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Full text of "The Nun S Story"

vy Katnryn Hulme 



ARAB INTERLUDE 

DESERT NIGHT 

WE LIVED AS CHILDREN 

THE WILD PLACE 

(Atlantic N on fiction Prize Award^ 

THE NUN'S STORY 



Tne Nun's Story 



Tlie Nun's Story 



Ly KATHRYN HULME 



An Atlantic Monthly Press Book 

Little, Brown ana Company 

Boston . Toronto 




COPYRIGHT, , 1956, BY KATHRYN C. HULMB 

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. NO PART OF THIS BOOK IN EXCESS OF PIVB 

HUNDRED WORDS MAY BE REPRODUCED IN ANY FORM WITHOUT 

PERMISSION IN WRITING FROM THE PUBLISHER 

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOG CARD NO. 566768 



Twenty-third Printing 



ATLANTIC-LITTLE, BROWN BOOKS 

A* PUBLISHED BY 
LITTLE, BROWN ANP COMPANY 

IK ASSOCIATION WITH 
TUB ATLANTIC MONTHLY PXE** 



simultaneously in C*na* 
by Unit, Brown & Company (Canada) Limited 

IK THE VMITE tTATKf OF 



For 
CHARLOTTE S. MACK 

with love and admiration 



Tne Nun's Story 



THE short black cape hooked at the neck and dropped with- 
out flare to the middle of the forearms. It was odd to be think- 
ing about Lourdes as she put it on, as though that recent 
experience had had something decisive to do with her choos- 
ing the religious life. 

She bent her elbows and brought her hands together be- 
neath the cape. It was a practice garment of sorts, to be re- 
placed by the nun's robe after the six months' postulancy, 
after her hands would have learned to stay still and out of 
sight except when needed for nursing or for prayer. 

Forty other young women, mainly Belgian like herself, 
with a few English and Irish girls, stood with Gabrielle Van 
der Mai in the anteroom to the cloister, putting on similar 
capes but taking more time about it, especially some red- 
knuckled girls from the farms who seemed to be searching 
through the folds of their capes for sleeves. 

Lourdes, she thought, I'm not that impressionable. But 
quite suddenly she was riding again in the hospital train that 
made the annual pilgrimage, the only lay student nurse from 
the training school chosen by Sister William to help escort 
the convoy of bedridden patients from Belgium. The faith of 
the prostrate pilgrims that they would survive the journey, 
and, moreover, return from there cured, frightened her. Her 



pulse-readings, her diagnostic eyes, even her nostrils that 
knew the smell of death told her that some could not possibly 
live until Lourdes and she ran to Sister William crying, Fe- 
vers, blood-spitting, cancers advanced to screaming stage and 
not a sound out of any of them except crazy hopes; I've got 
three in the car who should be receiving last rites this very 
instant, Sister. And Sister William had stopped her with a 
look. No one will die en route, my child, they never do, she 
said. I've taught you many things, Gabrielle, but what you 
are soon to see is beyond my competence to describe or pre- 
pare you for. Now say a Pater for having called faith a crazy 
hope and go back to your duties. 

Lourdes was a bonfire in her memory. It was made up of 
thousands of candles and burning cries and a week of rising 
suns over an esplanade where stretcher cases lay side by side, 
end to end, waiting for a priest to come with a monstrance 
that gathered sun to its gold and blazed in the sign of the 
cross above the stretchers. With each individual benediction 
a new voice, hoarse, hysterical, screaming or murmuring, 
joined the storm of sound which carried the glittering pro- 
cessional forward like a wave that never crested or broke un- 
til the last twisted body had been blessed. O Jesus, Son of 
David, cure me . . . 

And there were cures, she remembered, which she could 
see in the archives of X-rays that had been made before and 
after baths in St. Bernadette's water, changes in tissue tex- 
tures or even occasionally in the bone structures which she 
could read like print on a page* 

On the journey back to Belgium, taking care of the same 
number of cases she had escorted out, she remembered how 
she had looked at the faces she bathed, still worn and emaci- 
ated with disease. Inexplicably they seemed to have retained 



some of the glow that had played upon them when the stretch- 
ers had been carried into the candlelit Grotto at the foot of 
the Pyrenees. 

Their happiness! she exclaimed to Sister William on her 
rounds. 

Naturally, my child. That is the real cure. Not those debat- 
able X-rays I saw you poring over with the doctors who con- 
sider only what films show. But this (Sister William inclined 
her head to the quiet wagon-lit as if the name of Jesus had 
been spoken) this is the visible grace given to all who go 
with faith. 

And then Sister William had given her sleeve a little tug in 
the discreet manner of the vowed, who, Gabrielle knew (be- 
cause she had been educated by nuns) must never lay hands 
one upon the other. Crazy hopes! the little nun whispered as 
she passed. 

The pull at her sleeve had been more unusual than Sister 
William's teasing words, for it was the attention-drawing lan- 
guage of nun to nun, rather than of nun to lay person. As if I 
'were one of them! Gabrielle had thought with surprise. 

And now she was one of them, or very soon to be. She 
looked at her companions in the anteroom. Their introspec- 
tive faces, flushed and slightly nervous, suggested that they 
too were going over the steps that had brought them to this 
prim parlor in a convent in Brussels. 

Gabrielle thought of her own steps consecutively. She be- 
gan with childhood, with the cook, Frangoise, who had never 
cut into bread without first tapping the knife in the sign of 
the cross over the big round loaf. The child who watched the 
bread-cutting ritual used to go with the cook to first Mass 
every day, not because she understood then anything of its 
significance, but because there was something wonderful and 



mysterious about candles and singing before sunlight and the 
sight of so many grownups doing without breakfast until a 
small white wafer had been dropped upon their tongues. 
Then there were the visits she used to make with her doctor 
father to homes in the provinces as they were in the old days, 
every one with a big old-fashioned rosary hanging on the wall 
from two pegs spaced far enough apart to make the crucifix 
fall heart-shape to a point at the base. You seldom saw such 
visible piety now. Nor did you see nowadays the great single 
eye in a triangle which used to be painted over the zinc bars 
of country cafes where her father refreshed himself after his 
rounds. She remembered his explaining that the strange com- 
pelling design meant that the Eye of God was upon the place 
and no cursing would be permitted. The old-fashioned reli- 
gious childhood, she thought. God was like one of the family 
and this above all is why I am here. I learned to love Him 
when I was very young* Before Jean * . , long, long be- 
fore , . . 

She pressed her clasped hands against her heart and looked 
at the austerely beautiful face of Sister Margarita, the Mis- 
tress of Postulants. She knew that she must be looking at une 
Regie Vwante, a Living Rule, of whom it was said that if the 
Holy Rule of the Order were ever destroyed or lost from the 
printed record, it could be recaptured in entirety by studying 
such a perfect nun. 

Sister Margarita's immense coif starched stiff as a shell and 
curving shell-like about the ageless Flemish face turned, al- 
most imperceptibly, as the Mistress examined her new postu- 
lants to make sure that each had her black veil pinned over 
the hair and her cape hooked properly. Then she spoke in a 
voice exactly pitched to reach to the edge of the caped crowd 
and not a breath beyond. 

6 



"Now we will go to the chapel for a little colloquy with 
God." She turned and opened, as though it were a soundless 
panel of felt, a heavy oak door, and Gabrielle saw how one 
hand dropped over the ring of keys hanging from her leather 
belt so they would not clink together as she moved. 

"You will follow me in pairs," said Sister Margarita. "We 
walk with eyes lowered and hands out of sight." She glided 
through the doorway and down a vaulted corridor toward 
bracketed candles with motionless flames. 

Gabrielle took a last look at the smaller door to the visitors' 
parlor, where good-bys to the families had just been said. Her 
father would still be standing there, his square surgeon's 
hands stroking his spade beard as he acknowledged the saluta- 
tions of those who recognized the foremost chest surgeon and 
heart specialist of Belgium, pretending a pride like the others 
for having given his only daughter to God. 

She could feel on the skin of her forehead the cross he had 
traced there with his spatulate thumb when he had said fare- 
well. She could still taste the plump fine oysters from Zeeland 
that he had ordered for her last meal in the world, the dry 
sparkle of the vintage Rudesheimer which had cost him the 
fees of at least five visits to patients, and the ice cream richly 
sauced with crushed glazed chestnuts which she loved. Because 
he opposed her entering the convent, he had called for all the 
tempting things of life to speak to her where he had failed, 
unaware that what he was really putting into her like a prob- 
ing pain was her last view of him tucking his napkin into the 
wing collar under his beard, smelling the wine cork before 
allowing the waiter to pour a drop and drinking the juice 
from the big rough oyster shells with gusty gourmet pleasure. 
And, over the coffee, the last sight of his round-bowled 
meerschaum golden-brown with age and fondling, and of his 



blue eyes looking at her through the smoke while he talked 
as to a colleague of his medical problems. He never once men- 
tioned the convent or gave her a chance to tell him that it was 
not Lourdes or schoolgirl admiration for any nun which 
had brought her here, not heartbreak because of his refusal to 
let her marry Jean (because his mother had died in an insane 
asylum, and her doctor father could not put upon her the risk 
of reproducing madness), but the pressing sum of them all. 
. . . "And maybe, even, cher Papa" she whispered to the 
closed door as she passed it, "maybe even a calling to the 
vocation because of the way you brought us up." 

She stared at the ankles of the girl ahead of her, obviously 
one who had just stepped out of sabots into her first shoes 
her sister now, one of that mixed multitude of unknown 
women who would be the only family she would ever have 
again. Why had her devout father opposed her entry? 

The peasant ankles stirred, the brogues shuffled forward. 
Gabrielle followed, walking erect with folded arms and hid- 
den hands as she had learned to walk when scrubbed and 
sterile during the surgery-room stage of her nursing training, 
She turned the corner and saw in one upward disobedient 
glance the whole chapel and the sisterhood that must re- 
place in her heart all the lively affections she had ever known* 
It was a family of statues at which she stared. 

Some two hundred sisters were already on their knees in 
soldierly rows down the long nave* The professed nuns in 
black veils knelt in the double row of carved stalls along 
either wall and the novices in white veils in three straight 
rows down the central aisle that ended at the altar. The folds 
of their choir capes fell around them on the floor and covered 
their turned-back feet* Viewed from the visitors* gaileiy, 
where the Mistress led the postulants, it was a faceless com- 

8 



munity of draped and motionless torsos lined up and spaced 
evenly one from the other as though set down by a precision 
instrument. 

Jean seemed to slip in beside her as she tried to pray, tak- 
ing the place of the caped figure kneeling at her right. His 
hushed voice was without bitterness now as he reminded her 
of the many things she had given up, besides himself. She 
pressed her palms more tightly against her eyes to darken the 
bright scenes his words evoked of high windy ledges in 
the Ardennes where they used to rest after climbs, of bicycle 
paths through Flanders leading always toward the sea, of hid- 
den hollows among the dunes into which they often dropped 
breathless after racing each other . , . 

Fin going to miss your wide wide world, Blessed Lord, she 
whispered tremulously, possibly even more than the man who 
opened it up for me. I must not have loved him enough to 
fly in the face of Papa's disapproval. I must have loved Papa 
more ... or was it simply that old-fashioned obedience to a 
parent's wishes which gave me strength to resist? Obedience 
. . . it's a key word in this sanctified place, so they tell us. 
Am I just one small step along the obscure way to You for 
having been able to obey Papa instead of my heart? Obey . . . 
it has audire in its root. Audire ... to hear, to give ear to. 
But I seemed to hear nothing, Blessed Lord, during all those 
weeks of tormenting indecision except Jean's voice calling 
challenges . . . 

She heard nothing now except her own inner voice and the 
quickened breathing of her caped companion, who was look- 
ing through her locked fingers at the rows of nuns below. 

For the first five days they were kept apart from the com- 
munity of nuns in a special wing that had its own dormitory, 

9 



study hall and refectory. But they could feel nevertheless its 
vast and disciplined presence as they prepared for their en- 
trance into it, learning the signs that took the place of speech 
and the ways to open doors without rasp of hinge or lock, ac- 
customing their eyes to look downward and their hearts to 
lift up to the ultimate goal of being in constant conversation 
with God. 

It was, Gabrielle thought, like being in quarantine before 
a border crossing into a country of silence. They practiced 
the gestures of life in that country and learned its laws in 
daily readings from the Holy Rule. The Rule was a Baedeker 
to the cloistered life. It mapped monuments and battle- 
grounds and described the customs of poverty, chastity and 
obedience in minute detail. You even learned that the long 
serge skirt must be lifted from the rear when going down- 
stairs, to prevent its wasteful wearing on stones. 

The new frontier extended beyond sight and imagination 
into the unexplored terrain of interior, as \vell as exterior, 
silence. Gabrielle felt it pressing inward to include within its 
metes and bounds that central place where many voices talked 
back to her in undiminishing echoes from her past. 

"Interior silence," said Sister Margarita, "is one of the 
bases of the monastic life, one of the powers of God." The 
Mistress's singular low voice gave Gabrielle the impression 
that she was lip-reading. It took all her will not to turn her 
head to see if her companions had heard anything* 

Interior silence, she repeated silently. That would be her 
Waterloo. How without brain surgery could you quell the 
rabble of memories? Even as she asked herself the question, 
she heard her psychology professor saying quite clearly across 
a space of years, "No one, not even a saint, can say an Awe 
straight through without some association creeping in; this is 

xo 



a known thing." He had on the table before him a plaster of 
Paris model of a human brain which came apart. He lifted off 
the parietal lobe and used it to gesture with as he repeated, 
"Not even one Ave . . ." and she saw the bright red and 
blue tracery of its painted veins and arteries superimposed, 
momentarily, on Sister Margarita's scapular. 

It was more awesome to look at the silent world of the 
sisterhood than to receive instruction about it. Each morning 
when the postulants filed into the chapel for Mass, the nuns 
were already in place, looking as if they had not moved since 
the first day. 

Gabrielle could not imagine how they could stay so still, 
especially the novices kneeling down the central aisle with 
nothing but air to support them. No spine sagged, no muscle 
moved to disturb a marble fold. She knew there were old and 
young ones in that community nervous novices fighting for 
the perfection of immobility, rheumatic nuns perhaps soon 
to celebrate their golden jubilees in the religious life, nursing 
sisters from the convent hospital who might have sat up all 
night in vigil over a patient, and some quite possibly who had 
spent the night on their knees in penance or prayer. But no 
signs of age, infirmity or weariness could be detected. 

Later on, when she was one of them and had learned that 
the older nuns always put their best foot forward when new 
postulants were present, living up to their discipline with 
almost superhuman courage and endurance to set a good ex- 
ample, she would still carry intact the reverent wonder of her 
first impressions, 

As she peered at them through her fingers, she would think 
of the one strand that tied her already to the statuesque scene. 
This was the number assigned to her the day she was regis- 
tered 1072, the number of a dead nun. The filament of 

IT 



number 1072 stretched far beyond the kneeling figures, be- 
yond the sanctified grounds of the mother house, beyond the 
borders of Belgium and the shores of Europe. It described an 
arc over the curve of earth like an imaginary line of longitude 
and ended in a thatched hut in the Katanga district of the 
Belgian Congo. There, barely two months before, a mission- 
ary sister had been stabbed to death by a black man gone 
berserk. 

In one of the recreation periods when speech was permitted, 
she had learned about the previous holder of her number. 
The Mistress of Postulants, walking with her tongue-tied 
flock, had asked some of them what their numbers were, and 
to Gabrielle had said: 

"You are blessed, Sister. You have the number of Sister 
Marie-Polycarpe." With a restrained and holy pride she had 
told the story. 

It was strange how alive the numbers were. Not one had 
been allowed to lapse since the Order was established at the 
end of the eighteenth century* How many postulants had 
passed through this mother house could never be guessed be- 
cause there was no way of knowing how many times any num- 
ber had been assigned for the lifetime of a nun. In some 
vellum-bound ledger in the Superior General's office, Gabri- 
elle supposed there was a continuing record kept. A head- 
count as they called it in the world. She thought of it as a leaf- 
count on a sturdy old vine that replenished itself from within 
and never put forth a new shoot until every stem below was 
tipped with life. 

Each time she looked at the sisterhood, she saw something 
new and unexpected. She could hardly believe that she had 
lived with nuns through all her boarding-school days, had had 
adolescent crushes occasionally and, in her nursing training, 

iz 



had copied their calm in surgery when something went wrong 
and everyone else lost his head. 

You could grow up with nuns and never really see their se- 
cret and singular way of being. She could not believe her eyes 
when the Mistress of Postulants showed how the Little Office 
was held by every nun and had been held so since the begin- 
ning of their cloistered time. Why had she not observed this 
before, she who loved to look at hands? 

Sister Margarita held her breviary in the curved palm of 
her right hand with the thumb just touching the leather edge 
of the back cover. With the marker, she opened to the Office 
of the day and brought her left thumb, with a bit of paper be- 
neath it, over the pages of the left side to hold them open. 

"This bit of paper under the one finger that touches the 
pages," she said, "preserves them from stain. We each make 
our own little thumb pad. Mine, you see" she held up the 
paper disk "has a holy picture pasted upon it because I was 
not dowered for art and could not paint it prettily in water 
color as many sisters do." 

The Little Office, she explained, was read seven times daily 
at the appointed hours by every sister wherever she might be. 
Staring at the hands holding the book just so, Gabrielle could 
not recall having seen before what she was shown now an 
edge of paper beneath a thumb, a touch so light and careful 
that the pressed page seemed to be open for the first time. 

"Our work," said Sister Margarita, "does not always permit 
us to go to chapel for devotions. Sometimes we must read 
them in kitchens, hospitals, schoolrooms, laundries on 
trains or steamships if we are traveling. Wherever we are we 
follow the hours of the mother house. Thus, the care to keep 
our Little Office pure of soil. It must last a long time." 

She lifted her thumb and let the bit of paper slip back be- 



tween the pages as the book fell shut in her hand. She glanced 
at it without possessiveness or pride as she added, "This one 
was given to me when I made my first vows. It will be re- 
placed next year on my silver jubilee." 

The Living Rule rose up from her chair in a single move- 
ment of strength that flowed straight from her knees. She mo- 
tioned the transfixed postulants to their feet and waited until 
the shuffling subsided. Her hands slipped beneath the scapular 
as she started to speak. 

"Now, my sisters, you will go to the chapel for your last 
prayers before you enter our blessed community/* She smiled 
and nodded. "Tomorrow is the day. You will pray for the 
help you need, each one speaking to God in her own way. As 
when you were children in the world and wanted something 
very badly, ask Him now to give you the things of the spirit. 
Ask Him in silence for strength in the practice of silence. Re- 
member . . . interior silence is the very marrow of perfection 
as told in our Holy Rule." 

My Waterloo, Gabrielle said again to herself. But I'll 
smother every voice that talks back to destroy my inner quiet. 
I don't know how I'll do this but I will. All for Jesus . . . 

All for Jesus, Sister William had said in the ward, pulling 
on the rubber gloves. Say it, my dear students, every time you 
are called upon for what seems an impossible task. Then you 
can do anything with serenity. It is a talisman phrase that 
takes away the disagreeable inherent in many nursing duties. 
Say it for the bedpans you carry t for the old incontinents you 
bathe, for those sputum cups of the tubercular. Tout pour 
Jesus, she said briskly as she bent to change a dressing foul 
with corruption. Gabrielle, Jeannine, Charlotte . * . come 
closer and watch how I do this. You see how easy? AH for 
Jesus . . . this is no beggar's body picked up in the Rue dcs 



Radis. This is the Body of Christ and this suppurating sore is 
one of His Wounds . . . 

All for Jesus. They used the talisman when they met each 
other in hospital corridors carrying bedpans and kidney ba- 
sins, elevating their reeking receptacles and murmuring All 
for Jems! as they passed. Yet, although they said it sometimes 
with the hysterical irreverence of youth, it did really work. 
As it had worked presumably for the courageous spirit of 
Sister William, who, until she had come from her ancestral 
chateau to the paupers' ward of the convent hospital, had not 
known the difference between a urinal and a flower vase and 
had remarked, as she arranged roses in the tubular glass 
container, This vase is quite original in form, is it not? 

Gabrielle smiled as she advanced in the procession of postu- 
lants, unaware that her interior silence was nonexistent. She 
went on thinking about Sister William. The sturdy little nun 
stood forth like a signpost sure and readable in that terra in- 
cognita of the community she was to enter. It was like having 
something vital from her personal past waiting for her in the 
cloister, something she would not be required to uproot and 
cast out from memory any more than she would be expected 
to shake from her hands the nursing knowledge Sister Wil- 
liam had trained into them. She held imaginary dialogues 
with her teacher as she paced slowly. "Associations, Sister 
. . . now just exactly what do you do to subdue them . . ." 

She could not know then that it would be three years be- 
fore she was allowed to address anything other than strictly 
duty words to Sister William, that although the familiar fig- 
ure would often be within range of her longing eyes, the tra- 
ditonal separation of the perpetually vowed from postulants 
and novices would stand between them like a block of clear 
ice through which Sister William herself would permit noth- 

15 



ing more to pass than her silhouette and an occasional clini- 
cal glance. 

In the chapel Gabrielle prayed God to forgive her for tak- 
ing comfort from the thought that someone else who knew 
her well, besides Himself, would be there next day to wel- 
come her into the community. 



1 1 



HER entrance into the community was a break with the past 
as clean as amputation. The first day was the only one she 
could recollect in entirety afterwards. All the others tele- 
scoped into one six-months-long sunrise-to-dark struggle to 
synthesize in her mind the mass of minutiae on which con- 
vent conduct was based and to teach her body to behave ac- 
cordingly. 

The day began with a sound she never had expected to 
hear inside this house of silence an electric alarm that 
shrilled simultaneously in every corridor of the big dormito- 
ries where two hundred nuns slept in semipartitioned cells. 
The bell tore her from sleep with shock. She sprang from hei 
straw sack as if the current of electricity had passed through 
it and had stood her up in the four-thirty dark like a stiff elec- 
trocuted thing that would fall the moment the vibrations 
ceased. 

Instantly, lights were flashed on above the honeycombs of 
cells and she saw through the gap of her curtain the silhouette 
of a nightgowned nun on the gray curtain opposite flung bolr 
upright from sleep like herself. From a distance the voice 
of the senior nun called out "Praised be Jesus Christ!" so 
promptly after the alarm and the lights that you could be- 
lieve all three were connected to the same switch. 



The sound of two hundred bodies dropping to their knees 
was the clue to what to do next. A few sighs could be heard as 
the knees went down on the oak floor. Then another voice be- 
gan the Hail Marys. 

Gabrielle tried to think the prayers until her voice would 
come back but she could think only of the way she would be 
awakened for the rest of her life. She looked down years of 
dark dawns and knew that her nerves would never learn to 
accept without a quiver the shattering discipline of that elec- 
tric bell. 

Even before she had taken a step inside the community, 
she had experienced more discipline than she had ever 
dreamed existed. The wooden planks under her straw sack 
had disciplined her bones all night and the straw sack itself, 
stuifed tight and economically with old pulverized straw, had 
been as a bed of sand that gave the muscles no ease. The 
sheets of unbleached serge were the harsh equivalent of a hair 
shirt, and the morning bell had stripped away the luxury of a 
slow natural awakening. 

She listened incredulously to the Aves rising up from all 
the cells except hers. There was a clear note of gladness in 
the salutation to the Virgin, a sort of breathlessness when the 
nuns chanted ". . . full of grace . , ." as for a grace discov- 
ered that morning for the first time by all wo hundred of 
them. 

How could they pray so perfectly after being shocked 
from sleep? How could they sound so happy after a night on 
those sacks of straw? 

She followed the sounds again, stood up and stripped her 
bed. She folded the covers as the Mistress of Postulants had 
demonstrated, in three exact folds each, then hung them over 
the chair, careful to see that no edge touched the floor an 

18 



imperfection that would be. It calmed her to have things to 
do with her hands. 

Then she heard the sisters dressing starchy rustles from 
the nuns who were putting on the stiff white guimpes, clinks 
of keys as leather belts were buckled on and the click of 
wooden beads as rosaries were lifted from tables and hung 
from belts. She made an effort to ignore these involuntary 
private sounds as, during the night, she had tried to ignore 
the snores and muted cries of nightmares. Sisters already 
dressed were gliding past her gray curtain, reminding her 
that if she were late for chapel she would have to do that ap- 
palling penance of prostrating herself on the floor behind the 
prie-dieu of the Mother General. 

Meditations, Prime and Tierce. The admittance ceremony, 
then Mass. She rehearsed her debut. Breakfast afterwards in 
the huge refectory, where she must remember the repertory 
of exact small gestures which the Mistress had run through 
just once the upraised hand with waggling index to ask 
for water, the cutting motion of the back of one hand 
against the palm of the other to tell the server that bread 
was wanted, the down-hooked middle and index fingers to 
say, Fork please, the two humble taps on the breast to say, 
Excuse me. There were scores of such things to keep in 
mind. You would have to live, she thought, at the maximum 
effort of awareness every waking moment until repetition 
would perfect the pantomime. 

She pinned her veil over her hair and felt the edges to 
make sure it was not askew. It was strange to be in a world 
without mirrors, stranger still to think of the many women 
around her who had not seen themselves for years, save in the 
photographs they were permitted to have taken for their 
families at rimes of vesture, vowing and jubilees. 



She pulled her curtain and stepped out into the corridor. 
Most of the sisters in her wing were already gone. The thin 
cotton hangings that gave them the only privacy they had, the 
half-privacy of being heard but not seen, were left drawn 
back from their cells. It was difficult to lower your eyes as 
you hurried past their bleakness and quite impossible to real- 
ize that women with such varied tastes and backgrounds in- 
habited those similar cells without leaving in any one of them 
some trace of the individuality. 

Every member of the community including the Superior 
General was housed here regardless of age, rank or function. 
Choir nuns, artists, doctors of medicine and the humanities, 
cooks, laundresses, shoemaker nuns and the peasant sisters 
who worked the truck gardens lived in those boxlike cells, 
each one identical in form and content, in arrangement of 
bed, table and chair and thrice-folded coverlets over each 
chair. Incredibly, every nun had her cell changed each year 
to prevent her becoming attached to its location, 

In the main corridor that led to the chapel, Gabrielle 
stepped quickly into the file of nuns and novices walking 
along close to the walls. Her heart missed a beat. She had al- 
most forgotten that practice of humility which, when she had 
heard about it from the Mistress of Postulants, had impressed 
her. Like the matter of the protected finger on the breviary 
page, the humble effacing of self along the edges of any wide 
thoroughfare was something she had lived with but never 
seen in training days in the convent hospital She understood 
now that this habit of the nuns was what gave the great white 
hallways their look of peace and quiet even as here in the 
mother house there was the sense of very few people about. 
A line of sisters moved flat as shadows along the opposite 
wall. A timid postulant, caped and short-skirted like herself, 

20 



walked between two nuns and was reduced by their hand- 
some regalia to a stunted shape that was all legs and anxiety. 
That's how I look, Gabrielle thought. A wave of self-pity 
swept over her as she entered the chapel. 

She genuflected to the altar, then turned halfway around to 
make to the Superior General the reverence she had prac- 
ticed in the dark of her cell. It had seemed easy then, all 
alone, but now in the august presence of the one who must be 
recognized as the Christ in the community, she felt like a 
goosegirl bowing before a queen. Her body broke like a stick 
at the waist and her arms fell straight down with her bow, 
then crossed so her flattened palms covered her shaky knees. 
She blushed for her awkwardness and backed away. 

The lanes of kneeling nuns, which had had limits when she 
had first looked down them from the guest section, were now 
an endless maze, frightening to pick your way through, with 
swirls of skirts covering the floor and very little space left for 
laggards to walk in. When she reached her place far down in 
front, she sank to her knees with the suddenness of complete 
exhaustion as if she had been years on the way. 

The morning prayer lasted fifteen minutes. The two hun- 
dred voices were keyed low for it, like the gray light coming 
through the Gothic windows from a world still fast asleep. 
Then the postulants were led apart for the meditation. They 
looked at each other furtively when they were in the study 
hall. Gabrielle saw one of the Irish girls tying her shoelaces, 
and another with her veil pinned so low it covered her eye- 
brows and gave her an aboriginal look. 

"Now, my sisters," said Sister Margarita, "we will meditate 
on a line I shall read from today's Epistle. We will have thirty 
minutes to take these inspired words into our minds and to 
think profoundly on what they mean." 

21 



She opened her missal and read, If I speak with the tongues 
of men, and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as 
sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. 

Gabrielle wondered uncharitably if anyone in the room 
could meditate on anything else except the straw sacks, the 
mirrorless dressing and the bow to the Superior General, 
which were already behind them, and of the hazards which 
still lay ahead the admittance ceremony, the refectory and 
its manual vocabulary and all the other unfamiliar activities 
of this first day which she could scarcely believe was not yet 
one hour old. 

"And . . . have ... not ... charity," said the Mistress, 
picking up their thoughts and leading them to the crux of the 
matter. Gabrielle knew the Epistle. She said it silently 
through to the line that used to make her sad in her youth. 
When I 'was a child, 1 spoke as a child, 1 understood as a child> 
1 thought as a child. . . . 

She had never been a child. Her three brothers had been 
children but she had been the replacement for the mother 
who had died so early that only she could remember her 
clearly. And her father, of course, who remembered so clearly 
and constantly that he could never bring himself to take an- 
other wife, although all the uncles and aunts tried to persuade 
him to do so. But when I became a mm, I put a'way the things 
of a child. . . . Gabrielle put away the things she had never 
had and tried to think about Charity. 

Presently Sister Margarita snapped her metal cricket. One 
click stood them up, two clicks moved them into processional 
order. Gabrielle moved to the place that would ever be hers, 
third in the line of forty postulants. She was third oldest in 
the group because she had been third to register on that day 
less than a week ago when the Order had opened its doors to 

22 



new entrants. From that moment, her chronological age had 
ceased and the only age she would henceforth have, her age 
in the religious life, had started. 

The two girls ahead of her were only a few minutes older 
and the thirty-seven behind her were all her juniors, although 
two or three whose aristocratic faces she had remarked most 
certainly had been born in the decade before her. It struck 
her that there was something quite bold and magnificent in 
the way age was discarded in the religious life. Man's time 
meant nothing here. Only the time that was given to God, as 
was every minute of convent time, counted. Nobody else in 
the whole congregation was your exact age. You stood alone 
in this separated world that had its own time spiral, a haughty 
hierarchy that gave you privileges for your seniority but not a 
single contemporary. 

"Now you know your places in chapel, I shall not lead 
you," said Sister Margarita. "But after Tierce, you will wait." 
She nodded to the number one postulant. "I shall take you to 
the chapel hall for the admittance ceremony." 

They had practiced for this and knew exactly what they 
had to do. This would be the first time they would meet the 
whole community face to face. 

"One last reminder," said Sister Margarita. "Remember, 
in chapel, you are not to join in the psalmodizing. You will 
follow the Office with your eyes only and keep them on your 
books. For the first three weeks you will listen. Then, when 
your ears will have caught the precise tonalities of the Hours, 
you may sing with your sisters." She started the procession 
forward with a nod. 

The two hundred sisters were exactly as they had been left 
a half hour before, kneeling, motionless, eyes on the altar. 
Folded down in the humblest position that the human can as- 



sume, they seemed to be shapes of strength that had no like- 
ness on earth among living things. It was frightening to be 
among them, like being lost in mountains. 

The Superior rapped twice with her gavel to begin the 
Deus in Adjutorium. The clear voice of the Hebdomadary 
seemed like a cry from Gabrielle's own heart . . , O God, in- 
cline unto my aid. The response from the other side of the 
chapel was the answer to that cry and its reinforcement . . . 
O Lord, make haste to help me. 

Then the sisters began to sing the first Hour. Eyes on the 
pages of her Little Office, Gabrielle followed the Latin easily 
through psalms and canticles. She had never heard anything 
more beautiful than those two treble choirs passing pure Gre- 
gorian back and forth as the first light of day slanted down 
from chapel windows. Her fingers trembled as they turned 
the pages. Now and again her eyes went back to lines of spe- 
cial beauty . . . Emmanuel, He shall eat butter and honey 
, . Thou didst descend like rain upon a fleece , , 

The hundred voices in each opposing choir sang as from a 
single throat, alternating from side to side without missing a 
beat, the whole contained within the bounds of just two notes 
pitched high and piercingly sweet. Plain song was her pas- 
sion. She had always hoped to go to Solcmncs one day to hear 
the Benedictine monks chant this most ancient music of the 
Church, But now, she thought, she was hearing it in her own 
house perhaps a few octaves higher but with the same pure 
effect of unison and cadence. 

Deo gratias, sang the choir on her side, 

Grace is spread abroad on thy lips, replied the other. 

Even the glimpse of the Cantatrice walking ceaselessly up 
and down the aisles of the choir nuns could not dismay her. 
From the corner of her eye she watched this famed Gregorian 

24 



scholar pause near a novice to listen to her breath control, or 
perhaps to some forbidden excess of feeling that escaped from 
the young throat. The Cantatrice did not look at the novice; 
she turned her head slightly toward the voice she was inspect- 
ing and let her coif capture sound like a shell. 

The devotions ended. Waiting in the cloister gardens until 
the community would be assembled in the chapter hall, Ga- 
brielle listened in vain for sounds of life in the streets beyond 
the vine-covered walls. It was astonishing how many things 
nuns had to do before anyone else in the world was awake. 
She thought of them now gathering for this extra ritual of 
welcoming postulants, and of the Superior General, whose 
slightest word, even unspoken wish if a sister could guess 
it, was law in this house called hers. When she had had 
her audience with the Reverend Mother Emmanuel to tell 
the reasons why she wished to enter the convent, she had not 
had the slightest idea of the mountains that separated her 
from the stately woman who had sat barely an arm's reach 
away from her across a desk, watching her waving hands 
and listening intently to her words. There had been some 
questions, but she could not now remember the voice. 
There had been a smile, but she could not now remember 
the face. 

The doors of the chapter hall were opened by two novices. 
The postulants entered, made their hand-crossing bow to the 
woman on a thronelike chair under an immense crucifix at 
the far end of the hall, then prostrated themselves flat on the 
floor, leaning on their elbows with faces buried in their 
hands. The glimpse she had had of the gaunt Gothic face of 
the Superior General recalled the words of the Mistress of 
Postulants. "The Reverend Mother Emmanuel," Sister Marga- 
rita had said, "is neither man nor woman. She is the Christ 



among us and, as such, she is loved by us." The Christ among 
us ... Gabrielle waited for the voice. 

"What do you ask, my children?" It was not the voice that 
had spoken to her that day across a desk. It seemed to come 
from a great distance now and it sounded lonely, 

"To be admitted into the congregation," the postulants 
said into their hands. 

"Arise in the name of God." They arose to their knees. 

The Superior General was standing. She was tall and spare. 
Her plain face had a carved simplicity, like an early Flemish 
primitive, but when she smiled, there was a sudden beauty 
cast over the countenance that made you catch your breath. 

"Every one of us," said the Reverend Mother, "has prayed 
that you would have the strength to join us." She nodded 
right and left to the assembled nuns, who, in turn, nodded as 
one to the postulants. "Now that you are part of our blessed 
congregation, do not reject the graces that will come to you, 
my children. Cooperate with those graces, for you will need 
all the strength they will bring." 

Gabrielle looked at the face of goodness with dark glowing 
eyes and wondered how she had missed that saintliness the 
first time. Gently the Reverend Mother warned of the difficul- 
ties that lay ahead. 

"It is not easy to be a nun," she said. "It is a life of sacrifice 
and self-abnegation. It is a life against nature." 

A life against nature ... the words startled Gabrielle into 
remembering her father, who had said exactly the same thing. 

"A life against nature," the Superior General repeated 
without any inflection of emotion. "Poverty, chastity and obe- 
dience are extremely difficult." She reminded them that some 
would have more trouble than others and that never any two 
would react in the same way. She cited the case of Christ's 

26 



own disciples, who counted in their much smaller group one 
who doubted, one who denied thrice and one who betrayed, 
and suggested that God might possibly have permitted those 
defections of the disciples to illustrate how difficult was the 
way to Him. 

"But there are always the graces if you will pray for them. 
Pray that you may all become St. Johns, lovers of Christ." The 
Superior General paused. Then she began again and gave her 
exhortation in Flemish. 

For the farm girls, Gabrielle thought, and she knew how 
they must love the Reverend Mother for her robust accent in 
their native tongue. As she listened to the talk a second time, 
she studied the woman who, during her religious life, had 
served as missionary in India, as teacher in Poland, as super- 
visor in the psychiatric institutions of the Order, including 
the heartbreak home for uneducable idiot children which 
broke most nuns after a tour of duty there. She knew the Su- 
perior held degrees in philosophy, the humanities, and was a 
diplomaed nurse besides, and that her memory was said to be 
phenomenal. Every six years when she visited the missions of 
the Order all the way from the Great Wall of China to the Hi- 
malayas, she could call every nun by name without prompt- 
ing from the local Mothers Superior. She's not one woman, 
Gabrielle thought, she's a multitude of women. 

The Superior General gave her talk in English, then 
paused for the third and final time. Her right hand, knife- 
thin and long, appeared from beneath her scapular. She made 
the sign of the cross over them, a compact gesture without any 
energy-wasting sweep, gave them her benediction in Latin 
and sat down. 

She remained seated while the postulants stood up on sig- 
nal from the Mistress, and recited the Veni Creator. Then 



they bowed and left the hall to return to the chapel for Mass. 
Not until she was about to enter the chapel did it occur to Ga- 
brielle that she had been too absorbed in the Gothic woman 
who was henceforth the ruler of her days to have noticed if 
Sister William had been present for the ceremony. 



28 



Ill 



THE six months were almost over. Gabrielle discovered one 
day when she counted her comrades that three were misssing. 
The rigid surveillance of every minute of the postulants' rime 
had permitted so little impression to be made one upon the 
other that she had no idea which three of the group had 
dropped out and returned to the world. 

Time in the convent belonged to the bronze bell in the 
chapel campanile which announced every activity of the 
close-packed days. This tolling bell, Sister Margarita had ex- 
plained, was more than a summons to duties and devotions. It 
was the voice of Christ calling them for His things, which ob- 
viously made compliance with it one of the most desirable of 
their obligations. The Holy Rule moreover underlined this 
desirability. If, on the instant of the bell's peal, you did not 
stop mid-air, mid-voice, whatever you were doing or saying, 
you committed an imperfection against the rule of obedience. 

Had that been the stumbling block for her three departed 
comrades? Gabrielle wondered. Her own frustration smol- 
dered because she could not learn to cut a word in half and 
swallow the unspoken syllable at the sound of the bell, nor 
teach her fingers to drop pencil or chalk and leave a letter un- 
finished ay without its tail, a t without its cross. 

In the school for deaf-mutes to which she was assigned, she 

29 



saw the nuns and their novice helpers do these things with- 
out any look of rebellion or any visible desire to complete an 
unfinished act. She knew, because she struggled to emulate 
them, that it took the strength of a giant to submit to that par- 
alyzing power of the bell. She knew also that if she could not 
achieve that command over herself in this simplest of all acts 
of obedience, she would never come near the final goal of be- 
coming obedient to the will of God for which these seeming 
idiosyncrasies of conduct were, so to speak, the gymnastic 
training. 

Though the campanile bell was quite light and musical in 
tone, it carried to the uttermost corners of the mother house 
enclosure, into hospital wards and linen closets, into school- 
rooms and kitchens, and if there were some exceptionally 
noisy spots like the foundling nursery where you might just 
possibly miss its first peal and be able, with clear conscience, 
to complete an act in transit, there was always an older nun 
around who had the bells in her blood, who would lift her fist 
and pull twice down on air to pantomime that Christ was call- 
ing. Even patients sometimes made this silent signal and 
once, to Gabrielle's shame and astonishment, a deaf-mute 
child propelled her hand, holding a glass of milk to his lips, 
away from him when the bell which he could not hear had 
sounded. 

The grilling routine was the most exasperating and the 
most compelling challenge she had ever experienced. It de- 
manded an all-or-nothing way of being, a conscious and com- 
plete submission of self. There were rewards which came 
often enough to keep you trudging toward them* There was 
the renewal force of the daily Mass, whose mysterious beauty 
could never dim or diminish. There was the singing of the 
Seven Hours spaced through the day. The most magic mo- 

30 



ment was the final anthem to the Virgin each night just be- 
fore the beginning of the grand silence when all the sisters 
assembled in the chapel and sang the day to its close with the 
Salve Regina. 

It began after Lauds and the seven-minute examination of 
conscience which followed this last devotion of the day. In 
the brief silence while the community examined its two hun- 
dred separate consciences, you sensed the struggle in the bod- 
ies kneeling in self-judgment and heard pencils scratch across 
notebook pages, harsh whispers of sound that said Mea culpa, 
mea culpa, I accuse mysetf. There was no feeling of a molded 
community around you then. Each nun seemed momentarily 
to have escaped from the mold to exist briefly apart from her 
sisters in the lonely atmospheres of her own conscience. Then 
five peals of the bell brought them together to perform with a 
single fervent heart their final act of the day. The Salve Re- 
gina . * . 

One by one the lights in the chapel would be extinguished 
until there were left only the vigil light at the altar and the 
shaded lamp that illuminated the statue of the Virgin Mary, 
When everything else was dark the nuns began to sing. For 
Gabrielle, this was the moment that made every next day pos- 
sible. Even after the postulants were permitted to sing with 
their sisters, she could not trust her voice. The awesome anti- 
phon swelled in the dark and expanded it. It seemed to her 
then that every convent, monastery and remotest mission on 
the planet was somehow brought into her own chapel and 
that che pure voices she heard close to her were but the top 
level of sound in the cry for mercy that was welling up at that 
moment to the Mother of God from every place where vowed 
ones lived behind walls. Their eyes of trust like those of chil- 
dren in the dark, thousands upon thousands of them, seemed 



to be looking out through her own, fixed on the single lighted 
figure to which the voices sang O dulcis Virgo Maria. 

In the dark the sisters filed out of the chapel line by line, 
the postulants first and the youngest of these at the head, then 
the novices and finally the professed nuns, with the oldest in 
the life bringing up the rear the processional sequence for 
the total community en marche. Shadowed in this traditional 
formation, Gabrielle saw the outlines of a great family with 
the youngest out in front under the multiple eyes of the senior 
sisters and the local Mother Superior of the house (or Rev- 
erend Mother Emmanuel herself when her work schedule per- 
mitted) there near the door to receive their reverence and to 
give them her benediction. Her youngest novice stood beside 
her holding the pot of holy water with which she sprinkled 
them. You could not see clearly in the gloom the aspergillum 
that rose and fell rhythmically and occasionally dipped into 
the pot the novice held, but you felt sometimes on your face a 
few cool drops falling with the Latin words of blessing that 
sent you off to bed. 

It seemed to Gabrielle during the months of trial that the 
harder she tried, the more imperfect she became. The note- 
book in which each morning she recorded her first examina- 
tion of conscience, as did every other sister in the same bell- 
bracketed ten minutes wherever she might be, read like a 
record of rebellion against the Holy Rule. Ran upstairs. 
Talked after bell. Let door slam. No spirit of poverty again 
today in refectory, still longing for plate instead of 'wooden 
plank to eat from . . . 

In the study hall once a week the postulants read aloud to 
Sister Margarita the list of their imperfections. Their voices 
cracked, their faces perspired and Gabrielle agonized for 



each one until her turn came. Often she had the impression 
she was reading the wrong week. Her faults repeated them- 
selves week after week, identical in number and kind. 

It might have helped, she thought, had she been able to 
compare notes with her struggling comrades, but the life gave 
no opportunity for this. They had all been dispersed from the 
first day, each to the department for which she had special 
qualifications, and when the group came together for the 
daily hour of recreation, all conversation had to be kept to 
matters of general interest. Since it was a strict rule that the 
past must never be mentioned, there was very little left to 
talk about with these comparative strangers except the scen- 
ery, which was always the same. Generally, on recreation, the 
postulants were as uncommunicative as the cocoons hanging 
in the poplar trees beneath which they strolled and breathed 
deeply, as the Mistress of Postulants urged. 

Gabrielle was aware, however, of growing perceptions 
which seemed almost extrasensory, since she could not recall 
exactly when she had first understood this or that hidden as- 
pect of convent life. During her postulancy, a group of nov- 
ices made their first vows and changed into the habit of the 
professed. She had never thought of their fierce temptation to 
see how they looked in the transforming black. Even when, 
one morning, leaving the dormitory, she paused to allow a 
former novice to precede her and glanced into the cell from 
which the flustered new nun had emerged, she made nothing 
of the black apron she saw hanging behind the pane of the 
half-open window. But weeks later, when Sister Margarita 
was talking of the temptations of vanity, to explain why the 
Rule permitted nuns to shine their shoes only once weekly in- 
stead of daily as some might wish to do, Gabrielle knew in a 
flash that her sisters must sometimes try to steal looks at them- 

33 



selves in their mirrorless world, though there was no connec- 
tion then in her mind between this mysterious certainty and 
the memory of a black apron hung behind a pane of glass to 
cast a dark reflection. 

Each step of preparation for the novitiate was taken, as it 
were, in the midst of it, for there were novices ever present to 
study secretly and beyond these were the professed nuns. It 
was like living in your future before you came to it. You 
could look at it and think about it endlessly, but you could 
never speak with it. Yet, somehow, the air was charged with 
communication. 

It was amazing how much seemed to be said when Sister 
William passed her in a corridor. Don't struggle so alone, my 
sister, said the sharp eyes that barely glanced at her. Leave a 
little leeway for the graces. Saints are seldom made and never in 
a day. You master one imperfection and ten others sprout like 
dragons* teeth. It's a never-ending affair trying to be a good 
nun. Endless, endless . . . but never forget our saying, When 
God orderSy He gives . . ." And she would be gone then and 
only her serge skirts would have spoken in the discreet rustle 
of uninterrupted passage. 

God gave her the strength to wake up each morning ready 
to start all over again. As the mysteriously acquired aware- 
nesses extended her understanding of the inner life of nuns, it 
struck Gabrielle that perhaps each one of them, no matter 
how old in the religious life, had to begin each day as if it 
were a first. 

The penances confirmed her idea that a life against nature 
could never become habitual, could never be lived through 
the reflexes, but had to be fought for constantly. The late ar- 
rivals in chapel, who had to prostrate themselves in the cen- 
ter of the nave and stay that way until the Superior signaled 

34 



her aide to pluck their sleeves and send them to their pews, 
were as often as not the professed nuns whose imposing num- 
ber of keys indicated their importance in the community. 

The refectory penances were performed in the bright light 
that slanted down from many windows. Here the late arrival 
kneeling beside the Superiors' chairs at the head of the U- 
shaped tables was seen by all. Moreover, when she received 
permission to be seated, she had the additional mortification 
of disturbing her sisters on the bench. 

It was like having to disrupt an immense tableau vivant, 
archaic in design and significance. It gave Gabrielle a shiver 
every time she saw it happen, as if already the nun's dread of 
conspicuousness had entered her spirit. When the late sister's 
place was midway on the bench, ten sisters had to stand up 
and file out while she went in to her place. They had first to 
remove the big napkins which were both serviettes and indi- 
vidual tablecloths. These unbleached squares of sacking were 
tucked into the starched bibs and were anchored in place on 
the table by the wood planks that served as plates. A sideways 
glance down the table gave the impression that all the nuns 
were connected to it by a continuous membrane of poverty, 
which was what the coarse napkins really were in both inten- 
tion and substance. The disturbed nuns disconnected them- 
selves by laying their napkins forward on the table. Then 
they stood up, bowed to the Superior and filed out. The lag- 
gard, passing before them, tapped her breast twice to each 
Excuse me, excuse me . . , then she crept in between bench 
and table. No matter how tall, how young or how regally an- 
cient she might be, she always seemed to creep. 

Gabrielle prayed she would never come late for meals. Be- 
ing prostrate in the chapel did not seem half so appalling as 
having to derange a whole row of your sisters and put them, at 

35 



a moment when they had half-chewed food in their mouths, 
to the test of living up to that part of the Holy Rule which 
said, The sisters should always have a serene visage and a 
gracious air. 

Although each step toward the novitiate was described be- 
fore it was taken, and could be seen around you in practiced 
pantomime, this did not, however, remove the element of sur- 
prise. As the day of vesture approached, there was much dis- 
cussion of detachment. This was an alpine peak over which 
the Mistress of Postulants led them so gently in thought that 
it seemed to Gabrielle she had already gone over that divide. 
Detachment from family and friends was an accomplished 
fact. Since her first day, her struggles had been so intense and 
absorbing, she had written but one letter home. The hopeless- 
ness of trying to communicate anything of what she was 
thinking and feeling made the letter as brief and banal as the 
spirit messages her brothers used to buy from turbaned seers 
at county fairs . . . All goes 'well. 

Detachment from things would be no more difficult than 
detachment from family had been, she thought. Sister Marga- 
rita explained that the night before vesture they would be ex- 
pected to make a total severance from all cherished personal 
possessions, to destroy all letters and photographs, and, into a 
basket for the poor which would be passed around, to cast any 
object that might attach them to a memory. She touched the 
fine gold pencil from Jean which she kept in her skirt pocket. 
When the time came to drop it into the basket for the poor, 
she would say All -for Jesus then, and feel less pain- 
Sister Margarita spoke softly when she came to the cutting 
of the hair which would detach them from worldly appear- 
ances. "The hair," she said, "is the chief adornment of 
women in the world" 

36 



Gabrielle felt no emotion at the prospect of her head being 
clipped, although she knew that in the lay world the nun's 
bare head under bands and bonnet disturbed the imagina- 
tion almost more than any other aspect of cloistered women. 
To be shorn of your hair seemed to her not only the most logi- 
cal of detachments but also the most healthy for those who 
must henceforth wear a skullcap weighted with coif, starched 
supports and the final long veil. She had no curiosity about 
the actual operation for she had already seen it performed 
one day when she was sent to the laundry. 

Postulants from a previous group were seated on wood 
benches over which presided three nuns with clippers and 
shears. The heads were already clipped bare as a kneecap and 
the stone floor adrift with chestnut and blond locks, some of 
which clung to the shoes of the barber nuns. More interesting 
than the barbering was the sight of the nuns talking with the 
postulants a special permission, she supposed, to ease the 
nervousness of the shorn ones who had a tendency to giggle 
when they saw how the others looked. 

That glimpse of her future made the final act of detach- 
ment seem no more macabre than any of the others. Your 
photos of Papa and the brothers, your gold pencil, your last 
gossipy letter from Tante Colette, your hair, she said to her- 
self, and did not realize that there were ramifications of de- 
tachment which reached inward beyond the emotions as- 
sociated with persons and places to the deep instinctive 
humanity which had been part of you since the day you were 
born. 

The first time she saw a novice faint in the chapel, she 
broke every rule and stared. No nun or novice so much as 
glanced at the white form that had keeled over from the 
knees, though the novice fell sideways into their midst and 

37 



her Little Office shot from her hands as if thrown. For a few 
moments while the prayers continued, the surrounding sisters 
seemed to be monsters of indifference, as removed from the 
plight of the unconscious one as though she were not sprawled 
out blenched before them on the carpet. Then Gabrielle saw 
the nun in charge of the health of the community come down 
the aisle. The nursing nun plucked the sleeve of the nearest 
sister, who arose at once and helped carry the collapsed nov- 
ice back down the aisle, past a hundred heads that never 
turned, past two hundred eyes that never swerved from the 
altar. 

She trembled as she realized that she had been staring not 
at heartlessness but at a display of detachment which tran- 
scended every discipline she had thus far tried to emulate. 
How could you train yourself to a detachment so deep- 
reaching that it cut you off from the very breath and heart- 
beat of your common humanity? She would never achieve 
that goal, she told herself with despair, unaware that when 
she had stifled her nurse's impulse to rush forward and give 
aid, she had already struggled up the first rise of that alpine 
climb. 

Later on, when she had trained herself to the exquisite 
charity of not seeming to see a sister in torment, kneeling 
alone in the chapel and crying quietly into her hands, or one 
who fasted furtively to starve an ardent nature into obedi- 
ence, she would know that few of them ever really reached 
the icy peaks of total detachment but only seemed to have 
done so, a position, in actual fact, much more perilous to 
maintain. 

There was a week of retreat before vesture and on the last 
evening they were given their nun's underclothing. Each 



piece was stitched with the postulant's number in the Order. 
Gabrielle had the odd feeling, as she tried on the black hand- 
knitted stockings with drawstrings at their tops and the long- 
sleeved chemise that came to the knees, that Sister Marie- 
Polycarpe was watching the 1072 garments fill out with new 
life. The face of the martyred missionary, familiar through 
photographs in the convent's magazine, seemed to be tilted 
toward her, a pale oval reflecting the ghost of a smile. It was 
like having a mirror in her cell 

She lifted the black serge skirt over her shoulders and 
watched its fullness drop to the floor as she hooked it about 
her waist. It was a graceful garment. She walked from wall 
to wall and back again, watching the heavy hem swinging. 
Her hands found the pockets and slid into them and now 
she imagined Sister Marie-Polycarpe shaking her head 
regretfully as she explored what could be, if permitted, such 
a wonderful hiding place. The pockets were so large and so 
cleverly hidden among folds, you could carry more than 
everything you owned in them and have nothing show in 
silhouette. 

The Mistress of Novices, who was another Living Rule, 
sterner than Sister Margarita but equally as beautiful, had 
listed the items a nun could carry in those pockets. If she se- 
questered any others, her conscience would eventually com- 
pel her to report the disobedience. Gabrielle looked at the six 
allowed items ready on her dressing stand a wallet of 
strong black leather in which it was permitted to carry an 
India-paper edition of the Little Office, the conscience note- 
book and a few pamphlets; a small circular tin box with 
hinged lid in which was set a pincushion already studded 
with white-headed pins for the novice veil; a small rosary in a 
leather pouch; a penknife; a thimble; and a large cotton ban- 

39 



danna in blue and white the one bit of color a nun might 
possess. 

When she was vested, she would have one other permitted 
storage space beneath her scapular, that outer garment 
whose origin was lost in antiquity. It was a sleeveless robe 
made of two panels of wool which dropped from the shoul- 
ders to the hemline, back and front, a symbol of the yoke of 
Christ, so the Mistress had said. The leather belt buckled 
over it and made a handy pouch where such things as black- 
bordered letters announcing a death in the family or cards 
with printed prayers for loved ones might be carried, above 
the heart. But nothing slipped beneath the scapular must ever 
be detectable. There could be no telltale bulges. 

She took her hands from the pockets and stood still for an 
instant mentally adding the white gown, scapular, veil and 
cape to the clothes she had on and gazing inward at the image 
of herself as her family would see her in the morning, thank- 
ful that her congregation did not send its postulants to ves- 
ture attired as real brides. She could imagine what her broth- 
ers would make of such a show. She saw their merry faces as 
she removed the practical workaday clothing; then her fingers 
touched the cap on her clipped head and she shut off her im- 
aginings abruptly. That's what this thing is for, she reminded 
herself. 

The white cotton cap was called a $erre~tete. It clasped the 
head closely and had drawstrings in it. "The tighter you draw 
those strings," the Mistress of Novices had said, "the better 
will you restrain the imagination. Tie it down well, my sis- 
ters. We do not waste God's time with daydreaming. . . " 
She loosened the drawstrings, which she had pulled too tight 
in her eagerness, then knelt beside her straw sack to say her 
last prayers as a postulant. 

40 



Sleep always came quickly after days that began in the dark 
of the dawn, but this night she heard every hour tolled from 
the cathedral in town. The chimes drifted in through the 
dormitory windows to mingle with the sighs and rustlings of 
straw she heard all about her. She reviewed her talk with the 
Superior General that afternoon when she had confided her 
secret hope of one day being a missionary sister in the 
Congo. The Reverend Mother Emmanuel's dark glowing eyes 
seemed to have pulled it out of her. She had meant to say 
only that she hoped she might become a good nurse and a 
good nun willing to go wherever she was sent, and not really 
caring where that might be as long as there was an abundance 
of God's work to do. ... The tolling bells counted mid- 
night. 

"We shall see, my child," said the Reverend Mother, smil- 
ing as at one who had reached for the moon too soon. "We se- 
lect only the very strongest sisters for our missions. Your nurs- 
ing qualifications would seem to make you a likely candidate, 
but you are still very far from being in the mold. The mold is 
the armor of our missionaries and this is not forged in a day. 
It takes patience and the graces from infinite praying to 
achieve." 

We shall see . . . We shall see . . . Three bells chimed like 
an echo. In less than two hours, Gabrielle thought. She lay in 
wait for the electric alarm whose shock she had learned to 
subdue by anticipating it. 

Meditations, Prime, Tierce, and Mass, and at seven they 
were ready for vesture. While the Monsignor from Malines 
was preaching a sermon to the community of nuns and the 
dose family members in the guest section, the postulants filed 
into the sacristy, where the remaining clothing for the novice 

41 



nuns was laid out on two trestles leather belts, starched 
guimpes, veils and scapulars segregated into thirty-seven neat 
piles. Gabrielle saw everything as if she had a thousand eyes 
looking in all directions at once. 

The four highest ranking in the community the Supe- 
rior General, the Mother Superior, the Mistress of Novices 
and the Mistress of Postulants were waiting like handmaid- 
ens to dress them. The farm girls blushed when these impor- 
tant personages dropped the white gowns over the black 
skirts and fitted the board-stiff guimpes under their chins. 
The veil and scapular had been blessed and had to be kissed 
before they were put on, as each morning for the remainder 
of their religious lives they must kiss these items of the habit 
Waiting her turn, Gabrielle looked at the first ones dressed. 
When the coif was pulled forward around the face, her com- 
panions underwent a subtle transformation. Flemish, English 
and Irish identities disappeared and they began to look alike. 
Like angels slightly surprised, Gabrielle thought. 

She discovered why they looked surprised when the Mis- 
tress showed her how to pull the guimpe up and forward 
from the back, to make a starched frame about her face. Side 
views were cut off as effectively as though blinders had been 
saddled to her eyes, which was, she remembered, just what 
the coif was designed to do. It kept you looking in the only di- 
rection you were supposed to look, straight ahead toward 
God. 

But, when she was moving in procession down the chapel 
aisle, looking toward the altar and the officiating priest, Ga- 
brielle knew as if she had seen through the back of her head 
that Jean was there in the guest section. The certainty gave 
her a momentary shock, but only because he had promised 
never to try to see her again and he was a man of his word 

42 



With her inner eye she saw him in the last row near the door, 
hunched forward and staring at the white forms going by, un- 
able to tell which one was hers. Then she realized that the 
free-swinging athletic walk she had stripped away concealed 
her from his eyes more than the concealing garments she wore. 
The Monsignor intoned the Veni Sponsa Christi, which 
brought them forward to the altar one by one to have a cir- 
clet of orange blossoms laid atop the veil. She walked with 
the slow passionless pace which still required all her attention 
to maintain. The opposing choirs of nuns sang joyously of 
crowns until eternity and she passed between them as be- 
tween two protecting walls that closed her off from every- 
thing save the carpeted steps of the altar which led her to her 
crown and to the name by which she would henceforth be 
known Sister Luke. 

Afterwards, it took a long time to embrace all the sisters of 
the community. Their cheeks deep within the coif were hard 
to get at and you had to be careful not to crush the starched 
guimpes. Even for so light an embrace, she found it unnerving 
to touch them physically and to feel on her arms the occasional 
pressure of their hands when they saw she had tears in her 
eyes. She wanted to tell them that her tears were not for fear 
or self-pity as with some of the new novices. Or for God- 
given joy as with others. They are simply tears of relief, she 
wanted to say, plain practical relief because I've come to the 
crossroads and crossed. 

As she made the ritual rounds and came now and again to 
a face drawn back like a turtle's into its starchy carapace, it 
struck her that that was how she would be years hence when 
she, in her turn, would be receiving the "kiss of peace" from 
new novices and fighting not to respond emotionally to 

43 



youthful faces under orange blossoms as they pressed into her 
sanctum of starch to find her cheeks. 

She was trembling when she went into the parlor to greet 
her second family. Her father came forward like an Edward- 
ian gallant and took her two hands in his. Xante Colette, his 
spinster sister, stood behind him holding the youngest 
brother by the hand. 

"The family of the doctor!" she said softly to her father, 
mocking him with his favorite phrase of pride. 

"And you?" He concealed his emotion under a professional 
scrutiny. "You are thinner. You seemed nervous during the 
ceremony." 

"You'll be nervous too, dear brother," said Tante Colette, 
"when you go to God ... if you ever do." Her aunt kissed 
her vigorously and whispered into the coif band over her ear, 
"Poor Jean, he slipped in and slipped out, as of course you 
were well aware." 

The brothers shook her hand gravely and could think of 
nothing to say except the youngest, who asked if the orange 
blossoms were real. 

"They're wax," said Tante Colette for her. "Now you boys 
go over and sample the cakes the good sisters have baked for 
this occasion." 

"She has them tamed already," said her father. 

"And you also, my old one." Her aunt nodded briskly at the 
brother she idolized and said, "You will note, dear Gaby, that 
he wears his muffler." 

Her father seemed to find conversation difficult. He looked 
too often at his watch as he made small talk. If her aunt had 
not been present to bridge the silences with gossip, the reun- 
ion would have been unbearably stiff* Her aunt asked her 
sharply if she got enough to eat in this place and then assured 

44 



her that her father had his round dozen of Zeeland oysters de- 
livered fresh on the half -shell every Friday at exactly a quar- 
ter past one. 

She was relieved when the visiting hour came to an end. 
The efforts of her father to appear natural with her were 
painful and puzzling. Her sister novices seemed to have had 
similar experiences with their families. They came from the 
parlor with troubled faces and removed their circlets of 
orange blossom even before the Sacristaine came around with 
a basket to collect them. Was it the wreath? she wondered. 
Could that one symbol borrowed from the world have been 
the factor that held their families tongue-tied? 

She had her answer unexpectedly that same night when she 
reported for duty in the hospital ward. She had just taken over 
the desk from a sleepy old nun when all the call-bells started 
ringing at once. She could not know that the same thing was 
happening throughout all the hospitals and charity homes of 
the mother house enclosure, that everywhere the old patients 
who had been under care for years, and who by now had the 
life of the convent fixed in the spirit as if they themselves 
were members of the community, had waited up to see the 
new novices. She looked with alarm at the blinking red lights 
and hurried into her ward. 

