THE FOOLISH LOVERS
ST. JOHN G. ERVINE
TO MY MOTHER
who asked me to write a story without any "Bad words" in it;
TO MRS. J. O. HANNAY
who asked me to write a story without any "Sex" in it.
THE FIRST BOOK OF THE FOOLISH LOVERS
Why, 'tis an office of discovery, love! The Merchant of Venice.
Love unpaid does soon disband. ANDREW MARVELL
THE FIRST CHAPTER
If you were to say to an Ulster man, "Who are the proudest people in Ireland?" he would first of all stare at you as if he had difficulty in believing that any intelligent person could ask a question with so obvious an answer, and then he would reply, "Why, the Ulster people, of course!" And if you were to say to a Ballyards man, "Who are the proudest people in Ulster?" he would reply ... if he deigned to reply at all ... "A child would know that! The Ballyards people, of course!"
It is difficult for anyone who is not a native of the town, to understand why the inhabitants of Ballyards should possess so great a pride in their birthplace. It is not a large town ... it is not even the largest town in the county ... nor has it any notable features to distinguish it from a dozen other towns of similar size in that part of Ireland. Millreagh, although it is now a poor, scattered sort of place, was once of great importance: for the mail-boats sailed from its harbour to Port Michael until the steamship owners agreed that Port Michael was too much exposed to the severities of rough weather, and chose another harbour elsewhere. Millreagh mourns over its lost glory, attributable in no way to the fault of Millreagh, but entirely to the inscrutable design of Providence which arranged that Port Michael, and not Kirkmull, should lie on the opposite side of the Irish Sea; and every Sunday morning, after church, and sometimes on Sunday afternoon, the people walk along the breakwater to the lighthouse and remind each other of the days when their town was of consequence. "We spent a hundred and fifty thousand pounds on our harbour," they say to each other, "and then the Scotch went and did the like of that!"—the like of that being their stupidity in living in an exposed situation. Millreagh does not admit that it has suffered any more than a temporary diminishment of its greatness, and it makes optimistic and boastful prophecies of the fortune and repute that will come to it when the engineers make a tunnel between Scotland and Ireland. Sometimes an article on the Channel Tunnel will appear in the Newsletter or the Whig, and for weeks afterwards Millreagh lives in a fever of expectancy; for whatever else may be said about the Tunnel, this is certain to be said of it, that it will start, in Ireland, from Millreagh. On that brilliant hope, Millreagh, tightening its belt, lives in a fair degree of happiness, eking out its present poverty by fishing and by letting lodgings in the summer.
Pickie, too, has much reputation, more, perhaps, than Millreagh, for it is a popular holiday town and was once described in the Evening Telegraph as "the Blackpool of Ireland." This description, although it was apt enough, offended the more pretentious people in Pickie who were only mollified when the innocent reporter, in a later article, altered the description to, "the Brighton of Ireland." With consummate understanding of human character, he added, remembering the Yacht Club, that perhaps the most accurate description of Pickie would be "the Cowes of Ireland." In this way, the reporter, who subsequently became a member of parliament and made much money, pleased the harmless vanity of the lower, the middle and the upper classes of Pickie; and for a time they were "ill to thole" on account of the swollen condition of their heads, and it became necessary to utter sneers at "ham-and-egg parades" and "the tripper element" and to speak loudly and frequently of the superior merits of Portrush, "a really nice place," before they could be persuaded to believe that Pickie, like other towns, is inhabited by common human beings.
Ballyards never yielded an inch of its pride of place to Millreagh or to Pickie. "What's an oul' harbour when there's no boat in it?" Ballyards said to Millreagh; and, "Sure, the man makes his livin' sellin' sausages!" it said to Pickie when Pickie bragged of the great grocer who had joined the Yacht Club in order that he might issue a challenge for the Atlantic Cup. Tunnels and attractive seaboards were extraneous things that might bring fortune, but could not bring merit, to those lucky enough to possess them; but Ballyards had character ... its men were meritable men ... and Ballyards would not exchange the least of its inhabitants for ten tunnels. Nor did Ballyards abate any of its pride before the ancient and indisputable renown of Dunbar, which distils a whiskey that has soothed the gullets of millions of men throughout the world. When Patrickstown bragged of its long history ... it was once the home of the kings of Ulster ... and tried to make the world believe that St. Patrick was buried in its cathedral, Ballyards, magnificently imperturbed, murmured: "Your population is goin' down!"; nor does it manifest any respect for Greenry, which has a member of parliament to itself and has twice the population of Ballyards. "It's an ugly hole," says Ballyards, "an' it's full of Papishes!"
Millreagh and Pickie openly sneer at Ballyards, and Greenry affects to be unaware of it, but the pride of Ballyards remains unaltered, incapable of being diminished, incapable even of being increased ... for pride cannot go to greater lengths than the pride of Ballyards has already gone ... and in spite of contention and denial, it asserts, invincibly persistent, that it is the finest and most meritabie town in Ireland. When sceptics ask for proofs, Ballyards replies, "We don't need proofs!" A drunken man said, on a particularly hearty Saturday night, that Ballyards was the finest town in the world, but the general opinion of his fellow-townsmen was that this claim, while very human, was excessively expressed. London, for example, was bigger than Ballyards. So was New York!.... The drunken man, when he had recovered his sobriety, admitted that this was true, but he contended, and was well supported in his contention, that while London and New York might be bigger than Ballyards, neither of these cities were inhabited by men of such independent spirit as the men of Ballyards. A Ballyards man, he asserted, was beholden to no one. Once, and once only, a Millreagh man said that a Ballyards man thought he was being independent when he was being ill-bred; but Ballyards people would have none of this talk, and, after they had severely assaulted him, they drove the Millreagh man back to his "stinkin' wee town" and forbade him ever to put his foot in Ballyards again. "You know what you'll get if you do. Your head in your hands!" was the threat they shouted after him. And surely the wide world knows the story ... falsely credited to other places ... which every Ballyards child learns in its cradle, of the man who, on being rebuked in a foreign city for spitting, said to those who rebuked him, "I come from the town of Ballyards, an' I'll spit where I like!"
It was his pride in his birthplace which sometimes made John MacDermott hesitate to accept the advice of his Uncle Matthew and listen leniently to the advice of his Uncle William. Uncle Matthew urged him to seek his fortune in foreign parts, but Uncle William said, "Bedam to foreign parts when you can live in Ballyards!" Uncle Matthew, who had never been out of Ireland in his life, had much knowledge of the works of English writers, and from these works, he had drawn a romantic picture of London. The English city, in his imagination, was a place of marvellous adventures, far mere wonderful than the ancient city of Bagdad or the still more ancient city of Damascus, wherein anything might happen to a man who kept his eyes open or, for the matter of that, shut. He never tired of reading Mr. Andrew Lang's Historical Mysteries, and he liked to think of himself suddenly being accosted in the street by some dark stranger demanding to know whether he had a taste for adventure. Uncle Matthew was not quite certain what he would do if such a thing were to happen to him: whether to proclaim himself as eager for anything that was odd and queer or to threaten the stranger with the police. "You might think a man was going to lead you to a hidden place, mebbe, where there'd be a lovely woman waiting to receive you, and you blindfolded 'til you were shown into the room where she was ... and mebbe you'd be queerly disappointed, for it mightn't be that sort of a thing at all, but only some lad trying to steal your watch and chain!"
He had heard very unpleasant stories of what he called the Confidence Trick, whereby innocent persons were beguiled by seemingly amiable men into parting with all their possessions!...
"Of course," he would admit, "you'd never have no adventures at all, if you never ran no risks, and mebbe in the end, you do well to chance things. It's a queer pity a man never has any adventures in this place. Many's and many's a time I've walked the roads, thinking mebbe I'd meet someone with a turn that way, but I never in all my born days met anything queer or unusual, and I don't suppose I ever will now!"
Uncle Matthew had spoken so sadly and so longingly that John had deeply pitied him. "Did you never fall in love with no one, Uncle Matthew?" he asked.
"Och, indeed I did, John!" Uncle Matthew replied. "Many's and many's the time! Your Uncle William used to make fun of me and sing 'Shilly-shally with the wee girls, ha, ha, ha!' at me when I was a wee lad because I was always running after the young girls and sweethearting with them. He never ran after any himself: he was always looking for birds' nests or tormenting people with his tricks. He was a daft wee fellow for devilment, was your Uncle William, and yet he's sobered down remarkably. Sometimes, I think he got more romance out of his tormenting and nesting than I got out of my courting, though love's a grand thing, John, when you can get it. I was always falling in love, but sure what was the good? I never could be content with the way the girls talked about furniture and us setting up house together, when all the time I was wanting hard to be rescuing them from something. No wonder they wouldn't have me in the end, for, of course, it's very important to get good furniture and to set up a house somewhere nice and snug ... but I never was one for scringing and scrounging ... my money always melted away from the minute I got it ... and I couldn't bear the look of the furniture-men when you asked them how much it would cost to furnish a house on the hire-system!"
He paused for a moment, reflecting perhaps on the pleasures that had been missed by him because of his inability to save money and his dislike of practical concerns. Then in a brisker tone, as if he were consoling himself for his losses, he said, "Oh, well, there's consolation for everyone somewhere if they'll only take the trouble to look for it, and after all I've had a queer good time reading books!"
