by MARY LAVIN
IN THE months that followed his wife Katherine’s outburst, it was made clear to Theodore Coniffe in different ways that, although he might be pleased at her condition, it was better not to appear to be so. In the arrival of a child, late in life, to a couple who have settled down to bring up their family in the assumption that it is complete, there is something faintly ridiculous. Although Theodore did not realize this fact at once, as the flays passed he was made aware of it; first by his wife’s continued lamentations, but secondly, and more surely, by the attitude of his neighbors, who strove to hide their curiosity, thereby indicating that the source from which it sprang was not altogether suitable for his inspection.
But despite all this he retained his original joy in the thought that he might at last have a son, and so he kept up a continual barricade of words between his wife and her own bad humor.
“You are the envy of the town,” he told her. The Costigans are hardly able to bring themselves to speak civilly to me when I go for the rent. I suppose they think it’s a bit unfair that they have been married for twelve years and haven’t yet given a sign of justifying their foolisliness in having rented a house with nine rooms.
“They’re welcome to their envy,” said Katherine, but she was somewhat mollified.
Later, she said half-heartedly to Mary Ellen, “I suppose it does keep a woman young to have a child later in life than she expected one.” She sighed. “I don’t seem to care so much, now, about looking young.
She was silent for a few minutes. “Do you really think it will be a boy, Mary Ellen? Sometimes I’m not so sure myself.”
“Do I think it will be a boy!” said Mary Ellen. “As I said a hundred times before, what would be the sense of the Almighty having taken His time about sending the child along, if it wasn’t to make yourself and the master more appreciative of the boy than you would have been if he came along in the early days? If this child isn’t a boy I’ll say there is no sense in the world.”
“I’ll split my sides laughing at old Theodore’s face when he sees it’s a girl, said Packy Hand one afternoon as he sat on a window sill at the top of Clewe Street, looking down the street so as to be at hand if Mary Ellen summoned him.
Packy Hand’s father and mother had been killed by the train one night when Packy was only a small child, and the orphan was thrown upon the mercy of the town. He was pitied and petted by everyone while he was growing up, but it passed without notice that he had ceased to grow, and now at twenty-seven he was petted and pampered, pitied and protected, in exactly the same way that he had been at seven. He sat most of the day upon the steps of the market cross and was regarded by the village as a child of luck.
It was a sunny afternoon with a sharp touch in the wind, and although the child was not expected for a day or two, Packy felt it well to be at hand.
He was talking to Murty Rod the thatcher and Oliver Sims the postman.
“I wonder will it be a boy,” said Murty for the thousandth time that day.
“Here’s your answer,”said Packy, looking down the street and giving a sudden shout. “ I bet this call is for me to give my luck to the child!” For at the far end of Clewe Street Mary Ellen could be seen standing out in the street waving her arms in their direction and beckoning with her hand. She had apparently been trying to attract Packy’s attention, but having attracted it she put her hands to use in beckoning him onward, the urgency of her beckoning increasing the faster Packy moved his legs.
“I didn’t think it was expected before next week,”said Murty to the postman.
“Neither did I,” said the postman. “My wife was certain that it was not due until next week at the earliest. I suppose I had better step over and acquaint her with the news. She’s always complaining that although I carry around the news of the town in my canvas bag I never have a grain of it on my tongue.”
“That’s a credit to you,” said Murty, idly.
The postman walked across the street and went into a small house on the left, with a slow, lurching walk which would not have drawn any comment from anyone were it not put into immediate contrast by the agitated gait of his wife, who came out the same door with such precipitancy, and with such a short interval between her exit and her husband’s entrance, that it might have seemed impossible that he had had time to deliver his news were it not that the good lady instantly directed her feet in the direction of Coniffe’s.
From every house she passed, the occupants began to emerge upon a variety of occupations, the while staring upward at the window of the room which was occupied by Mrs. Coniffe.
When, therefore, a short time after he had gone into the house, Packy Hand was seen to come out again, there was a great variety of people in the street and all were eager to hear the result of the birth. Brooms were laid against the wall, dusters were thrown to the ground, and before Packy had reached the first house after Coniffe’s the occupants of the street were beginning to gravitate towards him as if he were an itinerant peddler with wares to sell.
“Was it a boy? Was it a girl?”
“Is it all over, Packy?”
The voices clamored in Packy’s ears. “It’s all over,”he said. “I held the child for luck.”
“The child! Do you hear that!” said Murty Rod. “Don’t torment us. Is it a son or a daughter?”
“It’s not a son,” said Packy, but he said it without a smile.
They all looked at him. They looked at each other. This was the news that was to bring out the barrels. This was the news that was going to cause all the fun. This was the news that was going to give everyone an advantage over Theodore and make the rent day a cause of silent laughing behind his back. But as the tenants of Clewe Street looked at Packy they couldn’t raise a smile. There was something flat about the news.
Packy began to push through the small crowd.
“Are you not going to tell us any more?" said Murty Rod in astonishment.
“I have to go down to the yard,” said Packy. “I want to get straw.”
“Straw? For what?”
Packy avoided all eyes. “Theodore told me to get straw and put it down on the street to deaden the noise of carts and the footsteps.”
The small crowd broke asunder at once with exclamations of dismay and the people began to go back to their doors. They glanced up once in a while at the window of the room where Katherine Coniffe was lying.
A short time afterwards they saw Packy Hand and Murty Rod coming down the road leading a horse and cart. The cart was laden with straw from which Packy pulled out tufts with a pitchfork. The feet of the horse were muffled with straw boots. Soon the street was spread with yellow straw and Packy was standing at the top of the street again, keeping the children from making noise at their play.
Stillness came down over the street. The light thinned in the sky and became a cold green shade of evening.
