Quiet as a Nun

Free Quiet as a Nun by Antonia Fraser

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Authors: Antonia Fraser
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any form of agreement with what she said. From time to time Sister Lucy wiped her eyes surreptitiously with her handkerchief, large, white and rather masculine in type, the sort of handkerchief that all the nuns used. Then after a bit, to distract herself from Sister Boniface, she began to type up her medical notes.
    Obviously as infirmarian she too must have seen a lot of Sister Edward with her chronic asthma. As a trained nurse - Sister Lucy had worked at a big London hospital before she discovered her vocation - she was certainly likely to be right in her notion of how to treat an asthmatic. Frankly, the remedies of Sister Boniface, prayers and so forth, struck me as not so far from the practices of a witch doctor. Or a witch.
    Veronica O'Dowd. The name struck a bell. Hadn't the nun Mother Ancilla quoted to me as having left the convent so amicably, been called O'Dowd?
    'Yes, they were sisters,' confirmed the former nurse. 'But Sister Edward was of course much younger.'
    'The first and last daughters of a lovely Catholic family. Nine of them in all. Five girls and four boys - two boys priests and the first and last girls given to God. That's the way things should be,' muttered Sister Boniface. Given to God indeed: my indignation had not altogether left me. One sister had gone back into the world after fifteen years of wasted seclusion. The other sister was dead at the age of - what? her early twenties, I would say.
    'Beatrice O'Dowd should never have chosen the name of John in religion.' There was no stopping Sister Boniface now. 'I told her. It may be the name of the disciple Our Lord loved, but He certainly doesn't love nuns called John in this convent. Sister John Brodsky died in a train crash before the war - an amazing thing to happen to a nun in those days. We hardly ever went in trains. Sister John had to have false teeth and she was on her way back from the dentist. She must have been so sad to have wasted the community's money. Being on her way back. When she got to purgatory, that is.'
Sister Boniface chomped her wrinkled cheeks.
    'Sister John Megeve died of diphtheria. She had never been immunised, being brought up abroad. And then Sister John O'Dowd getting all these newfangled ideas and leaving us. I warned her.'
'Edward wasn't a very lucky name, either,' I said, drily.
    'Stuff and nonsense,' replied Sister Boniface. 'Sister Edward Walewska joined the Order when she was sixteen. And lived to be over a hundred. As a little girl in Poland she watched Napoleon dance at a ball with her aunt, from a balcony. I knew her quite well as a child here. What do you say to that, now?'
    I had nothing to say to that. Except the obvious fact that nuns under the old order of things often lived to a ripe old age. Nowadays they often died young. Or left the convent.
    Nevertheless the roots of the late Sister Edward's hysteria were beginning to be uncovered. Her sister leaving the convent after, presumably, a period of indecision and doubt would have been traumatic enough. Then there was Sister Miriam's secret, her ghastly death, the coroner's public castigation. It could all have added up to a pattern of imbalance in a much stronger person. But Sister Edward had been an asthmatic since childhood. While asthma itself was frequently of nervous origin.
    Naturally I wasted no thought on Sister Edward's allegation that Sister Miriam had been deliberately killed. Not even the news that Mother Ancilla had been the last person to see Sister Edward alive sent my thoughts in any particularly sinister direction. Why should it? Sister Edward had felt faint during benediction, and later retired from the nuns' supper. It was quite proper that Mother Ancilla should pay a visit to her cell after supper. The younger nun seemed sleepy but the faintness had passed. She was certainly not breathing quickly.
No-one else saw Sister Edward alive.
    Whether she called out as she fought for breath in the narrow cell could not be known. Whereas the

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