The Absentee by Maria Edgeworth
Towards the evening of the second day's journey, the driver of Lord Colambre's hackney chaise stopped, and jumping off the wooden bar, on which he had been seated, exclaimed--
'We're come to the bad step, now. The bad road's beginning upon us, please your honour.'
'Bad road! that is very uncommon in this country. I never saw such fine roads as you have in Ireland,'
'That's true; and God bless your honour, that's sensible of that same, for it's not what all the foreign quality I drive have the manners to notice. God bless your honour! I heard you're a Welshman, but whether or no, I am sure you are a gentleman, anyway, Welsh or other.'
Notwithstanding the shabby greatcoat, the shrewd postillion perceived, by our hero's language, that he was a gentleman. After much dragging at the horses' heads, and pushing and lifting, the carriage was got over what the postillion said was the worst part of the bad step; but as the road 'was not yet to say good,' he continued walking beside the carriage.
'It's only bad just hereabouts, and that by accident,' said he, 'on account of there being no jantleman resident in it, nor near; but only a bit of an under-agent, a great little rogue, who gets his own turn out of the roads, and of everything else in life. I, Larry Brady, that am telling your honour, have a good right to know, for myself, and my father, and my brother. Pat Brady, the wheelwright, had once a farm under him; but was ruined, horse and foot, all along with him, and cast out, and my brother forced to fly the country, and is now working in some coachmaker's yard, in London; banished he is!--and here am I, forced to be what I am-- and now that I'm reduced to drive a hack, the agent's a curse to me still, with these bad roads, killing my horses and wheels and a shame to the country, which I think more of--Bad luck to him!'
'I know your brother; he lives with Mr. Mordicai, in Long Acre, in London.'
'Oh, God bless you for that!'
They came at this time within view of a range of about four-and- twenty men and boys, sitting astride on four-and-twenty heaps of broken stones, on each side of the road; they were all armed with hammers, with which they began to pound with great diligence and noise as soon as they saw the carriage. The chaise passed between these batteries, the stones flying on all sides.
'How are you, Jem?--How are you, Phil?' said Larry. 'But hold your hand, can't ye, while I stop and get the stones out of the horses' feet. So you're making up the rent, are you, for St. Dennis?'
'Whoosh!' said one of the pounders, coming close to the postillion, and pointing his thumb back towards the chaise. 'Who have you in it?'
'Oh, you need not scruple, he's a very honest man; he's only a man from North Wales, one Mr. Evans, an innocent jantleman, that's sent over to travel up and down the country, to find is there any copper mines in it.'
'How do you know, Larry?'
'Because I know very well, from one that was tould, and I seen him tax the man of the King's Head, with a copper half-crown, at first sight, which was only lead to look at, you'd think, to them that was not skilful in copper. So lend me a knife, till I cut a linch-pin out of the hedge, for this one won't go far.'
Whilst Larry was making the linch-pin, all scruple being removed, his question about St. Dennis and the rent was answered.
'Ay, it's the rint, sure enough, we're pounding out for him ; for he sent the driver round last-night-was-eight days, to warn us old Nick would be down a'-Monday, to take a sweep among us; and there's only six clear days, Saturday night, before the assizes, sure; so we must see and get it finished anyway, to clear the presentment again' the swearing day, for he and Paddy Hart is the overseers themselves, and Paddy is to swear to it.'
'St. Dennis, is it? Then you've one great comfort and security-- that he won't be particular about the swearing; for since ever he had his head on his shoulders, an oath never stuck in St. Dennis's throat, more than in his own brother, old Nick's.'
'His head upon his shoulders!' repeated Lord Colambre. 'Pray, did you ever hear that St. Dennis's head was off his shoulders?'
'It never was, plase your honour, to my knowledge.'
'Did you never, among your saints, hear of St. Dennis carrying his head in his hand?' said Colambre.
'The rael saint!' said the postillion, suddenly changing his tone, and looking shocked. 'Oh, don't be talking that way of the saints, plase your honour.'
