Vow of sanctity, p.9

Vow of Sanctity, page 9


Vow of Sanctity

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  ‘Somerset Maugham and he was only half right. It depends on what is being tolerated.’

  ‘You are probably right. Your health, Sister. How are you enduring that medieval cave where your superiors have deposited you?’

  ‘I daresay it’s the modern equivalent of being walled up alive,’ Morag said, sweeping into the room and catching the tail end of her father’s comment.

  She had changed to good effect, Sister Joan thought, the rich garnet shade of the long caftan she wore a perfect foil to her black hair, now drawn back and fastened with tortoiseshell combs.

  ‘Did you know that despite all the legends there is no documentary proof of any nun ever being walled up alive?’ Sister Joan said.

  ‘Surely where there’s smoke there’s always a little bit of fire?’ Morag said, seating herself at the other side of her father and glancing at him with the kind of shy longing for approval that a much younger girl might have shown.

  ‘I think that some of the stories might have arisen during the medieval period,’ Sister Joan said. ‘Becoming a hermit became quite popular at that time. Many lay women received permission from their parish priests to immure themselves and rely on the charity of the neighbours for a regular supply of food.’

  ‘Sounds like a good way of avoiding a brutal husband,’ Morag commented as Jeannie came in, put a tureen of soup on the table, and withdrew.

  ‘There were not many ways in which women could express themselves in those days‚’ Sister Joan agreed, as the younger girl rose and began to ladle out the soup. ‘Anyway in those far off times there were often outbreaks of plague and famine – sometimes whole communities could die off.’

  ‘And the hermit would be mistaken much later on for someone who had been deliberately starved to death? It’s an ingenious theory.’ Sinclair gave her a faintly mocking look.

  ‘It’s a possibility‚’ Morag said with a grudging air. ‘There’s bread in the basket, Sister.’

  The soup was thick with herbs and vegetables. The bread was coarse and dark with flakes of wheat in it. Sister Joan was surprised when Sinclair said, ‘Your cooking is excellent as usual, Morag.’

  ‘You made this?’ Sister Joan flushed slightly at the tactless astonishment in her own voice. ‘I’m sorry but I assumed that Jeannie –’

  ‘Jeannie cleans and sweeps and makes rice puddings, but she likes her soups out of tins and her bread ready sliced in a plastic bag‚’ Sinclair said, with a faint gleam of humour. ‘Morag, on the other hand, loves cooking. When she weds, her husband will be a fortunate man.’

  ‘I don’t intend marrying‚’ Morag said coldly. ‘I’ve told you before, Father, that I don’t want to get married.’

  ‘Morag told me that she was thinking of breeding horses‚’ Sister Joan said, in an attempt to lighten a sudden heavy silence.

  ‘That may bring in some money‚’ her father said. ‘This manse needs a lot of heating and some extensive repairs doing to the roof. My congregation dwindles year by year as the younger people move away to look for work. Soon I shall be forced to write my memoirs or something.’

  ‘You must have had a very interesting life‚’ Sister Joan said.

  ‘But not for public consumption‚’ Morag said sharply, reaching for the empty soup bowls. ‘There’s the salmon with new potatoes and a salad. I haven’t had time yet to whip up anything fancy.’

  Nor, said her eyes, the inclination to please an unwanted guest. The salmon, when it came, was firm fleshed and delicate with a thin aspic glaze and a garnish of lemon slices and cucumber butterflies. Once again there were murmurs of appreciation as they helped themselves from the dishes that Jeannie brought in. There was no wine, she noticed, and was glad of the plain water. Luxury made her uncomfortable.

  The meal progressed with occasional comments from the host – mainly short, inoffensive anecdotes of his youth when he had been a theological student in Glasgow, an amusing story about some tourists who had spent a fortnight looking for the monster until it dawned on them they were in the wrong loch. He spoke well and fluently and Sister Joan felt quite at her ease by the time coffee and fruit were served.

  Morag, she noticed, seldom joined in, but ate in almost unbroken silence, her eyes on her plate. Her earlier unfriendliness was palpable, but it seemed clear that it didn’t derive from her father’s opinions.

