It may or may not be agreeable to have attained the age of thirty-eight, but, judging from old photographs, the privilege of being nineteen has also its drawbacks. I turned over page after page of an ancient book in which were enshrined portraits of the friends of my youth, singly, in David and Jonathan couples, and in groups in which I, as it seemed to my mature and possibly jaundiced perception, always contrived to look the most immeasurable young bounder of the lot. Our faces were fat, and yet I cannot remember ever having been considered fat in my life; we indulged in low-necked shirts, in “Jemima” ties with diagonal stripes; we wore coats that seemed three sizes too small, and trousers that were three sizes too big; we also wore small whiskers.
I stopped at last at one of the David and Jonathan memorial portraits. Yes, here was the object of my researches; this stout and earnestly romantic youth was Leigh Kelway, and that fatuous and chubby young person seated on the arm of his chair was myself. Leigh Kelway was a young man ardently believed in by a large circle of admirers, headed by himself and seconded by me, and for some time after I had left Magdalen for Sandhurst, I maintained a correspondence with him on large and abstract subjects. This phase of our friendship did not survive; I went soldiering to India, and Leigh Kelway took honours and moved suitably on into politics, as is the duty of an earnest young Radical with useful family connections and an independent income. Since then I had at intervals seen in the papers the name of the Honourable Basil Leigh Kelway mentioned as a speaker at elections, as a writer of thoughtful articles in the reviews, but we had never met, and nothing could have been less expected by me than the letter, written from Mrs. Raverty’s Hotel, Skebawn, in which he told me he was making a tour in Ireland with Lord Waterbury, to whom he was private secretary. Lord Waterbury was at present having a few days’ fishing near Killarney, and he himself, not being a fisherman, was collecting statistics for his chief on various points connected with the Liquor Question in Ireland. He had heard that I was in the neighbourhood, and was kind enough to add that it would give him much pleasure to meet me again.
With a stir of the old enthusiasm I wrote begging him to be my guest for as long as it suited him, and the following afternoon he arrived at Shreelane. The stout young friend of my youth had changed considerably. His important nose and slightly prominent teeth remained, but his wavy hair had withdrawn intellectually from his temples; his eyes had acquired a statesmanlike absence of expression, and his neck had grown long and bird-like. It was his first visit to Ireland, as he lost no time in telling me, and he and his chief had already collected much valuable information on the subject to which they had dedicated the Easter recess. He further informed me that he thought of popularising the subject in a novel, and therefore intended to, as he put it, “master the brogue” before his return.
During the next few days I did my best for Leigh Kelway. I turned him loose on Father Scanlan; I showed him Mohona, our champion village, that boasts fifteen public-houses out of twenty buildings of sorts and a railway station; I took him to hear the prosecution of a publican for selling drink on a Sunday, which gave him an opportunity of studying perjury as a fine art, and of hearing a lady, on whom police suspicion justly rested, profoundly summed up by the sergeant as “a woman who had th’ appairance of having knocked at a back door.”
The net result of these experiences has not yet been given to the world by Leigh Kelway. For my own part, I had at the end of three days arrived at the conclusion that his society, when combined with a note-book and a thirst for statistics, was not what I used to find it at Oxford. I therefore welcomed a suggestion from Mr. Flurry Knox that we should accompany him to some typical country races, got up by the farmers at a place called Lisheen, some twelve miles away. It was the worst road in the district, the races of the most grossly unorthodox character; in fact, it was the very place for Leigh Kelway to collect impressions of Irish life, and in any case it was a blessed opportunity of disposing of him for the day.
In my guest’s attire next morning I discerned an unbending from the role of cabinet minister towards that of sportsman; the outlines of the note-book might be traced in his breast pocket, but traversing it was the strap of a pair of field-glasses, and his light grey suit was smart enough for Goodwood.
Flurry was to drive us to the races at one o’clock, and we walked to Tory Cottage by the short cut over the hill, in the sunny beauty of an April morning. Up to the present the weather had kept me in a more or less apologetic condition; any one who has entertained a guest in the country knows the unjust weight of responsibility that rests on the shoulders of the host in the matter of climate, and Leigh Kelway, after two drenchings, had become sarcastically resigned to what I felt he regarded as my mismanagement.
