MARY LAVIN does her writing today looking out on one of the-loveliest curves of the River Boyne, with the famous Hill of Tara rising above the distant trees. A protegee of Lord Dunsany, she turned to the Atlantic with her first short stories, which when published in 1942 in book form. under the title Tales from Beetive Bridge, were awarded the James Tail Black Memorial Brize. Her first novel. The House in Clewe Street, was serialized in our columns, and her second. Mary O’Grady, teas published in 1930.
by MARY LAVIN
AND Naida will be able to go to a proper school — with girls of her own age,”said Edith Paston brightly, because both she and Alastair assumed that Naida, too, would be brokenhearted at leaving Africa. “We probably did neglect her education, and perhaps God saw that — and this is His way of remedying matters,”she said.
By “this,”Edith Paston meant the recent collapse of her husband, which had been followed by the almost unbearable recommendation that they abandon their missionary work and lead a less arduous life in a less arduous climate. And of course that meant going back to England.
It was when they mentioned England that Naida came to life. England! In all their wanderings around the world, Naida had yearned for only one thing: a friend, a real friend, and where could such a friend be found but in England?
Only upon an English lawn, under English trees, and with a mild and beneficent English sun in the sky, could she imagine strolling arm in arm with a real, true friend. What thought could she have, of such things in Africa, passing quickly from one sunbaked hut to another over the scorched clay, and under the implacable African sun?
Oh, the little black children were gentle and timid. She loved them! And specially the little black babies, they were so comical with their little bellies bulging out like melons. But she never could think of them as friends, real friends. It was all very well for Edith to say that in God’s eyes we were all alike; that it didn’t matter whether one’s face was black or white: it was the soul that mattered; and that when the waters of regeneration were poured over those little black heads, their souls, no less than Naida’s own, would shine like snow upon the mountaintops. It didn’t make a bit of difference; it didn’t make up for their not being English. She still longed for a friend in England.
But it wasn’t as easy as the Pastons thought to get a place in the homeland. “Places” as interpreted by Edith seemed to be all used up, passed into other hands, because what the Pastons were looking for was an old mill, or an oast house, or something of that nature that could be converted into a dwelling house.
It was hard to believe the house agents were really doing their best, but one had to take their word. There was nothing at all like that left in England, they said, although they were told that such places were still to be found in Ireland.
And so it turned out to be Ireland instead of England for the Pastons.
“It makes no difference really, Naida, I assure you,”said her mother. “I can’t understand why you’re acting so oddly.”Because Naida was absolutely dejected at the change in their plans. Edith couldn’t understand her. What difference did it make? England or Ireland! They were all one, both parts of Great Britain. “Ireland is just another of the British Isles,”she declared.
But at this point Alastair felt compelled to be more accurate. “Not any more, I’m afraid, Edith,”he said. “Not nominally anyway.”
“Oh, I had forgotten. How stupid of me,”said Edith. “You’re quite right, Alastair, it’s no longer a nominal part of the Empire, but essentially things are the same, don’t you think?”
“I suppose so,”said Alastair.
It was only Naida who had misgivings.
And so, when t hey all arrived at the station of the small midland town in Ireland where they intended to settle and make their home, it was she only who felt conscious of the way people were staring at them.
“Oh, people always stare at newcomers,”said Edith gaily, as she climbed into the station wagon to drive through the town to their new home, which lay at the other side of it.
And so, having confounded things from the beginning, Mrs. Easton entirely confounded the looks that were being bestowed on them as they were whirled on their way, she and Alastair sitting up as straight as sticks in the front seat, and with her back to them on the rumble seat, Naida, a rug spread primly over her knees and her yellow pigtails hanging docilely down to either side of her lit the pale face.
NAIDA was right. Their like had never before been seen in Castleramport.
“They’re Protestants,” said Lottie White, a monitress in the school, who was just coming out of the schoolhouse when they went past in the wagon.
“How do you know?" asked her little sister.
“They have a Protestant look,” said Lottie simply.
And everyone agreed, although no one could have been called upon to define exactly what constituted the difference between a Protestant look and a Catholic look. It was a matter of instinct.
“He looked very sickly, poor man,” said Lottie later, when she was discussing the new people with Mrs. Sully. “He must have spent some time in foreign parts. It’s probably on account of his health that they’ve come to settle down here. I wouldn’t say they had much money, though,” she added, because her quick eye had taken in that the child’s dress was faded either from too much sun or too much of the washtub, she couldn’t say which; and if she wasn’t greatly mistaken, the lady’s blouse was remarkably like a man’s shirt that had been remade, while her stiff straw hat had been unmistakably dyed at home with a bottle of ordinary hat dye. “I caught the smell of it as they went past: it never wears off altogether,” she said authoritatively.
