Authors: Antonia Fraser
Quiet as a Nun
|Series:||Jemima Shore |
I lit the candle and began rather gingerly to climb up the ladder. Then I heard a distinct sound above my head. A scrape on the floor, an irregular jarring on the floor above my head, like something rocking . . .A nun is dead - her emaciated corpse has been discovered locked in the tower of Blessed Eleanor's Convent. The tragic consequence of a neurotic young woman committing to a life of isolation and piety, the inquest concludes. But this young woman held unusual power over the convent ... power she was planning to use.Jemima Shore tries to keep her distance from the case, but when her lover cancels their holiday she finds herself reluctantly getting involved. A violent attack in the dead of night and another death convinces her that the convent is not the haven of peace it appears to be. Suspicion and fear hang heavy in the air but how do you solve a murder no-one will admit happened?
Quiet as a Nun
For Rebecca Who read it first
The holy time is quiet as a Nun, Breathless with adoration
Out of the past
'I want to find myself
A balanced programme
The Black Nun
To the Dark Tower
Worse than death
Come to dust
The power of darkness
A crypt is for coffins
Into the future
Out of the past
Sometimes when I feel low, I study the
Evening Standard an
though for an examination. It was in that way I found the small item on the Home News page:
NUN FOUND DEAD
. It was not a very promising headline. Nevertheless I conscientiously read the few lines of print below. It staved off the moment when I would look round the empty flat resolving to cook myself a proper meal for once, and knowing that I would not do so.
'Sister Rosabelle Mary Powerstock,' the story continued, 'of Blessed Eleanor's
Convent, Churne, Sussex, was found dead today in a locked building on the outskirts of the convent grounds. It is believed that the forty-one-year-old nun, known as Sister Miriam at the convent where she had lived for eighteen years, had been taken ill and was unable to raise the alarm. Reverend Mother Ancilla Curtis said today that Sister Miriam would be a great loss to the community of the Order of the Tower of Ivory, and would be sadly missed by her many pupils, past and present.
'Sister Miriam was the daughter of a former Lord Mayor of London.'
Before I had finished reading the short item, I had been transported back a whole generation. I knew that ruined building. It was in fact a tower. Blessed Eleanor's Retreat, as the nuns called it, in memory of the foundress of the Order of the Tower of Ivory. Sometimes irreverently referred to by the girls as Nelly's Nest.
For that matter I knew Sister Miriam. Or I had known Rosabelle Powerstock? Rosa. Had I known Sister Miriam? On consideration, no. But for a short while, long ago, I had known Rosabelle Powerstock very well indeed. For a few moments the cold elegant surroundings of affluent London in the seventies dissolved. It was wartime. A little
Protestant day-girl sent by the vagaries of her father's career to a smart Catholic boarding convent conveniently next door. Bewildered and rather excited by the mysterious world in which she found herself. The resolute kindness of the nuns - was there any kindness like it for the undaunted firmness of its warmth whatever the reaction of its recipient? Reaching its final expression in Reverend Mother Ancilla.
‘I learnt that the nuns in their religious life adopted a name, Latin or otherwise, for some virtue or religious attitude they particularly admired; failing that, the name of some especially inspiring saint. Ancilla meant Handmaid of the Lord - echoing the great submissive answer of the Virgin Mary to the angel's unexpected announcement of her coming motherhood, 'Behold the Handmaid of the Lord.' No doubt the Lord had been happy with his handmaid, Ancilla Curtis: but it was difficult even now to envisage any relationship in which Mother Ancilla was not the dominant partner.
And Rosa - the late Sister Miriam. So she had taken that name in religion. She had always declared her intention of doing so - if she became a nun. It had been a fashionable topic of conversation at Blessed Eleanor's.
'If I become a nun, and of course I wouldn't dream of doing such a thing, I'm going to marry and have six children, then I'll be Sister Hugh. After little St Hugh of Lincoln.'
'I'll be Sister Elizabeth. After St Elizabeth of Hungary who gave bread to the poor and it turned to roses when her husband tried to stop her.'
'Did the poor eat the roses?' I enquired. I was not trying to mock. I was fascinated by the whole concept. To cover up, I said quickly: 'If I become a nun, that is to say if I become a Catholic first, and then become a nun, I'll be Sister Francis.'
How lovely. The birds. The dear little animals. That met with general approval.
'No, not St Francis of Assisi.' Honesty - or cussedness - compelled me to add, 'St Francis Xavier.' I had just been reading about the origins of the Society of Jesus, and the heroic struggles of that St Francis to convert the Japanese, dying in the attempt. Like many non-Catholics I was morbidly intrigued by the Jesuits. Secretly, the one I would really like to have chosen was St Ignatius.
'Jemima should be Sister Thomas,' said Rosa sweetly. 'Doubting Thomas.'
'Isn't Miriam rather an Old Testament sort of name?' I countered. I meant rather Jewish.
'It's one of the titles of Our Lady. Our Lady Star of the Sea.' Rosa loved to snub and enlighten me at the same time about the intricacies of her religion. Humbly, I loved to listen to her. I thought of the other titles in that great litany. Star of the Sea, pray for us. Mystical Rose pray for us. Tower of Ivory, pray for us.
Like most Protestants, I knew the Bible much better than my Catholic friends. Besides, my terrifying nonconformist grandfather had been fond of reading it aloud. He was particularly fond of the Song of Solomon. 'Thy neck is as a tower of ivory,' sang Solomon - and thus my grandfather in his booming voice, Thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon by the gate of Bath-rabbim ...' Fish pools. Not very pretty to modern ears. But thinking about fish pools, dark, with swirling depths, the phrase was not inapt to Rosa's eyes in certain moods.
