(Illustrations included for purposes of hypertext edition only; they did not appear in the original edition.)
Just as Paul was about to commence his story the waiter knocked at the door to say that Tom Cassidy and old Mrs. Sheehan were outside and insisted on being let in with the rest.
"Is there anybody else -- " asked Paul through the keyhole.
"Nobody -- only Teague Moriarty from near Ardfinnan."
"They're all welcome," said Paul applying the key to the lock.
"Bad manners to you, Paul!" said Cassidy as they entered, "is it makin' masons you are, or what, that you lock the door on yourselves?"
"Ask us no questions and we'll tell you no lies," said Paul curtly; "sit down all of you -- Mrs. Sheehan, ma'am, here's Bessy and Mrs. Murphy and Mrs. Finigan -- come in here to the corner, there's room for you. Now, Mr. Herbert! I know you're a good warrant to treat people -- here's a nice little company of us now, most all from your own place at home -- what are you goin' to do for us? a gentleman like you ought to have an open hand."
The cutting irony of these remarks made Herbert wince. "That back of yours stands you in good stead, if it weren't for it you should have your answer pretty quick."
" Paul!" said Ned in a voice quivering with anger, " I'll not stay here if he's in the room."
"'Deed an' you will, then, Ned !" said Paul, " to oblige me you'll do it, an' keep as quiet as a mouse now for I'm going to begin my story."
"Botheration to you!" muttered Ned between his teeth " what do I care for your stories?"
"I believe the confounded fellow takes us all for fools!" said Herbert to his friend in a stage whisper. " Shall we stay, think you ?"
"Demme! we can't help staying," said Dixon pointing to the door now again fast. He felt rather curious to hear the story told under such singular circumstances, but he did not say so.
"Well! if we must, we must," said Herbert with a careless smile, and leaning back in his chair he folded his arms, and looked round with an air, half mocking, half contemptuous, carefully avoiding, however, the particular spot where Bessy sat silent and as it seemed abstracted.
"Well now, Dixon !" said Herbert half turning to his friend. "I rather think we're a precious pair of fools, sitting here waiting for an old crazy pate to spin his yarn!"
"I b'lieve its a ghost story I'll tell you," said Paul fixing his eyes on the ceiling as though there were some cabalistic signs there to aid his memory. Pre-occupied and anxious as most of his auditors were, and little " 'in the vein" for hearing stories, there was something in Paul's manner that riveted their attention, and they listened, they knew not why.
"It happened in a place that most of you know well," resumed Paul, " that's the old abbeychurch of Ardfinnan."
Why, to be sure, every one knew it, and every one's attention was doubly excited. Even Ned roused himself like a dog shaking off a drowsy fit.
"But sure we all heard it before," said Teague Moriarty, "if it's that you're goin' to tell us."
"Will you just have a little manners, Teague, and don't interrupt me "I know you all heard part of the story, but that's the very reason that you ought to hear more."
"Confound you!" said Herbert angrily, "do you think we can sit here listening to your nonsensical rigmaroles?"
"Take it easy, Mr. Herbert, take it easy!" said Paul dryly, "many an hour you spent here when there was ne'er a story to hear -- your time isn't worth any more now than it was then. Well! you all remember, I'm sure, the terror that was over the whole country for miles round in regard to the noise that used to be heard in the lonesome place where there wasn't a living soul only the old monks that were in their graves hundreds of years."
"Ha! ha! that's good, isn't its ' said Herbert to Dixon with a strange unnatural laugh. " Not a living soul but the dead old monks, eh?"
Paul took no notice but went on. " Strange noises were heard and strange sights were seen about the abbey at the dead hour of night when the world was sleeping You all remember the talk that was about it, and the stories that were told, fit to make the hair of one's head stand on end."
"Remember it!" cried Teague Moriarty, "why, I got a fright myself there, one night that me and Phil Byrne were coming home from a dance, and as it was late we took a near cut through the fields, that brought us in sight of the ould Abbey.
"What did you see?" asked Herbert, much amused.
"I saw -- Christ between us and harm! -- I saw a blaze of light shinin' out from the windows that you'd think there was a grand illumination in it. "
"Ha! ha! ha! -- ho! ho! ho! d'ye hear that, Dixon?" and Herbert laughed vociferously. "A blaze of light through the windows! -- why, man, there hasn't been a window there for ages "
"No matter, Mr. Herbert ! it's all the same," said Paul, "we know what Teague means, and I'm sure he's telling the truth, for I often saw the light myself. "
"Are you in earnest?"