Flurry took us into the house for a drink and a biscuit, to keep us going, as he said, till “we lifted some luncheon out of the Castle Knox people at the races,” and it was while we were thus engaged that the first disaster of the day occurred. The dining-room door was open, so also was the window of the little staircase just outside it, and through the window travelled sounds that told of the close proximity of the stable-yard; the clattering of hoofs on cobble stones, and voices uplifted in loud conversation. Suddenly from this region there arose a screech of the laughter peculiar to kitchen flirtation, followed by the clank of a bucket, the plunging of a horse, and then an uproar of wheels and galloping hoofs. An instant afterwards Flurry’s chestnut cob, in a dogcart, dashed at full gallop into view, with the reins streaming behind him, and two men in hot pursuit. Almost before I had time to realise what had happened, Flurry jumped through the half-opened window of the dining-room like a clown at a pantomime, and joined in the chase; but the cob was resolved to make the most of his chance, and went away down the drive and out of sight at a pace that distanced every one save the kennel terrier, who sped in shrieking ecstasy beside him.
“Oh merciful hour!” exclaimed a female voice behind me. Leigh Kelway and I were by this time watching the progress of events from the gravel, in company with the remainder of Flurry’s household. “The horse is desthroyed! Wasn’t that the quare start he took! And all in the world I done was to slap a bucket of wather at Michael out the windy, and ’twas himself got it in place of Michael!”
“Ye’ll never ate another bit, Bridgie Dunnigan,” replied the cook, with the exulting pessimism of her kind. “The Master’ll have your life!”
Both speakers shouted at the top of their voices, probably because in spirit they still followed afar the flight of the cob.
Leigh Kelway looked serious as we walked on down the drive. I almost dared to hope that a note on the degrading oppression of Irish retainers was shaping itself. Before we reached the bend of the drive the rescue party was returning with the fugitive, all, with the exception of the kennel terrier, looking extremely gloomy. The cob had been confronted by a wooden gate, which he had unhesitatingly taken in his stride, landing on his head on the farther side with the gate and the cart on top of him, and had arisen with a lame foreleg, a cut on his nose, and several other minor wounds.
“You’d think the brute had been fighting the cats, with all the scratches and scrapes he has on him!” said Flurry, casting a vengeful eye at Michael, “and one shaft’s broken and so is the dashboard. I haven’t another horse in the place; they’re all out at grass, and so there’s an end of the races!”
We all three stood blankly on the hall-door steps and watched the wreck of the trap being trundled up the avenue.
“I’m very sorry you’re done out of your sport,” said Flurry to Leigh Kelway, in tones of deplorable sincerity; “perhaps, as there’s nothing else to do, you’d like to see the hounds ——?”
I felt for Flurry, but of the two I felt more for Leigh Kelway as he accepted this alleviation. He disliked dogs, and held the newest views on sanitation, and I knew what Flurry’s kennels could smell like. I was lighting a precautionary cigarette, when we caught sight of an old man riding up the drive. Flurry stopped short.
“Hold on a minute,” he said; “here’s an old chap that often brings me horses for the kennels; I must see what he wants.”
The man dismounted and approached Mr. Knox, hat in hand, towing after him a gaunt and ancient black mare with a big knee.
“Well, Barrett,” began Flurry, surveying the mare with his hands in his pockets, “I’m not giving the hounds meat this month, or only very little.”
“Ah, Master Flurry,” answered Barrett, “it’s you that’s pleasant! Is it give the like o’ this one for the dogs to ate! She’s a vallyble strong young mare, no more than shixteen years of age, and ye’d sooner be lookin’ at her goin’ under a side-car than eatin’ your dinner.”
“There isn’t as much meat on her as ‘d fatten a jackdaw,” said Flurry, clinking the silver in his pockets as he searched for a matchbox. “What are you asking for her?”
The old man drew cautiously up to him.
“Master Flurry,” he said solemnly, “I’ll sell her to your honour for five pounds, and she’ll be worth ten after you give her a month’s grass.”
Flurry lit his cigarette; then he said imperturbably, “I’ll give you seven shillings for her.”
Old Barrett put on his hat in silence, and in silence buttoned his coat and took hold of the stirrup leather. Flurry remained immovable. “Master Flurry,” said old Barrett suddenly, with tears in his voice, “you must make it eight, sir!”
