My mother's parents being no longer alive, I went to stay with my paternal grandmother and my two aunts.
Leinster Road in the Rathmines suburbs. My grandmother's house set well back from the street, with a garden in front and another behind and eleven steps to the halldoor and a doorbell I could just reach, and pulled whenever I got the chance. My aunt Edith's room, which I shared for the duration of my mother's illness, was on the right as you came in. Opposite it, in the hall, stood a Louis XV console table, above which a large mirror of the same epoch tipped forward so that you could see the back of the black marble lady on the table at the same time as her front. This bust was a conventional family portrait, but the subject must have been a woman of character for, even in bust form, I was always conscious of her presence. My aunt's room was large and sunny. There were two gilt candlesticks in the form of winged dragons on the mantelpiece. That they had magic properties I never doubted. The idea was encouraged by my aunt, who intimated that clanging doorbells were liable to bring them to life—a thought that took the joy out of a diverting pastime.
I had another aunt too. Her name was Cecilia. She was a classical scholar and had university degrees before academic hoods, gowns and mortarboards had become the feminine mode. She spent hours every day in front of the fire in the dining-room, a rug over her knees, reading books in Greek and Latin, marking them and underlining them in blue pencil. Following her example, I underlined the text of any book I could lay hands on, frequently embellishing the margins with drawings of her.
My grandmother had widow's weeds and a big stomach—like Queen Victoria in the colored supplements of those days that were given away free with The Graphic, The Illustrated London News and The Queen. She looked rather like Victoria too, but her features were more regular and she had more hair. Her family name was Ryan and she came from Galway. She always said that her ancestors were kings of Western Ireland, now called Connaught, but there was nothing unusual in that. These lusty kings were probably the ancestors of everyone else in Connaught too. I was never quite sure whether she or the black marble lady, whose bosom stuck out—my grandmother stuck out lower down—impressed me the more.
The house on Leinster Road was very quiet. My grandmother disliked noise and light. The drawing-room blinds were kept drawn except on those occasions when visitors came to tea. When they were Galway relatives I was admitted and consigned to a stool behind the grand piano, a stool with a seat that was carved in high relief and left the impression of dolphins and fleur-de-lys on my behind. Seated on it, I would munch at a shortbread biscuit and stare silently at the portrait of an ancestor whose white wig time, varnish and bitumen had turned yellow—the work of Joshua Reynolds.
On one of his visits, my father brought me a large vividly colored cardboard figure of Richard Cœur-de-Lion. It became my dearest possession. Richard's sword and mail armor and the red cross on his shield fascinated me.
The same night my aunt Edith told me about the crusades. She had a book on them, illustrated by Gustave Doré.
"Auntie, why did Richard Cœur-de-Lion fight the Saracens?" I asked.
"For the tomb of our Saviour, darling."
"What did he want the tomb for, Auntie?"
"Now, darling, it's time to go to bed."
She laid aside her embroidery....
I dreamed that night about Richard, He was surrounded by knights and, just like a picture in the book, the Saracens were shooting arrows and rolling boulders of stone down on the crusaders from a great cliff. Richard was ordering everybody around and cutting off the heads of the nearest Saracens. He was riding a rockinghorse like the one in Doctor Forbes' studio, only this one was large as life. The crusaders, too, were all on rocking-horses and so was I, only mine was smaller: it was Doctor Forbes'. But the horses only rocked back and forth and could not get out of the range of the falling stones which were coming nearer all the time. I decided it would be safer on the ground after one of them struck and smashed the rockers of Doctor Forbes' horse....I woke up in the act of crawling out of bed.
"You were dreaming, dear."
My aunt was tucking me up again while I stammered an account of this adventure.
"Oh, no, Auntie, I had my eyes open and, you know, Richard Cœur-de-Lion looks like Red Paddy."
My aunt blew out the candle. But there was no more sleep for me that night.
Late the next afternoon while I was making mud pies at the pond in the back garden there was a loud knocking at the gate that was the tradesman's entrance. But the latch was too high for me to reach.
"Who are you?" I called.
"Richard," answered a deep voice.
My heart began to beat violently.
"Not—not Richard Cœur-de-Lion?" I faltered.
"Sure, there ain't but one Richard and that's meself," came the reply.
I did not wait to hear more.
My grandmother was in her armchair taking a nap, her reading glasses pushed up over her forehead and the Irish Times on her lap. With muddy hands I grabbed her by the arm and shook her violently, so violently that her glasses fell and struck the fire grate. But for such a trifling mishap I had no time now.
"Wake up, Granma, Richard Cœur-de-Lion is at the back gate!"
My grandmother just stared at the broken spectacles in the grate and at the mud on her sleeve, breathing heavily but not saying a word.
"Is this child completely out of his senses?" she managed to gasp as my aunt Edith came to the door. But I was already dragging my aunt off to the garden.
"Don't go away, Richard Cœur-de-Lion, Aunt Edie's coming!" I shouted, jumping up and down with excitement.
When my aunt opened the gate the driver of Findelater'styping error in original. Should read Findlater's delivery van was standing there with his arms full of groceries.
That evening I went to bed without supper, and more than a week went by before my grandmother addressed a word to me.
For reasons that I never understood very well, my grandmother and my aunt Cecilia disliked my mother. They were barely on speaking terms. But my aunt Edith's kindness to me during these months of slow recovery from the attack of typhoid fever that had come so near proving fatal to my mother impressed her deeply. She could not bring herself to visit the house on Leinster Road, but, instead, wrote a long letter to my aunt Edith.
"After the things they've said about me!—Not as long as I live will I enter that house again!" I remember her exclaiming.
At the end of her letter I marked a few crosses for kisses and drew a picture of Richard Cœur-de-Lion.
"You love your Aunt Edie?" she asked me. "Oh, yes," I said. "Lots."
"Not more than your mother?" she queried, wondering if these months of absence had made a change in me.
"Oh, no!" And then I was in her arms, hugging her very tightly. "Your hair is growing long again, Mumsy!"