Authors: Gail Godwin
Tags: #Psychological Fiction, #Nineteen fifties, #Nuns, #General, #Psychological, #north carolina, #Teacher-student relationships, #Catholic schools, #Historical, #Women college graduates, #Fiction
“You heard her read?”
“Why, yes, many a time. I laughed myself out of my chair the first time. I’d just come to Mount St. Gabriel’s as a boarder. She was our seventh-grade math teacher.”
“You were a student here?”
“Indeed I was. I was in the class of ‘34. In my time, the state didn’t have an eighth grade. You went from seventh grade into the academy. Oh, I should also tell you, three of your ninth graders have mothers from our class of ‘34, and two of the girls share an aunt. At first it was going to be just
mothers and an aunt, but now Chloe Starnes, whose mother died tragically this past spring, will be joining us as a boarder. What she will add to the mix, who can predict? Her mother, Agnes, was a well-thought-of girl—I admired Agnes Vick, though we were not close. Young Chloe seems a more interior sort—though, of course, she’s in deep mourning right now. Her uncle, Henry Vick, Agnes’s brother, is a prominent architect in town—right now he’s designing the new public library—and he’s a staunch supporter of the school. But add to
—well, you see, Chloe’s uncle Henry was married to the aunt I mentioned—a dreadful thing; Antonia Tilden was killed in a traffic accident on their honeymoon in Rome. Henry has never remarried. Antonia was my best friend at Mount St. Gabriel’s. And, you see, by her marriage to Henry, she is also
aunt, or late aunt, as well as Tildy Stratton’s. Cornelia, Tildy’s mother, and Antonia were identical twins.”
Mother Malloy’s mind was now a vertiginous whirl of aunts, uncles, mothers, identical twins, friendships, tragedies, and accidents, all of which she must match to individual girls she hadn’t even met. Also she was feeling light-headed from the walk.
“What did the girls do—about the Uncle Remus readings?”
“Well, first they stopped laughing. And then they stopped smiling. As a group. They just faced front and stared straight ahead. They stopped looking at Mrs. Prince when she read to them. And then they stopped looking at her when she taught them math.”
“It’s hard to imagine little girls being so organized in their cruelty. Surely there must be a leader, or a few main girls.”
“Of course there’s always a core of leadership. And every class has its main girls. I could rattle off some names, though you’ll quickly be able to pick them out for yourself. I’d rather you rely on your own instincts, Mother Malloy. Provide us with the fresh view of someone coming in from the outside. I’m such a dyed-in-the-wool Mount St. Gabriel’s girl—I entered the Order as a postulant during my senior year. There may be something here I’m not seeing because it’s been staring me in the face the whole time. After all, I was in the same class with some of the mothers and aunts. And as I said, one of them, poor Tony, was my dearest friend.”
“I hope I—”
“And here are the steps leading up to our grotto. It’s lovely and cool up there, an ideal spot for meditation and just turning things over to the Blessed Mother. You’ll be meeting all of your girls on registration day, but now it’s time for you to see our beautiful Della Robbia and meet our Red Nun.”
SHE HAS THE
face of an alabaster saint, the headmistress was thinking, sprinting ahead up the winding stone steps to the grotto. The vigorous swish of her habit set the giant ferns on either side bowing and swaying, like obeisant minions.
Yet she seems unaware of her beauty. And she’s less
than I was given to expect. But the looks alone will carry her—they’ll have nothing to criticize
—until they locate her weak spots.
Is she panting? In her early twenties and already short of breath after our little climb? I’m her senior by more than a decade and feel as fit as I did as a girl when I foot-raced my brothers on the beach. Probably our academy up in Boston doesn’t put enough of a premium on exercise. And of course there’s their colder weather, and they’re located right in town.
I will coach her in tennis. It will loosen her up a little. Put some color in her cheeks; she’s way too pale. There’s something almost Quakerish about her. Not easy to draw out. In conversation she reminds me of a hound dog, intent on retrieving a single bird at a time.
Now she’s gone and turned her ankle or something! “What is it, Mother?”
“A baby rabbit.” The young nun was crouched on the path, raptly squinting through a thicket of old rhododendrons. The fringed sash of her habit trailed in the undergrowth.
“Oh, if it’s rabbits you want, we’ve got them by the dozens, the procreative little creatures. Mother Finney, our cellaress, finally had to get Howard to build her a chain-link fence around the vegetable garden.”
“I’ve never seen a brown one before.”
