Dick Wilkin's Adventure
In "A Bunch of Shamrocks being A Collection of Irish Tales and Sketches" by E. Owens Blackburne
There was a large family of us, and as my mother was a widow with a small income, it was a proud day when I, regarded as the fool of the family, found myself in Dublin, having in my pocket an appointment as dispensary doctor at Knockmafad. An uncle had undertaken to see me start for my destination, for though as tall as a lifeguardsman, with a beard and moustache, the envy of half my own sex and the undisguised admiration of the whole of the other, I was not deemed capable of looking after myself.
"Have you any idea where Knockmafad is?" I asked, when our greetings were over.
"Not the very least, my boy!" said my uncle; "but we'll go down to the Custom House and see about it. They'll send you all right."
Strange experience of the Irish mode of managing affairs. Here was I, a dispensary doctor, in search of my dispensary, going to the Custom House to be sent off like a bale of goods. I ventured to remark--"Why do we go to the Custom House to inquire?"
"Because the poor-law office is there."
Eventually my uncle and myself set off to the Custom House, where I was introduced to Mr. Bartle, chief conspirator in my expatriation. He was a little, sharp-looking man, who, to my dismay, informed me that I should be obliged to set off that very evening.
"But," I said diffidently, "I am not quite sure where Knockmafad is."
Mr. Bartle rubbed his hands softly one over the other, arranged the loose papers upon his table, coughed, took a pinch of snuff, and finally answered--"You'll take the train from Broadstone to Westport, and--and--why, young gentleman, I presume you can then shift for yourself?"
"I declare I don't know," said my uncle, doubtingly. "Dick, my boy, do you think you shall find your way?"
"Oh, dear, yes!" I replied valiantly, "if I can only learn where the place is?" It's not on the map."
"Bartle, don't you know exactly where it is?" said my uncle.
"Oh, yes! Oh, dear me, yes! It's---Mr. Callaghan"--to a big man at a small desk in a corner--"where is this Knockmafad exactly?"
"Is it Knockmafad ye're forgetting? Why, isn't it that blessed place"---
Mr. Bartle coughed violently, and took snuff at such a rate that I, as a medical man, was about to remonstrate with him, when Mr. Callaghan continued---"It's the place Dr. Price has just left--somewhere in Mayo."
"Why did he leave?" I inquired.
Mr. Bartle rubbed his hands again, rearranged his papers, looked at Mr. Callaghan, who had twirled round on his stool and pushed his spectacles to the top of his bald head, and then answered blandly--"It did not agree with Dr. Price. He was a nervous young fellow, and the place was lonely. That was his reason for leaving. Was it not, Mr. Callaghan?"
"Yes, yes; he was nervous. Quite so! And the place was lonely," echoed Mr. Callaghan.
"You see, you must not expect too much society," said Mr. Bartle, with a spasmodic attempt at facetiousness.
"Oh, I don't mind in the least," I replied, nonchalantly. "My profession will no doubt, occupy me fully."
"No one in the barony wears shoes and stockings except the priest," remarked Mr. Callaghan. "They're a most ignorant lot down there."
"Ah, well," said my uncle, cheerfully, "perhaps it's just as well, Dick, that they don't know too much; you'll hold your own the better amongst them."
Apart from the unpleasantly mysterious references to my predecessor, the prospects held out to me in the barony were not exhilarating. However, I set off, and in due time found myself at the hotel at Westport. There I proceeded to inquire of the landlord by what mode of conveyance I should continue my journey to Knockmafad.
"Shure, maybe ye're the new docthor?" he said, opening his eyes widely, and staring at me.
I answered in the affirmative.
"Thin it's all right! Exclaimed my host. "Lanty Joyce is here these three days looking' out for you, sir."
"And who is Lanty Joyce?" I inquired.
"He was the last docthor's boy, sir; sarvant man, sir. An' he thought maybe you'd like t' take him into yer service, sir."
"Well, we'll see about it. But tell me how I'm to get to Knockmafad."
"Ye'll take a car from this, sir, to the Widda M'Cree's, eighteen miles away, an' thin she'll get ye a car, or something, to take ye over the mountains. Will I tell Lanty t' come in, sir?"
I intimated my willingness to see him, and presently there was ushered in a tall, shambling, shock-haired son of Erin, apparently about thirty-five. It was a broiling June day, yet he wore corduroy knee-breeches, woollen stockings, and a double-caped grey frieze overcoat, which latter garment reached to his heels. He carried a very shiny, hard-looking, low-crowned hat in one hand, and with the other seized a straggling lock of hair which wandered down over his forehead, and giving it a pull which seemed to jerk his whole huge body forward, he said huskily--"God save yeh kindly, sir; ye're welcome!"
