THE PITYING HEART
Jenny Bowcombe stared at the oaken figure of Edmund D’Lyle in the chancel of Saint Olave’s church, the site from where her beloved Lucy had disappeared. There was no longer any doubt in her mind that it was the remarkable resemblance between Edmund’s effigy and Lucy’s late father that had attracted her daughter to the chancel. As she looked on she, too, felt a strange affinity towards the centuries old memorial. How often she had wished it could speak, that it might resolve the endless uncertainty of Lucy’s whereabouts.
It had taken the better part of two years for Jenny to come to terms with the death of her husband, Richard, and in her darkest moments had taken comfort in the love of their daughter. Now she too was gone and Jenny would have ended the unremitting loneliness and heartbreak were it not for her uncompromising belief that she still lived and would someday be reunited with her.
Richard’s sudden passing had brought an unwelcoming change in the eight-year-old’s demeanour. Withdrawn and ill-tempered, she had begun to weave a web of secrecy about herself. What worried Jenny most of all, however, were her increasingly prolonged absences from home. She had shown great leniency towards her daughter until the day she strolled into the house, two hours late from school. This time she was not going to be fobbed off with any lame excuses. She had spent the latter hour in a state of near panic. Now she demanded to know the truth.
“I’ve been going to the chapel.” Lucy wept. “I go there when I want to talk to daddy.”
Jenny was lost for words. Ever the pragmatist, she believed in the here and now rather than the hereafter. Finding comfort and solace in outmoded beliefs was not her style, but if it was Lucy’s way of coming to terms with the loss of her father then she would not stand in her way.
Life continued apace in the tiny hamlet of Arken. The now fifteen-year-old Lucy was a regular worshipper at St. Olave’s and was often seen by rector Phillips staring into the ageless face of Edmund D’Lyle. Her intense fascination with the relic mystified him, though he never once broached her on the subject.
It was on the eve of her sixteenth birthday when the storm hit the island. With merciless ferocity it raged across it, uprooting trees and flooding vast tracts of farmland in its wake. Even in the naturally formed inlet, which had provided a safe haven for countless generations of seafarers, the destruction was total as the roiling turbulence crashed in on the moored vessels, rendering them into useless flotsam. Not even hallowed ground was safe on such a night.
From the rectory window the ageing rector Phillips witnessed the single lightning bolt strike the chapel, iridescent lights lighting up the stained glass windows from within. Braving the elements, he set out to scrutinize the damage.
On first inspection it seemed that nothing untoward had happened, but as he approached Edmund’s effigy he noticed the fragmented shards of the knight’s steel misericord lying on the floor. They were hot to the touch. Though there was no evidence suggesting a possible entry point, the lightning bolt had apparently struck the weapon and shattered it. What he found even more perplexing was that the fine chrysoberyl jewel that had adorned its hilt was missing. It was only in the aftermath of the storm that he discovered the tangled wreckage of Lucy’s bicycle lying beneath a wind felled oak in the churchyard. Reassuring himself that she was not among the twisted foliage and broken boughs he dashed back into the chapel, fully expecting to find her poor inert body lying somewhere among the pews, but she was nowhere to be seen. Lucy had vanished without trace.
Jenny’s memories were bittersweet. Richard’s securement as Arken’s only GP had been particularly memorable, because it was the very same day she broke the news to him of her pregnancy. Lucy became the source of his pride and joy; they were inseparable. That he harboured an ambition that she might one day follow in his footsteps were readily apparent in his choice of gifts for her. Prized among them was a gold charm bracelet from which hung a single lamp, a lasting reminder that she was his ‘lady of the lamp’.
“Can I help you?”
Jenny flinched and turned to see the darkly dressed figure of a clergyman standing in the aisle.
“Sorry! I didn’t mean to startle you.” he said.
In her eyes he saw the hauntingly familiar look of unresolved grief. He sat next to her and proffered a friendly hand, greeting her with a pleasant, almost boyish, smile. “The name’s Tremayne. The Reverend Anthony Lucas Tremayne, to be exact. I’m rector Phillips’ replacement,” he said, his face broadening into a cheerful grin.
