BILLY HEFFERNAN took the key of his door from a hole under the thatch and let himself into his own house. Removing the ashes from the embers on the hearth, he knelt down, and, after a good deal of blowing, succeeded in kindling them into a flame. Then, taking a slip of bog-pine from one of several bundles that hung in the chimney, he lighted it and placed it on a block of bogwood in the corner, having first stuck it in a sod of turf in which was a hole for the purpose. He recalled the fine summer evening, when, out in the lonesome bog, he thrust his thumb into that sod of turf while it was yet soft, and by that simple process converted it into a candlestick.
Everything about Billy Heffernan's house seemed to have come from the bog. The walls, from the floor to the thatch — which was not of straw, but of sedge — were lined with turf, the side-walls with the rectangular "slane" turf, which looked like brick-work blackened with smoke, and the end wall with the rougher and somewhat shapeless "hand-turf." The table off which Billy Heffernan ate his meals was of bog-oak, as was the block upon which he sat. The mule's crib and the pegs in the wall upon which the mule's harness hung were of the same material. And Billy Heffernan's ratteen riding-coat depended from a portion of the horns of an elk — which had bounded through the forest when the table and crib were portions of the living tree — fastened to one of the rafters.
He now took his antediluvian taper from the antediluvian seat and laid it on the antediluvian table; and then hung his riding-coat upon the antediluvian elk's horns.
"Wo! Kit," said Billy Heffernan. And the mule, who had an antediluvian look about her, whisked her tail and thrust her nose into her antediluvian manger.
He put the harness on the mule, and after shaking up the hay in the crib, walked out and looked at the sky, in which there was a half moon that shone with a sickly sort of lustre. Billy Heffernan, without being at all aware of the fact, was of a poetical and fanciful turn of mind; and the pale moon at once reminded him of a pale face. So he walked down the road as far as the beech-tree; and, after looking up at the windows and steep roof and thick chimneys of Phil Lahy's old house, Billy Heffernan walked back again. Taking the linch-pins from the hob, where they were always left for safety, he fixed them in the axle-tree; and then led out his mule and put her to the car. He returned to the house to take down his old riding-coat, and after wrapping it round him, and blowing out the light, he locked his door, and set out with his creel of turf, upon his long journey to the town of Clonmel.
"Wisha, begor! 'tis thrue for her," he soliloquised, as he plodded up the hill, "'tis lonesome enough. The road is lonesome, an' the house is lonesome, an' the bog is lonesome. An', begor, the main street uv Clo'mel is the lonesomest uv all. No matther where I am, I'm lonesome. So that I b'lieve 'tisn't the road, or the house, or the bog, or the town, but the heart that's lonesome. And whin the heart is lonesome, the world is lonesome. Wisha, Kit, what do you want stoppin' there above all the places on the road? You got your drink at the lough; but comin' or goin' nothin' will plase you but a sup out of that little strame any day in the year."
While the mule drank, Billy Heffernan placed a foot at each side of the little stream that ran across the road, and stretching out his hands, as if he were lifting some one over it, he uttered a low moan.
"Oh! oh! oh!" be cried, as his hands closed on the empty air.
The water running over his feet reminded him that he was standing in the middle of the stream, but he did not heed it. With his head bent down, and his hands pressed over his face, he continued to stand there till the mule moved on of her own accord; and then, dashing the fast falling tears from his eyes, he plodded on again after his creel.
"I don't know what brought id so sthrong into my mind to-night," said he. "But somehow I thought I see her before me, lookin' at the wather, an' afeard to lep over like the rest uv 'em; an' then lookin' up at myse'f wud her eyes laughin' in her head. I hardly had the courage to take her up in my arms. An', the Lord be praised! 'twas the last time ever she crossed over the same strame. She reminded me uv id yistherday, whatever put id into her head. But sure I never pass the same spot wudout thinkin' uv her. I gev herse'f an' Nelly Donovan a lift home the same evenin'; an' a pleasant, good-hearted girl Nelly is. But there's no wan like Norah!"
