This was not was marriage was supposed to be.
Father Hugh had, naturally, never been married — he’d started as a novice with the Order of St. Pascal when he was but fifteen — but somehow, he knew that marriage was supposed to be better than this.
They were not supposed to walk like that, a full two steps between them horizontally, another step between them vertically. They were not supposed to look like that, one partner looking straight ahead, eyes glassy, the other partner staring longingly at the back of the first partner’s head. They were not supposed to be so coldly silent — not that there was anything wrong with silence, but Father Hugh could feel the chill from his station at the front of the church. There was quite a bit wrong with that.
But how to fix it? Father Hugh had been debating this point ever since the pair had consulted him — separately — in the confessional. In a way, it was natural; he’d been their confessor since both of them were children. (For a time he and Mother Julian had even had to split up the whole kingdom between them for the Sacrament of Confession, when Brother Tuck and Sister Margery had both been studying at Camford.) But in another way, it was not natural.
He was not supposed to be in this situation, he knew. Some orders even had rules that couples could not marry if they shared the same confessor. (That was foolish in Father Hugh’s eyes: first of all the orders had no right to be policing the marriages of the laypeople in that intrusive manner; secondly, what about small, isolated villages where there was only one confessor?) He should have, probably, suggested that either Meg or Pierre find a new confessor after they were wed. But the thought had slipped his mind entirely after the wedding. They had both seemed like such good, Wright-fearing folk that Father Hugh doubted that there would be any conflict of interest in his being the confessor for both of them. After all, other than hogging the blankets or fixing the same thing for dinner a few too many times, what sins were they likely to commit against each other?
Bad ones, apparently.
Father Hugh’s first inkling of trouble had shortly after the wedding. His inkling had come, as so many inklings had, in the confessional. Pierre had showed up at the church around sunset one day and asked to confess. Father Hugh had agreed — well, of course he had agreed, a monk didn’t refuse to hear a confession unless somebody was dying — unsure what Pierre could have possibly done that made him so nervous and on edge.
Cheating on his wife within the first month of marriage would do it, however.
“I don’t know what I was thinkin’, Father, I swear I don’t,” Pierre had said. Well, Father Hugh didn’t have an answer for that. “I jest — Simon said we was gonna go to the pub –”
“Pierre,” he interrupted, “you cannot blame your sin on others and expect to find forgiveness.”
“But I never would have gone there on me own!” Pierre protested.
“Well, did your brother threaten you or the ones you love in any way? Did he somehow compromise your Free Will before you laid with this woman?”
Pierre sighed. “No, Father.”
“Then I am sorry, my son, but this sin is on your conscience.” Though Simon probably had his own sins of fornication on his conscience, still, that wasn’t the topic they were contemplating now. “Continue.”
So Pierre had told the story — not that there was much to it — he had gone to the whorehouse, gone inside against his better judgment, been tempted, and succumbed to temptation. A simple, sordid story, like so many stories probably being told in confessionals across the length of Wrightendom as they spoke. At least Pierre had the grace to feel guilty about it. When Father Hugh had been a confessor back in Glasonland, he had met far too many men who had confessed the sins of fornication and adultery out of duty, but not with any evident feelings of true guilt.
Because of Pierre’s obvious guilt, Father Hugh had decided to make his penance easy — relatively easy, that is. Prayers were first of all in order. If Pierre had been a clerk or merchant’s employee, Father Hugh might have assigned some fasting, but Pierre was a farm hand and he needed all the food he could get. Instead Father Hugh cut alcohol and pub trips from Pierre’s life for the next six months. He’d also suggested that Pierre donate the money he would have spent at the pub to the church and orphanage.
The only potential part of the penance that Father Hugh had hesitated about was Meg. Some confessors, he knew, would require that Pierre tell Meg what had occurred in order to show his true contrition — and to truly feel the effects of his sin. And there were practical reasons for it, too, reasons like the risk of disease, and the fact that practically any woman would have been required to report her infidelity to her husband before she had a chance of obtaining Wright’s forgiveness.
But Father Hugh had decided against adding that to Pierre’s penance. It had been, he hoped, but a one-time lapse. To tell Meg what had happened — so soon after their wedding, too — would only hurt her, and to what purpose? As long as it didn’t happen again, there was no need to force more contrition on Pierre. As long as it didn’t happen again, there was no need to hurt Meg like that. If Pierre didn’t tell her, it wasn’t like there was any way she would find out — or so Father Hugh had thought.
Boy, had he been wrong on that one.
Meg had shown up in his confessional booth earlier this year, crying her eyes out. It had taken a full ten minutes for Father Hugh to get from her what had happened. And — this was what angered him most — she hadn’t even done anything!
Father Hugh had nothing against counseling his flock whenever and wherever they desired it, inside or outside the confessional. What angered him, rather, was that Meg felt that she needed to retreat to the privacy of the confessional in order to vent her emotions. That she felt she needed to occupy a space reserved for those who had done wrong — however slight a wrong they had done — in order to allow herself time to process perfectly natural emotions.
