A Test of Truth by Jane Barlow

From “Irish Neighbours.”

Jim Hanlon, the cobbler, was said by his neighbours to have had his own share of trouble, and they often added, “And himself a very dacint man, goodness may pity him!” His misfortunes began when poor Mary Anne, his wife, died, leaving him forlorn with one rather sickly little girl, and they seemed to culminate when one frosty morning a few years later he broke his leg with a fall on his way to visit Minnie in hospital. The neighbours, who were so much impressed by her father’s good qualities and bad luck, did not hold an equally favourable opinion about this Minnie, inclining to consider her a “cross-tempered, spoilt little shrimp of a thing.” But Jim himself thought that the width of the world contained nothing like her, which was more or less true. So when she fell ill of a low fever, and the doctor said that the skilled nursing in a Dublin hospital would be by far her best chance, it was only after a sore struggle that Jim could make up his mind to let her go. And then his visit to her at the first moment possible had brought about the unwary walking and slip on a slide, which resulted so disastrously.

It was indeed a most deplorable accident. If it had happened somewhere near Minnie’s hospital, he said to himself, it might have been less unlucky, but, alas, the whole city spread between them and the institution whither he was brought. The sense of his  helplessness almost drove him frantic, as he lay in the long ward fretting over the thought that he was tied by the leg, unable to come next or nigh her, whatever might befall, or even to get a word of news about her. But on this latter point his forebodings were not fulfilled, his neighbours proved themselves to be friends in need. At the tidings of his mishap they made their way in to see him from unhandy little Ballyhoy, undeterred by what was often to them no very trivial expense and inconvenience. Nor were they slow to discover that they could do him no greater service than find out for him “what way herself was at all over at the other place.” Everybody helped him readily in this matter, more especially three or four good-natured Ballyhoy matrons. On days when they came into town to do their bits of marketing they would augment their toils by long trudges on foot, or costly drives on tramcars, that they might convey to Jim Hanlon the report for which he pined. They considered neither their heavy baskets, nor the circumstance that they were folk to whom time was time, and a penny a penny indeed.

Yet, sad to say, great as was Jim’s relief and his gratitude, their very zeal did in some degree diminish the value of their kindness. For their evident desire to please and pacify him awakened in his mind doubts about the means which they might adopt; and it must be admitted that his mistrust was not altogether ungrounded. The tales which they carried to him from “the other place” were not seldom intrinsically improbable, and sounded all the more so to him because of his intimate acquaintance with their subject. When Mrs. Jack Doyle averred that Minnie was devouring all before her, and that the nurse said a strong man would  scarce eat as much as she did, Jim remembered Minnie’s tomtit-like meals at home, and found the statement hard to accept. It was still worse when they gave him effusively affectionate messages, purporting to come from Minnie, who had always been anything in the world but demonstrative and sentimental. His heart sank as Mrs. Doran assured him that Minnie had sent her love to her own darling treasure of a precious old daddy, for he knew full well that no such greeting had ever emanated from Minnie, and how could he tell, Jim reflected, but that they might be as apt to deceive him about one thing as another? Perhaps there was little or no truth in what they told him about the child being so much better, and able to sit up, and so forth. Like enough one couldn’t believe a word they said. On this terribly baffling question he pondered continually with a troubled mind.

Saturday mornings were always the most likely to bring him visitors, and on a certain Saturday he rejoiced to hear that somebody was asking for him. He was all the more pleased because the lateness of the hour had made him despair of seeing any friends, and because this portly, good-humoured Mrs. Connolly was just the person he had been wishing to come. She explained that she would have paid him a visit sooner, had not all her children been laid up with colds, and then, as he had hoped, she went on to say that she was going over to see after little Minnie. “And the Sister here’s promised me,” said Mrs. Connolly, “she’ll let me in to bring you word on me way back, even if I’m a trifle beyond the right visitin’ time itself.”

Thereupon Jim produced a sixpence from under his pillow, where he had kept it ready all the long morning.  “If it wouldn’t be throublin’ you too much, ma’am,” he said, “I was wonderin’ is there e’er a place you would be passin’ by where you could get some sort of a little doll wid this for Minnie.”

“Is it a doll?” said Mrs. Connolly. “Why to be sure I will, and welcome. I know a shop in O’Connell Street where they’ve grand sixpenny dolls, dressed real delightful. I’ll get her a one of them as aisy as anythin’.” Mrs. Connolly knew that the price of the dolls she had in her eye was actually sixpence-halfpenny, but she at once resolved to pay the halfpenny herself and not let on.

“And you might maybe be gettin’ her an orange wid this,” Jim said, handing her a penny.

