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A Solitary by Katharine Tynan

 

There was a difference of twenty years between the brothers, yet, to look at them, it might have been more. Patrick, the younger, was florid and hearty; the elder, James, was unpopular—a gray, withered old churl, who carried written on his face the record of his life's failure. His conversation, when he made any, was cynical. When he came into a room where young people were enjoying themselves, playing cards or dancing, his shadow came before him and lay heavily on the merry-makers. Fortunately, he did not often so intrude; he was happier in his room at the top of the fine house, where he had his books and his carpenter's tools. If one of those young people whom his cynicism withered could have seen him at his carpentry, how different he would have seemed! They would have seen him with his grimness relaxed, and his gray face lit up with interest, and would have been amazed to hear his low, cheery whistle, full and round as the pipe of a bullfinch; at night, when his telescope swept the stars, and he trembled with the delight of the visionary and the student, he was a new man. He was a clever man, born out of his proper sphere, and with only so much education as he had contrived to get at during a hard life. What came to him he assimilated eagerly, and every one of those books in his cupboard, rare old friends, had been read over a hundred times.

He ought to have had a chance in his youth, but his father was the last man in the world to encourage out-of-the-way ambitions in his sons. Father and mother were alike—hard, grasping, and ungracious. The father, on the whole, was a pleasanter person than the mother, with her long, pale, horse-face and ready sneer; he was only uncompromisingly hard and ungenial to all the world.

There were other children besides these two, all long since dead or scattered. Two of the boys had run away and gone to America; their first letters home remained unanswered, and after one or two attempts they ceased to write. The one girl had slipped into a convent, after a horrified glimpse at the home-life of her parents when she had returned from her boarding-school. She had been sent away to a convent in a distant town while still a mere child. She had come and gone in recurring vacations, still too childish to be more than vaguely repelled by the unlovely rule of her home. But at sixteen she came home 'for good'; very much for evil, poor little Eily would have said, as she realised in its full sordidness the grinding manner of life which was to be hers. No wonder she wet her pillow night after night with her tears for the pure and gentle atmosphere of the convent, for the soft-voiced and mild-eyed nuns, and the life of the spirit which shone ideally fair by this appalling life of the world. So, after a time, she had her will and escaped to the convent.

James could never understand why he, too, had not broken bounds, and run off to America with Tom and Alick. Perhaps he was of a more patient nature than they. Perhaps the life held him down. It was, indeed, such a round of hard, unvarying toil that at night he was content to drop down in his place like a dead man, and sleep as the worn-out horses sleep, dreaming of a land of endless green pastures, beyond man's harrying. Alick and Tom were younger. They had not had time to get broken to hardship like him, and Patrick was yet a baby. Friends or social pleasures were beyond their maddest dreams. Their parents' idea of a life for them was one in which hard work should keep them out of mischief. James could never remember in those days a morning when he had risen refreshed; he was always heavy with sleep when following the plough-horses, or feeding the cattle. Food of the coarsest, sleep of the scantiest, were the rule of the house. Joy, or love, or kindness, never breathed between those walls.

Meanwhile, the father was getting old, and a time came when he sat more and more by the fire in winter, sipping his glass of grog and reading the country papers, or listening to his wife's acrid tattle. Mrs. Rooney hated with an extreme hatred all the good, easy-going neighbours who were so soft with their children, and encouraged dancing, and race-going and card-playing—the amusements of the Irish middle classes. She had a bitter tongue, and once it was set agoing no one was safe from it—not the holiest nor purest was beyond its defilement.

It was about this time that the labourers began to think the young master rather more important than the old one; but for their connivance, James Rooney could never have been drawn into Fenianism. The conspiracy was just the thing to fascinate the boy's impressionable heart. The poetry, the glamour of the romantic devotion to Mother Country fed his starved idealism; the midnight drillings and the danger were elements in its attraction. James Rooney drilled with the rest, swore with them their oaths of fealty to Dark Rosaleen, was out with them one winter night when the hills were covered with snow, and barely escaped by the skin of his teeth from the capture which sent some of his friends into penal servitude.

