He remembered that he had seen a volume of Shakespeare's plays in the bookshop in Donegall Place and that Uncle Matthew had each of the plays in a separate volume in the attic at home. He had read The Merchant of Venice a long time ago, but had only a vague recollection of it. In one of the school-books, Portia's speech on mercy was printed, and he could say that piece off by heart. The Jew had snarled at Portia when she had said "Then must the Jew be merciful!" "On what compulsion must I?" he had demanded, and she had replied, "The quality of mercy is not strained...." The school-book did not print Portia's statement that the Jew must be merciful or the Jew's snarling demand, "On what compulsion must I?"; but Mr. Cairnduff had explained the story of the play to the class and had told them of these two speeches, and John, interested by the story, had gone home and searched through the attic for the play, and there had read it through.
His mind went back to the bookshop. "It must be fine to work in a place like that, with all the books you can want to read all round you," he said to himself while he hurried through Corn Market on his way to a restaurant. He stopped for a moment or two, as an idea suddenly presented itself to him. "I know what I'll do," he said aloud. "I'll start a bookshop myself. New books ... not old ones. That sort of life would suit me fine!"
He ate his meal in great haste, and then hurried back to the theatre where a queue of people had already formed outside the entrance to the pit. Soon after he joined the queue, the doors were opened, and in a little while he found himself sitting at the end of the second row. He had chosen this seat so that he might be able to hurry out of the theatre quickly, without disturbing anyone, if he should have to leave before the play was ended to catch the last train to Ballyards.
A boy about his own age was sitting next to him, and this boy asked John to let him have a look at his programme.
"Did you ever see this piece before?" John said to him, as he passed the programme to him.
"I did not," he replied. "I'm not much of a one for plays. I generally go to the 'Lhambra on a Saturday, but somehow I didn't go there the night!"
"That's a terrible place, that 'Lhambra," said John.
"What's terrible about it?" his neighbour replied.
"I don't know. I was never there. This is the first time I've ever been in a theatre. But I've heard fearful things about that place, about women coming out and dancing with hardly any clothes on, and then kicking up their legs and all. I have an uncle went there once, and when the woman began kicking up her legs and showing off her clothes, he got up and stood with his back to the stage 'til she was done, he was that disgusted."
John remembered how shocked Uncle William had been when he told that story of himself.
"Your uncle must be very easy shocked," said the boy. "I can look at women kicking up their legs, and I don't think nothing of it at all. I like a good song and dance myself. I don't like plays much. Gimme a woman that's nice-looking and can sing and dance a bit, and I wouldn't ask you for nothing nicer. Is there any dancin' in this bit, do you know?"
"I don't think so," said John. "I've never seen the piece before, but I've read it. I don't think there's any dancing in it!"
"And no comic songs?..."
"Sure, you'll see for yourself in a wee minute!"
John's neighbour considered. "I wonder would they give me my money back if I was to go to the pay-box and let on I was sick!"
"They'd never do that," said John. "They'd know rightly you weren't sick by the look of you!"
The boy returned the programme to John. "Well, I wish they'd hurry up and begin," he murmured.
The members of the orchestra came through a door beneath the stage and took their places, and the sound of fiddles being tuned was heard for a while. Then the leader of the orchestra came to his place, and after a pause, the music began.
"A fiddle's great value," John's neighbour whispered to him. "I'm a great hand at the Jew's harp myself!..."
The music ceased, the lights were lowered in the theatre and the footlights were raised, throwing a great soft yellow glow on the picture of the Lakes of Killarney which decorated the drop-curtain. Then, the curtain was rolled up, and the performance began.
He had been interested by the play when he read it, but now he was enthralled by it. He wished that the boy sitting next to him would not keep on asking for the programme every time a fresh character appeared on the stage and would refrain from making comments on the play while it was being performed. "Them people wore quare clothes in them days!" he had whispered to John soon after the play began, and when Shylock made his first entrance, he said, "Ah, for Jase' sake, look at the oul' Sheeny!"
"Ssh!" said John. "Don't talk!..."
"Ah, shut up," said John.
He did not wish to talk during the intervals between the acts. He wished to sit still in his seat and perform the play over again in his mind. He tried to remember Bassanio's description of Portia:
In Belmont is a lady richly left, And she is fair, and fairer than that word, Of wondrous virtues....
He could not think of the words that came after that ... except one sentence:
...And her sunny locks Hang on her temples like a golden fleece.
He repeated this sentence to himself many times, as if he were tasting each word with his tongue and with his mind, and once he said it aloud in a low voice.
"Eh?" said his neighbour.
"I was just reciting a piece from the play," he explained.
"What were you reciting?"
"Do you remember that piece: and her sunny locks hang on her temples like a golden fleece?"
"In the first act? When the young fellow, Bassanio, was telling Antonio about his girl in Belmont?"
His neighbour turned to him eagerly. "I wonder did they just put that bit in about Belmont," he said. "There's a place near Belfast called Belmont ... just beyond the Hollywood Arches there! Do you know it?" John shook his head. "I wouldn't be surprised but they just put that bit in to make it look more like the thing. What was the piece you were reciting?" John repeated it to him again. "What's the sense of that?" the boy exclaimed.
"Oh, don't you see? It's ... it's ..." He did not know how to explain the speech. "It's poetry," he said lamely.
"Oh" said the boy. "Portry. I see now. Ah, well, I suppose they have to fill up the piece some way! Do you think that woman, what's her name again?..."
"Aye. D'you think she did live at Belmont? Some of them stories is true, you know, and there was quare things happened in the oul' ancient days in this neighbourhood, I can tell you. I wouldn't be surprised now!..."
But before he could say any more, the lights were lowered again, and there was a hushing sound, and then the play proceeded.
"Oh, isn't it grand?" John said to his neighbour when the trial scene was over.
But his neighbour remained unmoved. "D'you mean to tell me," he said, "that man didn't know his wife when he saw her in the Coort?"
"That fellow what-you-may-call-him? The man that was married on the girl with the red dress on her!..."
"Aye. D'you mean to tell me that fellow didn't know her again, and him only just after leaving her!..."
John tried to explain. "It's a play," he said. "He's not supposed to recognize her!..."
"Och, what's the good of supposing a thing that couldn't be!" said John's neighbour. "Any man with half an eye in his head could have seen who she was. I wish I'd gone to the 'Lhambra. This is a damn silly play, this!"
John was horrified. "Silly," he said. "It's by Shakespeare!"
"I don't care who it's by," was the reply. "It's damn silly to let on a man doesn't know his own wife when he sees her. I suppose that's portry!" he sneered.
John did not answer, and his neighbour went on. "Well, if it is portry ... God help it, that's all!"
But John did not care whether Bassanio had recognized Portia in the court scene or not. He left the theatre in an exalted mood in which he had little thought for the realities. Next week he told himself, he would visit the Royal again. He would see two plays on the following Saturday, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. The bills for the following week's programme were already pasted on the walls of the theatre when he came out, and he risked the loss of his train by stopping to read one of them. Romeo and Juliet was to be performed in the afternoon, and Julius Caesar in the evening.
He hurried down Ann Street and across the Queen's Bridge, and reached the railway station just in time to catch his train; and all the way across the bridge and all the way home in the train, one sentence passed continually through his mind:
...And her sunny locks Hang on her temples like a golden fleece.
While he ate his supper, he spoke to his mother and his uncles of his intention to open a bookshop.
"I'm going to start a bookshop," he said. "I made up my mind in Belfast to-day!"
"A what?" Mrs. MacDermott demanded.
"A bookshop, ma. I'll have every book you can think of in it!..."
"In the name of God," his mother exclaimed, "who do you think buys books in this place?"
"Plenty of people, ma. Mr. McCaughan!..."
"Mr. McCaughan never buys a book from one year's end to another," she interrupted. "And if he did, you can't support a shop on one man's custom. The people of this town doesn't waste their time on reading: they do their work!"
John turned angrily on her. "It's not a waste of time to read books, ma. Is it, Uncle Matthew?"
"You may well ask him," she said before Uncle Matthew could answer.
"What do you think, Uncle William?" John went on.
Uncle William thought for a few moments. "I don't know what to think," he said. "It's not a trade I know much about, John, but I doubt whether there's a living in it in Ballyards."
"There's no living in it," Mrs. MacDermott exclaimed passionately, "and if there was, you shouldn't earn your living by it!"
John gazed at her in astonishment. Her eyes were shining, not with tears, though tears were not far from them, but with resentment and anger.
"Why, ma?" he said.
"Because books are the ruin of people's minds," she replied. "Your da was always reading books, wild books that disturbed him. He was never done reading The Rights of Man. And look at your Uncle Matthew!..."
She stopped suddenly as if she realised that she had said too much. Uncle Matthew did not speak. He looked at her mournfully, and then he turned away.
