Knocknagow - CHAPTER XXIII.



"GOD save all here," said Billy Heffernan, as he closed the door behind him.

"God save you kindly," replied Mrs. Donovan, raising her spectacles to look at him. She was about adding the usual "sit down an' rest," but Billy had already taken possession of the bench against the partition by the fireside. So Mrs. Donovan pulled down her spectacles over her eyes and went on with her darning.

"What news?" she asked as she opened the wick of the candle with the darning needle, to give herself more light.

"Nothing strange," replied Billy, looking round the house, "I thought Phil Lahy was here."

"He wasn't here since I was below," replied Mat, who was cutting a strip from a piece of horse-skin to make a gad for his flail.

"Faith, Billy," said Mat's sister, Nelly, " 'tis a cure for sore eyes to see you in this direction. Here, card a few rowls uv this for me."

She laid a handful of wool on the end of the bench upon which Billy sat, and then presented him with a pair of cards.

"'Twould be time for you to stop," said her mother. "Where is the use of killing yourself that way?"

"As soon as I have this cuppeen filled I'll stop," she replied.

And Nelly returned to her wheel to the hum of which the grating of the wire-toothed cards was added, as Billy Heffernan went on converting the wool into rolls so soft and light that the sudden opening of the door blew some of them from the bench down upon the hearth.

The door was opened by a slatternly woman, smelling of soap-suds and snuff. After thrusting her dishevelled hair under a very dirty cap with borders that flapped backwards and forwards without any visible cause, and pulling up the heel of a man's brogue, which she wore as a slipper upon her stockingless foot, she announced the object of her visit to be "a squeeze of the blue bag."

"'Tis there in the drawer of the dresser," said Mrs. Donovan, coldly.

She got the article she wanted, which was a small piece of flannel tied with a string into something like a rude purse.

"'Tis button blue," she remarked, feeling what was tied up in the piece of flannel.

"No, 'tis slate blue," rejoined Mrs. Donovan, in no civil tone.

The slatternly woman took a black bottle from her pocket, and, after holding it between her and the light, and turning it in various directions, extracted the cork with her teeth. Then throwing back her head, she held the bottle, bottom-upwards, over her open mouth for several seconds.

"The divil a duge," she exclaimed, replacing the cork, and striking it with the palm of her hand. "This is the second three half-pints I'm goin' for for 'em," she added; "though they never as much as axed me had I a mouth on me."

"Who are they?" Mrs. Donovan asked.

"Dick and Paddy Casey, Andy Dooley, and Phil Lahy," she replied. "Single-hand. Wheel out for a half-pint."

"Faith, if I'm to wait for Phil," thought Billy Heffernan, as he presented the last roll of the wool on the back of the card to Nelly, "'tis a long wait I'll have, I'm afraid. An' if I don't wait, Honor'll think I didn't mind what she said to me. An' maybe Norah'd think it bad uv me." This last reflection decided Billy Heffernan to wait for Phil Lahy; and he knew his man sufficiently well to be pretty sure that he would call to Mat Donovan's on his way home, and try to make his wife believe that it was at Mat Donovan's he had been all the time.

"Look at them" here a difficulty presents itself: we are not sure whether it be possible to convey by means of the English alphabet the only name ever given to potatoes in Knocknagow. "Praties" would be laughed at as a vulgarism - only worthy of a spalpeen from Kerry, while "potatoes" was considered too genteel except for ladies and gentlemen and schoolmasters. The nearest approach we can make to the word we were about writing is "puetas" or "p'yehtes.

"See if them puetas is goin' to bile," said Mat Donovan; "'twould be time for 'em."

Billy Heffernan anticipated Nelly before she could stop her wheel, and raised the wooden lid from the pot.

"The white horse is on 'em," said he.

