His Reverence looked at him thoughtfully. Then he drew out his watch. 'Yes,' he said, 'there's time enough, and I think you're right, my lad. Just step outside while I speak to her, for I see she's coming to.'
The young man whispered: 'God bless you, Father! If I waited till to-morrow I'd never put the ring on her. I know the pride of her.' And then he went out obediently.
No one knew how Father Tiernay persuaded Mauryeen. But a little while later a very pale bride stood up at the altar of Columb Island Chapel, and was married, with Father Tiernay's housekeeper and the sacristan for witnesses.
When they were married Father Tiernay said to the bridegroom: 'Take her home by the back road. You won't meet a soul, and I'll tell the people when I join them what has been done. But above all, impress on her that the story is a wicked lie.'
So Mauryeen went home with her husband to his little cottage on the cliffs. And in the afternoon, when Father Tiernay came to distribute the prizes and to merry-make with his people, he raised his hand for silence and addressed them.
'Children,' he said, 'I hear there has been a grave scandal among you, and a great sin committed before you this day. The wicked sought to crush the innocent, as I believe, by bearing false witness, but the wicked has not triumphed. A few hours ago I made Randal Burke and Mauryeen Daly man and wife. And I give you solemn warning that the one who gives ear and belief to the story of the miserable woman who dishonoured herself to crush her innocent flesh and blood, shares in that unnatural guilt.'
So after a time Mauryeen crept back to the sunshine, and let herself be persuaded that her mother was mad. No one on the Island saw Ellen Daly again; they said she had crossed to the mainland by the afternoon ferry. She never came back, and there were some in the Island who believed she had sold her soul to the devil, and that he had claimed her fulfilment of the compact. But Mauryeen is an honest man's wife, and whatever people may conjecture in their inmost hearts as to the truth or falsity of her mother's tale, they say nothing, for did not Father Tiernay declare such gossip to be a sin? But for all that Mauryeen's ways are finer and gentler than those of any woman in the Island.
Mike Sheehan tossed awake in the moonlight. The gulls were quiet, and there was no noise in the night save the sound that had rocked his cradle—the Atlantic foaming up the narrow ravine before his door, and withdrawing itself with a loud sucking noise. The cabin was perched on a bleached hillside. A stony, narrow path went by the door and climbed the ravine to the world; a bed of slaty rock slanted sheer below it to the white tossing water. A dangerous place for any one to pass unless he had his eyes and his wits well about him; but Mike Sheehan was such a one, for he had the eye of the eagle over Muckross, he could climb like the mountain goat, and could carry his drink so well that no man ever saw him less than clear-headed.
Mike, with his six-feet-six of manhood, was well in request at the country gatherings. But of late, said the folk, the man had turned queer: in that melancholy, stately country by the sea, madness—especially of the quiet, melancholic kind—is a thing very common. A year ago a wrestling match between him and Jack Kinsella had gathered two counties to see it. No man could say which was the champion. Now one was the victor, again the other. They kept steady pace in their victories. Jack was captain of the Kilsallagh team of hurlers, Mike of the Clonegall. No one could say which captain led his team oftenest to victory. The men had begun by being friends, and their equality at first had only made them genial laughter. The wrestling was on Sunday, after mass, in a quiet green place at the back of the churchyard. The backers of the two champions took fire at the rivalry long before the men themselves. That would be a great day for the men and women of his following, when either champion should decisively lead. But the day seemed ever receding in the future, and no one could say which was the better man. June came, when not only the hurling, but the wrestling, had its thin fringe of female spectators perched on the low wall of the churchyard—girls mainly, with little shawls over their soft hair, and their little bare feet tucked demurely under their petticoats.
The country people scarcely guessed at the time their two champions became enemies. Indeed, it was a secret locked in their own breasts, scarcely acknowledged even when in his most hidden moments each man looked at the desires of his heart. It only showed itself in a new fierceness and determination in their encounters. Each had sworn to himself to conquer the other. The soreness between them came about when by some sad mischance they fell in love with the same girl. Worse luck, she wanted neither of them, for she was vowed to the convent: the last feminine creature on earth for these two great fighters to think of, with her soft, pure eyes, her slender height, and her pale cheeks. Any girl in the country might have jumped at either man, and she, who wanted neither, had their hearts at her feet. She was shy and gentle, and never repelled them so decisively as to make them give up hope. In the long run one or the other might have tempted her to an earthly bridal; but she made no choice between them; and each man's chance seemed about equal when she slipped from them both into Kilbride churchyard. When she lay there neither man could say she had distinguished him by special kindness from the other. And their rivalry waxed more furious with the woman in her grave.
But six months later, and their battles still undecided, Jack Kinsella fell sick and followed Ellen to Kilbride. Then Mike Sheehan was without an equal for many miles. But little comfort it was to him, with the girl of his heart dead, and the one man he had desired to overthrow dead and unconquered. He secluded himself from the sports and pastimes, and lived lonely in his cabin among the gulls, eating out his unsatisfied heart. Somehow it seemed to him that at the last his rival had cheated him, slipping into the kingdom of souls hard on the track of those slender feet he had desired to make his own. At times he hated him because he had died unconquered; yet again, he had a hot desire upon him, not all ungenerous, for the old days when he met those great thews and sinews in heavy grips—when the mighty hands of the other had held him, the huge limbs embraced him; and his eyes would grow full of the passion of fight and the desire of battle. None other would satisfy him to wrestle with but his dead rival, and indeed he in common with the country people thought that no other might be found fit for him to meet.
Kilbride churchyard is high on the mainland, and lies dark within its four stone walls. The road to it is by a tunnel of trees that make a shade velvety black even when the moon is turning all the sea silver. The churchyard is very old, and has no monuments of importance: only green headstones bent sideways and sunk to their neck and shoulders in the earth. A postern gate, with a flight of stone steps, opens from Kilbride Lane. Here every night you may see the ghost of Cody the murderer, climbing those steps with a rigid burden hanging from his shoulder.
But as Mike Sheehan ascended the steps out of the midnight dark he felt no fear. He clanged the gate of the sacred quiet place in a way that set the silence echoing. The moon was high overhead, and was shining straight down on the square enclosure with its little heaped mounds and ancient stones. Some mad passion was on Mike Sheehan surely, or he would not so have desecrated the quiet resting-place of the dead. There by the ruined gable of the old abbey was a fresh mound unusually great in size. Mike Sheehan paused by it. 'Jack!' he cried in a thunderous voice, hoarse with its passion. 'Come! let us once for all see which is the better man. Come and fight me, Jack, and if you throw me let Ellen be yours now and for ever!'
The blood was in his eyes, and the sea-mist curling in from sea. His challenge spoken, he swayed dizzily a moment. Then his eyes saw. The place seemed full of the sea-mist silvered through with the moon. As he looked to right and left substantial things vanished, but he saw all about him in a ring long rows of shadowy faces watching him. Many of them he knew. They were the boys and girls, the men and women, of his own village who had died in many years. Others were strange, but he guessed them ghosts from Kilsallagh, beyond Roscarbery, the village where Jack used to live. He looked eagerly among the folk he remembered for Ellen's face. There was one who might be she, the ghost of a woman veiled in her shadowy hair, whose eyes he could not see. And then Jack was upon him.
That was a great wrestling in Kilbride churchyard. The dead man wound about the living with his clay-cold limbs, caught him in icy grips that froze the terrified blood from his heart, and breathed upon him soundlessly a chill breath of the grave that seemed to wither him. Yet Mike fought furiously, as one who fights not only to satisfy a hate, but as one who fights to gain a love. He had a dim knowledge of the fight he was making, a dim premonition that the dead man was more than his match. The ghostly spectators pressed round more eagerly, their shadowy faces peered, their shadowy forms swayed in the mist. The ghost had Mike Sheehan in a death-grip. His arms were imprisoned, his breath failed, his flesh crept, and his hair stood up. He felt himself dying of the horror of this unnatural combat, when there was a whisper at his ear. Dimly he seemed to hear Ellen's voice; dimly turning his failing eyes he seemed to recognise her eyes under the veil of ashen fair hair. 'Draw him to the left on the grass,' said the voice, 'and trip him.' His old love and his old jealousy surged up in Mike Sheehan. With a tremendous effort he threw off those paralysing arms. Forgetting his horror he furiously embraced the dead, drew him to the left on the grass, slippery as glass after the summer heats, for a second or two swayed with him to and fro; then the two went down together with a great violence, but Mike Sheehan was uppermost, his knee on the dead man's breast.
When he came to himself in the moonlight, all was calm and peaceful. An owl hooted from the ruined gable, and from far away came the bark of a watch-dog, but the graveyard kept its everlasting slumber. Mike Sheehan was drenched with the dews as he stood up stiffly from Jack Kinsella's grave, upon which he had been lying. It was close upon dawn, and the moon was very low. He looked about him at the quietness. Another man might have thought he had but dreamt it; not so Mike Sheehan. He remembered with a fierce joy how he had flung the ghost and how Ellen had been on his side. 'You're mine now, asthoreen,' he said in a passionate apostrophe to her, 'and 'tis I could find it in my heart to pity him that's lying there and has lost you. He was the fair fighter ever and always, and now he'll acknowledge me for the better man.' And then he added, as if to himself, 'Poor Jack! I wish I'd flung him on the broken ground and not on the slippery grass. 'Tis then I'd feel myself that I was the better man.'
THE SEA'S DEAD
In Achill it was dreary wet weather—one of innumerable wet summers that blight the potatoes and blacken the hay and mildew the few oats and rot the poor cabin roofs. The air smoked all day with rain mixed with the fine salt spray from the ocean. Out of doors everything shivered and was disconsolate. Only the bog prospered, basking its length in water, and mirroring Croghan and Slievemore with the smoky clouds incessantly wreathing about their foreheads, or drifting like ragged wisps of muslin down their sides to the clustering cabins more desolate than a deserted nest. Inland from the sheer ocean cliffs the place seemed all bog; the little bits of earth the people had reclaimed were washed back into the bog, the gray bents and rimy grasses that alone flourished drank their fill of the water, and were glad. There was a grief and trouble on all the Island. Scarce a cabin in the queer straggling villages but had desolation sitting by its hearth. It was only a few weeks ago that the hooker had capsized crossing to Westport, and the famine that is always stalking ghost-like in Achill was forgotten in the contemplation of new graves. The Island was full of widows and orphans and bereaved old people; there was scarce a window sill in Achill by which the banshee had not cried.