"I don't want to say one word to hurt anyone's feelings," she continued in a lower tone, "but my life's been made miserable by books, and I don't want to see my son made miserable, too. And you know well, Matthew," she added, turning to her brother-in-law, "that all your reading has done you no good, but a great deal of harm. And what's the use of books, anyway? Will they help a man to make a better life for himself?"
Uncle Matthew turned to her quickly. "They will, they will," he said, and his voice trembled with emotion. "People can take your work from you and make little of you in the street because you did what your heart told you to do, but you'll get your comfort in a book, so you will. I know what you're hinting at, Hannah, but I'm not ashamed of what I did for the oul' Queen, and I'd do it again, gaol or no gaol, if I was to be hanged for it the day after!"
He turned to John.
"I don't know what sort of a living you'll make out of selling books," he said, "and I don't care either, but if you do start a shop to sell them, let me tell you this, you'll never prosper in it if it doesn't hurt you sore to part with a book, for books is like nothing else on God's earth. You have to love them ... you have to love them!..."
"You're daft," said Mrs. MacDermott.
"Mebbe I am," Uncle Matthew replied wearily. "But that's the way I feel, and no man can help the way he feels!"
He sat down at the table, resting his head in his hands, and gazed hungrily at his nephew.
"You can help putting notions into a person's head," said Mrs. MacDermott. "John might as well try to write books as try to sell them in this town!"
"Write books!" John exclaimed.
"Aye, write them!..."
But Uncle Matthew would not let her finish her sentence. "And why shouldn't he write books if he has a mind to it?" he demanded. "Wasn't he always the wee lad for scribbling bits of stories in penny exercise books?..."
"He was ... 'til I beat him for it," she replied. "Why can't you settle down here in the shop with your Uncle William?" she said to her son. "It's a comfortable, quiet sort of a life, and it's sure and steady, and when we're all gone, it'll be yours for yourself. Won't it, William?"
"Oh, aye!" said Uncle William. "Everything we have'll be John's right enough, but I doubt he's not fond of the shop!..."
"What's wrong with the shop? It's as good as any in the town!" She coaxed John with her voice. "You can marry some nice, respectable girl and bring her here," she said, "and I'll gladly give place to her when she comes!" She rocked herself gently to and fro in the rocking-chair. "I'd like well to have the nursing of your children in the house that you yourself were born in!..."
"Och, ma, I'm not in the way of marrying!..."
"You'll marry some time, won't you? And there's plenty would be glad to have you. Aggie Logan, though I can't bear the sight of her, would give the two eyes out of her head for you. Of course you'll marry, and I'd be thankful glad to think of your son being born in this house. You were born in it, and your da, too, and his da, and his da's da. Four generations of you in one house to be pleased and proud of, and I pray to God he'll let me live to see the fifth generation of the MacDermotts born here, too. I'm a great woman for clinging to my home, and I love to think of the generations coming one after the other in the same house that the family's always lived in. How many people in this town can say they've always lived in the one house like the MacDermotts?"
"Not very many," Uncle William proudly replied.
"No, indeed there's not, I tell you, John, son, the MacDermotts are someone in this town, as grand in their way and as proud as Lord Castlederry himself. That's something to live up to, isn't it! The good name of your family! But if you go tramping the world for adventures and romances, the way your Uncle Matthew would have you do, you'll lose it all, and there'll be strangers in the house that your family's lived in all these generations. And mebbe you'll come here, when you're an oul' man and we're all dead and buried, and no one in the place'll have any mind of you at all, and you'll be lonelier here nor anywhere else. Oh, it would be terrible to be treated like a stranger in your own town! And if you did start a bookshop and it failed on you, and you lost all your money, wouldn't it be worse disgrace than any not to be able to pay your debts in a place where everyone knows you ... to be made a bankrupt mebbe?"
"Ah, but, ma, the world would never move at all if everybody stopped in the one place!" John said.
"The world'll move well enough," she answered. "God moves it, not you."
John got up from the table and went, and sat on a low stool by the fire. "I don't know so much," he said. "I read in a book one time!..."
"In a book!" Mrs. MacDermott sneered.
"Aye, ma, in a book!" John stoutly answered. "After all, you know the Bible's a book!" Mrs. MacDermott had not got a retort to that statement, and John, aware that he had scored a point, hurriedly proceeded, "I was reading one time that all the work in the world was started by men that wrote books. There never was any change or progress 'til someone started to think and write!..."
Mrs. MacDermott recovered her wits. "Were they happy and contented men?" she demanded.
"I don't know, ma," John replied. "The book didn't say that. I suppose not, or they wouldn't have wanted to make any alterations!"
"Let them that wants to make changes, make them," said Mrs. MacDermott. "There's no need for you to go about altering the world when you can stay at home here happy and content!"
Uncle Matthew rose from the table and came towards Mrs. MacDermott. "What does it matter whether you're happy and contented or not, so long as things are happening to you?" he exclaimed.
Mrs. MacDermott burst into bitter laughter. "You have little wit," she said, "to be talking that daft way. Eh, William?" she added, turning to her other brother-in-law. "What do you think about it?"
Uncle William had lit his pipe, and was sitting in a listening attitude, slowly puffing smoke. "I'm wondering," he said, "whether it's more fun to be writing about things nor it is to be doing things!"
John turned to him and tapped him on the knee. "I've thought of that, Uncle William," he said, "and I tell you what! I'll go and do something, and then I'll write a book about it!"
"What'll you do?" Mrs. MacDermott asked.
"Something," said John. "I can easily do something!"
"And what about the bookshop?" said Uncle Matthew.
"Och, that was only a notion that came into my head," John answered. "I won't bother myself selling books: I'll write them instead!" He glanced about the kitchen. "I've a good mind to start writing something now!" he said.
His mother sprang to her feet. "You'll do no such thing at this hour," she said. "It's nearly Sunday morning. Would you begin your career by desecrating God's Day!"
"If you start doing things," said Uncle, reverting to John's declaration of work, "you'll mebbe have no time to write about them!"
"Oh, I'll have the time right enough. I'll make the time," John said.
Uncle William got up and walked towards the staircase. "Where are you going, William?" Mrs. MacDermott asked.
"To my bed," said Uncle William.
Suddenly the itch to write came to John, and he began to rummage among the papers and books on the shelves for writing-paper.
"What are you looking for?" his mother enquired.
"Paper to write on," he said.
"You'll not write one word the night!..."
"Ah, quit, ma!" he said. "I must put down an idea that's come in my head. I'd mebbe forget it in the morning!"
"The greatest writers in the world have sat up all night, writing out their thoughts," Uncle Matthew murmured.
John did not pay any heed to his mother's scowls and remonstrances. He found sheets of writing-paper and placed them neatly on the table, together with a pen and ink. He looked at the materials critically. There was paper, there was ink and there was a pen with a new nib in it, and blotting paper!...
He drew a chair up to the table and sat down in front of the writing paper. He contemplated it for a long time while Mrs. MacDermott put away the remnants of his supper, and his Uncle Matthew sat by the fire watching him.
"What are you waiting for, John?" his Uncle Matthew asked.
"Inspiration," John replied.
He sat still, scarcely moving even for ease in his chair, staring at the white paper until it began to dance in front of his eyes, but he did not begin to write on it.
"Are you still waiting for inspiration, John?" his Uncle asked.
"Aye," he answered.
"You don't seem to be getting any," Mrs. MacDermott said.
He got up and put the writing materials away. "I'll wait 'til the morning," he replied.
THE THIRD CHAPTER
John wrote his first story during the following week, and when he had completed it, he made a copy of it on large sheets of foolscap in a shapely hand, and sewed the pages together with green thread. Uncle Matthew had purchased brass fasteners to bind the pages together, but Uncle William said that a man might easily tear his fingers with "them things" and contract blood-poisoning.
"And that would give him a scunner against your story, mebbe!" he added.
John accepted Uncle William's advice, not so much in the interests of humanity, as because he liked the look of the green thread. He had read the story to his uncles, after the shop was closed. They had drawn their chairs up to the fire, in which sods of turf and coal were burning, and the agreeable odour of the turf soothed their senses while they listened to John's sharp voice. Mrs. MacDermott would not join the circle before the fire. She declared that she had too much work to do to waste her time on trash, and she wondered that her brothers-in-law could find nothing better to do than to encourage a headstrong lad in a foolish business. She went about her work with much bustle and clatter, which, however, diminished considerably as John began to read the story, and ended altogether soon afterwards.
"D'you like it, Uncle William?" John said, when he had read the story to them.
"Aye," said Uncle William.
"I'm glad," John answered. "And you, do you like it, Uncle Matthew?"
"I like it queer and well," Uncle Matthew murmured, "only!..." He hesitated as if he were reluctant to make any adverse comment on the story.
"Only what?" John demanded with some impatience. He had asked for the opinions of his uncles, indeed, but it had not occurred to him that they would not think as highly of the story as he thought of it himself.
