The street cleared as if one of those gunfights you see in a film was about to break out. People ducked into doorways and tweaked curtains to peek through cracks.
‘Do you think she’ll hit him with that umbrella?’ someone asked.
‘If I was O’Brian, I’d be down West Street out of her way.’
‘Ah, but O’Brian’s not a coward like you.’
‘Coward or no, I’d not risk meeting Elizabeth O’Reilly with her red hair glowing like that.’
They looked at O’Reilly’s daughter, walking crisply down the street, her umbrella tapping against her leg. ‘Isn’t she the magnificent figure of a girl, though?’
‘She got that from her mother, God rest her soul.’
They turned their gaze towards the tall Tim O’Brian, leading his horse up the street towards the advancing Elizabeth.
‘And himself, O’Brian, look at the manliness of him. Sure it’s a terrible pity they’re so set against marrying.’
‘Who knows what would have happened if her father hadn’t interfered.’
‘It wasn’t so much himself, as the widow Donoghue he wants to marry. She told him she’d not be wed and have Elizabeth in the same house.’
‘Well, who can blame her for that? Even Tim O’Brian, brave and all as you say he is, won’t have her in his house as a wife. Not even when she’ll bring half of O’Reilly’s farm with her as a dowry.’
‘O’Reilly must have been desperate keen to marry the widow if he offered half his farm to get Elizabeth out of the house.’
‘He can well afford it. That farm of his is more of an estate than a farm. He’d not be losing something he couldn’t afford. Anyway, he’d be moving to the Donoghue place, with the widow for a housekeeper he needn’t pay.’
‘I suppose he wanted to give O’Brian the piece beside that hill of rocks O’Brian lives on himself.’
‘That was the idea. He told the whole bar last October, the night he announced he was getting married to the widow, that he’d have Elizabeth married before the winter was over, winking away and hinting he had a plan that O’Brian wouldn’t be able to resist.’
The widow’s maid filled in the details. Not that she’d been listening, but she’d been in and out of the parlour when the widow and O’Reilly were talking.
‘I’ll agree to be your wife,’ the widow told O’Reilly, ‘but not before your daughter Elizabeth is wed.’
‘There’s dances and all kinds of shenanigans at this time of the year. Elizabeth’s the best looking girl in the county, she’s certain to be snapped up before the winter is over, so we could set the date for May or so,’ O’Reilly insisted.
‘Oh, I’m not saying she’s not a beauty, but she’ll never allow her father to marry in the same year. Hers will have to be the event of the year,’ the widow pointed out.
‘I’ll talk her round, don’t you worry, and I have a plan to trap young O’Brian into a proposal. His farm’s next to mine and I’m for offering half of mine as a dowry with Elizabeth. It’ll be a sore temptation to O’Brian to have a decent bit of flat land instead of that stony hillside he’s been working since his parents died of the flu in ’18. He was no more than fourteen then, but he must be twenty seven now.’
‘Is he soft on Elizabeth at all?’
‘They were at school together and Elizabeth could always get him to play whatever game came into her head. There’ll be no trouble there. All I have to do is have a decent talk to O’Brian,’ O’Reilly said.
No one knew that O’Brian had turned down O’Reilly’s proposition until they met O’Brian in the street and asked when the wedding was.
‘I’ll not be putting my neck in that halter,’ O’Brian had told them. ‘She’s worse to handle than a whole bag of wildcats when her back’s up.’
Elizabeth was fighting mad at her Da’ when she learned he’d been to talk to O’Brian. Offering her to O’Brian like a prize cow, she’d told him. She’d gone on so much her Da’ hadn’t got round to telling her O’Brian had turned him down flat and her temper didn’t improve when she heard about it in town next day.
When O’Reilly came in from the fields that afternoon, Elizabeth was waiting. ‘So you’ll give half of this farm, that’s been in our family for ten generations to the man I marry,’ she’d yelled. ‘Well I’ll find my own husband. I’m off to see Ambrose.’
‘You’ll never marry Ambrose,’ her Da’ pleaded. ‘He does nothing but chase butterflies with that net of his.’
‘And why not, he has enough money of his own. And what I can make from half of this farm will keep myself, even if I have to hire a man. You want me to slave over that bed of rocks of Tim O’Brian’s so that he can have half of a decent farm? I can make a better bargain than that. All I have to do is ask Ambrose,’ Elizabeth told him.
‘You’ll never marry Ambrose? He spends all his time chasing butterflies and catching squiggly things in ponds. And when he’s not doing that, he’s teaching others to do the same,’ O’Reilly blustered.
‘Then he’ll have no time to be bothering me and I can run my own life as I please,’ Elizabeth told him, with a stamp of her foot.