"Mebbe, Uncle Matthew," John suggested, "if you'd left Ballyards and gone to London, you'd have had a whole lot of adventures!"
"Mebbe I would," Uncle Matthew replied. "Though sometimes I think I'm not the sort that has adventures, for there's men in the world would find something romantic wherever they went, and I daresay if Lord Byron were living here in Ballyards, he'd have the women crying their eyes out for him. That was a terrible romantic man, John! Lord Byron! A terrible man for falling in love, God bless him!..."
It was Uncle Matthew who urged John to read Shakespeare—"a very plain-spoken, knowledgable man, Shakespeare!"—and Lord Byron—"a terrible bad lord, John, but a fine courter of girls and a grand poet!"—and Herrick—"a queer sort of minister, that man Herrick, but a good poet all the same!"—and Dickens. Dickens was the incomparable one who filled dull streets with vital figures: Sam Weller and Mr. Pickwick and Mr. Micawber and Mrs. Nickleby and Mr. Mantalini and Steerforth and David Copperfield and Barkis; and terrible figures: Fagan and Bill Sykes and Uriah Heap and Squeers and Mr. Murdstone and that fearful man who drank so much that he died of spontaneous combustion; and pathetic figures: Sidney Carton and Little Nell and Oliver Twist and Nancy and Dora and Little Dorritt and the Little Marchioness.
"You'd meet the like of them any minute of the day in London," said Uncle Matthew. "You'd mebbe be walking up a street, the Strand, mebbe, or in Hyde Park or Whitechapel, and in next to no time at all, you'd run into the whole jam-boiling of them. London's the queer place for seeing queer people. Never be content, John, when you're a man, to stay on in this place where nothing ever happens to anyone, but quit off out of it and see the world. There's all sorts in London, black men and yellow men, and I wouldn't be surprised but there's a wheen of Red Indians, too, with, feathers in their head!...."
"I'd be afeard of them fellows," said John. "They'd scalp you, mebbe!"
"Ah, sure, the peelers wouldn't let them," said Uncle Matthew. "And anyway you needn't go near them. They keep that sort down by the Docks and never let them near the places where the fine, lovely women live. London's the place to see the lovely women, John, all dressed up in silk dresses, for that's where the high-up women go ... in the Season, they call it ... and they take their young, lovely daughters with them, grand wee girls with nice hair and fine complexions and a grand way of talking ... to get them married, of course. I read in a book one time, there was a young fellow, come of a poor family, was walking in one of the parks where the quality-women take their horses every day, and a young and lovely girl was riding up and down as nice as you like, when all of a sudden her horse ran away with her. The young fellow never hesitated for a minute, but jumped over the railings and stopped the horse, and the girl was that thankful and pleased, him and her was married after. And she was a lord's daughter, John! A very high-up lord! She belonged to a queer proud family, but she wasn't too proud to fall in love with him, and they had a grand time together!"
"Were they rich?" said John.
Uncle Matthew nodded his head. "It would be a great thing now," he said, "if a lord's daughter was to take a fancy to you!..."
"I'd have to be queer and adventurous for the like of that to happen to me, Uncle Matthew," John exclaimed. He had never seen a lord's daughter, but he had seen Lady Castlederry, a proud and beautiful woman, who seemed to be totally unaware of his existence when he passed by her on the road.
"Well, and aren't you as fond of adventure as anybody in the wide world?" Uncle Matthew retorted.
"Indeed, that's true," John admitted, "but then I never had any adventures in my born days, and you yourself would like to have one, but you've never had any!"
Uncle Matthew sat quietly in his chair for a few moments. Then he drew his nephew close to him and stroked his hair.
"Come here 'til I whisper to you," he said. "D'you know why I never had any adventures, John?"
"No, Uncle Matthew, I do not!'
"Well, I'll tell you then, though I never admitted it to anyone else in the world, and I'll mebbe never admit it again. I never had any because I was afraid to have them!"
"Afeard, Uncle Matthew?" John exclaimed. He had net yet trimmed his tongue to say "afraid."
"Aye, son, heart-afraid. There's many a fine woman I'd have run away with, only I was afraid mebbe I'd be caught. You'll never have no adventures if you're afraid to have them, that's a sure and certain thing!"
John struggled out of his Uncle's embrace and turned squarely to face him.
"I'm not afeard, Uncle Matthew," he asserted.
"Are you not, son?"
"I'm not afeard of anything. I'd give anybody their cowardy-blow!..."
"There's few people in the world can say that, John!" Uncle Matthew said.
People often said of Uncle Matthew that he was "quare in the head," but John had never noticed anything queer about him. Mrs. MacDermott, finding her son in the attic where Uncle Matthew kept his books, reading an old, torn copy of Smollett's translation of Gil Blas, had said to him, "Son, dear, quit reading them oul' books, do, or you'll have your mind moidhered like your Uncle Matthew!"
And Willie Logan, tormenting him once because he had refused to acknowledge his leadership, had called after him that his Uncle Matthew was astray in the mind. It was a very great satisfaction to John that just as Willie Logan uttered his taunt, Uncle William came round McCracken's corner and heard it. Uncle William, a hasty, robust man, had clouted Willie Logon's head for him and sent him home howling.
"Go home and learn your manners," he had shouted at the blubbering boy. "Go home and learn your manners, you ill-bred brat, you!"
Uncle William had spoken very gravely and tenderly to John after that affair, as they walked home together. "Never let anyone make little of your Uncle Matthew!" he had said to his nephew. "He's a well-read man, for all his queer talk, and many's a wise thing he says when you're not expecting it. I never was much of a one for trusting to books myself.... I couldn't give my mind to them somehow ... but I have a great respect for books, all the same. It isn't every man can spare the time for learning or has the inclination for it, but we can all pay respect to them that has, whatever sort of an upbringing we've got!"
It was then that John MacDermott learned to love his Uncle William almost as much as he loved his Uncle Matthew. He had always liked Uncle William ... for he was his uncle, of course, and a kind man in spite of his rough, quick ways and sharp words ... but Uncle Matthew had commanded his love. There had been times when he almost disliked Uncle William ... the times when Uncle William made fun of Uncle Matthew's romantic talk. John would be sitting in front of the kitchen fire, before the lamp was lit, listening while his Uncle Matthew told him stories of high, romantical things, of adventures in aid of beautiful women, and of life freely given for noble purposes, until he was wrought up into an ecstasy of selflessness and longing ... and then Uncle William would come into the kitchen from the shop, stumbling, perhaps, in the dark, and swear because the lamp was not lit.
Once, after he had listened for a few moments to one of Uncle Matthew's tales, he had laughed bitterly and said, "I declare to my good God, but you'd be in a queer way, the whole pack of you, if I was to quit the shop and run up and down the world looking for adventures and women in distress. I tell you, the pair of you, it's a queer adventure taking care of a shop and making it prosper and earning the keep of the house. There's no lovely woman hiding behind the counter 'til the young lord comes and delivers her, but by the Holy Smoke, there's a terrible lot of hard work!"
It had seemed to John then, as he contemplated his Uncle Matthew's doleful face and listened to his plaintive admission, "I know I'm no help to you!" that his Uncle William was a cruel-hearted man, and in his anger he could have struck him. But now, after the affair with Willie Logan and the talk about Uncle Matthew, and remembering, too, that Uncle William was always very gentle with Uncle Matthew, even though his words were sometimes rough, he felt that his heart had ample room inside it for this rough, bearded man who made so few demands on the affection of his family, and deserved so much.
John knew that his Uncle William and his mother shared the common belief that Uncle Matthew was "quare," but, although he had often thought about the matter, he could not understand why people held this opinion. It was true that Uncle Matthew had been dismissed from the Ballyards National School, in which he had been an assistant teacher, but when John considered the circumstances in which Uncle Matthew had been dismissed, he felt satisfied that his uncle, so far from having behaved foolishly, had behaved with great courage and chivalry. Uncle Matthew, so the story went, had been in Belfast a few days after the day on which Queen Victoria had died, and had stopped in Royal Avenue for a few moments to read an advertisement which was exhibited in the window of a haberdasher's shop. These are the words which he read in the advertisement:
* * * * *
* * * * *
MOURNING ORDERS PROMPTLY
* * * * *
When he had read through the advertisement twice, Uncle Matthew broke the haberdasher's window!
