Read an Excerpt
The Religious Body
A C. D. Sloan Mystery
By Catherine Aird
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1966 Catherine Aird
All rights reserved.
Sister Mary St. Gertrude put out a hand and stilled the tiny alarm clock long before it got into its stride. It was five o'clock and quite dark. She slipped quickly out of bed, shivering a little. The Convent of St. Anselm wasn't completely unheated but at five o'clock on a November morning it felt as if it was.
She dressed very quietly, splashing some cold water on her face from a basin in the corner of the little room. The water was really chilled and she dressed even more quickly afterwards. Her habit complete, she knelt at the prie-dieu in front of the window and made her first private devotions of the day. Then she drew back the curtains of the window and stripped off her bed.
It was then twenty-five minutes past five. Utterly used to a day ordained by a combination of tradition and the clock, she picked up her breviary and read therein for exactly five minutes. As the hands of the clock crept round to the half-hour she closed the book and slipped out of the door. It was Sister Gertrude's duty this month to awake the Convent.
She herself slept on the top landing of the house and she went first of all to pull back those landing curtains. Half a mile away the village of Cullingoak still slept on in darkness. There was just one light visible from where she stood and that was in the bakery. It would be another half an hour before the next light appeared—in the newspaper shop, where the day's complement of disaster and gossip arrived from Berebury by van. Sister Gertrude arranged the drawn curtains neatly at the sides of the window and turned away. Newspapers had not been one of the things she had regretted when she left the world.
She descended to the landing below and drew back another set of curtains on the other side of the house. In this direction, a couple of fields away, lay the Cullingoak Agricultural Institute. It, too, was invisible in the darkness, but presently the boy who was duty herdsman for the week would start the milking. Occasionally in the Convent they could hear the lowing of the cattle as they moved slowly across the fields. Sister Gertrude turned down a corridor, counting the doors as she passed them. Six, five, fo ... four. At four doors away there was no mistaking Sister Mary St. Hilda's snore.
It rose to an amazing crescendo and then stopped with disturbing suddenness—only to start seconds later working its way up to a new climax. Sister Bonaventure called it the Convent's answer to the Institute's cows, but then Sister Bonaventure declared the snore could be heard six doors away on a good day.
She may well have been right. It was true that the only person in the Convent of St. Anselm who didn't know about Sister Hilda's snore was Sister Hilda. It was, thought Sister Gertrude wryly, a true test of religious behavior to sleep uncomplainingly up to four—or even five—doors away from her, and greet the cheerful unknowing Sister Hilda with true Christian charity each morning. She had had to do it herself and she knew. But how she had longed to be able to go in and turn her over onto her other side.
She wished now that she could wake her first but there was a prescribed order for this as there was for everything else in convent life. It was decreed that the first door on which she had to knock every morning was that of the Reverend Mother. Why this was so, she did not know. It may have been because it was unthinkable that the Mother Superior should sleep while any of her daughters in religion were awake. It may have been one of the things—one of the many things—whose origin was lost in the dim antiquity when their Order was founded.
She had to go round two more corners before she came to the Reverend Mother's door. She tapped gently.
"I ask your blessing, Mother."
"God bless you, my daughter." The answer came swiftly through the door in a deep, calm voice.
She never had to knock twice to wake the Reverend Mother.
The next door on which she had to knock was that of the Sacrist. She must always be up betimes.
"God bless you, Sister."
"God bless you, Sister," responded the Sacrist promptly.
Then the Cellarer. She, too, had early work to do.
"God bless you, Sister."
And the Novice Mistress.
Another knock, louder.
"God bless you, Sister," sleepily. The Novice Mistress sounded as if she had been hauled back from a pleasant dream.
The Bursar and Procuratrix, the Mother Superior's right-hand woman Sister Lucy.
"God bless you, Sister." No delay here. She sounded very wide awake.
Then she could start on the ordinary doors, one after the other. There were still fifty to go.
"God bless you, Sister," tentatively.
The unmistakable sound of dentures being seized from a tin mug.
Then, triumphantly, "God bless you, Sister."
Knock, blessing, response. Knock, blessing, response.
In a way the formula made the job easier. "Half past five on a November morning and all's well" doubtless would have its uses, but hardly in a Convent. She drew back yet another set of landing curtains and was glad she didn't have to say something about the weather fifty-five times every morning. It wasn't a particularly nice morning but not bad for November, not bad at all. It looked as if it would stay fine for tonight, which was Bonfire Night. Sister Gertrude had not been so long out of the world that she couldn't remember the importance to children of having a fine night for their fires. Besides, a damp November Fifth was a sore trial to everyone—then you never knew when they would let their fireworks off. She wondered what the students at the Agricultural Institute were planning. Last year they had burnt down the old bus shelter in the center of the village. Not before time, she had been told, and now there was a brand new one there.
