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Vow of Poverty
By Veronica Black
Robert Hale Limited Copyright © 2014 Veronica Black
All rights reserved.
Mother Dorothy, Prioress of the Cornwall House in the Order of the Daughters of Compassion, sat at her flat-topped desk and, from behind her wire-rimmed spectacles, let her eyes sweep the semicircle of nuns ranged before her. The room in which they sat had been the elegant drawing-room of Tarquin House but the Tarquins were gone now, had been gone for more than fifteen years, and only the delicate silk panels set into the walls, the heavy curtains of faded velvet at the huge bay window, the patina of dull gold at the moulded cornices of walls and ceiling, echoed past glories. The spindle-legged chairs and tables, the ornaments and Aubusson carpet had long since vanished into various sale rooms. Now the floor was an expanse of shining polished oak; a plain crucifix hung over the high mantelpiece with an arrangement of dried grasses in the fireless grate; there were filing cabinets ranged along one wall, her own plain desk and chair, and the stools on which the sisters sat. Mother Dorothy who was the least sentimental of women wasted no time in regretting what had gone. Tarquin House had proved a very convenient base for the Order, situated as it was on the slopes of the moor, with plenty of land and rooms of a good size that, so far, had betrayed no trace of dry rot or deathwatch beetle or any other creeping infestation that sought to destroy old buildings.
'The question,' she said in her crisp light voice, 'is one of finances.'
'Or lack of them,' Sister Perpetua said, tugging at the lock of greying red hair that strayed from beneath her veil.
'Exactly!' Mother Dorothy gave her infirmarian a brisk nod. 'As you all know the rule of our Order states that we must be self-supporting, each house being responsible for its own financial arrangements. As we're only a semi-cloistered order that means we can take suitable outside work provided it doesn't interfere with our religious life.'
'Mary Concepta and I would be only too glad to work,' Sister Gabrielle said, 'but I don't know who'd employ us.'
'Both you and Sister Mary Concepta have earned a peaceful retirement,' Mother Dorothy said.
'One does so dislike being useless,' Sister Mary Concepta said tremulously. She had once been a very pretty girl and was now a very pretty old lady, her skin still delicate, her eyes retaining more than a trace of brilliant blue. At her side Sister Gabrielle, even further along in her eighties, looked leathery and tough despite the rheumatism that knotted her joints.
'I'm sure I couldn't manage all the mending without Sister Gabrielle and Sister Mary Concepta to help me,' Sister Katherine said.
A nice child, Mother Dorothy thought, her eyes resting briefly on the younger woman's pale, fine-boned face. Sister Katherine was mistress of linen and in addition brought much needed revenue with her exquisite lacework. Next to her Sister Martha, even more small and slender, looking as if a puff of wind would blow her away, was gardener, selling off fruit and vegetables that weren't eaten in the convent. Those two earned their keep.
'I am making quite rapid progress with my books of saints for children,' Sister David piped up defensively, pushing her spectacles higher on her rabbit nose.
'I'm sure you'll find a publisher,' Mother Dorothy encouraged, 'and, of course, there is your translation work which is invaluable.'
Sister David also combined the tasks of librarian and sacristan which left her no free time at all. There remained Sister Hilaria, who as novice mistress had charge of the convent's one postulant, Bernadette, who sat, eyes downcast within the brim of her large white bonnet, booted feet peeping from beneath the hem of her pink smock. Sister Hilaria was a godly woman, highly mystical, but lacking that streak of practical good sense that would have rendered her valuable. Certainly she was not earthbound enough to hold down an ordinary job. Sister Teresa, the recently professed laysister and the novice, Sister Marie, had their hands full with the cleaning and cooking, and couldn't be spared to take on outside labour. There remained Sister Joan who sat at the end of the row looking as usual as if she was about to jump up and rush off somewhere else.
Sister Joan, Mother Dorothy reflected, was a problem. She was one of the liveliest and most talented of the community – her drawings and paintings had a vigour that struck the prioress as being too virile, too highly coloured, bordering on the unconventional. If she was allowed to paint her work would almost certainly find a market, but Mother Dorothy had always hesitated about permitting Sister Joan to use her gifts, suspecting that in the younger woman personal pride in her accomplishments was by no means dead. She also had an amazing capacity for attracting incident and excitement to her small, neat person. If Sister Joan were sent out for a country walk she was liable to be kidnapped by hijackers or stumble on a body. Mother Dorothy let a small, cold shiver pass through her frame before she spoke.
'Sister Joan could, of course, teach art but with the cuts in education local schools are cutting down their staff. And our recent attempt to establish weekend retreats had, as you all know, a most unfortunate conclusion. I am reluctant to try that experiment so soon again. Quite apart from anything else we do need the postulancy. Sister Hilaria and Bernadette are very far from comfortable up in the storerooms.'
