Knocknagow - CHAPTER XLIX.



THE light in Mat Donovan's little window called a third dreamer back from the dead Past to the living Present. He, too, was gazing on the moon, which shed its silvery light upon him as softly as upon the pale face and mild eyes of the lovely girl who at the same moment sat alone at the window of the old cottage among the trees. His dream is of a golden autumn evening. He is standing in the shade of a row of elders, at the back of a thatched farmhouse, looking out upon the stooks in a newly reaped corn-field. His hand rests on the shoulder of a blushing girl; and he tells her that the field is his, and points out how thickly it is studded with stooks, and what a rich harvest it will prove. The scene changes to a bright fireside. The blushing girl is a happy wife with an infant at her breast, listening to the prattle of three rosy children who crowd about their father's knees as he takes his accustomed place by the hearth after the day's toil. And, though his toil was hard, he did not grudge it so long as he could keep that hearth warm for those happy prattlers, and feel that at least the dread of want would never cast a shadow upon that dear face bent so sweetly over the sleeping infant. But the gleam of light from Mat Donovan's little window makes him start to his feet. The bright hearth is quenched for ever. The mother and children are cowering over a few embers in a wretched hovel. The fields which his toil had made fruitful are added to the broad acres of his wealthy neighbour, whose gold induced the irresponsible absentee landlord to do the deed that left him a pauper, with no prospect in the wide world before him but a pauper's grave. He had been leaning against a bank out in the lonesome bog one of those banks upon which Billy Heffernan loved to recline, and revel in bliss till he would scorn to claim relationship to royalty itself! But far different from Billy Heffernan's visions were those of him who now, kneeling upon one knee, and with one hand resting upon the black mould, looked cautiously around the desolate moor. There scarcely could have been any necessity for this caution; for at that hour, and in that place, it was extremely unlikely that any human eye could observe his movements. He took a gun from where it lay beside the bank, and after carefully examining the lock, placed it at half cock. As he was about letting down the hammer again, a sound like a sigh, or a deep breathing, close to his ear, made him pause, and a sensation of fear crept through his frame. A shadowy object passed over his head, and, on casting his eyes upwards, he beheld something between him and the sky which filled him with amazement and terror. In shape it was a bird; but of such monstrous dimensions, that it seemed like a great cloud hanging in the air. For a moment he thought it was only a cloud; but the slow, regular waving of the huge wings satisfied him that it was a living thing. The long snake-like head and neck were thrust out towards him, and in his terror he let the gun fall from his nerveless grasp. The head was quickly drawn back, and the monstrous bird waved its huge wings, and sailed away through the moonlit air. He followed it with his eyes till it dropped on the brink of the water that covered a large portion of the bog like a lake. And now he saw it was only a heron that had lodged for a moment on the bank above his head. While he thought it high up in the air, the bird was within a few feet of him; and hence the illusion by which he was so terrified. With an exclamation of scorn at being frightened like a child, he stooped to pick up his gun. But he had been lying near the brink of a square bog-hole filled with water, and the gun had fallen into it, and, of course, sunk to the bottom. He knew the hole was eight or ten feet deep, and that to attempt recovering the gun would be useless. He ground his teeth with rage; but after gazing round the silent moor, and up at the peaceful moon, it occurred to him that the weapon had been snatched, as it were, by the hand of Providence, from his grasp; and the thirst for vengeance ceased to burn within him, and he felt as if God had not abandoned him.

"I must see about gettin' id up anyway," he observed to himself, "or poor Barney might get into throuble about id. He tould me he was bringin' id to Mat Donovan to put a piece on the stock, where the doctor broke id when he fell on the ice. But he's such a fool he won't remimber the bush he stuck id in when he med off afther the hounds. I don't know what put id into my head to take a fancy to such an ould Queen Anne, when this is handier and surer." And he took a horse-pistol from his breast and clutched it firmly in his hand. He looked down into the square bog-hole, and touched the smooth black surface of the water with his hand. The action reminded him of the holy water with which he used to sprinkle himself on entering and leaving the chapel before his clothes had become too ragged to allow him to appear with decency among the congregation; and involuntarily he sprinkled his forehead, and made the sign of the Cross.

