Knocknagow - CHAPTER III.




As the party approached the avenue gate, on their way to the fort, a tax-cart was seen coming from the direction of the village.

"Oh! 'tis Richard," Grace exclaimed; "I'm so glad."

She evinced her joy by a series of little bounds as she took Miss Kearney's arm and tried to hurry her forward. But her companion's pace was too slow for her impatience and she ran on alone.

"She is a very interesting child," said Mr. Lowe.

"She would not thank you for calling her a child," said Miss Kearney, with a smile.

"I should scarcely have called her a child a moment ago," he replied, "for she talked and even looked like a very sensible woman. Perhaps she is older than she seems?

"No; she is a child in years. But she really astonishes me sometimes."

"Who are the gentlemen?" he added, as the tax-cart stopped.

"My brothers."

Grace pulled open one side of the heavy gate with all her might; but as she was about exerting her strength with the other, she suddenly let go her hold, and ran out on the road. The taller of the two occupants of the tax-cart reached her his hand, and she was standing between his knees in an instant. They drove on; and Miss Kearney said, in reply to her companion's look of surprise:

"They are going round to the back gate. Grace will bring them out immediately, you may be sure."

"Is she a relative of yours?" he asked.

"Her mother's sister is married to an uncle of mine," she replied. "Her father, Doctor Kiely, is a very eminent physician, and a man of distinguished talent."

"Oh, I believe I have heard of him. Is he not one of your great agitators?"

"Yes; I suppose you would call him an agitator. He does not try to conceal his patriotism; and yet, strange to say, he is the favourite doctor of nearly all the great families of the county, and he has ever so many public appointments. Grace would say, 'quite a monopoly of them,'" she added, smiling her angelic smile—as much at her own homely phrase as at the more learned one her little friend would have used.

"That tells well for the liberality of the aristocracy."

"Perhaps it tells as well for the high character and skill of Dr. Kiely."

"About what age is he?" Mr. Lowe asked.

"I believe about fifty," she replied. "He is the finest looking man I ever saw."

"Has he a large family?

"No; two daughters. The eldest is a very beautiful girl; but Grace is her father's idol."

"Has he no son?"

"Yes; he has a son."

There was a kind of hesitation in her manner of replying to his last question that caused Mr. Lowe to look inquiringly at her. But their conversation was interrupted by a tall, brawny peasant, who stopped, as he was passing the gate, to talk to Mr. Kearney.

The peasant's name was Donovan, but he was universally known as Mat the Thrasher. He excelled in all kinds of work as a farm labourer, and never met his match at wielding a flail. As a consequence, he was in great request among farmers from October to March; and, indeed, during all the year round—for Mat could turn a hand almost to anything, from soleing a pair of brogues to roofing and thatching a barn. His superiority as a ploughman was never questioned. As a proof of his skill in this line, we may mention that when Maurice Kearney was about running what in Ireland is called a "ditch" through the centre of the "kiln field," the difficulty presented itself—how to make the fence perfectly straight. And, as a matter of course, Mat Donovan was immediately sent for.

"Now," said Mat, after looking at the ground, "where do you want to run it?"

"From this bush," his employer replied, laying his walking-stick on a whitethorn bush in the fence, "to the ash-tree at the left-hand side of the gap," pointing to a tree at the opposite side of the field, "In a straight line," he added, looking at Mat as if the problem were worthy to be grappled with even by his genius.

Mat walked away without uttering a word, leaving Mr. Kearney and the half-dozen workmen, who, leaning on their spades, were waiting the order to begin at the construction of the new ditch, altogether unable to conjecture how he intended to proceed; but with unshaken faith in his ultimate success.

Mat walked leisurely back to the "gurteen" where he had been at work, and was soon seen coming through the gap near the ash-tree with his plough and horses. With one huge hand he leant on the handle of the plough, thereby lifting the irons, so as that they might glide over the ground without cutting through it, till he came to the ash-tree. Facing his horses towards the whitethorn bush at the opposite end of the field, he fixed his eye steadily on that object.

Mr. Kearney and the workmen heard his "Yo—up!" to the horses, and on he came, nearer and nearer, slow but sure, till they could catch the air of the song which he commenced to chant with as great solemnity of look and intonation as if its accurate rendering were a necessary condition of the success of his undertaking. They soon had the benefit even of the words, and as Mat pulled the horses to one side as their breasts touched the whitethorn bush, he continued while he reined them in:—

"Oh, had I the lamp of Aladdin.

And had I his geni also.

