“Felice, try to understand,” [Umberto pleaded.] “We Dominicans have a sacred mission. I is a mission that… that demands incredible sacrifice. Not what you think! Not just obedience and poverty and chastity.” He dismissed these virtues with an irritable wave of his hand. “It demands far, far more. For the sake of God we are forced to confront... to witness… to commit.. How can I explain?” he cried out in agony.
He wanted to share everything with her, but he knew that she could not understand. He had to make her understand. He needed her to understand — and tell him that it was all right. If she, so pure and innocent as she was, would kiss him and sooth his raw nerves, then he knew he would have the strength to go on. And he had to go on. If he retreated now they would tear him apart like a pack of hounds that had run a fox to ground.
“Felice.” He turned toward her on the bench and clasped her hands between his own. “It is good that you do not know — cannot eve dream of — the evils of which men are capable. The perversions, the depravity, the blasphemy to which some men sink…” He shook his head. He could not bring himself to tell her the truth.
I know more than you think, Felice reflected to herself. She knew now that men could tear the healthy teeth out of a prisoner or put burning iron to his flesh — to make him lie.
“There is heresy around us, Felice,” Umberto told her, diverting his own thoughts from the dangerous uncharted waters of doubt into the safe have of righteousness. “Far, far more than I ever imagined. Who would have thought that the very Knights of Christ were themselves rotten with the vilest of heresies.”
“I know, I know. You think of your uncle and your grandfather an you don’t want to believe it is true. But… but I have been taught you can trust nothing by its appearance. A man, a soul, can wear so many disguises. But to pierce the layers of falsehood to the truth…” He had let go of her hands and grasped his own head. “Sometimes… I am not sure I have the strength.
Felice waited but Umberto was staring into space, his eyes veiled, his tongue licking at his unhappy lips. “The strength for what, Umberto?” She asked gently.
“For my profession. The bishop has entrusted me with so much responsibility already,” he told her and he did not bother to disguise his pride. “I have been entrusted with a special investigation — entirely on my own. But… but it is very difficult.”
“If it were not difficult it would be no challenge and no achievement.” Felice was glad to fall back upon a phrase they had often bandied about before.
Umberto’s lips acknowledged her words with a smile and his eyes lightened a little. She was helping him as he had known she would. He had been right to come to her — and there really was no need to lay his soul bare. It was good as it was. Encouraged, he pressed ahead. “To date, there have been thousands of confessions by French Templars, but not one Templar outside of France has admitted to the vile practices we have uncovered. That is, one Englishman, a knight who fell into our hands by chance, did confess and we sent him to Poitiers just before Easter — so the Pope could convince himself of the validity of the confession. But he escaped. Some say he was spirited away by Templars still at large and others that villagers — Cathar heretics — have given him shelter.”
Felice was afraid to breathe and afraid not to. Surely he would see how terrified she was.
“You have nothing to fear!” Umberto hastened to assure her, seeing that she looked as if she thought the Templar would come and attack her in her bed. “He had two broken legs and could do no one any harm — that is why he must have had assistance. Unless, of course, he died in the snow.”
If Felice had not known the story, she would have been thoroughly confused. In order not to give herself away, she insisted somewhat sharply, “You’re not making any sense, Umberto. Try to tell me calmly, from start to finish, what has happened — and what this has to do with you.”
Umberto lifted her hands to his lips and kissed the palms hotly. ‘You are right! You are always right. But why have I been frightening you with tales of free and escaped Templars? There can hardly be very many and we will track them down soon enough. You need not fear them. I promise you!”
He reached out and his fingers brushed a strand of her curly hair off her neck. He wanted to protect her from all harm and all evil. He wanted to keep her wrapped in a cocoon of security and luxury. No other man — not the brutal, bestial, disgusting creatures that called themselves men — should ever come near her. Better she lived out her days in purity here [at the convent] than that she was exposed to the world beyond.
“I was entrusted with finding the Englishman or his body when the thaw came, but you know what the weather has been like. It was not until two weeks ago that I could even begin my search. And, you see, that makes it so difficult to find a corpse. It could have washed away in the flood to God knows where! But if I do not find the corpse, then I must find the man. And to find the man, I must question the villagers along the route where he disappeared.”
“Have you been questioning the people in Najac?”
“Why Najac?” He asked alarmed. “That wasn’t on the route.”
Felice felt her stomach turn over. She had given herself away after all. “Because you said I had nothing to fear. I thought it was because you had already established no one there knew anything.”
It sounded ridiculous to her, but Umberto was too pre-occupied with his own thoughts to be alert to disjointed logic. “No, no. I’ve started farther south. But you see the peasants — they don’t want to cooperate. They force us — truly force us — to use harsher methods. And then it can happen… it sometimes happens that even under pressure they … they cannot tell us anything. A man who knows nothing cannot give information he does not have. But think how hard it is for me! How can I know who has information but is refusing to tell and who is truly innocent? So innocent people get hurt. Even women.” He added the last under his breath, the agonized screams of a woman still ringing in his ears.
Felice understood. He had tortured villagers — women — and she felt a revulsion that made her want to run away. But then she saw the beautiful young man she loved and she was filled with pity for him.
Umberto held his head between his fists, his elbows propped on his knees, and gazed at the tiles of the floor.
“Would it not be better to let this Templar go free than to harm innocent villager?” Felice ventured cautiously.
“I can’t do that!” Umberto protested, lifting his head sharply. “Don’t you understand? If I fail to find him, I am ruined! I will have failed the bishop and he is not a man who keeps unreliable men in his service!”
The English Templar is available for sale here.