Nicholas was trying to concentrate on the letter to his mother, a letter that was probably the most important document he would ever write. Everything depended upon this letter: his honor, his estates, his family’s future—and his life.
But as he wrote, he began to hear a woman weeping. Annoyed, he got up from the crude little table and looked out the tiny open window to the courtyard below. There were four men walking about, but there was no woman. Besides, Nicholas was three stories up, so he could not have heard her. The room he was in had walls so thick he could hear nothing from outside, and the oak door was heavy and bound with iron.
“She is not of this world,” he told himself, then gave a shiver as he crossed himself. He sat back down at the table and again began to write.
But the moment he sat down, he heard her again. Her weeping had been soft at first, but it was growing louder.
For a moment, Nicholas cocked his head to one side and listened. Yes, she was weeping, but her tears were not from fear, or even from grief. No, he could feel that the source of her pain came from something deeper.
“No!” he said aloud. He did not have the time to try to understand this woman, whether she was of flesh or spirit. Right now, his need was as great as hers. He gave his attention back to the letter, but he could not concentrate. The woman’s tears were pulling him to her. She needed something, but he could not tell what. Did she need comfort? Soothing? What did she want of him?
Putting down his quill, he ran his hand over his eyes. The woman’s tears were filling his head. No, he thought, what she needed was hope. The weeping was from a person who no longer had hope.
Determined to turn his mind back to his own problems, Nicholas looked back at the letter. The woman’s problems were not his. If he did not finish this letter and give it to the waiting messenger soon, his own life would be without hope.
Nicholas wrote two more lines, but then he had to stop. The crying was increasing, growing louder. As it increased in volume, it seemed to grow inside until it filled every corner of the room—and every nook inside his brain.
“Lady,” he whispered, his voice filled with desperation, “give me peace. I would give my life to help you, but I cannot. My life is pledged elsewhere.”
Again, he picked up the pen and tried to write, this time with his other hand over his ear, doing his best to block out the sounds from the woman.
But Nicholas couldn’t stop hearing her. He dropped the quill, ink running across the document as he put both hands over his ears and closed his eyes tight. “What would you have of me?” he cried. “I would give you all that I can, but I have nothing left to give.”
But his pleas meant nothing, for the woman’s weeping grew and grew until the inside of Nicholas’s head began to go round and round. Slowly, he opened his eyes, but he saw nothing. Before him was only darkness. He could not see the walls of the room or the door. He could feel the chair beneath him, but he could no longer see the table or the letter that was so important to him.
But as he sat there, a small, bright light appeared in the far distance, and Nicholas felt himself drawn to the light. As he looked at that tiny speck so far away, it was as though nothing in his life had ever mattered but that light.
“Yes,” he whispered. Then he closed his eyes and gave himself over to the sound of the woman’s tears. Slowly, his body relaxed and he put his head down beside the letter he had been writing. “Yes,” he whispered again as he surrendered himself.
Dougless Montgomery sat in the backseat of the rental car, Robert and his pudgy thirteen-year-old daughter, Gloria, in the front. As usual, Gloria was eating. Dougless shifted her slim legs to try to make herself more comfortable around Gloria’s luggage. There were six large pieces of matched leather luggage to hold Gloria’s belongings, and since they wouldn’t fit in the trunk of the little car, they were piled in the back with Dougless. There was a makeup case under her feet and a big wardrobe on the seat beside her. Every time she moved, she scraped against a buckle, a welt, or a handle. Right now, she had an itch under her left knee, but she couldn’t reach it.
“Daddy,” Gloria whined, sounding like an invalid four-year-old, “she’s scratching the pretty suitcases you bought me.”
Dougless clenched her fists, closed her eyes, and counted to ten. She. Gloria never said Dougless’s name, but just called her She.
Robert glanced over his shoulder at Dougless. “Dougless, could you please be a bit more careful? That luggage is quite expensive.”
“I am aware of that,” Dougless said, trying to keep the anger out of her voice. “It’s just that I’m having a difficult time sitting back here. There isn’t much room.”
Robert gave a great sigh of weariness. “Dougless, do you have to complain about everything? Can’t you even allow a vacation to be pleasant? All I asked was that you make an effort.”
