So, some days later, on an early autumn afternoon of high winds and intermittent squalls, with her aunt Nor at one side lurching under a luggage bundle, and Tay scampering at her heels, Rain came into the Gillikinese city of Shiz.
Why do you think your child will thrive at St. Prowd’s?”
In her time Nor Tigelaar had faced insurrectionists and collaborationists and war profiteers. She’d endured abduction and prison and self-mutilation. She’d sold herself in sex not for cash but for military information that might come in handy to the resistance, and in so doing she’d come across a rum variety of human types. She didn’t think, however, she had ever seen anyone like the headmaster or his sister, who both sat before her with hands clasped identically in midair about six inches above their laps. As if they were afraid they might absentmindedly begin a duet of self-abuse in their own receiving chamber.
“I am not a widely traveled woman, Proctor Clapp—”
“Please, call me Gadfry,” said the brother. He flickered a smile so weak it might have been a toothache; then his face lapsed into the well-scrubbed prize calabash it most nearly resembled. His wiry hair was squared off in the back like a box hedge.
“Gadfry,” said Nor, trying to swallow her distaste. She hoped this school strategy wasn’t a mistake. “I have come in from the family home in the mountains to find a place for my girl. Her father died in an earthquake, you see, and I haven’t the wits to know how to teach her. We live far afield, out in the Great Kells, but we know St. Prowd’s comes with the highest recommendations.”
“Well yes naturally, but what makes you think that your little scioness will thrive under our particular scholarly regimen?”
What did he want to hear? “She hasn’t had the best preparation, admittedly.” Nor worked the edges of her shawl. “In certain families in the western heights, the academic education of girls isn’t considered essential, or even useful. But I—that is, my poor husband and I—wanted the best for her.”
The sister, Miss Ironish Clapp, unfolded a hand. “St. Prowd’s certainly counts itself among the best seminaries, but in this rough climate I’m afraid that the funds to support unprepared scholarship students simply don’t exist.”
Oh, thought Nor, is that all it takes? “Perhaps I misrepresented our hopes for Miss Rainary. I should have spoken more carefully: my dead husband and I wanted the very best for our daughter that money could buy.”
Miss Ironish brought her fingernails in to graze her pink pink palm. Her eyes did not narrow nor her breathing hasten when she said, “And how costs have risen, what with the scarcity of food in wartime.”
“I’m sure you can prepare me a bill for the first year that we can settle before I leave,” said Nor.
“Of course, Dame Ko,” said Gadfry Clapp. “That is my sister’s purview. But a child untutored in the basics may take longer to finish our course of studies than someone who has enjoyed a responsible formation. You should budget for a number of years.”
“We will scrutinize her for her strengths,” said Miss Ironish. “If she has any, that is.”
“Oh, she is a powerful enough child, you’ll see,” said Nor. “Not wilfull,” she added. “Nor unpleasant.”
“I can’t say that she presents well,” admitted Miss Ironish. “A St. Prowd’s girl is meant to have a certain. Ahem. Flair.”
They all turned and looked through the tall narrow windows that divided the proctor’s parlor from the waiting room. The oak mullions hung with panes of old green glass seized up with the vertical moraines of age. Beyond them, Rain sat hunched on a chair with her fingers in her mouth. The bow that Nor had purchased from a milliner had the exhausted appearance of a fox that has been run down by hounds.
“We rely on your good offices to perk her up,” said Nor.
“But how did you choose St. Prowd’s?” asked the proctor. A coquette primping for compliments.
Exhaustively Nor had prepared for this grilling; she was ready. “We considered a few places. The Home for Little Misses in Ticknor Circus seemed promising, but theirs is a horsey set, mostly from the Pertha Hills families. A bit close-minded. The Boxtable Institute seems to be in the grip of a raging ague and a quarantine made an interview out of the question. I realize that Madame Teastane’s Female Academy in the Emerald City comes very highly regarded, but one worries about the safety of a child left in their charges.”
“Safety?” Miss Ironish spoke as if it was a word in a foreign tongue, a word she had not come across before.
“Well, so much nearer the front.”
“Not that much nearer, as the dragon flies.”
“There’s near and there is nearer,” explained Nor. “Given a chance to attack one of Oz’s two great cities, the Munchkinlanders won’t hesitate to storm the Emerald City. I couldn’t take the chance. I am surprised any parent could.”
“Well, we hate to win by default.” Miss Ironish, Nor saw, was possessed of that skill of finding a way to take umbrage at any remark whatsoever.
It was time to go on the offense. “I chose St. Prowd’s for its traditions of excellence in the rearing of proper young men and women. I thought you might defend its record against your competition. I can examine the alternatives if this is proving a waste of your—”
Nor hadn’t noticed the carvings and she didn’t turn to look. “It’s a beautiful building in a magnificent setting,” she said, indicating the narrow and sunless street on which Founder’s Hall fronted.
“Magnus St. Prowd was a unionist theologician whose work paved the way for the famous Debate on the Souls of Animals held at Three Queens College. Uncommonly prosperous for a bishop, he left his home to the causes of education—this was once a bishop’s palace—and he endowed the school to serve as a feeder pool for young students of unionism. As the times have become more secular, we’ve striven to retain as many of the customs of prayer and obedience as seem sensible.”
