Excerpt from The Sisters Mortland by Sally Beauman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Sisters Mortland

By Sally Beauman

The Sisters Mortland
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2006,
    448 pages.
    Paperback: Feb 2007,
    448 pages.

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The evidence of all Stella's searchings, all her short-lived vocations, is still here. There are the dried-up paints from the watercolorist spring; there's the sewing machine from the dress designer summer; there're the abandoned lenses from the photography period; and there's the clapped-out typewriter from the short-story-writer phase. That was the longest of the vocations and the last. Maybe Stella has finally found herself (I wonder how you do that?). Maybe she's given up looking. Either way, she avoids the refectory now.

Lucas has taken it over. He and Dan have just come down from Cambridge for the last time. They survived finals and arrived here, hideously hung over, the day after the Trinity May Ball. "It's the last long vac," Dan declared, "so let's make it a memorable one." Dan often stays at the Abbey now—he could stay with his father and grandmother in the village, but he prefers it here. He's encamped in his usual room in the main house and will stay till the end of the holidays. Lucas has visited before, but never for long—he never stays anywhere long—so this protracted visit is surprising. I don't think anyone exactly invited him, though I suppose Finn might have done. He's here for an indeterminate period. It could be the remainder of the summer, it could be less, it could be more. Lucas never makes plans—or if he does, he refuses to communicate them: He simply arrives when he feels like it and departs without warning or farewell. I can accept this, because Lucas and I understand each other; but for Finn and Julia, it's hard.

He's not interested in creature comforts. He sleeps under an old army blanket, on a lumpy couch in the corner. He brews coffee on a paraffin stove. When he wants a bath, he swims in the river. When he wants food, which isn't often, he comes up to the house, charms Stella, and raids the larder. Stella is a fine cook, and she thinks Lucas is a genius—an impression Lucas does nothing to discourage, I've observed. On the table over there, under a muslin fly protector, I can see her latest offerings to the artist-in-residence: a slice of Madeira cake and a lopsided, golden pork pie.

It's had a bite or two taken out of it. Next to it, propped up on an easel, turned to face the wall, and hidden behind screens, is the portrait Lucas is supposed to be painting—his recompense for living here all summer scot-free. It's a gigantic picture of Julia, Finn, and me, and Dan says it's going to be Lucas's magnum opus—for this year, anyway. It's to be called The Sisters Mortland, which I consider a dull, stupid title. Lucas doesn't seem to work on it very often—though he may work on it at night.

I'm not sleeping too well at night. Sometimes the nuns disturb me; sometimes it's my dreams. And once or twice, when I couldn't sleep, I've crept out of bed and come down to the garden, and I've seen the lights in here, blazing away. Lucas closes the interior shutters, but there are six bright slits striping the ground outside, like golden bars. It could be that these sketches of me are preparatory work for the portrait, or they may be unimportant, something he does to pass the time. I'd like to ask Lucas if they matter and why they might matter—but I know he won't answer: He's a secretive man. . . . It takes one to know one, as Bella likes to say: I'm a secretive girl.

Copyright © 2005 by Sally Beauman

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