Bessy Conway; or, The Irish Girl in America
In the heart of the rich and fertile county of Tipperary, not far from the banks of the silvery Suir, and almost in the shadow of the mouldering castle of Ardfinnan, there is a snug and comfortable farm-house owned by one Denis Conway, as decent a man, so the neighbors say, as you would find in the five counties. Denis is what you may call a "'sponsible farmer," he holds some fifty acres of as good ground as any in Tipperary, and that at an easy rent, so easy, indeed, that Denis is putting by something every year for the "rainy day." No wonder that he should, when he can, for he has lived through the darkest and most dismal of "rainy days," when gaunt famine stared in at the door and pestilence at the window; when a shilling was worth a precious life, and a pound of meal its weight in gold, because of the hunger that was gnawing at the people's hearts, and Denis Conway had seen all that, and, moreover, he had lost his farm and his dwelling in that dreary time, and was turned out with his family to seek shelter where they could find it, all because he could not pay his rent, then fearfully in arrear. So even as a burnst child is said to dread the fire, Denis had a salutary fear of being again penniless, and now that God had given him back the blessing of prosperity,
he made up his mind not to let all its golden fruit slip through his fingers to leave him again with empty hands should the day of trial come.
Happily the dark days of famine and pestilence had passed away without leaving Denis Conway any worse legacy than that of experience. Unlike many of his friends and neighbors he had seen no one belonging to him die the awful death of hunger- reduced to the last necessity as they had been, and for whole days without eating a morsel, still it so happened that relief always came at the right time, justifying the word that was always on the old man's lips: "God is a good provider. " Surely Denis found Him so, and his cheerful and patient reliance on Divine Providence was well rewarded. How else could he and his have lived when so many died, and, still more remarkable, how else could they have got back into 'he old homestead and renovate it so that it looked as good as new, ay! and a great deal betters How came the horse in the stable, and the cows in the byre back again, and the hay, and the oats, and the wheat " stacked up" as of old in the haggard at the end of the house q What but that bountiful Providence in which Denis had trusted all along, even when things looked darkest.
But how did Providence bring all this about ? I hear some of my readers ask, and that is just what I am going to tell. Visible agents are always employed to carry out the divine economy in regard to human affairs. Now who was Denis Conway's Providence? whose hand was employed to draw him and his family from the abyss of wretchedness in which the whole country was engulfed? Who but his own daughter Bessy, the eldest of his children who had gone to America years before, in the service of a captain's lady who had taken a fancy to the girl in Carrick, where she was serving her time to a dressmaker.
It was the first grief that had come upon the family when Bessy persisted in accepting the tempting offer which would
enable her to " see the world." For years long that had been the dream of her young heart, ay ! ever since the days of her childhood, and although she would not positively disobey her parents, and go without their consent, she gave them plainly to understand that she would never be happy unless they gave it, and under that pressure the old couple were forced to give in. Very unwillingly they did so. The world was smiling on them at the time, they were contented and happy themselves, and they could not sympathize with the love of change which had unsettled their daughter's mind. If it had been Nancy, now, or Nelly, or one of the boys that took such a wild notion into their heads, "a body wouldn't wonder," the old mother said, "but Bessy that was ever and always a rock of sense, and the best child that ever drew breath, she to think of leaving them in their old age, and turn her back on all belonging to her-that was something so far beyond the range of probability that they could hardly believe it at all, and only awoke from their stupor of surprise to find Bessy prepared "for the start," and themselves expected to go with the rest of the convoy on the following day to Waterford to see her and some neighbor boys and girls off for America. So Denis and Bridget had only to make the best of it and see that Bessy should want for nothing on her long and tedious voyage, which appeared to their simple minds as an undertaking of awful importance, fraught with danger of every kind, probable and improbable. Finding that her mistress had provided her with almost everything necessary for the voyage, and had, moreover, paid her passage, all her parents could do was to give her the money intended for her outfit and passage, with a trifle to the back of it, too, so that poor Bessy might have something to draw on if things went against her in the strange country for which she was bound
It was a sorrowful parting between Bessy Conway and her father and mother, and brothers and sisters, who had hitherto been her world. It was to her something like launching into
