SAD NEWS FROM BALLINACLASH.
ANOTHER year has elapsed, and Grace has never once visited the old cottage. She shrinks from it now, as she shrank from Norah Lahy's pale face. Yet she feels that Norah Lahy has done her good, and is glad to think that she won the love of the poor sick girl; for Mary Kearney mentioned in her letters that Norah had spoken affectionately of her to the last. Grace says to herself that she ought to spend some time with Mary in her now lonely home — that it "would be right"; and, as in Norah Lahy's case, she feels it would have done her good. But she has such troops of pleasant acquaintances now, and so many invitations to all sorts of parties, and is so admired and flattered, that she scarcely has time even to think of her old friends. She is reminded of them this morning by a letter from Mary. Mary tells her they are all well; that Anne writes from her convent in her old, cheerful way, but that Ellie did not come home at Christmas; that there was a letter from the Cape from Richard, who was delighted with the voyage. (He had gone as surgeon in an Australian vessel.)
"Billy Heffernan's house in the bog," the letter went on to say, "was swept away by the flood after the heavy rains; and he was barely able to save himself and his mule from drowning. But he is now hard at work building another house, as Mr. Lloyd has given him a lease for ever of twenty acres of his bog, for the yearly rent of a creel of turf; and though my father says a single sod would be too much for it, Billy thinks himself quite independent, and says he has an estate while grass grows and water runs, and no landlord can turn him out. Whether grass can be made to grow on the 'estate,' however, is doubtful. Nelly Donovan has given her heart, to Billy Heffernan; but his heart, I really think, is in Norah Lahy's grave. And Mat, too, loves not wisely, but too well: and has become quite a grave and thoughtful character, devoting all the time he can spare to reading. Old Phil Morris is dead, and Bessy is gone to live with her aunt in Dublin. She had been very unhappy on account of the unkind things people used to say of her; and that foolish dragoon, encouraged, it is said, by Peg Brady, kept persecuting her to the last. Peg is our dairy-maid now; and she has confessed, with a flood of tears, that she deceived Mat Donovan about a letter of Bessy's, and is sorry she had not the courage to tell the truth before Bessy went away. As I have said so much of the 'course of true love' running in the usual way in this part of the globe, I must tell you that a little circumstance which accidentally came under my notice the other day has convinced me that your friend, 'Fionn Macool,' is, after all, in love with somebody; but, for the life of me, I cannot guess who she may be, though I could tell you the colour of her hair. Strange to say, I thought of Bessy Morris, but — though you will say that is just what might be expected from an 'oddity' — I am sure it is not she. Might it be Miss Delany? He praised her beauty and agreeable manners more than ever I heard him praise any one else. But, take my word for it, Hugh is gone about somebody, as sure as the sun is at this moment sinking down behind the poplar trees on the hill — which trees always remind me of you and Bessy Morris, and all the chat we used to have about her father, and her anxiety to find him and live with him in their old home, after all his wanderings. That's what made me like Bessy, and I never could believe her heartless, as she had the name of being.
