Knocknagow - CHAPTER VII.




Richard's proposal to take a stroll to an old castle within about a mile of the house was readily agreed to by Mr. Lowe; and, as they passed through Knocknagow, the latter had a good opportunity of seeing for himself what an Irish hamlet looked like. Though most of the houses looked comfortless enough, and the place as a whole had the straggling appearance which he was accustomed to associate with an Irish village, there was none of that unredeemed squalor and wretchedness which certain writers had led him to expect. With one or two exceptions every house had at least two windows. Several had each a small out-house, and the little cart or "car," with a high creel in it, indicated that the owner was the proprietor of a donkey.

Mat the Thrasher's habitation, with its whitewashed walls and elegantly thatched roof, was particularly noticeable. Mr. Lowe remarked also the little ornamental wooden gate, the work of Mat's own hands, that led to the kitchen-garden invariably called the "haggart" in this part of the world which was fenced all round by a thick thorn hedge, with a little privet and holly intermixed here and there. There were two or three small farm-houses, the owners of which held from ten to twenty acres each. Two pipes "across" a pound of soap, with a button of blue stuck to it, and a very yellow halfpenny candle in the windows if we may dignify them with the name of four or five poor cabins, showed that there was brisk competition in the shop-keeping line in Knocknagow.

The title of "shop," however, was exclusively given to the establishment of Phil Lahy or rather of Honor his wife who occupied an old slated house with pointed gables and very thick chimneys, which had seen better days, and which tradition said had been an inn in the reign of Queen Anne. But a later tradition had fixed the name of "the barrack" on Phil Lahy's house, greatly to his annoyance. In spite of all he could say or do however, his neighbours persisted in calling his house "the barrack."

The absence of the human face divine was easily accounted for, so far as the adults were concerned, seeing that they were all at the Station. But the fact that there was not one of the rising generation visible began to excite the surprise of the two young men as they sauntered leisurely through what seemed literally a deserted village, till a loud shout called their attention to a pretty considerable crowd in a deep quarry, near a limekiln, by the roadside the attraction which the quarry possessed for the urchins on this occasion being a frozen sheet of water.

The shout brought a curly-headed boy in corduroy jacket and trousers to Honor Lahy's shop-door. He looked wistfully towards the sliders, as if sorely tempted to join them, when a very weak but singularly sweet voice called to him from inside: "Ah, Tommy, don't go."

I'm not goin' to go," he replied. "I'm on'y goin' to look at my crib."

Mr. Lowe and Richard, as if moved by the same impulse, walked into the house. Sitting in a straw arm-chair, near the kitchen fire, was a young girl, whose back was towards them. Her wasted hand, which was laid on the head of a large, rough terrier that sat near her, with its head, or rather, its throat resting on her knees, at once attracted Mr. Lowe's attention. She did not seem to be aware of their presence. The dog, however, watched them with no friendly eye; but, as if spellbound by the wasted hand on his head, he remained quite motionless save that his eyes alternately glared on the intruders and looked wistfully in her face.

"Tommy," said she, "like a good boy, will you hold the prayer-book again, till I finish the Preparation for Confession? I won't be long."

Richard placed his finger on his lips, and beckoned to the boy to do as she desired. The prayer-book was on her knees, but she had not sufficient strength to hold it up. The boy knelt down, and held the book open before her, so that she could read it. His fresh, round, rosy face and laughing blue eyes contrasted strikingly with her death-like paleness, and the deep melancholy of her eyes, which were almost black. She raised her emaciated hand slowly and painfully, as if the action were almost beyond her strength, and made the sign of the Cross. Then, with her hands clasped, and resting on her knees, she raised her eyes for a moment, as if offering up a short mental prayer, and commenced to read from the book which her brother held for her.

The scene was so touching that the two young men stole softly from the house, neither of them uttering a word till they reached the old castle.

"I suppose that poor girl cannot live long," said Mr. Lowe. "I never saw a human face so wasted away. It will haunt me, I fear, for some time. There is something unearthly in her eyes and did you remark the long eyelashes, how they contrasted with the pale cheeks? I suppose she is dying of consumption?"

"I can't quite understand her case," replied Richard, with an air of professional importance; "it is rather peculiar. She has not had the use of her limbs for several years back. I think it is the spine, though Kiely says not."

The view from the top of the old castle was very fine, though the breeze was too keen to allow of their dwelling for any length of time upon its beauties. Richard, how ever, remained so resolutely gazing in one direction, though the wind was directly in his face, that his companion suspected there was some object of peculiar interest in that quarter.

"That is a pretty house on the side of the hill," he remarked.

"Yes, the white house in the trees," said Richard, turning his eyes in quite a different direction.

"No, I mean the house on the hill near that square grove. Who lives there?"

"A Mr. Hanly."

"I thought so. And have we any chance of getting a glimpse of the beauty?"

Richard stared at him with surprise.

