The Most Cardinal Sin Part Two
Old Ma Cusack’s story continued and I waited with bated breath to hear the outcome. On the night Johnny and Theresa where supposed to flee, the nuns once again, locked her in her room. She begged the girl who was helping her, to get the key and let her out, but it was well past the hour of the planned meeting when she finally heard the key turn in the lock. Whispering her thanks and wearing the only clothes she possessed, the white habit, Theresa crept as quietly as her bulk would allow, down the stairs and out through the back door of the convent.
Johnny paced the grass in the graveyard as the night deepened. He dare not go to the convent and could only wait and pray that his love would keep the appointment. He heard footsteps on the gravelled pathway beside the church, and crouched down in the steps, as he waited for them to come closer. He knew by the heavy thread that there was more than one person, and he was sure they had been found out. The first blow to the back of his head stunned him. The footsteps were a decoy, and he didn’t hear his assassin approach. He looked up at the dark, cowled figure standing over him and raised his hands to shield his face.
“Please don’t hurt me,” he whispered, but there was to be no mercy, and the club fell again and again until he was no more.
The door to the tomb was open, as the nuns had obtained the key and spent that afternoon oiling the rusted lock. It was that Johnny’s body was dumped among the rotting bits of coffins and the bones of the dead. No one knows for certain whom his murdered was, and it was never spoken about again. Words spread that he had run away after stealing from the convent, and since he was an orphan, there was no one to question his disappearance, other than Theresa. When she reached the tomb that night, the foul deed was done, but having no knowledge of this; she sat down on the steps and waited. The night grew colder and she watched as the lamps in the convent windows went out one by one. The sisters were getting ready for bed. Sick with worry, she decided to walk the mile or so to the cottage where Johnny lived with the gardener. The graveyard gate screeched open and she was about to step outside, when a hand grabbed her wrist and pulled her back. No one outside the convent knew about her pregnancy and the nuns wanted it kept that way.
“I don’t believe you,” Theresa shook her head in horror. “He would never leave me.”
The blow to her face made her nose bleed and she was dragged back pleading with the nun to let her go. Once again she was locked in her room and fed a diet of bread and water. The young girl who was sympatric to her plight came to visit her and Theresa begged her to check for a note from Johnny. This she did, but returned each day empty-handed. Theresa became despondent as the days passed and there was no word. She cried, she screamed and begged her jailors to let her go, but they were deaf to her pleas and she received even more beatings for her actions. It was obvious from the way they treated her, that the nuns didn’t care if her baby lived, but she would not give in. She would wait until the baby was born and run away with it. The open road could not treat her as cruelly as the nuns, and at least her child would have a chance of surviving. The meagre rations she was fed left her weak and run down. Months passed without a kind word from anyone and by the time it came to giving birth, she was like a walking skeleton. The labour was long and hard, with only the nun who worked with the livestock to help her. A doctor was needed, the nuns knew this, but no one could learn of their shame, and Theresa held her daughter for only a moment, before the blood gushing from her body closed her eyes forever.
Her death remained a secret, though it was whispered about by the girls in the school, that she was locked away in one of the towers as she had gone mad. Her body was buried late at night under one of the flowerbeds she had so lovingly planted with Johnny. The nuns told no one about her death and it was easy to conceal, as her aunt cared nothing for her niece. Two years later, they passed another young woman off as Theresa, when the solicitor called on the day of her eighteenth birthday, and the nuns got their blood money. The story of her ghost being seen started soon afterwards, and there have been countless eyewitnesses to the white wraith, who moves between the convent and the graveyard, in her endless search for the lost lover and baby.
“Would you like to see inside the convent?” Ma Cusack asked when she finished telling the story.
“Would it be possible?” I was excited by her offer.
She stood and walked to a dresser. Opening one of the drawers she withdrew a tissue -wrapped bundle. She opened the parcel to reveal a beautiful white cloth edged with lace.
“I make these for the altar in the church,” she said, passing me the cloth. My old fingers find it harder these days to make the lace, but I’ll keep at it until the end. The nuns pay me well for it and I’m due to drop this off, so we can go tomorrow if you like?”
“Won’t they be suspicious of me?” I asked.
“Ah, no, I’ll say you’re a niece, they won’t ask too many questions,” she smiled at her daring.
As I drove back to the hotel that night, I had to pass the convent and the graveyard. I must admit I kept my eyes on the road and didn’t dare look out into the darkness beside me, sure I would see the fleeting shape of something white drifting between the headstones.
Tuesday morning was bright and the sun was shining when I collected Ma Cusack from her little cottage, she insisted I call her Ma, as everyone does, she says. I had been wondering all night how so much was known about Theresa and asked her.