'Then of what St, Dennis were you talking just now?-- Whom do you mean by St. Dennis, and whom do you call old Nick?'
'Old Nick,' answered the postillion, coming close to the side of the carriage, and whispering--'Old Nick, plase your honour, is our nickname for one Nicholas Garraghty, Esq., of College Green, Dublin, and St. Dennis is his brother Dennis, who is old Nick's brother in all things, and would fain be a saint, only he is a sinner. He lives just by here, in the country, under-agent to Lord Clonbrony, as old Nick is upper-agent--it's only a joke among the people, that are not fond of them at all. Lord Clonbrony himself is a very good jantleman, if he was not an absentee, resident in London, leaving us and everything to the likes of them.'
Lord Colambre listened with all possible composure and attention; but the postillion having now made his linch-pin of wood, and fixed himself; he mounted his bar, and drove on, saying to Lord Colambre, as he looked at the road-makers--
'Poor cratures! They couldn't keep their cattle out of pound, or themselves out of jail, but by making this road.'
'Is road-making, then, a very profitable business?--Have road- makers higher wages than other men in this part of the country?'
'It is, and it is not--they have, and they have not--plase your honour.'
'I don't understand you.'
'No, becaase you're an Englishman--that is, a Welshman--I beg your honour's pardon. But I'll tell you how that is, and I'll go slow over these broken stones for I can't go fast: it is where there's no jantleman over these under-agents, as here, they do as they plase; and when they have set the land they get rasonable from the head landlords, to poor cratures at a rack-rent, that they can't live and pay the rent, they say--'
'Them under-agents, that have no conscience at all. Not all--but some, like Dennis, says, says he, "I'll get you a road to make up the rent:" that is, plase your honour, the agent gets them a presentment for so many perches of road from the grand jury, at twice the price that would make the road. And tenants are, by this means, as they take the road by contract, at the price given by the county, able to pay all they get by the job, over and above potatoes and salt, back again to the agent, for the arrear on the land. Do I make your honour sensible?' [Do I make you understand?]
'You make me much more sensible than I ever was before,' said Lord Colambre; 'but is not this cheating the county?'
'Well, and suppose,' replied Larry, 'is not it all for my good, and yours too, plase your honour?' said Larry, looking very shrewdly.
'My good!' said Lord Colambre, startled. 'What have I to do with it?'
'Haven't you to do with the roads as well as me, when you're travelling upon them, plase your honour? And sure, they'd never be got made at all, if they weren't made this ways; and it's the best way in the wide world, and the finest roads we have. And when the rael jantlemen's resident in the country, there's no jobbing can be, because they're then the leading men on the grand jury; and these journeymen jantlemen are then kept in order, and all's right.'
Lord Colambre was much surprised at Larry's knowledge of the manner in which county business is managed, as well as by his shrewd good sense: he did not know that this is not uncommon in his rank of life in Ireland.
Whilst Larry was speaking, Lord Colambre was looking from side to side at the desolation of the prospect.
'So this is Lord Clonbrony's estate, is it?'
'Ay, all you see, and as far and farther than you can see. My Lord Clonbrony wrote, and ordered plantations here, time back; and enough was paid to labourers for ditching and planting. And, what next?--Why, what did the under-agent do, but let the goats in through gaps, left o' purpose, to bark the trees, and then the trees was all banished. And next, the cattle was let in trespassing, and winked at, till the land was all poached; and then the land was waste, and cried down; and St. Dennis wrote up to Dublin to old Nick, and he over to the landlord, how none would take it, or bid anything at all for it; so then it fell to him a cheap bargain. Oh, the tricks of them! who knows 'em, if I don't?'
Presently, Lord Colambre's attention was roused again, by seeing a man running, as if for his life, across a bog, near the roadside; he leaped over the ditch, and was upon the road in an instant. He seemed startled at first, at the sight of the carriage; but, looking at the postillion, Larry nodded, and he smiled and said--
'Pray, my good friend, may I ask what that is you have on your shoulder?' said Lord Colambre.
