The whole Scene
“Colum has a few small things that you haven’t, so far as I can see. Such as a sense of compassion.”
“Ah, yes. ‘Bowels of mercy and compassion,’ is it?” She spoke ironically. “Much good it may do him. Death sits on his shoulder; ye can see it with half an eye. The man may live two years past Hogmanay; not much longer than that.”
“And how much longer will you live?” I asked.
The irony turned inward, but the silver voice stayed steady.
“A bit less than that, I expect. No great matter. I’ve managed a good deal in the time I had; ten thousand pounds diverted to France, and the district roused for Prince Charles. Come the Rising, I shall know I helped. If I live so long.”
She stood nearly under the hole in the roof. My eyes were sufficiently accustomed to the darkness that she showed as a pale shape in the murk, a premature and unlaid ghost. She turned abruptly toward me.
“Whatever happens with the examiners, I have no regrets, Claire.”
“I regret only that I have but one life to give for my country?” I asked ironically.
“That’s nicely put,” she said.
“Isn’t it, just?”
We fell silent as it grew darker. The black of the hole seemed a tangible force, pressing cold and heavy on my chest, clogging my lungs with the scent of death. At last I huddled into as close a ball as I could, put my head on my knees, and gave up the fight, lapsing into an uneasy doze on the edge between cold and panic.
“Do ye love the man, then?” Geilie asked suddenly.
I raised my head from my knees, startled. I had no idea what time it was; one faint star shone overhead, but shed no light into the hole.
“Who else?” she said dryly. “It’s his name ye call out in your sleep.”
“I didn’t know I did that.”
“Well, do ye?” The cold encouraged a sort of deadly drowsiness, but Geilie’s prodding voice dragged me a bit further out of my stupor.
I hugged my knees, rocking slightly back and forth. The light from the hole above had faded away to the soft dark of early night. The examiners would arrive within the next day or so. It was getting a bit late for prevarications, either to myself or anyone else. While I still found it difficult to admit that I might be in serious danger of death, I was beginning to understand the instinct that made condemned prisoners seek shriving on the eve of execution.
“Really love him, I mean,” Geilie persisted. “Not just want to bed him; I know you want that, and he does too. They all do. But do you love him?”
Did I love him? Beyond the urges of the flesh? The hole had the dark anonymity of the confessional, and a soul on the verge of death had no time for lies.
“Yes,” I said, and laid my head back on my knees.