WHEN WE FIRST CAME to the Abbey, it rained for five days. Nonstop. I’d been warned that this could happen in England, in spring and in summer, but I hadn’t believed it. Every morning, we’d sit in silence at breakfast. Gramps hid behind his newspaper; my sisters fixed their eyes on their plates; my mother stared at air. I had to be propped up on three cushions to reach the table. Outside the windows was a wet, grieving world.
The laurels by the house hadn’t been cut back then, and they dripped dismal black tears. Beyond them, you could see a corner of the old cloister, with a gargoyle spouting rain from mouth and eyes. The lawn had reverted to pasture, and the grasses bowed their heads like a congregation of penitents. The English air was a thick, peculiar mauve. The wind keened: The ground under the beech avenue was littered with broken limbs. I could see a severed arm, a giant’s thighbone, and a terrible stump of a head, knotty and twisted round with ivy. It had two huge eyes. I knew they were watching all that grief seeping into the house. They were measuring the damp that fingered the walls and counting the drips from the ceilings--- three buckets in that room alone. The wind gusted and moaned in the chimney. The windows rattled. “Well, children,” Stella said in a wry way that meant trouble, “there is no possibility of taking a walk today.”
She made the same remark, after the same interval of time, every day for five days. On the sixth day, she took to her bedroom and locked the door. We tried the usual remedies: flowers, fiction, and food. Julia took up a tray. Finn took her a bundle of books. I took her a bunch of bluebells (Hyacinthus nonscriptus), which Finn helped me pick in Nun Wood. We made a regular check: Three days later, they were still there outside the door.
The sun had appeared by then. Stella had refused to sleep in the large room she’d once shared with Daddy. Instead, she’d selected a mean little space on the attic floor, where the nuns’ dormitories once were. The long corridors there were hot, dark, and stuffy smelling. The water in the jam jar had evaporated; the bluebells had doubled up and died. The packet of cigarettes was unopened, the emergency tot of Jack Daniel’s was untouched, and the tiny triangular sandwiches had curled. Finn counted and checked the books. Six in total: Little Women, Mansfield Park, Jane Eyre, The Secret Garden, and Great Expectations were still there, but the sixth--- I think it was Kidnapped--- had gone. “Progress,” said Finn. She pressed her ear to the locked door, and we all listened intently. The air in this house is odd, as you know--- it has a weighty, brooding quality, and we were more aware of it then, when we weren’t yet accustomed to it. So as we listened, it felt as though it listened right back--- and that was weird.
After a while, Finn claimed she could hear the rustle of pages. A relief. We went off to explore. We investigated the library; it was a moth-eaten place then--- even more so than it is now--- and Gramps said that it used to be the nuns’ Lady Chapel. Where the fireplace is now, there used to be the altar--- did you know? We tried the famous Squint--- and found it worked with amazing efficiency. We didn’t notice what’s so odd about it--- not that first time. Then we set off to map the gardens and the woods and the village and the orchards and the lake and Black Ditch---
“Did you hear the pages rustling?” Lucas asks, interrupting me just as I’m getting going. He looks up from his sketchbook, pencil poised. I steal a quick, squinty look at the page in front of him: twelve inches by fourteen, a satisfying, heavy-woven texture. There’s a maze of scribblings, of cross-hatchings, and those shadowings Lucas creates by smudging with his thumb. Out of these blacks and whites, I, Maisie, am being born.
I’m not supposed to look at my portrait while it’s in the making; Lucas catches my crafty glance and tilts the sketchbook away out of view. I consider his question. It’s hard to remember: It was over ten years ago. I was very little then. It’s momentous to lose your father. I didn’t truly realize that I had lost him: Every time a door opened, I expected him to walk in.
