In County Wicklow, south of Dublin, Mr. Prendergast lives alone in the Big House of his village. A remnant of the long-gone days of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, Prendergast’s mansion has been witness to many of the most important years of his life, including his childhood, marked by his mother’s open preference for his older brother, Alexander. Following Alexander’s death in the First World War, Prendergast traveled the world, returning home decades later to a greatly changed place. Now in the 1970s, his wife and daughter are both gone, leaving the house an empty monument to his isolation and melancholy. But when the young, redheaded Diarmid arrives on Prendergast’s doorstep, the boy’s thrill at the house’s history sparks an unlikely friendship—one that revives in Prendergast a sense of vitality and sets in motion a final, fateful confrontation with the outside world he’d shunned for so many years.
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The Captains and the Kings
By Jennifer Johnston
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1972 Jennifer Johnston
All rights reserved.
The two guards left the barracks at ten past four on the afternoon of September 20. The barracks, a small white house, was set in a terrace of similar houses, the only distinguishing features being a small sunburst over the door, signifying Garda Siochana, and a tall white flag pole on the roof for use on ceremonial occasions, which were very few and far between. They cycled slowly along the village street with the sun behind them and their shadows, black on the ground, always that unattainable length in front of them. Guard Devenney was the taller of the two men and the older and the least ambitious. For nearly twenty years he had lived in the village. His kids had been born and reared in the barracks and were all gone now, bar one. His wife had evolved from a tender girl, with soft nunlike white skin, into a woman of enormous proportions with a greying moustache fringing her upper lip. He knew everyone for miles around. He knew their weaknesses, he knew when to blink the eye. Guard Conroy was new to the job, new to the country, a Dublin man, with high hopes of quick promotion back to the hard, grey city streets again, where there was a bit of gas when you were off duty and the possibility of some real crime when you were on. The street curved sharply at the end of the village and their shadows moved round to the left-hand side.
'I don't like it at all,' said Devenney, more or less to himself.
Three children sitting on the edge of the pavement watched them go by without interest. There was no one else about. All indoors, no doubt, with nothing better to do but yak about what didn't concern them. Guard Conroy grunted in reply. He didn't believe in committing himself. Back at the other end of the village the level-crossing gates clattered shut behind the Dublin train. Smoke hung over the fields for a while, before melting.
'It's the sort of business goes sour on you. Heads fall. And I'll tell you one thing, it's never the Superintendent's head, nor the Inspector's neither.'
They rode on a while, in silence. The tyres of their regulation bikes crackled on the road.
'The law's the law,' said the younger man, for something to say.
'Ah, maybe. But trouble's trouble, just the same.'
It was hot for September, an Indian summer. The chestnut leaves were turning and the tops of the trees were gold against the clear turquoise sky. On the lower branches the leaves were still a tired green and the chestnuts hung in paler clusters, almost ready for dropping. It was the best part of a mile to the gates of Kill House and the two men were sweating by the time they arrived. They stopped outside the gates on the gravel sweep and each took a handkerchief from some interior pocket and wiped his face and neck. Guard Devenney even removed his cap and ran his handkerchief round the band inside before he put it back on his head.
'Well, here we go so.'
It was late May. The few remaining daffodils that fringed the avenue were turning brown and papery. The leaves were curling at the top. The early rose bushes in Clare's formal beds were covered in buds, which would begin to open with another couple of days' sun.
Since Nellie's death almost six months before, Mr Prendergast had taken to living more or less completely in the study. Books on the tables (where his father used to display his adequate collection of duelling pistols), on some chairs even and also in piles on the faded Chinese carpet. The piano sat in the middle of the room and in one corner there was a divan that he and Sean had carried from upstairs, in case of some unmentionable need. The two long windows faced south-west across the terrace at the wooded hills, and behind them the gaunt blue mountains constantly changed from one elusive colour to another. As the evening thickened, he would sit in his chair by the window and watch the green quivering lights spring up across the valley as people lit their lamps, and the moving fingers of light from cars on the main road below. It was almost his only pleasurable connection with the world. He would drink his first evening glass of whiskey as he watched and then, when he rose and crossed the room to switch on his own lights, he would refill his glass and settle down to read for the rest of the evening.
During the last few months of Clare's illness he had formed the habit of driving down to the church to play the organ. As the house became enclosed by the half light each evening, he had become obsessed by her eyes. For four months she had lain, propped up by pillows, in her bed, one side of her face pulled down into a sour little grin, her right arm useless, a cashmere shawl covering her thin shoulders. He would arrive in her room each afternoon as the clock on her mantelpiece chimed three and, picking up whatever book happened to be at hand, he would sit in the wing chair and read to her for an hour. The book was then closed and put away. He would move to the end of the bed and force himself to smile down at her.
'Anything you want, my dear?'
One eye stared coldly up at him, the other drooped as if in sleep.
