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Mr Browne led his charges thither and invited them all, in jest, to some ladies' punch, hot, strong, and sweet. As they said they never took anything strong, he opened three bottles of lemonade for them. Then he asked one of the young men to move aside, and, taking hold of the decanter, filled out for himself a goodly measure of whisky. The young men eyed him respectfully while he took a trial sip.
`God help me,' he said, smiling, `it's the doctor's order.'
His wizened face broke into a broader smile, and the three young ladies laughed in musical echo to his pleasantry, swaying their bodies to and fro, with nervous jerks of their shoulders. The boldest said:
`O, now, Mr Browne, I'm sure the doctor never ordered anything of the kind.'
Mr Browne took another sip of his whisky and said, with sidling mimicry:
`Well, you see, I'm the famous Mrs Cassidy, who is reported to have said: "Now, Mary Grimes, if I don't take it, make me take it, for I feel I want it."'
His hot face had leaned forward a little too confidentially and he had assumed a very low Dublin accent, so that the young ladies, with one instinct, received his speech in silence. Miss Furlong, who was one of Mary Jane's pupils, asked Miss Daly what was the name of the pretty waltz she had played; and Mr Browne, seeing that he was ignored, turned promptly to the two young men, who were more appreciative.
A red-faced young woman, dressed in pansy, came into the room, excitedly clapping her hands and crying:
Close on her heels came Aunt Kate, crying:
`Two gentlemen and three ladies, Mary Jane!'
`O, here's Mr Bergin and Mr Kerrigan,' said Mary Jane. `Mr Kerrigan, will you take Miss Power? Miss Furlong, may I get you a partner, Mr Bergin. O, that'll just do now.'
`Three ladies, Mary Jane,' said Aunt Kate.
The two young gentlemen asked the ladies if they might have the pleasure, and Mary Jane turned to Miss Daly.
`O, Miss Daly, you're really awfully good, after playing for the last two dances, but really we're so short of ladies tonight.'
`I don't mind in the least, Miss Morkan.'
`But I've a nice partner for you, Mr Bartell D'Arcy, the tenor. I'll get him to sing later on. All Dublin is raving about him.'
`Lovely voice, lovely voice!' said Aunt Kate.
As the piano had twice begun the prelude to the first figure Mary Jane led her recruits quickly from the room. They had hardly gone when Aunt Julia wandered slowly into the room, looking behind her at something.
`What is the matter, Julia?' asked Aunt Kate anxiously. `Who is it?'
Julia, who was carrying in a column of table-napkins, turned to her sister and said, simply, as if the question had surprised her:
`It's only Freddy, Kate, and Gabriel with him.'
In fact, right behind her Gabriel could be seen piloting Freddy Malins across the landing. The latter, a young man of about forty, was of Gabriel's size and build, with very round shoulders. His face was fleshy and pallid, touched with colour only at the thick hanging lobes of his ears and at the wide wings of his nose. He had coarse features, a blunt nose, a convex and receding brow, tumid and protruded lips. His heavy-lidded eyes and the disorder of his scanty hair made him look sleepy. He was laughing heartily in a high key at a story which he had been telling Gabriel on the stairs and at the same time rubbing the knuckles of his left fist backwards and forwards into his left eye.
`Good evening, Freddy,' said Aunt Julia.
Freddy Malins bade the Misses Morkan good evening in what seemed an off-hand fashion by reason of the habitual catch in his voice and then, seeing that Mr Browne was grinning at him from the sideboard, crossed the room on rather shaky legs and began to repeat in an undertone the story he had just told to Gabriel.
`He's not so bad, is he?' said Aunt Kate to Gabriel.
Gabriel's brows were dark, but he raised them quickly and answered:
`O, no, hardly noticeable.'
`Now, isn't he a terrible fellow!' she said. `And his poor mother made him take the pledge on New Year's Eve. But come on, Gabriel, into the drawing-room.'
Before leaving the room with Gabriel she signalled to Mr Browne by frowning and shaking her forefinger in warning to and fro. Mr Browne nodded in answer and, when she had gone, said to Freddy Malins:
`Now, then, Teddy, I'm going to fill you out a good glass of lemonade just to buck you up.'
