A Story of Old Dublin
Some of you may have heard about the ‘Turnpike Roads’ that ran through Ireland until the middle of the nineteenth and they were always accompanied by a toll-bar, something similar to the modern toll-bars on the various motorways that fan out over Ireland. At one toll-bar on the western side of Dublin there was a ‘Keeper’ who lifted the tolls and was known to all in the neighbourhood as ‘Posh Paddy’. The prefix was given to him because of his pure and polished dialect, which was unusual in a man social status. He had been, however, from childhood until his hair had turned grey, in the service of an English family, who had inherited and constantly resided in a handsome estate in his native County in Meath. It was through their good offices that he had been appointed to this important office of trust, where Jimmy Hollis made his acquaintance and wrote this story.
“Posh Paddy was one of my earliest friends, though I never knew nor asked what the man’s surname was. His toll-house stood alone on the country road outside Dublin, which was expanding at great speed. But when I first met him there was no building in sight but the school, at which I, and some forty other local children were supposed to be educated in the ways of the world by the elder brother of our parish minister. Although he was a kind and conscientious teacher, the toll-house was much more attractive to our young minds than a strict church school. Paddy had proved himself to be a great friend and confidante to all the boys, settling disputes among us, made the best bats and balls for us, and taught us a wide variety of new tricks in how they could be used, occasionally bestowing upon us boys good advice that were soon forgotten. He told us that he had chosen not to marry, because he was convinced that all women were nothing but trouble to a man. But Posh Paddy was a man with a sense of rustic piety, and was both fearless and self-reliant, and he was a man who enjoyed solitude or company with equal measure. Never had I seen him look downhearted, or walk with his shoulders sagging, and he was never sick, or in any way out of sorts. Everyday he could be seen performing his own his own domestic duties with a thoroughness that was practiced by few housekeepers, while still faithfully carrying out his duty as the guardian of the toll-bar, allowing no man to pass without paying his fee. I can recall the sadness I experienced when I had to leave that particular area and begin employment in my uncle’s law practice in the port of Waterford. It was only a few years later that I received the startling news that ‘Posh Paddy’ had resigned his office and had left, but no one knew where he had gone.
Hard years of work had passed, which saw me successfully complete my own law studies, and I was requested to visit a gentleman landowner outside Wicklow to conduct some work on his behalf. This gentleman was well known for his kitchen-garden, and was famed for growing fine ‘Jerusalem Artichokes’ that I had a great desire to see for myself. It was while he was escorting me through this large kitchen-garden that I noticed an elderly gardener, who was at hard at work with rake and hoe, and as I looked closer I recognised the man to be my old friend ‘Posh Paddy’. The years since I had last seen him had caused his hair to grow quite grey and his face was much more grave in its expression. Undoubtedly, the years had altered my appearance, but Paddy immediately recognised me. It was clear from his expression, however, that he had no wish to be recognised in the presence of the gentleman landowner, who was one of those men who enjoyed supervising every area of his estate. It was while he was explaining everything about his famous artichokes that he was brought a message, which summoned him back to the house. Excusing himself politely he left me to admire the rest of the garden on my own and in my own time. He was scarcely out of sight, however, until I was by the gardener’s side. “Paddy, my old friend,” I said as I warmly grasped his hand, “I am glad to see you once again. How has the world been treating you these last years?”
“They have treated me pretty well, Master James,” said Paddy as he returned my handshake with equal warmth. “I am glad to see you once again, and salute your very good memory. On many occasions the other boys have passed me on the street without acknowledgement. I have often wondered how the others all turned out?” Paddy immediately began to ask about my schoolmates and old neighbours, and I was able to answer that some had gone to pastures new, that some had married and that, sadly, some had died.
Finally, I plucked up the courage to ask him the reason for his sudden resignation. “Paddy, now that you have exhausted all my news and we have had an opportunity to renew our friendship, will you tell me the reason for you leaving the toll-house? Surely, that was better paid and more comfortable employment than this?”
“Ah, sure, Master James, you know what the old proverb says – ‘A Change is as good as a rest.'”
I knew that he was just trying to put off having to explain his reasons to me, but I was not to be evaded. “Now, Paddy, that’s not an answer, and you are much more steady than to depart on a whim. Tell me the truth as a friend and be sure that if there is anything in your story that you wish to remain confidential it will remain so. You know that I am a person that can keep a secret. Was it a woman, Paddy? Are you married yet?”
