29

How Hardress Lost an Old Acquaintance

EILY HAD NOT been many minutes absent from the cottage, when the thunder-storm, predicted by Fighting Poll, commenced, amid all the circumstances of adventitious grandeur, by which those elemental convulsions are accompanied among the Kerry mountains. The rain came down in torrents, and the thunder clattered among the crags and precipices, with a thousand short reverbations. Phil Naughten, who had entered soon after the storm began, was seated with his wife, at their small supper table, the latter complaining heavily of the assault made by Danny on her spirit-flask, which she now, for the first time, discovered to be empty.

    Suddenly, the latch of the door was raised, and Hardress Cregan entered, with confusion and terror in his appearance. The dark frieze great coat in which his figure was enveloped seemed to be drenched in rain, and his face was flushed and glistening with the beating of the weather. He closed the door, with difficulty, against the strong wind, and still keeping his left hand on the latch, he said:—

    "I am afraid I have come too late. Is Danny here?"

    "No sir," said Phil, "he's gone these two hours."

    "And Eily?"——

    "An' Eily along with him. He gave her papers that made her go."

    Hardress heard this, with an appearance of satisfaction. He leaned his back against the door, crossed his feet and fixed his eyes upon the ground; while a silent soliloquy passed within his mind, of which the following is a transcript:

    "It is done, then. I would have saved her, but it is too late. Now, my good angel, be at peace with me. I would have saved her. I obeyed your call. Amid the storm, the darkness, and the rain, I flew to execute your gentle will. But the devil had taken me at my word already, and found me a rapid minister. Would I have saved her! Ha! What whisper's that? There can come nothing worse of it, than I have ordered. Forsaken! Banished! That is the very worst that can befal her. And for the consequences, why, if she be so weak and silly a thing to pine and die of the slight, let nature take the blame, not me. I never meant it. But if that madman should exceed my orders. And if he should," Hardress suddenly exclaimed aloud, while he started from the door and trembled with fury; "and if he should," he repeated, extending his arms, and spreading his fingers as if in act to gripe, "wherever I meet him, in the city, or in the desert, in the lowest depth of this accursed valley, or on the summit of the mountain, where he tempted me, I will tear his flesh from off his bones, and gibbet him between these fingers for a miscreant, and a ruffian!"

    He sunk, exhausted by this frantic burst of passion, into a chair, the chair which Eily had occupied on that evening. Phil Naughten and his wife left their seats in astonishment, and gazed on him, and on one another in silence. In a few minutes, Hardress rose more calmly ftom the chair, and drew his sleeves out of the great coat, which he handed to Poll; signifying, by a motion of his hand that she should hang it near the fire. While she obeyed his wishes, he resumed his seat in silence. For a considerable time, he remained leaning over the back of the chair, and gazing fixedly upon the burning embers. The fatigue of his long journey, on foot, and the exhaustion of his feelings, at length brought on a heavy slumber, and his head sunk upon his breast, in deep, though not untroubled, rest.

    Poll and her husband resumed their meal, and afterwards proceeded to their customary evening occupations. Phil began to repair the pony's straddle, while Poll twisted the flaxen cords, according as her husband required them.

    "I'll tell you what, Phil," said his wife, in a low whisper, "there's something going on, to-night, that is not right. I'm sorry I let Eily go."

    "Whisht, you foolish woman!" returned her husband, "what would be going on? Mind your work, an' don't wake the master. D'ye hear how he moans in his sleep?"

    "I do; an' I think that moan isn't for nothing. Who is it he was talking of tearing a while ago?"

    "I don't know: there's no use in thinking about it at all. This is a cold night with poor Mc Donough in his grave, the first he ever spent there."

    "And so it is. Were there many at the funeral?"

    "A power. The whole counthry was afther the hearse. You never heard such a cry in your life, as was set up in the church-yard by poor Garret O'Neil, his own natural, afther the grave was covered in. The whole place was in tears!"

    "Sure Garret wasn't with him this many year?"

    "He was not, until the very day before he died, when he seen him in his own room. You remember a long wattle that Garret used always be carrying in his hand?"

    "I do well."

