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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesNo Defense - Chapter 1. The Two Meet
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No Defense - Chapter 1. The Two Meet Post by :chas1012 Category :Long Stories Author :Gilbert Parker Date :May 2012 Read :731

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No Defense - Chapter 1. The Two Meet

CHAPTER I. THE TWO MEET

"Well, good-bye, Dyck. I'll meet you at the sessions, or before that at the assizes."

It was only the impulsive, cheery, warning exclamation of a wild young Irish spirit to his friend Dyck Calhoun, but it had behind it the humour and incongruity of Irish life.

The man, Dyck Calhoun, after whom were sent the daring words about the sessions and the assizes, was a year or two older than his friend, and, as Michael Clones, his servant and friend, said, "the worst and best scamp of them all"--just up to any harmless deviltry.

Influenced by no traditions or customs, under control of no stern records of society, Calhoun had caused some trouble in his time by the harmless deeds of a scapegrace, but morally--that is, in all relations of life affected by the ten commandments--he was above reproach. Yet he was of the sort who, in days of agitation, then common in Ireland, might possibly commit some act which would bring him to the sessions or the assizes. There never was in Ireland a cheerier, braver, handsomer fellow, nor one with such variety of mind and complexity of purpose.

He was the only child of a high-placed gentleman; he spent all the money that came his way, and occasionally loaded himself with debt, which his angry father paid. Yet there never was a gayer heart, a more generous spirit, nor an easier-tempered man; though, after all, he was only twenty-five when the words with which the tale opens were said to him.

He had been successful--yet none too successful--at school and Trinity College, Dublin. He had taken a pass degree, when he might have captured the highest honours. He had interested people of place in the country, but he never used promptly the interest he excited. A pretty face, a fishing or a shooting expedition, a carouse in some secluded tavern, were parts of his daily life.

At the time the story opens he was a figure of note among those who spent their time in criticizing the government and damning the Irish Parliament. He even became a friend of some young hare-brained rebels of the time; yet no one suspected him of anything except irresponsibility. His record was clean; Dublin Castle was not after him.

When his young friend made the remark about the sessions and assizes, Calhoun was making his way up the rocky hillside to take the homeward path to his father's place, Playmore. With the challenge and the monstrous good-bye, a stone came flying up the hill after him and stopped almost at his feet. He made no reply, however, but waved a hand downhill, and in his heart said:

"Well, maybe he's right. I'm a damned dangerous fellow, there's no doubt about that. Perhaps I'll kill a rebel some day, and then they'll take me to the sessions and the assizes. Well, well, there's many a worse fate than that, so there is."

After a minute he added:

"So there is, dear lad, so there is. But if I ever kill, I'd like it to be in open fight on the hills like this--like this, under the bright sun, in the soft morning, with all the moor and valleys still, and the larks singing--the larks singing! Hooray, but it's a fine day, one of the best that ever was!"

He laughed, and patted his gun gently.

"Not a feather, not a bird killed, not a shot fired; but the looking was the thing--stalking the things that never turned up, the white heels we never saw, for I'm not killing larks, God love you!"

He raised his head, looking up into the sky at some larks singing above him in the heavens.

"Lord love you, little dears," he added aloud. "I wish I might die with your singing in my ears, but do you know what makes Ireland what it is? Look at it now. Years ago, just when the cotton-mills and the linen-mills were doing well, they came over with their English legislation, and made it hard going. When we begin to get something, over the English come and take the something away. What have we done, we Irish people, that we shouldn't have a chance in our own country? Lord knows, we deserve a chance, for it's hard paying the duties these days. What with France in revolution and reaching out her hand to Ireland to coax her into rebellion; what with defeat in America and drink in Scotland; what with Fox and Pitt at each other's throats, and the lord-lieutenant a danger to the peace; what with poverty, and the cow and children and father and mother living all in one room, with the chickens roosting in the rafters; what with pointing the potato at the dried fish and gulping it down as if it was fish itself; what with the smell and the dirt and the poverty of Dublin and Derry, Limerick and Cork--ah, well!" He threw his eyes up again.

"Ah, well, my little love, sing on! You're a blessing among a lot of curses; but never mind, it's a fine world, and Ireland's the best part of it. Heaven knows it--and on this hill, how beautiful it is!"

