Sample text for The fox's walk / Annabel Davis-Goff.
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AS IN MOST HAPPY childhoods, my life consisted of long periods of boredom interspersed with moments of drama that did not have far-reaching consequences. The summer of my first memories I was five years old and still an only child. My mother was with me at Ballydavid-we were visiting my grandmother and great-aunt-and she must have been pregnant, carrying my brother Edward. Of her pregnancy, I remember nothing.
Instead, I remember moments of that summer-small scenes full of meaning that I couldn't then, with my limited vocabulary, convey to the grown-ups. I am not confident I can do so now. The largest of these fragments of memory begins on the avenue at Ballydavid. It says something about the benevolence of the Irish countryside in those days, and even more about the casual attitude toward children in my not overindulgent family, that no one noticed I had wandered away from the house-along the avenue almost to the wrought-iron and stone-pillared gates, on the other side of which lay the road leading south to the sea or north toward Waterford.
The entertaining of children was not, either in my family or in society at large, given the importance that it now is. There was nothing unusual about my being turned out of doors alone on a cold dark day with an airy instruction to play. The front door would then be closed, and the adult who had so instructed me would go back to sit by the drawing-room fire.
Usually I would loiter for a moment or two, hoping for a reprieve, before making the best of it. Ballydavid was not lacking in opportunities for the adventurous child I later became, but at five years old I was not tall enough to open the gates to the walled garden, nor was I encouraged by O'Neill to hang about the farmyard, under his feet or the hooves of the animals he cared for. I would be hard pressed, even now, to define in a couple of words O'Neill's exact position at Ballydavid, but all power over the farm lay in his hands, and his influence, although in a way not immediately apparent, possibly even to Grandmother, his employer, spread much farther afield. Very often Jock, the Highland collie, would be loitering around the front door, but that day he had found somewhere warmer and more cheerful to spend his afternoon. When it became clear I would have to amuse myself as best I could for the next hour or two, I wandered down the avenue with no destination in mind. And, with no particular enthusiasm, killing time until tea.
The avenue at Ballydavid curved and sloped gently downhill, disappearing around a bend where the mown-grass verges were interrupted by a clump of laurels. The house had been built on a hill overlooking the estuary of the river; the avenue, and then the road it led to, with stone bridges over streams and even a small hill on the way, gradually descended to the strand, a mere foot or two above the level of the sea at high tide; there it joined the narrow, sand-bordered road that followed the outline of the coast.
On either side, behind the neatly kept verge, were fields enclosed by iron railings. Only the tennis court in front of the house was not part of the small farm and garden that supplied most of the household needs. O'Neill and the two men who worked under his supervision maintained the avenue, raking the thin gravel and removing any weed that tried to take root in the stony earth. Although there was very little motorized traffic-the Sunbeam might travel up and down the avenue once or twice a week if Grandmother decided to call on her neighbors, or if the occasional visitor, reversing the process, called at Ballydavid-two worn, shallow parallel furrows lay on either side of the higher central ridge. The donkey dragged the water cart, full and heavy, up to the house every day; the wheels of the cart were metal and each day they wore a little deeper into the ground.
It was a gray dull afternoon at Ballydavid, but the sun lit the water of the estuary and as far out into the ocean as my eye could see. When I reached the bend in the avenue, I hesitated and glanced back at the house to see if anyone was watching me. But the house was closed and still, a column of gray smoke rising into the windless air from the fireplace in the library.
There was no explicit rule about being out of sight of the house, but my sense was that I was being slightly disobedient. And disobedient without any immediate benefit from my daring. I paused, considering a return to loiter outside the drawing-room window, hoping someone would take pity on me, when there was a rustling in some dry leaves under the laurels. Oonagh, my Grandmother's brindle cat, who had been prowling in the undergrowth, sauntered out. Normally, indoors, she ignored me, allowing herself to be stroked but, like most cats, not meeting my eye or quite acknowledging my presence. Now, however, she arched her back, stretched, and inclined her head toward me. I was suddenly aware of her feline grace and the shades of gray in the striped markings of her coat. It was, I suppose, the moment when I became aware of beauty; until then I had taken pleasure in the appearance of certain things-my mother when she came to kiss me goodnight, my first sight of the house as we turned the bend in the avenue, the garden in the blaze of midsummer glory-but implicit in these pleasures was their connection to me. Oonagh lying, as she now was, on the loose sandy soil at the edge of the avenue was beautiful in herself. Beauty-and, as I now understood, Oonagh-existed without me as a witness.
