Under the guidance of Sister Clodagh, the youngest Mother Superior in the history of their order, five European Sisters of the Servants of Mary leave their monastery in Darjeeling, India, and make their way to remote Mopu in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. There, in the opulent, abandoned palace where an Indian general housed his harem, the holy sisters hope to establish a school and a health clinic. Their aim is to help combat superstition, ignorance, and disease among the mistrusting natives in the village below, and to silence the doubts of their royal benefactor’s agent, the hard-drinking and somewhat disreputable Mr. Dean.
But all too soon, the isolation, the ghosts and lurid history, and the literally breathtaking beauty of this high, lonely place in the Asian mountains begin to take a serious toll on Sister Clodagh and her fellow nuns. And their burdens may prove too heavy to bear, exposing a vulnerable humanity that threatens to undermine the best intentions of the purest hearts.
The basis for the Golden Globe and Academy Award–winning motion picture starring Deborah Kerr, Black Narcissus has been universally praised for its poignancy, passion, and rich evocation of a time and place. An intensely human story of devotion, faith, and madness, this beloved novel by the New York Times–bestselling author of In This House of Brede stands among the finest fiction written in the twentieth century.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of the author including rare images from the Rumer Godden Literary Estate.
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By Rumer Godden
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1979 Rumer Godden
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The Sisters left Darjeeling in the last week of October. They had come to settle in the General's Palace at Mopu, which was now to be known as the Convent of St Faith.
Last year it had been called St Saviour's School, but, when the Brotherhood left after only staying five months, it lapsed into the Palace again. The natives had never called it anything else; they had hardly noticed the Brothers except, when they met them out walking, to wonder how they grew such beards on their faces; their own chins were quite hairless, though they had long pigtails, and they thought the Brothers must be very senseless to grow hair down their fronts instead of down their backs where it was needed to shield them from the sun. There had been only two pupils in the school; one was the General's nephew and the other the son of his cook.
The General had sent two men to show the Sisters the way and Father Roberts had lent them his interpreter clerk. Father Roberts seemed very anxious about them altogether.
'What is he afraid of?' asked Sister Blanche. 'I think these hills are lovely.'
'He thinks we may be lonely.'
'Lonely! When we're all together? How could we be?' But outside the town, they did seem a very small cavalcade as they rode away to the hills.
They rode on Bhotiya ponies that were small and thick-set like barbs, and sat swaying in their saddles, their veils tucked under them. They looked very tall in their veils and topees, the animals very small, and the grooms laughed out loud and said: 'These are women like the snows, tall and white, overtopping everything.'
One man said: 'I think they're like a row of teeth. I can't see any difference between them and they'll eat into the countryside and want to know everything and alter everything. I was peon at the Baptist Mission and I know.'
'Oh no, they won't,' said a very young groom. 'I know all about them. These are real Jesus Christ ladies like the Convent ladies here. They only teach the women and children and that doesn't matter, does it?'
Sister Clodagh rode on in front with the clerk. It was easy to see that she had been on a horse before, and the others watched her enviously as she sat, upright and easy, bending her head to talk to the clerk, sometimes half turning round to see if they were all following. They rode one after the other along the path, but Sister Blanche's pony kept hurrying to push to the front and Sister Ruth screamed every time it came near her. She was terribly nervous; when her pony flicked an ear at a fly she thought it was going to bolt, and when it tucked its hoof up neatly over a stone, she cried out that it was going to kick; the grooms walked negligently along at the back, laughing and talking, their blankets over their shoulders. Hers was a bow-legged small man in a black fur hat, and when she called out to him he smiled at her, but stayed exactly where he was.
Behind the grooms were the porters, whom they had overtaken already, fifty or sixty of them, some carrying enormous loads; they were gradually left behind and the ponies and the laughing grooms went down and down, into the forest between the hills.
