Author: Paul House
Pages: 650

Sooner than Gold (1992): 1

        The year was 1848, the month February, the time five minutes to six. It was raining. Eliza Lynch pushed herself through the crowds of people thronging the street. She clutched the wet letter in her hand and pressed herself between the last two foreigners who had lined up patiently half an hour previously, to witness one of the most popular spectacles in Dublin. The six o'clock collection of the post.

         Eliza stepped forwards slowly, and looked nervously at the line of people. The letter would not be sent. She would never be able to force a path to the front. The stench of rotting potatoes mingled with the more human smells of sweat and perfume. She thought of her father, waiting fat and warm back in the carriage, and it was either some common trait or it was the memory of Sundays hunting at the farm, which prompted her to force her way past a stern-faced old woman in black, six letters at the ready in her cold hands, and approach the man in a red coat and a top hat.

         "My father will kill me," she said. She had to shout above the noise of raised voices and the hiss of the rain on the cobbles. As he leant down, a fetid, stale smell of pipe tobacco wafted into her face. Eliza looked up at him and spoke quietly.

         "It is a letter for my sister, Corinne, in Paris. That's in France. Where the revolution was."

         She thrust the letter towards the man in red.

         "I know where Paris is," he said, "I know where County Cork is, too."

         He stood back suddenly as a man in a white smock and floppy hat bowled between them, a tray of scones held above his head protecting him from the rain.

         "Please," Eliza said.

         But before he could answer the row of people surged forwards and Eliza was knocked backwards. She clung to the letter tightly, and tried to avoid the onslaught of adult elbows and arms pushing her away from the official. She could see his top hat and the bright red of his coat as he walked off, threading his way through the swell of bodies towards the back of the queue. Recognising in this figure of authority her only chance of getting the letter posted, Eliza fought against the mass of stomachs and skirts and followed the black column of his hat.

         An old man, his face pinched with hunger and cold, had fainted or fallen from exhaustion. With the effort of resisting whatever malady had brought his wait to a premature end, his hand had screwed into his letter, leaving visible the single word: "BOSTON". Beside him, on the floor, lay a crushed bowler hat. The official knelt down and loosened a red handkerchief from the old man's neck.

         Eliza turned as four men forced a path through the crowd, round bundles of rolled copies of "The Times of Dublin" in their arms. She was becoming impatient and steadily more and more nervous. Behind her, the official was wiping the old man's brow. As he stood up she pulled at the long tails of his coat and physically brought his attention back to her plight. She already sensed that she had the power to manipulate people.

         "Please," she said, and stood waiting.

         He bent towards her again and smiled. He rubbed the back of his hand over her cheek and placed a heavy, braided arm about her shoulders. He pointed along the impatient row of people.

         "See that boy?" he said, adjusting his bow tie. Eliza followed the line of his finger and stretched so as to hear him above the din of shouting. She could see a boy of about thirteen, the same age as herself, grubby and wasted, a flat cap dripping and misshapen on his head. Beneath his chin and cradled in his arms he held half a dozen parcels. She nodded.

         "Name of Tom. He'll slip you in alright."

         Eliza was drenched by the time she found her way back to the waiting carriage. She climbed up beside her father and sat down on the hard, leather seat. Mr Lynch suffered a damp scone to enter his bulging mouth before speaking. He dabbed at his bottom lip.

         "It went," he said. The enormous gravity of contradiction was emphasised by these two words. Eliza nodded and began to remove her wet bonnet. Her father recoiled, and waved a fat hand. "Outside!" he commanded.

         She lent from the window and squeezed the rain from her hat. The gas lamps glowed through the drizzle and, after the open spaces and green fields of the farm, the city was sinister and oppressive.

         "The radical struggles in France cannot be blamed for all our ills," her father was saying, for he had to convince himself. Since he had lost his wife Lynch had taken to speaking his thoughts aloud, and using Eliza as a kind of immature sounding board. She thrilled at the idea of revolution, seeing in it a romantic escape from the boredom of the potato blight and the financial losses and, consequently, long evenings of complaint, caused by careless speculation. Their house had emptied of furniture and ornaments in a cruel parody of the way Ireland was emptying of people. Each of her father’s new and rash investments resulted in the sale of a painting, a piece of furniture or, if a buyer could be found, a parcel of land. Their luck seemed blighted along with their livelihood. And as if to emphasise their misery, Corinne would send letters home which burst with the life and excitement of bohemian Paris.