He plodded on for some time till the mule stopped to take breath before commencing the ascent of an unusually steep though not very long hill, that rose abruptly from the lowest part of the glen or hollow down which they had been gradually descending.
"Begor, 'tis thrue for ould Phil," said he, as he looked around him. "You couldn't redden the pipe from the bridge to the quarry. Though I reminder id myse'f when 'twas the pleasantest piece uv a road from Kilthubber to Clo'mel. An', faith, if I could redden the pipe now I'd like a smoke, as 'tis afther comin' into my head."
He put his pipe into his mouth and looked around him, while the mule rested at the foot of the hill.
"God be wud poor Mick Brien," said he. "That sally three always reminds me uv him. 'Tis many's the piggin uv milk they made me dhrink, for 'tis little business I'd have axin' a dhrink uv wather at Mick's. But sure if every house, big an' little uv 'em, was standin'" continued Billy Heffernan as if he caught himself reasoning from unsound premises, "I couldn't kindle the pipe this hour uv the night. Come, Kit!" and catching hold of one heel of the car, and leaning his shoulder against the creel, he helped the mule on in her zig-zag course up the hill. The descent on the other side was gradual, and the mule was left to shift for herself till they got upon the level, where she showed some symptoms of stopping for another rest; a proceeding which Billy Heffernan thought so unreasonable that he took down his whip from the top of the load, where it usually rested, and, without a word of warning or remonstrance, gave Kit a smart lash under the belly, at which Kit shook her ears and whisked her tail, and was about running straight into the ditch at the left-hand side, that being the deepest and the most likely to swallow her up; but changing her mind as she reached the brink, Kit set off at a brisk trot along the road. This was too much of a good thing, and her master ran forward, and, seizing the rein near the bit, gave it a check that made Kit throw back her head and open her jaws very wide; and while still pressing on the rein, Billy Heffernan let the lash of his whip drop into the same hand that held the handle, and laid both lash and handle along Kit's back, between the hip and the butt of the tail, with a tremendous whack.
"Maybe you'd go right now?" said he, letting the rein go with a jerk.
And Kit seemed to think it was the wisest thing she could do.
So they jogged on peacefully again, till the light shining through the open door of a house surrounded by trees — which, from their size and outline, even a stranger to the locality would have known were very old whitethorns — attracted his attention.
"Wo! Kit." said Billy Heffernan, and the mule immediately stopped.
"They're up at ould Phil's," said he, looking considerably surprised.
"But that's thrue," he added, as if the mystery were suddenly cleared up; "sure they're at the weddin'."
He was about ordering Kit to go on, when another thought occurred to him.
"Begob!" he exclaimed, "I might as well have the smoke as I have the chance."
He opened the gate that led to Phil Morris's house, and was closing it again behind him when he found himself caught by the skirt of the coat. He turned round suddenly somewhat frightened, but found himself held fast. After remaining still for a moment, during which his heart beat very quick, he ventured to pull the skirt of the coat, but could not free himself. As nothing stirred, however, he concluded he had merely got entangled in a branch of one of the old whitethorns blown down by the storm of the morning that blew down the end of his own turf-rick. He tried to free himself without tearing his riding-coat, when, to his amazement and terror, the long skirt was raised up and shook in his face, with which it was almost on a level. He retreated backwards but the coat was pulled the other way; and after a short tussle, Billy Heffernan got a sharp blow on the mouth. Moved by the instinct of self-preservation he stretched out his hands, and boldly grappled with his assailant, whom he attempted to throttle as quickly as possible. In the struggle both rolled to the ground, and Billy loudly denounced his adversary as a coward; for he not only struck at him while down, but aimed his blows where any one having the faintest regard for fair fighting would have scorned to strike.