They spent the night in the Rest House at Goontu, a market village above the forest. There was a long market ground of beaten earth with booths standing empty for the next market day and hens like bantams wandering under their planked boards. The Rest House was a whitewashed bungalow with a red tin roof; as they came up to it, they heard the squawking of chickens being killed for their supper and the caretaker came up to salaam them with the chopper in his hand. There was a temple at Goontu and the bells rang persistently from sunset until the middle of the night; the clerk told the Sisters that they would hear them at Mopu.
'Are we nearly there then?' asked Sister Blanche.
'We have to go up there,' said the clerk, pointing to the hill that shut off the north sky above them, 'and down a little; up again, higher and higher, and then down, down, down.'
They stood in front of the Rest House, looking at the silent great hill they had to cross.
On the afternoon of the second day they rode through the last stretch of forest; they were aching and sore and stiff. All day they had been climbing up so steeply that they were slipping over their ponies' tails, or going down at such an angle that they could almost have fallen between their ears. Now Sister Blanche's pony walked in its place and the grooms had stopped their laughing; they hung on to the ponies' tails and had tied leaves round their foreheads to catch the sweat.
The nuns' heads nodded above the ponies, they rode in a shade of green dark sleep; the ponies' hooves sounded monotonously on the stones, their tails hung in the grooms' hands, too tired to twitch at the flies.
Then round the bend, almost on top of them, swept a party of horsemen; suddenly they were in a sea of manes and rearing heads and clatter and shouting; legs brushed theirs rudely and their ponies were buffeted and kicked. Sister Ruth screamed and a horse began a wild high-pitched neighing. At last the grooms separated the ponies and helped the nuns down from their saddles, and the pandemonium died down. Sister Ruth looked as if she might faint; she stared at the horses, her green eyes bright with fright, and her little groom stood beside her, patting his pony's neck, telling her not to be afraid. They all called reassuringly to her, but Sister Clodagh said briskly: 'Come along, Sister. It's over now. You weren't in any danger, you know; that pony's as steady as a donkey.'
'How she loves to exaggerate,' thought Sister Clodagh as she watched the horses, which were different from any she had seen. They had swept up the path, and now the men could not get them to stand; they had galloped up the hill and still they swung and dodged as they tried to hold them. They were only ponies like the Bhotiyas, white and nursery dappled, but their nostrils were wider, their necks thicker, their tails more sweepingly curved; they were eager and powerful as they moved. 'They are stallions, you see,' said the clerk. 'The General has sent them to welcome you.'
'They might have done it more tenderly,' said Sister Clodagh. She had been in front and met their full force.
'They did not mean to do it so fast,' said the clerk. 'These horses gallop uphill. They are saying,' he added ingratiatingly, 'the men are saying, that the Lady-Sahib sits her horse like a man.'
The General had sent tea and, as he knew very well how to please and excite Europeans, he had told his men to serve it in handleless wine cups made of soapstone.
Sister Ruth was positive they were jade. 'Mutton-fat jade,' she said. She always knew everything.
They sat on their saddles, which the men had taken off their ponies and put for them on the grass, drinking the General's tea and trying to eat his cakes, which were very elaborate and very dry. They were tired, and the shade of the forest was greener and more pleasant than anything their eyes had seen for months; and, because outside the weather was sunny, the hill butterflies with wings like sulphur were flying through the forest, and, where the yellow ones flew, the white ones followed. They seemed more beautiful than flowers to the nuns as they looked after them through the leaves; each sat with her thoughts round her like a cloak, and after a while no one spoke; they were too tired.
Sister Briony sat on her saddle with her knees apart, her elbows on her knees; she was eating a cake with her handkerchief spread on her chest to catch the crumbs. She wondered pleasantly about the baggage and the porters who had straggled in so late the night before, poor things, and about their new quarters, and particularly that Sister Clodagh had said that there were plenty of cupboards. Sister Briony had been châtelaine at many convents from Wanstead to Lahore, and she could have told you every detail of every cupboard in them and how many keys they each had.
