The first time Ned Lowry met her was when he was fourteen and she the same or maybe a year or two younger. It was on the North Mall on a Saturday afternoon, and she was sitting on a bench under the trees, a tall, bony string of a girl with a long obstinate jaw. Ned was a studious young fellow in a blue-and-white college cap, thin and pale and spectacled. As he passed he looked at her owlishly and she gave him back an impudent stare. That upset him—he had no experience of girls—so he blushed and raised his cap. At that she seemed to relent.
“Hallo,” she said experimentally.
“Good evening,” said Ned with a pale smile.
“Where are you off to?” she asked.
“Oh, just up the Dyke for a walk,” said Ned.
“Sit down,” she said in a sharp voice, laying her hand on the bench beside her, and he did as he was told. It was a lovely summer evening, and the white quay walls and tall, crazy, claret-coloured tenements under a blue-and-white sky were reflected in the lazy water that wrinkled only at the edges and seemed like a painted carpet.
“It’s very pleasant here,” he said wistfully.
“Is it?” she asked with a truculence that startled him. “I don’t see anything very pleasant about it.”
“Oh, it’s very nice and quiet,” he said in mild surprise as he raised his fair eyebrows and looked up and down the Mall at the old Georgian houses and the nursemaids sitting under the trees. “My name,” he added politely, “is Lowry.”
“Oh, are ye the ones that have the jeweller’s shop on the Parade?” she asked.
“That’s right,” said Ned with modest pride.
“We have a clock we got from ye,” she said. “’Tisn’t much good of an old clock either,” she added with quiet malice.
“You should bring it back to the shop,” he said in great concern. “It probably needs overhauling.”
“I’m going down the river in a boat with a couple of chaps,” she said, going off at a tangent. “Will you come?”
“Couldn’t,” he said with a smile.
“I’m only left go up the Dyke for my walk,” he said complacently. “On Saturdays I go to Confession at St. Peter and Paul’s, then I go up the Dyke and back the Western Road. Sometimes you see very good cricket matches. Do you like cricket?”
“A lot of old sissies pucking a ball,” she said shortly. “I do not.”
“I like it,” he said firmly. “I go up there every Saturday. Of course I’m not supposed to talk to anyone,” he added with mild amusement at his own audacity. “My mother doesn’t like it.”
“Why doesn’t she like it?” asked the girl.
“She comes of an awfully good family,” he answered mildly, and only for his gentle smile, she might have thought he was deliberately insulting her. “You see,” he went on gravely in his thin, pleasant voice, ticking things off on his fingers and then giving a glance at each finger as he ticked it off — a tidy sort of boy — “there are three main branches of the Hourigan family: the Neddy Neds, the Neddy Jerrys and the Neddy Thomases. The Neddy Neds are the Hayfield Hourigans. They are the oldest branch. My mother is a Hayfield Hourigan and she’d have been a rich woman only for her father backing a bill for a Neddy Jerry. He defaulted and ran away to Australia,” he concluded with a contemptuous sniff.
“Cripes,” said the girl, “and had she to pay?”
“She had. But of course,” he went on with as close as he ever seemed likely to get to a burst of real enthusiasm, “my grandfather was a very well-behaved man. When he was eating his dinner the boys from the National School in Bantry used to be brought up to watch him, he had such beautiful table manners. Once he caught my uncle eating cabbage with a knife and he struck him with a poker. They had to put four stitches in him after,” he added with a joyous chuckle.
“Cripes,” said the girl again. “What did he do that for?”
“To teach him manners,” said Ned complacently.
“He must have been dotty,” said the girl.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” said Ned in mild surprise. Everything this girl said came as a shock to him. “But that’s why my mother won’t let us mix with other children. On the other hand, we read a good deal. Are you fond of reading, Miss—I didn’t catch the name?”
“You weren’t told it,” she said quietly, showing her claws. “But if you want to know it’s Rita Lomasney.”
“Do you read much, Miss Lomasney?”
“I couldn’t be bothered,” she said.
“I read all sorts of books,” he said enthusiastically. “And as well as that I’m learning the violin from Miss Maude on the Parade. Of course it’s very difficult because it’s all classical music.”
“What’s classical music?” she asked with sudden interest.
“Maritana is classical music,” he replied eagerly. He seemed to have an absolute mania for imparting instruction. “Were you at Maritana in the Opera House, Miss Lomasney?”
“I was never there at all,” she said, getting curter and curter.
“And Alice Where Art Thou is classical music,” he added. “It’s harder than plain music. You see,” he went on, composing signs in the air, “it has signs like this on it, and when you see the signs you know it’s after turning into a different tune though it has the same name. Irish music is all the same tune and that’s why my mother won’t let me learn it.”
“Were you ever at the Opera in Paris?” she asked suddenly.
“No,” said Ned regretfully. “I’m afraid I never was out of Ireland.”
“That’s the place you ought to go,” she said with airy enthusiasm. “Sure, you couldn’t hear any operas here. The staircase alone is bigger than the whole blooming Opera House here.”
It seemed as if she were just beginning to expand when two fellows came down Wyse’s Hill. She rose to meet them. Lowry looked up at them and then rose too, lifting his cap politely.
“Well, good evening,” he said cheerfully. “I enjoyed the talk. I hope we meet again.”
“Some other Saturday,” said Rita Lomasney.
“Oh, good evening, old man,” one of the fellows with her said in an affected accent, swinging round and letting on he was raising a topper. “Do come and see us soon again.”
“Shut up, Foster,” said Rita sharply. “I’ll give you a puck in the gob.”
