Vow of sanctity, p.19

Vow of Sanctity, page 19


Vow of Sanctity

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  ‘Perhaps it’s best not to dwell on such things,’ she said.

  ‘Probably. When he was around he was quite amiable,’ Rory said, turning to retrace his steps. ‘I mean he never beat Mum or lifted his hand to me, though he could have felled us both with one hand if he’d had a mind to it. People used to tell him that he ought to have taken up tossing the caber, but he never took any interest in sports. Mum was the one who used to watch the football with me when there was a big match on television. She tries hard, Sister.’

  ‘Yes, I know,’ Sister Joan said.

  They had reached the slopes below the retreat. Rory held out his hand, his voice suddenly shy.

  ‘I wasn’t very polite to you when we first met,’ he said. ‘I’ve never reckoned much to the church since I lost my faith, and I don’t want to have anyone nagging me back into the fold, but you haven’t tried to do that, Sister.’

  ‘Nagging people back into belief never worked anyway,’ she said, shaking hands cordially. ‘I’m sure we’ll meet again before I leave, but I do wish you every good fortune. Goodnight, Rory.’

  When she reached the bottom of the steps she looked down and saw that he still stood there, looking out over the starlit waters. A decent young man, trying to deal with the first heartbreak of youth, she reflected, and felt glad that her first youth was behind her.

  The walk had done her good, blown away the cobwebs that had threatened to spoil the clarity of her thinking. Rory McKensie wouldn’t allow himself to be overwhelmed by his mother. He’d make his own way in the world. He might even find his own way back into the faith. Without nagging, she added with an inward grin.

  The cave was cold and dry and dim. She switched on her torch until she had rekindled one of the candles. Her coat was much warmer than the oilskins she had borrowed. Oilskins. Now why did the very ordinary word stand out so clear and sharp in her mind? She sat down thoughtfully on the edge of the bed. Oilskins she had borrowed and worn while her own garments were drying out. They had belonged to Alasdair McKensie – Dolly had kept them, presumably because they were too good to throw out. She had kept nothing else as far as she had told Sister Joan, but she had kept the oilskins. Oilskins that had been slightly too big for her, Sister Joan recalled. They had flapped around her ankles and the sleeves had covered her hands – understandable since they had belonged to a man and she herself was small and slight.

  Rory’s voice echoed in her head.

  ‘He could have felled us both if he’d a mind to it – ought to have taken up tossing the caber.’

  Alasdair McKensie had been a big man, much bigger than the man who had worn the oilskins she’d borrowed. Men who tossed the caber were large men, often over six feet tall and powerfully built. The oilskins ought to have been even more unsuited to her own dimensions then. And that could only mean that they had belonged to someone else – someone bigger than herself but most certainly not a prospective caber tosser. Why had Dolly McKensie lied about them?

  ‘And why,’ said Sister Joan in exasperation, ‘don’t You let me get on with my devotions instead of giving me puzzles that I can’t hope to solve?’


  ‘You look tired, Sister,’ Brother Cuthbert said as he helped her into the boat the next morning. ‘You’re not overdoing the penances, are you? It’s none of my business, of course, but I know how easy it is to get over-enthusiastic about that kind of thing.’

  ‘Not for me,’ Sister Joan said ruefully. ‘I am more unenthusiastic about penance than you’d believe. No, I didn’t sleep very well.’

  ‘I’m sorry to hear that, Sister. I’m very lucky because I can drop off anywhere, but then –’

  ‘If you’re going to remark that at my age I don’t need so much sleep,’ she begged, ‘I do wish you won’t.’

  ‘Sorry, Sister. I won’t say one more word.’ He bent obediently to the oars, allowing a full minute to pass before he said, ‘Have you heard any more about the poor man found in the loch?’

  ‘There’s to be an inquest,’ she evaded. ‘I have to make a statement since I was the one who found him – and that reminds me – I have to explain to Morag Sinclair how I came to lose her father’s boat. Oh dear, that will cost something, I’m sure.’

  ‘Money is an awful nuisance, isn’t it?’ he sympathized.

