The Chatter of the Maidens (7 page)

BOOK: The Chatter of the Maidens
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She sighed. It was strange how, once she had begun on her misgivings about Sister Alba, they had appeared to grow, so that she heard herself voicing concerns which, until then, she had hardly known she was worrying about. Sister Alba was prickly, difficult to work with, extremely pious – and hers was a particularly heartless, unloving, unforgiving sort of piety – and, as if that were not enough, she also threw her weight about and bossed any of the other nuns who would allow it.
What really concerned Helewise was that, despite Alba telling her more than once that she had been a fully professed nun for five years, Helewise just could not bring herself to believe it. All nuns were different, naturally, just as all women were different, but there were certain things – speech mannerisms, small daily habits such as always holding a door open for another sister and checking in the refectory that one’s neighbours had all they needed – that Alba just never did. Also, although it was a minor detail, there was that rope girdle that the woman wore. It was old and grubby, frayed at the ends, and far thicker, longer and heavier than the ones worn by all the other nuns. Did Alba wear it for the same reason that one might wear a hair shirt? Its weight and its length must surely have made it almost as uncomfortable. But that sort of personal, private penance was not normally performed for others to see; was it just another rather unattractive facet of Alba, that she demanded others witness her perpetual discomfort and praise her for it?
And – although Helewise kept this reservation strictly to herself – she could not, try as she did, detect any real and convincing signs of a vocation in Sister Alba. Helewise berated herself constantly over this – only God knew whom He had called and whom He hadn’t, and it was not Helewise’s business to demand proof. But Alba showed no love! No charity! And in church when the nuns lost themselves in their joyful, mystical meditations and prayers, which took them so close to the Lord, Alba usually spent her time glaring around from nun to nun, occasionally nodding her head, as if she were mentally reminding herself who had made this or that mistake or error.
And the product of her observation she would, sooner or later, come along to reveal to her Abbess.
Then there were her two young sisters. Berthe – oh, Berthe! Helewise broke away from her depressing thoughts and let a picture of Berthe – happy, laughing – momentarily cheer her. Yes, Berthe was a delight. It would take a sea change to turn her into postulant material, but then why was that necessary? Plenty of people lived good, satisfying, useful lives without taking the veil.
And, as for Meriel, she certainly was not happy. In fact, she gave every indication of being lost in a grief so deep that it appeared to have all but drowned her. Was she grieving for her mother? More than likely, but if so, why was Berthe not similarly afflicted by sorrow? Something Josse had said had stayed in Helewise’s mind, because it echoed an observation made by two of the other nuns: he had remarked that Berthe seemed to be in some doubt as to when exactly her mother had died.
Alba had told Helewise originally that the sisters had just lost both parents. But Helewise was almost certain now that that had been a lie; it seemed instead that the mother had fallen victim to some mysterious sickness several years ago, and that it was only the father who had recently joined his late wife in death.
Not that it could be important, Helewise thought; the girls were all orphans, no matter when the two parents died. But why lie about it?
And if Meriel was not mourning her mother, for whom
her heart breaking? Not the father, surely – none of the three had been heard to speak of him with affection. They had been in awe of him, obedient to him, afraid of him. But Helewise was quite sure they hadn’t loved him.
Oh, dear. She got up from her throne-like chair and began pacing her room. Soon, the movement began to soothe her. As the turmoil of her thoughts eased and, once again, she felt calm, she reflected that, as usual, it had been a help to talk to Josse.
Not that he had said anything much – poor man, he was still so weak, even conversation seemed to tire him – but, as Helewise was leaving him, he had made the most comforting comment she had heard from anybody on the vexed question of Alba and her sisters.
‘They are still quite new to this community,’ he had said. ‘And, although you and most of your nuns probably do not realise it, Hawkenlye can be somewhat daunting to a newcomer.’ He had smiled briefly, as if remembering his own introduction to Helewise and her nuns. ‘Plus, we must not forget that the girls have just lost their father,
their home, either of which alone would be enough to make a person act a little oddly. Give them time, Abbess. See how another month or so here in your community affects them.’
