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The Case of the Fallen Woman

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The Case of the Fallen Woman
by Her Ladyship GJ

 

DISCLAIMER: I do not own Father Brown, or any other recognizable characters. This is a work of fan fiction using characters from the Father Brown world, which is trademarked by the BBC. The story that I tell here is my own invention, and is not purported or believed to be part of the Father Brown canon. I am not profiting in any way from the creation or publication of this story. I am grateful to the creators of Father Brown, because without the books and television series, this story would not exist.

Authors Note: I have borrowed liberally and without reservation from both the books and the television series as it suits my fancy. In my world, Flambeau has retired from his life of thieving after his “death” and is settled in sleepy little Kembleford (the books). Inspector Mallory is in charge (the TV series), and Bishop Talbot is still at the helm of the diocese, because I can never remember the new guy’s name (TV series).

Sister Boniface (Lily) is such a fascinating character to me, because she is a woman of both science and faith, steeped in the mysteries of the unknown yet possessing an objective and scientific mind. I thought about making this an adults only story, but couldn’t bring myself to do it-and the challenge became to write a story without the smut I had originally planned. If I have specific chapters that move into smutland, I will mark them as such. It will start slowly, as this is my maiden foray into Father Brown FF. I hope you enjoy it.

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Standing in her stone walled cell, looking out the small window at the grape vines in the distance, Sister Boniface fought back tears as she tried to understand how things had gone so very wrong.

When looked at practically, the answer was easy to understand. She had been accused of assaulting a priest, slandering his reputation and then refusing to back down when ordered to apologize and repent. Her punishment was to be permanently removed from the order. These processes normally take time, and involve an investigation into the situation. In this case, however, the priest in question was the godson of a Cardinal and the nephew of the Bishop of Cambridge. Therefore, the punishment was carried out immediately and with severity.

The truth was more complicated than that; as might be expected. Sister Boniface, now returned to her worldly name of Lily, neatly folded her tunic, lying it carefully on the end of the bed. Her chestnut brown hair, now streaked with the tiniest bit of silver lay plastered to her head from years of being secured. Attacking it with the brush, she tried to fashion it into some sort of a style. Finally giving up, she braided it and wrapped it into a crown on the top of her head.

The problems had started five months ago when Father Isaac arrived at St Agnes. As a well connected member of the priesthood, he was predicted to rise in the diocese. His arrival was seen as a great honor, and he seemed to know that. His ambition was a breath of fresh air to the Diocese, who had become accustomed to much more reasonable goals. Father Isaac had plans to rejuvenate the winery, and the Diocese in a year. His business degree gave him the credibility he needed.

Blinded by the predictions of large profits, the Diocese gave in to Father Isaac’s every demand. Within days, Sister Abelard was removed from her place in the stocking and management of the funds. Next, he turned his attention to the wine itself.

Sister Boniface had spent six years of her life in a convent in France where winemaking had been taking place for centuries. Standards were exceedingly high, and additives like sugar were forbidden. The sweetness came from the grapes themselves and required careful husbandry to ensure just the right amount of sun and temperature.

Father Isaac, however, had other plans. He fully intended to utilize added sugars, which he considered to be cheaper and less labor intensive. Boniface’s arguments that both the flavor and quality would be ruined fell on deaf ears. When she persisted, he had her thrown out of the winery and put into the kitchens, whilst declaring himself head vintner. The vines now stood untended, and she could see the weakening of the foundational vine from where she stood. The well loved and cared for vines were just coming into their prime, and would now be ruined within a year, maybe less.

Father Isaac’s wandering eye was a much greater concern. Lily heard from others in the Order that some young priests took a rather loose interpretation of the celibacy laws, but at St Agnes it was never allowed. When Lily had come down the stairs that morning and witnessed Father Isaac with a novitiate, her tunic raised and his knee between her thighs, she remonstrated loudly and moved to pull him off of the young woman. He turned and punched her, breaking her glasses and knocking her to the stone floor. He had then turned and kept striking her until Mother Augustine had pulled him off of Lily, at one point putting his hands around her throat. Far from contrite, he had protested loudly and demanded her expulsion. The novitiate had been so terrified, she dissolved into tears and ran away. When later questioned, she backed up Father Isaac’s story that he had been consoling her after an argument with another nun. Lily’s defense of the young woman had been for nothing.