"There's some great change afther comin' over me," he thought. "My mind is someway 'asier; an' the madness is gone off uv me."

And looking at the pistol again, he replaced it in his breast.

"I'll do nothin' to-night," he continued with a deep sigh, like a man overpowered by fatigue. "If I could lie down here in the heath an' fall asleep, an' never waken again I'd be all right. But," he added, rousing himself by an effort, "but I mustn't forget poor Mary!" He walked towards a road which looked like a high embankment, the surface of the bog having been cut away at both sides of it; and as he climbed up this embankment, the light in Mat Donovan's window again caught his eye.

"'Tis long since I exchanged a word wud any uv the ould neighbours," he continued, "till Billy Heffernan chanced to come on me th' other night, an' I makin' a show uv mese'f. An' sure 'tis little wish I had to talk to any wan. But someway I think now I'd like to hear a few friendly words from some wan. An' that light in Mat's window reminds me how I used hardly ever pass by wudout callin' in to light the pipe."

He looked wistfully towards the light, and then looked down upon his tattered habiliments.

"I'm a quare object," he muttered with a bitter smile, "to go anywhere. But as 'tis afther comin' into my mind I'll turn back."

Instead of following the road or "togher" upon which he stood, he crossed an angle of the bog till he came to the stream or canal in which Dr. Richard Kearney left the leg of his nether garment, and following it for a few hundred yards came out on the public road.

The road was quite deserted. He reached the hamlet without meeting a living thing; and as he stood at the "cross," and looked up along the silent street, he felt a strange wish to steal through it without being seen by any one. He moved on like a spectre, treading lightly as he passed those houses the doors of which were open, and glancing furtively to the right and left at the lights in the window panes. On coming to the beech-tree be stood still and looked up at the pointed gables and thick chimneys of the "barrack"; and happening to glance through the kitchen window, he caught a glimpse of Norah Lahy's pale face. She was praying, with clasped hands and eyes raised to Heaven; and there was something in her look that moved him instantly to tears.

"I wondher is id dhramin' I am?" he said to himself, "I can't remember what's after happenin' to me, or what brought me here, except like a man 'd feel afther the faver, or somethin' uv that soart. On'y I'd be afeard I'd frighten her, I'd go in an' ax her to pray for me, an' I know 'twould do me good. An' as id is I feel I'm the betther of lookin' at her; for no wan could see such a look as that an' not know there was another world besides this. I could kneel down on the road here an' pray myse'f; what I didn't do this many a day right, at any rate. I might go on my knees an' say the words; but id wasn't prayin'. The curses used to choke the prayers! I could hardly keep from tellin' God that He was a bad God! But I'm not that way now at all; an' maybe 'twas the Lord that sint me round this way. No wan lookin' at her could doubt there was a heaven. The angels are talkin' to her this minute! An' someway I think 'tis for unfortunate sinners like me she is prayin'. For sure she don't want to pray for herse'f. Oh, an' look at her now," be exclaimed in surprise, "an' how she smiles an' laughs like a child whin her mother came in. She wants to cheer up the poor mother that knows she won't have her long. The Lord save us! I feel my heart laughin' wud her! But I'd betther not let anyone see me standin' here," he observed, as he walked on, on hearing Kit Cummins calling to her husband to come home to his supper, and judged from the pitch of Kit's voice that Jack was down towards the forge, and must necessarily pass by the beech-tree on his way home.

Mat Donovan was humming "The little house under the hill" by the fireside, while Nelly was turning the "quarters" of a griddle of whole-meal bread that was baking over the fire, when the latch was raised, and a tall, gaunt figure stood between them and the candle in the window. The fire, being covered with the large griddle, did not afford sufficient light to enable them to recognise the new-comer; and the candle being behind his back only showed the outline of his figure, in which Nelly fancied she saw something wild; and she felt and looked somewhat frightened as she thought of the "gang," which, according to common report, were just then prowling nightly about the neighbourhood. Mrs. Donovan, too, seemed alarmed, as she dropped her knitting on her knees, and stared over her spectacles at the man, who stood looking at them for nearly a minute without speaking.

"God save all here," said he, at last.

"God save you, kindly," returned Mat, starting from his chair, and moving towards him till he was able to see his face. "Is id Mick Brien?"

