"May God bless you for them words! it's many a day since I heard the voice o' kindness. I'll get the box, if it's to be had, if it was only for your own sake."
She then passed on to her neighbor's house, and the next appearance of her companion was that in which the reader caught, a glimpse of her in the house of Darby Skinadre, from which she followed Nelly M'Gowan and Mave Sullivan with an appearance of such interest.
CHAPTER IX. — Meeting of Strangers—Mysterious Dialogue.
Gra Gal Sullivan and the prophet's wife, having left the meal-shop, proceeded in the direction of Aughamurran, evidently in close, and if one could judge by their gestures, deeply important conversation. The strange woman followed them at a distance, meditating, as might be perceived by her hesitating manner, upon the most seasonable moment of addressing either one or both, without seeming to interrupt or disturb their dialogue. Although the actual purport of the topic they discussed could not be known by a spectator, yet even to an ordinary observer, it was clear that the elder female uttered something that was calculated to warn or alarm the younger.
She raised her extended forefinger, looked earnestly into the face of her companion, then upwards solemnly, and, clasping her hands with vehemence, appeared to close her assertion by appealing to heaven in behalf of its truth; the younger looked at her with wonder, seemed amazed, paused suddenly on her step, raised her hands, and looked as if about to express terror; but, checking herself, appeared as it were perplexed by uncertainty and doubt. After this the elder woman seemed to confide some secret or sorrow to the other, for she began to weep bitterly, and to wring her hands as if with remorse, whilst her companion looked like one who had been evidently transformed into an impersonation of pure and artless sympathy. She caught the rough hand of the other—and, ere she had proceeded very far in her narrative, a few tears of compassion stole down her youthful cheek—after which she began to administer consolation in a manner that was at once simple and touching. She pressed the hand of the afflicted woman between hers, then wiped her eyes with her own handkerchief, and soothed her with a natural softness of manner that breathed at once of true tenderness and delicacy.
As soon as this affecting scene had been concluded, the strange woman imperceptibly mended her pace, until her proximity occasioned them to look at her with that feeling which prompts us to recognize the wish of a person to address us, as it is often expressed, by an appearance of mingled anxiety and diffidence, when they approach us. At length Mave Sullivan spoke—
"Who is that strange woman that is followin' us, an' wants to say something, if one can judge by her looks?"
"Well, I don't know," replied Nelly; "but whatsomever it may be, she wishes to speak to you or me, no doubt of it."
"She looks like a poor woman,'"* said Mave, "an' yet she didn't ask anything in Skinadre's, barring a drink of water; but, God pity her if she's comin' to us for relief poor creature! At any rate, she appears to have care and distress in her face; I'll spake to her."
* A common and compassionate name for a person forced to ask alms.
She then beckoned the female to approach them, who did so; but they could perceive as she advanced, that they had been mistaken in supposing her to be one of those unhappy beings whom the prevailing famine had driven to mendicancy. There was visible in her face a feeling of care and anxiety certainly, but none of that supplicating expression which is at once recognized as the characteristic of the wretched class to which they supposed her to belong. This circumstance particularly embarrassed the inexperienced girl, whose gentle heart at the moment sympathized with the stranger's anxieties, whatever they may have been, and she hesitated a little, when the woman approached, in addressing her. At length she spoke:
"We wor jist sayin' to one another," she observed, "that it looked as if you wished to spake to either this woman or me."
"You're right enough, then," she replied; "I have something to say to her, and a single word to yourself, too."
"An' what is it you have to say to me?" asked Nelly; "I hope it isn't to borrow money from me, bekase if it is, my banker has failed, an' left me as poor as a church mouse."
"Are you in distress, poor woman," inquired the generous and kind-hearted girl. "Maybe you're hungry; it isn't much we can do for you; but little as it is, if you come home with me, you'll come to a family that won't scruple to share the little they have now with any one that's worse off than themselves."
"Ay, you may well say 'now,'" observed the prophet's wife; "for until now, it's they that could always afford it; an' indeed it was the ready an' the willin' bit was ever at your father's table."
The stranger looked upon the serene and beautiful features of Mave with a long gaze of interest and admiration; after which she added, with a sigh:
"And you, I believe, are the girl they talk so much about for the fair face and good heart? Little pinetration it takes to see that you have both, my sweet girl. If I don't mistake, your name is Mave Sullivan, or Gra Gal, as the people mostly call you."
Mave, whose natural delicacy was tender and pure as the dew-drop of morning, on hearing her praises thus uttered by the lips of a stranger, blushed so deeply, that her whole neck and face became suffused with that delicious crimson of modesty which, alas! is now of such rare occurrence among the sex, unconscious that, in doing so, she was adding fresh testimony to the impressions which had gone so generally abroad of her extraordinary beauty, and the many unostentatious virtues which adorned her humble life.
"Mave Sullivan is my name," she replied, smiling through her blushes: "as to the nickname, the people will call one what they like, no matther whether it's right or wrong."
"The people's seldom wrong, then, in givin' names o' the kind," returned the stranger; "but in your case, they're right at all events, as any one may know that looks upon you: that sweet face an' them fair looks is seldom if ever found with a bad heart. May God guard you, my purty and innocent girl, an' keep you safe from all evil, I pray his holy name."
The prophet's wife and Mave exchanged looks as the woman spoke: and the latter said:
"I hope you don't think there's any evil before me."
"Who is there," replied the stranger, "that can say there's not? Sure it's before us and about us every hour in the day; but in your case, darlin', I jist say, be on your guard, an' don't trust or put belief in any one that you don't know well. That's all I can say, an' indeed all I know."
"I feel thankful to you," replied Mave; "and now that you wish me well, (for I'm sure you do,) maybe you'd grant me a favor?"
"If it is widin the bounds of my power, I'll do it," returned the other; "but it's little I can do, God help me."
"Nelly," said Mave, "will you go on to the cross-roads there, an' I'll be with you in a minute."
The cross-roads alluded to were only a couple of hundred yards before them. The prophet's wife proceeded, and Mave renewed the conversation.
"What I want you to do for me is this—that is if you can do it—maybe you could bring a couple of stones of meal to a family of the name of—of—" here she blushed again, and her confusion became so evident that she felt it impossible to proceed until she had recovered in some degree her composure. "Only two or three years agone," she continued, "they were the daicentest farmers in the parish; but the world went against them as it has of late a'most against every one, owing to the fall of prices, and now they're out of their farm, very much reduced, and there's sickness amongst them, as well as want. They've been living," she proceeded, wiping away the tears which were now fast flowing, "in a kind of cabin or little cottage not far from the fine house an' place that was not long ago their own. Their name," she added, after a pause in which it was quite evident that she struggled strongly with her feelings, "is—is—Dal-ton."
"O was the young fellow one of them," asked the woman, "that was so outrageous awhile ago in the miser's? I think I heard the name given to him."
"Oh, I have nothing to say for him," replied Mave; "he was always wild, but they say never bad-hearted; it's the rest of the family I'm thinking about—and even that young man isn't more than three or four days up out o' the fever. What I want you to do is to bring the male I'm spakin' of to that family; any one will show you their little place; an' to leave it there about dusk this evenin', so that no one will ever know that you do it; an' as you love God an' hope for mercy, don't breathe my name in the business at all."
"I will do it for you," replied the other; "but in the meantime where am I to get the meal?"
"Why, at the miser's," replied Mave; "and when you go there, tell him that the person who told him they wouldn't forget it to him, sent you for it, an' you'll get it."
"God forbid I refused you that much," said the stranger; "an' although it'll keep me out longer than I expected, still I'll manage it for you, an' come or go what will, widout mentioning your name."
"God bless you for that," said Mave, "an grant that you may never be brought to the same hard pass that they're in, and keep you from ever having a heavy or a sorrowful heart."
"Ah, acushla oge," replied the woman with a profound sigh, "that prayer's too late for me; anything else than a heavy and sorrowful heart I've seldom had: for the last twenty years and upwards little but care and sorrow has been upon me.
"Indeed, one might easily guess as much," said Mave, "you have a look of heart-break and sorrow, sure enough. But answer me this: how do you know that there's evil before me or, about me?'
"I don't know much about it," returned the other; "but I'm afeard there's something to your disadvantage planned or plannin' against you. When I seen you awhile ago I didn't know you till I heard your name; I'm a stranger here, not two weeks in the neighborhood, and know hardly anybody in it."
"Well," observed Mave, who had fallen back upon her own position, and the danger alluded to by the stranger, "I'll do nothing that's wrong myself, and if there's danger about me, as I hear there is, it's a good thing to know that God can guard me in spite of all that any one can do against me."
"Let that be your principle, ahagur—sooner or latter the hand o' God can and will make everything clear, and after all, dear, he is the best protection, blessed be his name!"
They had now reached the cross-roads already spoken of, where the prophet's wife again joined them for a short time, previous to her separation from Mave, whose way from that point lay in a direction opposite to theirs.
"This woman," said Mave, "wishes to go to Condy Dalton's in the course of the evening, and you, Nelly, can show her from the road the poor place they now live in, God help them."