Where all were in trouble there were few to go about with comfort. Moya Lavelle shut herself up in the cabin her husband Patrick had built, and dreed her weird alone. Of all the boys who had gone down with the hooker none was finer than Patrick Lavelle. He was brown and handsome, broad-shouldered and clever, and he had the good-humoured smile and the kindly word where the people are normally taciturn and unsmiling. The Island girls were disappointed when Patrick brought a wife from the mainland, and Moya never tried to make friends with them. She was something of a mystery to the Achill people, this small moony creature, with her silver fair hair, and strange light eyes, the colour of spilt milk. She was as small as a child, but had the gravity of a woman. She loved the sea with a love unusual in Achill, where the sea is to many a ravening monster that has exacted in return for its hauls of fish the life of husband and son. Patrick Lavelle had built for her a snug cabin in a sheltered ravine. A little beach ran down in front of it where he could haul up his boat. The cabin was built strongly, as it had need to be, for often of a winter night the waves tore against its little windows. Moya loved the fury of the elements, and when the winter storms drove the Atlantic up the ravine with a loud bellowing, she stirred in sleep on her husband's shoulder, and smiled as they say children smile in sleep when an angel leans over them.
Higher still, on a spur of rock, Patrick Lavelle had laid the clay for his potatoes. He had carried it on his shoulders, every clod, and Moya had gathered the seaweed to fertilise it. She had her small garden there, too, of sea-pinks and the like, which rather encouraged the Islanders in their opinion of her strangeness. In Achill the struggle for life is too keen to admit of any love for mere beauty.
However, Patrick Lavelle was quite satisfied with his little wife. When he came home from the fishing he found his cabin more comfortable than is often the case in Achill. They had no child, but Moya never seemed to miss a child's head at her breast. Daring the hours of his absence at the fishing she seemed to find the sea sufficient company. She was always roaming along the cliffs, gazing down as with a fearful fascination along the black sides to where the waves churned hundreds of feet below. For company she had only the seagulls and the bald eagle that screamed far over her head; but she was quite happy as she roamed hither and thither, gathering the coloured seaweeds out of the clefts of the rocks, and crooning an old song softly to herself, as a child might do.
But that was all over and gone, and Moya was a widow. She had nothing warm and human at all, now that brave protecting tenderness was gone from her. No one came to the little cabin in the ravine where Moya sat and moaned, and stretched her arms all day for the dear brown head she had last seen stained with the salt water and matted with the seaweeds. At night she went out, and wandered moon-struck by the black cliffs, and cried out for Patrick, while the shrilling gusts of wind blew her pale hair about her, and scourged her fevered face with the sea salt and the sharp hail.
One night a great wave broke over Achill. None had seen it coming, with great crawling leaps like a serpent, but at dead of night it leaped the land, and hissed on the cottage hearths and weltered gray about the mud floors. The next day broke on ruin in Achill. The bits of fields were washed away, the little mountain sheep were drowned, the cabins were flung in ruined heaps; but the day was fair and sunny, as if the elements were tired of the havoc they had wrought and were minded to be in a good humour. There was not a boat on the Island but had been battered and torn by the rocks. People had to take their heads out of their hands, and stand up from their brooding, or this wanton mischief would cost them their dear lives, for the poor resources of the Island had given out, and the Islanders were in grips with starvation.
No one thought of Moya Lavelle in her lonely cabin in the ravine. None knew of the feverish vigils in those wild nights. But a day or two later the sea washed her on a stretch of beach to the very doors of a few straggling cabins dotted here and there beyond the irregular village. She had been carried out to sea that night, but the sea, though it had snatched her to itself, had not battered and bruised her. She lay there, indeed, like that blessed Restituta, whom, for her faith, the tyrant sent bound on a rotting hulk, with the outward tide from Carthage, to die on the untracked ocean. She lay like a child smiling in dreams, all her long silver hair about her, and her wide eyes gazing with no such horror, as of one who meets a violent death. Those who found her so wept to behold her.
They carried her to her cottage in the ravine, and waked her. Even in Achill they omit no funeral ceremony. They dressed her in white and put a cross in her hand, and about her face on the pillow they set the sea-pinks from her little garden, and some of the coloured seaweeds she had loved to gather. They lit candles at her head and feet, and the women watched with her all day, and at night the men came in, and they talked and told stories, subdued stories and ghostly, of the banshee and the death-watch, and wraiths of them gone that rise from the sea to warn fishermen of approaching death. Gaiety there was none: the Islanders had no heart for gaiety: but the pipes and tobacco were there, and the plate of snuff, and the jar of poteen to lift up the heavy hearts. And Moya lay like an image wrought of silver, her lids kept down by coins over her blue eyes.
She had lain so two nights, nights of starlit calm. On the fourth day they were to bury her beside Patrick Lavelle in his narrow house, and the little bridal cabin would be abandoned, and presently would rot to ruins. The third night had come, overcast with heavy clouds. The group gathered in the death chamber was more silent than before. Some had sat up the two nights, and were now dazed with sleep. By the wall the old women nodded over their beads, and a group of men talked quietly at the bed-head where Moya lay illumined by the splendour of the four candles all shining on her white garments.
Suddenly in the quietness there came a roar of wind. It did not come freshening from afar off, but seemed to waken suddenly in the ravine and cry about the house. The folk sprang to their feet startled, and the eyes of many turned towards the little dark window, expecting to see wild eyes and a pale face set in black hair gazing in. Some who were nearest saw in the half-light—for it was whitening towards day—a wall of gray water travelling up the ravine. Before they could cry a warning it had encompassed the house, had driven door and window before it, and the living and the dead were in the sea.
The wave retreated harmlessly, and in a few minutes the frightened folk were on their feet amid the wreck of stools and tables floating. The wave that had beaten them to earth had extinguished the lights. When they stumbled to their feet and got the water out of their eyes the dim dawn was in the room. They were too scared for a few minutes to think of the dead. When they recovered and turned towards the bed there was a simultaneous loud cry. Moya Lavelle was gone. The wave had carried her away, and never more was there tale or tidings of her body.
Achill people said she belonged to the sea, and the sea had claimed her. They remembered Patrick Lavelle's silence as to where he had found her. They remembered a thousand unearthly ways in her; and which of them had ever seen her pray? They pray well in Achill, having a sure hold on that heavenly country which is to atone for the cruelty and sorrow of this. In process of time they will come to think of her as a mermaid, poor little Moya. She had loved her husband at least with a warm human love. But his open grave was filled after they had given up hoping that the sea would again give her up, and the place by Patrick Lavelle's side remains for ever empty.
The little house where Katie lived was over the fields. She was a dimpled, brown child, as soft as the yellow ducklings she used to carry in her pinafore. Her little fat shoulders were bare as I remember them, and you could see the line where the sunburn ended with her frock and the whiteness began. She was the late child of a long-married couple, vouchsafed long after they had given up hopes of a living child.
Her mother was an angular woman who walked a little crookedly, throwing one hip into ungainly prominence as she went. Her face, too, was brown as a russet apple, with a pleasant hard redness on the cheeks. She had white teeth, brown eyes, and an honest expression. But people said she was a difficult woman to live with. She had extreme ideas of her own importance, especially since the honest fellow she was married to had become steward to his master, a 'strong farmer,' as they say in Ireland, and the owner of broad acres. She expected a certain deference from the folk she had grown up amongst, and who were often not quite inclined to yield it. In a sense she was a fortunate woman, for her good man was as much a lover as in the days when he had come whistling his lover's signal, like any blackbird, to call her out from her mother's chimney-corner. She told me about those days herself when I was but a callow girl. I don't know why, except from some spirit of romance in her, which she could not reveal to folk of her own age and circumstances. She was the mother of many dead babies, for never a one had lived but Katie; but the romance of her marriage was still new. I remember one summer evening, when the low sun shone between the slats of her dairy window, and I, on a creepy stool by the wall, alternately read The Arabian Nights and talked to her while she gathered the butter from the churn, that her man came in, and, not seeing me in the shadow, drew her head back and kissed her brown face and head with a passion not all common after courting days.
The house was by the roadside, only shut off by its own garden-wall and a high gate, which it was comfortable to lock of winter evenings. There were two small rooms in it beside the kitchen and the dairy, and a loft reached by a ladder, wherein to store many a sack of potatoes, or wood for the winter firing. The kitchen was very pleasant, with its two square windows full of geraniums in bloom, the pictures of saints on its white-washed walls, the chimney-piece with its china shepherdesses and dogs, and the dresser with a very fine show of crockery. There was always a sweet smell of cream there from the dairy, which opened on one side. The two rooms went off each side of the fire-place. The walls were cleanly white-washed, the tiled floor ochred; altogether it was a charming little house for love to build a home in.
Little Katie, precious as she was, roamed at her own sweet will. No harm could come to her in the fields where she strayed. She was home-keeping, and never went far from her own doorstep; nor need she for variety. On one side of the field there was a violet bank, mossy, and hung over with thorn trees. Under the thorns it was possible to hide as within a greenhouse, and children love such make-believe. On the other side of the bank was a steep descent to a tiny stream prattling over shining stones; and fox-gloves grew in the water with the meadow orchis, and many other water-loving flowers. That field was a meadow every year, and once hidden between the hedge and the meadow-grasses a child was invisible to all but the bright-eyed birds, who themselves have a taste for such mysteries, and the corn-crake, which one thinks of as only half bird, that scuttled on Katie's approach down one of a million aisles of seeding brown grasses.
