Only an Irish
Girl! - The
"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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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."