"To be sure," replied the other, "an' the house where they did live when they wor as themselves, full, an' warm, an' daicent; an' it is a hard case on them, God knows, to be turned out like beggars from a farm that they spent hundreds on, and to be forced to see the landlord, ould Dick o' the Grange, now settin' it at a higher rent and putting into his own pocket the money they had laid out upon improvin' it an' makin' it valuable for him and his; troth, it's open robbery an' nothin' else."
"It in a hard case upon them, as every body allows," said Mave, "but it's over now, and can't be helped. Good-bye, Nelly, an' God bless you; an' God bless you too," she added, addressing the strange woman, whose hand she shook and pressed. "You are a great deal oulder than I am, an' as I said, every one may read care an' sorrow upon your face. Mine doesn't show it yet, I know, but for all that the heart within me is full of both, an' no likelihood of its ever bein' otherwise with me."
As she spoke, the tears again gushed down her cheeks; but she checked her grief by an effort, and after a second hurried good-bye, she proceeded on her way home.
"That seems a mild girl," said the strange woman, "as she is a lovely creature to look at."
"She's better than she looks," returned the prophet's wife, "an' that's a great deal to say for her."
"That's but truth," replied the stranger, "and I believe it; for indeed she has goodness in her face."
"She has and in her heart," replied Nelly; "no wondher, indeed, that every one calls her the Gra Gal, for it's she that well deserves it. I You are bound for Condy Dalton's, then?" she added, inquiringly. "I am," said the other. "I think you must be a stranger in the country, otherwise I'd know your face," continued Nelly—"but maybe you're a relation of theirs."
"I am a stranger," said the other; "but no relation."
"The Daltons," proceeded Nelly, "are daicent people,—but hot and hasty, as the savin' is. It's the blow before the word wid them always."
"Ah, tut they say," returned her companion, "that a hasty heart was never a bad one."
"Many a piece o' nonsense they say as well as that," rejoined Nelly; "I know them that 'ud put a knife into your heart hastily enough—ay, an' give you a hasty death, into the bargain. They'll first break your head—cut you to the skull, and then, indeed, they'll give you a plaisther. That was ever an' always the carrecther of the same Daltons; an', if all accounts be thrue, the hand of God is upon them, an' will be upon them till the bloody deed is brought to light."
"How is that?" inquired the other, with intense interest, whilst her eyes became riveted upon Nelly's hard features.
"Why, a murdher that was committed betther than twenty years ago in this neighborhood."
"A murdher!" exclaimed the stranger. "Where?—when?—how?"
"I can tell you where, an' I can tell you when," replied Nelly; "but there I must stop—for unless I was at the committin' of it, you might know very well I couldn't tell you how."
"Where then?" she asked, and whilst she did so, it was by a considerable effort that she struggled to prevent her agitation from being noticed by the prophet's wife.
"Why, near the Grey Stone at the crossroads of Mallybenagh—that's the where!"
"An' now for the when?" asked the stranger, who almost panted with anxiety as she spoke.
"Let me see," replied Nelly, "fourteen and six makes twenty, an' two before that or nearly—I mane the year of the rebellion, Why it's not all out two-and-twenty years, I think."
"Aisey," said the other, "I'm but very weak an' feeble—will you jist wait till I rest a minute upon this green bank by the road."
"What ails you?" asked Nelly. "You look as if you got suddenly ill."
"I did get a little—but it'll soon pass away," she answered—"thrue enough," she added in a low voice, and as if in a soliloquy; "God is a just Judge—he is—he is! Well, but—oh, I'll soon get better—well, but listen, what became of the murdhered man?—was the body ever got?"
"Nobody knows that—the body was never got—that is to say nobody knows where it's now lyin', snug enough too."
"Ha!" thought the stranger, eying her furtively—"snug enough!—there's more knowledge where that came from. What do you mane by snug enough?" she asked abruptly.
"Mane!" replied the other, who at once perceived the force of the unguarded expression she had used;—"mane, why what could I mane, but that whoever did the deed, hid the body where very few would be likely to find it."
Her companion now stood up, and approaching the prophet's wife, raised her hand, and said in a tone that was both startling and emphatic—
"I met you this day as you may think, by accident; but take my word for it, and, as sure as we must both account for our acts, it was the hand o' God that brought us together. I now look into your face, and I tell you that I see guilt and throuble there—ay, an' the dark work of a conscience that's gnawin' your heart both night and day."
Whilst speaking, she held her face within about a foot of Nelly's, into which she looked with an expression so searching and dreadful in its penetration, that the other shrunk back, and felt for a moment as if subdued by a superior spirit. It was, however, only for a moment; the sense of her subjection passed away, and she resumed that hard and imperturbable manner, for which she had been all her life so remarkable, unless, like Etna and Vesuvius, she burst out of this seeming coldness into fire and passion. There, however, they stood looking sternly into each others' faces, as if each felt anxious that the other should quail before her gaze—the stranger, in order that her impressions might be confirmed, and the prophet's wife, that she should, by the force of her strong will, fling off those traces of inquietude which she knew very well were often too legible in her countenance.
"You are wrong," said Nelly, "an' have only mistaken my face for a lookin'-glass. It was your own you saw, all it was your own you wor spaking of—for if ever I saw a face that publishes an ill-spent life on the part of its owner, yours is it."
"Care an' sorrow I have had," replied the other, "an' the sin that causes sorrow, I grant; but there's somethin' that's weighin' down your heart, an' that won't let you rest until you give it up. You needn't deny it, for you can't hide it—hard your eye is, but it's not clear, and I see that it quivers, and is unaisy before mine."
"I said you're mistaken," replied the other; "but even supposin' you wor not, how is it your business whether my mind is aisy or not? You won't have my sins to answer for."
"I know that," said the stranger; "and God sees my own account will be too long and too heavy, I doubt. I now beg of you, as you hope to meet judgment, to think of what I said. Look into your own heart, and it will tell you whether I am right or whether I am wrong. Consult your husband, and if he has any insight at all into futurity, he must tell you that, unless you clear your conscience, you'll have a hard death-bed of it."
"You're goin' to Condy Dalton's," replied Nelly, with much coolness, but whether assumed or not it is difficult to say; "look into his face, and try what you can find there. At any rate, report has it that there's blood upon his hand, an' that the downfall of himself and his family is only the vengeance of God, an' the curse of murdher that's pursuin' him and them."
"Why," inquired the other, eagerly, "was he accused of it?"
"Ay, an' taken up for it; but bekaise the body wasn't found, they could do nothing to him."
"May Heaven assist me!" exclaimed the stranger, "but this day is——however, God's will be done, as it will be done! Are you goin'?"
"I'm goin'," replied Nelly; "by crossin' the fields here, I'll save a great deal of ground; and when you get as far as the broken bridge, you'll see a large farm-house widout any smoke from it; about a quarter of a mile or less beyant that you'll find the house you're lookin' for—the house where Condy Dalton lives."
Having thus directed the stranger, the prophet's wife entered a gap that led into a field, and proceeded on her way homewards, having, ere she parted, glanced at her with a meaning which rendered it extremely difficult to say whether the singular language addressed to her had left behind it any such impression as the speaker wished to produce. Their glances met and dwelt on each other for a short time: the strange woman pointed solemnly towards the sky, and the prophet's wife smiled carelessly; but yet, by a very keen eye, it might have been noticed that, under this natural or affected indifference, there lurked a blank or rather an unquiet expression, such as might intimate that something within her had been moved by the observations of her strange companion.
CHAPTER X. — The Black Prophet makes a Disclosure.
The latter proceeded on her way home, having marked the miserable hovel of Condy Dalton. At present our readers will accompany us once more to the cabin of Donnel Dhu, the prophet.
His wife, as the reader knows, had been startled into something like remorse, by the incidents which had occurred within the last two days, and especially by the double discovery of the dead body and the Tobacco box. Sarah, her step-daughter, was now grown, and she very reasonably concluded, her residence in the same house with this fiery and violent young female was next to an impossibility.—The woman herself was naturally coarse and ignorant; but still there was mixed, up in her character a kind of apathetic or indolent feeling of rectitude or vague humanity, which rendered her liable to occasional visitations of compunction for whatever she did that was wrong. The strongest principle in her, however, was one which is frequently to be found among her class—I mean such a lingering impression of religious feeling as is not sufficiently strong to prevent the commission of crime, but yet is capable by its influence to keep the conscience restless and uneasy under its convictions. Whether to class this feeling with weakness or with virtue, is indeed difficult; but to whichsoever of them it may belong, of one thing we are certain, that many a mind, rude and hardened by guilt, is weak or virtuous only on this single point. Persons so constituted are always remarkable for feelings of strong superstition, and are easily influenced by the occurrence of slight incidents, to which they are certain to attribute a peculiar significance, especially when connected with anything that may occasion them uneasiness for the time, or which may happen to occupy their thoughts, or affect their own welfare or interests.
The reader need not be surprised, therefore, on learning that this woman, with all her apathy of character on the general matters of life, was accessible to the feeling or principle we have just described, nor that the conversation she had just had with the strange woman, both disturbed and alarmed her.
On returning, she found her husband and step-daughter both at home; the latter hacking up some white thorn wood with an old hatchet, for the fire, and the other sitting with his head bent gloomily upon his hand, as if ruminating upon the vicissitudes of a troubled or ill-spent life.
