A Soul for a Life by George A. Birmingham
Denis Ryan and Mary Drennan stood together at the corner of the wood where the road turns off and runs straight for a mile into the town. They were young, little more than boy and girl, but they were lovers and they stood together, as lovers do. His left arm was round her. His right hand held her hand. Her head rested on his shoulder.
"Mary, darling," he whispered, "what's to hinder us being married soon?"
She raised her head from his shoulder and looked tenderly into his eyes.
"If it wasn't for my mother and my father, we might," she said; "but they don't like you, Denis, and they'll never consent."
Money comes between lovers sometimes; but it was not money, nor the want of it, which kept Mary and Denis apart. She was the daughter of a prosperous farmer--a rich man, as riches are reckoned in Ireland. He was a clerk in a lawyer's office, and poorly paid. But he might have earned more. She would gladly have given up anything. And the objections of parents in such cases are not insuperable. But between these two there was something more. Denis Ryan was a revolutionary patriot. Mary Drennan's parents were proud of another loyalty. They hated what Denis loved. The two loyalties were strong and irreconcilable, like the loyalties of the South and the North when the South and the North were at war in America.
"What does it matter about your father and mother?" he said. "If you love me, Mary, isn't that enough?"
She hid her face cm his shoulder again. He could barely hear the murmur of her answer.
"I love you altogether, Denis! I love you so much that I would give my soul for you!"
A man came down the road walking fast. He passed the gate of Drennan's farm and came near the corner where the lovers stood. Denis took his arm from Mary's waist, and they moved a little apart. The man stopped when he came to them.
"Good-evening, Denis!" he said. "Good-evening, Miss Drennan!"
The greeting was friendly enough, but he looked at the girl with unfriendly eyes.
"Don't forget the meeting to-night, Denis!" he said. "It's in Flaherty's barn at nine o'clock. Mind, now! It's important, and you'll be expected!"
The words were friendly, but there was the hint of a threat in the way they were spoken. Without waiting for an answer, he walked on quickly towards the town. Mary stretched out her hands and clung tight to her lover's arm. She looked up at him, and fear was in her face.
"What is it, Denis?" she asked. "What does Michael Murnihan want with you?"
Women in Ireland have reason to be frightened now. Their lovers, their husbands, and their sons may be members of a secret society, or they may incur the enmity of desperate men. No woman knows for certain that the life of the man she loves is safe.
"What's the meeting, Denis?" she whispered. "What does he want you to do?"
He neither put his arm round her nor took her hand again.
"It's nothing, Mary," he said. "It's nothing at all!"
But she was more disquieted at his words, for he turned his face away from her when he spoke.
"What is, it?" she whispered again. "Tell me, Denis!"
"It's a gentleman down from Dublin that's to talk to the boys to-night," he said, "and the members of the club must be there to listen to him. It will be about learning Irish that he'll talk, maybe, or not enlisting in the English Army."
"Is that all, Denis? Are you sure now that's all? Will he not want you to do anything?"
That part of the country was quiet enough. But elsewhere there were raidings of houses, attacks on police barracks, shootings, woundings, murders; and afterwards arrests, imprisonments, and swift, wild vengeance taken. Mary was afraid of what the man from Dublin might want. Denis turned to her, and she could see that he was frightened too.
"Mary, Mary!" he said. "Whatever comes or goes, there'll be no harm done to you or yours!"
She loosed her hold on his arm and turned from him with a sigh.
"I must be going from you now, Denis," she said, "Mother will be looking for me, and the dear God knows what she'd say if she knew I'd been here talking to you."
Mrs. Drennan knew very well where her daughter had been. She spoke her mind plainly when Mary entered the farm kitchen.
"I'll not have you talking or walking with Denis Ryan," she said; "nor your father won't have it! Everybody knows what he is, and what his friends are. There's nothing too bad for those fellows to do, and no daughter of mine will mix herself up with them!"
"Denis isn't doing anything wrong, mother," said Mary. "And if he thinks Ireland ought to be a free republic, hasn't he as good a right to his own opinion as you or me, or my father either?"
"No man has a right to be shooting and murdering innocent people, whether they're policemen or whatever they are. And that's what Denis Ryan and the rest of them are at, day and night, all over the country. And if they're not doing it here yet, they soon will. Blackguards, I call them, and the sooner they're hanged the better, every one of them!"
