“Out of the depths, O Lord, out of the depths,” begins the most beautiful of the services of our church, and it is out of the depths of my life that I must bring the incidents of this story.
I was an unwanted child—unwanted as a girl at all events. Father Dan Donovan, our parish priest, told me all about it. I was born in October. It had been raining heavily all day long. The rain was beating hard against the front of our house and running in rivers down the window-panes. Towards four in the afternoon the wind rose and then the yellow leaves of the chestnuts in the long drive rustled noisily, and the sea, which is a mile away, moaned like a dog in pain.
In my father’s room, on the ground floor, Father Dan sat by the fire, fingering his beads and listening to every sound that came from my mother’s room, which was immediately overhead. My father himself, with his heavy step that made the house tremble, was tramping to and fro, from the window to the ingle, from the ingle to the opposite wall. Sometimes Aunt Bridget came down to say that everything was going on well, and at intervals of half an hour Doctor Conrad entered in his noiseless way and sat in silence by the fire, took a few puffs from a long clay pipe and then returned to his charge upstairs.
My father’s impatience was consuming him.
“It’s long,” he said, searching the doctor’s face.
“Don’t worry—above all don’t worry,” said Father Dan.
“There’s no need,” said Doctor Conrad.
“Then hustle back and get it over,” said my father. “It will be five hundred dollars to you if this comes off all right.”
I think my father was a great man at that time. I think he is still a great man. Hard and cruel as he may have been to me, I feel bound to say that for him. If he had been born a king, he would have made his nation feared and perhaps respected throughout the world. He was born a peasant, the poorest of peasants, a crofter. The little homestead of his family, with its whitewashed walls and straw-thatched roof, still stands on the bleak ayre-lands of Ellan, like a herd of mottled cattle crouching together in a storm.
His own father had been a wild creature, full of daring dreams, and the chief of them had centred in himself. Although brought up in a mud cabin, and known as Daniel Neale, he believed that he belonged by lineal descent to the highest aristocracy of his island, the O’Neills of the Mansion House (commonly called the Big House) and the Barons of Castle Raa. To prove his claim he spent his days in searching the registers of the parish churches, and his nights in talking loudly in the village inn. Half in jest and half in earnest, people called him “Neale the Lord.” One day he was brought home dead, killed in a drunken quarrel with Captain O’Neill, a dissolute braggart, who had struck him over the temple with a stick. His wife, my grandmother, hung a herring net across the only room of her house to hide his body from the children who slept in the other bed.
There were six of them, and after the death of her husband she had to fend for all. The little croft was hungry land, and to make a sufficient living she used to weed for her more prosperous neighbours. It was ill-paid labour—ninepence a day fine days and sixpence all weathers, with a can of milk twice a week and a lump of butter thrown in now and then. The ways were hard and the children were the first to feel them. Five of them died. “They weren’t willing to stay with me,” she used to say. My father alone was left to her, and he was another Daniel. As he grew up he was a great help to his mother. I feel sure he loved her. Difficult as it may be to believe it now, I really and truly think that his natural disposition was lovable and generous to begin with.
There is a story of his boyhood which it would be wrong of me not to tell. His mother and he had been up in the mountains cutting gorse and ling, which with turf from the Curragh used to be the crofter’s only fuel. They were dragging down a prickly pile of it by a straw rope when, dipping into the high road by a bridge, they crossed the path of a splendid carriage which swirled suddenly out of the drive of the Big House behind two high-spirited bays driven by an English coachman in gorgeous livery. The horses reared and shied at the bundle of kindling, whereupon a gentleman inside the carriage leaned out and swore, and then the brutal coachman, lashing out at the bare-headed woman with his whip, struck the boy on his naked legs.
At the next moment the carriage had gone. It had belonged to the head of the O’Neills, Lord Raa of Castle Raa, whose nearest kinsman, Captain O’Neill, had killed my grandfather, so my poor grandmother said nothing. But her little son, as soon as his smarting legs would allow, wiped his eyes with his ragged sleeve and said:
“Never mind, mammy. You shall have a carriage of your own when I am a man, and then nobody shall never lash you.”
His mother died. He was twenty years of age at that time, a large-limbed, lusty-lunged fellow, almost destitute of education but with a big brain and an unconquerable will; so he strapped his chest and emigrated to America. What work he found at first I never rightly knew. I can only remember to have heard that it was something dangerous to human life and that the hands above him dropped off rapidly. Within two years he was a foreman. Within five years he was a partner. In ten years he was a rich man. At the end of five-and-twenty years he was a millionaire, controlling trusts and corporations and carrying out great combines.
I once heard him say that the money tumbled into his chest like crushed oats out of a crown shaft, but what happened at last was never fully explained to me. Something I heard of a collision with the law and of a forced assignment of his interests. All that is material to my story is that at forty-five years of age he returned to Ellan. He was then a changed man, with a hard tongue, a stern mouth, and a masterful lift of the eyebrows. His passion for wealth had left its mark upon him, but the whole island went down before his face like a flood, and the people who had made game of his father came crawling to his feet like cockroaches.
The first thing he did on coming home was to buy up his mother’s croft, re-thatch the old house, and put in a poor person to take care of it.
“Guess it may come handy some day,” he said.
His next act was worthy of the son of “Neale the Lord.” Finding that Captain O’Neill had fallen deeply into debt, he bought up the braggart’s mortgages, turned him out of the Big House, and took up his own abode in it.
