The Absentee by Maria Edgeworth
The kettle was on the fire, tea-things set, everything prepared for her guest by the hospitable hostess, who, thinking the gentleman would take tea to his breakfast, had sent off a gossoon by the first light to Clonbrony, for an ounce of tea, a quarter of sugar, and a loaf of white bread; and there was on the little table good cream, milk, butter, eggs--all the promise of an excellent breakfast. It was a fresh morning, and there was a pleasant fire on the hearth, neatly swept up. The old woman was sitting in her chimney corner, behind a little skreen of whitewashed wall, built out into the room, for the purpose of keeping those who sat at the fire from the blast of the door. There was a loophole in this wall, to let the light in, just at the height of a person's head, who was sitting near the chimney. The rays of the morning sun now came through it, shining across the face of the old woman, as she sat knitting; Lord Colambre thought he had seldom seen a more agreeable countenance, intelligent eyes, benevolent smile, a natural expression of cheerfulness, subdued by age and misfortune.
'A good-morrow to you kindly, sir, and I hope you got the night well?--A fine day for us this Sunday morning; my Grace is gone to early prayers, so your honour will be content with an old woman to make your breakfast. Oh, let me put in plenty, or it will never be good; and if your honour takes stir-about, an old hand will engage to make that to your liking, anyway; for, by great happiness, we have what will just answer for you of the nicest meal the miller made my Grace a compliment of, last time she went to the mill.'
Lord Colambre observed, that this miller had good taste; and his lordship paid some compliment to Grace's beauty, which the old woman received with a smile, but turned off the conversation. 'Then,' said she, looking out of the window, 'is not that there a nice little garden the boy dug for her and me, at his breakfast and dinner hours? Ah! he's a good boy, and a good warrant to work; and the good son desarves the good wife, and it's he that will make the good husband; and with my goodwill he, and no other, shall get her, and with her goodwill the same; and I bid 'em keep up their heart, and hope the best, for there's no use in fearing the worst till it comes.'
Lord Colambre wished very much to know the worst.
'If you would not think a stranger impertinent for asking,' said he, 'and if it would not be painful to you to explain.'
'Oh, impertinent, your honour! it's very kind--and, sure, none's a stranger to one's heart, that feels for one. And for myself, I can talk. of my troubles without thinking of them. So, I'll tell you all--if the worst comes to the worst--all that is, is, that we must quit, and give up this little snug place, and house, and farm, and all, to the agent--which would be hard on us, and me a widow, when my husband did all that is done to the land; and if your honour was a judge, you could see, if you stepped out, there has been a deal done, and built the house, and all--but it plased Heaven to take him. Well, he was too good for this world, and I'm satisfied--I'm not saying a word again' that--I trust we shall meet in heaven, and be happy, surely. And, meantime, here's my boy, that will make me as happy as ever widow was on earth--if the agent will let him. And I can't think the agent, though they that know him best call him old Nick, would be so wicked to take from us that which he never gave us. The good lord himself granted us the lase; the life's dropped, and the years is out; but we had a promise of renewal in writing from the landlord. God bless him! if he was not away, he'd be a good gentleman, and we'd be happy and safe.'
'But if you have a promise in writing of a renewal, surely you are safe, whether your landlord is absent or present?'
'Ah, no I that makes a great differ, when there's no eye or hand over the agent. I would not wish to speak or think ill of him or any man; but was he an angel, he could not know to do the tenantry justice, the way he is living always in Dublin, and coming down to the country only the receiving days, to make a sweep among us, and gather up the rents in a hurry, and he in such haste back to town--can just stay to count over our money, and give the receipts. Happy for us, if we get that same!--but can't expect he should have time to see or hear us, or mind our improvements, any more than listen to our complaints! Oh, there's great excuse for the gentleman, if that was any comfort for us,' added she, smiling.
'But, if he does not live amongst you himself, has not he some under-agent, who lives in the country?' said Lord Colambre.
'He has so.'
'And he should know your concerns: does he mind them?'
'He should know--he should know better; but as to minding our concerns, your honour knows,' continued she, smiling again, 'every one in this world must mind their own concerns; and it would be a good world, if it was even so. There's a great deal in all things, that don't appear at first sight. Mr. Dennis wanted Grace for a wife for his bailiff; but she would not have him; and Mr. Dennis was very sweet to her himself--but Grace is rather high with him as proper, and he has a grudge again' us ever since. Yet, indeed, there,' added she, after another pause, 'as you say, I think we are safe; for we have that memorandum in writing, with a pencil, given under his own hand, on the back of the lase, to me, by the same token when my good lord had his foot on the step of the coach, going away; and I'll never forget the smile of her that got that good turn done for me, Miss Grace. And just when she was going to England and London, and, young as she was, to have the thought to stop and turn to the likes of me! Oh, then, if you could see her, and know her, as I did! That was the comforting angel upon earth--look and voice, and heart and all! Oh, that she was here present, this minute!--But did you scald yourself?' said the widow to Lord Colambre. 'Sure you must have scalded yourself; for you poured the kettle straight over your hand, and it boiling!--O deear! to think of so young a gentleman's hand shaking so like my own.
