"The quality of mercy is not strain'd," said the note.
It did not surprise me that a man with Magnus' background knew the language of flowers. But, where in the name of God did he find purple hyacinth? The floral symbol for sorrow and forgiveness, for mercy given and forgiveness craved, does not grow well in a dry climate such as New Mexico. Not at all well. And he was doing more than asking for my forgiveness. My fingers trembled for a brief instant as I realized that Logan would live.
I found him on my balcony, sitting silently, staring into the sun, watching it's sad journey across the sky. I knelt beside his chair. With tender hands, I slowly lowered his gaze to mine. He blinked, focusing his dazed blue gray eyes.
"You'll hurt yourself if you keep doing that," I chided him softly. He cupped my cheek and then let his hand fall away, curling his fingers into his palm.
"Would it really matter?" he asked, bitter as brine. "There are those who might say that I am already blind. Much blinder than your Slim." I kissed his eyes and heard him draw a sharp involuntary breath. I hadn't thought that the kiss might remind him of Charles. I bit my lip.
"But they're such beautiful eyes," I foundered.
He closed his eyes to cut me off from the sight of them and my weakness. His usually immaculate clothes were wrinkled and worn. On his cheeks lay the pale shadow of a silver beard. He ran his fingers through his thick silver hair and tugged at it brutally.
"There is a snake," he said, "that lives in southern climes. Sleek and supple, the color of burnished cooper with bright red banded markings. Lovely, like a gem." Blood trickled from between his clenched fingers from the wounds his fingernails left in his palms.
"False beauty," he mourned, "disguising the ugliness beneath." Slowly, deliberately, I unclenched his hand and held it.
"You're not a snake," I pointed out. He smiled at that.
"No," he agreed, "I am not. The snake has no say in what it is."
I lead him to the bed and lay him down with his head in my lap. He didn't struggle. He was very tired, I think. I doubt that he'd slept at all the night before. The sense of touch is a very important one. Our sense of touch is what makes other people real to us. We can feel their reality and we are less alone. It connects us and makes us whole. I stroked Magnus forehead soothingly, being very careful not to touch his hair.
"What was her name?" I asked him, as he grew drowsy in my arms.
"Gabrielle," he whispered. "Beautiful, beautiful Gabby ..."
Until that moment I hadn't known her name. But, like a beloved myth, I knew that she had to exist. She ... or someone like her. Men quarrel, they posture and threaten and upon occasion they fight. Perhaps it's only my somewhat skewered view of the world, but most often what they fight about is women. Quite tiresome, really, when you encounter it as often as I. But there was more to this than simple jealousy, I sensed. Much more. Oh, jealousy was a part of it, right enough. No question about that. No question at all.
The question was, of whom was Magnus jealous?
Leaning down, I kissed Magnus softly into the comforting embrace of slumber and held him until his breathing quieted, watching the steady rise and fall of his broad chest. I didn't want to leave him. I was afraid that he might dream and I wanted to be there if he woke in the midst of a nightmare. Silly, I know. But I couldn't abandon him to his inner demons; his guilt and pain.
But I had to know.
And there was only one other place to find out, wasn't there?
Silently, with great care, I rose and left him sleeping in my bed, seeking the last piece of the puzzle that was Magnus.
My student knocking on his door probably did little to rouse Charles, I'll confess. And not simply because of his handicap. Our good doctor does things in his own way, his own time. I waited impatiently for several moments and then called softly, "Charles, please answer the door. I need your help."
But the crystal blue gaze that engulfed me with the opening door didn't belong to Charles. Calm and steady, Ora stared back at me, her mass of snow white hair spilling from beneath the colorful blue and yellow turban she wore. I've often wondered just where she came from, originally. Her voice still bears the faintest trace of an accent. English isn't her first language, that's certain. Those liquid vowels and soft consonants never sprang from the King's English.
"Jean," she greeted me with a smile. Then she frowned when she saw my anxious face. "Bright Lady, protect you, what's wrong, child?"