"Indeed I am, Mr. Herbert! -- and that's so sure that I got a talking about it to Billy Potts, the sexton of Ardfinnan Church -- you all know his -- and we made it up that we'd go some night and watch together at St. Finian's Abbey."
Another wild burst of laughter from Herbert startled the eager listeners "Ho! ho! ho ! two humps with their heads together, plotting against the ghosts! -- ' down among the dead men' -- ha! ha! ha!"
"And did you go?" said Ally with breathless eagerness, heeding only Paul.
"Go!" cried Herbert again, "go ! not they, indeed! I'd like to see the living man that would keep watch by night in St. Finian's Church."
"You may see him now, then," said Paul, coolly, "for I'm the man that did it, myself and Billy Potts!"
"Christ save us!" -- "Lord bless us!" "An' what did you gee, Paul! what did you see, astore?" This last was from Dolly Sheehan.
"Did you see the black dog?" asked another.
Paul paid little attention to the eager exclamations of those around him -- the weird spirit was upon him -- he was brooding over his own strange fancies, and conjuring up bodiless shapes from the grave of vanished years. He sat with his small eyes fixed on vacancy yet gradually kindling with inward Ore his large head bent forward, and his hands resting on his knees. His thin pale lips were working and twitching with a tremulous motion yet they gave forth no sound Every eye was fixed on him but no one ventured to speak. Even Herbert forgot his levity, and sat silent and attentive. He was pale, too, and appeared ill at ease, watching Paul's countenance most intently.
"What did I see?" said Paul at length raising his head and speaking very slowly, "I saw what I didn't expect to see. It was a dark dull night in the harvest time that Billy and myself went up to the Abbey, and a lonesome tramp we had of
it for we waited till the people were all at rest, and you know even in daylight what a place it is on account of the trees meetin' overhead and the big black rocks that look as if they were ready to fall atop of you. Myself felt a little daunted when we got to the old Abbey and seen it standin' up between us and the sky, and indeed it was only the bud of it we could see through the thick darkness. Billy trudged along as contented as if he was walkin' down the street and the blessed sun shinin' over him. Billy never knew what fear was. He was so used to diggin' down among the dead and handlin' their white bones that he wasn't a bit afeard of them, and I didn't care to let him know that I was either.
"Well! when we got to the Abbey there wasn't a thing to be seen barrin' the great black walls and the trees about them shaking in the wind, for it was blowin' a little at the time ' God guard us, Billy !' says I, ' isn't it a lonesome place this?' 'It's a quiet place,' says Billy back again, 'a brave quiet place -- I see no sign of them yet -- ' who,' says I, ' why the sperits,' says Billy, ' maybe they'll not stir out the night, it's so dark and dismal.' Billy laughed but I didn't laugh, for it made the hair stand on my head to hear him talkin' that way at such a time and in such a place. ' Where are we goin' for shelter, Billy S' says I to him, ' we can't stay here long unless eve get under cover, for I'm thinkin' the weather is goin' to Change.' ' We'll see,' says Billy, ' maybe we wouldn't have to stay long, but, at any rate, I think I know a place where we can have a view of the inside, and be in shelter, too. When I was a little fellow I spent many an hour among these ruins, and even of late years I often drop in of a Sunday to see the old place and sit awhile among the quiet dead I have a great wish for the dead, Paul! especially the monks that I know were so good and died so happy, and I often spend awhile pickin' the rubbish and the weeds from about their tombstones, an' when I meet any bones Iyin' about I gather them up and pile them all together for fear some of them
might belong to the monks or the abbots or some of them holy people. If it was daylight, Paul ! I could show them to you -- a nice little pile right in the middle of the chancel where the altar used to stand.' ' I'm thankful to you, Billy!' says I back to him, ' but I'd as soon see anything else as a heap of dead men's bones "'
"I'll break your bones," said Herbert savagely, "if you don't either get on with your story or open the door and let us out!"