"Well ... there's no love in it!" Uncle Matthew went on.
"Aye," Uncle Matthew said. "There's no mention of a woman in it from start to finish. I think there ought to be a woman in it!"
Mrs. MacDermott, who had been silent now for some time, made a noise with a dish on the table. "Och, sure, what does he know about love?" she exclaimed angrily. "A child that's not long left his mother's arms would know as much. Mebbe, now you've read your oul' story, John, the whole of yous will sit up to the table and take your tea!"
John, disregarding his mother, sat back in his chair and contemplated his Uncle Matthew.
"I wonder now, are you right?" he exclaimed.
"I am," Uncle Matthew replied. "The best stories in the world have women in them, and love-making! I never could take any interest in Robinson Crusoe because he hadn't got a girl on that island with him, and I thought to myself many's a time, it was a queer mistake not to make Friday a woman. He could have fallen in love with her then!"
Uncle William said up sharply. "Aye, and had a wheen of black babies!" he said. "Man, dear, Matthew, think what you're saying! What sort of romance would there be in the like of that? I never read much, as you know, but I always had a great fancy for Robinson Crusoe. The way that man turned to and did things for himself ... I tell you my heart warmed to him. I like your story, John, women or no women. Sure, love isn't the only thing that men make!..."
"It's the most important," said Uncle Matthew.
"And why shouldn't a story be written about any other thing nor a lot of love?" Uncle William continued, ignoring the interruption. "I daresay you'll get a mint of money for that story, John. I've heard tell that some of these writers gets big pay for their stories. Pounds and pounds!"
John crinkled his manuscript in his hand and regarded it with a modest look. "I don't suppose I'll get much for the first one," he said. "In fact, if they'll print it, I'll be willing to let them have it for nothing ... just for the satisfaction!"
"That would be a foolish thing to do," Uncle William retorted. "Sure, if it's worth printing, it's worth paying for. That's the way I look at it, anyhow!"
"I daresay I'll make more, when I know the way of it better!" John answered. "What paper will I send it to, do you think?"
"Send it to the best one," said Uncle William.
Mrs. MacDermott took a plate of toast from the fender where it had been put to keep warm. "Send it to the one that pays the most," she suggested.
"I thought you weren't listening, ma!" John exclaimed, laughing at her.
"A body can't help hearing when people are talking at the top of their voices," she said tartly. "Come on, for dear sake, and have your teas, the whole of yous!"
It was Uncle William who advised John to send the story to Blackwood's Magazine. He said that in his young days, people said Blackwood's Magazine was the best magazine in the world. Uncle Matthew had demurred to this. "I'm not saying it's not a good one," he said, "but it's terribly bitter against Ireland. The man that writes that magazine must have a bitter, blasting tongue in his head!"
"Never mind what it says about Ireland," Uncle William retorted. "Sure, they're only against the Papishes, anyway!..."
"The Papishes are as good as the Protestants," Uncle Matthew exclaimed.
"I daresay they are," Uncle William admitted, "but I'm only saying that Blackwood's Magazine is against them: it's not against us; and I don't see why John shouldn't send his story to it. He's a Protestant!"
"If I wrote a story," Uncle Matthew went on, "I wouldn't send it to any paper that made little of my country, Protestant or Papish, no matter how good a paper it was nor how much it paid me for my story. Ireland is as good as England any day!..."
"It's better," said Uncle William complacently. "Sure, God Himself knows the English would be on the dung-heap if it wasn't for us and the Scotchmen. But that's no reason why John shouldn't send his story to Blackwood's Magazine. In one way, it's a good reason why he should send it there, for sure, if he does nothing else, he'll improve the tone of the thing. You do what I tell you, John!..."
And so, accepting his Uncle William's advice, John sent the manuscript of his story to the editor of Blackwood's Magazine; and each morning, after he had done so, he eagerly awaited the advent of the postman. But the postman, more often than not, went past their door. When he did deliver a letter to them, it was usually a trading letter for Uncle William.
"Them people get a queer lot of stories to read," Uncle William said to console his nephew, disappointed because he had not received a letter of acceptance from the editor by Saturday morning, four days after he had posted the manuscript. "It'll mebbe take them a week or two to reach yours!..."
"They could have sent a postcard to say they'd got it all right," John replied ruefully. "That's the civil thing to do, anyway!"
He remembered that the Benson Shakespearean Company was still in Belfast and that Romeo and Juliet was to be performed in the afternoon, and Julius Caesar in the evening; and he went up to the city by an earlier train than usual so that he might be certain of getting to the theatre in time to secure an end seat near the front of the pit. He had proposed to his Uncle Matthew that he should go to Belfast, too, to see the plays, but Uncle Matthew shook his head and murmured that he was not feeling well. He had been listless lately, they had noticed, and Uncle William, regarding him one afternoon as he stood at the door of the shop, had turned to John and said that he would be glad when the summer weather came in again, so that Uncle Matthew could go down to the shore and lie in the sun.
"He's not a robust man, your Uncle Matthew!" he said. "I don't think he tholes the winter well!"
"Och, he's mebbe only a wee bit out of sorts," John answered. "I wish, he'd come to Belfast with me!..."
"He'll never go next or near that place again," Uncle William replied. "He's never been there since that affair!..."
"You'd wonder at a man letting a thing of that sort affect his mind the way Uncle Matthew let it affect his," John murmured.
"When a man believes in a thing as deeply as he believed in the oul' Queen," said Uncle William, "it's a terrible shock to him to find out that other people doesn't believe in it half as much as he does ... or mebbe doesn't believe in it at all!"
"I suppose you're right," said John.
"I am," said Uncle William.
John was the first person to reach the door of the pit that afternoon. The morning had been rough and blusterous, and although the streets were dry, the cold wind blowing down from the hills made people reluctant to stand outside a theatre door. John, who was hardy and indifferent to cold, stood inside the shelter of the door and read the copy of Romeo and Juliet which he had borrowed from his Uncle Matthew; and while he read the play he remembered his uncle's criticism of the story he had written for Blackwood's Magazine: that it ought to have had a woman in it! This play was full of love. Romeo, sighing and groaning because his lady will not look kindly upon him, runs from his friends who "jest at scars that never felt a wound" ... and finds Juliet! In The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio and Portia, Lorenzo and Jessica, Gratiano and Nerissa had all made love. Even young Gobbo, in a coarse, philandering way, had made love, too! In all the books he had read, women were prominent. Queer and distressing things happened to the heroes; they were constantly in trouble and under suspicion of wrong-doing; poverty and persecution were common to them; frequently, they were misunderstood; but in the end, they had their consolations and their rights and rewards. Love was the great predominating element in all these stories, the support and inspiration and reward of the troubled and tortured hero; and Woman was the symbol of victory, of achievement. At the end of every journey, at the finish of every fight, there was a Woman. Uncle Matthew had spoken wisely, John thought, when he said that you cannot leave women out of your schemes and plans.
John had not thought of leaving women out of his schemes and plans. In all his romantic imaginings, a woman of superb beauty had figured in a dim way; but the woman had been a dream woman only, bearing no resemblance whatever to the visible women about him. He had so much regard for this woman of his imagined adventures ... she changed her looks as frequently as he changed the scene of his romances ... that he had no regard left for the women of his acquaintance. He nodded to the girls he knew when he met them in the street, but he had never felt any desire to "go up the road" with one of them. Willie Logan, as John knew, was "coortin' hard" and laying up trouble for himself by his diverse affections; and Aggie Logan, forgetful, perhaps, of the rebuff that John had given to her childish offers of love, had lately taken to hanging about the street when John was due to pass along it. She would pretend not to see him until he was close to her. Then she would start and giggle and say, "Oh, John, is that you? You're a terrible stranger these days!..." Once while he was listening to her as she made some such remark as that, Lady Castlederry drove by in her carriage, and his eyes wandered from the sallow, giggling girl in front of him to the beautiful woman in the carriage; and Aggie suffered severely by the comparison. And yet Aggie had a quicker and more intelligent look than Lady Castlederry. The beautiful, arrogant woman was like the dream-woman of his romances ... and again, she was not like her; for the dream-women had not got Lady Castlederry's look of settled stupidity in her eyes.
John had hurriedly quitted Aggie's company on that occasion. He knew why Aggie always contrived to meet him in the street, and he thought that she was a poor fool of a girl to do it. And her brother Willie was a "great gumph of a fellow," to go capering up and down the road in the evenings after any girl that would say a civil word to him or laugh when he laughed!...
