Knocknagow - CHAPTER I.




IT is Christmas Day.

Mr. Henry Lowe has just opened his eyes, and is debating with himself whether it is the grey dawn, or only the light of the young moon he sees struggling through the two round holes in the window shutters of his room. He has slept soundly, as well he might, after a journey the day before of some eighty miles on the outside of the mailcoach, from the metropolis to the town of —; supplemented by an additional drive of a dozen miles in his host's gig to his present not uncomfortable quarters.

The young gentleman knows little of Ireland from personal experience, having spent most of his life in what is sometimes oddly enough called "the sister country."

Mr. Henry Lowe is at present the guest of his uncle's principal tenant, Mr. Maurice Kearney. The visit was partly the result of accident and partly a stroke of policy on the part of the young man's mother. Her brother, Sir Garrett Butler, owned — at least nominally — extensive landed property in the South of Ireland; and the prudent mother was trying to induce him to give her son the agency. And Mr. Kearney having gone to Dublin to see the landlord about the renewal of his lease, it was agreed that the young gentleman — whom we intend to introduce to the reader when he gets out of bed — should accompany him, on his return home, and spend some weeks among his uncle's Tipperary tenants.

And so we find Mr. Henry Lowe half buried in down, this clear Christmas morning, in the best bedroom of Ballinaclash Cottage — for so Maurice Kearney's commodious, if not handsome, residence is called.

He had just settled the question with which his mind had been occupied for some ten minutes back, in favour of the moon, and was relapsing into slumber, when it suddenly occurred to him —

That he was a land agent in embryo.

That he was at that moment in the midst of a district not unknown to fame in connection with "agrarian outrages;" and

That his room was on the ground floor.

This train of thought gave the holes in the window-shutters a new interest in his eyes.

He was beginning to succeed pretty well in calling up a vision of a blunderbuss loaded to the muzzle with slugs, and two tall figures in frieze coats and knee breeches, with crape over their faces, when a tremendous report — as if the blunderbuss had gone off and burst — made him start to a sitting posture.

A second bang, if possible more stunning than the first, caused Mr. Henry Lowe to execute a jump — or rather to put forth a degree of muscular action which, under more favourable circumstances, would have resulted in that gymnastic feat; but which, owing to his position and the non-elasticity of a feather-bed, must be pronounced a failure. The repetition of the sound a third, and a fourth, and a fifth time, was followed by as many vigorous but — whether we have regard to a "high" or a "long jump" — abortive efforts on the part of Mr. Henry Lowe.

At this stage of the proceedings the bedroom door was opened, and Mr. Kearney entered with a lighted candle in his hand. He held the light above his head, and looked considerably astonished when his guest was revealed to him, performing, as he thought, the identical African dance which the Reverend Edward Wright, the missioner, had been describing to him a few days before.

The gentlemen regarded each other with looks of mutual surprise and inquiry. But Mr. Kearney, divining the cause of his guest's perturbation, said, apologetically:

"I'm sorry they're after disturbing you."

"Wha — what is it?" gasped Mr. Lowe, who maintained his sitting position and his scared look.

"The drum," replied his host, in a self-satisfied way, as if further explanation would be altogether superfluous." I came in to tell you not to mind it."

"Oh!—a drum," the young gentleman repeated, somewhat reassured, but evidently still bewildered. "Yes, there it is again. But what drum? What does it mean?"

"The Knocknagow Drum," was the reply. "They always meet at the Bush. But don't stir. They'll shortly be off, and you can have a good sleep before breakfast is ready."

"Knocknagow! The Bush! What o'clock is it?"

"Not six yet. We're going to seven o'clock Mass. We'll be back to breakfast at nine. So stay where you are, snug and warm, till I call you."

Am I to understand the whole family are going to prayers?" the visitor inquired; not at all relishing the idea of being left alone in the house.

"Yes; we always go to early Mass on Christmas Day."

"Would there be any objection to my going with you?"

"Not the least. But the morning is very cold; hard frost."

"Well, but I'd like to witness as many of the customs of the country as possible."

"Very well. Please yourself. I'll send up Wattletoes with hot water to you."

He laid the candlestick on the dressing-table, and Mr. Lowe soon heard him shouting to Wattletoes to bring hot water to the gentleman in the "middle room."

The gentleman in the middle room lay back upon his pillow, and surveyed the bearer of the hot water with some curiosity.

The first thing that struck him was, that it would be impossible to say whether this individual were old or young or middle-aged. He was low-sized and stooped somewhat. But his face, though shrivelled and puckered in an extraordinary manner, was the face of a withered boy, rather than of an old man. He wore an old frock coat, which evidently reached to the knees of the original owner, but nearly touched the heels of its present possessor. The legs of his trousers, which were as much out of proportion as the other garment, were rolled up, and formed thick circular pads half-way between his knees and his ankles.

Before Mr. Lowe could proceed further with his inspection, this odd-looking figure was disappearing through the door.

"What is your name?" he asked.

The grotesque figure stopped suddenly in the doorway, and, wheeling round, with his hand to his forehead, he answered with a grimace, of which it would be vain to attempt a description:

"Barney, sir — Barney Brodherick."

