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Whistle for the Crows
By Dorothy Eden
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1962 Dorothy Eden
All rights reserved.
The baby began to cry in the night.
Cathleen was awake instantly. Tense and miserable, she lay listening. At least this time it was not Debby come back to haunt her in a dream, for the sound went on, a desolate wailing that suggested some poor little creature abandoned forever. She knew that she wouldn't sleep again until the sound stopped.
It must be near morning, for faint grey light came in the window. It was the grey of the Dublin streets and the low sky, and the slaty rooftops. Everything had seemed grey since she had arrived last evening. She had felt homesick (for where?), and even more alone than usual. Her sense of adventure, which Ronald Gault had been so sure this trip would arouse, seemed to have left her altogether. At this lowest peak of the day she didn't know how she was going to face Miss Matilda O'Riordan later in the morning, and show interest in the position offered.
It took only the forlorn sound of the baby crying to complete her loss of morale.
All at once, everything was quiet. It had been a momentary nightmare. Ireland was not always a land of tears, as it had seemed last evening, tears of rain, of farewells on docksides and airports, of old shawled women waving tremulously to departing children and grandchildren, or orphaned babies ...
It was also a land of kindness and zany jokes and gaiety. It was where she was to begin her life again.
And in full daylight she caught the zany gaiety, for when she pulled her curtains aside she found her window faced on to a low roof, on which sat five lean and hungry cats. There were her crying babies, five of them, no less. Their green eyes looked up at her expectantly, and she thought that she probably resembled them herself, with her too thin triangular face, her smooth, fair hair, and her green eyes eagerly asking, not for the food the cats wanted to fill their stomachs, but for something to fill her heart.
That was what was wrong with her, an empty heart.
She rang for breakfast, and when it came, tossed scraps of bacon to her tabby and ginger friends.
"Good luck," she called to them. "And you might wish me the same."
She would need it, for Ronald had warned her that old Miss O'Riordan was something of a dragon who would certainly lash secretaries and other employees with a fiery breath.
"She scared the wits out of me on the telephone," Ronald said, "You'll have to have stamina and a thick skin. But it will do you good. After all, there's a castle, too."
Ronald, a publisher of repute, for whom she read and did revising and rewriting jobs, had sensibly decided that six months was long enough to grieve for a husband and child. Cathleen knew he was right. Jonathon and her baby, sweet eighteen-months-old Debby, killed in that tragic accident, had gone out of her life, and she now had to rebuild it. Friends who sympathized too much, and familiar surroundings, only served to keep her grief alive. She needed the bracing tonic of a new country and a challenging and interesting job. Even a dragonish old woman and a castle!
Miss O'Riordan was staying at the Gresham, and had arranged the appointment for eleven o'clock.
In her eagerness, Cathleen arrived too early. She went into the bar to smoke a cigarette and have an innocuous glass of tomato juice. She had a cautious feeling that Miss O'Riordan, although breathing flames herself, was quite likely to notice even a hint of sherry on someone else's breath.
There was a scattering of people in the bar. Cathleen sat at a table in a corner. At the next table a man with wild dark hair and a gypsy brown face seemed to be struggling to write a letter. He was drinking whisky, and called for another one as Cathleen sat down. When the waiter brought it he drank it in a single swallow, stared for a few moments broodingly into space, then, with sudden impatience, tore up the paper he was writing on, put the scraps in his pocket, and went out. He was a little unsteady on his feet.
He must be having an unhappy love affair, Cathleen thought. He was trying unsuccessfully to put his passionate plea to his girl into writing. She noticed that one strip of the torn letter had fallen to the floor. Full of curiosity as to how the Irish expressed themselves under those circumstances, she picked it up and read the sprawling writing.
Moira should have come to her senses before it was too late. The next sentence was obscured, but after that was the shocking cryptic statement ... deserves to be murdered, but you can't kill the golden goose.
It was far from being a love letter. It also was not ill-spelt, and the man, for all his wild appearance, expressed himself like someone who had had education.
Moira ... It was a pretty name. It was better used in terms of love than in terms of money.
Cathleen dropped the paper distastefully. She had always heard of the love of the Irish for drama and wild exaggerations. Here was such an example. Nevertheless, she felt as if she had touched something poisonous. That man ought to be more careful. If he was going to make threats, he shouldn't get drunk, and leave evidence lying about
But it was no business of hers, and it was time to have herself announced to Miss Matilda O'Riordan. She smiled wryly, thinking that what with cats sounding like abandoned babies on doorsteps, and drunk Irishmen dropping half-written threats, she was getting into the swing of life over here. Now she could take Miss O'Riordan in her stride.
Cathleen had second thoughts about this when she came face to face with the old lady.
