“As severely as you like,” the Rector agreed, “provided that you only criticize yourself, and don’t criticize Almighty God.”
“But surely,” Mark went on, “I ought to be asking myself now that I am twenty-one how I shall best occupy the next three years?”
“Certainly,” the Rector assented. “Think it over, and be sure that, when you have thought it over and have made your decision with the help of prayer, I shall be the first to support that decision in every way possible. Even if you decide to be a preaching friar,” he added with a smile. “And now I have some news for you. Esther arrives here tomorrow to stay with us for a fortnight before she is professed.”
SISTER ESTHER MAGDALENE
Esther’s novitiate in the community of St. Mary Magdalene, Shoreditch, had lasted six months longer than was usual, because the Mother Superior while never doubting her vocation for the religious life had feared for her ability to stand the strain of that work among penitents to which the community was dedicated. In the end, her perseverance had been rewarded, and the day of her profession was at hand.
During the whole of her nearly four years’ novitiate Esther had not been home once; although Mark and she had corresponded at long intervals, their letters had been nothing more than formal records of minor events, and on St. John’s eve he drove with the dogcart to meet her, wondering all the way how much she would have changed. The first thing that struck him when he saw her alight from the train on Shipcot platform was her neatness. In old days with windblown hair and clothes flung on anyhow she had belonged so unmistakably to the open air. Now in her grey habit and white veil of the novice she was as tranquil as Miriam, and for the first time Mark perceived a resemblance between the sisters. Her complexion, which formerly was flushed and much freckled by the open air, was now like alabaster; and although her auburn hair was hidden beneath the veil Mark was aware of it like a hidden fire. He had in the very moment of welcoming her a swift vision of that auburn hair lying on the steps of the altar a fortnight hence, and he was filled with a wild desire to be present at her profession and gathering up the shorn locks to let them run through his fingers like flames. He had no time to be astonished at himself before they were shaking hands.
“Why, Esther,” he laughed, “you’re carrying an umbrella.”
“It was raining in London,” she said gravely.
He was on the point of exclaiming at such prudence in Esther when he blushed in the remembrance that she was a nun. During the drive back they talked shyly about the characters of the village and the Rectory animals.
“I feel as if you’d just come back from school for the holidays,” he said.
“Yes, I feel as if I’d been at school,” she agreed. “How sweet the country smells.”