On the day before his departure for London, Herbert Fitzgerald once more got on his horse — the horse that was to be no longer his after that day — and rode off towards Desmond Court. He had already perceived how foolish he had been in walking thither through the mud and rain when last he went there, and how much he had lost by his sad appearance that day, and by his want of personal comfort. So he dressed himself with some care — dressing not for his love, but for the countess — and taking his silver-mounted whip in his gloved hand, he got up on his well-groomed nag with more spirit than he had hitherto felt.
Nothing could be better than the manner in which, at this time, the servants about Castle Richmond conducted themselves. Most of them — indeed, all but three — had been told that they must go, and in so telling them, the truth had been explained. It had been “found,” Aunt Letty said to one of the elder among them, that Mr. Herbert was not the heir to the property, and therefore the family was obliged to go away. Mrs. Jones of course accompanied her mistress. Richard had been told, both by Herbert and by Aunt Letty, that he had better remain and live on a small patch of land that should be provided for him. But in answer to this he stated his intention of removing himself to London. If the London air was fit for “my leddy and Miss Letty,” it would be fit for him. “It’s no good any more talking, Mr. Herbert,” said Richard, “I main to go.” So there was no more talking, and he did go.
But all the other servants took their month’s warning with tears and blessings, and strove one beyond another how they might best serve the ladies of the family to the end. “I’d lose the little fingers off me to go with you, Miss Emmeline; so I would,” said one poor girl — all in vain. If they could not keep a retinue of servants in Ireland, it was clear enough that they could not keep them in London.
The groom who held the horse for Herbert to mount, touched his hat respectfully as his young master rode off slowly down the avenue, and then went back to the stables to meditate with awe on the changes which had happened in his time, and to bethink himself whether or no he could bring himself to serve in the stables of Owen the usurper.
Herbert did not take the direct road to Desmond Court, but went round as though he were going to Gortnaclough, and then turning away from the Gortnaclough road, made his way by a cross lane towards Clady and the mountains. He hardly knew himself whether he had any object in this beyond one which he did not express even to himself — that, namely, of not being seen on the way leading to Desmond Court. But this he did do, thereby riding out of the district with which he was most thoroughly acquainted, and passing by cabins and patches of now deserted land which were strange to him. It was a poor, bleak, damp, undrained country, lying beyond the confines of his father’s property, which in good days had never been pleasant to the eye, but which now in these days — days that were so decidedly bad, was anything but pleasant. It was one of those tracts of land which had been divided and subdivided among the cottiers till the fields had dwindled down to parts of acres, each surrounded by rude low banks, which of themselves seemed to occupy a quarter of the surface of the land. The original landmarks, the big earthen banks — banks so large that a horse might walk on the top of them — were still visible enough, showing to the practised eye what had once been the fields into which the land had been divided; but these had since been bisected and crossected, and intersected by family arrangements, in which brothers had been jealous of brothers, and fathers of their children, till each little lot contained but a rood or two of available surface.
This had been miserable enough to look at, even when those roods had been cropped with potatoes or oats; but now they were not cropped at all, nor was there preparation being made for cropping them. They had been let out under the conacre system, at so much a rood, for the potato season, at rents amounting sometimes to ten or twelve pounds the acre; but nobody would take them now. There, in that electoral division, the whole proceeds of such land would hardly have paid the poor rates, and therefore the land was left uncultivated.
The winter was over, for it was now April, and had any tillage been intended, it would have been commenced — even in Ireland. It was the beginning of April, but the weather was still stormy and cold, and the east wind, which, as a rule, strikes Ireland with but a light land, was blowing sharply. On a sudden a squall of rain came on — one of those spring squalls which are so piercingly cold, but which are sure to pass by rapidly, if the wayfarer will have patience to wait for them. Herbert, remembering his former discomfiture, resolved that he would have such patience, and dismounting from his horse at a cabin on the roadside, entered it himself, and led his horse in after him. In England no one would think of taking his steed into a poor man’s cottage, and would hardly put his beast into a cottager’s shed without leave asked and granted, but people are more intimate with each other, and take greater liberties in Ireland. It is no uncommon thing on a wet hunting-day to see a cabin packed with horses, and the children moving about among them, almost as unconcernedly as though the animals were pigs. But then the
Irish horses are so well mannered and good-natured.
