37

How Hardress Found That Conscience is the Sworn Foe of Valour

HE WHO, when smitten by a heavy fever, endeavours, with bursting head and aching bones, to maintain a cheerful seeming among a circle of friends, may imagine something of Hardress Cregan's situation on this evening. His mother contrived to sit near him during the whole time, influencing his conduct by word and gesture, as one would regulate the movements of an automaton.

    The company consisted only of that lady, her son and husband, and the two ladies of the mansion. The fire burned cheerfully in the grate, the candles were lighted, Anne's harpsichord was thrown open; and had the apartment at that moment been unroofed by the Boiteux, in the sight of his companion, Don Arrias would have pronounced it a scene of domestic happiness, and comfort.

    It appeared, from the conversation which took place in the course of the evening, that the coroner had not even found any one to recognize the body, and the Jury, after giving the case a long consideration, had come to the only conclusion, for which there appeared to be satisfactory evidence. They had returned a Verdict of "Found drowned."

    "He would be a sharp lawyer," continued Mr. Cregan, "that could take them up on that verdict. I thought there were some symptoms of murder in the case, and wished them to adjourn the inquest, but I was overruled. After all, I'll venture to say, it was some love business. She had a wedding ring on."

    "Be calm," whispered Mrs. Cregan, laying her hand on her son's arm.

    "Some young husband, perhaps, who found he had made a bad bargain. Take care of yourself, Anne;—Hardress may learn the knack of it."

    Hardress acknowledged the goodness of this jest by a hideous laugh.

    "It was a shocking business!" said Mrs. Chute.

    "I wonder, Hardress, how you can laugh at it. Depend upon it, it will not terminate in that way. Murder is like fire, it will out at some cleft or another."

    "That is most likely to be the case, in the present instance," said Mr. Cregan, "for the clothes in all likelihood will be identified, and Warner has sent an advertisement to all the newspapers, and to the parish chapels, giving an account of the whole transaction. It is, indeed, quite certain that the case will be cleared up, and the foul play, if there be any, discovered. Whether the penetrators will be detected or not is a different question."

    Mrs. Cregan, who was in an agony during this conversation, felt a sudden relief when it was ended by Anne Chute's calling on her uncle for a song.

    Mr. Cregan, who was always very funny among young people, replied that he would with all his heart. And accordingly, with a prefactory hem, he threw back his head, raised his eyes to the cornice, dropt his right leg over the left knee, and treated the company to the following effusion, humouring the tune with his head, by slightly jerking it from side to side:


    Gilli ma chree,
        Sit down by me,
    We are now joined and ne'er shall sever,
        This hearth's our own
    Our hearts are one
        And peace is ours for ever!


                        I

    When I was poor,
        Your father's door
    Was closed against your constant lover,
        With care and pain,
    I tried in vain
        My fortunes to recover.
    I said, 'To other lands I'll roam,
        'Where Fate may smile on me, love;
    I said, 'Farewell, my own old home!
        And I said 'Farewell to thee, love!'
            Sing Gilli ma chree, &c.

                        II.

    I might have said,
        My mountain maid,
    'Come live with me, your own true lover;
        I know a spot,
    A silent cot
        Your friends can ne'er discover.
    Where gently flows the waveless tide
        By one small garden only,
    Where the heron waves his wings so wide,
        And the linnet sings so lonely.'
    Sing Gilli ma chree, &c.

                        III.

        I might have said,
        My mountain maid,
    A father's right was never given
        True hearts to curse
        With tyrant force
    That have been blessed in heaven.
    But then, I said, 'In after years,
    When thoughts of home shall find her;
    My love may mourn with secret tears
    Her friends, thus left behind her.'
        Sing Gilli ma chree, &c.

                        IV.

        Oh, no, I said,
        My own dear maid,
    For me, though all forlorn, for ever,
        That heart of thine
        Shall ne'er repine
         O'er slighted duty—never!
    From home and thee though wandering far
        A dreary fate be mine, love; I
    'd rather live in endless war,
    Than buy my peace with thine, love.'
        Sing Gilli ma chree, &c.

                        V.

        Far, far away,
        By night and day,
    I toiled to win a golden treasure;
        And golden gains
        Repaid my pains
    In fair and shining measure.
    I sought again my native land
    Thy father welcomed me, love; I
    poured my gold into his hand,
    And my guerdon found in thee, love!
        Sing Gilli ma chree,
        Sit down by me,
    We now are joined, and ne'er shall sever;
        The hearth's our own,
        Our hearts are one,
    And peace is ours for ever!

    It was not until he courted rest and forgetfulness in the solitude of his chamber, that the hell of guilt and memory began to burn within the breast of Hardress. Fears, which until this moment he had despised as weak and childish, now oppressed his imagination with all the force of a real and imminent danger. The darkness of his chamber was crossed by horrid shapes, and the pillow seemed to burn beneath his cheek, as if he lay on fire. If he dozed, he seemed to be rocked on his bed, as if borne upward on the back of a flying steed, and the cry of hounds came yelling on his ear, with a discord even more terrible than that which rung upon the ear of the hunted Acteon, in the exquisite fiction of the ancients. That power of imagination, in which he had been often accustomed to take pride, as in a high intellectual endowment, became now his most fearful curse; and, as it had been a chief instrument in his seduction, was also made a principal engine of retribution.

