38

How the Situation of Hardress Became More Critical

ANOTHER occurrence, mingled with somewhat more of the ridiculous, but not less powerful in its effect upon the mind of Hardress, took place in a few days afterwards.

    In the lack of some equally exciting exercise, and in order to form a pretext for his frequent absence from the Castle, Hardress was once more tempted to take up his gun, and look for shore-fowl in the neighbourhood. One morning, when he was occupied in drawing a charge, in the hall, Falvey came running in to let him know that a flock of May-birds had pitched in one of the gullies in the creek, which was now almost deserted by the fallen tide.

    "Are there many?" said Hardress, a little interested.

    "Oceans! oceans of 'em, sir," was the reply of the figurative valet.

    "Very well, do you take this bag, and follow me down to the shore. I think we shall get at them most conveniently from behind the lime-kiln."

    This was a commission which Falvey executed with the worst grace in the world. This talkative person was, in fact, a perfect, and even absurd coward, nor did he consider the absence of any hostile intention as a security, when the power of injury was in his neighbourhood. His dread of fire-arms, like that of Friday, approached to a degree of superstition, and it would appear from his conduct, that he had any thing but a steady faith in the common opinion that a gun must throw its contents in the direction of the bore. Accordingly, it was always with considerable reluctance and apprehension that he accompanied his young master on his shooting excursions. He followed him now with a dejected face, and a sharp and prudent eye, directed ever and anon at the loaded weapon which Hardress balanced in his hand.

    They approached the game under cover of a low ruined building, which had been once used as a lime-kiln, and now served as a blind to those who made it an amusement to scatter destruction among the feathered visitants of the little creek. Arrived at this spot, Hardress perceived that he could take the quarry at a better advantage from a sand bank at some distance on the right. He moved accordingly in that direction, and Falvey, after conjecturing how he might best get out of harm's way, crept into the ruined kiln, and took his seat on the loose stones at the bottom. The walls, though broken down on every side, were yet of a sufficient height to conceal his person, when in a sitting posture, from all observation of man or fowl. Rubbing his hands in glee, and smiling to find himself thus snugly ensconced from danger, he awaited, with an anxiety, not quelled indeed, but yet somewhat diminished, the explosion of the distant engine of death.

    But his evil genius, envious of his satisfaction, found means of putting this tranquility to nought. Hardress altered his judgment of the two stations, and accordingly crept back to the lime kiln with as little noise as he had used in leaving it. He marvelled what had become of Falvey, but reserving the search for him until he had done his part upon the curlew, he went on his knee, and rested the barrel of his piece on the grass-covered wall of the ruin, in such a manner that the muzzle was two inches above the head of the unseen and smiling, and unconscious Falvey. Having levelled on the centre of the flock, he fired, and an uproar ensued which it is almost hopeless to describe. Half a dozen of the birds fell, without hearing the shot, several fluttered a few paces, and then sunk gasping on the slob. The great mass of the flock rose screaming into the calm air, and were chorused by the whistling of myriads of sea larks, red-shanks, and other diminutive water-fowl. But the most alarming strain in the concert was played by poor Falvey, who gave himself up for dead on hearing the shot fired close at his ear in so unexpected a manner. He sprung, at one bound, clear out of the lime-kiln, and fell flat on his face and hands upon the short grass, roaring and kicking his heels into the air, like one in the agonies of the colica pictonum. Terrified to the soul by this startling incident, Hardress threw down his gun, and fled as if from the face of a fiend.

    In the meantime, the cries of the prostrate Falvey attracted to his relief a stranger, who had hitherto lain concealed under a projection of the bank. He jumped up on the wall of the kiln, and remained gazing for some moments on the fallen man, with an expression which partook more of curiosity than of compassion. Seeing the gun, he imagined that Falvey had fired the shot himself, and experienced some injury from the recoil. It was with a kind of sneer, therefore, that he took up the weapon, and proceeded to question the sufferer.

    "What's de matter wit you, man alive? What makes you be roarin' dat way?" "I'm hot!" * returned Falvey with a groan. "I'm hot. The master holed me with the shot. Will I get the priest? Will I get the priest itself?"

