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A Prodigal Son by Katharine Tynan


Mrs. Sheehy was blest with two sons. Of the elder she had seen little since his early boyhood, when his love for handling tarry ropes and sails, and his passion for the water-side, had resulted in his shipping as cabin-boy on a China-bound ship. There was undoubted madness in the Sheehy blood, but in this sailor son, so long as he kept sober, there was no manifestation of it except it might be in a dreaminess and romanticism uncommon to his class. He was an olive-skinned, brown-eyed fellow, with such a refined face as might have belonged to an artist or musician. He had the mellow colour Murillo loved. The mad strain which, in the case of greatly gifted people, has often seemed to be the motive power of genius, in him took the form of a great cleverness,—an esoteric cleverness and ingenuity added to the sailor's dexterity.

But it is not with Willie I have to deal, though the story of his marriage is a little romance in itself. It was Mick was the prodigal son. Every one about the country knew and liked Mick. He was a bit of an omadhaun, that is to say a simpleton,—but quite unlike the shambling idiots of whom every village possessed one, who was a sort of God's fool to the people, till some new legislation locked them all up in the work-houses, poor things!

Mick was a rosy-cheeked, innocent-looking lad, touched in the mind, certainly, but exceedingly harmless, likeable and entertaining. He was a strong fellow and when he 'took a hate (i.e. heat) o' work' he was as good or better than the best in harvest or hayfield. His softness procured for him a certain delightful immunity from responsibility. He worked when in the humour, but race, or fair, or cock-fight, or football match drew Mick irresistibly from his labours. He was off to every bit of 'divarsion' in the country, and when there were big races at a distance Mick generally took the road a day beforehand, sleeping out in the soft spring night if it was dry weather, trusting to a convenient haystack or barn if it wasn't. He was known so widely that at every farmhouse along the road he was sure of a bite. And on the race-course every one was his friend; and the various parties picnicking were greeted by Mick with uproarious shouts and a flinging of his caubeen in the air, to signify his delight at meeting his friends so far from home.

Mick had the privileges of 'the natural,' as they call an idiot in Ireland, with only a few of his disabilities. He was even known to leave the church during a very tedious sermon of Father O'Herlihy's and smoke a pipe outside while awaiting the rest of the congregation. When he was tackled about this flagrant disrespect by his pastor, Mick replied unblushingly, 'Sure, I didn't lave durin' the mass, your Reverence: 'twas all over but a thing of nothing.' 'What do you mean by that?' asked his Reverence severely. 'Sure, your Reverence's sermon, I mane, what else?' responded Mick.

Mick could be violent too in his cups, but somehow even his violence was humorous. The village butcher once was imprudent enough to remonstrate with him for drinking, while the drink was yet in him, and Mick acknowledged the good advice by unhooking a leg of mutton and belabouring him soundly, to the detriment of himself and his mutton, till the police interfered. On another occasion he addressed his energies to the Sisyphus-like task of endeavouring to roll a very large water-barrel through his mother's very small door, all one winter night, while his mother alternately coaxed and threatened. Mick's pranks were endless, but lest they meet with a severer judge than Mick ever met with, I spare you the recital of them.

Now Mrs. Sheehy was far less tolerated and tolerable than either of her peccant sons. She had a little withered face, with hard red cheeks and bright, rather mad black eyes, set in a frame of crinkly black hair. You might meet her on the road of a sweet summer morning, trapesing, to use the expressive Irish word, along, with a sunshade over her battered bonnet. Her attire was generally made up of very tarnished finery,—a befrilled skirt trailing in the dust behind her, and a tattered lace shawl disposed corner-wise over her shoulders. She seemed always to wear the cast-off garments of fine ladies, and we had an explanation of this fact. It was supposed that Mrs. Sheehy represented herself to pious Protestant ladies, for about a radius of twenty miles, as a Papist, who might easily be brought to see the error of her ways, and as one who for her liberal tendencies was much in disfavour with the priests. I know that to her co-religionists she complained that Protestant charities were closed to her because she had become a Catholic. There was a legend that Mrs. Sheehy came from a Protestant stock, but I do not know whether this were true or merely invented for convenience when the lady went asking alms.

It was from some of these Protestant ladies the suggestion came that Mick should go to America under some precious emigration scheme. They are always, with their mistaken philanthropy, drafting away the boys and girls from Ireland, to cast them, human wreckage, in the streets of New York; always taking away the young life from the sweet glens over which the chapel bell sends its shepherding voice, and casting it away in noisome places, while at home the aged folk go down alone the path to the grave.

