Big Tom Harte was his adopted mother’s jack-of-all-trades. In fact, I do not know how she could ever have managed the farm without having his clear head and sound judgment to guide her. Everyone in the parish knew Tom as a man well-trained in getting a bargain and, probably, the best judge of a ‘beast’ in this part of the county. Although I knew the man well, I truly believe he deserves all such compliments because I can never remember mother ever losing money on her cattle dealings, and at various shows and fairs our animals were highly regarded for their appearance. Tom did not regard himself as being wholly an Ulster-man and took a lot of pride in the fact that through his mother he could claim Scottish descent, and some said that much of Tom’s cautiousness with money and shrewdness in dealing with others was a result of this Scottish blood.
We, children were always rather in awe of him. He ruled over us and our lives on the farm with a rod of iron, and woe betide anyone who dared to enter the garden before the house had been supplied with ample fruit for preserving! Our lives would not be worth living if we decided to launch an assault upon his beloved fruit trees or damaged his trim flower-beds! Yet, it was very good for us that someone had been set in authority over the garden and farm-yard, for we were a rambunctious lot of fatherless ‘gorsoons’. But the years passed quickly as, one-by-one, we grew into adulthood. I, being the eldest, left home first and was the first to return, more alone after being so happy for a very short period of time. When I returned home, a young widow, the younger children had all flown the nest, and my mother now had no one left but me, and she was growing old. I decided immediately that I should put my future, and that of my son’s, into her hands, and soon we became thoroughly acquainted with Tom Harte. In his mind I was ‘the young mistress’ or ‘Miss Ellen’ and I can honestly state that I often felt at a disadvantage when I was in his presence. He had a widespread knowledge of subjects in which I was totally ignorant, he could calmly reject my farming theories without belittling me, he was always successful in all ventures that he undertook, and he completely overawed me to such an extent that, after a struggle or two, I would give in.
Although Tom must have been at least forty at this time, he looked quite a few years younger, was handsome, tall and well-built, and most importantly a bachelor. He had a bright twinkle in his grey eyes, which almost contradicted his firm-set mouth with its long upper lip and massive square chin. From his mother he had inherited a close calculating mind, which was hard to convince and slow to take on-board new impressions but would strongly retain these new thoughts once he had accepted them. From his father, roving Pat Harte from Donegal, he inherited an Irishman’s ready wit and nimble tongue, and under all an Irishman’s fickle heart, but not his warm affections, which went so far towards mitigating such fickleness.
Tom was unusual among men of his own class, for he was well to do. He had successfully speculated in cattle on his own account and he had money in the bank and a snug cottage of his own. Nevertheless, year after year, Shrove-tide after Shrove-tide, which was the marrying season throughout Roman Catholic Ireland, Tom could be found rejoicing in the blessings of being single. Yet, the man could not have had a comfortable home, for his old mother was a confirmed invalid and, as Tom was known to be very careful with money, he only provided her with the services of a little girl who was scarcely in her teens. I can recall that, on more than one occasion, mother had spoken to him about matrimony. But, on each occasion Tom would answer her with the argument, “Is it as easy to work for two as for one, ma’am?” Hearing this type of answer from him, she ceased bothering him about it.
On one bright frosty November day I sent Tom to the Ballygarr on very important business. Then, to assure myself that this business had reached a favourable outcome, I walked along the road to meet him as he returned home. But, I waited and waited for his return until the expected time of his arrival home had passed. The delay caused me to feel rather uneasy and I, therefore, quickened my steps along that winding sea-side road. Then, as I came around a bend in the road the reason for Tom’s delay was revealed to me. Ahead, I could see him walking beside a very pretty country girl, while another, not so young or nearly so pretty, lagged a little behind them.
“Well, Master Tom!” I thought to myself, “Are we to hear news of you this Shrove-tide?’
As I came forward, the two girls fell back, and Tom hurried forward to meet me. He looked shy and rather sheepish as he came toward me. I immediately recognised the pretty girl as being Mary Docherty, who was considered to be the most beautiful girl in the district, and she hung her shapely head, trying to hide her blushing face as she passed me by.
