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by Kate Gallison
Description: When Episcopal priest Lavinia Grey takes her flock on retreat to the Monastery of St. Hugh, she has no idea how little chance for rest and contemplation they will find there. Her worst enemies show up, and Mother Vinnie finds herself battling the forces of sin--pride, lust, gluttony--and murder. Even her best friend, Deacon Deedee Gilchrist, loses her sense of humor when the two clergywomen face a fiery death. Mystery by Kate Gallison; originally published by Dell
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 1998
Filament eBookStore Release Date: August 2010
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [256 KB]
Reading time: 157-219 min.
All Other formats: Printing DISABLED, Read-aloud DISABLED
"An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace," said Deacon Deedee Gilchrist.
Recognizing a Jeopardy! question, Mother Lavinia Grey replied without thinking: "What is a sacrament?" She knew her catechism as well as the next person.
"Not in this case," said Deedee. "In this case the question is, 'What is Mission furniture?'"
The two women were gazing into the cavernous library of the guesthouse of the Episcopal Monastery of St. Hugh. The library was furnished entirely with bookcases, tables, and chairs of a solid rectilinear appearance, the rich grain of their wood glowing in pools of light from curious square lamps. "Mission furniture?" Mother Grey said. "Is that what this is?"
"Mission in every sense of the word," said Deedee. "Quarter-sawn fumed oak, outwardly and visibly gracious, though not, as you see, very graceful, strictly speaking."
"I think it looks fine," Mother Grey said. It was true that nothing she saw in there was overly decorated or curvy.
"Fine, yes, and perfectly apropos. Function without worldly frills, comfort without luxury. Just the thing for the weary spirit fleeing the fleshpots of late twentieth-century American society."
"Do they make this stuff specially for monasteries?" Mother Grey asked.
"No. It's old. It used to be made specially for self-righteous aesthetes. Then everybody wanted it, and after that it went out of fashion. Some old lady left this lot to the monks in her will, twenty or thirty years ago."
"It goes nicely here," Mother Grey said. "Show me the rest of the guesthouse." She was ready for the monastery experience. They had driven up here from New Jersey in Deedee's minivan, with a few of Mother Grey's parishioners, to make a Lenten retreat for the weekend. Deedee had talked her into it. The brochures looked good, and Deedee's own brother, Brother Fergus, was the prior. Deedee had lined up another monk, Brother Basil, a most devout and erudite old man, recently retired from a stint as a missionary in one of the hot spots of the third world, to lead the retreat.
The very notion of holy monks, vowed to poverty and solitary contemplation, running a hotel, even a hotel of spartan accommodations and spiritual uplift, seemed almost contradictory to Mother Grey. All the same, no less holy a monk than St. Benedict himself, founder of the Benedictine order, had recommended hospitality as a ministry.
It seemed to be working, on Mother Grey at least. Her first experience of the monastery guesthouse--the sound of rain on leaded glass windows, the smooth, cool feel of quarry tile underfoot, the sight of the many books cramming the mission bookcases--refreshed and pleased her. Her carsickness, engendered by the twists, turns, swoops, and dips of the final leg of their journey, was fading. She could see herself spending the weekend in one of these comfy (though never luxurious) morris chairs, reading, thinking, and recuperating from the stresses of pastoring St. Bede's, in Fishersville.
Brother Octavian, the brisk and preppy young guestmaster, had taken the others straight upstairs to their rooms to unpack and recover from the journey. Except for Deedee, none of Mother Grey's companions--not the elderly Delight van Buskirk, nor Martine Wellworth, nor fortyish newlyweds Annabelle and Roger Smartt--had ever been to the monastery before. It was a five-hour drive from Fishersville, interstates most of the way, with one stop for supper.
