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   Chapter 1 No.1

General John Regan By George A. Birmingham Characters: 20363

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The Irish police barrack is invariably clean, occasionally picturesque, but it is never comfortable. The living-room, in which the men spend their spare time, is furnished with rigid simplicity. There is a table, sometimes two tables, but they have iron legs. There are benches to sit on, very narrow, and these also have iron legs. Iron is, of course, harder than wood. Men who are forced to look at it and rub their legs against it at meal times are likely to obtain a stern, martial spirit. Wood, even oak, might in the long run have an enervating effect on their minds. The Government knows this, and if it were possible to have tables and benches with iron tops as well as iron legs police barracks in Ireland would be furnished with them. On the walls of the living-room are stands for arms. Here are ranged the short carbines with which, in extreme emergencies, the police shoot at the other inhabitants of Ireland. The sight of these weapons serves to remind the men that they form a military force.

Near the carbines hang a few pairs of handcuffs, unobtrusively, because no one wants to emphasize the fact that the police in Ireland have to deal with ordinary wrong doers as well as with turbulent mobs. Ornament of every kind is rigorously excluded from these rooms. It is all very well to aim at the development of the aesthetic faculty for children by putting pictures and scraggy geraniums in pots into schoolrooms. No one wants a policeman to be artistic. But the love of the beautiful breaks out occasionally, even in policemen who live in barracks. Constable Moriarty, for instance, had a passion for music. He whistled better than any man in Ballymoy, and spent much of his leisure in working up thrilling variations of popular tunes.

Being confined by the call of duty to the living-room of the barrack in Ballymoy for a whole morning, he had accomplished a series of runs and trills through which the air of "The Minstrel Boy" seemed to struggle for expression. His attention was fixed on this composition, and not at all on the newspaper which lay across his knees.

At twelve o'clock he rose from the bench on which he was sitting and allowed the newspaper to fall in a crumpled heap on the floor at his feet. He stretched himself and yawned. Then he glanced round the barrack-room with an air of weariness. Sergeant Colgan, his tunic unbuttoned, his grey flannel shirt open at the neck, dozed uncomfortably in a corner. Moriarty looked at him enviously. The sergeant was much the older man of the two, and was besides of portly figure. Sleep came easily to him under the most unpromising circumstances. Moriarty was not more than twenty four years of age. He was mentally and physically an active man. Before he went to work on "The Minstrel Boy" he had wooed sleep in vain. Even a three days' old copy of the Weekly Freeman had brought him no more than a series of stupefying yawns. If a man cannot go to sleep over a back number of a weekly paper there is no use his trying to go to sleep at all. He may as well whistle tunes.

Moriarty left the living-room in which the sergeant slept and went out to the door of the barrack. He stared across the market square. The sun shone pitilessly. Except for a fat white dog, which lay asleep in the gutter opposite the shop of Kerrigan, the butcher, no living thing was to be seen. Hot days are so rare in west of Ireland towns that the people succumb to them at once. Business, unless it happens to be market day, absolutely ceases in a town like Ballymoy when the thermometer registers anything over eighty degrees. Moriarty stretched himself again and yawned. He looked at the illustrated poster which hung on a board beside the barrack door. It proclaimed the attractiveness of service in the British army. It moved him to no interest, because he had seen it every day since he first came to Ballymoy. The gaudy uniforms depicted on it excited no envy in his mind. His own uniform was of sober colouring, but it taught him all he wanted to know about the discomfort of such clothes in hot weather. His eyes wandered from the poster and remained fixed for some time on the front of the office of the Connacht Advocate. The door was shut and the window blind was pulled down. An imaginative man might have pictured Mr. Thaddeus Gallagher, the editor, penning ferocious attacks upon landlords at his desk inside, or demonstrating, in spite of the high temperature, the desperate wickedness of all critics of the Irish Party. But Moriarty was by temperament a realist. He suspected that Thaddeus Gallagher, divested of his coat and waistcoat, was asleep, with his feet on the office table. Next to the newspaper office was the Imperial Hotel, owned and managed by Mr. Doyle. Its door was open, so that any one with sufficient energy for such activity might go in and get a drink at the bar. Moriarty gazed at the front of the hotel for a long time, so long that the glare of light reflected from its whitewashed walls brought water to his eyes. Then he turned and looked into the barrack again. Beside him, just outside the door of the living-room, hung a small framed notice, which stated that Constable Moriarty was on guard. He looked at it. Then he peeped into the living-room and satisfied himself that the sergeant was still sound asleep. It was exceedingly unlikely that Mr. Gregg, the District Inspector of the Police, would visit the barrack on such a very hot day. Moriarty buttoned his tunic, put his forage cap on his head, and stepped out of the barrack.