I'd rather live poor on the mountain,

With coleen dhas cruiteen amo."

"There it is for you," he exclaimed, as he folded his arms, after flinging down the reins, "as straight as the split in a peeler's pole."

Mr. Kearney thrust his thumbs into the arm-holes of his waistcoat, and looked intensely solemn, which was his way of expressing extreme delight. The workmen looked at one another and shook their heads in silent admiration—Jim Dunn, as he flung his coat against "the belly of the ditch," declaring in a decided tone, as if there could be no possible question of the fact, "that nothin' could bate him." And Tom Maher, after spitting first in one fist and then in the other (if we may be pardoned for chronicling such a proceeding), firmly clutched his spade with both hands, and eyeing his hero from head to foot, devoutly wished "bad luck to the mother that'd begrudge him her daughter. "By which Tom merely meant to express in a general way his belief that Mat the Thrasher was good enough for any woman's daughter, and intended no allusion to any particular mother or daughter. But the flush that reddened the honest face of the ploughman, and a certain softening of his grey eyes, told plainly enough that Tom Maher had unconsciously touched a sensitive chord in the heart of big Mat Donovan.

Some readers may, perhaps, require an explanation of Mat's allusion to "the split in a peeler's poll." The fact is, that respectable "force," now known as the Royal Irish Constabulary, have always been noted for the extreme care bestowed by them on the hair of their heads. At the time of which we write, a "crease" down the back of the head was one of the distinguishing marks of a policeman in country districts where "swells" were scarce. And to such a pitch of perfection had the "force" attained in the matter of this crease, that Mat the Thrasher could find nothing in art or nature capable of conveying a just idea of the straightness of the line he had marked out for Maurice Kearney's new ditch but "the split in a peeler's poll." We have thought this explanation necessary, lest the split in the poll should be mistaken for a split in the skull—a thing which our good-natured friend never once thought of. The "new ditch" is to this day the admiration of all beholders. To be sure, it never was and never will be the slightest earthly use—a fact of which Hugh tried to convince his father before this whim was put into execution. But Maurice Kearney was headstrong, and would have his way in such matters. The new ditch narrowly escaped being a furze ditch—or what in other parts of the country would be called a whin hedge—by a characteristic blunder of Wattletoes, who was sent by his master to sow the seed of the "unprofitably gay" shrub. In due time a drill of turnips appeared along the top of the new ditch; while Hugh Kearney was astonished one fine morning to find a promising crop of furze in the very middle of his "purple-tops."

Miss Kearney wished Mat a happy Christmas.

"I wish you the same, and a great many of them, Miss," he replied, looking towards her for a moment, and then turned to resume the conversation with her father.

"He is a magnificent specimen of the Irish peasant," said Mr. Lowe to Miss Kearney.

"Let us wait till you hear him talk," said she. "You will be sure to hear something out of the common from Mat the Thrasher, as we call him."

Mat, it appeared, wanted to know if Mr. Kearney would sell him "a couple of barrels of the Swedes."

"No," replied the latter;" I won't sell any turnips. I'll want all I have; and more. But I thought you had a good crop of potatoes. I never saw finer."

"They turned out bad," said Mat.

"Were those the potatoes behind your house, Mat? Miss Kearney asked." Nelly pointed them out to me one day, and asked me did I ever see a flower-garden so blooming."

"The very same, Miss, "Mat replied, with a sorrowful shake of the head." I never laid my eyes on such desavers."

"I suppose they were blighted," said Miss Kearney. "No then, Miss," he replied, with a reproachful sadness in his look and voice." Every stalk uv 'em would make a rafter for a house the first of November. But put the best man in the parish to dig 'em after, and a duck 'ud swally all he'd be able to turn out from morning till night."

The idea of a potato-stalk making a rafter for a house made Miss Kearney smile in spite of herself; but the duck swallowing all the potatoes a man could dig in a day, forced her to laugh outright. To make amends for what she considered her ill-timed mirth, she said to her father, "I think, sir, you might give Mat the turnips he requires." "Do you want to have the whole parish coming for turnips?" exclaimed her father in no amiable tone.

"Sure you can refuse the next person that comes."

"Very well," said he, with a resigned look and a shrug of the shoulder, as if there were no help for it.

Mat Donovan expressed his thanks; but in a manner that showed he was pretty sure his request would have been granted in any case. He strode up the hill with an easy, swinging gait; and as he carried a huge stick in his hand and turned in the direction of the fort, Miss Kearney remarked that he was going to join the "wren boys."

