Read CHAPTER IX of Muslin, free online book, by George Moore, on

As they returned from church, a horseman was seen riding rapidly towards them.  It was Captain Hibbert.  The movement of his shoulders, as he reined in his mettlesome bay, was picturesque, and he was coaxingly and gushingly upbraided for neglect of his religious duties.

During lunch, curiosity rendered May and Mrs. Gould nearly speechless; but their carriage had not turned into the highroad, on its way home, when the latter melted into a shower of laudatory words and phrases: 

’What a charming man Captain Hibbert is!  No wonder you young ladies like the military.  He is so good-looking ­and such good manners.  Don’t you think so, Alice dear?’

’I think the Captain a very handsome man ­indeed, I believe that there are not two opinions on the subject.’

’And Olive ­I do not remember that I ever saw a more beautiful girl.  Such hair! and her figure so sylph-like!  I do not know what the young ladies will do ­she will cut everybody out at the Castle!’

‘I don’t know about that,’ said May jauntily; ’what one man will turn his nose up at, another will go wild after.’

Mrs. Gould did not answer; but her lips twitched, and Alice guessed she was annoyed that May could not express herself less emphatically.  In a few moments the conversation was continued: 

’At any rate, Captain Hibbert seems to think there is no one like Olive; and they’d make a handsome couple.  What do you think, Alice?  Is there any chance of there being a match?’

’I really can’t tell you, Mrs. Gould.  Olive, as you say, is a very beautiful girl, and I suppose Captain Hibbert admires her; but I don’t think that either has, up to the present, thought of the matter more seriously.’

‘You must admit, Alice, that he seems a bit gone on her,’ said May, with a direct determination to annoy her mother.

’May, dear, you shouldn’t talk in that slangy way; you never used to; you have picked it up from Mr. Scully.  Do you know Mr. Scully, Alice?  Violet’s brother.’

‘Yes, I met him the night we dined at Lord Dungory’s.’

’Oh, of course you did.  Well, I admit I don’t like him; but May does.  They go out training horses together.  I don’t mind that; but I wish she wouldn’t imitate his way of talking.  He has been a very wild young man.’

’Now, mother dear, I wish you would leave off abusing Fred. I have repeatedly told you that I don’t like it.’

The acerbity of this remark was softened by May’s manner, and, throwing her arms on her mother’s shoulders, she commenced to coax and cajole her.

The Goulds were of an excellent county family.  They had for certainly three generations lived in comfortable idleness, watching from their big square house the different collections of hamlets toiling and moiling, and paying their rents every gale day.  It was said that some ancestor, whose portrait still existed, had gone to India and come back with the money that had purchased the greater part of the property.  But, be this as it may, in Galway three generations of landlordism are considered sufficient repentance for shopkeeping in Gort, not to speak of Calcutta.  Since then the family history had been stainless.  Father and son had in turn put their horses out to grass in April, had begun to train them again in August, had boasted at the Dublin horse-show of having been out cub-hunting, had ridden and drunk hard from the age of twenty to seventy.  But, by dying at fifty-five, the late squire had deviated slightly from the regular line, and the son and heir being only twelve, a pause had come in the hereditary life of the Goulds.  In the interim, however, May had apparently resolved to keep up the traditions so far as her sex was supposed to allow her.

They lived in one of those box-like mansions, so many of which were built in Ireland under the Georges.  On either side trees had been planted, and they stretched to the right and left like the wings of a theatre.  In front there was a green lawn; at the back a sloppy stableyard.  The latter was May’s especial delight, and when Mr. Scully was with them, it seemed impossible to induce her to leave it.  He frequently rode over to Beechgrove, and towards the end of the afternoon it became easy to persuade him to stay to dinner.  And, as the night darkened and the rain began to fall, the inhospitality of turning him out was insisted on by May, and Mrs. Gould sent up word that a room was to be prepared for him.  Next morning he sent home for a change of things, and thus it was not infrequent for him to protract his visit to the extent of three or four days.