  ‘Especially when you haven’t got any,’ she sighed. ‘Perhaps the Sinclairs will let me pay off bit by bit. Anyway I won’t worry about it now.’

  ‘Yes, God always sorts things out,’ he said comfortably.

  It was almost impossible to imagine on this bright, glittering morning that on the previous day the mist had been a cold white shroud enfolding the loch. Today the sun was shining brightly and motes of gold danced in the spray from the oars.

  When they reached the wharf she climbed out with conscious nimbleness and waited for Brother Cuthbert to tie up the boat.

  ‘Will you be wanting to see the abbot today?’ he enquired, falling into step beside her as she started up the track.

  ‘I – no, I don’t think I’ll need to trouble him. I want to finish the second painting. After that it will be a few days before both canvasses are ready for the varnish. I shall be here for mass, of course.’

  He nodded, gave her a cheerful wave and turned off in the direction of the beehives. She continued on past the church, past the kitchens towards the scriptorium. She would complete her work and then try to make some sense of the handwriting on the piece of paper she had found. If she could get hold of a sample that was indisputably by the abbot then at least her own curiosity would be satisfied – partly satisfied, she corrected herself, and pushed open the door.

  The huge chamber was cold and sunlit, light arching down onto the illuminated manuscript with its rich colours. Her cloth covered paintings were propped up near the long table – one on the easel, the other leaning against the table leg. She picked up the latter, leaned it on the table against the wall and took off the cloth. She had been right in thinking it a good painting. There was a spring glow about it, the tiny flowers like the enamelled blooms in the margin of a Book of Hours, the church rooted in the grass like the flowering rose bush that grew against the wall. It was a happy picture, she decided, and in the same instant was gripped by something cold and fearful that caught her breath as she gazed. The little figure she had added to the picture at Brother Cuthbert’s suggestion was no longer there. For a moment she wondered if by some mischance it had simply soaked into the background, but when she held the canvas up to the light that flooded through the window she saw the darker grey where someone – who, for heaven’s sake? – had carefully painted the figure out, dissolving it into the church wall again. No habited figure stood, head partly turned to gaze out of the canvas, face alight with the beauty of what lay around him. The paint where the figure had been obliterated was still slightly tacky.

  She put the picture down again, covered it carefully, and counted ten backwards very slowly, a remedy that she had been advised, in childhood, stopped her from losing her temper. It had never worked very well and it wasn’t working now. The cold, sick feeling was giving way to hot waves of anger. Nobody had the right to meddle with the work of an artist, even if the alteration improved it. Nobody had the right to add or alter a word in a book or a poem because when that was done the original intention of the artist was twisted, something of their own individual personalities stolen away.

  There was no sense in rushing out to accuse anyone. She sat down on one of the high stools placed at intervals down the length of the table and took out her sketch pad, doodling while her mind enumerated events. She had been watched when she knelt at mass, spied on while she waited in the antechamber for the abbot to arrive, watched when she knelt at the altar rail, had her hand grasped in the darkness of the crypt. Someone had hoped to frighten her away. Someone hadn’t been pleased at the notion of any stranger, even a nun, being rowed over to the island. And that same person had, delicately, taking care not to spoil the whole, painted o
ut the little monk standing in the spring sunshine outside the church.

  Her pencil moved rapidly, sketching, scribbling out, doodling. She stared down at the sketch pad, catching her breath as she saw what her subconscious had produced. Was it possible? She added another touch, a light stroke of the pencil and felt the anger drain out of her, leaving only bewilderment.

  At least she could do one thing. She tore out the page and crumpled it up, thrusting it deep into her pocket. Then she went purposefully to the door and out into the clear, bright air.

  From the kitchen came a scent of cooking. She sniffed appreciatively and walked past, heading for the square mass of granite that housed parlour and antechamber. The possibility that the outer door might be locked except when visitors were expected occurred to her, but it yielded to her touch and she went in.