"You forget," said Mr. Lowe, laughing, "that you promised that night to show me where she lived. I dare say the wall near the paling at the end of the grove is the scene of your misadventure?"

The doctor began pulling his moustache, and put on a grave, not to say a frowning look. He was trying to recall what he had said on the subject the night before, but apparently without success,

"Yes," he replied, quite seriously, as if he considered it no subject for jest, "that is the place where the accident occurred. Miss Hanly is a highly respectable and very superior young lady. However," he added, fixing another lingering, look on the house near the grove, "this would be too early an hour to call. And, besides, we must be back before breakfast," He looked at his watch, and finding there was no time to be lost, they walked briskly back towards Ballinaclash.

As they passed through the village, Tommy Lahy was in the act of climbing up a rather tall beech tree that stood in front of the old house, the lower part of its trunk protected by a piece of mason-work which looked like a foot or two of a thick round gate pier. Tommy's laughing face looked down at them over his shoulder, as he mounted higher and higher, with the ease and regularity of a swimmer. But after reaching the topmost bough, he came tumbling down with such breakneck precipitation that Mr. Lowe started, under the impression that he had missed his hold and was grasping at the branches to save himself from being dashed to pieces. This view of the case was at once proved to be erroneous, when Tommy reached the smooth part of the tree, and slid down to the low pedestal, which he touched as lightly as a bird. Without a moment's pause he ran up the hill and into Mat the Thrasher's garden, where the thick hedge concealed him from view.

"What the devil is he up to?" said Richard.

"I can't imagine," replied Mr. Lowe, "let us hurry up and see."

On looking over the hedge they saw Tommy standing in the middle of the cabbage plot, scratching his poll with a look of vexation and disappointment. He knelt for a moment among the cabbages, and stood up with a bird in his hand which he eyed with no friendly expression.

"What is it? " Richard asked.

Tommy looked up, surprised at finding himself observed, but immediately answered

"A robineen, sir." And Tommy deliberately pulled the tail out of the robin, and then let it fly away. It perched on the square chimney of Mat the Thrasher's house looking decidedly woebegone without its tail.

"Why have you pulled out the bird's tail?" Mr. Lowe asked.

"What made he knock my crib?" replied Tommy. I'd have a blackbird only for him."

Richard explained to his companion that the robin was the plague of boys who had cribs set to catch birds, as he was perpetually getting himself caught, thereby making it necessary to "set" the crib again. And, as taking the life of cock-robin was a crime from which even the wickedest urchin would shrink aghast, pulling out his tail, which was looked upon as a legitimate mode of punishment, was the only revenge they could have for all the trouble and loss he put them to.

"Did you catch much to-day, Tommy? " Richard asked.

"No, sir; only two wran-boys an' an aeneen."

"What have you your trap baited with?" Mr. Lowe inquired.

Tommy opened his eyes wide, evidently not understanding the question.

"He means," said Richard, "what have you under the crib to tempt the birds to go into it?

"A bit of a biled pueata, sir," Tommy answered readily. "an' a shillig-a-booka, and a few skhehoshies."

Richard explained that the "biled pueata" meant a boiled potato, the shillig-a-booka a snail in its shell, and the skhehoshies the scarlet hips of the wild briar. While he was speaking, a blackbird flew across the garden and into the holly at the other side; and Tommy knelt down to put the crib in order for his capture. But as he turned away to leave the coast clear for the blackbird, his countenance fell, for on looking at his brogues, which felt even heavier than usual, he saw the red clay clinging to them. And this fatal symptom of the awful calamity of a thaw caused poor Tommy Lahy's heart to die within him.

Remembering his promise, however, that he would not leave his sister till his mother returned from the Station, be hurried back towards home, merely stopping to climb to the top of Tom Hogan's gate, and take a look down into the quarry. The boys shouted and waved their hats at him, but Tommy felt no way shaken in his resolution not to join them till his mother came home. But the sight of Jacky Ryan gliding over the frozen pond on one leg was so frightful a temptation, that it was only by instantly shutting his eyes and flinging himself down from the gate that he was able to resist it. He rejoined his sister in high spirits. So proud was he, indeed, of the victory he had just gained, that even the apprehended misery of finding the frost all gone next morning was forgotten.

"Mind," said he to his sister, "'twas settin' my crib I was."

She smiled, and turned her large, sorrowful eyes towards him, but without turning her head, which rested against the back of her straw chair.

"What did you ketch, Tommy?" she asked in her sweet, low voice.

A robineen," he replied, "bad ." He was going to say, "bad luck to him," but checked himself.

"Did you pull the tail out of him?"

"I I did." He was on the point of saying he did not; but, like the rough terrier, which was now coiled up at her feet, Tommy seemed under a spell in her presence. He could not curse or tell a lie while speaking to her. Wickedness of every kind seemed doubly wicked when Norah was by.