One of the most important things in her life was her keys. Waking, her life was bound by them, and sleeping, her thoughts were dogged by them, and she had always the comfortable feeling of their weight by her side. She was never quite sure of them, though, and if you saw Sister Briony's lips silently moving while her fingers were busy at her girdle, you were never quite sure if she was saying her prayers or counting her keys.
She was glad she was going with Sister Clodagh, quite apart from the cupboards. 'If there's one person I do admire,' said Sister Briony often, 'it's Sister Clodagh. I have, really I have, a great admiration for her.' She was the oldest Sister, but Sister Clodagh had passed her long ago; she could remember the brilliant little Clodagh, who had come all the way from Ireland, in her last years at school.
Sister Blanche was talking again. She was a chatterbox and dimples chased round her mouth like the butterflies through the wood; she was still pretty, though her face was beginning to fade and she was not as plump as she had been, but the girls' name for her, Sister Honey, still suited her and they came to her like flies round a honey pot. Everyone was fond of sentimental Sister Honey.
'Why Sister Blanche?' Sister Clodagh had asked when she was given her list of names.
'Sister Honey?' said Mother Dorothea, the Mother Provincial. 'I think you'll need Sister Honey. She's popular. You'll need to be popular.'
Sister Clodagh said nothing to that, there was nothing to say, but she asked: 'Why Sister Ruth?'
No one wanted Sister Ruth. She was an uncomfortable person. She was young and oddly noticeable, with high cheekbones and a narrow forehead and eyes that were green and brilliant with lashes that were so light and fine that they hardly showed; they gave her a peculiarly intent look and her teeth stuck out a little which enhanced it. She had a way of talking that was quick and flickering, and she seemed to hang upon your words, waiting for the moment when she could interrupt and talk again herself. She had come to them with a reputation for cleverness, but in the Order they had many teachers, some of them with high qualifications like Sister Clodagh herself, and Sister Ruth found she was given only a junior teacher's work and she resented it.
'She's a problem,' said Reverend Mother. 'I'm afraid she'll be a problem for you. Of course, she hasn't been well, and I think in a cooler climate and with a smaller community she'll be better, especially as she'll have to take responsibility. That's what she needs. That's my chief reason for sending her. Give her responsibility, Sister, she badly wants importance.'
'That's what I feel too,' Sister Clodagh had answered. 'She always wants to be important and to make herself felt.' It seemed to her that there was an undesirable quality in Sister Ruth, something that showed in all her work, clever though it undeniably was. It was even in the dolls she had dressed for the Fête, that made the others look like clothes-pegs; she remembered the poise and smugness, the complete take-in of those dolls, and said: 'Is it a good thing to let her feel important? I feel she should learn ...'
'She's more easily led than driven,' Reverend Mother cut her short. 'Be careful of her. Spare her some of your own importance – if you can.'
Sister Clodagh was startled. Reverend Mother was looking at her; her face was such a network of lines that it was hard to make out her expression, but for a moment Sister Clodagh thought that she was looking at her as if she were displeased with her and at the same time was sorry for her. Sorry for her.
Mother Dorothea was eighty-one and as dry and unexpected as snuff; her bones were small and exposed like a bat's, and she weighed no more than a child of ten, but there was no one in the Order more feared and respected. Sister Clodagh had a tall and supple figure and her face was smooth and serene, with beautiful grey eyes. She had white hands and almond-shaped nails and a voice that was cold and sweet. She had just been made the youngest Sister Superior in the Order.
She asked: 'Mother, are you sorry that I've been appointed to take charge at St Faith's?'
Mother Dorothea laid a hideous old hand on her arm. 'Yes,' she said. 'I don't think you're ready for it and I think you'll be too lonely.'
'Why should I be lonely? It will be the same for me as for the others.'
'If I thought that, I shouldn't worry so much, but I'm afraid you won't let it be.'