“I can tell you’re going to enjoy your forest walks. Mount St. Gabriel’s has thirty acres of woodlands and riding paths just teeming with wildlife. You name it, we’ve got it: wild turkeys, great horned owls, hawks, bobcats, foxes in both red and gray, and of course raccoons and skunks and possums and an oversupply of rabbits, chipmunks, and squirrels. Not so many black bears anymore, though in late spring almost every year, a girl will come flying in to report that she
she spotted one.”
“What is a bobcat?”
“Basically just a smaller-sized wildcat that sounds exactly like a house cat when it vocalizes. They’re tan with black spots. Jovan, who met you at the station, found an abandoned bob-kitten and took it home to raise it. But it gnawed its way out of its box and was so spiteful and snappish to his children he brought it back to the woods.”
Talk about “vocalizing”—I am worn out with my own. People with no small talk are exhausting; you’re obliged to carry the whole load yourself. Well, maybe she’s just taking it all in, showing respect. I am her immediate superior, after all. Reverend Mother in Boston said she was a first-rate graduate assistant at Boston College. Students work hard to impress her, and she puts up with no foolishness. How odd that Reverend Mother had said nothing about the striking good looks. “I think you’ll find her effective” was all she volunteered. Well, Lord, You always provide more than I know to ask for. These supercritical girls will be subdued by their teacher’s beauty—at least until they have time to ferret out her vulnerabilities, of which I suspect there are some.
“Not much farther, now, Mother Malloy. The grotto is just up around the next turn.”
I sound like I sound when I’m showing parents of prospective students around the grounds. I don’t have to sell
on the school—she already belongs to us!
MOTHER MALLOY CONTINUED
to call on her filtering powers to stanch the overflow of information and the competing new sights and sensations. First the rambling eighty-bedroom Victorian edifice, the former hotel, complete with its tower and gables and porches, in which she was to live. Her third-story bedroom, in which Mother Ravenel had allowed her a half-hour respite (she lay down as soon as she was alone, putting off unpacking until later), looked down upon a sunny inner courtyard where one black woman peeled vegetables and another hung laundry. And now the rustling presences of this primeval woodland setting, and the discovery of her own breathlessness, new to her at age twenty-four, as she climbed up and up. Her skin was damp beneath her habit, and perspiration trickled down the back of her neck. As the train had pulled into the station, a banner on the depot had announced “Welcome to the Land of the Sky. You are now ONE MILE above sea level!”
The headmistress seemed never to have need to pause for breath, nipping round the edges of Howard’s too-often-mowed athletic field and dashing up the steep woodland steps, discoursing on everything from extracurricular fees to the unfortunate Mrs. Prince and the coil of all these histories leading to the unpredictable chemical mix of the rising ninth grade.
Help me, PLEASE, to listen and hear without making premature judgments. Later You will help me discern between the significant and the interesting. Or the merely diverting
In the meantime, please help me not to be overwhelmed
IN THE DAPPLED
shade of the grotto, Henry Vick was slouched upon the cool marble ledge—or lap, as the girls called it—of the Red Nun, taking reflective draws on his pipe and preparing for his encounter with the headmistress as soon as their paths should intersect. She would not be pleased with his news. Suzanne Ravenel had never taken it well when her plans were revised or thwarted.
He had not found her in her trophy-and-memorabilia-filled office overlooking the western ranges. But he had met old Mother Finney returning from the garden, bent double with her basketful of summer vegetables. The Irish nun had come over with the English foundress to open the school in 1910. Mother Ravenel was taking the new teacher from Boston on a tour of the school’s grounds, Mother Finney told him, adding, “And, you know, she likes to save the grotto for last.” Henry carried Mother Finney’s basket to the kitchen, where she rewarded him with an oatmeal cookie, soft and hot from the oven.
“These are the best,” he said. “Did you learn to cook as a girl in Ireland?”
“I wasn’t allowed near our kitchen in Ireland. Too busy mucking out the stalls. Jovan’s wife, Betty, taught me everything I know about cooking, in this very kitchen.”
Henry looked around at the clean, shiny surfaces of Mount St. Gabriel’s kitchen. “It’s good to be here. I miss—I’ve missed you all.”
“Ah, but we will be seeing more of you, Henry, now that your niece Chloe is to be with us. I am desolate over Agnes. Your sister was dear to my heart. I know we aren’t supposed to have favorites, but even Our Lord had His favorites.”
“And you were dear to Agnes. Do you remember the Halloween when she dressed up as Fiona Finney, the Irish horse trainer?”
“Remember? I should say so! I dressed her myself. It was my own riding boots she wore. And to die so young.”
“Agnes turned thirty-five this past January.”
