i>(Illustrations included for purposes of hypertext edition only; they did not appear in the original edition.) Photograph: A starving Irish family during the Famine.


Bessy Conway; or, The Irish Girl in America

CHAPTER 20

We will now leave Bessy Conway for awhile, and return to the old homestead she left behind:

"On that bright spring morning long ago,"

when she went to seek her fortune in America. Full seven years had passed away since Bessy left her father's cottage, and eventful as those years had been to her they were not less so to " the old folks at home."

               "The summer sun was sinking
               With a mild light calm and mellow,"

and its slanting rays rested on the straw-thatched roof of Denis Conway, but there was no beauty in the picture, for the look of comfort and neatness that belonged to the place in former days was gone, and had left scarce a trace behind. The thatch so trim and smooth in those bygone days was broken in many places, and covered with patches of moss, whilst chicken weed and darnel flaunted their unwelcome verdure on the gable-tops. The white wads beneath were discolored and stripped here and there of the " pebble-dash" that had covered them all so neatly. The small windows, too, were disfigured with sundry pieces of board nailed on as substitutes for broken panes, and altogether the house had a desolate, neglected look in painful contrast with its former appearance. The haggard was empty, and so was the byer -- the horse was gone from the stable, and even the sty had lost its tenants -- the overgrown sow was no longer there with her squeaking

(259)

brood, nor the wellcared bacon pigs, which, in other days, furnished so important a share of the winter's store for the family. The fowl were gone from the barn door, for no grain was there to gather them round it. The discordant chorus of the farm yard was no longer heard; the very hum of the bees in the adjacent garden had ceased, and silence sat brooding over Denis Conway's cottage. Decay, too, was there, and, beneath its withering touch, all things were hastening to ruin.

This was the aspect of affairs without, and within it was nothing better. The same look of desolation was everywhere visible, but its saddest imprint was on the people. Famine and disease had found their way into that happy household, and misery sat on the threshold. The aged father and mother ant opposite each other in their old straw chairs, by the dun, flickering fire, watching with distended eyes the unsavory mess which Nancy was making for the family supper, consisting of water and nettles, with a handful or so of oatmeal. Nancy herself as she bent over the pot was a living picture of hunger, and the low, suppressed moans which came at irregular intervals from a straw "shakedown" in the corner indicated the presence of one who suffered bodily pain It was Ellen, the bright-eyed, dark-haired fairy, whose laugh used to ring the loudest, whose foot spring the lightest in days not long gone by. But the terrible fangs of hunger had fastened on her vitals, and disease was wearing her young life away.

"Nancy dear!" said the mother, "go and see what Ellen wants. I think she's speaking."

"What is it, astore?" said the elder sister bending over the straw pallet.

"Something to eat," murmured Ellen, only half conscious. "I'm hungry."

"You'll have it in a minute, darling in one minute," and Nancy hastened back to her miserable cooking, and squatted

(260 )

down on the hearth to fan the expiring embers into something like a blaze.

The tears ran down the mother's face, and she clasped her hands and looked up to heaven in silent anguish

"Don't grieve, Bridget, don't grieve, achorra!" said her husband; "God is good, you know, and He'll never desert us."

" Well, father ! we're far enough gone now," said Nancy in a faint, dejected voice.

"Never mind, dear, never mind!" still said Denis; "ifs only tryin' us He is -- He'll change His hand with us when He sees fit. Have you the broth ready for Ellen, Nancy? -- God help us! it's poor stuff for a sick weakly stomach! -- well! the Lord be praised, anyhow!"

Ellen was raised on her sister's arm, and swallowed with avidity some spoonfuls of the pottage, then looked up in Nancy's face and whispered: "Have you enough for all?"

"Plenty, machree, plenty! -- don't be afeard! there's a potful of it!" Ellen's face lighted, and she gulped down some spoonfuls more, then made a sign that she had enough, and sank heavily back on her pillow.

"How do you find yourself after that sleep, Ellen!" said her mother with assumed composure

"Was I asleep, mothers I didn't know," muttered the patient sufferer as she turned her heavy eyes first on one parent then on the other with a look of unutterable fondness; " Well! I think I'm better -- I'm no worse, anyhow!"

"Thank God, dear! thank God for that!" said the father with pious fervor.

"Did the boys come back from Cashel?" Ellen asked

"Not yet -- we're expectin' them every minute," said Nancy, "and then you'll have a cup of tea, Ellen darling and some white bread, too!"

