Stories of Seamus No 12

Beautiful Sally – A Tale of Lough Neagh

In the pretty lough-side village of Montaigh, which looks out over the waters of Lough Neagh, there lived an old man called Paddy Sullivan, who was a boat-builder of many years’ experience. Around the shores of the lough, Paddy’s reputation for building boats was unrivalled and the village was only renowned for being the place where he built his boats. But, because of the fame he became convinced of his own importance and often declared that if there were any man who could beat him in the design, construction and finishing of a racing dinghy, he would give up his trade. Other than designing and building boats, Paddy’s pride was centred upon the only other thing that he loved, and that was his daughter, Sally. He had every right to be proud of her, for she was a beauty, and many thought her to be the epitome of an ‘Irish Colleen. She was a true ‘Irish Rose’ with a pair of roguish black eyes, blooming cheeks, and rose-coloured lips that did not quite hide her two rows of the prettiest, whitest teeth that ever a man had seen.

In his small boat-building yard, Paddy employed a young apprentice upon whom he placed some of his most important boat building secrets. Paddy was very fond of this young man and planned, at some distant date, to place with him all the knowledge that he had gathered over a lifetime. He was called Danny Cullen, a fine-looking young man who stood just about five-feet and ten-inches tall, quietly spoken and polite to all whom he met. Danny was also an active young man, who enjoyed sports of all kind and had a very athletic body, which was admired by many young ladies in the district, including Paddy’s daughter. Sally Scullion, in fact, thought that he was a very handsome man and confided in her girlfriends that she thought Danny had the brightest pair of eyes she had ever seen, and loveliest head of brown, curly hair that any man had ever possessed. Danny, however, was quite speechless every time he encountered Sally, finding it almost impossible to fully praise all her good qualities, including her calm temperament and her warm, sweet, and merry laugh. Even the most neutral of observers could see that these two young, warm-hearted, and amiable people were very much in love with each other. Old Paddy, however, did not dream that the two most important young people in his life had such deep feelings for each other.

There can be no doubt that Paddy was very knowledgeable when it came to boats and had great skill in building them. But when it came to affairs of the heart he was as blind and ignorant as most Irishmen of his age. For instance, Paddy could not even imagine that his daughter’s frequent visits to the boat yard were due to anything other than a natural and genetic interest in the art of boat-building. Moreover, Paddy had a habit of not wearing his spectacles in the workshop and, probably, failed to notice the reddening of Sally’s cheeks, or the added sparkle in her dark eyes, when she spoke about Danny’s abilities and artistry in boat building.

It was at the beginning of May that a well-dressed gentleman came to the work-yard and ordered a racing-gig from old Paddy. At least once every week subsequent to the order being placed the buyer sent his agent, who was called Duggan, to report on what progress was being made on the boat. Duggan, however, was no ordinary man from the area, but had a great reputation as the best oarsmen on the Lough that he had earned from many races that the fishermen held during the summer. But anyone who had ever come to have contact with him was immediately struck by his prideful and conceited manner. He wasn’t a tall man, but he had strong arms and features. Furthermore, people recall that his most distasteful features were his peculiarly cunning expression around the eyes, and the strange sneer that was always on his lips.

Duggan had, of course, already heard of Sally Sullivan’s reputation as a famed local beauty and was convinced that he would make a good match for the girl. Undaunted by the age difference between them, Duggan was determined that he would win the girl over to him and, with her, the fortune that old Paddy would undoubtedly bestow on her. In the meantime, Paddy and Danny had laid the moulds down and very soon after the proposed race-gig began to take graceful form in the boat-yard. “How are you, curly?” called a voice from outside the yard, giving warning that Mr. Duggan was approaching.

He had come that day to give his opinion on the work that had been completed, and to give his input into what still needed to be completed. But, as he entered the yard, he immediately noticed Sally, sitting on a chair completely involved in some task or other. The one thing that ‘Curly’ knew for certain, however, was that this beautiful girl was not looking at him. She was fixed upon every move that young Danny Cullen was making as he busied himself on the building of this new and wonderful boat. Sally had, of course, seen ‘Curly’ Duggan enter the yard but did not want to suffer the stare of his wickedly leering eyes and decided to leave. Quietly excusing herself she gathered up her things and retired to her father’s neatly painted cottage. Even as she left, Sally could feel that heat on her back from Duggan’s lustful gaze. As for young Danny Cullen, he looked up from his work with a bitter feeling of jealousy filling his body as he watched the way that ‘Curly’ Duggan was looking at his love. From that moment on, Danny formed a long-lasting dislike for this self-opinionated oarsman.

