A ghost story, from Maurice Walsh’s novel, Green Rushes
Then Mickeen Oge spoke. “Paddy Bawn here has a ghost story worth telling.”
“I have,” agreed Paddy Bawn. “The best ghost story in the world—my father told it to me—and it’s a true story.”
“Tell it, Paddy Bawn.”
“No, Mickeen Oge, you tell it. You’ve heard it often enough.”
“Really it is a simple story—wistful, maybe,” explained Mickeen Oge, “and the truth of it has been proved beyond doubt in time and space. Myself a lad, I knew the woman it happened to; old and happy she was when I knew her, for she had the memory of that night, sixty years before, still about her.”
And while he spoke, the small tongues of flame, licking about the peats, lit and dimmed on our still faces and set our shadows wavering on walls and beamed ceiling.
Her name was Ellen Oge Molouney—said Mickeen Oge—and unhappiness was about her like a cloak. She stood it for as long as she could and that was no short time, for the Molouneys come of a good stock, and their breaking-point is long-drawn-out. But that breaking-point did come at the bitter end, and then she did the only thing she could do: she ran away. As broken spirits have done all down slow time, she set her face towards that place where her mother was.
She was only fifteen years of age: a tender, shy, sensitive small girl, with blue eyes and black hair, and a mouth made for smiling and for grief—a mouth made for smiling and for grief. And, furthermore, she was only bond-slave to her own grand-uncle, Red John Danaher of Browadra farm on the banks of the Castlemaine River. Bond-slave! Servant-girl! One and the same thing in those times, which were the Bad Times, when the poor, our forefathers, wasted all God’s time in keeping body and soul together—and made a bitter bad job of it; when millions’ worth of cattle and corn was exported to England, and the poor starved on rotten potatoes.
“Stop there, Mickeen Oge!” Hugh Forbes interrupted him. “Stop there! We here tonight suffer and Ireland suffers so that in future no child shall starve while beasts fatten. Go on now, my jewel—you’ve lifted the heart in us already.”
Red John Danaher was a terrible man and a devout Christian. A big, rawboned man with sandy-grizzled hair, rugged cheeks, and eyes cold as the Blasket sea in November! He was careful, considerate of his beasts; his thirty milch cows were the best milkers in the parish, his horses the sleekest; his fat pigs never weighed less than two hundred pounds and, by Michaelmas, his geese were tripods. But for man-servant and maid-servant he had no consideration at all. He worked them to the bone fifteen hours a day, and took evil care not to feed them into slothfulness. “Pamper them,” said he, “and asleep they’ll be over spade and hook and skeogh; a lean man and a lean dog does the best work.” And, God knows! his big sheep-dog was as lean as a January bush, and loved him—like a dog. For breakfast his servants, five men and two maids, had squares of paaka [maize] bread and skim-milk; for dinner, leather-skin spuds and sour milk; and for supper, a thin porridge of oatmeal and Indian meal. And on that diet they worked hard and all the time, for there was some terrible insane force in John Danaher that made men cringe and women fear.
Consider, now, how small Ellen Molouney, sensitive and finely made, suffered exposed to that force. Look! If she fell wearily asleep across her sugan [rush] chair during the nightly rosary her uncle’s voice came out of its unctuousness to rasp at her; if his eyes rested on her, her spine shivered; if he came into the kitchen at meal-times, the bite choked her, and if her hand was stretched out to dip the potato in the salt the potato dropped from her nerveless fingers. Ay! even strong men sat back from the table hungry when Red John Danaher watched them eat.
Ellen Oge could stand work, and she could stand cold, and she was used to hunger; but, made as she was, she could not forever stand fear and loneliness. At long last she ran away.
She chose a night in the first week of the hungry month, July: a fine clear summer night, with a full moon quartering across from south to west. At the stroke of twelve she slipped from the side of Maura Purtaill, who, open-mouthed, snored; threw on her few clothes—a short red petticoat, a shapeless winsey frock buttoning from neck to waist, and a spotted handkerchief tied over her lovely black head. She did not put on her shoes, but over toe and heel and slender leg she pulled a pair of black lopeens [footless stockings]. Her only shoes—small, square-toed, hand-made shoes with a strap to cross the instep—and her spare clothes she tied in a small bundle; and she was ready. She owned nothing in all the world but that small bundle.