    Several circumstances, trifling in themselves, but powerful in their operation upon the mind of the guilty youth, occurred in the course of the ensuing week, to give new fuel to the passion which preyed upon his nerves. A few of these we will relate, (though immaterial in their influence upon his subsequent fortunes,) if only for the purpose of showing how slight a breath may shake the peace of him who has suffered it to be sapped in the foundation.

    When the first agony of his remorse went by, the love of his life, triumphant even over that appalling passion, made him join his mother in her fears of a discovery, and her precautions for its prevention. He sought therefore many opportunities of misleading the observation of his acquaintances, and affected to mingle in their amusements with a greater carelessness than he had ever assumed during the period of his uncertainty respecting Eily's fate.

    A small party had been formed one morning, for the purpose of snipe shooting, and Hardress was one of the number. In a rushy swamp, (adjoining the little bay which had been selected as the scene of the sadle-race so many months before,) the game were said to exist in great quantities, and thither accordingly the sportsmen first repaired. A beautiful, but only half educated pointer, which Hardress procured in Kerry, in his eagerness for sport, had repeatedly broke out of bound, in disregard of all the menaces and entreaties of his owner; and by these means, on many occasions narrowly escaped destruction. At length, while he was indulging in one of those wild gambols, a bird rose with a sudden shriek from the very feet of Hardress, and flew forward, darting and wheeling in a thousand eccentric circles. Hardress levelled and fired. The snipe escaped, but a mournful howl of pain, from the animal before alluded to, seemed to announce that the missile had not sped upon a fruitless errand. In a few seconds the poor pointer was seen crawling out of the rushes, and turning at every step to whine and lick its side, which was covered with blood. The slayer ran, with an aching heart, towards the unfortunate creature, and stooped to assist and to caress it. But the wound was past all remedy. The poor quadruped whimpered, and fawned upon his feet, as if to disarm the suspicion of resentment, and died in the action.

    "Oh, murther, murther!" said Pat Falvey, who accompanied the party, "the poor thing was all holed with the shot! Oh, look at the limbs stiffening and the light that's gatherin' in the eyes!—There's death, now, masther Hardress, the Lord save us!—there's death!"

    "Where?" said Hardress, looking round with some wildness of eye, and a voice which was indicative at the same time of anger and of bodily weakness.

    "There, before your eye, sir," said Falvey. "There's what we'll all have to go through one time or another, the Christian as well as the baste!—'T would be well for some of us, if we had as little to answer for as that poor pointher, afther our doin's in this world."

    The other gentlemen had now collected around, with many expressions of condolence on the fate of the poor servant of the chase. Hardress appeared to be affected, in a peculiar manner, by the transaction which he had witnessed. His glances were vague and unsettled, his cheek was deadly pale, and his limbs trembled exceedingly. This was the first shot he had fired in the course of the day, and the nature of the sport in which he was engaged had not once occurred to him, until he saw the blood flowing at his feet. To a mind like his, always sensitive and reflective, and rendered doubly so by the terrific associations of the last few months, the picture of death in this poor quadruped was scarcely less apalling than, it might have been in the person of a fellow mortal. He felt his head grow dizzy, as he turned away from the spot; and, after a few feeble paces, he fell senseless among the rushes.

    The gentlemen hastened to his relief, with looks of astonishment rather than of pity. Some there were, imperfectly acquainted with his character, or perplexed by the extraordinary change which it had lately undergone, who winked and sneered, apart, when he was lifted from the earth; and though no one ventured openly to impute any effeminacy of character to the young gentleman, yet, whenever they spoke of the occurrence in the course of the day, it was not without exchanging a conscious smile.

    On another occasion, a boating parry was formed, when Hardress, as usual, took the rudder in his hand. His father, on entering the little vessel, was somewhat surprized at seeing a new boatman seated on the forecastle.

    "Hello!" he said, "what's your name, my honest fellow?"

    "Larry Kett, sir, plase your honour," returned the man (a sturdy old person, with a face as black as a storm).

    "Why, Hardress, had you a quarrel with your little hunch-back?"

    Hardress stooped suddenly down, as if for the purpose of arranging a block, and after a little silence replied:—

    "No quarrel, sir, but he chose to seek another service, and I do not think I have made a bad exchange."

    The conversation changed, and the party (among whom was Anne Chute) proceeded on their excursion. The wind freshened considerably in the course of the forenoon, and before they had reached that part of the river which flowed by the Dairy cottage of Mr. Daly, it blew a desperate gale. The boatmen, more anxious for the comfort of the ladies, than really apprehensive for the boat, suggested the expediency of putting about on the homeward course before the tide should turn.