Freddy Malins, who was nearing the climax of his story, waved the offer aside impatiently, but Mr Browne, having first called Freddy Malins' attention to a disarray in his dress, filled out and handed him a full glass of lemonade. Freddy Malins' left hand accepted the glass mechanically, his right hand being engaged in the mechanical readjustment of his dress. Mr Browne, whose face was once more wrinkling with mirth, poured out for himself a glass of whisky while Freddy Malins exploded, before he had well reached the climax of his story, in a kink of high-pitched bronchitic laughter and, setting down his untasted and overflowing glass, began to run the knuckles of his left fist backwards and forwards into his left eye, repeating words of his last phrase as well as his fit of laughter would allow him.
Gabriel could not listen while Mary Jane was playing her Academy piece, full of runs and difficult passages, to the hushed drawing-room. He liked music, but the piece she was playing had no melody for him and he doubted whether it had any melody for the other listeners, though they had begged Mary Jane to play something. Four young men, who had come from the refreshment-room to stand in the doorway at the sound of the piano, had gone away quietly in couples after a few minutes. The only persons who seemed to follow the music were Mary Jane herself, her hands racing along the keyboard or lifted from it at the pauses like those of a priestess in momentary imprecation, and Aunt Kate standing at her elbow to turn the page.
Gabriel's eyes, irritated by the floor, which glittered with beeswax under the heavy chandelier, wandered to the wall above the piano. A picture of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet hung there and beside it was a picture of the two murdered princes in the Tower which Aunt Julia had worked in red, blue, and brown wools when she was a girl. Probably in the school they had gone to as girls that kind of work had been taught for one year. His mother had worked for him as a birthday present a waistcoat of purple tabinet, with little foxes' heads upon it, lined with brown satin and having round mulberry buttons. It was strange that his mother had had no musical talent, though Aunt Kate used to call her the brains carrier of the Morkan family. Both she and Julia had always seemed a little proud of their serious and matronly sister. Her photograph stood before the pier-glass. She had an open book on her knees and was pointing out something in it to Constantine who, dressed in a man-o'-war suit, lay at her feet. It was she who had chosen the names of her sons, for she was very sensible of the dignity of family life. Thanks to her, Constantine was now senior curate in Balbriggan and, thanks to her, Gabriel himself had taken his degree in the Royal University. A shadow passed over his face as he remembered her sullen opposition to his marriage. Some slighting phrases she had used still rankled in his memory; once she had spoken of Gretta as being country cute and that was not true of Gretta at all. It was Gretta who had nursed her during all her last long illness in their house at Monkstown.
He knew that Mary Jane must be near the end of her piece, for she was playing again the opening melody with runs of scales after every bar, and while he waited for the end the resentment died down in his heart. The piece ended with a trill of octaves in the treble and a final deep octave in the bass. Great applause greeted Mary Jane as, blushing and rolling up her music nervously, she escaped from the room. The most vigorous clapping came from the four young men in the doorway who had gone away to the refreshment-room at the beginning of the piece but had come back when the piano had stopped.
Lancers were arranged. Gabriel found himself partnered with Miss Ivors. She was a frank-mannered, talkative young lady, with a freckled face and prominent brown eyes. She did not wear a low-cut bodice, and the large brooch which was fixed in the front of her collar bore on it an Irish device and motto.
When they had taken their places she said abruptly:
`I have a crow to pluck with you.'
`With me?' said Gabriel.
She nodded her head gravely.
`What is it?' asked Gabriel, smiling at her solemn manner.
`Who is G.C.?' answered Miss Ivors, turning her eyes upon him.
Gabriel coloured and was about to knit his brows, as if he did not understand, when she said bluntly:
`O, innocent Amy! I have found out that you write for The Daily Express. Now, aren't you ashamed of yourself?'
`Why should I be ashamed of myself?' asked Gabriel, blinking his eyes and trying to smile.
`Well, I'm ashamed of you,' said Miss Ivors frankly. `To say you'd write for a paper like that. I didn't think you were a West Briton.'
A look of perplexity appeared on Gabriel's face. It was true that he wrote a literary column every Wednesday in The Daily Express, for which he was paid fifteen shillings. But that did not make him a West Briton surely. The books he received for review were almost more welcome than the paltry cheque. He loved to feel the covers and turn over the pages of newly printed books. Nearly every day when his teaching in the college was ended he used to wander down the quays to the second-hand booksellers, to Hickey's on Bachelor's Walk, to Webb's or Massey's on Aston's Quay, or to O'Clohissey's in the by-street. He did not know how to meet her charge. He wanted to say that literature was above politics. But they were friends of many years' standing and their careers had been parallel, first at the University and then as teachers: he could not risk a grandiose phrase with her. He continued blinking his eyes and trying to smile and murmured lamely that he saw nothing political in writing reviews of books.