Somehow being called a child didn't bother me. Not when it came from her lips. Ora is much more than simply Charles' assistant. She's a midwife and a damn fine herbalist, for one thing. Charles is the first to admit that he's learned quite a lot from her about herbal medicines. She is Charles' arms and legs, when need be, yes. But she's more than that. No one in town speaks of it or thinks ill of her, you understand. They simply assume that Ora is Charles' occasional bed mate. Forge might have something to say about that. Hereabouts he's known as "The Maker"; and not just because he's the town blacksmith. If you need something made or fixed, take it to Forge.
No, Ora isn't Charles' lover. She's his conscience, his his friend and helpmeet, and much, much more. I doubt that Charles could function without her. Or would want to. If it weren't for the accident of race that separates them, they might be married. Certainly there are times when they act as if they are.
"Ora," I pleaded, "I must see Charles. It's - it's very important." Tall and proud, she stepped aside and gestured me into her employers sanctum.
"Come in, child," she urged, "come in. I'll fetch Charles for you. He'll want to see you."
As I watched her walk gracefully away, head held high, I doubted that very much. But no doubt, by the time Ora has spoken to him in her soft, demanding way, Charles *would* agree to see me. Fleetingly, and not for the first time, I wondered how Ora had survived as a slave, with her pride and dignity intact. So different. So very different from Magnus ...
And then I realized that Ora's survival was no great mystery. For she had never been a slave. Her body, yes; but never Ora. Ora had always been free; and Magnus might very likely never be free.
When Charles appeared, leaning on his canes and seeking the relief of a chair, I minced no words. His haggard mien did not stop me. Nor the look in his haunted blue eyes. I did not let it. I have come to regret that, now. But, then, I brushed it aside and plunged mercilessly, imprudently, into the thick of things.
"Tell me about Gabrielle," I demanded.
Charles' eyes widened and his breath whistled between his teeth for an instant.
"Who told you about Gabrielle?" he questioned me, trying very hard to be soi-distant and stern and not succeeding at all.
It's almost impossible to be master of a situation when your voice is trembling, I've noticed. But Charles made a valiant effort. I didn't bother to answer. It was, to be certain, a foolish question. There remained only one other possible source of my knowledge, after all. I said nothing and waited. At the thought of Magnus a strange thing happened to Charles. His lips began to pull themselves back in a snarl but I was not surprised by that. What rocked me was when his snarl disappeared almost at once. The smile that replaced it was sunny and open, reaching and warming his blue eyes. There was nothing of reserve or caution in it. Charles was happy and he wanted everyone to know. He fairly glowed for an instant.
But only an instant.
Mind you, Charles has smiled before; many times. He maintains a very pleasant facade. And it's not as if he's given to lies and deception. Never think that. He's not. Be even at the best of times, when he is at his most cheerful and buoyant, there's still something ... missing. Some small part of him that is cautious. That is fearful, perhaps, of acknowledging his happiness, even to himself, lest he lose it. But there was no trace of any such thing here, now, in this smile.
And when it was gone, I somehow felt ... the less ... for it's baseness. I lowered my eyes to mourn.
Charles' eyes clouded with memory. Sadness flicked deep in those azure depths and I could almost see the instant he decided he talk to me take shape there. It is often easier, I have discovered, for someone carrying such a burden of guilt and anger as Charles, to talk to a relative stranger. And Charles, I realized, was desperate to talk to someone. To share his story with someone who might understand it. And he thought that I might.
"She was someone, I loved once," he said in a distant thin voice that seemed to come from far away. Out of a dream, perhaps. He could not look at me but I never took my eyes off him. Ora brought tea as Charles spoke and it sat forlorn, cold and ignored by the both of us, lost as we were in the narrative unfolding from Charles' thin lips. But Ora's kindness and understanding did not stop there. For the most part, the tall African woman gave us our privacy, slipping away, disappearing into the depths of Charles' rooms. But ... she did not abandon us, whenever Charles would flag in the telling of his tale, whenever his courage threatened to desert him, she would appear at his side as if by magic and, with a gesture, a touch, would offer him a small part of her courage. I said almost nothing. I simply let him talk.