“Oh, by the way,” said Ned, coming back and handing her a number of The Gem, “you might like to look at this. It’s not bad.”
“Thanks, I’d love to,” she said insincerely, and he smiled and touched his cap again.
“You didn’t say anything, did you?” he asked Foster with the same polite, almost deferential air.
“No, I didn’t,” said Foster, backing away from him.
“I’m so glad,” Ned said, purring and grinning like a cat. “I was afraid you might be looking for trouble.”
The Lomasney family were at their supper. They lived in a house on Sunday’s Well, a small house with a long sloping garden and a fine view of the river and city. There were four of them, apart from Rita who was away down the country, teaching. The father was a small man in a grey tweed suit and a soft white collar several sizes too big for him. He had a ravaged brick-red face with keen blue eyes, and a sandy straggling moustache with one side going up and the other side down, and you could always tell the humour he was in by the side he pulled. In town he was known as “Hasty Harry.” “Great God,” he fumed, when his wife was having her first baby, “nine months over a little job like that! I’d do it in three weeks if I could only get started.’ His wife was tall and matronly and very pious, but her piety never troubled her much. A woman that survived Hasty would have survived anything. The eldest daughter, Kitty, was loud-voiced and gay and full of talk. She was expelled from school for writing love-letters to a boy. She copied the letters out of a French novel but she didn’t tell the nuns that. Nellie was placider and took more after her mother. Besides, she didn’t read French novels.
They heard the car stop, the squeak of the gate, the steps up the long path to the front door. Then came a ring at the door and a cheerful voice from the hall.
“Hullo, Paschal, I suppose ye weren’t expecting me.”
“’Tis never Rita,” said her mother, meaning that it was but that it shouldn’t be.
“As true as God, that one is after getting into trouble,” said Kitty prophetically.
“Hullo,“ said Rita lightly as she slouched in, a long stringy girl with a dark, glowing face, “how’s tricks?”
“Rita, child,” said her mother, standing up, “what happened you?”
“Nothing,” cried Rita an octave up the scale. “I got the sack, that’s all.”
“Sack,” said her father, pulling the wrong side of his moustache; “what did you get the sack for?”
“Can’t you give us a chance to get something to eat?” said Rita. She took off her hat and laughed at herself in the mirror over the mantelpiece. Then she smoothed back her thick black hair. “I told Paschal to bring in whatever was going. I’m in the train since ten. The heating was off as usual. Cripes, I’m frizzled.”
“A wonder you wouldn’t send us a wire,” said her mother as Rita sat down and grabbed some bread and butter.
“No dough,” said Rita.
“Can’t you tell us what happened?” said Kitty.
“I told you,” said Rita with her mouth full. “You’ll read it all in the morning papers. The Rev. is bound to write and tell ye how I lost my character.”
“But what did you do, child?” her mother asked placidly.
“Fellow that wanted to marry me,” said Rita. “He was in his last year at college and his old one didn’t like the look of me, so she got Reverend Mother to give me the shunt.”
“But what the blazes had it to do with Reverend Mother?” asked Nellie indignantly. “It’s none of her business who you marry.”
“And don’t I know that, girl?” cried Rita.
“Still, I must say you worked pretty fast,” said Kitty suspiciously.
“Gor, if you didn’t work fast in that place they’d eat him,” said Rita. “There was only one man in the whole blooming village and he was the bank clerk. We called him “The One.” I wasn’t there a week when the nuns ticked me off for riding on the pillion of his bike.”
“And did you?” asked Kitty.
“I never got a chance. They did that to every teacher on principle to give her the idea she was being well watched. I only met this fellow a fortnight ago. He was home after a breakdown.”
“Well, well, well,” said her mother without rancour. “No wonder his mother was upset. A boy that’s not left college yet. Couldn’t ye wait till he was qualified anyway?”
“Not very well,” said Rita. “He’s going to be a priest.”
“A what?” cried her father.
“All right, don’t blame me,” said Rita. “It wasn’t my fault. He told me he didn’t want to be a priest. That’s why he had the breakdown.”
“Reverend Mother was perfectly right,” said Mrs. Lomasney severely. “As if it wasn’t hard enough on the poor boys without girls like you throwing temptation in their way. I must say you behaved very badly, Rita.”
“Oh, just as you like,” said Rita with a boyish shrug of her shoulders, and then dropped into a moody silence. She had always been the queerest of the family. There seemed to be no softness in her. She never had a favourite saint or a favourite nun; she said it was soppy. For the same reason she never had flirtations. There was something in her that wasn’t in her sisters, something tongue-tied and twisted and unhappy. She had a curious, raw, almost timid smile as if she felt that people desired no better sport than to hurt her. At home she was reserved, watchful, almost mocking. She could sit for hours listening to her mother and sisters without opening her mouth. Sometimes she mystified them by dropping a well-aimed jaw-breaker—about classical music, for instance—and then relapsing into a sulky silence as if she had merely drawn the veil for a moment on depths in herself which she would not permit them to explore.
She went to bed after her supper, and as her mother and sisters were sitting in the front room discussing the scandal a ring came to the front door. Nellie opened it.
“Hullo, Ned,” she said.
“Hullo,” said Ned, smiling with his mouth primly shut and his eyes wide open. With a sort of automatic movement he took off his coat and hat and hung them on the rack. Then he began to empty the pockets with the same thoroughness. He hadn’t changed much. He was thin and pale, spectacled and clever, with the same precise and tranquil manner, “like an old persian cat,” as Nellie said. He read too many books. In the last year or two something seemed to have happened him. He didn’t go to Mass any longer. Not going to Mass struck all the Lomasneys as being too damn clever.