She was as quiet as a mouse—quieter than a mouse. Her hard heels barely rubbed the steps of the ladder from the loft down into the big dark kitchen, where the peat coals were smoored below the raking of ashes; she worked back the wooden bolt of the back door against her thumb; the latch made but the slightest click; and she was out in the still and balmy summer night. The moonlight, across the big yard, shone on the whitewashed wall of the long byre, and that cold light made her shrink and tremble, for she had to venture across the open to reach the back gate. But she gripped her lower lip with her teeth and made the great essay—on tiptoe, very carefully, but not hurriedly; and the windows behind her were like eyes.
And then, the rawboned yellow sheep-dog came out from a corner below a hay cart and barked. He barked only once, and then trotted across the yard, tail waving.
“Go to bed!” she whispered urgently, her heart in her throat. “Back to bed, Jack!”
Too late. One small bark was enough to raise Red John to inquiry in those desperate times when hungry people were driven to steal. The friendly dog had not reached Ellen before an upper window jarred open.
“Who is it?” Quiet enough his voice. And then: “Is that you, Ellen Oge?”
She stopped in her tracks, all the young life draining out of her. The power of that terrible quiet voice held her against all desire.
“Go back to your bed! Go back to your bed!” He did not call her, as he was used to, a rashpeen, an oinseach, a sthreel [a weakling, a fool, a slattern], but his voice under control had the quality of iron. He knew what Ellen was about. Well he knew. But he did not want any one else to know.
The window closed down, and, the instant it was closed, Ellen up with her light young heels and ran for the back gate. And the dog ran with her.
Red John Danaher came out at the back door, barefooted, in his shirt and trousers, and the yard was empty under the moonlight. He said no word then, but his hard feet carried him fast across the yard. Out in the bohereen he halted and, little finger in mouth, blew three short sharp whistles. The sheep-dog knew that whistling by painful experience. In one minute it was back and cringing at its master’s feet, and was rewarded by a side-footed kick in the ribs.
“Up now!” Red John pointed a finger, and the dog gazed at him, intelligence in its eyes. “After her, Jack! Steady now—steady, I tell you!”
Poor small Ellen Oge Molouney! There was no place where she could hide from that friendly dog and that terrible man—no place but one. Running across the second field from the house, she heard her grand-uncle’s whistle, and saw the dog leave her. She knew what that meant and ran all the faster. Northward she ran, for northward was her home, at distant Ballydonohue beyond Listowel. And that was all she knew about that road—that long and weary road that crosses the humped shoulder of Slieve Mish and winds along the bare flanks of Glanruddera down to the Feale Bridge at Listowel. We know that road in the dark, and our blood is spilled on it.
Once only had she traveled that road, and now, in the light of the moon, she would venture it again, with the help of God. Northward she ran, then, terror lending wings to her heels, and that terror, blind as terror is, led her straight into a trap.
The Castlemaine River, beyond Browadra farm, made a deep and narrow loop, and she ran directly into the bottom of it. She raced up the high bank and stopped. There was the river, deep and still, below her, and the moonlight, shining on it, made it polished black steel. Quickly she saw the trap she had landed in, and turned to race along the embankment. And then the dog barked not two fields away, and running back along the curve of the loop meant running into her grand-uncle’s hands. She looked wildly about her.
“Mother Mary—Mother Mary—Mother Mary!”
Close to the water, down the sloping bank, grew a stunted bush of alder. It was the only refuge that offered, and she slid down to it and threw herself close to the twisted trunk. Head and shoulders were hidden below the branches, but any one coming along the bank could not fail to see her slender legs. Her eyes were over the very brink of the river and could look into the pool beneath them. And there her eyes looked.
It was deep water, and there was no hope of crossing that way. But it was clear water, too, and the moonlight pouring slantwise, showed every pebble on its gravelly bed. It was clear and cool and calm and inviting—inviting as sin. For the Devil must still get his due while the soul is still clothed in flesh, and his temptings will come at all times and in all places. There behind her was the dog’s bark coming nearer, and now she could hear the man’s voice urging it on. And down below was the quietness of the pool—the endless quietness of the pool. Oh! but it was quiet down there. No voice could ever rouse her, no anger ever touch her, no fear overwhelm her. The pebbles were as brown as warm amber, and they winked up at the moon; pleasant it would be to lie among them and gaze up at the high far stars, and have no fear, no grief, no loneliness any more—ever—ever—ever.