'Are we to return to the postulancy?' Sister Hilaria asked, clearly dragging her attention back from some dream of astral glory.
The postulancy had once been the dowerhouse where widowed Tarquin ladies were safely tucked away to live out their declining years. It had been adapted to accommodate Sister Hilaria and at least six postulants but, with the shortage of vocations, only the dark-eyed Bernadette was in Sister Hilaria's charge.
'I've been thinking what's best to do,' the prioress said. 'I believe that Sister Hilaria and Bernadette will be more comfortable in the postulancy which was, after all, adapted for the purpose of lodging intending sisters in a quiet place apart from the professed members of the community, but there are spare cells there which ought to be occupied. It occurred to me that our laysister and our novice could sleep over there instead of having to make do with the two tiny cells off the kitchen. Sister Teresa and Sister Marie will move their things over later today.'
It meant they'd have to walk through the grounds to do their tasks in the main house, but both Sister Teresa and Sister Marie looked pleased.
'I fail to see how that will solve our financial problems,' Sister Perpetua said.
'Once the storerooms are free again,' Mother Dorothy said, 'we can begin to clear them.'
She noticed with a twinge of amusement that Sister Joan's dark-blue eyes immediately sparkled at the prospect of action.
'The storerooms are crammed with rubbish,' Sister David said.
'We don't know that it is all rubbish,' Mother Dorothy pointed out. 'When our Order acquired this house the property was bought as it stood with most of the contents. Whatever had been packed away was simply left. I appreciate that nothing of value was said to be there, but what wasn't of value once may come into fashion again. Toy cars from the forties, late Victorian fire-irons, that kind of thing still has a market value, I understand. We might just find something.'
'A chest of gold doubloons,' Sister Perpetua said, displaying an unexpected romantic streak.
'I doubt that,' Mother Dorothy said, 'but there may well be something worth selling, and even if there's nothing we will have acquired two large upper rooms that will enable us to extend the library if it becomes necessary. Sister Joan, I'm entrusting the task to you. Since you know something of art and that kind of thing you're not likely to throw out anything that might be saleable.'
Sister Joan's blue eyes flashed with hard-held temper. Why on earth Mother Dorothy equated art with the ability to sort out rubbish was beyond her. It looked as if she regarded the ability to paint as being commensurate with the flair for spotting a bargain!
'Sister?' Mother Dorothy looked at her.
'Yes, Mother Prioress, I shall be happy to clear out the storerooms,' Sister Joan said.
'If you need help moving anything heavy let me know,' Sister Perpetua said.
'Thank you, Sister.'
'What about Brother Cuthbert?' Sister Hilaria said.
The others looked at her.
'What about Brother Cuthbert?' Mother Dorothy enquired.
'He is here staying at the old schoolhouse on a year's sabbatical from his monastery.'
'Yes, Sister, we know that,' Sister Perpetua said.
'He's a very strong young man,' Sister Hilaria said in her vague fashion. 'And very obliging.'
'You're absolutely right, Sister!' Mother Dorothy's brow cleared. 'Brother Cuthbert would certainly come over and lend a hand if it were necessary. I'll leave it to you to decide if and when you require his help, Sister Joan.'
'Yes, Mother Prioress.' Sister Joan had shaken off her mood of ill-temper and answered with her usual brightness.
'Then I think that's it. Sister Teresa and Sister Marie will help Sister Hilaria and Bernadette to move back into the postulancy and move their own things over at the same time,' Mother Dorothy said, rising. 'Dominus vobiscum.'
'Et cum spiritu sancto,' the sisters chorused back.
She watched them file out, hands clasped at waist level, eyes lowered in approved fashion and sat down again, rubbing her temples where the familiar headache had begun. Being prioress was a task she performed to the best of her ability; being prioress was a privileged position she wouldn't be sorry to lay down when elections were due in a couple of years' time.
The sisters were dispersing to their various occupations. Sister Joan stood in the wide hall with its sweeping staircase and watched them go, the two elderly nuns leaning on their sticks more heavily than they had done in the summer. A sudden fear clenched her heart. The community wouldn't be the same when Sister Gabrielle and Sister Mary Concepta were gone. She sent up a silent plea that both of them should live to be a hundred, and went across to the door which led into the chapel wing. A narrow corridor, with windows along one side, bent round the small visitors' parlour with its dividing grille towards the chapel.
The chapel was cool and silent, late dahlias drooping sleepy petals over the edge of the vase on the Lady Altar. She genuflected to the main altar and began to mount the spiral stairs that wound up to the library and storerooms above. This upper wing was closed off from the rest of the house, and at night the door leading to the chapel on the ground floor was locked. Above her she could hear the others moving about, collecting mattresses and blankets in readiness for the move back to the postulancy.