He was now on the top of a hill where he could look out towards the bog and in towards the mellow, waving hills. He could drink in the yellowish green, with here and there in the distance a little house; and about two miles away smoke stealing up from the midst of the plantation where Playmore was--Playmore, his father's house--to be his own one day.

How good it was! There, within his sight, was the great escarpment of rock known as the Devil's Ledge, and away to the east was the black spot in the combe known as the Cave of Mary. Still farther away, towards the south, was the great cattle-pasture, where, as he looked, a thousand cattle roamed. Here and there in the wide prospect were plantations where Irish landlords lived, and paid a heavy price for living. Men did not pay their rents. Crops were spoiled, markets were bad, money was scarce, yet--

"Please God, it will be better next year!" Michael Clones said, and there never was a man with a more hopeful heart than Michael Clones.

Dyck Calhoun had a soul of character, originality, and wayward distinction. He had all the impulses and enthusiasms of a poet, all the thirst for excitement of the adventurer, all the latent patriotism of the true Celt; but his life was undisciplined, and he had not ordered his spirit into compartments of faith and hope. He had gifts. They were gifts only to be borne by those who had ambitions.

Now, as he looked out upon the scene where nature was showing herself at her best, some glimmer of a great future came to him. He did not know which way his feet were destined to travel in the business of life. It was too late to join the navy; but there was still time enough to be a soldier, or to learn to be a lawyer.

As he gazed upon the scene, his wonderful deep blue eyes, his dark brown hair thick upon his head, waving and luxuriant like a fine mattress, his tall, slender, alert figure, his bony, capable hands, which neither sun nor wind ever browned, his nervous yet interesting mouth, and his long Roman nose, set in a complexion rich in its pink-and-cream hardness and health--all this made him a figure good to see.

Suddenly, as he listened to the lark singing overhead, with his face lifted to the sky, he heard a human voice singing; and presently there ran up a little declivity to his left a girl--an Irish girl of about seventeen years of age.

Her hat was hanging on her arm by a green ribbon. Her head was covered with the most wonderful brown, waving hair. She had a broad, low forehead, Greek in its proportions and lines. The eyes were bluer even than his own, and were shaded by lashes of great length, which slightly modified the firm lines of the face, with its admirable chin, and mouth somewhat large with a cupid's bow.

In spite of its ardent and luscious look, it was the mouth of one who knew her own mind and could sustain her own course. It was open when Dyck first saw it, because she was singing little bits of wild lyrics of the hills, little tragedies of Celtic life--just bursts of the Celtic soul, as it were, cheerful yet sad, buoyant and passionate, eager yet melancholy. She was singing in Irish too. They were the words of songs taught her by her mother's maid.

She had been tramping over the hills for a couple of hours, virile, beautiful, and alone. She wore a gown of dark gold, with little green ribbons here and there. The gown was short, and her ankles showed. In spite of the strong boots she wore they were alert, delicate, and shapely, and all her beauty had the slender fullness of a quail.

When she saw Dyck, she stopped suddenly, her mouth slightly open. She gave him a sidelong glance of wonder, interest, and speculation. Then she threw her head slightly back, and all the curls gathered in a bunch and shook like bronze flowers. It was a head of grace and power, of charm and allurement--of danger.

Dyck was lost in admiration. He looked at her as one might look at a beautiful thing in a dream. He did not speak; he only smiled as he gazed into her eyes. She was the first to speak.

"Well, who are you?" she asked with a slightly southern accent in her voice, delicate and entrancing. Her head gave a little modest toss, her fine white teeth caught her lower lip with a little quirk of humour; for she could see that he was a gentleman, and that she was safe from anything that might trouble her.

He replied to her question with the words:

"My name? Why, it's Dyck Calhoun. That's all."

Her eyes brightened. "Isn't that enough?" she asked gently.

She knew of his family. She was only visiting in the district with her mother, but she had lately heard of old Miles Calhoun and his wayward boy, Dyck; and here was Dyck, with a humour in his eyes and a touch of melancholy at his lips. Somehow her heart went out to him.

Presently he said to her: "And what's your name?"