Now we always thought that Mrs. Sheehy must have suggested Mick as an emigrant, for he was distinctly not eligible. But it was very easy to puff up poor Mick's mind with pictures of America as a Tom Tiddler's ground, and the mother did this in private, while in public she wrung her hands over the wilful boy that would go and leave her lonesome in her old age. Pretty soon the matter was settled, and Mick went about as vain as any young recruit when he has taken the Queen's shilling and donned the scarlet, and has not yet realised that he has been a fine fat goose for the fox-sergeant's plucking.

But if Mick was full of the spirit of adventure, and looked forward to that spring Wednesday when he should leave for Queenstown, his mother made up for his heartless joy by her lugubriousness. As the time drew near she would buttonhole all and sundry whom she could catch to pour out her sorrows. The trailing gown and ragged lace shawl became a danger signal which we would all flee from, an it were not sprung upon us too suddenly. We had a shrewd suspicion that the tears Mrs. Sheehy shed so freely were of the variety known as crocodile. Rumour had it that Mick once out of the way she was to be accommodated comfortably for life as a lodgekeeper to one of those emigrating ladies. Sometimes she used to follow us to our very doors to weep, and on such occasions would be so overcome with grief that it took a little whisky and water and the gift of an old dress or some broken victuals to prepare her for the road again.

On the Tuesday of the week Mick was to start he made a farewell progress round all the houses of the neighbourhood. We were called into the big farmhouse kitchen about five of the afternoon to bid him good-bye. Mick sat forward on the edge of his chair, thrusting now and then his knuckles into his eyes, like a big child, and trying to wink away his tears. We all did our best to console him, and after a time from being very sad he grew rather uproariously gay. Mick was no penman, but for all that he made the wildest promises about writing, and as for the gifts he was to send us, the place should be indeed a Tom Tiddler's ground if he were to fulfil his rash promises. Meanwhile we all pressed our parting gifts on him; some took the form of money, others were useful or beneficial, as we judged it. Mick added everything to the small pack he was carrying, which had indeed already swollen since he left home, and was likely to be considerably more swollen by the time he had concluded his round.

Mick had got over the parting with his mother. The emigrants' train started in the small hours, and the emigrants were to rendezvous at a common lodging-house close by the big terminus. We inquired about poor Mrs. Sheeny with feeling. Mick responded with a return of tears that he'd left her screeching for bare life and tearing her hair out in handfuls. The memory caused Mick such remorse at leaving her that we hastened to distract his mind to his fine prospects once more.

He delayed so long over his farewells to us that we began to fear he'd never catch up with the other emigrants, for the road to the city was studded with the abodes of Mick's friends, whom he had yet to call upon. However, at last he really said good-bye, and we accompanied him in a group to the gate of the farmyard, from which, with a last distracted wave of his hands, the poor fellow set off, running, as if he could not trust himself to look back, along the field-path. It was a dewy May evening after rain, and the hawthorn was all in bloom, and the leaves shaking out their crumpled flags of tender green. The blackbird was singing as he only sings after rain, and the fields were covered with the gold and silver dust of buttercup and daisy. It was sad to see the poor fellow going away at such a time, and from a place where every one knew and was kind to him, to an unknown world that might be very cruel. Once again as we watched him we anathematised the emigration which has so steadily been bleeding the veins of our poor country.

We all thought of Mick the next morning, and imagined him on the various stages of his journey to Queenstown, and the big liner. For a week or so we did not see Mrs. Sheehy, but heard piteous accounts of her prostration. The poor woman seemed incapable of taking comfort. Report said that she could neither eat nor drink, so great was her grief. We felt rather ashamed of our former judgments of her, and were very full of good resolutions as to our future treatment of her. Only Mary, our maid, disbelieved in this excessive grief; but then Mary is the most profound cynic I have ever known, and we always discount her judgments.

Anyhow, when Mrs. Sheehy reappeared in our kitchen she looked more wizened, yellow, and dishevelled than ever, and at the mention of Mick's name she rocked herself to and fro in such paroxysms of grief that we were quite alarmed. As for the benevolent ladies interested in the schemes of emigration, their eyes would have been rudely opened if they could have heard Mrs. Sheehy's denunciations of them. She called them the hard-hearted ould maids who had robbed her of her one child, who had persecuted her boy—her innocent child, and driven him out in the cold world, who had left her to go down a lone woman to the grave. Nor was this all, for she was an adept at eloquent Irish curses, and she sprinkled them generously on the devoted heads of the ladies aforesaid. It was really rather fine to see Mrs. Sheehy in this tragic mood, and we were all touched and impressed by her. We comforted her with the suggestion that a letter from Mick was nearly due, and with assurances, which we scarcely felt, that Mick was bound to do well in America and prove a credit to her; and we finally got rid of her, and were rejoiced to see her going off, with her turned-up skirt full as usual of heterogeneous offerings.