Nelly now having "filled the cuppeen" that is, spun as much thread as the spindle could carry placed her wheel against the wall, and drew a very white deal table to the middle of the floor. Upon the table she spread a cloth as clean, but scarcely so white as itself for it was of homespun unbleached canvas and upon the cloth she laid a single white plate with a blue rim, and three very old black-handled knives, with the blades worn to a point and very short. Taking a small saucepan or porringer from a nail in the wall, she half filled it with spring water and put it down to boil on a red sod of turf which she took from the centre of the fire with the tongs, and broke upon the hearthstone. Thrusting the tongs into the pot, she took a potato and felt it in her left hand, which was covered with the corner of her apron, and then laid it smoking on the table-cloth. The pressure of her hand did not break the potato, but she knew by the feel it was boiled to the "heart." Whipping the pot from the fire she emptied its contents into a boat-shaped basket placed over a tub, to drain off the water. Nelly Donovan then "threw out" the potatoes on the table, adroitly catching one or two that were rolling away and placing them on the top of the pile.

Her mother now took off her spectacles, making many wry faces as she did so, for they had got entangled in her white hair, or she imagined they had which came to the same thing and placed them on the upper shelf of the dresser. The dresser was of deal like the table, and scoured, if possible, into a more snowy whiteness. It was pretty well furnished with plates with blue rims, and some cups and saucers in which red and green predominated, a sturdy little black earthenware teapot, half-a-dozen iron spoons fixed in slits in the edge of the top shelf, which top shelf was crowned with a row of shining pewter-plates, and two large circular dishes of the same metal relics of the good old times when "a pig's head and a bolster of cabbage" used to be no rarity to them.

Having placed her spectacles upon the upper shelf, and her darning needle and the half-mended stocking in one of the two drawers under the lower shelf of this imposing article of furniture, Mrs. Donovan smoothed down her apron, and took her accustomed place at the table. She was a quiet, decent-looking woman, with a sad, careworn face, but tranquil and contented at the same time. Her well-starched cap was scrupulously clean, and her grey hair carefully smoothed over her temples. She wore a small, yellowish shawl pinned over her dark brown stuff gown, and a white cotton kerchief under it, which was visible at the throat and round her neck. Her hand, as she rested it on the table, appeared bony and shrivelled, and it could be seen that the gold wedding ring was now too large for the finger it once fitted tightly enough which made it necessary for her to wear a smaller ring of brass, as a guard.

"Put up that flail, Mat," she said, somewhat reproach fully, "and sit down to your supper."

Mat tucked up his cuffs; and, after washing his hands in a wooden basin always called a "cup" and drying then on a strip of canvas that hung from a peg in the wall, he, too, sat at the table, exclaiming, as he pushed some of the potatoes out of the way, and laid the small iron candlestick on the middle of the table:

"Put the priest in the middle of the parish."

Then seizing a good-sized potato, he looked admiringly first at one side and then at the other. It was white and floury, and altogether a tempting object for a hungry man to look at. There was even something appetising in the steam that curled up from it. In fact, the potatoes were remarkably good potatoes, notwithstanding the bad name Mat had given them to Miss Mary Kearney when he pronounced them "desavers."

During this time Nelly Donovan was engaged in cooking a salt herring on a small gridiron, which was constructed by simply bending a piece of thin rod iron, zig-zag, into something like the outline of a hand with the fingers extended, traced with a burnt stick upon the wall, and bringing the ends of the iron together and twisting them into a handle, which might represent a very attenuated arm to the hand aforesaid. When the herring was done, she tossed it on the plate, and poured some of the boiling water out of the porringer upon it for sauce.

And now the repast being prepared, Nelly sat down to partake of her share.

"Won't you come an' ate, Billy," she said, turning to their silent visitor.

"No, thankee," he replied, "I'm afther my supper."

"Oh, wisha! wisha!" Nelly exclaimed, discontentedly, as she glanced at the table, "how well I should forget." She stood up and opened the door; but seeing that the night was dark and the wind rising, she turned to Billy Heffernan and said, "Come out wud me, Billy."

He left his bench in the chimney corner, and followed her out. They returned in a minute or two, and after washing something in a black, glazed earthenware pan, and drying her hands, Nelly laid two small leeks on the table near her mother.

The meal then commenced, but Nelly started up again, exclaiming:

"Bad cess to me, but there's somethin' comin' over me."

She selected half-a-dozen of the best potatoes and laid them in a semi-circle round the fire to roast, and again took her place at the table.

The worn knives were used to peel the potatoes though towards the conclusion of the meal, Nelly sometimes fell into a contemplative mood and did the peeling with the nail of her thumb but all three helped themselves with their fingers to the herring, which they took in minute pinches, as if they were merely trying how it tasted.

