This story is paired with “Third Epoch, The Story Continued by Walter Hartright” from The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
I have often wished I were a good Catholic woman, holding an easy belief in salvation through confession. There are, after all, many sins for which I dearly desire absolution.
Not the least of which, perhaps, is that I am not, in form or fact, a woman.
I was born Robert MacIntyre, in Edinburgh, in 1830, the year in which the Sailor King began his reign over the British Isles. My father was a baker, while my mother sang with the choir at St. Giles’s Cathedral when she was not taking care of me or my father. We lost him when I was six, and though I cannot recall his face, I think of him to this day whenever I smell bread baking.
I knew from a young age that I was different from most of the other boys. For one thing, I was always smaller and slighter, and was remarked upon for it frequently. For another, I was much more interested in reading and quiet activities than in boisterous play. As religion always had a place, it was to my mother’s delight that early introduction to the Bible grabbed my fancy. She subsequently ensured that I was to obtain copies of both the Gaelic translation of John Stuart of Luss and the English King James version, to study them, and to serve in St. Giles.
During those years, I habitually found myself wondering about the heroism of the women of the Old Testament, such as the Rebecca’s pragmatism in seeking the birthright of the first born for her son Jacob. She risked everything subverting her husband’s plan to give said blessing to Esau, and she was quite prepared to take responsibility for the deception. Similarly, the quiet dignity of Tamar in the matter of her circumventing her father-in-law’s wishes drew me; how she’d posed as a harlot in order to conceive of her dead husband’s family, in accordance with the law of the time. Amazing, her strength: to court an awful death in order to uphold Levirate marriage law, the rightness of her act proven in the resulting Messianic dynasty which sprang from her and Judah.
To be sure, the men of both the Old Testament and the New seemed to be vastly less compelling to me, and yet I studied and served for years as an altar boy at St. Giles. I remained slight in build through puberty and into my teens, and the differences between me and other boys became even greater. I was miserable all the time and didn’t understand why, though I was good at hiding it. My mother understood that I was of a different temperament than most boys, and though I was certain of her love, I knew desires and confusion which I felt could not be shared with anyone. In those tormented years, Church became a refuge from taunts, if not from the turmoil of my thoughts. For I believed that if I could at least serve God with a full heart, then surely all the suffering I endured would earn salvation for my soul.
One day I met a visiting Churchwoman after services. She was very properly dressed and had accompanied one of the aged and infirm parishioners, but he was arguing with the Priest over some issue at that moment. I’d made eye contact with her during the Homily, and when I saw her free I overcame my innate shyness and introduced myself.
“I am Sister Catherine,” she replied. Her accent was Welsh.
“You’re a nun?”
I found it odd that she hesitated, but she explained. “Not as such, no, but rather I am a nurse. My training was in the Church, but I found the opportunity to serve those who were ill rather than as a nun.”
I was fascinated. “How did you come to Edinburgh?”
“I was hired, through references, by Mr. Hayden Reid in order to care for him at this difficult time in his life.”
“What duties do you have?”
She proceeded to list them, ranging from conventional cleaning and care to the changing of dressings on a poorly-healing wound of Mr. Reid’s foot. I immediately asked her if I could observe her at her nursing tasks one day soon.
“Well, certainly Mr. McIntyre, though I cannot fathom why. It’s not as though men learn such tasks.”
I had no answer I could speak. I would have told her that I was clearly no typical man, but I was far too reticent to do so.
Still, she must have seen something in my face. “Well, it’s alright by me, but you’ll need to be discreet—I wouldn’t want Mr. Reid to become upset with me.”
“No, of course.”
“Come by this afternoon?”
“Certainly. Oh, and thank you most kindly, Sister Catherine.”
Our timing was fortuitously good, as Hayden Reid arrived just at that time, gave me an evil look typical of the man, and then collected his nurse and left.
