sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 2 ~ parting at morning
Boundless oceans, roaring wide, between my love and me,
They never, never can divide my heart and soul from thee.
She watched him dress. Occupied, readying himself for his work, still he fumbled his buttons and the lacings on his jerkin. His chest rose and fell in an uneven rhythm.
From his seat on the low, broad stool, he looked up at her, his eyes wide and dark within their azure halos. A flush still bronzed his cheeks and at the base of his throat his heartbeat was evident. His lips just curved in the expression that delighted her, an after-love expression that had, in these last few days, changed. Surprise and gratitude were giving way … to assuredness, to …
Yes. There it is. Her own breath caught short. Boldness. Faith. A flicker of exultation. It was thrilling.
For a long moment he held her gaze, then broke away with a sigh. His hands gripped his knees; his head bowed. He was leaving … leaving in only minutes. The realization ripped through her.
Do not cry, Chandler. Not one tear.
Years of training let her speak with more confidence than she felt … with more courage. “Before you have to go, I have something for you.” From her pocket, she pulled a small package and, taking his hand in hers, placed it in his palm. “Three years ago … tonight.”
The amber light of guttering candles half-shaded his face. “Go on,” she said, when he had yet to move. “Open it.” The tissue paper rustled as he peeled back the layers. “It was my father’s. Look inside.”
She showed him how the pocket watch opened and showed him the tiny dials that marked not just the hours and seconds, but the day, the month, the phases of the moon.
“Listen,” she said, guiding his hand to his ear. “It has an odd tick, a heartbeat almost. It’s old, from my great-grandfather’s family.” A heaviness settled in her breast. Already she was bereft. “I know time Below is different, but I thought … I thought you could have it to count the days … the years of our life together.”
He clicked shut the cover, turning the case to the candlelight, and traced the engraving – a winging bluebird, a spray of stars. He closed his hand around it. “Catherine,” he said, his voice crumbling at the edges. “I don’t want to be apart from you tonight of all nights. There are things I want … things I need to tell you. About … after Winterfest … when I …”
She pressured his lowered chin, brought up his gaze from the depths he stared in to … kissed him – a slow, tender, sure kiss … a deep and tasting kiss … a kiss of understanding, of promise. Of time.
“It will keep until you’re home,” she said. “I’m here, Vincent. Always.”
Though the last messaging pipes ended well above their bedchamber – at the top of the sweep of stairs, at the entrance to their rooms behind the stained glass – the tappings grew loud, insistent. He leaned into her, his arms around her waist, his head pillowed at her breast. Her fingers tangled in his hair. Near the doorway, a candle sputtered out, then another. The hour would not be denied.
“I … I have something–” He rose and from his dresser retrieved his offering folded in a scrap of dusky blue-grey velvet. “I discovered this on the journey I made with Mouse. I hope it will always remind you, Catherine … that my heart … my heart has found its home.”
Pillars and spires of smoky quartz formed a faceted rock castle. Deep within, a pale, ephemeral, mirrored wispiness – a phantom palace – floated. In the candlelight, it was beautiful, a fairy tale in the palm of her hand.
* * *
The dining hall echoed with excited chatter – with well wishes, the checking of lists, the repeated instructions for the relief crew. Catherine stood with William, packing lunches into rucksacks, handing them out as the workers filed by. With handshakes and hugs around, laden with tools and packs, they were gone. Of the first detail, only Vincent and Mouse remained behind – Mouse intent, his brows knit, his hands expressive in the air explaining Arthur’s care to Jamie.
“Father, did you see Olivia this morning?” Vincent asked. “Or Kanin?”
“Olivia? Is she–” Father searched the room, a hopeful quirk to his brows. The crowd had thinned after the crew’s departure. Mary leaned at the entryway with an agitated Kipper and an indignant Geoffrey before her, her arms folded, a frown of dismay on her face. Sarah cleared the sideboard, packing leftover scones and muffins into tin keepers. Deep in conversation, their foreheads nearly touching, Lena and Brooke and Willa sat at a far corner table. Father’s face fell. “No. No, I didn’t, and Kanin left very early. Hours ago, Pascal said. A sentry saw him start out alone. I take it you made no … progress … with him last night?”