    "That was given him be the master, Mc Donough, himself. Garret axed him once of a Hansel-Monday, for his hansel,* and 'tis what he gave him was that wattle, as it was standing behind the parlour doore. 'Here, Garret,' says he, 'take this wattle, and when you meet with a greater fool than yourself, you may give it to him.' Garret took it, without a word, and the masther never seen him after 'till the other day, when he walked into his bed room where he was lying in his last sickness, with the wattle still in his hand. The masther knew him again, the minute he looked at him. 'And didn't you part the wattle yet, Garret?' says he. 'No, sir,' says Garret, 'I can find no where a greater fool than I am myself.' 'You show some sense in that, any way,' says the masther.—'Ah, Garret,' says he, 'I b'lieve I'm going.' 'Going where, sir?' says Garret. 'Oh, a long journey,' says he, 'an' one that I'm but little provided for.' 'An' did you know you'd be going that journey?' says Garret. 'I did, heaven forgive me,' Mc Donough. 'An' you made no preparation for it?' says Garret. 'No preparation in life,' says the master to him again. Well, Garret moved over near the bedside, and took the masther's hand, and put the wattle into it, just that way. 'Well,' says he, 'take your wattle again. You desired me keep it, until I'd meet a greater fool than myself, an' now I found him; for if you knew you'd be taking that journey, an' made no preparation for it, you are a greater fool than ever Garret was."

    "That was frightful!" said Poll, "Husht! Did you hear that? Well, if ever the dead woke, they ought to wake to-night! Did you ever hear such tundher?"

    "'Tis great, surely. How sound Misther Hardress sleeps, an' not to be woke by that! Put the candle on the stool at this side, Poll, an' don't disturb him."

    They now proceeded with their employment in silence, which was seldom broken. Any conversation, that passed, was carried on in low and interrupted whispers, and all possible pains were used to avoid disturbing, by the slightest noise, the repose of their weary guest and patron.

    But the gnawing passion hunted him, even into the depth of sleep. A murmur occasionally broke from his lips, and a hurried whisper, sometimes indicative of anger and command, and sometimes of sudden fear, would escape him. He often changed his position, and it was observed by those who watched beside him, that his breathing was oppressed and thick, and his brow was damp with large drops of moisture.

    "The Lord defend and forgive us all!" said Phil, in a whisper to his wife, "I'm afeerd, I'll judge nobody, but I'm afeerd there's some bad work, as you say, going on this night."

    "The Lord protect the poor girl that left us!" whispered Poll.

    "Amen!" replied her husband aloud.

    "Amen!" echoed the sleeper;—and following the association awakened by the response, he ran over, in a rapid voice, a number of prayers, such as are used in the morning and evening service of his church.

    "He's saying his litanies," said Poll, "Phil, come into the next room, or wake him up, either one or the other, I don't like to be listenin' to him. 'Tisn't right of us to be taking advantage of any body in their dhrames. Many is the poor boy that hung himself that way in his sleep."

    "'Tis a bad business," said Phil, "I don't like the look of it, at all, I tell you."

    "My glove! My glove!" said the dreamingHardress, "you used it against my meaning. I meant but banishment. We shall both be hanged, we shall be hanged for this—"

    "Come, Phil! Come, come!" cried Poll Naughten, with impatience.

    "Stop, eroo! Stop!" cried her husband. "He's choking, I b'lieve! Poll, Poll! the light, the light! Get a cup o' wather."

    "Here it is! Shake him, Phil! Masther Hardhress! Wake, a' ra gal!"

    "Wake, Masther Hardress, wake! sir, if you plase!"

    The instant he was touched, Hardress started from his chair, as if the spring that bound him to it had been suddenly struck, and remained standing before the fire in an attitude of strong terror. He did not speak—at least, the sounds to which he gave utterance could not be traced into any intelligible form, but his look and gesture were those of a man oppressed with a horrid apprehension. According, however, as his nerves recovered their waking vigour, and the real objects by which he was surrounded became known to his senses, a gradual relief appeared to steal upon his spirits, his eyelids dropped, his muscles were relaxed and a smile of intense joy was visible upon his features. He let his arms fall slowly by his side, and sunk down, once more, with a murmur of painful satisfaction, into the chair which he had left.