She took hold of his outstretched hand. “Mine’s Jenny.”
“I couldn’t help noticing your fascination with Arken’s local hero” he said. “He’s quite an interesting character, don’t you think?”
“Is he? I’m afraid I’ll have to take your word for that. History isn’t exactly my strong point.”
“Oh, indeed he was. Did you know that for centuries he was said to be the founder of this church?”
“No, no, I didn’t. But as I said before…”
“Of course: ‘history isn’t your strong point’” he recalled.
“The truth is that he was actually a crusader who fought in Alexandria and Syria. Unfortunately, he suffered a serious head wound in the latter campaign and was shipped back to England, and then on to Arken. The poor chap became quite deranged at the end and died.”
Jenny’s thoughts wandered from Edmund to a more recent and intimately tragic history.
Mistaking her abstraction as a sign of disinterest the young cleric apologised for having disturbed her and made to leave, but was forestalled by her insistence that he carry on.
“I’d love to.” he replied, glancing at his wristwatch. “Unfortunately, I have to keep a prior appointment. Perhaps we could meet at the rectory tomorrow to continue our chat.” he suggested. “Lord knows, I’ve had little chance to get acquainted with my flock.”
The airy interior of the rectory came as a welcoming respite from the excesses of the midday sun and Jenny could not help but feel a little envious of the Reverend at having such a shaded sanctuary. Unlike his predecessor, the young cleric insisted that the formalities of his office be set aside, preferring simply to be known as Lucas. Jenny was happy to oblige him; she found the use of such titles pretentious at best. That he was also more enlightened than his predecessor was evidenced by the numerous scientific journals, which adorned the bookshelves.
“I got the impression from you yesterday” she began, “that there was more to the story of Edmund D’Lyle.”
“Yes there is.” He relaxed into his armchair and took a sip from his iced tea. “During my researches into the last crusades I came across a document bearing his name. It was written by Philip De Mezieres, Chancellor to Peter the First of Cyprus. He and the King were responsible for the organisation of the 1365 crusade. They came to London to secure the help of several English knights, one of them being Edmund. As you know, he eventually returned to England and died. That he lived as long as he did was entirely due to his companion. She apparently travelled everywhere with him.”
The painful memories of her past began to reassert themselves again. Jenny knew only too well the wretchedness of losing loved ones. In the midst of her thoughts a single word – ‘misericord’ – brought her back to the present.
“I was just saying as how it is something of a mystery to me.” Lucas said, in response to her question.
“Oh! Why is that?”
“Well, according to my records the effigy is supposed to be holding a misericord in its hand. True misericords were used to put an end to the suffering of battlefield victims. Their name is derived from the Latin for ‘pitying heart’. However, these were a special honour bestowed upon the knights by the King for their efforts in the crusades. Edmund’s is missing – jewel and all.”
“Didn’t Rector Philips fill you in on what happened before you took over his duties?”
“No. His departure to the mainland was rather sudden.”
“Then you know absolutely nothing of what happened here?”
“I’m afraid not.”
Jenny had, wherever and whenever possible, avoided protracted conversations concerning Lucy, but to tell the story of the missing misericord without once mentioning her involvement was akin to omitting the ‘great fish’ from the biblical story of Jonah. She took a calming breath before giving her account.
A look of surprise crossed the cleric’s face at the mention of her daughter’s name, occasioning Jenny to enquire if something was wrong.
He looked at her with uncertainty. Smiling nervously, he replied, “There isn’t, unless your surname happens to be Bowcombe.”
Her confirmation had a curious effect on him. He seemed reluctant to pursue the matter any further, inciting Jenny to ask again if anything was wrong.
The mention of Lucy’s name had set off a disturbing train of thought. “It’s nothing.” he said, ultimately. “Mere coincidence.”
“Yes. You see Edmund’s companion’s name was Lucy Bowcombe, too.” he said.
