At three school broke up, and the boys ran shouting down the sloping yard which darkly reflected their bare legs. At the top of the steps they wrestled, trying to throw one another down, and the headmaster came out, shielding his bald pate with the palm of one hand and waving his cane with the other.
‘Boobies! Dolts! Nincompoops!’ he shouted at them in a rage. ‘You, Devane, come back here! Come back here, I say!’
Devane skeltered hastily down the steps, pretending not to hear.
‘Coming home, Devane?’ a boy shouted.
‘No,’ Devane said heavily, ‘I have a message to do in town.’
At the crossroads the land dropped steeply to the river; the church rose out of a deep hollow; the avenue corkscrewed about it, its narrow pathway slippery and shining with rain. It was so steep he could not pull himself up until he reached the bridge over the railway cutting. Then there were more steps to the main road which skirted the railway yards. He pulled his cap over his eyes, thrust his hands in the pockets of his topcoat and went on, whistling, making his nailed boots resound under the iron bridge. A tram ploughed by, shrieking and swaying, its top deck empty and rainswept; its wall of glass dim with the passengers’ breath, and it threw up a solid sheet of muddy water at either side as it passed.
The river came into view with the funnel of an old dredger. He crossed the road to the riverbank under the young trees. It left him more exposed to the rain which moved in procession down the valley of the river in tall solemn pillars of alternate brown and grey. The tide was high. On the further bank was an avenue of trees and a rustic bandstand which seemed to be all mossed over because of the strange subaqueous light. Behind him the city, flat on the brink of the river; spires, funnels, chimneys. At the other side of the road, behind the wall which skirted it, was the railway line with a terrace of coloured houses behind, and beyond that a great sandstone cliff which rose sheer from their backyards, its top crowned with villas, a purple light shining here and there upon its wet face.
Far down, beyond where the trams stopped, he crossed one of the railway bridges to a tall terrace of red-brown houses. He went up the steps, rang the bell; his mother appeared. She peered at him short-sightedly, head on one side, slightly bent.
‘Child!’ she cried, ‘you’re drenched!—drenched! Ah, what do you mean? Why didn’t you go home?’
‘You told me I could come down,’ he said in his surly voice, ‘that the family would be away.’
‘But not if ’twas like this. ... Esther,’ she shouted to the servant as she led him down the stairs to the warm kitchen, ‘look at this! Nice conduct! He’s drenched.’
‘You should have more sense,’ Esther said in her little tinny voice.
But he knew his mother knew why he hadn’t wanted to go home; it was because there was nothing there before him and little Gus was being kept by neighbours.
‘Come!’ his mother said in her rough way. ‘Take off your boots and stockings!’ She felt his coat and then scanned his face as though it were a book, and broke into a little gruff laugh. ‘Ah, you little devil! My, my, you’re drenched. Sit down there and let me take off your boots for you.’
‘I can take them off meself,’ he growled.
‘Shut up, sir!’ she shouted, and laughed again. ‘Show here to me.’
Feeling safe and important he sat toasting his feet while his mother laid the table under the barred oblong kitchen window, through which one could see only the feet of people coming to the door. Outside it was still raining and twilight mingled with the darkness of the rain like mud rising in a clear spring. The light, already grown perceptibly fainter, was concentrated on the bright dish-covers which hung from the whitewashed walls. It was good here by the black shining range with the red heart of the coal growing brighter and a gurgle of water in the shore outside. His mother, broad and ungainly, moved with a curious lack of certainty though with great vigour. Her face was courageous and good-humoured; her hair was plastered down on her temples; it was as though her senses were not keen, for she seemed to be always peering at things, or listening with head cocked, or feeling objects with stiff rheumaticky fingers, and sometimes when she spoke there were sudden coarse notes in her voice, sudden loudnesses as though thrown out unheard. Esther was a tiny little waspy bundle of a woman with unhealthy red crusty skin and sharp features, red worried eyes and a hard pecking voice. A bird, eyes and voice, and with that strange inhumanity of the bird; she wore an old-fashioned servant’s-cap on her little knot of greying hair. Devane was secretly contemptuous of her; he had heard his mother say that she would not last.
He had his dinner and they went about their work and left him. Beside him his overcoat and cap were drying on a clothes-horse; the kitchen gradually filled with the steam. He went upstairs to the dining-room, where Esther was working.
‘Can I go upstairs?’ he growled.
‘Are your boots dry?’ she asked, looking over her shoulder.
‘So long as you don’t dirty me carpets.’
‘I cleaned them well, Esther.’
‘You ought to have more sense,’ she ‘repeated. ‘ You might have caught your death of cold.’
He sat for a few moments on the stairs, talking to his mother, who was cleaning the stair-rods. Then he went up past her to the drawing-room. It was a tall room with two big windows, overlooking railway bridge and river-bank, and the height of it and the expanse of window-glass gave him the feeling he never had in houses like his own, that he was walking upon a platform, high up in the air, that it might collapse at any moment, and he walked timidly upon the carpeted floor and passed self-consciously before the window, so far back from it that he could see only a glare of dusky rainy sky let into the rich shadows of wall and ceiling. The fire was alight. A grand piano stood just inside the door. Timidly he struck a few notes and listened as they came back to him from the echoing house.
But he was restless and ascended another flight of stairs. On this landing there were two bedrooms. One was shadowed by the sandstone cliff, which on dark days like this made it seem blue and gloomy. It was the Master’s bedroom and the furniture was big and dark and pompous. The other bedroom, which, like the drawing-room, overlooked the river, took all the light. Again he had that feeling of walking upon a platform, and as he tiptoed over the green and white squares of the carpet it was strange to see the blank glare of the window revealing the avenue of dripping trees, the bandstand, the distant city. The windows had cream-coloured curtains; there was a low bed with a pale-green bedspread, a pink taffeta quilt and quilted cushion. On a small oak table beside it stood a china candlestick of a woman and child. A toilet table stood between the windows. He looked at himself in the triptych mirror, admiring the reflection of his own profile, which was that of a chubby boy of eleven with a dark serious face and heavy lips. He knew he was unprepossessing, dull and obstinate. ‘Ho, ho, ho,’ the headmaster would laugh, ‘he, he, he. It is our old friend, Master Devane.’ He swung Peter in circles about the floor, flogging him. ‘Little peasant,’ he would hiss, panting with exertion, ‘little ploughboy! These manoeuvres will not be tolerated here!’
There was a strange fragrance about the room, a brightness of colour, a sense of height. He rubbed powder on his cheek and rubbed it off again and sprayed his handkerchief with eau-de-Cologne. He knew that in the low wardrobe in whose mirror he could contemplate himself full length, there were dresses and dresses, all sideways upon their hangers; thick coarse tweeds and light evening frocks. He sighed with happiness.
On the dressing-table lay a binoculars case. He opened it, took out the glasses and went to the window. Instantly everything he looked at leaped to several times its own size; the sections of brown broken water; the dredger, the avenue with the rustic bandstand, deserted; the distant city, a spider’s web of spires and shafts and masts and funnels. The glasses gave everything a curious, sinister life; the isolated images of things expanded and trembled as though some spirit were breathing through them, but they were related to nothing; they seemed to exist through and for themselves and at night came up before the mind like pictures. A little boy was walking up the river-bank against the rain, head down, the peak of his cap almost flattened on his forehead. Enormous, he passed shakily before Peter’s eyes, between the old chipped benches whose seats glassily reflected the blue-green of the dripping leaves, before the wall of brown muddy water; not a little boy like anyone else, but a phenomenon which was vaguely disturbing, like his boots, which Peter could see were leaking, and his socks, which were torn at the heels.
Regretfully, he put away the glasses and continued his journey. Up a short and narrow stair where the carpet gave up and made way for linoleum were two attic rooms without windows. One was Esther’s bedroom with a plain iron bed, a white dressing-table without a mirror and a cheap reproduction of the Mother of Sorrows at the head of the bed. The attic light streamed weakly down on it. A poor place, without interest, he did not linger there. The other room was piled high with lumber. This was his real destination. With difficulty he pushed in the door, the wave of lumber sliding against it, and made a nook for himself on the boards under the skylight. There was a queer stuffy smell. The rain beat straight down with a sharp musical sound; he heard it flow in smooth waves over the roof and the sound of the trees in the quarry behind the house, and from somewhere very far below him the noises of the house; his mother raking the range and shutting off the damper. But these noises were remote and minute, and otherwise the silence was profound, deepened by the sense of isolation, of height and forgottenness, windowless walls. He might have been a magician in a tower or a merman in an enchanted cave deep under the sea. It was cold here but he did not feel it; the damp smell of the heaped-up junk was heavy and tickled his throat, but it only added to his sense of isolation.
A bell rang suddenly through the house; a long, jangling sound that began far away below with a stony echo and flowed up the stairs towards him. It made him drop the book he was looking at and scurry down the linoleumed stairs in panic. His mother looked up and saw him, peering over the banisters.
‘’Tis only the groceries,’ she shouted, with a wave of her hand.
Slowly he went back to the attic. It was cold. The light was already much dimmer. He took up a small book, bound in limp red cloth: a French conversation manual. He heard a train thunder by before the house, the sandstone cliff re-echoing it overhead. He was too late to see it swishing by in the cutting under the house, all lit up in the dusk, between the grim walls, under the grey mirror of the river. Now he seemed more than ever lost, like a bird on a high tree, and when the sound of the wind made the timbers creak it seemed to him that the tree was rocking in the storm. It was hard to get back to his old absorption. The emptiness and silence below filled him with fear. He started when he heard the sound of voices, but it was only his mother and Esther.
‘At what hour does the boat leave?’ he read.
‘The boat leaves at nine-thirty.’
Le bateau part. He saw it as in the pictures in the guide-book; a wide lake and a white paddle steamer and the water calm, reflecting the snow on the mountains. He was taking a ticket, enquiring for baggage, seeking out the restaurant, admiring the scenery. The words in their foreign dress seemed to bring it all to life. It was as though one had only to know them to be able to make all the rest come true. They were strange and difficult, like magic words. In a little while now his mother’s day would be over. They would go home together, along the river, he holding her arm under the shawl with its warm wet smell, and when they passed the church on the hill the windows would be lit up and an organ playing in the wet dusk, and a tram-car standing on top of the hill; and he would go out for Gus while she lit the fire and unpacked the dainties Esther had given her, and life would begin again. But the unfamiliar words called the boy’s soul out of himself, carried him across sea and land where it was always bright and the boat waited at the lakeside, and he must learn to command it.
The bell rang again, more peremptorily. With beating heart he leaned over the polished banisters. Esther had answered the door herself. She was talking to someone. The well of the stairs was almost dark but for the glow of the drawing-room fire on the landing table, on the banisters. It was some time before he could recognise that it was the bread-man and then it was the smell of hot bread that floated up the stairs that made him conjure up the small man with the large moustaches and the heavy oil-cloths. Still conscious of danger, he lingered waiting for the door to close. It seemed a long time, and it brought in not only the smell of bread but the sense of the mysterious twilight, the glare of its darkness, the drip, drip of it. When the door banged he went into the bedroom and gloomily watched the glistening figure climb the dark box on which the little coloured lamp flickered and drive off along the darkening river-bank. The railway bridge stood out in silhouette against the grey of the river. Le bateau part. It was a wearisome task to memorise all the words in the little red book, but when he repeated a phrase like this from it, its magic flowed up in him through the darkness. He said good-bye to the bedroom, where already the dressing-table stood out against the grey window-panes and the woman and child of the candlestick were the only thing clearly distinguishable in the black and grey of the tall room, carpeted and perfumed. He lingered on the landing to see the firelight flicker over the decorations on the ceiling of the drawing-room, and outline warmly from below the dark shapes of chairs and sofa and piano which had drawn the dusk about them and no longer seemed to be poised upon a platform which was open on the river; and as he passed he let his fingers float idly over the smooth mahogany of the hall table with its copper tray. Then the uncarpeted stairs and the sharp shock of gaslight, hissing and green in the whitewashed hall-way outside the kitchen, and the warmth and the smells that poured out and enveloped him, making him feel cold and stiff and hungry. They thawed his body and mind. He wanted food, lots of food and hot tea and the glare and fumes of the range. Esther lit the gas over the big centre table which was laid for tea, and he sat between her and his mother, listening to the wind and the gurgle of the rain in the shore.
‘But you wouldn’t think me too old?’ Esther was saying irritably. Tiny face, tiny features, thin hair drawn up on to the top of her head, her nose peaked, her ears pointed, her eyes sore.
‘And, my goodness, isn’t that a matter for him?’ his mother gasped. She had queer masculine poses; sitting back in her chair with her teacup in her hand.
‘But couldn’t you advise me?’
‘What a thing I’d do!’
‘Of course, a man like him, an experienced man, a bread-van driver, would know what he was doing. All the more when he was married before. As he says, the young whippets now are no good to any man. They can’t wash nor cook nor manage a house. And who’d know his own mind better than a bread-van driver? And still, I don’t know. Oh, my! I thought you would advise me.’
‘ And whatever I tell you, you will blame me,’ his mother said emphatically, leaning forward and shaking her head as though she were worrying something between her jaws.
‘You will. My goodness, don’t I know it?’
‘Ah, yes, Ellen,’ Esther said, with a knowing look, ‘but you were foolish. With your looks and your education you should have done better for yourself.’
‘ Ach, all men are grand till you have to live with them,’ his mother said, pushing about a spoon on the table, leaning very far forward, her eyes screwed up, speaking in a low voice with eloquent pauses. ‘They are grand till the first night they come in staggering drunk to you, till you have to go pulling and hauling for them, day in, day out, to the pawn, and your little home going from over your head.’
‘He doesn’t drink. That was the first thing I asked him, and he said no.’
‘Ah, if it isn’t one thing ’tis another,’ his mother said, with one of her wild gestures. ‘My goodness, I tell you, bad as I am, out like this, I’m blessed, compared with the best day ever I was married to John Devane. Blessed! But if the fancy takes you——’
‘Oh, ’tisn’t fancy,’ Esther said in her prim way. ‘I’m beyond that, I hope. But I made mistakes too, Ellen. ’Tisn’t everyone would stop here as long as I did for the miserable twelve pounds a year. If ’twasn’t for knowing Miss Millie a child I’d never have done it either, only cut my hook like any of the others and off with me to England or America. And look what I get for it! Because I’m not well, because I have this little trouble, ’tis “Esther, why didn’t you do this?” or “Esther, why didn’t you do that?” And one’d think, to hear them talking, I wasn’t going to get over it. Never a word about when I come out of hospital! Another family would ask you to come here for the ten days or the fortnight or whatever little time ’twould be, and you knowing the place, but no! Not a word of it! They’ll bring in one of those whipsters on top of me, and I’ll have to show her everything and take impudence from her like I had to do before. Ah, but let them wait! Let them wait, I say. When I do come out and have my strength back I won’t waste it again the way I did, or if I do ’twill be for someone that will show me a bit of gratitude in my old age.’
‘Ah, if ’tis gratitude you’re expecting from a man—!’ his mother said impatiently.
‘I wish I lived a different life,’ Esther said moodily.
‘Ah, we all wish that.’
‘I wake up in the middle of the night in that little attic and I think of the way it went from me. My God, I’m nearly an old woman and what have I?’
‘Life was given us to be taken away again,’ his mother sniffed. ‘What is it for, only to waste it? And what have any of us in the latter end?’ She blinked her eyes and laughed and drew figures with the spoon all at the same time. ‘What have we?’
‘You have your son, anyway,’ Esther said, with a hard look at Peter.
‘I have, thank God. I won’t deny it. The two of them, I don’t know what I’d do without them, the ruffians! ... Aha, and you know it,’ she laughed, poking Peter in the ribs. ‘You do, you ruffian, you know it.’
Her face was all alight and mawkish like a girl’s, and Peter thought with joy that soon they would be going home through the wet streets, he taking shelter under her shawl, carefully pacing to her uncertain tread and watching the pavements from under a fold of it; the pavements and the shadowy legs going by, and the coloured lights of the church window reflected in the wet, and the organ, and the clanging of the tram bell where high against the sky somebody would sit on the back of a seat, with his back to the direction of the tram and an umbrella opened over his shoulder. He smiled at her. It was their secret. The rain continued to gurgle in the channel outside. Suddenly a siren sang out over the river.
‘It’s the boat,’ his mother said excitedly. ‘Run, child, run!’
But he was already at the door. Up the dark stairs to the drawing-room. He rushed to the window, his nose to the cold glass, sending a little cascade of water down the pane. In the darkness, high over the flooded river as though ready to sweep across its banks, a lighted steamer was floating downstream with a subdued throb of engines; great billowing masses of smoke trailing behind her. Beneath him he saw the shining portholes, the lighted doorway of the saloon, the silhouettes of passengers leaning over the stern and watching the black and white of broken water or the last glimpse of the city, cobwebby in a brown afterglow over which the great lintel of night had fallen. The sky to the west had cleared; here the rain still fell softly, and then more softly, throbbing; it was dark, and above the shining puddles and between the theatrical green of the young trees, holding up their wet branches in the light, the street lamps stood up lonely, besieged by night and wind. He squeezed his hands together in ecstasy.
When dusk fell they were sitting at the cross on the wall, facing the tram stop. The wall was immensely high on the side that overlooked the church and the avenue that wound behind it; you were almost as high as the tops of the trees that grew out over the wall in the avenue, and John Joe, who was a little timid of great heights, sat embracing the trunk of the telegraph pole. Every five or ten minutes a tram came shrieking up the steep hill from town, rocking as the passengers alighted, and becoming a dark shell, a faint silhouette, as the ancient conductor altered the direction of the ancient trolley. Then it sprang to light again and behind it you saw the opposite pavement and an old pump with two bowler-hatted figures standing beside it, waiting for the tram bell to ring. As a background to them there rose up a wall with dark gateways masked by overhanging boughs, that led to a little group of coloured houses which overlooked the city. Two little boys who had been collecting tram tickets came up, and one of the men opened his packet of cigarettes and handed them a card.
As twilight deepened the cross was broken up by dark interspaces into groups of lights and buildings like constellations, each burning more and more brightly within its own sphere until the tram-cars ceased to be crystal and their lights took on a murky yellow tinge. The biggest and brightest constellation was at the centre of the cross, where there stood an octagonal tollhouse with a high pointed roof, a lamp that lit two sides of it, a tall red fire-escape in a crib of posts and chains and a horse-trough. As the two boys watched, a cart driving uphill paused by the trough and a green light was turned to them and they heard the loud sudden whirr of the exhausted horse’s breath on the still night air.
On the pavement beyond it was a row of shops, and in the deepening twilight shadows passed before the lighted windows of the public-houses, the tobacconist’s, the grocer’s, the chemist’s, where the coloured carboys glowed with rich colour as though upon an altar. At one end of the block the westering sky opened, a grey green, on the edge of a hill leading into town, and there the gables of the houses began to sink below the horizon; at the other end were the dim shapes of an outside car and covered car, and two dark figures standing by the wall who broke out with an occasional ‘hup’ to the drooping hacks. The drift from town was ceasing; soon the last bowler-hatted figure would pass up with his evening paper under his arm, and already the drift back into town had begun. The tram bell rang, the two bowler hats mounted the top deck and politely disputed in silhouette as to which should sit inside; two scarlet-coated soldiers came and sat on the wall beside the boys, and a bearded, spectacled man went by, leaving behind him an intoxicating whiff of cigar smoke.
Gus Devane had a pinched and crabbed face, too old and grey for his years, and a curious husky voice, almost masculine in its timbre. And where Nature had failed to provide him with the appearance of age he had created it artificially by grownup gestures and manner, spitting through his teeth or thrusting out his jaw with an air that suggested crudity and brutality. He was slight and quick of limb, alert beyond his years, but very shabbily dressed. The coat had belonged several years before to his elder brother, and before that to a boy in a house where his mother worked; his boots, as he kicked them nervously against the wall, were in shreds.
John Joe Lyons was dressed neatly in a heavy blue serge. He was much bigger than Gus, with a round, soft, pink face, flaxen hair almost silver, and wild, blue, dazzling eyes as though he had a block of ice inside his head. He was quarrelsome, loud-voiced and restless; talked in a soft lisping way as though he had a sweet on his tongue; his soft spongy mouth was permanently agape and his speech broken by little bursts of laughter which rose to the surface like air-bubbles. John Joe had always been a bit wild, even before he had met Gus. His father was a soldier; a tall, malevolent, sneering man who gave John Joe ferocious beatings that were as brutal as they were useless, for the more he was beaten the wilder he became. The ugly house was badly kept by his sister, a tall, plump, fair-haired girl who might have been beautiful if only she could have got rid of the expression of dull hopelessness and melancholy she wore. Her mother had died when John Joe was little more than a baby; the strain of housekeeping had fallen on her too soon and crushed her, so that the house remained exactly as it had been when her mother died, only dustier, more decrepit, and the authority she should have asserted over her father and brother was missing at moments of crisis, and she was still nothing but a helpless, frightened little girl of twelve. Swinging his heavy belt, her father used to drag John Joe into the yard to beat him; before ever he was touched the boy’s shrieks would re-echo all over the terrace, for persistent beatings had robbed him of all restraint; his sister would walk up and down the kitchen shutting her ears or wringing her hands, or suddenly opening the back-door with a timid ‘What’ll the neighbours think of us?’ When her father had done with her, John Joe bullied her as well. He was for ever mitching. A few times she had to bring him to school, over the hill, and he kicked and shrieked, threw himself on the pavement and wound himself about lamp-posts. Sometimes when he mitched, he made her write notes for him to say he was ill or wanted at home. She was in perpetual fear lest her father might discover this deception, but John Joe gave her no rest until she did it. He shouted at her that he would drown himself or run away and join the navy; he kicked things about the floor and shrieked at her in complete abandonment. ‘When I’m dead I’ll haunt you,’ he threatened, shaking his clenched fist at her. ‘I’ll curse you whatever you do or wherever you go. ’Tis you that drove me to it, you bitch you!’ At last, in despair, she would clutch her head and sob bitterly, and then he was all over her with his two soft clumsy hands, his heavy lip hanging, tears pouring from his brilliant blue eyes as he chanted in a soft, monotonous voice, ‘No, no, no, no, no, Cis. Sure, you don’t mind me. Sure, you know I don’t mean it. I wouldn’t do anything, Cis. There’s no one at all I care for, only you.
John Joe was honest when he said he couldn’t help it. At nine o’clock, going to school past the barrack gate, down the hill to the brewery, the thing became a fever to him. There was a wide view from the top of the hill; a whole hillside with its spires and roads and terraces of houses, and it was like a vision of the kingdoms of the earth, a second temptation. He felt a positive horror at the thought of being locked up for long hours on end in a stuffy schoolroom, watching through the high windows at either side of the statue of the Blessed Virgin the white clouds sail by—not even a glimpse of roadway to delight the eye, hearing somewhere in the distance the shriek of a train or roll of a cart, around him along the glass partitions the rows of exercises, the bowed heads, the rhythmical chant of lessons from the room above—it made him almost hysterical with fear and misery. And there above him was the blessed sky, blessed colours, blessed sounds about him. He wondered if a fellow could turn into a seagull or something as they did in story-books. That would piece them all out!
But it wasn’t until he met Gus Devane that he really broke loose. Gus was a tull, a laney boy; a charwoman’s son: he had no right to be with a respectable fellow like John Joe at all; sometimes, in his emotional way, John Joe was overwhelmed by a feeling of intense admiration for his own superiority to convention; it made him feel like a hero on the pictures. For some queer reason the urchin had attached himself to their gang; often John Joe himself had mocked and beaten him, but there was something queer about him. He never refused a challenge; with a sort of desperate courage he threw himself into the millpond with them though he couldn’t swim a stroke; he stood up to the whole lot of them; a sobbing, blaspheming, unwashed, raging little dynamo of a lane boy with his tight lips and husky voice. ‘Never give in’ seemed to be his motto, and one day he and John Joe had met while mitching, and they had become friends. Even then, he wouldn’t give John Joe best in anything, and carried about a boy’s paper which he chewed lumps off, and pretended to read. He could not read; he was an incorrigible truant and had no difficulty in winding his mother about his fingers.
Sometimes they spent their whole day down the factory glen. There was a cinder patch where they played hurley and football, and in a corner, a rifle-range where the English soldiers practised ; their rifles in the air they came slithering down the high sandy cliff from the drill field; and when the two boys had wearied of the soldiers they would continue downhill to the millpond which lay stretched out with its whistling reeds to the foot of a furzy hill —a lone swim. Beside it was the engineer’s house, a lonesome place built out among the reeds, and the millstream continued its way through a wooded glen till it plunged over a dam and was lost for a little space in the earth. This in summer, but on a winter’s day the need for exercise took them farther, over the hills and across the ferry to the other side of the river, where they could spend their whole day among the ships and sailors and stores. It was heaven here; in ecstasy like one of the great seagulls that cruised up-river against the wind with half-shut eyes, they heard the clank of the rudder-chain and snapping of the tethered wheel where the wind dragged its shawl of brown shadow over the river; they lingered inside the doorway of the stores, feasting their eyes on the cool dim brown and grey lights, shot through with dusty rays from the roof, among the drums of emulsified eucalyptus and carbide, the barrels, bags, sheets of plate-glass, listening to the cooing of the pigeons in the roof, smelling the slightly sour smell, so still they were rarely noticed, until with shrill whoops to scare the pigeons they dashed out on to the bright quays, dust-laden, thunderous with intolerable noise. Up the valley of the city in the other direction they had made friends with an old poacher, a tall, gloomy man who kept a canoe tied up under the arch of a deserted bridge.But after all these experiences it became impossible to control John Joe, and only for the reflection it would be on his father, he would have been put in a school; in the classroom it would rise up before him, the river with the ships and the battering lorries upon the cobbles, the deep shadowy glen and the swim over the big pond to the opposite hillside, and almost drive him mad, until he shrieked at the monks, his pale-blue eyes glaring, his mouth dribbling, his flaxen head tossing uncontrollably. It was the same in the evenings. His sister went out and locked him in, but no sooner was she gone than the mere presence of things began to alter, to grow hateful. He went into the backyard and looked up at the stars beyond the high wall, hearing the distant noise of a tram. Once he climbed the wall, and scrambled along it on hands and knees in the darkness, looking down into kitchen scene after kitchen scene framed in night-black caverns of yard, and which, unlike his own home, seemed to him tranquil, peaceful, delightful. Where a door was open he talked down to them reassuringly, gurgling with laughter, and the women came out to the back-doors, amused and angry at the same time, for they all liked John Joe. ‘Sure, the poor child is no more than half an eejit,’ they said, and they sent greetings after the game little figure silhouetted against the sky.
As the two boys watched, three little girls strolled round the corner and stood behind the pump, looking across at them. They began to giggle and behave self-consciously; turned their backs on the boys, while the eldest, placing her arms about the shoulders of the other two, whispered into their ears. John Joe, putting his hands behind him, began to lift himself quietly off the wall.
‘For God’s sake, let them alone,’ Gus said, without moving his lips, in the manner of the old poacher.
‘Ah, no, hold on a minute,’ John Joe said in his soft gurgle, his unblinking blue eyes fixed on the trio. ‘See what they want.’
‘I know what they want all right,’ Gus said, and spat out of the side of his mouth.
Just then a tram rolled in and stopped. The three little girls began to parade about it, looking up with affected interest before they suddenly turned all together and pretended astonishment at the sight of the two boys.
‘Oh, Law!’ the eldest said. ‘’Tis Gus Devane.’
‘Go away ou’ that, ye bloody bitches!’ Gus said between his teeth.
‘We will if we like,’ the eldest bawled. ‘You don’t own the cross.’
‘Go on now,’ he snarled, ‘or I’ll make ye.’
‘You wouldn’t be able to make us, Gus Devane — nor your old one either.’
‘Go on now, go on,’ shouted John Joe, shocked at this lack of respect, and delighted at the excuse for retaliating.
‘Oh, listen to this fellow! All because his old fellow is a soldier!’
He jumped off the wall and ran a few steps; they ran too, and when he stopped, they stopped and jeered. He ran again, and again they were off with shrill shrieks; and then suddenly, swinging unexpectedly around the tram, he was on top of them and they fled with a vengeance. They led him a brief chase about the pump and disappeared inside an old gateway by the corner, a flutter of dresses and skinny legs. From the trees of the avenue the shrieks still continued, now here, now there, and John Joe’s bull roar. With an expression of disgust Gus slowly got off the wall, went up to the two soldiers and asked for a match in a low, distant, husky voice. ‘Chaps’ he called them, and they gave him three matches and watched him in amusement as he went back to his old place. He took out seven butt-ends of cigarettes and went through them carefully. He chose the best; a long white butt picked up outside the chapel still lighting; a real expensive fag, and he lit it with a reflective air, crossing his legs and raising his eyebrows almost into his forehead as with head thrown back he lightly flicked the match across the cigarette. A few minutes later John Joe came rolling back, his big face bright red under the silver hair, his long arms dangling. He looked round him, back at the dark, tree-shadowed lane, gurgling with laughter.
‘Ah, Gus, Gus,’ he said, dribbling, the laughter rising in him, his hand outstretched for Gus’s thigh, ‘I gave them a grand hunt. I did! I caught Pidgie Leary—oh, man!’
He smacked his soft lips with a sensuous sound. Gus, without replying, handed him a butt, and John Joe, watching to make sure that no one was looking, bent down to light it from Gus’s cigarette, casually outheld. He kept the butt well shadowed by his palm and inhaled furtively. Two of the little girls appeared at the end of the avenue and yelled joyously.
‘For Christ’s sake!’ Gus growled at him.
‘Just the young one,’ John Joe said softly between his teeth.
‘You’ll get yourself into trouble.’
‘ Ah, what trouble?’
‘You’ll soon see what trouble. I know them.’
‘Ah, ’tis only for a bit of gas.’
‘You’ll get a dose one of these days,’ Gus said angrily, and John Joe tossed his big beautiful head with a deprecating air, his lower lip drooping mournfully, and when pigtail appeared again he raised his elbow and shouted scornfully, ‘Go home ou’ that and ask them to pin up your drawers.’
‘Don’t answer them back, man,’ Gus said, ‘then they’ll leave you alone.’
Their shrieks continued, now from one quarter of the cross, now from another; with, every now and again, a scamper of feet that made John Joe start and smile weakly, while the stars grew brighter over the city, silver spangles hung from the dark branches. ‘Then all were silent, and a little later a tall slender figure came at a moment when the tram was missing and stood at the corner. John Joe touched Gus, whose eyes were fixed intently on her.
‘That’s Maura, isn’t it, Gus?’
‘No,’ Gus replied in a cold voice, half swallowed. ‘I don’t think ’tis her. I think ’tis Eileen.’
‘But where’s Maura?’
‘Probably at the shop.’
The girl was looking in another direction entirely, as though she did not see them; then she turned and walked slowly down towards the pump as though she were only waiting for the tram, which a moment later came up and revealed her face. She was tall, very tall, almost drooping, with a long golden pigtail, and a wide soft hat of dark-blue prickly material, and a long heavy blue coat which did not conceal the delicate line of the overgrown adolescent figure—obviously an expensive stuff. Her face too was long and delicate and pale, and Gus, who knew that face so well, knew that, like her sister’s, it was all freckled as though scattered with gold dust. It was Eileen Lacey, one of two sisters that lived in the big new terrace overlooking the cross; a terrace of tall houses with great bay windows built high above the road, and battlemented with walls and lamplit steps.
Very slowly, and with sideway glances to express his indifference, John Joe crossed the road to the pump. The tall girl turned round and affected to be surprised to see him; Gus saw it all in the light thrown down on them by the tram; the pump, the two figures against a tall gateway overhung with ivy; John Joe with head back and mouth gaping, his hand in his trousers pocket; Eileen’s slightly weary gestures and long frail hands. They talked for a little while. John Joe seemed to be growing angrier and angrier. He bent forward, tossing his head, while she shrugged her shoulders and turned away. He pressed her, shaking his clenched fist, while she turned this way and that. At last she opened her handbag, gave him a letter and went off hastily. John Joe crossed the road again, scowling and looking after her. Gus’s heart sank. John Joe gaped at him, all laughter, still staring at the corner behind which she had disappeared.
He thrust into Gus’s hand a sheet of pale-blue notepaper with a printed address. When Gus raised it to his eyes he smelt its perfume like a sudden magic in the night. He spelled it out letter by letter and syllable by syllable, and the words had the same triumphant detachment of sense and feeling as the perfume, and produced just the same slight feeling of giddiness as though he were about to tumble backwards over the wall.
‘Dear John Joe,’ he read, ‘I cannot go out tonight. At any rate I suppose you will not expect me. Today again you were seen with another girl, and it is all over the school that you have a new girl every day, and that some of them have letters they got from you. I suppose there must be some truth in what they all say, and if so, you would do better to go with the other girls, for I am not the sort to change from one day to another. I suppose I made a mistake, for from the first day I saw you I felt I could never care for anyone else after, and you made me think that you felt the same. However, there is no harm done, and this is just to say good-bye, as we are not likely to meet again, as I suppose you will not change on account of me or anything I can say.— Your old friend, Maura. P.S.—You can give your reply to Eileen or else leave it in the usual place and I will get it before I go to bed.’
‘Huh,’ John Joe exclaimed, dribbling, as he leaned with his two arms over the wall, looking down the branchy avenue to where the engines shunted past. ‘That’s a good one, hah?’
‘I think she’s right,’ Gus said between his teeth.
‘Huh!’ John Joe gasped, and to Gus’s fierce eye he seemed almost silly. ‘Are you codding?’
‘I’m not codding,’ Gus snarled, leaning over to him. ‘’Tis true, what she says. I saw you.’
‘There — with them.’
‘But I was only hunting them.’
‘I know what you were doing,’ Gus scowled, his fists clenched, the letter in his hand. He spat behind him over the wall. ‘I know them.’
‘But, but, but,’ John Joe said incoherently, standing before Gus with his hand in his pocket and his head thrust out, ‘do you think I’ll let her tell me who I’m to go with? Huh! Let her tell me—? Give us that letter! Give us it here!’
Biting his lower lip, John Joe dipped his hand deep inside his coat and produced a tiny stub of pencil and licked it fiercely.
‘What do you want it for?’ Gus asked, putting it behind his back.
‘I want to write a reply to it.’
‘What are you going to say?’
‘Say? I’m going to tell her mind her own business.’
‘You’ll see will I! Give me that now.’
‘You couldn’t,’ Gus said, still between his teeth, the letter held behind his back. ‘Dolls — you can’t say things like that to them.’
‘Oh, can’t you?’ John Joe shouted with his giggle and icy lidless stare. He peeled up the sleeve of his blue coat and in the pose of the strong man at the circus gripped the muscle of his fat powerful arm as he strode up and down. He was showing off now. ‘Huh, think I’d let any old doll write letters like that to me. I’ll tell her more than that too. I’ll tell her worse. Do you know what Ill tell her? Do you? Do you?’
His blue eyes were screwed up close to Gus’s, his whole face shaking with fun.
‘You won’t, John Joe! Christ, you won’t.’
‘I will, I will, I will,’ John Joe shouted back triumphantly, waving his clenched fist.
‘But then she won’t come and see you any more.’
‘She will,’ John Joe yelled, tearing the lapels of his own coat as he thrust his brilliant face forward.
‘She won’t. She’ll never speak to you again.’
‘Won’t she? Won’t she? Won’t she?’ John Joe dribbled. ‘Are you sure of that, are you? Will you have a bet on it, will you? What’ll you bet? That I’ll say anything at all you like in that, anything you say yourself; I’ll say it, you can see me writing it, and I’ll tell her to be here at the cross tomorrow night and she’ll be here.’ Fiercely he raised his hand, his finger pointing down at the spot where he stood, ‘What’ll you bet?’
‘I’ll bet you a puck in the jaw in two minutes,’ Gus snarled, leaping off the wall and squaring up to him.
‘You would,’ sneered John Joe.
‘I would. I’ll bloody well throw you over the bloody wall, what’s more, if I have any more of your lip.’
John Joe gaped at him, bewildered and troubled, his lower lip drooping. He was the heavier of the two and had beaten Gus before, but that was long ago.
‘I’m not afraid of you.’
‘Come on up here and fight then.’
‘What do you want to fight for?’ John Joe asked. ‘I didn’t do anything to you, did I?’
‘What do you want sending that letter for so?’ Gus asked.
‘I won’t send it if you don’t want me to, if that’s all you want.’