Dougless opened her mouth to reply but closed it. She didn’t want to start another argument. Besides, she knew that it would do no good. So, instead of replying, she swallowed her anger—then rubbed her stomach. It was hurting again. She wanted to ask Robert to stop to get something to drink so she could take one of the tranquilizers the doctor had prescribed for her nervous stomach. “Keep this up and you’ll give yourself an ulcer,” the doctor had warned her. But Dougless wouldn’t give Gloria the satisfaction of knowing that she’d yet again managed to upset Dougless and to, yet again, drive a wedge between Dougless and Robert.
But when Dougless glanced up, she saw Gloria smirking at her in the makeup mirror on the sun visor. With determination, Dougless looked away and tried to concentrate on the beauty of the English countryside.
Outside the car window she saw green fields, old stone fences, cows and more cows, picturesque little houses, magnificent mansions, and . . . and Gloria, she thought. Dougless seemed to see Gloria everywhere. Robert kept saying, “She’s just a child and her daddy has left her. It’s only natural that she’s going to have some hostility toward you. But please try to show some sympathy for her, will you? She’s really a sweet kid when you get to know her.”
A sweet kid, Dougless thought as she looked out the window. At thirteen, Gloria wore more makeup than Dougless did at twenty-six—and Gloria spent hours in the hotel bathroom applying it. Gloria sat in the front of the car. “She’s just a kid and it’s her first trip to England,” Robert said. “And you’ve been to England before, so why not be generous?” That Dougless was supposed to read the road map when she could hardly see around Gloria’s head didn’t seem to count for much.
Dougless tried to concentrate on the scenery. Robert said Dougless was jealous of his daughter. He said that she didn’t want to share him with anyone else, but that if she’d just relax, they’d be a very happy threesome. “We could be a second family for a little girl who has lost so much,” he said.
Dougless had tried to like Gloria. She’d tried hard to be an adult and ignore, and even understand, Gloria’s hostility, but it was more than Dougless could do. In the year she and Robert had been living together, Dougless had made every possible effort to find that “sweet kid” that Robert had told her of. Several times, she’d taken Gloria shopping and spent more money on Gloria than Dougless’s small elementary school teacher’s salary allowed her to spend on herself. Several Saturday nights Dougless had stayed at the house she shared with Robert, babysitting Gloria while he went to professional functions, usually cocktail parties or dinners. When Dougless had said she’d like to attend with him, Robert had said, “But time alone is what you two need. You need to get to know each other. And, remember, babe, I’m a package deal. Love me, love my kid.”
Sometimes Dougless had started to believe that it was beginning to work because she and Gloria were cordial, even friendly, to each other when they were alone. But the minute Robert appeared, Gloria changed into a whining, lying brat. She sat on Robert’s lap, all five foot two inches, one hundred and forty pounds of her, and wailed that She had been “awfully mean” to her.
At first Dougless had laughed at what Gloria was saying. How absurd to think she would ever harm a child! Anyone could see that the girl was just trying to get her father’s attention.
But to Dougless’s utter disbelief, Robert believed every word his daughter said. He didn’t accuse Dougless. No, instead, he just asked her to be a “little kinder” to “the poor kid.” Immediately, Dougless’s defenses had gone up. “Is that supposed to mean you don’t think I’m a kind person? You do think I would mistreat a child?”
“I’m just asking you to be the adult and have a little patience and understanding, that’s all.”
When Dougless asked what he meant by that, Robert had thrown up his hands and said that he couldn’t talk to her; then he’d walked out of the room. Dougless had taken two of her stomach tranquilizers.
After the arguments, Dougless had wavered between guilt and rage. She had a classroom of children who adored her, yet Gloria seemed to hate her. Was Dougless jealous? Was she somehow unconsciously letting this child know she didn’t want to share Robert with his own daughter? Every time Dougless thought of her possible jealousy she vowed to try harder to make Gloria like her, which usually meant she bought Gloria another expensive gift. And she’d again agree to babysit on the weekends when Gloria stayed with them. While Gloria’s mother had a life, Dougless thought with bitterness.
