We're delighted to present an extract from Edith: A Novel, the new book by Martina Devlin, published by The Lilliput Press.
Devlin's novel is based upon the life of Edith Somerville of 'Somerville and Ross' fame, authors of The Irish R.M. It's 1921 and IRA flying columns are breaking into big houses in search of weapons and valuables. Those who resist risk being burned out – or worse. In the middle of the night, republicans force their way into Drishane House in west Cork, home to Edith Somerville and her brother Cameron.
Edith glances at the boy, assessing. This one’s talkative. 'What’s your name?’
A shake of his head. ‘No names. The captain warned us.’ A country voice. Soft-spoken. ‘Where are you from? Kerry?’
‘I’m not allowed to say.’ ‘They say Kerry is rebel country.’ He snuffles. ‘Even the hens lay bullets there. That’s what the captain says.’ ‘A determined sort of a fellow, isn’t he?’ Hero worship flashes from moss-green eyes, their colour emphasised by the black streaks on his face. ‘The captain’s a man that can think things out. I’d follow him to hell and back. He was at the university, above in Dublin, till the Troubles come upon us.’
‘He has death in his eyes. If you stay with him, you’ll end up dead, too.’
‘We give as good as we get. We hit back. Or more, maybe. The captain’ll keep us safe. What’s in the bag, ma’am?’
‘Some jewellery. Your captain can sell it.’
‘Can’t be much in a small-little bag like that. He’ll want more. What else have you got?’
‘Nothing. Look, I don’t doubt you have your reasons, but this will end badly for you. You’re too young to throw your life away. Go home to your family. Your mother must be at her wits’ end with worry.’
‘I have no home. The Tans burned us out. Me an’ the boys, we live like foxes in dugouts or caves.’ He tugs open the drawer she’s closed and pokes around.
‘The drawers are empty. We’re as poor as church mice. All we have are the house and land.’
‘Nobody’s poor that has a house and land.’ His eyes sweep the room and snag on the matching candelabra.
Edith pretends to be alarmed. ‘No,’ she says. ‘They’re family heirlooms.’ In fact, they look more valuable than they are.
‘Too bad.’ He yanks open another drawer, finds a tablecloth and begins to tuck the silverware into its folds, making a sling of the material.
While he’s doing that, Edith tries to prise some information out of him. ‘It must be a tough life for you, always on the move. Don’t you miss sleeping in a bed? Eating a meal without looking over your shoulder?’
‘Freedom can’t be won without some hardship. So the captain says.’ ‘Is he strict, your captain?’ ‘He likes us column men to shave regular, and keep ourselves clean, ma’am. When we can.’ He rubs the shadow on his chin. ‘We haven’t managed too well this past week.’ The boy pulls open a cupboard door and rummages inside, looking for anything of value that’s portable. ‘But how do you manage to bathe if you’re living in dugouts and caves?’ Edith asks. ‘We takes a dip in a stream while one of us keeps a look out.’ ‘And what do you do for towels?’ ‘Roll in the grass.’ He makes an impatient gesture. ‘Enough of that aul’ blarney, now. These candlesticks isn’t enough. Where’s your tin? The captain prefers cash, so he does. Get me tin when you can, says he.’
‘No doubt. But we have none about the place. You can’t draw blood from a stone. Shall we go back?’
‘It’s best to give him what’ll get him to leave. The longer the lads are here, the greater the chances of...something. I dunno. Wouldn’t like to say. But something.’
She finds him a canteen of cutlery and a set of silver-plated egg cups. ‘What else?’ ‘Nothing. I told you, we’ve nothing left to give. You’re not the first Republicans to pay us a social call.’ He rubs the back of his hand against his mouth. She can see he doesn’t have it in him to order her around the way his captain does, or raise his fist to her like the hand grenade man.
‘Have you nothing else? It’s for your own good I’m telling you. This won’t satisfy him.’
Edith’s meets his boy-bright eyes. ‘This is no life for you. Are you trying to be a hero? A martyr for Ireland? Ireland gobbles up blood sacrifices. She’ll suck you dry and spit out your bones. You’ll be as stiff and dead as...’ she gulps, caught in a wave of misery. ‘...Poor Dooley in there.’
He stares at her, pupils widened. ‘The taste of blood gets into your mouth. Once it’s there, nothing shifts it.’
Edith waits. ‘But there’s no going back now. I’ve crossed the line.’ ‘It’s never too late.’ ‘It is. I’ve done things.’ ‘You could emigrate.’ His voice is almost inaudible. ‘They’d never let me go, the others.’ ‘Your friends?’ He clears his throat. ‘I’d never leave them. We’re volunteers.’ Edith feels compelled to recover this boy who’s not yet a man, despite the bravado.
