“What about the poor ones?”
“They en’t admitted most often. And you, I don’t know if you’re rich or smart, but I do know you’re late. So you got put in my room. Perbably you’ll shift out after they get a better sense of how humble you are.”
“Oh, I think I’m pretty humble.”
“That’s the right train to take.” Scarly laughed. “Oh, I almost forgot your book.” She pulled it from behind the bib of her apron and scowled at the silvery foil words stamped on the spine.
“What book is it? What does it say?”
“Miss Rainary, I already told you,” said the maid. “I’m not a student here. I can’t read. Pretty curly letters though, en’t you impressed?”
Rain took the book. She could hardly make out the title due to the flourishes of display type. “I think it says Read Me and Die,” she said.
“You’re a right card! We’ll like having you around.” Apparently Scarly thought Rain had made a joke. Hah! Her first joke, and she didn’t even get it herself.
When the maid was halfway down the top flight, Rain hurried to the door. “But, Miss Scarly, where will you stay tonight?” she asked.
“It’s only Scarly, no miss about it. I’ll doss down in the boys’ dormitory ’cross the way,” came the reply. “It’s empty of boys but haunted, say all the girls.”
“Haunted with what?”
“All the boys they wish was there!” She chortled to herself down both flights. She must be a bit dim, thought Rain.
The title of the book turned out to be Reach Me Each Day. It was a collection of prayers in tiny cramped print. Rain still couldn’t read well enough to be inspired by it. She did try. She ended up staring at the letters and imagining them to say something more juicy, and she fell asleep with Tay on her pillow. Tay’s warm odor helped mask the reek of mildew.
She missed the breakfast bell, not only that morning but for eight mornings more.
There were six instructors. Proctor Clapp supervised them all. At whim he would strike the iron bell in the hall, and only then could the teachers stop at the current topic and proceed to the next. Perhaps in his study he suffered narcolepsy for hours on end, for some days they would spend all morning on a single matter—the number line, or the Chronologies of Ozmas, or Primary Divinity, or dictation and diction—before the bell finally sounded.
Rain (Miss Rainary, Miss Rainary, Miss Rainary) was in a class with girls apparently three years younger and six years smarter than she was. They were young enough to adore tattling on her.
“Madame Shenshen, Miss Rainary doesn’t even know how to do her algorhythmics.”
“Madame Shenshen, Miss Rainary didn’t finish her tallies so I can’t check my work against hers.”
“Madame Shenshen, I was paired with Miss Rainary for Spellification yesterday. Today may I have a partner who actually knows something?”
Madame Shenshen was a taurine woman who drenched herself in essence of floxflower to disguise the symptoms of a powerful digestive ailment. She was impatient with Rain up to a point, but however hard she might try, for the promotion of Rain’s humility, Madame Shenshen couldn’t disguise her admiration of Rain’s swift progress. “For someone so evidently abandoned to the winds of chance,” she claimed once, clasping her hands like a smithy, “you are proving yourself worthy of the opportunities St. Prowd’s supplies you, Miss Rainary Ko. Bravo. Except this word, admonition, is spelled incorrectly. Please, if you will, tonight prepare me a page on which you spell it correctly three hundred times.”
Rain could not yet count that high, but Miss Scarly was clever at figures and worked it out. Sort of. When Rain arrived the next day with five hundred admonitions, she was punished for showing off.
Popular, or maybe not, as the stacks seldom seemed to shrink.
Rain wondered when the other girls were going to sort themselves out in her mind as individuals, or if they would. Unlike stones and pinecones, they never stayed still long enough for her to collect them. Perhaps because Rain had met Scarly first, she thought the maid was the most interesting of the bunch. Rain wasn’t well used to launching conversations, while Scarly was trained to keep her lips closed unless spoken to. It seemed a losing proposition in terms of friendship, except that Scarly could communicate more in a saucy expression tossed in Rain’s direction than the Divine Emperor seemed to be able to do in fifteen pages of discourse about his own divinity.
