The black prophet: a tale of irish famine



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THE BLACK PROPHET:

A TALE OF IRISH FAMINE.

By William Carleton

CHAPTER I. -- Glendhu, or the Black Glen; Scene of Domestic Affection.

Some twenty and odd years ago there stood a little cabin at the foot of a round hill, that very much resembled a cupola in shape, and which, from its position and height, commanded a prospect of singular beauty. This hill was one of a range that ran from north to southwest; but in consequence of its standing, as it were, somewhat out of the ranks, its whole appearance and character as a distinct feature of the country were invested with considerable interest to a scientific eye, especially to that of a geologist. An intersection or abrupt glen divided it from those which constituted the range or group alluded to; through this, as a pass in the country, and the only one for miles, wound a road into an open district on the western side, which road, about half a mile after its entering the glen, was met by a rapid torrent that came down from the gloomy mountains that rose to the left. The foot of this hill, which on the southern side was green and fertile to the top, stretched off and was lost in the rich land that formed the great and magnificent valley it helped to bound, and to which the chasm we have described was but an entrance; the one bearing to the other, in size and position, much the same relation that a small bye-lane in a country town bears to the great leading street which constitutes its principal feature.

Noon had long passed, and the dim sun of a wet autumnal day was sloping down towards the west through clouds and gloom, when a young girl of about twenty-one or twenty-two years of age came out of the cabin we have mentioned, and running up to the top of a little miniature hill or knob that rose beside it, looked round in every direction, as if anxious to catch a glimpse of some one whom she expected. It appeared, however, that she watched in vain; for after having examined the country in every direction with an eye in which might be read a combined expression of eagerness, anger and disappointment, she once more returned to the cabin with a slow and meditating step. This she continued to do from time to time for about an hour and a half, when at length a female appeared approaching, whom she at once recognized.

The situation of this hovel, for such, in fact, it must be termed, was not only strikingly desolate, but connected also with wild and supernatural terrors. From the position of the glen itself, a little within which it stood, it enjoyed only a very limited portion of the sun's cheering beams. As the glen was deep and precipitous, so was the morning light excluded from it by the northeastern hills, as was that of evening by those which rose between it and the west. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a spot marked by a character of such utter solitude and gloom. Naturally barren, it bore not a single shrub on which a bird could sit or a beast browse, and little, of course, was to be seen in it but the bare gigantic projections of rock which shot out of its steep sides in wild and uncouth shapes, or the grey, rugged expanses of which it was principally composed. Indeed, we feel it difficult to say whether the gloom of winter or the summer's heat fell upon it with an air of lonelier desolation. It mattered not what change of season came, the place presented no appearance of man or his works. Neither bird or beast was seen or heard, except rarely, within its dreary bosom, the only sounds it knew being the monotonous murmurs of the mountain torrent, or the wild echoes of the thunder storms that pealed among the hills about it. Silence and solitude were the characteristics which predominated in it and it would not be easy to say whether they were felt more during the gloom of November or the glare of June.

In the mouth of this glen, not far from the cabin we have described, two murders had been committed about twenty years before the period of our narrative, within the lapse of a month. The one was that of a carman, and the other of a man named Sullivan, who also had been robbed, as it was supposed the carman had been, for the bodies of both had been made way with and were never found. This was evident--in the one case by the horse and cart of the carman remaining by the grey stone in question, on which the traces of blood were long visible; and in the other by the circumstance of Sullivan's hat and part of his coat having been found near the cabin in question on the following day, in a field through which his path home lay, and in which was a pool of blood, where his foot-marks were deeply imprinted, as if in a struggle for life and death. For this latter murder a man named Dalton had been taken up, under circumstances of great suspicion, he having been the last person seen in the man's company. Both had been drinking together in the market, a quarrel had originated between them about money matters, blows had been exchanged, and Dalton was heard to threaten him in very strong language. Nor was this all. He had been observed following or rather dogging him on his way home, and although the same road certainly led to the residence of both, yet when his words and manner were taken into consideration, added to the more positive proof that the footmarks left on the place of struggle exactly corresponded with his shoes, there could be little doubt that he was privy to Sullivan's murder and disappearance, as well probably as to his robbery. At all events the glen was said to be haunted by Sullivan's spirit, which was in the habit, according to report, of appearing near the place of murder, from whence he was seen to enter this chasm--a circumstance which, when taken in connection with its dark and lonely aspect, was calculated to impress upon the place the I reputation of being accursed, as the scene of crime and supernatural appearances. We remember having played in it when young, and the feeling we experienced was one of awe and terror, to which might be added, on contemplating the "dread repose" and solitude around us, an impression that we were removed hundreds of miles from the busy ongoings and noisy tumults of life, to which, as if seeking protection, we generally hastened with a strong sense of relief, after having tremblingly gratified our boyish curiosity.