Having deposited her burthen, she sat down, and drawing a long breath, wiped her face with the corner of a blue praskeen which she always wore, and this she did with a serious and stern face, intimating, as it were, that her mind was engaged upon matters of deep interest, whatever they might have been.
"What's that you're doin'?" she inquired of Sarah, in a grave, sharp voice.
"Have you no eyes?" replied the other; "don't you see what I am doin'?"
"Where did you get them white thorns that you're cuttin' up?"
"Where did I get them, is it?"
"Ay; I said so."
"Why, where they grew—ha, ha, ha! There's information for you."
"Oh, God help you! how do you expect to get through life at all?"
"Why, as well as I can—although not, maybe, as well as I wish."
"Where did you cut them thorns, I ax?"
"An' I tould you; but since that won't satisfy you, I cut them on the Rath above there."
"Heaven presarve us, you hardened jade, have you no fear of anything about you?"
"Divil a much that I know of, sure enough."
"Didn't you know that them thorns belongs to the fairies, and that some evil will betide any one that touches or injures a single branch o' them."
"Divil a single branch I injured," replied Sarah, laughing; "I cut down the whole tree at wanst."
"My sowl to glory, if I think its safe to live in the house wid you, you hardened divil."
"Troth, I think you may well say so, afther yesterday's escape," returned Sarah; "an' I have no objection that you should go to glory, body an' soul; an' a purty piece o goods will be in glory when you're there—ha, ha, ha!"
"Throw out them thorns, I bid you."
"Why so? Don't we want them for the fire?"
"No matther for that; we don't want to bring 'the good people'—this day's Thursday, the Lord stand between us an' harm—amin!—about our ears. Out wid them."
"No, the sorra branch."
"Out wid them, I say, Are you afeard of neither God nor the divil?"
"Not overburdened with much fear of either o' them," replied the daring young creature.
"Aren't you afeard o' the good people, then?"
"If they're good people, why should we be afeard o' them? No, I'm not."
"Put the thorns out, I bid you again."
"Divil a chip, mother dear; if your own evil conscience or your dirty cowardice makes you afeard o' the fairies, don't think I am. I don't care that about them. These same thorns must boil the dinner in spite of all the fairies in Europe; so don't fret either yourself or me on the head o' them."
"Oh, I see what's to come! There's a doom over this house, that's all, an' over some, if not all o' them that's in it. Everything's leadin' to it; an' come it will."
"Why, mother, dear, at this rate you'll leave my father nothin' to say. You're keepin' all the black prophecies to yourself. Why don't you rise up, man alive," she added, turning to him, "and let her hear how much of the divil's lingo you can give?—It's hard, if you can't prophesy as much evil as she can. Shake yourself, ruffle your feathers, or clap your wings three times, in the divil's name, an' tell her she'll be hanged; or, if you wish to soften it, say she'll go to Heaven in a string. Ha, ha, ha!"
At this moment, a poor, famine-struck looking woman, with three or four children, the very pictures of starvation and misery, came to the door, and, in that voice of terrible destitution, which rings feeble and hollow from an empty and exhausted frame, she implored them for some food.
"We haven't it for you, honest woman," said Nelly, in her cold, indifferent voice—"it's not for you now."
The hope of relief was nearly destroyed by the unfeeling tones of the voice in which she was answered. She looked, however, at her famishing children, and once more returned to the door, after having gone a few steps from it.
"Oh, what will become of these?" she added, pointing to the children. "I don't care about myself—I think my cares will soon be over."
"Go to the divil out o' that!" shouted the prophet—"don't be tormentin' us wid yourself and your brats."
"Didn't you hear already," repeated his wife, "that you got your answer? We're poor ourselves, and we can't help every one that comes to us. It's not for you now."
"Don't you hear that there's nothing for you?" again cried the prophet, in an angry voice; "yet you'll be botherin' us!"
"Indeed, we haven't it, good woman," repeated Nelly; "so take your answer."
"Don't you know that's a lie?" said Sarah, addressing her step-mother. "You have it, if you wish to give it."
"What's a lie?" said her father, starting, for he had again relapsed into his moodiness. "What's a lie?—who—who's a liar?"
"You are!" she replied, looking him coolly and contemptuously in the face; "you tell the poor woman that there's nothing for her. Don't you know that's a lie? It may be very well to tell a lie to them that can bear it—to a rich bodagh, or his proud lady of a wife—although it's a mean thing even to them; but to tell a lie to that heartbroken woman and her poor childhre—her childhre—aren't they her own?—an' who would spake for them if she wouldn't. If every one treated the poor that way, what would become of them? Ay, to look in her face, where there's want an' hunger, and answer distress wid a lie—it's cruel—cruel!"
"What a kind-hearted creature she is," said her step-mother, looking towards her father—"isn't she?"
"Come here, poor woman," said Sarah, calling her back; "it is for you. If these two choose to let you and your childhre die or starve, I won't;" and she went to the meal to serve them as she spoke.
The woman returned, and looked with considerable surprise at her; but Nelly went also to the meal, and was about to interpose, when Sarah's frame became excited, and her eyes flashed, as they always did when in a state of passion.
"If you're wise, don't prevent me," she said. "Help these creatures I will. I'm your match now, an' more than your match, thank God; so be quiet."
"If I was to die for it, you won't have your will now, then," said Nelly.
"Die when you like, then," replied Sarah; "but help that poor woman an' her childhre I will."
"Fight it out," said Donnel Dhu, "its a nice quarrel, although Sal has the right on her side."
"If you prevent me," said she, disregarding her step-mother, "you'll rue it quickly; or hould—I'm beginnin' to hate this kind of quarrellin'—here, let her have as much meal as will make my supper; I'll do without any for the sake of the childhre, this night."
This was uttered in a tone of voice more mitigated, but at the same time so resolute, that Nelly stepped back and left her to pursue her own course.
She then took a wooden trencher, and with a liberal hand assisted the poor creatures, who began to feel alarmed at the altercation which their distress had occasioned in the family.
"You're starvin', childre," said she, whilst emptying the meal into the poor woman's bag.
"May the blessin' of God rest upon you," whispered the woman, "you've saved my orphans;" and, as she uttered the words, her hollow eyes filled, and a few tears ran slowly down her cheeks.
Sarah gave a short, loud laugh, and snatching up the youngest of the children, stroked its head and patted its cheek, exclaiming—
"Poor thing; you won't go without your supper this night, at any rate."
She then laughed again in the same quick, abrupt manner, and returned into the house.
"Why, then," said her step-mother, looking at her with mingled anger and disdain, "is it tears you're sheddin'—cryin', no less! Afther that, maricles will never cease."
Sarah turned towards her hastily; the tears, in a moment, were dried upon her cheeks, and as she looked at her hard, coarse, but well-shaped features, her eyes shone with a brilliant and steady light for more than a minute. The expression was at once; lofty and full of strong contempt, and, as she stood in this singular but striking mood, it would indeed be difficult to conceive a finer type of energy, feeling, and beauty, than that which was embodied in her finely-turned and exquisite figure. Having thus contemplated the old woman for some time, she looked upon the ground, and her face passed rapidly into a new form and expression of beauty. It at once became soft and full of melancholy, and might have been mistaken for an impersonation of pity and sorrow.
"Oh, no!" she exclaimed, in a low voice, that was melody itself; "I never got it from either the one or the other—the kind or soft word—an' it's surely no wondher that I am as I am."
And as she spoke she wept. Her heart had been touched by the distress of her fellow creatures, and became, as it were, purified and made tender by its own sympathies, and she wept. Both of them looked at her; but as they were utterly incapable of understanding what she felt, this natural struggle of a great but neglected spirit excited nothing on their part but mere indifference.
At this moment, the prophet, who seemed laboring under a fierce but gloomy mood, rose suddenly up, and exclaimed—
"Nelly—Sarah!—I can bear this, no longer; the saicret must come out. I am—"
"Stop," screamed Sarah, "don't say it—don't say it! Let me leave the counthry. Let me go somewhere—any where—let me—let me—die first."
"I am——," said he.
"I know it," replied his wife; "a murdherer! I know it now—I knew it since yesterday mornin'."
"Give him justice," said Sarah, now dreadfully excited, and seizing him by the breast of his coat,—"give him common justice—give the man justice, I say. You are my father, aren't you? Say how you did it. It was a struggle—a fight; he opposed you—he did, and your blood riz, and you stabbed him for fear he might stab you. That was it. Ha! ha! I know it was, for you are my father, and I am your daughter; and that's what I would do like a man. But you never did it—ah! you never did it in cowld blood, or like a coward."
There was something absolutely impressive and commanding in her sparkling eyes, and the energetic tones of her voice, whilst she addressed him.
"Donnel," said the wife, "it's no saicret to me; but it's enough now that you've owned it. This is the last night that I'll spend with a murdherer. You know what I've to answer for on my own account; and so, in the name of God, we'll part in the mornin'."
