The Wee Tea Table by Shan Bullock

From “Irish Pastorals.”

Somewhere near the hill-hedge, with their arms bare, skirts tucked up, and faces peering from the depths of big sunbonnets, Anne Daly and Judy Brady were gathering the hay into long, narrow rows; one raking this side of a row, the other that, and both sweetening toil with laughter and talk. Sometimes Anne leaned on her rake and chattered for a while; now Judy said a word or two and ended with a titter; again, both bobbed heads and broke into merriment. I came nearer to them, got ready my rake, and began on a fresh row.

The talk was of a woman, of her and her absurdities.

“I’ve come to help you to laugh, Anne,” said I. “What friend is this of yours and Judy’s that you’re stripping of her character?”

“The lassie,” said Anne, “we were talkin’ about is a marrit woman—one Hannah Breen be name—an’ she lives in a big house on the side of a hill over there towards the mountain. The husband’s a farmer—an easy-goin’, bull-voiced, good-hearted lump of a man, wi’ a good word for ould Satan himself, an’ a laugh always ready for iverything. But the wife, Hannah, isn’t that kind. Aw, ‘deed she isn’t. ’Tisn’t much good-speakin’ or laughin’ Hannah’ll be doin’; ’tisn’t herself’d get many cars to follow her funeral in these parts. Aw, no. ’Tisn’t milkin’ the cows, an’ makin’  the butter, an’ washin’ John’s shirts, an’ darnin’ his socks, an’ mendin’ her own tatters, an’ huntin’ the chickens from the porridge-pot, Hannah was made for. Aw, no. It’s a lady Hannah must be, a real live lady. It’s step out o’ bed at eight o’clock in the mornin’, Hannah must do, an’ slither down to her tay an’ have it all in grandeur in the parlour; it’s sittin’ half the day she must be, readin’ about the doin’s o’ the quality, an’ the goin’s on o’ the world, an’ squintin’ at fashion-pictures, an’ fillin’ her mind wi’ the height o’ nonsense an’ foolery; it’s rise from the table in a tantrum she must do because John smacks his lips, an’ ates his cabbage wi’ his knife; it’s worry the poor man out o’ his mind she’d be after because he lies and snores on the kitchen table, an’ smokes up to bed, an’ won’t shave more’n once a week, an’ says he’d rather be hanged at once nor be choked up in a white shirt an’ collar o’ Sundays. An’ for herself—aw, now, it’d take me from this till sunset to tell ye about all her fooleries. If you’d only see her, Mr. John, stalkin’ in through the chapel gates, wi’ her skirts tucked up high enough to show the frillin’ on her white petticoat, an’ low enough to hide the big tear in it; an’ black kid gloves on her fists; an’ a bonnet on her wi’out a string to it; an’ light shoes on her; an’ a big hole in the heel o’ her stockin’; and her nose in the air; an’ her sniffin’ at us all just as if we were the tenants at the butter-show an’ herself My Lady come to prance before us all an’ make herself agreeable for five minutes or so.... Aw, Lord, Lord,” laughed Anne, “if ye could only see her, Mr. John.”

“An’ to see her steppin’ down Bunn Street,” Anne went on, as we turned at the hedge, and set our faces once more towards the river, “as if the town belonged  to her—a ribbon flutterin’ here, an’ a buckle shinin’ there, an’ a feather danglin’ another place—steppin’ along wi’ her butter-basket on her arm, an’ big John draggin’ at her heels, an’ that look on her face you’d expect to see on the face o’ the Queen o’ France walkin’ on a gold carpet, in goold slippers, to a goold throne! An’ to see the airs of her when someone’d spake; an’ to see the murderin’ look on her when someone’d hint at a drop o’whiskey for the good of her health; an’ to hear the beautiful talk of her to the butter-buyers—that soft an’ po-lite; an’ to see her sittin’ in the ould ramshackle of a cart goin’ home, as straight in the back an’ as stiff as a ramrod, an’ her face set like a plaster image, an’ her niver lettin’ her eye fall on John sittin’ beside her, an’ him as drunk an’ merry as a houseful o’ fiddlers! Aw, sure,” cried Anne, flinging up a hand, “aw, sure, it’s past the power o’ mortial tongue to tell about her.”

