BILLY HEFFERNAN WONDERS WHAT IS "COMING OVER" NORAH.
BILLY HEFFERNAN had run off over ditches and hedges in a straight line, with his eyes fixed upon the chimney of Phil Lahy's old house, and never stopped till he stood behind Norah's straw chair. And then Billy Heffernan did stop very suddenly, and made a foolish pretence of having walked in very slowly and carelessly, and with no object in the world except to pass away the time. The instantaneous change from break-neck speed and breathless haste to a lazy lounge, as he moved towards Phil Lahy's shop-board, caused Norah to smile. He took up a piece of chalk and commenced writing the letters of the alphabet in round-hand on the lap-board very carefully and deliberately till he came to the letter g, and then Billy ventured to glance sideways at Norah, sitting in her straw-chair, with her wasted hand on the head of the rough terrier.
Now, it occurred, at the last moment, to Billy Heffernan, that to communicate the joyful news of Mat Donovan's safety too abruptly to Norah might give her a shock that would prove injurious to her. And, in his own way, he set about correcting the mistake he had made. But, as he glanced at Norah, and saw how calm and collected she was, he thought she must not have heard of the accident to Mat Donovan at all, and resolved to go on with his writing till her father and mother arrived. To his great surprise, however, before he had got half-way to the end of the lap-board, Norah said:
"Well, Billy, why don't you tell me all about Mat?"
He turned quickly round, and to his great astonishment saw not the least symptom of anxiety or agitation about her; but, on the contrary, she seemed as if trying to suppress a smile.
"She knows nothin' about id," thought Billy Heffernan. "Begor, I'm glad uv id; for I was afeard it might frighten the life out uv her. An' 'twas well she tuck no notice uv the way I ran in. 'Twas well I didn't tumble up against her, I was in such a pucker to make her mind 'asy about Mat."
"Billy," said Norah, "why don't you tell me all about what's after happening to Mat Donovan? Nelly was here with me when the report went about that he was killed, and she was terribly frightened."
Her apparent indifference about the matter astonished Billy Heffernan beyond expression; and he stared at her with open mouth for nearly a minute before he was able to reply.
"He's all right," said Billy at last.
"Oh, yes, I know that," returned Norah quite calmly. "But he was in danger."
Billy Heffernan's astonishment now took a different turn and, as he looked into her dark eyes and pale, spiritual face, he began, with that proneness to superstition for which he was remarkable, to fancy that she had supernatural knowledge of events passing beyond the ken of mere bodily senses. She seemed to know what was passing in his mind and the covert smile about her lips and in her eyes tended to strengthen Billy Heffernan's half-formed suspicion that she must be in communion with those invisible beings of whose existence in earth and air he had no more doubt than he had of his own. But, notwithstanding the plenitude of his faith in such matters, it is worthy of remark that Billy Heffernan always held out stoutly against the "black dog" — which piece of infidelity procured for him the undying enmity of Kit Cummins.
"You're wondering at me, Billy," said Norah, giving the smile full play at last, and revealing her ivory-white teeth; which somehow had the effect of imparting a deeper shade of melancholy to her look. "You think I'm a witch or something of that kind."
"Begor, if you're anything at all id must be somethin' good," he answered, seriously.
"Well, I was frightened, Billy," said Norah. "Poor, brave, honest Mat Donovan, with every one so proud of him, and fond of him! But I said to myself that God was good, and that I'd offer up a few prayers for him. Then I heard the shout, and I knew he was safe. And I said to myself, too, he must be after escaping some danger, or the people wouldn't shout that way. And Billy," she added, smiling again, "I knew you'd be the first to remember me and to relieve my mind. So when I saw you rushing in, I was sure all was right."
Billy returned to his chalking and went on carefully till he came to m — which letter was so well executed that he stopped to admire it — but said nothing.
"Tell me what happened, Billy," said Norah, leaning her head against the back of her chair, as if, after all, she felt weary and exhausted.
Billy told her how a high rick, that was higher than the top of the chimney, and, in fact, as far as he could judge, as high as the beech-tree, had fallen while Mat Donovan was "cutting a bench" up near the top of it. And how some thought he was "made bruss of" on the ground; and others that it was only smothered he was by the hay on top of him; while a few asserted positively that Mat was "ripped open" by the sharp hay-knife. But Billy was able to bear witness that he had seen Mat with his own eyes, quite whole, neither pulverised nor embowelled, and, to all appearances, having the free use of his lungs.
"I'm very glad he's not hurt," said Norah. "But if he was," she added thoughtfully after a pause, "he'd have a good nurse in Nelly to take care of him."
"So he would," returned Billy Heffernan; "and his mother, too."