Mrs. Rooney's amazed contempt when she found that her eldest son was among 'the boys' was a study in character. The lad was not compromised openly; and though the police had their suspicions, they had nothing to go upon, and the matter ended in a domiciliary visit which put Mrs. Rooney in a fine rage, for she had a curious subservient ambition to stand well with the gentry.

However, soon after that, as she was pottering about the fowl-yard one bitter day—she would never trust anybody to collect the eggs from the locked henhouse but herself—she took a chill, and not long afterwards died. If she had lived perhaps James would never have had the courage to assert himself and take the reins of management as he did. But with her going the iron strength of the old man seemed to break down. He fulfilled her last behest, which was that her funeral was to take place on a Sunday, so that the farm hands should not get a day off; and then, with some wonder at the new masterful spirit in his son, he gave himself up to an easy life.

This independence in James Rooney was not altogether the result of his Fenianism. As a matter of fact, he had fallen in love, with the overwhelming passion of a lad who had hitherto lived with every generous emotion repressed. The girl was a gay, sweet, yet impassioned creature who was the light of her own home. At that home James Rooney had first realised what a paradise home may be made; and coming from his own gloomy and horrid surroundings, the sunshine of hers had almost blinded him. In that white house among the wheatfields love reigned. And not only love, but charity, hospitality, patriotism, and religion. There was never a rough word heard there; even the household creatures, the canary in the south window, the comfortable cats, the friendly dogs, partook of the general sunniness.

They were rebels of the hottest type. The one son had been out with the Fenians and was now in America. His exile was a bitter yet proud grief to his father and mother; but their enthusiasm was whetted rather than damped by the downfall of the attempted rebellion. At night, when the curtains were drawn and the door barred against all fear of 'the peelers,' the papers that had the reports of the Dublin trials were passed from hand to hand, or read aloud amid intense silence, accompanied by the flushing cheek, the clenching hand, often the sob, that told of the passionate feeling of the hearers.

Sometimes Ellen would sing to them, but not the little gay songs she trilled so delightfully, now when their friends were in prison or the dock. Mournful, impassioned songs were hers, sung in a rich voice, trembling with emotion, or again a stave of battle and revenge, which set hearts beating and blood racing in the veins of the listeners. At such moments Ellen, with her velvety golden-brown eyes, and the bronze of her hair, was like the poet's 'Cluster of Nuts.'

    I've heard the songs by Liffey's wave
        That maidens sung.
    They sang their land, the Saxon's slave,
        In Saxon tongue.
    Oh, bring me here that Gaelic dear
        Which cursed the Saxon foe.
    When thou didst charm my raptured ear
        
Mo craoibhin cno!

Among those admitted freely to that loving circle, James Rooney was one held in affectionate regard. The man who had been the means of bringing him there, Maurice O'Donnell, was his Jonathan, nay more than his Jonathan, for to him young Rooney had given all his hero-worship. He was, indeed, of the heroic stuff, older, graver, wiser than his friend.

James Rooney spoke to no one of his love or his hopes. For he had hopes. Ellen, kind to every one, singled him out for special kindness. He had seen in her deep eyes something shy and tender for him. For some time he was too humble to be sure he had read her gaze aright, but at last he believed in a flood of wild rapture that she had chosen him.

He did not speak, he was too happy in dallying with his joy, and he waited on from day to day. One evening he was watching her singing, with all his heart in his eyes. Among people less held by a great sincerity than these people were at the time, his secret would have been an open amusement. But the father and mother heard with eyes dim with tears; the young sisters about the fire flushed and paled with the emotion of the song; the hearts of the listeners hung on the singer's lips, and their eyes were far away.

