Donovan was a scholar. Thin lines scribed his smooth white forehead like a writing tablet, and his eyes were gray and cloudy as Dublin skies in winter. His cheeks were ruddy, though, and easily set aflame by a pint of ale or attention from a lass.The lass was Mary McCue. She also was fair of skin, with lips like sacramental wine and hair the color of the golden silk fringe on the Chinese tapestry that hung in her father’s parlor. Her eyes were blue as the sky on a country morning, and as full of promise, but mischievous, for Mary was pretty, and knew she was pretty. She was not vain, but enjoyed her beauty as a strong man takes pleasure in hefting objects that other men cannot budge.
Mary was high-born in spirit, but not in wealth. She could be found of an evening in The Lion & Lamb, serving drinks to augment her father’s scanty pension. Seamus McCue had been a sailor, but what his career had left him, besides the Chinese tapestry, were tattoos that he always wore long sleeves to conceal and a thirst that could not be hidden. Seamus sat at his table overlooking the main floor of The Lion & Lamb, which was owned by the brother of his poor, dead wife, where he could drink, at no profit to the proprietor and little to himself as well, and keep a weather eye on his daughter. For her part, Mary steadied her father’s sea-legs on their walk home after the taps were closed and she’d washed the glassware and swept the floor.
Donovan, on break from Trinity College, was visiting Michael and Brian, his schoolmates from St. Pious some years ago. They regaled him with reports of the barmaid’s beauty and, after supper, they proceeded to The Lion & Lamb as full of uncertain expectation as Setter pups. Entering from the cold and drizzly street, the noise and warmth inside the door was like resurrection from the tomb. A fiddler was holding forth at one end of the large main room, but Brian led the way to the opposite end and secured a table at the sideboard to await their turn at darts. Michael signaled their order and presently Mary appeared with pints of Guinness and a smile that rouged Donovan’s cheeks.
She looked boldly at him and said, “You’re new here, then.”
Donovan nodded, his smile a tight line between two roses.
“This here’s a college man,” Brian announced, “come down to visit us simple folk.”
Michael joined in laughter at the joke but Donovan just hunched his shoulders and shook his head.
“A college man,” said Mary with some interest. “You’ll be a doctor then, or a solicitor? A man of some importance, not like the monkeys who jabber here on the bench of a night.”
“What monkeys?” howled Brian in mock offence. “Isn’t our money as good as any man’s, and with some’t over the tab?”
“Aye, and do your glasses ever go dry?” was Mary’s rejoinder.
A call from another table got her attention and she was gone.
“She likes you,” crowed Michael, and he punched Donovan on the shoulder. Donovan’s face glowed.
A dartboard opened and Brian collected the missiles to begin the evening’s entertainment. If not his major at Trinity, Donovan surely had minored in darts, and he rarely had to pay for a round. The Guinness oiled his tongue and he conversed with Mary when her orbit intersected their play.
“I may read for the Law,” he said, and this almost was true. He preferred the poets and philosophers, but Mary seemed to favor a professional man and so the Law grew in his estimation.
“And aren’t you interested in what we study?” asked Michael, to draw her attention.
With a saucy glance she said, “If you study ought but the football scores and my bum when I bend to wipe the tables, I’d be surprised.” As if to emphasize her point, she leant down and ran her cloth over the tabletop, hunching her shoulders forward so that the foothills of her breasts could be seen beneath her blouse, a gold crucifix dangling like a tiny mountaineer. She stood and looked at each in turn to see who could gainsay her words.
Brian hooted at her directness and slapped the table, rattling the glasses. But Michael closed his mouth and Donovan’s cheeks reddened more, for he had followed his comrades’ admonition to observe her form as she went about her tasks.
When her gaze came to him Donovan said, “When in Rome, who can help but look upon the marvels of Michaelangelo.” At this, her own cheeks tinged a little and she gave him a pensive, Mona Lisa smile, before turning away to further the business of turning Guinness and Jameson’s into fine Irish piss.
Seamus did not so much watch his daughter as sense the rhythm of her comings and goings, as he had been unaware of the ship’s heaving until there was a change in tide. The smack of Brian’s hand resounded above the usual din, and Seamus raised his eyes from the dominoes on the table where he sat with his brother-in-law. He saw Mary step away from the group of three men, a hesitation in her gait. He knew of his daughter’s flirtatiousness and the effect she had on the patrons. Indeed, it warmed his heart, for she reminded him of his own Mary, beautiful Mary... But his reminiscence went no further. His daughter’s coquettishness could do no harm, for he and her uncle always were there, as well as the stout barman to keep order in case someone stepped out of bounds. Her friendly nature brought good will and extra tips, nothing more.