Naturally I lacked the ability to express this idea. Not only to communicate what I had discovered to someone else, but even the vocabulary to think it clearly. But I didn't consider that and, with one more glance at Oonagh, now scratching herself, I turned and trotted up the avenue toward the house. Instinctively avoiding the front door-knocking at it with my knuckles since I wasn't tall enough to reach the door knocker, waiting for a grown-up, and formulating an explanation for the necessity of coming indoors immediately-I made for the off-limits, but more accessible, kitchen door.
Tea was being prepared in the kitchen. Maggie, the cook, was standing in front of the large black iron stove, holding a skillet in her hands. I noticed a plate to one side, heaped with drop scones she had already made. Bridie, neatly uniformed, was waiting to carry the tea tray into the drawing room. Both women knew I was not allowed to visit the kitchen, but I had noticed that neither had much interest in enforcing rules when unwitnessed by adult members of the family. Neither really noticed me, but their lack of interest in the doings of children was different from the way I was ignored by Grandmother, or even by my mother. The maids included me, on a minor, powerless level, in whatever was going on; my presence, provided I was safe and well behaved, did not require any special acknowledgment. With my family, there was more often a feeling that I had not yet attained the right to be part of their self-contained and privileged society.
As I reached up to the china knob on the tall dark door to the drawing room, some part of me remembered my own insignificance, but I was still too excited by my discovery to contain myself. It took me a moment or two to open the door, and as I entered, my mother, having risen from her seat by the fire, was crossing the gloomy drawing room toward me. Most of the light in the room came from three long windows that looked out over the damp tennis court and fields to the river estuary. The fire, combating the cold of a rainy afternoon, was the only interior source of light; it would be another hour or two before Bridie brought in the lamps that marked the moment when I would be taken upstairs to bed.
My mother, graceful though she must have been in the sixth month of her pregnancy, looked rested and relaxed at Ballydavid in a way that she rarely did in London. She was by nature somewhat indolent and now, pregnant and in Ireland, took even longer afternoon rests than she did at home while my father was at the office. Her face still bore traces of amusement: Great-Aunt Katie often made her laugh; Grandmother, though insightful and witty, less frequently.
"Alice," my mother said, absentmindedly surprised to see me.
I realized that I needed to justify my presence, and I tried to recount the moment of such importance that had just taken place.
"Mama, Mama, I saw a tiger on the avenue."
I knew, of course, that I hadn't seen a tiger, but the importance of what I had experienced could not be conveyed with the words, I saw Oonagh on the avenue. It now seems to me-a memory recalled recently by an Etruscan mosaic of a pair of exotic, predatory animals on either side of a tree whose fruit was large and not concealed by leaves-that in one of the nursery books, a tiger standing beside a tree heavy with brightly colored oranges was smaller and less threatening than was another illustration of a large black cat with long claws and teeth, hissing with a savagely red tongue. It is possible that these illustrations may have misled me into thinking that substituting a tiger for a brindled cat was a less extreme exaggeration than it, in fact, is.
There was a sound of amusement, something a little lower and less than a laugh, from the end of the room near the fire, and I realized that Grandmother had visitors and that I had the attention of everyone in the room. Children should be seen and not heard was a familiar phrase in those days, the unoriginality of the remark equaled only by its sincerity. But my mother opened the door a little wider and I understood that I was meant to enter.
Grandmother and Aunt Katie were sitting in their accustomed high-backed chairs on either side of the fireplace. Sitting up straight in another chair-my mother had been sitting on the sofa beside a small and, at that stage unnoticed by me, elderly man-was a woman whose charms I could see, even at first glance, would be inexhaustible. The unrelieved, though by no means dowdy, darkness of my grandmother's and great-aunt's clothing-my mother was dressed in a loose pale blue frock and a cream silk zouave -only accentuated their guest's colorful and dramatic clothing. Blue, pink, gray, and red. Her gestures, too, were dramatic. As she turned to look at me-I had the impression that she had been the one doing all the talking-the osprey feathers in her large hat waved wildly, and a gesture of her hand agitated the strings of beads around her neck. I was utterly charmed and would have been happy to sit quietly and gaze at her.
But it seemed as though I would, for a moment or two longer, be the center of attention.
"A tiger, Alice?" my grandmother asked, her manner showing more interest than I was used to receiving when I spoke. I had the impression that my presence was welcome, though not because Grandmother had suddenly discovered my true worth.