‘All right,’ Gus said in a low voice and raised himself on the wall again, his pointed face darker and more vicious than before. It was as though a light had gone out in John Joe. He leaned against the wall beside Gus with fat folded arms, legs crossed, and spat into the roadway, a powerfully built boy with the pale soft clumsy build of a bear. ‘But, mind you, that’s what girls like. You think girls like fellows to be quiet but they don’t. A fellow like Willie Humphreys now, a girl like Maura wouldn’t look at him. They like wild fellows like me, and the wilder they are the better they like them.’ He shook his pale head sorrowfully, his blue eyes piercing up through the dark at Gus. ‘That’s a fact, Gus. Honest to God, cut me throat, and I’m not shaping. All they want is a bit of gas.’
‘That’s not what she wants,’ Gus said.
‘’Tis, I tell you.’
‘No. She’s different to the rest of them. You don’t know how lucky you are. She’d stick to you. If you weren’t nice to a girl like that you never know what she’d do.’
‘She’d get another fellow,’ John Joe said hopelessly, shaking his head, and his whole folded body following it. ‘Jay, is she your doll or mine? Don’t I know her?’
‘No, you don’t,’ Gus said shortly. ‘A girl like that—she might go to be a nun.’
John Joe laughed wearily, shaking his head almost as though he were weary of negation.‘A nun? That’s all you know. No, Gus. You don’t know dolls like I do. You think because her father’s a sea-captain that she’s different. She isn’t. She’s like any other doll, and dolls aren’t like fellows. The best of them isn’t as good as a fellow. I’d never care about any doll the way I’d care about a fellow, the way I care about you.’ He turned again and leaned his elbows on the wall, with one big soft clumsy hand on Gus’s thigh. Even in the darkness Gus knew that the big blue eyes would be clouding with emotion. He was cold and sat, stiff and unrelaxed, upon the wall.
‘Would you be sorry if I went away, Gus?’ John Joe asked, his voice thick with tears.
‘Of course I’d be sorry,’ Gus said sharply.
‘Because, do you know, there were never only two people that I was real fond of,’ John Joe went on mournfully —‘Cis and you. That’s God’s truth. I’d go away in the morning only for Cis and you, do you know that? Gus, would you come?’
‘In the navy or something.’ John Joe crept closer. ‘I’d like to go somewhere very far away; South America or something, where I’d never see me bloody old fellow again. Would you come, Gus? We’d have a fine time, the two of ourselves, going everywhere we liked with no one to stop us; working our passage from one place to another.’
Gus bent forward with legs spread wide, and with tongue and teeth squirted out a spit on to the pavement. A cold wind sprang up and he shivered in his ragged clothes. John Joe gazed up at him, weeping quietly. Overhead the sky was crusted and gemmed with stars, and from all the shadowy shapes about them crept out the sadness of reality and its fear. Love, death, parting, loneliness.
‘No,’ he said in his sharp way, ‘I don’t think I’d ever like to leave this place.’
John Joe shook his head, and slowly his hand crept away, while in silence, with a deep sense of guilt, Gus pocketed the letter. Yet, in the cold night air, its perfume lingered like a nimbus about him.
When twilight fell on the avenue there was but one place Stevie wanted to go, if only he could go there unperceived. On the road below was the house of ‘The Beautiful Miss Maddens’—that was what they were called. But his father couldn’t stand them. He would not remain at the door while they were out, and after dark when the whole house was lit up he would stand by the gate and glower at it. Glower, that was the word.
‘Them ones,’ he would say indignantly, ‘they should be run out of the place. Streels!’
His mother did not like them either, though she nodded and smiled to them when they met. ‘They were two sisters, Annie and Nellie. There had been a third but she had married a drunken carpenter. ‘The others did well for themselves and married soldiers, both of whom had been killed in war. Nellie had one child, a daughter; Annie had none; so, pooling their income, they had taken a large house on the road, a big house with a flagged hall-way and wide staircase, and a gay front of pink-washed plaster. At evening when the whole front of the old house became full of wavy shadows, Stevie would see them outside, Nellie leaning against the jamb of the door, her black hair smoothed down on her temples; a beautiful woman, small and dainty. Her head was usually bowed, while with her eyes only she followed whoever went by and in a discreet voice commented upon it all to Annie. How often Stevie had admired her, with her half-shut eyes that were by way of not seeing and half-shut lips that were by way of not speaking; only the shadow of laugh or frown fluttering across them. But it was Annie he really loved. She liked him too, and sometimes when there was no one looking she threw her arms about him and gave him a hug.
She was tall and thin with a long brilliant face, high cheek-bones, narrow, twitching nostrils and curious eyelids that seemed to fall dead over her eyes. She had a passion for jewellery; cheap jewellery, noisy bangles, bracelets and ear-rings; and with her jet-black hair and eyes she looked pure Spaniard. It was not in her to keep quiet, at least not for more than a few moments. There she stood, stepping lightly from foot to foot or battering out a few steps of a dance until one felt that at any moment she would rush in for shawl and castanets.
Stevie went there by way of playing with Eileen whom he hated. She had been thoroughly spoiled by the strange atmosphere of the house; full of old nonsense about girls and fellows and courting that went above Stevie’s head yet troubled him and made him feel a fool. She had an old doll and a Teddy Bear, and even these she didn’t stop making matches for; she pretended Hanna Maria—that was the doll—was marrying Teddy without her consent, and that Teddy Bear was a nobody, an outsider without a penny to his name. ‘Well, who is he anyway?’ she would exclaim in her old-fashioned way. ‘Does anyone know who he is or where he comes from? I don’t, and if anyone should know, I should. However, as I tell her, ’tis her own look-out. She’s marrying with her eyes open.’
Even Annie pretended that Stevie was coming to court her niece. She ran the house; ran anything that was handy, from the men who came to the house to the tramps. She had the heart of a hundred, and so was a tyrant. They all are, people with affections like that. Her sister had strange fits of black melancholy, when she did nothing all day and the breakfast things remained unwashed.
‘Ah, what, girl?’ she would cry in a mournful voice. ‘They’ll be after us. Much there’ll be of them or us in a hundred years. People wear themselves out to nothing, and what have they for it, in the latter end?’
‘Come on, come on, for God’s sake!’ Annie would cry impatiently in her deep husky voice. ‘Pull yourself together and leave us get a bit of work done.’
‘The same four boards!’ Nell would exclaim in a shrill shocked voice, her head cocked. ‘Amn’t I right?’
‘The dear knows,’ Annie would say in exasperation, ‘’tis a pity me da didn’t give you one of them across your fat ass, when you were of an age for it.’
‘Annie!’ Nell would cry with prim lips pursed, while she drew herself erect. ‘You’re very coarse.’
Sometimes she got into a gossipy, chirrupy mood over a bottle of stout and then her hands lay loose on her lap and she talked for hours, to anyone, to Stevie if there was no one better to talk to. Her voice slipped easily out of control, and she made vague inexpressive gestures with her hands. ‘Do you see now?’ she would shriek, giving her companion a push and sitting back with an expression of strained gaiety on her beautiful face. ‘Do you see what the game was now, ha?’
Stevie crept in the dark flagged hall. The kitchen was bright and full of tobacco smoke. Eileen was sitting on a stool beside the range and Stevie went and sat beside her, stiffly, on tiptoe, for fear of intruding. The little tin lamp shone from the whitewashed wall above their heads on to the flushed faces. Nelly was skitting and shaking with laughter; Annie talked in a loud, indignant tone. Suddenly she rose.
‘Come on now, young woman, back to barracks! ‘Time you were in bed.’
And, ignoring Eileen’s protests, she caught and swung her across the kitchen. Stevie lingered. After a little while a man rose and winked at Nelly. She raised her shoulders and put her hands before her lips in silent laughter. He left the kitchen door open behind him and they saw him quietly ascend the broad staircase. Everyone fell silent and listened. ‘They heard the door of the child’s bedroom open and listened for voices. The man spoke in a deep whisper; Annie’s voice rang out as always.
‘Ha, ha! I‘d like me job. Mind out of me way now and let me go back.’
‘Are you going to let me pass, you ignorant lump?’
And then suddenly a slight scuffle, at which they all started, and they knew she had broken free, slipped under his arm or pushed him aside or tripped him, and Stevie saw her come down the stair, stamping, looking back with a ringing laugh, leaning over the banister while it squeaked under her hand, her long pale face aglow in the smoky light from the kitchen. That great husky voice of hers pealed through the house.
‘Ah, now, come on, me ould ram! Me fine, floury ould geeser! What fools you must think we are, Mr. Delurey! Listen now! Listen all of ye! Are ye listening, I say? Listen till I tell ye me tale; what he’s up to, the fit that’s on him; me hardy coadjutor; me ould cockalorum; Father Casserley’s white-headed boy.’
She came in with arms folded, her head and bosom swaying lightly like the top of a ship in sail. She was in the highest of good spirits; laughing, ready for any mischief, and the jokes cracked like fireworks as the discomfited suitor came down the stair, trying to pass it off. And then from the ambushed voices that voice of Annie’s broke free again like a great flag flapping in the wind.
‘What’s that you say, Mr. Cassidy? Excuse me! Repeat yourself, please! Did I hear you correctly? Marry again, did you say? Marry again and give up the pension? What fools you must think us, Mr. Cassidy, and to imagine we’d give it all up for ye! The house, Mr. Cassidy, and the bottle of stout, and the nice long sleep in the cold mornings, and the side of bacon steaming on the table and no one to say black was our nail! Ah, what gligeens you must think we are!’
Later, she beckoned out one of her lame ducks to the front room. He was a tubby, frizzy little man, a great lady’s man in his day, but he had had a run of bad luck that had sobered him, and now he couldn’t afford to go into a pub. When Stevie, terrified at the lateness of the hour, went out, lingering past the open door of the parlour he saw them; the man leaning against the edge of the table with his legs crossed, and the glass of stout in his hand while he sniffed quietly; Annie, sitting on the table, her legs kicking, her long face full of shadows in the candlelight.
‘Come here and give us a kiss, Stevie, love,’ she called joyously, but Stevie, hanging his head with embarrassment, trailed out to the road. A group of little girls, playing about the lamp-post, stopped their game to hail him.
‘Stevie Dalton, Stevie Dalton, your ould fellow was looking for you!’
‘All right, all right,’ he growled miserably, hoping his father had not seen him come out of the house.
‘O Sacred Heart, Stevie Dalton, he’s lepping mad. He’ll murder you when he catch you.’
Between the broken-down pillars of the garden gate his father stood in shirt-sleeves, his cap over his eyes and with wire spectacles far down his nose. He was a slightly-built man with a clear complexion and a little fair moustache. He carried the evening paper in his left hand and with the right made a peremptory gesture.
‘Come here, boy!’
There was no help for it. Drawn forth by his loud voice, a fat woman came to her door, framed in the dim light that leaked through the hall-way, and looked up and down the avenue. The little trampled gardens where nothing ever grew were full of angular shadows.
‘Where the blazes were you, boy?’ his father asked irritably, retreating before him with the paper raised in his hand.
‘I was only down the road a bit.’
‘And what do you mean by it? At this hour? Do you know the time it is?’
‘Sure, ’tis early yet,’ Stevie said sullenly. ‘Look at all them kids out still.’
‘Now, never mind about them. What they do have nothing to do with you. You won’t have to answer for it. Go on! In with you now!’
‘Ah, let the boy alone!’ grumbled a disgusted voice from the kitchen. ‘For God’s sake give him a chance and don’t be perpetually after him.’
His father noisily banged the front door behind them by way of reply. Driving Stevie before him, he stood in the kitchen door in his sloppy old house clothes. Ned was sitting by the fire, reading, and he looked at Stevie and winked. He had a long pale face with the same high cheekbones as his father, bright dark eyes full of humour and thin, rather cruel lips. Stevie adored him from a distance, not always knowing whether or not he was being serious. He took a delight in the slang of his fellow tradesman; and in that light, inconsequent way of his, teased his pals, MacCarthy the pupil teacher and Peter Devane the clerk, about their remoteness from life. The three went for long walks together in the evenings into the country, over the hills, Ned in the centre in his heavy serge suit, his cap a little on one side. He walked with a rolling gait and stiffly swinging arms, and when Stevie and he went to Mass together Stevie tried to copy the shy sardonic smile and nod with which he greeted his acquaintances. Stevie rarely heard him raise his voice. Even when he made a joke it was almost in a whisper, and it was only when his companions laughed that Ned would suddenly give a yelp of delight. He was so quiet, so good-natured, so open-hearted that all the lunatics in Ireland seemed to come to him; he delighted in them; talked for hours to them, yet when he repeated the things they said it was always in a gentle, wondering, sardonic way. Mac acted a part; he would get up and stride about the room, but Ned seemed too shy to embroider; he scarcely raised a hand; his voice had a drawl which in anyone else would have been intolerable.
‘Tis your fault,’ his father said angrily, waving the paper at him.‘ You’re the one that’s encouraging him!’
‘Ah, for goodness’ sake have sense, man,’ Ned drawled with his old sardonic curl of lip. ‘What harm is the boy doing?’
‘What harm is he doing?’ his father asked, pursing his lips in a mow of indignation. ‘Wasting his time around the roads instead of being at home doing his lessons!’
‘Be Jay!’ Ned lowered his library book a trifle, the sneer in his voice deepening as he looked sideways at his father, ‘’tis a joy to hear you standing up for the books! Do you know that now? A positive jooooy! Somehow, I always felt there must be scholarship in the Dee Altons—such an aristocratic family!’
‘Well, and if he isn’t able for the trade, what else have he to look forward to?’ his father shouted.
‘Oh, God help us, Maurice!’ groaned Ned—he was a great lover of old saws. ‘Will we ever have a child or anything to put on it?’
‘You can laugh at examinations, I suppose?’ his father asked with an ugly scowl. ‘You passed so many.’
‘Little boy,’ Ned drawled to Stevie, ‘remember you must write a book about the family—The Deathless Daltons, Their Glory and Decline.’
‘Set down there and get on with your lessons,’ his father snapped. He knew he was no match for Ned when it came to bandying words. He crossed to the mantelpiece and picked up a pipe which he blew through angrily until his cheeks filled out like balloons and his eyes threatened to pop.
‘The Dee Altons were an ancient family of title and property in the Isle of France,’ Ned dictated with amusement as Stevie planted his school-sack at the foot of the table by the backdoor. ‘One was the well-known Colonel Maurice Dee Alton that the King of Spain said he’d sooner lose his right hand than lose Colonel Dee Alton.’
Breathing through his nose, Mr. Dalton went back to his seat under the lamp and spread out his paper with a crackle Stevie knew all too well. Mrs. Dalton frowned beseechingly at Ned, but he, his eyes sparkling with mischief, looked at Stevie and winked. He bent his eyes to his book and murmured as though to himself, ‘Who ate the man’s dinner —a dog or a mason?’ His father coughed angrily three times. Stevie opened his exercise. Through the uncurtained window he saw the back wall, higher than the corrugated iron roof of the crazy jakes, cutting off half the sky. Above the weeds and grasses silhouetted on its top the stars burned clearly. The light from the window revealed the half-open door of the jakes and the bucket under the dripping tap. The kitchen was very warm, pinkwashed, covered in pictures, ornaments and brackets, for his father’s taste ran to such things—a careful man, a prudent man. Against the farther wall was a little varnished sideboard with glasses, two tin trays and a handsome clock with a soaring eagle rising from its top. ‘The wall opposite the fireplace had the stairs, steep with a rough wooden baluster; under it was the coal-hole, and on a shelf above the coal-hole, candles, soap, putty and tools. The wooden partition behind the coal-hole served for hat-racks. ‘There was a long mirror over the mantelpiece which was covered in oilcloth, and besides tins of tea and sugar, had rows on rows of his father’s pipes. The big black kettle was singing on the hob; the kettle Stevie had known since childhood and which had a dull, officious air as though if it could speak it would say, ‘Anything you say may be taken down and used in evidence against you.’ Ned sat on one side of the fire with his book; beside him his mother sat knitting—a tall, guileless woman with a long noble face; at the other side sat Mr. Dalton with his back to the bracketed wall-lamp so that its light fell straight on to his evening paper. His knees were crossed. Occasionally, he took the pipe from his mouth and lashed a spit at random into the ashes. Stevie knew from the intensity with which he did this that he was still out of humour. He was a man who liked to read out and interpret the news—the local news in particular. When they sat like this the noise of the clocks was very loud, for there was a clock in every room. In a little while now Stevie’s father would wind them all, because this was a task that could be trusted to no one else, and set them by his own watch which he had set by the Post Office clock on his way home from work. One who went by Government time couldn’t go far wrong. In thirty-three years he had been late for work only on three occasions, once when his mother died, once in the Big Snow, once when a favourite clock betrayed him—a calamity he still spoke of with emotion. It was like locking the doors, a job not to be trusted to others, for not only were there the locks but a half-dozen bolts he had fitted himself—a stitch in time saves nine. And after that he might potter for a few moments among his treasures; his toolbox over the coal-house, his box for nuts, bolts, screws, etc., in the shelf let into the parlour wall; his trunk upstairs, in which he kept so many things others might have thrown away but which he stored up for years in case of necessity. He had a magnificent memory for dates, as also for other matters which he considered to be of interest. He had by heart the name and location of every railway station, the population of every town in Ireland and of every European country. You never knew when such information would be of urgent importance, also the number plates of cars—great importance! After that if you went upstairs you found him, kneeling very upright by his bed in the light of the little colza oil-lamp before the picture of the Sacred Heart, his cropped head bowed a little, his fist beating his breast, his swimming eyes rising at moments towards the holy picture. Sometimes he nodded briefly to add emphasis to some prayer, sometimes his forehead became a mass of lines and he puckered his lips to indicate some difficulty or other; occasionally he looked away and sniffed loudly. When he was but a little fellow, Stevie had noticed with astonishment these changes of expression such as one might expect only if the picture of the Sacred Heart had been in fact a real person, and he studied it with the deepest interest to see if by any chance it showed awareness of his father’s behaviour.
There was a hurried step on the avenue and Uncle Tom came in the hall with a gruff ‘God save all here.’
‘And you too, sir,’ replied his mother.
Uncle Tom was small and stocky and wheezy. He had a very large family of sons and daughters in a very small house, and went about as though he were unaware of their existence. He came in from work at the same rapid pace, rubbing his palms together, sat in his own seat at the head of the table and banged his knife. ‘Dinner,’ he said, and sometimes not another word did he say for the rest of the meal, but let his wife and large family talk for him. When dinner was over he went straight upstairs without a word to anyone, came down in the same way, went out to work again, all the time as though he were a ghost moving in the bosom of his own family, but a cross ghost who growled when anyone got in his way and bawled when any familiar object had been moved from its place. He liked things to be where he had seen them last. When he did talk it was in a high, apparently ironic tone. ‘Oh yes, that’s what you think, is it?’ One night in the week he went to the chapel; Monday, Wednesday and Friday he went to his sister Hanna’s; ‘Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday to his brother John’s. He came in, not lifting his feet from the ground, pulled up a chair from the door and installed himself as part of the family, smoking his old pipe which always offended his brother deeply because it had ceased even to look like a pipe, and refusing to change because he liked old, customary things, and snorted over John’s collection. He leaned a little forward and spat into the fire with uncanny precision.
‘You’re studious, Stevie,’ he gasped, propping the arm which held the old pipe upon his other arm.
‘Indeed he is not,’ his father said severely, staring at him with frowning eyes and out-thrust lips. ‘I wish he’d pay a bit more attention to his studies.’
‘Like yourself,’ Tom said, and winked at his sister-in-law. Then he looked at his pipe. It had gone out. He put his hand into his side pocket, took out half a newspaper neatly folded, tore off a minute corner and reached over to the fire to light it. Uncle Tom lighting his pipe was always a spectacle for the Dalton household.
‘Here,’ his brother said impatiently, reaching him a spool of paper. But Tom had lit his pipe in this way for some thirty-odd years and he did not propose to change; he ground his own tiny scrap of paper into the pipe and, when it burned his fingers, let it fall and trampled on the scraps.Whenever he sat at home it was never long before he was entirely surrounded by scraps. His brother leaned over, wagging the spool of paper in his broad, good-natured face.
‘But what you’re forgetting,’ he said, ‘is that I had it somewhere else. Up here I had it. Ha, ha. I didn’t want any books for that.’
‘Too lazy,’ wheezed Tom, and sat back with crossed legs in his chair to look at himself in the mirror.
‘Well, now, that’s true,’ Mr. Dalton agreed with reminiscential amicability, his lips pursed and thoughtful as he looked round, nodding to wife and sons. ‘About study, I was, yes, I was lazy. ’Twas a peculiarity of mine. Because somehow I didn’t cotton on to books, and from the minute I made up my mind about a thing I was very determined, very determined. Now, from the time I was that height.’ His lips thrust forward under the moustache he urbanely illustrated a very definite height. ‘You see, I took after me Uncle Will—you remember Uncle Will, Tom?’
‘Why wouldn’t I?’ wheezed Tom.
‘Well, I took after him—a bed in glory to his soul tonight.’ Mr. Dalton raised his cap reverently with the swimming look that always came into his eyes when he mentioned religion. Tom grunted and said ‘Ay, begod!’ ‘Somehow I was very attached to him. And mind you, for a man of his class, a labouring man’ (Mr. Dalton never allowed anyone to forget he was a tradesman and entitled to the bowler hat), ‘he was a man of great intellect. But very revengeful. And very obstinate. Ha, ha, ha!’
‘You should be proud of him, indeed!’ Mrs. Dalton said, stirring uneasily in her chair.
Mr. Dalton leaned across at an acute angle and thrust the spool of paper between the bars. As he held it over the bowl of his pipe he bent his body forward, screwing up his eyes, sucking at the pipe and chuckling to himself between the clouds of blue smoke.
‘Well’ (he spat, inaccurately as his way was, into the ashes), ‘I’ll never forget one night an old dog went for him out by the Cross Guns. I dunno what were we doing out there — I think, mind you, I wouldn’t be sure, but I think ’twas the way he (he patted his pocket, winked and laughed at one after another, showing his decaying teeth).
‘He had a thirst,’ bellowed Tom good-naturedly.
‘Now,’ Mr. Dalton said warningly, nodding and frowning, ‘I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but the family that had the Cross Guns at the time, they were related to the mother’s family someway—I never got the rights and wrongs of that, but however—The dog went for him. Now it was there at the very end of the village where the Red House is now. Ha, ha, ha! You know the Red House, Tom?’
‘Why wouldn’t I?’ Tom growled again. He was put out by rhetorical questions.
‘Of course, it wasn’t there at all in them days. The Red House was built—lemme see now, when was it built? It was the time I was working for Lanigan’s and I was on a job out in Carnoge. Let me see; it was built in 99.’
‘Oh, will you go on with the story, whatever it is?’ Mrs. Dalton protested. ‘You give me a reeling in my head the way you go round and round a thing.’
‘Easy, easy, old woman!’ he said good-humouredly, rubbing his palms. Ned had lowered his book and was watching him. Mr. Dalton had noticed this and talked at him, pleased to have extended his audience.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘’twas a beautiful summer’s night, a moonlit night, and we came round by the Glen. And there was the trees, my! and the moonlight on the road, and me Uncle Will talking about old times in the parish, and the old neighbours. Well, he was a beautiful talker; I’d listen to him for hours. Now I was mesmerised! And all at once we came to the bridge over the little river—you remember the bridge, ‘Tom?’
‘Why wouldn’t I?’ growled Tom again.
‘Well, ha, ha, I was so carted away listening to Uncle Will’s eloquence, ha, ha, I was thinking about nothing else and all at once he stopped.’ Mr. Dalton slapped both hands on his knees and looked at them one by one. ‘He stopped.’
‘You said that before,’ said Tom with a glare.
‘He stopped,’ repeated Mr. Dalton defiantly. ‘There was a heap of stones by the roadside. They were mending the bridge. Now, big stones, that size. “Fill the pockets, Sonny,” says Uncle Will. He always called me Sonny. “Fill the pockets,”’
‘Ha!’ grunted Uncle Tom.
‘You should be ashamed to admit it,’ cried Mrs. Dalton indignantly.
‘I was after forgetting all about it,’ Mr. Dalton said with a beatific smile. “What is it, Uncle Will?” says I, just like that. “Fill the pockets,” says he.’
His hands pillared on his thighs, Mr. Dalton threw back his head and showed his discoloured teeth in a crackle of laughter. ‘You could have heard that dog yelping for miles.’
‘Shame!’ Mrs. Dalton cried indignantly. ‘Shame! The poor little brute!’
‘Oh, a little angel!’ Ned commented admiringly, gazing at his father. ‘Mother’s little lamb!’
‘Now, I was all right,’ his father protested reasonably, with a complacent nod and pursing of the mouth. He bent forward to poke the fire. ‘I was all right as long as you left me alone. But cross me and I’d tear iron. You remember that about me, Tom?’ he asked in a pathetic voice, looking over his spectacles at his brother.
‘Ha!’ Uncle Tom snorted again.
‘Iron,’ repeated Mr. Dalton gravely, and nodded again.
‘Jay,’ said Ned, ‘with a past like that you ought to write a book.’
‘Now maybe I could,’ said his father with a heavy, well-pleased air.‘ Mind you, now, ’tisn’t because I haven’t the schooling.’
Stevie, walking on tiptoe, took the candlestick from the shelf under the stairs, and with his school-sack under his arm went into the parlour. It was a square, cold, damp box of a room papered in yellow with floral designs in red and green. On the iron mantelpiece one of his father’s favourite clocks tick-tocked noisily. There were two high-backed armchairs upholstered in black leather—purchased second-hand—at either side of the fireplace, and a round, one-legged table with two dining-room chairs. There was a cheap red carpet, and in a bookcase along one wall were Ned’s books. The tall mahogany bookcase with the glass doors was Ned’s property; he had saved up for it. Before settling down in this cold, lonesome room, Stevie put the candle behind him and looked out from under the blind. The dormer windows in the houses at the opposite side of the avenue caught the moonlight, and two women, leaning at either side of a doorway that showed a dark hall and a flicker of lamplight from the kitchen, talked in low, discreet voices. The lamp burned lonely and clear at the street corner, and in the moonlight you could hear from a long way the footsteps of people who passed under it on their way from the town. From far away came the sound of music; they were playing the gramophone in the house he had left. ‘The Beautiful Miss Maddens!’
Ned had given him the lower drawer of the bookcase for a plank all to himself. From this hiding-hole he took out his drawing-book — another gift of Ned’s one day after he had seen the boy smoothing out old sugar bags to draw on.
‘Now, boy,’ he had said in grave tones, ‘remember that that book cost money, and times are very hard, so you mustn’t be expecting your poor, unfortunate brother to do this for you again. So don’t go losing it, or hacking it, carrying it round everywhere in your pocket, but wrap it up nice and tidy in strong brown paper and put it away where you can find it. Do you hear me now?’
‘Yes, Father,’ Stevie had said.
‘You’d better keep it out of his lordship’s sight,’ Ned had added with that sly shy grin of his.
Stevie grew so absorbed in the ship he was drawing that he no longer noticed what was happening in the kitchen or heard his Uncle Tom’s hasty shuffle out the hall. Suddenly the room door opened and he dropped his elbows on the drawing-book.
‘Why can’t you do your lessons in the kitchen?’ his father asked complainingly.
‘How the hell can he do anything with your connyshuring?’ Ned’s voice from the kitchen, sketching a diversion.
‘Do you hear me?’ his father asked, standing by the room door in a plaintive attitude with his head bowed and one hand in the pocket of his trousers. ‘Don’t you know well that candle is costing me money? Haw? My God, what do you think I’m made of? Show! Show me what are you doing!’
Stevie, looking away, sullenly raised his arms, expecting a box across the ears.
‘Well, well, well,’ Mr. Dalton exclaimed in bitter chagrin. ‘So them are the lessons you’re doing! Is that what I’m paying good money for you at school for? Is it? Go on out now, like a good boy.’
Stevie rose, downcast, but relieved that things were no worse. He closed his drawing-book and took it under his arm with his school-sack.
‘Give me that book. I’ll look after that.’
Stevie did so, and his father, shuffling in his heavy house boots, blew out the candle which he put back in its old place over the coal-house. Then he went towards the fireplace. Suddenly Stevie saw Ned drop the book he was reading and grab at his father’s wrist.
‘Here, here, here!’ he said in a good-humoured, bantering voice. ‘Hold on there!’
‘Lemme go,’ his father said with a smile.
‘Where are you going with that book?’ Ned asked.
‘Never mind, you! It have nothing to do with you.’
He saw them before the fire, apparently quite friendly, but Ned was standing and his father’s wrist was still locked in his grasp. Mr. Dalton was bent in a stiff way. Suddenly they began to sway to and fro as he tried to wrest himself free. Mrs. Dalton rose and screamed.
‘Ned! Ned! Jack, in God’s Holy Name! And there we were, sitting in peace and quietness! Oh, God, God, will ye stop it?’
‘Lemme go, I say!’ Mr. Dalton panted.
‘That book is mine,’ Ned replied coolly, but the thin lips had tightened.
‘I don’t care whose it is. It have no business in this house.’
‘I paid for it.’ Ned spoke in an unnaturally low voice.
‘Will you lemme go, or be Jases——!’
‘Listen,’ Ned said warningly, ‘I paid for that book out of my own money, and if you dare to lay a finger on it——-!’ There was a sudden snarl in his voice.
He had swung his father clear of the fire and stood between him and it. They ceased to struggle for a moment and his father glared at him.
‘Take it,’ he snapped, and tossed the book to the back-door. It was a childish gesture of impotence. He went to the mantelpiece and began to scoop a pipe, breathing heavily through his nose. Ned picked up the book and smoothed it out. His mother’s cries gave way to tears.
‘And there we were,’ she sobbed, wringing her hands, ‘sitting talking, nice and easy, and all about nothing!’
Suddenly Mr. Dalton raised the pipe in his hand and dashed it malevolently on the hearth. He stamped his feet, his clenched fists by his sides.
‘Take what’s yeers and get out,’ he shouted. ‘Out to hell to ye I say, ye two ignorant, idle bastards, better fed than taught.’
‘Jack, Jack!’ Mrs. Dalton begged. ‘Have pity on us, this blessed and holy night and the neighbours listening.’
‘Naaame of Jaaases!’ her husband ground out between his teeth. ‘In me own house! Mocked, be Jases Christ, mocked and defied by two double- faced, lazy, idle, scheming bastards!’ He made as though to grab the poker. Mrs. Dalton screamed. Ned sat down and nodded curtly to Stevie.
‘Up to bed with you, boy.’
‘Bed? I’ll give him bed!’
‘Run along, Stevie,’ Ned repeated angrily, and choking back his sobs, Stevie climbed the steep stair. The moonlight pouring in the attic window gave light enough to undress by; it fell upon the folded-down sheet and in its light one saw plainly against the whitewashed walls the brown chest of drawers, the little table with the blue-and-white statue of the Blessed Virgin, and the moonlight was reflected in the glass of the two pictures, one of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, the other of Saint Patrick and the snakes. He heard his father below, still storming, though now neither Ned nor his mother replied; then the noisy raking out of the fire—look after the pennies,—the slamming and bolting of doors, the slow winding of clocks. A bugle pealed from the barrack, and Mr. Dalton stamped upstairs to his own room. Ned came up shortly afterwards with candle and book.
‘All right, Stevie?’ he whispered gently, the candle making his face appear longer and hollower, the eyes larger. He put down candle and book on the table, and sitting on the end of the bed began to unlace his boots.
‘Whisht, now, whisht!’ he said softly.
‘I can’t bear it, Ned,’ Stevie sobbed.
‘He’ll forget all about that tomorrow.’
‘I know. I don’t care.’
‘Don’t bother your head about him,’ Ned said with sudden bitterness.‘ You’ll meet plenty more like him. The world is full of them. They think they’re great; they think they’re God Almighty and know every humping thing. They know nothing.’
He stood up in his night-shirt and raised the attic window on its rod, and the moonlight fell for a moment on the long dark brooding face with the brilliant eyes. Instead of reading he blew out the candle and turned on his side. Moonlight streamed down in a narrow cone and expanded in a corner of the whitewashed wall. Ned tossed restlessly and drew his hands through his hair while he stared up at the lighted window.
‘Bloody old fools!’ he whispered savagely. ‘Fear is the one thing in their lives—fear, fear, fear. Fear of this world or fear of the next. “What’ll become of us?” “What’ll the neighbours say?” “You can’t do this and you can’t do that.”’
Tick-tock, tick-tock went all the clocks in the house, each echoing within its silent room. The moonlight shifted about the room and Stevie lay awake, filled with love and admiration. Tock-tock, tock-tock, the clocks said dumbly, the one on the little table falling silent for several beats. Then once more, tick-tock, tick-tock, and the whole house throbbed.
‘They’re complete,’ Stevie’s father said in disgust the evening when the little donkey cart drew up outside the sisters’ door. ‘They’re all together now. My God, I remember this road when the likes of them would be hunted out of it! Hunted out of it!’
Mr. Dalton need not have troubled. That evening that Josie, now a widow, joined the household of her sisters saw the beginning of their misfortunes; the young man who drove the donkey and cart the cause of them. His name was Delea, and, questioned by Annie and Nellie, Josie admitted that outside the graveyard gate he had asked her to marry him.
‘Mary, my mother!’ Nellie cried. ‘Did you hit him?’
‘I did not, indeed, hit him!’
The idea of Josie hitting anybody was almost comic. She had a face like Annie’s but without her vivacity. It was spiritual, recollected; the face of an angel, a madonna, in the cowl of the dirty old green-and-black shawl, and as though her head were too heavy for her, her cheek seemed to be always tilted and a faint smile played about the thin, sweet, melancholy lips. She had pale grey eyes, long cheeks and lips like thread; her voice was thin and high-pitched, almost childlike. Annie said she was the most beautiful of them, but Nellie would not hear of this. Nellie was vain.
‘And you mean to say you took it from him?’ Nellie asked,
‘Sure, what else would I do?’
‘Mother of God, an outsider, a man from the flat of the city, a man that wouldn’t make a bolt for a back-door!’ Nellie exclaimed bitterly.
But one evening some months later Stevie crept in, as his way was. In the kitchen there was nobody but Annie and Delea. Delea was young, fair-haired, blue-eyed, very quiet by comparison with the other men who visited the house. He sat very far forward in his chair, his cap on one side, a quiet smile on his face while he played endlessly with a piece of string. Annie sprang up in her old boisterous way and gave Stevie a hug.
‘Oh, Law, Stevie, you’re a great stranger entirely! And Eileen is in bed with a cold! What’ll you do now, tell me. You’ll have to be satisfied with meself.’
‘Is this Stevie?’ the young man said, and smiled as though from a great distance.
‘This is Stevie Dalton, Eileen’s beau. They’re going to be married in the new year. Aren’t ye, Stevie? Ah, you’re keeping it all to yourself, You’re cute.’
For some reason Annie continued to banter him even more than she used to do. After a while Delea got up and went out. As he did so there was a patter of feet upstairs, and Nellie came down to the kitchen hastily, carrying a lighted candle. She wore a little black knitted shawl about her shoulders, and in the candlelight her eyes were like black beads. Her lips were set. She put down the candlestick with what seemed to be intended for a firm gesture but it rattled upon the table. She drew a long breath through her nose.
‘Annie,’ she asked in a badly-controlled voice, ‘what is the meaning of this? What is the meaning of it, in God’s name?’
‘What’s the meaning of what?’ Annie asked in a low voice.
‘What is that man doing, coming to the house?’
‘Can’t you ask him yourself?’ Annie replied dully without looking up.
‘I‘ll order him, I’ll order him straight out of the house,’ Nellie cried with outstretched arm and hand.
‘I wish to God you would,’ Annie said, and a little shiver passed over her. She took out a little handkerchief and dabbed her nose lightly. Nellie took three short steps across the kitchen and stopped. She stamped her feet furiously.
‘Annie, are you mad? Are you mad, I say? What? You that were for ever talking and shaping?’ she cried incredulously. ‘You that wouldn’t leave Josie look at the side of the road he walked on! Wasn’t it enough to have him coming after her? But you, you, you! You with your fine pension and your beautiful home! Look at it! Look at it, I say, and ask yourself are you in your right mind.’
‘I know, I know, I know,’ Annie cried, beating her temples, the little handkerchief crushed into a ball in her fist. She put her hand to her forehead and closed her eyes. ‘My God, I don’t know what’s up with me. My head is splitting.’
‘Do you think or imagine,’ her sister cried, her face like a clenched fist, ‘that that man cares about you? A man that came here after your sister! That all he thinks of is to lay hands on someone after you stopping him going with Josie. Or where is your pride?’