All the same, women mattered to men. Uncle Matthew had said so, and Uncle Matthew was in the right of it. In the story-books, women surged into the hero's life, good women and bad women and even indifferent women. And, now, in these plays, he could see for himself that women mattered enormously. Yet he had never been in love with a girl! He was not even in love with the dream-woman of his romances. She was his reward for honourable and arduous service ... that was all. He was not in love with her any more than he was in love with a Sunday School prize. It was a reward for regular attendance and for accurate answers to Biblical questions, and he was glad to have it. It rested on the bookshelf in the drawing-room, and sometimes, when there were visitors in the house, his mother would request him to take it down and show it to them. They would read the inscription and make remarks on the oddness of Mr. McCaughan's signature and turn over the pages of the book ... and then they would hand it back to him and he would replace it on the shelf ... and no more was said about it. Really, his dream-woman had not meant much more to him than that. She would be given to him when he had won his fight, and he would take her and be glad to get her ... he would be very proud of her and would exhibit her to his friends and say, "This is my beautiful wife!" and then!... oh, well, there did not appear to be anything else after that. The book always came to an end when the hero married the heroine. Probably she and he had children ... but, beyond the fact that they lived happily ever afterwards, there did not appear to be much more to say about them....
Somehow, it seemed to him now, as he stood in the shelter of the Pit Entrance to the Theatre Royal, reading Romeo and Juliet, that the heroine was different from his dream-woman. His dream-woman had always been very insubstantial and remote, but Juliet was a real woman, alive and passionate, with a real father and a real mother. The odd thing about his dream-woman was that she did not appear to have any relatives ... at least he had never heard of any. She had not even got a name. She never spoke to him. Always, when the adventure was ended, he went up to the dream-woman, waiting for him in a misty manner, and he took hold of her hand and led her away ... and while he was leading her away, the adventure seemed to come to an end ... the picture dissolved ... and he could not see any more. Once, indeed, he had kissed his dream-woman ... he had kissed her exactly as he had kissed his great-aunt, Miss Clotworthy, who was famous for the fact that she had attended a Sunday School in Belfast as pupil and teacher for fifty-seven years without a break ... and the dream-woman had taken the kiss in the unemotional manner in which she took hold of his hand when he led her away ... and lost her!...
There was something wrong with his dream-woman, he told himself. This man Shakespeare, so everybody said, was the greatest poet England had produced ... perhaps the greatest poet the world had produced ... and he ought to know something of what women were like. Whatever else Juliet might be, she certainly was not like John's dream-woman. She did not stand at the end of the road waiting for Romeo to come to her. She did not wait until the fight was fought and won. She did not offer a cold hand or cold lips to Romeo. Her behaviour was really more like that of Aggie Logan than that of the dream-woman!...
Aggie Logan! That "girner" with the sallow look and the giggle! He could see her now, standing in the street waiting for him, dabbing at her mouth with the foolish handkerchief she always carried in her hand. What did she want to keep on dabbing at her mouth with her handkerchief for! Men didn't dab at their mouths.... Nor did the dream-woman dab at hers.... But it was just possible ... indeed, it was very likely, that Juliet dabbed at hers!...
At that moment, the Pit Door opened, and John, having paid his shilling, passed into the theatre.
He came away from the play in a disturbed and exalted state. Suddenly and compellingly, he had become aware of the fact of Women. While he sat in the front row of the pit, listening with his whole body to the play, something stirred in him and he became aware of Women. The actress who played the part of Juliet had turned towards the audience for a few moments during the performance and, so it seemed to him, had looked straight into his eyes. She did not avert her gaze immediately, nor did he avert his. He imagined that she was appealing to him ... he forgot that he was sitting in the pit of a theatre listening to a play written by a man who had died three hundred years ago ... and remembered only that he was a young man with aspirations and romantic longings, and that a young woman, in a pitiable plight, was gazing into his eyes ... and his heart reached out to her. He drew in his breath quickly, murmuring a soft "Oh," and as he did so, his dream-woman fell dead and he did not even turn to look at her.
When the play was over, he had sat still in his seat, more deeply moved than he had ever been before, overwhelmed by the disaster which had come upon the young lovers through the foolish brawls of their foolish elders; and it was not until an impatient woman had prodded him in the side that he returned to reality.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am!" he said and got up and hurried out of the theatre into the street.
He went along High Street towards Castle Place, and as he walked along, he regarded each woman and girl that approached him with interest.
"That one's nice-looking!" he said of a girl, and "That one's ugly!" he said of another. He wondered why it was that all the older women of the working-class were so misshapen and lacking in good looks, when so many of the girls of the working-class were shapely and pretty. Mr. Cairnduff had told him that Belfast girls were prettier than London girls. "London girls aren't pretty at all," Mr. Cairnduff had said. "You'd walk miles in London before you'd see a pretty girl, but you wouldn't walk ten yards in Belfast before you'd meet dozens!" And yet, all those pretty working-girls grew into dull, misshapen, displeasing women. "It's getting married that does it, I suppose," he said to himself. "They were all nice once, but they married and grew ugly!"
He did not look long at the ugly and misshapen women. His eyes quickly searched through the crowds of passers-by for the pretty girls, and at them he looked with eagerness.
"There's no doubt about it," he said to himself, "girls are nice to look at!"
He found a restaurant in the street off High Street. He climbed up some stairs, and then, pushing a door open, entered a large room, at the back of which was a smaller room. A girl was standing at a window, looking out on to the street, but she turned her head when she heard him entering. She smiled pleasantly as he sat down, and came forward to take his order.
"It's turned out a brave day after all," she said.
He said "Aye" and smiled at her in return. She had thick, fair hair, and he remembered Bassanio's description of Portia:
And her sunny locks Hang on her temples like a golden fleece.
He had a curious desire to talk to the girl about the play he had just seen, and before he gave his order, he glanced about the room. She and he were the only persons in it.
"You don't seem to be very busy," he said.
"Och, indeed, we're not," she replied. "We seldom are on a Saturday. Mrs. Bothwall ... her that owns the place ... thought mebbe some football fellows might come here for their tea after the matches so's they needn't go home before starting for the Empire or the Alhambra: but, sure, none of them ever comes. We might as well be shut for the custom we get!"
He ordered his tea, and she went to the small room at the back of the large room to prepare it. He thought it would be a good plan to ask the girl if she would care to have her tea with him, but a sudden shyness prevented him from doing so, and he was unable to say more than "Thank you" when she put the teapot by his side. There was plenty for two on the table, he said to himself: a loaf and a bap and some soda-farls and a potato cake and the half of a barn-brack and butter and raspberry jam. He looked across the room to where the girl was again looking out of the window. He liked the way she stood, with one hand resting on her hip and the other on her cheek. He could see that she had small feet and slender ankles, and while he looked at her, she rubbed her foot against her leg and he saw for a moment or two the flash of a white petticoat....
"I was at the Royal the day!" he called to her.
She turned round quickly. "Were you?" she said. "Was it good?"
"It was grand. I enjoyed it the best," he answered.
She came towards him and sat down at a table near to his. "What piece was it you saw?" she asked. "It's Benson's Company, isn't it?"
"Yes. I saw Romeo and Juliet."
"Oh, that's an awful sad piece. I cried my eyes out one year when I saw it!"
"It's a great play," John said.
"I suppose you often go?" she went on.
"Last Saturday was the first time I ever went to a theatre. I saw The Merchant of Venice. I'll go every Saturday after this, when there's a good piece on. I'm going again to-night to see Julius Caesar!"
"I'd love to see that piece!"
"Aye, indeed I would. I'm just doting on the theatre. The last piece I saw was The Lights of London. It was lovely."
"I never saw that bit," John answered. "You see I live in Ballyards and I only come up to town on Saturdays."
"By your lone?" she asked.
He nodded his head. He poured out his tea, and then began to spread butter on a piece of soda-farl.
"I'd be awful dull walking the streets by myself," she said, watching him as he did so. "I'm a terrible one for company. I can't bear being by myself!"
"Company's good," he said. "Have you had your tea yet?"
"I'll be having it in a wee while!"
"I wish you'd have it with me!" He spoke hesitatingly.
"Oh, I couldn't!" she exclaimed.
"Sure, what's to hinder you?" His voice became bolder.
"Oh, I couldn't. I couldn't really!..."
"You might as well have it with me as have it by yourself. And there's nobody'll see you. Where's Mrs. Bothwell?"
"She's away home with a headache!..."
"Then you're all by yourself here!" She nodded her head. "What time do you shut?" he went on.
"Half-six generally, but Mrs. Bothwell said I'd better shut at six the night!"
He took a cup and saucer and a knife and plate from an adjoining table and put them down opposite his own.
"Come on," he said, "and have your tea!"
"Och, I couldn't," she protested weakly.
He poured out some of the tea for her, "I suppose you take milk and sugar?" he said.
"You're a terrible fellow," she murmured admiringly, and he could see that her eyes were shining with pleasure.
"Draw up to the table," he replied.
She hesitated for a little while, and then she sat down. "This is not very like the thing," she murmured.
"It doesn't matter whether it is or not," he replied. "What'll you have ... bread or soda-farl?"
She helped herself.
"You know," he said, "I was thinking it would be a good plan for the two of us to go to the theatre to-night!"
"The two of us," she exclaimed. "Me and you!"