Ellen looked up eagerly in her sister's face, and a faint flush suffused her wasted cheek, it faded as quickly as it came, and the tears gushed to her eyes. "I don't want tea

(261)

or bread, Nancy! -- I know it's for me you get them, and I'd rather you'd buy meal with the money."

"Hush! Ellen! hush!" said her mother, "don't be talkin' so much!"

"Make your mind easy," whispered Nancy, "we're not so far run as you thinks Ellen shook her head and smiled sadly, then closed her eyes and appeared to sleep.

A little while after the young men came in. They placed their spades and shovels behind the door and came forward with as cheerful an aspect as they could assume, one of them handing a small bag to Nancy. The first glance of each was at the pot on the fire, and Nancy hastened to dish up the wretched substitute for a supper. The father and mother looked at each other and glanced with sorrowful meaning at the sunken cheeks and hollow eyes of their sons. It was clear that each one avoided speaking first. At last the father took courage

"Well, boys ! did you get any work?"

"Only half a day each, father!" said the elder brother, whose haggard, careworn face was more like that of middleage than the summer time of life. " As we were brothers, they wouldn't give us any more than a day's work between us, we only worked from twelve o'clock."

"So you weren't able to get the things for Ellen," said the mother faintly.

"Not much, mother," the son replied with a heavy sigh," the two shillings we got had to go for meal, for we knew there was none in the house, but as God would have it, a gentleman that saw us standin' there idle gave Tommy a six-penny piece for holdin' his horse, an' we got the worth of that of tea and sugar." He filled up so full that he was almost choking and could not speak another word. His brother, of somewhat a lighter spirit though equally sick at heart, undertook to finish the sentence, "and there was a penny over for which we bought bread for Ellen. Wasn't that fine dealing mother?"

(262)

"Wisha, God help you, poor boys!" said the mother tenderly. "It's a pity you'd ever want money, for its yourselves that hadn't your hearts in it when you had it. Och! och! but they're the awful times these!"

"Well! it's one comfort," said the younger son with a poor attempt at gaiety, "it's one comfort that we're no worse than our neighbors. I saw Denny Ryan of the Hill there awhile ago carryin' home a stone of Indian meal on his back -- and more by token he looked as if he was hardly able to stand with the dint of hunger!"

"Poor man! God help him!" said Denis compassionately, "him that had full and plenty of everything such a short time ago. It's little he'd think of giving more than that to a beggar goin' the road!"

"An' Jack Hagerty's wife an' two children are down with the sickness," said Tommy.

"Lord bless us and save us ! what's comin' on the people, at all?" said Mrs. Conway in a desponding tone; "there's nothing for any of us, I'm afeard, but death and starvation! Och! Denis dear, isn't that girl of ours cruel and hardhearted not to answer any of our letters?"

"You may say that, mother!" said Tommy in a tone of indignation; " she was very good at offering us money when we didn't want it, but when the bad times came on us and the potatoes failed, and the cattle had to go, an' everything we had, then when we wrote to let her know how matters stood, she could give us the cold shoulder and wouldn't even write us a scroll. That's the way with the world -- when you're down, down with you !"

The young man fixed his eyes moodily on the dull smouldering fire, and sat silent and abstracted with his brows knit together and a bitter smile curling his lip.

"Well now," said the ever-hoping father, " I think you're all too hard on Bessy: there's something tellin' me that it isn't her fault -- maybe she never got the letters."

(263)

"Nonsense, Denis," said his wife sharply, "do you think the whole three went astray? - and sure if we didn't send e'er a one, she oughtn't to neglect us that way. Don't be tryin' to make excuses, now, Denis ! I tell you there's no excuse for her."

"What are we goin' to do for that rent?" said Tommy, suddenly starting from his reverie, "you're forgettin' Mrs. Herbert altogether, an' you know what the bailiff said the last time he came."

"Know it?" said his father, "do you think we could forget it? But never mind, children, never mind ! God is good, and even if that tyrant of a woman did put us out, He'd provide us with a shelter! Boys! you forgot to ask how Ellen was!" This newss evidently meant to divert their thoughts from a topic which the old man would rather avoid at that particular moment, and the rest, ever obedient to his wishes, turned their attention on Ellen who was just waking up, or at least pretending to do so, for she had not been asleep.

