Illustration taken from frontispiece to 1861 edition of Bessy Conway.
298 The green fields of Erin were covered with their spring carpet dotted over with white daisies and yellow buttercups, the pale primrose -- 'dower of sweetest memories! -- was peeping forth on every sunny bank; the modest violet gave its faint perfume to the air, and the graceful blue-bell waved its fairy petals in the gentle breeze; the earth was balmy with the breath of opening flowers, and the trees were donning their summer foliage through the sunny showers of April.
Denis Conway and his sons were hard at work all day-and every day of the six allotted for labor-putting in their crops, wheat, oats, and early potatoes. The whole household was astir from morn till dewy eve, each one employed in their own sphere of usefulness. Nancy and Ellen were assisting out-of-doors whilst Bessy and her mother attended to the business of the house and the dairy.
One evening when the boys came in from work they mentioned as something very strange that there was smoke rising from one of the chimneys of The Lodge.
"Maybe there's some care-takers put in," said Bessy, "to keep the place from going to ruin. "
"Why, to be sure," said her father, " now I come to think of it; I heard the other day that old Darby Dolan and his wife were back again in the big house."
" My goodness ! it's a wonder they'd go back," said Mrs. Conway, " after them leavin' it in a fright like Al the rest of (299) the servants. But I suppose they're gettin' a great ransom for doin' it, an' sure if anybody could or would live in the house it ought to be them on account of the long time they were in it."
" Well! ! long or short," said Tommy, " if I was in their place I'd have nothing to do with the house or them that's stationed in it-if I got my life out of it once, you wouldn't catch me inside the walls again."
" That's my notion, too," said Owen; " I'm sure people that seen so much of the Herberts while they were livid ought to know better than go next or nigh them when they're dead."
" Let the dead lie!" said their father solemnly, and there the matter ended. It made little impression on Bessy's mind, for the rumors afloat concerning the Lodge were simply amusing to her, and she saw nothinffl strange in the old couple going back to take charge of a house where they had spent so many years of their lives.
Ellen and she had to go that evening to a woman in the village who was spinning some wool for their mother, and on their return they had to pass quite near the gate of Ivy Lodge. The moon was just rising over the old manor, and its antique chimneys and sharp angles were clearly traced on the deep blue sky beyond. The rooks were cawing in the old woods, and the screech-owl's voice was heard at intervals making up a discordant concert, softened at times by the distant bark of some trusty watch-dog breaking faintly, yet cheerily, on the ear. The trees that shaded the avenue were filled with the softest music as the gentle night breeze stirred their dewy leaves, and the moonbeams -- trembled amid their branches and fell on the road and the green bank at either side, in a network of silvery lustre. It was one of those nights when the heart whispers
"None but the loving, and the lov'd Should be awake at this sweet hour,"
(300 ) and the sisters were not without feeling the charm that hung around the lonely spot.
" Well ! isn't it curious, Bessy?" whispered Billy as they approached the gate; " I'm not a bit afeard-are you?"
"No, indeed," said Bessy in her usual tone of voice; "so far from being afraid, I could find in my heart to sit all night under one of them old trees, with the wind rustling in the branches, and the moonlight dancing on that stream. One could fancy the fairies whisking about on the soft green grass ."
"Bessy Conway! it's all your own!" said a voice from within the grounds-a strange sepulchral voice it seemed, too-where it came from the girls did not wait to see, for with an exclamation of terror they ran off as fast as their limbs could carry them.
On reaching their home it was some time before either of the sisters could tell what happened. Seeing them rush in pale as death and gasping for breath, the others were almost as frightened as themselves, and more questions were asked than they could possibly have answered.
" In the name of God, girls ! what did you see?" asked their father after standing some moments silent, waiting for them to speak.
" Nothing at all, father !" said Bessy, still panting, " we saw nothing-we only heard."
" Lord bless us ! and what did you hear ?" cried the mother eagerly.
The girls looked at each other. They hesitated to tell, having each a misgiving that it was a warning of some kind. But the more unwilling they seemed to speak, the more anxious the others were to hear. At last Ellen told what they had heard Her mother clapped her hands and cried out "God save my child !" The father said nothing, but shook his head, whilst the young people tried to put it off with a laugh, seeing how frightened the others were. (301)
" I hope that'll be a warnin' to you, girls !" said Owen with a forced laugh; " if it keeps you in after dark, it'd do you a good turn."
