The 2nd Boer War was on. Harry Lewis and Georgie Cooper and the County's children, Kitty and her little brother Vincie, and my brother and I all played tin soldiers and wore round white shining badges with generals' pictures on them. We had 'Bobbs' and Kitchener, French, Sir George White and Baden Powell. I liked Baden Powell best on account of his hat. Bridget's favorite was Cronjie, the Boer general, and I heard her say to our neighbor's cook over the garden wall that he had more brains in his arse than all the generals in the British army.
"I 'ear as 'ow Cronjie never tikes a bath," came the voice of the cook from the other side of the wall. But I took no stock in what she said as she was English and biased.
Harry Lewis collected stamps and had two new ones that I tried hard to get from him. They were blue stamps, one with Baden Powell on it, and the other with him or a scout that might have been him on a bicycle. Harry showed the stamps to Bridget and Mary and me in the kitchen. Mrs. Bullock, the English cook next door, who had goitre and a wart with hairs in the middle of it on her chin, was there too.
"I read in the paiper," said Mrs. Bullock, "as 'ow 'er Majesty was fit to tear 'er 'air out when she saw them stamps. 'Gawdblimy', she says to the prime minister she says, 'it's the first time I ever seen any bloomin' faice but me own on me stamps!"
In fine weather, on Saturdays, when the bank closed, Harry's father used to hire an outsidecar and drive to Lough Derg where Harry had a big model of a yacht in the boathouse. Once in a while they took me along with them and I always had an exciting time. Especially the day Traherne Holmes, who lived in a big house with a lot of stables on the side of the lake and had a sister who was bitten in the face by a horse, took us out in his little yacht that flew a black flag with a skull and crossbones on it like the house in Galway, and we ran aground and capsized off a small island a few hundred yards from shore. The mainsail and mast lay flat on the water, and Harry and I climbed up on the hull and held on to the gunwale. I was scared and wondered how my mother would take it when she heard I was drowned. But at least I wanted to die with my conscience clear, so I gave back to Harry the two colored glass marbles I had swiped from the jar in his room the day before. And he gave me back a gilt pencil-sharpener I had been hunting for for a month. Then Harry's father rowed out in the punt and took Harry and me off. I thought Traherne ought to be saved too, but Harry's father said the punt was too small and it would be dangerous, and it was better to let Traherne and his deckhand drown than have us all drown. I cried about leaving a shipwrecked man like that, it seemed a terrible thing to do. But Traherne said not to worry, his deckhand had a cork leg and that would keep them afloat when the yacht went down. I thought then he was very brave and would have made a good general like Baden Powell. Half-an-hour later, as we sat around the stove in the boathouse, wrapped up in blankets while our clothes were drying, I was relieved to see another yacht come by and save Traherne.
The worst thing about it all was that the water got the soles of our boots all twisted on account of the sole-protectors. I had to have mine pulled out, but even that did not help much, and left a lot of holes so that when it rained or when we played near the quarry where the ground was marshy they let the water in.
My mother was terrified when I told her about being shipwrecked, and decided that was to be my last trip to the lake. She was not at home when Mr. Lewis dropped me at our house. But when Harry came the next day he said it was not a shipwreck at all and we had only run aground in five feet of water off the island. He spoke as if he was used to being shipwrecked properly, but I knew he had been just as scared as I was or I would never have got my pencil-sharpener back.
Toward the end of summer Harry went away to a boarding school in England, so life became pretty dull for me, though before leaving, he gave me his catapult, two suckers and a sling and the jar of marbles.