By the holy God!” exclaimed Duggan, “Sure, isn’t that the neatest and tidiest looking wee boat ever you saw? Now, my boy, what would your name be? For I see you looking closely at that pretty thing, the old man’s wee girl.

Yes, she is,” growled Danny,” and here we call her Miss Sullivan!

She’s a natural beauty, sure enough,” Curly sighed. “I suppose she has a heap of men chasing after her, boy?

How the hell would I know anything? I’ve enough trouble minding my own business, never mind someone else’s!” replied Danny angrily.

Ah, now!” said Duggan. “Sure, I only asked a civil question and a civil reply would be nice.”

Well, that’s the only answer I can give you,” Danny told him.

Curly never replied, but he began walking studiously around the half-built boat making snide remarks that demonstrated his complete contempt for Paddy Sullivan’s design and the way in which the work was progressing. “Would you ever look at that?” he smirked as he pointed toward the boat’s keel, “That’s a bloody disgrace! Sure, a barge could be turned quicker in the water than that.!

Deeply annoyed by Duggan’s comments about the boat, Danny gritted his teeth and continued to concentrate on his work. After a moment or two he felt calm enough to respond to the man’s disparaging remarks. “Well, this is no barge, that’s for sure. So far as that keel is concerned, it will give her a sure grip of the water and make her hold her line.

Aye? And who would be able to judge that among tour lot?” Curly sneered.

Some of the finest judges in any harbor on the lough!” insisted Danny Cullen. “Joe McGrath, Eddie O’Hagan, and Marty O’Brien, among others. Everyone of them will tell you there are no better men at handling an oar to be found in day’s journey!

Get away out of that with you!” scorned Duggan, “Sure I wouldn’t believe a word any of those boys would tell me. Your man McGrath is just a ‘gobshite’! Sure, I know more about deep-sea diving than he does gig-racing. McGrath couldn’t pull a bell rope, never mind an oar.

Well, I know little about deep-sea diving or pulling bell ropes, myself,” snapped Danny, “but I’ll tell you one thing for nothing; the four of us will beat your shambles of a boat in the race for the ‘Lough Cup’.”

You’ve a bit of a mouth on yourself, wee man, but I’ll take the bet and you can’t go back on it,” laughed Duggan confidently, sure that he and his crew would win the prize.

Don’t you be worrying about that,” Danny told him firmly. “I have never broken my word yet, and I can tell you that I am not about to start now.”

Curly now turned his attention back to the criticism of the boat and he said that he was totally dissatisfied with the project in Sullivan’s yard. His behavior was almost the straw that broke the camel’s back, but rather than cause a customer to walk out of Paddy’s yard he decided to get control of his growing anger. But Duggan had not long left the work-yard when Danny suddenly heard a loud shriek coming from the Sullivan cottage. Without even a second thought, Danny threw down the wood-plane that he was using and rushed to the cottage to see what was causing the disturbance. As he entered the building, he was shocked to see Sally struggling, with all her might, to free herself from Duggan’s arms as he tried vainly to snatch a kiss from the beautiful lips. “You dirty blackguard!” Danny screamed as he hurled himself at Duggan, gripping him by the throat and flinging him head-first to the floor.

Duggan was momentarily stunned, but when he recovered after a moment, or two, he raised himself to his feet again. He looked at both Danny and Sally with a certain menace in his eyes as the ‘red-mist’ of revenge filled him. “Take my word for it, Cullen, I’ll get even with you for this or the devil take me if I don’t! So, boy, make sure you keep your eyes open and your wits about you. As for you Sally Sullivan, I will just say good morning. Oh, by the way, Cullen don’t forget the race unless you are too scared to enter!” With these words Duggan stormed out of the cottage and left the work-yard. Sally, who had been very frightened, broke down into floods of tears. She had been terrified by Duggan’s brutality towards her and, after a while, she allowed herself to be consoled by Danny, who used all he knew about her to calm her down and dry her tears.

Not unexpectedly, advised by Duggan, the client rejected the new racing-gig and it was left with Old Paddy, who had no prospect of a customer for it. Naturally, Sullivan was upset at what had happened to his daughter. But he also regretted that he had been painfully struck down with gout, which he blamed for preventing himself from supervising the work and making the boat a model of perfection. Danny, stood by his work, and manfully faced all the negative remarks of neighbours. To comfort old Paddy, Danny also prophesied that, two days after the upcoming regatta, the gig would be sold at a large profit. So, when she was finished, launched, and christened ‘The Beautiful Sally’, after Paddy’s daughter, Danny helped the young woman fit a flag to the boat’s bow, which she had made from a remnant of white silk.