"Gabrielle ... " he whispered. "Gabrielle ... Gabby was my salvation. She taught me that I was still a person ... still a man ... in spite of these ... " He fingered his canes idly. "Gabby taught me to love myself again. I came to love myself because she loved me. She ... and Magnus." He whispered the name like a benediction and I drew a sharp breath at the sound of it. He sought my eyes, now.
"I wasn't always like this, you know." he said. "After the accident, I - I had to get away. I fled from my family and all their pity and solicitude. I couldn't bear it anymore. All the piteous looks, all the eager, helping hands. 'Please, Charles! Be careful, now! You'll overextend yourself! Remember what the doctors told you! Here, let me get that for you! I don't mind at all, really, I don't!' Between that and my step brother Cain ... He liked to trip me in passing and watch me fall. And then he'd laugh at me." He covered his ears for an instant as if to block out the sound of that invading, unwelcome laughter and closed his eyes against the memory of it. His voice rose in falsetto mockery. "'What's the matter, Charlesy-Wharlsey? Can't stay on your own feet? Have a nice trip ... on *me*!'" Bitterness ate away at his simple words like acid and I suppose I must have flinched from them. But Charles was relentless, now.
"So I ran away. Ran all the way across the country to be free of them. Down to New Orleans. That's where I met Gabby. She was a streetwalker ... a whore ... and she made no apologies for it. It wasn't easy for a free woman of color in those days in a city like New Orleans. Gabby lived as best she could."
I smiled, wanly. "Surely, you don't expect me to think the worse of her for that?" I remarked, trying to keep my voice level and my face calm. I like to think that I succeeded. Still, I can't be certain, of course. Though, if I betrayed myself, Charles gave no sign of it. But then, Charles was always polite. He looked quite serene as he continued. As if the press of a great weight were slowly being lifted from off his relieved body.
"How did you met her?" I asked, soft voiced.
He looked away, unable to met my gaze and studied his canes intently, figuring them as if to remind himself of their reality.
"I - I --" he stammered, searching desperately for words that would not come easily to his lips. He fell silent and I was not sure what to do. Should I prompt him with more questions? Would that be wise? Or might it only alienate him further? Drive him even more deeply within himself? I do not deal well with confusion. Perhaps it was this that finally motivated Charles. I could almost see him take firm hold of his resolve and shake himself free of his reticence.
"I was drinking quite a bit in those early days," he admitted. "More than I should, perhaps. I - was not always wise in choosing my words. I was quick to offer bitter offense to one and all. Eventually ... it got me into trouble. I - misspoke - when I shouldn't have. Gabby's quick thinking saved me from a severe beating at the hands of a group of ruffians. Rather the reverse of the classic 'Damsel in Distress", I fear." He even smiled at the memory and I made bold to join him.
"When I came to my senses," he explained, "I was very grateful. I thought to use my money and position to help her. But she was proud. It was only when I put it to her in the form of a business proposition that she succumbed to my non-existent charms." Ora brought fresh tea and her smile to join us and Charles poured and offered me a warm cup of the fragrant brew. Gratefully, I accepted. I was very careful to make certain that my hand was steady as I brought the cup to my lips to sip.
"I told her that I wished a companion ... someone ... a lady of intelligence and grace to brighten my dreary days and lonely nights. Gabby ... sensed, I think, that I was only mocking myself in part ... that I really did desire it. From the first she could always read me like the open pages of a book. Imagine my joy when she accepted. And why shouldn't she? It took her off the crowded dangerous city streets. My small, comfortable rooms became our sanctuary. Our huddling place away from the time and tide of the outer world. It ... was magical ... " His eyes shone like small, bright stars.
"I never thought I'd be happier," he said. And the truth of that simple statement was in his face. His hands tightened on his canes. "And then, miraculously, we were three ... and I *was* happier ... happier than I had ever dared to dream."
My quick gasp of indrawn breath caught his attention and he speared me with his merciless eyes.
"Magnus?" I whispered.
He nodded. The muscles of his face worked themselves as if in rebellion until, after a moment, they lay calm once more "Magnus." he agreed. I stirred to life.
"How - how did you met him?"
