"In Gobstown the tenants rose up and demanded a reduction of rent; the good landlord gave it to them. They rose up again and demanded another reduction of rent; he gave it to them. They went on rising up, asking reductions, and getting them, until there was no rent left for anyone to reduce. The landlord was as good and as poor as our best.
"And while all this was going on Gobstown was surrounded by estates where there were the most ferocious landlords—rack-renting, absentee, evicting landlords, landlords as wild as tigers. And these tiger landlords were leaping at their tenants and their tenants slashing back at them as best they could. Nothing, my dear, but blood and the music of grape-shot and shouts in the night from the jungle. In Gobstown we had to sit down and look on, pretending, moryah, that we were as happy as the day was long.
"Not a scalp was ever brought into Gobstown. No man of us ever went out on an adventure which might bring him home again through the mouth of the county jail. Not a secret enterprise that might become a great public excitement was ever hatched, not to speak of being launched. We had not as much as a fife-and-drum band. We did not know how to play a tin whistle or beat upon the tintinnabulum. We never waved a green flag. We had not a branch of any kind of a league. We had no men of skill to draft a resolution, indite a threatening letter, draw a coffin, skull, and cross-bones, fight a policeman, or even make a speech. We were never a delegate at a convention, an envoy to America, a divisional executive, a deputation, or a demonstration. We were nothing. We wilted under the blight of our good landlord as the green stalk wilts under the frost of the black night.... Hand me that knife. The one with the wooden handle.
"In desperation we used rouse ourselves and march into the demonstrations on other estates. We were a small and an unknown tribe. The Gobstown contingent always brought up the rear of the procession—a gawky, straggling, bad-stepping, hay-foot, straw-foot lot! The onlookers hardly glanced at us. We stood for nothing. We had no name. Once we rigged up a banner with the words on it, 'Gobstown to the Front!' but still we were put to the back, and when we walked through this town the servant girls came out of their kitchens, laughed at us, and called out, 'Gobstown to the Back of the Front!'
"The fighting men came to us, took us aside, and asked us what we were doing in Gobstown. We had no case to make. We offered to bring forward our good landlord as a shining example, to lead our lamb forward in order that he might show up the man-eaters on the other estates. The organisers were all hostile. They would not allow us into the processions any more. If we could bring forward some sort of roaring black devil we would be more than welcome. Shining examples were not in favour. We were sent home in disgrace and broke up. As the preachers say, our last state was worse than our first.
"We became sullen and drowsy and fat and dull. We got to hate the sight of each other, so much so that we began to pay our rents behind each other's backs, at first the reduced rents, then, gale day by gale day, we got back to the original rent, and kept on paying it. Our good landlord took his rents and said nothing. Gobstown became the most accursed place in all Ireland. Brother could not trust brother. And there were our neighbours going from one sensation to another. They were as lively as trout, as enterprising as goats, as intelligent as Corkmen. They were thin and eager and good-tempered. They ate very little, drank water, slept well, men with hard knuckles, clean bowels, and pale eyes. Anything they hit went down. They were always ready to go to the gallows for each other.
"I had a famous cousin on one of these estates, and I suppose you heard of him? You didn't! What are they teaching you at school at all? Latin grammar? Well, well!... My cousin was a clumsy fellow with only a little of middling kind of brains, but a bit of fight in him. Yet look at the way he got on, and look at me, shodding little boys like yourself! I was born under a lucky star but my cousin was born under a lucky landlord—a ferocious fellow who got into a garret in London and kept roaring across at Ireland for more and more blood. Every time I thought of that old skin of a man howling in the London garret I said to myself, 'He'll be the making of my cousin.' And so, indeed, he was. Three agents were brought down on my cousin's estate. State trials were running like great plays in the courthouse. Blood was always up. They had six fife-and-drum bands and one brass band. They had green and gold banners with harps and streamers, and mottoes in yellow lettering, that took four hardy men to carry on a windy day. The heads of the Peelers were hardly ever out of their helmets. The resident magistrate rose one day in the bosom of his family, his eyes closed, to say grace before meals, and from dint of habit he was chanting the Riot Act over the table until his wife flew at him with, 'How dare you, George! The mutton is quite all right!' Little boys no bigger than yourself walking along the roads to school in that splendid estate could jump up on the ditch and make good speeches.
"My cousin's minute books—he was secretary of everything—would stock a book-shop, and were noted for beautiful expressions. He was the author of ten styles of resolution construction. An enemy christened him Resolving Kavanagh. Every time he resolved to stand where he always stood he revolved. Everybody put up at his house. He was seen in more torchlight processions than Bryan O'Lynn. A room in his house was decorated in a beautiful scheme of illuminated addresses with border designs from the Book of Kells. The homes of the people were full of the stumps of burned-down candles, the remains of great illuminations for my cousin whenever he came out of prison. I tell you no lie when I say that that clumsy cousin of mine became clever and polished, all through pure practice. He had the best of tutors. The skin of a landlord in the London garret, his agents, their understrappers, removable magistrates, judges, Crown solicitors, county inspectors of police, sergeants, constables, secret service men,—all drove him from fame to fame until in the end they chased him out the only gap that was left open to the like of him—the English Parliament. Think of the streak of that man's career! And there was I, a man of capacity and brains, born with the golden spoon of talent in my mouth, dead to the world in Gobstown! I was rotting like a turnip under the best and the most accursed of landlords. In the end I could not stand it—no man of spirit could.
"One day I took down my ashplant, spat on my fist, and set out for my cousin's place. He gave me no welcome. I informed him as to how the land lay in Gobstown. I said we must be allowed to make a name for ourselves as the producers of a shining example of a landlord. My cousin let his head lie over a little to one side and then said, 'In this country shining examples ought only be used with the greatest moderation.' He looked out through the window and after some time said, 'That Gobstown landlord is the most dangerous lunatic in all Ireland.' 'How is that?' said I. 'Because,' said my famous cousin, 'he has a perfect heart.' He put his head over to the other side, looked at me and said, 'If Gobstown does not do something he may be the means of destroying us all.' 'How?' said I. 'He may become contagious,' said my cousin. 'Only think of his example being followed and Ireland turned into one vast tract of Gobstowns! Would not any fate at all be better than that?' I who knew said, 'God knows it would.'
"My cousin sighed heavily. He turned from me, leaving me standing there in the kitchen, and I saw him moving with a ladder to the loft overhead. This he mounted and disappeared in the black rafters. I could hear him fumbling somewhere under the thatch. Presently down he came the ladder, a gun in one hand, and a fistful of cartridges in the other. He spoke no word, and I spoke no word. He came to me and put the gun in my hand and the handful of cartridges in my pocket. He walked to the fire and stood there with his back turned. I stood where I was, a Gobstown mohawk, with the gun in my hand. At last I said, 'What is this for?' and grounded the gun a little on the floor. My cousin did not answer at once. At last he said without moving, 'It's for stirring your tea, what else?' I looked at him and he remained as he was and, the sweat breaking out on the back of my neck, I left the house and made across the fields for home, the cartridges rattling in my pocket every ditch I leapt, the feel of the gun in my hand becoming more familiar and more friendly.
"At last I came to the summit of a little green hill overlooking Gobstown, and there I sat me down. The sight of Gobstown rose the gorge in me. Nothing came out of it but weak puffs of turf smoke from the chimneys—little pallid thin streaks that wobbled in the wind. There, says I, is the height of Gobstown. And no sound came up out of it except the cackle of geese, and then the bawl of an old ass in the bog. There, says I, is the depth of Gobstown. And rising up from the green hill I made up my mind to save Ireland from Gobstown even if I lost my own soul. I would put a bullet in the perfect heart of our good landlord.
"That night I lay behind a certain ditch. The moon shone on the nape of my neck. The good landlord passed me by on the road, he and his good wife, chattering and happy as a pair of lovers. I groped for the gun. The queerest feeling came over me. I did not even raise it. I had no nerve. I quaked behind the ditch. His footsteps and her footsteps were like cracks of this hammer on my head. I knew, then, in that minute, that I was no good, and that Gobstown was for ever lost.... What happened me? Who can say that for certain? Many a time have I wondered what came over me in that hour. I can only guess.... Nobody belonging to me had ever been rack-rented. I had never seen any of my own people evicted. No great judge of assize had ever looked down on me from his bench to the dock and addressed to me stern words. I had never heard the clang behind me of a prison door. No royal hand of an Irish constabularyman had ever brought a baton down on my head. No carbine had ever butted the soft places of my body. I had no scars that might redden with memories. The memories I had and that might give me courage were not memories of landlords. There was nothing of anger in my heart for the Gobstown landlord, and he went by. I dragged my legs out of the ditch and drowned my cousin's gun in a boghole. After it I dropped in the handful of cartridges. They made a little gurgle in the dark water like blood in a shot man's throat. And that same night I went home, put a few things in a red handkerchief, and stole out of Gobstown like a thief. I walked along the roads until I came to this town, learned my trade, became a respectable shoemaker, and—tell your mother I never use anything only the best leather. There are your boots, Padna, tips and all ... half-a-crown. Thanks, and well wear!"
The Rector came round the gable of the church. He walked down the sanded path that curved to the road. Half-way down he paused, meditated, then turning gazed at the building. It was square and solid, bulky against the background of the hills. The Rector hitched up his cuffs as he gazed at the structure. Critical puckers gathered in little lines across the preserved, peach-like cheeks. He put his small, nicely-shaped head to one side. There was a proprietorial, concerned air in his attitude. One knew that he was thinking of the repairs to the church, anxious about the gutters, the downpipe, the missing slates on the roof, the painting of the doors and windows. He struck an attitude as he pondered the problem of the cracks on the pebble-dashed walls. His umbrella grounded on the sand with decision. He leaned out a little on it with deliberation, his lips unconsciously shaping the words of the ultimatum he should deliver to the Select Vestry. His figure was slight, he looked old-world, almost funereal, something that had become detached, that was an outpost, half-forgotten, lonely; a man who had sunk into a parish where there was nothing to do. He mumbled a little to himself as he came down to the gate in the high wall that enclosed the church grounds.
