The other servants—there were four of them—spoke of her as “the ould cat” or in moments of extreme exasperation “that divil Biddy O’Halloran.” When they spoke to her they called her “Mrs. O’Halloran,” or even “Mrs. O’Halloran, ma’am.” Even Lady Devereux, though nominal mistress of the house, did not dare to call her “Biddy.” She would as soon have addressed an archbishop as “Dickie,” if, indeed, there is an arch-bishop whose Christian name is Richard. There is probably not a woman anywhere, however brave, who would venture to speak to Mrs. O’Halloran face to face and call her “Biddy.” But a man, especially if he be young and good-looking, is in a different case. Harry Devereux called her “Biddy.” He had earned the right to be familiar with his aunt’s cook.
As a schoolboy Harry spent most of his holidays at his aunt’s house in Dublin, and in those days Mrs. O’Halloran used to box his ears and occasionally spank him. When he grew to be a man and was called in due course to the Irish Bar, he was often at his aunt’s house and still visited Mrs. O’Halloran in her kitchen. She gave up smacking him but she still called him “Master Harry,” After the outbreak of war Harry Devereux became a Second Lieutenant in the Wessex Regiment. He displayed himself in his uniform to his aunt, who admired his appearance in her placid way. He also showed himself to Mrs. O’Halloran, who snubbed him sharply.
Although not mentioned in the text, the rebels in George A. Birmingham’s story are taking part in the 1916 Easter Rising insurrection in Dublin. Whatever the cause, Biddy O’Halloran will not allow it to interfere with the efficient operation of her Lady’s household.
This story appears in Birmingham’s collection Our Casualty and Other Stories, which you will find at Project Gutenberg.
“So it’s fighting you’re for now, Master Harry,” she said. “Well, it’s what’ll suit you. It’s my opinion that you’re never out of mischief only when you’re in something worse. It is that way with you as long as I know you and that’s since you were born or pretty near. It’s the Germans, is it? Well, I’m sorry for them Germans if there’s many like you going to be soldiers.”
Harry took this as a compliment. It was his hope that the Germans would be sorry for themselves when he got out to France with his platoon of Wessex men.
After dinner, Molly, the parlourmaid, her day’s work ended, became sentimental. She said it was a terrible thing to think of all the fine men that would be killed, and maybe young Mr. Devereux among them. Mrs. O’Halloran checked her flow of feeling.
“Is it Master Harry be killed? Talk sense, can’t you? Sure you couldn’t kill the like of that one. Haven’t I seen him, not once but a dozen times, climbing out on the roof of the house and playing himself to and fro among the chimneys. If that wasn’t the death of him, and him not more than twelve years old at the time, is it likely the Germans would be able to kill him? The like of him is the same as fleas that you’d be squeezing with your finger and thumb or maybe drowning in a basin of water. You know well they’d be hopping over you after the same as before.”
Molly sniffed. It was not wise to argue with “Ould Biddy,” who had a talent for forcible speech.
Mrs. O’Halloran had the best right in the world to the free use of her tongue. She was a really good cook. She had satisfied Sir Joseph Devereux while he lived. She satisfied Lady Devereux afterwards. And Lady Devereux appreciated good cooking. Her husband dead, her three daughters safely married, she had leisure to enjoy eating and had money enough to pay for the best which the Dublin markets provided. Next to good food Lady Devereux valued peace and the absence of worry. Mrs. O’Halloran enjoyed strife and liked a strenuous life. She took all the annoyances of the household on herself, and when they proved too few for her, created unnecessary worry for herself by harassing the maids. Lady Devereux slept untroubled at night, rose late in the morning, found all things very much to her liking, and grew comfortably fat.
For eight months of the year, from October till the end of May, Lady Devereux lived in one of the fine Georgian houses which are the glory of the residential squares of Dublin. It was a corner house, rather larger than the others in the square, with more light and more air, because its position gave it a view up and down two streets as well as across the lawn which formed the centre of the square.