Hearing the bells calling the Order to evening prayers, she knew it was time to go. Closing her battered suitcase, she walked resolutely toward the door and down the stairs for the last time. Her footsteps echoed down the empty hall and the prayers could be heard through the chapel’s open doors. Her future was entirely in God’s hands: she had no money, the small inheritance she had from her Grandmother and the savings she had when she entered the Order wouldn’t be able to be released by the Diocese for nearly a week; the red tape in getting it released would take time. She had nowhere to go; her estrangement from her family was long-standing.

 

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As the front gates of St Agnes clanged shut, Lily felt a finality that brought her to tears. Determined to not give in to the emotion while within eyeshot of the convent, she squared her shoulders and walked away. She thought for a split second that she saw a figure standing in the Mother Superior’s office watching her. When she turned her head, the figure was gone.

Lily walked until her feet ached and she literally couldn’t see anything in front of her. Feeling exposed on the road, she walked into the woods and promptly got lost. She tried to remember her father’s teachings about navigation, but came up with nothing. Honestly, she had spent much of those trips trying to hide from the bears her brothers told her were hunting for good little Catholic girls. When she was older and realized that there were no bears in the woods, she had retaliated; stealing all of their blankets and throwing them in the stream. After that, she was “punished”by being forced to stay with the spinster down the street. It had actually been fun; she had learned how to bake, play poker and smoke cigarettes like an adult. These dubious skills did her absolutely no good in her current predicament. Grinning at the memory, she walked on.

Looking up through a clearing in the trees, she saw the night sky full of stars. She was able to locate the North Star, and what might possibly be the Big Dipper, but nothing else. Away from the lights of town, the stars filled the inky black sky. It was wondrous, and she found that she no longer felt afraid. God’s love was everywhere, and she would trust in it to get her through this as well. She had no idea what the lesson was in this hardship, but she would welcome it. This may be a hidden blessing, and she would open herself to the experience. Warmed by the thought, she walked on. It must have been hours later when she fell asleep under a tree.

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Mother Augustine looked out her office window at the storm raging outside, and closed her eyes in prayer, eyes filling with tears of regret. She should have fought harder in defense of the younger woman. Now, she had no idea where Lily was, although she knew that the young woman had no money and no connections anywhere near the convent. She should have given her some money to allow her to find a place to stay over the weekend until the Diocese could be consulted on this extraordinary excommunication.

“The Sisters are worried, Mother.” She turned to see Sister Gregory standing at the entrance looking concerned. “Sister Boniface was well loved and respected. The others are afraid of what will happen if they speak out.” She approached her old friend, and sat in the chair across the desk from the Senior Nun.

“I am aware of the concern. It is frustrating to see that Sister Isolde was willing to lie as she did, although she doesn’t seem to have understood the consequences of the lie at the time.”

“She certainly does now.” Sister Gregory’s voice held anger. “The others have completely ostracized Sister Isolde. She has spent the entire day crying, the stupid girl.”

“I intend to speak to the Bishop on Monday when he returns from London. Bishop Talbot would not order an excommunication to be carried out so quickly. I haven’t been able to reach any of Sister Boniface’s family, and I need to make sure she is safe.”

Sister Gregory stood. “I will pray for wisdom in this matter, Mother.”

Mother Augustine nodded wearily. “I am going to reach out to Father Brown. She may have tried to contact him; they were friends of a sort. It is nearly a fifteen mile walk, but she might reach the village tomorrow.” She reached for the phone.

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Father Brown hung up the telephone and looked around at his group of friends sitting around the table, his expression serious.

“It has been reported to me by Mother Augustine at St Agnes that there has been a dismissal of a Sister. It is my understanding that she stepped on some powerful toes and was unrepentant. If what I have been told is true, Sister Boniface has been dismissed unfairly. However, the ruling is final. She was sent from the convent last evening on foot.”

Mrs. McCarthy shook her head. Lady Felicia shifted uncomfortably in her chair.

“When Sister Boniface joined the order, it was against the will of her family and they cut all ties to her. It is unlikely that she would reach out to them for help. When she was sent away, she had no money with her and as far as I can tell, nowhere to go. Mother Augustine is convinced that she may make her way here for help.”

