The White Ladies of Worcester
A Romance of the Twelfth Century
Florence L. Barclay
Author of "The Rosary," "The Mistress of Shenstone," etc.
G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press
FLORENCE L. BARCLAY
The Knickerbocker Press, New York
ALL THE WORLD OVER
I. THE SUBTERRANEAN WAY II. SISTER MARY ANTONY DISCOURSES III. THE PRIORESS PASSES IV. "GIVE ME TENDERNESS," SHE SAID V. THE WAYWARD NUN VI. THE KNIGHT OF THE BLOODY VEST VII. THE MADONNA IN THE CLOISTER VIII. ON THE WINGS OF THE STORM IX. THE PRIORESS SHUTS THE DOOR X. "I KNOW YOU FOR A MAN" XI. THE YEARS ROLL BACK XII. ALAS, THE PITY OF IT! XIII. "SEND HER TO ME!" XIV. FAREWELL HERE, AND NOW XV. "SHARPEN THE WITS OF MARY ANTONY" XVI. THE ECHO OF WILD VOICES XVII. THE DIMNESS OF MARY ANTONY XVIII. IN THE CATHEDRAL CRYPT XIX. THE BISHOP PUTS ON HIS BIRETTA XX. HOLLY AND MISTLETOE XXI. SO MUCH FOR SERAPHINE XXII. WHAT BROTHER PHILIP HAD TO TELL XXIII. THE MIDNIGHT ARRIVAL XXIV. THE POPE'S MANDATE XXV. MARY ANTONY RECEIVES THE BISHOP XXVI. LOVE NEVER FAILETH XXVII. THE WOMAN AND HER CONSCIENCE XXVIII. THE WHITE STONE XXIX. THE VISION OF MARY ANTONY XXX. THE HARDER PART XXXI. THE CALL OF THE CURLEW XXXII. A GREAT RECOVERY AND RESTORATION XXXIII. MARY ANTONY HOLDS THE PORT XXXIV. MORA DE NORELLE XXXV. IN THE ARBOUR OF GOLDEN ROSES XXXVI. STRONG TO ACT; ABLE TO ENDURE XXXVII. WHAT MOTHER SUB-PRIORESS KNEW XXXVIII. THE BISHOP KEEPS VIGIL XXXIX. THE "SPLENDID KNIGHT" XL. THE HEART OF A NUN XLI. WHAT THE BISHOP REMEMBERED XLII. THE WARNING XLIII. MORA MOUNTS TO THE BATTLEMENTS XLIV. "I LOVE THEE" XLV. THE SONG OF THE THRUSH XLVI. "HOW SHALL I LET THEE GO?" XLVII. THE BISHOP is TAKEN UNAWARES XLVIII. A STRANGE CHANCE XLIX. TWICE DECEIVED L. THE SILVER SHIELD LI. TWO NOBLE HEARTS GO DIFFERENT WAYS LII. THE ANGEL-CHILD LIII. ON THE HOLY MOUNT LIV. THE UNSEEN PRESENCE LV. THE HEART OF A WOMAN LVI. THE TRUE VISION LVII. "I CHOOSE TO RIDE ALONE" LVIII. THE WARRIOR HEART LIX. THE MADONNA IN THE HOME LX. THE CONVENT BELL
The White Ladies of Worcester
THE SUBTERRANEAN WAY
The slanting rays of afternoon sunshine, pouring through stone arches, lay in broad, golden bands, upon the flags of the Convent cloister.
The old lay-sister, Mary Antony, stepped from the cool shade of the cell passage and, blinking at the sunshine, shuffled slowly to her appointed post at the top of the crypt steps, up which would shortly pass the silent procession of nuns returning from Vespers.
Daily they went, and daily they returned, by the underground way, a passage over a mile in length, leading from the Nunnery of the White Ladies at Whytstone in Claines, to the Church of St. Mary and St. Peter, the noble Cathedral within the walls of the city of Worcester.
Entering this passage from the crypt in their own cloisters, they walked in darkness below the sunny meadows, passed beneath the Fore-gate, moving in silent procession under the busy streets, until they reached the crypt of the Cathedral.
From the crypt, a winding stairway in the wall led up to a chamber above the choir, whence, unseeing and unseen, the White Ladies of Worcester daily heard the holy monks below chant Vespers.
To Sister Mary Antony fell the task of counting the five-and-twenty veiled figures, as they passed down the steps and disappeared beneath the ground, and of again counting them as they reappeared, and moved in stately silence along the cloister, each entering her own cell, to spend, in prayer and adoration, the hours until the Refectory bell should call them to the evening meal.
This counting of the White Ladies dated from the day, now more than half a century ago, when Sister Agatha, weakened by prolonged fasting, and chancing to walk last in the procession, fainted and, falling silently, remained behind, unnoticed, in the solitude and darkness.
It was the habit of this saintly lady to abide in her own cell after Vespers, dispensing with the evening meal; thus her absence was not discovered until the following morning when Mary Antony, finding the cell empty, hastened to report that Sister Agatha having long, like Enoch, walked with God, had, even, as Enoch, been translated!
The nuns who flocked to the cell, inclining to Mary Antony's view of the strange happening, kneeled upon the floor before the empty couch, and worshipped.
The Prioress of that time, however, being of a practical turn of mind, ordered the immediate lighting of the lanterns, and herself descended to search the underground way.
She did not need to go far.
The saintly spirit of Sister Agatha had indeed been translated.
They found her frail body lying prone against the door, the hands broken and torn by much wild beating upon its studded panels.
She had run to and fro in the dank darkness, beating first upon the door beneath the Convent cloisters, then upon the door, a mile away, leading into the Cathedral crypt.
But the nuns were shut into their cells, beyond the cloister; the good people of Worcester city slept peacefully, not dreaming of the despairing figure running to and fro beneath them—tottering, stumbling, falling, arising to fall again, yet hurrying blindly onwards; and the Cathedral Sacristan, when questioned, confessed that, hearing cries and rappings coming from the crypt at a late hour, he speedily locked the outer gate, said an "Ave," and went home to supper; well knowing that, at such a time, none save spirits of evil would be wandering below, in so great torment.
Thus, through much tribulation, poor Sister Agatha entered into rest; being held in deepest reverence ever after.
More than fifty years had gone by. The Prioress of that day, and most of those who walked in that procession, had long lain beside Sister Agatha in the Convent burying-ground. But Mary Antony, now oldest of the lay-sisters, never failed to make careful count, as each veiled figure passed, nor to impart the mournful reason for this necessity to all new-comers. So that the nun whose turn it was to walk last in the procession, prayed that she might not hear behind her the running feet of Sister Agatha; while none went alone into the cloisters after dark, lest they should hear the poor thin hands of Sister Agatha beating upon the panels of the door.
Thus does the anguish of a tortured brain leave its imperishable impress upon the surroundings in which the mind once suffered, though the freed spirit may have long forgotten, in the peace of Paradise, that slight affliction, which was but for a moment, through which it passed to the eternal weight of glory.
Of late, the old lay-sister, Mary Antony, had grown fearful lest she should make mistake in this solemn office of the counting. Therefore, in the secret of her own heart, she devised a plan, which she carried out under cover of her scapulary. Twenty-five dried peas she held ready in her wallet; then, as each veiled figure, having mounted the steps leading from the crypt doorway, moved slowly past her, she dropped a pea with her right hand into her left. When all the holy Ladies had passed, if all had returned, five-and-twenty peas lay in her left hand, none remained in the wallet.
This secret dropping of peas became a kind of game to Mary Antony. She kept the peas in a small linen bag, and often took them out and played with them when alone in her cell, placing them all in a row, and settling, to her own satisfaction, which peas should represent the various holy Ladies.
A large white pea, of finer aspect than the rest, stood for the noble Prioress herself; a somewhat shrivelled pea, hard, brown, and wizened, did duty as Mother Sub-Prioress, an elderly nun, not loved by Mary Antony because of her sharp tongue and strict fault-finding ways; while a pale and speckled pea became Sister Mary Rebecca, held in high scorn by the old lay-sister, as a traitress, sneak, and liar, for if ever tale of wrong or shame was whispered in the Convent, it could be traced for place of origin to the slanderous tongue and crooked mind of Sister Mary Rebecca.
When all the peas in line upon the floor of her cell were named, old Mary Antony marked out a distant flagstone, on which the sunlight fell, as heaven; another, partially in shadow, purgatory; a third, in a far corner of exceeding darkness, hell. She then proceeded, with well-directed fillip of thumb and middle finger, to send the holy Ladies there where, in her judgment, they belonged.
If the game went well, the noble Prioress landed safely in heaven, without even the most transitory visit to purgatory; Mother Sub-Prioress, rolling into purgatory, remained there; while the pale and speckled pea went straight to hell!
When these were safely landed, Mary Antony rubbed her hands and, chuckling gleefully, finished the game at gay hap-hazard, it being of less importance where the rest of the holy Ladies chanced to go.
SISTER MARY ANTONY DISCOURSES
As Mary Antony shuffled slowly from the shadow into the sunshine, a gay little flutter of wings preceded her, and a robin perched upon the parapet behind the stone seat upon which it was the lay-sister's custom to await the sound of the turning of the key in the lock of the heavy door beneath the cloisters.
"Thou good-for-nothing imp!" exclaimed Mary Antony, her old face crinkling with delight. "Thou little vain man, in thy red jerkin! Beshrew thine impudence, intruding into a place where women alone do dwell, and no male thing may enter. I would have thee take warning by the fate of the baker's boy, who dared to climb into a tree, so that he might peep over the wall and spy upon the holy Ladies in their garden. Boasting afterward of that which he had done, and making merry over that which he pretended to have seen, our great Lord Bishop heard of it, and sent and took that baker's boy, and though he cried for mercy, swearing the whole tale was an empty boast, they put out his bold eyes with heated tongs, and hanged him from the very branches he had climbed. They'd do the like to thee, thou little vain man, if Mary Antony reported on thy ways. Wouldst like to hang, in thy red doublet?"