His great friend, Mrs. Manly ­a lady who had jumped five feet, four months before the birth of her sixth child ­had said that his was a ‘wasted life,’ and the phrase, summing up what most people thought of him, gained currency, and was now generally used whenever his conduct was criticized or impeached.  After having been in London, where he spent some years in certain vague employments, and having contracted as much debt as his creditors would permit, and more than his father would pay, he had gone through the Bankruptcy Court, and returned home to drag through life wearily, through days and weeks so appallingly idle, that he often feared to get out of bed in the morning.  At first his father had tried to make use of him in his agency business, and it was principally owing to Mr. Fred’s bullying and insolent manners that Mr. Scully was now unable to leave his house unless accompanied by police.

Fred was about thirty years of age.  His legs were long, his hands were bony, and ‘stableyard’ was written in capital letters on his face.  He carried a Sportsman under his arm, a penny and a half-crown jingled in his pocket; and as he walked he lashed the trousers and boot, whose elegance was an echo of the old Regent Street days, with an ash-plant.

Such was the physiology of this being, and from it the psychology is easy to surmise:  a complete powerlessness to understand that there was anything in life worth seeking except pleasure ­and pleasure to Fred meant horses and women.  Of earthly honour the greatest was to be well known in an English hunting country; and he was not averse to speaking of certain ladies of title, with whom he had been on intimate terms, and with whom, it was said, he corresponded.  On occasions he would read or recite poems, cut from the pages of the Society Journals, to his lady friends.

May, however, saw nothing but the outside.  The already peeling-off varnish of a few years of London life satisfied her.  Given a certain versatility in turning a complimentary phrase, the abundant ease with which he explained his tastes, which, although few, were pronounced, add to these the remnant of fashion that still lingered in his wardrobe ­scarfs from the Burlington Arcade, scent from Bond Street, cracked patent-leather shoes and mended silk stockings ­and it will be understood how May built something that did duty for an ideal out of this broken-down swell.

She was a girl of violent blood, and, excited by the air of the hunting-field, she followed Fred’s lead fearlessly; to feel the life of the horse throbbing underneath her passioned and fevered her flesh until her mental exaltation reached the rushing of delirium.  Then his evening manners fascinated her, and, as he leaned back smoking in the dining-room arm-chair, his patent-leather shoes propped up against the mantelpiece, he showed her glimpses of a wider world than she knew of ­and the girl’s eyes softened as she listened to his accounts of the great life he had led, the county-houses he had visited, and the legendary runs he had held his own in.  She sympathized with him when he explained how hardly fate had dealt with him in not giving him L5,000 a year, to be spent in London and Northamptonshire.

He cursed Ireland as the most hideous hole under the sun; he frightened Mrs. Gould by reiterated assurances that the Land League would leave them all beggars; and, having established this point, he proceeded to develop his plan for buying young horses, training them, and disposing of them in the English market.  Eventually he dismissed his audience by taking up the newspaper and falling asleep with the stump of a burned-out cigarette between his lips.  After breakfast he was seen slouching through the laurels on his way to the stables.  From the kitchen and the larder ­where the girls were immersed in calculations anent the number of hams, tongues, and sirloins of beef that would be required ­he could be seen passing; and as May stood on no ceremony with Alice, whistling to her dogs, and sticking both hands into the pockets of her blue dress, she rushed after him, the mud of the yard oozing through the loose, broken boots which she insisted on wearing.  Behind the stables there was a small field that had lately been converted into an exercise-ground, and there the two would stand for hours, watching a couple of goat-like colts, mounted by country lads ­still in corduroy and hobnails ­walking round and round.

Mrs. Gould was clearly troubled by this very plain conduct.  Once or twice she allowed a word of regret to escape her, and Alice could see that she lived in awe of her daughter.  And May, there was no doubt, was a little lawless when Fred was about her skirts; but when he was gone she returned to her old, glad, affectionate ways and to her work.