Then on the other side of the field there was a deep, dry ditch under great curtains of blackberry bushes, which in autumn bore luscious fruit. And by Katie's door, if she would sit in the sun, was a primrose bank, about which the hens stalked and clucked with their long-legged chickens or much prettier ducklings. Katie did not want for playmates. She had none of her own kind, but was sociable to the fowl and the pig in his stye, and the white and red cattle that browsed in the pastures. She held long colloquies with the creatures all day, and if it rained would fetch her stool into an out-house which the hens frequented.
But her grand playmate, the confidant and abettor of all her games, was a placid motherly cat, which had grown up with Katie. A good-natured workman had fetched the pretty brindled kitten from the city, and had made an offering of it at the baby's cradle. Katie with almost her first words called the cat after him. Pussy Hogan was the brindle's name to her dying day. When I hear people say that cats have no attachment for people I always make a mental reservation in Pussy Hogan's favour. No dog could have shown a more faithful and moving devotion. Katie's instincts in the direction of cleanliness led her to wash Pussy Hogan in her kittenish days, till she was come to an age for performing her own ablutions with the requisite care. Many a time have I seen the child washing the kitten in soap-suds, and setting her to dry on the primrose bank, which was in the face of the southern sun, and there with admirable patience the creature would lie, paws extended, till her little mistress deemed she was dry enough to get up from her bleaching.
But Pussy Hogan grew a handsome, stately, well-furred cat, despite her washings; and it was pretty to see her stalking at the child's heels everywhere, with much the same responsible air that a serious dog might assume. For all her gravity, she was not above understanding and enjoying those games under the hedgerows, when Katie set up house, and made banquets with broken bits of crockery, to which she entertained her admiring friend. Even in the winter the cat trotted about over snow and leaped roaring gullies, in attendance on her hardy little mistress; as in summer she followed her to the evening milking, where as a special favour Katie was permitted, with her dimpled fingers, to draw a few spirts of the sweet-smelling milk.
They were beginning to discuss Katie's schooling when she fell ill. The grown people thought school would come hard upon her, she had been so used to a life in the open air. She was very babyish too, even for her age, though there were many younger than she perched on that platform of steps in the Convent Infant School—pupils, so little and drowsy-headed that two or three special couches had to be retained close by to receive those who from time to time toppled off their perch. I remember asking if Katie would take the cat to school, after the manner of Mary and her lamb in the rhyme. I make no doubt Pussy Hogan would have attempted the Irish mile of distance to the school every day, if there were not pressure brought to bear to keep her at home. However, the child was attacked by that horrible dread of mothers, the croup. She was just the one to succumb, being a little round ball of soft flesh. She only fought it a day and night, lifting up her poor little hands to her straining throat incessantly. In less than thirty-six hours Katie was dead.
Her mother took it in a blank stupor. She scarcely seemed to heed the friends who came and went, the Sisters of Mercy, in their black bonnets and cloaks, the priest with his attempts at comfort. Her husband sat by her those days, his eyes turning from the heart-breaking face of his wife to the brown baby on the bed, as piteous as a frozen robin. After the funeral the mother went about her usual occupations. She milked the cow, fed the hens, churned, swept, and baked as of old. Yet she did all those things as with a broken heart, and it would have been less dreadful in a way to see her sitting with folded hands. She was incessantly weeping in those months that followed Katie's death. One would have thought that her eyes would be drained dry, but still the tears followed each other all day long, and no one seemed able to comfort her. It was wretched enough for her husband, poor fellow, coming home of an evening from his work, but he did all unwearying patience could do to comfort her.
The only desire she seemed to have in those days was that she might keep Katie's pussy with her, but that was not gratified. The cat had moped and fretted greatly during the child's short illness, and had cried distressingly about the house when Katie lay dead. Then after the funeral had gone she had turned her back on the desolate house, and had walked across the couple of fields that separated it from the farmhouse. She came into the big airy kitchen that July day with so evident an intention of remaining that no one disputed her right. Once she had a sudden impulse to go and seek her little mistress, and went running and leaping over the long pastures to the low white house. They said it was the thing that wakened Katie's mother from the first merciful stupor of her bereavement, the cat running in and moaning piteously about the empty rooms, and the places where they had played their jolly games. They said she inspected every possible place where the child might be hiding, turning again and again, after moments of disappointed bewilderment, to a new search. At last she gave it up, and seemed to realise that Katie was gone. She turned then and trotted back quickly to the farmhouse, from whence no one's coaxing afterwards could bring her. Every one wanted that the poor mother should have her as she seemed to crave, but the cat would not; she escaped over and over from her captors, and at last we gave up trying to constrain her, though her desertion seemed a new cruelty to the stricken woman across the fields.
I don't know how many months the mother's weeping went on. It was a day close upon Christmas when I opened the half-door and went in and saw, for the first time since the child's death, that her eyes were dry. She was making bread at a table under the window, and her face had grown wonderfully calm since I had last seen her. I made no remark, but she led up to the subject herself, with a pathetic, wintry smile.
'You remember the poem you read to me one day, miss,' she said, 'about the dead child that couldn't be glad in heaven because its mother's crying wet its fine dress?' I remembered perfectly; it was my poor little way of trying to insinuate some comfort, for like many of her class in Ireland, she loved poetry. 'Well,' she went on, 'I've been thinking a power over it since. Who knows but that there might be the truth behind it?' I nodded assent. 'Now there's Christmas coming,' she said, 'and I think that would be a fine time for the children in heaven, so I'm not going to spoil Katie's glory among them.'
She didn't say much more after this curious little bit of confidence, but it was a comfort to every one when she left off crying. Her husband was rejoiced at the change. He began to build on it that presently she would be cheerful once more, and they would be quite happy again; for a man doesn't miss a child as a woman does, and, dear as his little Katie was, the love of his boyhood was yet spared to him, and could still make earth paradise if she would.
However, there was a new cause for apprehension in those latter days. I remember that the women shook their heads and looked gloomy when it came to be known that Katie's mother was likely to have a baby in the spring. She had been very ill before, and after this long interval and all the trouble things were not likely to go easier with her. I know the old doctor, who was kind and fatherly, and had been full of sorrow about Katie, seemed vexed at the new turn of affairs. I heard him telling a matron much in his confidence that he wouldn't answer for the woman's life.
She herself plucked up heart from the time she was certain that the baby was coming. I don't think now that she expected to live through it. She probably thought that through that gate she would rejoin Katie. She was very sweet to her husband in those days, very gentle and considerate to the neighbours, to whom she had often been peevish and haughty in old times. Many a one changed their former opinion of her that winter, and her kindness made kindness for her. This neighbour would often help her at the washing-tub, and that would send her grown boy in at dinner-time to see if Katie's mother wanted wood chopped or water carried. I am always glad to think of those four or five months, when a great calm, as it seems to me, settled down on the little house in the fields.
The baby was born in April—dead, as people had feared. It was a boy, and had died in being born. They said the little waxen image bore traces of a pathetic struggle for life. As for the mother, she never rallied at all; I think she would not. She passed away quite calmly, with not a flutter of the eyelids to answer her husband, who prayed for a parting word from her.
They sleep together, mother and children, in Kilbride, in the shadow of a great thorn-bush, and not far from St. Brigid's Tower. Lonely and far as the churchyard is, there is not a Sunday in the year that the husband and father does not find his way there after mass, trudging along that solitary way, between bare hedges or blooming, as faithfully as the day comes round. All those things were over a dozen years ago, and he is married again, to a spare, unattractive woman, who looks after his food and clothes, and makes him in her way a very excellent wife. She was long past middle age when he married her and took her out of service. But there was no pretence of love-making about it. She would be the first herself to tell you that her man's heart was in Kilbride. She said to me once: 'He's a good man to me, and I'm glad to do my duty by him; but if you talked to him about his wife he'd think you meant Kitty, God rest her! Men's seconds, miss, don't count.'
She said it in a simple, open-faced way, but I thought there was a homely tragedy concealed behind it. I am sure that in the heaven, of which those Irish peasants think as confidently as of the next room, he will forget all about poor hard-working Margaret, and will look with eager eyes for the love of his youth.
THE DEATH SPANCEL
High up among the dusty rafters of Aughagree Chapel dangles a thin shrivelled thing, towards which the people look shudderingly when the sermon is of the terrors of the Judgment and the everlasting fire. The woman from whose dead body that was taken chose the death of the soul in return for a life with the man whom she loved with an unholy passion. Every man, woman, and child in that chapel amid gray miles of rock and sea-drift, has heard over and over of the unrepentant deathbed of Mauryeen Holion. They whisper on winter nights of how Father Hugh fought with the demons for her soul, how the sweat poured from his forehead, and he lay on his face in an agony of tears, beseeching that the sinner whom he had admitted into the fold of Christ should yet be saved. But of her love and her sin she had no repentance, and the servants in Rossatorc Castle said that as the priest lay exhausted from his vain supplications, and the rattle was in Dark Mauryeen's throat, there were cries of mocking laughter in the air above the castle, and a strange screaming and flapping of great wings, like to, but incomparably greater than, the screaming and flapping of the eagle over Slieve League. That devil's charm up there in the rafters of Aughagree is the death-spancel by which Dark Mauryeen bound Sir Robert Molyneux to her love. It is of such power that no man born of woman can resist it, save by the power of the Cross, and 'twas little Robert Molyneux of Rossatorc recked of the sweet Christ who perished that men should live—against whose Cross the demons of earth and the demons of air, the malevolent spirits that lurk in water and wind, and all witches and evil doctors, are powerless. But the thought of the death-spancel must have come straight from the King of Fiends himself, for who else would harden the human heart to desecrate a new grave, and to cut from the helpless dead the strip of skin unbroken from head to heel which is the death-spancel? Very terrible is the passion of love when it takes full possession of a human heart, and no surer weapon to the hand of Satan when he would make a soul his own. And there is the visible sign of a lost soul, and it had nearly been of two, hanging harmlessly in the rafters of the holy place. A strange thing to see where the lamp of the sanctuary burns, and the sea-wind sighs sweetly through the door ever open for the continual worshippers.