He was seized by a policeman, and in due time was brought before the magistrates who, in addition to fining him and compelling him to pay for the damage he had done, caused the Resident Magistrate to admonish him not merely for breaking the window and interfering with the business of a respectable merchant, but also for offering a frivolous excuse for his behaviour. Uncle Matthew had said that he broke the window as a protest against a counterjumper's traffic in a nation's grief. "I loved the Queen, sir," he said, "and I couldn't bear to see her death treated like that!" This was more than the Magistrates could endure, and the Resident Magistrate made an impatient gesture and said, "Tch, tch, tch!" with his tongue against his palate. He went on to say that Uncle Matthew's loyalty to the Throne was very touching, very touching, indeed, especially in these days when a lot of people seemed to have very little respect for the Royal Family. He thought that his brother-magistrates would agree with him. ("Hear, hear!" and "Oh, yes, yes!" and an "Ulster was always noted for its loyalty to the Queen!" from his brother-magistrates.) But all the same, there had to be moderation and reason in everything. It would never do if people were to go about the country breaking other people's windows in the name of patriotism. It was bad enough to have a pack of Nationalists and Papists going about the country, singing disloyal songs and terrorising peaceable, lawabiding loyalists, without members of respected Protestant and Unionist families like the prisoner ... for Uncle Matthew was in the dock of the Custody Court and had spent the night in a cell ... imitating their behaviour in the name of loyalty. He had taken into the consideration the fact that the prisoner had acted from the best motives and not from any feeling of disaffection to the Throne, and also the fact that he belongs to a respectable family, and so he would not send him to gaol. He gave him the option of paying a fine, together with costs and the bill for repairing the window, or of going to prison for one calendar month; and he warned the public that any other person who broke a window, however loyal he might be, would be sent to gaol without the option of a fine.
Uncle Matthew had turned to where Uncle William was sitting with the family solicitor in the well of the court, and Uncle William had nodded his head comfortingly. Then the warder had opened the door in the side of the dock, and Uncle Matthew had stepped out of the place of shame into the company of the general public. The solicitor had attended to the payment of the fine and the cost of repairing the fractured glass, and then Uncle William had led Uncle Matthew away. Someone had tittered at Uncle Matthew as they passed up the steps of the court towards the door, and Uncle William, disregarding the fact that he was in a court of law, had turned on him very fiercely, and had said "Damn your sowl!..." but a policeman, saying "S-s-sh!", had bustled him out of the court before he could complete his threat. And an old woman, with a shawl happed about her head, had gazed after Uncle Matthew and said, "The poor creature! Sure, he's not right!"
The arrest and trial of Uncle Matthew had created a great scandal in Ballyards, and responsible people went about saying that he had always been "quare" and was getting "quarer." Willie Logan's father had even talked of the asylum. Whose windows, he demanded, were safe when, a fellow like that was let loose on the town? Uncle William had gone to see Mr. Logan ... no one knew quite what he said to that merchant ... but it was evident ever after that he had accepted Uncle William's advice to keep a civil tongue in his head. The Reverend Mr. McCaughan, who was manager of the Ballyards National School, went specially to the house of Mr. Cairnduff, the headmaster of the school, to consult him on the subject. He said that something would have to be done about the matter. The MacDermotts, he said, were a highly-respected family ... a MacDermott had been an elder of the church for generations past... and he would be very sorry, very sorry, indeed to do anything to upset them, but it was neither right nor reasonable to expect parents to rest content while their children were taught their lessons by a man who was both queer in his manner and very nearly a criminal ... for after all, he had spent a night in a prison-cell and had stood in the dock where thieves and forgers and wife-beaters and even murderers had stood!
Mr. Cairnduff was in complete agreement with Mr. McCaughan. He, too, had the greatest respect for the MacDermotts ... no man could help having respect for them ... and he might add that he had the greatest possible respect for Matthew MacDermott himself ... a well-read and a kindly man, though a wee bit, just a wee bit unbalanced mebbe!...
"Aye, but it's that wee bit that makes all the difference, Mr. Cairnduff!" said the minister, interrupting the schoolmaster.
"It is," Mr. Cairnduff agreed. "You're right there, Mr. McCaughan. You are, indeed. All the same, though, I would not like to be a party to anything that would hurt the feelings of a MacDermott, and if it could be arranged in some way that Matthew should retire from the profession through ill-health or something, with a wee bit of a pension, mebbe, to take the bad look off the thing... well, I for one would not be against it!"
"You've taken the words out of my mouth," said the minister. "I had it in my mind that if something of the kind could be arranged!..."
"It would be the best for all concerned," said Mr. Cairnduff.
But it had not been possible to arrange something of the kind. The member for the Division was not willing to use his influence with the National Board of Education in Uncle Matthew's behalf. He remembered that Uncle Matthew, during an election, had interrupted him in a recital of his services to the Queen, by a reminder that he was only a militia man, and that rough, irreverent lads, who treated an election as an opportunity for skylarking instead of improving their minds, had followed him about his constituency, jeering at him for "a mileeshy man." Uncle Matthew, too, had publicly declared that Parnell was the greatest man that had ever lived in Ireland and was worth more than the whole of the Ulster Unionist members of parliament put together... which was, of course, very queer doctrine to come from a member of an Ulster Unionist and Protestant family. The member for the Division could not agree with Mr. McCaughan and Mr. Cairnduff that the MacDermotts were a bulwark of the Constitution. Matthew MacDermott's brother... the one who was dead... had been a queer sort of a fellow. Lady Castlederry had complained of him more than once!... No, he was sorry that, much as he should like to oblige Mr. McCaughan and Mr. Cairnduff, he could not consent to use his influence to get the Board to pension Matthew MacDermott....
"That man's a blether!" said the minister, as he and the schoolmaster came away from the member's house. "He won't use his influence with the Board because he hasn't got any. We'd have done better, mebbe, to go to a Nationalist M.P. Those fellows have more power in their wee fingers than our men have in their whole bodies. I wonder, now, could we persuade Matthew to send in his resignation. I can't bear to think of the Board dismissing him!"
Uncle William solved their problem for them. "Don't bother your heads about him," he said when they informed him of their trouble. "I'll provide for him right enough. He'll send in his resignation to you the night, Mr. McCaughan. I'm sure, we're all queer and obliged to you for the trouble you have taken in the matter."
"Ah, not at all, not at all," they said together.
"And I'll not forget it to either of you, you can depend on that. I daresay Matthew'll be a help to me in the shop!..."
Thus it was that, unpensioned and in the shadow of disgrace, Uncle Matthew left the service of the National Board of Education.
John admitted to himself, though he would hardly have admitted it to anyone else, that his Uncle Matthew's behaviour had been very unusual. He could not, when invited to do so, imagine either Mr. McCaughan or Mr. Cairnduff breaking the windows of a haberdasher's shop because of an advertisement which showed, in the opinion of some reputable people, both feeling and enterprise. Nevertheless, he did not consider that Uncle Matthew, on that occasion, had proved himself to be lacking in mental balance. He said that it was a pity that people were not more ready than they were to break windows, and he was inclined to think that Uncle Matthew, instead of being forcibly retired from the school, ought to have been promoted to a better position.
"If you go on talking that way," his mother said to him, "people'll think you're demented mad!"
"I wouldn't change my Uncle Matthew for the whole world," John stoutly replied.
"No one's asking you to change him," Mrs. MacDermott retorted. "All we're asking you to do, is not to go about imitating him with his romantic talk!"
John did not wish to imitate his Uncle Matthew ... he did not wish to imitate anyone ... for, although he could not discover that "quareness" in him which other people professed to discover, yet when he saw how inactive Uncle Matthew was, how dependent he was on Uncle William and, to a less extent, on Mrs. MacDermott, and how he seemed to shrink from things in life, which, when he read about them in books, enthralled him, John felt that if he were to model his behaviour on that of anyone else, it must not be on the behaviour of Uncle Matthew. Uncle William had a quick, decided manner ... he knew exactly what he wanted and often contrived to get what he wanted. John remembered that his Uncle William had said to him once, "John, boy, if I want a thing and I can't get it, I give up wanting it!"
"But you can't help wanting things, Uncle William," John had protested.
"No, boy, you can't" Uncle William had retorted, "but the Almighty God's given you the sense to understand the difference between wanting things you can get and wanting things you can't get, and He leaves it to you to use your sense. Do you never suppose that I want something strange and wonderful to happen to me the same as your Uncle Matthew there, that sits dreaming half the day over books? What would become of you all, your ma and your Uncle Matthew and you, if I was to do the like of that I? Where would your Uncle Matthew get the money to buy books to dream over if it wasn't for me giving up my dreams?..."
John's heart had suddenly filled with pity for his Uncle William whom he saw as a thwarted man, an angel expelled from heaven, reduced from a proud position in a splendid society to the dull work of one who maintains others by small, but prolonged, efforts. He felt ashamed of himself and of Uncle Matthew ... even, for a few moments, of his mother. Here was Uncle William, working from dawn until dark, denying himself this pleasure and that, refusing to go to the "shore" with them in the summer on the assertion that he was a strong man and did not need holidays ... doing all this in order that he might maintain three people in comfort and ... yes, idleness! Mrs. MacDermott might be excluded from the latter charge, for she attended to the house and the cooking, but how could Uncle Matthew and himself expect to escape from it? Uncle Matthew had more hope than he had, for Uncle Matthew sometimes balanced the books for Uncle William, and did odds and ends about the shop. He would write out the accounts in a very neat hand and would deliver them, too. But John made no efforts at all. He was the complete idler, living on his Uncle's bounty, and making no return for it.