  The parlour door was open and the small chamber empty. No fire burned in the hearth and the table was bare save for the vase of dried grasses someone had put on the table. She walked over to the window where some papers were scattered on the sill – the same notes she had seen the previous day. She took them up and leafed through them, looking for a signature, something to tell her who had written them. There was no signature. Sermons were not, after all, very often signed and these were only notes for a sermon, one probably already delivered. The actual content might tell her more. She began to read assiduously and at the top of the third page found the reference she had feared to find.

  To be abbot of a monastic community, dedicated to the rule, is no easy task, my brothers. I, at least, have always been too conscious of my human failings …

  She didn’t want to read any further; she didn’t want to think about that tall, aristocratic old priest rowing silently across the night dark loch and meeting the young woman with the long dark hair who went with him into the trees. The handwriting on the torn-off piece of paper in her pocket was exactly the same as the hand that had penned the notes for the abbot’s sermon.

  Laying the papers down on the sill again she turned to leave and gave a violent start as the abbot’s eyes surveyed her from the doorway.

  ‘Did you wish to see me, Sister?’ His voice held only mild curiosity, but her cheeks burned as if she had just caught him in flagrante delicto – or he her.

  ‘I have almost completed the two paintings,’ she said, hastily pushing the torn section of love letter with which she had been comparing the sermon notes even deeper into her pocket. ‘I will have to varnish them in a day or two, but after that I won’t be troubling you further.’

  ‘It’s no trouble, Sister. Even those brothers who regarded the comings and goings of a young religious as a dangerous infringement of the rule have been impressed by your tact so far.’

  Was there a faint emphasis on the last two words? She felt a guilty pang as if she were the one more at fault.

  ‘Well, then …’ Her voice sounded unconvincing even to herself, but he seemed not to notice. ‘Back to work then. Thank you, Father Abbot.’

  She wasn’t sure why she was thanking him save for not enquiring what she was doing in the parlour in the first place.

  He gave a slight bow and she got herself out of the parlour and into the open air again without daring to glance back. What the abbot was doing was a matter for his own conscience, but when one religious broke the moral code it cast a shadow over all the rest. Her anger at having had her picture altered, her embarrassment at having been found in the parlour, gave way to a sadness as if something fine and noble had broken to pieces in her hands and revealed corruption at the core.

  She walked with bent head towards the church. She had no heart to work on the second painting now. What she needed was silence and the warm reassurance of the sanctuary lamp.

  In the church there was, to her dismay, no silence at all. A monk with a broom as high as himself was vigorously sweeping and cast such a look of alarm in her direction that she genuflected to the altar and hastily withdrew.

  ‘Are you ready to leave so soon, Sister?’ Brother Cuthbert came galloping up.

  ‘I think I’ll leave the final touches and the varnishing for another day,’ she said.

  ‘Brother Brendan was just making some hotpot,’ Brother Cuthbert said. ‘He’ll have made enough for you.’

  ‘I think I ought to go back. I must go to the manse and explain about the loss of the Sinclair boat.’

  ‘I can take you across,’ he said obligingly. ‘We just sail past the enclosure and land at the wharf on the other side. If you wait one moment – maybe two – I’ll just run and get permission from Father Abbot. We usually don’t go to that shore.’

  He went off at a run, leaving her to pick up her things from the scriptorium. She gathered them up swiftly, feeling for the first time an unease at the extreme quietness of the great chamber with all the memories of long dead monks to crowd the empty spaces. It was better to be out in the open air. When she emerged she raised her voice, glimpsing the lay brother at the kitchen window.

  ‘I won’t be staying for lunch today but thank you for making extra.’ If he heard her he gave no sign but merely turned away, his mouth pulled tight with disapproval. She walked on, joined by Brother Cuthbert as she neared the water’s edge again.

  ‘Father Abbot has given me leave to row to the other shore,’ he said. ‘It’ll make a nice change. I’ve seen the terraces leading up to the big house. Makes you think of levels of prayer, doesn’t it?’

  ‘Not especially,’ said Sister Joan sadly. The sad disillusionment still held her in thrall, and the anger and bewilderment were both returning.