" I'm thinkin' it was some one playin' a trick on you, Bossy !" said the elder brother.
" Welll whatever it was," said Bessy in a subdued tone," I'd rather hear no more about it."
There was something in her look and in her voice that silenced them all, and the subject was dropped for that time.
Not many days after, an unexpected visitor made his appear once, no less a person than Billy Potts. He had heard of the fright which the girls had got up at the Lodge, and, of course,like all other wonderful stories, it had gained considerably in passing from mouth to mouth, so much so, indeed, that the original narrators would not have recognized their own simple adventure in the well-garnished tale which the public had made up piece by piece. Anything relating to the dead, even by implication, was sure to command Billy's attention, and he had the faculty of scenting out ghostly appearances as a pointer does his game. So Billy pricked up his ears when he heard of the Conway girls' adventure, and at his first leisure houroff he started to their cottage to investigate the matter for himself.
" Humph!" said he when he had heard all, "that wasn't much to make such a rout about. To hear people talk, one would think you had seen something past the common.
"Could I speak a word with you, Bessy? Don't be afeard, ma'am !" he said nodding at Mrs. Conway with a goblin smile; "If your daughter never discoursed with younger or handsomer than Billy Potts she wouldn't be haunted now as she is!"
So the two walked on down the lane together, and by the time they reached the end of it, they had grown quite confidential, and when they parted at the road, it was with an understanding that they were to meet again in the same place coming on the evening. (302)
Her mother and sisters were very much puzzled to know what was going on between Bessy and Bumpy Billy. " If he hadn't a wife and children now," said Nancy with a merry laugh, " we'd be suspectin' something, but as it is I don't know what to make of it. Tell the truth, now, isn't it something about the ghosts? - sure every one knows that Billy's a kind of a ghost himself."
Bessy put it off with a laugh, but the color rose to her cheek when she found her mother s eye fixed on her with a keen and searching look. Neither spoke, however, and the girls hurried away to resume the work which Billy's entrance had interrupted. When the cows were milked that evening, and the milk strained up, Bessy tied a handkerchief over her head, and, throwing a light shawl round her shoulders, strolled down the boreen little affected by the raillery of her sisters and brothers -the latter having been put in possession of the joke as soon as they entered the house.
" If I was you, Bessy," said Owen, " I'd have nothing to say to Billy Potts-sure the whole parish knows what he is!"
"Will you not be botherin' me now, Owen?" she replied with a goodhumored smile; "do you think Billy has dealings with the fairies that he'd make sale of me to them ? Never fear but I'm wide awake. I have travelled too far to be asleep on my feet. The only thing I ask of you all is that you'll not be watching to see where I go to."
Illustration: Traditional mummers called "wren boys" from County Limerick, one of many pre-Christian traditions.
She was gone before any one could speak again. She knew v her wish was law to the whole family, and that no one in the house would follow her to the door after what she had said.
At the cross roads below she found Billy in punctual attendance, and on the two walked side by side, taking the way to St. Finian's Church. "It's curious," said she, "what a notion I have got in my head about seeing the old Church ever since Paul told that story. Long as I lived about Ardfinnan before I never cared to go next or near it." (303)
" Well! ! I wish you had been with Paul and me the night we were in it," said Billy, " and I think you'd have no great wish to see it again. Now, all them vagabonds are gone to their account except Master Henry Herbert-an' he maybe dead, too, for all I know-I declare to you, Bessy ! I'd be Vitae daunted myself to go in after dusk-they were the devil's own boys, them, I tell you that !-an' Herbert was the worst of them all. I wonder if that fellow will die in his bed !"
" Hush!, Billy !" said Bessy in a tremulous whisper, " don't disturb the dead speaking so loud !" They had now reached the Abbey, and stood together in the shade of a ruined buttress in the south wall. " I couldn't bear to hear a loud word spoken now," went on Bessy in the same tone. " Silence reigned here where the holy monks were alive; surely there should be no noise or disturbance now when they're in their quiet graves. But where are them bones Paul was speaking of!"
