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
    Feb 2007, 448 pages

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"Did you hear the pages rustling?" Lucas asks, interrupting me just as I'm getting going. He looks up from his sketchbook, pencil poised. I steal a quick, squinty look at the page in front of him: twelve inches by fourteen, a satisfying, heavy-woven texture. There's a maze of scribblings, of cross-hatchings, and those shadowings Lucas creates by smudging with his thumb. Out of these blacks and whites, I, Maisie, am being born.

I'm not supposed to look at my portrait while it's in the making; Lucas catches my crafty glance and tilts the sketchbook away out of view. I consider his question. It's hard to remember: It was over ten years ago. I was very little then. It's momentous to lose your father. I didn't truly realize that I had lost him: Every time a door opened, I expected him to walk in.

So in my memory, all the events of that first summer at the Abbey are flurried. They're bright and distinct, like the images on playing cards, but if I try to look at them too closely, it makes me anxious. I feel that some are missing, or the conjuror dealing them has kept certain cards up his sleeve. He shuffles magnificently, the way Dan's grandmother does—but there's sleight of hand involved. Something tricksy is going on.

I concentrate on the locked door and the curling sandwiches. I can smell the musty scent of the Jack Daniel's. Finn and Julia are crouching either side of me. A trapped fly buzzes at a window no one has opened in decades. I think I did hear a rustling sound eventually, and it might have been pages turning. Equally, considering where we were, and the nature of this house, the rustling could have had other origins. The nuns that once inhabited this place inhabit it still, I remind Lucas. They hang out in the upstairs corridors; they congregate on the stairs; their rosary beads clack and their skirts—yes—rustle. When you pass them, the sisters watch you in a pale, patient way, as if they're waiting for you to join them—and they seem certain they won't be waiting too long.

Dead and gone eight hundred years—but that doesn't stop them. Why don't they rest in peace, the way the dead are supposed to? I wonder why they haunt me, when all the people I'd welcome being haunted by—my father, for instance—have never showed up once? "Oh, come on, Maisie," Lucas says. "Stop this. It upsets everyone—and it's tedious. There is no afterlife. No heaven, no hell, no underworld, no God, no devil, no angels, no demons, no ghosts . . . In particular, and for the umpteenth time, there are no spectral nuns. You're a practical child. You know that perfectly well. Stop embroidering, and sit still."

Lucas is an unbeliever. Much he knows. He speaks sharply, though, so I realize I've irritated him—Lucas is easily bored. To placate him, I sit as still as a harvest mouse (Micromys minutus), and after about fifteen minutes of silent work he relents. I knew he would. Lucas likes my stories. Everyone else at the Abbey is always too busy to listen. Not just now, Maisie, they say, backing away. But Lucas is an addict for information and I'm a good historian, so we make an excellent pair. Unlike Stella, I tell the truth; unlike Gramps, I stick to the point; unlike Finn and Julia, I don't dodge round awkward corners and miss the best bits out. If you want to know about this house and this family—as Lucas certainly does—I'm the one to consult. I reveal secrets—and there are plenty of those. I may be a child, but I'm formidably observant, as Lucas knows. Tell it like it is, Julia says. And I do. I do. I do.

Copyright © 2005 by Sally Beauman

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