“Michael!” called out Flurry with apparent irrelevance, “run up to your father’s and ask him would he lend me a loan of his side-car.”
Half-an-hour later we were, improbable as it may seem, on our way to Lisheen races. We were seated upon an outside-car of immemorial age, whose joints seemed to open and close again as it swung in and out of the ruts, whose tattered cushions stank of rats and mildew, whose wheels staggered and rocked like the legs of a drunken man. Between the shafts jogged the latest addition to the kennel larder, the eight-shilling mare. Flurry sat on one side, and kept her going at a rate of not less than four miles an hour; Leigh Kelway and I held on to the other.
“She’ll get us as far as Lynch’s anyway,” said Flurry, abandoning his first contention that she could do the whole distance, as he pulled her on to her legs after her fifteenth stumble, “and he’ll lend us some sort of a horse, if it was only a mule.”
“Do you notice that these cushions are very damp?” said Leigh Kelway to me, in a hollow undertone.
“Small blame to them if they are!” replied Flurry. “I’ve no doubt but they were out under the rain all day yesterday at Mrs. Hurly’s funeral.”
Leigh Kelway made no reply, but he took his note-book out of his pocket and sat on it.
We arrived at Lynch’s at a little past three, and were there confronted by the next disappointment of this disastrous day. The door of Lynch’s farmhouse was locked, and nothing replied to our knocking except a puppy, who barked hysterically from within.
“All gone to the races,” said Flurry philosophically, picking his way round the manure heap. “No matter, here’s the filly in the shed here. I know he’s had her under a car.”
An agitating ten minutes ensued, during which Leigh Kelway and I got the eight-shilling mare out of the shafts and the harness, and Flurry, with our inefficient help, crammed the young mare into them. As Flurry had stated that she had been driven before, I was bound to believe him, but the difficulty of getting the bit into her mouth was remarkable, and so also was the crab-like manner in which she sidled out of the yard, with Flurry and myself at her head, and Leigh Kelway hanging on to the back of the car to keep it from jamming in the gateway.
“Sit up on the car now,” said Flurry when we got out on to the road; “I’ll lead her on a bit. She’s been ploughed anyway; one side of her mouth’s as tough as a gad!”
Leigh Kelway threw away the wisp of grass with which he had been cleaning his hands, and mopped his intellectual forehead; he was very silent. We both mounted the car, and Flurry, with the reins in his hand, walked beside the filly, who, with her tail clasped in, moved onward in a succession of short jerks.
“Oh, she’s all right!” said Flurry, beginning to run, and dragging the filly into a trot; “once she gets started —” Here the filly spied a pig in a neighbouring field, and despite the fact that she had probably eaten out of the same trough with it, she gave a violent side spring, and broke into a gallop.
“Now we’re off!” shouted Flurry, making a jump at the car and clambering on; “if the traces hold we’ll do!”
The English language is powerless to suggest the view-halloo with which Mr. Knox ended his speech, or to do more than indicate the rigid anxiety of Leigh Kelway’s face as he regained his balance after the preliminary jerk, and clutched the back rail. It must be said for Lynch’s filly that she did not kick; she merely fled, like a dog with a kettle tied to its tail, from the pursuing rattle and jingle behind her, with the shafts buffeting her dusty sides as the car swung to and fro. Whenever she showed any signs of slackening, Flurry loosed another yell at her that renewed her panic, and thus we precariously covered another two or three miles of our journey.
Had it not been for a large stone lying on the road, and had the filly not chosen to swerve so as to bring the wheel on top of it, I dare say we might have got to the races; but by an unfortunate coincidence both these things occurred, and when we recovered from the consequent shock, the tire of one of the wheels had come off, and was trundling with cumbrous gaiety into the ditch. Flurry stopped the filly and began to laugh; Leigh Kelway said something startlingly unparliamentary under his breath.
“Well, it might be worse,” Flurry said consolingly as he lifted the tire on to the car; “we’re not half a mile from a forge.”
We walked that half-mile in funereal procession behind the car; the glory had departed from the weather, and an ugly wall of cloud was rising up out of the west to meet the sun; the hills had darkened and lost colour, and the white bog cotton shivered in a cold wind that smelt of rain.