The robin had heard this warning tale many times already, told by old Mary Antony with infinite variety.
Sometimes the tongue of the baker's boy was cut out at the roots; sometimes he lost his ears, or again, he was tied to a cart-tail, and flogged through the Tything. Often he became a pieman, and once he was a turnspit in the household of the Lord Bishop himself. But, whatever the preliminaries, and whether baker, pieman, or turnspit, his final catastrophe was always the same: he was hanged from a bough of the very tree into which, impious and greatly daring, he had climbed.
This was an ancient tale. All who might vouch for it, saving the old lay-sister, had passed away; and, of late, Mary Antony had been strictly forbidden by the Reverend Mother, to tell it to new-comers, or to speak of it to any of the nuns.
So, daily, she told it to the robin; and he, being neither baker's lad, pieman, nor turnspit, and having a conscience void of offence, would listen, wholly unafraid; then, hopping nearer to Mary Antony, would look up at her, eager inquiry in his bright eyes.
On this particular afternoon he flew up into the very tree climbed by the prying and ill-fated baker's lad, settled on a bough which branched out over the Convent wall, and poured forth a gay trill of song.
"Ha, thou little vain man, in thy brown and red suit!" chuckled Mary Antony, leaning her gnarled hands on the stone parapet, as she stood framed in one of the cloister arches overlooking the garden. "Is that thy little 'grace before meat'? But, I pray thee, Sir Robin, who said there was cheese in my wallet? Nay, is there like to be cheese in a wallet already containing five-and-twenty holy Ladies on their way back from Vespers? Out upon thee for a most irreverent little glutton! I fear me thou hast not only a high look, thou hast also a proud stomach; just the reverse of the great French Cardinal who came, with much pomp, to visit us at Easter time. He had a proud look and a— Come down again, thou little naughty man, and I will tell thee what the Lord Cardinal had under his crimson sash. 'Tis not a thing to shout to the tree-tops. I might have to recite ten Paternosters, if I let thee tempt me so to do. For whispering it in thine ear, I should but say one; for having remarked it, none at all. Facts are facts; and, even in the case of so weighty a fact, the responsibility rests not upon the beholder."
Mary Antony leaned over the parapet, looking upward. The afternoon sunlight fell full upon the russet parchment of her kind old face, shewing the web of wrinkles spun by ninety years of the gently turning wheel of time.
But the robin, perched upon the bough, trilled and sang, unmoved. He was weary of tales of bakers and piemen. He was not at all curious as to what had been beneath the French Cardinal's crimson sash. He wanted the tasty morsels which he knew lay concealed in Sister Mary Antony's leathern wallet. So he stayed on the bough and sang.
The old face, peering up from between the pillars, softened into tenderness at the robin's song.
"I cannot let thy little grace return unto thee void," she said, and fumbled at the fastenings of her wallet.
A flick of wings, a flash of red. The robin had dropped from the bough, and perched beside her.
She doled out crumbs, and fragments of cheese, pushing them toward him along the parapet; leaving her fingers near, to see how close he would adventure to her hand.
She watched him peck a morsel of cheese into five tiny pieces, then fly, with full beak, on eager wing, to the hidden nest, from which five gaping mouths shrieked a shrill and hungry welcome. Then, back again—swift as an arrow from the archer's bow—noting, with bright eye, and head turned sidewise, that the hand resting on the coping had moved nearer; yet brave to take all risks for the sake of those yellow beaks, which would gape wide, in expectation, at sound of the beat of his wings.
"Feed thyself, thou little worldling!" chuckled old Antony, and covered the remaining bits of cheese with her hand. "Who art thou to come here presuming to teach thy betters lessons of self-sacrifice? First feed thyself; then give to the hungry, the fragments that remain. Had I five squealing children here—which Heaven forbid—I should eat mine own mess, and count myself charitable if I let them lick the dish. The holy Ladies give to the poor at the Convent gate, that for which they have no further use. Does thy jaunty fatherhood presume to shame our saintly celibacy? Mother Sub-Prioress did chide me sharply because, to a poor soul with many hungry mouths to feed, I gave a good piece of venison, and not the piece which was tainted. Truth to tell, I had already made away with the tainted piece; but Mother Sub-Prioress was pleased to think it was in the pot, seething for the holy Ladies' evening meal; and wherefore should Mother Sub-Prioress not think as she pleased?
"'Woman!' she cried; 'Woman!'—and when Mother Sub-Prioress says 'Woman!' the woman she addresses feels her estate would be higher had God Almighty been pleased to have let her be the Man, or even the Serpent, so much contempt does Mother Sub-Prioress infuse into the name—'Woman!' said Mother Sub-Prioress, 'wouldst thou make all the Ladies of the Convent ill?'
"'Nay,' said I, 'that would I not. Yet, if any needs must be ill, 'twere easier to tend the holy Ladies in their cells, than the Poor, in humble homes, outside the Convent walls, tossing on beds of rushes.'
"'Tush, fool!' snarled Mother Sub-Prioress. "'The Poor are not easily made ill.'
"Tush indeed! I tell thee, little bright-eyed man, old Antony, can 'tush' to better purpose! That night there were strong purging herbs in the broth of Mother Sub-Prioress. Yet she did but keep her bed for one day. Like the Poor, she is not easily made ill! . . . Well, have thy way; only peck not my fingers, Master Robin, or I will have thee flogged through the Tything at the cart-tail, as was done to a certain pieman, whose history I will now relate.
"Once upon a time, when Sister Mary Antony was young, and fair to look upon—Nay, wink not thy naughty eye——"
At that moment came the sound of a key turning slowly in the lock of the door at the bottom of the steps leading from the crypt to the cloister.
THE PRIORESS PASSES
A key turned slowly in the lock of the oaken door at the entrance to the underground way.
The old lay-sister seized her wallet and pulled out the bag of peas.
Below, the heavy door swung back upon its hinges.
Mary Antony dropped upon her knees to the right of the steps, her hands hidden beneath her scapulary, her eyes bent in lowly reverence upon the sunlit flagstones, her lips mumbling chance sentences from the Psalter.
The measured sound of softly moving feet drew near, slightly shuffling as they reached the steps and began to mount, up from the mile-long darkness, into the sunset light.
First to appear was a young lay-sister, carrying a lantern. Hastening up the steps, she extinguished the flame, grown sickly in the sunshine, placed the lantern in a niche, and, dropping upon her knees, opposite old Mary Antony, sought to join in the latter's pious recitations.
"Adhaesit pavimento anima mea," chanted Mary Antony. "Wherefore are the holy Ladies late to-day?"
"One fell to weeping in the darkness," intoned the young lay-sister, "whereupon Mother Sub-Prioress caused all to stand still while she strove, by the light of my lantern held high, to discover who had burst forth with a sob. None shewing traces of tears, she gave me back the lantern, herself walking last in the line, as all moved on."
"Convertentur ad vesperam, and the devil catch the hindmost," chanted Mary Antony, with fervour.
"Amen," intoned Sister Abigail, eyes bent upon the ground; for the tall figure of the Prioress, mounting the steps, now came into view.
The Prioress passed up the cloister with a stately grace of motion which, even beneath the heavy cloth of her white robe, revealed the noble length of supple limbs. Her arms hung by her sides, swaying gently as she walked. There was a look of strength and of restfulness about the long fingers and beautifully moulded hands. Her face, calm and purposeful, was lifted to the sunlight. Suffering and sorrow had left thereon indelible marks; but the clear grey eyes, beneath level brows, were luminous with a light betokening the victory of a pure and noble spirit over passionate and most human flesh.
No sinner, in her presence, ever felt crushed by hopeless weight of sin; no saint, before the gaze of her calm eyes, felt sure of being altogether faultless.
So truly was she woman, that all humanity seemed lifted to her level; so completely was she saint, that sin did slink away abashed before her coming.
They who feared her most, were most conscious of her kindness. They who loved her best, were least able to venture near.
In the first bloom of her womanhood she had left the world, resigning high rank, fair lands, and the wealth which makes for power. Her faith in human love having been rudely shattered, she had sought security in Divine compassion, and consolation in the daily contemplation of the Man of Sorrows. In her cell, on a rough wooden cross, hung a life-size figure of the dying Saviour.
She had not reached her twenty-fifth year when, fleeing from the world, she joined the Order of the White Ladies of Worcester, and passed into the seclusion and outward calm of the Nunnery at Whytstone.
Five years later, on the death of the aged Prioress, she was elected, by a large majority, to fill the vacant place.
She had now, during two years, ruled the Nunnery wisely and well.
She had ruled her own spirit, even better. She had won the victory over the World and the Flesh; there remained but the Devil. The Devil, alas, always remains.
As she moved, with uplifted brow and mien of calm detachment, along the sunlit cloister to the lofty, stone passage, within, the Convent, she was feared by many, loved by most, and obeyed by all.
And, as she passed, old Mary Antony, bowing almost to the ground, dropped a large white pea, from between her right thumb and finger, into the horny palm of her left hand.
Behind the Prioress there followed a nun, tall also, but ungainly. Her short-sighted eyes peered shiftily to right and left; her long nose went on before, scenting possible scandal and wrong-doing; her weak lips let loose a ready smile, insinuating, crafty, apologetic. She walked with hands crossed upon her breast, in attitude of adoration and humility. As she moved by, old Mary Antony let drop the pale and speckled pea.
Keeping their distances, mostly with shrouded faces, bent heads, and folded hands, all the White Ladies passed.
Each went in silence to her cell, there kneeling in prayer and contemplation until the Refectory bell should call to the evening meal.
As the last, save one, went by, the keen eyes of the old lay-sister noted that her hands were clenched against her breast, that she stumbled at the topmost step, and caught her breath with a half sob.
Behind her, moving quickly, came the spare form of the Sub-Prioress, ferret-faced, alert, vigilant; fearful lest sin should go unpunished; wishful to be the punisher.
She must have heard the half-strangled sob burst from the slight figure stumbling up the steps before her, had not old Mary Antony been suddenly moved at that moment to uplift her voice in a cracked and raucous "Amen."
