The hooded figures hurried past closed storefronts on High Street just as the storm struck. Lightning coursed through the sky, illuminating the entire town of Moreton as the monks found the alleyway they sought and turned away from the downtown lights. Delayed thunder ricocheted off of high stone walls and followed them down the side street.
They spied a single light burning before them and made for the landing below it. Three knocks on the heavy door were answered by footsteps and the sound of a key turning in the lock. The door opened, a few words of greeting were spoken, and the two men stepped off the street just as the deluge began in earnest.
The hallway in which they found themselves was stone floored with staircases leading both up and downstairs. They set the bags they’d brought with them against the wall. Brother Aran hung his cloak on a peg and turned to the occupant of the flat.
“I’m so sorry for the lateness of the hour, but we felt it would attract less attention this way.”
“Not at all! Come in to the fire and dry out a bit.” Their host led the way past the stairs and into a study where logs were blazing in a massive stone fireplace. The only window in the room was curtained, veiling the flashes of lightning outdoors, and there was a tray with tea laid out next to an overstuffed chair and a small sofa.
In the light, Charles Lester could see his guests more clearly. Brother Aran he knew, but the tall monk with him was a stranger.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Brother…?”
“Azarias,” replied the monk, bowing slightly.
“Forgive me, Charles. Where are my manners? Brother Azarias, this is Charles Lester. He is a steadfast friend of the order, an artist from America who regularly helps us in our work.”
“An artist?” asked Azarias, looking more keenly at the man before him. The rain pounded anew against the window and more thunder rumbled.
“Yes, I’m afraid so.” Charles laughed. He was not a large man. His wavy brown hair was brushed back from his forehead and fell nearly to his shoulders. With his closely trimmed beard, he looked the part of young aristocratic lord from an 18th century portrait.
“All of the work on the walls is mine although I can’t say how representative it may be of my paintings these days.” He waved towards the walls, which were tiled with unframed canvasses of all sizes. “One’s work always changes…or so I’m told by artists more experienced than myself.”
“And what themes do you generally render?” asked Azarias as he appraised the nearest painting.
“Mythological and chivalric ones, mainly. I illustrate books as well as painting and selling original works. But I prefer tales of knights, and damsels in distress, and honor, and battles between good and evil; you know, those things that hardly interest anyone these days.” He laughed again.
“Don’t let him fool you, Brother,” said Aran. “The art world may not care much for such things, but plenty of other folk do. Charles’ work doesn’t end up in London very often, but it touches the hearts of many, and is quite sought after….”
“I should like to see your work in the light of day if we have the chance,” said Brother Azarias, turning back to the fire. “But, for now, I believe Brother Aran must speak with you about our travel plans.”
“Yes, I’m afraid I must, Charles,” said Brother Aran.
Charles motioned Aran to the sofa. Brother Azarias sat opposite them both in the overstuffed chair and observed Charles closely as Aran began.
“Brother Azarias is, well, newly arrived. We’ve been expecting him for some time, but we knew that when he came to us we’d have to come up with some rather…ah…creative ways of getting him back to Rome.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” answered Charles. “Is there a reason he can’t just hop on a plane?“
“Well, no, there’s not a reason in the sense of him having a flying phobia, if that’s what you’re asking. But we have two difficulties, and one of these is a bit more…well… sinister for lack of a better term.”
“Oh, this sounds intriguing!” exclaimed Charles, rubbing his hands together gleefully. “So are there plots abroad to keep the good monks of St. Benedict from reaching the Monastery Sant’Anselmo?” He smiled broadly.
“Do not make light of such things, I beg of you,” interrupted Azarias. “Our situation is considerably more dire than Brother Aran has thus far suggested.”
Charles became sober. “My apologies,” he said. Thunder again shook the timbers of the flat.
Aran continued. “It’s alright, Charles. This is all a bit strange to us as well. But, before I tackle what I mean by ‘sinister’, let’s talk about the first difficulty, and that is one of credentials. I can certainly fly back to Rome, but it is crucial that I escort Brother Azarias, both to make sure that he knows the way and to be available should other difficulties arrive. Brother Azarias has never been to Rome. And, he has no identification that would pass muster with the airlines; you know how things have gotten with the recent terrorist attacks…”
“Yes, certainly I do. But can you not get credentials forwarded for him from Rome?”
“Not quickly. And we want to remove from England as soon as may be. The longer we are here, the more difficult our return trip is likely to be.”
“I’m sure I am still not understanding you,” said Charles, “but let’s take this one step at a time. You need a passport and other documents for Brother Azarias. I can help you with that, as you know, since I have an entire print shop in the basement.”
“Yes, that is why we came to you.”
“But you must also know that what I can produce isn’t going to be perfect…and certainly not good enough to guarantee you are able to get onto a plane.”
“Quite right, but it should be good enough for us to journey by rail without too much trouble.”
“Perhaps. We’ve certainly managed it in the past, but they keep upgrading the documents and making them harder and harder to counterfeit. I know of some other folk who are a lot better at this than I am; wouldn’t you prefer to go to one of them?”
“We’d thought you might suggest this, but speed is more important to us than having perfect documentation. The longer it takes us, the more problematic the trip will be, as I’ve said. Which of course brings us to our second difficulty.”
“I’m all ears,” said Charles. He rose and began serving the tea.
Brother Aran waited a moment for all of their cups to be filled, then continued. “Brother Azarias is, well, an envoy from an order whose work does not receive a lot of approbation these days.”
“You mean, like the Benedictine order in general?” asked Charles, grinning.
“Even worse, I’m afraid. There are Benedictines and there are Benedictines, as you know. But you recollect the sort of fury that ignites whenever the Pope shows up anywhere? You know, picketing, death threats, the attempts to have him arrested or assassinated? Well, Brother Azarias is going to be stirring up the same sort of anger, but in spades.”
