A sphere of blood sprang out, a viscous raindrop as scarlet as the ribbons her mother had woven into her hair.
Maybe the sun had caught her eye. Maybe the same troublesome spirit, who had mocked her attempts to work close-up and in fine detail for as long as she could remember, had taken a particularly spiteful turn.
Either way, Mary watched, in disbelief, as the blood dripped onto the white circle of cotton in her lap. She rubbed it with her thumb. This, however, just spread out the stain so that it touched the blue thread that picked out cornflowers from the white field, now smeared the colour of the sunset. This was too much. Mary burst into tears.
A moment later, her mother had come over to her. Her golden hair hung over Mary’s face in thick curls. Mary watched as the soulful glance of her mother turned from her wounded finger to the spoilt embroidery.
Mary was still failing to hold back sobs.
Her mother sighed, embraced her, and held her hand against the back of her head, which distracted her from the pain in her finger.
“I’m sorry,” Mary said, “I didn’t mean to.”
“Shush, child,” her mother said. “I know you didn’t. Calm down now, hold up the finger so the blood doesn’t flow, and I will wash and dress you.”
“But what about my sowing?”
“I could finish it for you, and then we could soak it to get out the blood.”
“Will it be good as new?”
“No, love,” her mother said, laughing. “There’s no power on earth that can get out a bloodstain, but it will be finished, with the proof of your labours. Nobody else will be able to say they made it. All will see it and know that it was Mary Lulworth’s handiwork.”
Mary laughed and sniffed.
She tried her best not to cry, but her strength gave out and she let out a long, slow moan of desperation. Then, she breathed in deeply.
The green willow fingers were pattering against the sturdy leaded windows.
Every now and then a swallow would dart past, heralding the twilight. In summer, they feasted on the rise of many bugs from the marshy ground down by the river, underneath the meadow beyond the hop fields.
Mary’s mother filled up a bowl of water from the cistern in the corner of the room. She brought it over and fetched a fine sea sponge that she had bought from the market at Exeter. She took Mary’s hand very carefully and washed it in the water. Mary looked at the blood dissipating into the clear water.
“It’s not the pain,” she said, calming down. “It’s the unfairness, I thought I knew where the needle was going to go but it disobeyed me.”
“I know ‘tis hard,” her mother said, soothingly. “The doctor told me to expect as much when you were still in swaddling clothes.”
“Doctor?” Mary said. “What doctor?”
“Oh, old Doctor Tucker from up Exeter way. He’s dead now, of course, but he lived to a ripe old age. A proof, I suppose you could say, of his skills as a physician. He came down at once when your father sent for him on account of your eye.”
“I don’t remember him,” Mary said.
“Bless you, child, you wouldn’t. I do, though. He was a tall man, gaunt like your Uncle Esau but not so striking to look at because he was so old. A lover of birds and beetles he was. A Devonshire man through and through. I remember him staring at your face like he was trying to catch a glimpse of your soul.”
Mary’s mother’s eyes were filled with tenderness. Mary felt for a moment as if she could see the old, kindly doctor right in front of her, peering into the eye through which she couldn’t see.
“What did I do?”
“You ignored him steadfastly. You were probably annoyed at having been woken up for something other than your morning milk. Doctor Tucker looked at you for a long time. When he was finished, he sat down and said there was no sight at all in your eye. He said it would be hard for you to do chores up close or reckon the distances between things. He told me to be patient with you. Have I been?” Mary’s mother was smiling at her sweetly now, sympathy blossoming in her deep blue eyes.
“Yes, of course, mama. Will you tell me something, though?”
“Everybody is nice to me, but the girls in the village look at me strangely sometimes.”
“This is a remote place, my love,” said Mary’s mother, putting her face closer to Mary so that she could see every freckle on her suntanned skin. “There are not many people here who don’t look exactly like all the others. Why, your father and I are distant cousins. There are some in the villages
here who are more closely related than that. You stand out, not only in Athelham but in the whole of Teign Vale, and I daresay Devonshire too. That’s all.”
“Yes, Mama. But is it ugly, my eye?”
“No, my baby, not at all.” Mary’s mother was shaking her head so that her auburn hair came loose from her bonnet, swooping around her like the wings of a bird in flight. “I’ve always thought it looks like the pale mist on a spring morning. It’s just different, not wrong, or ugly. What it lacks is also made up for by the other eye, the working one. It’s apple green as your Daddy’s eyes, and of his father’s, may God rest his soul.”
“Furthermore,” said a voice from the open doorway through which evening sunshine flooded the farmhouse. “’Tis only a shade away from the ocean blue of your Adling ancestors’ eyes.”
Old Bill, Mary’s grandfather, stood there, his strong old arms hazy with sweat in the twilight.
Marry smiled. “Hello Granddad!” she said.
Bill smiled back at her, then concentrated on removing the heavy pair of leather gloves with which he weeded out the orchards.
He wore breeches and a waistcoat, but his head was covered by a fraying wide brimmed straw hat. His face underneath it was tanned a dark pink by the summer sun, in which he insisted on working almost every day, despite his wealth and age.
The breeze wafted in the scent of nearby lavender. As it gusted, a bee buzzed into the house and explored the parlour. It escaped before long back towards the lavender bushes out front or sought the honeysuckle that combed the wall of Bill Adling’s house.
Laying his gloves on the side, Mary’s grandfather came over and stroked her cheek, before settling down into a rocking chair by the glowing redbrick hearth. Over it hung a cracked wooden shield. A fearsome beast with scales and talons was painted on it in rich, but fading, gold.
“It’s called a wyvern,” said Mary’s grandfather, who had spotted her inspecting it. “It’s the crest of the Adlings, a witness to our many battles and changes of fortune.”
“Did it belong to a knight?”
“Of course!” said old Bill. Mary smiled. She loved hearing about the ancient past, and she dreamed often about knights. “To a knight who fell in battle at Frenchman’s Creek, to the west of here, not far from his own castle, which his enemies burned to the ground after the battle, as is the way with conquerors. His son kept the shield and carried it with him to safety in Teign Vale. The local squire took pity on the son and gave him leave to build this house and farm the land between it and the river and catch all the fish that swam by on their way to the sea.”
“What was his name?” said Mary.
“He was called Cedric, and his wife’s name was Eleanor. She was the daughter of a Dawlish blacksmith. She was known throughout Devonshire for her great beauty. They had a son, Edgar, who is the ancestor of all of us here by the fire. Also, they had a daughter, Rosanna, who married the son of the squire, and thus is your ancestor, Mary, through your father, Alexander Lulworth.” Old Bill’s eyes gleamed like jewels set into his craggy cheeks.
He stamped his muddy boots.
Then he leaned forwards conspiratorially and whispered to Mary. “You are the heir to both of our families, child. Keep them well when I am gone.”
* * *
The Reverend Vincent Canter, priest of Holy Cross, was the first to scatter sod over the grave of William Adling, the Old Bill who had upheld the timeless honour of his tribe for a half century and more of prosperous farming on the broad country between Finglecombe and the River Teign. Mary’s Granddad.