"Have patience, Mr. Herbert," said Paul dryly; " I'm getting on finely, sir ! where was I? -- oh I know, I was at the bones -- well! Billy laughed at myself when I said that, but, anyhow, we walked round the Church till we came to the place where it and the Abbey joined, and Billy took me along a narrow passage -- in the wall I think it was -- and up a little Slight of stone steps -- he had to hold me by the arm all The way, myself not knowin' where it was safe to put my foot -- at last he pushed me down and I found myself sittin' squat on a stone bench, and dark as the night was, I could see that there was an opening before us like a window. ' Now,' says Billy ' if there's anything to be seen here the night, we'll see it, Paul ! sit there now, an' if it rained till mornin' we wouldn't get a drop."'
"What a pair of old fools you were to be sure !" interrupted Herbert with one of his wild unseasonable bursts of laughter " I suppose it was up in the belfry you wore, among the crows !"
"No, it wasn't," said Paul nodding significantly at him; "it was one side of the choir."
Paul nodded again and glanced furtively at Herbert, then went on: "The night was dark, as I told you before, and the wind, though not very high at first, made a dismal sound amongst the vaults and passages of the old building. The rooks were cawing mournfully amongst the ivy on the castle
towers close by, and the bats were dying round us where we sat, Capping their wings in our very house. I didn't like the place a bit, and many a time I wished myself in my little room in the village below. Between the cold and the fear that was on me, I was shivering from head to foot, and still I didn't care to tell Billy how I felt.
"' I think we're only losin' our time sittin' here,' says I at last; ' there won't anything show itself the night just because we're here '
"'Hush !' says Billy in a whisper, 'I hear something.'
"'It's the wind,' says I; 'No, it isn't,' says he -- ' listen!'
"We both sat a few moments longer keeping in our breath and straining our eyes to see through the darkness I did hear a noise sure enough, and the cold sweat was tricklin' down my face, and every hair on my head was up of an end ' They're comin',' whispered Billy, and his voice sounded like one from the dead and made me shiver all over. There came a gust of wind sweeping down the aisle, and a Bash of lightning, as I thought, that filled the whole Church. It wasn't lightning, though --
" ' The Lord in heaven save us ! what's that 1' says I, ' that light isn't from the sky I'
" ' It's from the pit,' says Billy. ' Look there !' and I looked down where the light seemed to come from, and what do you think I saw?"
"What! what, Paul?" said Ned all aghast like the rest.
" Perhaps the perturbed spirit of Jerry Fahy, the butcher?" suggested Herbert wickedly.
"The light was right under us," went on Paul, "and a blue brimstone light it seemed, too."
"Brimstone your grandmother!" cried Herbert.
"And figures were there in the shape of men, every one with a pointed hood on his head and a loose coat belted in about him like what the monks used to wear. They were grinnin' and laughin' at one another and jabberin' like monkeys,
and I thought the very life would leave me when I saw them gatherin' round the pile of bones. ' Christ save us ! what are they goin' to do I' says I to Billy, under my breath. ' Husk! "' says he, ' you'll soon see that. Let them be what they may, they have business on hands."'
Paul stopped, and taking out his lithe red handkerchief wiped the perspiration from his brow. " Oh ! Lord !" said he, as if to himself, " can I ever forget what I suffered at that moment! I thought the very blood in my veins turned into ice when I saw one of them take out a pack of cards and throw them on the dead men's bones, and the shout of a laugh they all gave, then, echoed through the whole building With that the wind rose to a hurricane, and the old walls shook again with every gust, and the thunder crashed right over our heads, and the blue lightning Bashed on every side, and you'd think hell itself was let loose on the minute. Billy and me crept closer together, for fear was in our hearts, but the things below laughed louder and louder, and rattled the dice in hellish glee, and dealt the cards and began to play. "
Cries of terror were heard on every side when Paul reached this stage of his story. A Rash of sudden intelligence shot like electricity through the room. Teague Moriarty jumped from his seat and laid his hand on Paul's shoulder.
"Maybe they weren't dead at all?" and bending forward he peered anxiously into the dwarf's face.
" There were dark doings goin' on about the same time," said Bridget Murphy. " Our man could tell you that if he was here." She looked exultingly at Herbert. But Herbert heeded her not, his eyes were fixed on Paul.
"They were a ghastly set," said the hunchback with a shudder.
"They were ghastly in life, I should think," put in Herbert.
