Authors: G. M. Malliet
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This book is dedicated in fond memory of crime writer Robert Barnard
My thanks to the historians, guides, and staff of Fountains Abbey, Mount Grace Priory, Rievaulx Abbey, and Whitby Abbey for their vast knowledge, patience, and ability to make the distant past real to visitors from the twenty-first century. Particular thanks to the “sheep farmer's wife” of Mount Grace Priory and to the Rev. Peter Canon at Fountains Abbey for sharing their enthusiasm and knowledge. As always, all mistakes are my own.
Special thanks to all the warmhearted and welcoming people of North Yorkshire, England.
CAST OF CHARACTERS AT MONKBURY ABBEY
MEMBERS OF THE ORDER OF THE HANDMAIDS OF ST. LUCY
âthe superior of Monkbury Abbey
âthe elderly portress of the abbey
âthe guest-mistress, nicknamed Dame Tabby. A gruff woman with a bouncer's build, she makes sure guests of the abbey toe the line.
âthe kitcheness, affectionately called Dame Fruitcake
âsacrist and librarian, she has an encyclopedic knowledge of the abbey's long history
âthe infirmaress, nicknamed Dame Pet. Responsible for the care of the sick and dying at Monkbury Abbey, she is also an expert on plants and herbs.
âcellaress of the abbey
âformerly the cellaress, now a patient in the abbey's infirmary
âex-military, now a novice preparing for admission to the order
âa postulant preparing for the novitiate
âa visitor from St. Martin's, the order's motherhouse in France
VISITORS TO MONKBURY ABBEY GUESTHOUSE
MAXEN “MAX” TUDOR
âa former MI5 agent turned Anglican priest, he is sent by his bishop to investigate certain unusual disturbances at the old abbey.
CLEMENT GOREY AND HIS WIFE OONA GOREY
âwealthy American benefactors of the nunnery. They want their souls prayed for and are willing to pay top dollar for the privilege. But where has all the money gone?
âtheir willful and wily teenage daughter
âa flamboyant businesswoman who owns an art gallery in Monkslip-super-Mare, she organized a fund-raiser for the restoration and expansion of the guesthouse at Monkbury Abbey.
âPaloma's lover, a photographer and expert on medieval architecture. He helped Paloma raise funds for Monkbury Abbey, donating several of his famous photos. Then the funds began inexplicably to dry up.
DR. LEROY BARNARD
âa summer squall forces him to stay overnight at the abbey.
RALPH PERCEVAL, 15TH EARL OF LISLELIVET
âLord Lislelivet's sudden interest in religion seems out of character to everyone, particularly Lady Lislelivet.
They had their lodges in the wilderness,
Or built their cells beside the shadowy sea;
And there they dwelt with angels like a dream.
âRobert Stephen Hawker, Vicar of Morwenstow
“I have a surprise for you,” said Lord Lislelivet to his Lady, as the maid cleared the last course from the vast expanse of their mahogany dinner table. Lady Lislelivet may have imagined it, but wasn't there just the hint of a smile playing about the woman's lips as she hoofed her way back to the kitchen? Such impertinence.
Lady Lislelivet narrowed her eyes, watching Maybel's retreating back. The dog, Scooter, geriatric but game, shambled along in her wake, no doubt hoping for table scraps. Tonight Maybel wore a T-shirt with “Born This Way” scrawled across the back. Well, that explained it. Lady Lislelivet's many attempts to talk the woman out of jeans and T-shirts and into a more suitable maid's ensemble had failed. Still, it was hard enough to get any help these days, let alone good help. One took what one could get.
Lady Lislelivet dabbed at her lips with her napkin, to hide her annoyance both at the maid's constant mutinies and her husband's hints at pleasures to come. Hardened by the grindingly slow passage of the years of her marriage, and skeptical as to her husband's definition of “surprise,” she did not look as thrilled by the prospect of a spousal treat as might have been expected. Often, Lord Lislelivet's surprises sprang up, to coin a phrase, when he was between mistresses. Altogether, Lady Lislelivet preferred it when her husband was kept otherwise occupied in London. That way, she could pursue her own surprises, unimpeded.
Her eye caught on the photo decorating the wall nearest her. Her husband was suffering buyer's remorse over it now, as it didn't really suit the grand style of the house. Caught up in the excitement of the auction, and goaded by her and by a few drinks, he had paid too much, never intending to get stuck with a dark, moody photo of Monkbury Abbey. What was really needed for this room was an oil painting of some august ancestor or another astride a horse.
Setting down her wineglass, Lady Lislelivet uttered a cautious, “
” just as Maybel returned with two plates containing lumpen mounds of something that looked like currant-studded coal.
“Yes. You remember the fruitcake? The little gift from the nunnery? I thought it was time to pry open the tin, as it were.”
Was that all? Still, he knew how she hated fruitcake. Or he had known at one time. His fleeting concern for what she liked and disliked had gone with the wind, like so much else.
On further reflection, it was jolly difficult to imagine anyone apart from her husband actively liking fruitcake. A holdover from his days of being coddled by a nanny, no doubt. Only the upper classes would think to poison their children with the type of vile nursery puddings they went in for. She wouldn't use rice pudding to plaster the walls of her house in Tuscany. Just for one example.
“It's not Christmas,” she said flatly, as Maybel practically threw the plate down before her. Typically, she had forgotten to provide a pudding fork and, on being reminded, plunked down a soup spoon instead. Lady Lislelivet had begun to suspect Maybel saw through m'lady's thin aristocratic veneer and was choosing these not-so-subtle ways to show her contempt. So much for working-class solidarity.
“It is Christmas wherever you are, m'dear,” said Lord Lislelivet.
. It was hard to say which was worse: the fruitcake or the forced gallantry.
Lady Lislelivet felt a little scruffle of fur against her ankles. Scooter, begging as usual. She handed off a few bites to him when her husband wasn't looking and scooped the rest of the fruity sludge into the napkin on her lap.
Fortunately, as it turned out, the dog ate only a bite or two. Scooter didn't seem to care for the fruitcake, either. So his symptoms were much milder than those of his master.
Lord Lislelivet, wolfing down his fruitcake with carefree, childish pleasure, would be taken very ill, indeed.
The community as a whole shall choose its abbess based on her goodness and not on her rank. May God forbid the community should elect a woman only because she conspires to perpetuate its evil ways.
âThe Rule of the Order of the Handmaids of St. Lucy
The bell rang for Matins in the middle of a dream, as it often did. Just as she would enter deep sleepâthe scientists had a name for it, she could never recall whatâAbbess Justina of Monkbury Abbey would be awakened by the bell. This was seldom a welcome interruption, for Abbess Justina was given to pleasant dreams, more often now dreams of her childhood and young girlhood, dreams in which she would be reunited with her family.
It was just before the hour of four a.m. in June,
She rose from her narrow bed and dressed by candlelight, first sluicing cold water over her face. Long habit made short work of putting on her habit. It was a costume whose basic design had not changed much over the centuries: atop her sleep shift of unbleached muslin came a black tunic that fell to the tops of her feet, tied at the waist by a cord, and over that was worn a scapular of deep purpleâan apron of sorts that draped from the shoulders, front and back, falling to below the knees. The fabric at her wrists was smocked in a pretty diamond design halfway to the elbow, to keep the voluminous sleeves in check. For all its antique quirkiness, it was a practical garment, suitable for work and contemplation, the fabric handwoven on-site of wool from abbey sheep. On ceremonial occasions and in chapter meetings, she would carry her staff of office with its little bell as a symbol of her authority and her right to lead. Otherwise her garb was identical to that of the women in her care.