Jenny sensed there was more to it than that. Something other than sheer coincidence had generated his nervous response, and she intended to get to the bottom of it.
Failing to allay her suspicions, Lucas finally gave way.
“You’re right;” he said, “I haven’t told you everything about the historical Lucy, and with good reason. I’m not sure I believe it myself. Perhaps if we apply the principle of Occam’s razor things will become clearer.”
“Occam‘s razor? Never heard of it” Jenny admitted.
“Briefly stated it’s this: if something looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, the chances are it is a duck. In other words, there’s no requirement to form a more complex assumption or theory.”
Jenny was becoming agitated. “And the point is?”
“I’m coming to that. But first I need to check everything you’ve told me about your daughter is correct. You said she disappeared when she was fifteen, and that the jewel vanished at the same time – yes?”
“Yes.” she sighed.
“And you’re quite sure that all this took place on August the 10th ?”
“Of course I am! I’m hardly likely to be mistaken about it, now am I?” she snapped. “If there is a point to this, Lucas, I wish you’d make it.”
He braced himself. “As a consequence of my investigations into Edmund”, he began, “I came across the story of Lucy Bowcombe. Apparently, after a terrible storm, she was discovered in the chancel by a local farmer. She was in a highly agitated state, and could remember nothing of her past, other than her name. Contemporary reports said that she was between fourteen to sixteen-years-old, and spoke in a curious tongue. The date was August 10 , 1362.”
It was abundantly clear now what Lucas was leading up to, and Jenny balked at the absurdity of it.
“But you said this girl spoke in a foreign language.” she argued.
“No, I didn’t. I said that she was reported to have spoken in a ‘curious tongue’, which doesn’t necessarily mean she was foreign. Modern idioms and syntax are wholly different to what they were centuries ago. Back then they spoke Middle English, a substantial part of their vocabulary being French and stemming from the Norman Conquests. Edmund himself was of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy, so Lucy’s speech would seem like a foreign language to him.”
Jenny fell silent. Circumstantial though the evidence was, she found it strangely compelling.
“And there’s one other thing:” Lucas resumed, “clasped in her hand was a chrysoberyl gemstone.”
“Have you any idea how absurd that sounds? You’re telling me my daughter was whisked back some seven centuries in time Why? How?”
“The ‘why’ and ‘how’ of it I can only guess at. You said yourself that Lucy had never really gotten over the death of her father, and was often seen talking to the effigy as though it were he. She probably wished passionately for it to be true. Suppose that as she was in this frame of mind the lightning struck, triggering a quantum rift in time.”
“You may be accustomed to believing in miracles,” Jenny asserted, “but I’m certainly not. It’s absolutely ridiculous!”
“Is it?” countered Lucas. “There are some quantum physicists who would disagree. If their hypotheses of the existence of elementary particles that can travel faster than the speed of light are true, then time travel is possible.”
“You’re concluding a hell of a lot from a mere premise. We’re not talking about sub-atomic particles here, but a living, breathing, human being.”
“But isn’t that part of what we are; nothing more than a package of atoms strung together?” Lucas responded.
Later that evening Jenny pondered on Lucas’ words and the documented cases he had cited in support of his argument of people claiming to have undergone temporal sojourns. Like theirs, her life had changed dramatically. Everything she had cherished was gone. Perhaps there was now a need to believe in the fantastic; to seek hope in the embryonic science of quantum physics, just as Lucy had sought hope in religion.
The following morning she awoke from a troubled sleep. Her disquieting dream imagery had evaporated with the onset of wakefulness and was no longer retrievable. One thought persisted, however: ‘Lightning never strikes the same place twice.’ She knew this was a common fallacy, and later cursed herself for not having immediately understood her post-dream message. Unpredictably, she found herself entertaining a quite improbable notion.
For five years Lucas bore witness to the comings and goings of his friend, Jenny Bowcombe. Of all the islanders he alone knew of the obsession that drew her to the chapel on storm filled days and nights. Then, on one particular August night, all hell broke loose.
