Steeds 38

3 06 2017

A tall woman opened the door of the Sheriff’s Department and stepped halfway through. She stopped to look back while the wind blew her long garments as if they were laundry on a clothesline. “That is the most beautiful horse I have ever seen,” she said in a voice that had command timbre.

The nun continued into the building and shut the door. She had noticed Lee sitting at his desk prior to her assessment. “Are you the sheriff?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Lee answered after standing. “I am Sheriff Leall.”

“I am Sister Margaret Mary. Is that your horse outside the window?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“She is fabulous. Does she have a name?”

“Yes, ma’am. Her name is Freyja.”

“A pagan name.”

“You yourself said she is beautiful.”

Sister Margaret stepped closer to Lee’s desk. “I understand Philip Redman serves as an officer of the law here.”

“He is my deputy, yes.”

“May I speak with him, please?”

“Yes, ma’am, but you’ll have to wait quite a while. He’s conducting an investigation in the southwest part of the county at present. I don’t expect him back for a few hours at the earliest. May I be of assistance?”

“I was rather hoping to speak with him. I was also hoping to greet him face-to-face. It has been some time since our last encounter.”

“I suspect, Sister, that you are somehow connected with the orphanage where he spent his childhood.”

“Indeed. Has Philip said much to you about his experience?”

“Only bits and pieces now and then.”

Sister Margaret looked about the office. “I wish he were here. As it is, I cannot wait an untold number of hours for his return. I am on way by train from Lake Delton to Germantown, whence I wish to go to Holy Hill. I stopped in Uttica specifically to see Philip. I catch the next train going southeast to continue my pilgrimage.” She reached into a pocket to remove a watch. “And that in seventy-three minutes.”

“You are welcome to wait here on the small chance Philip may return sooner than I expect.”

“I don’t believe in chance, Sheriff.”

“I believe in Providence myself,” Lee said. “However, it is written ‘that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.’ ”

“Are you Catholic, Sheriff?”

“I am a Christian, but I am not a Roman Catholic Christian, Sister.”

“Then perhaps you ought not call me your sister.”

“What do you prefer, ma’am?”

“Margaret will do. And what of Philip? Has he remained obedient to the Church?”

“He is, of course, quite familiar with St. Wenceslaus Church here in Uttica. The vicar is Benedict Ziemcewicz. Do you know him?”

“I have heard of him.”

“Would you like to have a chair, ma’am? And perhaps some coffee or tea? Another of my deputies has made a good snack cake using the first strawberries of the season.”

“One would think a man who bakes should be working in a restaurant.”

“Dorothy Oakley is not a man.”

“You have a female deputy?”

“She and her husband, Chester, serve as my jailors.”

“You subject a woman to the riff-raff and ruffians of society?”

“The women of the Sisters of Charity, some two hundred and thirty of them, went from Emmitsburg to Gettysburg to set up a hospital in a Methodist church building, where they subjected themselves to the blood and guts of hundreds of soldiers who had been, shall we say, roughed up.”

“You heard of that. Were you there?”

“I fought down south, not back east. The brother of the two women who are my landladies died at Gettysburg in the care of one of those nuns.”

“I will have some tea and cake. Thank you.”

Lee stepped to the small gate in the railing that divided the office in half and opened it. He then pointed at the chair next to his desk.

Sister Margaret swept through.

Lee went into the jail. In a few minutes, he returned with a tray holding cups, saucers, and plates. “This isn’t fine china. It isn’t even simple clay dishware.”

“Tin and steel are fine enough,” said Sister Margaret. “Tell me, please, about Philip.”

“Among other things, Deputy Redman is a good officer of the law.”

“And the other things?”

“He is a fine horseman.”

“Of that I am aware. He showed such aptitude as a lad when he worked on the farm.”

“The orphanage is located on a farm?”

“No. The farm is within the parish, and some of our orphans work with the farm family. All our charges are employed in some capacity when they are ready.”

Lee nodded.

“Has Philip found his place here?”

“I would like to think so. This may not be permanent, but he seems to have settled in.”

Sister Margaret paused and then said, “I must interrupt myself. Do forgive me, because I have been overcome by curiosity. I saw that piece of paper on your desk, and the calligraphy caught my attention, so I have been impudent enough to examine it while you were in back.”

“No harm done, I suspect,” said Lee.

“The note is written in cursive, as is usual and customary. The style of the cursive, however, is what drew me to it. It looks very much like the cursive taught to our charges by Sister Mary Catherine over the years.”

