Knocknagow - CHAPTER XXIV.



THE disappearance of the light was accounted for when, after shutting the door behind him, he saw Phil Lahy sitting at the fire reading a newspaper, and Billy Heffernan holding the candle for him.

"What's the news, Phil?" he asked.

"'Tis an American paper I'm afther gettin' the lend of," replied Phil Lahy. "But I can't see much in id that we hadn't before, except that speech of Bishop Hughes's. That's a great man," said Phil, solemnly. "But I won't mind readin' the spee—spee—speech," he added, pronouncing the word with considerable difficulty, "till to-morrow."

"Wouldn't id be time to be goin' home?" Billy Heffernan ventured to suggest.

"Yes, Billy. 'Home sweet home, there's no place like home.' I have a poor wife," continued Phil Lahy, turning round and looking straight in Mat Donovan's face, "that wouldn't say a word to me — no matter what I'd do."

"She is a good wife, sure enough," replied Mat, as he gently touched Phil's shin with the tongs, with the view of inducing him to draw his foot out of the fire, into which he had just thrust it.

"Billy," said Phil, after staring at him for a minute, "you're lookin' very bad."

This was said with a solemnity that quite frightened Billy Heffernan.

"You ought," Phil Lahy continued in a fatherly way, "you ought to take a little nourishment. You'd want it."

"The divil cut the hand uv me," returned Billy Heffernan, recovering from his fright, "if ever I take a dhrop uv any thing stronger than wather. 'Tis little good id ever done me while I was takin' id."

"That is, Billy, because you didn't take it in raison. I'm not takin' anything myself now in a public-house, on account uv a little promise I made. You'd say now," he added, turning suddenly to Mat, "that I was fond uv the dhrop?"

He waited for a reply, but Mat only looked into the fire.

"No; I wouldn't give you that for a pun-puncheon of it." And Phil laid the top of his finger on his tongue, and after looking at it steadily as if there were a thorn in it, performed the action known as snapping the finger. "Not that would I give for it," he repeated, "on'y for the company."

"An' why couldn't you have the company wudout the whiskey?" Nelly asked. "Many's the pleasant company I see where there wasn't either a pint or a glass."

"Nelly," said Phil, looking very seriously at her, but answering her rather wide of the mark, "I forgot thankin' you for the fresh eggs you sent to my poor sick daughter; an' our own hens stopped layin' this I don't know how long."

"Faix an' 'tis the same story we'd have ourselves," replied Nelly, "if Mat could have his own way, an' keep the hens out on the roost he made for 'em in the pig-house. We're gettin' —." Here Nelly stopped short. She was about telling him she was getting three-halfpence a couple for her eggs, when it occurred to her it would look as if she wished to let him see the extent of the favour he was thanking her for.

"Nelly," said Phil Lahy, with a politeness that was quite affecting, "I'll thank you for wan of them knittin'-needles to ready this pipe."

She plied her needles with increased nimbleness for a few seconds, and then handed him one of them.

Phil thrust the knitting-needle into the wooden stem of his pipe, but forgot to draw it out, till it came in contact with his nose, as he was putting the pipe to his mouth, which made him start and look very much astonished.

"It never could be said of me, Mrs. Donovan," he proceeded — as he drew out the knitting-needle, which slipped through his fingers several times — "it never could be said that I" — here he paused and looked into her face as if something had struck him in the outline of her nose that he had never noticed before —" that I," he repeated, "ever went to bed wudout sprinklin' the holy wather on myself. An', as long as a man has that to say, he can't be called a drunkard at any rate, Mrs. Donovan."

"Let us be goin'," Billy Heffernan suggested. But before the hint could be acted upon — supposing that Phil Lahy was disposed to act upon it — the latch was again raised.

"I ran in to take my lave of ye, for fear I mightn't see ye again," said a young girl, who stepped lightly into the kitchen, forgetting to close the door behind her.