the regions of air far beyond mortal ken, and as she sobbed out her last farewell on her mother's shoulder, she thought she could not live so far away from home, and friends, and parents. And yet their parting was not so heart-rending as many others they saw around them. It was brightened by hope, cheering hope, for Bessy had a good home to come back to, in case she did not like America, and she went with the special condition that, in any case, she would return in the course of a few years, if God spared her life. Besides, she was not wholly amongst strangers: had she not Peery Murphy and his family from the very door with her, and the Murphy girls had been her " comrades" as long as she could remember? Then there was a first cousin of her father's, Ned Finigan by name, as steady and as decent a man as there was in the parish he came from. Ned was verging on old bachelorship, anal had "neither chick nor child," and he cheerfully premised Denis Conway (and why wouldn't he, wasn't he his own aunt's son?) that Bessy should never want a friend, or one to advise her, as long as he was in the land of the living. What could go beyond that? Denis asked in a tone of entire satisfaction, and his wife nodded approvingly. So what with Peery Murphy's people and Ned Finigan, not to speak of Mrs. Walters, her kind mistress, who promised so fair, there was little fear of Bessy but she'd do well. So every one said, and, of course, what every one says must be true. Still it was with a heavy heart and tearful eyes that those left behind stood watching the steamer that bore away Bessy, as it splashed and sputtered from the wharf. Away and away she goes, the wharf is cleared, loud from the shore rises the parting cry of sorrow from the crowd of friends and relatives, back from the boat the echo comes, a sad, wild chorus, in which many voices mingle. Messageses to friends in America are for the last time called out to those on board, injunctions to write as soon as they landed, and all the late last words with which affection seeks to prolong the intercourse that will soon cease, perhaps forever.
" If you go to the New Orleans, Peter, don't forget to call and see Lucy !"
"Mind what I tell you, Terence, about that man in Halifax- be sure to find him out for me." Terence promised, for the twentieth time perhaps, wholly unmindful, as was his friend, of the trifling difficulty that his destination was Philadelphia -- no matter, anyhow, Halifax and Philadelphia were both in America, that was enough to know; the rest was easy.
" Tell Mark and Mary I'll be with them in the Spring, please God !"
" Let Patrick know that we lost the hill farm !"
" Tell my uncle that we never got a scroll from Biddy since she went to Boston !"
Promises came back over the water from a multitude of eager voices, hands and hats and many-colored handkerchiefs were waved, fervent prayers and wishes were exchanged, eyes were strained to distinguish the faces of near and dear ones, faint and fainter came the wailing voices to ears that listened for their latest sound, the haze of distance gradually blended into one the distinctive features of the crowd on deck and the crowd on shore, yet hands and hats were still seen waving the last farewell; soon even these were lost sight of, the waters rolled between the nearest and dearest, and the steamer was ploughing through Waterford harbor on her way to Liverpool.
Denis Conway and his family retraced their homeward steps not in silence, but in sorrow,-scarcely, if, at all, lessened by the number of their neighbors similarly afflicted. They felt at the moment as if they had left Bessy in the churchyard clay, and the lightest heart among them was weighed down with sorrow. None of them could realize to themselves that they should ever see her face again, her promise to the contrary notwithstanding, and when any of the neighbors reminded them of it, the old couple shook their heads dolefully and said: "God grant she may! but America's a long way."
"But, never mind, Bridget astore!" said Denis with an attempt at cheerfulness, "you know what you said to Bessy there awhile ago: ' God will never desert them, that don't desert Him.' Keep that in mind, machree! and don't fret about the gersha-she's in good hands we all know."
So thought Bessy herself as she stood on the deck of the steamer and looked back with tearful eyes towards the spot where she had seen her loved ones for the last time. The noble quay of Waterford was before her, and the bright mellow sun of September was gilding the hoary towers which Danes and Normans built in ages long gone by, yet Bessy Conway heeded them not, little she knew and little she cared for the memories that hung around those venerable relics of the past. The splendid erections of modern art were equally unnoticed by the sorrowing girl; not even the softly undulating hills around the city or the blue mountains in the distance gave her a moment's pleasure as her listless eye fell on them. Poor Bessy Conway was too much engrossed by the one sad tbought that she was leaving, perhaps for ever, all she loved on earth, to pay any attention to things beyond the measure of her own loss. She was passing scenes of old renown, where Danish princes ruled and the proud Plantagenets kept their court, where Strongbow wedded the reluctant daughter of McMurrough, and Cromwell left his Vandal-mark on the sacred monuments of art, and where James II took his last farewell of Ireland-what a world of ancient lore crowded into the annals of one city, yet all unknown to Bessy. She was thinking of the cottage beneath the sycamore, miles and miles away, and wondering if her favorite " crummy" would let Nelly or Nancy milk her that evening, or which of the girls would make her father's " posset" at bed-time. Her thoughts were homely and of home, taking in all the scenes that surrounded rounded her paternal dwelling, ay ! even to the lone bush in the pasture-field which had been the terror of her childish days.