"The very man," was the reply.

Mrs. Donovan and Nelly exchanged looks of the deepest pity, but remained quite silent.

"Sit down," said Mat, placing a chair for him.

"I don't know," he replied, irresolutely. "I just see the candle in the windy, an' id reminded me to come in."

"Sit down and take a hate uv the fire," said Nelly, in a subdued tone, and as if it required an effort to address him. "I hope herse'f an' the childher is in good health?"

''They're on'y middlin', then, Nelly," he replied. "The winther was very hard."

He sat down, however, and said more cheerfully:

"I'm glad to see you lookin' so well, Mrs. Donovan. You're as young-lookin' this minute as you wor the night uv poor little Sally's wake; God rest her sowl. But sure I needn't pray for her; for she had as little sin on her as an infant, though I b'lieve she was goin' on thirteen years when she died."

"She was a beautiful child," returned Mrs. Donovan. "But God is good; and maybe 'twas for her good, and your good, and her mother's good, that she was taken from you. God knows what is best for us all."

"That's thrue," rejoined Mick Brien. "An' 'tis of'en I think 'twould be well for the whole uv 'em if they went too."

"Don't say that, Mick," returned Mrs. Donovan. "Ye had yer own share uv sufferin' and throuble; but there's no knowin' what might be in store for ye yet."

"I'm afeard," said he in a hollow voice, "'tis gone too far for that."

While his mother was speaking, Mat was hurriedly filling his pipe, which, after lighting, he presented to Mick Brien, who took it eagerly, but checked himself as he was putting it to his mouth.

"No, Mat, I'm obliged to you," said he, handing back the pipe. "'Tis a good start since I tuck a blast; an' maybe 'twould be betther for me not to mind id."

Nelly and her mother exchanged looks again, and the old woman shook her head sorrowfully.

Drawing his chair to the fire, he held the backs of his hands close to the blaze that struggled from under the griddle.

"Was id in the bog you wor?" Mat asked; "your hands are black wud the turf-mould. An', begor, there's enough uv id stuck to your old brogues, too."

Mick Brien was taken by surprise, and seemed embarrassed. He could have had no legitimate business in the bog at that late hour, and felt at a loss what reply to make.

Mat noticed his embarrassment, and, with instinctive delicacy, appeared to forget the question altogether; and turning to his sister, he said:

"Are you goin' to let that bread be burnt?"

She turned the four quarters of bread, and finding them properly baked, placed them standing on their ends on the griddle, so as that the thick edges cut by the knife in dividing the circular cake into four quarters might be fully baked. While she was thus employed, the door was opened, and two men walked in with an apologetic grin, holding their pipes in their hands.

"God save ye!" said the foremost, as he approached the fire to light a piece of paper which be held between his fingers.

"God save you kindly!" returned Mat, in a manner that plainly showed they were no welcome guests.

The second man was advancing to light his pipe at the fire also. But the moment their eyes fell upon Mick Brien, both wheeled quickly round, and, lighting their bits of paper at the candle in the window, hurriedly applied them to their pipes as they made for the door, where they encountered something which drove them backwards into the kitchen again.

It was only Tom Hogan, who walked slowly after them; and, after glancing at Mick Brien who never raised his head all the time and looking wildly about them, the two men, with a sneaking soft of "Good-night to ye," left the house.

"Wisha, is that Tom Hogan?" said Mat for Tom was not a frequent visitor there. "Sit down."

"I was down at Phil Lahy's," returned Tom Hogan, "an' Honor towld me he was up here. So I tuck a walk up."

In fact, Tom Hogan had got quite a mania for talking about landlords and agents, and kindred subjects, since that conversation with Phil Lahy when his hands began to tremble in so strange a manner. Before that, he only cared to know about "the markets"; but now nothing that bore on the land question, or, indeed, upon any social or political question, from Columbkille's prophecies to the latest missive ornamented with a skull and cross-bones, came amiss to Tom Hogan. And he felt so restless and ill at ease all the evening, he walked down to Phil Lahy's the moment he was done his supper, for the sole purpose of getting himself abused as a "crawler."