“Remember the young girl I told you about, who helped Theresa?” She asked, and
without waiting for a reply, she continued.
“Shortly after she left the convent, she wrote a book about it, but the church had it stopped. They could do things like that back then, but word leaked out. It was that, and the rumours that were spread about by those who worked at the convent. In a place as small this, everyone knows your business.”
“Why wasn’t anything done to the nuns?” I asked. “Surely, they could have been made to pay for their crime?”
“The church had terrible power back then and the convent was the biggest employer hereabouts, so who was going to tell on them? They call them the good old days, but they were never that,” she brushed an imaginary hair from her face. “They were wicked, hard times, and those poor innocents paid with their lives.”
Butterflies fluttered in my stomach as we walked up to the door of the convent. Ma Cusack pulled on the rope and the jangle of the bell sounded like thunder in the silence. Overhead gulls swooped and screeched and the wind from the sea ruffled our hair and tugged at our clothes as we waited. From inside, we heard the clatter of hurrying feet and the grill on the door was thrown back.
“Hello, Sister Bridget,” Ma Cusack said. “I’m here with the altar cloth and I have a visitor. My niece has come to stay for a few days and I’ve brought her with me, she’s mad to see the convent, as she loves old building.”
The grill was closed again and we listened as a number of bolts were thrown back. Rather than the scowling figure I had come to expect, Sister Bridget beamed at me and shook my hand.
“We don’t often get visitors,” she ushered us inside. “Feel free to have a look round while I take your aunt to the reverend mother. The other sisters are out in the gardens. There are only ten of us left now, so you can wander around the lower floor as you please.”
I couldn’t believe my luck. Once the nun and Ma Cusack disappeared down one of the corridors, I was able to take a good look around me. The hall was dark and smelled of furniture polish and candle wax. Portraits of past nuns dotted the walls. Some stared down at me, their gaze stern and disapproving; others observed me with furtive smiles and their eyes followed me along the corridors. Each step I took echoed, as I made my way to a door marked refectory. Peeping inside, I saw it was the dining hall. Tables ran the lengths of the room and at one time it must have seated over a hundred. The few table mats set out for the nuns, looked lost in the vastness of the wooden surfaces. This room, like the hallway, was deep in shadow, as the morning sun found it difficult to creep through the high arched windows. The next room was a library, the shelves lined with books. I traced my finger along the spines to read the titles. Some were in Latin, the binding creased and worn from eager hands. I found the back door Jane spoke of. It was at the end of one of the corridors and I walked to the spot where I imagined Theresa stood on that fateful night.
Poor little girl,” I whispered. “I am so sorry for what they did to you.”
Was it my imagination or did I hear a soft sob behind me? Probably imagination, as every sound echoes in this place, and it could have been nothing more than the sighing of the wind. I opened the door and stepped outside. I had pictured it differently in my mind. There is an open quadrangle that runs round the building with a patch of lawn in the centre. The cloisters are framed with large, arched windows beautifully carved into the stone and the ground is paved with uneven slabs worn smooth by the centuries of passing feet. It seemed a peaceful place on such a morning, and anyone who didn’t know its dark history, would be fooled into thinking it had always been that way. Ma Cusack came to get me and hurried me away, refusing Sister Bridget’s offer of tea. I thanked the nun as I was all, but pushed out the main door by the old woman.
“I didn’t want her asking too many questions,” she explained, as we walked back to the car.
Once again I drove out of sight and we went into the graveyard. I followed Ma over to one of the tombs and we stood staring down at steps and the rotting old door.
“I wish I’d brought flowers,” I said. “It would be nice to show someone remembers.”
“Pick some,” Ma waved her hand around the field.
There were wild flowers in abundance, so I did as she suggested and we lay them at the door of the tomb. I tried not to think about the young man who’d be left there to rot and thought instead of the two lovers and the happiness they had once felt.
“When is she seen?” I asked my companion.
“Usually at dusk,” the old woman replied. “Poor child, hers is a terrible tale. Johnny is rarely seen, but when he is, his ghost is a frightening one; blood cakes his ashen face, as he wanders around the graveyard calling her name.”
Twilight seems the favourite time for ghosts. In those few minutes, as day surrenders to night, they are allowed to roam. It’s understandable when you think of it, as the sun sets and shadows deepen. They belong to that place, the land of shadows, caught between darkness and light, in a world of endless dusk. We must pity them, and then let them be. Nothing could be worse than their timeless wandering and we can only pray that our own fate never mirrors theirs.
Until next week, my friends, when I will once again take you into that world beyond our own, the place where darkness lurks and shadows are born.
Copyright © 2011 Gemma Mawdsley