In Flaherty's barn that night the gentleman from Dublin spoke to an audience of some twenty or thirty young men He spoke with passion and conviction. He told again the thousand times repeated story of the wrongs which Ireland has suffered at the hands of the English in old, old days. He told of more recent happenings, of men arrested and imprisoned without trial, without even definite accusation, of intolerable infringements of the common rights. He spoke of the glorious hope of national liberty, of Ireland as a free Republic. The men he spoke too, young men all of them, listened with flashing eyes, with clenched teeth, and faces moist with emotion. They responded to his words with sudden growings and curses. The speaker went on to tell of the deeds of men elsewhere in Ireland. "The soldiers of the Irish Republic," so he called them. They had attacked the armed forces of English rule. They had stormed police barracks. They had taken arms and ammunitions where such things were to be found. These, he said, were glorious deeds wrought by men everywhere in Ireland.
"But what have you done here?" he asked. "And what do you mean to do?"
Michael Murnihan spoke next. He said that he was ashamed of the men around him and of the club to which he belonged.
"It's a reproach to us," he said, "that we're the only men in Ireland that have done nothing. Are we ready to fight when the day for fighting comes? We are not. For what arms have we among us? Only two revolvers. Two revolvers, and that's all. Not a gun, though you know well, and I know, that there's plenty of guns round about us in the hands of men that are enemies to Ireland. I could name twenty houses in the locality where there are guns, and good guns, and you could name as many more. Why don't we go and take them? Are we cowards?"
The men around him shouted angrily that they were no cowards. Denis Ryan, excited and intensely moved, shouted with the rest. It seemed to him that an intolerable reproach lay on him and all of them.
"What's to hinder us going out to-night?" said Murnihan. "Why shouldn't we take the guns that ought to be in our hands and not in the hands of men who'd use them against us? All of you that are in favour of going out tonight will hold up your hands."
There was a moment's silence. None of the men present had ever taken part in any deed of violence, had ever threatened human life or openly and flagrantly broken the law. The delegate from Dublin, standing near Murnihan, looked round at the faces of the men. There was a cool, contemptuous smile on his lips.
"Perhaps," he said, "you'd rather not do it. Perhaps you'd rather go away and tell the police that I'm here with you. They'll be glad of the information. You'll get a reward, I dare say. Anyhow, you'll be safe."
Stung by his reproach, the young men raised their hands one after another. Denis Ryan raised his, though it trembled when he held it up.
"So we're all agreed," said Murnihan. "Then we'll do it to-night. Where will we go first?"
There was no lack of suggestions. The men knew the locality in which they lived and knew the houses where there were arms. Sporting guns in many houses, revolvers in some, rifles in one or two.
"There's a service rifle in Drennan's," said Murnihan, "that belonged to that nephew of his that was out in France, fighting for the English, and there's a double-barrelled shotgun there, too."
"Drennan is no friend of ours," said a man. "He was always an enemy of Ireland."
"And Drennan's away at the fair at Ballyruddery, with his bullocks," said another. "There'll be nobody in the house--only his wife and daughter. They'll not be able to interfere with us."
Murnihan asked for ten volunteers. Every man in the room, except Denis Ryan, crowded round him, offering to go.
"Eight will be enough," said Murnihan. "Two to keep watch on the road, two to keep the women quiet, and four to search the house for arms."
He looked round as he spoke. His eyes rested distrustfully on Denis Ryan, who stood by himself apart from the others. In secret societies and among revolutionaries, a man who appears anything less than enthusiastic must be regarded with suspicion.
"Are you coming with us, Denis Ryan?" asked Murnihan.
There was silence in the room for a minute. All eyes were fixed on Denis. There was not a man in the room who did not know how things were between him and Mary Drennan. There was not one who did not feel that Denis' faithfulness was doubtful And each man realised that his own safety, perhaps his own life, depended on the entire fidelity of all his fellows. Denis felt the sudden suspicion. He saw in the faces around him the merciless cruelty which springs from fear. But he said nothing. It was the delegate from Dublin who broke the silence. He, too, seemed to understand the situation. He realised, at all events, that for some reason this one man was unwilling to take part in the raid. He pointed his finger at Denis.
"That man," he said, "must go, and must take a leading part!"
So, and not otherwise, could they make sure of one who might be a traitor.
"I'm willing to go," said Denis. "I'm not wanting to hang back."
Murnihan drew two revolvers from his pocket. He handed one of them to Denis.
"You'll stand over the old woman with that pointed at her head," he said. "The minute we enter the house we'll call to her to put her hands up, and if she resists you'll shoot. But there'll be no need of shooting. She'll stand quiet enough!"
Denis stepped back, refusing to take the revolver.
"Do it yourself, Murnihan," he said, "if it has to be done!"
"I'm not asking you to do what I'm not going to do myself. I'm taking the other revolver, and I'll keep the girl quiet!"
"But--but," said Denis, stammering, "I'm not accustomed to guns. I've never had a revolver in my hand in my life. I'm--I'm afraid of it!"
He spoke the literal truth. He had never handled firearms of any sort, and a revolver in the hands of an inexperienced man is of all weapons the most dangerous. Nevertheless, with Murnihan's eye upon him, with the ring of anxious, threatening faces round him, he took the revolver.