The cabin was one abutting as it were on the road, not standing back upon the land, as is most customary; and it was built in an angle at a spot where the road made a turn, so that two sides of it stood close out in the wayside. It was small and wretched to look at, without any sort of outside shed, or even a scrap of potato-garden attached to it — a miserable, low-roofed, damp, ragged tenement, as wretched as any that might be seen even in the county Cork.
But the nakedness of the exterior was as nothing to the nakedness of the interior. When Herbert entered, followed by his horse, his eye glanced round the dark place, and it seemed to be empty of everything. There was no fire on the hearth, though a fire on the hearth is the easiest of all luxuries for an Irishman to acquire, and the last which he is willing to lose. There was not an article of furniture in the whole place; neither chairs, nor table, nor bed, nor dresser; there was there neither dish, nor cup, nor plate, nor even the iron pot in which all the cookery of the Irish cottiers’ menage is usually carried on. Beneath his feet was the damp earthen floor, and around him were damp, cracked walls, and over his head was the old lumpy thatch, through which the water was already dropping; but inside was to be seen none of those articles of daily use which are usually to be found in the houses even of the poorest.
But, nevertheless, the place was inhabited. Squatting in the middle of the cabin, seated on her legs crossed under her, with nothing between her and the wet earth, there crouched a woman with a child in her arms. At first, so dark was the place, Herbert hardly thought that the object before him was a human being. She did not move when he entered, or speak to him, or in any way show sign of surprise that he should have come there. There was room for him and his horse without pushing her from her place; and, as it seemed, he might have stayed there and taken his departure without any sign having been made by her.
But as his eyes became used to the light he saw her eyes gleaming brightly through the gloom. They were very large and bright as they turned round upon him while he moved — large and bright, but with a dull, unwholesome brightness — a brightness that had in it none of the light of life.
And then he looked at her more closely. She had on her some rag of clothing which barely sufficed to cover her nakedness, and the baby which she held in her arms was covered in some sort; but he could see, as he came to stand close over her, that these garments were but loose rags which were hardly fastened round her body. Her rough short hair hung down upon her back, clotted with dirt, and the head and face of the child which she held was covered with dirt and sores. On no more wretched object, in its desolate solitude, did the eye of man ever fall.
In those days there was a form of face which came upon the sufferers when their state of misery was far advanced, and which was a sure sign that their last stage of misery was nearly run. The mouth would fall and seem to hang, the lips at the two ends of the mouth would be dragged down, and the lower parts of the cheeks would fall as though they had been dragged and pulled. There were no signs of acute agony when this phasis of countenance was to be seen, none of the horrid symptoms of gnawing hunger by which one generally supposes that famine is accompanied. The look is one of apathy, desolation, and death. When custom had made these signs easily legible, the poor doomed wretch was known with certainty. “It’s no use in life meddling with him; he’s gone,” said a lady to me in the far west of the south of Ireland, while the poor boy, whose doom was thus spoken, stood by listening. Her delicacy did not equal her energy in doing good — for she did much good; but in truth it was difficult to be delicate when the hands were so full. And then she pointed out to me the signs on the lad’s face, and I found that her reading was correct.
The famine was not old enough at the time of which we are speaking for Herbert to have learned all this, or he would have known that there was no hope left in this world for the poor creature whom he saw before him. The skin of her cheek had fallen, and her mouth was dragged, and the mark of death was upon her; but the agony of want was past. She sat there listless, indifferent, hardly capable of suffering, even for her child, waiting her doom unconsciously.