Tom was calm and very business-like as soon as the girls were out of sight. He had lodged money for me in the county bank, settled my own and my mother’s accounts with butcher, baker, and grocer, and transacted all our various businesses with care and correctness. Having given me a full account of what he had been doing, Tom hurried on, while I continued with my evening walk. Twilight was quickly falling when I returned home and, although more than an hour had elapsed since Tom had went ahead of me on the road, he was just entering the gate as I turned from the sea-road and on to the small path leading to the same gate. In the house, later that evening, I caused my mother to smile very brightly as I told her about what I had seen on the road. “But,” said she, “poor little Mary has no fortune behind her, and Tom will be looking for one with any girl he decides marry.”
A few days after this encounter, Tom quietly took me into his confidence. We were making our winter preparations in the green-house, putting away the summer plants whose flowering days were done, and filling up gaps in our shelves with bright chrysanthemums and other winter-blooming plants. Mother was exhausted after an hour of this work, and so Tim and I were left alone among the flowers. For a lengthy period of time he worked away at the task in silence, but I could see that he was longing to speak. Just as I was about give him the opportunity to speak, however, he forestalled me.
”It was a fine day that day I was in Ballygarr, Mrs Greene” he said, as he passed me carrying a huge flowering bush from one end of the greenhouse to the other.
“It was indeed, Tom. Had you many people about that day?” I replied.
“No, ma’am, there weren’t very many. Some of them soldier boys from the barracks.”
“Were there many people from around these parts?” I asked him.
“Hugh Docherty and his sister, and Susie O’Connor, were there ma’am.”
“Ah, sure you walked home with the girls. What became of Hugh that time?”
“Sure, you know what it’s like, ma’am, he just got overtaken with a drop of drink. I simply thought it would be a friendly gesture for to see the girls home safely.”
“I am sorry to hear Hugh was so bad as that, Tom.”
“Well, it was all his own fault, Miss Ellen, for he did not want to leave ‘Mrs Gallagher’s Pub’ no matter what we said, and so we just left him there. But! Miss Ellen, I’ve had some thought about a change to my life.”
“I am very glad to hear it, Tom.”
“Yes, Miss! Yes, indeed, miss. Sure, it is lonely work growing old with nobody to take care of you.”
“God bless us, Tom, that’s a selfish way of looking at things,” I told him.
“But, miss, why else would a man marry, but to have himself taken care of?”
“I suppose liking the girl he married would also be a reason too,” I responded.
“Oh aye! I’d still like to have a woman that I’d fancy, but she must be handy.”
“And who would you be thinking of?” I asked, as Tom bent over a box of geranium cuttings. “Whoever she may be, I hope she is nice and good, and that she will be kind to your poor old mother, as well as a good manager?”
“You can be sure that I wouldn’t take one that wasn’t that, Miss Ellen,” he replied, without raising his head. “But, sure it’s awful hard to tell how these young ones will turn out.”
“She is young then?”
“Young enough, and settled enough,” he told me. “There’s two that I’m thinking of.”
“Two!” I exclaimed. “Well that’s not the right to do, Tom. A man of your years is surely old enough to know what kind of wife would suit him best. Besides, it’s not very fair to the girls.
They are related to each other, I believe. Those two young women you were walking home with on Saturday?”
“They are,” replied Tom, utterly unembarrassed by what he had said. “Mary Docherty and Susie O’Connor. Mary’s the prettiest, though,” he added in a sort of heartfelt sigh.
“Aye, I have always heard that she was as good as she looked,” I told him. “She has been such a dutiful daughter and a good sister to those wild boys, that she cannot fail to make a good wife for someone.”
“Maybe,” Tom replied. “But the Docherty family hasn’t got much money about them these days.”
“I know they are not very rich, Tim, but they are comfortable.”
“Aye, they aren’t begging, miss, begging your pardon. But, even you will admit that there is little comfort about the house.”
“Well, I suppose she has known what it is to want, and she will know better how to take care of plenty, when she gets it.”
