35

How Hardress at Length Received Some News of Eily

THE MARRIAGE of Hardress Cregan and Anne Chute was postponed for some time, in consequence of this affliction of their old friends. Nothing, in the meantime, was heard of Eily, or her escort; and the remorse, and the suspense endured by Hardress, began to affect his mind and health in a degree that excited deep alarm in both families. His manner to Anne still continued the same as before they were contracted; now, tender, passionate, and full of an intense affection; and now, sullen, short, intemperate and gloomy. Her feeling, too, towards him, continued still unchanged. His frequent unkindness pained her to the soul; but she attributed all to a natural or acquired weakness of temper, and trusted to time and to her own assiduous gentleness to cure it. He had yet done nothing to show himself unworthy of her esteem, and while this continued to be the case, her love could not be shaken by mere infirmities of manner, the result, in all probability, of his uncertain health, for which he had her pity, rather than resentment.

    But on Mrs. Cregan it produced a more serious impression. In her frequent conversations with her son, he had, in the agony of his heart, betrayed the workings of a deeper passion, and a darker recollection, than she had ever imagined possible. It became evident to her, from many hints let fall in his paroxysms of anxiety, that Hardress had done something to put himself within the power of outraged justice, as well as that of an avenging conscience. From the moment on which she arrived at this discovery, she avoided as much as possible all farther conversation, on those topics, with her son, and it was observed that she, too, had become subject to fits of abstraction and of seriousness in her general manner.

    While the fortunes of the family remained thus stationary, the day arrived on which Hepton Connolly was to give his hunting dinner. Hardress looked forward to this occasion with some satisfaction, in the hope that it would afford a certain degree of relief to his mind, under its present state of depression, and when the morning came, he was one of the earliest men upon the ground.

    The fox was said to have kennelled in the side of a hill, near the river-side, which, on one side was grey with lime-stone crag, and on the other covered with a quantity of close furze. Towards the water, a miry, and winding path among the underwood led downward to an extensive marsh, or corcass, which lay close to the shore. It was overgrown with a dwarfish rush, and intersected with numberless little creeks and channels, which were never filled, except when the spring-tide was at the full. On a green and undulating champagne above the hill, were a considerable number of gentlemen mounted, conversing in groups, or cantering their horses around the plain, while the huntsman, whippers-in, and dogs, were busy among the furze, endeavouring to make the fox break cover. A crowd of peasants, boys, and other idlers, were scattered over the green, awaiting the commencement of the sport; and amusing themselves, by criticising with much sharpness of sarcasm, the appearance of the horses, and the action and manner of their riders.

    The search after the fox continued for a long time without avail. The gentlemen became impatient, began to look at their watches, and to cast, from time to time, an apprehensive glance at the heavens. This last movement was not without a cause. The morning, which had promised fairly, began to change and darken. It was one of those sluggish days, which frequently usher in the spring season in Ireland. On the water, on land, in air, on earth, every thing was motionless and calm. The boats slept upon the bosom of the river. A low and dingy mist concealed the distant shores and hills of Clare. Above, the eye could discern neither cloud nor sky. A heavy haze covered the face of the heavens, from one horizon to the other. The sun was wholly veiled in mist, his place in the heavens being indicated only by the radiance of the misty shroud in that direction. A thin, drizzling shower, no heavier than a summer dew, descended on the party, and left a hoary and glistening moisture on their dresses, on the manes, and forelocks of the horses, and on the face of the surrounding landscape.

    "No fox to-day, I fear," said Mr. Cregan, riding up to one of the groups before mentioned, which comprised his son Hardress, and Mr. Connolly. "At what time," he added, addressing the latter, "did you order dinner? I think there is little fear of our being late for it.,"

    "You all deserve this," said a healthy looking old gentleman, who was one of the group, "Feather-bed sportsmen every one of you. I rode out to-day from Limerick myself, was at home before seven, went out to see the wheat shaken in, and on arriving on the ground at ten, found no one there but this young gentleman, whose thoughts seem to be hunting on other ground at this moment. When I was a young man, daybreak never found me napping that way."

    "Good people are scarce, said Connolly, "it is right we should take care of ourselves. Hardress, will you canter this way?"