As he had entered without eliciting a word from her, so might he have departed without any outward sign of notice; but this would have been impossible on his part. “I have come in out of the rain for shelter,” said he, looking down on her.
“Out o’ the rain, is it?” said she, still fixing on him her glassy bright eyes. “Yer honour’s welcome thin.” But she did not attempt to move, nor show any of those symptoms of reverence which are habitual to the Irish when those of a higher rank enter their cabins.
“You seem to be very poorly off here,” said Herbert, looking round the bare walls of the cabin. “Have you no chair, and no bed to lie on?”
“‘Deed, no,” said she.
“And no fire?” said he, for the damp and chill of the place struck through to his bones.
“‘Deed, no,” she said again; but she made no wail as to her wants, and uttered no complaint as to her misery.
“And are you living here by yourself, without furniture or utensils of any kind?”
“It’s jist as yer honour sees it,” answered she.
For a while Herbert stood still, looking round him, for the woman was so motionless and uncommunicative that he hardly knew how to talk to her. That she was in the lowest depth of distress was evident enough, and it behoved him to administer to her immediate wants before he left her; but what could he do for one who seemed to be so indifferent to herself? He stood for a time looking round him till he could see through the gloom that there was a bundle of straw lying in the dark corner beyond the hearth, and that the straw was huddled up, as though there were something lying under it. Seeing this he left the bridle of his horse, and, stepping across the cabin, moved the straw with the handle of his whip. As he did so he turned his back from the wall in which the small window-hole had been pierced, so that a gleam of light fell upon the bundle at his feet, and he could see that the body of a child was lying there, stripped of every vestige of clothing.
For a minute or two he said nothing — hardly indeed, knowing how to speak, and looking from the corpselike woman back to the lifelike corpse, and then from the corpse back to the woman, as though he expected that she would say something unasked. But she did not say a word, though she so turned her head that her eyes rested on him.
He then knelt down and put his hand upon the body, and found that it was not yet stone cold. The child apparently had been about four years old, while that still living in her arms might perhaps be half that age.
“Was she your own?” asked Herbert, speaking hardly above his breath.
“‘Deed, yes!” said the woman. “She was my own, own little Kittie.” But there was no tear in her eye or gurgling sob audible from her throat.
“And when did she die?” he asked.
“‘Deed, thin, and I don’t jist know — not exactly;” and sinking lower down upon her haunches, she put up to her forehead the hand with which she had supported herself on the floor — the hand which was not occupied with the baby, and pushing back with it the loose hairs from her face, tried to make an effort at thinking.
“She was alive in the night, wasn’t she?” he said.
“I b’lieve thin she was, yer honour. ’Twas broad day, I’m thinking, when she guv’ over moaning. She warn’t that way when he went away.”
“And who’s he?”
“Jist Mike, thin.”
“And is Mike your husband?” he asked. She was not very willing to talk; but it appeared at last that Mike was her husband, and that having become a cripple through rheumatism, he had not been able to work on the roads. In this condition he and his should of course have gone into a poor-house. It was easy enough to give such advice in such cases when one came across them, and such advice when given at that time was usually followed; but there were so many who had no advice, who could get no aid, who knew not which way to turn themselves! This wretched man had succeeded in finding some one who would give him his food — food enough to keep himself alive — for such work as he could do in spite of his rheumatism, and this work to the last he would not abandon. Even this was better to him than the poor-house. But then, as long as a man found work out of the poor-house, his wife and children would not be admitted into it. They would not be admitted if the fact of the working husband was known. The rule in itself was salutary, as without it a man could work, earning such wages as were adjudged to be needful for a family, and at the same time send his wife and children to be supported on the rates. But in some cases, such as this, it pressed very cruelly. Exceptions were of course made in such cases, if they were known: but then it was so hard to know them!