"A tiger," she repeated. "On the avenue. Come here, Alice."
I crossed the room, now the recipient of rather more attention than I wished.
"And what did the tiger do?" she asked when I stood in front of her.
"It sat down and scratched itself," I said.
Adult laughter, affectionate and not too loud, made me regret having allowed myself to get so far out of my depth. After I had been introduced to Major and Mrs. Coughlan, my mother patted the sofa and I sat down beside her. She put her arm around me and drew me closer to her. I wondered why the tea tray I had seen in the kitchen had not yet arrived.
"Katie," Grandmother said in the polite tone she used to give domestic instructions to her sister, "please tell Bridie to dust Oonagh with some Keating's Powder."
Aunt Katie started to rise; the bell pull was on her side of the fireplace. But Grandmother waved her back to her seat.
"Later," she said.
As though it were a signal, Mrs. Coughlan rose from her seat, and after a moment her husband got up also. Good-byes were exchanged while I stood silently to one side. Aunt Katie accompanied the guests to the front door. As Mrs. Coughlan passed me, she paused.
"I hope you will come and see me one day," she said.
As the door in the hall closed, Grandmother turned to my mother.
"Mary," she said, "ring for tea."
BETWEEN THE AFTERNOON of my first memory-Oonagh and Mrs. Coughlan and the tea tray withheld until after the Coughlans' departure-and my next memory, this one not isolated but part of the jumbled montage I recall of early childhood, one chapter in the history of the world ended and another began.
The summer months of 1914 before the outbreak of war were the last moments before everything changed forever. There was no sense that the world was about to embark on the most terrible war ever fought. Instead, in London, there was an atmosphere of uncomfortable adjustment, and, in Ireland, a time of uneasy anticipation. My parents, both of course born during the long reign of Queen Victoria (by then it was unlikely there was anyone alive who could remember a time before she had ascended the throne) had adapted-happily, I think-to the freer and more worldly atmosphere of Edwardian society. Now, the popular, diplomatic, sensible, and reassuringly human king was dead; and society had once again changed, becoming a little dull with a less exuberant monarch on the throne.
In Ireland Home Rule seemed imminent; the question was when it would come and at what cost. My family waited and watched; we knew change was inevitable and hoped it would be peaceful and not immediate. Most of the Anglo-Irish tried not to think about it, and continued their lives as though their comfortable world would last forever. But there were exceptions.
Two men, both Protestant and from privileged backgrounds, felt a greater sympathy to the nationalist movement than they did loyalty to their own class and upbringing. At a glance, Roger Casement and Erskine Childers might have appeared similar. Both had served England with courage and distinction, both had received public recognition for their achievements; each loved Ireland with a patriotism intense enough to give his life in the cause of Irish independence. Both were executed: one hanged in an English prison, the other shot at a barracks in Dublin. The path each took to his patriot's grave could not have been more different.
Erskine Childers was the author of The Riddle of the Sands, a novel published in 1903 that has been read ever since as a literate thriller particularly attractive to anyone fond of sailing. At the time it was published it was also-and this was Childers' primary intention when he wrote it-a warning to England of her vulnerability to invasion from the North Sea should she engage in war with Germany.
Childers' wife, Molly, was an American from a good Boston family. She had been bedridden as a child and was never again to walk without a stick or to be free from pain. She adored her husband and loved sailing, and did not allow her disability to limit her more than was absolutely necessary. Childers' childhood had also, in a different way, been painful. When he was six years old, his father died of tuberculosis. His mother had chosen to conceal her husband's condition and to nurse him herself. After his death she contracted the highly infectious and, at that time, incurable disease and had to be separated from her children for the rest of her life. Erskine and his brother, Robert, were brought up by relatives in Ireland. As was usual at that time in Anglo-Irish families, the boys were educated in England. Childers served in the British Army during the Boer War and afterward became a hero in England for his gathering of the material-crucial to that country's intelligence-contained in The Riddle of the Sands.
A forty-foot ketch, the Asgard, had been given to Erskine and Molly Childers by her parents as a wedding present. On a July afternoon in 1914, just before the outbreak of war, the Asgard beat about Dublin Bay, waiting for a signal to dock at Howth; she was so laden with guns that she drew eighteen inches more water than she usually would.
With Childers aboard the Asgard were 900 rifles and 25,000 rounds of ammunition, and there were a further 600 rifles aboard the Kelpie, an accompanying yacht. Hardly enough to arm a revolution, but that was not Childers' intention. The guns for the Irish Volunteers were intended as a show of Southern Irish nationalist strength and as an answer to the-also illegal-April landing at Larne of 30,000 rifles for the Unionist Ulster Volunteers.