Plase your honour, it is only a private still, which I've just caught out yonder in the bog; and I'm carrying it in with all speed to the gauger, to make a discovery, that the jantleman may benefit by the reward; I expect he'll make me a compliment.'
'Get up behind, and I'll give you a lift,' said the postillion.
'Thank you kindly--but better my legs!' said the man; and turning down a lane, off he ran again as fast as possible.
'Expect he'll make me a compliment,' repeated Lord Colambre, 'to make a discovery!'
Ay, plase your honour; for the law is,' said Larry, 'that, if an unlawful still, that is, a still without license for whisky, is found, half the benefit of the fine that's put upon the parish goes to him that made the discovery; that's what that man is after, for he's an informer.'
'I should not have thought, from what I see of you,' said Lord Colambre, smiling, 'that you, Larry, would have offered an informer a lift.'
'Oh, plase your honour!' said Larry, smiling archly, 'would not I give the laws a lift, when in my power?'
Scarcely had he uttered these words, and scarcely was the informer out of sight, when across the same bog, and over the ditch, came another man, a half kind of gentleman, with a red silk handkerchief about his neck, and a silver-handled whip in his hand.
'Did you see any man pass the road, friend?' said he to the postillion.
'Oh! who would I see? or why would I tell?' replied Larry, in a sulky tone.
'Came, come, be smart!' said the man with the silver whip, offering to put half a crown into the postillion's hand; 'point me which way he took.'
'I'll have none a' your silver! don't touch me with it!' said Larry. 'But, if you'll take my advice, you'll strike across back, and follow the fields, out to Killogenesawee.'
The exciseman set out again immediately, in an opposite direction to that which the man who carried the still had taken. Lord Colambre now perceived that the pretended informer had been running off to conceal a still of his own.
'The gauger, plase your honour,' said Larry, looking back at Lord Colambre; 'the gauger is a still-hunting!'
'And you put him on a wrong scent!' said Lord Colambre.
'Sure, I told him no lie; I only said, "If you'll take my advice." And why was he such a fool as to take my advice, when I wouldn't take his fee?'
'So this is the way, Larry, you give a lift to the laws!'
'If the laws would give a lift to me, plase your honour, maybe I'd do as much by them. But it's only these revenue laws I mean; for I never, to my knowledge, broke another commandment; but it's what no honest poor man among his neighbours would scruple to take--a glass of potsheen.'
'A glass of what, in the name of Heaven?' said Lord Colambre.
Potsheen, plase your honour;--becaase it's the little whisky that's made in the private still or pot; and sheen, becaase it's a fond word for whatsoever we'd like, and for what we have little of, and would make much of: after taking the glass of it, no man could go and inform to ruin the cratures, for they all shelter on that estate under favour of them that go shares, and make rent of 'em--but I'd never inform again' 'em. And, after all, if the truth was known, and my Lord Clonbrony should be informed against, and presented, for it's his neglect is the bottom of the nuisance--'
'I find all the blame is thrown upon this poor Lord Clonbrony,' said Lord Colambre.
'Becaase he is absent,' said Larry. 'It would not be so was he prisint. But your honour was talking to me about the laws. Your honour's a stranger in this country, and astray about them things. Sure, why would I mind the laws about whisky, more than the quality, or the judge on the bench?'
'What do you mean?'
'Why! was not I prisint in the court-house myself, when the jidge on the bench judging a still, and across the court came in one with a sly jug of potsheen for the jidge himself, who prefarred it, when the right thing, to claret; and when I seen that, by the laws! a man might talk himself dumb to me after again' potsheen, or in favour of the revenue, or revenue- officers. And there they may go on, with their gaugers, and their surveyors, and their supervisors, and their watching- officers, and their coursing-officers, setting 'em one after another, or one over the head of another, or what way they will --we can baffle and laugh at 'em. Didn't I know, next door to our inn, last year, ten watching-officers set upon one distiller, and he was too cunning for them; and it will always be so, while ever the people think it no sin. No, till then, not all their dockets and permits signify a rush, or a turf. And the gauging rod even! who fears it? They may spare that rod, for it will never mend the child.'
