“She is really dying, David?”
Deborah’s tone was one of disbelief mingled with sorrow, and she shook her head slowly as she leaned over her brother’s arm and read the letter again.
He glanced at her briefly, then scanned the shaky handwriting once more. He would give it more scrutiny later, when he was alone. He feared his own grief might be impossible to hide and he did not want to break down in front of Deborah.
“It is what she is saying,” he replied. “She has contracted an illness, a disease of the lungs as well as lack of blood circulation. She does not say how, only that she is not expecting to recover.”
He stopped talking to hang on to an escaping sob, then went to sit at the window and watch the white roofs of the buildings outside, the icy slush in the streets, rapidly turning to mud. He watched the horses slipping on the cobblestones, the pedestrians sliding about and the children running to skid along the street and screech in their excitement.
Where Catherine was, the white landscape would be softer, virgin snow reaching to the horizon. It would be hushed and silent, echoing with the tranquility of the countryside, of the farmland and plough horses standing idle. Here in London were the sounds of hooves and carriage wheels on the cobblestones outside, the roar of crowds going about their business in the city.
Not that it would matter to her, if indeed she was bedridden as her letter implied, if she was as ill as she said. He had no idea why he doubted her words; perhaps because he could not bring himself to believe them.
“You sound doubtful, David,” Deborah interrupted his thoughts.
“I am,” he answered. “If she is so ill, why have I received no accounts from physicians, even from herbal healers. She cannot afford such services herself. I send her only enough to feed herself and the child.”
Deborah looked startled for a moment and he thought he knew why. He had never mentioned the child before, not once, could hardly bear to think of her, much less discuss her.
“That was generous,” she remarked.
“Was I to let an innocent child starve?” He replied sharply. “More likely Catherine would go without herself; you know that, as do I.”
“What possible reason could she have to pretend to be so ill?” She asked.
He shrugged, looked up at her.
“It could be a ruse to make me go to her, so she can tell me more lies.”
The note of bitterness behind his words stunned Deborah. The letter her brother’s wife had written broke her heart and while she understood his lingering hostility, she thought that letter might have softened his heart.
She had always been friends with Catherine until three years ago, when she had betrayed David by taking a lover. She was angry with her then, could not stand to see him so hurt, but now if she were really dying, the past should be set aside and if David could not do that, she had never known him at all.
He was always a kind and generous man, both to her and to Catherine and his servants and anyone else close to him. He was well liked and respected, both by his servants and his tenants, as well as anyone he had dealings with. A mild mannered and fair man who adored his wife, and it had been hard for him to accept his marriage was over, almost impossible for him to believe his wife no longer loved him.
She remembered when he had arranged the marriage with Catherine, how he had come to her, excited and pleased with the prospect of taking this woman as his wife. They had met but once, yet he seemed to have fallen in love with her at that one meeting. Watching them together after the marriage, Deborah believed she felt the same about him, until that awful day the façade had broken down, until she had seen behind the lies.
Still, Deborah could not believe he would deny her this final wish, no matter what she had done. She was still a very young woman, barely twenty years old, and her passing was a tragedy whichever way one saw it.
He frowned at Deborah and once more skimmed his eyes over the letter which had arrived that morning, a letter in shaky, yet familiar, handwriting, begging for a few minutes with her husband before she left this world.
His feelings for his wife had never really faded, despite his many attempts to suppress them, to bury them beneath anger and resentment. They were still stronger than he cared to admit, and he did not want to think of her death, of never having a chance of seeing her again, but nor could he think of her suffering. He was not sure he would be able to cope with watching that suffering, seeing her thin and ill, when she was always so lovely, so stunningly beautiful, just the sight of her took his breath away.
He recalled the first time he had seen her, at the home of her parents, Lord and Lady Birchwood. He had seen her portrait and almost believed a woman so beautiful could not also be good, but he found himself immediately attracted to her. She was funny, and warm, and he knew he would find it easy to love her.
When he saw her again, in the church porch where they were wed, he had fallen in love with her completely and never recovered from it, despite the pain she had caused him.
“I will go,” he said at last, with a weary sigh. “She must have known I would not refuse her. I only hope I can be kind to her; thoughts of her still make me angry.”
Deborah shook her head slowly in bewilderment. He still had no charitable thought for his wife, but she could not blame him for that. Had he been a violent man, or a vengeful one, Catherine might not have been so fortunate as to suffer such a mild punishment as imprisonment in her own house.