Mick Brien continued warming his hands, and never raised his head. Nelly took up the quarters of bread and laid them on the dresser, and, whipping the griddle off the fire, raked up the lighted turf that was spread out under it till it blazed so brightly that he was obliged to draw back his chair and close his eyes, as if the light dazzled him.

Tom Hogan was quite as much astonished as the two men who had come in to light their pipes, on seeing Mick Brien sitting before Mat Donovan's fire; but, instead of retreating like them, Tom Hogan seemed fascinated by the gaunt and ragged figure over which the firelight flickered; and as the hollow eyes were turned towards him, he mechanically drew near and sat down on the chair from which Mat Donovan had risen when he recognised him.

"Mick," said Tom Hogan, keeping his eyes fixed on the worn, emaciated face, "did they rise the rint on you?"

Mick Brien seemed surprised, and evidently did not understand the question.

"Did they rise the rint on you?" Tom Hogan repeated anxiously.

"Is id the rint of the cabin?" he asked.

"No," returned Tom Hogan, "but the rint uv the farm, before they put you out?"

"Well, no," replied Mick Brien; "when the lase dhropped they said I should go, as my houldin' wasn't large enough. An' no matther what rint I'd offer 'twouldn't be taken."

"So they never riz the rint?"


"What did I tell you?" exclaimed Tom Hogan excitedly, turning to Mat Donovan, his eyes lighted up with joy. "What did I tell you, Mat?" he repeated triumphantly.

Mat was greatly astonished; for it happened Tom Hogan had never spoken a word to him on the subject.

"What did I tell you, Mat?" he exclaimed a third time, apparently in the greatest glee.

"Begor," returned Mat at last, greatly puzzled, "you never tould me anythin' about id at all, so far as I can remember."

"They never rise the rint, Mat, when they're goin' to put a man out. Never. Don't b'lieve any wan that tells you anything else. Never. Such a thing was never known."

"Oh, maybe so," said Mat, quite unable to comprehend his meaning, but wishing to be civil.

"You may be sure uv id, Mat," rejoined Tom Hogan.

"Make your mind 'asy on that p'int," he continued, laying his hand on Mat's knee, as he sat down on Billy Heffernan's bench. "No, Mat. There's nothin' so incouragin' to a poor man as to have the rint riz on him. For then he knows they're not goin' to disturb him, Mat. Look at this poor man that held, I b'lieve, as good as fifteen acres more than I have mese'f; an' see, what a loss it was to him that the rent wasn't riz on him. There's nothin' like a rise to give a poor man courage. I must go an' find Phil Lahy, an' have a talk wud him. He thinks there's no wan able to argue these p'ints but himse'f. But let me alone if I don't open his eyes for him. Good-night to ye." He turned round at the door and asked: "Ah, thin, Mat, what was Wat an' Darby doin' here?"

"They on'y came in to redden their pipes," Mat replied.

"Oh, is that all? Well, I must go look for Phil Lahy to open his eye for him."

"An' I wondher where them fellows wor?" Mat muttered, after appearing to brood over the question for some time. "They passed up this way late in the evenin'."

"Wisha, how do I know?" his sister replied, as if the question were addressed to her. "But wherever they wor, 'tisn't in the betther uv them, you may be sure."

The two worthies of whom she spoke walked quickly and in silence down the road, seeming wholly absorbed with their pipes.

"'Tis an admiration" said Wat Corcoran, at last, "how long he stuck about the place. I thought he'd be gone uv his own accord long ago."

"So did we all," returned Darby Ruadh. "But whin we found him thatchin' the cabin, the masther said he should get notice. He's not safe; an' begob, we'd want to keep an eye on him."

"'Tisn't you or me he'd mind," replied Wat.

"You wouldn't know," rejoined Darby Ruadh. "When they're in that soart uv way, whoever comes next to hand'll meet id. They're dn fools," continued Darby mildly. "They seldom or ever knock down the right bird. Now, he'd as soon stretch you or me, as the man that sent us; an' that's foolish."

"What about Tom Hogan?" Wat asked.

"Well, from all I can see, he must go."

"There'll be no great throuble wud him. He'll get a thrifle uv money, an' he'll go away quiet an' asy."

