In the end, what Steed had appreciated most had been the silence.
The days that followed Steed’s rescue from the Ministry’s very own torture chamber had been exhausting and hectic, with hearings and depositions, debriefings and paperwork. But finally that was done. Steed had asked for, and been granted, six weeks’ leave, with the usual platitudes about “you deserve more” and “it’s the least we can do after.”
And so it was that Steed had asked Mrs Gale whether she would accompany him to his uncle’s cottage in the Scottish highlands for a few weeks’ holiday. “There’s not much to do there,” he had said, “although there’s a fine loch for fishing nearby. We’ll have use of my uncle’s boat and tackle, and there are plenty of places for just rambling about. The cottage interior has been completely modernized in all respects except for a telephone. My uncle also keeps a good library there, and if we get desperate for civilization, we can always go to Inverness or Edinburgh for a few days, or even take a ferry to the Continent.”
Although Steed had talked up the amenities, what he really had wanted was quiet and peace. He had a sense that Mrs Gale wanted that too. Steed’s imprisonment and torture had had a profound effect on her as well, and she was still healing from the bullet wound she had sustained when she rescued him. When she had agreed to go with him, Steed couldn’t tell who was more relieved: himself because she had said yes, or Cathy, because he had asked her to come away from the city.
It had taken a couple of days to finalize arrangements: deliveries to the cottage of food, wine, coal, and firewood; ensuring that the electricity, gas, and water had been turned on; and all the dozens of other small things that needed tending to before one left home for an extended period of time.
They arrived in the late afternoon to find everything laid in readiness for them. The caretaker, a pleasant middle-aged woman named Mrs McGann, met them at the door and helped them in with their things, then gave them a brief tour of the place and instructions where those were needed. After telling Steed and Cathy where she might be found if they wanted for anything, Mrs McGann gave them a set of keys and went back to her own home at the eastern end of the loch.
Steed took Cathy’s bags upstairs, not protesting when she declared her preference for a room of her own. This wasn’t a honeymoon, after all; they weren’t newlyweds floating high on champagne and an urgent need for passionate exploration. They were two damaged souls, looking for a respite, a safe haven, if only for the space of a few weeks. Still, he had rather hoped that she might have preferred to share.
Steed and Cathy often went their separate ways during the day, she out birding with her camera and field glasses, he on the loch, either trying to catch fish (sometimes successfully), or simply paddling about on the dark water. Or else one of them would stay in the house, reading or dozing or simply gazing out the window, while the other went for a walk over the hills only to come back at sunset with a fistful of heather to put in a mason jar before they both repaired to the kitchen to cook dinner. And Steed’s worry about the sleeping arrangements proved more or less unfounded: some nights Cathy did indeed want to share his bed, which was always an occasion for delight for the both of them, while on others she wanted her own space, and since that was what made Cathy happy, Steed was also content.
When they had been at the cottage for a little over a week, a day came when Cathy declared a preference for staying inside with a book, but Steed wanted to take advantage of the fine weather and spend the day out of doors. He went out for a ramble and after a few miles’ hiking found himself in a cleft between two hills where a small waterfall tumbled down from a ledge about ten feet above his head, then went chattering down over the rocks in an icy rush. For some minutes, Steed sat on a nearby log, watching the rippling water while the sun played peekaboo with white clouds that scudded across a clear blue sky.
As the sun slid out from behind one particularly large cloud, Steed turned his face to the sky and closed his eyes, letting the light and the warmth flow over him. Then Steed opened his eyes, stood up and stripped naked, neatly laying his clothing over the log. He stepped into the bitingly cold stream, then splashed over to plunge himself head and shoulders under the falls, yelping at the shock of the frigid water on his bare skin. Steed forced himself to stay there under the rushing water, forced himself to stay there and cleanse the last vestiges of his torture and imprisonment from his mind and body, all the while roaring both against the ever-increasing pain of the cold and in a release of all the rage and fear he had kept dammed up behind an urbane exterior for what had seemed an eternity.
When he had no breath left for roaring, and when he began to feel his extremities becoming numb, Steed staggered out of the stream and shook himself like a dog, sending a spray of water in all directions. He stood in the sun, which wasn’t quite hot enough to warm him, rivulets of water rolling down his skin, droplets splashing on the shingle at his feet. As soon as he thought he was dry enough not to completely soak through his clothing, Steed dressed and strode out of the cleft, away from the falls, following the flow of the brook.
♦ ♦ ♦
Although the day had started fine, by late afternoon the wind had risen and a misty rain started to fall. It was about an hour after sunset when Steed finally returned to the cottage, his clothes damp but not quite wet through, to find an anxious Cathy waiting for him.
