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Only an Irish Girl! - The Atlantic

"Oh, it's only an Irish girl!"

I flamed into a wrath far too intense for restraint. My whole soul rose up and cried out against the Deacon's wife. I answered,—

"True. A small thing! But are lies and murder small things, Mrs. Adams? Murderers, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie, are to be left outside of the heavenly city. And, Mrs. Adams, suppose it should appear that a woman of high respectability, moving in the best society, and most excellent housekeeper, has both those two tickets for hell? Do you remember the others that make up that horrible company in the last chapter of Revelation? Mrs. Adams, the girl is DEAD!"

The Deacon's wife's hard face had blazed instantly into passionate scarlet. But I cared not for her, nor for man nor woman. For the words said themselves, and thrilled and sounded fearful to me also; they hurt me; they burnt from my tongue as melted iron might; and, scarcely knowing it, I rose up and emphasized with my forefinger. And her face, at those last four words, turned stony and whity-gray, like a corpse. I thought she would die. Oh, it was awful to think so, and to feel that she deserved it! For I did. I do now. For, reason as I will, I cannot help feeling as if a tinge of the poor helpless child's blood was upon my own garments. I do well to be angry. It is not that I desire any personal revenge. But I have a feeling,—not pleasure, it is almost all pity and pain,—but yet a feeling that sudden death or lingering death would be small satisfaction of justice upon her for what she rendered to another.

Her strong, hard, cruel nature fought tigerishly up again from the horrible blow of my news. She was frightened almost to swooning at the thing that I told and my denunciation, and the deep answering stab of her own conscience. But her angry iron will rallied with an effort which must have been an agony; her face became human again, and, looking straight and defiantly at me, she said, yet with difficulty,

"Ah! I'll see if my husband'll hev sech things said to me! That's all!"

And she turned and went straightway out of my house, erect and steady as ever.

It may seem a trifling story, and its lesson a trifling one. But it is not so,—neither trifling nor needless.

It is a rare thing, indeed, for a woman in this America to long and love to have children. The only two women whom I know in this large town who do are Mrs. O'Reilly, the mother of poor Bridget, and—one more.

Poor old Mrs. O'Reilly! She came to me this morning, and sat in my kitchen, and cried so bitterly, and talked in her strong Corkonian brogue, and rocked herself backwards and forwards, and shook abroad the great lambent banners of her cap-border,—a grotesque old woman, but sacred in her tender motherhood and her great grief. Her first coming was to peddle blackberries in the summer. I asked her if she picked them herself.

"Och thin and shure I've the childher to do that saam," said she. And what wonderful music must the voice of her youth have been! It was deep of intonation and heartfelt,—rich and smooth and thrilling yet, after fifty years of poverty and toil. "And id's enough of thim that's in id!" she added, with a curious air of satisfaction and reflectiveness.

"How many children have you?" I inquired.

She laughed and blushed, old woman though she was; and pride and deep delight and love shone in her large, clear, gray eyes.

"I've fourteen darlins, thank God for ivery wan of thim! And it's a purrty parthy they are!"

"Fourteen!" I exclaimed,—"how lovely!" I stopped short and blushed. My heart had spoken. "But how "—I stopped again.

The old blackberry-woman answered me with tears and smiles. What a deep, rich, loving heart was covered out of sight in her squalid life! It makes me proud that I felt my heart and my love in some measure like hers; and she saw it, too.

"An' it's yersilf, Ma'm, that has the mother's own heart in yez, to be sure! An' I can see it in your eyes, Ma'm! But it's the thruth it's mighty scarce intirely! I do be seein' the ladies that's not glad at all for the dear childher that's sint 'em, and sure it's sthrange, Ma'm! Indade, it was with the joy I did be cryin' over ivery wan o' me babies; and I could aisy laugh at the pain, Ma'm! And sure now it's cryin' I am betimes because I'll have no more!"

The dear, beautiful, dirty old woman! I cried and laughed with her, and I bought ten times as many blackberries as I wanted; and Mrs. O'Reilly and I were fast friends.