Lee looked at the note. “I am a police officer, and so you have now aroused my curiosity. I know there are differences in handwriting, as there are differences in script, and in calligraphy, and in typestyle. You are saying this looks like something your co-worker wrote?”

“Not quite. It looks like something she would have taught a child to write: a style of cursive handwriting. Place the paper here, please, and I’ll show you.”

Lee slid the paper between them.

Sister Margaret removed some papers from a satchel she had with her. “Turnabout is fair play, I have heard.” She placed the selected pages on the desk. “I daresay,” said Margaret, “that you have had the experience of being unable to read another person’s writing.”

“Certainly. More times than I can recall.”

“School teachers do their best to teach children at an early age how to write neatly and legibly. They teach those who have the freedom and privilege to go to school, that is. Again, as you have noticed, the children, despite what they have been taught, do not all write alike.”

“True.”

“Perhaps you also realize that at least some children have some difficulty reading the letters they are supposed to be writing, especially in cursive. Look at these examples. Think how similar are the capitals I and J and L in some styles of cursive. O and Q. I and T. T and F.

“Now think of how easy it is to confuse certain uncials when writing many styles of cursive: z and g and q, h and b and k. If a child isn’t careful, those letters can look too much alike when written.

“Add the similarity between the number 2 and the capital Z; the numeral 0 and the capital O; the numeral 1, the uncial l, and the capital I; the numeral 1 and the numeral 7.

“All our children are sent to school. Some are better at it than others, of course. Some last longer and go farther than others. But all are afforded the opportunity. And to help the children defend themselves against charges of misspelling and illegibility by their teacher, Sister Mary Catherine took it upon herself to develop a cursive script that makes all letters and numbers as distinctive as possible, both in the eyes and minds of our children, and after those symbols leave little fingers and attach to paper.”

“It sounds as though you have had some experience in teaching children,” said Lee.

“I have. Education is the reason for my pilgrimage. I go to Holy Hill to pray for guidance and provision. Then I go to see the bishop in Madison to petition for a school of our own in Lake Delton.”

“Dominican or Jesuit?” Lee asked.

Sister Margaret’s face took on a look of mild surprise.

“The Roman Catholic bishop of the diocese of Madison is Jesuit,” said Lee. “I see by your attire that you are Dominican.”

“I pray you are not a lapsed Catholic.”

“Benedict Ziemcewicz and I are friends. Besides, I said I served in the south during the war. The bishop in Nashville was Dominican, and he had a school there operated by Dominican Sisters of St. Mary, who left Ohio before hostilities arrived in Tennessee to perform that ministry.”

“Shall I pray that you become Catholic?”

“If I were Catholic, I would probably be Jansenist.”

“I’m sorry.” Sister Margaret tapped the desktop. “This sheet of yours certainly appears to be a result of Sister Mary Catherine’s tutelage.”

Lee looked at Sister Margaret. “This sheet comes to me as part of an investigation I am conducting regarding a number of horse thefts here in Tuscumbia County. This comes to me from a woman I have been told is an orphan. Helen Vrechek. Would she happen to have been one of your charges?”

“Helen Vrechek? Yes. That name is familiar.”

“She is a school teacher now … in Doylestown.”

“Ah, yes. And, yes, it should come as no surprise that her writing would look like this.” Sister Margaret pointed to Lee’s paper.

“The thing is, she didn’t write this note. It came from an anonymous author.”

Sister Margaret took the sheet in hand and looked more closely. “Well, I am all but convinced, if Helen did not write this, then another of our charges did.”

“You’re sure.”

“Quite confident. Sister Mary Catherine was most attentive in examining British, German, and Latin texts, and she was quite inventive at developing an alternative American cursive. It would probably not win any prizes in a calligraphy contest, but it works, and it is I believe unique.”

“Do you happen to recognize that handwriting?” Lee asked.

“Do I know who wrote this?” Sister Margaret studied the note. “No. We have had too many children over the years. I am sorry, but I am not that well acquainted with the idiosyncrasies of their individual handwriting. Indeed, I am sorry to say I have not been as well acquainted with each individual child as I would like.”

“But one of your children wrote this, or someone who was once one of your children?”

“I believe so, yes.”

Lee stood and strode to the door between the office and the jail. “Dorothy!”

“Yes, sir.”

“Please pack some food for me. I ride immediately for Doylestown.”

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