Before the war Harry Devereux used to say that his aunt’s house was the best in Dublin for a dance. It pained him to see its possibilities wasted. After receiving his commission he looked at the world with the eye of a soldier and gave it as his opinion that the house occupied the finest strategic position in Dublin. There was not much chance of persuading plump old Lady Devereux to give a ball. There seemed even less chance of her home ever being used as a fortress. But fate plays strange tricks with us and our property, especially in Ireland. It happened that Lady Devereux’ house was occupied more or less by the soldiers of one army, and shot at with some vigour by the soldiers of another on Easter Monday, 1916. Oddly enough it was neither the rebels nor the soldiers who earned credit by their military operations, but old Biddy O’Halloran.
Mrs. O’Halloran always enjoyed Bank holidays greatly. She did not go out, visit picture houses or parade the streets in her best clothes. She found a deeper and more satisfying pleasure in telling the younger maids what she thought of them when they asked and obtained leave to go out for the afternoon, and in making scathing remarks about their frocks and hats as they passed through the kitchen to reach the area door. On that particular Easter Monday she was enjoying herself thoroughly. A kitchenmaid—she was new to the household or she would not have done it—had asked Lady Devereux’ permission to go out for the afternoon and evening. She got what she asked for. Everybody who asked Lady Devereux for anything got it as a matter of course. The kitchenmaid ought to have made her application through Mrs. O’Halloran. It is the rule in all services that remote authorities must be approached only through the applicant’s immediate superiors. Mrs. O’Halloran took her own way of impressing this on the kitchenmaid.
“I suppose now,” she said, “that you’ll be trapsing the streets of Dublin in the new pink blouse that you spent your last month’s wages on?”
That was exactly what the kitchenmaid meant to do. Mrs. O’Halloran looked the girl over critically.
“I don’t know,” she said, “that I ever seen a girl that would look worse in a pink blouse than yourself. The face that’s on you is the colour of a dish of mashed turnips, and the pink blouse will make it worse, if worse can be.”
The kitchenmaid was a girl of some spirit. She felt inclined to cry, but she pulled herself together and snorted instead.
“I suppose,” said Mrs. O’Halloran, “that you’ll be looking out for a young man to keep you company?”
The kitchenmaid did, in fact, hope to walk about with a young man; but she denied this.
“I’ll be looking for no such thing,” she said.
“It’s well for you then,” said Mrs. O’Halloran, “for I’m thinking you’d look a long while before you found one. It’s very little sense men has, the best of them, but I never met one yet that hadn’t more sense than to go after a girl like you. If you were any good for any mortal thing a man might be content to marry you in spite of your face; but the way you are, not fit to darn your own stockings, let alone sew for a man, or cook the way he could eat what you put before him, it would be a queer one that would walk the same side of the street with you, pink blouse or no pink blouse.”
The kitchenmaid, though a girl of spirit, was still young. She was washing potatoes in the scullery while Mrs. O’Halloran spoke to her. Two large tears dropped from her eyes into the sink. Mrs. O’Halloran smiled.
Then Molly, the parlourmaid, flung open the kitchen door and rushed to Mrs. O’Halloran. Her face was flushed with excitement and terror. Her eyes were staring. She was panting. Her nice frilly cap was over one ear. She held her apron crumpled into a ball and clutched tightly in her hand.
“It’s murdered we’ll be, killed and murdered and worse! There’s them in the house with guns and all sorts that’ll ruin and destroy everything that’s in it. The mistress is dead this minute and it’s me they’re after now. What’ll we do at all, at all?”
The kitchenmaid, stirred from her private grief by the news, left her potatoes and came to the kitchen. She and Molly clung to each other.
“It’s the Sinn Feiners,” she said, “and they’re out for blood.”
“Where’s the police?” said Molly. “What good is the police that they wouldn’t be here and us being murdered?”
“It’s blood they want,” said the kitchenmaid, “and it’s blood they’ll have.”