"He wants to murdher me," exclaimed Billy Heffernan, "That's what he wants. Can't you spake," he added, "an' tell me who you are an' what are you up to?"
But the only reply was a repetition of the cowardly assault.
"D—n your sowl," shouted Billy Heffernan, roused to madness by a sharp blow that affected him somewhat like the sting of a bee, "if you're a man let go my ould coat an' stand up an' see id out if you're able."
This challenge seemed to have the desired effect, for after another violent struggle he found his coat skirt free. Scrambling as quickly as possible to his feet, Billy Heffernan flung off the old riding-coat and put himself into a pugilistic attitude.
"Turn out now, if you're a man," he exclaimed.
But to his horror and consternation there was no one to answer the challenge.
Billy Heffernan's courage oozed out, we should rather say through his toes, than the tips of his fingers, for he began to feel very weak about the knees, while the strength that was so rapidly departing from his limbs seemed in some mysterious manner to be communicated to the hair of his head.
"The Lord betune us an' all harm," he muttered; "as long as I'm goin' this road I never see anything bad before. Though they say wan uv the sogers ould Phil kilt long ago, when they set fire to the house, used to be risin' about here."
It was a relief to him when he heard some noise close to the gate; for at that moment he would have welcomed with rapture the most formidable foe of flesh and blood.
"In the name uv God," he called out, "who or what are you?"
A sudden bound from behind the gate-pier made him retreat a step backwards — when a familiar voice sent a most pleasurable sensation through Billy Heffernan's whole frame. And a hysterical flutter about his heart imparted a tremor to his voice as he exclaimed:
"May bad luck to you, for a goat!"
"Meg-geg-geg-geg," repeated Phil Morris's old goat, as she trotted along the boreen to the house.
But as Billy Heffernan took up his ratteen riding-coat, his countenance suddenly fell.
"The divil sweep you," he exclaimed with great gusto, as he looked at the half-moon through a rent in the skirt. "But," he continued, "I may as well run in an' redden the pipe at any rate. An' the Lord knows I'm afther payin' for id. Begor, they're afther comin' home," he added, as he approached the house. "There is the ass's car in the yard."
As he passed the little kitchen window Billy Heffernan stopped suddenly, with his eyes and mouth wide open. Something upon old Phil Morris's kitchen table excited his wonder to such a degree that there he stood staring at it, apparently bereft of the power of motion.
"'Tis goold," he muttered. "I wundher is id a crock he's afther findin'?"
Billy's idea at the moment must have been that the "crock itself," as well as its contents, was of gold; for the object which excited his astonishment shone, brightly, and flashed back the blaze of the turf fire. But, after examining it more closely, he clapped his hand against his thigh, and exclaimed:
"Be japers, he's afther killin' a soger!"
This idea was sufficiently terrifying, and Billy Heffernan was about beating a hasty retreat, when, glancing involuntarily around the kitchen, he started again; for straight before him he beheld not a dead, but' a living soldier. He was a broad-chested, bearded dragoon; and it was his burnished helmet, which he seemed to have thrown carelessly on the table, that Billy Heffernan had mistaken for a crock of gold.
Like one awakening from sleep and gradually recovering the use of his senses, Billy now saw that the dragoon was holding Bessy Morris by the hand, and looking down into her face — for his tall figure towered high above hers — with a look of sadness. He could not see her face, as her back was towards him, but she bent her head as if the sad gaze of the dragoon had moved her. Before Billy Heffernan could observe further, the soldier shook the hand he held in his once or twice with a quick spasmodic jerk, and seizing his helmet, which he hung upon his left arm, rushed out of the house. Billy Heffernan turned round and stared after him as he tramped along the little boreen till he reached the gate and was hid by the whitethorns.