“I don’t know about that! Maybe when she’d get her two hands full she’d be throwing it all away, for them that has been reared in poverty seldom know how to handle plenty when it comes.”
“Well, I have always heard Mary praised for being the prettiest and the best girl in the entire county, and I am sure you would think yourself a happy man if you could get her for your wife,” I said sharply.
“There’s not a word of a lie in what you say, Miss Ellen,” replied Tom, as he placed the last young geranium in its pot. “She’s a good girl, and as pretty a girl as you’d see in an entire summer’s day. But, I have a wish to step up and see all contenders before I speak to her.”
“Why, Tom, have things gone as far as that?”
“Well, I may say I have her courted up to the asking, miss.”
“And the other, Tom?” I asked him and tried desperately to hide my amusement.
“Truthfully, I don’t know, but I have her on hand too.”
“Now, is that fair to either of those wee girls?” I asked rather indignantly.
“Sure, I don’t know. All I do know is that a man has to look sharply before he jumps.”
“And who is the other girl? Mary’s cousin?”
“Yes, miss! ‘Long Tom O’Connor’s’ daughter, from Drumshesk. She’s up with Mary since Hollowe’en. Hughie’s looking after her.”
“She’s no beauty, Tom”’
“No, miss! But she’s settled. They tell me that her temper is a little rough, but she has the finest two-year-old heifer that I ever set my eyes on. A pure beauty, Miss Ellen.”
“Sure, what good would the cow be to you, Tom, if you had a sour cross-grained wife at home?”
“Aye, but maybe she wouldn’t be so sour or cross when she’d have a good house over her head and plenty in her hand. She’s getting old, Miss Ellen, and she sees the young ones coming on, and leaving her on the shelf. I tell you, there would be a ‘quare’ change in her if she had her own way.”
“By God, Tom, you seem to think much more of the cow than the girl!’ I retorted.
“Truthfully, it’s the prettiest of the two. But miss, I’m asking, what would you advise me to do?”
“You should marry the girl you like best, Tom, and never mind the cow. A young sweet-tempered girl like Mary, who has been so good to her sickly parents, so gentle and loving to those wild brothers of hers, cannot fail to make you a good wife. You will never be sorry, if you marry the girl you like best.”
“That would be right, ma’am. She is a good girl, and I’m in no doubt that I like her beyond any other woman in the world. But, Miss Ellen, I’d wish she had the cow!”
Next day I left home, and I did not return until the daffodils were glittering in the spring meadows around our home, and the rooks were cawing over their fledglings in the trees that stood behind our garden. Tom was married, for I had heard the news from my mother early in the year. But, I still did not know which fair maid he had decided to choose, and I was eager to find out. It was late at night when I returned home from my travels, and my mother had far too much to tell me about other than the termination of Tom’s courtship.
In the morning, I made my way into the garden, the farm-yard, the fields lying close by, and still I could not find Tom. I didn’t meet up with him until late in the afternoon, when I found him busily trenching up some early cabbages in the back-garden. He seemed rather shy of me, but I put out my hand and greeted him warmly.
“You’re welcome home, Mrs Greene, ma’am,” he said. He struck his spade into the fresh-turned earth and shook the hand that I offered him with more than ordinary warmth. “We’ve been waiting a very long time to have you back among us.”
“Thank you, Tom. So, I have to wish you every future happiness.”
Tim looked sheepish, but speedily recovered himself. “Yes, ma’am, if happiness it is to be.”
“Oh, there can be little doubt on that score, Tom. I hope Mary is well?”
“Mary? You mean Mary Docherty? Why, she’s spoken for with ‘Lanky’ Muldoon that owns the hotel in Ballygarr.”
“Well, Tom, I thought you were going to marry Mary?”
“No, Miss Ellen, I chose not to. I believe her and ‘Lanky’ were married last Saturday.”
“And what made you change your mind, Tom?”
“Well, I just took Susie. For you see, Miss Ellen, I decided that a cow would make the difference between any two women in the world”
“So, it was the cow that won the day for Susie, after all!”