A ferocious storm front struck the island, growing in intensity as it tore across the landscape. Only one person would venture out on such a night, and Lucas had taken up his station behind the large bay window that overlooked the chapel to watch the lonely, bedraggled, figure trudge its way through the storm and into the chancel. Past experience had taught him that it would be some time before Jenny would leave and would probably ride out the worst of the storm there. Closing the drapes, he settled down to work on the rest of his forthcoming sermon.
Time passed and the storm grew worse. Rattling window panes and flickering house lights began to disrupt Lucas’ train of thought. He looked up from his study as an ominous peal of thunder rumbled across the night sky. The chancel was no place to be on such a night he told himself.
As his predecessor had done before, he stepped out into the tempest and was instantly taken aback by its sheer ferocity. A cyclonic wind buffeted him mercilessly, propelling him into the rivers of mud being washed from the neighbouring hills. He pushed on through the blinding rain, his face puffed and swollen, driven by an unbending sense of guilt, which hung like a millstone about his neck. How he wished now he had kept silent all those years ago.
On entering the churchyard he suddenly pitched forward, his lungs burning with sheer exhaustion. The air rasped sharply from his chest. He drew in his next breath as if it were his last. Coughing and spluttering uncontrollably, he rolled onto his back and opened his eyes.
The transformation was stunning. As a former merchant seaman Lucas had seen St. Elmo’s fire only once in his life. It had been a brief encounter, its scattering of energy streamers confining themselves solely to the masthead. But that had occurred in a temperate climate, and one more favourable to the phenomenon. What he was witnessing now was impossible. He watched in awe the profuse streamers as they radiated out from the chancel in a state of constant flux, arcing from one structure to another. Most alarming of all was the luminescent energy field that had encompassed the churchyard. Beyond this miraculous dome the storm raged, unabated. Within it, all was eerily calm.
Jenny Bowcombe stood before the temporal vortex, which had opened at a point just above the effigy. Its dimensions were expanding and would soon be large enough to enter. Despite the irrefutable evidence gleaned from her most recent research, doubts began to weaken her resolve. What if she were catapulted to a time centuries before the history of Edmund D’Lyle or a future world that was totally alien to anything she had ever known? The possibilities were as infinite as time itself. She pulled Lucy’s photo from her rucksack. Filling her mind with her daughter’s image, she told herself that it was now or never and edged nearer to the portal.
“No, Jenny!” Lucas barreled down the aisle toward her, the opening shimmering briefly, as if disturbed by his unheeded appeal.
She stepped forward and was swallowed up in the blinking of an eye.
In that instant a powerful shock wave burst from the portal, hurling him pell-mell into the pews and rupturing the luminescent energy barrier. Darkness engulfed him.
On coming-to, he saw Arken’s Fire Chief, Pete Layton, standing over him.
“You’re one hell of a lucky guy.” he said. “If you hadn’t been lying between the pews when the main roof supports collapsed you’d be a gonner for sure. As it is you‘ve suffered only a few minor burns and abrasions.”
Lucas made a feeble effort to rise from the sofa. “Where am I? How did I . . .?” He slumped back, weak and nauseous from the effects of smoke inhalation.
“I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, the Chief continued, “but the chapel didn’t fair as well. It’s sustained quite a bit of damage. Its walls are still structurally sound, though the roofs almost gone. A bit of elbow grease and a lick of varnish should soon remedy the scorched pews. Which reminds me! Is this yours?”
Lucas stared at the seared rucksack Chief Layton was holding. “Er, yes, it is.”
“You don’t seem too sure about that.”
“Yes, it’s mine.”
With the departure of the paramedics and fire crew, Lucas delved into the rucksack. Amid the many reams of hand-written documents, and a treatise on fourteenth century England, he came across what looked like a copied portion of text. It was badly scorched and nigh impossible to read. Fortunately, he was able to read the catalogue number, which showed it came from the research facility at Fendlesham Library, on the mainland. Its coding further revealed that Lucy’s search into Edmund D’Lyle was way in advance of his own. He recognised, too, the words of an ancient poet she had paraphrased in the final entry of her diary: ‘Time may bring to light whatever is hidden and it will conceal and cover up what once shone with the greatest splendour’.
