Sister Edith, lean, pale and restless, was in charge of the kitchen, a position for which she had neither interest nor talent if last night's anonymous food was any indication. Sister Matilda, on the other hand, was red-faced, rotund and in charge of the kitchen garden. From the drooping state of its few pallid vegetables, little had survived her less than tender care over the summer growing months.
Eleanor looked up as she heard scuffling outside the chapter house from the direction of the cloister walk. The sound made her think of a large mouse running in soft leather shoes. Sister Christina rushed through the door and almost tripped over raised spots in the worn, uneven stone floor. All eyes, lowered though they were, watched with great interest the round nun's graceless progress to her assigned seat and their new prioress's reaction.
"I am late!" The nun panted the obvious.
Sister Anne gently smiled and moved to one side to make room for her.
Eleanor lifted one eyebrow and waited in silence for the nun to offer some explanation.
"I was lost in prayer to Our Lady." Christina's face was rose-red. She twisted her hands, round and around, as if she didn't know why she had such strange things attached to her arms and was trying to discover a use for them.
The prioress did not smile.
"It will not happen again!"
Out of the corner of her eye, Eleanor saw Sister Ruth nodding to the young woman with an almost benevolent smile twitching at her thin lips. The habit of authority is rarely surrendered with ease, Eleanor thought, as she ignored Sister Ruth's act and gestured in silence for the young nun to sit.
The flustered Christina wiggled herself into the space allotted to her.
Sister Ruth's careless attitude about the young nun's absence suggested that it was both habitual and accepted. Why had the former prioress permitted this breach of discipline, Eleanor wondered. Again, Brother Rupert would know the reason. She had so much she needed to ask him.
She looked around again. Although the elder monk's attendance was not obligatory, it would have added some weight of legitimacy to her own presence at Tyndal had he come to her first chapter. He understood that she needed all the support she could get from those respected inside the priory and had pledged his loyalty last night. That the old priest had not shown up was therefore inexplicable. Although aged, he had seemed vigorous enough at table. The meal may have been one of the worst Eleanor had ever eaten, but surely it had not made the good monk ill. Perhaps an emergency had delayed him.
Eleanor looked over at Sister Christina. "Did you see or hear Brother Rupert on your way from the church, sister?"
The nun opened her eyes and blinked as if she had just awakened from a deep sleep. "No, my lady."
"Then we shall start without him," Eleanor said, with what she hoped was a significant look at Christina. "Punctuality is a virtue without which we fail in our obligations to God as well as to man." Her voice sounded sufficiently stern to her own ears, and she prayed it also sounded more mature and forceful than she felt.
With that, Eleanor, duly appointed head of Tyndal Priory, clutched her staff of office with a firm hand, looked with steady eye across the granite slabs marking the graves of her noble predecessors, and began her first official act as prioress.
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