“Molly,” said Mrs. O’Halloran, “is there men in the house or is there not? Stop your bawling now, and tell me.”
“There is, there is,” said Molly, “with guns and cannons and knives. Glory be to God, but I never thought to die this way. What’ll we do at all, at all? Would it be any good hiding?”
Mrs. O’Halloran, with cool deliberation, shifted the position of two pots on the kitchen range. Then she wiped her hands on her apron.
“It’s your place to attend the door and not mine, Molly,” she said, “but if you’re afeard…”
She looked scornfully at the two girls and left the kitchen.
In the hall a young man stood just inside the door on the mat. He wore a greenish-grey uniform and carried a rifle. Across his chest was a bandolier. He looked uncomfortable, like a man who finds himself unexpectedly in a public place when wearing a fancy dress. The door was wide open. On the steps outside were two other young men. They also wore uniforms and carried rifles.
“Now what may you be wanting?” said Mrs. O’Halloran.
The man on the mat—he was really little more than a boy—fumbled in one pocket after another.
His uniform, like that of the British soldier, had a good many pockets. Finally he drew out a sheet of paper.
“This is my authority,” he said, “from the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic.”
He handed the paper to Mrs. O’Halloran.
“If it’s a collection you’re making for the Irish Language Fund,” said Mrs. O’Halloran, “her ladyship gave half a crown last week to one of yees, and she’ll give no more, so you can take yourselves off out of this as quick as you like.”
“We are not collectors,” said the young man, with dignity.
“Whether you are not, it’s what you look,” said Mrs. O’Halloran, “dressed up in them clothes, with your toy guns and all. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”
The suggestion that his rifle was not a real weapon roused the spirit of the young man.
“In the name of the Irish Republic,” he said, “I take possession of this house for military purposes.”
“Musha, but that’s fine talk,” said Mrs. O’Halloran. “Will nothing do you, only military purposes?”
“We shall do no harm to the inmates or the contents of the house,” said the young man.
“You will not, for you won’t be let.”
“But I demand free entrance to the upper storeys for myself and my men.”
He turned to the two boys on the steps outside the door.
“Enter,” he said, “and follow me.”
“Will you wipe your boots on the mat,” said Mrs. O’Halloran, “and not be carrying all the mud of the streets into the house with you. Do you think the girls that does be here has nothing to do only to be sweeping carpets and polishing floors after the likes of you?”
The army of the Irish Republic has had many crimes laid to its charge; but it has not been said that its soldiers were guilty of any needless discourtesy to the inhabitants of the houses of which they took possession. The three young men wiped their boots on Lady Devereux’ doormat with elaborate care. Mrs. O’Halloran watched them critically.
“Is it the police you’re out after with them guns?” she said. “It’s a pity, so it is, to see fine young fellows like you mixing yourselves up with that foolishness. Sure they’ll get you at the latter end, and you’ll be had up in Court.”
The leader of the little party of Sinn Feiners was not inclined to discuss the future prospects of the insurrection with Mrs. O’Halloran. He moved across the hall towards the staircase, followed by his two young men. They walked delicately, stepping carefully from one to another of the rugs which lay on the floor and avoiding the polished boards. They were courteous and considerate rebels.
“Will nothing but the front stairs suit you?” said Mrs. O’Halloran. “Cock you up, indeed, the likes of you, that never was in a lady’s house before. The back stairs is good enough for me, so I’m thinking it’s good enough for you. Come along with you now.”
She led them past the foot of the great staircase and through a swing door covered with green baize. That door, such was the fancy of the designer of Lady Devereux’ house, concealed another, a very solid door, made after the Georgian fashion, of thick mahogany. The baize-covered door had a spring on it so that it swung shut of itself. Mrs. O’Halloran held it open with one hand. With the other she turned the handle of the solid door beyond.
“Will you come along now,” she said to the three young men, “and take care you don’t be scratching the polish off the door with them guns you’re so proud of?”
