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Bewildering Stories

Marina J. Neary, Big Hero of a Small Country


Big Hero of a Small Country
Author: Marina J. Neary
Publisher: Crossroad Press
Reseller: Amazon
Date: October 21, 2016
Length: 162 pages; 887 KB


Dublin, spring of 1910 - three months earlier

The morning after St. Patrick’s Day the entire academia lay flat on its belly, passed out from the night before. A collective hangover enveloped St. Stephen’s Green, spilling into the nearby streets and lanes. The main building of the Trinity College, formidable and reproachful, drowned in the fog. The sober men in the city could be counted on the fingers of one hand. One of them was Hugh Malone, an aspiring journalist and one of the most dedicated students at University College, just a few months away from his diploma.

He was accompanied by two fellow students - Adam Renwick, who studied law and Tom Cochran, who studied economics. Both had legitimate reasons for remaining sober. Adam’s parents were Methodists and teetotalers. Tom had a stomach ulcer. Hugh alone did not have a respectable excuse. His brother Dylan had drunk away the allowance, and Hugh did not have any friends who would volunteer to treat him. In the four years in the city he had not really gotten close to anyone. Of course, classmates copied his notes without a hint of remorse. About one week before the exams, massive panic would ensue, and he would suddenly become the most valued and popular friend, while the tiny room he shared with his brother would become an asylum for all delinquents. Hugh never denied anyone his assistance. He could always provide a methodical explanation for what others were missing during lectures, from Hegel’s absolute idealism to Kant’s dialectics. Still, he never got invited to pubs or dance halls. The scrawny bookworm in glasses ruined the festive mode for everyone with his asthma attacks. The smell of smoke made him cough and wheeze. After the exams things would return to their proper places, and the ungrateful classmates would forget about Hugh’s existence for the foreseeable future.

Renwick and Cochran did not count. Those two were a little too prim and proper. According to some rumors, their relationship went beyond natural male friendship. They were jokingly compared to Oscar Wilde and the spoiled aristocrat Alfred Douglas, who in the end had destroyed the literary genius. At any rate, those two were never seen with women. Hugh felt like they were following him, always on his tail, waiting for him to stumble, just so they would have something to giggle about.

The only one he could call a friend was Count Markiewicz, a handsome Pole with a French soul, who wound up in Ireland through marriage to an English baronet’s daughter whom he had met in Paris. The golden couple had started an independent theatre company. Their leased house on Frankfort Avenue in the heart of Rathgar served as a sanctuary for aspiring actors, college students, anarchists and other Bohemian rabble. Having taken pity on the malnourished youth, the Pole asked him to join his troupe that was in constant flux. The members rivaled, fell in love, got drunk, forgot the lines, spilled wine all over each other’s costumes, picked fights and called the police only to defend each other. The cycle would repeat the next day.

As soon as Hugh stepped inside the house on Frankfort Avenue, the count, beaming with excitement, handed him the score to the newest musical play.

L’amour interdit. Forbidden love. You were born for this role, my dear boy. Trust me, Casimir knows his stuff. Casimir likes to play against the rules and challenge societal restrictions. To him nothing is forbidden. I suspect, same can be said for you. Casimir instantly felt a kindred spirit.”

The count had a habit of referring to himself in the third person, as if that freed him from responsibility for certain actions. Hugh noticed that his friend’s hair was tousled, and his fingers and lips were covered in chocolate. The powerful neck with a defiant Adam’s apple was covered in scarlet lipstick. The Countess was out of town with her suffragette friends, and the Pole must have decided to brighten up his solitude by inviting a few young actresses over for tea and improvisation lessons. Hugh could hear voluptuous grunting coming from the adjacent room. Behind the closed doors, half-naked sirens from the Abbey Theatre, perfumed and powdered, were eating chocolate truffles with coffee filling. The sounds and the smells aroused the imagination of the poor student, who had not enjoyed sweets of any kind in ages.

“This must be some sort of misunderstanding,” Hugh said, looking over the notes. “This part is written for a tenor, and I’m a baritone.”

“My young friend, I’ve been to the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev and listened to their choir. There was a fellow in the second row, five times as wide as you, with a lush beard down to his belly. Now he was a true baritone! And you, my lamb, you are a tenor.”