A group of peasants was coming along the yellow, lonely road, talking and laughing. The bare-footed women stepped with great active strides, bearing themselves with energy. They carried heavy baskets from the market town, but were not conscious of their weight. The carded-wool petticoats, dyed a robust red, brought a patch of vividness to the landscape. The white "bauneens" and soft black hats of the men afforded a contrast. The Rector's eyes gazed upon the group with a schooled detachment. It was the look of a man who stood outside of their lives, who did not expect to be recognised, and who did not feel called upon to seem conscious of these peasant folk. The eyes of the peasants were unmoved, uninterested, as they were lifted to the dark figure that stood at the rusty iron gate leading into the enclosed church grounds. He gave them no salutation. Their conversation voluble, noisy, dropped for a moment, half through embarrassment, half through a feeling that something alive stood by the wayside. A vagueness in expression on both sides was the outward signal that two conservative forces had met for a moment and refused to compromise.
One young girl, whose figure and movements would have kindled the eye of an artist, looked up and appeared as if she would smile. The Rector was conscious of her vivid face, framed in a fringe of black hair, of a mischievousness in her beauty, some careless abandon in the swing of her limbs. But something in the level dark brows of the Rector, something that was dour, forbade her smile. It died in a little flush of confusion. The peasants passed and the Rector gave them time to make some headway before he resumed his walk to the Rectory.
He looked up at the range of hills, great in their extent, mighty in their rhythm, beautiful in the play of light and mist upon them. But to the mind of the Rector they expressed something foreign, they were part of a place that was condemned and lost. He began to think of the young girl who, in her innocence, had half-smiled at him. Why did she not smile? Was she afraid? Of what was she afraid? What evil thing had come between her and that impulse of youth? Some consciousness—of what? The Rector sighed. He had, he was afraid, knowledge of what it was. And that knowledge set his thoughts racing over their accustomed course. He ran over the long tradition of his grievances—grievances that had submerged him in a life that had not even a place in this wayside countryside. His mind worked its way down through all the stages of complaint until it arrived at the Ne Temere decree. The lips of the Rector no longer formed half-spoken words; they became two straight, tight little thin lines across the teeth. They would remain that way all the afternoon, held in position while he read the letters in the Irish Times. He would give himself up to thoughts of politics, of the deeds of wicked men, of the transactions that go on within and without governments, doping his mind with the drug of class opiates until it was time to go to bed.
Meantime he had to pass a man who was breaking stones in a ditch by the roadside. The hard cracks of the hammer were resounding on the still air. The man looked up from his work as the Rector came along; the grey face of the stone-breaker had a melancholy familiarity for him. The Rector had an impulse—it was seldom he had one. He stood in the centre of the road. The Ne Temere decree went from his mind.
"Good-day, my man," he said, feeling that he had made another concession, and that it would be futile as all the others.
"Good-day, sir," the stone-breaker made answer, hitching himself upon the sack he had put under his haunches, like one very ready for a conversation.
There was a pause. The Rector did not know very well how to continue. He should, he knew, speak with some sense of colloquialism if he was to get on with this stonebreaker, a person for whom he had a certain removed sympathy. The manner of these people's speech was really a part of the grievances of the Rector. Their conversation, he often secretly assured himself, was peppered with Romish propaganda. But the Rector made another concession.
"It's a fine day, thank God," he said. He spoke like one who was delivering a message in an unfamiliar language. "Thank God" was local, and might lend itself to an interpretation that could not be approved. But the Rector imported something into the words that was a protection, something that was of the pulpit, that held a solemnity in its pessimism.
"A fine day, indeed, glory be to God!" the stonebreaker made answer. There was a freshness in his expression, a cheerfulness in the prayer, that made of it an optimism.
The Rector was so conscious of the contrast that it gave him pause again. The peach-like colourings on the cheeks brightened, for a suspicion occurred to him. Could the fellow have meant anything? Had he deliberately set up an optimistic Deity in opposition to the pessimistic Deity of the Rector? The Rector hitched up the white cuffs under his dark sleeves, swung his umbrella, and resumed his way, his lips puckered, a little feverish agitation seizing him.
"A strange, down-hearted kind of a man," the stonebreaker said to himself, as he reached out for a lump of lime-stone and raised his hammer. A redbreast, perched on an old thorn bush, looking out on the scene with curious eyes, stretched his wing and his leg, as much as to say, "Ah, well," sharpened his beak on a twig, and dropped into the ditch to pick up such gifts as the good earth yielded.
The Rector walked along the road pensive, but steadfast, his eyes upon the alien hills, his mind travelling over ridges of problems that never afforded the gleam of solution. He heard a shout of a laugh. Above the local accents that held a cadence of the Gaelic speech he heard the sharp clipping Northern accent of his own gardener and general factotum. He had brought the man with him when he first came to Connacht, half as a mild form of colonisation, half through a suspicion of local honesty. He now saw the man's shaggy head over the Rectory garden wall, and outside it were the peasants.
How was it that the gardener got on with the local people? How was it that they stood on the road to speak with him, shouting their extravagant laughter at his keen, dry Northern humour?
When he first came the gardener had been more grimly hostile to the place than the Rector himself. There had been an ugly row on the road, and blows had been struck. But that was some years ago. The gardener now appeared very much merged in the life of the place; the gathering outside the Rectory garden was friendly, almost a family party. How was it to be accounted for? Once or twice the Rector found himself suspecting that at the bottom of the phenomenon there might be all unconscious among these people a spirit of common country, of a common democracy, a common humanity, that forced itself to the surface in course of time. The Rector stood, his lips working, his nicely-shaped little head quivering with a sudden agitation. For he found himself thinking along unusual lines, and for that very reason dangerous lines—frightfully dangerous lines, he told himself, as an ugly enlightenment broke across his mind, warming it up for a few moments and no more. As he turned in the gate at the Rectory it was a relief to him—for his own thoughts were frightening him—to see the peasants moving away and the head of the gardener disappear behind the wall. He walked up the path to the Rectory, the lawn dotted over with sombre yew trees all clipped into the shape of torpedoes, all trained directly upon the forts of Heaven! The house was large and comfortable, the walls a faded yellow. Like the church, it was thrown up against the background of the hills. It had all the sombre exclusiveness that made appeal to the Rector. The sight of it comforted him at the moment, and his mental agitation died down. He became normal enough to resume his accustomed outlook, and before he had reached the end of the path his mind had become obsessed again by the thought of the Ne Temere decree. Something should, he felt convinced, be done, and done at once.
He ground his umbrella on the step in front of the Rectory door and pondered. At last he came to a conclusion, inspiration lighting up his faded eyes. He tossed his head upwards.
"I must write a letter to the papers," he said. "Ireland is lost."
Persons: Mrs. Ford Donagh Ford Hugh Deely Agnes Deely
Scene: A farmhouse in Connacht.
Hugh: They'll make short work of the high field. It's half ploughed already.
Donagh: It was good of the people to gather as they did, giving us their labour.
Hugh: The people had always a wish for your family, Donagh. Look at the great name your father left behind him in Carrabane. It would be a fine sight for him if he had lived to stand at this door now, looking at the horses bringing the plough over the ground.
Donagh: And if he could move about this house, even in his great age. He never got accustomed to the smallness of the hut down at Cussmona.
Hugh: When I was a bit of a gosoon I remember the people talking about the eviction of Donagh Ford. It was terrible work used to be in Carrabane those times. Your father was the first man to fight, and that was why the people thought so well of him.
Donagh: He would never speak of it himself, for at home he was a silent, proud man. But my mother used to be telling me of it many a time.
Hugh: Your mother and yourself have the place back now. And you have Agnes to think of.
Donagh: Agnes is a good thought to me surely. Was she telling you we fixed the day of the wedding yesterday at your uncle's?
Hugh: She was not. A girl like her is often shy of speaking about a thing of that kind to her brother. I'd only be making game of her. (A cheer is heard in the distance outside. Hugh goes to look out door.)
Hugh: Here is the car coming up the road with your mother and Agnes. They're giving her a welcome.
Donagh (looking out of window): She'll be very proud of the people, they to have such a memory of my father.
Hugh: I'll run out and greet her. (In a sly undertone.) Agnes is coming up. (He goes out laughing. Donagh hangs up harness on some pegs. Agnes Deely, wearing a shawl over her head and carrying a basket on her arm, comes in.)
Agnes: Donagh, your mother was greatly excited leaving the hut. I think she doesn't rightly understand what is happening.
Donagh: I was afeard of that. The memory slips on her betimes. She thinks she's back in the old days again.
Agnes (going to dresser, taking parcels from the basket.): My father was saying that we should have everything here as much like what it used to be as we can. That's why he brought up the bin. When they were evicted he took it up to his own place because it was too big for the hut.
Donagh: Do you know, Agnes, when I came up here this morning with your brother, Hugh, I felt the place strange and lonesome. I think an evicted house is never the same, even when people go back to it. There seemed to be some sorrow hanging over it.
Agnes (putting up her shawl): Now Donagh, that's no way for you to be speaking. If you were to see how glad all the people were! And you ought to have the greatest joy.
Donagh: Well, then I thought of you, Agnes, and that changed everything. I went whistling about the place. (Going to her.) After coming down from your uncle's yesterday evening I heard the first cry of the cuckoo in the wood at Raheen.
Agnes: That was a good omen, Donagh.
Donagh: I took it that way, too, for it was the first greeting I got after parting from yourself. Did you hear it, Agnes?
Agnes: I did not. I heard only one sound the length of the evening.
Donagh: What sound was that, Agnes?
Agnes: I heard nothing only the singing of one song, a lovely song, all about Donagh Ford!
Donagh: About me?
Agnes: Yes, indeed. It was no bird and no voice, but the singing I heard of my own heart.
Donagh: That was a good song to hear, Agnes. It is like a thought that would often stir in a man's mind and find no word to suit it. It is often that I thought that way of you and could speak no word.
Agnes: All the same I think I would have an understanding for it, Donagh.