“Guess who’s here,” said Nellie.
“Couldn’t,” he replied, raising his brows mildly.
“Oh!” he said in the same tone. It was part of his cleverness that he never let on to be surprised.
“She’s after getting the sack for trying to run off with a priest,” said Nellie.
He tossed his head with a silent chuckle and went in, adjusting his pince-nez. As he was understood to be in love with Rita, this wasn’t quite what Nellie expected. Then he put his hands in his trousers pockets and stood on the hearth with his legs wide apart.
“Isn’t it awful, Ned?” said Mrs. Lomasney in her deep voice.
“Is it?” asked Ned, smiling.
“With a priest?” cried Nellie.
“Now, he wasn’t a priest, Nellie,” said Mrs. Lomasney. “’Tis bad enough as it is without making it any worse.”
“Suppose you tell me what happened?” suggested Ned.
“But we don’t know, Ned,” cried Mrs. Lomasney. “You know what she’s like when she’s in one of her sulky fits. Maybe you’d go up and have a talk to her yourself?”
“It mightn’t be a bad idea,” said Ned.
Still with his hands in his pockets, he followed Mrs. Lomasney up the thickly carpeted stairs to Rita’s little bedroom at the top of the house. On the landing he paused for a moment to look out over the river and the lighted city behind it. Rita, wearing a pink dressing-jacket, was lying back with one arm under her head. By the bed was a table with a packet of cigarettes that had also been used as an ash-tray. He smiled and shook his head reprovingly at her.
“Hullo, Ned,” she cried, reaching him a bare arm. “Give us a kiss. I’m quite kissable now.”
He didn’t need to be told that. He was astonished at the change in her. Her whole face seemed to have gone mawkish and soft and to be lit up from inside. He sat on an armchair by the bed, carefully pulling up his trouser legs, then he put his hands in his pockets again and sat back with crossed legs.
“I suppose they’re all in a floosther downstairs?” said Rita.
“They seem a little excited,” said Ned with bowed head cocked a little sideways, looking like a wise old bird.
“Wait till they hear the details,” said Rita, shaking her head.
“Why?” he asked mildly. “Were there details?”
“Oh, masses of them,” said Rita. “Honest to God, Ned, I used to laugh at the glamour girls in the convent. I never knew you could get like that about a fellow. ’Tis like something busting inside you. Cripes, I’m as soppy as a kid.”
“And how did that occur?” Ned asked curiously.
“Jay, don’t ask me. This fellow—his name was Tony Donoghue—his old one had a shop in the Main Street. He kissed me one night coming home. I was furious. I cut the socks off him. Next evening he came round to apologise. I never got up or asked him to sit down or anything. He said he never slept a wink. ‘Oh, didn’t you?’ said I. ‘It didn’t trouble me much.’ Bloody lies, of course. ‘I did it because I was fond of you,’ says he. ‘Is that what you told the last one?’ said I. Then he got into a flaming wax. ‘You’re telling me to my face I’m a liar,’ says he. ‘And aren’t you?’ said I. Then I waited for him to hit me but, begor, he didn’t, so I ended up sitting on his knee.... Talk about the Babes in the Wood. First time he ever had a girl on his knee, he said, and you know how much of it I did.”
They heard a step on the stairs and Mrs. Lomasney smiled maternally at both of them round the door.
“I suppose ’tis tea Ned is having?” she asked in her deep voice.
“No,” said Rita. “I’m having the tea. Ned says he’d sooner a drop of the hard tack.”
“Oh, isn’t that a great change, Ned?” cried Mrs. Lomasney.
“’Tis the shock,” explained Rita, throwing him a cigarette. “He didn’t think I was that sort of girl.”
“He mustn’t know much about girls,” said Mrs. Lomasney.
“He’s learning now,” said Rita.
When Paschal brought up the tray she poured out tea for Ned and helped herself to the whiskey. He made no comment. Things like that were a commonplace in the Lomasney household.
“Anyway,” she went on, “he told his old one he wanted to chuck the Church and marry me. There was ructions, of course. The people in the shop at the other side of the street had a son a priest. His old one thought they’d never live down the scandal. So away with her up to the Rev. and the Rev. sends for me. Did I want to destroy the young man’s life and he on the threshold of a great calling? I said ’twas they wanted to destroy him. ‘What sort of a priest would he make?’ said I. Oh, ’twas a marvellous sacrifice to be called to make, and after it he’d be twice the man. Honest to God, Ned, the way she went on you’d think she was talking about doctoring an old tom cat. ‘He will like fun,’ says I. ‘That’s all you know about Tony.’ ‘Oh, we know him well,’ says the Rev. ‘He was an altar boy here.’ ‘Did he ever tell ye the way he used to slough the convent orchard and sell the apples in town?’ says I. So, begor, then she dropped the Holy Willie stuff and told me his ma was after getting into debt to put him in for the priesthood. Three hundred quid! Wouldn’t they kill you with style?”
“And what did you do then?”
“Oh, then I went along to see his ma.”
“I did. Sure, there’s nothing like the personal touch.”
“It doesn’t seem to have worked with her.”