“How is it, then?” he said when she took a break at his table, carrying a mug of hot tea.
“The usual,” she replied, sitting down and sipping her tea with a hissing noise like a tiny leak in the bulkhead.
The uncle excused himself to attend his business.
“No trouble?” the elder McCue persisted.
She set the cup down and leaned back, giving her father the same smile she had given Donovan. “Why should there be trouble?”
“You seem tired,” he said.
“Why should I be tired?” Her smile widened to charm the old man, but her eyes remained pensive.
“Those lads,” Seamus said, nodding his head vaguely in the direction of the barroom, “seem a bit rowdy.”
“All lads are rowdy,” she said. “‘Tis their nature.”
“Aye,” he said, sipping his whiskey, “just you be careful.”
“And you also.” She covered the gnarled hand, that lay like driftwood on the table, with her soft white fingers.
Thick fog enshrouded those who were not going to make it to early Mass on Sunday morrow. The pub-closers turned up collars, pulled down caps, and shoved hands deep into pockets as they exited The Lion & Lamb. Shouted farewells were soaked up by the atmosphere like cotton batting. Brian headed up the street toward his mother’s house, to the room where he’d slept since his Christening, while Michael went the opposite direction toward his small flat, where Donovan was to sleep in blankets on the floor. Gas lamps stood sentry on the street corners and pale yellow shown from a few windows of apartments inhabited by those discomfited by nighttime. These sparse lights diffused into a phosphorescent glow sufficient to allow the pair to avoid obstacles and maintain direction.
“You’ve not lost your hand for games,” said Michael as they walked along. “I remember you regularly cleaned me out of aggies when we were little.”
“Too bad there’s no fortune in’t,” laughed Donovan. “If there was pay for darts and marbles, I’d be giving you a lift to the manor in my Rolls about now.”
“Still, ’tis better to good at somethin’ than not,” said Michael, it being a philosophical time of night. They continued in silence, footsteps muffled by the mist. Presently, he asked “So what’d you make of Mary, then?”
“I’ve seen none to compare. So. Is Brian sweet on her? Or you?”
“No, man. She’s but a barmaid. Can you see Brian’s mam if he should bring her ’round?” Michael snorted in laughter at the scene.
“And you? You’ve no ma to object.”
“Naw. Mary’ll have nothing to do with us from the pub. She’s a good girl, she is.” It was apparent that Michael had asked her out, to no effect. “Still, she’s a delight to look at, she pours a full glass, she does, and her tongue’s as sharp as the Devil’s own.”
“Shh,” hissed Donovan. “What’s that!”
They stood still. If they were dogs they would’ve cocked their ears and sniffed the air. As they were men, they turned their heads slowly from side to side, squinting into the darkness and holding their breath. There was a faint wail from the direction they had come, a high, thin note riding above the fog, and then silence. Donovan turned and sprinted back down the street, Michael following.
Two huddled figures were silhouetted under a lamppost, light filtering down in wisps to be caught in glistening pools on wet cobbles. Mary sat on the curb, holding Seamus in her arms. She looked up. “My da,” she wailed. “He collapsed. I don’t know if he’s alive.”
Donovan got down on hands and knees and placed his ear to the old man’s chest. “I can’t tell,” he said. “Is there a doctor about? Is there a telephone box on the street?”
“Doc Ryan lives up on the boulevard, not far from here,” said Michael.
“Aye, Doc Ryan,” said Mary. “He knows ‘m. Go fetch ‘m, would you. Quickly. Tell ‘m it’s Seamus McCue,” she called to Michael’s back, already receding in the darkness.
The mist turned into rain drops that splashed on the old man’s face.
“We should get him inside,” said Donovan. “D’you live nearby? Or back in the pub, anyways.”
“Pub’s closer,” said Mary. “Hold him, will you.”
Donovan grasped the limp torso while Mary struggled from underneath and ran back to the entranceway, fumbling through her coat pockets for the key. She opened the door, disappeared inside briefly to turn on the electric lights, and then ran back to where Donovan was squatting.
“Help me get’m on my back,” he said.