An hour later, eight men walked quietly up to the Drennan's house. They wore black masks. Their clothes and figures were rudely but sufficiently disguised with wisps of hay tied to their arms and legs. Two of them carried revolvers. At the gate of the rough track which leads from the high road to the farmhouse the party halted. There was a whispered word of command. Two men detached themselves and stood as sentries on the road. Six men, keeping in the shadow of the trees, went forward to the house. A single light gleamed in one of the windows. Murnihan knocked at the door. There was no response. He knocked again. The light moved from the window through which it shone, and disappeared. Once more Murnihan knocked. A woman's voice was heard.
"Who's there at this time of night?"
"In the name of the Irish Republic, open the door!" said Murnihan. "Open, or I'll break it down!"
"You may break it if you please!" It was Mrs. Drennan who spoke. "But I'll not open to thieves and murderers!"
The door of an Irish farmhouse is a frail thing ill-calculated to withstand assault. Murnihan flung himself against it, and it yielded. He stepped into the kitchen with his revolver in his hand. Denis Ryan was beside him. Behind him were the other four men pressing in. In the chimney nook, in front of the still glowing embers of the fire, were Mrs. Drennan and her daughter. Mary stood, fearlessly, holding a candle in a steady hand. Mrs. Drennan was more than fearless. She was defiant. She had armed herself with a long-handled hay-fork, which she held before her threateningly, as a soldier holds a rifle with a bayonet fixed.
"Put up your hands and stand still," said Murnihan, "both of you!"
"Put up your hands!" said Denis, and he pointed the revolver at Mrs. Drennan.
The old woman was undaunted.
"You murdering blackguards!" she shouted. "Would you shoot a woman?"
Then she rushed at him, thrusting with the hay-fork. Denis stepped back, and back again, until he stood in the doorway. One of the sharp prongs of the hay-fork grazed his hand, and slipped up his arm tearing his skin. Involuntarily, his hand clutched the revolver. His forefinger tightened on the trigger. There was a sharp explosion. The hay-fork dropped from Mrs. Drennan's hand. She flung her arms up, half turned, and then collapsed, all crumpled up, to the ground.
Mary Drennan sprang forward and bent over her.
There was dead silence in the room. The men stood horror-stricken, mute, helpless. They had intended--God knows what. To fight for liberty! To establish an Irish Republic! To prove themselves brave patriots! They had not intended this. The dead woman lay on the floor before their eyes, her daughter bent over her. Denis Ryan stood for a moment staring wildly, the hand which held the revolver hanging limp. Then he slowly raised his other hand and held it before his eyes.
Mary Drennan moaned.
"We'd better clear out of this!" said Murnihan. He spoke in a low tone, and his voice trembled.
"Clear out of this, all of you!" he said, "And get home as quick as you can. Go across the fields, not by the roads!"
The men stole out of the house. Only Denis and Murnihan were left, and Mary Drennan, and the dead woman. Murnihan took Denis by the arm and dragged him towards the door. Denis shook him off. He turned to where Mary kneeled on the ground. He tore the mask from his face and flung it down.
"Oh, Mary, Mary!" he said. "I never meant it!"
The girl looked up. For an instant her eyes met his. Then she bent forward again across her mother's body. Murnihan grasped Denis again.
"You damned fool!" he said. "Do you want to hang for it? Do you want us all to hang for this night's work?"
He dragged him from the house. With his arm round the waist of the shuddering man he pulled him along and field to field until they reached a by-road which led into the town.
Three days later Inspector Chalmers, of the Royal Irish Constabulary, and Major Whiteley, the magistrate, sat together in the office of the police barrack stations.
"I've got the men who did it," said Chalmers. "I've got the whole eight of them, and I can lay my hands on all the rest of their cursed club any minute I like."
"Have you any evidence?" asked Whiteley. "Any evidence on which to convict?"
"I've no evidence worth speaking of," said Chalmers, "unless the girl can identify them. But I know I've got the right men."
"The girl won't know them," said Whiteley. "They're sure to have worn masks. And even if she did recognise one of them she'd be afraid to speak. In the state this country's in everyone is afraid to speak."
"The girl won't be afraid," said Chalmers. "I know her father, and I knew her mother that's dead, and I know the girl. There never was a Drennan yet that was afraid to speak, I've sent the sergeant to fetch her. She ought to be here in a few minutes, and then you'll see if she's afraid."
Ten minutes later Mary Drennan was shown into the room by the police-sergeant. The two men who were waiting for her received her kindly.
"Sit down, Miss Drennan!" said Major Whiteley. "I'm very sorry to trouble you, and I'm very sorry to have to ask you to speak about a matter which must be painful to you. But I want you to tell me, as well as you can recollect, exactly what happened on the night your mother was murdered."