Within a short space of time, Lucas would come to comprehend the true meaning behind those words.
“Sorry to bother you, Reverend,” said Chief Layton the next day, his face suitably grimy from his ongoing investigation at the fire scene. “but one of my men has discovered something at the chapel that I think you should see.”
A look of mild suspicion behind his bespectacled eyes made Lucas more than a little apprehensive.
“Take a look inside.” The Chief pointed to the chapel’s memorial plinth from which a sizeable portion had been broken. “Personally, I haven’t the faintest idea about ancient burial rites,” he said, “but I thought you might.”
Lucas scanned the murky interior. The most salient feature that struck him, as it must have Chief Layton, was that three distinctly separate bodies had been interred there. Then he caught sight of something in the mouldering winding sheets that caused his heart to skip a beat. It was a gold bracelet. Although he could not make out a hallmark he knew that the single charm that hung from it would date it conclusively to modern times.
“What do you make of it, Reverend? A little unusual to have three bodies in the same grave don’t you think?”
“It’s certainly unusual, but not unheard of.” Lucas declared. “I believe that what we’re looking at is the fourteenth century equivalent of a family plot.”
“Mystery solved then.”
“Mystery solved.” Lucas said, somewhat shocked by the ease with which his story was accepted; an outcome which would have been far different had Pete Layton paid greater attention to his local history lessons at school regarding the D’Lyle genealogy. Edmund had been the last of his line and could, therefore, not have shared his plot with any descendant.
Lucas’ major concern now was the bracelet. It was a modern artefact and if it should be uncovered and examined during restoration work on the tomb questions would be asked, questions for which there were no plausible answers. It’s removal, therefore, was vitally important.
Fortune smiled again on the young cleric, and when the Chief was called away by one of his men Lucas saw his opportunity and took it.
“Well that’s about it. I’m finished here.” said Pete Layton on his return, adding, “If you’ll take my advice, you need to have that plinth sealed up right away. I’m sure I noticed something of value in there. The last thing you need is to have some would-be grave robber come along and take it.”
Lucas flushed. “ No, that wouldn’t do at all. I’ll see to it right away.”
In the privacy of the rectory he examined more closely the bracelet he had hastily stuffed into his pocket. It was just as Jenny had described. Unquestionably, one of the tomb’s occupants was her daughter. Could the third body, he wondered, be Jenny‘s?
He later recalled the scorched document and speculated on what it may have contained. The fact that Jenny had copied it showed that it held some significance for her. He resolved to find out what it could possibly be and made arrangements to visit the mainland’s library the very next day.
Among the dusty tomes of Fendlesham Library he studied the antique parchments spread out before him. All but the latter had been penned by Edmund D’Lyle and bore the unmistakable ramblings of an unsound mind. Even so, there were rare moments of lucidity in which he wrote of his filial devotion to Lucy, the girl he had liberated from the cruel servitude of the farmer who had found her in the chancel. Because he had no rightful successor, Edmund knew that on his death his fortune would fall to the Crown. He therefore made adequate provisions for his youthful ward. She would at least be spared the harsh deprivations of impoverishment.
The last parchment, from which Jenny had made her copy, was written predominantly by Edmund. The latter portion of text, however, was not. Lucas thought at first that the Latin text, with its glaring grammatical errors and structure, had been written by an ill-educated scribe. He was soon to discover how wrong he had been. In them he saw the unmistakable hand of Jenny Bowcombe reach out to him across the centuries, as she must have hoped they would: ‘Time will bring to light. . .’ they began.
The ferry’s claxon pierced the noon air, heralding its imminent departure for Arken. Lucas gazed out across the horizon, secure in his conviction that the incredible events he had borne witness to were no mere arbitrary acts of nature. From the outset they had exhibited a purposeful intelligence, and a design borne of a compassionate heart.
© David Calvert 2011
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