‘I noticed you were limping. Are you injured?’ ‘No, ma’am. Thank God.’ ‘Is it your boots? He looks at them as if surprised to notice them on his feet. ‘I did a swap with me da, the day I left. His were new. He thought he was doing me a favour. But I’m crippled with them.’
‘One of my brothers left a pair here the last time he stayed over. They might fit you.’
She leads him to the boot cupboard. Aylmer’s knee-length hunting boots are near the front. They can hear voices from the kitchen but not the sense of what’s being said. The youth sits on the floor to try on Aylmer’s boots, his face excited, the way a child’s is on Christmas morning.
‘Holy mackerel, ma’am. Are you really giving them to me?’
‘I am.’ Edith notices his socks are soaking. ‘You’ll get chilblains wearing wet socks, you know.’
‘I don’t have a spare pair, ma’am. I did once. Nobody knits like me ma. But I left the spares after me, clearing out by a nose ahead of the Auxies.’
The Auxiliaries, the Black and Tans, the RIC. It’s only a matter of time before military or police catch up with this boy. He feels for his big toe inside the boots, pressing his thumb against the leather. Will he be shot wearing her brother’s riding boots? Or hanged? The odds are against him surviving – she’s wasting the boots. But they may as well go to another as moulder among family debris. Aylmer’s in no hurry to return to Drishane. As the captain has just pointed out, treaty negotiations may be happening in London but the ceasefire is a provisional arrangement.
The boy peeks up at her shyly. ‘Can I ask you something, ma’am?’ ‘Of course.’ ‘I heard something over the summer I’d love to believe, but dunno if I can. They say there was a butterfly found in Clare, striped green, white and orange. The people are calling it the republican butterfly. Could such a thing be true?’
Edith opens her mouth to deny the possibility. The trust on his face makes her pause. ‘Anything’s possible.’
He smiles. Another of the men looms over them. ‘Captain says what the feck’s keeping you?’ The boy scrambles to his feet, lifts the clunking tablecloth and escorts Edith back to the kitchen.
She drops the cloth jewellery bag into the captain’s hand. ‘With my compliments.’
The captain loosens the drawstring, upends the bag and an assortment of paste pieces twinkle in his cupped palm. One after another, he inspects them. Edith’s gaze circumnavigates the room. Has anything changed in her absence? One of the men has a sack at his feet. Her forehead pleats. Mrs O’Shea catches her eye. ‘My kitchen supplies. They’ve helped themselves to what’s in the larder. Like sheet lightning, they were, the speed they stripped the place.’
The captain strolls across to the dresser, and holds a drop earring to the lamplight there. He twirls it between his fingers. With his back to the room, he says, ‘Now, I’m no jeweller, but these don’t strike me as family heirlooms. You can do better than that, Miss Somerville.’
‘They’re all I have left.’
‘She give us these candle sticks, too, captain.’ The boy speaks up. ‘Solid silver, they are. You should feel the weight of them. And some forks and things.’
‘Good work. Nevertheless, I believe the lady can dig a little deeper.’ The captain looks around, spies a newspaper lying beside one of the chairs, and throws it on top of the range. He produces his box of matches and lights the paper. In an instant, it goes up in flames.
Everyone watches. Sparks and blackened embers fly about the kitchen. One of the men laughs.
Edith swallows. ‘If I had any more to give, don’t you think I would, to make you leave? You can’t imagine my brother and I have any wish to prolong this visit.’
‘I’ve no doubt you’d be glad to see the back of us, Miss Somerville. Nevertheless, you don’t strike me as the sort to hand everything over without a fight. Now, here’s what I propose. You and one of my men go up to your bedroom and together the two of you take another look through your knick-knacks. I dare say there’s a few bangles or a watch that may have slipped your mind. Better still if you remember some bank notes.’
‘I must protest! I cannot allow your, your’ – wretches springs to her tongue but she resists it – ‘your men to traipse through my bedroom. It’s private!’
‘My men need arms and ammunition. Your privacy ranks a poor second behind that.’
‘But there’s a truce in place,’ says Cameron. ‘Ah, that’s only all palaver. A breathing space ’til the war’s back on. Now, Miss Somerville, off you toddle and see what you can lay your hands on for us. Or else.’ He thuds his Mauser butt end against the palm of his hand.
Cameron takes a step towards the captain and two rifles swing towards him in unison. ‘This is naked force. You have no authority or right to do this.’
‘We learned it from the English. People like you need to decide where your loyalties lie. Either give your allegiance to the Irish Republic. Or clear out.’
Edith: A Novel is published by The Lilliput Press