Vow of sanctity, p.20

Vow of Sanctity, page 20


Vow of Sanctity

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  ‘Sister Cupid, are we?’ The sarcasm didn’t ring quite true. ‘I’ll think about it, Sister. D’ye want a lift round to the other side of the loch? I’m going to the village anyway. I’ve some stuff to post.’

  ‘Thank you.’ Sister Joan walked over to the car.

  Morag drove carefully, probably more carefully than she usually did. Sister Joan sat silently, wondering whether she had been right to mention Rory. Other people had the right to direct their own lives but sometimes a quiet word might prevent action that would lead to unhappiness all round. She bit her lip, remembering the cowled figure vanishing into the trees with Morag. Was that an added, unconfided complication and did she have any right to mention it?

  ‘I think that I will have a word with Rory,’ Morag said suddenly, her hands tight on the driving wheel. ‘He has the right to know after all. I don’t think I’d be able to bear it if he left the district and I had to stay. It can get a bit lonely at times.’

  ‘Is that why you ride your horse up and down the shore in the late evening?’ The question had blurted itself out before she could check it.

  ‘Then it was you,’ Morag said.


  ‘On the shore, seated against the cliff, still as a rock. I had a feeling that someone was watching us – me. It was you, wasn’t it?’

  ‘You don’t have to tell me anything,’ Sister Joan said and wondered wildly if there was a spiritual equivalent to ‘But anything you may say will be taken down and used in evidence’.

  ‘I’d be grateful if you’d keep it to yourself,’ Morag said. ‘The abbot would be terribly embarrassed if it ever got out. I mean, it isn’t against the rule or anything like that …’

  ‘What isn’t?’

  ‘Writing romantic novels,’ Morag said. ‘I mean, that community never makes any money and they have to pay taxes and stuff like that. And the novels are very mild – all talk and no action. It means that the brothers can go on living there, and Father Abbot can even send money to charity now and then.’

  ‘The abbot writes romantic fiction?’ Whatever she had expected to hear it wasn’t this.

  ‘He doesn’t type, you see,’ Morag said. ‘He writes out the first draft in longhand and brings them over to me. I edit them and type them and send them off and we share the money. We don’t make a fortune but it isn’t a bad way of earning a living.’

  ‘How on earth did it start?’ Sister Joan demanded.

  ‘There was a competition for a romantic short story,’ Morag said. ‘I’d just advertised my services as a typist in the local paper. The abbot got hold of a copy and sent his story to me. I edited it and typed it and he won a second prize. I went to collect it in Edinburgh. After that we decided it might be a good thing to go into partnership. He only manages a novel and a few short stories a year, and he can’t very well tell one of the brothers to bring them over. The community use the letter box on the near shore of the loch but it won’t fit a thick manuscript parcel, so he rows over and gives it to me.’

  ‘And you discuss them?’

  ‘It’s the only chance we get,’ Morag said. ‘There’s no telephone on the island. He gives me a brief résumé of the plot and shows me any bit he’s not happy about.’

  ‘In the dark?’

  ‘I have a torch,’ Morag said, ‘and we walk into the trees, so it’s not very likely that anyone would see us. Anyway usually it’s only a particular passage he feels ought to be altered.’

  ‘Like the way a lover might talk to his beloved?’ Sister Joan ventured.

  ‘Honestly, the abbot never had a love affair in his life,’ Morag said. ‘The poor old duck – sorry, Sister, but he is – indulges in the odd attack of bright purple prose now and then. I mean, the dialogue has to be believable, even if the plot isn’t.’

  ‘And if you both agree that a certain bit is rubbish, you tear it up?’

  ‘Usually I just make a mental note to alter it, but the last draft had a really sick-making speech – how did you know the page had been torn up?’

  ‘I’m a good guesser,’ said Sister Joan. Waves of shamed relief were sweeping through her.

  ‘Anyway we did tear up a page in the last draft,’ Morag said. ‘Look, Sister, people might laugh if they found out or think there was something peculiar going on. You wouldn’t credit what nasty minds some people have.’