Suddenly James Rooney looked round the circle with the feeling of a man who awakes from sleep. His friend was opposite to him, also gazing at the singer; the revelation in his face turned the younger man cold with the shock. When the song was done he said 'good-night' quietly, and went home. It was earlier than usual, and he left his friend behind him; for this one night he was glad not to have his company; he wanted a quiet interval in which to think what was to be done.

Now, when he realised that Maurice O'Donnell loved her, he cursed his own folly that he had dared to think of winning her. What girl with eyes in her head would take him, gray and square-jawed, before the gallant-looking fellow who was the ideal patriot. And Ellen—Ellen, of all women living, was best able to appreciate O'Donnell's qualities. That night he sat all the night with his head bowed on his hands thinking his sick thoughts amid the ruin of his castles. When he stood up shivering in the gray dawn, he had closed that page of his life. He felt as if already the girl had chosen between them, and that he was found wanting.

That was not the end of it, however. If he had been left to himself he might have carried out his high, heroic resolve to go no more to the house which had become Paradise to him. But his friend followed him, with the curious tenderness that was between the two, and with an arm on his shoulder, drew his secret from him. When he had told it he put his face down on the mantelpiece by which they were standing, ashamed to look O'Donnell in the face because they loved the same woman. There was a minute's silence, and then O'Donnell spoke, and his voice, so far from being cold and angry, was more tender than before.

'So you would have taken yourself off to leave me a clear field, old fellow!'

'Oh, no,' said the other humbly, 'I never had a chance. If I had had eyes for any one but her, I would have known your secret, and should not have dared to love her.'

'Dear lad!' said O'Donnell. 'But now you must take your chance. If she chooses you rather than me—and, by heavens! I'm not sure that she won't—it will make no difference, I swear, between us. Which of us shall try our luck first?'

They ended by drawing lots, and it fell to O'Donnell to speak first. A night or two later he overtook James Rooney as the latter was on his way to Ellen's house. He put his arm through Rooney's and said, 'Well, old fellow, I've had my dismissal. I'm not going your way to-night, but I believe your chance is worth a good deal. Presently I shall be able to wish you joy, Jim.'

They walked on together in a silence more full of feeling than speech could be. At the boreen that turned up to the white house they parted with a hand-clasp that said their love was unchanging, no matter what happened. That night James Rooney got his chance and spoke. The girl heard him with a rapt, absent-minded look that chilled him as he went on. When he had done she answered him:—

'I can never be your wife, Jim. I have made my choice.'

'But——' stammered the lad.

'I know what you would say,' she answered quietly. 'I gave the same answer to Maurice O'Donnell. Why did two such men as you care for me? I am not worth it, no girl is worth it. 'Tis the proud woman I ought to be and am, but I can't marry the two of you, and perhaps I can't choose.' She laughed half sadly. 'Put me out of your head, Jim, and forgive me. I'm away to the Convent at Lady Day.'

And from this resolve it was impossible to move her. Whether she had really resolved before on the conventual life, or whether she feared to separate the two friends, no one knew. From that time neither O'Donnell nor Jim Rooney was seen at the white house, and in the harvest-time Ellen, as she said she would, entered St. Mary's Convent. Jim Rooney never loved another woman, and when, in the following year, Maurice O'Donnell went to New Orleans to take up a position as the editor of a newspaper, Jim Rooney said good-bye to friendship as lastingly as he had to love.

The old father died, and left what wealth he had to be divided between his two sons. For all the pinching and scraping it was not much; there seemed something unlucky about the farm, poor, damp, and unkindly as it was. Jim was a good brother to the young lad growing up. He kept him at a good school during his boyhood, and nursed his share of the inheritance more carefully than he did his own. They had the reputation of being far wealthier than they were, and many a girl would have been well pleased to make a match with Jim Rooney. But he turned his back on all social overtures, and by and by he got the name of being a sour old bachelor, 'a cold-hearted naygur,' going the way of his father before him. But the rule on the farm was very different, every one admitted; to his men James Rooney was not only just but generous.