“Not at all, Master James,” my old friend said with a sigh of relief. “But it is an odd story and one that I don’t really want to tell. It has, however, been pressing-in on me this last while, and I always found you to be a discreet person. Now, the master will be away for a while checking the food and the drink that has been chosen for the dinner, especially when there are several notables invited, as well as yourself. While he is gone, then, I will tell you why I chose to leave the toll-house, but never mention one word to anyone of what I am about to tell you.”
So, the following is Paddy’s story in his own words, or as well as I can remember them after all these years –
“The family, in whose service I was raised, lived on their estate in County Meath, which had been inherited by the mistress of the place, Lady Catherine. She was a proud woman, whose line stretched down from a branch of Scottish nobility through her father, and from old French nobility through her mother, whose family had been refugees from the ‘Revolution’. When she first came to the estate Lady Catherine’s husband had been dead several years and she came with a boy about the same age as myself and two fine, grown-up daughters. The house was large, partly old and partly new, and it stood in parkland with tall trees, and red deer grazing in its grounds. The previous owner had been a miserly old bachelor, who had paid a little attention to the fabric of the building. But, after Lady Catherine came there were great changes, with a retinue of English servants and the continual arrival of company. It was about that time that my poor mother died. She had been a widow woman, living in a small cabin close to the wall of the parkland with only myself and a grey cat for company, and her old spinning wheel to keep us. Sadly, I was only a child when she died and, having no kin in the district, Lady Catherine took me in as a servant to run errands and help in the garden, eventually being promoted to footman. Her ladyship was admired by the country gentry because of her noble breeding, fashionable connections and her almost boundless hospitality. The tenants of the estate admired her also, for there was no better managed estate in the county and her agents were instructed not to mistreat or eject any of them.
It was said that Lady Catherine was a well known beauty within London society, and the local people thought her to be very grand because of the beautiful dresses and rich jewels she wore. These things were, most likely, cast-offs from the previous season since, every spring she would take the family to London, where they owned a fine house and kept the best company. Lady Catherine was a large, stately woman with a dark complexion whose manners to her equals was graceful, and to her inferiors, gracious. Nevertheless, there was a look of pride in those dark grey eyes, and a stern resolution showed in her lips, and she struck a certain fear in me as a child. Her daughters, Florence and Agnes, were pure copies of their mother in both pride and beauty, and they were greatly admired as flowers of the county. Their inheritances were substantial, but they would have been co-heiresses but for their brother Arthur, who was the youngest and so much different from his mother and sisters that you wouldn’t have thought he was a member of the same family. His complexion was fair, and he had clear blue eyes, curly brown hair and a merry look about himself. Although he may not have resembled them, Arthur, carried himself and spoke in a very similar way, and at eighteen years there was no finer young man in the county. He was a frank man with a kindly nature, which made the tenants happy at the prospect of Arthur becoming their future landlord.
Not far from the mansion house stood a farmhouse, which was occupied by an old man whose great-grandfather had cultivated the same fields. Although he was not a rich man, he was much respected by his neighbours for being an honest and upright person. The old man’s wife was as old as he was, but they had always been an easy-living couple who had only the one child, a daughter called Marie, a delicately pretty girl, who was a little spoiled since both her father and mother made a queen of her in their home. They never allowed her to do any rough work, but was always well-dressed and kept in the better rooms of the house. Marie had many admirers among the young bachelors of the county, but her parents thought her too good for everybody and believed that she was destined to make a great match, becoming a lady in her own right. They appeared to be not too far from their notion, for we servants on the estate began to see for ourselves the frequency with which young Arthur was seen coming and going from the farmhouse. We thought that the old farmer and his wife encouraged the young master, for they were themselves said to be descended from some great Irish chieftain and had proud cousins that still lived in the mountains in the west. So, the relationship continued between the prettiest girl in the parish and the most eligible young man in the county. But, just as Arthur turned nineteen years, there was a great row erupted that had never been heard before in that building when Lady Catherine discovered what was going on. I believe it was the minister who told her, believing that it was his duty to let her know what the servants and the rest of the Parish knew, but would not talk about in her presence. Maybe the disturbance his actions had caused were more than Arthur could stand, or maybe Lady Catherine had angrily said something derogatory about Marie, but something caused the young man to take the action that he did. The next morning Arthur was absent from the house and, later that afternoon, I brought a letter from the village post-office to Lady Catherine. The reading of this letter quickly sent the young ladies into hysterics and caused Lady Catherine to retire to her room, because it announced that her heir and the farmer’s daughter had left to get married in Dublin.