"The Messrs. Pender are carrying things with a high hand. Poor Father M'Mahon is heart-broken at the sufferings of the people. The poor-house is crowded, and the number of deaths is fearful. Last Sunday, when requesting the prayers of the congregation in the usual way for the repose of the souls of those who died during the week, the list was so long that poor Father M'Mahon stopped in the middle of it, exclaiming with a heart-piercing cry, 'O my poor people, my poor people!' and then turned round and prostrated himself at the foot of the altar convulsed with grief, and could not go on reading the list of deaths for a long time. Then he got into a rage and denounced the government as a 'damnable government.' I was quite frightened at the excitement of the people. Some faces were quite white, and others almost black. But a very affecting incident turned their anger into pity, though one would think it ought only to incense them all the more against their rulers. When he resumed the reading of the list, a woman shrieked out and fell senseless upon the floor. She was one of the paupers in the auxiliary workhouse, who are marched to the parish chapel every Sunday, as the chapel in the regular workhouse is too small even to accommodate the inmates of that house. This poor woman was only admitted the week before with her husband and children, from whom, according to their infamous rules, she was at once separated. She now heard her husband's name read from the altar, and with a wild shriek of agony fell down, and was borne senseless out of the chapel. They did not even take the trouble to inform her that her husband was dead! Were human beings ever treated before as our poor people are treated? I often wondered at the almost wild looks of the paupers while the list of deaths was being read. But I understand it now! Oh! I must drive away the thought of such barbarous cruelty, and not distress you with such pictures of human suffering. But perhaps it is well to think of these things sometimes, Grace, and pray to God to alleviate the misery around us. I do my best to keep up my spirits. I sit in poor Norah's chair every evening till the light in Mat Donovan's window reminds me to go down and read the newspaper or play a tune for my father, while mamma is making her favourite slim-cake for tea. Hugh, as usual, is nearly always in his own room, where I spend an occasional hour with him. He is, however, becoming amiable, and comes out of his den when our Castleview friends make their appearance. I am always glad to see them, and they cheer us up a good deal. Miss Lloyd scarcely recognises them now, and maybe she doesn't get it from Rose, with whom Johnny Wilson is again 'the white-headed boy.' Can you make out this mystery about Hugh as you did the tracks in the snow?
"Ah, we had not so merry a Christmas as that since! But I can't realise that idea of the poet you used to quote about a 'sorrow's crown of sorrow.' I like to remember 'happier things,' and would say with our own bard —
"'Long, long be my heart with such memories filled.'
I take my walk nearly every evening. Great news of Tommy Lahy! His uncle, who is very rich, has adopted him. He is in college, and from his likeness he must be a fine fellow. Do you remember his laughing blue eyes and luxuriant curls? Fancy Tommy Lahy coming home a polished gentleman to us. Would he have any chance of you? It would be quite romantic. I'm glad I have one more pleasant item to relieve the gloom of this tiresome letter. Nancy Hogan is married to Tom Carey, the carpenter, and they are as happy as the day is long. Tell me all about your great ball. I am all anxious to know whether it is the white or the pink you have decided on; but as you will have decided before you can get this, I won't give you my opinion, though you say you would be guided by it. Of course you will be the belle, as Eva would have been the beauty. How I should like to go to her profession; but I fear it will be impossible for me to leave home. Mr. Lloyd says still he will never love again. It is a great loss to Edmund that he is not at home, as you have such pleasant parties. I am so thankful to you to give me such graphic descriptions of them. Edmund writes to me sometimes. He and Arthur O'Connor will soon come to spend a few days with Father Carroll, and they all promise to pay us a visit. How glad I'd be if you would come. The light is fading. I'll take to thinking now, till Nelly Donovan lights her candle. Good-bye, dearest Grace, and believe me ever your affectionate friend,
Grace was by no means unmoved by the passages in this letter in which Mary glanced at the sufferings of her poor neighbours, and the sad change that had come over Knocknagow, where, Grace used to say, the idea must have been suggested to her favourite poet: —
"You'd swear they knew no other mood
But mirth and love in Tipperary."
But that allusion to Hugh and Miss Delany put her into a brown study. Could it be that matters had gone so far between him and Minnie Delany? He had only met her once, but Grace now remembered he was quite "taken up with her," and scarcely took any notice of herself. Grace was angry, and angry for being angry. For, what was it to her? The arrival of the dress for the ball — which fitted to perfection, and looked even more becoming than she expected — put everything else out of her head for an hour or two. Then, as she sat down to take breath, after trying the effect of all her ornaments, strange to say, she found herself thinking of Tommy Lahy, an educated gentleman, handsome and rich — perhaps famous — crossing the wide ocean to lay all his wealth and laurels at her feet. But then it occurred to her that the moustache with which, in fancy, she had adorned his lip was not yet a reality, and Tommy Lahy was dismissed contemptuously.
