When Mother Dorothy, Prioress of Daughters of Compassion inherits a considerable estate from her godmother, Sister Joan does not realise that the death of one old lady will turn out to be one of her most dangerous cases. With the help of Sergeant Mill she sets a trap to catch a murderer. From the author of VOW OF ADORATION.
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Vow of Compassion
By Veronica Black
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2014 Veronica Black
All rights reserved.
The wards were quiet this September night. Sleep enfolded many of the occupants of the white-curtained cubicles while slumber's younger sister, relaxation, slowed the breathing and soothed the muscles of those deputed to keep alert. It had been an unusually busy day with three babies deciding to arrive at the same time in the small maternity wing and two suspected heart attacks in the geriatric ward. Added to that had been a steady stream of minor accidents through casualty and a muddle in the administration office which had resulted in a healthy young man who had recovered nicely from a hernia operation being scheduled for a hip replacement while a limping old lady had spent the day asking plaintively when she could expect to be wheeled into the theatre. Fortunately it had been sorted out before any harm was done at the expense of red faces all round, but Ward Sister Sophie Meecham had been driven to gulp down a couple of aspirins before she had felt able to trot briskly into the manager's sanctum and assure him that there had been a blip on the computer.
'And God bless computers!' she muttered, giving Clarrie a friendly pat.
Computers could be blamed for everything and the beauty of it was that a computer couldn't be fined or sacked and never burst into tears when receiving a severe dressing down.
Now all was still and peaceful. Sophie rose from her chair and switched off the desk lamp, moving to the window that looked out over the car-park and the main street to the moors that rose into the star-hung sky. She had worked in this small Cornish town for three years now and never ceased to thank her good fortune in having been selected to work at St Keyne's Cottage Hospital.
'Cottage' was an anachronism really, but the old name had stuck even after the hospital had become a fundholding concern. The patients here were mainly local people who often knew one another and the medical staff by name, and in her off-duty hours Sophie could leave the town behind her and walk up on to the moors which stretched past the housing estate and the new supermarket and left all the buildings behind as they raced in a tangle of blowing grass and rich heather towards the sea. One day, she had promised herself, she would walk as far as the sea and scramble down the rocks into one of the pebbled coves that made the coastline at once enchanting and treacherous. So far she had only made it as far as the Convent of the Daughters of Compassion that stood proudly on the high moor with its grounds spreading over the dips and swells of the landscape.
Sophie, who had had hardly any contact with nuns, had paused shyly at the gates, seeing that they were invitingly open and that a well-weeded drive ran up to the main door. The building hadn't looked like a convent, she'd thought, or rather it didn't look like her idea of a convent. It must once have been a house, its stone walls ivied, its ground-floor windows mullioned. She had pictured carriages driving up to the front door and grooms helping down ladies in billowing crinolines and velvet cloaks.
A grey-habited nun, mounted on a pony, had suddenly ridden round from the back of the mansion, her short black veil revealing a crop of black curly hair, a pair of blue jeans showing incongruously beneath the hem of her skirt. She had checked the pony and smiled, eyes darkly blue in a round, rosy face.
'Good afternoon. Isn't it a lovely day? May I help you?' Her voice had been pleasant with the hint of the North in her slightly flattened vowels.
'I was just walking past,' Sophie had said, adding doubtfully, 'Sister?'
'Sister Joan. I'm taking Lilith for her bit of exercise. If she doesn't get it she sulks. If you walk on round to the kitchen Sister Perpetua will give you a cup of tea.'
'Sophie Meecham. I'm a nurse at St Keynes Hospital.'
'How are you?' The nun sounded as if she'd really wanted to know as she'd leaned and offered a firm handshake from a small, square hand. 'You look very fit. Is walking a hobby of yours?'
'When I can. Walking in cities isn't the same though, is it?'
'No, it certainly isn't.' Sister Joan had gathered up the reins again, said pleasantly, 'Don't overtire yourself and do pop round to see Sister Perpetua. She is the soul of hospitality.'
She'd cantered off then over the moor and Sophie had watched her out of sight before she'd begun to retrace her own steps. The prospect of a cup of tea had been inviting but she was too diffident to march boldly round the back and ask for one. Out of the ward, away from the milieu where she knew herself to be efficient, her confidence drained away with shyness creeping in.
Since that day she had skirted the convent walls many times but not paused there. She had glimpsed Sister Joan again, too, on several occasions, once with an Alsatian puppy frisking round her heels, once with a taller, thinner nun at her side. Sophie hadn't liked to attract attention. Nuns, she knew, weren't encouraged to fraternize with lay people though she'd heard the Order was only a semi-enclosed one.
'They work at various things,' one of the hospital staff had remarked, having just waved off an elderly nun who'd come in with a suspected heart murmur. 'I don't think they make much money because most of their time is taken up with praying and doing domestic work.'
'I'd not like to have to clean that big house,' one of the student nurses had said.