"Inside there," pointing with his finger, "in the place where the altar used to be. If you want to see them you'd best come in before it gets any later, or maybe you wouldn't be thankful to yourself for goin' in at all."
"Well! to tell you the truth," whispered Bessy again, "I wouldn't be here now-though it's not but I want to see the place -- only that Father Ryan told me to be sure and come one of these days. He says it's a profitable thing to visit such places now and then."
" Come, then, step in -- while it's light ! Ho ! ho ! I see you're not such a soldier as I took you for !" He had caught a certain motion of Bessy's hand which he knew was the sign of the cross. Bessy smiled faintly and they entered the building.
The place was not dark, for the evening sun was shining in through many a rent in the moldering walls, gilding the old gray stones and the mural tablets recording names long since forgotten, and flinging irregular strips of light and beauty (305) over the long, dank grass and the broken columns and shattered remains of arch and corbel.
" Blessed Mother, who is that ?" exclaimed Bessy in a voice of terror, catching hold of Billy's arm. " Look there ! look there!"
Following the direction of her eyes, Billy observed the figure of a man kneeling in front of the ghastly pile which his hands had reared. It was a thin, attenuated form bowed with weakness or with sorrow -- perhaps both -- and the face, seen in profile, was sharp, and pale, and woe -- worn -- very unlike one well remembered, yet Bessy trembled as she looked, and Billy muttered half aloud: " If it's not himself it's his ghost, or an evil spirit. You'd best come away, Bessy, it's nothing good, you may be sure !" He tried to draw her away, but go she would not. " Let it be as it may," skid she, " I'll see it out before I go. Hush ! he hears us !"
It was not so, but the figure slowly arose and moved to another side of the choir, then knelt again with his back towards them. They retreated farther into the shade and Bessy whispered in a tone of horror: " It's his ghost, Billy ! it's his ghost!-who knows but that's his punishment, forever going round and round them bones!"
" Hat, tut, you foolish girl!" said Billy in the same low whisper, " sure you couldn't see a ghost before sun-down !"
Again the figure rose and moved to another point, then knelt as before, and Bessy saw a crucifix between the clasped hands. This made her heart beat quicker, but when, watching the face intently, she saw the color come and go, and finally saw the hand raised to wipe away a falling tear, she lost all control of her feelings, and cried nut in thrilling accents:
" Oh, Herbert ! Henry Herbert ! is it you that's in it ? if the breath of life is in you speak to me, for God's sake !"
A voice came from the lips, but the figure remained motion (305) less. " It is Herbert-all that is left of him-wait ! I cannot speak now !"
" Dear Lord ! what does this mean ?" cried Bessy, clasping her hands convulsively.
"Humph!" said Billy with great composure, "I thought there was flesh and blood in that ghost up at the house. But faith ! it's mad he is, or it isn't there he'd be at such trade as that ! If you take my advice, Bessy Conway ! you'll make off as fast as you can-no nor can say what fit he'll take next."
" That is not the face of a madman," said Bessy still trembling, "see how fervently he prays. Oh ! if God has touched his heart !"
" Touch the devil-begging your pardon!" said Billy profanely, "it's a trick he's playing, and nothing else-maybe to win a bet. "
By this time Herbert had finished what might be called his station, and putting the crucifix in his pocket came forward to the place where Bessy stood awaiting him. His first impulse was to reach out both his hands, but instantly withdrawing them again, he said mournfully:
" No ! no ! I dare not ! I am still unworthy !"
" Mr. Herbert !" said Bessy in a voice hardly audible, " what has come over you at all ? what am I to think of what I see,-or am I dreaming or what ?"
" No, Bessy ! you are not dreaming," Herbert replied, with a strong effort to control his emotion. " You see before you one who has outraged heaven by his wickedness-one who has compromised you in pursuit of his own selfish gratification-one who has, in short, fulfilled no duty, restrained no passion ."
" Mr. Herbert ! Mr. Herbert t'! cried Bessy, holding up both her hands in horror, " for God's sake, say no more ! You never could have been so bad as that !"
"Bad !" he repeated, shaking his head with a desponding air " bad ! you know not -- could not know how bad I was !"
"Faith! you were bad enough, Master Henry !" put in ¥ Billy with his stony smile; " to my knowledge, there wasn't an ill turn done about Ardfinnan but you were hand and foot in it ever since a yard of cloth made you a coat."