After Mr. Canter, there came fat uncle Solomon. Tears were forging paths through his moustaches and down his many chins. Uncle Esau, who was the churchwarden at Holy Cross, followed, his face pale and his eyes fixed ahead of him like one staring out across a vast wilderness.
Mary watched as her mother, eyes red-rimmed, stood forwards to perform the same service. Mary herself cast a crop of scarlet poppies into the grave.
“Unto almighty God,” said the Vicar, “we commend the soul of our departed brother, and we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto Eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, at whose coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the earth and the sea shall give up their dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his own glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself.”
The gap in the ground was then filled up with the same earth that had nourished and swallowed the Adlings since they first came into Teign Vale.
The sign of the wyvern was chiselled the next day into Old Bill’s headstone. It was still there when Mary visited Athelham again twenty-three years later.
* * *
The scene of her grandfather’s grave faded. It was replaced at once by another graveside, with many of the same cast of mourners.
Mary’s mother, whose hair had just begun to turn grey, threw the handful of dirt she had held tightly onto the coffin of Alexander Lulworth, the last male heir to his name.
Mary witnessed her own hands, as though from afar, plunging deep into the soil to root out the rosebush that her father had tended in the apple orchard beside Lulworth House. This piece of her father, at least, would not be snatched from her by disease or creditors.
She wrapped the naked roots of the plant up in an apron, and transplanted it whole to the graveyard, not asking permission and praying to God that he would let it flourish on her father’s grave long after she herself lay dead and buried.
It was the last prayer she said before setting off for the Convent.
* * *
The black-habited nun smiled at Mary rather solemnly. “How old are you, child?” she asked.
“I’m ten,” Mary said, looking to her mother instinctively to check whether she had got this right, but she was sure that she had. The Widow Lulworth, however, was engrossed in staring at the shield with the wyvern upon it.
“Ten!” said the nun, “well, I must say, you seem extremely grown-up for your age.”
“Thank you,” said Mary.
The fire was crackling in its hearth under the ancient shield. Aunt Lucy shooed away half-naked Adling children, who dashed past her as she carried a tray across the parlour from the kitchen. It held a china teapot with cups for three people. Mary’s mother sat huddled under a blanket on Old Bill’s rocking chair.
The nun thanked Aunt Lucy, taking a sip of tea. “Do you like music, Mary?” she asked.
“I do,” Mary said, quietly.
“She loves it,” said Aunt Lucy, “always one for dancing around the maypole, and what a voice!”
Mary’s mother murmured her agreement with this.
“Will you sing something for me?” asked the nun, with a shy glance at Mary that reminded her of a deer she had seen in the coppice at Finglecombe. Kind and feminine, rather as her mother had been before her father and husband died, one after the other, at the end of last summer.
“I don’t know what you would like,” Mary confessed. “I think I know only silly old songs that the farm lasses sing at harvest.”
“One of those will do just fine,” the nun said, encouragingly.
“All right,” said Mary, uncertain whether she could find her voice so soon after burying her father.
She closed her eyes.
“There was a blooming maiden of noble looks and fair
Who lived by Mary’s Manor in the land of Devonshire
‘Twas courted by a handsome knight who duly did forswear
To give up all his hopes for her on the road to Exeter
The maiden’s eyes were adder green, of midnight was her hair
No maid like this was ever seen in field or market square
The laughing rivers sought her voice, the lilies did despair
To find the freshness of her skin, and her passions were like fire.”
At the word ‘passions,’ Mary felt her voice begin to swell. It was a favourite song of hers, one which had haunted her on long walks through the meadowlands, or at night when, half-dreaming, its melodies and images gushed into her mind like water through a broken dam.
“The errant knight for seeing her went into raptures rare
And in his flesh love wrought its lines of wisdom brute and bare
And all who found him feared to think how wrathful was his care
Nurtured in his longing like a sinner’s final prayer
He all was changed for looking on that lady debonair
He tore his surcoat and he stripped his noble body bare
He went into the mountains westward, hoping to encare
His life or death to God’s good love for his was hers fore’er”
Mary choked. She could not remember the following verses. It was a long song and she thought she had committed it to memory many years ago, at midsummer, when she sat up with the labouring girls to see the sunrise and listen to their gossip.
The nun gaped at her.
“I’m sorry,” Mary said. “I should have picked better. I know that song is vulgar.”
“No! No! It’s extraordinary,” said the nun. “Your relatives understated the power and clarity of your voice. We could do with such a talent in our own choir, you know.”
Mary smiled, as a wave of relief washed over her, the first she had felt since her father’s death.
“Do you know Latin?” the nun said.
“Only a little,” Mary said.
“No Greek either, I suppose.”
“That’s all right. Your father, God rest him, was a Catholic, I am told. Is that so?”
“It is,” said Mary. “That’s why I know a little Latin. He used to take me with him to Mass.”
Then she started crying.
Her mother reached out a brittle-looking hand and caressed her softly.
“He was faithful to his religion all his short life,” the aging Alice Lulworth said wearily. “Mary was baptised by Father Evans, who preached and served mass at the chapel the Lulworths built by the woods over at Finglecombe.
“I see,” said the nun, clasping her hands together, apparently in thanks to God for Mary’s father’s piety. “That will certainly help your case, Miss Mary. Would you like to go to our school?”
“Really,” said Mary, “all I know about school is that it is expensive. I have heard that my family’s fortune has been taken away from us. They have taken my father’s house. How can I go to school?”
“There is a woman,” the nun said, softly, “who lives nearby Marlborough, east of here. She is the widow of a duke, a very wealthy person. When her husband died, she made a bequest with some of the money she inherited from him to pay for clever girls of wit and good character to study at our school. She also gave the Convent much that it was in sore need of. The scholarship will be offered next year and will cover all the costs of a worthy pupil if at least one such can be found. So, I will ask you again, would you like to study at our school?”
“How can I know?” said Mary, uncertainly, looking to the nun for clarification.
“ It is a rigorous life,” the sister said, seeming uninterested in glamourising the prospect, “full of austerity and devotion. The girls live much as we sisters do, and often go on to join our order, or others. You will not need to worry about the future, at least at first, if you are given the scholarship.”
“So, I would no longer be a burden to my relatives?” Mary asked.
“You aren’t a burden,” said her mother, weakly.
“That’s right,” the nun said, bluntly. “It would be a mercy.”
“Then I do want to go,” Mary said, although her heart sank at the prospect of leaving her home, her mother, and her memories of her father.
Mary awoke to woodlands, gorse, and open fields, ranged upon by wild-looking sheep. The carriage was ascending an occasionally steep incline, and the quiet settled countryside had given way to the vast upland of Salisbury Plain.
Upon a domed peak ahead, Mary could make out the squat buildings of a walled complex, which looked like an ancient hillfort.
Is that the school? It seems so foreboding.
Mary could see clearly in her mind’s eye, as she had so many times, whole and not partial like her waking sight, the image of her mother waving goodbye to her as the coach carried her away from Athelham. They had both tried, and both failed, not to cry.
Mary clutched the letter in her hand that promised her a full scholarship at the Convent school. It was signed by the Mother Superior herself and had arrived only a few weeks after the nun’s visit to Athelham. Almost at once, the preparations for Mary’s departure had begun.