He crossed the square towards Doyle's Hotel. A hostile critic of the Royal Irish Constabulary-and there are such critics even of this excellent body of men-might have suspected Moriarty of adventuring in search of a drink. The great heat of the day and the extreme dulness of keeping guard over a barrack which no one ever attacks might have excused a longing for bottled porter. It would have been unfair to blame Moriarty if he had entered the bar of the hotel and wakened Mr. Doyle. But he did no more than glance through the open door. He satisfied himself that Mr. Doyle, like the sergeant and Mr. Thaddeus Gallagher, was sound asleep. Then he passed on and turned down a narrow laneway at the side of the hotel.

This led him into the yard at the back of the hotel. A man of delicate sensibilities would have shrunk from entering Mr. Doyle's yard on a hot day. It was exceedingly dirty, and there were a great many decaying things all over it, besides a manure heap in one corner and a pig-stye in another. But Constable Moriarty had no objection to bad smells. He sat down on the low wall of the pig-stye and whistled "Kathleen Mavourneen." He worked through the tune twice creditably, but without attempting variations. He was just beginning it a third time when a door at the back of the hotel opened and a girl came out. Moriarty stopped whistling and grinned at her amiably. She was a very pretty girl, but she was nearly as dirty as the yard. Her short skirt was spotted and stained from waist-band to the ragged fringe where there had once been a hem. Her boots were caked with dry mud. They were several sizes too large for her and seemed likely to fall off when she lifted her feet from the ground. A pink cotton blouse was untidily fastened at her neck with a brass safety pin. Her hair hung in a thick pig-tail down her back. In the higher ranks of society in Connacht, as elsewhere, girls are generally anxious to pose as young women at the earliest possible moment. They roll up their hair and fasten it with hairpins as soon as their mothers allow them. But girls of the peasant class in the west of Ireland put off the advance of womanhood as long as they can. Wiser than their more fashionable sisters, they dread the cares and responsibilities of adult life. Up to the age of twenty, twenty-one, or twenty-two, they still wear their hair in pig-tails and keep their skirts above their ankles.

"Is that you, Mary Ellen?" said Constable Moriarty.

The girl stood still. She was carrying a bucket full of a thick yellow liquid in her right hand. She allowed it to rest against her leg. A small portion of its contents slopped over and still further stained her skirt. She looked at Constable Moriarty out of the corners of her eyes for a moment. Then she went on again towards the pig-stye. She had large brown eyes with thick lashes. Her hair was still in a pig-tail, and her skirt was far from covering the tops of her boots; but she had a precocious understanding of the art of looking at a man out of the corners of her eyes. Moriarty was agreeably thrilled by her glance.

"Is it the pig you're going to feed?" he asked.

"It is," said Mary Ellen.

A very chivalrous man, or one trained in the conventions of what is called polite society, might have left his seat on the wall and helped the girl to carry the bucket across the yard. Moriarty did neither the one nor the other. Mary Ellen did not expect that he would. It was her business and not his to feed the pigs. Besides, the bucket was very full. That its contents should stain her dress did not matter. It would have been a much more serious thing if any of the yellow slop had trickled down Constable Moriarty's beautiful trousers.

She reached the pig-stye, lifted the bucket, and tipped the contents into a wooden trough. Constable Moriarty, still seated on the wall, watched her admiringly. Her sleeves were rolled up above the elbows. She had very well-shaped, plump, brown arms.

"There's many a man," he said, "might be glad enough to be that pig."

Mary Ellen looked up at him with an air of innocent astonishment.

"Why would he then?" she said.

"The way he'd have you bringing his dinner to him," said Moriarty.

This compliment must have been very gratifying to Mary Ellen, but she made no reply to it. She set down the empty bucket on the ground and rubbed her hands slowly on the sides of her skirt Moriarty probably felt that he had done as much as could be expected of him in the way of pretty speeches. He whistled "Kathleen Mavourneen" through once while Mary Ellen wiped her hands dry. She picked up her buck

et again and turned to go away.

"Tell me this now," said Moriarty. "Did ever you have your fortune told?"