“A bloody old traction engine, Ned. I’d as soon try my charms on one. ‘I suppose they didn’t do things like this in your young days?’ said I. ‘Ah,’ said she, ‘in my day girls had no sense.’ I saw then she was no fool. ‘I want to marry Tony,’ said I. ‘You can’t,’ said she. ‘What’s to stop me?’ said I. ‘He’s gone too far,’ said she. ‘Begor,’ said I, ‘if he was gone farther ’twouldn’t worry me. I came here to talk business with you. Reverend Mother says you’re three hundred pounds in debt on account of Tony.’ ‘That’s right,’ said MacNabs. ‘I’ll pay you the three hundred if you’ll let him marry me,’ said I.”
“And had you the three hundred?” Ned asked mildly.
“Ah, where would I get three hundred?” Rita replied ruefully. “And she knew it too, the old jade. She didn’t believe a word I said. So then I told her I wanted to see Tony. He was crying; he said he didn’t want to break his mother’s heart. As true as God, Ned, the woman had as much heart as a traction engine.”
“Well, you seem to have done it in style,” purred Ned, putting back his tea-cup.
“Ah, that wasn’t the half of it,” said Rita. “When I heard his old ma was making difficulties I offered to live with him instead.”
“Live with him?” said Ned. Even he was startled.
“Well, go away on hols with him. Lots of girls do it. I know they do. And, God Almighty, isn’t it only natural?”
“And what did he say to that?” asked Ned.
“Oh, he was scared out of his wits.”
“He would be,” said Ned, wrinkling up his nose and giving his superior little sniff as he took out a packet of cigarettes.
“Oh, it’s all very well for you to sniff,” she cried, bridling up. “You may think you’re a great fellow, all because you read Tolstoy and don’t go to Mass, but you’d be just as scared if a girl offered to go to bed with you.”
“Try me,” said Ned sedately as he lit her cigarette for her, but somehow the notion of suggesting a thing like that to Ned only made her laugh.
He stayed until quite late, and when he went downstairs the girls and Mrs. Lomasney came out to the hall to meet him and drag him in.
“Well, doctor?” said Mrs. Lomasney. “How’s the patient?”
“Oh, I think the patient is coming round nicely,“ said Ned.
“But would you ever believe it, Ned?” cried Mrs. Lomasney. “A girl that wouldn’t look at the side of the road a fellow was at, unless ’twas to go robbing orchards with him. You’ll have another drop of whiskey?”
“I won’t,” said Ned.
“And is that all you’re going to tell us?” asked Mrs. Lomasney.
“Oh, you’ll hear it all from herself, surely?” said Ned.
“We won’t,” said Mrs. Lomasney.
“I dare say not,” he said with a hearty chuckle, and went for his coat.
“Wisha, Ned,” said Mrs. Lomasney, “what’ll your mother say when she hears it?”
“All quite mad,” said Ned, sticking his nose in the air and giving an exaggerated version of what Mrs. Lomasney called “his Hayfield sniff.”
“The dear knows, I think she’s right,” she said as she helped him on with his coat. Then she kissed him unexpectedly. “I hope your mother doesn’t notice the smell from your breath,” she added, and she stood at the door, looking up and down as she waited for him to wave to her from the gate.
“Ah,” she sighed as she closed the door behind her, “with the help of God it might be all for the best.”
“If you mean that he might marry her, you can put it out of your head,” said Kitty. “A fellow that really cared for her would kill her. He only enjoys it.”
“Ah, God is good,” said her mother cheerfully. “Some men might like that.”
Inside a week Kitty and Nellie were sick to death of having Rita at home. She was too intense entirely for them. So in the afternoons she strolled down the Dyke and into Ned’s little shop where she sat on the counter, swinging her legs and smoking as Ned leaned back against the shelves, tinkering at the insides of a watch with some delicate instrument. When he was finished he changed his coat and took her out to tea. He sat at the very back of the tea-shop in a corner, pulled up the knees of his trousers and took out a packet of cigarettes and a box of matches which he planted on the table before him with a look that almost commanded them to stay there. His face was pale and clear and bright as an evening sky when the last light has drained out of it.
“Anything wrong?” he asked in his mildest voice.
“Fed up,” said Rita, thrusting out her jaw.
“What is it?” he asked gently. “Still repining?”
“No, Ned,” she said, “I can get over that. It’s Kitty and Nellie. They’re bitches, Ned, proper bitches. And it’s all because I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve. If one of them got a knock she’d take two aspirins and go to bed with the other one. They’d have a lovely talk— can’t you imagine? ‘And was it after that party that he said he loved you, Nellie?’ And it’s all because they’re not sincere, Ned. They couldn’t be sincere.”
“You pay too much attention to them,” Ned said, almost complainingly.
“They think I’m batty,” said Rita. “Do you, Ned?”
“I’ve no doubt that Mrs. Donoghue, or whatever her name was, thought something of the kind,” said Ned with a tight-lipped smile.
“And wasn’t she right?” asked Rita with sudden candour. “Suppose she accepted the three hundred quid, wouldn’t I be in a nice pickle? I wake in a sweat whenever I think of it. Where would I get three hundred quid?”
“Oh, I dare say someone would have lent it to you,” he said comfortingly.
“They would like hell,” said Rita. “Would you?”
“Probably,” he said gravely, after a moment’s thought.
“Are you serious?” she gasped.
“Gripes,” she said, “you must be very fond of me.”
“It looks like it,” said Ned, and this time he laughed with real heartiness, a boy’s laugh of sheer delight at the mystification he was causing her.
“Would you marry me?” she asked frowningly, testing the genuineness of his interest.
“Certainly,” he said, spreading out his hands. “Whenever you like.”
“Honest to God?”
“Cut my throat.”