All her patients were sitting up with eyes on the door 
through which they knew she must come. She started down 
the rows of beds, rearranging pillows, giving sips of water and 
easing bandages, pretending not to hear the disobedient whis- 
pers that broke the grand silence. , . . How beautiful you 
are, Sister! . , . but hearing them with a sudden lift of heart 
as she saw the surprise in faded old eyes which had last seen 
her in the short black dress of the postulant. 

As Papa saw me last, she thought, and blessed them silently 

45 



for telling her, with the surface emotions of the sick, what her 
father had been too confused to say. 

"Ah, Sister, you make a beautiful nun!" they sighed with 
satisfaction. 



I V 



IN the first year of the novitiate, struggle seemed to go 
deeper and ceased to be mainly for physical perfections. It 
turned into a lonely war against pride and self-will. Since after 
vesture she never again heard her given name Gabrielle, she 
often had the illusion that she was contending with a stranger 
and that the stubborn characteristics she fought belonged to 
someone else. Only her conscience performed familiarly. It 
watched her doing something new like a morion-picture cam- 
era recording without pity or prejudice the laborious devel- 
opment of someone called Sister Luke. 

No novice left the mother house during that formative 
year. The house was the cradle of the religious life and the 
community itself was the mold that pressed, restrained and 
supported the wavering white forms that slowly shaped to 
strength. 

The community, which in postulant days had appeared to 
Sister Luke as a vast amorphous body with four hundred eyes 
and ears, revealed its hierarchic outline more clearly now that 
she had gone up the ladder one step. A new group of postu- 
lants, over whom she took precedence in speech, was below 
her now, and above were the first professed, who had made 
their first vows as she would make them at the end of the year. 
The fully professed were, like the local Superior and Mis- 

47 



tresses, the perfected top-level beings who supervised hospitals, 
schools and homes for the aged and foundlings, and, outside 
of duty, spoke with no one except themselves and the Supe- 
riors. Above all like a central sun was the revered person of 
the Reverend Mother Emmanuel, with whom any sister might 
speak without first asking permission from her immediate su- 
pervisor. 

Although separated by speech privileges from whole seg- 
ments of the community, you were nevertheless in it and a 
part of it all the time. You slept with it, worked with it, ate 
and prayed with it. There was no escape from it. Where the 
community was, there was the Christ. Except for some major 
reason approved by the Superior, you could not absent your- 
self from community life. You might long to go off in a corner 
and read or meditate all by yourself, but this could never be. 
You were learning the hardest lesson of all to live in har- 
mony with women of all ages and of every kind. Sometimes 
the realization that she would never be alone again, physically 
alone in her own separate pool of silence, would dismay Sister 
Luke more than any other aspect of the life against nature she 
had chosen. Even more, she thought, than the culpa, which 
was its weekly trial by fire. 

The culpa was the proclaiming before all your sisters of 
your failures in the Rule faults that resulted from negli- 
gence, forgetfulness or rashness rather than from deliberate 
intent. And, after you had disclosed all that you could remem- 
ber, the sisterhood was invited to complete, for charity's sake, 
the record of failures forgotten. The culpa was obviously, as 
the Mistress of Novices had explained, a training in charity, 
forbearance and humility, but to Sister Luke it was a per- 
sonal trial by fire. 



It was held in the chapter hall every day except Sundays 
and feast days, when most of the sisters were assembled for 
spiritual reading. Each nun had her day and time assigned 
and ten or twelve could be heard in any assembly period. The 
dozen whose turn it was prostrated themselves and waited un- 
til the Superior of the house rapped twice with her gavel. 
Then the oldest in the group rose to one knee and began the 
travail of telling on herself. Ma Mere, I say my culpa . . . 

Sister Damiensus accused herself of speaking unnecessarily 
ten times, of eating a chocolate from a patient's box, of open- 
ing a window in the recreation room without first asking if 
everyone wished more air. Sister Jean de Christ accused her- 
self of the breach of poverty of spilling milk twice in the re- 
fectory, of walking with precipitation to avoid being late for 
devotions, of forgetting to kiss the floor and say three Glorias 
when she let doors slam . . . and all of it sounded like trivia 
wrought out of senseless scrupulosity until your turn came 
and until you felt beneath your scapular the white-hot burn 
of humiliation which told you how much of your pride was 
still alive within you and how far away was that perfection in 
humility toward which this weekly ordeal heated, hammered 
and fashioned you. 

At first the culpa made Sister Luke think of guillotine 
days of the French Revolution. The spectator nuns sat with 
books of spiritual readings instead of knitting and seemed al- 
ways to be absorbed in their pages. But their retentive memo- 
ries could almost be heard clicking like small hidden projec- 
tors as they reviewed their versions of the culpa that was be- 
ing said. Then those who had seen or heard something more 
would stand up, one, two or three of them, but never more 
than three. The culpa had rules. Only three times in a single 



49 



session might a nun be proclaimed by her sisters, and no one 
younger than she in the religious life was permitted to dis- 
close a forgotten fault. 

After several months of the culpa had somewhat accus- 
tomed her to its dread but never to its burning humiliation, 
Sister Luke began to see something heroic in the nuns who 
proclaimed a sister. They have courage, she thought. They 
carry it even beyond the point where Christ stopped. They 
state the failure in detail and name the name, whereas He 
said only that one shall betray and it is: One of the twelve, 
'who dippeth ninth me his hand in the dish. 

The body of the community eventually revealed through 
the culpa more of its composition. As she heard certain sisters 
proclaimed repeatedly for the same imperfection in outward 
conduct, Sister Luke began to see where, in the community 
life, the muscles, the mind and the emotions lay. The nuns 
proclaimed most often for impetuous walking were those 
who had been sports enthusiasts in their former lives. The in- 
tellectual nuns lost in the clouds of their private thoughts 
were those most frequently proclaimed for refectory faults 
like forgetting to pass things at table and spilling the milk 
they poured absent-mindedly into coffee mugs. And there was 
one choir nun with a face like St. Cecilia's who was regularly 
proclaimed for having been "carried off by a bird song'* dur- 
ing a meeting of the teaching staff, or for having broken the 
grand silence by whispering "Listen! " when tree frogs sang at 
night. 

The bravest of the emotionally vulnerable were the sisters 
who stood up together in the culpa and proclaimed each 
other for having gone out of their way to be near to one 
another, or perhaps for having talked together in recreation 
in a way that excluded others. Their tormented but clearly 

5 



spoken disclosures of a nascent affinity gave it the coup de 
grdce which they themselves might not have been able to do, 
for the entire community would henceforth see to it that 
these two would be kept far apart. The pair would be helped 
to detach themselves from one of those spontaneous personal 
attachments which often sprang to life in the body of the com- 
munity as unexpectedly as wildflowers appeared, now and 
again, in the formal geometric patterns of the cloister gar- 
dens. 

Sometimes when she knelt after her culpa and listened to 
the voice of a sister quietly reporting faults she had been un- 
aware of, Sister Luke momentarily lost her identity as com- 
panion nurse sharing night duty with that sister. The 
familiar voice would suddenly become that of a stranger, leav- 
ing her with the impression that she was listening to the voice 
of the community grieving as a single body over its imper- 
fections. There was fear then, a quick quiver of it that called 
the adrenalin into her blood. She ceased to exist for that mo- 
ment. She was no longer Sister Luke, formerly Gabrielle 
Van der Mai. She was, momentarily, no more than a solitary 
cell situated somewhere below speech level in a vast organic 
body which saw, spoke and thought for her and which cared 
for her with scrupulous charity while carrying her upward to 
an unknown place. The fear passed over like a moving 
shadow, quickly come and quickly gone. How could you be 
afraid of the community? she asked herself. It would be like 
fearing your own self or fearing number 1072. 

After culpa the community recited the De profundis. She 
would enunciate each word with care, unaware that she 
pitched her voice a shade above the others so that she could 
hear herself saying in her own way, Out of the depths I cry to 
Thee, O Lord . . . 

5' 



Midway in the novitiate, when the novices were strong but 
not strong enough, the Superior began to mete out bigger 
penances in the culpa. From the saying of five Aves for a re- 
peated fault, the penances now became acts of humiliation 
performed openly in the refectory. Sister Luke tried to think 
of them as a final tempering before her group would make 
its first vows and be sent away from the mother house to 
smaller communities that were much closer to the lay world 
and to its temptations. But each time she was given a public 
penance, there was nothing her mind could do to help her 
out of a humiliation that bit to the quick. 

There were four of these severe penances and quite often, 
in the final months, you saw all four of them going on at once 
in the refectory the kissing of the feet of the ten oldest 
nuns, the begging of the soup, the asking for prayers from all 
the sisters for help in achieving the Holy Rule, and the kneel- 
ing with arms outstretched to say five Aves, five Paters and 
five Glorias. 

Was there anywhere in the outside world a training and 
tempering comparable to this? Sister Luke tried to find an 
analogy. There must be disciplined lives in the world, she told 
herself, but whose? And to what aim? All she could think of 
was the ballet and its training of those special muscles which 
held dancers on their toe-tips for incredible periods of whirl- 
ing, leaping and dropping again to those two points of pain, 
lightly as birds from flight. But ballerinas were trained al- 
most from infancy. They did not have twenty-one years of 
natural living to undo before learning to fly. 

The first time she was penanced to beg her soup, her entire 
past rose up in outrage. Years of impeccable service at her 
father's table flashed in her memory as she placed her pottery 
bowl on the left of the Mother Superior, knelt, clasped her 



hands and waited until two spoonfuls of soup had been put 
into her beggar's bowl, then on to the next oldest and the 
next, until the bowl was filled. Six nuns putting two spoon- 
fuls each could have filled it, but that first time there were 
three who thoughtlessly doled out a single spoonful and then 
resumed their own eating. She arose and took her bowl on 
down the table, remembering the Meissen soup tureen at 
home and the silver ladle that put into each plate its full and 
steaming content with a single dip. When at last her bowl was 
filled, she returned to her place and swallowed the soup, as 
she knew she must, down to the last drop. She tried not to 
think how it had been tossed into her bowl from a dozen other 
bowls that had already been eaten from, and blanked out 
from her facial expression the revolt that rose up in her fastid- 
ious soul as she drank her dregs. One look of rebellion, she 
knew, would be enough to invite a repetition of the awful 
abasement which she was sure she could never go through 
again, not even for the sake of the Blessed Lord Himself. 

But she did go through it several times in the final months 
of her novitiate. She begged her soup, she knelt to kiss the 
feet of the ten oldest nuns, she burned through the mortifica- 
tion of asking her sisters to pray for help for her, and was it 
more harrowing to have to stop the pulpit reader when you 
made that abject request than to disturb the hungry nuns by 
laying your beggar's bowl beside them or signaling them to 
put out their feet to be kissed? 

Her imperfections that had brought on the penaaces were 
cut away from her as cleanly as if she had undergone surgery. 
She was seldom penanced for the same fault twice, but there 
were always others. She learned to see through her pain 
beyond the strict observance of the Rule which was the in- 
evitable result of those experiences to something else that 

53 



was being taught by them. As the pride of Gabrielle Van der 
Mai crumbled within her and a feeling of her nothingness 
took its place, Sister Luke had her first haunting glimpse of 
humility when she looked at the prideless place within her 
that was being prepared for its growth. 

In the last trying months before vows, she saw true humil- 
ity several times but she did not know it then. Occasionally 
when several novices were slated for penances in the refec- 
tory, one of the professed nuns in sober startling black ap- 
peared in the white-robed penance group. Sister Luke would 
stare at the soup-begging nun, the involuntary exclamation, 
What could she possibly have done! almost escaping from her 
parted lips. Her surprised eyes would follow the dark figure 
of grace as it moved around the table with the slowly filling 
bowl. She was unaware that she looked at one of the great 
charitable souls of the sisterhood who had asked permission 
to do this mortification, to show the novices how perfect hu- 
mility looked when given to God with a smile. 

Thus, in that year, besides earning her nursing degree and 
a diploma in psychiatry, the data of struggle accumulated 
within her. If her reasonable mind often looked askance at 
the smallness of the things she struggled for, she reminded 
herself that nothing was trivial in the eyes of God and that 
the life of the cloister was made up of an infinity of small 
things that had an importance here undreamed of in the out- 
side world. Each simplest act, each hidden intention, had to 
be cut to the Rule and polished and perfected like the tiny 
stones of a mysterious mosaic which had no meaning when 
looked at one by one, except that one by one they fitted to* 
gether and suggested a pattern. The pattern was the formation 
of the nun but she was too close to see it* 



54 



Once on recreation when she sat cleaning beans with her 
sister novices, her eyes wandered around the wide circle they 
formed beneath the trees. She looked at the young flushed 
faces bent over lapfuls of beans and listened to the exclama- 
tions of the fast-fingered ones who could string more beans 
for Jesus than others could in the given time. No one uttered 
a regret for not being allowed to stroll that day through the 
gardens. No one looked up from her aproned lap to the flow- 
ering chestnuts and the slow drift of summer clouds above 
them. Their discipline showed so sweetly without stress or 
strain, it nearly brought tears to her eyes. 

It is almost an exaggerated thing, she thought, this disci- 
pline. It is surely more than any of us could ever need in the 
safe communities where we shall be. ... 

She could not know then, on that summer day in 1927, 
that in little more than a decade their ordered world would 
rock and twist like the epicenter of an earthquake and that 
the walls she imagined would always protect them would 
crack in many places and fall in heaps of rubble to the 
ground. Some of these sisters who sat beside her would disap- 
pear in the holocaust, not to be heard from for years until, at 
last, a few would begin to reappear one by one . . . out of 
Poland, Czechoslovakia, China, out of all the sad new Godless 
lands called Iron Curtain where first of all the cloistered had 
been hunted down. They would reappear with worn pictures 
of saints sewn into the hems of disguising lay clothes and ro- 
saries hidden in their shoes, and the world, stirred by their 
stories of endurance, would stare at news photos of those 
blessed objects and wonder how those alone had got them 
through. Because that would be all that they, the phoenix 
sisters, would be able to tell about their calvaries. Prayers and 



55 



faith, they would say. They would have forgotten how the 
steel had got under their scapulars, it was so long ago that 
they had learned to be nuns. 

She ignored her own discipline as she bent to the bean- 
stringing she hated. She forced her fingers to work faster in 
penance for her revolt against menial work and suppressed 
the memory of the sign the cook had nailed to the kitchen 
door at home; CHILDREN FORBIDDEN TO ENTER HERE. 

Actually, she reflected, it was less of a strain to spend the 
recreation period cleaning vegetables than to walk with her 
sisters and try to think of something appropriate to speak 
about, something that would interest three other novices in 
the same degree that it interested you yourself. If you could 
only walk in pairs and speak with one at a time, she thought. 
It was a stern ruling, this no speech until four are together. 
Yet how many rimes had she all but foundered on that single 
small pebble of their Gibraltarlike discipline? 

She looked across the circle at the girl who followed her in 
line for the weekly bath, whose eyes catching hers would 
sometimes reach out like hands . . . Hold me up, Sister 
Luke, I'm scheduled -for culpa tomorrow and Fm frightened. 
Her gaze moved on to the Irish girl who always drew near to 
her in the recreation, smiling ever like a saint over her 
heartbreak that her family could not be there when she 
would make her vows. It is of course too expensive a trip from 
Ireland to Belgium, the Irish eyes would say. So Pm going to 
be all alone 'with God, then . . . except of course for you, 
Sister Luke. And then, when the third and fourth would join 
them and the oldest in the group would start the conversa- 
tion, the talk would be of something safely hung up on high 
like the Japanese lanterns for Sister Eudoxie's jubilee or 



those wonderful artificial flowers the cancer patients had 
made for the fete something general that would not rip 
open the secret places of their women's hearts. 

A stern ruling, she thought, but very wise. If just once any 
one of us let go . . . Only one in the entire congregation, she 
reflected, was probably strong enough to risk the human 
touch without becoming attached. She smiled as she thought 
of the Superior General, who had become the center of her 
universe since the day in the refectory when she had lifted 
her eyes and had really seen the Reverend Mother Em- 
manuel for the first time. 

It was on one of her penance days, she remembered, when 
she had to beg her soup for coming late to devotions from 
the hospital. She had begun, as was proper, with the highest 
ranking, who was that day the Superior General, just re- 
turned from her annual visits to the affiliated houses in Eng- 
land, Holland, France and Poland. Kneeling and waiting for 
the two spoonfuls of soup to be doled into her bowl, she had 
looked up bleak with despair. She was not expecting to be 
looked at. Experience had taught her that the higher the nun 
ranked, the more assiduous she usually was in helping a 
younger sister to regret her faults; most Living Rules doled 
out the soup with disdain and frowned into space as if an- 
noyed at the interruption. But that day the Superior Gen- 
eral's face was bent toward her and gently smiling. It was 
the kind of smile Sister Luke had almost forgotten existed. It 
reached down and touched her and seemed to say quite 
plainly, Why! You poor little thing! It was the only time she 
ever came near to crying in her penance. 

From that moment her captivated eyes had followed the tall 
spare figure whenever the Superior General was present in the 



57 



chapel, the refectory or the novices' recreation, and because 
she was looking with eyes of love, she began to see details. 

She discovered that the Reverend Mother Emmanuel's back 
never touched the back of a chair no matter how weary she 
might be. It took her several weeks to gather this evidence of 
an inner strength that totally rejected comfort. Again and 
again, in study hall, recreation or in the hospital when the 
Reverend Mother visited her nuns at work, Sister Luke 
would place herself where she could get a view of the back. 
The Reverend Mother's long black veil always fell straight 
down her flat back held rigid as a cliff of granite and there 
was always a measurable space between it and the back sup- 
port of the chair she occupied. Yet, somehow, she always 
looked relaxed. 

In the chapel, Sister Luke saw another kind of strength. 
For the half hour of meditation, the Reverend Mother Em- 
manuel's eyes never turned first to her book of spiritual read- 
ing; she could apparently enter into immediate colloquy with 
God without the help of inspirational phrases. The moment 
she knelt at her prie-dieu she seemed to be regarding Him 
directly. Stealing looks at the venerated figure so still and lost 
in contemplation, Sister Luke understood how the early art- 
ists came to paint the graces descending as rays of gold to- 
ward an upturned face. It was never difficult to imagine, 
when the Superior General was in colloquy with God, that 
you saw bright bands slanting down toward her in those gray 
dawns before sunrise. 

But it was in the recreation room that she saw the quintes- 
sence of the Superior General's power and felt most directly 
the regenerating force which emanated from her. The rec- 
reation, which had seemed like the final awful intensification 
of community life, became an adventure in humanity. 

58 



As with every other phase of community life, Sister Luke 
came upon the real meaning of the recreation slowly. She 
could not at first recognize those twice-daily periods of as- 
sembly as the very backbone of the instruction to overcome 
selfhood, nor could she realize that the recreation was the 
most important exercise in the difficult and delicate art of 
community living. Until the Reverend Mother Emmanuel 
appeared one day, the recreation was for Sister Luke a static 
sewing circle that gave her spiritual claustrophobia. 

Attendance at recreation was obligatory and you always sat 
in a circle. The circle was obviously the formation of charity, 
everyone facing each other to share smiles and words, nobody 
left out, not even the ones like Sister Luke who wished to be. 
Possibly the sole relaxing feature of it, she thought, was that 
you could take any chair that you wished. It was the only 
place where seating by seniority was waived, where the rule 
of first come, first served prevailed, except of course for the 
chair beneath the crucifix which was reserved for the pro- 
fessed nun who presided. But every other aspect of the recre- 
ation was fixed by custom. 

You came to the recreation with your workbag made of 
pieces of worn serge skirts which even the Vestiaire, with all 
her weaving arts, could no longer mend for wearing use. Your 
number was chain-stitched on the bag the quick stitch, not 
anything time-wasting or fancy like feather- or cross-stitching. 
In the bag you carried the work your hands must do while 
you sat in the circle, for no hands might lie idly folded in the 
lap. The work, moreover, had to be something manual like 
darning or knitting. It could not be anything self-absorbing 
like letter-writing, sketching or reading which would take 
your attention from the sisters sitting around you. 

Usually the sisters took stockings from their bags, the black 

59 



hand-knitted ones that looked strong as iron but which wore 
out quickly around the feet when you were ever on your feet. 
If all caught up with their darning and there was no knitting 
in progress, they took out wood spools with pins set into the 
tops, and wove string cords, the cords dropping down through 
the hole in the spool inch by inch, day by day, until there was 
enough length to serve as cord for the scissors that swung from 
every nun's belt; then it was cut off and a new one begun. The 
only elegant and slightly complicated work permitted in the 
recreation was that of the sacristy sisters, who mended altar 
cloths and sacred vestments. 

Sometimes Sister Luke would look around the circle with 
a kind of desperate urgency that sought, in some one of her 
companions' faces, a hint of the inner rebellion she herself 
felt. She saw everything else but what she sought smiles 
on the faces of nursing and teaching sisters who had chosen to 
sit next to kitchen and laundry workers, to draw them forth 
from shyness and encourage them to talk. She saw the Irish 
girls spaced far apart in the circle of charity, never choosing 
chairs beside each other to give themselves a respite from the 
patter of French which was still too quick and colloquial for 
their learners' ears to catch; their occasional smiles to each 
other were like spokes of sunlight cutting across the circle, 
uniting momentarily two points on its lonely impersonal cir- 
cumference. 

The words she had beaten back again and again since ves- 
ture, words she had dared to say only in the confessional, 
would speak then so loudly in her thoughts that she would 
look up with alarm to see if anyone else had heard. 7 don't 
belong here. I cwft even conform to the life in the recreation. 
Fm not strong enough . . . 

Then one day Reverend Mother Emmanuel visited the 

60 



novices' recreation and for Sister Luke the dreaded boring 
period was never the same again. The Superior General 
came in a few moments after all were seated and busy with 
small talk and mending. The entire circle rose instantly and 
bowed as she passed, not the deep formal reverence accorded 
her everywhere else in the convent world, but a simple head- 
bow, respectful and instantaneous as any salute to supreme 
authority sharing a recreation with juniors. 

"I was detained," she said, acknowledging with her smile 
the authority of the bells over her as well. Then she sat down, 
placed her workbag on her lap and removed her handwork 
for the period. Sister Luke saw that it was a stocking, but 
when the wooden egg dropped down the long ribbed leg to 
the heel, she knew it was no stocking the Reverend Mother 
could ever have worn. There was no heel left in it, only a 
great oval hole such as the sabots of the garden or laundry 
nuns ground out of the backs of their stockings. 

That was Sister Luke's only clear clue as to what happened 
to the recreation when the Superior General sat among them 
with her back never touching the back of her chair. Charity 
was visible in her scholarly hands expertly darning the stock- 
ing of one of their humblest sisters. Then it came alive in her 
voice, the same deep voice that had told them almost a year 
ago, "It is a life against nature," but with a personal inflection 
now as she singled them out one by one and spoke of affairs in 
their departments as if she had been working there beside 
them in the laundries where those boilers were giving trou- 
ble again, in the children's hospital where the recent measles 
outbreak had doubled the work of the nurses making the 
problems of each the concern of all. Her peculiar force that 
was like a fluid flowed out from her and you could follow its 
passage around the circle as it became visible in smiles on 

61 



faces that seldom smiled, in easings of tensions and in the re- 
laxed tones of the white-clad novices whose voices, as the day 
for the taking of vows approached, showed the nervous strain 
they were laboring under. 

In subsequent recreations, Sister Luke saw that the Rever- 
end Mother's magnetic eyes could discover struggle and 
doubts no matter how deeply these might be hidden. When 
she discovered them, she made things happen which eased 
them. She did not always draw the silent struggler into con- 
versation, but seemed rather to speak to her while ad- 
dressing another, 

A real physician of the soul, Sister Luke would think. No 
doctorate in psychology could fully account for that super- 
natural awareness of the states of others. When she looked at 
the lean self -abnegating face bent over a darning egg, she was 
certain that she was looking at the imitation of Christ so per- 
fected as to pass almost unperceived. The impression was so 
strong and it stirred her so deeply that years later, in chilly 
communities far removed from the mother house, Sister Luke 
could superimpose at will over the figure of the presiding 
local Mother Superior the spare outlines of the Reverend 
Mother Emmanuel and feel again the healing art of those 
dark eyes piercing through to the inner struggle. 

Occasionally the Reverend Mother gave the novices a 
glimpse into their futures when she brought to the recreation 
a visiting nun from an affiliated house or from one of their 
missions. The visitors always had the place of honor on her 
right, but no matter how bursting with eagerness they might 
be to relate to her every achievement of their schools, hospi- 
tals or sanatoria, the Reverend Mother would not permit 
them to monopolize her attention. She let them talk just long 
enough to give the novices a foretaste of the satisfactions they 

62 



too would have when they would be doers of God's work in 
distant places. Then, with a tact so skillful and delicate that 
it seemed no interruption at all, she would turn the conversa- 
tion back to her novices. Her rare smile assured them that the 
horizons of their struggling inner worlds were for her every 
bit as interesting as those of the distant missions. 



V 



THE week of retreat before the taking of vows was over. 
Then the Mistress of Novices gathered up her flock and led 
them to the chapter hall for final instructions. 

She described the ritual of the exchange of white scapulars 
and veils for black ones and the signing on the altar of their 
written promise of obedience to God and their legitimate 
Superiors for the period of three years, when they would then 
make their perpetual vows. The parchment with its holy 
promise would be transferred with them henceforth to 
wherever they might be sent and, when they died, it would 
be placed in their folded hands to go with them into the 
grave. The bronze crucifix that hung over the heart of every 
nun would be given to them at the altar and also the white 
choir cape worn always in the chapel by the professed. 

The Mistress had her own cape there to show them how it 
went on. It had no seams or side openings. It slipped over 
the head and fell in loose pleats from shoulders to shoes and 
had a slight train at the back. The cuffs of the wide sleeves 
reached almost to the floor and when you made the deep 
hand-crossing bow to a Superior, the sleeves followed the 
hands and folded over like wings. 

There was one other item they would receive after vows 
which explained the curious sound you heard in. the dormi- 



tories twice each week for a few minutes after lights out. The 
Mistress took from her pocket a small metal ring with five 
chains suspended from it and a pointed hook at the end of 
each chain. 

"This is a discipline," said the Mistress. It was the instru- 
ment of external penance. The professed must whip this de- 
vice over their bare shoulders every Wednesday and Friday 
nights for the duration of the saying of the Miserere. She 
cautioned about excess in the use of this mortification. It was 
as much of an imperfection to overdo as it was to pretend to 
do or not to do at all. 

Sister Luke looked steadily at the flagellant device. I can 
use that to good advantage, she thought. I can use that on my 
sudden hungers for oysters, on the flare-ups of carnal desire 
that sometimes torment my body by day and my dreams by 
night, on my nagging longings for the latest medical books, 
theaters, symphonies, mountain-climbing in the Ardennes 
. . . those little chains and sharp hooks will give me some- 
thing else to think about. 

She tried not to imagine her father's explosive reaction to 
such a practice but his indignant voice prevailed against her 
will. Neurotic women flailing themselves to take their minds 
off the natural life that God intended for them, she heard 
him cry. He had no idea, because he had never tried to lift 
himself out of the natural life, that it was not sex that 
haunted you one tenth as often as, say, a plump oyster on the 
half-shell which . could dominate your thoughts when you 
knew you could never eat another one unless, like a miracle, 
it would appear one day on your wooden plank in the refec- 
tory. 

"Private self-flagellation as a penance," said the Mistress, 
"is countenanced in our Order providing that it is moderate. 

65 



You will be doing this penance twice weekly for the re- 
mainder of your religious lives. Put the emphasis therefore 
on its spiritual meaning, which is real contrition for your sins, 
rather than on the physical force with which you apply it." 
For the remainder of our religious lives , , . Sister Luke 
felt as if she had already lived ten religious lives. She looked 
back over her year and a half of trying to live the Holy Rule, 
not day by day, but minute by minute as you had to do. It 
was like remembering a protracted fever wherein you 
reached and reached and never quite grasped. You had bab- 
bled constantly to yourself in that fever, about what you liked 
most to do, to eat, to say, then had driven yourself into doing, 
earing or saying the exact opposite so as to please God instead 
of pleasing yourself. And every so often in and out of the hot 
tensions of that novitiate, doubts had prowled and queried, 
borrowing your own voice to ask, Was I truly called? How 
can I know until I try it if I have the vocation for the religious 
life? Andy even after, how can I know since the trying itself 
transforms and leaves you no more self to ask? . . . 

She wondered as she looked at her sister novices if her own 
face reflected the changes she could see in theirs. There had 
been a definite refining such as high fevers often give to a 
countenance. Even the coarse healthy faces of the novices 
who worked in the truck gardens had taken on a singular 
purity. 

"Try to avoid singularization," the Mistress had told them 
once. "Anything that singularizes, whether inwardly or out- 
wardly, is but the self asserting itself, a sign that we have not 
succeeded in suppressing the old self so that we may be born 
again in the Christ." 

And yet, Sister Luke thought, our very life has singularized 
us, not one from the other but all of us from the rest of the 

66 



world. Even if we did not wear habits of archaic distinction, 
the singularization would still be seen ... in the way we 
walk prim and stylized, in the way we talk with the posses- 
sives my and mine gone from our vocabularies and the words 
I cannot forever screened from our speech. And conscience, 
she thought, that intuitive sense of moral right and wrong 
which everyone is born with but which our Rule has trained 
and toughened with the twice daily exercise of it until it has 
grown from a still small voice to a functioning vital organ 
within us. 

She glanced at two of her companions who, it was rumored, 
were not going to make their vows. They would probably re- 
turn to the world from which, apparently, they had been un- 
able to detach to their own conscientious satisfaction. Their 
fervent faces were like all the others in the row, refined to a 
delicacy that had not been there when they had entered as 
blushing postulants. How long would it take them to unlearn 
the nun's gliding swayless walk, the gestureless speech bereft 
of possessives, the habitual custody of the eyes downcast? It's 
going to be terribly difficult for them at first, she thought with 
compassion, with a year and a half of this iron discipline to 
undo. 



Suscipe me^ Domme . . . 

The two hundred sisters sang them to their vows. Before 
advancing to the altar they lay prostrate in the center of the 
nave, the visible symbol of their dying to the world, to their 
families watching from the visitors' section and to their old 
selves still clothed in the novice white. 

The treble choirs raised them up with the Gloria Patri and 
sent them forward to the altar in steps as slow and measured 
as the Gregorian chant which presently the officiating Monsi- 

67 



gnor picked up from the singing sisters and carried on in a 
grave baritone. 

Save Thy handmaiden, O Lord, for in Thee is her hope. 
Let her be good and humble. Let her be exalted by obedi- 
ence. Let her be bound to peace. Let her be constant in 
prayer. Lastly, O Lord, we beg Thee to receive graciously 
her offerings . . . 

And mine to You, O Lord, are the things I do at the bed- 
side of the dying when I listen to the expiring breath and 
watch the hands twist the coverlets. Mine to You is the cer- 
tainty of Your nearness when these signs appear and the 
promise that I will bring quickly a priest or pastor or rabbi 
of the faith of the moribund upon whom he depends to 
bridge the gap between him and You. I have not much more, 
besides love, than skilled fingers, a strong back and tireless 
feet to off er. Mine to You, O Lord . . . 

The expert hands of a professed nun put on the black 
scapular and buttoned it down the side. The crucifix, leather 
belt and rosary came next, and then the white choir cape 
was dropped over her shoulders to fall of its own weight in 
chiseled folds to the floor. She had the little pin box, reset 
with black-headed pins, in readiness when the dark veil was 
draped around her snowy coif. The ceremony closed with the 
antiphon Conftrma Hoc Deus as she signed her name in re- 
ligion on the paper laid out for her on the high altar. 

Later, in the crowded parlor, she could not at once see her 
family. Tante Colette was wiping her eyes and calling, "Ga- 
brielle, here we are!" from the edge of the crowd, but she did 
not turn around to that name. Patiently, politely and very 
slowly she circled the room until she came upon the ones 
who had been crying a name she no longer responded to, not 
even in reflex reaction. 

68 



Her father looked exactly as he had a year ago, after ves- 
ture, and he said the same words, "You are thinner, ma petite 
Gaby." Only the music that lingered in her ears was differ- 
ent. The Posuit Signum was the vocal undertone that con- 
fused her now with its piercing sweetness . . . He has set a 
seal on my -face so I may know no other love but His. 

And then she thought to say, "It's probably the effect of 
the black scapular, cher Papa. You remember how Mama al- 
ways used to say that black gives the longer line." 

The effect of the black veil and scapular was visible in an- 
other way when the parlor doors closed on their families and 
the newly professed returned to the community. Now there 
were postulants and white-robed novices studying them with 
respect, looking up to them from below, as it were, from the 
place where the words / promise had not yet been said. Above 
or beyond were the fully professed, the perpetually vowed, 
from whom they were still separated by the traditional 
silence although clothed exactly like them in every respect. 

No outsider could have told the difference between the 
first and the fully professed, but the older nuns knew in an in- 
stant who was who. The moment they spotted the newly 
garbed down the long perspective of a corridor or at the 
head of the marble stairs their eyes grew alert for faults. 
Their recognition of us is as instantaneous, Sister Luke 
thought, as if we carried sandwich boards over our shoulders 
to proclaim from back and front and in three languages that 
we are one-day-old professed. The sixth sense of her senior 
sisters puzzled her, but not for long. 

She saw the first visible signs of the subjective results of 
profession that same day in the last recreation the newly pro- 
fessed were to have together before being sent away next 
morning to other houses. Her companions came as usual with 

69 



their little black bags, but some of them, she observed, had 
the look of sleepwalkers. Their wide-open eyes seemed to be 
focused on a distant glory as they made their bows to the pre- 
siding Mistress and took the nearest unoccupied chair with- 
out, as formerly, looking about to choose a place in the circle 
where their presence might do the most good next to a 
white-robed novice, for example, who was obviously over- 
come by the change in a sister who but yesterday had looked 
no different from herself. 

Those somnambulists, Sister Luke told herself, are the po- 
tential mystics separating themselves. She had heard about 
this. Was it from Sister William in her lay student days? She 
took out her darning and remarked to her companion on the 
right that trotting through miles of hospital corridors cer- 
tainly wore out the stockings fast, while she tried to remem- 
ber the voice that had said: 

"The tendency toward mysticism is always a problem in a 
*nixed Order such as ours where work and contemplation 
must go hand in hand. One sees this often in the newly pro- 
fessed and while it is a very beautiful thing to see a young 
nun apparently communing directly with God, she is never- 
theless lost to the community when in that rapture and some- 
one's else mind, hands and feet must do her work mean- 
while. One can never know, of course, if it is the real thing 
or simply one of those unconscious singularizations to which 
we all fall prey from time to time." 

The silence of the preoccupied ones did not escape the at- 
tention of the presiding Mistress. She drew the dreamers 
back into the sewing circle with direct questions about their 
assignments, giving them lively vignettes of the Mothers Su- 
perior in those affiliated houses. Sister Luke noted with secret 
amusement that the Mistress found a way to liken one of 

70 



those Superiors to Saint Theresa of Avila, the Spanish Car- 
melite who, though one of the greatest mystics, was at the 
same time a remarkably practical and astute woman, reputed 
to have said of a group of starry-eyed novices, "We don't need 
any more saints here, but rather plenty of strong arms for 
scrubbing." 

The black scapular and the shining new crucifix hanging 
over her heart gave Sister Luke no illusion that her own 
spiritual condition had grown more rarefied. She felt mainly 
a tremendous relief that the strain of the unprofessed noviti- 
ate was over, that God in His infinite mercy had accepted her 
humble offerings and that henceforth, now that she was one 
of His, there would happen to her only what He would per- 
mit to happen. Whatever that might be, as the Mistresses 
said so very often, it would be for His glory and for her own 
good. 

Later, in the refectory, the inner transformation of the 
newly professed was more clearly visible. Their zeal for per- 
fection made their section of the long processional toward the 
tables resemble one of those mechanical marvels like Brit- 
ain's trooping of the colors. With her eyes on the heels of the 
sister in front of her and her own advancing foot falling like 
an Indian's onto the exact spot vacated by the preceding, 
Sister Luke felt herself drawn into the perfection of her 
group's first appearance as professed in the community. She 
made ready to cross herself, like a soldier counting one, two, 
three, before the signal to start the prayers. When she lifted 
her eyes after the Amen, she thought she saw a look of ennui 
on the faces of the perpetually vowed who, though far distant 
at the tables adjoining the Superiors', seemed nevertheless to 
be keenly aware of what went on below the salt, where some 
of those newly professed were singularizing themselves. 



She would know in a few years what a strain it was to have 
newly professed in the community. She too would be drawn 
to look at the youngest Brides, to lose the custody of her eyes 
to curiosity. She too would feel the pride and the pang when 
new blood came upon the scene, hot and eager for dedication. 

But much of their brave show of perfection vanished that 
evening when they were apart from the community and wait- 
ing in the corridor outside the office of the Mistress of Nov- 
ices. You could feel the undertow of emotion as they each re- 
hearsed the last private talk with the Living Rule who had 
guided their steps to this moment of leave-taking. Only a few 
like Sister Luke were able to fight back the tears. 

Tomorrow they would be separated to start their lives as 
young nuns in strange communities far from the fountain- 
head of their Rule. In smaller houses they would be on their 
own, with no more than perhaps a score of senior sisters to 
watch over them and help them keep their feet on the narrow 
path of poverty and obedience. They would be much nearer 
to the temptations of the world. The mother house that had 
cradled them in the religious life would be henceforth a for- 
tress in memory only. They would not return to it until 
called in to make their final vows three years later and if, be- 
fore that, they were sent overseas to a mission and made their 
final vows to some local Mother Superior in India, China or 
the Congo, they would not see the mother house until they 
would have earned a furlough in the home country. The 
Holy Rule was of course established in them, in the mind and 
spirit, in the muscles and the heart, but they seemed to know 
that it was an extremely fragile and shakable establishment, 
like any great alliance. And had they not, their forlorn faces 
seemed to say, made the greatest of all, an alliance with God? 

7* 



Sister Luke had conflicting emotions about leaving the 
mother house. She was going to enter the School of Tropical 
Medicines, the first real step toward the future she had 
prayed for, which was a life of service to God as a missionary 
nurse in some faraway place. For the next eight months she 
would be a nun in transit, still attached to the mother house 
but boarded far away from it in a girls' school near the uni- 
versity, where a small community of nuns, professors mostly, 
would replace the two hundred pairs of eyes that watched 
over her now. She could not tell if her inner excitement was 
for the thought of escape from the big community to a small 
one where, moreover, long study hours would dispense her 
from much of the community life, or whether it stemmed 
from the realization that she was at last on her way toward 
that diploma in tropical medicines which was the passport 
her Order required for nursing supervisors in the Congo. 

She thought of her visit to Sister Eudoxie, the Vestiaire, as 
she awaited her turn to say farewell to the Mistress of Nov- 
ices. She had gone with her missal, her Little Office and her 
meditation books, to hand these over to the Vestiaire for 
packing. She had never before been inside the cavelike work- 
room where the old nun, known as the Cyclopean eye of the 
community, had spent the half century of her cloistered life 
mending and altering the habits of nuns and supervising a 
large staff of novices and postulants who mended hospital 
linens. 

Save for the obligatory attendance at meals and devotions, 
Sister Eudoxie was seldom seen outside her silent workroom; 
she knew, nevertheless, nearly all there was to know about 
the private lives of her sisters. She could read in any garment 
she mended the total life of the one to whom it belonged and, 
sight unseen, could judge that nun's perfections and faults. A 

73 



worn place on the back of a skirt hem told her that the wearer 
was careless about lifting her skirt from the rear when de- 
scending stairs, a thoughtless waste of good material which 
translated instantly into an imperfection against poverty. Sis- 
ter Eudoxie personified the Holy Rule even more than the 
gracious living images of it as embodied in the Mistresses, 
and it was whispered among the young nuns that she had, 
in addition to die Rule, all its bylaws, bibliographies and 
historical references bound into her venerable frame. 

Sister Luke had stood outside the workroom door for a mo- 
ment to calm her childlike rebellion at the thought of some- 
one else packing her suitcase. When she was sure her smile 
showed no frayed edges, she knocked and entered, murmur- 
ing, "Praised be Jesus Christ." 

The Vestiaire's eyes, sharp as the needles she threaded 
without aid of spectacles, looked up at her and seemed to 
penetrate her habit right down to the drawstrings of stock- 
ings and serre-tte 9 testing their tensions. She beckoned her 
to approach and picked up a tape measure. She had the card 
of number 1072 before her with all the bodily measure- 
ments since entry. She made a cricket sound when she meas- 
ured and found Sister Luke's waist three inches less than the 
measure at vesture a year ago. 

Sister Luke hunted words that might be safely addressed 
to a monument historique, words that would not suggest criti- 
cism of the vestiary department for having possibly issued a 
skirt too large, or would not seem to invite pity for having 
lost so much weight. 

"I believe, Sister," she said, "that this skirt may have 
stretched a bit." 

She looked at the old nun examining her loose skirt band 
and writing the new waist measure on the 1072 clothing 

74 



card. A thought struck her as she watched the veined hands 
scarcely moving over the card, so tiny, so space-saving was the 
script. For half a century in this same small corner of the im- 
mense convent world, this sister had been content to serve 
the Lord with her thimble, taking in the skirt bands of strug- 
gling young ones and letting them out years after when strug- 
gle reaches the equilibrium of adjustment that allows a little 
fat to gather at the waist. Up and down those overhead stairs 
whole generations of nuns have passed on their ways to 
schools and hospitals all over Belgium and beyond, to India, 
Africa, the Orient, and all that this great pageant of Christ's 
work being carried to the world has meant for this old nun 
has been an endless succession of wicker hampers filled with 
clothes to be mended. She managed to conceal her emotion 
before Sister Eudoxie looked up. 

"Tonight after the Salve" said Sister Eudoxie, "you will 
find another skirt on your dressing stand and you will leave 
this one there when you depart tomorrow." 

Sister Luke bowed and withdrew from the presence of a 
self-sacrifice so complete that it stunned her. As she closed 
the door behind her, she prayed God to give her a wider 
horizon for her own sacrifice to Him. 

It was her turn now to enter the office of the Mistress of 
Novices. The Mistress was sitting at her desk. A slight flush 
warmed the chilly beauty of her face, suggesting that she too, 
despite her rigid control, had been touched by the departure 
emotions. Her lips curved in a smile as she handed to Sister 
Luke a small leather sack with the hooked chains in it, her 
going-away present to the young ones she had trained to forti- 
tude. 

"Remember my words on moderation," she said. 

"This is not my discipline, Sister. Mine is the common life, 

75 



the community," said Sister Luke. It was a relief to talk 
frankly for once,;to lay down simple words of fact without all 
the circumlocutions of convent etiquette. "But of course you 
have seen that." 

"I always thought you very adaptable, Sister Luke. You 
were one of the few who never asked to be excused." 

"I don't know that I have any merit from this, but I made 
myself an automaton for all the community life, except of 
course the devotions. It has been a constant self -beating . . ." 

The Mistress shook her head. 

"That is not the way, Sister. Not as an automaton," she 
said. "But I am glad you told me and you must believe me 
when I tell you I understand." She paused to consider her 
words, then with astonishing candor, she went on: "Once, 
long ago, I too found the community life a pure agony. I suf- 
fered, knowing that my forced participation could never be 
pleasing to God. I struggled to overcome this. I thought about 
the Christ who took to Himself the very humblest of com- 
panions. I told myself that quite possibly He could not abide 
the smell of fish or the frequently childish talk of those sim- 
ple disciples. Yet . . . He lived with them and spoke with 
them in the picturesque parables they could understand, He 
who had confounded the scholars of the temple when only 
twelve years old. That, my sister, was the first community. 
That is our example." 

Sister Luke wished that the Mistress had not said that. 
She knew she would never forget the lesson or the way it 
had been given. It was as if the Mistress had, for an instant, 
taken off her mask of discipline and had let her see the aris- 
tocratic face sensitized by centuries of breeding, its thin 
nostrils shrinking thinner at the mention of fish odors. Her 
joy for escape to a smaller community and for dispensation* 



from its common life turned to a feeling of shame and guilt. 

"I have felt sometimes I was exploiting the community," 
she said. "Taking so much from it and giving so little 
back." 

"Because you say that, you will learn," The Mistress gave 
her a last smile, then became a Living Rule again. 

"Now, Sister Luke," she said, "you go forth. Have always 
an open heart for your Superior. As for your new community, 
begin with it each day before you meet it. Begin the day with 
a review of your sisters. Some you will like, some you will not. 
For those you may instinctively dislike, try to do something. 
Remember ... the golden rule for antipathy is to ask to do 
a service for the one your spirit withdraws from. There is no 
surer way of conquering both yourself and her. In your new 
community you will be one of the youngest in the life. Take 
every duty you see uncovered. Replace the pot-washers when 
one is ill. Do all this simply. Let no one remark it, only God. 
And for yourself," she said more slowly, "for a doctor's 
daughter accustomed to comfort and social position, try to be 
the little donkey of Jesus who goes his way without prodding. 
Take up every burden without inner murmuring. Take it 
like that little donkey who carried the hope of the world up 
the stony slopes of Jerusalem." 

Sister Luke emerged from the Mistress's office just like all 
her other companions, with tears in her eyes and clutching 
the lumpy little sack of chains with hooks on their ends. 

They left the mother house next morning after Mass. 

In the chapel, they all lost the custody of their eyes. Sister 
Luke lost hers to the Reverend Mother Emmanuel as she 
knelt gaunt and rapt at her prie-dieu, ignoring the wayward 
glances from the section of the newly professed as if she knew 

77 



that they needed for their long journeys the last impressions 
they stole with their eyes the silvery slants of dawnlight 
through the chapel windows, the motionless files of more sis- 
ters than they would ever see again in one place, the single 
figure in motion of the Cantatrice walking up and down be- 
tween the two choirs and summoning from them an Agnus 
Dei that floated soft as fleece into the silence after the Eleva- 
tion. This plain chant I will miss always, Sister Luke said 
silently, wherever God wills that I go. 

The sisters sang them out of the chapel in their new white 
capes with the slight train which kept them farther apart. As 
they paced slowly toward the doors, they heard the opening 
antiphon of the Itinerary. In viam pads . . . and may the 
Angel Raphael accompany us in the way, and may <we return 
in peace, health and joy unto our own home. 

Their papier-mdche suitcases packed by Sister Eudoxie 
were standing neatly in rows by the main door of the mother 
house. They said good-by to each other with their eyes as they 
climbed into their separate buses some for short journeys 
within the Kingdom of Belgium, others destined for ports 
and railroad stations through which they would travel far out 
on the branches of the family tree of their congregation. 

Sister Luke said the Itinerary silently in communion with 
the sisters singing them on their way from behind walls she 
did not need to look at to remember. May the God of our 
salvation give us a prosperous journey . * . 



V I 



THE School of Tropical Medicines was housed in a hand- 
some chateau in the suburbs of Brussels. The student nuns 
traveled to it by trolley from the pensionnat run by their Or- 
der. The trip was just long enough to enable them to read 
four of the seven daily Offices Matins, Lauds, Prime and 
Tierce and by the time Sister Luke came to Psalm 120 of 
Tierce, 1 lift up my eyes to the mountains . . * she knew she 
was passing the cafe where Jean used to take his coffee when 
he had been a university student. But she never lifted her 
eyes to look. The conductor called the familiar street name 
while her lips moved soundlessly through passages of prom- 
ise. He shall not let thy foot slip . . . The sun shall not burn 
thee by day, nor the moon by night . , . The Lord shall 
keep thee from all evil , . . 

They were four and they always sat together in the trolley 
Sister Luke and her two young companions from the 
mother house and Sister Pauline, who carried the carfare be- 
cause she was the oldest, and who did all the talking for them 
when it was necessary to address car conductors and police- 
men. 

Sister Pauline had come directly from the Congo to join 
the trio from the mother house. She had been promoted to 

79 



supervisor and furloughed home to secure a diploma in 
tropical medicines. From the moment Sister Luke set eyes 
on her lean and leathery face, she knew she had a major 
problem in antipathy to overcome. The sun-faded eyes that 
once had been blue were colorless as ice, and the icy mono- 
syllables with which Sister Pauline answered her eager ques- 
tions about the Congo conveyed the impression that that 
great domain of rain forest and blistering bush belonged ex- 
clusively to her and that queries about her private property 
were ill-bred, if not even impudent. 

"Sister Pauline is a pisse-vinaigre" Sister Luke had whis- 
pered to her young companions after their first encounter 
with the senior nun. Because they were Flemish like herself, 
accustomed to the sight of a small bronze statue of a pissing 
mannikin which was the most beloved monument in their 
small land, they did not think it immodest to call their sister 
a piss-vinegar. 

Sister Pauline's possessive jealousy for the Congo seemed 
to be an acquired trait of all who had served there. It was 
even more evident in the university professors who taught 
them. They were all bearded medical pioneers, prematurely 
aged by long service in the Congo, eaten gaunt by malaria 
and their passionate love for the land to which their health 
no longer permitted a return, to which, instead, they had to 
send the beardless young doctors, the pale priests, the nuns 
and lay nurses who sat before them in classrooms kept at 
oven heat because they, the professors, were always shivering, 
even on sunny days. 

The professors began each day's lectures, "If any of you 
thinks that he is going to see, now in 1928 when there are 
bicycle paths through the bush, what we saw in the early 
nineteen-hundreds . . ." and then they would tell nothing 

80 



of what they had seen. But their beards would twitch and 
their eyes glow and if their shaking hands had not been ca- 
ressing a wire model of the Anopheles rhodesiensis enlarged 
a thousand times, you would have thought it was some dark 
goddess that haunted their emotions rather than that mos- 
quito to which they had given the young years of their lives, 
both as bodily hosts for its parasites and as research minds 
studying its pathological effects. 

Sister Luke loved them all. For her, the lecture room was a 
homecoming into the world of medical thought. She could see 
her father behind every bearded face and hear, in each pro- 
fessorial voice, his own impatience with laggard minds and 
his scorn for squeamishness when death was not decorative 
and had to be described in terms of deformities of scrotum 
and labia. She loved most of all Dr. Goovaerts, who knew her 
father but did not recognize her sitting there before him in 
the habit of a nun. Not until she had fainted in his classroom 
did he realize who she was. 

It was the room heat that his fever-worn body demanded 
which overcame her. After the healthful window-wide cli- 
mate of the mother house, she found the temperature of his 
classroom almost insupportable. Her heavy serge, her coif and 
veil bore her down, and on the day when he introduced his 
great subject, the life cycle of the mosquito, she was sure she 
was running a temperature. 

The doctor had been humiliating the pale young priests 
whom he suspected, the beardless young doctors whom he de- 
plored and the lay nurses whom he disapproved of utterly be- 
cause as soon as they got to the Congo, he informed them di- 
rectly, they would fall a prey to the concupiscent colonials 
who counted off the white women arriving on each ship like 
so many bags of gold. "Women," he said, gazing at the lay 

81 



nurses, "as soon as they hear even the hum of a mosquito, 
they faint . . ." 

Sister Luke fainted on his word and slipped over sideways 
onto the knees of Sister Pauline. She came to in the corridor 
outside the classroom, with Dr. Goovaerts standing above her 
and the senior nun kneeling beside her, loosening her 
guimpe. "If you can't tolerate this small heat," Sister Pauline 
was hissing, "I don't know how you expect to stand the 
Congo." 

"It's another kind of heat, Sister," said her father's friend, 
looking down on her with recognition. "She'll get used to 
what's out there as you have. Moreover, she'll get the whole 
of my year's course in the eight months your penny-pinching 
poverty-vowed Order allows for you, because she was looking 
through her father's microscope when most children her age 
were turning kaleidoscopes before the eyes." 

Each time, thereafter, when Dr. Goovaerts began a lecture 
on Anopheles, he said, "If a certain one of our revered Sisters 
will promise not to faint, I shall now tell you about the condi- 
tions most favorable to the development of the larvae of 
the mosquito." 

And nearly every day after such a sally, on the lunch hour 
when the four nuns drew apart from the other students to eat 
their sandwiches in silence in the chateau park and recite 
Sext and None, Sister Pauline would look at her with aver- 
sion. If there was time after the Offices were said, before the 
school bell summoned them for microscopy, she would al- 
ways turn the recreational talk to the subject of singulariza- 
tion. Sister Luke found it incredible that the senior nun could 
believe she had fainted deliberately in class to draw attention 
to herself. 

She sought in vain to find something she might do for Sister 

82 



Pauline to counteract what seemed like a mutual antipathy. 
Sister Pauline was as preserved from need as was the fabled 
princess who slept in a block of ice her visions of the Congo 
frozen behind her faded eyes and sealed in jealousy behind 
her thin uncommunicative lips. 

The microscope classes gave Sister Luke her first real view 
of the Congo. Here in a long room with many windows were 
rows of marble-topped tables, each with a microscope under a 
bell glass and a box of slides that had been made in the 
Congo. Every afternoon for eight months she sat with one eye 
glued to the eyepiece and her fingers playing ceaselessly with 
the fine adjustment screw and illuminating mirror. Down the 
drawtube in the radiant field of the objective was the micro- 
scopic world of the Congo basin, the beautiful and deadly 
shapes which caused leprosy, sleeping sickness, yaws, malaria 
and elephantiasis. She stared at pinpoints of life that had 
been stopped and fixed on the slides as ripples of silvery 
thread and rods straight and curved, as bunches of grapes and 
strings of pearly eggs, as minute transparent worms with 
round or flat heads and tapered tails, and sometimes in her 
excitement she raised a hand to her forehead, as if to brush 
back a hat that had got in her way with its brim-shadow. 
Then her fingers, touching the damp headbands of her coif, 
reminded her who and how she was. 

She memorized the strange forms stained faintly with blue, 
their breeding places in blood, lymph, stools or muscle tissue, 
their incubating periods, life cycles and geographical distri- 
butions, as easily as if they were special tribes with personali- 
ties as distinct as the dark people from whose ailing bodies 
many of the organisms had been taken. 

This is the Congo that I can make mine, she would think. 

83 



This is the wide horizon that I prayed for in my work for 
God. 

It was a horizon measured in micrometers but to her lens- 
bound eyes it looked as wide as all creation, as indeed it 
was. She went through box after box of slides, always ahead 
of the other students, and before they were ready to make 
their own slides, she was visiting the basement with the lab 
technician to draw blood from the inoculated apes, rabbits 
and guinea pigs kept below as hosts for the diseases they 
studied. Sister Pauline's colorless eyes were often upon her, 
registering disapproval for her lack of charity in seeming to 
show up, by fast accomplishment, the other students, who 
proceeded much more slowly and with none of her excited 
recognition. 

If it had not been for Sister Pauline, she would have felt 
utterly happy doing the work that her God-given memory 
made easy, losing herself each day in a fascinating jungle of 
parasites but never losing her way. She knew that Sister Pau- 
line was having more trouble than the others; she fumbled 
her glass slides and often went back to the beginning of her 
box as though her memory were porous. Tropical medicines 
depended ninety per cent on memory and the senior nun's 
had been impaired by the large doses of quinine which every- 
one took daily in the Congo. Sister Luke's compassion for her 
nervous sister overrode her antipathy and she tried to think 
of ways to help her. 

When she showed the other nuns how to see the difference 
between the bacille de Koch that caused tuberculosis and the 
bacitte de Hansen that caused leprosy, she raised her voice, 
risking being conspicuous, so Sister Pauline might hear. "They 
are very alike," she said, "both rod-shaped, both acid-fast, 
both with a slight shadow almost like an enclosing capsule 

84 



. . * but if you look closely, you'll see that the leprosy bacillus 
seems to be slightly fatter and longer." 

She wished she could tell them that all this was easy for her 
because her father had made her an expert in microscopic 
detection of the tuberculosis bacillus before she was out of 
pinafores. But she was in the habit of the nun now and could 
not mention her past life. She suffered instead the unmerited 
praise of her fellow students, which often made her wish she 
could drop from sight through the floor. 

In the evenings when she sat with her three companions 
studying in their large common bedroom in the pensionnat 
infirmary, she would work her way through all the tedious 
bypaths of convent speech to try to find a way to show her 
transcribed notes to Sister Pauline, who would never ask to 
look at them and never copy frankly from them as the two 
other sisters often did. It would have been so simple to say 
to her dour senior, "My notes are good, Sister Pauline, espe- 
cially for that genus Mycobacterium that occupies a position 
midway between the bacilli and the fungi. Why don't you take 
a look? My drawings would clarify, I think." 

Instead, she would gaze worriedly at her notebook, turn its 
pages over as if distressed and finally say to Sister Pauline, 
"Would it be asking too much to have you take a look at my 
notes, Sister? I'm afraid I may have some mistakes." While 
Sister Pauline avidly read her notes, she would leave the com- 
mon study table and go to her corner of the room and sit fac- 
ing the wall to study the theory. She had earlier set the stage 
for this singularity by informing her companions that she 
could never study concentratedly unless she faced a wall. 

The maneuverings and the reticences, the elaborate for- 
mulae of prideless speech when you felt a justifiable pride, 
of charitable concealment of knowledge when you knew that 

85 



yours surpassed that of others, often seemed to her like hypoc- 
risy. Was it God's wish that his vowed ones be thus? 

She studied the etiology of leprosy while the etiology of the 
Christian community knocked at the door of her thoughts. 
The science of this special way of being was all in the Gospels, 
she knew. But why, she wondered, did it seem so much more 
robust in those golden passages than in its earnest imita- 
tion? Thomas doubted and was promptly invited by the 
Christ to come forward and put his hand in the Wound. Ro- 
bust and direct, she reflected, not anything like this indirect 
thing I do night after night, trying with conscious effort to 
win over a sister I would never wish to see again, once this 
course is over. Not even in a painting, she told herself vigor- 
ously. 

Since she had left the mother house, her emotions seemed 
to have come alive the way weeds do when a stone is lifted 
off them. They sprang upright from the airless place where 
she thought she had buried them, pale rubbery stalks of like 
and dislike, of pride and desire, which swiftly turned green 
and flourishing. Her concealed hopes for Congo service were 
now a passionate obsession. Her initial instinctive mistrust 
of Sister Pauline had become an antipathy she could no 
longer counterbalance with forced smiles of humility and 
charitable deceits about helping with the homework. Her 
twice-daily examinations of conscience told her clearly that 
something was wrong. A fortnight before the final tests, she 
decided to take her troubles to the local Mother Superior. 

Mother Marcella was a woman of great interior richness 
who ruled her small community with enchanting grace. It 
had been easy for Sister Luke to keep an open heart for this 
Superior, whom she had admired from the first moment of 
meeting. Though dispensed from the community recreation, 

86 



she had gone sometimes in the evening to hear the brilliant 
talk of Mother Marcella and her score of professor nuns. It 
gave her a foretaste of what she imagined the Congo com- 
munities to be small groups of matched minds, witty, in- 
telligent, almost worldly at times. 

Equally broad in her application of the Rule as she was in 
her ideas, Mother Marcella gave liberal dispensations to the 
four transient sisters confided to her care, allowing them to 
rise one hour later than the community because of their late 
study hours and permitting speech among them after the 
grand silence. She seemed especially deft in her choice of 
their spiritual reading. Each Saturday in their pews they 
found a book with pages marked which she wished them to 
read and meditate for the week. Her selections pointed up 
their weak spots as she had observed them a chapter on 
humility for the proud, on obedience for the headstrong, on 
faith for the doubters. Sister Luke found chapters on humility 
marked the most often for her. 

On the evening when she stood outside the door of Mother 
Marcella's study, Sister Luke was aware that her humility had 
a slight shading of the heroic. She had never before gone to a 
Superior to discuss her relations with a sister. She was ready 
to admit her antipathy and her defeat in all attempts to over- 
come it. She would follow whatever advice the Mother Su- 
perior might give, she told herself firmly, even if it meant 
darning Sister Pauline's stockings for the remainder of their 
time together or shining her shoes each week. Nothing in the 
quiet hallway told her that she was standing at a crossroads 
of her religious life. 

She knocked, entered with a bow and lifted two fingers to 
her lips requesting permission to speak. 

"Benedicite? said Mother Marcella. 



"Dominus" Sister Luke looked up. The large crucifix be- 
hind the Superior's chair gave the impression it was meant 
to convey, that she was not kneeling before a woman. 

"I am in trouble, ma Mere. Fve come to ask the grace of 
your counsel.'* The Superior encouraged her with a nod to 
go on. "It is Sister Pauline. My conscience is not at peace be- 
cause of her." 

With scientific detachment, she recited the growth of her 
antipathy and each of the steps she had taken in vain to over- 
come it. She avoided any mention of Sister Pauline's icy 
conduct toward her and stressed what she believed was her 
senior's need for help in the course. "In all humility, ma 
Mere, I believe I could help her if she would permit friend- 
ship. What should I do?" 

Mother Marcella's eyes gleamed while she was speaking, as 
if she were hearing a twice-told tale and knew the end before 
it came. She waited a few moments before replying. Her 
silence was a little disturbing; Sister Luke had never seen 
her falter for the decisive word. She looked at the hand lying 
lightly over the crucifix that hung beneath the Superior's bib 
on a level with her eyes. The long white fingers moved up 
and down the ebony, seeming to take thought from the touch. 

"You are intelligent, Sister," said the Superior at last. "You 
have broad ideas. I know that you can face things I would not 
say to others. I should not even tell you that Sister Pauline has 
already come to me." She hesitated, then said, "The antipathy 
you describe is mutual." 

Sister Luke looked steadily into the Superior's eyes. 

"She apparently has many complaints," said Mother 
Marcella. "In sum, she thinks you are an intellectual snob. 
She says you have no humility and does not believe that you 



can ever achieve it. She even wonders why you ever came to 
the convent." 

"I am ashamed, ma Mere. For her and for me. All this 
sounds very childish when you tell it." 

"It is not precisely childish. One might say uncharitable 
on the part of the older nun, but not childish," said Mother 
Marcella. "Her antipathy, I believe, is based on fear. She 
worries that she will not pass the examinations or, if she does, 
that she will be far below you in grade. You can understand 
how difficult it can be for an older sister to be superseded by a 
first-professed, as Sister Pauline most certainly will be, from 
all I have been told of your progress." 

Sister Luke felt her heartbeat quicken. The small room, 
furnished frugally with desk, chair and a tall bookcase from 
which were drawn their spiritual readings, seemed to close in 
about her like a box. The Mother Superior gazed at her as if 
hoping that she herself would speak and suggest the thought 
she appeared to be taking up and putting down. Her silence 
was eloquent with indecision. Then Sister Luke saw the 
hand tighten about the crucifix. 