Startled, and vexed at being startled, the Sub-Prioress turned upon Mary Antony.
"Peace, woman!" she said. "The Convent cloister is not a hen-yard. Such ill-timed devotion well-nigh merits penance. Rise from thy knees, and go at once about thy business."
The Sub-Prioress hastened on.
Scowling darkly, old Antony bent forward, looking, past Mother Sub-Prioress, up the cloister to the distant passage.
Sister Mary Seraphine had reached her cell. The door was shut.
Old Antony's knees creaked as she arose, but her wizened face was once more cheerful.
"Beans in her broth to-night," she said. "One for 'woman'; another for the hen-yard; a third for threatening penance when I did but chant a melodious 'Amen.' I'll give her beans—castor beans!"
Down the steps she went, pushed the heavy door to, locked it, and drew forth the key; then turned her steps toward the cell of the Reverend Mother.
On her way thither, she paused at a certain door and listened, her ear against the oaken panel. Then she hurried onward, knocked upon the door of the Reverend Mother's cell and, being bidden to enter, passed within, closed the door behind her, and dropped upon her knees.
The Prioress stood beside the casement, gazing at the golden glory of the sunset. She was, for the moment, unconscious of her surroundings. Her mind was away behind those crimson battlements.
Presently she turned and saw the old woman, kneeling at the door.
"How now, dear Antony?" she said, kindly. "Get up! Hang the key in its appointed place, and make me thy report. Have all returned? As always, is all well?"
The old lay-sister rose, hung the massive key upon a nail; then came to the feet of the Prioress, and knelt again.
"Reverend Mother," she said, "all who went forth have returned. But all is not well. Sister Mary Seraphine is uttering wild cries in her cell; and much I fear me, Mother Sub-Prioress may pass by, and hear her."
The face of the Prioress grew stern and sad; yet, withal, tender. She raised the lay-sister, and gently patted the old hands which trembled.
"Go thy ways, dear Antony," she said. "I myself will visit the little Sister in her cell. None will attempt to enter while I am there."
"GIVE ME TENDERNESS," SHE SAID
The Prioress knelt before a marble group of the Virgin and Child, placed where the rays of evening sunshine, entering through the western casement, played over its white beauty, shedding a radiance on the pure face of the Madonna, and a halo of golden glory around the Infant Christ.
"Mother of God," prayed the Prioress, with folded hands, "give me patience in dealing with wilfulness; grant me wisdom to cope with unreason; may it be given me to share the pain of this heart in torment, even as—when thou didst witness the sufferings of thy dear Son, our Lord, on Calvary—a sword pierced through thine own soul also.
"Give me this gift of sympathy with suffering, though the cross be not mine own, but another's.
"But give me firmness and authority: even as when thou didst say to the servants at Cana: 'Whatsoever He saith unto you, do it.'"
The Prioress waited, with bowed head.
Then, of a sudden she put forth her hand, and touched the marble foot of the Babe.
"Give me tenderness," she said.
THE WAYWARD NUN
Sister Mary Seraphine lay prone upon the floor of her cell.
Tightly clenched in her hands were fragments of her torn veil.
She beat her knuckles upon the stones with rhythmic regularity; then, when her arms would lift no longer, took up the measure with her toes, in wild imitation of a galloping horse.
As she lay, she repeated with monotonous reiteration: "Trappings of crimson, and silver bells: mane and tail, like foam of the waves; a palfrey as white as snow!"
The Prioress entered, closed the door behind her, and looked searchingly at the prostrate figure; then, lifting the master-key which hung from her girdle, locked the door on the inside.
Sister Mary Seraphine had been silent long enough to hear the closing and locking of the door.
Now she started afresh.
"Trappings of crimson, and silver bells——"
The Prioress walked over to the narrow casement, and stood looking out at the rosy clouds wreathing a pale green sky.
"Oh! . . . Oh! . . . Oh! . . ." wailed Sister Mary Seraphine, writhing upon the floor; "mane and tail, like foam of the waves; a palfrey as white as snow!"
The Prioress watched the swallows on swift wing, chasing flies in the evening light.
So complete was the silence, that Sister Mary Seraphine—notwithstanding that turning of the key in the lock—fancied she must be alone.
"Trappings of crimson, and silver bells!" she declaimed with vehemence; then lifted her face to peep, and saw the tall figure of the Prioress standing at the casement.
Instantly, Sister Mary Seraphine dropped her head.
"Mane and tail," she began—then her courage failed; the "foam of the waves" quavered into indecision; and indecision, in such a case, is fatal.
For a while she lay quite still, moaning plaintively, then, of a sudden, quivered from head to foot, starting up alert, as if to listen.
"Wilfred!" she shrieked; "Wilfred! Are you coming to save me?"
Then she opened her eyes, and peeped again.
The Prioress, wholly unmoved by the impending advent of "Wilfred," stood at the casement, calmly watching the swallows.
Sister Mary Seraphine began to weep.
At last the passionate sobbing ceased.
Unbroken silence reigned in the cell.
From without, the latch of the door was lifted; but the lock held.
Presently Sister Mary Seraphine dragged herself to the feet of the Prioress, seized the hem of her robe, and kissed it.
Then the Prioress turned. She firmly withdrew her robe from those clinging hands; yet looked, with eyes of tender compassion, upon the kneeling figure at her feet.
"Sister Seraphine," she said, "—for you must shew true penitence e'er I can permit you to be called by our Lady's name—you will now come to my cell, where I will presently speak with you."
Sister Seraphine instantly fell prone.
"I cannot walk," she said.
"You will not walk," replied the Prioress, sternly. "You will travel upon your hands and knees."
She crossed to the door, unlocked and set it wide.
"Moreover," she added, from the doorway, "if you do not appear in my presence in reasonable time, I shall be constrained to send for Mother Sub-Prioress."
The cell of the Prioress was situated at the opposite end of the long, stone passage; but in less than reasonable time, Sister Seraphine crawled in.
The unwonted exercise had had a most salutary effect upon her frame of mind.
Her straight habit, of heavy cloth, had rendered progress upon her knees awkward and difficult. Her hands had become entangled in her torn veil. Each moment she had feared lest cell doors, on either side, should open; old Antony might appear from the cloisters, or—greatest disaster of all—Mother Sub-Prioress might advance toward her from the Refectory stairs! In order to attain a greater rate of speed, she had tried lifting her knees, as elephants lift their feet. This mode of progress, though ungainly, had proved efficacious; but would have been distinctly mirth-provoking to beholders. The stones had hurt her hands and knees far more than she hurt them when she beat upon the floor of her own cell.
She arrived at the Reverend Mother's footstool, heated in mind and body, ashamed of herself, vexed with her garments, in fact in an altogether saner frame of mind than when she had called upon "Wilfred," and made reiterated mention of trappings of crimson and silver bells.
Perhaps the Prioress had foreseen this result, when she imposed the penance. Leniency or sympathy, at that moment, would have been fatal and foolish; and had not the Prioress made special petition for wisdom?
She was seated at her table, when Sister Seraphine bumped and shuffled into view. She did not raise her eyes from the illuminated missal she was studying. One hand lay on the massive clasp, the other rested in readiness to turn the page. Her noble form seemed stately calm personified.
When she heard Sister Seraphine panting close to her foot, she spoke; still without lifting her eyes.
"You may rise to your feet," she said, "and shut to the door."
Then the waiting hand turned the page, and silence fell.
"You may arrange the disorder of your dress," said the Prioress, and turned another page.
When at length she looked up, Sister Seraphine, clothed and apparently in her right mind, stood humbly near the door.
The Prioress closed the book, and shut the heavy clasps.
Then she pointed to an oaken stool, signing to the nun to draw it forward.
"Be seated, my child," she said, in tones of infinite tenderness. "There is much which must now be said, and your mind will pay better heed, if your body be at rest."
With her steadfast eyes the Prioress searched the pretty, flushed face, swollen with weeping, and now gathering a look of petulant defiance, thinly veiled beneath surface humility.
"What was the cause of this outburst, my child?" asked the Prioress, very gently.
"While in the Cathedral, Reverend Mother, up in our gallery, I, being placed not far from a window, heard, in a moment of silence, the neighing of a horse in the street without. It was like to the neighing of mine own lovely palfrey, waiting in the castle court at home, until I should come down and mount him. Each time that steed neighed, I could see Snowflake more clearly, in trappings of gay crimson, with silver bells, amid many others prancing impatiently, champing their bits as they waited; for it pleased me to come out last, when all were mounted. Then the riders lifted their plumed caps when I appeared, while Wilfred, pushing my page aside, did swing me into the saddle. Thus, with shouting and laughter and winding of horn, we would all ride out to the hunt or the tourney; I first, on Snowflake; Wilfred, close behind."
Very quietly the Prioress sat listening. She did not take her eyes from the flushed face. A slight colour tinged her own cheeks.
"Who was Wilfred?" she asked, when Sister Seraphine paused for breath.
"My cousin, whom I should have wed if——"
"If I had not left the world."
The Prioress considered this.
"If your heart was set upon wedding your cousin, my child, why did you profess a vocation and, renouncing all worldly and carnal desires, gain admission to our sacred Order?"
"My heart was not set on marrying my cousin!" cried Sister Seraphine, with petulance. "I was weary of Wilfred. I was weary of everything! I wanted to profess. I wished to become a nun. There were people I could punish, and people I could surprise, better so, than in any other way. But Wilfred said that, when the time came, he would be there to carry me off."
"And—when the time came?"
"He was not there. I never saw him again."
The Prioress turned, and looked out through the oriel window. She seemed to be weighing, carefully, what she should say.
When at length she spoke, she kept her eyes fixed upon the waving tree-tops beyond the Convent wall.
"Sister Seraphine," she said, "many who embrace the religious life, know what it is to pass through the experience you have now had; but, as a rule, they fight the temptation and conquer it in the secret of their own hearts, in the silence of their own cells.
"Memories of the life that was, before, choosing the better part, we left the world, come back to haunt us, with a wanton sweetness. Such memories cannot change the state, fixed forever by our vows; but they may awaken in us vain regrets or worldly longings. Therein lies their sinfulness.