Luckily, to prevent her pursuing her observations from the hand to the face, which might have betrayed more than Lord Colambre wished she should know, her own Grace came in at this instant.
'There it's for you, safe, mother dear--the lase!' said Grace, throwing a packet into her lap. The old woman lifted up her hands to heaven, with the lease between them.--'Thanks be to Heaven!' Grace passed on, and sunk down on the first seat she could reach. Her face flushed, and, looking much fatigued, she loosened the strings of her bonnet and cloak--'Then, I'm tired;' but, recollecting herself, she rose, and curtsied to the gentleman.
'What tired ye, dear?'
'Why, after prayers, we had to go--for the agent was not at prayers, nor at home for us, when we called--we had to go all the way up to the castle; and there, by great good luck, we found Mr. Nick Garraghty himself, come from Dublin, and the lase in his hands; and he sealed it up that way, and handed it to me very civil. I never saw him so good--though he offered me a glass of spirits, which was not manners to a decent young woman, in a morning--as Brian noticed after. Brian would not take any either, nor never does. We met Mr. Dennis and the driver coming home; and he says, the rent must be paid to-morrow, or, instead of renewing, he'll seize and sell all. Mother dear, I would have dropped with the walk, but for Brian's arm.'--'It's a wonder, dear, what makes you so weak, that used to be so strong,'--'But if we can sell the cow for anything at all to Mr. Dennis, since his eye is set upon her, better let him have her, mother dear; and that and my yarn, which Mrs. Garraghty says she'll allow me for, will make up the rent--and Brian need not talk of America. But it must be in golden guineas, the agent will take the rent no other way; and you won't get a guinea for less than five shillings. Well, even so, it's easy selling my new gown to one that covets it, and that will give me in exchange the price of the gold; or, suppose that would not do, add this cloak,--it's handsome, and I know a friend would be glad to take it, and I'd part it as ready as look at it--Any-thing at all, sure, rather than that he should be forced to talk of emigrating; or, oh, worse again, listing for the bounty--to save us from the cant or the jail, by going to the hospital, or his grave, maybe--Oh, mother!'
'Oh, child! This is what makes you weak, fretting. Don't be that way. Sure here's the lase, and that's good comfort; and the soldiers will be gone out of Clonbrony to-morrow, and then that's off your mind. And as to America, it's only talk--I won't let him, he's dutiful; and would sooner sell my dresser and down to my bed, dear, than see you sell anything of yours, love. Promise me you won't. Why didn't Brian come home all the way with you, Grace?'
'He would have seen me home,' said Grace,' only that he went up a piece of the mountain for some stones or ore for the gentleman-- for he had the manners to think of him this morning, though, shame for me, I had not, when I come in, or I would not have told you all this, and he himself by. See, there he is, mother.'
Brian came in very hot, out of breath, with his hat full of stones. 'Good morrow to your honour. I was in bed last night; and sorry they did not call me up to be of sarvice. Larry was telling us, this morning, your honour's from Wales, and looking for mines in Ireland, and I heard talk that there was one on our mountain--maybe, you'd be curous to see, and so I brought the best I could, but I'm no judge.'
'Nor I, neither,' thought Lord Colambre; but he thanked the young man, and determined to avail himself of Larry's misconception or false report; examined the stones very gravely, and said, 'This promises well. Lapis caliminaris, schist, plum-pudding stone, rhomboidal, crystal, blend, garrawachy,' and all the strange names he could think of, jumbling them together at a venture.
'The lase!--Is it?' cried the young man, with joy sparkling in his eyes, as his mother held up the packet. 'Then all's safe! and he's an honest man, and shame on me, that could suspect he meant us wrong. Lend me the papers.'
He cracked the seals, and taking off the cover,--'It's the lase, sure enough. Shame on me!--But stay, where's the memorandum?'
'It's there, sure,' said his mother, 'where my lord's pencil writ it. I don't read.--Grace, dear, look.'
The young man put it into her hands, and stood without power to utter a syllable.
'It's not here! It's gone!--no sign of it.'
'Gracious Heaven! that can't be,' said the old woman, putting on her spectacles; 'let me see--I remember the very spot.'