  ‘Another cup of coffee, Sister?’ He indicated the pot with its heavily-chased design of thistles and roses.

  ‘Thank you, no. If I take a second cup I’m liable not to sleep a wink,’ she said.

  ‘I wonder you manage to sleep at all,’ Sinclair remarked, ‘stuck in a cave halfway up a cliff.’

  ‘It really is very well fitted up,’ she hastened to say. ‘Any previous hermit would consider I lived in the lap of luxury, and, of course, it’s only for a month. After that it’s back to work.’

  ‘You work?’ He sounded surprised and faintly disbelieving.

  ‘We’re only semi-enclosed,’ she explained. ‘We earn what we can within the limits of the rule to keep the convent financially viable. I teach in a small school on the moors – mainly gypsies and farming children who aren’t old enough for the main school or simply refuse to go. So that’s my regular job.’

  ‘Your secular job,’ Sinclair said. ‘Your main job is praying, I suppose.’

  ‘Yes. Yes, it is.’ A little surprised at his understanding she smiled.

  ‘It has always been my custom,’ he said, with the glint of humour she had noticed before, ‘to size up the opposition.’

  ‘We don’t need them here,’ Morag said in a low, tense voice, stabbing a pear with her fruit knife. ‘Catholics are all liars and hypocrites.’

  ‘Morag, that is patently untrue and very rude to our guest.’ Her father spoke sharply.

  ‘I’m afraid that Morag isn’t alone in her opinion,’ Sister Joan said lightly. ‘There are some very worthy sisters I have met who would use a very long spoon were they required to sup with someone of a different faith. And in the village when I went shopping the welcome wasn’t exactly overwhelming.’

  ‘Prejudice dies hard,’ Sinclair agreed.

  ‘And we don’t need that clutch of monks on the island,’ Morag muttered. Sister Joan bit hastily into an apple to prevent herself from enquiring if Morag were trying to break up the community by the simple expedient of seducing one of its members.

  ‘They do no harm,’ her father said. ‘There have always been monks on that piece of land. The land itself used to provide a refuge in the days when the Vikings came raiding. And the cave was once a look-out point.’

  ‘Yes, so I understand. I’m painting a couple of exteriors of the church and so Brother Cuthbert, one of the community, rows me across and keeps me up to date with ecclesiastical history.’

  ‘I’ve never been across to the place,’ Sinclair said. ‘The abbot invited me for dinner once but my congregation practically threatened to leave in a body were I so unwise as to accept. So I declined with thanks, but one day I may seek to renew the offer of acquaintanceship.’

  ‘What are your parishioners going to say about my coming here?’ Sister Joan asked.

  ‘It is close on fifteen years since the abbot issued his invitation,’ Sinclair said. ‘We had not long resettled in the area and I was more dependent on the approval of my congregation then. Nowadays I would use my own judgement.’

  ‘It’s getting late,’ Morag said hintingly. ‘I’ve some letters to write so if I’m to row you back …?’

  ‘I’ll row Sister Joan back myself,’ her father said. ‘If you want to go and write letters then we will both excuse you. Morag has many friends from her schooldays and sends them such long letters that I am at a loss to understand what on earth she can find to say. Since she acquired a typewriter her correspondence has become enormous.’

  ‘I like to keep in touch,’ Morag said, scowling. ‘Excuse me, Sister.’ She swept out of the room with the offended air of Lady Macbeth who has just been informed tha
t Banquo’s ghost has turned up.

  ‘My daughter was educated at a boarding-school,’ Sinclair said when the door had closed. ‘She should have gone on to university eventually, but my wife died six years ago and Morag elected to come home and take her mother’s place. She is not an easy person to know but once known she has a very attractive personality.’

  Not wanting to argue with a fond father Sister Joan held her peace.

  ‘She used to be quite friendly with young Rory McKensie,’ Sinclair was continuing, ‘but I believe they don’t see as much of each other as formerly.’

  ‘You don’t object?’ Sister Joan couldn’t help asking.

  ‘Because he is her junior? That doesn’t signify, and though he’s nominally a Catholic he hasn’t practised his faith in my recollection. However Morag tells me that she has no interest in him.’