But all at once, as Lottie discoursed idly about the appearance of the Pastons, there presented itself to her mind a matter that touched her more nearly. What would they do with the child? she wondered. Where would she get her schooling?
“They would hardly be able to afford a governess,” said Mrs. Sully.
“I expect they’ll teach her themselves,” said Lottie. Somehow or other it had been inferred that before they retired the Pastons were teachers — “teaching the blacks, of course,” said Lottie parenthetically, because she wanted to give Mrs. Sully to understand that that did not quite give them the same status as Lottie herself, “ but they’re probably competent enough to educate their own child.”
Quite so. Lottie White was something of a little consequence in the town, and thus the matter of Naida’s education was taken to be settled, and curiosity shifted to center upon the repairs that were being carried out in the gloomy stone house that the Pastons had bought, without having seen it, through an agent in London.
It had been vacant for some years, a great gray house, cheerless and damp-looking, standing half in the shade of a disused mill beside it, and half in the shade of its own dreary trees.
“Those poor people,” said Mrs. Sully. “I pity them from my heart. It would take a mint of money to make anything out of that old place.”
And yet, two weeks after the Pastons moved into it, it was hard to know which was the more astounding: how little had been done to it, or how vastly this little had altered the entire appearance of the place. Only two — or at most three — trees were felled. The grass was scythed down. And the ramshackle laurels in front of the windows were cut back to the root. But oh, what light and what air were let in upon the scene. For the rest, the gutters were cleaned, and the walls were scraped, and the doors and window frames were painted white; and finally, over the front door, there flowered out a bright striped awning, red and white.
And lo! where the damp, neglected house had stood, there was a house serene and graceful, a house in which life would clearly be conducted in a manner utterly different from anything hitherto experienced by the town.
And when Lottie White was passing by one afternoon, the three Pastons were seated on wicker chairs under a big tree in the middle of the lawn.
“I suppose they were giving the child her lessons,” she said.
When, therefore, next morning bright and early Lottie saw Edith Paston coming across the schoolhouse yard with Naida by the hand, she could not for a moment understand what had brought her there. And it took some time before Edith could make it plain why she had come.
Then all at once Lottie understood, and her mouth fell open. “But I thought you were teachers!” she cried, until, sensing her own crudity, she stammered a kind of apology. “I mean, that was what we thought you were doing— in those foreign places — teaching.”
For a moment Edith stared. And then she laughed. “Oh, my goodness! So that’s what you thought. Why, of course we were teaching, but, dear child, do you mean to say you didn’t know what we were teaching? Why! what else but the Word of God; the Gospel, dear child.”
Now, with missionaries Lottie was more than familiar—hadn’t she a cousin who was going on the missions. But he was a priest! Never, never had she come across lay missionaries! She stared stupidly at Edith, who laughed again, gaily.
“You dear child. You didn’t think that we were secular teachers, did you? Why, my dear, I cannot add two and two, truly I can’t! And Alastair — my husband — is nearly as bad. We have a fair smattering of languages naturally; that is only to be expected! And we have, of course, given her—” Edith waved a hand in Naida’s direction — “well, it isn’t so much that we have given her lessons as that she has picked up the rudiments of a few languages; Asiatic for the most part, I’m afraid.” Here Edith smiled disarmingly. “We never attempted anything else,” she said. “In fact, we more or less relied upon local schools wherever we found ourselves. Even in Nairobi, the last place we were before we came here, although there had been some talk about drains and fever, we simply could not let her grow up illiterate, and so we took a chance and let her go to the native school.” Edith raised her shoulders and dropped them again expressively. “Oh yes,” she said, and this time she took Naida by the shoulders and pressed her towards Lottie, “we always send her to the local school.” Her voice had become more crisp and decisive. “Do you want me to sign the roll book, or anything of that sort?” And this apparently not being necessary, with very few more words Edith took her departure and left Lottie looking after her with Naida by the hand.
This was a nice position! Lottie looked down at. Naida. What was she going to do with her? In the classroom, prayers would be just beginning. She couldn’t bring her in until after prayers. But she couldn’t leave her outside either. “Come along!”
It was impossible not to be curt. Lottie led Naida into the narrow cloakroom, which was pegged around with wooden pegs for the caps and coats of the scholars, and she began to unbutton her coat. As she did so she looked critically at her. Naida looked older than she first appeared. In her cap and coat, both of which were too small for her, she had only looked about, eleven. In her dress, which was too long for her, she looked about fourteen.
“How old are you?” said Lottie.
Naida was thirteen.
“Hmm!” said Lottie. “And what is your name?”
“Naida!” said Naida.
“Hmm,” said Lottie. That seemed to settle matters.