"Thank you," I replied; "but surely you cannot be Lanty Joyce? I heard he was a boy--a lad?"
"Yis, sur; I'm Lanty Joyce. I'm not a gossoon, but I'm a boy, sur."
"A boy!" I laughed. "Why, you must be ten years older than I am, and I don't call myself a boy."
Lanty twirled his hat round and round, and with a shrewd twinkle in his eye, asked--"Are yeh marrid, sur?"
"Thin shure yer a boy, sur! Me father was a boy till he was forty odd. It's in the family, sur."
"Ah, indeed. Well, so you want to enter my service?"
"Av it's plazin' t'yeh, sur. Me mother used t' wash for Docthor Price an' look afther th' house, an' I was the boy in the yard."
"We'll see about it," I replied. "But just settle about a car now, and have my luggage put upon it."
Lanty obeyed; and an hour later we were driving along the bleak, mountainous sea-road, which, commanding a splendid view pf the broad Atlantic, at length winds around the head of Killery Bay, then branches off to the interior of the Western Highlands. I had invited Lanty to sit beside me in order to tell me the different places we passed. He was very communicative and decidedly amusing; yet I was not sorry when we reached the first stage of our journey, the Widow M'Cree's. Here a country low-backed car was procured, and then Lanty and I set off on the remainder of our journey.
The country through which we passed was bleak-looking, yet I could not but feel almost awed by the rugged grandeur of the scenery. We often drove for miles without meeting with a single human habitation; and as the evening waned the mountain stillness seemed to become almost oppressive. I thought of my nervous predecessor, and said to Lanty--"How long was Doctor Price at Knockmafad?"
"About four months, sur."
"And why did he leave?"
Lanty hesitated, and I repeated my question.
"The place was lonely, sur."
Presently we came in sight of a ruinous-looking, grey stone mansion, half buried in trees. It was the only residence of any importance we had encountered for many miles, and I eagerly inquired to whom it belonged.
"That's Misther Con Blake's, sur. He and Miss Kathleen's away in Dublin now; but there's yer own house, sur, jest straight fornent yeh."
I looked in the direction indicated, and beheld a mean-looking, red-brick, one-storey house. It had a bright green hall door, flanked on either side by a window, and three windows in a row above. From one side of the house projected a small building, which unsightly excrescence I afterwards found to be the dispensary and surgery.
The interior was found, on inspection, to be not more prepossessing. Arrangements had been made for me to take my predecessor's furniture, and I must say that I found in the house little that would have been worth his carrying away. The floors were carpetless, with the exception of a square of cocoa=nut matting in the sitting-room. The windows were curtainless. Deal tables and chairs and an iron bedstead completed the menage of the dispensary doctor of Knockmafad.
I soon found that my district stretched far and wide, but for two or three months there were few calls upon my professional skill. My office seemed almost sinecure, a circumstance which I carefully concealed from my affectionate but unappreciative family. My time was chiefly spent in fishing in the mountain loughs, and in an amusing myself by talking to Lanty Joyce, who as I speedily discovered, was a power in the parish.
In the first place he was associated with the two principal personages in the neighborhood--the priest and myself. He acted as parish clerk; or, in West Connaught parlance, he "sarved mass" in the little white-washed chapel. Lanty had, in the course of time, managed to learn the Latin responses; and, consequently his less gifted brethren looked upon him as a mine of erudition. It was currently reported, and implicitly believed that by virtue of his learning Lanty had the power of exorcising evil spirits.
"Fairies, I supose you mean?" I said one day to Lanty's mother, who was proudly descanting upon the qualifications of her son.
"Is it the good people?" she exclaimed in consternation, pausing in her employment of scouring a churn--"saints above uz! Shure an' yeh don't think Lanty 'ud be the onnathral gommoch t' do anything' agin the good people? Thim that'll befrind yeh av' yeh act dacint! No--bud it's the thivish, an' the pooca, an' the cailleach, an' the banshee, an' all thim soart av evil sperrits that Lanty has the power agin."
"I have often heard of a banshee--what is it like?" I asked, lighting my pipe, and seating myself lazily on the garden wall.
"It's an evil sperrit that comes afther ould anschint families afore wan av thim dies. Not but what it mek afther Doctor Price, an' shure ivory wan knewn he didn't belong t' a good ould stock, for he was a Sassenach, like yerself, sur--manin' no disrespect, sur."
I became more attentive. "Came after Dr. Price," I repeated. "Tell me the truth, now, Mrs. Joyce, was that why Dr. Price left the neighborhood?"