“Without the high notes.”

“High notes will come soon enough. The vocal cords, the diaphragm, the breathing - that’s all mere physiology. It’s not that hard to tune up the mechanism. Tighten here, loosen a bit there. The key element is ... Je ne sais quoi, as the French say. I don’t know what. It’s something sensual, mystical. You need to fall in love, and do it hard and deep, up to your ... ears. Then your voice will soar.”

Hard and deep, eh? Now that was a thought. But with whom? And, most importantly, how would he ensure that his feelings were reciprocated? Or perhaps, reciprocity was not needed, and it took unrequited love to fuel the creative process.

Hugh was indifferent towards the quiet, round-faced, dark-haired peasant beauties that roamed the hills of his father’s estate. Dylan had practiced on them during his adolescence and was grateful for the experience. Hugh was not even interested in the figure models who were always hanging around the Count’s art studio and deliberately kept their corsets laced up loosely to spare their lovers unnecessary hassle. Contrary to the saying that beggars cannot be choosers, Hugh nevertheless was choosy. He was waiting for his queen. The lady of his dreams had mousy-blonde tresses negligently knotted at the nape of her neck, a straight nose with shivering nostrils, grey eyes, pale lips stretched in a condescending smirk. He could clearly see her bare back with sharp shoulder blades that could turn into wings at any given moment, and her vertebrae protruding through the skin like a string of pearls through silk. He felt the firm press of her cold fingers and heard her English accent as she sang the aria from Michael Balfe’s famous opera The Bohemian Girl.

I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls
With vassals and serfs at my side,
And of all who assembled within those walls
That I was the hope and the pride.
I had riches all too great to count, could boast
Of a high ancestral name.
But I also dreamt which pleased me most
That you loved me still the same.

Hard and deep. Oh yes, Hugh knew all too well what his soul craved, and what was in store for him if his search for his ideal lady would, against all odds, lead to success. He had a pretty good idea of how Daddy would react if, by some miracle, he ended up getting the girl of his dreams. Playing out the details of his own death gave Hugh certain perverse pleasure.

“To be perfectly transparent, I’ve thought about giving the lead to your brother,” the count confessed. “I’ve toyed with that idea for some time and even arranged for an audition. God, what a striking fellow! I would’ve worked on his voice.”

“So, what stopped you?”

“Dylan started reading the monologue and just ... froze. He could barely get past the first three lines. Has he always been this ...” The count lingered, struggling to find a term that would not be too offensive. “Flighty?”

“He had scarlet fever as a child, a really hard case. His temperature wouldn’t drop for weeks.” Hugh blurted out that demi-truth effortlessly. Dylan had indeed suffered complications from scarlet fever. The count did not need to know about the scene in the cellar and how Daddy had cracked Dylan’s skull with a bottle. “Since then his memory has been spotty.”

“It’s not just his memory. He switches words around. His very sentence structure is nonlinear, especially when he gets nervous. Haven’t you noticed? There’s a medical term coined by some German ophthalmologist. . Dyslexia, That’s what I believe your brother has, apart from other diagnoses.”

“I don’t know. Maybe I’m used to it by now.” Hugh shrugged with exaggerated indifference. “I don’t remember him being any other way. He’s always struggled academically, especially with the sciences.”

“Then what is he doing at the university?”

“What do you mean ‘what is he doing’? Same things as most of them, drinking, gambling and raking up debts. He’s keeping up with the curriculum. His diploma will reflect that.”

“Poor lad,” the count sighed. “I bet he doesn’t even try to win at cards. After all, in order to predict the other player’s next move you must exert your brain.”

“That’s why playing cards with him isn’t very thrilling but profitable. Victory is pretty much guaranteed. Now, payment is a different story. I have to write down in a notebook how much he owes and to whom. I’m used to playing the role of Dylan’s personal accountant and attorney.”

In a patronizing gesture, the count wrapped his arm around Hugh’s shoulders.