"Ha!" exclaimed Sarah, "you'd leave him now, would you? You'd desart him now; now that all the world will turn against him; now that every tongue will abuse him; that every heart will curse him; that every eye will turn away from him with hatred; now that shame, an' disgrace, an' guilt is all upon his head; you'd leave him, would you, and join the world against him? Father, on my knees I go to you;" and she dropped down as she spoke; "here on my knees I go to you, an' before you spake, mark, that through shame an' pain, an' sufferin', an' death, I'll stay by you, an' with you. But, I now kneel to you—what I hardly ever did to God—an for his sake, for God's sake, I ask you; oh say, say that you did not kill the man in cowld blood; that's all! Make me sure of that, and I'm happy."
"I think you're both mad," replied Donnel. "Did I say that I was a murdherer? Why didn't you hear me out?"
"You needn't," returned Nelly; "I knew it since yestherday mornin'."
"So you think," he replied, "an' it's but nathural you should, I was at the place this day, and seen where you dug the Casharrawan. I have been strugglin' for years to keep this saicret, an' now it must come out; but I'm not a murdherer."
"What saicret, father, if you're not a murdherer?" asked Sarah; "what saicret; but there is not murder on you; do you say that?"
"I do say it; there's neither blood nor murdher on my head! but I know who the murdherer is, an' I can keep the saicret no longer!"
Sarah laughed, and her eyes sparkled up with singular vividness. "That'll do," she exclaimed; "that'll do; all's right now; you're not a murdherer, you killed no man, aither in cowld blood or otherwise; ha! ha! you're a good father; you're a good father; I forgive you all now, all you ever did."
Nelly stood contemplating her husband with a serious, firm, but dissatisfied look; her chin was supported upon her forefinger and thumb; and instead of seeming relieved by the disclosure she had just heard, which exonerated him from the charge of blood, she still kept her eyes riveted upon him with a stern and incredulous aspect.
"Spake out, then," she observed coolly, "an' tell us all, for I am not convinced."
Sarah looked as if she would have sprang at her.
"You are not convinced," she exclaimed; "you are not convinced! Do you think he'd tell a lie on such a subject as this?" But no sooner had she uttered the words than she started as if seized by a spasm. "Ah, father," she exclaimed, "it's now your want of truth comes against you; but still, still I believe you."
"Tell us all about it," said Nelly, coldly; "let us hear all."
"But you both promise solemnly, in the sight of God, never to breathe this to a human being till I give yez lave."
"We do; we do," replied Sarah; "in the sight of God, we do."
"You don't spake," said he, addressing Nelly.
"I promise it."
"In the sight of God?" he added, "for I know you."
"Ay." said she, "in the sight of God, since you must have it so."
"Well, then," said he, "the common report is right; the man that murdhered him is Condy Dalton. I have kept it in till I can bear it no longer. It's my intention to go to a magistrate's as soon as my face gets well. For near two-and-twenty years, now, this saicret is lyin' hard upon me; but I'll aise my mind, and let justice take it's coorse. Bad I have been, but never so bad as to take my fellow-crature's life."
"Well, I'm glad to hear it," said his wife; "an' now I can undherstand you."
"And I'm both glad and sorry," exclaimed Sarah; "sorry for the sake of the Daltons. Oh! who would suppose it! and what will become of them?"
"I have no peace," her father added; "I have not had a minute's peace ever since it happened; for sure, they say, any one that keeps their knowledge of murdher saicret and won't tell it, is as bad as the murdherer himself. There's another thing I have to mention," he added, after a pause; "but I'll wait for a day or two; it's a thing I lost, an', as the case stands now, I can do nothing widout it."
"What is it, father?" asked Sarah, with animation; "let us know what it is."
"Time enough yet," he replied; "it'll do in a day or two; in the mean time it's hard to tell but it may turn up somewhere or other; I hope it may; for if it get into any hands but my own—"
He paused and bent his eyes with singular scrutiny first upon Sarah, who had not the most distant appreciation of his meaning. Not so Nelly, who felt convinced that the allusion he made was to the Tobacco-box, and her impression being that it was mixed up in some way with an act of murder, she determined to wait until he should explain himself at greater length upon the subject. Had Sarah been aware of its importance, she would have at once disclosed all she knew concerning it, together with Hanlon's anxiety to get it into his possession. But of this she could know nothing, and for that reason there existed no association, in her mind, to connect it with the crime which the Prophet seemed resolved to bring to light.
When Donnel Dhu laid himself down upon the bed that day, he felt that by no effort could he shake a strong impression of evil from off him. The disappearance of the Box surprised him so much, that he resolved to stroll out and examine a spot with which the reader is already acquainted. On inspecting the newly-disturbed earth, he felt satisfied that the body had been discovered, and this circumstance, joined with the disappearance of the Tobacco-box, precipitated his determination to act as he was about to do; or, perhaps altogether suggested the notion of taking such steps as might bring Condy Dalton to justice. At present it is difficult to say why he did not allude to the missing Box openly, but perhaps that may be accounted for at a future and more appropriate stage of our narrative.
CHAPTER XI. — Pity and Remorse.
The public mind, though often obtuse and stupid in many matters, is in others sometimes extremely acute and penetrating. For some years previous to the time laid in our tale, the family of Condy Dalton began to decline very perceptibly in their circumstances. There had been unpropitious seasons; there had been failure of crops and disease among the cattle—and, perhaps what was the worst scourge of all, there existed a bad landlord in the person of Dick-o'-the-Grange. So long, however, as they continued prosperous, their known principles of integrity and strict truth caused them to be well spoken of and respected, in spite of the imputation which had been made against them as touching the murder of Sullivan. In the course of time, however, when the evidences of struggle succeeded those of comfort and independence, the world began to perceive the just judgments of God as manifested in the disasters which befel them, and which seemed to visit them as with a judicial punishment. Year after year, as they sank in the scale of poverty, did the almost forgotten murder assume a more prominent and distinct shape in the public mind, until at length it became too certain to be doubted, that the slow but sure finger of God's justice was laid upon them as an additional proof that crime, however it may escape the laws of men, cannot veil itself from the all-seeing eye of the Almighty.
There was, however, an individual member of the family, whose piety and many virtues excited a sympathy in her behalf, as general as it was deep and compassionate. This was Mrs. Dalton, towards whom only one universal impression of good-will, affection, and respect prevailed. Indeed, it might be said that the whole family were popular in the country; but, notwithstanding their respectability, both individually and collectively, the shadow of crime was upon them; and as long as the people saw that everything they put their hand to failed, and that a curse seemed to pursue them, as if in attestation of the hidden murder, so long did the feeling that God would yet vindicate His justice by their more signal punishment, operate with dreadful force against them, with the single exception we have mentioned.
Mrs. Dalton, on her return home from her unsuccessful visit to the miser's, found her family in the same state of grievous privation in which she had left them. 'Tis true she had not mentioned to any of them her intention of appealing to the gratitude or humanity of Skinadre; yet they knew, by an intuitive perception of her purpose, that she had gone to him, and although their pride would not allow them to ask a favor directly from him, yet they felt pleased that she had made the experiment, and had little doubt that the miser, by obliging her in the request she went to prefer, would gladly avail himself of the circumstance to regain their good will, not so much on their own account, as for the sake of standing well in the world, in whose opinion he knew he had suffered by his treachery towards them in the matter of their farm. She found her husband seated in an old arm-chair, which, having been an heir-loom in the family for many a long year, had, with one or two other things, been purchased in at the sheriff's sale. There was that chair, which had come down to them from three or four generations; an old clock, some smaller matters, and a grey sheep, the pet of a favorite daughter, who had been taken away from them by decline during the preceding autumn. There are objects, otherwise of little value, to which we cling for the sake of those unforgotten affections, and old mournful associations that invest indifferent things with a feeling of holiness and sorrow by which they are made sacred to the heart.
Condy Dalton was a man tolerably well stricken in years; his face was pale, but not unhealthy looking; and his hair, which rather flowed about his shoulders, was almost snow white—a circumstance which, in this case, was not attributed to the natural progress of years, but to that cankered remorse which turns the head grey before its time. Their family now consisted of two sons and two daughters, the original number having been two sons and three daughters—one of the latter having fallen a victim to decline, as we have already stated. The old man was sitting in the arm-chair, in which he leant back, having his chin at the same time on his breast, a position which gave something very peculiar to his appearance.
As Mrs. Dalton had occupied a good deal of time in unsuccessfully seeking for relief from other sources, it is unnecessary to say that the day had now considerably advanced, and the heavy shadows of this dismal and unhealthy evening had thrown their gloom over the aspect of all nature, to which they gave an appearance of desolation that was in painful keeping with the sickness and famine that so mercilessly scourged the kingdom at large. A pot of water hung upon a dark slow fire, in order that as little time as possible might be lost in relieving their physical wants, on Mrs. Dalton's return with the relief which they expected.
"Here's my mother," said one of her daughters, looking with a pale cheek and languid eye out of the door; for she, too, had been visited by the prevailing illness; "an', my God! she's comin' as she went—empty handed!"
The other sister and Con, her brother, went also to look out, and there she was, certainly without relief.
"She isn't able to carry it herself," said their father; "or maybe she's comin' to get one of you—Con, I suppose—to go for it. Bad as Skinadre is, he wouldn't have the heart to refuse us a lock o' meal to keep the life in us. Oh! no, he'd not do that."