When their turn to cross had come he was still perplexed and inattentive. Miss Ivors promptly took his hand in a warm grasp and said in a soft friendly tone:
`Of course, I was only joking. Come, we cross now.'
When they were together again she spoke of the University question and Gabriel felt more at ease. A friend of hers had shown her his review of Browning's poems. That was how she had found out the secret: but she liked the review immensely.
Then she said suddenly:
`O, Mr Conroy, will you come for an excursion to the Aran Isles this summer? We're going to stay there a whole month. It will be splendid out in the Atlantic. You ought to come. Mr Clancy is coming, and Mr Kilkelly and Kathleen Kearney. It would be splendid for Gretta too if she'd come. She's from Connacht, isn't she?'
`Her people are,' said Gabriel shortly.
`But you will come, won't you?' said Miss Ivors, laying her warm hand eagerly on his arm.
`The fact is,' said Gabriel, `I have just arranged to go--'
`Go where?' asked Miss Ivors.
`Well, you know, every year I go for a cycling tour with some fellows and so--'
`But where?' asked Miss Ivors.
`Well, we usually go to France or Belgium or perhaps Germany,' said Gabriel awkwardly.
`And why do you go to France and Belgium,' said Miss Ivors, `instead of visiting your own land?'
`Well,' said Gabriel, `it's partly to keep in touch with the languages and partly for a change.'
`And haven't you your own language to keep in touch with - Irish?' asked Miss Ivors.
`Well,' said Gabriel, `if it comes to that, you know, Irish is not my language.'
Their neighbours had turned to listen to the cross-examination. Gabriel glanced right and left nervously and tried to keep his good humour under the ordeal, which was making a blush invade his forehead.
`And haven't you your own land to visit,' continued Miss Ivors, `that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?'
`O, to tell you the truth,' retorted Gabriel suddenly, `I'm sick of my own country, sick of it!'
`Why?' asked Miss Ivors.
Gabriel did not answer, for his retort had heated him.
`Why?' repeated Miss Ivors.
They had to go visiting together and, as he had not answered her, Miss Ivors said warmly:
`Of course, you've no answer.'
Gabriel tried to cover his agitation by taking part in the dance with great energy. He avoided her eyes, for he had seen a sour expression on her face. But when they met in the long chain he was surprised to feel his hand firmly pressed. She looked at him from under her brows for a moment quizzically until he smiled. Then, just as the chain was about to start again, she stood on tiptoe and whispered into his ear:
When the lancers were over Gabriel went away to a remote corner of the room where Freddy Malins' mother was sitting. She was a stout, feeble old woman with white hair. Her voice had a catch in it like her son's and she stuttered slightly. She had been told that Freddy had come and that he was nearly all right. Gabriel asked her whether she had had a good crossing. She lived with her married daughter in Glasgow and came to Dublin on a visit once a year. She answered placidly that she had had a beautiful crossing and that the captain had been most attentive to her. She spoke also of the beautiful house her daughter kept in Glasgow, and of all the friends they had there. While her tongue rambled on Gabriel tried to banish from his mind all memory of the unpleasant incident with Miss Ivors. Of course the girl, or woman, or whatever she was, was an enthusiast, but there was a time for all things. Perhaps he ought not to have answered her like that. But she had no right to call him a West Briton before people, even in joke. She had tried to make him ridiculous before people, heckling him and staring at him with her rabbit's eyes.
He saw his wife making her way towards him through the waltzing couples. When she reached him she said into his ear:
`Gabriel, Aunt Kate wants to know won't you carve the goose as usual. Miss Daly will carve the ham and I'll do the pudding.'
`All right,' said Gabriel.
`She's sending in the younger ones first as soon as this waltz is over so that we'll have the table to ourselves.'
`Were you dancing?' asked Gabriel.
`Of course I was. Didn't you see me? What row had you with Molly Ivors?'
`No row. Why? Did she say so?'
`Something like that. I'm trying to get that Mr D'Arcy to sing. He's full of conceit, I think.'
`There was no row,' said Gabriel moodily, `only she wanted me to go for a trip to the west of Ireland and I said I wouldn't.'
His wife clasped her hands excitedly and gave a little jump.
`O, do go, Gabriel,' she cried. `I'd love to see Galway again.'
`You can go if you like,' said Gabriel coldly.
She looked at him for a moment, then turned to Mrs Malins and said:
`There's a nice husband for you, Mrs Malins.'
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