Mrs.McCarthy interrupted. “Sister Boniface, although I suppose she can’t be called that anymore, was an interfering, opinionated and self-important little madam. It is no surprise that she behaved in a way that flew in the face of the humility and obedience expected in the Order. If she arrives here, I will be sure to send her on her way.”

Father Brown looked at the elderly woman in horror. “Mrs. McCarthy, you will do no such thing. While I can not disclose the specifics of what happened, according to Mother Augustine the Bishop acted in haste and without a proper investigation. Mother Augustine is certain that Sister Boniface would have been cleared if things had been done properly. If she comes to the Presbytery, I expect that she will be treated with compassion and Christian charity.”

Lady Felicia spoke up. “She is welcome to stay at Montague until we can figure something out. Does she have any skills that could be useful outside the convent walls?”

Father Brown nodded. “Sister Boniface was the senior vintner at the winery. She has an advanced degree in chemistry and is an excellent cook. She is well read, speaks French fluently, and has one of the most inquisitive minds I have ever known.”

Sid rolled his eyes. “Another Frenchie. Flambeau will be thrilled when he comes back. He is always complaining about the English.”

Father Brown shook his head. “Sister Boniface, or Lily as she is called now, is English, not French. Indeed, he will likely enjoy her company. Her mind will fascinate him.”

Sid spoke up. “I think we need to give her a chance.” He lit a cigarette.

“Thank you Sid. As I say, I am not sure if she will come here. However if she does, we need to extend her every courtesy. Are we agreed? Mrs. McCarthy?” The priest waited for her reluctant nod. “For now, my main concern is where she might be. If she hasn’t left the area, then I am concerned that we haven’t seen her yet. I pray that she has found somewhere safe and warm.”

 

The sun had not yet risen when Lily rose from her makeshift bed, and began her walk again. She had slept in the woods for two nights; no doubt because she had walked in circles until she found her bearing. The trees opened up into a clearing; the village could be seen below. Her stomach rumbled and she felt a bit light headed. The church steeple was easy to spot, and Lily moved forward with purpose.

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Hercule Flambeau wandered into the quiet church, letting himself in silently. He walked to his usual pew in the back and sat, waiting. In the year since he had left his life of thieving behind, he had found a home in the small village. Known as a retired religious historian by the name of Professor Fontainebleau, he kept himself mostly isolated from the unwashed masses, as he called them. Known to associate with Lady Montague and Father Brown, he otherwise traveled frequently, and was largely left alone.

One of the things he did nearly every time he returned from his frequent trips abroad was to watch the sun rise through the stained glass window of the church. When the first rays of light hit the deeply tinted windows, they sparkled as though they were on fire. Removing his grey Homburg and lighting a Gauloise, he sat down to wait. He pulled out the two rolls with butter and the thermos of coffee and was about to pour himself a cup, when he saw movement at the front of the church.

A woman was at the rail, head bent in prayer, oblivious to her surroundings. Not recognizing her from the village, he rose and approached her silently. Finally, he heard her voice, praying in French as rosary beads clicked in her hand. Fascinated, he moved up to the front pew, the stained glass forgotten. It was unusual to find another French speaker in the village.

“Et nom du père” she intoned. Flambeau’s gaze sharpened. His mind flashed to the time many years ago when he first met Father Brown. He had been after the Blue Cross, actually held the relic in his hand and a gun to the head of his accomplice. “Absolve me!”, he had ordered the priest. “Et nom du Père. Say it!” Brown had resisted, saying his repentance had to be real. Yet, later that night as he lay in a narrow cot, Flambeau felt a weight lift from his shoulders. It had been this flicker of light in his darkness that had kept him coming back again and again to this sleepy little village. Eventually he had walked away from his old life. Was it a form of salvation? Who could know?

The woman at the rail was sobbing now, choking out her prayers. He had the sudden urge to make himself known to her, but didn’t need to get involved. Yet, this woman was clearly in agony. He saw the battered suitcase lying on the floor. Was she running away from something, or running toward it? He supposed one was the other, really. Damning his curious nature, he stayed in his seat.

Minutes later her shoulders stiffened, and he knew she had registered his presence. He assumed a position of indifference, as she turned and glared at him.

“Pardon, Monsieur”, she said before catching herself and switching to English. “I didn’t know anyone else was here.” She turned away to hastily wipe her eyes. “I will be leaving.” She looked around, likely for her case.

