THE PRICE OF LOVE

By Gwen Lord

As darkness fell over Central Park, the eerie damp mist which had lingered all day, came down heavy as a mantle of fog, encasing all in its wake. Such familiar sounds of traffic, people, dogs, aircraft all appeared muffled now. Even the park umps, close by, showed only a dim glow.

The abundance of trees and shrubs which surrounded the tunnel entrance stood motionless and sinister, as they shed their dampness to the ground below in a now steady, drip, drip, drip, onto awaiting autumn leaves which formed a thick carpet everywhere.

Vincent walked tall and proud, still a magnificent figure of a man, for all his advancing years, his thick buck cloak swinging from side to side as his urge strides took him along the half lit tunnels to his favourite park entrance.

These tunnels and chambers deep below ground had been his home for over seventy years now' what an abundance of memories they held for him.

There was father' ah! Dear Father. The man who had brought him up since he was found as a tiny baby, wrapped in rags in the snow, outside St Vincent's Hospital. Right from the start there had been a "bond" between them, you couldn't describe it, but it had been there and Vincent was showered with love and affection. Father was a scholar, a leader of men above, 'til he abandoned that world for ever, J0 years ago, seeking solace in the tunnels below the city he'd loved. He passed on this knowledge to Vincent, taught him everything he knew. When illness plagued Vincent in his childhood, then teenage years, Father nursed him through those dark and dangerous times. Their love was deep and meaningful, special to both of them, a shining example to all Below.

Then one day - must be twenty years ago now - Father had been taken ill quite suddenly. He and Vincent had been having one of their chats between moves, playing chess, when Father gripped his chest, gave a shudder and quickly sank back into the high leather chair and was gone.

Vincent couldn't believe it at first; it hit him very hard, leaving him a lost and lonely soul. He'd not lost just a father, but also his best friend.

Then there was Elli, dear sweet little Elli, who caught that dreadful plague the Russian sailor had carried with him, when he spent some time Below, after he jumped ship, to find his Anna. Elli had died in Catherine's arms .... The mere thought of Catherine brought a tear to Vincent's eyes and a sigh from deep within.

Vincent's favourite student, Kipper, was even gone, lost to the abyss, as he slipped one day playing with friends; such a talented boy, what a waste.

He missed all the old familiar faces, but most of all, father's. Vincent was now the father figure "Below", even though everyone called him Vincent, he was the wise one everyone turned to for help, in times of need, guidance with problems, offering love and hope to all.

The responsibility weighed heavy with him, he never took his duty lightly and recently this responsibility weighed heavier than usual. To escape it all, he seemed to drift off more and more into his dream world, where anything was possible, to days that were and could never be again; days that included his own dear Catherine.

As he approached the familiar tunnel entrance he started to slow down, then carefully arranged his hood over his long grey hair, still speckled with that golden hue which had always been a magical halo.

Mouse was pleased to see the approaching entrance. When Vincent always slowed down, it gave him time to catch his breath, because even though Vincent's pace was slower these days, his long legs kept Mouse on his toes to keep up with him.

It was on days like these that the leg injury Vincent sustained so many years ago, gave him much pain and because of this, he had taken to using father's old silver capped walking stick. It certainly helped and felt good in his strong furry hands. The intricate pattern on the silver had long since worn away but the outline of J.W. could still be seen in good light.

"Don't stay too long, not good." The words sounded miles away, swallowed up in the mist. A tug on his arm brought Vincent back sharply. "Not long Above, not good, hurry back," Mouse scolded.

Vincent put his head to one side, as he looked down at Mouse, now a chubby middle aged man; always a true and loyal friend, very dear to his heart.

"I promise," he said in a voice of deep velvet.

"Okay good, okay fine," replied Mouse with a cheeky grin; then like his namesake, scurried off back down the tunnels to Jamie.

They both took turns each evening, to accompany Vincent from below to the tunnel entrance; it helped to pass the time from Below to Above, which was quite a distance, but it also gave them time to reminisce on happenings of the day.

H ow well he remembered the day Mouse and Jamie married, the simple little ceremony in the tiny candle-lit cave, when Father had proudly given Jamie to Mouse. Vincent had been best man, holder of the gold wedding band Mouse had so lovingly made.

