From outside the cottage the muffled conversation from the people in the kitchen sounded more like the humming of a swarm of bees. When it became more agitated and voices tried to talk over each other, it sounded more like the annoying cackling of geese in the farmyard. There would, of course, be the occasional pause and it would re-start with whispers, lowered voices that would be interspersed with choruses of dry laughter.
Occasionally the bedroom door would open and a visitor would pass the old man as he sat huddled in his chair, without throwing even a glance in his direction, and go directly to the side of the bed on which the body lay to kneel down and pray. They usually prayed for two or three minutes before they got up and lightly walked away to the kitchen, where they joined the rest of the company.
Sometimes these visitors came in pairs, occasionally in groups of three, but they all followed the same ritual. They prayed for precisely the same time, and then left the room on tiptoe, making the same noises that would sound so loud in the silence of that room. Meanwhile, the old man simply wished that they would all just stay away, for he had been sitting in his chair for hours, revisiting old memories, until his head was in a total whirl. He wanted to concentrate his mind on these good memories and felt that the visitors to the house were preventing him from doing so.
The flickering light of the five candles at the head of the bed distracted him, and he was glad when one of the mourners would stand in a way that shut off the glare for a few minutes. The old man was also distracted by the five chairs standing around the room like sentries, and the little table over by the window upon which had been placed the crucifix and the holy-water font. He only wanted to concentrate his mind on “herself,” as he called her, who now looked so lost in the immensity of that large oaken bed. Since early morning, the old man had been looking at her small, pinched face with its faint suspicion of blue. He was very much taken by the nun’s hood that concealed the back of the head, the stiffly posed arms, and the small hands that had been placed in white-cotton gloves. The scene before him made him feel a very deep pity for what had happened. Then, somebody touched him on the shoulder saying, “Michael James.”
It was big Danny Murphy, a tall, thin red-haired farmer who, a long time previously, had been best man at his wedding. “Michael James,” he said again.
“What is it?”
“I hear young Kelly’s in the village.”
“What about it?”
“I just thought that you should know,” Danny told him and waited a moment before he went out again on tiptoe, walking like a robot in low gear. Meanwhile, down the drive Michael heard steps coming, then a struggle and a shrill giggle. There appeared to be some young people coming to the wake, and he knew, instinctively, a boy had tried to kiss a girl in the dark, and he felt a surge of resentment fill his body. She was only nineteen when he married her, and he was sixty-three. She had married him because he had over two hundred acres of land and many head of milk and grazing cattle, and a huge house that rambled like a barrack. It was her father that had arranged the marriage, and young Kennedy, who had worked on her father’s farm for years, had been saving to buy a house for her, when he was suddenly thrown over like a bale of mildewed hay.
Young Kennedy had made created several violent scenes in the past. Michael James could remember the morning of the wedding, when a drunken Kennedy waylaid the bridal-party coming out of the church. “Mark me,” he said in an unusually quiet tone for a drunk man—“mark me. If anything ever happens to that girl at your side, Michael James, I’ll murder you. I’ll murder you in cold blood. Do you understand?”
Michael James, however, was in a very forgiving mood that morning and told him, “Run away and sober up, boy, and then come up to the house and have a dance.”
But Kennedy had taken to roaming the countryside for weeks, getting himself drunk every night, and making terrible threats of vengeance against the old farmer. Shortly after this, a wily recruiting sergeant of the ‘Connaught Rangers’ had tricked him into joining the ranks and took him away to barracks in Aldershot. Now he was home again, on furlough, and something had happened to her.
Young Kelly was now coming up to the house make good his threat, even though Michael James himself didn’t quite understand what had happened to her. He had given her everything he could to make her happy, and she had taken everything from him with a modest thank you. But he had never had been given anything by her except her total lack of interest. She had never shown any interest or concern for the house, and every day she grew a little thinner and weaker until, a few days ago she had lain down and, last and last night she had died, quite indifferently. Nevertheless, he knew that young Kennedy was coming up to the house that night for an accounting with Michael James, and the old man had said to himself, “Well, let him come!”
A sudden silence fell over the company in the kitchen, followed by a loud scraping as they stood up, and then harsher grating noise as chairs were pushed back. The door of the bedroom opened and the red flare from the fire and the lamps in the kitchen blended into the sickly yellow candle-light of the bedroom. The parish priest walked into the room. His closely cropped white hair, strong, ruddy face, and erect back gave him more the appearance of a soldier than a clergyman. He first looked at the bed for a moment, and then turned to Michael James. “Oh, you mustn’t take it like that, man,” he said. “You mustn’t take it like that. You must bear up.”