" That's right, Billy! that's right! heap it on and spare not," said Herbert mildly, " you can say nothing worse than I deserve."
This touched the old man's heart, hard as it seemed to be, and the tears actually started in his eyes as he exclaimed in a glow of feeling: " I'll never say an ill word of you again, then, Master Henry ! never while breath's in my body !-there was good to be said of you the worst day ever you were, and, by the laws ! the bad is all gone now, however it happens."
Bessy still stood in wordless anxiety looking up in Herbert's altered face. Suddenly he raised his eyes and ventured to meet her gaze for the first time. " Bessy !" said he, his pale cheek blushing like a young maiden's, " Bessy ! I have been guilty before God and the world, but not before you -- I have never injured you in thought, in word, or in deed -- I have loved you, God only knows how well, -- you have been my star of hope-my rock of safety amidst the raging billows of this sinful world-it may be that you have prayed for me- true charily"-he said with emphasis-" if so -- if at any time you have invoked the God of mercy on my behalf, and Mary the refuge of sinners, you will now rejoice even as the angels of heaven do-in a sinner's conversion !"
The tears gushed from Bessy's eyes, and drawing a step nearer she laid her hand on his arm. "Are you in earnest, Mr. Herbert !- -- may I indeed hope?"
"Hope everything, Bessy!" he replied, his voice unconsciously assuming that softened tone in which he was wont to address her. " Like the prodigal of old I have returned from the desert of sin to my Father's house, and have found true peace within the one fold, where alone man can expiate sin and wash his soul white in the blood of the Lamb." (307)
'Mr. Herbert! Henry Herbert! you don't mean to say that you are a Catholic?" cried Bessy in utter amazement.
" If I were anything else," he replied with a sad smile, " would you find me undergoing a penance like that !" And he pointed back to the scene of his former sacrilege. " This is the ninth day that I have done what you saw me do but now, and that painful task I imposed on myself as an atonement for the sacrilegious outrage of which these consecrated walls and those venerated relics were the witnesses and the objects ! If you still doubt me, ask Father Ryan-he can tell you all-much more than I have told you yet."
" I will ask you one-I believe all you say !" said Bessy, her voice broken with sobs, "but how-when-where did this blessed change take place?"
" That's just what I want to hear," put in Billy. " Whoever did it, it was a great job entirely !"
Without heeding the sexton, Herbert sat down on a broken column that lay near and invited Bessy to follow his example, adding with a faint smile: " I am not the man I was, Bessy ! -- God knows if I ever shall be !"
" Oh ! Mr. Herbert, don't speak that way !" said Bessy with a gush of feeling that brought the tears to her eyes, " you'll be soon as well as ever, please God!" Herbert shook his head despondingly and sat a few moments silent with his eyes cast down, then raising them suddenly he turned them on Bessy, and seeing the tears which she sought not to hide, he smiled with something like his former gaiety and went on:
" You ask me when and how I became a Catholic. I will go back a little in order to answer your question in a satisfactory manner. You must have heard that I was not in Neat York when you left for Ireland. I had gone with Dixon to Baltimore on what he called ' a speculation,' that is to say, a gambling expedition, my excellent friend having reason to believe that his line of business was brisker there than in the Empire City. During three months that we spent there and in Charleston, Dixon managed to fleece a good many, and although the agreement between us at starting was a fair division of the profits, when it came to the point and I insisted on having my share, he flatly refused, alleging that the money staked was all his, a most flagrant falsehood that was, too ! for the fellow had not Eve dollars in the world when we set out for Baltimore. I was very angry, as you may believe, and returned alone to New York vowing vengeance against Dixon and the whole fraternity of black-legs. My funds were almost exhausted at the time, and altogether I felt as wretched as man could be. Even the comfort of seeing you vas denied me for I did not dare to appear before you after all that you A had seen and heard. I was a couple of weeks in the city before I heard of your departure, and when I did hear it the furies seemed to take possession of me. The last link was broken that bound me to virtue and I resolved God in heaven forgive me ! to cast myself headlong into the whirlpool of vice, and perish soul and body."
