The Soldier's Song

I

IT happened a few seconds after the lorry full of troops had roared its way by. The shock of the explosion staggered Farrelly. For a moment the pavement rocked, and silhouetted housetops swayed and ducked as if the whole street were collapsing. Then all was solid again, and it was Farrelly whose knees were giving, whose breath seemed unaccountably to have left him.

Before he could fall or recover his balance, a hand shot out, grabbed him by the arm, and pulled him sideways. The street, badly damaged in the Easter Rising, had not yet been repaired. Its sky line was jagged, like a huge row of broken teeth, and many of the smaller holes had simply been boarded up, against better times. It was into one of these holes that the hand pulled Farrelly.

Dazed still, he began to splutter and struggle, imagining that explosion and seizure were all an organized attack upon him. His assailant held him tight, and peered anxiously in his face.

‘Are ye hurted? Are ye hurted?’ He began feeling assiduously over Farrelly. ‘Ah, no, glory be to God. I think ye’re all right,’

Thinking this was a device to pick his pocket, Farrelly struggled free, hugged himself, and pressed back against the broken bricks and mortar.

‘Easy, easy, sir. Sure, you’re all right. Sit tight here for a minyit or two. Sure, it’s safer than the street. There’s plenty of room for the two of us.’

He grinned reassuringly, and Farrelly, recovering his senses, saw that he had nothing to fear. His companion was unshaven and exceedingly dirty, but there was nothing but amiability in his face.

Farrelly moistened his lips. His voice would not come. He coughed, and cleared his throat.

‘Thank you. It’s very good of you. I was — taken by surprise. I did n’t know where I was.’

‘Small blame to ye, sir. Small blame to ye. Sure, we none of us know where we are, these days.’

With the rush of returning faculties, Farrelly felt his indignation mounting.

‘It’s thirty years since I was here,’ he said, ‘and I did n’t expect —’

Thin and sharp, puny almost after the other noise, a rifle went off rapidly twice; then again. Farrelly heard the sound echo down between the line of houses like the crack of a long whiplash.

His companion hunched up his shoulders.

‘There the’ go again!’ he ejaculated. ‘Always too late. Always at the heel of the hunt.’

He and Farrelly looked at one another. The tramp’s expression, with all the light on his teeth and the whites of his eyes, was half apologetic, half comical. Farrelly felt his own face move in a rueful grin, then reflected angrily that there was nothing to grin at.

The tramp, after a minute’s silence, turned, and, pulling aside a loose plank, very cautiously stuck out his hand.

‘Careful, man.’

‘Ah.’ The tramp’s voice expressed a vast contempt. ‘Shoot and run. That’s their motta. Shoot and run.’

He remained for a few seconds, turning his hand this way and that, then removed the plank, and stepped out. He looked up and down the street, and beckoned to Farrelly.

‘All clear, sir. Ye may come out now.’ And as Farrelly, blinking and apprehensive, stepped out, ‘Ah, they’re too free with their bombs. Too free altogether.’

Farrelly stood, awkwardly feeling in his pocket.

‘Thank you very much,’ he said. ‘I — er — ’

‘That’s all right, sir.’

And, with a last brilliant grin, the tramp turned and shuffled off quickly in the opposite direction. Farrelly stood irresolute, took out half-a-crown, made to call after him, then, with an impatient cluck of his tongue, put it back in his pocket and turned toward the theatre.

The street was empty, and the next street after it. He felt conspicuous as a lighthouse as he hurried along. Every window was a potential menace. Every doorway might disgorge a bomb. It was all he could do not to run.

Then, quite suddenly, he came to a populous street, slowed his pace, and breathed more easily. Here life seemed to be normal. People were going about their business as usual. They wore, perhaps, when one inspected them closely, a slight air of strain. A few looked subdued, or furtive, but most of them seemed, by an exaggerated naturalness, to be ignoring something. Their voices were a little too loud, their laughter too nervously ready — as if they were talking so as not to hear. A young man, a student by the look of him, met a couple of girls. They greeted one another with exaggerated pleasure, and stood talking, where ordinarily they would have said ‘Cheerio’ and passed on. They dawdled, so as not to seem in a hurry. Farrelly, with his trained actor’s eye, saw and deduced as he went along. His indignation was rising again. He looked accusingly at the people coming toward him on the pavement. What did they mean by all this nonsense? Inviting him, Paul Farrelly, to come at long last to his native city, and then behaving in this outrageous fashion?