The reading was coming along. On the one hand, every now and then Rain regretted mastering the skill at last. She had imagined that books would have more to offer. What Miss Ironish supplied from the locked case of volumes in the front hall seemed a steady dribble of hectoring. Though very pious hectoring.
On the other hand, she saw that Shiz was full of writing in a way that the Chancel of the Ladyfish above the Sleeve of Ghastille hadn’t been, nor the cottage at Nether How. Rain’s least dreadful moment of the week was the walk from Ticknor Circus along Regent’s Parade, next to whichever sourfaced student had pulled the short straw and gotten stuck with the new girl. It was a promenade of courteously brief literature! Statements applied all over the place, some in letters a foot high.
GENTLY USED GARMENTS. PLEXODIE’S FAMOUS HARMONIA CAFÉ. SHIZ CONSTABULARY. PORTER’S LODGE PLS. KNOCK.
And sandwich boards on the paving stones! LATEST WAR NEWS WITH EVERY BEER advertised near the door of the Cock and Pumpkins. HAPPY HOURS ADD UP TO HAPPY DAZE: that one outside the Peach and Kidneys. And her favorite, a sign over a shop down some uneven steps, almost below ground, on a mews off Railway Square: SKURVY BASTARD’S EMPORIUM OF LOST AND BROKEN ITEMS. She loved to read that one. She thought she’d like to quit St. Prowd’s and go to school under the tutelage of Skurvy Bastard.
By Lurlinemas she had proceeded to the fourth primer, the one with the stories of Little Handy Mandy, a somewhat moronic child with kleptomania—she couldn’t keep her fingers out of anything. She seemed preternaturally prone to trouble. Rain had used to like to steal things—was she as dull as Handy Mandy? The little girls laughed until their eyes streamed with tears. Rain said, “Madame Shenshen, I think I have finished with Handy Mandy.”
“Too much for you?” said Madame Shenshen. “I’m not surprised. I believe you’re ready to move up, once the Overseers have come and gone. Congratulations. I’ll miss you. If you ever get a yen to look back in on Handy Mandy or on me, you know where to find me.”
The Board of Overseers came for dinner at Lurlinemas, so the quality of the food was expected to improve appreciably. “Our best Dixxi House service, and if you break a plate I’ll break your neck,” instructed Miss Ironish. “Stand behind your chairs until the Senior Overseer is seated, and then follow his every move. If he picks up a spoon to sample the broth, you do the same. If he finds the dinner roll not to his liking, you do the same. If he leaves half his chop or asks for more peas, you do the same. If he writes his name in the custard with the end of his spoon, you are to do the same. Are there any questions? Miss Rainary, are you attending?”
“Yes, Miss Ironish.”
“If the Senior Overseer puts his napkin upon his lap, Miss Rainary?”
“I will do the same.”
“If he tucks it in at his collar?”
“I will do the same.”
“Very well. Miss Ghistly, do you understand? Miss Mauna, Miss Igilvy? Miss bon Schirm?”
“Yes, Miss Ironish.”
Rain didn’t remember having celebrated Lurlinemas before. Maybe back at Mockbeggar
Hall? She couldn’t work out how a festival day centering around some miracle of Lurline, the fairy goddess who had founded Oz, now honored the providence of the anonymous deity everyone called the Unnamed God. Or UG. Happily, on Lurlinemas the girls got maple syrup for their oatmeal sludge at breakfast, which almost mitigated the tedium of extra hours of prayers to the UG and a new devotional chant to the UG’s Divine Presence, Shell, Emperor of Oz.
Rain thought the maple syrup more divine than the Emperor, though she had learned not to give voice to such a sentiment.
At the service, candles were brought out, and little square bells the size of petits fours. The Senior Overseer, a stooped and mild old man prinked out in a plaid vest and a pince-nez, with sore skin that peeled in birch bark curls, read aloud the text and also the instructions for the ceremony, apparently not silencing himself for italics.