"I don't know that, Wat. Men uv his soart is the worst of all."

"He knows nothin' about firearms, nor nothin'," returned Wat Corcoran. "He's always braggin' he never fired a shot.

"Thim's the men, Wat, that'll get a fellow to do the job. I met some coves uv that soart in my time.'

"Faith, be all accounts, you done some quare things yourse'f in your time, Darby."

"Well, maybe I did, an' maybe I didn't. An', by !" he added fiercely, "maybe I would agin, if id was worth my while. 'Tis enough to dhrive a man to anything to think uv the beggarly way we're paid. They want you to put your life in danger every day in the year an to swear anything they ax you besides; an', by , you're not paid betther than a cowboy afther."

"'Tis a hard life," returned Wat Corcoran; "an' 'tis of'en I do be wishin' to give id up, an' turn to somethin' else.

But when wance you get into id, 'tis hard to get out uv id." "Unless a man could make a haul," returned Darby Ruadh, "an' make off to America. Good night, Wat."

"Good night, Darby; an' safe home."

They parted at the cross-roads; Wat Corcoran turning to the right towards his own house, and Darby Ruadh going on straight to Wellington Lodge.

Mick Brien drew his chair still further back from the blazing turf fire. The heat seemed too much for him, for the perspiration stood in large drops upon his face; and when he took off his hat, they remarked that his hair was damp and clammy. Yet it was not the heat that so affected him. It was the smell of the newly-baked bread. He was fainting; but by a great effort he roused himself, and asked for a drink of water.

Nelly dipped a cup in the never empty pail under the window, and handed it to him. He gulped down the clear spring water hurriedly; and, as he handed back the cup, he turned to Mat, and, with apparent cheerfulness, asked:

"What news, Mat? is there anything at all goin'?"

"No, then," replied Mat. "I don't know uv anything."

Mrs. Donovan, who had kept her sad eyes fixed upon Mick Brien's haggard face, while her knitting rested upon her knees as if she had forgotten it, now rose from her chair, and, going to the dresser, poured something from a jug into a saucepan, which she placed upon the fire. Her daughter looked inquiringly at her as if this proceeding had taken her by surprise; but the old woman resumed her seat without speaking.

"I think," said Mick Brien, "the weather is likely to hould up."

"This was a fine day," returned Mat. "But I'm afeard 'twas on'y a pet day. Phil Lahy tells me we're to have a change uv the moon to-morrow; an' he says the almanac talks uv broken weather, wad cowld showers, an' aistherly winds."

Mick Brien made no reply. His head drooped, and he seemed to be falling fast asleep.

"Nelly," said Mrs. Donovan, "hand me that white bowl." She filled the bowl with warm milk from the saucepan she had placed on the fire; and Nelly looked quite frightened on seeing her mother present the bowl to Mick Brien.

"Here, Mick," said she, "dhrink this. I know by you there's somethin' the matter wad you. An' if id be a touch uv an inward pain you're gettin', there's nothin' like a dhrop uv hot milk for id."

On opening his eyes and seeing the bowl held close to him he started like one suddenly awakened from sleep. He looked at the milk and then into Mrs. Donovan's face, upon which he kept his eyes fixed for several seconds. Then taking the bowl between his hands, he looked at her again with a bewildered stare.

"Drink id while 'tis hot, Mick," said she, "an' 'twill do you good."

'Twas a great relief to Nelly to see him lift the bowl to his lips and drink; not swallowing the milk hurriedly, as he had swallowed the cup of water, but slowly and continuously, as a child will do.

Mick Brien had been one of the most comfortable and respectable small farmers in the neighbourhood; and he and his handsome wife used to call in on their way from town for a rest and a chat with Mrs. Donovan, who was much respected by them as indeed she was by all who knew her. And now that he was reduced to poverty, Nelly was quite afraid the offer of the milk, under the circumstances, might hurt his feelings, and be taken as an insult.

Mick Brien handed the bowl to the kind old woman, and buried his face between his hands. He remained so long in this position they all began to look embarrassed, and did not well know how they ought to act fearing that to rouse him might look as if they wished him to go away.

After some time, however, he raised his head, and stretching out his arms, but without venturing to look at any one, said with assumed cheerfulness:

"Faith, I b'lieve 'twas fallin' asleep I was."