"Nelly is very good," continued Norah. "She's the best-hearted poor thing in the world. And she's very fond of me. She and me were always great friends, Billy."
"So ye wor," returned Billy. "Always."
"And if Mat met with an accident, he'd have some one to take care of him," rejoined Norah, as if thinking aloud.
"But, Billy," she continued, "if anything happened you, you'd have no one. And what would you do?"
"I'd take my chance," Billy answered. "God is good."
"That's true," she replied fervently; "God is good. But 'tis hard for you to feel happy all alone by yourself. And you are going on very well, by all accounts, and getting more comfortable every year."
"I know who I have to thank for that," he replied.
"Who?" she asked in surprise.
"Yourse'f, Norah," returned Billy Heffernan, leaning on his elbow upon the shop-board and proceeding with his chalking. "You know what I was before you made me take the pledge; and that's what I couldn't do for the priest himse'f. An' I know I'd never be able to keep id on'y for you prayin' for me, as you said you would. I do be wondherin' now at myse'f. I can hardly b'lieve I'm the same unfortunate Billy Heffernan that every wan used to have compassion for, when I see the respect they all have for me now. Begor, I think sometimes 'tis humbuggin' me they do be, the way they talk to me an' ax my advice about this or that, when I think how the smallest child in the place used to have a laugh at me before."
"Well, if I gave you a good advice at that time, Billy, sure you ought to listen to another good advice from me now?"
"What is id?'
"Well, you know what I mean," she answered, as if she wished to avoid being more explicit. "I often think of id this while back, when Nelly Donovan and myself do be talking about old times."
"Norah," said Billy Heffernan, quite agitated, as he hurriedly wiped out the letters he had chalked with such pains on the lap-board, "for God's sake don't talk to me any more that way. I'm well enough as I am. I want for nothin'. An' if I am lonesome idse'f, 'tis lonesome I'd rather be."
Norah smiled. She smiled a little while before, because she was amused. But this was a different kind of smile altogether. Yes; Billy Heffernan's refusal to listen to what she was about proposing to him gave her pleasure. Yet, if he did listen to her advice and followed it, it would have given her pleasure too — pleasure sweetened by self-sacrifice. She would be glad to see Billy Heffernan and Nelly Donovan happy. Yet she was glad that Billy Heffernan would not listen to her plan for his happiness. Self-sacrifice is sure of its reward either way.
"Well, Billy," said Norah Lahy, "you will remember my words hereafter."
Oh! that "hereafter" — how heavily it fell upon his heart!
His back was still turned to her; and with one elbow on the table, and shading his eyes with his hand, he went on with the chalking again; but instead of carefully formed letters, he covered the board with mere dots and shapeless figures. He felt almost angry with her. "Sure she has no right," he said to himself, "to be talkin' that way. Don't she know I'd as lief be dead as the way I do be when id comes into my head?" And Billy held the lap-board near his eyes — for it was now nearly dark — and seemed to be trying to decipher the hieroglyphics he had traced upon it. " I don't know what's comin' over her this while back," he continued, glancing stealthily at Norah; "every wan used to be remarkin' that you'd never hear a word from her that'd look as if she was thinkin' uv dyin' at all. Even her mother says she never heard a word about id from her. But this is the third turn wud her dhrawin' id down to me these days back. She began t'other night about the evenin' I carried her over the sthrame. There's some change comin' over her I'm afeard, or she wouldn't be goin' on this way."
He was interrupted in his reflections by the entrance of Honor Lahy, who — rather to the surprise of Billy — was immediately followed by her husband.
"Wisha, is id there you are, Billy?" exclaimed Honor. "Mat is after axin' where you wor; an' not wan uv us could tell him. We wor all wonderin' what happened you."
"I ran down to tell Norah, whin I see he wasn't hurt. I thought she might be unaisy."
"Well, well," returned Honor, as if she felt quite ashamed of herself, "see how not wan uv us ever thought uv that. An' sure I might 'asy know her mind'd be throubled; an' for all I never thought uv id." She knelt down as she spoke, and arranged Norah's shawl more comfortably about her shoulders. "We had no right," she continued, as she pinned the shawl, "to run away an' lave you by yourse'f. But I got such a start thinkin' poor Mat was killed, that I didn't know what I was doin'. An' sure on'y the mercy uv God 'tis killed he'd be."