"The strangest thing of all is," said Paul, " that the faces weren't dead faces—you'd swear they were all living men, and they talked as natural as life " (252)
"I should like to have heard them," said Herbert with an air of incredulity; " I dare say you were nodding asleep and dreamed all that. Could you favor us with a little of the conversation?" The ironical smile on Herbert's lip disappeared before the keen scrutinizing glance which Paul turned on him. "I can," said he with startling abruptness, " I can favor you, Mr. Herbert ! The one that dealt the cards -- he sat right next me, by the same token -- laughed as he Sung them to one and another, and says he: ' Now for the cash.' "
"Ha! what more?"
"And with that he threw down a bright gold piece -- on the crown of a hat, Mr. Herbert ! set right on the bones, and says he, laughing louder than ever, ' If the old fellow at home saw that now, he'd have all the police in Ardfinnan after us to hunt up his gold -- but I'm bound to win it back this night, or I'll bid goodbye to the Abbey!"'
"Ha! ha! ha! a likely story!" sneered Herbert. "A pretty fellow for a monk!"
"'I'm about tired of the joke,' said the same speaker," Paul went on. "'Confound you for a coward!' said another, 'there's no spunk in you.'"
"It's a lie," cried Herbert starting to his feet, his eyes flashing fire. "It's a lie."
"What's a lie, sir?" asked Paul dryly. Every eye was instantly turned on Herbert who, sensible of his error, threw himself again into his chair and forced a ghastly smile
"Excuse me," he said in a husky voice, "I meant to say that your story is altogether improbable -- a regular Munchausen affair -- eh, Dixon?"
Dixon only nodded, he was deeply interested in the story, and his eyes were riveted on Paul. There was a sort of half smile, however, playing about his moustached lip that Herbert did not like.
"Go on, Paul! go on!" said Ned, "I hear people in the other room."
"Yes!" said Ally, "it's time we weren't here -- well, Paul?" "The others didn't speak much," said Paul, " but even if they had, we couldn't have heard what they said, for the wind rose higher and higher as the night wore on -- still we could hear a word now and then coming deep and hoarse to us from below. After a little they were all so intent on their cards and their dice and the glittering gold before them that their very eyes were starting from their heads, and it seemed as if they neither heard the storm nor anything else, though at times you'd think the whole earth would be blown to pieces, and the last day was at hand. ' Well !' says I to Billy, ' what are they at all? ' They're not ghosts, anyhow,' says Billy, 'that's plain enough -- don't you know who they are I' Till that minute I did not, for the fear that was over me kept me from looking into their faces. When I began to think that they were beings of Mesh and blood like myself I did look at them, and sure enough I knew them -- aye ! every one -- they were living men then, but they're dead men now -- all except one."*
(* This is a fact which some of our readers may recognize, but not as having occurred in Ardfinnan. The real scene of the sacrilege was far sway from Tipperary.)
"I knew it," cried Teague, clapping his hands, "didn't I hear of the curse of God crew that used to drink and booze, and play cards on the tombstones in the Abbey The police got on their trail at last."
"Why didn't they take them?" said Herbert with his cadaverous smile. " And why didn't the whole country hear of these wonderful doings?"
Paul answered quickly: " Because, Mr. Herbert ! the gamesters had plenty of money and greased the policemen's hands so well that they couldn't hold them. For the same reason it was hushed up and kept from the people's ears."
"Not so well but they got an inkling of it," said Teague; "wasn't the whole country in a buzz about it, though nobody
knew exactly what it was, and no one would venture, either, to go and find it out If it hadn't been for Paul here and his comrade, Billy Potts, Lord knows how long the villains might have been at it, for I don't think there were two other men in the country that would do what they did."
"We are to suppose, then," said Herbert addressing Paul with a darkening brow, "that it was you and Humpy Billy that gave information to the police. Truly the community at large was much beholden to you! Allow me to thank you, Mr. Paul Brannigan ! on behalf of all concerned. As for your story it does honor to your head if not to your heart -- it is really a wonderful effort of your imagination!"
The scathing irony, the ineffable contempt with which these words were uttered would have annihilated many others, and were probably meant to annihilate Paul, but Paul was not the man to quail before mortal eye, and he stood the fire of Herbert's lightning glance without moving a muscle and looked him in the face with a weak searching eye.
"If I understand you right, Mr. Herbert," said he, "you mean that I invented the whole story? Do you or do you not ?"
"How could I accuse you of such a thing?" said Herbert, still in the same biting tone, " supported as you are, too, by the testimony of -- what's his name there?"
