Chapter One: The Boston Cat
“I am not fond of children,” said the Cat, more to himself than anyone else.
Fiona looked up, startled, into a large pair of sarcastic green eyes. The Cat sat nonchalantly on the bookshelf above her by the high window, looking down with that manner that cats have of making one feel small and rather in the way.
Fiona gathered herself, looked straight at the Cat, and replied, “I’m sorry to hear that. I think it’s a bit lonely here.”
Now it was the Cat’s turn to be startled. He lost his poise for an instant, almost tumbling backwards in his amazement, then remembered his dignity and pretended that he had merely been shifting in order to groom his tail the better. “Ah… er… yes. Yes, I can see what you mean. I certainly… can,” he finished lamely, making an enormous effort to appear unruffled.
Fiona smiled. She was used to this reaction. It felt good to smile, and even better to be amused. Life had not been very amusing of late, between the Great War, Mama’s illness, and her own hurried trip to Boston. She was just trying to get used to this enormous old house where she really knew no one, except for this Cat now, of course. That wasn’t exactly true, Fiona corrected herself. She had met the Mother Superior, Sister Raymond, at the train, and the housekeeper had stopped in a few times, with crackers and tea and a kind word. But with the other girls away home for Easter, the school was too quiet for comfort, and there was little to distract her from her worries.
The Cat coughed, if cats can be said to cough, reminding her of his presence. He seemed to have recovered his poise, and was looking at her expectantly.
“Is it children in general you dislike, or do you have someone in mind?” she asked politely, knowing it was bad manners to ask the Cat’s name.
“It is a general, and not usually a personal, dislike,” the Cat began, his tone a studied balance of courtesy and disdain. “It is that I find them to be loud and somewhat erratic in their movements. Others,” he continued more pointedly, “seem morose and self-absorbed.”
Fiona stood up, and made a pretty curtsey. “My name is Fiona Fifelski.”
The Cat desisted from its pretense of licking its tail and replied, “And mine is Leo the Thirteenth. I am… pleased to make your acquaintance.” It sounded like “pleased” was a bit of a stretch. The girl had been well brought up, however, and he did appreciate that she had made no attempt to stroke him, or worse, to pick him up.
“I’m not from Boston,” Fiona said, gesturing vaguely towards the tall, grandly arching window. “I come from Staten Island, in New York.”
“I am Boston-born and bred,” said the Cat proudly, lifting his chin. “In point of fact, St. Cunegunda’s has always been my home, and the home of my family for generations, though it only became a school in my father’s time.”
Leo the Twelfth, thought Fiona, but said, “It is lovely, and I am sure I’ll become used to it in time. It’s just that…” She left off, obviously hesitant to complain.
“It amazes me, personally, how much money people seem to be willing to spend to make their children quite miserable,” the Cat interrupted, with something that would have been like sympathy except for the scornful expression on his ginger face.
“It wasn’t like that at all!” Fiona quickly replied. “My parents didn’t send me here on purpose- that is to say, they aren’t paying anything…”
“Indeed?” said the Cat, lifting one haughty brow.
Fiona looked down, partly from confusion, and partly to hide the tears that sprang to her eyes. “My mother is sick.”
“That is unfortunate. And…” the Cat asked delicately, “…your father?”
“We aren’t sure where he is. I mean,” she hurried on, looking up again, “Mama and I know he’s overseas, fighting in the War. But we haven’t heard from him in so long now, and even when he did write, he wasn’t allowed to say exactly where he was, I suppose in case the Russians intercepted the letter.”
“I see. And so the Sisters have taken you in?” The Cat avoided the word charity.
“Yes.” Fiona sat down again and looked out the window, just noticing the early April sun beginning to break through the clouds. “My mother was sent to the City Hospital here in Boston. Our Father Fitzgerald raised the money so that she could see a special doctor who might be able to help her. I was supposed to stay behind, with another family from our building.”
Interested despite himself, the Cat found himself saying, “And?”
“I didn’t want to be so far from Mama, in case… just in case she needs me. I’m all she has, while Papa is away.”
“Admirable, admirable.” said the Cat. Feeling he had exerted himself socially quite enough for one morning, and needing some time to think over this disconcerting development, he stood up and stretched elaborately.
“I am afraid I must be going now,” he said.
Fiona rose from her seat again, knowing it was courteous to stand when someone was leaving. “It was very nice to have met you.”
The girl’s manners impressed the Cat, but he rarely displayed open enthusiasm about anything. “Enchanted,” he answered coolly, and retreated along the top of the bookcase. He dropped lightly to the floor, and was gone.
Fiona watched Leo’s ginger tail disappear through the open doorway, then smoothed her rumpled pinafore thoughtfully. It was high time she found something useful to do. All this sitting around was- what had the Cat said? Morose– and self-absorbed. “I’m sure there is something I can help with around the school,” she thought, and made her way into the hall.
Fiona realized that even though she had been at St. Cunegunda’s for several days, she really knew nothing about the grand old building in which she found herself. This became apparent as she wandered farther away from her room. So many silent passages, and grand empty rooms.
She passed down a wide, dim hallway, and stood for a moment at the entrance to a perfectly lovely room, large and lined on every wall with books upon books. “This must be the library,” she thought happily, though she knew exploration would have to wait for permission from the sisters. A whispering near her feet caught her ear, and she stood quite still to listen.
“Haven’t seen her before…”
“Haven’t you? She’s been here days and days!”
“Oh pipe down, Fidget, it’s been two days at the most- maybe three. Or four.”
“Well, who is she? Charity girl?”
It seemed that here, as at home, mice were not as tactful as cats. Fiona sighed to herself, and decided to put off introductions until they would be less embarrassing to the mice, who couldn’t have known that she understood every word. Not that they would mind terribly– flighty little things.
Fiona walked on, through the splendid foyer, and stopped to admire a beautiful statue of our Lady that stood in a little alcove to one side. She thought she heard a distant clanging, as of pots, and wondered if the kitchen were near.
Even as she stood there, the smell of fresh bread reached her. Fiona realized how hungry she actually was. Sister Raymond had commented on her lack of appetite only yesterday, and she knew the cook would be glad to see her. She decided to follow her nose toward the first breakfast she had wanted since she and Mama had left New York.