Donagh: Ah, Agnes, that is just it. That is what gives me the great comfort in your company. We have a great understanding of each other surely.
Hugh (speaking outside): This is the way, Mrs. Ford. They are waiting for you within. (He comes in.) Donagh, here is your mother. (Mrs. Ford, leaning on a stick, comes to the door, standing on the threshold for a little. Hugh and Donagh take off their hats reverently.)
Mrs. Ford: And is that you, Donagh. Well, if it is not the fine high house you got for Agnes. Eh, pet?
Agnes (taking shawl from her): It is your own house Donagh has taken you back to.
Hugh: Did you not hear the people giving you a welcome, Mrs. Ford?
Donagh: Don't you remember the house, mother?
Mrs. Ford: I have a memory of many a thing, God help me. And I heard the people cheering. I thought maybe it was some strife was going on in Carrabane. It was always a place of one struggle or another. (She looks helplessly about house, muttering as she hobbles to the bin. She raises the lid.) Won't you take out a measure of oats to the mare, Donagh? And they have mislaid the scoop again. I'm tired telling them not to be leaving it in the barn. Where is that Martin Driscoll and what way is he doing his business at all? (She turns to close the bin.)
Hugh (to Donagh): Who is Martin Driscoll?
Donagh: A boy who was here long ago. I heard a story of him and a flight with a girl. He lies in a grave in Australia long years.
Mrs. Ford (moving from bin, her eyes catching the dresser): Who put the dresser there? Was it by my orders? That is a place where it will come awkward to me.
Agnes (going to her): Sit down and rest yourself. You are fatigued after making the journey.
Mrs. Ford (as they cross to fire): Wait until I lay eyes on Martin Driscoll and on Delia Morrissey of the cross! I tell you I will regulate them.
Donagh (to Hugh): Delia Morrissey—that is the name of the girl I spoke of. She was lost on the voyage, a girl of great beauty.
Agnes (to Mrs. Ford): Did you take no stock of the people as you came on the car?
Mrs. Ford: In throth I did. It was prime to see them there reddening the sod and the little rain drops falling from the branches of the trees.
Hugh: They raised a great cheer for you.
Mrs. Ford: Did you say that it was to me they were giving a welcome?
Donagh: Indeed it was, mother.
Mrs. Ford (laughing a little): Mind that, Agnes. They are the lively lads to be taking stock of an old woman the like of me driving the roads.
Hugh: The people could not but feel some stir to see what they saw this day. I declare to you, Donagh, when I saw her old stooped dark figure thrown against the sky on the car it moved something in me.
Mrs. Ford: What are you saying about a stir in the country, Hugh Deely?
Hugh: Was it not something to see the planter going from this place? Was it not something to see you and Donagh coming from a miserable place in the bog?
Mrs. Ford (sharply): The planter, did you say? (Clutching her stick to rise). Blessed be God! Is Curley the planter gone from Carrabane? Don't make any lie to me, Hugh Deely.
Hugh: Curley is gone.
Mrs. Ford (rising with difficulty, her agitation growing): And his wife? What about his trollop of a wife?
Donagh: The whole brood and tribe of them went a month back.
Agnes: Did not Donagh tell you that you were back in your own place again? (Mrs. Ford moves about, a consciousness of her surroundings breaking upon her. She goes to room door, pushing it open.)
Hugh: It is all coming back to her again.
Donagh: She was only a little upset in her mind.
Mrs. Ford (coming from room door): Agnes, and you, Hugh Deely, come here until I be telling you a thing of great wonder. It was in this house Donagh there was born. And it was in that room that we laid out his little sister, Mary. I remember the March day and the yellow flowers they put around her in the bed. She had no strength for the rough world. I crossed her little white hands on the breast where the life died in her like a flame. Donagh, my son, it was nearly all going from my mind.
Agnes: This is no day for sad thoughts. Think of the great thing it is for you to be back here again.
Mrs. Ford: Ah, that's the truth, girl. Did the world ever hear of such a story as an old woman like me to be standing in this place and the planter gone from Currabane! And if Donagh Ford is gone to his rest his son is here to answer for him.
Donagh: The world knows I can never be the man my father was.
Mrs. Ford (raising her stick with a little cry): Ah-ha, the people saw the great strength of Donagh Ford. 'They talk of a tenant at will,' he'd say, 'but who is it that can chain the purpose of a man's mind.' And they all saw it. There was no great spirit in the country when Donagh Ford took the courage of his own heart and called the people together.
Hugh: This place was a place of great strife then.
Mrs. Ford: God send, Agnes Deely, that you'll never have the memory of a bitter eviction burned into your mind.
Donagh: That's all over and done now, mother. There is a new life before you.
Mrs. Ford: Well, they had their way and put us across the threshold. But if they did it was on this hearth was kindled a blaze that swept the townland and wrapped the country. It went from one place to another and no wave that rose upon the Shannon could hold it back. It was a thing that no power could check, for it ran in the blood and only wasted in the vein of the father to leap fresh in the heart of the son. Ah, I will go on my knees and kiss the threshold of this house for the things it calls to mind. (She goes to door, kneeling down and kissing the threshold.)
Hugh: It is a great hold she has on the old days and a great spirit. (A low murmur of voices is heard in the distance outside.)
Donagh: They are turning the ploughs into the second field.
Mrs. Ford: What's that you say about the ploughs?
Donagh (going to her): The boys are breaking up the land for us. (He and Hugh help her to rise. They are all grouped at the door.)
Agnes: It was they who cheered you on the road.
Mrs. Ford: The sight is failing me.
Donagh. I can only make out little dark spots against the green of the fields.
Donagh: Those are the people, mother.
Mrs. Ford (crossing to fireplace): The people are beginning to gather behind the ploughs again. Tell me, Donagh, what way is the wind coming?
Donagh: It is coming up from the South.
Mrs. Ford (speaking more to herself): Well, I can ask no more now. The wind is from the South and it will bear that cheer past where HE is lying in Gurteen-na-Marbh. It is a kind wind and it carries good music. Take my word for it every sound that goes on the wind is not lost to the dead.
Hugh: You ought to take her out of these thoughts.
Agnes: Leave her with me for a little while. (Hugh and Donagh move to door.)
Mrs. Ford: Where are you going, Donagh?
Donagh: Down to the people breaking the ground. They will be waiting for word of your home-coming.
Mrs. Ford: Ah, sure you ought to have the people up here, a mhic. I'd like to see all the old neighbours about me and hear the music of their voices.
Hugh: Very well. I'll step down and bid them up. (He goes.)
Mrs. Ford: You'll have the anxiety of the farm on your mind from this out, Donagh.
Donagh: Well, it is not the hut, with the hunger of the bog about it, that I will be bringing Agnes into now.
Mrs. Ford: Agnes, come here, love, until I look upon the sweetness of your face. (Agnes goes to her, kneeling by her side.) You'll be in this place with Donagh. It is a great inheritance you will have in the name of Donagh Ford. It is no idle name that will be in this house but the name of one who knew a great strength. It will be a long line of generations that the name of the Fords will reach out to, generations reaching to the time that Ireland herself will rise by the power of her own will.
Agnes (rising): You will only sadden yourself by these thoughts. Think of what there is in store for you.
Mrs. Ford: I'm an old woman now, child. There can be no fresh life before me. But I can tell you that I was young and full of courage once. I was the woman who stood by the side of Donagh Ford, that gave him support in the day of trial, that was always the strong branch in the storm and in the calm. Am I saying any word only what is a true word, Donagh?
Donagh: The truth of that is well known to the people. (He goes to door.)
Mrs. Ford: Very well. Gather up all the people now, son. Let them come in about this place for many of them have a memory of it. Let me hear the welcome of their voices. They will have good words to say, speaking on the greatness of Donagh Ford who is dead.
Donagh: They are coming out from the fields with Hugh, mother. I see the young fellows falling into line. They are wearing their caps and sashes and they have the band. I can see them carrying the banner to the front of the crowd. Here they are marching up the road. (The strains of a fife and drum band playing a spirited march are heard in the distance. Mrs. Ford rises slowly, "humouring" the march with her stick, her face expressing her delight. The band stops.)
Mrs. Ford: That's the spirit of Carrabane. Let the people now look upon me in this place and let them take pride in my son.
Donagh: I see Stephen Mac Donagh.
Mrs. Ford: Let him be the first across the threshold, for he went to jail with Donagh Ford. Have beside him Murt Cooney that lost his sight at the struggle of Ballyadams. Let him lift up his poor blind face till I see the rapture of it.
Donagh: Murt Cooney is coming, and Francis Kilroy and Brian Mulkearn.
Mrs. Ford: It was they who put a seal of silence on their lips and bore their punishment to save a friend of the people. Have a place beside me for the widow of Con Rafferty who hid the smoking revolver the day the tyrant fell at the cross of Killbrack.
Donagh: All the old neighbours are coming surely.
Mrs. Ford (crossing slowly to door, Agnes going before her): Let me look into their eyes for the things I will see stirring there. I will reach them out the friendship of my hands and speak to them the words that lie upon my heart. The rafters of this house will ring again with the voices that Donagh Ford welcomed and that I loved. Aye, the very fire on the hearth will leap in memory of the hands that tended it.
Donagh: This will be such a day as will be made a boast of for ever in Carrabane. (Agnes goes out door to meet the people.)
Mrs. Ford: Let there be music and the sound of rejoicing and shouts from the hills. Let those who put their feet in anger upon us and who are themselves reduced to-day look back upon the strength they held and the power they lost.
Donagh: I will bid the music play up. (He goes out.)
Mrs. Ford (standing alone at the door): People of Carrabane, gather about the old house of Donagh Ford. Let the fight for the land in this place end where it began. Let the courage and the strength that Donagh Ford knew be in your blood from this day out. Let the spirit be good and the hand be strong for the work that the heart directs. Raise up your voices with my voice this day and let us make a great praise on the name of Ireland. (She raises her stick, straightening her old figure. The band strikes up and the people cheer outside as the curtain falls.)