When Billy looked again through the window, Bessy Morris was sitting in her grandfather's old arm-chair, with one hand resting on the little table beside her, and the other pressed over her eyes. It might be supposed that she was overcome by fatigue, but for the flush that reddened her forehead, and the nervous tapping of her fingers upon the table. She raised her head, and letting both hands drop upon her lap, threw herself back in the chair. Bessy Morris was certainly excited, but what might be the nature of her emotion it would not have been easy to judge from the expression of her face. Scarcely anything but a feeling of shame or self-reproval could have kept that hot glow on her forehead so long; but then in her eyes and about her mouth there played a smile of triumph. Bessy Morris was evidently ashamed, and proud, and perhaps a little frightened, all at the same time.
Billy Heffernan felt for a moment at a loss how to act. His first impulse was to go back to his mule; but then it occurred to him that that would look as if he had stopped for the sole purpose of playing the spy. So, as the door still stood wide open, he decided upon carrying out his original intention of lighting his pipe at Phil Morris's fire.
"God save all here," said he, as he walked into the kitchen.
"God save you kindly. Wisha, is that Billy Heffernan? Faith, I thought you wor dead."
"Wisha, who did you send to kill me?" returned Billy.
It wasn't Bessy that spoke, but what Billy himself would have described as a "stout block of a girl," who stood up from the bench she had been sitting on by the fire, behind the partition which shaded the fire-place from the door, and which concealed her from view till he had advanced to the middle of the floor.
Bessy stood up also, and moved out of his way.
"Don't stir," said he; "I on'y turned in, as I was passin', to redden the pipe. You're home early from the weddin'," he remarked, as he stooped down and took a partially burnt sod of turf from the fire.
"Yes," replied Bessy. "Grandfather is not able to stop up late. I did not expect he would stay half so long."
"Worn't you there yourse'f?" the stout girl asked.
"I was," he replied, "but I was obliged to come home to start for Clo'mel."
"Ye had a great night's fun?"
"'Twas a fine weddin'," he answered. "Why worn't you there yourse'f?"
"Why wasn't I axed? An' ye had ladies and gentlemen there too?"
"Begor, ay," replied Billy, as he blew upon the burnt end of the sod of turf till the sparks flew from it with a crackling sound into his face. "The two Miss Lloyds, an' Mr. Bob, an' the gentleman from England."
"And Mr. Hugh Kearney," said Bessy Morris.
"Begor," returned Billy Heffernan, as he sucked his pipe, against which he pressed the sod of turf, "Mr. Hugh is a gentleman, sure enough — in his heart."
"I'll be bound Mat Donovan was there," the stout girl remarked, as she drew her kerchief over her bosom; a proceeding which Billy Heffernan thought was not unnecessary, as the hooks-and-eyes intended to fasten her dress up the front had nearly all given way to a greater amount of pressure than they were capable of sustaining.
"Sure, he was Ned's sidesman," said Billy Heffernan.
"The poor fool!" returned the stout girl, with a scornful shake of the bead, and a glance at Bessy Morris that brought the flush up to her forehead again, and caused her to bite her lip as she gazed into the fire.
"Did you see Judy Loughlan there?" the stout girl asked.
"She was there," said Billy Heffernan.
"Indeed, I see her goin'," rejoined the stout girl, "wud her yallow mittens an' her boy-o." By which latter expression the stout girl meant that article of female attire called a boa.
"I thought you wor there yourse'f when I see Bessy."
"Oh, yeh! she's everywhere, like the bad weather. I have no time for gallavantin'. "
"You may as well sit down, Billy," said Bessy Morris, in her usual captivating way.
"Arra do, Billy," said the stout girl. "Sit down and have a coort. Anything, you know, to keep our hands in"; and she glanced at Bessy, who evidently winced, though she strove to command her features.
"I must be goin'," he replied. "Good night to ye."
"Good night, Billy," returned Bessy Morris; and there was something so winning in her way of saying it that Billy muttered to himself on his way up the little boreen:
"Begor! 'tis no wondher she is every place; for any place would be the betther uv her. But I don't know what to say about that soger."