(* All our readers may not know that a posset means a warm drink made of sweet and sour milk which together form whey.)
Bessy was roused from her sorrowful musing by the voice of her mistress, who had come in search of her. She had wholly forgotten the new state into which she had entered and it was with a feeling of pleasure that she now prepared to commence the discharge of her duty, hoping to find relief in occupation. She therefore followed Mrs. Walters to the cabin with a buoyant step and a somewhat lighter heart. More than one friendly voice hailed her as she passed, and Mary Murphy, Peery's youngest daughter, caught her arm with a girlish laugh.
" Take your time, Bessy, there's luck in leisure !'
" I can't stop now, Mary dear; don't you see the mistress wants me ?"
Mary laughed again as she turned to her eldest sister: "See what it is to be a cabin passenger ! we're puttin' airs on us already !"
Bessy only answered by a reproachful glance, and passed on, but Ally Murphy rebuked her sister and told her she saw no airs on Bessy. " You see she's not her own mistress now," said the sedate maiden, who was verging on the sober age of thirty, "it isn't old times with her, Mary, and she does well to start fair, for, you know, a good beginnin' makes a good ending. "
" God mark you with grace, a colleen," said an ancient dame who was sitting on a very small wooden box that contained her goods and chattels, "it's you that has the purty, graceful way with you, and the good word in your mouth ! Some way my heart warms to you, an' its the same with the fair-haired colleen that's gone in there. Is she anything to you, machree?"
" Not a drop's blood, granny, only the good wish that's between us-we came from the same place, and she's an old comrade of mine. "
"See that now, and would you be pleased to tell me what part of America you're bound for?"
" New York. Is it there you're goin' I"
"Wisha, then, myself doesn't know where I'm goin' to. There's a boy of mine somewheres in America, and I'm just goin' to try and make him out. I haven't a soul in the world but him, you see, an' I didn't get e'er a word from him this two years come Candlemas. I think my old heart would grow young again if I only had a sight of him, so I sold my little place-a house and garden I had-and thank God! I got enough for it to bring me out."
" Well, but, granny" said the sympathizing Ally, as she sat down by the old woman, "sure you don't know whether your son's livin' or dead when you didn't hear from him these two years i"
"Livin' or dead!" repeated the dame sharply, "why what would kill him? Don't I know very well he's livin'? why would'nt he? An' I'll find him out, too, with the help of God, before long ! The last letter I had from him was in a place they call Hi-o, or O-hio, I dont know which, but I suppose it is not very far from New York. Did you ever hear of such a place?"
"Well, no, granny, I did not, but, as you say, it can't be very far from New York." "Only a matter of six or eight hundred miles, or so," said a gentlemanly man with a sun-burned face who had been an amused and interested listener to this colloquy. v "Six or eight hundred miles!" screamed the old woman in blank despair, "Christ save us! your honor's not in earnest !"
"I am, indeed, my good woman, very much in earnest, as you will find to your cost unless you have some money by you ."
"Six or eight hundred miles!" repeated the old woman as if to herself, "why, if it's that, I'll never be able to get there. How long would it take a body to go, please your honor?"
"Four or five days, I fancy."
"Oh ! wisha if that's all," and the old woman brightened up at once, it's not so bad as I thought, an I'll be able to reach Philip after all."
"The mistress wants you, sir !" said Bessy Conway emerging from the cabin and addressing the gentleman. When he was gone, Ally Murphy asked Bessy if that was her master.
"To be sure-that is Captain Walters. He's agoin' to his own ship that's at Liverpool, an' it's in her we're all goin' to America."
"That I mayn't sin, but he's a nice, fair-spoken gentleman," said the old woman, whose name was Dolly Sheehan, "an' he seems to know all about America. Do you think was he ever in it before?"
"Why, God help your wit, granny, doesn't he go back and forth between it and Liverpool a good many times every year of his life ! Know America ! eh then, it's himself that does !"
"Well, now, I'm, sorry I did'nt ask him if he ever heard of one Philip Sheehan. Maybe you'll ask him the question, ma colleen bawn ?" addressing Bessy.