    "He is cantering elsewhere," said the same old gentleman, looking on the absent boy. "Mind that sigh. Ah, she had the heart of a stone!"

    "I suspect he is thinking of his dinner, rather," said his father.

    "If Miss Chute had asked him to make a circuit with her," said Connolly, "she would not have found it so hard to get an answer."

    "Courage, sir!" exclaimed the old gentleman, "she is neither wed nor dead."

    "Dead, did you say?" cried Hardress, starting from his reverie. "Who says it? ——Ah, I see!" A burst of laughter, from the gentlemen, brought the young man to his recollection, and his head sunk upon his breast, in silence and confusion.

    "Come, Hardress," continued Connolly, "although you are not in love with me, yet we may try a canter together. Hark! What is that? What are the dogs doing now?"

    "They have left the cover on the hill," cried a gentleman, who was galloping past, "and are trying the corcass."

    "Poor Dalton!" said Mr. Cregan, "that was the man that would have had old Reynard out of cover before now."

    "Poor Dalton!" exclaimed Hardress, catching up the word with passionate emphasis, "poor—poor Dalton! O days of my youth!" he added, turning aside on his saddle, that he might not be observed, and looking out upon the quiet river, "O days—past, happy days! my merry boyhood, and my merry youth!—my boat! the broad river, the rough west wind, the broken waves, and the heart at rest! O miserable wretch, what have you now to hope for? My heart will burst before I leave this field!"

    "The dogs are chopping!" said Connolly, "they have found him. Come! come away!"

    "'Tis a false scent," said the old gentleman, "Ware hare!"

    "Ware hare!" was echoed by many voices. A singular hurry was observed amongst the crowd upon the brow of the hill, which overlooked the corcass, and presently all had descended to the marsh.

    "There is something extraordinary going forward," said Cregan, "What makes all the crowd collect upon the marsh?"

    A pause ensued, during which Hardress experienced a degree of nervous anxiety, for which he could not account. The hounds continued to chop in concert, as if they had found a strong scent, and yet no fox appeared.

    At length a horseman was observed riding up the miry pass before mentioned, and gallopping towards them. When he approached, they could observe that his manner was flurried and agitated, and that his countenance wore an expression of terror, and compassion. He tightened the rein suddenly, as he came upon the group.

    "Mr. Warner," he said, addressing the old gentleman already alluded to, "I believe you are a magistrate?"

    Mr. Warner bowed.

    "Then come this way, sir, if you please. A terrible occasion makes your presence necessary, on the other side of the hill."

    "No harm, sir, to any of our friends I hope?" said Mr. Warner, putting spurs to his horse, and gallopping away. The answer of the stranger was lost, in the tramp of the hoofs, as they rode away.

    Immediately after, two other horsemen came gallopping by. One of them held in his hand a straw bonnet, beaten out of shape, and draggled in the mud of the corcass. Hardress just caught the word 'horrible,' as they rode swiftly by.

    "What's horrible?" shouted Hardress aloud, and rising on his stirrup. The two gentlemen were already out of hearing. He sunk down again on his seat, and glanced aside at his father and Connolly, "What does he call horrible?" he repeated.

    "I did not hear him," said Connolly, "but come down upon the corcass, and we shall learn."

    They gallopped in that direction. The morning was changing fast, and the rain was now descending in much greater abundance. Still, there was not a breath of wind to alter its direction, or to give the slightest animation to the general lethargic look of nature. As they arrived on the brow of the hill, they perceived the crowd of horsemen and peasants, collected into a dense mass, around one of the little channels, before described. Several of those in the centre were stooping low, as if to assist a fallen person. The next rank, with their heads turned aside over their shoulders, were employed in answering the questions of those behind them. The individuals who stood outside were raised on tiptoe, and endeavoured, by stretching their heads over the shoulders of their neighbours, to peep into the centre. The whipper-in, meanwhile, was flogging the hounds away from the crowd, while the dogs reluctantly obeyed. Mingled with the press, were the horsemen, bending over their saddle-bows, and gazing downwards on the centre.

    "Bad manners to ye!" Hardress heard the whipper-in exclaim, as he passed, "what a fox ye found for us, this morning. How bad ye are, now, for a taste o the Christian's flesh!"