Before the green light faded, Mary Ellen came to the door of the house and busied herself for a moment, her hands raised above her head. Several people watched her from behind windows. When she went into the house and shut the door with a bang the street echoed with the first loud human sound. But upon the door was pinned a true-lovers knot of black crepe, the stiff ends lifting in the breeze as the loose yellow straw in the street lifted; lifted and fell.
KATHERINE CONIFFE left her child behind her — a girl child. The intrusion of tragedy upon the bawdy boards of comedy shut the mouths of the mockers. Theodore himself forgot his disappointment in the new grief of his wife’s death. When he came back from his wife’s graveside, however, he found that there was a great whispering of women in the hall. They were urging Mary Ellen to have the child baptized at once. It was pale and delicatelooking, and they were afraid to delay the baptism beyond that day in ease it might die during the night. But Mary Ellen was afraid to take the responsibility of choosing a name for the child, and still more afraid to ask her master for one.
At last Mary Ellen carried the child into the room to Theodore. “It might be a good thing to have this poor creature baptized,” she said.
Theodore waved his hand. “Attend to it,” he said, and waved her towards the door.
Mary Ellen paused. Theodore looked up.
“Well? What are you waiting for?”
“It’s usual to give a name to the child, sir, at baptism.” Mary Ellen was trembling. She had dealt severely with her mistress, but she had never come into close contact with her master.
Theodore looked up. “You can choose the name,” he said and then, as the small creature in Mary Ellen’s arms gave a feeble cry, as if in protest against the hazard of Mary Ellen’s choice, he relented. “Wait a minute. I’ll give you a name for her. ” He went over and looked into the shawl at the pale face puckered with discomfort. He tried to remember some family names but he could not. The only name that came into his mind was the name of his dead wife, and that he rejected without a second thought. Mary Ellen was watching him intently. He began to regret having undertaken to find a name.
The mind when forced to concentrate at a time when the body is fatigued will often evade its task and then, suddenly, take upon it some arbitrary task of concentration chosen by itself. As Theodore stood, apparently trying to think of a name for his child, his mind became busy with its own industrious efforts to identify the circling scent that swayed around the room. There was an odor of dust, but that wasn’t all. There was an odor of damp from one particular corner of the room, but that was always there. The scent that puzzled him was not all over the room; it only threaded the air in places. At one turn of the head it was imperceptible. At another it pierced the nostrils. Suddenly he knew what it was. It was the scent of the lilies which had been piled up outside the window while the coffin was placed in the hearse.
“Would Lily be a suitable name?” said Theodore.
Mary Ellen bowled with relief, submission, and a desire to move her stiffened limbs.
“It’s a lovely name, sir,” she said and she began to back out of the room.
Theodore sat down again in the darkened room. He could hear a suppressed whispering in the passageway and then the hall door opened and shut and Mary Ellen, with the infant in her arms and a few of the neighbors accompanying her, passed by the window of the room on their way to the church.
Although, at the font, Mary Ellen had been careful to pronounce the name in full, — Elizabeth, — to Theodore his third daughter was always known as Lily.
The day after the funeral the two older girls were brought back. There was no longer any question of their going away to a boarding school, as their assistance was needed with the baby girl. The evening they returned, Theodore called them into the parlor to instruct them in the new life they were to live.
“You must take your mother’s place,” he said to Theresa. “You must help Mary Ellen to bring up your young sister. Mary Ellen is a good girl and she will look out for the child, but you will have to let her see that there are others interested in the child.”
He turned to Sara. “You must love your little sister,” he said. “You must love her so that she will never miss the love of her poor mother.” He spoke to them as if they were themselves already beyond need of discipline and correction; and disregarding the evidence of their tears, he spoke as if they were also beyond need of love and care.
They stood before him, in their black mourning clothes, docile and mute.
A few months before, he had been anticipating the day when they would put off school clothes for the gay and pretty clothes of dancing and courtship. Now it seemed that he thrust them at once into the stiff costumes of adult responsibility.
ONE afternoon, when his youngest daughter was sixteen, Theodore took her in to Galway to see a dentist. Such jobs were usually undertaken by his other daughters, but on this occasion he had taken the task upon himself. As they came back in the train Lily sat in the corner of the carriage with her hand up to her face, from which a tooth had been extracted.
Lily was an indefinite-looking girl with pale hair and a small pale face which took character directly from the clothes she wore. On this occasion she wore a plain darkblue coat, double-breasted, with plain pearl buttons in two rows from the neck to the waist. Her shoes and stockings were black, and on her tightly plaited hair she wore a straw hat with a dark-blue band of ribbon. She was sixteen, but she looked even younger — and then too there is nothing like a toothache for reducing a person’s dignity. With her palms pressed against her white cheek, and her blue eyes without luster, Lily looked even more of a child than she was, and Mr. Finnerty, who traveled in the same carriage with Theodore and herself on the return journey, ventured to make a remark which he trusted would not be understood by her, but which might amuse Theodore.
He leaned over and patted Lily on the knee. “How are the teeth? Are they better or worse? ”
“Better,” said Lily, faintly.
“That’s right,” said Mr. Finnerty. “I think, my young lady, that you’ll have worse pains than this before you die.” He winked at Theodore.
To his surprise Theodore took the joke coldly — so coldly that Mr. Finnerty was not exactly aware whether Theodore had missed his meaning or whether he had been offended by it; but remembering that he had papers in the pocket of his overcoat, which was on the rack over their heads, he stood up to cover his confusion and began to search for them.
“Would you care to see the paper?” he said, having found them; and tossing one of the papers to Theodore, he himself opened out his own paper and, erecting it as high as possible between himself and Lily, began to read. The sight of her irritated him.