I was home, changed from my Church clothes, and over at Reid’s shortly after noon. I knew I was early, very early, but something had kindled inside me and I couldn’t wait. I knocked at the door, but there was no response. Curious, I went around the house to the right, checking in windows as I went. Through the rearmost on that side I received the shock of my life.
Sister Catherine was changing clothes, and I felt an illicit thrill I was sure to have to report in confession to see her in her underthings. But then she removed those, and turned, and I saw that she was no ‘Sister’.
Our gazes met through that pane of glass, and then the world went dark. When I came to, I was inside her room in a chair, and she had a cool compress to my neck, tending me. I felt that my face was afire as I stared at her from very close by. She looked at me, her eyes so kindly and sorrowful that I thought one of us should have been weeping.
I had no idea what to say.
She did. “Better?”
I nodded, not trusting my voice.
“Do you still feel faint?”
I shook my head.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
She stood, still looking at me, then picked up her skirts and went out. I glanced around the room and thought it little different from my mother’s. Then Sister Catherine was back with a glass of cool water which she handed to me.
“So, it seems that you know some things you should not, Mr. McIntyre.”
I certainly did, but it seemed that all I could do was stare at her.
She sighed, and when she spoke, her voice wavered with intense emotion. “I suppose I will have to flee, and without a word to Mr. Reid. Oh, I’m sure you’ll spread the word about me and end this fine life…”
“No!” I blurted out.
She blinked at me.
“I would never…I mean, I think….”
Catherine’s carefully plucked eyebrows tilted up towards each other in curiosity as she waited for me.
“I want to be what you are,” I said, somewhat breathlessly.
* * *
It took years, the unexpected death of my mother from pneumonia and a move to Cumberland in the northwest of England, for me to learn all that Catherine could teach me and to establish a new identity as a nurse of the Church. I became Sister Roberta, and Catherine and I made a home together in Cumberland using both her earnings from Mr. Reid and my inheritance. Strangely, perhaps, there was nothing romantic or risqué between us, though I daresay there was profound love.
The peace I’d found as Sister Roberta was the most precious gift I’d ever received since my mother had brought me into this world, and I owed Catherine everything. We settled here, secure in my new persona, because there was ample work for both of us. I was fortunate to have my services engaged at an asylum, where I joined several other nurses ministering to the unfortunate madwomen there. Catherine continued her private duty nursing among the elderly and infirm upon a recommendation from the local priest, Father Timothy O’Malley. I continued to attend Church throughout, thanking God for His providence in my life, even though I could not confess to every burden upon my soul.
And yet, I was to learn that there were greater burdens to carry than those I’d already accrued. I was involved in the care of a patient named Anne Catherick. She was a lovely woman who dressed in white at all times because she became quite distressed if anything else was offered to her to wear. She was ill, in both body and mind; she suffered from some wasting disease that the doctors could do nothing for.
After taking care of her for some months, it was clear to me that Miss Catherick was of two different temperaments. “She is calm and gracious much of the time, and is favorably disposed to the Fairlies at Limmeridge house. But she becomes irrationally fearful at odd intervals,” I told Catherine over dinner one night. “When she becomes most wild, she has delusions concerning the Baronet, Sir Percival Glyde, and she rambles about him at length.”
Catherine smiled, though her face was a portrait of fatigue. I suspected that she might be ill herself, but she took care to hide any symptoms and to avoid all questions I had on the subject. “Can it all be proved conclusively to be a delusion?”
That seemed like a strange question. “There are documents signed by her mother and the Baronet which assure her illness is the root cause of her admission, and each is assuredly of sound mind according to the physician in charge of Miss Catherick. In fact, Sir Percival has paid the funds for her care here.”
My mentor took some tea, but only pushed her food about her plate. “I trust your instincts, Roberta—why is it, in light of your belief in her madness, that you’ve brought this particular patient’s case to our dinner table?”
That was a good question. “I’m not sure. You know I find the care of the insane to be both fascinating and sad.”