    As he approached nearer to the crowd, he was enabled to gather farther indications of the nature of the transaction, from the countenances and gestures of the people. Some had their hands elevated in strong fear, many brows were knitted in eager curiosity, some raised in wonder, and some expanded in affright. Urged by an unaccountable impulse, and supported by an energy, he knew not whence derived, Hardress alighted from his horse, threw the reins to a countryman, and penetrated the group with considerable violence. He dragged some by the collars, from their places, pushed others aside with his shoulder, struck those who proved refractory with his whip handle, and in a few moments attained the centre of the ring.

    Here he paused, and gazed in motionless horror, upon the picture which the crowd had previously concealed.

    A small space was kept clear in the centre. Opposite to Hardress, stood Mr. Warner, the magistrate and coroner of the county, with a small note-book in his hand in which he made some entries with a pencil. On his right stood the person who had summoned him to the spot. At the feet of Hardress was a small pool, in which the waters now appeared disturbed and thick with mud, while the rain descending straight, gave to its surface the semblance of ebullition. On a bank at the other side, which was covered with sea-pink and a species of short moss peculiar to the soil, an object lay on which the eyes of all were bent, with a fearful and gloomy expression. It was for the most part concealed beneath a large blue mantle, which was drenched in wet and mire, and lay so heavy on the thing beneath, as to reveal the lineaments of a human form. A pair of small feet, in Spanish-leather shoes, appearing from below the end of the garment, showed that the body was that of a female; and a mass of long, fair hair, which escaped from beneath the capacious hood, demonstrated that this death, whether the effect of accident or malice, had found the victim untimely in her youth.

    The cloak, the feet, the hair, were all familiar objects to the eye of Hardress. On very slight occasions, he had often found it absolutely impossible to maintain his self-possession in the presence of others. Now, when the fell solution of all his anxieties was exposed before him,—now, when it became evident that the guilt of blood was upon his head,—now, when he looked upon the shattered corpse of Eily, of his chosen and once beloved wife, murdered in her youth—almost in her girlhood, by his connivance, it astonished him to find that all emotion came upon the instant to a dead pause within his breast. Others might have told him that his face was rigid, sallow, and bloodless as that of the corpse on which he gazed. But he himself felt nothing of this. Not a sentence that was spoken was lost upon his ear. He did not even tremble, and a slight anxiety for his personal safety was the only sentiment of which he was perceptibly conscious. It seemed as if the great passion, like an engine embarrassed in its action, had been suddenly struck motionless, even while the impelling principle remained in active force.

    "Has the horse and car arrived?" asked Mr. Warner, while he closed his note-book. "Can any one see it coming? We shall be all drenched to the skin before we get away."

    "Can we not go to the nearest Inn and proceed with the Inquest," said a gentleman in the crowd, "while some one stays behind to see the body brought after?"

    "No, sir," said Mr. Warner, with some emphasis," the Inquest must be held super viscum corporis, or it is worth nothing. "

    "Warner," whispered Connolly to Cregan with a smile, "Warner is afraid of losing his four-guinea fee. He will not let the body out of his sight."

    "You know the proverb," returned Cregan, "a bird in the hand, &c. What a fine fat fox he has caught this morning!"

    At this moment the hounds once more opened in a chopping concert, and Hardress, starting from his posture of rigid calmness, extended his arms, and burst at once into a passion of wild fear.

    "The hounds! The hounds!' he exclaimed, "Mr. Warner, do you hear them? Keep off the dogs! They will tear her if ye let them pass? Good sir, will ye suffer the dogs to tear her? I had rather be torn myself, than look upon such a sight. Ye may stare as ye will, but I tell you all a truth, gentlemen. A truth, I say;—upon my life, a truth."

    "There is no fear," said Warner, fixing a keen and practised eye upon him.

    "Aye, but there is, sir, by your leave," cried Hardress, "Do you hear them now? Do you hear that yell for blood? I tell you, I hate that horrid cry. It is enough to make the heart of a Christian burst. Who put the hounds upon that horrid scent? That false scent!—I am going mad, I think. I say, sir, do you hear that yelling now? Will you tell me now there is no fear? Stand close! Stand close, and hide me—her, I mean; stand close!"