She had left him then. Had had to, in fact, since the infirmarer had been hovering, muttering about people who stayed too long and tired her patient so that he didn’t want any supper and was too overwrought for a good night’s sleep.
With Josse firmly pictured in her mind’s eye, Helewise prayed that he heartily enjoy both his meal and his sleep.
At the end of April, a sudden warm, dry spell of weather brought a rush of visitors to the Holy Water shrine down in the Vale. The monks who tended the shrine and cared for the pilgrims were kept busy all day and well into the night and, as always happened, soon Brother Firmin requested some reinforcements from the Abbess.
The Abbess, who was well aware that her nuns were just as busy as the monks and the lay brothers in the Vale – and, moreover, that this was a constant state of affairs and not affected by the tide of fair-weather pilgrims – nevertheless did her best to oblige. She begged a nun from the refectory and one from the reformatory, and, since Berthe had no particular duties, asked the girl if she would like to spend a few days helping to look after the visitors. Berthe leapt at the chance.
A short time after Berthe had been despatched with the two nuns, there came a loud knock on the door of Helewise’s room. Before she had finished saying ‘Come in’, the door was thrown open and Sister Alba hurried over the threshold.
‘You’ve sent Berthe to work in the Vale!’ she said. Her voice was raised and her face was flushed.
Helewise made herself count to five. ‘Sister Alba,’ she said quietly, ‘you are new to Hawkenlye, and we must make allowances. However, I cannot believe that such an entrance into a superior’s presence can have been permitted in your previous community.’
‘I haven’t time—’ Alba began.
‘You will go outside,’ Helewise said, ignoring her, ‘and come in again. Correctly, this time.’
Face now flaming with suppressed anger, Alba did as she was told. Her second entrance was marginally more courteous; after letting her wait in silence for a few moments, Helewise said, ‘Now you may speak.’
‘Berthe is working in the Vale,’ Alba said, controlling her voice with an obvious effort, ‘and she mustn’t. That is, it’s best if she doesn’t. She’s – er, it’s not right. For her.’
Helewise could hardly believe she was hearing right. ‘Berthe has been sent to assist the monks in looking after our visitors,’ she said. ‘The work is neither hard nor exacting, and Berthe was perfectly happy to go.’
‘But—’ Alba seemed to be struggling with some violent emotion; her hands, Helewise noticed, were twisting and pulling at the rope around her waist. Then: ‘Please, Abbess, won’t you send someone else instead? One of the nuns?’
‘Two nuns have already been sent,’ Helewise said coldly. ‘And, Sister Alba, it is not for you to order what work the nuns are put to.’
Sister Alba’s face worked. Then, abruptly changing tack, she demanded, ‘What sort of people go to the Vale?’
‘People who seek Our Lady’s cure, as given in the Holy Water,’ Helewise said.
‘Local folk? Travellers? Pilgrims?’
‘All of those.’ Helewise made herself speak levelly.
‘Ordinary folk or nobility?’
‘Do they come from far afield?’
‘Indeed they do. We have a reputation for miracles at Hawkenlye, Sister Alba, as you knew perfectly well when you brought your sisters here.’
Alba brushed that aside. ‘Abbess Helewise, I’m begging you – I wouldn’t insist if it were not so important, but—’
‘Sister Alba, you forget yourself.’ Helewise got to her feet and walked round her table to stand before Alba. Where any other nun would have read the signs and at least lowered her head, if not performed a penitential reverence, Alba glared at the Abbess face to face. ‘You are dismissed,’ Helewise said. ‘Go back to your duties, and try to put your sister’s whereabouts out of your mind.’

,’ Helewise said very firmly.
And, with a last ferocious scowl, Alba turned on her heel and flounced out, banging the heavy door behind her.
Helewise was used to her nuns not only obeying her without question, but, when they could manage it, anticipating her commands.
It did not enter her head that Alba would defy her and so, when Sister Martha came to tell her that Alba had gone down to the Vale and had ordered Berthe to come straight back to the Abbey, Helewise thought at first that there must have been some mistake.
There was not.
Berthe, according to Sister Martha, had protested vehemently against her elder sister’s heavy handedness, and her shouting had alerted not only Sister Martha, but also Sister Ursel, in the porteress’s lodge, and Sister Tiphaine, busy in the herb garden.