How much longer Larry's dissertation on the distillery laws would have continued, had not his ideas been interrupted, we cannot guess; but he saw he was coming to a town, and he gathered up the reins, and plied the whip, ambitious to make a figure in the eyes of its inhabitants.
This town consisted of one row of miserable huts, sunk beneath the side of the road, the mud walls crooked in every direction; some of them opening in wide cracks, or zigzag fissures, from top to bottom, as if there had just been an earthquake--all the roofs sunk in various places--thatch off, or overgrown with grass--no chimneys, the smoke making its way through a hole in the roof, or rising in clouds from the top of the open door--dunghills before the doors, and green standing puddles--squalid children, with scarcely rags to cover them, gazing at the carriage.
'Nugent's town,' said the postillion, 'once a snug place, when my Lady Clonbrony was at home to whitewash it, and the like.'
As they drove by, some men and women put their heads through the smoke out of the cabins; pale women with long, black, or yellow locks--men with countenances and figures bereft of hope and energy.
'Wretched, wretched people!' said Lord Colambre.
'Then it's not their fault neither,' said Larry; 'for my own uncle's one of them, and as thriving and hard a working man as could be in all Ireland, he was, afore he was tramped under foot, and his heart broke. I was at his funeral, this time last year; and for it, may the agent's own heart, if he has any, burn--'
Lord Colambre interrupted this denunciation by touching Larry's shoulder, and asking some question, which, as Larry did not distinctly comprehend, he pulled up the reins, and the various noises of the vehicle stopped suddenly.
I did not hear well, plase your honour.'
'What are those people?' pointing to a man and woman, curious figures, who had come out of a cabin, the door of which the woman, who came out last, locked, and carefully hiding the key in the thatch, turned her back upon the man, and they walked away in different directions: the woman bending under a huge bundle on her back, covered by a yellow petticoat turned over her shoulders; from the top of this bundle the head of an infant appeared; a little boy, almost naked, followed her with a kettle, and two girls, one of whom could but just walk, held her hand and clung to her ragged petticoat; forming, altogether, a complete group of beggars. The woman stopped, and looked back after the man.
The man was a Spanish-looking figure, with gray hair; a wallet hung at the end of a stick over one shoulder, a reaping-hook in the other hand; he walked off stoutly, without ever casting a look behind him.
'A kind harvest to you, John Dolan,' cried the postillion, 'and success to ye, Winny, with the quality. There's a luck-penny for the child to begin with,' added he, throwing the child a penny. 'Your honour, they're only poor cratures going up the country to beg, while the man goes over to reap the harvest in England. Nor this would not be, neither, if the lord was in it to give 'em employ. That man, now, was a good and a willing slave in his day: I mind him working with myself in the shrubberies at Clonbrony Castle, when I was a boy--but I'll not be detaining your honour, now the road's better.'
The postillion drove on at a good rate for some time, till he came to a piece of the road freshly covered with broken stones, where he was obliged again to go slowly.
They overtook a string of cars, on which were piled up high, beds, tables, chairs, trunks, boxes, bandboxes.
'How are you, Finnucan? you've fine loading there--from Dublin, are you?'
'And what news?'
'Great news and bad, for old Nick, or some belonging to him, thanks be to Heaven! for myself hates him.'
'What's happened him?'
'His sister's husband that's failed, the great grocer that was, the man that had the wife that ow'd [Owned] the fine house near Bray, that they got that time the Parliament flitted, and that I seen in her carriage flaming--well, it's all out; they're all done up.
'Tut! is that all? then they'll thrive, and set up again grander than ever, I'll engage; have not they old Nick for an attorney at their back? a good warrant!'
'Oh, trust him for that! he won't go security nor pay a farthing for his shister, nor wouldn't was she his father; I heard him telling her so, which I could not have done in his place at that time, and she crying as if her heart would break, and I standing by in the parlour.'