The children had practised for weeks on end their music for the celebration that followed, in the great Hall. Even the old tapestries had been removed and cleaned by Mary and helpers in readiness for the great occasion.

Vincent, Pascal and William had rehung them when they were ready and they truly looked magnificent. As Vincent inspected them he stopped in front of one tapestry, letting out a deep sigh as he remembered. It had been the first Winterfest that Catherine had joined them for their celebrations; he had taken such pleasure in accompanying her around the Great Hall. This particular tapestry had taken her eye, so Vincent had explained to her, that as a boy, he would stare at this tapestry and imagine there were windows in it that would open and transport him to another world, then he would see it was only cloth and a dream. Catherine through their bond, had sensed how deeply it had hurt as they shared that moment. A tear rolled down his cheek and dripped onto his arm, but he never noticed it.

Vincent sighed, then taking a deep breath, slowly emerged into the awesome night. His determined steps were set in one, well worn direction, down past the carousel, along by the edge of the lake, then slightly downwards to the further-most corner of the local graveyard. Here, beneath the old large trees, surrounded by thick rhododendron bushes, was his Catherine. Quickly and silently he opened the small iron gate, then closing it behind him he advanced to the left a few steps. There in front of him he could just make out the headstone.

Putting the walking stick on the ground, Vincent opened his cloak, then reaching into the deep pocket, brought out the worn old torch. He pressed the button, letting a shaft of light illuminate the words inscribed upon it.

 

To my beloved Catherine,

Vincent.

Dec 23rd 1990

 

Could it really be 43 years since ... A tear rolled down his now wrinkled lean features. He brushed it away with the back of his furry hand, but another and another followed, escaping down his face. He dropped his head as his shoulders lurched forward, deep sobs shook his heartbroken body. Time had never healed this wound!

Oh that it could have been so different!

A few months after her father died, Catherine had moved down Below, spending every evening and each weekend with Vincent, but she still kept her apartment to use in the daytime, to entertain friends and to keep up appearances.

Father didn't approve of all this and was heard muttering to himself on the subject, but on the whole had accepted the situation and he was very fond of Catherine, also grateful for offering his son a dream he never believed possible.

Vincent knelt down to caress the stone, saying deeply and softly, "Catherine, oh Catherine."

His hand reached up to the leather pouch around his neck still holding the rose she'd given him on their first anniversary. He stroked the pouch, but tonight it offered no comfort! Tonight it tore his heart apart and he let out a full-blown roar, then sobs of heartbreak followed.

The beam of light from the torch showed his wet face, as he spoke.

"Catherine, I'm so lonely without you, why did you leave me behind?"

It had been a few days before Christmas. Work in the DA's office was winding up for the annual break. Joe and Moreno were making plans for the office party the following day.

Cathy asked Joe if she could leave early; some last minute shopping to do. Joe teased her, saying she need not spend all her fortune on him, some small token would do just as well, then with a smile, she gathered her coat and bags together, quickly disappearing through the door.

The chill air took her by surprise as she left the office block. It was snowing very hard the sidewalks were deep in snow, traffic was crawling, but everywhere was a lovely feeling of Christmas.

Shops and sidewalks were crowded so she decided to pop into 'Limes' the big exclusive store Daddy had part owned before his death.

At the entrance the doorman had touched his hat as he recognised her, opening the door for her.

"Merry Christmas, Ted." she said, as she joined the other shoppers. Her list told her she needed seven small gifts, two large ones and something extra special for Vincent.

She left Vincent's 'til the last so she could spend more time on it, to get just the right item. It wasn't easy to find just the right thing, but at last she found it.

A leather bound book containing poetry by T. S. Eliot. The panes were in parchment, the words in script, it was expensive and perfect.

Her arms full of assorted parcels, she made to leave "Limes". The doorman called her a cab, wished her a Merry Christmas, then closing the cab door, turned and hurried back out of the blizzard into the doorway of the store.

After a few moments the windscreen wipers stopped. They couldn't cope with the blizzard, so the taxi pulled over and stopped.

As Catherine peered out of the window, there was an awful crash as the huge tanker ploughed into the taxi; all went black.

When Catherine came round she couldn't see very well, everything was blurred but she knew she was in hospital, connected to tubes and pipes and monitors. She drifted off again.