He was now in his second year of monitorship at the school where his Uncle Matthew had been a teacher, and was in receipt of a few pounds per annum to indicate that he was more than a pupil; but the few pounds were insufficient to maintain him ... he knew that ... and even if they had been sufficient, he was well aware of the fact that his Uncle William had insisted that the whole of his salary should be placed in the Post Office Savings Bank for use when he had reached manhood.... He made a swift resolve, when this consciousness came upon him: he would quit the school and enter the business, so that he could be of help to his Uncle William.
"Will you let me leave the school, Uncle?" he said. "I'm tired of the teaching, and I'd like well to go into the shop with you!"
Uncle William did not answer for a little while. He was adding up a column of figures in the day-book, and John could hear him counting quietly to himself. "And six makes fifty-four... six and carry four!" he said entering the figures in pencil at the foot of the column.
"What's that you say, John, boy?"
"I want to leave school and come into the shop and help you," John answered.
"God love you, son, what put that notion into your head?"
"I don't want to be a burden to you, Uncle William!"
"A burden to me!" Uncle William swung round on the high office stool and regarded his nephew intently. "Man, dear, you're no burden to me! Look at the strength of me! Feel them muscles, will you?" He held out his tightened arm as he spoke. "Do you think a wee fellow like you could be a burden to a man with muscles like them, as hard as iron?"
But John was not to be put off by talk of that sort. "You know rightly what I mean," he said. "You never get no rest at all, and here's me still at the school!..."
"Ah, wheesht with you, boy!" Uncle William interrupted. "What sort of talk is this? You will not leave the school, young man! The learning you're getting will do you a world of benefit, even if you never go on with the teachering. You're a lucky wee lad, so you are, to be getting paid to go to school. There was no free learning when I was a child, I can tell you. Your grandda had to pay heavy for your da and your Uncle Matthew and me. Every Monday morning, we had to carry our fees to the master. Aye, and bring money for coal in the winter or else carry a few sods of turf with us if we hadn't the money for it. That was what children had to do when I was your age, John. I tell you there's a queer differs these times between schooling from what there was when I was a scholar, and you'd be the great gumph if you didn't take advantage of your good fortune!"
"But I'd like to help you, Uncle William. Do you not understand me? I want to be doing something for you!" John insisted.
"I understand you well enough, son. You've been moidhering your mind about me, but sure there's no call for you to do that. No call at all! Now, not another word out of your head! I've said my say on that subject, and I'll say no more. Go on with your learning, and when you've had your fill of it, we'll see what's to be done with you. How much is twelve and nine?"
"Twenty-one, Uncle William!"
"Twenty-one!" said Uncle William, at his day-book again. "Nine and carry one!..."
In this way Uncle William settled John's offer to serve in the shop, and restored learning and literature to his affection and esteem. John had not given in so easily as the reader may imagine. He had insisted that his Uncle William worked much too hard, had even hinted that Uncle Matthew spent more time over books than he spent over "the books," the day-book and the ledger; but his Uncle William had firmly over-ruled him.
"Books are of more account to your Uncle Matthew than an oul' ledger any day," he said, "and it'll never be said that I prevented him from reading them. We all get our happiness in different ways, John, and it would be a poor thing to prevent a man from getting his happiness in his way just because it didn't happen to be your way. Books are your Uncle Matthew's heart's-idol, and I wouldn't stop him from them for the wide world!"
"But he does nothing, Uncle William," John said, intent on justice, even when it reflected on his beloved Uncle.
"I know, but sure the heart was taken out of him that time when he was arrested for breaking the man's window. It was a terrible shock to him, that, and he never overed it. You must just let things go on as they're going. I don't believe you'll foe content to be a teacher. Not for one minute do I believe that. But whatever you turn out to be, it'll be no harm to have had the extra schooling you're getting, so you'll stay on a monitor for a while longer. And now quit talking, do, or you'll have me deafened with your clatter!"
Uncle William always put down attempts to combat his will by assertions of that sort.
"Are you angry with me, Uncle William?" John anxiously asked.
"Angry with you, son?" He swung round again on the high stool. "Come here 'til I show you whether I am or not!"
And then Uncle William gathered him up in his arms and crushed the boy's face into his beard. "God love you, John," he said, "how could I be angry with you, and you your da's son!"
"I love you queer and well, Uncle," John murmured shyly.
"Do you, son? I'm glad to hear that."
"Aye. And I love my Uncle Matthew, too!..."
"That's right. Always love your Uncle Matthew whatever you do or whatever happens. He's a man that has more need of love nor most of us. Your da loved him well, John!"
"Aye, he did, indeed!" Uncle William put his pen down on the desk, and leaning against the ledger, rested his head in the cup of his hand. "Your da was a strange man, John," he said, "a queer, strange man, with a powerful amount of knowledge in his head. That man could write Latin and Greek and French and German, and he was the first man in Ballyards to write the Irish language ... and them was the days when people said Irish was a Papist language, and would have nothing to do with it. Your da never paid no heed to anyone... he just did what he wanted to do, no matter what anyone said or who was against him. Many's the time I've heard him give the minister his answer, and the high-up people, too. When Lord Castlederry came bouncing into the town, ordering people to do this or to do that, just because the Queen's grandson was coming to the place, your da stood up fornenst him and said, as bold as brass, 'The people of this town are not Englishmen, my lord, to be ordered about like dogs! They're Ballyards men, and a Ballyards man never bent the knee to no one!' That was what your da said to him, and Lord Castlederry never forgot it and never forgave it neither, but he could do no harm to us, for the MacDermotts owned land and houses in Ballyards before ever a Castlederry put his foot in the place. He was a proud man your da, with a terrible quick temper, but as kindly-natured a man as ever drew breath. Your ma thinks long for him many's a time, though I think there were whiles he frightened her. Your Uncle Matthew and me is poor company for her after living with a man like that."
"Am I like my da, Uncle William! My ma says sometimes I am ... when she's angry with me!"
"Sometimes you're like him and sometimes you're like her. You'll be a great fellow, John, if you turn out to be like your da. I tell you, boy, he was a man, and there's few men these times ... only a lot of oul' Jinny-joes, stroking their beards and looking terrible wise over ha'penny bargains!"
"And then he died, Uncle William!"
"Aye, son, he died. You were just two years old when he died, a little, wee child just able to walk and talk. I mind it well. He called me into the bedroom where he was lying, and he bid the others leave me alone with him. Your ma didn't want to go, but he wouldn't let her stay, and so she went, too. 'William,' he said, when the door was shut behind them, 'I depend on you to look after them all!' Them was his very words, John, 'I depend on you to look after them all!' I couldn't answer him, so I just nodded my head. He didn't say anything more for a wee while, but lay back in the bed and breathed hard, for he was in pain, and couldn't breathe easy. Then, after a wee while, he looked round at me, and he said, 'I'm only thirty-one, William, and I'm dying. And oul' Peter Clancy up the street, that's been away in the head since he was a child, is over sixty years of age!... I thought he was going to spring out of the bed when he said that, the temper come over him so quick and sudden, but I held him down and begged him to control himself, and he quietened himself. I heard him saying, half under his breath, 'And God thinks He knows how to rule the world!' He died that night, rebellious to the end!... He said he depended on me to look after you all, and I've tried hard, John, as hard as I could!"
His voice quavered, and he turned away from his nephew. "Your da was my hero," he said. "I'd have shed my heart's blood for him. It was hard that him that was the best of us should be the first to go!"
John stood by his uncle's side, very moved by his distress, but not knowing what to do to comfort him.
"My da would be queer and proud of you, Uncle William," he said at last, "queer and proud if he could see you!"
But Uncle William did not answer nor did he look round.
It was understood, after that conversation between John and his Uncle William, that the boy should remain at school for a year or two longer, working as a monitor, not in order that he might become a schoolmaster, but so that he might equip his mind with knowledge. Mrs. MacDermott wished her son to become a minister. It would be the proudest day of her life, she said, if she could see John standing in a pulpit, preaching a sermon. Who knew but that he might be one day be the minister of the Ballyards First Presbyterian Church itself, the very church in which his family had worshipped their God for generations.
John, however, had no wish to be a minister.
"You have to be queer and good to be one," he said, "and I'm not as good as all that!"
"Well, mebbe, you'll get better as you get older," Mrs. MacDermott insisted.
"I might get worse," he replied. "It would be a fearful thing to be a minister, and then find out you wanted to commit a sin!"
"Ministers is like ourselves, John," Mrs. MacDermott said, "and I daresay Mr. McCaughan sometimes wants to do wicked things, for all he's such a good man, and has to pray to God many's a while for the strength to resist temptation. That doesn't prove he's not fit to be a minister. It only shows he understands our nature all the more because he has temptations himself!"
But John would not be convinced by her arguments. "I don't know, ma!" he said. "If I wanted to be wicked, I'm afraid I'd be it, so don't ask me to be a minister for I'd mebbe disgrace you with my carryings-on!"
Mrs. MacDermott had been deeply hurt by his refusal to consider the ministry.
"Anybody'd think to hear you," she said, "that you'd made up your mind to lead a sinful life. As if a MacDermott couldn't conquer his sins better nor anybody else!"
His mother, he often observed, spoke more boastfully of the MacDermotts than either his Uncle William or his Uncle Matthew.
John's final, overwhelming retort to her was this: "Would my da have liked me to be a minister?"