“And why the blazes didn’t you ask me before I went down to that kip?” she asked vigorously. “I’d have married you then like a shot. Was it the way you weren’t keen on me then?”
“No,” he said matter-of-factly, drawing himself together like an old clock preparing to strike. “I think I’ve been keen on you as long as I know you.”
“It’s easily seen you’re a Neddy Ned,” she said with amusement. “I go after them with a scalping knife.”
“I stalk mine,” said Ned.
“Cripes, Ned,” she said with regret, “why didn’t you tell me sooner? I couldn’t marry you now. ’Twouldn’t be fair to you.” She looked round the restaurant to make sure that no one was listening and then went on in a dry voice, leaning one elbow on the table. “I suppose you’ll think this is all cod but it isn’t. Honest to God, I think you’re the finest bloody man I ever met—even though you do think you’re an agnostic or something,” she added maliciously with a characteristic Lomasney flourish in the cause of Faith and Fatherland. “There’s no one in the world I’d sooner for a pal. I think I’d nearly cut my throat if I did something you really disapproved of—I don’t mean something like telling lies or going on a binge,” she added hastily to prevent misunderstandings. “That’s only gas. Something that really shocked you I mean. I think if I was tempted I’d ask myself, ‘What would that fellow Lowry think of me now?’”
“Well,” Ned said in an extraordinarily quiet voice, squelching the butt of his cigarette on his plate, “that sounds to me like a very good beginning.”
“’Tisn’t, Ned,” she said, shaking her head. “You couldn’t understand it unless it happened to yourself, unless you fell in love with a girl the way I fell in love with Tony. Tony was a scut and a cowardly scut, but I was cracked about him. If Tony came into this place now and said, ‘Rita, come on away to Killarney for a week-end,’ I’d go out and buy a nightdress and tooth-brush and go with him. And I wouldn’t give a damn what you thought. I might want to chuck myself in the lake after, but I’d go. Christ, Ned,” she exclaimed, flushing suddenly and looking as though she might burst into tears, “he couldn’t come into a room but I went all mushy inside. That’s what the real thing is like.”
“Well,” Ned replied sedately, apparently not in the slightest degree put out; in fact, looking rather pleased with himself, Rita thought, “I’m in no hurry. In case you get tired of scalping them, the offer will still be open.”
“Thanks, Ned,” she said absent-mindedly, and while he paid the bill, she stood in the porch, doing her face in the mirror and paying no attention to the crowds who passed through the streets where the shop windows were just beginning to be lighted. As he emerged from the shop she turned on him suddenly.
“About that matter, Ned,” she said, “will you ask me again or do I have to ask you?”
“Just as you like,” said Ned with quiet amusement. “Suppose I repeat the proposal every six months?”
“Ah, that’d be the hell of a long time to wait if I changed my mind,” she said with a shrug. “It’s all right,” she added as she took his arm. “I know you well enough to ask you. If you don’t want me by then, you can always say so.”
Ned’s proposal came as a considerable comfort to Rita. It bolstered up her self-esteem, always in danger of collapse. She might be ugly and uneducated and a bit of a chancer, but still the best man in Cork—the best man in Ireland she sometimes thought—wanted to marry her, even after she had been let down by another fellow. So while her sisters made fun of her, she considered what would be the best possible occasion to give them the full weight of the proposal and its implications. Ever since she was a child she had never given anything away without extracting the last ounce of theatrical effect from it.
Justin Sullivan was a lawyer who had come to the house to court Nellie. He hadn’t got Nellie, who was as slippery as an eel and had already decided that the man she was going to get was a fellow called Fahy, a solicitor, whom Justin despised with his whole heart and soul as a light-headed, butterfly sort of man. But Justin continued to visit the house as a friend of the family. There didn’t happen to be any other house that suited him so well. He was a good deal older than Rita, a tall, burly man with a great broad face, a brow that was rising from baldness as well as brains, and a slow, watchful, ironic air. Like a good many lawyers, he had a way of conducting conversation as though the person he was speaking to were a hostile witness who had either to be coaxed into an admission of perjury or bullied into one of mental incapacity. Fahy simply clutched his head and retired to sit on the stairs; the girls shot their little darts at him but he only brushed them aside; Ned Lowry was the only one who could stand up to him, and when they argued about religion the place became a desert. Justin was a pillar of orthodoxy. “Imagine for a moment,” he would declaim in a throaty, rounded voice that turned easily to pomposity, “that I am the Pope.” “Easiest thing in the world, Justin,” said Kitty. He drank whiskey like water, and the more he drank the more massive and logical and orthodoxly Catholic he became. At the same time under his truculent air he was exceedingly gentle, patient and understanding, and disliked the ragging of Rita by her sisters.
“Tell me, Nellie,” he asked one night in his lazy, amiable way, “do you talk like that to Rita because you like it or because you think it’s good for her?”
“How soft you have it!” cried Nellie. “We have to live with her and you haven’t.”
“That may be my misfortune rather than my fault, Nellie,” said Justin with a broad smile.
“Is that a proposal, Justin?” asked Kitty shrewdly.
“Scarcely, Kitty,” said Justin. “You’re not what I might call a good jury.”
“You’d better be careful,” said Kitty. “If you say much more you’ll have her dropping in on your mother.”
“Thanks, Kitty,” said Rita with a flash of cold fury.
“I hope,” said Justin stubbornly, “if Rita felt inclined to do anything of the sort, my mother would have sense enough to realise the honour.”
When Justin got up to go, Rita accompanied him to the hall.
