We passed a grand house that at first I took for the abbey Miss Ivens had told me about. "No no," Miss Ivens said, "that's the palace, built by the last abbot. Absolute indulgence. Monsieur Gouin lives there now. Delightful fellow but completely impractical," as if I should know who Monsieur Gouin was or why we might wish he were practical.
It began to snow. Miss Ivens took no notice, walked on ahead, asked me, without turning back, what I knew about drains. Drains were a problem. I must talk to Mrs. Berry. Berry knew something but not enough; we needed a plumber. I should go into Asnières tomorrow and arrange it. I should take Berry although she didn't speak the language. "Berry is a brick, though, she's good for me. Don't know what I'd do without her." And then forging ahead, failing at first to notice that I'd stopped, turning, seeing me, laughing, for I was looking straight up, my mouth wide open. "Snow," she said matter-of-factly. I must have looked blankly at her. "You've never seen snow?"
"No," I said. "Frost in the winter, but nothing like this."
"Wonderful stuff. We'll make angels tomorrow."
By the time we turned into the abbey grounds, the day was almost gone. The pines of the long drive were newly dusted with the snow which also dotted our coats and Miss Ivens's hair. She looked wild, a little mad even. She charged ahead once more, the gravel along the drive crunching with an alarming efficiency under her boots. Snow makes the world quieter and louder at the same time, she said quite loudly. Imagine never having seen snow, she said more softly, so softly I had to strain to hear. I'd stopped again and was standing still, for when you round that last bend and begin along that long drive, you see Royaumont Abbey for the first time, and you never forget it. You must stand still, or you'll miss the chance. Even at the end of that cold amazing day, even with the wonder of my first snow at hand, the abbey took my breath away. And the feeling in my heart? That feeling surprised me, for it was joy, joy and fear in about equal measure.
Until three months before, I'd only ever travelled between Stanthorpe and Brisbane, less than two hundred miles, the towns at each end with their proud little post offices and hotels as their architectural achievements, the space between them mostly bush. Royaumont Abbey was some other order of place, a feat of engineering or evidence of God, depending on how you saw the world. To one side were the remains of the chapel, recollecting a structure that once nudged the spires of Paris's Notre Dame in size but was now just one tall tower looking as if it might topple over. Next to the church tower were the monks' buildings, menacing in the winter twilight. I could just make out the window recesses along the front wall.
I know I was exhausted. My life at home had been simple, divided between Risdon and the Mater nursing quarters, with the occasional train trip to St. Joseph's to see one of Tom's teachers about something he'd done or hadn't done. I knew from one day to the next what lay in front of me and mostly it was much like what lay behind me. And now this, where every day was full of the strange. And through it allthe ship journey from Australia, the days in London, the Channel crossing, the days in Parisin the back of my mind was that other thought that could creep up on me when I least expected, as it did now, the thought of my brother Tom, telling me of his plan to run away, me agreeing, letting him go when Daddy said I should have stopped him. Tom now, just fifteen years old, somewhere out there in this cold, fighting the wicked Germans.
As we drew closer, I made out two large wooden doors. Darkness would soon be with us but no light shone inside the abbey. I looked to Miss Ivens, her hair flecked with snow, her arms out to the sides, hands not touching anything, those enormous boots. It was so cold now my breath caught in my throat. The doors looked as if they hadn't been opened for years. Miss Ivens knocked, waited, said, more to herself than to me, "Where the devil are they?" I still heard no sound nor saw a light within. A notion lodged in my brain that there was no one here but us. It took hold quickly, the cold feeding my imagination. Miss Ivens was mad. She'd led me here to the pixie twilight on a merry chase, and her talk of drains and equipments and hospitals was nothing but a product of her madness. Oh Iris, you fool, now look what you've done, acted impulsively, followed your most wrongheaded instincts, followed this mad Englishwoman, and here you are in the middle of a dark forest with no way back.
Excerpted from In Falling Snow by Mary-Rose MacColl. Copyright © 2013 by Mary-Rose MacColl. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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