* * * * *
Sir Robert Molyneux was a devil-may-care, sporting squire, with the sins of his class to his account. He drank, and gambled, and rioted, and oppressed his people that they might supply his pleasures; nor was that all, for he had sent the daughter of honest people in shame and sorrow over the sea. People muttered when they heard he was to marry Lord Dunlough's daughter, that she would be taking another woman's place; but it was said yet again that it would be well for his tenants when he was married, for the lady was so kind and charitable, so gentle and pure, that her name was loved for many a mile. She had never heard the shameful story of that forlorn girl sailing away and away in the sea-mist, with her unborn child, to perish miserably, body and soul, in the streets of New York. She had the strange love of a pure woman for a wild liver; and she thought fondly when she caressed his fine, jolly, handsome face that soon his soul as well as his dear body would be in her keeping: and what safe keeping it would be.
Sir Robert had ever a free way with women of a class below his own, and he did not find it easy to relinquish it. When he was with the Lady Eva he felt that under those innocent, loving eyes a man could have no desire for a lesser thing than her love; but when he rode away, the first pretty girl he met on the road he held in chat that ended with a kiss. He was always for kissing a pretty face, and found the habit hard to break, though there were times when he stamped and swore great oaths to himself that he would again kiss no woman's lips but his wife's—for the man had the germ of good in him.
It was a fortnight to his wedding day, and he had had a hard day's hunting. From early morning to dewy eve they had been at it, for the fox was an old one and had led the dogs many a dance before this. He turned homeward with a friend, splashed and weary, but happy and with the appetite of a hunter. Well for him if he had never set foot in that house. As he came down the stairs fresh and shining from his bath, he caught sight of a girl's dark handsome face on the staircase. She was one of the servants, and she stood aside to let him pass, but that was never Robert Molyneux's way with a woman. He flung his arm round her waist in a way so many poor girls had found irresistible. For a minute or two he looked in her dark splendid eyes; but then as he bent lightly to kiss her, she tore herself from him with a cry and ran away into the darkness.
He slept heavily that night, the dead sleep of a man who has hunted all day and has drunk deep in the evening. In the morning he awoke sick and sorry, a strange mood for Robert Molyneux; but from midnight to dawn he had lain with the death-spancel about his knees. In the blackness of his mind he had a great longing for the sweet woman, his love for whom awakened all that was good in him. His horse had fallen lame, but after breakfast he asked his host to order out a carriage that he might go to her. Once with her he thought all would be well. Yet as he stood on the doorstep he had a strange reluctance to go.
It was a drear, gray, miserable day, with sleet pattering against the carriage windows. Robert Molyneux sat with his head bent almost to his knees, and his hands clenched. What face was it rose against his mind, continually blotting out the fair and sweet face of his love? It was the dark, handsome face of the woman he had met on the stairs last night. Some sudden passion for her rose as strong as hell-fire in his breast. There were many long miles between him and Eva, and his desire for the dark woman raged stronger and ever stronger in him. It was as if ropes were around his heart dragging it backward. He fell on his knees in the carriage, and sobbed. If he had known how to pray he would have prayed, for he was torn in two between the desire of his heart for the dark woman, and the longing of his soul for the fair woman. Again and again he started up to call the coachman to turn back; again and again he flung himself in the bottom of the carriage, and hid his face and struggled with the curse that had come upon him. And every mile brought him nearer to Eva and safety.
The coachman drove on in the teeth of the sleet and wondered what Sir Robert would give him at the drive's end. A half-sovereign would not be too much for so open-handed a gentleman, and one so near his wedding; and the coachman, already feeling his hand close upon it, turned a brave face to the sleet and tried not to think of the warm fire in the harness-room from which they had called him to drive Sir Robert.
Half the distance was gone when he heard a voice from the carriage window calling him. He turned round. 'Back! Back!' said the voice. 'Drive like hell! I will give you a sovereign if you do it under an hour.' The coachman was amazed, but a sovereign is better than a half-sovereign. He turned his bewildered horses for home.
Robert Molyneux's struggle was over. Eva's face was gone now altogether. He only felt a mad joy in yielding, and a wild desire for the minutes to pass till he had traversed that gray road back. The coachman drove hard and his horses were flecked with foam, but from the windows Robert Molyneux kept continually urging him, offering him greater and greater rewards for his doing the journey with all speed.
Half way up the cypress avenue to his friend's house a woman with a shawl about her head glided from the shadow and signalled to the darkly flushed face at the carriage window. Robert Molyneux shouted to the man to stop. He sprang from the carriage and lifted the woman in. Then he flung the coachman a handful of gold and silver. 'To Rossatorc,' he said, and the man turned round and once more whipped up his tired horses. The woman laughed as Robert Molyneux caught her in his arms. It was the fierce laughter of the lost. 'I came to meet you,' she said, 'because I knew you must come.'
From that day, when Robert Molyneux led the woman over the threshold of his house, he was seen no more in the usual places of his fellow-men. He refused to see any one who came. His wedding-day passed by. Lord Dunlough had ridden furiously to have an explanation with the fellow and to horsewhip him when that was done, but he found the great door of Rossatorc closed in his face. Every one knew Robert Molyneux was living in shame with Mauryeen Holion. Lady Eva grew pale and paler, and drooped and withered in sorrow and shame, and presently her father took her away, and their house was left to servants. Burly neighbouring squires rode up and knocked with their riding-whips at Rossatorc door to remonstrate with Robert Molyneux, for his father's sake or for his own, but met no answer. All the servants were gone except a furtive-eyed French valet and a woman he called his wife, and these were troubled with no notions of respectability. After a time people gave up trying to interfere. The place got a bad name. The gardens were neglected and the house was half in ruins. No one ever saw Mauryeen Holion's face except it might be at a high window of the castle, when some belated huntsman taking a short-cut across the park would catch a glimpse of a wild face framed in black hair at an upper window, the flare of the winter sunset lighting it up, it might be, as with a radiance from hell. Sir Robert drank, they said, and rack-rented his people far worse than in the old days. He had put his business in the hands of a disreputable attorney from a neighbouring town, and if the rent was not paid to the day the roof was torn off the cabin, and the people flung out into the ditch to rot.
So the years went, and folk ever looked for a judgment of God on the pair. And when many years were over, there came to Father Hugh, wringing her hands, the wife of the Frenchman, with word that the two were dying, and she dared not let them die in their sins.
But Mauryeen Holion, Dark Mauryeen, as they called her, would not to her last breath yield up the death-spancel which she had knotted round her waist, and which held Robert Molyneux's love to her. When the wicked breath was out of her body they cut it away, and it lay twisted on the ground like a dead snake. Then on Robert Molyneux, dying in a distant chamber, came a strange peace. All the years of sin seemed blotted out, and he was full of a simple repentance such as he had felt long ago when kneeling by the gown of the good woman whom he had loved. So Father Hugh absolved him before he died, and went hither and thither through the great empty rooms shaking his holy water, and reading from his Latin book.
And lest any in that place, where they have fiery southern blood in their veins, should so wickedly use philtres or charms, he hung the death-spancel in Aughagree Chapel for a terrible reminder.
There was a difference of twenty years between the brothers, yet, to look at them, it might have been more. Patrick, the younger, was florid and hearty; the elder, James, was unpopular—a gray, withered old churl, who carried written on his face the record of his life's failure. His conversation, when he made any, was cynical. When he came into a room where young people were enjoying themselves, playing cards or dancing, his shadow came before him and lay heavily on the merry-makers. Fortunately, he did not often so intrude; he was happier in his room at the top of the fine house, where he had his books and his carpenter's tools. If one of those young people whom his cynicism withered could have seen him at his carpentry, how different he would have seemed! They would have seen him with his grimness relaxed, and his gray face lit up with interest, and would have been amazed to hear his low, cheery whistle, full and round as the pipe of a bullfinch; at night, when his telescope swept the stars, and he trembled with the delight of the visionary and the student, he was a new man. He was a clever man, born out of his proper sphere, and with only so much education as he had contrived to get at during a hard life. What came to him he assimilated eagerly, and every one of those books in his cupboard, rare old friends, had been read over a hundred times.
He ought to have had a chance in his youth, but his father was the last man in the world to encourage out-of-the-way ambitions in his sons. Father and mother were alike—hard, grasping, and ungracious. The father, on the whole, was a pleasanter person than the mother, with her long, pale, horse-face and ready sneer; he was only uncompromisingly hard and ungenial to all the world.
There were other children besides these two, all long since dead or scattered. Two of the boys had run away and gone to America; their first letters home remained unanswered, and after one or two attempts they ceased to write. The one girl had slipped into a convent, after a horrified glimpse at the home-life of her parents when she had returned from her boarding-school. She had been sent away to a convent in a distant town while still a mere child. She had come and gone in recurring vacations, still too childish to be more than vaguely repelled by the unlovely rule of her home. But at sixteen she came home 'for good'; very much for evil, poor little Eily would have said, as she realised in its full sordidness the grinding manner of life which was to be hers. No wonder she wet her pillow night after night with her tears for the pure and gentle atmosphere of the convent, for the soft-voiced and mild-eyed nuns, and the life of the spirit which shone ideally fair by this appalling life of the world. So, after a time, she had her will and escaped to the convent.
James could never understand why he, too, had not broken bounds, and run off to America with Tom and Alick. Perhaps he was of a more patient nature than they. Perhaps the life held him down. It was, indeed, such a round of hard, unvarying toil that at night he was content to drop down in his place like a dead man, and sleep as the worn-out horses sleep, dreaming of a land of endless green pastures, beyond man's harrying. Alick and Tom were younger. They had not had time to get broken to hardship like him, and Patrick was yet a baby. Friends or social pleasures were beyond their maddest dreams. Their parents' idea of a life for them was one in which hard work should keep them out of mischief. James could never remember in those days a morning when he had risen refreshed; he was always heavy with sleep when following the plough-horses, or feeding the cattle. Food of the coarsest, sleep of the scantiest, were the rule of the house. Joy, or love, or kindness, never breathed between those walls.
