How Hardress Learned a Little Secret From a Dying Huntsman
After taking an affectionate leave of his beautiful wife, and assuring her that his absence should not be extended beyond the following day, Hardress Cregan mounted one of Phil Naughten's rough-coated ponies, and set off for Dinis Cottage. It was not situated (as its name might seem to import) on the sweet little island which is so called, but far apart, near the ruined Church of Aghadoe, commanding a distant view of the lower lake and the lofty and wooded Toomies.
The sun had gone down before he left the wild and rocky glen in which was situated the cottage of his bride. It was, as we have already apprized the reader, the first time Hardress had visited the Lakes since his return from College, and the scenery, now, to his matured and well-regulated taste, had not only the effect of novelty, but it was likewise invested with the hallowing and romantic charm of youthful association. The stillness, so characteristic of majesty, which reigned throughout the gigantic labyrinth of mountain, cliff, and valley through which he rode; the parting gleam of sunshine that brightened the ever-moving mists on the summit of the lofty peaks by which he was surrounded; the solitary appearance of the many nameless lakes that slept in black repose in the centre of the mighty chasm; the echo of his horse's hoofs against the stony road; the voice of a goatherd's boy, as he drove homeward, from the summit of a heath-clad mountain, his troublesome and adventurous charge; the lonely twitter of the kirkeen dhra, or little water hen, as it flew from rock to rock on the margin of the broken stream—these, and other long forgotten sights and sounds, awakened at the same instant the consciousness of present, and the memory of past enjoyments; and gradually lifted his thoughts to that condition of calm enthusiasm and fullness of soul which constitutes one of the highest pleasures of a meditative mind. He did not fail to recall at this moment the memory of his childish attachment, and could not avoid a feeling of regret at the unpleasing change that education had produced in the character of his first, though not his dearest love.
This feeling became still more deep and oppressive as he approached the cottage of his father. Every object that be beheld, the lawn, the grove, the stream, the hedge, the stile—all brought to mind some sweet remembrance of his boyhood. The childish form of Anne Chute still seemed to meet him with her bright and careless smile, at every turn in the path; or to fly before him over the shorn meadow, as of old; while the wild and merry peal of infant laughter, seemed still to ring upon his hearing. "Dear little being!" he exclaimed, as be rode into the cottage avenue. "The burning springs of Gluver, I thought, might sooner have been frozen, than the current of that once warm and kindly heart; but like those burning springs, it is only in the season of coldness and neglect that fountain can resume its native warmth. It is the fervour of universal homage and adulation that strikes it cold and pulseless in its channels."
The window of the dining parlour alone was lighted up, and Hardress was informed in answer to his inquiries, that the ladies, Mrs. Cregan and Miss Chute, were gone to a grand ball in the neighbourhood. Mr. Cregan, with two other gentlemen, was drinking in the dining-room; and, as he might gather from the tumultuous nature of the conversation, and the occasional shouts of ecstatic enjoyment, and bursts of laughter which rang through the house, already pretty far advanced in the bacchalanian ceremonies of the night. The voices he recognized, besides his father's, were those of Hepton Connolly, and Mr. Creagh, the duellist.
Feeling no inclination to join the revellers, Hardress ordered candles in the drawing room, and prepared to spend a quiet evening by himself. He had scarcely however taken his seat on the straight-backed sofa, when his retirement was invaded by old Nancy, the kitchen-maid, who came to tell him that poor Dalton the huntsman was "a'most off," in the little green room, and that when he heard Mr. Hardress had arrived, he begged of all things to see him before he'd go. "He never was himself rightly, a 'ra gal," said old Nancy, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye, "since the masther sold the hounds and tuk to the cock-fighting."
