Drumbawn, halfway between Dooley's Hotel and the railway station in that twice-christened social, commercial and military center of the King's County, Birr or Parsons town, was old John O'Meara's estate. He lived there with his son, Mickey, and his three daughters, until two of them married and the youngest of them, Bena, was left to keep house for him and Mickey. Many a night I slept at Drumbawn in the four-poster bed Mrs. O'Meara died in, under the same eiderdown quilt that covered the dear lady the night she breathed her last breath. And in the mornings I would be up at seven to help Mickey exercise his polo ponies in the paddock and try my hand shooting goals between the gate posts. After that there would be a cold shower and breakfast with old John and Mickey and Bena and, once in a while, Marie O'Meara that was, and was now Maria Rosa, having married a son of Carl Rosa of light-opera fame; and with Carl's daughter, Sophie—Suds for short—who became, and stayed my life's chief interest until she quit Birr, after a month of it, for Smokey London. It was at Drumbawn that I first heard tell of North Africa, and from Sophie Rosa who had never been there. But she had a book with her that she let me read, Robert Hichen's novel, The Garden of Allah. It was already a bestseller, and a stage version was playing in London with Lewis Waller in the role of Androvsky, the Trappist monk. At that time the idea of a Trappist walking out on his order and off with an English girl was highly sensational, Londoners not being very well posted on Trappists, who are extremists. As I got into the book I saw that many passages descriptive of the Sahara Desert were marked, and, after I had read them, I knew why Sophie wanted to go there, for I wanted to go there myself. And as I read on into the morning I was seeing the shifting ocean of sand that is called the Grand Erg, and the great white dromedaries of the Méharistes, and the black tents of the courtesans from the Djebel-Ouled Nail. And I was seeing the nomad camps of the far south too, and smelling their smells of rancid butter and oil and tar and cameldung, and listening to the beat of their tambours and cymbols, and having a great time doing it. And then and there I promised myself that Africa was one place I would head for when I had made my fortune in America, for these were things I wanted to see and hear and smell for myself as well as through the eyes, ears and nostrils of the author of the book. And it was one of the promises I made myself and kept, and never regretted.
In those days the 1st Leinster Regiment was stationed in Birr. A friend of mine, Captain Montgomerie (destined to receive between the eyes his allotted portion of Germanic lead-alloy at, Mons, three years later), organized theatricals, gymkhanas, football and hockey matches and boxing tournaments. In these, though no Leinster, I generally participated.
One morning I got an invitation to a dance at the barracks, But I had no dress clothes. My father was in Roscrea, so my brother and I and Dora Maher, the housemaid, got busy and found his dress suit among the mothballs in a chest of drawers. I tried on the coat and my brother began to laugh. I told him to shut up; but all the same it looked pretty flappy to me. Dora said you could not tell the looks of a dress coat with riding breeches and a cap on, so I took off the cap. She thought it looked a lot better without the cap, and once the sleeves were shortened and it was taken in at the back it would look elegant on me. We got out the trousers next, I put them on over my breeches, but the waist was much too big and the legs too long. I took them off and threw them back in the drawer.
"Don't be shtoopid, now," Dora said. "Joe Malloy will shorten them and put a tuck in th'arse for you so no one would ever know it wasn't for yerself they was made."
I brought the suit down to the club-footed village tailor, Joe Malloy, who could cut as good a riding-breeches as Hammond or Tautz, and he fixed the sleeves, and took-in the waist of the trousers and shortened the legs without cutting off an inch of cloth. When the suit was pressed it looked pretty good, and I figured it would look even better at night. So I borrowed Connelly's mare and tied the clothes in a bundle and strapped it onto the back of the saddle and started out for Birr.
The mare made good headway till we got to the bog and she heard Mr. Boylan, the contractor, coming in his new Ford motorear. The Ford sounded bad enough, but when she saw it she just let one whinny out of her and took a jump in the bog and threw herself and me. We missed falling into a boghole with twenty feet of water in it by a foot and a hair. Mr. Boylan managed to stop his Ford a little farther on, and called out to me:
"Is there anything the matter, now?"
"Oh, no, nothing at all!" I called back, trying to get my leg out from under the mare's shoulder without letting her head up, not wanting to be dragged over the bog after her with one foot in the stirrup.
"Well, I'm glad to hear that, now!" shouted Mr. Boylan. "Beautiful weather we're having, thank God. I hope everyone is well in Kinnetty."
And then the mare got her head up in spite of the hold I had on the snaffle. I managed to free my foot before she was on her feet again and trying to drag me into the boghole with her after she had taken another look at Mr. Boylan's motorcar.
"Well, since everything's all right, I might as well be moving on myself," called Mr. Boylan, "And remember me kindly to your father."
By the time he was around the bend I had the mare back on the road and quieted down, but my knee was hurting me and I was worried about it swelling before the dance. I was in the saddle again before I noticed the mare had gone lame too.
By the time we saw the lights of Birr, it was near ten o'clock.
I went to Drumbawn to change. Mickey told his man to take the bundle off the saddle and press the clothes for me. I borrowed a white tie from him and a vest, my father's being of clerical cut, and he found me a stiff shirt which was a pretty good fit but short in the sleeves. Then his man came in with the coat all pressed up.
"What did you do with the trousers?" I said.
Sorra a throusers there was in the bundle," he said, "and the stwring was broke."
"They're in the bog," I said and sat down.
Mickey got out his dress clothes and I tried on the pants. But while he was a lot broader in the chest, he was so much shorter than me that, even when I let them down as far as decorum would permit, his pants left about six inches of leg showing above my ankles.
I spent that evening at Drumbawn playing billiards with Mickey and his father.