A WAYSIDE BURIAL
The parish priest was in a very great hurry and yet anxious for a talk on his pet subject. He wanted to speak about the new temperance hall. Would I mind walking a little way with him while he did so? He had a great many things to attend to that day.... We made our way along the street together, left the town behind us, and presently reached that sinister appendage of all Irish country towns, the workhouse. The priest turned in the wide gate, and the porter, old, official, spectacled, came to meet him.
"Has the funeral gone?" asked the priest, a little breathless.
"I'll see, Father." The porter shuffled over the flags, a great door swung open; there was a vista of whitewashed walls, a chilly, vacant corridor, and beyond it a hall where old men were seated on forms at a long, white deal table. They were eating—a silent, grey, bent, beaten group. Through a glass partition we could see the porter in his office turning over the leaves of a great register.
"I find," he said, coming out again, speaking as if he were giving evidence at a sworn inquiry, "that the remains of Martin Quirke, deceased, were removed at 4.15."
"I am more than half an hour late," said the priest, regarding his watch with some irritation.
We hurried out and along the road to the country, the priest trailing his umbrella behind him, speaking of the temperance hall but preoccupied about the funeral he had missed, my eyes marking the flight of flocks of starlings making westward.
Less than a mile of ground brought us to the spot where the paupers were buried. It lay behind a high wall, a narrow strip of ground, cut off from a great lord's demesne by a wood. The scent of decay was heavy in the place; it felt as if the spring and the summer had dragged their steps here, to lie down and die with the paupers. The uncut grass lay rank and grey and long—Nature's unkempt beard—on the earth. The great bare chestnuts and oaks threw narrow shadows over the irregular mounds of earth. Small, rude wooden crosses stood at the heads of some of the mounds, lopsided, drunken, weather-beaten. No names were inscribed upon them. All the bones laid down here were anonymous. A robin was singing at the edge of the wood; overhead the rapid wings of wild pigeons beat the air.
A stable bell rang impetuously in the distance, dismissing the workmen on the lord's demesne. By a freshly-made grave two gravediggers were leaning on their spades. They were paupers, too; men who got some privilege for their efforts in this dark strip of earth between the wood and the wall. One of them yawned. A third man stood aloof, a minor official from the workhouse; he took a pipe from his mouth as the priest approached.
The three men gave one the feeling that they were rather tired of waiting, impatient to have their little business through. It was a weird spot in the gathering gloom of a November evening. The only bright thing in the place, the only gay spot, the only cheerful patch of colour, almost exulting in its grim surroundings, was the heap of freshly thrown up soil from the grave. It was rich in colour as newly-coined gold. Resting upon it was a clean, white, unpainted coffin. The only ornament was a tin breastplate on the lid and the inscription in black letters:
Martin Quirke, Died November 3, 1900. R.I.P.
The white coffin on the pile of golden earth was like the altar of some pagan god. I stood apart as the priest, vesting himself in a black stole, approached the graveside and began the recital of the burial service in Latin. The gravediggers, whose own bones would one day be interred anonymously in the same ground, stood on either side of him with their spades, two grim acolytes. The minor official from the workhouse, the symbol of the State, bared a long, narrow head, as white and as smooth as the coffin on the heap of earth. I stood by a groggy wooden cross, the eternal observer.
The priest spoke in a low monotone, holding the book close to his eyes in the uncertain light. And as he read I fell to wondering who our brother in the white coffin might be. Some merry tramp who knew the pain and the joy of the road? Some detached soul who had shaken off the burden of life's conventions, one who loved lightly and took punishment casually? One who saw crime as a science, or merely a broken reed? Or a soldier who had carried a knapsack in foreign campaigns? A creature of empire who had found himself in Africa, or Egypt, or India, or the Crimea, and come back again to claim his pile of golden earth in the corner of the lord's demesne? If the men had time, perhaps they would stick a little wooden cross over the spot where his bones were laid down....
The priest's voice continued the recitation of the burial service and the robin sang at the edge of the dim wood. Down the narrow strip of rank burial ground a low wind cried, and the light, losing its glow in the western sky, threw a grey pall on the grass. And under the influence of the moment a little memory of people I had known and forgotten went across my mind, a memory that seemed to stir in the low wind, a memory of people who had at the last got their white, clean coffin and their rest on a pile of golden earth, people who had gone like our brother in the deal boards.... There was the man, the scholar, who had taught his school, who had an intelligence, who could talk, who, perhaps, could have written only—. The wind sobbed down the narrow strip of ground.... He had made his battle, indeed, a long-drawn-out battle, for he had only given way step by step, gradually but inexorably yielding ground to the thing that was hunting him out of civilised life. He had gone from his school, his home, his friends, fleeing from one miserable refuge to another in the miserable country town. Eventually he had passed in through the gates of the workhouse. It was all very vivid now—his attempts to get back to the life he had known, like a man struggling in the quicksands. There were the little spurts back to the town, the well-shaped head, the face which still held some remembrance of its distinction and its manhood erect over the quaking, broken frame; that splendid head like a noble piece of sculpture on the summit of a crumbling ruin. Forth he would come, the flicker of resistance, a pallid battle-light in the eyes, a vessel that had been all but wrecked once more standing up the harbour to meet the winds that had driven it from the seas—and after a little battle once more taking in the sheets and crawling back to the anchorage of the dark workhouse, there to suffer in the old way, in secret to curse, to pray, to despair, to hope, to contrive some little repairs to the broken physique in order that there might be yet another journey into waters that were getting more and more shadowy. And the day came when the only journey that could be made was a shuffle to the gate, the haunted eyes staring into a world which was a nightmare of regrets. How terrible was the pathos of that life, that struggle, that tragedy, how poignant its memory while the robin sang at the edge of the dim wood!... And there was that red-haired, defiant young man with the build of an athlete, the eyes of an animal. How bravely he could sing up the same road to the dark house! It was to him as the burrow is to the rabbit. He would come out to nibble at the regular and lawful intervals, and having nibbled return to sleep and shout and fight for his "rights" in the dark house. And once, on a spring day, he had come out with a companion, a pale woman in a thin shawl and a drab skirt, and they had taken to the roads together, himself swinging his ashplant, his stride and manner carrying the illusion of purpose, his eyes on everything and his mind nowhere; herself trotting over the broken stones in her canvas shoes beside him, a pale shadow under the fire of his red head. They had gone away into a road whose milestones were dark houses, himself singing the song of his own life, a song of mumbled words, without air or music; herself silent, clutching her thin shawl over her breast, her feet pattering over the little stones of the road.... The wind whistled down over the graves, by the wooden crosses.... There was that little woman who at the close of the day, when the light was charitable in its obscurity, opened her door and came down from the threshold of her house, painfully as if she were descending from a great height. Nobody was about. All was quietness in the quiet street. And she drew the door to, put the key in the lock, her hand trembled, the lock clicked! The deed was done! Who but herself could know that the click of the key in the lock was the end, the close, the dreadful culmination of the best part of a whole century of struggle, of life? Behind that door she had swept up a bundle of memories that were now all an agony because the key had clicked in the lock. Behind the door was the story of her life and the lives of her children and her children's children. Where was the use, she might have asked, of blaming any of them now? What was it that they had all gone, all scattered, leaving her broken there at the last? Had not the key clicked in the lock? In that click was the end of it all; in the empty house were the ghosts of her girlhood, her womanhood, her motherhood, her old age, her struggles, her successes, her skill in running her little shop, her courage in riding one family squall after another! The key had clicked in the lock. She moved down the quiet street, sensitive lest the eye of the neighbours should see her, a tottering, broken thing going by the vague walls, keeping to the back streets, setting out for the dark house beyond the town. She had said to them, "I will be no trouble to you." And, indeed, she was not. They had little more to do for her than join her hands over her breast.... The wind was plaintive in the gaunt trees of the dark wood.... Which of us could say he would never turn a key in the lock of an empty house? How many casual little twists of the wrist of Fate stand between the best of us and the step down from the threshold of a broken home? What rags of memories have any of us to bundle behind the door of the empty house when the hour comes for us to click the key in the lock?... The wind cried down the narrow strip of ground where the smell of decay was in the grass.
There was a movement beside the white coffin, the men were lifting it off the golden pile of earth and lowering it into the dark pit. The men's feet slipped and shuffled for a foothold in the yielding clay. At last a low, dull thud sounded up from the mouth of the pit. Our brother in the white coffin had at last found a lasting tenure in the soil.
The official from the dark house moved over to me. He spoke in whispers, holding the hat an official inch of respect for the dead above the narrow white shred of his skull.
"Martin Quirke they are burying," he said.
"Who was he?"
"Didn't you ever hear tell of Martin Quirke?"
"A big man he was one time, with his acres around him and his splendid place. Very proud people they were—he and his brother—and very hot, too. The Quirkes of Ballinadee."
I did not finish the sentence. The priest was spraying the coffin in the grave with the golden earth.
"Ashes to ashes and dust to dust." It fell briskly on the shallow deal timber.
"'Twas the land agitation, the fight for the land, that brought Martin Quirke down," said the official as the earth sprayed the pauper's coffin. "He was one of the first to go out under the Plan of Campaign—the time of the evictions. They never got back their place. When the settlement came the Quirkes were broken. Martin lost his spirit and his heart. Drink it was that got him in the end, and now—"
"Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine: et lux perpetua luceat eis," the priest's voice said.
"All the same," said the official, "It was men like Martin Quirke who broke the back of landlordism. He was strong and he was weak. God rest him!"
I walked away over the uneven ground, the memory of the land agitation, its bitterness and its passion, oppressing me. Stories of things such as this stalked the country like ghosts.
The priest overtook me, and we turned to leave. Down the narrow strip of the lord's demesne were the little pauper mounds, like narrow boxes wrapped in the long grey grass. Their pathos was almost vibrant in the dim November light. And away beyond them were a series of great heaps, looking like broad billows out to sea. The priest stood for a moment.
"You see the great mounds at the end?" he asked. "They are the Famine Pits."
"The Famine Pits?"