"I did not," she said.

"It's what I'm good at," said Moriarty, "is telling fortunes. There was an aunt of mine one time that was terrible skilful at it. It was her taught me."

"It's a pity she had no more sense."

"If you was to sit up on the wall beside me," said Moriarty, "and if you was to lend me the loan of your hand for one minute--"

"Get out," said Mary Ellen.

"You'd be surprised, so you would," said Moriarty, "at the things I'd tell you."

"I might."

"You would."

"But I won't be," said Mary Ellen, "for I've more to do than to be listening to you."

"Where's the hurry?" said Moriarty. "Sure the day's long."

The affair might have ended in a manner pleasant to Moriarty and interesting to the pig. The attraction of the occult would in all probability have overcome Mary Ellen's maidenly suspicions. She might not have sat upon the wall. She would have almost certainly have yielded her sticky hand if a sudden sound had not startled Moriarty. A motor-car hooted at the far end of the village street. Moriarty jumped off the wall.

"There's one of them motor-cars," he said, "and the fellow that's in her will be stopping at the barrack for to ask his way to somewhere. It's a curious thing, so it is, that them motor drivers never knows the way to the place they're going to, and it's always the police they ask, as if the police had nothing to do but to attend to them. I'll have to be off."

He left the yard, hurried down the narrow lane, and crossed the road to the barrack. Just as he reached it the car, a large, opulent-looking vehicle, stopped outside Doyle's Hotel. Moriarty went into the barrack and wakened the sergeant. He had a keen sense of his duty towards his superior officer. It would not have been kind or right to allow the sergeant to sleep through an event so unusual as the stopping of a handsome motor outside the door of the Imperial Hotel.

The car was a large one, but it carried only a single traveller. He was a lean, sharp-faced man, clean shaven, with very piercing hard grey eyes. He blew three blasts on the horn of his motor. Then Mr. Doyle came out of the door. He blinked irritably at the stranger. The strong sunlight affected his eyes, and the rude way in which he had been awakened from his sleep overcame for a moment the natural instinct of the hotel keeper. All hotel keepers are civil to possible guests. Otherwise they would not succeed in their business. Mr. Doyle knew this, but he scarcely realised at first that the gentleman in the motor-car might be a guest. His was not a tourist's hotel and he had been very sound asleep.

"Say," said the stranger, "are you the proprietor?"

"I am," said Doyle.

"Can I register?" said the motorist.

The word was strange to Doyle, Guests at his hotel were very few. A commercial traveller stopped a night with him occasionally, trying to push the sale of drapery goods or boots in Ballymoy. An official of a minor kind, an instructor in agriculture, or a young lady sent out to better the lot of domestic fowls, was stranded now and then in Ballymoy and therefore obliged to spend the night in Doyle's hotel. But such chance strangers merely asked for rooms and food. They did not want to "register."

"Can you what?" said Doyle.

"Register," said the stranger.

"I don't know can you," said Doyle. "This is a backward place, but you might try them at the police barrack. The sergeant's an obliging man, and if the thing can be done I wouldn't doubt but he'd do it for you."

"You don't kind of catch on to my meaning," said the stranger. "What I want is to stop a day or two in your hotel."

Doyle suddenly realised the possibilities of the situation.

"You can do that of course," he said, "and welcome. I'd be glad if we had a gentleman like yourself every day of the week."

He turned as he spoke and shouted for Mary Ellen.

"Business pretty stagnant?" said the stranger.

"You may say that. Mary Ellen, Mary Ellen! Come here, I say."

The stranger got out of his car. He looked up and down the empty street.

"Guess," he said, "since I travelled in this slumbrous old country of yours I've seen considerable stagnation, but this licks the worst I've struck yet. Your town pretty well fathoms the depths. Are the folks here alive at all?"

"They are, of course."

Doyle looked round him as he spoke. He saw a good deal that the stranger missed. Sergeant Colgan and Constable Moriarty standing well back inside the barrack door, were visible, dim figures in the shadow, keenly alert, surveying the stranger. Young Kerrigan, the butcher's son, crouched, half concealed, behind the body of a dead sheep which hung from a hook outside the door of his father's shop. He too was watching. One side of the window blind of the Connacht Eagle office was pulled aside. Thaddeus Gallagher was without doubt peering at the motor-car through a corner of the window. Three small boys were lurking among the packing cases which stood outside a shop further down the street. Doyle felt justified in repeating his statement that many of the inhabitants of Ballymoy were alive.