A month after Harry had gone the Bishop of Killaloe made my father rector of Borrisokane, a parish ten miles from Nenagh with a fine rectory with five acres of ground around it and trees and a river at the foot of the two-acre field in front of the house. It was a great change from the curate's house on the street in Nenagh. Here, as well as the fields, we had a big garden that was more like an orchard, with all the apple, pear and plum trees in it; and there was a lawn with flower beds, bordered on the south by an avenue of pines and cypresses and on the north by copper beeches and chestnut trees. A gate under the trees led into a little grove hedged in with yew and box, and at the end of the grove stood an old thatched house that had once been the school, but for years had been used for laying out the apples in straw. On wet days my brother and I played in the house, and we had it to ourselves for nobody ever came there. The classroom was used for the annual jumble sale and once a year for the rival missionary societies, the C.M.S. and the S.P.G., who sent returned missionaries around Ireland to lecture and open the missionary boxes distributed the year before. One of these societies was high-, the other low-church. My father put the flaming red missionary box of one and the brown varnished box of the other on either side of the clock on the dining-room mantelpiece
One of the missionaries, with a black beard, was a pleasant man and said to me outside the schoolhouse:
"What's the difference between a riddle and a rabbit sitting on a bun?"
He was from the north and his accent was very strong. When I gave up, he said:
"One's a conunderum and the other's a bununderum."
Which was pretty good for a missionary. I told it to my friend, Captain Saunders, who had a white moustache and lived two miles up the road at Killavalla, a big house with his coat of arms, an elephant sticking out of a castle, carved in stone over the door. He liked it too, so I said if the missionary had any more riddles I would bring him up to tea, but Captain Saunders said it would be better if I got the riddles from the missionary and came to tea alone, because missionaries did more harm than good. Captain Saunders had been in the Lancers in India. He had elephants' tusks and skins of wild animals and a snake in a glass jar and a stuffed eagle and a pelican, and he seemed to know all about missionaries.
Every Sunday my father and mother used to drop pennies in missionary-boxes, and they gave me a penny now and then and made me put it in, which I thought was a pity, especially after I found out about missionaries doing more harm than good. It always depressed me when they opened the missionary-boxes in the schoolhouse and I saw the money coming out of ours. I said this to another friend of mine, Mr. Halleran, who was a well-informed man on account of his wife having been a school teacher. He had a dusty shop and sometimes sold hardware and biscuits on the right and left as you went in. He was a Catholic but never went to mass, and his wife, who looked like a sandycolored mouse, was a Protestant and gave me piano lessons upstairs on Thursdays. Mr. Halleran said it was a scandal about the missionary-boxes, and the money should go to the Borrisokane poorhouse where they had not enough to eat. He said, anyway, missionaries had their impudence with them talking about civilizing the Chinese who were more civilized than Protestants and Catholics.
"Then why do they eat missionaries—and do they cut off their beards first? I don't see how they can eat them with their beards on," I said.
"Who said the Chinese eat missionaries?" he said.
"Well," I said, "they're heathens, and everyone knows heathens eat missionaries."
"When you go home ask your father and let me know what he says," said Mr. Halleran.
But when I asked my father he was writing his Sunday sermon, so he was not in a very amiable mood and just told me not to ask nonsensical questions and get out.
Then another missionary with a red beard—he was with the company with the brown box—came along. He had been in Borrisokane the year before. He wore spectacles and had a red nose and indigestion—caused by Chinese cooking, he said, which did not surprise me as I had learned in my geography book about the Chinese eating birdnests. He had a lot of brass Chinese coins with holes in the middle of them tied together in the form of a cross, which he exhibited at the lecture. I would have liked it myself, but he never left it lying about. He stayed with us and preached a sermon on Sunday about the Chinese, but did not mention that they ate missionaries or people. He said they smoked opium, which was a great sin, and one Chinaman he had made a Protestant of tried to give it up and could not. So he brought him to his own house where there was no opium and made him sing Protestant hymns whenever he wanted to smoke it. In the end the Chinaman became very ill, and though the missionary stayed up all night praying with him, died. Fortunately, he was a full Protestant first, so his soul was saved. The text of the sermon was: He that loseth his life for my sake shall save it.
While we were in church the cat got up on the dining-room mantelpiece at home and upset a vase of flowers and got the brown missionary-box wet underneath. I was home first as everyone except Bridget and Mary and my brother was at communion, and I saw it and beat the cat. When I lifted up the missionary-box to wipe off the water, the paper that was pasted over the bottom of it stayed on the mantelpiece and the piece of wood that worked on a pivot where they took out the money opened and a silver sixpence dropped out. I shook the box, wondering if there was as much in it as there had been in the red one, and more money fell out. And when three shillings and fourpence ha'penny had fallen out, the box was empty. I was going to put the money back again, but at that moment I remembered what Captain Saunders and Mr. Halleran had said about missionaries, so I gummed the paper on again and put the money in my pocket. But I thought then it would be better if the missionary-box made a noise, in case anyone picked it up. So I found some steel trouser-buttons and flat-headed nails and a few bits of broken glass which made a very good noise, and put the missionary-box back.
