On storm-tossed seas, clinging to the gunwale aboard her barquentine … this is where we find Sister Hortense. She reminds us, does she not, of the Tall Nun in The Wreck of the Deutschland by Gerard Manley Hopkins, but even taller?
Back at the convent, perched dangerously on the edge of the Dizzyingly High Cliffs of Ümblasco, she was the subject of much impromptu doggerel.
That Sister Hortense
She makes no sense
Said “Get thee hence!”
So sang the novitiates as they queued in the canteen for their jugged hare and creeping jenny. Sister Hortense turned a deaf ear, but she could not ignore the blandishments of the grubby old Catholic sea dog who lay sprawled in a heap outside the convent gate on that fateful day in April.
He had come for alms: he left with Sister Hortense. He took her away with him to sea, and she followed willingly, and when he fell overboard after an accident with a topgallant shroud as the ship approached the Arctic Circle, she did not for a moment think of returning to the convent.
She prayed; she said her novenas; she drank rainwater; and two weeks later she hove into port, who knows what port it was, gave the barquentine a lick of paint, stocked up on provisions, renamed the boat the SS Our Lady of Lachrymose Convulsions, and sailed away.
Auks and skuas shrieked, and a guillemot swooped low over the poop deck. God was in His heaven; the novitiates had no even taller nun to badger; the barquentine was bright; and Sister Hortense grew grey and old and mad and sailed away on the high and storm-tossed seas …
Frank Key’s new paperback, Porpoises Rescue Dick Van Dyke, from which this tale is not taken, is available from Lulu.