"I answered my door one lazy afternoon ... and there he stood ... framed by the setting sun. Glowing like the precious metal he was named for."
"Silver ... " I breathed. And he took my hand in his, grasping it tightly, as if to anchor himself, to keep from losing himself in the power of his memories.
To keep from losing the both of us.
"He came looking for Gabby," he said. "When she disappeared from the streets he was worried for an old friend. So he slipped away from his House and came searching for her. Since she was last seen in my company, he came to me. Gabby was very glad to see him. He stayed for dinner ... and never really left." Charles covered his face with his hands. The voice that emerged from behind his would be shield was thick with his passion and shame.
"I could not help myself," he pleaded for understanding. "God as my witness, I could not. He was hungry. So hungry for knowledge and affection. Starving. When I thought of him in that awful place ... in the hands of uncaring strangers ... I wanted to be ill. I showed him my books and opened his mind to philosophy and poetry. And science! He soaked it all in like a sponge. Before long he was reading the poems of Keats and Byron in that beautiful musical voice of his ... And I was lost. Utterly lost."
Tenderly, I took his hands in mine and moved them away, uncovering his face. His eyes did not thank me at first, but when I squeezed one hand in patient sympathy, he did not flinch or try to stop me. "I know." I assured him. "God help me ... I know. He's easy to love."
"I never meant for it to happen," Charles mourned. "You must believe me when I tell you that. You must! It - it was an accident. I swear it was! I never - I never intended -" He swallowed his words with a gulp, staring at me as if daring me to dispute him.
"Nei - neither did I ... " I spoke so quietly that, at first, I wasn't at all sure he had heard me. But he must have.
"One night he and Gabby were making love ... I was watching ... And ... And ... " He swallowed hard.
"You joined them," I guessed . His nod of affirmation was tiny, barely moving his sleek head.
"I've never ... before or since ... " He seemed to lose his voice, then, lapsed into a loud thunderous silence that engulfed us both. On ever silent feet Ora brought us small spiced cakes hot from her oven. The graceful hand that she lay briefly on Charles' tense shoulder must lent him a bit of her considerable courage and strength, for within moments, he found his voice again. Although it was not easy. No, it was not.
"I never even imagined ... " Charles swore. " ... not with another man ... But Magnus ... Magnus seemed to need me ... So hungry ... so hungry for love ... " I squeezed his hand when his voice faltered and, after a moment, he continued. "It seemed so natural," he breathed. "Such a natural expression of my feelings for him ... And for Gabby. From that night on, it was most often the three of us in that bed."
"That ... must have been difficult to arrange," I guessed. He nodded.
"More difficult than you can imagine," he agreed. "Less difficult than you might think. I - I must have spent a small fortune arranging it with his House. I - I - " he looked away. "I even offered to ba-buy him. Of course, I never told him that. It would have ... it would have infuriated him. He was so proud. All that anger ... so much anger ... "
I stroked his cold hand in understanding.. No words were needed.
"The Madame wouldn't hear of it. Magnus was not for sale at any price. So I - I did the only thing I could think to do ... I purchased as much of his time as I was allowed and I did not let myself think of ... others ... others who might come to his House ... and yet ... And yet I tormented myself with visions of them ... Visions of Magnus in the hands of others ... " Even now, he closed his eyes against the sight of such an obscenity and my stomach roiled in rebellion.
"My poor family ... " he mourned. "What a thoughtless wastrel they must have believed me! They bore it, unchallenged, for almost a year and then ... then they began demanding my return. There was trouble with my step-brother Cain, they said ... My mother fell ill. She was calling for me."
With a rattle, Ora drew back the heavy white damask curtains from the large bay window, bathing the cozy room in the ruby light of the dying day. Charles watched the painted glory of the setting sun, all purple and scarlet and gold, his pale eyes reflecting their bright colors, his face twisting with remembered pain.
