This a story that happened in the decade prior to Ireland’s War of Independence and the division of the country. It was a time when Britain still ruled and the aristocracy stood at the head of society –
Mrs Farquahar was quite a tall, thin, and very respectable lady who had just turned fifty years old, and she was possessed of many rigid virtues. This is not surprising, since she was a native of the northern counties of Ireland and a staunch Protestant. She had come originally to ‘Maryborough’ as a personal maid to the Dowager Lady Dundas and seved her well for many years. Then, when her mistress died, Mrs. Farquahar’s faithfulness was well rewarded by Lord Dundas, who offered to establish her in a business of her own. At the time of our story, Mrs Farquahar had been owner of the station buffet for almost two years, and she made a decent living for herself through the business. This was to be expected since ‘Maryborough’ itself is situated on one of the main Railway lines in Ireland and there is always a fair amount of traffic that passes through it.
In command of the station was the stationmaster, who was familiarly known as “Jim” O’Brien. He had been born in Maryborough and had worked his way up the ladder of promotions from being a lowly porter on that same railway line. He was a very intelligent, easy-going man, who could become very bad-tempered, very quickly. He could have been described as being a typical Irishman with his round, good-natured face, humorous mouth, shrewd, twinkling eyes, and immensely loud voice.
As you can well imagine, between Jim and Mrs. Farquahar there appeared to be a deadly battle of wits that seemed to be never ending. She was a cold hearted woman, who had a sense of her own superiority, and constantly felt that she was in the right even when she was in the wrong. She had an unpleasant habit of pointing out Jim’s deficiencies whenever she saw them and, unfortunately for him, she saw them all too often for his taste. All day long, every day, she would sit in her refreshment room, with her spectacles resting on her nose, and her Bible open before her. While she read she would knit, and rise from her seat only when a customer entered the buffet room. Jim tried to go about his business in a calm manner, but he could not but help being conscious of the fact that nothing escaped that woman’s ever vigilant eyes. Her presence made him feel tense and uneasy, and her critical remarks were always reported to him.
“She’s a bitter old biddy!” he often told his wife. “Why, the very look of her would turn a whole can of fresh cream sour. There are more twists and turns in her than you’d find in a bag of weasels.”
Jim was Catholic, and he had deeply held Nationalist aspirations. He belonged to the local group of “The Irish League,” and often spoke at various public meetings when his duties as stationmaster allowed him. Not surprising then that he deeply objected to being referred to as a “Papish” and a “Rebel,” by Mrs. Farquahar.
“Papish, indeed!” he would complain. “Rebel, indeed! You had better keep a more civil tongue in your head, or it will be the worse for you, madam!”
On several occasions he would turn on her and bitterly ask, “How did the likes of you ever get a husband?” Then he would state, “Seeing and hearing you, sure it is no wonder the poor man died young.”
But, Mrs. Farquahar was a good match for Jim. She, like him, was full of fight and courage. It was her proudest boast that she was the granddaughter, daughter, sister, and widow of proud ‘Orangemen’. While living in Maryborough, which was predominantly Catholic, she considered herself to be a child of Israel abandoned among the Babylonians, and she felt that it was entirely up to her to uphold the standard of her faith. As part of this she would sing out the praises of the ‘Battle of the Boyne’ in such a triumphal manner that it deeply aggravated O’Brien almost to madness.
“Ah, God Almighty, will you not help this daft woman! Is she Irish at all, or what? It’s terrible heartbreaking to see her making so merry because of a bunch of bloody Dutchmen——! Sure, does she not know that it was Irish blood that they spilled that day at the Boyne? And now, to see her taking such pride in that bloodshed makes me sick to my heart, so it does. Now, if she was an English woman, I could maybe understand it, but she’s forever calling herself an Irishwoman! She’s full of poison, so she is, if she is so happy to be celebrating her country’s misfortunes.”