The girls delighted in each other’s society, and the arrangements for their ball were henceforth a continual occupation.  The number of letters that had to be written was endless.  Sitting at either end of the table in the drawing-room, their pens scratched and their tongues rattled together; and, penetrated with the intimacy of home, all kinds of stories were told, and the whole country was passed in review.

‘And do you know,’ said May, raising her eyes from the letter she was writing, ’when this affair was first started mamma was afraid to go in for it; she said we’d find it hard to hunt up fifty spinsters in Galway.’

‘I said fifty who would subscribe ­a very different thing indeed.’

’Oh no, you didn’t, mamma; you said there weren’t fifty spinsters in Galway ­a jolly lucky thing it would be if there weren’t; wouldn’t it, Alice?’

Alice was busy trying to disentangle a difficult sentence.  Her startled face made May laugh.

‘It isn’t cheering, is it?’

‘I didn’t hear what you were saying,’ she answered, a little vexed at being misunderstood.  ’But fifty, surely, is a great number.  Are there so many unmarried women in Galway?’

‘I should think there are,’ replied May, as if glorying in the fact.  ’Who are there down your side of the country?  Let’s count.  To begin with, there are the Brennans ­there are three of them, and all three are out of the running, distanced.’

‘Now, May, how can you talk like that?’ said Mrs. Gould, and she pulled up her skirt so that she could roast her fat thick legs more comfortably before the fire.  There being no man present, she undid a button or two of her dress.

‘You said so yourself the other day, mother.’

’No, I didn’t, May, and I wish you wouldn’t vex me.  What I say I stand by, and I merely wondered why girls with good fortunes like the Brennans didn’t get married.’

‘You said the fact was there was no one to marry.’

‘May, I will not allow you to contradict me!’ exclaimed Mrs. Gould; and she grew purple to the roots of her white hair.  ’I said the Brennans looked too high, that they wanted gentlemen, eldest sons of county families; but if they’d been content to marry in their own position of life they would have been married long ago.’

’Well, mother dear, there’s no use being angry about it; let the thing pass.  You know the Brennans, Alice; they are neighbours of yours.’

’Yes, Cecilia and I walked over to see them the other day; we had tea with them.’

’Their great hunting-ground is the Shelbourne Hotel ­they take it in turns, a couple of them go up every six months.’

‘How can you say such things, May?  I will not suffer it.’

’I say it!  I know nothing about it.  I’ve only just come back from school; it is you who tell me these things when we are sitting here alone of an evening.’

Mrs. Gould’s face again became purple, and she protested vehemently:  ’I shall leave the room, May.  I will not suffer it one moment longer.  I can’t think how it is you dare speak to me in that way; and, what is worse, attribute to me such ill-natured remarks.’

’Now, mother dear, don’t bother, perhaps I did exaggerate.  I am very sorry.  But, there’s a dear, sit down, and we won’t say any more about it.’

’You do annoy one, May, and I believe you do it on purpose.  And you know exactly what will be disagreeable to say, and you say it,’ replied Mrs. Gould; and she raised her skirt so as to let the heat of the fire into her petticoats.

‘Thank God that’s over,’ May whispered to Alice; ’but what were we talking about?’

‘I think you were making out a list of the Galway spinsters,’ said Alice, who could not help feeling a little amused, though she was sorry for Mrs. Gould.

‘So we were,’ cried May; ’we were speaking of the Brennans.  Do you know their friends the Duffys?  There are five of them.  That’s a nice little covey of love-birds; I don’t think they would fly away if they saw a sportsman coming into the field.’

‘I never heard a girl talk like that,’ murmured Mrs. Gould, without raising her face from the fire, ’that wasn’t punished for it.  Perhaps, my lady, you will find it hard enough to suit yourself.  Wait until you have done two or three Castle seasons.  We’ll see how you’ll speak then.’

Without paying any attention to these maternal forebodings, May continued: 

’Then there are Lord Rosshill’s seven daughters; they are all maidens, and are likely to remain so.’

‘Are they all unmarried?’ asked Alice.

