Vow of obedience, p.1

Vow of Obedience, page 1


Vow of Obedience

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Vow of Obedience

  Vow of Obedience



  Title Page















  By the same author



  Sister Joan of the Order of the Daughters of Compassion had never seriously contemplated murder but by the time her train drew in at the station she was beginning to change her mind. The two women who had boarded the compartment in London had glanced incuriously at the grey-habited figure in the corner seat, then proceeded to spread themselves over the remaining seats, depositing bags and baskets with reckless abandon before they settled down to a long, loud gossip in which the most intimate details of their neighbours’ marital problems, operations and financial affairs were dissected with relish. It was impossible to read or even to keep one’s mind on the passing scenery as the two shrill voices rose and fell in unison, neither of the speakers paying close attention to what her companion was saying because each was anxious to contribute her share.

  ‘A disciplined religious should be able to meditate anywhere, even on the platform at Euston Station,’ Mother Agnes, her first prioress, had said.

  I would like, Sister Joan thought meanly, to see how Mother Agnes would cope with these two.

  Had she been wearing the old-fashioned wimple with its heavy veil that stifled unwanted sound it wouldn’t have been so bad, but the founder of the Order fifty years before had been in advance of her time in advocating garments more suited to the modern age. Sister Joan’s grey habit ended above her black-hosed ankles, and her white veil was a short one, showing at the front two inches of shining blue-black hair. An impossible costume in which to shut out unwanted conversation.

  ‘… not safe in your beds these days.’ The fatter of the two women pronounced the cliché gloomily. ‘Mind you, if I hadn’t known her second cousin’s first wife I’d have jumped to the conclusion that she’d run off with a young man – you know what girls are! But it seems she went off to bed and in the morning – pouf! Nothing missing except her slippers and dressing-gown. And nobody heard a thing.’

  ‘Transported,’ the other said. ‘Makes you wonder if those tales about flying saucers aren’t true.’

  ‘More likely to be kidnapping,’ said the fat woman. ‘Not that I’ve heard anything about a ransom note, but then the police wouldn’t say, would they?’

  ‘The police,’ the other opined, ‘never say anything worth hearing. They want the public to co-operate and then they put a blanket over every mortal thing.’

  ‘Like doctors,’ said her friend and embarked on a ghoulish recital of a doctor her aunt had consulted who had mistaken a tumour for a boil.

  The train slowed and glided into Bodmin. Sister Joan took down her case and the larger bag that contained her painting materials and thankfully alighted. Behind her one of the women said in a piercing whisper, ‘They say most of them are lesbians, you know.’

  ‘How perceptive of you!’

  Sister Joan threw the remark smilingly over her shoulder, made a mental note to confess it in general confession, picked up her bags from the platform and headed for the exit. She hadn’t notified the convent about the time of her arrival but she half expected to find someone there to meet her with the old boneshaker of a car that Sister Perpetua usually drove when it was necessary to come into town.

  The forecourt was innocent of grey habit and veil, however, and she looked round, wondering if she could beg a lift and save what Mother Dorothy would certainly regard as the completely unjustified expense of a taxi fare.

  There was no taxi in view and the local bus which would have dropped her off in the vicinity of the convent had long since departed. Nothing for it but to start walking then. She walked on into the main street, her eyes caught by a large poster in the window of the newsagents’ opposite.

  HAVE YOU SEEN THIS GIRL? demanded the huge scarlet letters. Underneath was a blown-up snapshot of a girl with fair hair and a face in which vacuous prettiness seemed to be the dominating factor. Beneath the photograph smaller letters gave brief information.

  Missing from home. Valerie Pendon, aged sixteen. Fair hair, blue eyes. Last seen in nightgown in her bedroom on the evening of …

  Three days before, Sister Joan calculated. The girl had worn a nightgown which suggested either she, or whoever had given the description, was somewhat out of date. Didn’t girls wear shortie pyjamas or something called teddies these days? The face and name were unknown to her, however, and she walked on.