She should have known better, however, than use the words "wren boys" in the sense she did. They are only called wren boys who carry the wren in a holly bush decorated with ribbons from house to house on St. Stephen's Day; and many who hunt the wren do not join in this part of the proceedings. We may remark also that though the "king of all birds" is said and sung to be "caught in the furze" on St. Stephen's Day, he is invariably "caught," and often ruthlessly slain, too, on Christmas Day.

Mr. Lowe was beginning to feel quite at home with his fair companion—whom we shall call by her Christian name, Mary, in future—and on seeing her brothers coming through the lawn toward them, asked her to tell him something about them.

"Well," she replied, "my eldest brother, Hugh, lives at home and attends to the farm with my father. Richard is a surgeon; he has a great wish to go to Australia, but my father and mother are opposed to it."

Richard and Grace came on merrily together; while Hugh walked thoughtfully, if not moodily, behind them. He was about the middle height, broad-shouldered and strongly built. His hair and beard were black as night, and his complexion so dark that strangers sometimes asked if he had been a sailor, or had lived under a tropical sun. His dress of grey tweed betokened the farmer; but a heavy gold watch chain seemed to indicate that he was not indifferent to display. He was not popular like his father; but the respect with which he treated even the humblest day-labourer, and a certain quiet independence in his bearing towards the gentry of his neighbourhood, won for him the esteem of all classes. On the whole, Hugh Kearney was looked upon as something of a puzzle by his friends. And latterly his sister Mary, who loved him above all her brothers, used to feel uneasy at the thought that he was not happy.

Richard was a contrast to Hugh in almost every respect. He was tall, slender, fair-skinned, light-haired, gay, thoughtless, and talkative.

Maurice Kearney introduced his sons to Mr. Lowe—"Sir Garrett's nephew," and as Grace had told them all about that gentleman, and his intention of spending some days with them, Richard and he were on excellent terms immediately and had all the talk to themselves till they came up with the wren-hunters.

Mr. Lowe was astonished to see an excited crowd of men and boys armed with sticks, and running along on either side of a thick, briery fence, beating it closely, and occasionally aiming furious blows at he knew not what. After a while, however, he caught a glimpse of the tiny object of their pursuit, as, escaping from a shower of blows, it flitted some ten yards along the fence, and disappeared from view among the brambles. The crowd, among whom Mat the Thrasher and Wattletoes were conspicuous, rushed after; and as they poked their sticks into the withered grass and beat the bushes, the poor little wren was seen creeping through the hedge, and the blows rained so thick and fast about it that its escape seemed miraculous. It did escape, however, and after a short flight had just found shelter in a low sloe-bush, when Mat the Thrasher leaped forward, and with a blow that crashed through the bush as if a forest-tree had fallen upon it, seemed beyond all doubt to have annihilated his kingship. Grace, who could only see the ludicrous side of the scene, laughed till she had to catch at Mary's cloak for support, while Mary turned away with an exclamation of pain. But though she kept her head turned away to avoid seeing the little mutilated representation of the protomartyr, even she was forced to laugh when the huge Thrasher shouted—"I struck her! I struck her! and knocked my hat full of feathers out of her!"

After a minute of complete silence, during which all eyes, except Mary's, were fixed upon the sloe-bush, a scream of delight from Grace surprised her into looking round. When, lo! there was the wren, safe and sound, high up in the air! instead of taking refuge in the briery fence it changed its tactics altogether, and flew right across the field into a quarry overgrown with brambles, followed by all its pursuers except Mat the Thrasher, whose look of amazement, as he stared with open mouth after the wren, elicited another peal of laughter from Grace, in which Mary and the young men could not help joining. Mat, however, looked at them as if to his mind it was no laughing matter, and requested some person or persons unknown to "let him alone after that." Then, after pondering deeply for a moment, with his eyes fixed on the ground, he walked slowly away; as if, in spite of Jim Dunn's assertion to the contrary, he had met some thing to "bate him" at last.

It is very ridiculous," said Mr. Lowe, "to see grown men in pursuit of a little wren, and as much carried away by the excitement of the chase as if it were—"

"A big hare," said Mary, with an arch look that surprised Grace, and even her brother—for archness, particularly in the presence of a stranger, was not in Mary's way.

"Well," said Mr. Lowe, who was a little posed by the remark, "I believe hunting the wren is not the only kind of hunting that could easily be made to appear ridiculous."

A couple of pointers that had kept close to Hugh's heels since he left the house suggested the subject of shooting; and Mary was relieved from the task of talking—for it often was a task to her—during their walk back to the cottage.

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