“There’s time for a brief tour of the abbey before lunch,” said the abbess rising from her desk. “We’ll start in the front hall.”
Once more Hilma found herself following a nun through panelled halls, this time without Garth’s reassuring presence.
As in most of the abbey, the floors of the two-storey high entrance hall were of wide polished oak planks, worn but painstakingly polished. Hilma recognized that she was on the other side of the heavy front doors she had noticed on her arrival. From this perspective, however, sunlight illuminated the door’s stain glass transom window in vibrant jewel colours.
Hilma’s gaze moved from the lovely window to a magnificent oak staircase winding upward out of sight.
“Our sleeping quarters are on the floor above,” said the abbess. “There are seventy cells on the second floor and fifty on the third. Of course we only use a few of them now.”
“Cells?” wondered Hilma aloud.
The abbess laughed. “That’s what we call our little rooms,” she explained.
“Like rooms in a college dorm,” said Hilma.
The abbess nodded.
“There must have been a lot of people living here once,” said Hilma.
“At one time, there were a hundred sisters, including postulants and novices, and there were always between twenty and thirty girls.”
“Oh, it was a boarding school.”
“It was a home for unwed mothers,” replied the abbess.
“Really! Did the townspeople know?”
“A few of them did. But in those days, families went to great lengths to keep their daughters’ delicate conditions secret.”
“How long did the girls stay here?”
“Most of them were here for about a year and a half. Their parents brought them here as soon as they learned of the pregnancy and they remained for a year after the delivery to continue their training.”
“They were taught child care,” said Hilma approvingly.
“Oh no, dear,” said the abbess. “The babies were adopted out within days of their births.”
“So what training did the girls get?”
“I know it sounds archaic now, but unwed mothers were called penitents in those days to encourage them to develop spiritually. They worked alongside our postulants and novices inside the abbey as well as outside in the gardens and barns.”
“I don’t suppose the… penitents were paid,” said Hilma.
The abbess looked at her in surprise. “Of course not,” she said. “They were reimbursing the abbey for room, board and maternity care, all the while learning a variety of practical skills to prepare them for marriageable futures.”
“And the families went along with this?”
“Why yes. Families welcomed the rehabilitation of their errant daughters. Wealthier families made generous donations to the abbey when they picked up their daughters. Some paid to have their girls attend classes with the postulants and earn a Marywood Collegiate and Finishing School diploma while they were here.”
“I guess a certificate would justify their absence to the neighbours when they returned home.”
“Undoubtedly,” said the abbess.
Hilma was annoyed at how readily Mavis and Bram took to the idea of their younger granddaughter working at the abbey.
“Surely you don’t approve of me living there!” she said indignantly as they relaxed in the sitting room the following afternoon sipping herbal tea.
“It would be no different than being away at college,” said Bram.
“Except for the work part and the fact that the only ones my age are two novices,” said Hilma.
“Think of it as a co-op placement,” said Bram.
“A co-op placement behind bars,” she retorted sullenly.
“Why don’t you visit the abbey again, and this time take Azur with you?” suggested Mavis. “It’ll give you another opportunity to assess how you feel about the place.”
As if on cue, the front door opened and Azur’s voice called out cheerfully, “Company calling!”
The older granddaughter entered the room in the company of her husband, Dr. Xavier Tennyson Barkley, and police constable, Garth Mayfield. Hilma and her grandparents looked up in surprise.
“Quiet day at the clinic and police station?” asked Mavis.
“Others in the team are covering for us,” said Xavier Tennyson.
“The babies aren’t coming early!” said Bram, concern in his voice.
“The babies have no intention of appearing for two months, Bram,” said Azur. “Relax!”
“We wanted to let you know that we’re going with Garth to meet the abbess,” explained XT to his in-laws.
“I’m not ready to go!” said Hilma, jumping to her feet and spilling tea on her jeans.
“Maybe it’s not about you for once,” said Azur.
“Now girls,” interjected Bram.
“Garth contacted XT to see if he’d be interested in investing in a condo housing project,” said Azur. “We’re both quite intrigued with the idea.”
“How does the abbess come into this?” asked Bram.
“The condos would be at the abbey,” said Garth.
“At the abbey!” exclaimed Hilma. “When did all this happen?”
“After I dropped you off yesterday, I got a phone call at the police station from Aunt Jane saying she had something else to run by me,” said Garth. “I went out after work and she told me that for some time the sisters have been tossing about revenue ideas such as retreat rooms on the second floor and condos on the third. They’re looking for investment partners.”
“So Garth called me to see if I would be interested in joining him in the venture,” said XT.
“Bram and Mavis thought the abbey would make a wonderful co-op placement for me,” said Hilma facetiously.
“Yes, Garth told us about the possibility of organ lessons combined with some work for the nuns,” said XT, ignoring his sister-in-law’s sarcasm. “I hope you’re considering it.”
“It’s a wonderful opportunity,” said Azur to her sister.
“I think the condo idea is a much better plan,” said Hilma. “Perhaps it’ll keep all your underworked minds from fussing over me.”
“There’s no reason why both undertakings couldn’t happen simultaneously,” said Garth, trying to hide his disappointment at her dismissive attitude.
Genre: historical fantasy/mystery crossover