Next morning, O’Reilly was saddling his mare before the sun was rubbing his eyes and even thinking of getting up. When O’Reilly got to O’Brian’s, O’Brian was washing himself at his pump and O’Reilly had to wait until he’d dried himself. It seemed to O’Reilly that O’Brian was taking an unconscionable long time about it all and was shaking with frustration by the time he could start to discuss things with him.
‘You were at school with Elizabeth,’ O’Reilly pleaded. ‘You even carried her books for her. You can’t let her marry a butterfly catcher.’
‘I’m sorry, O’Reilly, but I have enough from this bit of ground, poor as it is, for what I need,’ O’Brian told him. ‘I can understand how you feel, but I’m not for tying myself down to someone as contrary as Elizabeth. Not for all your farm and ten thousand pounds as well.’
It shows how desperate O’Reilly was that he even hesitated, but Ten Thousand Pounds!
By that mysterious way news travels in the country, two days later, Elizabeth heard of it all when she went to buy a dress in Miss Miller’s.
‘I don’t know what’s wrong with the man, a beautiful girl like yourself and a decent farm. What can he be thinking of?’ Miss Miller said.
‘It’s what I’m thinking of,’ Elizabeth told her. ‘I’ll not marry someone who has to be cajoled with half a good farm into asking to marry me. Tim O’Brian has wanted to marry me since we were at school but hasn’t had the courage to ask and I’ve no time for cowards.’
The town waited with baited breath to hear Tim’s answer but he said nothing at all and, in the end, someone had to broach the subject.
‘It’s all over that O’Reilly’s daughter thinks you’re a coward,’ the barman at Maginty’s said to him.
‘Well wouldn’t you be,’ O’Brian answered. ‘The best thing to do with a tigress is to keep out of her way. Once she’s eaten you, she’ll only go looking for another meal. What surprises me is that she thought Ambrose would make a decent meal, but maybe she had a spell that would change him into a hero. Whatever the way of it, Ambrose ran off as soon as he got a hint that she had her eye on him. On some kind of a scientific expedition to the other side of world he’d been preparing for, for two years, he said. And he catches tiger moths, with nothing more than a net.’
From there, things got out of hand.
The rumour got about that Elizabeth was such a shrew that no man would take her. Elizabeth was buying thread, when someone mentioned to a companion that their cousin had advertised in the papers for a husband and met a very nice man with a shop of his own.
Elizabeth froze both speaker and listener with a glance.
Then the widow decided O’Reilly’s idea hadn’t been a good one and either changed her mind, or wanted O’Reilly to get a move on. ‘I think I’ll maybe ask William Jamieson if he would marry me for half the farm,’ the widow told him.
O’Reilly was now in a funk. Instead of becoming a gentleman farmer with the widow to look after him, he was likely to lose half his own place and be left on his own.
‘I’ve changed me mind about the dowry,’ he told Elizabeth.
‘The whole county knows about it and will turn their backs on you if you don’t keep your word,’ Elizabeth pointed out. ‘Someone who promises his own daughter half a farm and then leaves her with nothing is not to be trusted.’
Colonel Boycott would be nothing on it, O’Reilly realised. Something would have to be done. But what?
When O’Reilly heard of the Hunt Ball, just the thing, he thought. Tim O’Brian was always a keen dancer. All he had to do was make sure both Tim and Elizabeth were at the ‘do’.
The invitations for the ball were keenly sought after but O’Reilly had good friends on the committee. When it became known that both Elizabeth and O’Brian were going, the tickets were even more keenly sought after and damn the price.
Elizabeth looked at her best in a pale green gown that set off her red hair to perfection and everyone craned their necks to see how O’Brian would react.
O’Brian came in, nodded to several people, smiled, nodded his compliments to Elizabeth, and went to get a drink.
The dancing started and, after some coaxing, the MC decided to get people mixing by calling for a Paul Jones. The two circles formed up, girls on the inside, boys in the outer ring and they moved in the opposite directions as the music started. A few of the lads and girls had got themselves on either side of Elizabeth and O’Brian and, when the music stopped at a signal from the MC, O’Brian and Elizabeth were facing each other.
The MC called for a quickstep and, as the dancing started, several toes got tramped on by people paying more attention to Elizabeth and O’Brian than to their own feet. O’Brian tried all his best steps, twirls, spins and side shuffles, but Elizabeth followed without trouble and laughed up at him when the dance was finished. Her superior smile changing from mocking to ashamed when O’Brian grinned ruefully and nodded to admit defeat.
‘That’s why I won’t marry you, you think I’m not good enough,’ O’Brian told her.