" Lord save us !" ejaculated Bessy with a shudder. " What evil spirit got into you, at all?" "Faith," said Billy, " there was plenty of them in him before without any goin' in then."
"Would you wish to know ?" said Herbert pointedly, fixing his eyes on Bessy's face. " Shall I tell you the whole truth? For me, I care not who knows it. I thought-now do not be angry with me, for you know too it was all but a dream !-I thought it would grieve one heart which I would have given my life to win-I thought- forgive me, Bessy ! that in devoting myself to destruction, I was planting a poisoned arrow in the heart that had so coldly cast me off- -- thought-I believed- -- oh, Bessy ! I thought everything that was bad and wicked I was abandoned by God and by you who had been my tutelary angel -- what wonder that I became utterly reckless and ripe for all wickedness. But heaven ordained that I was not to sink any lower in the slough of guilt. I was attacked late One night in a dark street by three of my late companions, of whom Dixon was one, and stabbed in several places. They would doubtless have despatched me -- I am sure that was their intention -- for my incautious threats had alarmed them for their own safety-but as God's mercy would have it, some men passing along the adjacent street, hearing my cries, hurried to the spot, and the villains took flight immediately in an opposite direction. My deliverers finding me all but dead conveyed me at once to St. Vincent's Hospital, which happened to be the nearest, and consigned me to the care of the excellent Sisters who have charge of that institution -- "
" Blessed be the Lord !" murmured Bessy, half unconsciously.
"You may guess what my feelings were," pursued Herbert, " when, on recovering my senses, I saw Paul Brannigan and his friend Mike Milligan beside my bed, whilst two of the Sisters were waiting on the doctor who was dressing my wounds. ' Thank God !' said the hunchback fervently when I opened my eyes, ' thank God ! there is still a chance for his poor soul !' I never forgot those words, nor the thrilling fervor with which they were spoken, and, like a flash of lightning, the fear of God's judgments darted through my soul. I fed that my deliverers were before me, and, although the doctor forbid me to speak, I held out my hand to one, then the other and endeavored to look the gratitude that I could not utter in words. This was the beginning of my conversion. I was filled with admiration for the wonderful ways of God, seeing that this poor man whom I had so long regarded as my bitterest enemy should become the instrument of my salvation, and prove in the end my best and truest friend. And such he truly was, for, during the six long weeks that I lay in my hospital-bed, Paul never failed to visit me every day, and I soon began to look as anxiously for his queer, old-fashioned face as I ever did for anything. The stumping sound of his (310) heavy foot was music to my ear, for I was sick and confined to my bed, and he was my only visitor Yes ! Paul was the good Samaritan who poured oil into my wounds and balm into my heart He spoke to me of the eternal truths-of death, judgment, heaven and hell, and I marvelled at the eloquent words which fell from his lips under the strong inspiration of faith and charity. He pointed to the meeklooking Sisters as they moved through the wards ministering to the sick, and asked me to tell him, if I could, why it was only within the Catholic Church that such sublime charity was found. Why it was that she alone taught her children to give up all things for the love of God, and follow His divine Son in voluntary poverty and mortification. In the lull of my stormy passions the voice of reason made itself heard in reply; I recognized the truth, and my heart and soul bowed down before the majesty of religion. Hearing of my dispositions from Paul, the Sisters joined their pious exhortations to the instruction I had already received, and, by the time I became convalescent, I had made up my mind to seek salvation in that Church where alone it is to be found."
" Thank God !" murmured Bessy with intense feeling. "By the hole o' my coat! he's stark staring mad!" cried Billy. "What wits he had are gone entirely !"
Herbert looked at him with a smile, then went on: " Leaving the Hospital, I paid the Sisters for their trouble to the fullest extent of my means-barely reserving enough to take me home to Ireland- -- they would have been content with much less than I gave them, but, as I said, no money could pay the debt I owed them, and any remuneration I could offer was far short of what I would wish to give.