Now summer had arrived, and the sun shone in all its glory on the calm waters of the Lough. It was glorious July and the entire lough was busy with fishermen and boating tourists. The local regatta had been a great success so far and this was the last day of the festival. On the water a fleet of fairy-like yachts powered by a light breeze that swept over the lough’s surface forming tiny waves, through which the boats dashed, skimming like gulls over the water and creating a silver surf with their bows. The water’s surface blazed with light and the green hills nearby encircled the small cove, and the cloudless skies promised ideal weather to come. Larger boats rode at anchor with various flags and streamers fluttering from stern to bow. Several sand dredgers were also there and decked with a great number of fluttering flags and banners. Dotted over the lough were hundreds of leisure boats of all sizes and shapes, from the one oared punt to the family-sized whaler, or well-manned race-gig gliding from one place to another, giving great animation to the entire scene.

On the regatta quay by the lakeside there were crowds of people all dressed in the most elegant of clothes. Sailor outfits appeared to be the choice of most females but some of them did nothing to improve the look. Local notables of all sorts were also ambling about the quayside chatting to each other and smiling with those made up smiles that people use when they meet someone they would rather not. There was even a local brass band sat atop of a platform, which kept their playing of fine music and popular airs such that they blended beautifully with the hum of human voices, mixing with the soft murmurs of the Lough’s waters lapping the shore.

A little further back there were tents of every variety erected. In some of these beer and stout were sold along with numerous glasses of whisky. In other tents traditional music played and dancers skipped and clipped to their hearts’ content, competing in the local ‘Feis’ (Irish Dancing Competition). There were tents in which people could play hoops, throw darts, or try to hook various wooden animals to win a prize. Children sat before a ‘Punch and Judy’ show calling out when it was expected and laughing at all the correct moments. There were, of course, your usual mix of tricksters, encouraging the men and boys to part with their cash in a gambling game called ‘Finding the Queen’ or ‘Find the Pea’. But there was a lot of fun and frolic enjoyed by those who were in attendance, especially with it being the last day of the regatta. Everyone waited for the final rounds and the giving of prizes.

A warning shot was fired, and a fleet of small yachts drew up in a line close to the starting buoys. For a moment their mainsails flapped idly in the breeze until another shot was fired. With this second shot the jibs went up with other sails, causing these ‘Queens of the Lough’ to move forward in a cluster of snow-white canvas. In the beginning they seemed to be scarcely moving at all, but as the breeze caught their sails, they began to get underway and the waves on the lough were broken into foam. Meanwhile, Sally was sitting in the well-cushioned stern of her father’s four oared racing-gig, which old Paddy himself was steering.

Sally was wearing her best summer bonnet, sitting next to her broad-shouldered, honest old father. She looked as pretty as a pink summer rose that was blooming in the sunshine. But Sally was also becoming increasingly nervous as the time for Danny’s big race approached. She could see Curly Duggan’s boat and crew already out on the water and, from what she could see of the boat gliding through the waves, and the strong pulling of the crew, Curly’s boat appeared to be a certain winner. ‘White Falcon’ was the name that was boldly and decoratively painted on the outside of the boat’s prow. At her tiller stood one of the best oarsmen on the lough and he was proud of the muscular chests displayed by his oarsmen, and their powerful limbs with which they pulled the oars so swiftly. As the blades of the oars rose and dipped into the water, springing ‘White Falcon’ forward, his heart swelled in his chest as he imagined the great victory that they would all win together. “Sally darling,” said Old Paddy, “would you take the ropes for a minute, and watch what you’re doing, girl.”

Paddy stood up in the boat to see how the preparations for the race were going, but he had hardly done this when the bow of the gig came up against the side of a larger boat and the jolt left the old man sprawled in the bottom of the gig suffering from concussion. Sally began to scream loudly at seeing her father’s condition, although it was her who caused the boats to come together. She had taken the tiller ropes as directed by her father, but her mind was not concentrating on what she was doing. “Back water, old fool! Are you trying to sink us all? Open your damned eyes, eejit!” came cries from the other boat as old Paddy struggled to gain his feet again.

Get away from this, you pile of gobshites!” Paddy shouted back. “just look out for yourselves, damn you all!” After this one word followed another. Both sides heaped the choicest of insulting words and phrases on each other until the boats pulled away, with both sides believing they had gained a victory.

Come on now, boys,” Paddy urged his crew. “Heave ahead! Let us see if they are all getting ready for the start of the race.” A few moments later they reached the area where Danny Cullen and his companions were busily preparing the bottom of the new gig.