"I'm only Sheila Llyn, the daughter of my mother, a widow, visiting at Loyland Towers. Yes, I'm only Sheila!"

She laughed.

"Well, just be 'only Sheila,"' he answered admiringly, and he held out a hand to her. "I wouldn't have you be anything else, though it's none of my business."

For one swift instant she hesitated; then she laid her hand in his.

"There's no reason why we should not," she said. "Your father's respectable."

She looked at him again with a sidelong glance, and with a whimsical, reserved smile at her lips.

"Yes, he's respectable, I agree, but he's dull," answered Dyck. "For an Irishman, he's dull--and he's a tyrant, too. I suppose I deserve that, for I'm a handful."

"I think you are, and a big handful too!"

"Which way are you going?" he asked presently.

"And you?"

"Oh, I'm bound for home." He pointed across the valley. "Do you see that smoke coming up from the plantation over there?"

"Yes, I know," she answered. "I know. That's Playmore, your father's place. Loyland Towers is between here and there. Which way were you going there?"

"Round to the left," he said, puzzled, but agreeable.

"Then we must say good-bye, because I go to the right. That's my nearest way."

"Well, if that's your nearest way, I'm going with you," he said, "because--well, because--because--"

"If you won't talk very much!" she rejoined with a little air of instinctive coquetry.

"I don't want to talk. I'd like to listen. Shall we start?"

A half-hour later they suddenly came upon an incident of the road.

It was, alas, no uncommon incident. An aged peasant, in a sudden fit of weakness, had stumbled on the road, and, in falling, had struck his head on a stone and had lost consciousness. He was an old peasant of the usual Irish type, coarsely but cleanly dressed. Lying beside him was a leather bag, within which were odds and ends of food and some small books of legend and ritual. He was a peasant of a superior class, however.

In falling, he had thrown over on his back, and his haggard face was exposed to the sun and sky. At sight of him Dyck and Sheila ran forward. Dyck dropped on one knee and placed a hand on the stricken man's heart.

"He's alive, all right," Dyck said. "He's a figure in these parts. His name's Christopher Dogan."

"Where does he live?"

"Live? Well, not three hundred yards from here, when he's at home, but he's generally on the go. He's what the American Indians would call a medicine-man."

"He needs his own medicine now."

"He's over eighty, and he must have gone dizzy, stumbled, fallen, and struck a stone. There's the mark on his temple. He's been lying here unconscious ever since; but his pulse is all right, and we'll soon have him fit again."

So saying, Dyck whipped out a horn containing spirit, and, while Sheila lifted the injured head, he bathed the old man's face with the spirit, then opened the mouth and let some liquor trickle down.

"He's the cleanest peasant I ever saw," remarked Sheila; "and he's coming to. Look at him!"

Yes, he was coming to. There was a slight tremor of the eyelids, and presently they slowly opened. They were eyes of remarkable poignancy and brightness--black, deep-set, direct, full of native intelligence. For an instant they stared as if they had no knowledge, then understanding came to them.

"Oh, it's you, sir," his voice said tremblingly, looking at Dyck. "And very kind it is of ye!" Then he looked at Sheila. "I don't know ye," he said whisperingly, for his voice seemed suddenly to fail. "I don't know ye," he repeated, "but you look all right."

"Well, I'm Sheila Llyn," the girl said, taking her hand from the old man's shoulder.

"I'm Sheila Llyn, and I'm all right in a way, perhaps."

The troubled, piercing eyes glanced from one to the other.

"No relation?"

"No--never met till a half-hour ago," remarked Dyck.

The old man drew himself to a sitting posture, then swayed slightly. The hands of the girl and Dyck went out behind his back. As they touched his back, their fingers met, and Dyck's covered the girl's. Their eyes met, too, and the story told by Dyck in that moment was the beginning of a lifetime of experience, comedy, and tragedy.

He thought her fingers were wonderfully soft, warm, and full of life; and she thought that his was the hand of a master-of a master in the field of human effort. That is, if she thought at all, for Dyck's warm, powerful touch almost hypnotized her.

The old peasant understood, however. He was standing on his feet now. He was pale and uncertain. He lifted up his bag, and threw it over his shoulder.

"Well, I'm not needing you any more, thank God!" he said.

