Vow of sanctity, p.16

Vow of Sanctity, page 16


Vow of Sanctity

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  ‘And then he’ll be finally laid to rest?’

  ‘I forgot, he was a Catholic, wasn’t he? Nominally anyway. What usually happens in a case like that?’

  ‘Any baptized Catholic is entitled to a Catholic funeral,’ Sister Joan said. ‘It’s assumed that he may well have regained the faith at the last moment.’

  ‘Between the saddle and the ground, eh?’

  ‘Something like that. Would you like another cup of tea?’

  ‘Meaning it’s time I was going? I think we’ve covered about everything. With any luck we might get this unpleasant business over without having to disturb the monks on the island.’

  ‘The monks?’ She was glad that he had risen, turning his back to peer through the aperture where once they had kept a look-out for marauding Vikings.

  ‘He was caught up on the trees nearest to the wharf on the island. It is possible that someone from the island put him in the water – not very probable, but one can’t ignore any avenue.’

  ‘I suppose not.’ She bit her lip, torn between her desire to remain silent, her conviction that sooner or later she would have to speak out.

  ‘I’d better be off.’ The inspector had turned giving her the kind of long, searching look that made her feel as if she’d murdered the man herself. ‘I’ll get my own coat. You’ll be all right here?’

  ‘Yes, of course. If you need anything –’

  ‘I expect to be in touch, but I’ll try not to interrupt your retreat too much.’

  ‘Thank you.’ She sat motionless while he ducked into the back of the cave, retrieved his wet coat, and stepped towards the door.

  ‘Inspector, I’m going over to the island tomorrow morning,’ she said, rising on impulse and going to the door with him. ‘I have leave to do some painting there, so if you like I could inform the abbot that a body has been found – they may be wondering about the unusual amount of activity on the shore. That would obviate the need for police – lay people to go into the enclosure. I’m sure that Father Abbot will give you any assistance you might want.’

  ‘That’s very obliging of you, Sister.’ He had pulled on his coat and now gave her an approving nod. ‘I doubt if we’ll be required to trouble the monks. You don’t go in for murdering lapsed Catholics, I take it?’

  That was meant as a joke, she supposed, shaking her head and smiling politely.

  ‘Take care then, Sister,’ he said cheerfully, and went cautiously down the steps into the rain.

  And now I have landed myself with more responsibility, Sister Joan thought, staring into the blurred shapes of the pine trees below. And if this whole matter isn’t cleared up very fast I’ll be forced to tell the police all about what happened to me in the crypt.

  Sighing, she went back into the silence of the cave.

  * See Vow of Silence and Vow of Chastity.


  By morning the rain had become a fine white mist that lay like snow over the waters of the loch. The rain itself had ceased and a faint amber sun showed fitfully between the still louring clouds. She had slept deeply without dreaming, which proved, she thought ironically, that sound slumber wasn’t always a sign of an easy conscience. It had been her duty to inform Inspector Mackintosh about the body in the monk’s habit and modern shoes; she ought to have reported it even after the body had disappeared; she certainly ought to have told him the whole story yesterday. To seek to protect the privacy of a religious community didn’t give her the right to bend the law of the land. It was an offence to withhold information from the authorities. Yet she had slept as sweetly as a baby.

  She was hungry, having neglected to eat more than a couple of apples before beginning her evening meditations. She found some bread and fried it with a couple of tomatoes – not breakfast as ordered by the rule but extremely satisfying to the stomach.

  She scraped the plate, treated herself to a second cup of tea with the inward proviso that if one was going to break a rule one may as well break it thoroughly, and put on the oilskins. The fear that Brother Cuthbert might not be around – she had, after all, told him not to inconvenience himself when the weather was bad, was dissipated when, having reached the bottom of the steep climb with no more than a momentary slip, she saw his dark figure standing on the shore in the usual place.

  ‘I wasn’t sure if you’d be coming, Sister,’ he greeted her. ‘That was a bad storm yesterday. We were all in our cells while it was raging, praying for those in peril on the sea.’

