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One Last Waltz
By Ethan Mordden
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1986 Ethan Mordden
All rights reserved.
The King of Tara Founds His Kingdom
There was the matter of a small inheritance, and recalcitrant cousins, and a lawyer, curse the race of them. Even in good times, no Irishman can afford to turn his back on a bit of money found, as it were, in the law; though when, I ask you, has Ireland seen good times in any season since the landlords came? It was 1936, and Cullin Keogh of the town of Bri Leith was so poor he was facing the prospect of temperance, what with credit at Murry's pub long gone and no work of any usual sort on offer. His wife holds what money there is. To his longing look, as his friends Galloping Toomey and Frank Dray pass on the road on their way to Murry's of an evening, she tells him, "Drink rain. It's free."
Just then, dearly in time, comes the news from the city: an uncle by the same name, Cullin Keogh, dies in Dublin.
"He will have died happy in such a place," says Cullin, "where there's a pub on every corner and a pack of friends instead of two, and everlasting credit. A man can manage in Dublin."
This uncle has left a certain sum of money to be divided among his relatives, and Cullin is thinking he might set off for Dublin and take his share home with him before the lawyer legalizes it away in fees.
"I'll make a settlement on him," says Cullin, more confidently the more he tells it. "I'll take it off him if I have to. I'll show him law, this Dublin barrister and practitioner!" Cullin knows the words, which is the second reason why he, a poor man, has prestige in Bri Leith. Now there's letters he'll open and show, two letters from the lawyer — and one could not say which is the more confusing for all the Brits in Derry — and one letter from a cousin and her husband that seems unfriendly, even censorious. "What do you make of that, now?" Cullin asks you, to show you what an important citizen he is, to receive letters from Dublin.
Finally his wife says, "Then you'd best go to Dublin, and make your settlement, and cease your talking of it at long last."
Cullin is quiet at this.
"I've silver for it, come to that," she says. "And you will take Johnny with you, to assure an agreeable visit with the solicitor."
And Cullin brightens at that.
For his son Johnny, the first reason why Cullin has prestige in Bri Leith, is, at seventeen, the biggest male in the locale. Then you must consider that Johnny is fleet, especially when chasing down a neighbor, many yards distant, who may have made a questionable remark. Johnny is a figure of some intelligent authority even at his young age, not least because, on a certain night not long before this, the publican Murry offers, for the third time and not so politely now, to collect the glasses, and clear the taps, and close his shop for the night, and Johnny speaks up to say, "You'll crawl home if you do, sir," and extends his right fist the way he always did, twice, rapidly, knuckles down, then turning them up in your face, as if showing his lack of weapons, to take you by the flesh and bone of the matter. So you may imagine that they are few in Bri Leith or anywhere else who will damn Johnny's father Cullin Keogh for a whining, stingy bastard.
To his face.
Johnny props up Cullin's reputation and menaces those of the girls. One day his sweetheart Jetty Hoolan says to him, "Turn off your eyes, Johnny Keogh. Or buy shutters for them. It's not fit to see, what they're showing."
And Johnny replies, running it slowly over his tongue, "When can I, lady?" Like that, straight out, for this man is all appetite and nothing else. When he hungers, he believes in food. When he thirsts, he believes in whiskey. When he worries, he believes in God.
Jetty can make no reply, and runs off, glad it's daylight still and he cannot chase her far without the witness of Jetty's older sister, Mary. "That's a bad, honest man," Jetty thinks of Johnny, with the great wood of her door between them. "That's a man will shake you by the neck if you don't give him what he wants."
She wants Johnny, though she fears him as much as she likes him. That is a form of love for some. And, truth to tell, she misses him the three days he's in Dublin with his father making their claim on the will.
"I've no money for it," Cullin moans. "Where'll I be staying?" he cries. "The lawyer and his tricks," he mopes. Stringy, sullen stock, the Keoghs. Who knows where such as Johnny came from?