'It used to belong to the Tarquin family who were squires here once,' someone else had said. 'The nuns bought the estate and the Tarquins died out. Not many private people can afford to keep up a place like that any longer.'
Standing now at the window, Sophie could look out towards the blue-black mass of the moor with its patches of moonlight that revealed in stark outline an occasional thorn tree. It wasn't possible to see the building from here but she could imagine that from one window a lamp would welcome wanderers.
'Sister Meecham?' One of the student nurses tapped on the door. 'Time for ward rounds.'
'Thank you, Sister Williams. I'll be there directly.'
Fancy fled before the call of duty. Sophie smoothed down her already creaseless skirt and moved towards the door, clipboard in hand.
Other members of staff occasionally grumbled at the necessity of ward rounds, declaring that they achieved nothing except to wake up the patients who slept lightly. Sophie liked the long quiet walk along the dimly lit corridors, through the wards where the white curtains were like tents ranged neatly at each side of the shining central aisles. She liked the softly murmured voice of the ward nurse seated at her desk with a shaded lamp to help her write up her case notes.
At her heels Sister Williams was a mute shadow. She would be a good nurse, Sophie decided, half turning to give her an encouraging smile. She moved gently and she had the unbeatable combination of a friendly voice and a strong back. Few people realized that nurses needed a strong back almost as much as an intelligent mind and a reassuring manner.
The three new babies were all sleeping, making the little snorting noises that newborn infants make when they first begin to breathe fresh air. Babies smelt so sweet. Sophie thought sometimes that it would be lovely to have one of her own, but first she would have to find a father for it. In her romantic mind he already existed – tall and fair with surgeon's hands and the faint sharp scent of Dettol on his crisp white coat. So far he hadn't put in an appearance but at thirty-four she still had time.
They processed through the men's ward where, as usual, one of the ambulatory patients had gone into the sluice and coaxed a cup of tea from Sister Foster who never could deny a man anything. Sophie gave them both a reproving frown and a little shake of the head. They walked on past the empty cubicles of the casualty unit and the visitors' waiting-room and the ground-floor toilets to the surgical ward.
There were two broken legs, a cracked pelvic bone, a slight concussion and broken collar bone, and two or three awaiting operations in this section. Sophie checked a pulse here, smoothed a coverlet there, her gaze taking in details without seeming to do so. The lad with the concussion seemed slightly restless. She'd have a word with the ward nurse about him. Concussions could be tricky. She made a mental note to change the dressings after breakfast on the gallstones case over in the corner. The operation had proved more invasive than had been hoped and the patient, a middle-aged woman, would require careful monitoring.
The old lady who was due for the hip operation which had been postponed to the following day because of the computer blip, slept in the end bed. Sophie paused, leaning forward slightly, her smooth brow suddenly corrugated, her own breath held for a moment.
'Sister Williams, draw the curtains closed,' she said quietly, bending lower to switch on the bedside light.
The round white circle of light illumined the face devoid of personality now, the mouth slightly contorted, the right hand clenched tightly in a last spasm.
'Is she —?' Sister Williams came to her side.
'Get one of the duty surgeons and another nurse. Then bring the resuscitator, though I fear she's past it. Go on now, Sister.'
She gave the girl a little push, wondering not for the first time if it was really sound policy to give all the nursing staff the title of Sister. It was supposed to inspire confidence in the patients who might feel apprehension at being treated by a student but Sophie felt privately that inexperience couldn't be masked by a title. Well, this would be Sister Williams's first death. At least it had been a quiet one though the contorted mouth was disturbing.
She stood back as the doctor came in, white coat flapping. The two nurses wheeled the resuscitator between the other beds and the ward nurse emerged from the toilet, looking startled and affronted, skirt rustling as she hurried to join them.
'You were not at your desk, Sister.' Sophie spoke quietly, not yet blaming.
'I needed the toilet, Sister. My stomach's been a bit queasy,' Sister Collet said. 'I checked the patients an hour ago. They were all sleeping.'
'You couldn't have checked very closely,' the doctor said brusquely. 'She's been dead at least two hours. Already beginning to stiffen. Mind you, this damned ward is chilly. The heating should be higher.'
In overheated wards germs flourished. Sophie, who would have cut off her head sooner than contradict a doctor, murmured meekly, 'Yes, Doctor. I'll make a note of it.'
'Hip replacement, wasn't she? Due for surgery in the morning. Are these her full case notes?' He unhooked the clipboard from the foot of the bed.
'Yes, Doctor. She had a heart murmur which was causing some concern,' Sophie said. 'She was rather a highly strung old lady and there was some concern as to how well she'd stand up to surgery. However, she was in such constant pain that it was considered worth the slight risk and she was fully aware of the situation.'
'God forbid that my patients should be fully aware of their situations,' he muttered, flicking impatiently through the typed notes. 'Seventy-five. She was no spring chicken. Wasn't she scheduled for theatre this morning?'