Theodore too opened out his paper, but he made no effort to read it. In fact, as Mr. Finnerty had used his paper to prevent him from seeing Lily, Theodore used his to take an opportunity of looking at her without her noticing that he was doing so. While he stared he remembered things that he had long forgotten, or had put deliberately out of mind. He thought of the time before Lily was born, when he used to take Theresa and Sara everywhere with him. They, too, wore blue coats with pearl buttons and white straw hats, such as Lily was wearing, and he remembered that he had been looking forward to settling them in life and making good marriages for them. Why had he not done so?
Lily was almost marriageable now. Why had he done nothing for those other daughters who were once as gentle, helpless, and dependent as Lily, and who had no doubt looked forward to the years ahead with hopes that had never been fulfilled. A sense of responsibility woke in Theodore, and with it a sense of panic. He came back to where he was and as he stared at Lily his eyes were anxious and strained, because it seemed to him, for an instant, that the rushing trees outside the carriage window, the sparks flown back from the engine, the rushing sound of the wind through which they traveled, and the pulsing throb of the engine were all tokens of the speeding years of which he had lately taken such little heed.
As the train drew in this particular evening and as Theodore was alighting, and helping Lily to alight, Mr. Finnerty, who was still in the train, suddenly stared at the platform.
“There must have been a stranger on the train,” he observed to Theodore. And sure enough, when Theodore turned around, he saw that Joss, the porter, was in a most unusual state of agitation. A stranger had indeed stepped down to the platform and was standing helpless in the center of a pile of luggage, which, besides the conventional pieces of a gentleman’s luggage, included several strange-looking green metal boxes and a bulging brief case.
“He’s not a tourist. It’s the wrong time for tourists,” said Theodore, musing aloud, and he looked for suggestions to Mr. Finnerty.
“I know who it is!” he said. “I heard there was a young solicitor coming to stay at the Central Hotel. He had a job in a Dublin office but he thought he’d set up on his own account in a country town.”
“But why is he going to stay in the Hotel?” said Theodore.
“He’s not going to run the expense of an office until he sees if the town is suitable,” said Mr. Finnerty.
“Is that so?” said Theodore. “That’s a wise precaution. He must have a sound head.”
“That’s right,” said Mr. Finnerty. “Caution is a great thing.”
“Yes,” said Theodore, absent-mindedly agreeing with a statement which he was about to disprove, at a blow, by his own words the next minute. “It’s time we had a new man in the town,” he said. “Old Kane is behind the times.”
NEXT morning bright and early, when the birds were singing gayly in the ivy of those houses which were not owned by Theodore, Theodore himself came out his own door, whistling, and turned in the doorway of the Central Hotel. As he did so, the kitchen door opened and the kitchenmaid came out into the hall, wiping her hands in her apron. She was a local girl, and when she saw Theodore she smiled at him with good humor.
“Good morning, Mr. Coniffe,” she said.
“ Good morning,” said Theodore stiffly. “I came to see the new solicitor.”
The girl raised her eyebrows, but she went towards the stairs. “Will you go up to his bedroom, Mr. Coniffe?”
Theodore hesitated again and then he said that he would go up. The girl went ahead of him towards the stairs. Her face was animated and pleasant, and her mood was conversational.
“This way, sir,” she said, and she ran up before him. On the landing she waited for him. “Did you know Mr. Galloway before he came here, Mr. Coniffe, or is this the first time you ever met him?”
“I am calling on business, if that’s what you mean,” said Theodore, stiffly.
“Oh, I thought you knew him,” said the girl, disappointed. “I wanted to know more about him. He’s very good-looking. Did you see him yet?”
“I’ll knock myself,” he said quickly, when the girl stopped outside a door on the front landing and began to smooth her dirty apron and adjust her cap as a preparation for rapping on the door. He gently moved the girl aside and rapped on the door himself.
Cornelius Galloway had brought with him an adequate amount of office equipment, but it had not yet been unpacked and was piled downstairs in the hall waiting for the back parlor to be made ready; so, apart from the bulging brief case, which rested against the wainscot, there was nothing about the room to inspire the confidence of a new client.
Yet, when Cornelius opened the door and ushered Theodore into the room, he disregarded the details of his surroundings with such complacency that, although Theodore was forced to state his business while sitting on the side of a tousled bed and staring at a wardrobe with a mirrored front which reflected his own incongruous position, after listening to Cornelius for a few minutes he began to feel an infinitely more professional atmosphere than he had ever felt in Jasper Kane’s office, where three sides of the room were lined with legal textbooks, where every available table, desk, and chair was piled with documents, and where, over the fireplace, there was a certificate with heavy red wax seals announcing Jasper’s claims to the confidence of his clients. Cornelius had a bearing.
Theodore looked well at him, and what had not struck him the night before at the station struck him forcibly in the early morning light: that Cornelius Galloway was perhaps too young a man for his daughter Theresa, or even for Sara, who was two years younger than Theresa. Cornelius was young but he was tall and thin, with a pointed face and sleek black hair. His nose, too, was thin and pointed, and his clothes were sober and dark. After a few minutes’ conversation with him, however, Theodore began to be reassured and to think that perhaps the difference in age between the new solicitor and his daughters was not going to be so great a barrier as he had thought at first. Cornelius looked young, but his manner completely neutralized his youthful looks. He had an elderly manner.
Having engaged in a few preliminaries with him, Theodore broached the subject of having a house to sell.
The new solicitor was somewhat astonished at having secured a client so soon after arriving, and so early in the morning, but he began at once in a businesslike way to inquire for particulars of the house to be sold, whereupon Theodore was brought to the realization that, in his hurry, he had not yet decided with which of his houses he could bring himself to part, and he came to an embarrassed halt. Cornelius then, observing Theodore’s hesitation in replying, jumped to the conclusion that the sale was necessary to extricate the owner from some pecuniary embarrassment and he tentatively suggested that, if this were the case, there might be some ways of raising a sum of money, if not too large, other than by the drastic method of an outright sale of property.