“They are themselves, only not.”
Catherine smiled. “Like us, perhaps?”
I felt myself flush. “No. Or rather, yes, in a way. Except that no one knows that we are mad so we do not have to rail against those of sound mind who would argue otherwise.”
That truth shut down conversation that evening, and we finished our meal in silence.
* * *
Months later and it was clear to both of us that Catherine, my savior, was dying. She could no longer work and had taken to her sickbed. It was unclear precisely what was going on, as neither of us could take the risk of our secrets being uncovered by a physician. Still, I suspected that her lungs were full of fluid, and learned she’d been taking an herbal cure from an apothecary for some months. Initially there’d been some improvement, but lately it seemed to no longer be effective.
I’d gotten some soup into her, but she had to fight for breath in between each spoonful. After perhaps half the bowl I’d brought, she stopped me. “How is your patient, Miss Catherick?” she asked me.
“I’m far more concerned about you.”
She waved her hand in an annoyed fashion. “We both know that the Lord will be calling me to His side soon. You will have difficulties; I’ve done what I can with my will, but as we are unrelated by blood, much of my savings and possessions will end up going to the Church. You will be more vulnerable once I’m gone: as a single woman, however God-fearing and in good standing in the Church you may be, you could be subject to significant financial burdens we cannot prepare for.”
“And how is it that a discussion about my patient can ease these troublesome thoughts you have brought up?”
She raised her eyes to mine—luminous, loving, and brimming with empathy, though now deeply set in hollow sockets. “Because I have heard rumors,” she whispered.
I felt my stomach clench. “Ephesians 4:29 teaches: ‘Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.’”
A weak smile curved her lips, rekindling some of the beauty her illness had stolen. “Exactly the passage I was thinking of, only the talk is for building up your situation. That, for all your kind, sweet nature, you are blessed with grace.”
I remained silent.
Taking that for agreement, Catherine sighed, phlegm rattling in her chest. “I have heard that Miss Catherick was returned to the asylum a somewhat different woman after her most recent escape.”
“She remains deluded…”
“Not what I meant. I understand her delusion has changed, and also her demeanor and fitness.”
I looked away. “She does seem more physically robust, as if the adventure had been good for her, I will concede. But she still feels she’s been wrongly imprisoned here by Sir Glyde, and that part hasn’t altered significantly.”
“There’s been talk among the parishioners here that Anne has a cousin, Laura Fairlie, now Lady Glyde, and that the two are, for all intents and purposes, identical in appearance.”
I bit my lip.
“Aha!” she said, then broke into a coughing fit. I helped Catherine sit forward until she caught her breath minutes later. “You do suspect something is amiss!”
I hesitated for a moment, but realized there was literally nothing I could not tell my mentor. “I told myself it was nothing, that I had just imagined it.”
I sighed. “But all that you said is true, and upon that, Miss Catherick—the one I’ve been caring for until this most recent escape—has a mole over her left shoulder blade, and the current Miss Catherick does not. But if that’s true, we must…”
Catherine held up her hand. “We must, and will, help the woman who is undoubtedly Lady Laura Glyde, but we must do so in the proper way.”
She tsk’ed at me. “You wish to reveal the secrets to the physician, yes? Think about what would follow.”
I did while I listened to her labored breathing. “He’d feel required by his ethics to inform the family.”
“And he would get whatever credit…”
Catherine hissed at me, surprising me. “He’d reveal the secret, Roberta.”
“Then who would know?”
She nodded, fatigued. “Everyone, including those who had arranged the switch for whatever nefarious purpose they have had in mind. Your patient would remain just as vulnerable to those who put her in that position if you had not spoken her secret.” She considered for some minutes in silence. Then: “Who ‘returned’ Miss Catherick this time?”
“It was an obese, elderly man who claimed to be an associate of Baronet Glyde.”
“I would imagine that to be the Italian Count who is very much in his pockets, destitute though those are according to gossip.”