When my mother got home she said: "Darling, what makes your cheeks so red?"
I got redder and I said I had run all the way home, which was true, so she said no more.
On Monday morning the classroom in the old schoolhouse was opened for the lecture, and while Bridget swept it out and Bill Hogan, our gardner, put a kitchen table on the platform and the rug out of the trap over it, and a bottle of water and a glass on it and moved around the benches, I went down to see Mr. Halleran with the three shillings and four pence ha'penny. I told him what I had done, and that I had the money with me for the people in the poorhouse. He was pleased but not quite sure what steps he should take until I told him about the sermon and the Chinaman who died because he had become a Protestant. That decided him, so we looked around the shop for things the old men and women in the workhouse, which is what the poor called the poorhouse, needed. On the right counter there were nails and locks and oil lamps and sole-protectors. But Mr. Halleran said there were locks and lamps in the poorhouse and everyone wore hobnail boots. Then we tried the left counter, but found nothing much there, so I said it was all right and I would go to Miss Birmingham's new grocery shop which she called a store, having lived in America. Then Mr. Halleran said it was a question of precedence, and the money from the missionary-box should be spent in his shop as he had been established over thirty years and Miss Birmingham had only been in Borrisokane four months and, at that, was more American than Irish. On a shelf there were a couple of boxes of currant biscuits which Mr. Halleran called 'squashed flies' and some dried fish with a strong smell that hung from the ceiling. Mr. Halleran said:
"Give me the money and I'll see what I can do for the poor."
So I did, and he filled a large paper bag with biscuits and put it aside, and then he found a couple of tins of salmon with a little rust on the edges of the tins and he put them aside too, and then went out to see his wife. While he was gone I tried a few squashed flies to make sure they were not stale, and I discovered some sticks of licorice that had begun to turn yellowish. When Mr. Halleran came back he brought two pots of apple jam his wife had made, with the tops covered with brown paper and tied down. He saw the licorice and said he would throw it in at half price because it had been in the shop five years, and he broke off a bit of one stick for me to sample and it tasted all right, so I agreed. He had some coughdrops, too, which he said would be good for the people in the poorhouse as some of them had what they call in Ireland the decline—which is tuberculosis—and coughed a lot. He also found a tin of preserved tomatoes and, in the shop window, a white crockery bedpan with a cracked handle. It would come in handy in the poorhouse dispensary, he said. Then we put everything in a basket which he made me promise to bring back on Thursday when I came for my music lesson, though I would have brought it back in any case because the handle was broken, and I got on Bessy, the donkey, and rode off to the poorhouse. Everything went well till we were almost at the gates when I thought I would gallop a little. But a stirrupleather gave way, and as I had to hold the basket in both arms on account of the broken handle, I lost my balance and fell into the ditch and broke the bedpan. Old Tim Fogarty, the gateman, picked me up, and we collected the squashed flies and tins of preserved tomatoes and salmon and the licorice and the jampots, which were intact, and carried everything to the wooden shelter that looked like a sentrybox where Tim lived. I told him all these things belonged by rights to the Chinese but I thought the Irish should come first. Tim Fogarty said:
"The Chinese, them dirty cannibals."
"Then I was right, I mean about them eating missionaries,"I said.
He thought it over and said:
"Thounly Chinese I ever seen was in a circus an' t'wasn't missionaries but swords the bugger was swallowin'."
When I got home I put Bessy in the stable and went in to lunch. There was cold roastbeef left over from Sunday and mashed potatoes and queen pudding, which was my favorite.
"He asked me yesterday if the Chinese eat missionaries," said my father laughing to the missionary with the red beard and nose. But though I waited eagerly to find out, the missionary said nothing. I thought to myself the Chinese would have to be pretty hungry to eat him.