"Yes; the place where the people were buried in heaps and hundreds, in thousands, during the Famine of '46 and '47. They died like flies by the roadside. You see such places in almost every part of Ireland. I hope the people will never again die like that—die gnawing the gravel on the roadside."
The rusty iron gate in the demesne wall swung open and we passed out.
THE GRAY LAKE
"I can see every colour in the water except gray," said the lady who was something of a sceptic.
"That," said the humorist, tilting back his straw hat, "is the very reason they call it the Gray Lake. The world bristles with misnomers."
"Which explains," said the lady sceptic, "why they call Eamonn a seannachie."
"Hi!" called out the humorist. "Do you hear that, Eamonn?"
"Cad ta ort?" asked Eamonn. He had been leaning out over the prow of the boat, looking vaguely into the water, and now turned round. Eamonn was always asking people, "Cad ta ort?" and before they had time to answer he was saying, or thinking, something else.
"Why do they call this the Gray Lake?" asked the lady sceptic. "It never looked really gray, did it?"
"Of course it did," said Eamonn. "The first man who ever saw it beheld it in the gray light of dawn, and so he called it Baile Loch Riabhach, the Town of the Gray Lough."
"When might that be?" asked the lady sceptic drily.
"The morning after the town was drowned," said Eamonn.
"The town we are now rowing over."
"Good heavens! Is there a town beneath us?"
"Seadh", said Eamonn. "Just now I was trying if I could see anything of the ruins at the bottom of the lake."
"And you did, of course."
"I think so."
"What did you see?"
"Confusion and the vague, glimmering gable of a house or two. Then the oars splashed and the water became dense."
"But tell us how the town came to be at the bottom of the lake," said the man who rowed, shipping his oars. The boat rocked in the quick wash of the waves. The water was warming in vivid colours under the glow of the sunset. Eamonn leaned back in his seat at the prow of the boat. His eyes wandered away over the water to the slope of meadows, the rise of hills.
"Anois, Eamonn," said the lady sceptic, still a little drily. "The story!"
* * * * *
Long and long ago, said Eamonn, there was a sleepy old town lying snug in the dip of a valley. It was famous for seven of the purest springs of water which ever sparkled in the earth. They called it the Seven Sisters. Round the springs they built an immense and costly well. Over the well was a great leaden lid of extraordinary weight, and by a certain mechanical device this lid was closed on the well every evening at sundown. The springs became abnormally active between sundown and sunrise, so that there was always a danger that they might flood the valley and destroy the people. As security against this the citizens had built the great well with its monster lid, and each evening the lid was locked over the well by means of a secret lock and a secret key.
The most famous person in the town of the Seven Sisters was the Keeper of the Key. He was a man of dignified bearing, important airs, wearing white silk knee-breeches, a green swallow-tail coat, and a cocked hat. On the sleeve of his coat was embroidered in gold the image of a key and seven sprays of water. He had great privileges and authority, and could condemn or reprieve any sort of criminal except, of course, a sheep stealer. He lived in a mansion beside the town, and this mansion was almost as famous as the seven famous springs. People travelled from far places to see it. A flight of green marble steps led to a broad door of oak. On the broad oaken door he had fashioned one of the most remarkable knockers and the most beautiful door knob that were known to Europe. Both were of beaten gold. The knocker was wrought in the shape of a key. The door knob was a group of seven water nymphs. A sensation was created which agitated all Ireland when this work of art was completed by five of the foremost goldsmiths in the land. The Keeper of the Key of the Seven Sisters issued a Proclamation declaring that there was a flaw in the rounding of one of the ankles of the group of seven water nymphs. He had the five goldsmiths suddenly arrested and put on their trial. "The Gael," said the Keeper of the Key, "must be pure-blooded in his art. I am of the Clann Gael, I shall not allow any half-artist to come to my door, there work under false pretence and go unpunished." The goldsmiths protested that their work was the work of artists and flawless as the design. Not another word would they be allowed to speak. Bards and artists, scholars and men skilled in controversy, flocked from all parts to see the door knob. A terrible controversy ensued. Sides were taken, some for, others against, the ankle of the water nymph. They came to be known as the Ankleites and the anti-Ankleites. And in that tremendous controversy the Keeper of the Key proved the masterly manner of man he was. He had the five goldsmiths convicted for failure as supreme artists, and they were sentenced to banishment from the country. On their way from the shore to the ship that was to bear them away their curragh sprang a sudden leak, and they were all drowned. That was the melancholy end of the five chief goldsmiths of Eirinn.
Every morning at daybreak trumpets were blown outside the mansion of the Keeper of the Key. The gates of a courtyard swung open and out marched an armed guard, men in saffron kilts, bearing spears and swords. They formed up before the flight of marble steps. A second fanfare of the trumpets, and back swung the great oaken door, disclosing the Keeper of the Key in his bright silks and cocked hat. Out he would come on the doorstep, no attendants by him, and pulling to the great door by the famous knob he would descend the marble steps, the guard would take up position, and, thus escorted, he would cross the drawbridge of the moat and enter the town of the Seven Sisters, marching through the streets to the great well. People would have gathered there even at that early hour, women bearing vessels to secure their supply of the water, which, it was said, had an especial virtue when taken at the break of day. No mortal was allowed nearer than fifty yards to the well while the Keeper proceeded to unlock the lid. His guard would stand about, and with a haughty air he would approach the well solus. The people would see him make some movements, and back would slide the enormous lid. A blow on the trumpets proclaimed that the well was open, and the people would approach it, laughing and chattering, and the Keeper of the Key would march back to his mansion in the same military order, ascend the steps, push open the great door, and the routine of daily life would ensue. For the closing of the well at sundown a similar ceremony was observed. The only additional incident was the marching of a crier through the streets, beating great wooden clappers, and standing at each street corner calling out in a loud voice: "Hear ye people that the lock is on the Seven Sisters. All's well!"
In those days there was a saying among the people which was in common usage all over Ireland. When a man became possessed of any article or property to which he had a doubtful title his neighbours said, with a significant wag of the head, "He got it where the Keeper gets the Key." This saying arose out of a mysterious thing in the life of the Keeper of the Key. Nobody ever saw the secret key. It was not in his hands when he came forth from the mansion morning and evening to fulfil his great office. He did not carry it in his pockets, for the simple reason that he had had no pockets. He kept no safe nor secret panel nor any private drawer in his mansion that the most observant among his retainers could espy. Yet that there was a secret key, and that it was inserted in a lock, anybody could see for himself, even at a distance of fifty yards, twice a day at the well. It was as if at that moment the key came into his hand out of the air and again vanished into air when the proper business was over. Indeed, there were people of even those remote and enlightened days who attributed some wizardy to the Keeper of the Key. It added to the awe in which he was held and to the sense of security which the proceedings of his whole life inspired in his fellow-citizens. Nevertheless had the Keeper of the Key his enemies. A man of distinction and power can no more tread the paths of his ambitions without stirring up rivalries and hostilities than can the winds howl across the earth and leave the dust on the roads undisturbed. The man who assumes power will always, sooner or later, have his power to hold put to the test. So it was with the Keeper of the Key. There were people who nursed the ambition of laying hands on the secret key. That secured, they would be lords of the town of the Seven Sisters. The reign of the great Keeper would be over. His instinct told him that these dangers were always about. He was on the alert. He had discovered treachery even within the moat of his own keep. His servants and guards had been tampered with. But all the attempts upon his key and his power had been in vain. He kept to the grand unbroken simplicity of his masterly routine. He had crushed his enemies whenever they had arisen. "One who has survived the passions of Ireland's poets," he would say—for the poets had all been Ankleites—"is not likely to bow the knee before snivelling little thieves." A deputation which had come to him proposing that the well should be managed by a constitutional committee of the citizens was flogged by the guards across the drawbridge. The leader of this deputation was a deformed tailor, who soon after planned an audacious attack on the mansion of the Keeper of the Key. The Keeper, his guards, servants and retainers were all one night secretly drugged and for several hours of the night lay unconscious in the mansion. Into it swarmed the little tailor and his constitutional committee; they pulled the whole interior to pieces in search of the key. The very pillows under the head of the Keeper had been stabbed and ransacked. It was nearing daybreak when the Keeper awoke, groggy from the effects of the narcotic. The guard was roused. The whole place was in confusion. The robbers had fled, leaving the great golden knocker on the door hanging from its position; they were removing it when surprised. The nymphs were untouched. The voice of the Keeper of the Key was deliberate, authoritative, commanding, amid the confusion. The legs of the guards quaked beneath them, their heads swam, and they said to each other, "Now surely is the key gone!" But their master hurried them to their morning duty, and they escorted him to the well a little beyond daybreak, and, lo, at the psychological moment, there was the key and back rolled the lid from the precious well. "Surely," they said, "this man is blessed, for the key comes to him as a gift from Heaven. The robbers of the earth are powerless against him." When the citizens of the Seven Sisters heard of what had taken place in the evil hours of the night they poured across the drawbridge from the town and acclaimed the Keeper of the Key before his mansion. He came out on the watch tower, his daughter by his side, and with dignified mien acknowledged the acclamations of the citizens. And before he put the lid on the well that night the deformed tailor and his pards were all dragged through the streets of the Seven Sisters and cast into prison.