"What could I do?" he pleaded for understanding. "I - I was needed ... my mother ... " he rubbed his temples rhymically as if the memory were an actual physical pain. "After ... after the death of my father, my mother was never a well woman. And I was ashamed that I had abandoned her so precipitously. When she married my father's colleague Kurt Marko, I was so angry with her! Why couldn't I have been enough for her? Why must she bring these boorish strangers into our home, into our lives? Now I know that she was only lonely. Lonely and afraid. But I didn't understand that until much later. Tucked safely away in my warm comfortable New Orleans hideaway, I felt so guilty! She - she was ill ... I must go to her, I thought."
"You ... left ?"
The muscles of his face twisted and writhed in agony, mirroring perfectly, I suspected, the state of his mind. "What choice did I have?" he cried. "They threatened me! I must come at once, they insisted! I - I made plans to leave New Orleans ... " In an instant, then, his face calmed itself, falling once more into its familiar lines of stoic stillness to mask itself. His hands stopped shaking and he regarded me levelly from out of his bright, hidden blue eyes.
"But then, Gabrielle ran away," he said in a voice that was quite devoid of all feeling. "She stole money from me and fled. Disappeared in the space of a single night. When I went to Magnus in despair to see if she might have confided in him he was quite candid with me. I fact, I'd say he took great delight in telling me that he sent Gabby away. Frightened at the thought of my possible desertion, she came to him, seeking comfort and advice in her travail. And he lied to her. He told her that I intended to leave her ... to return to New England without her. He laughed when he told me how he persuaded her to take my money and run ... to leave me. And he knew ... he knew! Magnus saw the railway tickets himself. Gabby was to come with me. I always planned for her to accompany me home."
I looked away. In that moment I could not face the emptiness in Charles' smooth face as he recounted all his efforts to find his lost Gabrielle. All the years of fruitless searching, the many dead ends and blind alleys his quest led him to. Now, I was the one futilely covering my face with the puny shelter of my shielding hands.
"Oh, Magnus ... Magnus .. " I mourned in the privacy of my thoughts, "why ... why would you do such a terrible thing to someone who loved you ... *why* - ?"
And then I knew. Like a physical blow my mind and body resounded with the knowledge and I lowered my hands slowly, staring at the now silent Charles. He must have sensed it, fathomed my new certainty almost as if he had read my mind, for he shrank from me as if he were afraid of my rejection, my loathing. Or perhaps he merely read it in my eyes.
"And what about Magnus?" I inquired softly. I watched the panic and terror blossom in his pale eyes and ignored them "You weren't going to take him with you, were you?" I did not even grace him with time to deny it. "Only Gabrielle. After all ... how could you ever explain him to your family? To your colleagues? A beautiful freedwoman as your mistress was one thing. But Magnus, a man ... well that was something else entirely, wasn't it? Gracious! What a scandal!"
"No - no!" my one time lover stammered, pale and shaken. "You - you don't understand - "
"Oh, you're wrong, Charles," I denied it, cutting him off in mid sentence, "you're so very wrong. I do understand. Why, I understand perfectly. Do you think I haven't thought about going home? And about how my family would take to the knowledge of how I've spent these last several years? Of course, I have ... " I lowered my voice into a telling mockery of his own vibrant baritone, biting off my words like bullets from one of Magnus' well polished guns.
"What would the neighbors say?"
I left him then, left him sitting in his stiff chair, clawing after his own self respect and what little comfort he could find. Out in the street I blinked up at the waning sun in astonishment. It hardly seemed as if I'd spent hours, the whole of the afternoon, listening to Charles. And yet the evidence of my eyes could not be denied. It was the shank of the evening and I ... I found myself hurrying down the street, almost running, heedless of the few others out this early in the evening. I'm not sure, at first, that I had a destination in mind. I was simply moving. Moving away from Charles and his haunted eyes and his exposed heart.
But when I found myself once more in my own familiar, safe rooms I wasn't at all surprised. Far from it. Somehow I had known, hadn't I, that Magnus was what I sought? I rushed into the bedroom, calling his name.
But there came no answer.
My bed was empty. Magnus was gone.
I found him in a most unexpected place. The Ace Of Spades is not one of his usual haunts.
End, Part 4
*Cue Music From "The Good, The Bad And the Ugly"* On To Part 5! Ya'll!