Then came a more difficult business.
“I wish to see the nuns one by one, Reverend Mother,” he said. “I must ask you to withdraw.”
The Abbess gave him a quick look, and then rose.
“Very well, sir, I will send them in.” And she went out with Mr. Morris behind her.
They came in one by one, and sat down before the table, with downcast eyes, and hands hidden beneath their scapulars; and all told the same tale, except one. They had nothing to complain of; they were happy; the Rule was carefully observed; there were no scandals to be revealed; they asked nothing but to be left in peace. But there was one who came in nervously and anxiously towards the end, a woman with quick black eyes, who glanced up and down and at the door as she sat down. Ralph put the usual questions.
“I wish to be released, sir,” she said. “I am weary of the life, and the—” she stopped and glanced swiftly up again at the commissioner.
“Well?” said Ralph.
“The papistical ways,” she said.
Ralph felt a sudden distrust of the woman; but he hardened his heart. He set a mark opposite her name; she had been professed ten years, he saw by the list.
“Very well,” he said; “I will tell my Lady Abbess.” She still hesitated a moment.
“There will be a provision for me?” she asked
“There will be a provision,” said Ralph a little grimly. He was authorised to offer in such cases a secular dress and a sum of five shillings.
Lastly came in Margaret herself.
Ralph hardly knew her. He had been unable to distinguish her at mass, and even now as she faced him in her black habit and white head-dress it was hard to be certain of her identity. But memory and sight were gradually reconciled; he remembered her delicate eyebrows and thin straight lips; and when she spoke he knew her voice.
They talked a minute or two about their home; but Ralph did not dare to say too much, considering what he had yet to say.
“I must ask you the questions,” he said at last, smiling at her.
She looked up at him nervously, and dropped her eyes once more.
She nodded or shook her head in silence at each enquiry, until at last one bearing upon the morals of the house came up; then she looked swiftly up once more, and Ralph saw that her grey eyes were terrified.
“You must tell me,” he said; and put the question again.
“I do not know what you mean,” she answered, staring at him bewildered.
Ralph went on immediately to the next.
At last he reached the crisis.
“Margaret,” he said, “I have something to tell you.” He stopped and began to play with his pen. He had seldom felt so embarrassed as now in the presence of this shy sister of his of whom he knew so little. He could not look at her.
“Margaret, you know, you—you are under age. The King’s Grace has ordered that all under twenty years of age are to leave their convents.”