They were foolish rebels, those three. They were young and, though Irish, this was the first time they had taken part in an insurrection. They had marched forth to garrison Lady Devereux’ house expecting much, hand-to-hand fighting perhaps in the hall, the tears and hysterics of terrified women, revolver shots from outraged loyalists. Anything of that sort, anything heroic they were prepared for. Old Biddy O’Halloran, with her humorous eyes and her ready tongue, took them aback. They walked through the mahogany door meekly enough.
They found themselves in a small cloak room. There was a wash-hand basin and a couple of towels in one corner. A pile of carriage rugs lay on a shelf. Some waterproof coats hung from pegs. There were three umbrellas in a stand. There was one small window which looked out on a back yard and was heavily barred. There was not the smallest sign of a staircase leading to the upper storey of the house or to anywhere else.
A nervous and excitable woman who had trapped three young men would have made haste to lock them in. Mrs. O’Halloran was in no hurry at all. The key of the mahogany door was on the inside of the lock. She took it out deliberately.
“There you stay,” she said, “the three of yous, till you’ve sense enough to go back to your homes, and it’s your mothers will be thankful to me this day for keeping you out of mischief. Listen to me now before I lock the door.”
She fitted the key into the outside of the lock and half closed the door while she spoke.
“If I hear a word out of your heads or if there’s any shooting of them guns, or if you start cracking and banging on that door, or kicking up any sort of a noise that might disturb her ladyship, I’ll give you neither bite nor sup, not if I have to keep you here for a week, so be good now and mind what I’m telling you.”
She shut the door and turned the key in the lock.
At the head of the kitchen stairs stood Molly and the kitchenmaid.
“Will I run for the police?” said the kitchenmaid. “Sure I wouldn’t be afeard to do it if Molly would come with me.”
“You’ll run down to the scullery,” said Mrs. O’Halloran, “and you’ll go on washing them potatoes, and Molly along with you. That’s all the running either the one or the other of you will do this day.”
“Her ladyship’s bell is ringing,” said Molly. “Will I not go to her? It could be she’s not dead yet and might be wanting help.”
“It’s little help you’d give her if she was wanting it, you with your cap on your ear, instead of the top of your head, and your apron like a wrung dishcloth I wonder you’re not ashamed to be seen. Get along with you down to the kitchen and stay there. Anything that’s wanted for her ladyship I’ll do myself.”
Lady Devereux was in her morning room, a pleasant sunny apartment which looked out on the square. The day was warm, but Lady Devereux was an old woman. She sat in front of a bright fire. She sat in a very deep soft chair with her feet on a footstool. She had a pile of papers and magazines on a little table beside her. She neither stirred nor looked up when Mrs. O’Halloran entered the room.
“Molly,” she said, “I heard some men talking in the hall. I wish they wouldn’t make so much noise.”
Mrs. O’Halloran cleared her throat and coughed. Lady Devereux looked up.
“Oh,” she said, “it’s not Molly. It’s you, Mrs. O’Halloran. Then I suppose it must be plumbers.”
The inference was a natural one. Mrs. O’Halloran always dealt with plumbers when they came. She was the only person in the house who could deal with plumbers.
“Or perhaps some men about the gas,” said Lady Devereux. “I hope they won’t want to come in here.”
The pleasant quiet life in Lady Devereux’ house was occasionally broken by visits from plumbers and gas men. No one, however wealthy or easygoing, can altogether escape the evils which have grown up with our civilization.
“It’s not plumbers, my lady,” said Mrs. O’Halloran, “nor it isn’t gas men. It’s Sinn Feiners.”
“Dear me, I suppose they want a subscription. My purse is on my writing table, Mrs. O’Halloran. Will five shillings be enough? I think I ought to give them something. I’m always so sorry for people who have to go round from house to house collecting.”
“I have the three of them in the cloakroom downstairs and the key turned on them,” said Mrs. O’Halloran.