'You're looking a little better today. Quite distinctly better. Have you up and about soon. Come the summer and you'll be out enjoying the garden again.'
He would bow and leave the room. He found it all most disconcerting, almost disagreeable. The memory of her eyes stayed with him until he left the house and drowned such thoughts in the vast chords of Bach.
He played the organ more often in the daytime now, as he found his eyes were giving him trouble in electric light. It was time he took himself to the oculist for new glasses but he preferred to live without them than make the journey to Dublin and back. From the moment of his marriage to Clare until his mother's death, his life had been spent in continuous movement. He had never stopped anywhere long enough to become accustomed to its rhythm. The moment a feeling of familiarity began to creep over him, or a new acquaintance seemed to have the audacity to be becoming a friend, then the trunks were packed, servants dismissed, tickets booked. They would move on. Clare's only pregnancy had been an irritating hiatus in his life. They had returned to sit it out with her family in North Oxford.
The atmosphere had affronted him. The roads upon roads of red brick, high-gabled houses, the smell of newly cut grass, the politesse over teacups, the indestructible goodwill of the English middle-class. After several weeks he had gone upstairs one afternoon and packed a suitcase.
'What are you doing?'
Clare had arrived home early from her daily walk.
'It should be obvious.'
'Are you going away?'
He was embarrassed by the situation.
'I, ah, feel I'm wasting my time here. I thought I'd have a look at Sicily. Perhaps get in a few music festivals round the place.'
'You could go up to concerts in London from here.'
Her eyes dazzled with tears. He looked away from her, continued to pile neatly folded shirts one upon the other. 'I'm sorry, Clare. I can't stay here.'
'What will I say to mother? She'll think it's all most peculiar.'
'Say anything you like.'
Silently she watched him fasten his suitcase.
'You would have gone before I came home?'
'It would have been easier.'
'For you perhaps.'
He picked up his case and leant forward to kiss her formally. 'Well, goodbye, my dear.'
She moved her head out of his reach. 'I don't understand.'
He ignored this. 'You'll be perfectly all right. After all, what could I do?'
After their daughter's birth they moved on again, leaving the child in the care of both her grandmothers. Neither lady had anything in common, apart from Sarah. Even this, they felt, wasn't a strong enough reason for them to become involved in the exhausting processes of communication, so the child shuttled between them, in the care of a good, old-fashioned nanny who knew her place and stood no nonsense, either from children, or interfering adults.
Her parents made it their business to visit Sarah at least once a year. They made responsible decisions about her education. They followed her scholastic career with interest and a certain amount of pride. She was a clever child. They sent her presents, not extravagant, for they were not flamboyant people, but interesting, sometimes beautiful, objects from every corner of the earth.
The war caught them in Mexico, where they stayed for a couple of years and then moved on to the United States. There they continued their nomadic life until the war was over. In 1946 they came cautiously back to Europe to find tired people desperately trying to build a new world. It seemed, at that time, as if it might be going to be a world in which there would be very little place for people like the Prendergasts.
One evening, as they sat in North Oxford surrounded by bleak postwar people and problems, ration books and a scarcity of domestics, a telegram arrived to say that the old lady was dead. She was being driven to dine with some friends by her man, Sean. Snow lay thinly on the higher hills and the roads between the black hedges sparkled with frost. Sean, exhilarated by a drop too much before setting out, drove just too fast on to an icy patch and the car went into a skid. They went off the left-hand side of the road into the ditch and hit a telegraph pole. Sean was unhurt but the old lady was dead. Her ringed hands were clasped, as usual, in her lap but her neck was broken. There was no sound anywhere but the humming of the telegraph wires and the drop of snow falling from the branches of the trees.
Surprisingly, they settled down. They didn't mix much; in fact, withdrew gently but firmly from the social ramifications created by the past. Clare and Sean had taken at once to each other and had thrown themselves, for their own different reasons, into the reshaping of the old lady's garden. Mr Prendergast took to reading. He wandered through books as he had wandered through the world, never quite grasping what it really was that he was looking for. He never read one at a time, always a pile were tumbled by his chair or bed. He roamed from author to author, century to century, prose, poetry, biography, essays, philosophy, history. He read, with fluency, books in French and struggled through German ones. Parcels arrived regularly from London and Dublin and he would tear the paper off like an impatient child and then carry the books into the study, where he would pick one of them at random, almost throw himself into a chair and start reading.
For pleasure, he played the piano. As a young man he had had reasonable talent but through the travelling years he had played little and his fingers had stiffened, and he played now with more than average skill but with caution.
Sarah intruded seldom. When her grandmother died she had been in her last term at school. Her hair lay in two plaits on her grey uniform coat. Her face was like marble, white and still.
'So, you're off.'
Clare seemed to flutter in the hall behind him, like a moth in a cobweb.