She was already slipping when the dog’s bark and the man’s voice stopped as if they had been snapped across. And, instead, there flowed to her across the night the pleasant sound of a careless whistling: a round, mellow, easy-going whistle that was at the same time touched with a strange sadness. The tune was the Lon Dubh—“The Blackbird.” You know it. A dance tune, one of the hard long dances, and, besides, it is the only Irish lament for the Stuart kings. Skilly dancing and skilly whistling it calls for, and this whistler knew every turn and every grace-note. Gay it was as a brave man who puts hope behind him and is not afraid, strong as a cause which is lost often and held ever, wistful as a man who has known beauty. And here and now it held Ellen Oge Molouney from slipping.
She drew back, sat up, and looked at the embankment above her. The whistler was coming along the top of it at his slow ease. A tall man, wearing an old white hat and frieze body-coat; a hurley stick under his arm, his hands in his pockets, walking with a slight limp—not a limp that was a hindrance, but one that gave a pleasant roll of shoulder and swing of head. He halted up there, not in surprise but with a sort of careless ease, and threw up a hand in a pleasant happy gesture.
“Goodnight, a colleen!” Deep and kindly his voice. “A fine night for a ramble, thank God.”
“Goodnight, sir!” whispered Ellen.
“Is it fishing you were now—or, maybe, a bathe you had in mind?”
“No, sir. I was going home.”
“Home!” His voice was vibrant. “Home! A good place to be going on top o’ the world. Home I would be going myself—but sure the night is young and we in no hurry.”
At that he sat down, his feet towards her, and took a clay pipe from his waistcoat pocket. He dunted the head of it into a hand to loosen the dottle, and she heard the thud and rasp on his hard palm.
“Come away up and sit down,” he invited, “and tell me the road you’d be going.”
And she climbed the bank and timidly sat near him; and he blew through his pipe, and made no move to touch her lest she be frightened. For the time her terrible uncle seemed in another world.
Slowly he cut his tobacco, slowly ground it between his palms, and, like a man thinking leisurely, filled the well-used pipe and shook the dottle ash on it. And he talked to her with a gentle carelessness that gave her confidence.
“And where is the place you call home, Colleen Oge?”
“Ballydonohue, sir—at the other side of Listowel.”
“To be sure! Surely! A nice handy walk. And you know the road?”
“Not well, sir. ’Tis that way.” She pointed to the long flank of Slieve Mish, where, in the cold brilliance of the moon, the white houses twinkled on the dun of the hill.
“Well, now—well, now! And I going that way myself. Wait you till I get this going, and I’ll convey you a piece of the road. Ballydonohue? ’Tis well I know it, from Pubil Dotha to Trienafludig, from Galey Cross to Cnucanor.”
“Do you, sir?” And then she volunteered. “My name is Ellen Molouney.”
“A daughter of Norrey Walsh’s, maybe?”
“Oh, yes, sir! Do you know her?”
“Long ago—long ago.” He looked down at her uplifted face, and smiled in his deep-set eyes. “You have her brow and the very turn of her chin. Ay! and I knew your uncle, Shawn Alsoon of the chapel—but it was long ago, girleen, long and long ago. Wait now, till I light up, and we’ll take the road, the two of us.”
She saw his face clearly in the red glow of the tinder: a kindly humorous, strong face, with deep-set eyes and a scar running from temple to the angle of the jaw.
He rose to his feet. “Come, a weenoch—my little one!”
She rose at his side. “I am afraid, sir,” she began tremulously; “my uncle—”
He reached his hand to her and she took it—a firm dry warm hand.
“Do not be afraid, mo leanav, mo leanaveen oge.” His deep voice crooned and was sorrowful that she, so young, should know fear. “Nothing in this world or the next will harm you tonight. Come, now!”
And they went along the top of the bank hand in hand, the tall man limping gallantly, and the little maid moving lightly at his side.
At the swing of the loop Red John Danaher stood at the foot of the embankment, and his dog crouched between his feet. Ellen Oge pressed close to her protector, and the two hands tightened in each other. But John Danaher never moved. He was as still as carved stone, and his wide-open eyes were as blind as granite. And, when the figures of man and maid had vanished into the night along the bank, the red man was still rooted in that one spot. And in that spot his servants found him in the morning. For many days he spoke no word, and, when speech at last came to him, he said no word of what he had seen or felt. But whether he was better or worse, only God knows.