As the settlement grew closer on its conical hill, Mary could begin to make out its Gothic spires and towers. Somehow, despite the heat of the day, inescapable in the carriage, Mary felt a chill shiver through her as she thought about the austere lives that the nuns and their students must lead on this high plain, streaked in patches of broken turf by the white chalk which lay underneath it.
Every now and then, Mary could hear snatches of Uncle Esau whistling or singing from the driver’s seat, verses of hymns, country ballads, things perhaps of his own invention, but which had gained a familiarity and homeliness over time. They sounded like the parlour in Old Bill’s house.
The familiarity of the music irked her more than it would have done, had it been strange and foreign. She was now so very far away from home that the reminiscences her uncle’s songs inspired were too dear to be born easily on this rugged country road.
Mary fancied that she could now see figures atop the odd hill. People, swathed in black, or at least picked black in rich shadow by the sun, hurried hither and thither amongst the grey buildings on unimaginable errands.
Presently, the carriage mounted a sloping drive that wound its way around the hill. Swallows were darting about the carriage.
They gained the summit, and the carriage pulled up next to a set of wooden gates, bound in iron, which were set into the walls of the convent. A church tower loomed above this battlement, with its solitary bell hanging still and watchful upon a rope.
Uncle Esau climbed down from the driver’s seat and comforted the horses. Then he came around to Mary’s side, opened the door, and encouraged her, offering her his hand in its sturdy leather glove.
Mary took it.
“Well child,” said Uncle Esau, helping her to the grassy ground. “Quite an impressive old barrack, isn’t it?”
Mary nodded uncertainly, but Uncle Esau was already removing her bags, which soon formed a pathetic little pile next to the unmoving gate. Uncle Esau approached this and rapped upon it authoritatively.
A door, set into the larger gate like a porthole, swung open, and out tumbled a ruddy faced nun, followed by an older one with a golden pince-nez that only served to magnify her eyes. In addition to this was a large, ornamental crucifix, hanging ostentatiously from a set of rosary beads around her neck.
“God save you,” said Uncle Esau at once to these ladies. “My name’s Esau Adling, and I’m bringing you Miss Mary Lulworth, of whom you will have heard tell.”
“Welcome, Mr. Adling,” said the old woman, “to the Abbey and School of Our Lady of Good Counsel. You will forgive us for not inviting you in, but we are a closed order.”
“That’s all right by me, you honour,” said Uncle Esau. “I’ll seek rest and respite in Salisbury once this afternoon’s business is done.”
“Very good, Mr. Adling,” said the old lady. “My name is Mother Ruth, and I am the abbess. This is Sister Frances, who oversees the school. Can you carry your own bags? I am afraid my arms are not what they used to be.”
“No, I can carry them,” Mary said, picking one up.
“I’ll help,” said Sister Frances, taking the others.
“Well, thank you, Mr. Adling,” said Mother Ruth.
“Goodbye then, Mary,” said her uncle. “You’ll write to your mother, and to me I hope.”
“Yes,” said Mary, still clutching the unneeded, crumpled letter in her hand. “Goodbye.”
Before Mary knew it, she was on the other side of the high stone walls from her uncle, running along in the wake of Sister Frances, the Mother Superior disappearing into parts of the Convent unknown.
Sister Frances followed ways clearly well familiar to her, and Mary pursued, eager not to get lost. They passed into cool rooms with slick stone walls and few decorations save icons and faded devotional works of art. They went up a staircase that delivered them into a corridor possessing many wooden doors.
Sister Frances found the door she was looking for and opened it. Into the tiny room that was thus revealed, light streamed through a window that took up much of the furthest wall. The light was ruddy, since the walls around the cloister below had been built of red brick, contrasting with the mediaeval exterior of the Convent with its high, featureless walls.
By the window was a desk upon which lay a dog-eared Bible. To one side there was a narrow bed. An empty bookshelf was on the wall. This was the extent of the furnishings of Mary’s cell, besides what she brought into it herself.
In many ways, the cell lived up to its name.
At the same time, the light that brought with it the rose red shade of the cloister walls was enchanting.
I wish I could lock myself in here. If I had enough time and silence, would I be able to pay attention to God. Would he visit me?
Then the bell that she had seen hanging motionlessly from its rope in the tower began letting out a silvery clatter of urgent peals. Sister Frances, who had just been setting down Mary’s bag beside the bed, jumped. It was as if, for all her years as a nun, she had never gotten used to this sort of interruption.
“Right!” said Sister Frances, energetically. “That means it’s time for Vespers. You’ll come with me, but I think it would be best for you to sit with the other girls, as that is what will happen in the future. Don’t worry about the words, you’ll learn them soon enough. Supper will be after Vespers, so just follow all the others when the next bell rings. Sit in the first seat you find in the chape. The choirstalls are for the nuns. If you’re not in the right place, somebody will be sure to move you. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” said Mary drily. “Thank you.”
“You’ll survive here,” said Sister Frances, frankly. “It’s not a bad place, all things considered. Come along!”
With that, the spritely red-faced nun charged out of the cell, and Mary followed, noticing as she did so that the door possessed no keyhole. She followed sister Frances down a corridor and a flight of steps and then emerged, after her, into the warm sun of evening. The nun reached the chapel, and then gestured silently around it towards the main gate. It seemed as if the sisters used a different entrance from the students.
Mary waved farewell at sister Frances, and then hurried towards the main doors. Girls in drab smocks were hurrying in the same direction, some of whom peered at Mary suspiciously as they went, although they quickly looked away when they had had a good look at her. Mary was used to this reaction. It was a shame, she always thought, because she would not have been ugly if it wasn’t for the one issue of the blind eye. Even so, perhaps this would be the best place to be after all. The nuns, whether they were pretty or not, were covered from head to toe in black cloth. It was a place of partial anonymity, an opportunity to feel save, covered up, concealed.
Mary followed the crowds of girls into the chapel, which was lit by the fiery tableaux of a stained-glass window over the altar depicting saints and angels in a swirl of vivid colors that seemed brightened even moreso by the evening light.
The door was propped open, allowing the air to penetrate into the church, and it was neither too hot nor too chill. Still, it was swiftly filling up with girls, who claimed places at the pews, and then knelt in prayer, or imitations of it. Mary was aware of the sound of many different people breathing at their own paces and to the rhythms of their own heartbeats.
The nuns themselves began filling up the choir stalls that occupied positions to the immediate left and right of the altar. There were old nuns, young nuns, fat nuns, thin nuns. Nuns with pale faces like the rest of the British, and nuns who seemed to hail from the sunnier south.
Mary realised that she was running out of opportunities to take a place at a pew and hurried quickly to a spot that was not yet occupied. Having sat down, she lowered herself to the cold slats of the chapel floor and felt an instant ache in her knees.
Mortification of the flesh.
She tried to pray, but it wasn’t long before the nuns started singing in a sweet, melodious plainchant that swept away Mary’s thoughts. The girls around her were singing too, some more assuredly than others. Mary remembered Sister Frances’s advice and chose not even to try to follow the complicated chanting. The music swept over her, and it wasn’t long before the girl beside her was nudging her in the ribs.