    "Where did he hole you?" "There, in the lime-kiln this minute. Will I get the priest?" "

    I mane, where are you hot? In what part o' your body?"

    "Oyeh, it is all one," said Falvey, a little perplexed by the question. "I felt it in the very middle o' my heart. Sure I know I'm a gone man!"

    "How do you know it, ayeh? Straighten yourself, an' sit up a bit. I don't see any signs of a hole."

    Falvey sat up, and began to feel his person in various places, moaning the whole time in the most piteous tone, and looking occasionally on his hands, as if expecting to find them covered with blood. After a minute examination, however, no such symptoms could be discovered.

    "A', dere's nottin de matter wit you, man," said the stranger. "Stand up, man, you're as well as ever you wor."

    "Faiks, may be so," returned Falvey, rising and looking about him with some briskness of eye. "But sure I know," he added, suddenly drooping, "'tis the way always with people when they're holed by a gun, they never feel it until the moment they dhrop."

    "Well, an' isn't it time for you to tink of it when you begin to feel it?" returned the stranger.

    "Faiks, may be so," returned Falvey, with increasing confidence. "That I may be blest," he added, swinging his arms, and moving a few paces with greater freedom, "that I may be blest if I feel any pain!—Faiks, I thought I was hot. But there's one thing any way. As long as ever I live, I never again will go shooting with any man, gentle or simple, during duration."

    "Stay a minute," said the stranger, "won't you go out for the curlews."

    "Go out for 'em yourself, an' have 'em if you like," returned Falvey, "it's bother enough I got with 'em, for birds."

    He took up the gun and pouch, and walked slowly away, while the stranger, after slipping off his shoes and stockings, and turning up the knees of his under-garment, walked out for the game. He had picked up one or two of the birds, and was proceeding farther aiong the brink of the gully, when a sudden shout was heard upon the rocky shore on the other side of the creek. The stranger started and looked, like a frighted deer, in that direction, where Falvey beheld a party of soldiers running down the rocks, as if with the purpose of intercepting his passage round a distant point by which the high road turned. The stranger, possibly aware of their intention, left his shoes, the game, and all, behind him, and fled rapidly across the slob, in the direction of the point. It was clear the soldiers could not overtake him. They halted, therefore, on the shore, and levelling their pieces with deliberation, fired several shots at the fugitive, as after a runaway prisoner. With lips a-gape with horror, Falvey beheld the shining face of the mud torn up by the bullets within a few feet of the latter. He still, however, continued his course unhurt, and was not many yards distant from the opposing shore, when (either caught by a trip, or brought down by some bullet, better aimed) he staggered, and fell in the marl. He rose again, and again sunk down upon his elbow, panting for breath, and overpowered by fatigue and fear. Falvey delayed to see no more; being uncertain at whom their muskets would be next directed. Lowering his person, as far as might be consistent with a suitable speed, he ran along the hedge-ways in the direction of the Castle.

    In the meantime, Hardress, full of horror at the supposed catastrophe, had hurried to his sleeping room, where he flung himself, at full length, upon the bed, and sought, but found not, relief, in exclamations of terror and of agony. "What!" he muttered through his clenched teeth, "shall my hands be always bloody? Can I not move, but death must dog my steps? Must I only breathe to suffer and destroy?"

    A low and broken moan, uttered near his bedside, made him start with a superstitious apprehension. He looked round, and beheld his mother, kneeling at a chair, her face pale, excepting the eyes, which were inflamed with tears. Her hands were wreathed together, as if with a straining exertion, and sobs came thick and fast upon her breath, in spite of all her efforts to restrain them. In a few minutes, while he remained gazing on her, in some perplexity, she arose from her knees, and, standing by his bedside, laid her hand quietly upon his head.

    "I have been trying to pray," she said, "but I fear in vain. It was a selfish prayer, for it was offered up for you. If you fear death and shame, you will soon have cause to tremble. For a mother who loves her son, all guilty as he is, and for a son who would not see his parents brought to infamy, there have been fearful tidings here since morning."

    Hardress could only look the intense anxiety which he felt, to learn what those tidings were.

