She spoke with the kind of accent that is associated with the New England States which made sense, for as I discovered later, she had been born and raised in the town of Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.
“Mr Mallory?” she said.
“We’ve been waiting for you. Thecomandante said you were expected back this evening. I am Sister Maria Teresa of the Little Sisters of Pity.”
She had said “We”. I looked for another nun, but instead a young woman sauntered in from the terrace, a creature from another world than this, cool, elegant in a white chiffon frock, wide-brimmed straw hat, a blue silk scarf tied around it, the ends fluttering in the slight breeze. She carried an open parasol over one shoulder and stood, a hand on her hip, legs slightly apart, casually insolent as if challenging the world at large.
And there was one other peculiarity that made her herself alone – a silver bracelet about the right ankle, studded with tiny bells that jingled rather eerily as she walked, a sound that has haunted me for years. I couldn’t see much of her face for with the evening sunlight behind her, the rest was in shadow.
Sister Maria Teresa said, “This is Miss Joanna Martin. Her sister served with our mission at Santa Helena.”
I knew then, I suppose, what it was all about, but played dumb. “What can I do for you ladies?”
“We want to go up-river as soon as possible.”
“To start with, then Santa Helena.”
The simple directness of that remark was enough to take the breath away. I said, “You’ve got to be joking.”
“Oh no, I assure you, Mr Mallory. I have complete authority from myOrder to proceed to Santa Helena to assess the situa-tion and to report on the feasibility of our carrying on there.”
“Carrying on?” I said stupidly
She didn’t appear to have heard me. “And then there is the unfortunate business of Sister Anne Josepha and Sister Bernadette whose bodies were never recovered. I understand that in all probability they were taken alive by the Huna.”
“That would depend on your definition of living,” I said.
“You don’t think it’s possible?” It was the Martin girl who had spoken, the voice as cool and well-bred as you would have ex-pected from the appearance, no strain there at all.
“Oh, it’s possible.” I swallowed the impulse to give them the gory details on the kind of life captive women in such a situa-tion could expect and contented myself by adding, “Indians are very much like children and subject to sudden whims. One minute it seems like a good idea to carry off a couple of white women, the next, equally reasonable to beat them to death with an ironwood club.”
Sister Maria Teresa closed her eyes momentarily and Joanna Martin said in the same cool voice, “But you can’t be certain of that?”
“Any more than you can be that they’re alive.”
“Sister Anne Josepha was Miss Martin’s younger sister,” Maria Teresa said simply.
I’d suspected something like that, but it didn’t make it any easier. I said, “I’m sorry, but I know as much about Indians as most people and more than some. You asked me for my opinion and that’s what I’ve given you.”
“Will you take us up to Landro with you in the morning?” Sister Maria Teresa said. “I understand from thecomandante that we could fly from there to Santa Helena in under an hour.”
“Have you any idea what it’s like up there?” I demanded. “About as bad as any place on this earth could possibly be.”
“God will provide,” she said simply.
“He must have been taking a day off when the Huna took out Father Conte and the rest of them at Santa Helena,” I said brutally.
There was the briefest flash of pain on that calm face and then she smiled beautifully and with all the understanding in the world. “Thecomandante told me you were one of those who found them. It must have been terrible for you.”
I said slowly, “Look, Sister, the whole area comes under mili-tary jurisdiction.”
Joanna Martin came forward to join her, opened the em-broidered handbag which hung from her wrist and took out a folded document which she tossed on the bar.