"From God's laugh," says his mother to this question, when someone asks. She is as sudden as her son, ready to shock. When Johnny extends his fists to her, she slaps his face, and he grabs her hand and holds it to his cheek and sighs.
"The dread faker," she calls him; but she's in his spell the same as any, and gives him one silver crown for the trip just before they leave and tells him, "Mind you buy something treasurable with it. Something true."
"Nothing's true but me," he answers, with a grin, and his jaw. And up she is, to slap him, for all the good it's worth. She has particular rights, no doubt, as the only woman in Bri Leith who doesn't think about having Johnny Keogh.
* * *
The Johnny Keoghs of the world were made for Dublin, for a city place, and they know it from the moment they walk in. They see the scope of things, the expansiveness of the social contract, the room there must be for arrangements of various kinds. A town like Bri Leith is a lovely place for knowing all about everyone and being certain of the things about you, but it is not long before a man realizes that all you can know about people is whether they like you or fear you, and that the things about you are nothing but birth, toil, and death.
A city, however, holds an inexhaustible variety of people and things, and Dublin, the dull beast of brown and gray, is a great city. If Paris is arrogant and London is facetious, Dublin is Irish, so even the least sophisticated son of the race may make himself welcome there with little trouble, though all about him are strangers.
If the citizens of Bri Leith made trips to Dublin, they would have arranged to stay with relatives; but none in Bri Leith ever went anywhere, except to Koine or Fenny, the two towns on either side of it; and which was the less notable of the two, one would be hard put to say. Koine was wet and Fenny was old; or Fenny had six dens of public amusement and Koine had three widows under the age of thirty. Dublin was wet and old and boasted an endless supply of pubs and widows. One got there the same way one got to Koine or Fenny — by walking and cadging rides — but it took longer. Cullin, at the halfway point of his life and in any case never a hearty man, arrived in Dublin beyond the prospect of anything but bed, though it was scarcely dark in a young summer and the city was shining from lamp to lamp, in the drinking rooms and the faces. Johnny, impressed by his own awe, missed the nuances of fear and regret that passed across his father's face.
"I'll see you to quarters, da," said Johnny, gazing about him.
"But where?" Cullin worried. "Where in the kingdom of Tara, I'm asking?"
Experienced travelers — which these, of course, were not — will tell you that in Dublin you needn't ask anyone for information: he'll give it to you anyway. Still, Johnny stopped a passerby — tweed coat, curious eyes, unlit pipe — to learn where he and his da might put up.
"That would depend," says the Dubliner, "on whether you're solvent or no." Lighting his pipe.
"We're solvent," said Johnny, quietly, his temper on call. "What do you take us for?"
"Strangers," says he. Then waits.
Johnny, interested in learning whether or not he's being made a fool of, and eager, if he is, to make remedy, waits, too.
"Ah," says the Dubliner. "A listener."
"If you'd play the good soul for us now," pleaded Cullin. "If you would. For I've a sense of misadventure upon me such as would still the Cuchullain himself."
"Then," says the Dubliner, "it's Mistress Firing's you'd be wanting, in Montgomery Street. A very poetic accommodation, there." It was, by hap, just a few streets up the high. He would take them to it. Better, he would vouch for them personally to Mistress Firing — who, being a woman vocationally subject to the comings and goings of men she hardly knew by real name or county, did surely prefer to have her guests accounted for by some familiarity, so to speak. Indeed, she was known to be sometimes contentious with strangers.
"Ah, that is kind of you," said Cullin. "But quickly now, for if I don't put my feet down the long way soon enough, I'll have to bury them, for sure they'll die on me."
"How far have you come?" asked the Dubliner as they walked up the boulevard, the question meaning, What's your region and your reason for coming among us? The most Irish of questions.