“It’s time to go!” she insisted. “Don’t you want to have supper?”
Mary supposed that she did want to have supper and got painfully to her feet.
* * *
It was not long before Mary became familiar with the haunting melodies of the Divine Offices. The lessons passed by her with a dull monotony, and she began to look forward to the regular pealing of the chapel bell. Before she knew the words of the hymns or had gained an intimacy with her book of psalms, Mary began mimicking the voices of the nuns, many of which were very accomplished. Her own voice sang out and she did not care to silence herself, as she did in class, to avoid making herself look foolish. In the house of God, it was right and just to give Him thanks and praise, and she did so. Some of the other girls resented her for this, but others were quietly grateful to her for taking up slack so that they could just mouth along, taking credit for her virtuosity.
The music lessons too she enjoyed, and here her talent could not be mistaken. The singing mistress, a little nun from Italy with nutbrown skin and dark eyes that seemed to whisper of sunnier climes, took an interest in Mary and encouraged her.
“Signorina,” said Sister Carissima, “will you stay here for a moment.”
All the other girls in the class looked at Mary, no doubt wondering what she had done wrong.
However, when they were left together in the empty classroom, the Italian nun smiled, revealing white teeth. She had a small birthmark on her face, almost as dark as the black robes she wore. Even though her hair was hidden, Mary was sure that thick dark curls must be hiding behind her veil.
“I can tell you have a talent for music,” Sister Carissima said. “No, let me say that differently. You have a love for music?”
The nun over-emphasised the word ‘love’, seeming to take pleasure in its single syllable.
“I do,” said Mary, shyly.
“There’s something I would like to show you, in that case. Will you come with me?”
“All right,” said Mary.
Sister Carissima turned to a door set into a gothic archway. The door was painted green.
Sister Carissima produced a key from somewhere within the recesses of her robes. She slid it into the keyhole and turned.
The door clicked and swung open. Beyond it there was a light, airy room, with tall, glass windows. In front of the windows, which were letting in the ruddy light of the cloister, Mary could see a golden harp.
Sister Carissima spotted Mary looking at this and put a hand gently on her back. “Go ahead, child, you can go inside,” she said, with eager laughter in her voice. “Have you ever played the harp?”
“Played,” said Mary, stepping nervously but enraptured towards the shining instrument. Strange shadows were cast by its body and strings. It seemed almost as if it were moving, buzzing with the energy of silent music. “Why, I’ve never even seen one before, except in pictures.”
Still encouraging Mary forward, Sister Carissima sat down on the stool beside the harp. Her long black robes hung down straight. Her body arched, full of strength and tension where before all had been buttery soft.
She played a chord. The harp rang out. Mary had never heard anything like it before. It resonated with the red light that flooded in from the cloister.
She shut the door behind her, as quietly as she could. She couldn’t bear the thought of Sister Carissima being interrupted. The little nun was dancing from string to string, sometimes striking beautiful trills, sometimes picking out abstract harmonies high and low.
Something inside Mary that had been locked away in its anger and pain softly died and gave up the ghost. She wept, in absolute silence, shaking in the rapture and majesty of the divine, while Sister Carissima’s hands darted from string to string upon the golden harp.
Nicholas loosened his necktie. The august sun was sweltering, and it was not a good idea to look too much like a gentleman.
Here, on the southern edge of Paris, there stood the ancient edifice of the church of the Infant Jesus. Nicholas was standing in its graveyard, trying to read the inscriptions on the tumbledown tombstones.
“How did I know I would find you here? You are such a ghoul,” a voice said, as a hand swathed in velvet slipped into his own.
Nicholas’ cheeks, somewhat prickling from the sun, creased up. “You came,” he said.
“But, of course, I came,” Sophie said, fixing her dark eyes upon him and fluttering her eyelashes like rapidly pulsating butterfly wings. “When a young English nobleman asks me to meet him at a collapsing little church at the foot of Montparnasse, what am I to do but come?”
Her voice, which was low and melodious, was thick with her accustomed air of condescension. She always spoke English with Nicholas, claiming that she found his rudimentary French too painful to bear.
“Thank you,” said Nicholas. “Shall we go for a walk?”
“Yes,” said Sophie. “Let’s promenade. If we meet any bandits, you will fight them for me. Yes? You won’t run away like a coward?”
“That is just as well, because I am not in the mood for killing bandits today.”
Nicholas laughed. “Let’s go back towards the city,” he said.
Sophie allowed him to take her arm. He could smell jasmine, violet, maybe a hint of musk. She smelt expensive, yet fresh, like a bouquet of flowers.
As if reading his mind, Sophie made eyes at a ragged flower girl on the edge of the Luxembourg Gardens. She paid the child a penny and handed the posy of wilting flowers to Nicholas.
“Enchanté,” he said.
Sophie smiled. “Will we go into the gardens?”
“Naturally,” Nicholas replied, cradling the flowers in his hand.
As they strolled, it occurred to him, “Sophie, you needn’t have spent money on flowers for me. Your presence is enough.”
“I know that,” she said chidingly, “but my family is hardly destitute. Do not suppose that my father had no friends.”
Nicholas’s eye wandered towards the black cockade Sophie wore on her hat, in memory of her father, killed at Waterloo.
“I should hate you,” she said.
“I know,” he replied.
“But I don’t,” she said.
“I’m glad,” he replied.
“Will you stay with me here in Paris?”
She slapped him lightly in the face. It wasn’t intended to hurt, but even so the act of it stung Nicholas. “Foolish boy!” she said. “You think I will marry you for ‘I’ll try’? Do you think I crave your English honour and your Eton manners as much as all that? This city alone is full of fine gentlemen who would do more than just try to win the hand of Sophie Auclair-Villiers. Duels have been fought for my love; didn’t you know that?”
“I did,” said Nicholas, smiling despite the tension. “I heard it from my neighbour, the dissolute Capitaine Lemercier.”
“And how does he know me?” she said sharply.
“He knew your father.”
“A lucky man, then,” said Sophie. “To have known my father and survived. And what would he say now to see me walking arm in arm with an idle, impudent English boy?”
“Enchanté?” repeated Nicholas, with a grin.
“Bah!” said Sophie, laughing. “There is no fighting with you. You make everything into a joke. Come, let’s have some coffee.”
Realising, with a massive sense of relief, that Sophie had only been teasing him, Nicholas hurried on with her, stealing a hurried glance at the observatory.
They came soon enough to a little café that graced the outer part of the gardens, with its tables out on the grass under the bright-green streams of oak trees.
They sat and drank coffee black, without sugar, the way Sophie liked it.
“So,” she said, “will you stay in Paris, or will you leave me?”
“It depends,” said Nicholas.
“On what?” said Sophie, once again sounding sharp and offended. It was impossible to tell whether this too was a tease.
Nicholas felt embarrassed.
I’d better tell her.
“On whether I can get any money. I’m broke, you see.”
“Yes, it is an English word that means…”
“I know what it means, but why didn’t you tell me? I could have found somebody who could help you.”
