch that does not disturb me, I could gradually overcome the sickness of my spirit, — the matter of fact voice brought Catesby back out of his reverie.
— I see…
— I am very grateful for your help, — another eviscerating stab of shame – the clear eyes of the man in front of him held only trust.
There was still a patch of white foam in the corner of the priest’s mouth. Unconsciously Catesby reached for it. Gerard moved away, slanting his eyes at the hand. Robin noticed a sudden minute change in the man’s face; the instinct pushing him away, and then the trust was back, with a shade of confusion.
— Some soap, — Catesby pointed a finger, and the man allowed the contact, briefly closing his eyes, when the fingertip caught the smidgen of suds. Robin wiped it on his breeches. — Done, — the voice came out hoarse.
— Thank you, — Gerard leaned away and settled into the mattress.
— How is your back? – putting the washing basin on the floor, he took the chair.
— Much better, — a polite and impersonal reply, reestablishing a soft, yet unyielding, distance. — The shoulder is much better. There is some weakness but not much pain.
Catesby nodded, restoring a veneer of calm.
— Perhaps it is prudent for you to be moved to a safer location in a fortnight? If we are attacked here, you will be in danger.
Gerard’s face twitched with a bitter smile.
— We all had been for a while now… but I understand, I would slow you down, above all.
— Your work will be irreplaceable, after the plan goes into action. You have to live through this…
— I hope, we all do, my lord, — Gerard felt reality set in, never far behind a moment of peace.
— And even if we don’t it would have been worth it…
Gerard silently looked up at Catesby’s empty eyes, trained on the bleak wall.
— …if it works, — the man finished heavily.
— If it is our Lord’s plan, — Gerard forwent the encouragements. They were no longer necessary between the two of them. It was liberating.
— A free man’s dare…
— Indeed, — the priest’s voice grew warmer.
— I wish to help you, before we part, — Catesby stretched a hand towards him, and Gerard managed to take it in a loose grip. It was easier now, accepting the help, even if he had to swallow the automatic rejections. Catesby brushed his knuckles with the thumb. The touch felt reassuring, and the priest held onto it for a moment longer, then let go.
— You already have done so much, Lord Catesby, — he nodded at the man, unsure what else to say.
Their eyes met again, and again Catesby broke the contact with a rapid blink and a turn of his head.
— Could you help me with a book? — the priest struggled to cut through the awkwardness stretching between them.
Robin busied himself with setting up a table next to the bed, opening the bookmarked tome, then helping Gerard to settle, supported by the cushions. He finally left with one last glance at the thin figure hunched over the book with a candle. Birdlike, too thin in the fading warm light of the early autumn dusk.
He closed the door behind himself softly. In an empty corridor, he put his forehead to the rough wood, and finally let out a breath he was holding. The arousal washed over him in one crushing relentless wave. Whole body vibrated with the warmth and pulse of Gerard’s neck under his hands, the proximity, the intimacy of the act. He stifled a moan, pushing the air out of his lungs slowly, pulling it in through his clenched teeth, once, twice… until the frenzy started to abate, hands flat to the wall. Afraid to return to his room, to linger on it, Catesby pushed his fatigue aside and headed for the stairs.
A lucky man — the rent-boy’s words chased him.