When dressed for the ball she went, as was her custom, to her father's study, in order that he might see her in all her glory. She was startled, on entering, to see a man standing alone at the table wrapped in a great-coat. It was Hugh Kearney. For a moment surprise kept her from giving him her hand, which she did give at last without speaking. He almost hesitated to touch the dainty glove, for he was wet and travel-stained, the rain glistening upon his face and beard. She thought the dark eyes glistened, too — and she was not mistaken. How immeasurable seemed the distance between them at that moment! She was so bright and so beautiful, so fitted for the sunshine, that to draw her towards him, into the gloom that hung over his pathway, even if he could do so, would (he thought) be almost a crime.
Recovering from her first surprise, she became quite formal, almost haughty in her manner, as she sat upon a chair, at the opposite side of the table from him, and said: —
"I had a letter from Mary to-day, and was glad to see by it that ye were all well."
This was a relief to him; as he feared she might ask a question which he would have found some difficulty in answering.
I'll be back in a moment," said the doctor, entering hastily with a letter in his hand. "O Grace!" — Hugh made a sign and the doctor checked himself. "You are already dressed for the ball," he added; "I see you are determined to be early in the field."
Mrs. D — is to call for me," said she, laughing as she left the room.
"I don't like to bring you out such a night as this," said Hugh, "unless you think it absolutely necessary. Dr. Cusack assured me there was no immediate danger."
"Well, I prefer going at once," returned Dr. Kiely. "Will you have some refreshment?"
"No, thank you. I had something at the hotel. And I have no time to lose," he added, looking at his watch.
"Well, I hope you will succeed in the object of your journey. If not, don't forget to let me know. Good night."
As Hugh Kearney sat upon the top of the mail-coach, regardless of the cold rain dashing into his face, he could wish that the night and his journey were a year long. It galled his proud spirit to think that he was going to beg. It would be easier for him to die. But he thought of his father and mother, and his sister, his beautiful and noble sister, and for their sakes be resolved to make any and every sacrifice consistent with honour. He bowed his head and covered his face with his hands as the thought occurred to him that he might never see his mother alive again. "And if I fail in my mission," he said to himself, "I could almost wish it may be so. She would feel the blow more keenly than any of us, when the first gust of the storm has almost killed her."
He was roused by the loud bray of the guard's horn, and, on looking up, saw a crowd of vehicles blocking up the road in front of a suburban mansion, from the windows of which the light streamed out upon the throng of smoking horses and shouting drivers, as they struggled and jostled one another to get out of the way of the mail-coach. Hugh remembered it was at this house the ball was to which Grace was going, and fancied he caught a glimpse of her crossing the hall as the coach plunged into the darkness.
"There's a ball there, sir," said the guard behind him, who thought he meant to inquire what it all meant; for Hugh had waved his hand towards the lighted windows.
But the action was an involuntary "Farewell."
Grace was not there, however. She ran down stairs on hearing Mrs. D — 's carriage stop at the door, and meeting her father in the hall wrapped in his cloak, she asked where he was going.
"To Ballinaclash," he replied. "Mrs. Kearney got suddenly ill this morning."
"Why did not Hugh tell me?"
"Well, he saw you dressed for the party, and did not like to spoil your enjoyment. He is going to Dublin by the night coach."
She paused for a moment, looking bewildered, and then hurried to the hall-door, where a servant was waiting to hold an umbrella over her while she got into the carriage. Her father looked sad, and shook his head, as he turned into his study for a parcel he had forgotten. Mrs. D — 's carriage was rolling up the street as he came out, but to his surprise Grace met him in the hall.
"I have told Mrs. D — of Mrs. Kearney's illness," said she, in a low, firm voice. "And now will you let me go with you? I'll be ready in ten minutes."
"It is a cold, wet night, for so long a drive," he replied.
"Oh, no matter. Do let me go."
"Well, then, lose no time."
She flew up the stairs, and there was no sadness in his look now, and no shaking of the head, as he gazed after her, with all a father's love and pride.
The tears welled into Willie Kearney's eyes when Hugh shook him by the hand in his uncle's warehouse.
"I hope you find Willie a good boy?" said Hugh.