By a miracle the smith was not at the races, owing, as he explained, to his having “the toothaches,” the two facts combined producing in him a morosity only equalled by that of Leigh Kelway. The smith’s sole comment on the situation was to unharness the filly, and drag her into the forge, where he tied her up. He then proceeded to whistle viciously on his fingers in the direction of a cottage, and to command, in tones of thunder, some unseen creature to bring over a couple of baskets of turf. The turf arrived in process of time, on a woman’s back, and was arranged in a circle in a yard at the back of the forge. The tire was bedded in it, and the turf was with difficulty kindled at different points.
“Ye’ll not get to the races this day,” said the smith, yielding to a sardonic satisfaction; “the turf’s wet, and I haven’t one to do a hand’s turn for me.” He laid the wheel on the ground and lit his pipe.
Leigh Kelway looked pallidly about him over the spacious empty landscape of brown mountain slopes patched with golden furze and seamed with grey walls; I wondered if he were as hungry as I. We sat on stones opposite the smouldering ring of turf and smoked, and Flurry beguiled the smith into grim and calumnious confidences about every horse in the country. After about an hour, during which the turf went out three times, and the weather became more and more threatening, a girl with a red petticoat over her head appeared at the gate of the yard, and said to the smith:
“The horse is gone away from ye.”
“Where?” exclaimed Flurry, springing to his feet.
“I met him walking wesht the road there below, and when I thought to turn him he commenced to gallop.”
“Pulled her head out of the headstall,” said Flurry, after a rapid survey of the forge. “She’s near home by now.”
It was at this moment that the rain began; the situation could scarcely have been better stage-managed. After reviewing the position, Flurry and I decided that the only thing to do was to walk to a public-house a couple of miles farther on, feed there if possible, hire a car, and go home.
It was an uphill walk, with mild generous raindrops striking thicker and thicker on our faces; no one talked, and the grey clouds crowded up from behind the hills like billows of steam. Leigh Kelway bore it all with egregious resignation. I cannot pretend that I was at heart sympathetic, but by virtue of being his host I felt responsible for the breakdown, for his light suit, for everything, and divined his sentiment of horror at the first sight of the public-house.
It was a long, low cottage, with a line of dripping elm-trees overshadowing it; empty cars and carts round its door, and a babel from within made it evident that the race-goers were pursuing a gradual homeward route. The shop was crammed with steaming countrymen, whose loud brawling voices, all talking together, roused my English friend to his first remark since we had left the forge.
“Surely, Yeates, we are not going into that place?” he said severely; “those men are all drunk.”
“Ah, nothing to signify!” said Flurry, plunging in and driving his way through the throng like a plough. “Here, Mary Kate!” he called to the girl behind the counter, “tell your mother we want some tea and bread and butter in the room inside.”
The smell of bad tobacco and spilt porter was choking; we worked our way through it after him towards the end of the shop, intersecting at every hand discussions about the races.
“Tom was very nice. He spared his horse all along, and then he put into him —” “Well, at Goggin’s corner the third horse was before the second, but he was goin’ wake in himself.” “I tell ye the mare had the hind leg fasht in the fore.” “Clancy was dipping in the saddle.” “’Twas a dam nice race whatever ——”
We gained the inner room at last, a cheerless apartment, adorned with sacred pictures, a sewing-machine, and an array of supplementary tumblers and wineglasses; but, at all events, we had it so far to ourselves. At intervals during the next half-hour Mary Kate burst in with cups and plates, cast them on the table and disappeared, but of food there was no sign. After a further period of starvation and of listening to the noise in the shop, Flurry made a sortie, and, after lengthy and unknown adventures, reappeared carrying a huge brown teapot, and driving before him Mary Kate with the remainder of the repast. The bread tasted of mice, the butter of turf-smoke, the tea of brown paper, but we had got past the critical stage. I had entered upon my third round of bread and butter when the door was flung open, and my valued acquaintance, Slipper, slightly advanced in liquor, presented himself to our gaze. His bandy legs sprawled consequentially, his nose was redder than a coal of fire, his prominent eyes rolled crookedly upon us, and his left hand swept behind him the attempt of Mary Kate to frustrate his entrance.
“Good-evening to my vinerable friend, Mr. Flurry Knox!” he began, in the voice of a town crier, “and to the Honourable Major Yeates, and the English gintleman!”
This impressive opening immediately attracted an audience from the shop, and the doorway filled with grinning faces as Slipper advanced farther into the room.
