THE "DEAD PAST" AND THE "LIVING PRESENT." — MRS. DONOVAN'S SAD FACE.
BESSY MORRIS tripped lightly up the hill, till she came to the clipped hedge. And then she began to walk more and more slowly, with her eyes bent on the ground. After passing the little gate and the neatly thatched house, she stopped, and, turning round, looked at the clipped hedge and up at the old cherry-tree. And while she looked, the hedge grew green, and the bare branches of the cherry-tree were covered with leaves, through which the cherries peeped, and seemed to whisper above the hum of the bees — "'Tis for you we have grown red and ripe and juicy; for you we are kept here so long; for you and nobody else, little Bessy Morris!" — just as the cherries used to whisper long ago. The trees flung their shadows across the white and dusty road; the birds twittered among the branches; the swallows skimmed over the bright little river; the distant lowing of the cows floated upon the clover-scented air; the thrush's evening song rang out bold and clear from the bushy glen; the blue smoke stole up through the grey sally-trees: and she was a happy, innocent school-girl.
The deepening shadows and the bleak, wintry landscape called her back from the dead past to the living present; and after a moment's hesitation, she turned in from the road, and raised the latch of Mat Donovan's door.
There was no change. Everything was as it used to be. The little chair of which Nelly spoke was in its old place; and she could almost fancy she saw the Bessy Morris of the old time sitting in it. And how fond they all were of her then! A shadow seemed to fall upon her face as the thought struck her that she had let these true friends drop almost completely out of her memory, except Mat himself; and if she gave him a thought, it was only in some moment of disappointment or mental suffering, when the recollection of his unchanging love would cross her mind. Her cheek flushed as she reflected how little she had prized that love; and for a moment she felt as if she had been not only ungrateful but false. She looked again at the familiar objects around. The dresser — the wheel upon which Mrs. Donovan had given her her first lesson in spinning — Mat's hurly over the fire-place — everything just the same! As her eye rested on the famous Knocknagow drum, hung so high up that none but Mat himself could reach to it, she smiled, and her thoughts seemed to take a more cheerful turn. Seeing a slate upon the little window — a blue slate without a frame, and having only one side polished — she took it in her hand, for it reminded her of the old school days. A little to her surprise, she saw there was a sum carefully worked out upon the slate, and some sentences correctly and fairly written. The fact was, Mat Donovan had taken to study of late. He endeavoured to induce a sufficient number of pupils to pay half-a-crown in advance, to make it worth the schoolmaster's while to take a lodging in the village — instead of sleeping at a farmer's house two miles away — and open a night-school for the winter. But a sufficient number of half-crowns not being forthcoming, Mat Donovan set about teaching himself — greatly to the distress of his mother, who could see no possible explanation of so strange a proceeding, but an intention on Mat's part of "going to join the peelers"; which, to her mind, was as bad as going into the poor-house, and infinitely worse than going to be hanged. For poor Mrs. Donovan got that sad face of hers one bright summer day in the year '98, when her father's house was surrounded by soldiers and yeomen, and her only brother, a bright-eyed boy of seventeen, was torn from the arms of his mother, and shot dead outside the door. And then a gallant officer twisted his hand in the boy's golden hair, and invited them all to observe how, with one blow of his trusty sword, he would sever the rebel head from the rebel carcass. But one blow, nor two, not three, nor ten, did not do; and the gallant officer hacked away at the poor boy's neck in a fury, and was in so great a passion, that when the trunk fell down at last, leaving the head in his hand, he flung it on the ground, and kicked it like a football; and when it rolled against the feet of the horrified young girl, who stood as if she were turned to stone near the door, she fell down senseless without cry or moan, and they all thought she too was dead. She awoke, however, the second next day following, just in time to kiss the poor bruised and disfigured lips before the coffin-lid was nailed down upon them. But the sad look was in her face, and never wholly left it from that hour. It was beginning to clear away in after years; till once again the house was surrounded by soldiers. They came with the sheriff and bailiffs. It was not a bright summer day, but a bitter cold day in the bleak December this time. Yet, as she and her father and mother passed through the glittering bayonets and shining accoutrements that filled the yard, that fatal summer day in '98 came back with such strange vividness that she thought she felt her brother's head strike against her foot; and again she fell down senseless without cry or moan. After that the sad look became fixed and permanent, and she was destined to carry it with her into her coffin. It was the shadow of a curse.