She and hers, her "ould man," her sons and her daughters, were thenceforth our ready and devoted retainers, dexterous and efficient in all manner of service, generous in acknowledging any return that we could make them; respectful and self-respectful; true men and women in their place, not unfit for a higher, and showing the same by their demeanor in a low one.

They came in and went out among us for a long time, in casual employments, until, with elaborate prefaces and doubtful apologetic circumlocutions, shyly and hesitatingly, Mrs. O'Reilly managed to prefer her petition that her youngest girl, Bridget, by name,—there were a few junior boys,—might be taken into my family as a servant. I asked the old woman a few questions about her daughter's experiences and attainments in the household graces and economies; could not remember her; thought I had seen all the "childher"; found that she had been living with Mrs. Deacon Adams, and had not been at my house. It was only for form's sake that I catechized; Bridget came, of course.

She was such a maiden as her mother must have been, one of Nature's own ladies, but more refined in type, texture, and form, as the American atmosphere and food and life always refine the children of European stock,—slenderer, more delicate, finer of complexion, and with a soft, exquisite sweetness of voice, more thrilling than her mother's, larger and more robust heartfeltness of tone,—and with the same, but shyer ways, and swift blushes and smiles. In one thing she differed: she was a silent, reticent girl: her tears were not so quick as her mother's, nor her words; she hid her thoughts. She had learned it of us secretive Americans, or had inherited it of her father, a silent, though cheery man.

Her glossy wealth of dark-brown hair, her great brown eyes, long eyelashes, sensitive, delicately cut, mobile red lips, oval face, beautifully formed arms and hands, and lithe, graceful, lady-like movements, were a sweet household picture, sunshiny with unfailing good-will, and of a dexterous neat-handedness very rare in her people. My husband was looking at her one day, and as she tripped away on some errand he observed,—

"She is a graceful little saint. All her attitudes are beatitudes."

Bridget was pure and devout enough for the compliment; and I had not been married so long but that I could excuse the evidence of his observation of another, for the sake of the neatness of his phrase. I should have thought the unconscious child incongruously lovely amongst brooms and dust-pans, pots and kettles, suds and slops and dishwater, had I not been about as much concerned among them myself.

Bridget had been with me only a day or two, when a friend and fellow-matron, in the course of an afternoon call, apprised me that there were reports that Bridget O'Reilly was a thief,—in fact, that she had been turned away by Mrs. Adams for that very offence, which she told me "out of kindness, and with no desire to injure the girl; but there is so much wickedness among these Irish!" She had heard this tale, through only one person, from Mrs. Adams herself.

This troubled me; yet I should have quickly forgotten it. I met the same story in several other directions within a few days; and now it troubled me more. Women are suspicious creatures. I don't like to confess it, but it is true. Besides, servants do sometimes steal. And little foreign blood of the oppressed nationalities has truth in it, or honesty. Why should it? Why should the subjugated Irish, any more than the Southern slaves, beaten down for centuries by brutal strength, seeking to exterminate their religion and their speech, to terrify them out of intelligence and independence, to crush them into permanent poverty and ignorance,—why should they tell the truth or respect property? Falsehood and theft are that cunning which is the natural and necessary weapon of weakness. Their falsehood is their resistance, in the only form that weakness can use, evasion instead of force. Their theft is the taking of what is instinctively felt to be due; their gratification of an instinct after justice; done secretly because they have not the strength to demand openly. Such things are unnecessary in America, no doubt. But habits survive emigration. They are to be deplored, charitably and hopefully and tenderly cured as diseases, not attacked and furiously struck and thrust at as wild beasts. Thus it might be with Bridget, notwithstanding her great, clear, innocent eyes, and open, honest ways. If she had grown up to think such doings harmless, she would have no conscience about it. Conscience is very pliant to education. It troubles no man for what he is trained to do.