“Why weren’t ye at the races, Mr. Flurry?” he went on, his roving eye taking a grip of us all at the same time; “sure the Miss Bennetts and all the ladies was asking where were ye.”
“It’d take some time to tell them that,” said Flurry, with his mouth full; “but what about the races, Slipper? Had you good sport?”
“Sport is it? Divil so pleasant an afternoon ever you seen,” replied Slipper. He leaned against a side table, and all the glasses on it jingled. “Does your honour know O’Driscoll?” he went on irrelevantly. “Sure you do. He was in your honour’s stable. It’s what we were all sayin’; it was a great pity your honour was not there, for the likin’ you had to Driscoll.”
“That’s thrue,” said a voice at the door.
“There wasn’t one in the Barony but was gethered in it, through and fro,” continued Slipper, with a quelling glance at the interrupter; “and there was tints for sellin’ porther, and whisky as pliable as new milk, and boys gain’ round the tints outside, feeling for heads with the big ends of their blackthorns, and all kinds of recreations, and the Sons of Liberty’s piffler and dhrum band from Skebawn; though faith! there was more of thim runnin’ to look at the races than what was playin’ in it; not to mintion different occasions that the bandmasther was atin’ his lunch within in the whisky tint.”
“But what about Driscoll?” said Flurry.
“Sure it’s about him I’m tellin’ ye,” replied Slipper, with the practised orator’s watchful eye on his growing audience. “’Twas within in the same whisky tint meself was, with the bandmasther and a few of the lads, an’ we buyin’ a ha’porth o’ crackers, when I seen me brave Driscoll landin’ into the tint, and a pair o’ thim long boots on him; him that hadn’t a shoe nor a stocking to his foot when your honour had him picking grass out o’ the stones behind in your yard. ‘Well,’ says I to meself, ‘we’ll knock some spoort out of Driscoll!’
“‘Come here to me, acushla!’ says I to him; ‘I suppose it’s some way wake in the legs y’are,’ says I, ‘an’ the docthor put them on ye the way the people wouldn’t thrample ye!’
“‘May the divil choke ye!’ says he, pleasant enough, but I knew by the blush he had he was vexed.
“‘Then I suppose ’tis a left-tenant colonel y’are,’ says I; ‘yer mother must be proud out o’ ye!’ says I, ‘an’ maybe ye’ll lend her a loan o’ thim waders when she’s rinsin’ yer bauneen in the river!’ says I.
“‘There’ll be work out o’ this!’ says he, lookin’ at me both sour and bitther.
“‘Well indeed, I was thinkin’ you were blue moulded for want of a batin’,’ says I. He was for fightin’ us then, but afther we had him pacificated with about a quarther of a naggin o’ sperrits, he told us he was goin’ ridin’ in a race.
“‘An’ what’ll ye ride?’ says I.
“‘Owld Bocock’s mare,’ says he.
“‘Knipes!’ says I, sayin’ a great curse; ‘is it that little staggeen from the mountains; sure she’s somethin’ about the one age with meself,’ says I. ‘Many’s the time Jamesy Geoghegan and meself used to be dhrivin’ her to Macroom with pigs an’ all soorts,’ says I; ‘an’ is it leppin’ stone walls ye want her to go now?’
“‘Faith, there’s walls and every vari’ty of obstackle in it,’ says he.
“‘It’ll be the best o’ your play, so,’ says I, ‘to leg it away home out o’ this.’
“‘An’ who’ll ride her, so?’ says he.
“‘Let the divil ride her,’ says I.”
Leigh Kelway, who had been leaning back seemingly half asleep, obeyed the hypnotism of Slipper’s gaze, and opened his eyes.
“That was now all the conversation that passed between himself and meself,” resumed Slipper, “and there was no great delay afther that till they said there was a race startin’ and the dickens a one at all was goin’ to ride only two, Driscoll, and one Clancy. With that then I seen Mr. Kinahane, the Petty Sessions clerk, goin’ round clearin’ the coorse, an’ I gethered a few o’ the neighbours, an’ we walked the fields hither and over till we seen the most of th’ obstackles.
“‘Stand aisy now by the plantation,’ says I; ‘if they get to come as far as this, believe me ye’ll see spoort,’ says I, ‘an’ ’twill be a convanient spot to encourage the mare if she’s anyway wake in herself,’ says I, cuttin’ somethin’ about five foot of an ash sapling out o’ the plantation.