“Though we strive for a jolly nondenominational middle road that occasionally strikes me as lunatic,” remarked Miss Ironish, a rare instance, so far, of her appearing to disagree with her brother.
“I’m sure it’s difficult to strike the perfect balance between piety and populism, but I’m equally confident you manage it.” Nor was eager to get away before Rain did something to disqualify herself.
“Where did you train, Dame Ko?” asked Proctor Gadfry.
“You wouldn’t have heard of it. A very small local parish school in the Great Kells.”
“Ah, the godforsaken lands,” said Miss Ironish.
“Not godforsaken, merely godforgotten,” said Nor with a pretense at merriment. “But before we settle up, may I enquire about the size and makeup of the student body this year?”
“We began as a school for boys, of course,” said the proctor. “We opened to girls during the reign of Ozma the Scarcely Beloved.”
Miss Ironish put a gentle fist to her breast. “Kept hermetically distant from one another, of course. The girls lodged in the dormitory, with the boys in the annex above the stables.”
“In these sorry times, though,” said Proctor Gadfry, “the boys are all called to train for the army. So we’ve had to make arrangements to house them out of town. In a junior military camp. For drilling in the use of firearms and rapiers and such musical instruments as are required in marching bands.”
“The boys are kept intensely busy, so the girls here in town no longer mingle, even socially, with th
e boys in camp. St. Prowd’s Military Center, we’re calling it, though we don’t know if this is a permanent arrangement or if we will contract after the war is over.”
“Because I know mothers worry, I find it consoling, these days, that no boys are housed on this campus to pester any of our St. Prowd’s girls,” said the brother.
“Not that you worry overmuch,” said the sister to Nor. They both glanced again at Rain, who was slumping in her chair and showing scant devotion to the art of posture.
“And there are other girls her age?” asked Nor.
“We have about forty girls this year, from a little younger than Miss Rainary to a few years older. Some five or eight will finish next spring and proceed to Shiz University if they are lucky enough to secure a place. About eight have done very well on their O levels, but Z levels is where distinctions come out.”
Forty girls. Rain ought to be safe enough hidden in a bevy of forty girl students roughly her own age.
“How will we reach you in case there are problems?” asked Proctor Gadfry as his sister set about to draw up a bill.
“I shall take rooms at a small house of residence when I am in town,” said Nor. “Once I have settled myself, I’ll post you the address. But I will be unavailable much of the time, so I must trust that in a crisis you will treat Rainary as one of your own.”
“Upon that much you can rely,” said Proctor Gadfry.
“That much, and much more,” said Miss Ironish, blotting the paper and folding it demurely before handing it to Nor so she could open it again. Sweet Lurline. What a lucky thing that Nor’s former employer, that old lascivious ogre, had died leaving a small sack of gold and mettanite florins ripe for the plucking. Keeping the sack under the table so the Clapp siblings couldn’t see how much she had, she withdrew six coins and set them in a shiny line along the table.
“I forgot the food tax,” said Miss Ironish flatly, and a seventh coin came out to join the others.
“Miss Rainary is now a St. Prowd’s girl,” said Proctor Gadfry, standing and extending his hand to Nor. “She has come a long way already, and she has a long way to go.”
“I will find her a room and examine her,” said Miss Ironish. At Nor’s expression, she said, “I mean for what she knows, so we decide in what classroom to place her.”
“She is hard to place,” murmured Nor. They all looked at Rain once again, who didn’t notice them rising. She had taken Tay into her lap and seemed to be whispering to it.
“Oh, goodness, of course there are no pets,” said Miss Ironish.
Keeping her eyes upon Rain, Nor fingered an eighth coin and laid it slap upon the table. She didn’t know which coin it was, but she tucked her purse back into her sleeve and left the room without comment. She made sure the door had closed behind her, sealing the Clapp family inside, before she spoke.
“You may be happy here or you may not,” she said. “None of us knows where and when happiness happens. But I think you will be safe. We intend to head for Kiamo Ko, in the Kells, to see if a more private life might be had so far away.”
“How long do I have to stay here.” Presented as a statement.
Nor didn’t want to lie. Since Rain so often refused human contact, Nor put her hand on Tay’s scalp. Its bristles felt warm and papery. “Someone will come for you.”
From the end of the street she looked back at Founder’s Hall. It was a severe limestone box in the symmetrical mode, with narrow, watery windows set in deep recesses. Like nine icy tombstones sunk into the facade. Not so much as a single curl of carven ornament on the architrave or the capitals of the pillars holding up the portico.
The ribbon that Nor had bought for Rain to pretty her up for her new friends now seemed less a present than a blow. The heart-shaped locket, lacquered redder than yewberries, hung on a chain around the girl’s neck and was hidden behind the yoke of her shift. A silly sentimental thing picked up at a jeweler for an outrageous sum. The kind of thing Nor imagined a girl might like, though she would not have done so, and Rain had accepted it without comment. Nor hoped it might mean something to the girl one day, when and if she ever learned what a heart was.