"Well then, troth an' it was, sur; but yeh mustn't let on I tould yeh, sur, for we waren't t' tell yeh, for fear av freckenin' yeh."
"Oh, you need have no fear of that," I laughed; "but you have not told me what the banshee is like."
"She's like a little ould woman, sur, wid yollah hair all hangin' about her, an' a red cloak, an' she's always screechin' an' cronaughan'. I heerd her meself, sur, many an' many a night; an' I used to lie all av a thrimble, afeard t' go asleep for fear av finding' meself dead in me bed in the morning'."
"Dear me!" said I, gravely. "I should very much like to see this banshee. Do you think there's any chance of her paying me a visit?"
"Whisht! Whisht! Alannah!" exclaimed the old woman, warningly. "Don't wish for evil t' come t' yeh."
"But," I persisted, "if Lanty sleeps in the house with me, and if he has the power of chasing away the banshee, why need I be afraid?"
"I dunno," she replied, shaking her head dolefully. "Somehow of other Lanty couldn't do no good wid this banshee at all, at all. The Latin, an' the poetry, an' th' jomethry he talked to it was wonderful, but still it kem an' kem, until it freckened the poor young doctor out av the parish."
"Poor fellow!" I ejaculated, rather glad to find as great a fool as myself. "Never mind, Mrs. Joyce, I promise you that if the banshee comes again, Lanty and I will soon settle it."
"No, I'm afeard not, sur. It's a banshee strange t' these parts; for the curious part av it is that no wan dies afther it comes."
"Evidently a banshee of a benevolent turn, and enjoying itself," I suggested; which irreverent remark caused Mrs. Joyce to cross herself devoutly, and exclaim--"Och, doctor jewil! Don't talk that-a-way, for it is a very powerful banshee entirely! I gev Lanty tay wan night med wid holy-water, an' rubbed the ind av' his nose wid a blessed candle, an' for all that he cudn't stir whin it kem screechin', and covered up his head wid the blanket."
With difficulty I controlled my laughter, and jumping of the wall, said--"Well, Mrs. Joyce, I only hope the banshee will give me a chance of making her acquaintance."
Time passed slowly enough, and the subject of this conversation had fairly passed out of my mind. October had come, and on a fine night early in the month I retired, as was my custom, to the little surgery to smoke my nightly pipe. I opened the window, and leaned out, thinking and smoking for at least an hour. I knew Lanty had not gone to bed, for I heard him in the kitchen polishing my boots, from time to time sweetening his labours with his favourite song of "Molly Brallagan," which he sang not by any means unmusically.
Presently the song ceased. I still leaned out of the window, my arms resting on the sill. There was no light in the room with me; but my eyes having become accustomed to the faint glimmer of the stars, I could see the outline of every out-of-door object distinctly. I heard Lanty leave the kitchen, cross the hall, and open the surgery door behind me. As he did so, a shriek, wild, weird, and unearthly, broke upon the stillness of the night. I staggered upright, and started away from the window. Shrieks, moans, wails followed each other in rapid succession; and Lanty, who was as cowardly and superstitious as he was big, clung to me helplessly, and exclaimed in terror--"Blesses Saint Pether, Saint Patrick, an' Saint Bridget, stan' betchune uz an' harm, for shure it's the banshee herself!"
The shrieks came nearer, nearer, and at last seemed to be under the very window. A plaintive, dirge-like wail sounded almost in my ear; and looking out of the window, I saw, not more than ten yards from me, the darkly-draped figure of a woman, with a pale, beautiful face, her eyes looking dark and cavernous in the dim light. Her waving, fair hair floated far below her waist, and she waved her long, white arms to and fro, as she turned and looked fixedly at the window where I was.
There is no use in denying that I was frightened. Yes, just a frightened as Lanty was. There stood the supernatural-looking figure, whilst
"She put forth the charm
Of woven paces and of waving hands."
I shook my companion, and whispered--"Lanty, Lanty, can you not say anything to drive it away?"
His teeth were chattering with terror. The wild unearthly wails were renewed as the banshee moved a pace or two away. In my excitement and perturbation I seized a bottle upon a shelf beside me, and flung it at the figure. The bottle was shivered to atoms, and with a piercing shriek the banshee flitted swiftly down the road.
"Well, that bates Banagher!" ejaculated Lanty. "Faix, it's herself wint aff as fast as a sthraw fire goes out."
I acknowledge that I did not sleep that night. Each time I tried to invoke the drowsy god the shrieks of the banshee rang in my ears; the pale, beautiful face rose before my mental vision, ant I was glad when the morning came. My fears vanished with the daylight; and before breakfast I went to reconnoitre the place where the banshee had been seen. There were pieces of the broken bottle. I took one of them, and found it was labelled "Vitriol!"