Billy Heffernan left his bench and sat upon a straw-bottom chair in front of the fire, so that his back was towards the table the Irish peasant always considering it rude to flare at people while eating. And as he was turning the "roasters" with the tongs, a laugh from Nelly, clear and musical as ever rang through festal hall, made him look round. Mat, it appeared, was making great inroads upon the herring, the backbone of which was well nigh laid bare from the head to the tail, He had his hand stretched out to help himself to a second pinch, by way of supplement to an unconscionably large pinch he had just taken, when his sister snatched away the plate. Mat, finding his finger and thumb close upon vacancy, opened his mouth, not to add the supplemental pinch to its contents, but in blank amazement; and as he stared at his sister, she laughed till she was obliged to wipe the tears from her eyes with the corner of her apron. Even her mother's sad face relaxed into a smile; which, however, was followed by a forced look of reproach, as she requested Nelly to "behave herself." Mat now rested the handle of his knife on the table with the air of a man who had made a good meal, and was pretty well satisfied. All three, in fact, paused as if the work in hand were completed. But Nelly, going to the fire, took up the "roasters," which served the purpose of a second course, and placed three of them before Mat and two before her mother, reserving one for herself. These being disposed of after the manner of tarts or some such delicacies, Mat Donovan leant back luxuriously in his straw-bottom chair for a minute or two. Then hastily making the Sign of the Cross, he stood up, and, dipping a cup in a pail of spring water which rested on a stone slab under the little window, Mat Donovan took a draught with a relish that drinkers of champagne dream not of. He then placed the little iron candlestick on the window, while his sister set about clearing away the table, and joined Billy Heffernan at the fire.

Mat Donovan's house was on the top of a hill where two roads met; and the candle in the little window was a beacon-light to many a splashed and weary wayfarer during the dark winter nights. In fact, his latch was often raised not only by the neighbours who came in for a "shanahus" of an evening, but travellers who were accustomed to pass the way made it a point to light their pipes at the bright turf fire, or in the hot summer days to take a draught from the pail under the little window, which was sure to be found at all hours and seasons as fresh as in the well under the whitethorn in the "rushy field" near the bridge.

Have you the flute, Billy?" Mat asked, as he sat in the chair which Billy had again left for the bench in the corner.

"No," was the reply; "I left id at home."

"I'll engage he hasn't," said Nelly. "'Tis seldom he has a tune for us."

"Begor, you cant say that, Nelly. Whin did I ever disappoint ye whin ye wanted a tune?"

"Well, that's thrue enough, Billy," returned Nelly. "You're a good warrant to play for us whenever we ax you. 'Tis jokin' I was."

"That's what you're always doin'," said her mother, shaking her head.

"'Tis better be merry than sad," she replied, with a laugh.

The latch was here raised and the door pushed open; but as no one came in, Mat leant backwards and peered out into the darkness. By shading his eyes from the fire-light he was able to see that some one was fastening a horse to the back-stick iron in the door-post; and after a little delay more perhaps than a perfectly sober man would require a tall, broad-shouldered man turned round and advanced a step or two into the house.

"Is that Ned?" Mat asked.

"'Tis," was the reply, as he took off his hat and swung it downwards to shake off the wet with which the fur for it was a beaver or "Caroline" was dabbled.

"Is it rainin' it is?" Mat inquired, in some surprise.

"No, but the wind whipped id off uv my head as I was passin' the quarry."

At this Mrs. Donovan made the Sign of the Cross on her forehead; for it was generally believed that the "Good People" were wont to take their nightly journeys through the air to and from Maurice Kearney's fort over the quarry.

Nelly took the hat, and, bringing it close to the candle, gave it as her opinion that it was "spiled"; and immediately set to work to dry the inside.

"A fine, new Car'line," said she, as she gave it back to the owner; "take care an' don't rub the outside till 'tis dhry."

"Faith, Ned," she added, taking up the candle and viewing him all over, "I'm thinkin' I could make a good guess where you're comin' from."