This man Mike, the husband of that woman, and the father of those children, alive and dead, had now gone to his work, leaving his home without one morsel of food within it, and the wife of his bosom and children of his love without the hope of getting any. And then looking closely round him, Herbert could see that a small basin or bowl lay on the floor near her, capable of holding perhaps a pint; and on lifting it he saw that there still clung to it a few grains of uncooked Indian corn-flour — the yellow meal, as it was called. Her husband, she said at last, had brought home with him in his cap a handful of this flour, stolen from the place where he was working — perhaps a quarter of a pound, then worth over a farthing, and she had mixed this with water in a basin; and this was the food which had sustained her, or rather had not sustained her, since yesterday morning — her and her two children, the one that was living and the one that was dead.
Such was her story, told by her in the fewest of words. And then he asked her as to her hopes for the future. But though she cared, as it seemed, but little for the past, for the future she cared less. “‘Deed, thin, an’ I don’t jist know.” She would say no more than that, and would not even raise her voice to ask for alms when he pitied her in her misery. But with her the agony of death was already over.
“And the child that you have in your arms,” he said, “is it not cold?” And he stood close over her, and put out his hand and touched the baby’s body. As he did so, she made some motion as though to arrange the clothing closer round the child’s limbs, but Herbert could see that she was making an effort to hide her own nakedness. It was the only effort that she made while he stood there beside her.
“Is she not cold?” he said again, when he had turned his face away to relieve her from her embarrassment.
“Cowld,” she muttered, with a vacant face and wondering tone of voice, as though she did not quite understand him. “I suppose she is could. Why wouldn’t she be could? We’re could enough, if that’s all.” But still she did not stir from the spot on which she sat; and the child, though it gave from time to time a low moan that was almost inaudible, lay still in her arms, with its big eyes staring into vacancy.
He felt that he was stricken with horror as he remained there in the cabin with the dying woman and the naked corpse of the poor dead child. But what was he to do? He could not go and leave them without succour. The woman had made no plaint of her suffering, and had asked for nothing; but he felt that it would be impossible to abandon her without offering her relief; nor was it possible that he should leave the body of the child in that horribly ghastly state. So he took from his pocket his silk handkerchief, and, returning to the corner of the cabin, spread it as a covering over the corpse. At first he did not like to touch the small, naked, dwindled remains of humanity from which life had fled; but gradually he overcame his disgust, and kneeling down, he straightened the limbs and closed the eyes, and folded the handkerchief round the slender body. The mother looked on him the while, shaking her head slowly, as though asking him with all the voice that was left to her, whether it were not piteous; but of words she still uttered none.
And then he took from his pocket a silver coin or two, and tendered them to her. These she did take, muttering some word of thanks, but they caused in her no emotion of joy. “She was there waiting,” she said, “till Mike should return,” and there she would still wait, even though she should die with the silver in her hand.
“I will send some one to you,” he said, as he took his departure; “some one that shall take the poor child and bury it, and who shall move you and the other one into the workhouse.” She thanked him once more with some low muttered words, but the promise brought her no joy. And when the succour came it was all too late, for the mother and the two children never left the cabin till they left it together, wrapped in their workhouse shrouds.
Herbert, as he remounted his horse and rode quietly on, forgot for a while both himself and Clara Desmond. Whatever might be the extent of his own calamity, how could he think himself unhappy after what he had seen? how could he repine at aught that the world had done for him, having now witnessed to how low a state of misery a fellow human being might be brought? Could he, after that, dare to consider himself unfortunate?
Before he reached Desmond Court he did make some arrangements for the poor woman, and directed that a cart might be sent for her, so that she might be carried to the union workhouse at Kanturk. But his efforts in her service were of little avail. People then did not think much of a dying woman, and were in no special hurry to obey Herbert’s behest.
“A woman to be carried to the union, is it? For Mr. Fitzgerald, eh? What Mr. Fitzgerald says must be done, in course. But sure av’ it’s done before dark, won’t that be time enough for the likes of her?”
But had they flown to the spot on the wings of love, it would not have sufficed to prolong her life one day. Her doom had been spoken before Herbert had entered the cabin.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01