"So Heaven's blessing on ye, and I bid ye good-bye. You've been kind to me, and I won't forget either of ye. If ever I can do ye a good turn, I'll do it."

"No, we're not going to leave you until you're inside your home," said Dyck.

The old man looked at Sheila in meditation. He knew her name and her history. Behind the girl's life was a long prospect of mystery. Llyn was her mother's maiden name. Sheila had never known her father. Never to her knowledge had she seen him, because when she was yet an infant her mother had divorced him by Act of Parliament, against the wishes of her church, and had resumed her maiden name.

Sheila's father's name was Erris Boyne, and he had been debauched, drunken, and faithless; so at a time of unendurable hurt his wife had freed herself. Then, under her maiden name, she had brought up her daughter without any knowledge of her father; had made her believe he was dead; had hidden her tragedy with a skilful hand.

Only now, when Sheila was released from a governess, had she moved out of the little wild area of the County Limerick where she lived; only now had she come to visit an uncle whose hospitality she had for so many years denied herself. Sheila was two years old when her father disappeared, and fifteen years had gone since then.

One on either side of the old man, they went with him up the hillside for about three hundred yards, to the door of his house, which was little more than a cave in a sudden lift of the hill. He swayed as he walked, but by the time they reached his cave-house he was alert again.

The house had two windows, one on either side of the unlocked doorway; and when the old man slowly swung the door open, there was shown an interior of humble character, but neat and well-ordered. The floor was earth, dry and clean. There was a bed to the right, also wholesome and dry, with horse-blankets for cover. At the back, opposite the doorway, was a fireplace of some size, and in it stood a kettle, a pot, and a few small pans, together with a covered saucepan. On either side of the fireplace was a three-legged stool, and about the middle of the left-hand wall of the room was a chair which had been made out of a barrel, some of the staves having been sawn away to make a seat.

Once inside the house, Christopher Dogan laid his bag on the bed and waved his hands in a formula of welcome.

"Well, I'm honoured," he said, "for no one has set foot inside this place that I'd rather have here than the two of ye; and it's wonderful to me, Mr. Calhoun, that ye've never been inside it before, because there's been times when I've had food and drink in plenty. I could have made ye comfortable then and stroked ye all down yer gullet. As for you, Miss Llyn, you're as welcome as the shining of the stars of a night when there's no moon. I'm glad you're here, though I've nothing to give ye, not a bite nor sup. Ah, yes--but yes," he suddenly cried, touching his head. "Faith, then, I have! I have a drap of somethin' that's as good as annything dhrunk by the ancient kings of Ireland. It's a wee cordial that come from the cellars of the Bishop of Dunlany, when I cured his cook of the evil-stone that was killing her. Ah, thank God!"

He went into a corner on the left of the fireplace, opened an old jar, thrust his arm down, and drew out a squat little bottle of cordial. The bottle was beautifully made. It was round and hunched, and of glass, with an old label from which the writing had faded.

With eyes bright now, Christopher uncorked the bottle and smelled the contents. As he did so, a smile crinkled his face.

"Thank the Lord! There's enough for the two of ye--two fine tablespoonfuls of the cordial that'd do anny man good, no matter how bad he was, and turn an angel of a woman into an archangel. Bless yer Bowl!"

When Christopher turned to lift down two pewter pots, Calhoun reached up swiftly and took them from the shelf. He placed them in the hands of the old man, who drew a clean towel of coarse linen from a small cupboard in the wall above his head.

She and Dyck held the pots for the old man to pour the cordial into them. As he said, there was only a good porridge-spoon of liqueur for each. He divided it with anxious care.

"There's manny a man," he said, "and manny and manny a lady, too, born in the purple, that'd be glad of a dhrink of this cordial from the cellar of the bishop.

"Alpha, beta, gamma, delta is the code, and with the word delta," he continued, "dhrink every drop of it, as if it was the last thing you were dhrinking on earth; as if the Lord stooped down to give ye a cup of blessing from His great flagon of eternal happiness. Ye've got two kind hearts, but there's manny a day of throuble will come between ye and the end; and yet the end'll be right, God love ye! Now-alpha, beta, gamma, delta!"