‘Whisht, whisht, whisht!’ Annie said, rising, seeming twice the height of her sister. ‘The child!’
‘The child, is it?’ Nellie clasped her two hands tightly before her bosom, her tight little mouth framing a bitter laugh. ‘The child, indeed! I suppose ’tis all my doing. I’m the one that’s turning us into a laughing-stock for all the road. I’m dragging the roof down on our little home.’ Again she stamped her foot and her voice mounted to a scream. ‘Are you demented? Is there some devil in you? Will I send for the priest to pray over you? Will I have you locked up?’
Red-cheeked, thin-lipped, blazing-eyed, she stared up into her sister’s face while Annie tossed her head in agony.
For days before she married Delea, Annie hardly stirred out of bed, and when she did it was to sit in the kitchen, shivering, without a word for Stevie or Eileen. It was the end of Stevie’s good times. A blight seemed to have descended on that enchanted house. A few days after the marriage the lodgers came. They came after dusk and his father stood at the door, watching them. He came into the kitchen only to clap his hands and laugh his fill.
‘Now, they’ll be quiet,’ he said. ‘That’ll teach them, the dregs of the lanes on top of them! That’ll knock the powder off them! Aha, this was the day I was waiting for.’
‘A kind neighbour you are!’ Ned said scornfully.
‘I am, a kind neighbour, from the days when there were neighbours, not them dirty fly-by-nights, a temptation and a scandal to all decent people.’
Once or twice Stevie went in but the change was too great. Nellie sat in the kitchen with tight lips, talking of the troubles she had with the lodgers, and the ware remained a long time unwashed on the table. Josie had nothing like Annie’s power of managing, nor had she any of her gaiety. To Nellie’s endless complaints she only added a tranquil ‘Sure, it might be worse.’
‘How could it be worse?’ Nellie snapped.
‘Whisht, now, whisht,’ Josie repeated in her piping voice. ‘You’ll find and see ’twill be all right. I’ll look round for work and we’ll be as well off as ever.’
‘Work! Work!’ her sister repeated bitterly. She rose and stamped about the desolate kitchen, laughing hysterically. ‘When I hear of work! ... Almighty God!’ she screamed, stopping suddenly and throwing out her arms, ‘and the way we were! The way we were, living like crowned queens till the fancy took her! With our home to ourselves instead of the dirt and dregs of the lanes stamping over our heads. That if we wanted, if we wanted, Josie Madden, we could have a girl in every day of our lives and not soil our hands with work. We could be down town for eleven Mass, we could have our little pork chop and our bottle of stout, we could take the train to the seaside, week-days and Sundays—what the merchants—what am I saying?—the aristocracy couldn’t do.’
‘Ah, now,’ Josie said, ‘sure what’s done is done, and ’tis no use complaining. ‘Tis God’s holy will.’
‘Don’t talk to me of God’s will,’ her sister cried, spinning on her heel. ‘What have God to do with it? Let her have him, her posy! He paid her out well for keeping you from him. He paid us all out, Mother of God!’ And with her face in her hands, Nellie threw herself into a chair by the window.
After that Stevie did not go again to the house, but one evening while he was doing his lessons and his mother was seated by the fire, they heard an exclamation from his father, standing at the door. Stevie rushed out, followed by his mother.
‘Stand back there and don’t be seen,’ his father snapped.
‘What is it, Jack?’
‘There’s me damsel off down the road with her misfortune. She was staying with them; he must have turned her out. Now he’s after coming for her again. Aha, ha, there’s a change in a couple of months!’
Stevie saw Delea go down the road but he hardly recognised the tall figure in the long black shawl, drawn over the eyes, the bowed head, the shuffle. Could that be Annie?
‘Ah, God pity her, the poor soul!’ his mother sighed.
‘Devil’s cure to her!’ his father snarled. ‘More of it to her, and the other one too. There’s nothing would please me more than to see them all swept. Swept!’
Suddenly a figure appeared at the door of the big house. It was Nellie. Her arms were folded and her face flushed and wild.
‘Aha, there she is!’ she screamed. ‘She wanted him and now she have him.’
‘Come in, come in, come in,’ Josie hissed fiercely and they saw her drag her sister by the arm.
‘Look at her,’ Nellie cried in the same shrill voice, loud enough to be heard by the retreating figure, ‘a girl that could go out like a queen, and look at the cut of her now.’
Then one rainy day Stevie was standing by the door, listlessly watching the passers-by. Eileen was playing by herself in the gutter. Mrs. Dalton had given her a cup of tea. ‘God help us!’ she sighed. ‘What sort are they? Her aunt out and her mother useless and no one to give the child her dinner.’ And then she began to weep, thinking of Eileen’s troubles. It was only in the past week that Eileen’s mother had started sending her to the pub for porter, and Stevie knew she must be sitting now as he had seen her when last he had gone there, her knees over the half-dead range and a bottle of porter and a glass beside her, and on her face that bitter tight-lipped stare that meant she was revolving old stagnant melancholy, stirring it up in her mind as if with a potstick, while the breakfast things remained unwashed.
In the evening the wind blew up, the rain cleared, and in the hurly-burly the sky brightened over the hill. The stormy light was like yellow mud daubed with a stick on a wall, the roofs shone and the pot-holes in the roadway, but the plaster of the house fronts was blackened, and Eileen, in her bare feet, still splashing drearily about in the gushing channel, called to Stevie. Suddenly he saw a shawled figure come up the road and his heart leaped. It was Annie. He saw her take Eileen’s hand and the two of them went together into the house. No one was looking as he went slowly up the avenue. He stood at the doorway, listening, but there was no sound. ‘Then, on tiptoe he went in the hall. A great pool of water had formed by the back-door. The kitchen was in darkness. Suddenly he heard a low voice.
‘Can’t you leave me light the fire for you, Nellie?’
There was no reply.
‘If you were sick or anything I could go out for a message for you,’ the husky voice went on.
Still there was no reply; the voice seemed to come from nowhere and be directed to nobody. From the kitchen door Stevie could see only the outline of a table, a dim blue window and a star that winked outside.
‘There’s a candle here on the table. Will I light it?’
Suddenly there was a little cry which he recognised as Eileen’s, a furious exclamation of her mother’s pushing her aside, but the strange silence was broken. A match scraped, the candle flickered up and showed Annie’s face.
‘I’ll make a cup of tea for you,’ she said.
Then Nellie swung round her chair from the range where she had been sitting just as Stevie had seen her before.
‘Don’t attempt to interfere in my house without my leave,’ she said.
‘Ah, Nellie, what makes you go on like that? It was Josie I came to see.’
‘To borrow money, I suppose?’ Nellie asked with shrill insolence.
The lodger woman tramped down the stairs, brushing Stevie with her skirt. She was carrying a pail of water.
‘You mustn’t think,’ Nellie said in the same shrill voice, ‘that we keep lodgers because we have to. Oh, dear, no, we do it because we like it. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.’ And she laughed, rolling about in her chair, writhing, her little head thrown back.
‘Himself is gone on me,’ Annie said in a low voice.
‘Only for a short time, we hope?’ Nellie said with the same hysterical sneer.
‘’Tis Josie I want to see,’ Annie continued. ‘She was talking to him the other night.’ Suddenly she rose and strode to the door. ‘Oh, is that you, Stevie?’ she said, and shivered. ‘Run away now like a good boy. I’m in trouble, in great trouble.’
She closed the kitchen door gently in his face. That night the news was all round the road that Josie and Delea had run away together. It was a wild night, full of rain, and as he struggled to get to sleep Stevie thought endlessly of a great boat tossed on the waves and Delea and Josie together.
A few months later a covered car came to take Annie to the asylum. For a long time she had been behaving queerly, taken again to wearing her jewellery and a great hat with feathers. His mother made Stevie come in from the door, but-he could still hear her shrill screams. His father came in, looking very pale and nodding.
‘Well, that’s the end of her,’ he said gravely.
‘You should be well pleased,’ Ned replied bitterly.
‘I am not well pleased. ’Tisn’t a thing I’d wish to anybody, but it is God’s judgment on them. ’Twas coming to them a long time and there it is!’
The sound of the creaking bed in the next room wakened him, and he knew it was she again, so gentle were all her movements. He looked at the skylight. It was still dark night. Then he heard her on tippytoe on the landing. Her hand fumbled in darkness for the wall by his door, and very quietly she went down the creaking stair to the kitchen. ‘Tick-tock, tick-tock went the clocks and suddenly their chorus became unbearably loud as she opened the parlour door. Then she closed it behind her, and though he listened, sitting up in bed, he could hear nothing further except for the striking of a match.
What was it that brought her out of her bed at night, on so many nights? In some way he felt it had to do with Ned’s bookcase. It stood still in its old place in the parlour facing the window where it had stood that first day when Ned had called them in to admire it—‘a grand bit of mahogany’—though the hint of blue curtain behind the tiny panes had lost its colour and the shelf of books which had been Ned’s pride were the worse for damp. Every week Mrs. Dalton took them out, one by one, dusted them and held them before the fire, her fingers playing between the leaves as she turned them over and paused here and there to read for a few minutes with her soft smile. She was now the only one who read them. It was three years since Stevie had sat in the reference room of the library, listening happily to the pock-pock of the rain in the flagged yard, with no sound to disturb his musings but the tiptoe walk of an old man or the sliding of a card-tray. Three years since that winter evening. when, having changed Ned’s books and his own, he had returned and pushed in the parlour door and seen Ned before the fire, his hands in his trousers pockets, and something in the way he sat there in darkness had made the boy’s heart contract. The bookcase had been there; it had reflected the window, and the rainswept avenue in its little diamond panes, and Stevie had sat in the other armchair, the books still clutched tightly before him, his wet hair dripping limply from under the school cap, his mouth hanging open. And there had been no sound but the falling of the rain, the running of the channels, the crackle of coals in the grate. A light had sprung up in Mulcahy’s at the other side of the avenue and two women from the doors at either side had begun to converse in shrill drawling voices. Stevie had gaped stupidly into the fire until he heard his mother’s step in the hall, and then gone out on tiptoe, feeling that he had trespassed.
With a strange chill he wondered if she had gone downstairs to read, if that was what she did when he and his father were asleep. He knew she was not sleeping. He waited, and after about half an hour she came upstairs again. He listened in order to hear her settle down to rest again, but the sounds did not come. It began to terrify him, this obstinate secret life of the soul. Very quietly he rose and crept on to the landing. Her bedroom door was open. The attic window was fast shut, and there was little furniture in the tiny attic room but a table, covered in oilcloth beside the bed, two trunks, and the brass bed with the patchwork quilt. His father, a shapeless figure, was lying on his right side with the clothes over his head. She, a black coat over her nightdress, was kneeling by the bed, her tired eyes fixed on the picture of the Sacred Heart before which the little colza oil-lamp burned with a greenish light.
Suddenly Stevie felt terrified. It had all up to a short while ago been so warm, so still; nothing to be heard in the sleeping house but the ticking of the clocks, but she had risen and it was as if she had thrown open a window on the night and he had heard the storm of eternity roaring.
A cock crowed and she rose and blessed her self, throwing off the black coat and shivering Stevie tiptoed back to bed, hearing the bed springs sigh beneath her. Three years and yet she had not got over Ned’s death! He wondered now if she would ever get over it. And as the attic window grew pale he remembered the night when Ned had died. He had been sleeping in the same bed when his father roused him. ‘No nonsense now, boy! Your brother is dying.’ He had waited shivering outside the little house by the chapel which rose like a Noah’s ark on the very top of the hill. The light had sprung up in the hall and the fat priest appeared suddenly in the doorway, bending forward and glaring angrily out at the night, shaking his head stiffly like a doll within the collar of his coat and buttoning it tightly about himself.
‘Tell me, boy, what’s your name?’
‘And what aged man is your brother?’
‘Oh, ye live in the avenue?’
‘‘We do, father.’
‘I see, I see. And so you’re his brother?’
‘I am, father.’
‘And are you going to school still?’
‘I am, father.’ .
‘The monks, father.’
‘Are you great friends with your brother?’
‘I am, father.’
‘Oh, my, my, my, my!’
His father had been standing at the tumbledown gate, waiting for them. At the sight of the priest he had begun to tramp with his feet, giving out high whinnying sobs and rubbing his fingers in his eyes.
‘Oh, father, father, father, what’ll I do?’
‘Am I in time?’ the priest had whispered impatiently, pushing in past him.
‘Oh, father, father!’
As they entered the front room the woman from next door had risen from her knees. His mother too was kneeling by the bedside in the bright candlelight, her face buried in the clothes. Ned was thrown on one side, his bare arms stiffly outstretched, his eyes gaping, and Stevie had seen to his horror that all the clothes on the edge of the bed were painted bright red. Then he had noticed the wash-basin by his mother’s knee and that too had been red.
And then morning had come. The light came over the high back wall with the mosses growing between the lumps of red sandstone, the grasses on its top waved against a grey sky, and the cock behind crowed his cheerful cry while the neighbour woman went about the familiar kitchen making tea. The lamp grew pale and even his father forgot to quench it. Stevie had been sitting on his old chair by the back-door, his father at the other end, his cap drawn over his face, his head raised in an idiotic stare, while with hands joined in his lap he rocked himself to and fro saying, ‘Me son! Me son! Me son!’ The neighbour woman had talked in little spurts as she raised the latch, and went out into the yard to rinse the tea-pot, dragging her heavy boots behind her and staring up at the brightening sky. ‘We never know the day or the hour,’ she had said. ‘The pleasantest boy that walked the earth! Oh, oh, oh, oh!’ As she splashed the scalding water down the shore and the morning air filled the smoky kitchen the kettle had bubbled and hissed on the hob, and Stevie had watched it in fascination, as he watched the clock, the cupboard of delph behind his father’s head, because it was as though reality continued gently to slap his face whenever his mind became too wound up in the mathematics of grief.
She had gone downstairs to read. That was it.
He had been there one evening when his father came out of the parlour, a thoughtful look on his face. ‘Listen, Moll,’ he asked, ‘what use is that old bookcase?’
‘What harm is it doing you?’ she asked quietly.
‘We ought to get a couple of pounds for it.’
His wife continued to look at him steadily. He stroked his moustache and nodded.
‘Oh, if that’s the way you feel! I thought a little hallstand would be better. Very nice, very decorative!’ Sniffing, he went to the front door and remained there a long time, looking out.
The attic window brightened. The little room swam in grey light that revealed the holy pictures, the statue, his trousers hanging on the end of the bed. He did not sleep again until the alarm rang in the next room and he heard his father nudge his mother to get up. ‘There was the scratch of a match and the complacent puffing of a pipe.
But every evening, even before his tea was finished, he was driven out of the house by the same air of hopelessness and gloom. And that evening again, as he went out, his mother followed him to the door and said beseechingly, ‘You won’t be late, Stevie? For my sake?’ Her appealing face followed him down the road; it goaded him with misery; it made him long for something to happen that would make him forget it. And as always, he had gone but a little distance before he had assured himself that it must. At six, when the deserted city was handed over, the masquerade began. Hundreds of boys and girls, escaping from dreary homes, put on their best clothes, their best manner. For a few hours at least they were subject to no authority, audacious, successful, invincible. Sometimes, returning alone from an evening walk when Casey was on night duty, Stevie saw them clinging to one another behind the tree-trunks in the avenue near the river; even when the nights were coldest and the stars most brilliant with frost. It was their compensation for the dull day in shop or office, the dreary homes, the brutal parents, and the more hopeless these, the fiercer was their appetite for sensation, for masquerade.
Casey was sitting on the wall, smoking his pipe. He was tall and fair-haired with a well rounded skull, a broad, good-natured, laughing face and keen blue eyes that almost disappeared in their sockets when he smiled. He wore a very neat brown suit and a broad-rimmed soft hat, slightly tilted, and when he smiled his pipe mounted between his gleaming teeth. He saluted Stevie with a slow wave of the hand and got off the wall with gravity, straightening the hang of his coat with a half turn of the head.
As they entered Main Street two girls smiled at them. Casey stopped. The girls stopped. The older girl was tall and stringy and blotchy with limp brown hair cocking out from under a crimson beret and a weak, pleasant smile. She wore a rough-textured brown coat with the collar about her neck. Her companion was tiny, fat, pasty, freckled, sulky-looking with a pert and quarrelsome air. She wore a blue cloth hat and blue coat and had enormous legs.
‘I’m surprised ye’re not down the river tonight,’ Casey said with his pleasant grin.
‘Who? Us?’ the elder girl giggled. ‘Oh, law! And what would we be doing down the river, would you mind telling us? The river? Sure we never go down the river, sure we don’t, Lucy?’
‘Down the river? Law, no!’
The elder girl giggled hysterically, ‘rocking’ with locked heels in a country-dance step while she leaned on her companion’s arm.
‘Ye wouldn’t be going down to wave to the boats by any chance?’ Casey asked.
They were standing by the statue where the trams met. Behind them was a picture shop with a framed reproduction of the Vermeer girl in the window, and a few doors farther up was the corner where the bridge spanned the river, the light streamed down on trams and passers-by, and seagulls stormed up against it, pure gold. The broad street of painted houses was quiet, shadowy, roofs and chimney-pots alone catching the westering light, and it had the queer, dusty, deserted air which it always assumed after six o’clock when the sun-blinds were pushed back, as though life there must cease at six.
‘Wave to the boats?’ the taller girl asked, with eyebrows arched and her stringy figure writhing in astonishment. ‘Lucy, do you hear that? Down to the boats we’re supposed to be going!’
‘The gentleman probably isn’t right in the head,’ the fat girl said tartly, her eyes scanning the farther footpath. She at least showed that she was going to find better company for the evening. But the tall girl looked inclined to choose either Casey or Stevie, if only for pity. She rested her head on one shoulder, smiling sentimentally.
‘’Tisn’t the swing-boats you mean by any chance, sir?’ she asked coyly.
‘Something bigger,’ Casey replied with a knowing grin.
‘Reelly?’ she gasped with affected wonderment. ‘Rowing boats do you mean?’
‘Not rowing boats either.’
‘Oh, law, I’m afraid ’tis beyond me so! You can’t assist the gentleman, Lucy?’
‘What’s all this talk about boats?’ the fat girl asked pertly. ‘Are they from the regatta or what?’
‘I’m sure I don’t know,’ the tall girl fluted in an ecstasy of queenly dignity, ‘but this gentleman seems to have boats on the brain.’
‘Boats in the belfry,’ the fat girl said, and the stringy one, shaking her snaky locks convulsively, buried her face in her handkerchief.
‘Excuse us anyway,’ the fat girl said decisively. ‘There are some friends calling us.’
‘I do hope you’ll meet a boat-builder on your travels,’ the tall girl said sweetly, and exploded again as she and her fat companion, still arm-in-arm, rushed across the street under the bow of a tram whose old driver rang his bell and glared after them. Two young men were leaning against the shuttered window of a jeweller’s shop waiting for them. The round clock on the tall red iron pillar said half-past eight. Casey gazed after the girls disdainfully.
‘They’re no loss anyway,’ he said, drawing himself up afresh.
‘What’s wrong with them?’ Stevie asked sulkily. The thing had happened several times before and he was inclined to blame Casey. For some reason girls wearied rapidly of his banter.
‘The tall one was in Normoyle’s, the brush shop. She was doing a line with a fellow, a steward on the boats. Did you notice the dead one I gave her?’
Reflectively they paced up the wide half-deserted street. The narrow side streets and lanes seemed to lead nowhere but to narrower streets and lanes, and for some reason when twilight fell the opposite footpath was deserted by all except topers, dodging down a side street for a drink.
They halted again by a corner where the main road met the city street broadside on. The street was wide and still except for an old tram, driven by an old driver; it was lined with dusty trees, and a few ragged old men sat at the edge of a fountain reading the evening paper. The front of the painted houses was already beginning to dim, and their colours to blend lightly into one another, into the green of the trees and blue of the sky, as though a brush laden with water had been drawn lightly across all, concealing the figures at the open windows, while, high above, the face of the market-house clock became visible, Then, following the drift of shop-girls and bowler-hatted shop-boys, they continued along the main road to the west where the red sandstone walls and peeling shop fronts made a tunnel through the evening, past the court-house beyond which the slanting light rebounded off walls and hoardings as though they were pillars, each slightly dimmer than the last till at the road’s end, all blent, all dazzled in a last feeble conflagration.
In the dusk the two streams flowed out to the town’s end and back. Men and women, boys and girls, mostly in pairs, though here and there some solitary figure clinging close to the wall or skirting the kerb went by a shade faster than the rest as though he were trying to give the impression that his mate had gone on ahead. Past the university grounds, the prison, the villas deep in gardens to the fields where all houses ended, and through the trees of the quiet riverside walk one saw the opposite hillside with its convents, its churches, asylums, villas. Faces and faces and faces, all with something unreal about them, masked like dancers in the quest of novelty, purpose or desire. The girls’ lips were brilliant, and all their chatter did not conceal that they never listened to one another, so intent were they on who went by. The boys’ gait was slower; impudent and appraising.
They passed the iron gates of the old walk, its lamps on metal arches screened by leaves while: the concealed light fell softly upon tree-trunks and benches with long interspaces of shadow. Nearby was the bridge, and they leaned across it, watching above the river the advancing night. Over the crazy Chinese pagodas of the lunatic asylum the crows performed their nightly manoeuvres. The river flowed between low banks with a steely light; between its massive rain-clouds the sky above it had the glare of ice. Trams, passing behind them, drifted to rest beside the river under the long gardens whose boughs overhung the roadway. Passers-by were in shadow except when the trams caught them; they seemed lost in profundities of discussion. Soon it would be time to return home. Stevie’s heart was filled with bitterness. There was no escape, no escape! For the first time that day he thought of his mother, rising before dawn, and sitting alone in the cold parlour, thinking her own thoughts. And there was nothing he could do for her. He was not like Ned; there was no one who could take Ned’s place in her heart.
Suddenly the sky blackened towards the west; rain spattered them, and turning up their coat collars, they hastily returned. The long wide road was boisterous with the noise of wind and straining of trees. As they passed the gaol two girls went by quickly on the opposite pavement. They looked round and laughed, their faces bright under the lamp-lit leaves. He quickened his step.
‘Here, Stevie, how did we come to miss this pair? Hurry!’
‘Ah, what’s the use?’ Stevie said hopelessly.
‘Look, look! ‘They’re stopping. They’re nodding to us. Come on, man. For God’s sake come on.’
‘Let them stop!’
‘Why? What’s wrong?’ Casey asked in surprise. ‘Don’t you want to chance it?’
‘Ah, look at the time. I’m going home. Go after them you!’
‘Sure, what’s the use if you won’t come? They look damn nice. Watch them now when the tram passes! Ah, my little beauties!’
The tram swept past and for a moment Stevie had a picture of two bright, chattering faces in a dark cavern of leaves.
‘No,’ he said.
‘Hold on,’ Casey said, his eyes alight. ‘Wait there for me one minute. I’ll bring them over if they’re all we think. Don’t stir now.’
And slowly, at an angle, he crossed the road, straightening his hat and lowering his brows humorously in the direction of the dark corner where the two girls stood. He took short neat steps. He was hidden from sight by a suburban train which clanged slowly down the road. Rain came on again in a drizzle and Stevie looked round for shelter. Within the little square with the rustic bandstand the lamp of a urinal shone up into the dark boughs, and he stood inside the wall. Suddenly, with appalling clarity, he became aware of the emptiness of his life. Three years since he had visited the library or looked at the books in Ned’s bookcase except casually, out of curiosity. Yet his mother dusted them and rose in the night to read them, as though it brought her closer to her dead son. All the events of the previous night came back, and he beat his open palm with his fist and rocked his head from side to side. He felt his face distorted and sniffed back tears of grief and shame. Two clerks stood in beside him, laughing. One was tall with a long face like a horse and an excitable way of readjusting his pince-nez every few moments. The other, bowler-hatted, blue-suited, had a squint and an expression of great sadness.
‘Gaw, that looks as if ’twas settled in for the night?’ the first said, shaking himself and staring up through the branches. ‘Jay, ’tis a good job we didn’t stop any longer in the pub! Jay, the others will be drenched, haw?’ And he burst into laughter, thrusting out his belly and shaking himself all over. Then, observing Stevie, he drew himself up and raised his brows while he readjusted his pince-nez.
To escape from them Stevie crossed the little square and stood against the wall under the trees. The tearful fit had gone, and wondering what had made him so weak, he watched the rain splinter the little lamplit pools at the edges of the stone paths. From the shadows came bursts of laughter, and he could see the flicker of matches. For the moment the procession had ceased, but even now when the rain beat down and the streets were swept clear and the feeble light of the street lamps grew more intense in the reflection of dark pavements, one still saw the scattered groups in shelter, waiting, hoping for a bright spell. Sometimes they would wait like that for hours and only return on the last tram, huddled together in knots under the dripping trolley.
He saw Casey run from group to group, his shoulders up, his hands gripping his coat collar as he dodged the cascades from the overhanging boughs. He whistled and Casey ran to him, laughing, and shaking himself like a dog. The rain had released a heavy smell from his clothes, and turning to the wall he proceeded to fill his pipe.
‘Ah, man, you missed it,’ he said with shining eyes. ‘Two gorgeous mots! Oh, Jay! Why the deuce didn’t you stop as you were? I couldn’t find you anywhere.’ As with wet hands he held the match above his pipe, his shadow fell upon the moss-green wall where he sheltered with bowed head and averted face. ‘Jay, man, we lost it didn’t meet them earlier.’
Suddenly in the dark opening of the little park, framed at either side by tree-trunks and above by the heavy masses of the leaves, the overcrowded tram lurched by and stopped, its windows dim as though frosted, the conductor steering the fresh passengers upstairs where four or five other dark figures clutched the rails as they perched upon the dripping backs of the seats and hunched their shoulders to escape the deluge of the lamp-lit leaves. ‘The rain was beginning to clear, and Casey, sucking his pipe which he sheltered with one hand, looked out cheerfully at the drip, drip of the leaves on the stone paths, the shadowy figures that passed, the shining segments of umbrellas, the headlights of cars seen under the translucent dripping leaves, the dark serpenting boughs. The rain cleared and they resumed their walk, but as they passed the pillared front of the court-house a clock struck ten.
As Stevie pulled the latch his mother hastened out the hall to meet him with her anxious whisper.
‘Now, don’t say anything, Stevie! For my sake!’
A cold fury rose in him. He strode in past her and as he did so heard his father raging upstairs.
‘Tin o’clock, be Jases! Tin o’clock that door is going to be locked every other night, and any lazy, idling little bastard that likes can stop outside.’ »
‘Stevie!’ she whispered appealingly, her finger to her lip, and Stevie began to unlace his boots. She lifted the lid of the kettle and peered down at it before she pushed it farther on to the fire. Her long face had the same drawn look and she shivered, pulling her black knitted shawl tighter about her shoulders. The rain had come in a stream under the back-door and there were some rags there to sop it up. The lamp was lowered, the fire covered, the clocks ticked loudly and he sweated profusely as he untied his laces; and for some reason the dim, airless kitchen, its walls crowded with pictures, the noisy clocks, the ornaments, the bolted doors, his mother’s whispers, all combined to give him the feeling that he had been shut off from life and was being physically suffocated, and it seemed to him that murderers must feel like this before they were driven to crime; a claustrophobia which only violence could shatter.
‘Do you hear me down there?’ the savage voice upstairs went on. ‘Do you hear me, I say?’
‘Oh, I hear you,’ Stevie snapped. ‘’Twould be hard for me not to.’
‘Well, pay attintion to what I say and don’t give me any of your lip. Tin o’clock that door is going to be locked.’
‘Oh, that’s enough about it, that’s enough about it,’ Stevie groaned, feeling that he was being goaded to madness.
‘What’s that you say?’
‘Jack, do you want the neighbours in on top of us?’ Mrs. Dalton cried in a sharp whisper, her eyes turned to the stairs. She was standing at the table, a kettle in her hand, wetting tea in a large cup.
‘I don’t care who hears me. I’ll say and do what I like in me own house, and be Jases while I’m in it I’ll be master.’
‘Oh, whisht, whisht, for God’s sake!’ she cried desperately. She put down the kettle and Stevie could see the beads of anguish on her forehead. ‘For God’s sake give us one night of peace.’
‘I’ll be master,’ the mad voice upstairs shrieked.
‘Stevie, boy, whatever you do don’t answer him back,’ she cried in a sharp voice. It was no longer a whisper, and her husband was stung by the reproof.
‘Let me hear him answer me back,’ he cried gleefully. ‘Let me hear him. I’ll quieten him. I’ll show him who’s going to be master in this house.’
‘I don’t think he can be in his right mind,’ she said, her voice suddenly shrill with hysteria which her husband failed to detect.
‘Ah, but who was in his right mind before?’ he jeered, and from the voice Stevie could see him in the half darkness on one elbow. ‘Who was right then, will you tell me?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I don’t believe you know either. Mad or bad, whatever you are. Whatever devil possessed you!’
She seemed to have forgotten what she was doing and was shivering violently all over as though smitten with an ague.
‘Mother!’ Stevie said in terror. He had never seen her like this before.
‘Ah, let me alone, child,’ she cried, shaking her head and waving her hands despairingly. ‘Let me alone! I wish I was dead; I wish I was away from him; I wish I was anywhere away from him; I wish I was away from it all for my head won’t stand it, won’t stand it, won’t stand it. ’Twon’t stand it, I say!’ she shrieked, clutching her temples.
‘Ah, it suits you to forget it,’ her husband shouted with evil triumph. ‘We had one of his kind in the house before and it suits you to forget the hand you put on him.’
She stopped suddenly with a look of the utmost astonishment, her face clearing with the shock, but her look maddened Stevie. He sprang to his feet by the fire, clenching and unclenching his fists till the nails bit into his palms.
‘How dare you!’ she cried in a voice that had regained its sanity. ‘Shame! The boy that’s gone.’
‘Yes,’ the mad voice upstairs continued. ‘Gone, gone, but what took him? I know well what took him, and I’ll see ’twon’t happen again. No, be Jases! No one else from my house will lose his religion walking the streets at night.’
Mrs. Dalton grasped at Stevie, but he dragged her to the foot of the stairs with him, sobbing with passion. His mother’s humiliation and his own he had been able to endure, but the calumny on Ned set him beside himself. It brought back all his blind devotion, the hopelessness of the months that had succeeded Ned’s death, and very clearly certain nights when he had quenched the candle, opened the skylight and lay back upon the bed, bidding Ned come to him if he still existed anywhere.
‘It’s a lie,’ he shouted hoarsely. ‘A lie, a lie, and well you know it!’
‘Stevie!’ his mother begged.
‘Who are you calling a liar?’ his father yelled, leaping out of bed with a creak of springs and a thud that shook the house. ‘Be Jases Christ, if I lay me hands on you——!
‘Liar! Liar!’ Stevie cried at the top of his voice, though in his blind terror he felt that each word might be his last. ‘Let me go, Mother! I’ll call him a liar to his face even if he kills me, the way he killed Ned, driving him out to work when he knew he wasn’t fit for it. Yes, he killed him and now he throws dirt at him. ...’
For a moment there was a horrified pause, and Stevie stood at the foot of the stairs aghast at his own daring.
‘Stevie,’ his mother called in a low clear voice, ‘stand away!’ She grasped the banister for support and leaned her back against the wall, glaring up, her shadow low but huge on the pink wall behind her. ‘Jack,’ she added, ‘another word from you and you’ll never see my face again.’ Stevie was terrified by the low vibrating note of passion in her voice; the way in which she suddenly mastered the hysteria that threatened to overwhelm her while she drew herself up to her full height with her hawk’s profile raised, a commanding figure as if from some old story. ‘How dare you!’ she cried suddenly, stamping her foot passionately on the last rung of the stair, and it seemed to Stevie that the roof must come off. ‘You cur! You ill-bred cur! How dare you! How dare you! How dare you! Ned, Ned, my child!’
In the silence he heard his father stump back to bed from the stair-head, snarling but cowed. And suddenly his mother seemed to collapse. Her hand fell from the banister, her head drooped; she closed her eyes for a moment. Then she opened them again and smiled feebly. Tiptoeing towards him, she put her finger to her lips and pointed to the tea on the table, and her face had a weak, apologetic girlish smile. Stevie, feeling suddenly weak himself, as though a great danger had passed over him, sat in his father’s chair by the window while with trembling hand she poured milk into his tea. The noise of the clocks was like thunder in their ears. The voice upstairs began again but this time talking to itself; suddenly it seemed to have become an old man’s voice.
‘Ah, I told ye! I told the pair of ye the way ’twould end, but ye wouldn’t be said nor led by me. I told ye, I told ye!’
‘Whisht, whisht!’ Mrs. Dalton begged of Stevie. Not that there was any danger of his speaking again. He put down the cup he had raised to his lips. His hand was trembling and his lips seemed to have no life in them. Again there was a pause and the bitter voice went on.
‘Too proud! Too proud and grand in himself to bend the knee before anyone, God or man! Puffed up with himself and his bit of knowledge! He wasn’t afraid of his father or the priest. Ah, but the Lord quietened him! The Lord quietened him in the latter end! He mocked at everything till the Lord smothered him and his mockery, him and the mockery together!’ Suddenly the voice rose to an animal scream of fury and terror, a scream of such blasphemous passion that it chilled the blood in Stevie’s veins. ‘Smothered him, be Jaaaases! Smothered him in his own blood!’
‘Oh, God! God! God! God! God!’
His mother had thrown herself, sobbing wildly, hopelessly, at Stevie’s feet.
One day in the restaurant when lunch was over she was leaning against the wall at the top with the other waitress. All the clatter of lunch-time had ceased, and it was along a narrow echoing lane that the noise of the city came to them; a dim murmur, continuous like the throb of an organ.
‘Eileen,’ the other waitress said and nudged her.
‘Did you want your bill, Mr. Donoghue?’ she asked, her book of dockets in her hand, hurrying to the only table that was occupied. A heavily built man sat there, toying with his coffee. He had a flabby face with big bones, and simple, rather emotional eyes. He was an old Rugby player.
‘Can I speak to you for a minute?’ he asked in a low voice.
‘Yes, Mr. Donoghue, what is it?’
‘Are you engaged?’ he asked, flushing suddenly in a way that made his heavy face attractive; awkwardly he leant his cheek on his hand, and the big soft eyes smouldered.
‘No, I’m not. Why?’
‘Are you thinking of it?’
‘Oh, I suppose I am,’ she said with an embarrassed laugh, her eyebrows going up and her whole face clearing. ‘Why, Mr. Donoghue? Have you a job for me?’
‘Do you want a job?’ he asked with a wry smile, gazing straight up at her.
‘Goodness, I do!’ she whispered. ‘This place is all right but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life here. I’d love to get into a shop. I’d be very good in a shop, Mr. Donoghue. Really, I would.’
‘Would you marry me?’ he asked, stubbing his cigarette butt into his saucer.
Wave upon wave of colour began to flow over her face, an extraordinarily expressive face with great eyes like her aunt’s.
‘Are you serious?’ she asked in a whisper.
‘But you don’t know anything about me.’
‘I know enough.’
‘Anyway, you don’t expect me to say anything now?’
‘No,’ he replied softly, pushing his cup about, ‘but you’ll think of it, won’t you?’
‘I’m afraid I won’t think of anything else,’ she said with sudden bitterness.
They had only the little cottage in a row by the cross and what furniture was left after the break-up of their home. She knew that when she came home from work her mother would be leaning over the half-door, gossiping, or sitting over the fire reading one of her usual trashy novelettes. After tea she would sidle out, by way of having a word with someone farther up the road, pause, watch and dash for the pub, the little black shawl tight about her shoulders. Eileen had wearied of quarrelling with her about it. In one of her mad fits of rage, when all her timidity dropped from her, she had gone to the pub herself and stormed at the publican who had only folded her arms and said, ‘Oh, Miss Soames, Miss Soames, we have our living to make as well as you!’ She knew they all hated her, despised her: ‘The Lady’ they called her; ‘so grand in herself; grudging her poor old mother the drop she puts in her mouth.’ And that sense of their criticism made her wither up inside as she came up the road from town, and, as she withered before their killing eyes, she held her head higher and ignored them more and more. Now when she met Stevie on the road she passed him by with a cold nod; he reminded her too much of her childhood. The mere sound of her mother’s voice, lamenting departed beauty and grandeur, made her shiver. She sat at home reading Shakespeare or some religious book which she only half understood. But they were real; they were true; not like the lies her mother read. Her mother would rise and go to the half-door, looking up and down the road, to see if her two great enemies were out. ‘They were two sisters who lived, one above, the other below them; the square sister and the sister like a broom; ‘The Graces’ as the neighbourhood nicknamed them; and from early morning till the last light was quenched one or other was at her half-door: they fluttered from house to house in uncertain flight like bats at twilight; sometimes the fury seized them simultaneously and they met half-way, their arms outspread and aprons flying, and became entangled like two sparrows brawling in mid-air, so that you could scarcely distinguish the two hissing voices and they blended in one long hideous bawl.