Knock, blessing, response. Knock, blessing, response.
The older the Sister, the quicker the response. Sister Gertrude had worked that out long ago. She called the older ones first—partly because they slept on the lower floors, partly because she could still remember how much those extra minutes' sleep had meant when she was a young nun. Sleep had been a most precious commodity then.
Knock, blessing, unintelligible response. That was old Mother Mary St. Thérèse, aged goodness knows what, professed long before Sister Gertrude was born, with a memory like a set of archives. Woe betide any Reverend Mother with an eye for innovation. Mother Thérèse had outlived a string of Prioresses, each of whom, she managed to infer (without any apparent lapse of Christian charity), was not a patch on their predecessor. There were days now when she was not able to leave her room. The Reverend Mother would visit her then, and listen patiently to interminable recitations of the virtues of Mother Helena of blessed memory, in whose time it seemed life in the Convent of St. Anselm had been perfect.
Knock, blessing, response.
She turned back into the corridor where Sister Hilda was the soundest sleeper. The snore was still rising and falling "like all the trumpets," thought Sister Gertrude, before she realized that it was an irreverent simile, and that custody of the mind was just as important as custody of the eyes even if it was half past five in the morning and she was all alone in the dim corridor.
Knock, blessing, response.
That was the door next to Sister Hilda, Sister Jerome. Sister Gertrude wondered what sort of a night she had had. Perhaps the snore didn't bother her, but if it did, she couldn't very well say, not after solemnly undertaking to live at peace for ever with her Sisters in religion.
Knock, blessing, response.
Sister Hilda's door.
The snore ground to a halt, there were a couple of choking snorts, and then the pleasant voice of Sister Hilda sang out warmly, "God bless you,Sister."
It was strange but true that Sister Hilda had one of the most mellifluous speaking voices in the Convent. Sister Gertrude shook her head at this phenomenon and passed on to the next door.
Knock, blessing ... no response.
Knock (louder), blessing (more insistently) ... still no response.
Sister Anne's teeth were her own. She could think of no other reason for delay in answering and put her hand on the door: the room was empty, the bed made. A very human grin spread over Sister Gertrude's face. Sister Anne hadn't been able to stick another minute of that snore and had crept down early. Strictly forbidden, of course. So was making your bed to save dashing up before Sext. She made a mental note to pull her leg about that later, and, taking a look at her watch, hurried along to the next door. There was still the entire novitiate to be woken, to say nothing of a row of postulants—and they never wanted to get up.
At ten minutes to six Sister Gertrude slipped into her stall in the quiet Chapel and went down on her knees until the service began. There was no formal procession into the Chapel for this service. Each Sister came to her own stall and knelt until the stroke of six. She heard the crunch of car wheels on the gravel outside. That was Father MacAuley come to take the service. She lowered her head. She was glad enough to kneel peacefully, her first task of the day completed. Gradually in the few minutes before the service she emptied her mind of all but prayer and worship, and as the ancient ritual proceeded she was oblivious of everything save the proper order of bidding and response.
Until Sister Peter moved forward.
Sister Peter was Chantress, which office weighed heavily on her slight shoulders. She was young still and inclined to start nervously when spoken to.
After the Epistle she stepped into the aisle and walked up to the altar steps for an antiphon. Her music manuscript—hand-illuminated and old—was there, ready open on its stand.
The Sisters rose, their eyes on the Chantress, waiting for her to start the Gradual.
Sister Peter's voice gave them the note, and the antiphon began. The Sisters sang their way through the time-honored phrases. On the steps of the altar, Sister Peter put out her right hand to turn the music manuscript over, touched it—and shot back as if she had been stung.
The nuns sang on.
Sister Peter's face paled visibly. She stared first at the manuscript and then at her own hand. It was as if she could not believe what she saw there. She went on staring at the manuscript. She made no attempt to turn the page over but stood there in front of the stand, an incredulous expression on her face, until the nuns had sung their own way to the end of the Gradual.
Then she genuflected deeply and turned and walked back to her stall, her face a troubled, tragic white, her hands clasped together in front of her but nevertheless visibly trembling.
The congregation settled themselves for the Gospel.
Convent life, reflected Sister Gertrude, was never without interest.
They filed out of the Chapel in twos, hands clasped together in front, bowing to the altar. They proceeded to the refectory where they bowed to the Abbatial chair and then stood, backs to their own benches, while grace was said.
"Amen," said the Community in unison.