'It's taken away--it's rubbed clean out!--Oh, wasn't I fool? But who could have thought he'd be the villain!' The young man seemed neither to see nor hear; but to be absorbed in thought.
Grace, with her eyes fixed upon him, grew as pale as death --'He'll go--he's gone.'
'She's gone!' cried Lord Colambre, and the mother just caught her in her arms as she was falling.
'The chaise is ready, plase your honour,' said Larry, coming into the room. 'Death! what's here?'
'Air!--she's coming to,' said the young man--'Take a drop of water, my own Grace.'
'Young man, I, promise you,' cried Lord Colambre (speaking in the tone of a master), striking the young man's shoulder, who was kneeling at Grace's feet; but recollecting and restraining himself, he added, in a quiet voice--'I promise you I shall never forget the hospitality I have received in this house, and I am sorry to be obliged to leave you in distress.'
These words uttered with difficulty, he hurried out of the house, and into his carriage. 'Go back to them,' said he to the postillion; 'go back and ask whether, if I should stay a day or two longer in this country, they would let me return at night and lodge with them. And here, man, stay, take this,' putting money into his hands, 'for the good woman of the house.'
The postillion went in, and returned.
'She won't at all--I knew she would not.'
'Well, I am obliged to her for the night's lodging she did give me; I have no right to expect more.'
'What is it?--Sure she bid me tell you--"and welcome to the lodging; for," said she, "he is a kind-hearted gentleman;" but here's the money; it's that I was telling you she would not have at all.'
'Thank you. Now, my good friend Larry, drive me to Clonbrony, and do not say another word, for I'm not in a talking humour.'
Larry nodded, mounted, and drove to Clonbrony. Clonbrony was now a melancholy scene. The houses, which had been built in a better style of architecture than usual, were in a ruinous condition; the dashing was off the walls, no glass in the windows, and many of the roofs without slates. For the stillness of the place Lord Colambre in some measure accounted by considering that it was Sunday; therefore, of course, all the shops were shut up, and all the people at prayers. He alighted at the inn, which completely answered Larry's representation of it. Nobody to be seen but a drunken waiter, who, as well as he could articulate, informed Lord Colambre that 'his mistress was in her bed since Thursday- was-a-week; the hostler at the wash-woman's, and the cook at second prayers.'
Lord Colambre walked to the church, but the church gate was locked and broken--a calf, two pigs, and an ass, in the churchyard; and several boys (with more of skin apparent than clothes) were playing at hustlecap upon a tombstone, which, upon nearer observation, he saw was the monument of his own family. One of the boys came to the gate, and told Lord Colambre 'there was no use in going into the church, becaase there was no church there; nor had not been this twelvemonth; becaase there was no curate; and the parson was away always, since the lord was at home--that is, was not at home--he nor the family.'
Lord Colambre returned to the inn, where, after waiting a considerable time, he gave up the point--he could not get any dinner--and in the evening he walked out again into the town. He found several ale-houses, however, open, which were full of people; all of them as busy and as noisy as possible. He observed that the interest was created by an advertisement of several farms on the Clonbrony estate, to be set by Nicholas Garraghty, Esq. He could not help smiling at his being witness incognito to various schemes for outwitting the agents and defrauding the landlord; but, on a sudden, the scene was changed; a boy ran in, crying out, that 'St. Dennis was riding down the hill into the town; and, if you would not have the license,' said the boy, 'take care of yourself.'
'If you wouldn't have the licence,' Lord Colambre perceived, by what followed, meant, 'If you have not a licence.' Brannagan immediately snatched an untasted glass of whisky from a customer's lips (who cried, Murder!) gave it and the bottle he held in his hand to his wife, who swallowed the spirits, and ran away with the bottle and glass into some back hole; whilst the bystanders laughed, saying, 'Well thought of, Peggy!'
'Clear out all of you at the back door, for the love of heaven, if you wouldn't be the ruin of me,' said the man of the house, setting a ladder to a corner of the shop. 'Phil, hoist me up the keg to the loft,' added he, running up the ladder; 'and one of yees step up street, and give Rose M'Givney notice, for she's selling too.'
The keg was hoisted up; the ladder removed; the shop cleared of all the customers; the shutters shut; the door barred; the counter cleaned. 'Lift your stones, sir, if you plase,' said the wife, as she rubbed the counter, 'and say nothing of what you seen at all; but that you're a stranger and a traveller seeking a lodging, if you're questioned, or waiting to see Mr. Dennis. There's no smell of whisky in it now, is there, sir?'
Lord Colambre could not flatter her so far as to say this--he could only hope no one would perceive it.
'Oh, and if he would, the smell of whisky was nothing,' as the wife affirmed, 'for it was everywhere in nature, and no proof again' any one, good or bad.'