"You have been given a truly great opportunity to make a 
sacrifice for God," said Mother Marcella. "He dowered you 
with a precious gift, a brain retentive, muscular and articu- 
late. You asked what you might do." Again she fell silent, 
weighing her words. "Would you, Sister Luke, be big enough, 
tall enough, to fail your examinations to show humility?" 

She swayed on her knees as if the floor had moved. She 
stared with shock at her Superior. The luminous eyes set deep 
in sculptured sockets held her with infinite compassion, 
knowing the full measure of what had been asked. But had 
she the right? Sister Luke asked herself wildly. Had anyone 



except the Superior General herself the right to suggest such 
a thing? Her hands beneath her scapular seemed to twist out 
the answer. Anyone has the right, she told herself, anyone at 
all in our peculiar God-vowed world, if it is seen that you 
lack humility or need strengthening in what little you have 
of it. You had this coming to you. It was inevitable from the 
start. You were even proud of your submission when you 
came to this room to confess defeat. 

"Ma Mere" she whispered, "I would be willing, if . . ." 
her scapular moved visibly above her wringing hands 
"... if the mother house knows of it and approves." Bar- 
gaining again with Him, said the inner voice, never the per- 
fection of all, as He wishes. 

"Then it would not be for God alone," said the Superior as 
Sister Luke knew she would say. "It would be, as we say, a 
humility with hooks, a humility that takes something back for 
the sacrifice. In this case, the satisfaction of knowing that the 
mother house knows." 

"Courage needs witnesses," Sister Luke said involuntarily. 
Her father used to say that, Le courage a besoin des temoins, 
he would say and discount all the bemedaled heroes to point 
out the unknown real one who had died alone, unseen, near 
the ground. 

"Yes," said Mother Marcella. "Real humility, on the other 
hand, passes unperceived between God and the soul." 

She had one more question. It was one she was going to be 
asking for the rest of her religious life, in all sorts of places 
and circumstances and always on her knees, 

"How can I know He would want this from me?" 

"Go and ask Him," said the Superior. 

Sister Luke bowed her head for the benediction. All the 
struggles she had passed through were but a prelude to what 

90 



lay ahead. She went immediately to the chapel and buried 
her face in her hands. 

She tried to look at the sacrifice that had been suggested to 
her by one who quite possibly could have been God's chosen 
instrument. She saw herself standing before Dr. Goovaerts and 
the examining board, making wrong answers to questions 
while her father's friend gazed at her with unbelief and dis- 
gust. She saw herself looking down a microscope at the filaroid 
worm Loa loa and writing Wuchereria Bancroft* on the blank 
ticket attached to her slide. Her father's face came clear into 
the field of the objective, bewildered, shocked and shamed by 
her failure. 

"Oh God," she whispered, "it would be wasting all those 
months of Your time." But her training told her that He 
would be happy if it were in humility for Him. She knew that 
this was indisputable. She knew too that she was weighing an 
opportunity she would never have again. Out of His eternal 
time, she reminded herself, God chooses His moment to offer 
the most perfect alliance with each individual soul And this 
is mine, she thought. I can take it or I can leave it. If I take it, 
He might make no sign whatsoever. On the other hand, He 
might shower me with graces and bring me close to saint- 
hood. If I don't take it ... 

"This I cannot do, O Lord." 

Then she saw in the mirror the Superior had held up to 
her, the inner awful mirror of the mirrorless convent world, 
all the cords that bound her to the selves of pride from which 
she had fancied herself detached. They were no silken cords. 
They were cable-thick and they ran out from her like jungle 
lianas extending even into the distance of childhood, when 
pride of family was born in the phrase la famiUe du docteur 
which set her apart socially from the children of mere busi- 



nessmen. She followed each long trailer to its end and saw 
maturer things she nourished still her pride of intellect, 
of judgment, of her ability to achieve whatever she set out 
to do. 

"Must I now do this for You, O my God? Do You really 
ask it?" She tasted the tears in her hands and waited. 

There was an abyss of silence in the chapel. Christ would 
not speak to her, she knew, but He might inspire. If He 
wished, He might answer through her conscience. But even 
then, she thought, you could never know truly whether it 
was your imagination, your own desire cloaked, or His in- 
spiring. Only the great pure souls could be sure. I should 
never have tried to be a nun. The path is too steep for my 
strength. . . . 

With her tears she tasted the most poignant experience of 
the nun the deep silence between Christ and the soul in 
trouble. She waited but her conscience told her nothing. It 
lay heavy and mute within her, an organ in trauma. 

The Mistress of Novices spoke out of memory. "You have 
only one aim, one constant dedication, one unique desire in 
the religious life," she said. "It is to please God. Nothing else 
matters, absolutely nothing else. We have spoken often of the 
lilies of the field created by God for His pleasure alone. That 
is your example. Though you toil in kitchens, schoolrooms 
and hospitals and produce many good works in His name, 
He is pleased only in how you grow inwardly. That is why 
He gave us those lilies of the field to consider." 

The kitchen, laundry and gardener nuns who seldom came 
in contact with human beings in the world were lilies of the 
field. Their lives in Christ called for no choice because their 
tubs, tools and casseroles presented none. They joked at their 
heavy work and were gay. They had the ideal conscience of 

92 



the nun, a conscience with nothing on it, like a child's before 
conscience awakens. Une conscience legere, they called it in 
the convent. I'll never have it again, she thought. 

The mirror was always there between her tear-wet palms 
and the eyes she pressed shut with them. In giant magnifica- 
tion she now saw bright red disks sliding over the silver and 
she said to God, This is bird blood and this next is monkey 
blood and here now is human blood and you can see, Blessed 
Lord, how swiftly I can tell them apart ... as I must do 
down there when I trace these tropical diseases through the 
blood of chickens, cattle and monkey pets that your natives 
come in contact with, and also your priests and civil adminis- 
trators isolated in lonely posts in the bush. Would I not 
please you in taking this knowledge where it is needed? O 
God, don't ask me to give up the Congo . . . 

The abyss of silence was awful in its depth, width and 
height. Her heartbeat hammered into it like asking drums 
and no sound came back out of it. 

While she waited, she had her first deep experience of real 
humility as she saw how little she had of it. After all the strug- 
gling, after all the systematic slayings of small prides one by 
one, day after day for two years, she had touched only the 
outer edges of that jungle where I, Me and Mine flourished 
in a thousand forms. She had never known that she had this 
inborn sense of her own worth, a form of pride so deeply 
buried in her that she had never seen it until now when she 
was asking if, for the sake of humility to God alone, she could 
do the thing that would make her seem worthless in the eyes 
of the medical world. 

"Humility." She whispered the soft syllables longingly. 

The Irish girls once taught her a couplet from one of their 
country's poets: 

93 



Humility, that low, sweet root 

From which all heavenly virtues shoot. 

That was long ago in the mother house. That was when she 
had been an infant in the religious life and had thought that 
humility was a bowing and a bending and a begging of the 
soup. After a long while she left the chapel. 

The last two weeks of the course were so fearful in their 
intensity and took so much out of all the students that Sister 
Luke's pallor passed unnoticed. She was preparing for two 
examinations, one of herself in humility and the other, easier 
one in tropical medicines. 

Each day she walked beside Sister Pauline from the trolley 
stop to the university gate, with the two younger sisters fol- 
lowing close behind them, and she would feel nothing about 
her silent partner except pity for her obvious state of nerves. 
Never once did she relate Sister Pauline in any way to her 
own inner torment. 

In classes she studied with concentration. Even had she 
known what would be the outcome of her examination of 
self, even had she known that she would find the strength to 
fail deliberately, she would have gone on studying. Her nun's 
training in making full use of every moment of God's time 
would have made it impossible for her to fritter away the 
final weeks in pretended attention. She was there to study. 
Whatever the task of the moment, it must be done as per- 
fectly as possible. 

Dr. Goovaerts grew almost savage as he took them through 
the last big review of the total course. His fevered eyes swept 
over the rows of pallid people who wanted to go to the Congo, 
cherishing them for their choice though he acted as if he 

94 



despised them all. He seemed to be trying to kill them then 
and there with the fevers, the dysenteries, the tropical skin 
ulcerations, the nematode, tapeworm and fluke infections he 
flung at them, first in great subject headings, then in long lists 
of crippling polysyllables trypanosomiasis, pambesia, ancy- 
lostommsis, lymphopathia venereum . . . You could hear 
memories bending and breaking in the room. When he 
stopped for breath and listened to the scratching of their 
pens, he pulled at his beard as if he would throw that at them 
too in his red-eyed eagerness that they should have the whole 
of him, they who were taking over his malignant and won- 
derful world. 

Occasionally in the final days he fell in step beside Sister 
Luke after class and asked her, as a doctor to the daughter of 
a doctor, how he had performed, and once her heart stopped 
when he told her that he had telephoned to her father to tell 
him about her own performance in the course. 

That had to be in it too, she thought afterwards. Papa had 
to be told that I was living up to the reputation of the family. 
And she saw him smiling and nodding as he held the receiver 
to his ear, listening to his old friend saying, Your daughter 
isn't doing too badly . . . not badly at all, in fact. 

Then she saw with her father's eyes of the world the in- 
credible sacrifice that had been suggested to her. It would be 
beyond any mentality outside the cloister to understand the 
simple logic of it. The simple logic, she went over it again 
and again, is that I am still proud and that I add to Christ's 
sorrows by being so. I was going to try to be a good nun, the 
best if I could. I kept looking for ways. Now a way has been 
pointed out. I need only say in the oral exams that the tsetse 
fly seems to have a tendency to alight on white instead of on 
black, though I know that its tendency to come down on 

95 



the black skins is the reason why good colonials dress their 
native workers in white as much as possible. Which is why 
sleeping sickness is relatively rare among Europeans and a 
scourge among the Blacks. I need only begin with an un- 
proved but often observed thing like that, then go on to 
proved facts and say, in deliberate misstatement, that yaws is 
a form of syphilis because it is caused by a spirochete and is 
contagious. All the facts I know about the mosquito I could 
say opposite. The adult mosquito lives on fruit and plant 
juices, but the female requires a blood meal for the matura- 
tion of its eggs, not necessarily human or mammalian blood 
but maybe avian or reptilian blood. I could say that the mos- 
quito never breeds in birds and snakes. 

I could say, O Lord, that enlargement of the lymphatic 
glands is not one of the most characteristic visible signs of the 
first stages of sleeping sickness though I have looked at hun- 
dreds of photos of glandular enlargement in early stages and 
have that primary symptom fixed in my mind forever. What 
am 1 going to say? Will You tell me 'when the time comes? 

Her whole being rocked with the inner disturbance. She 
seemed to split apart into two debating teams with several 
selves on either side. That she could bear up under the con- 
stant contending was proof of the strength already instilled 
in her by the convent training. But this she could not realize. 
She skipped most of the final study hours and spent the 
time in the chapel. There was always that abyss of silence. 
The vigil light became the red eye of Dr. Goovaerts, growing 
larger and redder as she stared at it and waited for some 
Voice other than her own or her professor's. Will you please 
name for the board, Sister, the intermediate hosts of the 
parasite Onchocerca and give us a brief symptomatology? 
It is an ordinary life lived extraordinarily, said the Mistress 



of Novices; this is the essence of our 'way and ive 'will remind 
you of it often until your own experiencing becomes your 
constant reminder. . . . Messieurs les Docteurs, it is an or- 
dinary life lived extraordinarily . . . and the red eye wid- 
ened and the professor shouted, I am not asking you about 
the life cycle of the nun, Sister . . . The Onchocerca pro- 
duces tumors of the skin varying in size from a pea to a hen's 
egg . . . O God, I must say that unless You prompt me other- 
wise. 

"Is it wise to go so often to the chapel?" asked Sister Pau- 
line. "It would seem to me that we serve the Lord best at this 
time by staying close to our studies. Can you imagine what a 
scandal it would be for the mother house if any one of us 
failed?" 

"I can imagine only too well, Sister." She looked at the 
vinegary countenance, surprised to see real anxiety reflected 
in it. "I have put it in God's hands," she added in a gender 
tone. 

"Very laudable, of course. But surely He expects us to come 
halfway to help Him during those eight days of examination. 
Moreover," said Sister Pauline, "the mother house will offer 
tomorrow's Mass for our intention. The help we need will be 
asked for us." 

It gave Sister Luke an odd turn to hear this. The eight 
months away from the mother house had not dimmed her 
memory of its psalmodizing sisters and the purity and per- 
fection with which they offered up their daily Mass. Per- 
haps this very night in the recreation, the Reverend Mother 
Emmanuel would be reminding them that tomorrow would 
begin the days of test for four of their sisters and some of the 
artist or clerical nuns would doubtless be saying, "That must 
be atrocious, Revfrende Mere ... to have to learn all about 

97 



those ileas and flies in so short a time." Tomorrow, Sister 
Luke thought, they will sing their hearts into the Kyrie for 
us ... forme. 

She opened her text and read: In the tsetse fly, trypmo- 
somes 'will be found in the gut, mouth parts and salivary 
glmds, in all of 'which sites they multiply. She had no idea 
what she was going to do. 

She didn't know until her turn came for the orals before 
the examining board. Dr. Goovaerts, with six doctors beside 
him at the long table, gave no sign of preference or recogni- 
tion when she came in the door. But when she was seated 
opposite the row of bearded faces, his eyes flashed her a look 
of connivance. "I shall defer to my eminent colleagues for the 
first question," he said. His challenging tone seemed to say, 
Trip this one up if you can, my friends. 

The malariologist cleared his throat and delivered the first 
question with the solemnity of a death sentence. 

"The board would like to hear from the Sister a resume of 
the special clinical types of pernicious, as differentiated from 
chronic or latent, malaria, naming no less than four of its 
forms as discoverable through their symptoms." 

She counted five of the forms on her fingers beneath the 
scapular cerebral, algid, bilious remittent fever, blackwa- 
ter fever and the bronchopneumonic form while the doc- 
tor continued, "You may take your time with this, Sister. 
We have been working on it since the eighteen-eighties." 

She took time to say inwardly, Thy witt . . . Then she be- 
gan to speak. 

She knew she had passed the examinations before the offi- 
cial results were published. On the eighth and final day, Dr. 
Goovaerts walked toward the door with the four sisters. His 



aside to Sister Luke was delivered in an offhand manner, 

"You may telephone your father tonight and tell him to 
have a platter of oysters delivered to the convent for you," 
he said. 

"We are not permitted to use the telephone for personal 
messages, Monsieur le Docteur" replied Sister Pauline for 
her. 

He lifted his hat as he walked away to his car. His glance 
of amusement told Sister Luke that he would telephone to 
her father himself. 

The rule of silence kept Sister Pauline from asking any 
questions about those baffling oysters but her eyes told what 
she thought about doctors who addressed nuns in code and 
nuns who invited such intimacies. That night in the recrea- 
tion, Mother Marcella announced to the assemblage that all 
four sisters had passed the examination. She handed out the 
diplomas sent special delivery from the university. Each di- 
ploma guaranteed a post in the colonies. Sister Luke won- 
dered, as she received hers, if she had given it to herself or if 
God had. 

The Mother Superior drew her apart and said, "I do not 
know if I should regret my suggestion to you, Sister. It was an 
inspiration of the moment. You passed fourth in the class of 
eighty." 

"And I do not know, ma Mere, who inspired the answers 
to the questions." She looked at her parchment. "Neverthe- 
less, this is not mine. It belongs to the congregation and any 
salary earned through it." 

"Ah yes, the congregation will profit, Sister Luke." The 
Superior was silent for a moment. "But your failure," she said 
wistfully, "would have been a gift to God." 



99 



V I I 



THE letter from the mother house did not explain why Sis- 
ter Luke was not to be sent directly to the Congo. She was to 
be attached for an indefinite time to the mental diseases sana- 
torium run by her Order in southern Belgium. 

She told herself that her diploma in psychiatric nursing 
must be the reason for her assignment, that the Superior Gen- 
eral doubtless wished her to have actual practice in mental 
nursing so as to make her more valuable in the Congo service. 
S le reread in her tropical medicines text the pages on tropi- 
cal neurasthenias and mental changes resulting from pellagra 
and tried to persuade herself that she was guessing rightly 
about something she had no right even to guess about. In the 
convent, you went where you were told to go. 

She could not resist asking Sister Pauline on their last 
recreation together if there was much insanity in the Congo. 
Sister Pauline was a changed woman since she had received 
her diploma. All the vinegar had gone out of her face. 

"Everybody is a little crazy in the Congo, my sister," she 
said. "There is something about the country itself that de- 
ranges. The grandeur of everything, the tremendous horizons 
... ah, those horizons! But of course that is not what you 
asked." 

Her face when she talked about the land to which she was 



100 



returning made Sister Luke think of the photographs in the 
convent magazine of nuns returning for their second or third 
tour of duty in the missions. Grouped under captions 2* 
depart, 3* depart the white-bibbed busts capped stiffly with 
coifs framed faces of such sudden life as to give the impres- 
sion that the departing ones had thrust them through a hole 
in the paper to look at you with a secret smile. 

"There is not much insanity as we know it," said Sister 
Pauline. "I would say that our natives are more normal than 
any race on earth . . . except when they drink the mysteri- 
ous beer they brew from roots, maybe manioc, no one knows 
for sure and no one can ever find out. Then sometimes they 
go berserk if they cannot dance it oif ." 

She paused as if she heard the drums. There was that secret 
smile. Then she went on: "They call it simba, though it is 
nothing at all like the famous Simba Beer the Belgians brew 
in the Katanga. Only the name's the same. Simba lion in 
their language." 

"Simba" said Sister Luke. Her first word in Kiswahili was 
as easy as a sigh to say. 

She left the pensionnat directly from the refectory after 
breakfast. Farewells were never said in the convent except by 
the Mother Superior, who always accompanied the departing 
one to the door of the house and there gave her benediction. 
But the nuns nevertheless made little signs to her as she 
passed, discreet hand waves when the Superior's back was 
turned and smiles that said very clearly, We shall miss you. 

Mother Marcella embraced her on both cheeks just inside 
the front door, the first time anyone had touched her since 
the sisterly embraces at vesture. She knelt for the benedic- 
tion. Then the Superior opened the door, looked out to see if 
the chaperone was there, and smiled farewell. 

101 



Her chaperone was one of the odd little ladies who lived 
like swallows in the crannies of all the convent houses except 
the mother house. They were all elderly and without fam- 
ily. Considered by the Order too sprightly to be relegated to 
the old folks' home, they were permitted to live with the 
nuns and perform light tasks such as chaperoning them to 
and from the dentist, fetching stamps or something from the 
pharmacy, or sitting by the telephones when the nuns were 
all in the chapel. They had their food, their tiny rooms, and 
they were provided with black garments which they wore 
like a uniform of gentility. Most of all they liked to chap- 
erone a nun through city streets. In their eyes the sisters were 
the salt of the earth and they showed this by their constant 
surveillance of them in public. 

One called Sophie had a taxi already summoned. She 
looked to see if Sister Luke had on her black gloves for travel, 
smoothed her own, which were exactly like those the nuns 
wore, and opened the taxi door. Sophie instructed the driver 
to take the shortest route to the railroad station. No round- 
about for us who are vowed to poverty, said her sharp eyes 
watching the taximeter. 

At the station, Sophie signaled her to wait by the door while 
she queued up for a ticket. She watched the old lady elbow 
her way ahead of two stragglers in the line so as to get her nun 
onto the train in time to find a window seat in the crowded 
third class. Sophie was happily unaware that nuns always 
found seats in trains. The habit, the exterior sign, made peo- 
ple draw away from you, preferring to sit anywhere than be- 
side a nun. Sometimes when incoming passengers looked into 
the compartment and saw you sitting there, they did not 
bother to lower their voices when they said, "Not here! 



1 02 



There's a black crow," as they walked past. To be called a 
black crow always gave Sister Luke a little twist of pain. 

Her new madhouse world hidden away in a corner of Bel- 
gium might have been not only on another continent, like the 
Congo, but even on another planet, so strange and unearthly 
were all its sights, sounds and customs. It was a self-sustaining 
village-sized enclosure surrounded by high walls inside of 
which prowled the female inmates muttering and cursing 
the charity cases in their subdivision crying, "I spit on you!" 
to the tallest nuns Sister Luke had ever seen, and the paying 
cases in their section calling their habited guardians "Species 
of crow!" "Species of sorceress!" Except for the dangerously 
demented, nobody here was physically restrained. 

The Superior, Mother Christophe, was a magnificent nun. 
An Englishwoman in the prime of life, she ruled her inverted 
world of a thousand deranged females and a hundred over- 
worked nuns with courage and poise. She never dramatized, 
always minimized, and taught her nuns to do likewise. She 
herself conducted Sister Luke through the many installations 
and gave in fluent French with a very engaging accent the 
facts and figures of her domain and the names and peculiari- 
ties of every patient they met en route. 

Sister Luke's first impression of her new community was 
that everyone in it was larger than life and had the most dom- 
inating eyes she had ever looked into. Every nun's eyes looked 
up and out, which in itself was such a reversal of cloister prac- 
tice as to make their habits seem like masquerade. Their at- 
tention to exterior signs, sounds and changes of sounds was 
developed to a phenomenal degree since their very lives de- 
pended on sharp and constant observation. Suddenly she un- 



103 



derstood a thing that had puzzled her since her novitiate days 
in the mother house. When outside nuns had come there for 
a retreat, the local sisters had always been able to point out 
the alienists to the young ones, saying, "That one and that 
one come from our insane asylum." Their sharp attention to 
every sound and movement around them set them apart from 
sisters whose lives had been spent suppressing exteriorized 
awareness. In the mother house refectory, she remembered 
how when a fork was dropped, theirs were the only eyes that 
turned to the source of the sound. 

The practical lay nurses who assisted them had the same 
sharp observation. They looked like female giants stout 
farm girls trained by the nuns but not diplomaed in psychia- 
try. Two of them were with every nun in the gardens, stand- 
ing nearby with arms folded while she controlled and kept at 
a distance with a level stare the wild-eyed women who cursed 
them with the voices of importuning lovers. 

"Our practical nurses," said Mother Christophe, "can stand 
only a four-hour shift, but our sisters take unlimited duty, 
sometimes remaining for eight or ten hours at a stretch with 
brief relief for meals and prayers." 

They started with a tour of the observatoire, where all in- 
coming patients were kept for a week or two under observa- 
tion until the type and extent of the derangement were known. 
Here were the top alienists of Belgium, many of them known 
by name to Sister Luke. From there, Mother Christophe led 
her to the pavilion of the paying patients, mentioning names 
that could be found in the Almanach de Gotha. Each of the 
nondangerous alcoholics, epileptics and semi-agitated 
had a special apartment luxuriously furnished. Sister Luke 
looked at a baroness peaceably eating the geraniums in her 
window box and heard her Superior say calmly, "We'll plant 

104 



others tomorrow." In another apartment, a young woman 
was on her knees eating from a plate on the floor. 

"That is the Countess de V.," said Mother Christophe. "She 
thinks she is a dog and will not touch food unless it is given to 
her on that coarse dish which must always be placed on the 
floor. She is a brilliant woman otherwise, as you will discover. 
You will be attached to this pavilion." 

Beyond the private apartments, but part of the wing, was a 
long corridor of padded cells for the dangerous lunatics. Each 
cell had an inch-thick window with louvered opening at the 
top. The Superior spoke to those who looked out on them as 
they passed. "This one," she said, indicating a handsome 
blonde whose china-blue eyes smiled sweetly at her, "thinks 
she is Archangel Gabriel and we call her that. Bon jour, 
Archange" she said. When they had moved on, she said, "You 
may never enter that cell alone. Always two or three." 

At the end of the long corridor of padded cells were the 
bathrooms where the major treatment of the violent cases was 
given. Through the hermetically sealed windows Sister Luke 
looked in upon a purgatorial scene. There were twelve tubs 
in the room, each covered by a stout canvas or by a wooden 
hatch that screwed down, each cover with a hole at one end 
through which protruded a madwoman's head. A dull subhu- 
man roar could be heard through the small hole in the door 
into which fitted the triangular notched key that opened all 
the knobless doors in this section. A single nun sat in the mid- 
dle of the bath scene watching the twelve tubs. 
. "When we go in," said Mother Christophe, "you'll not be 
able to hear me. This is the treatment for our dangerously 
demented. We coat them with vaseline and put them in water 
maintained automatically at constant temperature and keep 
them there, according to doctors' orders, four to eight hours 

105 



a day. Because the atmosphere in there is so disturbing, we 
want to provide an occasional relief for the sister, who often 
stays on for eight or ten hours. This is why we needed you. 
You are momentarily the only sister in transit who possesses 
the degree in psychiatry necessary for working in this com- 
munity." 

"I understand, ma Mere" said Sister Luke. She tried to 
keep her sudden relief from showing. Mother Christophe 
read instantly the emotion she had not concealed. 

"You are still very young to go to the Congo," she said, 
"though we know your heart is already there." Her pleasant 
tone showed she held no rancor for having had to receive a 
reluctant nun. "Our Reverend Mother Emmanuel perhaps 
would not have spared you to us, had you been a little older, a 
little more in the mold. This vineyard, meanwhile, will be an 
excellent proving ground." 

The Superior opened the door. The total lamentations 
were now loosed in the room. It was almost impossible to be- 
lieve that only twelve maniacs could produce those waves of 
singing, cursing and praying that mounted in crazy laughter, 
broke and began again, with rhythmless terrible beat, with- 
out end. Sister Luke looked at the back of the seated nun who 
could endure eight or more hours sealed up with insanity in 
this humid tiled room. 

The nun, following the movements of eyes in the tubs, 
turned, stood up and made her deep hand-crossing bow to her 
Superior. The antique salutation so full of grace stopped the 
howls from the tubs for an instant while the wild eyes 
watched. Then the howling resumed while the nun wrote her 
name on a slip of paper and showed it with a smile to Sister 
Luke. Soeur Marie de Jesus was written on the paper in a 
script as delicate as Valenciennes lace. 

1 06 



A chic type, Sister Luke thought, with a courage beyond 
anything I've seen. She felt an instant bond with the tall nun 
standing beside her with her eyes ever on the neck-holes of 
the tub covers, turning only for an instant to the paper on 
which she wrote, They try for 'ways to suicide. That thump- 
ing you hear is their heels beating up and down. They beat 
their heels raw and feel nothing. Sister Luke could not hear 
the drumming heels. 

Sister Marie led them to the door and let them out with her 
skeleton key, locking herself in with her maniacs and their 
terrible cries. Only a nun could do it, Sister Luke thought. 

The comparative silence of the padded cell corridor made 
her ears ring. The Archangel Gabriel thrust her face against 
the glass and called out "Au revoir, cherie!" as she went 
by. It was so long since she had been called cherie that she 
blushed. 

She was trembling when she emerged from the pavilion. 
There was a flicker of the odd presentiment she always had 
when death was near. The specialized awareness was some- 
thing she had known ever since she could remember and it 
often made trouble for her with doctors when their diagnoses 
were hopeful and she would shake her head and say, "If you 
will excuse me, Doctor, I believe we should call a priest." 

She looked at the twelve-foot fence surrounding the bego- 
nia beds in the private patients' gardens and saw them saun- 
tering about, and thought, There are a dozen people in this 
place who could die at any moment. She tried to shake off her 
foreboding but the great dark eyes of Sister Marie and the 
china-blue eyes of the patient called Archangel Gabriel re- 
mained in her thoughts. She remembered this afterwards. 
She had already met two of the three persons who were going 
to live indefinitely in her memory though one of them was to 

107 



die; the third was the tall elderly woman with heavy ankles 
coming toward them now through the begonia beds. 

The woman had a brown paper bag on her head. Her walk 
caught Sister Luke's attention even more than the bag. It was 
the convent walk, swayless and smooth. The patient advanced 
with downcast eyes in imitation of a nun approaching a Supe- 
rior. That of course was one of the faculties of the deranged, 
she recalled, as she watched the perfect imitative reverence 
the madwoman made to Mother Christophe. When the pa- 
tient looked up, her face under the brown paper bag had the 
gentleness of a child's and, like a child's, was without crease 
or crow's-foot. 

"That was the Abbess," said Mother Christophe after- 
wards. "She is an easy patient so long as you keep her supplied 
with paper bags. She wears one summer and winter, day and 
night." 

Sister Luke ventured a comment. "One would imagine, ma 
Mere, that she had been a nun." 

"She was," said the Superior. "She is laicized now, of 
course. Once she was an Abbess in a contemplative order." 

Sister Luke cast a startled look back at the paper-coifed 
woman who had once been a Living Rule. The Abbess had a 
finger to her lips as a fellow inmate chattered at her. She was 
maintaining **. rule of silence. 
*,/' " 

Sister Luke became used to it after a while. 

She learned that sedatives were to be given only as a last re- 
sort and then as sparingly as possible, that the approach even 
to a dangerous patient was through gentle persuasive reason- 
ing and that everything they did was to be accepted as if it 
were normal. She accustomed herself to praying in chapel 
with her eyes wide open when it was her turn to chaperone in- 

108 



mates to Mass, and she learned to use her eyes as her experi- 
enced sisters did like swiveUng lenses that moved from an- 
tic to antic, suppressing by anticipation the attention-getting 
tricks of her charges without having any of those queer gyra- 
tions enter into her brain as impressions calling for action. 

It took her some time to know all her sisters since half of 
them slept by day in this wracked world that had to have 
wide-awake eyes upon it twenty-four hours around the clock. 
She often looked for the enlarged moth eyes of Sister Marie, 
but that brave one was switched to night duty shortly after 
her arrival and it was a month before she encountered her 
again, except in the recreation room conversations. 

"When Sister Marie returns to day duty," the nuns told 
her, "then none other of us needs to sit in the patients' section 
in chapel. You know she is there with them and that nothing 
can happen." 

It was in her eyes, they said. She had only to look at a mad- 
woman making ready to fling into song at the Elevation and 
the impulse died under her gaze. She never said no to a pa- 
tient who wished to go to Mass. She believed that mere expo- 
sure to the Holy Eucharist helped, in some way, the human 
wrecks she cared for, and she would sit with twenty or thirty 
of them and not a sound would ever be heard except the 
cracking of the joints of the old ones as they flung their arms 
into the air in ecstatic imitation of the priestly gestures at the 
altar. 

Mother Christophe permitted her nuns to talk shop in the 
recreation long enough for them to unwind from the tensions 
of the day but not long enough to become involved in the 
more bizarre half of the double lives they led. Sister Luke fol- 
lowed the talk with burning interest. Except for her few visits 
to the recreation in the pensionnat, this was her first real ex- 

109 



perience of a recreation with Living Rules. She discovered 
that they had specialties in their perfecting some concen- 
trating on the poverty vow, some on obedience and some on 
charity. It was odd to hear them speak of these ancient strug- 
gles in self-perfecting almost in the same breath with which 
they discussed aspects of precocious dementias, responses to 
delusional systems, and all the types of hallucinations which 
they had to seem to share with their patients in order to be 
able to reason with them. 

This ideal of trying to reason with lesioned brains seemed 
to Sister Luke, in the beginning, almost a folly in itself. The 
toll it took from the nuns was never visible when she was 
working with them in the wards, where lunatic eyes were 
upon them all; but in the evenings when they appeared in 
recreation, their faces were as bleached as their coifs and, ex- 
cept for their powerful eyes, seemed to be of a piece with 
them. Her father would have called it nonsensical to spend so 
much energy on their cases when one round of hypos would 
have done the trick of quietening. But, she reminded herself, 
that was not the way of nuns, who believed that in each mum- 
bling human vegetable they tended there lived a soul undam- 
aged which might, just possibly, be reached through patience, 
courage and constant care. 

In such a setting, until you became accustomed, the weekly 
culpa sounded like something being read off a crumbling 
parchment from the Middle Ages. A walk with precipitation 
when a madwoman was pursuing you was still a walk with 
precipitation, to be proclaimed in open session before all 
your sisters, along with the vainglory and overconfidence 
which had got you into that situation in the first place. A med- 
itation missed because a patient had you locked in the bath- 
room of her private apartment was your imperfection for for- 

no 



getting the nearness of meditation time when you entered 
that apartment, knowing from experience the time-consuming 
strategies required to effect a quiet exit. No nun of course 
ever gave the reasons for lateness or obligations missed. But 
you knew them when the low voices named the faults, cutting 
them clean from a context to which you had often been a 
startled witness. 

Every Wednesday and Friday night in the nuns' dormitory, 
the senior began the Miserere after lights out; but only in the 
first days when you heard the clink of chains you knew were 
falling over bare backs in this place of so many other sacri- 
fices did you think that you were listening (and contributing 
to) the sound of excess pure, heroic and unique in a mod- 
ern world that elsewhere chose the careful middle way of 
tepid souls. The familiar cloister assumed only briefly the as- 
pect of a living museum conserving the penitential ways of 
mankind when Christ was nearer. Then, like the hallucina- 
tions you dealt with daily, the troubling vision faded. You 
swung your scourge, thought of your sins and murmured the 
psalm through to the final lines, Then shah Thou accept the 
prescribed sacrifices, oblations and holocausts . . . after which 
you could put your discipline back into its leather bag and 
climb onto your straw sack to the great reward of closing your 
eyes. 



in 



VIII 



FROM her first day on duty, Sister Luke felt herself drawn to 
the two patients who were at the opposite poles of mental de- 
rangement the Abbess, with the single mania which made 
her only gently queer, and the Archangel Gabriel, who was a 
diagnosed case of dementia praecox in its schizophrenic form. 

The Abbess's peculiarity was poverty. In the contempla- 
tive order where once she had ranked high, the practice of 
poverty was a strict rule but never, apparently, strict enough 
to suit her. She was suspected of practicing many secret self- 
denials and was regarded as a saint by her nuns until the day 
they found her in the convent library with many rare 
manuscripts in it carefully cut up into inch-square bits. She 
told her shocked nuns that those glowing illuminated manu- 
scripts had been troubling her conscience. All that gold was a 
sign of lack of poverty, so she destroyed the parchments as 
seemed proper. 

For poverty's sake she now slept on the floor in the middle 
of her private apartment, on a mattress she had long since 
shredded into small squares, along with every sheet and 
blanket subsequently given to her. She called her fluffed-up 
pile of mattress-stuffing and rags her dunghill, and the only 
desire she had left was to die like Job on his dunghill. In addi- 
tion to her mania, her chart recorded a heart disease that con- 



112 



tributed to a dropsy which would have immobilized most 
women of her age; but the Abbess took her daily walk at the 
hour when, as a nun, she had made her obligatory stroll in 
the cloister. 

Sister Luke never saw the mad side of the old nun because 
she never contradicted her or tried to get her off her scrap 
heap onto a bed. The Abbess called her "my child," as if she 
were one of her nuns, and waited for her daily visit so she 
could exhibit the latest poem she had written, or sing in a 
trained contralto a song she had composed in the night. Some- 
times the Abbess spoke about life in the convent, the strug- 
gles and self-denials about which the world knew so little, 
and she would ask Sister Luke lucid questions about her own 
spiritual progress, as if she were a functioning Superior again. 
Once, on an impulse, Sister Luke told her about her hopes 
for a Congo assignment. 

"That will be of course as God wills," said the Abbess. 
"But you must continue praying for it and I, meanwhile, will 
add my prayers to yours." It gave Sister Luke a curious con- 
solation each time she saw the Abbess present in the chapel 
and praying with fervor. Even when she was on the eve of one 
of her periodic attacks, she performed her religious duties 
with great grace and sanctity. 

The Archangel Gabriel on the other hand could never be 
trusted anywhere but inside her padded cell or in the tub un- 
der a screwed-down hatch. She was exactly what her chart 
stated a schizophrenic with all the familiar observable 
states of stupor, incoherence and impulsive acts. It took three 
of the practical nurses to wrestle her into the sacklike gar- 
ment called a maillot that encased her whole body from neck 
to ankles and left just the feet free so she could hop with small 
steps down the corridor to the baths. Even so, when she 



hopped past the desk where Sister Luke was on duty, she 
would always pause and call out "Allo, cherie!" with joyful 
recognition. 

Sister Luke was certain that one day she would penetrate 
the weird inner world of the Archangel, which seemed to be 
peopled mainly by male angels and winged stallions. When 
coherent, the Archangel would talk sanely about her farm. 
The winged stallions of her mania then became the Perche- 
ron horses she used to breed a draft beast far superior to 
the Clydesdales and the Shires, she said proudly, no matter 
how much the English bragged about their too heavily fet- 
locked breeds. Fetlocks, she told Sister Luke, were no good in 
furrows. 

"Sister Luke is the little friend of the Archangel," said the 
nuns in recreation. Their nods of approval for her having 
gained the confidence of one of their most difficult cases would 
ordinarily have embarrassed her. The fact that they did not 
failed to warn her that she nursed a secret pride for her abil- 
ity with the deranged. 

Pride never lasted long in the convent. But very often its 
owners were brought to their falls in such roundabout ways 
that it took a lot of piecing together, afterwards, to be able to 
see the relation of the fall to the fault. 

Sister Luke believed that she was being the little donkey of 
the community when she offered to take the night watch for 
Sister Marie on the evening of Mother Christophe's name-day 
fete. There was to be a party in the recreation with the special 
indulgence of cakes and chocolate for the occasion. 

Mother Christophe looked at her sharply when she made 
her request to see if it was for reasons of personal attachment, 
which would have brought an instant veto to the unusual offer. 

"You are young to be alone at that desk in the wing of the 

114 



dangerous patients," said the Superior. "Since it was Sister 
Marie's duty, I've already given permission to the two practi- 
cal nurses to attend the party." 

"The patients know me, ma Mere" 

Mother Christophe pondered a moment. "Very well, then. 
But only from eight to nine tonight, after which Sister Marie 
will resume." 

The padded cell corridor was quiet. Sister Luke walked 
past the heavy windows and looked in upon each patient. 
Tranquilized by their baths, most of them were in their beds. 
The Archangel's eyes were wide open but they gave no sign of 
recognition. 

Sister Luke went back to her desk and sat down, putting 
from her thoughts the overtones of almost a personal anxiety 
in Sister Marie's voice when she had said, "You will promise, 
Sister, to ring this bell if any one of them raps for attention?" 

It was pleasant to be alone, a treat as rare in the convent as 
were the cakes and chocolate being consumed in the recrea- 
tion room. She took from beneath her scapular Tante Co- 
lette's last letter and reread the lines that had amused her: 
Your father is incensed that they 'waste you in that idiot asy- 
lum after taking that strenuous course. What can you possibly 
learn in such a place? Obedience, she thought. That's what 
I'll try to explain next time I'm permitted to write a letter 
home. There was a gentle rapping on one of the cell win- 
dows. 

It was the Archangel standing at her window in her long 
white nightgown and asking plaintively, like an overgrown 
child, for a drink of water. 

"I'm thirsty, dearie," she whispered upward toward the 
louvers, showing awareness of people around her who slept 



and should not be disturbed. Sister Luke searched the blue 
eyes. They had no more wildness than a summer sky. "A 
thirst of all the devils," said the Archangel. The colloquial 
phrase had a persuasive familiarity. 

Sister Luke went to the tap and drew a paper cup of water. 
It seemed ridiculous for so small a matter to ring the bell 
and bring Sister Marie and two assistants out of a party that 
came but once a year. She could open the door just a crack, 
hand in the paper cup and shut it quickly while the Arch- 
angel drank. The thirsty one could keep the cup. It was not 
anything she could break and slit her veins with. The worst 
she could do would be to eat it afterwards, she thought. Two 
years of obedience fell away from her as she walked toward 
the cell alone. 

She took the skeleton key in her left hand and the cup in 
her right. The Archangel waited as relaxed as a sleepy child. 
Her blue eyes on the paper cup seemed not to have noticed 
that only one stood outside the door. Sister Luke slid the key 
in the lock, turned the latch and kept her eyes on the Arch- 
angel's face as she thrust the cup through the crack. The next 
instant, her whole body followed the cup. 

The steel fingers that had closed about her wrist yanked 
her off her feet and through the slight opening that her flying 
body widened in passing. Before she landed, the Archangel 
had her veil stripped off. The starched coif and headbands 
gave way like tissue paper while she was still on her knees* 
The guimpe choked, then it was off. She lunged upward, 
caught one of the wild arms and clung to it while the other 
reached for her scapular and tore it away. There wasn't a 
sound except the crazed whisper, "Cherie! Chfrie!" and once 
the clink of her belt, key ring and crucifix falling together on 
the padded floor. She thought of the skeleton key still in the 

116 



door, mercifully not attached to her belt. Twice as she wres- 
tled from wall to wall, she kicked the door open wider. Her 
prayers were continuous gasps, her heart bleeding out for 
mercy. She wasn't fighting for her own life but for the lives of 
the fifteen others in that corridor and for the old Abbess on 
her heap of rags in the apartments beyond. It took several mo- 
ments for the Archangel to get her skirts oil, the tough top 
serge first, then the petticoats. Stripped then of the encum- 
bering habit, she was lighter and faster on her feet than the 
ponderous maniac nearly twice her size. She feinted, dodged 
and kicked and the Archangel whispered "Cherie!" as she 
tried to get both arms around her at the same time. God, O 
God. Just the holy name, no time or breath for more. God, 
O God . . . The Archangel stooped to pull off a stocking. 
The strength she prayed for came to her then. She thrust the 
madwoman backward and off balance and for an instant was 
free of the flying arms. In that instant she got out the door and 
slammed it shut. 

She had no idea how long she clung to the long iron key her 
hand had frozen to but could not pull from the lock. The 
Archangel's face distorted with grief was flattened against 
the glass one inch from her own. 

Gradually Sister Luke forced her eyes into focus and saw 
her shredded habit scattered over the padded floor, and then 
the belt, the key ring and crucifix lying in a heap in one cor- 
ner of the cell. The sight of the leather belt, with which a 
thwarted maniac could choke herself, gave her the strength to 
move. She stumbled down the corridor and rang the bell. 

Sister Marie and two female stalwarts appeared so 
promptly it seemed as if they must have been there when she 
pressed the button. Sister Marie looked at her without sur- 
prise, judgment or shock and reached for a sheet to cover her 

117 



up. The two practical nurses waited with folded arms, incuri- 
ous, unexcited, as if it were a common event to relieve a bare- 
headed nun, stripped of her habit, v/ith two blacked eyes and 
scarcely any voice. 

As soon as she could gasp "The Archangel . . ." the aides 
walked down the corridor unfolding their arms as they went. 

Sister Marie wrapped the sheet around her like a toga. Her 
compassionate eyes examined bruises and scratches as she cov- 
ered them. With merciful delicacy, she made no reference to 
the deep inner wound of failure in obedience which Sister 
Luke had inflicted upon herself. 

"Pride got me in ... prayer got me out," Sister Luke whis- 
pered. 

"Don't try to talk," said Sister Marie as she pulled up a cor- 
ner of the sheet and looped it around her bared head, stiffen- 
ing her trembling chin with the knot she tucked firmly be- 
neath it. "Myself, I would probably have done the same 
thing." Sister Marie picked up the telephone and called the 
infirmary to bring a stretcher. 

Sister Luke began to sob, not for the scandal of her situa- 
tion, nor for the pain of her bruises, but for that extra charity 
from the tall calm sister who had identified herself with pride 
and disobedience to share her shame. Tears stung her puffed 
eyelids as she watched the two practical nurses coming back 
down the corridor with the pieces of her destroyed habit. 
There, neatly stacked in their big red hands, was the result of 
two years of trying to please God with obedience. She shud- 
dered at the thought of Sister Eudoxie eventually receiving 
those scraps of black and white, which were not even big 
enough to be made into sewing bags but possibly only into 
potholders for the kitchen nuns. She looked up at Sister 
Marie. 

118 



"This . . ." she managed to say, "could never happen to 
you." 

The powerful eyes stopped the emotion that thickened her 
voice. Two points of light darted from them, fixed her and 
held her safe from the further faults of personal attachment 
and of prophecy. 

"Only the Almighty God can know that," said Sister Marie. 
She put out her arms and took the torn habit from the aides 
flat on her upturned palms as if it were still a whole garment. 
The gesture recalled to Sister Luke the Living Rules of the 
mother house coming toward her before vows with her new 
black veil and scapular held just so and she began to cry again, 
but without a sound now. 

The extraordinary discreetness of the convent fell over the 
affair. It seemed as though nothing had happened. Save for the 
interview with the Mother Superior, the whole thing might 
have been one of those dark dreams that caused nuns to toss 
and moan on their straw sacks at night. 

Mother Christophe heard her culpa in private, which was 
the custom for exceptional faults. The Superior listened with- 
out comment to the truths about herself that she had uncov- 
ered during the three days she lay in the infirmary. Her 
salient characteristics had ugly names like pride, personal judg- 
ment and sense of heroism. She listed them in a toneless mon- 
otone as if her voice had died upon discovery of them. No 
notes were taken, but she knew as she shaped each halting 
word that she herself was dictating the incident report which 
would go forward to the mother house to be read, weighed 
and judged by Reverend Mother Emmanuel. Once during 
the long culpa she remembered how just a few months ago 
she had begged another Superior to inform the mother house 

119 



of another kind of struggle, and she almost said aloud to 
Mother Christophe, Had I succeeded in humility for Him then, 
would this be happening to me now? 

She was returned to the community penanced to beg her 
soup for eight days, an unheard-of duration for this extreme 
mortification, but even that did not seem to be happening 
when she knelt with her beggar bowl and made the rounds of 
the refectory day after day. Her sisters charitably ignored the 
green-blue condition of her eyelids, the bound wrists holding 
up the bowl, and even the brand-new habit which, ordinarily, 
would have drawn their women's eyes quicker than the 
bruises and sprains to which they were accustomed in that 
community. Not a single eye slanted toward her in curiosity. 
It made her feel like a ghost. 

On duty, it was the same. The Superior did not transfer her 
to another wing but wisely reassigned her to the place where 
she had learned a lesson that could not be improved upon. 
The Archangel called out "Allo, cherie" each day as she 
hopped past the desk on the way to the baths, as if that were 
the closest she had ever come or could come to the sister of her 
choice. Even the practical-nurse aides suppressed their gusty 
admiration for muscles and bravery and refrained from com- 
ment when she reappeared, as though they too had entered 
into the conspiracy of compassion which bound the total com- 
munity to silence and left her alone, as it were, the only living 
being in it with a memory. 

But not quite . . . there was the Abbess. Sister Luke sent 
her assistant to attend the old nun until the last trace of 
blacked eyes had vanished. She used the polished brass lid of 
the inkwell as a mirror to determine when this moment had 
arrived, noting the imperfection in her conscience notebook 
as a reminder for next week's culpa and writing firmly beside 

I2O 



it: For charity' 's sake, not to disturb a patient unduly. One of 
these fine days, she thought wryly, maybe I'll learn with God's 
help where the Rule ends and charity begins and not have to 
fill my notebook with these split hairs . . . 

The Abbess was waiting for her. Sister Luke guessed at 
once that her heart must be troubling her again for she had 
made an armchair of her scrap heap and was sitting straight 
up in it, her long thin torso like a ramrod above the edemic 
legs stretched out fat and heavy. 

"I missed you very much, my child," the Abbess said. Her 
sweet sensitive face showed concern. "Did she hurt you?" the 
old nun asked quietly. 

Sister Luke knelt swiftly to take her pulse. How could she 
have known? How through panes of unbreakable glass sepa- 
rated by corridors and a social hall could she have heard the 
sounds of scuffle in a padded cell? One could conclude only 
that this was another facet of her long nun's life preserved 
undamaged in the disease-ridden body and mind the abil- 
ity to feel an atmosphere and know what was going on with it. 

"No, Sister, no . . . I only hurt myself ." 

The Abbess never spoke of it again. But day after day 
thereafter, she entertained Sister Luke with discussions on 
dogma as lucid as any ever heard in a retreat, or, for recrea- 
tional relief, with the exquisite songs and sonnets she com- 
posed. Sister Luke had the impression that the old nun, out of 
her great knowledge of the soul, was making a conscious ef- 
fort to draw her forth from silence and self-reproach, to make 
her smile again. 

She actually did smile on the last afternoon of her month of 
day duty when she heard herself saying to the Abbess a happy 
colloquialism straight out of her childhood, as if at long last 
she had recovered again the light conscience that a nun must 

121 



have in order to endure. Afterwards, Sister Luke remem- 
bered bitterly that when she had said Everything will roll on 
wheels tonight! she had been thinking of the joy of relieving 
Sister Marie after her month of night duty, and of the way 
her sister's weary eyes would glow with gratitude when she 
would appear exactly on time. 

The Abbess had one special request before she went off 
duty. She wished Sister Luke to take her to the attic to see her 
garments in storage. "I'll probably not see you during your 
month of night vigil . . . and who knows . . ." 

She followed the Abbess to the attic. Late afternoon sun 
came through the gabled windows, reflected up from the 
sand-scrubbed floor to the white pine shelves neatly stacked 
with the clothing that patients in the pavilion had been wear- 
ing when brought in. Each pile of clothing was numbered and 
inventoried and on top lay the special objects that owners had 
clung to at the moment of mental breakdown ice skates 
with long curved blades, parasols, old-fashioned box cameras, 
satin slippers with Louis Quatorze heels, silver-framed photos 
of parents, of villas, horses, dogs and yachts, and here and 
there a great Edwardian lace hat with ostrich plumes droop- 
ing over the brim. Sister Luke had never reacted before to the 
attic, except to admire the order in which it was kept by the 
nuns. Now it made her think of death. It seemed like a strange 
graveyard where no bodies were buried, only clothes sweetly 
scented with camphor to keep the moths away. 

The Abbess moved down the long lines of shelves searching 
for her number. She hardly looked at the clothing of the 
world. Her eyes, like a Superior's on inspection, passed over 
the gleaming folds of silks and velvets to the walls behind and 
the rafters above, looking for a cobweb or a speck of dust. 
Presently she halted before an austere pile of simple grays 

122 



and blacks. One by one she unfolded the garments of her or- 
der, the black scapular of finest spun wool, the linen guimpe 
and the long gray dress and then the coarse hair shirt that was 
worn beneath it. She shook them out lovingly and held them 
up for Sister Luke to see. 

"This is what you will dress me in when I go to meet our 
heavenly Groom," she said softly. 

Sister Luke nodded agreement but could not speak. She 
watched the lean fingers stroking the only materials they had 
never tried to tear into inch-square bits, then folding each 
garment back again with practiced ease in its traditional 
folds. 

"I wanted you to see," said the Abbess, "before you start 
night duty. We could not come up here then." 

Sister Luke followed her as they went back to the garret 
stairs. The ingrained habit of the madhouse never to turn 
your back on a patient, no matter how trusted, gave her a mo- 
mentary feeling of shame as she walked behind the gentle old 
nun who, so often of late, had seemed as sane as any of her 
guardians. She studied the shapeless ankles; they looked 
heavier above the slippered feet that barely cleared the floor. 

At the door to her apartment, the Abbess turned and 
thanked her with a beautiful smile. Then she said, "I will 
pray that your vigil tonight will be without incident." 

"Don't worry, Sister. Everything will roll on wheels to- 
night!" 

Everything 'will roll on wheels, she said again to herself as 
she walked between the begonia beds in the moonlight. 
There were never any problems when you took over the duty 
after a sister as conscientious as Sister Marie. She would have 
notes written in her lacelike script telling which patients in 

123 



the dormitory were tied down with bound sheets and which 
ones were without restraints for that night. Patients who had 
visited the toilets would be listed and those who had asked for 
a cup of water. Any other nun would take advantage of the 
dispensation to speak during the grand silence on matters of 
duty and change-over. But not Sister Marie, she thought, not 
that perfect nun. 

The duplex pavilion with its gabled roof looked like a toy 
house set down in the center of the wire-enclosed gardens. 
Because she had come a few moments too early, she stood 
looking at it in the moonlight, mentally lifting away the fa- 
9ade. Downstairs was the big social hall for patients, the 
private rooms for special cases like the Abbess and the count- 
ess, the corridor of padded cells and the treatment tubs be- 
yond. Hermetically sealed glass doors and partitions closed 
off each section from the other, but you could look through 
them without moving from the central desk. Two aides were 
on duty, one awake and the other asleep, and a single nun who 
never slept Sister Henri that night was on duty in the 
office where the alarm bell was. At the rear of the hall, behind 
a knobless door of unbreakable glass, a flight of stairs went 
up to the big dormitory stretching the width of the building 
where slept the nonsuicides, the patients who had seizures 
only once or twice a year and were well known by the nuns. 
Up there was Sister Marie with her back to the glass door and 
her eyes on the twenty beds spaced around three sides of the 
room. The washbasins were along the fourth wall behind her, 
and in a cubicle beyond these slept a practical nurse whom Sis- 
ter Marie could awaken if for any reason she had to leave the 
dormitory. 

With her imagination Sister Luke set the five quiet guard- 
ians into motion made Sister Henri downstairs signal the 

124 



practical nurse that she was leaving her desk. The nurse 
awoke her sleeping companion, pointed to her post and took 
the place of the nun while Sister Henri went upstairs and 
looked through the glass, as the floor chief always did twice 
each night, to see that all was well with the nun on vigil in the 
dormitory. The figures moved in her imagination like chess- 
men, forward and back, each with a place to go, no spot left 
uncovered for more than a moment. She smiled as she slipped 
her notched key into the front door lock and entered the 
quiet house to become a part of its smooth-running perfec- 
tion. 

Sister Henri smiled back at her, glanced at a watch and 
wrote her entrance time in the log one minute to one in the 
morning. The practical nurse behind a glass partition looked 
at her not as at a person but as at a shape in motion within 
her range of vision, then resumed her steady watch over the 
padded cells. Sister Luke opened the door at the back of the 
hall, shut it soundlessly behind her and climbed the stairs, 
automatically lifting her long skirts from the front as she 
mounted. 

As she fitted her key into the glass door at the head of the 
stairs, she looked through it and took in the whole room at a 
glance the twenty beds with their motionless forms, the 
dimmed lights above and, on the desk, the shaded lamp 
which made Sister Marie's back look like a silhouette cut 
from black paper, a slice of shadow without dimension lean- 
ing forward against the light, leaning . . . but the head was 
not right! It was lying forward on the arms. 

Her heart missed a beat as she rattled her key to make the 
head lift before she entered the room, to awaken Sister Marie 
and spare her the ignominy of being found asleep on duty. 
"I've got to pay her back," she said wildly to herself, "pay 

125 



back that charity she gave to me ... pay it back with this 
noisy entrance, with this door clicking sharply shut behind 
me." She shook her key ring and prayed "O God, let her 
wake up all by herself." 

She lingered by the light switch, fumbling at it audibly and 
staring at the dark silhouette that would not move. Then she 
switched on the bright lights and saw the ebony knife-handle 
sticking out of the back of Sister Marie's black scapular. 

Her horror-filled eyes swept the dormitory. The motionless 
lumps under covers never moved but here and there she 
caught a sarcastic grin, a leer, a glint from eyes wide awake, 
watching to see what she would do. 

"I'll do exactly what Sister Marie would do," she whis- 
pered frantically to herself, adding, as Sister Marie would 
have done, ". . . with the help of God Almighty." She walked 
calmly to the desk, dropped her trembling fingers over her 
sister's pulse and pretended to read the page of notes on 
which die dead hand lay. Ilien she pressed the alarm bell, 
which was not heard in the dormitory. 

Sister Henri and one assistant appeared from below, their 
faces rising like two blanched moons behind the glass door. 
Then they were inside the dormitory moving with such stud- 
ied calm that it looked like slow motion, the practical nurse 
going to the cubicle beyond the basins to awaken the aide 
sleeping there, then the two of them returning side by side 
down the long room, unhurried, like lethargic giants. Sister 
Henri made a lifting motion. 

They never looked at the knife-handle as they bent to lift 
the chair with Sister Marie sitting in it. They ripped the chair 
slightly backward as they raised it up, making her arms drop 
naturally into her lap and her head fall forward in a drowsy 
nod. Sister Henri, clutching her crucifix with one hand, 

126 



opened the door for the aides and stepped back as they passed 
through. The bright lights showed up the white knuckles on 
her crucifix hand while the other closed the door with a 
barely audible click. Then she came toward Sister Luke, 
whose habit alone seemed to be holding her up. 

"We'll have another chair for you in a few moments/' said 
Sister Henri in a voice meant to reach beyond the desk. She 
lowered her tone and added, "Unless you would prefer to be 
relieved this night, as indeed you may." 

"Thank you, Sister, I prefer to stay." Sister Luke forced her 
voice up and said, "I'll not need a chair tonight," as she faced 
the room squarely while Sister Henri made her silent exit. 

Both nuns knew that nothing more could happen. The knife 
stolen from a pantry or smuggled in had been used. It 
was no longer in the dormitory. Only that leering aware-* 
ness in the few who had seen the violent let, and the memory, 
in just one of those twenty deranged brains, of having com- 
mitted it, needed to be subdued, to be confused by calm and 
eventually blotted out altogether. As if nothing had hap- 
pened . . . 

The discipline supported her that night. The Rule took 
over like a separate organ of command having no contact with 
her mind or emotions, existing independently of these with 
its own set of precise acts and facial expressions. She stepped 
backward and dimmed the lights. She stepped forward to the 
desk, picked up Sister Maiie's notes, looked from them to 
each numbered bed listed upon them in two columns, one 
headed W.C. and one H&O Given. Something in her screamed 
when she remembered that the hand that wrote what she was 
reading had been warm when she had touched it, but the 
Rule let no sound emerge. A thought formed halfway May- 

127 



be if I hadn't stood in the moonlight for the perfection of ar- 
riving exactly on the minute . . . and the Rule suppressed 
the rest of it. 

She read on, holding up the log without a quiver, looking 
from it to the beds containing patients in precautionary 
bindings only three of those. Then she began to patrol the 
room forward and back, clicking her beads as she paced 
slowly with her eyes uplifted to the great mirrors hung aslant 
at each end under the ceiling. The mirror toward which she 
paced gave her the view of the three beds along the end wall 
to which her back was turned and of the beds against the long 
wall as she passed them one by one. 

Her form was centered in the mirror she faced, very clear 
against the white rectangles of beds. It was a reflection of any 
nun pacing back and forth on a quiet night, seeming to tell 
her rosary. It was the Rule walking. 

She watched the Rule walking through the whole of that 
night and through the thirty that followed which became one 
with it. Pacing the dim-lit dormitory, she watched how the 
Rule turned the nun as on wheels when someone in a bed 
-stirred in the mirrored reflection; how it held her there in 
calm when a wild woman climbed from the bed, grimaced 
her way and padded off to the toilet; how it turned her again 
and made her resume her walk when the patient stepped into 
the mirror and walked catlike behind the veiled figure until 
she came to the empty bed and climbed into it, without being 
looked at or told to. 

Shafts of daylight penetrated the long night watch. For 
those intervals she could rest her eyes from the spellbinding 
mirrors. Her relief sister came each morning a little before 
seven, which gave her time to shower and put on a fresh 
guimpe before attending late Mass with the patients. There 

128 



was sleep until three in the afternoon and then breakfast 
alone in the refectory, followed by two hours in the chapel to 
read the daily devotions straight through from Matins to 
Vespers, since devotions when on duty with the demented 
were forbidden though not the semblance of saying them. 

Dispensed from community life during her solitary month, 
she never once felt that she did not belong to it or that it no 
longer existed. She did not have to see or hear the community 
to know what was going on in it. Experience informed her. 

She knew exactly how the Mother Superior made the grave 
announcement that their beloved Sister Marie de Jesus had 
given her soul back to God. That was in the chapter hall the 
morning after the event, when the nuns were assembled for 
spiritual reading. She knew how the nuns stared, their shock 
and heartbreak showing only momentarily and no head turn- 
ing to the sisters known to have been called to the infirmary 
the night before, no questions asked then or thereafter, no 
wasting of God's time with conjecture. No drama, no singu- 
larization ... a Living Rule permitted to die as she had 
lived, in quiet self-effacement. They would render that to her 
even the sisters who had prepared her body for the posthu- 
mous last rites, even the one who had withdrawn the ebony- 
handled knife. Yet, she knew, it was not a cold uncaring. In 
their thoughts Sister Marie would be present for the thirty 
days after her death, while the small cross lay on the refectory 
table at her place, which was set each mealtime with her 
napkin, wooden plank and water glass. The two sisters who 
flanked the empty place never passed soup tureens or bread 
baskets over it. As these came down the table from hand to 
hand, they stopped with the nun on one side of the vacancy. 
The serving nun stepped forward, picked them up and handed 
them, from the rear, to the nun on the other side of the place 

129 



where nobody was sitting. She could see it very clearly all the 
way from the refectory to the kitchen, where, for those thirty 
days, the ration Sister Marie would have consumed was 
measured out with scrupulous accuracy and given to the poor. 

Toward the end of the long vigil, one night when the beds 
were quiet and she allowed her eyes to dwell in thought on 
the dark-veiled silhouette in the mirrors, she felt a thrill of 
admiration for that solitary form patrolling without visible 
strain or vainglory a demented dreamland of fearful poten- 
tial. The thrill flew like an electric shock through her ex- 
hausted nerves. "The Rule thus achieved is very beautiful/' 
she said to herself. "In motion it is like a simple walking with 
God." 

Then her gaze moved to a mirrored bed where an arm was 
flinging off the covers. Bed five . . . her menstruation is due 
. . . probably restless 'with a little pain in her sleep. Her 
watchful eyes flashed every other message to her brain except 
the awareness that she had just been looking at herself. 

She was earning the Congo in that month-long night but 
she had no idea of this when it ended. She had crossed out 
that hope long ago. 

The remainder of her time in the asylum community 
passed without events or attachments, or any special inner or 
outer torments. Work and prayer dovetailed so closely as to 
leave no crack for thought. Much later, when she had ex- 
perienced other plateau periods and could compare these 
with this first one, she knew that they must have been her in- 
tervals of effortless, perfect conformity. They lay like irregu- 
larly spaced steppingstones through her memories of struggle 
the places where she had never had to watch her feet or 
her thoughts. 

130 



In the spring of 1932 she was called back to the mothex 
house with the remaining sisters of her group to make he* 
final vows. She walked into the home convent with her head 
erect and her wide blue eyes looking up and out, flicking to- 
ward every sound she heard in that nearly soundless place. 

She sensed immediately an atmosphere of which she had 
been unaware when she had lived there as an awed postulant 
and novice. It was impossible to analyze but it had to do with 
peace and perfection. She saw its effect on the many sisters 
who came there for other reasons than to make their vows, on 
nervous nuns perhaps just informed that they were to be pro- 
moted to Superiors, on nuns about to be transferred to the 
other side of the world, and even on the mediocre nuns who 
plodded in. Their first deep breath of the mother house at- 
mosphere seemed to put color into their pale cheeks. Be- 
hind the scene of all the coming and going, you sensed the 
powerful presence of the Reverend Mother Emmanuel in her 
small bare office, interviewing the incoming sisters one by 
one. It was rare that you saw a sister emerge from that office 
without tears in her eyes and a smile lifting all the tired lines 
of her face. 