With some awkwardness, they managed to get to get the old man across Donovan’s shoulders. Seamus was not a big man, but his inertness and the lateness of the hour increased his weight. Donovan’s face was flushed by the time he got him inside and laid upon the bar. They drew up chairs to watch and wait.
“What happened?” Donovan asked.
Mary sighed and looked out the open door, as if to watch the scene unfold. “Uncle left us to clean up and lock the place, like usual,” she said. “We’re not far down the street when Da says, ‘Mother of God,’ and drops to his knees. For a second I think he’s just had overmuch to drink, and I start to chide him. But then he just stretches out, face in the gutter. I think I screamed.”
They both glanced at the shape on the bar and then away quickly, afraid they would see no breathing if they looked longer. They sat and spoke no more, listening to the rain.
A black Humber saloon, square as a brick, swished to a stop in front of the open doorway, its windscreen wipers clacking loudly. Car doors slammed and the doctor strode in, followed by Michael. Doc Ryan’s white hair stuck out as it had been when he was roused from his pillow, and white unshaved whiskers bristled on his chin, but his eyes shone clear behind his spectacles.
He nodded to Mary and Donovan, who stood as he passed by to the bar where the patient lay, as on a bier. “Ah, Seamus,” he murmured. He set his black leather bag on the bar, clicked it open, and extracted his instruments: the stethoscope applied to the chest and neck; the ophthalmoscope shone into the eyes, peering nose to nose; the little triangular hammer tapped on the wrists.
Mary anxiously watched the doctor’s face but his visage remained impassive. Finally, she could wait no longer. “Is he alive?” she pleaded.
“Alive enough,” he said without looking at her. “Likely stroke. We need to get him to hospital. You two,” he said to Donovan and Michael, “put him on the back seat of the car.” He turned to Mary and his voice softened. “You can come if you wish. Though there’s naught you can do but sit and wait.”
Mary bit her lower lip and her eyes shone wet. “I hate hospitals. My mother...” She stopped and hugged herself.
“‘Tis all right,” said Doc Ryan, placing a hand on her shoulder. “‘Twill be a long night, and probably more as well. It’s better you rest at home and light a candle at church in the morning. I’ll send someone round to tell you of any change, good or ill.” He squeezed her arm, then hurried out to chauffeur his patient.
Michael and Donovan returned, shuddering like pups, in from the rain.
“A spot of brandy for the chill, and then we must go,” Mary said. She went behind the bar and set out three glasses, though not at the place where her father had lain, and expertly poured three shots. When they had done, she quickly washed and rinsed the glasses. “Will you walk home with me?” she asked. She addressed the two of them but looked more at Donovan.
Seeing how it was, Michael said, “I needs be rising early, so I’ll just be getting along home.” To Donovan, he added, “The key’ll be above the lintel.”
Donovan put his arm around Mary’s shoulder to shield her from the rain as they set out once more. At her doorstep she said, “Will you come in and sit with me a while?”
She led the way through the parlor toward the kitchen beyond, where a single electric bulb gave a yellow glow. In the dimness Donovan looked around at the spare furnishings, clean and tidy as a ship’s cabin but softened by curtains and pillows. On the far wall was a dark red tapestry, almost black in the meager light, with a fringe of gold and figures of blue and green that seemed to glow from within.
Mary was filling a teakettle with water. “I fancy some tea to warm me,” she said. “Will you have some?” The odor of sulfur and garlic wafted for a moment as she struck a match to light the gas.
“I’ll have a cup,” he said.
“And some brandy to sweeten it.” She set a half-full bottle on the table, then took down a large teapot, white with blue figures of storks and rainbow bridges, and filled its basket with fragrant oolong.
When done these tasks, she sat down heavily and pulled off her wet shoes and stockings, massaging her pink toes. “Eeyah, we’re wet as eels! Take off your damp things and I’ll fetch you some dry clothes.” The teakettle whistled shrilly and she rose to tend it. As she poured the boiling water into the teapot she noted Donovan’s hesitation and said, “Go on, you’ll catch your death. There’s plenty towels in the bath down the hall.”
When her bedroom door clicked shut, Donovan rose and followed her directions. Presently, she knocked on the bathroom door and handed in a woolen shirt, some baggy canvas trousers, and a pair of red Moroccan leather slippers. When he returned to the kitchen, she was pouring brandy into two porcelain mugs, and then the tea. A great fleecy robe of pale blue covered her like a blanket, and her golden hair stuck out in wild curls, unbrushed from toweling. They sat across from each other at the table, picked up the mugs and clinked them in a solemn toast, neither speaking. They slurped the steaming brew noisily.
