UP THE dusty track, he slowly approached the gaunt stone building. A faded sign, surmounted by a crucifx and fixed to the wall beside huge medieval wooden gates announced: 'The Convent of the Little Sisters of the Divine Rosary'. Crows squawked overhead and the sun blazed down.
Travelling from England by train, ferry and bus had taken Mark three full days (and some uncomfortable nights in station waiting rooms) to reach Siracusa on the east coast of Sicily. Then the long climb to the isolated hill village, with its sentinel-like convent perched on a rocky headland.
He stepped through the open gateway, pausing for a moment to enjoy the shade. A nun clad all in white descended the steps of the main building and came towards him. "Mr Duncan? Welcome to our convent. We've been expecting you." They crossed the inner courtyard together in silence and entered a spacious stone-flagged hall, furnished with antiques.
"Shortly I'll show you to your bedroom upstairs, but first I should point out the entrance to our chapel there on the left. Here is the refectory where you will take your meals with us and beyond are the cloisters, which we ask you to respect as private to the order's nuns alone."
"Of course, I understand."
They climbed a narrow stone spiral staircase and arrived at a wide landing, which had one side completely open to the elements in the Italian loggia style. Opening off it, Mark's room was just how he'd expected it to be: sparsely-furnished, with a long leaded casement looking out across the hills. He was relieved to note that the mattress to the four-poster bed was exceptionally comfortable. A water jug and bowl were on a bedside table.
His guide picked up a card from the table. "Here, on one side, you will find the times of our eight services. Of course you are not obliged to attend any of them - indeed, I imagine you won't want to rise at 3am for Lauds! On the other side are printed the times of the meals in the Refectory, which we ask you to take in silence. Mother Superior will welcome you personally this evening after Vespers. Now I will leave you to rest and relax."
"Thank you, Sister."
After unpacking his small case, Mark stretched out on the bed and quickly dozed off.
He was awoken by the slow toll of the convent bell for Vespers and made his way to the chapel. It was a simple service, conducted in Latin, with three psalms sung in the Gregorian style. Two rows of five white-clad nuns faced each other in the choir stalls, with the Mother Superior, in her purple wimple, officiating. At the conclusion, she lead them out in single file.
Mark wandered up to look at the ornate, heavily-gilded altar. Behind it hung the convent's famous treasure: Caravaggio's huge altarpiece, 'The Madonna of the Rosary'. He studied it for some time then, as he turned to leave, he noticed that one of the nuns had remained behind, silently praying. As he passed her kneeling figure she looked up and smiled sweetly at him.
The Mother Superior was waiting to greet Mark in the refectory doorway and guide him to a side table, on which a cold buffet had been laid out. He was invited to serve himself first, then the other nuns took their food to their allotted places around a giant oak table. To the Mother Superior's right an empty place had been laid, which Mark assumed was for the nun who had remained praying in the chapel. Following grace, the meal was eaten in silence.
He spent a fitful night, with the many impressions collected on his arduous journey and the new retreat crowding around in his dreams. At one point he was awoken by what sounded like the rustling of a garment, but he decided it was merely the window curtains blowing in the night breeze.
The following morning promised to be a classical Mediterranean summer's day: a vivid blue sky and the prospect of a high temperature. After breakfast, Mark decided he would make the one mile downhill walk into the village to buy some provisions for his room. Crossing the hallway he noticed an archway which opened onto a small walled courtyard, in the centre of which was a pool stocked with glistening goldfish.
He descended a short flight of steps and sat on a stone bench to admire the fish. He became aware of a figure standing behind him. He turned, to find it was the nun who had smiled at him in the chapel the previous evening. She looked serene, standing in the bright sunshine in her dazzling white crisply-starched habit. She looked down on him and smiled.
"Good morning. I trust you slept well last night?"
"Yes, thank you. It's so peaceful here, isn't it?"
"The convent, or this pool?"
"Indeed. But this is a special sanctuary of solitude for us."
"Oh I'm sorry, I shouldn't have intruded."
"Please stay. You are our guest. May I join you for a few moments?"
"Of course. My name is Mark."
"I know. And mine is Beatrice." They contemplated the pool in silence for some minutes before she spoke again.
"And you have come from England, I believe?"
"What made you come all this way?"
"A broken heart; a lost love. Followed by some mental ill health which, I'm afraid, resulted in a nervous breakdown."
"I'm so sorry. But you have come to the right place to recuperate."
Just then the chapel bell rang out and Sister Beatrice sprang up. "I must go. I do hope we can talk again. Goodbye Mark." She was gone, leaving only a delicate scent of musky femininity and incense.
Mark returned from the village to enjoy a long siesta, which made up for his restless night. At Vespers, he decided to hang back in the shadows of the nave so that he might watch out for Sister Beatrice, though in the chapel's candle-lit gloom it was hard to discern her amongst the 10 near-identical white-clad figures. Once again, she failed to take her place beside Mother Superior at supper.
After the meal he went straight to his room and read by candlelight for an hour or more. He had left the bedroom door open to create a cooling draft, and before getting into bed in his long cotton nightshirt, he crossed the room to close it. Seated on a leather chair on the landing was the figure of a nun, bowed in prayer, clasping a rosary. On hearing his movement, she looked up and he immediately recognised Sister Beatrice. Nodding courteously but not wishing to disturb her, he retreated into his room, leaving the door ajar.
He sat on the edge of the bed to reflect on the curious incident. Why would a nun be praying outside his bedroom door when she had absented herself from the evening service? He was about to extinguish the candle when his reverie was disturbed by the creak of the door's iron hinges. He looked up to see Sister Beatrice framed in the doorway. She hesitantly entered the room and stopped at the corner of the bed, grasping a post with one hand, as if for support. Confused, Mark remained seated on the edge of the bed.