"What hurry are you in?' said Mat, on seeing him rise; "sure you may as well rest yourse'f."

I must be goin'," he replied; "herse'f 'll be wondherin' where I was all the evenin'."

He had been lying many hours by that bank in the bog, maddened by hunger and the thought of the cruel wrongs inflicted upon him and his. He lay there waiting for the night, and bent upon having revenge. He lay there hour after hour, meditating a deed of blood; till the mild moon called up visions of the "dead Past." And then the light in Mat Donovan's window recalled him to the "living Present," and to his purpose. And it was only the waving of a bird's wing saved his soul from the guilt of murder.

No word has ever escaped our pen intended to justify such a deed as that contemplated by this poor maddened victim of tyranny. Yet when we think of his blameless life of patient toil; of his cheerful unquestioning surrender of the greater part of the fruits of that toil to the irresponsible taskmaster to whose tender mercies the rulers of the land had handed him over body and soul; of the pittance which he was content to retain for himself; of his terror and anguish on discovering that a felon hand was determined to tear even that pittance from him, and fling the wife of his bosom, and the little ones that were the light of his eyes, homeless outcasts upon the world; of the roofless cabin, the cold, the fever, the hunger, when we think of all this, we find it hard to brand Mick Brien as a MURDERER. And surely no one will for a moment class him with the human wild beasts with whom the writer of these pages was doomed to herd for years, and among whom at this hour Irishmen, whose only crime is the crime of loving their country, are wearing away their lives in the Convict Prisons of England?

Mat Donovan stood up to open the door for Mick Brien and see him out to the road.

"Good-night to ye," said Mick Brien, as nearly as he could in the same tone as he used to say it in after a chat and a smoke on his way from Kilthubber on market days.

Nelly ran to the dresser; and then followed them to the door. "Mr. Brien," said she.

He turned round, but Nelly seemed to have forgotten what she was going to say. She stood with her hands behind her back, and looked into his face. At last, while the blood mounted to her forehead, she quickly brought her hands round to the front, and pressing two of the quarters of bread against his breast, she wrapped his coat over them, placing his own hand so as to keep them from falling, and looking anxiously into his face all the time. He remained quite passive, gazing with a vacant stare straight before him. Seeing no sign of displeasure in his look, she cautiously withdrew her hand as if in doubt whether he would continue to hold the bread where she had placed it. He did continue to hold it, however, and followed Mat outside the door without speaking a word.

Nelly leant over the back of the chair he had been sitting on, and rested her cheek on her hand.

"God help him!" said she.

"God help him!" returned her mother, whose head was also resting on her hand.

So they continued gazing into the fire.

"God help him!" said Mat Donovan, as he resumed his seat by the fireside opposite his mother.

These were the last audible words spoken under Mat Donovan's roof that night.

Yet poor Mick Brien had unconsciously laid the train of much suffering for those kind hearts that sympathized so deeply with him.

"Tom," said Phil Lahy solemnly, "I wish 'you would not be introducin' these subjects to me. I don't want to hurt your feelin's, or say anything offensive or insultin'. But indurance has its limits. An' now I tell you what, Tom Hogan, 'tisn't in human nature to have patience wud you!"

"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed Tom Hogan. "I knew I'd open his eye. I knew I had an argument that'd put him down. Ha, ha, ha! Begor, Phil, you're bet! Good-night to ye. Good-night to ye. There's nothin'," muttered Tom Hogan, as he closed the door behind him, "there's nothin' to give a poor man courage like a rise in the rint now an' then. Look at that unfortunate man, Mick Brien, an' wouldn't id be a lucky day for him if his rint was riz? What signifies a few pounds a year? I'll let Jemmy go sell that grain uv oats, as my face is marked afther that powdher. Jemmy is a good boy. An' how wild he was whim he thought 'twas any wan was afther touchin' me! I'm very fond uv that fellow! Aye, an' I'll give him lave to spind a shillin' in Clo'mel; unless he'd rather keep id for the races. Ha, ha, ha! the divil a word I left Phil."

"Father," said Norah Lahy, "I'm afraid poor Tom Hogan is not right in his mind."

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