Well, Danny, my boy, how’s it going? What do you think of her now? Isn’t she a beauty?

Aye, Mister Sullivan, she looks beautiful,” answered Danny, who was admiring Sally.

Is the paint hardened, Danny?” asked Paddy.

Paint? Paint her?” exclaimed Danny in disbelief and still looking at Sally.

What the hell is wrong with you, Danny? I asked is the paint dry?

It’s alright, Mister Sullivan. Sure, it’s as hard as a rock.”

That’s great, boy. Now see that the stretchers are at the regular length and well lashed down.” Although old Paddy received a positive response to this instruction, he was not totally satisfied until he had personally ensured that everything had been attended to by Danny. “Sure, it’s great now, Danny! I hope she’ll do the job!

Don’t you worry about that. If we don’t come in first, it won’t be our fault. By the way, did you not hear the good news, Mister Sullivan? A gentleman called into the yard on Friday looking at the boat and he has just come up to me and said if we won the race, he would give you the price you were looking!

Jaysus!” exclaimed Paddy. “That would be great news if we stood any sort of chance of winning the race! But we can’t do anything about that now, more’s the pity.

Well, Mister Sullivan, we will just have to do our best, won’t we boys?” smiled Danny confidently as he turned to his crew.

We’ll try, anyhow,” the crew replied in unison as they lifted the racing-gig carefully from its resting place and gently floated her on the water.

Danny, here’s the flag,” said Sally. “Oh! There’s the gun!”

It’s the gun, sure enough, Sally. I’ll bring you home the cup! Come on, lads!” urged Danny, “Take your places, men. McGrath, be careful and watch the way you are standing on the ribs!

Run down a bit,” said old Paddy, “let me see your trim. Give the long steady stroke, for the breeze is freshening. Now, get underway and, Danny, my boy, make sure you win!

They pulled away from the shore and, as they moved out quickly, Paddy could not help exclaiming with delight, as he noticed just how evenly the gig went under the stroke, and how regular was the time kept with the oars. But Paddy’s former concerns returned to him and he remarked to himself the problem the boat had when being brought around. Meanwhile, Duggan was dashing about on the lough, attracting every observer’s gaze toward the ‘White Falcon’.

Clear the course! Course! Clear the course, pull out of the way!” bawled the racing steward, as bit by bit he succeeded in clearing sufficient space for the rival boats to line-up. “Take your places!” he shouted again through the megaphone.

Sally’s heart beat loudly as she saw the racing-gigs line up opposite the quay where the local dignitaries had assembled. She leaned against her father for support, as she observed the crews gently ‘backing water’ to keep on a line until the signal was given. “What side will you take?” asked the coxswain of the ‘White Falcon.’

They’re all the same, boy! Just stay as you are,” Duggan answered in confident voice.

Ready!” the starter shouted, and all oars were thrown forward, as the oarsmen bent, ready for that initial dash. “Fire!

Almost at the same instant a gun shot boomed and the blades of the oars were dipped into the water together. “Pull, boys, pull!” the coxswain of the ‘White Falcon’ roared loudly.

Heave away, lads, heave! Now for the start!” cried the others eagerly.

After about five strokes the ‘Falcon’ took the lead by a boat’s length from the ‘Sally’. A bitter sneer of triumph broke across Duggan’s lips as he took the lead. But, a few moments later, the powerful and steady pull of ‘Sally’s’ crew gained water until they came alongside their main competitor. For a very short distance the two boats were travelling neck and neck, exchanging stroke for stroke, as they made for a large buoy, around which they had to turn. The coxswains urged their crews to greater efforts as their oars caused waves to foam under their rapid strokes. Duggan’s crew pulled with a desperate vigour in order to gain the turn first, but Danny’s crew continued their same regular, even pull that kept them close.

Look now, father! Is the white flag in the lead? Is Danny in front, daddy,” asked Sally excitedly.

No, child. The ‘Falcon’ is leading – Wait now! – no she isn’t – Bravo, Danny! They’re pulling away from the ‘Falcon’!” It was true, for Paddy saw the ‘Sally’ pull almost six lengths ahead of the ‘Falcon’ and she was making more distance with every stroke. It was when they reached the buoy that the real difficulty began.

Backwater, starboard, pull-pull on the starboard!” roared the coxswain.

Heave, McGrath! That’s the way, O’Brien,” shouted Danny at the top of his voice, as he backed with all of his might.

We’re catching them now! Pull, boys, Pull! Hammer into them!” bawled the ‘Falcon’s’ helmsman, his voice hoarse from his exertions.