Maybe part of that was just Meg. He’d known her since she was a child and she had never been one to show her feelings to just anyone. Perhaps she would have had to go somewhere else, somewhere private, to give herself free rein.
But part of it, Father Hugh was certain, was the environment she was in — the environment in which she was surrounded by Pierre’s father, Pierre’s mother, and Pierre himself. And their child, who, while too young to understand what was going on, she would try to shield and protect and show as few emotions in front of as possible. Even if Edmond and Cerise Chevaux were the most sympathetic and fair-minded Sims in the world (which they were not), there would always be a slight bias in favor of their son. At the very least, their presence — especially if they were extremely sympathetic and fair-minded! — would constrain and hamper Meg. She wouldn’t want to be dragging them into the middle of a fight that wasn’t of their making.
Besides, Father Hugh knew Cerise and Edmond. Edmond would be doing his best to hide out the storm somewhere else (in other words, being no help at all) and Cerise would be throwing fuel on the fire. Even if she was throwing fuel in support of Meg — or at any rate, laying into Pierre on a regular basis for his sin and fault — that was certainly not helping Pierre in the least, nor Meg for that matter.
And Father Hugh knew it wasn’t helping either of them because both of them had come to him for confession. Pierre had come in a week ago, confessing his sin all over again and begging for some sort of advice on how to make it up to Meg. Father Hugh had little advice to give, other than to exhort Pierre to keep working on it, keep showing Meg he was trustworthy, keep treating her like a queen (as far as she would let him) and keep trying to shut down Cerise before she could get on Meg’s last nerve.
Meg had come for confession three days ago. “I jest don’t know what to do, Father,” she’d said after the opening words of the ritual — and three full minutes of silence. “I’m so tired of bein’ angry. But I don’t know how to forgive ‘im.”
That did it, for Father Hugh. It was time for an intervention.
“Meg. Pierre,” he said, waving both of them to the front of the church — in front of the wedding arch. “I’m so glad you could join me today.”
“O’ course, Father. Whatever ye need,” Pierre said as he shook the priest’s hand. Meg stood off to the side, wearing a small, too-tight smile.
Father Hugh had never done something like this before — he wasn’t even sure if he was, technically, allowed to do this. But something had to be done, for both of their sakes.
So he took a deep breath and replied, “Actually, Pierre, I did not ask you to come here because I needed something.” After a second’s pause, he continued, “I asked you here because you — both of you — desperately need counsel.”
“Counsel?” Meg asked.
Father Hugh took a deep breath. He was skirting dangerously close to a mortal sin here himself, but if he was careful, he’d just keep himself from going over the edge. Which was good, because he wouldn’t want to have to confess this sort of thing to Tuck. (Maybe, if he wasn’t careful, he’d go to Mother Julian instead.) “I’ve had you both in confession.”
Both of their eyes widened, since they knew, as did any good Wrightian, that what was said in confession was not to be repeated outside of it. And Father Hugh would not be repeating anything he had heard, technically. Technically.
“From what both of you have said, I have drawn certain conclusions. The first is that both of you are currently miserable in your relationship with each other.”
That was safe enough, Father Hugh was sure — he could have divined that much by standing in the market when all the old wives came out to gossip. Hell, he had heard as much on those occasions when he had to go out for last-minute eggs or fruit.
“The second is that …” This was more risky territory. “The second is that I believe the two of you still have some affection for each other.”
Meg and Pierre exchanged quick, shy glances and quickly looked away from each other.
“The third is that, despite this affection, you two apparently have no idea how to communicate with each other.” Without warning, he rounded on Pierre. “Pierre, why do you think that might be?”
“I — I have no idea.”
“Come now. Try to think of some reason.”
“I don’t know! I — I’ve apologized ter — ter Meg, more times ‘an I can count.”
By Meg’s slightly guilty flush, Father Hugh knew that was true. “I see. What, precisely, have you apologized for?”
“I — Father? I don’t understand.”
“What actions have you indicated your sorrow for? Your infidelity? For hurting her? For getting caught?”
“Fer everythin’!” Pierre called out. “Fer — fer seein’ that woman, an’ bein’ with her when Meg was sittin’ at home and worryin’ about me, an’ — an’ — everythin’!”
“Then why do you think that Meg has not accepted this apology?” Father Hugh waved to her to keep her quiet, for the moment — she would get to say her piece later.
“I don’t know!”
“Try, Pierre. Guess, if you have to.”
“I … maybe because — ’cause what I did was so bad?” he asked. “I did — I did insult ‘er, I guess … we weren’t even married a month …”
“I see,” Father Hugh replied.
“An’ — an’ the whole village — half the kingdom — must think that Meg ain’t very desirable, if I was — well, if I couldn’t keep it ter myself fer more than a bloody month,” Pierre murmured to the ground. “I — I don’t know if I’d forgive me fer doin’ that ter me.”