“Well, now, it’s the lucky child poor Minnie is,” Mrs. Connolly declared, “to have such a good daddy. Finely set up she will be wid a doll and an orange. I’ll bring her the best in Dublin, Jim, no fear.”

“She might fancy the orange, anyway,” Jim said, half to himself, with a queer remorseful sort of look.

Mrs. Connolly having gone, he began to expect her back again with an unreasonable promptitude which lengthened the afternoon prodigiously. He had suffered innumerable apprehensions, and fidgetted himself into a fever of anxiety before she could possibly have returned. At last, however, when her broad, cheerful countenance did reappear to him, looming through the misty March dusk, he felt that he would almost have chosen a further delay. For he had staked so much upon this venture that the crisis of learning, whether it had failed or succeeded could not but be rather terrible.

There was nothing apparently alarming in Mrs.  Connolly’s report. She had found Minnie doing finely. Her nurse said she would be out of bed next week, and was very apt to get her health better than before she took bad. The orange had pleased her highly, and she had bid Mrs. Connolly tell her daddy that he might be sending her another one next Saturday if he liked. All this was good as far as it went, but about the doll, Mrs. Connolly kept silence, and it struck Jim that she shrank away from anything which seemed leading towards a reference to the subject. Jim, who at first had half dreaded and half longed every moment to hear her speak of it, began to think that she might go away without mentioning it, which would not do at all. In the end he had to introduce it himself.

“And how about the bit of a doll, ma’am?” he inquired as unconcernedly as he could. “Was you able to get her e’er a one?”

Unmistakably Mrs. Connolly was much disconcerted by the question. Her face fell, and she hesitated for a while before she replied, with evident reluctance—

“Sure, now, man alive, you never can tell what quare notions childer’ll take up wid when they’re sick, and more especially when they do be about gettin’ well agin, the way Minnie is now. Quiet enough the crathurs do be as long as they’re rale bad. But, tellin’ you the truth, Jim, not a bit of her would look at the doll. Some fantigue she had agin it, whatever ailed her, an’ it a great beauty, wid a pink sash on it and all manner. Slingin’ it into the middle of the floor she was, only the nurse caught a hould of it, an’ biddin’ me to take it away out of that. So says I to her, ‘What at all should I do wid the lovely doll, after your poor daddy sendin’ it to yourself?’ And, says she to me, ‘Give  the ugly big lump of a thing to the ould divil,’ says she, ‘an’ let him give it to the little young black-leggy divils to play wid if they like.’ I declare to you, Jim, thim was the very words of her, sittin’ up in her bed, not lookin’ the size of anythin’. ‘Deed, now, she’s the comical child. But sure who’d be mindin’ her? And the nurse says she’ll keep the doll till to-morrow, an’ if Minnie doesn’t fancy it then, she’ll give it to the little girl in the next cot that does be frettin’ after her mother, so it won’t go to loss. An’ besides—”

She stopped short in surprise, for Jim, who had been laughing silently to himself, now broke out in tones of positive rapture—

“‘The little young black-leggy divils’—that’s Minnie herself, and no mistake this time, glory be to God! Sorra the fantigue it was, but just the nathur of her, for the thoughts of a doll she never could abide all the days of her life. She’d as lief be playin’ wid a snake or a toad. So if you’d let on to me that she liked it, ma’am, well I’d know ’twas only romancin’ to me you were. But the truth you tould me, right enough, and thank you kindly. The little villin’ll be runnin’ about before I am, plaze goodness. Och, bedad, I can see her slingin’ it neck an’ crop out of the bed.”

As Jim fell to laughing again, Mrs. Connolly looked at him puzzled, and with some disapproval, though she would not express the latter sentiment to him in his invalided condition. But she soon afterwards took leave, and on her homeward way she said to herself, “Musha, good gracious, mightn’t one suppose Jim Hanlon ‘ud have more since than to go sind the poor imp of a child a prisint only for the sake of annoyin’ her? ’Twas the quare, foolish way to be spendin’ a sixpence, in my  opinion. But sure, ’twas be way of a joke, an’ the poor man hasn’t much chance of e’er a one lyin’ there. It’s wonderful the store men set by nonsense. Sometimes you’d think they were all born fools, they do be that aisy amused. You’ll hear thim guffawin’ like a jackass bewitched over silly ould blathers that an infant child ‘ud have more wit than to be mindin’.”

Certainly, Jim was so well satisfied with his joke, if joke it were, that when he grew drowsy towards evening, his last thoughts made him chuckle contentedly. “The little black-leggy divils,” he said to himself. “Glory be to God! she’s finely.” And he fell asleep with a glad and grateful heart.