‘They’re on duty,’ her mother would cry amusedly from her perch on the half-door. ‘The Graces are on duty; they want to know what we’re doing tonight.’
‘Mother!’ Eileen would exclaim in anguish. ‘Come in from that door.’
And from the twilight outside would come the hissing tongues. ‘Foreigners; outsiders; no wan know where they came from; wan of them in the madhouse.’
‘Oh, dear, no,’ her mother would reply with a bitter laugh. ‘Not for such common creatures as these. Our house is our own, we hope.’ For some reason Mrs. Soames favoured the royal plural.
For years Eileen had been keeping company with Johnny Columby, the carpenter. He was a thin lad with a thin nose battered at the bridge into a caricature of a roman nose. He shambled rather than walked, his shoulders stooped; hawked and spat a great deal because his nose was not properly shaped, and talked with a very common adenoidal accent; and this too hurt her fastidiousness. When she could forget it, they were very happy, and she joked and played like a child. Sometimes they went out of the city and had tea in some little village, and then all at once someone she knew in the restaurant would come in, and Eileen would smile and nod and grow crimson while she watched Johnny eat.
‘For goodness’ sake,’ she would whisper, ‘will you eat properly? What sort are they in your house?’
‘Ah, Jasus Christ!’ Johnny would hiss, reddening with passion—he had a violent temper—‘what harm am I doing?’
‘And have I to tell you again that you mustn’t use language like that?’
‘Oh, Christ,’ Johnny would say, grinding his teeth, ‘what the bloody hell is after coming over you now? I think you must be mad.’
‘That’s right. Throw my family in my face.’
‘I’m not throwing your bloody family in your face.’
And they would go home through the scented twilit lanes under the stars, silent, fuming, feeling that everything had gone wrong. There would be a chilly parting and then Johnny would come to make it up. He always made it up. Next night he would be waiting for her outside the restaurant, and seeing him, she would come out, smiling and radiant. And, relief overwhelming him, Johnny would give her a vicious punch in the ribs and ask, ‘What in the name of Jasus do we be always fighting for?’ and she, with tears in her eyes, would shrug her shoulders and feel for his hand. How could they in their bewilderment know that it was life that was at fault?
They were going up a tree-shaded walk outside the city when she told him of Donoghue’s offer. It was a winter’s night and the bare boughs, dropping the feeble light of arched lamps on to the pathway, were locked against a thick sky of clouds and moonlight. He said nothing, and she checked an inclination to tell him not to slouch. He stood at the shadowy side of a tree, half-sitting, half standing, his legs splayed and his hands on his knees, and looked up and down the deserted walk.
‘And what did you say?’
‘I said I’d think about it.’
‘And do you mean it?’ he asked, spitting carefully between his legs.
‘I do, Johnny.’ Again she had to resist an inclination to check him for spitting. It was hard to realise that soon he would no longer be her property to check or not as she pleased. With sudden intensity she leaned towards him.
‘Johnny,’ she whispered, ‘try and understand. Honest, I can’t help it. I don’t think you and me would be suited to one another. I don’t think we’d get on; I don’t really. I want a better sort of life than you can give me, and this is my only chance.’
‘And me caring for you?’ he asked, looking away, ‘what about that?’
‘You only think you care for me, that’s all. ’Tis only all imagination. The nuns told us that and they were right.’
‘There are times when I think you’re the hardest-hearted little bitch that Christ ever put into this world,’ Johnny said hopelessly. He thrust his dirty old soft hat back off his head.
‘Johnny,’ she said earnestly, with clenched fists, feeling that she was fighting for her life, her future, and that if she were not firm now she would regret it forever, ‘you’ll see later on that I’m right. The nuns are right. ‘There’s no such thing as love. I don’t believe in it, and I should know, seeing what it done to my family. ’Tis all only physical; it goes off after a short time, and then you’re worse than before.’
‘Oh, Christ!’ he said, waving his arm, ‘you talk such a hell of a lot. If you’d only stop talking for a while you might get a bit of sense. But you’ll never get sense till you pay for it.’
He turned and left her. She was seized by a violent desire to rush after him and throw herself into his arms, but she bit her lip, clenched her fists and went through with it till he turned the corner. Now she would be mistress of her own life.
Her new home was on a hill over the town, a suburban road, quiet and steep. There was a long garden before the door, and beyond the narrow roadway a high wall overlooked by a line of beech trees. In the morning the sun rose behind them. Very often, frightened and hurt after a sleepless night, she was glad to see the light burst between them; whether it came stormy or bright, whether their boughs were veiled in a mist of bronze or stiffly outstretched like silver trays that held the great fronds of brilliantly coloured withering leaves. It was the signal for a fever of activity. When she put on her spotless white coat and knelt before the range she began to sing and sang all the morning through, the horror of the night retreating. It was all hers, the cold kitchen, the light stealing over the roof down the back wall, the slanting misty gold in the front room where she laid the table, and, outside, the naked torsos of the beeches. It was her property, her solitude, her heaven; what she had always asked for.
She was happiest after her husband had gone out for the day, for then it was entirely hers. She dressed in a leisurely way, pirouetting before the mirror of the dressing table, laughing, singing, adding new touches to her dress. It was grand to get into town, the streets just warming with the sun, and go past the restaurant where she had spent so many miserable days. And she enjoyed shopping, the bargaining, the calculating, and the return on the tram beside some of her old neighbours. Now she always addressed them in her shy friendly way.
But often it would be just at the height of her pleasure that the blow would fall, and one of them would slyly or coarsely say something to remind her of her mother, of her upbringing. ‘Then she would go home and throw herself on the bed, weeping bitterly for all the humiliations of her childhood; her aunt being dragged screaming to the asylum in all her tinsel finery; her mother drinking in the pub while she waited outside; the pennies the Fenelans gave her to collect the potato peels for their pigs. And as her mother used to do she would sit before the fire, her hands joined between her thighs, shivering.
It was a relief when she knew she was pregnant. Hating her husband’s embraces so much and resorting to such artifices to keep him off, she felt she must pay. Every morning in spite of her heaviness and sickness she went to Mass, praying that God would strengthen her to overcome her savage modesty and fastidiousness.
One evening soon after her child was born, her husband was late. She had supper ready (to make up for her coldness she threw all her energies into cooking for him). When he came she saw he was drunk. He hung up his coat and scarf and came towards her with outstretched arms, beaming idiotically. He sniffed sentimentally, tears rising to his big soft eyes, and tried to put his arm about her. She retreated before him, in horror.
‘Ed, have you been drinking?’
‘Only a glass of whiskey, sweetheart. A fellow I didn’t see for years. He was in the Rugger team at school. Stan Daly.’
‘Keep away from me,’ she hissed, retreating across the kitchen from him.
‘Oh, come now, old girl, what’s wrong?’ he asked with sentimental breeziness.
‘Don’t come near me, you drunken beast!’ she sobbed, tossing back the hair from her eyes and crouching against the wall. In a flash of horror it all came up before her; her mother, the pub; an eternal pattern.
She rushed out of the kitchen and up to the bedroom, leaving him staring stupidly after her. When he followed her upstairs, she rushed out and brushed past him without a word.
One afternoon she ran into Johnny Columby in the Main Street. After a moment’s hesitation she smiled, flushed, turned back. He turned back too. He wore a suit of blue overalls with a ruler sticking out of the breast pocket, and scratched his head in embarrassment as he talked to her.
‘Well, Johnny,’ she exclaimed with raised eyebrows, lifting her shoulders towards him, ‘you’re a terrible stranger.’
‘Well, and whose fault is that?’ he growled.
‘Would you ever come to tea some evening?’ she asked eagerly, expectant of a rebuff.
‘I’d come if I was asked,’ he replied in the same surly voice.
‘Would you, Johnny? Would you really? Honest, will you come? This evening? No, tomorrow evening would be better, because then we could have the house to ourselves.’ In her excitement she caught both his hands and wrung them. ‘Lord, Johnny, we’ll have great fun!’
She did not expect him but he came, and after that he came regularly, until they saw one another almost as often as before her marriage. He was a funny fellow, Johnny. If she wanted to go somewhere he would bath the baby and mind it for the whole evening. Often when she came up the hill, radiant after a night at the theatre, she thought of Johnny sitting before the fire with his bottle of stout and his eternal fags, and wondered what he thought about. ‘I’d have married him,’ she thought, ‘only he was too easy. I was always able to do what I liked with him.’ He was still easy; she could still do what she liked with him. With his assistance she plunged into a new fever of repairing. She tore out the old flagged, black-beetly kitchen with its high window and range and turned it into a dining-room. She installed a lavatory on the landing. He made a new set of dining-room furniture for her. And again they would forget themselves and joke and play as they worked; she tearing up and downstairs, her eyes puckered from the smoke of a cigarette, and Johnny, cool and pale and common with his hands in the pockets of his overalls, standing back to admire his work.
‘Oh, Johnny,’ she would cry, ‘isn’t it lovely?’
‘You’re lovely yourself,’ Johnny would say with his acrid, good-natured grin. ‘Give us a squeeze for Christ’s sake!’
And she would kiss him hastily and tear herself away, blushing and laughing. Afterwards they would sit before the fire, she on a cushion against the wall and Johnny sipping his bottle of stout. She would quench the gas and they would talk of the eternal subject of Johnny’s meditations.
‘Erra, Christ, girl, you should have married me. What the hell did you want to marry that fellow for? He’s no good.’
‘He’s a very good man at his job, Johnny. As good as you and he earns more.’
‘A clerk!’ Johnny said scornfully.
‘An accountant, Johnny.’
‘Accountant, how are you?’
‘And what’s more,’ she said earnestly, ‘if I had the same choice again I’d do what I did before.’
‘You would, I hear,’ Johnny said with sour amusement, and spat into the fire which lit up for a moment his long acrid yellow face with the broken nose. (She no longer reproached him for spitting; not even for cursing.) ‘You don’t care about him. He’s white deal, that’s what he is.’
‘I’ve told you a hundred times that after the first couple of months that doesn’t matter, not if you married the handsomest man on earth, not if you were so crazy about him that you’d throw yourself into the river.’
‘Gah!’ Johnny exclaimed, flicking his cigarette.
‘Oh, I know, I know,’ she said angrily. ‘You believe the sort of things you read in story-books, that there’s no one only the one man or the one woman in the world, and if you can’t have what you want that life is hell. It isn’t true, Johnny. I tell you it’s not true. That’s all right for people like my mother. But it’s all lies.’
‘I believe,’ Johnny said sturdily, ‘that there is one man or one woman.’
‘Lies! Lies! I could find you a thousand that would suit you as well as me. And better, yes, better! *
‘You can stick them where the monkey stuck the nuts,’ Johnny replied with his commonest sniffle. ‘I wouldn’t give a bottle of stout for the whole bloody lot of them.’
‘And you mean you’ll die a bachelor?’ she asked in astonishment.
‘Oh, begor, if I don’t meet anyone I like better than you, I will.’
Sometimes, sitting there like that her eyes, for no reason, would fill with tears. With astonishing clearness they could hear the people go up and down the suburban road, and sometimes the sounds, the silence within doors, the sense of night and of the stars without would grow upon her until her eyes grew wet, and she jumped up to light the gas.
Coming down after a walk on the hills over the city with Peter Devane, he had run‘into a group who hailed him from the .river-bank. Farrell, the teacher, was sitting on the river wall. Mac, Ned’s friend, was leaning over it, and Costello striding up and down the footpath. Behind them a dark bridge crossed the shallow river which emerged from it a brilliant green like the sky above it, a’ luminous deep-sea green, and trams with pale, flower-like lights nosed up in silhouette into the sky as they crossed the bridge and drifted into harbour by the river-bank below where the young men sat.
‘Hallo,’ Mac said cantankerously, eyeing Devane up and down in the twilight. .‘Tis ages since I saw you.’
‘We were up the hills,’ Devane replied. ‘Where ye ought to have been!’.
‘And would have been—only for Farrell.’
‘Only for me?’ the young man on the wall chorused in a drawling voice, a voice with no fixed notes only an upward glide, ‘My goodness, sure, ’twas Costello began it.’
‘I don’t know which of ye began it,’ Mac said with a shudder, drawing his hands tight about his face and leaning far over the wall. ‘All I know is ye have my night destroyed on me.’
‘I suppose,’ Devane said, pulling his nose ironically, ‘it can only be the one old subject.’
‘The Holy—ugh—Roman Catholic Church,’ Mac replied in a muffled voice without looking up. ‘Where would we be without it?’
‘I’m not talking about the Catholic Church at all,’ Farrell said hotly, his voice pursuing its never-ending upward glide. ‘I’m only talking about it as it affects my job—the education of the country handed over to illiterate monks and nuns. People that stick up a blue-and-white statue of the Blessed Virgin in the schoolroom and call it education!’
‘You could have worse,’ Costello said with tightened lips. He was a small, dark-haired, nervous man who clenched and unclenched his hands as he spoke.
‘A statue by some Bavarian Jew? How could you have worse, haw? How the blazes could you have worse?’ Farrell bent down from the wall. with the glimmer of big spectacles and the shadow of a little golden moustache under his hat—an astonished face. ‘Better have a boy’s character developed than his mind,’ Costello said fiercely.
‘Character?’ The’ spineless voice slid up like a fiddle-string being tightened. ‘And you think that develops character? My God, in England———
‘Ah, England! All because you’ve spent a year or two in England!’
‘No! No! But listen! ’Tisn’t that. But, my goodness, the boys there stick together and tell the truth and work out their own sort of life. Now I admire that! You can sneer at England, but it works, you can see yourself it works, not like this confounded country, with all the best brains leaving it, and a set of half-wits ruining what’s left. Now, ask Mac. He’ll tell you.’
‘I feel—my head is reeling with ye,’ Mac said feebly, pushing back his hat. ‘Do you never stop arguing, Farrell?’
‘Ah, no, but seriously,’ Farrell gawked—as though Nature had ever intended him to consider anything frivolously. ‘’Pon me word, I’m telling the truth. You must see it yourself, Mac. All this religiosity, ’tis bad for the boys.’
‘But how can that be?’ blazed Costello, stamping his foot and turning on the other with a terrible air. ;
‘Anything a child doesn’t understand is bad for it,’ Devane broke in with sudden earnestness.
‘You see, Joe,’ Mac exclaimed, turning sideways to light a cigarette, ‘religion is like poetry. If you can’t’—puff—‘make it real to him, you kill the instinct in him.’
‘And, and, and,’ Farrell babbled, leaning almost off the wall in a passion of earnestness so that his fair skin seemed to glow, ‘what happens all these kids when they grow up? Tell me that! Where does all the religion go to then? If one tenth of it stuck we’d have a nation of saints. And what have we? A nation of crooks!’
‘Farrell, I beg of you,’ Mac exclaimed, raising his hands and averting his face as though from some horror. ‘Cease this, this unseemly brawling. Let us at least——— He stopped, shuddered, put his hand to his domed brow. He had a big head with a great forehead, a mass of silky brown hair hanging from under his fat, soft, sensuous lips and cleft and rounded chin—the face of a poet.
‘A nation of crooks,’ repeated Farrell, beside himself.
‘And what do you want?’ Costello hissed, squaring up to him.
‘What do you want?’ the other said between his teeth.
‘What’s wrong with trying to produce gentlemen for a change?’ Devane asked harshly, poking his head forward and leaning on his stick. Even in the gathering darkness Stevie saw excitement had made him change colour.
‘Gentlemen!’ Costello exclaimed scornfully. ‘The English ideal; cricket and the old school tie?’
‘No,’ Devane answered slowly, painfully, almost as though he were thinking it out, word for word. ‘Just that they could grow up manly and independent and have some code of honour to stand by them in after life.’
‘Code of honour?’ cried Costello. ‘Haven’t they a code of morals, man?’
‘But have they?’ Devane asked, his voice rising. He bent still farther forward at an uncomfortable angle and rapped his stick once or twice on the ground. ‘Now, Mr. Costello’—Stevie had noticed growing upon him that ironical formality—‘when I was at school I went on retreat with all the other fellows. All the time I had a toothache, the whole week, but because I wanted to be like me Redeemer’—the harsh voice was charged with sarcasm—‘I punished myself by doing nothing about it. Then, the morning we were going to communion, it got very bad. I was half mad with pain. I couldn’t stand it. I put some oil of cloves in it and I hung over the edge of the bed for an hour, spitting it out, the way I wouldn’t swallow as much as one drop of it and break the fast. But I told the priest. Of course I told the priest. Otherwise, me conscience would be at me.’ Devane leaned back with a satisfied stare, his head on one side. He gave a smirk of derision. ‘And what do you think the priest did, Mr. Costello?’
‘He stopped you going to the altar, I’ll engage,’ Farrell broke in triumphantly.
‘He did,’ Devane replied, his long nose wrinkled up. Then he raised his stick and struck the wall with it. Stevie noticed with surprise that the long face was almost black with passion.
‘And now, Mr. Costello, maybe you’ll tell me what code of honour could I have?’
‘But, damn it, the priest was right,’ Costello said desperately. ‘He was justified.’
‘I don’t care whether he was justified or not,’ Devane said with a grave air. ‘Do you know what happens boys you do that sort of thing to, Mr. Costello?’
‘You teach them the principles of their religion.’
‘You teach them to lie,’ shouted Devane. ‘You turn them into casuists and logic-choppers. You teach them never to rely upon their own sense of decency. You kill honour in them.’
‘The priest was right,’ Costello said incoherently.
‘Balderdash,’ cried Farrell exultantly as with his two hands behind him he leaped off the wall. ‘Devane has you in flitters and you know it.’ The bell of the little tram began to clang under the tall riverside houses with the sloping gardens. One by one the young men stepped on to the lumbering car as it gingerly passed the points. As they sat down they lit cigarettes and, looking over the railing as the tram mounted the bridge, they saw the moon among the ripples like a cluster of silver weed. It was a night of cold, heroic brightness, and the bare trees and the little houses and all Nature seemed to surrender themselves to its lofty spell.
And now in bed Stevie thought how much life remained the same and yet was not unhappy. This was the same whitewashed room in which he and Ned had slept; it had been coloured pink; that was all; the same penthouse roof and skylight, table and chest of drawers which his father had painted white for some reason; Our Lady of Perpetual Succour leaning sideways her Byzantine head and St. Patrick with uplifted crozier, crushing the snakes. The candle by his bed threw the same sort of mysterious shadows in the wind that blew down from the open skylight. Only his father when he got up pushed in the door and said plaintively, puckering his lips over the waste, ‘Can’t you not be wasting that candle, like a good boy?’
He put down the book he had been reading — it was Heine’s Travel Pictures which Devane had lent him; it had been his brother’s favourite book. He blew out the candle and watched the skylight turn deep and deeper blue as it expanded upon the darkness. Two o’clock rang from some distant church. It was Sunday morning, so he could afford to read on into the night. About eleven he would get up and shave, and go out as though to last Mass. But instead of going down the steps to the chapel yard he would go on to the foot of the hill where Devane awaited him and wander down the river, past the three-master at the jetties. There was a river walk in a cloister of trees, and they would sit on a bench by the bank, near the bandstand and the two Crimea guns, and watch the tall salmon-coloured houses on the opposite bank reflected in the water. Sometimes Devane would speak to him of Ned and of the triple friendship that had been broken by his death. Sometimes some words of Ned would arise naturally out of the conversation, and chilled with exaltation Stevie would return home, feeling that he had rescued so much at least from the grave. Devane was a silent man; scanty of praise, and for that reason Stevie treasured all the more his cautious words about Ned. ‘Yeees, he had a fine head. He had an original sort of mind, and, of course, he was only at the beginning. ... When he came home for dinner Stevie would try to evade questions from his father about who said. Mass.
He was roused from sleep by a very gentle persistent knocking. He listened again and heard it repeated, though it was still dark night. He heard the creak of springs, his father speaking in a low voice and, when he went on to the landing, saw by the light of the colza oil-lamp his bare legs as he stood on the end of the bed and his bullet head. silhouetted against the skylight.
‘Stevie?’ he whispered, bending his head.
‘What is it?’
‘Ask who’s there first,’ his father said in a conspiratorial whisper. He seemed to live in fear of nocturnal raids. Stevie, the lighted candle in his hand, went downstairs and stood behind the front door.
‘Who is it?’ he asked.
‘Is that you, Peter?’ he exclaimed in astonishment.
‘My God! Hold on a tick till I open the door.’
Beside the lock there were no less than four different bolts, and Stevie muttered angrily to himself as he fumbled for them. Peter Devane was standing outside in a heavy overcoat with a brown woollen muffler about his throat. He looked slim and pale and anxious. Stevie grabbed his arm.
‘Come in, Peter, come in! What is it?’
‘’Tis Gus,’ Devane said gloomily as he made his way into the little sitting-room which smelt of damp. There was a fire-screen before the hearth and the floor creaked underfoot. The candle which Stevie placed on the round table in the centre only partially lit it.
‘What’s up with Gus?’
‘He never came home.’
‘Never came home?’ Stevie exclaimed, and with bleared eyes peered at the face of the pillared clock on the mantelpiece. ‘My goodness, is that the time it is! He was never as late as this before, was he?’
‘No,’ Devane replied in his meditative way..
‘Have you any idea at all where he could be?’
‘I thought he might be in Foley’s, playing cards.’
‘And he wasn’t?’
‘The house was in darkness, anyway.’
‘Oh, Jay!’ Stevie exclaimed. ‘Would it be an accident? Did you try the hospitals at all?’
Again the voice was slow and deliberate, and Stevie knew he was afraid. He was boy enough to be glad that Devane had come to him, his junior. He compressed his lips with an affectation of determination.
‘Hold on a minute now till I put on some clothes,’ he said.
With the same boyish affectation of capability he stood in the door of his parents’ bedroom, pulling on his socks and telling them in whispers which were intended to be cool what was wrong. His father, sitting up in bed surrounded by clouds of smoke, spat across the room into the fender.
‘Don’t forget to lock the door and put the key under the window,’ he said.
As the two young men banged the door behind them the misty morning rang like a gong and the cold struck their faces. The echo of their own footsteps accompanied them from behind the terraces standing gauntly on either hand, as though someone with leaden boots were leaping the back walls of the houses. When they passed the mouth of the quarry it was as if the whole hillside rang, and the street lamps thrust into the sky above its dark mass looked cold and lonely.
As they passed the cross the hillside began to rise in terraces to their right, till at last it soared in high walls and steps with gas-lamps at their foot and steep dark lane-ways, and with equal suddenness dropped so sharply on the other that the roofs and shadowy chimney-pots lay below the level of the road, which itself branched into two levels, so that they seemed, walking behind the railing of the tall footpath, to be walking an echoing rampart above some mediaeval city. A little lamplighter came hurriedly towards them on rubber-soled feet, dowsing the byways with cold shadow.
‘There’s a nip in it this morning, boys,’ he said cheerfully.
Between the dark gables of a sloping street another hillside rising before them was piled up like a box of bricks into the sky. ‘The angular mass of it was broken here and there by the framed calm yellow light of a window or a gas-lamp in its little grotto of thin green light. They crossed a bridge over a factory stream and climbed a flight of steps with a street lamp at its top. High above them a spire tossed out the hour. They rang the hospital bell and a sleepy porter answered.
‘Name of Devane? No. No one here of that name. And nobody not identified.’
As they went downhill again to the quays the darkness thinned over the hill to their left. The lamps had been quenched upon the bridge and among the main streets, but it was still dull, the houses and shops seemed very high and the noise they made seemed to follow them as though they were dragging a heavy chain behind. A policeman was standing under one of the city clocks, and a little heap of unswept papers had come to rest at his feet. They crossed the swing bridge past the red-brick library, the schools, the cattle-yards, but at the second hospital it was the same. Day was breaking when they got back to the library, and as they crossed the bridge two girls came up the quay with dragging feet as though they were lame or as if they wore heels too high for their shoes. The sound of their feet had the same dull quality as the red-brown of the railway bridge and dark sandstone of the old houses and stores which stood up against a background of hill and river and mast. It was colour without light; the material was illuminated but it remained lifeless, still asleep.
When they crossed the bridge they stood for a moment looking down the street before them. It ran almost parallel to the quay with its white chain-posts and terraces of old lodging-houses and sodality halls, but had nothing in common with it. Except for some banks it was a street of lawyers and doctors; a Victorian street trying to be Georgian and with a stable and secretive air, suited to confidential errands, so quiet that you felt if you were to ply one knocker all the houses would respond together. In an hour or two it would be at its best when the spires of the cathedral which closed it at one end rose white and clear above it, and a silver light mounting from the river picked out the sedateness of its tall windows, rows of young trees, painted doors, iron railings. Evening did not suit it, for then the cathedral was a mass of shadow, and the broken sky flooded the pavements with a brilliant light that prolonged the shadows of trees and railings, blackened the red-brown walls until the roadway seemed to disappear, made the tall windows gape with a hollow glare, and assimilated all to the wild, to the mountain-land that stretched away behind the cathedral. Then it looked a ruin, and as a street it was the antithesis of ruin, did not take kindly to romance.
‘Any good in your mind, ducky?’
It was only then they noticed the two other whores, sitting on the polished steps of a bank, smoking. ‘Their dead eyes followed the young men with the same blank glare as though they too were waiting to be touched into life, arid Stevie, embarrassed, reddened and quickened his step.
‘There’s only one more hospital we can try,’ he said hastily, ‘and I don’t know what will we do if he’s not there. Peter,’ he added timidly, ‘I suppose he’d never take a drop?’
‘He might, of an odd time,’ Devane assented.
‘Is it possible at all he was caught somewhere after hours and wouldn’t give his name?’
‘He might,’ Devane agreed again.‘Then you think it might be worth trying the bridewell?’
‘All right. ’Tisn’t so far out of our way anyhow.’
The bridewell was at the very top of the market-place, which with its rough limestone market-house, its rows of cheap public-houses, was also deserted. As they drew near it Devane stopped, and this time it was he who blushed.
‘Would you mind if I stopped outside?’ he said nervously.
‘Do, of course,’ Stevie replied with astonishment. It was unlike Devane, and the boy felt that he was deeply perturbed.
A sleepy-eyed policeman gazed through the grill with a strange grey light behind him. Then he opened the door, buttoning up his black tunic and shaking himself within it. He was an oldish man with close-cropped yellow hair turning grey; a pink, baby complexion which showed up every line; pale-blue, fanatic eyes, and a wailing voice which seemed to be associated with a nervous tremor.
‘Devane?’ he asked. ‘Yes, there is a fellow inside of that name. Are you his brother?’
‘No, but his brother asked me to come.’
‘Come in,’ said the sergeant, brushing his yellow-grey moustache and showing an array of white teeth in a nervous smile. He led the way into the day-room. The electric light was still burning there. ‘There were two trestle tables and some wooden benches along the wall; racks with carbines in them, and typewritten orders pinned to the wall.
‘You know, sergeant,’ Stevie said timidly, ‘I think it must be a mistake.’
‘It’s no mistake,’ the sergeant groaned, his low forehead ploughed by mournful wrinkles.
‘But I give you my word, sergeant — I know him well. I never knew him to have the sign of drink on him.’
‘And did I say it was drink he had taken?’ the sergeant asked with shrill pedanticism, screwing up his blue eyes and glaring at Stevie.
‘A boy of seventeen,’ he went on. ‘Ah, it is terrible, terrible,’ he said, glaring at Stevie with fanatical blue eyes while his nostrils twitched uncontrollably. ‘The reformatory is the proper place for boys like that.’ In three jerky steps he came up to Stevie, his clenched fist held out behind as though he were going to strike him. ‘Why doesn’t his father beat, beat, beat him?’ he hissed. ‘What? Answer me. I’d kill him if he was my son,’ he added. He sniffed and dropped his hand, the lines beside his mouth tightening in a fixed expression of misery.
‘His father is dead,’ Stevie said dully.
‘I have two boys at home,’ the sergeant wailed,covering his left fist with his hand as though in prayer. Two. Myself and their poor mother plan for them, work for them, spend hours in the chapel praying for them, but at any moment they might meet a fellow like that who’d be the ruin of them.’ Suddenly to Stevie’s consternation he reached for a carbine, and his lower lip began to protrude. ‘If a boy like that led one of my sons into evil ways I’d shoot him myself,’ he shouted on a breaking note, his cropped, grey, foolish old head trembling, his pale eyes blazing. ‘Yes, dear sir, and think I was doing a good day’s work—God forgive me!’
As though slightly ashamed of himself he replaced the carbine, muttering to himself, and turned back to Stevie with a nervous sniffle and twitching of the right nostril.
‘Do you want to see him?’ he asked irritably.
‘Could I? I think there must be some mistake.’
‘Oh, very well, very well,’ the old policeman nodded. ‘You’re not supposed to, but I’ll let you—for a minute or two. Step out here into the yard, young sir.’
He went before Stevie along a dim whitewashed passage, with bent, recollected head, and let him into a yard, where he left him. It was a tall, narrow one of grey and yellow brick with high barred windows, in one of which the electric light was still burning, and Stevie’s eyes were carried up to the brightness of the sky; wave on wave of grey cloud; all like sand-heaps blown by the wind, all perfectly still, A key turned in a lock somewhere and a heavy door swung open. A tall boy with a dark countenance emerged. His brown hair was wild and his eyes were sleepy; but when he saw Stevie he stopped with head upon one side and brows raised in mock surprise. He laughed boisterously and advanced with outstretched hand.
‘Just fancy meeting you, Stevie!’ he exclaimed. ‘What are you in for?’
‘Gus!’ Stevie said angrily. ‘Is this true?’
‘Yes.’ There was no laughter now. The word was snapped out with a narrowing of the eyes and a defiant toss of the head.
‘That’s all right. Peter is outside. I’m sure he’ll be glad to know,’ Stevie said bitterly and turned on his heel.
‘———you!’ Gus snapped after him.
‘Be silent, you foul-mouthed young cur!’ the old policeman shouted angrily.
Outside Peter was walking up moodily towards the quay, his hands behind his back. Stevie noticed the tumble-down old houses grouped about the bridewell, the old shops and rag-and-bone stores, the quay wall and the hillside on the opposite side of the river with its stepped laneways, its towers, its painted fronts. It was very bright after the darkness of the bridewell, and all seemed as though on tiptoe, waiting to have its picture painted with all its colours infinitely fresh and tender. Devane raised his eyes as Stevie came up. Stevie shrugged his shoulders.
‘What is it?’ Devane shouted.
‘A woman he was caught with.’
‘A prostitute?’ Devane asked in a ringing voice, incredulously, his whole face flooding with red.
‘Yes. Had you any idea he was that sort, Peter?’
‘No,’ the other growled.
The old sergeant came to the bridewell gate and, after a look at the sky and the buildings round, came towards them composing his features.
‘If you want to get him released,’ he said in a kindly voice, ‘you should go to the Lord Mayor. He can give you a letter.’
‘Will this get into the papers?’ Devane asked morosely.
‘Unless you know somebody who can keep it out, it will—a reporter or someone like that. There is a reporter up your way; a Mr. Conway, a very nice man.’ The sergeant sniffed dolefully, and with his fresh complexion and weak, pale, innocent eyes he seemed to Stevie almost a part of the morning. ‘What was it, mister? Was it bad company?’
‘How do I know what it was?’ growled Devane.
‘Bad company I think is the cause of it all,’ and the sergeant raised his chin and looked from Stevie to Devane and back.
‘And what is bad company?’ Devane asked angrily. ‘Is it the ones that take a boy by the hand and lead him to that sort of thing, or people that don’t know the harm they’re doing, talking about things above a boy’s head? How do we know what is bad company?’
And Stevie realised that Devane was blaming himself for talking too freely before his young brother, and, by some casual sentence, wrongly picked up, setting him astray. But the policeman took it up in the simplest sense.
‘That is true indeed,’ he wailed, pulling at his nose. ‘We would all want to watch over what we say, the best of us, for we are all great sinners.’
A bright sun-spatter struck the sky above the decrepit fish stores at the corner of the marketplace and gilded the towers on the opposite hillside. ‘The innumerable heaped-up cloudlets were like drifted snow at sunset, like a desert. The market-place began to feel cold and Stevie stamped his feet moodily. Then suddenly from somewhere in the burrow of lanes behind them the bell for Mass rang out, deep-toned and impatient; and almost at the same moment, as though released by it, there came the sound of a door opening and closing and the patter of feet on cobbles. From out an arched lane-way came an old woman in her shawl, and at the same time in all the lanes behind the cheerful sound of footsteps. It seemed to blend with the bells and with the rattle of milkcarts over cobbles. The old policeman joined his hands and, with trembling head raised, looked up at the sky.
‘Oh, God help us!’ he said with sudden deep emotion. ‘God help us! And such a beautiful, shining Sunday morning! We don’t deserve it, boys. No, we don’t deserve it, God knows!’
And with his head in the air and his nose twitching, he went away and left them there in the morning light.
One morning a knock came to the door. She opened it and saw outside the curate, Father Lynnot; a little fat red-faced, nervous man in untidy clothes with black mittens and an umbrella under his arm. He looked at her narrowly with head a little on one side.
‘You’re Eileen Donoghue?’ he exploded at last.
‘Yes, father,’ she said. ‘Won’t you come in?’
‘I will.’ He followed her into the little sitting-room, talking all the while about the weather. ‘I know you well,’ he went on, sitting on the edge of the table instead of the chair she drew forward. ‘I used to see you at Mass every morning. Oh, a most devout little girl you were then. Tell me, tell me, why don’t I see you now?’
‘I’m afraid I really have too much to do,’ she replied shrilly, resenting the familiarity of his tone.
‘I know, I know, I know. You have your share of troubles as well as the rest of us. ‘Tell me, how long is your husband out of work?’
‘Nearly six months, father. You seem to know quite a lot about me, don’t you?’
‘Aha, you’d be surprised how much I know! Has he any chance of a job?’
‘Not much if it depends on himself,’ she replied with a flash of bitterness.
‘I know that too,’ he chortled. ‘I admire your courage, ’pon my word, I do.’
‘I really believe you know everything,’ she said with a touch of temper.
‘Almost, almost. But I’m studying hard. And now, jokes aside, tell me is there anything I can do?’ He got off the table and began to prowl about the room in a peculiar way, stepping high, stopping every now and again to look at a picture or ornament. ‘There’s ways and means, you know. Tell me now, what can he do, and I’ll take a turn at it.’
Within a few weeks he had got her husband a job; a small job, true, but long months of worry had made even that welcome. Nor was it the last service he did her. He called frequently, in the morning on his way to town, in the evenings for supper. He ate large helpings of bacon and sausages, laughed a great deal and talked with his mouth full. He was madly curious, wanted to know who everyone was, who their families were, how much they earned. He knew everybody and had a great deal of influence, so that there were always poor people soliciting his assistance. At first Eileen could make nothing of him; repelled by his peasant coarseness, his curiosity, his cunning; but then under the tough rind she discovered unexpected warmth and tenderness, a foolish, bewildered, emotional nature.
The parish priest was a tall, plump, pale-faced aristocratic man who loathed his curate and Lynnot loathed him in turn. But to Eileen he represented only another illusion shattered. As a young girl, in revolt against her upbringing, she had been deeply religious and looked with awe on priests to whom she curtseyed whenever she met one; every Sunday found her at the altar of the little church, intoxicated with the candlelight, the flowers, the smell of the vestments, the mysterious voice of the old priest muttering ‘Domney nostrey, aisy Christy, tuaaminaaam, tuaminbeetamaternum aam.’ Now, exasperated, she felt she could no longer think of priests except as ordinary men like her husband or Johnny Columby, and the church became a place like any other, and as she knelt there with her face between her hands she found herself idly calculating the cost of the candles, of the bread and wine, the priest’s salary, and deducting them from the collection at the door.
‘Tell me,’ she asked, ‘how much do you take?’
‘Aha, wouldn’t you like to know?’ he grinned. ‘We’re good business-men. We keep our balance-sheets to ourselves.’
‘A paying business,’ she sneered.
‘You don’t know the half of it,’ he replied with mock seriousness.