By the time he turned in at the stage door, he was hot with anger. He barely nodded in answer to the doorkeeper’s greeting.

‘No letters, sir.’

There would n’t be, in this damned place, Farrelly thought, and plunged down the antiquated, dimly lit passage.

Boyne, the actor who shared his dressing room, was already seated, dabbing his cheek. He saw Farrelly in his glass, then turned to look at him.

‘Hullo, Farrelly. What’s wrong?’

‘Wrong? Nothing. Why should there be?’

Boyne turned back to his glass. He leaned forward, the better to see himself.

‘You look a bit yellow about the gills, that’s all.’

Farrelly made no reply. He hung up his overcoat and hat, and sat down. His native city had not only inconvenienced and scared him. It had humiliated him — and he did not easily forgive humiliation.

Paul Farrelly had left Dublin with his parents at the age of nine.

Now, at thirty-seven, he had an English and American reputation. After various exploratory starts, he had specialized as an Irish character actor of the obvious kind. He showed just as much of the comic Irishman as the Englishman and the American would wish to see. And, by eliminating from the parts he played all that might seem discordant in the national character, he grew to resent any discord in that character itself. It was too bad of Ireland to go on like this, just when he, Paul Farrelly, had taught his audiences what to think about her.

And now, crowning outrage, bombs were thrown in the very street along which he was peaceably walking to the theatre, in order to give the performance which they, damn them, had invited him over to give!

Leaning forward, putting in the comic wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, Farrelly decided that next time they should invite in vain. He thought of the distinguished Irishmen who had elected to live out of Ireland, and decided to add himself to their number.

II

The show went well that night. The house was scanty, but appreciative. Confused bangings sounded once or twice in the streets outside, as if someone were letting off fireworks, but Farrelly was too intent upon his work to notice them. There were five curtains at the end; two for the whole company, one for the four chief players, one for Farrelly and the leading lady, and one for Farrelly alone. Not bad, he thought, as he went along to his dressing room; but what houses we’d have had if those idiots would only let up their nonsense and behave themselves! He enlarged on the point to Boyne, as they were cleaning off.

‘They’re only spoiling everything,’ he said. ‘Trade, shops, everything. They can only do harm, and you’d think, by this time, they’d have had the sense to see it.’

Boyne grunted. He did n’t seem to care much one way or the other. Middle-aged, not very successful, he did his work and drew his salary. That was all there was to it, as far as he was concerned.

Farrelly sighed, and combed his hair. No artist, Boyne. A decent, capable fellow, but no artist.

He began to contrast his own career with Boyne’s, and drifted off into a pleasant reverie.

‘Ready?’

Boyne was standing by the door, in his overcoat. Farrelly came to himself with a start.

‘Not quite.’

‘I’ll go on, I think. ’Night.’

‘Good night.’

Farrelly went on leisurely with his dressing, still recalling the past. Ten minutes or more passed before he was ready to leave.

The streets were dark and empty. A chill wind was blowing. Farrelly buttoned his coat collar across. A damned uncomfortable town — not even properly lit. He grumbled to himself, and set off for home.

A wild whirring, in a street parallel to his own, did not disturb him. He knew it to be a lorry full of troops. So much the better. If they were about, he would be able to get home in safety — provided no one threw a bomb at them. He hesitated, reaching the street where the bomb had been thrown. A sharp dislike for it rose in his mind. Nonsense, he reflected. All the less likely — on the principle of lightning never striking the same place twice.

There was another wild whir. This time it did not recede, but checked, accelerated, checked again, and with a shriek of brakes came out sideways into the street where Farrelly was. With an uproar of voices and mechanism, it bore down on him, and stopped.

Farrelly gazed bewildered, as in a nightmare. Voices were shouting at him, shouting incomprehensible commands. A revolver went off. Something smacked into the wall behind his head. Figures in trench coats leaped down from the lorry and apprehended him. A revolver was thrust into his belly. Before he had time to realize, he had been backed against the iron railings of an area, and his hands were above his head.