The young girl in question gave the female she had been expecting any thing but a cordial or dutiful reception. In personal appearance there was not a point of resemblance between them, although the _tout ensemble_ of each was singularly striking and remarkable. The girl's locks were black as the raven's wing: her figure was tall and slender, but elastic and full of symmetry. The ivory itself was not more white nor glossy than her skin; her teeth were--bright and beautiful, and her mouth a perfect rosebud. It is unnecessary to say that her eyes we're black and brilliant, for such ever belong to her complexion and temperament; but it in necessary to add, that they were piercing and unsettled, and you felt that they looked into you rather than at you or upon you. In fact, her features were all perfect, yet it often happened that their general expression was productive of no agreeable feeling on the beholder. Sometimes her smile was sweet as that of an angel, but let a single impulse or whim be checked, and her face assumed a character of malignity that made her beauty appear like that which we dream of in an evil spirit.

The other woman, who stood to her in the relation of step-mother, was above the middle size. Her hair was sandy, or approaching to a pale red; her features were coarse, but regular; and her whole figure that of a well-made and powerful woman. In her countenance might be read a peculiar blending of sternness and benignity, each evidently softened down by an expression of melancholy--perhaps of suffering--as if some secret care lay brooding at her heart. The inside of the hovel itself had every mark of poverty and destitution about it. Two or three stools, a pot or two, one miserable standing bed, and a smaller one gathered up under a rug in the corner, were almost all that met the eye on entering it; and simple as these meagre portions of furniture were, they bore no marks of cleanliness or care. On the contrary, everything appeared to be neglected, squalid and filthy--such, precisely, as led one to see at a glance that the inmates of this miserable hut were contented with their wretched state of life, and had no notion whatsoever that any moral or domestic duty existed, by which they might be taught useful notions of personal comfort and self-respect.

"So," said the young woman, addressing her step-mother, as she entered, "you're come back at last, an' a purty time you tuck to stay away!"

"Well," replied the other, calmly, "I'm here now at any rate; but I see you're in one of your tantrums, Sally, my lady. What's wrong, I say? In the mean time don't look as if you'd ait us widout salt."

"An' a bitter morsel you'd be," replied the younger, with a flashing glance--"divil a more so. Here am I, sittin', or running out an' in, these two hours, when I ought to be at the dance in Kilnahushogue, before I go to Barny Gormly's wake; for I promised to be at both. Why didn't you come home in time?"

"Bekaise, achora, it wasn't agreeable to me to do so. I'm beginnin' to got ould an' stiff, an' its time for me to take care of myself."

"Stiffer may you be, then, soon, an' oulder may you never be, an' that's the best I wish you!"

"Aren't you afeard to talk to me in that way?" said the elder of the two.

"No--not a bit. You won't flake me now as you used to do. I am able an' willin' to give blow for blow at last, thank goodness; an' will, too, if ever you thry that thrick."

