Judith Rock: The Eloquence of Blood

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Judith Rock The Eloquence of Blood
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    The Eloquence of Blood
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Judith Rock

The Eloquence of Blood

Chapter 1


Under a sky the gray of slushy puddles, the afternoon was fading to an early dusk. Silence lay like a glaze of ice over the college of Louis le Grand and its motley facade of stone, plaster, and brick, its honeycomb of courtyards, its slate-roofed towers and gables. Then a door banged open and a flood of boys poured into the Cour d’honneur, the school’s vast main courtyard, followed by two black-cloaked Jesuits. Most of the students started warming games of chase, but two fourteen-year-olds, trailed by a younger boy, sped to the chapel.

“I somehow doubt that those three have been struck by an urge to prayer,” Maitre Charles du Luc said dryly to his companion. “Shall I go and see?”

Pere Thomas Damiot nodded, laughing. “I think you will find them searching diligently for an answer to prayer.”

Huddling into his cloak, Charles crossed the windy courtyard to the always-open chapel door and stopped unnoticed on the threshold. A little way inside, the three boys were gathered around the stone clamshell that held holy water.

“It’s frozen!” one of the older boys said jubilantly. “Oh, thank the Blessed Virgin!” He bent his knee hurriedly toward the altar and crossed himself.

But the other was poking a skeptical finger at the skim of ice on the water. “It’s not frozen enough.”

The first speaker turned and stared at the shattered ice skim. “Oh, Venus’s bosoms!”

Round-eyed at the daring oath and shivering so hard his teeth chattered, the smallest boy stood on tiptoe to peer into the shell. “Quid-quem-um-” Giving up trying to speak Latin, as the older boys were doing and the college rules required, he whispered in French, “When is it frozen enough?”

Allowances being admissible for the as yet un-Latined, the oath swearer descended to French. “When you can skate on it. Then we stay indoors for recreation.”

“Skate on that?” The little one stared in bewilderment at the holy water. “How?”

“Figure of speech, dunce!”

“He hasn’t had rhetoric,” the other fourteen-year-old said mildly. “And anyway, what you said isn’t a figure of speech.” He frowned. “Is it?”

“Who cares? It’s Christmas vacation! Come on, race you!”

Deciding that he hadn’t heard the oath, Charles swallowed his laughter, stepped quickly aside from the doorway, and pretended to study the complex set of sundials on the tallest tower. A pointless exercise under the cloud blanket, but he was well aware that students expected professors to do pointless things. The older boys ran past him with barely a glance. The little one plodded after them, absorbed in pulling his wide-brimmed hat down over his ears, and went to join a game of tag.

“I take it their prayer is still unanswered,” Damiot said, joining Charles.

“Is that the rule? They can’t stay indoors until the holy water freezes solid?”

“Certainly it is the rule. Ah, there they are.” Damiot nodded toward the pair of courtyard proctors arriving to oversee this first recreation for students spending the Christmas break in the college. “Now we can go. And we’d better make speed to St. Louis, or Pere Pinette will have our heads.”

“Who is Pere Pinette?”

“Rector of the Professed House-our house near the church of St. Louis. For fully professed Jesuits who work in Paris but aren’t connected with Louis le Grand.” Damiot started toward the vaulted stone passage leading from the Cour d’honneur to the street. “Our Pere Pinette takes ceremony as seriously as a general takes battle.”

“Well, it is the Prince of Conde’s ceremony,” Charles said, following him into the dank, echoing passage, “and he was France’s greatest general.” He caught up with Damiot and lowered his voice. “I know we’re all deeply honored that the Conde has left us-um-part of himself, him being a Prince of the Blood. But I confess that dead royalty leaving their hearts and entrails and so on to churches and monasteries has always seemed to me a little bizarre. Why is it done?”

Damiot looked at Charles as though he’d asked why the sun rose. “Because it’s always been done.” He shrugged. “Surely it’s obvious. A man’s heart is the most important earthly part of him, so to leave that to a monastery or a church is to confer a very great honor.”

“Yes, I suppose I can see that. About what the heart means.” Charles assumed a puzzled frown. “But what does it mean if he leaves you his-um-bowels and so on?”

Damiot’s mouth twitched. “Fortunately, the Conde left us only his heart, so restrain your thirst for knowledge. Seriously, Maitre du Luc, a royal personage gives an incomparable gift when he leaves his heart in the keeping of those who will pray for his soul and honor his life. Such a gift is a mark of the greatest honor and can only enhance the reputation of the community chosen. Which is another reason we cannot be late.”

Charles forced his numb feet to move faster. “I’ll be frozen to death before we get there, so it won’t matter if I’m late.”

“Don’t be so dramatic, it’s not really cold at all for Christmas Eve. You should have been here last year.”

“Dear Virgin of Sorrows,” Charles muttered under his breath, reaching under his cloak to rub the old war wound in his left shoulder, which minded the weather even more than the rest of him did.

This winter was his first in Paris and he was hating the cold. He tried to remind himself that this was only Paris, and they were only going to the church of St. Louis across the river, not setting out over snowy wastes for a frozen Jesuit mission in New France. Nevertheless, Charles suspected that if the devil appeared out of the street passage’s chill shadows and offered him sunbaked warmth in trade for his soul, he’d have a sharp spiritual struggle on his hands. Not that winter wasn’t cold in his native south of France. It snowed there, too, but less, and at least the sun showed itself. This endless northern gray threatened to sink deeper into his soul than the cold had sunk into his bones. But when he’d made the mistake of saying so, his fellow Jesuits had only laughed and told him darkly to wait until January.

The sniffling lay brother who had drawn the day’s duty as porter opened the narrow postern door and let them out into the rue St. Jacques. Wind whipping merrily up from the Seine hit them full in the face.

“If you’re so warm, Pere Damiot,” Charles said through his chattering teeth, “you can give me your cloak!”

“That was Saint Martin who gave away his cloak, Maitre du Luc, not our blessed Saint Ignatius.” Damiot grinned at Charles. “Besides, I am a priest, and you are a lowly scholastic.” Charles, though a teacher, was still in what was called the scholastic phase of the long Jesuit training, still studying as well as teaching, and years from priesthood and final vows. Which was why his title was maitre, which meant master, and not pere, Father. “So if there is any cloak-giving,” Damiot said, in the pious tones of a novice seeing himself in line for the papal throne, “it should go the other way. For the good of your soul, of course.”

Happily trading mild barbs, they went down St. Genevieve’s hill. Charles, twenty-eight, with wide shoulders and his Norman mother’s thick, straw-colored hair, was taller than most Frenchmen. But the thin, dark, thirty-five-year-old Damiot was only half a head shorter and their long strides matched well enough. Their love of words and the stage also matched, Charles being a rhetoric teacher and producer of college ballets, and Damiot being the author of this year’s holiday farce-for Louis le Grand Jesuits only-to be done the day after Christmas.

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