Authors: Patricia Gaffney
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
InterMix titles by Patricia Gaffney
To Love and to Cherish
To Have and to Hold
Forever and Ever
To Love and To Cherish
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have control over and does not have any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
TO LOVE AND TO CHERISH
An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author
New American Library edition / February 2003
InterMix eBook edition / June 2013
Copyright © 1995 by Patricia Gaffney.
To Have and To Hold
copyright © 1995 by Patricia Gaffney.
Forever and Ever
copyright © 1996 by Patricia Gaffney.
Cover design by Sarah Oberrender.
Cover image: Neuschwantstein Castle © Nickolay Vinokurov/Shutterstock.
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For Midge. I miss you.
VEN ON HIS DEATHBED
, Lord D’Aubrey was a hard man to love.
God, give me patience and humility
, prayed Reverend Christian Morrell, who was in the business, as it were, of loving the unlovable. Leaning over the bed but not touching it—ill as he was, the elderly viscount still bristled when anyone except his doctor got too close—Christy asked his lordship if he would take the sacraments.
“Why? So I can go straight to heaven? Do you think I’m going to heaven, Vicar? Eh? Think I’m—” He ran out of breath; his parchment-colored face turned blue until he sucked in a wheezing gulp of air. By now he was too weak to cough; he kept swallowing until the spasm passed, then lay exhausted, hands limp on his sunken chest.
Christy sat down again in the high-backed chair he’d pulled as close to the bed as the old man would allow. The oil lamp couldn’t penetrate the gloom in the large, spartan bedchamber; he had to squint to read his prayer book. He tried to remember that beyond the heavy draperies the noonday sun was shining on a Devonshire spring of spectacular beauty, but that vital world seemed frivolous here, a figment of a hopeful imagination. Larks might be singing outside, insects droning, squirrels scratching in the ivy; but in the viscount’s sickroom, all Christy could hear was the ticking of his own watch in his pocket.
Dr. Hesselius ought to be here
, he couldn’t help thinking. “Send for me if you need me, but I doubt that you will,” he’d told Christy two hours ago, in this room. “He’s not in any pain—they frequently aren’t at this late stage. I doubt he’ll live through the day. I’ve done all I can; old Edward’s in your hands now, Reverend.” Christy had nodded at that, gravely, calmly, as if the prospect didn’t demoralize him.
In his own estimation, at least on good days, he was a reasonably effective clergyman, considering he was new at his calling and his best qualities were still only earnestness and perseverance. But he had numerous failings, and they had a perverse way of multiplying and combining at extreme times like this, when his deepest wish was to give comfort and consolation to the needy. Edward Verlaine offered a special challenge, and Christy despaired that he wasn’t up to it.
Memories kept intruding on his best efforts to pray. In the sparsely furnished room, a dark, gilt-framed oil painting of Lord D’Aubrey’s grandfather loomed conspicuously over the mantelpiece. A peculiar grayish blur under the haughty-looking ancestor’s nose made Christy smile, albeit a bit grimly. He recalled the day, probably twenty years ago now, when he and Geoffrey, his best friend, had stolen into this room, giggling and shushing each other, giddy with nervous excitement. Christy hadn’t really believed Geoffrey would do it, but he had: he’d stood on a chair and drawn a charcoal mustache on the scowling face of his great-grandfather. Faint traces still lingered, the charcoal having proved remarkably resistant to numerous efforts at removal. Christy wondered if Geoffrey still bore the marks from the thrashing his father had ordered for punishment—delivered by his steward, not himself, for even in his rages Edward Verlaine had kept his distance.
The words in Christy’s Book of Common Prayer began to run together. He rolled his stiff shoulders, fighting off the sleepiness that kept dragging at him. He stood up and went to the window. Drawing back the curtain, he looked out past Lynton Great Hall’s derelict courtyard toward the tall black spire of All Saints Church, half a mile away and all that could be seen from here of Wyckerley, the village where he’d grown up. It was April; the gentle, oak-covered hills were a brilliant yellow-green, and the Wyck, normally a placid little river within its steep-sided banks, churned down from Dartmoor with the force of a torrent. He and Geoffrey had fished in the Wyck year-round, ridden their ponies up and down every sunken red lane in the parish, left urgent messages for each other in a crevice of the gray stone monolith at the crossroads. They’d been all but inseparable for the first sixteen years of their lives—until Geoffrey had run away. In twelve years, Christy hadn’t heard a word from him.