"No better, no better," returned his uncle. "He'll be a first-rate business man."
"Well, Hugh," said the merchant, when he had explained the business upon which he had come, "it is a sad business. But I must tell you plainly I cannot do what you require. It would be only throwing good money after bad, and I owe a duty to my own children. Your father was always careless and improvident, and I often told him he was a fool to expend so much upon his farms when he had no sufficient security. I lent him money before, which I never expect to be paid. And you know I never got a penny of what I was entitled to by my father's will. I left it all to them, and depended on my own exertions. And now I ask you is it just to expect more than that from me, particularly in so hopeless a business?
"I agree with every word you say," Hugh replied. "I'd cut off my hand rather than ask it for myself. But I can't bear the thought of seeing them ruined. And if the rent, now due, were paid, I do believe it possible, by care and economy, to pay you after a little time. I'll pledge you my honour I'll do my best."
After a long pause, his uncle filled a cheque, and handed it to him.
"It is not much more than half the sum you want," said he, "but I cannot give you more. And mind, it is to you, and not to your father, I am giving it. You won't go back without coming out to see us? Your cousins would be most happy to meet you."
"Oh, I cannot lose an hour," replied Hugh. "Good-bye." And after shaking hands warmly with the sturdy merchant, who had some of his father's brusqueness in his manner, he hurried out of the office, his heart somewhat lightened of its load.
"Dr. Kiely will do the rest," said he, as he hurried through the crowded streets. "And if my poor mother has rallied, with God's help, all will be well."
While Hugh Kearney was picturing Grace whirling among the dancers at the ball, she was hurrying to his mother's bedside.
The second day after, she and Mary were sitting together in the well-remembered little room up in the steep roof of the old cottage. Mrs. Kearney was out of danger, but it was feared she would never wholly recover the effects of the shock she had got. The cause of the shock was kept a secret from Grace; and she candidly told Mary that this made her feel uneasy and uncomfortable, for she could not imagine what motive there could be for concealing the circumstance, whatever it was, from her. Mary flushed scarlet as she answered —
"Well, it is very foolish to be making a mystery of it. But I believe people always feel ashamed under such circumstances; though I scarcely know why they should. The fact is, we were all startled the other morning to find all our cattle, and sheep, and horses, and, in fact, all we had, seized upon by the agent for rent, and driven away to pound. When poor mamma heard the bailiffs shouting, and saw what had happened, she fell down in a fit, and we feared for some time she was dying. But, thank God, it is not so bad, and if I saw any hope of her being reconciled I'd be happy."
"I don't see anything to be ashamed of," said Grace.
"And yet," Mary replied, "people who would fawn upon us yesterday would not know us to-day. And if Hugh cannot prevail upon my uncle to advance the money to release the cattle before they are canted, I don't know what the end will be. How well I can now understand what the poor people suffer in being driven from their homes every day. I love the very stones of this old place," she murmured, with the tears in her eyes, as she leant out of the window, and looked round the garden, and out over the fields, and down to the little brook, along whose banks she and her brothers and sisters used to spend the long summer days in their happy childhood. And must they leave it all now to strangers, perhaps, who never heard their very names? Her father was standing on the "new ditch," looking towards that part of his farm which was a quagmire some years before, and she guessed what his thoughts were.
"It was very good of you to come to us, Grace," said she. "No one can cheer my father like you."
"Ah, I ought to have come long ago," Grace replied with a sigh.
"Better late than never," returned Mary, cheerfully. "And here is somebody else who wants you to comfort him. I really think he will change his mind, and give you Eva's place in his heart."
Grace laughed as Mr. Lloyd rode by on his grey horse; and then looked grave.
"Oh, here are the Hanlys," she exclaimed, brightening up; "and the pony coming on quite gaily, and head foremost. I suppose we must go down. By-the-by, Mary, what about — " She stopped in the middle of her question, which was suggested by Rose Hanly's curls, which fell over her shoulders in ringlets that might almost rival those in which Mr. Lloyd's heart got so hopelessly entangled the night he distinguished himself as a poet.