'The neger! [neger, quasi negro; meo periculo, niggard] And did he speak that way, and you by?'
'Ay did he; and said,"Mrs. Raffarty," says he, "it's all your own fault; you're an extravagant fool, and ever was, and I wash my hands of you;" that was the word he spoke; and she answered, and said, "And mayn't I send the beds and blankets," said she, " and what I can, by the cars, out of the way of the creditors, to Clonbrony Castle; and won't you let me hide there from the shame, till the bustle's over?"--"You may do that," says he, "for what I care; but remember," says he, "that I've the first claim to them goods;" and that's all he would grant. So they are coming down all o' Monday--them are her bandboxes and all to settle it; and faith it was a pity of her! to hear her sobbing, and to see her own brother speak and look so hard! and she a lady.'
'Sure she's not a lady born, no more than himself,' said Larry; 'but that's no excuse for him. His heart's as hard as that stone,' said Larry; 'and my own people knew that long ago, and now his own know it; and what right have we to complain, since he's as bad to his own flesh and blood as to us?'
With this consolation, and with a 'God speed you,' given to the carman, Larry was driving off; but the carman called to him, and pointed to a house, at the corner of which, on a high pole, was swinging an iron sign of three horse-shoes, set in a crooked frame, and at the window hung an empty bottle, proclaiming whisky within.
'Well, I don't care if I do,' said Larry; 'for I've no other comfort left me in life now. I beg your honour's pardon, sir, for a minute,' added he, throwing the reins into the carriage to Lord Colambre, as he leaped down. All remonstrance and power of lungs to reclaim him vain! He darted into the whisky-house with the carman--reappeared before Lord Colambre could accomplish getting out, remounted his seat, and, taking the reins, 'I thank your honour,' said he; 'and I'll bring you into Clonbrony before it's pitch-dark yet, though it's nightfall, and that's four good miles, but "a spur in the head is worth two in the heel."'
Larry, to demonstrate the truth of his favourite axiom, drove off at such a furious rate over great stones left in the middle of the road by carmen, who had been driving in the gudgeons of their axle-trees to hinder them from lacing, [Opening; perhaps from lacher, to loosen.] that Lord Colambre thought life and limb in imminent danger; and feeling that at all events the jolting and bumping was past endurance, he had recourse to Larry's shoulder, and shook and pulled, and called to him to go slower, but in vain; at last the wheel struck full against a heap of stones at a turn of the road, the wooden linch-pin came off, and the chaise was overset: Lord Colambre was a little bruised, but glad to escape without fractured bones.
'I beg your honour's pardon,' said Larry, completely sobered; 'I'm as glad as the best pair of boots ever I see, to see your honour nothing the worse for it. It was the linch-pin, and them barrows of loose stones, that ought to be fined anyway, if there was any justice in the country.'
'The pole is broke; how are we to get on?' said Lord Colambre.
'Murder! murder!--and no smith nearer than Clonbrony; nor rope even. It's a folly to talk, we can't get to Clonbrony, nor stir a step backward or forward the night.'
'What, then, do you mean to leave me all night in the middle of the road?' cried Lord Colambre, quite exasperated.
'Is it me! please your honour? I would not use any jantleman so ill, barring I could do no other,' replied the postillion, coolly; then, leaping across the ditch, or, as he called it, the gripe of the ditch, he scrambled up, and while he was scrambling, said, 'If your honour will lend me your hand till I pull you up the back of the ditch, the horses will stand while we go. I'll find you as pretty a lodging for the night, with a widow of a brother of my shister's husband that was, as ever you slept in your life; for old Nick or St. Dennis has not found 'em out yet; and your honour will be, no compare, snugger than the inn at Clonbrony, which has no roof, the devil a stick. But where will I get your honour's hand; for it's coming on so dark, I can't see rightly. There, you're up now safe. Yonder candle's the house.'
'Go and ask whether they can give us a night's lodging.'