         Eliza looked through the window of the carriage and tried to imagine what it would be like in France. Her father, in the absence of conversation, spoke towards the back of her head.

         "Anything where the reins, the bit and the bridle have been reduced to a small steel handle must by definition be a bad thing." Lynch removed a silver hip flask from his jacket pocket. He unscrewed the top with exaggerated care and slowly placed it to his lips. He might have been taking Holy Communion.

         "I am not convinced that reducing the time taken in travelling from Cork to Dublin is any compensation for the sheer pleasure to be had in dominating one of the most powerful of nature's dumb beasts."

         Eliza was absorbed in the new experiences of the city. As the carriage pulled away, she watched the grey walls of the tall houses for a glimpse of the adventures sketched out in her sister's letters. A poster on the corner of a warehouse hinted at adventures of a different kind.

        

                            CATLIN'S         

                             INDIAN           

                         EXHIBITION    

                                           

                        EGYPTIAN HALL

                     500 portraits, dresses,

                        scalps, wigwams    

                    Admission: one shilling

 

         In spite of scalps and wigwams, people went to America and, in spite of the recent revolt, they were going to France. Yet her father moaned on, a generational frontier to protect her from adventure of any kind.

         "Quacks and fools," he said, and motioned towards the sleeting rain beyond the window with his hipflask. "No one else will stay here. There is nothing left to be done."

         Eliza nodded, for she knew that any comment would be superfluous.

         "Were I a religious man, I would say it were a punishment from the Lord, both this plague and my ruin. But, thank Christ, I am not and I shall let the blame rest squarely with Fate, or Providence, if you will. That way, you see, it is out of our hands."

         And as if to emphasise, Lynch rubbed the dark black hairs on his knuckles and smiled.

         Eliza nudged her thoughts back towards her sister and looked to find some recollection of her in the dark shadows between the streetlamps. Corinne had eloped with Tamburini, a French musician, more than two years ago, much to the disgust of Lynch who had foreseen a brilliant future in society for his daughters. They had seen nothing of her since then.

"She will have children by now," her father promised, "Tamburini will be a famous violinist." Her letters spoke of an adult world of wealth and fine clothes, of horse racing, concerts and the stock exchange. It was this last aspect which had become ensnared in Lynch's imagination and which had finally captivated him sufficiently to risk leaving Ireland and to take his dwindling fortune forth into a world where more succulent pickings were promised.

         To teach her how to behave in society, and because it was expected of one of her social standing, Eliza had had a French governess since she had begun her schooling. Lynch could, therefore, find some return on this extravagance. Once in France, she would serve him as an interpreter. He looked at his daughter. Her long auburn hair had curled tightly in the rain. Her cheeks were flushed. It would be foolish of him to remain in this wet, sodden country which rotted his crops and ate away at his money. Better by far to cheat and embezzle in foreign parts.

         Lynch had a grand dream, which consisted of rebuilding his fortune with a minimum of effort and at the expense of the French first, and then, perhaps, the Prussians, the Italians and the Spanish. His broker, O'Higgins, would have transferred the necessary funds and they would begin with a few shares, sell them at an enormous profit and before long, he would be invited to present Eliza to Counts and Princes, and he would end his days in a comfortable, moneyed retirement which would once and for all erase the memory of these last years of famine and fatigue.

         "Railway mania, that's what it is," Lynch was talking so as not to think. "You know, Eliza, there are more than 575 railway companies. O'Higgins wanted me to invest, but I told him, I said, 'O'Higgins, I would sooner die than see my money helping towards the pestiferous ruin of our country.' Of course, some people have made a handsome profit, I can't deny that. But when you have principles..." He allowed his voice to fade off to excuse the lie. It had not been principles that had prevented him from investing in the railways, it had been a lack of foresight. He had never forgiven the railway companies their financial success because he did not form a part of it. Instead, he had chosen potatoes. Even when the first profits had begun to appear from the railways, and O'Higgins had returned with a new offer, Lynch had resisted. His violent hatred of trains was an irrational recompense for his wounded pride, and he would give vent to his frustration in the presence of his daughter. She had learnt to listen stoically. At first it had been difficult for she had wanted to understand, but finally she realised that all her father required was an audience.