Never was the popularity of the Keeper at so high a level as after this episode. They would have declared him the most perfect as the most powerful of men were it not for one little spot on the bright sun of his fame. They did not like his domestic habits. The daughter who stood by his side on the watch tower was a young girl of charm, a fair, frail maiden, a slender lily under the towering shadow of her dark father. The citizens did not, perhaps, understand his instincts of paternity; and, indeed, if they understood them they would not have given them the sanction of their approval. The people only saw that the young girl, his only child, was condemned to what they called a life of virtual imprisonment in the mansion. She was a warm-blooded young creature, and like all warm-blooded creatures, inclined to gaiety of spirits, to impulsive friendships to a joyous and engaging frankness. These traits, the people saw, the father disapproved of and checked, and the young girl was regarded with great pity. "Ah," they would say, "he is a wonderful Keeper of the Key, but, alas, how harsh a father!" He would not allow the girl any individual freedom; she was under eternal escort when abroad; she was denied the society of those of her years; she was a flower whose fragrance it was not the privilege of the people to enjoy. It may be that the people, in murmuring against all this, did not make sufficient allowance for the circumstances of the life of the Keeper of the Key. He was alone, he stood apart from all men. His only passion in life had been the strict guardianship of a trust. In these circumstances his affections for his only child were direct and crude and, too, maybe a little unconsciously harsh. His love for his child was the love of the oyster for its pearl. The people saw nothing but the rough, tight shells which closed about the treasure in the mansion of the Keeper of the Key. More than one considerable wooer had approached that mansion, laying claim to the pearl which it held. All were met with the same terrible dark scowl and sent about their business. "You, sir," the Keeper of the Key would say, "come to my door, knock upon my knocker, lay hands upon my door knob—my golden door knob—and ask for my daughter's hand! Sir, your audacity is your only excuse. Let it also be your defence against my wrath. Now, sir, a very good day!" And when the citizens heard that yet another gallant wooer had come and been dismissed they would say, "The poor child, the poor child, what a pity!"
The truth was that the daughter of the Keeper of the Key was not in the least unhappy. She had a tremendous opinion of her father; she lavished upon him all the warm affection of her young ardour. She reigned like a young queen within the confines of her home. She was about the gardens and the grounds all day, as joyous as a bird. Once or twice her governess gave her some inkling as to the suitors who came to the mansion requesting her hand, for that is an affair that cannot be kept from the most jealously-guarded damsel. The governess had a sense of humour and entertained the girl with accounts of the manner of lovers who, as she put it, washed up the marble steps of the mansion to the oak door, like waves on a shore, and were sent back again into the ocean of rejections. The young girl was much amused and secretly flattered at these events. "Ah," she would say, in a little burst of rapture, "how splendid is my father!" The pearl rejoices in the power of the oyster to shut it away from the world.
Now (continued Eamonn), on the hilly slopes of the country called Sunnach there was a shepherd boy, and people who saw that he was a rare boy in looks and intelligence were filled with pity for his unhappy lot. The bodach for whom he herded was a dour, ill-conditioned fellow, full of curses and violent threats, but the boy was content in the life of the hillsides, and troubled very little about the bodach's dour looks. "Some day," he would say to himself laughingly, "I will compose terrible verses about his black mouth." One day the shepherd boy drove a little flock of the bodach's lively sheep to the fair in the town of the Seven Sisters. As he passed the mansion of the Keeper of the Key he cried out, "How up! how up! how up!" His voice was clear and full, the notes as round and sweet as the voice of the cuckoo. The daughter of the Keeper of the Key was seated by a window painting a little picture when she heard the "How up!" of the shepherd's voice. "What beautiful calls!" she exclaimed, and leaned out from the window. At the same moment the shepherd boy looked up. He was bare-headed and wore his plaids. His head was a shock of curly straw-coloured hair, his face eager, clear-cut, his eyes golden-brown and bright as the eyes of a bird. He smiled and the damsel smiled. "How up! how up! how up!" he sang out joyously to his flock as he moved down to the fair. The damsel went back to her little picture and sat there for some time staring at her palette and mixing the wrong colours.
That evening the Keeper of the Key, as was his custom, escorted his daughter on his arm, servants before and behind them, through the town of the Seven Sisters, viewing such sights of the fair as were agreeable and doing a little shopping. The people, seeing the great man coming, made way for him on the paths, and bowed and smiled to him as he passed. He walked with great dignity, and his daughter's beauty made the bystanders say, "Happy will it be for the lucky man!" Among those they encountered was the shepherd boy, and he gazed upon the damsel with rapture in his young eyes. He followed them about the town at a respectful distance, and back to their mansion. The shepherd boy did not return to the hilly country called Sunnach that night, nor the next night, nor for many a long day and night. He remained in the town of the Seven Sisters, running on errants, driving carts, doing such odd jobs as came his way, and all because he wanted to gaze upon the daughter of the Keeper of the Key. In the evening he would go by the mansion singing out, "How up! how up! how up!" as if he were driving flocks past. And in the window he would see the wave of a white hand. He would go home, then, to his little back room in the lodging-house, and there stay up very late at night, writing, in the candle-light, verses to the damsel. One Song of the Shepherd Boy to his Lady has survived:
Farewell to the sweet reed I tuned on the hill, My grief for the rough slopes of Sunnach so still, The wind in the fir tree and bleat of the ewe Are lost in the wild cry my heart makes for you. The brown floors I danced on, the sheds where I lay, Are gone from my mind like a wing in the bay: Dear lady, I'd herd the wild swans in the skies If they knew of lake water as blue as your eyes!
Well, it was not very long, as you can imagine, until the Keeper of the Key observed the shepherd boy loitering about the mansion. When he heard him calling past the house to imaginary flocks a scowl came upon his face. "Ah-ha!" he said, "another conspiracy! Last time it was a hunchback tailor. This time they come from the country. They signal by the cries of shepherds. Well, I shall do the driving for them!" There and then he had the shepherd boy apprehended, bound, and put in a cell. In due course he was accused and sentenced, like the famous goldsmiths, to banishment from Eirinn. When the daughter of the Keeper heard what had come to pass she was filled with grief. She appeared before her father for the first time with tears in her eyes and woe in her face. He was greatly moved, and seated the girl by his side. She knelt by his knee and confessed to the whole affair with the shepherd boy. The Keeper of the Key was a little relieved to learn that his suspicions of a fresh conspiracy were unfounded, but filled with indignation that such a person as a shepherd should not alone aspire to but win the heart of his daughter. "What have we come to," he said, "when a wild thing from the hills of Sunnach comes down and dares to lay his hand on the all but perfect water nymphs on the golden knob of my door! Justice shall be done. The order of banishment is set aside. Let this wild hare of the hills, this mountain rover, be taken and seven times publicly dipped in the well. I guarantee that will cool him! He shall then have until break of day to clear out of my town. Let him away back to the swine on the hills." The girl pleaded that the boy might be spared the frightful indignity of a public dipping in the well of the Seven Sisters, but her father was implacable. "Have I not spoken?" he said sternly, and the damsel was led away by her governess in tears.
The people flocked to the well as they might to a Feis to see the dipping of the shepherd boy. Cries of merriment arose among them when the boy, bound in strips of hide, was lowered by the servants of the Keeper of the Key into the mouth of the great well. It was a cold, dark, creepy place down in the shaft of the well, the walls reeking, covered with slimy green lichen, the waters roaring. The shepherd boy closed his eyes and gave himself up for lost. But the Seven Sisters of the well kept moving down as fast as the servants told out the rope, until at last they could not lower him any farther. The servants danced the rope up and down seven times, and the people screamed and clapped their hands, crying out, "All those who write love verses come to a bad end!" But the poet was never yet born who had not a friend greater than all his enemies. At that moment the spirits of the Seven Sisters rose out of the water and spoke to the shepherd boy.
"O shepherd boy," they said, "the Keeper of the Key is also our enemy. We were created for something better than this narrow shaft. We cry out in bitter pain the long hours of the night."
"Why do you cry out in bitter pain?" asked the shepherd boy.
"Because," said the spirits of the Seven Sisters, "we want to leap out of this cold place to meet our lover, the moon. Every night he comes calling to us and we dare not respond. We are locked away under the heavy lid. We can never gather our full strength to burst our way to liberty. We dream of the pleasant valley. We want to get out into it, to make merry about the trees, to sport in the warm places, to lip the edge of the green meadows, to water pleasant gardens. We want to see the flowers, to flash in the sun, to dance under the spread of great branches, to make snug, secret places for the pike and the otter, to pile up the coloured pebbles, and hear the water-hen splashing in the rushes. And above all, we want to meet our lover, the moon, to roll about in his beams, to reach for his kiss in the harvest nights. O shepherd boy, take us from our prison well!"
"O Seven Sisters," asked the shepherd boy, "how can I do this for you?"
"Secure the secret key," they said. "Open the lid while we are at our full strength in the night."
"Alas," said the shepherd boy, "that I cannot do. The Keeper has made of it a magic thing."
"We know his great secret," said the spirits of the Seven Sisters. "Swear to set us free and we shall tell you the secret of the key."
"And what reward shall I have?" asked the shepherd boy.
"You shall have the hand of the daughter of the Keeper of the Key, the Lady of your Songs," they said. "Take her back to the hills where you were so happy. We shall spare you when we are abroad."
"Then," said the shepherd boy, "I swear to release you."
"The Keeper of the Key," said the spirits of the Seven Sisters, "has a devil lurking behind the fine manners of his body. In secret he laughs at the people. He has the blood of the five goldsmiths on his hands. It was by his connivance the curragh sprang a leak, and that they were drowned. They were true artists, of the spirit of the Gael. But they alone knew his secret, and he made away with them before they could speak. His great controversy on the water nymphs was like a spell cast over the minds of the people to cover his crime."
"What a demon!" cried the shepherd boy.
"The key of the well," said the spirits of the Seven Sisters, "is concealed in the great golden knob of the oaken door, and upon that has concentrated the greatest public scrutiny which has ever beaten upon a door-knob in the story of the whole world. Such has been the craft of the Keeper of the Key! When he comes out in the morning and evening, and while drawing the door after him, he puts a finger on the third toe of the fourth water nymph. This he presses three times, quick as a pulse-beat, and, lo, a hidden spring is released and shoots the key into the loose sleeve of his coat. On returning he puts his hand on the golden knob, presses the second toe of the third water nymph, and the key slides back into its hidden cavity. This secret was alone known to the goldsmiths. They went to the bottom of the sea with it. In this way has the Keeper of the Key held his power and defied his enemies. When the scholars were making epigrams and the bards warming into great cadences on the art of the ankle of the water nymph, this Keeper of the Key would retire to his watch-tower and roll about in secret merriment."
"What a fiend!" cried the shepherd boy.
"He had caused to be painted in his room a scroll surrounded by illuminated keys and nymphs and tumbling cascades, and bearing the words, 'Let us praise the art which conceals art; but let us love the art which conceals power.'"