Truly that was a dismal time in Denis Conway's cottage, and in many a cottage through the length and breadth of Ireland. It was the terrible year of the Famine, as the reader will have guessed, and the ruin which had been progressing rapidly during the previous years of dearth and commercial depression, and the failure of crops, had at length reduced the small farmers of the country, and amongst the rest Denis Conway and his family, to the pitiful state in which we have seen them. What money Denis had had was long since gone, no corn or wheat was ripening in his fields, for in the spring-time he had not the means to purchase seed, the stock could not live without eating, and one after another every hoof was taken to the fair and sold. Milk and butter, of course, went with them, and what was worse than all, the money which they brought -- it was little compared with what it would have been at another time -- had most of it to go to satisfy the clamorous demands of Mrs. Herbert's bailiffs. So from bad to worse things went on, till everything was wanting in the once plentiful household,

(264)

everything except the grace of God and His holy peace. That was still there in as great abundance as ever, and faith and hope, though at times, perhaps, dimmed by the heavy clouds of suffering and privation, were never wholly obscured. The old man himself never allowed distrust or fear to enter his mind: no patriarch of old ever trusted more firmly in the Lord Almighty, and the darker the clouds that gathered around him the more steadily he fixed his eyes on the light that glimmered afar in the firmament. It was sad to see the failing old man wandering in the morning or evening twilight around his fallow fields where in other years the golden grain would, at that season, wave luxuriant, ready for the sickle, and the rugged leaves of the potato stalk covering whole acres with their dark green hue of promise. Now the tall ragweed nodded in the summer breeze, the dock weed spread its broad leaves on the arid soil, and the fiery nettle grew and flourished where a weed dared not rear its head before, to dispute possession with the carefully tended grain stalk. As Denis noted all this, and thought how many other farms in that fertile district were like unto his own, he would sit down on a broken stile, or one of those huge boulders -- geological puzzles -- so common in the inland as well as the maritime counties of Ireland, and burying his face in his hands, give free vent to that natural sorrow which he could not but feel at sight of so much desolation. At home, the old man tried to conceal his feelings, for he knew that the wife of his youth and the children of his love were pining and wasting day by day under the blighting hand of misery, and he felt it incumbent on himself to set them an example of fortitude and resignation. One of the hardest of his trials was the apparent neglect of Bessy, for, although he tried to excuse her to the rest of the family, ho was far from being satisfied himself, and feared either that something must have happened to her, or that her heart had grown hard and cold, as hearts often do in the lapse of years, especially away from home and home ties.

(265)

Denis had stolen out that evening, after partaking of the sorry fare which all Nancy's culinary skill was not able to make palatable. He sat down on a flat stone near a bubbling spring where his cattle used to slake their thirst at summer's fervid noon-time. The tears welled up from his heart as he looked around on the long familiar scene. The future loomed before him dark and threatening -- death -- death in its most hideous form might be hanging over those he loved best -- the danger to himself was only a secondary consideration -- what was to come of them all? He looked up to heaven for hope and comfort, and lo ! there was the pale silvery crescent of a bright new moon, rising through a sea of gossamer clouds.

          "Few are the hearts too cold to feel 
          A thrill of gladness o'er them steal 
          When first the wandering eye 
          Sees faintly in the evening blaze 
          That glittering curve of tender rays 
          Just planted in the sky.

                    * * * *
          "The captive yields him to the dream
          Of freedom, when that virgin beam
          Comes out upon the air
          And painfully the sick man tries
          To fix his dim and burning eyes 
          On the soft promise there."

Denis Conway had never heard of these beautiful lines of the American poet, he knew not that the young crescent on which his eyes gazed delighted had been the theme of many a bard, but he felt the gentle, cheering influence of the fair heavenly sign, and opening his heart to "the soft promise there," he clasped his aged hands in a new and more hopeful spirit, and murmured: "The Lord is a rich provider -- what makes me fear that me or mine will die of hunger -- we've never seen ourselves yet without a bit to eat, an' aren't I ungrateful to let my heart sink so low?"

It was a hard trial to undergo. A fiery crucible was even then ready to test the purity of his faith, the firmness of his fortitude

(236)

The morning sun was shining far up in heaven's blue vault, and the world looked as bright and joyous as though it contained no aching heart within its wide circumference.

Denis Conway was sitting at his door enjoying the beauty and freshness of the morning, employing himself the while in malting a potato basket of sally-twigs, a bunch of which lay beside him on the ground. For the basket, when completed, he expected to get a few pence in the village, and with that hope he worked assiduously. All at once, however, the basket fell from his hand, his pale cheek grew paler still, and a faint cry escaped him. What sight was it that had so alarmed the usually calm old man? Alas! 'twas no uncommon one then in Ireland. Two bailiffs, with half a dozen policemen, were advancing from the village, and Denis, mindful of Mrs. Herbert's threats, was not slow to imagine that his poor dwelling was about to be honored with their official visit. His first thought was one of thankfulness that "the boys" were gone off in search of work, and thus removed Mom the fearful temptation of offering resistance to the iniquitous executions of " law and justice." His next thought was whether he should let his wife and daughters know of the impending danger, but he quickly decided not to do so. "Maybe it isn't for us they're bound at all," said he to himself, and where's the use of frightenin' the creatures till we're sure one way or the other. If it is here they're comin' why sorrow's time enough when it comes, so, in God's name, I'll wait a little longer, anyhow."

