A SOLDIER CALLS - March, 1925 by Seamus O'Conner
Two days after Lizzie arrived home from combat training camp, the young soldier called at The Woods once again, this time arriving by bicycle and out of uniform.
Mr. O’Neill happened to be trimming the hedge that separated the tennis courts from the front driveway when the stranger came through the middle gates. He naturally assumed it was someone to see him in his official capacity as magistrate—sign some papers, issue a writ—anything but hedge clipping. Grateful to whatever deity he doubted existed for providing a moment’s diversion, he laid down the hedge clippers and approached the visitor.
“Good afternoon to you, sir,” the young man replied in an upper-crust English accent. “You must be Mr. O’Neill, the magistrate. I’ve heard a great many good reports about you since I’ve been stationed here.”
“Ah, I take it that you are a member of the British Army, then,” Mr. O’Neill said as he shook hands with the young man.
“Yes, sir. Captain John Carter, 14th King’s Hussars. At your service.”
Mr. O’Neill could hardly suppress a smile at the formality of the address.
“And how, Captain John Carter, may I help you?”
“I would like, with your permission of course, to call upon your daughter Elizabeth.”
“Ah, you would like to speak with Lizzie about what, might I ask?”
“Well sir, I met her at a dance in St. Patrick’s Hall in Castlegorm and I asked at that time if I might call upon her some day and she did not refuse me. So, . . . and I see her motorcycle is here . . .”
“So, you took it to mean she would be willing to see you again socially. I see.” It struck James O’Neill’s funny bone: the idea of Lizzie and a British soldier. He beckoned the young man to accompany him.
“Well then you’d better come into the house with me and I’ll enquire as to whether this was what she meant—or not. Fair enough?”
Mr. O’Neill led the young man into the front hall and back to his office. He invited him to have a seat while he found Lizzie. Deirdre, who happened to be in the kitchen having her after-school cup of tea, looked up as her father came in and closed the door carefully behind him.
“Where’s your mother?”
“Daddy?” She began.
“Shhh!” He cautioned with a finger to his lips. “Believe it or not, there is a member of the British Army of Occupation sitting in my study this minute, and he’s asking to see Lizzie.”
“Is he planning to take her into custody?” Deirdre whispered.
“Quite the opposite, I gather. Says he met her at a dance, got the impression she’d like to see him again, so . . .”
“She did indeed meet a young Captain Carter and taught him how to dance the Charleston. I was there—saw the phenomenon with my own two eyes: rebel teaching enemy some tricky dance steps. However, I can’t even imagine her wanting to see him again—except maybe to put a bullet between his eyes.”
Deirdre had liked the young man too, had even felt a twinge of envy when the young man was so taken by her sister—a girl who despised everything he stood for.
“It’s not up to us to tell the boy what she intends,” Mr. O’Neill said.
“Where do you think she’s been these past weeks? A Girl Guides training camp in the Sperrin Mountains?” Deirdre was surprised how bothered she still was by the envy.
“I don’t want any discussion of such things in my presence.” Her father was irritated that she would break the family silence on such matters. “You’d better go up and tell her she has a visitor.”
He returned to the study where the young man was sitting uncomfortably on the edge of a wingback chair.
“I sent her sister up to ask whether she is available. It’s a very difficult time for her—with her law finals looming. She should be admitted to the Roll soon—as a solicitor,” he added seeing the question forming on the younger man’s face. “The Roll is sort of like the Bar, except for solicitors.”
“Ah, yes. She had mentioned something about that,” Carter said. He omitted to mention that he’d heard this when he’d stopped her motorcycle at an army roadblock.
Just then Lizzie came in. The young man immediately got to his feet. A well-bred boy, her mother would have said.
“Ah, the British dancer!’ Lizzie said as she shook his outstretched hand.
“At your service.” He replied with mock formality.
“Lizzie,” her father interjected. “This young man is under the impression that you invited him to call on you. His name is . . . “
“Daddy, I know who he is, only too well. His name is John Carter, and he’s a captain in His Britannic Majesty’s 14th Harass-the-Irish Regiment—or some such thing,” she teased.
“The Hussars, madam, are now a tank regiment—but, since we have no tanks yet, and they’ve taken away our horses, we drive around in lorries.” He had said all this with an absolutely straight face.
Mr. O’Neill excused himself then with the explanation that a hedge wanted clipping badly before it got too dark.
“So, you belong to His Majesty’s 14th Lorry Regiment,” Lizzie said.
“Precisely, madam,” he said accompanied by a mock-Germanic heel-clicking. “I was wondering if it would be agreeable to you—and your family—if I asked you to accompany me to the Easter Monday dance in St. Patrick’s Hall?”
“Captain Carter,” Lizzie replied shaking her head. “I do not think that that would be a very good idea at all. Let me try to explain why in the kindest possible terms. For you to appear at a dance on the anniversary of the Easter Rising, the day my people rose up to throw off British tyranny . . . . Not only would that not be a safe place for you, but can you begin to imagine what it would mean for the reputation of any young woman seen there with you?”
“Oh, my goodness, I had forgotten completely about the significance of the date. I was so eager to meet you again that when Father McBride announced the dance last Sunday at mass I couldn’t wait to ask if you’d go. I’m sure your mother must have told you that I called while you were away on retreat.”
“You’re a Catholic, then?” Lizzie said. She had assumed that, being English, he would be some brand or other of Protestant. The touch of amazement in her voice was not lost on Carter.
“My mother was born and raised an Irish Catholic in Liverpool, and my father converted when they married. So, I grew up in a very religious home. Liverpool is more than half Irish you know.”
“So where then did this half-Irish Liverpudlian get the toffee accent?”
“A scholarship to Stoneyhurst.”
“Ah, the Jesuits—poor boy joins the Catholic upper classes.”
“So, Miss O’Neill, would it be alright for me to invite you to some other dance—one that won’t get you tarred and feathered by your countrymen?”
“I don’t think that such a thing is possible for the immediate future,” Lizzie said. She had liked this man from the first time she’d set eyes on him at the dance, and the attraction was apparently mutual. Rejecting him was hard but, given her commitment to the struggle against the very things he represented.
He nodded in acceptance of her decision, but when he spoke the fun was gone from his voice. “Is it because I’m English and in the army?”
“Not entirely,” Lizzie replied. “Though it doesn’t help that you’re going about holding us up at roadblocks as though we were the foreigners. Mainly though, it’s a bad time for me to be doing anything social. What with legal work in the office and preparing for my law finals, I have so little spare time.”
Carter stood up then and coming forward held out his hand which Lizzie shook. “It is unfortunate that it was you we stopped and searched that night on the Trenaharron Road,” he said. “But we were operating on information which was apparently flawed. One possibility is that the informant has it in for your family and was acting maliciously.”
“And the other possibility?” Lizzie prompted.
“The other possibility is too ridiculous to even contemplate: that you were involved in treasonable activities.”
“Well then, Captain Carter,” Lizzie said with finality. “I will now walk with you to the middle gate and return to my studies for the Roll Finals.”
“I hope we can meet again, perhaps at some dance,” he suggested as they parted at the middle gates. “And at some better time . . .”
“Yes, I would like that,” Lizzie replied. She shook his hand. She watched till he’d gone through the lower gates where he turned and waved.
I wonder whether and under what circumstances . . . Lizzy thought as she headed into the house.