“Thanks for the moral support, Justin,” she said in a quiet tone, and threw her overcoat over her shoulders to go as far as the gate with him. When he opened the door they both stood and gazed about them. It was a moonlit night; the garden, patterned in black and silver, sloped to the quiet roadway where the gas-lamps burned with a dim green light, and in the farther walls gateways shaded by black trees led to steeply sloping avenues that wound about moonlit houses on the river’s edge.
“God Almighty,” she said in a hushed voice, “isn’t it lovely?”
“Oh, by the way, Rita,” he said, slipping his arm through hers, “that was a proposal.”
“Janey Mack,” said Rita, squeezing his arm, “they’re falling.”
“What are falling?” he asked in surprise.
“Proposals,” said Rita with a laugh.
“Why?” he asked. “Had you others?”
“One,” said Rita.
“And did you accept it?”
“No,” said Rita doubtfully, “not quite. At least I don’t think so.”
“You might consider this one,” said Justin with unusual humility. “You know, of course, that I was very fond of Nellie. At one time I was very fond of her indeed. You don’t mind that, do you? It’s all over and done with now and there aren’t any regrets on either side.”
“No, Justin,” she said, “of course I don’t mind. If I felt like marrying I wouldn’t give it a second thought. But you’d better understand that I was very much in love with Tony too, and that’s not all over and done with yet.”
“I know that, Rita,” he said gently. “I know exactly how you feel. We’ve all felt like that at your age.” If he had left it at that everything would have been all right, but Justin was a lawyer, which meant that he liked to leave things absolutely ship-shape. “But that won’t last for ever, you know. In a month or so you’ll be over that, and then you’ll wonder what you saw in that fellow.”
“I don’t think so, Justin,” she said with a crooked little smile, not altogether displeased to be able to enlighten him as to the utter hopelessness of her position. “I think it will take a great deal longer than that.”
“Well, say six months,” said Justin, prepared to yield a point on that particular matter. “All I ask is that in one month or in six months, whenever you’ve got over your regrets for this—this amiable young man (momentarily his voice took on its familiar ironic ring), you’ll give me a thought. I’m old enough not to make any more mistakes. I know I’m fond of you and I feel sure I could make you happy.”
“What you really mean,” said Rita, keeping her temper with the greatest difficulty, “is that I wasn’t in love with Tony at all. Isn’t that it?”
“Not quite,” said Justin judiciously. Even if a serenade had been added to the moonlight and the girl he was in love with, it could scarcely have kept him from correcting what he considered a false deduction. “I’ve no doubt you were very much attracted by this—this clerical Adonis; this Mr. Whatever-his-name-is, or that at any rate you thought you were, which in practice comes to the same thing, but I also know that that sort of thing, though it’s painful enough while it lasts, does not last very long.”
“You mean yours didn’t, Justin,” said Rita tartly.
“I mean mine or anyone else’s,” said Justin pompously. “Because love—the only sort of thing you can really call love—is something that comes with experience. At your age you can hardly know the meaning of it yet.”
“But at your age, of course, you can?” she said murderously.
“At any rate, I believe so,” said Justin.
“Honest to God, Justin,” she said, withdrawing her arm and looking at him with suppressed fury, “I think you’re the thickest man I ever met.”
“Good night, my dear,” said Justin with perfect good-humour, and he raised his cap and took the few steps to the gate at a run. She stood gazing after him with folded arms. At the age of eighteen to be told that there can be anything one doesn’t know about love is like a knife in the heart.
Kitty and Nellie grew so tired of her moodiness that they persuaded her mother and father that the best way to distract her mind was to push her into another job. Rita shrugged her shoulders and let them push. An old aunt in a convent in England was written to and found her a job there. Rita neither objected nor enthused.
“But why England?” asked Ned.
“Why not?” replied Rita.
“Wouldn’t any place nearer do you?” he asked mildly.
“I wouldn’t be far enough away from them,” she said bitterly.
“But why don’t you make up your own mind?”
“I’d sooner see what’s in theirs first,” she said with a short laugh. “I might give them a surprise yet.”
She certainly gave them the surprise. On Friday she was to leave by the Fishguard boat and on Wednesday they gave the party for her. She let them do that too without interesting herself much in the matter. Wednesday was the half-holiday and it rained steadily all day. The girls’ friends all turned up. Most of them were men : Bill O’Donnell of the bank, who was engaged to Kitty; Fahy the solicitor, who was Justin’s successful rival for Nellie; Justin himself, Ned and a few others. Hasty soon retired with his wife to the dining-room to read the Echo. He said all his daughters’ young men looked exactly alike and he never knew which of them he was talking to.
Bill O’Donnell was acting as barman. He was a big man, bigger than Justin even, with a battered boxer’s face and a negro smile. He carried on loud conversations with everyone he poured out drink for.
“Who’s this one for, Rita?” he asked. “A bottle of Bass for Paddy. Ah, the stout man. Remember the New Year’s Day in Bandon, Paddy? Remember how you had to bring me up to the bank in evening dress and prop me up between the two wings of the desk? Kitty, did I ever tell you about that night in Bandon?”
“Once a week for the past five years, Bill,” said Kitty.
“Nellie,” said Rita, “I think it’s time for Bill to sing his song. Let Me Like a Soldier Fall, Bill!”
“My one little song,” said Bill with a roar of laughter. “My one and only song, but I sing it beautifully. Don’t I, Nellie? Don’t I sing it fine?”
“Grand,” said Nellie, who was vamping music-hall songs and looked up at his big, beaming moon-face shining over the piano. “As the man said to my mother, “Finest bloody soprano I ever heard.””