The old woman gazed at her angrily, and appeared for a moment to meditate an assault. After a pause, however, during which the brief but vehement expression of rising fury passed from her countenance, and her face assumed an expression more of compassion than of anger, she simply said, in a calm tone of voice--

"I don't know that I ought to blame you so much for your temper, Sarah. The darkness of your father's sowl is upon yours; his wicked spirit is in you, an' may Heaven above grant that you'll never carry about with you, through this unhappy life, the black an' heavy burden that weighs down his heart! If God hasn't said it, you have his coorse, or something nearly as bad, before you. Oh! go to the wake as soon as you like, an' to the dance, too. Find some one that'll take you off of my hands; that'll put a house over your head--give you a bit to ait, an' a rag to put on you; an' may God pity him that's doomed to get you! If the woeful state of the country, an' the hunger an' sickness that's abroad, an' that's comin' harder an' faster on us every day, can't tame you or keep you down, I dunna what will. I'm sure the black an' terrible summer we've had ought to make you think of how we'll get over all that's before us! God pity you, I say again, an' whatever poor man is to be cursed wid you!"

"Keep your pity for them that wants it," replied the other, "an' that's not me. As for God's pity, it isn't yours to give, and even if it was, you stand in need of it yourself more than I do. You're beginning to praich to us now that you're not able to bait us; but for your praichments an' your baitins, may the divil pay you for all alike!--as he will--an' that's my prayer."

A momentary gush of the step-mother's habitual passion overcame her; she darted at her step-daughter, who sprung to her limbs, and flew at her in return. The conflict at first was brief, for the powerful strength of the elder female soon told. Sarah, however, quickly disengaged herself, and seizing an old knife which lay on a shell that served as a dresser, she made a stab at the very heart of her step-mother, panting as she did it with an exulting vehemence of vengeance that resembled the growlings which a savage beast makes when springing on its prey.

"Ha!" she exclaimed, "you have it now--you have it! Call on God's pity now, for you'll soon want it. Ha! ha!"

The knife, however, owing to the thick layers of cloth with which the dress of the other was patched, as well as to the weakness of the thin and worn blade, did not penetrate her clothes, nor render her any injury whatsoever. The contest was again resumed. Sarah, perceiving that she had missed her aim, once more put herself into a posture to renew the deadly attempt; and the consequence was, that a struggle now took place between them which might almost be termed one for life and death. It was indeed a frightful and unnatural struggle. The old woman, whose object was, if possible, to disarm her antagonist, found all her strength--and it was great--scarcely a match for the murderous ferocity which was now awakened in her. The grapple between them consequently became furious; and such was the terrible impress of diabolical malignity which passion stamped upon the features of this young tigress, that her step-mother's heart, for a moment quailed on beholding it, especially when associated with the surprising activity and strength which she put forth., Her dark and finely-pencilled eye-brows were fiercely knit, as it were, into one dark line; her lips were drawn back, displaying her beautiful teeth, that were now ground together into what resembled the lock of death: her face was pale with over-wrought with resentment, and her deep-set eyes glowed with a wild and flashing fire that was fearful, while her lips were encircled with the white foam of revengeful and deadly determination; and what added most to the terrible expression on her whole face was the exulting smile of cruelty which shed its baleful light over it, resolving the whole contest, as it were, and its object--the murder of her step-mother--into the fierce play of some beautiful vampire that was ravening for the blood of its awakened victim.

After a struggle of some two or three minutes, the strength and coolness of the step-mother at length prevailed, she wrested the knife out of Sarah's hands and, almost at the same moment, stumbled and fell. The other, however, was far from relaxing her hold. On the contrary, she clung to her fiercely, shouting out--

"I won't give you up yet--I love you too well for that--no, no, it's fond of you I'm gettin'. I'll hug you, mother, dear; ay will I, and kiss you too, an' lave my mark behind me!" and, as she spoke, her step-mother felt her face coming in savage proximity to her own.

"If you don't keep away, Sarah," said the other, "I'll stab you. What do you mane, you bloody devil? It is going to tear my flesh with your teeth you are? Hould off! or, as heaven's above us, I'll stab you with the knife."

"You can't," shouted the other; "the knife's bent, or you'd be done for before this. I'll taste your blood for all that!" and, as the words were uttered, the step-mother gave a sudden scream, making at the same time a violent effort to disentangle herself, which she did.