“Listen, dear,” she said, and she took down the blue coat again from the peg and began to poke Naida’s arm into one of the sleeves, “in this school we begin and end the day with prayers, and we also have a short interval for prayer before and after lunch hour —”
Naida’s eyes were so blue, so serious! Lottie White felt flustered. “— and so,” she said quickly, “if you like you can go out into the yard and play until prayers are over and we are ready to begin lessons; and,” she said brightly, quickly, “on wet days you could sit here in the cloakroom.”
But Naida stared so blankly, so uncomprehendingly, she lowered the coat.
“Don’t you think it a good idea?” she said weakly.
Naida, it appeared, did not. “I’d like to be present for prayers,” she said.
Had she heard aright? Lottie White looked into the big blue eyes, and then she spoke briskly. “That may be, my dear child,” she said, “but we must think of your parents. I’m sure it. would not be their wish that you would remain. We wouldn’t wish to displease them, you know.”
But, firmly and definitely, Naida withdrew her arm from the sleeve of the coat. “My parents would never be displeased with me for attending prayer,” she said.
“Oh?” Lottie was already nettled. She only became more so still. “Oh, very creditable,” she said with asperity. “But you must remember that you belong to a different church from us, and that the prayers of your church are not the same as the prayers of our church. What’s that?” She didn’t quite catch what Naida had said. “What’s that?”
“I said I don’t belong to any church.”
Two pink spots appeared on Lottie’s dull cheeks. Was this a joke? “Of course you belong to some church,” she said sharply. “ Everyone does. Everyone has a church — every Christian, I mean.”
The pink spots glowed brighter. What was the child mumbling? “What’s that? Speak up!”
Naida raised her blue eyes, so mild, so sure. “God had no church,” she said, “when He was on earth!”
Poor Lottie! This was completely beyond her.
“You see, we are nonsectarian,” said Naida.
That, was altogether too much. “We will not discuss the matter any further,” said Lottie. She gave Naida a little push on the shoulder. “Please do as you’re told. Go outside into the yard until prayers are over. You will be called when we are finished.”
The next moment Naida was given a glimpse of bench after bench of curious faces as the monitress opened the classroom door and went through it, closing it with a little slam.
IT WAS so disappointing! Naida sat down in the dark little cloakroom and stared at the closed door beyond which she could hear the singsong voices of the scholars, rising and falling in unison. And a feeling of loneliness far greater than any she had ever felt before came over her and the tears came into her eyes. But she took heart again somewhat when a few minutes later she was called into the classroom and put sitting between two girls who seemed exactly her own age. They were certainly very friendly, particularly one of them.
“My name is Mamie Sully,”she said. “What is your name — your first name, I mean. I know the other.”
But when Naida said her name, Mamie stared in some surprise. “I never heard of a saint by that name,”she said. Then she pulled herself up quickly. “I forgot, you were a Protestant!" she said, and she looked her up and down with a renewal of curiosity. “I never had a Protestant for a friend before,”she said. “Is it true you have an organ in your parlor?”
“It’s only a harmonium, I’m afraid,”said Naida.
But Mamie didn’t seem to see much difference. “Oh, I’d love to see it,”she cried. “Can I come and see it after school?”
It was a bit abrupt and Naida wasn’t sure that Mamie was the kind of girl she wanted for a friend, but that afternoon Mamie presented herself at the Pastons’ place.
“Who on earth is this?" cried Edith when she saw her coming across the grass, staring up at the windows and craning her neck to see into the garden.
“Oh, it’s a friend of mine,”said Naida selfconsciously, as she ran down to meet her.
Edith turned to Alastair. “I suppose we can’t expect to have much of a choice in a small town like this,”she said, because after one glimpse of Mamie she found it hard to adhere to her principle that it was only the soul that mattered. “I suppose it’s all right if Naida herself is satisfied,”she said.
But was Naida satisfied?
If only Mamie had some attention to spare for her she would have been more than satisfied. But Mamie stared so at everything, and not only that: she kept on taking things up and handling them. Poor Mamie! When had she ever seen anything like the Pastons’ room?
“And this is the drawing room?" she said dubiously, at one stage in her investigations, as she came to a pile of books that went from the floor to the ceiling. “We have a lot of old books too,”she said, “that belonged to my grandfather, but they’re kept up in a loft over the stable!
She wandered over to the mantelpiece. “What’s this?” she cried, taking up an elephant bell, and then a lump of jade. “What’s this? What’s this —
Naida could hardly keep pace with her. “That’s a straw effigy,” she said, as Mamie picked it up. “The natives made effigies —”
But Mamie’s attention had darted to something else, and she was peering incredulously at what seemed to he — yes - she touched it gingerly — it was a lump of clay. In the drawing room!
“Oh, that—?” Naida put out her hand impulsively to prevent Mamie from lifting it up too roughly.