The Smartts, legally wed for a whole month now, had sat in the very back, where they whispered, giggled, and spooned like twenty-year-olds. Martine and Mrs. van Buskirk occupied in the middle seat. While bits of knitting sprouted from Mrs. van Buskirk's clicking needles, Martine sat in silence, staring out at the nonscenery of the rainy interstate. It was some time before Mother Grey missed Martine's usual chatter, absorbed as she was in a struggle with Deedee over the aesthetic of the tape deck.
First Deedee played her tape of the Memphis Godly Stompers yodeling "Praise Jesus All You Out There." Mother Grey endured its cheerful bathos for half an hour and then replaced it with a more satisfying recording, Pablo Casals performing Bach unaccompanied sonatas and partitas.
A little dry for some, perhaps, but Mother Grey found it altogether transporting; she shut her eyes and drifted into another dimension. After a tape and a half Deedee called her back, declaring that she was sick to death of that stinking highbrow cello music.
Mother Grey countered that Deedee's white gospel tapes were mind-rotting trash.
"Martine," said Deedee. "Did you bring any black gospel tapes, by any chance?"
"Black gospel tapes?"
"Yes, the good stuff," said Mother Grey. "I don't suppose--?" Actually, she didn't suppose. Martine wasn't the sort of downhome African-American who went in for gospel. Indeed, Mother Grey hardly thought of her as a black person at all; if she pigeonholed Martine, it was as a yuppie lawyer. The way things worked out, this was a mistake, because Martine's race was important to Martine and also to certain others.
As to gospel tapes, however, Martine shook her head. "I guess I'm not that far into African-American culture," she said. "Maybe I should be. Which reminds me, Mother Vinnie, we need to have a talk."
"Later on. I have something on my mind and I need to unburden myself to you. As a friend." She handed up a cassette to them in the front seat. "Play this if you want to; I've already heard it." Martine's tape proved to be a recording of the latest legal thriller from John Grisham. But Deedee and Mother Grey wanted music.
A talk? So. Martine was brooding, and her bad mood had something to do with Mother Grey. What did I do this time? Never mind, she would find out soon enough. She set herself to searching for tunes.
She found nothing in the tote bag but more cello and some Isaac Stern.
"Unacceptable," said Deedee, handing her another tape. "Play this."
"No," said Mother Grey, handing it back. "No more New Christian praise songs." They rolled on in ill-tempered silence until at last she found another handful of cassettes under the maps in the glove compartment.
"What are these?"
"Something of Arthur's," said Deedee. The minivan belonged to Deedee's church, Holy Assumption in Ocean Prospect, of which The Reverend Canon Arthur Spelving, Deedee's boss, was the rector.
The cassettes proved to be recordings of plainsong, performed by Spanish monks. Divine. Just the thing to set the mood for St. Hugh's, she said, and everyone agreed. But after they left the interstate, Mother Grey no longer cared about the music.
"It's the winding road," she mumbled, groping for a plastic bag. "Maybe we should stop for a minute." Fortunately they had arrived at their destination. Deedee nosed the minivan down the long wet gravel drive and into the monastery parking lot. Mother Grey got out, turned her face to the gently rainy sky, and took a deep breath of the piney woods.
Right away she felt better. When the others followed Brother Octavian upstairs to their rooms, Mother Grey was ready to go with Deedee to tour the rest of the guesthouse.
"So where are the other monks?"
"Let's see," said Deedee, whipping out her folded brochure with the schedule of offices. "Compline is just over."
"Yes. They're back in their quarters, doing monk things. We'll see them tomorrow at matins."
"When can I meet your brother?"
"Later tomorrow. The Great Silence lasts from nine at night to eight-fifteen in the morning. After that we can talk to Fergus." They passed through a shadowy hallway and came to a pair of big doors. "This is the refectory," Deedee said. Mother Grey pushed the door open and saw rows of dining tables, walls of rainy windows.
"What a view. That's the east bank of the Hudson, isn't it?"
"Yup. You'll love the food here."
