The Devil's Door: A Catherine LeVendeur Mystery

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9780765310347: The Devil's Door: A Catherine LeVendeur Mystery

1140 Anno Domini:

A wealthy countess lies dying at the Convent of the Paraclete, brutally beaten by unknown assailants. Despite entreaties, she is unwilling to name her killer. Beautiful Catherine LeVendeur, the Paraclete's most learned young novice-scholar, vows to find out the identity of the woman's attacker.

When her beloved Edgar comes to lead her from the convent to a life of the flesh, Catherine is torn between her quest for justice and the pledge she made him. Catherine doesn't want to break any of the vows she's made-and if she abandons her crusade for the truth, others will die, and the convent she loves may be destroyed...

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About the Author:

Sharan Newman won Romantic Times magazine's Career Achievement Award for Historical Mystery in 1999. She lives in Oregon.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

THE DEVIL'S DOOR,
OneThe convent of the Paraclete, Feast of Saint Benedict, Thursday, March 21, 1140 
Haec quippe prima sapientiae clavis definitur, assidua scilicet seu frequens interrogatio; ... Dubitando enim ad inquisitionem venimus; inquirendo veritatem percipimus ... . 
Assiduous and frequent questioning is indeed the first key to wisdom ... for by doubting we come to inquiry; through inquiring we perceive the truth ... .--Peter Abelard, Introduction to Sic et Non 
 