    But the vision, with which he had been terrified, had made too deep a sign on his imagination, to be at once removed. His dream had merely represented in act, a horrid deed, the apprehension of which had shaken his soul with agony when awake, and had brought him amid those obstacles of storm and darkness, to the cottage of his neglected wife. His fears were still unquieted; the frightful image, that bestrode his slumbers, yet haunted him, awake; and opposed itself with a ghastly vigour to his eyes, in whatever direction they were turned. Unable to endure the constant recurrence of this indestructible suggestion, he at length hurried out of the cottage. He paid no attention to the voice of Poll Naughten, who followed him to the door, with his great coat in her hand; but ran down the crags, and in the direction of his home, with the speed of one distract.

    The light which burned in the drawing room window showed that all the family had not yet retired. His mother, as he learned from old Nancy, was still expecting his return. She was almost alone in the house, for Mr. Cregan had left the cottage a fortnight before, in order to escort Miss Chute to her own home.

    She was seated at a table, and reading some work appropriate to the coming festival, when Hardress made his appearance at the door, still drenched in rain, and pale with agitation and fatigue. He remained on the threshold, leaning with one arm against the jamb, and gazing on the lady.

    "What, up yet, mother?" he said, at length, "where's Anne?"

    "Ha! Hardress. O my dear child, I have been anxiously expecting you. Anne? Do you forget that you took leave of her a fortnight since?"

    "I had forgotten it. I now remember. But not for ever?"

    "Why should you say it? What do you mean?" said Mrs. Cregan. "Is not your bridal fixed for the second of February? But I have mournful news to tell you, Hardress."

    "Let me hear none of it!" exclaimed the unhappy youth, with great vehemence. "It will drive me mad at last. Nothing but mournful news! I'm sick of it. Wherever I turn my eyes they encounter nothing now but mourning. Coffins, and corpses, graves, and darkness, all around me! Mother, your son will end his days in Bedlam. Start as you will. I say but what I feel, and fear. I find my reason going fast to wreck. Omother, I will die an idiot yet!"

    "My child!"

    "Your child!" Hardress reiterated with petulant emphasis. "And if I was your child, could you not care more kindly for my happiness? It was you that urged me on to this. Mind, I comply, but it was you that urged me. You brought me into the danger and when I would have withdrawn, you held me there. I told you that I was engaged, that heaven had heard, and earth recorded my pledge, and that I could not break it. O mother, if you were a mother, and if you saw your son caught by a treacherous passion, if you saw that he was weak, and yielding, and likely to be overcome, you should have strengthened him. It would have been a mother's part to warn him off, to take the side of honesty against his weakness, and make him virtuous in his own despite. But this you did not. I was struggling for my failing honesty, and you strove against me. I rose again and again, almost discomfited, yet still unwilling to yield up all claim to truth, and again and again you struck me down. Behold me now! You have succeeded fully. I am free now to execute your will. To marry, or hang, whichever you please."

    "Hardress!" exclaimed his mother, in an agony—"I—— "

    "Oh, no more remonstrance, mother, your remonstrances have been my curse and bane, they have destroyed me for this world, and for the next."

    "You shock me to the soul."

    "Well, I am sorry for it.—Go on. Tell me this mournful news. It can be but another drop in the ocean. I told you that my reason was affected, arid so it is. I know it by the false colouring that has grown upon my senses. My imagination is filled continually with the dreariest images, and there is some spirit within me that tinges, with the same hue of death, the real objects I behold. At morning, if I look upon the east I think it has the colour of blood, and at night, when I gaze on the advancing shadows, I think of paIls, and hearse-plumes, and habits of mourning. Mother, I fear I have not long to live."

    "Fie, Hardress, fie! Are you growing superstitious? For shame! I will not talk with you to-night upon that subject, nor will I tax you with the manifest unkindness of your charges on myself, so often refuted, yet now again repeated. I have a matter of weightier interest to communicate. You know Mrs. Daly, the mother of your young friend Kyrle?"