'Is that you, Sister Joan?' Sister Teresa came to the head of the staircase, a pile of towels in her arms. 'How do you think you're ever going to get any of the big stuff out of the storerooms and down the stairs? We'll have to break down the wall in order to get them into the main part of the house!'
'Which will only make more expense,' Sister Joan said practically. 'We'd do better to hoist anything we don't need out of the windows. They're large enough.'
'Well, don't try doing anything like that by yourself,' Sister Teresa said. 'Get Brother Cuthbert to help you.'
'That won't be for months,' Sister Joan said, stepping to the door of the storerooms and looking somewhat gloomily at the boxes piled almost to the ceilings, the piles of old newspapers and magazines, the broken bits of furniture. 'I'll just work my way through systematically.'
The prospect of finding anything worth selling seemed remote but at least she had a definite job and so felt less like a spare part in the community. Since the little local school where she had first taught had closed she had missed the discipline of regular paid employment. Her stint as acting lay sister had been marked by her own inability to cook properly, and cut thankfully short when Sister Teresa had made her final profession.
'Do you need any help now?' she asked.
'No, thank you, Sister. We're managing very nicely,' Sister Hilaria assured her, unmistakable relief on her large, pale face as she watched her bedding being carted down the twisting staircase on its way back to her beloved postulancy.
Sister Joan turned and went downstairs again, passing through the chapel to the outside door which led into the rough ground surrounding the house. To her left the coarse grass became cobbles and a stableyard. Alice, the Alsatian puppy acquired as a potential guard dog, frolicked over to her, tail wagging furiously.
'Some guard dog you are!' Sister Joan said, giving her a pat. 'Come! let's take Lilith for a walk.'
The convent pony, chewing meditatively in her stable, whinnied as Sister Joan undid the latch and let her out. Normally she'd have donned the permitted jeans under her grey habit and indulged in a thundering good gallop, but the ground was soft after the recent rain, and the air muggy. A walk would have to suffice.
She looped the reins over her arm and led the pony round to the front of the main house, glancing back at the handsome façade of the building with the usual pleasure. Her own novitiate had been spent in the London House where the enclosure gardens had been shut in by the streets of the city and tranquillity hard won in the hum of the passing traffic. Here, on the moors, with the town tucked at the foot of the billows of peat and grass, and the tang of the sea borne on the wind when it gusted in the right direction, the cloistered life was easier.
She walked through the open gates onto the track that snaked towards the town five miles off, passing the old schoolhouse which, once part of the Tarquin estate, was now the property of the Order, past the path that led away towards the Romany camp. The turf was still quick with heather, its purple petals unseasonably bright. It was a close, warm winter with no snap in the yellowing leaves. Sister Perpetua had been brewing up her cough mixture of wild garlic and coltsfoot in readiness for winter influenza.
'Sister Joan! Sister Joan!'
The shout came from a loose-limbed fellow who shambled towards her, shaggy head on one side, mouth wide open.
'Hello, Luther!' Sister Joan greeted him pleasantly.
Luther was somewhat wanting in his wits, though there were times when he was as lucid as the next man. Today seemed to be one of those times. He saluted her smartly as if he'd actually been in the military and fell into step beside her.
'Padraic will have fish at the weekend,' he said.
Padraic Lee was Luther's cousin three or four times removed. He lived with a wife subject to alcoholic binges and two small daughters in a caravan he kept clean and sparkling, and regularly supplied fish to the convent, though Sister Teresa wisely didn't enquire from which river or pool it had been netted.
'Thank him, will you?' Sister Joan said.
'I was wondering if there was any work for me this month,' Luther said.
Sister Joan hesitated. Luther helped out with odd jobs at the convent in return for a good hot meal and some tobacco, but the tasks consisted mainly of helping Sister Martha load vegetables on her cart ready for market or gathering apples and pears for her. Letting him loose in the storerooms where there might be some valuable stuff might be something of a risk.
'We'll be clearing some things out of the top floor soon,' she temporized, 'so if there's anything to be carted away and sold for scrap I'll see you get the first chance.'
'Thank you, Sister.' Luther grinned at her and loped off across the moor.
Sister Joan gazed after him for a moment, reflecting how lucky he was to live as he did, without the supervision of well-meaning people who would have tagged him and categorized him and treated him like a case history instead of a person. Here, on the moor, he was simply accepted for what he was, and nobody labelled him with some euphemistic phrase that meant nothing in the real world.
'Good morning, Sister Joan! You're very thoughtful today.'
Brother Cuthbert, fresh young face shining below the flaming red hair that circled his tonsure, bounded towards her, shouting a greeting.
'Good afternoon, Brother Cuthbert,' Sister Joan said.
Excerpted from Vow of Poverty by Veronica Black. Copyright © 2014 Veronica Black. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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