Vincent shook his head.
Father sighed, leaning on his cane, both hands to its smooth-worn grip. “We can’t let Kanin … go, Vincent. Watch over him.”
“I will. Try not to worry, Father. You’ll have enough to do here with so many of us gone. And you must watch over Catherine for me.”
“If she’ll let me,” Father replied. He brightened as she approached. “Perhaps she’ll join me in a game of chess!”
“Perhaps,” she said, linking her arm with Father’s, “we should stick to childhood stories. That way, everyone wins.”
Father turned at the sound of animated argument. Mouse hopped from foot to foot, adamant that Arthur sleep under Jamie’s covers, that he be free to roam about at will. Jamie muttered something no one could hear, but something everyone understood.
Vincent laughed as Father hurried to mediate, as he began a well-worn lecture of public health, germs, and disease. He lifted his pack and bedroll. “I’ll enjoy watching this relationship evolve,” he said, offering her his free hand. “It promises fireworks.”
“Have you seen fireworks? Real ones?” Catherine asked, as they entered the passage north.
“Oh, yes, but years ago. Sometimes we’d hike to Yankee Stadium … well, underneath it, and from a certain vantage point, I could see them. They were beautiful. And loud.”
“Like Jamie and Mouse?”
“Yes.” He tightened his clasp of her hand. “Dominic told us what you’ve offered. Your generosity is appreciated.”
“It’s the least I could do. And it’s something I can do.”
Around the curve of the corridor, alone now, they stepped within a darkened niche. Vincent shed his pack and gathered her in.
“Promise me you’ll be careful,” she demanded, her voice muffled against his vest. The one tear she could not contain seeped into the tanned leather. She felt him nod once.
“Know this, Catherine. I live for you. While I’m away, you … you must be careful.” The words, whispered at her ear, feathered the down of her skin as he cradled her face in his hands. His lips traced the scar she wore, his thumb brushing after … along the now-fading memory, over her cheek to her parted mouth.
One last kiss …
A guttural moan rumbled in his chest , the tension in his arms a duet of denial and resignation. And then he raked up his gear and swept away, too quickly out of sight.
“Be well, Vincent,” she said to the emptiness.
A clang and jangle reverberated in the tunnel. Moments later, Mouse careened past, tools clanking from a heavy belted harness, bags strapped to his shoulders. “Back soon!” he crowed.
She hoped soon would be measured not in Mouse time, but in hers.
Catherine passed William at the kitchen door. He was fuming, his hands parked on his ample hips, from heel to toe rocking forward and back … forward again.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
He raised his arm and pointed with a shaking finger across the room, grumbling under his breath. Jamie and Father were busy with knives and a bowl of fruit. Arthur, a china plate at his feet, perched between them on the long table. With a little imagination, triumph could be seen in the raccoon’s masked eyes, Father and Jamie gleeful partners in his spoiling.
She pressed William’s arm back to his side, struggling not to laugh. “Rebecca’s coming with a new batch of dining room candles. I passed Zach in the corridor. He’s gone to help her carry them up.” William blushed and hustled into the kitchen. A clatter of metal cook pots rang out as he cleared away his morning’s work.
“So, Jamie. Where will Arthur sleep?” Catherine stood behind Father, her hands on his shoulders.
“Wherever he wants, as long as it’s outside my blankets,” Jamie said. “That I meant. But probably with Father. You love the little thief, don’t you, Father?”
“Well, no one else must know. It would be ruinous to my reputation,” he said. With a sheepish grin, he offered Arthur another grape, a chunk of melon, a slice of banana.
“You know what Arthur really likes?” Jamie said. “Marshmallows and maple syrup.”
“At the same time?” Catherine said, pulling out a chair, sitting down. “That has to be …”
“Messy. Quite.” Father grinned. “Run ask William for the treats, won’t you Catherine? He won’t say no to you.”
“Uh uh. I want to stay on William’s good side. I’m trying to fit in down here.”
“Peanut butter, then. He likes that second best.”