She sighed heavily and pulled the letter from his fingers, read it once more to herself and caught back a quiet sob. It was heartbreaking to think of that beautiful woman, slowly fading into nothingness, swallowing the remnants of her pride to beg her husband just a few minutes of his time. She had not seen him for three years, not since she had been discovered by his soldiers, with a naked man in their marital bed.
She wondered if her brother might be better off with Catherine gone. Even if he could forgive her, he could never take her back into his life, could never renew the closeness they had known. He would at least be free to marry again.
As things stood, there was no heir to the Ravenscroft title and estates. David and Catherine’s only son had lived but a few weeks and if David had no opportunity to remarry, the duty of producing a legitimate heir would fall to her. She did not relish the prospect of marrying again, but she may have no choice.
Now Deborah cast her eyes up to meet those of her brother, and saw the mixture of heartache and resentment in them. She had believed he was recovering, moving on with his life although he was still tied to Catherine and likely always would be. It seemed she was wrong.
“You should try to forgive her, David,” She said. “She made a mistake, but she never stopped loving you, of that I am certain.”
“If a woman loves a man, she does not take another man to her bed. Of that I am certain.”
“I will not argue the point. She has asked to see you; you must at least pretend to forgive her. She is dying; please do not let her see your resentment. Let her go in peace.”
"Why do you think she deserves any special consideration?" He said. "She betrayed me, took a lover the moment my back was turned, had a child by that lover..."
"You do not know that."
"I do not know otherwise. The girl is not my child; she cannot be. I never went near the whore again once I learned about her adultery, so how can the girl be mine? Unless she was bedding this other man whilst carrying my child. That would be far worse. I am not sure I can face her again if I believe that. Besides, she as good as admitted she was not my child."
She had, too, but Deborah had drawn her own conclusion as to her motive for doing so. Deborah had kept her opinion on that to herself for years because she wanted to help her. Catherine had thrown everything away for one indiscretion; she did not want her to lose her child as well. She also wondered if David would treat the girl fairly if he was not certain of her parentage. Although he was not the sort of man who would blame a child for the sins of its mother, when someone was as hurt as David, they sometimes took revenge without thought for others.
It had been difficult for Deborah. She loved Catherine, but she loved David as well and she owed her loyalty to him, yet she tried to understand. David was away, preparing to fight for King Stephen, when the threatened arrival of the Empress Maud and her troops came about. Catherine had been tempted by a handsome young man, and although Deborah had been furious with her, she eventually managed to understand. As the widow of a man she had adored, she knew well how lonely a woman could be, how she might have succumbed to temptation herself had it presented itself. She did her best to make David see her point of view, but it would take a very exceptional man to forgive his wife’s infidelity.
The fact that it had been soldiers who discovered her lover made it impossible for him to make the decision for himself. Soldiers were worse gossips that washerwomen and the whole town knew about it almost before David. He had his position to consider; he was their Lord and it was essential he keep their respect, or anarchy would erupt on his estate, in his town. Deborah believed that to be his main reason for keeping his wife prisoner in her own home since it happened. Many thought a much harsher and more public punishment to be in order, but they dared not tell him that. This way, at least he could be seen to be doing something and it was something which would not cause Catherine too much suffering. Despite her betrayal, he had no wish for her to suffer.
"I have no idea why you showed me this letter," Deborah said at last. "You do not want my opinion, so why ask? Catherine is dying, she has asked for you. You know you will grant her wish and if you do not, your conscience will haunt you for years to come. That is my opinion. I see she has also asked for me."
He nodded thoughtfully.
"She has, but I am not convinced she has no ulterior motive.”
Deborah raised her eyebrows and gave him a look of astonishment.
"David," she replied, "Catherine was never devious. What on earth makes you think she is lying?"
“Never devious?” He replied angrily, raising his voice. “She was devious enough to hide a lover from me. Did I not find his portrait in her private chest?”
She gave him a bashful look. She had forgotten all about the miniature Catherine had concealed in her little box of secrets, the leather bound chest David had prised open with his dagger that day, looking for love letters, evidence of how long the adultery had been going on. She imagined he was wondering if his dead son had indeed been his own child, and thanked God he found no evidence to confirm that suspicion.
The fact that his firstborn, his son had died, that David had mourned him, somehow made it worse. At last she answered him.