Her group of first-professed, now preparing for final vows, 
seemed smaller than it was three years ago, but neither she 
nor any of her companions turned around to count, or even to 
look at one another as they sat in a circle with the Mistress of 
Novices. No side glances of curiosity, no whispered queries 
How did it go 'with you? Did you have a Superior you 
liked? Each seemed to be alone in the room with the Mistress. 

"You are all here," said the Mistress, "except Sister Mo- 
nique, who died and said her perpetual vows on her deathbed, 
Sisters Rose and Bernadette, who were put back three months 
at their own request, Sister Vitalie, who was advised to wait 



13* 



by our Reverend Mother Emmanuel, and Sister Godefrieda, 
who has gone out." 

Then you could almost hear the clicking of their thoughts. 
Am /ready? Am I worthy? Should I also have the courage of 
those who asked to be put back? This time it's not for three 
years, it's for good. 

"Perpetual," Sister Luke said to herself as if reading a 
crossroads sign she had come to sooner than expected. Her 
hand clung to her crucifix in the manner of the perpetually 
vowed. That evening she went to the Mistress. 

"I believe it would be better if I wait," she said. "There is 
still much struggle. Too much, it seems to me." 

"No, Sister Luke, I would not counsel postponement for 
you. You have to struggle. So do we all." The Mistress gazed 
at her thoughtfully, "We know how you were proved this 
past year, Sister Luke, and we know that you did everything 
to surmount the difficulties that came your way. As you will 
continue to do, because you have a fighting soul. For such, 
there can never be too much struggle." 

She leaned slightly across the desk. It was unusual to see a 
Living Rule betray eagerness. 

"We need combative souls, Sister Luke, not simply the 
phlegmatic ones who accept everything without question. 
You are one of us who has a taste for struggle. God would not 
have put you to such tests were this not so. You must count on 
His graces. Never forget that He tests His real friends more 
severely than the lukewarm ones." 

"Oh, it's not for fear of further proving that I ask to be put 
back . . ." Sister Luke faltered. It was so long since she had 
spoken of personal feelings, it was like a venture in a foreign 
language. "For me ... for one such as I, Sister ... it is the 



132 



Rule that is difficult. It is the constant struggle away from the 
natural. The supernatural life . . ." She gave up. 

"The supernatural life . . ." The Mistress smiled as she 
picked up her unfinished thought. "Yes, it does seem auda- 
cious when we name it so. In the world that phrase is asso- 
ciated with magic and a wave of the wand. It is not thought 
that man can achieve such a life, only angels perhaps. But we 
have our Holy Rule. It is a way to the Christ. The stern slow 
way to sanctity, but a very sure one. We know it can be 
achieved by the help of His graces." 

Sister Luke felt the persuasive pull of the dark eyes that 
reminded her suddenly of Sister Marie's. 

"Remember, Sister," said the Mistress very softly, "you 
would not be here had you not been called. When you were 
accepted for vesture by the Superior General, it was a sign 
that you were one of His chosen." 

The familiar words heard so often during her novitiate 
gave her for the first time a startling and unfamiliar impres- 
sion. It was as if she had been asking Christ to wait a little 
before making that final step toward Him. 

"Right now," the Mistress continued, "you feel perhaps 
unworthy, inadequate to meet that call. Possibly many times 
in prayer you have asked Him what He wishes of you, as we 
all do. Ah, how very often." She clasped her hands. Her voice 
dropped so low she might have been talking to herself. 
"Sometimes, God lets us know why we were called. Some- 
times not. Meanwhile, the vows keep us where we want to be 
near to Him in poverty, chastity and obedience." 

At the end of a ten days' retreat, Sister Luke made her final 
vows in the only way her strictly honest soul could formulate 
them. As she lay face down on the carpet, she whispered for 



133 



God's ear alone the words she was sure He knew were in her 
heart. "I cannot promise You until death . . . but I shall 
try ... 

Next morning she was summoned to the Superior Gen- 
eral's office and informed that she would not be returning to 
the asylum community. She was to report to the Vestiaire to 
be measured for the white cotton habit of the Congo nuns. 

In a daze she heard the beginning of the Reverend Mother 
Emmanuel's brief precise instructions, but from the moment 
she said, "I suggest while you're waiting for all your shots and 
vaccinations, you take from our library a Kiswahili grammar 
and begin to study the language," there were two voices in 
the room. From the place in her mind where she had hidden 
it away, the word simba leaped softly as a cat. Simba, said her 
inner voice over and over again while the Reverend Mother 
Emmanuel was saying, "You must never lose the awareness that 
in yourself you are nothing, you are only an instrument. An 
instrument is nothing until it is lifted. No one knows how it 
is lifted. It may be the prayers of some poor bedridden sister 
who had apostolic ambitions and longed for the missions, who 
accepts her affliction without murmur, that you may go . . ." 



134 



I X 



A COMMERCIAL photographer from Antwerp took a pic- 
ture of the departure for the Congo. Months later, when she 
looked at it printed in the little magazine of the congrega- 
tion, Sister Luke imagined she had known then everything 
that was going to happen to her on that white ship trimmed 
for the tropics. 

The camera had centered on the section of the ship's rail 
where the nuns stood, herself and Sister Augustine, professor 
of Latin and the humanities, who was making her second de- 
parture and showed it in her slightly haughty expression. 

Her own face in the photograph looked like a small trian- 
gle of white stone severely incised with fixed eyes and a slit of 
a mouth tightly drawn. That must have been when the band 
started playing the Brabangonne, she thought . . . and then 
it all came back the surging splendor of her country's send- 
off to sons and daughters bound for the colonies, the whip- 
ping flags and tossed confetti, the world catching her up at 
that moment as if to say, You too! You are outward bound for 
adventure! catching her on the wave of its own emotion 
and nearly drowning her in that unfamiliar medium until 
she saw below her on the crowded quay the Gothic figure of 
die Reverend Mother Emmanuel . . . 

135 



The Reverend Mother Emmanuel seemed to be waving like 
all the others. Then she saw the figure-eight motion of the 
long hand. It circled tirelessly, sending little signs of the cross 
over the widening space between ship and shore. The white 
sleeve hung like a banner from her wrist and made the bene- 
dictions visible long after other flags blurred with distance. 

Voices from the pier carried over the water. "Don't forget 
to come back rich." "Don't forget to come back." "Don't for- 
get . . ." The white sleeve signaled, "Don't forget you are 
only an instrument. Never lose the awareness that in your- 
self you are nothing. The one who does your work will be 
an unknown praying for you. Only an instrument, remem- 
ber , . ." Slowly the ship turned. 

The spires of the cathedral swung into view pointing up 
from a gray huddle of waterfront hotels and seafood restau- 
rants. Beyond the spires she saw the mansard roof of the hos- 
pital where her father was making his rounds, doubtless tell- 
ing everyone that his daughter was sailing that morning for 
the colonies. "Don't be proud of me," she whispered. "This is 
really flight. I'm glad to get away. It will be so much easier 
out there to remember that I am nothing." She looked stead- 
ily at the roof until it vanished. Then Sister Augustine 
plucked her sleeve and she turned away from the rail. 

The silent summons brought her back into the orbit of the 
mother house. She followed the senior nun to the cabin and 
knelt with her to pray. It was not going to be difficult to keep 
near to God in the midst of shipboard life, not when you had 
an experienced companion to show you how. In the curtained 
cabin, her only wayward thought as she murmured the re- 
sponses concerned the beauty of Sister Augustine's Latin. 
The twentieth-century world seemed far away when you 
heard her Dens qui Abraham puerum tuum, de Ur Chaldeo- 

136 



rum eductum, per omnes suae peregrinationis . . . the vowel 
sounds flowing from her thin lips as if this were the everyday 
language. 

But right outside her cabin door, the modern world in glit- 
tering microcosm lay in wait for her. Its music struck the first 
notes of a waltz as she and Sister Augustine, bound to silence, 
stepped from the cabin into a lounge full of people who were 
introducing themselves, pairing up for dinner and bridge 
partners, their faces laughing and lively with anticipation of 
a long voyage with nothing to do except to pursue pleasure. 
The waltz was one she knew. She had not heard it for four 
and one half years but its words were suddenly all there 
singing in her memory. 

Inattentive as a deaf-mute, Sister Augustine moved through 
the lounge and led the way to the promenade deck. Her prim 
nod indicated that they would make a tour of their new cloifr- 
ter before settling in deck chairs to read the Office. Sister 
Luke realized that her companion had made her debut into 
the world so long ago, she had forgotten its impact after the 
sequestered years of preparation. It was going to be as if Sis- 
ter Luke traveled alone on her first real journey in the world 
since vesture. 

In the 'world. The phrase drummed in her thoughts as 
she tried to match her companion's sober pace. How many 
times had she heard it in the convent? Perhaps a thousand. In 
the 'world was the phrase of separation. It meant out there, 
beyond these walls. It meant everywhere else except here 
and everyone else except us. It meant this ship now. 

Before she had gone halfway around the scrubbed decks, 
she knew that everything she had renounced was there on 
board to be looked at and listened to again, and again to be 
set aside, if she could. The familiar music pursued her, reviv- 

137 



ing dance partners out of her past. The passengers smiled, in- 
viting speech. The bulletin boards listed motion pictures 
she longed to see. Eighteen days of this, she thought. It was to 
be the sternest of all her tests of detachment. 

You were expected to live on that ship as if still behind 
walls. Your meditations were not supposed to be colored by 
excitement every time you looked up at the blue flag of the 
Congo with its single gold star. And, if they were, you must 
have the strength to say, "I am nothing, only an instrument," 
and cease seeing yourself surrounded by Blacks in the lonely 
bush and see instead the pale hand that was lifting you, the 
hand of a sister perhaps who might at that moment be spit- 
ting blood in the mother house infirmary while she prayed 
for the missions. You knew you betrayed her sacrifice each 
rime you let parts of yourself escape to dream among the 
dancers, to keep score on the deck-tennis players, to eaves- 
drop on the bearded colonials whose roving eyes measured 
the bare-backed women the sunny skies off Spain brought 
forth upon the decks. 

There was no chapel on the ship, only a library momentar- 
ily transformed into one each morning when two Jesuit pas- 
sengers said Mass there. Then it became a place of tempta- 
tion furnished with deep leather chairs and books about 
which you must try not to have a flicker of curiosity. 

"I miss the chapel," she said to Sister Augustine during 
one of their recreation periods. She was going to add that a 
nun without a chapel was a little like a fish out of water, but 
thought better of it when she saw her sister's smile of mild 
surprise. 

"But we carry our chapels in our hearts, Sister Luke," she 
said. 

During the first week she walked the deck so often she 

138 



might have been going on foot to the Congo. Sometimes she 
held her Office open, trying to read. Sometimes her hands 
were clasped beneath her scapular like two wrestling shapes 
wanting to get away from each other to swing in compensa- 
tion to the body's sway as the ship lifted and dipped through 
the easy sea. 

Off Tenerif e, when she and Sister Augustine put on their 
tropical whites, she had the impression that everything would 
be easier. She imagined it would be less difficult to meditate 
on the open decks in those whites that would refract the sun's 
rays instead of drawing them in, like the blacks, to fill the 
body with disturbing warmth. But as soon as she stepped on 
deck, she knew that the change of habit would make nothing 
easier, least of all her concentration. The feeling of lightness 
invaded her thoughts. She could have played tennis like a 
whirlwind in those weightless cottons, and each time she 
passed the courts a ghost with squinting competitive eyes 
slipped out from beneath her scapular and ran toward the 
nets with veil and skirts flying, to show up every player there 
including the two Jesuits, who were fast with the rubber rings. 

Sister Augustine was as unaware of her divided state as she 
was of the world around her. Geared to the clockwork of the 
mother house, she signaled by dropping her knitting and 
picking up her Office the times for meditations and prayers. 
Sister Luke knew from her rapt expression that she really was 
meditating when she stared out over the sea. She was not 
finding images of loved ones framed in the cat's-paws the 
wind ruffled up. 

The nights brought other distractions. They retired to 
their cabin at eight-thirty and undressed without looking at 
each other, as if there were a cell wall between the two berths. 
They said the evening prayers and the Salve Regina and were 

139 



in bed with lights out by nine. Then the night life of the ship 
began. 

You heard the ballroom music first. It drifted through the 
passageways in the changing tempos of waltzes, polkas and 
fox-trots with intermittent flurries of hand-claps calling for 
encores. The rustle of ice in champagne buckets, in the 
lounge just outside the cabin door, announced the intermis- 
sions. 

Much later, after the music ended, there were shufflings 
and whispers from the promenade deck and sometimes 
against the porthole curtain the shadow of two heads thrown 
into silhouette by the moon. "Don't watch that shadow play," 
said the nun inside you and you looked away quickly while 
there was still a space of moonlight between the two profiles. 

You looked at the white guimpe and scapular swinging 
from a clothes hanger against the dark paneled door. It was a 
pendulum that counted the rolls of the ship. By staring at it, 
you could make it draw your thought so that when you at last 
fell asleep, you would not dream again that you were still in 
the world, a young girl with flying hair and unfettered im- 
pulses. 

There was one image which Sister Luke could always put 
between herself and the distractions. It was the native service 
to which she was destined. She saw the bush station often 
between the lines of the medical books she studied. It was in 
a place that could never stir a worldly association because 
everything there was totally new to her experience. The peo- 
ple were black. The music was drums. Even the thorn trees 
could never recall any tree she had ever sat under before. 

She had seen so many photos of the Congo missions in the 
convent magazine that it took no effort of the imagination to 
build her own. Hers was in a clearing among outlandish trees, 

140 



a pavilion with thatched roof and a veranda around the four 
sides of it. Two bicycles leaned against the stairs, one of them 
hers. Beyond the main building were the conical huts where 
lived the black boys she was training to be male nurses. There 
was just one other nun with her in the bush clinic, a facsimile 
of Sister Marie. Each time her imagination cast up the pic- 
ture, she thanked God that that was to be her lot instead of 
one of those hospitals for whites in the bustling cities of the 
Congo where the majority of the nursing sisters were sta- 
tioned. 

Afterwards, she wondered why the voice of religious experi- 
ence had not spoken within her from the moment she began 
using that bush station as a screen. In retrospect, it was so per- 
fectly clear that as long as the world could distract her, she 
was not done with it. She would be kept in it until her detach- 
ment from it was perfected. 

Off Dakar, a radiogram came to the ship addressed to Sister 
Augustine and delivered to her in the dining saloon. She 
thanked the steward with a smile, slipped the message be- 
neath her scapular and tucked her napkin under her chin. 
Sister Luke looked on with unconcealed admiration. 

The radiogram had to be from the mother house or from 
family. Only a death announcement would be considered im- 
portant enough to be radioed; anything else could wait for 
letter transmittal. 

Sister Augustine gave her a lesson in detachment. She lifted 
her wine glass, took delicate sips and sent a smile of utmost 
sweetness across the table, nodding as if to say, "Do likewise, 
my sister. This is our time for rejoicing." 

Sister Luke remembered the years of refectory meals when 
heartbreak, discouragement and fatigues were concealed and 
all the nuns came to table to celebrate in serene silence the 

141 



bounty that God put before them. She picked up her wine 
glass and turned it slowly. She smiled back at her companion 
as though saying, "It's a good wine. We are blessed with the 
dispensation to drink of it freely on shipboard so as not to 
singularize ourselves in the eyes of passengers by drinking wa- 



ter." 



They ate in silence as always, anticipating each other's 
needs for salt, more bread, a bit of horse-radish, passing 
these back and forth with practiced grace and little nods 
which occasionally caught the eyes of diners at nearby tables 
and made them stare musingly at the two white sisters who 
seemed able to read each other's thoughts. 

Sister Luke looked at her companion with envy. Sister Au- 
gustine's withdrawn face ignored everything that came to her 
from the outside, including the radiogram beneath her scap- 
ular. The wheedling dinner music, the bursts of laughter and 
fragments of vivid table talk floated into her silence but cap- 
tured no part of her. She was safe in the convent refectory lis- 
tening to the voice of the pulpit reader. 

When they finished dessert, Sister Augustine folded her 
napkin and announced the time for recreational speech by 
saying softly, "Praised be Jesus Christ." She thought a mo- 
ment before she withdrew the radiogram. Weighing the in- 
delicacy of reading a personal message in the presence of a 
sister . . . Sister Luke knew that much about her veiled 
thoughts. She smiled at the fine-spun delicacy of convent eti- 
quette. 

"If you will permit," said Sister Augustine, "I will read the 
message here where there is good light." 

She opened the envelope with a fruit knife and spread it 
flat on the table. Sister Luke watched her lips forming each 
word as nuns were taught to read, thoughtfully and without 

142 



skipping. When her companion looked up, she knew by the 
flash of sympathy in the usually impersonal eyes that the mes- 
sage concerned herself. 

"You must prepare for what may be a little disappoint- 
ment, Sister Luke. Your assignment has been changed. You 
are to report for work in the hospital for Europeans in ..." 

In a city with streets and stores, with newspapers and tele- 
phones. In a bustling bit of Belgium set down near the cop- 
per mines of the Haut Katanga . . . Her disappointment cut 
like a knife. Only her training in concealment of emotions 
kept her from crying out. Her bush station flew apart as she 
took a last look at it. The trees and hills of her dream changed 
into smokestacks and slag heaps while Sister Augustine folded 
the radiogram corner to corner with care. 

"Apparently," said her companion, "one of our sisters was 
stricken with lung trouble, which always writes finis to serv- 
ice in the tropics. So, there was a place on the government 
payroll which our Reverend Mother Emmanuel has chosen 
you to fill." 

Sister Luke waited until she could speak calmly. Then she 
said, "When God orders, He gives . . ." and she thought how 
bitterness, shock, even a flash of rebellion were laid low by 
such words of obedience. And, something always happened 
when you said them. Like the All for Jesus of student days, 
they shifted the emphasis. 

Presently she thought of herself on a payroll, earning a sal- 
ary which would be paid into the coffers of her congregation 
for her services. It was strange to think of herself being worth 
money, being one of those earning sisters who worked in the 
world, were paid by the world and yet must not be of it. She 
had often studied the sisters who, although never named or 
singled out, were known to be earners in the congregation. 

143 



She had wondered what they did about pride when they real- 
ized that their salaries helped to pay for the vast charitable 
activities of their Order. Could you transmute pride into 
humble thanksgiving when you knew that orphans and old 
folks, unmarried mothers and even your own aged and ailing 
sisters depended in part upon you for their daily bread? 
She looked over the dining saloon. She had forgotten to put 
people into her new picture. She gazed at the passengers who 
were now her potential patients. She felt the pull of their 
worldliness as she realized that she knew these people whom 
she might have met time and time again in her father's draw- 
ing room. She knew their intrigues and love affairs. She could 
have told just which of those gusty colonials had sired a mu- 
latto in the bush. She could have put a yellow flower in the 
corsage of every woman who was deceiving her husband 
aboard that ship. Yellow, she thought, the color of cuckoldry. 
"Name of God," she whispered to herself, "how did I remem- 
ber that? How . . . after all the years of no color except 
black and white?" 

"I think," said Sister Augustine, "that we should go first to 
the cabin and say a prayer to ask our Lord for His graces to 
help you shoulder your disappointment." 

She caught the eye of an army officer as she passed his table* 
Had she been looking down as she should have been, she 
would not have seen his frank glance of admiration. Seeing it, 
she remembered yet another hazard of work in the world 
which every young nun had to face sooner or later. It was the 
curious tendency of men to fall in love with nuns, a fact which 
even the Rule recognized in its strict injunction that sisters 
must always be in pairs when in the presence of the opposite 
sex. 

She was praying before she reached her cabin. It was the 

144 



kind of swift spontaneous prayer she had always been able to 
make before she had boarded that ship. She talked direcdy to 
God as though He instead of Sister Augustine accompanied 
her down the passageways. 

"You cannot let me be a worldly nun, Blessed Lord. You 
know my all-or-nothing soul. You know that I would flee the 
convent tomorrow if I thought that this lingering worldiness 
would stamp me always. Dear God, they are the most un- 
happy of Your servants, those half-caught, half -given. Help 
me to be not like that. Don't humiliate me further by show- 
ing me that I am. You've taken away the bush station and put 
me back in the world, but You must put into me as well the 
strength to ignore its temptations. You have ordered . . . 
Now You must give . . ." 

She passed the bulletin board outside the purser's office 
without looking to see what morion picture was to be played 
that night, the first time she had not cast longing eyes toward 
the entertainment schedule. 

In the Gulf of Guinea off French West Africa, they crossed 
the Equator. The life of the ship turned lunatic. A colonial 
with beard dyed green came forth as King Neptune. Every- 
body was in bathing suit or masquerade except the two nuns 
who stood at a safe distance from the swimming pool where 
every passenger crossing the Equator for the first time was 
dragged for a ducking. 

Sister Luke looked more often away from the horseplay 
than at it. She gazed beyond the port rail toward where the 
coast of Africa would soon show above the watery horizon. It 
would be just a series of brown humps, Sister Augustine had 
said, very disappointing to the newcomers. But as soon as you 
get inland a way . . . 



They would debark at Lobito in the Portuguese Congo and 
take the train from there to the Katanga Province in their own 
colony, which was eighty times the size of Belgium. It was a 
three-day train ride with few stations en route and nothing 
much to see in them except natives and occasionally a tamed 
lion walking about unchained. It would be hot and dusty in 
the wagon-lit because September was near the end of the dry 
season when the whole of the central belt would be gasping 
in drought. "But ah, my sister, when the rains come," said 
Sister Augustine . . . and then her inner clock informed her 
that the hour for recreational talk had come to an end. And 
she left the rains hanging there in a sky as black as tar. 

The nearness of Africa shrunk the world around Sister 
Luke. She stood hours on end at the port rail waiting for 
its first brown humps to appear. The faculty for self- 
examination, which a nun does as naturally and as ceaselessly 
as she breathes, holding up each thought and act and asking 
herself if it was to please God that she thought this or did 
that, came alive again as she scanned the bright horizon. It 
made her inner world as exciting as the jungle land she was 
dying to lift prematurely over the edge of the sea. 

On their last night aboard, the nuns were invited to the 
captain's dinner. They shined their shoes for the occasion and 
put on fresh guimpes so starchy they crackled to the touch. 
The prospect of a gala dinner with speech permitted sent a 
flush to Sister Luke's cheeks. Like a Cinderella of sorts, she 
could live a special life until the clock struck, save that hers 
would strike three hours before midnight and it would make 
no sound. It would be a sign from Sister Augustine that the 
hour of the grand silence was at hand. 

The captain seated them in places of honor and proceeded 
at once to tell his other guests what the colony owed to its mis- 

146 



sionaries. He had been carrying them out to Africa for eight- 
een years as an officer and earlier, as a cabin boy, he had sailed 
with the first nuns ever to set foot on Congo soil, the first 
white women many of the natives had ever seen. 

"That was in the eighteen-nineties," he said, "and the 
Blacks were waiting for them on the beach with spears point- 
ing seaward." He lifted his beard with the back of his hand 
and grinned. "Those tribesmen were the reception commit- 
tee sent down by the Fathers working at the inland mission, 
but the Reverend Sisters didn't know that when they walked 
down the gangplank with their black cotton umbrellas in 
their hands. Four of them that first time. I remember their 
names . . , Sisters Clarella, Marie-Joannita, Polydore and 
Brigitta." 

Sister Luke forgot she was sitting at a banquet table. She 
forgot she could speak freely for once to the Congo specialists 
seated about her doctors, army men and engineers and 
their wives who had the answers to questions she had 
stored up. She listened with glowing eyes to the memories of 
a cabin boy who had helped carry the tin trunks of the pio- 
neering sisters down to the beach. She saw the sisters clutch- 
ing their umbrellas as they walked in pairs toward the naked 
tribesmen who were to be their guard of honor for the long 
trek upstream. 

"But you'd have thought one of the Fathers would have 
come to the port," said the doctor's wife, shaking her head as 
if to say, These men, these impossible, egotistical men . . . 

"Ah yes, but it was a thirty-five-day trip out from Antwerp 
then and ship arrivals were never certain. That original old 
port of Banana was a sandspit between salt marshes. No place 
to camp out for indefinite waits . . ." 

The first four sisters walked across the sandspit and got 

147 



into the hammock-shaped contraptions the natives carried 
and she saw them lifted up and borne away through man- 
grove swamps to the place where the dugout canoes were 
moored. 

"And they looked," said the captain turned cabin boy 
again, "exactly as composed as if riding down L' Avenue de 
France." 

Their sisters followed. They came in larger groups at the 
turn of the century when the Matadi-Leopoldville railway 
was under construction and fifteen thousand Blacks were la- 
boring on the tracks and dying off in numbers both alarming 
and embarrassing to the railway company, and those first 
nuns set up the clinics and then moved on, ever forward and 
inland as the Fathers beckoned. 

The procession moved through her mind as she listened. 
Sometimes it halted to regard the scenery and she heard the 
voice of Reverend Mother Emmanuel reading from a yel- 
lowed letter written by one of those sisters named Clarella, 
Marie- Joannita, Polydore or Brigitta. "We did well to arm 
ourselves with the Sign of the Cross and to commend our souls 
to our guardian angels. If one does not have a solid head, it is 
prudent not to look from one side to the other while the train 
goes through the frightening gorges and seems to rush over 
mountains of stone. One moment you are rolling through 
vertical partitions in rocks opened by dynamite; the next, you 
race over a mountain's flank that drops straight to the muddy 
waves of the River Congo . . ." 

Sometimes the procession halted to comment on the native 
children who followed the pioneering sisters like flies and she 
heard again her Superior's reading voice "They belong to 
the most savage tribes of the upper Katanga. In the first days 



148 



after our arrival, I surprised several in the act of eating sand, 
others who smacked their lips over dead rats, earthworms or 
slugs. They are all tattooed with dreadful incisions from 
head to foot. From the moral point of view, they are pitiable. 
Lying and theft seem to be such a part of their natures as to be 
considered talents, if not even virtues. In our beginnings 
here, they ran out each night and devastated our corn- 
field . . ." 

On through the years the procession moved and grew in 
numbers. The pavilions changed from hasty wood enclosures 
to buildings of brick and stone. At some time, perhaps when 
they had proved their staying power, the nuns were given 
tropical whites and they ceased perspiring to a degree that 
had formerly made blisters on the paper over which they bent 
to record the strange sights of the evangelizing frontier. 

At some point in the captain's reminiscences, Sister Luke 
found herself in the procession. A thrill of pride caught her 
unaware. She looked down at the table to hide her blush as 
she saw herself bringing up the rear of that long line of stal- 
wart sisters that was woven like a white thread into the im- 
mense tapestry of the Congo. 

It was only one of many, and a single thread, to be sure; but 
it was tough and continuous. Other sisters would follow her. 
Like herself, they would come out to the colony with the 
same kind of termite-proof tin trunks those first sisters had 
carried, and the same number of guimpes, chemises and 
pieces of underwear in them. The same work bags chain- 
stitched with a number, a shoe-shine outfit and two textbooks 
each, which Sister Eudoxie, who packed all the trunks in the 
mother house, would verify to make sure the books were 
medical for the nurses and educational for the teachers. And 



149 



in their hearts, quite likely, there would be the same simple 
prayer that chanted in her own . . . "O God, let me do some 
good ..." as the captain talked on and on. 

Five minutes before nine she was walking back to the cabin 
with Sister Augustine. She couldn't recall if her senior had 
plucked her sleeve or lifted her eyebrows or what she had said 
to her host and the guests when she withdrew. She had the 
queer impression that Sisters Clarella, Marie-Joannita, Poly- 
dore and Brigitta had been sitting at that banquet table in 
their black habits burned rusty green, with their faded cot- 
ton umbrellas hooked over the backs of their chairs. 

"Lobito tomorrow at dawn, Deo gratias" said Sister Au- 
gustine. 



X 



THE stucco station appeared quite suddenly out of the 
Congo night. It was lit brightly and full of cotton-clad natives 
cheering and waving, with a few whites among them so sun- 
tanned as to be indistinguishable as Europeans at first glance. 

Sister Luke stood at the train window that had three days 
of dust piled in its corners. This was her destination, her con- 
vent city, the copper capital of the upper Katanga. It looked 
no more like Belgium than had any other of the lonely towns 
passed en route. Sister Augustine pointed to two coifs at the 
rear of the crowded platform and stood up beside her as the 
train came to a halt. 

She tried to see the faces of the nuns come to meet them, 
one of them Mother Mathilde, her new Superior, the ruler of 
her days henceforth. But there was too much motion between 
her and them, too many stranger sights than coifs to catch the 
eye. A black-faced band wearing red tarbushes and khaki 
shorts marched into the station. Then the blare of the Bra- 
bangonne stopped all motion save that of the huge winged ants 
dashing themselves against the lamps. 

The two coifs were the only identical headgear in the 
mixed crowd. They brought back the departure from Ant- 
werp twenty-one days before and made Sister Luke reflect 
that although she had gone halfway around the world, she 



had really only passed from convent to convent bracketed 
there and now here by two coifs and the strains of the na- 
tional anthem. Yet, as she studied the crowd and saw details 
like necklaces strung with teeth and coins, hair oiled shiny 
and twisted into tufts and bared chests scarred darkly with 
tattoo incisions, she could tell herself that no matter what 
convent life could be like in this new setting, it could never be 
exactly like what she had known before. 

And it was not. The moment the anthem ended, their car- 
riage door was snatched open from the outside. A wiry Negro 
in makeshift uniform cried "Mama Augustine!" and helped 
them both from the compartment, lifting up their skirts from 
the rear as if he too had read their Rule. She recognized, from 
Sister Augustine's talks, Kalulu, the convent factotum, the 
Congolese version of the genteel old ladies who chaperoned 
nuns in the homeland. She smelled the Congo night as soon 
as she stepped on the platform. The jacaranda trees which 
heralded the beginning of spring in the upper Katanga were 
in bloom. 

There was another beginning going on around her which 
she could not recognize because she had disciplined herself not 
to eavesdrop on the businessmen, mining experts and gov- 
ernment officials who had made hers one of the first full trains 
to come up from the port since the world money crisis of 
1929. After three years of financial stagnation, the wheels of 
the Belgian Congo were starting to turn again. 

The coifs came toward her through the crowd. The face of 
her new Superior was a Frans Hals portrait, peaceful, joyous 
and positive. She looks too gentle to be a Superior, Sister 
Luke thought. Then she felt the firm Flemish cheek laid 
against hers. 

Mother Mathilde allowed no traditional bows in this pub- 

152 



lie place. She gave them a disarming smile, said, "We are sc 
glad you have come," and led the way to the convent Ford 
parked behind the station. She motioned Sister Luke to sit 
beside her in the back seat, and her aide and Sister Augustine 
up front with Kalulu. As the car started, she reached over and 
took the hand of her new nun in hers. She held it quietly in 
her lap as they drove through wide streets under darkly arch- 
ing trees. Like the Reverend Mother Emmanuel, here was 
one who could venture the human touch, Sister Luke 
thought. Her heart opened up to her new Superior as she 
gazed straight ahead at the two white veils beside a kinky 
black head. 

The night widened when they came out from the tunnel of 
trees. The uncovered Ford chattered under a canopy of stars 
she felt she might touch with her free hand. The city she had 
dreaded petered out quickly and there seemed to be nothing 
ahead except an immense dry darkness smelling of dust and 
mimosas. Now and again when Kalulu slipped out of gear to 
coast and save motor fuel, she heard the shrill song of cicadas 
and a faint staccato background sound which she realized 
with quickened emotion was drum talk. 

Then a familiar music chimed through the Congo night. 
Five strokes of a chapel bell announced the beginning of the 
grand silence in the only place on the dark plateau which 
would remain voiceless until dawn. The convent was a series 
of shadowy blocks set against the starshine and it had no walls. 

The cloister in the Congo was not like anything she had 
imagined. The first morning she saw her sisters lined up for 
showers, she thought she was looking at Siamese cats. The 
parts of their faces normally covered by headbands were 
creamy white and all the rest was burned dark by the African 

J 53 



sun. Each face seemed to be wearing a little brown triangular 
mask with the broad end just above the eyebrows and tapering 
to a point at the chin. 

The next unexpected sight was of a single face, all black 
and male, peering into the refectory from a serving window 
that gave onto the convent kitchen. Never before had she 
known a man to look upon nuns at their meals. Andre not 
only looked, but weighed and judged as well, and ordered up 
the best servings for his favorites. This she learned later when 
she had her turn as serving nun. Always the tenderest and 
most perfect portion was for Mother Mathilde, whom Andr6 
idolized and at whose place he set each morning a little bunch 
of marguerites in a tumbler, which the Superior dared not or- 
der removed for austerity's sake, for fear of hurting his feel- 
ings. 

The black boys who replaced the pot-washer, cooking and 
laundry nuns back home taught her who was who in the com- 
munity even before she learned the names of her sisters and 
whether they worked in school, nursery or hospital. The 
tricks the boys played upon the sisters momentarily fallen in 
their esteem spotlighted the nuns' characteristics. If a sister 
with a passion for cleanliness humiliated Andre before all the 
others by handing back a fork that looked unclean, she paid 
for her forgetfulness of native prestige for as much as a week 
thereafter. Andre would set her place without a fork, knowing 
she could ask for nothing at the refectory table but must wait 
until some sister observed her lack and asked for her, know- 
ing also that the sisters were generally too weary with over- 
work to note immediately what went on around them. 

A sister made irritable by the heat might speak sharply to 
one of the laundry boys. The sleeve of her chemise would 
then be torn in the laundering, almost out but not quite, and 

154 



it would be hung in perfect shape in her cell with the rent not 
observable until the next dawn when she reached for it hur- 
riedly and found it unwearable. Since the bells gave no time 
for mending before Mass, she had then to take back from her 
laundry bag the mussed habit of the previous day. You could 
read the crumpled habits appearing in the chapel and know 
which sisters had offended the feelings of Boula, or Rutshuru, 
or Andre, or any one of their wives, sisters or brothers. 

Or, you could read the reproach of a cleaning boy in the 
form of a ball made of dust, insect wings and the fuzzy drift 
from blossoming trees, named curiously a pussy-cat, and as 
visible as a small gray cat sitting on the stone floor beneath 
the bed of a nun who had spoken too quickly or had chided in 
public the boy who swept the convent and swabbed the floors 
each day. 

Even Mother Mathilde might mention the pussy-cat in the 
recreation, lightly, as if in jest, but the nun under whose bed 
the gray ball reposed never took it lightly. "Something I said 
or did to him," she would say thoughtfully. "I cannot think 
what, chere Mere, but of course I offended his prestige some- 
where, somehow . . ." 

The recreations were held outdoors in a rococo kiosk cen- 
tered in the cloister garden. Sister Luke looked at the bats 
and winged ants flying about, at the magenta bougainvillea 
hanging like a bishop's sash over the garden gate, and re- 
minded herself that no matter what she was seeing or hear- 
ing, she was still in a convent. In the first days, it was often 
difficult to believe. 

The convent was a brick bungalow which opened directly 
onto a wide dusty street, one end of which led to the city and 
the other to the bush. Behind the nuns' house was the small 
garden with kiosk, and beyond the rustic chapel of the sister- 

155 



hood and the refectory. All the buildings had galvanized iron 
roofs lined on the inside with wood, but with enough space 
between to accommodate lizards and snakes which occasion- 
ally dropped through the knotholes in the wood. 

On one side of the convent stood the big government hospi- 
tal, as modern as anything in Belgium, and on the other the 
boarding and day schools for children of the colonials, and an 
immense nursery for the care of white infants whose parents 
were stationed in unhealthy or dangerous posts in the bush. 
Less than twenty nuns ran these establishments, in addition 
to giving the prescribed rime to the daily devotions which fol- 
lowed the schedule of the mother house. 

Until she saw the boys whom the sisters had trained to as- 
sist them, Sister Luke wondered how so few nursing and 
teaching nuns could handle such a city-sized task. Les evolues, 
the colony called these natives the ones evolved or in proc- 
ess of evolving. Many had gone to the missionary schools, 
Catholic and Protestant, which were peppered all through 
the Congo. They had emerged with a new language French 
and a white man's craft which set them apart from their 
brothers still running half naked in the bush. The black boys 
were everywhere throughout schools, nursery and hospital, 
working as clerks, typists, baby-sitters and practical nurses 
and, like the selected few who worked inside the convent and 
laid upon the backs of the nuns the extra cross of their per- 
sonal and passionate preferences, they worked best for the sis- 
ters they liked. 

Sister Luke was keenly aware of their black eyes upon her 
when she made the rounds of her new community. They 
seemed to be taking her apart, examining the depth of her 
smile, the sincerity of each spoken word. Her heart went out 
to them but she was careful not to show it too soon. She did 



not know that already a favorable report had passed over the 
Congolese grapevine direct from Kalulu after his encounter 
with her in the railroad station. 

"Young enough to bear children," Kalulu had broadcast. 
"Held hands with Big Mama Mathilde on way back to sister 
house, therefore esteemed. Said thank you in our tongue 
when I helped from car, but how much more Kiswahili she 
understands I cannot say. Talks little. Looks much." Boula 
the laundry boy had added to the publicity the number he 
found stamped on her guimpes, which, he reminded his lis- 
teners, was the same as that of Mama Marie-Polycarpe who 
used to tour the bush and bring back news of their villages. 
And Andre had rounded out the picture with his observation 
from the refectory serving window: "Only pretends, like us, 
to take quinine. Pinches finger over the dish and puts nothing 
on the tongue while making meanwhile a very bitter expres- 



sion." 



The hospital boys were as deft as women at their bed- 
making and bandage rolling. They passed barefoot through 
the pavilions in utter silence as their fathers had passed 
through the jungle, startling her when they came up from 
behind with trays poised lightly on their big black palms. 
The native nurses prepared her somewhat for the Congolese 
assistants in surgery and, eventually, for the skilled laboratory 
technicians with whom she made her refresher course in trop- 
ical medicines. These were the real evolues, the end results of 
a medical education that was going to produce full-fledged 
Negro doctors within the next few years. 

Before beginning her studies with them in the govern- 
ment laboratories, she was sent by Mother Mathilde to visit 
the hospital for natives run by her Order in the section of 
town from which she had heard the drum talk on the night of 



sun. Each face seemed to be wearing a little brown triangular 
mask with the broad end just above the eyebrows and tapering 
to a point at the chin. 

The next unexpected sight was of a single face, all black 
and male, peering into the refectory from a serving window 
that gave onto the convent kitchen. Never before had she 
known a man to look upon nuns at their meals. Andre not 
only looked, but weighed and judged as well, and ordered up 
the best servings for his favorites. This she learned later when 
she had her turn as serving nun. Always the tenderest and 
most perfect portion was for Mother Mathilde, whom Andre 
idolized and at whose place he set each morning a little bunch 
of marguerites in a tumbler, which the Superior dared not or- 
der removed for austerity's sake, for fear of hurting his feel- 
ings. 

The black boys who replaced the pot-washer, cooking and 
laundry nuns back home taught her who was who in the com- 
munity even before she learned the names of her sisters and 
whether they worked in school, nursery or hospital. The 
tricks the boys played upon the sisters momentarily fallen in 
their esteem spotlighted the nuns' characteristics. If a sister 
with a passion for cleanliness humiliated Andre before all the 
others by handing back a fork that looked unclean, she paid 
for her f orgetfulness of native prestige for as much as a week 
thereafter. Andre would set her place without a fork, knowing 
she could ask for nothing at the refectory table but must wait 
until some sister observed her lack and asked for her, know- 
ing also that the sisters were generally too weary with over- 
work to note immediately what went on around them. 

A sister made irritable by the heat might speak sharply to 
one of the laundry boys. The sleeve of her chemise would 
then be torn in the laundering, almost out but not quite, and 

J 54 



it would be hung in perfect shape in her cell with the rent not 
observable until the next dawn when she reached for it hur- 
riedly and found it unwearable. Since the bells gave no time 
for mending before Mass, she had then to take back from her 
laundry bag the mussed habit of the previous day. You could 
read the crumpled habits appearing in the chapel and know 
which sisters had offended the feelings of Boula, or Rutshuru, 
or Andre, or any one of their wives, sisters or brothers. 

Or, you could read the reproach of a cleaning boy in the 
form of a ball made of dust, insect wings and the fuzzy drift 
from blossoming trees, named curiously a pussy-cat, and as 
visible as a small gray cat sitting on the stone floor beneath 
the bed of a nun who had spoken too quickly or had chided in 
public the boy who swept the convent and swabbed the floors 
each day. 

Even Mother Mathilde might mention the pussy-cat in the 
recreation, lightly, as if in jest, but the nun under whose bed 
the gray ball reposed never took it lightly. "Something I said 
or did to him," she would say thoughtfully. "I cannot think 
what, chere Mere, but of course I offended his prestige some- 
where, somehow . . ." 

The recreations were held outdoors in a rococo kiosk cen- 
tered in the cloister garden. Sister Luke looked at the bats 
and winged ants flying about, at the magenta bougainvillea 
hanging like a bishop's sash over the garden gate, and re- 
minded herself that no matter what she was seeing or hear- 
ing, she was still in a convent. In the first days, it was often 
difficult to believe. 

The convent was a brick bungalow which opened directly 
onto a wide dusty street, one end of which led to the city and 
the other to the bush. Behind the nuns' house was the small 
garden with kiosk, and beyond the rustic chapel of the sister- 

155 



hood and the refectory. All the buildings had galvanized iron 
roofs lined on the inside with wood, but with enough space 
between to accommodate lizards and snakes which occasion- 
ally dropped through the knotholes in the wood. 

On one side of the convent stood the big government hospi- 
tal, as modern as anything in Belgium, and on the other the 
boarding and day schools for children of the colonials, and an 
immense nursery for the care of white infants whose parents 
were stationed in unhealthy or dangerous posts in the bush. 
Less than twenty nuns ran these establishments, in addition 
to giving the prescribed time to the daily devotions which fol- 
lowed the schedule of the mother house. 

Until she saw the boys whom the sisters had trained to as- 
sist them, Sister Luke wondered how so few nursing and 
teaching nuns could handle such a city-sized task. Les evolues, 
the colony called these natives the ones evolved or in proc- 
ess of evolving. Many had gone to the missionary schools, 
Catholic and Protestant, which were peppered all through 
the Congo. They had emerged with a new language French 
and a white man's craft which set them apart from their 
brothers still running half naked in the bush. The black boys 
were everywhere throughout schools, nursery and hospital, 
working as clerks, typists, baby-sitters and practical nurses 
and, like the selected few who worked inside the convent and 
laid upon the backs of the nuns the extra cross of their per- 
sonal and passionate preferences, they worked best for the sis- 
ters they liked. 

Sister Luke was keenly aware of their black eyes upon her 
when she made the rounds of her new community. They 
seemed to be taking her apart, examining the depth of her 
smile, the sincerity of each spoken word. Her heart went out 
to them but she was careful not to show it too soon. She did 

156 



not know that already a favorable report had passed over the 
Congolese grapevine direct from Kalulu after his encounter 
with her in the railroad station. 

"Young enough to bear children," Kalulu had broadcast. 
"Held hands with Big Mama Mathilde on way back to sister 
house, therefore esteemed. Said thank you in our tongue 
when I helped from car, but how much more Kiswahili she 
understands I cannot say. Talks little. Looks much." Boula 
the laundry boy had added to the publicity the number he 
found stamped on her guimpes, which, he reminded his lis- 
teners, was the same as that of Mama Marie-Polycarpe who 
used to tour the bush and bring back news of their villages. 
And Andre had rounded out the picture with his observation 
from the refectory serving window: "Only pretends, like us, 
to take quinine. Pinches finger over the dish and puts nothing 
on the tongue while making meanwhile a very bitter expres- 



sion." 



The hospital boys were as deft as women at their bed- 
making and bandage rolling. They passed barefoot through 
the pavilions in utter silence as their fathers had passed 
through the jungle, startling her when they came up from 
behind with trays poised lightly on their big black palms. 
The native nurses prepared her somewhat for the Congolese 
assistants in surgery and, eventually, for the skilled laboratory 
technicians with whom she made her refresher course in trop- 
ical medicines. These were the real evolues, the end results of 
a medical education that was going to produce full-fledged 
Negro doctors within the next few years. 

Before beginning her studies with them in the govern- 
ment laboratories, she was sent by Mother Mathilde to visit 
the hospital for natives run by her Order in the section of 
town from which she had heard the drum talk on the night of 

157 



arrival Here she saw in flashback, as it were, the beginnings 
of the native training in white man's ways. 

To the maternity clinic came black women carrying new- 
born babes to be inspected by the nuns. Behind each young 
mother walked the husband carrying in a bowl the placenta, 
which was also shown to the nursing sister, who could tell at a 
glance if all the afterbirth had been expelled. 

"Until we taught them to bring in the placenta," said the 
maternity sister, "we often had cases of puerperal fever in the 
mothers." She lifted a purple membrane with forceps and ex- 
amined it. "It took us a long time to make them understand 
why this was as important to come out in entirety as the 
baby." 

"One would think they'd all wish to come here for deliv- 
ery," said Sister Luke, 

"Not all of them trust us that much . . . yet. Many still feel 
safer delivering themselves in the bush. They scoop out a 
hole, crouch over it and voiliU In time and with patience, 
we'll overcome this centuries-old practice. But one thing in 
their asepsis is as good as ours. Look." The nun pointed to an 
infant being weighed. There was some sort of dark powder 
on the dried tip of the little black umbilical cord. 

"Pulverized charcoal," she said. "In all the years we've 
been here, we've never seen one baby brought in with any 
suppuration of the cord. How they learned that charcoal is 
sterile and water-absorbent, we'll never know. They simply 
pat it on when the cord is severed. Not even a bandage re- 
quired." 

Sister Luke looked at the three black husbands carrying 
placentas. One in the line wore the matched shorts and shirt 
of the Force Publique; the others were covered by loincloths. 
The clay bowls holding the afterbirths were fine examples of 

158 



native handicraft. The husbands' eyes rolled whitely toward 
the receiving table to see if all went well with the man show- 
ing to the sister a thing usually left for the jackals to consume. 

She thought of Kalulu tinkering knowingly with the spark 
plugs of the convent Ford, of the black boys in her hospital al- 
ready adept with many strange tools and of the colored tech- 
nicians whom she had seen in the government laboratories 
examining slides sent in from the whole Katanga and identi- 
fying the bacilli faster than she believed she would be able to 
do when she joined them. It excited her to realize that here 
before her eyes were the fellow tribesmen of those laboratory 
evolues, making the first fearful steps toward civilization with 
flyblown placentas in their outstretched hands. The bush is 
that close, she thought. 

The bush came closer when she saw what it could do to the 
white man who had to learn to live in it by will alone. After 
her refresher course, she took up her post as chief nurse in the 
European hospital staffed by her nursing sisters. The bacteria 
she had injected into apes and guinea pigs were now visible in 
their human hosts in the forms of fevers, rashes and hideous 
ulcerating sores. In the emergency ward she looked at scalps 
torn by wild beasts, at hands and feet gangrenous with thorn 
wounds, at savage gashes from crocodile encounters, and she 
had no feeling that she was confined within four walls of a city 
hospital, sentenced to a long tour of routine nursing. 

The doctor was also a new experience. Chief surgeon, ob- 
stetrician, tuberculosis, cancer and malaria expert, Dr. For- 
tunati was a witch doctor in the eyes of the black nurses, a 
Beelzebub in the eyes of the nuns and a genius in her eyes. He 
began operating before five each morning to escape the heat 
and he wore out his nun assistants almost as fast as Mother 
Mathilde could supply them. 

159 



Sister Luke examined his postoperatives. He had to have 
God on his side to have pulled through some of the cases she 
charted. She longed to see him operate and in due time the 
opportunity came. The nun assisting him fell ill and Mother 
Mathilde asked her if she could take on the additional job in 
surgery meanwhile. 

"You must always leave surgery the moment operations are 
over," said the Superior. "Don't ever linger to discuss a case, 
as you will certainly be tempted to do because he is an ace, as 
you know. But remember, he is also a man, a bachelor and 
an agnostic. In short, an Italian with hot blood." Her gentle 
face, so pure in its goodness that it seemed as if a prematurely 
aged child were looking at you, turned momentarily worldly. 
"Don't ever think for an instant, Sister, that your habit will 
protect you." She traced a firm sign of the cross on Sister 
Luke's forehead before sending her forth to the man who was 
to become a dominant influence in her cloistered life. 

In the beginning she knew him mainly as a pair of blood- 
shot eyes in a sallow masked face and as the source of a nause- 
ating garlic odor. The garlic mixed with the ether she ad- 
ministered in the dark dawns on a fasting stomach before 
Mass. She fought her nausea while he fought for the life on 
the table. 

For the first few weeks pride supported her. She could look 
around the surgery and see it performing like a precision bal- 
let. She had already improved on the training of the native as- 
sistants, given them style. The boy who stood behind the doc- 
tor and swabbed his forehead with a piece of ice wrapped in 
gauze took cues from her nods. An instrument boy replaced 
the nun who usually passed scalpels, hemostats and catgut 
from trays which she arranged earlier in the exact sequence 



1 60 



the operation would require. When a doctor from the mines 
assisted, she had a boy trained to assist him. 

But one morning Dr. Fortunati asked her to assist. Then 
she was directly opposite him across the table, her head bent 
close to his, his garlic breath stifling her nostrils with each 
tense order he gave. Waves of nausea assailed her and a cold 
sweat broke out on her forehead. She knew then why so many 
surgery nuns had been done in after a term of assisting this 
garlic-eating genius. 

But not I, she promised herself, Fm not too timid or too 
modest to speak to him, or too unearthly proud of my ability 
to swallow back nausea and endure. Anger sustained her for 
the remainder of the operation. When it was over, the doctor 
complimented her and asked how her health was since she 
had taken over the double duties. 

"I can continue, Monsieur le Docteur, until the replace- 
ment arrives from the mother house. But on one condition 
only." 

"Which is, Reverend Sister?" 

"That you promise not to eat garlic on the nights before 
you operate." 

It was the only time she ever heard him laugh. His mask 
was still on. His breath blew through the gauze and made her 
back away before she saw his gloved hands reaching out as if 
to take her by the shoulders to shake her. 

"That's what Madame Lamartine says! Only she says it 
every night before dinner." His laughter pealed through the 
surgery, youthful and fresh like a small boy's. She knew he 
was referring to his mistress and that he was taking an enor- 
mous liberty with her in so doing. She turned her back on his 
laughter and pulled off her gloves. She heard the doctor say- 



161 



ing as she hurried toward the door, "For you, Reverend Sis- 
ter, I agree . . ." 

He kept his word. She began to assist him regularly al- 
though it meant rising at four on the mornings when two 
operations were scheduled, because the summer heats came 
down with the November rains and after seven o'clock the 
surgery was a Turkish bath. 

Her chief boy, Emil, who headed the native staff in the hos- 
pital, now accompanied each stretcher to surgery and recited 
the vital statistics of the cases his assistants lifted upon the ta- 
ble. 

"All pre-op medication given, Mama Luke. All lab work 
done and okay. No temperature. No apprehension. No den- 
tal plates. Blood pressure one-forty over seventy." His aide 
stood beside him, lifting the pages of the chart as Emil spoke, 
holding them before her eyes to read and confirm, but never 
touching her when he saw she was sterile. 

The doctor seldom looked at the charts when she approved 
them. His dependence on her judgment was a tribute she 
tried to accept with humility, but in the pre-op tempo of those 
queer humid dawns, it was often difficult to remember that 
she was a nun first, and then a surgical nurse. 

As he operated, Dr. Fortunati taught her everything he 
knew, taking her step by step through each technique as he 
cut, clamped and stitched. Very often they were in the midst 
of an operation when the chapel bells rang for six o'clock 
Mass. But she went right on with him, knowing that in time 
the Father would come to the hospital with the communion 
for the patients and that Sister Marie-Rose, on duty at the 
desk, would nod toward surgery when she was there. 

The black altar boy holding candle and bell would stop 
first outside the surgery door. At the sound of the chimes, the 

162 



boy who mopped the doctor's forehead would swing open the 
door so she could pass through without touching, and she 
would kneel, receive the Host and be back at the operating 
table in a matter of seconds. 

The doctor never looked at her then. These were the only 
times he made no sardonic comment on the religious life. 
His momentary silence gave her enough time to say to herself, 
"He is with me and I am with Him." Then the doctor re- 
sumed his explanatory monologue. 

He called her for every emergency and there were many 
in her first months. He sent Emil to fetch her out of chapel 
when he could not find her in the hospital. She knew that in 
time her sisters would talk, since more than half were profes- 
sors with little understanding of medical crises. Once when 
the doctor summoned her for a matter she thought could have 
waited another five minutes and permitted her to finish an 
Office with the sisterhood, she mentioned the fact. Dr. For- 
tunati turned on her sharply. 

"You may be in a convent but I am not," he said. "When I 
want you I want you. You are paid by the government and 
therefore at its disposition. They don't pay you to pray but to 
assist me." His eyes were bloodshot and weary after a week 
end party in the Kivu. "If your Superior allows you to work 
for two, it means that you have to give twice the time to the 
hospital, and it means one less at prayers." 

She knew he was right. It was exactly what her father 
would have said, what he probably had said many a time 
when he operated in hospitals run by nuns, save that he would 
have spoken his piece and stalked out. 

Afterwards, she reported the doctor's rebuke to her Supe- 
rior. Mother Mathilde was a nurse herself, one who knew 
moreover the savage dedication of the doctor when he had a 



flickering life on the table. It was not difficult to make her un- 
derstand the problem of nun versus nurse which had begun to 
worry her. 

"In addition to this, ma Mere, I think about my sisters," 
she said. "My frequent absences from the community must 
seem to the teaching nuns perhaps a bit bizarre, even sought- 
after . . ." She trusted Mother Mathilde to read the rest of 
her thought, so she spoke it. "They'll start to talk, ma Mere, 
and though I know it will be for charity's sake, talk often 
starts trouble. In every community where I have been, events 
have singularized me and in some way set me apart from my 
sisters. I have prayed so hard it would not happen here. But 
now, this one they call Beelzebub causes me to be the one less 
at prayers, with your permission always. But still ... so visi- 
ble a subtraction from our small community . . ." 

She watched Mother Mathilde composing her thoughts, 
making a rough draft of them so as not to waste rime hunting 
words. This was the habit of every nun. Presently her Supe- 
rior said: 

"For the moment, Sister, you can do only what you have to 
do. Ask God to inspire you to act rightly. I have written again 
to the mother house begging another nurse, for you cannot 
hold those two jobs indefinitely." She paused, stroking her 
crucifix. "I am not thinking of our sisters. If they speak, it is 
for reasons of charity. It is that they wish to keep you close to 
God. I am not thinking even of your missed sleep which 
sooner or later is bound to affect your health in this climate. 
Physically, you are strong, but what is that with us? Health is 
expendable, even we are expendable. But the spiritual life is 
not ours to spend. This belongs to God. My concern is for 
what may be happening to your spiritual life, my sister." 
Mother Mathilde leaned forward slightly, detaching herself 

164 



as it were from the crucifix hanging above her chair. Her gen- 
tle face was that of a friend, very human and warm. "Momen- 
tarily, I have permitted a situation to exist which forces you to 
starve your spiritual life. You starve it with a prayer snatched 
here and there, with a meditation shortened by emergency, 
with a rosary recited between pavilions when one part of 
you is thinking of the patients you have just left and those you 
are going to see." 

"But I am strong, ma Mere? 

"Only God knows who among us is strong and who is 
weak," said Mother Mathilde. "You appear to be graced with 
spiritual strength. This I count on, but I of course can never 
know for certain. Only your own conscience, Sister, can tell 
you how long you can continue without too great strain on 
your inner life." 

Sister Luke remembered a parting advice from the Mis- 
tress of Novices. "You can cheat me. You can cheat your Supe- 
riors and cheat, with pretense, all your sisters. But there is 
One whom you can never cheat. You cannot cheat God." 

"I can see," said Mother Mathilde as if picking up her 
thought, "only the visible palpable thing which every sister 
sees. I can never say that you do not do a meditation because 
you are not present when the community meditates. I cannot 
say you are not praying when your pew is vacant at Mass. I 
know always, because you are obedient, exactly where you are 
and what doing. When Father Stephen leaves us in chapel to 
take the Host to the hospital, I know that presently you will 
receive your communion, but I know also that under those 
circumstances, you cannot have time to reflect and make your 
act of thanksgiving fully." She smiled ruefully. "It is not easy, 
Sister, to serve God and Dr. Fortunati simultaneously." 

Sister Luke knew exactly what she meant. There was always 



the risk of the nurse carrying away the nun. It was the very 
problem that had brought her to Mother Mathilde, but now 
she saw the challenge in the situation. I'm strong, she 
thought, I can live on snatched prayers and curtailed medita- 
tions and manage that hospital with one hand and Beelzebub 
with the other for as long as she remains understaffed . . . 

"With God's graces, I can carry on without risk, ma Mere" 

"For the moment, I have no choice but to permit it." 
Mother Mathilde looked her straight in the eyes. "But remem- 
ber, Sister, your soul was put in my care. Whatever risk to it 
may be inherent in this trying situation is mine as well as 
yours." 

Sister Luke returned to the hospital filled with inner ex- 
citement. She had never before felt so close to a Superior. Her 
last words delivered with a smile of ineffable trust had gone 
straight to her heart. "Mine as well as yours . . ." Mother 
Mathilde shared the risk. The risk of me, Sister Luke thought 
with emotion. 

Suddenly she saw the dimensions of that risk. Her love of 
the medical practice, fed and encouraged by Dr. Fortunati, 
could become an attachment very difficult for her conscience 
to cope with. And, when the doctor sent for her, was there not 
sometimes a secret satisfaction in being singled out from all 
the other sisters, a sort of sweet feeding after all the years of 
struggling to pass unperceived? She crossed the foyer on the 
way to the wards and another aspect of that risk was there be- 
fore her eyes. Two wives of her colonial patients were waiting 
to tell her their sides of the stories she had already heard from 
their husbands babbling in fever. 

As chief nurse of the hospital, she was more exposed to 
worldly affairs than she had ever been since entering the con- 
vent, and here in the colonies those affairs were often matters 

1 66 



about which a nun was supposed to know nothing. Yet she 
had discovered, as she gave sympathy and advice, that she 
knew enough about gambling, drinking and illicit love affairs 
to be able, quite often, to win a man away from them and 
back to his Creator when the shadow of death hung over his 
bed. And how often, she asked herself, when she had secured 
permission from some godless old colonial to call a priest for 
absolution, had she remembered to say, Someone's else 
prayers achieved this, I am only an instrument. 

The risk of me, she thought again and her self-confidence 
turned to dismay. She stepped into the dispensary, the only 
place in the hospital where she could be alone. She looked out 
the windows at the vast horizons of Africa. The sky was black- 
ening and making ready to release the daily deluge. Risk was 
out there, too. Presently there would be flash floods that 
caught the unwary and carried him down to quicksands that 
gave no footing. The way I could be carried if I'm not exceed- 
ingly watchful, she thought. Blessed Lord, help me to be 
everything she trusts me to be . . . 

The dispensary door opened. "Mama Luke . . ." EmiTs 
black face signaled emergency. She made her heart keep in 
step with her unhurried walk instead of running ahead as it 
usually did when Beelzebub called from surgery. 

The table was empty and the operating lamp not lit. The 
doctor was putting on a linen street jacket. He smiled and 
asked her if she could do without him for a three-day week 
end while he went up to the Kivu to fish. 

"There's nothing risky around here at the moment," he 
said. It was odd to hear him using the word she had just been 
weighing. "You'll have lots of time to catch up on your 
prayers while I'm gone." 

"And if an emergency does come up, what then?" She asked 



the question routinely as she ran through her mind the seri- 
ous cases in the pavilions. 

"Get a medic from the mines," he said easily. "Keep on 
with the morphine for the terminal cancer . . . he'll proba- 
bly die but we're expecting that. Keep the drip on the three 
gangrenes. Don't touch the dressings on our skin graft even 
if they start to smell . . . just leave it alone. That's my tech- 
nique to get good results." He looked at her standing quietly 
before him with hands folded beneath her scapular. "And 
get a bit of rest yourself, Sister. I've used you pretty hard in 
recent months." 

She stayed in the surgery after he was gone, checking over 
the things she would have time to do while he was away. The 
pharmacy clean-up, work on hospital records, making a rough 
draft of the government report that had to be as exact as a 
bank statement, taking another slide of that mysterious ulcer- 
ation case in Contagious and trying to identify the bacillus 
. . . She caught herself thinking only of the work. I'll live 
my full religious life with the community as well, she prom- 
ised herself. Chapel, refectory, recreation . . . 

The telephone buzzed. It was Sister Aurelie from the 
men's pavilion advising that the cancer case was failing fast. 

"I'll get a Father right over." She rang the brotherhood 
that was just a few blocks distant and smiled with relief when 
she heard Father Andre's voice. He was her great friend and 
spiritual adviser as well, a man so universally loved in the col- 
ony that even Freemasons held up their infants to receive his 
benediction when he passed. 

"Just give me time to get the old Ford cranked, Sister. Wait 
for me by the main door." 

The bells rang as she hung up, calling all sisters to chapel 

1 68 



for prayers. If the bells had not been fixed in her mind as the 
call of Christ, she would have said at that moment that they 
had a mocking tone. Once again, and this time on the heels 
of a firm resolution, she would have to miss a community de- 
votion. She telephoned to Mother Mathilde and received her 
permission to stay on duty. 

Expecting the rattle of the brotherhood's Ford, she did not 
recognize Father Andre when he appeared around the street 
corner. She gazed at the four men bearing a chair on their 
shoulders and at the priest slumped sideways in it, seeming to 
doze. You often saw missionary Fathers returning like that 
from a long tour of the bush, motionless with exhaustion, 
looking a little like apostolic statues with the long beards 
which all the Congo Fathers wore because the natives, who 
had seen God only in holy pictures, expected anyone coming 
in His name to look like Him. The physiognomy of the 
metier . . . She smiled as she remembered her father's phrase 
and watched the cortege come down the street. Then she 
saw that the four men bearing the chair were not natives. 
They were the shaven-headed brothers of Father Andre's 
order. 