"There is," he said, "many a one that's alive enough, though I don't say but that business might be brighter. Mary Ellen, I say, come here."

Mary Ellen appeared at the door of the hotel. She had improved her appearance slightly by putting on an apron. But she had not found time to wash her face. This was not her fault. Washing is a serious business. In Mary Ellen's case it would have taken a long time if it were to be in the least effective. Doyle's call was urgent.

"Why didn't you come when you heard me calling you?" he said.

Mary Ellen looked at him with a gentle tolerant smile. She belonged to a race which had discovered the folly of being in a hurry about anything. She knew that Doyle was not really in a hurry, though he pretended to be.

"Amn't I coming?" she said.

Then she looked at the stranger. He, being a stranger and apparently a man of some other nation, might perhaps really be in a hurry. Such people sometimes are. But his eccentricities in no way mattered to Mary Ellen. The wisdom of the ages was hers. The Irish have it. So have eastern peoples. They will survive when the fussy races have worn themselves out. She gave the stranger one glance of half contemptuous pity and then looked at the motorcar.

"Now that you are here," said Doyle severely, "will you make yourself useful?"

Mary Ellen stared at the motor-car. Her beautiful brown eyes opened very wide. Her mouth opened slightly and expanded in a smile. A long line of the black transferred from the kitchen kettle to her cheek reached from her ear to the point of her chin. It was broken as her smile broadened and finally part of it was lost in the hollow of a dimple which appeared. Mary Ellen had never before seen so splendid a motor.

"Will you stop grinning," said Doyle, "and take the gentleman's things into the house?"

"My name," said the stranger, "is Billing, Horace P. Billing."

"Do you hear that now?" said Doyle to Mary Ellen.

She approached the motor-car cautiously, still smiling. Mr. Billing handed out two bags and then a photographic camera with tripod legs, strapped together. Doyle took one of the bags. Mary Ellen took the other. Mr. Billing himself carried the camera.

"It occurs to me," said Mr. Billing, "that this town kind of cries out to be wakened up a bit."

"I wouldn't say," said Doyle, "but it might be the better of it."

Mary Ellen turned round and looked at Mr. Billing. She felt that he was likely, if he were really bent on waking up the town, to begin with her. It did not please her to be wakened up. She looked at Mr. Billing anxiously. She wanted to know whether he were the kind of man who would be able to rouse her to unusual activity.

"Where I come from," said Mr. Billing, "I'm reckoned to hustle quite considerable. I'd rather like to try if I could get a move on your folks."'

"You can try," said Doyle. "I'd be glad if you'd try, for the place wants it."

No harm could possibly come of the effort; and it was likely to occupy Mr. Billing for several days. The prospect was gratifying to Doyle. A guest who travelled in a very large motor-car might be made to pay heavily for his rooms and his meals.

Five small boys came out of different houses up and down the street. When Mr. Billing, Doyle and Mary Ellen entered the hotel the boys drifted together towards the motor-car. They walked all round it. They peered cautiously into it. The boldest of them prodded the tyres with his fingers. The window of the office of the Connacht Eagle was opened, and Mr. Thaddeus Gallagher looked out Young Kerrigan emerged from the shelter of the body of the dead sheep and stood outside the shop. His father joined him. Both of them stared at the motor-car. Sergeant Colgan, followed by Constable Moriarty, stepped out of the police barrack and stalked majestically across the street. The sergeant frowned heavily at the small boys.

"Be off out of that, every one of yez," he said.

The small boys retreated at once. The law, in spite of all that is said to the contrary, is greatly respected in the west of Ireland. Sergeant Colgan would have made it respected anywhere. His appearance was far more impressive than that of any judge in his robes of office. Constable Moriarty, who was more than six feet high, was impressive too.

"That's a fine car," said the sergeant.

"It is," said Moriarty, "as fine a one as ever I seen."

"The man that owns it will be a high up man," said the sergeant.

"He will," said Moriarty.

The sergeant looked into the car. He gazed at the steering-wheel with interest. He glanced intelligently at the levers. His eyes rested finally on a speedometer.

"The like of that," he said, pointing it out to Moriarty, "is what I never seen before."

"I've heard of them," said Moriarty.

"There's a clock along with it," said the sergeant.

"The man that owns it," said Moriarty, "must have a power of money."

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