“Yours, Anne, makes a good attempt at the telling, for all that,” said I.

“Ach, I’m only bleatherin’,” said Anne. “If ye only knew her—only did.”

“Well, tell me all about her,” said I, “before your tongue gets tired.”

“Ah, sure, an’ I will,” replied she; “sure, an’ I’ll try me hand at it.”

“One day, then, sometime last summer, Hannah—beggin’ her ladyship’s pardon,” said Anne, a sudden note of scorn rasping in her voice, “but I meant Mrs. Breen—decks herself out, ties on her bonnet, pulls on her kid gloves, an’ steps out through the hall door. Down she goes, over the ruts an’ the stones, along the lane, turns down the main road; after a while comes  to the house o’ Mrs. Flaherty—herself that told me—crosses the street, an’ knocks po-lite on the door.

“‘Aw, is Mrs. Flaherty at home, this fine day?’ axes Hannah when the door opens, an’ wee Nancy put her tattered head between it an’ the post. ‘Is Mrs. Flaherty at home?’ says she.

“‘She is so,’ answers Nancy; ‘but she’d be out at the well,’ says the wee crature.

“‘I see,’ says Hannah, ‘I see. Then, if you please, when she comes back,’ says she, ‘would you be kindly handin’ her that, wi’ Mrs. Breen’s compliments’—an’ out of her pocket Hannah pulls a letter, gives it to Nancy, says good evenin’ to the wee mortial, gathers up her skirt, an’ steps off in her grandeur through the hens an’ ducks back to the road. Well, on she goes another piece, an’ comes to the house of Mary Dolan; an’ there, too, faith, she does the genteel an’ leaves another letter an’ turns her feet for the house of Mrs. Hogan; an’ at Sally’s she smiles, an’ bobs her head, an’ pulls another letter from her pocket, an’ leaves it at the door; then twists on her heel, turns back home an’ begins dustin’ the parlours, an’ arrangin’ her trumpery an’ readin’ bleather from the fashion papers.

“Very well, childer. Home Jane comes from the well, an’ there’s Nancy wi’ the letter in her fist. ‘What the divil’s this?’ says Jane, an’ tears it open; an’ there, lo an’ behold ye, is a bit of a card—Jane swears ’twas a piece of a bandbox, but I’d be disbelievin’ her—an’ on it an invite to come an’ have tay with me bould Hannah, on the next Wednesday evenin’ at five o’clock p.m.—whativer in glory p.m. may be after meanin’; when Mary Dolan opens hers, there’s the same invite; an’ when Sally Hogan opens hers, out drops the same  bit of a card on the floor; an’ Sally laughs, an’ Mary laughs, an’ Jane laughs, an’ the three o’ them, what wi’ the quareness o’ the business, an’ the curiosity of them to see Hannah at her capers, put their heads together, an’ laughs again, an’ settles it that sorrow take them, but go they’ll go. An’ go they did. Aw, yis ... Aw, Lord, Lord,” laughed Anne, turning up her eyes. “Lord, Lord!”

“Aw, childer, dear,” giggled Judy, with a heaving of her narrow shoulders. “Aw, go they did!”

“Good girl, Anne,” said I, and slapped my leg “my roarin’ girl! Aw, an’ go they did, Judy—go they did.”

“Well, hearts alive,” Anne went on, “Wednesday evenin’ comes at last; an’ sharp at five o’clock up me brave Jane Flaherty steps along the lane, crosses the yard, an’ mindin’ her manners, knocks twice on Hannah’s back door—then turns, an’ wi’ the dog yelpin’ at her, an’ the gander hissin’ like a wet stick on a fire, waits like a beggarwoman on the step. But divil a one comes to the door; aw, not a one. An’ sorrow a soul budged inside; aw, not a soul. So round turns Jane, lifts her fist again, hits the door three thundering bangs, an’ looks another while at the gander. Not a budge in the door, not a move inside; so Jane, not to be done out of her tay, lifts the latch,—an’, sure as the sun was shinin’, but the bolt was shot inside. ‘Well, dang me,’ says Jane, an’ hits the door a kick, ‘but this is a fine way to treat company,’ says she, an’ rattles the latch, an’ shakes it. At last, in the divil of a temper, spits on the step, whips up her skirts, an’ cursin’ Hannah high up an’ low down, starts for home.