‘Anyhow, I don’t believe in religion any longer. I think it’s just another swindle like all the others.’
‘My goodness,’ he said with his maddening facetiousness, ‘that’ll be a terrible blow to them in Rome. ‘They might as well shut up shop.’
One evening Johnny Columby came in to find her before him, ready dressed.
‘Johnny,’ she said in the high-pitched voice that came to her when she was excited, ‘will you look after the child for an hour?’
‘I will to be sure,’ Johnny said with a surprised air. ‘What is it now?’
‘I’ll tell you tonight when I get home.’
She hurried down the avenue towards the station. A row of tall old houses faced the blank grey wall of the station yards over which came the sounds of shunting engines and a faint glow that filled the sky. She stopped and rang. A woman came out, tall, well-built and dark against the gas-jet in the hall.
‘Excuse me,’ Eileen piped, cursing herself because she no longer had control of the pitch of her voice, ‘are you Mrs. Long?’
‘Yes, dear,’ the other replied, bending forward and peering at her. ‘Who have I?’
‘Is my husband here?’ Eileen asked shrilly.
‘I beg your pardon!’ Mrs. Long exclaimed in a shocked tone. ‘Who are you?’
‘My name is Donoghue.’
Mrs. Long shook her head thoughtfully, holding her chin between finger and thumb while she gazed at Eileen’s feet.
‘No,’ she replied. ‘I’m afraid I don’t really know who you mean.’ Then with new emphasis, almost in a tone of inspiration, ‘There’s a gentleman called Donovan lodges next door but I don’t really know if he has a wife. ‘That wouldn’t be who you mean?’
‘No, it wouldn’t,’ Eileen stormed. ‘And my husband’s hat and coat are on the rack behind you, so would you please be good enough to tell him that I’m here?’
‘Oh, come in, come in, Mrs. Donoghue,’ the other said, swinging the door wide open and standing aside to let Eileen pass. ‘Now I know who I have! We have to be so careful.’ She closed the door quietly behind her.
‘Now, Mrs. Donoghue,’ she said in a low, earnest voice, almost a whisper, ‘I’m very glad you came because for a long time I was wanting to meet you, to talk seriously to you. Now we all like Mr. Donoghue; he’s a dear, good quiet man, and no trouble to anyone, but the fact is, he comes here too often, a great deal too often, and people are beginning to talk. Now I don’t for an instant want you to go away with the idea that we’re tired of him, but you know what neighbours are! Take him home and explain it to him and you’ll be doing me and my daughter a very great favour.’
Eileen was overwhelmed by the suddenness and unexpectedness of the attack. She had come down the hill, thinking of what she had sacrificed for her husband; the patience with which she had endured the long months of unemployment, without one harsh word to remind him of her own difficulties; the way she had gone from one business to another, looking for work for him; crushing down her own shyness because he was so shy. Like all imaginative people she had come with but one piece to play.
‘Could I see him, please?’ she said.
‘Why, of course,’ Mrs. Long said with a smile. With her build, her big, good-natured features, she must at one time have been a handsome woman of the barmaid type, but now she was blousy and slack, and the gaslit hall had cheap matting and a cheap hallstand and old dirty prints from forgotten annuals; an atmosphere of slovenliness that took Eileen by the throat. Mrs. Long pointed smilingly to a door on the first landing.
Eileen ran up the stairs, again noticing the faint smell of decay mixed with the smell of cooking that floated up from the kitchen. There was no reply to her knock but she heard someone rising.
‘Go right in,’ Mrs. Long called from the foot of the stairs.
She pushed in the door and saw her husband standing before the fire with an evening paper in his hand.
‘Ed,’ she said in a low voice, ‘will you come home, please?’
She had never realised how much he must have hated her till she saw his face. For want of anything else he raised the newspaper in the air and cast it on the floor. As he came to her he snarled, ‘Some time you’ll drive me too far.’ Mrs. Long came up the stairs, smiling and wiping her hands in her apron.
‘Don’t go for a couple of minutes,’ she said coaxingly. ‘I have a nice bit of supper ready.’
‘No, thank you,’ Eileen replied.
‘Are you sure now?’
‘Quite sure,’ Eileen snapped. The familiarity of the woman’s tone was rapidly nauseating her.
‘Ah, well, perhaps ’tis better,’ Mrs. Long said, leaning against the banister and still continuing to wipe her hands slowly. ‘You’re too innocent altogether for this world, Mr. Donoghue,’ she went on with a winning smile. ‘I know you thought ’twas all no harm, but I often told you! Didn’t I now?’ She nodded to Eileen with an air of complete understanding. ‘One of the neighbours, I suppose?’
‘I really do not know,’ Eileen cried shrilly. She had a sudden fear that she would find herself so weak as to accept hospitality from this intolerable woman.
‘Aha, anonymous!’ Mrs. Long exclaimed triumphantly. ‘What did I tell you? And I wouldn’t have far to go to put my hand on the fair damsel that did it. You wouldn’t have it on you, by any chance — just for curiosity?’
‘No, and if I had I wouldn’t show it to you.’
Mrs. Long leaned back over the banisters, her two hands behind her, in a curiously masculine attitude and with a shocked expression.
‘Oh!’ she said, ‘this is very uncalled-for, Mrs. Donoghue. This is very surprising, indeed! And what, may I ask, did we do to you to be spoken to in this way?’
‘Come home, Ed,’ Eileen said peremptorily.
‘Oh, yes, indeed, after that I think he’d better go home. And when you do get him home, Mrs. Donoghue, I’d advise you as a friend to treat him different, or he might be going astray on you again, and this time you might have a very different woman to deal with.’
‘I couldn’t have worse,’ Eileen blazed as she rushed down the stairs and fumbled with the lock.
‘Oh, couldn’t you, my fine lady? Couldn’t you indeed?’ Her voice suddenly filled out, Mrs. Long followed her down, her jowl thrust out and her eyes gleaming. ‘You could meet someone the like of your own lovely mother and auntie that kept the Bachelors’ Home by the barrack gate in my young days. I wouldn’t put on too many airs at all, young woman. People might remember more than ’twould suit you to hear.’
Eileen dashed out on to the road. Behind the tall dark houses, silhouetted against the dim glare of the station yard, the buffers clashed sullenly, and farther down the road, a shunting engine steamed slowly over the railway bridge, its furnace blazing like a torch. She stopped at the foot of the steep avenue until Ed’s footsteps sounded close behind hers. Then she blazed off again, clenching and unclenching her fists and sobbing with humiliation. She waited for him by the railings of the church. He came up slowly, dragging his feet, a pale-faced heavy man in a grey tweed coat and bowler hat.
‘You’ve humiliated me for the last time tonight,’ she sobbed. ‘Do you know that?’
Again he stood before her with hate-filled eyes, too full for speech. The main road pushed up over them into the sky above a great cliff of wall, and a tram went downhill towards the city. The avenue was deserted and dark.
‘Do you hear me? I said you’ve humiliated me for the last time.’
‘Will you go on and leave me alone?’ he asked in a low voice.
‘Oh, I’ll leave you alone,’ she cried furiously, ‘I’ll leave you alone in more ways than you think.’
‘I wish to Christ you’d leave me alone for good.’
‘Perhaps I will. You might find yourself alone sooner than you expect.’
‘Do,’ he said, ‘do for Christ’s sake! I never hated anyone as I hate you.’
Still walking ahead of him she let herself in and left the door ajar. Johnny and Father Lynnot got up from the fire where they had been sitting.
‘What is it, Eileen?’ the priest asked in alarm, all doubled up as he usually got when he was excited.
‘A woman,’ she replied.
‘Christ Almighty!’ Johnny said between his teeth. ‘Where is the bastard?’
‘Are you sure now?’ the priest asked, grabbing her arm. ‘Are you sure you’re not making a mistake?’
‘I found him there.’
‘Who was it? Do I know her?’
‘Oh, you always want to know the who and the when and the why, don’t you?’ she blazed at him. ‘Well, if you want to know, Long is her name. She has a face like a shovel, if you want any more information. And her house—ugh, I’d want a bath after it.’ She tore off her gloves and threw them on the table.
At the same moment they heard the slow footsteps on the path. The gate was closed, and Donoghue, banging the door behind him, went into the sitting-room without taking off his coat. They heard him light the gas.
‘I’d better go in and talk to him,’ the priest said.
He shuffled off, his head bowed, his hands behind his back. Johnny offered Eileen a cigarette and she took it, trembling. Without speaking to him she left the room and he heard her upstairs. There was the sound of doors opening and clothes being tossed. The noise of voices came from the front room, the dull voice of Donoghue like lead,and the priest’s excitable voice as he stumped about the room—Johnny could almost see him—with his hands locked high up his back and his head down into his shoulders, ‘stepping like a racehorse’ as Johnny described it. After a while he came back. His face was almost purple.
‘Where is she?’ he asked in a tense whisper.
Johnny nodded upstairs.
‘What’s she doing?’
‘Listen and you’ll hear,’ Johnny growled.
There was the sound of a hammer on iron.
‘Ah, the poor soul!’ the priest said.
‘And what has that louser to say?’
‘Well, the remarkable thing,’ the priest replied, beginning again his nervous pacing, his fat, good-natured peasant face assuming a judicial air, ‘he says, ’twas all quite harmless.’ Johnny grunted and spat into the fire. ‘The priest stopped and glared. ‘No, no, I know what you’re going to say, but, mind you, I wouldn’t say he was telling lies. My God, human nature; there’s no end to it; I see things that would amaze you. Amaze you.’
‘And what reason does he give?’
‘You wouldn’t believe that either.’
‘I declare to God he says he has no home life! Did you ever? And, Johnny, you’d better be careful. He has his knife in you.’
‘In me?’ Johnny exclaimed in astonishment.
‘He says you’re responsible for it all. ... Now, now, I know you’re not! I know ’tis all innocent; good friends, that’s all, but people get notions. No home—he took my breath away. My God, I said, what more could you want?’
‘I’d like, be Christ, to give that fellow one good stuff in the kisser,’ Johnny said savagely.
‘No, no, no,’ the priest spluttered, standing at the other side of the fireplace and glaring at him, ‘but what you don’t see, what you must realise, is that the man believes it. He believes it. And then yourself and myself, coming here, what do we come for? Isn’t it for that? What?’
‘We come on account of that girl,’ Johnny said with finality, indicating the room upstairs with his thumb.
‘We do, we do. Mind you, I don’t deny it. ‘There’s no harm in it, we do. So long, mind you, so long as there’s nothing else in it, ’tis no harm in the world. I wouldn’t mind saying it before a bench of bishops, Eileen is—my goodness, you couldn’t meet a nicer girl, a finer girl.’
‘’Tisn’t that at all,’ Johnny growled, ‘’tis because we know she’s better than us, that’s why. And the trouble with that louser is that he knows it too. There’s people in this world and they can’t live with anything that’s better than themselves, be Christ, if ’twas nothing only a bit of furniture.’
‘Sssh!’ the priest said in his conspiratorial way, raising his hand for silence and turning away towards the bookcase. In the silence they heard her come downstairs slowly. When she entered the room the two men who loved her looked anxiously at a face that was freshly powdered, but the features already were hard and pinched.
After lunch the wind set in, and before the clerks banged their account-books shut for the day, the rain was lashing pavements and steps and pillars, all gaunt and grey in the dusk, and the soot whirling down the office chimney with a roar. Ignatius crossed to the fire and stood before it, his hands in his trousers pockets, while he shook himself inside his clothes. Ignatius was getting fat, developing a paunch; his hair was oiled smoothly back from his broad forehead. He smiled his oily smile and rattled the coins in his pockets.
‘I’m afraid some of you young gentlemen will be stuck this evening,’ he said in his honeyed voice.
‘You’re all right anyway,’ Doyle said. ‘You won’t have far to go for your entertainment.’
‘There was a time,’ Ignatius beamed, ‘when a storm like that would have been nothing to me.’
Stevie thought how strange he looked before the fireplace in his tightly fitting grey suit that displayed his rounded posteriors, while the other clerks sat at their desks before the tall uncurtained windows that looked out on to the rain-lashed, asphalted streets. Tiny figures darted under umbrellas for cars or buses, whose lights added to the confusion of scintillations upon the black mirror of the street. He was the office entertainer; very conscious as entertainers are, of his own dignity, consenting on occasion to amuse the other clerks with a dirty story—even the porter if no one else were handy—so long as for the rest of the time they called him Mr. Foley. He had a determinedly casuistical mind, and found little difficulty in reconciling his position as prefect in the Men’s Confraternity with other amusements. A year or two back he had married a most respectable girl with a public-house of her own, and they lived in a little box of a house that might have come out of an Ideal Home exhibition. And yet, a nice fellow, as Stevie had to admit when he met the pair of them out walking, Ignatius in his beautifully cut suit, his bowler tilted, his behind wagging breezily under his short coat, and that handsome, fleshy, watchful, cynical face, nodding gently like a flower while he held his silver-mounted stick behind his back.
It was a good night, Stevie decided, to stay at home and read. He had the parlour to himself,and the fire and gaslight seemed to burn more clearly as the great waves of wind broke over the house. Once or twice he put down his book and listened to it. From the kitchen he heard his father’s voice, reading the evening paper to his mother who broke in now and again with a soft question. The room had changed little since he was a boy, only the flowery wallpaper had given place to a plain cream-coloured paper, but even that billowed over the broken plaster and showed the great streaks of damp near the window. On the iron mantelpiece a big pillared clock tick-tocked noisily, almost drowning with its clamour the noise of the clocks in the other rooms. There were two armchairs, and the same round table on its one rickety leg. A coloured calendar with a picture of two children on a swing. A handsome piece of a shipwreck over the fireplace. On the dusty beaded yellow mantel-cover, an old photograph of his brother, looking very unlike himself in collar and tie with hair neatly brushed and a pale photographer’s smile on the long face.
Stevie rose. He noticed how the boards sagged under the threadbare red carpet. He felt he was suffocating. He tried to open the window but found it jammed. The top sash was nailed, the lower stuck with paint. He lowered the gas and went out into the kitchen.
‘’Tisn’t out you’re going?’ his father asked in surprise, looking at him over the top of his evening paper.
‘And why wouldn’t he?’ his mother asked. ‘The breath of air will only do him good.’
‘Don’t be too late,’ his father said reasonably. ‘Them aren’t your good things you have on, are they?’
‘What the blazes difference does it make to you anyway?’ Stevie asked.
‘Ah, why do you be hacking your good things?’ His father looked at him mildly over the wall of the spectacles with head on one side, cap pulled over his eyes. ‘My goodness, when I was your age I didn’t treat my clothes that way.’
The rain had eased, but Stevie was caught up in the invisible scrum, and rushed downhill along an almost deserted pavement. ‘The cross where the trams drew up was deserted, and the driver and conductor sat inside it with shut doors, looking out at the black pavements, not speaking.
At the foot of the hill Stevie alighted. Devane lived in a flat above a sweet-shop. Stevie rang and Mrs. Devane stumped downstairs and stood, peering out in an attitude very familiar to him, her eyes in slits in the pale, crumpled old face.
‘Is that Stevie?’ she asked in a whisper, moving her head from side to side. ‘Come in, come in. Oh, my goodness, my goodness, will I ever get down to the chapel alive? Are you drenched? Oh, my, look at that for rain! Peter is upstairs. Give me that coat of yours.’
You entered the flat by a side door, and there was a narrow hall under an electric light, a cheap bamboo hall-stand, and a steep narrow staircase covered in linoleum. As she took his coat Mrs. Devane looked into the mirror of the hall-stand, brushed her grey hair which she wore flat across her temples, and laughed girlishly. Looking round, Stevie saw Devane at the head of the stairs. He was thin and dark with a little black moustache and stubbly black hair, and still wore the high collar which for some reason he affected.
‘Is that you, Stevie? Come on up.’
Entering the front room, crowded with furniture, Stevie heard not only the noise of the storm but the street noises as well. Under the edges of the blind he saw the flicker of a tramcar as it bounded noisily over the uneven setts. ‘There was a piano near the door, a cheap, secondhand affair with a fretwork front on a green-baize ground. Between the two windows was a table, piled high with books and music and papers; before the fire, two big broken-down armchairs and a settee—a suite in some cheap decorated material which was bursting in several places. Devane’s book was lying open on the coal-scuttle. Stevie picked it up and glanced at it.‘Did you never read that?’ Devane asked gravely, pursing his lips, his head, his eyes lowered the merest trifle. His voice, his manner were both slow and thoughtful, as though he lived at a great distance from whatever he happened to be handling. It was only now and again that emotion swept across his face in a wave of colour, and left two shining spots at either side of his forehead.
‘What made you interested in the Russian Revolution?’ Stevie asked with a stare.
‘I was reading a lot of history lately.’ It was scarcely a reply.
‘You’re reading too much,’ his mother said with a rough laugh and a slap on the shoulders. ‘You’re always down at that old library instead of going for a walk. No wonder you have indigestion.’
On one knee, she poked in the coal-scuttle, sighing heavily, all her face screwed up, listening with sudden abstraction to the wind in the chimney.
‘How’s Gus?’ Stevie asked, sinking into the armchair which threatened to close over him.
‘Fine,’ she trumpeted before Peter had time to reply. She shovelled a handful of coal on to the fire which ate it greedily, and blinked at him across the fireplace. ‘Fine, God bless him and spare him!’
‘I’m glad to hear that.’
‘He writes to Peter. Every week nearly. Screeds and screeds! I don’t think you read me the half of it, Peter, do you?’ She twinkled at him, leaning forward, her hand on the arm of his chair.
‘Sure, what I read you, you don’t understand,’ her son replied with good-humoured sourness, taking his chair again. Stevie could not help thinking how much of a piece they were, the pair of them, even to a certain daft twinkle that came at times into Devane’s brooding eyes as though his own melancholy had suddenly become comic to him—characters hacked out of the raw.
‘Understand?’ she shouted. ‘I do understand.’ She groaned, lifting herself on the arm of the chair, and crossed to a stool beside Stevie. ‘Let me see, what was the last thing he was at?’ She laughed gaily, all her, face screwed up, her eyes blinking roguishly. ‘Psycho—psycho—psycho what, Peter? Oh, you ruffian!’ Her voice rose suddenly and dropped again to a whisper. ‘Don’t you know well I don’t remember the names?’
‘Psycho-analysis,’ replied Peter, his rich, harsh voice isolating the word with elaborate humour.
‘That’s it. Sure, how could I remember it—a mouthful like that? God forgive me! Do you know what I called it to Mrs. Delea? Psycho-assesses! I had to call it something; I wouldn’t give it to say. ... But sure, she wouldn’t know, no more than myself. Oh, my! ... He’s never done,’ she shouted to Stevie. ‘Never done! What’s that he’s doing now, Peter? Tell Stevie Dalton! Building skyscrapers—such a name! Scraping the sky! They have a notion!’
‘I told you before he left that long ago,’ growled her son, pulling his long nose.
‘Left the—? Oh, my, and I telling Mrs. Delea he was building skyscrapers! Oho! She’ll have my life if she finds it out.’ She joined her hands and turned to Stevie with eyebrows raised. She pitched her voice on a high inexpressive note as though lecturing. ‘The people in this town, they’re too curious. Too curious altogether. And then if you haven’t everything pat, you’re trying—my goodness!—to deceive them.’
‘He isn’t into a thing before he’s out of it again,’ Peter grumbled to the fire, the roar of the fresh coal, while from the station, isolated in the wind, came the desolate shriek of a train.
‘And isn’t he right?’ she yelled aggressively. ‘Pity you’re not the same! Too quiet you are.’
‘And a good job for you, old woman, that I am,’ he snarled, his long nose wrinkling.
‘I know,’ she replied with a sharp croak of laughter that threatened to choke her. All at once the big rough rheumaticky hand began to move over thigh and knee, a slow massaging movement, while she fixed him with her eyes, as though wondering how serious he was. ‘Can’t you let me have me little joke? ... I do be taking a rise out of him,’ she whispered to Stevie with infantile glee and the same slightly doubtful glance at her son, who sat there, a Velasquez portrait, but for his arms, raised too high upon the ridiculously high arms of the chair, his high collar biting into his neck. ‘Old Sobersides! ... But listen to me,’ she added in a tense whisper, leaning angularly across Stevie, looking not at him at all but at an invisible interlocutor, her eyes half shut, and her index finger drilling into the ornamental upholstery, ‘Gus—Is—Right. He’s right, I tell you. Sure of course he’s right, and don’t leave anyone tell you different. ‘Twinty pounds a week he was earning the last time he told us. Twinty pounds!’ She did not look at him, but as though she were forming the words in her mind, she dug her finger deeper into the chair and spoke almost in a whisper. But now, suddenly, her eyes sought his in a glare that told him this little drama was for him, and her coarse peasant voice shot up into one of its unexpected, uncontrollable bursts of energy. ‘And isn’t that a terrible amount of money, Stevie?’
‘’Tis indeed, a lot of money.’
‘’Tis—I can’t say it! Say it for me, Peter! ’Tis, ’tis awful, that’s what it is, awful!’ She shook her head. ‘Peter will tell you, I won’t deny it—ninepence a day, ninepence a day is what I used to get for the cleaning. I could have got a shilling, but I was simple. They took advantage of me.’ She grabbed him by the trousers and shook him in a still powerful grasp. ‘And him—twinty pounds! ’Tis more than the Mayor is getting; ’tis more than the Members of Parliament are getting, and he—my goodness! sure, you know yourself, brought up no different to any boy of the streets.’
‘He’s a terrible man,’ Peter said with a sort of gloomy satisfaction.
‘He’s right,’ she trumpeted again. ‘’Twas the makings of him going away! He was a hard boy to rear,’ she confided, grabbing Stevie again. ‘He wouldn’t go to school for you, only out in the Quarry. Stones that size! But ’twas God’s will.’
‘God’s will that he used to throw stones?’ Devane asked ironically.
‘Sure, of course it was. What else was it?’ Her voice dropped to a whisper again. ‘And that other thing, Stevie: the time he was caught with that woman—the brazen baggage! That was God’s will too. ‘They said it wasn’t, but ’tis proved.’
‘How is it proved?’ asked her son malevolently.
‘Sure, only for it he’d have stayed at home and be no more than any of them. Of course, it was God’s will.’
‘And I suppose it was God’s will that I stayed at home and looked after you, instead of cutting my hook as I should have done?’
‘My goodness, it was. Of course it was. I hardly needed to open me mouth to you. ... Not since he was that size, Stevie. ... Wisha, Peter, will you ever forget the box?’
‘What box?’ he growled, but Stevie saw the dark flush overspread his face. She saw it too but only laughed in her coarse peasant manner.
‘What box? You ruffian!... He had a boot-box all painted up and things he cut out of the paper and coloured. ...’
‘Can’t you shut up?’ he growled angrily.
‘Why would I shut up?’ Her eyes blinked nervously several times, as she sat there bolt-upright, hands folded in her lap. Again her voice was high-pitched but with alarm. ‘Didn’t I go to the priest about it? Father Crosby? My goodness, sure, how would I know what you were doing? With candles? And talking to them as if they were real, little scraps of old pictures! He told me not to mind, that you’d grow out of it. ... A theatre, if you please, Stevie, and he pushing them round and making up little songs for them. Sometimes they come into me mind in bed, I do be singing them to myself. What were they? Peter, do you remember any of them?’ Her face was strange in its mixture of timidity, brazenness, roguery and affection. ‘You could leave him there all night and he wouldn’t stir. Not from the time he was a baby. But Gus, my goodness, my goodness!’ For a few moments she sank into revery, head lowered, eyes screwed up at the fire, her palm following the outline of her knee in a slow kneading motion. When she spoke again it was in the same low confidential tone.
‘Whisper, Stevie, they said ’twas the way he was wild, but ’twasn’t. ’Twasn’t at all. Gus, I mean. He was active, that was the only thing, and the people of this town they’re not active, no, not active, not active at all. And,’ with dreadful emphasis, a hand like a hammer on his thigh, clumsily marking the stress, ‘signs on, they have the look of it.’
She rose, groaning, and doubled up, a pale block of a face broken only by the deep slits of the eyes and the slit of mouth above a strong peasant jowl. She took her hat from a little table by the door and screwed it on her, winking at her own image in the cracked mirror. From behind the door she took a black coat and suddenly was transfigured, a black, graceless, shapeless bundle. Her son scowled at her.
‘Where are you going?’ he growled.
‘Down to the chapel of course. ... I like to say me night prayers there,’ she told Stevie.
‘You and your prayers!’ Devane said contemptuously.
‘Me and my—?’ she gasped. ‘Ha, ha! There’s a thing to say. A church organist! You’d better mind yourself! If Father Lynnot heard you now! A wonder they trusted you, an old pagan like you! Ah, but you can’t miss Mass now. She blinked cheerfully at Stevie, drawing on a pair of black knitted gloves. ‘You didn’t say you admired my new house, Stevie. Isn’t it lovely? And only a couple of doors from the chapel. Did you see this picture I bought in Main Street?’ She stood on tiptoe, screwing up her eyes to within a few inches of the gilt-framed print of a canal lock. ‘A view of the river. My goodness, how do they do it? Seven and sixpence. Beautiful!’
‘Go on if you’re going,’ Devane said. ‘No one can talk with you.’
‘Go away, you ruffian!’ she yelled. ‘You ruffian out of hell! Ha, ha! And the electricity, Stevie.’
She stood by the door and switched off the light for a moment and in that moment they saw the street light under the blind and the dazzle of raindrops beneath it, and heard the wind. Then with a backward glance and laugh she stumped down the steep stair, there was a shriek of wind in the hall and the door banged behind her. Devane looked at Stevie with a grim smile.
‘Tis as well she doesn’t know,’ he said.
‘What? About the flat?’
‘Nnno,’ Devane replied gravely. ‘About that son of hers.’
‘Is he in more trouble?’
‘I dunno would you call it trouble. He’s after running away with a married woman.’
‘Good Lord!’ Stevie said.
He felt Devane’s big dark eyes searching him, and heard in a silence of the wind the sidecars returning from the station, the tinkle of the bells, the smooth swinging rhythm of the wheels and patter of the horses’ hooves on the cobbles.
‘He’s an awful simpleton,’ Devane added in disgust. ‘’Twas a mercy to God I was here when the letter came. She might have taken it out to a neighbour to read for her—the unfortunate woman!’ A brilliant sardonic smile played for a moment over the massive features. ‘He wrote home to tell her all about it. As though she ought to be pleased. He felt they’d get on well together—a Russian!’
‘Mmm. Her fathers and brothers were killed in the Revolution. She was a nurse—a pianist too, he says. During the Revolution she nursed some doctor fellow—an American.’ Devane flushed and his voice grew loud and harsh. ‘They were lovers; it seems to have been a wild time altogether. She followed him to America, and to satisfy her, he married her, but they didn’t get on. Then Gus stepped in, like the fool he is. He didn’t think she was being treated right. ’Tis queer.’
And Stevie knew what was queer about it. His mother elbowing her way to the chapel, puffing and blowing as she climbed the steps, a tiny little black bundle under the great pillars; the dim light behind the golden glass of the swing doors and the grotto in the corner with the blue and-white statue high among the imitation rocks, lit from below by banks of guttering, dripping candles. Mrs. Devane putting in her penny—a noise that would echo through the church—and kneeling between the great brass candelabra. Mrs. Devane with a Russian daughter-in-law! Mrs. Devane with a grandchild whose other grandparents had been clubbed to death in some Russian country-house, kinsmen of ‘Tchehov and Turgenev!
‘You won’t say it to anyone?’ Devane added uneasily.
‘You know I wouldn’t. ’Twould be round the town in a day.’
‘’Twould spoil everything for her. And ’tis only now she’s beginning to understand how well off she is. All her couple of things An aloof glance defined the childishness of the chaney dogs on the mantelpiece, the clock, the sofa, the deep chairs. It was the eye of the ascetic that strips things to the bare bone, and Stevie wondered how he could ever have identified Devane with them, except like this, through his grave indifference. For him one could only imagine a cell and a crucifix, that stern mediaeval face. ‘What makes a woman happy.’
‘You told him so?’
‘I had to. Of course, he’s after forgetting what life is like here—we do the same, forget that other people live differently. If you were to go and live in France it would take you months, maybe years, to forget Father Lynnot.’
‘I suppose so.’
‘It would. Anyway, ’tis as well. He was talking about coming back.’
‘Oh!’ Stevie felt that this wasn’t quite what Devane had meant. ‘That’s hard on her, isn’t it?’
‘Tis,’ Devane assented broodingly, his fingertips joined. ‘But ’tis the best thing for him. You should see his letters! Psycho-analysis, Walt Whitman, Buddhism, Mass Production! He’d never stand this place —a wild fellow like him.’
‘Then you think this is no place for wild fellows?’ Stevie asked lightly.
‘Don’t you?’ retorted Devane without the suggestion of a smile.
‘A puddle for tame geese like ourselves?’ Stevie said with raised brows. ‘Oh, my! Queer notions you have of us!’
Suddenly Devane leant forward in his chair.
‘When I was a young fellow I used to see the fellows going out the country, on the lang from school. I always wanted to go along with them, but I hadn’t the nerve.’
‘You might have gone away yourself—you were going to, weren’t you? To study music?’
‘But you see, I didn’t,’ Devane replied, and the same angry wave of colour flooded his face.
‘After all, that doesn’t make so much difference—you might go yet.’
‘How certain you are!’
‘I am certain, and do you know why?’
‘Because all the money I had saved up I gave to him when he got into trouble.’
For a moment Stevie covered his eyes with his hands. When he spoke again his voice had dropped. He felt that for some reason he had heard something he was not intended to have heard.
‘And I can’t say I ever noticed that it was the wild fellows that went away.’
‘But there was always something about the fellows that went,’ Devane said with a rasp of excitement in his voice. ‘I bet you, if you think back, all the fellows you know that went away like that, they had something that made them different to the others.’
‘John Joe Lyons?’ Stevie asked with a drawl.
‘He had it.’
‘His father thought he had something else.’
‘Never mind what his father thought!’
‘Does Gus hear from him at all?’
‘From John Joe? He’s dead these years!’
‘What happened him?’
‘He was drowned. Some little boat he was in that went down off the coast of Africa.’
Stevie closed his eyes. All that came up were two blue eyes and a mass of curly hair. But some fragrance seemed to cling about the name, some brightness about the foolish tousled head. He looked at Devane. It was as though he had been accustomed to watch them all pass by, a ghostly file, the boys with revolt in their blood, who would never know quiet old age gossiping in the twilight in Main Street or walking by the river. And it seemed to him that when he was gone Devane would sit at the piano or perhaps in the darkness of the organ gallery, and, his strong fingers pressing down the chords, evoke them all in music.
Soon after he went away. Devane did not offer to accompany him, and Stevie let himself out, feeling that the end of their friendship was near. Never again would Devane be able to stand between him and loneliness. He crossed the cobblestoned roadway to the railway bridge. Above him the hoarding, splashed with rain, shone with a dreary glister, and a loose tag of poster flogged persistently in the wind. He leaned over the bridge, splaying his feet to the thrust of the wind. In the feeble light the water danced and chopped, angular chunks of light that slapped against each other with a hollow sound. A goods train came behind him slowly, its bell clanging dismally. It was a portion of the city long fallen into decay; old sailors’ lodging-houses, a whitewashed urinal in ironwork with a street lamp above it; coal stores.
The smell of the library came out and enveloped him, the warm smell of leather and beeswax and linoleum and wet clothes. A young man was standing before the tall indicator, and a dark-haired girl assistant was sitting on a high stool behind the polished mahogany counter. Behind her, among the long rows of mahogany stacks, were great masses of shadow. A dull face appeared behind the wall of glass at the side of the library. Tap, tap. The assistant mounted the dais and clicked back the window in the glass wall. A clock high up on the wall of the reading-room tocked in the warm, steaming, silent building; the wind had a dull sound as it rattled the great blue blinds. A man was slumped asleep over the Revue des Deux Mondes.
He plunged down the quays where only a battered street lamp revealed the gateway of some store. A red-brick mill with many dim windows rose above him, throbbing. A ship at the jetties rocked behind piles of timber that made deep lane-ways of night-black shadow among the scattered rays of light-green of a bracketed gaslamp on a stained wall by the mill, dim brown upon the rain-stained deck of a boat where nobody seemed alive. Yet as he passed, a girl dashed out from among the piles of timber and with a flying plaid shawl and a shriek of laughter rushed towards the gas-lamp. She stood under it, panting, the shawl drawn tight about her throat, her face in shadow. Stevie turned homeward. The fever within him was like something weeping, raging,prowling, consuming itself. Devane, the croaker, with his ‘All gone! all gone!’ But suppose it were true, and he left here among the dead people, those for whom life held nothing!
As he crossed the bridges another fierce shower drove him to shelter. This time he went past Devane’s door and climbed the steps to the church porch. He shook himself like a dog, shivering.
There was a light in the doorway, a very feeble one, and moved by boyish recollection, he pushed it slowly in. It yielded on leather-bound hinges. Within he heard the clock throbbing —‘tock, tock, tock.’ The church was almost in darkness but for the sanctuary lamp and the shrine of the Blessed Virgin. Stevie knelt in the back seat. The sacristan, a bald little man, cleaned candlestick after candlestick, tossing the smoking butts into a box. As each socket was removed the church grew dimmer, the white figure with clasped hands and blue floating sash sank farther back into the shadows of the grotto. At the altar rail a head was raised for a moment, Mrs. Devane’s. Then she shuffled out past him with bowed head, the last worshipper. The clock at the top of the church stopped its ticking for a moment, wheezed and chimed. ‘One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.’ The sacristan tossed the last candle-butt into his box and pattered towards the door on rubber-soled shoes, swinging an electric torch. The wind tore, and rain spattered the clerestory windows above. There was nothing to be seen but the red sanctuary lamp and its festoon of chains at the heart of the darkness.
‘Stevie! Stevie Dalton!’
Stevie halted, adjusting his coat and hat. He had emerged from the little restaurant where he came for his cup of coffee every morning, and where Eileen sometimes met him. He had left her inside, sitting with her daughter, who was steadily eating through a large iced bun. He looked round, blinking in the bright light and saw the brown-suited man in clothes of foreign cut; youthful for all the experience on his weather-beaten face; lean, clean-shaven, wiry, spruce; a face stripped for action with a pair of fine grey eyes, piercing and clear; emotional features and a firm chin.
‘You don’t know me?’ he asked with a grin.
‘Hold on now,’ Stevie said with an answering grin. ‘Your face is familiar.’
‘I wouldn’t like to tell you where we met last.’
‘God Almighty!’ Stevie exclaimed, blinking with pleasure, ‘’tis Gus Devane!’
‘The very man,’ Gus said. ‘It took you long enough. But I’m an observant bloke. I knew you in the first instant. Still you’ve got old, you know, Stevie. You’re letting yourself get slack.’ He slapped Stevie on the shoulder, laughing uproariously. ‘Come and have a drink.’
‘No, I won’t, thanks all the same; not during office hours.’
‘You let the office go to pot for a while.’
‘No, but I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll walk up the street a bit with you.’
‘Yes, do,’ Gus said eagerly, clutching him by the arm. There was something infectious about his warmth, his mere pleasure in being alive. It was a spring morning; the sun-blinds were out and the young housewives: the street was looking its best; a little sunlit hurly-burly of a provincial street with its decrepit trams furiously ringing their bells at the drays which blocked it. One side was warmly lit; through the gaps of the tall narrow streets one saw a hillside and white towers and a red campanile and terraces of houses; the other was all in shadow, with shadowy lanes broken by sudden furious splashes of sunshine in which old women in black shawls shuffled with bowed heads. A bell was ringing somewhere for Mass. Gus missed nothing; peering, laughing, staring and frowning while he waved his hands and summoned Stevie to join in the fun. Gosh, the city, the shawls, the accent, the faces! This was good! This was life! He shouted at Stevie through the roar of the traffic and Stevie blinked and laughed good-humouredly at his enthusiasm.
‘Will you be long at home?’ he asked.
‘Oh, I’m back for good,’ Gus replied joyously. ‘Isn’t that great? Isn’t that the business? I’m going to build a house outside the city. I’ve had the site in my mind for nearly twenty years. You’d never guess where.’ He stopped dead, his face all lit up. ‘No, I won’t tell you. It’s no use asking. It’s a secret.’
‘But I have a house of my own, man,’ Stevie protested.
‘You’d leave it,’ Gus said with an American drawl and they both laughed.
‘So you’re retiring?’