“Should we fetch your uncle, then?” asked Donovan. “Let’m know what’s happened?”
“Uncle.” She said it like a foreign language, an alien word that did not come easily to her tongue, and her eyes hardened for an instant. “I’ll tell’m at Mass tomorrow. There’s nothing to be done now. No use disturbing his rest.”
“You don’t care for your uncle,” Donovan observed.
“Nay.” It was not clear if she was disputing or agreeing. “We get on well enough.”
More sips were taken.
“So, you have a girl then, at the college?” she asked.
Now it was Donovan’s turn to be discomfited and his cheeks reddened.
“Nay,” he said. Then added, “I’m somewhat shy around girls.”
“That’s all right.” She looked him steadily in the eye and placed her hand on his. “You’re not like other men,” she said quietly.
Donovan sat back and withdrew his hand, as if burned. “What d’you mean?”
“Why, just that you’re kind, and thoughtful. Not like those rowdy lads down at The Lion. You have a gentle soul. I meant a compliment.”
Donovan sighed, as if reluctant to accept it.
She poured more tea, more brandy.
“I’ve not known girls,” he said, as though her question still echoed. “There were none at school, of course, St. Pious, or after, at St. John’s. At university, there are some that seem ready enough.” He gazed off, reflectively. “But, like I said, I’m shy about them.”
After a long silence, she asked, “D’you fancy boys, then?” Her tone was not accusing, or mocking, or even disappointed. But still, she had asked.
His face colored to that of the tapestry in the next room. Finally, he said, “‘Twas the way it was done at St. John’s. I don’t know if I fancy them or if it’s just circumstance.” Suddenly alarmed, he said, “You’ll say nothing to Brian or Michael!”
She encircled the hand that held his cup with both of hers, smiling her Mona Lisa smile and shaking her head. “Of course not.”
She rose suddenly and went to the cupboard. “I’d like a biscuit with the rest of the tea,” she announced. “I think we have a tin here somewheres.” She pried the lid from a decorated metal canister, set it on the table, stuffed a whole sweet into her mouth, poured the last of the tea into their mugs, and added generous dollops of brandy. Then she sat down and again took Donovan’s hand.
“I too, have a secret. My mam died when I was but a child, more’n half my life ago. Da was away at sea and had no people here. Mam’s brother took me in. Him and his great cow of a wife and bawling calf of a son. When da came home it was only a short time, to visit mam’s grave, and he was off again. So there was no place for me but Uncle’s. Like Cinderella I was, cleaning and cooking for the likes of them.” She shook her head at the memory and took a long draught from her cup, then looked down, staring into it as she spoke. “Then Uncle started coming into my room at night. Touching me, you know, making me do things.” Now Donovan covered her hands with his. “He said t’was his duty to educate me, but I must never say anything or he’d accuse me and turn me over to the Sisters of Mercy.”
She drained the last drops from her cup. “Da came home for good when I was fifteen. I never told him, or he’d a killed ‘m, for sure.” She took another pull at her cup, but it was empty. “Sleeping dogs,” she said. “It’s worked out well enough. Until this.” She got up from the table. “Come, I’ve some’t to show you.”
Mary poured her cup half-full of brandy and emptied the last of the bottle into Donovan’s, then led him into the parlor. She turned on an electric lamp beneath the tapestry and its resplendence filled the room like a symphony. She sat down on the sofa opposite and patted the space beside her. Donovan sat and put his arm around her shoulders, his fingers sinking in the soft chenille, his nostrils filling with her delicate scent. The tapestry was a blaze of ruby silk, embroidered with luminous blue peacocks and shimmering green dragons in the corners, a symmetrical maze of intricate design in the center, and Chinese characters scattered about that explained the mystery.
“Da sent this to mother, but she never saw it,” Mary said. “It came just when she died. I hid it away, all rolled and folded in my winter things. Once in while, when they were out, I’d take and look at it. And touch it; it’s gloriously cold and smooth to touch. I’d tell myself stories about peacocks and dragons, and princesses locked up who escape to far away places across the sea.
Donovan hugged her close and felt his face aglow, his whole body warm, whether from brandy or the radiant tapestry or the woman beside him he couldn’t tell. “Do you recall any of those stories,” he said. “I’d surely like to hear one.”