ON THE ROAD TO THE BIG TOWN WITH THE CLOUD OVER IT.
"COME, Kit, be lively; 'tis long since we wor on the road so late as this. An' you know that load must be bilin' the kittles for the breakfasts in Irishtown to-day."
Kit seemed to understand the state of affairs perfectly, and set off briskly, switching her tail as if she expected the whip was about being brought into requisition, and shaking one ear approvingly — which had much the same effect as winking with one eye — on finding that her apprehensions were groundless.
"God save you," said Billy Heffernan, on observing the outline of a man's figure leaning against one of those sally trees, which at short intervals along that part of the road, marked where a peasant's cabin or a small farmhouse once stood.
"And you, too," returned a deep voice.
"God save you kindly," was the response Billy Heffernan expected; and it at once occurred to him that the person leaning against the sally tree was a stranger; and a cloud having passed from the moon at the moment, he was able to recognise the dragoon, with his helmet still slung on his arm. Mr. Bob Lloyd's song at once occurred to him; and, looking back at the light in Phil Morris's window, he could almost fancy he saw Bessy Morris "on her knees," waving a "snow white scarf that fluttered in the breeze."
"Do you belong to this neighbourhood?" the dragoon asked, on observing him look towards the house.
"I do," Billy replied. "I was bred, born, and reared at the far-off side uv that hill beyand."
"Do you know the people that live in the house where the llght is?"
"That's ould Phil Morris's, the weaver's," he replied.
"Are you going far this way?" the dragoon asked.
"To Clo'mel," was the reply.
"I'm going there, too," returned the dragoon. "We'll be comrades on the road."
To this Billy Heffernan made no reply; and, after a scrutinising look into his face, the dragoon continued the conversation.
"Ye're wild folks down here," said he. "So they say," replied Billy; "though myse'f can't see much difference betune us and other people. Yo-up, Kit."
"The old man has a daughter," said the dragoon.
"A grand-daughter," replied Billy Heffernan. "I b'lieve you're thinkin' uv Bessy?"
"Yes," returned the dragoon, "I'm thinking of Bessy."
"She's a nice girl," Billy observed.
"She is that," said the dragoon.
"Wud id be any harm to ax are you acquainted wud her?"
The dragoon looked scrutinisingly at him again; and evidently satisfied that his questioner was a harmless fellow, he replied: "A relation of her aunt's was a comrade of mine, and I knew her in Dublin."
"She was in Dublin, sure enough," said Billy. "She's not long afther comin' home."
"Her aunt is my friend," the dragoon observed. "And I think the girl that lives with her is my friend, too. But I have not seen the old man. She says he hates the sight of a red-coat."
"Well, I b'lieve he do," replied Billy. "An' maybe 'tisn't wudout raison."
"That girl told me she was her cousin. What is her name?"
"Peg Brady — she's related to the ould man."
"She is a good-natured girl," said the dragoon.
"She's a harmless soart uv a girl," Billy replied. "Come, Kit. What! Is id goin' to get into your tantrums you are? I'll soon let you know." And Billy Heffernan took down his whip from the top of the load of turf; but Kit seemed to think better of it, and put off the tantrums for the present. "Begor" he continued addressing himself to the dragoon, "wudout mainin' any offince, you're very hot in yourse'f."
"How is that?"
"Wud your hat, or whatever you call id, hangin' on your arm that way," replied Billy.
The dragoon laughed, and put his helmet on his head. After walking on in silence for some time, Billy Heffernan and the dragoon stopped short at a turn in the road, both looking considerably astonished. A man with his coat off was running towards them through a field adjoining the road at the top of his speed. They thought some accident must have happened and that he was running to call them to the assistance of some one in danger, when to their surprise, he turned the angle of the field without seeming to notice them, and continued his race in a line with the fence. The field was a small one, and he was soon round it and passed them again.
"It must be a madman," said the dragoon.
"Begor, that's what I'm thinkin' myse'f, too," returned Billy Heffernan who showed some symptoms of being frightened as he kept his eyes steadily on the runner. But it was not of madmen Billy Heffernan stood in awe; but the notion got into his head that there were more than one runner, and that the second was invisible to them, and consequently supernatural and a thing to be dreaded.
"Begob," said Billy, as the runner passed a third time, "'tis Mick Brien, as sure as I'm alive. I'll call him when he comes round again."
"Is that Mick?" he called out, as the man was passing them again.
"Is that Billy?" was the reply, and he stopped short opposite to them.
"In the name o' God, what are you runnin' that way for?"
Mick Brien climbed over the fence without replying, and came out upon the road. He looked greatly surprised on seeing the dragoon; for dragoons were seldom met strolling through that part of the country at night. Mick Brien's face darkened as he fixed his eyes on the soldier — and not without reason, perhaps; for the last glimpse of a "bold dragoon" which Mick Brien had seen was when a troop of these formidable-looking warriors rattled through his little farmyard the day the old house was pulled down — where Billy Heffernan was wont to take a piggin of milk in lieu of a drink of water whether he would or no — and Mick Brien and his wife and children were flung homeless on the world. So that we must excuse Mick Brien if the unexpected sight of an English soldier brought a scowl into his face.