         A deliberate hand banged into the carriage just above the rear wheel.

         "Chartists!" boomed Lynch. He leaned forwards and tapped her on the knee. The carriage wheels grated as they pulled through a turn in the road.

         "'The People's Charter'!" he said. Unable to remain silent, he was fumbling vaguely towards a thread of argument. Eliza watched him, her green eyes interested and attentive, her mind only half accepting. "They force you to accept a ten hour day. Nine shillings we had to pay for that, mind you. And then what is the next step?" He played nervously with the hipflask. "They start rioting and demanding an eight hour day! You might just as well give them their wages and send them home. Before you know where you are, we’ll have to beg them to go to work at all."

         The carriage rocked and creaked, the rain smattering onto the roof. Lynch considered and rubbed his chin. "You see, Eliza, they used to growl at us occasionally. They used to moan about prestige, influence, power, but I think they secretly liked being dominated. Then someone fills their heads with notions of a working class, if you please! I blame that newspaper. What's its name?"

         "'The Northern Star'" said Eliza. She had seen a copy once in her father's study. It spoke of grand demonstrations, and on the cover there had been an idyllic scene of rural life dedicated to the People's First Estate, O'Connorville. It bore little resemblance to the wasted land they were now leaving behind them. "'To establish for the productive classes a complete domination over the fruits of their own industry'." Lynch had memorised the phrase, for the practical expression of ideas was not a thing he mastered. "It's a ridiculous idea," he concluded, and sat back with a sigh. Eliza looked away from him and out into the dark city. She knew that if it were not the railways or the workers, it would be the turnpike tolls or the mills. There was no end to her father's capacity for diatribe. She accepted it because she could not reject it. There were times when she sensed that he was mistaken, but she preferred to keep silent. She allowed him his rantings because, since her sister's marriage, it was the nearest she got to communication.

         "It is absolute nonsense to say that there should be no top nor bottom to society. There is a natural order, Eliza. There are the strong and the weak, the beautiful and the ugly, the rich and the poor. There always have been and there always will be. You must be thankful that you are strong, beautiful and rich, and you must use it to your advantage. Remember that life is a quest for wealth, with wealth you can get power, and with power you can find pleasure."

         It was not unpleasant to think of oneself as strong, beautiful and rich. Eliza looked at the rain and dared to think that she and Corinne together would be too much for all of Paris to handle. She was unsure as to what they would do, but she knew that if Providence could lay waste a country and destroy a man's fortune, it could just as easily take a young girl by the hand and lead her on to unimaginable success.

         The rain sheeted into the side of the carriage. Eliza looked through the window at the dismal roads and deserted buildings. Huddled in the doorway of one, beneath a poster proclaiming that Lipton's Tea was 'the Finest the World Can Produce at 1/7d a lb', stood a man with one arm. Beside him his wife clutched a small child beneath her cape. The rain fell from the man's cap and dripped beneath the collar of his coat. He looked out at their carriage with an expression of envy and hatred. He muttered something to his wife, but Eliza did not see him. She was powerful, she was privileged. She could grant favours.

         "They must be going to the docks," she said to her father, careful not to say who they were, "Let's stop and give them a lift."

         Lynch was back at the farm, fighting off creditors. He was not listening.

         "Of course, darling," he said, and leaned from the window.

         The man, a former soldier, was uncouth and uncivilised. He spoke rudely to his wife and as he stepped into the carriage he brought with him the smell of a damp and airless storeroom. His wife and the baby groaned together into sleep. Lynch protected himself with a handkerchief.

         "Much obliged," the soldier said, and he looked Eliza up and down. Lynch adjusted his weight to accommodate the intruders. He smiled. There was nothing else he could do.

         "Are you going to the continent too?" Eliza asked. She liked the sound of the word. It was round and full. The soldier shook his head.