Well, a few days after this, some one brought us the surprising story that Mick had returned or was on the way to return. One of the carters had given him a lift on the first stage of his journey from Dublin, and had left him by his own request at one of the houses where he had had such a sorrowful parting a little while before. The man had told Mick of his mother's grief, a bit of intelligence which somewhat dashed the radiant spirits with which he was returning home. However, he cheered up immediately: 'Tell th' ould woman,' he said, 'that I wasn't such a villain as to leave her at all, at all, an' that I'll be home by evenin'. She'll be havin' a bit o' bacon in the pot to welcome me.' The man told us this with a dry grin, and added, ''Tis meself wouldn't like to be afther bringin' the poor ould woman the good news. It might be too much joy for the crathur to bear.' This ironic speech revived all our doubts of Mrs. Sheehy.

Mick took our house on the way across the fields to his mother's cottage. We received him cordially, though with less empressement than when we had parted from him, for now we were pretty sure of seeing Mick often during the years of our natural lives. We too told him of his mother's excessive grief, as much, perhaps, with a selfish design of hastening him on his way as anything else, for we had our misgivings about Mick's reception.

There were plenty of people to tell us of the prodigal's welcome. The village had buzzed all day with the dramatic sensation of Mick's return, but no one had told Mrs. Sheehy—though every one was on tiptoe for the hour of Mick's arrival. He came about six in the evening, and having passed through the village was escorted by a band of the curious towards his mother's cottage.

Mrs. Sheehy lives in a by-road. On one side are the woods, on the other the fields, and at this hour of the May evening the woods were full of golden aisles of glory. Now Mrs. Sheehy had come out of her house to give a bit to the pig, when she saw a group of people advancing towards her down the sunshine and shadow of the road. She shaded her eyes and looked that way. For a minute or two she could not make out the advancing figures, but from one in the midst broke a yell, a too-familiar yell, for who in the world but Mick could make such a sound? Then her prodigal son dashed from the midst of the throng and flew to her with his arms spread wide.

Mrs. Sheehy seemed taken with a genuine faintness. She dropped the 'piggin,'—the little one-handled tub in which she was carrying the rentpayer's mess of greens,—and fell back against the wall. The spectators, and it seemed the whole village had turned out, came stealing in Mick's wake. They were safe from Mrs. Sheehy's dreaded tongue, for the lady had no eyes for them. As soon as she realised that it was Mick, really her son, come back to her, she burst into a torrent of abuse, the like of which has never been equalled in our country. The listeners could give no idea of it: it was too continuous and too eloquent. It included not only Mick, 'the villain, the thief of the world, the base unnatural deceiver,' but ourselves, and all to whom Mick had paid those farewell visits. Mick heard her with a grin, and when she had exhausted herself she suddenly clutched him by his mop-head, dragged him indoors, and banged the door to.

She had apprehended the true state of the case. The potations at some houses, the gifts at others, had been the causes of the failure of Mick as an emigrant. When his round of visits was concluded he had slept comfortably in a hay-stack till long after the hour when his fellow emigrants were starting from Kingsbridge. The next morning he had gaily set out for 'a bit of a spree' in Dublin, and having sold his passage ticket and his little kit, had managed, with the proceeds and our gifts, to make the spree last a fortnight. For a little while we deemed it expedient to avoid passing by Mrs. Sheehy's door, though Mick assured us that it was 'the joy of the crathur had taken her wits from her, so that she didn't rightly know what she was saying.'

There was one more attempt made to emigrate Mick, but it was futile, Mick declaring that 'he'd deserve any misfortune, so he would, if he was ever to turn his back on the old woman again.' Mrs. Sheehy has forgiven us our innocent share in keeping Mick at home with her. The mother and son still live together, with varying times, just as the working mood is on or off Mick. I believe his favourite relaxation of an evening, when he stays at home, is to discover in the wood embers the treasures which would have fallen to him if his love for his mother hadn't kept him from expatriating himself. The Hon. Miss Ellersby's vacant gate-lodge has been filled up by Kitty Keegan, who is Mrs. Sheehy's special aversion out of all the world.


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