‘Oh no, not exactly retiring. I never was.’ And Gus, clapping his hands delightedly, went off into a fit of laughter. ‘They had reached the bridge, and his hand tightened about Stevie’s arm as he led him across to the river bank. The light changed constantly, making two planes of river and hillside. The hillside, curved with the curve of a woman’s belly, its outline barely broken by a cluster of trees and the diminutive gable of some upland farm, blazed above the painted houses by the riverside; sometimes it sank back, and all the colours of the old houses came out, the church, the trees about it, the glaring hoardings. Gus threw himself completely across the river wall, his head down in his hands. ‘Isn’t that fine? You don’t know how often I’ve thought of it in America. No, I couldn’t afford to retire, old man. I’ve a little bit of money put by and I’m going to try and find an opening here.’
‘That’ll be a new experience for you, won’t it?’
‘Mind, Stevie’—frowning, he turned and grabbed Stevie’s arm—‘don’t think it’s just that I’m out to make money. ’Tisn’t that. It’s just that I was never happy away.’
‘Is that so?’ Stevie asked.
‘Never. I hated it. And the last few years were the worst. It’s all right when you’re young, seeing foreign countries, learning new lingoes and so on, that’s good fun; I liked that. It doesn’t matter much where you learn your job, but the time comes when you can do it, and then you want to be at home; among the people you know, the people you were brought up with.’
Stevie lit a cigarette and gave him one, watching him all the time with amusement and interest.
‘Really?’ he said sympathetically.
‘I believe a fellow only really understands one place; he can only feel right about one place. I could never feel right about America, so that when I had something in here to give I couldn’t give it. And when a fellow can’t give back what he gets he’s only an exploiter. That’s what’s wrong with America—too many exploiters. And our own the worst of all.’
Stevie glanced at his watch and started.
‘I’ll have to be getting back. When are we going to see you again?’
‘No, you don’t have to get back,’ Gus said appealingly. ‘You know you don’t. I know the hours you fellows keep. Come with me and I’ll show you something. Is it a bargain?’
Stevie smiled. Gus was irresistible.
‘If you can show it to me precisely within half an hour.’
‘Come on then.’
They climbed the hill from the town, Gus going at a terrific rate, hatless, arms swinging, and Stevie, laughing and panting, behind him. The road, too steep for traffic, was also too steep for building; wicket-gates led up to villas which clung precariously to the rocky hillside. The road ended on a ledge where a terrace of small painted houses looked out on to a row of trees and a low wall from which one had a view of the city all spread out below. The breeze blew coolly here under the young trees with their leaves no bigger than coins, and Gus, leaning his two arms on the wall, bent his eyes on the view. He had plucked a blade of grass and chewed it feverishly while his grey eyes swept from one side of the panorama to the other. They were at the top of a high hill which plunged straight down from the foot of the wall, almost sheer, though here again, along the side of it, little rows of red-brick houses and tiny huxter shops succeeded in clinging to the rubbly pathway where traffic could not grip. Below the wall was commons, broken by paths and bare patches of brown earth and grazing sheep. Then it dropped steeply out of sight, and from the hollow rose the dirty walls and chimneys of an old brewery. Above it, street upon street, lane upon lane, a great rounded hillside, built almost to the top but with a crest of trees and fields outlining it in green, and from its very top, from the heart of the crowding roofs, two towers springing into the sky of blue and white. The whole hillside was filled with colour, old, deep, rich colour; red brick that was almost blue, yellow brick that was almost gold, blent, ground into one another. Except for the light modelling of roof and lane and archway with its climbing steps, the sudden unexpected movement of some black dots past the dirty whitewashed house-fronts, it might have seemed a toy, a vast piece of scenery cut out of flat cardboard. When you listened you heard its sounds, absorbed into the great wall of air that rose before it, and seeming as though they came from underground. As they watched, one of the towers, with its clock face shining, gave out the hour, and the chime had the same sort of toylike exactness and appropriateness and distance. Gus started and raised his hand for silence. He was chewing at his straw, and watching him covertly, Stevie wondered what gave the face its quality, so that if you had seen it among a thousand faces in Main Street you would still have said ‘foreigner’. It was something in the eyes, in the lips and firm jaw, a certain alertness and intensity which said that the owner would be happiest where decisions had to be hastily made and ruthlessly adhered to, yet with a radiance, innocence, eagerness—something magical—one would have expected only on the face of a boy or a sailor. In Ireland people aged quickly, but this man might never know what it was to be old.
When the tower had ceased to chime Gus turned his eyes on Stevie—as though he had produced the effect himself.
‘Fine, lovely, magnificent!’ Stevie said in a loud voice as if he were speaking across a great gap.
‘And how long is it since you’ve been up here last?’ Gus asked. He had returned to his view, his chin on his crossed hands.
‘I don’t suppose I was here—no, I declare to God, I don’t think I was here since I was at school,’ Stevie replied.
‘Do you remember standing here,’ Gus laughed, ‘looking at that clock, saying to yourself “I‘ll never do it?”’
‘You lack the advantages of a proper upbringing,’ Stevie said. ‘I had a father, a proper father, and a clock in every room.’
‘This was the critical spot,’ Gus said. ‘On this spot you decided whether you’d go to school at all.’
‘Oh, a bad upbringing,’ Stevie repeated with mock seriousness, handing him another cigarette.
‘I could have come straight by night,’ Gus said, lighting it, ‘but I wouldn’t. I wanted to come by daylight. You know, sitting in the train, how the hills slope down, and the fields get steeper and the farmhouses go up in the air, and then all at once in a gap between two hills you see the towers.’
‘When I’m leaving it,’ Stevie said, ‘that’s when I see it.’
‘I only saw it once like that,’ Gus said quietly. The reply stung Stevie with its picture of a lad looking out of a carriage window at a home he is leaving for the first time, his eyes blinded with tears. There was a moment’s silence; when he spoke again Gus’s voice had regained its enthusiasm. ‘And you know, Stevie, my mind was made up; made up for a year; if it was raining or misty, I’d have got out up the line and waited. I wanted to see those towers with the sun on them and the little whitewashed lanes and the women in the shawls looking up to see the train going by.’
‘Fine,’ Stevie agreed with enthusiasm, ‘that long road into town and all the little painted houses, and the whitewashed lane next door to it and then the factory towers and the yards with the heaps of slag. Fine!’
He joined his hands thoughtfully on the wall, but still he thought of it as a journey away from the city. Always that last glimpse that somehow or other suggested holiday, the beginning of impersonality, the straightening out of all that had become crumpled in him. The shadow of the train puffing up the valley; an old house far beneath the railway line with a lawn before and a pond behind it, dark, mysterious, in a perpetual twilight. The muddy laneways they passed over, the green horseshoe of a caravan against the green of the fields.
A big black-and-white cat crossed the road and mewed about their feet. Gus picked it up and fondled it while it marched up and down before him on the wall, with tail erect and burrowing head.
‘Tell me,’ he asked, ‘what’s happened Peter?’
‘Why?’ Stevie asked. ‘Did something happen him?’
‘He used to be a bit of a hard chaw; didn’t believe in anything. Yesterday we went into a chapel I wanted to see and I could hardly get him out again; hitting his chest and groaning to himself.’
‘I don’t know how long it is since I talked to Peter,’ Stevie replied. ‘Somehow the old job keeps me tied.’
‘He has a high opinion of you,’ Gus said. ‘You should see some of his letters.’
Slipping, sliding in the loose rubble they went downhill, Gus shouting gaily with hands slightly raised until they passed over the little stream that ran through the brewery. Then up again, through narrow lanes, up flights of steps that called up old memories in Stevie. As they entered the high-walled playground with the tin-covered shed Gus raised his head and sniffed, laughing uproariously.
‘What is there familiar about that smell?’ he said.
There was a stink of stale bread and butter; and through the open windows came a battery of voices, chanting rhythmically. The sun struck: the front of the building with a blaze of hot wall, and Stevie’s imagination conjured up a picture of a row of boys sitting beneath it, their school satchels between their knees, enjoying the heat before them and behind while two young fellows hung from the soutane of a tall monk with a thin, eager, handsome face under the biretta. He stood, his hand about his chin, but Gus would not let him rest.
‘Come along,’ he shouted gaily.
Behind the school a cool wind was blowing. A broad flight of steps led from the school yard through a sloping garden to the monks’ residence, red-brick with the usual white statues. A low wall closed in the yard at this side with a hedge behind it, and a high metal stair led to the upper stories. Gus pounced upon a little boy returning from the latrine and sent him to look for Mr. MacCarthy. While they waited he led Stevie to a glass door at an angle of the building. Paper traceries muffled the panes.
‘This was my old school,’ he said.
Before Stevie could hinder him he opened the door, and bending his head took it all in. Stevie saw two high windows and between them a statue of the Blessed Virgin with a big vase of spring flowers at her feet. Along the glass partition which divided the room from the next school were displayed rows of exercise-books. The map along the wall by the door began to flap noisily in the draught they created, and a monk, standing by the blackboard, turned and glared at them angrily. All the boys shuffled and looked round as well.
‘Hope you don’t mind my intruding?’ Gus called in a joyous voice that rang through the whole school. ‘The young monk came hastily down the classroom to meet them, and Gus took this as an invitation to enter and meet him halfway. Stevie followed, embarrassed.
‘My old school,’ Gus explained gleefully in a voice that could be heard by every member of the class. ‘I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve come all the way from America to see it. Nearly thirty years. ‘That was before your time.’
The monk grinned feebly and nodded to Stevie.
‘I suppose you notice a lot of changes.’
‘No, not much,’ Gus replied, searching the room with his eager eyes. ‘... Only all the fellows that used to be here are gone. I met one in San Francisco, another in Canada.’ His eyes swept the boys’ faces, so young, so soft, so weak and slightly ridiculous. ‘And these lads; they’ll go the same; any of them that wants to get on. In ten years, Stevie, you won’t find a third of these faces round the city. God, brother, if only you could find some way of keeping them at home! Tell them so,’ he added intensely, his face close up to the monk’s. ‘Tell them they’ll never be happier, that all the happiness beyond the seas is bunk. There’s no such thing.’
‘Er—perhaps you’d like to say a few words to them yourself, Mr.——— ?’ the young monk said, blinking. Innocent soul, no subtler than that of his pupils, recognising what sounded like orthodoxy, speaking with the voice of experience.
‘The very thing!’ Gus exclaimed.
‘No, no. You won’t do anything of the kind. Hold on there!’ And Stevie, laughing, laid a hand on his shoulder.
‘No, let me go. I won’t be a minute.’ Gus was straining like a puppy at the leash.
‘Hold on there, hold on!’ Stevie repeated, and laughed at the monk. ‘Now brother, I’m responsible for this man, and I regret to say he’s in an inebriated condition which makes it impossible for him to accept public engagements.’
‘God blast your soul, I’m not drunk,’ Gus chuckled, and the monk looked with alarm at his class.
‘Inebriated with emotion,’ Stevie said, keeping control of the situation. ‘But definitely not fit for public engagements.’
‘I see, I see,’ the monk said gratefully. ‘Perhaps another day.’
‘I want to speak to them now,’ Gus said almost truculently.
‘You can’t, Stevie said firmly. ‘A half an hour you said, and I’ll lose my job.’
‘And I’m afraid they’re due elsewhere in another minute or two,’ the monk added, glancing back at the clock. ‘Perhaps you could call some day next week.’
‘Oh, all right,’ Gus said. ‘I’ll fix that with MacCarthy. He’s one of my oldest friends. I think I hear him coming. Good-bye, brother, and thanks. Thanks a thousand times. I’ll come and see you. I won’t be any trouble. It’s only excitement.’
‘Ah, sure there’s nothing like coming home,’ the monk agreed in his soft country voice, shaking Gus’s hand and seeing them out of the room with a sly wink at Stevie.
Slowly, with heavy steps, Mac came down the long clanging iron stair, looking up and down the play yard over his spectacles. The young monk latched the door behind them. Mac’s spectacles were perched on the tip of his wide-splayed nose, and as he stood at the foot of the steps looking down at them he held open a school-book with one hand and with the other stroked a flea-bitten—moustache, burned primrose with cigarettes. His great domed brow was bald, and only a few wisps of hair stuck out over his ears. He smiled wanly at Stevie and held out a limp, cold podgy hand for him to press.
‘Don’t you remember Gus Devane?’ Stevie exclaimed.
‘Oh, is that who it is?’ Mac said bleakly on a falling cadence, giving Gus the benefit of an eye directed at him over the edge of one lens. ‘I was thinking the face was familiar.’ And without further words he withdrew his hand from Stevie and transferred it to Gus.
‘We’re not disturbing you?’ Gus asked anxiously.
‘Ah, no, no! Not at all. Not really,’ Mac replied without altering the wilting cadence in his voice, and at the same time pulling at the lobe of his ear with an exasperated expression as though about to pull it off. He looked back up the iron stairs and then turned his eyes finally on Gus, and examined him over the spectacles.
‘Are you going to be home for long?’ he asked.
‘For good!’ Gus exclaimed triumphantly.
‘For goodness’ sake!’ Mac drawled.
‘I want you to come round to the house tonight. Stevie is coming and I’m going to ask Boyd and a few of the boys.’
‘Ah, I dunno could I,’ Mac said listlessly, searching round the empty playground with melancholy eyes as though he were afraid his class might escape unknown to him. ‘Ah, no, do you know, I don’t think I could. I have a lot of work to do.’
‘Oh, for goodness’ sake!’ Gus exclaimed fierily. ‘Do you know how long it is since you saw me last?’
‘Oh, a long time,’ Mac agreed reasonably. ‘However, to tell you the truth, I’m not too well. I’m not myself. Dalton will tell you. You know that, Stevie. The nerves—look at my hands!’ With the most intense absorption he held out for their inspection two plump, hairy hands. ‘Incurable of course. And these hogs of monks have no consideration. ... No, do you know, I think, after all, I’d better not go. Not tonight. Thanks all the same, old man, and glad to see you back and all that.’ Over the barrier of the lowered spectacles the sad eyes roved over Gus with forgetful benevolence. ‘Some other time.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Gus said with tightened lips.
‘Don’t mention it. And now you’ll excuse me. This class will be getting out of hand. We must meet some time and have a nice long talk.’ He placed a fishy paw in Gus’s hand, and with a sad, vacant smile began to ascend the stairs slowly with bowed head, while a little boy coming down towards him on his way to the lavatory with one hand on the railing, walked on tiptoe as though afraid to disturb the august meditation. Gus watched him to the very top, his teeth showing between his lips.Ir
It was late when Stevie got back to the office. Ignatius who shared it with him raised his head and smiled. His face, Stevie thought, was even more like a pyramid ; the rolls of flesh basing themselves in a firm line along the chin, the exiguous forehead pointed. His neat little moustache was turning grey.
‘Anyone call?’ Stevie asked breezily, rubbing his hands.
‘No,’ Ignatius drawled. ‘Where the blazes were you?’
‘Revisiting the haunts of my childhood,’ Stevie replied.
‘Ah, go on!’
Stevie, hanging up his coat and hat on the nail at the side of the stationery press, looked out at the little back street which their room overlooked. He leaned on the window-sill. Directly opposite was a slum church and a constant stream of shawls passing in and out. Within the rails was a dusty-looking tree and behind it a coloured statue that raised its hand in blessing over the worshippers. The little flagged yard with its Georgian front and window and coloured statue looked well between the leaves, reminding Stevie of little churches in Italy.
‘You’d never guess who with.’
‘My goodness, is he back?’
‘Back for good and going to settle down and show us how to live,’ Stevie said with a frown of comic seriousness.
‘Tell me, wasn’t he the fellow that——?’
‘The very man,’ Stevie laughed.
‘’Pon my word, a boy after my own heart,’ Ignatius said blandly, looking at Stevie over his spectacles. ‘’Tis like music—you have to begin young and keep in practice.’
Stevie had chosen him from all the others for companion, and after so many years they had learned to avoid treading on one another’s corns. Usually about four when the gas was lit and twilight fell in the street outside, a wandering fit seized Ignatius, and with a file of papers in his hand he waddled through the building, pausing here and there for a few words, laughing his amiable empty laugh. He returned after about half an hour with a fresh flow of talk, and stood before the fire, scratching himself through his pockets, shaking in all his fat with laughter, his tight-fitting trousers showing off the wagging rotundities of his behind. Stevie preferred his pleasant, superficial, pleasure-loving disposition to that of the other clerks, who were frequently taken by sudden fits of malignity, silence or rage, and stormed like hysterical women, all about a nib or a book. Ignatius, smiling benignly over his spectacles, attributed it to sexual maladjustment.
‘If you’re not right down below,’ he said, ‘’tis like having a bad stomach; nothing is right. Sure, it stands to reason; ’tis only human nature, haw?’
After lunch it rained, and dusk came quickly. Ignatius lit the gas and cheerfully heaped up the fire with coal, beaming and rubbing his fat palms with pleasure. He was the sort of man one could always imagine happy with things that conduced to his comfort; fire, light, food, women, good digestion. He made almost a ceremonial of his morning visit to the lavatory, making sure he had on him newspaper and cigarettes, holder and lighter—curios both, bought in Paris. He pulled his chair over to the fire for a moment.
‘Stevie,’ he groaned, ‘is there no chance of sticking these bloody hooflers for a couple of decent chairs?’
A moment later steps ascended the stairs. Ignatius sprang lightly back to his desk. Someone knocked. Stevie answered the door. Under the gas-jet on the green-washed landing stood Peter Devane, his hands folded and a dripping umbrella hanging from his elbow. His face was long and Mephistophelian though now shyness had invested it with a grin of daft and biting humour, and his long nose, wet with rain, was all wrinkled up above the iron-grey moustache. As Stevie appeared he put his head on one side, and his eyes almost disappeared in the folds of bluey flesh about them. With his hat pulled down over his forehead, his dark eyebrows, cheeks stained blue with shaving, he cut an astonishing figure. The rain poured from the tip of his umbrella.
‘I suppose I’m disturbing you?’ he asked in a harsh, biting voice.
‘Not at all, Peter, old man, come in, come in,’ Stevie exclaimed, his face lighting up. ‘I’m delighted you came.’
Devane shuffled slowly in, swaying his body from side to side, and placed his umbrella in a corner of the room. Ignatius looked up and smiled.
‘Hallo, Peter,’ he said.
‘Good evening, sir,’ replied Devane with a diabolical grin, bobbing his head like a doll by way of salute and removing his old hat. Stevie blinked affectionately, remembering Mac’s statement that Devane looked like ‘a collector of lost hairpins.’ Ignatius, whose clothes were made in London, smiled faintly but tolerantly.
‘How’s the health, Peter?’ he asked.
‘Bad, mister,’ Devane replied starkly. ‘Very bad.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ Ignatius cooed,though his blue eyes were bubbling with suppressed laughter.
‘I have an awful stomach,’ Devane added. ‘I think meself I must be like a sieve inside.’
‘Oh, that’s interesting,’ Ignatius exclaimed, no longer restraining the jolly laugh that shook him. ‘I keep telling Stevie that that’s all suppressed sex.’
‘Not making you a saucy answer, mister,’ Devane replied sourly, ‘the trouble in this world is that there’s no such thing.’
He took a seat by the fire and they chatted, the three of them. Then Ignatius, who was the soul of tact, took from behind the cupboard the beautifully cut blue coat of his suit, his spring raincoat and bowler hat which he dusted lovingly on his elbow. Under the bowler and over the soft collar with the neat bow tie, his benign pyramidal countenance shone like his glasses as he bade them good-evening. Devane, now-at his ease, followed him with brooding eyes.
‘A very nice little man,’ he said with harsh humour. ‘A very nice companion, nice apartments, nice view—all very attractive indeed, Mr. Dalton.’ His nose wrinkled up again as he surveyed the little green washed office with the tall red-brown stationery press and the two yellow tables. Then he looked again at Stevie.
‘So you saw me infant brother this morning?’ .‘Yes, I was with him for an hour.’
‘And ye ran into Mr. MacCarthy?’
‘So we did.’
‘And I understand the said Mr. MacCarthy was not in the best of humour.’ And Devane, his eyes closing up again, went off into a fit of melancholy laughter, slapping his hands on his knees and cawing.
‘The best example you could desire of what is generally known as a head,’ Stevie said.
‘Did he tell you he was thinking of settling down here?’
‘Gus? Yes, he did.’
‘And what do you think of that?’ Devane stroked his moustache and gazed into the fire. There was no laughter now.
‘Well, he seemed very enthusiastic.’
‘And what’s going to happen him?’
‘That would be very hard to say, wouldn’t it?’
‘His wife is in Paris, with friends, he says. She’s waiting until he gets a house. ... Oh, I suppose ’tis all right about her. They’re married these years, and I don’t suppose anyone cares by now. But what’s going to happen them when they settle down here?’
‘What does he think himself?’
‘He says the Russians and the Irish are very much alike,’ groaned Devane in a voice which made it hard to say whether or not he was being ironic.
‘And you?’ Stevie asked.
Devane shook his head without looking up, his eyes unflickering in the firelight.
‘I think he’s in for a terrible, terrible disillusionment,’ he replied in a voice entirely devoid of expression. The two men were silent for a while, the rain hissing into the fire. When Devane rose to go, Stevie took his hat and coat and quenched the gas. The street lamp below threw a faint yellow light up into the office, a faint light with faint shadows. The window with its lighted raindrops showed the side of the old church, the lower part of the tree shining by the light of the street lamp, the porch dim and hollow with a smoky yellow glow in which dark figures moved about a stone font. As they emerged, Devane opened his umbrella and held it before them, swaying lightly from side to side as he walked. They took a slum street that led on to the river-bank, where in the wet dusk a decayed Georgian town house of lovely proportions shone with an array of candles in its uncurtained windows. One side of it had been whitewashed. Devane lowered the umbrella to gaze at it lovingly.
‘I wish I could find out something about that house,’ he said gloomily.
They walked along by the river, past the rows of slum dwellings and caved-in stores. At the other side of the river was a railed-off Mall of small Georgian houses behind their wall of trees. From the bridge the crazy hillside soared with its towers, slates in the wet light fronting this way and that like an old citadel. Devane stopped before an old curiosity shop, peering at the books in the window. Inside a lamp was burning and showed the face of an old woman in a bonnet and cape sitting with folded hands while beside her stood a young red-headed, bespectacled woman. Their heads were framed between two great heaps of junk, the lamplight falling tenderly and mysteriously upon the worn gilt frame from which gloomed some old family portrait. Devane, standing on tiptoe, put his finger upon a book upon a top shelf inside the small dusty panes.
‘I can read history endlessly,’ he said. ‘I don’t know any short cut to the grave as satisfying as history.’ He laughed his melancholy laugh, and they crossed back, to the bank of the murky river where a few old rowing boats floated mistily far under the moss-green limestone. ‘That’s the trouble with Gus,’ he added broodingly, following some train of ideas which Stevie failed to perceive. ‘The conflict of personality and character. There’s a subject for you, mister!’
‘How do you mean?’ Stevie laughed, bewildered, ‘a subject.’
‘Like Parnell and the party,’ Devane said. ‘A great tragic subject; the way they can never understand one another.’
‘Hold on,’ Stevie protested, ‘what do you mean by character?’
‘Character is personality gone to seed,’ Devane said intensely, thrusting his long fanatic head forward at Stevie inside the shield of the umbrella. ‘When ’tis all shaped and limited by circumstances, and there isn’t a kick left in it. ...’ They were passing by a whitewashed, evil-smelling latrine with a gas-lamp askew over its entrance. He stopped suddenly and lowered the umbrella so that the light fell upon his dark Mephistophelian countenance which seemed to stand out against a misty background of quay and terraced hillside and towers. ‘That’s what I am, mister,’ he snarled with a croak of mirth, ‘a character!’
They parted at the bridge where Stevie took the tram. Laughing to himself in the rain, he took the winding corkscrew hill in great strides. Vision, half comic, half tender, had set his mind ablaze—the renewal of his old relationship with Devane; the day of contrasts—a vision, a fairy-tale. He knocked softly. Eileen opened the door and stood there with bent head, peering out at him and laughing, so that all the lines in her forehead appeared. Never had her beauty appeared more magical, more transfiguring of everyday existence. The gaslight burned in the hall, and behind the curtains the still brighter light of the kitchen, the warm smell of the range, of cooking. It flowed out to him in waves, like her laughter, her pleasure, and behind him the beeches dripped over the high grey wall and the lamplight fell upon the hurrying bowlers.
‘Goodness!’ she exclaimed. ‘Such a night! Come in!’
Passing beneath the church which rose above the road, Stevie saw the stocky figure standing in the churchyard with hands behind its back. It was Father Lynnot in soutane and biretta. He was gazing out over the moonlit valley. Stevie halted and the priest gave a little start and peered down.
‘Is that you, Stevie? Come here.’
From the spot where he stood one had a view of the whole valley, the lake, the low hills about it and the lights of cottages scattered through the trees. At the side was the moonlit gable of the curate’s house, sunk below the level of the church, and in the chapel yard the cross which marked the grave of some former parish priest. From the country road far beneath them came the slow rhythm of a country cart.
‘My God, Stevie,’ he said in a low voice, ‘isn’t it a lovely night? Where were you? Were you out walking?’
‘Yes, I came up from the river.’
‘Magic,’ the priest said, ‘magic,’ and with head bowed led Stevie up the gravel path under the wall of the church. ‘I’d like to be in town now; the dark laneways, the courting couples—lovely.’ At the gable he stood and scowled at the parish priest’s house. He spat and laughed at Stevie’s look of surprise. ‘That’s for the old sod! I always do it; it makes me sleep better. “St. Praxed’s always was the church for peace.”’ An old joke of his. Sometimes on Saturday nights, when confessions were over, he acted The Bishop for Stevie, Mac, Boyd, Devane, in his thick country accent; lying back in his chair with rolling head and hanging jaws, murmuring ‘Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity’; frowning with all his fleshy, high-coloured sensuous face over ‘Mistresses with great shmooth, marbly limbs’, and rising into a tremendous blaze of passion upon the last lines —
And leave me in my church, the church for peace, That I may watch at leisure if he leers— Ould Gandolf, at me, from his inion shtone, As shtill he invied me, so fair she was!
He scampered down the steps, bounced into his own house with bowed head and switched on the light in his sitting-room where a big fire was burning. It had a new tiled fireplace with niches for ornaments, two deep leather chairs, a sofa, a big mahogany bookcase (a bargain, picked up at Colonel Saunderson’s auction), a piano (do.), a gramophone, the Sassoferrato Madonna over the mantelpiece. A bachelor’s room, ponderous and brown. Stevie could picture him sinking into the big leather chair, his pipe-rack and box of cigars beside him, and reading. But now he fussed about the mantelpiece and the papers scattered on sofa and table.
‘My goodness, what did that fool of a girl do with my cigars?’ He strode to the door and his angry voice echoed through the house. ‘ Katie, where the blazes are the cigars?’
‘Where you left them yourself of course,’ yelled a woman’s voice in reply. ‘In the drawer of the bookcase.’
‘I did, ’pon me word, I did,’ the priest muttered and lit one for Stevie and himself. Then he went to the sideboard and took out a decanter of whiskey. He stopped as footsteps halted outside the gate. But a moment later they heard Peter Devane’s slow heavy voice; Gus came in with glowing face, and Peter after him, slowly ridding himself of umbrella and coat, his long face knotted in an acrid smile of shyness.
‘Ye’ll have a drink?’ the priest said. ‘Of course ye will. There’s cigars there, fags if ye want them.’
Gus came towards the fire, rubbing his hands gleefully, and lit a cigar. Peter growled and took a cigarette which he held within the palm of his hand and lit with the utmost awkwardness, leaning so far over the match in Stevie’s cupped hand that he singed his moustache.
‘Say when, Gus,’ the priest called, and Gus made a grab at the glass, boisterously, placing his hand over it.
‘Hold on, hold on,’ he laughed. ‘You want to make me drunk.’
‘A grand drop. The old fellow has a leg of them in the Distillery. I got it from home.’
‘But I tell you ’twould knock me out.’
‘And sure, isn’t that the way?’ laughed the priest, warding him off, his tongue in the corner of his mouth. ‘The way we drink at home. A bottle of poteen and drink till you crash, and no nonsense about picking you up.’
They went on with their mock struggle; Gus tall and well-built with his brown hair and clear-cut face, looking every inch an ascetic: the priest small and dumpy in his shapeless soutane, his beefy neck overflowing his collar. As he broke free from Gus he took off his collar and threw it to the other side of the room. He looked strange without it, more like a prize-fighter with the jet-black hair and bushy brows, wine-dark cheek and jowl with the blue stain of shaving on them, and the heavy sensuous lips of the born poet.
‘I come home to save the country,’ Gus laughed, ‘and the country wants to ruin me.’
‘Erra, what ruin?’ the priest said, twinkling at his bumper of whiskey and smacking his lips over it. ‘Is it a drop of drink?’
‘Ah, but in reason!’ Gus protested.
‘Reason has nothing to do with it. This, this noble liquor is outside reason, superior to reason. Reason! My goodness, if we didn’t get drunk, get it all off our chests, there’s no knowing what mad notions we mightn’t be letting ourselves in for.’
‘But mad notions are just what I want.’
‘Then give me back that glass. I’ll fill it for you. Better turn you into a booser than let you ruin the poor old country. Am I talking heresy, Peter?’
‘How the blazes would I know?’ growled Peter with half-shut eyes. ‘They sat about the blazing fire, blinking, inebriated by the warmth.
‘You have all my theology books—you ought to know. Didn’t I make a great job of him?’ he asked Stevie. ‘When I knew him first he was an old Pagan, and now! “Do you know, Father Pat” (he spoke in an imitation of an unctuous female voice), “’tis my firm belief that that little Mr. Devane never committed a mortal sin in his life.” (One of the Holy Women.)’
‘He’d better mind himself,’ Stevie said with a grin.
‘He’d better, I tell you. She’s forty-five and getting desperate. Tell me, Stevie, do you think have I any chance with yourself?’
‘The trouble about theology,’ Devane said with a sour smile, ‘is that ’tis all about what the theologians think of God.’ He leaned forward, his two hands on the seat of the high-backed chair he had chosen as if by instinct. ‘What I’d like to know is, what does God think of the theologians?’
‘Ha-ha, you struck it,’ Father Lynnot exclaimed boyishly. ‘You put your finger on it. Two words on that subject would be appreciated. Sour ould sugars!’
‘Sometimes,’ Peter said with an unexpected burst of loquacity, ‘I sit up there in the organ loft and I try to imagine I’m Almighty God. I like the music well enough, and even the prayers, but the moment someone gets up in the pulpit and begins to talk about me infinite perfections I get awfully embarrassed.’
‘Wait now,’ Father Lynnot said, chewing his cigar, his fat face aglow, ‘I’ll tell you a good one about old Shylock —that’s the parish priest. You know his old da did the gaol for embezzlement?’
‘Now hold on,’ Gus said with mock earnestness, ‘is this a funny story?’
‘Then I’m sorry, I can’t listen to it.’
‘Why can’t you listen to it?’
‘I made a vow. Whiskey is bad enough but funny stories are the ruination of this country. It seems to be the Irish excuse for never doing anything.’
‘Unseasonable levity,’ said Stevie solemnly.
‘But, but, but, here!’ shouted the priest, starting up in his chair. ‘ What life would a curate have if he couldn’t tell stories about his P.P.?’
‘Exactly,’ Stevie said, ‘only a cowardly excuse for not taking proper steps to remove the P.P.’
‘But seriously now, Stevie,’ Gus said, and it was plain that he disliked Stevie’s facetiousness. ‘This is an important matter. Now we all agree that this country is behind the times.’
‘Agree?’ Father Lynnot gasped. ‘We do nothing of the kind. Not likely.’ He shovelled coal in heaps on the fire. ‘You, you, you come back from a benighted hole like America and tell us that we’re behind the times? My God, a place where people throw themselves into the river and under trains to get out of it. Huh! Now, I’ll put you a question, a fundamental question. Always go back to fundamentals—amn’t I right, Peter?’
There was a thunderous knock and after a moment a tall man entered, smoothing down his waistcoat and nodding self-consciously. He was clean shaven with clear skin and eyes and hair. When he entered he thrust both hands into his trousers pockets and nodded distantly to Stevie and Devane. ‘The priest got up gleefully and made way for him.
‘Come in, Dan, come in. You know Peter Devane’s brother, Gus? Doctor Clancy.’
‘How do you do, Mr. Gus Devane?’ said the doctor.
‘A great argument here, Clancy,’ Stevie said. ‘You’re just in time to take a hand.’
‘Why then indeed, I’ll do nothing of the kind,’ the doctor replied. ‘I have something better to do with my time instead of indulging in foolish arguments.’
Scratching his head, he sat in the priest’s chair and crossed his legs, raised his eyebrows and stared abstractedly at the ceiling and the walls.
‘But now, hold on,’ Father Lynnot continued. ‘You said something I can’t let pass. You said this country was behind the times.’
At this the doctor exploded in a little snort of laughter which made Gus start. Then he made his face a blank, and, turning his head on one side, began to bore his ear with his little finger.
‘Never mind Dan,’ the priest said. ‘He’s the village atheist, and as there’s no one else will listen to him, he comes to me. ’Tis only that he worked in a hospital in England once and a nurse said something to him. Tell us what she said, Dan?’
‘As you know the story so well you can go on with it,’ the doctor said disparagingly, turning his head still farther away.
‘“Come to bed with me if you want me, but for Christ’s sake don’t paw me.”’
The doctor nodded his head distantly at Stevie and Devane.
‘The English are an honest race,’ he commented.
‘Ah, but that wasn’t what you said then,’ grinned Father Lynnot. ‘You said the English would wither off the face of the earth. And ’tis all remorse.’
‘How remorse?’ asked Peter Devane hopefully.
‘Remorse that he didn’t go to bed with the girl, of course,’ laughed the priest, rising and stumping about the room. He opened the door and shouted ‘Katie, the coffee!’ ‘Ha, ha,’ he added. ‘He never forgave the Irish people for losing his one great chance.’
‘The Irish people,’ the doctor said, ‘are the most disgusting of all known specimens of the human race.’
‘Hear hear,’ Stevie exclaimed, laughing.
‘How do you make that out, doctor?’ Gus asked quietly.
‘Isn’t it plain?’
‘No, it isn’t plain.’
‘Maybe you haven’t sufficient experience of them.’
‘I don’t need it. I am an Irishman.’
‘That’s hardly experience.’
‘Aren’t you ashamed to say things like that?’ Gus said in the same low voice.
The doctor only surveyed him from head to foot with his blue eyes which seemed to dart cold rays like crystals and whistled.
‘Don’t whistle at me,’ Gus said tensely. ‘I think you should be ashamed, yes ashamed, speaking like that of your own people.’
‘Sentiment,’ the doctor snorted, suddenly throwing out his fat hands as if to ward off a fly. ‘I can’t stand sentiment.’
‘Is it sentiment not to be ashamed of the people you come from?’ Gus cried. ‘All right then, it is. All the years I was away, I’ve thought day and night of this place and my own people; thinking and planning to get home, and fellows like you, who’re lucky enough not to know what it is——you neither respect yourselves nor the people who support you.’
He glared at them one after another. The doctor only opened his eyes to their fullest extent, gave an idiotic stare, shrugged himself inside his clothes and whistled louder than ever. Stevie was silent. There was something about Gus’s voice that forbade lightness.
‘We’ll have a chune,’ Father Lynnot said oracularly. ‘This is the most magnificent instrument on the market, this gramophone of mine. ... Or what about yourself, Peter? Are you composing anything? Here am I paying twenty-two pounds for a beautiful piano like this and no one to play it.’
Devane replied with a saturnine grin; his face lit into a more than diabolical mirth by the flames.
‘I didn’t compose anything for fifteen years, my dear sir,’ he replied with sour humour. ‘And furthermore, for your information, I haven’t the faintest intention of doing it.’
‘Oh yes you will, old man,’ Gus said blandly.
‘I will not,’ Devane growled.
‘Well, now,’ Gus said, rubbing his hands with a businesslike air, ‘I seem’ to remember seeing some music of yours at home. It struck me as being rather good.’
‘And-can you read music too, Mr. Devane?’ the doctor asked politely.
Gus glared at him.
‘Why didn’t you bring it with you?’ Father Lynnot asked hastily, leaning over his chair.
‘Well now, perhaps I did,’ Gus said, pulling himself together with an effort. ‘You never know.’
He retired to the hall, fumbled for a moment at his coat and returned with a brown paper bundle containing some dozen sheets of music paper. Peter scowled at it and sat upright in his chair.
