English Literature

Lady Bountiful by George A. Birmingham

Lady Bountiful by George A. Birmingham


Society in the west of Ireland is beautifully tolerant. A man may do many things there, things frowned on elsewhere, without losing caste. He may, for instance, drink heavily, appearing in public when plainly intoxicated, and no one thinks much the worse of him. He may be in debt up to the verge of bankruptcy and yet retain his position in society. But he may not marry his cook. When old Sir Tony Corless did that, he lost caste. He was a baronet of long descent, being, in fact, the fifth Corless who held the title.

Castle Affey was a fine old place, one of the best houses in the county, but people stopped going there and stopped asking Sir Tony to dinner. They could not stand the cook.

Bridie Malone was her name before she became Lady Corless. She was the daughter of the blacksmith in the village at the gates of Castle Affey, and she was at least forty years younger than Sir Tony. People shook their heads when they heard of the marriage and said that the old gentleman must be doting.

“It isn’t even as if she was a reasonably good-looking girl,” said Captain Corless, pathetically. “If she had been a beauty I could have understood it, but—the poor old dad!”

Captain Corless was the son of another, a very different Lady Corless, and some day he in his turn would become Sir Tony. Meanwhile, having suffered a disabling wound early in the war, he had secured a pleasant and fairly well-paid post as inspector under the Irish Government. No one, not even Captain Corless himself, knew exactly what he inspected, but there was no uncertainty about the salary. It was paid quarterly.

Bridie Malone was not good-looking. Captain Corless was perfectly right about that. She was very imperfectly educated. She could sign her name, but the writing of anything except her name was a difficulty to her. She could read, though only if the print were large and the words were not too long.

But she possessed certain qualities not very common in any class. She had, for instance, quite enough common sense to save her from posing as a great lady. Sir Tony lost caste by his marriage. Bridie Malone did not sacrifice a single friend when she became Lady Corless. She remained on excellent terms with her father, her six younger sisters, and her four brothers. She remained on excellent terms with everyone in the village.

In the big house of which she became mistress she had her difficulties at first. The other servants, especially the butler and the upper housemaid, resented her promotion and sought new situations. Bridie replaced them, replaced the whole staff with relatives of her own.

Castle Affey was run by the Malone family. Danny, a young man who helped his father in the forge, became butler. Sarah Malone, Susy Malone, and Mollie Malone swept the floors, made the beds, and lit the fires. Bridie taught them their duties and saw that they did them thoroughly. Though she was Lady Corless, she took her meals with her family in the servants’ hall and made it her business to see that Sir Tony was thoroughly comfortable and well-fed. The old gentleman had never been so comfortable in his life, or better fed.

He had never been so free from worry. Bridie took over the management of the garden and farm. She employed her own relatives. There was an ample supply of them, for almost everyone in the village was related to the Ma-lones. She paid good wages, but she insisted on getting good work, and she never allowed her husband to trouble about anything.

Old Sir Tony found life a much easier business than he had ever found it before. He chuckled when Captain Corless, who paid an occasional visit to Castle Affey, pitied him.

“You think I’m a doddering old fool,” he said, “but, by gad, Tony, the most sensible thing I ever did in my life was to marry Bridie Ma-lone! If you’re wise you’ll take on your stepmother as housekeeper here and general manager after I’m gone. Not that I’m thinking of going. I’m seventy-two. You know that, Tony. But living as I do now, without a single thing to bother me, I’m good for another twenty years—or thirty. In fact, I don’t see why the deuce I should ever die at all! It’s worry and work which kill men, and I’ve neither one nor the other.”

It was Lady Corless’ custom to spend the evenings with her husband in the smoking-room. When he had dined—and he always dined well—he settled down in a large armchair with a decanter of whisky and a box of cigars beside him.

There was always, summer and winter, a fire burning on the open hearth. There was a good supply of newspapers and magazines, for Sir Tony, though he lived apart from the world, liked to keep in touch with politics and the questions of the day. Lady Corless sat opposite him on a much less comfortable chair and knitted stockings. If there was any news in the village, she told it to him, and he listened, for, like many old men, he took a deep interest in his neighbour’s affairs.