"I never knew what your da liked," she retorted; "I only knew what he did!..."
"Do you think he would have liked me to be a minister?" John persisted.
"Mebbe he wouldn't, but he's not here now!..."
"You wouldn't do behind his back what you'd be afraid to do fornenst his face, would you?"
"You've no right to talk to me that way. I'm your mother!..."
"You knew rightly he wouldn't have liked it," John continued, inexorably.
And then Mrs. MacDermott yielded.
"You're your da over again," she complained. "He always had his way in the end, whatever was against him. What do you want to be, then, when you grow up?"
"I don't know yet, ma. I only know the things I don't want to be, and teaching is one of them. And a minister's another! Mebbe I'll know in a wee while!"
He did not like to tell her that in his heart he wished to go in search of adventures. His Uncle Matthew's imaginings had filled his mind with romantic desires, and he longed to leave Ballyards and go somewhere ... anywhere, so long as it was a difficult and distant place ... where he would have to contend with dangers. There were times when he felt that he must instantly pack a bundle of clothes into a red handkerchief ... he could buy one at Conn's, the draper's ... and run away from home and stow himself in the hold of a big ship bound for America or Australia or some place like that ... and was only prevented from doing so by his fear that his mother and uncles would be deeply grieved by his flight. "It would look as if they hadn't been kind to me," he said in remonstrance to himself, "and that wouldn't be fair to them!" But although he did not run away from home, he still kept the strong desire in his heart to go out into a dangerous and bewildering world and seek fortune and adventures. "I want to fight things," he said to himself. "I want to fight things and, ... and win!"
Mixed up with his desire for adventure was a vision of a beautiful girl to whom he should offer his love and service. He could not picture her clearly to himself ... none of the girls in Ballyards bore the slightest resemblance to her. Sometimes, indeed, he thought that this beautiful girl was like Lady Castlederry ... only Lady Castlederry, somehow, although she was so very lovely, had a cold stupid look in her eyes, and he was very certain that this beautiful girl had bright, alert eyes.
There had been a passage of love-making between Aggie Logan and him, conducted entirely by Aggie Logan. She had taken him aside one day, in the middle of a game of "I spy," and had said to him "Will you court me, Johnnie?"
"No," he had replied.
"Do you not love me then?" she enquired.
"No," he said again.
"But I want you to court me," she persisted.
"I don't care what you want," he retorted. "I won't court you because I don't want to court you. I don't like you. You're too much of a girner for me!"
"I'm not a girner," she protested.
"You are. You start crying the minute anything happens to you or if people won't do what you want them to do. I wouldn't marry a girner for the wide world!"
"I won't girn any more if you'll court me," she promised.
"I daresay," he replied skeptically.
She considered for a moment or two. "Well, if you won't court me," she said, "I'll let Andy Cairnduff court me!"
"He can have you," said John, undismayed by the prospect of the schoolmaster's son as a rival.
She stood before him for a little while, without speaking. Then she turned and walked a little distance from him. She stopped, with her back turned towards him, and he knew by the way her head was bent, that she was thinking out a way of retaliating on him. The end of her pinafore was in her mouth!... She turned to him sharply, letting the pinafore fall from her lips, and pointing at him with her finger, she began to laugh shrilly.
"Ha, ha, ha!" she said. "I have you quarely gunked!"
"Gunked!" he exclaimed, unable to see how he had been hoaxed.
"Yes," she answered. "I gunked you nicely. You thought I wanted you to court me, but I was only having you on. Ha, ha, ha!"
He burst out laughing. "I that consoles you," he said; "you're welcome to it!"
Then she ran away and would not play "I spy" or "Tig" any more.
He had not told his mother of that passage of love with Aggie Logan. It did not occur to him to tell anything to his mother. His instinct, indeed, was not to tell things to her, to conceal them from her.
If anyone had said to him that he did not love his mother as much as he loved his Uncle Matthew and his Uncle William, he would have been very angry. Not love his mother more than anyone else on earth!... Only a blow could make a proper answer to such a charge. Nevertheless his mother was associated in his mind with acts of repression, with forbidding and restraint. She seemed always to be telling him not to do things. When he wanted to go to the Lough with Willie Logan to play Robinson Crusoe and his Man Friday or to light a bonfire in Teeshie McBratney's field with shavings from Galpin's mill in the pretence that he was a Red Indian preparing for a war-dance, it was his mother who said that he was not to do it. He might fall into the water and get drowned, she said, or, he might fall into the fire and get roasted to death. As if he were not capable of controlling a raft or a bonfire!...
He felt, too, that sometimes she punished him unjustly. When the Logans and he had played Buffalo Bill and the Red Indians attacking the defenceless pale-face woman, he had had a fierce argument with Willie Logan about the part of Buffalo Bill. Willie, being older, had claimed the part for himself, and, when denied the right to it, had declared that neither Aggie nor he would play in the game. Then a compromise had been arranged: Willie was allowed to play the part of Buffalo Bill and to slay the Red Indian on condition that John, before being slain, should be allowed to scalp the helpless pale-face woman. He scalped her so severely, by tugging tightly at her long hair, that she began to cry, and Willie, more conscious of the fact that he was Aggie's brother than that he was Buffalo Bill, bore down upon John and gave him his "cowardy-blow." They fought a fierce and bitter fight, and in the end, Willie went home with a bleeding nose, and John went home with a black eye.
Willie had not played the man over that affair. He went to his mother and complained of John's selfish and brutal behaviour, alleging that he had suffered terrible punishment in a chivalrous effort to protect his sister from ruffianly assault; and his mother, a thin, acidulous woman, whose voice was half snarl and half whine, carried her son's complaint to Mrs. MacDermott.
Mrs. MacDermott had not stopped to enquire into the truth of the charge against John beyond asking if it were true that he had pulled Aggie Logan's hair and fought with Willie Logan. John had replied "Yes, ma!" That was sufficient for Mrs. MacDermott, that and the testimony of John's discoloured eye, and she had beaten him with the leather tawse that was kept hanging from a nail at the side of the fireplace. "That my son should do the like of that!" she said over and over again until a cold fury of resentment against her had formed in his heart. It was true that he had pulled Aggie's hair much harder than he ought to have done, but he had not intended to hurt her. What he had done, had been done, not out of malice, but in the excitement of the game; and it was not fair to beat him so severely for so little a thing as that. He would not cry ... he would not give his mother the satisfaction of hearing him cry, although the lashing he was receiving was hurting his bare pelt very sorely. She could keep on saying, "That my son should do the like of that!" but he would not mind her....
Then, as if she understood his thoughts and perceived that he was unmoved by her outraged feelings, she had changed her complaint against him. Glancing up at the portrait of her husband which was hanging over the fireplace, she said, "That your father's son should do the like of that!" Compunction came to him then. He, too, looked up at the portrait of his father, and suddenly he wanted to cry. The pale face, made more pale in appearance by the thick, black beard, and having the faded look which photographs of the dead seem always to have, appeared to him to be alive and full of reproach, and the big burning eyes, aflame, they looked, with the consuming thing that took his life, had anger in them, anger against him!...
He had not any regret for hurting Aggie Logan ... he did not believe that he had hurt her any more severely than was necessary for the purposes of the game, and even if he had hurt her, she ought to have borne it as part of the pretence ... he did not care whether he had hurt her or not, for she was a "cry-ba" at all times, ready to "girn" at anything ... but he had sorrow at the thought that he had done something of which his father might have disapproved. Mrs. MacDermott, with that penetration which is part of the nature of people who are accustomed to yield to stronger personalities had discovered that she could win John to her obedience by reminding him of his father; and she used her power without pity. "What would your father think of you, if he knew!" she would say.
She was not a hard or a cruel woman ... she was very kind and loved her son with a long clutching love ... but her life with her husband had contained so many disturbances of comfortable courses, thrilling enough at the time, but terrifying when viewed in retrospect, that her nature, inclined to quiet, fixed ways and to acceptance, with slight resistance, of whatever came to her, made all the efforts that were possible to it to keep her life and her son's life in peace. She hated change of any sort, whether of circumstances or of friends, and she loved old, familiar things. The tradition of the MacDermotts, their life in one place for generations and the respect with which they were greeted by their townsmen, gave immense pleasure to her, and her dearest dream was that John should continue in the place where his forefathers had lived, and that his son and his son's son should continue there, too!
And so it was that she was always telling John not to do things. She loathed Uncle Matthew's romances and his talk of adventures in foreign parts, and she insisted that he was "away in the mind" when her son spoke of him to her. She tried to make the boy walk inconspicuously, to keep, always, in the background, to do only those things that were generally approved of. His quick temper, his haste with his fists, his habit of contradicting even those who were older than he was, his unwillingness to admit that he was in the wrong ... all these disturbed and frightened her. They would lead him into disputes and set him up in opposition to other people. His delight in the story of his father's encounter with Lord Castlederry troubled her, and she tried to convince her son that Lord Castlederry was a well-meaning man, but, as she knew, without success. She had delighted in her husband's great courage and self-sufficiency, his sureness, his strong decision and his unconquerable pride and independence ... but now, in contemplation, these things frightened her ... she wondered sometimes why it was that they had not frightened her in his lifetime ... and the thought that she might have to live again in contention and opposition roused all her strength to resist that fate. She had lived down much of the dislike that her husband had aroused. It was not necessary now to pretend that she did not see people, that she might escape from the mortification of being stared at, without a sign of recognition; and she would not lightly yield up her comfortable situation. If only she could only persuade John to become a minister! There was nothing in that to frighten her: there was everything to make her feel content and proud.
