Knocknagow - CHAPTER XLVI.



THE whole family were assembled in the parlour; and Bessy Morris, with her pretty bonnet and cloak on, and her little basket on her arm, was talking to Miss Kearney near one of the windows. The sun was just setting, and the shadows of the trees on the grass were beginning to disappear, when a flash of light through the branches of a large elm tree out in the lawn made Mary start.

"Was it lightning?" she asked.

I thought so, Miss," Bessy replied.

But, on looking in the direction from which the flash seemed to have come, they glanced at each other and smiled. They saw Mat Donovan near the top of what remained of a large hay-rick in the lawn. The rick had been cut away till it looked like a rectangular tower, and had quite a picturesque effect, its brown hue contrasting agreeably with the fir grove behind. "Old hay is old gold," was a stereotyped phrase with Maurice Kearney's visitors when they stood at the hall-door and looked around the handsome lawn. Mat Donovan was about commencing to cut away another slice of this old gold, and it was the hay-knife he held in his hand, flashing in the last rays of the sinking sun, that Mary and Bessy Morris had mistaken for lightning. As he buried the sharp, broad blade in the hay, and, bending over it, commenced to cut away vigorously, Bessy Morris almost laughed outright; for she caught a snatch of a well-remembered air, which rolled down from the rick in the same old, mellow voice she often loitered to listen to on her way from the school beyond the quarry long ago. Even then, child as she was, she used to fancy it was of her Mat Donovan was thinking whenever he sang

"Hi! for it, hi! for it still,

And hi! for the little house under the hill."

And what a world of drollery was in Mat's face while he sang these words, and tossed the cherries over the hedge to her! The recollection of this came back so vividly now that Bessy could not help laughing. She knew he could see her grandfather's house from the hay-rick; and the consciousness that he was thinking of herself now, as of old, may have had something to do with the laugh that leaped up to her eyes as she turned to say "Good evening!" to Mary Kearney. She intended to run away without speaking to any one else, as the window at which they were standing was near the door; and Mary was just in the act of shaking hands with her, when a cry from outside caused every one in the room to start. It was the cry of a woman, and was followed by the words, "Mat Donovan is killed!"

Mary looked instinctively to the hay-rick. But, to her utter amazement, it was gone! There was the elm tree; and the grove beyond; and the blue mountain; and the sky. But the tower-like remnant of the hay-rick, upon which, one short minute before, she saw Mat Donovan standing, had vanished like a vision!

Everything without seemed calm and still; and the last thing she noticed, as she sank almost fainting into a chair, was that the sheep were quietly cropping the grass.

"Oh! Mat Donovan is killed!"

The cry was not very loud; but the words were strangely distinct, and no one could say from what particular direction they had come, or whether the person who uttered them was near or far off.

Hugh leaped through the window, and Mary saw that he and Tom Maher rushed against each other near the elm tree and fell. In an instant they were on their feet again, and wildly flinging the hay about in armfuls. They were soon joined by others; and immediately the whole place was alive with men, women, and children, who seemed to have sprung up as if by magic from the ground. They were climbing over the gate, and over the fences, and running wildly through the lawn. Mrs. Kearney, who stood trembling at the window, burst into tears; not because she had, at the moment, any distinct idea of what had occurred but there was that in the eager, anxious faces of the crowd that might well have moved a harder heart than hers. Yet Bessy Morris stood still, without moving a muscle, her lips apart, and her eyes fixed upon the mass of hay that now lay flung along the field. The constant falling of a drop of water will wear away a rock, and the constant nibbling of a flock of sheep will undermine a hay-rick.

Hugh Kearney and a few others continued to fling the hay from the place where he judged Mat must have fallen; and his voice was heard shouting to the people to keep back.

After a while the hay was seen to move, and the tall form of the Thrasher rose out of it as from a heaving sea. There was a moment of breathless silence, and then with a wild cheer the crowd pressed upon him and threatened to smother him a second time. His sister Nelly flung her arms about him, and, with her face pressed against his bosom, sobbed violently. But his mother, pushing her way back till she got outside the crowd, sat down under the elm tree and rested her head upon her knees. Phil Lahy came close to Hugh Kearney's side and solemnly suggested a "little nourishment." And Billy Heffernan was seen running faster than ever he was known to run before, to bring the joyful news to Norah Lahy that Mat Donovan was alive and well.

But, notwithstanding that wild cheer, there were many faces there as pale as Mat Donovan's own, and several women were seen wiping the tears from their eyes.