Mysterious Rosa, once my Star of the Sea, was now dead - in her ruined Tower of Ivory.
I shook myself, to remove the touch of memories long buried. Wartime had brought strange schooling to many, and quick changes. After the war my parents had decided to go back to their original Lincolnshire and make their home there.
'Goodbye, Jemima,' Reverend Mother Ancilla in our final interview. She combined the roles of Reverend Mother of the convent and headmistress of the school, an awesome conglomerate of power. This time it was very much the headmistress who was to the fore.
'What a clever girl you have been. Top of your form. The nuns all say they will really miss teaching you. A very nice impression to leave behind. Don't forget us.'
'Oh Mother, I couldn't,' I gushed. That was one thing the convent taught you - how to return a soft answer. Mother Ancilla paused. I knew quite enough about nuns by this time to know that they never left you with the last word.
'This cleverness, Jemima. A wonderful gift from Our Lord. You must develop it of course. Go to university perhaps?'
A mutter. 'I hope to, Mother.'
'But there is the spirit too as well as the intelligence. The spirit which bows itself and in doing so finds its true happiness. Self-abnegation, Jemima.' She paused again. At no point had the nuns ever tried to convert me from the thin Protestantism spread upon me by my parents. It would have been quite outside their philosophy to attempt by words what example could not do. I felt her pause was a delicate acknowledgement of that restraint.
'St John of the Cross, one of our great mystics, once wrote that unless I find the way of total self-abnegation, I shall not find myself.'
'Yes, Mother.' I bobbed a curtsey.
At the time her parting words had seemed singularly inappropriate.
And later even more so to a successful career, carved, sometimes clawed out, by methods which always contained a great remembrance of self. Ironically enough, it now occurred to me that in my relationship with Tom I had probably realised self-abnegation at last.
The thought of Tom brought me back sharply to the empty flat, as it always did. He had said that he might telephone about ten.
‘If I can get to my study and she has a bath so that she doesn't hear the click of the telephone as I pick it up.'
It was a proviso which had been made before.
I once said: 'Tom, why don't you get a telephone which doesn't click?' He said nothing, but kissed me gently. So it was the way of total self-abnegation. It was now eight o'clock. There were two hours to wait. I turned on the television and turned it off irritably, deciding that the critic who said in this week's
that my own programme was really the only thing worth watching these days had after all a great deal to be said for him. I picked up the autobiography of the children's doctor from Nigeria I would interview on Friday. I forgot Mother Ancilla. I had long forgotten Rosa. Sister Miriam I did not know. I even forgot Tom for an hour and a half, and the last half-hour passed not too slowly, considering it was actually an hour, and nearly half-past ten before he managed to ring.
The letter from Mother Ancilla arrived about a fortnight later. The small convent writing paper, covered clearly and carefully in a still familiar handwriting, unlocked its own memories. Nuns did not waste writing paper: waste was not only extravagant, but also displeasing to God. I was curiously unsurprised by the arrival of the letter. It was as though I had been expecting it. The previous memories had warned me: we are after you, out of the past.
Mother Ancilla's letter was complimentary on its first page, sad on its second page and astonishing on its third. The compliments referred to my own career, 'which although we did not play, I fear, the whole part in your education, we have nevertheless followed with interest. And of course like all our old girls, you have always had the prayers of the community. Our girls nowadays regularly watch your programme on television - yes, we have colour television in St Joseph's Sitting Room, the gift of an old girl. Your programme is one of the few we can safely trust to be both entertaining and instructive. Sister Hippolytus often tells the girls about your earlier triumphs in the debating society, and how she predicted a public career for you.'
It was a surprise to me that Sister Hippolytus had predicted anything so favourable in my future as a public career. Famous for her sharp tongue, Sister Hippo was one of the few - no, the only nun who had made me conscious of my alien status. Then I remembered that 'a public career' on the lips of certain Catholics was not necessarily the golden prospect it would seem to the rest of the world. Motherhood, sanctity, those were the true ideals. Neither of them had I satisfied.
The sadness referred to the death of Rosa. 'You will perhaps have read in the papers of the death of Sister Miriam, whom you knew as Rosabelle Powerstock. Perhaps like us, you felt that the coroner's remarks were a little unfortunate.' In fact I had not actually seen a report of the inquest. My newspaper-combing phase had passed. I had been busy, and besides, Tom's wife had gone to stay with her mother. Later in the month, there was the prospect of a really long trip to Yugoslavia for the two of us.
'But even in these enlightened days,' Mother Ancilla's measured letter continued, 'I suppose we must remember that the Catholic faith was once persecuted in this country. There is still a great deal of prejudice about. Poor Sister Miriam, she did not have a very happy life latterly, she had been ill, and although the manner of her death was tragic - Sister Edward blames herself dreadfully and of course unnecessarily - one cannot altogether regret the passing of her life on this earth,
The third page astonished me by containing a remarkably pressing invitation to visit the convent as soon as possible. It was couched in language which, even disguised by Mother Ancilla's precise calligraphy, sounded remarkably like a plea.
'In fact, in general, these have not been very happy times -for the community as a whole. I want to ask your help, dear Jemima, in a certain very delicate matter, which I cannot explain in a letter. Will you make time in a busy life to come down and see us? After all these years. As soon as possible ...'
‘My help,' I thought lightly. 'Mother Ancilla must be desperate to want my help.' But as it turned out, that was quite a sensible reaction to her letter.