Charles looked at Brother Aran then at Brother Azarias, who returned his gaze steadfastly.
“Are you telling me that Brother Azarias is a bigger target than the Pope?! But no one’s ever even heard of him…begging your pardon, Brother.”
“The people who carry out the attacks may not have heard of Azarias, but believe me, the ones who incite them to such action certainly will have. And these will stop at nothing to prevent his work and his travels.”
A clap of thunder struck nearby and rumbled from beyond the curtained window.
The three sat in silence sipping their tea. Charles tried to make sense of what he’d just heard. He shook his head and stared long at Azarias. “Okay, I’ve just got to ask this, and let me know if I’ve crossed a line here, but how did Brother Azarias even get into this country if he has no papers?”
“He came by boat.”
“But, even boat passage requires identification…unless he was smuggled in?”
“No, no, nothing like that,” answered Brother Aran. “If you must know, he sailed here on his own.”
There was a long pause, and Charles’ expression softened. “He sailed here on his own. In a small boat: a skiff, maybe? Perhaps during a storm?” he asked.
“Yes”, answered Brother Aran. “Why do you ask?”
“Because…because I’ve seen it,” he said. His voice had taken on a dreamy quality. “On a canvas…in fact, I’ve painted it. Hold on a minute.” He stood and left the room. When he returned, he held a canvas in his hands. He took it to Azarias. “Is this you?” he asked.
Azarias studied the painting in the firelight. A smile stole across his features and he looked up at Charles. “You have seen my coming, then…”
Aran stood and walked behind the chair. The painting was of a hooded figure standing behind the wheel of a sloop. Spray and scudding clouds raced in the background, and the ruby cast of the sky reminded him of the evening before when he had first seen Azarias arrive at Tintagel. His jaw dropped.
“When did you paint this, Charles?” he asked.
“A few weeks ago. I didn’t have a particular story in mind…this one just painted itself. It happens sometimes. What an odd coincidence that Azarias should have arrived by boat….”
“It is more than coincidence, Charles,” said Brother Aran. “This could be the exact boat, and that is precisely how Azarias was clad when he arrived. If you’d attempted a portrait deliberately, on the spot, it could not have been more accurate….”
There was an awkward silence.
“Tell me, how often do your works ‘paint themselves’, Master Charles?” asked Azarias.
“Not too often, Brother. But it is a delight when they do so. I sometimes find a painting or a sketch taking a turn I’d never have anticipated, and if I give in to the impulse, the results can be stunning…often much better than those images I planned out more carefully.”
“It seems then, Master Charles, that you have been given a great gift,” said Azarias. “And we are fortunate that you will be accompanying us.”
“Accompanying you?” asked Charles. “But I’m not going to Rome…”
“Are you not? I would suggest that it might not be wise for you to remain here. Once they come to understand what you can do, you may need even more protection, perhaps, than will I.”
Charles’ eyes grew large. “I…I don’t know what you mean! Why would anyone be interested in me? I know some of my works are religious, surely, and those get some folks who dislike religion annoyed, but never to the point of threats!”
“But there will be threats, and worse, once this is known,” answered Azarias calmly.
“Once what is known?” asked Charles.
“Simply this: that you can paint what has not yet come to pass, that you can see into the future.”
“What?!” said Charles. “With all due respect, Brother, that’s nonsense! Brother Aran, please explain to him…. This is going too far…. You can’t possibly, either of you, believe that this is anything other than a coincidence….right? Right?!”
Charles looked at Aran, then at Azarias, but could detect no sign that either of them was joking. Both of their expressions were grim.
“All I can tell you, Charles,” said Brother Aran after a long pause, “is that I’d trust whatever Brother Azarias tells you with my life. If he thinks you have this gift, and that you are in danger, then I believe him. You may not be in immediate danger as a result, but it seems the wheels are starting to turn rather rapidly around us, and there may not be a lot of time to make sense of everything we encounter before we must act on it.”
Charles returned to the sofa, looking dazed.
Azarias watched him with renewed interest. “While you consider what I’ve said, let me ask another question. Are there any other paintings you’ve done recently that ‘felt’ as this one did in its execution?”
Charles sat for a few moments, head in hands. “I don’t know…I’ll have to think about it….” he said.
Brother Aran looked at him with sympathy. “Charles, if you had asked me two days ago what I thought of someone telling me ‘you can paint the future’, my reaction would have been identical to yours. But believe me, I’ve been with Azarias since the moment he arrived, and some of the things I’ve seen and heard with my own eyes and ears…well, you’ll understand soon enough, I expect.
“You are a man of faith, Charles, as I’ve known for all the years we’ve been friends. Is it so different from belief in God to believe that someone may have a talent that is God-given? A talent that may be, in fact, supernatural in origin? Or, better put, a talent that represents a grace that defies explanation?”
“No, I suppose not, if you put it that way,” answered Charles. “But I’d never expect to find such a talent in myself. I’m not a Mother Teresa or a Padre Pio. I’m just an artist….”
“Master Charles, if I may, it is no small thing to discover that you may be far more important than you once believed and that you may have abilities you would never have guessed possible”, said Azarias. “Nor is it of little moment that the events of one’s life may portend a plan on a grander scale than our wits would make of them. But it is ever thus.
“For now, do not be too troubled. Let us consider our preparations and see what we can accomplish this night. Once we have what we need for the morrow, we can take our rest, and when we arise, we can all decide what is best to be done.”
Charles rubbed his eyes and nodded. Brother Aran stepped over to the curtained window of the study and peeked out. “The storm is passing,” he said.
“Alas, I fear not,” said Azarias. “The storm may only now be beginning to build….”