“She got as far as the bend in the lane, an’ there meets Mary Dolan.

“‘What’s up?’ axes Mary. ‘What’s floostered ye, Jane Flaherty? Aren’t ye goin’ to have your tay, me dear?’ says Mary.

“‘Aw, may the first sup she swallows choke the breath in her,’ shouts Jane, an’ goes on to tell her story; an’ before she’d said ten words, up comes Sally Hogan.

“‘Am I too late?’ says Sally, ‘or am I too early?’ says she, ‘or what in glory ails the two o’ ye?’

“‘Ails?’ shouts Jane. ‘Ye may well say that, Sally Hogan. Ye may turn on your heel,’ says she, an’ begins her story again; an’ before she was half through it Sally laughs out, and takes Jane by the arm, an’ starts back to the house.

“‘Come away,’ says she; ‘come away an’ have your tay, Jane; sure, ye don’t know Hannah yet.’

“So back the three goes—but not through the yard. Aw, no. ’Twas through the wee green gate, an’ down the walk, an’ slap up to the hall door Sally takes them; an’ sure enough the first dab on the knocker brings a fut on the flags inside, an’ there’s Kitty, the servant girl, in her boots an’ her stockin’s, an’ her Sunday dress an’ a white apron on her, standin’ before them.

“‘Aw, an’ is that you, Kitty Malone,’ says Sally. ‘An’ how’s yourself, Kitty, me dear? An’ wid Mrs. Breen be inside?’ says she.

“‘She is so, Mrs. Hogan,’ answers Kitty, an’ bobs a kind of curtsy. ‘Wid ye all be steppin’ in, please?’

“‘Aw, the Lord’s sake,’ gasps Sally on the door step, at all this grandeur; ‘the Lord’s sake,’ says she, an’ steps into the hall; an’ in steps Mary Dolan, an’ in steps Jane Flaherty, an’ away the three o’ them goes at Kitty’s heels up to the parlour.... ‘Aw, heavenly hour,’ cried Anne, and turned up her eyes.

“Well, dears,” Anne went on, “in the three walks, bonnets an’ all, an’ sits them down along the wall on three chairs, an’ watches Kitty close the door; then looks at each other in a puzzled kind o’ way, an’, after that, without openin’ a lip, casts their eyes about the room. ’Twas the funniest kind of a place, Jane allowed, that iver she dropped eyes on. There was a sheep-skin, lyin’ woolly side up, in front o’ the fireplace, an’ a calf-skin near the windy, an’ a dog’s skin over be the table, an’ the floor was painted brown about three fut all round the walls. There was pieces of windy-curtain over the backs o’ the chairs; there was a big fern growin’ in an ould drain-pipe in the corner; there was an ould straw hat o’ John’s stuffed full o’ flowers an’ it hangin’ on the wall, an’ here an’ there, all round it an’ beside it were picters cut from the papers an’ then tacked on the plaster. Ye could hardly see the mantelshelf, Jane allowed, for all the trumpery was piled on it, dinglum-danglums of glass an’ chaney, an’ shells from the say, an’ a sampler stuck in a frame, an’ in the middle of all a picter of Hannah herself got up in all her finery. An’ there was books, an’ papers, an’ fal-lals, an’ the sorrow knows what, lyin’ about; an’ standin’ against the wall, facin’ the windy, was a wee table, wi’ a cloth on it about the size of an apron, an’ it wi’ a fringe on it, no less, an’ it spread skew-wise an’ lookin’ for all the world like a white ace o’ diamonds; an’ on the cloth was a tray wi’ cups an’ saucers, an’ sugar an’ milk, an’ as much bread an’ butter, cut as thin as glass, as you’d give a sick child for its supper.... ‘Aw, heavenly hour,’ cried Anne, ‘heavenly hour!’

“Aw, childer, dear,” cried Judy.

“Aw, woman alive,” said I. “Aw, Judy, dear.”