“For his charity to our holy blessed homeland, may the Divine Emperor be raised up. Ring bell three times. For his purity as an example to the fallen citizens of the Unnamed God, may the Divine Emperor be raised up. Ring bell two times and bow to the sky.” The Senior Overseer couldn’t work out how to bow to the sky, so keeping his eyes trained to the page he just waggled two fingers toward the ceiling.
Rain could see Scarly and her maties standing in mobcaps and fresh pinafores at the back of Meeting. A small sound escaped from Rain at the sight of Scarly’s comic twirl of her hands, imitating the Overseer. Miss Ironish glanced across the room at her and grimaced. Oh hell, thought Rain, a miracle at Lurlinemas. I think I may have just laughed out loud.
She almost did it again, right then, at the thought of it. And at the thought that Oh hell was a little bit of Mr. Boss in her still. That was a nice thought, under the circumstances.
The meal was the best food that Rain could ever remember seeing. Suspended in an iron ring, a shallow bowl of clear broth hovered about five inches behind each plate. The chops were jacketed with crispy crackling fat. Pickled beets and orrory root with a dollop of tamorna marmade on top. The aromas were subtle and strong.
The Senior Overseer, sunk in conversation with Proctor Gadfry Clapp on one side and Miss Ironish Clapp on the other, seemed to find the siblings so amusing that he kept pausing with his spoon in midair and pursing his lips in surprise at whatever they were saying. More than fifty spoons hovered when his spoon did, and though Rain slid her eyes left and right she didn’t see a single brown splash of broth. Finally the Clapps concluded the long story with which they were harrying the Overseer. He roared with artificial gusto and tucked into his meal before they could start up again. He used the crinkleknife to trim the savory fat off his chop, and then put down the knife to pick up the smaller of the forks, and smiled ferociously at the nearly translucent curl, and then he removed it to a side plate.
The students, the teachers, and several other visiting overseers did the same. Not the breath of a sigh, not a whimper. No hint of anguish. Miss Ironish looked prepared to explode with pride at the manners on display. Discreetly, of course.
When the Overseer had danced the tines of his fork through his peas without eating any, and busily mashed his orrory root so he could take precisely one spoonful, and broken his dinner roll into tiny crumbs on his plate and then dropped his napkin upon the whole wasted mess of it, all the girls followed his lead. The smaller girls were beginning quietly to cry, but they were sitting at the far end of the tables and the Senior Overseer apparently wasn’t keen of sight.
“There’s pudding to come, of course,” said Miss Ironish.
“First, let us have a gander at the finest of St. Prowd’s,” said the Senior Overseer. He hauled himself to his feet, his knuckles steadying himself on the linen.
Rain stood and put her knuckles on the tabletop. She wasn’t being bold, neither did she realize she was alone in the gesture, because she was sitting at a corner of a table near the front and from this angle most of the room was behind her.
“Oh my, a volunteer,” said the Overseer. He could see her. “May I ask you, what do you hope the Fairy Queen Lurline and her constant companion, Preenella, will bring you tonight in their magic basket?”
That was a mouthful but Rain was a quick study. “May I ask you, sir, what you hope the Fairy Queen Lurline and her constant Preenella will bring you in their basket? Magic basket?”
Miss Ironish’s eyes were flashing and Proctor Clapp’s mouth was open.
But the Senior Overseer just laughed. “Fair enough, young lady. I would like to see peace descend upon our fair land.” Looking at her kindly enough, he waited. “Have you anything to add?”
“Have you anything to add?” asked Rain.
“Is this surliness or is she an idiot savant?” the Overseer asked Proctor Clapp in a stage whisper, and they all heard the Proctor’s reply, “Just an idiot, I’m afraid.”
“Nonsense,” said the Overseer. “Come, tell me. What is your name?”
“What is your name?” asked Rain.
“I am Lord Manning. Now tell me your name.”
At last an instruction that was not a question. But Rain remembered she was to bring no special attention upon herself, and she had blundered badly. “I am a new student this year, Lord Manning, who doesn’t know her manners yet,” she tried.