“He did not, Nellie,” Bill said sadly. “You’re making that up. . . . Silence, please!” he shouted joyously, clapping his hands. “Ladies and gentlemen, I must apologise. I ought to sing something like Tosti’s ‘Good-bye,’ but the fact is, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know Tosti’s ‘Good-bye.’”
“Recite it, Bill,” said Justin amiably.
“I don’t know the words of it either, Justin,” said Bill. “In fact I’m not sure if there’s any such song, but if there is I ought to sing it.”
“Why, Bill?” asked Rita innocently. She was wearing a long black dress that threw up the unusual brightness of her dark bony face. All the evening she had seemed as though she were laughing to herself.
“Because ’twould be only right, Rita,” said Bill with great melancholy, putting his arm about her and drawing her closer to him. “You know I’m very fond of you, don’t you, Rita?”
“And I’m mad about you, Bill,” said Rita candidly.
“I know that, Rita,” he said mournfully, pulling at his collar as though to give himself air. “I only wish you weren’t going, Rita. This place won’t be the same without you. Kitty won’t mind me saying that,” he added nervously, cocking his eye at Kitty who was flirting on the sofa with Justin.
“Are you going to sing your blooming old song or not?” asked Nellie, running her fingers over the keys.
“I’m going to sing now in one two minutes, Nellie,” he said ecstatically, stroking Rita fondly under the chin. “I only want Rita to know the way we’ll miss her.”
“Bill,” said Rita, snuggling up to him with her dark head on his chest, “tell me quick, would you like me to stop at home?”
“I would like you to stop at home, Rita,” he replied, stroking her cheeks and eyes. “You’re too good for the fellows over there.”
“Oh, go on doing that,” she said hastily as he dropped his hand. “It’s gorgeous, and you’re making Kitty mad jealous.”
“Kitty isn’t jealous,” said Bill fondly. “Kitty’s a lovely girl and you’re a lovely girl. I hate to see you go, Rita.”
“Well, damn it all. Bill,” said Rita briskly, pulling herself free of him. “As you put it like that, old man, I won’t go.”
“Oh, won’t you?” said Kitty meaningly.
“You needn’t worry any more, Bill,” said Rita. It’s all off.”
Justin, who had been quietly consuming double whiskeys on the sofa, looked round lazily.
“Perhaps I ought to have mentioned,” he boomed, “that the young lady has just done me the honour of proposing to me and I’ve accepted her.”
Ned Lowry, who had been enjoying the little scene between Bill and Rita, looked at him for a moment in mild surprise.
“Bravo, bravo!” cried Bill, clapping his hands delightedly. “A marriage has been arranged and all the rest of it — what? I must give you a kiss, Rita. Justin, you don’t mind if I give Rita a kiss?”
“Not at all, not at all,” replied Justin with a lordly wave of his hand. “Anything that’s mine is yours, old man.”
“You’re not serious, Justin, are you?” asked Kitty.
“I’m serious,” said Justin. “I’m not yet quite certain whether your sister is. Are you, Rita?”
“What?” asked Rita.
“Serious,” said Justin.
“Why?” asked Rita. “Trying to give me the push already?”
“We’re much obliged for the information,” Nellie said ironically as she rose from the piano. “Now, maybe you’d oblige us further and tell us does my father know?”
“Hardly,” said Rita coolly. “It was only arranged this evening,”
“Well, maybe ’twill do with some more arranging by the time daddy is finished with you,” said Nellie furiously. “The impudence of you! How dare you? Go in at once and tell them!”
“Keep your hair on, girl,” said Rita as she went jauntily out of the room. Then Kitty and Nellie began to squabble viciously with Justin. They were convinced that the whole scene had only been arranged by Rita to make them look ridiculous. Justin sat back and began to enjoy the sport. Then Ned Lowry struck a match and lit another cigarette, and something about the careful quiet way he did it drew everybody’s attention. Rita came back, laughing.
“Well?” asked Nellie.
“Consent refused,” growled Rita, bowing her head and pulling the wrong side of an imaginary moustache.
“What did I tell you?” said Nellie.
“You don’t think it makes any difference?” asked Rita drily. “Don’t you know he’ll do whatever mummy tells him?”
“I wouldn’t be too sure of that,” said Nellie. “What else did he say?”
“Oh, he hadn’t the foggiest notion who I was talking about,” said Rita with a toss of her head. “‘Justin Who?’ says he. ‘How the bloody hell do you think I can remember all the young scuts ye bring to the house?’”
“Was he mad?” said Kitty.
“Hopping,” said Rita.
“He didn’t call us scuts?” asked Bill in a wounded tone.
“Oh, begor, he did,” said Rita.
“Did you tell him he was very attached to me when I gave him the tip for “Golden Boy” at the Park Races?” asked Justin in his deep voice.
“I did,” said Rita. “I told him you were the stout block of a fellow with the brown hair that he said he liked so much the day of the races. Then he said he wanted me to marry the thin fellow with the specs. ‘Only bloody gentleman that comes to the house.’”
“Is it Ned?” cried Nellie.
“I suppose so,” said Rita. “‘And why didn’t you say so?’ says I. ‘Jesus Christ, girl,’ says he, ‘I feed ye and clothe ye. Isn’t that enough without having to coort for ye as well? Next thing, ye’ll be asking me to have a few babies for ye.’ Anyway, Ned,” she added with a crooked, almost malicious smile, “you can always say you were the family favourite.”
Ned put down his cigarette carefully and sprang up with a broad smile, holding out his hand.