  ‘Saint Teresa, the Spanish one, puts it awfully well, don’t you think?’ he was persisting. ‘About the four stages of prayer?’

  ‘Yes. Yes she does.’ And I, she thought, am no Saint Teresa to look at the world with clear eyed compassion.

  ‘Lovely big house, isn’t it?’ her companion remarked, leaning briefly on the oars as they neared the further wharf. ‘When I was out in the world I often used to go round stately homes and imagine I was rich enough to buy them. I made a lot of alterations to Hampton Court Palace. It looks as if someone’s coming to meet us.’

  The ‘someone’ had just emerged from a car and was crossing the road to the water’s edge, her long tail of dark hair bouncing against her back.

  ‘Good morning, Sister Joan.’ Morag spoke briskly. ‘Were you coming to see me or eloping with the lad?’

  ‘The lad is Brother Cuthbert and elopements are frowned upon,’ Sister Joan said, refusing to be provoked by the insolence of the younger woman’s tone.

  ‘So you were coming to see me. You too, Brother Cuthbert?’

  The insolence had become teasing. Morag stood, high breasts outlined beneath her sweater, one hip thrust forward, in an attitude that made Sister Joan want to slap her.

  ‘Meeting with an attractive young lady like yourself would be very pleasant,’ Brother Cuthbert said, ‘but I’ve got a girlfriend already.’

  ‘What?’ Sister Joan, in the act of climbing out of the boat, almost stumbled.

  ‘Our Blessed Lady,’ Brother Cuthbert said smilingly. ‘I’ve been crazy about her for years and nobody else could ever measure up. Take care, Sister. God bless to you both.’

  Innocence was not ignorance. She had forgotten that and felt a little pang of pity for Morag who stood, still in her pose of blatant sexuality, looking rather foolish.

  ‘Well,’ she said slowly. ‘Well, that puts me in my place. What can I do for you, Sister?’

  ‘It’s about the boat,’ Sister Joan began.

  ‘You lost it.’ Morag shot her an amused look. ‘This is a small place. I don’t mix much but the tale about you has begun to rival the tales about Grace Darling and Flora MacDonald.’

  ‘Oh dear!’

  ‘Don’t worry about it,’ Morag said with what sounded like genuine friendliness. ‘The boat isn’t important. We were thinking of scrapping it anyway. And you might have done your bit in the cause of religious toleration.
Even my father’s parishioners are saying it was very brave of you to get to shore.’

  ‘I’ll pay for the boat, of course, though it may take some time.’

  ‘No you won’t. My father says that you’re not to bother your head about it,’ Morag said energetically.

  ‘That’s extremely kind of him.’

  ‘He’s a kind man.’ Morag hesitated, then said, ‘You know one of the reasons I stay here is because he really is a nice person. That’s why I can’t possibly let him find out that Mother was having an affair with Alasdair McKensie. Father adored her. If he ever suspected that she hadn’t been faithful – let alone that her death wasn’t an accident – he really wouldn’t be able to take it.’

  ‘You’ll have heard that Alasdair McKensie’s body has been identified?’

  Morag nodded, pulling the tail of hair over her shoulder and pulling at it nervously. ‘Have you seen Rory?’ she asked abruptly.

  ‘Yes I have. He’s leaving the district, going south to do hotel training.’

  ‘Leaving?’ Morag looked at her sharply. ‘I didn’t know that. We once planned to take guests at the manse – I told you, didn’t I?’

  ‘He sees no reason to keep him here now,’ Sister Joan said. ‘I imagine that Dolly McKensie will also leave.’

  ‘The loch is dying,’ Morag said. ‘People are leaving for all kinds of reasons. Damn, damn, damn.’

  There was no heat in the expletives, only the heavy finality of loss. Sister Joan put a hand on her arm and spoke rapidly, before she could think better of it.

  ‘Morag, forgive me if you think I’m interfering. Rory cares for you very much. I know he’s young, but he’s had to grow up fast since his father went. He can’t understand why you broke off the relationship with him. He has the right to know your motives, the right to protest or to accept them. What you decide then is a shared decision. But talk to him.’

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