'Now St. Dennis may come when he will, or old Nick himself!' So she tied up a blue handkerchief over her head, and had the toothache, 'very bad.'
Lord Colambre turned to look for the man of the house.
'He's safe in bed,' said the wife.
'In bed! When?'
'Whilst you turned your head, while I was tying the handkerchief over my face. Within the room, look, he is snug.'
And there he was in bed certainly, and his clothes on the chest.
A knock, a loud knock at the door.
'St. Dennis himself!--Stay, till I unbar the door,' said the woman; and, making a great difficulty, she let him in, groaning, and saying--
'We was all done up for the night, plase your honour, and myself with the toothache, very bad--And the lodger, that's going to take an egg only, before he'd go into his bed. My man's in it, and asleep long ago.'
With a magisterial air, though with a look of blank disappointment, Mr. Dennis Garraghty walked on, looked into the room, saw the good man of the house asleep, heard him snore, and then, returning, asked Lord Colambre 'who he was, and what brought him there?'
Our hero said he was from England, and a traveller; and now, bolder grown as a geologist, he talked of his specimens, and his hopes of finding a mine in the neighbouring mountains; then adopting, as well as he could, the servile tone and abject manner in which he found Mr. Dennis was to be addressed, 'he hoped he might get encouragement from the gentleman at the head of the estate.'
'To bore, is it?--Well, don't bore me about it. I can't give you any answer now, my good friend; I'm engaged.'
Out he strutted. 'Stick to him up the town, if you have a mind to get your answer,' whispered the woman. Lord Colambre followed, for he wished to see the end of this scene.
'Well, sir, what are you following and sticking to me, like my shadow, for?' said Mr. Dennis, turning suddenly upon Lord Colambre.
His lordship bowed low. 'Waiting for my answer, sir, when you are at leisure.
Or, may I call upon you tomorrow?'
'You seem to be a civil kind of fellow; but, as to boring, I don't know--if you undertake it at your own expense. I dare say there may be minerals in the ground. Well, you may call at the castle to-morrow, and when my brother has done with the tenantry, I'll speak to him for you, and we'll consult together, and see what we think. It's too late to-night. In Ireland, nobody speaks to a gentleman about business after dinner--your servant, sir; anybody can show you the way to the castle in the morning.' And, pushing by his lordship, he called to a man on the other side of the street, who had obviously been waiting for him; he went under a gateway with this man, and gave him a bag of guineas. He then called for his horse, which was brought to him by a man whom Colambre had heard declaring that he would bid for the land that was advertised; whilst another, who had the same intentions, most respectfully held St. Dennis's stirrup, whilst he mounted without thanking either of these men. St. Dennis clapped spurs to his steed, and rode away. No thanks, indeed, were deserved; for the moment he was out of hearing, both cursed him after the manner of their country.
'Bad luck go with you, then!--And may you break your neck before you get home, if it was not for the lase I'm to get, and that's paid for.'
Lord Colambre followed the crowd into a public-house, where a new scene presented itself to his view.
The man to whom St. Dennis gave the bag of gold was now selling this very gold to the tenants, who were to pay their rent next day at the castle.
The agent would take nothing but gold. The same guineas were bought and sold several times over, to the great profit of the agent and loss of the poor tenants; for, as the rents were paid, the guineas were resold to another set, and the remittances made through bankers to the landlord; who, as the poor man who explained the transaction to Lord Colambre expressed it, 'gained nothing by the business, bad or good, but the ill-will of the tenantry.'
The higgling for the price of the gold; the time lost in disputing about the goodness of the notes, among some poor tenants, who could not read or write, and who were at the mercy of the man with the bag in his hand; the vexation, the useless harassing of all who were obliged to submit ultimately--Lord Colambre saw; and all this time he endured the smell of tobacco and whisky, and of the sound of various brogues, the din of men wrangling, brawling, threatening, whining, drawling, cajoling, cursing, and every variety of wretchedness.
'And is this my father's town of Clonbrony?' thought Lord Colambre. 'Is this Ireland?--No, it is not Ireland. Let me not, like most of those who forsake their native country, traduce it. Let me not, even to my own mind, commit the injustice of taking a speck for the whole. What I have just seen is the picture only of that to which an Irish estate and Irish tenantry may be degraded in the absence of those whose duty and interest it is to reside in Ireland to uphold justice by example and authority; but who, neglecting this duty, commit power to bad hands and bad hearts--abandon their tenantry to oppression, and their property to ruin.'
It was now fine moonlight, and Lord Colambre met with a boy, who said he could show him a short way across the fields to the widow O'Neill's cottage.