So I felt these stories. I could not find it in my heart to talk to poor Bridget about it. I could not tell her large-hearted old mother. This reluctance was entirely involuntary, an instinct. I wish I had felt it more clearly and obeyed it altogether! There is some fatal cloud of human circumstance that covers up from our sight our just instinctive perceptions,—makes us drive them out before the mechanical conclusions of mere reason; and when our reason, our special human pride, has failed us, we say in our sorrow, I see now; if I had only trusted my first impulse!—What is this cloud? Is it original sin? I asked my husband. He was writing his sermon. He stopped and told me with serious interest,—"This cloud is that original or inbred sin which we receive from Adam; obscuring and vitiating the free exercise of the originally perfect faculties; wilting them down, as it were, from a high native assimilation to the operative methods of the Divine Mind, to the painful, creeping, mechanical procedures of the comparing and judging reason. And this lost power is to be restored, we may expect, by the regenerating force of conversion."

I know I've got this right; because, after Henry had thanked me for my question, he said I was a good preaching-stock,—that the inquiry "joggled up" his mind, and suggested just what fayed in with his sermon; and afterwards I heard him preach it; and now I have copied it out of his manuscript, and have it all correct and satisfactory. What will he do to me, if he should see this in print? But I can't help it. And what is more, I don't believe his theological stuff. If it were true, there would not so many good people be such geese.

But whatever this cloud is, it now blinded and misguided me. I quietly, very quietly, put away some little moneys that lay about,—locked up nearly all my small stock of silver and my scanty jewelry,—locked my bureau-drawers,—counted unobtrusively the weekly proceeds of the washing,—and was extremely watchful against the least alteration of my manner towards my poor pretty maid.

It might have been a week after this, when my husband said one morning that Bridget's eyes were heavy, and she had moved with a start several times, as though she were half-asleep. Now that he spoke, I saw it, and wondered that I had not seen it before; but I think some men notice things more quickly than women. I asked the child if she were well.

"Yes, Ma'am," she said, spiritlessly, "but my head aches."

I observed her; and she dragged herself about with difficulty, and was painfully slow about her dishes. At tea-time I made her lie down in my little back parlor and got the meal myself, and made her a nice cup of tea. She slept a little, but grew flushed. Next morning she was not fit to get up, but insisted that she was, and would not remain in bed. But she ate nothing,—indeed, for a day or two she had not eaten,—and after breakfast she grew faint, and then more flushed than ever; seemed likely to have a hard run of fever; and I sent for my doctor,—a homoeopath.

He came, saw, queried, and prescribed. Doctor-like, he evaded my inquiry what was the matter, so that I saw it was a serious case. On my intimating as much, he said, with sudden decision,—

"I'll tell you what, Madam. She may be better by night. If not, you'd better send for Bagford. He might do better for her than I."

I was extremely surprised, for Bagford is a vigorous allopath of the old school, drastic, bloody,—and an uncompromising enemy of "that quack," as he called my grave young friend. I said as much. Doctor Nash smiled.

"Oh, I don't mind it, so long as the patients come to me. I can very well afford to send him one now and then. The fact is, the Irish must feel their medicine. It's quite often that a raking dose will cure 'em, not because it's the right thing, but because it takes their imagination with it. The Irish imagination goes with Bagford and against me; and the wrong medicine with the imagination is better than the right one against it. I care more about curing this child than I do about him. Besides,"—and he grew grave,—"it may be no great favor to him."

I obliged him to tell me that he feared the attack would develop into brain-fever; and he said something was on the girl's mind. As soon as he was gone, I ran up to poor Bridget, whose sweet face and great brown eyes were kindled, in her increasing fever, into a hot, fearful beauty; and now I could see a steady, mournful, pained look contracting her mouth and lifting the delicate lines of her eyebrows. Poor little girl! I felt the same deep yearning sorrow which we have at the sufferings of a little child, who seems to look in scared wonder at us, as if to ask, What is this? and Why do you not help? When a child suffers, we feel a sense of injustice done. Bridget's lips were dry. Her skin was so hot, her whole frame so restless! And the silent misery of her eyes ate into my very heart. I smoothed her pillow and bathed her head, and would fain have comforted her, as if she had been my own little sister. But I could plainly see that my help was not welcome. When, however, I had done all that I could for her, I quietly told her that she was sick, and that I wanted to have her get well,—that I saw something was troubling her, and she must tell me what it was. I don't think the silent, enduring thing would have spoken even then, if she had not seen that I was crying. Her own tears came, too; and she briefly said,—

"You all think I'm a thief."