Hardress started up and followed her. "Poor fellow!" he exclaimed as he went along, "Poor Dalton! And is that breath that wound so many merry blasts upon the mountain, so soon to be extinguished?—I remember the time, when I thought a monarch upon his throne a less enviable being than our stout huntsman, seated on his keen eyed steed, in his scarlet frock and cap, with his hounds, like painted courtiers, thronging and baying round his horse's hoofs, and his horn hanging silent at his waist! Poor fellow! Every beagle in the pack was his familiar acquaintance, and was as jealous of his chirp or his whistle, as my cousin Anne's admirers might be of a smile or secret whisper! How often has he carried me before him on his saddle bow, and taught me the true fox-hunting cry! How often at evening has he held me between his knees, and excited my young ambition with tales of hunts hard run, and neck or nothing leaps; of double ditches, cleared by an almost miraculous dexterity; of drawing, yearning, challenging, hunting mute, hunting change, and hunting counter! And now the poor fellow must wind his last recheat, and carry his old bones to earth at length!—never again to waken the echoes of the mountain lakes—never again beneath the shadow of those immemorial woods that clothe their lofty shores—
"Ære ciere viros, Martemque accendere cantu!"
The fox may come from kennel, and the red-deer slumber on his layer, for their mighty enemy is now himself at bay."
While these reflections passed through the mind of Hardress, old Nancy conducted him as far as the door of the huntsman's room, where he paused for a moment on hearing the voice of one singing inside. It was that of the worn-out huntsman himself, who was humming over a few verses of a favourite ballad. The lines which caught the ear of Hardress were the following:—
"Ah, huntsman dear, I'll be your friend.
If you let me go till morning;
Don't call your hounds for one half hour,
Nor neither sound your horn;
For indeed I'm tired from yesterday's hunt,
I can neither run nor walk well,
'Till I go to Rock hill amongst my friends,
Where I was bred and born.
Tally ho the fox!
Tally ho the fox!
Tally ho the fox, a collauneen,
Tally ho the fox
Over hills and rocks
And chase him on till morning."
"He cannot be so very ill," said Hardress, looking at the old woman, "when his spirits will permit him to sing so merrily."
"Oyeh, heaven help you, a gra!" replied Nancy, "I believe if he was at death's doore this moment, he'd have that song on his tongue still."
"Hush! hush!" said Hardress, raising his hand, "he is beginning again."
The ballad was taken up, after a heavy fit of coughing, in the same strain.
"I locked him up an' I fed him well,
An' I gave him victuals of all kinds;
But I declare to you, sir, when he got loose,
He ate a fat goose in the morning.
So now kneel down an' say your prayers,
For you'll surely die this morning.
'Ah, sir' says the fox, I never pray,
'For my Father he bred me a quaker.'
Tally ho the fox!
Tally ho the—— "
Hardress here opened the door and cut short the refrain.
The huntsman turned his face to the door as he heard the handle turn. It was that of a middle aged man in the very last stage of pulmonary consumption. A red night-cap was pushed back from his wasted and sunken temples, and a flush like the bloom of a withered pippin played in the hollow of his fleshless cheek.
"Cead millia fealtha! My heart warms to see you, my own masther Hardhress," exclaimed the huntsman, reaching him a skeleton hand from beneath the brown quilt, "I can die in pace now, as I see you again in health. These ten days back they're telling me your're coming, an' coming, an' coming, until I began to think at last that you wouldn't come until I was gone."
"I am sorry to see you in this condition, Dalton——How did you get the attack?"
"Out of a could* I think I got it first sir. When the masther sold the hounds—(Ah, masther Hardhress! to think of his parting them dogs and giving up that fine, manly exercise, for a paltry parcel o' cocks an' hens!) but when he sold them an' took to the cock-fighting, my heart felt as low an' as lonesome as if I lost all belonging to me! To please the masther, I turned my hand to the cocks, an' used to go every morning to the hounds' kennel, where the birds were kept, to give 'em food an' water; but I could never warm to the birds. Ah, what is a cock-fight, Masther Hardhress, in comparison of a well-rode hunt among the mountains, with your horse flying under you like a fairy, and the cry o' the hounds like an organ out before you, and the ground fleeting like a dream on all sides o' you, an', ah! what's the use o' talking?" Here he lay back on his pillow with a look of sudden pain and sorrow that cut Hardress to the heart.
After a few moments, he again turned a ghastly eye on Hardress, and said in a faint voice, "I used to go down by the lake in the evening to hear the stags belling in the wood; and in the morning I'd be up with the first light, to blow a call on the top o' the hill as I used to do, to comfort the dogs; and then I'd miss their cry, an' I'd stop listenin' to the aychoes o' the horn among the mountains, till my heart would sink as low as my ould boots. And bad boots they wor too, signs on, I got wet in 'em; and themselves, and the could morning air, and the want o' the horse exercise, I believe, an' every thing, brought on this fit. Is the misthriss at home, sir?" he added, after struggling through a severe fit of oppression.