The crew of the Asgard-apart from two Donegal fishermen, ignorant until the last moment of the purpose of the journey-were Protestants sympathetic to the Southern Irish nationalist movement. Two of them were women. Despite a difficult and potentially dangerous voyage, there was an essentially English amateurism about the whole expedition. Gordon Shephard, a pilot on leave from the newly formed Royal Flying Corps, was at least an experienced yachtsman, although his attitude to their mission at times seemed less than serious. Mary Spring Rice, an inexperienced sailor but the innovator of the gunrunning scheme, kept a diary. In it she described Shephard's tendency to sleep late in the mornings and his wish to go ashore for a decent meal. The tone of Mary Spring Rice's account of the expedition is playful, but they all-Shephard the only one not to suffer from seasickness-made the twenty-three-day voyage and, during the night and while at sea, transferred the entire cargo of rifles and boxes of ammunition from the German tug to the Asgard.
As Childers and his tired crew strained their eyes for the signal to dock, Sir Roger Casement, in New York, waited anxiously for news of the success or failure of the Asgard's mission.
Roger Casement, an Anglo-Irish Protestant, had been knighted for work in South America where he had exposed, as he previously had done in the Belgian Congo, virtual slavery and other atrocities in the rubber trade. Since his resignation from the British Consular Service several years before, he, like Erskine Childers, had espoused the Irish nationalist cause. The path each was to take in his attempt to serve Ireland could hardly have been more different.
The arms were unloaded to the waiting Volunteers at Howth on the afternoon of July 26th. On the 5th of August war was declared. On the 17th Childers received a telegram from the Admiralty telling him that his offer of service had been accepted; he left that night for London.
By then Casement, under a pseudonym and having shaved off his beard to alter his appearance, was on his way to Germany where he hoped to raise an Irish brigade to fight for Ireland against the British. With him traveled Adler Christensen, the man who was to become his nemesis.
THE FIRST SPRING of the war Uncle Hubert came home on leave from China. I was seven years old. My brother Edward had, eighteen months earlier and unannounced to me, arrived to share the nursery quarters. One day he wasn't there; the next he was. As far as I can remember, I accepted his presence without question and resigned myself to the inconvenience of living in close proximity to a baby with a loud voice and demanding habits.
Uncle Hubert was an official in the Chinese Maritime Customs. Although staffed at the senior level by foreigners (over half of them British) the customs service-which was administered with extraordinary efficiency and integrity-answered to Peking. Originally the Chinese Imperial Customs, the service had been created in 1860 and, after the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, was used to collect indemnities and to provide the Ch'ing Empire with about a third of its revenues. Over the years, the Customs had become a bureaucracy that, among other things, oversaw the postal services and waterways, and played a part in foreign affairs. Contemporary reservations about the connection between the Chinese Maritime Customs and Britain's morally dubious role in the Opium Wars were not shared by Uncle Hubert's family at Ballydavid.
My uncle's job was a reserved occupation that exempted him from military service. The collection of revenues-mainly on salt-to repay a loan made in 1913 by England, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan was considered important enough to keep a young man who spoke fluent Chinese off the field of battle.
Uncle Hubert had written two letters to his mother, each telling of a death. The first he sent after the death of a baby that had lived only two weeks-the letter that announced its birth arrived after it was already dead-in the second he told her that his wife, weakened by childbirth and grief, had not been strong enough to fight off a sudden recurrence of fever. Grandmother and Aunt Katie went into mourning, although the difference in dress-both were in permanent half-mourning for their respective husbands-would have been noticeable only to those initiated into the rigid but scarcely visible rules by which we all lived. My father, who liked his wife to look pretty and welcoming, put his foot down when my mother took her black dresses out of mothballs: he saw no need for the new mother of a healthy little boy to wear mourning for a sister-in-law she had never met.
Uncle Hubert had six months' home leave every five years. Apart from a visit to Ballydavid and his mother and aunt, he spent this time in London. He used to come to tea; the timing of his visit, I now suspect, planned so he could spend time with his sister while my father was absent and to leave his evenings free for more amusing or livelier social arrangements.