"Aye! Why not?"
She put down her cup and laughed. "I never met anybody in my life that made so much progress in a short time as you do," she said. "What in the earthly world put that notion into your head?"
"There's no notion about it," he exclaimed. "I'm asking you plump and plain will you come to the theatre with me to-night!..."
"But it wouldn't be like the thing at all to go to the theatre with a boy that I never saw before and never heard tell of 'til this minute. I don't even know your name!..."
"John MacDermott," he said.
"Are you a Catholic?"
"No. I'm a Presbyterian."
"It's a Catholic name," she mused. "I know a family by the name of MacDermott, and they're desperate Catholics. They live over in Ballymacarrett. Do you know them?"
"I do not. There never was a person in our family was a Catholic ... not that we have mind of. Will you come with me?"
"Ooh, I couldn't!"
"I'll not take 'No' for an answer!" he said, "and I'll not put another bite in my mouth 'til you say 'Yes.' D'you hear me?"
"You've an awful abrupt way of talking," she replied.
"What's abrupt about it?" he demanded.
"Well, queer then!" she said.
"I see nothing abrupt or queer about it. Are you coming or are you not?"
"As if you were used to getting what you wanted, the minute you wanted it," she went on, disregarding his question and intent on explaining the queerness of his speech. "I'd be afeard to be your wife, you'd be such a bossy man!"
"Ah, quit!" he said. "Will you come?"
"Will you or will you not?"
"You're an awful man," she protested.
"Will you come?"
"All right, then," she replied, "but!..."
"I'll have some more tea," said John. He looked round the room while she poured the tea into his cup. "Are there any more cakes or buns?" he asked.
"Yes, would you like some?"
"Bring a plate full," he said. "Bring some with sugar on the top and jam in the middle!"
"You've a sweet tongue in your head!" She went to the small room as she spoke.
"I have," he exclaimed. "And I daresay you have, too!"
"You never told me your name," he said, when she returned with the plate of cakes.
"Give a guess!" she teased.
He looked at her for a moment. "Maggie!" he said.
"How did you know?"
"I didn't know," he answered. "You look like a Maggie. What's your other name?"
"Maggie Carmichael!" he exclaimed. "It's a nice name!"
"I'm glad you like it," she said.
He sat back in his chair while she went to prepare for the theatre. How lucky it was that he had asked his Uncle William for more money that morning "in case I need it!" If he had not done so, he would not have been able to offer to take Maggie to the theatre.... They would go in by the Early Door. There was certain to be a crowd outside the ordinary door on a Saturday night. What a piece of luck it was that he had chosen to take his tea in this place instead of the restaurant to which he usually went. Mrs. Bothwell's headache, too, that was a piece of luck, for him, although not, perhaps, for her. He liked the look of Maggie. He liked her bright face and her laugh and her beautiful, golden hair. What was that bit again?
In Belmont is a lady richly left, And she is fair and fairer than that word Of wondrous virtue....
and then again:
...and her sunny locks Hang on her temples like a golden fleece.
Maggie came out of the small room, ready for the street, and he sat and watched her as she shut the door behind her.
"I believe I'm in love," he said to himself. "I believe I am!"
"Are you ready?" he said aloud.
"I've only to draw the blinds and then lock the door!" she replied.
"I'll draw them for you," he said, going over to the windows and drawing down the blinds as he spoke. "Did you ever see The Merchant of Venice?" he asked when he had done so.
"No," she said.
"There's a bit in it that makes me think of you," he went on.
"Oh, now, don't start plastering me," she exclaimed gaily.
"I mean it," he said, and he quoted the lines about Portia's sunny locks.
"That's poetry." she said.
"It is!" he replied.
"It's queer and nice!"
She opened the door leading to the stairs, and then went back to the room to turn out the light. The room was in semi-darkness, save where a splash of yellow light from the staircase fell at the doorway.
He turned towards her as she made her way to the door, and put out his hand to her. She took hold of it, and as she did so, he caught her quickly to him and drew her into his arms and kissed her soft, warm lips.
"You're an awful wee fellow," she said, freeing herself from his embrace and smiling at him.
He did not answer her, but his heart was singing inside him. I love her. I know I love her. I love her. I love her. I know I love her.
They went down the stairs together, and as they emerged into the street, he put his arm in hers and drew, her close to him. Almost he wished that they were not going to the theatre, that they might walk like this, arm in arm, for the remainder of the evening. He could still feel the warmth of her lips on his, and he wished that they could go to some quiet place so that he might kiss her again. But he had asked her to go to the theatre, and he did not wish to disappoint her. They entered the theatre by the Early Door, and sat in the middle of the front row of the pit. There was a queer silence in the theatre, for the ordinary doors had not yet opened, and the occasional murmur of a voice echoed oddly. John put his arm in Maggie's and wound his fingers in hers, and felt the pressure of her hand against his hand. When the ordinary doors of the theatre were opened and the crowd came pouring in, he hardly seemed aware of the people searching for good seats. Maggie had tried to withdraw her hand from his when she heard the noise of the people hurrying down the stone steps, but he had not released her, and she had remained content. And so they sat while the theatre quickly filled. Presently an attendant with programmes and chocolates came towards them, and he purchased a box of chocolates for her.
"You shouldn't have done that," she said, making the polite protest.
"I've always heard girls are fond of sweeties," he replied.
He put the box of chocolates in her lap, and opened the programme and handed it to her.
"It's a long piece," she said, "with a whole lot of acts and scenes in it. That's the sort of piece I like ... with a whole lot of changes in it!"
"Do you?" he said.
"Yes. I came here one time to see a piece that was greatly praised in the Whig and the Newsletter, and do you know they used the same scene in every act! I thought it was a poor miserly sort of a play. The bills said it was a London company, but I don't believe that was true. They were just letting on to be from London. They couldn't have had much money behind them when they couldn't afford more nor the one scene, could they!"
"Mebbe you're right," he answered.
The members of the orchestra came into the theatre, and after a while the music began. The lights in the theatre were diminished and then were extinguished, and the curtain went up. John snuggled closer to Maggie.
He was scarcely aware of the performance on the stage, so aware was he of the nearness of Maggie. He heard applause, but he did not greatly heed it. He was in love. He had never been in love before, and he had always thought of it as something very different from this, something cold and austere and aloof, and very dignified ... not at all like this warm, intimate, careless thing. He slipped his hand from Maggie's and slowly put his arm round her waist. She did not resist him, and when he drew her more closely to him so that their heads were nearly touching, she yielded to him without demur. He could feel her heart beating where his hand pressed against her side, and he heard the slow rise and fall of her breath as she inhaled and exhaled. He could not get near enough to her. He wanted to draw her head down on to his shoulder, to put both his arms about her, to feel again his lips on her lips....
He started suddenly. Someone was tapping him, on the shoulder. He turned round to meet the gaze of an elderly, indignant woman who was seated immediately behind him.
"Sit still," she said in a loud whisper. "I can't see the stage for you two ducking your heads together!"
He took his arm away from Maggie's waist, and edged a little away from her. He felt angry and humiliated. He told himself that he did not care who saw him putting his arm about Maggie's waist, but was aware that this was not true, that he deeply resented being overlooked in his love-making. He did not wish anyone to behold him in this intimate relationship with Maggie, and he was full of fury against the woman behind him because she had seen him fondling her. For of course the woman knew that he had his arm about Maggie ... and now her neighbours would know, too. The whole theatre would know that he had been embracing the girl!... Well, what if they did know? Let them know! There was no harm in a fellow putting his arm round a girl's waist. It was a natural thing for a fellow to do, particularly if the girl were so pretty and warm and loving as Maggie Carmichael. The woman herself had no doubt had a man's arm round her waist once upon a time. He did not care who knew!... All the same!... No, he did not care!... He slipped his hand into Maggie's hand again, and then quickly withdrew it. She was holding a sticky chocolate in her fingers!...
He lost all interest in the play now. It would be truer, perhaps, to say that he had not begun to be interested in it, and now that he tried to follow it, he could not do so. His mind constantly reverted to the indignant woman behind him. He imagined her looking, first this way and then that, in her efforts to see the stage, getting angrier and more angry as she was thwarted in her desire, and then, in her final indignation, leaning forward to tap on his shoulder and beg him to keep his head apart from Maggie's so that she might conveniently see the stage. His sense of violated privacy became stronger. His love for Maggie, for he accepted it now as a settled fact, was not a thing for prying eyes to witness: it was a secret, intimate thing in which she and he alone were concerned. He hated the thought that anyone else in the theatre should know that Maggie and he were sweethearts, newly in love and warm with the glow of their first affection. And then, when he had slipped his hand back into hers, he had encountered a sticky chocolate! While he was burning with feeling for her and with resentment against the old woman's intrusion into their love affair, Maggie had been chewing chocolate quite unconcernedly. In that crisis of their love, she had remained unmoved. When he had released her hand, she had simply put it into the box of chocolates and taken out a sticky sweet and had eaten it with as little emotion as if he had not been present at all, as if his ardent, pressing arm had not been suddenly withdrawn from her waist because of that angry intruder into their happiness. She had taken his hand when he gave it to her, and had released it again when he withdrew it, without any appearance of desire or reluctance. He had imagined that she would take his hand eagerly and yield it up unwillingly, that she would try to restrain him when he endeavoured to take his hand away from hers ... but she had not done so.