"To help you against this danger, I will now give you two prayers, which you must commit to memory, and repeat whenever need arises. The first is from the Breviary."
The Prioress drew toward her a black book with silver clasps, opened it, and read therefrom a short prayer in Latin. But seeing no light of response or of intelligence upon the face of Sister Seraphine, she slowly repeated a translation.
Almighty and Everlasting God, grant that our wills be ever meekly subject to Thy will, and our hearts be ever honestly ready to serve Thee. Amen.
Her eyes rested, with a wistful smile, upon the book.
"This prayer might suffice," she said, "if our hearts were truly honest, if our wills were ever yielded. But, alas, our hearts are deceitful above all things, and our wills are apt to turn traitor to our good intentions.
"Therefore I have found for you, in the Gregorian Sacramentary, another prayer—less well-known, yet much more ancient, written over six hundred years ago. It deals effectually with the deceitful heart, the insidious, tempting thoughts, and the unstable will. Here is a translation which I have myself inscribed upon the margin."
The Prioress laid her folded hands upon the missal and as she repeated the ancient sixth-century prayer, in all its depth of inspired simplicity, her voice thrilled with deep emotion, for she was giving to another that which had meant infinitely much to her own inner life.
Almighty God, unto Whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from Whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love Thee, and worthily magnify Thy Holy Name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Prioress turned her face from Sister Seraphine's unresponsive countenance and fixed her eyes once more upon the tree-tops. She was thinking of the long years of secret conflict, known only to Him from Whom no secrets are hid; of the constant cleansing of her thoughts, for which she had so earnestly pleaded; of the fear lest she should never worthily magnify that Holy Name.
Presently—her heart filled with humble tenderness—she turned to Sister Seraphine.
"These prayers, my child, which you will commit to memory before you sleep this night, will protect you from a too insistent recollection of the world you have resigned; and will assist you, with real inward thoroughness, to die daily to self, in order that the Holy Name of our dear Lord may be more worthily magnified in you."
But, alas! this gentle treatment, these long silences, this quiet recitation of holy prayers, had but stirred the naughty spirit in Sister Seraphine.
Her shallow nature failed to understand the deeps of the noble heart, dealing thus tenderly with her. She measured its ocean-wide greatness, by the little artificial runnels of her own morbid emotions. She mistook gentleness for weakness; calm self-control, for lack of strength of will. Her wholesome awe of the Prioress was forgotten.
"But I do not want to die!" she exclaimed. "I want to live—to live—to live!"
The Prioress looked up, astonished.
The surface humility had departed from the swollen countenance of Sister Seraphine. The petulant defiance was plainly visible.
"Kneel!" commanded the Prioress, with authority.
The wayward nun jerked down upon her knees, upsetting the stool behind her.
The Prioress made a quick movement, then restrained herself. She had prayed for patience in dealing with wilfulness.
"We die that we may live," she said, solemnly. "Sister Seraphine, this is the lesson your wayward heart must learn. Dying to self, we live unto God. Dying to sin, we live unto righteousness. Dying to the world, we find the Life Eternal."
On her knees upon the floor, Sister Seraphine felt her position to be such as lent itself to pathos.
"But I want to live to the world!" she cried, and burst into tears.
Now Convent life does not tend to further individual grief. Constant devout contemplation of the Supreme Sorrow which wrought the world's salvation lessens the inclination to shed tears of self-pity.
The Prioress was startled and alarmed by the pathetic sobs of Sister Seraphine.
This young nun had but lately been sent on to the Nunnery at Whytstone from a convent at Tewkesbury in which she had served her novitiate, and taken her final vows. The Prioress now realised how little she knew of the inner working of the mind of Sister Seraphine, and blamed herself for having looked upon the outward appearance rather than upon the heart, taken too much for granted, and relied too entirely upon the reports of others. Her sense of failure, toward the Community in general, and toward Seraphine in particular, lent her a fresh stock of patience.
She raised the weeping nun from the floor, put her arm around her, with protective gesture, and led her before the Shrine of the Madonna.
"My child," she said, "there are things we are called upon to suffer which we can best tell to our blessed Lady, herself. Try to unburden your heart and find comfort . . . Does your mind hark back to the thought of the earthly love you resigned in order to give yourself solely to the heavenly? . . . Are you troubled by fears lest you wronged the man you loved, when, leaving him, you became the bride of Heaven?"
Sister Seraphine smiled—a scornful little smile. "Nay," she said, "I was weary of Wilfred. But—there were others."
The voice of the Prioress grew even graver, and more sad.
"Is it then the Fact of marriage which you desired and regret?"
Sister Seraphine laughed—a hard, self-conscious, little laugh.
"Nay, I could not have brooked to be bound to any man. But I liked to be loved, and I liked to be First in the thought and heart of another."
The Prioress looked at the pretty, tear-stained face, at the softly moulded form. Then an idea came to her. To voice it, lifted the veil from the very Holy of Holies of her own heart's sufferings; but she would not shrink from aught which could help this soul she was striving to uplift.
With her eyes resting upon the Babe in the arms of the Virgin Mother, she asked, gravely and low:
"Is it the ceaseless longing to have had a little child of your own to hold in your arms, to gather to your breast, to put to sleep upon your knees, which keeps your heart turning restlessly back to the world?"
Sister Seraphine gazed at the Prioress, in utter amazement.
"Nay, then, indeed!" she replied, impatiently. "Always have I hated children. To escape from the vexations of motherhood were reason enough for leaving the world."
Then the Prioress withdrew her protective arm, and looked sternly upon Sister Seraphine.
"You are playing false to your vows," she said; "you are slighting your vocation; yet no worthy or noble feeling draws your heart back to the world. You do but desire vain pomp and show; all those things which minister to the enthronement of self. Return to your cell and spend three hours in prayer and penitence before the crucifix."
The Prioress lifted her hand and pointed to the figure of the Christ, hanging upon the great rugged cross against the wall, facing the door. The sublimity of a supreme adoration was in her voice, as she made her last appeal.
"Surely," she said, "surely no love of self can live, in view of the death and sacrifice of our blessed Lord! Kneel then before the crucifix and learn——"
But the over-wrought mind of Sister Seraphine, suddenly convinced of the futility of its hopeless rebellion, passed, in that moment, altogether beyond control.
With a shout of wild laughter, she flung back her head, pointing with outstretched finger at the crucifix.
"Death! Death! Death!" she shrieked, "helpless, hopeless, terrible! I ask for life, I want to live; I am young, I am gay, I am beautiful. And they bid—bid—bid me kneel—long hours—watching death." Her voice rose to a piercing scream. "Ah, HA! That will I NOT! A dead God cannot help me! I want life, not death!"
Shrieking she leapt to her feet, flew across the room, beat upon the sacred Form with her fists; tore at It with her fingers.
One instant of petrifying horror. Then the Prioress was upon her.
Seizing her by both wrists she flung her to the floor, then pulled a rope passing over a pulley in the wall, which started the great alarm-bell, in the passage, clanging wildly.
At once there came a rush of flying feet; calls for the Sub-Prioress; but she was already there.
When they flung wide the door, lo, the Prioress stood—with white face and blazing eyes, her arms outstretched—between them and the crucifix.
Upon the floor, a crumpled heap, lay Sister Mary Seraphine.
The nuns, in a frightened crowd, filled the doorway, none daring to speak, or to enter; till old Mary Antony, pushing past the Sub-Prioress, kneeled down beside the Reverend Mother, and, lifting the hem of her robe, kissed it and pressed it to her breast.
Slowly the Prioress let fall her arms.
"Enter," she said; and they flocked in.
"Sister Seraphine," said the Prioress, in awful tones, "has profaned the crucifix, reviling our blessed Lord, Who hangs thereon."
All the nuns, falling upon their knees, hid their faces in their hands.
There was a terrifying quality in the silence of the next moments.
Slowly the Prioress turned, prostrated herself at the foot of the cross, and laid her forehead against the floor at its base. Then the nuns heard one deep, shuddering sob.
Not a head was lifted. The only nun who peeped was Sister Mary Seraphine, prone upon the floor.
After a while, the Prioress arose, pale but calm.
"Carry her to her cell," she said.
Two tall nuns to whom she made sign lifted Sister Seraphine, and bore her out.
When the shuffling of their feet died away in the distance, the Prioress gave further commands.
"All will now go to their cells and kneel in adoration before the crucifix. Doors are to be left standing wide. The Miserere is to be chanted, until the ringing of the Refectory bell. Mother Sub-Prioress will remain behind."
The nuns dispersed, as quickly as they had gathered; seeking their cells, like frightened birds fleeing before a gathering storm.
The tall nuns who had carried Sister Seraphine returned and waited outside the Reverend Mother's door.
The Prioress stood alone; a tragic figure in her grief.
Mother Sub-Prioress drew near. Her narrow face, peering from out her veil, more than ever resembled a ferret. Her small eyes gleamed with a merciless light.
"Is mine the task, Reverend Mother?" she whispered.
The Prioress inclined her head.
Mother Sub-Prioress murmured a second question.
The Prioress turned and looked at the crucifix.
"Yes," she said, firmly.
Mother Sub-Prioress sidled nearer; then whispered her third question.
The Prioress did not answer. She was looking at the carved, oaken stool, overthrown. She was wondering whether she could have acted with better judgment, spoken more wisely. Her heart was sore. Such noble natures ever blame themselves for the wrong-doing of the worthless.
Receiving no reply, Mother Sub-Prioress whispered a suggestion.
"No," said the Prioress.
Mother Sub-Prioress modified her suggestion.
The Prioress turned and looked at the tender figure of the Madonna, brooding over the blessed Babe.
"No," said the Prioress.
Mother Sub-Prioress frowned, and made a further modification; but in tones which suggested finality.
The Prioress inclined her head.
The Sub-Prioress, bowing low, lifted the hem of the Reverend Mother's veil, and kissed it; then passed from the room.
The Prioress moved to the window.