A gust of wind rushed in after her, and was met by another gust that rushed down the chimney; and both gusts joining together, whirled round and round Mat Donovan's kitchen, extinguishing the candle which Billy Heffernan had laid on the end of the bench upon which he sat, and blowing the ashes and some sparks of fire into Mrs. Donovan's lap, causing the good woman to start to her feet and beat her apron as if it were in a blaze about her; and, not content with this mischief, the two gusts of wind whirled up to the thatched roof, and so jostled Nelly Donovan's hens about, on the roost over the door, that their querulous screams at being thus rudely and unseasonably awakened from their repose were piteous to listen to; and then, by way of finishing their frolic, the intruders swept the old red cock himself from the collar-beam, where he reposed in solitary dignity, bringing him down straight upon Phil Lahy's head, who had just risen to his feet and was making an ineffectual effort to comprehend the state of affairs, and upon whom the sudden assault had such an effect that he staggered backward and was coming down in a sitting posture upon the fire, when Billy Heffernan caught him in his arms in time to prevent the unpleasant catastrophe. And the two gusts of wind, having fulfilled their mission, went out of existence as suddenly as they came into Mat the Thrasher's kitchen by the door and by the chimney.

Mrs. Donovan blessed herself several times. She had her own private opinion as to the nature of the two gusts of wind; and had not a doubt that the denizens of Maurice Kearney's fort were unusually frolicsome that night — witness Ned Brophy's hat and the old red cock, who stood upon the hearth-stone looking quite dazed and foolish, as if he were just after receiving a box on the ear, which bothered him to that degree that he was deliberately walking into the fire till Nelly snatched him up in her arms.

"Faith, you wor never in Dublin, whoever you are," said Billy Heffernan, as with a vigorous swing he placed Phil Lahy in his chair.

"Oh, wisha!" exclaimed the innocent cause of the commotion, "see how I should forget to shut the door."

"Light the candle, Billy," said Nelly Donovan, "I wondher who have we at all? Maybe 'tis Judy Connell,"

"'Tis, Nelly," was the reply. "I'm comin' out from town, an' I didn't like to pass by wudout comin' in to see ye, as I don't know the minute or hour the captain's letter might 'come, an' maybe I mightn't have time to take my lave uv ye."

"Sit down, Judy," said Mrs. Donovan sadly.

"No, ma'am, thank you," she replied: "Mary is wud me, an' we're in a hurry home, as there's a few friends comin' to see me."

"An' is id walkin' ye are?"

"No, Nelly; Joe Burke came wud us, an' brought his horse an' car."

As she spoke she ran to Nelly, and, flinging her arms round her neck, kissed her, we might say, passionately.

She also kissed the old woman, but more calmly. They were all now standing around her, and as she gave her hand to Mat she tried to smile.

"God be wud you, Mat," said she, "'tis many's the time we danced together at the Bush."

The recollection of those happy times was too much for her, and the tears gushed from her eyes.

"God Almighty be wud ye all," she exclaimed in a choking voice, as she hurriedly shook hands with Billy Heffernan and Phil Lahy.

And as she turned towards the door, which Nelly ran to open for her, she pressed one hand on her bosom and the other over her eyes, and a cry so full of sorrow burst front her that the tears came rolling down Mat Donovan's cheeks before he could turn away to hide them under the pretext of placing the candle in its usual place on the little window. And a presentiment seized upon him at that moment that his own heart would one day feel the pang that wrung that cry from the heart of Judy Connell.

"I never thought," Nelly remarked, when the emigrant girl had left, "that herself an' Joe'd ever be parted."

'Tisn't Joe's fault," Mat returned;" his lase is out, an' he's expectin' the notice every day like the rest of the tinants on the property. As fast as their lases dhrop, out they must go."

"An' she tould me last Sunday," continued Nelly, "that on'y for her sisters sendin' for her, she'd never go. She has a sore heart to-night any way," added Nelly with a sigh.