“Well, maybe it’s time to broaden your repertoire. You cannot spend your life dealing with your brother’s creditors. See, how everything is falling into place? The stars are aligning.” The fervent Pole was thinking out loud and admiring his own ideas. “Know what? Forget about Dylan. To hell with him! What did I see in him in the first place? He’s as dull as alcohol-free poteen. He’s not tragic hero material. The audiences are tired of traditional beauty. Why do you think I don’t appear on stage anymore and mostly stick to writing plays? My appearance is no longer relevant. Classic features and strong muscles are not in fashion these days. Those old standards were left behind in the nineteenth century.”

“Were they really?” Hugh gasped.

“Would I lie to you? This has me thinking! If I, contrary to my custom, cast a scrawny, ungainly actor in the lead, it will be more interesting. What do you think? I want people to see that great lovers come in all sizes. Sometimes you look at a lad, and he’s just so bleak and sickly, it brings tears to your eyes. But then he opens his mouth and starts singing, and suddenly you forget about his stringy legs, slouching shoulders and crooked teeth. This is the power of art for you! Don’t look at me like that. What did I say? You aren’t offended, are you? I hope not!”

The count’s speech left Hugh breathless. He had never heard so many compliments in such a short period of time from anyone, not even his own father.

“Of course, I’m not offended,” he muttered. “We’re friends.”

“There we go! Now, since we are having this candid discussion as friends and theatre professionals, you need a name. Something that’s more pleasant to the ear. If you are to appear on stage regularly, you need a pseudonym. Hugh - what kind of name is that? Sounds like a spit. Pfew! Your father must have been in a bad mood when he picked that name for you. But not to worry, that can be fixed. Personally, I like Edward or Andreas. Sonorous and masculine. I won’t impose my choices on you, but you should give it at least some thought. All right? Now go. God speed. Adieu, adieu! I’m expecting company, a positively ravishing damsel. I promised to paint her portrait. Casimir likes to honour his promises. I could probably invite you to stay and watch, but you don’t need any additional strain on your heart muscle.”

The count rotated the guest one hundred and eighty degrees and pushed him out of the house into the March rain. The poor student hid the score under his raincoat and lifted the collar, but the spring moisture still tickled the back of his neck. Of course, he had forgotten his umbrella on a tram.

The words of Count Markiewicz still rang in his ears. Hugh realised that the tactless, impulsive Pole did not mean to insult him, but all those flippant remarks caused the old blisters on Hugh’s heart to open and start oozing. The count’s voice was joined by others from his past, those of the Christian Brothers and his own father.

Hugh sounds like a spit... Ungainly weakling... Wicked boy... Rotten little man... Judas... Changeling.

“Nobody loves me,” he thought. “That means, I don’t owe anything to anyone. From now on I’ll just do whatever my heart tells me. I’ll learn the part if I feel like it. And if I don’t? Let Casimir look for another fool. I’ll attend the rehearsals and then not show up for the premiere. How will he like that? I’m a traitor, after all. High time I started living up to the reputation.”

Still, he had to admit that the melody appealed to him - fast and fervent but in the minor key. It conveyed that mixture of melancholy and desire to annoy the universe, two feelings so familiar to Hugh. He could probably find a way to reach those high notes. He wondered if the scene partner had been already chosen for him. If would be grand to perform with a Frenchwoman. Of course, there was Helena Molony, the rising star of the Abbey. Sharing the stage with her would be divine. What a shame that he had not befriended Count Markiewicz sooner. Perhaps their friendship would have made the past three and a half years more bearable.

There was one more person he had to visit that day - Professor Ashley from the philosophy department, who had volunteered to help him with his dissertation. Hugh could not help feeling a little perplexed by the invitation, having never asked for help. He had a suspicion that the professor was going to impose another tutoring gig on him. He could hear him already, saying, “Young man, you have been helping your fellow students with their essays all along. Why shouldn’t you get paid for it?” Hugh had a bad feeling they were going to stick him with a spoiled brat, likely some banker or attorney’s son, who would kick his feet and bob his head, and Hugh would not be allowed to crack him over the knuckles with a ruler in the tradition of the Christian Brothers.