  ‘I’m afraid I would,’ Sister Joan said, flushing.

  ‘We don’t publish under our own names,’ Morag said. ‘We call ourselves Frances Clare. The abbot took the name of Francis after some saint who is patron of writers or something.’

  ‘St Francis de Salle.’

  ‘And he’s always been interested in writing. You won’t let on, will you?’

  ‘I won’t say one word,’ Sister Joan promised.

  They had slowed down and were crawling up the village street towards the tiny post office. Outside a neat official-looking car was parked, and as Morag braked Inspector Mackintosh emerged.

  ‘Sister Joan, just the person I’ve been wanting to see,’ he said heartily. ‘Miss Sinclair, isn’t it? Good day to you.’

  ‘I’ll get my post off.’ Morag reached into the back seat and lugged out a thick parcel. As she passed Sister Joan she lowered an eyelid in a conspiratorial wink.

  ‘How can I help you, Inspector?’ Sister Joan enquired.

  ‘Your statement, Sister. I had a word with the local Coroner and he’s quite willing for you simply to make a written statement about the finding of the body. The good lady at the post office has offered her back room so we can wrap up the entire matter here without having to trouble you to attend at the police station. It’s a happy village that doesn’t even have a local constable.’

  ‘Yes, of course.’

  She followed him meekly into the post office, with the languid-looking police sergeant bringing up the rear. As they squeezed past the counter into the little back room she spotted Morag busy at the counter and wanted suddenly to laugh out loud with relief and joy.

  Innocence was still alive and well in the world’s corruption.

  At the back the room had been hastily fitted up as an office, a bag with a half finished piece of pink knitting sticking out of it pushed down the side of a two seater couch, two chairs drawn up to a table on which a typewriter had been placed ready. The police constable took a third chair near the door and took out his notebook.

  ‘We’ll just be taking the statement,’ Inspector Mackintosh said, and the other put the notebook away. ‘Now, Sister, if you’ll just state your name and your usual address and then we’ll take the sequence of events from the time you rowed yourself across the loch in the Sinclair boat and got caught in the storm. My constable here will type it up and when you’ve read and approved it then you can sign it. No speculations now – just the bare facts.’

  She took a seat at the table, stared thoughtfully at the sheet of paper and the pen that was laid before her and picked up the latter, pausing a moment before she began to write. It took a much shorter time than she had expected and when it was finished it looked bleak and incomplete.

  ‘Read it over, Sister, and then as soon as it’s typed you’ll kindly read it over again,’ the Inspector said. ‘If you agree then all you have to do is sign your name.’

  She read it, trying to concentrate but conscious only of the relief she still felt at the revelation that Morag Sinclair had made.

  ‘Yes, that’s all right. It happened like that,’ she said finally.

  ‘We’ll get it typed up then. No need for your name to appear in any paper, by the way. This isn’t a front page affair.’

  ‘But surely …?’ Over the tapping of the typewriter keys she raised her voice slightly.

  ‘Hundreds of people disappear every year in the United Kingdom,’ the Inspector said. ‘Most of them do so voluntarily. A few turn up again. Others vanish into thin air apparently, but unless there’s some reason to suspect foul play they have a perfect right to disappear. Well, Mrs McKens
ie will be able to obtain her pension now.’

  ‘Did you know Alasdair McKensie?’ she asked.

  ‘Never met him. This is a lawabiding place as you’ve probably seen for yourself, so we’ve no call to come out. He was a commercial traveller – away from home most of the time anyway. Ah, the typescript seems to be ready. Read it over a couple of times, Sister, and then sign it if you agree it’s an accurate record.’

  She read it over, signed it and laid down the pen.

  ‘Will there be anything else?’ She found it hard to believe that this signified the end of the matter.

  ‘I’ll walk with you down to the shore if you don’t mind,’ he said. ‘A bit of exercise will do me a power of good. My wife’s always telling me that I ought to use my legs a bit more. She’s right, bless her.’