My uncle was of greater interest to me in London than he would have been if I had met-or, more accurately, been shown or presented to-him at Ballydavid. The shape and constrictions of a London childhood made any departure from the dull and repetitive cycle of my days memorable. The rules at Ballydavid fell far short of anarchy, but there was a physical freedom that made me aware of the constraints of life at our house in Palace Gardens Terrace. The house was not small; by London standards it was open, light, and spacious, but the nursery quarters on the top floor were where Edward, Nanny, and I spent the greater part of our day. When we went for our afternoon walk, I was not allowed to stray from my place beside Edward's pram; and, if I had been permitted to do so, I could have wandered only along the paved paths, the grass and flower beds on either side a prohibited area, marked by a low edging of green-painted iron hoops. The clothing I was buttoned into before leaving the house restricted any spontaneous expression of energy or imagination-any possibility of play. Even in summer I wore black stockings and tightly buttoned boots; when the weather was cold, I also wore a stiff high-collared coat, gloves, and buttoned gaiters. I wore a hat throughout the year; it varied with the season, but it usually had an elastic band under the chin.
Uncle Hubert fascinated me. I had been shown in the schoolroom atlas where he lived when he was not home on leave, and my mother had traced with her finger the course of the voyage he had taken back to England. He was the eldest of three children and treated my mother with a teasing affection that both startled me and revealed a completely new aspect of her nature. I already knew that my mother loved Sainthill, her younger brother, to an extent that would not allow her feelings for Uncle Hubert to be described as more than a very strong affection. How did I know? I now think that because I was an eldest child, most of my instinct and a good deal of time and energy went into working out how the world-at that stage exemplified by my family and our household-worked. I already understood the realities of the nursery and had made a good start on the kitchen. Childhood is a time when one is presented with the pieces of a large and complicated jigsaw puzzle. I struggled to fit the interlocking parts together without knowing what the eventual completed picture was supposed to look like. And the picture changed with each new observation I made. Soon after Edward was born, I realized it was a puzzle he would never solve on his own, and I made it my business to inform him of some important aspects and to shield him from others.
Uncle Hubert's cigarette case was a good example of a piece of the puzzle that I recognized as significant without knowing, or having any way of knowing, its import. I still remember that case and the way his graceful fingers took a cigarette from it, closed its silver lid, and tapped the cigarette lightly before striking a match. It was not until my uncle Sainthill's personal effects were returned to his mother during an irony-filled Christmas visit by a fellow officer that I discovered the significance of these cigarette cases both as a gift and as a charm against the evil forces personified by a German bullet or shrapnel. The slim metal case, slightly curved to follow the outline of the body, was inscribed-usually by a woman-and kept in the breast pocket of the uniform of the man whose heart it was intended to protect. Did it ever save a life? Could it save a life? I don't know. And without knowing this, either, I imagine that the officers-and surely for so many reasons this was a phenomenon only among the younger ones-knew the cases would provide little protection but felt safer having them anyway.
Uncle Hubert: his moustache, his cigarette case (my father was clean shaven, regarding facial hair as an affectation and tobacco as a waste of money), his bantering tone with my mother, her difficulty in knowing what was a tease and what was not, and how he enjoyed testing her gullibility and humor. I remember, in particular, a Russian woman whom Uncle Hubert brought to visit.
Edward and I were with my mother in the drawing room. Edward, sweet and fat, sat on Mother's knee, and I perched on the edge of the sofa, brushed, curled, and uncomfortably dressed for tea. I don't know if my mother was expecting Uncle Hubert in the sense that an engagement had been made, but she was ready for him or any other visitor who might call.
The Irish maid announced Uncle Hubert.
"Mr. Bagnold to see you, ma'am, and Madame-" she hesitated as though she might attempt the name but changed her mind "-and Madam."
Uncle Hubert stood back at the door to allow a woman to enter. Although not as exotic as Mrs. Coughlan, of whom I still quite often thought, this was a creature who bore an encouraging similarity to her.
"Mary," my uncle said, "this is Madame Tchnikov."
My mother, putting Edward down on the hearthrug, rose slowly and approached the visitor. I could see that the time she was taking was designed to allow my uncle to add something-an explanation of who this strange woman was, of why she was accompanying my uncle, above all of why she was being introduced to my mother. But Uncle Hubert merely smiled; he looked as though he had arrived with a treat-something on the order of an ornately decorated tin of sweet biscuits. I, at least, was appreciative.
Copyright © 2003 by Annabel Davis-Goff
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Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Girls Fiction, Grandmothers Fiction, Country homes Fiction, Social classes Fiction, Children of the rich Fiction, Waterford (Ireland : County) Fiction