" Before I left New York I was received into the Church by our old friend, Father Daly. He was just on the eve of starting for the Far West in company with some other zealous missionaries devoted like himself to the evangelization of the heathen tribes scattered over those vast regions. I shall never forget the expression of his mild, intellectual face as he blessed me and told me to persevere even ten the end in the path on which I had now entered-the path that leads to the new Jerusalem. ' We may never meet again on earth,' said he, raising his soft dark eyes to heaven, 'but yonder is our home !' -- and he pointed upwards to the azure vault where the first star of evening was just peeping through the dear ether -- ' let us only pursue the straight and narrow way that leads k Through the wilderness of this life to the golden gates of heaven, and we shall all meet around the throne of Slim who is, and was, and has been-the Lamb for sinners slain ! There I hope to see you again, my dear son in Christ ! and rejoice with you and all I love on earth throughout the endless ages of eternity.' Oh ! Bessy, his words made my heart thrill, and I felt at the moment as if I, too, unworthy as I am, could hake given my life for the extension of God's kingdom."
Bessy raised her hands and eyes in wonder. " Well, surely Mr. Herbert ! strange things do come to pass ! -- only I know it's you that's in it, I could hardly believe my ears ! But how long is it since you came home?"
" Just one month. You may guess what my feelings were when I found my mother dead and gone. It had been one of my sweetest hopes to soften her heart by my dutiful care and attention, and expiate my misconduct in her regard by cheerful and willing obedience to her wishes. I thought to make a Christian of her by showing her what a change religion had made in me, but retributive justice had taken her hence before I could ask her blessing or do naught to expiate my past offenses-and then the harrowing reflection that she had, in all probability, died as she lived, without a thought of God or that eternity in which she was so suddenly engulfed without a moment's preparation My father, too,-oh Clod ! how I grieved for the years that were past-the misspent years for which all of us would have to answer I would have given (312 ) worlds were they mine to have my parents still alive were it only to ask their forgiveness and tell them how sorry I was for my past disobedience. Too late! too late! all resolved itself into that one sad thought, and I was utterly wretched. I found myself possessed of wealth and houses and lands, but I saw the old homestead lone and desolate, and I missed them, cold and hard and unloving as they were. My first consolation was found in a visit to your good old pastor, Father Ryan, whose paternal kindness soothed my tortured heart as his counsels directed me in the right path. I felt that I had found a friend, wise and prudent and deeply interested in my welfare, temporal and spiritual That was one point gained. By his advice I paid a visit to the Abbey, the scene of my sacrilegious folly, and there, amongst the moldering relics of mortality, meditated on the end of man. Sitting on yonder tomb, I asked myself how it happened that I alone was spared of all who had desecrated the house of God by unhallowed revelry. Father, mother, companions, all were gone -- why was I lefty -- why was I shown the way of truth when they all lived and died in the darkness of error? -- why was not I, too, cut of in my sins ? Filled with gratitude that plod had dealt so mercifully with me, I so unworthy of His least favor, I humbled myself before His awful majesty, and inflicted on myself for nine successive days, by way of expiation, the penance which you have seen me undergo. I have now told you all, except-"
" Frightening Ellen and me that night up at the house," said Bossy quickly, " I'm afraid you have that to answer for, as well as the rest !"
"I'll be sworn he has!" cried Billy chuckling gleefully; " I was just thinkin' when I heard of it that if my gentleman was above ground it was him was in it. Oh ! faith yes, I knew it bravely."
" Well!" said Bessy drawing a long breath, " it's so like a dream that I can hardly believe it yet Tell me, Mr. Herbert ! how did Paul happen to be on the street the night you were attacked, himself and Mike?"
" Oh ! true, I forgot to tell you that,-they were going to Mrs. Murphy's wake."
" Mrs. Murphy's wake ! is poor Bridget dead, then ?"
" So it appears, but the rest of the family are doing very well -- the father and sons have a contract on some railroad about the city, and Mrs. Finigan lives with them. She has her own money in bank, and is taking nothing from it, -- Paul told me that when Peery and the boys have something more by them, they will all come home, perhaps for good."
" And what about Paul himself ? I'd be ever so glad to see him here !"
" Paul has no notion of coming -- he is doing a nice little business, and is so taken up with his Sunday School class in St. James' Church, and various other works of charity in which he is engaged, that he is content to forego the pleasure of seeing the Old Land again. He bade me tell you this, and also that he never forgets to pray for you, as he hopes you do for him. Another message he sent, but I will reserve that for another opportunity. The dew is falling now, and I think we had better retrace our steps homeward."