Meanwhile, the father was getting old, and a time came when he sat more and more by the fire in winter, sipping his glass of grog and reading the country papers, or listening to his wife's acrid tattle. Mrs. Rooney hated with an extreme hatred all the good, easy-going neighbours who were so soft with their children, and encouraged dancing, and race-going and card-playing—the amusements of the Irish middle classes. She had a bitter tongue, and once it was set agoing no one was safe from it—not the holiest nor purest was beyond its defilement.
It was about this time that the labourers began to think the young master rather more important than the old one; but for their connivance, James Rooney could never have been drawn into Fenianism. The conspiracy was just the thing to fascinate the boy's impressionable heart. The poetry, the glamour of the romantic devotion to Mother Country fed his starved idealism; the midnight drillings and the danger were elements in its attraction. James Rooney drilled with the rest, swore with them their oaths of fealty to Dark Rosaleen, was out with them one winter night when the hills were covered with snow, and barely escaped by the skin of his teeth from the capture which sent some of his friends into penal servitude.
Mrs. Rooney's amazed contempt when she found that her eldest son was among 'the boys' was a study in character. The lad was not compromised openly; and though the police had their suspicions, they had nothing to go upon, and the matter ended in a domiciliary visit which put Mrs. Rooney in a fine rage, for she had a curious subservient ambition to stand well with the gentry.
However, soon after that, as she was pottering about the fowl-yard one bitter day—she would never trust anybody to collect the eggs from the locked henhouse but herself—she took a chill, and not long afterwards died. If she had lived perhaps James would never have had the courage to assert himself and take the reins of management as he did. But with her going the iron strength of the old man seemed to break down. He fulfilled her last behest, which was that her funeral was to take place on a Sunday, so that the farm hands should not get a day off; and then, with some wonder at the new masterful spirit in his son, he gave himself up to an easy life.
This independence in James Rooney was not altogether the result of his Fenianism. As a matter of fact, he had fallen in love, with the overwhelming passion of a lad who had hitherto lived with every generous emotion repressed. The girl was a gay, sweet, yet impassioned creature who was the light of her own home. At that home James Rooney had first realised what a paradise home may be made; and coming from his own gloomy and horrid surroundings, the sunshine of hers had almost blinded him. In that white house among the wheatfields love reigned. And not only love, but charity, hospitality, patriotism, and religion. There was never a rough word heard there; even the household creatures, the canary in the south window, the comfortable cats, the friendly dogs, partook of the general sunniness.
They were rebels of the hottest type. The one son had been out with the Fenians and was now in America. His exile was a bitter yet proud grief to his father and mother; but their enthusiasm was whetted rather than damped by the downfall of the attempted rebellion. At night, when the curtains were drawn and the door barred against all fear of 'the peelers,' the papers that had the reports of the Dublin trials were passed from hand to hand, or read aloud amid intense silence, accompanied by the flushing cheek, the clenching hand, often the sob, that told of the passionate feeling of the hearers.
Sometimes Ellen would sing to them, but not the little gay songs she trilled so delightfully, now when their friends were in prison or the dock. Mournful, impassioned songs were hers, sung in a rich voice, trembling with emotion, or again a stave of battle and revenge, which set hearts beating and blood racing in the veins of the listeners. At such moments Ellen, with her velvety golden-brown eyes, and the bronze of her hair, was like the poet's 'Cluster of Nuts.'
I've heard the songs by Liffey's wave That maidens sung. They sang their land, the Saxon's slave, In Saxon tongue. Oh, bring me here that Gaelic dear Which cursed the Saxon foe. When thou didst charm my raptured ear Mo craoibhin cno!
Among those admitted freely to that loving circle, James Rooney was one held in affectionate regard. The man who had been the means of bringing him there, Maurice O'Donnell, was his Jonathan, nay more than his Jonathan, for to him young Rooney had given all his hero-worship. He was, indeed, of the heroic stuff, older, graver, wiser than his friend.
James Rooney spoke to no one of his love or his hopes. For he had hopes. Ellen, kind to every one, singled him out for special kindness. He had seen in her deep eyes something shy and tender for him. For some time he was too humble to be sure he had read her gaze aright, but at last he believed in a flood of wild rapture that she had chosen him.
He did not speak, he was too happy in dallying with his joy, and he waited on from day to day. One evening he was watching her singing, with all his heart in his eyes. Among people less held by a great sincerity than these people were at the time, his secret would have been an open amusement. But the father and mother heard with eyes dim with tears; the young sisters about the fire flushed and paled with the emotion of the song; the hearts of the listeners hung on the singer's lips, and their eyes were far away.
Suddenly James Rooney looked round the circle with the feeling of a man who awakes from sleep. His friend was opposite to him, also gazing at the singer; the revelation in his face turned the younger man cold with the shock. When the song was done he said 'good-night' quietly, and went home. It was earlier than usual, and he left his friend behind him; for this one night he was glad not to have his company; he wanted a quiet interval in which to think what was to be done.
Now, when he realised that Maurice O'Donnell loved her, he cursed his own folly that he had dared to think of winning her. What girl with eyes in her head would take him, gray and square-jawed, before the gallant-looking fellow who was the ideal patriot. And Ellen—Ellen, of all women living, was best able to appreciate O'Donnell's qualities. That night he sat all the night with his head bowed on his hands thinking his sick thoughts amid the ruin of his castles. When he stood up shivering in the gray dawn, he had closed that page of his life. He felt as if already the girl had chosen between them, and that he was found wanting.
That was not the end of it, however. If he had been left to himself he might have carried out his high, heroic resolve to go no more to the house which had become Paradise to him. But his friend followed him, with the curious tenderness that was between the two, and with an arm on his shoulder, drew his secret from him. When he had told it he put his face down on the mantelpiece by which they were standing, ashamed to look O'Donnell in the face because they loved the same woman. There was a minute's silence, and then O'Donnell spoke, and his voice, so far from being cold and angry, was more tender than before.
'So you would have taken yourself off to leave me a clear field, old fellow!'
'Oh, no,' said the other humbly, 'I never had a chance. If I had had eyes for any one but her, I would have known your secret, and should not have dared to love her.'
'Dear lad!' said O'Donnell. 'But now you must take your chance. If she chooses you rather than me—and, by heavens! I'm not sure that she won't—it will make no difference, I swear, between us. Which of us shall try our luck first?'
They ended by drawing lots, and it fell to O'Donnell to speak first. A night or two later he overtook James Rooney as the latter was on his way to Ellen's house. He put his arm through Rooney's and said, 'Well, old fellow, I've had my dismissal. I'm not going your way to-night, but I believe your chance is worth a good deal. Presently I shall be able to wish you joy, Jim.'
They walked on together in a silence more full of feeling than speech could be. At the boreen that turned up to the white house they parted with a hand-clasp that said their love was unchanging, no matter what happened. That night James Rooney got his chance and spoke. The girl heard him with a rapt, absent-minded look that chilled him as he went on. When he had done she answered him:—
'I can never be your wife, Jim. I have made my choice.'
'But——' stammered the lad.
'I know what you would say,' she answered quietly. 'I gave the same answer to Maurice O'Donnell. Why did two such men as you care for me? I am not worth it, no girl is worth it. 'Tis the proud woman I ought to be and am, but I can't marry the two of you, and perhaps I can't choose.' She laughed half sadly. 'Put me out of your head, Jim, and forgive me. I'm away to the Convent at Lady Day.'
And from this resolve it was impossible to move her. Whether she had really resolved before on the conventual life, or whether she feared to separate the two friends, no one knew. From that time neither O'Donnell nor Jim Rooney was seen at the white house, and in the harvest-time Ellen, as she said she would, entered St. Mary's Convent. Jim Rooney never loved another woman, and when, in the following year, Maurice O'Donnell went to New Orleans to take up a position as the editor of a newspaper, Jim Rooney said good-bye to friendship as lastingly as he had to love.
The old father died, and left what wealth he had to be divided between his two sons. For all the pinching and scraping it was not much; there seemed something unlucky about the farm, poor, damp, and unkindly as it was. Jim was a good brother to the young lad growing up. He kept him at a good school during his boyhood, and nursed his share of the inheritance more carefully than he did his own. They had the reputation of being far wealthier than they were, and many a girl would have been well pleased to make a match with Jim Rooney. But he turned his back on all social overtures, and by and by he got the name of being a sour old bachelor, 'a cold-hearted naygur,' going the way of his father before him. But the rule on the farm was very different, every one admitted; to his men James Rooney was not only just but generous.
Presently the young fellow came home from school, gay and light-hearted. He was a tall young giant, who presently developed a fine red moustache, and had a rollicking gait well in keeping with his bold blue eyes. He was soon as popular as James was the reverse, and his reputation of being 'a good match' made him welcome in many a house full of daughters.
One day the youth came to his brother with a plan for bettering himself. He wanted to draw out his share from the farm and to invest it in a general shop which was for sale in the country town, close by. Now Jim Rooney had a queer pride in him that made the thought of the shop very distasteful. The land was quite another thing, and farming, to his mind, as ennobling an occupation as any under heaven. But he quite understood that he could not shape the young fellow to his ways of thinking. He said, gently: 'And why, Patrick, are you bent on leaving the farm and bettering yourself?'
The young fellow scratched his head awkwardly, and gave one or two excuses, but finally the truth came out. He had a fancy for little Janie Hyland, and she had a fancy for him, but there was a richer man seeking her, and, said the young fellow simply, 'I'm thinking if the father knew how little came to my share he'd be showing me the door.'
'Does Janie know, Patrick?' asked the elder brother.
'Oh, divil a thing!' said the younger, with a half-shamed laugh. 'I don't trust women with too much; but if I had Grady's, I'd soon be a richer man than they think me. Old Grady cut up for a lot of money, and he was too old for business. It's a beautiful chance for a young man.'
'Well, Patrick,' said the other at last, with a sigh, 'your share won't buy Grady's, but yours and mine together will. I'll make it over to you, and you can keep your share in the farm too. I'll work the farm for you if you won't ask me to have anything to do with the shop. Tut, tut, man!' he said, pushing away Patrick's secretly delighted protests, 'all I have would come to you one day, and why not now, when you think it will make you happy?'