Despite being an Englishman, Professor Ashley endorsed the Gaelic Revival that was considered inherently apolitical. An academician could support a movement like that from a safe distance without risk of being branded an extremist. The professor’s friends, however, were ordinary Englishmen without any liberal leanings, and their attitude towards the Irish corresponded to the mainstream beliefs. Professor Ashley would have to do a little dance before his friends and recite a little speech in Hugh’s defense:

Mr. Malone, although a native of Roscommon, is a serious, reliable young man without any pernicious habits. He will not teach your children anything bad. His accent is not infectious at all.

In other words, Hugh was being presented as an ethnic curiosity of sorts, an exception to the rule, a Celtic specimen most closely approximated to the Anglo-Saxon ideal. Still, Professor Ashley’s friends would never pay an Irishman the same amount they would pay one of their own for the same services. Hugh knew that the pay would probably be meager, and Dylan would drink it away. There was nothing to be done. Once upon a time Dylan had saved his life and paid for it with his brain. Now Hugh was eternally indebted to his brother. Maybe it would have been better if Daddy had accomplished his goal and killed him that day instead of maiming Dylan? Everyone would have been better for it.

Drowning in his depressing thoughts, Hugh did not realise right away that he was being followed. A few tipsy lads from Trinity College had been on his tail for quite some time. Hearing their voices, Hugh reluctantly acknowledged that those comments were directed at him.

Hey, that’s Dylan’s brother. I wonder what he’s hiding underneath his raincoat. Explosives, no doubt! Let’s check. Filthy peasant. Potato prince. Fenian scum.

The voices grew louder and more distinct. There was no doubt left. Clearly, those lads held some sort of grudge against Dylan and were looking to get into a fight.

“Hey, Malone!” the ringleader trumpeted.

Hugh tightened the raincoat around his body and sped up his pace, with about a hundred yards left to the professor’s apartment. The lads were moving slowly, but there were four of them. At will they could easily surround him.

Suddenly, he felt a dull blow between his shoulder blades. One of the lads had flung a piece of brick at his back.

The blow was not particularly painful, but it made him stop and turn around. In that moment Hugh regretted not having actual explosives on him.

“Thank God, you remembered your name,” the ringleader said. “We’ve been calling and calling, and you just wouldn’t answer. Listen, old chum. Your brother owes us.”

“You must mistake me for someone else,” Hugh replied. “I don’t have a brother. And I’m no chum of yours.”

“Quite a comedian too! Did you hear that? He doesn’t have a brother. And he’s no chum of ours. Proud as a baronet, is he.”

Not dignifying the Trinity hooligan with a reply, Hugh continued walking. Unfortunately, he did not manage to get very far. The most sober one of the bunch ran ahead of Hugh and blocked his path. His cohorts immediately seized the victim and went through his pockets.

“Bugger off, cretins,” he groused through his teeth.

For some reason he could not think of a more juicy expression. Sure enough, Hugh could curse, though he did not fully showcase his talent often. He certainly did not shy away from profanities and had an impressive vocabulary. But in that moment all colourful terms vacated his head for some reason.

Protecting the music score was of utmost importance. Hugh would hate for the masterpiece of avant-garde opera to end up in the hands of those vandals. The Trinity lads were on their turf and all too keenly aware of their impunity. The day after St. Patrick’s the police turned a blind eye to many things. It would take nothing short of a shoot-out to get the authorities’ attention. A sober person had no business being on the streets on a day like that.

Suddenly, Hugh felt someone’s gaze upon himself, as if some mysterious cosmic energy became focused on him. He raised his head, trying to determine where that cold light was pouring from. Standing on the balcony of the professor’s flat was a real Anglo-Saxon goddess, the exact kind that had been haunting his daydreams - thin, pale and grey-eyed. She was wearing a flowing silk dress with a high waist, reminiscent of a tunic some patrician’s wife would wear in ancient Rome. Ash-blonde curls were pulled back with a satin ribbon. Strings of river pearls were wrapped around her wrists and neck. Without blinking, she was watching the street comedy unfolding under her feet. A cigarette was quivering between her alabaster fingers. She remembered to draw shallow, deliberate puffs.

A blow to the jaw brought Hugh back down to earth. A kick in the lower back followed, then a shove in the chest. The poor college boy defended himself bravely, which in his case meant throwing punches into the air with his right hand, while his left hand protected the music score. His inner voice was telling him that it was the last fight of his life. He had to go out of this world on a major chord.