‘See if the — has a gun on him.’

They were feeling all over him, patting his pockets. To Farrelly’s dazed brain, from their voices, from the unsteady hands and the smell on the air, came the message, ‘They’re drunk.’ Immediately, in clear, small type, as it were, he saw words warning him of his peril, telling him how to play them. His mind was alert, superior to this, looking to right and left, as a stoat might, pressed against a wall by a lot of enthusiastic and inexperienced puppies.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Going home from the theatre.’

‘Going home from the theatre! That’s a good one!’

A roar of confused voices arose, jeering at him, loud, breathy, inimical. The man with the revolver waited for them to die down.

‘Theatres all closed half an hour ago.’

‘ I’m an actor. I had to clean up and dress.’

‘Take you half an hour to clean up and dress?’

‘Longer, sometimes.’

‘Well,’ interrupted another man, ‘it bloody well is n’t going to take you longer any more.’

There was a laugh. Farrelly saw one of the men, who had been eyeing him coldly, take his interlocutor by the arm and mutter something in his ear. His stomach turned cold.

But the man who was speaking shook his arm free. He seemed soberer than the rest. Farrelly concentrated all his powers on him. In him alone lay his chance of salvation.

‘You say you’re an actor. What’s your name?’

‘Paul Farrelly.’

‘Never heard of it,’ put in the man who had interrupted before. Farrelly’s enemy once more leaned forward to the one who was questioning him.

‘There’s no actor of that name here,’ he said. ‘I know them all.’

‘I don’t belong here,’ said Farrelly. ‘I have just come over from London.’

There was a pause. Farrelly looked from one to another, trying to read the expressions on their faces. He realized that the fact that he was sober gave him an immense advantage. It became clearer as the man with the revolver hesitated. When he spoke again, his voice was less decided.

‘You’re on tour, are you? Only just come?’

‘Yes. It’s the first time I’ve ever acted here.’

‘From London?’

‘Yes.’

‘How’s good old Piccadilly?’ asked a voice from the back of the group. Farrelly turned toward it, but not too eagerly. He dared not risk offending the man he judged to be the leader. With an almost deferential glance at him, as if apologizing for having to humor this irreverent interruption, he replied, ‘Bearing up very well.’

‘Wish to God I was there.’

‘ Leicester Square. That’s your mark. ’

‘Speak for yourself.’

They began to wrangle among themselves. They were wavering, forgetting him. The leader prodded Farrelly in the middle again.

‘Actor or no actor, you’ve no business in the streets at this hour. Don’t you know that yet?’

‘ I ’m sorry. I’ve only just come, as I told you. And, in any case, I’ve come straight from the theatre after cleaning off.’

‘That’s no — ’

‘Here.’ A big fellow from the back of the group pushed forward. ‘Can you get us an “intro” to Cora What’sher-name? You know. The girl in the beads, who does that dance.’

He lifted his hands, and waggled his hips. A shout of laughter went up.

‘I’m afraid I can’t,’ Farrelly replied carefully. ‘I’m not working at that theatre. I’m at — ’

‘You’re no bloody good, then.’ He turned to the leader. ‘ Let the—go, Symes. He’s no bloody good.’

The leader hesitated.

‘Where are you staying?’ he asked Farrelly.

‘Nolan Street. Next turn but two.’

‘Very well.’ He stood away, and put his revolver back in its place. ‘Get back to Nolan Street. I’ll give you three minutes. If you’re still about after that, it will be the worse for you. Get on.’

‘Here.’ The big fellow caught Farrelly by the shoulders, and ran him along a few paces. Farrelly struggled. ‘That’s the wrong direction!’ he cried. ‘It’s the other w—’

His voice broke off, as a well-aimed boot caught him from behind. He all but fell on his face, recovered, and ran on. The street echoed with laughter and coarse shouting.

As he turned in at the next side street, to double back toward his lodging, he heard the whir and clatter of the lorry starting up again.

III

The effect of this incident was to increase Farrelly’s indignation, and to generalize it. Hitherto he had been angry with the malcontents among his own countrymen. Now he was angry with the whole place. He had had a bad fright. His sense of actuality, never quite stifled, told him that he had been unpleasantly close to danger; but he did not care to dwell upon that side of the matter. More serious was the hurt to his professional vanity. He had been insulted; and the insult outweighed the lucky escape. That it was the English who had insulted him was another point he preferred to avoid. The inadmissible things had happened to him here, in Dublin, and the sooner he got out of Dublin — never to return — the better.