Jim O’Brien’s anger was made all the worse because Mrs. Farquahar, whatever she said, spoke to him very rarely if ever. She would pass by him with a lofty scorn and an indifference pretending not to see him. At the same time, it must be said, that while she did many things that O’Brien found extremely annoying, they were things that were strictly within her rights.
Despite all their bitter feuding, it has to be said that their differences had not reached such a point all at one time. Their feud had begun in earnest when Mrs. Farquahar decided to adopt a small, black, mongrel dog, on which she lavished all of her affection. The problem arose, between her and the stationmaster, when she decided that the most endearing name that she could give her little pet was “King William.” This was, of course, nobody’s business except hers. In any other environment, but Ireland, Mrs. Farquahar would have been allowed to amuse herself unheeded. But, she was in Ireland and Jim O’Brien was not the type of Irishman to allow her to play fun and games with patriots.
Jim O’Brien was a different type of Irishman in many ways. The man had a great love for growing flowers, and he worked hard to keep his garden in beautiful condition. In fact, O’Brien was prouder of his roses than of anything on earth, except for his eldest daughter, Kitty, who was almost sixteen-years-old. The reader can only imagine his anger and frustration when, one day Jim found his rose-beds scratched into holes and his prized roses were uprooted by “King William”. The spoiled little dog had developed a destructive habit for hiding away his bones in the soil that created Jim’s flower-beds. O’Brien, irritated and frustrated by the destruction created by the dog, made loud and angry complaints to the Mrs Farquahar, who received them with a degree of disdain and disbelief.
“Oh please, Mr. O’Brien!” she said, with a tone of superiority in her voice, “don’t attempt to put the blame upon my innocent wee dog. Even if you dislike the name that I gave him, that is no reason at all for accusing him of being in your garden. He knows better, so he does. He won’t go to where he’s not wanted.” After such words the relationship between O’Brien and Mrs. Farquahar became open war.
Under the windows of the refreshment room stretched two narrow flower-beds, which Jim took care never to touch. It was his opinion that these flower beds were the exclusive property of Mrs. Macfarlane, and that it was up to her to look after them. They were, however, left uncultivated for a long period of time and became an eyesore in the mind of the stationmaster. Then, one day the station porter, Kelly, approached Jim with a certain air of mystery. “The old one,” he said quietly, “has begun to set something in those old flower beds over there”. The term, “The old one”, had become one that indicated Mrs. Farquahar and anything to do with her was of interest to the stationmaster.
Without hesitation Jim came out of his office and began to walk up and down the station platform, pretending that he was examining the station’s condition and being seen to apparently neglect the flower beds. But, just as Kelly had told him, Mrs. Farquahar was at the beds and attempting to do some gardening. She had put some old gloves on her hands and was wearing a clean checked apron to help protect her clothes. In one hand she held a trowel, with which she was breaking up the caked earth as a means, it would seem, of preparing the ground to set some plants. “In the name of God, what is that damn villain of a woman doing now?” Jim asked, when he got back to his office.
“Devil the bit of me knows what she’s at,” replied Kelly. “The old fool has been grubbing in that soil since nine o’clock this morning.”
From this day onward Mrs. Farquahar was committed to the care of her two flower-beds. Every day she could be seen weeding or watering, and although Jim steadily avoided showing interest in her activity, he was almost eaten up with curiosity about what the probable results of her would be. He was totally puzzled about what she wanted to grow in the flower beds. As the weeks passed by, the tiny green seedlings finally began to push their way through the soil. As they began to grow the type of plants that Mrs. Farquahar had set in the flower beds quickly became recognisable, and a highly excited stationmaster rushed home to tell his wife.
“By God, but that woman is an old devil, Mary,” he said almost breathlessly. “Would you believe that it is lilies that she has planted there, in those flower beds. And, as sure as there is an eye in a goat, I am sure they are damned orange lilies. I swear, if that’s what they are, I’ll pull every one of them out by the root. Every one of them, I tell you, even if it kills me!”
