The Tunnel to Hope
Bridget hears Sister Nora’s sharp footsteps echoing in the hall, and quickly puts away her reveries. Taking up the iron, she turns back to the basket of clothes awaiting her attention.
She pulls another pair of pants from the pile of laundry, and swipes her arm across her forehead to wipe the perspiration away again. Between the hot black iron and the fireplace, it is stifling. The only relief she can hope for is a small breeze coming from the window overlooking the yard and the town beyond. Her arm starts moving methodically once again as she gazes out at a boat going down the River Barrow in the distance, and her thoughts turn to Sean again. One day we will sail across the sea to America and freedom…
“Bridget Murphy, come with me.” Several sets of eyes turn to look at Sister Nora, standing in the doorway. Yanked back into reality, Bridget puts down her iron and moves toward the nun, wondering why she is being singled out.
When she reaches the door, Sister Nora spins on the heel of her stout black shoes, her habit flaring out slightly, and walks into the hall. “Close the door behind you,” she commands over her shoulder.
Sister Nora leads the way, her back straight as a pitchfork handle, and Bridget falls into step behind her.
“Sister, where are we goin’, then? Have I done somethin’ wrong?”
“Hold your tongue, Bridget Murphy,” the nun replies. “ ‘Tis not yours to be askin’.”
As her face reddens, Bridget drops her eyes to the floor, and follows the Sister Nora meekly. After many twists and turns through the cold stone corridors of the convent, they are in a section that Bridget has never seen before.
“Keep up, then, girl. We don’t have all day.”
Bridget scurries forward, closing the gap that has widened between herself and the nun, her heart pounding harder with every step. Kathleen’s words echo in her mind. “Them what escapes this prison ends up spendin’ eternity in the ground outside the chapel door.” She begins to pray, Dear God, please help me…, then stops, thinking herself the fool for looking toward heaven for help.
The nun stops abruptly at a worn but sturdy-looking door. She reaches beneath the folds of her scapular and withdraws a large key ring. As she selects a large ornate key, she turns to Bridget and says in a low voice, “You are to say nothin’ to anyone, not even Kathleen – sure, and I’m knowin’ you two are thicker'n thieves – about what you will see today. Are you understandin’ me, child?”
“I said, do you understand me?”
“Y-y-yes, ma’am.” Bridget can’t keep the quiver from her voice. Though terrified, another thought has begun to creep into her mind. Did I hear a hint of kindness – kindness! – in Sister’s voice? She gives herself a mental shake, telling herself that it is just her imagination. Her thinking must be addled by fear.
Sister Nora works the big key into the key hole of the old door, and turns it. The answering Click echoes in the empty hall. She swings the door open to reveal nothing but blackness. Bridget’s heart leaps in her chest. Aye, and this could be the door to Hell, she thinks in terror.
Sister Nora reaches inside the gloomy space to take a lantern that hangs on an iron hook on the wall just inside the doorway. From the depths of her habit she produces a match. Striking the match on the stone wall beside her, she lights the lantern and adjust the flame. Holding it up slightly to encircle them in a pool of light, she starts forward.
“Be watchin’ your step, lass. These steps are near as old as time, and could be treacherous to you, what with your condition and all.”
In front of the nun, Bridget sees stone steps leading downward into the darkness.
“But where are we goin’?”
“Hush, now, and come along. Sure and it will be fine.”
Wondering if she is being duped by the kindness she thinks she hears in the nun’s voice, Bridget follows, picking her was gingerly down the uneven steps. Sister Nora doesn’t need to tell her to stay close now. The nun provides the only light as they follow the stairway in a circular route into blackness.
Finally, they reach the bottom, where they seem to be in a basement filled with crates and barrels. Bridget clamps her hand across her mouth to suppress the scream that rises from her throat as a large rat scurries across the floor in front of them. Sister Nora moves across the damp stone floor to another ancient door and opens it with yet another large rusty key, revealing another stone hallway. From a point far down the hallway, a dim light filters in from above.