The young ladies quickly recovered, and when Lady Catherine reappeared she immediately began to prepare for a journey to Paris. The preparations were quickly completed and within twenty-four hours of receiving Arthur’s letter she and her daughters set off in the family carriage. The majority of servants were sent to live at the town house on reduced wages, all the good rooms in the house were locked up, and other than the gardener, a kitchen-girl, and myself there was no other person left at the estate. The next we heard was that the old farmer and his wife had sought out their daughter and new son-in-law, bringing them both home to live with them until the day arrived when the estate would finally be Arthur’s. It was this news that made Lady Catherine so bitter in later days, but the young Master and his bride came to the farmhouse where they were given use of the best bedroom and the parlour, and the poor old mother and father were happy to serve and entertain them.
They were a very young couple, for he was in his nineteenth year and she was in her seventeenth. They were, however, a handsome couple and more alike than you would have supposed from the difference of their birth. Marie had a quiet and genteel nature and looked every bit the lady in the church pew beside the young master, whom we seldom saw except from a distance, for he never came near the mansion house and any visit by us to the farmhouse could well have cost us our jobs.
It had been autumn when Lady Catherine left the estate and she spent all the following winter in Paris. When spring came we heard news that she was opening her London house with even more than the usual lavish preparations. It proved to be exceptionally good season for her ladyship as during its course she married one of her daughters to a baronet, and the other to a right honourable gentleman. But the newspapers had scarcely announced his sisters’ wedding breakfasts and honeymoon arrangements when Arthur was seized by a sudden illness. He had been fishing at a mountain-lake and had been drenched to the skin in the rain brought by a sudden thunderstorm. In his hurry to get home, Arthur overexerted himself and caught pleurisy. Over the following days, his condition worsened and many of the locals visited the farmhouse to ask about him, but within the week Marie was left a young widow.
Meanwhile, at the close of the London season Lady Catherine had returned to Paris, while one of her married daughters was in Italy, and the other in Switzerland, leaving only some cousins of their father in England. As a result, Arthur was laid to rest in the family vault below the Parish Church before news of his untimely death reached them all. Lady Catherine returned to the mansion in deep mourning, but still very angry at her son for marrying beneath himself. She had been heard to say that it was better that her son was dead than disgraced by his marriage, and that the estate was now safe from being shared by peasants. On no occasion did she visit or even recognise her daughter-in-law, whose heart had been broken by her loss, for she had thought more of Arthur as a man than of his rank and property.
Lady Catherine did not seem to enjoy staying at the mansion and stayed only to arrange things with the estate manager and then went back to London. But before she left there were reports that Marie’s deep mourning had led her into illness and that she was now very sick. The poor girl’s health continued to decline rapidly despite every effort made by her parents, the doctors, and the prayers of the local people. Marie died just a few days before Christmas, and many said she had simply wanted to die so she could rest by her husband’s side. The poor girl’s relations said that her last words had been this desire to be with Arthur, and they believed that she was entitled to a place in the family vault. Quietly, the local population, relations and friends laid the poor girl to rest beside her husband, and no one on the state cared to interfere. But, the estate manager felt it was his responsibility to inform Lady Catherine about events and, in response, her ladyship arrived on the estate one dark, wintry morning. Without stopping to change out of her travelling clothes she immediately sent for four strong labourers, whom she took to the church with her. There, her ladyship declared that her family’s burial vault was never intended to contain a peasant’s daughter and made the men take out Marie’s coffin, which was then taken to her parent’s door and left there. The poor old couple never recovered from that sight and, in her bitterness, the mother told everyone that the woman who had disturbed the remains of her poor dead child would never lie at peace in her own grave.