Mary Drennan, white faced and wretched, told her story as she had told it before to the police-officer. She said that her father was absent from home, taking bullocks to the fair, that she and her mother sat up late, that they went to bed together about eleven o'clock. She spoke in emotionless, even tones, even when she told how six men had burst into the kitchen.
"Could you recognise any of them?" said Major Whiteley.
"I could not. They wore masks, and had hay tied over their clothes."
She told about her mother's defiance, about the scuffle, about the firing of the shot. Then she stopped short. Of what happened afterwards she had said nothing to the police-officer, but Major Whiteley questioned her.
"Did any of the men speak? Did you know their voices?"
"One spoke," she said, "but I did not know the voice."
"Did you get any chance of seeing their faces, or any of their faces?"
"The man who fired the shot took off his mask before he left the room, and I saw his face."
"Ah!" said Major Whiteley. "And would you recognise him if you saw him again?"
He leaned forward eagerly as he asked the question. All depended on her answer.
"Yes," said Mary. "I should know him if I saw him again."
Major Whiteley leaned across to Mr. Chalmers, who sat beside him.
"If you've got the right man," he whispered, "we'll hang him on the girl's evidence."
"I've got the right man, sure enough," said Chalmers.
"Miss Drennan," said Major Whiteley, "I shall have eight men brought into this room one after another, and I shall ask you to identify the man who fired a shot at your mother, the man who removed his mask before he left the room."
He rang the bell which stood on the table.
The sergeant opened the door, and stood at attention. Mr. Chalmers gave his orders.
"Bring the prisoners into the room one by one," he said, "and stand each man there"--he pointed to a place opposite the window--"so that the light will fall full on his face."
Inspector Chalmers had not boasted foolishly when he said that he had taken the right men. Acting on such knowledge as the police possess in every country, he had arrested the leading members of the Sinn Fein Club. Of two of them he was surer than he was of any of the others. Murnihan was secretary of the club, and the most influential member of it, Denis Ryan had gone about the town looking like a man stricken with a deadly disease ever since the night of the murder. The lawyer who employed him as a clerk complained that he seemed totally incapable of doing his work. The police felt sure that either he or Murnihan fired the shot; that both of them, and probably a dozen men besides, knew who did.
Six men were led into the office one after another. Mary Drennan looked at each of them and shook her head. It came to Murnihan's turn. He marched in defiantly, staring insolently at the police-officer and at the magistrate.
He displayed no emotion when he saw Mary Drennan. She looked at him, and once more shook her head.
"Are you sure?" said Chalmers. "Quite sure?"
"I am sure," she said. "He is not the man I saw."
"Remove him," said Chalmers.
Murnihan stood erect for a moment before he turned to follow the sergeant. With hand raised to the salute he made profession of the faith that was in him:
"Up the rebels!" he said. "Up Sinn Fein! God save Ireland!"
Denis Ryan was led in and set in the appointed place. He stood there trembling. His face was deadly pale. The fingers of his hands twitched. His head was bowed. Only once did he raise his eyes and let them rest for a moment on Mary's face. It was as if he was trying to convey some message to her, to make her understand something which he dared not say.
She looked at him steadily. Her face had been white before. Now colour, like a blush, covered her cheeks. Chalmers leaned forward eagerly, waiting for her to speak or give some sign. Major Whiteley tapped his fingers nervously on the table before him.
"That is not the man," said Mary Drennan.
"Look again," said Chalmers. "Make no mistake."
She turned to him and spoke calmly, quietly:
"I am quite certain. That is not the man."
"Damn!" said Chalmers. "The girl has failed us, after all. Take him away, sergeant!"
Denis Ryan had covered his face with his hands when Mary spoke. He turned to follow the sergeant from the room, a man bent and beaten down with utter shame.
"Stop!" said Chalmers. He turned fiercely to Mary. "Will you swear--will you take your oath he is not the man?"
"I swear it," said Mary.
"You're swearing to a lie," said Chalmers, "and you know it."
Major Whiteley was cooler and more courteous.
"Thank you, Miss Drennan," he said. "We need not trouble you any further."
Mary Drennan rose, bowed to the two men, and left the room.
"You may let those men go, Chalmers," said Major Whiteley quietly. "There's no evidence against them, and you can't convict them."
"I must let them go," said Chalmers. "But they're the men who were there, and the last of them, Denis Ryan, fired the shot."
Mary Drennan never met her lover again, but she wrote to him once before he left the country.
"You see how I loved you, Denis. I gave you your life. I bought it for you, and my soul was the price I paid for it when I swore to a lie and was false to my mother's memory. I loved you that much, Denis, but I shall never speak to you again."