Like a subtle wraith of mist in the still-dark of the night in late July he stole: silent and fleet, not hesitating. He came from the northwest corner of the church, where a small door led out into the abbey court from the side of the narthex. He did not cross the court, but passed stealthily along the walk between the yew-hedge and the perimeter wall. Swift and noiseless he slipped along the close. It was a clear night but the dark of the moon, and only the stars gave light at this hour of the morning. At the end of Lauds, as the brothers shuffled back up the night stairs to resume their sleep, he had abstracted himself so unobtrusively that no one had seen. He had dodged back into the nave and stood in the deep shadows of the arcade in the side aisle on the north side of the church, hardly breathing. When all was still, he opened the small door with utmost caution; sliding the bolts back slowly and steadily without a sound, drawing the door closed and lifting and dropping the latch with barely a click, he left, and he was outside in the freshness of the night. Such faint light as the stars gave out found his silver hair, but that was the only glimmer of his presence as he slid from the abbey court along the close.
Peartree Cottage stood in the middle of the row of houses. The wicket gate stood ajar, and he pushed it open without a sound. As he stepped into the garden, the herbs gave up their fragrance underfoot. He felt a slug fall into his sandal. He stooped to flick out the slug and to scratch up a handful of earth that he flung at the upstairs window. No response. He tried again. This time the casement was opened with irritable vigor from the inside, and Madeleine’s voice said sharply, “Who is it?” Peering down suspiciously into the garden she might not have seen him, but he moved very slightly and most quietly spoke her name.
“Whatever do you want?” she whispered then, surprised. “Will you let me in?” She heard the soft-spoken words. And as she came in the dark down the narrow ladder stairway, she realized the implications of this visit. Naturally cautious, she asked herself, Are you sure you welcome this? Just in going down the stairs, in opening the door, she realized her heart was saying, Yes.
As quietly as she could, she drew back the bolts and turned the key, lifted the latch, and opened the door to him.
“Whatever has possessed you? What on earth do you think you’re doing?” she whispered fiercely as he came into the room. “Shall I light the candle?”
“Nay, nay! There are no curtains, you might as well light a beacon,” he said softly. “Can you not see?”
He himself had good night vision; it was an honest question. “I wouldn’t need to see!” she whispered back. “Who else would risk us both being thrown out by coming here at this time of the night? Are you certain no one saw you?”
“It’s only a fool who is ever certain no one saw him. I surely hope not though, or we are done for, as you say.”
In silence they stood then, not three feet between them in the warm darkness of the cottage. Embers tidied together on the hearth still glowed from the small fire Madeleine had lit to cook her supper. They gave out hardly any light at all: but between the embers and the stars, the shapes of things in the room and the man who stood before her could be clearly enough discerned.
“Well?” she said then. “What should I think? Why are you here?”
He stood silently. She waited for his reply. She knew well enough, but did not dare to presume what she hoped for.
“Do you . . . ” His voice sounded unsure then; she heard the vulnerability in it. “Do you want me?”
Madeleine hesitated one last moment. There was still time to go back on this. She heard the intake of his breath in anxious uncertainty.
So she said in quick reassurance, “Of course I want you. With the whole of me. But is this honest? Isn’t it stolen? Aren’t we deceiving my brother?”
But he waited for no further discussion: she was in his embrace then, the ardent hold of yearning that she and he had waited for, it felt like so long. He did not kiss her, simply held her to him, his body pressed trembling against hers.
She closed her eyes and took in the feel of him; the heat of his hunger for her, the beating of his heart and his quickened breath—all of him, bone and muscle and skin, the soul of him that lit every part, the pulse of desire and destiny. She loved the touch of him, the smell of him. She knew by heart every mannerism, every trick of movement and expression, every inflection of his voice. In any crowd she would have turned at his footstep, knowing whom she heard.
“I had to come to you,” he whispered, his face against her hair. “I couldn’t think, I couldn’t sleep; I haven’t been able to concentrate on anything. I know I can’t have you, I do know. But I need to have the memory of just one time together: for a refuge, for a viaticum—something real. I have been so desperate for you . . . to touch you . . . to hold you close to me . . . to feel your heartbeat and bury my face in your hair. Oh, my love, my love . . . I have ached to hold you.”
She felt his hand lift to her head, caressing and by the starlight she saw in his face such tenderness, such a flowing of love toward her as she had never imagined life might offer. He kissed her then, delicate kisses as light as a lacewing landing on a leaf: kissed her throat, her jaw, her cheekbones, her brow, kissed her eyelids closed, and then she felt his lips brush the curve of her cheek to find her mouth. He too closed his eyes as she parted her lips to the slow, beautiful, sensual rhapsody of his lover’s kiss.
She felt the momentous tide of it overflow through all of her like the wave-swell of the sea; then before she could bear to let him go, he drew back from his kiss, but still holding her close. She wished she could see him properly, read the look in his eyes dark in the darkness.
“This is not what I thought,” he whispered, “not what I expected.”
He felt her body tense at his words and said hastily, “No! No, I didn’t mean what you think. You are everything I want, all I long for! It’s just that I had imagined this would lay things to rest; allow us to acknowledge something that is between us, and let it have its moment. I thought it might make it easier to relinquish it and give it back to God. But it doesn’t feel like that now.
“Now that I am holding you I want never to have to let you go. I want us to share a bed and make love together, but I want us to share a home and make a life together too. I want time to discover all the things I don’t know about you yet. I want to watch you washing at the sink in the morning as the sun comes streaming in through the open door. I want to watch you brushing your hair. I want to find you kneading dough for our loaf at the table when I come in with the firewood for our hearth. I want you to teach me about herbs and how to grow them.”
“Brother Walafrid could teach you about that,” she murmured.
“Yes, I know,” he whispered, “but I don’t feel the same about Brother Walafrid as I do about you.”
She had rested her head against the hollow beneath his collar bone as she listened to these words. She heard the smile in his voice, and he bent his head to kiss the top of hers.
“When I entered monastic life,” he said, in the quietest undertone, “it was for pragmatic reasons—I had no money, was the thing: and that’s what keeps me there still; no money. I’ve heard men talk about vocation often enough, but I couldn’t feel my way to it—didn’t really know what they meant. I have never had a sense of vocation; until now.
“Now, all of me wants to be with all of you forever. Now I know what vocation is. But I am fifty years old, and I have no trade and no family. There is nothing I can offer you, and there is nowhere for us to go—even supposing you want me too.
“You asked me if this was honest. It’s probably the most honest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I know it’s beyond reach. If I come back here again, someone will see, it will be discovered somehow—these things always are; but I thought I could risk just this one time. And I can offer nothing more. You and I both, we depend on the charity of the community to house us; there are no other choices. Like the poor everywhere, we have no rights and no options. But one night, for pity’s sake, just one night! And it’s not even a night; only a miserly hour between the night office and Prime. But after this, you must not watch for me nor wait for me, for I shall not be able to come to you—not ever again; but, oh my darling, remember me, remember this hour we had. If you get a chance of happiness with someone else, take it with both hands, I shall not be jealous. And deceiving John? Up to a point. I won’t tell him, and I won’t let him see. But I wouldn’t lie to him, and I won’t pursue this. It’s just that I couldn’t have lived the rest of my life starving to hold you for one time close to me. Maybe it is stolen. Yes—it is. But a starving man will snatch a crust of bread because it is life to him.