In a few moments Mrs. Dalton entered, and after looking upon the scene of misery about her, she sat down and burst into tears. "Mother," said the daughter, "there's no relief, then? You came as you went, I see."
"I came as I went, Nanty; but there is relief. There's relief for the poor of this world in Heaven; but on this earth, an' in this world, there is none for us—glory be to the name of God, still."
"So Skinadre refused, then?" said her husband; "he wouldn't give the meal?"
"No," she replied, "he would not; but the truth is, our woful' state is now so well known, that nobody will trust us; they know there's no chance of ever bein' paid, an' they all say they can't afford it."
"I'm not surprised at what Tom says," observed our friend, young Con, "that the meal-mongers and strong farmers that keep the provisions up on the poor desarves to be smashed and tramped under foot; an' indeed they'll get it, too, before long, for the people can't stand this, especially when one knows that there's enough, ay, and more than enough, in the country."
"If had tobacco," said the old man, "I didn't care—that would keep the hunger off o' me; but it's poor Mary, here, now recoverin' from the sickness, that I pity; don't cry, Mary, dear; come here, darlin', come here, and turn up that ould creel, and sit down beside me. It's useless to bid you not to cry, avourneen machree, bekaise we all know what you feel; but you have one comfort—you are innocent—so are you all—there's nothing on any of your minds—no dark thought to lie upon your heart—oh, no, no; an' if it was only myself that was to suffer, I could bear it; but to see them that's innocent sufferin' along wid me, is what kills me. This is the hand of God that's upon us, an' that will be upon us, an' that has been upon us, an' I knew it would be so; for ever since that black night, the thought—the thought of what happened!—ay, it's that that's in me, an' upon me—it's that that has put wrinkles in my cheek before their time, an' that has made my hair white before its time, and that has—"
"Con, dear," observed his wife, "I never wished you to be talkin' of that before them; sure you did as much as a man could do; you repented, an' were sorry for it, an' what more could be expected from you?"
"Father, dear," said Mary, drying, or struggling to dry her tears, "don't think of me, or of any of us, nor don't think of anything that will disturb your mind—don't think of the, at any rate—I'm very weak, but I'm not so hungry as you may think; if I had one mouthful of anything just to take this feelin' that I have inwardly, an' this weakness away, I would be satisfied—that would do me; an' although I'm cryin' it's more to see your misery, father dear, an' all your miseries, than for what I'm sufferin' myself; but there's a kiss for you, it's all I have to give you."
"Mary, dear," said her sister, smote to the heart by her words, "you're sufferin' more than any of us, you an' my father," and she encircled her lovingly and mournfully in her arms as she spoke, and kissed her wan lips, after which she went to the old man, and said in a voice of compassion and consolation that was calculated to soothe any hearers—
"Oh, father, dear, if you could only banish all uneasy thoughts from your mind—if you could only throw that darkness that's so often over you, off you, we could bear anything—anything—Oh, anything, if we seen you aisy in your mind, an' happy!"
Mrs. Dalton had dried her tears, and sat upon a low stool musing and silent, and apparently revolving in her mind the best course to be pursued under such circumstances. It was singular to observe the change that had taken place in her appearance even within a few hours; the situation of her family, and her want of success in procuring them food, had so broken down her spirits and crushed her heart, that the lines of her face were deepened and her features sharpened and impressed with the marks of suffering as strongly as if they had been left there by the affliction of years. Her son leant himself against a piece of the broken wall that partially divided their hut into something like two rooms, if they could be called so, and from time to time he glanced about him, now at his father, then at his poor sisters, and again at his heart-broken mother, with an impatient agony of spirit that could scarcely be conceived.
"Well," said he, clenching his hands and grinding his teeth, "it is expected that people like us will sit tamely undher sich tratement as we have resaved from Dick o' the Grange. Oh, if we had now the five hundre good pounds that we spent upon our farm—spent, as it turned out, not for ourselves, but to enable that ould villain of a landlord to set it to Darby Skinadre; for I b'lieve it's he that's to get it, with strong inthrest goin' into his pocket for all our improvements; if we had now," he continued, his passion rising, "if we had that five hundre pounds now, or one hundre, or one pound, great God! ay, or one shillin' now, wouldn't it save some of you from starving"
This reflection, which in the young man excited only wrath, occasioned the female portion of the family to burst into fresh sorrow; not so the old man; he arose hastily, and paced up and down the floor in a state of gloomy indignation and fury which far transcended that of his son.
"Oh!" said he, "if I was a young man, as I was wanst—but the young men now are poor, pitiful, cowardly—I would—I would;" he paused suddenly, however, looked up, and clasping his hands, exclaimed—"forgive me, O God! forgive the thought that was in my unhappy heart! Oh, no, no, never, never allow yourself, Con, dear, to be carried away by anger, for 'fraid you might do in one minute, or in a short fit of anger, what might make you pass many a sleepless night, an' maybe banish the peace of God from your heart forever!"
"God bless you for them last words, Condy!" exclaimed his wife, "that's the way I wish you always to spake; but what to do, or where to go, or who to turn to, unless to God himself, I don't know."
"We're come to it at last," said their daughter Peggy; "little we thought of it, but at all events, it's betther to do that than to do worse—betther than to rob or steal, or do an ondaicent act of any kind. In the name of God, then, rather than you should die of hunger, Mary—you an' my father an' all of yez—I'll go out and beg from the neighbors."
"Beg!" shouted the old man, with a look of rage—"beg!" he repeated, starting to his feet and seizing his staff—"beg! you shameless and disgraceful strap. Do you talk of a Dalton goin' out to bee? taka that!"
And as he spoke, he hit her over the arm with a stick he always carried.
"Now that will teach you to talk of beg-gin'. No!—die—die first—die at wanst; but no beggin' for any one wid the blood of a Dalton in their veins. Death—death—a thousand times sooner!"
"Father—oh! father, father, why, why did you do that?" exclaimed his son, "to strike poor kind an' heart-broken Peggy, that would shed her blood for you or any of us. Oh! father, I am sorry to see it."
The sorrowing girl turned pale by the blow, and a few tears came down her cheeks; but she thought not of herself, nor of her sufferings. After the necessary pause caused by the pain, she ran to him, and, throwing her arms about his neck, exclaimed in a gush of sorrow that was perfectly heart-rending to witness—
"Oh! father dear, forgive me—your own poor Peggy; sure it was chiefly on your account and Mary's I was goin' to do it. I won't go, then, since you don't wish it; but I'll die with you."
The old man flung the stick from him, and clasping her in his arms, he sobbed and wept aloud.
"My darlin' child," he exclaimed, "that never yet gave one of us a bad word or angry look—will you forgive your unhappy father, that doesn't know what he's doin'! Oh! I feel that this state we're in—this outher desolation an' misery we're in—will drive me mad! but that hasty blow, avourneen machree—that hasty blow an' the hot temper that makes me give it, is my curse yet, has always been my curse, an' ever will be my curse; it's that curse that's upon me now, an' upon all of us this minute—it is, it is!"
"Condy," said his wife, "we all know that you're not as bad as you make yourself. Within the last few years your temper has been sorely tried, and your heart too, God knows; for our trials and our downcome in this world has been great. In all these trials, however, and sufferings, its a consolation to us, that we never neglected to praise an' worship the Almighty—we are now brought almost to the very last pass—let us go to our knees, then, an' throw ourselves upon His mercy, and beg of Him to support us, an' if it's His holy will, to aid us, and send us relief."
"Oh, Mary dear," exclaimed her husband, "but you are the valuable and faithful wife! If ever woman was a protectin' angel to man, you wor to me. Come children, in the name of the merciful God, let us kneel and pray."
The bleak and depressing aspect of twilight had now settled down upon the sweltering and deluged country, and the air was warm, thick, moist, and consequently unhealthy. The cabin of the Daltons was placed in a low, damp situation; but fortunately it was approached by a remnant of one of those old roads or causeways which had once been peculiar to the remote parts of the country, and also of very singular structure, the least stone in it being considerably larger than a shilling loaf. This causeway was nearly covered with grass, so that in addition to the antique and desolate appearance which this circumstance gave it, the footsteps of a passenger could scarcely be heard as they fell upon the thick close grass with which its surface was mostly covered.
Along this causeway, then, at the very hour when the Daltons, moved by that piety which is characteristic of our peasantry, had gone to prayer, was the strange woman whom we have already noticed, proceeding with that relief which it may be God in His goodness had ordained should reach them in answer to the simple but trustful spirit of their supplications. On reaching the miserable looking cabin, she paused, listened, and heard their voices blend in those devout tones that always mark the utterance of prayer among the people. They were, in fact, repeating a Rosary, and surely, it is not for those who differ with them in creed, or for any one who feel the influence of true charity, to quarrel with the form of prayer, when the heart is moved as theirs were, by earnestness and humble piety.