Until six days ago, when a note had come to the rectory. “Just tell me when the bastard croaks,” Geoffrey had scribbled on the back of a tailor’s bill—and that only after Christy had written repeatedly to the London address he’d finally gotten from Lord D’Aubrey’s solicitor. “How the hell are you?” Geoffrey had scrawled in a postscript. “You’re joking, aren’t you? A
Christy wasn’t surprised that his new vocation seemed like a joke to Geoffrey, considering all the times that, as boys, they’d made fun of Christy’s gentle, pious father. (“Old Vicar,” the villagers called Magnus Morrell now, although he’d been dead for four years; and Christy, inevitably, was “New Vicar.”) Stories of Geoffrey’s wild, decadent life in London and other worldly fleshpots were hard to reconcile with competing and almost equally incredible rumors that he was a mercenary soldier, ready to take up arms for any cause that paid enough money for his services. Christy had stopped missing him—even the deepest wound heals in time—but he’d never stopped wondering what had become of him.
“How is he?”
The urgent whisper made him whirl away from the window, startled. Mrs. Fruit hovered in the doorway, twisting her arthritic fingers, her kind, wrinkled face screwed up with worry. He went to her, nodding reassuringly. She’d been the housekeeper at Lynton Great Hall for more years than he’d been alive; now she was feeble and frail, and almost completely deaf. He touched her hands and said softly, moving his lips slowly, “No change. He’s sleeping.” She looked past his shoulder at the still figure on the bed, and tears welled in her faded gray eyes. Christy made a motion toward the bed, inviting her to go closer. She crept a few feet nearer and stopped, not out of fear, but out of reverence for the master she’d served for so long.
The only sign that Edward Verlaine wasn’t dead already was the intermittent flutter of his yellow, clawed fingers against the heavy counterpane. Under the bedclothes, his distended abdomen was nearly as round as a pregnant woman’s; by contrast, his arms and legs had shrunk to the size of a child’s. His head on the pillow looked like a barely breathing skull. Mrs. Fruit drew a quavery breath, dropped her face in her hands, and wept.
Christy patted her shoulder, feeling useless, and doubly frustrated because even if the perfect comforting remark miraculously occurred to him, she wouldn’t be able to hear it unless he bellowed it in her ear.
At length she recovered enough to ask if she could fetch him anything, tea or a glass of wine. He thanked her and said no, and she withdrew. He heard her blowing her nose and then the sound of her slow, careful footsteps on the stairs.
He should have asked her to stay, he realized a moment later. Mrs. Fruit was the only person he knew who had truly loved old D’Aubrey, and most certainly the only one who would miss him.
A noise from the bed made him turn. The viscount’s face, yellow with jaundice, had turned on the pillow; he was glaring at him. “You.” It came out an accusing croak. “Don’t want you. Where’s your father?”
“My father’s dead, sir,” he reminded him gently, leaning over the bed.
Recollection took the anger out of the old man’s hard black eyes, but a truly ghastly smile curled at the corners of his mouth. “Then I’ll see him soon enough, won’t I?”
Christy fumbled with his prayer book, reconsidered, and laid it aside. He hated the inadequacy he felt at this moment, and the trivial sound of all the things that came into his mind to say. He felt like a child again—like the boy who had grown up terrified of this dying wreck of a man, hating him on principle because Geoffrey, his best friend, had hated him.
He bent closer, into the old man’s line of vision. “Would you like to pray?”
Out of habit, the viscount’s eyes narrowed with contempt. A moment passed. He turned his face away. “You pray,” he exhaled on a feeble sigh.
Christy opened his book to the Psalms. “‘The Lord is my shepherd,’” he began, prosaically enough; “‘I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul—’”
“Not that one. Before that.”
“The twenty-second.” His eyes closed in exhaustion, but the bloodless lips curved again, sardonic. “Read it, Parson,” he rasped when Christy hesitated.
