“Where is my man?” asked Ralph, who had not seen him since he had gone out with the Abbess a couple of hours before.
The sister shook her head.
“Where is the Reverend Mother?”
Again she shook her head.
Ralph enquired the hour of Vespers, and when he had learnt it, took his cap and went out to look for Mr. Morris. He went first to the little dark outhouse, and peered in over the bottom half of the door, but there was no sign of him there. He could see a horse standing in a stall opposite, and tried to make out the second horse that he knew was there; but it was too dark, and he turned away.
It was a warm October afternoon as he went out through the gatehouse, still and bright, with the mellow smell of dying leaves in the air; the fields stretched away beyond the road into the blue distance as he went along, and were backed by the thinning woods, still ruddy with the last flames of autumn. Overhead the blue sky, washed with recent rains, arched itself in a great transparent vault, and a stream of birds crossed it from east to west.
He went round the corner of the convent buildings and turned up into a meadow beside a thick privet hedge that divided it from the garden, and as he moved along he heard a low humming noise sounding from the other side.
There was a door in the hedge at the point, and at either side the growth was a little thin, and he could look through without being himself seen.
The grass was trim and smooth inside; there was a mass of autumn flowers, grown no doubt for the altar, running in a broad bed across the nearer side of the garden, and beyond it rose a grey dial, round which sat a circle of nuns.
Ralph pressed his face to the hedge and watched.
There they were, each with her wheel before her, spinning in silence. The Abbess sat in the centre, immediately below the dial, with a book in her hand, and was turning the pages.
He could see a nun’s face steadily bent on her wheel—that was Dame Agnes who had fetched the cope for him in the morning. She seemed perfectly quiet and unaffected, watching her thread, and putting out a deft hand now and again to the machinery. Beside her sat another, whose face he remembered well; she had stammered a little as she gave her answers in the morning, and even as he looked the face twitched suddenly, and broke into tears. He saw the Abbess turn from her book and lay her hand, with a kind of tender decision on the nun’s arm, and saw her lips move, but the hum and rattle of the spinning-wheels was too loud to let him hear what she said; he saw now the other nun lift her face again from her hands, and wink away her tears as she laid hold of the thread once more.
* * * * *
Ralph had a strange struggle with himself that afternoon as he walked on in the pleasant autumn weather through meadow and copse. The sight of the patient women had touched him profoundly. Surely it was almost too much to ask him to turn away his own sister from the place she loved! If he relented, it was certain that no other Visitor would come that way for the present; she might at least have another year or two of peace. Was it too late?