At some point the melee shifted from the pavement to the road. One more shove sent Hugh flying right under the wheels of a passing carriage. The ill-fated score fluttered out of his hands. The sheets soared like a flock of white doves and landed into the mud.

Nobody had anticipated such a twist. The Trinity lads realised that the matter was grave enough for the police to get involved, so they scattered, raising the collars of their jackets to hide their faces.

What came next? The bearded coachman was cursing up a storm. The passenger, an elderly Englishwoman, was gasping and lamenting on the brink of a swoon. The owners of the nearby shops all poured outside to see what had happened. Suddenly, through the buzzing of the crowd, came a sonorous horselaugh. Even though Hugh’s consciousness was fading, he appreciated the melody of that sound. It was coming from the fair-haired goddess bent over the balustrade. There was nothing high-society or ladylike in her laughter. It seemed that tension had festered in her chest for decades and was now gushing out. Another forward tilt, and she would surely tumble off the balcony into the same puddle where the squashed student was lying.

The balcony door slammed, and Professor Ashley’s reproachful voice resounded.

“Edith, you have you no heart!”

Edith ... Of course! Not Margaret or Madeleine, but Edith. “Blessed war” translated from Old Saxon. The name certainly fit the appearance. Edith. The hoarse, prickly sound stuck in Hugh’s throat. His last word before dying.

Over the course of the following three weeks Hugh’s world was wrapped in bandages and bound in cast. His reality was fragmented into increments of time between morphine injections. In the first few days of relentless delirium he said very few things that were coherent. When he regained consciousness more or less and stopped shouting passages from Virgil’s poems in Latin, a doctor came to him and listed all the injuries he had sustained. Hugh remembered only the major ones. Fortunately, his spine had not been damaged, so there was no danger of lifelong paralysis. He was basically looking at a lifetime of chronic pain, something he would have to learn to deal with.

The news of the violent attack upon one of the city’s most diligent students circled the city, causing a wave of outrage and making Hugh one of the most popular and visited patients at the hospital. There was always someone hanging around his room, although the only thing he truly wanted was privacy. Alas, peace and quiet was not in the cards for him.

Count Markiewicz visited him every day and fed him stale sandwiches left over from the rehearsals. Those sandwiches were still safer to eat than the hospital food. The Count’s models volunteered to massage the patient’s shoulders. Actress Helena Molony saddled him with a political manifesto in defense of women workers and asked for some editorial advice. Adam Renwick and Tom Cochran brought him notes from the lectures. Professor Ashley, playing the dual role of instructor and confessor, read him a few excerpts from a Stoic manual by Epictetus; the passages encouraged the reader to accept pain dispassionately. The coachman, who still considered himself at fault, inquired about his condition and sent his regards. Even the old English passenger sent him a pot with violets to put on the windowsill. In short, the patient had been visited by everyone in the city except for his own father. Brendan had transferred a nominal sum towards the treatment without as much as enclosing a get-well note.

One month after the accident Hugh was finally able to stand up on crutches. He requested to be discharged from the hospital, not because he felt significantly better, but because the treatments he was undergoing were not conducive to his recovery. With injuries like his it would be beneficial to consult a military orthopedic surgeon. But who would intercede on his behalf?

Being able to move again restored in him the feeling of security to a degree. While bound to the hospital bed, he felt exposed and defenseless, constantly being poked, prodded, jostled and interrogated. Only outside the hospital walls could he hold on to whatever was left of his dignity.

Ever since his return to the university he had been hiding in the back row of the auditorium. After the lectures, he spent his free time roaming the streets of Dublin, finding refuge in those neighborhoods where nobody knew him, where he did not run the risk of being recognised. It was not unusual for him to return to the dormitory after midnight. He did not fear a repeat attack. He simply did not care. Death in the hands of street bandits would bring him relief, even though the doctors kept telling him that he had lucked out, things could have been much worse, and he should be thanking God for sparing his vertebrae. Hugh was not feeling particularly thankful. If anything, he realised why some soldiers, upon return from the front lines, would drown, hang, or shoot themselves. He became imbued with a deepened sympathy for his great-grandfather Colin Maguire, who had lost his sanity along with his arm in the Crimean War. Worst of all, there was nothing heroic about the way in which Hugh had sustained his injuries. The story was lame and grotesque, just like everything else that happened in Hugh’s life.