It is quite possible that Lady Devereux might have expressed some surprise at this drastic way of treating men, presumably well-meaning men, who came to ask for money. Before she spoke again she was startled by the sound of several rifle shots fired in the street outside her house. She was not much startled, not at all alarmed. A rifle fired in the open air at some distance does not make a very terrifying sound.
“Dear me,” she said, “I wonder what that is. It sounds very like somebody shooting.”
Mrs. O’Halloran went over to the window and opened it. There was a narrow iron balcony outside. She stepped on to it.
“It’s soldiers, my lady,” she said. “They’re in the square.”
“I suppose it must be on account of the war,” said Lady Devereux.
She had learned—before Easter, 1916, everybody had learned—to put down all irregularities to the war. Letters got lost in the post. The price of sugar rose. Men married unexpectedly, “on account of the war.”
“But I don’t think they ought to be allowed to shoot in the square,” she added. “It might be dangerous.”
It was dangerous. A bullet—it must have passed very close to Mrs. O’Halloran—buried itself in the wall of the morning room. A moment later another pierced a mirror which hung over Lady Devereux’ writing table. Mrs. O’Halloran came into the room again and shut the window.
“You’d think now,” she said “that them fellows were shooting at the house.”
“I wish you’d go down and tell them to stop,” said Lady Devereux. “Of course I know we ought to do all we can to help the soldiers, such gallant fellows, suffering so much in this terrible war. Still I do think they ought to be more careful where they shoot.”
Mrs. O’Halloran went quietly down the two flights of stairs which led from the morning-room to the ground floor of the house. She had no idea of allowing herself to be hustled into any undignified haste either by rebels or troops engaged in suppressing the rebellion. When she reached the bottom of the stairs she stopped. Her attention was held by two different noises. The Sinn Feiners were battering the door of their prison with the butts of their rifles. Molly, the kitchenmaid and Lady Devereux’ two other servants were shrieking on the kitchen stairs. Mrs. O’Halloran dealt with the rebels first. She opened the baize-covered door and put her mouth to the keyhole of the other.
“Will yous keep quiet or will yous not?” she said. “There’s soldiers outside the house this minute waiting for the chance to shoot you, and they’ll do it, too, if you don’t sit down and behave yourselves. Maybe it’s that you want. If it is you’re going the right way about getting it. But if you’ve any notion of going home to your mothers with your skins whole you’ll stay peaceable where you are. Can you not hear the guns?”
The three rebels stopped battering the door and listened. The rifle fire began to slacken. No more than an occasional shot was to be heard. The fighting had died down. It was too late for the prisoners to take any active part in it. They began to consider the future. They made up their minds to take the advice given them and stay quiet.
Mrs. O’Halloran went to the head of the kitchen stairs. The four maids were huddled together. Mrs. O’Halloran descended on them. She took Molly, who was nearest to her, by the shoulders and shook her violently. The housemaid and Lady Devereux’ maid fled at once to the coal cellar. The kitchenmaid sat down and sobbed.
“If there’s another sound out of any of yous,” said Mrs. O’Halloran, “it’ll be the worse for you after. Isn’t it enough for one day to have three young fellows in the house trying to get shot, and soldiers outside trying to shoot them, and every sort of divilment in the way of a row going on, without having a pack of girls bellowing and bawling on the kitchen stairs? It’s mighty fond you are, the whole of you, of dressing yourselves up, in pink blouses and the like” (she looked angrily at the kitchenmaid) “and running round the streets to see if you can find a man to take up with you. And now when there’s men enough outside and in, nothing will do but to be screeching. But sure girls is like that, and where’s the use of talking?”
Mrs. O’Halloran might have said more. She felt inclined to say a good deal more but she was interrupted by a loud knocking at the hall door.
“I dursent go to it.” said Molly. “I dursent. You wouldn’t know who might be there nor what they might do to you.”
“Nobody’s asking you to go,” said Mrs. O’Halloran.