So in my memory, all the events of that first summer at the Abbey are flurried. They’re bright and distinct, like the images on playing cards, but if I try to look at them too closely, it makes me anxious. I feel that some are missing, or the conjuror dealing them has kept certain cards up his sleeve. He shuffles magnificently, the way Dan’s grandmother does--- but there’s sleight of hand involved. Something tricksy is going on.
I concentrate on the locked door and the curling sandwiches. I can smell the musty scent of the Jack Daniel’s. Finn and Julia are crouching either side of me. A trapped fly buzzes at a window no one has opened in decades. I think I did hear a rustling sound eventually, and it might have been pages turning. Equally, considering where we were, and the nature of this house, the rustling could have had other origins. The nuns that once inhabited this place inhabit it still, I remind Lucas. They hang out in the upstairs corridors; they congregate on the stairs; their rosary beads clack and their skirts--- yes--- rustle.When you pass them, the sisters watch you in a pale, patient way, as if they’re waiting for you to join them--- and they seem certain they won’t be waiting too long.
Dead and gone eight hundred years--- but that doesn’t stop them. Why don’t they rest in peace, the way the dead are supposed to? I wonder why they haunt me, when all the people I’d welcome being haunted by--- my father, for instance--- have never showed up once? “Oh, come on, Maisie,” Lucas says. “Stop this. It upsets everyone--- and it’s tedious. There is no afterlife. No heaven, no hell, no underworld, no God, no devil, no angels, no demons, no ghosts . . . In particular, and for the umpteenth time, there are no spectral nuns. You’re a practical child. You know that perfectly well. Stop embroidering, and sit still.”
Lucas is an unbeliever. Much he knows. He speaks sharply, though, so I realize I’ve irritated him--- Lucas is easily bored. To placate him, I sit as still as a harvest mouse (Micromys minutus), and after about fifteen minutes of silent work he relents. I knew he would. Lucas likes my stories. Everyone else at the Abbey is always too busy to listen. Not just now, Maisie, they say, backing away. But Lucas is an addict for information and I’m a good historian, so we make an excellent pair. Unlike Stella, I tell the truth; unlike Gramps, I stick to the point; unlike Finn and Julia, I don’t dodge round awkward corners and miss the best bits out. If you want to know about this house and this family--- as Lucas certainly does--- I’m the one to consult. I reveal secrets--- and there are plenty of those. I may be a child, but I’m formidably observant, as Lucas knows. Tell it like it is, Julia says. And I do. I do. I do.
“So when did Stella recover?” Lucas asks in his usual lazy, teasing way. “Was Julia always beautiful? Was Finn always aloof? When did you first meet Dan? Who shot that lion in the library? Do you remember America? Do you like milk in your coffee or cream?” He yawns, then glances up, eyes narrowed, measuring my face and making me. Two quick lines, a smudge of the thumb. I like Lucas. He likes me. I think he prefers me to my sisters, though I could be wrong. Anyway, we understand each other, and we both find that restful. He gives one of his small smiles.
“Come on, Maisie,” he says in a coaxing way. “I want to know everything. Tell me more.”
I like being Lucas’s Scheherazade, and of course there’s no fear of his executing me when my stories end. There is the danger of boring him, though, and I’m always aware of it. So I’m careful never to give him what he wants. This is a lesson both my sisters ought to learn, and soon. Also, his questions are less innocent than they seem. I sometimes think he’s after some specific piece of information, though he’d never admit that. Today, I suspect, it’s the lowdown on Dan that he wants. So I decide to give with my right hand and hold back with my left--- if you keep Lucas guessing, if you always stay one jump ahead of him, then you don’t lose his interest, I’ve found.
So I pretend to hum and hah, and juggle my memories. Then a memory does pop up, of its own accord, so I say that I’ll tell him about Dan’s grandmother, alias the wicked witch, alias the Munchkin (Julia’s nickname for her; it’s cruel, but she is very small).
“I’ll tell you about the time she told our fortunes, about the day she read the cards for us,” I begin. Then I hesitate. I can feel something cold and hard inside me, as if I’ve tried to swallow a pebble and it’s too big. It’s stuck in my throat; it won’t come up and it won’t go down.