  ‘Or the loch,’ she said.

  ‘There wouldn’t have been any fishermen out there. I came to the wharf to check the boat hadn’t been blown adrift later on, and there were some people on the other shore – this side, I mean. It was too rainy to tell who they were, and in any case I’m always having to confess to idle curiosity,’ he said. ‘It isn’t that I mean to be inquisitive but the world’s so full of interesting things. The people in it constantly astonish me – Father Abbot says I ought to have taken the name of Brother Wonderland, except that there’s no such saint.’

  ‘Why Cuthbert?’ She accepted his help into the boat.

  ‘We can choose our own,’ he said. ‘I used to do a lot of hiking and hill-walking –’

  ‘If it’s private …?’ she said, noting a hesitation.

  ‘It sounds a bit pompous, that’s all,’ Brother Cuthbert said. ‘I mean that I always seemed to be looking for something, hunting like Saint Cuthbert – and then I came to Loch Morag and I found out that I’d been looking for myself, for the life that would let me be more myself – I’m not explaining this very well.’

  ‘I think you’ve explained it beautifully,’ Sister Joan said softly. ‘I know exactly what you mean. And I’m sure that your prayers must have helped someone in peril.’

  ‘Hey, wouldn’t that be something, Sister!’ he exclaimed, a broad grin of delight transforming him into a schoolboy dressed up as a monk. ‘Are you going to paint today? It’s pretty wet outside still.’

  ‘I was hoping to meet with Father Abbot, if he can spare me half an hour‚’ she said.

  ‘I can make enquiries for you, Sister. I don’t think he has any pressing business this morning. Did you know there was a freak tide yesterday? The old trees were above the waterline for a few minutes –’

  ‘You saw them?’ Her tone was suddenly sharp.

  ‘No, I was in my cell, but I heard one of the other brothers mention the fact. I think the freak tides used to occur more frequently and last for much longer in the old times, else they’d never have used the polled trees as stepping stones. Watch yourself on the wharf, Sister. I’m thinking of sprinkling gravel to make it less slippery. Some of the people who come over for mass aren’t so young.’

  She climbed up on to the wharf and waited for him to tie up the boat. Her mind was working rapidly along unpleasant lines. Whoever had seen the waters go down during the freak tide must have seen her struggling towards the further shore, must have known that for a few minutes, at least, she had been in real danger.

  Whoever had been near enough to see the waters sucked away must have left his cell and come down to the shore. Because he feared there might be a freak tide that would uncover what was hidden? If so then that same person must have realized that she too had seen it. She wondered why he had not removed the body but it had probably been too risky at that particular time when, at any moment, one of the other brothers might have emerged from his cell to take a look at the weather.

  ‘Sister?’ Brother Cuthbert was looking at her enquiringly.

  ‘I’m sorry. What did you say?’

  ‘If you wait in the scriptorium I’ll find out if Father Abbot is free.’

  ‘Yes. Thank you.’

  The oilskins flapping around her ankles she walked on to the large building. It was bitterly cold in the scriptorium. She went over to her easel and lifted the cloth, heaving a sigh of relief as she saw that the damp atmosphere hadn’t caused any damage. The picture was good, she decided, without vanity. Someone g
reater than herself had guided her brush.

  She propped the painting against the wall and took out her sketch pad. For the ‘Winter’ version she would sketch the same scene and paint from her own imagination the way it would look when snow iced the ground and the trees were edged with the hard, brilliant light of December.

  She had made a fair start on the preliminary study when the outer door swung open and Brother Cuthbert’s red head appeared.

  ‘I’m to take you to Father Abbot now, Sister,’ he said.

  That meant the parlour with its chilly anteroom. She wiped charcoal from her fingers and put on her sou’wester which she’d taken off. The bright yellow oilskin was so much brighter than her usual garb that she could only hope it wasn’t going to shock any of the community who had seen it.

  ‘Oh, I found the plastic‚’ Brother Cuthbert said cheerfully as they left the scriptorium.