    "I think there is none whatever," said the Coroner, probing him. "And I tell you," cried Hardress, grasping his whip, and abandoning himself to an almost delirious excess of rage. "I tell you there is. If this ground should open before me, and I should hear the hounds of Satan yelling upward from the deep, it could not freeze me with a greater fear! But, sir, you can pursue what course you please," continued Hardress, bowing and forcing a smile, "you are here in office, sir. You are at liberty to contradict as you please, sir, but I have my remedy. You know me, sir, and I know you. I am a gentleman. Expect to hear farther from me on this subject."

    So saying, and forcing his way through the crowd, with as much violence as he had used in entering, he vaulted with the agility of a Mercury into his saddle, and gallopped, as if he were on a steeple-chase, in the direction of Castle Chute.

    "If you are a gentleman," said Mr. Warner, "you are as ill-tempered a gentleman as ever I met, or something a great deal worse."

    "Take care what you say, sir," said Mr. Cregan, riding rapidly up, after a vain effort to arrest his son's flight; and after picking up from a straggler, not three yards from the scene of action, the exaggerated report that Hardress and the Coroner had given each other the lie. "Take care what you say, sir," he said. "Remember, if you please, that the gentleman, ill-tempered or otherwise, is my son.

    "Mr. Cregan," exclaimed the Magistrate, at length growing somewhat warm. "If he were the son of the Lord Lieutenant, I will not be interrupted in my duty. There are many gentlemen here present; they have witnessed the whole occurrence, and if they will tell you that I have done or said any thing unbecoming a gentleman, I am ready to give you, or your son either, the satisfaction of a gentleman."

    With this pacificatory and Christian-like speech, the exemplary Irish peace-preserver turned upon his heel, and went to meet the carman who was now within a few paces of the crowd.

    While the pitying and astonished multitude were conveying the shattered remains of Eily O'Connor to the nearest Inn, her miserable husband was flying with the speed of Fear, in the direction of Castle Chute. He alighted at the Norman archway, by which Kyrle Daly had entered, on the day of his rejection, and throwing the reins to Falvey, rushed, without speaking, up the stone stair-case. That talkative domestic still retained a lingering preference for the discarded lover, and saw him with grief supplanted by this wild and passionate young gentleman. He remained for a moment, holding the rein in his hand, and looking back with a gaze of calm astonishment at the flying figure of the rider. He then compressed his lips, moved to a little distance from the horse, and began to contemplate the wet and reeking flanks, and trembling limbs, of the beautiful animal. The creature presented a spectacle calculated to excite the compassion of a practised attendant upon horses. His eyes were opened wide, and full of fire—his nostrils expanded, and red as blood. His shining coat was wet from ear to flank, and corded by numberless veins, that were now swollen to the utmost by the accelerated circulation. As he panted and snorted in his excitement, he scattered the flecks of foam over the dress of the attendant.

    "Oh, murther, murther!" exclaimed the latter, after uttering that peculiar sound of pity which is used by the vulgar in Ireland, and in some continental nations. "Well, there's a man that knows how to use a horse. Look at that crather! Well, he ought to be ashamed of himself, so he ought, any gentleman to use a poor dumb crather in that way. As if the hunt wasn't hard enough, upon her without bringin' her up in a gallop to the very doore!"

    "An' as if my throuble wasn't enough besides," grumbled the groom as he took the rein out of Falvey's hand. "He ought to stick to his boating, that's what he ought, an' to lave horses for those that knows how to use 'em."

    "Who rode that horse?" asked old Dan Dawley, the steward, as he came along sulky and bent by age, to the hall-door.

    "The young masther we're gettin'," returned Falvey.

    "Umph!" muttered Dawley as he passed into the house, "that's the image of the thratement he'll give all that he gets into his power.

    "It's thrue for you," said Falvey.

    Dawley paused, and looked back over his shoulder. "It's thrue for me!" he repeated gruffly. "It's you that say that, an' you were the first to praise him when he came into the family."

    "It stood to raison I should," said Falvey. "I liked him then betther than masther Kyrle itself, for bein' an offhand gentleman, an' aisily spoken to. But sure a Turk itself couldn't stand the way he's goin' on of late days!" Dawley turned away with a harsh grunt; the groom led out the heated steed upon the lawn, and Falvey returned to make the cutlery refulgent in the kitchen.