If there was anything important or curious in the papers, he read it out to her. But she very seldom listened. Her strong common sense saved her from taking any interest in the war while it lasted, the peace, when it was discussed, or politics, which gurgle on through war and peace alike.

With the care of a great house, a garden, and eighty acres of land on her shoulders, she had no mental energy to spare for public affairs of any kind. Between half-past ten and eleven Sir Tony went to bed. He was an old gentleman of regular habits, and by that time the whisky-decanter was always empty. Lady Cor-less helped him upstairs, saw to it that his fire was burning and his pyjamas warm. She dealt with buttons and collar-studs, which are sometimes troublesome to old gentlemen who have drunk port at dinner and whisky afterwards. She wound his watch for him, and left him warm and sleeping comfortably.

One evening Sir Tony read from an English paper a paragraph which caught Lady Corless’ attention. It was an account of the means by which the Government hoped to mitigate the evils of the unemployment likely to follow demobilisation and the closing of munition works. An out-of-work benefit of twenty-five shillings a week struck her as a capital thing, likely to become very popular. For the first time in her life she became slightly interested in politics.

Sir Tony passed from that paragraph to another, which dealt with the future of Dantzig. Lady Corless at once stopped listening to what he read. She went on knitting her stocking; but instead of letting her thoughts work on the problems of the eggs laid by her hens, and the fish for Sir Tony’s dinner the next day, she turned over in her mind the astonishing news that the Government actually proposed to pay people, and to pay them well, for not working. The thing struck her as too good to be true, and she suspected that there must be some saving clause, some hidden trap which would destroy the value of the whole scheme.

After she had put Sir Tony to bed she went back to the smoking-room and opened the paper from which the news had been read. It took her some time to find the paragraph. Her search was rendered difficult by the fact that the editor, much interested, apparently, in a subject called the League of Nations, had tucked this really important piece of news into a corner of a back page. In the end, when she discovered what she wanted, she was not much better off. The print was small. The words were long and of a very unusual kind. Lady Corless could not satisfy herself about their meaning. She folded the paper up and put it safely into a drawer in the kitchen dresser before she went to bed.

Next day, rising early, as she always did, she fed her fowls and set the morning’s milk in the dairy. She got Sir Tony’s breakfast ready at nine o’clock and took it up to him. She saw to it that Danny, who was inclined to be lazy, was in his pantry polishing silver. She made it clear to Sarah, Susy, and Molly that she really meant the library to be thoroughly cleaned. It was a room which was never occupied, and the three girls saw no sense in sweeping the floor and dusting the backs of several thousand books. But their sister was firm and they had learnt to obey her.

Without troubling to put on a hat or to take off her working apron, Lady Corless got on her bicycle and rode down to her father’s forge. She had in her pocket the newspaper which contained the important paragraph.

Old Malone laid aside a cart-wheel to which he was fitting a new rim and followed his daughter into the house. He was much better educated than she was and had been for many years a keen and active politician. He took in the meaning of the paragraph at once.

“Gosh!” he said. “If that’s true—and I’m not saying it is true; but, if it is, it’s the best yet. It’s what’s been wanted in Ireland this long time.”

He read the paragraph through again, slowly and carefully.

“Didn’t I tell you?” he said, “didn’t I tell everyone when the election was on, that the Sinn Feiners was the lads to do the trick for us? Didn’t I say that without we’d get a republic in Ireland the country would do no good? And there’s the proof of it.”

He slapped the paper heartily with his hand. To Lady Corless, whose mind was working rapidly, his reasoning seemed a little inconclusive. It even struck her that an Irish republic, had such a thing really come into being, might not have been able to offer the citizens the glorious chance of a weekly pension of twenty-five shillings. But she was aware that politics is a complex business in which she was not trained. She said nothing. Her father explained his line of thought.