The sunset was over. The evening star shone, like a newly-lighted lamp, in a pale purple sky. The fleet-winged swallows had gone to rest.
Bats flitted past the casement, like homeless souls who know not where to go.
Low chanting began in the cells; the nuns, with open doors, singing Miserere.
But, as she looked at the evening star, the Prioress heard again, with startling distinctness, the final profanity of poor Sister Seraphine: "I want life—not death!"
Along the corridor passed a short procession, on its way to the cell of Mary Seraphine.
First went a nun, carrying a lighted taper.
Next, the two tall nuns who had borne Mary Seraphine to her cell.
Behind them, Mother Sub-Prioress, holding something beneath her scapulary which gave to her more of a presence than she usually possessed.
Solemn and official,—nay, almost sacrificial—was their measured shuffle, as they moved along the passage, and entered the cell of Mary Seraphine.
The Prioress closed her door, and, kneeling before the crucifix, implored forgiveness for the sacrilege which, all unwittingly, she had provoked.
The nuns, in their separate cells, chanted the Miserere. But—suddenly—with one accord, their voices fell silent; then hastened on, in uncertain, agitated rhythm.
Old Mary Antony below, playing her favourite game, also paused, and pricked up her ears: then filliped the wizen pea, which stood for Mother Sub-Prioress, into the darkest corner, and hurried off to brew a soothing balsam.
So, when the Refectory bell had summoned all to the evening meal, the old lay-sister crept to the cell of Mary Seraphine, carrying broth and comfort.
But Sister Seraphine was better content than she had been for many weeks.
At last she had become the centre of attention; and, although, during the visit of Mother Sub-Prioress to her cell, this had been a peculiarly painful position to occupy, yet to the morbid mind of Mary Seraphine, the position seemed worth the discomfort.
Therefore, her mind now purged of its discontent, she cheerfully supped old Antony's broth, and applied the soothing balsam; yet planning the while, to gain favour with the Prioress, by repeating to her, at the first convenient opportunity, the naughty remarks concerning Mother Sub-Prioress, now being made for her diversion, by the kind old woman who had risked reproof, in order to bring to her, in her disgrace, both food and consolation.
THE KNIGHT OF THE BLOODY VEST
"Nay, I have naught for thee this morning," said Mary Antony to the robin; "naught, that is, save spritely conversation. I can tell thee a tale or two; I can give thee sage advice; but, in my wallet, little Master Mendicant, I have but my bag of peas."
The old lay-sister sat resting in the garden. She had had a busy hour, yet complicated in its busy-ness, for, starting out to do weeding, she had presently fancied herself intent upon making a posy, and now, sat upon the stone seat beneath the beech tree, holding a large nosegay made up of many kinds of flowering weeds, arranged with much care, and bound round with convolvulus tendrils.
Keen and uncommon shrewd though old Antony certainly was in many ways, her great age occasionally betrayed itself by childish vagaries. Her mind would start off along the lines of a false premise, landing her eventually in a dream-like conclusion. As now, when waking from a moment's nodding in the welcome shade, she wondered why her old back seemed well-nigh broken, and marvelled to find herself holding a big posy of dandelions, groundsel, plantain, and bindweed.
On the other end of the seat, stood the robin. The beech was just near enough to the cloisters, the pieman's tree, and his own particular yew hedge, to come within his little kingdom.
Having mentioned her bag of peas, Mary Antony experienced an irresistible desire to view them and, moreover, to display them before the bright eyes of the robin.
She laid the queer nosegay down upon the grass at her feet, turned sidewise on the stone slab, and drew the bag from her wallet.
"Now, Master Pieman!" she said. "At thine own risk thou doest it; but with thine own bright eyes thou shalt see the holy Ladies; the Unnamed, all like peas in a pod, as the Lord knows they do look, when they walk to and fro; but first, if so be that I can find them, the Few which I distinguish from among the rest."
Presently, after much peering into the bag, the fine white pea, the wizened pea, and the pale and speckled pea, lay in line upon the stone.
"This," explained Mary Antony, pointing, with knobby forefinger, to the first, "is the Reverend Mother, Herself—large, and pure, and noble. . . . Nay, hop not too close, Sir Redbreast! When we enter her chamber we kneel at the threshold, till she bids us draw nearer. True, we are merely soberly-clad, holy women, whereas thou art a gay, gaudy man; bold-eyed, and, doubtless, steeped in sin. But even thou must keep thy distance, in presence of this most Reverend Pea of great price.
"This," indicating the shrivelled pea, "is Mother Sub-Prioress, who would love to have the whipping of thee, thou naughty little rascal!
"This is Sister Mary Rebecca who daily grows more crooked, both in mind and body; yet who ever sweetly smileth.
"Now will I show thee, if so be that I can find her, Sister Teresa, a kindly soul and gracious, but with a sniff which may be heard in the kitchens when that holy Lady taketh her turn at the Refectory reading. And when, the reading over, having sniffed every other minute, she at length, feels free to blow, beshrew me, Master Redbreast, one might think our old dun cow had just been parted from a newly-born calf. Yea, a kind, gracious soul; but noisy about the nose, and forgetful of the ears of other people, her own necessity seeming excuse enough for veritable trumpet blasts."
Mary Antony, half turning as she talked, peered into the open bag in search of Sister Teresa.
Then, quick as thought, the unexpected happened.
Three rapid hops, a jerky bend of the red breast, a flash of wings——
The robin had flown off with the white pea! The shrivelled and the speckled alone remained upon the seat.
Uttering a cry of horror and dismay, the old lay-sister fell upon her knees, lifting despairing hands to trees and sky.
Down by the lower wall, in earnest meditation, the Prioress moved back and forth, on the Cypress Walk.
Mary Antony's shriek of dismay, faint but unmistakable, reached her ears. Turning, she passed noiselessly up the green sward, on the further side of the yew hedge; but paused, in surprise, as she drew level with the beech; for the old lay-sister's voice penetrated the hedge, and the first words she overheard seemed to the Prioress wholly incomprehensible.
"Ah, thou Knight of the Bloody Vest!" moaned Mary Antony. "Heaven send thy wicked perfidy may fall on thine own pate! Intruding thyself into our most private places; begging food, which could not be refused; wheedling old Mary Antony into letting thee have a peep at the holy Ladies—thou bold, bad man!—and then carrying off the Reverend Mother, Herself! Ha! Hadst thou but caught away Mother Sub-Prioress, she would have reformed thy home, whipped thy children, and mended thine own vile manners, thou graceless churl! Or hadst thou taken Sister Mary Rebecca, she would have brought the place about thine ears, telling thy wife fine tales of thine unfaithfulness; whispering that Mary Antony is younger and fairer than she. But, nay, forsooth! Neither of these will do! Thou must needs snatch away the Reverend Mother, Herself! Oh, sacrilegious fiend! Stand not there mocking me! Where is the Reverend Mother?"
"Why, here am I, dear Antony," said the Prioress, in soothing tones, coming quickly from behind the hedge.
One glance revealed, to her relief, that the lay-sister was alone. Tears ran down the furrows of her worn old face. She knelt upon the grass; beside her a large nosegay of flowering weeds; upon the seat, peas strewn from out a much-used, linen bag. Above her on a bough, a robin perched, bending to look, with roguish eye, at the scattered peas.
To the Prioress it seemed that indeed the old lay-sister must have taken leave of her senses.
Stooping, she tried to raise her; but Mary Antony, flinging herself forward, clasped and kissed the Reverend Mother's feet, in an abandonment of penitence and grief.
"Nay, rise, dear Antony," said the Prioress, firmly. "Rise! I command it. The day is warm. Thou hast been dreaming. No bold, bad man has forced his way within these walls. No 'Knight of the Bloody Vest' is here. Rise up and look. We are alone."
But Mary Antony, still on her knees, half raised herself, and, pointing to the bough above, quavered, amid her sobs: "The bold, bad man is there!"
Looking up, the Prioress met the bright eye of the robin, peeping down.
Why, surely? Yes! There was the "Bloody Vest."
The Prioress smiled. She began to understand.
The robin burst into a stream of triumphant song. At which, old Mary Antony, still kneeling, shook her uplifted fist.
The Prioress raised and drew her to the seat.
"Now sit thee here beside me," she said, "and make full confession. Ease thine old heart by telling me the entire tale. Then I will pass sentence on the robin if, true to his name, he turns out to be a thief."
So there, in the Convent garden, while the robin sang overhead, the Prioress listened to the quaint recital; the dread of making mistake in the daily counting; the elaborate plan of dropping peas; the manner in which the peas became identified with the personalities of the White Ladies; the games in the cell; the taming of the robin; the habit of sharing with the little bird, interests which might not be shared with others, which had resulted that morning in the display of the peas, and this undreamed of disaster—the abduction of the Reverend Mother.
The Prioress listened with outward gravity, striving to conceal all signs of the inward mirth which seized and shook her. But more than once she had to turn her face from the peering eyes of Mary Antony, striving anxiously to gather whether her chronicle of sins was placing her outside the pale of possible forgiveness.
The Prioress did not hasten the recital. She knew the importance, to the mind with which she dealt, of even the most trivial detail. To be checked or hurried, would leave Mary Antony with the sense of an incomplete confession.
Therefore, with infinite patience the Prioress listened, seated in the sunlit garden, undisturbed, save for the silent passing, once or twice, of a veiled figure through the cloisters, who, seeing the Reverend Mother seated beneath the beech, did reverence and hastened on, looking not again.
When the garrulous old voice at last fell silent, the Prioress, with kind hand, covered the restless fingers—clasping and unclasping in anxious contortions—and firmly held them in folded stillness.
Her first words were of a thing as yet unmentioned.
"Dear Antony," she said, "is that thy posy lying at our feet?"
"Ah, Reverend Mother," sighed the old lay-sister, "in this did I again do wrong meaning to do right. Sister Mary Augustine, coming into the kitchens with leave, from Mother Sub-Prioress, to make the pasties, and desiring to be free to make them heavy—unhampered by my advice which, of a surety, would have helped them to lightness—bade me go out and weed the garden.