“Hello, Steed, I was beginning to wonder whether to go out looking for you. I hadn’t started any dinner, since I wasn’t sure when you were going to be– … are you all right?”
Steed nodded. “Yes. No. I’m cold.”
Noticing that Steed seemed unusually pale and disconnected, Cathy wondered whether he had suddenly taken ill. A bit of rain and wet clothing wouldn’t normally be enough to throw Steed so thoroughly into disarray, even after a long day’s walk. Cathy took her friend’s hand and found it icy to the touch, although his face looked feverish.
Cathy’s tone had been light when Steed walked in, but that lightness was gone now. “Let’s get you into bed, and I’ll make you some tea,” she said, and led Steed unprotesting up the stairs and into his bedroom. While he dried off and got into his pajamas, Cathy went downstairs to put the kettle on. She made Steed a cup of tea with lemon and lots of sugar, but by the time she arrived at his bedside she found him already tucked in, the covers up to his chin, and the light still on although his eyes were closed. Cathy didn’t think that he was asleep, but he didn’t seem to be quite awake, either, and he was shivering slightly. Cathy reached under the covers and touched his hands: they were still perilously cold. She put a hand on his forearm. Even through the fabric of Steed’s pajamas, she could feel the chill of his skin.
This was extremely concerning. Cathy was unsure whether this might be some kind of after-effect of the torture Steed had undergone, but she did know that he needed to be warmed, and soon. She slipped off her shoes, stripped down to her underclothes, then turned off the light and went around to the other side of the bed. Steed lay on his side, facing the wall, still unmoving and unspeaking, still shivering. Cathy got under the covers and pressed herself against his broad back, wrapping one arm around his middle and willing her warmth into his body. She hadn’t been wrong. It wasn’t just his hands that were cold; something had happened to chill Steed to the bone. After a little while, he warmed enough to stop shivering, and passed into sleep. Even after Steed’s breathing had become deep and regular, Cathy stayed pressed up against him, listening to the sounds of the rain on the roof and the wind in the eaves and the breath and heartbeat of her dear lover, wondering where he had gone and what he had done to put himself in this state, until finally she herself drifted off.
It was in the small hours of the night that Cathy was awakened by Steed moaning and struggling in his sleep. The moaning soon passed, only to be replaced by racking sobs. Cathy sat up, thinking to ask what was wrong, but she realized Steed was still asleep and in the throes of some terrible nightmare. She lay back down and once again pressed herself up against her beloved Steed, wrapping a comforting arm around him. “Shhh, shhh, it’s all right, Steed. It’s all right. I’m here. You’re safe.”
Cathy held him until the dream had run its course and Steed’s body relaxed once more. It wasn’t until long after she was sure that Steed had gone back to sleep that Cathy was able to close her own eyes and return to her rest.
♦ ♦ ♦
Steed awoke to find the bedroom filled with morning sunlight. He glanced over at the clock on the nightstand: it was nearly eleven o’clock. He wondered how it could be that after nearly 16 hours of sleep one could still feel exhausted. Indeed, his entire body thrummed with a dull ache that made him wonder whether he had fallen ill. But then he noticed that he was also ravenously hungry, so illness was rather unlikely. He had the vague sense that Cathy had spent the night with him, and evidently had arisen some time ago, but everything between his stepping under the waterfall and his awakening this morning was blurry in his memory.
After taking a very hot and very leisurely shower and dressing in the warmest clothes he could find, Steed went downstairs, following the scent of freshly brewed coffee that was emanating from the kitchen. He found Cathy sitting at the kitchen table, perusing a magazine and smoking a cigarette.
“Good morning, Steed,” she said. “I heard you moving about and started some coffee. How are you feeling?”
“Like I just went fifteen rounds with the Decapod, but mostly hungry.”
“Mrs McGann dropped off some fresh eggs and sausages and bread earlier this morning,” said Cathy. “I could do with a meal myself; shall I cook those now?”
Steed expressed approval of that plan, then poured himself a cup of coffee. He leaned on the stone wall of the kitchen, gazing out the window over the rain-washed landscape and sipping the hot beverage while Cathy busied herself at the stove. Cathy certainly did make excellent coffee, and Steed was glad that she had offered to make breakfast. Steed did like cooking for her, but today he was feeling a bit fragile and therefore likely to burn the eggs, something that had happened more than once when they had made a meal together and he got too distracted by something to pay attention to what was on the stove. Steed also sensed that Cathy was aware of his current fragility, and was trying to care for him both without appearing to be overly concerned and without making reference to what had happened the night before.