So Patrick bought Grady's and brought home Janie Hyland. He has prospered exceedingly, and makes the lavish display of his wealth which is characteristic of the Irishman. They have added to the old house, thrown out wings and annexe, planted it about with shrubberies, and made a carriage drive. Young Patrick, growing up, is intended for the University and one of the learned professions, and Mrs. Patrick has ideas of a season in Dublin and invitations to the Castle. Her house is very finely furnished, with heavy pile carpets and many mirrors, and buhl and ormolu everywhere.
She feels her brother-in-law to be the one blot in all her splendour and well-being. When Patrick first brought her home, she took a vehement dislike to James, which has rather waxed than waned during the years. He minds her as little as may be, working on the farm during the day-time, and in the evening departing, with his slow, heavy step, to his sanctum upstairs, where he has his books, his carpenter's tools, and his telescope. Yet her words worry him like the stinging of gnats, and the nagging of years has made him bitter.
He turns out delightful bits of carving and cabinet-making from time to time, and he mends everything broken in the house with infinite painstaking. Up there in his garret-room the troubles fall away from him, and he forgets the lash of Mrs. Patrick's tongue. The hardest thing is that she discourages the children's friendship for him, and he would dearly love the children if only he might.
The other women are rather down on Mrs. Patrick about it; indeed, Mrs. Gleeson told her one day that the creature was worth his keep if it was only for his handiness about the house. Patrick has grown used to his wife's gibes and flings, which at first used to make him red and uncomfortable. He has half come to believe in the secret hoard his wife says old Jim is accumulating.
Meanwhile, the land is as poor as ever, for James has no money to spend in the necessary drainage that should make it dry and sweet. His share scarcely pays for his keep, and his money for clothes and books and tools is little indeed. His shabbiness is another offence to Mrs. Patrick. She has declared to some of her intimates that she will force James yet to take his face out of her house, and go live on his money elsewhere. She expresses her contempt to her husband for his brother's selfishness in holding his share in the farm, when he must be already, as she puts it, 'rotten with money.' Patrick is too much afraid of his wife to tell her now what he has so long kept a secret from her.
But James, in his high attic, looks upon the mountains and the sky, and shakes off from him with a superb gesture the memory of her taunts.
THE MAN WHO WAS HANGED
It was outside the town of Ballinscreen, on the country side of the bridge over the Maeve, that Mr. Ramsay-Stewart was shot at in the League days, and that the shot struck a decent boy, Larry Byrne, a widow's only son, and killed him stone dead. The man that fired the shot would rather have cut off his right hand than hurt an innocent creature like Larry,—but there, when you go meddling with sin and wickedness, as often as not you plunge deeper into it than you could ever have foreseen. Anyhow the old women, who turn out everything to show the Lord's goodness, said it was plain to see that Larry was fitter to go than his master, and that was why the shot glanced by Mr. Stewart's ear to lodge in the poor coachman's brain as he leant forward, whipping up his horse with all his might, to get out of reach of that murderous shower of shot.
Now a few months later all you comfortable people that sit reading your newspapers by an English fire, and thinking what a terrible place Ireland must be to live in, were comforted by the news that the man who shot Larry Byrne was swinging for it in the county jail at Ballinscreen. But you never made such a mistake in your born lives. That man was out on the mountains in the bleak, bitter winter weather, was in hiding all day in the caves up there in the clouds on top of Croghan, and by night was coming down to the lonely mountain farmhouses to beg what would keep the life in his big hungry body. The man that swung for the murder was as innocent as yourself, and more betoken, though he was great on war and revolutions, would no more fire on a man out of the dark night than you would yourself. He had little feeling for sin and crime, always barring the secret societies, by some considered a sin.
It was beautiful to hear Murty Meehan,—that was his name, God rest his soul!—having it out with old Father Phil on that same question. Why, he told the priest that he himself belonged to a secret society, for the matter of that, and the most powerful secret society of them all. Father Phil used to end it up with a laugh, for he was fond of Murty. He nearly broke his heart over the man when he was in jail, waiting to go to the gallows, and wouldn't open his lips to clear himself. Murty had been in every 'movement' from the '48 onwards. But like all the other old Fenians, he thought worse of the League than Mr. Ramsay-Stewart himself. His ideas were high-flown ones, and he could put them in beautiful language, about freeing his country, and setting her in her rightful place among the nations. But not by the League methods. There was a bit of poetry of Davis he was fond of quoting:
For Freedom comes from God's right hand, And needs a godly train, And righteous men must make our land A Nation once again.
Many a time he hurled it at the Leaguers' heads, but they bore him no malice; the worst they did was to call him a crank. I often think that when Murty died on the gallows for a crime he hated, it was a sacrifice of more than his life. Well, God be good to him!
Murty hadn't a soul in the world belonging to him. His father and mother died in the black '47, and the little girl he had set his heart on sailed in a coffin-ship for New York with her father and mother in the same bitter year, and went down somewhere out on the unkindly ocean. She had hung round Murty's neck imploring him to go with her, but Murty was drilling for the rising of the following year, and could see no duty closer than his duty to his country. He promised to follow her and bring her back if there were happier days in Ireland, but the boat and its freight were never heard of after they left Queenstown quay in that September of blight and storm. And so Murty grew with the years into a pleasant, kindly old bachelor, very full of whimsies and dreams, and a prophet to the young fellows.
Now Mr. Ramsay-Stewart, though he kept himself and his tenants in hot water for a couple of years, wasn't a bad kind of gentleman, and now that things have settled down is well-esteemed and liked in the country. But when he came first he didn't understand the people nor they him, and there's no doubt he did some hard things as much out of pure ignorance, they say, as for any malice. He'd put his bit of money in the estate and meant to have it out of it, and he didn't like at all the easy-going ways he found there. The old Misses Conyers who preceded him were of a very ancient stock, and would rather turn out themselves than turn out a soul of their people. They had enough money to keep them while they lived; and 'pay when you can,' or 'when you like,' was the rule on the estate. Every man, woman and child was Paddy and Biddy and Judy to them. Oh, sure it was a bad day for the tenants when they went; and more betoken, they had laid up trouble for the man that was to succeed them.
The people never gave Mr. Ramsay-Stewart a chance when he came. They disliked him, and he was an upstart and a gombeen man and a usurper, and such foolishness, in the mouths of every one of them. As if it was his fault, poor gentleman, that the Misses Conyers never married, and so let Coolacreva fall to strangers.
Now there was a widow and her daughter, Mrs. Murphy and little Fanny, that had a big patch of land on the estate, and the memory of man couldn't tell when they'd paid a penny of rent for it. It was so overgrown with weeds and thistles, and so strewn with big boulders, that it was more like a boreen than decent fields. Well, it vexed Mr. Ramsay-Stewart, who was accustomed to the tidy Scotch fields, amazingly, and he got on his high horse that the widow should pay or go.
She couldn't or wouldn't pay, and she wouldn't go. She never thought the crow-bar brigade would be set on her cabin; but, sure, the new landlord wasn't a man to stop short of his word, and one bleak, bitter November day he was out with the police and bailiffs. Before the League could put one foot before another the roof was off Mrs. Murphy's cabin, the bits of furniture out in the road, and the pair of women standing over them shaking their fists at the Scotchman, and whimpering out the revenge they'd have, till Lanty Corcoran, a strong farmer, took them home, and set them up snug and easy in one of his outhouses.
Fanny was a pretty little girl, a golden-ringleted, blue-eyed slip of a colleen, with a sturdy and independent will of her own, that belied the soft shy glances she could cast at a man. She was promised to a boy over the seas, who was making a home for her and her mother in America, and there was another boy in the parish, John Sullivan, or Shawn Dhuv, as they usually called him because of his dark complexion, was fairly mad about her. Shawn was well off. He was the cleverest farmer that side of the country, just the kind of man Mr. Ramsay-Stewart wanted and was prepared to encourage when he got him. His land was clean and well-tilled, and he had a fine stock of cattle as well as horses, and hay, and straw, and machines that had cost a handful of money, for he was quick to take up new-fangled notions. People used to say Shawn would be a rich man one day, for he was prudent, drank little, and was a silent man, keeping himself to himself a good deal.
Well, little Fanny had a hard time with the mother over her steady refusals to have anything to say to Black Shawn. She was an aggravating old woman, one of the whimpering sort; and sorely she must have tried poor Fanny often with her coaxing and crying, but the little girl was as stout as a rock where her absent boy was concerned.
Shawn Dhuv heard in time of the eviction, and in a bad moment for himself thought he'd press his suit once more; he knew he had the old woman on his side, and he thought he might find the young one in such a humour that she'd be glad to accept his hand and heart, and the cover of his little farmhouse. He had an idea too that he'd only to ask Mr. Ramsay-Stewart for the Murphys' farm and he'd get it, and he thought this would be a fine lever to work with.
But he never made such a mistake, for little Fanny turned on him like the veriest spitfire.
'You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Black Shawn,' she cried, with her eyes flashing, 'to keep persecuting a girl that's as good as wife to another man. Why, if he was never in the world, do you think I'd take one like you, that's plotting and planning to take our bit of land before the ashes of our roof-tree are gone gray? If he was here he'd know how to avenge us, and not till he had done it would he look the girl he loved in the face.'
She was holding forth like this, her words tripping each other up in her anger; but sure, the poor little girl didn't mean what she was saying about revenge; it was likely some hot words she'd picked up out of the newspapers that came into her head in her passion, and tripped off her tongue without her knowing a word of what they meant.
But Black Shawn heard her, turning first the deep red with which one of his complexion blushes, and then falling off as gray as the dead. Before she'd half said her say he took up his caubeen, put it on his head, and walked out of the place with an air as if he were dreaming.
Now he had an old carbine to frighten the crows, a crazy old thing that was as likely to hurt the man who fired it as the thing that was fired at. Black Shawn sat up all night cleaning it, and the grim mouth of the man never relaxed, nor did the colour come back to his ashy cheeks.