"Of course I will," said Mother Grey. She loved almost any food prepared by persons other than herself.
"Brother Mortimer came here from the CIA," Deedee said.
"A cook. The Culinary Institute of America is a famous chef school, right over there across the river. Brother Mortimer does all the cooking at St. Hugh's."
"You wonder about the past lives of monks," said Mother Grey. What would prompt a man to leave a good career and come here? Oh, yes, the love of God, certainly, but still, to withdraw completely from the world--
"You wonder, but it's rude to ask," said Deedee. "Let's go check out the sleeping accommodations. You have Saint Cuthbert, I believe, and I'm in Saint Anselm."
"The rooms are all named after saints. Come on up, I'll show you."
Sure enough, the glass transoms of the doors that lined both sides of the long upstairs hallway were painted with the names of saints. Over the door to the women's bathroom was the name of St. Dymphna.
"I'll see you later," said Deedee, and went to unpack.
Saint Cuthbert was two doors farther on, a dear little room, painted stark white, with a narrow cot, a small chest of drawers, and over the chest an icon of the Blessed Mother with the Holy Child in her arms. On the wall beside the bed a notice exhorted her to say a prayer when it was time to leave for the next person to stay there. She said one now for whoever had been there before her, and put her things into the drawers.
No one was in the library.
In one of the bookcases was a copy of The Screwtape Letters. The first time she had read it, she was fourteen--an interesting place in her life to wander back to. She took it from the shelf and went to find a place to sit.
There were many places, all pleasing if you liked oak. The stiff little armchair in the corner had a rush seat and a design of stylized leaves and stems, made of darker wood and two kinds of metal, worked into the central splat.
If this were mine, I would polish it, she thought. Part of the inlay looked like copper; a little Brasso would bring it up nicely. But of course she wouldn't polish it; she was a terrible housekeeper; she would merely think about polishing it. For sitting she preferred the chair next to it, no doubt an early recliner design, with pegs you could adjust to let the back recline. That one had leather cushions on the seat and back.
She adjusted the pegs to her liking, leaned back, and put her feet up on the oak and leather footstool. With a sigh of anticipation she opened the book.
But it was no good. Her attention would not be focused.
Deedee came in and sat in the chair beside her. "Something wrong?"
"Wrong?" Mother Grey asked.
"You're frowning and massaging your forehead."
"You came here to get away from it all, remember? To get some rest. Forget your personal life, forget diocesan politics, look for God in the wilderness and all that."
"What have you heard about diocesan politics?"
"Nothing you don't know already. I heard that the Archdeacon has left, and that your old friend Rupert Bingley is now in full charge of the Department of Missions."
"Rupert Bingley is an unregenerate blister."
"Didn't he save your life once?"
"Entirely by accident."
"What is it with you and Bingley, Vinnie? I've never heard you say a kind word about that poor man."
"That poor man is very powerful, Deedee, powerful well beyond the limits of his intelligence, and he wants to close my church."
"Why is that?"
"He wants my parishioners, he wants my windows, he doesn't think women should be priests."
"St. Bede's windows. You remember them, lovely English windows with angels and saints. The idea is to close St. Bede's and take the windows to St. Dinarius. One time he had the nerve to bring a carpenter to measure them. That was years ago, way before he became chairman of the Department of Missions. What is he going to do now? I shudder to think. His next attack could come at any moment."
"You'll beat him. You always have before."
"I open this book, and all I see is his smirking face."
"Forget him. You're on vacation."
"You're right." Away with all conflict, away with all strife. She would deliver her little flock into the hands of the excellent Brother Basil and find some peace and quiet. Next week would be plenty of time to gird her loins to do battle with Bingley.
Here came the flock now, the Smartts and Mrs. van Buskirk anyway. The Smartts were whining about not being allowed to sleep together.