She hurried forward as they turned in at the hospital gate. 
A brother said, "His Ford left in gear when he cranked . . . 
smashed him against a stone wall." Her shocked glance took 
in the splintered leg hanging askew, the blood-drenched 
white cotton trouser and the bicycle clip he had forgotten to 
remove, which served as partial tourniquet and had probably 
kept him from bleeding to death. She gave orders as she led 
the way to the treatment room. Emil sped to get Mother 
Mathilde. Sister Aur61ie telephoned to summon another 
priest for the cancer patient and a doctor from the mines. 

She had the white cotton trouser slit and sterile compresses 

169 



applied when Emil reappeared with the Superior. "If we'd 
only had time to get him sterile so we could do this in the 
surgery," she whispered. 

Mother Mathilde gave her the comprehending glance of 
nurse to nurse and rolled up her long white sleeves. Emil saw 
her examine the torn veins and began to set up the tray for 
blood transfusion while Mother Mathilde tested for blood 
type, then found the brother with matching blood and pre- 
pared the apparatus for direct transfusion from donor to re- 
ceiver. Sister Aurelie came in, reported calmly that there 
wasn't a doctor to be found at the mines, in the town or in any 
government office, and took her place at the table. 

The three nuns worked like a single being with six hands, 
preparing transfusion and anesthetic. Sister Luke lost her 
calm just once, when Father Andre came out of his swoon and 
said he wished to confess himself before they gave him any 
narcotics. She looked with rage at his pain-twisted face and al- 
most shouted, "What have you got to confess? . . . With 
your purity you're always ready to meet your Creator . . ." 
but she bit her lip and kept silent. Her hand shook as she 
worked the transfusion needle into his arm. Microscopic im- 
perfections against his Rule, she thought savagely. She knew 
the agony her hands would cause him when presently she must 
try to reduce the fracture. 

The three brothers at the head of the table worked over 
the spotless soul of Father Andre while the nuns at the foot 
worked over the difficult transfusion with double syringe 
and laid bare the macerated tibia and torn flesh. There was 
no praying at their end of the table. They were all nurses 
then, swift and expert, fearless and sure in the strength of 
their medical knowledge. Father Andre confessed himself 
humbly in the presence of everyone. As only the very great 

170 



and simple souls can do, Sister Luke thought, and she nodded 
to Mother Mathilde to start the narcosis. 

All her surgery-room boys came up around her as she pre- 
pared to go into the wound. She had sent no one to call, but 
they were there with sterile gowns and gloves from surgery, 
but no masks. They even knew the nuns would have no time 
to remove the coifs and put on the nursing veils over which 
masks could be worn. Silent, efficient, like a black shadow 
dance she herself had originated and trained, they shook out 
the gowns and dressed her and Sister Aurelie, snapped open 
the gloves and pulled them on their upraised hands. 

The tibia had a compound fracture, the ankle tendons 
were mashed and the leg muscles a shapeless red pulp. One 
of the boys began to break the tubes containing sterile catgut, 
as if he read her mind and knew she was going to suture. She 
was sure it was a case for amputation only, but something 
drove her on to do the best she could. Mother Mathilde ran 
the slow narcosis, watched heartbeat and color changes in Fa- 
ther Andre's face, and called out the numbers of the sutures 
needed, first for the deep stitches, then the finer catguts for 
the veins. 

I stitch, she snips, she watches and calls, and here are the 
three of us nuns turned totally nurses for this hour Mother 
Mathilde, Sister Aurelie and I, and what was that risk I was 
pondering this morning? Was it not for a performance such 
as that that we were trained, bent and molded, every whit as 
much as for staying close to walls in wide places and never 
running, always walking, never frowning, always smiling? 

She stitched. Sister Aurelie snipped. Mother Mathilde 
called the suture numbers to the boys. Presently they began 
laying back the ribbons of skin over the red pulp their hands 
had re-formed into the shapes of the extensor digitorum 

171 



longus, the tibialis anterior and the fero-neus longus muscles. 
A boy had the gutter mold ready. They lifted what was left 
of the leg into it. Then they laid dressings carefully over the 
best that they could do without amputation and Sister Luke 
caught Mother Mathilde's eyes upon her when she looked up 
to see how the intravenous was running. 

Three days later she saw the same look in Dr. Fortunati's 
eyes when he removed the dressings and examined her handi- 
work. It was a glance of pure professional admiration. 

"I did what I could," she said, "what conscience and the 
grace of God told me to do . * but I couldn't amputate as 
indicated, being only a nurse." She heard herself saying I, I 
. . * and flushed. "Mother Mathilde and Sister Aurelie as- 
sisted me." 

She staggered a little as she helped him change the dress- 
ing. She had sat up for three nights with Father Andre and 
had listened to him wander in fever. Even in delirium, the 
Father had thought only of God, his fellow traveler in the 
bush. Sometimes he had imagined that she was one of his 
brothers from the monastery and had given her a saintly ex- 
hortation meant for the ears of men only. As she had sat 
through the vigils, she had made up the day's devotions, be- 
ginning with Prime and reading straight through to Matins 
and Lauds, and Emil had shuttled back and forth like a black 
bobbin between her and Mother Mathilde, weaving them 
tightly together with bulletins of health from the bedside and 
dispensations to remain on vigil from the office of the Mother 
Superior. 

"Nothing more could have been done, Sister." The doctor 
straightened up with a satisfied sigh. "You have not only saved 
the Father but also his leg. In forty-eight hours we can put a 

172 



continuous drop on it. It might take a year . . . but he'll 
walk again." 

She stiffened before the rush of pride his words gave her, 
and when she told herself promptly after that she was only 
an instrument, she couldn't see the sister back home in the 
mother house who coughed as she prayed for the missions . . * 
but only the bed on which that sister lay, a soft white hospi- 
tal bed that gave no rustle of straw when she turned over on 
her side to sleep and sleep and sleep. 



173 



X I 



THE changing colors of the altar cloths from the violet of Ad- 
vent, through the whites and golds of Christmas and on to the 
purples of Lent, told of the passing year. 

Or, there were the four letters she was permitted to write 
annually to her family, of four pages each and not a sentence 
more except with special permission which she seldom 
sought; instead, she shrunk her bold square handwriting 
down to the spidery lace that gave more lines to the page and 
saw herself finally writing just like all the other missionary 
sisters. 

There was the continuous drop on Father Andre's leg for 
three months after his accident and then bimonthly X-rays of 
slowly mending tissues which always gave her a struggle with 
pride. And, every so often, Mother Mathilde reported that 
she had written to the mother house for the nursing rein- 
forcement that never came. 

Afterwards, when Sister Luke looked back on her first 
Congo year, she saw but one really important experience in 
it. It was nothing she could report to her family as a major 
impression. You had to be a nun to see it that way. God 
caught up with her and gave her one more chance to recite 
her vows without reservation. Then, when she was safely in 



His pocket, He let her see with shattering clarity how little 
humility she had. She repeated her vows on what she hoped 
and prayed was her deathbed, struck down with a dysentery 
that left no desire to live or even the memory of what it had 
been like to be alive without the agonizing pain that tore the 
will to shreds. 

When she discovered her condition, she hid it as long as 
she could. It was a humiliation, a loss of a working hand in 
the community, a waste of God's time through her own care- 
lessness, she believed. She traced her malady to tropical fruits 
which had possibly been stung by the fruit fly. 

Twice weekly when she went to the native hospital to take 
lumbar punctures, a serving boy showed his ardor by waiting 
for her at the clinic door with a bowl of iced fruit, usually 
mangos he had traded in the native market. It was his 
way of saying, I like you. The chilly golden flesh of the 
mangos was delicious to eat in the humid forenoons when 
you had a dozen lumbar punctures lined up and the sensitive 
tests of spinal fluids to make afterwards, in quest of the trypa- 
nosomes of sleeping sickness. 

The dysentery was the fulminant type, quick and acute. 
The day she collapsed in surgery seemed to be her last. The 
doctor raged at her as he put her on a stretcher. 

"You should have told sooner, you proud little fool." His 
face hung close. "How many stools in the past twenty-four 
hours?" 

"More than thirty," she whispered and saw his sallow face 
go gray. 

They carried her to the convent infirmary. In a haze of 
pain and exhaustion she swallowed what the doctor ordered 
and felt the needle-prick of his opium injections. The black 
face of Emil, the doctor's yellow face and the delicate ovals of 

175 



Mother Mathilde's and Sister Aurelie's hung alternately over 
her until late in the night, and she guessed she must be pass- 
ing the bright-red gelatinous mucus of the last stage when 
she heard Mother Mathilde tell the doctor she would sum- 
mon priest and sisters. 

She was floating above the bed, looking down on a young 
aun dying there, when she heard the sisters at three o'clock 
in the morning coming along the path from dormitory to 
infirmary, singing the Miserere softly in the cricket-shrill 
African night. She saw all twenty sisters with lighted candles 
in their hands and old Father Stephen at the end of the pro- 
cession carrying the Viaticum, with Mother Mathilde and her 
senior nun beside him with the holy oils. You die so beauti- 
fully when you are a nun, she thought. She looked down 
igain upon the bed where the dying one lay, so young, so 
leroic, so humbly waiting with folded hands for a bit of 
>archment to be placed between them a promise signed on 
in altar years ago and in a distant place. 

She listened to the Miserere plead that she would have 
trength to ask God for His mercy, confess her iniquities and 
>ffer up to Him a contrite and humbled heart. Coming to- 
ward the dying, the sisters sang their hopes for her. Going 
way, they would sing the Te Deum to thank God for ac- 
epting her nothingness. All this for me, she thought. And 
ven more. Next day a cable would inform the mother house 
f her death and shortly after, every convent in the entire 
ongregation would make the Stations of the Cross in her 
ame. She saw the processionals winding through all the Eu- 
Dpean houses, on to the Orient and back again through India 
n.d the Congo . , . ah, those beautiful processionals that 
ad always caught her by the throat, even when she had been 
participant in them and occasionally, like these oncoming 



sisters, had been routed from sleep at some unearthly hour to 
wind around a dying nun a shroud of heavenly song. 

There was a smile on her lips when Father Stephen en- 
tered her room, raised the Viaticum and intoned the opening 
phrase of extreme unction. 

"Peace to this house," he sang in a rich baritone. 

"And to all who live herein," responded her sisters, holding 
their little candles before their faces . . . 

But she recovered. She knew why, even before she returned 
to the community to be congratulated by her sisters for her 
readiness to die. One by one during the weeks she lay in the 
hospital, her conscience turned up the humiliating truths of 
her illness. Her entire preparation to die had been a fraud, 
an indulgence in heroism and self-pity. The smile the sisters 
had seen and called courageous had been for gratification at 
the thought of a thousand nuns circling the globe in a memo- 
rial procession in her name. Had there been a single mo- 
ment, even in that most solemn ceremony of last rites, when 
her heart had been truly humbled and every thought bent 
directly toward God? 

Her self-examination grew more relentless as she gained 
strength. She made it as meticulously as she had prepared slides 
for the microscope, looked down the tube and named what 
she saw. You walk, you talk, you even write like a nun. But 
you are not a nun, not yet. The mold has shaped you to look 
like one, but inside that deceptive shell still flourishes pride 
and vainglory, worldliness and self-love. 

On a scorching afternoon when the winged ants flew 
thickly around the recreation kiosk, she returned to the com- 
munity. From the sickbed she brought one fixed idea that 
God would pursue her with humiliations until she learned 

177 



humility. Her first hour with her sisters confirmed this be- 
lief. She shrunk with shame when they congratulated her on 
her courage before death. When she could stand their praise 
no longer, she said, "It wasn't courage." She hunted for 
something other than her own truth to say. "It was more of a 
... a snobbism." 

The nuns knew what she meant. Sometimes, the more 
lowly and humble you made yourself, the more superior you 
felt. Some of the nuns were shocked by her frankness, others 
admired it. Mother Mathilde tapped twice on the arm of her 
chair to indicate that she would take over the talk. 

"Sister Luke didn't die," she said quietly, "because her 
mission is not yet accomplished. Moreover, my sisters, it was 
not she who was tested, but us, the community." She nodded 
emphatically. "Ah yes, God was only testing us to see if we 
were willing to give up a number." Her smile embraced the 
circle and reminded them that they were all only numbers. 
"One number less in our understaffed community would 
have been a heavy cross for us to bear at this time." 

Not one sister less, not one nun with a known name and 
background less . . . just one number less, Sister Luke 
thought. She looked up at her Superior, who never forgot 
first principles of the religious life. Be nothing before you 
can be something. She saw some of her sisters squirming in- 
wardly under the anonymity Mother Mathilde had thrust 
upon them all. But upon me mostly, she thought. 

She trained her dressing boys soon after she returned to 
work and made Emil her deputy. Both innovations brought 
the spotlight of singularity upon her. 

The chief in charge of nursing in the hospital had always 
had a nun as deputy, as she had been given Sister Aurelie. But 



why a nun? Why not, she asked herself, old black Emil, who 
has seen generations of us pass through this hospital and 
knows as much about nursing as any of us? 

"I'd like to make him my deputy," she informed Mother 
Mathilde. "Then we can free Sister Aurelie for total time in 
the maternity pavilion. Were Emil my deputy, moreover, all 
punishment of the colored staff would be dealt out by him 
instead of by the nuns and I think this would be good. Only a 
handful of us for those three hundred beds ... we have 
more to worry about than the trace of simba on a black boy's 
breath, ma Mere" 

Mother Mathilde thought for a moment, seeming to weigh 
the intention rather than the suggestions. Sister Luke felt 
the probe of her bright eyes. Desire for change, merely for 
the sake of doing something different, was one of the big 
temptations of every nun. It could catch you on even such lit- 
tle things as having to fold your habit in exactly the same 
way, day after day, year after year, for no other reason than 
that the Rule said thus and thus and not so and so. And your 
occasional rebellions, boiling up with the force of almost a 
physical passion and as difficult to overcome, reminded you 
that obedience was no mouselike virtue, easily captured and 
kept. Sister Luke knew that all this had passed through her 
Superior's mind before she gave her consent. 

"Very well," she said at last. "Arid I myself will inform the 
doctor, who could have no objections, as far as I can see." 

Sister Luke returned to the hospital to hand over to a black 
man a responsibility nearly equal to her own. She called to- 
gether all her registered male nurses and technicians, most of 
whom had had four years of study and were fluent in French, 
and all her messengers, cleaning boys and kitchen staff. She 
told them that from that day forward, Emil was to be their 

179 



Capita. Knowing how the Blacks loved the idea of hierarchy 
and understood it through their own tribal traditions, she ex- 
plained that she was setting up a line of authority. 

"When you have some problem, you will now tell it to 
Emil, your Capita," she said. "He will tell me, I will consult 
with Big Mama Mathilde and she, in turn, will ask God for 
guidance. Thus, all problems will be handled henceforth." 

Their faces beamed. It would be easier to tell their trou- 
bles to Emil and have him translate them for white under- 
standing. The sudden longings to return to the bush village, 
the tabus and fears always difficult to express in any language 
other than their own . . . now they saw these going up, 
through Emil, straight up the line to God and back again, 
justly decided. 

"Also," said Sister Luke, "there will be no more punishment 
ordered by the sisters. Your Capita will henceforth decide 
each case and himself decree the punishment." 

This made an even greater impression. Her boys looked 
with renewed respect on Emil, a caste Negro like themselves, 
the oldest among them and the longest in the hospital, now 
most justly elevated to a worthy position. Punishment was al- 
ways a ticklish business. Like the doling out of the dry ration 
which constituted part of their pay, punishment must also, to 
make it acceptable, be weighed and dealt out with exacti- 
tude. Sister Luke listened to the ripples of approval that 
passed through the room when she finished speaking. 

She would have been astonished had anyone told her that 
her innovation was in reality a small stroke added to the vast 
blueprint of a future Congo which planned to turn the 
children of cannibals into full-fledged doctors, priests and en- 
gineers within the next two decades. She knew almost noth- 



180 



ing about colonial policies. She knew only that without the aid 
of her black boys, she couldn't have run her hospital. 

She would never even have known that her name and the 
news of her prestige-giving promotion of Emil started on its 
way to the bush that same night, had not one of her sisters 
been able to read the drums. In the recreation kiosk as she 
sat under the electric light dodging bats and fanning off 
winged ants, she heard a visiting sister from the Kipushi bush 
station compliment Mother Mathilde for something having 
to do with the hospital administration. 

"And who, may I ask, is Mama Luke?" said the visiting sis- 
ter, looking around the circle while the drums talked softly 
from the native town. 

Emil became her shadow. When she asked for extra night 
duty, he found out from the bulletin board and took it also. 
When she went across town to the native hospital, he rode 
with her in the convent Ford, carrying the instruments which 
had never before been entrusted to a black man. 

From him she learned more about the Congo and its twelve 
million Blacks, of whom the majority were Bantus like him- 
self, than if she had made many safaris. Emil told her of the 
rivers she had never seen and of the spirits inhabiting their 
whirlpools, of the rain forests and the mountains where the 
great baboons lived, and he named the tribes belonging to 
those regions . . . Baluba, Batembo, Batetela, Balamba, 
Bayeke, Basuku . . . the smile or scorn on his thick black 
lips telling which he considered admirable or otherwise. 
Sometimes when they drove through the market place, he 
would point out a native who looked to her eyes like any 
other and tell her that he was a Bangala, as anyone could see 



181 



from the coxcomb tattoo that lifted in lumps down the mid- 
dle of his forehead; or that that one trading an ebony statue 
was either a Bakuba or a Tutshiokwi tribes known for 
their good sculptors. 

She in turn told him whatever he wished to know about her 
people, which was not very much. Emil had been so long 
with the whites, first in missionary schools and then in the 
hospital, that he seemed to take them for granted, neither to 
be feared nor revered, but simply to be respected because 
they knew more than he. Only the "white mamas" puzzled 
him, he once confessed. Where were their husbands? 

When she tried to explain, she discovered how incompre- 
hensible to the mentality of the bush native was the idea of 
chastity. Even to one as evolved as Emil, who had words like 
appendectomy in his vocabulary (and probably could have 
performed one after all the operations he had assisted), the 
concept of a mystic marriage was impossible to explain with- 
out getting into the subject of polygamy as had happened 
to one of the nuns who had tried to make the seeming solitary 
situation of so many white sisters understandable to a Negro 
with five wives. 

Eventually, Sister Luke solved the dilemma by telling 
Emil that indeed she had a husband who was in Heaven and 
that she had made him a promise never to marry again. Emil 
understood promise. He understood widow. Grave with sym- 
pathy, he nodded and never spoke of it again. 

Emil helped her to work out her plan to give specialized 
training to some of her male nurses. Observation had taught 
her that the Congolese was an excellent routine worker. Once 
shown how to do a thing, he would follow the original teach- 
ing without a hair's deviation. There was a saying in the con- 
vent, she explained to Emil, which would automatically put 

182 



the seal of approval on their efforts. No task is difficult, went 
the maxim, once it is fully perceived; the big merit lies in see- 
ing the task and in comprehending what it consists of. 

Instruct to capacity was the watchword of the Congo in the 
i93o's. The whole country was standing on the threshold of a 
phenomenal upsurge which was to double its white popula- 
tion within a few years and quintuple the number of Blacks 
drawn in from the bush to its hospitals, mines and textile 
mills, to become, like her own boys, a first generation to work 
with whites, eat their foods, copy their customs and eventu- 
ally to enter into that queer lonely society of the evolues 
which was neither black nor white but some kind of gray 
mixture like clay before it is fired. Hundreds of other Euro- 
peans were doing the same thing as she at that time push- 
ing, encouraging, putting into the natives as much knowledge 
as they could absorb. The only difference was that the others 
knew they were in step with the times. They read newspa- 
pers and lived in the new world rising visibly around them 
out of the ancient bush and jungle. 

Sister Luke merely saw her boys follow with eager eyes the 
progress of their Capita as Emil pushed the dressing cart 
from bed to bed and handed her what she called for. She 
asked Emil to select the four brightest; then she summoned 
them to a conference. 

When you had something to tell or show to the natives, you 
always made a little drama to give an added value to the piece 
of white man's knowledge you were going to impart. The 
boys came into the dressing room and saw Emil lying on the 
table heavily bandaged. Sister Luke waited until their star- 
tled chatter died down; then she told them that this was 
Monsieur X just recovering from a hernia operation. 

"I am going to change his dressings," she said. "Then I am 



going to teach you to do it. This is practice, but the day will 
come when you four will be the corps elite of our nursing 
staff, entrusted with the change of dressings of all our male 
patients." 

Not a boy moved, but she felt them draw back instinctively, 
and knew why. No black man, no matter how skilled, ever 
touched the wound of a white man. It was one of the un- 
written laws which made no sense when you recalled that 
many of the younger patients had grown up in the Congo 
and had had black boy guardians who had removed chiggers 
from under their toenails and had patted mud on their 
bruises and scratches. 

"We do everything with forceps," she said. She picked up a 
forceps from the dressing cart. "Never touch a patient, see. 
Never touch a dressing, even with sterile gloves." She made a 
frame of overlapping towels around the black abdomen of 
Emil, then with forceps began lifting in slow motion the first 
layer of dressings. The boys drew closer to the table. 

For a week she trained them in secret and they practiced on 
each other under Emil's supervision when she was making the 
rounds with the doctor. Then one morning she told them 
they were ready. Sterile-gowned and gloved, they preceded 
her with the dressing cart to the men's pavilion. 

They were practical nurses with four years' schooling. 
They knew every white man lying in the rooms, had car- 
ried trays in to them and bedpans out, had watched over 
them in fevers and over the apparatuses that fed them blood 
or glucose; but they went to pieces outside the door where 
Sister Luke flagged them to a stop. Fear of the new thing they 
were about to do made their faces go gray. There was a quick 
chatter of Kiswahili among them, as of birds warning each 
other. 

184 



Sister Luke called their names calmly, made each pick up 
the object he was responsible for. 

"Mafuta, the sterile towels. Banza, the kidney basin. 
Edouard and Illunga . . . forceps," she ordered sternly, 
then smiled. "We'll go over it again before we enter. You are 
going to dress a deep thigh wound. Mafuta places towels 
around it, edges overlapping so no sheet shows. Edouard as- 
sisted by Illunga lifts off die dressings with forceps, drops 
them into the kidney basin Banza holds ready. They remove 
as far as the collodion gauze, which you know is bright yel- 
low. Then they step back, I come forward, lift the gauze, 
look at the stitches, remove them if ready. Emil passes medi- 
cation if needed. Then, you again . . ." She did not tell them 
that she had prepared the patient also for this innovation and 
had selected for their debut the most easygoing colonial, who 
thought it would be amusing to have her boys dress his 
wound instead of a nun. She nodded for them to put every- 
thing back on the cart. "Now we are ready," she said, giving 
her boys a smile of trust before leading the way into the room. 

Within a fortnight she had a production-line system of 
dressing changes which enabled her to dress twenty-five post- 
operatives in an hour and have a full report on each ready for 
the doctor when he made his rounds at eight-thirty. When he 
saw the dressing boys in action, Dr. Fortunati looked from 
them to her with something of the same expression he had 
had when he inspected her work on Father Andre's leg. This 
time he said, "So . . . you're a teacher, too, Sister Luke!" 

Perhaps if he had not bragged to the mine doctors of how 
efficiently things were running in his hospital and how they 
ought to have a nun to show them how to utilize the black 
manpower in their own medical center, there would have 
been no spotlight. The colony was a small place for gossip, 



especially when the talk was confined to the copper boom 
town with its white population of born entrepreneurs who 
reveled in innovation. News of a nun who had a trained cir- 
cus of dressing boys got around. The Apostolic Delegate of 
the province telephoned to Mother Mathilde to inform her 
that one of her nuns had apparently gone out of the mold 
and was being named by name in public places. 

You could be named as a white sister, or a gray or a blue 
sister, as a Dominican, a Franciscan, a Benedictine or an 
Ursuline if the public knew enough to read coif and habit 
and place you in the congregation to which you belonged. 
You could be called a teaching sister, or a nursing sister, or 
an evangelizing or a visiting sister. But outside your own 
walls, your own sphere of work and co-workers black and 
white, you were not supposed to be called by your name in 
Christ. There was nothing written on it; it simply was not 
done. And if it was, it meant that you had somehow singular- 
ized yourself. 

Sister Luke knew when Mother Mathilde came to the 
men's pavilion to watch her dressing boys in action that it 
was for a reason other than routine inspection. A shadow lay 
beneath her never-failing smile, imperceptible to any but the 
perceiving eyes of a nun. The boys thought she had come to 
admire them and performed beautifully. They were dressing 
a cancer postoperative. In swift silence, with a style precise 
and elegant, Edouard plucked up the soiled dressings with 
forceps, suspended them for the fraction of an instant over 
the kidney basin as if saying to Banza, Yes, it must be held 
exactly there and no place else then dropped the dressings 
into it without looking to see where they fell. Illunga un- 
rolled the sterile dressings on the cart. Mafuta opened the lid 
of the soiled dressing container each time the kidney basin 

1 86 



was full. They all stepped back like soldiers when Edouard 
came to the collodion gauze. Emil summoned Sister Luke to 
the bedside with a glance. 

"What teamwork, Reverende Mere," said the patient. 
"You must be proud of your nuns." He turned his head on 
the pillow and smiled at Mother Mathilde. "We could do 
with a little of this organization in the textile mills." 

Sister Luke lifted the gauze and inspected the clamps on 
the large abdominal incision. Ordinarily she would have told 
the boys why they were not yet ready for removal, but she 
dared not trust her voice. It would not be the sure steady one 
they knew. Like her heart, it would tremble with the aware- 
ness she had plucked from the air when she stood by Mother 
Mathilde. She had erred, she had failed her Superior some- 
how. It meant nothing that Mother Mathilde's voice and 
manner betrayed no more than appreciative interest in a 
nursing job well done, for no nun ever rebuked another in 
the presence of others. 

If I have failed her, Sister Luke thought. O God, let it be 
anyone else . . . the doctor, a patient, any or all of my sis- 
ters, but not her ... not her. She signed abruptly to Maf uta 
for a clean collodion gauze, laid it on the wound and stepped 
back. The boys moved in to complete the dressing. 

"I must go now, Monsieur," said Mother Mathilde. "I 
leave you indeed in capable hands." 

As was customary, Sister Luke accompanied her to the door 
of the pavilion. The Superior paused in an alcove apart from 
the traffic of the corridor. 

"Your only fault, Sister," she said softly, "was in failing to 
tell me about this in advance. I see now that you are not re- 
sponsible for a certain acclaim this work has brought. It 
would have been noted eventually no matter which sister in- 

187 



spired it. But earlier, when our Delegate telephoned me to 
ask me why one of my nuns sought to singularize herself, I 
had no answer." 

From its effect upon her, the mild reproach might have 
been delivered with a lash. She trembled and wanted to 
strike back at the purple-sashed Delegate who had made her 
Superior suffer with the knowledge that one of her nuns had 
not confided in her. She knew exactly the sort of polite ag- 
grieved words he must have spoken. She had had a brush with 
him once and had discovered him to be, as far as she could 
see or sense, curiously untouched by the largeness of the 
Congo. 

"I should have told you, ma Mere" she whispered. "I 
think perhaps I wanted to surprise you . . ." She stopped 
before her voice would break. 

"I have my answer now, Sister," said Mother Mathilde very 
firmly and loyally. "I shall telephone to our Delegate, perhaps 
even invite him to come see how we make both ends meet, 
lacking sufficient nursing sisters/' Her parting smile made it 
all seem a very small matter. 

But it was not a small matter, not when you were a nun. 
Though but a sin of omission, the most forgivable, you never- 
theless had to connect it to all the others that had gone be- 
fore. You had to put it into the context of your religious life. 

The more failings she put into the context, the more de- 
pressed she became. The doctor was the first to see a change 
in her. One morning after operations, he detained her in 
surgery. He showed her the final X-ray of Father Andre's leg 
and gave her a photo print of it for a keepsake. 

"To remind you always," he said, "that you are an excel- 
lent nurse." He watched her slip the photo without comment 
into her pocket. Then he said, "But you know something, 

1 88 



Sister? You're much too stark and disciplined a person. Some- 
thing in your life here has made you so. I remember how 
you were when you first came out to the colony. Recently, 
I've watched you tighten, fold in upon yourself, and I cannot 
think why. What is it, Sister?" 

Caught off guard, she flushed. That this irreligious layman 
had guessed her inner struggle nearly brought tears. She 
turned quickly and left the surgery, but his sharp face grown 
suddenly sympathetic was difficult to banish from her 
thoughts. And the way he had talked to her as if she were a 
human being in the world, beset like any other with troubles 
that a friend might be able to understand and help to iron 
out. 

She knew that if she were the kind of docile nun who 
thought every emotion worth reporting to the Superior, she 
should go to Mother Mathilde and tell of her reactions to the 
doctor's personal remarks. She stood for a moment unde- 
cided. She heard very distinctly the voice of the Mistress of' 
Novices saying, "Every failure to a Superior, no matter how 
small or how innocently committed, is a tug at your sleeve 
from the world, trying to pull you back to it." 

But she was never to know if she would have gone that day. 
Duty came toward her down the hospital corridor in the form 
of Father Vermeuhlen, the famous priest of the leper colony, 
and Etienne, the town's coiffeur. Etienne was there to dress 
the hair of the banker's wife and Father Vermeuhlen had 
come for his annual precautionary check. The saint and the 
sinner, she thought as she watched them approach. 



189 



XII 



FATHER VERMEUHLEN looked like one of the elder 
apostles walking down the corridor. Even had she not been 
expecting him, she would have recognized instantly the priest 
called the white saint of the leper colony. Sister Monique, 
professor of art in the school, had once described him as Mi- 
chelangelo's Moses in motion, to explain why every bush 
native fell to his knees at his approach. 

He was a giant of a man, dressed in white cotton soutane 
and an immense sun topee, and heavy high-laced boots that 
bespoke long treks through tick country. A snowy beard fell 
far down over his broad chest, and his eyebrows, arching 
thickly over the most beautiful and kindly eyes she had ever 
looked into, were coal-black. 

"Father Vermeuhlen, you are expected," she said. He tow- 
ered over her like an immaculate monument. She smiled up 
at him. "I'm new since your last check. I'm Sister Luke." 

"Sister Luke." His voice was deep, trained to reach only to 
the ears of his listeners. "Fve heard about you . . ." His 
dark eyes twinkled. 

"The drums, Sister," said the fox-eared coiffeur she had for- 
gotten to look at or greet. "Father reads them like newspa- 
pers." 

"Monsieur Etienne." She forced a smile for the pomaded 

190 



little man she always tried to avoid but could not now be- 
cause he was with the saint who avoided no one, not even the 
leprous Blacks with whom he lived. "Your client Madame 
Goossens is in room twenty-two of Maternity. If you wish, 
I'll get Emil to show you the way." 

"Ah no, Sister, thank you. I know my way." He twisted his 
mustache and winked at her. "There's not a room in the col- 
ony I haven't been in, except" he bowed "those in your 
contagious pavilion you isolate so strictly." 

And the nuns' dormitory, she thought, thankful that at 
least one segment of the colony's womanhood was out of 
reach of his prying eyes. He was like a dirty little bird, picking, 
pecking and dropping. She disliked him because he always 
made her retaliate in thought. 

Etienne looked up at Father Vermeuhlen. "Good luck on 
the tests, Father. If you'd like a little trimming and combing 
of the beard while you're here, I'd be happy to do it, pro Deo, 
of course." 

The Father chuckled and shook his head. "My boys would 
never approve such changes." 

Nor would I, thought Sister Luke. She shuddered at the 
image of the Assyrian curl Etienne would like to give to the 
beautiful beard and made no reply when he trotted off toward 
Maternity saying, not asking, "You'll come later, Sister, to tell 
Madame how beautiful I've made her for her ordeal." 

She walked in silence with Father Vermeuhlen to the lab- 
oratory to start the tests which would take two weeks to com- 
plete. Later that day, when she heard his story, she thanked 
her guardian angel that she had not spoken the thought that 
made her heart forget its woes as she matched his long steps 
down the corridor. You'll conduct one or two Masses while 
you're here, she was thinking. With that wonderful voice 

191 



you'll sing the Sacrifice as it must have been sung in the days 
of old, as it is still sung by the monks of Solemnes, with 
thought and purity, without hurry or mumbta 

In the laboratory, Father Vermeuhlen removed his topee. 
It gave her a start to see that his hair was as white as his 
beard. It made his black eyebrows and dark shining eyes dou- 
bly strange, as if age had come with sudden whiteness only to 
certain parts of him. She prepared the slides while she won- 
dered what in his saintly life could have given shock. He lived 
alone in the bush village far off the beaten track, caring for 
the bodies as well as for the souls of his miserable black lep- 
ers. More than a hundred of them, the doctor had told her, 
most of them in the advanced stage when even their own 
tribes throw them out to die. She had never asked why he had 
chosen so risky a field because, being a nun, it was perfectly 
obvious to her that he had chosen it for love of God alone. 
As she would have chosen the place of deepest suffering if 
God had willed it and if nuns had had choice. 

"FU take your nasal secretions first, Father." 

He tilted back his massive head and shut his eyes. She said 
a little prayer as she made the smears. 

Etienne found her at the desk that afternoon studying the 
case record of Father Vermeuhlen. 

"You didn't come, Sister," he said aggrieved. 

"I was busy." She smiled because the Rule said always 
smile and act with grace and politeness. 

"I made her beautiful for her ordeal." 

"It will not be an ordeal, Monsieur Etienne. She will have 
a perfectly normal delivery." 

"Ah that . . . perhaps. But if she gives birth to another 
daughter . . ." Etienne leaned over the desk. "That is the 
ordeal I speak of, Sister. If it is not a son this rime, Monsieur 

192 



Goossens will cut his throat. Or hers." She couldn't stare him 
down. He went right on talking. "Or even he might be driven 
to try elsewhere. You know how he prays for a son to inherit 
that banking business. Madame also. She just was telling me 
with tears in her eyes." 

"She will accept God's will. If she weeps now, it is simply 
the strain of the final hours, or possibly because you, Mon- 
sieur, were too deeply sympathetic." She heard with dismay 
the sarcasm in her voice. The coiffeur missed it completely. 

"Sympathetic." He bowed as for a compliment and looked 
at the chart. "As I am for that saintly Vermeuhlen who lives 
out his life of penance without a murmur." 

"Penance?" Despite her will for silence, the word escaped 
her on a tone of surprise. 

"But you who are caring for him should know his story, 
Sister." The coiffeur looked around to see if anyone could 
overhear. She knew she should stop him but she could not. 
An astonishing compassion came into his voice and his flying 
hands folded in woe as he talked. He gave her not the colony 
gossip he carried around in his little black bag along with 
curling irons, razors and unguents, but a secret knowledge he 
had stumbled upon when he was a young man in the colony, 
and stammered over now as he told her because he did not tell 
it often. 

Many years ago, he related, one of the Fathers a Salesian 
or a Pere de Scheut was making a tour of the jungle on an 
apostolic mission. In a certain village he found a white man, 
then about forty years old, who was playing with some Bantu 
children and seemed to be alone with the tribe and quite 
unexplainable. The white man came toward the priest with 
love and a sort of apprehension in his eyes and asked him to 
visit his hut that evening for a talk. They had apparently 

193 



talked straight through the night. The white man told that 
he also had once been a priest, that he had come out to the 
Congo in the early days before there were roads and tele- 
phones. For months on end his work kept him isolated from 
his brothers, from all contacts with civilization. A terrible 
loneliness started to gnaw. After two years, he despaired. He 
walked off into the bush one day and made no further ef- 
fort to communicate with his distant mission, which eventu- 
ally gave him up as lost, captured by cannibals or eaten by a 
prowling cat, a common enough event at that time. Whether 
out of pity, or loneliness, or love, the coiffeur said respect- 
fully, he lived with a native woman and had three children by 
her. 

"Nobody knows, of course, what the Father said, but rumor 
had it that a few weeks later, the white man appeared at one 
of the bush missions and left three black children there to be 
cared for and educated by the nuns." Etienne paused. She 
asked God to forgive her for listening, for wanting him to go 
on. "Then, the ex-priest disappeared." 

Months later the bush hummed with the news that the 
white man had reappeared, back from Europe, from Rome 
most probably, and that he was a priest again. Apparently he 
had asked his higher hierarchy for permission to devote the 
rest of his life to lepers as penance for his sins, and this had 
been granted to him along with permission to say the Mass 
again. 

"But he may never say Mass outside the leper colony," 
Etienne whispered. "He is adored there, Sister. You should 
see. Once, I accompanied a fashionable hunting party that 
passed by the colony. The others were afraid, but I went 
in ..." Words failed him. He looked about to cry. "You 
should go, Sister . . ." 

194 



When he was gone she sat staring at the charts, trying to 
make the clinical notations come into focus. Nasal negative. 
Blood negative. Physical no thickening of nerves; perfect 
cutaneous sensibility. The first entries were almost illegible 
with age. This was expiation on the grand scale. It was the 
kind of penance God granted only to the chosen few. 

The doctor came down the corridor looking for her. She 
was unaware that he stood before her desk until he made the 
little Psst sound used by nuns to attract each other's atten- 
tion. She looked up. 

"You can enter the physical," he said. "All negative so far. 
It's a miracle." She couldn't conceal her rush of relief. He 
studied her for a moment, then said, "I see you know his 
story." 

She nodded and saw the sardonic look that always came 
over his face when he considered the religious life. 

"I suppose, Sister, that such total and utterly insane sacri- 
fice makes complete sense to you." 

"Yes it does, Doctor," she said quietly. "I envy him. God 
must love him greatly . . ." 

Twice yearly after that Father Vermeuhlen came to submit 
his body to the small indignities of the leprosy check at the 
end of the summer rainy season in March and at the end of 
the winter drought in September. He came from beyond Kip- 
ushi, partway by pirogue paddled by his boys, then picked up 
at a certain place along the river by the car of the Vicar Gen- 
eral. 

Each time she filed his clinical report with negative results, 
Sister Luke wondered apprehensively how long it could go on. 
The doctor said, "Just give him time, Sister," with anger in 
his voice and a curious look of love on his face. 

195 



In the months between visits she thought about him. He 
seemed to be the happiest soul she had encountered in the 
religious life and certainly the kindest man she had ever 
known in or out of habit. Once he said to her, "Kindness 
resembles God the closest and disarms man the quickest," 
and although he was explaining why nothing ever happened 
to him when, alone and unarmed, he visited unfriendly tribes 
to gather in their lepers, she knew that he was telling her his 
credo, the sole rule by which he lived and caused others 
to live when he was with them. The doctor was always a 
changed man when Father Vermeuhlen was under the hos- 
pital roof. And the coiffeur, who always visited with him 
(gazing ever wistfully at the beautiful beard), told stories 
stripped clean of scandal, anecdotes of colony life that could 
have been related in the nuns' recreation. 

She drew closer to the Father after she began to live in the 
hospital, visiting with him when she made her rounds and 
talking as she had not talked with a human being in years. 

Six months after her first meeting with him, Mother Ma- 
thilde transferred her from the nuns' dormitory to a small 
room in the hospital. Since, according to some mysterious 
convent tradition, the dormitory was always locked during the 
day, the move to the hospital was the only way for her to get 
the occasional afternoon nap the doctor advised, if as he 
told the Superior they expected to keep her on her feet. She 
was still working sixteen-hour days, and on nights before as- 
sisting in surgery often got no more than four or five hours of 
sleep. 

It was an extraordinary dispensation to sleep apart from the 
sisterhood. Sister Luke saw no connection between it and a 
queer breakdown she had had one morning in the refectory 
when, of a sudden, her coffee bowl had slipped from her 

196 



hands and splashed brown all over her white habit. She was 
alone in the refectory having a late breakfast, after two opera- 
tions. She forgot the black face of Andre looking in through 
the serving window. She stared aghast at the broken bowl for 
which she must do a penance, then dropped her face in her 
hands and wept uncontrollably. Andre was terrified, never 
having seen a nun cry. He reported at once to Mother Ma- 
thilde. 

When the order had come, along with the urging to try to 
slip off duty for a nap when work permitted, Sister Luke was 
too surprised to speak. Mother Mathilde's worried expression 
acknowledged the risk of partial separation from the commu- 
nity. 

"It's a solution born of necessity and you may well believe 
how earnestly I asked God's guidance before telling you. Each 
hour I dispense you from community life, even your all too 
few sleeping hours, is a deprivation . . . for us," she smiled 
a little sadly, "and especially for you, Sister Luke." 

"I understand, ma Mere." She understood more than her 
Superior intended. Mother Mathilde was again sharing a risk, 
possibly a double-edged one this time. Nothing was more 
visible than a nun's empty cell at night, and when, in the rec- 
reation, her Superior would casually remark that a nursing 
sister was sleeping pro tern in the hospital to facilitate the 
work, there would be veiled looks her way suggesting favor- 
itism. 

For it was no deprivation in the convent to sleep apart. It 
was on the contrary a special grace to be alone in a little 
white room without having to fall seriously ill to get there. To 
hear no longer the sighs of twenty women around you and 
the rustle of their straw sacks as they turned and tossed in the 
heat, to bathe alone in the dark dawns without having to line 

197 



up in the community washroom, to be able to pray and to 
think alone . . . she knew as she knelt before her Superior 
what a relief this was going to be. 

"Pray with me," said Mother Mathilde, "that before this 
year ends, our Reverend Mother Emmanuel will be able to send 
us a nun accredited in tropical medicine. Ah, if I could only 
have got one before they opened up that new house in Cey- 
lon . . ." 

Sister Luke had nodded in promise to pray with her Supe- 
rior, but she was not sure that her prayers would come from 
the heart as long as she had strength to carry on the two jobs 
that now earned her a room of her own. 

In roundabout discreet ways, as if talking of cloisters in 
general and all sisters and brothers in the vowed life, Sister 
Luke discussed her pinpricks and perplexities with Father 
Vermeuhlen. His comment, simple and consoling, was al- 
ways the same. "We are His children, vowed or otherwise/* 
he would say. "He lets happen to us what must happen for 
our own good . . ." 

Three times at half-year intervals, she filed away the Fa- 
ther's clinical record with all tests marked negative. Though 
nuns were not permitted to keep diaries, the clinical record 
was a diary of sorts. When she looked at the dates written in 
her own space-saving script, she remembered the principal 
subjects she had saved up each time to discuss with him. 
Reading back, she could persuade herself that now at last 
the happy years were beginning for her, the time of perfect 
adjustment which enabled her to live her nun's life as it 
should be without past or future gnawing at the thought. 

Her first entry, made in September of '33, reminded her of 
her dispensation from sleeping in the community. She had 

198 



told Father Vermeuhlen about her Jesuit uncle who once had 
remarked: "The community life is the real penance in any 
order ... it is a martyrdom of pinpricks!" and she remem- 
bered how they had laughed together over the truism, like 
two conspirators momentarily blessed with personal privacy* 

In March '34, she had talked with the Father mainly about 
apes. She was then making occasional inspection trips that 
passed through the ape country where even evolues like Emil 
shook with fright if you looked at or mentioned aloud the 
apes sitting among the tree branches. She told Father Ver- 
meuhlen about old Sister Eucharistia whom she sometimes 
had to take with her as companion, who always made the 
driver lift his cap to the apes and say, "Yambo good day!** 
because the old nun believed her unique apostolic mission was 
to educate the natives away from superstition. And the black 
boys always fell ill after greeting the apes peculiar maladies 
with fevers and coughs and sometimes pus in the sputum. 
"But of course," Father Vermeuhlen had said then. 

On his last trip, in September of '34, she had talked about 
his lepers, calling many of them by name. She had made a 
survey trip to the colony with three nuns from other congre- 
gations and Father Vermeuhlen had introduced her with un- 
concealed pride to the "sons" he had trained to assist him. 
Since then, whenever she looked down a miscroscope tube at 
the rod-shaped Mycobacterium, she saw first the strong brown 
hands of Father Vermeuhlen, bathing and bandaging his mu- 
tilated Blacks and spoon-feeding the faces of the fingerless 
ones. 

And now in March '35, the Father was due again. She 
watched the rains and prayed for his safety while on the river. 
He arrived with the last downpours of the summer rains 
which had swept up from Capetown in great black curtains 

199 



that pulled away from the tip of the continent toward the 
Equator and left winter and dryness where they had passed, 
brought summer and blossoms to the places passed over and 
finally, out of sight from her eyes but not from her longing 
imagination, folded up in the evergreen twilight of the rain- 
belt forests where Emil had told her all seasons became one. 

"Father Andre is back," she said in greeting. "He made a 
trip to Kenya and caught yaws. We've got him in for the 
bismuth and arsenic treatment and those hot demulcent 
drinks which now he'll probably accept because you're here to 
play checkers with him." 

"What have I always told you, Sister?" Father Vermeuh- 
len's smile lifted his beard at the corners. He spread his hands 
palms up and she looked down as if she must answer to them 
directly. There were no lesions, no scaliness, no little gray 
patches of changing pigmentation. She looked up happily. 
"He lets happen to us," Father Vermeuhlen intoned, "what 
must happen ... in this case, for my own good! " His beard 
waggled with his muscular laughter. "My old checker partner 
back again. May God forgive me for my gratitude." 

With the nauseous bland acacia drink ready in her hand, 
she was watching them play that afternoon. They played 
checkers like the Arabs in the market place, crouched and 
cowled, seething with rivalry that made the air crackle be- 
tween them as outside it crackled between each lightning 
flash until the thunder came. 

Father Andr jumped three and landed in Father Vermeuh- 
len's king row. Emil appeared with bulging eyes on a burst of 
thunder, 

"Mama Luke! Ambulance call. Three men drowning in a 
flash flood . . ." 

With the same hand that had moved him into the king's 

200 



row, Father Andre swept the checkers off the board onto his 
bed. "You'll probably want a priest, Sister. Emil, call my con- 
vent. Ask for Father Jose." 

"We did. He's not there." 

"Then you go." Father Andre looked up at his checker 
partner, who was already on his feet. "I'll send a lay brother 
after you with the Viaticum, just in case." 

Down, press, release, up . . . she rehearsed the tempo of 
artificial respiration as she swept past the desk. "Tell Mother 
Mathilde, please," she said to Sister Aurelie. She misread her 
sister's warning glance. It seemed to be saying, Be careful. Be 
careful when there were lives to be saved if you got there 
quickly enough? The metronomic timing of resuscitation 
clicked above her inner comment. 

The ambulance rocked her from wall to wall. She decided 
on the Shaf er method with the patient prone, face down, her- 
self straddling with knees on either side of his hips, forcible 
pressure with hands over the back of the lower ribs . . . 
down, press, release, up ... every five seconds. Father Ver- 
meuhlen sat firm as a mountain. He moved the ribbon mark- 
ers of his missal to the section of the sacraments. 

Emil stuttered what news the police chief had given. Three 
young Italians from the mines had gone duck-hunting. The 
flash flood coming unseen through the reeds was a wall of 
water that upturned their raft, swept it away and left them 
wading to the sand bar midstream in heavy rubber hip boots 
which kept sinking, sinking, because all those sand bars were 
quicksand. By the time a native boy had got back to town 
* . . Emil moved his hands from knobby knees to his belt- 
band and Father Vermeuhlen, without looking up, moved his 
markers back a few pages to where she knew were the prayers 
for souls in agony who had only a few moments left. 

201 



The duck-hunters looked at first like busts built upon sands. 
Two who had been reaching down to try to loosen the hip 
boots had their arms coated with ooze and all had their 
mouths open screaming as they clawed toward the stunted 
tree boughs the people on shore had tossed out. Father Ver- 
meuhlen started to walk through the mud at the river's edge 
and the police chief pulled him back, crying above the storm 
that they had tested every approach and had found no safe 
footing. 

The trapped Italians faced shoreward. They were near 
enough so you could see their faces already purpling with the 
pressures of the quicksand. The wind swept around and 
brought their howls clearly to the shore, then a clap of thun- 
der blotted out the awful sound and you saw only their move- 
ments of panic as they tore at the reeds around them, up- 
rooted them and threw them with despair toward the people 
trying in vain to reach them with ropes that blew away. 

They were going mad before her eyes, forcing themselves 
deeper with each frenzied struggle. Suddenly they saw Father 
Vermeuhlen make the sign of the cross over the separating 
waters. For an instant their slow-motion twistings ceased; 
Their bulging eyes fastened on the priest already lost in the 
prayers of general absolution. The veering wind carried shore- 
ward a cry no longer human, then a sheet of rain cut it off. 

The mud was above the hunters' shoulders when Father 
Vermeuhlen lifted his great voice like a bronze gong above 
the storm. Leave this 1 world, Christian souls, in the name of 
the all-powerful Father who created you . . . She had seen 
faces like that once before, sticking out of the hatch-holes in 
the tubs of the insane asylum. In the name of the Angels and 
Archangels, in the name of the Thrones and the Domn- 
ions . . . 

202 



The hunters' eyes started from their sockets as the mud 
pushed up against their chins. She shut her eyes before it 
began to slide into their open mouths. The gonglike voice 
tolled steadily on through the Cherubim and the Seraphim, 
the Patriarchs and the Prophets, on and on through the pray- 
ers for mercy to the last great pleadings . . . Have pity on 
their tremblings, have pity on their tears . . . Refuse not to 
admit them to the mystery of the reconciliation . . . 

A whistling intake of breath around her told her that the 
heads had vanished. She opened her eyes. The sand bar was 
as smooth as water-marked silk. 

Emil was crouching beside her. "Stay with the police until 
the bodies surface," she whispered. "Four or five hours, they 
say. I'll send the ambulance right back." Then she and Fa- 
ther Vermeuhlen climbed into it and rode back to the con- 
vent without speaking. 

Afterwards, she remembered the three faces of living death 
washed by the torrential rain and the whine of the wind in 
the reeds, but she could never see what she herself had been 
doing. She could pick up her own activities only after she 
returned to the convent. 

She went at once to her Superior to receive the benediction 
of return and to give her report. She made a rough draft of 
her thoughts as she crossed the cloister garden, thankful that 
Mother Mathilde had seen Congo deaths in all their horrify- 
ing forms and would ask few details. 

Mother Mathilde received her with a coolness she took at 
first to be meant for support. No sympathetic comment on 
her soaking habit, no smile of relief that she was back. She 
got as far in her report as the announcement that three bod- 
ies might be expected to arrive in the hospital morgue some- 
time that evening and the Superior raised her hand. 

203 



"I know the story, Sister Luke," she said in a voice oddly 
constrained. "I've been on the telephone for the past hour 
with the police, the Italian consul, even the newspaper." Her 
unsmiling face dismissed the tragedy that was finished. 
"What I should like you to explain now is why you left the 
convent without my permission." 

"But ma M$re! I delegated Sister Aurelie to tell you!" 

The moment she said / delegated she knew what she had 
done. She had presumed permission to leave, had hurried 
off without waidng for official sanction, which was the same 
as leaving without permission. You had no alibi for this. 
A nun simply never left the convent without her Superior's 
permission. The city around you could blow up and burn 
down. Bodies could be lying in the streets moaning for 
help. But you never stepped beyond your convent walls 
until your Superior gave you the benediction of departure 
and said, "Go . . ." Obedience, O my God, failing at this 
late date . . . 

"Not only did you leave the convent without permission," 
said Mother Mathilde as if she had not heard her exclama- 
tion, "but . . . and this gives me the greater pain . . . you 
failed also in charity." 

Charity! It was like a knife-thrust straight into the heart of 
what she thought was her one redeeming feature. 

"I might have wished," said Mother Mathilde, "to assign 
Sister Aurelie to that emergency, or another of those devoted 
nuns serving under you, who have not been outside the 
grounds for weeks. You, Sister Luke, saw risk and excitement 
and pre-empted this for yourself. You never once thought of 
your sisters. You never once thought how they might long 
for a new experience, ah yes even for so tragic a one as this 
turned out to be." Although she knew that her Superior could 

204 



never have spoken such stinging words had she not cared 
enormously for the state of her soul, each comment was nev- 
ertheless a twist of the knife. "You never thought how a sis- 
ter might later enjoy clipping a little item from the newspaper 
(which has already telephoned me for your name) to send 
home to Belgium for the family scrapbook. I can understand 
that in the first moment it seemed natural to you to run off 
to save a life, but I cannot understand why the saving grace 
of second thought did not restrain you." 

The Superior paused. Sister Luke would not look up. She 
knew if she did she would be letting her tears ask mercy for 
her. 

"Charity in action," said Mother Mathilde less coldly, "is 
easy to give. It has witnesses. Everyone sees it. Everyone is 
touched by it. Even in the world, a visible act of charity sin- 
gularizes the doer, often even brings fame of a sort. But char- 
ity in thought, Sister, that silent, invisible, unremitting love 
that always places others first and the self last . . . that is 
what you lacked today." 

When it was over, she went to the chapel to make herself 
calm so she could return to the hospital looking as if nothing 
had happened. There were no more tears now; just an over- 
whelming sense of failure that seemed to drag her down like 
those merciless quicksands. A tarantula, black and hairy, 
crouched on the altar steps. She stared at it and thought: 
Jumpy and 1 worft move. 

After a while she was able to talk to God. "Why do You 
humiliate me again? I thought You had finished. I thought 
the long time of truce was Your sign that I was pleasing 
You at last. Why didn't You give me the grace of second 
thought? Why? Why? You alone knew my intentions and 
You let me believe they were selfless when I ran off ... and 

205 



then You gave me the heartbreak of Mother Mathilde's 
face . . ." 

The tarantula seemed to be watching her. "Why don't You 
make him jump at me?" she asked. "Or have You some other 
design for one so imperfect as I? O my God, I am truly sorry 
that I have offended . . ." 

When she emerged, the afternoon sun blazed from a cloud- 
less sky. She walked slowly toward the hospital. Sister Aurelie 
swung the logbook around so she could read what had hap- 
pened during her absence. 

She read the entries written in a script like fine printing 
and thought with a pang of the newspaper article. In the mis- 
sions when a nun was cited, the family name was always given 
in addition to her name in Christ. It could have been Sister 
Aurelie Delatour instead of Sister Luke Van der Mai, she 
thought, and she imagined the Delatour family back home in 
Bruges bringing out the scrapbook to paste into it a few col- 
umn inches from the Katanga Clairon et Courier which 
would have reassured the lonely parents that a daughter given 
to God did not sink out of sight completely. She caught her- 
self going on and on with remorse and cut it short. 

"On your way back to Maternity, Sister Aurelie, will you 
tell Illunga there's a big tarantula in the chapel? It might 
frighten some of our sisters." She signed on the log her return 
to duty. "I'll be in the lab if anyone needs me," she said. 

The laboratory was dense with heat and very quiet. The 
doctor was gone for the day. She took the slides of Father 
Vermeuhlen's nasal smears and set her microscope to the 
high power. 

Her hands worked independently of her mind, which ciiv 
cled back through the day looking at each step she had taken. 
She pondered now the lapse in obedience, trying to find the 

206 



blind spot that had made her ignore that basic rule when day 
after day, for the past three years, she had gone to Mother 
Mathilde and asked "May I . . . ?" for every sortie from 
the convent including emergency ambulance calls. Three 
years here and five before that, she thought. 

May I, ma Mere? Her hands laid out the stains and sol- 
vents, the note pad and pencil, and snapped on the small 
light at the base of the microscope drawtube. May I use a 
fourth handkerchief this week, ma Mere? I couldn't make the 
three see me through . . . May I drink a glass of water be- 
tween meals, ma Mere? May I accept the chilled fruit again 
today when I go to the native hospital? May I read this med- 
ical journal the doctor lent to me? 

How many times in the name of obedience and for its sake 
alone had she asked the little permissions which she dared 
not even hint at to the doctor each time she slipped away, be- 
cause she knew how completely meaningless, possibly slave- 
like, they would seem in the eyes of the world. How many 
times? So often that now it no longer irked what was left of 
her pride to ask. 

She stained the slides. May I break my sleep tonight, ma 
Mere, and visit Monsieur Diderot, who is going to die? May 
I skip a meal in penance for my sins of omission? Besides, I 
mean, doing the penance you gave me in the culpa? 

She listened to her interior monologue as if she were in the 
world and reading a nun's mind. It was pitiful and astonish- 
ing to note the things a nun could agonize over. You'd think 
their Creator had said to them, This is a way of being that 
must not perish from this earth and you and your sisters are 
the keepers of it pro tern, each one of one small part of it 
according to her lights and strengths. 

She picked up a dry slide. Some souls like Father Ver- 

207 



meuhlen, she reflected, had just one colossal failure in obe- 
dience and then ever after the simple one-way road of pen- 
ance, instead of the tortuous path of many small failings. 

She slipped the first slide under the microscope. The 
coarser substances in the smear were gray clouds that parted 
as she probed. A spindle-shaped form glided by only one of 
the olfactory cells of the mucous membrane. Nothing, noth- 
ing. Negative, she said softly as she marked the slide and 
racked it. 

She was perceptibly calmer as she always became when 
working with the microscope. Before the Angelus she had 
time for a few more slides. She slipped the second into place 
and bent her head over the eyepiece. 

The rod-shaped Mycobacterium lay like a stick of driftwood 
on the surface of the deep-sea film. A cry escaped her as she 
stared at the dark staining granules evenly spaced along the 
length of the leprosy bacillus. Her hand shook. She forced 
it to stay steady so she could turn the fine adjustment screw. 
I could be wrong, she thought, I've got to be wrong. 

She turned to sharper focus and brought up the enclosing 
capsule like a shadow the identifying feature of the leprosy 
organism. Beneath it, she found three more. 

With her hand frozen to the microscope, she brought them 
in and out of focus, the three lying at the bottom and the 
one on the surface of the film. My God, she whispered, where 
is Your divine mercy? Is this Your answer to that saintly 
soul who called out to You today from the riverbank? How 
can You justify . . . 

Then, very clearly, as if he were standing beside her in the 
laboratory, she heard Father Vermeuhlen saying, "He lets 
happen what must happen for our own good and for His 
greater glory." And that, she knew, was exactly what he 

208 



would say again, with perfect faith and trust, when she would 
tell him the results of the test. 

Tears stung her eyes. The small deadly shapes blurred on 
the field. Presently she heard the call to serenity of the An- 
gelus bells. 



209 



XIII 



A YEAR passed and they were in Lent again, the rime of se- 
cret self-denials in the sisterhood, of nervousness and tension 
among the black boys. The exhaustion of the Congo sum- 
mer was written on every face, clearest of all on those of the 
nursing nuns, who were still too few. 

In the months of the worst heat, Mother Mathilde had 
regularly selected one of them to accompany her on her trav- 
els in itself a sign of anxiety for their well-being. She always 
hinted to the teaching nuns that there was a clinic to be in- 
spected or a school mission that had been ordered to make a 
mass vaccination and had called for instruction in the tech- 
nique. 

Twice during the year Sister Luke traveled with her to re- 
mote missions the Order was pioneering. She saw the Africa 
of her dreams on those trips. Both times they went partway 
by pirogues down misty rivers banked by dense forests looped 
with lianas. The black boys who poled them along sang bal- 
lads with a strange repetitive rhythm and Mother Mathilde 
stood often at the prow, gazing raptly forward as if she must 
possess ahead of the others, and before ever an oar disturbed 
it, each ravishing Eden the winding river disclosed. She sighed 
like a child when they tied up at their destinations, and once 
she said endearingly, "I can never bear to have it end." 

2IO 



Sister Luke relived her outings for weeks after. She nursed 
a secret hope that when her assignment in the European hos- 
pital would end, she would be transferred to one of those 
pioneering missions which served the natives exclusively. In a 
few more years she would be due for the automatic transfer 
which kept every nun from attaching too strongly to one 
community, one job and one place. The only loss would be 
that of Mother Mathilde, she reflected, but Superiors also 
had to take over a new community at specified times and there 
was always the chance of reunion in their small world. 

She was at last a choir nun. On arrival in the colony her 
voice had been tested by Sister Serviens, the Cantatrice of 
the community and music teacher in the school; but Mother 
Mathilde had postponed, because of double duties, her par- 
ticipation in the plain chants which taxed the strength of the 
singing nuns even in the cool home country. 

She had been singing now for almost a year. She could date 
her admission to the choir by Father Vermeuhlen's last visit, 
when she had had to tell him the results of the tests. He him- 
self had given her the fortitude she prayed for when he said 
before she could speak, "Not yet, Sister? My soul is leprous, 
why should not my body be also?" She remembered she had 
wept when she told Mother Mathilde about it and she some- 
times wondered if her admission to the choir shortly after 
related, in some way, to the despair she confessed to feeling 
when God's justice took such incomprehensible form. 

This would be the first Easter service she would sing. The 
Ordinary of the Mass for the Paschal season was one of the 
most beautiful of the Vatican Kyriale. She practiced breath 
control for it under the purple skies of the Congo Lent while 
the rains poured down with press-button timing, from ten to 
eleven every morning and from three to five every afternoon. 

211 



"The Kyrie? explained Sister Serviens at practice, "begins 
as you all know in the third mode, then changes to the eighth. 
The third mode has E as fmlis and the eighth has G . . ." 
and while Sister Serviens was striking the notes on the organ, 
Sister Luke saw herself with a small band of black boys in 
the bush, listening to her high humming and reproducing it 
perfectly right after her. 

Sometimes when she sang with the choir she felt an impa- 
tience with the Cantatrice for not lifting with more force 
from the E to the G mode and urging the nuns to give 
their all to the final Christ is risen. Then she would think, I 
know nothing at all about this ancient music; why then do 
I feel so judgmental? 

She had the impression that her whole psychology had 
changed. Her emotions flared for small things. When a sister 
proclaimed her in culpa, she found it less easy to smile and 
look thankful for having been reminded of an imperfection. 
Her dream life was wild and troubling. Often when the night 
duty nurse plucked her sheet and whispered sorrowfully, 
"Praised be Jesus Christ. It is four o'clock, Sister Luke," she 
had to wait until her dreams dissipated before she could rec- 
ognize the faithful sister who bent over her bed. 

Had it ever occurred to her that anything in her iron con- 
stitution could break down, she would have known at once 
the cause of her psychological change. Afterwards, it was so 
easy to chart the steps of her malady that she wondered how, 
at the time, she had missed every warning signal until the 
frightful death of one of her dressing boys somehow brought 
everything into focus. 

It happened on a day when everything went wrong in the 
hospital. The doctor lost a life on the operating table at five 
in the morning a defeat for both herself and him although 

212 



every prognosis had been unfavorable from the start. Then 
Emil reported that one of the boys had come to work too 
drunk to stand. She telephoned to Monsieur Marcel, chief of 
the Force Publique, who always pulled her out of dilemmas 
with her boys. The town jail, he told her, was filled to the 
last cell. 