"Short she'll think uv Joe, once the say is betune 'em," Billy Heffernan observed, somewhat cynically.

" 'Tis more likely 'tis short Joe'll think uv her," retorted Nelly, apparently nettled by the insinuation of female inconstancy which Billy's remark implied.

"Maybe 'twould be out uv sight out uv mind wud the two uv 'em," Mrs. Donovan observed. "An' may be not," she added more seriously, after a pause.

"That," said Mat, who was gazing thoughtfully into the fire, "that depends on the soart they are. The round uv the world wouldn't put some people out uv wan another's mind. But there's more uv 'em," he added, with a shake of the head, "an' the cross uv a stubble garden would do id."

"Wisha, would I doubt you for sayin' a quare thing," Nelly replied, with a mixture of surprise and contempt in her tone; "I wondher what put a stubble garden into your head? An' 'tis you're the lad that'd forget a girl before you'd be the cross uv a bosheen, not to say a stubble garden."

"The world is only a blue rag, Billy. Have your squeeze out of id," said Mat, shaking off the gloom that seemed to oppress him during the evening, and resuming his usual cheerful look.

"There's more of id," returned Nelly. "Whoever called the world a blue rag before? I suppose 'tis because Kit Cummins came in for a squeeze of id a while ago, that put the blue rag into your head. I'd rather a man like yourself, Billy, that wouldn't mind any wan, than a fellow that'd be goin' about palaverin' every girl he'd meet."

"I don't know," retorted Mat, with a shrug of his shoulders, "I had my fling among 'em, sure enough; but where's the wan uv 'em that ever had to say a bad word uv me?"

Mat gazed into the fire again, with that look of his which had in it such a strange blending of humour and sadness, like the music of his country. The smile was on his lip, and the smile was in his eye. But for all that there was a melting something in big Mat Donovan's face, as he gazed into the turf fire, that made Billy Heffernan expect every moment to see the humourful eye swim in tears and the smiling lips give passage to a sigh. The sigh did come; but not the tears. And Mat Donovan, leaning back in his chair, and with a sidelong glance up at the collar-beams, relieved his feelings, as was his wont on such occasions, by chanting one of his favourite songs.

Now, if we were drawing upon our imagination we would give Mat the Thrasher a more suitable song than he chose to sing on this not eventful night — so far as our (perhaps) not eventful history is concerned — even if we were obliged to compose one specially for him. But being simply the faithful chronicler of the sayings and doings, joys and sorrows of Knocknagow, a regard for truth compels us to record that Mat the Thrasher's song was no other than that sentimentalest of sentimental lyrics, "Oh, no, we never mention her."

And furthermore, we feel bound to state that this song was second to none in popularity among the music-loving people of Knocknagow. How is this fact to be accounted for? Is there some innate good hid under the lackadaisical in this renowned effort of Mr. Haynes Bailey's muse? Or might it be that "the hawthorn tree" brought the bush near Maurice Kearney's back gate, with its host of tender associations, to the minds of the singers and listeners? Or, to make another, and, probably, the best guess, perhaps the words —

"Were I in a foreign land

They'd find no change in me."

came home to many a loving heart in Knocknagow? For some or all of these reasons, or for some reason unknown to us, this song, as we have said, was popular in a high degree, from the cross-roads at the foot of the hill to the cross-roads at the top of the hill; and indeed we might say as far as the eye of a spectator standing on Maurice Kearney's fort could reach all around.

"'Tis true that I behold no more

The valley where we met,

I do not see the hawthorn tree,

But how can I forget?"

So sang Mat the Thrasher. And Nelly, who at first seemed disposed to be scornful, when he came to these words began to accompany him unconsciously, but in an almost inaudible voice. Billy Heffernan bent down with his elbows on his knees and his hands covering his face. Mrs. Donovan's arms dropped by her side, and a dreamy look came into her sad face, as if her thoughts went back to the far past. Yes! there was "a valley where we met" in her memory, and as she smoothed her grey hair over her temples, Mrs. Donovan stealthily wiped a tear from her cheek with the back of her hand.