He was the only one who spoke in his natural voice, and he turned to a portly farmer’s wife who had followed him in, and asked her about the hour that had been scheduled for the funeral. In hoarse whisper, she told him and respectfully gave him a curtsy. The priest then turned to Michael James and told him, “You ought to go out and take a walk. You oughtn’t to stay in here all the time.” And then, he left the room again. But Michael James paid no attention to him, for his mind was wandering to strange fantasies that he just could not keep out of his head. Pictures crept in and out of his head, joined together as if by some thin web, and somehow he began to think about her soul, wondering just what a soul was like. He began to think of it being like a dove, and then like a bat that was fluttering through the dark, and finally, like a bird lost at twilight. He thought of it as being some kind of lonely flying thing with a long journey ahead of it and no place to rest. In his mind he could almost hear it making the vibrant and plaintive cry of a peewit. Then, it struck him with a great sense of pity that the night was very cold.
In the kitchen they were having tea, and the rattle of the crockery was loud and very distinct. Michael James could clearly distinguish the sharp, staccato ring of a cup being placed on a saucer, from the nervous rattle heard when a cup and saucer were being passed from one hand to the other, while spoons struck the china with a faint metallic tinkle. But to Michael James it felt as if all the sounds were being made at the back of his neck, and the crash seemed to burst loudly in his head. Then, Dan Murray creaked into the room. “Michael James,” he whispered, “you ought to take something. Have a bite to eat. Take a cup of tea. I’ll bring it in to you.”
“Oh, let me alone, Daniel,” he answered and, at the same time, felt like kicking and cursing him.
“But you must take something, Michael James,” Murray’s voice rose from a whisper to a low, argumentative tone. “You know this is not natural. You’ve got to eat.”
“No, thank you, Daniel,” he answered, as if he was talking to a good-natured boy who was also very tiresome. “I don’t feel like eating now, but maybe I will afterwards.”
“Michael James,” Murray continued.
“Well, what is it, Daniel?”
“Don’t you think it would be better to go down and see young Kennedy and tell him just how foolish he would be to come up here and start fighting? You know it isn’t right and so, should I not go down, for he’s at home now?”
“Leave it alone, Daniel, I tell you.” The thought of Murray interfering in a matter that was between himself and the young man filled Michael James with a sense of injured pride.
“I know he’s going to make trouble for you.”
“Just allow me to handle that, like a good fellow, and leave me alone, if you don’t mind.”
“Ah well, sure, You know best.” said Murray and he crept out of the room and, as the door opened, Michael could hear someone singing in a subdued voice and many feet tapping on the floor, like drums beating in time with the music. They had to pass the night outside, and it was the custom, but the singing irritated him. He could imagine all the heads nodding and bodies swaying from side to side with the rhythm of the tune. Michael recognized the tune, and it began to run through his head, and he could not get rid of it. The lilt of the tune took a hold of him, and he suddenly began about the wonderful brain that musicians must have to be able to compose music. Then his thoughts turned to a picture that he had once seen of a man in a garret with a fiddle beneath his chin.
Michael straightened himself up a little, for sitting crouched forward was causing his back to be strained, and he unconsciously sat upright to ease the discomfort he was feeling. As he sat up, however, he caught a glimpse of the cotton gloves on the bed, and he suddenly recalled that the first time he had seen her she had been walking along the road, hand in hand with young Kennedy, one Sunday afternoon. When they saw him they quickly let go of each other’s hand, grew very red, and began giggling in a halfhearted way to hide their embarrassment. Michael remembered that he had passed them by without saying a word, but with a good-humoured, sly smile on his face. He felt a good feeling within himself, and had thought wisely to himself that young people will be young people, and what harm was there in a little bit of courting on a Sunday afternoon after a long week’s work was finished? He also recalled other days on which he had met her and Kennedy, and how he became convinced that here was a girl for him to marry. Then his memory returned to how, quietly and decidedly, he had gone about getting her and marrying her, just as he would have gone about buying a team of horses, or making arrangements for cutting the hay.