With a merry laugh Dyck Calhoun turned up his cup and drained the liquid to the last drop. With a laugh not quite so merry, Sheila raised her mug and slowly drained the green happiness away.

"Isn't it good--isn't it like the love of God?" asked the old man. "Ain't I glad I had it for ye? Why I said I hadn't annything for ye to dhrink or eat, Lord only knows. There's nothing to eat, and there's only this to dhrink, and I hide it away under the bedclothes of time, as one might say. Ah, ye know, it's been there for three years, and I'd almost forgot it. It was a little angel from heaven whispered it to me whir ye stepped inside this house. I dunno why I kep' the stuff. Manny's the time I was tempted to dhrink it myself, and manny's the time something said to me, 'Not yet.' The Lord be praised, for I've had out of it more than I deserve!"

He took the mugs from their hands, and for a minute stood like some ancient priest who had performed a noble ritual. As Sheila looked at him, she kept saying to herself:

"He's a spirit; he isn't a man!"

Dyck's eye met that of Sheila, and he saw with the same feeling what was working in her heart.

"Well, we must be going," he said to Christopher Dogan. "We must get homeward, and we've had a good drink--the best I ever tasted. We're proud to pay our respects to you in your own house; and goodbye to you till we meet again."

His hand went out to the shoulder of the peasant and rested there for a second in friendly feeling. Then the girl stretched out her hand also. The old man took the two cups in one hand, and, reaching out the other, let Sheila's fingers fall upon his own. He slowly crooked his neck, and kissed her fingers with that distinction mostly to be found among those few good people who live on the highest or the lowest social levels, or in native tents.

"Ah, please God we meet again! and that I be let to serve you, Miss Sheila Llyn. I have no doubt you could do with a little help some time or another, the same as the rest of us. For all that's come between us three, may it be given me, humble and poor, to help ye both that's helped me so!"

Dyck turned to go, and as he did so a thought came to him.

"If you hadn't food and drink for us, what have you for yourself, Christopher?" he asked. "Have you food to eat?"

"Ah, well--well, do ye think I'm no provider? There was no food cooked was what I was thinking; but come and let me show you."

He took the cover off a jar standing in a corner. "Here's good flour, and there's water, and there's manny a wild shrub and plant on the hillside to make soup, and what more does a man want? With the scone cooked and inside ye, don't ye feel as well as though ye'd had a pound of beef or a rasher of bacon? Sure, ye do. I know where there's clumps of wild radishes, and with a little salt they're good--the best. God bless ye!"

A few moments later, as he stood in his doorway and looked along the road, he saw two figures, the girl's head hardly higher than the man's shoulder. They walked as if they had much to get and were ready for it.

"Well, I dunno," he said to himself. "I dunno about you, Dyck Calhoun. You're wild, and ye have too manny mad friends, but you'll come all right in the end; and that pretty girl--God save her!--she'll come with a smile into your arms by and by, dear lad. But ye have far to go and much to do before that."

His head fell, his eyes stared out into the shining distance.

"I see for ye manny and manny a stroke of bad luck, and manny a wrong thing said of ye, and she not believing wan of them. But oh, my God, but oh!"--his clenched hands went to his eyes. "I wouldn't like to travel the path that's before ye--no!"

Down the long road the two young people travelled, gossiping much, both of them touched by something sad and mysterious, neither knowing why; both of them happy, too, for somehow they had come nearer together than years of ordinary life might have made possible. They thought of the old man and his hut, and then broke away into talk of their own countryside, of the war with France, of the growing rebellious spirit in Ireland, of riots in Dublin town, of trouble at Limerick, Cork, and Sligo.

At the gate of the mansion where Sheila was visiting, Dyck put into her hands the wild flowers he had picked as they passed, and said:

"Well, it's been a great day. I've never had a greater. Let's meet again, and soon! I'm almost every day upon the hill with my gun, and it'd be worth a lot to see you very soon."

"Oh, you'll be forgetting me by to-morrow," the girl said with a little wistfulness at her lips, for she had a feeling they would not meet on the morrow. Suddenly she picked from the bunch of wild flowers he had given her a little sprig of heather.

"Well, if we don't meet--wear that," she said, and, laughing over her shoulder, turned and ran into the grounds of Loyland Towers.

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