Perhaps she did not love him as he loved her. Perhaps she did not love him at all. After all, he had met her for the first time about three hours earlier in the evening. Only three hours ago! It was hard to believe that he had not loved her for centuries, had not often felt her heart beating beneath the pressure of his hand, had not frequently put his lips to her lips and been enchanted by her kisses. Why, he had only kissed her once. Only once! Once only!... He looked at her as she sat by his side, gazing intently at the stage. He could see a protuberance in her cheek, made by a piece of chocolate, and as he looked at her, it seemed to him to be a terrible thing that this girl did not love him. His love had gone out to her, quickly, insurgently and fully, and perhaps she thought no more of him than she might think of any chance friend who offered to take her to see a play. She might have spent many evenings in this very theatre with other men. Had she not told him that afternoon that she hated to be alone! He had put his arm about her waist in a public place and had been humiliated for doing so, but nothing of this had meant much to Maggie. She was quite willing to let him embrace her ... perhaps she thought that she ought to allow him to hug her as a return for the treat at the theatre ... or perhaps she liked to feel a man's arm about her waist and did not much care who the man might be. Some girls were like that. Willie Logan had told him that Carrie Furlong was the girl of any fellow who liked to walk up the road with her. She did not care with whom she went; all that she cared about was that she should have some boy in her company. She would kiss anybody.
Was Maggie Carmichael like that? Would she kiss this one or that one, just as the mood took her?... Oh, no, she could not be like that. It was impossible for him to fall in love with a girl who distributed kisses as carelessly and impassionately as a boy distributes handbills. He felt certain that he could not fall in love with a girl of that sort, that some instinct in him would prevent him from going so. Other fellows might make a mistake of that kind ... Willie Logan, for example ... but a MacDermott could not make one. Maggie must be in love with him ... she must have fallen in love with him as suddenly as he had fallen in love with her ... otherwise she could not have consented so readily to accompany him to the theatre. When he had taken her in his arms and kissed her, she had yielded to him so naturally, as if she had been in his arms many times before!... Perhaps, though, the ease with which she had yielded to him denoted that she had had much experience!... Oh, no, no! No, no! She was his girl, not anybody else's girl. He could not have her for a sweetheart, if she shared her love with other men. He must have her entirely to himself!...
Oh, what a torturing, doubt-raising, perplexing thing this Love was! A few hours ago he had known nothing whatever of it ... had merely imagined cold, austere, wrong things about it ... and now it had hold of him and was hurting him. Every particle of his mind was concentrated on this girl by his side ... a stranger to him. He knew nothing of her except her name and that she was employed as a waitress in a restaurant. She was a stranger to him ... and yet a fierce, unquenchable love for her was raging in his heart. Each moment, the flames of his passion increased in strength. When he looked away from her, he could see her in his mind's eye. Each of the players on the stage looked like Maggie.... And there she was, all unaware of this strong emotion in him, placidly sitting in her seat, gazing at the actors! Do women feel love as strongly as men do? he asked himself as he looked at her, and as he did so she turned, her head to him, conscious perhaps of his stare, and when her eyes met his in the glowing dusk of the theatre, she smiled, and, seeing her smile, he forgot his doubt and remembered only the great joy of loving her.
He insisted on taking her to her home, although she stoutly declared that this was unnecessary. She lived at Stranmillis, she said, and the journey there and back would make him miss his train; but he swore that he had plenty of time, and would not listen to her dissuasions. When they reached the terminus at the Botanic Gardens, she tried to insist that he should return to town in the tram by which they had come out, but he said that he must walk with her for a while. She would not let him accompany her to the door of her home ... he must leave her at a good distance from it ... and to this he agreed, for he knew what the etiquette of these matters is. He put his arm in hers, again drawing her close to him, and, listening to her laughter, he walked in gladness by her side. It was she who stopped. "I'll say 'Good-night' to you here," she said.
"Not yet," he replied.
"You'll miss your train," she warned him.
He did not heed her warning, but drew her into the shadow and held her tightly to him.
"Don't!" she stammered, but could not speak any more because of the strength of his kisses.
Very long he held her thus, his arms tightly round her and her lips closebound to his, and then with a great sigh of pleasure, he released her.
"You're a desperate fellow," she said, half scared, and she laughed a little.
She glanced about her for a moment. "I must run now," she said, holding out her hand.
"Not yet," he said again.
"Oh, but I must. I must!" she insisted. "Good-night!"
He took her hand. "Good-night," he replied, but did not let her hand go.
She laughed nervously. "What's wrong with you?" she said.
"I ... I'm in love with you, Maggie!" he murmured, almost inarticulately.
Her laughter lost its nervousness. "You're a boy in a hurry and a half!" she said.
"I know. Kiss me, Maggie!"
She held up her face to him. "There, then!" she said.
He kissed her again, and then again, and yet again.
"You're hurting me," she exclaimed ruefully.
"It's because I love you so much, Maggie!" he said.
"Well, let me go now!..." She stood away from him. "You have me all crumpled up," she said. "I'll be a terrible sight when I get in! Anybody'd think you'd never kissed a girl before in your life!"
"I haven't," he replied.
"I haven't. I've never kissed any other girl but you!"
"You don't expect me to believe a yarn like that?" she said.
"It's the God's truth," he answered.
"Well, nobody'd think it from the way you behave!"
He regarded her in silence for a few moments. Then he said, "Have you ever kissed anyone before?"
"I'm twenty-two." she replied.
He had not thought of her age, but if he had done so, he would not have imagined that she was more than nineteen.
"What's that got to do with it?" he asked.
"A lot," she replied. "You don't think a girl as nice-looking as me has reached my age without having kissed a fellow, do you?"
"Then you have kissed someone else?"
"I've kissed dozens," she said. "Good-night, John!"
She turned and ran swiftly from him, laughing lightly as she ran, and for a second or two, he stood blankly looking after her. Then he called to her, "Wait, Maggie, wait a minute!" and ran after her.
She stopped when she heard him calling, and waited for him to come up to her.
"When'll I see you again?" he said.
"Oh, dear knows!" she replied.
"Will you come to the theatre with me next Saturday?"
"Will you get the day off, and we'll go in the afternoon and evening, too!"
"I mightn't be let," she said. "Mrs. Bothwell mightn't agree to it!"
"Ask her anyway!..."
"I will, then. Good-night, John!"
He snatched at her hand. "Listen, Maggie," he said.
"What?" she answered.
"Do you ... do you like me?"
"Ummm ... mebbe I do!"
"I love you, Maggie!"
"Aye, so you say!" she said.
"Do you not believe me?..."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"It's true," he affirmed. "I love you!..."
"Good-night," she said.
He released her hand, but she did not go immediately. She came close to him, and put her arms about his neck and drew his face down to hers, and kissed him.
"You're a nice wee fellow," she said. "I like you queer and well!"
Then she withdrew her arms, and this time he did not try to detain her.
He missed the last train to Ballyards, but he did not mind that. He set out bravely to walk from Belfast. The silence of the streets, the deeper silence of the country roads, accorded with the pleasure in his heart. He sang to himself, and sometimes he sang aloud. He was in love with Maggie Carmichael, and she ... she liked him queer and well. He could hardly feel the ground beneath his feet. The road ran away from him. The moon and the stars shared his exultation, and the trees gaily waved their branches to him, and the leaves of the trees beat their hands together in applause. "And her sunny locks Hang on her temples like a golden fleece," he said aloud...
It was very late when he reached the door of the shop in Ballyards. His Uncle William was standing in the shade of the doorway, peering anxiously into the street.
"Is that you, John?" he called out, while John was still some distance away from the shop.
"Aye, Uncle William," John called out in reply.
Uncle William came to meet him. "Oh, whatever kept you, boy?" he said when they met.
"I missed the train," John answered.
"Your Uncle Matthew, John!..."
Anxiety came into John's mind. "Yes, Uncle?" he said.
"He's bad, John. Desperate bad! We had to send for Dr. Dobbs an hour ago, and he's still with him. I thought you'd never reach home!"
All the joy fell straight out of John's heart. He did not speak. He walked swiftly to the house, and passing through the shop, entered the kitchen, followed by his Uncle William.
THE FOURTH CHAPTER
"Your ma's upstairs with the doctor and him," said Uncle William, closing the kitchen door behind him.
"Is he very bad?" John asked in an anxious voice.
"I'm afeard so," Uncle William replied.