Johnny let Cullin hold Bri Leith's end of the conversation in place, the better to concentrate on his surroundings. Although the most acknowledged male in Bri Leith — and that for a host of reasons — Johnny had expected, if dimly and without apprehension, to be overwhelmed in this great town. But, scarce entered, he seemed to feel lightheaded, even inspired. His da, who knew nothing of anything, said "A man can manage in Dublin." In this, Johnny sensed, Cullin might for once be right. A city supplies to each man's need: you simply walk in and ask. Walk into Dublin and ask for Mistress Firing's, why not?
"Ardrey Quinn," Mistress Firing growls at the door, seeing Quinn and meaning no respect.
"Here are guests," he replies.
"So," says she. "So." Something less than a welcome.
"Ah, you've the air of the Banshee of Dingle, when she returned from the midnight dancing at Glasharrin to find her daughters all married to sailors."
"Quinn," she notes, "you're a bad word for scoundrel." She eyes the Keoghs. "Friends of the Quinn?" she asks.
"Let a traveller come to Dublin on the Liffey, says I," says Quinn, "and who but Mistress Firing to see to them? The fey contessa of Montgomery Street!"
"Now you're a bad word for bastard, Quinn."
"She's a rogue," Quinn confided to his guests.
"My da wants to sleep," Johnny puts in. "We'll be grateful for a cheap room."
"Oh you will?" says Mistress Firing. "With your fine, strong voice. You'll be grateful."
"The boy'll want a look around Dublin first, no doubt," suggests Quinn. "Now he's here."
"I'd not be one to philosophize in my doorway," Mistress Firing notes, taking in the measure of Johnny Keogh with a bold look for a woman. "But here's a fast piece of Irish sod and a slow week come together. There must be something in it, Quinn."
"There's Ireland growing in it," twitters Quinn, "and the crop is love."
Mistress Firing backs up to let the strangers into her house. "The crop of Ireland," utters she, "is famine."
* * *
"Show me a man's people," says Ardrey Quinn in the pub called The Voyager, "and I'll know him."
"My people," Johnny answers, "are the men of Tara, the true kingdom of Ireland, as it was in the great bygone ages and must be forever along."
"I'm with you, lad. But a man's truest kingdom is his family. We are each a king, then, and sure of our cohort."
"The man who is sure of anyone is a leaking fool."
"You're the young one to speak a cynic's part," Quinn notes thoughtfully.
"I'm big, to speak how I please," Johnny says, a bit loudly. Men turned to look.
"You may be sure of children," says Quinn, signalling for the refilling of the glasses. "There is nothing as keen as the little girl's trust in her father, or the little boy's admiration. Sure, have you seen them gathered to sing a wee song in honor of their father on his natal day?"
"I'm telling you," Johnny insists, "it's no one you can count on. Each player has his intentions, do you see?"
"Do I, now? Did not the Wicked Fairy of Follanerry wish her entire court bound into stone to still their gabbling tongues, as were rippling with tales of the Fairy's facetious contract with the Lord of Darnell?"
"Did she? That's fast of her. Sharp. You must move quickly, or how often does the chance bite?"
"More often in a place like Dublin," Quinn ventured, "than in your little village of home, where everyone's a farmer and each day's cousin to the last day and the next."
"What's in Dublin, then?"
"All the kinds, lad. That's what I'm telling you. That's Dublin. Each day a fresh one, with as many strangers in it as cousins. And what's that but liberty, lad? The only liberty an Irishman ever sees, it may well be. Consider now, who owns Ireland?"
"The English," said a man behind Quinn, quietly listening till this.
"And that right enough," Quinn replied. "Now, who is it owns the Irish people?"
"The Pope," said another man, looming up from one of the tables. "First of the absentee landlords."
"Thus," Quinn comes back. "And who owns Dublin?"
"No one," said Quinn in the hush. "Dublin is free."
Johnny Keogh was not a one to listen, for in Bri Leith there was little worth hearing. Now, in The Voyager, he gulped hock and kept his ears open. For it had befallen him to wonder if he ought to dwell forever in Bri Leith, or undertake some less innocent existence in a more elated location.