    "In few words," said Mrs. Cregan, "the dress of that unhappy girl has been recognized, and by a train of circumstances (command yourself a while! )—circumstances which this sick head of mine will hardly allow me to detail, suspicion has fallen upon your former boatman and his family. Do you know where he is?"

    "I have not seen him since the—the—I know not,—but my orders were, that he should leave the country, and I gave him money for the purpose."

    "Thank heaven for that!" Mrs. Cregan exclaimed, with her usual steady energy, while she clasped her hands together, and looked upward with a rapt fervour of expression. The action, however, was quickly altered to a chilly shudder. She looked suddenly to the earth, veiling her eyes with her hand, as if a rapid light had dazzled her. "Thank heaven!" she repeated, in a tone of terrified surprize. "O mighty Being, Origin of Justice, and Judge of the guilty, forgive me for that impious gratitude! Oh, Dora Cregan, if any one had told you in your youth that you should one day thank heaven to find a murderer safe from justice! I do not mean you, my child," she said, turning to Hardress, "you are no murderer."

    Hardress made no reply, and Mrs. Cregan remained silent for a few minutes, as if deliberating on the course which it would be necessary for her to adopt. The deception practised on Anne Chute was not among the least of those circumstances which made her situation one of agonizing perplexity. But her fate had been already decided, and it would be only to make the ruin of her son assured, if she attempted now to separate the destiny of Anne from theirs.

    "We must hasten this marriage," Mrs. Cregan continued, after a silence of some minutes, "and, in the meantime, endeavour to get those people, the Naughtens, out of the way. They will be sought for without delay. Mr. Warner has been enquiring for you, that he might obtain some information of your boatman. I told him that you had parted with the man long since, and that you did not know whither he had gone. Do you think you could sustain an interview with him?"

    Hardress, who was now sitting up pale, and with features dragged by terror, on the bedside, replied to this question by a chilly shudder, and a vacant stare.

    "We must keep him out, then," said his mother, "or if he must see you, it shall be in your chamber. There is still one way by which you might be saved, the way which you proposed yourself, though I was not then sufficiently at ease to perceive its advantages. Go boldly forward and denounce this wretch, lay all the information in your power before the magistrate, and aid the officers of justice in bringing him to punishment."

    Hardress turned his dull and bloodshot eyes upon his mother, as if to examine whether she was serious in this proposition. If a corpse, rigid in death, could be stimulated to a galvanic laugh, one might expect to find it such a hideous convulsion, as Hardress used on discovering that she did not mock.

    "No, mother," he said, curbing the Sardonic impulse. "I am not innocent enough for that."

    "Why will you so perversely do yourself a wrong?" said Mrs. Cregan. "Neither in your innocence, nor in your culpability, do you seem to form a proper estimate of your conduct. You are not so guilty as——"

    "Very true, mother," said Hardress, impatient of the subject, and cutting it short with a burst of fierceness, scarcely less shocking than his laughter. "If the plea of conscious guilt will not suffice, you may take my refusal upon your own ground. I am too innocent for that. I am not fiend enough for such a treachery. Pray let me hear no more of it, or I shall sicken. There's some one has knocked three times at the room door. I am quite weary of playing the traitor, and if I had nothing but pure heart-sickness to restrain me, I should yet long for a reform. My brain will bear no more; a single crime would crush it now. Again?—There's some one at the door."

    "Well, Hardress, I will speak with you of this at night."

    "With all my heart. You say things sometimes that go near to drive me mad, but yet you always talk to me as a friend, for my own sake, and kindly. Mother!" he added, suddenly laying his hand on her arm, as she passed him, and as the light fell brighter on her thin and gloomy features. "Mother, how changed you are since this unhappy act! You are worn out with fears and sorrows. It has been my fate, or fault—(I will not contend for the distinction,) to scatter poison in the way of all who knew me. A lost love for one, for another, falsehood, desertion, death. For a third duplicity and ingratitude, and even for you, my mother, ill health, a sinking heart and a pining frame. I can promise nothing now. My mind is so distracted with a thousand images and recollections, (each one of which, a year since, I would have thought sufficient to unsettle my reason,) that I know not how to offer you a word of comfort. But if these gloomy days should be destined to pass away, and (whether by penitence, or some sudden mercy,) my heart should once again be visited with a quieter grief, I will then remember your affection."