John went towards the staircase, but his uncle called him back. "Better not go up yet awhile," he said. "The doctor'll be down soon, mebbe, and he'll tell you whether you can go up or not."
"Very well," John murmured, coming back into the kitchen and sitting down beside the fire.
"It come on all of a sudden just before bedtime," Uncle William went on, "He wasn't looking too grand all the morning, as you know, but we never thought much of it. He never was strong, and he hasn't the strength to fight against his disease. If he dies, I'll be the last of the three brothers. Death's a strange thing, John. Your da was the cleverest and the wisest of us all, and he was the first to go; and now your Uncle Matthew, that's wise in his way, and has a great amount of knowledge in his head, is going too ... the second of us ... and I'm left, the one that could be easiest spared. It's queer to take the best one first and leave the worst 'til the last. You'd near think God had a grudge against the world!... What were you doing in Belfast the day?"
"I went to the theatre."
"Aye. What did you see?"
"I saw Romeo and Juliet in the middle of the day, and Julius Caesar at night!" John answered. "Is my Uncle Matthew unconscious?"
"No. He has all his senses about him. He knows well he's dying. Did he never speak to you about that?"
John shook his head. "I couldn't bear it if he did. Does he mind, d'you think?"
"No, he does not. Why should he mind? It's us that's left behind that's to be pitied, not them that goes. I can't make out the people of these days, the way they pity the dead and dying, when it's the living's to be pitied. Did you like the plays, John?"
John roused himself to answer. "Aye," he said, "they were grand. What happened when he took bad?"
"We had just had our supper, and he started to go up the stairs, and all of a sudden he called out for your ma, and we both ran to him together, her and me, and the look on his face frightened me. I didn't stop to hear what was wrong. I went off to fetch Dr. Dobbs as quick as I could move. I never saw Julius Caesar myself, but I mind well the time I saw Romeo and Juliet. It was an awful long time ago, when the oul' Theatre Royal ... not this one, but the one before it, that was burnt down ... and we saw Romeo and Juliet. That's a tremendous piece, John! It gripped a hold of my heart, I can tell you, and I came away from the theatre with the tears streaming down my face. I always was a soft one, anyway. That poor young boy and his lovely wee girl tormented and tortured by people that was older nor them, but hadn't half the sense! It grips you, that play!"
"Aye," said John.
"You'll hardly believe me, John, but the play was so real to me that when they talked about getting married, I said to myself I'd go and see the wedding. I did by my troth!"
"Eh?" said John abstractedly.
"I was talking about the play!..."
"Oh, aye, aye! Aye!"
"It sounds silly, I know," Uncle William continued, "but it's the God's own truth, as sure as I'm sitting here. And whenever I pass 'The Royal,' I always think of Romeo and Juliet, and I see that poor boy and girl stretched dead, and them ought to have been happy together and having fine, strong childher!"
"I wonder how he is now. Do you think I should go up now?" John said.
"Wait 'til the doctor comes down. I have great faith in Dr. Dobbs. He never humbugs you, that man, but tells you plump and plain what's wrong with you!" He sat back in his chair, and for a while there was no sound in the kitchen, but the noise of the clock and the small drooping noise made by the dying fire. There was no sound from overhead.
Uncle William glanced at the clock. He got up and stopped the pendulum. "I can't bear the sound of it," he said to John as he sat down again. They remained in silence for a while longer, and then Uncle William got up and started the clock again. "Mebbe ... mebbe, it's better for it to be going." he said.
He searched for his pipe on the mantel-shelf and, when he had found it, lit it with a coal which he picked out of the fire with the tongs.
"Your Uncle Matthew was terribly upset by it," he said, reverting to the play. "It was a wild and wet night, we had to walk every inch, of the way, for there was no late trains in them days, John, and we were drenched to the skin. Your Uncle Matthew never said one word to me the whole road home. He just held his head high and stared straight in front of him, and when I looked at him, though the night was dark, I could see that his fists were clenched and his lips were moving, though he didn't speak. You never see no plays like that, these days, John. The last piece I saw in Belfast was a fearful foolish piece, with a lot of love and villainy in it. The girl was near drowned in real water, and then the villain tied her on to a circular saw, and if it hadn't been for the hero coming in the nick of time, she'd have been cut in two. No man would treat a woman that way, tying her on to a saw! I'm afeard some of these pieces nowadays are terribly foolish, John, so I never want to go now!"
There was a sound of footsteps on the stairs, and presently Dr. Dobbs, a lean, stooping man, came into the kitchen, followed by Mrs. MacDermott. The Doctor nodded to John, and Mrs. MacDermott said, "You're back!" and then went into the scullery from which she soon returned, carrying a glass with which she hurried upstairs again.
"Your Uncle's been asking for you, John," said the doctor, drawing on his gloves.
"Can I go up and see him, sir?" John asked.
"In a minute or two. Your mother'll call for you when he's ready. I'm afraid there's not much hope, William!" the doctor said.
John leant against the mantel-shelf, waiting to hear more. He listened in a dazed way to what the doctor was saying, but hardly comprehended it, for in his mind the words, "I'm afraid there's not much hope!" made echoes and re-echoes. Uncle Matthew was dying, might, in a little while, be dead. Dear, simple, honest, kindly Uncle Matthew who had loved literature and good faith too well, and had suffered for his simple loyalty.
"He's easier now than he was," the doctor continued, "and he may last a good while ... and he may not. I think he'll last a while yet, but he might die before the morning. I want you to be prepared for the worst. You know where to find me if you want me, William!"
"I've left him in good hands. Your mother's a great nurse, John," he said, turning to the boy.
"Can I go up to him now, doctor?"
"Yes, I think perhaps ... oh, yes, I think you may. But go up quietly, will you, in case he's dozed off!..."
John did not wait to hear any more, but, walking on tiptoe, went up the stairs to his uncle's room.
Uncle Matthew turned to greet him as he entered the room.
"Is that you, John?" he said.
"Yes, Uncle Matthew," John answered, tiptoeing to the side of the bed. "I'm sorry I wasn't here earlier. I never thought!..."
Uncle Matthew smiled at him. "Sure, son, it doesn't matter. You couldn't know ... none of us did. Well, was the play good?"
But John did not wish to speak about the play. He wished only to sit by his Uncle's bed and hold his Uncle's hand.
"I'll go downstairs now for a wee while," Mrs. MacDermott said. "I have a few things to do, and John can call me if you need me, Matt!"
"Aye, Hannah!" said Uncle Matthew.
John looked up at his mother, but she had turned to leave the room, and he could not see her face.
He had never heard her call his Uncle by the name of "Matt" before, nor had he often heard Uncle Matthew use her Christian name in addressing her. He avoided it, John had observed, as much as possible, and it had seemed to him that his Uncle did so because of his mother's antagonism to him.
"What are you staring at, John?" Uncle Matthew said feebly.
"She called you 'Matt', Uncle!"
"That's my name," Uncle Matthew replied, smiling at his nephew.
"She used to call me 'Matt' before she was married, and for a wee while afterwards, when we were all friends together. Your da's death was a fearful blow to her, and she never overed it. And she thought I was a bad influence on you, filling your head with stuff out of books. You see, John, women are not like men ... they don't value things the way we do ... and things that seem important to us, aren't worth a flip of your hand to them. And the other way round, I suppose. But a woman can't be bitter against a sick man, no matter how much she hated him when he had his health. That's where we have the whiphand of them, John. They can't stand against us when we're sick, but we can stand up against anything, well or sick!..."
John remembered his mother's caution that he was not to let his Uncle talk much.
"You ought to lie still, Uncle Matthew," he said, but Uncle Matthew would not heed him.
"I'm as well as I'll ever be." he said. "I know rightly I'll never leave this bed 'til I'm carried out of it for good and all. And I'm not going to deny myself the pleasure of a talk for the sake of an extra day or two!..."
"Wheesht, Uncle Matthew!" John begged.
"Why, son, what's there to cry about? I'm not afeard to die. No MacDermott was ever afeard to die, and I won't be the first to give in. Oh, dear, no!"
"But you'll get better, Uncle Matthew, you will, if you'll only take care of yourself!..."
"Ah, quit blethering John. I won't get better!... What were we saying? Something about your ma!..."
"Yes. Her calling you 'Matt'!"
"Oh, aye. You'd be surprised, mebbe, to hear that your Uncle William and me both had a notion of her before your da stepped in and took her from us? We had no chance against him. That man could have lifted a queen from a king's bed!..."
"You ought not to be talking so much, Uncle Matthew!"
"Ah, let me talk, John. It's the only comfort I have, and I'll get all the rest I want by and bye. Was it a girl kept you late the night?"
"How did you know, Uncle Matthew?"
"How did I know!" Uncle Matthew said with raillery. "How would anyone know anything but by using the bit of wit the Almighty God's put in his head. What is it makes any lad lose his train, and walk miles in the dark? It's either women or drink ... and you're no drinker, John. Tell me about her. I'd like to be the first to know!"
