Star Cursed - Page 8/73

“Gretchen,” Cora corrects him. “And this is one of our most promising young novitiates, Sister Catherine.”

I am taller than he is, but I don’t dare look him in the eye. Instead I bow my head, fighting not to shiver. The room is freezing, the fire no doubt hastily lit when callers turned up.

“It is a relief to find a young woman dedicating herself to the Lord instead of wantonly parading herself through the city streets,” O’Shea says. It’s obvious that he does not recognize me, and for once I’m glad of the anonymity of the Sisterhood.

Brother O’Shea gestures toward the floor, and the three of us kneel. “The Lord bless you and keep you this and all the days of your life,” he intones.

“Thanks be,” we chorus, hauling ourselves back to our feet. And though it is our home, we do not sit until Brother O’Shea lowers himself back to the settee and gestures at us again. Then Sister Cora takes the brown silk chair by the fire, with Sister Gretchen on the round, tasseled ottoman next to her. I stand like a sentinel behind them, nerves stretched thin.

“As you may know, the National Council session has begun,” Brother O’Shea says. As if we could forget. The city’s been flooded with hundreds of Brothers, and Sister Cora warned us to be particularly careful of our conduct during their three-week meeting. “It is a time of reflection. We pray to the Lord to guide us, to teach us how to better control our weak and rebellious flock. Today we were blessed with his wisdom. Two new measures have been passed.”

“Two?” Sister Cora gasps.

That’s unheard of. Sometimes entire years and National Council meetings pass without new measures. I clasp my hands in front of me, twisting Mother’s pearl ring round and round on my finger.

“When we heard the news from France, we realized measures had to be taken immediately to prevent the contagion from spreading,” O’Shea says, crossing his feet at the ankles.

Contagion? I don’t pay much attention to the news from overseas, but I don’t remember hearing of a sickness.

Helmsley is silent, dwarfing the settee with his bulk. It would seem his purpose is to manhandle women and frighten children, not to speak.

Brother O’Shea pauses, perhaps for dramatic effect. I look at his fingers, spread on his knee: clean and uncallused, with long, neatly trimmed nails. Somehow I think of Finn’s hands: freckled, splotched with ink, dirt beneath his nails from an honest day’s work in the garden.

Is Finn in New London? New members always accompany Brother Ishida to the National Council meeting for their initiation ceremony.

He must be here, but he hasn’t tried to see me.

Does he hate me?

He would have every right. He joined the Brotherhood to protect me and then I left him without an explanation.

But the notion of him giving up on me, on us, so easily—it stings.

“The French have given their women the right to vote,” Brother O’Shea continues. “Perhaps it is to be expected, given their close ties with Arabia. But it’s forced us to take stock. We must make certain that our women remain innocent of such worldly matters, focused on maintaining a cheerful home and raising good, Lord-fearing children. Our new measures are meant to remind women of their true purpose.”

Oh, no. This will be worse than a plague.

“Of course.” Sister Cora’s head is bowed slightly, like a tulip in the rain. “We are here to help you in any way we can.”

“I hope that your resolve will remain steadfast after you learn how the measures will affect the Sisterhood.” Brother O’Shea clears his throat. Helmsley smiles and flexes his big hands. Is he hoping that we will rebel and that he’ll get to arrest someone tonight?

My heart pounds in my chest. Is this some perverse sort of test?

“The first measure, effective immediately, forbids women from working outside the home.” O’Shea puffs out his chest, obviously pleased.

I think of Marianne Belastra, whose bookshop kept her family afloat after Finn’s father’s death. Of Mrs. Kosmoski, the dressmaker in Chatham. Of widows like Lavinia Anderson, who will now need to rely on the Brothers’ charity to feed their families. That’s what the Brothers want, I suppose. Utter dependence.

“Are there provisions for widows?” Sister Gretchen asks. She’s a widow herself. Childless. She returned to the Sisterhood after her husband’s death.

Brother O’Shea shakes his head. “The sole exception is for nurses—for modesty’s sake, you know. Now. The second measure, also effective immediately, forbids that girls should be taught to read. We cannot help those who already have such knowledge, of course, but in the future, we think it unnecessary and even dangerous. Girls can rely upon the knowledge of their fathers, their husbands, and the Brotherhood. They need not seek it elsewhere.”

The room is shocked silent. There’s no sound save the hissing of the gas lamps on either side of the mantel.

I look down at Sister Cora and Sister Gretchen, at their carefully blank faces.

I cannot imagine a life without books.

Without Father’s stories of the ancient Greek gods and goddesses, without pirate stories and fairy tales and poems. Without the hope of another way, of freedom and adventure beyond what we have here and now. How dark life would be.

I think of the people I love, the ones I would trust with my own life. Maura. Tess. Finn. Marianne. Mad about books, all of them. What will this new decree do to them?

I find myself clenching my fists and force my fingers to relax. I mustn’t look as though I want to start a brawl.

“You will need to recall your governesses,” Brother O’Shea says.

“I understand.” Sister Cora’s voice is hushed, her shoulders rigid. “I will write them immediately. Is our school to remain open?”

“For the time being.” His clipped voice and lemon face make it clear he doesn’t approve. “There will be a bonfire in Richmond Square on Friday night, as there will be in each town in the coming days. We ask the faithful to bring books from their own libraries—fiction and fairy tales, that sort of thing—to burn.”

My hand flies, horrified, to my mouth. Brother O’Shea’s pale eyes follow it.

“Pardon me, sir,” I wheeze, forcing a cough.

He stiffens on the settee, back ramrod-straight. “We trust we can count on the Sisters for a contribution.”

“Oh, yes,” Sister Cora says, shifting in the slippery silk chair. “You can always count on us.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” He leans forward, his eyes narrow as he looks at each of us in turn. “There’s one more matter, and it’s the most vital. We’ve discovered an oracle in Harwood Asylum.”

I command my face not to betray a single emotion. Brenna Elliott. It has to be Brenna.

“An oracle?” Sister Cora echoes. “Are you quite sure?”

He nods. “We’ve been watching her for weeks now. It was little things at first. The storm we had, the identity of a girl who’s been stealing trinkets from the others, a nurse’s baby that died of the fever.” I hardly imagine that was a little thing to the nurse. “The nurse accused her of cursing the baby, and that’s when she came to our notice. Now she’s saying that another oracle is rising—one who has the power to sway the hearts of the people back to the witches, for she’s a powerful witch herself, cursed with mind-magic.”