"Oh ! be easy now, Mr. Herbert," said Teague, with a knowing wink; " that's a mighty long name you're puttin' on me."
Herbert muttered something between his teeth, in which the word "rascal" was alone distinguishable. Teague was angry enough to say anything, but Ally made a sign to him to keep quiet, pointing at the same time to Paul.
The hunchback had never taken his eye from Herbert's face, and the bold brow of the latter began to pale beneath that stern glance.
"Take him softly!" whispered Dixon, "he has you on the hip!"
"Hang him he's only joking," said Herbert half aloud, "one can hardly tell when he's in jest or when in earnest."
"Come over here, Bessy Conway!" said Paul, without turning his head. Herbert started as if an adder had stung him, and when the girl took her place at Paul s side with a face like that of a sheeted corpse, a livid hue overspread his face, and he trembled in every limb.
"Bessy Conway!" said Paul with thrilling solemnity of look and tone, "see there! that face is anybody's fancy, isn't its Well ! I have seen it worse than that -- ay! when you'd think the devil himself was lookin' through the eyes at you."
"Villain!" hissed Herbert through his closed teeth. "Liar!"
"I am no liar," said Paul, with increasing solemnity, " the Lord who will judge us both, knows that I speak the truth vhen I tell you, Bessy Conway ! and all you who hear me" -- "What would you say?" cried Herbert, with sudden fury, and he made a spring at Paul to catch him by the neck. The stalwart arm of Teague Moriarty drove him to the wall, and there held him.
"That there he stands," went on Paul, pointing slowly with his finger, "who dealt the cards on that awful night in that awful place, and threw his dice on the dead men's bones in the consecrated walls of Ardfinnan Abbey !"
"Ha!" laughed Dixon, jumping from his seat with a wild laugh, "I knew it! -- knew it was he! I'm blowed if that wa'nt a rum idea!"
"You'd best keep a close mouth, Dixon," said Herbert, with a threatening gesture. a Braying asses are apt to get beaten."
"Let us out, Paul," said Mrs. Murphy, making for the door, and drawing Ally after her; "let us out for God's sake. It's not lucky nor safe to be where he is Oh, oh! oh! who'd think there was such wickedness in the world? Come along, I tell you, Ally, never mind Ned."
"Oh! indeed it's proud of himself the same Ned may be," responded Ally.
So saying, the two made their exit, without casting even one look at Herbert so great was their horror of his crime. Both of them had forgotten Bessy, and it seemed that Bessy had forgotten herself, for she stood like a thing petrified, her eyes fixed and vacant, her face as colorless as marble. Paul spoke to her in the softest tone he could command, but the vacant eye moved not. Ned Finigan anxiously approached, and took hold of her hand, and asked didn't she want to go home -- " it's gettin' late, you know, Bessy; I think you must be forgettin' the time it is." Still no answer
"What'll we do with her?" said Ned to Paul. "By the laws she frightens me, so she does."
Herbert, confounded and overwhelmed, knew not what side to look. A thousand different emotions passed like shadows over his face. His mind was a chaos in which feelings and passions were all working together, fermenting, as it were, for some violent explosion. Absorbed as he was he heard what was passing, and turning his eyes for the first time to where Bessy stood, his heart was melted at the sight. In an instant he was at her side, and seizing her cold, passive hand, he said in a choking voice:
"Bessy! I know I am an outcast -- I acknowledge all -- and more than all they have told -- -but will you desert me, too?"
At the sound of his voice, the blood rushed to Bessy's face, suffusing cheek, and brow, and lip -- her eyes lit up with sudden fire, and she snatched away the hand Herbert held, then motioned him away, averting her head at the same time.
"God forgive you, Mr. Herbert! you're a great sinner- -- oh! but I'm sorry for you! -- but never, never, never speak to me again -- never, never, never! Oh, dear Lord! what the devil can make men do! Come, Ned! -- he has done for you anyhow!"
"Well, I forgive him," said Ned, if God forgives him. I think his conscience will be punishment enough for him." (258)
"Now I'm lost indeed!" said Herbert as they left the room and he struck his forehead violently with his hand. Paul lingered a moment and seeing that he took no notice of him went over and laid his hand on his arm.
"Mr. Herbert!" said he, "don't blame me! blame yourself!"
"I'll never forgive you in this world or the next!" cried Herbert vehemently, and so saying, he rushed from the room and from the house, repeating to himself: "Only one left! only one!"