"No, she is at a ball, with Miss Chute." "Good look to them both, wherever they are. That's the way o' the world. Some in health, an' some in sickness, some dancin', and more dyin'." Here he raised himself on his elbow, and after casting a haggard glance around, as if to be assured that what he had to say could not be overheard, he leaned forward toward Hardress, and whispered: "I know one in this house, masther Hardress, that loves you well."
The young gentleman looked a little surprised.
"Indeed I do," continued the dying huntsman, "one too that deserves a better fortune than to love any one without a return. One that was kind to me in my sickness, and that I'd like to see happy before I'd leave the world, if it was Heaven's will."
During this conversation, both speakers had been frequently rendered inaudible by occasional bursts of laughter and shouts of Bacchanalian mirth from the dining-room. At this moment, and before the young gentleman could select any mode of inquiry into the particulars of the singular communication above mentioned, the door was opened, and the face of old Nancy appeared, bearing on its smoked-dried features a mingled expression of perplexity and sorrow.
"Dalton, a'ragal!" she exclaimed, "don't blame me for what I'm going to say to you, for it is my tongue, an' not my wish or my heart, that speaks it. The masther and the gentlemen sent me into you, an' bid me tell you, for the sake of old times, to give them one fox huntin' screech before you go."
The old huntsman fixed his brilliant but sickly eyes on the messenger, while a flush that might have been the indication of anger or of grief, flickered like a decaying light upon his brow. At length be said, "And did the masther send that message by you, Nancy?"
"He did, Dalton, indeed. Ayeh, the gentlemen must be excused."
"True for you, Nancy," said the huntsman after a long pause. Then raising his head with a smile of seeming pleasure, he continued. "Why then, I'm glad to see the masther hasn't forgot the dogs entirely. Go to him, Nancy, and tell him that I'm glad to hear that he has so much o' the sport left in him still. And that it is kind father for him to have a feeling for his huntsman, an' I thank him. Tell him, Nancy, to send me in one good glass o' Parliament punch, an' I'll give him such a cry as he never heard in a cock-pit any way."
The punch was brought, and in spite of the remonstrances of Hardress, drained to the bottom. The old huntsman then sat erect in the bed, and letting his head back, indulged in one prolonged "hoicks!" that made the phials jingle on the table, and frighted the sparrows from their roosts beneath the thatch. It was echoed by the jolly company in the dining parloor, chorussed by a howling from all the dogs in the yard, and answered by a general clamour from the fowl-house. "Another! Another! Hoicks!" resounded through the house. But the poor consumptive was not in a condition to gratify the revellers. When Hardress looked down upon him next, the pillow appeared dark with blood, and the cheeks of the sufferer had lost even the unhealthy bloom, that had so long masked the miner Death, in his work of snug destruction. A singular brilliancy fixed itself upon his eye-balls, his lips were dragged backward, blue and cold, and with an expression of dull and general pain;—his teeth——, but wherefore linger on such a picture?—it is better let the curtain fall.
Hardress Cregan felt less indignation at this circumstance than he might have done if it had occurred at the present day; but yet he was indignant. He entered the dining parlour to remonstrate, with a frame that trembled with passion.
"And pray, Hardress?" said Hepton Connolly, as he emptied the ladle into his glass and turned on him an eye whose steadiness, to say the least, was equivocal. "Pray now, Hardress, is poor Dalton really dead?"
"He is, sir. I have already said it."
"No offence my boy. I only asked, because if he be, it is a sure sign, [here he sipped his punch and winked at Cregan with the confident air of one who is about to say a right good thing,] it is a sign that he never will die again."
There was a loud laugh at Hardress, which confused him as much as if he had been discomfited by a far superior wit. So true it is, that the influence, and not the capacity, of an opponent, renders him chiefly formidable; and that, at least, a fair half of the sum of human motive may be placed to the account of vanity.
Hardress could think of nothing that was very witty to say in reply, and as the occasion hardly warranted a slap on the face, his proud spirit was compelled to remain passive. Unwilling however to leave the company, while the laugh continued against him, he called for a glass and sat down amongst them.
* a "cold"; that is, a respiratory infection. (MS)