"You'll find out all about that at the lecture this afternoon," said my father.
I glanced at the missionary-box which was still there and felt a little hot and cold down the back, and could not finish my queen pudding, so I decided it might be better if I was not there when they opened the missionary-boxes in public.
When it was time for the lecture to begin I went to the schoolhouse where the gate was open and all the parishioners coming in except Captain Saunders. After greeting a few of them, I shook hands with Girlie Hobbs who sang in the choir and had yellow hair and white teeth and a big chest, and whose brothers had a farm where we got our milk and butter, and I slipped off and got Bessy and started out for Killevalla.
Mrs. Saunders was home and insisted on my having lemonade and cake which I could only just swallow, being nervous and impatient to see the captain and get his advice. But she made me eat the cake and drink the lemonade, attributing my unwillingness to good manners. The cake got stuck in me half way down and made me feel hot and cold all over, again. Then Captain Saunders came in and took me off to the lounge room where the eagle was with the snake in the glass jar and the pelican; and by degrees I told him what I had done. It took me a long time, being upset and uncomfortable about going home. When I had finished I brought him out and showed him the stirrupleather Tim had mended with string. But Captain Saunders said it was not going to hold and, anyway, my saddle was worn out. We went to the stables to find the steward.
"Kieran, where is that pony saddle the boys used to use when they followed the hounds?" he shouted.
Kieran found it in the harness room. It was a beautiful saddle, not just the padding of a horse's saddle with a croupper sewed onto it, like mine, but a real pony saddle with designs stitched into the leather. Then Captain Saunders picked out a pair of stirrups and a chain burnisher to keep them bright and said to come on and saddle Bessy. I could hardly believe he was making me a present of everything, but he was. I was so grateful I did not know how to thank him, so I invited him back to tea at the rectory, being nervous about arriving alone.
"How much did you take out of the missionary-box?" he asked. "Three shillings and four pence ha'penny," I said.
He gave me a five-shilling piece and said that should be enough to fix everything. I said if he could give it to me in smaller change it would be better, since there was nothing to be gained by giving missionaries one and fivepence ha'penny more than was coming to them. He said he had not thought of that and I was quite right. So I put three and four pence ha'penny in one pocket and one and fivepence in the other, to avoid confusion, and rode off very happy about the saddle but otherwise apprehensive.
My mother was waiting for me at the gate when I got back to the rectory. I showed her the beautiful saddle, but she hardly looked at it. She said:
"Darling, did you take the money out of the missionary box and put nails and trouser-buttons and glass in it?"
She looked hard at me and I turned my face away.
"To think that my son could do a thing like that!" she said.
"Mumsy, I didn't do it for myself," I said.
What do you mean?" she asked.
And then I told her everything, and what Captain Saunders had said and Mr. Halleran had said, and showed her the three and fourpence ha'penny I had in one pocket, and she felt better.
"It would have been terrible," she said, "to think my son was a thief."
As we went up to the house she said:
"Your daddy has never been so humiliated in his life. When he opened the rectory missionary-box and buttons and nails and bits of glass came out before all the parishioners, it was simply awful!"
She told me then to go and stay in my room until she had talked with my father. So I did, and after a long time she came upstairs. I heard her knock on the missionary's door, which was next to mine, and then voices, but not what was being said. In a while I heard the missionary going downstairs and then my mother came in. She told me the missionary was with my father in the study, and he knew there had been a misunderstanding, and I must go down and apologize and give him the three and fourpence ha'penny. So I did, and he was very pleased when he got the money. I asked him if the Chinese really ate missionaries, and he said:
"They only eat little boys who put nails and glass and trouser-buttons in the missionary boxes."
Everything would have been all right if Mr. Halleran's tinned salmon had not given a couple of the poorhouse people ptomaine poisoning. My father had to go and fetch Dr. Daley, who weighed twenty-nine stone and was the ex-champion weight thrower of the world. Doctor Daley rode out to the poorhouse on his specially built bicycle, and said if he had come an hour later one of them would have died.