Volume Two


4


UPON the evening of the second day after the scene described in the last chapter, in a town about twenty miles from Dublin, (out of particular motives of delicacy we do not give its name) a charitable club, composed of the respectable middle classes of the place, held its weekly sitting. Throughout many of the towns of Ireland there are several of such clubs, very numerous in their members, and very moderate in their annual subscriptions, and all having in view the relief of objects of different kinds,

     The objects assisted by the club at present noticed, were poor way-farers, who, in passing through the town might stand in need of some little sum to gain them temporary food and lodging, and perhaps a help on their road. Its sittings, like those of all the others, commenced at seven or eight o'clock in the evening, when good folks might conveniently leave home, business, and wife for a few hours, and, each sure of meeting a neighbour's face in the club-room, rationally combine together a little relaxation, a little chat, a little charity, and a little whiskey punch. Let us not be supposed to speak in the slightest terms of satire of such excellent institutions. We have known many of them, humble as might be their pretensions, do a great deal of good; while the antiquity of several of them (we could name one which has endured nearly a century) proves a persevering, an abiding, and an inherited benevolence, that reflects much honour on their native towns and cities.

     The president of the night sat in his great high-backed, quaintly carved, venerable oak chair, worn into a polish all over from constant use, and ornamented with a coronal wreath of peace and charity, and faded gold letters, impressed on a blue garter, expressive of the name and object of the club. The ancient secretary, a superannuated pedagogue, whose father before him had held the same office, put on his spectacles, mended his pen, opened his huge well-thumbed book, called "order" in the name of the chair, and business commenced, amid the grave looks of the elder members, and the sly winks and hems of some of the juniors, who saw no crime in dispensing charity with a light heart, and who were content to brave, now and then, the primitive fine of one halfpenny, for a jest upon the precision and peculiarities of "Mr. Sec."

     Referring to his official copy of the last list of objects, with the several sums dealt out attached to each name, he noticed to the last week's president, (who had received it from him for service, and whose further duty it was afterwards to give in his report, in the club-room,) to go over it aloud, along with him. As he called the names, the ex-president communicated, in brief words, his observations upon the cases of each; for instance, when the secretary cried aloud, "Peter Dowling," or "Mark Cassidy," or "Mary Whelan," he answered in this sort—"Peter Dowling returns thanks, and walked for—— this morning;" or "Mark Cassidy prays another week's money;" or "strike off Mary Whelan; I saw her running out of Roman's public-house, to jump into bed, and be sick, before I could pay her a visit to serve the allowance."

     As the reading of the list continued, the name of Nancy Clancy occurred, and the last week's president prayed, in her name, a continuance of the charity.

     "Stop," cried a young fellow, with a wink to his neighbours, "is that the pretty little strange girl that has a bed in the widow Laffin's cabin?" The ex-president answered it was: "then strike out Nancy Clancy, for I saw somebody—I won't tell who," again winking towards the grave ex- president, "comin' out from her, last night, afther nine o'clock; no time for servin' the list, at any rate."

     The village jest was taken, the club set up a roar, and the secretary rose to give notice of a fine, according to the rules, against "Masther Brenan," for a tendency to impurity in his speech; the question to be debated after the more regular business had been disposed of.

     "Here, Mr. Sec. to save you trouble," laughed the accused party, rolling up a half-penny.

     The reading of the list was over; the secretary prepared his new one for the present week; and while he was making it out, the acting president signified that this was the time for recommending new objects. His predecessor rose, and gave in the name of George Spike, as a fit object for the largest allowance the usage of the club would afford.

     "He is a stranger, of course, Mr. Fagan?" asked the president, addressing the speaker.

     "He is, Sir; and, I believe, a gentleman in distress," answered Mr. Fagan.

     "And has a young wife, I'll engage, Mr. President," remarked "Master Brenan."

     "He has, Sir; a very young creature."

     "I thought as much, Sir."

     "Order, Master Brenan!" cried the secretary.

     "Where did you visit him?" continued the president.