Ellen Oge Molouney, all her days—and they were many—kept close about her the memory of that walk through the July night. It was as happy as walking in a king’s garden with a king’s son, and love in the songs of birds; as long and as short as a fine story and it well told; as pleasant as May morning and the blackbird lilting his one tune; it was as quiet as that June hour before the sun sets into the solitudes of the gloaming stealing gently; it was as unhurried as a noneen opening in the dew; timeless as a dream.
She could never tell the roads they came or the places that she saw. Indeed, they came no made roads at all. Their feet moved over dewy grass where the gossamer was like pearl threads on the green; along hedgerows where small birds saluted them with drowsy cheeps; under tall straight trees, standing to attention column by column, where the rays of moonlight striking through were finer than white silver; along small streams that came out under dark bushes to gurgle and gleam at them over clean gravel. That is all she remembered of that journey in the night. In the distance dogs barked or howled forlornly at the moon, and the white houses glimmered along the hillside. But they themselves moved in a world apart, in a dimension of their own, using time and space to suit the content that filled them. And no cock crew.
They were in no hurry. Often they rested by stream and hedgerow, and the tall man talked to the little maid, softly, gently, with a tenderness beyond all tears. He told her tales she knew and tales she did not know; and he got her to display her artless young heart, and that he cherished with a pride finer than the pride of all victories, all glories, all defeats. But alas! The night went on, nevertheless, and happiness will not abide forever under the sky. The moon was setting and a vivid whiteness streaming up in the northeast when, at last, they came out on the open road above the Feale Bridge. And there the tall man stopped Ellen Oge, his hand lightly on her shoulder.
“There, then, is the Feale River, girleen, and that is Listowel town beyond on the slope. You know where you are now?”
“Oh, yes, sir! That’s Cnucanor Hill in front of us.”
“Here then we part.” His voice was deep and low. “The dawn is here, and we cannot keep cocks from crowing, for the cocks have to crow in every dawn. You will have to hurry now, Ellen Oge.” He ran his hand gently down the nape of her neck and gave her a little push between the shoulders. “Run, a leanaveen! your mother will be waiting for you.”
Lightly, then, she ran down onto the bridge. And away out on the island farm a cock crew, and his clarion was as keen and as sad as the horns of fairyland. At the middle arch she turned to wave farewell. The road was empty. The whole hillside was empty—empty. The desolate dawn-light showed the emptiness of all life, all hope, all fear—even all despair. But not to Ellen Oge Molouney.
Listen now! The distance she had come was forty-odd miles as the crow flies, and she had done it in less than four hours. Whatever else is true, that is true.
Wait ye! That morning her mother, Norrey Walsh, rose at the dawn, a full hour before her usual time. She built up the fire out of its rakings, put on the kettle to boil, laid the table with two cups, a fresh soda loaf, and a pat of new butter; and she chose two of the brownest eggs and put them in the skillet, ready for boiling. And then she went out into the morning, and there was the sun rising over the Drum of Glouria; and there was her daughter Ellen running to her round the last twist of the bohereen.
She was a quiet woman always, and not effusive. She only put an arm round her little one’s shoulders. “I knew you’d be here early, Ellen Oge. Last night I dreamed of you and you on the road. You’ll be killed an’ all with the tiredness.”
Ellen Oge snuggled into her mother’s side. “Sure, it was only a step, Mother—just beyond there.”
“Forty Irish miles, girl. You got a lift, maybe?”
“No. But, Mother, how could it be that far? Sure, I only left after the dead of night—and the sun only up now.” She went on with a rush. “And, oh, Mother! wait till I tell you about the grand man showed me the way as far as the Feale Bridge. I was—I was frightened of my Uncle John; and he came along the bank of the Maine River and him whistling ‘The Blackbird.’ ”
“God save us all,” said her mother, and then quietly: “What like of man was he, colleen?”
“Maybe you’d be knowing him, Mother. He knew you, and Uncle Shawn—long ago, he said, long ago. And oh, dear! I forgot to ask his name. He was a man who would reach up to the collar-brace there, and he had a limp in one leg—but he could lep the moon. And a hurley with a lead boss, and, oh! he had a great big scar one side of his face—there. Would you be knowing him, Mother?”
“God rest his soul, daughtereen! He was your own father.”
“My father—my father that’s dead?”
“These fifteen years, Ellen Oge. But dead or alive the Molouneys can take care of their own. Thanks be to God.”
Hugh Forbes was the first to break the ensuing silence.
“We will wear them as a shield upon our arms, as a shield upon our hearts, for Love is stronger than Death,” he murmured deeply. “Our dead, too, will take care of us, if we do not fail them.”