40

How Hardress Took a Decisive Step for His Own Security

THE HOSPITALITIES of Castle Chute were on this evening called into active exercise. If the gravest occasion of human life, the vigil of the dead, was not in those days always capable of restraining the impetuous spirit of enjoyment so much indulged in Irish society, how could it be expected that a mere anxiety for the interests of justice could interrupt the flow of their social gaiety? Before midnight, the house rang with laughter, melody, and uproar, and in an hour after, every queue in the servant's hall was brought into a horizontal position. Even the three that stalked on guard were said to oscillate on their posts with an ominous motion, as the bells in churches forbode their fall when shaken by an earthquake.

    Hardress continued too unwell to make his appearance, and this circumstance deprived the company of the society of Anne Chute, and indeed of all the ladies, who took a quiet and rather mournful cup of tea by the drawing-room fire. The wretched subject of their solicitude lay burning on his bed, and listening to the boisterous sounds of mirth that proceeded from the distant parlour, with the ears of a dreaming maniac.

    The place in which his former boatman was confined had been a stable, but was now become too ruinous for use. It was small, and roughly paved. The rack and manger were yet attached to the wall, and a few slates, displaced upon the roof, admitted certain glimpses of moonshine, which fell cold and lonely on the rough, unplastered wall and eaves, making the house illustrious, like that of Sixtus the Fifth. Below, on a heap of loose straw, sat the squalid prisoner, warming his fingers over a small fire, heaped against the wall; and listening in silence to the unsteady tread of the sentinel, as he strode back and forward before the stable-door, and hummed, with an air of suppressed and timid joviality, the words:


    "We won't go home till morning,
    We won't go home till morning,
    We won't go home till morning,
        Until the dawn appears!"

    A small square window, closed with a wooden bar and shutters, was to be found above the rack, and opened on a hay-yard, which being raised considerably above the level of the stable floor, lay only a few feet beneath this aperture. Danny Mann was in the act of devouring a potatoe reeking hot, which he had cooked in the embers, when a noise at the window made him start, and set his ears like a watch-dog. It was repeated. He stood on his feet, and crept softly into a darker corner of the stable, partly in superstitious apprehension, and partly in obedience to an impulse of natural caution. In a few minutes one of the shutters was put gently back, and a flood of mild light was poured into the prison. The shadow of a hand and head were thrown with great distinctness of outline on the opposing wall; the other shutter was put back, with the same caution, and in a few moments nearly the whole aperture was again obscured, as if by the body of some person entering. Such, in fact, was the case; and the evident substantiality of the figure did not remove the superstitious terrors of the prisoner, when he beheld a form wrapt in white descending by the bars of the rack, after having made the window close again, and the apartment, in appearance at least, more gloomy than ever.

    The intruder stood at length upon the floor, and the face, which was revealed in the brown fire-light, was that of Hardress Cregan. The ghastliness of his mouth and teeth, the wildness of his eyes, and the strangeness of his attire, (for he had only wrapped the counterpane around his person) might, in the eyes of a stranger, have confirmed the idea of a supernatural appearance. But these circumstances only tended to arouse the sympathy and old attachment of his servant. Danny Mann advanced towards him slowly, his hands wreathed together, and extended as far as the sling which held the wounded arm would allow, his jaw dropt-half in pity and half in fear, and his eyes filled with tears.

    "Master Hardress," he said at length, "is it you I see dat way?"

    Hardress remained for some time motionless as a statue, as if endeavouring to summon up all his corporeal energies, to support him in the investigation which he was about to make.

    "Won't you speak to me, master?" continued the boatman, "won't you speak a word itself? 'Twas all my endeavour since I came hether to thry an' get 'em to let me speak to you. Say a word, master, if it is only to tell me 'tis yourself that's there!"

    "Where is Eily?" murmured Hardress, still without moving, and in a tone that seemed to come from the recesses of his breast, like a sound from a sepulchre.

    The boatman shrank aside, as if from the eye of justice itself. So suddenly had the question struck upon his conscience, that the inquirer was obliged to repeat it, before he could collect his breath for an answer.

    "Master Hardress, I tought, after I parted you dat time—"

    "Where is Eily?" muttered Hardress, interrupting him.

    "Only listen to me, sir, one moment—"

    "Where is Eily?"

    "Oh, vo! vo!—"

    Hardress drew the counterpane around his head, and remained for several minutes silent in the same attitude. During that time the drapery was scarcely seen to move, and yet hell raged beneath it. A few moans of deep, but smothered agony were all that might be heard from time to time. So exquisite was the sense of suffering which these sounds conveyed, that Danny sank trembling on his knees, and responded to them with floods of tears and sobbing.

    "Master Hardress," he said, "if there's any thing that I can do to make your mind aisy, say the word. I know dis is my own business, an' no one else's. An' if dey find me out, itself, dey'll never be one straw de wiser of who advised me to it. If you tink I'd tell, you don't know me. Dey may hang me as high as dey like;—dey may flake de life out o' me, if dey please, but dey never 'll get a word outside my lips of what it was dat made me do it. Didn't dey try me to-day, and' didn't I give 'em a sign o' what I'd do?"