“You did, David. I cannot deny it.”
He sighed heavily and waved the letter in her face.
"If she is in truth so very ill, then of course I will go to her; we will both go to her. But I ask again, why have I received no accounts from physicians for her care? She does not have the means to engage physicians."
Deborah laughed cynically and shook her head.
"You abandoned her because she took a lover," she told him. "Has it not occurred to you that it might be that lover who has paid for her care?"
He closed his eyes for a few seconds.
"No, it had not occurred to me," he admitted. "And I cannot thank you for making me consider such a possibility. She has been guarded since I left. It would have to be a very determined lover to find his way inside the house without being captured by one of the sentries." He paused and shrugged. "I suppose she might have won them all over.”
He sighed heavily and his mouth turned down.
“It is in the past now and best not to think about it. I imagine she wants my forgiveness," he remarked.
"Will she get it?"
"I have not decided," he replied harshly. "It depends how contrite she is."
"Or how much she is prepared to beg?"
He turned on her an angry scowl which was rare for him.
"Have a care, Deborah," he warned.
"Why? I am your sister, not your wife, thank God. I do not have to obey your every command."
"You do if you want to remain in my house," he answered.
"Very well," she answered. "I will return to my own house. You asked me to come here, remember?"
He could not have forgotten, she was sure. He asked her to come when her husband died so she could be close to her family, give her something to occupy her thoughts. She was grateful at the time. She did not know how she would have survived without her brother's comfort and support, but she no longer needed that support and if he was going to start trying to order her life and thoughts, she would have no hesitation in opening her own house once more. That was why Edwin had left it to her in his Will, so she would always have a place of her own, so she would never have to rely on anyone else.
Thoughts of Edwin depressed her even more. She missed him dreadfully.
David frowned again. He seemed to do that a lot and Deborah only wondered why she had never noticed it before. She thought back over the years and could determine the exact time he had become so dour.
It was about the time the Empress Maud had landed in England. She had little support among the nobles of the land, and David was no exception. He never approved, any more than the other nobles, despite having sworn their allegiance to her when her father, King Henry I, had told them he had named her as his heir. The idea of a woman on the throne was absurd as far as they were concerned, and the Empress had an unfortunate manner which failed to endear her to anyone, even her peers. Since the Empress was not in England at the time, she was unable to prevent her cousin from claiming the throne for himself.
Given the support of the powerful barons of the land, Stephen had little opposition.
David had been gone a few weeks, away at court helping King Stephen and his supporters form a strategy to deal with the expected invasion.
Despite unrest and nationwide skirmishes, it had been four years before Maud finally gained enough support to come to England and wage war on her cousin. She had done that with the help of her illegitimate half brother, Robert, Earl of Gloucester. Civil war was imminent, David had to leave his wife of only two years and be ready to take up arms for Stephen. The King had to be prepared for his cousin's arrival in England and David was among the nobles eager to fight for him.
That was when Catherine committed her terrible sin, a sin for which David could never forgive her. Most men would not, so Deborah would not blame him for that, but they could have lived in some sort of amity. They might well have done, too, had Catherine not been with child. That was the final sin which played on her brother’s mind, which would never allow him to build an amicable relationship with his wife. How was he supposed to accept another man’s child? And how was he to insist she give the girl up?
Deborah was born just a year after him, had grown up in his shadow, watched his training to one day become Earl of Ravenscroft, while she was trained to be somebody's wife. She had been fortunate that the man her parents chose for her to marry grew fond of her, even loved her as she loved him. It was the great tragedy of her life that Edwin had died so young; it was the great tragedy of her brother's life that his wife had betrayed him. Deborah was not sure which would be worse; she tried to imagine Edwin with another woman and it hurt, but that sort of damage could be repaired if both wanted it enough. Edwin's death was final and she could never see herself loving another man.
No, she bore her brother's wife no malice for her betrayal, not any more. Catherine was a warm and passionate woman, with ideas and opinions of her own, and Deborah had grown close to her almost immediately they met. She was sweet and warm, always willing to listen to Deborah's little fears. Her brother and his wife were on affectionate, amicable terms. She had witnessed the affection between them and she was shocked when Catherine surrendered to temptation, but she could forgive even if David never could.
"It is high time I started thinking about finding you another husband," he remarked, breaking into her thoughts. "I will go to Oxfordshire to grant Catherine’s dying wish, if indeed that is what it is, but when I return I shall begin enquiries."