  ‘Plastic? Oh, yes, the plastic’

  She had forgotten about the large sheet of heavy plastic used for covering those who died within the community.

  ‘It was folded up in my place in chapel. It must have blown away after all.’

  ‘Who found it?’ she asked.

  ‘I don’t know, Sister. It was careless of me to lose it in the first place and whoever found it obviously put it in my place as a gentle reminder. You know how it is.’

  ‘Yes, she knew very well the numerous ways in which one could break a rule without even realizing it. Spilling tea, neglecting to finish up the crumbs from one’s plate, letting a soup pan boil over and thus causing wastage – all faults of carelessness and inattention which were not important in the secular world but were important in the religious life which had to be lived at a high degree of attention.

  They were in the anteroom again. She glanced involuntarily up at the spyhole high in the wall but no shadow moved behind it. Brother Cuthbert gave her a cheerful grin and flapped out again.

  ‘Sister Joan, good morning. Please come in.’ The tall Abbot stood aside from the door he had just opened to allow her to pass into the parlour. This morning no fire burned in the grate but there was a jug of coffee on the table.

  ‘Good morning, Father Abbot.’ She entered the parlour, took the chair he indicated, and meekly accepted the mug of coffee he handed her.

  ‘It’s a cold morning, Sister,’ he said conversationally. ‘Winter is just around the corner I fear. Won’t you take off your er – hat?’

  ‘I beg your pardon.’

  She hastily removed the sou’wester and smoothed down her veil.

  ‘A new fashion for nuns?’ He gave her a benignly teasing look. ‘I am, of course, out of touch with modern customs.’

  ‘No indeed, Father Abbot. My own outer garments got very wet and I was obliged to borrow this,’ she assured him. ‘I don’t usually walk round looking like a daffodil on legs.’

  The Abbot chuckled, taking a chair by the table and regarding her steadily. The polite preliminaries were over and his tone became businesslike.

  ‘You wanted to see me, Sister?’

  ‘Yes, Father Abbot.’ She put down the mug, folded her hands tightly together, and said, ‘I’m afraid the police are making enquiries locally. During the freak tide yesterday a body was revealed in the loch, caught by its clothing on the fossil trees. I was rowing across the loch at the time, having borrowed the Sinclair boat, and I came face to face with it.’

  ‘What a dreadful experience, my dear Sister!’ His fine boned, aristocratic old face expressed distress. ‘But how unwise of you to be on the loch in the first place.’

  ‘The storm blew up without warning,’ she reminded him. ‘Fortunately I did manage to reach the shore and make my way to the village to telephone the police. They came over and retrieved the body.’

  ‘Brother Cuthbert mentioned at recreation that there was an unusual amount of activity on the opposite shore,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid I chided him for being over inquisitive. Brother Cuthbert is still very young and not yet tuned completely into the inner life. The incident must have been most distressing.’

  ‘The point is,’ said Sister Joan, ‘that the body was weighted at the feet so that it stood upright in the water.’

  ‘A suicide?’ The finely shaped hand traced a cross. ‘That really is distressing. Suicide is such an unnecessary act. Nine times out of ten a problem can be solved with counselling and courage.’

  ‘The police don’t think it was suicide,’ Sister Joan said. ‘I think it would be very difficult for anyone to weight themselves down and then jump in. They would have had to wade into the deep water with their ankles bound.’

  She had no idea whether or not the ankles had been actually bound, but her impulsive attempt to catch the Abbot out bore no fruit.

  ‘But this is very serious,’ he said gravely. ‘You are suggesting that foul play was involved.’

  ‘It seems so.’

  ‘The world is in a very sad state,’ he observed.

  ‘There is a possibility that the body may be that of Alasdair McKensie.’

  ‘The man who disappeared?’ The gravity increased. ‘This will be a sad blow to his wife, I suppose – or will there be also a measure of relief? I think the stress of not knowing what has happened to someone must be almost as bad, perhaps worse, than knowing the missing person is dead. Thank God I have no personal experience of such anguish. Is the identification certain?’