Ned smiled and looked rather sheepish, as she held the candle down almost to his shoes, and then slowly raised it till she came to the "fine new Car'line," and then dropping the light on a level with his waistcoat, moved her hand as if she were describing a circle in the air, till the little glass buttons on the waistcoat twinkled like so many little bright black eyes winking at her. Ned's riding-coat was that which he usually wore, but everything else about him was brand new, even to the black silk cravat with a scarlet border, the bow knot of which happened to be under his left ear, till Nelly pulled it back to its proper position.

"Tell us something about her, Ned," she began, laughingly. "What sourt is she? Shawn-na-match says you're bringin' a patthern to the parish. But far away cows wear long horns, you know."

"Go about your business, and thry an' have a little sense," said her mother, rising from her place in the chimney-corner. "Sit down, Ned, an' never mind her."

"No, Nell, no; 'tis too late, and I'm in a hurry. Take a walk down as far as the bridge," he added, turning to Mat, "I want to spake to you."

There was something in his voice and manner that made Mat apprehend that he had unpleasant news to communicate, so he at once stood up, and taking the bridle from the jamb of the door, set back the horse and desired the owner to mount.

"No, I'd rather walk," said he, taking hold of the bridle and leading the horse out upon the road.

They walked on in silence for some time, and at last Ned Brophy for it was the same Ned Brophy of whom mention has been made more than once said:

"I believe this business is settled,"

"Is the day appointed an' all?"

"All is settled," was the reply.

"Well, you're gettin' a fine fortune any way," said Mat Donovan.

Ned Brophy made no reply, but walked on in silence till they came to the bridge; and then he stooped and looked down at the little stream as it rushed under the ivy-covered arch.

"Mat," said he, covering his face with his hands. "my heart is broke."

"I don't see the use of talkin' that way now," Mat replied, a little angrily. "I tould you to look before you. An', begor, Ned, 'tisn't for you I have the compassion."

"Don't be too hard on me, Mat. You don't know the way they wor at me. Judy said she'd dhrag the red head off uv her."

"More shame for Judy to talk that way uv as dacent a girl as ever she was. But, like that, you know, she had no great harm in id. An' sure 'tis no wondher she'd be agin a match that'd lave herself wudout a fortune. But as I often said to you, you had a right to think uv all this long ago, an' not to be the manes uv setting any girl astray. But 'tis too late to talk about id now; so dhrop id in the name o' God."

"You don't know the way I do be," said Ned Brophy, "whinever I pass over this bridge. Two hundred pounds is a fine fortune, moreover, whin a man'd want id. But that bush beyand an' the bridge here that kills me."

Mat took up a stone from the road and jerked it into the stream, but made no reply.

"There now," continued Ned Brophy, with a groan, "I think I'm lookin' at her peltin' the little pebbles into the wather. Och! I do be all right till I stand on this bridge."

"Well, don't stand on id," rejoined Mat. "But you're not fit to talk to now; and if you wor itself, there's no use in talkin'."

Mat turned his back and then his shoulder to the wind, which was blowing in strong, fitful gusts over the unsheltered bridge.

"Come, come," he continued, pulling up his coat collar over his ears, "there's no use in perishin' here."

He held the horse while Ned put his foot in the stirrup and mounted; and after saying "safe home," was starting off up the hill, when Ned Brophy suddenly wheeled round his horse and laid his hand on Mat's shoulder,

"Mat, what way is she?" he asked.

"I didn't see her since the day uv the Station," he replied. "She wasn't at the dance o' Sunday."

"Wasn't she, Mat?" he asked in a tone of such real feeling that Mat was moved, and added:

"Nelly goes in to see her now an' then; an' she says she is purty well, on'y she can't stir herself to go among the b'ys an' girls like she used."

"I'm tould," Ned continued, "the mother is very bitther agin me. But Tom or herse'f says nothin'."

"Nancy Hogan couldn't say a hard word uv any wan," returned Mat Donovan. "But I'd rather you wouldn't meet Jemmy till his passion cools. Good night, an' safe home. An' mind your hat goin' through the bog, if you don't want to have id swep' where 'twon't be as aisy for you to find it as in the quarry."

Ned Brophy rode away at a brisk trot, and Mat the Thrasher turned toward home, remarking, as he did so, that the light had disappeared from the little window.

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