"I shouldn't have come. I know it's wrong, but I wanted to see you."
"I suppose I..."
"I wanted to see you too." He cautiously slid down the bed but didn't get up.
She took her hand from the post and placed it lightly on the nape of his neck, then stroked it tenderly. "Mark."
"I just wanted to say your name. It's a lovely name; a very biblical name."
"Come and sit beside me."
She moved to his side, dropping her hand onto his thigh, slowly sliding it up and down. She remained looking ahead. He could hear her breathing heavily. As he turned to look at her she turned to face him. Now they were barely inches apart. Now he could feel her breath.
Her hand stopped its movement. "I think I should go."
He gently placed his hand over hers. "I think you should stay."
"Do you want me to?"
"You know I do."
She glanced coyly down at the growing bulge in his nightshirt. "I can see you do!"
She stood up abruptly. "Give me a few moments while I remove my wimple." She stepped away from the bed and turned her back on him. She slipped off her crucifix then dextrously unwound the starched white neck band and headcloth and laid them carefully on a chair. Then she tipped her head forward and shook it vigorously, causing a great cascade of chestnut red hair to billow forth. She turned to face him and smiled the same beatific smile which had first captivated him in the chapel. He marvelled at her beauty.
Then after slipping her slim black shoes off she padded quietly towards him barefooted. She stood before him, took his head in her hands and kissed him affectionately on the lips. It was a long and tender kiss. He reached out and unhooked her belt, allowing her white body garment to hang loose. With one shrug it slipped from her shoulders and then she was stood before him only in the lightest of shifts. He ran his hands over her pert buttocks bringing her closer to his body. She pressed her breasts against his face so that he could feel the outline of her firm nipples through the fabric.
"Mark. My Mark. Be my lover!"
"I will, dearest Beatrice."
She slowly slid his nightshirt up to reveal his erect penis. She raised her shift to her waist then demurely gyrated to face away from him. Almost involuntarily, he spread his legs as she lowered herself onto him. There was a soft squish as his manhood slipped into her moistened opening and she put one hand down to reassure herself it was fully home. Their lovemaking was silent and sensual, with Beatrice rising and falling with almost balletic elegance. Mark brought his hands up and placed them lightly on her shoulders in order to press her down onto his cock as he came. She stopped her motion, allowing him to fill her with his seed.
She remained seated on his lap for several minutes, staring ahead silently. Then snatching a serviette from the bedside table she crumpled it into a ball, pressing it against her private place as she lifted off him. He marvelled at her sheer 'lightness': she had a gamine figure and moved with svelte-like grace.
"Lie on the bed, sweetest. I have an extra treat for you."
He stretched out longways across the bed. With great agility she climbed over him, straddling his torso so that her beautiful bottom was now towards him. Then she slowly lowered herself onto his face, perfectly gauging it so that her labia lips engulfed his mouth, like the petals on an exotic flower.
At the last moment she withdrew the napkin, allowing Mark to experience an erotic 'cream pie' as her pussy gently disgorged his semen. Then she slowly ground her buttocks over his cum-smeared face, rocking her clitoris against the bridge of his nose. She quivered as her orgasm arrived.
Several minutes passed as they remained locked together in silent awe. Finally, she rose off him, alighted to the floor, then leant forward to kiss him tenderly and lick the still-warm semen from his cheeks. "My own Mark. My lover," she purred. "I will always watch over you."
He closed his eyes, bewitched and exhausted. And quickly lost consciousness. He was awoken by the chapel bell tolling for Lauds. But Beatrice was gone, along with her habit and wimple and shoes. Only the crumpled napkin lying on the stone floor was evidence of their love-making.
Breakfast in the refectory was a 'straggled' affair, with the nuns eating only bread and drinking watery coffee from a communal jug, before leaving to undertake their morning domestic or gardening duties. Beatrice did not appear and so Mark decided to go for a long walk up behind the convent.
He struck out along a hot rock-strewn path, his shirt tied around his waste, heading for a cool-looking olive grove at the crest of the hill. He passed three nuns toiling in the fields - now dressed in hessian habits and cowls - wielding ancient harrows. Their stooped manner and bulky shapes convinced him that none were his Beatrice.
On his return mid-morning he glanced at the goldfish pool enclosure, hoping that his lover might be seated in prayer or meditation. But the stone bench was empty. Neither did she attend the Sext service which always preceded lunch. He went to his room without eating. For Vespers, Mark took his place at the end of the choir stalls and though the light was now fading he was certain she was still absent. A whole day without seeing her. He began to fret that she was unwell.
Supper was taken in silence. Once again, the place laid at the table beside the Mother Superior remained unoccupied. As the nuns rose to return to their cells to pray privately, Mark hung back hoping to speak to Mother Superior. They left the refectory together and she paused in the hallway.
"And how are you finding your stay with us, my child?"
"Very restful, thank you. Very therapeutic."
"Errrm... may I ask you a question?"
"But of course."
"At your side at the refectory table there is always an unoccupied place, set with cutlery, bowl and glass. Whose place is it?"
"And why does she not join us for meals?"
"Because she is dead."
Mark froze with a chilling shudder. "Dead? Sister Beatrice is dead?"
"Yes, my child. Poor Beatrice left this earth exactly two years ago last night. Her place at table is our memorial to her memory."
"But how did she die?"
She crossed herself before answering. "By her own hand."
"The poor child - who had been disturbed ever since her parents from the village below brought her to us seven years ago, when she was thirteen - discovered some sleeping tablets left by a thoughtless guest in one of the bedrooms. She took the whole bottlefull. We found her seated where she had taken them."
"And where was that?"
"In a leather chair on the landing, opposite your room."
Mark remembered Beatrice's final words.
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