Part Two
Chapter XXVII. The Grey Veil
 

Magda felt a sudden stab of fear. The sound of the latch clicking into its place brought home to her the irrevocability of the step she had taken. That tall, self-locking door stood henceforth betwixt her and the dear, familiar world she had known--the world of laughter and luxury and success. But beyond, on the far horizon, there was Michael --her "Saint Michel." If these months of discipline brought her nearer him, then she would never grudge them.

The serene eyes of the Sister who received her--Sister Bernardine-- helped to steady her quivering pulses.

There was something in Sister Bernardine that was altogether lacking in Catherine Vallincourt--a delightfully human understanding and charity for all human weakness, whether of the soul or body.

It was she who reassured Magda when a sudden appalling and unforeseen idea presented itself to her.

"My hair!" she exclaimed breathlessly, her hand going swiftly to the heavy, smoke-black tresses. "Will they cut off my hair?"

As Sister Bernardine comfortingly explained that only those who joined the community as sisters had their heads shaven, a strange expression flickered for an instant in her eyes, a fleeting reminiscence of that day, five-and-twenty years ago, when the shears had cropped their ruthless way through the glory of hair which had once been hers.

And afterwards, as time went on and Magda, wearing the grey veil and grey serge dress of a voluntary penitent, found herself absorbed into the daily life of the community, it was often only the recollection of Sister Bernardine's serene, kind eyes which helped her to hold out. Somehow, somewhere out of this drastic, self-denying life Sister Bernardine had drawn peace and tranquillity of soul, and Magda clung to this thought when the hard rules of the sisterhood, the distastefulness of the tasks appointed her, and the frequent fasts ordained, chafed and fretted her until sometimes her whole soul seemed to rise up in rebellion against the very discipline she had craved.

Most of her tasks were performed under the lynx eyes of Sister Agnetia, an elderly and sour-visaged sister to whom Magda had taken an instinctive dislike from the outset. The Mother Superior she could tolerate. She was severe and uncompromising. But she was at least honest. There was no doubting the bedrock genuineness of her disciplinary ardour, harsh and merciless though it might appear. But with Sister Agnetia, Magda was always sensible of the personal venom of a little mind vested with authority beyond its deserts, and she resented her dictation accordingly. And equally accordingly, it seemed to fall always to her lot to work under Sister Agnetia's supervision.

Catherine had been quick enough to detect Magda's detestation of this particular sister and to use it as a further means of discipline. It was necessary that Magda's pride and vanity should be humbled, and Catherine saw to it that they were. It was assuredly by the Will of Heaven that the child of Diane Wielitzska had been led to her very doors, and to the subject of her chastening Catherine brought much thought and discrimination. "If you hurt people enough you can make them good." It had been her brother's bitter creed and it was hers. Pain, in Catherine's idea, was the surest means of chastening, and Magda was to remember her year at the sisterhood by two things--by the deadly, unbearable monotony of its daily routine and by her first acquaintance with actual bodily pain.

Her health had always been magnificent, and--with the exception of the trivial punishments of childhood and those few moments when she was sitting for the picture of Circe--physical suffering was unknown to her. The penances, therefore, which Catherine appointed her--to kneel for a stated length of time until it seemed as though every muscle she possessed were stretched to breaking-point, to fast when her whole healthy young body craved for food, to be chastened with flagellum, a scourge of knotted cords--all these grew to be a torment almost beyond endurance.

Almost! . . . Yet in the beginning the thought of Michael sustained her triumphantly.

It was a curious sensation--that first stroke of the flagellum.

As Magda, unversed in physical suffering, felt the cords shock against her flesh, she was conscious of a strange uplifting of spirit. This, then, this smarting, blinding thing called pain, was the force that would drive the will to do evil out of her soul.

She waited expectantly--almost exultantly--for the second fall of the thongs. The interval between seemed endless. Sister Agnetia was very deliberate, pausing between each stroke. She knew to a nicety the value of anticipation as a remedial force in punishment.

Again the cords descended on the bared shoulders. Magda winced away from them, shivering. For a moment Sister Agnetia's arm hung flaccid, the cords of the flagellum pendant and still.

"Are you submitting to the discipline, Sister Penitentia?" came her voice. It was an unpleasant voice, suggestive of a knife that has been dipped in oil.

Magda caught her breath.

"Yes . . . yes . . . I submit myself."

Dimly she felt that by means of this endurance she would win back Michael, cleanse herself to receive his love.

"I submit," she repeated in a rapt whisper of self-surrender.

Sister Agnetia's voice swam unctuously into her consciousness once more.

"I thought you tried to avoid that last stroke. If you flinch from punishment it is not submission, but rebellion."

Magda gripped her hands together and pressed her knees into the hard stone floor, her muscles taut with anticipation as she heard the soft whistle of the thongs cleaving the air.

This time she bore the pang of anguish motionless, but the vision of Michael went out suddenly in a throbbing darkness of swift agony. Her shoulders felt red-hot. The pain shot up into her brain like fingers of flame. It clasped her whole body in a torment, and the ecstasy of self-surrender was lost in a sick groping after sheer endurance.

The next stroke, crushing across that fever of intolerable suffering, wrung a hoarse moan from her dry lips. Her hands locked together till she felt as though their bones must crack with the strain as she waited for the next inexorable stroke.

One moment! . . . Two! An eternity of waiting!

"Go on!" she breathed. "Oh! . . . Be quick . . ." Her voice panted.

No movement answered her. Unable to endure the suspense, she straightened her bowed shoulders and turned in convulsive appeal to where she had glimpsed the flail-like rise and fall of Sister Agnetia's serge-clad arm.

There was no one there! The bare, cell-like chamber was empty, save for herself. Sister Agnetia had stolen away, completing the penance of physical pain by the refinement of anguish embodied in those hideous moments of mental dread.

Magda almost fancied she could hear an oily chuckle outside the door.