‘Does that mean you’ll not dance with me?’ Elizabeth demanded.
‘No, I’ll not play dog in the manger. When they announce the foxtrot, I’ll come as always,’ Tim smiled.
True to his word, Tim came for her and, when the music started, led her dancing steps. Maybe it was some sort of reaction, maybe Elizabeth was just tired, but she let Tim lead flamboyantly, showing off. After a few turns, Elizabeth suddenly realised Tim wasn’t showing off, he was showing her off, making her dress swing as they turned, letting people admire how she looked as he half stepped away from her to change direction. She smiled, relaxed and felt she was floating to the music, pleased to be the centre of attention without having to try.
Tim was showing her back to her seat when she stopped and faced him.. ‘So you won’t be asking me to wed?’ she asked.
‘No, I will not. You know yourself if I asked you, you’d cast up to me for the rest of our lives that you brought half the farm with you or I’d still be struggling away on that patch of mine. Oh, no, I’ll not be asking you, Elizabeth. If we’re to be wed, it’s you that will have to do the asking.’
Elizabeth was so taken aback, she stood with her mouth open until Tim took her arm and led her back to her seat, bowed slightly, and left.
She watched him go, not hearing her neighbour saying there were more fish in the sea and there were several who would be pleased to marry her for half the farm.
It would have got to her eventually and if her father hadn’t come to take her home at that point, dear knows what mayhem she’d have caused. But as the horse clip clopped along, she began to think.
Her father was talking but she paid no heed and it dawned on her she’d been judging men by her father, people who needed to be nagged and driven. Tim was different. Her father wanted to marry the widow to be comfortable. Tim worked his own land, stony and hard, but his. He might have ambitions no one knew about, but they didn’t rule his life. It was a pity he couldn’t bring himself to propose, she mused.
At home, as she sat at her dressing table combing her hair, her normal self came back. Damn the man, she thought, even suggesting I should be the one to ask. She brushed some more, tugging hard on the brush. He just wants to humiliate me. But that didn’t seem like Tim. He wasn’t sly or even quick. If she joked with him, caught him out, he’d look at her for a second, then his eyes would twinkle and he’d grin, acknowledging he’d been bested and make her laugh with him.
Then she began to wonder what it would be like to live with Tim. She might have to make him laugh but she’d have to work at being a housekeeper; Tim was the best farmer in the county, never accepting second best. She might have outguessed him at dancing but she’d had to concentrate, more than she concentrated with anyone else.
What if she did ask him? she wondered. She began to smile, imagining him hang his head and shuffle his feet, wondering how to get out of it.
As Tim walked home, he felt bad. Elizabeth was a pushy girl but she could be hurt. She hid it, but if you knew her well, it would show deep in her eyes. It would flit away with the speed of a swallow as her pride took over, but if you knew her well…
She loved a challenge and he’d given her one. He couldn’t imagine her ever lowering herself to ask any man to marry her. But what in the name of glory would he do if she did ask? He couldn’t stand shuffling his feet as he’d done since they were at school and she caught him out. Then he grinned and shook his head at the idea.
He went to bed and fell asleep but woke at four in the morning when the dream of Elizabeth asking him, and with him not answering, turned nasty, and she hit him with her umbrella. Even then, in the dream, the fire in her eyes was a challenge and she looked like a queen, the kind of woman you could take on the whole world with.
He made tea and went back to bed.
Next morning, when he was harnessing it, he found his horse had cast a shoe and was forced to go into town to have it shod. He saw Elizabeth at the other end of the street and almost turned back, but he wanted to get on with his ploughing and needed the horse.
Elizabeth needed to have her own shoe repaired and was on her way to the cobbler. She saw Tim and, remembering the previous evening, grew angry but couldn’t help smiling as she saw him hesitate.
Through the crack in the curtains, the people watched as the pair grew closer, and closer, and closer. Elizabeth said something but they couldn’t open the windows to hear.
‘What if my father doesn’t marry the widow?’ Elizabeth was asking.
They saw Tim spread his arms as if the answer was obvious. ‘She has no children of her own. How could she turn down the idea of granddaughters a fine looking as yourself?’
‘She might get grandsons as pig headed as you?’
Tim grinned and spread his hands again in a gesture that said – there’s nothing I can do about that.
Elizabeth took it as an invitation and went to him, almost stumbling. Tim grabbed her by the waist to save her, looked into her eyes and found she was laughing. He grinned and they moved close.
‘He’s kissing her,’ the women said.
‘No he’s not, she’s kissing him,’ the men corrected.
‘Whatever the way of it, I’ve never seen anything so shamefaced in public,’ the grannies said. ‘He’ll have to marry her now.’