"Ah! Tommy," said she, "I told you never to do that again. It is not so bad to kill the poor blackbirds, as we can roast 'em an' ate 'em; but to wantonly hurt any living creature above all, the, poor little robin that hops into the house to us, an' that everybody loves."

"That was the third turn wud him knockin' id to-day," said Tommy, almost beginning to blubber, for her reproaches affected him as nothing else could. "An' sure, what harm did it do him? On'y like Wat Corcoran, when the b'ys cut the tail off uv his bodycoat."

This logic, and the recollection of Wat Corcoran's figure on the occasion referred to made the poor girl laugh; and Tommy felt that his peace was made. We should mention that Wat Corcoran was a bailiff who had received some rough handling in the neighbourhood a short time before.

Tommy sat on a stool near the fire, to all appearances on excellent terms with himself. He had acquitted himself to his own entire satisfaction during the morning. The task of "having an eye to the shop" was almost a sinecure, as the customers were nearly all at the Station. So he took the tongs in his two hands and built up the turf fire till it blazed pleasantly.

The twitter of a bird made him turn round and fix his merry eyes on a cage that hung near the window.

"Norah," said he, " I think the goldfinch will shortly be tame enough for Miss Ellie. He's beginnin' to sing already."

"That was the old linnet," she said.

"No, 'twasn't," he replied positively. "Do you think I don't know the call of a linnet from a goldfinch? An' look out at the tree the lower branch at the right-hand side an' you'll see what made him call. Don't lean your head that way. Wait, an' I'll turn the chair."

He turned her chair round till she faced the window. Then with his chin resting on the back of the chair, and his rosy cheek leaning against her dark hair, he pointed to two birds in the tree.

"Do you see their yellow wings? "he exclaimed, gleefully, as the birds fluttered among the branches.

"Oh, they're beautiful!" she replied, her dark eyes beaming with pleasure.

"I could ketch them two, now, if I liked," said Tommy, "wud black buttons. But I won't, as I don't want 'em. But I'll bring the wan I have to Miss Ellie to-day or to-morrow. She sent for seed for him o' Saturday. But Wattletoes brought all hemp seed instead of having it mixed half canary seed as I tould him. Miss Grace said 'twas a sign he'd be hanged."

"What sort of a girl is Miss Grace, Tommy? Is she as nice as Miss Ellie?

"She'll never see the day," said Tommy, with emphasis. "She's as proud as a peacock," he continued. "'Who is that boy? Do you speak to such boys?'" And Tommy mimicked Grace's manner, and conveyed his opinion of that proud little lady by a very expressive toss of his curly head.

"And what did Miss Ellie say?"

"She said I was Tommy Lahy, an' why wouldn't she speak to me."

"I think, Tommy, poor Dick wants water. Look, he'll choke himself trying to put his bill down to the bottom of the gallipot. You're not taking care of him since you got the goldfinch for Miss Ellie."

Tommy immediately got upon a chair and filled the gallipot.

"And now, Tommy, put a couple of sods behind the fire, and run to the well for a kettle of fresh water, and put it down to boil, as mother will soon be home."

Tommy seized the kettle, and after whistling in a peculiar manner to his birds, with his underlip bulged out by his tongue, he trotted off to the well in the "rushy field" near the bridge. But stopping suddenly at the beech-tree he laid down the kettle and climbed sufficiently high to look at his crib in Mat the Thrasher's garden. The crib, however, was standing; so he slid down as slowly as he possibly could with his eyes shut after the manner of boys when left "to die" on a swing-swong and then, suddenly regaining his wonted vigour on touching mother earth, he caught up the kettle, and set off for the well in "buck-jumps."

Norah Lahy watched the linnet as it sipped its water.

"Ah, poor old Dick," said she, "you must not be forgotten for that gay young gentleman. When will he be able to sing like you, I'd like to know? As grand as he is with his golden wings, and his crimson-velvet head, and his pretty, sharp bill, I would not give one of your songs, poor old fellow, for all his grandeur."

The linnet, as if he understood her praises, regained his perch with a single hop, and lying down upon his breast, ruffled out his feathers. Then, with his eyes closed, the old linnet poured forth a low, sweet, wondrously varied song. She listened till her bosom began to heave, and something which we cannot call a blush glowed on her cheek. And seldom has human heart thrilled with more exquisite pleasure than that which the song of the linnet awakened in the heart of Norah Lahy, as she sat there alone in her straw chair; though she felt and believed that God had willed she should never rise unassisted from that chair never again join her young companions in their rambles by the hedge-rows and through the green fields, and along by the bank of the clear, noisy little brook, to gather the wild flowers, and listen to the lark high up in the sky, and the "bold thrush" on the tree-top, and the blackbird's whistle from the thicket, and, welcomest of all, the shout of the cuckoo, proclaiming that summer was come!

Never again!

And yet, as she listened there, alone, to the linnet's song, her whole being, every faculty of her soul, was a hymn of praise and gratitude to God for His boundless goodness.

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