Miss O'Riordan was still in bed. She sat propped up with pillows, and wrapped in a sable cape. Her white hair was meant to be knotted on the top of her head, but various strands had escaped and were hanging with an air of wild abandon round her face. Her eyes were slitted and terribly observant, her nose remarkably long and thin. Her skin was exquisite. So were her fine narrow hands, folded with exactitude outside the sheets. She made an unforgettable picture. Like some old conspiring queen, Cathleen thought, the kind who would slip poison into a glove, or watch an execution with the air of a connoisseur.
"Come closer," she ordered.
Cathleen obeyed, murmuring, "Good morning, Miss O'Riordan!"
"Stand near the window where the light's better."
Cathleen stood stockstill.
"I thought it was a secretary you wanted, Miss O'Riordan!"
"Did I say it wasn't? Did I also add a certain pleasing appearance is necessary? After all, I have to look at you when we're working, don't I? I have very fine sensibilities. That's better. Now I can see you."
She stared for an embarrassingly long time.
"H'm," she said at last. "You don't overdress, I'm glad to see." She tucked the sables closer round her long scrawny throat, adding, "And if you're looking at me, don't. This fur is almost as old as I am myself. My mother gave it to me for my eighteenth birthday. Thought it would get me a husband perhaps. It didn't. Never depend entirely on clothes. It's personality that counts. Mine was too overpowering. I have no regrets."
She folded her hands again and stared.
"I believe you're a widow."
"Yes, Miss O'Riordan."
"Not the flighty kind?"
"Very well, I suppose you were in love with your husband?"
Jonathon. The face that now belonged to a dream. Yes, she had been in love with him, but had he ever loved her, truly and completely? She had never known. Men were different from women. They hated to give themselves away, perhaps to put themselves too completely in a woman's power. Jonathon had made love, then drawn back into himself. She had never quite reached him. Had he been self-sufficient, or not really in love? Now she would never know, and at first the thought had tormented her unendurably. She had been a wife and a mother, and yet uncertain of being loved.
Would this old woman lying in the bed understand that?
"Yes, I loved my husband."
"You don't still brood, I hope. I can't stand melancholy."
"No. I don't brood."
"Good. You seem to have acquired self-discipline. I hope you're good-tempered. This London publisher suggests that you can spell and put sentences together constructively. I propose writing a family history, as Mr. Gault has probably told you. He doesn't know that the manuscript will probably burn his fingers." She gave a snort of laughter. "Drat! Who's that? Come in!"
The sharp knock at the door was followed by the entrance of a tall, dark-haired young man.
"Good lord, Aunt Tilly, you aren't even up!"
"And why should I be?"
"I wanted to get started."
"Started for home! My dear boy, you'll have to change your plans. I have not only a day's shopping, but I must visit the orphanage. I promised Sister Mary Martha. One has to have some thought for others. I give myself all the time. From the minute I woke this morning I've met nothing but demands, demands, demands." For a moment her face was old, narrow-eyed, crafty. She looked at the young man beneath her eyelids. She seemed to be searching his face for something. In a minute she had relaxed and added shortly, "You'll simply have to wait for me."
"I'll do nothing of the kind. If you're not ready to leave this morning I'll go by train. You can follow in the car. Kitty can drive."
"Kitty! And land us all in the ditch. Mrs. Lamb, can you drive an ancient Rolls?"
Never having driven one in her life, Cathleen answered calmly that she could. She was aware of the young man's eyes on her. If he had noticed her presence earlier he had given no sign. Now he looked at her for a moment, then turned on his heel.
"See you at Loughneath, Aunt Tilly."
The door banged. He was gone.
Miss O'Riordan threw off the sable wrap, disclosing a pair of sallow-skinned bony shoulders.
"That was my nephew Rory. A bad-mannered young man, as you can see. He'll have his own way, come plagues or persecutions. Kitty!"
The last word was said in a high demanding voice. Immediately the connecting door opened and a girl hurried in, limping. She had very wide blue eyes. She looked startled and helpless. The rude young man had been very much the kind of person one would associate with Miss O'Riordan's family, but this timid creature could surely only be a lady's maid in a state of perpetual nervousness.
"Yes, Aunt Tilly? You wanted me?"
"This is Mrs. Lamb, my secretary. This is my niece, Kitty, Mrs. Lamb. Rory's sister. I have one other nephew, Liam, whom you'll find a good deal more agreeable than his brother. Kitty, give me my wrap and my slippers and run my bath. We've got to get moving. The visit to the orphanage will take at least an hour. I want to arrange for some of the children to have a day at the castle, and that will take endless discussion. You know what Sister Mary Martha is."
"Yes, Aunt Tilly."
The little figure with the limp—one leg seemed to be shorter than the other—hurried to the bathroom. Cathleen looked away in some embarrassment as two thin shanks emerged from the bedclothes.
"Is there anything you want me to do at present, Miss O'Riordan?"
"Where are your things?"