“Is it true?” Father Hugh asked — perhaps a little ruthlessly, but it needed to be said.
Pierre looked up in shock. “No, Father! O’course not! Meg — Meg’s somethin’ special! I swear — what happened there — it had nothin’ ter do with her!”
Father Hugh turned to Meg. “Do you believe him?”
Meg was silent. “I don’t know.”
“Because — because me head’s tellin’ me to trust ‘im, but me heart is askin’ me head if it’s — well. If it’s lost its mind.”
Meg didn’t bother to keep up the pretence of talking to Father Hugh. She turned to her husband. “Ye hurt me, Pierre,” she said with the utmost simplicity. “Ye made me feel like I wasn’t good enough. Ye made me feel like ye didn’t love me no more.”
“But Meg, that ain’t true! I –”
“Hush, I ain’t finished.” Meg bit her lip. “And Pierre …” For some reason, she looked nervously at Father Hugh. “That — that woman, when she came …”
Huh. If she’d wanted to say whore, I wouldn’t have blamed her — it is, perhaps, not the most understanding and spiritually generous of terms, but no one is expecting her to be particularly understanding or spiritually generous right now.
“When she came, she asked fer yer help,” Meg continued. “Ye turned her away.”
“Meg, I couldn’t help her! What — what she wanted to me to do …” Why was Pierre looking at Father Hugh like that? So secretly, so furtively! “It — it was beyond me power, Meg, honestly. An’ — an’ there ain’t no way she knows that that kid’s mine.”
“Maybe, but how would I know that ye wouldn’t help me with Basil, if I needed it?”
“It’s not the same thing, Meg! Basil’s me — me son! I held him in me arms after he was born, I’ve picked more mashed peas out o’ me hair fer him than fer anyone else, I’d do anythin’ fer him! An’ I’d do anythin’ fer ye!”
“How do I know, Pierre?” Meg whispered. “How do I know? Ye can say what ye like, but at the end o’ the day — ye broke me trust, an’ ye wouldn’t even help another woman, a different woman, who needed it. Tell me how I can know.”
Pierre rubbed the back of his neck. “M-Meg?”
“If — if I tell ye somethin’ … will ye try to believe me?”
Meg’s eyebrow went up. “I — suppose.”
Why was Pierre looking at Father Hugh like that, so sidelong, so furtively? “I — I went ter — ter me sister. About — about what the woman wanted.”
Meg blinked. “Ye — ye did?”
“Aye. I went — I went a while ago.” He sighed. “I — I jest didn’t tell ye, because, well. I thought ye’d be hurt.”
“I …” Meg pursed her lips together. “So — so ye did try ter help that woman.”
“As much as I could, without — without compromisin’ me marriage ter ye.”
What are they talking about?
“Ye mean without draggin’ me name more through the mud.”
Meg was silent. She glanced out the stained-glass window. “Well,” she murmured. “That — changes things.”
“Does it really?”
“I think so,” said Meg, and Pierre bowed his head in relief. “Ye — ye stood up fer one of us, at any rate. Ye tried ter do the right thing — instead of just bein’ pushed along, willy-nilly, like a branch in a stream.” After a second’s hesitation, she added, “Or like yer own self, jest goin’ ter the bloody whorehouse because yer brother thought it’d be a good idea.”
Pierre winced and Father Hugh wondered if he ought to say something — but decided against it. Pierre probably deserved that.
“But I’ll warn ye, Pierre — ye ain’t fergiven yet,” Meg continued. “Ye’ve got more work ter do before ye can really be forgiven. Ye ain’t gettin’ no shrift without proper repentance — ain’t that right, Father?”
“Er — er, yes, of course.”
Pierre didn’t even seem to be listening to him, not that it really mattered. He blinked twice, staring at Meg. “Whatever ye say, love.”
“Good,” Meg said. With a slight smile, she touched Pierre’s hand. “I think,” she said, “we should probably be gettin’ home. Basil’s probably driven yer ma an’ pa up the wall an’ back down again by now.”
“Aww, they’re used ter it — or at any rate they ought ter be.”
“Perhaps.” Meg turned to Father Hugh. “Anyway, can we go, Father?”
“Um — um, well, yes, certainly! I mean — unless there’s anything else you’d like to discuss …”
Pierre and Meg exchanged glances, and then Meg shook her head.
“Well — well then. Go in peace, my children.” He made the sign of the plumbbob over them, and watched as Pierre and Meg walked down the long center aisle.
They walked more closely together this time, Pierre’s hand coming closer and closer to Meg’s. He didn’t take it — but he was close.
Father Hugh had no illusions about this pair. They still had a long road to walk down before things could return to the way they were before that woman showed up at their door — or rather, before Pierre had slept with that woman and necessitated her showing up in the first place. It would be a hard road, a steep one and a thorny one.
But at least they would walk it together.