Until the day he married her Michael felt like the driver of a coach who has his team of horses under perfect control, and who knows every bend and curve of the road upon which he is travelling. But since the wedding day he had been thinking about her, worrying and wondering where he stood in her life. Everyday just appeared to be a day filled with puzzlement, much more like a coach driver with a restive pair of horses who only knew his way to the next bend in the road, but he knew that she was the biggest thing in his life. He had reached this conclusion with some difficulty, for Michael was not a thinking sort of man, being more used to considering the price of harvest machinery and the best time of the year for buying and selling. But here this dead young girl now lay, whom he had married when she should have married another man, who was nearer to her age and who was coming sometime tonight to kill him. So, at sometime this evening his world would stop and, as he thought about it, he no longer felt like a person. Instead, he felt he was simply part of a situation, like a chess piece in a game which might be moved at any moment and bring the game to an end. His min was in such a flux that the reality around him had taken on a dim, unearthly quality. Occasionally a sound from the kitchen would strike him like an unexpected note in a harmony, and the crisp, whiteness of the bed would glare at him like a spot of colour in a subdued painting.
From the kitchen there was a shuffling noise and the sound of feet moving toward the door and with a loud click the door latch lifted. Michael could also hear the hoarse, deep tones of a few boys, and the high-pitched sing-song intonations of girls, and he knew they were going for a few miles’ walk along the roads. Going over to the window, he raised the blind and, overhead, the moon shone like a disc of bright saffron. There was a sort of misty haze that appeared to cling around the bushes and trees, causing the out-houses to stand out white, like buildings in a mysterious city. From somewhere nearby, there was the metallic whir of a grasshopper, and in the distance a loon boomed again and again. The little company of young people passed on down the yard followed by the sound of a smothered titter, then a playful resounding slap, and a gurgling laugh from one of the boys. As he stood by the window Michael heard someone open the door and stand on the threshold, asking “Are you coming, Alice?”
Michael James listened for the answer, for he was eagerly taking in all outside activity. He needed something to help him pass the time of waiting, just as a traveler in a railway station reads trivial notices carefully while waiting for a train that may take him to the ends of the earth. Then, once again he heard, “Alice, are you coming?” But there was no answer.
“Well, you needn’t if you don’t want to,” he heard in an irritated voice say, and the person speaking tramped down toward the road in an angry mood. Michael recognized the figure of Flanagan, the young football-player, who was always having little arguments with the girl he said that he was going to marry, and Michael was shocked to find that he was slightly amused at this incident. Then, from the road there came the shrill scream of one of the girls who had gone out, followed by a chorus of laughter. It was then that he began to wonder at the relationship between man and woman and he could not find a word for it. “Love” was a term that Michael thought should be kept to the story-books, for it was a word that he was suspicious of, and one that most people scoffed at. Nevertheless, he had a vague understanding of such a relationship, liking it to a crisscross of threads binding one person to the other, or as a web which might be light and easily broken, or which might have the strength of steel cables that might work into knots here and there, and become a tangle that could crush those caught in it. But it did puzzle him how a thing of indefinable grace, of soft words on June nights, of vague stirrings under moonlight, of embarrassing hand-clasps and fearful glances, might become, as it had become in his case, Kennedy, and his dead young wife, a thing of blind, malevolent force, of sinister silence, like a dark shadow that crushed. And then it struck him with a sense of guilt that he had allowed mind to wander from her, and he immediately turned away from the window. Michael thought to himself, how much more peaceful it would be for a body to lie out in the moonlight than on a somber oak bedstead in a shadowy room with yellow, guttering candle-light and five solemn-looking chairs. Then, Michael thought again how strange it was that on a night like this Kennedy should come as an avenger seeking to kill, rather than as a lover with high hopes in his breast.
Murray slipped into the room again with a frown on his face and an aggressive tone to his voice. “I tell you, Michael James, we’ll have to do something about it.” There was a hostile note in his whisper, and the farmer did not answer. “Will you let me go down for the police? A few words to the sergeant will keep him quiet.” Although Michael James felt some pity for Murray, the idea of pitting a sergeant of police against the tragedy that was about to unfold seemed ludicrous to him. It was like pitting a school-boy against a hurricane.
“Listen to me, Dan,” replied Michael. “How do you know Kennedy is coming up at all?”
“Flanagan, the football-player, met him and talked to him, and he said that Kennedy was clean mad.”
“Do they know about it in the kitchen?”
“Not a word,” and there was a pause for a moment.
“Right, now go you right back there and don’t say a word about it, at all. Wouldn’t you be the quare fool if you were to go down to the police and Kennedy didn’t come at all? And, even if he does come I can manage him. And if I can’t manage, then I’ll call you. How does that sound?”