“Well, childer, the three looks at all, an’ looks at each other, an’ shifts on their chairs, an’ looks at each other again, an’ says Mary Dolan at last:—

“‘We’re in clover, me dears,’ says she, ‘judgin’ be the spread beyont’—and she nods at the wee table.

“‘Ah that’il do for a start,’ says Sally Hogan; ‘but where in glory are we all to put our legs under that wee table? Sure it’l be an ojus squeeze.’

“‘It will so,’ says Jane Flaherty, ‘it will so. But isn’t it powerful quare o’ Hannah to keep us sittin’ here so long in our bonnets an’ shawls, an’ us dreepin’ wi’ the heat?’

“‘It’s the quarest hole I iver was put in,’ says Mary Dolan, ‘an’ if this is grandeur, give me the ould kitchen at home wi’ me feet on the hearth an’ me tay on a chair.... Phew,’ says Mary, an’ squints round at the windy, ‘phew, but it’s flamin’ hot! Aw,’ says she, an’ makes a dart from her chair, ‘dang me, but I’ll burst if I don’t get a mouthful o’ fresh air.’ An’ just as she had her hand on the sash to lift it, the door opens an’ in steps me darlin’ Hannah.

“‘Good evenin’, ladies all,” says Hannah, marchin’ in wi’ some kind of a calico affair, made like a shroud wi’ frills on it, hangin’ on her, ‘Good evenin’, ladies,’ says she, an’ wi’ her elbow cocked up in the air as if she was strivin’ to scrape it against the ceilin’, goes from one to another an’ shakes hands. ‘It’s a very pleasant afternoon’ (them was the words), says she, makin’ for a chair beside the wee table; ‘an’ I’m very pleased to see ye all,’ says she.

“‘Aw, an’ the same here,’ says Mary Dolan, in her free way, ‘the same here; an’ ojus nice ye look in that sack of a calico dress, so ye do,’ says Mary, wi’ a wink  at Jane Flaherty. ‘But it’s meself’d feel obliged to ye if so be ye’d open the windy an’ give us a mouthful o’ fresh air,’ says Mary.

“An’ Hannah sits down in her shroud wi’ the frills on it, an’ smiles, an’ says she, ‘I’m rather delicate’ (them were the words) ‘this afternoon, Mrs. Dolan, an’ afeered o’ catchin’ cold; an’, forby that,’ says she, ‘the dust is so injurious for the parlour.’

“‘Aw, just so,’ answers Mary, ‘just so. Sure, I wouldn’t for worlds have ye spoil your parlour for the likes of us. But I’ll ax your leave, Mrs. Breen, seein’ ye don’t ax me yourself, to give me own health a chance,’ says she, ‘be throwin’ this big shawl off me shoulders.’

“‘But it’s afternoon tay, Mrs. Dolan,’ answers Hannah, in her cool way; ‘an’ it’s not fashionable at afternoon tay for ladies to remove—’

“‘Then afternoon tay be danged,’ says Mary, an’ throws the shawl off her across the back of her chair; ‘an’ it’s meself’ll not swelter for all the fashions in the world,’ says she, an’ pushes her bonnet back an’ lets it hang be the strings down her back. ‘Aw, that’s great,’ says she, wi’ a big sigh; an’ at that off goes Jane’s shawl an’ bonnet, an’ off goes Sally’s; an’ there the three o’ them sits, wi’ Hannah lookin’ at them disgusted as an ass at a field of thistles over a gate.... Aw, glory be,” cried Anne.

“Aw, me bould Anne,” cried Judy; “me brave girl.”