When she finally did waken to see things clear, it was dark outside, with a clock striking midnight, she turned her head.

"Oh Vincent ... you are really here?"

"I'm here, rest now," he laid his large hand over hers and she squeezed it so gently. Vincent looked down at her and he knew she was slipping away from him, she was leaving him. He leaned across her face, gently placing a kiss on her lips, she responded to the kiss whispering:

"I love you."

"I love you also."

Then Vincent felt the bond leave him, and knew he was alone.

"No! No!" he cried. His head sunk forward, resting on Catherine's shoulder, as he sobbed and sobbed.

*

When Vincent at last made to stand up, he was quite amazed just how cold and wet he was, yet it hadn't been raining. He must have been here hours, reliving his dreams.

Standing upright once more, he reached for his stick, then whispered "Goodnight, my love."

Then turning, left the graveyard.

It seemed such a long way back to the tunnels tonight, his steps were heavy and they dragged, when suddenly a figure appeared before him, which startled him, he growled.

"Vincent, scared me. Out too long. Not good."

Recognising it was Mouse, he spoke. "Sorry Mouse, I lost sense of time."

"Look wet, cold. Not good."

"You worry too much about me. I have my cloak, I am all right, I just need a warm drink of soup."

Mouse smiled, then put his arm through Vincent's and together they headed off for the tunnel. Mouse was pleased Vincent didn't walk so fast now, but he didn't realise it was because Vincent felt tired and old and lonely.

Jamie came to meet them, with a scowl.

"Oh Vincent, why were you so long. On a night like this, you'll be ill and then what will we do? Here, have this bowl of chicken broth."

Taking off his cloak he said. "Thank you Jamie you spoil me. I'm very grateful to you all."

Then the three settled down to talk and eat, enjoying each others company.

Much later, when the candles had burned low in the holders, Vincent got up, wished Mouse and Jamie goodnight, then slowly walked down to his chamber, close by.

For a while he sat on the edge of his bed, looking round his room, taking in the familiar things. His eyes came to rest on the large portrait hanging near his bed. It was of him and Catherine, that Kristopher Gentian had done of them. He got up and went over to it, leaning forward, stroked the canvas and sighed deeply.

Once in bed, sleep didn't come easy. He tossed and turned, falling at last into a troubled sleep from which, more than once, he awoke in a cold sweat, growling.

Hearing all the noise, Mouse lit a torch, following the noise, 'til he entered Vincent's chamber. Cautiously Mouse went up to Vincent, holding the torch high. He could see Vincent wasn't well. Sweat covered his face, he was pale, even his hair was wet with sweat.

Mouse turned and was just about to go for Jamie when Vincent's hand took hold of Mouse's arm.

"Vincent, you awake now, okay good, okay fine."

"Mouse," Vincent whispered. "My dear friend, I'm going to miss you ... I want you to promise me something."

"Anything," said Mouse.

"I want you to take my place when I'm gone. They love you and respect you. I want you to be head of this family, once I'm no longer with you."

"But ... b-"

"No buts, promise me."

"I promise."

Vincent put his hand in Mouse's and both men exchanged a smile of understanding. As Mouse let go of Vincent's hand he noticed it flopped onto the bedding.

"No ... no no, oh no .... Vincent!" cried Mouse.

*

"Catherine, is that really you?" Vincent asked, as his eyes made out the shape of his beloved in front of him.

He could see her clearly now, she was smiling and holding out her hand to him, quickly he dashed towards her, sweeping her into his arms.

"Oh Catherine!"

"Vincent, I've waited so long for you, but I never gave up hope. I had to see it through. You always told me to face up to my fears. I had a good teacher. I love you so much."

Suddenly, Vincent's lips covered hers, sending them into a world of their own, a world at last, they could share together.

"Come," she said, holding out her hand. He slipped his in hers as they gazed lovingly at each other. "There is someone else who's waiting for you, over here, look, Vincent..."

"Father."

"Yes Vincent, come along. We'll be late, everyone's waiting to see you."

Father led the way, with Vincent and Catherine following. Catherine brought her free hand up, which was holding a leather bound book of poems by T. S. Eliot.

"I never did get to give you this," she murmured.

"I love you."

"And I you, for all eternity."