Before ‘Beautiful Sally’ could get underway correctly after the turn, while the ‘White Falcon’ darted around the buoy and was quickly three lengths in the lead. “Dear God, they’re beat!” sighed Paddy as he sank back on to the cushions in despair.

Don’t say that, daddy! Take another look!” Sally begged him.

There!” cried the old man, as he took another look. “She’s clear ahead again! Well done, Danny! Stick to her, my boy! Aye, there she moves, the beauty! I always said there wasn’t your equal except for myself at building a gig! Now boys,” he continued, addressing his own crew. “Pull over a wee bit, boys, and we’ll give them such a cheer! Heave, my lads – that’s it; bend your lazy backs!”

The course itself was about two or three miles in length, from the buoy to the old sand dredger. It was around this dredger that the boats would have to pull before they made for the quay from which they had started, and which was also the winning line. The struggle between the boats was now a sight to behold as, from time to time, the positions varied from boat to boat. The crews, although tired, appeared to gain renewed strength from the cheers that came from the numerous boats which met them on the course. The increased long stroke employed by her crew helped ‘Sally’ to stretch her lead ahead of the ‘Falcon’ once again. She was speeding toward the old dredger when misfortune struck, and the bow-man’s oar snapped. There was now utter confusion. The ‘Falcon’ came on. But, at that moment, Paddy Sullivan arrived, and seeing the trouble that the ‘Sally’ was in he reached down for an oar and threw it within reach of the bow-man. “You have it now, my boys! Now Danny, pull ahead!” Paddy shouted, and the crew cheered him as their oars dipped into the water and charged after the ‘Falcon’.

Within thirty strokes the two boats were neck and neck again. They drove on at speed and the struggle was now to round the dredger first. ‘Sally’ continued with their quick stroke while the ‘Falcon’ continued to keep. The stern of the dredger was neared, with the ‘Sally’ five boat lengths ahead and the ‘Falcon’ pressing on gallantly in her wake. Both captains urged their crews to greater effort and then shouted out the orders to turn the boats.

‘Sally’ did not round the dredger very well and allowed ‘Falcon’ to catch up and, once again, the two boats were neck and neck. It was now time for the capabilities of the two captains and their boats to decide the result, as a breeze had sprung up from the west and was blowing against both. Loud shouts now greeted the gigs as they came to the end of their final leg, and the winning line. Old Paddy had once again caught up with the race and he began to loudly urge on Danny and his crew. Meanwhile, Curly Duggan began to foam at the mouth as he worked his oar in great desperation, because he could hear young Danny loudly shouting encouragement to his crew to pull. The men responded well to Danny’s calls and, despite all of Duggan’s urges, the ‘Falcon’ began to drop back as the ‘Sally’ swept on to the finish. Curly cursed and raved as the ‘Sally’ powered forward, but he knew it was in vain, for the high-pointed bow of his gig had caught the wind and no longer had the same power as his competition.

Stand-by the final gun!” shouted the race steward. “Here they come with the ‘Sally’ well ahead! Fire!

There was a loud bang and a flash of light and smoke as the finishing gun fired. In that same instant the crew of the ‘Sally’ tossed their oars high in the air as the boat itself proceeded gracefully ahead. Great shouts, cheers and applause rang out across the lough as the winning crew dropped their blades into the water and they rode the boat into the landing place to receive their trophy. Paddy stood with tears of pride and joy in his eyes, while standing at her father’s side in sheer delight at the victory. The race steward took the large silver cup in his hands and presented it to Danny, who was still breathless and excited from his exertions and eventual triumph.

The gig ‘Beautiful Sally’ was immediately purchased for its asking price, plus ten-percent, and old Paddy received orders to build two more identical boats. Meanwhile, Duggan quietly disappeared in the crowds, never again to race the course or approach Sally Sullivan or make good his threats against Danny. It is said that old Paddy was somewhat taken aback when he heard the true feelings that Danny and Sally held for each other, but he gave his blessing to them both, and they married.

The Little Grey Gossip

Soon after my Cousin Sarah’s marriage, we were invited to stay with the newly married couple, for a few weeks during the festive Christmas season. Away we set off with merry hearts, in the clear frosty winter’s air, and with the pleasant prospect ahead of us invigorating our spirits. We took our seats inside the first-class coach on the early morning train, which passed through the town of Ballyshee, where Cousin Sarah lived. I can say without fear of contradiction that there was never a kinder or more genial soul than Cousin Sarah, and David Daniels, her ‘Good Man’, as she laughingly called him. If it is at all possible, David was even kinder and more genial still. Their home was filled with kinds of comforts, and they were always delighted to see friends in a sociable, easy way. They believed in making visitors snug and cosy, though our arrival was only the first of what was to be a succession of such arranged visits.