"She must have been a witch, indeed." I thought, "to have withstood that;" and picking up the pieces of glass I returned to the house.
About ten o'clock that night there was a knock at the hall door--a very timid knock. Lanty went to the door, and in a minute or so returned saying--"It's a woman, sur; she won't tell me her business, but wants t' see yerself."
"Oh! Well, send her in here to me, and then bring a light."
Lanty withdrew, and ushered in a woman, who, as I could see by the faint light of the moon, was closely veiled and wrapped up. She approached me, threw back her veil, and revealed the pale, beautiful face of the banshee.
I gave a start, and would have uttered some exclamation, had she not laid her hand upon my arm, saying--"Hush! I see you recognize me. Send Lanty Joyce away. Do not let him see me."
"But who in the name of wonder are you?" I inquired.
"I am Kathleen Blake. I thought I was playing the trick upon Doctor Price. We have been so long away that I did not know he had left."
"My gracious!" I exclaimed suddenly. "Were you burnt by the vitriol last night?"
"Yes, badly. My arm is in a shocking state; it is about it I have come." Here she hastily pulled down her thick veil as Lanty entered with lights.
I dismissed him, and Kathleen Blake again revealed her beautiful face. She was about nineteen; tall, slender, yet womanly, and her lips were quivering with the pain of her badly-burnt arm, which she uncovered for my inspection. I applied remedies in silence, and then asked--"Why did you not send for me at once?"
"Because, until about an hour ago, I was under the Impression that it was Dr. Price who was here."
"May I ask why you have such an aversion to him?"
Her face flushed. I wish you would not ask me, she said, a little haughtily; "but," and she hesitated, "I have a favour to ask of you. Will you promise me not to tell any one about this accident? My father will be home in three or four weeks: do you think you can have me quite well before then?"
"I'll try. Your arm is sadly burnt."
"He would be so angry if he knew of my having been so very indiscreet. Will you promise?"
"Of course I promise," I replied. "and now you must let me see you home."
She did not object; and , without again encountering Lanty, we left the house. I saw her to her own door, and promised to call and see her the next morning.
Her arm rapidly became better. I called each day and dressed it, an old servant in the house alone being in the secret; but long before her father returned I was over head and ears in love with lovely Kathleen Blake.
With the winter came sickness and various kinds of hardships amongst my poorer patients; and then it was indeed that my love and respect for Kathleen Blake become deeply rooted in my heart. Many and many a comfort did her kind hands bring to wretched cabins; often did her sweet voice cheer a sufferer; and one February evening, as I accompanied her along the lonely country road, I told her of my love, and asked her to become my wife.
"I am a poor fellow," I said, "and have little more than my love to offer you."
She replied softly--"That is enough for me."
I do not exactly know in what state of beatitude the proverbially happy inhabitant of the seventh heaven is usually, but I fancy I must have been somewhere about the confines of the seventy-seventh.
A few days afterwards, as I sat with Kathleen in her old-fashioned drawing-room, she said suddenly--"I suppose I may tell you now why I played the trick of the banshee."
"Just as you like," I replied.
I may here mention that, privately, I was devoured with curiosity concerning it.
"Well, then, Dr. Price took rather a fancy to me. And oh, Dick, dear! How I hated him!"
(How I pitied Dr. Price.)
"So," she continued, "I was speaking to him one day and I discovered he was pitiably nervous. How horrible! Fancy a nervous man! So I pretended to be a banshee--first nearly drove him out of his wits, and then out of the parish. Oh, Dick, he was such a fool!"
I made no reply, but merely pulled my beard and gazed at my darling, who laughingly exclaimed--"But you were no fool, Dick! And I'm not a bit sorry now that I made a fool of myself."
I have never told Kathleen that I was always considered the fool of the family, and I do not think she has ever discovered it. If she has done so, she has never told me, and I rejoice in the belief that she considers me the best and the wisest of men. I am not brilliant in any way, but I have made steady progress in my profession, which, I honestly confess, I consider I owe in a great measure to the cheerful, mental backing-up of my darling wife. Lanty Joyce is still a "boy," and yet lives with us. He has, on more than one occasion, gravely told Kathleen--"Shure the masther is ivory bit as good as a fairy-doctor! The banshee kem here wan night wid her piteous an' her screechin', an' begorra he freckened her, an' we nivir see her no more, the Lord be praised!"
Excrescence - an abnormal outgrowth
Sinecure - any position that brings profit without involving much work
Beatitude - perfect blessedness or happiness