The strange woman on approaching the door more nearly, stood again for a minute or two, having been struck more forcibly by something which gave a touching and melancholy character to this simple act of domestic worship. She observed, for instance, that their prayers were blended with many sighs, and from time to time, a groan escaped from one of the males, which indicated either deep remorse or a sense of some great misery. One of the female voices, too, was so feeble as scarcely to be heard, yet there ran through it, she felt, a spirit of such tender and lowly resignation, mingled with such an expression of profound sorrow, as almost moved her to tears. The door was open, and the light so dim, that she could not distinctly see their persons—two circumstances which for a moment induced her to try if it were possible to leave the meal there without their knowledge. She determined otherwise, however, and as their prayers were almost immediately concluded, she entered the house. The appearance of a stranger in the dusky gloom carrying a burden, caused them to suppose that it was some poor person coming to ask charity, or permission to stop for the night.
"Who is this?" asked Condy. "Some poor person, I suppose, axin' charity," he added. "But God's will be done, we haven't it to give this many a long day. Glory be to his name!"
"This is Condy Dalton's house?" said the strange woman in a tone of inquiry.
"Sich as it is, it's his house, an' the best he has, my poor creature. I wish it was betther both for his sake and yours," he replied, in a calm and resigned voice, for his heart had been touched and solemnized by the act of devotion which had just concluded.
Mrs. Dalton, in the meantime, had thrown a handful of straw on the fire to make a temporary light.
"Here," said the stranger, "is a present of meal that a' friend sent you."
"Meal!" exclaimed Peggy Dalton, with a faint scream of joy; "did you say meal?" she asked.
"I did," replied the other; "a friend that heard of your present distress, and thinks you don't desarve it, sent it to you."
Mrs. Dalton raised the burning straw, and looked for about half a minute into her face, during which the woman carried the meal over and placed it on the hearth.
"I met you to-day, I think," said Mrs. Dalton, "along with Donnel Dhu's wife on your way to Darby Skinadre's?"
"You might," replied the woman; "for I went there part o' the road with her."
"And who are we indebted to for the present?" she asked again.
"I'm not at liberty to say," replied the other; "barrin' that it's from a friend and well-wisher."
Mrs. Dalton clasped her hands, and looking with an appearance of abstraction, on the straw as it burned in the fire, said in a voice that became infirm by emotion—
"Oh! I know it; it can be no other. The friend that she speaks of is the girl—the blessed girl—whose goodness is in every one's mouth—Gra Gal Sullivan. I know it, I feel it."
"Now," said the woman, "I must go; but before I go, I wish to look on the face of Condy Dalton."
"There's a bit of rush on the shelf there," said Mrs. Dalton to one of her daughters; "bring it over and light it."
The girl did so, and the strange woman, taking the little taper in her hand, approached Dalton, and looking with a gaze almost fearfully solemn and searching into his face.
"You are Condy Dalton?" she asked.
"I am," said he.
"Answer me now," she proceeded, "as if you were in the presence of God at judgment, are you happy?"
Mrs. Dalton, who felt anxious for many reasons, to relieve her unfortunate husband from this unexpected and extraordinary catechist, hastened to reply for him.
"How, honest woman, could a man be happy who is in a state of such destitution, or who has had such misfortunes as he has had;" and as she spoke her eyes filled with tears of compassion for her husband.
"Don't break it upon me," said the woman, solemnly, "but let me ax my question, an' let him give his answer. In God's name and presence, are you a happy man?"
"I can't speak a lie to that, for I must yet meet my judge—I am not."
"You have one particular thought that makes you unhappy."
"I have one particular thought that makes me unhappy."
"How long has it made you unhappy?"
"For near two-and-twenty years."
"That's enough," she replied; "God's hand is in it all—I must now go. I have done what I was axed to do; but there's a higher will at work. Honest woman," she added, addressing Mrs. Dalton, "I wish you and your childre good night!"
The moment she went they almost ceased to think of her. The pot still hung on the fire, and little time was lost in preparing a meal of food.
From the moment Gra Gal Sullivan's name was mentioned, the whole family observed that young Con started and appeared to become all at once deeply agitated; he walked backwards and forwards—sat down—and rose up—applied his hands to his forehead—appeared sometimes flushed, and again pale—and altogether seemed in a state which it was difficult to understand.
"What is the matter with you, Con?" asked his mother, "you seem dreadfully uneasy."
"I am ill, mother," he replied—"the fever that was near taking Tom away, is upon me; I feel that I have it by the pains that's in my head and the small o' my back."
"Lie down a little, dear," she added, "its only the pain, poor boy, of an empty stomach—lie down on your poor bed, God help you, and when the supper's ready you'll be better."
"It's her," he replied—"it's her—I know it"—and as he uttered the words, touched by her generosity, and the consciousness of his own poverty, he wept bitterly, and then repaired to his miserable bed, where he stretched himself in pain and sorrow.
"Now, Con," said his wife, in a tone of consolation and encouragement, "will you ever despair of God's mercy, or doubt his goodness, after what has happened?"
"I'm an unhappy man, Nancy," he replied, "but it never went to that with me, thank God—but where is that poor wild boy of ours, Tom,—oh, where is he now, till he gets one meal's mate?"
"He is up at the Murtaghs," said his sister, "an' I had better fetch him home; I think the poor fellow's almost out of his senses since Peggy Murtagh's death—that an' the dregs of the fever has him that he doesn't know what he's doin', God help him."
CHAPTER XII. — Famine, Death, and Sorrow.
It has never been our disposition, either in the living life we lead, or in the fictions, humble and imperfect as they are, which owe their existence to our imagination, to lay too heavy a hand upon human frailty, any more than it has been to countenance or palliate vice, whether open or hypocritical. Peggy Murtagh, with whose offence and death the reader is already acquainted, was an innocent and affectionate girl, whose heart was full of kind, generous, and amiable feelings. She was very young, and very artless, and loved not wisely but too well; while he who was the author of her sin, was nearly as young and artless as herself, and loved her with a first affection. She was, in fact, one of those gentle, timid, and confiding creatures who suspect not evil in others, and are full of sweetness and kindness to every one. Never did there live—with the exception of her offence—a tenderer daughter, or a more affectionate sister than poor Peggy, and for this reason, the regret was both sincere and general, which was felt for her great misfortune. Poor girl! she was but a short time released from her early sorrows, when her babe followed her, we trust, to a better world, where the tears were wiped from her eyes, and the weary one got rest.
The scene in her father's house on this melancholy night, was such as few hearts could bear unmoved, as well on account of her parents' grief, as because it may be looked upon as a truthful exponent both of the destitution of the country, and of the virtues and sympathies of our people.
Stretched upon a clean bed in the only room that was off the kitchen, lay the fair but lifeless form of poor Peggy Murtagh. The bed was, as is usual, hung with white, which was simply festooned about the posts and canopy, and the coverlid was also of the same spotless color, as were the death clothes in which she was laid out. To those who are beautiful—and poor Peggy had possessed that frequently fatal gift—death in its first stage, bestows an expression of mournful tenderness that softens while it solemnizes the heart. In her case there was depicted all the innocence and artlessness that characterized her brief and otherwise spotless life. Over this melancholy sweetness lay a shadow that manifested her early suffering and sorrow, made still more touching by the presence of an expression which was felt by the spectator to have been that of repentance. Her rich auburn hair was simply divided on her pale forehead, and it was impossible to contemplate the sorrow and serenity which blended into each other upon her young brow, without feeling that death should disarm us of our resentments, and teach us a lesson of pity and forgiveness to our poor fellow-creatures, who, whatever may have been their errors, will never more offend either God or man. Her extreme youthfulness was touching in the highest degree, and to the simplicity of her beauty was added that unbroken stillness which gives to the lifeless face of youth the only charm that death has to bestow, while it fills the heart I to its utmost depths with the awful conviction that that is the slumber which no human care nor anxious passion shall ever break, The babe, thin and pallid, from the affliction of its young and unfortunate mother, could hardly be looked, upon, in consequence of its position, without tears. They had placed it by her side, but within her arm, so that by this touching arrangement all the brooding tenderness of the mother's love seemed to survive and overcome the power of death itself. There they lay, victims of sin, but emblems of innocence, and where is the heart that shall, in the inhumanity of its justice, dare to follow them out of life, and disturb the peace they now enjoy by the heartless sentence of unforgiveness?
It was, indeed, a melancholy scene. The neighbors having heard of her unexpected death, came to the house, as is customary, to render every assistance in their power to the bereaved old couple, who were now left childless. And here too, might we read the sorrowful impress of the famine and illness which desolated the land. The groups around the poor departed one were marked with such a thin and haggard expression as general destitution always is certain to leave behind it. The skin of those who, with better health and feeding, had been fair and glossy as ivory, was now wan and flaccid;—the long bones of others projected sharply, and as it were offensively to the feelings of the spectators—the over-lapping garments hung loosely about the wasted and feeble person, and there was in the eyes of all a dull and languid motion, as if they turned in their socket by an effort. They were all mostly marked also by what appeared to be a feeling of painful abstraction, which, in fact, was nothing else than that abiding desire for necessary food, which in seasons of famine keeps perpetually gnawing, as they term it, at the heart, and pervades the system by that sleepless solicitation of appetite, which, like the presence of guilt, mingles itself up, while it lasts, with every thought and action of one's life.