"I knew something was to happen," said Phil Lahy who, on the strength of picking up Hugh Kearney's hat that had fallen off, and saying to Barney Brodherick, "Barney, you are in the way," was pretty well satisfied that Mat the Thrasher owed his life principally to his, Phil Lahy's, individual exertions to save him "I knew something was to happen," said Phil Lahy, wiping imaginary drops of sweat from his brow with his pocket-handkerchief. "A mad bull hunting me all night over ditches and hedges, till I thought my heart was broke." And Phil bent down his head and finished off the wiping with the skirt of his coat.

"And didn't I know something was to happen," exclaimed Kit Cummins. "That robber next doore to me to make off wud my fine new cloak while I was goin' to the well for a can uv wather." And Kit Cummins put her arms akimbo and poured out a torrent of invective against her next-door neighbour for stealing her "fine new cloak." 'Twas only a dream to be sure, and the cloak was at the time hanging safely over the wash-tub where she had flung it before going to bed, with the hood in the suds; but that made no difference in life to Kit Cummins, and, with arms akimbo, she continued her harangue till her breath and her vocabulary seemed to be exhausted at the same moment, and she stopped short. Then from the outskirts of the crowd came the shrill response, "Gir-r-r-r-r out, you bla'guard!" and Kit Cummins turned round with a bounce, and was beginning again, when she was struck dumb with surprise on hearing a voice from the clouds right over her head.

"Mat," said the voice, "will I throw down your coat?"

All eyes were turned upwards; and Honor Lahy was seen to raise her hands as if imploring Providence to take pity on her; for there was our friend Tommy as much at his ease on one of the highest boughs of the elm tree as if he lived in the old magpie's nest, into which he was just after peeping, and had run out merely to throw Mat Donovan his coat, which he had hung upon a branch of the tree before he commenced cutting the hay.

The little episode seemed to some extent to remove the gloom that hung over the crowd. And when Barney Brodherick walked round and round the Thrasher, surveying him from his shoes to the crown of his head, and from every possible point of view, with a look of the profoundest wonder; and pushing back his hat on his poll, exclaimed solemnly as if the miracle he had just witnessed was too great for his comprehension "Begob, Donovan! you'll never be killed! be a cock uv hay"; there was a shout of laughter, in which Mat himself joined; and all was gladness and congratulation as the people dispersed and moved towards home some returning as they had come, through the fields, and others going out by the gate near the Bush and on by the road to the hamlet.

"Did you remark Bessy Morris?" Grace asked.

"Yes; and it has occurred to me she must be cold-hearted," replied Mary. "She was not in the least moved."

"That was because she was stunned," returned Grace.

"I don't think so. She said 'Good evening,' quite calmly."

"Remark what I say," said Grace, with a knowing nod of the head. "I was watching her. She can control her feelings. And you see she has forgotten her basket."