“I have already confirmed that,” said the Senior Overseer, and to the proctor, “What’s the girl’s name, damn it?”
“Miss Rainary Ko, if you please, sir,” said the proctor.
“Miss Rainary Ko! Are you always so insolent, or are you trying to be amusing?”
By now Rain had figured out her mistake, and she didn’t return the question to the Overseer. “For Lurlinemas in my basket, if I got a basket from the Fairy Queen Lurline, I would like permission to room with the other girls, Lord Manning.”
“What do you mean?” he roared. It wasn’t clear if he was amused or offended by all this, but perhaps that was the result of the pearlfruit sherry which he had downed in lieu of dining, and which the girls hadn’t imitated as they hadn’t been served sherry. Only tall beakers of water, which they’d sipped sparingly so as not to need the loo before dismissal. “Wherever do you room now? On the rooftop?”
“Just under it, sir.”
“I don’t understand. Miss Ironish! Explain this child to me!” He didn’t look at the proctor or his sister. He leaned even farther out above his plate to peer at Rain, the poor girl who wanted nothing but to remain invisible to the world. His plaid ascot had come loose from his collar and a dangling edge of it trailed through the flame of the tabletop candle. In a second his vest was alight. “Oh! Mighty forces!” he cried, and took his water glass and doused himself with water.
First Rain, and then thirty-nine other girls, picked up their beakers of water and doused themselves, though a couple of the very younger girls doused each other and got away with it.
Miss Ironish fainted dead away in her chair. And so there was nothing else for her brother to do but to pick up his beaker of water and toss it in the face of his sister.
That was Rain’s last night in her aerie above the girls’ dormitory in Founder’s Hall. After Miss Ironish had recovered and the Overseers had departed—jollity masking a bitter rage on the part of the Clapps and impatience on the part of Lord Manning—Rain was ordered to collect her things.
“We will not toss you out on the street,” said Miss Ironish. “But until further notice you will house yourself in the boys’ dormitory across the schoolyard. Scarly will show you the way.”
This is how Rain came to be exiled to the haunted dormitory where, a few months later, the ghost first appeared.
She loved her new arrangement. For one thing, though again on the top floor, she now had a window. The plastered ceiling was high, and no nails poked through. While Rain had hoped and longed to be a girl swimming in dailiness with the other girls, she had little capacity for gloominess, as far as she knew, and she didn’t feel lonely to be so alone.
Also, although Scarly now
had relocated to the main building to take up her old room, paradoxically Rain saw her more often. The maid had greater liberty to roam the premises of the annex than any of the students. As long as Scarly carried a tray or a bucket or a lamp, she could come and go up the stairs to Rain’s attic without being stopped. Usefully, the unused boys’ dormitory was built above the storerooms and the stables, and the four maids were kept to a pretty clip, dashing back and forth all day. At nighttime when Scarly finished her final chores she could wander across the courtyard as if to count the clean sheets for the laundry or leave the morning list for the milk and eggs man. Then she could stand at the base of the steep winding staircase that rose two full flights and call out, “Hoo hoo!” as if she were an owl, or an Owl.
Rain’s room was so far back under the eaves that she couldn’t always hear Scarly. But Tay usually did. Tay would go sniffing and scraping at the closed door until Rain pulled on some socks and a tatty knitted houserobe and came inching out to meet her.
“Is the others being beastly to you?” asked Scarly, the first time she came to visit.
“Not really. At the start they were cross because Miss Ironish dumped the crawberry trifle in the horse trough behind the stables, but then the Lurlinemas baskets arrived anyway. All the girls had treats and presents enough to please them.” Rain had gotten no such basket, but she hadn’t expected to, and she imagined that Scarly had been similarly deprived. “Did you ever see a ghost here?” she asked, to change the subject.
“En’t no such thing as ghosts.”
“I hear some spooky-spooky noises at night.”
“Doves in the joists. They can’t sleep with them bats in the belvedere coming and going all night.”
“Shall we get down to it?”