They both kissed Gabriel frankly. He was their favourite nephew, the son of their dead elder sister, Ellen, who had married T. J. Conroy of the Port and Docks.
—Gretta tells me you’re not going to take a cab back to Monkstown to-night, Gabriel, said Aunt Kate.
—No, said Gabriel, turning to his wife, we had quite enough of that last year, hadn’t we? Don’t you remember, Aunt Kate, what a cold Gretta got out of it? Cab windows rattling all the way, and the east wind blowing in after we passed Merrion. Very jolly it was. Gretta caught a dreadful cold.
Aunt Kate frowned severely and nodded her head at every word.
—Quite right, Gabriel, quite right, she said. You can’t be too careful.
—But as for Gretta there, said Gabriel, she’d walk home in the snow if she were let.
Mrs Conroy laughed.
—Don’t mind him, Aunt Kate, she said. He’s really an awful bother, what with green shades for Tom’s eyes at night and making him do the dumb-bells, and forcing Eva to eat the stirabout. The poor child! And she simply hates the sight of it!… O, but you’ll never guess what he makes me wear now!
She broke out into a peal of laughter and glanced at her husband, whose admiring and happy eyes had been wandering from her dress to her face and hair. The two aunts laughed heartily too, for Gabriel’s solicitude was a standing joke with them.
—Goloshes! said Mrs Conroy. That’s the latest. Whenever it’s wet underfoot I must put on my goloshes. Tonight even he wanted me to put them on, but I wouldn’t. The next thing he’ll buy me will be a diving suit.
Gabriel laughed nervously and patted his tie reassuringly while Aunt Kate nearly doubled herself, so heartily did she enjoy the joke. The smile soon faded from Aunt Julia’s face and her mirthless eyes were directed towards her nephew’s face. After a pause she asked:
—And what are goloshes, Gabriel?
—Goloshes, Julia! exclaimed her sister. Goodness me, don’t you know what goloshes are? You wear them over your… over your boots, Gretta, isn’t it?
—Yes, said Mrs Conroy. Guttapercha things. We both have a pair now. Gabriel says everyone wears them on the continent.
—O, on the continent, murmured Aunt Julia, nodding her head slowly.
Gabriel knitted his brows and said, as if he were slightly angered:
—It’s nothing very wonderful but Gretta thinks it very funny because she says the word reminds her of Christy Minstrels.
—But tell me, Gabriel, said Aunt Kate, with brisk tact. Of course, you’ve seen about the room. Gretta was saying…
—O, the room is all right, replied Gabriel. I’ve taken one in the Gresham.
—To be sure, said Aunt Kate, by far the best thing to do. And the children, Gretta, you’re not anxious about them?
—O, for one night, said Mrs Conroy. Besides, Bessie will look after them.
—To be sure, said Aunt Kate again. What a comfort it is to have a girl like that, one you can depend on! There’s that Lily, I’m sure I don’t know what has come over her lately. She’s not the girl she was at all.
Gabriel was about to ask his aunt some questions on this point but she broke off suddenly to gaze after her sister who had wandered down the stairs and was craning her neck over the banisters.
—Now, I ask you, she said, almost testily, where is Julia going? Julia! Julia! Where are you going?
Julia, who had gone halfway down one flight, came back and announced blandly:
At the same moment a clapping of hands and a final flourish of the pianist told that the waltz had ended. The drawing- room door was opened from within and some couples came out. Aunt Kate drew Gabriel aside hurriedly and whispered into his ear:
—Slip down, Gabriel, like a good fellow and see if he’s all right, and don’t let him up if he’s screwed. I’m sure he’s screwed. I’m sure he is.
Gabriel went to the stairs and listened over the banisters. He could hear two persons talking in the pantry. Then he recognised Freddy Malins’ laugh. He went down the stairs noisily.
—it’s such a relief, said Aunt Kate to Mrs Conroy, that Gabriel is here. I always feel easier in my mind when he’s here.… Julia, there’s Miss Daly and Miss Power will take some refreshment. Thanks for your beautiful waltz, Miss Daly. It made lovely time.
A tall wizen-faced man, with a stiff grizzled moustache and swarthy skin, who was passing out with his partner said:
—And may we have some refreshment, too, Miss Morkan?
—Julia, said Aunt Kate summarily, and here’s Mr Browne and Miss Furlong. Take them in, Julia, with Miss Daly and Miss Power.