Phil had flung himself in a chair in an almost gasping condition after his exertions. He fixed a severe glance on his wife, and even on his daughter, and then shook his head and looked into the fire. There was no sign, not the shadow of a symptom of a "little nourishment," and Phil Lahy seemed to have made up his mind that all Christian charity had vanished from the world, and that there was nothing left for him but to be resigned. And he was resigned! He did not complain in the least. No murmur would ever escape his lips. He was never a grumbler; never "a man for complaining." And in a spirit of resignation and self-abnegation, Phil Lahy dismissed all thought of his own sufferings from his mind, and only thought, as a patriot and philanthropist, of the grievances of his fellow-men.
"Billy," said he, addressing himself to Billy Heffernan, who had turned round and now stood with his back to the shop-board, resting against it, "these are quare times."
"How so?" Billy asked.
"Well, I'm afther havin' a talk wud that poor crawler, Tom Hogan; and the fact is I'm not the betther uv id.
"How so?" Billy asked again.
"I was never a man of extreme views," returned Phil. "I admire some of the extreme party for their genius, and I never took part in the cry against them. But I'm a man of moderate views, and always was. Old Phil Morris and I could never agree on some points. But, Billy, 'tis enough to knock moderation out of any man to talk to a crawler. You heard the conversation I had with that man sitting at this fire?"
"I remember," replied Billy Heffernan. "An' Mat remarked as we wor goin' home, that all he was worth in the world was sunk in his little spot — that he hadn't a penny; on'y as fast as he'd have id lettin' id all go in dhrainin' an' buildin'."
"Well, that same Tom Hogan calls me over an' I passin'. 'Phil,' says he, 'I couldn't help laughin' a while ago when I thought uv you. Faith, a person'd think,' says he, 'that you knew what they wor goin' to do.' 'What do you mane, Tom?' says I — speakin' as civil as I could to him, because Norah here begged uv me not to be severe on him, since the way he began thremblin' when I spoke about risin' his rent from thirty-eight to forty-eight shillin's an acre. So I asked him civilly what did he mane. 'Well, my rint is riz,' says be, 'just as you said id would.' I thought 'twas humbuggin' me he was, till I remembered I see Darby Ruadh turnin into his gate a start before. 'Tom,' says I, 'are you in airnest, or is id jokin' you are?' 'He is in airnest, Phil,' the wife makes answer. 'Darby is afther given us notice of another rise." I looked at him," continued Phil, turning round in his chair and resting his elbow on the back of it, so as that he could look up into Billy Heffernan's face, of which, however, there was not light enough to afford more than a dim outline — "I looked at him; and there he was, breakin' his heart laughin'; 'Tis on'y two shillin's an acre, Phil,' says he, 'to make id the even money. A couple uv pounds a year won't make much difference. But whin Darby walked in an' spoke uv another rise, begor, I thought of what you wor sayin' to me last night. An' wasn't id dhroll,' he says, laughin', 'that your words come to pass all at wance?' 'Tom,' says I, 'I have nothin' to say to you.' 'Darby tould me,' says the wife, 'that Mr. Pender was sorry, but that he couldn't help id whin the ordher came down from the landlord.' But 'tisn't Tom Hogan that's throublin' me," continued Phil, after a pause; "but I fear we're goin' to have some bad work in the counthry!"
"What bad work, Phil?" his wife asked in alarm.
"Well, that blessed bird," he returned, "that came in to light the lamp t'other night — honest Darby — and Wat Corcoran wor overheard makin' some remarks to-day about bein' near stirrin' times about here. An' we all know what that manes. Mat Donovan is likely to lose his little garden, too. An' that's a bad sign. An' there's poor Mick Brien that they beggared. Kept him hangin' on expectin' they'd give him a little spot somewhere, if 'twas on'y a skirt uv the bog, till every penny he had was gone uv whatever thrifle he was able to make by sellin' the few things he had left afther bein turned out uv the nice little farm that his people lived in for hundreds uv years. Well, Maurice Kearney gave him a couple uv bundles uv straw to cover the roof over his wife an' childher. An' just when he had id finished, the guardian angels come to tell him he must go out; that the cabin is to be pulled down, as such cabins can't be allowed on the property any longer. I'm tould he's out uv his mind. The wife is thought to be in a decline, an' two uv the childher have the faver. An' the thought uv the poorhouse sets him mad."
At these last few words the tears began to fall silently from Norah's eyes; and Billy Heffernan, on seeing them dropping down one by one, began to be angry with some one or other, and felt a strong desire to relieve his feelings by beating Darby Ruadh and Wat Corcoran black and blue. Indeed at that moment Billy would have faced a whole legion of "guardian angels," and done heaven knows what desperate things, if he had the chance.
"So you see, Billy," said Phil Lahy, "that thinkin' of such things is enough to make any man violent."
"'Tis thrue!" replied Billy Heffernan, almost fiercely.