Lucas is watching my face. His expression is kindly, though no one would describe Lucas as a kindly man. Sometimes I think he pities me, and I suppose there could be reasons to do so--- stuck in this house with Gramps, who’s getting doddery, and Stella, who inhabits a planet far, far from here; plus two sisters who are both legendary creatures of beauty and intellect. People fuss over me, but they won’t listen. If the nuns didn’t speak to me, I’d be starved of conversation. I’m the girl in the corner, the one everyone ignores. I do not have breasts yet. Yes, I can see that in the pitying stakes I might score.
“Dan’s grandmother--- and she told the cards for all three of you? Did you hear what she told Finn and Julia, too?”
“Was Dan also present?”
“How old would you have been?”
“Let’s see. . . .” I pretend to tot it up, though I know the answer perfectly well. I’m the afterthought in my family, the last-ditch attempt at a boy, so there’s a long gap between my sisters and me. I was almost seven, Finn almost fourteen, and Julia sixteen. “It was Julia’s birthday,” I say. “That’s why we went to see Dan’s grandmother. We were consulting the oracle. Birthdays are a propitious time to do it. There was also a full moon.”
“Powerful stuff.” Lucas makes another delicate smudge on his page. At this rate, I’ll be composed of shadows. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, says a familiar voice in my ear. For thou art with me, I answer silently.
“Sit still, Maisie,” says Lucas. “Stop wriggling about.” And he frowns.
Beside me, the Reverend Mother smiles. Isabella will be twenty-three in a few weeks: She has glass green eyes and a precious rosary made of jade. Her responsibilities are many, but she always has time for me. Touching my arm, raising a finger to her lips, she glances at Lucas and then steals silently away. Lucas the unbeliever sees nothing. Outside the windows, the sun shines. It hasn’t rained in weeks. This is a golden summer, the best summer I’ve ever known. By the end of it I shall be translated, I feel certain. I’ll cease to be a girl and become a woman. I shall emerge from my chrysalis, my wings damp but lustrous, Maisie transformed!
Lucas waits an interval and then says: “Okay--- it’s high summer. There’s a full moon. You go down to the village, and Ocean’s daughter tells the cards. And what did the old witch promise the three sisters, I wonder? A sweetheart? A legacy? A voyage? I bet it was a sweetheart. A tall, dark stranger. Like me.”
“None of those things.”
“An unusual fortune-teller,” he says in his dry way. His manner becomes businesslike, but I know I have his attention. It gives me a small, secret thrill. He angles the sketchbook so there is no possibility of my seeing it and says: “Now, Maisie, you can talk, but don’t move your head from that angle. The light’s perfect. Turn your face slightly to the left. Undo that top button. . . . Excellent. Clever girl. I’m all ears. Now, go on.”
I think, All ears and all eyes, too. Lucas has as many eyes as Argus, and if one of them should briefly close, the other ninety-nine remain alert and watchful. When dealing with Lucas, it’s advisable to remember this, so I do.
I try to relax into my pose. I try to concentrate and summon up the past. It’s cool here in Lucas’s improvised studio, and it is calm. This large room has a stone floor and a vaulted ceiling. It was built by Isabella in the thirteenth century and extended early in the fifteenth, when the Abbey was at the height of its renown. It was once the refectory, linked by passageways to the cloister and the main body of the convent, but those links disappeared at the time of the Reformation, so this part of the building is now islanded. It’s quiet and secluded. I can just hear the sound of Julia’s gramophone in the distance--- she’s playing that Jefferson Airplane record again--- but that’s only because she turns it up full volume. Apart from that alien thump and moan, the only sounds are England: the hum of bees, the rustle of elms, the bleating of this year’s lambs. They’re almost fattened: off to the abattoir any day now.
