Maria and Benvolio set on on their mission to the convent.
|Chapter 11 Forces in Motion
Ricardo and Maria had a wonderful evening with Ferdinand and Isabella. The two women had played together as children and were well acquainted. In his youth, Ricardo also had the pleasure of knowing Ferdinand. Their parents understood that childhood associations can forge strong associations in later life and such was the case with the four of them. When the King and Queen married they linked Castile and Aragon and Ricardo and Maria knew everyone in the new court. As they sat about the dinner table the conversation was animated.
“You never cease to amaze me," said the King. “There's nothing I ask that you don’t succeed at. Not once have you ever returned to me with some lame-assed excuse. Your trade negotiations with the Basques are just another example.” Ferdinand had a warm and friendly manner that put men at ease and a grace that wouldn’t turn them loose.
“I did the best I could,” Ricardo answered, “And I’m honored that my efforts were worthy.”
“Worthy? Would that my other Nobles were a pimple on your…”
“Ferdinand!” scolded Isabella, “you needn’t be so crude… yet it’s true I suppose… Ricardo certainly stands out… tell me Maria where do matters stand on Teresa?”
“We’re working on it my Lady. As a matter of fact I begin tomorrow on a new strategy that I hope will yield some better results.”
“Maria…!” I said, in a tone that implied she was saying too much.
“He means that he doesn’t want me meddling,” said the Queen, “yet everyone knows all about the unrequited love scandal. Do you know Teresa’s a distant cousin?”
“Yes My Lady”, answered Maria, “We are aware…”
“A strange girl that one… she talks to you using the living things that surround her…have you ever noted that?”
“On occasion,” Ricardo answered.
“It can be most disconcerting.”
“She seems to have outgrown that,” said Maria coming to her defense.
“Is she still determined to take her vows…?”
“The last we heard….”
“Well I’ve told the Cardinal in no uncertain terms, that that nothing of the sort will happen without our permission.”
Maria and I looked relieved at one another.
“I hope that meets with your approval,” said the King…and smiled knowingly at his wife.
“Of course it does.” answered Isabella.
“I must tell you Ricardo,” Ferdinand continued, “that your scene in the court several months ago created a most unwelcome stir…”
Isabella chimed in….”There’s been much gossip since… Everyone is still talking about it. Being the most eligible bachelor in the Kingdom makes you a popular topic of conversation among the ladies.”
“...Ladies indeed! Please let me caution you my friend. Be discreet in this matter.…”
Ricardo began to protest.
“I know, I know, your behavior is exemplary and your actions honorable but in occupying positions of high responsibility everything we do is seen and discussed by everyone….I’s not enough that we do the right thing…. but also that we convey the appearance of propriety.”
“Please Ferdinand, you can quit lecturing. Ricardo knows the difference between serving the Crown and serving himself. I know we can count on him to do the right thing in a manner that will shine above reproach.”
“Of course my dear, I didn’t mean to imply otherwise…”
“If we can be of any help in your “Strategy” Maria, don’t hesitate to ask….” To their great relief the conversation then turned to lighter matters and continued so throughout the evening…
The Sisters of the Cross had an Abbey on the edge of Avila. Jutting out from the North wall, like an architectural blemish, was a stone building used for a variety of secular purposes. It housed implements, bulk grains and a long work table that in the evening was used for feeding the poor and disenfranchised. It connected through the wall to the main kitchen of the convent. Outside, Sister Gloria Hidalgo was chopping firewood. It was hard work and she wasn’t very good at it. Scattered about was no more than a week’s supply of small sticks and branches. Nearby there was a stack of tree trunks that were piled high but yet to be blocked and split. As she busied herself with this seemingly endless task, a coarsely dressed man, reeking of stale alcohol and in need of a bath, shuffled up, hat in hand.
“Excuse me, Mother Superior…”
The Nun turned giving him a hard stare. “I’m not the Mother Superior…I’m a Sister Ruiz, an ordinary Sister…Mother Superiors doesn’t chop wood.”
“Forgive me Sister,” he apologized stepping back and looking disconcerted, “but you’ve a look of one in authority and I'm but a simple man.”
She straightened up, set aside her hatchet and brushed off her habit… ”What do you want Senor?”
“If you could spare me a crust of bread and something to drink... I’d be forever indebted.”
“Who are you?”
“An honest man fallen on terrible times. Perhaps with some nourishment, I could assist in your labors?”
“Are you a wood cutter?”
“I’m a Basque and all Basques are woodcutters.”
“Come with me,” she said with a long suffering sigh, yet from the corner of her eye a brow raised hopefully. “It’s late but perhaps I can rustle you up something to eat.”
Maria walked through the main archway leading into the convent. It was an imposing structure and inside stood a beautiful chapel that was a cathedral in miniature. Around the inside wall were buildings that housed stables, dormitories, storehouses and what looked like a school or library. Maria stood looking around, a canvas satchel in either hand. A nun, seeing her so disposed, walked up and smiled.
“May I be of help?” she asked.
“I’m seeking to join the order and have an appointment with Sister Ramirez.”
“Follow me and I’ll show you her office”. Maria followed to a complex of stone structures in the main administrative center of the convent. There, they entered one with soaring windows, filled with tables and chairs. Nuns and novitiates sat about performing a variety of tasks which included spinning wool, weaving tapestries and sewing.