"I'll get the mistress to ask him-I'd be a little daunted myself to make so free, an' me only a stranger. But there's all the rest of them, Ally q I thought they were here with you."
"It's a'most time for you to ask," said Mary, taking the word of her sister's mouth. " There they are, if you want to know," and she pointed to a group at a little distance, the central figure of which was a comical looking individual with a hump on his back, who was talking and gesticulating with an air half quizzical, half serious. He had been to America before, it would seem, and was entertaining his eager listeners with an account of what he had seen there. The wondering exclamations of those around him gradually attracted others from the gloomy contemplation of their native shores, and soon the audience comprised all within hearing, except a few whose load of sorrow was too heavy and painful to permit of any diversion.
(* Three-and-twenty years ago travelling was not so rapid as it is now.)
Peery Murphy and his wife were amongst the hunchback's first auditors, and Ned Finigan sat with his long legs dangling from the top of a pile of boxes in the immediate vicinity, listening intently, yet half doubtingly, to the veracious evidence of the little man.
"And you say they don't have to walk much in America VX said an old man who stood by leaning on his staff.
" I tell you they hardly walk at all," replied the travelled hunchback, whose name was Paul. " They ride about hither and thither in fine coaches with velvet cushions, as complete as you please. They go everywhere in a coach-bedad they do, even to their work and from it. If a man wants to see another five or six miles away on business, or ask him a question, he has nothing to do but step in and ride to the very door, and when he wants to get out he has only to pull a leather strap that runs through the coach from the driver's seat, and, my dear, it's stopped immediately, as if he was the lord of the land If a boy's goin' home with a new coat, or a pair of breeches, or anything that way, or a woman with a basket of fish, why, they just step into the coach, and they're taken to the place in no time."
"Well, now ! isn't it great respect they show the people!" ejaculated one. "The Lord be praised ! isn't it the fine country all out!" cried another. "And the gover'ment has them elegant coaches just to save the people from walkin'?" This last speaker was Ned Finigan, from his elevated perch.
"Well, no; not the gover'ment, but the President-it's the President does it." And Paul fixed his eyes on his audience with a peculiarly knowing look.
"The President, who is he I"
"Oh, bedad ! he's a fine old gentleman they have got there coinin' money for them. That's his business, and he's at it hard and fast from one year's end to the other. He's at the head and foot of everything that's goin' on, an', as I told you before, it's him that has the coaches and everything commodious just waitin' for you and me. All the people call him Uncle Sam, and they go now and then to visit him where he's sittin' in state in a fine grand house at a place they call Washington.
"And can any one that likes get in to see him where he makes the money?"
" 'Deed an' they can, and put their comether on him, too. He's not a bit proud. Didn't I shake hands with him once myself."
"Shake hands with the President !"-" with the ould gentle man that makes the money !" " And what did he say, hon est man i"-" what does he look like, at all?"-" I'm sure he was ever so grand !"
"Grand ! why, God help your wit, you could hardly look at him for the gold and silver-he'd dazzle your eyes !"
"Maybe he's a sort of a conjurer," put in old Dolly Sheehan, who had succeeded after much trouble in making her way through the crowd. "If he wasn't he'd never be able to coin all the money that's in America. It's like he might tell me where I'd find Philip."
"Philip who? asked the hunchback quickly and earnestly. There was something in the name that struck a chord in his heart, or, at least, in his memory.
"Why, Philip Sheehan, to be sure-that's lazy son that's in America!"
"And you're Philip Sheehan's mother?" questioned Paul, with a sudden change of manner, and he fixed his keen, bright eyes on the wrinkled face before him.
"The sorra one else I am, my good man !-maybe you know Philip yourself!"
"Well ! I did know a Philip Sheehan once-
"You did ! The Lord's blessin' on you, then, and tell me where he is!"
The hunchback shook his head. " I wish I could, granny! but, sure, maybe it wasn't you son at all. The one I mean was a waiter in a hotel."
"That's him-that's him !" cried the old vomau joyfully, and she caught hold of Paul's hand, and held it fast, as if any one that had seen her son was the nest best thing to himself, and to be prized accordingly. "Sure, that's just what he was at in the last letter I got from him. But where-where is he now? If you know, God bless you and tell me, an' you'll be doin' an act of charity, for he's all I have in the world, an' I don't know where to face to after him. "
Was there a tear in the hunchback's eye, but late so full of fun? There was, and his dark sallow cheek turned pale, but he pretended to look another way and avoided the old woman's piercing glance. He forced a laugh, too, and tried to shake off the withered hand that was on his arm, but he tried in vain, the hand would not stir.