She went to the door herself and opened it. A sergeant and eight men were on the steps.
“And what may you be wanting?” said Mrs. O’Halloran. “What right have you to come battering and banging at the door of her ladyship’s house the same as if it was a public-house and you trying to get in after closing time? Be off out of this, now, the whole of you. I never seen such foolishness.”
“My orders are to search the house,” said the sergeant; “rebels have been firing on us from the roof.”
“There’s no rebels been firing out of this house,” said Mrs. O’Halloran, “and what’s more—”
“My orders,” said the sergeant.
“There’s no orders given in this house,” said Mrs. O’Halloran, “only mine and maybe her ladyship’s at odd times.”
She need scarcely have mentioned Lady Devereux. An order from her was a very exceptional thing.
“Our officer—” said the sergeant “Private Beggs, go and report to the officer that we are refused admission to this house.”
Private Beggs turned to obey the order. The officer in charge of the party came out of the door of a house half-way along the side of the square. Mrs. O’Halloran recognised him. It was Second Lieutenant Harry Devereux.
“Master Harry,” she called, “Master Harry, come here at once. Is it you that’s been raising ructions about the square? Shooting and destroying and frightening decent people into fits? Faith, I might have known it was you. If there’s divilment going you’d be in it.”
Harry Devereux, intensely conscious of his responsibility as commander of men in a real fight, reached the bottom of the steps which led to his aunt’s door.
“Enter the house, sergeant,” he said, “and search it.”
Mrs. O’Halloran stood right in the middle of the doorway. The sergeant looked at her doubtfully and hesitated.
“Come up out of that, Master Harry,” said Mrs. O’Halloran, “and don’t be trying to hide behind the sergeant. It’s no wonder you’re ashamed of yourself, but I see you plain enough. Come here now till I talk to you.”
The sergeant grinned. Private Beggs, who was behind his officer, laughed openly.
“Was there nowhere else in the world for you to have a battle—if a battle was what you wanted,” said Mrs. O’Halloran, “only in front of your aunt’s house? Many and many’s the time I’ve smacked you for less than what you’ve done to-day. Isn’t there bullets in her ladyship’s morning-room? Isn’t there a grand looking-glass in a gold frame gone to smithers with your shooting? Isn’t Molly and the other girls screeching this minute down in the coal cellar, for fear you’ll kill them, and now nothing will do you seemingly only to be tramping all over the house. Search it, moya, search it! But you’ll not be let, Master Harry; neither you nor the sergeant nor any of the rest of you.”
Second Lieutenant Harry Devereux pulled himself together and made an effort to save what was left of his dignity. He had led his men across the square under a shower of rebel bullets from the roofs of the houses. He had taken cool advantage of all possible cover. He had directed his men’s fire till he drove the rebels from their shelters. No one could say of him that he was other than a gallant officer. But his heart failed him when he was face to face with his aunt’s cook.
“I think we needn’t search this house, sergeant,” he said. “I know it.”
“If you’d like to come back in an hour or two, Master Harry,” said Mrs. O’Halloran, “I’ll have a bit of dinner ready for you, and I wouldn’t say but there might be something for the sergeant and his men. It’s what her ladyship is always saying that we ought to do the best we can for the lads that’s fighting for us against the Germans—so long as they behave themselves. But mind this now, sergeant, if you do look in in the course of the evening there must be no carrying on with the girls. The Lord knows they’re giddy enough without you upsetting them worse.”
That night, after dark, three young Sinn Feiners climbed the wall at the end of Lady Devereux’ back yard and dropped into a narrow lane beyond it. A fortnight later Mrs. O’Halloran received a large parcel containing three suits of clothes, the property of Second Lieutenant Devereux, left by him in his aunt’s house when he first put on his uniform. They were carefully brushed and folded, in no way the worse for having been worn by strangers for one night. In the bottom of Mrs. O’Halloran’s trunk there are three rebel uniforms. And on the top of the cupboard in her room are three rifles