"Not Wattletoes," thought the young gentleman, as he pulled the blankets tightly over his shoulder. "I wonder who the devil is Wattletoes! Have I much time to dress?" he asked aloud.

"Lots uv time, sir. On'y if you don't hurry you'll be too late."

"Lots of time," Mr. Lowe repeated; "but I'll be too late if I don't hurry."

Before he could ask for an explanation of this somewhat contradictory piece of information. Barney vanished, scratching his head and muttering something about "the boots," as if he felt himself in a difficulty.

Mr. Lowe had nearly completed his toilet when Barney returned with his boots, followed by Mr. Kearney, whip in hand, and wrapped in a frieze great-coat.

The master had evidently been "pitching into" the man for Barney explained as he placed the visitor's boots on the floor:

"Blur-an-agers, have sinse, sir — have sinse."

"Have sense yourself—and that's what you'll never have, you ninny-hammer" retorted the master, in an apparently angry tone. "He was told," he continued, turning to his guest, "to bring blacking from Kilthubber yesterday; and they desired him to get Martindale's blacking. When they found they had no blacking, and asked him why he didn't bring it — 'I tried every house,' he says, 'from Gallowshilt to Quarryhole, and the devil a Martin Dale could I find,"

Though no trace of a smile could be detected in Maurice Kearney's ruddy face while he spoke, his repeating Barney's explanation of the non-appearance of the blacking, twice over, showed that he enjoyed it in his own way.

When they stood within the glow of the blazing wood fire in the parlour, the host again advised his guest to remain within doors till the family had returned from Mass. But the young gentleman repeated his desire to accompany them.

The roll of the drum — the performer evidently using less force than when he so startled the stranger a while ago — accompanied by the shrill but not unpleasing music of half-a-dozen fifes, signified that the procession — which consisted of nearly the whole population of Knocknagow — had set out for Kilthubber.

Mr. Kearney and his guest were soon seated in the gig in which they had arrived the night before, and slowly following the crowd along the snow-covered road.

It was too dark to see much either of the country or the people, and Maurice Kearney could do little more to amuse the stranger than to point out the direction in which some objects of interest would be visible in the daylight. But, even with the light they had, Mr. Lowe could not help being struck with the fine outline of the mountain range in front of them.

The far-famed Knocknagow drum shook the windows of the old town of Kilthubber, as the procession marched through the principal street to the chapel, at the gate of which the music suddenly ceased.

Barney Brodherick was in waiting to take the horse to the hotel, and Mr. Lowe was conducted by his host up the gallery stairs and soon found himself in a front pew, next a lady who, he rightly conjectured, was his host's eldest daughter, but to whom he had not yet been introduced, owing to the lateness of the hour when he arrived at the cottage the night before, and to the fact that Miss Kearney was on her way to church before he left his room in the morning.

Never having been in a Catholic place of worship during divine service before, he looked around him with some curiosity, not unmingled with a sense of awe. The altar was brilliant with innumerable tapers and tastefully decorated with flowers and ever-greens. Three branches, suspended by long chains from the ceiling, gave light to the congregation that filled the spacious aisle, while candles in sconces attached to the pillars and round the walls enabled the occupants of the pews in the gallery to read their prayer books. The tinkle of a small bell called back his attention to the altar, and he saw that during his survey of the church, the priest, accompanied by a number of boys in white surplices, had moved from the sacristy and now stood bowing with clasped hands in front of the altar. As he ascended the carpeted steps the organ pealed out solemnly; and in spite of his prejudices, the ceremony and the evidently earnest devotion of the worshippers impressed Mr. Lowe with a respect for their form of religion which he never had felt before. This feeling, however, was giving place to a sense of weariness, when he was startled by the suddenness with which the people rose from their knees and pressed forward towards the altar. He looked down with astonishment upon the swaying sea of upturned faces till it settled into stillness as the clergyman turned to address the congregation.

A peculiar ring in the preacher's sweetly-modulated tones at once attracted the stranger's attention. Having read the text, he replaced the book on its stand, and, leaning back against the altar, commenced his sermon. At first his words came slowly and hesitatingly. But as he warmed with his subject he moved about, now to the right, now to the left, and sometimes straight forward to the verge of the altar-step, which formed the platform upon which he stood — pouring forth what seemed to the unaccustomed ears of Mr. Lowe a torrent of barbaric eloquence, which rose into a kind of gorgeous sublimity, or melted into pathos, sometimes homely, sometimes fancifully poetical. Such language Mr. Lowe would have thought ill-suited to such a crowd as he now looked down upon, if he had not witnessed the effect it produced. And he was surprised to find that it was the figurative passages that moved the people most. For instance, when the preacher depicted the Virgin wandering through the streets of Bethlehem, seeking for shelter and finding every door closed against her, and proceeded: "The snow falls; the cold winds blow — and the Lily of Heaven is withered," a cry burst from the congregation, and the sobs were so loud and, frequent that the preacher was obliged to pause till the emotion he had called forth had subsided.

The sermon was short and withal practical; for while it comforted the poor, it impressed upon the rich the duty of alleviating their sufferings.

And as the clock struck eight, the Knocknagow drum told such of the inhabitants of Kilthubber as had not yet left their beds that first Mass was over and the congregation were on their way homeward.

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