“‘That’s yer sort!’ says owld Bocock, that was thravellin’ the racecoorse, peggin’ a bit o’ paper down with a thorn in front of every lep, the way Driscoll ‘d know the handiest place to face her at it.
“Well, I hadn’t barely thrimmed the ash plant ——”
“Have you any jam, Mary Kate?” interrupted Flurry, whose meal had been in no way interfered with by either the story or the highly-scented crowd who had come to listen to it.
“We have no jam, only thraycle, sir,” replied the invisible Mary Kate.
“I hadn’t the switch barely thrimmed,” repeated Slipper firmly, “when I heard the people screechin’, an’ I seen Driscoll an’ Clancy comin’ on, leppin’ all before them, an’ owld Bocock’s mare bellusin’ an’ powdherin’ along, an’ bedad! whatever obstackle wouldn’t throw her down, faith, she’d throw it down, an’ there’s the thraffic they had in it.
“‘I declare to me sowl,’ says I, ‘if they continue on this way there’s a great chance some one o’ thim ‘ll win,” says I.
“‘Ye lie!’ says the bandmasther, bein’ a thrifle fulsome after his luncheon.
“‘I do not,’ says I, ‘in regard of seein’ how soople them two boys is. Ye might observe,’ says I, ‘that if they have no convanient way to sit on the saddle, they’ll ride the neck o’ the horse till such time as they gets an occasion to lave it,’ says I.
“‘Arrah, shut yer mouth!’ says the bandmasther; ‘they’re puckin’ out this way now, an’ may the divil admire me!’ says he, ‘but Clancy has the other bet out, and the divil such leatherin’ and beltin’ of owld Bocock’s mare ever you seen as what’s in it!’ says he.
“Well, when I seen them comin’ to me, and Driscoll about the length of the plantation behind Clancy, I let a couple of bawls.
“‘Skelp her, ye big brute!’ says I. ‘What good’s in ye that ye aren’t able to skelp her?’”
The yell and the histrionic flourish of his stick with which Slipper delivered this incident brought down the house. Leigh Kelway was sufficiently moved to ask me in an undertone if “skelp” was a local term.
“Well, Mr. Flurry, and gintlemen,” recommenced Slipper, “I declare to ye when owld Bocock’s mare heard thim roars she sthretched out her neck like a gandher, and when she passed me out she give a couple of grunts, and looked at me as ugly as a Christian.
“‘Hah!’ says I, givin’ her a couple o’ dhraws o’ th’ ash plant across the butt o’ the tail, the way I wouldn’t blind her; ‘I’ll make ye grunt!’ says I, ‘I’ll nourish ye!’
“I knew well she was very frightful of th’ ash plant since the winter Tommeen Sullivan had her under a sidecar. But now, in place of havin’ any obligations to me, ye’d be surprised if ye heard the blaspheemious expressions of that young boy that was ridin’ her; and whether it was over-anxious he was, turnin’ around the way I’d hear him cursin’, or whether it was some slither or slide came to owld Bocock’s mare, I dunno, but she was bet up agin the last obstackle but two, and before ye could say ‘Schnipes,’ she was standin’ on her two ears beyond in th’ other field! I declare to ye, on the vartue of me oath, she stood that way till she reconnoithered what side would Driscoll fall, an’ she turned about then and rolled on him as cosy as if he was meadow grass!”
Slipper stopped short; the people in the doorway groaned appreciatively; Mary Kate murmured “The Lord save us!”
“The blood was dhruv out through his nose and ears,” continued Slipper, with a voice that indicated the cream of the narration, “and you’d hear his bones crackin’ on the ground! You’d have pitied the poor boy.”
“Good heavens!” said Leigh Kelway, sitting up very straight in his chair.
“Was he hurt, Slipper?” asked Flurry casually.
“Hurt is it?” echoed Slipper in high scorn; “killed on the spot!” He paused to relish the effect of the dénouement on Leigh Kelway. “Oh, divil so pleasant an afthernoon ever you seen; and indeed, Mr. Flurry, it’s what we were all sayin’, it was a great pity your honour was not there for the likin’ you had for Driscoll.”