         "America," he said. There was no expectation in his voice. There was no New World. It was an excuse, like any other. Lynch observed from behind the expanse of his waistcoat and seeing the man was weak and sickly said, "It is a good place for the strong. A strong young man can make a go of things in America, you mark my words." And he lapsed into a concentrated unscrewing of his hipflask.

         "We're going to Paris," Eliza said, "to stay with my sister." She knew, from experience, not to be too explicit.

         "America," said the soldier again. He was resigned to the fact that he had no choice.

         Eliza looked at the soldier's empty sleeve and from there to his face. Despite his sharp features, it was blotched and puffy. He was watching her, unable to hide an expression of disgusted appreciation. His eyes, though an insipid, watery blue, managed to lust through his hatred.

         Eliza was already convinced that beauty was not merely a humble and God-given ability to charm and captivate, but that it required a certain effort and practice. She knew that sometimes a rebuff or a passive acceptance could provoke, and so she looked back at the soldier from the arrogant protection of her position and her breeding. She passed her eyes slowly over his sneering face to his sleeping wife, a lumpy, formless woman with a round pudding face. Providence had lain before her a prime example of the ugly, the weak and the poor, and it was enough to dispel any doubts she might have had about her own destiny. The initial surge of feeling she had felt towards them had been replaced with boredom and she would not permit this abstract misery to butt in on her brilliant thoughts of Paris, Corinne and Tamburini. She closed her eyes against the soldier's vulgar stare.

         "Let him go to America!" she thought. "We are going to the continent."

         Lynch would never understand his daughter. It was all very well rescuing sparrows with broken wings, but why the hell did she always dump them in his lap? Well, he felt no obligation to be pleasant.

         "Where did you lose it?" he said, motioning towards the empty sleeve with his hip-flask. The dreariness of the city beyond the window was being replaced, he noticed, by a new jostling of people. Whatever the soldier replied, if he replied at all, was lost in Lynch's explosion of relief.

         "The docks!" he said, pointing.

         The soldier felt no anticipation, no stirrings of illusion, when he saw the tall masts of the ships and the belching smoke of a steamer.

         "Might as well be the gallows," he said.

         "Oh, come, man!" Lynch guffawed politely. "A new life, new opportunities. One arm is no social stigma in America, I'm sure."

Nor being poor, he added to himself, although it was obvious it should be.

         Eliza jumped up, turned and leaned from the window. A full moon was climbing over the roofs, silhouetting the spindly masts against a pale, grey sky. The rain had slowed to a silvery drizzle, a sheet of reflected points of light. She looked over the depressed heads of pedestrians and out towards the black smoke of the steamer. She thought it one of the most magnificent sights she had ever seen.

         The quay beyond the sullen façades of warehouses and stores, was an ordered piling of crates, sacks and barrels, through which the people picked their way, tugging each other forwards and on towards the frail sailing ships that bucked up and down on the choppy waves. The steamer, though, was heavy and still. It lay at the edge of the quay, moored, modern and majestic, the black smoke a symbol of progress and prosperity. Lynch noticed with satisfaction that "the rabble", as he liked to call it, was heading for the northern part of the docks, and the sailing ships. A select few made their way sedately towards the steamer, lifting their feet lightly away from the mud and the puddles. Any doubts he might previously have harboured as to the wisdom of their decision of choosing Europe over the New World were at once dispelled. He almost gloated a "Bon Voyage!" at the unfortunate soldier and his family as he expelled them from the carriage - and then promptly forgot them. He turned to Eliza.

         "All things incident to our departure ....." he began, but thought better of it. "This is it, El," he said, "We're off!"

         Just before midnight that evening, two ships left the port of Dublin. One, a decrepid, wooden sailing ship glided out of the docks, the only sound the chucking of waves and a strained creaking of wood. Slowly, it turned North. It was headed for Boston, the New World, and a land of hope and endless opportunity. At the back of the ship, the soldier and his family huddled together and stared bitterly back at a country that had failed to provide them with even the basic essentials for life. The other ship, its precious cargo, the Lynch family, safely stowed into their cabin, chugged noisily away from the harbour, churning the murky water into a froth of mud and seaweed. It left the docks and turned South, its wake washing out behind it in a wide fan which caught the reflection of the moon and dashed it into a thousand small and manageable pieces.





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