It was as the Archbishop’s secretary had said. The sisters for the most part were younger, many wealthy, with one foot still planted firmly in the world. There were over three hundred women, with the black veils here a small minority. The others being white veils and younger nuns of varying means, the wealthiest with their favourites, then the novices, the slaves and servants, the young girls from the convent school.
Lying as it did on the far side of the chapel and refectory, the workshops and orchards, it was another world though I had once imagined I knew it well enough. Like the others, I came for the torchlight processions; and after quakes I had come to supervise the masons. While the colonnades around the first and second storeys had been preserved, to anyone acquainted with the original plans, the place was a bewilderment. Each according to her means and whimsy, various residents had made modifications, all being expansions of one sort or other — a third storey kiosk on pillars in a vaguely Turkish style, or ground-floor additions shambling a third of the way into the plaza. Flat roofs with crenellations, peaked roofs of thatch or concave, or of canvas, all more than likely propped on untreated uprights. Walls were of adobe brick or simply mud over wattle, some painted, a few limed, most left bared to the elements. Then another extension is built to abut on a wall that may or may not survive the next tremor...leaving more or less at hazard, blind alleys, light shafts and hidden recesses, and balconies giving onto blank walls. In appearance it was as I imagined a bazaar of Persia , or a market town at the edge of a desert. Our Santa Paula’s first convents in the holy land might have looked thus.
Late afternoon was becoming a favourite time, for though the bloodsport of the processions was to begin again in a few hours, there was no sign of this yet. The nights were as written in sand. By the first light of each fresh morning, el gran patio was itself again. In the looseness of this order lay a resiliency one had to live there to notice. The fuss and fluster of chickens darting under foot, the call of songbirds from their cages ... throughout the day, servants gossiping at the fountain, hanging laundry, fine articles of silk, others of cotton, and among them, ranged indifferently, hairshirts torn and darkened. Schoolgirls strolled in pairs, novices and lay favourites sat on the stone benches in the passageways.
Our new neighbours had grown used to us. There was bound to be resentment. Though small, it was still a corner cell with two storeys, and views to the north and west. More, my presence in it threatened to mean more scrutiny from the other patio and beyond. But when Antonia and I arrived, barefoot and tonsured, all our belongings in our two hands, perhaps the resentment grew a little less...