The dragoon observed it, and said — "Friend, I have only been to see a friend off in that quarter" — and the dragoon turned round and pointed towards Knocknagow — "and on my way back I have met your neighbour here on the road; and, as we are both bound for the same town, we have kept together so far."
"That's the way," said Billy Heffernan, in reply to Mick Brien's inquiring look. "An' now," he continued, "maybe you'd tell us about the runnin'?"
Mick Brien looked on the ground, and remained silent for a moment.
"Well," said he, with a grim smile, "I will tell you about the runnin', for fear you might think I was afther takin' lave uv my sinses. But come on. I needn't delay you."
"Yo-up, Kit," said Billy Heffernan, putting his hand to the creel, and helping on Kit with a push.
All three fell back behind the car, the dragoon and Billy Heffernan waiting with no little curiosity for an explanation of the running.
"You're forgettin' your coat," said Billy, looking at Mick Brien's torn and threadbare shirt sleeves.
"No; I hadn't id on me at all," he replied. "An' now," he added, as if it had cost him an effort to make up his mind to satisfy their curiosity "if you want to know about the runnin', here is the ins an' outs uv id for you. The wind tumbled wan end uv the cabin on us last night, an' I wasn't able to fix id till I get a bundle uv straw. An' wan uv the childher bein' sick, we wor obliged to put whatever little coverin' we had on her to keep her warm. An' as the roof was stripped, I woke in a stump wud the cowld, an' couldn't get a wink uv sleep afther. So I got up an' turned into that field, an' said to myse'f I'd have a run to put the life into me. An' begor, Billy, my sperits riz whin I found myse'f so soople, an' I purtinded to myse'f that I was runnin' for a bet; an' the divil a stop I'd stop till I was afther goin' twelve rounds on'y for you called me."
"Begob, Mick, 'twas a quare notion. An' faith you ran as fast as ever I see you runnin' at a hurlin' match when Mat Donovan 'ud be makin' off wud the ball."
"Well, good-night to ye," said Mick Brien. "See yourse'f the way the roof was swep away at that side."
They were just opposite a miserable hovel, one side of the roof of which was entirely bare. Billy Heffernan shook his head as he mentally contrasted the wretched tenement with the warm little farm-house where he had been so often welcomed and hospitably entertained by the man who now stood before him, as unlike his former self as the wretched hovel was unlike the comfortable home that once was his. There was surprise and something like pity in the dragoon's face, too, as he looked from the cabin to its owner. But just as Mick Brien was turning away, he was seized with a violent fit of coughing, and, pressing his hand upon his side, he staggered against Billy Heffernan, who caught him in his arms. The blood gushed from the poor man's mouth, and flowed down the breast of his shirt. He had evidently burst a blood vessel.
"Mick," said Billy, as he threw his arms round him to prevent his falling, "I'm sorry to see you this way." And Billy Heffernan burst into tears.
"'Tis nothin'," he gasped, "'tis nothin'. Help me as far as the doore, Billy."
He leant upon Billy's shoulder, and both walked into the hovel. Oh! — we hesitate to follow them. We wish to spare the reader such scenes as long as we possibly can. Enough to say that when Billy Heffernan looked around him, and felt the cold breeze as it whistled through the uncovered roof, and saw the once rosy farmer's wife crouching in a corner with her sick child pressed against her bosom, and her husband's coat thrown over her shoulders, he felt that swelling in his throat which Norah Lahy's looks and words so often caused; and, without uttering a word, Billy Heffernan pulled off his old riding-coat, wrapped it round the evicted farmer, and laid him softly down upon the wisp of straw in the corner of the cabin, where his two little boys were asleep, locked in each other's arms. The moon shone directly down upon their pale faces, and Billy Heffernan could scarcely suppress a groan as he thought of the merry, bright-eyed little fellows who used to vie with each other to know who'd be first to run to the dairy to tell their mother that Billy Heffernan had stopped his mule on the road and was coming up to the house. He fixed the straw so that the poor man's head might be in a comfortable position, and silently returned to his mule, at whose head the dragoon was standing, as if he had turned to poor Kit for companionship.
At first the dragoon did not recognise Billy Heffernan when he appeared without his riding-coat. But when in a subdued tone he addressed the usual "Yo-up, Kit," to his mule, the dragoon guessed the reason why his companion had left his coat behind him in the cabin.
They walked on without speaking for a considerable distance, and then the dragoon asked how much farther had they to go.
"You'll see the cloud over Clo'mel," replied Billy, "when we come to the top uv that hill." And they walked on in silence again.
"There id is," said Billy, when they reached the top of the hill.
"The cloud over Clo'mel."
"And why the cloud over Clonmel? And how did you know there was a cloud over it?"
"Becase Clo'mel was never wudout a cloud over id since the day Father Sheehy was hung," replied Billy Heffernan.
"For what was he hung?"