The refectory’s six tall, arched windows face away from the house, toward the fields, the orchards, and the valley below. In the past, Stella used to closet herself away in this room. She needed to find herself, she said, and this beautiful and tranquil space was just the place to do it. Yes, it was cold in winter, but for someone brought up in Canada, English winters held no fears. They were brief, it rarely snowed--- no problem! Then Stella rediscovered English damp, East Anglian damp, which is all-pervasive, which creeps into your bones. Then she discovered just what happens here when the wind swings round to the east, when it howls in from Siberia and sweeps toward the Fens.
The evidence of all Stella’s searchings, all her short-lived vocations, is still here. There are the dried-up paints from the watercolorist spring; there’s the sewing machine from the dress designer summer; there’re the abandoned lenses from the photography period; and there’s the clapped-out typewriter from the short-story-writer phase. That was the longest of the vocations and the last. Maybe Stella has finally found herself (I wonder how you do that?). Maybe she’s given up looking. Either way, she avoids the refectory now.
Lucas has taken it over. He and Dan have just come down from Cambridge for the last time. They survived finals and arrived here, hideously hung over, the day after the Trinity May Ball. “It’s the last long vac,” Dan declared, “so let’s make it a memorable one.” Dan often stays at the Abbey now--- he could stay with his father and grandmother in the village, but he prefers it here. He’s encamped in his usual room in the main house and will stay till the end of the holidays. Lucas has visited before, but never for long--- he never stays anywhere long--- so this protracted visit is surprising. I don’t think anyone exactly invited him, though I suppose Finn might have done. He’s here for an indeterminate period. It could be the remainder of the summer, it could be less, it could be more. Lucas never makes plans--- or if he does, he refuses to communicate them: He simply arrives when he feels like it and departs without warning or farewell. I can accept this, because Lucas and I understand each other; but for Finn and Julia, it’s hard.
He’s not interested in creature comforts. He sleeps under an old army blanket, on a lumpy couch in the corner. He brews coffee on a paraffin stove. When he wants a bath, he swims in the river. When he wants food, which isn’t often, he comes up to the house, charms Stella, and raids the larder. Stella is a fine cook, and she thinks Lucas is a genius--- an impression Lucas does nothing to discourage, I’ve observed. On the table over there, under a muslin fly protector, I can see her latest offerings to the artist-in-residence: a slice of Madeira cake and a lopsided, golden pork pie.
It’s had a bite or two taken out of it. Next to it, propped up on an easel, turned to face the wall, and hidden behind screens, is the portrait Lucas is supposed to be painting--- his recompense for living here all summer scot-free. It’s a gigantic picture of Julia, Finn, and me, and Dan says it’s going to be Lucas’s magnum opus--- for this year, anyway. It’s to be called The Sisters Mortland, which I consider a dull, stupid title. Lucas doesn’t seem to work on it very often--- though he may work on it at night.
I’m not sleeping too well at night. Sometimes the nuns disturb me; sometimes it’s my dreams. And once or twice, when I couldn’t sleep, I’ve crept out of bed and come down to the garden, and I’ve seen the lights in here, blazing away. Lucas closes the interior shutters, but there are six bright slits striping the ground outside, like golden bars. It could be that these sketches of me are preparatory work for the portrait, or they may be unimportant, something he does to pass the time. I’d like to ask Lucas if they matter and why they might matter--- but I know he won’t answer: He’s a secretive man. . . . It takes one to know one, as Bella likes to say: I’m a secretive girl.
I think they must be important, because Lucas says he plans to complete four drawings of me this year. I’m sure that’s an honor. It must mean that something about me interests him. The first drawing, Spring Maisie, was finished in the Easter vacation. Summer Maisie is the one he’s working on now; Autumn Maisie and Winter Maisie will follow in due course. I’m not allowed to see them until all four seasons are finished. I’m not allowed to inspect The Sisters Mortland portrait, either--- and neither is Julia or Finn. I’ve tried several times to sneak a look, but I’ve always been thwarted. When he’s out, Lucas locks the windows and the door. He bought a new padlock for the purpose. “How paranoid can you get?” Julia says. Julia’s just returned from a year’s postgraduate study at Berkeley, California. It’s affected her clothes and vocabulary. “Paranoid” is now a favorite word.