"What a monster!" cried the shepherd boy.
"In this way," said the spirits of the Seven Sisters, "has he lived. In this way has he been able to keep us from our freedom, our lover. O shepherd boy—"
Before another word could be spoken the shepherd boy was drawn up on the rope. The water rose with him and lapped lightly over his person so that he might seem as if he had been plunged deeply into the well.
When he was drawn up to the side or the well the shepherd boy lay on the ground, his eyes closed, feigning great distress. The people again clapped their hands, and some cried out, "Now little water rat, make us a new verse!" But others murmured in pity, and an old peasant woman, in a Breedeen cloak, hobbled to his side and smoothed back his locks. At the touch of her soft hands the shepherd boy opened his eyes, and he saw it was the daughter of the Keeper of the Key disguised. With the connivance of her governess, she had escaped from the mansion as an old peasant woman in a cloak. The shepherd boy secretly kissed her little palms and whispered, "I must come to you at midnight. As you value your life have the guards taken from the outer door, only for two minutes. Make some pretext. I will give the shepherd's call and then you must act. Do not fail me."
Before more could be said the servants roughly bundled the old peasant woman aside, carried the shepherd boy to his lodgings, and there threw him on his bed. "Remember," they said, "that you remain within the walls of the town of the Seven Sisters after break of day at your peril."
At midnight the shepherd boy arose and approached the mansion of the Keeper of the Key. He could see the two grim guards, one each side of the oaken door. Standing some way off he gave the shepherd's call, making his voice sound like the hoot of an owl. In a little time he saw the guards move away from the door; they went to a side entrance in the courtyard, and presently he could hear them laughing, as if some entertainment was being provided for them; then measures were passed through the iron bars of the gate to them, and these they raised to their lips. At this the shepherd boy ran swiftly up the steps, approached the door, and pressed three times, quick as a pulse-beat, the third toe of the fourth water nymph, and immediately from a secret cavity in the knob a curious little golden key was shot forth. This the shepherd boy seized, flew down the steps, and scaled over the town wall. He ran to the great well and stooped over the lid. He could hear the Seven Sisters twisting and worming and striving beneath it, little cries of pain breaking from them. Overhead the moon was shining down on the well.
"O Seven Sisters," said the Shepherd boy, "I have come to give you to your lover."
He could hear a great cry of joy down in the well. He put the key in the lock, turned it, and immediately there was the gliding and slipping of one steel bar after another into an oil bath. The great lid slowly revolved, moving away from over the well. The Seven Sisters did the rest. They sprang with a peal of the most delirious laughter—laughter that was of the underground, the cavern, the deep secret places of the earth, laughter of elfs and hidden rivers—to the light of the moon. The shepherd boy could see seven distinct spiral issues of sparkling water and they took the shape of nymphs, more exquisite than anything he had ever seen even in his dreams. Something seemed to happen in the very heavens above; the moon reached down from the sky, swiftly and tenderly, and was so dazzling that the shepherd boy had to turn his face away. He knew that in the blue spaces of the firmament overhead the moon was embracing the Seven Sisters. Then he ran, ran like the wind, for already the water was shrieking down the streets of the town. As he went he could see lights begin to jump in dark windows and sleepy people in their night attire coming to peer out into the strange radiance outside.
As he reached the drawbridge he saw that the men had already lowered it, and there was a great rustling noise and squealing; and what he took to be a drift of thick dust driven by the wind was gushing over it, making from the town. A few more yards and he saw that it was not thick brown dust, but great squads of rats flying the place. The trumpets were all blowing loud blasts when he reached the mansion of the Keeper of the Key, the guards with their spears pressing out under the arch of the courtyard, and servants coming out the doors. The great oak door flew open and he saw the Keeper of the Key, a candle in his quaking hand. A great crying could now be heard coming up from the population of the town. The water was bursting open the doors of the houses as if they were cardboard.
"O Keeper of the Key," cried the shepherd boy, "the Seven Sisters are abroad. I am obeying your command and returning to the swine on the hills. The despised Sunnach will be in the dreams of many to-night!"
The candle fell from the hand of the Keeper of the Key, and he could be seen in the moonlight groping for the door-knob, his hand on the figures of the group of water nymphs. In a moment he gave a low moan and, his head hanging over his breast, he staggered down the marble steps. "Alas," cried the guards, "now is the great man broken!" He made for the drawbridge crying out, "The lid, the lid. Slide it back over the well!" The guards and servants pressed after him, but not one of them ever got into the town again. Across the bridge was now pouring a wild rush of human panic. Carriages, carts, cars, horsemen, mules, donkeys, were flying from the Seven Sisters laden with men and women and whole families. Crowds pressed forward on foot. Animals, dogs, cats, pigs, sheep, cows, came pellmell with them. Drivers stood in their seats flaying their horses as if driven by madness. The animals rolled their eyes, snorted steam from their nostrils, strained forward with desperate zeal. Once or twice the struggling mass jammed, and men fought each other like beasts. The cries of people being trampled to death broke out in harrowing protest. For a moment the shepherd boy saw the form of a priest rise up, bearing aloft the stark outline of a cross, and then he disappeared.
Over that night of terror was the unnatural brilliance of the swoollen moon. All this the shepherd boy saw in a few eternal moments. Then he cried out, "How up! how up! how up!" and immediately the damsel tripped down the broad staircase of the mansion, dressed in white robes, her hair loose about her shoulders. Never had she looked so frail and beautiful, the lily of the valley! The shepherd boy told her what had come to pass. She cried out for her father. "I am the daughter of the Keeper of the Key," she said. "I shall stand by his side at the well in this great hour."
"I am now the master of the town of the Seven Sisters," said the shepherd boy. "I am the Keeper of the Key." And he held up the secret key.
The damsel, seeing this, and catching sight of what was taking place at the drawbridge, fell back in a swoon on the carpet of the hall. The shepherd boy raised her in his arms and fled for the hills. Along the road was the wild stampede of the people, all straining for the hills, pouring in a mad rush from the valley and the town. Behind them were the still madder, swifter, more terrible waters, coming in sudden thuds, in furious drives, eddying and sculping and rearing in an orgy or remorseless and heartrending destruction. Down before that roaring avalanche went walls and trees and buildings. The shepherd boy saw men give up the struggle for escape, cowering by the roadside, and women, turning from the race to the hills, rushed back to meet the oncoming waters with arms outspread and insanity in their wild eyes.
Not a human creature escaped that night of wroth except the shepherd boy and the damsel he carried in his arms. Every time the waters reached his heels they reared up like great white horses and fell back, thus sparing him. Three times did he look back at happenings in the town of the Seven Sisters. The first time he looked back the water was up to the last windows of houses that were three storeys high. All the belongings of the householders were floating about, and people were sinking through the water, their lives going out as swiftly as twinkling bubbles. In an attic window he saw a young girl loosen her hair, she was singing a song, preparing to meet death as if she were making ready for a lover. A man at the top of a ladder was gulping whiskey from a bottle, and when the water sprang at his throat he went down with a mad defiant cry. A child ran out an open window, golden locks dancing about its pretty head, as if it were running into a garden. There was another little bubble in the moonlight.... The second time the shepherd boy looked back the swallows were flying from their nests under the eaves of the houses, for the water was now lapping them. An old woman was hobbling across a roof on crutches. Men were drawing their bodies out of the chimney-pots. A raft on which the Keeper's guard had put out slowly, like a live thing lazily yawning and turning over on its side, sent them all into the common doom. A man with a bag of gold clutched in his hand, stood dizzily on the high gable of a bank, then, with a scream, tottered and fell.... The third time the shepherd boy looked back nothing was to be seen above the face of the water except the pinnacle of the watch tower of the mansion, and standing upon it was the Keeper of the Key, his arms outspread, his face upturned to the moon, and the seven water nymphs leaping about him in a silver dance.
After that the shepherd boy drew up on the hills with the damsel. He was quite exhausted, and he noticed that the activity of the waters gradually calmed down as daybreak approached, like things spent after a night of wild passion. When at last the day quivered into life on the eastern sky he called the damsel to his side, and standing there together they looked out over the spread of water. The town of the Seven Sisters was no more.
"Look," cried the shepherd boy, "at Loch Riabhach!" And drawing back he cast out into the far water the secret key. There it still lies under a rock, somewhere in the lake over which our boat is now drifting. And the shepherd boy and the damsel there and then founded a new town beside the lake, and all who are of the old families of Baile Loch Riabhach, like myself, are their descendants. That, concluded Eamonn, is the story of the Gray Lake.
Martin Cosgrave walked up steadily to his holding after Ellen Miscal had read to him the American letter. He had spoken no word to the woman. It was not every day that he had to battle with a whirl of thoughts. A quiet man of the fields, he only felt conscious of a strong impulse to get back to his holding up on the hill. He had no clear idea of what he would do or what he would think when he got back to his holding. But the fields seemed to cry out to him, to call him back to their companionship, while all the wonders of the resurrection were breaking in fresh upon his life.
Martin Cosgrave walked his fields and put his flock of sheep scurrying out of a gap with a whistle. His holding and the things of his holding were never so precious to his sight. He walked his fields with his hands in his pockets and an easy, solid step upon the sod. He felt a bracing sense of security.
Then he sat up on the mearing.
The day was waning. It seemed to close in about his holding with a new protection. The mood grew upon him as the shadows deepened. A great peace came over him. The breeze stirring the grass spread out at his feet seemed to whisper of the strange unexpected thing that had broken in upon his life. He felt the splendid companionship of the fields for the master.
Suddenly Martin Cosgrave looked down at his cabin. Something snapped as his eyes remained riveted upon it. He leapt from the mearing and walked out into the field, his hands this time gripping the lapels of his coat, a cloud settling upon his brow. In the centre of the field he stood, his eyes still upon the cabin. What a mean, pokey, ugly little dirty hovel it was! The thatch was getting scraggy over the gables and sagging at the back. In the front it was sodden. A rainy brown streak reached down to the little window looking like the claw of a great bird upon the walls. He had been letting everything go to the bad. That might not signify in the past. But now—
"Rose Dempsey would never stand the like," he said to himself. "She will be used to grand big houses."