  She was approaching the police station which had a similar poster on a board outside. The temptation to linger in the hope someone might be driving out her way was only a fleeting one. She moved on briskly and heard her name called.

  ‘Sister Joan? Hang on a minute.’

  ‘Detective Sergeant Mill, how nice to see you.’ She turned, holding out her hand with unaffected pleasure.

  The tall dark man with the greying hair gripped her hand and shook it.

  ‘Back from exile, Sister?’ His glance was faintly teasing.

  ‘Back from our retreat in Scotland,’ she reminded him.

  ‘And how was it? All mist and lochs and wanting to come home? Or did you renew your spiritual strength?’

  ‘A bit of all those things, but I’m glad to be back.’

  ‘You weren’t thinking of hiking out to the convent surely?’ He gave her a sharp look. ‘Or is this an extra penance?’

  ‘No transport – and don’t knock penance until you’ve tried it.’

  ‘But you wouldn’t say no to a lift?’

  ‘I’d accept gratefully, but I’d not want to interrupt your work. Unless you’re coming my way anyway?’

  ‘Unfortunately I’m not, but Mrs Barratt is. She’s the wife of our new sergeant – they’ve moved into the new housing estate past Farrer’s Field, and her way takes her past the convent gates. She dropped in to make sure we were treating her husband gently.’ He gave the attractive grin that lit his rather saturnine features into youthfulness.

  ‘But she doesn’t know me from Adam,’ Sister Joan protested.

  ‘She’s one of your lot and she knows hardly anybody at all,’ he assured her. ‘I’ll catch her. Wait there.’

  He walked swiftly away into the parking space next to the station where a neat little Mini was being backed out.

  Detective Sergeant Alan Mill had never made any secret of his liking for herself or his astonishment that she should have chosen the religious life in preference to marriage and children. They had worked together on a particularly brutal case* – or to be more accurate she had found herself entangled in the affair without realizing it, and his own undisguised admiration had kindled a small spark in herself. Not sufficient to build a fire though, she reflected, but just enough to give a slight frisson to what could never become more than an amiable acquaintanceship. It was good to see him again and to reassure herself that his inability to give her a lift hadn’t roused in her anything stronger than a mild disappointment.

  The Mini backed out and crawled to where she stood, Detective Sergeant Mill in attendance.

  ‘Sister Joan, meet Sergeant Barratt’s wife. She’s going in your direction,’ he said.

  ‘I’ll be happy to take you, Sister. I pass the convent gates,’ Mrs Barratt said, turning her head to smile, somewhat shyly.

  ‘That’s very kind of you, Mrs Barratt. Detective Sergeant Mill, I hope your family is well?’

nbsp; She asked the question formally, shutting out of her mind the bleak admission of a relationship that was going wrong he had once made to her.

  ‘The boys are fine.’ He held open the passenger door for her.

  ‘I’ll give your regards to Mother Dorothy,’ Sister Joan said, allowing herself a touch of mischief. Her superior’s views on policemen tramping through the enclosure had been trenchant.

  ‘You do that, Sister.’ He saluted as he closed the door.

  ‘Such a nice man,’ Mrs Barratt said in a slightly flustered tone, being clearly not immune to charm herself whatever her feelings for her own spouse. ‘He has been most kind since we arrived here. Mark, my husband, thinks he’s splendid.’

  ‘How are you settling in?’

  ‘Oh, we came down from Birmingham,’ the other said, ‘and rural living is all very new to us both. It’s easier for Mark because he has his job and so he can make friends that way, but the people roundabouts are a little bit clannish, don’t you think? Of course we’ve only been here a fortnight so perhaps it’s a bit early to tell.’

  ‘About twenty years too early,’ Sister Joan said, and seeing the expression of dismay on the other’s face, amended it hastily to, ‘I was only joking. People here are apt to regard everybody who lives north of the Tamar as foreigners, but when you get to know them you’ll find them very friendly and helpful. And being a Catholic will help. Father Malone arranges all kinds of activities down at the church.’

  ‘Yes. He came to bless the house,’ Mrs Barratt said. ‘He was very welcoming.’

