OLD JACK raked the cinders together with a piece of cardboard and spread them judiciously over the whitening dome of coals. When the dome was thinly covered his face lapsed into darkness but, as he set himself to fan the fire again, his crouching shadow ascended the opposite wall and his face slowly reemerged into light. It was an old man's face, very bony and hairy. The moist blue eyes blinked at the fire and the moist mouth fell open at times, munching once or twice mechanically when it closed. When the cinders had caught he laid the piece of cardboard against the wall, sighed and said:
"That's better now, Mr. O'Connor."
Mr. O'Connor, a grey-haired young man, whose face was disfigured by many blotches and pimples, had just brought the tobacco for a cigarette into a shapely cylinder but when spoken to he undid his handiwork meditatively. Then he began to roll the tobacco again meditatively and after a moment's thought decided to lick the paper.
"Did Mr. Tierney say when he'd be back?" he asked in a sky falsetto.
"He didn't say."
Mr. O'Connor put his cigarette into his mouth and began search his pockets. He took out a pack of thin pasteboard cards.
"I'll get you a match," said the old man.
"Never mind, this'll do," said Mr. O'Connor.
He selected one of the cards and read what was printed on it:
MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS — — — — — ROYAL EXCHANGE WARD — — — — — Mr. Richard J. Tierney, P.L.G., respectfully solicits the favour of your vote and influence at the coming election in the Royal Exchange Ward.
Mr. O'Connor had been engaged by Tierney's agent to canvass one part of the ward but, as the weather was inclement and his boots let in the wet, he spent a great part of the day sitting by the fire in the Committee Room in Wicklow Street with Jack, the old caretaker. They had been sitting thus since e short day had grown dark. It was the sixth of October, dismal and cold out of doors.
Mr. O'Connor tore a strip off the card and, lighting it, lit his cigarette. As he did so the flame lit up a leaf of dark glossy ivy the lapel of his coat. The old man watched him attentively and then, taking up the piece of cardboard again, began to fan the fire slowly while his companion smoked.
"Ah, yes," he said, continuing, "it's hard to know what way to bring up children. Now who'd think he'd turn out like that! I sent him to the Christian Brothers and I done what I could him, and there he goes boosing about. I tried to make him someway decent."
He replaced the cardboard wearily.
"Only I'm an old man now I'd change his tune for him. I'd take the stick to his back and beat him while I could stand over him — as I done many a time before. The mother, you know, she cocks him up with this and that . . . ."
"That's what ruins children," said Mr. O'Connor.
"To be sure it is," said the old man. "And little thanks you get for it, only impudence. He takes th'upper hand of me whenever he sees I've a sup taken. What's the world coming to when sons speaks that way to their fathers?"
"What age is he?" said Mr. O'Connor.
"Nineteen," said the old man.
"Why don't you put him to something?"
"Sure, amn't I never done at the drunken bowsy ever since he left school? 'I won't keep you,' I says. 'You must get a job for yourself.' But, sure, it's worse whenever he gets a job; he drinks it all."
Mr. O'Connor shook his head in sympathy, and the old man fell silent, gazing into the fire. Someone opened the door of the room and called out:
"Hello! Is this a Freemason's meeting?"
"Who's that?" said the old man.
"What are you doing in the dark?" asked a voice.
"Is that you, Hynes?" asked Mr. O'Connor.
"Yes. What are you doing in the dark?" said Mr. Hynes. advancing into the light of the fire.
He was a tall, slender young man with a light brown moustache. Imminent little drops of rain hung at the brim of his hat and the collar of his jacket-coat was turned up.
"Well, Mat," he said to Mr. O'Connor, "how goes it?"
Mr. O'Connor shook his head. The old man left the hearth and after stumbling about the room returned with two candlesticks which he thrust one after the other into the fire and carried to the table. A denuded room came into view and the fire lost all its cheerful colour. The walls of the room were bare except for a copy of an election address. In the middle of the room was a small table on which papers were heaped.
Mr. Hynes leaned against the mantelpiece and asked:
"Has he paid you yet?"
"Not yet," said Mr. O'Connor. "I hope to God he'll not leave us in the lurch tonight."
Mr. Hynes laughed.
"O, he'll pay you. Never fear," he said.
"I hope he'll look smart about it if he means business," said Mr. O'Connor.
"What do you think, Jack?" said Mr. Hynes satirically to the old man.
The old man returned to his seat by the fire, saying:
"It isn't but he has it, anyway. Not like the other tinker."
"What other tinker?" said Mr. Hynes.
"Colgan," said the old man scornfully.
"It is because Colgan's a working — man you say that? What's the difference between a good honest bricklayer and a publican — eh? Hasn't the working-man as good a right to be in the Corporation as anyone else — ay, and a better right than those shoneens that are always hat in hand before any fellow with a handle to his name? Isn't that so, Mat?" said Mr. Hynes, addressing Mr. O'Connor.