He scanned the seldom-read psalm in dismay. “‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?’” He read the prayer in a low voice, but it wasn’t possible to soften the desperate message. “‘They cried unto thee, and were delivered; they trusted in thee, and were not confounded. But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people. All they that see me laugh me to scorn. . . .’”
A sound silenced him; he looked up. Edward’s eyes were closed, his jaws clamped in a grimace, but for all his efforts, tears trickled through his papery lids. Christy reached for one of his hands and held it tightly, while the viscount’s weeping turned into weak, desolate cursing. The words became garbled as he grew more agitated. He gave Christy’s wrist a feeble yank. “Do it,” he muttered. “Do it, damn you.”
He stared at him, baffled. “I don’t—”
Christy looked down at the fierce, spidery grip the old man had on his hand. “Almighty God,” he prayed quickly, “who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live, hath given power to his ministers to declare and pronounce to his people the absolution of their sins. Edward, do you truly and earnestly repent of your sins?”
“I do,” he grated through his teeth, eyes closed.
“Are you in love and charity with your neighbors—”
“And—will you lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking from henceforth in his holy ways?”
“Go in peace, then. Your sins are forgiven.”
The viscount peered up at him in panicky disbelief.
“They’re forgiven,” Christy repeated, insistent. “The God who made you loves you. Believe it.”
“If I could . . .”
“You can. Take it inside your heart and be at peace.”
“Peace.” His hand loosened and fell away, but he continued to gaze up with pleading eyes. All the hopes of his life had narrowed and funneled into this one hope: that he was loved, and that he was forgiven. Christy was learning that at the end it was all anyone wanted.
“My lord,” he asked, “will you take the sacraments?”
A minute went by, and then the old man nodded.
Christy prepared the bread and the wine quickly, using the bedside table for an altar, reciting the words of the ritual in a voice loud enough for Edward to hear. He was too ill to swallow more than a tiny morsel of the Host, and he could only wet his lips on the edge of the chalice. Afterward, he lay utterly still, the flutter of the wilted lace on his nightshirt the only indication that he still breathed.
The silence that flowed back into the room was different now, Christy fancied—not quite as hopeless. He prayed for a while, then just sat in his chair, resting. His failings as a priest assailed him again; he thanked God for the sacraments, for without them he would be worse than useless. If only he could stop thinking of
, stop worrying about what kind of job he was doing, stop feeling fear in the face of another’s death, instead of love and true compassion for the ill and the dying—in other words, he thought wearily, if only he could be more like his father.
Lord, give me the strength to go with the dying into the dark places
, he prayed.
And help me to forgive myself when I can’t
He opened his prayer book at random, abashed because once again, even in this dire hour, his thoughts were on himself, not the dying soul to whom he’d come to minister. “If I climb up into heaven,” he read, “thou art there; if I go down to hell, thou art there also. If I take the wings of the morning, and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there also shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. . . .”
Time ticked past in the dim box of a room; the lamp wick began to sputter, and he rose to turn it higher. A choking sound from the bed made him turn back quickly.
Edward was trying to sit up on his elbows. “Help me . . . help . . . oh, God, I hate it . . . I’m afraid of the dark . . .” Christy put his arm around his thin shoulders, propping him up. “Geoffrey?” He stared straight ahead, unblinking. “Geoffrey?”
“Yes,” Christy lied without hesitation. “Yes, Father, it’s Geoffrey.”
“My boy.” His smile was rapturous, a little smug. “I knew you’d come.” His head bobbed once and fell on his left shoulder; a long, ragged sigh rattled up from his chest, but he was already dead.
Christy held him in his arms a little longer before laying his slack torso back on the bed and gently closing his eyes. “Go in peace,” he murmured, “for the Lord has put away all your sins.” The unmistakable aspect of death had already seeped into the viscount’s corpse; his soul was gone. Christy administered the last sacrament, the anointing of the body with oil, taking a melancholy comfort in the solemn rite. When he finished, he sank to his knees by the bed to pray, hands folded, his forehead pressed against the side of the mattress.
That was how Geoffrey found him.