Breakfast was a quiet affair, with only a little conversation, but Steed felt rather more substantial after putting away two eggs, three sausages, a stack of toast with butter and jam, and two more cups of coffee. Steed then chased Cathy out of the kitchen, insisting that it was his duty to do the washing up, since she had done the cooking. Cathy declared her intention to do some errands in the village, and as Steed filled the sink he listened to the closing of the cottage door and the receding sound of Cathy’s boots on the gravel. Steed suspected that she didn’t really have anything that needed doing: she was merely leaving him to himself, giving him space, giving him silence, without calling attention to it. Steed found himself comforted by this.
The kitchen seen to, Steed selected a book and lay down on the sofa in the drawing room. A few hours later he awoke, having only been able to read a few pages before dozing off. The cottage was silent; apparently Cathy hadn’t yet returned, or had returned and gone out again while he had been asleep. He stood and looked out the window that faced toward the loch. There he saw Cathy, sitting contemplatively in the rowboat, evidently having rowed to the middle of the loch and then shipped the oars, for the moment allowing the little boat to float where it would on the still waters.
Steed smiled as he gazed at Cathy, thinking as he often did that he must be the luckiest man alive to know her, then noting how dreamlike the sparkling waters of the loch seemed to make the scene that held the woman he so loved. But this time his thoughts of good fortune were accompanied by a well of strong emotions that Steed couldn’t completely identify. Cathy had risked her own life to save his, so gratitude must be part of it, but that didn’t account for the complexity of what he was feeling. Evidently it was going to take more than a dip in a highland burn to work through what he had endured.
Pushing aside thoughts of the recent past and deciding that he had spent enough time alone for now, Steed strolled down to the loch. He stood on the little dock his uncle had built and waved and hallooed to Cathy, who waved back, then bent to the oars. Steed watched her with admiration, marveling at the grace and strength of each stroke she made. Soon the little boat glided up next to the dock.
“Hello, Mrs Gale,” said Steed. “I was wondering whether you might like some company.”
“Certainly,” she replied. “Will you take the oars, or shall I?”
“Well, since you’ve already had a go today, and since I could do with the exercise, might I have the privilege of rowing you about?”
“That sounds lovely, Steed,” said Cathy. “How about we row to the other end of the loch, and then climb up to the top of that hill? There’s quite a fine view from up there.”
“Your wish is my command, madam,” said Steed, as he helped Cathy shift to the passenger seat in the stern. Then he climbed in himself, and nudged the boat away from the dock with one oar. As soon as the boat was clear of the dock, Steed paddled it gently around and then started rowing across the loch. He was mindful that Cathy was now watching him as he had watched her, and nearly laughed aloud when he inwardly told himself that now was no time for showing off.
Even though Steed had chosen not to exert himself unduly, he still rowed with a steady, powerful stroke that had them across the loch in a very short time. After beaching the boat, Steed handed Cathy onto the shore and then followed her onto a trail that she said would take them to the top of the hill. They walked together in silence, single file, Cathy in the lead, the sunlight glinting off her golden hair.
They arrived at the top of the hill and turned to look about them. Cathy had been right: the view was good from up here. They could see down the length of the loch, and the roll of the hills all around it. A light breeze came up as they stood there, bringing with it the scents of heather and grass, loam and damp rock, and a faint tang of the sea that was not many miles from where they stood, all under a vast blue arch of sky streaked with clouds and lit by a bright, golden sun still a few hours yet from setting. The beauty of it smote Steed to the very core, and he let out a shuddering sigh.
Cathy glanced up at him with concern, but waited for him to speak.
“When … when I was … in there,” Steed said, his voice breaking, “I forgot how big the world is. I forgot the sky. I forgot what clean air smells like, the sound of the rain. They took all of that. They took it all away, and gave me that … ghastly little room in exchange.”
“I know,” said Cathy. She couldn’t find any other words to say, so she stood next to Steed, not looking at him, but gazing out at the view and listening to the susurration of the breeze as it danced around the hilltop.
After a moment, Cathy said, “There’s something my mother used to say to me, when things looked bleak.” Cathy slipped her hand into Steed’s. “A thing that Julian of Norwich said once. ‘All will be well, and all will be well–‘”
“‘And all manner of thing shall be well,'” said Steed without irony. “Yes. I know.”
They stood shoulder to shoulder for a moment more, then walked hand in hand back down the hill. Cathy rowed them quietly back to the dock, where they drew the boat up onto the beach and then overturned it with the oars stowed beneath. Then they returned to the cottage, where they found a fire burning merrily in the hearth and a hot meal and freshly baked bread for them in the kitchen courtesy of the caretaker, and warmth, and companionship, and peace.