  ‘She sounds like a nice lady,’ Sister Joan said.

  ‘She suits me fine and I suit her. You can’t ask for more than that,’ he said, standing aside to let her pass ahead of him into the main post office where a plump woman glanced up briefly from a customer and lowered her head again without taking any further interest. Outside a car was just moving away. Morag sat in the passenger seat; Rory was driving. It was impossible to tell what had already passed between them, but that neither of them noticed her struck her as a very hopeful sign.

  ‘My constable will wait in the car near the bridge, Inspector Mackintosh said, coming out behind her. ‘Lovely day, isn’t it?’

  ‘Lovely for a walk,’ she agreed, and wondered if the inspector was silly enough to imagine that she believed a lovely walk was all he had in mind.

  They strode in silence down the steep street. Here and there a woman weeded a minute front garden, leaned to close a window. Sister Joan was surprised to receive the odd smile, brief and formal, but nevertheless a smile, a tacit sign of acceptance.

  ‘You wanted to ask me some more questions, Inspector?’ she said when they had left the village behind and were crossing the road to the footbridge. At their backs the police car purred gently, making her feel like someone in a spy novel being tailed.

  ‘You know, Sister, one of the arts of my profession,’ he said genially, ‘is knowing what questions not to ask. Alasdair McKensie died of natural causes. The pathologist put in his report this morning. No marks of violence at all. Organs remarkably well preserved – heart in advanced state of degeneration so it was very likely a heart attack that killed him. He’d been kept somewhere during the last six years – a vault, a pocket of air under the loch – who knows?’

  ‘And you’re not going to make further enquiries?’

  They had crossed the bridge and were descending the steps at the other side.

  ‘If it had been a case of unnatural death,’ the Inspector said, ‘then it’d be a different kettle of fish. However it’s clear it was a natural death and it is always possible that it was caught up somewhere. These lochs have strange underwater caves and gullies, you know. It is possible that he was taken ill, died, fell in, and was swept by the current into one of these air pockets until the storm dislodged him. It’s possible.’

  ‘Did he weight himself down by the feet before he had a heart attack just so he wouldn’t litter up the shore?’ she enquired.

  ‘The feet could have become entangled in all that iron. During the last war a lot of heavy metal parts got into the loch – a whole battery gun was actually dredged up about twenty years back.’

  ‘You believe that?’ She stared at his broad, good-humoured face.

  ‘The Procurator Fiscal does,’ he said. ‘He feels there is no point in making further enquiries at this stage. It won’t benefit anybody, least of all the late Alasdair McKensie – and the police have their hands full with current crime without having to delve into the past where no crime is suspected at all – no murder, that is. Odd things that cannot be explained do happen now and then. Police files are full of strange coincidences, unfinished stories, you know the kind of thing.’

  ‘I’ve never been interested in criminology,’ she said truthfully.

  ‘Living in a convent I suppose not.’ He was silent for a moment. When he spoke again he sounded as if he were talking to himself. ‘My problem is that I hate loose ends. I don’t mean that I’d necessarily reopen any investigation, but I do like to know the end of a story – for my own satisfaction. Don’t you, Sister?’

  ‘Sometimes,’ she said cautiously.

  ‘If the body had been hidden away for some reason that may have seemed very important at the time – it would be interesting to know about it. Well, I don’t suppose we will now, unless some new evidence turns up. I’d better be turning back now. Too much walking in one day is a shock to the system. You’ll be all right, climbing up to your eagle’s nest?’

  ‘I’ll be fine, Inspector. Thank you for your company.’

  Shaking her hand briskly he said, ‘I said I’d not want my daughter to become a nun. The truth is there’s no chance of it. She’s bearing a bastard child – she and her man live in Motherwell, and they’re dead against marriage. The wife and I aren’t sure how to take it.’

  ‘With joy,’ she said promptly. ‘The birth of every child is a very precious thing. And who knows but the parents might change their minds and get married after all. Even if they don’t it’s the loving that matters.’