  ‘I don’t know yet,’ Sister Joan said.

  ‘Alasdair McKensie was a Catholic, was he not? He did not, I understand, practise his faith and as we are enclosed here there was nothing I could do to influence the matter. Indeed I never even met him. Was it a question of the funeral?’

  ‘He has the right to a Catholic one, but I imagine there will be a priest available – possibly from Aberdeen?’

  ‘Yes indeed, but we, as a community, will, of course, pray. You must try not to dwell upon it too much, Sister.’

  ‘The Inspector may have to question the community,’ Sister Joan said.

  ‘Question us?’ The abbot reared up his head like a handsome old warhorse who hears the echoes of a bugle. ‘I fail to see how we can possibly be of help.’

  Sister Joan hesitated, her hands tightly clenched. She could speak out, tell the abbot about her visit to the crypt and the discovery of the body in the modern shoes, but to tell him something she hadn’t yet reported to the police was surely irresponsible.

  ‘It’s possible that a member of the community has seen something,’ she said cautiously. ‘Somebody weighted the body and put it into the water, near enough to the fossilized trees for the clothing to snag on it – someone might have seen and not realized what he was seeing.’

  ‘My dear Sister Joan, if one of us had seen a body being slipped into the loch, I am sure the action couldn’t have been mistaken for anything more innocent.’

  ‘Perhaps someone borrowed your boat?’

  ‘Loch Morag is plentifully supplied with fishing boats. There would be no need for someone to come over to the island to borrow ours,’ he protested. ‘And how would this mythical person get back to the mainland? The spur that joins us to the north shore is blocked by rubble and barbed wire and a very deep ditch that is flooded for much of the year.’

  ‘And your boat has never been missing? Never been found on the opposite shore?’

  ‘No, of course not. Sister, if the police have any ideas that this very sad discovery has anything whatsoever to do with the community they are entirely on the wrong track,’ he said impatiently. ‘Even weighted the body must surely have shifted position quite markedly during the last six years.’

  Sister Joan took up her coffee mug again and drained the cooling liquid. She could, of course, say that there was every indication that the body had only just been put into the loch but it was probably wiser to keep silent.

  ‘Inspector Mackintosh, the police officer in charge of the case, is hoping not to have to trouble the community,’ she said at last. ‘I promised him t
hat I would mention the matter to you in case you could help with any enquiries.’

  ‘I doubt if anyone here would be able to tell you or the police anything,’ the abbot said, beginning to rise. ‘It was considerate of the inspector to hesitate before disturbing the peace of the cloister. I will, naturally, mention the recent occurrence without any of the attendant speculations, in order that the deceased may receive our prayers, but for practical purposes we are quite useless, I fear.’

  ‘And your boat has never been missing?’

  ‘Never, Sister. I can assure you of that quite categorically. If you will excuse me now I must return to my duties.’

  ‘Yes, of course. Thank you, Father Abbot.’

  She rose politely as he left, his robe creating a cold draught of air as he strode through the door. That he was more agitated than he was willing to admit was clear to her, but the exact source of his disquiet was impossible to pinpoint.

  She moved to the table, bare except for the coffee jug and mugs, and looked through the small casement window into a tiny courtyard where a couple of holly bushes promised gaiety during the coming winter. There were some papers lying on the broad sill – notes for a sermon, she realized, glancing down at them. There was something familiar about the words but then most sermons were much of a muchness, she supposed. There was no excuse for her to linger here, and she turned and went out again, not pausing in the antechamber.

  The mist was still thick, hanging low over the wall beyond which the separate cells were grouped. It must be an extra discomfort on winter mornings to have to hurry from the cells over to the main buildings where the refectory would be situated. At least they were spared that in her own convent which had been converted from a stately mansion and retained some of its bygone elegance.

  When it was discovered that the body had been dead for six years questions would be asked about the extraordinary state of preservation of the body and then someone might remember the crypt – if its existence was generally known. The thought that it might not be threw the responsibility for revealing the fact squarely back on to her own shoulders. She bit her lip in exasperation.

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