Sister Bertrada was snoring like a woman possessed. The snorts, trills, gasps and sudden silences, each followed by a piercing screech, bespoke a hideous battle with the forces of evil. To Catherine, wide awake in the next bed of the dormitory, it appeared that evil was winning. She tried covering her ears with her pillow but it was far too thin. How could the others stand it? Catherine peered down the row of narrow cots but could see no signs of wakefulness from the rest of the women.Beside her, there was a minor explosion as when wine ferments too long in the cask and suddenly erupts from the bung hole. Sister Bertrada should be grateful the pillows were so flimsy for Catherine was sorely tempted to smother her with one.Outside the rain dripped gently from the roof. It was the deepest part of night, Compline long past and Vigils nowhere near. All the women slept. Catherine lay awake and wondered why she had come back to the convent from Paris.She had not wanted to venture out of the cloister in the first place, but had gone at the request of the abbess, Héloïse. However, in following that request Catherine had found that the world was something she could not hide from, however inexplicable or frightening it might be. And it had been both. In the three months she had been away, her world had been turned inside out. Her family, whom she thought she knew as well as the lines of her own hand, had proved to be strangers. People she loved and trusted had dark, unsettling secrets. Even, no, especially, her own parents.My mother has gone insane and believes me risen to heaven and worthy of her prayers and my father is a Jewish apostate. She tried thinking it calmly, but she couldn't yet. How could anyone? It was too absurd to even say aloud. Oh, why had she ever left the cloister? Outside the walls of the Paraclete, life had so many complications.Of course, one of the complications she had found had been Edgar. And that was not something she wished to avoid.She smiled in the darkness, remembering the reaction of theconvent to her announcement of her intention to marry Edgar. Mother Héloïse had been warned in advance in a letter from Master Abelard. She was doubtful, but sympathetic. But others were not so kind."You think because you've gone and become betrothed that I will give up trying to save your soul," Sister Bertrada had told her the day she returned. "You are mistaken again, Catherine. Until you are wrapped tight in the marriage bed, I will keep up the struggle."Sister Bertrada had kept her word, watching Catherine every moment, catching every fault; catching faults that didn't exist; berating her for folding her hands incorrectly at prayer, for appearing at None in a torn robe. To remind her that there was no place for frivolity in a discussion of Saint Veronica, Catherine spent a day away from her books, embroidering the white crosses on the veils of the consecrated virgins instead."You see what you'll lose by this willful act?" the novice mistress asked, holding up the veil Catherine had just completed. "Marry now, and even if you crawl back to us, as I believe you will, you will never be able to consecrate your virginity to God. You'll always be less than perfect in his eyes."Catherine forbore reminding her that their own Abbess Héloïse had been married and borne a son before she became a nun. Did God love her less for that?Perhaps, a voice in her mind had whispered. How do you know who God loves?Catherine had admitted to herself that the affections of the Almighty were not known to her and held her tongue.Every day had been a new diatribe, every night a cacophonous concert. Sister Bertrada was a foretaste of purgatorial torment. And yet, Catherine was happy she had returned to the Paraclete before her marriage. She needed the wisdom of Mother Héloïse and her sisters in Christ to help her come to terms with all she had learned. The revelations about her father's ancestry, the pathetic madness of her mother, what would they mean to her life? And Roger, the uncle she had loved and who had shown himself possessed by an insanity even worse than her mother's, what if it should touch her, too? Would Edgar still want to marry her?No sane man would, her voices said. So it's likely he's possessed by his ownkind of lunacy. "Have you told him yet that your own mind argues with you?Catherine desperately tried to squelch such traitorous thoughts. One of her greatest desires was to control the doubts that tormented her as greatly as Sister Bertrada's snoring.The sounds from the next bed began to take on the fury of a tempest, one that might toss a ship like a toy upon the waves. Even now, Edgar might be somewhere on that dark water, making his way back to her from his family in Scotland, tossed and spun at the whim of Nature.Catherine sat up. This would not do. Another hour between Sister Bertrada and her own unruly mind would certainly cause the dementia she feared. Better to make her body work, instead. She stuck a stockinged toe out from under the cover. The cold sent a shock through her and she drew her foot back under the blanket and felt around with her hands for her slippers. Quietly she put them on and eased from the cot, keeping the blanket wrapped about her, her unbelted skirts trailing the wooden planks of the flaor.The darkness was almost complete but Catherine knew the way. At the end of the dormitory was a narrow staircase down to the cloister, only a step from the oratory where the sisters prayed and recited the office. She would go down now. In the silence and the darkness, she would pray for the serenity and forbearance she so lacked. If the bell rang for Vigils while she was still there, perhaps her nocturnal devotion would impress Sister Bertrada.Not likely, her voices reminded her. She'll be more inclined to say you need extra prayers more than the others and make you do this every night.Catherine sighed as she came to the top of the steps to the cloister. It didn't seem fair that her own thoughts, trained to question, should spend all their time questioning the ideas that would give her the most peace. It was even worse in that they were often right.Reaching the bottom of the staircase, she froze as a sudden light flashed across her eyes. Someone was coming across the cloister in a great hurry, the lantern she carried swinging dangerously as she ran.Knowing that wandering about alone at night was unsuitable behavior, Catherine stepped back into the shadows as Sister Thecla, the portress, rushed by on her way to the cell of Abbess Héloïse.Forgetting rules in her intense curiosity, Catherine followed theportress out into the rain, stopping only to stick her feet into a pair of wooden sabots from the row kept by the door. She must find out what was going on. What sort of visitor would arrive in the middle of the night? It could only be something serious, a missive of terrible urgency. Irrationally, she thought of Edgar. His ship had been lost; brigands had cut his throat. Worry for him was so much on her mind that she didn't stop to think that she was not important enough for someone to come racing through the night to relay such a thing to her.The abbess appeared only a moment after Sister Thecla had entered. She wrapped her scarf around her head as she