To his astonishment Theodore gave such a vehement denial of the existence of any such difficulties that Cornelius took another look at his client’s person; and perceiving one or two details, such as the double length and thickness of the watch chain on Theodore’s chest, the silk-sewn clocks on his socks, and the scent of pomade from his hair, he began to view him with more respect. He disregarded for the moment the projected sale of property and set himself with a few questions to find out the exact position of Theodore’s bank account, feeling that it would be well before he proceeded any further to estimate the worth of this client.
The result of his investigation was highly satisfactory to Cornelius. And Theodore, who was well aware of the purpose in the solicitor’s mind, was not averse to having the information extracted from him, but a naturally combative spirit prompted him to make the extraction of the information as difficult as possible. A double service was performed by the questioning, for Cornelius obtained the information he sought, and, from the dexterity with which he extracted a large amount of information by a small amount of questioning, Theodore obtained an increasingly favorable estimate of the young man’s capacity.
Before Theodore left the Hotel the ostensible purpose of his visit had been advanced to a point at which no further progress could be made until Cornelius had looked into the deeds of the house, and the real purpose of the visit had been advanced even further by the suggestion on the part of Theodore that, since those deeds were in his own house and since Mr. Galloway had not yet set up in a regular office, and would be in any case without any of the conveniences of books, files, and folios, the next discussion might with equal suitability take place in Theodore’s own house in Clewe Street.
“We’ll have the benefit of a bit of fire in the grate at least,” said Theodore, with that tone of self-depreciation with which a good host always promises lavishness.
WHEN next evening Cornelius arrived, it was with great difficulty that Theodore prevented the proportion of time spent on business discussion from becoming subordinate to that set aside for the meal, which was intended to be but a casual snack, but to the preparation of which Mary Ellen and the Misses Coniffe had devoted the whole afternoon.
The time came at last when the business might be considered to have been prolonged sufficiently to justify a respite for that night. Theodore led the way to the dining room.
While Theodore was introducing Theresa and Sara, he was eying the table with great anxiety, but when he took his place at the head of it, he glanced at his daughters with an even greater anxiety.
Theresa looked older than her years, he thought. He looked at her critically. Why did she scrape her hair back from her forehead in such a way that every gray rib was revealed? Well, it was frank anyway. Theresa was nothing if not frank. But her clothes? Theodore had never taken much notice of what women wore, but he certainly did not like those tight pleats on Theresa’s bodice, and the high collar that made her hold her head up stiffer than ever. And why did she wear black? Black was no color for an unmarried woman to wear. It added years to Theresa. Still, — Theodore looked at Cornelius, — if a man had any wits he would be able to see that she was not so old as she looked; and what was more, it was not every man that wanted a young wife. A professional man, in particular, needed a wife who would be old enough to look after his interests. He didn’t want a soft young woman that would fill his house with children before he knew where he was. Theresa was cut out to be a solicitor’s wife — but would Cornelius think so?
When Theodore looked at Sara, his spirits rose. Sara looked very pretty. He liked the silky stuff in her dross and the lace collar at her neck. She had a neat head. clouded with masses of soft brown hair that framed a small, pale face. She had an old-fashioned look. Indeed her face, delicately pointed, was the kind that would be called old-fashioned by her contemporaries, no matter in what epoch of the world’s history it chanced to make its appearance. He saw with relief that there was no gray in her hair, and no sign of wrinkles in her smooth skin. The color had not gone from her cheeks. And yet he was dissatisfied : he felt that although she had every appearance of youth, from Sara, as from Theresa, the spirit of youth had undeniably fled.
Meanwhile the sisters, who had been nervous all day at the thought of having to endure the scrutiny of the new visitor, were made indescribably more nervous when they became aware that they were objects of scrutiny to their father as well. The effect of this nervousness was an intensification of personality until it seemed to Theodore that they caricatured themselves with every word and gesture. He saw that their differences in nature were contrasted with unfortunate effect. Theresa’s strong and disciplined mind was revealed with every contribution she made to the conversation. As she spoke in her decisive voice she made poor Sara seem foolishly ignorant and timid. Yet this very timidity of Sara’s, when in its turn it was revealed, made it seem all at once that Theresa had been unnecessarily strident.
Theodore began to realize that in bringing the young man to the house, and introducing him to his daughters, he had accomplished only half his task. While the meal progressed with stilted conversation, he himself — the only one who would have been capable of introducing a little vitality into it — was fussing with his own thoughts. He regarded the evening as unproductive and was resolved that upon the next occasion when the solicitor came to call there would have to be some important changes. For one thing the meal, instead of being elaborate and cold, would be simple and hot, and furthermore the conversation, instead of being directed by Theresa, would be guided exclusively by himself into channels that would reveal the fecundity of the exchequer rather than the economy of the executive. He was determined to put all his strength into the next effort.
Theresa and Sara were at this time, respectively, thirty-three and thirty-one, and although they might have been said to look more than this a week before the arrival of Cornelius, they looked considerably less than this a week afterwards, when it had dawned upon them that their father was intent on making a match for them. And although they did not think for an instant that Cornelius would acquiesce in their father’s plans, they permitted themselves to joke about the matter. When Theresa spoke of Cornelius to Sara she called him “your suitor,” and when Sara spoke of him she used the same pronoun with reference to Theresa. But it was all a joke.
As the weeks passed, however, the sisters realized that Cornelius could scarcely be unaware of the idea in Theodore’s mind; and if he was aware of it he could scarcely be inimical to it, for where at first it had been two parts business in the small front parlor, as opposed to one part refreshment in the back parlor, the evenings were soon divided into two parts refreshment to one part business.
And then, one evening about a month after his first visit, Cornelius received a present of a brace of pheasants from a country client, and when he did not know what to do with them, and when Theresa offered to have Mary Ellen cook them for him, and when Cornelius would only accept on condition that they partake of the cooked birds together, there was an end to all pretense of business.