"Weeding, I bethought me how much liefer I would be gathering a posy of choicest flowers for our sweet Lady's shrine; and, thus thinking, I began to do, not according to Sister Mary Augustine's hard task, but according to mine own heart's promptings. Yet, when the posy was finished, alack-a-day! it was a posy of weeds!"
Tears filled the eyes of the Prioress; at first she could not trust her voice to make reply.
Then, stooping she picked up the nosegay.
"Our Lady shall have it," she said. "I will place it before her shrine, in mine own cell. She will understand—knowing how often, though the hands perforce do weeding, yet, all the time, the heart is gathering choicest flowers.
"Aye, and sometimes when we bring to God offerings of fairest flowers, He sees but worthless weeds. And, when we mourn, because we have but weeds to offer, He sees them fragrant blossoms. Whatever, to the eye of man, the hand may hold, God sees therein the bouquet of the heart's intention."
The Prioress paused, a look of great gladness on her face; then, as she saw the old lay-sister still eyeing her posy with dissatisfaction: "And, after all, dear Antony," she said, "who shall decide which flowers shall be dubbed 'weeds'? No plant of His creation, however humble, was called a 'weed' by the Creator. When, for man's sin, He cursed the ground, He said: 'Thorns also and thistles shall it cause to bud.' Well? Sharpest thorns are found around the rose; the thistle is the royal bloom of Scotland; and, if our old white ass could speak her mind, doubtless she would call it King of Flowers.
"Nowhere in Holy Books, is any plant named a 'weed.' It is left to man to proclaim that the flowers he wants not, are weeds.
"Look at each one of these. Could you or I, labouring for years, with all our skill, make anything so perfect as the meanest of these weeds?
"Nay; they are weeds, because they grow, there where they should not be. The gorgeous scarlet poppy is a weed amid the corn. If roses overgrew the wheat, we should dub them weeds, and root them out.
"And some of us have had, perforce, so to deal with the roses in our lives; those sweet and fragrant things which overgrew our offering of the wheat of service, our sacrifice of praise and prayer.
"Perhaps, when our weeds are all torn out, and cast in a tangled heap before His Feet, our Lord beholds in them a garland of choice blossoms. The crown of thorns on earth, may prove, in Paradise, a diadem of flowers."
The Prioress laid the posy on the seat beside her.
"Now, Antony, about thy games with peas. There is no wrong in keeping count with peas of those who daily walk to and from Vespers; though, I admit, it seems to me, it were easier to count one, two, three, with folded hands, than to let fall the peas from one hand to the other, beneath thy scapulary. Howbeit, a method which would be but a pitfall to one, may prove a prop to another. So I give thee leave to continue to count with thy peas. Also the games in thy cell are harmless, and lead me to think, as already I have sometimes thought, that games with balls or rings, something in which eye guides the hand, and mind the eye, might be helpful for all, on summer evenings.
"But I cannot have thee take upon thyself to decide the future state of the White Ladies. Who art thou, to send me to Paradise with a fillip of thine old finger-nail, yet to keep our excellent Sub-Prioress in Purgatory? Shame upon thee, Mary Antony!" But the sternness of the Reverend Mother's tone was belied by the merriment in her grey eyes.
"So no more of that, my Antony; though, truth to tell, thy story gives me relief, answering a question I was meaning to put to thee. I heard, not an hour ago, that Sister Antony had boasted that with a turn of her thumb and finger she could, any night, send Mother Sub-Prioress to Purgatory."
"Who said that of me?" stuttered Mary Antony. "Who said it, Reverend Mother?"
"A little bird," murmured the Prioress. "A little bird, dear Antony; but not thy pretty robin. Also, the boast was taken to mean poison in the broth of Mother Sub-Prioress. Hast thou ever put harmful things in the broth of Mother Sub-Prioress?"
Mary Antony slipped to her knees.
"Only beans, Reverend Mother, castor beans; and, when her temper was vilest, purging herbs. Nothing more, I swear it! Old Antony knows naught of poisons; only of mixing balsams—ah, ha!—and soothing ointments! Our blessed Lady knows the tale is false."
Hastily the Prioress lifted the nosegay and buried her face in bindweed and dandelions.
"I believe thee," she said, in a voice not over steady. "Rise from thy knees. But, remember, I forbid thee to put aught into Mother Sub-Prioress's broth, save things that soothe and comfort. Give me thy word for this, Antony."
The old woman humbly lifted the hem of the Prioress's robe, and pressed it to her lips.
"I promise, Reverend Mother," she said, "and I do repent me of my sin."
"Sit beside me," commanded the Prioress. "I have more to say to thee. . . . Think not hard thoughts of the Sub-Prioress. She is stern, and extreme to mark what is done amiss, but this she conceives to be her duty. She is a most pious Lady. Her zeal is but a sign of her piety."
Mary Antony's keen eyes, meeting those of the Prioress, twinkled.
Once again the Prioress took refuge in the posy. She was beginning to have had enough of the scent of dandelions.
"Mother Sub-Prioress is sick," she said. "The cold struck her last evening, after sunset, in the orchard. I have bidden her to keep her bed awhile. We must tend her kindly, Antony, and help her back to health again.
"Sister Mary Rebecca is also sick, with pains in her bones and slight fever. She too keeps her bed to-day. Strive to feel kindly toward her, Antony. I know she oft thinks evil where none was meant, telling tales of wrong which are mostly of her own imagining. But, in so doing, she harms herself more than she can harm others.
"By stirring up the mud in a dark pool, you dim the reflection of the star which, before, shone bright within it. But you do not dim the star, shining on high.
"So is it with the slanderous thoughts of evil minds. They stir up their own murkiness; but they fail to dim the stars.
"We must bear with Sister Mary Rebecca."
"Go not nigh them, Reverend Mother," begged old Antony. "I will tend them with due care and patience. These pains in bones, and general shiverings, are given quickly from one to another. I pray you, go not near. Remember—you were taken—alas! alas!—and they were left!"
At this the Prioress laughed, gaily.
"But I was not taken decently, with pains in my bones and a-bed, dear Antony. I was carried off by a bold, bad man—thy Knight of the Bloody Vest."
"Oh, pray!" cried the old lay-sister. "I fear me it is an omen. The angel Gabriel, Reverend Mother, sent to bear you from earth to heaven. 'The one shall be taken, and the other left.' Ah, if he had but flown off with Mother Sub-Prioress!"
The Prioress laughed again. "Dear Antony, thy little bird took the first pea he saw. Had there but been a crumb, or a morsel of cheese, he would have left thee thy white pea. . . Hark how he sings his little song of praise! . . . Is it not wonderful to call to mind how, centuries ago, when white-robed Druids cut mistletoe from British oaks, the robin redbreast hopped around, and sang; when, earlier still, men were wild and savage, dwelling in holes and caves and huts of mud, when churches and cloisters were unknown in this land and the one true God undreamed of, robins mated and made their nests, the speckled thrushes sang, 'Do it now—Do it now,' as they sought food for their young, the blackbirds whistled, and the swallows flashed by on joyous wing. Aye, and when Eve and Adam walked in Eden, amid strange beasts and gaily plumaged birds, here—in these Isles—the robin redbreast sang, and all our British birds busily built their nests and reared their young; living their little joyous lives, as He Who made them taught them how to do.
"And, in the centuries to come, when all things may be changed in this our land, when we shall long have gone to dust, when our loved cloisters may have crumbled into ruin; still the hills of Malvern will stand, and the silvery Severn flow along the valley; while here, in this very garden—if it be a garden still—the robin will build his nest, and carol his happy song.
"Mark you this, dear Mary Antony: all things made by man hold within them the elements of change and of decay. But nature is at one with God, and therefore immutable. Earthly kingdoms may rise and wane; mighty cities may spring up, then fall into ruin. Nations may conquer and, in their turn, be conquered. Man may slay man and, in his turn, be slain. But, through it all, the mountains stand, the rivers flow, the forests wave, and the redbreast builds his nest in the hawthorn, and warbles a love-song to his mate."
The Prioress rose and stretched wide her arms to the sunlit garden, to the bough where the robin sang.
"Oh, to be one with God and with Nature!" she cried. "Oh, to know the essential mysteries of Life and Light and Love! This is Life Eternal!"
She had forgotten the old lay-sister; aye, for the moment she had forgotten the Convent and the cloister, the mile-long walk in darkness, the chant of the unseen monks. She trod again the springy heather of her youth; she heard the rush of the mountain stream; the sigh of the great forest; the rustle of the sunlit glades, alive with, life. These all were in the robin's song. Then——
Within the Convent, the Refectory bell clanged loudly.
The Prioress let fall her arms.
She picked up the nosegay of weeds.
"Come, Antony," she said, "let us go and discover whether Sister Mary Augustine hath contrived to make the pasties light and savoury, even without the aid of the advice she might have had from thee."
Old Mary Antony, gleeful and marvelling, followed the stately figure of the Prioress. Never was shriven soul more blissfully at peace. She had kept back nothing; yet the Reverend Mother had imposed no punishment, had merely asked a promise which, in the fulness of her gratitude, Mary Antony had found it easy to give.
Truly the broth of Mother Sub-Prioress should, for the future, contain naught but what was grateful and soothing.
But, as she entered the Refectory behind the Reverend Mother and saw all the waiting nuns arise, old Mary Antony laid her finger to her nose.
"That 'little bird' shall have the castor beans," she said, "That 'little bird' shall have them. Not my pretty robin, but the other!"
And, sad to say, poor Sister Seraphine was sorely griped that night, and suffered many pangs.
THE MADONNA IN THE CLOISTER
The Prioress knelt, in prayer and meditation, before the figure of the Virgin Mother holding upon her knees the holy Babe.
Moonlight flooded the cell with a pure radiance.
Mary Antony's posy of weeds, offered, according to promise, at the Virgin's shrine, took on, in that silver splendour, the semblance of lilies and roses.
The Prioress knelt long, with clasped hands and bowed head, as white and as motionless as the marble before her. But at length she lifted her face, and broke into low pleading.