     "I didn't visit him, at all," answered Mr. Fagan; "but I'll tell the club how it was. Some of the objects on my list lived more than a mile outside the town, and as I had many calls to make in the town itself, I left the suburbs for the last, and wasn't able to get through with the whole till late this evening, just before I came to the room. Well: in crossing over the Dublin road, to come on a scattered row of cabins, where the road hasn't a house at one side or other, I met this poor fellow, standin' in the rain an' could, for it's a rough April evenin', with his back against the fence; and the crature of a wife in his arms, sinking with fatigue and hunger, I suppose, and himself little betther off than she was. There's a lone, waste cabin, built in a lone field, off o' the road, belongin' to a tenant of a friend o' mine, that never was able to live in it for the wet and damp, and afther a few words, I helped him to lift her over the fence, and lay her down in the cabin; and then I went for a bundle o' sthraw, to put under her, and gave him an advance of half-a-crown, and asked him, was she well enough to be brought into the sthreets o' the town, where we might get her and him a dacent lodgin', and an apothecary, if need was: but the poor man only shook his head, and knelt down by her, and took her hand, and said, 'twas betther not stir her yet; but he would buy food and dhrink with the half-crown, he said; and he thanked me much. I bid him look about a spark of fire, and a scrap of candle; and he said he would do that too: and then I left him, being in such a hurry to the club, making him promise, that if she didn't grow betther, he would come to my house, or to this room, before bed-time."

     This case silenced all present disposition to merriment in the club, and the name of George Spike was entered on the list for the next week, at the allowance of one crown, the highest the rules could warrant.

     "What made you think he seemed like a gentleman in distress, Mr. Fagan?" asked Master Brenan, in a changed tone.

     "Not his clothes, Will," answered Mr. Fagan; "for he has hardly a rag on his back, and never a shoe to his foot, nor a hat on his head; but his words, and the way he bore it all,—that was what made me think so."

     "He ought to be visited arly to-morrow mornin', Sir; will you let me walk out with you, at six o'clock?"

     Mr. Fagan assented. The club closed. The elder members retired, betimes, to their reputable beds; and though some of the juniors, and Will Brenan among the number, staid up tippling to rather a late hour, he was not much behind-hand in his appointment with Mr. Fagan, the next morning.

     The elderly and the young man struck out of the clustering thatched suburb, upon the Dublin road, and about a quarter of an hour's walk brought them in view of the lonely cabin in the lonely field.

     "And now for your poor gentleman, Misther Fagan," said the youngster, as he vaulted from the crisp, frosty road, into the whitened grass; "I'm longin' to see how he is afther the night; but all is safe, I suppose, or he'd send or come to you, as you bid him."

     "I hope so," answered Mr. Fagan.

     "Is the wife as purty as she's young, Sir?" continued the lad, jeeringly.

     "Nonsense, now, Will; it's a shame, and nothin' else, to make light of a case of disthress, not to talk of my years:—but stop," as they approached very near to the cabin,—"where's the dour of the house gone, I wondher?"

     "Aha!" cried Will, "and your advance of the half-crown, Misther Fagan. I thought they'd be no betther than they ought to be."

     "Let us step in, anyhow." They crossed the threshold—but sprang back, with a common cry, the moment they had done so. The door of the cabin, which they had supposed to have been stolen, lay, supported by four large stones, on the wet floor; upon it lay the corpse of a beautiful young woman, of which the arms clasped a new-born babe, also dead, to the breast; a rushlight, stuck in a lump of yellow clay, flickered by their side; and at their feet, kneeling on one knee, while the raised knee propped his arm, and the arm his head, appeared a young man, his face as white as theirs, except where a black beard, long unshorn, covered it. The fingers of the hand that supported his head, grasped and ran twining through an abundance of dishevelled black hair. The other hand was thrust into his bosom. His unwinking, distended eyes were riveted on the lowly bier.

     "The Lord save us!" whispered Mr. Fagan, outside the door; "many's the poor wake I've looked at in my time, but never the likes o' that."