'There was a blip on the computer, Doctor. By the time it was discovered it was too late to get it done today.'
'She was quite upset about it,' Sister Collet put in respectfully.
'More upset than we realized. She fretted herself into a heart attack,' he said, putting back the clipboard. 'There's nothing to be done here. Better get her down to the mortuary and the bed stripped. No sense in worrying the patients. Get another patient transferred before morning.'
'There are no surgical cases, Doctor,' Sophie began.
'Then transfer someone from geriatrics. They're pretty crowded there, aren't they?'
'Yes, Doctor.' Sister Collet looked helplessly at her colleagues.
'Might not an elderly person be rather upset to find themselves on the surgical ward?' Sophie ventured.
'Don't you believe it, Sister!' he grinned. 'The old duck'll have a marvellous time hearing all about everybody else's operations.'
And the other patients on the surgical ward would probably not notice that the end bed was occupied by a different person, Sophie thought. Or if they did they'd assume that the hip-replacement lady had simply gone down to theatre or had her operation postponed. In hospital, death was something that occurred elsewhere, out of sight. Sophie stood back as a trolley was wheeled in and the bedclothes stripped cleanly from the frail, night-gowned figure. Her face was serene but there was a fine film of moisture across her eyes.
'Isn't September a lovely month?' Sister Teresa opened the kitchen window and leaned out, sniffing the breeze with relish.
'Especially after such a blazing summer,' Sister Marie agreed.
'Oh, summer was lovely too,' Sister Teresa said. 'I felt a real urge to sunbathe.'
'Which I hope you resisted,' Sister Perpetua said, coming in and fixing the two lay sisters with a gimlet green eye. 'Sunshine can be dangerous.'
'So can all pleasures if you believe everything you're told these days,' Sister Marie said daringly.
As a first-year novice she was not yet fully professed and generally managed to subdue her lively tongue.
'It's a good job that so many are forbidden to us then,' Sister Teresa said.
'That's quite enough, Sisters!' The infirmarian checked her own smile and spoke firmly. 'Sister Teresa, you're not here to hang out of windows you know. And Sister Marie, if you want to pass through to your final year as novice you'd better find something useful to do. That sink looks grubby.'
'Right away, Sister Perpetua!' Sister Teresa withdrew her head and went over to the sink, running hot water energetically into the already shining bowl.
It was a lovely morning, Sister Perpetua thought, leaving the two younger members of the community to get on and retracing her steps into the small dispensary where she kept the variety of herbal remedies with which she dosed her fellow nuns when something trifling assailed them. Thanks be to God they were all in good health, though Sister Mary Concepta had to rest more these days. Sister Perpetua began to pound some spices together, tipping them into the glass jar from which she would later extract a teaspoonful or so to enliven a tisane or a cup of hot ginger. Ginger was good for the stomach and poor Mary Concepta suffered sometimes from attacks of nausea. It seemed most unfair since she ate like a bird and never indulged herself on feast days whereas Sister Gabrielle ate the most odd combinations of food sometimes and boasted that at eighty-eight the most she had to endure was a touch of flatulence. Or, to put it another way, the rest of the community had to endure it, Sister Perpetua mused, and found herself laughing.
'What's the joke?'
Sister Joan came in with Alice, the half-grown alsatian at her heels. For a wonder Alice was walking sedately, mindful of her status as guard dog. She had just seen off a couple of wood pigeons that had soared away in a flurry of wings and alarmed cries, only to be scolded by Sister Joan with, 'Not birds, Alice! Burglars! Burglars and muggers and two-legged foes, not birds and other animals! And good guard dogs don't bark. They show their teeth and snarl very softly and threateningly.' Whereupon Sister Joan had shown her own white teeth and made a growling noise and Alice had immediately forgotten the scolding in the expectation of a new game.
'I was just thinking that Sister Gabrielle can eat anything without ill effect while Sister Mary Concepta has to watch her diet,' Sister Perpetua said.
'Oh.' Sister Joan looked slightly puzzled, trying to see the implicit jest, and decided to change the subject. 'I was thinking that Sister Gabrielle will be eighty-nine soon, and next year ninety. Ninety is rather special, don't you think?'
'Hundred is more special,' Sister Gabrielle said, coming in and tapping her stick for emphasis. 'You can save the celebrations for then.'
'Another eleven years,' Sister Joan said teasingly. 'How will we endure them?'
'Don't be impertinent,' Sister Gabrielle said with a chuckle. 'I came in to tell you that Mary Concepta has a queasy stomach this morning. She fancies a drop of that ginger wine you keep.'
'I'll heat up some at once, Sister,' Sister Perpetua said. 'Would you like a tiny glassful yourself, Sister Gabrielle?'
'I'll stick to tea,' Sister Gabrielle said, stumping out again. 'Alice, come and have a biscuit.'
Excerpted from Vow of Compassion by Veronica Black. Copyright © 2014 Veronica Black. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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