So Mat Donovan's slate and pencil made the sad look in his mother's face a shade sadder, lest by any chance he should be qualifying himself for the "peelers." She would rather a thousand times see him dragged out and shot like the bright-eyed boy whose head rolled against her foot in '98 or hanged from the old cherry-tree in the garden.
It strikes us that statesmen might learn something from the sad look in Mrs. Donovan's face.
Bessy Morris carelessly turned over the slate, and as she looked at the unpolished back, a strange light came into her eyes. Every inch of the back of Mat Donovan's slate was covered with B's.
She laid the slate down quickly on hearing his footstep, and looked along the road, as if she had been brought to the window by the braying of Mr. Beresford Pender's tinhorn, which he had just put to his lips to warn all whom it might concern to keep out of the way of the wheels of his tax-cart, and clear the road for a "gentleman." And how Mat Donovan did start when he saw her! For a moment he could scarcely credit the sight of his eyes, that it was really Bessy Morris, all alone in his own house. Recovering, how ever, from his surprise, he advanced a step or two and held out his hand.
"You're welcome!" said he, with that odd smile of his. He thought there was something very cold in her manner as she placed her hand in his. Not the faintest pressure could he feel from that dear little hand.
"You're welcome!" was all he could say. And as he said it a second time, for want of something else, there was a very little pressure upon his fingers, just as if she couldn't help it.
"You had a narrow escape," said she; "I hope you are not hurt."
"'Tis nothin'," he replied, letting her hand go suddenly, for he felt that she was trying to withdraw it. But the withdrawing of the hand would not have caused that pain he felt coming about his heart again, if he knew it was done simply because she saw his sister Nelly coming towards the door.
"'Tis nothin'," said he, "on'y a tumble in the hay."
He was surprised and displeased to see that Nelly took scarcely any notice of Bessy Morris; but he did not know they had met a few minutes before. He watched with some anxiety to see if his mother's greeting would be as cold as his sister's; and when the old woman came in, with her sad face seeming sadder than ever, and looked first surprised, and then glad, and then held out her hand to Bessy and said, "You are welcome," in such a kind way, Mat felt quite happy.
"And won't you sit down?" said Mrs. Donovan, with a brighter look than Mat had seen in the sad face for many a long day.
"'Tis getting late, ma'am," returned Bessy; sitting down at the same time in the little old chair.
Mrs. Donovan sat down too, and, putting her hand under her chin, looked into Bessy's face for a full minute. It was plain she was thinking of the bright little girl who used to sit in that old chair a few years before, and so delight them all with her merry laugh and her ready wit, and her quaint, half-childish, half-womanly ways.
"Is id yourself that's in id at all?" said Mrs. Donovan.
Bessy laughed; but she was moved by the kind tone of the old woman's voice, and still more by her look. She felt it was in such a tone and with such a look her own mother would have addressed her.
"An' how is the old man?" she continued. "'Tis a long time since he stopped to talk to me now about the year uv the hill, an' the hangin' an' the floggin' an' all. An' Bessy, avoorneen, had ye any account of your father since? Or is there any tale or tidin's uv him?"
"Not a word, ma'am," Bessy answered.
"Well, Bessy, as sure as you're sittin' in that chair a man from near the colliery met him in America, an' was talkin' to him in his own house. An' he had carpets on his flure, he says. The man he was tellin' was in here wud me."
"Well, we heard about that, ma'am; but 'twas a long time ago since the man you speak of saw him, or rather thinks he did. For all he could remember was his surname, and that he made inquiries about my grandfather."
"Well, from what the man from the colliery said, I'm a'most sure 'twas your father he was talkin' to," said Mrs. Donovan, beginning to rock herself softly from side to side as she looked kindly into the young girl's face.
The desire to find her father was a redeeming trait in Bessy Morris's character. It helped to guard her heart against the worldliness, and vanity, and discontent which sometimes threatened to take possession of it. And sitting there in that little chair, her heart began to warm to the kind old woman, whose look was so like a mother's; and Bessy Morris felt that at that moment she had more of good in her than at any other time since the innocent days of her childhood.