To some extent Grace was right. When the flash of the hay-knife called her attention to Mat Donovan, and she caught the words of the well-remembered song, Bessy's thoughts flew back to the old happy times. He was the hero of the district. Wherever she turned, she heard his name mentioned with praise. The old people who smoked their pipes round her grandfather's fire, and the boys and girls at school, were equally proud of him. And when he had accepted the challenge of some renowned champion from another parish, or even another county for Mat Donovan's fame had gone far beyond the boundaries of his native district with what nervous anxiety the result of the contest was looked for! And with what a thrill of joy the news of their hero's victory was welcomed! And then he was such a warm hearted, good-natured fellow so gentle and so strong without an atom of the bully or the braggart in him. Yes, Bessy Morris remembered the time when she was very proud and happy to think that she was one of Mat Donovan's first favourites. And how soon she came to think that she was a greater favourite than anybody else. Though how she arrived at this conclusion she would have found it difficult to explain. He never spoke of love to her, except in jest; just as he was accustomed to do with every lively girl who was willing to carry on the joke. But somehow Bessy Morris was satisfied that in her case Mat Donovan's palavering was "half joking and whole earnest." He certainly did single her out at the dance, and escorted her from Mass, and dropped in with his "God save all here!" to the little house under the hill pretty often. But her winning ways, and their mutual relationship to Ned Brophy, and her grandfather's stories of '98, ought to have been enough to account for this, without jumping to the conclusion that Mat Donovan was "gone" about her. To this conclusion, however, Bessy Morris did jump; and she was certainly very proud of Mat Donovan's regard for her. But she was not slow in discovering the power of her attractions elsewhere; and when one or two young farmers began to show decided symptoms of being smitten, the thought began to occur to her that Mat Donovan, in spite of all his good qualities, and notwithstanding the esteem in which he was held, was only a poor labourer. But as time rolled on, and even the most ardent of her wealthier admirers dropped off one by one and took unto themselves wives, the unpleasant conviction forced itself upon her that, however easy she found it to catch a rich admirer, catching a rich husband was a different affair altogether. And at the time she left the country to reside with her aunt in Dublin she was beginning unconsciously to lean more and more upon the affection of her old lover as she believed him to be than she had done since her girlhood. But the novelty of the change, when she found herself in the midst of the city, with all its wonders and attractions, and the different sort of people with whom she came in contact, all but completely obliterated her rustic admirer from her thoughts. For a while she was quite intoxicated by the pleasures of the city. She was brought to the theatre, and the different places of Sunday and holiday resort, and flattered and courted, till the simple, but at the same time keen-witted and ambitious peasant girl had her head turned by the brilliancy of this new world. The value of money, too, became more apparent than ever; and she felt a strong desire, not only to be able to afford to dress well, but to be beyond the danger of want to be independent. But sad experience soon told her that making a fortune in the city was just as difficult as catching a rich husband in the country. And an "odd time," as she told Mary Kearney, when left alone with her own thoughts, she would think of her native place and the friends of her childhood. And, on returning to her old home after an absence of two years, and meeting Mat Donovan again, his fine, manly, honest face revived in a great degree the admiration she used to regard him with when she was little more than a child; and her heart did warm to him that "night at Mrs. Murphy's," as she reminded him of the time he used to throw the cherries over the hedge to her though well she knew he did not require to be reminded of it. There was another consideration which helped to raise him in her esteem. She had seen some instances of misery and suffering in homes where there were more of the comforts and luxuries that money can procure than ever she herself dared to hope for. In fact, Bessy Morris was beginning to see that a poor man's wife might be very happy, and a rich man's very wretched.

The soldier's visit had greatly disturbed her; and she wished, though she scarcely knew why, that Mat Donovan should never know of it. No light matter, she was sure, could weaken his love for her. He would go on loving, without a hope that his love would ever be returned. But if he once thought her unworthy, she felt he would tear her from his heart for ever. And since her return from Dublin, the feeling that she could not afford to lose his regard was daily growing stronger. And when the cry, "Mat Donovan is killed!" struck upon her heart, and for some minutes she thought his was stilled for ever, a sense of desolation fell upon her, and she felt as if she were alone in the world. She was really stunned, as Grace said. And when that wild cheer announced to her that he was safe, she felt like one just rescued from drowning, and too exhausted to experience the full sense of joy and gratitude which one ought naturally to feel on being snatched, as it were, from the dark grave back to the bright world, with all its life and sunshine never so bright, never so full of life, and light, and gladness, as when it is on the point of being lost to us for ever. Grace, then, was mistaken in supposing that only self-control had anything to do with Bessy Morris's calmness when she mechanically bade them "Good evening" and left the parlour to go home.

He was thinking of her while he sang the old refrain when was it he was not thinking of her? and when he felt the rick coming down with him, and expected in another second to be flung lifeless on the ground below, the last thought that swelled his heart was a "God be with you," to Bessy Morris. He then became insensible. Consciousness, however, soon returned, and he felt that he was being suffocated to death. Then he thought of his grey-haired mother and his sister, and how desolate their little home would be when he was gone; and feeling that he was relapsing into unconsciousness, he prayed fervently that God would have mercy on his soul. At this moment he fancied that the weight that was crushing him became lighter, and, exerting all his strength, he raised himself upon his hands and knees, and pulling the hay from about his mouth he found that he could breathe. But the weight of those who were pulling away the hay, when they happened to stand directly over him, threatened to crush him down again; and seizing a moment when they had stepped aside, and the pressure was lightest, he made a vigorous effort, and emerged into the light like a lusty swimmer through the breakers.

Bessy Morris's first impulse was to get home without meeting Mat Donovan. She was hurrying through the kitchen in order to get out to the road by the back gate, when she almost knocked against Nelly Donovan, who was running into the house for a drink of water for her brother. Their eyes met, and the looks of surprise and inquiry with which they regarded each other, seemed to have something of distrust or suspicion in it. Their looks were not alike, however, for while Nelly's expressed reproach, Bessy's seemed to indicate a dread of being detected. If Nelly Donovan had spoken what she thought, she would have said, "Is that all you care about him, you heartless thing?" And if Bessy Morris gave utterance to her thoughts she would have said, "I wonder has she found out how much I care for him?"