“Did you hear what he said to Lily last night when she was doing her home lessons?” said Theresa as the two sisters were getting ready for bed the night after the supper party.
“I saw him helping her with her sums,”said Sara, “but I didn’t catch what he said.”
“He told her that she was counting too much on his help, and that he was not going to help her any more.”
“He was right,” said Sara.
“That’s not all,” said Theresa. “Wait till you hear! Lily answered him as saucily as you please. ‘I didn’t ask you to help me,’ she said; ‘you began it yourself, and if you’ve spoiled me it’s your own fault, but you’ll have to go on with it now.’ ”
“Isn’t she a little bit too forward?” said Sara, timidly.
“Oh, never mind that!" said Theresa. “You’ll be glad she was forward when you hear the reply he made. He turned his head aside and his voice was very queer. ‘In that case, Lily,’ he said, ‘I think I shall have to take up residence here.’ ”
“He didn’t say that!”
“He did. And what was more, you’d never guess what he was looking at while he said it.”
“I can’t imagine,” said Sara, and she clasped her hands in excitement.
“He was looking at the photograph on the mantelpiece,”said Theresa.
“Why! The photograph of you and me,” said Theresa.
“The one taken with our hands joined, leaning against the tree?”
“Yes,” said Theresa, triumphantly.
“Oh, wait a minute. Don’t quench the candle,” said Sara. “I’m going downstairs to get the photograph. I want to look at it again. I wonder what he thought of it. It’s ages since it was taken.”
As Sara came upstairs again with the candle in her right hand and the photograph in her left hand, the door of Lily’s room opened.
“What were you doing downstairs?” said Lily, coming out on the landing in her nightdress and bare feet, with her hair all loosened around her face. Her eyes fastened at once on the photograph frame. “What have you there?” she asked.
“You should be asleep, Lily,” said Sara.
“ I can’t sleep,” said Lily. “May I come into your room and talk for a while? I could hear you and Theresa talking since you came up to bed.”
“Let her stay and talk for a few minutes, Theresa,” said Sara. “She can’t sleep.”
“I don’t wonder,” said Theresa. “No one could sleep with that cloud of hair about her face. Do as I say, Lily. Plait your hair nice and tight and you’ll feel fresher and cleaner and you’ll drop off to sleep at once.”
Lily glanced desperately at the dressing table.
“Can I plait it in here with your comb?” she said.
“What is the matter with your own comb? ”
Lily hesitated for a second. “The teeth are broken.”
“She could use mine,” said Sara, but Theresa cut her short. She said no more to Lily, but looked at her, and under her gaze Lily began to back towards the door.
“I wanted to tell you what I heard in school today,” she said, with a slightly pouting expression,
“Never mind till tomorrow,” said Theresa, but even Theresa’s clear, strong voice was drowned by the sudden excited exclamation of Sara, who hunched up her knees in bed and spoke simultaneously with Theresa.
“What did you hear?”
Lily looked at Sara. “About Mr. Cornelius . . .” said Lily, and she began to come back into the room. Theresa opened her mouth, but Sara looked at her.
“Please, Theresa!” said Sara.
“Oh! Can’t you guess?” said Lily patronizingly. She sat down on the edge of Sara’s bed. “I knew at once. They were talking about you and Sara and saying that he was always calling here.”
Sara blushed. “Oh, Lily,” she said, and she put her hands up to her hot face.
Theresa hid her embarrassment more subtly, by pretending to be angry. “I hope you put down such talk,” she said. “I hope you explained that he came here purely on business.” But over Lily’s head, Sara and Theresa glanced at each other, and the glance was mutually appraising. They congratulated each other.
Suddenly Lily snatched the photo frame from Theresa, gazed at it intently, and then suddenly lowered it; and glancing at her sisters, her eyes widened with a new and exciting idea.
“I wonder which of you he will marry,” she said; and pursing her lips and linking her arms around her knees, she began to sway backwards and forwards, while she contemplated them with a view to deciding which of them was the most likely to get Cornelius. Lost in her own speculations, she did not notice the effect of her words upon her sisters, until Theresa, suddenly catching her by the arm, jerked her off the edge of the bed.
“You are not going to spend the night here,” she said. “Get back to your own room.”
FROM the evening of Lily’s very natural query as to which of them would eventually prove the choice of Cornelius, the Coniffe sisters began to feel a rivalry in their own hearts. Where, up to then, they had been inclined to drift into each other’s habits, they now began to be conscious of their differences and to accentuate them as much as possible.
And so Cornelius, who had just come to the conclusion that their similarities were so great that his choice between them would be a matter of fortuity in the end, began to realize all at once that there were some differences to be contended with. In Sara he missed the efficiency that he found in Theresa, but the gentleness that substituted for it made him doubt if it was a loss at all.
He could not make up his mind, and at last he decided to go away for a few days. He had an idea in the back of his mind that he might confide in a friend in Dublin. Whether or not he would do this, however, he would at least get a change of air, and when he came back he would have a fresh eye for the problem.
The night before Cornelius left, as he said good-bye to the Coniffes, Theodore at the last minute went into the hall after him and asked if he would endeavor, while in the city, to bring back a sample of a certain new tobacco.
Theodore proffered the money. Cornelius waved it away.
“The least I might do,” he said gallantly, “is to bring back a present after my journey.” And as he spoke, the thought flashed into his mind that he would bring the sisters a present each.
Cornelius spent only three days in Dublin. Once or twice the thought crossed his mind that it was foolish to have come. He had not much money to spare, and time hung on his hands. On the third day he had persuaded himself that his boredom with his own company was a desire for the company of the Misses Coniffe, and that day he took the train for home. Moreover, he was somewhat impatient to see the effect he would create upon them with the presents he had bought. For Theresa he had bought a small gold watch to pin on her bodice. For Sara he had bought a gold pendant, in the shape of a cross.