There was a rustle of habits and then the nuns were seated. One sat apart on a little dais, a reading desk in front of her. When all was still she began to read aloud from the Martyrology. The Refectarian stood by the serving hatch, her eye on the Reverend Mother. The Reader started to detail the sufferings of the early Christian martyrs. At the end of the first page she paused. The Reverend Mother knocked once on the table. The serving hatch flew up and the Refectarian seized an enormous teapot, set it down at a table and went back for another. A young Sister appeared with the first of several baskets of bread. This was passed rapidly down one of the long tables.
The incredible tortures inflicted on the martyrs were obscured by the crunching of crusts and the sipping of hot tea. The Reader raised her voice to tell of boiling oil and decapitation. The teapot went on its second round, the bread baskets emptied. Only little Sister Peter seemed to be with the Reader completely. Her expression would have brought satisfaction to any torturer.
It was at this point that Sister Gertrude noticed the empty place. It was between Sister Damien, angular, intense and exceedingly devout, and Sister Michael, plumpish, placid and more than a little deaf. Sister Anne's place. She must have been taken ill in the night and whisked off to the Convent's tiny sick bay. Sister Gertrude's glance slid along the bench to where the austere figure of Sister Radigund, the Infirmarium, was sitting. She would ask her at the end of the General Silence.
The morning's quota of bread and tea came to an end. The Reader was tidying up the remains of the dismembered martyrs in a general "And in other places and at other times of many other martyrs, confessors and holy virgins to whose prayers and merits we humbly commend ourselves."
"Deo gratias," responded the Community.
At this moment Sister Peter rose, bowed to the Mother Superior and went slowly round the table to stand in front of the Abbatial chair. The Mother Superior looked up at her and nodded. Sister Peter went down on her knees and clasped her hands together in front of her.
"I confess my fault," began Sister Peter in a voice that was far from steady, "to God and to you, Mother Abbess, and to all the Sisters that I have committed the great sin of damaging the Gradual ..." There was an indrawing of breaths that would have done credit to a chorus in their unity. "... by placing a thumb mark on it," went on Sister Peter bravely. "For this and all my other faults and those I have occasioned in others, I humbly ask pardon of God and penance of you, Mother Abbess, for the love of God." She finished in a rush and knelt there, eyes cast down.
The Reverend Mother considered the kneeling figure. "May the Lord forgive you your faults, my dear child, and give you grace to be faithful to grace. Say a Miserere and ..." she paused and looked across the room, "... and ask Sister Jerome if she will take a look at the mark quickly. It may be possible to remove it without lasting damage."
In the general bustle and end of silence after breakfast, Sister Gertrude sought out Sister Radigund.
"Sister Anne? She's not ill that I know of. She might have gone to the sick bay on her own, of course, though it's not usual...."
It was expressly forbidden as it happened, but it would have been uncharitable of Sister Radigund to have said so.
"... I'll go up after Office if you like, to make sure."
"Thank you," said Sister Gertrude gratefully. She wondered now if she should have reported the empty bedroom. Her mind was more on that than on Sext, and afterwards she waited anxiously at the bottom of the staircase for Sister Radigund.
"She's not in the sick bay," said the Infirmarium, "nor back in her own cell either. I've just checked."
"I think," said Sister Gertrude, "that we'd better go to the Parlor, don't you?"
They were not the only Sisters waiting at the Reverend Mother's door. Sister Jerome, the Convent's most skilled authority on manuscript illumination, and Sister Peter were both there too.
They knocked and a little bell rang. Sister Gertrude sighed. That was where the world and the Convent differed so. In the Convent to every sound and every speech there was a response. In the world—well ...
The four Sisters trooped in. The Mother Superior was working on the morning's post with Sister Lucy, the Bursar. There were several neat piles of paper on the table, and Sister Lucy was bending over a notebook.
The Mother Superior looked up briskly.
"Ah, yes, Sister Peter. The mark on the Gradual. I'm sure that Sister Jerome will be able to remove it, whatever it is. These culpable faults are all very well but we can't have you—er—making a meal of them, can we? Otherwise they become an indulgence in themselves and that would never do." She gave a quick smile. "Isn't that so, Sister Jerome? Now, stop looking like a Tragedy Queen and go back to ..." Sister Peter burst into tears. "That's just it, Mother," she wailed. "Sister Jerome says ..." She became quite incoherent in a fresh paroxysm of tears.
"What does Sister Jerome say?" asked the Reverend Mother mildly.
Sister Jerome cleared her throat. "That mark, Mother. I think it's blood."
Sister Gertrude's knees felt quite wobbly. She gulped, "And we can't find Sister Anne anywhere."
Excerpted from The Religious Body by Catherine Aird. Copyright © 1966 Catherine Aird. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.