He walked the streets warily the next morning, keeping to populous places, and took his cup of coffee in Grafton Street with distasteful glances at the apparently lighthearted crowd around. His landlady told him, at lunch time, that there had been wild goings on in the city the night before. Then the rain, which had been threatening all the morning, came down in earnest. Farrelly stayed in, reading, and writing letters in which he alluded darkly to occurrences which he would tell his correspondents later on, since it would not be safe to commit them to paper.

The rain ceased at about six, and veils of cloud, softly torn apart, revealed a clear-washed sky. The rent widened, the clouds, flushing faintly underneath, withdrew from above the city, and the sun, perilously low, seized its last chance, leaped out, and filled the streets and sky with brief transfiguring glory. Farrelly, roused by a splash of light on the wall, flung up the window, sniffed the wild, sweet air from the mountains, and decided to go out for a walk and have his meal at a place close to the theatre. He took his hat and coat, called down the back stairs to his landlady, and slammed the door on her lamentations.

Some instinct took him toward the river. When he emerged upon the cobbled quayside, he caught his breath for joy. The old miracle had happened again: the dirty, muddy, beloved Liffey had become a thoroughfare of light. And, while he stared, there was a second miracle. A confused roaring filled the air, sank to a murmur, swelled, rose triumphant, matching in sound the sun’s last gleams as he struggled with the clouds that were swallowing him up. Then, from a side street, a great concourse of people broke and poured out upon the quay, as if driven by some irresistible force. They came sideways, some running, others in dense masses, staggering, obeying the pressure of the rest behind. But, as they came out and filled the wider space, they rallied, formed up automatically, linking arms, and advanced down the quay, turning their rout into victory. At the same time, guided by the same impulse of solidarity, their confused voices checked, found unison, and rose in a fierce splendor. Five hundred men and women marching along the quay, singing ‘The Soldier’s Song,’ their anthem of defiance. The song rolled in a wave, crashed against the walls of the houses, broke, and was flung back across the river in a delirium of broken light and sound.

Farrelly cried out, and caught at the wall. Something broke loose inside him. The tears started to his eyes. He tried to cheer, tried to sing. The first line of the marchers reached him. A girl, disheveled, her hair down over one eye, her face shining with sweat, reached for his arm as she sang. He fell in, and was borne along, part of the rejoicing and the glory. His heart rose and rose in an exultation no triumph on the stage had brought him. He was back again, back in the land of his birth, with his own people.

IV

Farrelly was carried half a mile with the procession. Then, remembering his evening’s work, he slipped his arm loose, and dodged up a side street. It took him some time to find where he was, but, in his uplifted state, he did not worry. In any case, by keeping roughly parallel to the river, he could find his way back to the centre of things. He was too excited to eat, and he had allowed himself plenty of time.

The excitement of the scene of which he had just been a part increased with each retrospect. He grew breathless, and trembled afresh as he thought of it. What had happened he could not yet tell; but it seemed to him that he had never known himself till now. Something had been liberated in him — or rather, he had been liberated. His true self had burst out. He was one, passionately one, with that marching, singing throng.

Then, even as he felt it, his second self, the trained dispassionate observer that on the stage watched his every movement, began to comment from the wings of his soul. He — or it — watched Paul Farrelly rediscovering his patriotism and the land of his birth. For the first time in his life Farrelly cried out against the observer, cried out desperately, claiming his sincerity, his rights, his very existence as a man. ‘No, no,’ he muttered, and hurried forward, striving to escape from that merciless professional onlooker—Paul Farrelly the actor, whose mockery would destroy this newborn entity, Paul Farrelly the patriot. But, even as he struggled, despair grew in his heart. The chill of night, darkening the sky above, fell on his spirit. You’ve never been able to stick anything yet, said the cold watcher, and you never will. Why pretend to be what you’re not? Acting is your business: stick to it.