  But Morag was obviously seeing somebody, Sister Joan mused, and Rory McKensie’s mother clearly suspected it was her son. And disapproved of it, she recalled. The tides of prejudice ran in odd channels here with the minister who might have been expected to disapprove being unexpectedly tolerant and yet his daughter betraying her dislike of anything to do with Catholics openly. If that was true then what was she doing, meeting a cowled figure coming from the island late in the evening? Perhaps her apparent intolerance was a cloak to cover a relationship that would be disapproved of by everybody.

  ‘You look tired, Sister.’

  Her host’s voice broke into her thoughts and made her jump.

  ‘I am used to plain food and early hours in the convent,’ she apologized.

  ‘And find company tiresome?’

  ‘No, my problem is that I like company very much indeed, and that often interferes with my contemplative life,’ she said ruefully. ‘I was very glad to be offered this opportunity to get right away and refresh myself spiritually – but please don’t think that I haven’t enjoyed myself. The meal and the company have both been delightful.’

  ‘And now I will row you back across the loch,’ he said cordially. ‘There is a promise of rain in the air so we had better get you ashore again before it begins. I have enjoyed this evening, Sister. I suppose it will be of no use to hope that it may be repeated?’

  ‘I’m afraid not but it isn’t because I wouldn’t want to come,’ she said regretfully.

  ‘Then thank you again for coming.’

  They had both risen and he put out his hand, shaking hers firmly for the first time. An intensely reserved rather than a prejudiced man, she thought, and stood waiting as, saying something about fetching her coat, he left the room.

  There was a fire burning here too but the corners of the room were chilly. Evidently the minister’s stipend didn’t provide central-heating.

  She moved over to the high mantelshelf and looked up at the portrait of Morag hanging over it. It was a vivid rendering of Morag’s dark loveliness but in the portrait at least there was no trace of the sulkiness she displayed in real life.

  ‘My late wife,’ said Sinclair, coming in with the coat.

  ‘Your wife!’ Sister Joan hastily rearranged her ideas. ‘They are very much alike.’

  ‘In appearance but Catherine was of a very gentle, timid disposition. She was very much younger than I was when we married – only sixteen and a very immature sixteen whereas I was a somewhat elderly twenty-three. But we were happy together. Very happy.’

  ‘She died young then?’ Sister Joan put on her coat and fastened it.

  ‘Only thirty-four,’ Sinclair said. ‘Morag was seventeen. She was in her last year at boarding-school when it happened. A tragic accident.’


  ‘Catherine suffered from insomnia,’ he said heavily. ‘She tried to cut back on the sleeping tablets her doctor had prescribed; like myself she felt the habit was addictive, but she needed them if she were to get any sleep at all. She tried very hard and naturally I encouraged her in her efforts, but after several weeks without touching the tablets she took her regular dose. Unfortunately she took some double-strength tablets that had been prescribed for an emergency and they were too strong for her. She died.’

  ‘I’m very sorry,’ Sister Joan said. ‘How tragic that something intended to alleviate her complaint should have – it must have been a very great shock.’

  ‘Six years takes the edge off one’s grief,’ he said. ‘Morag was very deeply affected but I am hopeful that one day the right young man will come along, and she will stop feeling that it’s her duty to bury herself here.’

  Sister Joan murmured something vague. Morag Sinclair had impressed her as a self-willed young woman who only stayed in the manse because it suited her. Then she reminded herself that she had, at first meeting, taken Sinclair to be a harsh, intolerant man. Clearly her first impressions were not very accurate.

  There was no sign of Morag or of Jeannie as they crossed the icy hall. Sinclair paused to take down a heavy jacket from a hook. He had, she noticed, already changed his shoes for knee high boots.

  Outside the wind blew more strongly and she felt a decided qualm at the prospect of being rowed across the loch in a small boat, but Sinclair, snapping on a torch to illumine the stepped terraces, said cheerfully, ‘It may get a bit rough later on. Watch your step, Sister.’

  She watched the step and reached the jetty where the boat bounced threateningly at its moorings. To her right she could see a mass of tangled barbed wire and fallen masonry.