One night, while strolling through the area of Clontarf, he stopped by St. John’s, a small Protestant church, mainly to rest his foot and wait out an April downpour. He still had not acquired a new umbrella, but had no idea how he would go about carrying one anyway, since his hands were occupied squeezing the handles on the crutches.

When he hobbled over the threshold and sank into the arid semidarkness, his heart suddenly started beating faster. Maybe it was reminding him to take another dose of painkillers. Or maybe it sensed the presence of his muse. Sitting on the front pew right before the altar was she, the laughing goddess, who had witnessed his shame. Hugh recognised her posture. There was no room for doubt. He could single her out in a crowd of thousands. Edith the Heartless! And to think that in the whole of Dublin they managed to run into each other inside this tiny, unremarkable church! It appeared that fate had decided to resume her cruel pranks. Having already hit his head against the rock bottom, Hugh had yet another tribulation in store for him.

The smell of incense mingled with that of tobacco. The English beauty was smoking her lungs out. Hugh saw the back of her head in a halo of mousy curls and tobacco fume. She was conversing with the higher power, or to be exact, dishing out her grievances.

“Lord, what have I done wrong? How did I offend you this time? Have I allowed myself to get so proud that you now must drive me into a corner and drag me through mud face down?”

Having heard the stomping of the crutches and the dragging of shoe soles across the floor, the Englishwoman turned around. Her sliding glance fell upon the maimed student.

“Careful with the cigarettes,” Hugh warned her. “You’ll start a fire.”

“What are you doing here? This isn’t your church.”

For the first time Hugh heard her speaking voice, the one she used with everyone, from her father to the house servants, a melodic, tired, arrogant voice, drenched in London accent. She appeared like someone who did not separate the humanity into friends and foes, the rich and the poor, Catholics and Protestants. She disliked and distrusted everyone equally. That chronic universal misanthropy manifested itself as dark semicircles under her eyes.

“Allow me to ask you the same question,” Hugh said. “What are you doing here? This isn’t your country.”

“Country? Bah! Don’t make me laugh. You have no country. The rubbish yard of Europe more like it. Be thankful we cleaned it up for you a little. At least, now it’s livable and the trams run on schedule. If not for us, your chieftains would’ve slaughtered each other.”

Hugh had trouble breathing. Her comments did not sound like a joke. She was quite earnest. Worst of all, he had to agree with several of her points.

“Your father was right,” he said, having regained his ability to speak. “You have no heart.”

“What can be done?” the beauty sighed and inclined her elegant head, making the flame from the candle dance inside her opal earring. “It’s a national trait. And you don’t have a drop of common sense.”

“It’s also a national trait.”

“Fair enough. At least you have a sober perception of yourself. That’s commendable. And refreshing. Perhaps you are not as reckless as I had initially thought. There might be hope for you after all.”

“Why, thank you for your kind words. I haven’t heard anything so flattering in a long time.”

Indeed, Hugh was taken aback by the unexpected compliment. He smiled weakly but genuinely, for the first time in the past month. The lady was calloused like most Englishwomen, but her steel eyes exuded some fresh grief that has not yet turned into apathy.

“Does your father have any intention of starting a law suit against those cretins?” she asked.

“I don’t even know their names, to be honest.”

“Well, I do: Henderson, Brewster, Gibbs and Ford. My younger brother is chummy with them. Thanks to him I know which subjects they take in college, where they rent their flats, and which brothels they frequent to release tension. If necessary, I am willing to testify against them in court. Why do you think they scattered? They saw me. They know I wouldn’t let it go.”

“I don’t see a law suit in my future. It probably won’t come to that.”

“Well, that’s too bad. After all, we’re looking at a group assault resulting in substantial bodily injuries. It’s disturbance of peace. Criminal justice is not my forte, but I’m sure there’s an article for that. Even in our sad kingdom there must be a remedy against the likes of them. It’s not so hopeless. Mr. Malone should start by hiring a solid attorney.”