The news of her ladyship’s actions caused a great stir throughout the parish and popular feeling turned againsy her ladyship for the first time in her life. There was a great gathering of Marie’s close and distant relatives, and local parishioners, that attended the second funeral that saw Marie’s body laid among her humble predecessors in the church-yard. It was not very far away from the estate gates and I stood there and watched the crowd of people scatter in the frost of that wintry morning. Many of these sad and angry people looked in the direction of the mansion with hatred in their eyes, but my attention was drawn to an old man and two boys, who stood quietly gazing on the place. The man was seventy years old, while the boys were little more than children. I noticed, however, that all three had the same gaunt, yet powerful frames, dark-red hair, which in the old man was sprinkled with grey. All had swarthy complexions and on their faces were fierce, hard expressions. Later, I learned that these were the father and his two youngest sons, all of whom were cousins of the family and had travelled from the western mountains of Ireland. There were three older brothers, but they were married and settled, raising sheep, and the old man intended for his youngest sons to enter the learned professions.
Lady Catherine’s two married daughters were now co-heirs to the estate, but they never visited the place again while I was there. As for Lady Catherine, she would come regularly from London, but stayed no longer than she had to and her maid let it be known that she did not sleep well during her stay there. And in this way the years passed by and I rose in the service when, on one of her visits, ladyship decided that I would be an excellent choice for a footman. It was a position that she wanted filled and she sent to her house in London to be trained in my duties. In London I saw many great things, and Lady Catherine kept the best and most fashionable company in the city, and she was never at home an evening that the house was not full. There was money to be made in that place and plenty of whatever you wanted, but I did not like the place at all. I had saved a bit of money and one her ladyship’s sons-in-law helped by obtaining a place for me at the toll-house. Sure, you remember me there, Master James, and the great times that we had on Saturday afternoons.
You might remember the great number of people who came and went by the toll-house. When I had nothing better to do I would observe them and would come to know them. But among all those who passed by there were two young men who always walked arm-in-arm, and seemed to be brothers. After a while I began to think that I had seen their strong, hardy faces before, and it gradually came to me that they were none other than the old man’s two sons who had attended Marie’s last funeral. They were grown now and were studying for the medical profession at a college in the city. I remember thinking that their father appeared to be keeping them on a short allowance, for they were dressed in rough clothes and constantly munched on oatcakes, but I learned from others that they were attentive students and particularly clever in the anatomy class. Then, one dreary morning near Christmas, I found myself dreaming about Lady Catherine and her family all night, the great house in London, the joy of the gatherings she hosted, all mingling with the sad tale of Marie and Arthur. Later, I read the morning newspaper and discovered, to my utter astonishment, that her ladyship had died from a sudden apoplectic at the card-table and that her remains had been taken to the family vault in Meath. There was a lesson for me in this news, concerning the uncertainty of all our lives. But the continual passage of people through the toll, the gathering of the tolls, and your schoolmates soon put such thoughts out of my mind.
Some weeks later, on a dark and foggy day, when there was little traffic through the toll I went to bed early. Then, between midnight and one, I was suddenly awakened by loud knocking and voices from the toll-house. The night was calm, with a mass of cloud covering the sky, which was broken up at times by a moaning west wind and revealed bright bursts of moonlight. I threw on my coat, lit a lantern and hurried outside where there was a large cart with three people on it, and an impatient horse pulling it. There was a delay in them getting out the money for the toll and I noticed that the two men sitting on each side were the two brothers studying medicine. Between them sat a woman dressed in a dingy cloak and bonnet, with a thick black veil. the woman did not speak or move, while the brothers prepared and paid the toll. I recall informing them that I had no change and they simply said, “We’ll call in the morning.” As soon as these words were spoken the horse gave a bound and the coins flew out of his hands and both brothers looked down to where they had dropped. All the while I watched their companion, and a short gust of wind blew back the veil and her face was shown clearly in the moonlight. It was the dead face of Lady Catherine. I only got a quick glance before the veil fell over it again. “Get those coins yourself and keep them all,” one of the men shouted as I opened the toll bar without saying a word. From that day until this I have never spoken to anyone about what I had seen. After that night the idea of the toll-bar did no longer appealed to me. The sound of wheels in the darkness held a fear for me, and I could never see a cart pass without a cold shiver running down my spine. I had to give the job up and I returned again to my old trade of gardening. The plants and flowers hold no fear for me, and I am at peace. But there’s the boss, and dinner will be ready by this time.”
Paddy was right. Dinner was ready and a happy group had been gathered to enjoy it. I never saw my old friend after dinner, and I later heard he had emigrated to Canada the following spring, bringing his secret with him. After all these years, however, I don’t think that I will be breaching his trust by repeating his strange story.