And Mat the Thrasher's song reminds us that at the very last wedding we had the honour of being invited to in the neighbourhood of Knocknagow, the two musicians, standing in the corner appropriated to them, commenced to play a "slow tune" during the interval between two dances; which slow tune so fascinated our good friend, Father Hannigan, who was a bigoted admirer of Irish music, that he left his place behind the mahogany table at the opposite side of the room, and, after pushing his way through the dancers, stood with folded arms close to the musicians, who, flattered by the compliment, put their whole souls into their fiddles. And when we, at the suggestion of the bride's father, went to escort Father Hannigan back to his place at the mahogany table, and to the little comforts "smiling" thereon — we borrow the expression from a well-known song beginning —

"Let the farmer praise his grounds,

Let the huntsman praise his hounds," etc.

— he laid his hand impressively on our shoulder and said in a whisper:

"That's a fine thing!"

"Why, that," we replied, "is the English sentimental song — 'Oh, no, we never mention her.'" To which Father Hannigan frowned a scornful contradiction.

But we having reiterated the assertion, Father Hannigan listened again, and, suddenly turning to us a with a look of profound amazement, said:

"Begor, you're right!"

And then Father Hannigan made his way back to the mahogany table, rubbing the side of his head, and evincing all the symptoms of a man conscious of having been "sold."

So the music as well as the words of this much-abused lyric has been a puzzle to us.

And before dismissing Mr. Haynes Bailey, we must further record that another song of his, though "caviare to the general," was a decided favourite with Mat the Thrasher. He was wont to chant with great feeling how "She wore a wreath of roses the time when first we met," and a "wreath of orange blossoms" on the second occasion. And when once again they met, the widow's cap had taken the place of roses and blossoms. Mat's rendering of this last stanza was quite heart-breaking. But the great triumph was a new reading of the last line but one. In the original it is, we believe,

"And there is no one near

To press her hand within his own,

And wipe away the tear."

which Mat altered, whether intentionally or not we never could discover, to

"But there was no one near

To roll her in his arms,

And wipe away a tear."

Mat Donovan sang on, with his eyes fixed on the collar-beams, and with a continuous wavy motion of the head, which had a softness in it in harmony with the humorously pathetic look which was peculiar to him when the theme of his song, or his discourse, or his thoughts happened to be that which we are assured rules the court, the camp, the grove, and even "makes the world go round."

"As long as the fox runs, he's caught at last," said Mrs. Donovan, looking at Mat, as if she suspected he was in the toils, as long as he seemed to have kept clear of danger.

Phil Lahy had been taking a comfortable nap, with his head hanging over the back of his chair, unnoticed by every body except Billy Heffernan, who gave him an occasional push when he showed symptoms of tumbling off.

"We must stir him up," said Billy. "Give him a shake, Mat, and tell him to come home."

Come, Phil," said Mat, shaking him, "get up and pay for your bed."

Phil opened his eyes and stared about him as if the whole place were quite strange to him. But, on recognising Mat, who was shaking him by the collar, Phil Lahy commenced to laugh, as if he thought the proceeding the funniest and most side-splitting of practical jokes.

"Mat," said he, "you wor always a play-boy."

"The divil a much of a play-boy in id," returned Mat "I'm on'y tellin' you to keep your eyes open."

"No doubt, no doubt," Phil replied, with the look of a man that couldn't laugh if it were to save his life. "No doubt, Mat"; and he nodded so far forward that Billy Heffernan stretched out his hands with a start, imagining that he had taken a sudden fancy to dive head foremost into the fire.

"Let us be movin', Phil," said Billy Heffernan. " 'Tis gettin' late an' I must be off, an' we may as well go home together."

"You know, Billy, I have a poor wife that wouldn't say a word to me, no matter what I'd do."