When she took John to Belfast, she made the holiday, so eagerly anticipated, a mortification to him. While they were in the train, she would tell him not to climb on to the seat of the carriage to look out of the window at the telegraph-poles flying past and the telegraph-wires rising and falling like birds ... she would tell him not to stand at the door in case it should fly open and he should fall out and be killed ... she would tell him, when the train reached the terminus in Belfast, to take tight hold of her hand and not to budge from her side ... she would refuse to cross the Lagan in the steam ferry-boat and insist on going round by tram-car across the Queen's Bridge ... she would tell him not to wander about in Forster Green's when he edged away from her to look at the coffee-mills in which the richly-smelling berries were being roasted. When she took him to Linden's to tea ... Linden's which made cakes for the Queen and had the Royal Arms over the door of the shop! ... she spoiled the treat for him by refusing to let him sit on one of the stools at the counter and eat his "cookies" like a man: she made him sit by her side at a table ... an ordinary table such as anyone could sit on anywhere ... at home, even!
His Uncle William had taken him up to Belfast one market-day, and that Friday was made memorable to him forever because his Uncle had said to him, "Well, boy, what would you like to do?" and had consented, without demur, to cross the Lagan in the ferry-boat. Uncle William had not clutched at him all the time in fear lest he should fall into the river and be drowned, and had allowed him to stand at the end of the boat and watch the swirl of the water against the ferry-steps when they reached the Antrim side. He had said to him, too, "I've a wee bit of business to attend to, boy, that'll not interest you much. Would you like to stay here in the market for an hour by yourself while I go and do it?"
Would he like?...
And not one word about taking great care of himself or of not doing this or doing that ... of keeping away from the horse-fair, and not going too near the cattle. Uncle William trusted him, took it for granted that he was capable of looking after himself....
"Very well, then," Uncle William said, "I'll meet you here in an hour's time. No later, mind you, for I've a deal to do the day!"
And for a whole hour, John had wandered about the market, not holding anyone's hand and free to go wherever he liked! He had walked through the old market where the horses were bought and sold ... had even stroked a mare's muzzle while some men bargained over it ... and then had crossed the road to the new market where he smelt the odour of flowers and fruit and listened to the country-women chaffering over their butter and eggs. He spent a penny without direction!... He bought a large, rosy American apple ... without being asked whether he would like to have that or an orange, or being told that he could not have an orange, but must have an apple because an apple in the morning was good for him...
When he told his mother that night of the splendid time he had had by himself, she said, "You might have lost yourself!..." That chilled him, and he did not tell her of the gallant way in which he had rubbed his hand on a horse's side. He knew very well that she would say, "It might have kicked you!..."
It was she who was most particular about the dyeing of his Easter eggs and the ritual of hanging up his stocking on Christmas Eve. She had wanted to go on dyeing eggs for him at Easter and hanging up his stocking on Christmas Eve, even when he was twelve years of age and could not be expected to tolerate such things any longer. He liked the Easter ceremonial better, perhaps, than that of Christmas. His mother would bid Uncle Matthew take him out of the town to the fields to gather whin-blossoms so that she could dye the eggs to a pretty brown colour. Tea-leaves could be used to dye the eggs to a deeper brown than that of the whin-blossoms, but there was not so much pleasure in taking tea-leaves from the caddy as there was in plucking whin-blossoms from the furze-bushes. The Logans bought their Easter eggs, already dyed, from old Mrs. Dobbs, the dulce-woman, but John disliked the look of her eggs, apart from the fact that his mother would not permit him to buy them. Mrs. Dobbs used some artificial dyes which stained the eggshells a horrible purple or a less horrible red, and John had a feeling of sickness when he looked at them. Mrs. MacDermott said that if the eggs were to crack during the process of boiling, the dye would penetrate the meat and might poison anyone who ate it; and even if the shells remained uncracked, the dye would soil the fingers and perhaps soil the clothes. She wondered at Mrs. Logan!...
And on Easter Monday, she and Uncle Matthew and Uncle William would go to Bryson's field where there was a low mound covered with short grass, and from the top of this mound, he would trundle his Easter egg down the slope to the level ground until the shell was broken. Then he would sit beside his mother and uncles, and eat the hard-boiled meat of the egg while Uncle Matthew explained to him that he was celebrating an ancient Druidical rite.
But he loved his mother very dearly when she came to him at night to put him to bed and listen to his prayers. He would kneel down in front of her, in the warmth of the kitchen so that he might not catch cold in the unheated bedroom, and would shut his eyes very tightly because God did not like to see little boys peeping through their distended fingers at Him, and would say his verse:
I lay my body down to sleep.... I pray the Lord my soul to keep, And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
and having said that, he would add a general prayer for his family. "God bless my Mother" ... he always said "Mother" in his prayers, although he said "Ma" in ordinary talk ... "and my Uncle William and my Uncle Matthew and all my friends and relations, and make me a good boy for Jesus' sake, Amen. Our Father which art...." Then he would scamper up the stairs to bed, and his mother would hap the clothes about him and tell him to go to sleep soon. She would bend over him and kiss him very tightly, and he would put his arms about her, too. "Son, dear!" she would say.
THE SECOND CHAPTER
When John MacDermott was seventeen years of age and entering into his fourth year of monitorship, his Uncle William said to him, "John, boy, you're getting on to be a man now, and it's high time you began to think of what you're going to do with yourself when you are one!"
"You're mebbe right," said John.
"The next year'll be your last one at the monitoring, won't it?" Uncle William continued.
John nodded his head.
"Well, if I were you I'd make a plan of some sort during the next year or two, for it would never do for you to come to the years of discretion, and have to take to the teachering because you couldn't think of anything else to do. I can see well your heart's not in that trade."
"It is not, indeed!" John said vigorously. "It's a terrible tiring job, teaching children, and some of them are that stupid you feel provoked enough to slap the hands off them! I'm nearly afraid of myself sometimes with the stupid ones, for fear I'd lose my temper with them and hurt them hard. Mr. Cairnduff says no one should be a teacher that has a bad temper, and dear knows, Uncle William, I've a fearful temper! He's a quare wise man, Mr. Cairnduff: he doesn't let any of his monitors use the cane, for he says it's an awful temptation to be cruel, especially if you're young and impatient the way I am!"
"Is that so now?" said Uncle William.
"Oh, it is, right enough. I know well there's times when a child's provoked me, that I want to be cruel to it ... and I'd hate to be cruel to any child. There's a wee girl in my class now.... Lizzie Turley's her name!..."
"John Turley's child?"
"Yes. God knows she's the stupidest child in the world!"
"Her da's a match, for her, then, for he's the stupidest man I've ever known. That fellow ought not to have been let have children!..."
"It's not her fault, I know," John continued, "but you forget that when you're provoked. I've tried hard to teach that child ... vowed to myself I'd teach her ... to add up, but I'm afraid she's beaten me. She can subtract well enough ... that's the queer part about her ... but she cannot add up. You'll mebbe not believe me. Uncle William, but that child can't put two and one together and be sure of getting the right answer. At first she couldn't add two and one together at all. She'd put down twelve for the answer as likely as not. But I worked hard with her, and I got her to add up to two and six make eight ... and there she stuck. I couldn't get her past that: she couldn't add two and seven together and get nine for the answer. But if you asked her to subtract two from nine, she'd say "seven" all right! That's a queer thing, now! Isn't it?"
"Aye, it's queer enough!"
"There's been times when I've wanted to hit that wee girl ... hit her with my shut fists ... and I don't like to feel that way about a child that's not all there ... or any child! I'm afraid I'm not fit to be a teacher, Uncle William. You have to be very good and patient... and it's no use pretending you haven't. Mr. Cairnduff says it's more important for a teacher to be good than it is for a minister, and he's right, too. He says a child should never be slapped by the teacher that's offended with it, but by another teacher that knows nothing about the bother. He doesn't use the cane much himself, but there's some teachers likes using it. Miss Gebbie does... she carries a big bamboo about with her, and gives you a good hard welt across the hand with it, if you annoy her. I wouldn't like to be in that woman's grip, I can tell you. Some women are fearful hard, Uncle William!"
"Worse nor men, some of them," Uncle William agreed.
"Mr. Cairnduff told me one time of a teacher he knew that got to like the cane so much that he used to try and trip the children into making mistakes so's he could slap them for it. Isn't it fearful, that?"
"I'd be ashamed to death if I got that way. Oh, I couldn't go on with the teaching, Uncle William. I wouldn't be near fit for it."
"Well, never mind, John. There's one thing, the extra schooling you've had has done you no harm, and I daresay it's done you a lot of good. But you'll have to think of something to do!..."
"Yes, I will!"
"Do you never think of anything? Is there any particular thing you'd like to do?"