"I only met her the day!..."
"I hardly know her yet ... but she's lovely!"
"Go on ... go on!"
"I took her to the theatre with me to see Julius Caesar and then I left her home. She lives up near the Lagan ... out Stranmillis way!..."
"I know it well," said Uncle Matthew. "Is she a fair girl or a dark girl?"
"She has the loveliest golden hair you ever clapped your eyes on. It was that made me fall in love with her!..."
"You're in love with her then! You're not just going with her?"
"Of course I'm in love with her. I never was in the habit of just going with girls. That's all right, mebbe, for Willie Logan, but I'm not fond of it," said John indignantly.
"You fell in love with her in a terrible great hurry," Uncle Matthew exclaimed.
"Aye," said John laughing. "It was queer and comic the way I fell in love with her, for I had no notion of such a thing when I went in the shop to have my tea. She's in a restaurant off High Street. I'd been to the Royal to see Romeo and Juliet, and I was full of the play and just wandering about, not thinking of what I was doing, when all of a sudden I saw this place fornent my eyes, and I just went in, and she was there by her lone. The woman that keeps the place had gone home with a sore head, and left her to look after it!"
"What's her name?"
"Maggie Carmichael. It's a nice name. They don't do much trade on a Saturday, and her and me were alone in the shop by ourselves so I asked her to have tea with me, and then I asked her to go to the Royal, and she agreed after a while, and when it was over, I took her home, and that's why I missed the train and had to tramp it the whole way home. She's older nor I am. She says she's twenty-two. She was codding me for never having kissed any other girl but her!..."
"You got that length, did you?"
"Aye," said John in confusion.
"You're like your da. Take what you want, the minute you want it. She'll think you're in earnest, John!"
"I am in earnest. I couldn't be any other way. How could a man feel about a woman, the way I feel about her, and not be in earnest?"
"As easy as winking," said Uncle Matthew. "You'll mebbe be in love a hundred times before you marry, and every time you'll think it's the right one at last. There's no law in love, John. You can't say about it, that you've got to know a woman well before you're safe in marrying her, nor you can't just shut your eyes and grab hold of the first one that comes to your hand. There's no law, John ... none at all. It's an adventure, love. That's what it is. You don't know what lies at the end of your journey ... and you can't know ... and mebbe when you reach the end, you don't know. You just have to take your chance, and trust to God it'll be all right! Is she in love with you?"
"I don't know. I don't suppose so. She made fun of me, so I suppose she can't be. But she said she liked me."
"Making fun of you is nothing to go by. Some women would make fun of God Almighty, and think no harm of it. You'll soon know whether she's in love with you or not, my son!"
"How will I, Uncle Matthew?"
"When she begins to treat you as if you were her property. That's a sure and certain sign. The minute a woman looks at a man as much as to say, 'That fellow belongs to me,' she's in love with him, as sure as death. Anyway, she's going to marry him! Boys-a-boys, John, but you're the lucky lad with all your youth and health in front of you, and you setting out in the world. Many's the time I've longed at nights to be lying snug and comfortable and quiet in a woman's arms, but I never had that pleasure. Whatever you do, John, don't die an unmarried man like your Uncle William and me. It's better to live with a cross sour-natured woman nor it is to live with no woman at all; for even the worst woman in the world has given a wee while of happiness to her man, and he always has that in his mind to comfort him however bad she turns out after. And if she is bad, sure you can run away from her!"
"Run away from her! You'd never advocate the like of that, Uncle Matthew?"
"I would. I'm a dying man, John, and mebbe I'll be dead by the morrow's morn, so you may be sure I'm saying things now that I mean with all my heart, for no man wants to go before his God with lies on his lips. And I tell you now, boy, that if a man and woman are not happy together, they ought to separate and go away from each other as far as they can get, no matter what the cost is. Them's my solemn words, John. I'd like well to see this girl you're after, but I'll mebbe not be able. No matter for that. Pay heed to me now, for fear I don't get the opportunity to say it to you again. Whatever adventures you set out on, never forget they're only adventures, and if one turns out to be bad, another'll mebbe turn out to be good. Don't be like me, don't let one thing affect your life for ever!..." He lay back on his pillow for a few moments and did not speak. John waited a little while, and then he leant forward. "Will I fetch my ma?" he asked.
Uncle Matthew shook his head and waved feebly with his hand, and John sat back again in his chair.
"Life's just balancing one adventure against another," Uncle Matthew said at last, without raising his head from the pillow. "The good against the bad. And the happy man is him that can set off a lot of good adventures against bad ones, and have a balance of good ones in his favour. But it takes courage to have a lot, John. The Jenny-joes of the world never try again after the first bad one. I ... I was staggered that time ... I ... I never got my foothold again. The balance is against me, John!..."
Mrs. MacDermott came into the room.
"It's time you went to your bed, son," she said, "and your Uncle'll want to get to sleep, mebbe. Are you all right, Matt?"
"I'm nicely, thank you, Hannah!"
John got up from his seat and said "Good-night!" to his Uncle.
"Good-night, John. Mind well what I've said to you!"
"I will, Uncle Matthew!"
"Good-night, son, dear!" said Uncle Matthew, smiling at him.
In the morning, Uncle Matthew was better than he had been during the night, and Dr. Dobbs, when he called to see him, thought that he would live for several weeks more. John went down to the kitchen from his Uncle's room, happy at the thought that his Uncle might recover in spite of the doctor's statement that death was inevitable within a short time. Doctors, he told himself, had made many mistakes, and perhaps Dr. Dobbs was making a mistake about Uncle Matthew.
He had lain late, heavy with fatigue, for Mrs. MacDermott had not called him at his usual hour and so the morning was well advanced when he came down.
"There's a letter for you," said Uncle William, pointing to the mantel-shelf, where a foolscap envelope rested against the clock. "It'll be about the story, I'm thinking!"
John took the letter in his trembling fingers and tore it open.
"They've sent it back," he said in a low tone.
"There'll be a note with it," Uncle William murmured.
"Yes!..." He straightened out the printed note and read it. "They've declined it," he said.
"They've what?" Uncle William exclaimed, taking the printed slip from John's hands. He read the note of rejection through several times.
"What does it say?" Mrs. MacDermott asked.
"It's a queer kind of a note, this!" said Uncle William. "You'd think the man was breaking his heart at the idea of not printing the story. He doesn't say anything about it, whether it's good or bad. He just thanks John for sending it to him and says he's sorry he can't accept it. If he's so sorry as all that, why the hell doesn't he print it?"
"William!" said Mrs. MacDermott sharply. "This is Sunday!"
"Well, dear knows I don't want to desecrate God's Day," Uncle William answered, accepting the rebuke, "but that is a lamentable letter to get. I must say!"
Mrs. MacDermott held her hand out for the letter. "Give it to me," she said, and she took it from Uncle William.
"This is his way of saying your story's no good, John," she said, when she had read through the note. "No man would refuse a thing if he thought it was worth printing!"
Her words hurt John very sorely. He looked at her, but he did not speak, and then, after a moment or two, he turned away.
"Now, now, that's not right at all," Uncle William said comfortingly. "There might be a thousand things to prevent the man from printing the story. Mebbe he doesn't know a good story when he sees it. Sure, half these papers nowadays print stories that would turn a child's stomach, and a thing's not bad just because one paper won't take it. There's other magazines besides Blackwood's, John, as good, too, and mebbe better!" He went over to his nephew and put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "There, there, now, don't let this upset you! Your Uncle Matthew was telling me the other day that some of the greatest writers in the world had their best stories refused time after time. Don't lose heart over a thing like that!"
"I haven't lost heart, Uncle William. I daresay it isn't as good as I thought it was, but I'll improve. It wasn't to be expected I'd succeed the first time!"
"That's the spirit, boy. That's the spirit!"
"Only I'm disappointed all the same. It's likely I don't know enough yet!"
"Oh, that's very likely," said Uncle William. "You're only a young fellow yet, you know!"
"Mebbe that story of mine is full of ignorant mistakes I wouldn't have made if I'd been about the world a bit and seen more!"
"I daresay you're right! I daresay you're right!..."
Mrs. MacDermott came between them. "What are you leading up to?" she demanded.
"I must travel a bit before I start writing things," John answered. "I must know more and see more. My Uncle Matthew's right. You have to go out into the world to get adventure and romance!..."
"Can't you get all the adventure and romance you need in this place, and not go tramping among strangers and foreigners for it?" Mrs. MacDermott retorted angrily.
"How can I get adventure and romance in a place where I know everybody?" John rejoined.
"Are you proposing to leave home, John!" Uncle William asked.
"Aye! For a while anyway," John answered, "I'll go to London!..."
"You'll not go to no London," Mrs. MacDermott retorted, "and your Uncle, Matthew lying on his deathbed!..."