‘And, Abbess,’ Sister Martha had added, wide-eyed with amazement at these extraordinary happenings, ‘when the little lassie tried to wrench her arm away and set off back to the Vale, that Sister Alba grabbed her sleeve so roughly that it tore, then smacked her hard across the cheek! Poor Berthe, she’ll have a great bruise there come morning!’
‘Thank you, Sister Martha.’ Helewise headed for the door, Sister Martha at her heels.
‘Seems to me that Sister Alba needs a good talking-to,’ Sister Martha panted as she hurried to keep up with Helewise’s long strides. ‘Seems to me you should—’

Thank you
, Sister!’ Helewise repeated, rather more forcefully. Goodness, were
her nuns going to copy Alba’s insubordination?
‘Yes, Abbess. Sorry, Abbess,’ Sister Martha said contritely.
‘That’s better,’ Helewise murmured. But not loud enough for Sister Martha to hear.
She strode out across the courtyard. It wasn’t difficult to locate Alba, she reflected, one had but to follow the sound of the angry, shouting voice.
Quite a crowd had gathered. Sister Euphemia had come hurrying out of the infirmary and, as Helewise joined the throng, she was elbowing her way through towards Alba, calling for a bit of hush, her patients weren’t to be disturbed.
Helewise said, ‘Silence, please. All of you.’
Her nuns, used to keeping an ear out for their Abbess’s quiet but carrying tones, instantly ceased their thrilled, gossipy chatter.
Leaving just the one voice.
‘. . . down there showing yourself like some little trollop, flashing those blue eyes and batting your eyelids, flirting with anything between the ages of six and sixty’ – suddenly the furious shouting went up a tone – ‘
showing yourself to anyone that happens to have eyes to see you!

‘Sister Alba,’ Helewise said.
Alba turned and said rudely, ‘What?’
There was a collective gasp from the nuns.
‘Let go of Berthe.’ There was no response. ‘At once!’
Something in Helewise’s icy voice seemed to penetrate; Alba let go of her sister, and Berthe hastened away from her. Sister Euphemia, who must have noticed the bright pink swelling on Berthe’s cheek, put her arm around the sobbing girl and led her away.
Helewise rejected the swift thought she had just had, of humiliating Alba by announcing her punishment out in the open, in front of a dozen avidly listening nuns. With a brief gesture, she beckoned Alba to follow her, turning her back and leading the way to her room.
She was just wondering what she would do were Alba to refuse to follow her when a soft murmur from the nuns suggested that, for once, Alba had decided to obey.
When Helewise and Alba were once more in Helewise’s room and the door was firmly closed, Helewise said, ‘Sister Alba, you have countermanded one of my orders, hurt your own sister, and seriously disturbed the peace of the community. You leave me no choice but to impose a severe punishment. Have you anything to say?’
It occurred to her that, so far, Alba had given no reason for the desperate measures she had taken to remove Berthe from the Vale. Would she do so now?
No. Lips folded into a tight, unforgiving line, Alba maintained her silence.
‘Very well,’ Helewise said. ‘You will go from here into the church, where you will prostrate yourself in prayer. You will ask God to forgive your sins against your sister and against this community, and you will remain there until the arrival of our confessor. You will then kneel before him, make your confession, and receive whatever penance he sees fit to impose.’
Sister Alba had been listening carefully to the Abbess’s pronouncement. Watching her, Helewise had the growing feeling that something was amiss . . . Alba’s face had gone from its hectic flush to a deadly pallor.
And, out of nowhere, Helewise suddenly felt a dreadful sense of threat.
Her instinctive awareness was what saved her, for, just as Alba swung a furious fist right at her, Helewise stepped back.
And Alba, off-balance from lunging into empty air instead of into her Abbess’s face, fell to her knees.
Instantly Helewise jumped round her, flung open the door and cried, ‘Sister Martha! Sister Ursel! Come here!’
They were still standing in the same spot, where they had formed part of the rapt group around Alba and Berthe; faces reflecting their astonishment, they began to walk across to Helewise.
BOOK: The Chatter of the Maidens
12.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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