    "Peace, hypocrite!" said Hardress, disgusted at a show of feeling to which he gave no credit. "Be still, and hear me. For many years back, it has been my study to heap kindnesses upon you. For which of those was it, that you came to the determination of involving me in ruin, danger, and remorse for all my future life,—a little all, it may be, certainly?"

    It would seem from the manner in which Danny gaped and gazed on his master, while he said these words, that a reproach was one of the last things he had expected to receive from Hardress. Astonishment, blended with something like indignation, took place of the compassion which before was visible upon his countenance.

    "I don't know how it is, master Hardress," he said. "Dere are some people dat it is hard to plase. Do you remember saying anyting to me at all of a time in de room at de master's at Killarney, Master Hardress? Do you remember givin' me a glove at all? I had my token surely for what I done."

    So saying, he drew the glove from the folds of his waistcoat, and handed it to his master. But the latter rejected it with a revulsion of strong dislike.

    "I tought I had ears to hear, dat time, an' brains to understand," said Danny as he replaced the fatal token in his bosom, "an' I'm sure, it was no benefit to me dat dere should be a hue and cry over de mountains after a lost lady, an' a chance of a hempen cravat for my trouble. But I had my warrant. Dat was your very word, master Hardress, warrant, wasn't it? 'Well, when you go,' says you, 'here is your warrant.' An' you ga' me de glove. Worn't dem your words?"

    "But not for death," said Hardress. "I did not say for death."

    "I own you didn't," returned Danny, who was aroused by what he considered a shuffling attempt to escape out of the transaction. "I own you didn't. I felt for you, an' I wouldn't wait for you to say it. But you did mane it?"

    "No!" Hardress exclaimed, with a burst of sudden energy. "As I shall answer it in that bright heaven, I did not. If you crowd in among my accusers at the judgment seat, and charge me with that crime, to you, and to all, I shall utter the same disclaimer, that I do at present. I did not mean to practise on her life. As I shall meet with her before that judge, I did not. I even bade you to avoid it, Danny. Did I not warn you not to touch her life?"

    "You did," said Danny, with a scorn which made him eloquent beyond himself, "an' your eye looked murder while you said it. After dis, I never more will look in any man's face to know what he mains. After dis, I won't believe my senses. If you'll persuade me to it, I'll own dat dere is nothing as I see it. You may tell me, I don't stand here, nor you dere, nor dat de moon is shining through dat roof above us, nor de fire burning at my back, an' I'll not gainsay you, after dis. But listen to me, master Hardress. As sure as dat moon is shining, an' dat fire burning; an' as sure as I'm here, an' you dere, so sure de sign of death was on your face dat time, whatever way your words went."

    "From what could you gather it?" said Hardress, with a deprecating accent.

    "From what? From every ting. Listen hether. Didn't you remind me den of my own offer on de Purple Mountain a while before, an' tell me dat if I was to make dat offer again, you'd tink defferent? An' didn't you giv' me de token dat you refused me den? Ah, dis is what makes me sick, after I putting my neck into de halter for a man. Well, it's all one. An' now to call me out o' my name, an' tell me I done it all for harm! Dear knows, it wasn't for any good I hoped for it, here or hereafter, or for any pleasure I took in it, dat it was done. And talkin' of hereafter, Master Hardress, listen to me. Eily O'Connor is in heaven, an' she has told her story. Dere are two books kept dere, dey tell us, of all our doings, good and bad. Her story is wrote in one o' dem books, an' my name, (I'm sore afeerd) is wrote after it; an' take my word for dis, in which ever o' dem books my name is wrote, your own is not far from it."

    As he spoke those words, with an energy beyond what he had ever shewn, the fire fell in, and caused a sudden light to fill the place. It shone, ruddy brown, upon the excited face, and uplifted arm of the deformed, and gave him the appearance of a fiend, denouncing on the head of the affrighted Hardress the sentence of eternal woe. It glared likewise upon the white drapery of the latter, and gave to his dragged and terrified features a look of ghastliness and fear, that might have suited such an occasion well. The dreadful picture continued but for a second, yet it remained engraved upon the sense of Hardress, and like the yelling of the hounds, haunted him awake, and dreaming, to his death. The fire again sunk low, the light grew dim. It came like a dismal vision of the ephialtes, and, like a vision, faded.

    They were aroused from the pause to which this slight incident gave occasion, by hearing the sentinel arrest his steps as he passed before the door, and remain silent in his song, as if in the act of listening.

    "All right within there?" said the sentinel, with his head to the door.

    "All's right your way, but not my way," returned Danny, sulkily.

    In a few minutes, they heard him shoulder his musket once again, and resume his walk, humming with an air of indifference, the same old burthen:—


    "We won't go home till morning,
    Until the dawn appears."