‘Where did you get that?’ he asked in a harsh voice,
‘In the music cabinet.’
‘Well, you had no right to touch it.’ There was a little flame of anger behind the inexpressive voice,
‘What is it, Peter?’ Father Lynnot asked gently.
‘A scene from an opera I was thinking of writing,’ Devane replied with profound distaste.
‘An opera about what, Peter?’ the priest asked eagerly.
‘About Diarmuid and Grania.’
‘I never thought much of that story,’ the doctor said distantly, almost coyly, his blue eyes. turning skyward as though acknowledging some other-world inspiration.
‘Now, Clancy, now Clancy!’ the organist snarled, his voice as cranky as a child’s rattle. ‘That’s a grand story; a grrrand, wild, passionate story.’
‘Now we’ll have to hear it,’ Gus said with a ~ smile and a wink at Stevie. He held out the manuscript. ‘Would you mind, old man?’
‘I would,’ his brother growled. ‘I’d mind a lot.’
‘Why, Peter?’ Gus asked, humouring him.
‘First, because ’tis no good, and second, because I can’t play the piano and never could. Wait till Mrs. D. comes home and she can play it for you.’ Devane leaned forward, his hands clasping his knees and his face twisted in a snarl, ‘Or if you want to improve the musical taste of the town, she could start a series of concerts and perform it as her piece de resistance.’ We pronounced the French words as though they were English. ‘Show.’
He took the score and looked at it distantly, puckering his brows over it as though it were an unfamiliar piece. Then he scratched his head and slowly his face began to smooth out. With sudden tenderness Stevie remembered a phrase of Mac’s, ‘a face like ploughed fields at twilight.’ But to Stevie he seemed more like one of those old castles he saw on the mountain roads or among the bogs, put there to dominate the wild country round but which, battered by the centuries, now stand upon some furzy hill with the cattle grazing about their feet.
‘Peter,’ the priest said with a fat arm about the organist’s shoulder, beaming down at him, ‘I confess. ’Twas I got Gus to pinch it. I never heard anything you did.’
Devane stared blankly up at him. It was as though he were about to say something and had changed his mind. Katie came to the door with the coffee tray but Father Lynnot shooed her off with the expression of an ogre. Devane rose silently and sat at the piano, staring blankly at the music as he clipped it on the stand. Stevie noticed how slowly he did everything.
‘’Tis sixteen odd years since I wrote it,’ he growled as though speaking to himself. ‘I got the idea one day listening to the wood-pigeons in Keelconnery.’
‘Really?’ Gus exclaimed, laughing with that bright adventurous air of his. Clearly he was going to act as claque for his brother. ‘In Keelconnery? How splendid!’
‘I see nothing splendid about it,’ the doctor said wearily, turning his face away.
‘The pair of them are sleeping in the woods,’ Devane went on in a reedy voice which had suddenly become charged with passion.
‘The pair of who?’ asked the doctor.
‘Diarmuid and Grania after she running away from Finn in Tara.’
‘Well, couldn’t you tell us that?’
Gus showed his teeth and clenched his fists but the priest caught his arm.
‘The song of the wood-pigeons wakes them,’ Devane shouted. ‘That’s the rhythm of the orchestral part... if only I knew anything about orchestration. When the curtain goes up on the second act the two of them are sleeping in a cave in the wood and the dawn is breaking outside. Or rather he’s sleeping. She’s sitting by the ashes of a fire, watching him.’
Suddenly Stevie covered his eyes with his hand. It had all come back to him—that stormy night sixteen years before when Devane had told him in his ironic way of Gus’s elopement.
After staring for what seemed an unconscionable time at the music, Devane began to tap out the rhythm of the wood-pigeons’ song, the ‘ruckoo, coo, cuckoo,’ - interrupted by’ sudden sweeps in the treble that might have been intended to evoke the first stirring of wind through the leaves, the creeping of daylight through the branches. He bent closer to the music with head down, scowling and shuffling nervously on his stool.
‘Grania’s Lullaby,’ he announced in a harsh, melancholy tone as his right hand picked out a dreamy, swaying: melody that seemed to rise like a bird’s flight from the quickened, almost waltz-like, rhythm of the bass. ‘Beautiful poetry,’ he muttered as though he were speaking to himself. ‘Grand, passionate poetry. The first act was to end with him asleep and she singing it. When the curtain rose on the second she was to be still humming it while the dawn was breaking.’ He began to sing in a harsh bass voice, an octave below the original pitch:
‘But you must sleep as in the south He who from Conall long ago With all the arts of speech and song Made Morann’s daughter rise and go.
Or the wild sleep that Finna found In the northland with his bride When Slaney fled from home with him, And slept no more at Falvey’s side.’
Suddenly vision caught Stevie up once more on its wings. An epithalamium for that wild sleep of Gus’s, all gathered up into the past. An epithalamium for his own secret love. He remembered their first meetings on the river walk where Devane and he had sat and talked of Ned. She would be waiting there, and emerge suddenly from among the trees, whispering, laughing:
‘Sleep the sleep that Anya slept When with the torchlight round her head From Garnish and her father’s house To her beloved’s arms she fled.
And Dega’s sleep who in the east Did not think for one sweet night With her head on Houndhead’s breast Of the terrors of the flight.’
Suddenly Devane crashed his hands on the keys and rose, all his dark saturnine face flushed a deep purple.
‘I can’t do it,’ he snarled. ‘Me bloody voice is gone.’
As though they were stiff after playing, he rubbed his long bony fingers together until the joints cracked. Gus, who had been sitting with sunken head and hands upon his parted knees, gazing into the fire, raised his eyes and said in a low voice, ‘That was lovely, old man!’ The priest stared at Devane, his violent, sensuous face aflame with rich emotion. Even Clancy shook himself inside his clothes appreciatively.
‘Why didn’t you go on with that?’ he asked sulkily. ‘That’s better than your old Kyrie Eleisons.’
‘If you got pains in your belly the way I do,’ grumbled Devane, ‘’tisn’t love duets you’d be thinking about. Music doesn’t explain anything.’ With shaking fingers he took a cigarette from the priest and lit it in his awkward way. ‘I dunno what tempted me to read a Life of Wagner last year—’twas most upsetting.’
‘But tell me, tell me,’ babbled the priest adoringly, pouring out more whiskey for him, ‘I thought Mozart was your favourite. What? Wasn’t he? The first composer you got fond of?’
Stevie thought how little words sounded now, polite conventional phrases after that cry of passion. It was like talking to a somnambulist. Devane turned his smouldering eyes on the priest.
‘He’s nearly as bad,’ he said angrily. ‘I read a very nasty story about him and some opera singer—very nasty and very upsetting.’
‘You were always mad on opera,’ Gus said.
‘There used to be decent opera in those days,’ growled his brother. ‘You’d hear Figaro and Giovanni anyway.’
‘That’s the very thing I mean though,’ Gus said eagerly. ‘You have an operatic society. Why don’t you get hold of them and make them do good stuff?’
The doctor exploded in his queer snort of laughter. Gus’s voice rose tempestuously.
‘Get hold of them,’ he said. ‘They’re all right. They’re good fellows. All they want is a lead and a bit of organisation.’
‘When you know this country as well as I do,’ the doctor said complacently, pulling down the two wings of his waistcoat over the globe of his belly, his head nodding above it like a doll’s, ‘you’ll be glad if no one organises anything.’
‘Ah, you make me sick,’ Gus said between his teeth. ‘Sick! Any fool can go around saying things like that. Why the hell don’t you take off your coat and do a bit of honest work for a change? You get on my nerves. You’re like the bloody emigrants I saw in America—lazy, whining, cadging bastards that made me ashamed of being Irish at all.’
‘Control yourself, my dear sir,’ the doctor said coolly, thrusting out a fat paw. ‘Control yourself. You’re making an exhibition of yourself.’
‘But I don’t want music,’ Devane said, grabbing the priest excitedly by the sleeve. ‘I don’t like music. I’m too old. I haven’t the youth or the physique. I won’t sleep tonight, only tossing and turning, and tomorrow I’ll be doubled up with the pain in my stomach.’
Stevie rose hurriedly. He wanted to be alone before the emotion that had gathered within him was dissipated and left nothing behind it. ‘The priest accompanied him to the door, holding him affectionately by the arm. Then he excused himself and rushed back to put on his clerical collar again. Katie came into the hall.
‘Father Pat,’ she said tearfully, ‘the coffee will be destroyed.’
‘Take it in, take it in. I’ll be back in a minute.’
Outside from the shadowy garden, they saw the moon float like a magnet on the air, and it seemed as if all life were being drawn up towards it in its vast inspiration. Father Lynnot squeezed Stevie’s arm as he hurried him out on to the road.
‘Magic,’ he sighed again with a hasty glance about the sky. ‘Tell me, Stevie, tell me, tell—our friend, what did you think of his piece?’
‘Grand,’ Stevie replied.
‘Wasn’t it? My God, who’d ever think he’d have it in him? A dry old stick like that! Love, of course, ’tis eternal. One of the highest faculties. But only a facet, a facet, a facet,’ he snarled viciously as he dug his elbow into Stevie’s ribs. ‘That’s what ye fellows don’t understand; the majesty, the totality, the, the——’ Speechless, he stopped suddenly in his jumpy way and threw out his arms in an all-embracing gesture. ‘Like the moon, like the mercy of God.’ Stevie, nervous and self-conscious, saw two men standing by a corner under a bracketed gas-lamp, smoking. ‘But you didn’t see it all? Or did you?’
‘All what?’ Stevie asked good-humouredly.
‘Did you know what it meant? Who ’twas for?’
‘No,’ Stevie replied with an air of pretended interest.
‘Gus!’ the priest exploded.
‘How did you know?’
‘Aha! Ye think ye can keep things from me,’ the priest laughed, gripping his arm again. ‘Ye think I don’t know. Poor devil, poor devil! You can see now how he worshipped that brother! All his heart and soul in it, and all the time—Stevie Dalton, can you keep a secret?’
‘How do you think I keep my job?’ Stevie asked with a laugh.
‘I know, I know; Christ, do you think I don’t? Watched! The mask! And you’re right. Trust nobody. Every day, every word, you say.’ Like a tiger the little priest walked on tiptoe, stepping high, with clenched fists. ‘I can trust you; you love the man. So do I. ’Tis all romancing, about that Russian girl, I mean. She left him, or he left her, it makes no difference; soon after, years ago.’
‘My God! Are you sure?’
‘Did you ever know me wrong!’
‘What was it?’
‘His conscience was at him. The priest’s voice was inexpressive, so that Stevie found it difficult to know if he was speaking in irony or not.
‘And Peter? Doesn’t he know?’
‘Don’t you see, man? Gus was ashamed to tell him. One of those days he will. I’ll tell you how I know—for God’s sake keep it to yourself. A girl called Lacey he used to know when he was a young fellow; ’twas she told me. He came to her to ask her to marry him. Poor devil! Poor devil! He confessed it all to her. She came to me about him—dreadfully upset. He doesn’t see the effect ’twould have on her. She was half demented, could hardly sleep at nights. Awful!’
‘My God!’ Stevie said.
‘’Tis terrible. I told her to keep quiet about it, not to tell anyone, but she will, she’ll talk, she probably talked before she came to me. Soon ’twill be all over the city. Couldn’t he keep it to himself? A dreamer. Good night.’
And the priest was gone, his soutane fluttering behind him. Stevie heard the quick creak of the gate, the banging of the door.
‘Poor devil!’ he repeated softly, but it was not Gus he was thinking of.
The little seaside train was crowded, mostly with little girls in very white frilly dresses, white knickers and broad white hats with flowers. Stevie sat in a corner with his paper, but every now and then one of them tumbled over his legs. The train puffed along by the river, and. then by wooded inlets of the harbour. Outside the terminus, from the dusty little lane with the whitewashed cottages there was a view of a bay, very blue under the summer sky, with many rowing boats and a few yachts. He came down a steep lane behind a public-house to the water’s edge. Scores of young men and girls sat on the wall, smoking, with the sunlit bay rising behind them. He saw her come up the path towards him, with customary eagerness smiling at him from a long way off, her head raised and her nose sniffing the air. They turned back together, Stevie registering with flickering eyes the rows of faces which observed them, and when he recognised someone, bowed and raised his hat stiffly.
They left the sea road by a lane which wound up past demesne walls and cottages; it was shaded by overhanging trees, and the sudden silence, the red light that touched the dusty roadway sifted through the swaying canopy of leaves, the smell of the dust, affected Stevie with a sense of escape, and he squeezed her hand eagerly. As they breasted a rise, the Atlantic came into view, blue as the land was green, flat as it was billowy, blowing on them in great gusts that shook them. The hillsides, glittering in wind and light, fell in great unbroken arcs to the scarred edges of the cliffs, the fields were empty, the people gone to Mass.
He bathed while she sat on a rock and smoked. The sun flooded the little cove, its warmth thrown back by the yellow cliff; the waves hissed green and white among the long frog-backed, frog coloured rocks that stretched out like the fingers of a hand. He came out laughing, excited and boyish-looking, and as they went in single file along the narrow cliff-path, his hand reached out to caress her. She looked back with an air of mock surprise.
‘Mr. Dalton, haven’t you forgotten yourself?’
‘That one can smile and smile and be a villain,’ he replied.
It was only rarely, and scarcely ever with anyone but Eileen, that he dropped the mask. Even when he met and drank with old friends like Mac and Charlie Boyd, the chemist, he did not cease to pretend.
‘Look at him!’ Mac once cried. ‘You could almost peel the deceit off him. Stevie Dalton, I knew you since you were that high—what do you mean trying to cod me?’
‘Master, you do wrong me,’ Stevie said with a laugh.
‘Why do you play the clown with me? Do you think I’d betray you—to the mob?’
‘Come into the open, man,’ Boyd intervened, ‘come into the open! Take your pint and state your opinion! What I believe I’ll maintain before any man, I don’t give a damn who he is!’
‘Never mind this—this person,’ Mac murmured with a fastidious shudder. ‘A—a person who thinks Byron was a better poet than Keats.’
‘And so he was,’ Boyd shouted, banging his glass on the table.
‘Oh, gracious God!’ Mac exclaimed, turning his face aside as though in anguish. ‘What did Byron write? Tell me now, what did he write?’
‘Childe Harold and Don Juan, the two finest narrative—mind you, now—narrative poems in the English language.’
‘A cripple with an inferiority complex,’ Mac snarled. ‘What was I saying? No, Stevie, no. I know what it was now. I knew your brother. He was a great man, a lovely man; he had the soul of an artist. And you have the soul of an artist too, but you disguise it with buffoonery.’
‘Laugh, Punchinello, for a love that is ended,’ he sang softly.
‘No, no,’ Mac said impatiently. ‘Don’t try to put me off. I’m an old man, an old crock, but I had a streak of genius in me, before I fell among thieves,’ he added with a scowl at Boyd. ‘This clowning of yours is bad, bad. It destroys you inside. Mind what I say. I know you better than I know myself.’
The path wound between tiny huts and bungalows, all flung higgledy-piggledy down the sharp slope, and here the path skirted the roof of one, went up in steps past the window of another. It crossed the cliff-tops between low hedges until Eileen stopped at a gate which led to a wooden hut like any of the others, painted a dull green, with three wooden steps leading up to a porch where brightly coloured bathing dresses hung out to dry. Mrs. Soames came to the door to meet them, a small, dumpy woman with a round red face, blue eyes and vague inexpressive gestures that were faintly suggestive of early wiles. She was as sweet as honey to Stevie, looking at him with extraordinary coyness, her head just a little to one side.
‘I hope you brought down a few children with you in the train?’ she said in a high laugh. ‘We want a few children down here badly, haw? Oh, Law, we do! ’Tis a beautiful place, isn’t it, Mr. Dalton?’
‘Grand,’ Stevie said, and indeed there was something inspiring about the immense panorama of sea, and the harbour mouth and the little whitewashed lighthouse at the other side of the bay. A steamer slid past upon the horizon.
‘Of course, it’s got very common compared to what it used to be. At one time this used to, be a very classy place.’
‘Do you tell me so?’
‘We used to know it well in those days. Nearly every fine day in summer her ladyship used to be brought down.’ She nodded her head with a bitter and doleful smile. ‘Ah, we could afford it then, Mr. Dalton. We came down in the world, you know. We weren’t always like we are now. Sure, you remember? You do, of course?’
‘Come now, mother! Mr. Dalton didn’t come down here to hear the history of the Beautiful Miss Maddens.’
‘Oh, that’s what we were called indeed. ’Twasn’t we invented it, though you mightn’t think so now to look at some of us. Haw?’ And again that glance of overwhelming coyness.
Eileen had donned a white coat and was very efficiently and swiftly laying the table for dinner while her mother, with a great show of industry, flapped about ineffectually with a plate in one hand and a dishcloth in the other. She closed her eyes and began to do what appeared to be involved calculations regarding the number of diners.
‘Law, Eileen,’ she exclaimed, ‘isn’t it a wonder Ed wouldn’t come!’
‘Ed and Johnny would sooner have their old ‘hurling match.’
‘Oh, Law, and the price he have to pay for this place!
‘Well, dear knows, you ought to know Ed by this time,’ Eileen said with staring eyes. ‘He’d sooner his old hurling match and to be looked after by Kitty, and if Kitty didn’t turn up he’d hardly notice it. He’ll be dead one of these mornings and go into the office by mistake.’
‘Oh, my, my, the way we speak of our husbands!’ shrieked her mother archly. Her eyes lingered fondly upon the bottle of stout which Eileen had laid by Stevie’s plate; at last even Eileen had to notice the longing.
‘Mother,’ she asked with forced politeness, ‘would you like another of these?’
Her mother looked at it for a moment as though trying very hard to recollect what exactly it was and then replied in girlish tones:
‘Yes, dear, I think so—if you can spare it. If not, don’t put yourself about in the least.’
‘We were able to have plenty of those too in our day,’ she said with a smile to Stevie. ‘Oh yes. I don’t like to think of all the bottles that were put away in our house in the old days, and by some who’re not quite so ready to recognise us since our troubles, Mr. Dalton.’
She ran out to call little Nora, clapping her hands and crying in a high-pitched tinny voice. The child came in awkwardly; a dumpling, round-headed with a smooth shining helmet of flaxen hair, her round blue eyes brilliant with mischief. while she stuffed the edge of her pinafore into her mouth. Stevie sat facing out towards the cliff, where he could see the files of trippers pass, their heads and shoulders swaying against the blue sky with the sea far beneath them. Mrs. Soames made what she thought appropriate conversation. Her hands shook when she tried to hold her knife and fork, and it was only when she lifted her glass that the small beady eyes really took on a restful expression.
‘Did you know, Mr. Dalton,’ she asked with head half-turned away while she looked at him out of the corner of her eye, ‘did you know that some people thought Eileen was making a good match when she married Ed?’ She paused as though expecting him to explode with laughter. Eileen tossed back a stray lock of hair and looked at her impatiently. ‘Now,’ she went on, ‘I’m not saying anything at all against his family—far be it from me!—but I think that’s a tall story, don’t you?’
‘Oh, what does it matter?’’ Eileen snapped.
‘Oh, but it does matter, Eileen. You don’t know as much of the world as I do, but people make a lot of things like that. And those that said it seemed to be forgetting that though Ed’s father might be of quite good family and his mother might have a stall in the market, it was the stall he married and not the name. Mrs. Donoghue puts on great airs now; she’d hardly see you in the street, but I assure you, Mr. Dalton, she’s a nobody.’
‘She has a fine bank balance,’ Eileen said bitterly, ‘and she knows how to hang on to it.’
‘But still, she’s a nobody. Nobody knows who her people were; nobody knows where they came from.’
‘Oh, for goodness’ sake,’ Eileen cried, putting down her knife and fork, ‘you get on my nerves with your families. Families! What is a good family? I never could see anything good about them.’
‘Oh, .but, Eileen, there are such things as good families,’ her mother said, growing very red.
‘I don’t believe it; I think it’s all humbug like——’ He knew she was about to say ‘religion and love’; instead she trailed off with ‘like these silly old novelettes you’re always at.’
‘Mr. Dalton,’ her mother asked, sitting bolt upright, ‘am I right or wrong?’
‘Of course you’re right, ma’am,’ he said with a frown. ‘Don’t mind this foolish girl. ’Twas the first thing I learned from my own father. He was always very proud of our family—“an ancient family of title and property in the Isle of France.”’
‘I believe you, Mr. Dalton,’ Mrs. Soames declared in ringing tones, bringing down her little hand flat upon the tablecloth and leaning earnestly towards him. ‘I never heard anything except good of them. But what I want Eileen to see is that the Maddens were a good family too.’
‘I don’t believe it,’ Eileen repeated angrily. ‘I believe they were never anything only drunkards and wasters. And I don’t believe in the Daltons either. I don’t believe they ever had any title or property in France.’
Nora giggled and looked at Stevie, lowering her head as though to dodge whatever might be thrown. Stevie frowned again. Eileen’s eyes were blazing and her cheeks a deep red.
‘You mean to say,’ he asked in scandalised tones, ‘that you don’t believe in Colonel Dee Alton, that the King of France said he’d sooner lose his right hand than lose Colonel Dee Alton?’
‘No, I don’t.’
‘Eileen!’ her mother shrieked. ‘What sort of manners are these?’
‘I don’t care. I think it’s all lies; nothing but lies and humbug, and it just satisfies your vanity, telling yourselves fairy-tales.’
Then she saw Stevie blinking and his mouth twitching slightly with amusement as it usually did when he set out to irritate her, and she laughed, a little crossly.
‘You wait,’ she said. ‘I won’t be long taking the smile off you.’
In the afternoon Mrs. Soames took Nora to the strand, while Eileen and Stevie remained behind to wash up. Once she leaned back in his arms, looking up at him and speaking in a low voice.
‘You’ll stay the night, won’t you?’
‘Will it be all right?’
‘Mm. Who’s to know?’
‘She sleeps like a rock. Let me show you the room. It has a big window and when the moon shines it’s lovely.’
They left the bungalow, and as they mounted the hill the crowded cliffs and beach dropped away beneath them, and the sea, ribbed with grey and purple where the cloud-shadows fell across it, gradually expanded with its lighthouse and bays and steamers. At the other side of the hill, away from the holiday crowds, they found a quiet lane, and strolled on for a mile or more, arm in arm. ‘They halted to lean over a gate to look over the sloping fields at the sea. A row of beeches on a high wall sheltered the laneway from the sea winds. Their stiff silver branches covered the road, filling it with broken shadow, the tiny leaves sifting the light that fell among the bronze droppings. Here a trunk in sunlight was bright silver; beyond, in shadow, another was the colour of old pewter; both stood out against the distant blue of the sea, and a young donkey with a great intellectual brow, who sheltered beneath them, stood over the road like a statue.’
‘We’ll go in here and sit down,’ she said. ‘There’s something I want to say to you.’
They routed the donkey and leaned their backs against the pedestal of a beech, while Stevie took out his cigarettes.
‘Stevie,’ she asked, ‘are you prepared for a shock?’
‘It’s not a laughing matter.’
He knew she hated his facetiousness, so he lit her cigarette and composed his face as well as he could.
‘I’m going to have a baby.’
He raised his brows, dropped his voice.
‘Honest, I am.’
‘And you’re quite certain?’
‘Absolutely certain, Stevie.’
She leaned over him, her joined hands propping her chin, and her eyes had that glassy look of earnestness which he had come to like so much.
‘That’s a staggerer.’
‘Yes, isn’t it?’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘What do you think I should do?’
‘That’s what I’m wondering,’ he said, blinking. He was trying to accustom himself to the idea of the change it would involve in his life. Suddenly he seemed to have contracted inside; he felt very small, quiet and detached. His voice too had grown very quiet and clear. ‘Tell me, is it possible to conceal it, say for six months?’
‘Not for me,’ she said hurriedly. ‘I couldn’t. Not with a figure like mine. No, Stevie. I was only joking when I asked you that. Don’t worry. I’ll take my own precautions.’
‘The same as everyone else,’ she said flatly. ‘Take jolly good care my husband doesn’t know.’
‘You can’t do that,’ he said after a moment, but in the same quiet, detached voice.
‘Why not?’ she asked angrily.
‘That might be all right for somebody else; not for you. You’re too fastidious. It would be a horror to you. I don’t think you’d ever bring yourself to do it, but if you did you’d want to commit suicide after.’
‘What do you suggest so?’
‘I haven’t any suggestions,’ he said in matter-of-fact tones. ‘There’s only one thing you can do; come away with me.’
‘With you? Where?’
‘Anywhere. England for preference.’
‘And leave your family?’
‘That can’t be helped,’ he said dryly.
‘But really, Stevie,’ she said, taking his hand and forcing it open, ‘I don’t think you realise at all what you’re proposing. Honest, I don’t. Don’t you see, we’d never be able to come back here, and just think how your father and mother would feel about it. My mother too, the old devil, although she doesn’t really count. And we’d have to start all over again, among strangers, without home or work or anything. And we couldn’t get married unless Ed died, which isn’t likely, worse luck.’
‘I know,’ he said, blinking and stammering slightly, pulling at the legs of his trousers, ‘I know all that, but it can’t be helped. Think of what we can do, how we can make things easier for ourselves.’
‘Then you really think that’s the best thing?’
‘It’s the only thing.’
‘And it isn’t just because it is the only thing? You do want me, don’t you? I won’t be too much of a burden on you.’ She plucked a daisy and pressed it into his hand, closing the fingers tight over it, and he wondered amusedly if it were coquettishness or if she really knew what she was doing. It was like some girlish spell.
‘Of course you won’t be a burden. Oh, we’ll be all right, for the first year or two anyway. I have about twelve hundred. I know you think I’m an awful old miser and too cautious and prudent by half, but now you’ll be glad of it.’
He smiled at her with a lightly mocking tenderness. ‘To his surprise, she suddenly screwed her mouth into a bitter little smile.
‘No, Stevie,’ she said with a toss of the head. ‘It’s very good of you, but you needn’t bother. ... Oh, don’t think I really meant what I said about the job and so on. That was only making up, to see what you would say. I wouldn’t worry about how you’d make a living; I’ve had to worry, really worry, and I wouldn’t be afraid of you.’ The bitter smile faded, the lines disappeared, and the face resumed its old air of girlish eagerness. ‘As a matter of fact, you’d probably do awfully well in England or America; I’ve often thought you’d never do anything really until you got away from that hole you’re in. . . It is a hole, isn’t it, Stevie?’
‘In ways,’ Stevie replied with a smile.
‘There you are! You’ll never get the best out of yourself in it, because ’tis too easy for you. And I’d love to make a home for the two of us. I know more about it now than I did when I was married. ‘Then I was only a girl; I wasn’t used to those things. And there’s no reason why your father and mother, if they wanted to, couldn’t come and live with us there.’
In spite of his preoccupation he smiled to himself at the familiar cadence in her voice. This was the girl he knew and cared for; this incurable day-dreamer, always living a little on tiptoe with shoulders raised, chin up, in continuous aspiration.
‘That’s how I like to hear you talk,’ he said boisterously.
‘How do I talk?’ she asked in mystification.
‘Do I?’ she asked in surprise. ‘I suppose I do really. I never noticed it. But you should have talked to me for the last week so. For two whole days I did nothing else. Honest! I was passing people in the street and talking to myself—they must have thought me daft. And once I was actually going into a shop to buy some stuff for cushion covers—I thought we were there, in England.’ Her eyes suddenly softened and her voice dropped and throbbed with emotion. ‘So you see, Stevie, after all that, I couldn’t bear it if you didn’t ask me. I know ’tis only pride, but that’s the way I feel, and I’m awfully thankful, I really am, but I couldn’t take advantage of you.’
‘Taking advantage of me? How do you make that out?’
‘No, Stevie, no, honest, I couldn’t,’ she went on, speaking at breakneck speed. ‘’Twould be all right for me, but you might come to hate it. Anything might happen. You might get homesick and want to come back; you might see someone you cared for better. You see, Stevie, I sometimes thought ’twasn’t me you cared about at all. It was only because you were bored with all the other women you met; you had a grudge in against the town, and you wanted to be able to have your little laugh at it. And you see, I couldn’t bear it if I felt afterwards I was a dead weight on you.’
‘You won’t,’ he said with quiet confidence.
‘I might, and the very thought of it would make me miserable.’
‘You mustn’t be afraid of what’s going to happen human relationships. Something happens all of them; but it’s not the sort of dramatic things we imagine and the other things, the real things, we can’t foresee.’
‘I wouldn’t mind either, with anyone else but you. I’m not a coward. But it would be awful if you tired of me.’
‘I’ll give notice at the end of the month,’ he replied coolly. Fear, that contraction of the heart, had made all that was habitual drop away from him; everything had taken on a strange symbolic significance; he must resign it all so soon. At the same time something began to sing within him; never since he was sixteen or seventeen had he felt so young and gay and reckless. He wanted to spring up and hail the strange new burdensome life that was opening for him. It amused him to think what all the others would say, Ignatius shaking his pyramidal head with a sad smile: suppressed sex, he knew, a bad business. Oh dear, a bad business, and then he would groan because now he must share his office with Stevie’s successor.
‘No,’ she said, sitting up. ‘It’s a bit too late to think of that.’
‘Too late?’ he asked, shaken for the first time.
‘I’ve taken my precautions,’ she replied with a would-be worldly shrug, her face suddenly crimson, her forehead haggard. He looked at her with jaw set, thinking it out.
‘I’m sorry for that, Eileen.’
‘It had to be done in a hurry.’
‘I’m sorry you did it at all.’
‘Oh, you knew what it was going to be like,’ she said with sudden bitterness. ‘I didn’t.’
She rose and he saw that she was crying. He took her arm and together they went down through the fields towards the sea. From some nook or other a melodeon was playing, and when they reached the cliff path every rock below them was filled with parties; families and children; young men and girls. ‘The sea was all alight with green though under the cliffs the hidden rocks were a bright purple, and everywhere there was the pearly gleam of wet flesh. At the gate of the bungalow she turned to him, smiling and shrugging her shoulders; a bitter, gallant little’ smile.
‘Don’t worry yourself about it,’ she said. * It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. In ten years’ time it will make no difference to anyone in the world.’‘
Peter Devane, Stevie sometimes thought, had a phenomenal power of keeping still. And when he rose from the piano where he had been playing a set of Mozart variations and stood at the window, his hand to his chin, he might have been something carved, except when once or twice he followed unseeingly with his eyes the occasional traffic of the little town, a tram blundering past in the rain or a drove of cattle for the boats—sights his mother loved. Just as at home she might have sat at the door and made the whole mountain her theatre, she sat at the window, interested in everything and everybody, and Peter, who was of reflective disposition, indulged in generalisations about the use people made of their eyes and, ears. Opposite him was a stores with a series of pointed roofs; a little farther up long rows of labourers’ dwellings went off along a side street towards the river. Beyond the roofs of the stores the masts and funnels of the river. The fire was lit; it was too hot in the room; a stuffy, dull day that weighed upon the heart.
The door opened and Gus came in, lightly, quickly, closing the door softly behind him. He lit a cheroot and stood in characteristically purposeful attitude before the fire with legs spread wide and hands crossed behind his back.
‘She’s gone off,’ he said. ‘Poor soul, she had a bad night of it.’
‘Her back again?’ Peter asked.
‘Yes. She’ll have to do something about it.’
‘It always gets bad in this clammy weather,’ Devane replied.
‘She’ll have to do something about it. I want her to come to Germany with me. She’s obstinate of course. I wish you’d advise her.’
‘She’s too old,’ Devane said broodingly ‘When you reach that age, the pain you know is better than the cure you don’t know.’
‘’Tisn’t that. It’s the expense. She says her life isn’t worth that to anybody, and winks and says, “Save it up. You’ll want it all one of these days.”’
They both laughed.
‘All her generation,’ Devane said wonderingly, ‘death is no more than that to them.’
‘A great stock,’ said Gus.
‘I don’t know whether they are or not,’ Peter added, shaking himself within his clothes. Gus’s phrase was like a pinprick; he had become sensitive to the significance of those phrases. ‘And how are all the schemes of improvement?’
Gus looked at him with a slightly troubled air.
‘It’s no laughing matter, old man.’
‘My dear sir,’ said Peter, his eyes half closed, and two deep lines appearing at either side of his mouth while he rubbed his hands with a dry sound, ‘anything likely to induce in you a proper frame of mind towards poor beetles like ourselves is a matter for universal congratulation.’ He spoke so slowly that his mind had time to form these semi-literary ironic speeches. He gave a harsh melancholy laugh at his own sour humour; the laugh that gave Stevie the impression of rusted hinges on an old door, and joined Gus by the fire. Gus continued to watch him reproachfully.
‘You know, Peter, I’m disappointed in you.’
‘In me, mister?’
‘Yes. I expected understanding from you at least.’
‘I’m too old,’ Peter said with moody humour, pulling at his long nose. ‘I used to want to be a musician one time, but now all I want is to earn enough to retire to a little house where I’ll have a garden. If only I had a garden to give me a bit of exercise I feel my stomach would get better.’
‘You’re not too old,’ Gus said shortly. ‘You’re just like that doctor fellow; a defeatist.’
‘Maybe,’ the organist said reasonably. ‘I dunno. I don’t care, to tell you the truth. I used to be fond of names like that myself at one time but I gave it up. What’s the use when you can read Jane Austen?’ A sardonic flicker of mirth made the long head move forward. ‘Try reading Jane, mister. She’s grand and consoling, and there isn’t a line in her that’d remind you of anything at all.’
Gus threw himself into the chair opposite Peter’s. He leaned forward, frowning, his arms resting on his thighs and one foot on the fender.
‘Oh, I know you’re right,’ he said in a low voice. ‘What’s happened this place, Peter? It’s rotten; you know that yourself; rotten from end to end. All this drinking and talking and joking, it’s all idleness, despair, putrefaction. The bloody Irish! I feel I can’t stand any more of it.’
He leaned far forward to flick his ashes into the grate, and in the firelight his eyes were far away and his face haggard and old.
‘It seems to me you’re too impatient,’ Peter said with sudden gentleness. ‘You shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry.’
‘I’m not in too much of a hurry. And I know what I’m saying. This country is rotten, gangrenous. And sharpers.’ He laughed harshly. ‘Imagine coming two thousand miles to be cheated by a jobbing builder.’
‘And were you?’
‘Oh, he didn’t get off with it. Luckily, I discovered in time. But you should have heard him, Peter. “It was grand to see our exiles coming back; all the fine young men that left us.”’
‘There’s no hurry,’ Peter said. ‘I wouldn’t commit myself to anything till I was settled.’
‘I am settled of course.’
‘How?’ Peter asked, startled. ‘Do you mean you’re getting a job?’ .
‘No, not a job. These small businesses all seem to be family affairs; they have no use for outsiders, so I’m going in with Joe Ivers.’
‘With Joe Ivers?’ Peter repeated incredulously.
‘Why?’ Gus asked quietly. ‘Don’t you think he’s all right?’
‘I do not. I wouldn’t trust him farther than I’d fling him.’
‘I have,’ Gus said in the same dead quiet voice, his lips drawn together in a thin line.
‘You mean you’ve given him money?’
‘Put it into the business, yes.’
‘Into what business?’
‘We’re starting a chain of hotels. You know, there’s hardly a decent hotel in this country. I’ve had some experience in the States.’
‘Well, I hope it turns out all right,’ Peter said gloomily, leaning back and joining his fingers. He could have said more but he feared to depress Gus more than he was depressed already. Peter knew his quietness was deceptive. Inside he was all in a knot. No more than Peter himself was he under any illusions; he knew it was a gambler’s throw, and Peter realised how much misery he must have gone through in the past few months to have brought him to this.
Gus rose and went to the window, and Peter followed him with his eyes. One hand was in his trousers pocket, the little finger of the other. between his front teeth.
‘I’m not very keen on Joseph myself,’ he said, ‘but he has energy and ideas, not like the rest. of them; he’s alive; he can do things if only he makes up his mind to go through with them, and besides, he’s friendly with the Government.’
Devane muttered under his breath. He knew Ivers; a huge peasant from a rocky parish by the sea who had begun life as a patriot. He had been a local guerilla leader, an Eloquent Dempsey who flattered and amused his audiences with preposterous buffoonery and fantastic stories. A strange figure; emotional, shifty, plausible, with an inexhaustible supply of stories, full of humour and wild poetry. One could see him, sitting on a high stool in a pub, his huge hands about his shins, his nails bitten to the quick while he called ‘Tell me, tell me, Dan, Phil, fat’s oor name... ?’