The presents were made up in separate packages and put into green leather boxes, with press studs of mothero’-pearl. It is surprising that he remembered to bring back Theodore’s tobacco, and not at all surprising that he forgot a box of sweets for Lily.
Yet, when Cornelius called with his gifts that evening, there was no one at home but Lily.
“Miss Theresa and Miss Sara are gone out for a walk,” said Mary Ellen. “But Lily is out in the garden. Will you go out to her and wait there till the others come back?”
Cornelius smiled, and was about to slip into the hall when suddenly he remembered that he had brought nothing for Lily. He paused in the doorway with such an air of fright that Mary Ellen stared at him.
“Is there anything wrong, sir?”
Cornelius stared at her.
Meanwhile Mary Ellen held the door open. Cornelius swallowed, and adjusted his collar by stretching his neck.
“As a matter of fact you gave me a fright, Mary Ellen. You see, I brought two little tokens to Miss Theresa and Miss Sara. But Lily went completely out of my head and I forgot her sweets.”
“Oh, don’t bother your head about Lily,” said Mary Ellen. “Tell her you lost them. Tell her you left them after you on the seat of the train. Tell her anything and she’ll believe you. She’s only a child. Don’t fret yourself over Lily.”
He stepped into the hall. Mary Ellen was reassured. She looked at him slyly. “If the young ladies heard the whistle of the train, they won’t be long about returning.”
Cornelius laughed. “They didn’t know that I was returning tonight.”
“They may not know,” said Mary Ellen, “but they’ll want to find out, won’t they?”
Cornelius laughed again and went down the passage towards the door that led to the garden. The door was open, and at the end of the darkening passage the garden showed bright and radiant like the far end of a tunnel, although outside too the traces of evening were coining.
Lily was sitting on a green garden-bench, and she did not hear Cornelius coming. She wore a lavender dress that was simple and unpatterned, and Cornelius noticed absent-mindedly that the skirt was sewn with fine tucks from the waistband down to the hem, which came just to Lily’s knees. Her hair, which was not plaited, hung down over her face to either side, and this, together with the fact that she was straining her eyes by sewing in a bad light, made him forget the ceremonies of a visitor.
“You’ll hurt your eyes, Lily, if you keep working in this bad light. What are you doing?”
Lily looked up briefly. She took no notice of the fact that Cornelius had returned before he was expected.
“I don’t care if I do hurt my eyes!” she said. She was so distracted with some grief of her own that he didn t need to worry about her gift. She had apparently forgotten that he had ever gone away.
“Won’t you sit down?” she said, when she had put away the sewing. She moved to make room for him on the bench. “My sisters will be disappointed at missing you,” she said, with halfhearted politeness.
“They may return before I leave,” said Cornelius, sitting down. “That is to say, if you will permit me to wait with you?”
“I don’t care,” said Lily, ungraciously; and then, as Cornelius looked uncertain as to what he should do, she burst out confidentially: “I’m so unhappy, Mr. Galloway. Theresa and Sara are vexed with me. That’s why they’ve gone out for a walk — because I vexed them. Theresa is furious with me. Even Sara is cross. Can you imagine it — even Sara!” The tears came into Lily’s eyes.
“Perhaps you’ll tell me what it was all about,” said Cornelius. Lily looked at him, doubtfully.
“Theresa and Sara are in the wrong, of course,” she said warningly.
“How do you know that?” said Cornelius, settling in to hear the whole story.
Lily was surprised at his question. “I know they’re in the wrong,” she said, “because I’m in the right.”
Cornelius, who was looking with inattention at the toe of his own shoe, looked up at Lily and took a good look at her expression before he threw back his head and laughed.
“What are you laughing at?” said Lily. “I think you’re very mean.”
“I’m not laughing, Lily,” said Cornelius, in between his fits of laughing. And then, unable to stop laughing, he put out his hand appealingly. “Don’t be vexed with me, Lily. I haven’t laughed like this for years.”
“But what are you laughing at?” said Lily, somewhat appeased. Then, when he still kept laughing, wiping his lips with his handkerchief, she looked down at her hands and spoke softly, almost to herself. “I won’t tell you anyway. You’d be sure to take my sisters’ part.”
Cornelius stopped laughing at once. His face looked more stern than ever. “Why should I take their part?” he demanded, almost angrily.
Lily hesitated only another minute. “It’s like this,” she began. “I know I’m only sixteen, but I will be seventeen in two months’ time. And besides that, I’m much older than my years.”
She paused, as if expecting to be contradicted.
“Continue,” said Cornelius, gravely.
Lily sat up straighter. “Well, I was sent an invitation for the Annual Outing of the Women’s Sodality.”
Cornelius made no comment. Lily lost patience.
“Can’t you see!” she exclaimed. “I must be considered grown-up when I’m invited to the Annual Outing. I wasn’t invited last year.”
Cornelius thought that he began to understand.
“Do they want you to stay at home? Does Theresa think you are too young?”
“Not at all,” she said irritably. “That’s not it. They’ll let me go all right.” Then her voice became very thin again, and to his astonishment Cornelius saw a bright tear in each eye. “They’ll let me go, all right, but they won’t let me get a new dress for it.”
Cornelius experienced a feeling of relief. “Come now, Lily,” he said, “you have several pretty dresses. I think you could find one to wear at the Outing.”
“You don’t understand,” said Lily. “All my dresses are short dresses. I want to get a long dress. And they won’t let me. They say it’s bad taste to wear long dresses before you’re seventeen.”
The bright tears welled over and fell. Cornelius did not this time make the mistake of laughing, but he made another equally great.
“It seems a small matter to me,” he said. “I should think you would enjoy yourself just as well in a short dress as you would in a long one.”