The Wedding

These evenings were both very amusing and enjoyable, for Con’s presence would always shed radiant sunshine upon a gathering, while David’s broad and honest face beamed upon her with a loving pride. At our house, during those days of their courtship, for sober middle-aged lovers, they had perhaps indulged in sweet talk and pecking each other a little too freely when they were in the company of others. This would leave them open to criticisms from the prim and proper brigade, who wondered why Miss Constance and Mr Danvers would make so ridiculous. But now, with marriage, all of this nonsense had calmed down, and nothing like that could be seen, except for the odd sly glance, or an occasional squeeze of the hand. When we talked about those bygone days, we would joke and declare that engaged couples pairs were usually a pain, and that you could always spot such a couple in a big crowd!

“’I’ll bet you anything you like,” cried Cousin Con, with a good-humoured laugh, “that among our guests coming this evening, you’ll not be able to point out the engaged couple among them. There will be only one such couple, although there are plenty of lads and lasses that would like to be so happily situated! But, the couple I allude to are real little love birds, and yet I defy you to find them!’

“That’s a bet, Cousin Con!” we exclaimed, “and what shall we bet?”

“Gloves! Those fancy French gloves!” cried David. “You Ladies always use gloves to bet. But, I warn you that my Con is on a safe bet now.” David rubbed his hands excitedly, delighted with his joke, which he thought would be at our expense. We, however, were already thinking about our existing collections of fine French gloves, and looking forward to expanding the collections with half-a-dozen pair of particularly expensive samples from Con’s large collection. As a result we watched, with extra interest, the arrival and movements of all strangers to the house that evening, in the hope of detecting the lovers who were engaged.

There were mothers and fathers that came in, both old and middle-aged ladies and gentlemen, until all the drawing rooms were filled with some thirty people. We closely watched all the young people, particularly the manner in which they interacted and we discovered several innocent flirtations. But, we saw nothing that gave us the appearance of a loving and engaged couple. After a while, however, we established ourselves in the corner of a room to closely observe a tall, beautiful girl, who never seemed to take her eyes from the door leading into the room. Each time it opened to admit someone this beautiful girl would sigh and look disappointed if the person entering was not the person she wanted to see. We spent some time enjoying ourselves by making up a romantic scenario in which this girl was the heroine. It was during this game that a little woman, dressed in grey, and aged about sixty years, took a seat beside us and began a conversation. She asked us if we were admiring the pretty Anna McKenna, as she worked out who we were looking at so intently. We had to admit that we were, and the old lady told us, “Ah, she’s a good, affectionate girl. A great favourite of mine is sweet Anna McKenna.”

“She’s waiting for her lover, no doubt?” we suggested to her in the hope of getting some information about engagement. “She is an engaged young lady, of course?”

“Engaged! engaged!” laughed the little lady in grey, “not at all, God forbid! Anna McKenna is not engaged.” The expression on the little lady’s face after we made our suggestion, demonstrated how ludicrous our supposition had been in her eyes. We immediately admitted that we had no knowledge whatsoever in this matter and suggested that our mistake was made through our own ignorance. The encounter had, however, given us both the time to examine our new acquaintance more critically. As stated, this old lady was dressed in grey, which blended in beautifully with her grey hairs, braided in a peculiarly obsolete fashion, and uncovered. She wore grey gloves, grey shoes, and, above all, gray eyes, soft, large, and peculiarly sad in their expression. And yet, they were beautiful eyes, which redeemed her grey, monotonous appearance from being absolutely plain. It is said that Mary Queen of Scots, also had gray eyes. But, even she, the poor lady, did not have the same knowledge of others, past and present, as did this little unknown gossip in gray. But our attention was soon diverted, by the entrance of another person into the room, to whom Anna McKenna darted forward with a cry of delight and welcome. This new arrival was a slender, elderly gentleman, whose white hairs, pale face, and benignant expression presented nothing remarkable in their aspect, beyond a certain air of elegance and refinement, which characterised the whole outward appearance of the man.

“That is a charming-looking old gentleman,” we said to the grey lady, “is he Anna’s father?’

“Anna’s father? O dear, no! That gentleman is a bachelor! He is Anna’s guardian, and has taken the place of a father to her, for poor Anna is an orphan.”