—I’m the man for the ladies, said Mr Browne, pursing his lips until his moustache bristled and smiling in all his wrinkles. You know, Miss Morkan, the reason they are so fond of me is –
He did not finish his sentence, but, seeing that Aunt Kate was out of earshot, at once led the three young ladies into the back room. The middle of the room was occupied by two square tables placed end to end, and on these Aunt Julia and the caretaker were straightening and smoothing a large cloth. On the sideboard were arrayed dishes and plates, and glasses and bundles of knives and forks and spoons. The top of the closed square piano served also as a sideboard for viands and sweets. At a smaller sideboard in one corner two young men were standing, drinking hop-bitters.
Mr Browne led his charges thither and invited them all, in jest, to some ladies’ punch, hot, strong and sweet. As they said they never took anything strong he opened three bottles of lemonade for them. Then he asked one of the young men to move aside, and, taking hold of the decanter, filled out for himself a goodly measure of whisky. The young men eyed him respectfully while he took a trial sip.
—God help me, he said, smiling, it’s the doctor’s orders.
His wizened face broke into a broader smile, and the three young ladies laughed in musical echo to his pleasantry, swaying their bodies to and fro, with nervous jerks of their shoulders. The boldest said:
—O, now, Mr Browne, I’m sure the doctor never ordered anything of the kind.
Mr Browne took another sip of his whisky and said, with sidling mimicry:
—Well, you see, I’m like the famous Mrs Cassidy, who is reported to have said: Now, Mary Grimes, if I don’t take it, make me take it, for I feel I want it.
His hot face had leaned forward a little too confidentially and he had assumed a very low Dublin accent so that the young ladies, with one instinct, received his speech in silence. Miss Furlong, who was one of Mary Jane’s pupils, asked Miss Daly what was the name of the pretty waltz she had played; and Mr Browne, seeing that he was ignored, turned promptly to the two young men who were more appreciative.
A red-faced young woman, dressed in pansy, came into the room, excitedly clapping her hands and crying:
Close on her heels came Aunt Kate, crying:
—Two gentlemen and three ladies, Mary Jane!
—O, here’s Mr Bergin and Mr Kerrigan, said Mary Jane. Mr Kerrigan, will you take Miss Power? Miss Furlong, may I get you a partner, Mr Bergin. O, that’ll just do now.
—Three ladies, Mary Jane, said Aunt Kate.
The two young gentlemen asked the ladies if they might have the pleasure, and Mary Jane turned to Miss Daly.
—O, Miss Daly, you’re really awfully good, after playing for the last two dances, but really we’re so short of ladies to-night.
—I don’t mind in the least, Miss Morkan.
—But I’ve a nice partner for you, Mr Bartell D’Arcy, the tenor. I’ll get him to sing later on. All Dublin is raving about him.
—Lovely voice, lovely voice! said Aunt Kate.
As the piano had twice begun the prelude to the first figure Mary Jane led her recruits quickly from the room. They had hardly gone when Aunt Julia wandered slowly into the room, looking behind her at something.
—What is the matter, Julia? asked Aunt Kate anxiously. Who is it?
Julia, who was carrying in a column of table-napkins, turned to her sister and said, simply, as if the question had surprised her:
—It’s only Freddy, Kate, and Gabriel with him.
In fact right behind her Gabriel could be seen piloting Freddy Malins across the landing. The latter, a young man of about forty, was of Gabriel’s size and build, with very round shoulders. His face was fleshy and pallid, touched with colour only at the thick hanging lobes of his ears and at the wide wings of his nose. He had coarse features, a blunt nose, a convex and receding brow, tumid and protruded lips. His heavy-lidded eyes and the disorder of his scanty hair made him look sleepy. He was laughing heartily in a high key at a story which he had been telling Gabriel on the stairs and at the same time rubbing the knuckles of his left fist backwards and forwards into his left eye.
—Good-evening, Freddy, said Aunt Julia.
Freddy Malins bade the Misses Morkan good-evening in what seemed an offhand fashion by reason of the habitual catch in his voice and then, seeing that Mr Browne was grinning at him from the sideboard, crossed the room on rather shaky legs and began to repeat in an undertone the story he had just told to Gabriel.
—He’s not so bad, is he? said Aunt Kate to Gabriel.
Gabriel’s brows were dark but he raised them quickly and answered:
—O no, hardly noticeable.
—Now, isn’t he a terrible fellow! she said. And his poor mother made him take the pledge on New Year’s Eve. But come on, Gabriel, into the drawing-room.