"Put him away somewhere to cool off," said Marcel. "If 
your own prisoner pavilion is full, get Emil to find a corner 
on the grounds. The boy will sleep it off in twenty-four hours, 
Sister." 

She told Emil to find a place. "Anywhere just so long as he 
is out of sight. Which one this time, Emil?" 

"Banza," said Emil. "I shall order a flogging when he is 
sober." 

"You'll find out the reasons first, then decide punishment." 

"No good reason, Mama Luke. Only woman business. A 
man from his village told that his wife ran away with a 
hunter. But Banza has another wife, younger, full of children 
still . . ." 

She forgot about Banza as soon as Emil went off to take 
care of him. She had three pregnancies coming to term in 
Maternity, and the same number of husbands to console in a 
waiting room that registered 112 degrees, with a humidity 
almost at saturation point. There were two typhoid cases in 
Contagious and the general ward was filled to the last bed 
with skin grafts, snake bites, and enough malaria cases to 
shake the walls when the chills came on. 

She thanked God that Sister Aurelie was off on a trip with 
Mother Mathilde that day, up in the cool highlands of the 
Kivu. 

Once or twice Emil went to look at Banza and came back 
to report that he snored in stupor like an animal and perhaps 

213 



ought to have no less than twenty lashes to make him re- 
member that he was a man. His black face, lacquered shiny 
with sweat, suffered visibly for Banza's defection as if the 
whole Bantu tribe had been betrayed by it. 

"Wait until morning, EmiL" 

The next morning Emil waited for her outside the chapel. 
The rains of the night were rising back to heaven in a white 
mist through which sunrise was beating its way in spokes of 
yellow light. It was like the dawn of creation, like the Little 
Chapter in Prime she had just been chanting . . . Who is 
she that cometh forth as the morning rising . . . 

"Go and release him," she said patiently. "Bring him to 
me. Let me talk with him in your presence. We must be just, 
Emil." 

Emil was unrecognizable when he returned to her desk. BSs 
face was ash-gray, his eyes protruded, his voice a gasp. 

"Mama, come see . . ." He choked, unable to go on. Hur- 
rying with him through hospital corridors and across the gar- 
den, she tried to find out what had happened. 

"Mama see ... Mama see . . ." He chattered in the fluty 
voice of fear, first in French, then in Kiswahili. "Mama ia 
kutala . . ." He led the way to a galvanized iron shed behind 
the hospital where garden tools were kept, flung open the 
door and pointed. 

There on the dirt floor was a man-shaped mound of white 
ants that had eaten Banza clean to the skeleton. Not even a 
tuft of hair was left on the skull. Frozen with horror, she 
stared at the bloated white bodies of the carnivorous driver 
ants covering the skeleton like a living shroud. She never 
knew how she got back to the hospital. 

The police chief asked twice who was speaking. Then he 
wanted some indication of the trouble. Should he bring the 

214 



paddy wagon and a squad of guards? She waited until her 
teeth stopped chattering, then said, "I can't tell you over the 
phone, Marcel," pleadingly, so he would remember that col- 
ony telephones were connected with the talking drums and 
that every message of importance passed directly to the bush 
from the native switchboard. "You come alone," she begged. 

In ten minutes he was there at her desk, solid, businesslike, 
smiling until he saw her face. She motioned Emil to take 
him to the tool shed and saw both of them hesitate. 

"I can't go back there again," she whispered. 

Her forced calm was like a trance as she waited for Marcel 
to return. The after-image of the man-shaped mound in terri- 
ble crawling motion played back on the charts she seemed to 
study. She pretended to herself that the tumult she heard 
was not her conscience crying out, but the thrumming of in- 
sects that emerged from their burrows when the rainy season 
was ending. 

Marcel reappeared smelling faintly of kerosene. He spoke 
for several moments before she realized he was talking Flem- 
ish with the salty accent of Antwerp familiar, homelike and 
curiously consoling. 

"I had Emil put a torch to the beasts," he said. "Sent my 
driver back to town for a coffin. That's all the natives will see 
coming out of that shed, Sister. A customary coffin for Chris- 
tian burial. Banza was a convert, wasn't he?'* 

"One of mine," she said desolately. 

"What the drums will tell no one knows, but the certifi- 
cate will have to state death from unknown cause." As if she 
had spoken in disagreement, Marcel began to argue. "How 
could anyone say eaten by ants when we know he was blind 
drunk when shut up? Only last week I went out to a village 
to interrogate the family of a Bantu who'd died from an un- 

215 



known cause unknown, that is, until I learned he'd been 
drinking simba beer most of the afternoon. Obviously, Sister, 
a death by poison. It happens often when the beer's not prop- 
erly prepared." 

He watched her while he talked of the two kinds of cassava 
the sweet and the bitter manioc roots and of the hydro- 
cyanic acid in the bitter root in sufficient quantity to cause 
death if not boiled out thoroughly over high heat. 

"It's very likely," he said in a professional tone, "that your 
boy was dead from poison before ever the ants got to him. 
That's what I told Emil to make him stop beating his breast 
and blaming himself. That Eniil . . . you know what, Sister? 
He's been away from the bush too long. Completely forgot 
that some simba is as effective as black mamba venom/' 

She fought back tears as she stared at his bluff homespun 
face. Was he telling her that to help her clear her own con- 
science as well? She would never know. No one would ever 
know except God and the man standing before her, pretend- 
ing not to see her emotion. 

"Thank you, Marcel," She managed a frayed smile to which 
he responded with a smart salute. 

She asked for an interview with Mother Mathilde as soon 
as her Superior returned from her trip. She took all the blame 
upon herself as she reported the incident in full detail. 

"I should have made the time to go with Emil, ma Mere. 
I'm sure I'd have thought to keep Banza off the ground . . ." 
She coughed and covered her face with her bandanna. 

Mother Mathilde looked at her as she picked up the police 
report. "Unknown cause," she read aloud. "I agree with this/* 
she said firmly. "Like Marcel, I've seen too many poisonings 
from simba in my time not to include it always as the most 
likely cause. You must do likewise, Sister. I understand how 

216 



in the first shock of discovery you took it totally upon your- 
self. Any one of us would have done the same, constituted as 
we are." She smiled gently and stiffened her tone. "But now, 
you must put from you the temptation to excessive self- 
reproach. You must not go on blaming yourself. You are 
much too intelligent to give way to that form of self- 
indulgence." 

The matter should have ended there. Her Superior had 
named it self-indulgence. But she could not rid herself of the 
feeling of blame. Was it, she wondered, because of her pe- 
culiar psychological change that she was unable to throw off 
Banza's death? 

In the ensuing weeks she seemed to be continuously fight- 
ing back tears. When the doctor went out of his way to make 
a task easier for her, some new thing in her responded with 
such sentimentality that she hardly recognized herself. Then 
one morning in the laboratory she was examining slides. 

She turned her face away from the microscope to cough. A 
sudden impulse came over her to look at her sputum. 

"It's ridiculous," she told herself. "Like all the other im- 
pulses that come over me these days." But her hands were 
already preparing a slide. She coughed again deliberately and 
got a sputum sample. She made a stain of it and looked at it 
with the high-power lens. The rodlike bacilli of tuberculosis 
trembled red-violet in the field. 

Her first reaction was relief. That's all it is, she thought. 
That's why I'm always tired and emotional. That's why I 
couldn't shake off Banza's death. 

That's all ... then she remembered that all white tuber- 
culosis patients were sent home as fast as ship or plane could 
get them out because the malady galloped in the tropics. Her 
predecessor had been repatriated. Tuberculosis always writes 

217 



-finis to service in the Congo, Sister Augustine had said on 
the ship . . . 

This is my ticket home. She gasped as if the walls of the 
homeland convents were already closing in about her. 
Blessed Lord, don't let this happen to me. 

But it had happened. She peered at the tiny colored rods 
floating in the radiant field. She began to count them auto- 
matically. Then abruptly she snatched the slide from under 
the microscope and dropped it in the wastebasket. 

For the next hour she went on with her work. She finished 
her microscopy, prepared medication trays for the afternoon 
rounds, telephoned twice to Mother Mathilde to give reports 
on patients she had asked about. It was easy to pretend that 
nothing had happened. Another self had taken charge. 

You can ride this out and tell no one, said the stranger 
self. You know everything about TB, its phases and cycles. 
The afternoon flush won't show beneath your tan. You can 
control the coughing as so often you've told patients they can 
and must. With will, you can develop appetite and Emil can 
fetch from the market place all the extra eggs you'll need. 
You're already allowed to take afternoon naps when the work 
permits. So then . . . you can sleep and feed yourself out of 
this. 

Her conscience let the stranger self carry on for an hour. 
Then Sister Aurelie came with a chart she wanted to discuss. 
Her brown face sunk deep in her coif turned eagerly to her. 

"You have such a gift for diagnosis, Sister Luke," she said. 
"Doesn't this look like gastric hemorrhage to you?" 

Dark brown vomitus. Tarry stools. Sister Luke read the en- 
tries and nodded. She was about to speak when her conscience 
took charge, It jerked her head back from the trusting face 



218 



waiting to catch everything, including the invisible spray from 
her lips. 

"Tell the boys to give nothing but cracked ice," she said, 
off to the side, hoarsely, as though a hand were at her throat. 

Sister Aurelie smiled thanks and slipped out the door. For 
a moment Sister Luke stared at the place where the catch-all 
coif had been. It seemed still to be there hanging in the air 
like an empty shell. Into it came the faces of her sisters one 
by one first the nurses with their whispers so discreet that 
you had to close in upon them almost coif to coif to hear, 
then the choir nuns singing out the long O-oho-O's of the 
Salve, exchanging each other's breaths between beats . . . 

She flew through the corridors to the surgery. The doctor 
was hunched over a microscope humming to himself. 

"I don't know what to do, Doctor," she said to his back. 
"I'm so terribly tired. I think I'm sick." 

"Every time people are tired they say they're sick." He 
snapped off the drawtube light and turned around. "What's 
the matter?" 

"I'm TB," she said stoically. 

"That's nothing to joke about! " 

"I'm not joking." 

He realized that she wasn't. He took her by the shoulder. 
The emotion in his face almost paralyzed her. "Who told 
you?" He shook her and raised his voice. "Who told you?" 

"The slides . . . the microscope . . , my own sputum." 

He didn't question her findings. He never did. He held her 
rigid for a full minute, staring at her as if she had betrayed 
him. Then he said brokenly, "You're the only one in the 
whole Congo I can work with ... I don't think I could do 
without you." 



219 



He looked around the surgery as if trying to imagine what 
it would be like without her. He let go of her shoulder and 
reached for his stethoscope. 

"Take off your habit," he ordered. "Open up. I'm going to 
listen to those lungs." 

There were many garments to unfasten scapular, cotton 
chemise, the stiff bodice that flattened the breasts . . . her 
fingers shook as she bared her thorax. Maybe she was wrong. 
Maybe her tired eyes had tricked her. She sat on the table, 
unaware until he threw it over her shoulder that she had for- 
gotten to take off her veil. Gruffly he told her to cough, sigh 
and say thirty-three. 

"There's certainly something . . , seems to be in the left 
lobe." He came around to listen from the front. She turned 
her face away as he bent over her chest, seeming not to 
breathe as he listened. "It's a summit lesion ... a small 
one." His worried face broke into a smile. "We're lucky, Sis- 
ter, we can catch this one fast." 

Summit of the lobe where oxygen comes in first, thank 
God, O thank God, she thought. Then she saw herself sitting 
there with bared chest. The doctor caught her look of dis- 
may and turned away. They both knew it was forbidden for 
a nun to be examined without another sister present. Both 
had forgotten this in the tension of the moment. The doc- 
tor kept his back turned while she buttoned back the parts 
of her habit hanging from the waist. But he went on 
talking. 

"You can stand the gold treatment, Sister. It's rough on the 
kidneys but you're strong. I'll take the responsibility . . ." 

"I've got to tell Mother Mathilde," she said in a low 
voice. And about this unwitnessed examination and running 
first to him 

220 



"Why?" He spun around. He wanted to keep it just be- 
tween them. "Why?" he demanded again, angrily. 

"Obedience," she said, "I must . . ." 

"They'll send you home if you do." 

"I know . . ." Two tears rolled down her cheeks. 

The sight of them seemed to startle him, as though an 
unexpected symptom had suddenly revealed itself. She had 
the feeling that he was reading below the level of her thoughts. 
He studied her with narrowed eyes like a psychiatrist, prob- 
ing and pondering. Then he spoke quite calmly. 

"You're afraid, Sister. You wouldn't be able to stand the 
convent if they sent you home." She backed away speechless. 
He followed her, speaking with the cold precision of a scien- 
tist. 

"Fm going to tell you something about yourself that per- 
haps you never knew. You know how well I know nuns. I've 
never worked with a lay nurse since first I picked up a scalpel. 
You're not in the mold, Sister, and you never will be. You're 
what is called a worldly nun ideal for the public, ideal for 
the patients. But you'll never be the kind of nun your convent 
expects you to be. That's your illness. The TB is a by- 
product." 

He watched her cover up her reactions. Her struggle for 
calm and silence started her coughing. He waited. Then he 
said in an offhand manner, "But I can cure the by-product, 
Sister, if you want." 

"I want to stay," she said huskily. 

His eyes flashed admiration, then closed down with cun- 
ning. 

"You leave it all to me then," he said eagerly. "I'll tell 
Mother Mathilde first. I'll tell her in such a way that she 
cannot send you home. We're both responsible for letting 

221 



you work as you have, for counting on your moral strength 
while ignoring the physical condition." He grinned unexpect- 
edly. "And we won't have to create precedent to keep you 
here for the gold-dust cure. The Reverend Mother and I have 
connived once before ... a big fish in colonial affairs, too 
important to be spared even for a half-year furlough. A much 
more advanced case. She saw me pull it through. It would 
have been both our necks if I hadn't . . ." 

She had the impression that he had pulled her out of a dark 
pit. The brightness in the surgery almost blinded her. Sun- 
light shot from the instrument cabinet to a row of beakers on 
a shelf, and there seemed to be a weird red light around his 
atabrine-yellowed face, not at all like a halo. 

"We've got the weather with us, the dry cool season. We'll 
move you out to the prisoners' pavilion where you can sleep 
practically in the treetops. Eggs, sardines, white muscat wine 
... I'll write your diet. In three months, maybe less . . ." 

"Can I work?" said the nun in her. 

"Assisting me mornings only." He looked at her sharply. 
"But there's one thing you must promise me, Sister. You've 
got to burn less energy. Remember, I'll be working only on 
the by-product. The main malady is for you to cure/* An odd 
smile made his face quite gentle. "Don't try so hard to be the 
perfect nun, Sister. Relax . . . you've got to relax." 

He pulled off his gown and put on a pongee jacket. At the 
door he turned and gave her his customary sardonic smile. 
"To ease that overgrown conscience of yours, Reverend Sis- 
ter, I'm going to tell Mother Mathilde that I myself discov- 
ered your condition this morning and gave you no chance to 
get to her first. Anything you blew before I did, you keep 
under your bonnet . . . if you can. If your pride as a mi- 
croscopist doesn't get the better of you!** 

222 



There began for her a strange interlude. It lasted for three 
months. Afterwards, when she looked back upon it, it was a 
passage picked in gold out of the black and white context of 
her religious life. 

It was the childhood she'd never really had, lived among 
treetops as children dream of living, with an elegant small 
monkey as companion and bright green crickets for him to 
eat. It was the time of her most perfect purity and innocence 
with everything coming to her through her feelings, including 
her awareness of God. He was the rustle of lizards in her 
thatched roof, the scent of mimosa through the window 
screens and the slap of banana leaves when the wind blew. He 
gave her signs of Himself each day in grace notes and when 
darkness fell, He gave her the sonorous symphony of His 
African night in great roars and rumbles of creation and ex- 
tinction which made every Old Testament prophecy come 
true. 

Everything was unbelievable, beginning with the over- 
whelming realization that Mother Mathilde cherished her to 
the point of weeping when the doctor gave his news. The Su- 
perior spent an hour in the chapel after her conference with 
him, then summoned her. 

"I'm going to give you a special rule," she said. "With 
God's help, I've decided to let you stay and take the risk. It's 
kill or cure, as we both know." She blew her nose, looking at 
Sister Luke with red eyes full of anxiety and love. Then she 
cleared her throat and spoke in her usual steady voice. 

The special rule permitted work only in the mornings, she 
said, assisting the doctor in surgery and preparing the day's 
nursing schedule, which Sister Aurelie would carry out, under 
her indirect supervision. She would take all her meals in her 
room, not to contaminate refectory utensils, and was dis- 

223 



pensed from community devotions though not from perform- 
ing these each day privately. She could attend Mass but 
might no longer sing with the choir. She would live in the up- 
stairs room of the prisoners' pavilion . . . 

"Like a bird on the branch/ 7 said Mother Mathilde, bring- 
ing back her captivating smile with the words. Sister Luke 
had to fight her impulse to rise up and embrace her. 

The prisoners' pavilion was a replica of the bush station she 
used to- dream about on the ship coming out. It was a two- 
storied annex at the rear of the hospital, facing out toward 
the bush, built in native style with a thatched roof. On the 
lower floor were housed the occasional prisoners from the 
town jail who needed hospitalization, and Hindus who, for 
religious and dietary reasons, could not be treated in the main 
hospital. Her circular room under the thatch was walled 
with fine-meshed screen which became visible only when 
lights were on. Then it was a curtain of night moths beating 
sofdy from the outside with huge brown velvet wings. 

The doctor ordered her meals from the refectory, putting 
her on his original supplementary diet for tubercular patients 
which he called "oysters on the prairie." He came himself the 
first day to show her how his "oysters" must be consumed. He 
had procured from Mother Mathilde a pair of finest crystal 
wine glasses and in each was a raw egg yolk sprinkled with 
chopped parsley and lemon juice. He saw her staring at the 
wine glasses used only for visits of high personages. 

"Presentation is everything to a TB, Sister," he said smil- 
ing. "You should know that." He put a glass in each hand 
and told her to swallow the yolks as if they were oysters. "In 
addition to this twice daily and your regular meals, you'll be 
awakened each night at ten to consume sandwiches of 
mashed sardines and two glasses of white muscat wine/* 

224 



He inspected the room, examined the type of mattress, 
sheets and pillow case, and checked the bottles of beer stand- 
ing in a bucket of ice, all exactly as he had ordered. 

"Good," he said. "Drink as much as you can. No Lenten 
abstinence, Sister, unless you want to come out of this gold 
cure with wrecked kidneys." He discovered her microscope 
hidden under the washbasin stand, picked it up and went out 
the door with it, humming an air from Tosca. 

And so it began a three months of spoiling which even in 
the world, in places where money flowed freely, could never 
have been duplicated. The community spun a cocoon of 
loving-kindness about her. The sisters offered a Mass for her 
safe recovery and if some of them asked themselves, "Is this 
the result of real abnegation from overwork or of some soul 
struggle which she cannot resolve?" nothing showed on their 
civilized faces as they put their hearts into prayers for her. 

Sister Eucharisria made the first visit, then the others came 
in turn. The old nun carried a baby monkey she had con- 
fiscated from a boy in the boarding school, for which she had 
promised to find a home, and when Sister Luke took the 
nervous long-tailed body on her two palms and asked, "Will 
Mother Mathilde permit?" Sister Eucharisria smiled and said 
without envy or malice, "Beelzebub told her that the cure de- 
pended on your having what you want and doing what you 
want," and looked happy because this wonderful unheard-of 
liberty had happened to one of them. 

The news filtered out inevitably. Wines and champagnes 
began appearing in Mother Mathilde's office with cards from 
colonial patients who remembered the nun praying beside 
their beds at odd hours in the nights of their crises. Wives of 
the dressing boys brought eggs and chickens and occasionally 
a rabbit-shaped body minus the head which would have iden- 

225 



tified it as a cat. The talking drums carried the news to the 
bush and Father Vermeuhlen sent a letter reminding her that 
God lets happen what must happen for her own good . . . 
and telling her that his black boys were carving an ivory tusk 
which she would receive in due time from a runner. 

By the end of her first month in the tree-house, she had 
Felix the monkey trained like a nun. He sat beside her at her 
solitary dining table, tied his napkin around his neck and ate 
delicately from a plate. Afternoons, when she napped, he 
foraged for crickets in the thatch and plucked at her covers 
with his tiny black hands when he knew it was time to get 
up and read the Office. When she knelt for evening prayers, 
he sat on the high hospital bed holding both feet in his hands 
and staring at her with his queer little golden eyes until she 
crossed herself; then he flung himself at her in a single leap 
and wrapped his long wiry arms about her neck, hugging her 
fiercely. 

She never talked to him after the grand silence, but some- 
times she laughed softly as she carried him about the room 
to look at the moths festooning the screens. A snap of the 
light switch plunged them both into the heart of the tree- 
tops. The thousand forms of nocturnal life that sang, whistled 
and moaned in the bush seemed to come in closer. The inces- 
sant drums were fever-quick like Felix's heart when the moon 
rose and reflected from the feathery mimosas phosphorescent 
eyes that never blinked. 

In two months she gained ten pounds. She supervised her- 
self with scrupulous care and understanding. The euphoria of 
the tubercular that filled her with love, intense, personal and 
passionate, and made it difficult to speak calmly with anyone 
she had even remotely admired before the onset of her mal- 
ady, was something she could cope with because she antici- 

226 



pated that phase. Her optimism flew high, not only for her 
eventual cure of which she was sure, but for everything that 
would happen to her henceforth. That too, she knew, was a 
characteristic of the tubercular the very quality, in fact, 
which made them such interesting patients. Yet somehow she 
felt that her own high hopes would not vanish with her mal- 
ady. 

She brushed away the doctor's preposterous remark about 
her main malady. She was obeying his orders to relax, to live 
from day to day and to keep her thoughts within the brackets 
of each sunrise and sunset. It astonished her to learn how 
simple life could be and how much inner happiness resulted 
when you took each day like a gift from God with no strings 
attached. 

One afternoon after her nap, she was standing by the screen 
windows reciting the Office of Lauds. She came to her favor- 
ite passages in the Canticle of the Three Children from Dan- 
iel. Her heart leaped with happiness as she called upon the 
light and darkness to bless the Lord, on the mountains and 
the hills, the seas and the rivers and all that move in the wa- 
ters. Benedicite, O all beasts and cattle, bless the Lord . . . 

This is how a nun should be! she thought suddenly. This 
is what is meant by being a child of God. 

She stared out at the mimosa trees. The faces of the many 
happy nuns she knew, who used to mystify her, who had 
sometimes seemed quite childish in their unquestioning ac- 
ceptance of everything that happened to them, seemed to 
smile back at her. 

Now you know, they seemed to say. Live -from day to day. 
There are always the graces to help us over the rough spots. 

"I had to fall ill to learn this," she said to her monkey. 
She shook her thermometer excitedly and walked about the 

227 



room with Felix clinging to her skirts as she took her temper- 
ature. It was down to normal for the first time at that special 
hour when the fevers showed. 

Next morning after operations the doctor caught her exam- 
ining her sputum under the microscope. 

"Don't rush things, Sister," he said good-naturedly. "It's 
not going to be easy to return to the community, even . . ." 
he gave her a smile only faintly tinged with malice ". . . even 
to this very select little gathering here in the Congo." 

A week later all her slides showed negative. Back in the 
community she felt at first like a traveler returned from some 
beautiful land of silence and solitude. There was much more 
sound in a convent than she had remembered. The varying 
vibrations from a score of women made a sort of thin high 
humming like the singing of telephone wires strung across 
space. 



228 



XIV 



THE monastic life had plateau periods without signpost or 
roadblock. The next two years were for Sister Luke one of 
these. Her inner peace was rich and profound. She worked 
prodigiously. The drama of the expanding Congo touched off 
a patriotic pride she never knew she had, but accepted tran- 
quilly now as one of those atavisms which every nun brought 
to the convent from her former life and never quite outgrew. 

She listened to her male patients talking about cobalt and 
uranium and the export of a cotton crop that would come 
close to thirty thousand tons in 1938. Railroads had thrust 
deeper into the interior, like bustling capillaries spreading out 
from the main arteries of the Congo River. "Colonization is 
transportation/' said the colonials, boasting of track mileages 
to the nuns counting converts in silence. 

There was a new vocabulary, compact, a litde harsh. Flow- 
ing phrases like Office d* Exploitation des Transports Colo- 
nictux had contracted to Otraco. Utexleo meant the great 
textile mills of Leopoldville. Ineac stood for the Institut Na- 
tional pour f Etude Agronomique. Sister Luke felt a sweet 
possessiveness for A.M.I. Assistants Medicaux Indigenes 
which the government had created in 1935, a year after she 
had trained her first team of dressing boys, not with any such 
imposing medical program in view, she reminded herself 

229 



humbly, but mainly because their big black eyes had begged 
her to teach them more. Nevertheless, she had put her grain 
of sand into a foundation. She could look at the top structure 
now in 1938 and remember a prayer made on a ship nearly six 
years ago when she had seen the first missionary sisters 
through a sea captain's eyes and had whispered fervently, "O 
God, let me do some good." 

Meanwhile in Europe strange events had been happening, 
incomprehensible when you got only headlines. In the past 
four years the recreation talk had turned often to world affairs, 
especially when there were souls to pray for like those of the 
Jews persecuted by the Nazis or of the Spaniards dying in a 
civil war. Kings and countries seemed to be vanishing. Yugo- 
slavia's Alexander assassinated, England's Edward abdicated, 
Austria absorbed into Germany and now in September of 
'38 a slice of Czechoslovakia claimed by Hitler and actually 
handed over to him by terms of a peculiar document signed 
in Munich and called a peace treaty. 

"Do you think you'll recognize Europe when you go back?" 
the nuns asked Mother Mathilde. 

The Superior was making ready to go back to Belgium for 
the election of a new Superior General, which took place ev- 
ery six years. For a time there had been an international crisis 
which had started the old nuns like Sister Eucharistia remi- 
niscing about the days of '14-' 1 8; but that had blown over 
after the Munich pact. Now the only battle Mother Mathilde 
had to worry about would be that of her thin blood against 
the wintry winds of the homeland. 

The nuns made a big to-do over her departure. The teach- 
ers knitted shawls and mittens for her, aired and pressed her 
woolen gown and scapular. The nurses prepared die medical 
kit with plenty of caffeine to stimulate her circulation when 

230 



the ship would come into the cold currents of the Atlantic. 
Sister Luke was thankful that she had not been selected to 
accompany Mother Mathilde. She had the Congo so deeply 
in her blood she could not imagine even a furlough in the 
homeland. Belgium would look no bigger than her bandanna. 

She thought of the nuns of her congregation in India, 
Ceylon, China and in all the other missions of Africa doing 
the same things for their Superiors as they were doing for 
Mother Mathilde, each community wanting its chief to look 
the most loved and cared for. She imagined the processions of 
all those elderly wise women whose hair would be gray if visi- 
ble, coming into the mother house with the auras of their re- 
mote stations about them. The brown triangular masks of 
the Superiors from the tropics would perhaps startle the pale 
nuns from England and the Continent, and the novices in 
the mother house would go about on tiptoe in the presence 
of so many august matriarchs and perhaps dream longingly of 
one day qualifying for the missions, as she herself had 
dreamed. Eleven years ago! she told herself amazed. 

Mother Mathilde allocated her authority meticulously for 
she was to be absent three months. She named her secre- 
tary, Sister Marie-Rose, the Acting Superior of the commu- 
nity. Sister Monique was given total responsibility for the 
schools, Sister Eucharistia for the nursery and Sister Luke for 
the hospital. To each of her deputies she gave in private 3 
parting counsel. 

"For you," she said to Sister Luke, "I urge above all mod- 
eration. Remember, since your TB attack you have had no 
respite from a surcharged program. But you will have it when 
I return." She smiled and patted a letter on her desk. "I shall 
be bringing back a qualified nurse to take over the surgery. 
Meanwhile, I pray you will have no special problems. But if 

231 



you do, Sister, remember to ask God's guidance always before 
you act." 

"There will be no problems, ma Mere" Sister Luke looked 
with devotion at the sturdy little matriarch who had seen her 
through so many trials in the early days. "I believe every un- 
toward event which can happen has happened. God was good 
to me. He gave me my tribulations en bloc in the first years 
out here. Affairs have rolled on wheels since then." She smiled 
serenely, "We're going to try to have that addition to the 
Maternity completed for your return, ma Mere" 

She and Sister Aurelie took turns supervising the building 
of the Maternity Annex, sharing the joy of steering to com- 
pletion a project long dreamed of by Mother Mathilde. The 
rising birth rate in the European colony had outstripped the 
capacity of the original maternity pavilion. Plans for an an- 
nex had been going back and forth for months between of- 
fices of the government, of the Vicar Apostolic and of Mother 
Mathilde, who alone knew what a Maternity must have and 
patiently amended the blueprints. Progress on her notes were 
what the nuns went daily to check. 

The edifice, cradled in its network of bamboo scaffolding, 
rose visibly during the months of October and November. 
The Italian contractor had hired boys from the bush to aug- 
ment his own gang of skilled masons and carpenters, since 
he too was caught in the driving desire to complete the job 
for the return of Mother Mathilde, whom he called a saint 
pure and simple. 

The bush boys scurried like monkeys through the mesh- 
work of scaffolding, singing incessantly as they worked, and 
when their wives came once a week to the construction site 
to carry away the first white man's food and yard goods their 

232 



husbands had ever earned, it was almost like being in the 
jungle. Drums were brought out and there was singing and 
dancing in the temporary compound that housed the bush 
boys. 

"It whets my thirst for souls just to look at them/' Sister 
Aurelie confided wistfully. "What an opportunity to evan- 
gelize, if one only had the time." When it was her turn to 
supervise, she always took a first-aid kit. "I bait my hook with 
this," she said to Sister Luke. Occasionally one of the bush 
boys came shyly to her with a bleeding finger to be bandaged 
or a great rolling black eye to be cleansed of a fleck of mortar. 
Then, speaking fluent Kiswahili and smiling disarmingly all 
the while, she learned his name, his clan and village, the 
number of wives he possessed and how many children the 
Supreme Being had enriched him with . . . "That Great 
One," she would say, "who is the same as my God . . . yes, 
yes, the very same." 

Sister Luke shared her companion's eagerness for converts 
but her way, she confided, would have been through teaching 
had there been time. When she looked at the bush boys she 
saw first of all the charms and fetiches they wore each bit 
of bone, bird-claw and tuft of wild beast's hair welding them 
in fear to the sorcerers and witch doctors who ruled their lives 
from birth to death. 

"Teach just one of those monkeys to lance an abscess and 
see that pus is pus and not an evil demon," she said to Sister 
Aurelie, "and you'll have him started on his way out of dark- 



ness." 



If she could have known with what stupefying suddenness 
their wishes were to be granted hers for getting some of 
those repulsive charms off a bush boy's neck and Sister Aur6- 
lie's for making converts quickly Sister Luke would have 

233 



torn from her thoughts such venturesome wishing every time 
she gazed at the bush boys. 

All through November she and Sister Aurelie cultivated 
them and made secret plans to lure them to the Christmas 
Eve service in the chapel. And all through November, as Sis- 
ter Luke was to learn later, a sorcerer out in the bush was tell- 
ing one of those boys that if he could kill a woman, prefer- 
ably a white, then he would be freed forever from the spirit 
of a dead wife who haunted him. 

In the fortnight before Christmas, Sister Aurelie had the 
night watch in Maternity when the bush boy came. He had 
made a cut on his thumb and he held it up bleeding as he 
peered through the glass of the postnatal ward, where she 
had just brought the newborn babies to their mothers for 
breast-feeding. 

"If Mesdames will excuse me for just a moment," she said. 
"It's one of our building boys come to me for first aid." She 
went to the door with a happy smile and opened it. 

Six women saw the first act. The boy thrust himself into 
the ward with a club of wood held behind his back. He looked 
about wildly as if unable to choose which white woman 
those in the beds or the tall familiar one whose clothes as 
well as her face were white. Suddenly he lifted his club and 
crashed it down on Sister Aurelie's skull. 

The skull was split open at the first blow but somehow she 
stayed on her feet. The one nursing mother who had not 
fainted saw her walk slowly, very steadily toward the bush 
boy, backing him step by step from the ward. The mother 
began to scream from her bed as she saw him deliver in the 
corridor two more blows which drove Sister Aurelie down to 
the floor and out of her sight. 

She screamed when Emil came and wrestled the crazed na- 

234 



tive into submission and continued screaming as Sister Luke 
came flying down the corridor, unable at first to take in any- 
thing beyond the fact that a patient needed care, though she 
saw as in a nightmare the two panting black forms with 
Emil on top and the blood on the headbands of Sister Aurelie 
as she stepped over the still white shape. 

Her hand was absolutely steady as she shot sedative into 
her screaming patient, drowning away the voice of hysteria 
. . . "She was dead, Sister, when she walked toward him . . . 
dead and smiling and she walked . . ." 

"Sister Aurelie is not dead, Madame . . . not dead . . . 
Sleep now, she is not dead . . ." 

She telephoned the Acting Superior before she left the 
ward, suggesting politely that the Force Publique be sum- 
moned at once. Then she opened the glass door and stepped 
quietly into the corridor. 

Emil's night-duty boys were with him now. They had the 
maniac bound securely and were sitting on him. Their eyes, 
feral with fright, rolled toward the body of Sister Aurelie. She 
knelt and for the second time in her religious life put her 
fingers on a sister's warm wrist that had no pulse. 

"Emil," she whispered, "help me lift her." But before Emil 
could or would move, the other three deputies of Mother 
Mathilde were there, Sisters Marie-Rose, Monique and 
Eucharistia. The four of them carried Sister Aurelie to the 
treatment room and laid her on the table. Sister Luke nodded 
to the Acting Superior, who went away at once to call a priest. 

They made the first funeral toilette without breaking the 
grand silence, each one performing the tasks for which her 
specialty best fitted her Sister Monique of the arts arrang- 
ing the skirts and bending back into shell shape the crushed 
coif, Sister Eucharistia of the nursery folding the dead hands 

235 



in a pose of childlike trust over the pectoral cross, Sister Luke 
sponging away the only trickle of blood that showed on 
Sister Aurelie's face and noting, with a professional coldness 
that horrified her afterwards, that only the headbands had 
held the brains in place. 

Father Stephen came with the oils for extreme unction and 
Sister Marie-Rose with the little paper promising obedience 
to God until death, which she placed between the folded 
hands. There was a stupefaction in all their voices as they 
made the responses and their gestures seemed dreamy and 
thoughtless, like those of somnambulists hesitating on the 
edge of an abyss. 

Sister Luke remained on vigil with Sister Marie-Rose. 
Kneeling on her chair, she gazed stunned at the calm profile 
that showed no distortions from a death by violence. After a 
long while, the Acting Superior broke the silence as was her 
prerogative. 

"How did it happen, Sister Luke?" she whispered. 

"I don't know exactly. I heard the boys chattering some- 
thing about a sorcerer. Emil will have the whole story. I had 
to attend to the patient first, of course." She stopped and 
caught her breath. Was it possible she had done that first? 
The tomtoms beat the story out to the bush without pause. 
"All I know, Sister, is that she backed the killer out of the 
ward after she was struck . . ." 

All I know, she said silently to Sister Aurelie, is that you 
smiled as you walked toward that door because you thought 
you had a convert on the hook. Our thirst for souls, my little 
sister. You baited your hooks with bandages ... I with lan- 
cets. We were like two misers gazing covetously at that great 
treasure of unclaimed souls, do you remember? And how we 
plotted to bring them to chapel at Christmastime with our 

236 



Christian boys? That will fetch them, we said with our 
eyes . . . 

Sister Aurelie's lips still had the rosy hue of life and were 
upcurved in her shy sweet smile. They seemed to move as she 
stared at them, as though breath beat behind them to form 
again the yearning words, It whets my thirst for souls just to 
look at them. 

You'll never look again. Your eyes are closed forever, with 
a club, Christ wasn't satisfied with our little hooks. He 
wanted the whole net thrown . . . 

She couldn't realize anything, least of all the fact that she 
was looking at the whole net thrown, as her bitter inner voice 
cried out against the senseless slaughter. 

If she watched each step, she might find something con- 
crete to put into the report she must write for the mother 
house, something to take the place of those phrases of sweet- 
ness and light which she had never been able to force from 
her pen. The report would be published in the convent maga- 
zine. She recalled the only one she had ever read, which 
began, I dip my pen in the blood of a little martyr . . . 
Watch each step. Gather the facts. Facts you can write about 
without squirming . . . 

The Acting Superior met the nuns outside the dormitory 
next morning and told them that the Mass would be a Re- 
quiem for Sister Aurelie, who had been accidentally killed in 
the night. After the Mass, before they entered the refectory, 
she would give them details to prepare them to meet their 
publics. The burial would take place before noon. Everything 
must be quick in the tropics, but you cannot 'write that. 

Nor can I write that it could have been I, instead of Sister 
Aurelie, had I been just a few minutes earlier on my night 

237 



rounds, had I not lingered in the surgery ward. No, she told 
herself, you cannot write that because your readers know that 
it could have been none other than she whom God chose. 
There is no hazard in His plan. She 'was ripe for heaven, 
the nuns will say afterwards and explain away with that fa- 
miliar phrase every aspect of brutal chance in that needless 
death. 

Outside the refectory, the Acting Superior stopped the little 
community that had just sung a Requiem for a death not 
yet understood. 

"Sister Aurelie died in an act of charity," she said quietly. 
"A crazed Black, who is now safely in the hands of the law, 
came to the Maternity last night and struck her down. We 
know that she pardoned him before she died and that her 
last cry to Christ was, Don't count this sin." 

Sister Luke watched the nuns stiffen with shock. There 
were little gasps and then that silence of stupefaction that 
had hung over the treatment room the night before. Sister 
Marie-Rose continued. 

"We know that our beloved sister is counting on us not to 
avenge her even in thought, but to continue with the natives 
the apostolate that was so dear to her heart. Presently you 
will be with your boys. They are fearful of our reaction, ex- 
pecting vengeance, of course. Show them that the Christian 
does not revenge himself, that Christ has taught us to love 
our enemies. This is the mission our martyred sister has left 
for us to complete." 

That I can write. Died in an act of charity. But can I my- 
self believe it? Sister Luke asked herself despairingly. 

The confidence of every Black had to be won again and 
that made, in the end, the story of the continuing mission 

238 



which shot the light of faith into the report Sister Luke 
liad despaired of being able to write. 

She knew that some of her sisters had fear when, after the 
funeral, they returned to their posts and met their boys. 
Some were so revolted they appeared to be physically ill. The 
boys outnumbered the sisters twenty to one in every depart- 
ment and their black faces, suddenly ugly and estranged with 
shame, recalled to all the nuns the impressions of their first 
days in the Congo, that they were adrift, very white and visi- 
ble, on a sea of dark countenances, fathomless, impenetrable 
and unknowable. 

Her own efforts with Emil a convert, familiar with 
whites for years recapitulated in a sense the experiences of 
the whole sisterhood in those first hours. Emil refused to look 
at her when she entered the hospital. As she approached the 
desk, he turned quickly and started down the corridor, 
hunched forward as though a lash curled over his back. 

"If you're on your way to the Contagious, Emil," she called 
out after him, "would you please take these papers to Sister 
Margarita?" Gray and shrunken, he turned to look at her, 
unable to comprehend the friendly tone. She pulled him back 
to her with a smile. 

"The sisters are not angry with us?" he asked in Kiswahili, 
as if his race had lost the right to speak in the tongue of the 
murdered one. 

"Emil, you are a Christian like us. You know our hearts 
have no place for rancor. No, Emil," she said gently, "we are 
not angry." 

"But with that one then, Mama Luke . . . that shame of 
shames we gave over to Monsieur Marcel last night?" 

"Not even with him, Emil." 

"I don't understand." He stared at her, his brow wrinkled 

239 



in thought. Slowly a wonder overcame the fear in his eyes. 
He shook his head. She watched the familiar stern look of 
protectiveness come over his face. "If such a death happened 
to one of ours, Mama Luke, we would stake the murderer 
out along the riverbank and each fisherman would cut a piece 
of his flesh for bait until there was nothing left but his 
bones." 

"You would have, Emil, if . . ." She touched the small 
gold cross suspended from a thong about his neck. ". . . *f, 
I say, you were not wearing that sign of Him who taught us 
to forgive/' 

A queer little smile wreathed his face as when, sometimes 
in the labs, she caught him in an error he knew better than 
to make. 

"That's what you must make the boys understand, Emil. 
Remember, you're their Capita, my deputy." 

He took the papers she handed to him and bowed. He held 
his small stocky Bantu body very erect as he walked away. 
Midway in the hall he thought of something and came back. 

"Mama Luke . . ." From the pocket of his shorts he drew 
forth a twisted bunch of feathers and claws on a string and 
laid it on the desk. "One of the boys tore this off that 
shame of shames last night, so that in prison he'll have no 
protection from his evil spirits." 

She looked at the fetich lying on the logbook, covering a 
part of the neat newsprint handwriting of Sister Aurelie. Her 
heart beat so fast she couldn't speak for a moment. 

"Which one, Emil?" 

"Illunga, Mama Luke . . ." 

Illunga ... the last of their unbaptized black boys. Her 
hand closed over the charm so tightly that its claws pricked 
her palm. The small precise writing beneath her fist blurred 

240 



as she stared at it. Illunga, she whispered to Sister Aurelie 
... it was his grief for your body on the floor that gave him 
courage to touch this witch thing. You have one on the hook, 
my little sister, you have one on the hook . . . 

Presently she opened her hand and held out the fetich to 
Emil. "You must send it back to the boy in jail," she said. 
"We cannot leave him defenseless there, Emil. He must have 
this to protect him against the law." 

"But it will not, Mama Luke!" EmiTs startled eyes rolled 
from the fetich to her face. 

"That's just what we must let him find out for himself, 
Emil," she said very softly. She took him into the conspiracy 
with a smile that brought his own back again. He went off 
like a runner burdened with news for his boys. 

In the days that followed, the nuns spoke often in the 
recreation of Sister Aurelie, but never with any grief in their 
low thoughtful voices. There was, on the contrary, a faint 
suggestion of envy. If only 1 had been chosen . . . 

Sister Luke felt the envy curl and twist in her own heart 
one night when Sister Monique, with matchless rhetoric, 
spoke of the supreme grace God had given to Sister Aurelie, 
the grace of dying for Him. 

There was a time, Sister Luke reflected, when such a long- 
ing to die for Christ would have seemed exaggerated, even 
possibly psychopathic. But now no longer. She tried to ana- 
lyze the change that had come over her in the past two years, 
ever since she had had that vision in the tree-house of what it 
was to be a real nun. It seemed almost as if she had been one, 
since then. A true nun worked until she dropped, prayed until 
she was hollow and hoped humbly and continuously that one 
day the Blessed Lord would take her up to heaven through a 

241 



little martrydom that would cause her unfinished business on 
earth to go on, as Sister Aurelie's was continuing. 

Three more of the sisters had received, without asking, the 
fetiches their boys wore. They had given them back to the 
boys exactly as she had done, to be tried and found wanting 
by themselves, although she had never told them about that 
particular exchange between herself and Emil. She looked 
around the recreation circle at the faces of her sisters turning 
grief into a glory as they talked about Sister Aurelie's blood 
falling fruitfully on the black race that had struck her down. 
The talk did not sound sweet or childish. What caught her 
attention was the fact they they had all replied in the same 
way when presented with the fetiches. As if a single intelli- 
gence inspired all our separate brains, she thought. Then she 
recalled one exception and spoke it aloud. 

"In the first shock, I called it senseless slaughter," she said, 
"I even cried out against Christ for the injustice . . ." 

"I think we all did that, Sister Luke," said the Acting 
Superior. "It is no cause for self-reproach. If we saw and 
understood on the instant every one of God's mysterious 
moves, we would no longer be here, would we?" 

The nuns nodded appreciatively, since she had spoken to 
them all. And from them all, as from me, Sister Luke 
thought, she has lifted that last shadow of remorse for those 
bitter hours when we prayed mechanically and cried Why? 
Why? as we followed the body to its hasty grave. 

The thrumming night beat in against their small circle of 
light under the kiosk. The temperature of the Decembei 
midsummer was stifling; the parched earth gave back after 
sundown all the blazing heat it had sucked in during the day. 
Only crickets and bats had the will to move in the torrid 
dark, she thought . . . and nuns. She listened to the click 

242 



of their knitting needles making a busy local obbligato to t 
bat squeaks and insect shrilling. 

There is no heroism in the convent. She smiled as she j 
called the familiar maxim of the cloister. 



X V 



MIDNIGHT MASS on Ch .stmas Eve in the Congo was 
always a moving event. Sister Luke had sung five of them, 
but this year she was on call and dispensed from participa- 
tion. She sat in the pews, a spectator staring like all the others 
at the little stable the nuns had built of bamboo and palm 
fronds. She sensed the emotions of the lonely young com- 
merg ants in the pews around her, remembering Christmases 
when they had first seen the Infant placed in the crib, and of 
the rum-soaked colonials who had quit their parties and come 
to the convent chapel, bleary-eyed with nostalgia for the home 
country. Above all, she felt the electric excitement from the 
section where the black boys of the convent staff sat trans- 
fixed by this appealing aspect of their newfound faith. Sand- 
wiched in between them and wearing cotton shorts and shirts 
borrowed from them were the wild little bush boys they had 
brought with them to see the show. 

She could not imagine what the bush boys were thinking, 
but she knew their acute senses picked up the yearning and 
the expectancy as the midnight bells began to chime. In the 
hush that followed, she heard the tinkle of their bracelets as 
they reached out suddenly to hold hands with their guardian 
brothers. 

244 



The splendid processional of her sisters, clad in choir capes 
freshly whitened with chalk, came through the portals from 
the cloister. The organ gave the first chords of O Minuit 
Chretien, lifting their voices with it in purest sweetness. Sin- 
gle file, pacing slowly, the line of nuns lengthened until the 
Acting Superior appeared with the figure of the Christ Child 
in her arms. 

The nuns circled the altar with candlelight on their faces, 
their hands folded out of sight in the long sleeves that dropped 
winglike down their sides. They looked like angels moving 
toward the Manger. The chapel bells rang in and out of their 
singing, then their voices soared with the organ as the Super- 
ior laid on its bed of straw a porcelain figure with dimpled 
knees and curling fists that looked like a doll. And Christ is 
born again . . . And Christ is born again! sang her sisters as 
the pealing bells came in from on high. 

They're sitting there just like little ebony statues, Sister 
Aurelie. They've got their feathers and fangs still about their 
necks. But they're here, my little sister, they're looking at our 
magic now. There's not a breath out of one of them . . . not 
a breath. 

After the three Masses, most of the nuns took advantage of 
the annual indulgence to go to the refectory for fruits and a 
glass of wine, or chilled cocoa for the few who did not care 
for wine. They had to continue in the grand silence, but they 
could smile and talk with their eyes, and the wine, which 
came only four times yearly on the big feasts of Easter, As- 
sumption, All Saints and Christmas (and then no more than 
two goblets each) put a sparkle in their talking eyes. 

"Sister Aurelie must have seen those little savages in chapel 
... of course it is presumption even to mention the possi- 

2 45 



bility, but one must say it's quite strange they came without 
any urging from us." 

"I missed her grievously in the processional ... she al- 
ways preceded me, sometimes covered up for me when I 
couldn't reach the high notes." 

"Mother Mathilde is thinking of us tonight . . . Christ- 
mas in the mother house, do you remember the perfection?" 

Sister Luke drank her two authorized goblets and heard her 
father say disparagingly, "An unlabeled Medoc . . ." Even 
so, she looked with concealed pity on the sisters who chose 
chilled cocoa. The wine lightened the spirit and gave to their 
bereaved group a little feeling of the joy that wrapped around 
the earth that night. The pageant in the mother house had a 
splendor, of course. But she wouldn't trade for it a single 
moment of her own small community's celebration, with 
drums and crickets in the background and a heat so dense it 
put a shine on every face. 

She smiled as she sipped her wine. The mother house 
seemed to be much more than eight thousand kilometers 
away. It was light years distant from this refectory in the 
Congo where a gallant little community of sisters, each 
known to the other as intimately as they knew the lines in 
their separate palms, tied towels over their starched bibs and 
ate mangos after midnight. 

Most of them, she saw, were eating their mangos as Sister 
Aurelie had urged and teased them to do without benefit of 
knives and forks, which were, as she used to say, a desecration 
of this superlative bounty of God. They stripped off the skin 
of their fruits and thrust their fingers straight into the golden 
flesh to catch the flat ends of the pits. 

Sister Monique, who had never before been seen to eat a 
fruit with her fingers, held up the flat oval pit with a fringe of 

246 



hairlike fibers around its edges from which her teeth had 
pulled the luscious pulp. Like an artist she might have been 
studying its form and identifying its botanical origin. 
"Mangifera indica" she seemed to be saying, "believed to 
have been cultivated for about six thousand years . . . glossy 
lanceolate leaves, small reddish flowers followed by this fruit, 
a fleshy drupe . . ." 

But Sister Luke knew she was saying nothing of the sort. 
She was saying to the unseen presence that was still very 
close to all their hearts, "You're absolutely right, my little 
sister, this is the only way to eat a mango." Her eyes caught 
Sister Luke's and smiled as she laid down the fiber-fringed 
pit. 

Mother Mathilde returned a fortnight after New Year's 
Day in that fateful year of 1939. She arrived by plane in the 
late afternoon and there had been, as usual, the bustle of 
choosing which nuns would accompany the Acting Superior 
to the airport, and as usual the two humblest sisters had 
been selected, the supervisors of kitchens and laundry. Sister 
Luke heard the plane go over the hospital as she made her 
rounds. She said a little prayer for its moment of landing. 

For the homecoming, there was to be a special dispensation 
of wine with the evening meal and permission had been given 
to say Matins and Laud privately in the chapel just before 
the Salve, so that the first recreation with Mother Mathilde 
might be extended. She would have much to tell her nuns of 
the big doings in the mother house, of the re-election by 
unanimous voice-vote of the Reverend Mother Emmanuel 
which she had already written about briefly, of the messages 
from the Superior General and from their families and friends 
who had visited her, 

247 



Sister Luke ran ahead in her thoughts to the time next 
morning when she would have her private interview with 
Mother Mathilde. She was eager to tell about her spiritual 
life, which would be the first subject the Superior would 
query her on. All the rest would come later news of the 
finished Maternity, the patients already installed in it, the 
health of her nursing nuns who had closed up the ranks after 
Sister Aurelie's death and accomplished her work by doubling 
their overtime in that stifling season . . . 

"My spiritual health, ma Mere" she would say. "There 
has been a crystallization. Our tragic event taught me many 
things I did not know. There's no more flux of uncertainty. 
No more self-indulgence with regret for the lesser faults, 
which are still very plentiful, ah yes. God shed His graces, 
more than I merit. Strong," she would say. "An inner 
strength . . ." 

"You look like the cat that swallowed the canary," said the 
doctor, who had been standing before her desk watching her 
talk to herself. He put out his hand and grinned. "May I 
have the Englebert chart? I'm on my way to greet Mother 
Mathilde. Too bad Fve got to mix pleasure with business and 
tell her about our psychiatric case." 

He leafed through the file she handed him. "I see you 
were up with him again last night. What was it this time? 
Suicide threat?" 

"It was nothing, Doctor. Just loneliness really. The night 
boy could have taken care of him." She smiled. "All I did was 
talk with him a little while. He quieted down like a lamb." 

"Don't hide your light under a bushel of modesty. You're 
the only one who can handle him and you know it. I ought 
to be grateful, but I'm not when I look at you. I sometimes 
wonder, Sister, when, if ever, you get any sleep." 

248 



He studied her for several moments, then he began to hum* 
The plan he formulated to the tune of Tosca put a glint in 
his narrowed eyes. Afterwards, she remembered with what 
simple faith in her own mind-reading she had read that pecul- 
iar glint. He's going to prescribe mild sedatives for Monsieur 
Englebert from now on, she thought, so I can get some 
sleep. 

She watched him walk away humming, using the file as a 
fan. 

The file lay off to the side of Mother Mathilde's desk, 
stacked on top of the hospital reports, statistics of admissions 
and releases all the unimportant matter to be spoken of 
later. 

Mother Mathilde blessed her, embraced her, then held her 
by the shoulders as she said, "How I thought about you, my 
child, especially after that cable. I knew how close you were 
to Sister Aurelie, how difficult it must have been for you to 
accept God's will." She let go of the shoulders and returned 
to her chair. 

"And now I know/' Mother Mathilde continued, "pre- 
cisely how difficult it was for you. I hardly recognized you 
when first I saw you in the refectory, you've lost so much 
weight." The Superior paused. A clinical glint shone in her 
worried eyes. "Tell me, Sister, have you made a sputum test 
since I've been away?" 

"No, ma Mere. There was always so much else to do. But 
mainly, I didn't think it necessary." She smiled reassuringly. 
"I feel so strong, ma Mre. I don't even feel the need for 
that assistant you told us was coming by ship. It is an inner 
strength," she said firmly, as if to remind the worried keeper 
of her soul of the maxim she herself so often employed 

249 



when cautioning sisters to go easy. A healthy soul requires a 
healthy body to house it. Mother Mathilde nodded for her to 
continue. 

She had rehearsed this and did not have to hunt for words. 
They poured from her eagerly, almost with abandon. She 
knew before she was halfway through that she was vanquish- 
ing the concern she could not bear to see on her Superior's 
face. A smile played around Mother Mathilde's lips and her 
eyebrows lifted in her characteristic expression of pleased sur- 
prise. Sister Luke heard the exaltation in her voice but made 
no effort to curb it. This she was telling was no self-delusion, 
no abnormal sense of personal well-being. It was a lifting up 
of inner strength that felt solid as a second skeleton inside 
her. "Something like the strength after a retreat, ma Mre 
... I have been so eager to tell you." 

Mother Mathilde continued smiling after she finished 
speaking. Her hand, bleached like her face by the Belgian 
winter, looked very white on her crucifix, but strong and pur- 
poseful as it stroked the dark wood. 

"It is very wonderful what you tell me, Sister." Her low 
voice vibrated. "It means that the Master Himself has pre- 
pared you for what I am going to tell you. How strangely our 
problems work out when we lay them at His feet!" 

She picked up the Englebert file. 

"All the way back on the plane, I pondered this case. The 
family came several times to the mother house and begged 
me to arrange for repatriation. Then, yesterday, the doctor 
made the same request, even more urgently than the family." 
She smiled and leaned forward. "All last evening, Sister, I 
was pondering how to tell you that I must send you back to 
Belgium with this case. I know your deep attachment to the 



250 



mission. But you are the only one qualified in psychia- 
try ..." 

From the moment she said send you back to Belgium, 
Sister Luke did not move her eyes from her Superior's. The 
powerful gaze penetrated to her very soul and watched it, 
while the low voice went on talking naturally and nurselike 
of a nursing problem. 

". . . and the only one to whom, in good conscience, I 
could give this duty. Of course you know the importance of 
this man in the colony and how urgent it is to prevent his 
mental breakdown from becoming acute. All indications are 
that he can be cured if we get him as soon as possible to a 
sanatorium with proper facilities." Mother Mathilde paused. 

It was her turn to speak now, to prove that her voice was 
as steady as the soul her Superior inspected in a continuing 
gaze. 

"And the doctor?" she asked, with a litde lift that aske4 
What will he do? 

"Dr. Fortunati made it easy for me, Sister, by suggesting 
you. He will take his long overdue vacation when you leave. 
He'll bring in his assistant, Dr. Pieters, to replace him for 
emergency surgery, and arrange for all the big surgery to be 
done by the mine doctors. And I must say," Mother Mathilde 
went on in a lighter tone, "it will certainly make it easier for 
your successor to learn her way around without that slave- 
driving genius on her heels every moment" 

Your successor. Successor . . . one who takes the place 
of ... 

"Ma Mfre . . ." She hesitated. 

"Yes, Sister?" The Superior smiled encouragement. 

"Will I ... will they . . . send me back, do you think? " 



251 



That thin voice, that tremulous wail asking Christ what next. 

A flash of something very like compassion shot from 
Mother Mathilde's dark eyes which never let go of her own 
but went on boring and exploring. Her voice, however, was 
matter-of-fact. 

"I am certain that the mother house will return you as 
soon as possible," she said firmly. "7 shall certainly want you 
back. Of course, it will depend on how our Reverend Mother 
Emmanuel finds your spiritual health and the doctor your 
physical health. But I have little concern about either findings 
. . ." She smiled disarmingly. "In fact, none at all ... after 
what you've told me, Sister." 

Sister Luke knew that her relief for the assurance of return 
to the Congo was perfectly obvious. Mother Mathilde paused 
as if listening to her change in respiration, then she con- 
tinued. 

"Nor will you be detained in Belgium for the change-of- 
climate furlough. You are not due for that yet. Nevertheless, 
Sister" she glanced down at the Englebert file "the little 
change this duty brings will do you good." Her eyes, probing 
no more, sparkled now. "You'll have an opportunity, how- 
ever brief, to renew your spiritual life in that serene atmos- 
phere of the mother house. Ah, that oasis of silence, that pure 
monastic air of piety." She nodded over her own happy mem- 
ories. Then presently a twinkle came in her eyes. 

"But just be sure you're as generous with caffeine in your 
own medical kit as you were with me," she said. "Even with 
its aid, I shivered like a dog all the while in Belgium." 

The remainder of the conference was brief. Sister Luke 
learned that she was to leave on the same ship that was al- 
ready en route with the new sister, since plane travel might 
be unduly exciting for her patient. The doctor was processing 

252 



papers to transmit her at government expense. The Vestiaire 
would be notified to prepare her woolens. 

As she crossed the gardens on her way back to the hospital, 
she looked around at the world she loved, taking in impres- 
sions like a traveler storing food for a journey. 

The impeccable canopy of the summer sky blended far off 
with the red earth in a shimmering horizon of fire. The bush 
with its gaunt primeval vegetation waited out there with 
thorny arms upraised for the rain. Closer in were the prim 
plantings around the hospital and all the neat paths bordered 
with whitewashed stones that picked up moonlight after dark 
and guided the feet cf the night-duty nuns away from the 
shrubs where cobras sometimes lurked after waterings. 

A motionless lizard sat on a stone, looking more like the 
act of listening caught m a casting of copper than like a living 
creature of God. 

"I'm coming back, you beautiful thing," she whispered. 
"Coming back, do you hear?" She watched him disappear in a 
flash of flame. 

She went at once to the doctor as Mother Mathilde had 
advised. He was at his desk, filling out forms. He looked up 
and gave her a businesslike nod. 

"Well, Sister, we've got a lot to do," he said briskly. "We 
must get the complete back-file on Englebert, all the skull 
X-rays, lab tests, consultation reports . . ." 

She took out her notebook, thankful that for once he was 
not going to poke and probe to find out what she thought. 
She jotted down the instructions he gave. Mild sedatives for 
the three-day train ride, precautionary bindings which he was 
sure she would not need, two native guards from the Force 
Publique to ride as far as Lobito, then the ship's doctor to 
share the responsibility. He spelled out the name for her. 

253 



That thin voice, that tremulous wail asking Christ what next. 

A flash of something very like compassion shot from 
Mother Mathilde's dark eyes which never let go of her own 
but went on boring and exploring. Her voice, however, was 
matter-of-fact. 

"I am certain that the mother house will return you as 
soon as possible," she said firmly. "7 shall certainly want you 
back. Of course, it will depend on how our Reverend Mother 
Emmanuel finds your spiritual health and the doctor your 
physical health. But I have little concern about either findings 
. . ." She smiled disarmingly. "In fact, none at all ... after 
what you've told me, Sister." 

Sister Luke knew that her relief for the assurance of return 
to the Congo was perfectly obvious. Mother Mathilde paused 
as if listening to her change in respiration, then she con- 
tinued. 

"Nor will you be detained in Belgium for the change-of- 
climate furlough. You are not due for that yet. Nevertheless, 
Sister" she glanced down at the Englebert file "the little 
change this duty brings will do you good." Her eyes, probing 
no more, sparkled now. "You'll have an opportunity, how- 
ever brief, to renew your spiritual life in that serene atmos- 
phere of the mother house. Ah, that oasis of silence, that pure 
monastic air of piety." She nodded over her own happy mem- 
ories. Then presently a twinkle came in her eyes. 

"But just be sure you're as generous with caffeine in your 
own medical kit as you were with me," she said. "Even with 
its aid, I shivered like a dog all the while in Belgium." 

The remainder of the conference was brief. Sister Luke 
learned that she was to leave on the same ship that was al- 
ready en route with the new sister, since plane travel might 
be unduly exciting for her patient. The doctor was processing 



papers to transmit her at government expense. The Vestiaire 
would be notified to prepare her woolens. 

As she crossed the gardens on her way back to the hospital, 
she looked around at the world she loved, taking in impres- 
sions like a traveler storing food for a journey. 

The impeccable canopy of the summer sky blended far off 
with the red earth in a shimmering horizon of fire. The bush 
with its gaunt primeval vegetation waited out there with 
thorny arms upraised for the rain. Closer in were the prim 
plantings around the hospital and all the neat paths bordered 
with whitewashed stones that picked up moonlight after dark 
and guided the feet cf the night-duty nuns away from the 
shrubs where cobras sometimes lurked after waterings. 

A motionless lizard sat on a stone, looking more like the 
act of listening caught m a casting of copper than like a living 
creature of God. 

"Fm coming back, you beautiful thing," she whispered. 
"Coming back, do you hear?" She watched him disappear in a 
flash of flame. 

She went at once to the doctor as Mother Mathilde had 
advised. He was at his desk, filling out forms. He looked up 
and gave her a businesslike nod. 

"Well, Sister, we've got a lot to do," he said briskly. "We 
must get the complete back-file on Englebert, all the skull 
X-rays, lab tests, consultation reports . . ." 

She took out her notebook, thankful that for once he was 
not going to poke and probe to find out what she thought. 
She jotted down the instructions he gave. Mild sedatives for 
the three-day train ride, precautionary bindings which he was 
sure she would not need, two native guards from the Force 
Publique to ride as far as Lobito, then the ship's doctor to 
share the responsibility. He spelled out the name for her. 

253 



"I'm writing him a letter," he said in the same professional 
tone, "explaining which one is the patient." 

She looked up startled and saw his sardonic smile. So he 
was going to poke and probe after all. She waited for it 
calmly. 

"I was joking, Sister," he said. "Testing the reflex, as it 
were, of your devotion to duty." 

"Considering all we must accomplish, Doctor, I suggest 
you keep strictly to business." 