“Don’t feel you need to leave on my account. I am merely awaiting the sunrise through the stained glass. I would never dream of intruding on the private prayers of such a penitent lady.” The flirtation sounded rusty even to himself, and he completely deserved the eye roll that came his way.

“You are not a priest” A statement not a question. “Why are you in God’s house so early?”

“Your God understands my need for silence and privacy” he shot back. “And you are not a nun, so the same question applies.”

She reeled back as if he had struck her. “You are quite right. I will leave now.”

Flambeau was intrigued by the woman before him. She was a puzzle: lovely chestnut brown hair, outdated, poorly fitting clothes and broken glasses. Oddly, she also seemed to have twigs and leaves in her hair. She had a black eye and what looked like finger marks on her throat. A flash of anger went through him; he abhorred men who abused women. Yet, he could see the considerable intelligence behind those glasses, and she wasn’t at all cowed by his sophistication and charm. Well, that wouldn’t do at all.

“Let me begin again. Good morning, Madame,” he began in French. “It is good to hear someone in this provincial village that can speak my mother tongue.”

She nodded, reaching for her case. “Good morning, sir.” She spoke in English.

He stubbed out his cigarette and put the end in his pocket. “My name is Professor Fontainebleau. May I ask your name in return?” He extended his hand.

She looked at her watch discreetly, but refused to shake his hand. “I apologize but I must go. I have an appointment with…”Her eyes flickered toward the priest’s apartments.

Flambeau interrupted her in French. “If you intend to speak with Father Brown, I regret to tell you that he never rises before nine on Saturdays. This means you have nearly three hours before you can present yourself. You might as well sit down.”

“I am not certain that you have the right to tell me what I should do.” Her eyes blazed, but Flambeau grinned. She had switched back to French. Excellent.

“I brought rolls and coffee with me. Surely, you can stay for a bit. You’ll just be wandering around otherwise”. He stood.

“You seem to know a great deal about Father Brown’s habits. Why is that?” Her voice was challenging him, and he saw what almost looked like protectiveness in her stance. Interesting.

“The Father and I have been acquaintances for several years. I would go so far as considering him a friend. We have number of shared interests. I would be happy to enumerate them to you if you would break your fast with me.” He had to admit, she looked hungry.

“You brought food into a church? This is a place of worship, not a cinema.” Her scolding made his smile widen. With a grin, he pulled a leaf from her hair and handed it to her. She flushed.

“Father Brown is well aware of my habits. If I sit way in the back or up in the balcony, which I generally do, the chapel feels less holy and more relaxing. I am headed back to the rear pew to get my breakfast. Come with me-the rolls are getting cold. ”

She regarded him warily, but nodded as they made their way to the back of the church. She would need to first make a stop at the ladies room. Did she really have leaves in her hair? She lifted her hand and felt a twig sticking out of the back. How embarrassing.

As she hurried down the aisle to the ladies room, Flambeau turned to see the early sun pouring through the glass. The entire church was waking up, and he believed, lending its approval. Shaking his head at the thought that was completely unlike him, he turned back to find the coffee. “Ridiculous”, he muttered.

The light continued to shine, illuminating Mary.

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Father Brown woke to the sound of voices outside his window. As he lay on his narrow bed getting his bearings, he heard Flambeau laugh and say something in French. Odd. The voice that responded was female, and familiar. When he realized who it was, he jumped out of bed and hurried to wash and dress. Sending a prayer of thanks for Lily’s safe arrival, he hurried downstairs.There was no time to lose.

An hour later, Lily sat at the small table in Father Brown’s dining room surrounded by the oddest assortment of people she could imagine. An elegant woman and her niece gasped as she recounted the attack by Father Isaac. A man who was apparently the elegant woman’s driver swore, and the Professor had jumped to his feet and was pacing, muttering in French. He had apparently forgotten that there was anyone who could actually understand what he was saying. Finally he switched back to English.

“This can not be allowed to stand, Father. For any man to strike a woman, and for this to happen. She was turned out with no money, no place to go. What kind of unfeeling place is this church you proclaim to be so merciful?”

Trying to defuse the situation, she caught the Professor’s eyes and said in French, “While I appreciate the thought, some of the things you mentioned a few minutes ago might be physically impossible for a human to achieve, with or without your assistance.”

The sophisticated man flushed deep pink, much to the amusement of the others at the table. “My apologies, Madame.”