In this instance it may be remembered, that the aid which the poor girl had come to ask from Skinadre was, as she said, 'for the ould couple,' who had, indeed, been for a long time past their last meal, a very common thing during such periods, and were consequently without a morsel of food. The appearance of her corpse, however, at the house, an event so unexpected, drove, for the time, all feelings of physical want from their minds; but this is a demand which will not be satisfied, no matter by what moral power or calamity it may be opposed, and the wretched couple were now a proof of it. Their conduct to those who did not understand this, resembled insanity or fatuity more than anything else. The faces of both were ghastly, and filled with a pale, vague expression of what appeared to be horror, or the dull staring stupor, which results from the fearful conflict of two great opposing passions in the mind—passions, which in this case were the indomitable ones of hunger and grief. After dusk, when the candles were lighted, they came into the room where their daughter was laid out, and stood for some time contemplating herself and her infant in silence. Their visages were white and stony as marble, and their eyes, now dead and glassy, were marked by no appearance of distinct consciousness, or the usual expression of reason. They had no sooner appeared, than the sympathies of the assembled neighbors were deeply excited, and there was nothing heard for some minutes, but groans, sobbings, and general grief. Both stood for a short time, and looked with amazement about them. At length, the old man, taking the hand of his wife in his, said—
"Kathleen, what's this?—what ails me? I want something."
"You do, Brian—you do. There s Peggy there, and her child, poor thing; see how quiet they are! Oh, how she loved that child! an' see her darlin'—see how she keeps her arm about it, for fear anything! might happen it, or that any one might take it away from her; but that's her, all over—she loved everything."
"Ay," said the old man, "I know how she loved it; but, somehow, she was ever and always afeard, poor thing, of seemin' over fond of it before us or before strangers, bekaise you know the poor unhappy—bekaise you know—what was I goin' to say? Oh, ay, an' I'll tell you, although I didn't let on to her, still I loved the poor little thing myself—ay, did I. But, ah! Kathleen, wasn't she the good an' the lovin' daughter?" The old woman raised her head, and looked searchingly around the room. She seemed uneasy, and gave a ghastly smile, which it was difficult to understand. She then looked into her husband's face, after which she turned her eyes upon the countenances of the early dead who lay before her, and going over to them, stooped and looked closely into their still but composed faces, She then put her hand upon her daughter's forehead, touched her lips with her fingers, carried her hand down along her arm, and felt the pale features of the baby with a look of apparent wonder; and whilst she did this, the old man left the room and passed into the kitchen.
"For God's love, an' take her away," said a neighboring woman, with tears in her eyes; "no one can stand this."
"No, no," exclaimed another, "it's best to let her have her own will; for until they both shed plenty of tears, they won't get the betther of the shock her unexpected death gave them."
"Is it thrue that Tom Dalton's gone mad, too?" asked another; "for it's reported he is."
"No; but they say he's risin' the counthry to punish Dick o' the Grange and Darby Skinadre—the one, he says, for puttin' his father and themselves out o' their farm; and the other for bein' the death, he says, of poor Peggy there and the child; an' for tak in', or offerin' to take, the farm over their heads."
The old woman then looked around, and, asked—
"Where is Brian? Bring him to me—I want him here. But wait," she added, "I will find him myself."
She immediately followed him into the I kitchen, where the poor old man was found searching every part of the house for food.
"What are you looking for, Brian?" asked another of his neighbors.
"Oh," he replied, "I am dyin' wid fair hunger—wid fair hunger, an' I want something to ait;" and as he spoke, a spasm of agony came over his face. "Ah," he added, "if Alick was livin' it isn't this way we'd be, for what can poor Peggy do for us afther her 'misfortune?' However, she is a good girl—a good daughter to us, an' will make a good wife, too, for all that has happened yet; for sure they wor both young and foolish, an' Tom is to marry her. She is now all we have to depend on, poor thing, an' it wrings my heart to catch her in lonesome places, cryin' as if her heart would break; for, poor thing, she's sorry—sorry for her fault, an' for the shame an' sorrow it has brought her to; an' that's what makes her pray, too, so often as she does; but God's good, an' he'll forgive her, bekaise she has repented."
"Brian," said his wife, "come away till I show you something."
As she spoke, she led him into the other room.
"There," she proceeded, "there is our dearest and our best—food—oh, I am hungry, too; but I don't care for that—sure the mother's love is stronger than hunger or want either: but there she is, that was wanst our pride and our delight, an' what is she now? She needn't cry now, the poor heartbroken child; she needn't cry now; all her sorrow, and all her shame, and all her sin is over. She'll hang her head no more, nor her pale cheek won't get crimson at the sight of any one that knew her before her fall; but for all her sin in that one act, did her heart ever fail to you or me? Was there ever such love an' care, an' respect, as she paid us? an' we wouldn't tell her that we forgave her; we wor too hardhearted for that, an' too wicked to say that one word that she longed for so much—oh an' she our only one—but now—daughter of our hearts—now we forgive you when it's too late—for, Brian, there they are! there they lie in their last sleep—the sleep that they will never waken from! an' it's well for them, for they'll waken no more to care an' throuble, and shame! There they lie! see how quiet an' calm they both lie there, the poor broken branch, an' the little withered flower!"
The old man's search for food in the kitchen had given to the neighbors the first intimation of their actual distress, and in a few minutes it was discovered that there was not a mouthful of anything in the house, nor had they tasted a single morsel since the morning before, when they took a little gruel which their daughter made for them. In a moment, with all possible speed, the poor creatures about them either went or sent for sustenance, and in many a case, almost the last morsel was shared with them, and brought, though scanty and humble, to their immediate assistance. In this respect there is not in the world any people so generous and kind to their fellow-creatures as the Irish, or whose sympathies are so deep and tender, especially in periods of sickness, want, or death. It is not the tear alone they are willing to bestow—oh no—whatever can be done, whatever aid can be given, whatever kindness rendered, or consolation offered, even to the last poor shilling, or, "the very bit out of the mouth," as they say themselves, will be given with a good will, and a sincerity that might in vain be looked for elsewhere. But alas! they know what it is to want this consolation and assistance themselves, and hence their promptitude and anxiety to render them to others. The old man, touched a little by the affecting language of his wife, began to lose the dull stony look we have described, and his eyes turned upon those who were about him with something like meaning, although at that moment it could scarcely be called so.
"Am I dhramin'?" he asked. "Is this a dhrame? What brings the people all about us? Where's Alick from us—an' stay—where's her that I loved best, in spite of her folly? Where's Peggy from me—there's something wrong wid me—and yet she's not here to take care o' me?"
"Brian, dear," said a poor famished-looking woman approaching him, "she's in a betther place, poor thing."
"Go long out o' that," he replied, "and don't put your hands on me. It's Peggy's hands I want to have about me, an' her voice. Where's Peggy's voice, I say? 'Father, forgive me,' she said, 'forgive me, father, or I'll never be happy more;' but I wouldn't forgive her, although my heart did at the same time; still I didn't say the word: bring her here," he added, "tell her I'm ready now to forgive her all; for she, it's she that was the forgivin' creature herself; tell her I'm ready now to forgive her all, an' to give her my blessin' wanst more."
It was utterly impossible to hear this language from the stunned and heart-broken father, and to contemplate the fair and lifeless form of the unhappy young creature as she lay stretched before him in the peaceful stillness of death, without being moved even to tears. There were, indeed, few dry eyes in the house as he spoke.
"Oh, Brian dear," said her weeping mother, "we helped ourselves to break her heart, as well as the rest. We wouldn't forgive her; we wouldn't say the word, although her heart was breakin' bekaise we did not. Oh, Peggy," she commenced in Irish, "oh, our daughter—girl of the one fault! the kind, the affectionate, and the dutiful child, to what corner of the world will your father an' myself turn now that you're gone from us? You asked us often an' often to forgive you, an' we would not. You said you were sorry, in the sight of God an' of man, for your fault—that your heart was sore, an' that you felt our forgiveness would bring you consolation; but we would not. Ould man," she exclaimed abruptly, turning to her husband, "why didn't you forgive our only daughter? Why, I say, didn't you forgive her her one fault—you wicked ould man, why didn't you forgive her?"
"Oh, Kathleen, I'll die," he replied, mournfully, "I'll die if I don't get something to ait. Is there no food? Didn't Peggy go to thry Darby Skinadre, an' she hoped, she said, that she'd bring us relief; an' so she went upon our promise to forgive her when she'd come back wid it."
"I wish, indeed, I had a drop o' gruel or something myself," replied his wife, now reminded of her famished state by his words.
At this moment, however, relief, so far as food was concerned, did come. The compassionate neighbors began, one by one, to return each with whatever could be spared from their own necessities, so that in the course of a little time this desolate old couple were supplied with provisions sufficient to meet the demands of a week or fortnight.
It is not our intention to describe, or rather to attempt to describe, the sorrow of Brian Murtagh and his wife, as soon as a moderate meal of food had awakened them, as it were, from the heavy and stupid frenzy into which the shock of their unhappy daughter's death, joined to the pangs of famine, had thrown them. It may be sufficient to say, that their grief was wild, disconsolate, and hopeless. She was the only daughter they had ever had: and when they looked back upon the gentle and unfortunate girl's many virtues, and reflected that they had, up to her death, despite her earnest entreaties, withheld from her their pardon for her transgression, they felt, mingled with their affliction at her loss, such an oppressive agony of remorse as no language could describe.