Oh ! the racking torture of that few moments' suspense as the old man sat watching the approach of the posse constables r All the love of his heart, all its unspeakable tenderness for those whom God had confided to his care, was converted at that moment into the most excruciating pain. Many a family Denis had seen turned out on the wide world, and he knew well what it was to he left without the covering of a roof, with sickness in the family, too, and no means to procure even

(267)

a single meal. What was to become of Ellen in case his fears were verified-where were they to take her to? "God help us all this day!" sighed the wretched father, "sure it's what the fright may kill her out an' out, poor girl ! for the life isn't much more than in her now. An' indeed the poor mother is low enough, too, only she doesn't wish to give in as long as she can keep on her feet. Oh! Lord, if it be pleasin' to you save them from this trial -- the heaviest and sorest of all that's come yet!"

By this time the party had reached a cross-road which lay between Denis Conway's house and the village, and the old man's heart almost ceased to beat as he watched with straining eyes to see which road he would take.

"Christ and His holy mother be praised!" muttered he, "they're going the wrong way! -- whisht! no, they're not -- ay! it's this way they're comic -- well! I suppose I may go and tell them in the house within! -- I'll wait another start, anyhow!"

On and on they came till they were but a couple of rods from where he sat, when they stopped short, and a cry of joy escaped the anxious watcher.

"Glory be to God and thanks and praise !" and he drew a long breath to relieve his overburdened heart -- instantly correcting himself, however, he murmured half aloud: " Och, then, doesn't poverty and want harden creatures' hearts ! God forgive me ! sure I needn't rejoice -- if they're not comin' here they're goin' to Peter Casey's, an' there's sickness there, more than there is with us !"

"Why, dear bless me, father! who are you talkin' to?" said Nancy coming to the door; "we thought there was somebody with you."

"No, dear, not one but myself! I'm watching the bailiffs."

"Why, are they out the day!" said the daughter greatly alarmed,

"'Deed they are, Nancy! 'deed they are -- they're payin' Peter Casey a visit -- God pity the poor!"

(268)

"My goodness! father, what'll they do at all, at all? an' the ould granny at death's door, and Peter himself down with the fever?"

"Listen here, Nancy !" said her father beckoning her close to him, " 'm watchin' them ever since they came in sight -- I was afeard it was here they were comin' -- hush! don't say anything!" and he pointed back over his shoulder

"I know, father, I know !" whispered Nancy pale as death, "but do you think they'll come here?"

"God knows, dear, God knows!"

"If they do it'll kill Ellen!"

" No, it won't Nancy, no it won't -- she'll live as long as God pleases, let them do their worst. Run in, agra! they'll wonder what's keepin' you. I'll stay here and watch!"

"Bessy Conway's letters -- ould Denis Conway's letters! -- ho! ho! ho!"

Such were the words that reached the old man's ear as Nancy left him, and turning with a start he saw a big, round, fleshy face on a level with his shoulder, and a pair of leaden grey eyes staring at him with a curious look, half wise, half foolish It was Bid McGuigan, the woman with the least brain and the most head of any in Ardfinnan. An idiot from her birth, the light of intelligence had never dawned on Bid's mind, and her life was a blank, but not a dreary one, for Bid was blithe as a lark -- blithe as life and ruddy health could make her. She had flesh and blood enough in her stunted body for two ordinary women, though her stature was that of a child. Her hair, refusing the restraint of a cap, hung down in elflocks on either side her face, whilst behind it was cut short by the pitying care of some kindly hand. A stranger would have been startled at the apparition of such a figure so suddenly at his side. It was too familiar to his eyes to alarm Denis, but the words he heard were passing strange in the mouth of Bid McGuigan.

(269)

"What's that you're saying Bid?" he asked in a soothing tone.

"I don't know! Ho! ho! -- Bessy Conway's letters! Bid was up at Georgy Brown's." Another surprise for Denis. It was Georgy Brown that kept the postoffice in the village. Before the old man could put any questions, Bid clapped her hands and shouted:

"Ho! ho! here's the bailiffs coming." So they were at the very door.



Continue to Chapter 20
Return to Sadlier Home Page