"There's a whole lot of things I've fancied I'd like to be, but after a wee while I always change my mind. The first time I went to Belfast, I thought it would be lovely to be a tram-driver 'til I saw a navvy tearing up the street ... and then I thought a navvy had the best job in the world. You know, Uncle William, it takes me a long while to find out what it is I want, but when I do find it out, I take to it queer and quick. I'll mebbe go footering about the world like a lost thing, and then all of a sudden I'll know what I want to do ... and I'll just do it!"
"Hmmm!" said Uncle William.
"It sounds queer and foolish, doesn't it?"
"Oh, I don't know, John. Many's a thing sounds silly, but isn't."
"It's true, anyway. I've noticed things like that about myself. It's ... it's like a man getting converted. One minute he's a guilty, hell-deserving sinner, the way John Hutton says he was, footering about the world, drinking and guzzling and leading a rotten life ... and then all of a sudden, he's hauled up and made to give his testimony and do God's will for the rest of his life! I daresay I'll drift from one thing to another ... and then I'll know, just like a flash of lightning ... and I'll go and do it!"
"That's a dangerous kind of a doctrine," said Uncle William. "It's easier to get into the way of drifting nor it is to get out of it again. And you're a young lad to be thinking strange thoughts like that!"
"I'm seventeen," John replied. "That's not young!"
"It's not oul' anyway. Anybody'd think to hear you, you had the years of Methuselah. I suppose, now, you never thought of coming into the shop?"
"I did think of it one time, but you wouldn't let me!..."
"That was when you wanted to help me. But did you never think of it for your own sake? You see, John, you're the last of us, and this shop has been in our family for a long while ... it's a good trade, too, and you'll have no fear of hardship as long as you look after it, although the big firms in Belfast are opening branches here. The MacDermotts can hold their heads up against any big firm in the world, I'm thinking ... in this place, anyway. Did you never feel you'd like to come into the shop?"
John glanced about the shop, at the assistants who were serving customers with tea and groceries....
"No," he said, shaking his head, "I don't think I'd like it!"
Uncle William considered for a few moments. Then he said, "No, I thought you wouldn't care for it. Your da felt that way too. The shop wasn't big enough for him. All the same, there has to be shops, and there has to be people to look after that!"
"Oh, I know that right enough, Uncle William. I'm not saying anything against them. They're all right for them that likes them!..."
He paused for a while, and his Uncle waited for him to proceed. "Sometimes," he said at last, "I'm near in the mind to go and be a soldier!..."
"For dear sake!" said Uncle William impatiently.
"Or a sailor. I went down to the Post Office once and got a bill about the Navy!..."
"Well, I would think you were demented mad to go and do the like of that," said Uncle William. "You might as well be a peeler!"
His mind turned now very frequently to the consideration of work other than that of teaching. He made a mental catalogue of the things that were immediately possible to him: teaching, the ministry of the Presbyterian Church, the shop ... and ruled them all out of his list. The thought of soldiering or of going to sea lingered in his mind for a long time ... because he associated soldiering and sailoring with travel in strange places ... but he abandoned that thought when he balanced the tradition of his class against the Army, and Navy. All the men of his acquaintance who had joined the Army or the Navy had done so, either because they were in disgrace or because they were unhappy at home. It was generally considered that in joining either of the Services, they had brought shame upon their families, less, perhaps in the case of the Navy than in the case of the Army. In any event, his Uncle William's statement that a MacDermott could not endure to be ordered about by any one settled his mind for him on that subject. He would have to get his adventures in other ways. He might emigrate to America. He had a cousin in New York and one in Chicago. He might go to Canada or Australia or South Africa ... digging for gold or diamonds! There was nothing in Ireland that attracted him ... all the desirable things were in distant places. Farming in Canada or Australia had a romantic attraction that was not to be found in farming in Ireland. He had seen farmers in Ireland ... and he did not wish to be like them!
But, no matter how much he considered the question, he came no nearer to a solution of it.
He would go out to the fields that lay on the shores of the Lough, going one day to this side, and another day to that, and lie down in the sunshine and dream of a brilliant career. He might go into parliament and become a great statesman, like that man, Lord Salisbury, who had come to Belfast once during the Home Rule agitation. Or he might turn Nationalist and divert himself by roaring in the House of Commons against the English! He wished that he could write poetry ... if he could write poetry, he might become famous. There was an old exercise book at home, full of poems that he had made up when he was much younger, about Ireland and the Pope and Love and Ballyards ... but they were poor things, he knew, although Mr. Cairnduff, to whom he had shown them, had said that, considering the age John was when he wrote them, they might have been a great deal worse. Mr. Cairnduff had given generous praise to a long poem on the election of a Nationalist for the city of Derry, beginning with this wail:
Oh, Derry, Derry, what have you done? Sold your freedom to Home Rule's son!
but neither Uncle William nor Uncle Matthew had had much to say for it. Uncle William said that his father would not have liked to think of his son writing a poem full of sentiments of that sort, and Uncle Matthew went upstairs to the attic and brought down, a copy of Romeo and Juliet and presented it to him. But Mrs. MacDermott was pleased in a queer way. She hoped he was not going to take up politics, but she was glad that he was not a Home Ruler!
Sometimes, when he had been much younger than he now was ... John always thought of himself as a man of great age ... he had resolved that he would become a writer; but although he began many stories and solemn books ... there was one called, The Errors of Rome in which the Papists were to be finally and conclusively exposed ... none of them were ever finished. Then had come a phase of preaching. His mother read the Christian Herald every week, and John would get a table cloth, and wrap it round himself to represent a surplice ... for the Church of Ireland was more decorative than the Presbyterian Church ... and deliver the sermons of Dr. Talmage and Mr. Spurgeon in a loud sing-song voice that greatly delighted Mrs. MacDermott. That, too, had passed, very swiftly indeed, because of the alarming discovery that he was an atheist! He would never forget the sensation he had created in school when he had suddenly turned to Willie Logan and said, "Willie, I don't believe there's a God at all. It's all a catch!..."
Willie, partly out of fright, but chiefly because of his incorrigible tendency to "clash," immediately reported him to Miss Gebbie, who had been a teacher even then ... it seemed to him sometimes that Miss Gebbie had always been a teacher and would never cease to be one ... and she had converted him to a belief in God's existence at the point of her bamboo....
Then came a time of mere dreaming of a future in which some beautiful girl would capture all his mind and heart and service. He would rescue her from a dire situation ... he would invent some wonderful thing that would bring fame and fortune to him ... and he would offer all his fame and fortune to her. His visions of this girl, constantly recurring, prevented him from falling in love with any girl in Ballyards. When he contrasted the girl of his dream with the girls he saw about him, he could not understand how anyone could possibly love a Ballyards girl. Aggie Logan!...
He would come away from the fields, pleased with his dreams, but still as far from a solution of his problem as ever.
One evening, his Uncle William came into the kitchen where John was reading John Halifax, Gentleman to his mother.
"I ought to go to Belfast the morrow," he said, "but Saturday's an awkward day for me. I was wondering whether to send John instead. He's nothing to do on Saturdays, and it would be a great help to me!"
John closed the book, "Of course, I'll go, Uncle William!" he said.
Mrs. MacDermott coldly regarded them both. "You know rightly," she said, "that I'm as busy on Saturday as you are, William. How can he go up to Belfast when I can't go with him?"
"I never said nothing about you going with him," Uncle William retorted. "He's well able to go by himself!" "Go by himself!" Mrs. MacDermott almost shouted the words at her brother-in-law. "A lad that never was out of the town by his lone in his life before!"
"He'll have to go by his lone some day, won't he? And he's a big lump of a lad now, and well able to look after himself!"
"He'll not stir an inch from the door without me," Mrs. MacDermott declared in a determined voice. "Think shame to yourself, William, to be putting such thoughts into a lad's head ... suggesting that he should be sent out in the world by himself at his age!..."
Uncle William shifted uneasily in his seat. "I'm not suggesting that he should be sent out into the world," he said. "I'm only suggesting that he should be sent to Belfast for the day!..."
"And what sort of a place is Belfast on a Saturday afternoon with a lot of drunk footballers flying about? He will not go, William. You can send Matthew!..."
Uncle William made a gesture of impatience. "You know rightly, Matthew's no good for a job of this sort!"
"Well, then, you'll have to go yourself. I'll keep an eye to the shop, forby my own work!..."
John got up and put John Halifax, Gentleman on the window-ledge.
"You needn't bother yourself, ma," he said. "I'm going to Belfast the morrow. What is it you want me to do, Uncle William?"
Mrs. MacDermott stared at him for a moment, then she got up and hurried out of the kitchen. They could hear her mounting the stairs, and then they heard the sound of her bedroom door being violently slammed.
"Women are queer, John," said Uncle William, "but the queerest women of all are the women that are mothers. Anybody'd think I was proposing to send you to the bad place, and dear knows, Belfast's not that!"
"What's the job you want me to do?"
"Come into the shop and I'll tell you!"
John followed his Uncle into the shop and they sat down together in the little Counting House.