The Bride’s Father

“Oh!” we exclaimed, and there was a great variety of meaning in our “oh!” We had, of course, read and heard of youthful wards falling in love with their guardians? Might not the fair Anna’s taste incline this way? The little gray lady had immediately understood our thoughts. She smiled knowingly, but she said nothing. Then, while we were absorbed with Anna and her supposed antiquated lover, the old lady moved into the circle, and presently we saw Anna’s guardian, with Anna leaning on his arm, exchange a few words with her in a whispering tone, as she brought them to an inner room.

“Who is that pleasing-looking old gentleman?” we asked our hostess, “and what is the name of that lady in grey, who went away just as you came up? That is Anna McKenna we know, and we know also that she isn’t engaged!”

Cousin Con laughed heartily as she replied, “That nice old gentleman is Mr Worthington, our poor curate, and a poor curate he is likely ever to continue, so far as we can see. The lady in grey we call, fondly, our ‘little gray gossip,’ and she is a darling! As to Anna, you seem to know all about her. I suppose little Bessie has been praising her up to the skies.”

“Who is little Bessie?” we asked her.

“Little Bessie is your little grey gossip. We never call her anything but Bessie to her face and she really is a harmless little old maid. But come this way, for Bessie is going to sing. They won’t let her rest till she complies, and let me tell you that Bessie singing, and Bessie talking, are widely different creatures.”

Widely different indeed! There was this little grey lady seated at the piano, and making it speak, while her thrilling tones, as she sang of  ‘days gone by,’ went straight to each listener’s heart. As for the lady herself, she was looking ten years younger! When the song was over, I saw Mr Worthington, with Anna still resting on his arm, in a corner of the apartment, shaded by a projecting piece of furniture. At the same time, I also noted the tear on his furrowed cheek, which he hastily brushed away. He stooped to answer some remark of Anna’s, who, with fond affection, had evidently seen it also, and was trying to dispel the painful illusion which memories of days gone by brought about.

At the end of the evening, we found the company was separating, and our bet was still unredeemed. The last to leave was Mr Worthington, escorting Anna McKenna and little Bessie, whom he tenderly helped with her shawl, no doubt because she was a poor lonely little old maid, and she sang so sweetly.

The next morning over breakfast, Cousin Con launched herself at us with the support of Mr Danvers. They both demanded that we should give them the answer to the task we were given, or else hand over our fine French gloves! After a great amount of laughter, talking, and discussion, we had to finally confess that the question had defeated us, for there had been an engaged couple present on the previous evening, and we had failed to discover who they were. It was not Anna McKenna for she had no lover. Neither was it the Misses Halls , or the young Barton boys. We had seen them flirt and dance, and dance and flirt indiscriminately during the evening, but they were not interested in any serious engagements.

Who would have thought that romance, that was now divulged, was actually true? We wondered how we could have been so stupid as to not have seen the answer immediately. These questions are very common when a riddle has been unfolded to provide a solution that you did not expect. It is so easy to be wise when one has the answer in their hand. Yet we cheerfully lost our wager and would have lost a hundred similar ones just for the sake of hearing the following tale, which is so far removed from what is expected that it proves enduring faith and affection are not so fabulous as philosophers would have you believe they are.

Bessie Prunty was nearly related to David Danvers, and she had been the only child of a talented but improvident father, who, after a short, brilliant career as a public singer, suddenly sank into obscurity and neglect. The poor man had suffered a total loss of his vocal powers, which had been brought on by a violent rheumatic cold and extreme physical and emotional exhaustion. When this misfortune occurred, Bessie had almost reached her twentieth year, and she was still in mourning for an excellent mother, by whom she had been tenderly and carefully brought up. The descent from luxury and indulgence to poverty and privation was very swift. Although Bessie had inherited a very small income from the will of her deceased mother, which was sufficient for her own needs, and even a few comforts, it was totally inadequate to meet the numerous demands, whims, and fancies of her ailing and exacting father. For five years, however, she battled bravely with adversity, stretching out their meagre income by her great efforts, although, because of her father’s helpless condition, and the constant and unremitting attention he required, she was prevented in many ways from employing her efforts to more advantage. That poor, dying man, when he had been in excellent health, had contributed to the enjoyment of the more affluent in society, and in turn had been courted by them. But now, feeling that he had been forgotten and was despised, he bitterly reviled this heartless world, which he had once unceasingly attempted fill with cheering and applause. To his bitter and disordered mind the possession of wealth became the goal of life and he attached inordinate value to gaining wealth, while he felt very bitter about his own comparative poverty. He loved his only child better than anything else in this world, except for himself. Naturally, he wanted to guard the child from the dreaded evil of a life of poverty. In his misguided efforts, during his latter days, he gained from her a solemn promise that she would never become the wife of any man who could not settle upon her a sum of at least one thousand pounds, without any strings being attached.