“For Jaysus sake, Jim, be quiet, for you don’t know who will hear you,” said Mary. “Anyway, how do you know that they are lilies at all? Now, for the love of God keep her tongue still. Say nothing and keep yourself out of that woman’s way.”
“Ah Wheesht, woman! Do you think I’m an eejit? Those are lilies that old devil has planted, for sure. Only time will tell if they’re orange or not. But, be you certain that if they are orange lillies, I won’t stand it! I will complain to the Railway Board.”
“And what good will that serve? Sure the Board will be on her side, man. Don’t you know the backing she has? They will just ask you why she shouldn’t be able to grow orange lilies if she wants to?”
“Ah, Mary, you are always the sensible one. But, woman dear, Have you no spirit left in you? Dear God, woman, why would you let her ride rough-shod over us in such a way? If you make a mouse out of yourself, then the cat will snap you up. Well I tell you I won’t be snapped up. Sure, Saint Peter himself wouldn’t stand for it, and as sure as a pig’s arse is pork, I won’t either!”
“You’re a ignorant man, Jim! You should not be bringing down any misfortune on your head, for you have children to care for. You have better things to do than troubling yourself over what the likes of her does. She is over the moon every time she sees that she can annoy and make you mad. So, man dear, take no notice of her and, perhaps she’ll stop her nonsense.”
“Ah, to the devil with her for being a bitter old serpent. Sure, the venom’s flowing thick in her. But, why should I put up with her, I’d like to know?”
“Would you keep your tongue still, Jim? You show absolutely no prudence when ou open that big gob of yours. Don’t you know that not a word you say is not brought back to her ears by someone or other. Would you have just a wee bit of sense, ou buck-eejit. You’ll be saying things like that to Joe Kelly, and he’ll have it spread throughout the town in no time, and ther will be someone who will carry it to her.”
“And do ye think I care a damn for the likes of that old serpent? Not at all! But, Mary, if you had your way you would have me hung, like the man that was hung for saying nothing. Sure, did I ever do a hand’s turn of harm against her? No! And it is a low, mean trick she had done by setting orange lilies in those flower beds, to bloom before my eyes, and her knowing my opinions.”
“Well, I’ll not say it wasn’t, Jim, if they are orange lilies. But sure, you don’t know for certain what they are, and all I ask is in God’s name please keep quiet until you do.”
The days went by slowly, but the lilies grew taller and taller in the flower beds outside the station buffet. They budded, they bloomed, and, sure enough, they were orange in colour, just as Jim had predicted they would be. “They are beautiful and they will make a fine show for the twelfth of July, I’m thinking,” said Mrs. Macfarlane to herself with a huge smile, as she walked past her flower beds, swinging a dripping watering-can.
At the time when the orange lilies blossomed, Jim O’Brien was not at home. He had been sent about twenty miles down the line to conduct some official business for the Railway Company. The flowers that he detested so much appeared to take advantage of the stationmaster’s absence to put on a bright, colourful show. When Jim returned home, however, he discovered that Mrs. Farquahar was away. She had shut up the station’s refreshment room, though she had not locked it. It was a time in Maryborough when few if any people locked their doors, unless they were going to be away a considerable period of time. She had left “King William” behind her, and she had told Joe Kelly to look after the dog, in case he should get lonely. Joe was told that she had been invited to the wedding of a friend she had met when she was a maid to her ladyship. The man who had been butler to the house at the time was to be married that very day to the steward’s daughter, who was a lovely woman.
When Jim returned to work in the station, Joe Kelly had told him all the news about Mrs. Farquahar, but he did not say a single word about the orange lilies. Joe was just a little afraid that the stationmaster would explode into a rage, and he thought it was better if he did not mention anything about the lillies, but just to allow him find it out himself. For quite a bit of time, however, Jim found himself engrossed in a lot of paperwork that he needed to attend to. Finally, Jim’s paperwork was finished, just as his attention was being distracted b the almost incessant howling, barking and yelping of a dog. “Would you let that beast out, for God’s sake?” he shouted out to Joe Kelly. “I can’t listen to that racket much longer. It is doing my head in!”