With that, Murray went out, grumbling beneath his breath. As the door closed, Michael began to feel that his last place of safety had gone, and he was to face his destiny alone. Although he did not doubt that Kennedy would make good on his vow, Michael still he felt a certain sense of curiosity about how Kennedy would do it. Would he simply use his fists, or use a gun, or some other weapon he may have at hand? Michael hoped it would be the gun, for the idea of coming to hand-to-hand fighting with Kennedy filled him with a strange fear. It appeared that the thought that he would be dead within ten minutes or a half-hour did not mean anything to him, and it was only the physical act itself that was frightening. Nevertheless, Michael felt as if he were very much on his own, and the cold wind was blowing around him, penetrating every pore of his body and causing a a shiver in his shoulders.
Michael’s idea of death was that he would fall headlong, as from a high tower, into a dark bottomless space, and he went over to the window again to look out toward the barn. From a tiny chink in one of the shutters there was a thin thread of yellow candle-light, and he knew for certain that there was a group of men there, playing cards to help pass the time. It was then that the terror came upon him. The noise from the kitchen was now subdued, for most of the mourners had gone home, and those who were staying the night were drowsy and were dozing over the fire. Michael suddenly felt the need to rush among them and to cry out to them for protection, cowering behind them and getting them to close around him in a solid defensive circle. He felt that all eyes were now upon him, looking at his back, and this caused him to fear turning around in case he might have to look into their eyes.
He knew that the girl had always respected him, but he did not want to lose her respect at this moment. It was the fear that he could lose it that caused him pull his shoulders back and plant his feet firmly upon the floor. Into his confused mind came thoughts of people who like to kill, of massed lines of soldiers who rushed headlong against well-defended trenches, of a cowering man who stealthily slips through a jail door at dawn, and of a sinister figure dressed in a red cloak, wielding an axe. Then, as he looked down the yard, Michael saw a figure turn in the gate and come toward the house. He knew immediately that it was Kennedy, but he seemed to be walking slowly and heavily, as if he was exhausted.
Michael opened the kitchen door and slipped outside, and the figure making its way up the pathway seemed to be swimming toward him. Occasionally the figure would blur and disappear and then vaguely appear again, causing his heart to beat heavily and regularly like the ticking of a clock. Space between the two men narrowed until he began to feel that he could not breathe, and he then went forward a few paces. The light from the bedroom window of the cottage streamed out into the darkness in a broad, yellow beam, and Michael stepped into it as if into a river. “She’s dead,” he heard himself saying. “She’s dead.” And then he realised that Kennedy was standing in front of him.
The flap of the boy’s hat threw a heavy shadow over Michael’s face, his shoulders were braced, and his right hand was thrust deeply into his coat pocket. “Aye, she’s dead,” Michael James repeated. “You knew that, didn’t you?” It was all he could think of saying in the moment, before he asked, “You’ll come in and see her, won’t you?” He had quite forgotten the purpose of Kennedy’s visit for a moment, for his mind was distracted and he didn’t know what more he should say.
Kennedy moved a little, and the light streaming from the window struck him full in the face. It was a shock to Michael James, as he suddenly realised that it was as grim and thin-lipped as he had pictured it in his mind. As a prayer rose in his throat the fear he had been feeling appeared to leave Michael all at once. As he raised his head he noticed that Kennedy’s right hand had left the pocket, and he saw that Kennedy was looking into the room. Michael knew that Kennedy could see the huge bedstead and the body on it, as he peered through the little panes of glass. Suddenly, he felt a desire to throw himself between Kennedy and the window just as he might jump between a child and a threatening danger. But he turned his head away, as he instinctively felt that he should not look directly at Kennedy’s face.
Suddenly, over in the barn voices rose as the group of men playing cards began to dispute with each other. One person was complaining feverishly about something, while another person was arguing pugnaciously, and another voice could be heard striving to make peace between the two. Then, as the voices died away to a dull background hum, Michael James heard the boy sobbing bitterly. “You mustn’t do that,” he said softly, patting him comfortingly on the shoulders. At that moment he felt as if an unspeakable tension had dissipated and life was about to swing-back into balance. Continuing to pat the shoulders, Michael spoke softly with a shaking voice and told the boy, as he took him under the arm, “Come in now, and I’ll leave you alone there.” He felt the pity that he had for the body on the bed overcome Kennedy, too, and there was a sense of peace came over him. It was as though a son of his had been hurt and had come to him for comfort, and he was going to comfort him.
In some vague way he thought of Easter, and he stopped at the door for a moment. “It’s all right, laddie,” he said. “It’s all right,” and he lifted the latch. As they went in he felt somehow as if high walls had crumbled and the three of them had stepped into the light of day