At other times, all Dougless felt was rage. Couldn’t Robert just once—one time—take Dougless’s side? Couldn’t he tell Gloria that Dougless’s comfort was more important than the blasted suitcases? Or maybe he could tell Gloria that Dougless had a name and wasn’t always to be referred to as she or her? But every time Dougless said something like that to Robert, she ended up apologizing. Robert said, “My God, Dougless, you’re the adult. And I only see her on alternate weekends, so of course I’m going to favor her over you. You and I are together every day, so why can’t you stand to play second fiddle now and then?”
His words sounded right, but at the same time, Dougless fantasized about Robert telling his daughter to “be more respectful” toward the “woman I love.”
But that didn’t happen, so Dougless kept her mouth shut and enjoyed the time she and Robert had when Gloria wasn’t around. When Gloria wasn’t with them, she and Robert were perfectly suited, and she knew, through age old intuition, that very soon she was going to receive what she wanted so much: a marriage proposal.
Truthfully, marriage was what Dougless wanted most in life. She’d never been burning with ambition the way her older sisters were. Dougless just wanted a nice home and a husband, and a few children. Maybe someday, after the kids were in school, she’d write children’s books, something about talking animals, but she had no desire to fight her way up a corporate ladder.
Already, she’d invested eighteen months of her life in Robert, and he was perfect husband material. He was tall, handsome, well-dressed, and an excellent orthopedic surgeon. He always hung up his clothes, and he helped with the housework; he didn’t chase after women, and he always came home when he said he would. He was reliable, dependable, faithful—but, most important, he needed her so very much.
Not long after they met, Robert had told Dougless his life story. As a child, he hadn’t been loved very much, and he told Dougless that her sweet, generous heart was what he’d been looking for all his life. His first wife, whom he’d divorced over four years ago, was a cold fish, a woman who Robert said was incapable of love. Just three months after he met Dougless, he told her he wanted a “permanent relationship” with her—which she took to mean marriage—but first he wanted to know how they “related” to each other. After all, he’d been hurt so badly the first time. In other words, he wanted them to live together.
What he said made sense to her, and since Dougless had had a number of “unfortunate” previous relationships with men, she happily moved into Robert’s big, beautiful, expensive house, then set about doing everything she could to prove to Robert that she was as warm and generous and loving as his mother and wife had been cold.
With the exception of dealing with Gloria, living with Robert had been great. He was an energetic man and they often went dancing, hiking, bicycle riding. They entertained a great deal and often went to parties. She’d never lived with a man before, but she had easily settled into a domestic routine, feeling as though it was what she was made for.
They had problems other than Gloria, of course, but Robert was so much better than any of the other men Dougless had dated that she forgave him his little quirks—most of which revolved around money. True, it was annoying that when they went to the grocery together he nearly always “forgot” his checkbook. And at the ticket window of theaters and when the check was presented in restaurants, half the time Robert found he’d left his wallet at home. If Dougless complained, he’d talk to her about the new age of liberated women and how most women were fighting to pay half the expenses. Then he’d kiss her sweetly and take her somewhere expensive for dinner—and he’d pay. And Dougless forgave him.
Dougless knew she could stand the small problems—everyone had idiosyncracies—but it was Gloria that sent her screaming. When Gloria was with them, their life turned into a battleground. According to Robert, his daughter was perfection on earth, and because Dougless didn’t see her that way, Robert began to see Dougless as the enemy. When the three of them were together, it was Robert and Gloria on one team and Dougless on the other.
Now, on this holiday in England, in the front seat Gloria offered her father a piece of candy from the box on her lap. Neither of them seemed to think of offering any to Dougless.
Still looking out the window, Dougless gritted her teeth. Perhaps it was the combination of Gloria and money that was making her so angry, because, with this trip, Robert’s little “money quirk” as Dougless had always thought of it, had turned into something more.
When Dougless had first met Robert, they had talked for hours about their dreams and they’d talked many times of taking a trip to England. As a child, she had often traveled to England with her family, but she hadn’t been back in years. When she and Robert had moved in together, in September of last year, Robert had said, “Let’s go to England one year from today. By then we’ll know.” He hadn’t elaborated on what they would “know,” but Dougless was sure that he meant that, in a year, they’d know whether or not they were compatible for marriage.