The Ursuline Convent is ancient, and has seen many lives. Some women have sought solace here in troubled times, many have received healing and others have found refuge from a life full of pain. Some have been confined, hidden away in shame.
Once past the gates, the edifice is awe inspiring. Attempts have been made in recent years to ‘pretty it up’ but it remains imposing and can cause the lay visitor to shudder uneasily before proceeding further into the solemn interior.
The Rule has altered little since the convent’s foundation; only minor changes over the last hundred years, so those who dedicate their lives to Christ here find comfort and security in knowing that thousands of women before them have lived out their closeted lives in peace - or so they assume.
The abbess is at her private devotions; she has been contemplating going into retreat and is asking for holy guidance. She hears the sacristan’s light footfall and stifles the rising feeling of irritation. Sister Jeanne rises from her knees and opens the cell door. Meek Sister Barbara stands there, her eyes downcast, hands nervous with her simple rosary. Jeanne can hear distant banging and shouting.
‘ Can it not wait until morning?’
Jeanne follows the sacristan along the corridor and down the winding stair. The only light is the lamp in the hand of the younger nun; it does little to scatter the shadows. It is not unfeasible, thinks Barbara, that long dead sisters might well be awake on such a grim, moonless night, telling their rosaries with bony fingers, and chanting tonguelessly the order of the hour. She shivers.
It is fearsomely cold. Rimes of ice are spidering the bare stone and the cloister’s trees are already white. The lamplight catches a carved face squinting down from above the high arched door. Barbara tries not to flinch under its frozen stare.
She unlocks the door and they pass into the reception chamber. Heavy kicks are being administered to the ancient wooden door and there is the sound of weeping.
A coarse voice in an uncouth accent bellows,
‘Whores of God! Open up! Another slut for your brothel.....’
Sister Jeanne raises an eyebrow and adjusts her veil. Was her face truly like that of an angel peeping through a cloud? She remembers the compliment for a moment and then collects herself.
Violent blows to the door. The weeping becomes sobbing, bereft and despairing.
‘I’m off, whores! Keep her! Do as you will with her, to her...she’s dead to me’
One final kick and then there is the clatter of heavy sabots running down the cobbled street, echoing in the dead night.
Jeanne gestures to Barbara, who selects the key from her bunch and unlocks the door to the outside world. The weeping child is on her feet. Her face is swollen and reddened with crying, but her beauty is striking.
Jeanne smiles slyly at Barbara.
‘Well, what have we here? Look, Sister! A little gift from God.......’