“The last thing I need,” Nicholas said, after taking refuge in a sip of the potent coffee, “is to get involved with moneylenders.”
“I do not mean moneylenders,” Sophie said, raising her eyes as if imploring the Heavens for mercy. “I mean I could find a friend who could help you.”
“By lending you money without interest.”
“That’s awfully kind,” said Nicholas, after a pause, “but I’m afraid I can’t do that. I’m already in debt to my poor father.”
“In debt to your father? How can one be in debt to one’s father?”
“I live off his money.”
“Well,” said Sophie, “I live off my father’s estate now, as I lived off him when he was alive, but I would not call it debt.”
“Whatever you want to call it,” Nicholas said, “I am in it. Any more debt and I wouldn’t have much chance of paying it all off this side of the grave.”
“So, you will slink back to your father in London and ask him for more, or will you get a job?” She sighed, her dark eyes narrow and full of frustration. She looked at her lap, where her fingers were fiddling with a golden signet ring. Then she shrugged. “You are strong enough, why not become a labourer here in Paris?”
She laughed again, wildly, flashing white teeth, and tossing her chestnut hair that lay, only half restrained, under her silken headscarf.
“If I were a labourer,” Nicholas said slowly, “I would certainly never be able to marry you.”
“Never.” Sophie agreed, “but it would make such a fine man of you. Now, I have to go.” She got up, all at once.
“Where are you going?”
“Never you mind where I am going. You can write to me if you have the time before abandoning me. A toute a l’heure.”
“Au revoir,” Nicholas said, craning his neck to watch her go, wondering whether he would ever see her again. Her dress of burgundy velvet swung with the rhythm of her graceful, feminine walk. Nicholas felt hungry, and a little bit sick.
He bought another coffee and sat, too exhausted from life to go back to his own quarter. Presently, he felt a tapping on his shoulder.
“Sophie?” he said.
“No! Guess again.”
Nicholas lifted his head and found himself overshadowed by the upturned face of Blaise de Marigny.
“Oh, hello, Blaise,” he said.
“Hello, my friend,” said Blaise, helping himself to the seat that Sophie had vacated. “Are you well?”
“Very well, thank you. And yourself.”
“Oh, life is boring, but I am alive. Who is Sophie? I am sure you were keener to meet her than you were to meet me.”
“Oh,” said Nicholas, blushing. “You know how it is.”
“I know that this is a city full of beautiful, sad women,” said Blaise. “I know also that your pockets are empty. Let me buy you a drink. Not here, somewhere more…prolétarien.”
“All right”, said Nicholas, who in truth was reluctant to leave the table at which he had sat with Sophie. He fancied he could still detect the lingering odour of her perfume. He breathed of it deeply, one last time, while he could.
Blaise put his arm around Nicholas’s shoulders as they walked.
“I thought you needed propping up,” he said, mischievously.
“I’m not drunk yet,” said Nicholas.
“No, but are you not swept off your feet by all the beauties of Paris?”
“I’ve been here long enough to keep myself vertical, I hope,” said Nicholas, then they both laughed at the absurdity of this statement.
“Have you eaten?” said Blaise.
“No. You know me.”
“Well, a drink it is first,” said Blaise, “and then maybe after we find something solid.”
“Agreed,” said Nicholas, and allowed his friend to guide him in the direction of Val-de-Grâce.
“Let me tell you something,” said Blaise, once they were in the wine shop, a comfortably dingy place, resting their elbows on the bar and sipping Touraine Gamay.
“What is it?” Nicholas asked.
“I was at the Sorbonne earlier. Amazing, I know, but sometimes I even attend lectures there.”
“At this rate,” Nicholas agreed, “you might even graduate.”
“God knows,” said Blaise, throwing up his hands and grinning. Then he tapped Nicholas conspiratorially on the shoulder and drew closer to him. Nicholas could smell the wine on his breath. “I met that aristocrat fellow, Rochelle, for a drink after class, and he took me to a house on Îsle-Saint-Louis. There, I met the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.”
“Oh, yes?” said Nicholas, intrigued.
“Nicholas, I am telling you, this woman was ravishing, like a Goddess.”
“She’s clearly made quite an impression on you.”
“She would make an impression on anyone. Her name is Gertrude, which is unfortunate perhaps, but she makes that ugly series of syllables sound like the name of angel.”
“I have no choice but to believe you.”
“No, my friend, you must see her.”
“No, no, Nicholas. She is tonight not far from here, attending an intimate soirée at the house of Monsieur Raspail, the actor, you understand, not the scientist.”
“All right,” said Nicholas, “that is all very well, but I don’t know this Monsieur Raspail on any terms be they intimate or otherwise.”
“Ah, yes,” said Blaise, “but you do not need to worry, because I do. He is my friend, my bosom brother, and you should come with me to meet him and this impossible beauty who will ravish your mind and give you something to remember when you return to your windswept, godforsaken little island.”
Nicholas laughed. “My friend,” he said, “you are drunk. You were drunk when I met you. Doubtless you were drunk on the Îsle Saint Louis.”
“Men like you are so tiresome,” said Blaise, pouting. “Why do you take so much convincing that there are good and enjoyable things in the world. Here!”
Blaise reached over the bar for a piece of chalk that was lying unattended. He took it and started sketching on the back of a notebook he had been carrying in his pocket.
Nicholas watched as his friend’s frantic scribbling began to give birth to a face.
“That’s good,” he said. “She really is pretty. Are you sure she looks like that in real life?”
“In real life,” said Blaise, “she is better! You will know when I show her to you. And what’s more,” here again Blaise leaned over so close towards Nicholas that he could feel the Frenchman’s breath on his ear, so desperate was he not to be overheard, “she’s the daughter of a Count, a minister of the Crown, and she is set to inherit a fortune.”
“Really?” said Nicholas.
“Yes, really!” said Blaise in a furious whisper that could have been heard out in the street. “Have I ever lied to you.”
“I don’t know. I think it could be worth a punt, though, come to think about it. My pockets are empty after all.”
“Worth a punt?” said Blaise, “what in the blazes does that mean?” Then his facial expression changed from one of theatrical confusion to one of sly understanding. “Oh,” he said, “I see, you are swayed at last by my talk. Yes, let’s get you married, Nicholas. Married to a rich and beautiful Parisienne, and then you can toast your old friend with champagne every afternoon before you return to your sublime and passionate bride.”
“All right,” said Nicholas, draining the last dregs of his wine. “Let’s go.”
“Yes!” shouted Blaise, slamming down some silver coins in payment for the wine, and jumping to his feet. “Come on, let’s get you married!” Once more he put his hand to Nicholas’s back and guided him on his way. Before long he broke out into song. Nicholas recognised the melody of the Departure Song, of the old Bonapartist army. He had heard it enough times echoing through the flimsy floorboards from the lodgings of Captain Lemercier to be able to join in himself.
Lucilla awoke to the sounds of the bells of Salisbury Cathedral. She got up and was met soon at her door by a maid in the employ of the hotel, who came in and dressed her. When she was ready, she took breakfast in the parlour of the Red Lion. There she met her coachman, Gower, who had his horses ready in their harnesses.