“Come on, Maisie, you’re daydreaming,” Lucas prompts. “Talk to me. Your face is getting set and fixed. This won’t work if you look sulky. It’s all wrong.”
“I don’t sulk,” I reply. But I’ve heard the warning note of irritation, so I concentrate again. I’m beginning to wish I’d selected a different event to describe, but there’s no getting out of it now. That round, cold pebble is still stuck in my throat. I frown, Lucas waits, the pencil hovers, and--- obedient to him as always--- I walk back into the past.
I watch the three of us set off, that afternoon, for the village. We take the path through the woods, something we rarely do. Julia is wearing a new white dress; it has paper nylon Bardot petticoats that make the skirt stiff and bell shaped. It has broderie anglaise around the neck. She’s turned into a woman overnight, and she’s so blazingly beautiful that it hurts my eyes. My sister Finn is wearing old clothes as usual: ancient slacks, a crumpled blouse, and sandals. She’s slender and straight as a willow wand. I can tell what Julia’s thinking--- she’s usually thinking about herself, so it isn’t too hard--- but with Finn, I can’t. She’s intricate, like a knot I can’t undo.
My sisters stride ahead, arguing. I bring up the rear. I’m wearing brown linen shorts, chestnut brown Clarks sandals, and a white Aertex shirt that Finn’s long outgrown. I’ve been reading the “Famous Five” books in secret (they’re top of Stella’s list of forbidden literature) and, like the immortal George of Kirrin Island, I want to be a boy. I whistle to the dog only I can see--- we were between dogs that summer, just as we are now. I put my hands in my pockets and scuff my shoes. I count the trees and name them as I pass. I think I am happy; happiness is catching. After a while, Finn and Julia stop arguing, and Finn--- who has a very sweet voice--- begins to sing, first a madrigal, then, jiving about and laughing, Elvis’s “Blue Suede Shoes.”
We come out of the wood, and the heat of the sun hits us. The valley below us is burning gold. The hedgerows are thick with elderberries; thirty elms march in a long line down the lane. The apples in the orchards are ripening; the wheat ripples. God has arranged forty-one cows in perfect formation in Acre Field. There are larks overhead, so high that I can’t see them, but I can hear them, piping alarm, filling the sky with nervous song. I breathe in the air of England; it’s buoyant in the lungs and lifts my heart. Finn takes my hand; even Julia is elated. We start dancing, running, and jumping down the hill.
At the bottom, as arranged, Dan is waiting for us. He’s grown tall since I last saw him--- and that’s over a year ago, I realize. He used to come to the Abbey every day, but now he seems to avoid the place--- if there’s a reason for this, I, as usual, have not been told. Even so, he and Finn remain close. She’s been to Dan’s house before, many times, but for Julia and me, this will be unknown territory--- we’ve never got past the gate; Dan has always forestalled us and barred the way. We walk through the village. It’s silent in the afternoon heat. Thirteen hens peck on the verge.
Nothing’s changed here for centuries; I like that. Julia claims it’s a bore. The ancient crooked cottage in which Dan lives is the last house on the left, facing south, exactly four hundred paces beyond the duck pond. The front entrance is never used, so we troop round to the back, where it’s shady and the door stands open.
It’s an old, low doorway. Dan, Finn, and Julia have to bow their heads as they enter. I follow, and after the dazzle of the daylight, I’m blinded, in the dark.
Excerpted from The Sisters Mortland © Copyright 2012 by Sally Beauman. Reprinted with permission by Warner Books. All rights reserved.
The Sisters Mortland