  ‘He’s a nice man.’ Sister Joan glanced at the hands gripping the wheel tightly. Mrs Barratt was in her late twenties, she guessed, with brown hair which she had brightened, not altogether happily, with an auburn rinse and neat, small features. Her brown coat and skirt did nothing for her at all. It needed a vivid scarf at the neck to give colour to the pale cheeks.

  ‘If you take it slowly,’ she continued kindly, ‘you’ll soon feel as if you’d lived here for years. I’ve only been here myself for a year but already I feel like a home-body.’

  ‘But a nun would,’ the other said. ‘I mean that you aren’t attached to any particular spot, are you? The convent, wherever it is, is your home.’

  ‘That’s the ideal we aim for certainly. This is where the road forks. You can drop me if you like. It’s only a mile further on.’

  ‘I’ll take you to the gates,’ Mrs Barratt said. ‘The moors are lovely, aren’t they? Even at this time of year. But lonely too.’

  ‘Solitude isn’t only loneliness,’ Sister Joan argued. ‘I know what you mean though. One could imagine one was entirely alone out here. Honestly this is far enough. The gates are just ahead.’

  ‘If you’re sure.’ Mrs Barratt drew to a halt and released her cramped fingers from their grip on the wheel. ‘I don’t actually like driving very much,’ she confessed suddenly, ‘but one needs a car out here with the public transport so scarce. Mark has his own car but he bought me this one for my birthday.’

  ‘He sounds like a good husband,’ Sister Joan said, alighting and reaching in for her luggage.

  ‘He’s a wonderful husband.’ The small, tight face beamed widely. ‘I just can’t tell you.’

  ‘Well, I’d better get on. Thanks for the lift, Mrs Barratt.’

  ‘You’re welcome, Sister. And please do call me Daisy,’ the other begged. ‘Only Mark uses my Christian name round here. It makes me feel terribly ancient.’

  ‘Daisy then. Thank you again.’

  The Mini started up again and chuntered off, Daisy Barratt clinging desperately to the wheel. Sister Joan waved, picked up her bags, and went through the open gates.

  The Order of the Daughters of Compassion was not a completely enclosed order, its members often taking outside work to augment the convent finances, but always mindful of the rule that contemplation and prayers were their main reason for existence. Sister Joan herself taught at a tiny school high on the moors, taking as pupils those smaller children who couldn’t get easily into school at Bodmin and enlivened by the more or less regular attendance of some of the children from the local Romany camp. The teacher’s salary, which went straight to the convent, was provided for out of an old endowment established by the Tarquin family who had owned the great house before it had become a convent. There were no Tarquins in the area now. The last of them had left the district the previous year.*

  Beyond the gates the drive curved between lawns that were not as well manicured as they had once been despite all of Sister Martha’s valiant efforts. The house itself loomed ahead, the original L-shape disfigured by a large Victorian conservatory stuck on one end. The latter was crammed with the various pot herbs and indoor bulbs that Sister Martha and Sister Perpetua raised together, the main façade thickly ivied with the windows discreetly shielded by white net.

  Sister Joan stood still for a moment, savouring the return. After only six weeks in Scotland she felt as if she had been away for months; though it was less than two years since she had first seen the Cornwall House she had the distinct impression that she was coming home.

  The main doors stood wide as they always did save in the worst weather and after dusk. The last rays of sunlight arched across the polished floor of the wide entrance hall with its archways to left and right and the staircase rising to the upper storey. The beautifully moulded cornices were evidence of the previous wealth of the owners but the chandelier held only the minimum number of light bulbs.

  ‘You steal upon us like an angel unaware,’ Sister Hilaria said, appearing suddenly, as was her wont, around the corner of the building and stopping short, her large hands clasped before her, her somewhat prominent mystic’s eyes lighting with pleasure.

  Sister Joan, surprised that the unworldly novice mistress had even marked her absence, said modestly as they exchanged the ritual touching of cheeks, ‘Rather a disobedient angel, I fear. I ought to have given my time of arrival.’