"Is Dublin an honorable place?" one of the newcomers wondered.
"Or beautiful?" added the other.
"Ah," said Quinn, eager to enlarge. "Are honor and beauty the themes of a great city? Tell me the themes of a place and I'll know it." He turned to Johnny. "A man's people, and the themes of his whereabouts — that is his history. Now, if his people be loving and fair in their judgment, and their themes be notable, I will admire their story. Then what if his people be needlessly fierce, and his themes a wanton, curse-of-God bitterness and envy? Why then, Dublin will give him no joy. Even Dublin."
So the night ran, in talk and thinking, and in shifting tides of listening ears to riddle Quinn, and in Johnny's standing his share of the rounds, an almost combative gesture for a village lad, till at last all melted away into the night to the tapster's surly pleas, Quinn guiding sodden Johnny Keogh back to Mistress Firing's.
"Gets the boy as useless as a Druid in the confessional," said the lady of the house when they arrived. "That's Quinn."
"A fine, entertaining type of chap," said Johnny. "A high bard at my court of Tara."
"A high meddling booby at any pub in Dublin, you mean," says Mistress Firing.
"Yet I've dainty tricks to inspire a man's morals," Quinn returns. "Sure, we'd best give the lad a cup of tea before he sleeps, so he'll wake up all restored, so to say."
"Restore him?" says Mistress Firing, not kindly; but she leads the way to her drab kitchen. The pot, cup, and spoons. Quinn stirs idly here. Johnny, half asleep, sits at the table.
"Mistress Firing," says Quinn, "provides. Her blunt way is but a mask, to spare Dublin the savage warmth of her compassion. Mistress Firing is generous."
"Let the boy take his tea and hush, Quinn!"
Johnny smiled at Mistress Firing.
"Now, that's a smile," says she, "that has the girls all sporty as widows in May, I'm certain."
"A young man in Dublin," observes Quinn, lighting his pipe, "has great events."
"It's strong tea," says Mistress Firing, "but comforting."
"She brews an earnest cup," says Quinn, puffing.
And they watch him drink.
"Smile again, will you, now," Mistress Firing urges. "I like a country smile in my kitchen now and again."
Johnny puts down his cup and smiles.
"Oh," says she, "a lovely thing, that is."
* * *
Stumbling to his bed after the long, inspiriting day, Johnny scarce noticed it odd that he was not in the same room as his da, and he fell into such heavy slumber that he did not awaken when she crept into his bed and wrapped her limbs about his body and kissed his neck. Then she was running her hands about him and freeing him of his things, and he blundered awake.
"Who is it?" he said.
"Hush," she whispered. "Touch and know." He put his hands on her, felt the smooth skin and firm breasts of a young woman, so tight and trim. She shuddered as his hands moved faster and wider, in frantic question, his grogginess spinning away. He kissed her, wondering what sort of trouble would come of it, for in his world everything wondrous was forbidden.
He became rough, the Church-scarred, furtive bumpkin, and she held him back. "Be sweet," she whispered, and he was, then, learning to savor the pleasure of the slow rhythm, going slower, his mouth playing with her mouth. He touched her nipples, almost crying out in joy, and he stroked her thighs. Then he did groan; but she was silent. She put her arms about him again, and held him so close he could breathe with her, and the tiniest motion of her body, touching all of his, made him dizzy.
He felt of her, and was so warm he made as if to have her just then, but she was before him, sage, and whispered, "Wait," and taught him the lore of tongue and fingertips. She made him lie back and bear her touch without himself moving till he would nearly scream, and so still she was when he touched her that he must bury his face in her breast to hear her breath.
Then he was wild and must have her, and she knew by his noise and grasping that he would not be held back. She whispered, "Yes — but first kiss my eyes."
Excerpted from One Last Waltz by Ethan Mordden. Copyright © 1986 Ethan Mordden. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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