Many of the neighbors now proposed the performance of a ceremony, which is frequently deemed necessary in cases of frailty similar to that of poor Peggy Murtagh:—a ceremony which, in the instance before us, was one of equal pathos and beauty. It consisted of a number of these humble, but pious and well-disposed people joining in what is termed the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, which was an earnest solicitation of mercy, through her intercession with her Son, for the errors, frailties, and sins of the departed; and, indeed, when her youth and beauty, and her artlessness and freedom from guile, were taken into consideration, in connection with her unexpected death, it must be admitted that this act of devotion was as affecting as it was mournful and solemn. When they came to the words, "Mother most pure, Mother most chaste, Mother undefiled, Mother most loving, pray for her!"—and again to those, "Morning Star, Health of the Weak, Refuge of Sinners, Comfortress of the Afflicted, pray for her!"—their voices faltered, became broken, and, with scarcely a single exception, they melted into tears. And it was a beautiful thing to witness these miserable and half-famished creatures, shrunk and pinched with hunger and want, laboring, many of them, with incipient illness, and several only just recovered from it, forgetting their own distress and afflictions, and rendering all the aid and consolation in their power to those who stood in more need of it than themselves. When these affecting prayers for the dead had been concluded, a noise was heard at the door, and a voice which in a moment hushed them into silence and awe. The voice was that of him whom the departed girl had loved with such fatal tenderness.
"In the name of God," exclaimed one of them, "let some of you keep that unfortunate boy out; the sight of him will kill the ould couple." The woman who spoke, however, had hardly concluded, when Thomas Dalton entered the room, panting, pale, tottering through weakness, and almost frantic with sorrow and remorse. On looking at the unhappy sight before him, he paused and wiped his brow, which was moistened by excitement and over-exertion.
There was now the silence of death in the room so deep, that the shooting of a spark from one of the death-candles was heard by every one present, an incident which, small as it was, deepened the melancholy interest of the moment.
"An' that's it," he at last exclaimed, in a voice which, though weak, quivered with excess of agony—"that's it, Peggy dear—that's what your love for me has brought you to! An' now it's too late, I can't help you now, Peggy dear. I can't bid you hould your, modest face up, as the darlin' wife of him who loved you betther than all this world besides, but that left you, for all that a stained name an' a broken heart! Ay! an' there's what your love for me brought you to! What can I do now for you, Peggy dear? All my little plans for us both—all that I dreamt of an' hoped to come to pass, where are they now, Peggy dear? And it wasn't I, Peggy, it was poverty—oh you know how I loved you!—it was the downcome we got—it was Dick-o'-the-Grange, that oppressed us—that ruined us—that put us out without house or home—it was he, and it was my father—my father that they say has blood on his hand, an' I don't doubt it, or he wouldn't act the part he did—it was he, too that prevented me from doin' what my heart encouraged me to do for you! O blessed God," he exclaimed, "what will become of me! when I think of the long, sorrowful, implorin' look she used to give me. I'll go mad!—I'll go mad!—I've killed her—I've murdhered her, an' there's no one to take me up an' punish me for it! An' when I was ill, Peggy dear, when I had time to think on my sick bed of all your love and all your sorrow and distress and shame on my account, I thought I'd never see you in time to tell you what I was to do, an' to give consolation to your breakin' heart; but all that's now over; you are gone from me, an' like the lovin' crathur you ever wor, you brought your baby along wid you! An' when I think of it—oh God, when I think of it, before your shame, my heart's delight, how your eye felt proud out of me, an' how it smiled when it rested on me. Oh, little you thought I'd hould back to do you justice—me that you doted on—an' yet it was I that sullied you—I! me! Here," he shouted—"here, is there no one to saize a murdherer!—no one to bring him to justice!"
Those present now gathered about him, and attempted as best they might, to soothe and pacify him; but in vain.
"Oh," he proceeded, "if she was only able to upbraid me—but what am I sayin'—upbraid! Oh, never, never was her harsh word heard—oh, nothing ever to me but that long look of sorrow—that long look of sorrow, that will either drive me mad, or lave me a broken heart! That's the look that'll always, always be before me, an' that, 'till death's day, will keep me from ever bein' a happy man."
He now became exhausted, and received a drink of water, after which he wildly kissed her lips, and bathed her inanimate face, as well as those of their infant, with tears.
"Now," said he, at length; "now, Peggy dear, listen—so may God never prosper me, if I don't work bitther vengeance on them that along wid myself, was the means of bringin' you to this—Dick-o'-the-Grange, an' Darby Skinadre, for if Darby had given you what you wanted, you might be yet a livin' woman. As for myself, I care not what becomes of me; you are gone, our child is gone, and now I have nothing in this world that I'll ever care for; there's nothing in it that I'll ever love again."
He then turned to leave the room, and was in the act of going out of it, when her father, who had nearly recovered the use of his reason, said:
"Tom Dalton, you are lavin' this house, an' may the curse of that girl's father, broken-hearted as you've left him, go along wid you."
"No," exclaimed his wife, "but may the blessin' of her mother rest upon you for the sake of the love she bore you!"
"You've spoken late, Kathleen Murtagh," he replied; "the curse of the father is on me, an' will folly me; I feel it."
His sister then entered the room to bring him home, whither he accompanied her, scarcely conscious of what he did, and ignorant of the cloud of vengeance which was so soon to break upon his wretched father's head.
CHAPTER XIII. — Sarah's Defence of a Murderer.
Our readers are not, perhaps, in general, aware that a most iniquitous usage prevailed among Middlemen Landlords, whenever the leases under which their property was held were near being expired. Indeed, as a landed proprietor, the middleman's position differed most essentially from that of the man who held his estate in fee. The interest of the latter is one that extends beyond himself and his wants, and is consequently transmitted to his children, and more remote descendants; and on his account he is, or ought to be, bound by the ties of a different and higher character, to see that it shall not pass down to them in an impoverished or mutilated condition. The middleman, on the contrary, feels little or none of this, and very naturally endeavors to sweep from off the property he holds, whilst he holds it, by every means possible, as much as it can yield, knowing that his tenure of it is but temporary and precarious. For this reason, then, it too frequently happened that on finding his tenant's leases near expiring, he resorted to the most unscrupulous and oppressive means to remove from his land those who may have made improvements upon it, in order to let it to other claimants at a rent high in proportion to these very improvements.
Our readers know that this is not an extreme case, but a plain, indisputable fact, which has, unfortunately, been one of the standing grievances of our unhappy country, and one of the great curses attending the vicious and unsettled state of property in Ireland.
Dick-o'-the-Grange's ejectment of Condy Dalton and his family, therefore, had, in the eyes of many of the people, nothing in it so startlingly oppressive as might be supposed. On the contrary, the act was looked upon as much in the character of a matter of right on his part, as one of oppression to them. Long usage had reconciled the peasantry to it, and up to the period of our tale, there had been no one to awaken and direct public feeling against it.
A fortnight had now elapsed since the scene in which young Dalton had poured out his despair and misery over the dead body of Peggy Murtagh, and during that period an incident occurred, which, although by no means akin to the romantic, had produced, nevertheless, a change in the position of Dick-o'-the-Grange himself, without effecting any either in his designs or inclinations. His own leases had expired, so that, in one sense, he stood exactly in the same relation to the head landlord, in which his own tenants did to him. Their leases had dropped about a twelvemonth or more before his, and he now waited until he should take out new ones himself, previous to his proceeding any further in the disposition and readjustment of his property. Such was his position and theirs, with reference to each other, when one morning, about a fortnight or better subsequent to his last appearance, young Dick, accompanied by the Black Prophet, was seen to proceed towards the garden—both in close conversation. The Prophet's face was now free from the consequences of young Dalton's violence, but it had actually gained in malignity more than it had lost by the discoloration and disfigurement resulting from the blow. There was a calm, dark grin visible when he smiled, that argued a black and satanic disposition; and whenever the lips of his hard, contracted, and unfeeling mouth expanded by his devilish sneer, a portion of one of his vile side fangs became visible, which gave to his features a most hateful and viper-like aspect. It was the cold, sneering, cowardly face of a man who took delight in evil for its own sake, and who could neither feel happiness himself, nor suffer others to enjoy it.
As they were about to enter the garden Donnel Dhu saw approaching him at a rapid and energetic pace, his daughter Sarah, whose face, now lit up by exercise, as well as by the earnest expression of deep interest which might be read in it, never before appeared so strikingly animated and beautiful.
"Who is this lovely girl approaching us?" asked the young man, whose eyes at once kindled with surprise and admiration.
"That is my daughter," replied Donnel, coldly; "what can she want with me now, and what brought her here?"
"Upon my honor, Donnel, that girl surpasses anything I have seen yet. Why she's perfection—her figure is—is—I haven't words for it—and her face—good heavens! what brilliancy and animation!"
The Prophet's brow darkened at his daughter's unseasonable appearance in the presence of a handsome young fellow of property, whose character for gallantry was proverbial in the country.