As he spoke the last word there was an outburst of singing and cheering from a carload of people who had just pulled up at the door. Flurry listened, leaned back in his chair, and began to laugh.
“It scarcely strikes one as a comic incident,” said Leigh Kelway, very coldly to me; “in fact, it seems to me that the police ought ——”
“Show me Slipper!” bawled a voice in the shop; “show me that dirty little undherlooper till I have his blood! Hadn’t I the race won only for he souring the mare on me! What’s that you say? I tell ye he did! He left seven slaps on her with the handle of a hay-rake ——”
There was in the room in which we were sitting a second door, leading to the back yard, a door consecrated to the unobtrusive visits of so-called “Sunday travellers.” Through it Slipper faded away like a dream, and, simultaneously, a tall young man, with a face like a red-hot potato tied up in a bandage, squeezed his way from the shop into the room.
“Well, Driscoll,” said Flurry, “since it wasn’t the teeth of the rake he left on the mare, you needn’t be talking!”
Leigh Kelway looked from one to the other with a wilder expression in his eye than I had thought it capable of. I read in it a resolve to abandon Ireland to her fate.
At eight o’clock we were still waiting for the car that we had been assured should be ours directly it returned from the races. At half-past eight we had adopted the only possible course that remained, and had accepted the offers of lifts on the laden cars that were returning to Skebawn, and I presently was gratified by the spectacle of my friend Leigh Kelway wedged between a roulette table and its proprietor on one side of a car, with Driscoll and Slipper, mysteriously reconciled and excessively drunk, seated, locked in each other’s arms, on the other. Flurry and I, somewhat similarly placed, followed on two other cars. I was scarcely surprised when I was informed that the melancholy white animal in the shafts of the leading car was Owld Bocock’s much-enduring steeplechaser.
The night was very dark and stormy, and it is almost superfluous to say that no one carried lamps; the rain poured upon us, and through wind and wet Owld Bocock’s mare set the pace at a rate that showed she knew from bitter experience what was expected from her by gentlemen who had spent the evening in a public-house; behind her the other two tired horses followed closely, incited to emulation by shouting, singing, and a liberal allowance of whip. We were a good ten miles from Skebawn, and never had the road seemed so long. For mile after mile the half-seen low walls slid past us, with occasional plunges into caverns of darkness under trees. Sometimes from a wayside cabin a dog would dash out to bark at us as we rattled by; sometimes our cavalcade swung aside to pass, with yells and counter-yells, crawling carts filled with other belated race-goers.
I was nearly wet through, even though I received considerable shelter from a Skebawn publican, who slept heavily and irrepressibly on my shoulder. Driscoll, on the leading car, had struck up an approximation to the “Wearing of the Green,” when a wavering star appeared on the road ahead of us. It grew momently larger; it came towards us apace. Flurry, on the car behind me, shouted suddenly —
“That’s the mail car, with one of the lamps out! Tell those fellows ahead to look out!”
But the warning fell on deaf ears.
“When laws can change the blades of grass
From growing as they grow ——”
howled five discordant voices, oblivious of the towering proximity of the star.
A Bianconi mail car is nearly three times the size of an ordinary outside car, and when on a dark night it advances, Cyclops-like, with but one eye, it is difficult for even a sober driver to calculate its bulk. Above the sounds of melody there arose the thunder of heavy wheels, the splashing trample of three big horses, then a crash and a turmoil of shouts. Our cars pulled up just in time, and I tore myself from the embrace of my publican to go to Leigh Kelway’s assistance.
The wing of the Bianconi had caught the wing of the smaller car, flinging Owld Bocock’s mare on her side and throwing her freight headlong on top of her, the heap being surmounted by the roulette table. The driver of the mail car unshipped his solitary lamp and turned it on the disaster. I saw that Flurry had already got hold of Leigh Kelway by the heels, and was dragging him from under the others. He struggled up hatless, muddy, and gasping, with Driscoll hanging on by his neck, still singing the “Wearing of the Green.”
A voice from the mail car said incredulously, ”Leigh Kelway!“ A spectacled face glared down upon him from under the dripping spikes of an umbrella.
It was the Right Honourable the Earl of Waterbury, Leigh Kelway’s chief, returning from his fishing excursion.
Meanwhile Slipper, in the ditch, did not cease to announce that “Divil so pleasant an afthernoon ever ye seen as what was in it!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13