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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  • First Published:
    Jan 2006, 448 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2007, 448 pages

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[ one ]
Summer Maisie,
1967

WHEN WE FIRST CAME to the Abbey, it rained for five days. Nonstop. I'd been warned that this could happen in England, in spring and in summer, but I hadn't believed it. Every morning, we'd sit in silence at breakfast. Gramps hid behind his newspaper; my sisters fixed their eyes on their plates; my mother stared at air. I had to be propped up on three cushions to reach the table. Outside the windows was a wet, grieving world.

The laurels by the house hadn't been cut back then, and they dripped dismal black tears. Beyond them, you could see a corner of the old cloister, with a gargoyle spouting rain from mouth and eyes. The lawn had reverted to pasture, and the grasses bowed their heads like a congregation of penitents. The English air was a thick, peculiar mauve. The wind keened: The ground under the beech avenue was littered with broken limbs. I could see a severed arm, a giant's thighbone, and a terrible stump of a head, knotty and twisted round with ivy. It had two huge eyes. I knew they were watching all that grief seeping into the house. They were measuring the damp that fingered the walls and counting the drips from the ceilings—three buckets in that room alone. The wind gusted and moaned in the chimney. The windows rattled. "Well, children," Stella said in a wry way that meant trouble, "there is no possibility of taking a walk today."

She made the same remark, after the same interval of time, every day for five days. On the sixth day, she took to her bedroom and locked the door. We tried the usual remedies: flowers, fiction, and food. Julia took up a tray. Finn took her a bundle of books. I took her a bunch of bluebells (Hyacinthus nonscriptus), which Finn helped me pick in Nun Wood. We made a regular check: Three days later, they were still there outside the door.

The sun had appeared by then. Stella had refused to sleep in the large room she'd once shared with Daddy. Instead, she'd selected a mean little space on the attic floor, where the nuns' dormitories once were. The long corridors there were hot, dark, and stuffy smelling. The water in the jam jar had evaporated; the bluebells had doubled up and died. The packet of cigarettes was unopened, the emergency tot of Jack Daniel's was untouched, and the tiny triangular sandwiches had curled. Finn counted and checked the books. Six in total: Little Women, Mansfield Park, Jane Eyre, The Secret Garden, and Great Expectations were still there, but the sixth—I think it was Kidnapped—had gone. "Progress," said Finn. She pressed her ear to the locked door, and we all listened intently. The air in this house is odd, as you know—it has a weighty, brooding quality, and we were more aware of it then, when we weren't yet accustomed to it. So as we listened, it felt as though it listened right back—and that was weird.

After a while, Finn claimed she could hear the rustle of pages. A relief. We went off to explore. We investigated the library; it was a moth-eaten place then—even more so than it is now—and Gramps said that it used to be the nuns' Lady Chapel. Where the fireplace is now, there used to be the altar—did you know? We tried the famous Squint—and found it worked with amazing efficiency. We didn't notice what's so odd about it—not that first time. Then we set off to map the gardens and the woods and the village and the orchards and the lake and Black Ditch—

Copyright © 2005 by Sally Beauman

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