“I seriously doubt this story will have a continuation.”

“So it all comes down to money?”

“A principle, more like it. We could probably scrape up enough money. Daddy just doesn’t perceive my life as having much value.”

“And what if the same thing happened to your brother?” Edith did not struggle with the whole concept of a parent favouring one child over another, so seemed like a perfectly logical follow-up question. “Would your father react differently?”

“Something like this never would’ve happened to Dylan. That’s the thing. Unlike me, he can stand up for himself.”

“You cannot fight worth a damn because nobody ever taught you. However, you have enough pride and courage to spare. You refused to yield until the bitter end. Another man in your shoes would’ve given up and begged for mercy.

“You don’t understand. A mere attempt is not enough. Getting thrashed on the street is like getting captured or breaking down during interrogation. I’ve shamed the entire Malone clan, and it wouldn’t be the first time. There’s no justification for that.”

The Englishwoman hummed pensively and drew another puff of her cigarette, as if the smoke helped her digest her companions words.

“Your sufferings aren’t unique.” She sounded like a doctor trying to reassure a hypochondriac patient. “If it’s any consolation, my father has no regard for me either.”

“Professor Ashley? Impossible! He’s the kindest, most generous person I’ve met over the past four years.”

“Whether you believe me or not is entirely immaterial to me. I know the facts. My father receives deep moral gratification from helping hungry students. Alas, his extravagant philanthropy does not project onto me. ‘Of course, there is no reason to mollycoddle Edie. She was born privileged.’ Which means, he feels no remorse when yanking the silver spoon out of my mouth.”

Suddenly emboldened, Hugh found her hand hidden in the folds of her satin dress.

“You look displeased.”

“What an astute observation!”

“You’ve been wounded, haven’t you?” Hugh squeezed her hand, and she made no effort to free it. “Bitterly disappointed.”

“Well, I wasn’t the first, and I won’t be the last. Everything is rather mundane, the stuff of Thomas Hardy’s novels. I’ve studied with the best teachers, performed on the best instruments, swept the stages of Europe with the train of my concert gown. And what was all that for? On the very verge of my breakthrough, I was forced to return under my parents’ roof and perform my filial duty, and run my late mother’s music school.” She dropped the burned out cigarette and extinguished it with the sole of her shoe. “So here’s the short version of my biography. Not that you care.”

“What do you mean I don’t care? I love you, and have for some time.”

The lady had probably heard those words on many occasions. At least, that was Hugh’s assumption. To his pleasant surprise, she took his confession with sympathy and even some interest. She did not laugh or make a grimace.

“That’s really unfortunate. Nothing good will come of it, in light of the current political climate.”

“The climate hasn’t changed in seven hundred years,” Hugh replied without blinking. “Yes, we studied history in class. So what of it? It’s not a reason to smother one’s desires.”

“It’s good to have desires,” Edith remarked with a hint of envy. “The more absurd and hedonistic the better.”

“I’m glad you understand me. I’m already in pain from head to toes, so nothing you say could possibly make me feel any worse. The day I was run over the carriage became the happiest day of my life. So what if I’m crippled for life? No great loss. I’m already ugly, according to a certain dramatist, and now I’m crippled, too. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a trifle. I met you and realised that my daydreams haven’t been vain. Such a woman does exist.”

Edith found those compliments disconcerting.

“Is there nothing better for you to dream about? There are hordes of us. We run in packs like stray dogs. In London conservatory, there were dozens of us on every floor. Edith, Edwina, Evelyn. Dazzling, arrogant bitches. London air has that affect on us.”

“Alas, I’ve never been to London,” Hugh sighed with deep regret. “Only in my dreams. I think I’d like it there. I’d get along with the English splendidly. I’d adopt their customs, their accent. It’s a mistake that I was born Irish.”

“Stop it.” Edith slapped him on the hand as she would a child reaching for a candy. “Fate does not make mistakes. Everything happens for a reason, even if it’s not to our liking, as you’ve come understand. And for the love of God, stop romanticising the English. Once you get to know us a little closer, you’ll realise why the whole world hates us.”