    "There again!" exclaimed Hardress, starting from his seat, and speaking with passionate loudness. "There again, mother! Another horrid treason! Why, the whole world are joining in one cry of reprobation on my head. Another black and horrid perfidy! Oh, Kyrle, my friend, my calm, high- minded, virtuous, and serene companion! He trusted me with every thing, told me his secrets, showed me his fears, and commended his hopes to my patronage. And what have I done? I pledged myself to be his friend. I lied! I have supplanted him! How shall I meet him now for evermore? I feel as if the world were met to spit upon my face. This should be my desert. O fool! blind fool!—Anne Chute! What was Anne Chute to me, or I to her, that I should thus destroy my own repute, betray my friend, resist my maker, and forsake my—— "Suddenly arresting his speech at this conjuncture, he sunk back into his chair, and added in a low murmur—"Well, mother, tell this mournful news at once.

    "It is soon told," said Mrs. Cregan, who had now become too well accustomed to those bursts of transient passion in her son, to afford them any angry consideration. "Poor Mrs. Daly is dead."

    "Dead!"

    "But this evening I heard it. The circumstance is one of peculiar melancholy. She died quite unexpectedly in her accouchement."

    "And if the virtuous are thus visited," said Hardress, after a pause, lifting his hands and eyes, "what should not I expect? I wish I were fit to pray, that I might pray for that kind woman."

    "There is one act of mercy in your power, said his mother, "you will be expected at the wake and funeral."

    "And there I shall meet with Kyrle!"

    "What then?"

    "Oh, nothing, nothing." He paused for several minutes, during which, he leaned on the table in a meditative posture. His countenance, at length, assumed an appearance of more peaceful grief, and it became evident, from the expression of his eye, that a more quiet train of feeling was passing through his mind.

    "Poor Mrs. Daly!" he said at last. "If one would be wise at all times, how little he would sacrifice to the gratification of simple passion, in such a world as this. Imprimis," he continued, counting on his finger ends. "Imprimis, a cradle, item, clothing, item, a house, item, fire, item, food, item, a coffin; the best require no more than these, and for the worst, you need only add item, a gallows, and you have said enough."

    Mrs. Cregan heard this speech without the keen anxiety which she would have felt, if Hardress had been less passionate in his general manner, and less extravagant in his mode of speech. But knowing this, she heeded little in him what would have filled her with terror in another.

    "Well, will you go to the wake, Hardress?" she said. "You must set out to-morrow morning early."

    "I will," said Hardress. "It is a long distance, but I can be there, at all events, by night-fall. When does the funeral take place?"

    "I suppose after to-morrow. I will have the curricle at the door by day-break, for you must set me down at Castle Chute. Go now, and change your dress at once, or you will suffer for it. Nancy shall take you a warm foot-bath, and a hot drink, when you are in your room.

    Hardress returned without farther question. The idea of meeting with Kyrle Daly, after the unmanly neglect, and even betrayal of his interests, was now the one which occupied his sole attention. Half love is vanity; at least, a fair moiety of Hardress Cregan's later passion might be placed to the account of that effeminate failing. It could not, therefore, continue to maintain its hold upon his heart against a passion so new and terrible as that of remorse. His love for Anne Chute was now entirely dormant in his mind, and his reason was at full liberty to estimate the greatness of his guilt, without even the suggestion of a palliative. When we add to this, the cruel uncertainty in which he remained with respect to the fate of Eily O'Connor, it is probable that few, who hear the story, will envy the repose of Hardress Cregan.

    For one instant only, during his conversation with Danny Mann, the idea of Eily's death had flashed upon his mind, and for that instant it had been accompanied with a sensation of willful pleasure. The remembrance of this guilty thought now haunted him with as deep a feeling of remorse, as if that momentary assent had been a positive act. Whenever his eyelids drooped, a horrid chain of faces passed before his imagination, each presenting some characteristic of death or pain, some appearing to threaten, and others to deride him. In this manner the long and lonely night crept by, and the dreary winter dawn found him still unrefreshed and feverish.






 








* On the first Monday of the new year (called Hansel Monday) it is customary to bestow trifling gifts among one's acquaintances, & c. which are denominated hansels.