"Hut, tut, granny! let me go! I was only making fun! What should I know about your son?"
"I tell you, man ! you do know !" screamed the crone with sudden vehemence, "I see it in your face, and I'll never let go of vou-never-never-till you tell me!" She put her old wisened face almost close to his, and peered into his eyes, as if she could read the secret there. " Tell me now, like a decent man-where is Philip Sheehan-my boy Philip?"
"I tell you I don't know !" said he doggedly.
"I tell you, you do-you do ! an' I must know, too !"
"You're an unmannerly woman, so you are. "
"I'm Philip Sheehan's mother-d'ye hear that-an' I see vou know where he is, but you're playin' tricks on me-don't blame me, agra !-don't blame me,-don't be angry with me for askin' -- surehe's all I have, an' I sold my little place to go
(Page 17) to him, but where's the use if I don't know where to flnd him !"
The tears were streaming from the old woman's eyes, and indeed there were few dry eyes around. No one was more moved than the queer little hunchback.
"Well ! now, granny, I'll jist tell you the truth," said he, " I did know your son when I was out here before, but-but- how can I tell where he is now-I'm home ever since Lammas was a year- sure unless I was a conjurer, or a fairy-doctor, I couldn't tell what became of him since!"
There was no going beyond this, so the old woman dropped his hand and turned away with a heavy sigh.
"God pity you, poor woman!" muttered the hunchback to himself as he watched her receding form, bowed down with age and sorrow.
"Is the boy livin' or dead, dear?" questioned one of the bystanders, a good-looking elderly woman in a blue cloak who had been paying particular attention all along.
"What would you give to know, dears?" retorted Paul so qiuckly, and with such a droll grimace that a roar of laughter followed, and the woman in the blue cloak slunk away all abashed.
Bessy Conway had been an attentive and deeply-interested witness of this scene, and she was hastening after the disconsolate mother of Philip Sheehan to offer some words of comfort and encouragement, when a voice spoke at her ear.
" Not a word or a look for me, Bessy ?" The girl raised her eyes with a start and a blush, and met the reproachful glance of a good-looking young man, whose dress and general deportment were considerably above the peasant class to which most of the emigrants belonged. There was a smart, knowing look about him which savored of the town rather than the country, and his words were smooth and well-placed.
"Why, then, Mister Henry, is it here you are t what In the world brings you?"
"What in the world would bring me?-what a wonder you make of it to see me !"
"But who ever thought of seeing you here ? Are you going te America, or what?"
"I'm going wherever you go."
"Lord bless me, sir! what a thing for you to say!" exclaimed Bessy, in real alarm. "Sure, your father and mother would never hear of your going to America, or anywhere else, away from them ! And you that has such a good America at home ! Oh, master Henry ! think of what you're about !"
"I know what I'm about," replied the young man sharply. "And I'd have you to know, Miss Bessy Conway, that I'm too old now to be tied to my mother's apron strings. As soon as f heard you were going to America I made up my mind to go, too, but you may be sure I kept my mind to myself. If I had made it known to any one, it was no go."
"Well, but, what do you mean, Master Henry? what do you mean, at all, at all ? I'm sure I got blame enough at home on your account, an I'll be ruined entirely if you be comin' after me in America."
"Why, really, Bessy, it is amusing to hear you talk-one would think it was you was above, and I below !-ruined indeed, how can you be ruined when I'm willing to marry you as soon as you like?" "Never, Master Henry, never," cried Bessy with an energy little to be expected from her usually quiet demeanor, "I'll never marry a man at home or abroad that is not pleasin' to my parents !"
"You won't, Bessy?"
"No, sir, never ! so you may as vell give it up, an' look after Somebody that will answer you better."
"Suppose I take you at your word-what then?" demanded
(Page 19) Henry with a peculiar smile that made Bessy Conway's cheek scarlet.
"For God's sake, do !" she said fervently, clasping her hands as she spoke. "Do, sir, an' you'll have my blessing ! go ! go ! -go now ! there's the mistress ! I wouldn't for the world she'd see us together !"
She hurried away obedient to a sign from Mrs Walters, leaving the young man to digest what she had said as best he might. He was standing looking after Bessy with a mingled expression of anger and admiration on his fine open countenance, when a hand was laid on his arm, and turning quickly he encountered the upturned face of the hunchback.