"There's really nothing that a postcard couldn't do," Uncle William said. "That was the excuse. I've been thinking about you, John, and I thought it was a terrible pity you should never get out and about by yourself a bit ... out of Ballyards, I mean ... to look round you. It's no good to a lad to be always running about with his ma!"
"You're a terrible schemer, Uncle William," said John.
"Ah, g'long with you," his Uncle answered. "Here, pay heed to me now, while I tell you. This is what I want you to do!..."
He showed a business letter to John and invited him to read it. Then he explained the nature of the small commission he wished him to execute.
"It'll not take you long," he said, "and then you can look about yourself in Belfast. You'll want a few coppers in your pocket!" He put a coin into John's hand and then closed the lad's fingers over it. "It's great value to go down the quays and have a look at the ships," he went on, "and mebbe you could get a look over the shipyard! ... And perhaps when you're knocking about Belfast, you'll see something you'd like to do!"
In this way, his Saturday trips to Belfast began. He found them much less exhilarating then he had imagined they would be. He inspected the City Hall in the company of a beadle and was informed, with great preciseness, of the cost of the building and of the price paid to each artist for the portraits of the Lord Mayors which were suspended from the walls of the Council Chamber. The beadle seemed to think that the portraits represented a waste of ratepayers' money, and he considered that if the Corporation had given a contract to one artist for all the pictures, a great reduction in price could have been obtained.... The Museum and the Free Library depressed him, precisely in the way in which Museums and Free Libraries always depress people; but he found pleasure in the Botanic Gardens and the Ormeau Park. He devised an excellent scheme of walking, which enabled him to go through the Botanic Gardens, then, by side streets, to the Lagan, where a ferryman rowed him across to the opposite bank and landed him in the Ormeau Park. He would walk briskly through the Park, and then, when he had emerged from it, would cross the Albert Bridge, hurry along the Sand Quay, and stand at the Queen's Bridge to watch the crowds of workmen hurrying home from the shipyards. He never tired of watching the "Islandmen," grimy from their labour, as they passed over the bridge in a thick, dusky stream to their homes. Thousands and thousands of men and boys seemed to make an endless procession of shipbuilders, designers and rivetters and heater-boys. But it never occurred to him that there was something romantic in the enterprise and labours of these men, that out of their energies, great ships grew and far lands were brought near to each other. He liked to witness the dispersal of the shipyard's energies, but he did not think of the miracle which their assembled energies performed every day. By this narrow, shallow river Lagan, a great company of men and boys and women met daily to make the means whereby races reached out to each other; and their ships sailed the seas of the world, carrying merchandise from one land to another, binding the East to the West and the South to the North, and making chains of friendship and kindliness between diverse peoples. It was an adventure to sail in a ship, in John's mind, but he did not know, had never thought or been told, that it is also an adventure to build a ship. The pleasure which he found in watching the "Islandmen" crossing the Queen's Bridge was not related to their work: it was found in the spectacle of a great crowd. Any crowd passing over the Bridge would have pleased John equally well....
But the crowd of "Islandmen" was soon dispersed; and John found that there was very little to do in Belfast. He did not care for football matches, he had no wish to enter the City Hall again, he could not walk through the Botanic Gardens and the Ormeau Park all day long, and he certainly did not wish to visit the Museum or the Free Library again. He became tired of walking aimlessly about the streets. There was a wet Saturday when, as he stood under the shelter of an awning in Royal Avenue, he resolved that he would return to Ballyards by an early train. "It's an awful town, this, on a wet day!" he said to himself, unaware that any town in which a man is a stranger is unpleasant on a wet day ... and sometimes on a fine day. "Somehow," he went on, "there seems to be more to do in Ballyards on a wet day than there is in Belfast on a wet day!" A sense of loneliness descended upon him as he gazed at the grey, dribbling skies and the damp pavements. The trams were full of moist, huddled men and women; the foot-passengers hurried homewards, their heads bent against the wind and rain; the bleak-looking newspaper boys, barefooted, pinched, hungry and cold, stood shivering in doorways, with wet, sticky papers under their arms; and wherever he looked, John saw only unfriendliness, haste and discomfort. There would not be a train to Ballyards until late in the afternoon, and as he stood there, growing less cheerful each moment, he wondered how he could occupy the time of waiting. The wind blew down the street, sending the rain scudding in front of it, and chilling him, and, half unconsciously, he hurried across the road to take shelter in a side street where, it seemed to him, he would be less exposed. He walked along the street, keeping in the shadow of the houses, and presently he found himself before the old market of Smithfield.
"Amn't I the fool," he said to himself, "not to have come here before?"
For here, indeed, was entertainment for any man or woman or child. In this ancient market for the sale of discarded things, a lonely person could pass away the dull hours very agreeably. The auctioneers, wheedling and joking and bullying, could be trusted to amuse any reasonable man for a while, and when their entertainment was exhausted there were the stalls to visit and explore. He stood to listen to a loud-voiced man who was selling secondhand clothes, and then, turning away, found himself standing before a bookstall. Piles of books, of all sizes and shapes and colours, lay on a long shutter that rested on trestles; and in the shop, behind the trestles, were great stacks of books reaching to the ceiling. He fingered the books with the affection with which he had seen his Uncle Matthew finger those in the attic at home. Some of them had the dreary, dull look observable in books that have long passed out of favour and have lain disregarded in some dark and dusty corner; and some, though they were old, looked bright and pleasant as if they were confident that the affection which had been theirs for years would be continued to them by new owners. He picked up old volumes and spent much time in contemplating the inscriptions inside them ... fading inscriptions in a thin, genteel handwriting that had the careful look of writing done by people who were anxious that the record should not offend a schoolmaster's eye ... and as he read these inscriptions, a queer dejection settled on him. These books, dusty and disregarded, he told himself, represented love and thought that had perished. Doubt and damp pessimism clutched hold of him. At the end of every brave adventure was Smithfield Market. He put down a book which contained an inscription to "Charles Dunwoody from his affectionate Mother," and looked about him. Everywhere, secondhand, rejected things were for sale: clothes, furniture, books, pictures ... The market was a mortuary of ambition and hope, the burial ground of little enterprises, confidently begun and miserably ended. Here were the signs of disruption and dispersal, of things attempted but not achieved, of misfortune and failure, of things used and abandoned for more coveted things. John had imagined himself performing great feats to win the love and favour of some beautiful woman ... but now he saw his adventure in love ending in a loud-voiced auctioneer mouthing jokes over a ruined home. Behind these piles of books and pictures and clothes and furniture, one might see young couples bravely setting out on their little ships of love to seek their fortunes, light-heartedly facing perils and dangers because of the high hope in their hearts ... and coming to wreck on a rough coast where their small cargoes were seized by creditors and brought to this place for sale, and they were left bare and hurt and discouraged...
"Oh, well!" said John, shrugging his shoulders and picking up a newer book.
That would not happen to him. If he failed in one enterprise he would start off on another. If he made a fortune and lost it, he would make another one. If the things he built were to be destroyed ... well, he would start building again....
But the mood of pessimism still held him and he could not bear to look at the books any longer. An unhappy ghost hid behind the covers of each one of them. He hurried out of the market into the street. The rain had ceased to fall, but the streets were wet and dirty, and the air struck at him coldly. He glanced at his watch, and saw that he could not now catch the train by which he had intended to return to Ballyards.
"I'll go and get my tea somewhere," he said, and then, "I don't think I'll come to Belfast again. I'm tired of the town!"
He turned into Royal Avenue and passed across Castle Junction into Donegall Place where there was a shop in which new books were sold. The shop was closed now, but he was able to see books with handsome covers in the window and he stayed for a time reading the titles of them. There was a bustle of people about him, of newspaper boys and flower girls, bedraggled and cheerless-looking, and of young men and women tempted to the Saturday evening parade in the chief street of the city in spite of the rain. The sound of voices in argument and barter and bright talk mingled with laughter and the noise of the tram-cars and carts clattering over the stony street. John liked the sound of Belfast on a Saturday night, the pleased sound of released people intent on enjoyment and with the knowledge that on the morrow there would still be freedom from labour, and as he stood in front of the bookshop, half intent on the books in the window and half intent on the crowd that moved about him, the gloom which had seized hold of him in Smithfield began to relax its grip: and when two girls, jostled against him by the disordered movement of the crowd on the pavement, smiled at him in apology, he smiled back at them.
He thrust himself through the crowd, breaking into a group of excited newspaper boys who were thrusting copies of the Evening Telegraph and Ireland's Saturday Night at possible purchasers, and walked towards the City Hall, but, changing his mind unaccountably, he turned down Castle Lane and presently found himself by the Theatre Royal. He had never been to a theatre in his life, but Uncle Matthew and Uncle William, when they were young men, used frequently to come to Belfast from Ballyards to see a play, and they had told him of the great pleasure they had had at the "old Royal."
"I've a good mind to go there to-night," he said to himself, as he crossed the street to examine the playbills which were posted on the walls of the theatre. Mr. F.R. Benson's Shakespearean Company, he read on the bill by the stage-door, would perform The Merchant of Venice that evening. The Company would remain in Belfast during the following week and would produce other plays by Shakespeare.
"I will go," he said to himself. "I'll go somewhere now and have my tea, and then I'll hurry back!"