Gower was well used to this road by now. A Wiltshire man himself, he had witnessed the construction of Our Lady of Good Counsel on the site of the old Franciscan monastery that had been demolished under Henry VIII. He had driven Lucilla to the Convent the first time she went to visit it, after opening correspondence with the old Mother Superior.
They were ascending Salisbury Plain now, and in the distance the green tor with its black cluster of buildings and monolith-like tower loomed prettily, like something out of a dream.
In good enough time, they were climbing the winding road to the summit. The nuns were expecting Lucilla, and here was a little group of them, orbiting the shrunken, black-robed figure of Mother Ruth, with her ornate crucifix and her gleaming eyes that could be seen twinkling even behind the tinted glass of the coach.
Gower jumped down to the green turf and stomped around to open the door for Lucilla. She stepped out, just as the bells were chiming ten o’clock.
Lucilla hurried forwards to meet the Mother Superior. She grabbed the wizened hand and kissed it. Mother Ruth made the sign of the cross.
“Bless you, Lady Bedwyn,” said the wrinkled nun, smiling from behind her pince-nez. “I thank God that you look to be in perfect health.”
“Yes, Mother Superior, I am well, and so are you!”
“Tush!” said the old woman. “I am ninety. God has blessed me with enough life to witness the success of this foundation, which has been in no small part achieved with your own help.”
“Well, one tries to give back,” said Lucilla, who was never good at accepting compliments. “I’ll try not to take too much of your time. I’ve got to get back to Whitehorse sooner rather than later, and it’s a long road. I stayed at Marlborough last night, so who knows what sort of chaos the place will be in by the time I’ve returned.” She smiled, trying to show that she cared little really about the wastage of time when spent in the company of the sister.
“Come in then,” said Mother Ruth. “Let us see whether we are in a position to return some small portion of the kindnesses that you have bestowed on us.”
“Really, I just spend money,” said Lucilla. “Not many have got it, but I have and since my husband died have more than I know how to spend.”
* * *
They crossed the cloister and went up to the Abbess’s office, where Mother Ruth was served tea by an earnest young nun, and Lucilla accepted out of kindness. She had impressed the idea of haste upon the sisters, because she knew that they went at their own pace.
Lucilla sipped her tea, then she found herself smiling impishly. “Do you think you have any good candidates for me?”
“Well,” said Mother Ruth, brushing a strand of silver-white hair back under her veil. “They are good girls here, mostly, hard-working, and honest. Still, it is hard for a person who has lived seventy-three years away from the secular world to know precisely what is wanted in a Lady’s Companion.”
“Well, my opinions haven’t really changed since I last wrote to you,” said Lucilla. “I want a girl who is intelligent enough to talk to, well-behaved enough to introduce to friends and family, and brave enough to cope with whatever life throws at her. Aside from that, I’ll trust to your discretion. I know it’s a strange request, I just want the company. I can guarantee the girl protection, up to a point. We have room for her, we have good food and plentiful distraction.”
“Are you lonely?” said the old woman, who had never minced her words.
“I suppose I must be,” said Lucilla, feeling hot. “Can I open the window?” she asked.
“Of course,” said Mother Ruth.
Lucilla got up out of the little chair she had been sitting in, crossed the floor, and fiddled with the latch of the cast-iron window frame. When she could, she stuck her head out of the window and breathed in deep lungfuls of the clean air.
“The girls will be having lessons until eleven,” Mother Superior said, from behind her. “If you want, I can have some of them brought up to you in the meantime, unless you are willing to wait.”
“I don’t mind,” said Lucilla, who felt out of sorts. She could see a great bird of prey hovering somewhere above the chalky meadows between the convent Salisbury. The countryside was green and deeply textured. The feeling was vertiginous, yet she didn’t want to look away. More and more, her dreams had featured the convent recently, even though she had no illusions of having a vocation to the religious life. She liked hunting and gardening. She still had the taste for an occasional ball. She enjoyed her sumptuous wardrobes and had never shrunk from the tastes her class afforded her. Out of all of England’s aristocrats, she was one of the most comfortable in her own skin.
And yet, this place gave her such a sense of calm assurance.
Then she heard a sound that was as familiar to her as the convent, something that also reminded her of her dreams. It was a quiet music, lilting and sorrowful, that reverberated softly in the cloister walls.
Lucilla wondered if she was imagining it.
“Can you hear that?” she asked, turning back to Mother Ruth, while sitting on the windowsill.
“Hear what?” said the nun.
Mother Ruth looked nonplussed for a second, and then she nodded and clapped her hands. “Ah, yes,” she said. “The harp music. It happens so frequently now that I hardly even notice it, like the bells. If it irritates you, I could have it stopped.”
“No, no!” cried Lucilla quickly. “I don’t want it stopped. I like it. It’s good to hear that old instrument put to decent use.”
“But of course!” said Mother Superior, beaming. “The harp was your gift to the school when it opened. I hope we have taken proper enough care for it. I leave such business to Sister Carissima, who certainly loves the instrument as does its current player, if I do not mistakenly identify her style.”
“I have another,” said Lucilla, trying to make it seem as though the gift of the harp had not been a big deal.
Even so, in its much-loved condition, it had been one of her dearest possessions.
She stopped speaking for a moment and listened to the music. “I don’t recognise the composer,” she said, “but it feels like I have heard it before.”
“I’m afraid,” said Mother Superior, “that I do not recognise the piece either, but yet, I find it delightful.”
“Who’s playing it?” asked Lucilla. “You said it was not Sister Carissima?”
“No, indeed,” said Mother Ruth, “judging by the time of day, the volume, and the pronounced virtuosity, I would say that is most likely the playing of Miss Mary Lulworth, one of the girls.”
“A child,” marvelled Lucilla. “Really? A child is making that beautiful sound?”
“A young woman,” replied Mother Superior. “She is the daughter of a genteel family from Devonshire who fell into hard times. Come to think of it, she was a recipient of the scholarship you so graciously disposed on us.”
“Was she really?” said Lucilla. “Well, I’ll be!”
Mother Superior looked bashful for a moment, then she looked up from her beads and said, “Would you like to meet her?”
“Well, yes, I suppose I would,” said Lucilla. “Is she on your list of candidates?”
“Actually, no,” said Mother Ruth. “She is an extremely clever and kind girl, if a little reclusive and quiet. Many here believe she would make an excellent nun, although she has made no clear decision in that direction yet. She’s shy, but she has great skill at music, so Sister Carissima asked me to give her leave to play the harp in place of certain lessons at which she has no ability.”
“Like what?” asked Lucilla.
“Oh, anything that requires work done up close. You see, she’s blind in one eye and struggles to perceive the distances between things.”
“Blind in one eye, you say? And yet she has mastered that harp like none I have ever heard playing it.”
Mother Superior crossed herself. “Yes, thank Heavens,” she said. “It is a minor miracle. She was always injuring herself when she tried her hand in the workshop, spilling drinks when she tried to pour them, and administering the sacrament to her has caused poor Father Xavier a mite or two of difficulty. Even so, when she sits down to that harp, it is like her maladroitness evaporates. She is one with the instrument. At least, that is what my untutored eyes and ears would find to be true.