Uncertainly, Bridget starts walking slowly down the hallway toward the light.
“Move quickly, Bridget Murphy.” Sister Nora’s voice hisses with urgency.
Bridget quickens her pace. About halfway down, she hears a voice from the end.
“Bridget, me love, hurry!”
Sean! Bridget breaks into a run and throws herself into Sean’s arms. “Oh, Sean, you came.”
“Aye. Didn’t I tell you that I would?”
“Yes, but how?”
“Well, ’twas like this, Bridget. Shortly after you left, I found out from your sister Colleen where they had taken you. I couldn’t come right away, but when me Uncle Jimmy came visitin’ to Dungarven, I asked for his help. Like I thought, he was more’n willin’. He brought me over here to New Ross, and I came to the convent. As you’d expect, the nuns I talked to were no help at all, denyin’ they knew anythin' of you. But just as I was turnin’ to leave, Sister Nora gave me a bit of a push toward the door. When she did, she also passed me a small note, askin’ me to meet her outside the gates that night."
Bridget’s eyes widen in surprise. “Sister Nora did that? I can’t believe it, Sean.”
“Best you be believin’ it, darlin’’, because ‘tis true, may the saints strike me if I’m lyin’. I came back that night and waited by the gates, just as the note told. I waited for hours, I’m tellin’ you, and I was pretty sure the sister 'tweren't comin’. But then, sure and begorrah, she did.
“And what a tale she was tellin’. Did you know, Bridget, that Sister Nora came here as a girl no older than you be now?” Nora’s mouth dropped open. “Aye, her name was Molly then, and she had a baby here too. They took the babe away, and she never saw it again. She told me that she believed the poor wee thing was dead.”
“But why didn’t she leave this awful place then?” Bridget exclaimed.
“And sure, that’s just what I asked her, don’t you know. Well, she said they wouldn’t let her leave. And, Bridget, she said they probably wouldn’t let you leave either!”
“Oh, Sean. Kathleen was right. I didn’t believe her for a minute, but she was right.“ Bridget begins to sob as the reality of her situation sinks in. She never saw Kathleen again after she went to have her baby. Bridget misses her dreadfully, but has been comforted by the knowledge that her friend was finally free of this prison. Now she isn’t so sure.
Sean puts his arms around Bridget’s shaking shoulders and says, “There, girl, there, there. Sister Nora told me she would help you and the babe escape when it was time. And I believe her too. She has proven herself to be true, hasn’t she now?”
Bridget pulls up her apron and tries to wipe the tears from her eyes. “What do you mean, Sean?”
“That night, she told me to come back in two months time -- that would be today, Bridget – and showed me the grate above the tunnel. ‘Tis just down the river a bit, outside the walls of this convent. She told me when to come, said to open the grate, and I’d find a ladder attached to the wall. And sure, that’s just what I did find. And when I climbed down, me love, you were here.”
Just then, they heard a sharp tap-tap at the other end of the hall where Sister Nora waited.
“I must go, Sean. Oh, I hate to leave you.”
Sean kisses Bridget goodbye. “It won’t be long, dear one. Your time is comin’ in less than two months, and then we’ll be together, the three of us. Uncle Jimmy has promised to bring me back and I’ll be waitin’ to take you away from here.”
“No buts, darlin’. I’ll be here. And then we’re to go straight to Kilkeel with Uncle Jimmy.”
“But, won’t they come after us?”
“Nay, Sister Nora says that once you are gone, they will look for you around here and back in Dungarven. It won’t even occur to them to look up north.”
He gently turns Bridget and gives her a little push toward Sister Nora. “Off with ye now, me love. I’ll see you before you know it.”
With that, he clambered up the ladder. She hears the grate drop into place with a bit of a clang, then Jimmy’s voice calling softly.
“Goodbye, my sweet girl. I love you more’n you will ever know.”
And then he was gone.
Continued in Part 4: Magdalene Molly