"At my hotel."
"Then go and fetch them. Don't hurry. If it's your first visit to Dublin you might like to take a look round. Be back here by four o'clock. We'll want to be home in time for dinner. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Miss O'Riordan. And thank you—"
"For giving me this opportunity."
"Wait and see if you can make a success of it before you thank me. I expect genuine literary ability. And I'm a tyrant. Kitty will tell you. Kitty!"
The little figure in the plain dress re-emerged from the bathroom.
"Yes, Aunt Tilly."
"Aren't I a tyrant?"
"Oh, no, Aunt Tilly. Why, where would we have been—"
"Well, never mind, never mind. Gratitude is a bore."
Miss O'Riordan flapped a hand, and Kitty turned away. But not before Cathleen had caught, a flicker of something behind the girl's wide-eyed perpetual startlement. What was it? Hate? Or fear?
The sun shone intermittently. Great clouds passed over the city, so that one moment the streets and rooftops sparkled and the next were in gloom. The city reflected Cathleen's own mood as she walked down the long straight streets with their pleasingly symmetrical rows of smoky brick houses. The beautiful Georgian doorways and the long windows seemed too austere and discreet for the turbulent life they no doubt enclosed. From her first encounter with the Irish, Cathleen didn't think that dullness would be one of their characteristics. Even poor little Kitty with her subdued face and lame leg may have a tiny cauldron of something bubbling inside her. And if she had, Cathleen was pretty certain that Aunt Tilly's complacent assumption that it was gratitude was wrong.
Another thing—she imagined Aunt Tilly was at daggers drawn with her nephew Rory with his high-held head. They would be too much alike. They probably waged a continual battle for supremacy. It promised to make life lively, at the least. With relief, Cathleen knew that now she was glad about the job. Already she felt as if she had been injected with new blood. The ghost of little Debby, and the curiously guilty one of Jonathon, were drawing away.
She walked by the Liffey, its water as grey as the walls enclosing it. Someone somewhere was singing ...
And if not mine, dear girl,
My snowy-breasted pearl ...
I'll never from the fair with life return ...
The Irish were always talking or singing about fairs. They had become a sort of symbol to them, Cathleen supposed, another word for happiness, or living. It was probably all the gaiety most of them had ever had. Their songs were full of tenderness and that threat of death—death from war or treachery or love or lack of love. Death full of drama and tragedy ...
The sun went in again, and Cathleen couldn't repress a faint shiver. She listened for the man to sing something with less of that beautiful melancholy. Suddenly she saw him, a beggar on the humped bridge over the river. He had an accordion, and as she approached he began to play creakingly an Irish jig. He wasn't the singer, after all, but he had a merry wrinkled face, the colour of the purple fox-gloves in the hedges.
She put sixpence in the dirty tweed cap lying at his feet, and he gave her a toothless smile. "God bless yer pretty face, dear." And the sun came out again.
The compliment had been the automatic response to her sixpence, but abruptly the thought went through her head that other people might find her pretty, too. Rory O'Riordan, and his brother, Liam? Foolish, she told herself. That new injection of blood mustn't prove troublesome.
Nevertheless, she was on a see-saw, or this country was. For ten minutes later, in her stroll along the river side, she came on an old woman, a black shawl over her head, her straggling hair the colour of dirty snow. The old woman took her arm, pointed at the river, and said inexplicably, "Red hair turns black in water. Did ye know that?"
"No. I didn't." Cathleen didn't like the dirty bony claw on her arm.
"It does, then. I saw it."
Now the day dragged badly, and Cathleen was glad when it was time to go back to the hotel and see if the ladies were ready to leave.
Kitty answered her knock, and motioned to her to come into the room adjoining her aunt's.
"Some unexpected business has come up for my aunt. She doesn't want to be disturbed for a little while. I can't even finish her packing. Will you sit down, Mrs. Lamb."
Kitty was quite polite, and spoke in a breathless voice as if she were shy. But she wasn't friendly.
Cathleen tried to establish some contact with the strange little creature.
"Did you have a successful morning?"
"We went shopping. Aunt Tilly bought a new hat and a dinner dress. Black velvet. It makes her look wonderful. She loves clothes. She keeps all her old ones. There's a room full of them at Loughneath."
"And what about you?" Cathleen asked.
"Me? Oh, I don't care about clothes. I haven't the right sort of figure."
She was painfully thin and small, but if it weren't for her limp, which seemed to come from some hip injury, she would have been reasonably easy to dress. Her soft fine hair was pretty. It was a pity she took refuge in a rather aggressive unattractiveness.
Guessing the subject of Kitty was a prickly one, Cathleen changed it.
"Your aunt must be a very generous person."
"I thought she said something about an orphanage—"
Excerpted from Whistle for the Crows by Dorothy Eden. Copyright © 1962 Dorothy Eden. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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