“It’s better to be hated than despised, if you ask me. What do the Irish have to show for themselves? They continue to inspire jokes, ditties and caricatures for Punch magazine. The rubbish yard of Europe, You said it yourself.”

The professor’s daughter feared that she was about to plunge into a long and fruitless debate about world history and eugenics. She certainly had enough time and energy for that. The topic of ethnicity was considered forbidden in her family. Religious beliefs, accents and cranial shapes common in various racial groups were not discussed. Professor Ashley believed that enlightened, progressive individuals were not supposed to be preoccupied with such topics.

“It’s so typical to put the enemy on the pedestal, she said. “In order to rise up in arms, you need to rouse indignation within yourself. And indignation goes hand in hand with admiration. And admiration leads to envy. And the cycle starts again. Live and fight.”

“Honestly, I don’t know who my friends are. And if it comes down to making a choice it won’t be hard for me. I’ve already made my choice, regardless of what answer you give me. I’m no longer with them, though not with you yet.”

Edith was sufficiently versed to be able to tell a sincere confession from a superficial high-society compliment. The unapologetic tone of the limping Irishman touched her nonexistent heart. His overt admiration for the enemy’s culture brought a sad smile to her face. A provincial simpleton! Life had already given him a sound beating. How many more blows were in store for him? The English had nearly killed him, and he continued to gravitate to them. On the other hand, maybe he was not as naïve as he pretended to be. It was possible that he had staged the attack just to get attention. That scenario was not entirely out of the question.

According to her calculations, Hugh was two or three years younger than her. As far as she knew, he was finishing his bachelor’s degree. It can be hard to guess an Irishman’s age. They mature slowly and age rapidly. A fresh, innocent calf can turn into a sluggish old bull overnight. But Hugh did not look like a typical Irishman. His swarthy, angular face contained deep dramatic potential. At the London conservatory such faces were in high demand, especially in the theatrical department. His older brother was just a comely peasant, who drove undiscriminating women wild. Hugh’s appearance was more temperate and refined. One could play it up advantageously. Edith surveyed him with a director’s eye. With proper stage costuming, strategic makeup and lighting, he could do a brilliant job embodying a Shakespearean villain. And yet he believed himself to be ugly. Unbelievable! Or rather, quite believable. Self-deprecation is common in creative, sensitive individuals.

In one sweeping motion she removed his glasses and ran a cold index finger over the crease between his eyebrows.

“Here it is, the black star described by John Mitchell two centuries ago. The hole that sucks in the sorrow of the universe. Perhaps, you need to increase your morphine dose.”

“Never!” Hugh said categorically. “I need to prepare for the performance. The premiere is coming up. I cannot let Count Markiewicz down. Morphine makes my voice hoarse.”

“He sings too,” the Englishwoman gasped.

“He certainly does.”

Tossing the crutches aside, Hugh got down on one knee.

“What’s all this?” Edith asked, alarmed. “What are you doing? Are you staging a concert right here? The police will come.”

“Nothing of the sort. My foot got numb, that’s all. I needed to change the position.”

“Then sit down on the pew.”

“I wouldn’t dare. It’s not my church, as you were considerate enough to remind me.”

“Nonsense. God is one. You mustn’t take everything so literally.”

“No, you were right. God may be one, but this isn’t my church. This is why I won’t throw a concert here.”

“If you won’t, then I will. I also sing. But first, I have a little gift for you.” Having rummaged through the pockets of her raincoat, Edith pulled out a tiny pin with the symbol of London Conservatory and planted it on the lapel of the love-struck college boy. “A souvenir from the city you haven’t yet visited. This trinket means nothing to me anymore.”

Hugh felt like he was being knighted. The pain suddenly dissipated, replaced by euphoria. Looking him in the eye and stroking his cheek with her icy, tobacco-scented fingers, Edith sang the second part of Balfe’s famous aria.

I dreamt that suitors sought my hand,
That knights upon bended knee
And with vows no maiden’s heart could withstand,
They pledged their faith to me.
And I dreamt that one of that noble host
Came forth my hand to claim.
But I also dreamt which charmed me most
That you loved me still the same.

Copyright © 2016 by Marina J. Neary

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