"Of course," he went on as if she had not spoken, "you 
really should be in a state warranting a bit of medical super- 
vision, considering what lies ahead of you, Sister." 

She stared at him. His narrow red eyes were scalpel-sharp. 

"Don't you realize that you are about to put to the test 
that religious strength you're so sure of?" There was no sar- 
casm now in his voice or face. "The moment you walk into 
your mother house in Belgium, that strength, Sister, which 
has never had a real workout here, will meet its test . . . 
the strict discipline, the walls, the silence. Suppose you were 
detained there indefinitely. Anything can happen in a con- 
vent, as well you know. Would the strength be enough then, 
Sister?" 

"Yes, of course," she said, as though a body lay between 
them on the table and he had asked, Is everything in order? 

"You're sure, Sister? Sure it's not that ferocious will? Sure 
you've thought it straight through to the end?" 

She nodded for all three questions, not to waste further 
words. 

"Well I'm not," he said with sudden anger. His emotion 
caught her unprepared. 

"Then why on earth did you suggest me to Mother Ma- 
thilde?" she exclaimed. 

2 54 



"To prove to you that you're wrong," he said slowly, 
grimly. "To prove to you something I've been telling you for 
years, even if it costs me you. To prove . . ." 

She gave him no chance to say it. She turned on her heel 
and left the office, saying over her shoulder, "Ring for me* 
Doctor, when you're ready to discuss the case load." 

It was all quite preposterous, but he had sowed a seed. Was 
the strength she was so sure of sufficient only for the Congo? 
She tried herself out by giving up bits of it as she encountered 
people and things close to her heart. 

She saw Emil, the first great friend the Congo had given 
her, coining toward her now, his face aglow with devotion, 
and she told herself that soon she would see him for the last 
time. The tropic rain burst over the hospital roof and she 
gave up its thrilling tattoo and the sudden smell of earth 
wild, tangy and unbearably sweet that it beat up from the 
parched ground. Mother Mathilde called her on the telephone 
and she gave up the woman she loved more than any human 
being she had ever known, as she listened to her Superior's 
voice, pitched below the clatter of rain yet dominating it. 

Everything she gave up hurt enormously, but she be- 
lieved she could accept the pain if she had to. She could ac- 
cept it, she told herself calmly, for the sake of the Almighty 
God if that would be His will for her. Curiously enough, as 
she continued her exploratory operation, she discovered that 
giving up the doctor would be, after Mother Mathilde, the 
most difficult severance. 

His twisted face full of anger that looked like love (and 
probably would have been that had she not been exceedingly 
watchful over both herself and him during all the years they 
had worked together) hung like a yellow moon in her 

255 



thoughts. His faith in her judgment, his absolute trust in it 
when he left her alone in the hospital, the peculiar bond that 
bound them breathless over a flickering life on the operating 
table, breathless yet daring the risk . . . Scalpel, hemostat, 
catgut, Sister . . . Breathing light but steady, Doctor, pulse 
still palpable . . . their only conversation through years and 
years of dark dawns . . . one by one, relentlessly, she excised 
them from her. His buzzer cut short the masochism. She 
hurried down the hall. 

He was sitting at his desk, hands folded serenely on top of 
an immense stack of case files. He looked at her reprovingly. 

"I'm surprised at you, Sister, running off duty. As if that 
were the first time we've disagreed on a diagnosis." He asked 
her forgiveness with a malicious smile. "As if you didn't 
know I always get mean when contradicted. I'm always fearful 
of that one time in a hundred when you have been right." 

"One time in a hundred! . . . You monster of vanity," 
she said . . . and she gave that up too, their way of fighting 
and making up, as she fumbled for her notebook, looking 
down at her skirt pocket so he wouldn't see her tears. 

Three weeks later she was on her way to the mother house. 

Her black boys had made a bridal bower of her compart- 
ment on the boat train. Walls, ceilings and seats were solidly 
covered with white blossoms orchids, azaleas and every va- 
riety of begonia. Great clusters of wistaria hung from the 
corners with gifts concealed among the blooms. The floor was 
covered with huge native baskets filled with choice mangos, 
chirimoyas, papayas, guavas and avocados, topped with stalks 
of the tiny finger-length bananas called bitika which her boys 
knew she loved. 

Next to her compartment was that of Monsieur Englebert. 

256 



Two native policemen from the Force fublique stood guard 
outside his door. She gave her patient a mild sedative before 
the train pulled out, then returned to the overwhelming 
sweetness of her bower, to stand at the window and watch 
the most momentous years of her religious life fade from view. 

Until that final moment, she had successfully dominated 
every emotion of leave-taking and maintained the belief that 
she was coming back. As calmly as though taking off for a 
three-day trip to the bush, she had said good-by to her sisters 
in the recreation, and then to the doctor in the familiar old 
battleground of the surgery. But, when the whistle blew and 
she saw Mother Mathilde and her dressing boys slipping 
away from her, a bolt of pain tore through her heart. The 
smile remained on her face staring out from its frame of 
white flowers. It was a smile fixed in stillness, like any one of 
the masks she had composed with her own fingers on so 
many faces of sudden and violent death. 

She waited for the last view of the battered old convent 
Ford parked under the mimosas behind the station. Then she 
sat down next to the window on the only seat space her boys 
had left uncovered. She didn't have to look out to watch the 
Congo going by. She had the Congo with her in the com- 
partment. She touched the floral upholstery and felt a lump. 
Then she drew forth from beneath a cushion of blooms a 
black statue carved in ebony. 

It was a kneeling woman about fifteen inches high, with 
shiny black cones of breasts jutting out from under a collar 
of necklaces and small blunt hands carved flatly against 
bended knees. The face on the figure lifted with haunting 
beauty, its eyes half closed and the heavy black lips carved 
with down curves suggesting silent supplication before a god 
too immense to speak to or look at. She turned it around in 



her hands. The names Emil and Eakongo were carved into 
the soles of the square feet on whose heels the angular little 
buttocks rested. 

She set the ebony statue on her lap and began to cry. 

Her coif cut off her anguished face from the gaze of pas- 
sengers who lingered outside the glass door to look at a white 
sister sitting in a bridal bower and holding on her lap, as if it 
were something alive, one of those heathen statues one used to 
be able to buy for a few yards of cloth in the market places, 
until museums began to gather them up and label them Ne- 
gro African Art. 

After a while, she set the statue back on its bed of flowers. 
She looked down at the floor. Her papier-mache suitcase, the 
most worn one the Vestiaire had been able to find because a 
nun returning to the mother house was given only luggage 
and clothing that needed replacement, sat like a poor relation 
among the magnificent baskets woven in the colors of the 
Congo summers. She leaned down and took from her suit- 
case her hypodermic kit and from one of the baskets a hand- 
ful of finger-sized bananas. 

Then she went to the next compartment to begin making 
friends with the gentle little man whom King Leopold had 
once decorated for signal service in the colony. 

The guards saluted her smartly and said, "Mama Luke!" 

"You may go back to your car," she said. "We shall not 
need you until Lobito." She saw their faces fall and switched 
to Kiswahili. "I must be alone to banish those devils of sun- 
stroke. They will roam this corridor when I do. I want you 
both safely aside." Her smile restored their prestige. They 
saluted her and went away to their sleeping car with shoulders 
squared. 

She opened the door and entered the compartment. She 

258 



turned her back deliberately on her patient as she pulled the 
door shut. "He's no more deranged than the car conductor," 
she whispered to God as she fussed at the lock. "Give me 
Your help to prove it." 

She went to the window and lowered the shades to cut off 
the African sun that smote her heart and her patient's eyes. 
Then she sat down beside him and shared her bananas. 

"Tomorrow, Monsieur Englebert," she said musingly, "I 
may invite you to my compartment next door. It is full of 
white flowers and baskets of fruit." She gave him a sideways 
glance. "Boxes of chocolates, also. You and I must eat those 
perishables before we come to Lobito." 

"In this heat, but of course, Sister," said Monsieur Engle- 
bert. He gave her a smile of complete agreement and accepted 
another small banana from her outstretched hand. 



259 



XVI 



THE mother house was the only place in Belgium that the 
Congo had not dwarfed. Its immense gray masonry and rare- 
fied impersonalness sent a little chill through her as when she 
first had entered it to put on her postulant's cape. 

The moment she crossed the threshold a playback of her 
religious life began. The nun in the porter's cubbyhole 
stepped forward and gave her the delicate embrace reserved 
for returning missionaries. Once, she had had her turn in the 
porter's booth and, like the young sister who received her, she 
had dropped her disciplined eyes immediately from the 
tanned face and gaunt expectant look of the homecomer and 
had made no comment on the worn suitcase handed over at 
the door, which now in her case contained something obvi- 
ously weightier than the Rule allowed the Bakongo statue 
which Sister Eudoxie would automatically confiscate. 

Sister Luke stood still in the foyer to get used to the 
strangeness of having no one look at her. She recalled that 
the first act of a returning nun was to visit the chapel. As 
the bells of Vespers tolled, she slipped like a black ghost into 
the files of her sisters chapel-bound. 

The nun pacing beside her resembled one of the Irish girls 

260 



of her novitiate days, now so perf ectly molded that one would 
have to see the blue-eyed smile to make sure of the identity. 
But her companion kept her eyes bent down and her thoughts 
presumably on God, and so it was with every other nun 
whom Sister Luke glanced at, longing for just one pair of eyes 
to lift in a flash of recognition. Then, as always, following 
the chill came the beauty. 

When the choirs began the Gregorian chant, she had her 
welcome home. After the fifteen-voiced choir of the Congo 
community, the hundred sopranos of the mother house nearly 
swept her off her feet. As long as there is this each day in 
this house, she thought . . . The choirs began the Magnifi- 
cat. She shut her eyes and listened to their virgin voices sing- 
ing the Virgin's song. When she opened them, she was look- 
ing far ahead. She saw the covey of short-caped postulants 
down in front, who were not yet permitted to sing with their 
sisters nor yet sure custodians of their wandering eyes as the 
hushed antiphon A great mystery of inheritance . . . told of 
secrets their covert glances sought to discover in the statu- 
esque section of the Living Rules. 

Sister Luke looked down at her own black scapular, the 
vestment of the Living Rule. Was she one? God alone could 
say. 

The devotion ended, she went to report to the Superior 
General. She sat on a sort of mourner's bench in the ante- 
room of the Reverend Mother Emmanuel's office, in a row of 
nuns as secret as tombs, awaiting their turns for interview. 
Some nuns read the Little Office, some told their rosaries, 
and one lean and brown like Sister Luke and obviously a 
recent arrival from a bright hot outpost of the congregation 
stared at the austere furnishings of their f ountainhead, bare 
walls, rugless floor, two Gothic oak chairs carved with the 

261 



coat-of-arms of the Order and an antique desk holding a 
standing crucifix and small calendar which named the mar- 
tyr of the day, the date and the year. 

Sister Luke read the calendar. March 15, 1939. On the quay 
in Antwerp that morning, while she was handing over to the 
Englebert family her patient (who appeared more normal 
than the nervous psychiatrist they had brought with them to 
the pier), she had heard newsboys crying headlines about 
German troops occupying Czech Bohemia. In the black con- 
vent limousine which had swept her over the poplar-lined 
highways to Brussels, she had recalled the war talk among 
passengers on the ship. What would it be like to be in a 
convent if war came? she had wondered. There was some- 
thing Sister Eucharistia had said about it but the words eluded 
her memory. 

A nun emerged from the Superior General's office and 
another went in. Sister Luke moved up one place on the 
bench. This is how it will be to be in a convent if war comes, 
she told herself. Exactly like this with nothing changed. Each 
one of us secretly struggling with a problem of nature or of 
the soul, waiting to go in under the X-ray eyes of the Reverend 
Mother Emmanuel which will pierce through to the places 
of inner conflict where there never has been any truce, not 
since Christ's time began on earth . . . 

"Never a truce," she whispered as she moved up another 
place. 

She made no preparation for her talk with the Superior 
General. Instead, she went in spirit out through the closed 
door to the wide corridor where white-clad novices duty- 
bound past the sanctum sanctorum were sliding their eyes side- 
ways to look at the Living Rules who came out smiling 
through tears because they had just been promoted or de- 

262 



moted, praised or reproved. For a while she dwelt with the 
novices tiptoeing past. Then her turn came. 

The Reverend Mother Emmanuel stood up as she entered 
the office, a salute of special respect for the missionary sisters, 
whom she was suspected of treasuring above all others since, 
having been one herself, she knew their special struggles. Sis- 
ter Luke looked straight into her glowing eyes as she knelt. 

The Superior General stepped forward, laid both hands upon 
her shoulders, leaned down and embraced her cheek to cheek 
with a warmth that gave the impression she was being held 
against an understanding heart. Then she returned to her 
high-backed chair. The magnetic pull of the dark eyes held 
her own so firmly that Sister Luke did not at once see Emil's 
ebony statue of the Bakongo kneeling woman on the book- 
shelf behind the desk. It was set sideways to reveal the pos- 
ture of prayer. 

She waited for the voice which twelve years ago had said, 
"It is a life against nature," and, seven years ago, "Remem- 
ber, you are only an instrument." The Reverend Mother 
Emmanuel smiled. "Did you have a good trip back, my 
child?" 

"A beautiful passage, Reverend Mother. We are treated 
like queens when we travel." Sister Luke commanded herself 
not to look again at the statue. 

"And how is your physical health?" 

"Wonderful, Reverend Mother," she said. "And my spirit- 
ual health is likewise," 

"That is fine, Sister Luke. Nevertheless, your body now un- 
doubtedly needs some repairs. You must not forget that you 
have been doing overtime for many years." 

Sister Luke saw the minutiae of a Superior's letters on the 
states of her nuns shining like so many shapely crystals in the 

263 



dark eyes gazing at arid through her . . . You had dysentery 
once, nearly fatal; then tuberculosis from which with God's 
help you pulled yourself. You used your own judgment per- 
haps too often outside your professional field, where alone a 
nun may use personal judgment, and there were some friend- 
ships on the human plane which you might have striven a 
little more to supernaturalize, but on the other hand . . . 

"So, what do you think?" said the Superior General. "The 
routine is to keep our missionaries here for at least a month 
to do nothing but rest and refresh the soul in this peaceful 
atmosphere. Receive family and friends at all hours save those 
when the community does its spiritual exercises. My special 
thought for you would be that you get up only at six each 
day, follow the devotions not from the pews but from the 
chairs . . ." She paused, smiled. "From the chairs," she re- 
peated, "not because you are too old or ill to stand for the 
services, but because I would like you to think of yourself 
for a while as a lamb at the feet of the Master. You were a 
Martha for a long time, Sister. Now, try to be a Mary." 

"I shall try, Reverend Mother." Her upward glance caught 
the ebony statue on the shelf and the face of chiseled ivory 
bent toward her and she held them together for a moment in 
her mind. She could see no difference in the God who in- 
spired both. 

"You may chafe at first with no work to do and no errant 
souls in this community to bring back to the faith." The 
Reverend Mother's eyes sparkled. "It is amazing to everyone, 
Sister, how many converts you made in the colony. You must 
have been beloved by God and a strong intermediary between 
Him and the souls you encountered. I had many letters from 
families of colonials, from missionary Fathers, all attesting to 
your good work. You were liked and respected by everyone 

264 



out there . . ." She turned her head slightly toward the shelf 
where the statue was . . . "including your black boys, I see." 

Now that it had been mentioned, she could look directly at 
Emil's ebony. Her fingers knew every curve of the smooth 
black wood. Her eyes caressed it for a moment. Then she 
looked back at the Gothic matriarch who alone had the power 
to send her back to the Congo. 

"It is a beautiful gift, Sister," said the Reverend Mother in 
her most captivating tone. "And how beautifully it symbolizes 
the whole of that dark continent. Do you wish me to give it 
to your father?" 

Sister Luke heard the veiled yearning in the question. The 
Superior General was really saying. For your soul's sake I 
should dearly love you to be able to give this up ... quite 
totally, not even retaining the satisfaction of knowing that it 
remains in your family. 

"Your father," she said almost coaxingly, "would consider 
it a handsome adornment for his desk, don't you think?" 

Sister Luke smiled at her and accepted her challenge. 

"I should prefer, Reverend Mother, that it be kept in the 
congregation to which it really belongs. When I leave here, it 
would make me happy to think that something from me re- 
mains in the mother house museum." 

"You are generous, Sister," said the Reverend Mother Em- 
manuel. Sister Luke knew she would never have referred to 
the statue had she not had a special reason. She would have 
left it sitting there on the shelf where from time to time 
reposed the teak elephants removed from suitcases from Cey- 
lon, the multiple-armed gods from India, the ivory Buddhas 
from China . . . sitting there unremarked and anonymous 
since never was the nun named from whose suitcase the 
souvenirs were taken and seldom were they referred to when 

265 



the missionary knelt in that office trying not to look at the 
object she loved and, bravely hopeful, had brought with her 
into this house of total abnegation. It struck her that perhaps 
her deep attachment for the Congo was more visible than she 
had supposed. 

"This will enhance our Bantu collection," the Reverend 
Mother went on. "Perhaps, Sister, after you are well rested, I 
may ask you in the recreation to tell your sisters the news of 
their Congo colleagues. They are always eager for firsthand 
news." 

Sister Luke nodded obediently, but she wondered if she 
could talk about the Congo calmly, especially now that it had 
been made quite clear she was to remain in Belgium longer 
than Mother Mathilde had suggested. 

As she left the office, she felt the magnetic eyes following 
her to the door. The Reverend Mother Emmanuel had in- 
vited her to come back any time she wished for another heart- 
to-heart talk. She would go back, she told herself, as she shut 
the door quietly behind her. She would go back because she 
was sure now that she would never weaken to the point of 
asking about her return to the Congo. Her first talk had 
proven that she had the strength not to blurt out the question 
closest to her heart. It had leaped from her eyes, quite possi- 
bly, but she had been able to hold her tongue. 

Her father was the first visitor. "You are thin, ma petite!" 
he said, exactly as he had the first time he had seen her clad 
in the transforming habit. He embraced her, then stood 
her off from him and looked at her with combative lights in 
his blue eyes. "I don't believe, of course, all that rubbish 
about your having had TB in the Congo. It is inadmissible 
that anyone survive the malady in the tropics." 

266 



The reunion was easy then. They launched at once into one 
of their old professional discussions. She matched his objec- 
tions point by point, but never suggested that he look at her 
X-rays, knowing how proudly he spurned such mechanical 
aid for what his own ears, pinned back with a stethoscope, 
would have told him more convincingly. She described Dr. 
Fortunari's original cure and saw the sallow face of Beelzebub 
as she talked and wondered how he would make out with the 
sister who replaced her. She saw the golden eyes of Felix peer- 
ing up from the cradle of her arms as she had paced the 
treetop room, letting the little monkey look aloft for crickets 
in the thatch while she recited the Offices happily. 

With memories pulling and twisting, she found she could 
relate no more of the Congo than the exact number and 
frequency of the gold-dust injections, the precise regime of 
sleeping and overfeeding. Her father appeared to take for 
granted that nothing more important than her phenom- 
enal triumph over tuberculosis had happened to her in the 
Congo. 

"Of course, they'll send you back after a little change-of- 
climate furlough," he said. 

"Perhaps," she said. "But if there should be war . . ." 
Then she remembered what Sister Eucharistia had said about 
the mission in wartime. Every word flashed clear in her mem- 
ory. "In 'fourteen to 'eighteen we were completely cut off 
from the mother house and the homeland. Our colonial 
troops fought the Germans out here . . . that's how, when 
the peace was signed, we were given the protectorate of 
Ruanda-Urundi. But more important to us, of course, was 
the first letter from our beloved Mother General after four 
long years of silence. And then, the sisters starting to come 
out again to the colony . . ." 

267 



"Are you ill, Gaby?" her father asked. "Your pupils are 
dilated." 

"No, no . . ." She forced a smile. "I heard myself saying 
war conversationally, then I began to think what it would 



mean." 



"There'll be no war," said her father. "Personally, I don't 
believe that psychopath in Germany will make another 
move." He stroked his beard as he gave her some medical 
facts about Hitler to explain the current boasting coming out 
of Germany. "Of course," he added honestly, "all this may 
be wishful thinking. Antoine is in the Reserve now but he 
wouldn't wait to be called up. The two younger are of mili- 
tary age of course." 

"The two gosses!" They were lads in knickerbockers when 
she saw them last. In the timeless years of the convent they 
had never grown up in her mind. She stared at her father 
and shivered. 

"I'd take a little caffeine until you acclimatize to our March 
winds," he said gently. 

When her father was gone, she wanted to continue sitting 
in the parlor all alone to think. But she could feel the com- 
munity around her, immense and watchful. It seemed to be 
waiting for her return to it, with its two hundred pairs of eyes 
cast down yet seeing all. She shivered again as she opened 
the door to the cloister. 

I'll get used to it, she told herself, but she was not sure if 
she referred to the weather or to the sight of so many nuns 
under one roof. She took a caffeine capsule from her pocket 
and slipped it into her mouth as she made her way through the 
peopled thoroughfares of the mother house to die nuns' dor- 
mitory. It was time for the half -hour rest she had promised 



268 



Reverend Mother Emmanuel she would take for the first 
week. 

The caffeine in capsule did not take effect as promptly as 
the hypos she had been given on the ship. She lay on her 
straw mattress that rustled as she shook and she remembered 
Mother Mathilde saying, "Be sure you are as generous to 
yourself with caffeine as you were with me ... I shivered 
like a dog all the while in Belgium." 

Presently she felt the action of the caffeine on her heart, 
which began to beat rapidly and strong. Then the action 
moved to her brain, stimulating every part of it. She lay wide 
awake, alert as an owl in the gloom. She recited word for 
word lines from her Materia Medica Pharmacology that she 
had not thought of in years. "As a result of caffeine, the 
patient's mental activities, especially reasoning and memory, 
are increased. Fatigue lessens. The imagination is more ac- 
tive. This effect is of short duration." She shut her eyes for 
the duration. 

Presently she was riding in the convent Ford, clinging to 
her veil with one hand and her sack of instruments with the 
other. Emil was in front with the driver, turned sideways so 
he could speak of medical matters to impress Kalulu. They 
rode across town and set up for an operation in the native 
hospital. Dr. Fortunati came into the small bare operating 
room on the instant they were ready for him. He ignored the 
body on the table and the instrument trays and looked at her. 

"I've got your successor trained up to instrument nurse," 
he said, "but that's as far as she'll go. She'll never replace 
you. She has no fight in her. She won't argue back when I'm 
wrong." His face was a lacquered lantern swinging in a bound- 
less space of sun and winds. "That girl was born to be a nun, 



269 



something you could never be in a thousand years, Reverend 
Sister ... an overgrown child." 

Emil slipped a mask over the grinning yellow lantern. The 
eyes above the patch of gauze became human. Ready? they 
said while the black eyebrows came together in a quizzical 
peak. Then she slapped the first instrument into his gloved 
hand. . . . 

"You're not in love with him?" Mother Mathilde asked. 

That was in her second Congo year just after Madame 
Goossens had been delivered of her fifth daughter and Beelze- 
bub had wanted to tie off her tubes, pretending she was too 
old for further childbearing. In the fiercest dispute they had 
ever had together, she had prevented him. Mother Mathilde 
had seen her when she came from surgery, flushed with shame 
for having called a doctor a coward because he could not face 
a son-hungry father for a fifth time and tell him that God's 
will had been otherwise. 

Sister Luke opened her eyes. The gray curtain of a convent 
cell in Brussels swayed slightly in the draught. The curtain 
turned into Spanish moss as she stared at it and she was on 
the river again with Mother Mathilde, who continued ques- 
tioning her in Flemish so the paddle boys would not under- 
stand. "Because if you are in love and have not told me, my 
child, it would break my heart." 

"Ah no, ma Mere!" The pirogue rolled with her sudden 
movement of dismay as she realized that her Superior had 
waited a whole week before asking, a week of worry and pray- 
ing and doubtless asking herself if she had lost a soul through 
her own inattention. "Of course I've not fallen in love!" But 
isn't it wonderful, she thought, how frankly and freely we al- 
ways talk together? "I only cherish him, ma Mere, deeply, 
for his skill and selflessness when there's a life to be saved. I 

270 



think always he is very close to God in those unearthly hours 
when he operates." 

The prow of the pirogue curved up from the water and the 
forward seat was the pedestal on which Mother Mathilde 
stood like a figurehead. "I'm so glad you told me, Sister," 
she said simply. . . . 

After a while the images faded. Sister Luke could look at 
the cell curtain and see nothing more than gray wool neatly 
darned in places. Her chill had subsided but there was a pain 
in her heart that had nothing to do with the stimulant she 
had taken. 

On the way to Vespers she threw the remaining caffeine 
capsules into one of the wastebaskets that stood along the 
corridor. She had it rolled up discreetly in a scrap of paper 
such as nuns always stooped to pick up on their way to and 
fro through their immaculate house. 

She knelt in her pew and folded her hands. "Help me to 
detach from those memories," she said to the Lord. "I've 
come halfway to help You by throwing out the caffeine which 
sharpens them and choosing to shiver instead. O God, how 
can I be a Mary if I can't get the Congo out of my blood? 
Help me to be like her. Help me to say Thy 'will with her 
perfect grace." She turned the pages of her Little Office as 
she prayed and moved her lips as if chanting the psalms with 
her sisters. 

"It's still strange, Blessed Lord, not to hear crickets shrill- 
ing when we chant this Office. In the Congo, Vespers was 
always Your magic hour. It was late afternoon and Your crea- 
tures in the bush were already stretching and stirring, sharp- 
ening beaks and claws for the night prowls . . . when we 
came to the Ave, maris Stella, the ocean of night was just 
below the horizon." 

271 



I he memories persisted despite tier prayers. 

One day when her unaccustomed leisure weighed too heav- 
ily, she asked and received permission to visit the cancer ward 
of the mother house hospital. 

The old incurables had not known that she was the sister 
recently returned from the Congo. They knew only, with a 
strange recognition born out of their years of suffering, that 
one of those saintly missionaries must just have returned, for 
there had appeared again on the dressing carts the bandages 
they cherished above all others. The last tattered shreds of the 
tropical habits she had brought home in her tin trunk lay 
upon their frightful wounds. 

Sister Eudoxie had sorted the worn habits for continuing 
use. The parts where threads still held together had been cut 
into diapers for the maternity wards. The final threadbare 
portions, usually from the darned skirt fronts where praying 
knees had pressed, had been folded for one last usage before 
burning, into the soft dressings which the cancer patients be- 
lieved brought special alleviation. 

The sight of their hands patting the folds of work-worn 
cotton gave her an emotion. There's a whole lot more than 
years of prayer folded between those frayed threads, she 
wanted to tell them. There's struggle and heartache too. 
There's a sanctification of pain as well as the sanctification 
you imagine. 

"They whimper when we remove those dressings for burn- 
ing," the accompanying nun whispered. "Isn't it strange how 
they know what you missionaries have gone through?" 

There was no place in the mother house where Sister Luke 
could escape the playback of memory. It gave her the disturb- 
ing feeling that she was no longer a current member of the 

272 



community, but rather a ghostly spectator free to come and 
go as she wished, with too much time on her hands. 

Now and again she heard Dr. Fortunati saying, Suppose 
you are detained there indefinitely . , . will the strength be 
enough then? And she answered the sarcastic voice even more 
explicitly than she had done when his scalpel eyes were upon 
her. There is absolutely no doubt of it, Doctor; this seeming 
restlessness is only because I am unemployed. I need to get 
back to work, that's all. She haunted the bulletin board that 
listed transfers and reassignments. 

Toward the end of her first month in the mother house, 
Tante Colette visited her, bringing the brothers. They talked 
about war, which seemed to have come closer since her fa- 
ther's visit. 

"I simply can't believe it," Sister Luke said. 

"That's understandable in a place like this," Tante Colette 
replied tartly. "No radios, no newspapers, no talk . . . but on 
the outside, Gaby, it's just like in 'fourteen-'eighteen. You'd 
be surprised how many people already have visas for Spain 
tucked away in their passports." Tante Colette smiled wryly. 
"The same families that deserted in the last war." 

"And for us who stay ... it will be the same thing all 
over again?" 

"Probably," said her aunt. "A brief fight and then occupa- 



tion." 



Antoine, tall and handsome, disputed her. She regarded 
him sadly while he described the great fortifications. Belgium 
could never possibly be overrun a second time, he said 
proudly. 

Sister Luke listened to the arguments flying back and forth 
between her aunt and her oldest brother. If there really is to 
be war, she thought, then there will be suffering right here 

27} 



and a need for nurses. Maybe that's why God gives no sign 
that I'll be sent back to the Congo, but only the strength to 
hold my tongue and not ask . . . 

"Maybe you think it's a game, Antoine," Tante Colette 
cried, "Tin soldiers and toy forts. You don't know. You were 
only an infant when we suffered the last occupation with 
EocToes billeted in the house and your father hiding out with 
a price on his head for spying against them. Don't stare at 
me. Ask him! " Tante Colette blew her nose and wiped away 
her tears. "That's why he'd have to flee the country the in- 
stant those Germans set foot again on our soil." 

"He never told me that when he was here," Sister Luke 
said wonderingly. 

"He never tells anyone," said her aunt with angry pride. 

The war talk, however unbelievable, pushed the Congo 
back a little in Sister Luke's mind and lessened her nagging 
longing to get back quickly. The realization that she would 
no longer have that burning wish leaping from her eyes and 
trembling unspoken on the tip of her tongue gave her the 
courage to go to the Reverend Mother Emmanuel. For weeks 
she had weighed the greater perfection of sitting quietly and 
waiting for the nod to be given against what she knew would 
be a show of desire for change, or restlessness, or spiritual 
malaise. 

"I simply wish to go back to work again, Reverend 
Mother," she said. "Anywhere," she added emphatically. "You 
suspected that the leisure might chafe a bit and it does. I 
don't make a very good Mary. My hands get restless." She 
smiled pleadingly. "Could you find something for them to 
do?" 

The Reverend Mother showed no surprise. In her long 

274 



tenure of office as Superior General of the Order that had 
Pray and Work for its motto, she had seldom known a mis- 
sionary able to sit out the rest she had earned. 

"Are you sure you are ready so soon, my child? After 
such a tour of duty in the tropics, you are entitled to a longer 
repose." 

"I've gained two kilos in the past month, Reverend 
Mother. I've made up the lost sleep of years. I've examined 
and re-examined my life and with the help of God's grace 
have put my spiritual house in order. But now these 
hands . . ." She let her longing show frankly in her eyes. 

"What sort of nursing had you in mind, Sister?" 

"I had thought of TB nursing, Reverend Mother. Having 
had the malady, I've a resistance established. I've always had 
a special sympathy for TB's . . . thek eternal hope and cour- 
age. They always seem so close to God." 

The Superior General consulted her notebook. 

"It so happens," she said reluctantly, "that we do have a 
most important post vacant now. It is extremely difficult 
work. I would want the opinion of our doctor before assigning 
you." She looked up from her notebook. "It's for an assistant 
in pulmonary surgery in our hospital on the Holland border." 

"Pulmonary surgery would have been my choice had I 
dreamed there was a vacancy. It is the most exacting nursing, 
Reverend Mother." 

"And the hardest! " A quick smile played over the Superior 
General's face. Then she said in a thoughtful voice, "But 
there is another reason why I hesitate. The Superior there, 
Mother Didyma, was a born missionary, Sister, but we could 
never spare her administrative talents so sorely needed here. 
She had to give up her dream of the missions. She sur- 
mounted this disappointment bravely, but each time I send 

275 



her a missionary, I'm sure it revives those old longings and 
gives her pain. When she will see your tanned face . . ." The 
Reverend Mother's powerful eyes shot the warning. "You will 
have to have a great spirit of faith if I send you there, my 
child." 

"With God's graces, you can count on me, Reverend 
Mother," said Sister Luke in the most positive voice she 
could summon from her constricted throat. A thwarted mis- 
sionary, she thought ... I know something about that se- 
cret pain. 

"Very well, then, Sister. We shall see." The Reverend 
Mother Emmanuel lifted her hand for the benediction. 

We shall see . . . We shall see . . . Behind the three 
words lay a world of reasoning far more delicate and exact 
than a doctor's reading of a few health charts. Sister Luke 
knew that the state of her soul would be weighed in the 
sensitive balances of the Superior General's mind, that it 
would be on the basis of her findings mainly that she would 
be released from the mother house for work again, released, 
moreover, to a Superior who might find her presence painful. 

She spent most of the next days in the chapel. She had 
good sturdy pads of callus on both knees from twelve years 
of praying and metatarsals steel-strong from bracing against 
stone floors. She knelt without shift or sway hours on end, 
firm in the conviction that her prayers would be answered. 

Five days after her interview with the Superior General, 
she saw her name on the bulletin board posted for transfer 
to the hospital on the Holland border. Next to the notice 
was a current events clipping dated May 22, 1939, announc- 
ing that that day Germany and Italy had signed in Berlin a 
ten-year military and political alliance a bit of world news 
pinned up, no doubt, because the nuns construed it as con* 

276 



firmarion of the coming of the peace for which they were 
constantly praying. 

Sister Luke read the current events clipping dutifully and 
saw no connection between it and her assignment, although 
the connection was there as prophetically as writing upon the 
wall. 

She was to remember it a little less than a year later, when 
she was to see small puffs of white dropping from the skies 
which would look at first like clouds and then, as they neared 
the earth, would turn into parachutes with Nazi storm troop- 
ers dangling from the invisible cords. 



277 



XVII 



SISTER LUKE left the operating room of La Trinite at five 
o'clock in the morning. Sunrise was just about to break over 
the sandy flatlands interspersed with lupin-covered dunes that 
rolled off northward toward the Holland border. It was May 
10, 1940, a day that she, her country and the world were never 
to forget. 

There had been as usual the practice bombs that morning, 
closer in than they were accustomed to hearing. But for 
months now, the Belgian army had been completely mobi- 
lized, the great forts facing the line of the River Meuse had 
been manned and military maneuvers were so familiar that 
they no longer suggested threat, especially to the nuns, who 
knew practically nothing about the war. The preparedness of 
their neutral country was interpreted as a gesture of prudence, 
and prudence, they reminded each other with little approving 
nods, was a gift of the Holy Ghost. 

"You did well to call me in the night for that case, Sister," 
said the doctor. He bent over her slightly, too tall to look 
directly into her coif. "You have a sure instinct for crises." 
He smiled his appreciation. "I hope you can get some rest 
now that that devilish practice is over. For a few moments 
there in surgery, I'd have sworn it was the real thing." 

She returned his smile and said nothing as she accompa- 

278 



nied him to the main door, opening it for him with one of 
the many keys that hung from her leather belt. Though once 
off duty she would not break the grand silence with speech, 
she stepped out with him for a breath of air after the long 
hours over ether. 

The May morning smelled fresh and sweet. Dawn turned 
the sky shrimp-pink and there were small puffs of white 
clouds drifting about in it such innocent little nonentities of 
clouds, she thought, remembering with a pang the mountains 
of charged cumulus that floated over the Congo about this 
time. 

The doctor looked up at the clouds with peculiar attention. 
Suddenly she sensed him stiffening beside her. "Those aren't 
clouds, Sister. They're parachutes. It's invasion, by God!" He 
started running toward his car, crying back to her to get in 
and stay in. 

She stood transfixed, gripping her crucifix. The flowerlike 
forms dropped out of the dawn with bodies dangling far 
beneath on cords the sunrise picked up one at a time and 
made shine like the guidelines of spiders' webs. She could not 
realize that she was seeing the Germans come a second time. 

"A second time!" she whispered aghast. "J ust twenty-six 
years ago . , ." And she was a child again, peering through 
the lace curtains of her grandmother's house at the Kaiser's 
Death-Head Hussars riding over the cobbles on magnificent 
matched black horses with their capes spread over the pranc- 
ing rumps and tall lances slanting up with precision from the 
right stirrups. She thought they were princes out of a fairy 
tale until she heard her grandmother sobbing and saw her 
mother's face. Her childhood ended in that instant, but she 
didn't learn to hate until the foreign soldiers moved into their 
house and she saw her mother and grandmother waiting on 

279 



them like frightened servants and freezing into deathly si- 
lence each rime they were asked about the whereabouts of 
her father , . 

Hate shook her as she watched them come, this time in a 
sinister kind of beauty and in total silence now that their 
bombardment had cleared the way. They were dropping only 
a few kilometers distant onto the flats of the Netherlands that 
had been the royal road into Belgium from Germany since 
time immemorial. The hate ran like flames through her blood 
and she knew that if one of those distant paratroopers were to 
drop at that moment onto the pavings of her convent court- 
yard, she would have dashed out and tried to kill him with 
her bare hands. 

She heard her conscience saying Thou shalt not kill as she 
killed them all deliberately with her thoughts. Then she 
spun on her heel and went back into the convent. She shut 
the door without locking it. Save the door, give them no ex- 
cuse to batter it down when they come, she thought and it 
did not seem strange that she knew such things automati- 
cally. 

She was late for chapel. Her twenty sisters had finished 
meditations and were reciting Prime. She bowed to the Supe- 
rior, who never glanced her way. Then she stretched herself 
flat on the floor in penance for being late, leaning on her 
elbows with her face buried in her hands. 

She listened to her sisters chanting antique Latin while 
Germans were dropping among the dunes no more than a 
healthy bicycle ride distant from the hospital. You had to 
squint your eyes, she remembered angrily, to see that the 
bulky forms were helmeted and carried assault arms. Months 
earlier it had been rumored that Nazi spies were parachuting 
in dressed as nuns the advance reconnaissance in a pre- 

280 



dominantly Catholic country, it was said. After that, nuns 
who wished to were allowed to grow their hair without spe- 
cial permission, in case the police picked them up when duty 
took them to town, mistaking them for Germans in disguise. 

"But I would know a Boche, dear God, even if he came 
dressed as the Blessed Virgin. I would know him by the hate 
that rises from my very soul. I never knew I had that hate 
until this morning. Was that why You let me see them come 
again? Or does it mean that You have use for a nun who can 
never be neutral ... a nun, O my God, who wanted to kill 
Germans as they'll kill my brother Antoine sitting at a peep- 
hole in the fortress of Namur, as they'll kill every patient in 
this hospital if food gets scarce enough and they see all these 
members of Your Mystical Body as no more than so many 
useless mouths to feed . . ." 

A sister plucked at her sleeve. She arose and went to her 
pew. She offered up her Mass for the salvation of her country- 
men. The souls in Purgatory for whom she most often gave 
her prayers seemed to be by comparison in a much safer 
place. Her conscience forbade her to go to the communion 
rail with such a burden of hate in her heart. 

Her memory put that morning's breakfast under a bell jar 
to be kept forever as a singular specimen. Mother Didyma, 
who she knew had most certainly received a telephone call 
long distance from the mother house, probably even before 
she herself had seen the parachutes, started the bread basket 
down the table with a cool nod and then cut her own slice 
into the four small tartines she always made, laying them out 
in a row on her wooden plank. She buttered them sparingly, 
as usual. As usual she took two level teaspoons of sugar in 
her coffee and then covertly watched the sugar bowl pass 
from hand to hand to see which sisters practiced self-denial 

281 



that day by abstaining from sugar a spiritual check-up, as 
it were, on the soul states of her small community. 

Sister Luke watched the Superior's collected face while her 
ears strained through the silence for an untoward sound. At 
that moment the Germans were crossing the Belgian frontier 
at four points, their planes were bombing the Brussels airport 
and the antiaircraft batteries in the nearest town of Hasselt 
were opening up on the second wave of paratroopers dropping 
over their eastern end of Belgium. Just as a faint ack-ack 
clattered from the direction of Hasselt, Mother Didyma 
plucked her coarse napkin from under her chin, laid it forward 
on the table and went to the pulpit. 

"Benedicite" she said to her nuns. 

"Dominus" they replied, a little muted with surprise that 
something different was happening in the refectory this morn- 
ing. 

"A man forewarned is worth two," said the Superior, read- 
ing from a paper she had prepared. "Early this morning I had 
a telephone call from our Reverend Mother Emmanuel. At 
three A.M. Rotterdam was bombarded and many thousands 
killed. Belgium was bombarded at five o'clock. The country's 
system of sluices has been put into operation and certain 
main roads are already blown up to prevent the German ad- 
vance." Her voice was dry, without inflection. She might have 
been saying, This is your assignment for today. She read on. 

Sister Luke was the only one not staring at the Superior. 
She looked at the nuns one by one at Sister Ignatius, whose 
brother was with hers in Namur, at Sister Tarcisius, whose 
family in Maastricht was probably already in German hands, 
at Sister Beatrice, whose father commanded the fortress of 
Liege. As she looked at them, her memory put them also un- 
der the bell jar as exquisite details in the singular specimen of 

282 



a life that was not of this world. Not a flicker of fear or an- 
guish showed on any face. 

"I tell you this only that you will be prepared," said Mother 
Didyma. "There will be panic in the hospital. Our lay stu- 
dent nurses of course will have been listening to their radios. 
They will doubtless all want to run off to rejoin their families. 
Your sole preoccupation must be to keep them here and the 
patients calm. Our work must go on as if nothing has hap- 
pened . . ." 

Three bursts of artillery from the south broke into her 
speech. She paused as for an ill-bred interruption. Then she 
went on. "It is your responsibility to set the example of cour- 
age and calm and draw the others after you like little sheep. 
Remember, God loves us and will take care of us." She 
folded her paper. "All further developments will be posted on 
the bulletin board," she said, looking at them sharply to make 
sure that all understood there was to be no war talk in her 
community. 

For the first time since she had joined the community, 
Sister Luke felt a flash of admiration for her chilly inscrutable 
Superior. 

The next eighteen days ran together like a prolonged night- 
mare in which afterwards there was no memory of emotions 
but only of endless sequences of actions, quick, cool and un- 
precedented. Refugees poured into the convent hospital, first 
from Holland, then from all the eastern provinces of Belgium, 
and the nuns tightened their belts as their own slender re- 
serves of food were shared with the frantic multitude. Every 
corridor and foyer was filled with cots and wheel chairs, and 
when these gave out, the nuns threw mattresses down. 

The refugees elaborated with their wild reports the brief no- 

283 



tices that appeared on the bulletin board. The Albert Canal 
breached by the enemy on May 17. The fall of Brussels on 
May 19, Malines and Louvain occupied and half of Belgium 
already overrun. 

More believable were the letters from the Reverend Mother 
Emmanuel which were thumbtacked beneath a neatly chalked 
caption Some RecoTnmendations pom the Mother House. 
The Superior General exhorted the sisters to be discreet with 
strangers, to make no search for their families without permis- 
sion, to take no part in patriotic affairs and to consider the 
privations in food as penance and abstinence enough without 
adding any extra self-denials of their own accord. The national 
food shortage, of 'which we are already warned, she wrote, 
will be enough penance to satisfy even the most scrupulous 
conscience. 

On May 26 the bulletin board announced that the rem- 
nants of the Belgian Army, parts of the British Expedition- 
ary Force and of the Ninth French Army were fighting with 
their backs to the sea at Dunkirk. On May 28 it carried in a 
single bleak sentence the news that King Leopold had signed 
a surrender. The sisters, wrote the Superior General, are urged 
not to accept or read any of the clandestine newspapers of the 
underground which have already begun to appear in the prov- 
inces wider German occupation. 

In the fury of those eighteen days that ended with the 
shocking surrender of her king and country, Sister Luke, with- 
out being aware of it, did her first job for the Belgian under- 
ground. On the evening of the day Brussels fell, a middle-aged 
man dressed like a farmer and carrying a small canvas zipper 
bag came in with a cartload of refugees. But he was a patient. 
He bore a slip referring him to Sister Luke, specifically to a 
private room in her tuberculosis wing which was momentarily 

284 



vacant. The slip was signed by a doctor who had not visited 
the hospital since the start of the blitz. She wondered how 
that doctor had known about the vacant room as she led the 
man through the crowded corridors and up two flights of 
stairs. 

At the door of the room the patient asked her not to let 
any nurse visit him in the night. He had to have sleep, he 
said, absolutely undisturbed. Then he asked her to make one 
more exception to hospital practice and to come to him at 
four next morning. "Just you alone, Sister," he said in a low 
voice. 

Even in a war, nuns did not arise at four to visit strange 
men in private rooms without first asking the Superior's per- 
mission. Sister Luke knew that if she asked, her request would 
be denied since she could give no reason to support it. She 
debated uneasily with her conscience, weighing a deliberated 
disobedience against something she had seen in the man's 
eyes a shadow of urgency that implored her to keep his pe- 
culiar request to herself. 

It was dark next morning when she tapped on his door. He 
opened immediately. He was fully dressed and waiting for 
her. He shut the door soundlessly, then turned and said, "Will 
you assist me in serving the Mass, Sister?" 

With the practiced control now second nature, she con- 
cealed her surprise and nodded. Swiftly he opened his zipper 
bag and handed her a small altar stone, a missal, a standing 
crucifix and candles. He had already spread a linen over the 
bed table. She set up his altar while he shook out vestments 
of thinnest silk. The traveling Fathers of the Congo used to 
carry such compact vessels and vestments when they took 
the Church into the churchless bush. 

A thrill went through her as she realized she was assisting 

285 



one of those priests who was going to try to get out of Bel- 
gium to Spain, and thence perhaps to England or the United 
States, before the Nazis would have time to round him up 
and give orders on what was to be preached. He had to be 
someone in a high position to have received permission to say 
his Mass outside the sanctified enclosure of a church. She 
listened to him murmuring the vesting prayers as he dropped 
the silk garments over his farmer clothes. 

Presently he stepped back from the bed table as though 
there were three altar steps between him and it and she knelt 
behind him with fast-beating heart. She watched his beautiful 
shapely hands that had never touched a plow. They would 
betray him unless he rubbed dirt on them. She made a men- 
tal note to suggest this after the Mass. Then she heard his 
priest's voice low and reverent, "In nomine Patris . . ." The 
familiar functional hospital room became for the next twenty- 
one minutes a house of God. 

When the prayers ended, the priest packed his vessels and 
linens, then turned to her with a smile. "God bless you, Sis- 
ter," he said. "Now ... if you could just get me a cup of 
coffee." 

She used the service stairs to the kitchens so no one would 
see her. When she returned to the room the priest was gone. 
The lamp on the bed table was left lit, to draw her eyes to a 
note propped against it. Pray for me was written on the scrap 
of paper in the clear slant script of the Jesuit-schooled. 

She carried the note beneath her scapular just above her 
heart for as many days as she thought it would take a man to 
tramp the treacherous roads southwest toward France. It gave 
her a lively sense of participation, as though something of 
herself were out there in the dangerous world, dodging Ger- 
mans, seeking hideouts in hedgerows and barns when their 

286 



tanks thrust over the horizon. Her latent patriotism which 
had seemed like a harmless atavism came alive and began to 
beat within her like a strong and steady pulse. 

She listened deliberately now to the talk of her student 
nurses, who, being in the lay world, had many connections 
with the outside. She heard that the Ardennes, through which 
her priest would undoubtedly travel, were entirely in German 
hands. She prayed to the Blessed Virgin to show him the 
trails she had used in her mountain-climbing days, far from 
the main highways which were said to be living streams of 
fleeing humanity over which Nazi planes swooped with ma- 
chine guns blazing. 

She could not know as she prayed for the safety of an un- 
known priest that her own father was also traveling those 
risky roads toward France. She had forbidden herself to ask 
permission to trace her family, as had most of the nuns. The 
suffering of not knowing where the loved ones were was an 
extra little cross you could carry in His name. Sister Luke 
wished only that in her last letter to her father at Easter, she 
had asked him if what Tante Colette had said was true that 
he would have to leave the country should the Germans ever 
come again. But the thought of such personal matter passing 
under the eyes of Mother Didyma, and provoking in the next 
recreation a comment about the heroic imagination of a cer- 
tain sister, had restrained her. 

Food became scarcer and the nuns became hungrier. No 
one inside the convent had yet seen a German. Ambulances 
appeared regularly outside the hospital loaded with casualties 
picked up from the strafed highways. Priests were often in 
charge. Sister Luke photographed them with Red Cross arm- 
bands pinned over the sleeves of their black soutanes and the 
ambulances with bullet holes punctured cleanly along the 

287 



horizontal arms of the crimson cross painted on their sides. 
She had no idea for whom she was making this documentary 
of inhumanity. 

Meanwhile the clandestine newspapers which the nuns 
were requested not to read were beginning to circulate. A flee- 
ing priest had said "God bless you" for her first deliberate de- 
fection from the rule of obedience. It encouraged her to make 
another. She stimulated her student nurses to read and report 
on the brave little news-sheets, of which one copy, it was said, 
was laid every day on the desk of the Lieutenant General 
Baron Alexander von Falkenhausen, who was now the Nazi 
military commander of all Belgium. No one ever knew who 
put the annoying sheets daily on his desk. 

The underground news-sheets published the names of Bel- 
gian collaborators who had accepted appointments from the 
Germans as burgomasters of their captured towns, and the in- 
formation that Belgian bishops had been instructed by the 
Cardinal to refuse Holy Communion to those who consorted 
with the enemy. The Belgian collaborators were called Quis- 
lings, a word Sister Luke pondered and could not solve be- 
cause she had never heard that just before the blitz which 
captured her own country in eighteen days there had been a 
preparatory blitz that had subdued Norway. One of her stu- 
dents told her who Quisling of Norway was and how the 
hated name had come into their own language as a proper 
noun everybody understood. 

"Everybody except us," said Sister Luke, smiling at the 
student, who she suspected was involved in the underground. 

Because everything in the hospital went on as if normal, 
she took the telephone calls that came for her students. She 
would say, "I regret, Monsieur, that Mademoiselle cannot 
accept telephone calls while on duty," and would listen to 

288 



the voice that tried to sound like a priest's saying, "I am 
Father John, Sister . . . this is urgent." She would call the 
girl then and look at her face afterwards, shrouded in se- 
crecy but not enough to conceal the flush of excitement. Then 
the student would ask permission to go into the town for an 
hour. 

One night Sister Luke climbed the stairs to the dormitory 
of the students above the wing where the nuns slept. The girls 
were clustered about their radio listening to a voice speaking 
French with a thick German accent. A glowing offer of work 
inside Germany was being broadcast to all unemployed Bel- 
gians. Excellent working conditions and high wages were of- 
fered. Sister Luke waited a few moments, eagerly gathering 
news seldom published on the convent bulletin board; then 
she tapped the shoulder of the girl who received the most 
telephone calls. 

Of all her students, this was the one closest to her heart. 
Lisa's delicate face made her think of the begonia of the 
Congo that bruised to the touch. Her gray eyes fringed with 
dark lashes held such a look of childlike innocence that the 
Procuratrice nun often asked permission to take her on shop- 
ping trips . . . and it made no difference then to the shop- 
keeper if the convent's ration books had run out of sugar or 
flour stamps. 

"Sister Luke! " Lisa stood up at once. "Has anything hap- 
pened in the wards?" First thought for the patients always 
. . . Sister Luke smiled at her own handiwork as she shook 
her head. The instilling of that flamelike dedication in Lisa 
had been the saving grace of the bleak year under a Superior 
to whom, despite all her prayers and what she thought they 
had in common, she had not been able to open her heart. 

She drew Lisa over near the door where the beamed man- 

289 



sard started its downward slant. Then she said with a slight 
inflection of protectiveness, "Wasn't that excuse to go out 
again today a mere fantasy, Lisa? You've used that sick uncle 
twice, don't you remember?" 

"Oh Sister, did I?" Lisa looked at her with confidence crys- 
tallizing in her wide gray eyes. Then she said in a hurried 
whisper, "We are distributing food ration stamps to our boys 
hiding out, Sister," making her one of them with the unex- 
pected admission. "There are scores already right here in our 
own town who refuse this offer of the Germans, Sister. 
They've never registered for the ration book. They must have 
food stamps to pay the farmers who hide and feed them. 
The stamps are brought to us from Brussels where they're 
printed. We never know by whom, only that we must always 
go at once." 

Sister Luke stopped her with a gesture. 

"That's enough, Lisa," she said. "I won't ask for more." I 
won't because I cannot, she thought with a flare of longing 
that made her wish to be free like the girl standing before her. 
Free to fight Germans, to connive against them and deliver 
stolen food stamps to boys the ages of her two youngest broth- 
ers, who were probably among those hiding out in haylofts of 
patriotic farmers. "If ever I can be of help, Lisa," she said 
very low, "tell me." 

She turned to leave, then thought of something helpful. "If 
it's possible to inform your intermediary," she whispered, 
"tell him not to say over the telephone that he is a priest. 
Any nun would know at once that he is not and never was 
one." She gave her student one of her rare smiles. "Those 
urgent worldly intonations were bred out of a priest's voice 
long before ordination." 

The next time Sister Luke took a call for Lisa, the inter- 

290 



mediary called her by name. "I heard of your help, Sister 
Luke," he said. "Thank you and God bless you." 

That evening her conscience made her stand a long time 
before the bulletin board to read again the Reverend Mother 
Emmanuel's exhortation to all nuns not to engage in patriotic 
activities. It doesn't say forbidden, she told herself. But her 
conscience reminded her that the Superior's wish was accepted 
instantly as law in the hearts of every Rule-abiding nun. Had 
any of the quiet sisters around her transgressed as she had? 
She knew she would never know. The underground is as 
sealed as the confessional, she thought. What I do from now 
on is between me and God alone. 

There were small pockets of Allied forces isolated in many 
parts of Belgium. The underground secreted them and tried 
to get them out. Sister Luke met her first German face to 
face the day she accepted a British flyer and put him in the 
private room the fleeing priest had occupied. 

The familiar voice of the intermediary who no longer tried 
to sound like a priest had said over the telephone: "You'll re- 
ceive a package of cigarettes in about an hour, Sister. British- 
made. Enough for one night only." 

She found work to do among the stretchers that littered the 
foyer. One hour after the telephone call, an ambulatory case 
dressed in the rough clothes of the plowman, with a knit cap 
pulled down partway over head bandages expertly wrapped, 
came in the door her "package of cigarettes." How she 
knew with instant certainty that the man was her British flyer 
was one of the mysteries of intuition which she would have 
called God's guidance had she stopped to think about it. She 
went forward at once and took him by the arm. 

"Cough," she whispered in English as she led him upstairs 

291 



to the tuberculosis wing. The man coughed so all the foyer 
could hear. The bells for Vespers rang as she slipped him, un- 
seen by her nurses, into the private room. "I'm going to lock 
you in," she whispered. "1*11 bring food later." 

She reached the chapel just in rime to take her place near 
the head of the line with the younger sisters who entered first. 
Mother Didyma brought up the rear. During the devotion, 
Sister Luke planned what she would do to make the private 
room safe from night inspection. After feeding her flyer, she 
would tape up the outside of the door and stand the formalde- 
hyde machine in front of it as though the room had been 
fumigated after a death. It was a customary sight in her wing. 
In her office she kept a supply of newspapers cut into strips 
for the taping and a pot of flour mixed with water which 
served as paste in her poverty-vowed congregation, which 
never bought anything that an inventive nun could make. 

The nuns were chanting the final prayers when Sister Luke 
saw from the corner of her eye the porter nun approach the 
prie-dieu of Mother Didyma and slip a note upon it. Her 
heart began to pound. Even before she saw the look that 
came over Mother Didyma's face, she knew that the Ger- 
mans were in the hospital. Only an arrogant conqueror could 
have persuaded the porteress to interrupt an Office. Only 
frantic anxiety for her patients could have made this scrupu- 
lous Superior leave the chapel before the end of a devotion. 
Mother Didyma's eyes caught hers as she arose precipitately. 
Mental telepathy, the language of nuns, flashed the warning. 

A minute later Sister Luke stood up and awaited her turn 
to leave the chapel. Youngest in the life . . . first in and 
last out. She almost screamed. Then she saw the side exit 
through the sacristy and took it. 

She snatched newspaper strips and paste pot from her of- 

292 



fice as she hurried past it. She dragged the formaldehyde ma- 
chine from the closet and stuffed its feeder tube through the 
keyhole of the flyer's door. Then she started to paste up the 
strips. She counted the wards below which would be inspected 
first. The general surgery. The maternity. The contagious. 
Then up one more flight, and hers. 

The flour paste had dried to a springy consistency. She had 
no time to fetch water to thin it. She fought it. She got the 
strip across the top crack of the door and down the hinged 
side, then she heard boots on the stairs and Mother Didyma's 
dry voice saying more loudly than she ever spoke, "Up here 
we have our TB cases." 

She knows, Sister Luke thought, she must have seen me 
bypass the Admissions Office when I brought him up. A strip 
of gummy paper wrapped around her wrist. She tore it off r 
prepared another and was standing up and patting it down 
the latch side of the door when the inspection party came 
around the corner of the hall. "O God," she prayed, "give me 
the strength to carry this off . . ." and she helped God by 
reminding Him that He had the Germans' ready-made fear 
of contagion to work upon. 

"And what's this?" said a guttural voice in massacred 
French. 

She ran her hand down the strip to within a foot of the 
floor and turned around. She gave the two German officers a 
smile, nunlike, sweet and startled, as her eyes swept from 
their gold-braided caps to the iron crosses ribboned close 
about their necks beneath velvet tunic collars, then moved on 
obediently to her Superior to ask, with humble lift of eye- 
brows, if she might have permission to speak. Mother Didyma 
nodded. 

"We are fumigating, meine Herren Offiziere" she said in 

293 



the perfect German that her father had ordered all his children 
to learn before taking them to Germany to show them his 
student haunts. "One of our most virulent cases, a spitting of 
blood at the end." The two officers stepped back a pace. "But 
a happy death, thank God," she said, looking straight into the 
blue eyes of the officer who had the most pips on his shoul- 
der straps. 

"Ein heiligmaessiger Tod!" he repeated, amused. He 
clacked his booted heels and saluted her. "We are happy, 
Schivester, that you keep your rooms so clean of infection. 
Perhaps . . ." he bowed to Mother Didyma and switched his 
speech to the tongue-scorching French . . . "perhaps we shall 
require these rooms one of these days, if the Reverend Mother 
will permit." 

"Our roster of vacancies is at your command," said Mother 
Didyma with a frigid smile. 

As the officer moved on, the Superior gave her an oblique 
look that said, Now I understand some letters from previous 
Superiors that are in your file, letters that suggested you might 
be a revolutionary in the life, that you are too enterprising, 
that you bring the world into the cloister though you never 
show it unless pushed or pressed . . . 

Sister Luke bowed, then knelt to paste the final newspaper 
strips along the crack between threshold and floor. She took a 
long time to do that last easy strip. She talked to God as she 
patted the pasty paper into place. 

"I'm no longer one of Your obedient Brides," she said. 
"Yet You answer me when I cry out for Your help. You en- 
able me to gaze naively at men I hate and answer them in 
their own language which I have not thought of or practiced 
since childhood. Where are You taking me, Blessed Lord? 
And for what purpose? You gave me fourteen years of the 

294 



Holy Rule as armor for today, to save this one life. Was it 
for this that You would not send me back to the Congo?" 

Before she closed the crack she whispered through it, 
"Everything is in order. I'll leave the door unlocked. You can 
break through these strips when you leave tomorrow before 
dawn. I regret I couldn't get food to you before they came. 
I'll leave a packet of bread tonight in my office . . . second 
door to the right as you go out." 

Two raps answered her as she applied the last strip. 

Soothsayers appeared while the Nazis were organizing their 
captured provinces. Sister Luke heard about them from her 
students in the strange hushed quiet that followed the con- 
quest. With most main roads destroyed and most bridges 
demolished, communication in Belgium was reduced almost 
to the level of feudal times. The soothsayers arose all over 
the land like a ghosty revival from the Middle Ages. They 
traveled about with a map of France and a pointed pendulum 
on a string which operated like a plumb line. They held the 
pendulum over various cities of France and where it began to 
circle, there, they said, is your lost family. 

Lisa, she observed, was the only one of her students who 
showed no interest in the soothsayers. Sister Luke wondered 
if it was to imitate the nuns in their attitude toward sorcery, 
or if it was because the girl's connections with the under- 
ground were so well established as to give her perfect assur- 
ance about the welfare and whereabouts of her family. Since 
their talk together under the eaves of the students 7 dormitory, 
there had been no sign from Lisa that any world, other than 
the suffering tuberculosis wards, existed for her. 

The first soothsayer to come to the hospital to offer family- 
search services to the patients was a middle-aged woman of 

295 



the shopkeeper type. The nuns permitted her entry and pre- 
tended not to look. 

Sister Luke heard the exclamations of patients and began 
to look. 

"Rouen! But of course," one cried. "Why didn't I think of 
it myself? That's where my wife's family originated." Or, 
"Tours! Papa is in Tours . . . there was a business connec- 
tion there . . ." The little pendulum moved from city to city 
over the map of France and tempted her to test it. 

She block-printed her father's name, profession and place 
of former residence on a slip of paper and gave it to one of 
her patients to present. "From an open case who cannot be 
visited," she said. 

I've committed every sin now except theft and adultery, 
she thought as she patrolled the ward while the soothsayer 
worked her plumb over the map. Appetite comes <with eating 
was an old French proverb. It flashed through her mind as 
she paced. 

Presently she heard the soothsayer. "Van der Mai . . . 
that's a familiar name! " The flurried breathing of her patient 
told her the plumb was swinging. Then the soothsayer an- 
nounced, "Bordeaux . . ." and her patient who had given 
the name cried, "Sister! See how strongly it circles . . ." 

She went over to the bed to see. The delicate derisory smile 
about her lips belied the thudding of her heart. Of course he 
would have got through, she thought. With his ribboned 
rosette in his lapel which so closely resembled the French 
Legion cTHonneur, he would have been able to get gasoline 
throughout France where no one else could. He traveled 
light, she was sure just his black satchel of medical instru- 
ments and the meerschaum pipe if he had had to flee in a 
hurry and no more than one suitcase of clothes if he had had 

296 



advance warning. You can go around the world in one suit- 
case when it's properly packed, he used to say. 

She knew what it must have cost him to leave his sanato- 
rium and the special patients whose cases he had been study- 
ing for years. She was certain that Tante Colette was not 
with him. That doughty soul would have elected to remain 
behind, to hide the family silver and the monogrammed lin- 
ens against the day when her idolized brother would come 
home again. 

Sister Luke took another notch in her belt but felt no hun- 
ger pangs. The vision of her father safe in Bordeaux, or as 
safe as anyone could be in a place the Germans had not yet 
invaded, compensated. That he was alive after traversing those 
dangerous highways to the west was more than enough to 
thank God for. Not until she was in the chapel that evening, 
making her examination of conscience, did she realize that 
she had fallen like a simpleton into a charlatan's trap when 
she had pinned her faith to a bronze plumb on a string in- 
stead of putting it on the altar at which she stared. 