'I don't understand.'
'What's good enough for us,' said Mother Dorothea, 'isn't quite good enough for you, is it?'
That was nasty. Mother Dorothea had said some very nasty things. 'Remember, a community isn't a class of girls. The Sisters won't be as easy to manage – nor to impress. If you want advice, and I hope you will want it –' 'Don't despise your Sisters. You're a little inclined to do that.' 'Remember the Superior of all is the servant of all.'
'You think I'm being nasty, don't you?' she said at the end. 'I wish it were any use. Well, you're going and that's a fact. Don't be afraid to say that you want to come back, and don't forget to enjoy yourself.'
That was an odd thing to say. She might have said almost anything else but that. They were going into the wilderness, to pioneer, to endure, to work; but surely not to enjoy themselves. She could not forget Mother Dorothea saying that.
Yet, now that they were close to it, she remembered again how much she had enjoyed that night she had spent in the Palace at Mopu when she had come up to inspect it with Sister Laura a month ago. She had not forgotten it since. It was extraordinary how she had remembered it; the feeling of the house and the strange thoughts she had when the General's agent, Mr Dean, showed them over it. It had reminded her of Ireland. Why, when it was entirely different? Was it the unaccustomed greenness, or the stillness of the house after the wind outside? Now, in the forest, she had a longing to feel that wind again.
She began to tell the Sisters again about Mopu. She told them about the Palace, that was only a ramshackle house facing the Himalayas; it had come as a direct answer to their prayers, she said, an answer to their need. They all knew that their Order had no cool place to go to from the Plains; there was no room for them, as every hill station had its convent. '– and this isn't only fortunate for us. The people must need us here. There isn't a school or a hospital, not even a doctor nearer than Goontu.'
While she was speaking, it seemed to her that she was standing on the terrace at Mopu in the wind. She caught at that and dragged it in. 'Sister Laura isn't with us to-day, but she could tell you that, as we stood on the terrace and saw what you will presently see, we felt it was an inspiration to be there.'
Sister Briony and Sister Honey listened with even their breath following hers, but Sister Philippa smiled as if to herself, and Sister Ruth said: 'I wonder why the Brothers left so soon.'
'How lucky we are,' said Sister Honey, 'to be going to such a beautiful place.'
'But I should like to know,' said Sister Ruth, 'why the Brothers went away so soon.'
Sister Clodagh frowned. She had asked Mr Dean that question herself and he had looked at her as if he were going to tell her, and then shrugged his shoulders and said: 'The school wasn't a success.'
'No? They have a very great reputation for their teaching.'
He had not answered that, but he turned to her and said: 'It's an impossible place to put a nunnery.'
She said blandly, purposely not drawing him out: 'Difficult, but surely not impossible. Nothing is impossible.' She tried not to remember what he had said to that.
She told herself that it was because he did not want them there. That was true. She had felt it while he was showing them over the house and garden; apart from his rudeness, he was hostile as soon as they came inside the grounds, he and the old caretaker, Angu Ayah. Usually Sister Clodagh did not notice servants very much, but that old woman had made an impression like an impact on her.
She picked up one of the wine-cups from the tray. It was cold and thick and grey-green between her fingers. It had a rancid smell that they had noticed as they drank the tea, but she liked its shape and, in spite of its smell and coldness, she liked to hold it in her hand.
She looked at the men sitting and gossiping. One of them had taken off his crown of leaves and stuck a twig of them behind his ear; the green brought out the colour of his cheek and it looked as if it would be warm to touch. How often had she touched Con's cheek and found it smooth and warm; like the feel of his fingers. His fingers used to play with her hair behind her ear. 'Your hair's like honey and satin, Clo. Don't you ever cut it off.' She shut her eyes. The knuckles of the hand that held the cup were stretched and white.
Excerpted from Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden. Copyright © 1979 Rumer Godden. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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