The next night he lay in wait for Mr. Ramsay-Stewart as he came home from the county club-house in Ballinscreen, and shot at him, killing poor Larry Byrne. It was only the length of the bridge from the police barracks, and as it was but nine o'clock at night, Ballinscreen people were up and about. So there wasn't much time for Black Shawn to see what mischief the blunderbuss had done. He saw at the first glance that one man was down in the dogcart, and another man swinging on by his arms to the mouth of the terrified horse. But already people were running across the bridge and shouting, and the dark quay seemed alive with lights.
Luckily for Shawn the road away from the town was black as a tunnel. It runs between the two stone walls that shut out Lord Cahirmore's deer and black cattle from the public gaze. Down this black tunnel raced Shawn, sobbing like a child, for the black fit was gone over and the full horror of his crime was upon him. He was a quick runner, and he got the advantage, for the police in their flurry stopped for a minute or two debating whether to take the river banks or the road. But in Shawn's head the pursuing footsteps beat, beat, while he was yet far beyond them, and the trumpets of the Day of Judgment rang in his miserable ears. He had the smoking gun in his hands, for he hadn't the wit to get rid of it. And yet the man was safe, if he had had his wits about him, for he was the last man for Mr. Ramsay-Stewart to suspect or allow suspicion to fall upon.
Well, he raced on blindly, and all of a sudden, as he turned a corner, a man flung up his arms in front of him, and then caught him by both wrists. It was Murty Meehan, and more betoken, he was on his way to a drilling of the Fenian boys in a quiet spot in Alloa Valley. Murty was wiry, despite his years, and his grip seemed to Black Shawn like the handcuffs already upon him. There was little struggle left in Shawn, and he just stood sobbing, while his gun smoked up between him and Murty.
'What black work is this, my fine fellow?' said Murty quietly.
Black Shawn came to himself, seeing he was stopped by a man and no ghost.
'Let me go, for God's sake,' he sobbed out. 'I've shot Ramsay-Stewart below at the bridge, and the police are after me.' Just then the moon rolled from behind a cloud, and Murty Meehan saw his prisoner, saw that he was young, and would be handsome if his face were not so distorted by emotion. Now there came a sudden sound of footsteps pelting along the road, and Shawn was taken with a tremor, though, mind you, he was a brave man, and it was horror of his sin was on him more than a fear of the rope. Murty Meehan made up his mind.
'Give me the gun,' he said. 'I'm old and worn-out, and I might have had a son of your age.'
Shawn, hardly understanding, fled on the moment he was released. A bit further the lord's wall gave way to iron palings, and not far beyond was the open country and the road to the hills. Once in the hills Black Shawn was safe.
But they found Murty Meehan with the smoking gun in his hand, and what more evidence could be wanted? He was tried for the murder, and pleaded 'Not guilty'; and the number of witnesses called to testify to his character was enough to fill the court-house, but then, he couldn't or wouldn't explain the gun, and the judge declared it was the clearest case that had ever come before him. He was very eloquent in his charge over such a crime being committed by an old man, and expressed his abhorrence of poor Murty in a way that might have seared the face of a guilty man, though it didn't seem to come home very closely to the prisoner.
A month later Murty was hanged in Ballinscreen jail. He was many a day in his quicklime grave before Black Shawn heard how another man had suffered for his crime. After long wandering he had escaped to the coast, and coming to a seaport town had been engaged by the captain of a sailing vessel, short of hands, who was only too glad to give him his grub and his passage in exchange for his work, and ask no questions. But it was a time of storms, and the ship was blown half-way to the North Pole, and as far south again, and arrived at New York long after all hope of her safety had been given up. If Black Shawn had known he would never have let an innocent man die in his place. So said the neighbours, who had known him from his boyhood.
They will tell you this story in Munster, as they told it to me, sitting round the open hearth in the big farmhouse kitchens of winter nights. Down there there is not a man that won't lift his hat reverently when they name Murty.
For long enough no one knew what became of Black Shawn, and when the League was over and its power broken, and a better spirit was coming back to men's hearts, many a poor boy was laid by the heels through the use of that same name. Many in Munster will tell you of the stranger that used to come to the farmhouses begging a rest by the fire and a meal in the name of Black Shawn, and sitting there quietly would listen to the rash and trustful talk of the young fellows about fighting for their dear Dark Rosaleen, the country that holds men's hearts more than any prosperous mother-land of them all. His name is a name never mentioned in Ireland without a black, bitter curse, for he was a famous informer and spy, own brother to such evil spawn as Corydon, Massey, and Nagle. But 'tis too long a story to tell how the spy masqueraded as Black Shawn, and I think I'll keep it for another time.
A PRODIGAL SON
Mrs. Sheehy was blest with two sons. Of the elder she had seen little since his early boyhood, when his love for handling tarry ropes and sails, and his passion for the water-side, had resulted in his shipping as cabin-boy on a China-bound ship. There was undoubted madness in the Sheehy blood, but in this sailor son, so long as he kept sober, there was no manifestation of it except it might be in a dreaminess and romanticism uncommon to his class. He was an olive-skinned, brown-eyed fellow, with such a refined face as might have belonged to an artist or musician. He had the mellow colour Murillo loved. The mad strain which, in the case of greatly gifted people, has often seemed to be the motive power of genius, in him took the form of a great cleverness,—an esoteric cleverness and ingenuity added to the sailor's dexterity.
But it is not with Willie I have to deal, though the story of his marriage is a little romance in itself. It was Mick was the prodigal son. Every one about the country knew and liked Mick. He was a bit of an omadhaun, that is to say a simpleton,—but quite unlike the shambling idiots of whom every village possessed one, who was a sort of God's fool to the people, till some new legislation locked them all up in the work-houses, poor things!
Mick was a rosy-cheeked, innocent-looking lad, touched in the mind, certainly, but exceedingly harmless, likeable and entertaining. He was a strong fellow and when he 'took a hate (i.e. heat) o' work' he was as good or better than the best in harvest or hayfield. His softness procured for him a certain delightful immunity from responsibility. He worked when in the humour, but race, or fair, or cock-fight, or football match drew Mick irresistibly from his labours. He was off to every bit of 'divarsion' in the country, and when there were big races at a distance Mick generally took the road a day beforehand, sleeping out in the soft spring night if it was dry weather, trusting to a convenient haystack or barn if it wasn't. He was known so widely that at every farmhouse along the road he was sure of a bite. And on the race-course every one was his friend; and the various parties picnicking were greeted by Mick with uproarious shouts and a flinging of his caubeen in the air, to signify his delight at meeting his friends so far from home.
Mick had the privileges of 'the natural,' as they call an idiot in Ireland, with only a few of his disabilities. He was even known to leave the church during a very tedious sermon of Father O'Herlihy's and smoke a pipe outside while awaiting the rest of the congregation. When he was tackled about this flagrant disrespect by his pastor, Mick replied unblushingly, 'Sure, I didn't lave durin' the mass, your Reverence: 'twas all over but a thing of nothing.' 'What do you mean by that?' asked his Reverence severely. 'Sure, your Reverence's sermon, I mane, what else?' responded Mick.
Mick could be violent too in his cups, but somehow even his violence was humorous. The village butcher once was imprudent enough to remonstrate with him for drinking, while the drink was yet in him, and Mick acknowledged the good advice by unhooking a leg of mutton and belabouring him soundly, to the detriment of himself and his mutton, till the police interfered. On another occasion he addressed his energies to the Sisyphus-like task of endeavouring to roll a very large water-barrel through his mother's very small door, all one winter night, while his mother alternately coaxed and threatened. Mick's pranks were endless, but lest they meet with a severer judge than Mick ever met with, I spare you the recital of them.
Now Mrs. Sheehy was far less tolerated and tolerable than either of her peccant sons. She had a little withered face, with hard red cheeks and bright, rather mad black eyes, set in a frame of crinkly black hair. You might meet her on the road of a sweet summer morning, trapesing, to use the expressive Irish word, along, with a sunshade over her battered bonnet. Her attire was generally made up of very tarnished finery,—a befrilled skirt trailing in the dust behind her, and a tattered lace shawl disposed corner-wise over her shoulders. She seemed always to wear the cast-off garments of fine ladies, and we had an explanation of this fact. It was supposed that Mrs. Sheehy represented herself to pious Protestant ladies, for about a radius of twenty miles, as a Papist, who might easily be brought to see the error of her ways, and as one who for her liberal tendencies was much in disfavour with the priests. I know that to her co-religionists she complained that Protestant charities were closed to her because she had become a Catholic. There was a legend that Mrs. Sheehy came from a Protestant stock, but I do not know whether this were true or merely invented for convenience when the lady went asking alms.
It was from some of these Protestant ladies the suggestion came that Mick should go to America under some precious emigration scheme. They are always, with their mistaken philanthropy, drafting away the boys and girls from Ireland, to cast them, human wreckage, in the streets of New York; always taking away the young life from the sweet glens over which the chapel bell sends its shepherding voice, and casting it away in noisome places, while at home the aged folk go down alone the path to the grave.
Now we always thought that Mrs. Sheehy must have suggested Mick as an emigrant, for he was distinctly not eligible. But it was very easy to puff up poor Mick's mind with pictures of America as a Tom Tiddler's ground, and the mother did this in private, while in public she wrung her hands over the wilful boy that would go and leave her lonesome in her old age. Pretty soon the matter was settled, and Mick went about as vain as any young recruit when he has taken the Queen's shilling and donned the scarlet, and has not yet realised that he has been a fine fat goose for the fox-sergeant's plucking.
But if Mick was full of the spirit of adventure, and looked forward to that spring Wednesday when he should leave for Queenstown, his mother made up for his heartless joy by her lugubriousness. As the time drew near she would buttonhole all and sundry whom she could catch to pour out her sorrows. The trailing gown and ragged lace shawl became a danger signal which we would all flee from, an it were not sprung upon us too suddenly. We had a shrewd suspicion that the tears Mrs. Sheehy shed so freely were of the variety known as crocodile. Rumour had it that Mick once out of the way she was to be accommodated comfortably for life as a lodgekeeper to one of those emigrating ladies. Sometimes she used to follow us to our very doors to weep, and on such occasions would be so overcome with grief that it took a little whisky and water and the gift of an old dress or some broken victuals to prepare her for the road again.