“Ah, sure I was afraid that the bloody thing would be run over before the old woman came back and I decided to shut him in,” explained Kelly.
“Well there’s no danger of that happening any way soon,” said Jim, ”There won’t be a train in for the next two hours. Anyway, if that cur was run over, God knows he’d be no big loss. I tell you that I for one will not be grieving for that ill-named excuse for a dog!”
Kelly did not say another thing, but went to release “King William”. Meanwhile, having finished his task, O’Brien stood for a time near the office door. His hands were crossed behind him, as he warmed his backside against the pot-belly stove, and he fixed his eyes abstractedly on the sky. After a few minutes Jim made ready to begin his usual walk, up and down the platform, when his eye were suddenly attracted to the flare of the rows of orange lilies, standing as if at attention.
“By the Sacred Heart of Jesus!” exclaimed O’Brien. “But I was right. It is orange they are, sure enough. What will Mary say now? By God isn’t it all lies they do be telling us, when they say there are no reptiles in Ireland. That old woman is the biggest reptile I have ever seen and she could even poison the life of the devil, himself.”
As he walked along the platform, Jim stopped in front of the flowers as they danced merrily in the breeze. “Christ, isn’t it an awful pity that there’s nothing I can plant to annoy her. No, she has the definitely got one over me entirely. Shamerocks are something that don’t make a great show at all, and you would pass by without giving them a sideways glance. Now, orange lilies, that’s a flower that you can see a mile off. That old serpent, who, but her, would be up to the likes of planting such flowers there?”
Then, just at that moment, Jim became aware of an extraordinary commotion occurring among the lilies. When he looked closer at the flowers he saw “King William” in the middle of them. There he was scratching madly at the soil, scattering mould, leaves, and bulbs in every possible direction. With every stroke of his hind legs, “King William” dealt absolute destruction to the flowers that his owner had so carefully-tended.
The sight of all this carnage filled Jim’s heart with great gladness. “More power to the dog!” he cried out, accompanied with loud laughter. “Aye! More power to him! Sure, hasn’t he more bloody sense than his mistress. ‘King William,’ she named him, and him now digging up her orange lilies by the roots! Ho, ho! By all that’s holy, isn’t it the biggest joke that I ever seen or hear in all my life. More power to you, dog! Good on you!”
Rubbing his hands together in an ecstasy of delight, O’Brien watched as “King William” indulged in his frantic and devastating work. Whenever the dog paused he was urged on to even more destruction by Jim’s constant cries of “Rats!” With each cry, “King William” would scamper wildly here and there, running from end to end of the flower beds, snapping the delicate lily stems, and scattering the blossoms to the four winds.
“By Jaysus, but this is great fun! Would you just look at him now? Bad luck to any man who would say he has seen better fun than this in his life. Go to it, ‘King William!’ Smash them, my wee man! Good dog! Out with them all!” Jim roared, as tears of laughter streamed down his cheeks. “Oh, my God! But that old Biddy will be as mad as hell. I would give a sixpence just to be able to see her face when she returns. O Lord! Lord! Sure, it’s the biggest joke that there ever was.”
But, as with all good things, they have to come to an end. An exhausted “King William” could do no more and lay down in the flower bed, but only when every lily had been laid low. As Jim O’Brien looked upon the devastation, Mrs. Farquahar’s carefully tended flower beds were a scene of chaos, with broken flower stalks and trampled blossoms. O’Brien, could not wait to share the news with others at the station and, with a great smile on his face, he explained what had happened to Mary and Finnerty. Then, in a very good humour, he returned to the office and began working on the account books.
After what seemed a short period of time, Kelly came entered the office. “She’s back,” he whispered, “and she’s fit to be tied. I was watching out for her, and when she did arrive she almost fainted in a heap on the platform when she saw what had happened to those lilies. I swear to God that she’s going to come here any minute, for her eyes are burning with rage and she is spitting fire. I don’t think I have ever seen such a frightening sight, Jim!”