Catherine popped a grape into her mouth, capturing it between her teeth, and crossed her eyes.
“I take it that’s a no,” Father said, chuckling. “I’m … ummm … planning to arrange those stacks of books today,” he continued, suddenly mesmerized by the netting of the melon’s rind. “Would you two care to assist me?”
“Don’t say yes, Catherine. What he means is – will you carry out his instructions while he directs you from his chair. Isn’t that right, Father?” Jamie teased.
“The shelves are rather high any more, and the ladder … my hip …” Father looked from one to the other with a beseeching, helpless expression, a glint in his eye.
“I’ll stay and help you,” Catherine said. “Right after coffee.”
“Ah, yes, coffee. I understand it is … important.”
“Has Vincent been talking about me?”
“Oh, no, no, never.” Father smiled at her. “But I have seen him push his way to the front of the line some mornings. He certainly acted as if it were … an emergency.”
“You tea drinkers just don’t understand.”
Father reached over to pat her hand. “I’m coming to understand many things, my dear. Many things. I find that I learn something new almost every day now. And to think, I was once sure I knew it all.”
Jamie snorted; Catherine smothered a laugh. Father harrumphed. With Arthur gathered up, carrying him like a kitten, he rose to leave.
“Women!” he said in a stage whisper, sweeping for the doorway. “Arthur, you must stick with me. You’ll live a much simpler life.”
She turned to Jamie, still smiling. “You and Father have mended fences. He’s not concerned about you and Mouse any more?”
“He’s not, but now I am.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, how can I say this … Mouse … he’s …” Jamie shuddered. “Let’s just say he needs some turning on the lathe. And then a good sanding.”
Catherine laughed all the way to the coffee table and back. “So tell me … your sessions with Isaac … do you like him?”
“Isaac’s great! The lessons are hard, though. He really makes us work.” Jamie toyed with two spoons, leaning one against the other. “How much does he know, Catherine?”
“Isaac’s a special person. Once he decides to trust you, he’ll never question you. After that night, when Vincent was … when he helped me search …” She winced at the recollection of his injuries, to his body, to his spirit … at the accusation in Father’s eyes. Even now, years later, a sour queasiness rose in her throat at the thought. She hadn’t known then, couldn’t imagine or understand the depth or breadth of their bond, of his commitment … or what he would willingly risk. Swallowing against the memory, she struggled on. “Isaac saw him clearly – the tunnel entrance too – and he’s never asked me to explain. When I set this up for you, told him what you wanted, he just nodded. He’d make a good Helper … if we recruited Helpers.”
“I guess he trusts us then. He’s taught us things to do in enclosed spaces, close up, by ourselves, but in teams too. He never tells us to run or yell for help. It’s like he knows …”
“A part of him does know.” A vision took form, floating just out of her reach – a secret door sliding open, Vincent at her side … her hand outstretched for Isaac’s …
“I’m supposed to go up top today,” Jamie said and the dream fell away. “This afternoon. Esther and Damien went on the first crew though, so it’ll be just Willa and me.”
Catherine grinned, bringing her coffee to her lips. “Damien, the lone man among the warriors of Scythia.”
“Oh, he loves it,” Jamie scoffed. “But he’s really good, and he believes …”
“Believes in protecting Vincent,” Catherine acknowledged. “He, of course, wasn’t happy to hear about your lessons.”
“I know. He just gave me The Look. I didn’t back down though, and he never actually said anything. But here’s the thing, Catherine. Vincent’s leading a crew. He’s miles away. What are we supposed to do if something happens down here? Or we’re up top, doing whatever, and somebody needs help? It’s not just about him!”
Catherine nodded, understanding all of it. It was mostly about Vincent. She fitted her mug to a scar in the wooden tabletop.“This problem, up north … do you think … is it dangerous?”
“It’s hard to say. There were some … ummm … incidents … years ago near the perimeter. Really bad ones. I was still– It was before– Well, I’ve heard the stories. It’s best if we stop anyone outside from coming further in. And if it’s topsiders …”
“I know. Vincent couldn’t tell me which would be worse. It’s all bad, isn’t it?”