“Mother Augustine called me, and was quite frantic. Apparently, Bishop Talbot is furious that you were made to leave so late and without anywhere to go. She was hoping to find you on the convent grounds, but was unsuccessful. Father Brown looked regretful. “I admit, I never imagined you would walk over fifteen miles into town in the dark and the rain.”

The elegant woman, apparently called Lady Felicia, stood. “Well, she is welcome to stay at Montague while we sort something out. We will need to get her some clothes- she can’t wear that outfit every day. If we get catch the next train, we can be in London by lunchtime.” She looked excited at the idea of shopping, and Lily was sure she had some sort of Pygmalion type makeover planned. She looked at the Professor, panic rising.

“Lady Felicia, while I am sure a trip to London is in order, staying at Montague is going to rather limit her employment prospects, wouldn’t you say? You do live rather far away from town.” The Professor sounded reasonable, but she was sure he was up to something.

Her niece, apparently called Bunty, spoke up. “Aunt, there is that cottage in town that the valet used to live in. She paused. “Which is conveniently next door to Flamb…the Professor.”

“Absolutely not.” Sid sounded definite. “She is not living next to him.”

“Are you intending to offer her a spot in your caravan?” Flambeau sneered. “Hardly appropriate.”

“Stop!” Father Brown slapped his hands on to the table, drawing everyone’s attention. “I think we need to ask Lily what she thinks is best. This is after all her life.”

Everyone turned to her. She flushed, and then folded her hands serenely on the table. “If the cottage is available, I will be happy to stay there. When I get my inheritance from the bank, I can pay you rent.”

“Hardly necessary.” Lady Felicia waved her hand dismissively. “The property has been empty for some time. I would be glad for someone to live in it.Besides, you will need your funds for emergencies.” She looked down her nose at the Professor. “I am certain that the Professor will behave as the gentleman he purports to be.” The gentleman in question rolled his eyes and lit a cigarette.

“However, I must insist that you accompany me to London this coming week. We need to replace your glasses for one thing. Tomorrow is Sunday, and all the shops will be closed. Today, I can show you the cottage, and if it meets with your approval we will get you moved in.

Lily looked pale, but resolute. She nodded.

“Excellent. We will need to get going if we intend to get the you moved in by this afternoon. Sid, the car?” Sid stood up and walked out of the dining room.

Father Brown touched Lily’s hand as she stood. “Lily, we will figure this out. You are among friends here, and we will trust in God to make the rest of this mess right.” She smiled at the kindly priest as she followed Bunty out the door.

In this uncertain life she faced, and the crumbling of everything she believed in, she knew she could believe in Father Brown. Well, in God as well. But that went without saying.

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Inspector Valentine smoked as he crouched down gazing at the young woman’s body. She had been dead for a day or so, found at the bottom of a small hill hidden from the main road. The poor woman who found her had gone to the hidden area to relieve herself on the long walk home. Currently, the same woman was sitting on a blanket as far away as possible from the body and facing the road. She was currently being interviewed by Sergeant McDonald, tears running down her face.

Silently, he stood and turned, looking around at the idyllic scene around him. He hated the country, all secrets and people peeking around their curtains. A London boy, he was accustomed to secrets being whispered at pubs and being carried out in more public areas. When he left Kembleford, he swore he would never end up in the backwaters of the Commonwealth ever again. Yet, here he was. His experience in the country and low ranking at the Yard had caused him to be reassigned to the Cotswolds for at least six months while the earth for a new permanent DI was underway. While he wasn’t in the accursed Kembleford, he was only a few miles away.

“Papist, I think.” He turned around to see the Police Surgeon shaking his head as he pulled something away from her neck.

“What is it?”

“Some sort of necklace. I don’t know what it is, but I have never seen one of these on a run of the mill C of E..”

“Do we have any Catholics on the force that might know?”

The Police Surgeon (Valentine could’t remember his name) looked affronted. “Certainly not. We don’t hold with that nonsense here. There is a nun house in the next town. That’s the closest we get to those people.”

“I see.” Valentine was an atheist, but understood the fervor many had for faith. As it happened, he knew a few of the residents at the “nun house” who might be able to help. Perhaps Sister Boniface would help him; she had certainly been eager to help with the murders a few years ago.

Holding out an evidence bag, the “necklace” was placed in it. He turned to go with the one lead he had. He was a man of action, after all.