“If them fellows over in England,” he said, “weren’t terrible frightened of the Sinn Feiners, would they be offering us the likes of that to keep us quiet? Bedamn, but they would not. Nobody ever got a penny out of an Englishman yet, without he’d frightened him first. And it’s the Sinn Feiners done that. There’s the why and the wherefore of it to you. Twenty-five shillings a week! It ought to be thirty shillings, so it ought. But sure, twenty-five shillings is something, and I’d be in favour of taking it, so I would. Let the people of Ireland take it, I say, as an instalment of what’s due to them, and what they’ll get in the latter end, please God!”

“Can you make out how a man’s to get it?” said Lady Corless.

“Man!” said old Malone. “Man! No, but man and woman. There isn’t a girl in the country, let alone a boy, but what’s entitled to it, and I’d like to see the police or anyone else interfering with them getting it.”

“Will it be paid out of the post office like the Old Age Pensions?” said Lady Corless.

“I don’t know will it,” said her father, “but that way or some other way it’s bound to be paid, and all anyone has to do is to go over to what they call the Labour Exchange, at Dunbeg, and say there’s no work for him where he lives. Then he’ll get the money. It’s what the young fellow in that office is there for, is to give the money, and by damn if he doesn’t do it there’ll be more heard about the matter!”

Old Malone, anxious to spread the good news, left the room and walked down to the public house at the corner of the village street. Lady Corless went into the kitchen and found her three youngest sisters drinking tea. They sat on low stools before the fire and had a black teapot with a broken spout standing on the hearth at their feet. The tea in the pot was very black and strong. Lady Corless addressed them solemnly.

“Katey-Ann,” she said, “listen to me now, and let you be listening too, Onnie, and let Honoria stop scratching her head and attend to what I’m saying to the whole of you. I’m taking you on up at the big house as upper house-maid, Katey-Ann.”

“And what’s come over Sarah,” said Katey-Ann. “Is she going to be married?”

“Never mind you about Sarah,” said Lady Corless, “but attend to me. You’re the under-housemaid, Onnie, so you are, in place of your sister Susy, and Honoria here is kitchen-maid. If anyone comes asking you questions that’s what you are and that’s what you’re to say. Do you understand me now? But mind this. I don’t want you up at the house, ne’er a one of you. You’ll stay where you are and you’ll do what you’re doing, looking after your father and drinking tea, the same as before, only your wages will be paid regular to you. Where’s Thady?”

Thady Malone was the youngest of the family.

Since Dan became butler at Castle Affey, Thady had given his father such help as he could at the forge. Lady Corless found him seated beside the bellows smoking a cigarette. His red hair was a tangled shock. His face and hands were extraordinarily dirty. He was enjoying a leisure hour or two while his father was at the public house. To his amazement he found himself engaged as butler and valet to Sir Tony Corless of Castle Affey.

“But you’ll not be coming up to the house,” said Lady Corless, “neither by day nor night. Mind that. I’d be ashamed for anyone to see you, so I would, for if you washed your face for the Christmas it’s the last time you did it.”

That afternoon, after Sir Tony’s luncheon had been served, Danny, Sarah, Susy and Molly were formally dismissed. Their insurance cards were stamped and their wages were paid up to date. It was explained to them at some length, with many repetitions but quite clearly, that though dismissed they were to continue to do their work as before. The only difference in their position was that their wages would no longer be paid by Sir Tony. They would receive much larger wages, the almost incredible sum of twenty-five shillings a week, from the Government. Next day the four Malones drove over to Dunbeg and applied for out-of-work pay at the Labour Exchange. After due inquiries and the signing of some papers by Lady Cor-less, their claims were admitted. Four farm labourers, two gardeners, and a groom, all cousins of Lady Corless, were dismissed in the course of the following week. Seven young men from the village, all of them related to Lady Corless, were formally engaged. The insurance cards of the dismissed men were properly stamped. They were indubitably out of work. They received unemployment pay.