“I wish you all the luck in the world, Justin,” he said.
“I know that well, Ned,” boomed Justin, and he rose and caught Ned’s hands in his own two.
“And you too, Miss Lomasney,” said Ned gaily.
“Thank you, Mr. Lowry,” she replied with the same crooked little smile.
Justin and Rita were married. Ned, like all his family, was very sensible. He didn’t make a fuss or break the crockery or do any of the things people are expected to do under the circumstances. He went once or twice to visit them and took Rita to the pictures when Justin was away. About the same time he began to go out with an assistant in Halpin’s; a gentle, humorous girl with a great mass of jet-black hair and a long, pointed, melancholy face. You saw them everywhere together.
He also went regularly to Sunday’s Well to see the old couple and Nellie—she wasn’t yet married. One night when he called Mr. and Mrs. Lomasney were both at the chapel, but Rita was there before him. Justin was away. It was months since she and Ned had met, because she was having a baby and was very near her time. It made her self-conscious and rude. Three or four times she said things that would have maddened anyone else.
“And how’s little Miss What’s-her-name?” she asked insolently.
“Little Miss Who?” Ned asked mildly.
“Miss—how the hell can I remember the name of all your dolls? The Spanish-looking one that sells the knickers in Halpin’s.”
“Oh, she’s very well, thanks,” said Ned primly.
“Oh, it’ll be a very suitable match,” said Rita, all on edge. “Between ye, ye’ll have the ring and the trousseau at cost price.”
“How interested you are in her!” exclaimed Nellie.
“I don’t give a damn about her,” said Rita. “Would Señorita What’s-her-name ever let you stand godfather to my footballer, Ned?” she asked.
“Why not?” said Ned mildly. “I’d be delighted, of course.”
“You have the devil’s own neck to ask him,” said Nellie, “after the way you treated him.”
“How did I treat him?”
“Codding him along like that for years and then marrying a man that was twice your age.”
“’Twas his own fault,” said Rita with a mischievous smile.
Ned rose and took out a packet of cigarettes. Rita was leaning very far back in her chair. Laughing up at him, she took a cigarette and waited for him to light it.
“Come on, Rita,” he said encouragingly. “As you’ve gone so far you may as well tell us the rest of it. What had you against me?”
“Who said I had anything against you?” she said maliciously. “Didn’t I tell you distinctly when you asked me to marry you that I didn’t love you? Maybe you think I didn’t mean it?”
He thought for a moment and then raised his brows.
“I did,” he said quietly.
“I had nothing against you, Ned,” she said at last. “Kitty and this one were the only ones I had anything against. They forced me into getting married.”
“Well, the impudence of you!” cried Nellie.
“And isn’t it true for me?” Rita said sharply. “Didn’t you try and drive me out of the house?”
“We didn’t, but anyway, that’s no reason why you couldn’t have married Ned.”
“I didn’t want to marry Ned. I didn’t want to marry anyone.”
“And how did you find out?” asked Ned.
“Strange,” he said, sitting down and crossing his legs.
“There’s nothing strange about it. I didn’t care about anyone except Tony, but as I had to marry someone I thought I’d have a gamble on it and marry the first of ye that came to the house.”
“But you must have been mad,” said Nellie indignantly.
“Of course I was mad. I sat at the window the whole evening, looking out at the rain. I hoped ’twould be Ned. It happened to be Justin—so I married him. I saw him coming in the gate and he waved to me with the old brolly. I ran downstairs to open the door for him. ‘There’s an old aunt of mine sick,’ says he, sticking the gamp in the hall-stand, ‘so I came here for my supper.’ ‘Justin,’ says I, grabbing him by the coat, ‘if you still want to marry me, I’m ready.’ He gave me a dirty look—you know Justin! ‘Young woman,’ says he, ‘there’s a time and place for everything.’ And upstairs with him to the lavatory. Talk about romantic engagements! Curse of God on the old kiss did I get off him even!”
“I declare to God,” said Nellie in measured tones, “you deserved worse.”
“I know,” cried Rita, laughing. “When ’twas all over I nearly dropped dead.”
“Oh, so you came to your senses?” asked Nellie ironically.
“Ah, to be sure I did. That’s the trouble with Justin; he’s always right. He knew I wouldn’t be married a week before I forgot all about my bold Tony. God, the idiots we make of ourselves over fellows!”
“And I suppose ’twas then you found out that you’d backed the wrong horse?” asked Nellie.
“Who said I backed the wrong horse?” Rita snapped.
“Oh,” said Nellie innocently, “I thought that was what you were telling us.”
“You got it all wrong, Nellie,” Rita replied drily. “You should get your ears examined. If I did back the wrong horse I wouldn’t be likely to tell you—or Ned either.”
She looked mockingly at Ned, but her look belied her. He rose and flicked his ashes neatly into the fire. Then he stood with his back to it, his hands behind his back, his feet spread out on the hearth.
“You mean,” he said quietly, “if I’d come earlier you’d have married me?”
“If you’d come earlier,” said Rita, “I’d probably be asking Justin to stand godfather to your brat. And how do you know, Ned, but Justin would be walking out the Señorita!”
“Then maybe you wouldn’t be quite so interested whether he was or not,” said Nellie knowingly.
Ned turned and lashed his cigarette savagely into the fire. Rita looked up at him mockingly.
“Go on,” she taunted him, “say it, blast you!”
“I couldn’t,” he said bitterly.
A month later he married the Señorita.
Source: Crab Apple Jelly, Knopf, 1944, pp. 200-235