    There was a time when this speech would have been moonlight music to the ear of Mrs. Cregan. Now, her esteem for Hardress being fled, and a good deal of self-reproach brought in to sour the feeling with which she regarded his conduct, it was only in his moments of danger, of anger, or distress, that her natural affections were forcibly aroused in his behalf. Still, however, it did not fail to strike upon her heart. She sunk weeping upon his neck, and loaded him with blessing and caresses.

    "I do not look for thanks, Hardress," she said, at length disengaging herself, as if in reproof of her weakness, "because I do the part of a mother. All that you have said, my child, in my regard, is very vain and idle. A quiet, at least a happy, fire-side is a blessing that I can never more enjoy, nor do I even hope for it. It is not because I think your guilt not worthy of the extreme punishment of the laws, that therefore, I should deem it possible we can either of us forget our share in the horrid deed that has been done. Let us not disguise the truth from our own hearts. We are a wretched, and a guilty, pair, with enough of sin upon our hands to make our future life a load of fear and penitence."

    "I did but speak it," said the son, with some peevishness of tone, "in consideration of your suffering."

    "I wish, Hardress, my child, that you had considered me a little more early."

    "You did not encourage me to a confidence," said Hardress. "You repressed it."

    "You should not," retorted the mother, "have needed an encouragement, under circumstances so decisive. Married! If you had breathed a word of it to me, I would have sooner died than urged you as I did."

    "I told you I was pledged."

    "You did: aye, there indeed, my son, your reproach strikes home. I thought that you would only break a verbal troth, and most unjustly did I wish that you should break it. How fearfully has heaven repaid me for that selfish and unfeeling act! But you were all too close and secret for me. Go—go, unhappy boy; you taunt me with the seduction which was only the work of your own shameful passion."

    This painful dialogue, which, perhaps, would have risen to a still more bitter tone of recrimination, was broken off by a renewal of the summons at the door. It appeared as if the applicant for admission had gone away in despair, and again returned after a fruitless search elsewhere. On opening the door, Mrs. Cregan encountered the surly visage of Dan Dawley, who informed her in his usual gruff and laconic phrase that her presence was required in the ball-room;—such was the name given to that apartment in which Hardress had made to her a confession of his guilt. When she had left the chamber, Hardress, who grew momently more weak and ill, prepared himself for bed, and bade the old steward send him one of the servants. This commission the surly functionary discharged, on returning to the servant's hall, by intimating his master's desire to Pat Falvey, who had entered some time before.

    Mrs. Cregan, in the mean time, proceeded to the chamber above mentioned, which she could only reach by passing through the narrow hall and winding staircase near the entrance. The former presented a scene calculated to alarm and perplex her. A number of soldiers, with their soaped and powdered queues, and musket barrels shining like silver, were stuck up close to the wall on either side, like the wax figures in the shop of a London tailor. On the gravel, before the door, she could see a number of country people, who had collected about the door, wondering what could have brought 'the army' to Castle Chute. From the door of the kitchen and servant's hall, a number of heads were thrust out, with faces indicative of a similar degree of astonishment and curiosity.

    Passing through this formidable array, Mrs. Cregan ascended the stairs, and was admitted at he door of the ball-room by a figure, as solemn and formidable as those below. The interior of the room presented a scene of still more startling interest. A table was spread in the centre, around which were standing Mr. Warner the magistrate, Mr. Barnaby Cregan, Captain Gibson, and a clerk. At the farther end of the table, his arm suspended in a cotton handkerchief, stood a low, squalid, and ill-shaped figure, his dress covered with mud, and his face, which was soiled with blood and marl, rather expressive of surprise and empty wonder, than of apprehension or of suffering.

    Mrs. Cregan, who recognised the figure, paused for a moment in a revulsion of the most intense anxiety, and then walked calmly forward with that air of easy dignity which she could assume even when her whole nature was at war within her. This power of veiling her inward struggles even to the extremity of endurance, made her resemble a fair tower sapped in the foundation, which shows no symptom of a weakness, up to the very instant of destruction; and is a ruin, even before the sentiment of admiration has faded on the beholder's mind.






 








* An Irish preterite for the word hit.