  ‘But you didn’t want to put anyone to the trouble of meeting you,’ Sister Hilaria said, in the tone of one who always sees stars instead of mud.

  ‘I got a lift home,’ Sister Joan informed her.

  She might as well have saved her breath. Sister Hilaria had concentrated on practical matters for as long as her temperament would allow, and was gazing now at a patch of sunlight with rapt intensity. Sister Hilaria was not, in Sister Joan’s opinion, the ideal guide for imaginative young girls but Mother Dorothy disagreed.

  ‘The rest of us can provide the example of common sense, Sister, but in Sister Hilaria they may catch a privileged glimpse of the higher aspects of our vocations.’

  Mother Dorothy, small, bespectacled and displaying her usual uncanny ability to appear on the scene the moment one thought about her, trotted briskly into view.

  ‘Are you going to linger on the doorstep all day, Sister Joan?’ she enquired with a touch of acid.

  ‘I beg your pardon, Mother.’ Sister Joan went hastily up the shallow steps to the hall and received the kiss of peace from her purple-habited superior.

  The rule that the one elected as prioress for the term of five years, no sister being allowed to serve more than two consecutive terms, wore purple and thereafter wore purple ribbon on her sleeve, one stripe for each five-year term, was strictly kept. Sister Joan who had never aspired to any particular office recognized her own limitations of character as Mother Dorothy said, ‘I assume you had some notion of begging a lift which is not very wise in this day and age, or did you splash out money on a taxi? Never mind, you will want to visit the Blessed Sacrament immediately. You can take your bags up later.’

  What she really craved, she thought guiltily, was a good strong cup of tea. That only proved that even after her period of retreat she fell far short of perfection.

  ‘Thank you, Mother.’

  Turning right, passing the small parlour with its grille dividing it from the equally modest visitors’ parlour on the other side, she made her way down the nar
row passage to the chapel. It had once been the family chapel and the side door was kept unlocked until dark lest any lay member of the local community might care to visit.

  The chapel retained its intimate atmosphere with the candles casting a gentle radiance over the carved altar and the pews where the nuns kept their several places. At the left, at the foot of the spiral stairs giving access to the library and the storerooms above, stood a statue of the Blessed Virgin, its tinted plaster slightly faded, a vase of chrysanthemums at its feet. Sister Joan, who had a sneaking liking for the flower though Sister David complained it was an untidy bloom, blessed herself from the holy water stoup and splashed a little on to the wilting bronze petals.

  Sliding into her accustomed seat, folding her hands, she felt the tiny flare of irritation that Mother Dorothy so often roused in her flicker and die. It was, after all, only fitting to greet the Master of the house immediately. She bowed her head and thanked Him for a safe journey and for the benefits of her recent retreat.*

  She prayed briefly for the other sisters, living and dead, and added on impulse a request that the missing girl – what was her name? Yes, Valerie Pendon – might turn up safe and sound. According to the posters she’d been missing for three days. Three days was a long time, time for almost anything to have happened. She curbed her straying imagination, murmured a Hail Mary and rose from her knees, the craving for a hot cup of tea returning almost as soon as she was back in the corridor again.

  Her next duty was to report to Mother Prioress. She went across to the antechamber and tapped on the parlour door.

  ‘Enter.’ Mother Dorothy never kept anyone waiting. ‘Dominus vobiscum.’

  The familiar greeting that never altered when one entered the parlour. Sinking to her knees Sister Joan responded respectfully, ‘Et cum spiritu sancto.’

  ‘Sit down, Sister.’ Mother Dorothy nodded towards the stools ranged before the severe flat-topped desk on which she conducted her letter writing and other business.

  This had once been the drawing-room. Taking her place on a stool, back straight, feet together, hands lightly clasped, according to rule, Sister Joan kept her eyes firmly on her prioress with no sideways glance at the silk paper on the walls, the long panels of faded and exquisite tapestry. Now no carpet covered the bare polished floor and the furniture was utilitarian but the beauty of the room shone through.

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