"I thought we were supposed to have a double room," said Anabelle Smartt. She tugged at her knitted tunic. Was that a tunic or a very short dress? Were those tights or leggings? When Deedee told them all to dress comfortably for the weekend Mother Grey understood her to mean slacks an a sweater, not some getup that showed the dimples in one's knees. Mutton dressed up like lamb, Granny would have said.
Deedee tried to mollify them. "I'm sorry, but I couldn't get double rooms. When I called to make the reservations, the rooms with double beds were already taken."
"Who took them?" Roger Smartt said.
"The guestmaster said they were reserved for another group."
Mother Grey supposed Roger Smartt barked like that at his fellow employees at the software company where he worked as some sort of middle manager. Here it was too loud, too strident. Even his false hair jarred. Normally Mother Grey didn't notice Roger's rug, but today the brilliant auburn hairpiece seemed to throb against the gray in his own hair.
"He didn't say. Some other people from New Jersey."
Who could have known that not sleeping together would be such a problem for the Smartts? Were they not there for prayer and contemplation? A little self-denial never hurt anyone, thought Mother Grey, who slept alone.
"You have all the time in the world," Delight van Buskirk pointed out. "Your whole lives."
"Some people consider it rude, you know, to enjoy conjugal bliss in a monastery full of holy celibate monks," Deedee said.
"Rude?" Roger said.
"Like eating in front of the starving." The Smartts exchanged a look, rolling their eyes at each other. Delight van Buskirk took out her knitting.
While everyone else settled down to read, knit, or contemplate, the Smartts put their raincoats back on and went outside into the wet dark--to have a smoke, they said. Maybe they planned to try enjoying conjugal bliss under a bush somewhere.
A few minutes of quiet, and then a commotion arose in the vestibule. Mother Grey put down her book and went to the door to see who was here. The new arrivals--perhaps the other group from New Jersey--were stamping slush off their feet, shaking their dripping umbrellas, and blowing on their hands.
There in the doorway, attacking his unruly umbrella with such zeal that he might have been trying to fold up the devil himself and jam him into a nylon tube, stood bald, fat Father Rupert Bingley.
Of all the things he could have been doing this weekend, of all the places he could have gone, why this, why here? thought Mother Grey. Pestilence. There went her weekend of serenity.
Several of his flock from St. Dinarius were with him. What a waste of double rooms.
He looked up, and a slow horror dawned in his eyes as they met the horror in her own. "You!" he cried. Mrs. Bingley dug him sharply in the ribs, and he covered his discourtesy with a cough. "Ahem! Hem! Good evening, Mother Grey. What a pleasant surprise." A wife of the old school, Martha Bingley saw it as her duty to correct her husband's bad behavior. Just as well, too, in Bingley's case, Mother Grey thought. Too bad she can't be with him all the time.
"Father," she said. "How nice to see you."
Bingley seemed about to introduce her to the people he had brought with him. What would he have said? People, this is my archenemy, the upstart priestess of Fishersville. But Martha did the honors: "Mother Grey, may I present Beryl Newmont."
A young woman with a dancer's body and a profusion of curly yellow hair put out her hand. "Call me Berry."
"And this is her brother Jonathan--" A younger brother, a slouching adolescent with pimples and a greasy hank of straight hair falling in his eyes.
The boy tossed his head, temporarily clearing his view of her. "H'lo," he said. "Smile," he said, and brought up a palm-sized videocamera. Ugh! Technology in this holy place! She gave him a frosty little rictus.
"I believe you know the Sedgewicks," Martha Bingley went on.
My word! Rodman Sedgewick and his wife!
Mrs. Bingley was forestalled from making further introductions by Deedee, who put her rosy face in the vestibule and announced in a stage whisper, "Nine o'clock, campers. The Great Silence has begun." That was the last word any of them spoke that night, at least in public.
Rodman Sedgewick. The last time she had seen Rodman Sedgewick--just before she killed his chances for a seat in the U.S. Senate--he had tried to whack her to death with a polo mallet.