Bessie, was a happy and lively girl who had no intentions of suffering all the slights and privations that poverty brings to a person. She, therefore, saw no reason as to why she should not bind herself to this solemn promise to her father. Even after her father breathed his last, she said that she had made his worries about her vanish quite easily. Little Bessie half smiled, even in the middle of her mourning and natural sorrow, to think how small and easy a promise her poor father had gained from her, especially when her own opinions and views so perfectly coincided with his. The poor orphan girl was taken in by the mother of David Danvers, and she continued to live with that worthy lady until the latter died. It was beneath Mrs. Danvers’ roof that Bessie first became acquainted with Mr Worthington, and that acquaintance quickly ripened into a mutual and sincere attachment. He was poor and had no one to sponsor him, and he had not progressed much in the years since. There was absolutely no likelihood of ever having a thousand pounds that belonged to him alone, never mind a thousand pounds that he could settle on a wife. Of course, it is possible, that with all the chances and changes that come our way during our lifetime, Paul Worthington might eventually succeed to some wealth. There were, however, many twists and turns, as well as ups and downs between him and the opportunity of becoming rich. Paul, was not the type to push himself forward, or to gain at the expense of others, and little Bessie was like-minded.

Paul Worthington was very rich in something that money could not buy, and which cold not be quantified. He had a pure and devoted heart that held great love for one woman, but he bravely endured a life of loneliness and because of the circumstances in which he and his loved one found themselves. Such was Paul’s love that he did not see Bessie grow old and grey, because in his eyes, she never changed. She was, in his eyes, still a beautiful, graceful, and enchanting girl, who was his betrothed. On occasion he would leave his books, and his arduous clerical and parochial duties, just to gaze at into her soft eyes. Then he would press her tiny hand, whisper a fond word to her, and then he would return to his lonely home, where he would bury his sorrows in long bouts of study.

Anna McKenna had been sent to him as a ministering angel. She was the orphan and penniless daughter of Mr Worthington’s dearest friend and former college friend, and she had come to find a shelter beneath the humble roof of the pious guardian, to whose earthly care she had been solemnly left. Paul’s curacy was not far from the town where Bessie had fixed her resting-place. Most of those personal friends, who knew the secret of little Bessie’s history, also knew that she regarded Anna McKenna with special favour and affection, from the fact, that Anna enjoyed the privilege of comforting and cheering Paul Worthington’s declining years. Each of them spoke of her as a dear adopted daughter, and Anna equally returned the affection of both.

Those poor lonely people! They had known long and anxious years, separated by circumstance, and yet united in their bonds of enduring love! In my mind I pictured them at festive winter seasons, it their humble solitary homes; and in the height of summer, when song-birds and bright perfumed flowers call lovers out into the sunshine. They had not dared to rejoice during their long engagement and yet Bessie was a sociable creature, who did not mope or shut herself up, but chose to lead a life of active usefulness, and was a general favourite amongst everyone. They had never even thought about the possibility of them evading Bessie’s solemn promise to her dying father. To their minds, that fatal promise was as binding and stringent.

Little Grey Gossip

When we first met the little grey gossip, we had humoured ourselves at her expense. Now, however, we looked upon her as an object of interest, surrounded by a halo of romance, fully shared in by her charming and venerable lover. And this was good Cousin Con’s explanation of the riddle, which she told with many digressions, and with animated smiles, to conceal tears of sympathy. Paul Worthington and little Bessie did not like their history to be discussed by the younger generation, who scorned such things. For Paul and Bessie their sacrifice was so unworldly and very sacred, but they looked forward with a humble hope that soon they would be united for ever in a better place. It simply pained them terribly and distressed them to be made a topic of conversation.

If we had been telling fiction, it would have been easy for us to bring this elderly pair together, even at the eleventh hour. Love and constancy can make up for the absence of the one sweet ingredient that fades but is so beautiful, namely youth. But as this is a romance made in reality, we are compelled by circumstances to divulge facts as they actually occurred, and as we heard them from authentic sources. Paul and Bessie divided in their lives, are now laid side by side in the old church-yard. He went first, and Bessie changed her usual grey for more sombre clothing of a darker colour. But, that loving little soul did not remain long behind him. She left her property to Anna McKenna, and warned her against long engagements.

The last time that we heard about of Anna, she was the happy wife of an excellent man, who, fully complied with the opinion of the little grey gossip by protesting strenuously against a courtship lasting more than six weeks, and he carried his point triumphantly.