'Is it ask? when I see the light!--Sure they'd be proud to give the traveller all the beds in the house, let alone one. Take care of the potato furrows, that's all, and follow me straight. I'll go on to meet the dog, who knows me and might be strange to your honour.'
'Kindly welcome,' were the first words Lord Colambre heard when he approached the cottage; and 'kindly welcome' was in the sound of the voice and in the countenance of the old woman who came out, shading her rush-candle from the wind, and holding it so as to light the path. When he entered the cottage, he saw a cheerful fire and a neat pretty young woman making it blaze: she curtsied, put her spinning-wheel out of the way, set a stool by the fire for the stranger, and repeating, in a very low tone of voice, 'Kindly welcome, retired.
'Put down some eggs, dear, there's plenty in the bowl,' said the old woman, calling to her; 'I'll do the bacon. Was not we lucky to be up--The boy's gone to bed, but waken him,' said she, turning to the postillion; 'and he'll help you with the chay, and put your horses in the bier for the night.'
No; Larry chose to go on to Clonbrony with the horses, that he might get the chaise mended betimes for his honour. The table was set; clean trenchers, hot potatoes, milk, eggs, bacon, and 'kindly welcome to all.'
'Set the salt, dear; and the butter, love; where's your head, Grace, dear!'
'Grace!' repeated Lord Colambre, looking up; and, to apologise for his involuntary exclamation, he added, 'Is Grace a common name in Ireland?'
'I can't say, plase your honour, but it was give her by Lady Clonbrony, from a niece of her own that was her foster-sister, God bless her! and a very kind lady she was to us and to all when she was living in it; but those times are gone past,' said the old woman, with a sigh. The young woman sighed too; and, sitting down by the fire, began to count the notches in a little bit of stick, which she held in her hand; and, after she had counted them, sighed again.
'But don't be sighing, Grace, now,' said the old woman; 'sighs is bad sauce for the traveller's supper; and we won't be troubling him with more,' added she, turning to Lord Colambre with a smile.
'Is your egg done to your liking?'
'Perfectly, thank you.'
'Then I wish it was a chicken for your sake, which it should have been, and roast too, had we time. I wish I could see you eat another egg.'
'No more, thank you, my good lady; I never ate a better supper, nor received a more hospitable welcome.'
'Oh, the welcome is all we have to offer.'
'May I ask what that is?' said Lord Colambre, looking at the notched stick, which the young woman held in her hand, and on which her eyes were still fixed.
It's a tally, plase your honour. Oh, you're a foreigner;--it's the way the labourers do keep the account of the day's work with the overseer, the bailiff; a notch for every day the bailiff makes on his stick, and the labourer the like on his stick, to tally; and when we come to make up the account, it's by the notches we go. And there's been a mistake, and is a dispute here between our boy and the overseer; and she was counting the boy's tally, that's in bed, tired, for in troth he's overworked.'
'Would you want anything more from me, mother?' said the girl, rising and turning her head away.
'No, child; get away, for your heart's full.'
She went instantly.
'Is the boy her brother?' said Lord Colambre.
'No; he's her bachelor,' said the old woman, lowering her voice.
'That is, her sweetheart: for she is not my daughter, though you heard her call me mother. The boy's my son; but I am afeard they must give it up; for they're too poor, and the times is hard, and the agent's harder than the times; there's two of them, the under and the upper; and they grind the substance of one between them, and then blow one away like chaff: but we'll not be talking of that to spoil your honour's night's rest. The room's ready, and here's the rushlight.'
She showed him into a very small but neat room. 'What a comfortable-looking bed!' said Lord Colambre.
'Ah, these red check curtains,' said she, letting them down; 'these have lasted well; they were give me by a good friend, now far away, over the seas--my Lady Clonbrony; and made by the prettiest hands ever you see, her niece's, Miss Grace Nugent's, and she a little child that time; sweet love! all gone!'
The old woman wiped a tear from her eye, and Lord Colambre did what he could to appear indifferent. She set down the candle, and left the room; Lord Colambre went to bed, but he lay awake, 'revolving sweet and bitter thoughts.'