followed the portress through the cloister, out into the yard and into the portress's lodge by the gate.Catherine knew the trouble she would be in if she were discovered, but she followed them all the same. She covered her head with the blanket, slinking after them like a misplaced shadow, trying to keep her feet from squelching in the mud.The two women entered the gatehouse. Catherine crept up to the door to hear what was going on."She must have someone with her constantly," a man's voice commanded. "Have the priest within call for last rites. I don't know how she survived this long with what those bastards did to her.""She will not be left alone for a moment, my lord," Héloïse said softly. "We will see that she is well taken care of.""Good," the voice answered, as if dismissing her. "And I will do the same for Walter of Grancy.""Are you quite sure it was Walter?" she heard Héloïse ask."He was seen escaping. We found her soon afterwards, in the woods just outside the castle. Not," he added, "that it is any concern of yours."Catherine's mouth dropped open. How dare this man speak to the abbess so rudely! She thought she recognized the man's voice and half expected the roof to open and a well-aimed divine curse to fall upon Raynald of Tonnerre.She was so outraged that she didn't hear the next words and wasn't prepared for the door to be suddenly thrown open. Catherine found herself face to face with the man who had spoken. Startled, she tried to step back, but the sabot was stuck where she had been standing and she fell backwards into the mud.Raynald, Count of Tonnerre, stepped over her with complete indifference. He pulled on his gloves, fastened his cloak and went down the path to the stables by the guesthouse.As Catherine struggled to get up, another figure appeared in the doorway. The lamp illumined the face of Mother Héloïse. Normally its expression was gentle, if a bit sad. But Catherine took one look at her now and knew to the depths of her soul what it must be like to face the wrath of God.The abbess stood over her. With some difficulty Catherine released herself from the grip of the earth and got up. She was hampered by her efforts to get her foot back into the still-stuck sabot and, at the same time, cover her head with her blanket. She opened her mouth to explain. Héloïse cut her off with a gesture."There is nothing you can say to excuse your being here, at this hour, and in such a state, so don't waste my time trying," she said."No, Mother; yes, Mother. I'm sorry, Mother," Catherine stuttered.One corner of Héloïse's mouth twitched. Catherine exhaled in relief. No punishment was worse than Mother Héloïse being angry with her."I know very well that you are sorry only at being found in such a state, not for the curiosity that brought you to it," Héloïse continued. "We will discuss your correction tomorrow."For now," she added as Catherine turned to go back to the dormitory, "you can utilize your wakefulness in being of service. Go wash as much of yourself as you can and change into clean robes. Come to the infirmary when you are fit for Christian eyes.""Yes, Mother," Catherine gulped. The water would be as cold as Lucifer's heart but worth enduring to find out what all this was about. In the brief glimpse, she had confirmed her guess that the man was Raynald. And, she was also certain that under his cloak had been the gleam of chain mail. But who had he brought for the nuns to take care of and why at such an hour?Several icy minutes later she presented herself, shivering and damp, but clean, at the door of the infirmary.Sister Thecla admitted her and then went out, back to her station. Catherine took a step into the room and stopped in astonishment.Abbess Héloïse was sitting at the side of a bed on which lay a woman. Her head was swathed in bandages, her face swollen anddark with bruises. The arm that lay across the coverlet was also wrapped tightly, her fingers white and still. The two lay sisters who had carried her to the infirmary were just leaving with the litter."Come over here and sit down," Héloïse told her. "Sister Melisande is upstairs preparing the medicine she will need. It will take her a few more minutes. As long as you are awake, Catherine, I want you to remain here and give any help that is needed. I will send one of the other lay sisters also. Can you remain alert until Matins?""Yes, Mother." Suddenly Catherine felt the urge to yawn. She suppressed it as she brought her stool to the side of the bed. Hesitantly, she reached toward the injured woman's hand."It's the Countess Alys, isn't it?" she asked.Héloïse nodded. "She was brutally attacked, as you can see, a few days ago as she was returning from a visit to her mother in Quincy. The count thought she could be better cared for here. He has the right. When she gave us lands five years ago, the countess specifically requested that she be allowed to retire to our convent someday or at least, if that were not possible, to be buried with us.""You don't think she'll live?""It doesn't seem very likely," Héloïse answered. "She hasn't woken since she was found. Her arm was broken, the bones are splinters in her flesh. You can see how her face was battered. I understand that the rest of her body is also badly bruised."The abbess bent over to tuck in the coverlet more securely. In the lamplight, Catherine saw the tears glitter."You should use the time to prepare rags to replace the bandages," Héloïse said steadily. "You may have to use them before anyone comes. The countess also miscarried as a result of this attack. The women at the castle haven't been able to stop the bleeding. Call Sister Melisande if you feel unequal to the task.""I know what to do," Catherine assured her.After Héloïse had left, Catherine sat staring at the unconscious woman. The little oil lamp cast shadows across the bed, making the bandages seem grotesque. Only the rasp of her breath showed that the Countess Alys still lived. Catherine took a cloth and dipped it in a cup of water mixed with vinegar. She pressed it against the woman's dry lips and dampened as much of her face as was visible. She felt so useless. There was nothing more she could do."Sanctissime confessor Domini," she asked Saint Benedict. "Monachorum pater et dux, Benedicce, intercede pro sua salute."She started to stroke the uninjured hand, but at the first touch, Alys jerked away with a cry."Allder!" Her scream was harsh but weak, the words garbled through her battered face, a string of syllables Catherine couldn't understand, then, "Harou! No! Lord, lord! No!"Nervously, Catherine tried to calm her. Alys would injure herself more if she didn't stop moving about. Catherine lifted the coverlet to smooth it. A red stain had blossomed like a rose onto the sheet. Catherine swallowed. She wasn't upset by the mess but she was terrified that she would jolt the countess while cleaning her and cause her to become worse.As she stood staring down at the sheet and wondering if she should interrupt the infirmarian to ask for help, Catherine suddenly felt a tap on her shoulder."Arrp!" She inhaled a shriek and turned.The woman standing behind her signed an apology, but she was clearly amused at Catherine's reaction."Pacian...

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