After that, the dismissal of servants, indoor and out, became a regular feature of life at Castle Affey. On Monday morning, Lady Corless went down to the village and dismissed everyone whom she had engaged the week before. Her expenditure in insurance stamps was considerable, for she thought it desirable to stamp all cards for at least a month back. Otherwise her philanthropy did not cost her much and she had very little trouble. The original staff went on doing the work at Castle Affey. After three months every man and woman in the village had passed in and out of Sir Tony’s service, and everyone was drawing unemployment pay.

The village became extremely prosperous. New hats, blouses, and entire costumes of the most fashionable kind were to be seen in the streets every Sunday. Large sums of money were lost and won at coursing matches. Nearly everyone had a bicycle, and old Malone bought, second hand, a rather dilapidated motor-car. Work of almost every kind ceased entirely, except in the big house, and nobody got out of bed before ten o’clock. In mere gratitude, rents of houses were paid to Sir Tony which had not been paid for many years before.

Lady Corless finally dismissed herself. She did not, of course, resign the position of Lady Corless. It is doubtful whether she could have got twenty-five shillings a week if she had. The Government does not seem to have contemplated the case of unemployed wives. What she did was to dismiss Bridie Malone, cook at Castle Affey before her marriage. She had been married, and therefore, technically speaking, unemployed for nearly two years, but that did not seem to matter. She secured the twenty-five shillings a week and only just failed to get another five shillings which she claimed on the ground that her husband was very old and entirely dependent on her. She felt the rejection of this claim to be an injustice.

Captain Corless, after a long period of pleasant leisure, found himself suddenly called on to write a report on the working of the Unemployment-Pay Scheme in Ireland. With a view to doing his work thoroughly he hired a motorcar and made a tour of some of the more picturesque parts of the country. He so arranged his journeys that he was able to stop each night at a place where there was a fairly good hotel. He made careful inquiries everywhere, and noted facts for the enlightenment of the Treasury, for whose benefit his report was to be drawn up. He also made notes, in a private book, of some of the more amusing and unexpected ways in which the scheme worked. He found himself, in the course of his tour, close to Castle Affey, and, being a dutiful son, called on his father.

He found old Sir Tony in a particularly good humour. He also found matter enough to fill his private note-book.

“No telling tales, Tony, now,” said the old man. “No reports about Castle Affey to the Government. Do you hear me now? Unless you give me your word of honour not to breathe what I’m going to tell you to anybody except your friends, I won’t say a word.”

“I promise, of course,” said Captain Corless.

“Your step-mother’s a wonderful woman,” said Sir Tony, “a regular lady bountiful, by Jove! You wouldn’t believe how rich everybody round here is now, and all through her. I give you my word, Tony, if the whisky was to be got—which, of course, it isn’t now-a-days—there isn’t a man in the place need go to bed sober from one week’s end to another. They could all afford it. And it’s your step-mother who put the money into their pockets. Nobody else would have thought of it. Look here, you’ve heard of this unemployment-pay business, I suppose?”

“I’m conducting an inquiry about it at the present moment.”

“Then I won’t say another word,” said Sir Tony. “But it’s a pity. You’d have enjoyed the story.”

“I needn’t put everything I’m told into my report,” said Captain Corless. “A good deal of what I hear isn’t true.”

“Well, then, you can just consider my story to be an invention,” said Sir Tony.

Captain Corless listened to the story. When it was finished he shook hands with his father.

“Dad,” he said, “I apologise to you. I said—There’s no harm in telling you now that I said you were an old fool when you married the blacksmith’s daughter. I see now that I was wrong. You married the only woman in Ireland who understands how to make the most of the new law. Why, everybody else in your position is cursing this scheme as the ruin of the country, and Lady Corless is the only one who’s tumbled to the idea of using it to make the people happy and contented. She’s a great woman.”

“But don’t tell on us, Tony,” said the old man. “Honour bright, now, don’t tell!”

“My dear Dad, of course not. Anyway, they wouldn’t believe me if I did.”


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