Presently the young fellow came home from school, gay and light-hearted. He was a tall young giant, who presently developed a fine red moustache, and had a rollicking gait well in keeping with his bold blue eyes. He was soon as popular as James was the reverse, and his reputation of being 'a good match' made him welcome in many a house full of daughters.

One day the youth came to his brother with a plan for bettering himself. He wanted to draw out his share from the farm and to invest it in a general shop which was for sale in the country town, close by. Now Jim Rooney had a queer pride in him that made the thought of the shop very distasteful. The land was quite another thing, and farming, to his mind, as ennobling an occupation as any under heaven. But he quite understood that he could not shape the young fellow to his ways of thinking. He said, gently: 'And why, Patrick, are you bent on leaving the farm and bettering yourself?'

The young fellow scratched his head awkwardly, and gave one or two excuses, but finally the truth came out. He had a fancy for little Janie Hyland, and she had a fancy for him, but there was a richer man seeking her, and, said the young fellow simply, 'I'm thinking if the father knew how little came to my share he'd be showing me the door.'

'Does Janie know, Patrick?' asked the elder brother.

'Oh, divil a thing!' said the younger, with a half-shamed laugh. 'I don't trust women with too much; but if I had Grady's, I'd soon be a richer man than they think me. Old Grady cut up for a lot of money, and he was too old for business. It's a beautiful chance for a young man.'

'Well, Patrick,' said the other at last, with a sigh, 'your share won't buy Grady's, but yours and mine together will. I'll make it over to you, and you can keep your share in the farm too. I'll work the farm for you if you won't ask me to have anything to do with the shop. Tut, tut, man!' he said, pushing away Patrick's secretly delighted protests, 'all I have would come to you one day, and why not now, when you think it will make you happy?'

So Patrick bought Grady's and brought home Janie Hyland. He has prospered exceedingly, and makes the lavish display of his wealth which is characteristic of the Irishman. They have added to the old house, thrown out wings and annexe, planted it about with shrubberies, and made a carriage drive. Young Patrick, growing up, is intended for the University and one of the learned professions, and Mrs. Patrick has ideas of a season in Dublin and invitations to the Castle. Her house is very finely furnished, with heavy pile carpets and many mirrors, and buhl and ormolu everywhere.

She feels her brother-in-law to be the one blot in all her splendour and well-being. When Patrick first brought her home, she took a vehement dislike to James, which has rather waxed than waned during the years. He minds her as little as may be, working on the farm during the day-time, and in the evening departing, with his slow, heavy step, to his sanctum upstairs, where he has his books, his carpenter's tools, and his telescope. Yet her words worry him like the stinging of gnats, and the nagging of years has made him bitter.

He turns out delightful bits of carving and cabinet-making from time to time, and he mends everything broken in the house with infinite painstaking. Up there in his garret-room the troubles fall away from him, and he forgets the lash of Mrs. Patrick's tongue. The hardest thing is that she discourages the children's friendship for him, and he would dearly love the children if only he might.

The other women are rather down on Mrs. Patrick about it; indeed, Mrs. Gleeson told her one day that the creature was worth his keep if it was only for his handiness about the house. Patrick has grown used to his wife's gibes and flings, which at first used to make him red and uncomfortable. He has half come to believe in the secret hoard his wife says old Jim is accumulating.

Meanwhile, the land is as poor as ever, for James has no money to spend in the necessary drainage that should make it dry and sweet. His share scarcely pays for his keep, and his money for clothes and books and tools is little indeed. His shabbiness is another offence to Mrs. Patrick. She has declared to some of her intimates that she will force James yet to take his face out of her house, and go live on his money elsewhere. She expresses her contempt to her husband for his brother's selfishness in holding his share in the farm, when he must be already, as she puts it, 'rotten with money.' Patrick is too much afraid of his wife to tell her now what he has so long kept a secret from her.

But James, in his high attic, looks upon the mountains and the sky, and shakes off from him with a superb gesture the memory of her taunts.

 
 
 

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