Sarah started to her feet, and flying towards the door, exclaimed with shouts of wild triumphant laughter--

"Ha, ha, ha! do you feel anything? I was near havin' the best part of one of your ears--ha, ha, ha!--but unfortunately I missed it; an' now look to yourself. Your day is gone, an' mine is come. I've tasted-your blood, an' I like it--ha, ha, ha!--an' if as you say it's kind father for me to be fond o' blood, I say you had better take care of yourself. And I tell you more: we'll take care of your fair-haired beauty for you--my father and myself will--an' I'm told to act against her, an' I will too; an' you'll see what we'll bring your pet, _Gra Gal_ Sullivan, to yet! There's news for you!"

She then went down to the river which flowed past, in whose yellow and turbid waters--for it was now swollen with rain--she washed the blood from her hands and face with an apparently light heart. Having meditated for some time, she fell a laughing at the fierce conflict that had just taken place, exclaiming to herself--

"Ha, ha, ha! Well now if I had killed her--got the ould knife into her heart--I might lave the counthry. If I had killed her now, throth it 'ud be a good joke, an' all in a fit of passion, bekase she didn't come home in time to let me meet him. Well, I'll go back an' spake soft to her, for, afther all, she'll give me a hard life of it."

She returned; and, having entered the hut, perceived that the ear and cheek of her step-mother were still bleeding.

"I'm sorry for what I did," she said, with the utmost frankness and good nature. "Forgive me, mother; you know I'm a hasty devil--for a devil's limb I am, no doubt of it. Forgive me, I say--do now--here, I'll get something to stop the blood."

She sprang at the moment, with the agility of a wild cat, upon an old chest that stood in the corner of the hut, exhibiting as she did it, a leg and foot of surpassing symmetry and beauty. By stretching herself up to her full length, she succeeded in pulling down several old cobwebs that had been for years in the corner of the wall; and in the act of doing so, disturbed some metallic substance, which fell first upon the chest, from which it tumbled off to the ground, where it made two or three narrowing circles, and then lay at rest.

"Murdher alive, mother!" she exclaimed, "what is this? Hallo! a tobaccy-box--a fine round tobaccy-box of iron, bedad--an what's this on it!--let me see; two letthers. Wait till I rub the rust off; or stay, the rust shows them as well. Let me see--P. an' what's the other? ay, an' M. P. M.--arra, what can that be for? Well, devil may care! let it lie on the shelf there. Here now--none of your cross looks, I say--put these cobwebs to your face, an' they'll stop the bleedin'. Ha, ha, ha!--well--ha, ha, ha!--but you are a sight to fall in love wid this minute!" she exclaimed, laughing heartily at the blood-stained visage of the other. "You won't spake, I see. Divil may care then, if you don't you'll do the other thing--let it alone: but, at any rate, there's the cobwebs for you, if you like to put them on; an' so _bannatht latht_, an' let that be a warnin' to you not to raise your hand to me again.

'A sailor courted a farmer's daughter That lived contageous to the isle of Man,'" &c.

She then directed her steps to the dance in Kilnahushogue, where one would actually suppose, if mirth, laughter, and extraordinary buoyancy of spirits could be depended on, that she was gifted, in addition to her remarkable beauty, with the innocent and delightful disposition of an angel.

The step-mother having dressed the wound as well as she could, sat down by the fire and began to ruminate on the violent contest which had just taken place, and in which she had borne such an unfortunate part. This was the first open and determined act of personal resistance which she had ever, until that moment, experienced at her step-daughter's hands; but now she feared that, if they were to live, as heretofore, under the same roof, their life would be one of perpetual strife--perhaps of ultimate bloodshed--and that these domestic brawls might unhappily terminate in the death of either. She felt that her own temper was none of the best, and knew that so long as she was incapable of restraining it, or maintaining her coolness under the provocations to which the violent passions of Sarah would necessarily expose her, so long must such conflicts as that which had just occurred take place between them. She began now to fear Sarah, with whose remorseless disposition she was too well acquainted, and came to the natural conclusion, that a residence under the same roof was by no means compatible with her own safety.

