Read the first chapter of the novel The Sleeping Witness by Fiorella De Maria. If you like what you’re reading, visit the novel’s page to learn more or order!
Father Gabriel never felt the slow encroachment of middle age more painfully than on an evening such as this. It was worse than that dusting of silver over his once-black hair that he could no longer ignore or that mild ache in his joints when he awoke on cold mornings. It was even worse than the need he felt to hold books and papers at arm’s length as long-sightedness crept up at him and he continued to tell himself that he could do without reading glasses a little longer yet.
Gabriel was seated at his favourite spot in his favourite room of the abbey—the library—and had virtually claimed this particular desk as his own. Not that Gabriel believed in ownership of any kind, of course, but this gnarled, old oak desk, etched in many places with the graffiti of novices past, had come to feel more like an old friend than an inanimate object during the years of his formation at Saint Mary’s Abbey.
His Truth shall compass thee with a shield: thou shalt not be afraid of the terror of the night. Of the arrow that flieth in the day, of the business that walketh about in the dark; of invasion, or of the noonday devil. A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand.
It was his ability to concentrate that was beginning to let him down; his eyes wandered from the safety of the Holy Scriptures opened up before him and looked out the leaded window. Gabriel could not deny the other reason he loved this place. From where he was sitting, he was completely concealed from view should anyone enter through the library door; if he were alert enough, he could lower his eyes again in a moment should he hear the telltale squeak of the hinges. The words upon which he had been struggling to focus lay forgotten as Gabriel glanced longingly at the gardens below. He would do his penance later. The outside world was so very beautiful at this hour of the day, when the summer sun was only just starting to flicker and fade. From his vantage point, he could admire every detail: the lush herb garden where Brother Gerard knelt, yanking out weeds from among the delicate stems with a combination of precision and mild aggression; the mosaic of vegetable plots that had been impressive lawns before it had become necessary to Dig for Victory—victory had come but they were still digging while food remained scarce. The monks had reclaimed one stretch of ground for grass in the past year, and it sloped in lush green brilliance down to the distant apple orchard, where he would no doubt find employment when the autumn came.
Concentrate! The voice of Gabriel’s conscience always managed to sound like the abbot at his most indignant, and he looked down at the page again, to no avail. Through his head ran images of apples, barrels and barrels of the things from the heaving branches. He could almost smell the overpowering boozy scent of the cider press. A thousand shall fall at thy side . . . a thousand . . . a thousand.
He shook his head and looked back at the inviting window, down at the rosebushes that marked the end of the lawn in a riot of red and white splendour. Behind the roses, he could just make out a woman walking along the path from the orchard. Her hat obscured much of her face from view, but he recognised her immediately as Marie Paige, the village doctor’s wife. She had an unusually slow gait for a young woman and walked as though she really were treading on eggshells, every step deliberate and a little hesitant. Every so often, she would stop altogether to catch her breath.
Thou shalt not be afraid of the terror of the night.
During one of her pauses, Marie glanced up at the window with the finely tuned instinct of a woman who is used to being watched. Much to his embarrassment, Gabriel found himself looking directly into her face, their eyes locking before he could turn away. He raised a hand in greeting and tried to make it look as though he had only just glanced out the window, not that she could possibly have known either way. He waited for her gloved hand to flutter back before returning to his study, guiltily aware of his lapse.
“Gabriel! What are you doing?”
Gabriel jumped. It was not the abbot-like voice of his conscience rebuking him this time; it was Abbot Ambrose in person, as large as life and as irascible as ever. Unusually for Gabriel, he had been so distracted that he had failed to hear the warning squeak of the door and the abbot’s cadaverous figure had appeared at his side before he could tear himself away from the window. “Gabriel,” he repeated, as though he were addressing a recalcitrant schoolboy—which was exactly how Gabriel was behaving. “What are you doing?”
“Forgive me, Father Abbot,” murmured Gabriel, turning to look at him, “I was only resting for a moment. Then I noticed a figure in the grounds.”
Abbot Ambrose narrowed his eyes. Even when he was standing at ease (the word “relaxed” scarcely applied), Ambrose’s bald head wore the look of a gentleman who could kill a rival at ten paces, and Gabriel felt himself looking hastily away. “That’s a lie, you were watching that woman a full five minutes before you waved at her.”
“How did you know I was looking at a woman?” It is written all over my face! he thought. I am probably as red as a beetroot.
“Because I observed her myself from the other window as I entered the room,” growled Ambrose. “Mrs Paige really ought to be discouraged from wandering about the grounds like that.”
“No one has the heart, she always looks so sad.” Gabriel had a nasty feeling that he was digging himself ever further into a hole from which only the abbot would be able to extricate him. He changed tack as skilfully as he could. “There’s an ugly rumour—”
“We would not be listening to malicious gossip now, would we?” There was an unmistakeable threat to the abbot’s tone that prompted Gabriel to shut his mouth on the subject. “I am fully aware of Mr Merriott’s little story, but there have been quite a few of those over the years. I will not have Dr Paige’s good name sullied without evidence.”
“I’m sorry, Father Abbot.”
And Gabriel, who was not afraid of very much these days—night terrors or arrows or even the noonday devil, when it came to it—was very much afraid of making a mess of things and turned to Ambrose to ask for penance. He knew he should not have noticed her in the garden, and he had given away that he had observed her rather too often. Worse, perhaps, as Abbot Ambrose obviously knew, Gabriel had been listening to gossip and had half believed Gordon Merriott’s claims, not because he thought ill of Dr Paige but because Marie really did look as though she lived in a state of permanent fear. Worst of all, he became aware that Abbot Ambrose had stopped talking and Gabriel had no idea what penance he had been given—if any—because he had been too distracted to hear. At the risk of being ticked off for being overscrupulous, he would now have to ask penance for becoming distracted whilst being given a penance for becoming distracted, and Abbot Ambrose had never been the sort of man who appreciated having to repeat himself.
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