"Begor, for killin' a man that was alive twenty years afther," said Billy. "But the rale raison was becase he wanted to save the people from bein' hunted, an' the whole counthry turned into pasture for sheep and cattle. But I'll show you the house where his blood was sprinkled on the doore when the head was afther bein' cut off uv him, and they wor bringin' his body to Shanrahan to bury him."
"And what did they want to sprinkle the blood on the door for?"
"Becase id was the doore uv the bishop's house; an' on'y for him Father Sheehy wouldn't be hung at all. He refused to give him a character, an' that's what settled him."
"And why did the bishop refuse?"
"Becase he was all-in-all wud the great lords an' gentle men; and for fear uv offendin' 'em, he wouldn't stir hand or fut to save the life uv the poor priest that had the rope about his neck. 'Tis ould Phil Morris that could give you the ins an' outs uv id."
"Thim is the Comeragh mountains," continued Billy, breaking off abruptly, and pointing towards them.
But the allusion to old Phil Morris made the dragoon turn round and fix his eyes on the hills in nearly an opposite direction.
Billy Heffernan was obliged to keep up with his mule, and when he got to the foot of the hill he looked round and saw the dragoon still standing on the top of it, with his arms folded, looking towards Knocknagow.
"Begob," said Billy, "he's a bad case."
He soon began to overtake and pass by an occasional heavily laden dray or cart, both horse and driver travel-stained, and so worn out as to require a rest, near as they were to their journey's end; while, on the other hand, Billy himself had often to call out "huh!" or "ho!" to his mule, to make way for a fast-walking farmer's horse, whose load was not over heavy — even though the farmer's wife was enthroned on the top of it — or a trotting donkey, whose only burden was a couple of blooming country girls, coming to town to make purchases, in view, mayhap, of an approaching wedding. And the more crowded and noisy the road became, the more lonely Billy Heffernan felt, and the more anxious to be on his way back to Knocknagow.
He found it no easy task to guide the mule through the crowd of carts that blocked up one of the streets he had to pass through. In fact, he was brought to a stand opposite a row of thatched houses, which might have been mistaken for a piece of Knocknagow, so closely did they resemble the row of thatched houses between Phil Lahy's and the bridge.
While waiting patiently for the way to be cleared, a woman ran out from one of the thatched houses and laid a basket close to the wheel of the car.
"Show us a sod uv that," said she.
He loosened a sod out of his well-packed load and handed it to her.
"Give me twopence worth uv id," said she, after balancing the sod in her hand and flinging it into her basket.
"Is that all you're goin' to give me?" she asked, when he had stopped counting the turf into the basket.
"That's all; an' I'd like to know where you'd get as much uv such turf as that?"
"Well, here," said she, taking hold of one handle of the basket.
Billy Heffernan took hold of the other handle, and the purchase was immediately laid on the middle of the floor in one of the little thatched houses.
The woman put her hand in her pocket to pay for the turf, when, happening to glance through the little four-paned window, with three bull's eyes in it — which, if one of the bull's eyes happened to be in the upper instead of the lower corner, Billy Heffernan would have sworn was his own window — she seized a straw-bottom chair, that it required some faith to believe was not part of the furniture of Mat Donovan's kitchen, and ran out into the street. Billy Heffernan soon saw a well-shaped foot, encased in a well-fitting boot, touch the back of the chair, and caught a glimpse of a leg quite worthy of the foot, in a grey angola stocking tied with a red worsted garter; of which latter, however, he saw no more than the two ends that hung down in a manner suggestive of a bow-knot. In an instant a female figure leaped lightly to the ground and ran into the little thatched house, followed by the smiling hostess, bearing the straw bottom chair. Both turned into the little room on the right-hand side of the door, and Billy saw a pretty young girl fling off her cloak, and commence arranging her hair at a diminutive looking-glass that hung near the window; and in a minute or two quite a stylishly dressed young lady came out, drawing on her gloves, and replying to the inquiries of the woman of the house, who addressed her as "Miss Julia," for the "masther " and the "misthress."
"Oh!" exclaimed Miss Julia, as if she had forgotten some thing, "run out and bring in the basket that's between the bags on the top of the load."
The woman of the house did as she desired, and soon returned with a small basket.
'Tis something," said Miss Julia, "that mother sent you."
The woman raised the lid, and exclaimed with a start, as she held up her hands in an attitude of surprise and thankfulness.
"Oh, may God increase her store!"
Miss Julia walked out, and no one meeting her would have dreamed she was the same person that descended from the top of the load of wheat, with her gay bonnet hidden under the ample cape of her mother's blue cloak; which blue cloak, however, seemed more worthy of admiration in the eyes of the woman in whose care she had left it, than all Miss Julia's finery put together, for she held it up to the light, and looked and looked at it, till she seemed to forget everything in the world but the blue cloak.
"Begor, ma'am," said Billy Heffernan, "I b'lieve you're forgettin' me."
"Oh, honest man," she replied, with a start, "I beg your pardon. I thought I was afther payin' you."
Billy Heffernan put the twopence she handed him in his pocket, and, finding the way now more clear, led his mule slowly up the street.