    "If you hold on," said the man, with a significant look," until the tide an' wind come conthrary, there 'll be a swell there in the channel, that it is as much as you can do to come through it with the two reefs."

    Hardress assented, but it was already too late. They were now a considerable distance below the Cottage, with a strong westerly wind, and a tide within twenty minutes of the flood.

    "What are you doing, Masther Hardhress?" said the boatman. "Won't you haul home the mainsheet and gibe?"

    Hardress, whose eyes had been fixed on the rocky point before the cottage, started suddenly, and proceeded to execute the nautical manoeuvre in question. The little vessel, as docile to her helm, as a well mounted hunter to his rider, threw her bow away from the wind, and rushed roaring through the surges with a fuller sail and a fiercer energy. After suffering her to run for a few minutes before the wind, Hardress commenced, with due caution, the somewhat dangerous process of gibing or shifting the mainsail from one side of the vessel to the other.

    "Down with ye'r heads ladies, if ye plase, take care o' the boom."

    All the heads were lowered, and the boom swung rapidly across, and the vessel heeled with the sudden impulse, until her leeward gunwale sipped the brine.

    "Give her a free sheet, now, masther Hardress," said Kett, "and we'll be up in two hours."

    All boatmen know that it requires a much steadier hand and more watchful eye, to govern a vessel when the wind is fair, than when it is adverse. A still greater nicety of attention was requisite in the present instance, as the wind was high, and the now returning tide occasioned, as the boatman predicted, a heavy sea in the channel. It was therefore with considerable chagrin, that Larry Kett perceived his master's mind wandering, and his attention frequently altogether withdrawn from the occupation which he had in hand. That nervous disease, to which he had become a slave for many weeks, approached a species of paroxysm when Hardress found himself once more upon the very scene where he had first encountered danger with the unfortunate Eily, and before that dwelling, beneath whose roof he had plighted, to his forgotten friend, the faith which he had since betrayed. It was impossible his reason could preserve its calmness, amid those terrible remembrancers. As the shades of evening fell, assisted by the gloomy clouds that scowled upon the brow of heaven, he became subject to the imaginative weakness of a child. The faces of his companions darkened and grew strange in his eye. The roar of the waters was redoubled, and the howling of the wind, along the barren shores, brought to his mind the horrid cry of the hounds, by which his guilt and his misery had been so fearfully revealed. The shapes of those whom he had wronged seemed to menace him from the gloomy chasms that gaped around between the enormous billows, and the blast came after with a voice of reproach, as if to hurry him onward to a place of dreadful retribution. Sometimes, the corpse of Eily, wrapt in the blue mantle which she generally wore, seemed to be rolled downward from the ridge of a foaming breaker, sometimes the arms seemed stretched to him for aid; and sometimes the pale and shrouded figure of Mrs. Daly seemed, from the gloom, to bend on him a look of quiet sadness and upbraiding. While wholly absorbed in the contemplation of these phantoms, a rough grasp was suddenly laid upon his arm, and a rough voice shouted in his ear:—

    "Are you deaf or dreaming? Mind your hand, or you will put us down!"

    Hardress looked around, like one who suddenly awakes from slumber, and saw his father looking on him with an inflamed and angry countenance. In his reverie, a change had taken place, of which he was wholly unconscious. A heavy shower drove full upon the party, the sky had grown still darker, and the wind had risen still higher. The time had long gone by when the spirits of Hardress caught fire from the sight of danger, and when his energies were concentrated by difficulty, as the firmness of an arch is augmented by the weight which it is made to sustain. The suddenness of his father's action startled him to the very heart,—the strange, and as it appeared to him, sudden change in the weather, confirmed the disorder of his senses, and shrinking downward, as a culprit might do from the sudden arrest of an officer of justice, he abandoned the rudder, and fled with murmurs of affright into the centre of the boat, where he sank exhausted upon the ballast.

    The scene of confusion which ensued it is not needful that we should describe. Larry Kett, utterly unable to comprehend what he beheld, took charge of the helm, while the remainder of the party busied themselves in restoring Hardress to some degree of composure. There was no remark made at the time, but, when the party were separating, some touched their foreheads, and compressed their lips in a serious manner; while others, in secret whispers, ventured for the first time to couple the name of Hardress Cregan with that epithet, which is so deeply dreaded and hated by young men, that they will burst the ties of moral justice, of religion, of humanity, and even incur the guilt of murder, to avoid its imputation,—the epithet of coward.

    Never was there a being more constitutionally formed for deeds of courage, and of enterprize, than Hardress; and yet, (such is the power of conscience), never was a stigma affixed with greater justice. He hurried early to his room, where he passed a night of feverish restlessness, secured indeed from the observation of others, but still subjected to the unwinking gaze of memory, whose glance, like the diamond eyes of the famous idol, seemed to follow him whithersoever he turned, with the same deadly and avenging expression.