‘Of course they are!’ exclaimed Mrs. Gould; ’how could they be anything else?  Didn’t they all want to marry people in their father’s position?  And that wasn’t possible.  There’re seven Honourable Miss Gores, and one Lord Rosshill ­so they all remained in single blessedness.’

‘Who’s making ill-natured remarks now?’ exclaimed May triumphantly.

’I am not making ill-natured remarks; I am only saying what’s true.  My advice to young girls is that they should be glad to have those who will take them.  If they can’t make a good marriage let them make a bad marriage; for, believe me, it is far better to be minding your own children than your sister’s or your brother’s children.  And I can assure you, in these days of competition, it is no easy matter to get settled.’

’It is the same now as ever it was, and there are plenty of nice young men.  It doesn’t prove, because a whole lot of old sticks of things can’t get married, that I shan’t.’

’I didn’t say you wouldn’t get married, May; I am sure that any man would be only too glad to have you; but what I say is that these grand matches that girls dream of aren’t possible nowadays.  Nice young men!  I dare say; and plenty of them, I know them; young scamps without a shilling, who amuse themselves with a girl until they are tired of her, and then, off they go.  Now, then, let’s count up the good matches that are going in the county ­’

At this moment the servant was heard at the door bringing in the tea.

‘Oh! bother!’ exclaimed Mrs. Gould, settling her dress hurriedly.  The interval was full of secret irritation; and the three women watched the methodical butler place the urn on the table, turn up the lamp that was burning low, and bring chairs forward from the farthest corners.

‘On your side of the county,’ said Mrs. Gould, as soon as the door was closed, ’there is our brace of baronets, as they are called.  But poor Sir Richard ­I am afraid he is a bad case ­and yet he never took to drink until he was five-and-thirty; and as for Sir Charles ­of course there are great advantages, he has a very fine property; but still many girls might ­and I can quite understand their not liking to marry him.’

‘Why, Mrs. Gould, what is wrong with him?’ Alice asked innocently.

‘Don’t you know?’ said May, winking.  ’Haven’t you heard?  But I forgot, he isn’t your side of the county.  He’s married already; at least, so they say.’

‘It is very sad, very sad, indeed,’ murmured Mrs. Gould; ’he’d have been a great match.’

‘And to whom is he married?’ said Alice, whose curiosity was awakened by the air of mystery with which the baronet was surrounded.

‘Well, he’s not exactly married,’ replied May, laughing; ’but he has a large family.’

’May, I will not allow it; it is very wrong of you, indeed, to talk like that ­’

’Now, mother dear, don’t get into a passion; where’s the harm?  The whole country knows it; Violet was talking of it to me only the other day.  There isn’t a man within a mile of us, so we needn’t be on our P’s and Q’s.’

‘And who is the mother of all these children?’ Alice asked.

‘A country-woman with whom he lives,’ said May.  ’Just fancy marrying a man with a little dirty crowd of illegitimate children running about the stable-yard!’

‘The usual thing in such cases is to emigrate them,’ said Mrs. Gould philosophically; and she again distended herself before the fire.

‘Emigrate them!’ cried May; ’if he emigrated them to the moon, I wouldn’t marry such a man; would you, Alice?’

‘I certainly wouldn’t like to,’ and her sense of humour being now tickled by the conversation, she added slyly:  ’but you were counting up the good matches in the county.’

‘Ah! so we were,’ said the old lady.  ’Well, there is Mr. Adair.  I am sure no girl would wish for a better husband.’

’Oh, the old frump! why he must be forty if he’s a day.  You remember, Alice, it was he who took me down to dinner at Lord Dungory’s.  And he talked all the time of his pamphlet on the Amalgamation of the Unions, which was then in the hands of the printer; and the other in which he had pulled Mr. Parnell’s ears, Ireland under the Land League, and the series of letters he was thinking of contributing to the Irish Times on high-farming versus peasant proprietors.  Just fancy, Alice, living with such a man as that!’