“Could be. But we can stop it. Kanin and Vincent and Cullen and Mouse together are genius. It’s just going to take time.”
“I think, sometimes … it’s so strange. They’re less than fifteen miles away from here, hardly an hour’s drive with heavy traffic. But for them … I mean, for us, it’s days of carrying and camping and complicated logistics.”
Jamie set her elbow on the table, propping her cheek on the heel of her hand. “Some of this has to be awfully hard for you, Catherine. Two worlds. All the secrets. The … differences. Are you happy here?”
“I am.” Of that she was certain, but she searched her cup for a few moments, swirling the dark brew. “I want to be part of you,” she said, meeting Jamie’s gaze. “On my own, not just when Vincent is here, not just because I’m … with him. That’s going to take time, to develop a history … my history. I’ve known you all such a short while.”
“If you ask me,” Jamie said, “it feels like you’ve always been here.”
* * *
Helping. A misnomer, she decided.The job was dusty, strenuous, and one she accomplished mostly on her own. Samantha and Geoffrey attempted a bucket brigade, passing tomes hand to hand, but soon enough their enthusiasm waned, another obligation suddenly remembered. So many books, so little empty space, and, after Father would necessarily approve a volume for shelving, a few only after first some page-turning and note-taking, Arthur insisted on inspecting each as it went in. Catherine climbed down after the last one was refitted and fell into the nearest chair.
“Where will you put all those books of Dad’s? Are you sure you really want them?”
He swiveled from his laden desk, inched his chair around to face hers. “Oh, yes, indeed. Absolutely. He was interested in ancient history, didn’t you say? And Etruscan archaeology? Fascinating, fascinating.”
“Father, tell me the truth. Have you ever met a book you didn’t like?”
He steepled his fingers and tipped his head against the high back of his chair, the beginning of a smile on his lips.
He’s enjoying this game, she thought.
“A book I didn’t like … surely there was one. I will give that serious thought, Catherine, very serious thought,” he said as he closed his eyes.
“Hey! Are you going to sleep?”
“No, not at all. I’m just … thinking.” He snugged his robe’s lapels closer, crossed his arms and settled in his chair. “Well, maybe just a short nap before supper.”
“Is it that late?” A day had passed, most of it, with Vincent gone from her, and the time had worn easily, companionably. She would stay for the meal, enjoy the evening’s promised entertainment, and then …
Earlier Pascal had delivered the news to Father – the crew had reached the first destination, camp had been set, the late afternoon’s work had gone well. And there had been a message for Catherine. A blushing courier, Pascal passed it to her in private, calling her down from her perch, waiting for her in the entryway, darting away before she could unfold the heavy ivory paper, before she began to read his translation of tapped code – two lines written in Pascal’s careful, cramped script, but heard in Vincent’s voice …
We are such stuff as dreams are made on.1
Sleep well tonight, Catherine.
She missed him, but he knew that.
* * *
When the evening drew to its close, when the children who begged her to read to them took her third or fourth declaration of last one to heart, she found herself in Vincent’s chamber, their common room, as he called it now, the room they used for company, for meetings, for Vincent’s classes. Their rooms beyond the stained glass were private –and though the secret door stood open now, always, no one ventured past his old chamber without an invitation.
It was the same – this room – filled with his furniture, his keepsakes, his presence, his scent … and she was soon lost in his treasures.
Here, she curled up in his bed, a bolster in her arms. Here, on the anniversary of her first night below, she slept alone. His voice came to her, dreamed and whispered, lulling her, and in the hollow of his memory, her day rounded with sleep. 2
There is none like her, none.
And never yet so warmly ran my blood
And sweetly, on and on
Calming itself to the long-wished-for end,
Full to the banks, close on the promised good.
None like her, none. 3
Chapter Title : Robert Browning. Meeting at Night, Parting at Morning. 1849.
Title quotation: Robert Burns. Farewell to Eliza. 1786.
1. William Shakespeare. from The Tempest. 1611.
3. Alfred, Lord Tennyson. from Maud, XVIII. 1854.
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