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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"Sit still, Maisie," says Lucas. "Stop wriggling about." And he frowns.

Beside me, the Reverend Mother smiles. Isabella will be twenty-three in a few weeks: She has glass green eyes and a precious rosary made of jade. Her responsibilities are many, but she always has time for me. Touching my arm, raising a finger to her lips, she glances at Lucas and then steals silently away. Lucas the unbeliever sees nothing. Outside the windows, the sun shines. It hasn't rained in weeks. This is a golden summer, the best summer I've ever known. By the end of it I shall be translated, I feel certain. I'll cease to be a girl and become a woman. I shall emerge from my chrysalis, my wings damp but lustrous, Maisie transformed!

Lucas waits an interval and then says: "Okay—it's high summer. There's a full moon. You go down to the village, and Ocean's daughter tells the cards. And what did the old witch promise the three sisters, I wonder? A sweetheart? A legacy? A voyage? I bet it was a sweetheart. A tall, dark stranger. Like me."

"None of those things."

"An unusual fortune-teller," he says in his dry way. His manner becomes businesslike, but I know I have his attention. It gives me a small, secret thrill. He angles the sketchbook so there is no possibility of my seeing it and says: "Now, Maisie, you can talk, but don't move your head from that angle. The light's perfect. Turn your face slightly to the left. Undo that top button. . . . Excellent. Clever girl. I'm all ears. Now, go on."

I think, All ears and all eyes, too. Lucas has as many eyes as Argus, and if one of them should briefly close, the other ninety-nine remain alert and watchful. When dealing with Lucas, it's advisable to remember this, so I do.

I try to relax into my pose. I try to concentrate and summon up the past. It's cool here in Lucas's improvised studio, and it is calm. This large room has a stone floor and a vaulted ceiling. It was built by Isabella in the thirteenth century and extended early in the fifteenth, when the Abbey was at the height of its renown. It was once the refectory, linked by passageways to the cloister and the main body of the convent, but those links disappeared at the time of the Reformation, so this part of the building is now islanded. It's quiet and secluded. I can just hear the sound of Julia's gramophone in the distance—she's playing that Jefferson Airplane record again—but that's only because she turns it up full volume. Apart from that alien thump and moan, the only sounds are England: the hum of bees, the rustle of elms, the bleating of this year's lambs. They're almost fattened: off to the abattoir any day now.

The refectory's six tall, arched windows face away from the house, toward the fields, the orchards, and the valley below. In the past, Stella used to closet herself away in this room. She needed to find herself, she said, and this beautiful and tranquil space was just the place to do it. Yes, it was cold in winter, but for someone brought up in Canada, English winters held no fears. They were brief, it rarely snowed—no problem! Then Stella rediscovered English damp, East Anglian damp, which is all-pervasive, which creeps into your bones. Then she discovered just what happens here when the wind swings round to the east, when it howls in from Siberia and sweeps toward the Fens.

Copyright © 2005 by Sally Beauman

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