“Well, dears, Hannah sits her down, puts her elbow on a corner o’ the ace o’ diamonds, rests her cheek on her hand, an’ goes on talking about this and that. She hoped Mrs. Flaherty, an’ Mrs. Dolan, an’ Mrs. Hogan were well  an’ prosperous; she hoped the crops were turnin’ out well; she hoped all the childer were in the best o’ good health. Aw, like the Queen o’ Connaught Hannah talked, an’ smiled, an’ aired herself an’ her beautiful English, but sorrow a move did she make to shift her elbow off the wee table-cloth, an’ divil a sign or smell o’ tay was there to be seen. Aw, not a one. Ten minutes went, an’ twenty, an’ half an hour; an’ at that, up Mary Dolan stretched her arms, gives a powerful big yawn, an’, says she, ‘Och, dear Lord,’ says she, ‘dear Lord, but the throat’s dry in me! Och, och,’ says she—an’ with the hint up gets Hannah in her frilled shroud, crosses the calf-skin, opens the door, an’ calls for Kitty. ‘Yis, Mrs. Breen,’ answers Kitty from the Kitchen. ‘Serve tay,’ calls Hannah; then closes the door an’ steps back to her chair by the wee table.

“In about ten minutes, here comes me darlint Kitty, boots an’ stockin’s an’ all; carries the taypot on a plate over to the table, an’ plants it down slap in the middle o’ the ace o’ diamonds. Up jumps Hannah wi’ a bounce.

“‘What are you doin’ Kitty?’ says she, with a snap of her jaw, an’ lifts the taypot, an’ glares at the black ring it had made on her brand new cloth. ‘D’ye see what you’ve done?’ says she, pointin’ her finger, ‘stand back and mend your manners, ye ignorant little baggage, ye!’—

“‘Yis, ma’am,’ answers Kitty, an’ stands back; then turns her head, when she gets to the calf-skin, an’ winks at the three sittin’ by the wall; an’ out Mary Dolan bursts into a splutter of a laugh.

“‘Aw, Lord,’ says Mary, an’ holds her ribs; ‘aw, dear Lord,’ says she. But Hannah, standin’ pourin’ tay into the wee cups, just kept her face as straight as  if Mary was a dummy, an’ in a minute she turns round to Kitty.

“‘Hand the cups to the ladies,’ says she, an’ sits her down.

“Well, childer dear, Kitty steps from the calf-skin, lifts two cups an’ saucers from the tray, carries them across the floor, an’ offers one to Jane Flaherty, wi’ this hand, an’ t’other to Sally Hogan wi’ that hand. An’ Sally looks at the cup, an’ then at Kitty; an’ Jane looks at Kitty, an’ then at the cup, an’ says Sally:

“‘Is it take it from ye you’d have me do, Kitty Malone?’ says she.

“‘It is so,’ answers Kitty wi’ a grin.

“‘An’ where in glory wid ye have me put it, Kitty Malone?’ asks Sally an’ looks here an’ there. ‘Sure—sure, there’s no table next or near me,’ says she.

“‘It’s afternoon tay, Mrs. Hogan,’ says Hannah across the floor; ‘an’ at afternoon tay, tables aren’t fashionable,’ says she, an’ grins to herself.

“‘Well, thank God, Hannah Breen,’ says Mary Dolan, ‘that afternoon tay, as ye call it, has only come my way once in me life. Take the cup in your fist, Sally Hogan,’ says Mary, ‘an’ if ye break it, bad luck go with it, an’ if ye don’t, you’ve been a lady for once in your life; an’ when you’re done, stick it there on the floor. I’m obliged to ye, Kitty Malone,’ says Mary again, an’ takes a cup; ‘an’ if so be I choke meself wi’ the full o’ this thimble wi’ a handle on it,’ says Mary, an’ squints at the cup, ‘you’ll do me the favour to tell Pat I died a fool. An’ if such things go well wi’ afternoon tay, Kitty, agra, I’d trouble ye for a look at a spoon.’ “... Aw, me bould Mary,” cried Anne and laughed in her glee. “Ye were the girl for Hannah, so ye were.”

“Aw, ‘deed ay,” cried Judy, and tittered most boisterously. “Aw, me brave Hannah.”

“Then begins the fun, me dears. First of all, Sally Hogan, in trying to lift a bit o’ bread an’ butter from a plate that Kitty held before her, must spill her tay over her lap an’ start screechin’ that she was kilt. Then Mary Dolan must finish her cup at a gulp, an’ forgettin’ it was in Hannah’s parlour she was at afternoon tay, an’ not at home in the kitchen, must give the dregs a swirl an’ sling them over her shoulder against the wall. Then Sally Hogan again, in tryin’ to keep back a laugh at the tay leaves on the wall, an’ the glare of Hannah across at them, must get a crumb in her throat an’ bring the whole room to thump her on the back.