Twelve months later he made amends, after his own manner, by marrying one of the Captain’s daughters. There were two of them. Isabel, the elder, was a gentle and beautiful girl, very delicate, very timid, and most sweet when most submissive, like the woodland herbs which give out their sweetest fragrance when they are trodden on and crushed. Bridget, the younger, was rather homely, rather common, proud of her strength of mind and will.
To the deep chagrin of the younger sister, my father selected the elder one. I have never heard that my mother’s wishes were consulted. Her father and my father dealt with the marriage as a question of business, and that was an end of the matter. On the wedding day my father did two things that were highly significant. He signed the parish register in the name of Daniel O’Neill by right of Letters Patent; and on taking his bride back to her early home, he hoisted over the tower of his chill grey house the stars and stripes of his once adopted country stitched to the flag of his native island. He had talked less than “Neale the Lord,” but he had thought and acted more.
Two years passed without offspring, and my father made no disguise of his disappointment, which almost amounted to disgust. Hitherto he had occupied himself with improvements in his house and estate, but now his restless energies required a wider field, and he began to look about him. Ellan was then a primitive place, and its inhabitants, half landsmen, half seamen, were a simple pious race living in a sweet poverty which rarely descended into want. But my father had magnificent schemes for it. By push, energy and enterprise he would galvanise the island into new life, build hotels, theatres, casinos, drinking halls and dancing palaces, lay out race-courses, construct electric railways to the tops of the mountains, and otherwise transform the place into a holiday resort for the people of the United Kingdom.
“We’ll just sail in and make this old island hum,” he said, and a number of his neighbours, nothing loth to be made rich by magic—advocates, bankers and insular councillors—joined hands with him in his adventurous schemes.
But hardly had he begun when a startling incident happened. The old Lord Raa of Castle Raa, head of the O’Neills, the same that had sworn at my grandmother, after many years in which he had lived a bad life abroad where he had contracted fatal maladies, returned to Ellan to die. Being a bachelor, his heir would have been Captain O’Neill, but my mother’s father had died during the previous winter, and in the absence of direct male issue it seemed likely that both title and inheritance (which, by the conditions of an old Patent, might have descended to the nearest living male through the female line) would go to a distant relative, a boy, fourteen years of age, a Protestant, who was then at school at Eton.
More than ever now my father chewed the cud of his great disappointment. But it is the unexpected that oftenest happens, and one day in the spring, Doctor Conrad, being called to see my mother, who was indisposed, announced that she was about to bear a child.
My father’s delight was almost delirious, though at first his happiness was tempered by the fear that the child that was to be born to him might not prove a boy. Even this danger disappeared from his mind after a time, and before long his vanity and his unconquerable will had so triumphed over his common sense that he began to speak of his unborn child as a son, just as if the birth of a male child had been prearranged. With my mother, with Doctor Conrad, and above all with Father Dan, he sometimes went the length of discussing his son’s name. It was to be Hugh, because that had been the name of the heads of the O’Neills through all the ages, as far back as the legendary days in which, as it was believed, they had been the Kings of Ellan.
My mother was no less overjoyed. She had justified herself at last, and if she was happy enough at the beginning in the tingling delight of the woman who is about to know the sweetest of human joys, the joy of bearing a child, she acquiesced at length in the accepted idea that her child would be a boy. Perhaps she was moved to this merely by a desire to submit to her husband’s will, and to realise his hopes and expectations. Or perhaps she had another reason, a secret reason, a reason that came of her own weakness and timidity as a woman, namely, that the man child to be born of her would be strong and brave and free.
All went well down to the end of autumn, and then alarming news came from Castle Raa. The old lord had developed some further malady and was believed to be sinking rapidly. Doctor Conrad was consulted and he gave it as his opinion that the patient could not live beyond the year. This threw my father into a fever of anxiety. Sending for his advocate, he took counsel both with him and with Father Dan.
“Come now, let us get the hang of this business,” he said; and when he realised that (according to the terms of the ancient Patent) if the old lord died before his child was born, his high-built hopes would be in the dust, his eagerness became a consuming fire.
For the first time in his life his excitement took forms of religion and benevolence. He promised that if everything went well he would give a new altar to Our Lady’s Chapel in the parish church of St. Mary, a ton of coals to every poor person within a radius of five miles, and a supper to every inhabitant of the neighbouring village who was more than sixty years of age. It was even rumoured that he went so far in secret as to provide funds for the fireworks with which some of his flatterers were to celebrate the forthcoming event, and that one form of illumination was a gigantic frame which, set upon the Sky Hill, immediately in front of our house, was intended to display in brilliant lights the glowing words “God Bless the Happy Heir.” Certainly the birth was to be announced by the ringing of the big bell of the tower as signal to the country round about that the appointed festivities might begin.
Day by day through September into October, news came from Castle Raa by secret channels. Morning by morning, Doctor Conrad was sent for to see my mother. Never had the sun looked down on a more gruesome spectacle. It was a race between the angel of death and the angel of life, with my father’s masterful soul between, struggling to keep back the one and to hasten on the other.
My father’s impatience affected everybody about him. Especially it communicated itself to the person chiefly concerned. The result was just what might have been expected. My mother was brought to bed prematurely, a full month before her time.
Categories: English Literature