She envisioned another man in her bed, making love to her, sharing his flesh with hers, and she shuddered. She still grieved for Edwin and it was possible she always would.
"Please do not trouble yourself on my account, David," she said. "I have no wish to remarry."
"Why not? You were happy with Edwin; I know you were fond of him."
"I loved him and he returned my love." She swallowed a tear before she went on. He had fallen from his horse and broken his neck, died instantly, and the shock had torn her apart. "I may not be so fortunate next time."
His eyes met hers sharply.
"Was that remark aimed at me?" He demanded. "I could not have done more for Catherine. She had everything a woman could possibly want, money, servants, fine clothes, fine horses, carriages and jewels. She was always dressed to perfection. My own fault, I suppose, for making her so attractive to another man. I gave her everything."
“It is your own conscience speaking, David,” she said. “No, I was not talking about you. I was thinking of someone else in Edwin’s place, and it is not something I would relish. No one could ever take his place.” She paused and gazed at him for a few moments. “Would you want to replace Catherine? When she is dead, if she does not recover from what ails her now, will you marry again?”
His eyes met hers and she could almost see his thoughts racing, see him imagining another woman in place of his wife. But he was not going to answer her question.
"She was a whore," he said harshly. "For all I know she still is. I doubt she has done without for three years."
"You have kept her locked away in that house ever since," she reminded him. "She has hardly had an opportunity to take another lover."
"There are guards, servants."
"No. She is a countess, your countess. She would not lower herself."
"Why not? We have no idea who the man was last time, do we? He may have been a soldier, or a servant. We know nothing except what I was told."
"And you were very quick to believe it."
She could have bitten off her tongue the minute she said the words. Now he glanced at his sister, where she stood beside him, awaiting a reply to her remark and wondering how to catch back the words.
"Do you know of some reason I should have doubted him?" David finally responded. "She did not deny it, not once. She admitted it to me, even begged my forgiveness."
"I am sorry, David," Deborah said. "I should not have said that." She put her hand on his shoulder and kissed his cheek fondly. "It was tragic for you, and I should not be willing to forgive her either, but I cannot help it. She was always a good woman and I was fond of her; she was my friend."
Now Deborah waited for him to speak, but he said nothing.
"How soon can we leave?" She asked.
"As soon as we can get our things packed. We can have no idea how long we will be there. This war has got so confusing, I am losing track of who is the monarch and who is not. I have had word that the Empress has once again escaped the King’s army. She was under siege in Oxford Castle; they had her surrounded."
Deborah smiled wistfully. She followed whatever side was safest, did not care enough to do otherwise, but she had to admire the Empress Maud’s resourcefulness and determination. It seemed no one could contain her for long; she always found some way to escape, last time on a funeral bier.
“Not as a corpse this time?” She asked him.
He shook his head.
“Apparently she was lowered down the castle walls, in the snow, and managed to travel some distance before daybreak. The woman causes us nothing but trouble; I am not alone in wishing she would give up the fight and return to Anjou.” He left the hall to order their boxes packed but returned a few minutes later, still clutching his wife’s letter in his hands. He seemed to have forgotten about the Empress. "You were always close to Catherine, I remember. I suppose you would like to say goodbye to her, pray for her soul. God knows it needs it!"
It is 1139 and the Empress Maud has landed in England to lay claim to the English throne, currently occupied by her cousin Stephen. David, Lord Ravenscroft is a chief advisor to King Stephen and is away at court, helping to plan a strategy to defeat the Empress. Her armies have been seen close to his own house and soldiers in his own regiment have been sent to search the town and village, including his own house.
That is when his world collapses, as the captain of that regiment returns with the news that a naked man has been found in his wife's bed. Heartbroken, he returns home to confront her, hoping for an explanation, but she admits her guilt. David leaves for London, having appointed guards to be sure she does not leave the grounds, and never expects to return.
Three years later he receives a letter from his wife, Catherine, telling him she is dying and begging him to go to her, as she needs to reveal the truth about the other man and the daughter David always supposed to have been fathered by that man.
Catherine knows he will not refuse her dying wish, but what can the truth be, if not that she had a lover in her bed? The idea of losing her for good tears him apart, despite her betrayal, but he needs to find the courage to see her on her deathbed and learn the truth, for the sake of the woman he still loves.