I assured her most earnestly to the contrary.

She turned her restless head over towards me again, and her great eyes, all glittering with fever and pain, searched solemnly into mine; and she replied,—

"You all think I'm a thief. Yis, I saw you had locked up the money and the silver. I saw you count the clane clothes that was washed in the house. Wouldn't I be after seein' it? And they says so in the town."

It went to my heart to have done those things. All that I could say was utterly in vain. She evidently felt nothing of it to be true. She had received a deep and cruel hurt; and the poor, wild, half-civilized, shy, silent soul had not wherewith to reason on it. She only endured, and held her peace, and let the fire burn; and her sensitive nerves had allowed pain of mind to become severe physical disease. My words she scarcely heard; my tears were to her only sympathy. She knew what she had seen. Besides, her disease increased upon her. Almost from minute to minute she grew more restless, and her increasing inattention to what I said frightened as well as hurt me. The medicines of Dr. Nash were useless. Before noon I sent for Dr. Bagford, who said it was decidedly brain-fever,—that she must be leeched, and have ice at her head, and so forth.

Ah, it was useless. She grew worse and worse; passed through one or two long terrible days of frantic misery, crying and protesting against false accusations with a lamenting voice that made us all cry, too; then lay long in a stupid state, until the doctor said that now it would be better for her to die, because, after such an attack, a brain so sensitive would be disorganized,—she would be an idiot.

Her poor mother came and helped us wait on her. But neither care nor medicine availed. Bridget died; and the funeral was from our house. I was surprised by the lofty demeanor of Father MacMullen, the Irish priest, the first I had ever met: a tall, gaunt, bony, black-haired, hollow-eyed man, of inscrutable and guarded demeanor, who received with absolute haughtiness the courtesies of my husband and the reverences of his own flock. A few of his expressions might indicate a consciousness that we had endeavored to deal kindly with poor little Bridget. But he did not think so; or at least we know that he has so handled the matter that we meet ill feeling on account of it.

The griefs for any such misfortune were, however, obscure and shallow in comparison with my sorrow for the untimely quenching of Bridget's young life, and my sympathy with her poor old mother. When I reasoned about the affair, I could see that I had done nothing which would not be commended by careful housekeepers. I could see it, but, in spite of me, I could not feel it. I was tormented by vain wishes that I had done otherwise. I could not help feeling as if her people charged me with her blood,—as if I had been in some sense aiding in her death. Nor do I even now escape obscure returns of the same inexpressibly sad pain.

The garnishing of sepulchres is an employment which by no means went out with the Scribes and Pharisees. Under the circumstances, the death of my pretty young maid, although she was only an Irish girl, produced a deep impression in the village. Very soon, now that it could do no good, it was generally agreed that the imputations against her were wholly unfounded. It was pretty distinctly whispered that they had arisen out of things said by Mrs. Deacon Adams, in her wrath, because Bridget had left her service to enter mine; and I now ascertained that this Mrs. Adams was a woman of bitter tongue, and enduring, hot, and unscrupulous in anger and in revengefulness. I have inquired sufficiently; I know it is true. The vulgar malice of a hard woman has murdered a fair and good maiden with the invisible arrows of her wicked words.

But she begins already to be punished, coarse cast-iron as she is. People do not exactly like to talk with her. She is growing thin. She has been ill,—a thing, I am told, never dreamed of before. Of course she reported to her husband the reproaches with which I had surprised her on the very day of Bridget's death. She had called in by chance, and had not even heard of her illness; had herself begun to retail to me the kind of talk with which she had poisoned the village, not knowing that her evil work was finished; and it was the scornful carelessness of her reply to my first reproof that stung me to answer her so bitterly. It was two weeks before good, white-haired, old Deacon Adams came to the house of his pastor. His face looked careworn enough. He stayed long in the study with my husband, and went away sadly. I happened to pass through our little hall just as the Deacon opened the study-door to depart; and I caught his last words, very sorrowful in tone,—

"She might git well, ef she could stop dreamin' on't, and git the weight off 'm her mind. But words that's once spoken can't be called back as you call the cows home at night."