“Please be seated and I’ll tell Sister Ramirez you’re here.”
In a few minutes a dignified middle aged nun walked up and took a seat. “You must be Maria….”
“And you are Sister Ramirez?”
“Yes, we received your application and letters of referral. Everything seems to be in order and we have a room set aside…. I presume you’ve brought the personal articles we asked?
“Yes,” Maria nodded, pointing to her bags.
“Wonderful…now let me officially welcome you to the Order of the Holy Cross and pray your stay with us is a long and eventful journey through life. What brought you here?”
“My world was empty…I had no children….my husband beat me and I despaired. So great did my anguish become that I fled his house and on my journey back to Spain, I had many trials and was often filled with discouragement and hopelessness. Then, along the way, I felt the presence of God….like Peter on the road to Damascus, although not quite so dramatic, and he called me to set aside my sorrows and join in his holy work.”
“I see… “
“When I got home I told my parents and made preparations to dedicate my life to the service of our Lord and Savior.”
“Who wrote your application and collected the references?”
“I did. My mother is versed in letters and saw to my education.”
“You write beautifully Maria, a skill not common to most arriving here.”
“Perhaps I can be a teacher and return a measure of the bounty that God has provided.”
“Perhaps you can….so where was your husband’s home?”
“Yes, I ran away with him…against my families wishes, Would that I had had listened, for I suffered and soon came to regret my disobedience. The walk home was long and frightening. But I persevered and with God’s help, I made it.”
As Sister Ramirez pondered her words Maria noticed a young novitiate standing in the background. The nun sighed and motioned for her to come over.
“You are a very confident and self-reliant young woman. Not many young girls could have done what you did…”
“Juanita, this is Maria your new friend…be her companion as she undergoes orientation.” Sister Ramirez got to her feet. “Welcome home…I’ve plans for you Maria; you’re a gift sent by God.”
Benvolio was hungry and the food was good. He ate his gruel and wiped the bowl with a crust of bread still hot from the kitchen. He emptied the pitcher of cold water and sat back, his stomach full. Sister Hidalgo returned and announced it was time to get back to work. On the way out he spied a saw, some files, an axe and wedges. Picking them up he followed her outside and set to work. Going to the pile of logs be began sawing them into blocks until he had ten trunks blocked in twelve inch lengths. Then with the axe he began splitting them into pieces….by the time the bell rang for vespers he had a respectable pile of firewood.
Sister Ruiz was impressed….If there was ever evidence of the Lord providing, she was looking at it.
“If you wish to stay the night you may eat with the indigents. You will find a cot in the corner. Assemble it while I fetch some soap and clean clothes….bath yourself in the river and scrub those filthy garments”.
Juanita took one of the bags and bid Maria follow. She led down a long corridor and up several flights of stairs and down another hallway. Along the way they passed a long series of wooden doors before arriving at one numbered XXVI. Inside were two cots and a table and chairs. On the far side was a window that looked out onto the street below.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” said Juanita…It’s good to again have a roommate…It’s been lonely living here all alone.”
“How long has that been?” asked Maria.
“Two weeks….since Teresa left.”
Maria’s heart leapt…she could not believe her good fortune.
“What caused her to leave?”
"She was sick…couldn’t keep anything down. They sent her to the Hermitage.”
“Is that a hospital?”
“It’s where they send the girls who get in trouble.”
Just a quick note to tell you I’ve been accepted. I'm very excited to finally be here and have a wonderful roommate. There was an immediate vacancy caused by a novitiate named Teresa being sent to the Hermitage. That’s where they send girls who find themselves in a woman’s way. Her misfortune was the reason for my speedy admission and I pray the blessed virgin watches over the poor girl during her time of trial.
I'm allowed one short letter a week and will keep you posted on my new experiences.
Ricardo read the letter from Maria. As they had arranged beforehand it was written in an indirect manner. The effect of it was like a pitcher of cold water dashed in his face. The post was three days old, sent from the Village of Palermo where the family cottage was located. It had been sent to a box in the post office and picked up by a prearranged messenger who made a special delivery.
How could it be that Teresa was pregnant? He asked himself… It didn’t make sense, unless she had a lover he wasn’t aware of….yes of course that would be the answer, a secret admirer she didn’t want anyone to know about….especially me….How could I have been so blind…Yet if she had a lover, why did she remain a novitiate? It didn’t make sense…she was a very principled girl and if she had that kind of relationship, her honor would not have allowed her to continue under false pretenses. Yet if that wasn’t the answer then what was? he remembered Maria's words….’Something was going on that they weren’t aware of…’ was that ever an understatement…and the more he thought about it the angrier he became…then the thought occurred to him that the cause of her pregnancy might be something more sinister….perhaps she had been mistreated, blackmailed or worse raped…he could no longer stand the suspense of not knowing.
Ricardo ordered his horse saddled. In the library he found a volume titled, Guide to Religious Orders. Therein, listed under Order of the Cross were the locations of Abbeys, Convents, Hospitals, Orphanages and Sabbaticals. Beneath the last of these was listed, “The Hermitage…” Retreat for Unwed Mothers. It was located less than an hour’s ride from Madrid. Summoning his escort he set off resolved to get to the bottom of this for once and for all. Surely in a face to face meeting, Teresa would set his doubts to rest.