  ‘The spur of land that joins this side of the loch to the island,’ Sinclair said, noting the direction of her glance.

  ‘Hardly a right of way,’ she observed dryly.

  ‘No indeed. During the Second World War there was a look-out tower erected to keep an eye out for submarines. After the war the buildings were demolished, but since technically speaking the land belongs to the community it was their right to leave the way blocked which the abbot at that time insisted on doing. It’s been left like that.’

  ‘It further isolates the community, I suppose,’ she said, settling down in the boat.

  ‘Surely you would approve of that?’ He cast off the mooring ropes and took up the oars.

  ‘In any enclosed order,’ Sister Joan said, ‘the keys are on the insides of the doors. A barrier that prevents either access or egress doesn’t meet with my approval. It must be quite an eyesore in the daylight.’

  ‘Fortunately most of it is overgrown with weeds and brambles,’ he said, ‘and the numbers of tourists have dropped off in recent years. People prefer to go to Spain or down to the south coast where they can be sure of warm weather. You had better hold on tightly, Sister. The water is a mite choppy.’

  Exaggeration was not apparently among the minister’s failings. Sister Joan hung on to the seat grimly as a wave splashed up into her face.

  ‘You don’t,’ she spluttered, ‘have any monsters in this loch, I hope?’

  ‘Not as far as I know.’ His short bark of laughter was muffled by the wind.

  She gasped as another shower of icy droplets blew into her face. Getting uncomfortably wet seemed to be a penance thrust upon her rather than one she had chosen for herself.

  They were approaching the wharf and she heaved a sigh of relief, as he jumped ashore and waded through the boiling shallows, dragging the boat after him.

  ‘Give me your hand, Sister. There you are!’

  She was on wet and shifting shale but at least she hadn’t been expected to wade to land as he had done.

  ‘Get yourself something hot to drink as soon as you reach the cave,’ he ordered in his brusque manner. ‘I’ll bid you good evening, Sister.’

  He was already turning to push the boat into the heaving water again. Sister Joan contented herself with calling a goodnight and turned to hurry along the shore to where she must climb the slope and gain the steps leading to the retreat. It was unfortunate that she had forgotten to bring her own torch. Once or twice she stumbled and regained her balance with some difficulty.

  The wind was st
ronger now and it was beginning to rain. The pines were deep rooted but their needles made the ground treacherous and once, as she struggled up the slope, she found herself on hands and knees.

  ‘A very suitable position for a Daughter of Compassion,’ she said aloud, and pulled herself upright again, bending towards the slant of the land and grimacing as the wind tugged her backwards. With intense relief she seized the iron handrail and began to mount the steps, trying not to think of the increasing distance between herself and the pebbled lochside.

  She had left the door on the latch and with a feeling of homecoming she stumbled within. It was cold here but at least the wind and the sea spray were banished. Her bed with its coarse blankets looked inviting, and once she had lit her candle the shadows retreated to the back of the cave.

  She brewed some tea and drank it milkless and scalding until her chilled frame was warm again and she could pay due attention to her evening devotion. She made it longer than usual, adding thanks for the pleasant meal she had enjoyed, remembering to pray for the soul of Catherine Sinclair and for the well-being of her widower and daughter. There had been no opening in the conversation to enable her to introduce any questions about the crypt. In any case the minister had never visited the community.

  Not until she was in bed, the blankets wound round her and a second cup of tea warming her insides did she find herself thinking about the events of six years before. In that quiet district the normal tenor of life had been interrupted twice – by the disappearance of Dolly McKensie’s husband and the death from an overdose – accidental? – of Sinclair’s wife.

  Was there, she wondered, burrowing deeper into the blankets, a connection between the two events? And who sat in the crypt with a monk’s habit and modern shoes? If a crime had been committed then it was her duty to do something about it, but she fell asleep still wondering what.


  In the morning the wind had dropped but a fine curtain of needle-sharp rain obscured the loch. Sister Joan, having ventured out to take a look, decided that nobody would be coming over to collect her that day and she might safely remain within and catch up on her examination of conscience.

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