But Mamie had just caught sight of the harmonium. She had forgotten all about it, although it was that she had principally come to sec. There it was: like people said, standing in a corner just like an ordinary piano. For a minute Mamie gaped in astonishment. Then she recovered, “Can you play it, Xaida? I’d give anything to know how. What do I do?" Essaying first one stop, and then another, and feeling for the pedals with her feet, she was aglow with excitement. “I’m no good at the piano: I haven’t the patience to practice; but I’d love to play the organ — it is a sort of an organ, isn’t it? I bet I’d be good at it. What do I do next? is this right? Oh, listen to me! Listen to me! I knew I’d be good at it!" She laughed. Then she stood up. “Well, I must be off now,”she said. But on the way out of the room she paused beside the small table on w hich she had seen the lump of clay earlier in her visit.
“Well I never!” she said, staring at it. And, as she seemed about to pick it up, Naida rushed to protect it. “We’d better not touch it, I think,”she said, politely using the plural pronoun because she was so pleased at her friend’s interest in it. “It’s a fossil,” she explained. “Or rather, it’s a piece of stratum in which a lossil was found, she amended scrupulously. “I was with Father when he found il,” she went on eagerly. “It was a leaf — a fern frond, to be exact—and oh, it was so beautiful. But of course we sent it to the British Museum — Father says one can’t he selfish about these things. They wrote ever such a nice letter—we have it; somewhere — and they said that the fossil came aw ay so easily from th he day that they were sending it hack to us — the stratum, I mean — and this is it!" Cupping it lightly, as if it were a living thing, she lifted the piece of day in the palm of her hand. “It’s almost as good as having the fossil, she said. “You can see the marks of the veining distinctly if you bend your head —”
Bui Mamie didn’t bend her head. She raised her eyebrows. “I know what my mother would do with it,” she said, and went out of the room,
A little disappointed, Naida followed her. “I’ll see you tomorrow, she said shyly as she opened the hall door.
For a moment Mamie seemed surprised. “Oh yes, at school,”she said then.
EVEN at school the opportunities for cementing their friendship were greatly minimized by the fact that Naida always went home earlier than others. At twenty minutes of three every day, a single figure, blushing and self-conscious, she had to fasten her satchel and stand up and go out of the room, while the others, flopping down on their knees, remained behind for prayers. She was always halfway home across the fields when at last they tumbled headlong into the sehoolyard.
“Poor Naida, she misses all the fun,” said Lottie White, when Naida had been a week at school, as she looked after her, a solitary figure, almost out of sight. “I’m always sorry for Protestants,” she said, and she sighed sadly.
When the monitress was gone, the children crowded together in the schoolyard. But vaguely they had begun to guess what, was in Miss White’s mind. Only one of the very fittlest of them ventured to put their fears into words. “Does she mean Naida won’t go to Heaven?” she whispered.
Although it was only a low and frightened whisper, all over the schoolyard there was a sudden aghast silence. And in the silence one or two of the older ones not iced that the shadow of t he great gray block of the schoolhouse had moved closer to them.
“Does it?” cried the little child, her voice shrill and urgent. But no one was prepared to answer.
“But she won’t go to Hell!” cried the child. “Good people don’t go to Hell!”
That was so!
They stared at each other, and then their eyes flew across the field to where Naida was just visible still, a small speck at the far end of the field, about to cross a stile t hat would take her out of their sight.
The winter sun was not yet near the horizon, but large clouds massed on the rim of the sky threatened to bring the day to an end earlier than usual, as the schoolhouse and the neighboring church had already brought the blue shade of evening over the schoolyard. In that far corner where Naida stood, however, the sun still fell unimpeded in its full afternoon glory, and it gilded her small figure, making her pigtails glow and making the buckles on her satchel shine. It was preposterous to think that Naida’s soul should have its destination in any darksome place.
Oh, how the children wished they had not lingered in the schoolyard, but had gone straight home as they were always told to do. On their shoulders they felt the chill of the shadows; under their feet the asphalt was cold; they were fired and hungry. They thought too of the long tasks that faced them for homework, and they wished desperately to disperse. Naida, moreover, was now out of sight; and in the far field, where they had glimpsed her, the sunlight fell only on the tops of the willows by the midstream, and upon the upper spokes of the old mill wheel.
And then suddenly the littlest of them spoke up again in a shrill voice. “What about Limbo?” she said.
Limbo! They had forgotten about Limbo. Oh, how their burdened hearts lightened, and how their minds were eased. There was no need after all to prognosticate darkly about Naida: she could be consigned to Limbo. And they could go home untroubled. Not that they understood very clearly the what or the whereabouts of Limbo. Never before had they known anyone in the least likely to go there. Heaven and Hell were the familiars of every day. To the one or the other everyone in the town would one day be dispatched. But never, never, never had they known anyone likely to go to Limbo — until now. And as they went their separate ways homeward, they tried not to think about her, now more than ever remote and single.