He turned his back upon the cabin near the boreen and looked up to the belt of beech trees swaying in the wind on the crest of the hill. How did he live there most of his life and never see that it was a place fashioned by the hand of Nature for a house? Was it not the height of nonsense to have trees there making music all the long hours of the night without a house beside them and people sleeping within it? In a few minutes the thought had taken hold of his mind. Limestone—beautiful limestone—ready at hand in the quarry not a quarter of a mile down the road. Sand from the pit at the back of his own cabin. Lime from the kiln beyond the road. And his own two hands! He ran his fingers along the muscles of his arms. Then he walked up the hill.
Martin Cosgrave, as he walked up the hill, felt himself wondering for the first time in his life if he had really been foolish to have run away from his father's cabin when he had been young. Up to this he had always accepted the verdict of the people about him that he had been a foolish boy "to go wandering in strange places." He had walked along the roads to many far towns. Then he had struck his friend, the building contractor. He had been a useful worker about a building house. At first he had carried hods of mortar and cement up ladders to the masons. The business of the masons he had mastered quickly. But he had always had a longing to hold a chisel in one hand and a mallet in the other at work upon stone. He had drifted into a quarry, thence to a stone-cutting yard. After a little while he could not conceal his impatience with the mere dressing of coping stones or the chiselling out of tombstones to a pattern. Then he saw the man killed in the quarry. He was standing quite near to him. The chain of the windlass went and the poor man had no escape. Martin Cosgrave had heard the crunch of the skull on the boulder, and some of the blood was spattered upon his boots. He was a man of tense nerves. The sight of blood sickened him. He put on his coat, left the quarry, and went walking along the road.
It was while he walked along the road that the longing for his home came upon him. He tramped back to his home above Kilbeg. His father had been long dead, but by his return he had glorified the closing days of his mother's life. He took up the little farm and cut himself off from his wandering life when he had fetched the tools from his lodgings in the town beside the quarries.
By the time Martin Cosgrave had reached the top of the hill he had concluded that he had not, after all, been a foolish boy to work in far places. "The hand of God was in it," he said reverently with his eyes on the beech trees that made music on the crest of the hill.
He made a rapid survey of the place with his keen eyes. Then he mapped out the foundation of the building by driving the heel of his boot into the green sod. He stepped back among the beech trees and looked out at the outlined site of the building. He saw it all growing up in his mind's eye, at first a rough block, a mere shell, a little uncertain and unsatisfactory. Then the uncertainties were lopped off, the building took shape, touch after touch was added. Long shadows spread out from the trees and wrapped the fields. Stars came out in the sky. But Martin Cosgrave never noticed these things. The building was growing all the time. There was a firm grasp of the general scheme, a realisation of what the building would evolve that no other building ever evolved, what it would proclaim for all time. The passing of the day and the stealth of the night could not claim attention from a man who was living over a dream that was fashioning itself in his mind, abandoning himself to the joy or his creation, dwelling longingly upon the details of the building, going over and, as it were, feeling it in every fibre, jealous of the effect of every stone, tracing the trend and subtlety of every curve, seeing how one touch fitted in and enhanced the other and how all carried on the meaning of the whole.
When he came down from the hill there was a spring in Martin Cosgrave's step. He swung his arms. The blood was coursing fast through his veins. His eyes were glowing. He would need to make a map of the building. It was all burned clearly into his brain.
From under the bed of his cabin he pulled out the wooden box. It had not been opened since he had fetched it from the far town. He held his breath as he threw open the lid. There they lay, the half-forgotten symbols of his old life. Worn mallets, chisels, the head of a broken hod with the plaster still caked into it, a short broad shovel for mixing mortar, a trowel, a spirit level, a plumb, all wrapped loosely in a worn leather apron. He took the mallets in his hand and turned them about with the quick little jerks that came so naturally to him. Strength for the work had come into his arms. All the old ambitions which he thought had been stifled with his early manhood sprang to life again.
As he lay in his bed that night Martin Cosgrave felt himself turning over and over again the words in the letter which Rose Dempsey had sent to her aunt, Ellen Miscal, from America. "Tell Martin Cosgrave," the letter read, "that I will be back home in Kilbeg by the end of the spring. If he has no wish for any other girl I am willing to settle down." Beyond the announcement that her sister Sheela would be with her for a holiday, the letter "brought no other account." But what an account it had brought to Martin Cosgrave! The fields understood—the building would proclaim.
Early in the morning Martin Cosgrave went down to Ellen Miscal to tell her what to put in the letter that was going back to Rose Dempsey in America. Martin Cosgrave walked heavily into the house and stood with his back against the dresser. He turned the soft black hat about in his hands nervously and talked like one who was speaking sacred words.
"Tell her," he said, "that Martin Cosgrave had no thought for any other person beyond herself. Tell her to be coming back to Kilbeg. Tell her not to come until the late harvest."
Ellen Miscal, who sat over the sheet of writing paper on the table, looked up quickly as he spoke the words. As she did so she was conscious of the new animation that vivified the idealistic face of Martin Cosgrave. But he did not give her time to question him.
"I have my own reasons for asking her to wait until the harvest," he said, with some irritation.
He stayed at the dresser until Ellen Miscal had written the letter. He carried it down to the village and posted it with his own hand, and he went and came as gravely as if he had been taking part in some solemn ritual.
That day the building was begun. Martin Cosgrave tackled the donkey and drew a few loads of limestone from the nearby quarry. Some of the neighbours who came his way found him a changed man, a silent man with his eager face set, a man in whose eyes a new light shone, a quiet man of the fields into whose mind a set purpose had come. He struggled up the road with his donkey-cart, his hand gripping the shaft to hasten the steps of the slow brute, his limbs bent to the hill, his head down at the work. By the end of the week a pile of grey-blue stones was heaped up on the crest of the hill. The walls of the fields had been broken down to make a carway. Late into the night when the donkey had been fed and tethered the neighbours would see Martin Cosgrave moving about the pile of grey-blue stones, sorting and picking, arranging in little groups to have ready to his hands. "A house he is going to put up on the hill," they would say, lost in wonder.
The spring came, and with it all the strenuous work on the land. But Martin Cosgrave went on with the building. The neighbours shook their heads at the sight of neglect that was gathering about his holding; they said it was flying in the face of Providence when Martin Cosgrave weaned all the lambs from the ewes one day, long before their time, and sold them at the fair to the first bidder that came his way. Martin Cosgrave did so because he wanted money and was in a hurry to get back to his building.
"What call has a man to be destroying himself like that?" the neighbours asked each other.
Martin Cosgrave knew what the neighbours were saying about him. But what did he care? What thought had any of them for the heart of a builder? What did any of them know beyond putting a spade in the clay and waiting for the seasons to send up growing things from the seed they scattered by their hands? What did they know about the feel of the rough stone in the hand and the shaping of it to fit into the building, the building that day after day you saw rising up from the ground by the skill of your hand and the art of your mind? What could they in Kilbeg know of the ship that would plough the ocean in the harvest bearing Rose Dempsey home to him? For all their ploughing and their sowing, what sort of a place had any of them led a woman into? They might talk away. The joy of the builder was his. The beech trees that made music all day beside the building he was putting up to the sight of all the world had more understanding of him than all the people of the parish.
Martin Cosgrave had no help. He kept to his work from such an early hour in the morning until such a late hour of the night that the people marvelled at his endurance. But as the work went on the people would talk about Martin Cosgrave's building in the fields and tell strangers of it at the markets. They said that the like of it had never been seen in the countryside. It was to be "full of little turrets and the finest of fancy porches and a regular sight of bulging windows." One day that Martin Cosgrave heard a neighbour speaking about the "bulging windows" he laughed a half-bitter, half-mocking laugh.
"Tell them," he said, "that they are cut-stone tracery windows to fit in with the carved doors." These cut-stone windows and carved doors cost Martin Cosgrave such a length of time that they provoked the patience of the people. Out of big slabs of stone he had worked them, and sometimes he would ask the neighbours to give him a hand in the shifting of these slabs. But he was quick to resent any interference. One day a stone-cutter from the quarry went up on the scaffold, and when Martin Cosgrave saw him he went white to the lips and cursed so bitterly that those standing about walked away.
When the shell of the building had been finished Martin Cosgrave hired a carpenter to do all the woodwork. The woodwork cost money. Martin Cosgrave did not hesitate. He sold some of his sheep, sold them hurriedly, and as all men who sell their sheep hurriedly, he sold them badly. When the carpentry had been finished, the roofing cost more money. One day the neighbours discovered that all the sheep had been sold. "He's beggared now," they said.
The farmer who turned the sod a few fields away laboured in the damp atmosphere of growing things, his mind filled with thoughts of bursting seeds and teeming barns. He shook his head at sight of Martin Cosgrave above on the hill bent all day over hard stones; whenever he looked up he only caught the glint of a trowel, or heard the harsh grind of a chisel. But Martin Cosgrave took no stock of the men reddening the soil beneath him. Whenever his eyes travelled down the hillside he only saw the flock of crows that hung over the head of the digger. The study of the veins of limestone that he turned in his hands, the slow moulding of the crude shapes to their place in the building, the rhythm and swing of the mallet in his arm, the zest with which he felt the impact of the chisel on the stone, the ring of forging steel, the consciousness of mastery over the work that lay to his hands—these were the things that seemed to him to give life a purpose and man a destiny. He would whistle a tune as he mixed the mortar with the broad shovel, for it gave him a feeling of the knitting of the building with the ages. He pitied the farmer who looked helplessly upon his corn as it was beaten to the ground by the first storm that blew from the sea; he was upon a work that would withstand the storms of centuries. The scent of lime and mortar greeted his nostrils. When he moved about the splinters crunched under his feet. Everything around him was hard and stubborn, but he was the master of it all. In his dreams in the night he would reach out his hands for the feel of the hard stone, a burning desire in his breast to put it into shape, to give it nobility in the scheme of a building.