A worn-out thirty-five, the last time Henry had seen his sister. The future plighted with her great love, Merriweather Starnes, had been scuttled when his fighter plane went down on Okinawa less than two months before the end of the war. Chloe had been eight at the time. Agnes’s second marriage, to Rex Wright, a member of Merry’s squadron, had turned out to be, Agnes had confided to Henry at their last meeting, “my mortal mistake.”
This disclosure took place in a booth in a diner in Barlow, two hours down the hairpin curves from Mountain City, Agnes having telephoned Henry the night before. “I want to send Chloe home with you for the Easter holidays,” she’d told him. “Perhaps for longer. I’ll say more when I see you. Don’t come to the house. I don’t want him to know she’s leaving till she’s gone. There’s a little diner in the middle of town.”
Agnes was one who took great care with words—“mortal” as in human, or as in fatal? He wished he’d asked. Then later, when it was too late to ask, he wondered if his sister could have meant “mortal” as in mortal sin: grave matter, full knowledge, full consent.
“There are some things in my life now, Henry, that are better left un-described. Chloe will come here to the diner straight from school. Her suitcase is packed and in my car. By the way, I haven’t told her that it may be longer than the Easter break. It may not be. I’ll just have to see.”
Henry had been glad of the solitary drive down the mountain to Barlow: two hours in which to get used to the prospect of a young teenage girl he hardly knew sharing his home for an unspecified duration. However, by the time he reached the town where Rex Wright had his crop-dusting service, he found himself anticipating certain changes his niece might bring to his bachelor life. They would go out to dinner, to the basilica during Holy Week. He would have the moral satisfaction of being an uncle and godfather called to account for his baptismal promises.
And having got that far on the drive, he was able in all sincerity to say to Agnes in the diner, “Why don’t you come along, too? You and Chloe can make your home with me as long as you want. It is your house as much as mine.”
“Please don’t tempt me, Henry. I have to stay here and see what can be salvaged of this marriage.”
“What can be salvaged of a thing you’ve just admitted was a mortal mistake?”
“Nothing more or less than just my honor, dear.” She had laughed her self-mocking laugh and narrowed her eyes at him and for a moment was his baby sister again. “For better or worse, Henry, I’m still ferociously attached to my honor. Rex hasn’t had it easy since the war. Bombing the enemy was a lot more exciting than bombing bugs. And I did marry him before God. I said the same vows to him that I said to Merry.”
WOMEN’S VOICES FLOATED
up through the trees. Ravenel’s familiar hustling cadences raced ahead of the lower-pitched, monosyllabic responses of the other.
Henry rose to his feet just as the ruddy-complexioned headmistress, wearing her customary sunglasses, entered the grotto, followed by a pale young nun.
“Why, Henry, what a nice surprise. Were you having an audience with our Della Robbia or our Red Nun?”
Even now, when Henry saw his sister’s classmate and his bride’s best friend in her habit, he could imagine Suzanne impulsively snatching off her veil and demanding of her audience, “There, now! Didn’t I play that part well?”
“Actually, I was hoping to have an audience with you, Mother Ravenel.”
“Well, here I am. And this is Mother Malloy, fresh off the train from Boston. I’ve been giving her the grand tour. Mother, this is Henry Vick, the uncle I was telling you about, Chloe’s guardian. Mother Malloy will be taking charge of Chloe’s class, Henry.”
“How do you do, Mother Malloy.”
“How do you do, Mr. Vick. I’m looking forward to knowing your niece.” Her voice was low and precise. Only the
proclaimed her Boston roots. But behind those few words about Chloe, which in themselves stopped at the perfunctory, he wanted to believe he heard empathy and a warmth of heart. She was lovely despite her pallor.
“I am still getting to know her myself,” he said. “And the more I know her, the better I like her. She is deep and she is hurting. She lost her mother at Easter—it was all very sudden, unexpected. This has been a period of adjustment for both of us.”
“You have been a godsend to that child, Henry,” Mother Ravenel assured him, “and now you are doing exactly right in letting us help you. We will do our best to give her round-the-clock motherhood and guidance, won’t we, Mother Malloy?”
“The thing is,” said Henry, realizing that the presence of the other nun might ease his task. “I have decided—that is,
have decided, Chloe and I—that we prefer to go on as we are. Chloe will be coming to Mount St. Gabriel’s as a day student and living with me. We agreed on this only this morning, but I wanted to inform you as soon as possible.”
He could see Suzanne admirably suppressing her annoyance.
“Well, Henry, this
news. But if it’s what you all have decided, I appreciate you letting me know so promptly. Of course, you understand I can’t refund Chloe’s boarding fee. There are no exceptions, even for an old friend. Besides”—here she managed a laugh—“your money’s probably already been spent.”