‘I wouldn’t depend too much on his friendship with the Government,’ Peter said, picking his nose with a troubled air.
‘I don’t depend too much on anything, in this bloody country,’ Gus replied with a touch of bitterness. ‘I’ve been eating my heart out, looking for somebody to depend on.’ He strode back to the fire, his hands behind his back, kicking the carpet with his toes. ‘It’s rather late in the day to give me good advice, you know.’
Peter gave him a lowering glance which he did not notice, for he went on in better humour.
‘I shouldn’t worry, Peter. I know that to you it must seem frightening, putting your last bob on an outsider, but I’ve been doing it all my life. I’m a gambler. I couldn’t sit down as you do and wait for the monthly cheque. It wouldn’t suit me.’ Gus switched on the light and walked lightly up and down the room, his hands in his trousers pockets. ‘At any rate I think I can deal with the Government crowd myself. Father Pat gave me some introductions. I think I’ve made them listen to me, and once I get my feet inside the door of their show, they won’t find it so easy to get rid of me.’
‘Get your feet inside where?’ Peter growled.
‘I’m thinking of standing for Parliament.’
‘What?’ Once again Peter sat up, glaring. Yet his voice was very quiet when he spoke again. ‘What put that notion into your head?’
‘Well, Ivers to begin with.’
‘Oh, but I’ve mentioned it to others,’ Gus said sharply. ‘They don’t see any objection.’ He stopped dead and bent his brows on Peter. ‘I opened their eyes for them. They have no idea how we abroad look at things.’
‘Have you no sense?’ the organist snarled. ‘Don’t you know those fellows are only laughing at you?’
‘You seem to be very certain of it,’ Gus said.
‘I am certain. My God, what else do you think they’re doing?’ Peter raised himself slowly in his chair till he stood on equal terms with his brother, matching himself against him, lean and dark and melancholy, with clenched fists by his ‘sides. ‘Don’t you know, with the sort of marriage that you made, that ’tis impossible?’
‘That can be got over.’
‘It can’t be got over,’ hissed Peter. ‘And even if it could, there are other things that can never be got over.’
‘I think that was uncalled for,’ Gus said coldly.
‘Called for or not, you made me say it.’
‘I think it was uncalled for,’ Gus repeated, his face growing pale. ‘And now, perhaps you’ll be surprised to hear that the thing you talk about, I had nothing to do with it.’
Devane bowed his head.
‘No,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘I thought at the time it might be John Joe.’
‘Well, it was. I had nothing to do with it. But I wouldn’t split. And now you throw it in my face. But I suppose ’tis all I have to expect.’
‘In this country, yes.’
‘I’ve been here nearly twelve months, and this is the first time that was thrown in my face. I’ve talked to priests, to politicians, everybody; everybody’s been friendly, only you. It was only what I might have expected.’
‘Are you serious?’ Devane shouted angrily. ‘Do you mean to say you’ve taken their blather seriously? Do you think one of them has forgotten it for you, that when your back is turned they don’t go whispering it to one another?’
‘No,’ Gus hissed. ‘They’re decent people. They don’t spend their time chapel-crawling.’
‘Is it me?’ shouted Devane, raging, his face dark with passion, his fists clenched till the nails bit the skin. ‘Do you think I care? Do you think it matters to me if there were a hundred women in it? No, but you make yourself ridiculous. Ridiculous!’
‘Now just a moment, old man,’ Gus said, raising his hand for silence.‘ You’re going to say too much. I’ve stood about enough from you.’
‘Ridiculous,’ Peter repeated. ‘If anyone wanted to do what you talk of doing he’d have to walk over those people as if they were dirt.’
‘Hold on, I said,’ Gus repeated angrily, shaking his arm. But Peter, caught up in a torrent of speech, went on unheeding, jeering.
‘No. You think ’tis all only a misunderstanding, that when you whistle a tune all the bishops and priests and grafters and gunmen will dance a ringarosy for you.’ Even to Gus’s eyes he appeared transfigured; his head was raised commandingly, the long, narrow death’s-head on which the scanty flesh had grown pale again, while the green veins stood out in the hollows of the temples. ‘Don’t you realise yet, man,’ he shouted in a harsh, violent voice, ‘that the vast majority of human beings are only dirt?’
He suddenly seemed to become aware of himself, standing before the fireplace, saying extraordinary things—extraordinary for him. His hands dropped and the purple flood poured back into his face. At the same moment the door opened and his mother came in, wearing an old black coat over her nightdress, her hair hanging over her eyes. She stretched out her right hand feebly for something to catch on to at the same moment as Gus rushed to her assistance.
‘Mother,’ he said in laughing reproof, ‘this is very bold. Back to bed! Back to bed immediately!’
His brother envied him his manner with her; so familiar, so humorous, so tender. But it did not soften her now. She withdrew her hand from the back of a chair to push back the flat white hair that fell over one eye, but had to lean against the door for support. She spoke in a low inexpressive voice of girlish complaint.
‘I’ll go to bed when i find out what all this is about, all this goings-on.’
She blinked her eyes, not looking at either and speaking imperiously to the air. Her lower lip had taken on a stubborn line and her twisted old claw of a hand continued to wrestle with her hair.
‘What goings-on?’ Gus asked brightly. ‘Now you’re imagining things.
‘This crossness,’ she corrected herself with a stiff bow, still without looking at them, blinking her eyes rapidly. ‘What is it about?’
‘Now there isn’t any crossness,’ Gus protested fondly, his hands in his trousers pockets, his head inclined sentimentally on one side. ‘Just a little disagreement.’
‘What is it about?’ she shouted, hammering the wall behind her.
‘Are you sure you want to know?’ Gus asked in the same tone, smiling at her and playing for time. But she did not look at him. In that crude queenly way she continued to stare past them both at the wall, at the windows.
‘Well —’ Gus kicked the carpet again with his toe, ‘about that house I was mentioning to you. Peter thinks I let off that builder chap too lightly. Don’t you, old man?’
‘Liar,’ she said in the same low voice, her hand feeling the wall with the stiff old fingers where only a vestige of life remained. ‘Don’t attempt to tell me lies. I heard it all. Oh, I wasn’t listening to ye, but I know well what’s going on. I have it all worked out in my mind. I’m speaking to you, Peter Devane.’ And for a moment the feeble old eyes in the pale, battered peasant face blinked at him where he stood by the fireplace, his hands behind his back, his shoulders drooped. ‘I have it all worked out. Will I tell you what it is? All the plotting and planning?’
‘Go back to bed, you old fool!’ he snarled.
‘Listen to the way he speaks to me,’ she commented in a cool whisper, ‘his mother! He’s planning how will he get rid of me. Well, I’ll tell you. ’Tis jealousy, Peter Devane. Yes, jealousy.’ She had lowered her eyes from the light and her face looked more than ever like an old block, with the snub nose and out-thrust lip. ‘Ever since your brother came back to the house. I can feel it. The house isn’t the same. Nothing will do you only to get him out of it—like you got him out of it before. Oh, I have that thought out too; there isn’t much escapes me. It was you hurried him out of the house; no one else. And I was simple, too simple for one like you. But this time you won’t get rid of him so easy.’
‘Who wants to get rid of him?’ Devane asked with a scowl.
She shook her head mournfully with a curiously actressy expression. Her hand made great play with the bothersome hair.
‘A poor boy with no one to protect’ him!’ she whispered incredulously. ‘Jealous! To plot and plan against him—how could anyone? How could human nature think of such a thing? The malice! The malice of it! Shame, Peter Devane!’
‘Look here,’ growled Peter, growing red once more, ‘if you don’t shut your mouth you’ll get something to complain about.’
‘Nonsense, old man,’ Gus said with a good-humoured laugh. His mother’s appearance seemed to have scattered his own doubts. ‘You’re raving, old woman,’ he said cheerfully. ‘That’s what’s up with you, you know. You’ll be going up to the Big House one of these days. The row you’re talking about was all my doing. Peter always makes me furious. He has sense and I haven’t. I take after you, old woman. Obstinate pig, won’t take advice.’ He clapped his hands and laughed gaily. But the old woman did not change her tone. She raised herself to her full height, her stubborn old peasant chin in the air with hysterical pride.
‘Advice?’ she repeated shrilly. ‘And who is your brother to give advice? Who is he? How dare he? Low, ignorant, contriving fellow! Let him stop at home and mend boots; ’tis all he is fit for, and not be giving “advice” to his betters. Yes, and plotting against Our Blessed Lord! I have that spotted too. Nothing escapes me. Aha! let him look out for himself! I have him well reported to the priests!’
‘Come now, come, come, come,’ Gus shouted with mock indignation. ‘No more of this from you! Silly old gasbag! I’ll have you well reported to the doctor tomorrow. Ha, ha!’ He winked at Peter, and before he took the old woman’s arm muttered ‘Wait for me, old man.’
Peter watched them both out the door, the old woman muttering in the same inexpressive voice, Gus bantering her in a loud boisterous tone. Then suddenly the bitterness of it struck him in all its force. The voices upstairs stopped suddenly as he descended the stairs and went out into the rain. He looked up and saw through the still uncurtained window the room where he had spent so much of his life. Over all the electric lamps in the long dingy Victorian street that stretched before him, a circle of mist was drawn like a bag.
Under the overhanging boughs by the little avenue that led to the prison, all a grey mass with dim lights that scarcely broke its surface, he saw Stevie Dalton. He had almost passed him, unnoticed. And then he saw that Stevie too was on the prowl; that pale, tormented face was not that of a man merely waiting for a tram on a wet evening. Heaven knew how many trams he had watched pass from under those dripping boughs, the lights falling on him for a moment, a tall man with a square jaw and small, keen, flickering eyes, a cigarette for ever between his lips.
‘Well, Mr. Dalton?’ Devane said with a grin.
‘Hallo, Peter,’ Stevie said—a very good simulacrum of surprise and interest,’ Devane thought with morose satisfaction, but it wasn’t often that anyone’ succeeded in getting behind the kindly, ironic mask.
‘This is a pleasant sort of a night you chose for a walk,’ Devane said malevolently with a daft cock of the narrow head.
‘Begor, I’m still not so bad that I walk out on a wet night with an umbrella over my arm,’ Stevie replied with a dry laugh, and was sorry even as he spoke, for Devane looked at the umbrella with the shamed air of a sleeper awakened. He pulled his long nose with embarrassment.
‘I suppose,’ Stevie said good-humouredly, ‘you were waiting till you met another lunatic as big as yourself, to share it. Come on home.’
They returned past the suburban railway station, among the pale electric lamps which from the tram standards threw a faint glitter on to the dark redbrick of the little shops and dirty public-houses. Stevie thought he knew what ailed Devane. That evening, into the office he shared with Ignatius, Father Lynnot had come storming, incoherent with excitement. ‘Stevie, Stevie, did you hear the news? My goodness, what are we going to do?’ That inveterate little gossip had learned—heaven knew how —that Gus had been financing Ivers for close on six months. All his money was gone; he was ruined, absolutely ruined; fighting Ivers for whatever few shillings he could get out of him.
‘But the worst of it is, Stevie—the terrible thing is—I went to him; I should know. He won’t admit it. Not a word against Ivers. Is the man mad? Listen, you know yourself, there’s ways and means; I have friends, people who could put the screw on Ivers, but Gus Devane only laughs. And how, how, how can anyone go looking for help when all he’ll do is laugh in their face? I think the fellow must be mad.’
Stevie did not think him mad. He could understand how, faced with ruin, it would not be money that Gus would think of. As they went up the broad street towards the river, he heard rather than saw the groups of boys and girls hidden in doorways, in laneways, in archways, where a toppled-over street lamp nailed to the wall showed a narrow stream of wet flagstones. They were waiting hopelessly for the rain to stop. As they went down a narrow side street, half in darkness, the voices from dark corners grew louder, uglier; rough, shrill love-making went on between the coarse-faced sensual girls and the pinched-looking corner-boys with their jeering voices.
Suddenly a public-house door opened and a crowd emerged. There was a shout and a bowler-hatted man hailed them. It was Boyd, the chemist, his bowler at the back of his head, his mackintosh and coat thrown open, his hands in his trousers pockets. He had a gaunt face with a lantern jaw and a fanatical pair of eyes.
‘Peter,’ he shouted, waving his arm, ‘wait for me. Where are you going to? Pity I didn’t see you sooner! We had a great argument. Where’s that fellow I was with?’
‘Good night, Mr. Boyd,’ Devane said gravely, ‘and, pray, where is your sparring partner?’
‘Who, who, who, what sparring—haw, haw, haw—what sparring partner are you talking about?’ the chemist asked, stopping dead, his head thrown back under the light of a street lamp and the rain shining on his face. He still kept his hands in his pockets.
‘Naturally, I mean Mr. MacCarthy?’
‘Who? Who did you say?’ Boyd shouted violently, his angry voice admitting at the same time a little splutter of mirth. ‘Is, is, is it that fellow? That—merciful God, man, what would I be doing with him?’
‘Are you after fighting with him again?’ Devane asked with sour humour.
‘What? Who told you I was after fighting with him?’ The chemist, still laughing, still indignant, gaped at Devane’s suggestions.
‘Do you ever do anything else, do you mind telling me?’
Boyd stopped dead. He took his hands from his pockets and glared at the two friends with fanatical eyes.
‘That fellow!’ he said at last, breaking into a style appropriate to the subject, and raising his clenched fists in the air, with an almost prophetic fury under a second street lamp. ‘The, the, the, the colossal, unutterable, preposterous cheek of that supercilious old bastard! Now, you know, Peter Devane. You know what I put up with from that, that, that———’ Boyd, in the effort to find words ground his teeth in the most alarming manner. ‘God Almighty, words fail me! For twenty-two, yes, twenty-two bloody years. Now listen, Peter! Listen, Stevie! I swear before the Almighty God this blessed and holy night, if I lost my temper—mind you, I didn’t. But if I did, if I, if I really lost my temper—which as I say, I didn’t, because I don’t attach that much importance to what he says—but if I did, I’d put, I would, do you know, are you listening to me now, Stevie Dalton? I declare to the sweet and suffering Jesus Christ, I’d put his bloody teeth down his bloody throat.’ Thereupon Boyd went off into a peal of laughter, rushed forward about six steps, his hands again in his trousers pockets and with his rain-coat thrown wide open, and his stringy frame doubled up with laughter, turned and faced them.
‘Well, what is it now?’ Devane asked good-humouredly. He was fond of the chemist.
‘What is it? ’Tis the end, that’s what it is. The end!’
Boyd hunched his shoulders about his ears and scowled at them from under his brows.
‘Ye’ll be as thick as thieves tomorrow,’ Devane said.
‘Never!’ yelled the chemist.
‘Mr. Boyd,’ the organist said, ‘that was the very word the bone used when it quarrelled with the parsnip in the stew.’
‘What the blazes do you mean? What bone?’ the chemist asked in alarm.
‘Life is a stew, Mr. Boyd,’ Devane added. ‘You might as well face it, for you’ll be stewed down anyway.’
‘Come up to my place and I’ll stand ye a drink.’
‘No,’ Stevie said, ‘I’m going home, Charlie. I want to get to bed early.’
‘I’ll go to the bridge with ye anyway. ... That fellow,’ the chemist added grimly, ‘the conceit of him! The infernal insolence of him! That’s what I can’t stand. A schoolmaster. A fellow that from one year’s end to the other never sees anything or anybody, only little pissers, ha, ha, of schoolboys, talking to me, me, a chemist! Did you ever hear the like of it? The whole secret life of the city, begod! That I could if I chose to, bring it down on top of me like Samson, ha, like Samson. They come to me from all over the country. “Can I see yourself, Mr. Boyd.” Or letters with the backs marked S.A.G.—“Saint Anthony guide.” “Will you please send by return something to banish off my troubles?” And then, then, then that bloody misfortunate schoolmaster presumes, yes, actually presumes to deny the existence of matther.’ And Boyd, skipping into the roadway, glared at them with fanatical eyes. He halted for a moment outside an ill-lit stables to ask the sickly young man in charge if he had anything for next day. To whose reply he answered with a vociferous yell of ‘Go away ou’ that, you bloody hoofler, and you’re nothing else! Haw, haw!’ And on again through the drizzle, the lower part of his coat bellied out like a sail, his head down into the rain and the bowler over his eyes while his arms went like a windmill.
‘“The will,” says he, “the will is the divine faculty in man.” “Hold on,” says I, “this is a new sort of theology.” “’Tisn’t theology at all,” says he, “’tis common sense. You have the mind of a Christian Brothers’ boy.” “And you, my dear sir,” says I, “you, you, you have no bloody mind at all.” Ha, ha. So I pressed him; I pressed him home; I took him by the coat and I jammed him up against a wall. “Do you,” says I, “do you, bejases, answer me now, do you or do you not believe in the existence of matther?”’
They stopped at a corner beside a bridge, taking shelter under the limestone gable of a bank. A little below the bridge was a red-brick latrine with a lamp inside it, and beyond it the nests of shadow along the deserted and crumbling quays where the white chain posts stood up against the murky water. The clock of the Town Hall shone from the other side of the river; it was a quarter past the hour. Devane, who had closed his umbrella when Boyd joined them, scowled at the sky and opened it again. Boyd crept into shelter behind it, clutching his coat tight about his scraggy neck.
‘“Because if you don’t,” he continued, “if you don’t, that means you don’t believe in life, and I, yes, I, Charlie Boyd, the man you’re talking to”—are you listening, Stevie?—“I believe that in all the life about me a divine purpose is working itself out.”’
‘But do you believe in the existence of God?’ Devane snarled suddenly, lowering the umbrella and glaring at the chemist.
‘’Tis the same thing —a divine purpose.’
‘Divine purpose, that doesn’t mean anything.’
The wind blew up the river and Boyd and Devane dodged behind the umbrella again, but Stevie, with clenched fists glaring out at it, had suddenly seen himself and Devane cross that very bridge in the morning light, watching the two prostitutes counting their takings on the steps of the bank. And the contrast between then and now overwhelmed him with misery. He could see Eileen as he had seen her that night, in the firelight, when she had caught his hand and placed it on the bare flesh where his child stirred within her. The child he would never be able to acknowledge. He was caught in it, wound and bound, and he could see no way out,for now that Eileen had taken pity on her husband, he knew she would not leave him. He closed his eyes to shut out the picture of the deserted quays, the clock in the Town Hall, the red-brick latrine and the bridge over which the last good people were hurrying home. Suddenly Boyd stepped out on to the pavement, his long fanatical face aflame.
‘It does, I tell you. ’Tis the same thing. A divine purpose that says to you “Accept.” Well, I accept. I accept everything.’ Boyd drew himself to the full of his height, his hollow chest expanded, his arms thrown out while his face was lifted to the wet sky under the wind-blown electric light. ‘I say to Life, “Life, come to me! I accept everything, everything!”’
‘Oh dear!’ Ignatius said with as much distress as such a jovial man could muster. He was looking out the window. ‘The weather is very unpleasant.’
Then with a laugh he called Stevie’s attention to a scene between a bearded priest and a shawled woman outside the side door of the little church. She was clearly begging, or else complaining her neighbours, her arms going like windmills, the priest nodding and glancing around with a gleam of spectacles. Above the ancient houses sailed great cloud castles which at moments darkened the whole street, splashed it with rain and fled. Behind the bare boughs in the chapel yard shone the coloured statue with the brown robe.
‘You all right, Stevie?’ he drawled in his kindly way.
‘Me? Oh yes,’ Stevie replied with a laugh. ‘I want a holiday though.’
‘Ah, so long as ’tisn’t anything more serious; a woman or anything like that. God be with the days when they could keep me awake!’
It was still bright when Stevie left the office and in the freshening west wind crossed the little city on his way home. He paused at a bookseller’s window and again at the Post Office. He liked the old back streets with their ironwork and crumbling doorways, and sometimes from some back street would ring out some phrase that would amuse him for days by its quiet comedy. The river was in tumult and he stood on the bridge looking back at the city till a shower drove him to shelter. But Devane, the maid told him, had gone to the station. On the bridge which spanned the railway line by the tunnel’s mouth Devane was standing. Behind him soared a tall hoarding and above it the great wall of the city with a suburb on its top. Around and all below him was a wide perspective; the red-brick station yard where the old horses drowsed, the railway lines with their shunting engines, old houses, old streets leading to the quays; and stores, stores, their glass roofs like furrows. Across them the sun played and the brown smudges of showers, but below the road in a rich twilight was the departure platform, the engine throwing its stormy light into the criss-cross ironwork of the roof, making it indistinguishable from its multitudinous shadows. Devane turned, his face reddening suddenly, and Stevie saw his eyes were dark with sleep.
‘Well, mister,’ he said, half snarling, half smiling.
‘I’m sorry,’ Stevie said with embarrassment, feeling like an eavesdropper. ‘The girl told me you were at the station and I thought you might have come down for a paper or something.’
‘No, I didn’t,’ Devane said. ‘’Tis all right.’
Stevie was shocked by the wildness of his appearance; he walked in silence, his umbrella tucked under his arm, his body swaying from side to side. Outside the door of his flat he stopped, leaning heavily upon his umbrella, his long death’s-head thrust out in a leer.
‘Well, mister,’ he asked with a Mephistophelian coyness, ‘could I trouble you for a cup of tea?’
‘That’s what I called for, to bring you back to tea.’
‘Mr. Dalton, you must have second sight. My domestic arrangements make it impossible for me to offer the same to you.’
‘Peter, won’t you tell me what the trouble is?’ Stevie asked, surprising himself by the tenderness in his own voice; lightness had become almost second nature to him.
‘’Tis Gus,’ Devane said, relaxing a little.
Again they waited in silence at the street corner until a tram came by. It ground its slow way uphill under the tall houses, the long sloping gardens that ended in high walls and overhanging boughs. At one side the church dropped away into a deep hollow with a steep flight of steps leading down to it; its tower too sank and revealed quays and mills and distant hillsides while high in the empty spaces overhead sailed vast smoky, puffy rainclouds, their vans tipped with golden light. With that recollection which always characterised him, Devane leaning back in his seat followed to the west the great pageant of sky. Then his eyes gazed into Stevie’s, sleep-deserted eyes, and in a harsh penetrating voice he said, ‘Twas my fault.’
‘Something of the kind was bound to happen,’ Stevie said.
‘No,’ Devane murmured reasonably, ‘’twasn’t. I know I was in the wrong; I was hasty.’
‘Tell us, can’t you?’
‘’Twas last night after I went in.’
‘He told me he was after sending away that bit of an opera. He wanted to have it printed and brought out. Oh, I knew he meant well; he’s full of good intentions, and I was a bit unstrung. First, he told me I was too self-conscious; I should push myself on; advertise, he said.’ Stevie could hardly tell if Devane intended irony, so rapt was his voice. The rain came up the hill behind them on a cold wind, but over garden walls, in gaps between high terraces, the river wound its way between clangorous station-yards and tree-shadowed walks far below. ‘I lost my temper. I suppose I was disillusioned. Somehow, I thought he’d be different. So I made a mistake. I threw it in his face about the money I gave him. He thought ’twas the mother’s.’
‘That was bad,’ Stevie said thoughtfully.
‘’Twas.’ The tram had halted in a great gap between the houses from which one could see the river and bay. ‘He got very queer. He got hysterical. I never saw anyone like that before. He began to scream and threw his arms around, saying I was jealous of him, we were all jealous; Lynnot and Clancy and yourself and me. I was frightened.’
‘Is he gone?’ Stevie asked sharply as he rose.
‘And you didn’t say good-bye?’
‘He wouldn’t talk to me,’ Devane replied with a glare of voiceless misery. He was clutching the rail of the seat for support while a second tram slid past them at the points; a young girl on top, leaning against the rails, her hair blown back, looked at them curiously. ‘He came while I was at work to say good-bye to the mother. I knew there was something up when she wouldn’t talk to me. ’Twas the maid told me, so I went down to the station. I was standing as close to him as I am to you. I went up to speak to him and he shouldered me out of his way.’
At that moment the tram gave a lurch and Devane made a hasty dive for the stairs. Stevie followed. Devane was waiting to grab him, and as they rounded the corner of the quiet suburban road he spoke again.
‘Why didn’t he leave me alone?’ he asked fiercely. ‘I didn’t want to be reminded of my youth. All I want is to be left forget. Couldn’t he understand that? You may be wrong; you may choose the wrong road, but you have to stick to it. You can’t turn back—at my age! Meeting a girl you were fond of after marrying the wrong woman, ’twould drive you mad! Mad! Ever since that night in Lynnot’s I’m all upset; I can’t sleep.’
How well Stevie understood! ‘The past that will not be quiet; the dead who will not rest; images of desire and loss that rise for ever on our paths; lost fatherlands. He could understand why Devane sought refuge in history books. The dead there are quiet enough, they do not clutch at the heart.
He glanced at Eileen’s house as they went by. There was a light in the hall, but no other sign of life, and he thought how all these houses keep their secrets to themselves.
His father answered the door for them, a paper in his hand. He smiled with his ruined mouth and nodded politely to Devane.
‘Evening, Mr. Devane. That’s a dirty old day.’
‘Tell the mother,’ Stevie said briefly, giving him the evening paper. ‘We’ll have tea in the front room. We have some business to talk about.’
‘Oh dear,’ his mother said. ‘Ye’ll have to sit in the kitchen till I get a fire going in the front room.
She laid the table in the kitchen while Stevie and Devane sat by the range with its bubbling kettles. Mr. Dalton leaned against the jamb of the door in his shirt sleeves, glancing over the evening paper.
‘Well, Mr. Dalton,’ Devane asked, ‘and how do you like your new house?’
‘Oh, very nice,’ Mr. Dalton said appraisingly, pursing his lips and nodding his head, ‘very nice, very nice indeed. Handy to the chapel too, of course.’
‘He doesn’t like it, Mr. Devane,’ Mrs. Dalton said dryly. ‘That’s the whole truth of it now.’
‘Well, there isn’t the material in it,’ Mr. Dalton said, rolling his head judicially.
‘There isn’t, I hear! My goodness, after the old shant we came out of!’
Mr. Dalton giggled by way of excusing his wife’s ignorance.
‘Herself is very set on it, of course. Wait another couple of years till things begin to go wrong with it.’
‘How sure you are things will go wrong with it!’ his wife exclaimed. ‘Dear knows, one’d think you were looking forward to it.’
‘Now things will go wrong,’ her husband said. ‘And why?’ He came towards her heavily, drawing some hieroglyphics upon his open newspaper and standing away from them as though better to see them. ‘Why? Can you tell me that, old woman? You can’t. Because they haven’t the tradesmen there to do it. My goodness, these houses, in my young days, you wouldn’t put them up for chicken sheds. If I raise my voice I can be heard in every room like a wireless.’
After their tea, Stevie and Devane retired to the front room where outside the bow window was a hedge of veronica and at the opposite side of the road a terrace whose rough-cast was black with rain and its roofs shining. The street lamp at the corner was still unlit, and behind the railings they could see the bowlers, the berets of the neighbours hurrying past with umbrellas opened. In one house the gas was lit and the blind drawn, so that the grey front of the terrace was broken. Stevie sat with his back to the window, watching Devane. He was smoking a cigarette which he caught stiffly within his palm and brought to his mouth with an angular movement of the arm. Around in the dusk was the familiar furniture; the glass bookcase inherited from Ned, the Daumier print brought from Paris, the piano, catching a faint slaty gleam from the window, a stronger, rosy one from the fire.
‘Tell me,’ he asked, ‘has he any reason to come back?’
‘I dunno,’ Devane mumbled. ‘I don’t think so. He wouldn’t talk to me.’
‘Better if he didn’t,’ Stevie said thoughtfully.
‘That’s what I told him.’
Devane’s eyes were without expression; he sat bolt upright, staring out of the window in the dim steely light, and Stevie thought how like a piece of mediaeval sculpture he was; like a wooden statue in some German church, all planes, and with the stiffness of the wood still in him when he sketched a slow gesture and spoke in that harsh, unmodulated voice—as if wood should speak.
‘Civilisation,’ he said broodingly, ‘teaches us everything and nothing. After a thousand years we can only talk in symbols and abstractions; we have no way of describing ourselves precisely. We live with people we know and like, and we might as well be strangers.’ It was too dark to see his face but Stevie could imagine it flooded with purple. ‘Do you never feel that, Dalton?’ he asked angrily. ‘Do you never feel you’re alone at night in an empty house where nothing comes back to you but the sound of your own voice?’
‘Go back to your music,’ Stevie said flatly.
‘You can. I wish to God I had it to go back to.’
‘But what’s music but more echoes?’ Devane shouted. ‘And religion? Worshipping the echo of your own voice. You can only worship the God you know, and He’s always limited by what you are. Doesn’t it ever occur to you that if we’re to worship God, we must become like Him? That if there is a God, He can’t accept an act of worship that isn’t of His own nature?’
Stevie rose to draw the heavy curtains that shut off the bow window. As he drew them about him he paused, staring out. The gas-lamp at the corner burned with an unsteady light. Behind their railings each of the little houses at the opposite side of the road had a lighted window, and against those lighted frames passed the dwindling stream of bowler-hatted figures. The fronts of the houses were a dark mask, but the wet footpaths and the roofs still shone with a feeble glow and from out the tangle of bare boughs behind them sailed a haggard moon. He shuddered, conscious of the little drama he had so often played, that shutting out of night and rain, the banning of the mystery. Now he felt that but for Devane he would have done what he had done as a boy in the attic of their old house; when he had pushed up the attic window as far as it would go, blown out the candle and lain in his nightshirt on the bed, waiting for his brother to appear to him. He would have sat in his chair until the door seemed to open and the hair would rise on his head, and silently he would have pleaded with Ned not to judge him too harshly, for, struggle how we will, life batters us into its own crude shapes; the lighted window-panes, the bowler hats, the suburban pianos playing Gilbert and Sullivan, the attrition of speech; all wearing us down day by day while Ned lived on, released from the grip of circumstance, fixed in the eternal gesture of the rebel.
Still without switching on the light he went to the gramophone, struck a match and put on the slow movement of the Emperor Concerto. Of another time, he would not have dared to do so without patter: ‘What does this remind me of? I see, gentlemen, I see a street in Munich.’ The mask that now he could scarcely drop. He covered his eyes with his hand, but Devane’s voice roused him.
‘That’s what causes all the trouble,’ his harsh voice ground out. ‘That’s what has us the way we are.’
‘How so?’ Stevie started. His mind had been far away.
‘That.’ A long finger pointed derisively at the gramophone. ‘Then in fierce scorn, ‘The eternally beloved.’
‘’Twas there before him.’
‘No, ’twasn’t. All that is only a modern invention, a trick of playing on people’s nerves, like humanitarianism. From childhood on we’re saturated in it, the way we can’t escape. Following Jackie the Lanterns! In my part of the country girls were married off to men they never met till they met them at the altar. And they were the happiest marriages, because people’s imaginations were healthy. But now they’re diseased; they can’t eat the raw food of life; they must have it boiled down for them.’
‘And yet, when you were a boy, you must have heard the neighbours talk of ghosts?’ It was strange, talking in the firelight; piano, book-case windows, easy-chairs, giving back warm splashes of firelight; Devane’s brooding face gazing into the heart of it.
‘I did,’ he admitted, without looking up.
‘The ghosts are gone and the churches filled with statues like ornamental chamber-pots—what other reminder have we that we’re creatures of magic?’ As the music boomed louder, the piano crashing down, note by note, seeking to recover itself on the tonic, tumbling again like a falling house, Stevie, filled with a strange sense of exultation, found his voice rising and ringing out challengingly, as though he were seeking to justify himself; speaking beyond his present audience. ‘What other way have we of maintaining a unity of all life, between the living and the dead?’
‘I prefer the ghosts, mister,’ Devane said harshly.
Stevie sighed, the fit of exaltation passing. He switched on the light as he went upstairs. Emerging from the lavatory he went into his bedroom and, with nose glued to the pane, watched the waste land behind his house, the little cottages, dim channels of light with here and there a lamplit gable, the roofs shining drearily in the mist; the hillside sloping up behind them. He heard a train shriek its way out of the tunnel, and thought of Gus, the eternal Quixote, his fingers drubbing a rat-tat-tat on the carriage table, lost in his own bitter thoughts, gazing out at the wet darkening landscape, the farmhouses snug behind their screens of birches,and all round them the night-black shading of the ploughed fields; willows overhanging a deep, placid pool among the stones—his dream that had betrayed him. At the same moment he heard the knocker, his father’s hasty step, a voice that made him turn cold. Slowly he went down the stairs and saw a broad, pale, quiet face with puffy eyes, red-rimmed, a bowler, a brown scarf with crimson stripes.
‘Oh, hallo, Ed!’
‘I have some news for you, Stevie.’
‘Won’t you come in?’ Stevie said.
‘Your father tells me there’s someone inside.’
‘Come into the kitchen,’ his father whispered, retreating before them.’ ‘Come on. ‘There’s a nice fire, and if ’tis business
‘No, Mr. Dalton. Sure, you know what it is, yourself.’
Mrs. Dalton, who had been reading some religious paper by the range, rose.
‘Wisha, is that Mr. Donoghue?’
‘I have some news for Stevie, ma’am,’ he said, grasping his bowler in the crook of his arm and shaking hands with her. ‘Herself thought he’d like to know.’
‘She’s all right?’ It was Mrs. Dalton who spoke. ‘She is, ma’am, she is, thanks be to God. And ’tis a boy.’
‘I’m delighted to hear it. Ah, the poor soul, she must be charmed.’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ Donoghue went on, the pale eyes roving from one face to another, ‘to carry on the name, such as it is.’ Stevie, standing stiffly by the kitchen door, saw that it was excitement, and suddenly his heart was smitten at the thought of the bowler-hatted figure storming up the hill in the rain, laughing to itself.
‘Sit down,’ he said.
‘No, thanks, Stevie, no. Thanks all the same. I must try and see Father Lynnot. I promised him I’d let him know.’
‘Oh, now,’ Mr. Dalton said, nodding, ‘we must wet the new arrival, ha, ha. We couldn’t let it go like that.’ He opened the door of the sideboard, bending very low. ‘A small little drop. Chrissie, get the glasses out. Very pleased, very pleased indeed,’ he added as though to himself.
It was he who poured out, liberally—any excuse served him for a drink —and as he held up his own glass to the light he bowed very low to Donoghue and sniffed back the tears which rose to his eyes.
‘’Tis the way of mankind,’ he said sentimentally, ‘for people to grow old and die and others to take their place. That he may leave the world no worse than he found it after us! Good health, Mr. Donoghue.’
‘Good health.’ They drank. ‘Time you got Stevie off your hands now, Mr. Dalton. He’s old enough.’
‘Aha, time enough!’ John Dalton laughed, shaking himself in his old shirt and trousers. ‘Time enough. He’ll be long enough married and long enough buried. Ha, ha. Yes, indeed. I often ask myself why was I in such a hurry myself.’ And he laughed uproariously, sagging at the knees, and scratching his grey head.
As Stevie saw Donoghue out the dark hall, lit only by the street lamp shining through the panels of yellow glass—for Mr. Dalton still continued to look after the pennies—he was astonished to feel an arm about his shoulder. Again he shuddered, but the whisper of the man was gentle, emotional enough.
‘I mean it, Stevie,’ he said eagerly. ‘It means a lot to a man, particularly at your age. You know I speak for your good. I made mistakes too. We all make mistakes some time about it. You don’t mind me speaking like this?’
‘No, of course not.’
‘’Tis only for your good. Mrs. Donoghue is a most superior woman. I didn’t appreciate her. She has a high opinion of you, a very high opinion.’
Stevie opened the door and Donoghue put on his bowler. In the bitter rain, lit by one fitful gleam of moonlight, Stevie saw the heavily-coated figure with slightly bowed head fumble at the gate and wave back to him gaily, before he plunged on up the hill with a heart full of laughter. The other, his heart full of tears, returned to the brightly-lit front room where Devane sat, watching the door, an anxious look on the dark melancholy face.
‘Is everything all right?’ he asked nervously.
Stevie realised he had been worrying, thinking of Gus; imagining from the discreet knock, the whispering voices in the kitchen, a sudden leap from the train; a body laid out by lantern-light in the waiting-room of some country station with no one to wake it but a policeman or porter —remorse that would follow him a lifetime through.
‘Ghosts,’ Stevie said softly. ‘Nothing but ghosts. My own ghosts this time.’ He looked round him; the bright room with its cheerful furniture seemed suddenly to have become empty.
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BY FRANK O’CONNOR
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