I thought things through and had to agree with Catherine’s conclusions. “But if I can’t tell the physician, who can I inform?”
“You must wait for the proper person to present themselves, Roberta. Those who wish the real Lady Glyde imprisoned will strive to maintain her there, thus someone who wishes to know the truth and to save her must come to alter the situation.”
I was forced to agree with her logic. “But how will they find her, and when should I expect them?”
Catherine’s eyes closed. “Habakkuk 2:3,” she wheezed.
Unfamiliar with that particular passage, I had to look it up after my mentor had quickly fallen into exhausted sleep. ‘For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.’
I resolved to be patient, and drew the blankets more snugly around my ill companion.
* * *
Sister Catherine was buried in the cemetery after her funeral mass. As per her wishes, I was the one who prepared her body for burial. She had been vociferous in her insistence to Father O’Malley during his visit to perform the Last Rites–even to the end, she was determined to keep our secret.
The loss of my mentor—my only, my truest confidant—set me afloat in my own life.
And then, eventually, what Catherine had predicted would happen finally did. Miss Marian Holcombe, half-sister of Lady Laura Glyde (neé Fairlie) came to visit my patient, and upon gauging my sympathies she offered money for my assistance in arranging an escape for her. I accepted, of course. It was the right thing to do, given my suspicions.
Those, to be sure, I kept to myself. When I returned home, I realized I had reached a decision.
The next day I went to speak with Father O’Malley.
He carried kindness in his face like the promise of God’s love. “Yes, Sister Roberta?”
I took a breath, then let it out. “Cumberland has been a haven for me, ever since Sister Catherine and I arrived. We both have long felt how much thanks we owe to you, so I hate to come and ask for further help. Begging your pardon, Father, but I feel it’s time that I move on from here. I was hoping you might provide me a letter of reference.”
He nodded. “In many ways I’m saddened, though unsurprised. I’ve been watching you, and became concerned.”
Had I done something to make him suspect me? I felt abruptly dizzy with worry.
“The loss of Sister Catherine has been a deep one for us all. Her kindness, skill, and devotion to helping the ill was a gift from God Almighty to this suffering world, and her absence diminishes us. And yet, I think the cost to you, her companion and legacy, are greater even than the sick who will miss her ministrations. Feeling her absence precisely where you have been most together must be quite painful for you.”
I remembered to breathe, but then tears—an all-too-familiar companion these weeks since her funeral—came suddenly as I experienced her loss and my resulting loneliness anew. “Yes,” I admitted softly.
“Had you a destination in mind?”
I shook my head. “I would be thankful of a recommendation, Father.”
He made the sign of the Cross over me. “I have had correspondence with a colleague in Wolverhampton, who states they are in dire need of a skilled nurse. If you wish, I would be happy to inform him that you will come, and that you have my full support.”
“Thank you, Father.” I dried my eyes on the stiff white linen sleeve of my uniform.
“And I’ll make certain that the Church will support your travel expense as well. Go with God, Sister Roberta.”
I took my leave, more grateful than I had any right to feel.
I went home to begin the process of sorting and packing, and later to Catherine’s grave to say farewell. My heart was so full of gratitude that I knelt and commended her spirit to God, whispering the words of Corinthians: “‘Thanks be to God for His inexpressible gift’, the gift of one of the finest of His children to learn His ways. Goodbye, dear, dear Catherine.”
I returned home once again, only now with a heart lightened by the surety of the love with which I’d been blessed in my life and the anticipation of continuing to serve God through the gifts my personal savior had bequeathed to me.
David is a practicing physician for whom writing is his ‘second career’. He recently won 2 short fiction contests (Dark Chapter Press and Espec books) and placed 3rd in another (Morning Rain Publishing). He’s had multiple stories published/accepted to different anthologies with Horrified Press, Zoetic Press/NonBinary Review, Drunk Monkeys Literary, Dark Chapter Press and Nebula Rift Magazine.