"What were you going to say?" Mary asked.
"Oh, nothing. Let us go down to them."
Grace looked very often at Rose's curls during the next half-hour; and when she and Mary were again alone, she was about asking for an explanation of that passage in her letter about Hugh's being in love. But, strange to say, she could not bring herself to ask so simple a question.
Mrs. Kearney was reclining in her arm-chair, propped up with pillows.
"I think, Mary," said she, "I hear the sheep."
Mary thought it was only fancy, and merely replied that the evening was very fine and calm.
"And the cows," she added.
Mary looked anxiously at- Grace, for she feared her mother's mind was beginning to wander.
But just then Jim Dunn was heard shouting to Tom Maher; and Tom Maher shouting to Barney Brodherick; and Barney hallooing to no one in particular — but in a general way, and for his own private amusement. Mary and Grace ran to the window; and there were the sheep already spread over the lawn, smelling at the grass, and snatching a hasty nibble; and then holding up their noses in the air, and looking all round on the groves, and the lime-trees, and the elms, and the old cottage itself, as if a dim notion had got into their foolish heads that they had seen all that before. Then the cows and the heifers and the yearlings came rushing through the gate like a routed army; but after a little while subsided into tranquillity, and began to low softly in response to Attorney Hanly's herd, which Joe Russell was driving to their stalls from Tom Hogan's meadow. And, to crown all, Bobby rushed through the open gate, and made straight for the house at a hand-gallop, twisting his neck into every possible position, and kicking up his heels in a most extraordinary fashion, till he came close under the window, and suddenly stood stock still. And raising his head as high as possible in the air, Bobby brayed so long and loud, that Mrs. Kearney and Mary and Grace were fain to stop their ears. Then Grace laughed her old ringing laugh; and when Barney, suddenly remembering that "the misthress was sick," stopped Bobby's music by clapping his "caubeen" over Bobby's upturned nose, Mary laughed quite as heartily as Grace. And poor Mrs. Kearney smiled, and fancied she was quite well again; and could almost persuade herself that the shock she got the morning everything was seized and driven away, and the stillness and desolation of the place ever since, were only the effects of a troubled dream.
Dr. Kiely assured them the accustomed sights and sounds about the house would tend greatly to Mrs. Kearney's when be thought of this, that Grace saw a deeper shade of sadness come into his dark eyes as they involuntarily dwelt upon her recovery. And after his second tumbler Maurice was himself again, and abused old Isaac Pender and his hopeful son in so superlative and original a manner that Grace laughed as much as she did that Christmas Day we first made her acquaintance, when, between her gravity and her vivacity, Mr. Lowe did not know whether to call her a woman or a child.
Hugh sat at the end of the table, with his hand on the head of his favourite pointer. Grace thought, as his dark eyes rested upon her, without seeming to see her, that she never saw him look so sad. Could it be that what Mary alluded to in her letter had anything to do with it?
He was looking into the future — the near future, and not the distant, as was his wont. The blow that he feared must fall, was only delayed. The lease would soon expire; and were they to be ejected like Tom Hogan, or the rent raised? In either case certain ruin would be the result. Then, he was in debt; and until his uncle and Dr. Kiely were paid, he could never have an easy mind. And how were they to be paid? there was only one way: and it was when he thought of this, that Grace saw a deeper shade of sadness come into his dark eyes as the involuntarily dwelt upon her. Maurice Kearney's "surprises" were exactly in his old style, and had for Grace the double charm of freshness — after the artificial manner of life she had for some time been accustomed to — and of recalling her merry childhood. She was asked to sing, too; and the songs and the old tunes recalled the dance and the hurling, and Billy Heffernan and his flute, and Mat Donovan and the famous drum, and the stalwart youths and blooming maidens around the Bush on Sunday evenings, when
You'd swear they knew no other mood
But mirth and love in Tipperary."
Ah, the cattle and the sheep could be brought hack to Maurice Kearney's fields. But can these be ever brought back?