"I of'en think uv Mick Brien's wife," Honor observed, as if she were thinking aloud, while, with her chin on her hand and her elbow resting on the shop-board, she gazed at the moon through the branches of the beech-tree. "She was sich a good, charitable woman. 'Tis too good she was. Of'en Father M'Mahon said 'twas a pity she wasn't as rich as Damer."
"'Tis many a piggin uv milk she made me dhrink," said Billy Heffernan, "when I'd be passin' comin' from Clo'mel. An' Mick brought home my ould coat that I put about him the last night I was passin'. I'd rather he'd keep id," added Billy, "for the divil a much harm a wettin' ever done me. But Mick wouldn't be satisfied. An' whin he was comin' for the straw to Misther Kearney's, he brought home the coat. Ould Phil Morris gave him the lend uv his ass to brin' the straw. An' sure if he kem to me for the mule I'd give her to him an' welcome. But he says he thought I might be on the road. An' he knew Phil Morris's ass was idle."
"Were you talking to Bessy Morris since she came home?" Norah asked, after an interval of silence. "She ran in to see me, but she had no time to delay."
"She was at the weddin'," returned Billy; "an' I called — . An' I met her above the Bush" — he broke off — "this mornin', as she was comin' to Misther Kearney's to make a dhress for Miss Mary."
Norah raised her eyes quickly when Billy hesitated and seemed embarrassed after saying he "called in." And when he turned the "calling in" to meeting Bessy on the road, she did not know what to think. She admired Bessy Morris very much, and liked her pretty well; though she never did warm to her so much as to Nelly Donovan and one or two more of her school-fellows.
She saw how much superior to them all Bessy was in many respects; but in spite of her cleverness and winning ways, Norah could not help thinking that Bessy Morris wanted heart. She often accused herself of being unjust, but she could not reason herself out of this impression. Many little instances of selfishness on Bessy's part would occur to her; but it was Bessy's love of conquest and admiration that tended most to prejudice Norah Lahy against her.
And now, on observing Billy Heffernan's embarrassment, she thought Bessy might have been trying the power of her fascination upon him, too. It was but the thought of a moment, dismissed almost as soon as formed. But Norah did say to herself, after a moment's reflection, that she "would not like it."
Billy Heffernan's embarrassment, however, was simply caused by remembering his resolution to say nothing about the dragoon.
"I think," Phil Lahy observed, "I ought to take a walk up to see Mat."
"Give him time to be done his supper, at any rate," returned his wife.
"Very well," he rejoined. "But what I'm afraid uv is that this fall may come against him in throwing the sledge with the captain. I'll advise Mat not to venture. 'Tis too serious a matter. And — and," added Phil Lahy, in a dignified way, "a man should not forget his duty to the public. That's Mat's weak point. He can't be got to see that he's a public character. The people at large are concerned. The credit of Knocknagow is at stake. So I must explain this to Mat. The captain, too, though a good fellow, is an aristocrat. That fact cannot be lost sight of. So I must explain matters to Mat. An' if he's not in condition, he's bound to decline throwing the sledge with Captain French on the present occasion."
"Do you think there's any danger he might be bet?" Billy Heffernan asked, with a blending of terror and incredulity in his look.
"There's no knowin', Billy," returned Phil. "A man 'd want to be careful upon important occasions; particularly when the public are — are — the fact is," said Phil, at a loss for a word, "I must have a talk with Mat."
"Begor," returned Billy Heffernan, "you're afther makin' me someway uneasy. Good evenin' to ye."
"Good evenin', Billy," returned Phil Lahy, benevolently. "Don't let anything I'm afther sayin' prey on your mind. Let us hope for the best."
I'll never b'lieve," returned Billy Heffernan, stopping before he reached the shop door, "I'll never b'lieve the man was ever born that's able to bate Mat Donovan at the sledge."
"You are right, Billy — unless he does himself injustice — an' what I want to prevent is that. You know yourse'f Mat is a soft soart of a fellow; and requires a friend to advise him. Are you goin' up that way yourse'f?"
"No," Billy replied. "I have to mend the mule's breechin', an' to fill the load, as I'm to be on the road to night."
"Billy," said Mrs. Lahy, "maybe you'd take a walk down again, as I want a box of candies an' a few other things that I'm nearly out uv."
"Very well," he replied. "I'll take a walk down before I go to bed." And as Billy, after lighting one of his antediluvian tapers, sat down upon his antediluvian block, to repair Kit's harness, he felt so oppressed and nervous, thinking of the strange change he had noticed in Norah Lahy, and of the possibility of Captain French beating Mat Donovan at the sledge, he heartily wished for the long summer days, when he could stretch upon a bank in the lonesome bog and listen to the whistle of the plover.