Then one day Lisa signaled with her eyes. Sister Luke 
glided out of the ward to the treatment room to await her. 
The girl came in with a medication tray. 

"I heard the Germans are coming again tonight, Sister," 
she whispered. "I had a package of newspapers to distribute. 
Sister, I didn't know what to do with it until tomorrow." She 
pleaded with her eyes. "And so, Sister . . ." 

The packet of clandestine newspapers was in Sister Luke's 
desk, since Lisa knew she had the second shift that night, 
from eleven-thirty until eight next morning. 

Sister Luke sat at her desk and pretended that the forbid- 
den newspapers were not there in the second drawer to the 

297 



left. She had slept from the Salve until eleven, when the 
night nun had plucked at her pillow. She turned over in her 
hand the chocolate bar the Superior had given her to eat just 
before midnight, to carry her through the crippling second 
shift in which nuns had to fast from food and water until the 
morning Mass. She wondered where Mother Didyma pro- 
cured such luxuries for her night nurses in wartime. 

To make up for her many sins of commission, she exam- 
ined the chocolate bar's Swiss wrapping, read all the gold 
print on it, smelled it once and put it in her pocket. She 
would give it tomorrow to one of the laundry nuns who 
never had night duties and never saw chocolate bars. She 
knew she was doing all sorts of small things to keep herself 
from opening the drawer to look at the papers the Reverend 
Mother Emmanuel wished her nuns not to read. 

Presently she opened the drawer. She glanced down at the 
packet of printed sheets bound with a cotton string. The lead 
story was dated June 23, 1940, and stated that at six-fifteen 
that day the French had signed peace terms with the Nazis, 
to go into effect six hours later. The Germans had occupied 
St. Nazaire and had pushed on to within eighty kilometers 
of Bordeaux when the capitulation was announced. Bordeaux! 
She pulled a paper from under the string and read the whole 
story. 

She turned the sheet over, telling herself, "Fve gone this 
far, I may as well finish, God help me." There was a note 
about the German's Siegfried Line designed by Dr. Fritz 
Todt, running from Holland to the Swiss border, which was 
already under bombardment by the Allies, and a warning to 
Belgians not to sign up for any work inside Germany, espe- 
cially for the current mass-recruiting program called the Todt 
Plan. 

298 



Another article, signed by the Archbishop of Malines and 
Primate of Belgium, denounced the racial and religious per- 
secutions already started in Belgium by the Nazis, and this 
was followed by a letter to the Cardinal from the Pope in 
which the Holy Father spoke of the horrors of occupation 
and persecution afflicting their small brave country. Many 
Papal powers, she read, have been delegated meanwhile to the 
Cardinal, who will remain in the occupied country. 

"Many Papal powers . . ." she repeated the three words si- 
lently trying to think what they meant; then her eyes caught 
a boxed story at the bottom of the page captioned Murder on 
the Meuse. 

It read at first like one of the stories the refugees told. 
There was a section of the Meuse below Dinant in the pen- 
insula of France which thrust up into Belgium at that point. 
Somewhere on the highway between Givet and Fumay, two 
kilometers of the refugee stream out of Belgium had been 
machine-gunned by Stukas. One of Belgium's renowned doc- 
tors was in the bottleneck where traffic halted. He refused to 
take to the ditches until he had given first aid to the wounded 
scattered through the adjacent fields. Then he had recited the 
prayers for the dead, standing there bareheaded in the field, 
the article said, looking straight up at the Stukas as he prayed. 
Then he started toward the ditches. The next wave of 
Stukas caught him. "We drew his body into the ditch after- 
wards and removed his rosette of the Order of Leopold. If his 
son, Antoine Van der Mai, will get in touch with us, we will 
deliver the ribbon . . ." 

Shock stiffened her. Tears rolled down her cheeks soundless 
as water over marble. Her frozen exterior contained the storm 
of grief, letting no sob or moan emerge. For a long time she 
sat there clutching the paper. 

299 



Then there were sounds on the stairs, the flurry of a nun's 
slippers hurrying ahead of boots. She thrust the paper into 
the drawer as the porteress came into the office. 

"Two Germans, Sister . . . inspecting . . ." 

The men of the Gestapo stood outside. They informed her 
they were making a blackout inspection. They examined the 
small dim bulb in her desk lamp and the black paper shade 
pulled down over the office window. 

"Any other lights on this floor, Sister?" 

She made a sign of three with her fingers and led them 
down the corridor to show the two small lights in the wards 
and a vigil lamp in a private room where a woman lay under 
an oxygen tent. 

She held her clenched fists beneath her scapular as she 
walked beside them looking straight ahead, her coif cutting 
off her face so that they did not see its storm of hate. 



300 



XVIII 



THE years of the German occupation ran together like the 
print of the clandestine newspapers when you tried to read 
them in the dim light of the Belgian blackout. Only head- 
lines stood forth. Nazis in Russia, 1941. Commando raid on 
Dieppe, 1942. Rommel pushed back to Tunisia, 1943. 

Sister Luke was never sure afterwards in just which one of 
those years after her father's death the three words many 
Papal powers flashed again in her memory and then slowly, 
compulsively, took form and meaning. Nor could she date her 
first visit to the confessional to say that she no longer be- 
longed in a convent. She remembered only that the voice be- 
hind the grille had replied with so little surprise, you might 
have thought it an everyday occurrence to have nuns whisper- 
ing distractedly of defeat and suggesting return to the world. 

Her defeat had so many facets, she could not define it all at 
once, but only her scorching shame for being a hypocrite in 
the religious life, for wearing the garb of obedience while 
flouting the Holy Rule, and the Cross of Christ above a heart 
filled with hate. 

"I can never learn to see Christ in a German, Father, not if 
I stay a hundred years in the convent. This is only one of 
my faults . . ," 

She sat under the heel of the Nazis growing hungrier and 

301 



angrier. With her sisters she was praying that the Americans 
would come soon, but, on her own, asking God to forgive 
them for such childish hopes in a world that seemed to have 
gone mad and which drove her mad because she couldn't lay 
hands on an atlas to see where the conquest had spread which 
had begun, so to speak, on her own doorstep. Even in her own 
heart in that flame of hate she had been fighting for three 
long years . . . 

During those years the student nurses grew thinner, like 
the nuns, but without the stoicism that enabled the nuns to 
face the trials at least with outward calm. Sister Luke dis- 
covered with shock that her students were eating remainders 
of food from the trays of tubercular patients, to whom the 
best that could be procured was given. The girls swallowed 
pats of butter as they walked from wards to diet kitchens and 
bits of meat left on plates the tubercular patients had 
coughed over. 

"Don't touch the food on those trays," she begged them. 
"I know you are hungry, but you risk contamination with 
every mouthful taken from them." 

Often in the weekly culpa she was proclaimed for having 
needlessly prolonged a conversation with a student. She knelt 
and accepted her penance, marveling meanwhile at the in- 
tegrity of the sisterhood, which would keep its Holy Rule 
alive in the midst of chaos. Every nun knew that hers was the 
only floor that had not lost a student nurse to the perilous 
roads in search of family. 

With dogged regularity she visited her confessor. And, 
month after month, the Father counseled her to be prudent, 
to pray for strength, to offer up to God her sufferings under 
the occupation and to meditate on Saint Peter in chains. 

Her spiritual struggle was the loneliest one of her whole 

302 



convent life. Her prayers were arid. No grace came, no relief, 
no inspiration to guide her tormented conscience. The abyss 
of silence between herself and God did not frighten or dis- 
may her now, as once it might have. She understood it per- 
fectly in terms of her religious formation. God gave the grace 
to do His commands, of which a major one was to love your 
enemy. Each time you failed, you took something from Him. 
He would return, give you another chance and other graces 
to strengthen you. Just so many rimes, she reminded herself 
. . . then He would ask no more and no more would the 
grace be given. It did not mean that He had ceased to love 
you, only that your transgressions had made Him too sad to 
speak. 

The chaplain spoke often with her, in the confessional and 
in her small office on the tuberculosis floor. But he was a frail 
and ailing old soul to whom the world outside the convent 
wall was the Apocalypse come true, with ten-horned beasts 
coming up over the land and all its rivers and springs turning 
into blood. "In the world . . ." he would whisper and shake 
his grizzled head while nibbling a chocolate bar which 
Mother Didyma occasionally presented to him to keep up his 
strength also. "Why don't you try to have a talk with your 
Superior, my child?" 

She'd certainly agree with me that I don't belong in a con- 
vent, Sister Luke would think; but she always managed to 
hold her tongue. Just once she had tried to explain to her 
Superior why, in these days of so much suffering and dying, 
she was repeatedly late for meals and devotions when the 
bells caught her in the midst of a spiritual talk with a fright- 
ened patient. "It always seems like rime stolen from souls, 
ma Mere, to break off abruptly and turn away . . . for food, 
or to read an Office." 

303 



It was as if she had torn up the Holy Rule before Mother 
Didyrna's narrowing eyes. She had had to keep her gaze fixed 
firmly on the crucifix above her Superior's chair to remember 
that the Christ of the community was speaking to her and 
not a thwarted missionary talking scathingly of the spoiling 
the missions engendered in weak sisters sent out too young. 
Laxity in obedience, independent judgment, self-esteem 
masked as spiritual enterprise . . . She never went back 
again to try to open up her heart. 

Her conscience compelled her to report each failure, such 
as yielding to the temptation to read the clandestine news- 
papers, giving to her students (instead of returning it to the 
kitchens) the food from a tray sent up for a patient who had 
died while the tray was in transit, and, continuously, like a 
repeating record that made each week's culpa sound the 
same, her failure in charity to the enemy, whom she could 
not learn to forgive. 

Each appearance of the Germans inside the hospital fed 
the hatred for them which she had never, with all her praying 
and struggling, been able to transmute. After they es- 
tablished a Kommandantur in the town, they came more 
often, growing so strict about blackout regulations that 
Mother Didyma thought it prudent to appoint a "blackout 
nun" whose responsibility was to see that every shade in the 
hospital was pulled down at sunset. 

The shades were of black paper which began to show wear 
after the first year. The nuns kept them hung together with 
safety pins and adhesive tape and the sight of them enraged 
the Gestapo. But, as long as no light penetrated to the out- 
side, Sister Alberta was safe. One night, however, a crack of 
light showed through. The blackout nun was ordered to re- 
port next day to the Kommandantur. As punishment, she was 

304 



commanded to appear each morning thereafter for one 
month, at five o'clock, to roll up every blackout shade in the 
headquarters, which was in a confiscated chateau that had 
ninety windows and was a good half -hour walk from the con- 
vent. 

Sister Luke raged inwardly when she heard the little nun 
rising at four in the morning to go forth like a janitress to 
make ready for the day the offices of the Nazi command. The 
fact that Sister Alberta uttered no complaint, but shouldered 
her humiliating task with a smile of utmost sweetness, only 
increased Sister Luke's fury and showed her again what ir- 
reconcilable differences lay between her and her outwardly 
seeming sisters. 

Then the Nazi persecution of the Jews began and she saw 
fear of the Germans translated into physical form. One of her 
best student nurses was a Belgian Jewish girl with classical 
Semitic face that recalled portraits of founding fathers of the 
diamond banks of Antwerp. Jessie asked a leave of absence 
on the day the underground paper carried news of the Nazi 
edict that all Jews wear the Star of David armband, with the 
companion story of what happened in Antwerp as soon as 
the edict was published. Practically every Gentile of the 
city came forth wearing the discriminatory armband, and in 
several churches there were fine silken armbands embroid- 
ered with the Star of David fastened about the wooden arms 
of the Christ statues. The Germans had to repeal their order. 

"You're not afraid of them, are you, Jessie?" Sister Luke 
asked. "Look . . . we've made them a laughing stock. They 
can't bear to be laughed at as we Belgians know how to 
laugh . . ." She stopped, hearing herself saying <we. We in the 
world, she thought. We who put sugar in their gasoline tanks, 
we who burn cigarette holes in their uniforms in crowded 

305 



trolleys, we who collect the tassels oft their sabers, snipping 
them skillfully from the rear when traffic halts bundle us aU 
together on street corners, we who are taken as hostages . . . 

"Yes, Sister. I'm afraid," Jessie said. "But if you could 
possibly give me a month's leave, I wouldn't be any more." 

Jessie returned at the end of the month unrecognizable. 
Plastic surgery had altered her handsome profile. Peroxide 
had turned her raven-black hair into something resembling 
straw. The nuns pretended charitably not to see the desecra- 
tion of the classic countenance, but Sister Luke cursed the 
Germans every time she looked at Jessie. Her conscience com- 
pelled her to inform her confessor that she was cursing the 
enemy and living for the day when God's wrath would be 
loosed upon them. 

"You must pray, Sister . . . pray God to deliver you from 
revenge in the heart," the old Father said sadly. 

In a sense, she was delivered of it not long after. But, as 
far as she could see, it was not a delivery wrought through 
prayer. A Prussian war nurse was brought to the hospital with 
a shrapnel hole in her lung. Sister Luke had heard of these 
Nazi nurses who roamed the front lines and sorted out their 
own wounded under fire. The French underground press re- 
ferred to them as "the gray mice" gray because of their 
gray nursing uniforms and mice, Sister Luke supposed, as a 
Gallic witticism to describe their tigerlike courage. 

Sister Alberta accompanied the stretcher to the tuberculo- 
sis floor, her sweet face clouded with compassionate concern. 

"She bleeds badly beneath that field dressing, Sister," the 
little nun whispered. "She'll need a transfusion at once. I 
offer my blood if it matches." 

Sister Luke looked at her, worn to candle thinness by her 
recent tour of punishment duty in the Nazi headquarters. 

306 



Then she looked at the Prussian "gray mouse" on the 
stretcher. She turned up the Wehrmacht identification tag 
that gave name, age and blood type. "If the cloctor orders 
transfusion, it will be my blood, Sister Alberta." 

The eyelids of the Nazi nurse snapped open. She stared at 
the two nuns bending over her, her eyes as hard and shiny as 
the enameled swastika brooch that fastened her high collar. 

"There will be no transfusion, do you hear?" she said in 
harsh precise French. "I would rather die than have Belgian 
blood in my veins." She closed her eyes as if she could no 
longer bear the sight of them and they carried her to a pri- 
vate room, next door to the room where two aged Jews were 
lying up for the duration as bedridden patients, paying their 
way with uncut diamonds. 

Sister Luke watched the German fight for her life for two 
days. The doctor would not risk operating unless she ac- 
cepted transfusion. He offered to seek a matching blood 
among the German officers in the town. The Nazi nurse in- 
formed him haughtily that German officers gave their blood 
only for the Fatherland and forbade him to try any tricks to 
get mongrel Belgian blood in her veins. Despite herself, 
Sister Luke was compelled to admire her enemy's will, forged 
in a hate that matched her own. 

The deliberate choice of death in preference to receiving 
the blood of an enemy made her wonder if she would have the 
same courage were she ever to fall wounded into German 
hands. 

"One cannot gainsay it, they have patriotism," she said in 
the recreation after some other nun had introduced the sub- 
ject of the German nurse. "I wish I could be in her place," 
she ventured. "Be able to show my patriotism by dying as a 
martyr for my country." 

307 



Mother Didyma looked up from her mending, first at Sis- 
ter Luke, then around the circle of sisters as though following 
the trail of her unmonastic desire. 

"You can be a martyr every day," said the Superior. "And 
I am sure we all are ... dying to ourselves each day, not 
for love of country but for love of God, without witnesses or 
iron crosses as rewards. We in our dying," she said firmly, 
"stand alone in the presence of the Master. We have His 
smile and His gratitude, which are of much more worth, are 
they not?" 

The Nazi nurse died next day. Refusing opiates, she was 
conscious until the end. Her loss of blood made her look em- 
balmed before she was dead. The hard blue eyes were wide 
open, gazing with scorn at the nuns bending over her when 
her breathing ceased. 

That's the first German I've actually seen die, Sister Luke 
thought as she closed the eyelids. There was a quickened beat- 
ing of her heart as though gladness had come into it with her 
thought. 

But later, her satisfaction for an enemy's death tormented 
her conscience. She prayed for forgiveness but felt no corre- 
sponding relief. It was as though she addressed a friend too 
sad to reply. 

She talked to the chaplain when he came to the ward next 
day. 

"My whole lifework dedicated to saving lives, Father . . . 
and I was glad for that death. I rejoiced inwardly to see an 
enemy die. And in this habit, Father . " She looked down 
at her hands knotted whitely together on the desk. Lif esaving 
hands with no heart behind them, she thought bitterly. 
Hands that once I offered up to God as the best part of me. 
And mine to you, O Lord . . . 

308 



"We all sin, my child. Not one of us is perfect," said the old 
Father. "Don't you hear me saying every morning at the altar, 
Cleanse my heart and lips, O Almighty God? Munda cor 
wieum . . ." he chanted softly. 

"Your heart and your lips!" She looked at his delicate face 
with its colorless lips pinched with hunger and piety, yet 
curved in a smile and longing for a burning coal to be placed 
between them instead of the vitamin tablets she would have 
administered had she been able to steal some from the Ger- 
man nurse. "There's a big difference, Father," she said 
quietly. "Too big for me to cope with any longer. I'm asking 
you quite simply to lay my case before the Cardinal." 

She picked up the list of names she had prepared of pa- 
tients who wished to talk with him. "We've got open cases in 
the ward now, Father," she said, "since the private rooms are 
all full up. I'd put a mask on you but I don't approve of those 
reminding masks with TB's." 

"Neither would Christ, Sister." The chaplain took the list 
and stood up. "Wait a little more, won't you?" he pleaded. 
"Make a novena to our Blessed Virgin. She always works mir- 
acles, haven't you noticed?" 

She watched him walk away, his thin undernourished hair 
floating like a war-worn halo about his head. I'll wait a little, 
she whispered to the frail figure in flapping soutane. I'll wait 
because you asked it. I'll say a novena again . . . also because 
you asked me to. But nothing will happen . . . 

A fortnight later she resumed her discussions with the 
chaplain where she had left off. 

"Christ will not abandon me if I go out, Father. I have 
given too many cups of water in His name and He knows I 
would go on doing it, whether working for Him as a nun or as 

309 



a war nurse," She besieged him when he came to her desk, 
she besieged him in the confessional. It was as though she 
were waging a private war among contestants who frequently 
changed sides, including herself. 

"In the world, my child/ 7 sighed the Father. "It's a risky 
place to be now." 

"I agree," she said. "But would it not be a hypocrisy to re- 
main in the convent only through fear of the world? It must 
be voluntary, through love of God alone and without any 
grumbling and inner murmuring, Father. Otherwise, it has 
no merit in His eyes. My staying has no merit. He knows why 
I remain . . ." 

Because you, His vicar on earth, are doing your duty as you 
are vowed to do and will not make a move unless I threaten. 
You care only for my soul, not for the house of mind, heart 
and emotions it lives in. It's my responsibility to keep that 
house in order and I have failed. A healthy soul needs . . 

"I believe, Father," she said, "that even the smallest ges- 
ture of charity made in the world, with joy, would be ten 
times more pleasing to God than all the work I do here under 
a Holy Rule I only pretend to obey." 

It was strange to be holding theological discussions with 
an aged priest while British bombers were roaring overhead 
toward Germany. She listened to the high hum of the forma- 
tions and sent prayers winging after them. 

"Perhaps," said the Father. "But how do you know you'd 
please God more in the world than you do here?" 

"Because God hates a hypocrite," she replied very firmly. 

"I know," she said to the chaplain on another day, "what a 
lost sheep looks like. And if I were in the world, I would 
know where to take it when I find it." 

310 



"I have no doubt of that, Sister. But who would be the lost 
sheep? You, or the soul you meet along the way and lead back 
to God?" 

Never once while she thrust and parried, growing ever 
more tense with the strain, did the impulse to walk out over- 
come her. It had been done before. God had all sorts of run- 
aways, including runaway nuns. She wanted an official paper 
in her hand, her formal laicization which could stand as pass- 
port at least for her soul in its passage from a promise into the 
world. Like all passports, it was hard to get. 

They went often to the cellars now in the beginning of '44 
as the overhead fights augmented in fury in preparation for 
the D day landings. The bravery of the nuns under bom- 
bardment was another precious detail of the religious life 
Sister Luke put under the bell jar of memory. The sisters 
thought of nothing but the safety of the patients. They toiled 
down the long stairways with the stretcher cases and encour- 
aged the ambulatory with little nods and smiles. Not one of 
them would have remained in the cellars during the air raids 
had Mother Didyma not said, "God helps those who help 
themselves . . . everyone to the cellars!" Then it was an or- 
der and they stayed below through obedience. 

Sometimes in the cellars Sister Luke reread the few letters 
she had received from her brothers, sharing them with her 
patients as if they were all one family. Antoine, who had been 
captured in the fall of Namur, was in Norway, a prisoner in a 
Nazi concentration camp just under the Arctic Circle. The 
two younger were somewhere inside Belgium, unregistered, 
doing what they could to harass the occupation forces. Their 
cards and letters were written in pencil, which meant that 
every positive in them must be read in the negative. The pa- 



dents' eyes sparkled when she read the scribbled postcards 
from the young brothers inside Belgium, extolling the prog- 
ress of the thousand-year Reich, which meant that it was go- 
ing to end soon. 

Most often, as she sat in the gloomy cave, she pondered ma- 
terial for her next talk with the chaplain, the sole intermedi- 
ary between herself and the Primate in Malines who had 
Papal power to free a nun from her vows. No reasons she had 
given him so far seemed to satisfy him. She examined herself 
as if she were a body laid out upon a table. There were many 
recent wounds but none grave or deep enough to account for 
her spiritual revolt against the Holy Rule and her inner re- 
fusal to continue trying to live up to it. The surface wounds, 
moreover, were probably common enough in the religious 
life in wartime deliberate disobediences when patriotism 
flared, anger for the enemy each time his planes went over, 
longings to be free to get out and help in the fight, even glad- 
ness when you saw an enemy die before your eyes. Surely 
the chaplain had heard every one of them time and again 
from the sisters sitting with her under the low stone arches, 
passing their beads through their fingers while the bombs 
made everything tremble except the serene smiles on their 
faces. 

There had to be something deeper to account for her total 
despair. Something that went down through flesh and bone 
into the marrow, something that went back beyond the war 
years. It has to do with conscience, she thought, that old pain 
so chronic now that it's completely diffused. It was like look- 
ing for a needle in a haystack. 

Then one day in early May of 1944, Reverend Mother Em- 
manuel came for her annual visit. Mother Didyma put the 

312 



notice on the bulletin board the night before and the list of 
her nuns in the order of their age in the religious life as 
they would be received for their private talks. Sister Luke 
found her name midway on the list. She knew that this time 
she would not go to the Superior General. 

In the recreation she chose a seat next to Sister Frances, 
who preceded her on the list. Casually, as if it were a matter 
too trivial to share with the circle, she said in an aside, "By 
the way, Sister Frances, after your talk with the Reverend 
Mother tomorrow, would you please tell her that I pass up 
my turn? I've really got nothing to say and why take up her 
time?" 

Next morning she watched her nursing sisters slipping off 
duty one by one, their faces calm and composed. Sister 
Frances nodded to her when her turn came, signaling that she 
had not forgotten the message. The work in the ward was 
heavy, with three pulmonary postoperatives to attend besides 
all the other patients. The inner voice that mocked her as she 
moved from bed to bed seemed to come from somewhere out- 
side. Coward, it said over and over. 

After a while Sister Frances returned and beckoned her 
aside. 

"Reverend Mother wants to see you anyhow, Sister Luke," 
she whispered. "She said to tell you that even if you have 
nothing to say, she has something she would like to ask you." 
Sister Frances smiled and took the temperature charts from 
her hands. They both knew it was an order. 

Reverend Mother Emmanuel gave her the wondrous smile 
that disarmed completely as she made her reverence and 
knelt. "Only for that smile was I a coward," Sister Luke told 
herself tremulously. 

"Why didn't you come willingly, my child?" the Superior 

313 



General asked. "Didn't you know that by inspiration I was 
aware of your struggles? Haven't you been praying and call- 
ing out for help?" 

"Yes, Reverend Mother." Sister Luke looked straight into 
the dark eyes from which nothing could be hidden. "But it's 
too late for discussion. I'm at the end of my struggles." 

"There is no end when one loves the Lord as you do," the 
Superior General said gently. "You are perhaps discouraged, 
Sister, though this is difficult for me to understand in view of 
the reports I've had about you. Your sisters love you, the doc- 
tors trust you and your students respect you enormously." She 
nodded, smiling. "Or perhaps you are in one of those mo- 
ments of aridity when you pray and pray and nothing hap- 
pens?" She told the sweet familiar story of Christ asleep in 
Peter's boat when the tempest arose and of His disciples' fear 
when He made no reply to their cries until they woke Him 
. . . and Sister Luke knew her Superior General was giving 
her time to compose her thoughts, even giving her a few help- 
ful leads. "Sometimes, my child, when we are in the midst of 
our own tempests, as you undoubtedly are at this moment, 
Christ may be sleeping. His silence is no cause to lose faith. 
Did you have patience? Have you struggled long enough to 
be able to say so surely that you've come to the end?" The 
Reverend Mother folded her hands over her crucifix and 
waited for her to reply, 

"I think, Reverend Mother, that I've been struggling for 
years." Sister Luke hesitated. "For years . . ." 

Then quite suddenly she saw her spiritual crisis clearly as the 
inevitable result of something that had lain in wait for her 
for years. She classified that latent menace as if she had found 
its name in the text she might have been reading, her voice 
was now so calm. 



"In the beginning," she said, "each struggle seemed differ- 
ent from the preceding. No two ever seemed for the same 
cause, until they began to repeat and then I saw they all had 
the same core. Obedience, Reverend Mother. Obedience 
without question, obedience without inner murmuring, obe- 
dience blind, instantaneous, perfect in its acceptance as 
Christ practiced it ... as I can no longer do. My conscience 
asks questions, Reverend Mother. When the bell calls to 
chapel and I have to sacrifice what might be the psychological 
moment in a spiritual talk with a patient, my conscience asks 
which has priority it or the Holy Rule. In my mind, I have 
never been able to make this clear." She paused, struck by the 
thought that once before she had tried to say this ... to 
Mother Didyma. She caught her breath sharply. 

"Continue, my child," said the Reverend Mother. 

"I believe that most of my failure stems from this conflict. 
There are times, Reverend Mother, when my conscience de- 
cides I must do something opposite to my Superior's wishes 
. . . you remember that tropical medicines examination?" Sis- 
ter Luke's voice rose one note above the calm reading tone. 
"How did I know that that suggestion did not come from 
you? Yet even had I known that it had, I could not have 
failed . . . not even for you, Reverend Mother. My con- 
science could not have accepted such a hideous waste of time 
and mental effort, nor could I ever have persuaded myself that 
God would have wished it. There are scores of other examples 
I could cite, but you know them all. You receive the reports. 
And when you read Mother Didyma's . . ." She smiled 
bleakly. "Late every day for chapel or refectory or both. 
That's how far this has gone, you see. I hear the bells but I 
can no longer cut short a talk with a patient who seems to 
need me. When I have night duty, I break the grand silence, 

315 



because that is the time when nature relaxes, gives a little 
peace and sometimes makes men in trouble want to talk about 
their souls. And that is the time when reason begins to query 
the Rule most unanswerably. Why must God's helpers be 
struck dumb by five bells in the very hours when spirits ex- 
pand and seek to communicate?" She stopped abruptly on the 
word communicate. Sick with grief, she stared at what she had 
communicated. 

A shadow of sorrow lay over the Gothic face bent toward 
her. After a long silence, Reverend Mother Emmanuel 
cleared her throat. 

"Are you going out, my child?" she asked. 

"I think so, Reverend Mother. Fve been talking with the 
chaplain." 

"Before you decide definitely, would you like to come 
back to the mother house for a while?" There was a veiled 
pleading in the dark eyes. 

"No, Reverend Mother. No, I prefer to remain here." It 
was almost impossible to go on, but she had to give the 
reason, the final truth as she saw it. "The mother house is, 
for me, such a citadel of perfection as to be almost unreal, 
Reverend Mother. This is the reality of convent life!" Her 
hand flew out in the only gesture she had made during her 
audience, flew out with palm flat up to describe in one sweep 
the pine desk furnished with a flannel penwiper such as nuns 
made from colored scraps, the stiff plain chair with a tasseled 
pillow on the seat to suggest the tapestried thrones of the 
mother house, the bare walls with the calendar of a local 
merchant hanging from one of them. "It is here where the 
reality is, Reverend Mother," she said huskily. "This is where 
I must fight it out." 

The Reverend Mother gazed at her with an expression she 

316 



would have turned her eyes away from had she been able. 
"Then I can give you only one advice," she said. "Pray, Sister, 
and try to follow our Holy Rule step by step. Make one more 
effort for God . . . and for me as His instrument. When I 
go from here, I shall take you with me in my heart and keep 
you each day in my prayers." 

She traced the sign of the cross on Sister Luke's forehead 
with a thumb firm as a sculptor's, flattened at the tip to make 
a clean and lasting mark. The film of tears in the Superior 
General's eyes magnified their pitch-black pupils and made 
them seem like two jet mirrors in which Sister Luke saw two 
very tiny nuns reflected whitely. 

The talk with Reverend Mother Emmanuel haunted Sister 
Luke. Torn with desire to make one more effort, she never- 
theless had the strange feeling that she had said farewell in 
that interview and that the all-wise loving woman who had 
listened to her knew this also. 

The two tiny nuns Sister Luke had seen reflected in her 
Mother General's eyes were an accurate mirroring of her di- 
vided inner state. One part of her returned to the commu- 
nity, followed the Rule with scrupulous attention, obeyed the 
bells instantly, cared for the patients during the grand silence 
like a guardian angel endowed with every grace save that of 
speech . . . and the other part counted the bridges already 
burned behind her and waited for the last straw to fall on 
her burdened conscience watching for it fearfully lest it fall 
too soon and cut short the decent waiting period she longed 
to render to her Mother General, whom she knew was pray- 
ing and hoping for a miracle. 

She added hypocrisy to hypocrisy day after day and told 
herself that that inevitable last straw would be one of these. 

317 



Any one of them, she thought. They're all alike in their de- 
ceptive substance. 
But the last straw turned out to be food . . , 

From the start of the German occupation, every patient 
had to bring his food ration tickets when admitted to the hos- 
pital. Frequently, toward the end of a month, a patient came 
in saying that he had spent all his food stamps. Until the is- 
sue for the next month was made, the nuns finagled and 
made combinations and fed him from the tickets of patients 
dying, or from those on diets who had sugar and fat coupons 
in surplus. Sister Luke looked with admiration on the Procu- 
ratrice, who could do with an array of sugar, fat and meat 
coupons for a hospitalized population of three hundred what 
only a female with the conscience of a nun could have 
achieved. The Procuratrice was always robbing Peter to pay 
Paul without ever having Peter feel anything except special- 
ized care for his diet. 

Occasionally the calculations failed. Then the needed ex- 
tras came from the nuns' food-stamp books. Mother Didyma 
began to welcome German private patients sent to her 
through the local Kommandantur, since it meant that with a 
German of rank bedded down in her hospital, very often a 
whole pig or the carcass of a lamb was delivered to her office 
without benefit of ration stamps, a windfall for her hungry 
nuns. The Germans were assigned most often to the tubercu- 
losis wing, which had more private rooms than the other 
floors. 

Sister Luke tried not to see herself and all her labors for 
God translated in terms of food. Though she was perfectly 
aware that her Superior welcomed Germans for the sake of her 
overworked and underfed nuns, the meat the conquerors pro- 



vided stuck in her throat. As often as she had the strength to 
do so, she passed the meat dish to the nun sitting next to her 
in the refectory without partaking of it, and filled up her plate 
with the customary rutabaga, carrots and potatoes instead. 

The final straw was added when she had to receive the mis- 
tress of the highest-ranking German who had ever visited her 
floor. He was a lean fair officer with gray eyes that fixed her 
like polished bayonets when he told her, in daring worldly 
terms as though her presence placarded her understanding of 
them, that he was leaving the treasure of his life in her hands. 
The treasure was a Frenchwoman, daughter of a wealthy mer- 
chant who received special concessions from the German oc- 
cupation in France in return for the petty information the 
girl supplied to her Gestapo lover. 

From the moment Mademoiselle Jeanne was received as a 
patient, lamb and pork from Belgian farms, smoked salmon 
from Norway, butter and chocolate from Denmark and cheese 
from Holland began appearing on patients' trays and on the 
refectory table. For the first time in years, Mother Didyma 
looked relaxed. 

The price of the unrationed windfall was service to a 
spoiled darling of the French upper crust who was a traitor to 
her country. By comparison, the German lover was less odious 
to Sister Luke, upon whose back fell the intimate nursing 
task. After the first night the Frenchwoman demanded of the 
Superior that a nun sleep in the room with her. Sister Luke 
was appointed. "This is such an obscure case," said Mother 
Didyma. 

Sister Luke bowed obediently and moved a cot and screen 
into the room of the perfectly healthy Frenchwoman whose 
lover, she was certain, had placed her in the convent hospital 
for safekeeping, while his business occupied him, simply be- 

319 



cause he could not trust her. Mademoiselle Jeanne's face had 
the limpid beauty of a Fragonard, but behind her indolent 
violet eyes lurked the gleaming practicality of the accom- 
plished demimondaine. 

Petulant, spoiled and very bored, Mademoiselle Jeanne 
spent her days thinking up special services to add to the bur- 
den of the nuns, whom she obviously despised, and her nights 
trying to make Sister Luke talk. 

"Are the sisters afraid of the Germans?" she would ask. 

"This is not important for your soul or your body, Made- 
moiselle. I am in the grand silence. Call me if you really need 
me . . ." 

"Then you don't reply to my question because you don't 
wish to admit that they are . . ." 

And Sister Luke would lie awake trembling with fury for 
the slur against her sisters, even wishing for an air raid so she 
might have excuse to bundle her so-called patient into the 
cellars to have a look at absolute fearlessness in action. 

Mademoiselle Jeanne thought of everything to torment her. 
Her morning gruel had to be strained to the consistency of 
velvet-smooth cream. If not, she sent it back down three 
flights of stairs to the kitchens. She complained that the sup- 
positories were too large, and each morning, when her lover 
called, she moaned her complaints over the telephone. 

One morning Sister Luke had had enough. She snatched 
the receiver from her patient and said in German, "And since 
when, mem Herr, has our occupied country been manufactur- 
ing anal suppositories custom-made to fit the patient?" 

She heard him laugh then, great peals of merriment that 
made the earpiece vibrate. A side of beef was delivered to the 
convent that same afternoon, ticketed with her name. She 
went straight to the chaplain's office. 

320 



"I'm a food stamp, Father/ 3 she said. "Have you writ- 
ten that letter to the Cardinal? " Seeing from his expres- 
sion he had not, she went on: "Because if you have not 
and have no intention of doing so you must forgive me 
Father, but I shall leave without permission. I have come to 
a place . . ." 

She was too exhausted to even try to tell him of the other 
troubles she had laid at the foot of the altar that morning at 
Mass. Tense and red-eyed from a sleepless night, she had first 
planned her day's work, the assignment of each nurse and 
student, the menus for special patients and the request she 
must make for ten ounces of cognac for one of her dying pa- 
tients whose tongue was dry and black, and she had fought 
before the altar her coming struggle with the pantry nun, who 
was going to say, as always, But I must have a requisition for 
the cognac, Sister. You'll get no requisition. Why should that 
poor man pay when he hasn't had a tray of food in eight days 
and all his tickets used meanwhile for others? Where in the 
name of God is charity that we cannot afford to put a few 
drops of cognac in water on the tongue of a dying man? Then 
she heard herself fighting in front of the tabernacle. Once 
again that morning in the Mass, as so often of late, she denied 
herself communion the only food that counted. As her sis- 
ters knelt at the rail, she had buried her face in her hands and 
tasted the bitter salt of her tears* 

"I have come to a place," she repeated to the chaplain. 

"Are you sure, Sister, that this won't be a scandal for the 
young nurses who followed you into the convent? There have 
been quite a few as I recall" He delivered his last shot wist- 
fully. 

"If any of my students entered the convent out of admira- 
tion for a nun instead of for the love of God and of Him 

321 



alone, then I should be the first to tell them to leave at once. 
Father, I beg you to write that letter." 

"Very well, Sister. I see your mind is made up. We as 
priests can only listen, pray and advise." He gave her a rueful 
smile touched with a bewilderment she understood. "But 
there is always an enigma, is there not? In the end, the final 
resolution lies between the soul and the Blessed Lord. I'll 
write tonight, Sister. I shall tell the Archbishop that I as your 
confessor see no cause why your petition should not be 
granted." 

Afterwards, it seemed as if Providence had had a hand in 
her timing. The chaplain's letter to Malines was dated Trin- 
ity Sunday, June 4, 1944, the day that Rome was liberated by 
the Anglo-American forces, while nearer home, just across the 
Channel, huge Allied fleets and armies waited in England for 
the D day command of General Eisenhower to start forward 
for the liberation of France. The kind of world into which a 
nun emergent could fit swiftly and without embarrassing de- 
tection was being prepared. In the storm so soon to be un- 
leashed, all swirling shapes would look alike. But at the time, 
inside Belgium where the quiet of a dead-end street pre- 
vailed, nothing of this could be guessed. 

The German officer came to remove his mistress a week 
later. Sister Luke heard him speaking English with one of her 
British sisters on the way up to her ward "A flawless dic- 
tion," the sister said afterwards. "Had I been blindfolded, Fd 
have said Oxford." 

He brought his mistress a coat of Russian sable and a box 
of candied violets from Paris. "One has to wheedle her to get 
her to accept an invitation to the Bavarian Alps/' he said to 
Sister Luke as he dropped the beautiful coat over the French- 
woman's shoulders. "This fits, chine . . . made to measure!** 

322 



He started laughing again as he had laughed over the tele- 
phone. He did not glance at Sister Luke until he picked up 
the Frenchwoman's bags. Her eyes widened at the sight of a 
German officer carrying luggage like a porter instead of sum- 
moning her to the task. 

"Perhaps I'll be seeing you again, Sister," he said. He thrust 
a roll of currency into her hands as he went out. She counted 
it before turning it over to her Superior, just to see how much, 
besides lamb and beef carcasses, her forbearance had earned 
in the eyes of the conqueror. Between two bills, she found a 
small note. If you ever come out, go at once to . . . and 
there was a Brussels address. 

All that day she tried to put two and two together. Only 
clairvoyance could explain how the German officer knew of 
her conversations with the chaplain. Not even the under- 
ground had guessed her intention. The underground, she 
thought . . . and then she remembered Lisa. 

On the evening of her final plea to the chaplain, she had 
gone to the students' dormitory for a talk with Lisa, fearful 
that the girl might be one of those who out of admiration 
would follow her into the convent. She knew that in Lisa's 
eyes she seemed a cornerstone of monastic security and that 
her student had talked of taking the veil after her nursing 
courses were completed. It had cost her nearly all the courage 
that remained to her to stand before her student and say, 
^Fm going out, Lisa," and it had cost her her last ounce of 
control not to embrace her student when Lisa had assured 
her that it was not through admiring emulation of a sister that 
she wished to give her life to God. 

"IVe watched so many men die, Sister," she had said. "The 
fear when men die without faith is one of the big reasons, 
I think. Right now it seems to me that only in the cloister is 



there any faith left on earth. It's God's underground in a 
sense ... the call to it seems as urgent as those telephone 
calls that summon me to pick up food stamps, Sister, never 
knowing who is speaking or who delivers the life-giving 
stamps." 

So then, she thought, Lisa must have been the conveyor of 
her secret to the German officer. "To the German," she told 
herself steadily, "who is not a German but an Englishman 
disguised as one for reasons of espionage and connected some- 
how with our underground." That was why he had picked up 
the Frenchwoman's bags instead of ordering a nun to do it. 
That was why he had laughed, instead of ordering her ar- 
rested, when she had angrily intruded on his telephone call to 
his mistress. 

As she had prayed that her confession to Lisa would not 
disturb the girl's intention to enter the convent, and had had 
that prayer granted with wondrous fullness, so now she prayed 
for the safety of the gray-eyed Englishman on his way into 
Hitler's heartland, using a mistress, irreproachably treasona- 
ble to her country, as a stylish screen for his own counter- 
espionage. 

She kept his note beneath her scapular. I have this, she 
thought, and my hair . . . hair enough since that dispensa- 
tion when I chose to let mine grow. She could feel the heat 
of her new short hair beneath the cap and coif. 

Sometimes, in the shower, she ran her fingers through it 
and tried to imagine what it would look like in a mirror. Were 
there any gray streaks yet? When you were past thirty-five, 
with six of those years passed in the Congo where every year 
aged you twofold, you couldn't be sure. 



3*4 



XIX 



THE wait for the reply from the Archbishop seemed endless. 
From the moment the old chaplain had agreed to write, Sister 
Luke had no idea of what was to happen next. It was like 
waiting for a D day of sorts. 

She combed her memories of convent life, trying in vain to 
recall if she had ever heard a whisper of how secularization 
was accomplished. Once or twice in communities where she 
had been, a nun had quietly disappeared from the scene. One 
from the Congo had been flown home under mysterious cir- 
cumstances. Their names were never mentioned thereafter in 
the sisterhood. Intuitively you knew that they had returned to 
the world, although no official announcement was ever made 
and all details of how such a transformation took place had 
to be guessed. 

She was sure there must be a definite procedure, an exact 
set of acts to be performed. She wondered if, before she 
came to the moment when she must make them, she would 
discover what they were. Activities up to a point were easier 
to imagine once back in the world. She would have to ex- 
change immediately her nun's identity card for a civilian's. 
She would have to learn about money and how to get around 
on street cars and buses without a convent chaperone to lead 
and pay the way. And beyond that were seventeen years of 

325 



separation from books, plays, scientific discoveries, political 
affairs . . . 

But it was that gray middle place, somewhere between the 
signing of the papers and the removal of the religious habit, 
that was a little frightening. It gave the taste of death when 
she thought about it, not the tender memorial deaths inside 
the cloister where the refectory place of the deceased was set 
every day for thirty days, but something sudden and absolute 
like a vanishing into space. 

The high whine of death flying over Belgium in the form 
of jet-propelled rocket bombs aimed for Britain seemed to ex- 
plain to her sisters, aware of her concern with the war, the 
look of death on Sister Luke's face as she waited. Since the 
Normandy landings a few days after her petition had been 
sent to Malines, she had hardly spoken except as duty or 
courtesy required. Lisa never betrayed by look or word that 
she was aware of what was going on. She's already a nun, Sis- 
ter Luke thought, and a far more perfect one than I have ever 
been. 

On a day in early August her uncertainty ended. She could 
not guess when the dormitory bells clanged that morning 
that her last day in the convent had dawned. But as soon as 
she entered the chapel and faced her Superior for the bow, 
she knew that her papers had been received. Mother Didyma 
knelt at her prie-dieu with hands clasped so tightly the knuck- 
les were white. Without seeing her face that the coif cut off, 
Sister Luke suspected that she had been weeping and was 
now struggling for poise after learning she had lost a soul 
from her community. 

A rush of sisterly sympathy, the first she had ever felt for 
the glacial Superior, turned her meditation into a soliloquy. 
"I wish I could have told you beforehand, ma Mere. But my 

326 



talk with the Mother General was the last I could endure on 
this painful subject. Everything since then has been said be- 
tween my conscience and God. And you must know of course 
that I took pains to find out that in wartime you will not be 
humiliated for my defection. But your pride suffers because I 
chose the way of the confessional instead of through you . . ." 

A strange peace flooded her soul, and when she looked in- 
ward at the place where anger had burned and gladness for 
deaths of the enemy, there was nothing but the silvery quiet 
of ash. She went then to the communion rail Only one pro- 
fane thought intruded as she waited for the Host to pass. She 
hoped that the community would remember this afterwards 
and realize that she had made her peace with God. I'm not 
leaving the Church only you, my sisters, and our Holy Rule 
that I am not strong enough to conform to ... remember 
this and feel no slight or sorrow. Then she prayed. 

She moved with grace from the altar rail back to her pew 
wondering where her next Bread of Heaven was coming from. 
A rocket bomb whined over the chapel as she knelt to say 
her thanks. 

Then began the last slow steps with her sisters which had 
never been seen or described in advance. Mother Didyma 
headed the procession out of the chapel. She waited in the 
hall until all the nuns were assembled. Then she said to the 
community, "After the breakfast, the sisters may convene for 
a few minutes in the chapter hall to say adieu to Sister Luke, 
who is going to Antwerp." Her cool eyes sought Sister Luke. 
"And you, Sister, will please come to my office immediately 
after." 

The procession moved into the refectory bound in silence. 
There were the prayers, the searing and the passing of the 
bread. Sister Luke took the thickest slice from the basket and 

327 



covered it heavily with jam. The nurse had taken over the 
nun in her. You're going to eat, said the nurse, even if it kills 
you; you've got a long journey ahead. 

The farewells in the chapter hall were brief, and poignant 
because two of the nuns with whom she had always felt a 
wordless bond had guessed her intention and showed anguish 
in their eyes as they embraced her. One whispered, "Have you 
thought of your black boys waiting for you in the Congo?" 
and the other "Are you sure this is God's will and not your 
own?" Nineteen times she felt a smooth cheek laid against 
her own and smelled the sweetness of soap and starch. The 
only thing she had to leave them was her smile. She gave them 
it from her heart, then turned abruptly and went out the 
door without looking back. 

The next steps were toward the Superior's office. She walked 
hurriedly, desiring only to get everything over now as quickly 
as possible. She had the odd thought as she stood outside the 
Superior's door that she ought to have gone upstairs to the 
dormitory and turned over her straw sack and made her bed. 
The memory of those orderly acts which she had performed 
every morning after breakfast for seventeen years made her 
hesitate for the fraction of a second before knocking. 

Mother Didyma sat behind her desk looking at three pa- 
pers laid out upon it. Despite her desire to show the sym- 
pathy she had felt in the chapel, Sister Luke froze under the 
gaze of the woman she had never understood. Confronted by 
a fait accompli, the Superior wasted no words. 

"I presume, Sister, that you had the goodness to inform our 
Reverend Mother General on her recent visit to us?" 

"I had not come to a clear decision then, ma Mere. I told 
the Reverend Mother only that I might go out." Sister Luke 
longed to add, Which is perhaps why, since she hoped ever 

328 



for a miracle of grace, she did not discuss my spiritual state 
with you, Mother Didyma; but the cold eyes asking only for 
facts discouraged her impulse. "I asked the chaplain to tele- 
phone her when the petition was granted," she said stiffly. 

"And why, may I ask, was I not informed?" 

"Because I could see no issue from further discussion, ma 
Mere." 

"Have you weighed well the enormity of this step you are 
taking? Your physical health, for instance, the state of the 
world you desire to return to?" 

"Yes, ma M$re" Sister Luke looked steadily into the Su- 
perior's eyes to show she was not afraid. 

"Very well, Sister. I must ask you then to read this paper 
very carefully before signing. There are three copies one 
for you, one for us and one for the Papal archives. Once you 
place your signature upon it, you are no longer a member of 
the congregation." Stonily the Superior handed her one of 
the papers. 

It was under her eyes then, the tangible answer to all 
her years of trial and error. The nurse in her said, Don't let 
your hand shake. 

The seal printed on the letterhead was a Cardinal's flat hat 
with stylized tassels dropping symmetrically about a shield in- 
scribed In nomine Patris. To Sister Luke, she read, in the 
'world Gabrielle Van der Mai: Upon your request, by Apos- 
tolic authority delegated to Us . . , The lines began to swim 
together . . . special circumstances conforming to Canon 81 
. . . We relieve you from the bond of your vows . . .declare 
you reduced to secular state . . . under the following condi- 
tions . . . 

The three conditions were set apart from the body of the 
letter. She must formally accept the letters of secularization. 

329 



She must quit the habit of religion and never put it on again. 
She must agree never to request anything from the congrega- 
tion for services rendered. In full liberty and after mature de- 
liberation . . . and there were the blank spaces for date, town 
name and signature. She looked up. 

Something meanwhile had happened to Mother Didyma's 
face. Beneath the glacial surface there was a suggestion of 
movement and flowing, as though a hidden spring were trying 
to break through. 

"Is there nothing, Sister, that we can do?" she asked. 

"Nothing, ma Mere." 

"You would not consider having one more talk with the 
Reverend Mother Emmanuel before signing?" 

"No, ma Mere ... it could bring only pain to both of 
us . . ." The pain showed in her face, she was sure. She had 
to wait a moment until her voice steadied. "Because my deci- 
sion is irrevocable." 

Was it that irrevocable word irrevocable that made Mother 
Didyma stiffen again? Or was it the emotion she herself had 
betrayed when she spoke of the great lonely woman whom 
she had not the courage to face? She saw the ice close over as 
Mother Didyma handed her a pen. Afterwards, she believed 
that the ice came to strengthen the Superior for what she 
had to do next. 

"This is your copy," said Mother Didyma brusquely, 
"From this office you will go directly to our affiliated house 
in Rue Grande. There you will find everything ready for 
you." The Superior fumbled in her desk as she spoke. She 
brought forth four notes of five hundred francs each and held 
them out for Sister Luke to take. "And there is this in con- 
clusion," she said. 

Sister Luke stared at the notes, which added up exactly 

330 



to the token dowry her father had brought to the congrega- 
tion seventeen years before. For an instant she couldn't move. 
She tried in vain to voice her thoughts. Must I take it? 
The congregation owes me nothing, nothing. The debt is all 
on my side and will be forever. Some maniac cried from 
within . . . Take it . . . tear it up and throw it back . . . 

Then she put forth her hand and accepted the money. It 
was her last act of humility in the convent and the most total 
humiliation she had ever experienced. The bitter pain of hav- 
ing to end her life in Christ with a money transaction overrode 
all other feeling and thought, and she was unaware that the 
Superior was leading the way out not through the cloister 
where she now no longer had the right to walk, but through 
the parlors where visitors came and thence through the public 
foyer to the main door of the hospital. She didn't notice that 
the customary embrace at the door was not given, nor did it 
occur to her to kneel there for a departure benediction. The 
blow to her pride of the next to last act of secularization car- 
ried her out of the convent as if anesthetized. 

And, in a way, it prepared her for the final step. 

There was a fifteen-minute walk to the affiliated house, 
which was a small boarding school for girls. She walked 
swiftly, saying over and over to herself, And there is this in 
conclusion. Once she thought to take the two thousand francs 
from her skirt pocket and drop them into the gutter. But 
there were a few early risers in the street and she was still 
wearing the garb of one vowed to poverty, watchful over 
centimes. Seventeen years of respect for the habit could not 
be undone by fifteen minutes of burning pain. 

The old nun in the porter's lodge at the school nodded 
from her cubicle that was festooned with pulleys and studded 
with bell buttons. "Go to room twelve," she said. "Every- 

331 



thing is ready. Press the button when you are dressed and I 
will open." 

The room was small and windowless and it had two doors. 
An unshaded electric light hung over the only furnishing a 
table with clothing folded upon it. There was a navy-blue 
suit, two white blouses, two sets of underwear and two pairs 
of newly cobbled shoes that looked too large. On top of the 
underwear pile was the short black veil edged with white 
which the lay nurses of the country wore in place of hat, 
and the unused portion of her current book of food stamps. 
A worn papier-mache suitcase such as missionaries brought 
home to exchange for new ones stood beside the clothes. 

As she shook out the secondhand suit, she remembered 
how once upon a time in the Congo she had caught herself 
looking at the colonial ladies sipping aperitifs on cafe terraces, 
to see what was being worn in the world that season. Utex- 
leo, she whispered, recalling a handsome blockprint summer 
suit of Congolese cotton. She saw its design clearly and the 
woman who wore it. The trivial association overlaid, like a 
protective film already mercifully formed, all the deep abiding 
memories of the Congo, of Mother Mathilde, of Emil and 
her black boys, which would have tortured her had they come 
alive at that moment. She raised her hands and removed her 
veil. 

Piece by piece as she took them off, she folded the nun's 
clothes in the traditional way. She made herself perform this 
final act of obedience in penance for the storm of revolt she 
could not otherwise subdue. She wondered if any other sister 
going out had been so overcome by the sudden gracelessness 
of the final convent hour as to yield to the impulse to throw 
the holy habit pell-mell upon the table. 

She stripped to the skin and then stood a moment looking 

332 



at the two doors, the one through which she had entered and 
the one through which she would leave. There was some- 
thing furtive in the transition, as if what God permits must 
be accomplished in shame and secrecy. You come in as a nun 
and you go out as a civilian. No human eye records the trans- 
formation, not even your own since there are no mirrors. You 
are even sent to a strange house where you are unknown, to 
make this painful passage out. 

She shivered and began to put on the rayon underwear that 
had a peculiar sheen like silk. It felt so light and scant, she 
had the impression that something must be missing and 
looked through the reserve pile to see if two of anything were 
in it. She paused over the white blouses that were not quite 
identical in cut. It confused her to have choice. The blue suit 
felt shoddy after the fine-spun serges of the nun's habit. What 
young woman entering the convent had left it behind, and in 
what year? The sleeves of the jacket were too long. 

When she had everything packed that was not on her back, 
she inspected once again the folded black serges on the table, 
with the starched coif laid atop like a white shell inside which 
she had coiled her leather belt and long rosary of wooden 
beads. Her crucifix she had put in her suitcase without any 
twinge of conscience. It had been a nameday present from 
her Jesuit uncle years ago in the Congo, and Mother Mathilde 
had permitted her to keep it. 

She stood the stout nun's shoes a little farther away from 
the folded clothing and fought down a lump in her throat as 
she looked at the blunt leather toes misshapen from the press 
of praying. 

If we were not practiced in daily dying, she thought, all 
this would be quite difficult to go through with. She picked 
up the short nurse's veil. There was a small safety pin in 

333 



the hem of it. The pin, oddly enough, was the &onp de grace 
that brought the first tears, not because it drew blood from 
her finger as she unfastened it . . . 

We have thought of everything, it seemed to say. There is 
not a single item for which you need ring to summon a sister 
to that entrance door to see you as you are now. We keep the 
good sisters from a view of such as you, even as we protected 
you during all your years from the distressing sight of one 
going out. 

She pulled the short veil tightly over the upstanding crop 
of hair whose unkempt texture she could feel but not see, and 
pinned it closely at the nape of her neck. And now there was 
just one last thing to do. 

From her pocket she took the note that the Englishman 
disguised as a German Gestapo officer had given her. It was 
as though someone waited for her out there in the street, or 
courtyard, or cornfield, or whatever it was that the exit door 
opened out upon. She memorized the Brussels address, then 
tore the note into tiny shreds which even a nun with all her 
endless patience could not have put together again. She 
dropped the confetti into one of the shoes on the table, there 
being no wastebasket in the room. Then she pressed the but- 
ton set into an enameled plaque that said Pour sortir. 

She watched the wire rope that ran along under the ceiling 
between the entrance and exit doors. As it tightened, she 
murmured, "O God, You've permitted me to come this far 
. . . stay near me now for the rest of the way . . ." The exit 
door clicked and swung open. She picked up her suitcase, 
pulled once again at the short skirt, and walked out into the 
world on legs in which the bones had become suddenly as 
supportless as pillars of cotton. 

The world was a narrow cobbled street with early morning 

334 



sun slanting across it. At the far end, the street ran into 
a square where a corner cafe was opening for the day. The 
nurse in her said, You could do with some of that roasted 
barley they're using for coffee these days, besides, it's too 
early to get your photographs taken. She made a conscious ef- 
fort to stay away from house fronts and garden walls as she 
walked toward the cafe. 

The waiter eyed her nurse's veil and brought her a cup of 
dark fluid promptly. His elderly face creased in a smile as he 
served her. 

"You've probably been up all night delivering a soul into 
this troubled world, Mademoiselle," he said with a slight 
inflection of curiosity. 

"But yes . . ." She returned his smile shyly. "Yes, I have." 

"If Mademoiselle has the coupons, there can be a fresh- 
baked bun." 

"Thank you. This is quite enough." She picked up the 
tablet of saccharine lying in the bowl of the spoon and stirred 
it into the brown drink. The waiter's instant acceptance of 
her as a nurse turned her thoughts to the lay veil the convent 
had given her. 

They could have given me a hat in exchange for the one I 
wore when I went in, she thought, since everything else was 
such an exact return. She sipped the imitation coffee. The 
singular exception the convent had made in its choice of 
headgear, which proclaimed to the world she was a graduate 
nurse, was the gleam of charity she had sought behind the 
shocking chilly scrupulosity of the final rendering. Seeing the 
gleam made all the difference. When she looked up, the 
square was lively with motion and brightness. 

After a while she began to feel like a tourist who had come 
in on an early train and had time to kill before the shops 

335 



opened. Her father, an expert on tourism, had always said, 
"The first thing you do in a strange town is find the central 
cafe, take a table there, and then sit for a time and watch the 
world pass by." 

Without the protecting coif, she seemed to be looking at 
the world through wide-angle lenses. Off to the right she saw 
the waiter dusting tables, then the arc of shop fronts across 
the square and a street with a tram line that came in from 
the left. All movements in the expensive scene she could see 
without turning her head. A tram bustled into the square, 
made the loop and bustled out again. By moving only her 
eyes she could follow the people who got off, fumbled in their 
pockets for keys as they approached their places of business, 
opened up and went in. Presently iron shutters were rolling 
up, and here and there a colored awning descended like 
a bright eyelid over some special window where, she sup- 
posed, there were display goods too delicate for exposure to 
the sun. 

An old fanner with a string bag of endives over his shoul- 
der came toward the cafe. He looked over all the vacant ta- 
bles, then chose the one next to hers. He set his endives down 
on the cobbles with care, glanced at her suitcase and smiled. 

"We've got God's plenty of time to kill before the Brussels 
train departs," he said congenially. She smiled back at him 
but could think of nothing to say. 

The habit of silence, she reflected, the years of abjuring 
trivial talk, was just one of the many telltale disciplines she 
must learn to relax, and she remembered how she had looked 
with compassion at the two departing companions of her no- 
vitiate days, wondering how long it would take them to 
unlearn only a year and a half of the nun's stylized self- 
effacement. 



There will be help for me with my seventeen years to 
undo, there must be. "For every cup of water given in Your 
Name . . ." she whispered. She could not know, as she 
prayed for deliverance from convent mannerisms, that her 
nun's inner formation was a Gibraltar that would never be 
leveled that the ingrained habits of acting with charity and 
justice, with selflessness and sincerity, were to stamp her al- 
ways with a certain strangeness and make her seem to future 
nursing colleagues like some sort of enchanting revolutionary 
who practiced a way of life quite new and unheard of ... 

She looked up at the sky as she reminded God of the many 
cups of water she had given. There was a high eerie whine 
pitched on the single note of speed. A thin white streak cut 
across the blue. 

"As long as you can hear it, it's not meant for you/ 7 said 
the farmer. "Pray God we'll never see and not hear them 
. . . they make no sound, those V-i's, when they drop to 
target. That one's for Britain again," he said sadly. 

It gave her an emotion to see her first V-i going over. She 
had heard them often in the convent but had never gone to 
the window to look. She did not know as she watched the 
streak of white that it was a herald of sorts. 

Just eight weeks from that morning in August of '44, the 
V-i warfare was to be loosed on her liberated country, aimed 
especially toward the main Allied supply line the great port 
of Antwerp. She was going to be there in the uniform of an 
English army medical outfit, worrying then no more of how 
she walked or talked but only of the bodies that might still 
be breathing in the traps of rubble through which she crawled. 
The Belgian underground was recruiting nurses for that medi- 
cal corps even as she sat in the little caf 6 wondering what the 
mysterious Brussels address was going to mean for her. 

337 



She looked out again over the square which was the world 
on a small scale with nothing yet revealed that looked like 
pitfall for one who had not been about in it for some time. 
You can learn a lot in the beginning just by studying what's 
in those shop windows, she thought. Then she saw two Ger- 
mans in slick high officers' boots stroll in from the street to 
the left. They stopped a workman, looked at his papers, 
nodded and passed on. 

"I must go now," she said to the farmer. She took rime to 
add politely, trivially, "Good profit on the endives, Mon- 



sieur." 



Then she picked up her suitcase and walked with the nun's 
speed, yet no outward show of hurry, to the department 
store she had been watching open up. That nun's identity 
card was one document on which no German eye would ever 
gaze, she told herself fiercely as she glided into the store. A 
salesgirl directed her to the photography booths on the mez- 
zanine. 

She sat on a revolving stool before the first mirrors she had 
been free to look into in nearly two decades. Turning slowly, 
she looked at herself first full face, then in profile. The face 
seemed surprisingly young beneath the bandannalike veil. One 
lock of hair escaped from the front and stood straight up like 
an exclamation point above the analytical blue eyes. 

"It's not yet gray/' she said to the mirrored reflection of a 
civilian nurse. She sat perfectly still while she put coins in the 
slot and pressed the button. Lights flew on and there was a 
click and a whirring as she stared at herself. Then the lights 
went off and she listened to the mechanical camera digesting 
with watery sounds the composition of lights and shadows it 
had seen for a second. She stayed in the curtained booth 



while the photos developed, keeping her eye on the trough 
through which a printed sign said they would appear. 

There was one more step before she would be officially a 
registered civilian. She thought about it a little tremulously 
as she waited. Just what did one say to a city hall clerk when 
presenting a nun's identity card to be exchanged for a civil- 
ian's? Would the clerk think she was just another of those 
underground workers who were always switching identities? 
Or would he look at her with that peculiar morbid interest 
you often saw in people's eyes when they talked about nuns 
who were no longer nuns? As if, she thought, an ex-nun were 
an escapee from some sort of torture chamber a little bigger 
than the Iron Maiden in the Niirnberg museum, big enough 
in fact to clasp a whole female congregation in its unyielding 
mold and squeeze the sex out of it along with every other 
normal human yearning. That's all they know of it, she whis- 
pered to the civilian nurse watching her with steady eyes in 
the mirror. 

And suddenly she heard the nurse saying back to her the 
Capitulum of Sext . . . And I take root in an honorable peo- 
ple and in the portion of my God His inheritance: and my 
abode is in the full assembly of saints . . . and she knew 
without looking at her watch which Office her sisters were 
chanting at that moment. She imagined she could hear them 
in the curtained booth lifting up their hearts all together 
for the Deo Gratias. Then the automatic camera whirred and 
a strip of photos shot into the metal trough. 



339