  ‘I reckon you’re right, Sister. Goodbye again.’ Turning he plodded back up the steps.

  There had been no love affair between the old abbot and the lovely Morag. How easy it was, and how fatal, to put the wrong construction on a series of small happenings. In a while she would smile at her own foolishness, but not yet. The truth was that she had lost her first innocent vision of the world, felt her soul tinged with cynicism. And the worst part of it was that she would never be able to apologize for the mistake she had made.

  She heard the police car at the other side of the bridge start up and drive off. The inspector had left the last of the story in her hands to unravel or not as she chose. Her choice was important. It might alter many lives. The next morning she would kneel at mass. The next morning she would decide.

  Beginning to toil up the pine-needled slope she wished violently that the responsibility lay on other shoulders.


  The sun had decided to stay for the time being at least. After the rain and mist of the previous week the world was bright and clear with only the cold snap of the breeze to hint at winter’s coming. Kneeling at mass, Sister Joan wished that her spirits were as untroubled as the weather. She had spent much of the night wrestling with herself, trying to reach some conclusion that would help her to act. If she did nothing she would spend the rest of her life wondering if she ought to have spoken; if she did speak she ran the risk of landing with two left feet in someone else’s life. The temptation to find a telephone and ring her prioress was very strong. Mother Dorothy would certainly advise her but telephoning during a retreat was only permissible when there was an emergency. And there were times when one must come to a decision independently and not lean like a child on the opinion of others.

  Several of the parishioners had smiled at her as they walked up the track towards the church that morning. What she had taken for indifference was, after all, only shyness. Even the hostility of the other villagers might be overcome, since her having rowed herself across the loch at the height of the storm had apparently been taken as a sign that, Catholic or not, she had guts and kept a cool head in moments of danger.

  ‘The mass is ended. Go in peace.’

  The abbot, having dismissed the Angel of the Presence, turned to enfold the small congregation in a sweeping sign of the cross. Watching the tall, aristocratic figure, she felt a ripple of guilty amusement. How could she ever have imagined for one moment that such a man would break his vow of celibacy? But then neither would it have entered her head that this man was engaged in raising funds for his community and for charity by writing the highly-coloured but intrinsically harmless love stories devoured by romantica
lly inclined females all over the land.

  He was striding down the aisle now, his acolyte scurrying ahead while a second remained to snuff the extra candles on the altar. The rest of the congregation were filing out. Through the open door the sunlight streamed, making patterns on the floor. She remained where she was and waited until the rapid beating of her heart had steadied somewhat. Then she rose and passed within the altar rail, entering the sacristy where the acolyte was tidying up, his eyes shyly averted as he saw her.

  ‘I have leave to go down into the crypt,’ she said, carefully pitching her voice high enough to be audible beyond the screen that hid the community stalls from view.

  The monk nodded and went on tidying.

  She opened the door to the crypt and switched on the light. Going down the stone steps into the rocky tunnel she breathed in the cool, dry air. Here no shaft of sunlight entered; no worm burrowed into decaying flesh. She reached the bottom, lit the stump of candle there, and walked on into the wider chamber with its alcoves and seated figures. There was, she thought, nothing after all to fear from the dead. Whether there was anything to fear from the living she would be able to say in a few minutes. She set her candle on a ledge as the electric light went out and knelt, facing the empty alcove where the body in modern clothes had made one too many in that silent company. No words came into her mind. She simply waited.

  The door that led into the enclosure proper was opening. She felt the small draught of air at her right side and a shadow joined hers across the wall.

  ‘I’ve been wanting to talk to somebody,’ the voice said, very low.

  ‘Why to me?’ She kept her own voice low, nails digging into the palms of her hands.

  ‘Strangers are safe, especially nuns. They don’t babble like other women.’

  ‘You watched me,’ she said.

  ‘Trying to decide whether talking to you would be a good thing. I even came after you into the scriptorium and stood there for a moment or two – you were in the little bathroom. I stood, plucking up courage, and then I left.’

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