"Mother of God," she said, "help this poor aching heart; still the wild hunger at my breast. Make me content to be at one with the Divine, and to let Nature go. . . . Thou knowest it is not the man I want. In all the long years since he played traitor to his troth to me, I have not wanted the man. The woman he wed may have him, unbegrudged by me. I do not envy her the encircling of his arms, though time was when I felt them strong and tender. I do not want the man, but—O, sweet Mother of God—I want the man's little child! I envy her the motherhood which, but for her, would have been mine. . . . I want the soft dark head against my breast. . . . I want sweet baby lips drawing fresh life from mine. . . . I want the little feet, resting together in my hand. . . . All Nature sings of life, and the power to bestow life. Yet mine arms are empty, and my strength does but carry mine own self to and fro. . . . Oh, give me grace to turn my thoughts from Life to Sacrifice."
The Prioress rose, crossed the floor, and knelt long in prayer and contemplation before the crucifix.
The moonlight fell upon the dying face of the suffering Saviour, upon the crown of thorns, the helpless arms out-stretched, the bleeding feet.
O, Infinite Redeemer! O, mighty Sacrifice! O, Love of God, made manifest!
The Prioress knelt long in adoring contemplation. At intervals she prostrated herself, pressing her forehead against the base of the cross.
At length she rose and moved toward the inner room, where stood her couch.
But even as she reached the threshold she turned quickly back, and kneeling before the Virgin and Child clasped the little marble foot of the Babe, covered it with kisses, and pressed it to her breast.
Then, lifting despairing eyes to the tender face of the Madonna: "O, Mother of God," she cried, "grant unto me to love the pierced feet of thy dear Son crucified, more than I love the little, baby feet of the Infant Jesus on thy knees."
A great calm fell upon her after this final prayer. It seemed, of a sudden, more efficacious than all the long hours of vigil. She felt persuaded that it would be granted.
She rose to her feet, almost too much dazed and too weary to cross to the inner cell.
A breath of exquisite fragrance filled the air.
At the feet of the Madonna stood a wondrous bouquet of lilies of the valley and white roses.
Pale but radiant, the Prioress passed into her sleeping-chamber. The loving heart of old Mary Antony had been full of lilies and roses. It was not her fault that her old hands had been filled with weeds. Divine Love, understanding, had wrought this gracious miracle.
As the Prioress stretched herself upon her couch, she murmured softly: "The Lord seeth not as man seeth: for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.
"And, after all, this miracle of the Divine perception doth take place daily.
"Alas, when our vaunted roses and lilies appear, in His sight, as mere worthless weeds.
"The Lord looketh on the heart."
* * * * * *
When the Prioress awoke, the sunlight filled her chamber.
She hastened to the archway between the cells, and looked.
The dandelions seemed more gaily golden, in the morning light. The bindweed had faded.
The Prioress was disappointed. She had counted upon sending early for old Mary Antony. She had pictured her bewildered joy. Yet now the nosegay was as before.
Morning light is ever a test for transformations. Things are apt to look again as they were.
But a fragrance of roses and lilies still lingered in the chamber.
The blessed Virgin smiled upon the Babe.
And there was peace in the heart of the Prioress. Her long vigil, her hours of prayer, had won for her the sense of a calm certainty of coming victory.
Strong in that certainty, she bent, and gently kissed the little feet of the holy Babe.
Then, as was her wont, she sounded the bell which called the entire community to arise, and to begin a new day.
ON THE WINGS OF THE STORM
In the afternoon of that day, Mary Antony awaited, in the cloisters, the return of the White Ladies from Vespers. Twenty only, had gone; and, fearful lest she should make mistake with the unusual number, the old lay-sister spent the time of waiting in counting the twenty peas afresh, passing them back and forth from one hand to the other.
Mother Sub-Prioress was still unable to leave her bed.
Sister Mary Augustine stayed to tend her.
Sister Teresa was in less pain, but fevered still, and strangely weak. The Reverend Mother forbade her to rise.
Shortly before the bell rang calling the nuns to form procession in the cloisters, Sister Seraphine declared herself unable for the walk, and begged to be allowed to remain behind. The Prioress found herself misdoubting this sudden indisposition of Sister Seraphine who, though flushed and excited, shewed none of the usual signs of sickness.
Not wishing, however, to risk having a third patient upon her hands, the Reverend Mother gave leave for her to stay, but also elected to remain behind, herself; letting Sister Mary Rebecca, who had recovered from her indisposition, lead the procession.
Thus the Reverend Mother contrived to keep Sister Seraphine with her during the absence of the other nuns, giving her translations from the Sacramentaries to copy upon strips of vellum, until shortly before the hour when the White Ladies would return from Vespers, when she sent her to her cell for the time of prayer and meditation.
Left alone, the Prioress examined the copies, fairly legible, but sadly unlike her own beautiful work. She sighed and, putting them away, rose and paced the room, questioning how best to deal with the pretty but wayward young nun.
Two definite causes led the Prioress to mistrust Sister Seraphine: one, that she had called upon "Wilfred" to come and save her, and had admitted having expected him to appear and carry her off before she made her final profession; the other, that she had tried to start an evil report concerning the old lay-sister, Mary Antony. The Prioress pondered what means to take in order to bring Sister Seraphine to a better mind.
As the Prioress walked to and fro, unconsciously missing the daily exercise of the passage to the Cathedral, she noted a sudden darkening of her chamber. Going to the window, she saw the sky grown black with thunder clouds. So quickly the storm gathered, that the bright summer world without seemed suddenly hung over with a deep purple pall.
Birds screamed and darted by, on hurried wing; then, reaching home, fell silent. All nature seemed to hold its breath, awaiting the first flash, and the first roll of thunder.
Still standing at her window, the Prioress questioned whether the nuns were returned, and safely in their cells. While underground they would know nothing of it; but they loved not passing along the cloisters in a storm.
The Prioress wondered why she had not heard the bell announcing their return, and calling to the hour of prayer and silence. Also why Mary Antony had not brought in the key and her report.
Thinking to inquire into this, she turned from the window, just as a darting snake of fire cleft the sky. A crash of thunder followed; and, at that moment, the door of the chamber bursting open, old Mary Antony, breathless, stumbled in, forgetting to knock, omitting to kneel, not waiting leave to speak, both hands outstretched, one tightly clenched, the other holding the great key: "Oh, Reverend Mother!" she gasped. Then the stern displeasure on that loved face silenced her. She dropped upon her knees, ashen and trembling.
Now the Prioress held personal fear in high scorn; and if, after ninety years' experience of lightning and thunder, Mary Antony was not better proof against their terrors, the Prioress felt scant patience with her. She spoke sternly.
"How now, Mary Antony! Why this unseemly haste? Why this rush into my presence; no knock; no pause until I bid thee enter? Is the storm-fiend at thy heels? Now shame upon thee!"
For only answer, Mary Antony opened her clenched hand: whereupon twenty peas fell pattering to the floor, chasing one another across the Reverend Mother's cell.
The Prioress frowned, growing suddenly weary of these games with peas.
"Have the Ladies returned?" she asked.
Mary Antony grovelled nearer, let fall the key, and seized the robe of the Prioress with both hands, not to carry it to her lips, but to cling to it as if for protection.
With the clang of the key on the flags, a twisted blade of fire rent the sky.
As the roar which followed rolled away, echoed and re-echoed by distant hills, the old lay-sister lifted her face.
Her lips moved, her gums rattled; the terror in her eyes pleaded for help.
This was the moment when it dawned on the Prioress that there was more here than fear of a storm.
Stooping she laid her hands firmly, yet with kindness in their strength, on the shaking shoulders.
"What is it, dear Antony?" she said.
"Twenty White Ladies went," whispered the old lay-sister. "I counted them. Twenty White Ladies went; but——"
"Twenty-one returned," chattered Mary Antony, and hid her face in the Reverend Mother's robe.
Two flashes, with their accompanying peals of thunder passed, before the Prioress moved or spoke. Then raising Mary Antony she placed her in a chair, disengaged her robe from the shaking hands, passed out into the cell passage, and herself sounded the call to silence and prayer.
Returning to her cell she shut the door, poured out a cordial and put it to the trembling lips of Mary Antony. Then taking a seat just opposite, she looked with calm eyes at the lay-sister.
"What means this story?" said the Prioress.
"Reverend Mother, twenty holy Ladies went——"
"I know. And twenty returned."
"Aye," said the old woman more firmly, nettled out of her speechlessness; "twenty returned; and twenty peas I dropped from hand to hand. Then—when no pea remained—yet another White Lady glided by; and with her went an icy wind, and around her came the blackness of the storm.
"Down the steps I fled, locked the door, and took the key. How I mounted again, I know not. As I drew level with the cloisters, I saw that twenty-first White Lady, for whom—Saint Peter knows—I held no pea, passing from the cloisters into the cell passage. As I hastened on, fain to see whither she went, a blinding flash, like an evil twisting snake, shot betwixt her and me. When I could see again, she was gone. I fled to the Reverend Mother, and ran in on the roar of the thunder."
"Saw you her face, Mary Antony?"
"Nay, Reverend Mother. But, of late, the holy Ladies mostly walk by with their faces shrouded."
"I know. Now, see here, dear Antony. Two peas dropped together, the while you counted one."
"Nay, Reverend Mother. Twenty peas dropped one by one; also I counted twenty White Ladies. And, after I had counted twenty, yet another passed."
"But how could that be?" objected the Prioress. "If twenty went, but twenty could return. Who should be the twenty-first?"
Then old Mary Antony leaned forward, crossing herself.
"Sister Agatha," she whispered, tremulously. "Poor Sister Agatha returned to us again."
But, even as she said it, swift came a name to the mind of the Prioress, answering her own question, and filling her with consternation and a great anger. "Wilfred! Wilfred, are you come to save me?" foolish little Seraphine had said. Was such sacrilege possible? Could one from the outside world have dared to intrude into their holy Sanctuary?
Yet old Antony's tale carried conviction. Her abject fear was now explained.