"She has been a curse to me!" she went on, unconsciously speaking aloud; "for when she wasn't able to bate me herself, her father did it for her. The divil is said to be fond of his own; an' so does he dote on her, bekase she's his image in everything that's bad. A hard life I'll lead between them from this out, espeshially now that she's got the upper hand of me. Yet what else can I expect or desarve? This load that is on my conscience is worse. Night and day I'm sufferin' in the sight of God, an' actin' as if I wasn't to be brought in judgment afore him. What am I to do? I wish I was in my grave! But then, agin', how am I to face death?--and that same's not the worst; for afther death comes judgment! May the Lord prepare me for it, and guide and direct me how to act! One thing, I know, must be done--either she or I will lave this house; for live undher the same roof wid her I will not."

She then rose up, looked out of the door a moment, and, resuming her seat, went on with her soliloquy--

"No; he said it was likely he wouldn't be home to-night. Wanst he gets upon his ould prophecies, he doesn't care how long he stays away; an' why he can take the delight he does in prophesyin' and foretellin' good or evil, accordin' as it sarves his purpose, I'm sure I don't know--espeshially when he only laughs in his sleeve at the people for believin' him; but what's that about poor _Gra Gal_ Sullivan? She threatened her, and spoke of her father, too, as bein' in it. Ah, ah! I must watch him there; an' you, too, my lady divil--for it 'ill go hard wid me if either of you injure a hair of her head. No, no, plaise God!--none of your evil doins or unlucks prophecies for her, so long, any way, as I can presarve her from them. How black the evenin' is gatherin', but God knows that it's the awful saison all out for the harvest--it is that--it is that!"

Having given utterance to these sentiments, she took up the tobacco-box which Sarah had, in such an accidental manner, tumbled out of the wall, and surveying it for some moments, laid it hastily on the chest, and, clasping her hands exclaimed--

"Saviour of life! it's the same! Oh, merciful God, it's thrue! it's thrue!--the very same I seen wid him that evenin': I know it by the broken hinge and the two letthers. The Lord forgive me my sins!--for I see now that do what we may, or hide it as we like, God is above all! Saviour of life, how will this end? an' what will I do?--or how am I to act? But any way, I must hide this, and put it out of his reach."

She accordingly went out, and having ascertained that no person saw her, thrust the box up under the thatch of the roof, in such a way that it was impossible to suspect, by any apparent disturbance of the roof, that it was there; after which, she sat down with sensations of dread that were new to her, and that mingled themselves as strongly with her affections as it was possible for a woman of a naturally firm and undaunted character to feel them.

CHAPTER II. -- The Black Prophet Prophesies.

At a somewhat more advanced period of the same evening, two men were on their way from the market-town of Ballynafail, towards a fertile portion of the country, named Aughamuran, which lay in a southern direction from it. One of them was a farmer, of middling, or rather of struggling, circumstances, as was evident from the traces of wear and tear that were visible upon a dress that had once been comfortable and decent, although now it bore the marks of careful, though rather extensive repair. He was a thin placid looking man, with something, however, of a careworn expression in his features, unless when he smiled, and then his face beamed with a look of kindness and goodwill that could not readily be forgotten. The other was a strongly-built man, above the middle size, whose complexion and features were such as no one could look on with indifference, so strongly were they indicative of a twofold character, or, we should rather say, calculated to make a twofold impression. At one moment you might consider him handsome, and at another his countenance filled you with an impression of repugnance, if not of absolute aversion; so stern and inhuman were the characteristics which you read in it. His hair, beard, and eye-brows were an ebon black, as were his eyes; his features were hard and massive; his nose, which was somewhat hooked, but too much pointed, seemed as if, while in a plastic state, it had been sloped by a trowel towards one side of his face, a circumstance which, while taken in connection with his black whiskers that ran to a point near his mouth, and piercing eyes, that were too deeply and narrowly set, gave him, aided by his heavy eyebrows, an expression at once of great cruelty and extraordinary cunning. This man, while travelling in the same direction with the other, had suffered himself to be overtaken by him: in such a manner, however, that their coming in contact could not be attributed to any particular design on his part.




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