Lucilla found herself smiling at the old woman’s enthusiasm, but she agreed. “I think you are perhaps too humble, Mother Ruth,” she said, “or we are both equally deceived.”
“It is as God will have it,” said Mother Ruth, turning her eyes to her hands, which were folded on the table in front of her. “So, are you willing to meet with her?”
“Only if she’d like to meet me.” All of a sudden, Lucilla felt shy.
What if the girl doesn’t like me, or I don’t like her? Sending for her is making contact with someone I know nothing about, but think I can feel something of from the music she’s been playing, unaware that I was listening. What is going to happen?
“Let’s find out,” said Mother Superior, who had the disconcerting habit of sounding as though she had just read your thoughts.
Lucilla shivered. The old woman smiled down at her folded hands, then reached out for a little silver bell that sat on her desk. She shook it, and it let out a little music of its own, high-pitched and cheerful as a songbird.
In less than a second, the door had opened, and the young nun burst in. “Yes, Mother Superior?” she said.
“Bless you, Sister Clare,” said Mother Ruth. “That was even quicker than normal. Will you go to the music room and ask Mary whether she’d like to come up and meet her benefactor?”
“Oh no!” said Lucilla. “Please don’t say benefactor.”
“Very well,” said Mother Superior. “Ask if she would like to come up and meet with a friend of the school. Is that acceptable to you, Your Ladyship?”
“Yes,” said Lucilla.
Mother Superior nodded at Sister Clare, who hurried away, slamming the door in her enthusiasm.
Before long, a knock came at the door.
“Come in!” said Mother Superior.
The door opened and in came Sister Clare with a young woman trailing a step or two behind her.
“You can leave us, Sister,” said Mother Superior. “Don’t worry, Mary. You’re not in trouble.”
“Are you sure?” said the girl. “I wasn’t playing too loud, was I? Sometimes I forget myself.”
“No, not at all,” said Mother Superior. “I always enjoy the volume at which you play, because it means even my old ears can hear you. Here is somebody who would like to be introduced to you. Her name is Lady Lucilla Bedwyn, and she is the Duchess of Avon.”
“Dowager Duchess,” corrected Lucilla. “That means my husband, the duke, is dead.”
“Oh, I know what it means,” said Mary. “I mean, I’m sorry for your loss. Did he die recently?”
“A long time ago, actually,” Lucilla said.
There was a moment’s silence, which allowed Lucilla to get a better look at the girl. She was of adult stature, but still willowy and delicate in frame. She wore a coarse brown smock made less rustic by a sash of green ribbon. Her blonde hair was very fair, almost silver. The dead eye in her face was grey.
No, Lucilla corrected, herself.
Dead would be the wrong word. The eye is sleeping. It is of a pale grey, dormant, like a still lake.
Lucilla realised she was staring, and blushed. The girl fixed her with that bright green eye that still looked and perceived.
“It’s all right,” she said, “everybody looks at my eye. I’m used to it.”
“It can’t be easy,” said Lucilla, trying to sound respectful.
“It’s been like this all my life, so I don’t even notice it most of the time.”
“Except when people look.”
“Your playing was magnificent.”
“Thank you.” The girl smiled, and it was like the sun had come up over a distant mountain and drenched the land before it in light. Where before, everything about Mary’s demeanour had seemed austere, severe even. When she smiled with pride at hearing this compliment from a stranger, she showed something of her soul, something which perhaps only otherwise came out in her music.
Her face creased, revealing a patchwork network of sunrays that bespoke a muscularity that Lucilla didn’t often see in women, but which she approved. The girl, after all, seemed barely to have a pound of fat on her. She was lean, and healthy, like a well-cared-for-horse.
Her lips were parted, revealing ever-so-slightly off-white teeth and a hint of crimson tongue. She was defiant, Lucilla thought, of this world that stared at her. She was staring back.
“Can I tell you why I’m here?” Lucilla said to Mary.
“I am looking for a lady’s companion. Do you know what that is?”
Mary shook her head, looking to Mother Ruth for guidance.
“It’s somebody who lives with a woman, another woman, and shares her life, and helps her with her affairs,” said the nun.
“Like a maidservant?” said Mary.
“No,” said Lucilla, trying to sound friendly rather than authoritative. “A companion has a higher status than a maid, considerably so. A companion is part of the household. She eats at the family table. She sleeps in her own room, in the main part of the house. She has her own interests and her own occupations, but she is there to help her host when it is needed.”
Mary took a moment to digest this. “Like a friend?” she said, after a moment.
“Yes,” said Lucilla, “I suppose that is so.”
“Do they get paid?” asked Mary.
“I would be willing to settle a small allowance upon my companion, if I can find one. I would provide her with good clothes and more food than she could eat. All that I would ask is that she try her best not to be tiresome, boring, or obnoxious.”
Mary looked scared at that.
“Don’t worry,” said Lucilla. “I am not exacting. Truth be told, I don’t even really know what I want. I was hoping to meet with some girls Mother Ruth thought would be good matches, but then…” She trailed off.
“But then,” said Mother Ruth, picking up the thread of the conversation where Lucilla had left it, “Lady Bedwyn heard your playing echoing in the cloister.”
“That’s right,” Lucilla admitted. “Really, I am very easily distracted, it would seem.”
“Lady Bedwyn,” Mother Ruth went on, smiling encouragingly at Mary, “is a great admirer of music, and the harp in particular.”
“Oh,” said the girl, smiling again and seeming animated by the very thought. “Is that true?”
“Yes,” said Lucilla.
“She gave the harp you’ve been playing to the convent.”
“Did you?” asked Mary, almost squealing, and once again dissolving her attitude of pious detachment to radiate that warmth that apparently lay slumbering inside her. “That’s wonderful. Wonderful! Thank you.”
With that, she boldly strode forwards to shake Lucilla’s hand. The girl’s grasp was soft yet strong. It didn’t feel like a stranger’s hand. Lucilla didn’t know what to say.
“So,” said Mother Ruth, apparently playing the matchmaker. “Have you found what you’re looking for, Lady Bedwyn?”
Lucilla wondered for a moment, then she decided to allow the Lord to do his work. “Yes,” she said. “I think I have.”
Mary was praying the rosary, silently, her lips moving but the voice barely parting them.
Ave Maria, gratia plena, dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus…
There came a gentle knocking at the door.
Et Benedictus fructus ventrum tui, Jesu. Sancta Maria, mater dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostra.
“Amen,” she said aloud, then, “come in!”
The door opened, and in came Sister Carissima. Mary found herself smiling to see the music teacher, whom she had long decided to consider her closest, or perhaps her only, friend.
“Am I disturbing you?” Sister Carissima asked when she had seen that Mary was on her knees.
“Oh, no, sister,” said Mary, getting up. “I was saying the rosary, but I won’t forget where I was, and I will have plenty of time to continue later, if the Spirit moves me.”
Sister Carissima smiled. She looked as healthy as ever, but there was a sadness, maybe even a dampness about the eyes that concerned Mary. She knew, however, what it must be about.