That the Dead should come again, and walk and move among the haunts of men, seeking out the surroundings they have loved and left, seems always to hold terror for the untutored mind, which knows not that the Dead are more alive than the living; and that there is no death, saving the death of sin.
But to the Reverend Mother, guarding her flock from sin or shame, a visitor from the Unseen World held less of horror than a possible intruder from the Seen.
A rapid glance as she sounded the bell, had shown her that the passage was empty.
Which cell now sheltered two, where there should be but one?
The Prioress walked across to a recess near the south window, touched a spring, and slid back a portion of the oak panelling. Passing her hand into a secret hiding place in the wall, she drew forth a beautifully fashioned dagger, with carved ivory handle, crossed metal thumb-guard, blade of bevelled steel, polished and narrowing to a sharp needle point. She tested the point, then slipped the weapon into her belt, beneath her scapulary. As she closed the panel, and turned back into the chamber, a light of high resolve was in her eyes. Her whole bearing betokened so fine a fearlessness, such noble fixity of purpose that, looking on her, Mary Antony felt her own fears vanishing.
"Now listen, dear Antony," said the Prioress, holding the old woman with her look. "I must make sure that this twenty-first White Lady of thine is but a trick played on thee by thy peas. Should she be anywhere in the Convent I shall most certainly have speech with her.
"Meanwhile, go thou to thy kitchens, and give thy mind to the preparing of the evening meal. But ring not the Refectory bell until I bid thee. Nay, I myself will sound it this evening. It may suit me to keep the nuns somewhat longer at their devotions.
"Should I sound the alarm bell, let all thy helpers run up here; but go thou to the cell of Mother Sub-Prioress and persuade her not to rise. If needful say that it is my command that she keep her bed. . . . Great heavens! What a crash! May our Lady defend us! The lightning inclines to strike. I shall pass to each cell and make sure that none are too greatly alarmed."
"Now, haste thee, Antony; and not a word concerning thy fears must pass thy lips to any; no mention of a twenty-first White Lady nor"—the Prioress crossed herself—"of Sister Agatha, to whom may our Lord grant everlasting rest."
Mary Antony, kneeling, kissed the hem of the Prioress's robe. Then, rising, she said—with unwonted solemnity and restraint: "The Lord defend you, Reverend Mother, from foes, seen and unseen," and, followed by another blinding flash of lightning, she left the cell.
THE PRIORESS SHUTS THE DOOR
The Prioress waited until the old lay-sister's shuffling footsteps died away.
Then she passed out into the long, stone passage, leaving her own door open wide.
Into each cell the Prioress went.
In each she found a kneeling nun, absorbed in her devotions. In no cell were there two white figures. So simple were the fittings of these cells, that no place of concealment was possible. One look, from the doorway, sufficed.
Outside the cell of Sister Seraphine the Prioress paused, hearing words within; then entered swiftly. But Sister Seraphine was alone, reciting aloud, for love of hearing her own voice.
The Prioress now moved toward the heavy door in the archway leading into the cloisters. It opened inwards, and had been left standing wide, by Mary Antony. Indeed, in summer it stood open day and night, for coolness.
As the Prioress walked along the dimly lighted passage, she could see, through the open door, sheets of rain driving through the cloisters. The storm-clouds had burst, at last, and were descending in floods.
The Prioress stood in the shelter of the doorway, looking out into the cloisters. The only places she could not view, were the entrance to the subterranean way, and the flight of steps leading thereto. She would have wished to examine these; but it seemed scarcely worth passing into the driving rain, now sweeping through the cloister arches. After all, whatever possible danger lurked down those steps, the safety of the Convent would be assured if she closed this door, between the passage and the cloisters, and locked it.
Stepping back into the passage, she seized the heavy door and swung it to, noting as she did so, how far too heavy it was for the feeble arms of old Mary Antony, and deciding for the future to allot the task of closing it to a young lay-sister, leaving to Mary Antony merely the responsibility of turning the key in the lock.
This the Prioress was herself proceeding to do, when something impelled her to turn her eyes to the angle of wall laid bare by the closing of the door.
In that dark corner, motionless, with shrouded face, stood a tall figure, garbed in the dress of the nuns of the Order of the White Ladies of Worcester.
Perhaps the habit of silence is never of greater value than in moments of sudden shock and horror.
One cry from the Prioress would have meant the instant opening of many doors, and the arrival, on flying feet, of a score of frightened nuns.
Instead of screaming, the Prioress stood silent and perfectly still; while every pulse in her body ceased beating, during one moment of uncontrollable, cold horror. Then, with a leap, her heart went on; pounding so loudly, that she could hear it in the silence. Yet she kept command of every impulse which drove to sound or motion.
Before long her pulses quieted; her heart, beating steadily, was once again the well-managed steed upon which her high courage could ride to victory.
And, all the while, her eyes never left the white figure; knowing it knew itself discovered and observed.
Her hand was still upon the key.
She turned it, and withdrew it from the lock.
A deafening crash of thunder shook the walls. A swirl of wind and rain beat on the door.
When the last echo of the thunder had died away, the Prioress spoke; and that calm voice, sounding amid the storm, fell on the only ears that heard it, like the Voice of Power on Galilee, which bid the tempest cease, and the wild waves be still.
"Who art thou, and what doest thou here?"
The figure answered not.
"Art thou a ghostly visitor come back amongst us, from the Realm of the Unseen?"
The figure made no sign. "Art thou then flesh and blood, and mortal as ourselves?"
Slowly the figure bowed its head.
"Now I adjure thee by our blessed Lady to tell me truly. Art thou, in very deed a holy nun, a member of our sacred Order? Answer me, yea or nay?"
The figure shook its head.
The Prioress advanced a step, passed the key into her left hand and, slipping her right beneath her scapulary, took firm grip of the dagger at her girdle.
"Then, masquerader in our sacred dress," she said, "to me you have to answer for double sacrilege: the wearing of these robes, and your presence here, unbidden. I warn you that your life has never hung by frailer thread than now it hangs. Your only hope of safety lies in doing as I bid you. Pass before me along this passage until you reach a chamber on the right, of which the door stands open. Enter, and place yourself against the wall on the side farthest from the door. There I will speak with you."
With the shuffling steps of a woman, and the bent shoulders of the very old, the figure moved slowly forward, stepped upon the front of the white robe, stumbled, but recovered.
The Prioress watching, laughed—a short scornful laugh, holding more of anger than of merriment.
With an abrupt movement the figure straightened, stood at its full height, and strode forward. The Prioress marked the squaring of the broad shoulders; the height, greater than her own, though she was more than common tall; the stride, beneath the folds of the long robe; and she knit her level brows, for well she knew with whom she had to deal. She was called to face a desperate danger. Single-handed, she had to meet a subtle foe. She asked no help from others, but she took no needless risks.
As she passed the cell of Mary Seraphine, using her master-key, she locked that lady in!
"I KNOW YOU FOR A MAN"
Entering her cell, the Prioress saw at once that her orders had been obeyed.
The hooded figure stood on the far side of the chamber, leaning broad shoulders against the wall. Under the cape, the arms were folded; she could see that the feet were crossed beneath the robe. The dress was indeed the dress of a White Lady, but the form within it was so obviously that of a man—a big man, at bay, and inclined to be defiant—that, despite the strange situation, despite her anger, and her fears, the contrast between the holy habit and its hidden wearer, forced from the Prioress an unwilling smile.
Closing the door, she drew forward a chair of dark Spanish wood, the gift of the Lord Bishop; a chair which well betokened the dignity of her high office.
Seating herself, she laid her left hand lightly upon the mane of one of the carved lions which formed, on either side, the arms of the chair; but her right hand still gripped unseen the ivory hilt; while leaning slightly forward, with feet firmly planted, she was ready at any moment to spring erect.
"I know you for a man," she said.
The thunder rumbled far away in the distance.
The rain still splashed against the casement, but the storm had spent itself; the sky was brightening. A pale slant of sunshine broke through the parting clouds and, entering the casement, gleamed on the jewelled cross at the breast of the Prioress, and kindled into peculiar radiance the searching light of her clear eyes.
"I know you for a man," she said again. "You stand there, revealed; and surely you stand there, shamed. By plotting and planning, by assuming our dress, you have succeeded in forcing your undesired presence into this sacred cloister, where dwells a little company of women who have left the world, never to return to it again; who have given up much in order to devote themselves to a life of continual worship and adoration, gaining thereby a power in intercession which brings down blessing upon those who still fight life's battles in the world without.
"But it has meant the breaking of many a tender tie. There are fathers and brothers dear to them, whom the nuns would love to see again; but they cannot do so, save, on rare occasions, in the guest-room at the gate; and then, with the grille between.
"Saving Bishop or Priest, no foot of man may tread our cloisters; no voice of man may be heard in these cells.
"Yet—by trick and subterfuge—you have intruded. Methinks I scarce should let you leave this place alive, to boast what you have done."
The Prioress paused.
The figure stood, with folded arms, immovable, leaning against the wall. There was a quality in this motionless silence such as the Prioress had not connected with her idea of Mary Seraphine's "Cousin Wilfred."
This was not a man to threaten. Her threat came back to her, as if she had flung it against a stone wall. She tried another line of reasoning.
"I know you, Sir Wilfred," she said. "And I know why you are here. You have come to tempt away, or mayhap, if possible, to force away one of our number who but lately took her final vows. There was a time, not long ago, when you might have thwarted her desire to seek and find the best and highest. But now you come too late. No bride of Heaven turns from her high estate. Her choice is made. She will abide by it; and so, Sir Knight, must you."
The rain had ceased. The storm was over. Sunshine flooded the cell.
Once more the Prioress spoke, and her voice was gentle.
"I know the disappointment to you must be grievous. You took great risks; you adventured much. How long you have plotted this intrusion, I know not. You have been thwarted in your evil purpose by the faithfulness of one old woman, our aged lay-sister, Mary Antony, who never fails to count the White Ladies as they go and as they return, and who reported at once to me that one more had returned than went.