Mat Donovan sat on the bench, which Billy Heffernan was wont to take possession of whenever he paid them a visit. Mat chose this seat rather than the "sugan-bottom" chair, because from it he could watch the play of Bessy's expressive features without attracting attention. And how his heart did swell as he looked and looked, and asked himself how or when she managed to get into it — a question which for the life of him honest Mat could not answer satisfactorily. But there she was, and no mistake; and Mat sighed such a big, heavy sigh at the thought of how hard it would be to eject her — when that proceeding would become an absolute necessity and a duty — that Bessy Morris looked at him with a melancholy sort of look, as if she knew exactly what he was thinking of. Whereupon Mat Donovan assumed an exceedingly humorous expression of countenance, and wanted to say something in his usual style; something very droll and extravagant — as became a "palaverer" and a "deluder" and "a rag on every bush." But somehow his drollery had quite deserted him; and not a single "quare thing" could he remember, that would convince Bessy Morris that he, Mat Donovan, commonly called Mat the Thrasher, was the rollickingest, rovingest blade in all Tipperary, whom it was not given to woman born of woman to capture and hold captive. So Mat Donovan could do nothing better than lean the back of his head against the partition, and look up the chimney.
"An' what way did you lave your aunt?" Mrs. Donovan asked.
"She was very delicate for a long time," Bessy replied; "but she's better now. The doctor advised her to come to the country. And if her son comes home from England, as he promised, I think she'll spend part of the summer with us."
"Well, I'd be glad to see her," returned the old woman.
"We all thought she made a fine match — he was such a grand elegant young fellow. But I b'lieve the poor woman met with her own share uv the world."
"Indeed she had her trials," replied Bessy.
"'Tis little any wan thought he'd turn out as he did," rejoined the old woman. " But 'tis hard to judge uv people by their looks. Id might be betther for her if she married some honest b'y she knew always. But 'tis 'asy to talk now when we see the difference; but no wan'd think so at the time."
"I'll call in again to-morrow, or after, Mrs. Donovan," said Bessy, as she stood up and rested her hand on the little old chair. "But I promised my grandfather to be home early; and he might be sending Peg Brady to know what is delaying me."
"Go wud her a piece uv the road, Mat," said his mother, looking reproachfully at him, as if she thought he ought to have at once volunteered his services.
"Oh, no," Bessy exclaimed; "'tis a fine bright night. An' sure I ought to know the road well."
I'll put you apast the sthrame," said Mat, stretching out his arms and yawning, as if he felt very tired and lazy, and would much prefer being left to doze upon the bench with his poll against the partition, and a bright little star looking down through the chimney at him from a patch of blue sky.
"See — I was near forgettin' to tell you," said Mrs. Donovan, as Mat and Bessy were going out, "to tell your grandfather about the soger."
Bessy Morris looked at her with surprise, not unmingled with alarm. And Mat, too, stopped in the doorway, seeming at a loss to understand what she meant.
"Bad cess to him," continued Mrs. Donovan, he tuck a great start out uv me, when he walked in, an' nobody wud me but myse'f, as they wor at the weddin'. I was hardly able to answer him whin he axed me where Phil Morris lived. Id brought the time uv the Coercion Act to my mind."
"Oh, wait till you see himse'f," said Mat, who evidently thought the story was an old one.
This mistake was a relief to Bessy, and she brightened up on seeing him walk out without waiting for further particulars; but as she walked quickly after him, her mind became troubled. The dragoon, it seemed, had been as far as the hamlet; and the object of his visit she feared might become a subject for gossip and even scandal.
Mat Donovan looked up at the little star that was looking down at him through the chimney; and then Mat Donovan looked at the moon, which was tolerably bright. But star and moon failed to inspire Mat Donovan with a suitable topic for conversation. And failing to find it among the heavenly bodies, he bent his gaze on the muddy road, and seemed to search diligently for it there, as he walked on, with Bessy Morris by his side. Greatly to his surprise, he found himself at the stream before he had spoken one word to her. He strode across and reached her his hand. She placed her foot on the single stepping-stone, and leaped lightly over.