On the Tuesday of the week Mick was to start he made a farewell progress round all the houses of the neighbourhood. We were called into the big farmhouse kitchen about five of the afternoon to bid him good-bye. Mick sat forward on the edge of his chair, thrusting now and then his knuckles into his eyes, like a big child, and trying to wink away his tears. We all did our best to console him, and after a time from being very sad he grew rather uproariously gay. Mick was no penman, but for all that he made the wildest promises about writing, and as for the gifts he was to send us, the place should be indeed a Tom Tiddler's ground if he were to fulfil his rash promises. Meanwhile we all pressed our parting gifts on him; some took the form of money, others were useful or beneficial, as we judged it. Mick added everything to the small pack he was carrying, which had indeed already swollen since he left home, and was likely to be considerably more swollen by the time he had concluded his round.
Mick had got over the parting with his mother. The emigrants' train started in the small hours, and the emigrants were to rendezvous at a common lodging-house close by the big terminus. We inquired about poor Mrs. Sheeny with feeling. Mick responded with a return of tears that he'd left her screeching for bare life and tearing her hair out in handfuls. The memory caused Mick such remorse at leaving her that we hastened to distract his mind to his fine prospects once more.
He delayed so long over his farewells to us that we began to fear he'd never catch up with the other emigrants, for the road to the city was studded with the abodes of Mick's friends, whom he had yet to call upon. However, at last he really said good-bye, and we accompanied him in a group to the gate of the farmyard, from which, with a last distracted wave of his hands, the poor fellow set off, running, as if he could not trust himself to look back, along the field-path. It was a dewy May evening after rain, and the hawthorn was all in bloom, and the leaves shaking out their crumpled flags of tender green. The blackbird was singing as he only sings after rain, and the fields were covered with the gold and silver dust of buttercup and daisy. It was sad to see the poor fellow going away at such a time, and from a place where every one knew and was kind to him, to an unknown world that might be very cruel. Once again as we watched him we anathematised the emigration which has so steadily been bleeding the veins of our poor country.
We all thought of Mick the next morning, and imagined him on the various stages of his journey to Queenstown, and the big liner. For a week or so we did not see Mrs. Sheehy, but heard piteous accounts of her prostration. The poor woman seemed incapable of taking comfort. Report said that she could neither eat nor drink, so great was her grief. We felt rather ashamed of our former judgments of her, and were very full of good resolutions as to our future treatment of her. Only Mary, our maid, disbelieved in this excessive grief; but then Mary is the most profound cynic I have ever known, and we always discount her judgments.
Anyhow, when Mrs. Sheehy reappeared in our kitchen she looked more wizened, yellow, and dishevelled than ever, and at the mention of Mick's name she rocked herself to and fro in such paroxysms of grief that we were quite alarmed. As for the benevolent ladies interested in the schemes of emigration, their eyes would have been rudely opened if they could have heard Mrs. Sheehy's denunciations of them. She called them the hard-hearted ould maids who had robbed her of her one child, who had persecuted her boy—her innocent child, and driven him out in the cold world, who had left her to go down a lone woman to the grave. Nor was this all, for she was an adept at eloquent Irish curses, and she sprinkled them generously on the devoted heads of the ladies aforesaid. It was really rather fine to see Mrs. Sheehy in this tragic mood, and we were all touched and impressed by her. We comforted her with the suggestion that a letter from Mick was nearly due, and with assurances, which we scarcely felt, that Mick was bound to do well in America and prove a credit to her; and we finally got rid of her, and were rejoiced to see her going off, with her turned-up skirt full as usual of heterogeneous offerings.
Well, a few days after this, some one brought us the surprising story that Mick had returned or was on the way to return. One of the carters had given him a lift on the first stage of his journey from Dublin, and had left him by his own request at one of the houses where he had had such a sorrowful parting a little while before. The man had told Mick of his mother's grief, a bit of intelligence which somewhat dashed the radiant spirits with which he was returning home. However, he cheered up immediately: 'Tell th' ould woman,' he said, 'that I wasn't such a villain as to leave her at all, at all, an' that I'll be home by evenin'. She'll be havin' a bit o' bacon in the pot to welcome me.' The man told us this with a dry grin, and added, ''Tis meself wouldn't like to be afther bringin' the poor ould woman the good news. It might be too much joy for the crathur to bear.' This ironic speech revived all our doubts of Mrs. Sheehy.
Mick took our house on the way across the fields to his mother's cottage. We received him cordially, though with less empressement than when we had parted from him, for now we were pretty sure of seeing Mick often during the years of our natural lives. We too told him of his mother's excessive grief, as much, perhaps, with a selfish design of hastening him on his way as anything else, for we had our misgivings about Mick's reception.
There were plenty of people to tell us of the prodigal's welcome. The village had buzzed all day with the dramatic sensation of Mick's return, but no one had told Mrs. Sheehy—though every one was on tiptoe for the hour of Mick's arrival. He came about six in the evening, and having passed through the village was escorted by a band of the curious towards his mother's cottage.
Mrs. Sheehy lives in a by-road. On one side are the woods, on the other the fields, and at this hour of the May evening the woods were full of golden aisles of glory. Now Mrs. Sheehy had come out of her house to give a bit to the pig, when she saw a group of people advancing towards her down the sunshine and shadow of the road. She shaded her eyes and looked that way. For a minute or two she could not make out the advancing figures, but from one in the midst broke a yell, a too-familiar yell, for who in the world but Mick could make such a sound? Then her prodigal son dashed from the midst of the throng and flew to her with his arms spread wide.
Mrs. Sheehy seemed taken with a genuine faintness. She dropped the 'piggin,'—the little one-handled tub in which she was carrying the rentpayer's mess of greens,—and fell back against the wall. The spectators, and it seemed the whole village had turned out, came stealing in Mick's wake. They were safe from Mrs. Sheehy's dreaded tongue, for the lady had no eyes for them. As soon as she realised that it was Mick, really her son, come back to her, she burst into a torrent of abuse, the like of which has never been equalled in our country. The listeners could give no idea of it: it was too continuous and too eloquent. It included not only Mick, 'the villain, the thief of the world, the base unnatural deceiver,' but ourselves, and all to whom Mick had paid those farewell visits. Mick heard her with a grin, and when she had exhausted herself she suddenly clutched him by his mop-head, dragged him indoors, and banged the door to.
She had apprehended the true state of the case. The potations at some houses, the gifts at others, had been the causes of the failure of Mick as an emigrant. When his round of visits was concluded he had slept comfortably in a hay-stack till long after the hour when his fellow emigrants were starting from Kingsbridge. The next morning he had gaily set out for 'a bit of a spree' in Dublin, and having sold his passage ticket and his little kit, had managed, with the proceeds and our gifts, to make the spree last a fortnight. For a little while we deemed it expedient to avoid passing by Mrs. Sheehy's door, though Mick assured us that it was 'the joy of the crathur had taken her wits from her, so that she didn't rightly know what she was saying.'
There was one more attempt made to emigrate Mick, but it was futile, Mick declaring that 'he'd deserve any misfortune, so he would, if he was ever to turn his back on the old woman again.' Mrs. Sheehy has forgiven us our innocent share in keeping Mick at home with her. The mother and son still live together, with varying times, just as the working mood is on or off Mick. I believe his favourite relaxation of an evening, when he stays at home, is to discover in the wood embers the treasures which would have fallen to him if his love for his mother hadn't kept him from expatriating himself. The Hon. Miss Ellersby's vacant gate-lodge has been filled up by Kitty Keegan, who is Mrs. Sheehy's special aversion out of all the world.
CHANGING THE NURSERIES
To-day the fiat has gone forth, and we are already deep in consultation over paper and paint, chintz, and carpeting. How many years I have dreaded it; how many staved off, beyond my hope, the transformation of those two dear rooms! They have been a shabby corner in my big, stately house for many a day—a corner to which in the long, golden afternoons I could steal for an hour and shut out the world, and nurse my sorrow at my breast like a crying child. You may have heard Catholics talk about a 'retreat,' a quiet time in which one shuffles off earthly cares, and steeps one's soul in the silence that washes it and makes it strong. Such a 'retreat' I have given my heart in many and many an hour in the old nurseries. I have sat there with my hands folded, and let the long-still little voices sound sweet in my ear—the voices of the dead children, the voices of the grown children whose childhood is dead. The voices cry to me, indeed, many a time when I have no leisure to hear them. When I am facing my dear man at the other end of our long dining-table, when I am listening to the chatter of callers in my drawing-room, at dinner-parties and balls, in the glare of the theatre, I often hear the cries to which I must not listen.
A mother has such times, though her matronhood be crowned like mine with beautiful and dear children, and with the love of the best husband in the world. I praise God with a full heart for His gifts; but how often in the night I have wakened heart-hungry for the little ones, and have held my breath and crushed back my sobs lest the dear soul sleeping so placidly by my side should discover my inexplicable trouble. In the nurseries that I shall have no more after to-day, the memories of them have crowded about my knees like gentle little ghosts. There were the screened fire-place and the tiny chairs which in winter they drew near the blaze, and the window overlooking the pleasance and a strip of the garden, where the wee faces crowded if I were walking below. Things are just as they were: the little beds huddled about the wall; the cheap American clock, long done ticking, on the mantelshelf; the doll's house, staring from all its forlorn windows, as lonely as a human habitation long deserted; the cupboard, through the open doors of which you may see the rose-bedecked cups that were specially bought for the nursery tea. Am I the same woman that used to rustle so cheerfully down the nursery corridor to share that happy afternoon tea? From the door, half denuded of its paint, peachy little faces used to peep joyfully at my coming; while inside there waited my little delicate one, long gone to God, who never ran and played with the others. I can see her still, with the pleasure lighting up her little, thin face, where she sat sedately, her scarlet shoes to the blaze and her doll clasped to a tenderly maternal breast.