‘Well, I don’t know what you girls think,’ said Mrs. Gould, whose opinions were moods of mind rather than convictions, ’but I assure you he passes for being the cleverest man in the county; and it is said that Gladstone is only waiting to give him a chance.  But as you like; he won’t do, so let him pass.  Then there is Mr. Ryan, he ought to be well off; he farms thousands of acres.’

’One might as well marry a herdsman at once.  Did you ever hear what he once said to a lady at a ball; you know, about the docket?’

Alice said that she had heard the story, and the conversation turned on Mr. Lynch.  Mrs. Gould admitted that he was the worser of the two.

‘He smells so dreadfully of whiskey,’ said Alice timidly.

‘Ah! you see she is coming out of her shell at last,’ exclaimed May.  ’I saw you weren’t having a very good time of it when he took you down to dinner at Dungory Castle.  I wonder they were asked.  Fred told me that he had never heard of their having been there before.’

‘It is very difficult to make up a number sometimes,’ suggested Mrs. Gould; ’but they are certainly very coarse.  I hear, when Mr. Ryan and Mr. Lynch go to fairs, that they sleep with their herdsman, and in Mayo there is a bachelor’s house where they have fine times ­whiskey-drinking and dancing until three o’clock in the morning.’

‘And where do the ladies come from, May?’ asked Alice, for she now looked on the girl as an inexhaustible fund of information.

‘Plenty of ladies in the village,’ replied Mrs. Gould, rubbing her shins complacently; ’that’s what I used to hear of in my day, and I believe the custom isn’t even yet quite extinct.’

’And are there no other beaux in the county?  Does that exhaust the list?’

’Oh! no; but there’s something against them all.  There are a few landlords who live away, and of whom nobody knows anything.  Then there are some boys at school; but they are too young; there is Mr. Reed, the dispensary doctor.  Mr. Burke has only two hundred a year; but if his brother were to die he would be the Marquis of Kilcarney.  He’d be a great match then, in point of position; but I hear the estates are terribly encumbered.’

‘Has the present Marquis no children?’ said Alice.

‘He’s not married,’ said Mrs. Gould; ’he’s a confirmed old bachelor.  Just fancy, there’s twenty years between the brothers.  I remember, in old times, the present Marquis used to be the great beau at the Castle.  I don’t believe there was a girl in Dublin who didn’t have a try at him.  Then who else is there?  I suppose I daren’t mention the name of Mr. Fred Scully, or May will fly at me.’

’No, mother dear, I won’t fly at you; but what is the use of abusing Fred? ­we have known him all our lives.  If he has spent his money he has done no worse than a hundred other young men.  I know I can’t marry him, and I am not in love with him; but I must amuse myself with something.  I can’t sit here all day listening to you lamenting over the Land League; and, after a certain number of hours, conjecturing whether Mickey Moran will or will not pay his rent becomes monotonous.’

‘Now don’t vex me, May; for I won’t stand it,’ said Mrs. Gould, getting angry.  ’When you ask me for a new dress you don’t think of what you are saying now.  It was only the other day you were speaking to me of refurnishing this room.  I should like to know how that’s to be done if there was no one to look after Mickey Moran’s rent?’

The girls looked round the large, dull room.  Emaciated forms of narrow, antique sofas were seen dimly in the musty-smelling twilight.  Screens worked in red and green wools stood in the vicinity of the fireplace, the walls were lined with black pictures, and the floor, hidden in dark shadow and sunken in places, conveyed an instant idea of damp and mildew.

‘I think that something ought to be done,’ said May.  ’Just look at these limp curtains!  Did you ever see anything so dreary?  Are they brown, or red, or chocolate?’

‘They satisfied your betters,’ said Mrs. Gould, as she lighted her bedroom candle.  ‘Goodness me!’ she added, glancing at the gilt clock that stood on the high, stucco, white-painted chimney-piece, amid a profusion of jingling glass candelabra, ’it is really half-past twelve o’clock!’

’Gracious me! there’s another evening wasted; we must really try and be more industrious.  It is too late to do anything further to-night,’ said May.  ‘Come on, Alice, it is time to go to bed.’