“That’s just like a man!” said Lily. “How could I expect you to understand!” She pursed her lips and tilted her head angrily. “ I know the kind of a time I’ll have in a short dress! I’ll have a lovely time! I’ll be sent on messages. I’ll be told to stand up and let other people sit down. If there’s a chair wanted. I’ll be sent to fetch it. I’ll be asked to pass round the cake. The Committee will make use of me. Oh, I know the kind of a good time I’ll have!” She stopped, and then she broke out again: “And on the way, if there’s no room in the wagonette, I’ll be asked to sit on Theresa’s knee!”
Lily had barely time to wail out the last words before her tears began to fall in good earnest. Cornelius took out his pocket handkerchief and proffered it. Viewed from this angle the matter was not so comical. He forced himself to be serious.
“There must be something we can do,” he said briskly. “What about your father? Did you appeal to him?”
“There’s no use saying anything to him,” said Lily. “Theresa’s word is law in this house.”
For a moment Cornelius was startled at this definite statement of Theresa’s most outstanding quality, which he himself had been inclined to speak of more euphemistically as her efficiency.
“Theresa said, ‘It’s the principle of the thing that matters,’ ” Lily continued. “We had a row over it tonight, and the last word she said was that I could make up my mind to wear one of my old dresses or I could make up my mind to stay at home.”
“The dress you are wearing tonight is very pretty,” said Cornelius. “It’s a pity it’s not a long dress.”
He looked down at it and then, although he had glanced at it casually at first, he looked at it intently, and to Lily’s surprise he lifted the hem slightly and examined the underside of the material. Then he let it fall again and looked up at Lily, and as he did so his face was boyish and full of mischief.
“I don’t know much about sewing, but I have a plan, Lily, and if it is successful we might be able to play a trick on Theresa and Sara.” Lily was incredulous. “You could wear an old dress and still wear a long dress!”
“You don’t want me to sew on a piece at the end?” said Lily skeptically, looking at him sideways and remembering that he had examined the hem of her dress. “I wouldn’t do that. It would look silly.”
“No. I was thinking of something more clever than that,” said Cornelius. “Have you a scissors?”
Lily picked up the sewing box and took out a diminutive scissors. Cornelius lifted the hem of her dress again, and bending close he pricked the stitching of the lowest tuck, the tuck nearest the hemline. Lily watched him for a minute. When he pricked a few more stitches she seemed to see what he intended. She gave a cry of delight.
“Just a minute!” said Cornelius, and laying down the scissors on the bench, he caught the cloth between his two hands and began to jerk it spasmodically. The stitches loosened and parted from the material. The tuck began to open out. The dress was lengthened almost half an inch.
“Oh, goodness!” said Lily, and she clapped her hands with delight. “I see what you mean. If all the tucks were let out, my dress would be down to my ankles. Oh, how marvelous! Give me the scissors.” And picking up the scissors she began to work with great excitement, pricking a stitch here and there, but in general the tucks needed only to be given a sharp tug and they ripped open.
“I can hardly see,” said Lily, as the light failed minute by minute, but she kept on ripping the stitches.
“You’ll hurt your eyes,” said Cornelius, but he didn’t urge her to stop, but only to hurry. “Hurry, hurry,” he said once or twice; and while she worked, snipping and jerking the seams of the tucks, his excitement grew and he too, in the fading light, bent closer and closer to the work.
“Only two more to do,” said Lily. “I hope the others won’t come back for another few minutes.”
“They won’t,” said Cornelius, with the confidence of irresponsibility.
THE seconds went by, and as they went, the air darkened and the strange night insects began to issue from the shrubs; but faster than the minutes flew the stitches, ripping and breaking, and leaving little snarls of broken thread upon the grass, and causing Lily and Cornelius to bend closer and closer to the work, to breathe faster and faster, and even to talk and laugh faster and faster with the growing excitement in their hearts.
But once when Lily raised her head to rest her eyes and to take a deep breath Cornelius remembered something.
“Lily, I have a confession to make,” he said. “I brought back presents to your older sisters but I forgot to get anything for you.” He said it simply and he felt no need to placate her with lies about having brought her something and left it behind in the train.
Lily smiled. “I don’t mind,” she said.
“I wish I had remembered,” said Cornelius.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Lily again. “I don’t mind.” She picked up the hem of her dress once more. She began to unpick the last few stitches.
Cornelius watched her. She had behaved so sedately and gravely over the present. She had not acted like a child at all. Of course, she was hardly to be called a child. As she said herself, she was nearly seventeen. He wondered how she would look if her hair were lifted up from her face and piled on the top of her head.
“I am nearly finished,” she said suddenly, breaking in on his reverie. And in a few minutes, with her fingers nimbly skipping along, the last tuck was opened out flat and the work was done. “Oh-ho!” said Lily and she pushed her hair up from her face to cool her forehead. The gesture coincided with the thoughts that had been running in Cornelius’s mind.
“Take away your hands,” he said impulsively, abruptly, almost rudely, and reaching forward he caught up the light strands of her hair in his own hands, and gathering them together in a soft mass he piled them loosely on the top of her head. Then, holding her hair in place with one hand, he strained back from her as far as possible and gazed at the effect.
“Lovely! Lovely!” he said. “You’ll make a lovely young woman, Lily.”
Lily put up her own hands, and feeling in the soft hair for the clasp that had held it when it hung flown, she took it out and used it to fasten the new coiffure more securely. Then, moving gently so as not to cause it all to fall around her shoulders again, she took up the large bodkin needle with which she had been working and ran it as well as the clasp into the knot of hair. Then she shook her head slightly, experimentally. It did not fall or loosen. She looked at Cornelius. She smiled at him.
“ Stand up,” he said. “ Shake out your dress.” And all the time he watched her face.