'We haven't had much time for conversation. You've never told us why you've picked on Cambridge.'
'I thought it was time for a change of scene.' She wasted no words.
'We, ah, your mother and I have decided to stay on here for a while. At any rate. Straighten things up. We actually thought we might settle down here.'
'You wouldn't think of ...?'
She shook her head. 'No. I think not,'
'Your mother, perhaps ...'
Sarah looked briefly across his shoulder in her mother's direction. 'I think we'll all manage all right.' They kissed each other's cheeks. She went down the steps and got into the waiting taxi. The way she moved reminded him of his mother.
In order to keep the house alive old Mrs Prendergast had sold the land, hills, fields, bogland and wood to men who had been her husband's tenants and labourers. She watched with ironic eyes the golden and purple weed flowers creeping up through the corn as the years passed and barbed wire filling the gaps in walls. To keep himself and Clare alive, Mr Prendergast had closed the house room by room, floor by floor. Rows of unused keys hung on the wall by the kitchen door, under the coiled and silent bell springs. Only Nellie remained, indoors, and Sean, in the garden. After several years the book parcels dwindled and finally stopped altogether. Now he was alone and, it seemed to him, the way that he had always wanted to be.
Approaching nine o'clock and after his third glass of whiskey, the old man found his eyes sore and heavy and he threw his book down on the floor by his chair. He watched, for a moment, a furious fly beating himself against the window, bewildered by what seemed to be the sudden solidification of the air. He pushed himself out of the chair with a certain amount of trouble and went over to the piano. He sat pulling at his fingers, cracking the knuckles, trying to press the stiffness and swellings out of the joints. His head nodded as the fingers pressed. There was no point in looking for music. He would have to play what was in his head. He could hear it there, played to a perfection that he could never reach, or have reached, even before his fingers became so tired. The bell rang, a great jumping clatter of sound. He could see in his mind's eye the tarnished bell jumping on the end of its spring. Number one, the left-hand bell of the long, numbered line, high up on the damp wall below. Number two was the drawing room, three, the dining room, four, this room, father's study. There were only two things father had rung his bell for—turf and his boots. He had always refused to burn coal in this room and from September to May each morning the ashes were raked through and a neat pyramid built in the hearth. He could remember the fascination of watching the dry turves catch and the timid first flames crawling up the inside of the structure.
The bell clattered again and, whoever the unexpected guest might be, he was banging now with the huge iron knocker. The old man got up slowly and crossed the room. Sometimes, now, in the evenings, if he moved too fast or incautiously, cramp knotted the muscles in his calves so inextricably that he had to sit, motionless, in his chair for up to half-an-hour. 'Coming, coming,' he muttered irritably in reply to the hammering. 'Coming.'
He opened the door and found a boy on the step. As far as the old man was concerned he could have been any age between a large seven and an under-nourished, under-privileged seventeen. Tight coiled springs of orange hair covered his head.
'No need to batter the door down.'
The eyes that peered up at him were honey-coloured, secretive. The face pale, already fatigued by living.
'Who might you be?'
The boy didn't answer. He pulled a white envelope out of his pocket and offered it.
'Hey?' Mr Prendergast ignored the letter. 'Can't you speak?'
The boy stared down at his black shoes, which looked as if they had been contorted into their particularly alarming shape by a hundred pairs of feet.
'For heaven's sake, boy, I'm not going to eat you! Hey? I don't often eat boys. Never Celts. They're stringy.' He looked down at the outstretched hand, the bitten nails, the envelope. 'I joke,' he muttered to the air.
It was almost dark and he knew that the last rays of the sun now painted the chimney stacks away above their heads. The air was sweet and moist.
'Look at me, hey, boy.' The boy looked up. 'You know my name?'The boy nodded. 'What is it, then? Let me hear you say it.'
'Mr Prendergast, sir.'
'Splendid. That's the first hurdle over. At least I know you're not a deaf mute. Now, tell me your name.'
'A splendid name.' The boy's mouth stretched slightly in a smile. 'An historical name. Tell me, Diarmid, what do you know about the Diarmids that have gone before? If anything, hey?'
'I don't know, sir.'
'You don't know what?'
'I don't suppose I know anything much.'
'That's honest, anyway. There's many a man goes to the grave without admitting as much.'
'I'm not too keen on school, like. I don't go much ... I mean ... you wouldn't let on?'
'I wouldn't. What do you do when you're not at school?'
For the first time the boy really smiled. 'I keep out of the way, sir.'
'A wise precaution.'
They both looked at each other, weighing up carefully what they saw.
'Come in,' ordered the old man. 'There's a rising mist.' He stood back and let the boy pass him. Then he closed the remaining light out. The hall was large and very dark now, like a cave. 'Straight across. I presume you have another name.'
Excerpted from The Captains and the Kings by Jennifer Johnston. Copyright © 1972 Jennifer Johnston. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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