    Hardress remained gazing on his servant for some moments, and then said in a whisper:

    "He has not heard us, as I feared. It is little worth, at this time, to consider on whom the guilt of this unhappy act must fall. We must at least avoid the shame, if possible. Could I depend upon you once again, if I assisted in your liberation, on the understanding that you would at once leave the country?"

    The eyes of the prisoner sparkled with a sudden light. "Do you tink me a fool?" he said. "Do you tink a fox would refuse to run to earth, wit de dogs at his bush?"

    "Here then!" said Hardress, placing a purse in his hand, "I have no choice but to trust you. This window is unguarded. There is a pathway to lead you through the hay-yard, and thence across the field, in the direction of the road. Depart at once, and without farther question."

    "But what'll I do about that fellow?" said Danny. "Dat sentry comes by constant dat way you hear him now, axing me if all's right?"

    "I will remain here and answer for you," said Hardress, "until you have had time to escape. In the mean time, use your utmost speed, and take the road to Cork, where you will be sure to find vessels ready to sail. If ever we should meet again on Irish soil, it must be for the death of either, most probably of both."

    "An' is dis de way we part after all?" said Danny, "Well, den, be it so. Perhaps after you tink longer of it, master, you may tink better of me."

    So saying, he sprang on the manger, and ascended (notwithstanding his hurt) with the agility of a monkey, to the window. A touch undid the fastening, and in a few moments Hardress became the sole occupant of the temporary dungeon.

    He remained for a considerable time, leaning with his shoulder against the wall, and gazing with a vacant eye on the decaying fire. In this situation, the sentinel challenged several times in succession, and seemed well content with the answers which he received. But the train of thought which passed through the mind of Hardress became at length so absorbing that the challenge of the soldier fell unheard upon his ear. After repeating it without avail three or four times, the man became alarmed, and applying the butt of his musket at the door, he forced it in without much effort. His astonishment may be conceived, when instead of his little prisoner, he beheld a tall figure wrapt in white, and a ghastly face on which the embers shed a dreary light. The fellow was a brave soldier, but (like all people of that class in his time) extremely superstitious. His brain, moreover, was heated with whiskey punch, and his imagination excited by numberless tales of horror which had been freely circulated in the servant's hall. Enough only remained of his presence of mind, to enable him to give the alarm by firing his musket, after which he fell senseless on the pavement. Hardress, no less alarmed on his own part, started into sudden energy, and climbing to the window, with an agility even surpassing that of the fugitive, hurried off in the direction of his sleeping chamber.

    There were few in the house who were capable of adopting any vigorous measures on hearing the alarm. Hastening to the spot, they found the sentinel lying senseless across the stock of his musket, the stable door open, and the prisoner fled. The man himself was enabled, after some time, to furnish a confused and broken narrative of what he had seen, and his story was in some degree confirmed by one of his comrades, who stated that at the time when the shot was fired he beheld a tall white figure gliding rapidly amongst the haystacks towards the end of the little enclosure, where it vanished in the shape of a red heifer.

    The sentinel was placed under arrest in an apartment of the Castle, until the pleasure of his officer could be known respecting him. Captain Gibson, however, in common with the other gentlemen, and the greater number of his soldiers, was, at this moment, wholly incapable either of conceiving or expressing any opinion whatsoever.

    This story, as usual, was circulated throughout the country in the course of the following day, with many imaginative embellishments. Amongst other inventions it was said that the ghost of Eily O'Connor had appeared to the centinel to declare the prisoner's innocence and demand his liberation. Many persons adduced the well known character of Eily as a ground for lending credence to this fiction. "It was like her," they said; "she was always a tender-hearted creature."

    The evidence remaining against the other prisoners was now so immaterial, that their dismissal became a necessary consequence. Several efforts were made to draw them into some confession of their participations in the offence alleged, but if they were cautious in their admissions while the murderer was in custody, they would make no admission whatever after hearing of his escape. Equally unavailable were all the exertions made for the re-capture of the suspected fugitive, and in a few weeks the affair had begun to grow unfamiliar to the tongues and recollections of the people.

    Notwithstanding the assurances of Danny, and the danger which he must incur by remaining in the country, a doubt would frequently cross the mind of Hardress, whether he had in reality availed himself of his recovered freedom to leave it altogether. He had money; he had many acquaintances; and he was an Irishman; an indifferent one it is true, but yet possessing the love of expense, of dissipation, and the recklessness of danger, which mingle so largely in the temperament of his countrymen. It was almost an even question, whether he would not risk the chances of detection, for the sake of playing the host among a circle of jolly companions in the purlieus of his native city. These considerations, often discussed between Hardress and his now miserable mother, made them agree to hasten the day of marriage, with the understanding that, (by an anticipation of the modern fashion,) the "happy pair," were to leave home immediately after the ceremony. The south of France was the scene fixed upon for the commencement of their married life, the month of honey.