Though maybe being an isolate already would help the girl not to suffer so much in the company of her peers. Oh, Rain, she thought. I had myself sewn so I could never have children to mourn, and you wandered into my life anyway.
Let us not start with disapproval,” said Miss Ironish.
“But there’s no light,” said Rain. No, Rainary. She was trying to remember.
“You’ll be here at night mostly. All rooms are dark at night.”
“Not if there’s a moon.”
“You’ll be too tired to stay awake mooning over the moon. It’s too bad that there is no extra bed downstairs but your mother paid no attention to the registration deadlines. You’re lucky we’re accommodating you at all. Call it charity on our part.”
“There’s no light. And no window.”
Miss Ironish seemed not to hear. “You have more catching up to do than any girl we have ever admitted. And believe me we have entertained some real losers in our time.”
Rain reached out her hands. She could touch the sloping beams on either side. This wasn’t a room. It was a coffin the shape of a tent. And it smelled of wood-mold; she could see the blotched rot where rain must come through the slates.
“You’ll want to watch these protruding nails,” said Miss Ironish. “They will rake your scalp if you sit up too fast. Breakfast is at five. There will be a bell, struck once. If you don’t hear it, you miss breakfast. You won’t miss it more than twice, I guarantee that.”
Rain put her small carpetbag down. She thought about the stone in it, the bone, the shell, the feather.
“You can hang your garments on that pair of hooks—I can tell you didn’t arrive with many. That’s proper humility, and I applaud it. I believe we shall get along very well, Miss Rainary.”
“What should I do now?”
“You can spend the evening settling in.”
“Can I get something to eat?”
“Your board doesn’t vest until breakfast tomorrow. However, I am not a monster. I shall send up a girl with a tray. Including water for your creature. What is it, anyway?”
“A rice otter. Its name is Tay.”
“I do not think it will be happy here.”
Rain thought better than to reply with the first thing that came to her mind. Who could? See, she was learning already. “Where is a lamp?”
“We did not budget for a lamp.”
“How can I study and catch up on my learning without a lamp?”
“Very well. I shall begin to keep a ledger and write down all your demands so that your mother can reimburse the academy when she comes on Visitation Day.”
“When is that? And a book too, if you have one.”
“Visitation Day is the month after Lurlinemas. Some eleven, twelve weeks away. As for your reading selections, I shall pick out a volume from my private library of devotional literature. How well do you read?”
“I don’t know.”
“If you can derive any grace and benefit from what I send up for you, I will be surprised.”
Me too, thought Rain. But anything to read was better than nothing.
Miss Ironish retired down the dusty wooden steps—not down one flight but several, as an attic filled with battered furniture separated the aerie from the dormitories in which the other girls slept. As she went she sang something quite cheerfully in a minor key. Rain took out her shifts, her petticoat, and the new pair of pale leather shoes that laced up the sides. A little light lanced through chinks in the roofing tiles, which meant, she suspected, that chill and wind and snow would sift through, too.
When she heard steps again, she went to the door to greet the girl. Mounting to the landing, hauling a lamp and a plate upon a tray, stumped a funny-looking kid with gappy teeth and freckles, and a weedy head of close-cropped ash-brown curls. “Here you
be, then, Miss Rainary,” she said. “All’s you could hope for in the penthouse suite.”
“It’s not a lot. Is that supper?”
“Likewise it’s very nice to meet you,” said the girl pointedly.
Rain tried to sort this out, and made a second attempt. “My name is Rainary.”
“I know, Miss Rainary. And my name is Scarly. Them’s biscuits and some hunks of cheese hid under the serviette, if you please. I also tucked in two gingery scones when Cook weren’t looking.”
Rain took the tray. Tay, who liked cheese, made off with the lot of it. “Oooh, you gots your own private rat,” said Scarly. “That’ll help some, up here.”
“Would you,” said Rain, trying, trying to be normal, “would you like a scone?”
“I gets my own after cleanup time. When dinner’s done.”
“Will we be in studies together?”
“Miss Rainary, I en’t a student. I’m the scullery maid.”
Dim memories of Mockbeggar Hall. “I was a scullery maid once.”
“Hoo no! Really?”
But Rain had been told not to speak of her past, ever. Already she was breaking rules. She tried to correct her mistake. “No. I just wondered what it might be like.”
“It might be like a whole lot of fun. But it’s not. Now I have to go down. There’s the tables to lay. They gets roast crinklebreast of the fields tonight.” Scarly put her hands in her apron pocket. “Miss, I brought you a few extra rags to stick in those cracks. That one near the chimney stack is the worst of the lot. It’ll help.”
“How do you know?”
“This is usually my room.”
“Why do they put me here?”
“Not to feel special.”
“I don’t understand.”
“School begun two weeks ago. You’re late. The one thing Proctor Gadfry Clapp and Miss Ironish Clapp and the others agree on is that St. Prowd’s students shouldn’t feel special about nothing but being students of St. Prowd’s. The rich ones gets their fancy cloaks locked up and their allowances locked up too. The smart ones gets to learn enough other languages to make their heads spin.”