“If it hasn’t been,” was his gallant comeback, “spend it on something wonderful.”
“And what would you consider wonderful, Henry?”
“Oh, a memorial ciborium for Chloe’s mother, encrusted with garnets. That was Agnes’s birthstone.”
“Well, I don’t know if the fee will cover
“It will if I make up the difference. Have Haywood Silversmiths do it. Her dates on the rim.”
“What about ‘Class of ‘34’?”
“That, too, of course,” Henry magnanimously conceded.
DURING THIS MELLIFLUOUS
sparring between the headmistress and the uncle, Mother Malloy took what she hoped were unobserved ragged breaths. Or, rather, she was trying to find her breath. These two persons were well matched. There was history between them. Though Mother Ravenel had clearly been caught off guard by Mr. Vick’s announcement, she had remained in control. What, though, had she meant by “you
Didn’t that imply that more than two people were involved in the decision to keep Chloe at home? Or was this a regional quirk of speech? Mr. Vick had an astringent manner, yet was courtly in combat. He reminded her of her professor of Renaissance history at Boston College, Father Galliard: dry, exacting, but always cordial.
But then, to her dismay, her light-headedness increased. Blue and purple spots showered inside her eyes. She caught herself tilting forward and would have fallen had she not reached out to grab the hulk of russet marble from which Mr. Vick had risen to greet them.
The next thing she knew, she herself was semireclining on its benchlike ledge, their concerned faces floating above her.
“—entirely my fault,” Mother Ravenel was saying. “I’ve been dragging her up our hills like she was a mountain goat. Speak to us, Mother Malloy.”
Henry Vick was offering to bring a glass of water from the kitchen. “Or I have a flask of cognac in my car.”
“No, please. It was—whatever it was has passed.”
“When did you last eat something?” he asked.
“Mother Finney had iced tea and a chicken salad sandwich waiting for her when she arrived,” the headmistress answered for her.
“Really, I’m better now. It’s very cool—” She was aware that her cheek lay against the red marble and hastened to pull herself upright. “Is this a sculpture I’m seated on?”
“Why, you’ve gone straight for the protection of our Red Nun,” Mother Ravenel said. “Now you’re truly one of us. Henry, I’m going to presume on you to tell Mother Malloy the story of our guardian spirit. I have been bending her ear until I am weary of the sound of my voice. Meanwhile, Mother Malloy, you take it easy. I’ll be back in a flash with some ice water.”
Off she dashed, fringed sash flying.
“Are you subject to fainting spells, Mother Malloy?” Fiddling with his pipe, Henry Vick stood a little apart: a lanky man in his mid- to late thirties; soft voice, furrowed brow, graying brown hair receding at the temples; rumpled seersucker suit. His kind, abstracted manner put her at her ease.
“I’ve never fainted before. If that was what it was.”
“My sister, Agnes, was a champion fainter. Always at the dentist’s and sometimes just before an exam. Anytime she was tense or uncertain, you could see the blood leave her face. Then she had to put her head between her knees or she was out cold. The first time she fainted was right after her first communion. She was walking back to her seat with her hands clasped properly in front of her and then suddenly she hit the floor with a thud.”
“It was the fasting, of course,” Mother Malloy said. “Now children are allowed to drink a glass of juice before.”
“The monsignor told her afterward that it was a sign of grace; it meant she was taking the sacrament seriously. But she was furious with herself. ‘Everyone saw my panties,’ she told us when we got home.”
They both laughed. In his telling, she felt the personality of his lost sister. In his laughter, she saw that Henry Vick gained relief in bringing her back through anecdotes like this.
“Do you have sisters or brothers, Mother Malloy?”
“I was in a foster home, but there were certain of the children that I felt sisterly toward.”
“I see. Would it make you queasy if I relit my pipe?”
“No, I like the smell of a pipe. If I were a man, I would probably smoke one. Please do tell me about the Red Nun.”
“It’s an unfinished memorial to a young woman who was a student here in the early years of the school. Malaria carried her off the summer before she was to enter the novitiate. Her people were rich Charlestonians; they ordered the marble from Italy and commissioned a famous funerary sculptor. But from the start, things took on a life of their own. White marble was ordered; red was delivered. Then came 1914, war broke out in Europe, and there was no more Italian marble to be had. The sculptor said he was delighted to work with the red—it was Veronese red, more than a hundred million years old. He said he could make something distinctive, really fine. The plan was to have a life-scale young nun in all her particulars, even down to her rosary, seated in front of that Della Robbia Annunciation across from you.”