     "He's mad," replied the youth, also in a whisper; "no one but a disthracted crature could think of doin' what he done, takin' the dour off o' the hinges, and gettin' the stones, and all: and may be he watched them, that way, the night long."

     "God preserve us! maybe so," resumed his companion, crossing himself; "and found the rushlight on the hub, I suppose, and went out to light it at a neighbour's cabin; and did you see his ould coat taken off, and thrown over the infant, all but the head?"

     "What's to be done?" asked Will Brenan, "he can't be left here: come in again, though I'm a'most afraid, and let us spake to him."

     "Come, then, in the name of God."

     They stept lightly, once more, into the cabin. John Nowlan appeared precisely in the same position; but, as they again entered, he fixed on them one flaring look, and instantly reassumed his set gaze on the bier. They spoke. He did not answer.

     "It's as I tould you," resumed Will; "he's mad, and neither hears us, nor heeds the sight before him."

     "Do I not?" cried John, springing up and darting to them, his right hand still plunged into his breast; "mad I may be—mad I am—but do I not heed nor feel! Look at that!" He tore the hand from under his shirt, and with it a portion of the mangled muscle of his breast. "Look at that! there's the way I was trying to keep it down."

     They spoke to him all the comfort that, as perfect strangers, horrified by such a scene, they could naturally suggest. But he did not answer again. They left him to apply to another charitable club for a coffin. They returned with it, called upon the neighbours, and buried for him, as the wandering poor are buried in Ireland, his supposed wife and child. He grew passive in their hands. He received the articles of dress he most needed, and a little sum of money, collected through the town. He walked after the coffin to the grave, and, when all was done, asked to be left alone. The sorrowing crowd withdrew, a few only remaining, out of sight, to watch,— for they feared what he might do. But when he thought himself quite alone, he only flung himself upon the fresh grave; and, after some time, started up, walked rapidly out of the town, and to this day remains unknown, by his real name, among its simple and charitable inhabitants.

     But in some days after, his old friend, Mr. Kennedy, had a sight of him among his native hills. The clergyman had been attending a sick call at some distance, and was riding slowly homeward, along a rough and narrow road. The moon shone high in the heavens. At an abrupt turn in the road, a man, haggard, wild, and greatly agitated, jumped from a bank, some paces before him, holding a blunderbuss upon his arm. At the same instant, Mr. Kennedy dismounted and faced him. "I am John Nowlan!" shrieked the wretch, "and you have cursed me, and banned me, and ruined me and her:—she is dead!" presenting the blunderbuss.

     "I know you, John," replied the old priest, erecting himself to his full height; "and I know, too, I have done my terrible duty by you; and now you are here to kill me for it—that so you may add a priest's murder to a priest's apostacy. Do, then! fire on my grey hairs, John Nowlan, and the sacrament lying on my breast! look here!" snatching out the little case in which John knew the sacrament was usually carried to the sick; "and now, pull your trigger, man!—fire!" extending his arms:—then, as his tone rose into one of stern and loud command, "Sinner! down at my feet! you dare not pull a trigger!"

     The courageous old man augured aright. John Nowlan cast the deadly weapon on the ground, and flung himself after it: the frenzy that urged him to the horrid attempt, having at once quailed before the voice which his ear had, from infancy, been accustomed to obey, and in the presence of the sacrament which even madness durst not steep in blood. As for an instant he lay upon the earth, the old clergyman prepared himse!f to address the poor outcast in another tone; but at the first sound of his words in kindness, John leapt up, and bounded, howling, from the road. Mr. Kennedy remounted his horse to pursue; called up some peasants, who joined him; and the search was continued until morning, but in vain. Upon the rugged banks of a mountain river, swollen with late rains, they found, indeed, a hat, and some letters directed to John Nowlan; and at the discovery all crossed themselves, and stared aghast at one another; and for many years it was believed among his native wilds, that John Nowlan had ended by suicide a life of crying sin. His own family, however, were not made acquainted with the report; nor, as has before been mentioned, did Mr. Kennedy ever divulge the shocking rencontre which had that night taken place between him and his unfortunate relative.