It was still the same small pointed face, pale and fragile, that he had seen with indifference so often. He was indifferent to it no longer. The long pale plaits that had hung down each side of it had made it seem too small, too pointed, too immature. Now, with the hair lifted away from it, the true and perfect balance of the face was seen in relation to the slender girlish figure. Lily’s face needed but the lifting of her hair to show what the town would be most astonished to see: that she had both grace and beauty.
“Stand up!” said Cornelius, standing up himself, and filled with elation.
Slowly, and as if conscious that, in shaking out the folds of the heavily creased tucks in her simple dress, she was shaking out the lottery of the years ahead, Lily stood up and, catching the ends of her skirt, shook it slowly. The tucks had been for a long time sewn tightly down. Many times they had been pressed closer and tighter by the flatiron; held and thumped and stumped upon the damp ironing board by Mary Ellen’s strong hands, so that even now, with the stitches released, they remained for a time in position in spite of the way the girl shook the skirt. Then, as she continued to shake it, the tucks began to give way, heavily and slowly opening, like the tucks in a concertina, and little by little the hemline went lower and lower and lower until at last it reached her ankles and some of the longer, taller grasses reached up as far as it and striped and etched it like a dark embroidery.
The light had vanished from the garden, but stealing away so gradually from them they had not felt it going, and the white moths and bright-bodied insects that had come out from the bushes dotted the dusk so generously that they did not notice the flowers fading from vision. Having been so near to each other, and so intent upon their task, they seemed still to see each other clearly, but it was probably only the vision of memory; the sight of desire.
“You are no longer a child, Lily,” said Cornelius. “You are a woman.”
He looked about him, for not only the girl but the garden around, and the night without, seemed to have taken on new qualities. Into the simple garden there had come some new influence.
“Isn’t this a beautiful night!” he said, in wonder. “I have never known such a night.” He looked from side to side. “See the moths,” he said once, and was silent again. And when from across the river in the Castle park a night bird cried fantastically, he spoke again, unaffectedly. “How sad that sounds,” he said. “How strange, and sad, and beautiful!”
“We must go in,” said Lily, and her voice sounded frightened. Cornelius wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to mark this evening out in some way from other evenings.
“I wish I had brought you something, Lily.”
The path between the shrubs was too narrow for her to pass him by. She gave him a slight push forward.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I don’t care.”
“I care!” said Cornelius, and he stood impassive as a tree. Then he put his hands into his pockets in search of something there. “Lily!” he said again, his voice lifting with excitement.
“Yes?” she said, her own voice rising in faint response.
“Supposing I gave you the presents I brought for your sisters and tomorrow I can get something else for them in Galway? ”
“Oh, no! Don’t do that!” Her voice was rich and authoritative now. “Don’t do that,” she repeated more gently, but there was genuine distress in her voice. He took his hands out of his pockets, but he made no attempt to move. There was a sound of voices in the house; several voices. He felt rushed and confused.
“I want to give you something,” he said impatiently, crossly.
“There’s no need,” said Lily. “I’d like to go inside.” She put out her hands, and wishing to push him aside from the path that he blocked, she laid her hands against him. The tokens on the chain of his watch rattled.
“Oh, dear!” she exclaimed, and he felt her breath in quick gasps on his face. “My finger’s caught. Do something!”
He felt for her hand and caught her wrist. At first he did not know what had happened. Then a devastating elation filled him. Her little finger had caught on the gold ring on his chain. The scent, the dark, the beautiful fluttering moths, the stars that were coming out singly above them, all spoke, it seemed, in that moment. Holding her reluctant hand against him with one of his own, with the other he fumbled at the chain until he unfastened the catch that had held the ring upon it.
“I want to give you something. Let me give you this. Keep it,” and pressing the ring deep down on her finger, he released her hand.
But instantly she dragged it off. “A ring!” Her voice rang with dismay. “You’re mad. I couldn’t take that! Surely you’re losing your senses.”
“Lily,” he cried. “What have I been thinking of? How nearly I missed you! To think that it was only by chance that I found you!”
“Let me go!” said Lily, although no one held her.
“Let you go!” He caught her by both of her slender wrists. “Let you go? Never! Never!”
Just then the door opened and a long shaft of light streamed out into the garden.
“Lily, are you there? Is there anyone with you?” Theresa stood silhouetted in the doorway. Behind her, Sara was standing on tiptoe, trying to see out into the darkness. “Mary Ellen said that Mr. Galloway called,” said Theresa.
“You shouldn’t have kept him out in the cold air, Lily,” said Sara, gently upbraiding. “It’s getting chilly. The dew is out.”
“It was my fault entirely,” said Cornelius, coming forward at once, with some resumption of his cool manner.
Lily hesitated and then, catching her skirts together behind her like a bustle in the vain hope of making them less conspicuous, she came slowly after him into the light.
All at once Theresa seemed to see her lengthened dress and her decorated hair, and more than that, her flushed and excited cheeks. But Sara, with a worse position for seeing, seemed yet to see into the very heart of the change that had come over Lily; and when Lily suddenly ran forward and burst into tears, it seemed that Sara’s arms had been outstretched to receive her all the time.
Cornelius looked at Theresa. “Can I have a word with Mr. Coniffe?” he said, and he was stiff and forbidding, like a total stranger.
“Certainly,” said Theresa, and she motioned him towards the front parlor.
He went forward in the dark hall to where the light spilled out from under the parlor door. And as he went he heard Theresa bending down to shoot home the bolts in the garden door, and he heard Lily sobbing, and he heard her saying over and over again, “I didn’t mean it. I never dreamt of such a thing!”
He went along the passage and put his hand on the handle of the door, calm, resolute, well aware of the hurt and injustice of his actions, and of the pain and disappointment that he had caused, but fortified, upheld, exalted by the feeling that a force greater than himself had swept down upon him and imposed its own will upon his sightless designs.
(To be continued)
With each twelve months of the Atlantic
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