BY NED EGAN
Reader, the following tale/drama was passed on to me in dribs and drabs, all, naturally, from ‘the old days.’ There will be some subsequent chapters, each one more or less a story on its own – but linked as well.
I can only give facts as well as I can assemble them. Truth there is in fair supply – but even Shakespeare had to invent the odd scenario in order to stitch in missing patches, to create a pattern. Anyway – as that incomparable wordsmith declaimed – “The Tale’s the Thing!” And remember – I, Ned,am narrating and acting the part of Jonathon Conway, who is no longer about…
It was 1940, wartime, and I, J Conway was on a special mission to the USA. Based in England, I and my new wife Marie took the opportunity to visit our old haunts in Kilkenny Town, on our way to Waterford, then to Cobh. So, we headed down to Waterford, and booked into a small hotel on the Quay. Honeymoon nights were still upon us, and, listening to the midnight River Suir slapping around the bridge in gusty September storms of rain, we were fulfilling our Biblical obligations by getting down to that natural friendly business that is traditional with all newly married couples. We had, after all, been enjoined by the Big Man in the sky to ‘go forth and multiply.’ In this cultural and religious obligatory task, we soldiered on manfully – and womanfully…
We were, of course, conscious of the daintily-prowling activities of the virtuous-seeming old hotel manageress, but didn’t pay too much attention to her quiet footfalls. Although the marriage bed was of the well-strung instrumental genre – and therefore wont to play sweet music as an accompaniment to whatever joyous love-song was currently being performed by moonstruck man and magical macushla. Which efforts varied in cadence and rhythm between Ravel’s frenetic ‘Toccata’ – and the dreamy ‘Blue Danube.’ Just before drifting off to well-earned sleep, trembling on the peaceful velvety air, came a sweet rendition – in a small faded contralto – of “She’s only a Bird in a Gilded Cage” – right outside our door! We smiled as Morpheus swept us away to his world of dreams…
At the breakfast, our dear ancient hostess was gracious and kind, and enquired sweetly – if ‘we’d slept well’ – with an innocent smile that disarmed that stealthy old question! She then surprised us by disclosing her own tale of old romance.
“A, sure my own luck ran out before I could know the delights of marriage and love,” she said, wistfully. “I had a fellow, Nathanial Storm, a fine young man, who went to Australia to make his fortune. I got four letters, then silence. His talk was mainly about missing Ireland, and me. His sister called to me a few months after the last letter, in 1901. We were all close – his whole family really wanted me to join them. There was something intellectual and aristocratic about the Storm clan – there were ‘big people’ in their lineage, way back. She, Violet, told me Nathanial had gone into the West Australian Bush looking for gold, and never came back. I didn’t know what she meant – didn’t know that gold grew on the bushes down that way. He, or even bits of him – were never to be found, anyway…
“I hope you didn’t mind me singing that little song outside your door – you probably thought ‘crazy old woman!’” We assured her, and it was true – that we were delighted – not at all offended. This pleased her. “I do it sometimes” she went on “to bring young couples luck – especially those who appear nice and really in love with each other. The ‘Bird in the Gilded Cage’ wasn’t meant for you, Marie – that was me – all these years waiting, hoping Nathanial would come back, squashing any feelings I might have had for other men, keeping myself pure for him.
“That was the way we were, the way life was, in those days. I couldn’t betray him. Even if I’d been told that some wanderer came on his sad lonely bones, I’d not have wed another. We’ll meet in Paradise, Nathanial and me. Maybe God can arrange some tiny corner in a Garden of Eden for us to honeymoon in! I know that’s sacrilege, but I’m sure the ‘Great Man’ would forgive an ancient woman these strange old thoughts… I doubt I could find Nathanial amongst the crowds Up There There, though.
“I pray every day that we’ll meet again. I hope you don’t mind me talking like this. To tell the truth, I seldom mention Nathanial. Everyone thinks I’m just an old maid, but; strange as it may seem, I’ve had a deeper love than most, in that my man has never disappointed me, nor I him.”
It was a great little story; I told her I was a writer, and would like to publish her tale of faithful love, and cruel loss. At this she gave a little cry of astonishment: “A writer? That’s amazing! I don’t know what to say!” I hastily assured her I wasn’t anywhere near the high league inhabited by Tolstoy or Sir Walter Scott – but merely a paid scribbler for an English paper. “Never mind that” she said, in a rush – “Nathanial left me a bundle of diaries and notes that came down through his antecedents, and finished up with him. He said in his very last letter that if anything happened to him – I was to ‘get some writer to put the whole lot together into a story. That’s what amazed me, Jonathon. Apparently there was a beautiful and very clever girl, way back a century ago, who came into Nathanial’s ancestry in some unusual and spectacular way. I don’t know if it turned into an ‘event’ or what, but it was a strange and odd episode – without being harmful or dangerous to anyone.
“Violet knew bits about it – and said ‘go ahead with whatever Nat wished – old affairs mean nothing these days – and if it is what he wanted – that’s good enough for all of us.’
“So there you are, Jonathon. I know you’re away tomorrow to America – you’ll catch the boat – but it looks like I’ve missed another, in this life. If you ever come back, the bundle is in the bank safety deposit box. I wouldn’t want a fire or a flood to destroy it. But it doesn’t leave the County, ever. So, if you return, the two of you call in, and I’ll place the whole lot in your hands. If I’m not around by then, I’ll leave them to you in my will. They’ll be in the bank just below, on the next corner.”
Well, I was dumbstruck. Here was a chance for me to write and publish a story of huge interest – and here was I – going thousands of miles away! What to do? What on earth to do?
So, we say our goodbye’s – Hanora didn’t want to take the money for the night, but we insisted – and headed off to Cork, and Cobh, to catch this old rust bucket.
“We’re going to sea in a sieve, a sieve!” we sang, reclining in our Spartan cabin – with reasonably high hopes of making it to New York – enemy explosive ordnance permitting. Heaven – or Hell – were the alternatives. Wallowing along at about eighteen knots – the subs, incidentally, could do twenty – we watched the great rollers of the Atlantic cruise by in stately shapely, mountains – and hoped that each and every Fritzie Germanicus was off on holiday – killing time in some barracks – or off killing somebody else. It was that time of the year, when the moon was as big as a house, and the reclusive fellow who dwelt there had a face as yellow as a giant primrose.
The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of The Kilkenny Observer.