“You’re leaving,” said Sister Carissima.
“Yes,” said Mary, “probably not for very long. There’s this lady, this Duchess, who wants to try me out as a companion.”
She didn’t mention that she had been chosen based on her harp skills, for fear of tempting her dear friend and mentor to jealousy.
“Yes,” said Sister Carissima, smiling a little. “Mother Ruth came to tell me, and then Sister Frances as well. They both came to see me privately, to make sure that it didn’t come as too much of a nasty surprise. They wanted to see how I would react. They know as well as I do how much you have come to mean to me, to us all here, really.”
“God bless you, Sister,” said Mary, going towards her friend to clasp her hands. “Had I thought about what sorrow it would bring to either of us, I might not have agreed to go.” Her own tears were welling up now, she hastily wiped away a tear before it had a chance to fall.
Seeing this, Sister Carissima strengthened her self-control, managing a more convincing smile, with a note of power in her voice. She said, “no, no. You must go! God is sending you, and, if He wills it, you will serve this lady for a long time.”
“Only if He wills it,” said Mary. “Oh,” she could see that Carissima had once again lost self-control, and her own tears were falling onto the floorboards. Instinctively, Mary opened her arms, and they embraced one another gently.
“God go with you,” said Sister Carissima, pulling away softly. “At least I will be the best musician in the abbey again.”
“At least you will get time with the harp,” said Mary, at which they both giggled.
“Oh,” said Sister Carissima, putting her hand to her heart, “I almost forgot. I have something for you, a small gift.”
Mary gasped. “That’s so kind of you,” she said. “Where did you get it? Did you go into Salisbury?”
Carissima shook her head. “No, I did not get it in Salisbury. It was sent to me by a friend, a Bishop in Italy. Here.” She reached into her robe and took out a small box of black velvet. She urged it on Mary, “take it! It is not Pandora’s box!”
“No, no,” said Mary, taking the box. “If you gave me Pandora’s box, all it could contain would be hope. But what is this? I am really not accustomed to receiving gifts from anyone now except an occasional package from my relations back in Devonshire.”
“Go on!” said Sister Carissima, almost squealing with anticipation. “Will you open the box and take a look inside?”
Mary did as she was told. Inside the box there lay a silver disc, rather like a coin. Upon it there was an impression of a smiling man with the tonsure and habit of a Franciscan friar bearing the white lilies of Christian purity. The Christ child was depicted in a rising sun, illuminating the face of the holy man.
She read the inscription quietly to herself, “Surge, Domine, in requiem tuam.”
“Yes,” said Carissima, whose eyes were shining. “Arise, O Lord, into your dwelling place.”
Mary met her gaze. “Thou, and the ark of thy strength.”
“It’s Saint Anthony,” said Sister Carissima, “the patron saint of my native Padua. He is everywhere in my life. May he also be with you, and blessed Saint Cecilia be always guiding you in your music.”
“Amen,” said Mary, “and the same for you, of course my dear sister.”
“Do you like it?” said Sister Carissima, rather shyly. “It is not expensive, but it was blessed by the bishop at the tomb of the Saint himself, surrounded by the crowds of pilgrims who come to kneel pray before his dust.”
“Do I like it?” said Mary, laughing and crying tears of sadness and hope. “I shall wear it on a ribbon and never take it off, at least until I see you again.”
“Bene,” said Sister Carissima. “Now, I must leave you. I will go and pray the rosary myself. Perhaps our voices can join each other in the Salve Regina.”
Mary allowed herself to embrace her friend once more, kissing her soft, downy cheeks. The kiss was returned, and Sister Carissima turned like a shadow, and was gone, closing the door quietly behind her.
Mary went over to her desk, pulled open a draw, and scrabbled around for a length of ribbon. Having found one, she carefully fixed the medal to it, and tied the ribbon around her neck using the faint reflection provided by the window, through which the crimson shades of the cloister were reflecting the even redder shades of the sunset over Salisbury Plain. Then she got back to her knees, subtly aware of the weight of the precious object hanging from her neck. She put her hand to her heart and sang.
The next day, Mary arose as always at four o’clock, and padded silently down to the twilit cloister. She crossed it, and went through the hall, out into the open courtyard, which was somewhat more brightly lit by the anticipation of the morning. A sparrow crossed it as she walked, perhaps from a nest hidden under the gables of the school building.
Arriving at the holy water stoop, she dipped her fingers in the cool liquid, crossed herself, and then entered the church. One or two black-clad nuns were already standing like magnificent statues in their simple wooden choirstalls.
Mary knelt at the altar rail and listened as each of the nuns patrolled into the chapel and took their individual places, each according to her seniority.
Then, she rose with the few other girls who were willing to attend the service of Vigils despite their dispensation to skip it if the needs of rest demanded it.
When the Divine Office was performed and completed, Mary went back to her cell, careful not to meet anybody along the way who might tempt her into breaking silence.
In her room again, enjoying the gradual arrival of the dawn’s light through the window, she packed up her few possessions.
Aside from her Bible, prayerbook, and book of psalms, the only thing she really prized was her silver medal of St. Anthony, and her bundle of letters from Athelham and Finglecombe that she had received over the years and been unable to let go.
Her parting from the music teacher would also be hard. Harder still, Mary feared, might be separation from the harp. Over the years, her fingers, toughened and calloused by the strings, had become so accustomed to the instrument that they felt its absence after gaps of mere hours between playing. She had only begrudgingly accepted a ban on her private sessions in the music room on days of fasting.
She had no mirror in her cell, and at any rate the clothes she wore were property of the Convent. This drab and mismatched assortment of items was doled out at the nuns’ discretion to girls who had reason to go away, mostly to weddings, deathbeds, and funerals. The clothes Mary had been given were amongst the best that were available, but this was not saying much.
Still, her nine years amongst the sisters had taught her to give little thought to her appearance. Indeed, they had almost succeeded at vanquishing the extreme awkwardness she had felt for so long about her blind eye. The nuns had forgotten to notice her imperfection. The stares of the younger girls she had learned to accept without too much anxiety. Her confidence in the presence of even the most senior sisters made her a figure of respect amongst the girls.
Mother Superior arranged for a coach to come from Salisbury. The driver was the first man Mary had seen up close for many years, other than Father Xavier, the little priest who rode in from Salisbury to say Mass in Latin and accept confessions in French.
The priest aside, men were strange looking creatures. They were all sharp angles and unnatural bulk. Almost comically so. Still, Mary mastered herself and managed not to laugh out loud at the poor coachman.
She climbed shyly into the carriage, and accepted the blessings of Mother Ruth, who came out to see her off with Sister Carissima and Sister Frances.
The Abbess, now propped up by a walking stick, was otherwise in excellent help. She fairly bristled with energy when she made the sign of the cross over Mary and asked God to protect her.
“Amen,” said Mary.
Then, the coach hurried away down the conical slopes of St. Bridget’s Hill, the tor upon which the convent had been built. Mary took one last look back to see Sister Carissima waving gracefully. Then the little nun was hidden from Mary’s eyes by the crest of the hill, and on the horses hurried towards Salisbury.
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