"I know that," Billy replied, as if 'twas the most sorrowful thing he ever heard in his life.

"Poor Norah is comin' on finely," Nelly observed. "'Tis long since I see her lookin' so well as she did to-day."

The mention of Norah's name had an instantaneous effect upon her father, who seemed to become almost sober in a moment.

Billy Heffernan expected this result, and yet he could not mention Norah's name himself.

"Billy," said Phil Lahy, looking at him as if it were he and not Nelly who had spoken, or rather as if no one had spoken at all — "Billy, I have a daughter an' the like uv her is not in the world." He said this confidentially, leaning forward as if he were imparting a secret to him.

That affection of the throat which had prevented Billy Heffernan from at once complying with Norah's request that lie would play "Auld Lang Syne," was now observed by Nelly Donovan, who was watching him very closely.

Perhaps Nelly Donovan had her own reasons for watching Billy Heffernan; and possibly his presence had something to do with her forgetfulness a while ago, in reference to the leeks and "roasters" And when she said that she'd rather a man like him that "wouldn't mind anyone" than a "rag on every bush" like Mat, she had certain misgivings that her words did not exactly apply to Billy's case; and now as she looked at him she felt sure that they did not. But though her first feeling, on making this discovery, was one of disappointment, if not of pain, it soon gave place to admiration and sympathy at the recollection of Norah's pale face. And Nelly Donovan never cared so much for Billy Heffernan as now that she believed he cared for another.

"Billy," said Phil Lahy rising from his chair, "you ought to be in your own house. A young man ought to keep regular hours."

"Well, I b'lieve so,' replied Billy, getting up from the bench in the corner and stretching his arms. "Good-night to ye."

Mat, I have somethin' to be talkin' to you about," Phil observed before he reached the door, "but it will do another time. Good-night, Mrs. Donovan."

"Good-night, Phil. Nelly, hold the candle for 'em till they get a-past the turn; I b'lieve the night is very dark."

"There's great fear of 'em," returned Nelly in her good humoured way. " Here, take this in your hand," she continued, presenting a blackthorn stick to Billy Heffernan; "maybe you might meet the night-walkers. And 'tis the stick you ought to get," she added, giving him a blow of her open hand as he stepped over the threshold.

"'Tis a shame for you," said her mother. "You'll never have a stim uv sinse." At which Nelly Donovan laughed her ringing laugh as she closed the door and fastened it with the back-stick.

"Heigho! heart—wan here an' another in Cork," she exclaimed, as she took the broom from behind the door and tucked up her apron, putting the corner under the string behind her back.

Wisha, Mat," she continued, "how long you're about makin' thim couple uv brooms. These sally brooms don't hold a minute. Wan birch broom'd be worth a dozen uv em.

"I'll desire Barney to cut the makin's uv 'em," replied Mat, "the next time he's goin' over to Ardboher. I haven't time myself, if you don't want me to go in the night — or lose a Sunday for 'em."

Mat Donovan, we are bound to confess, would not have thought it a mortal sin to cut the makings of a broom on the Sabbath, and by "losing a Sunday" he meant losing a dance, or the hurling, or the hunt, which he could only enjoy on the day of rest. As he spoke to his sister, he unfolded a crumpled ballad, and was just beginning to hum the chorus, when his mother reminded him that it was time to go to bed.

Well, I b'lieve so," he replied, rolling the ballad between his hands, like a ball, and replacing it in his waistcoat pocket.

"What raison do you rowl id up that way instead of foldin' id right?" Nelly asked, "I thought 'twas goin' to play scut wud id you wor."

"You know nothin'," returned Mat; "if I folded id right, as you say, 'twould cut in my pocket; an' now id won't."

He was on his knees by his bedside without requiring another hint. And by the time his mother and Nelly had their prayers said, and the house swept, and the fire raked, Mat the Thrasher was sound asleep.

And so, for the present, we wish good-night to the occupants of this humble little Tipperary home.

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