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.

Baron of Sluggan

An Old Tale from the Annals of my Family

There was a time when every poor Irish peasant could tell you that he was the descendants of Chieftains and Kings, who were all beaten down by the vile English and had their lands stolen from them. Now, I am not going to tell you that my ancestry stretches back to one of the ruling families of old Ireland since I cannot trace my paternal or maternal line beyond ‘The Great Potato Famine in Ireland’, or as some would call it the ‘The Irish Genocide by the English.’ There are stories from days prior to the beginning of that terrible time that have been handed down but not earlier than the beginning of that century. It appears, after the failure of the ‘United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798’ the British Government decided to increase its military presence throughout the land. One area that saw an increase in the number of red-coated soldiers was the County of my forefathers, County Tyrone.

In the year of the ‘Union’, 1801, a certain regiment was ordered to Tyrone and was very soon dispersed over various districts of that County. One detachment was sent to be stationed in the townland of Sluggan, and their first impressions of that area were far from favourable. The detachment leader and his two assistants, however, soon discovered an Síbín (Shebeen), which was an illegal drinking place, where alcoholic drink was sold without a license and without having paid revenue to the government. This drinking den for the locals was based in the small, thatched cabin where the soldiers had been sent to be billeted. One night, soon after arriving, the three soldiers began to discuss the types of leisure-time amusement that were on offer, and they were quite quickly disappointed with what they found.

Under the instructions of their military superiors, the three men were not allowed to associate with the locals or get too friendly with them because of their rumoured rebellious nature. They sought further entertainment to keep them amused but, for them, there was no hunting, no shooting, no gaming, no horses to ride, no lively young ladies that they might flirt with. It should be understood, military men in those days rarely had an interest in literature, but books suddenly became very important to these men and, when they had read the few they had, they sent to the nearest town, which was quite a distance away, for more. Unfortunately, reading is not the sort of active amusement that young, healthy men truly yearned for.

One evening the three soldiers took a walk along some of the tracks and boreens of the district, and their faces soon brightened when they saw a local peasant boy, wearing a shabby hat, a torn coat, and a pair of britches that were held together by a single button and a rope belt. As he paraded merrily along his way, he was whistling a merry tune and, in one hand dangled two fine-looking trout in one hand. In his other hand he was waving a long ‘switch’, and he marched along the track with his curly red hair blowing over his bright, rosy-cheeked face in the fresh breeze. He was a picture of health and of careless happiness.

“Hello! My fine fellow! Where did you catch these trout?” asked the leading soldier.

“Now, your honour, in the small lake, just over ‘thonder’,” replied the boy with a smile, pointing back along the track

“’Thonder!’ Where the devil is that?”

“Do you see ‘thone’ hills? Well, just behind them hills there’s the lake with plenty of fish. By Jaysus, if I had but a decent fishing-rod, and something more sensible than a crooked pin!’

“Aren’t you a handsome intelligent boy! What are you called?’

‘Patrick McCoille, if pleases your honour.’

‘Well, Paddy, if you will show us the trout lake, I’ll give you a shilling.’

Paddy McCoille had heard of a shilling, but he had never yet seen one, so he was overjoyed at the prospects of getting one. He not only showed them the small lake but made rush-baskets to carry the fish they caught. He told tales to the three soldiers, sung them songs, and, by his good-humour and love of fun, very much enlivened their stay at Sluggan. He was happy to be at the centre of the soldiers’ attention and was happy to be doing anything for them that gained him a few coppers. Now, when the time came for the soldiers to leave the district, Paddy was genuinely sorrowful at their going. The soldiers decided that they could help the young lad by recruiting him as a boy soldier in the regiment.

In those days there was not much money in a family of Roman Catholic, Irish Peasants, and Paddy’s mother encouraged him to begin a military career as a fifer in the British Regiment. There he would get clothes, shoes, a bed of his own, and three good meals a day. When he was older, Paddy entered the ranks full-time and became valet to a Captain Chalmondley-Rowbotham.  Within months Paddy’s extraordinary intelligence and military bearing brought quick promotion to the rank of Sergeant. There was a war with France at this time, of course, and on two occasions he showed great courage and wisdom while leading a detachment of men in battle. As a result, Paddy was unanimously put forward for officer training and once again succeeded in gaining the promotion. Despite his rapid rise through the ranks, however, he retained the good opinion and friendship of all who had been former comrades.

It is said that Paddy was considered by many to be a handsome man and, as we have seen a very clever person. What he lacked in education he took advantage of every opportunity to improve himself. But no one is perfect, and Patrick McCoille became extremely ambitious and ever vainer. He came to a point in his ‘new’ life that he did not want to remain in a situation where his very humble origins were so well known, and he finally transferred to another regiment, where he soon became equally as popular with his new companions as he had been with his old friends. Eventually, however, war with France came to an end and Paddy’s financial status quickly fell below that which he had been used to. He needed a new life and he decided to use his long-held talents to help him seek out a fortune and further growth in his social status.

With the peace gained, Paddy settled himself in a town that lay along the north coast of France and began to seek a wife that would bring with her position and wealth. He did not have long to wait. Having become a fluent French speaker and his quick wits helped him greatly to open many doors which were closed the higher born, but less talented army companions. Before long, he met the widow of a wealthy hotelkeeper who, though twenty years his senior, gave him clear signals that all he needed to do was to propose. Whether this was a case of him being greedy or a real case of love, it is hard to say. Nevertheless, they married, and lived together for three years, during which he was both affectionate and kind to her. Then, when his wife died, she left him all that she had, which, although much less than he had hoped for, made up, together with his army pension, a reasonably good income.

Although this amount of income would have represented a mere pittance to most men, it was a fortune to such an adventurer. Armed with this money and his natural talents, Paddy set out for Paris, where he made a great impression upon a young and beautiful widow who held a high situation within French society, and very soon after they met the two were married.  One problem arose, however, during the nuptial preparations when the lady objected to his name.

McCoille!” she cried, (pronouncing it as M’ecole — My School); “I cannot allow myself to accept such a name in my social circle. It is demeaning!

Well, my dear, I am very sorry about that, but it is my name.”

Does your family not possess a title?

None,” said Paddy, who now insisted on being called Patrick.

What, then, is the name of your father’s estate?

Patrick’s thoughts turned to the small, thatched cabin in which he had passed his childhood. He recalled the pig that had once been a playmate before it was delivered to the landlord to pay the rent. He remembered his father, in his long, heavy coat, with a hay-band round his hat, and his mother, dressed in fluttering rags which so many of the Irish peasantry thought added smartness to their dress. After so many years he, perhaps, thought with regret of the warm, loving hearts that had beat beneath in their breasts, so fond and so proud of him. With quiet dignity, he told her, ‘Sadly, my love, it is no longer in our family.

But” persisted the lady, “you were born near some village, or in some place that had a name?”

“The townland of Sluggan was where we lived.”

Fantastique! That is just what is needed! You will call yourself the Baron de Sluggan!

“Call myself?”

Of course, and why not? I shall not object to being called ‘De Sluggan’”.

She accordingly had her cards printed ‘La Baroness de Sluggan,’ and her husband, who had a great love of his family name, now became known to all as ‘Baron McCoille de Sluggan’. One of these cards is preserved as a memento by one of my relatives and Paddy’s adventures are frequently repeated at wakes, weddings, and other family gatherings.