“Then Jane Flaherty gets a second cup wi’ no sugar in it, an’ makes a face like a monkey’s, an’ gives a big splutter, an’ sets Kitty Malone off into a fit o’ laughin’; an’ Kitty sets Jane off, an’ Jane sets Mary off, an’ Mary sets Sally off; an’ there sits Hannah in her calico shroud, beside the ace of diamonds, wi’ a face on her like a child cuttin’ its teeth, an’ her arm out, an’ her shoutin’ for Kitty to take herself out o’ the room. An’ in the middle o’ the whole hubbub the door opens, an’ in tramps big John in his dirty boots, wi’ his shirt-sleeves turned up, an’ hay ropes round his legs, an’ his hat on the back o’ his head, an’ his pipe in his mouth—in steps John, an’ stands lookin’ at them all.

“‘Ho, ho,’ roars John, an’ marches across the calf-skin. ‘What have we here? A tay party,’ says he, ‘as I’m a livin’ sinner—an’ me not to know a thing about it! Well, better late nor niver,’ says he, then turns an’ looks at Hannah. ‘Aw, how d’ye do, Mrs. Breen? says he, wi’ a laugh. ‘I hope I see ye well  in your regimentals. An’ how the blazes are the rest o’ ye, me girls?’ says he to the three along the wall. ‘I’m glad to see ye all so hearty an’ merry, so I am. But what in glory are ye all doin’ over there, away from the table? Why don’t ye sit an’ have your tay like Christians?’ says he. ‘Come over, girls—come over this mortial minute,’ says John,’an’ I’ll have a cup wi’ ye meself, so I will.’

“Then Hannah rises in her calico shroud.

“‘John,’ says she, ‘it’s afternoon tay it’ll be, an tables—’

“‘Aw, sit ye down, Hannah,’ shouts John, ‘sit ye down, woman, an’ be like another for once in a way.’

“‘John,’ says Hannah, again, an’ looks knives an’ forks at him, ‘where’s your manners the day?’

“‘Aw, manners be danged,’ roars John, an’ throws his hat into the corner; ‘give us a cup o’ tay an’ quit your nonsense. Come on, girls,’ says he to the women, ‘come over, an’ have a cup in comfort wi’ me here at the table.’

“‘John!’ says Hannah again, ‘ye can’t sit at this table; it’s—it’s too small,’ says she.

“‘Then pull it out from the wall,’ roars John, ‘pull it out and let us get round it. Come on,’ says he, an’ grips an end o’ the table, ‘give it a lift across the floor!’

“‘No, no, John,’ shouts Hannah, an’ grips t’other end to keep it from goin’; ‘ye mustn’t, John!’

“‘Out wi’ it,’ roars John again.

“‘No, no,’ shouts Hannah, ‘ye can’t—aw, ye can’t—aw, ye mustn’—no, no, John!’

“‘Aw, to glory wi’ you an’ it,’ shouts John. ‘Here let me at it meself!...’

“An’ the next minute Hannah was screechin’ in her  shroud; an’ there was a clatter o’ crockery, like as if a bull had gone slap at a dresser; an’ John was standin’ like as if he was shot, in the middle of the floor; an’ lyin’ at his feet was the wee table, an’ the ace of diamonds, an’ the whole o’ Hannah’s cups an’ saucers, an’ the taypot, an’ all, in a thousand pieces.... Aw, heart alive ... heart alive!...”

Anne leant upon her rake and bowed her head in laughter. Two minutes grace she had; then said I:

“What had happened, Anne?”

She looked at me. “Happened? Sure, the table was only an ould dressin’-table, an’ had only three legs, an’ was propped wi’ the lame side against the wall; an’ when John put it down in the middle of the floor—Aw, now,” cried Anne, “that’s enough, that’s enough.... Aw, me sides—me sides.”

“Aw, me sides—me sides,” cried Judy, shaking below her big sun-bonnet. “Te-he!”

“Aw, women alive,” cried I, sinking back on the hay. “Haw, haw!”