"'Tis a fine night," said he, still holding her hand.
"Very fine," she replied. "Good-night."
He was looking at the moon again, and seemed to forget that he had hold of her hand, when they were both startled by the words:
"Wisha, is id there ye are?"
It was only Peg Brady who had been sent by Bessy's grandfather to meet her. And Peg laughed, as if Mat Donovan holding Bessy Morris by the hand and looking at the moon were the best joke in the world. But there was something in the laugh which Bessy did not like. And for an innocent, good-natured, "harmless sort of a girl" like Peg Brady, her glance was very sly indeed, as, turning to Mat, she said:
"The little house undher the hill, Mat?"
"God be wud ould times," returned Mat, with a shake of the head and a smile, in which there was something so sad that Bessy Morris fixed that thoughtful, inquiring look upon him, and then looked down at the moonbeams shimmering in the little stream.
What did he mean? Might it be that he had been told something about her, and that he was sorry she was no longer the Bessy Morris of "old times?"
"What's comin' over me at all?" he thought, after bidding them good-night. "Sure I never expected she'd ever think uv me except as a friend and a neighbour. An' she's as friendly an' plasin' in every way as ever I see her. But, for all that, I feel quarer than ever I felt in my life. She looks some way sorrowful at me sometimes, just as if she knew what was in my mind. I must take care an' not let her know, for I know id would throuble her. An' sorry I'd be to give her throuble. Well, God bless her! anyway," he added, stopping, just where she had stopped an hour or two before. "The like uv her is not within the walls uv the world."
He looked at the clipped hedge, and up at the old cherry tree, and down towards the school-house, behind the quarry. And the hedge grew green, and the ripe cherries peeped from among the leaves, and he, too, heard the twitter of the birds, and the song of the thrush, and the lowing of the kine; and he waited for the shout of the children "just let loose from school." The candle was, just then, laid in its usual place in the little window, and its light recalled him to the living Present. The "living Present?" And the "dead Past?" We hold that the Past is the more living of the two, some times.
Mat Donovan looked at the outline of the mountains, and all around the horizon.
Hi for it, hi! for it, hi! for it still,
And hi! for the little house under the hill."
— he sang, as he closed the little gate of the "haggart," which, no doubt, Nelly had left open when she came to pull the leeks for her mother's supper.
Mat Donovan's house was not "under," but rather on the top of a hill. But Peg Brady had her own reason for her allusion to a little house that was under a hill. And we fear Peg's reason was not a very amiable one; for she shook her head and repeated the phrase, "the poor fool!" several times on her way home, glancing at the same time from the corners of her eyes at Bessy Morris.
The light in the little window recalled another dreamer besides Mat Donovan from the dead Past to the living Present. This dreamer was a woman. She sat alone at a window. Her face was pale and very beautiful; and her white arm gleamed like snow in the moonlight through her abundant dark hair, which had fallen down and flowed in glossy waves over the little table upon which the arm was leaning. Her lips were parted, and her face wore a look of sadness, as she gazed intently at the moon. She was dreaming. She was walking by the sea-side — not alone. She leant upon the arm of one whom she regarded as a very dear friend; one who to her mind was a superior being — something higher and nobler than ordinary mortal men — but whom to regard as more than a friend she would have thought a crime. The waves stole in softly over the smooth sand. The wide expanse of waters was calm as her own soul. They stood still, neither looking at the other, and gazed along the tranquil main. And she was happy, and thought he must be so too. But how rudely was she awakened from that happy dream! It is the thought of this awaking that has brought that look of pain into her face, upon which the cold moonlight falls like spray upon a lily. And while her mild blue eyes are raised to the pale moon, a gleam of light, as if a little star had peeped over the brow of the hill, shines through the branches of the elm tree — and Mary Kearney is recalled to the living Present; for she knows it is the light in Mat Donovan's window. She looks around her, as if fearful of being observed; but she is alone, and the light laugh of a girl from the next room assures her that her absence has not been remarked upon, or Grace would have come to seek her. She ties up her hair with a steady hand; and joins the laughing circle with a face so calm and unruffled that no one could for a moment have suspected that it ever wore a look of pain.