Bessy, however, recovered quickly from her surprise, and at once decided upon making the best of the situation.

"I saw all from the window, Nelly," said she. "Thank God he is safe. It must be a great shock to your poor mother."

"An' what raison are you runnin' away?" inquired Nelly, who was the soul of candour.

"Well," replied Bessy who was not quite so candid "I thought it would be only troublesome to you and your mother if I went to talk to him. I knew ye'd rather have him all to yourselves. And, besides, poor Mat himself might rather be left quiet after such a shock. So I said to myself I'd slip out by the back gate and run home, when I saw he was safe."

This seemed natural enough to Nelly Donovan, and she was satisfied.

"Well, maybe you're right," said she. "But, for all that, I believe he'd be glad to see you, no matter what way he'd be."

"Well, Nelly," returned Bessy, after some hesitation, "I'd rather meet him when there would not be so many people about him."

"Call in when you're passin'," rejoined Nelly, "an' my mother an' all uv us will be glad to see you. Though they say," she added, shaking her head, "you're too proud now for your ould friends."

"That's not true, Nelly."

"Well, I don't say it is. But I must run out wud the dhrink of wather to him; an' as you don't like to get into the crowd, I hope I'll find you sittin' in the little chair you wor so fond uv long ago."

The allusion to long ago had a decidedly softening effect upon Bessy's heart; which, perhaps, wanted softening a little. But Mat Donovan's heart which did not want softening at all, but rather the contrary felt very heavy indeed, when he caught a glimpse of her as she tripped lightly by the gate, seeming not to give a thought to himself.

He raised the cup of water to his lips, and as he looked into his sister's face, and glanced at his mother sitting at the foot of the tree, the pain which the thought of Bessy's indifference had caused left his heart; and the old smile came back into Mat Donovan's face, as he looked from one to another of the friends who still lingered about him. There was Phil Lahy, holding the coat which Tommy had dropped from the tree with an expression of countenance suggestive of woolsacks, and benches of bishops, and colleges of cardinals, and holy fathers, and martyrs and confessors in general, all rolled into one. And there was Honor, such a picture of hearty, homely good nature, that it did him good to look at her, thinking, in her own mind, whether she could by any means take forcible possession of him, and bring him home with her to rouse him, after his smothering, with a cup of tea of fabulous strength, out of the little black tea-pot. And there was Mary Kearney, as beautiful as an angel, coming from the house, and giving him her hand, with such a heavenly smile, and telling him how glad she was he had escaped unhurt. And there was Grace following her example in her own way; and, strange to say, Mat held Grace's hand so tightly and so long, that she at first felt pleased and amused, and then looked up in surprise, and almost snatched away her hand; for there was something about Grace that reminded Mat of throwing cherries over a hedge and other little incidents of bygone days and so, unconsciously he held her hand and squeezed it; and Grace laughingly submitted. Perhaps Grace would have frowned and thought it no compliment at all if she knew he was thinking all the time of Bessy Morris. And yet to Mat's mind the greatest compliment a human being could be paid was to be thought like Bessy Morris.

Then Mrs. Kearney herself came out, and, wiping the tears from her eyes, declared that her heart she thought had broken, the shock she got was so great particularly as it reminded her of the day the horse ran away with her Uncle Dan and broke his collar-bone and insisted that Mat should come in and take something; a request which Maurice Kearney seconded by seizing Mat by the collar, which he was induced to let go when Mat requested permission to put on his coat. And as Mat Donovan put on his coat, he looked round him again, and wondered that there was one particular face which he could not see anywhere. He looked again and again, and tried to think of a plausible reason for the absence of this particular face as he walked towards the house. And turning round on reaching the door-step, he took another look all round, and rubbing his poll with his open hand, Mat Donovan called out:

"Do any uv ye know where is Billy Heffernan?"

No one could tell where Billy Heffernan was. And as he had been seen watering his mule at the "lough" half-an-hour before, every one wondered what had become of him. And, in spite of all the kindness and congratulations showered upon him, Mat Donovan felt as if a screw were loose some where, when Billy Heffernan's face was nowhere visible.

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