Hurrying in his agony, trying still to shout down the chill voice, Farrelly turned a corner. Single soldiers were in the street, prowling along on each pavement, a few yards apart. Without consciously giving them a thought, Farrelly kept on his former course, avoiding the street where they were. The next turn in the direction he wanted to go was a mere alleyway, dim and unalluring. It was short, however: he could see the other end; so he plunged in.

The houses leaned close overhead. Farrelly realized that he disliked the alleyway very much. He stopped. The houses seemed to be listening to him. Grimacing to himself, he hurried forward on tiptoe.

Suddenly he stopped again. He had heard a murmur of voices. It resolved itself into two — a man’s, thick and self-satisfied, then a woman’s, breathless, with a note of fear. Farrelly peered ahead, and saw them. They were standing just in front of him, in a narrow space between two houses.

‘No, sir. I never done it. I swear —’

‘Hush. Less noise.’

Farrelly crept noiselessly forward. His eyes at last made out what was happening. A Tan had a girl cornered against the wall. He stood, prodding her in the ribs with his revolver. She cowered back, almost speechless with terror. Patrolling the streets, he had caught her in this obscure corner, and had her at his mercy.

The professional spectator in Farrelly said something to him warningly. Farrelly set his jaw. ‘Am I, though!’ he said to it grimly. ‘I ’ll show you.’

Before he or the spectator realized what he was about, Farrelly had tiptoed up behind the Tan. The man, his voice thick and soft, was close against the girl. He heard nothing. Farrelly set his teeth. His muscles were so tense that for a couple of seconds he could not move. Then something, some movement of the girl’s as she caught sight of Farrelly, arrested the man’s attention. His voice broke off; he was about to turn his head. Instantly Farrelly, released, was upon him. Flinging his arms round the man’s neck, he jerked his head violently back. A strangled shout broke from the Tan. He staggered, arched over backwards, and began clutching at Farrelly’s hands. Farrelly, without a plan, conscious only of a wild exultant anger, shook him from side to side. Then, letting go with his right hand, he clenched his fist and bashed it savagely into the Tan’s ear, knocking off his cap. The Tan uttered another shout, and began to struggle to some purpose, trying to bend forward and drag his assailant over his head. Farrelly, apprehension rising in his mind, caught a glimpse of the girl, crouching against the wall. His eyes met hers in appeal. She made a vague movement, anxious to help, but helpless. Then the Tan began thrusting his right hand backwards. It held the revolver. He was trying to shoot. Panic strengthened Farrelly. With a convulsive sideways jerk, he swung the Tan almost off his feet, and lugged him to the wall. The girl jumped aside. Then, shifting his grip, Farrelly banged the head against the wall, once, twice, thrice, with all his might. The revolver dropped to the ground, and, with a groan, the man sank down, clasping his head in his hands.

Farrelly looked down at him stupidly; then he turned to the girl.

‘Quick!’ he gasped. ‘Run!’

Pulling her shawl about her, she darted up the passage, and Farrelly, without another thought for her, ran the opposite way. Coming out into the street, he looked quickly to left and right. Nobody! With a gasp of thankfulness, he hastened along. His right knuckle was hurting. Looking down, he saw in amazement that it was broken and bloody. There was a street lamp just ahead. He stepped under it, to inspect the damage. Then he stiffened. Voices sounded, and a clack of boots. Two of his victim’s colleagues came out from another alleyway, and came toward him. Thrusting his bleeding fist into his pocket, Farrelly hurried on to meet them. His first sick spasm of fear sharpened to an ecstasy. You are in danger, he sang to himself, danger, real danger. This is n’t the stage. No. It’s real. Something real at last. If they stop you, if the man recovers and calls out, if they see your smashed knuckle—

They had gone by. A suspicious, hostile look, but no word. They had gone by. He was safe. He hurried on, glanced over his shoulder, and, as soon as he reached the corner, began to run. Terror was clutching at him again, but he did not care. He had done it.

He was early at the theatre, glad of the empty dressing room. He bathed his knuckle, and covered it with fleshcolored plaster, that it would not show. His hand shook, his muscles ached; but there was something inside him which kept bubbling up, making him want to sing and laugh aloud. He had done it. For once in his life, he had been a whole man: one, instead of two.

As he sat down to make up, he was humming ‘The Soldier’s Song.’