Authors: Patrick O'Brian
For Mary, With Love
OOD-BYE,’ THEY WERE ALL CRYING. ‘GOOD-BYE, PETER.
Good-bye, good-bye.’ And he meant to call out ‘Good-bye’ again to all of them, but the lump in his throat choked the cry to no more than a squeak.
‘Good-bye, Peter,’ they were calling still; and clearly came after him the voice of old Turlough, ‘Peter, come home soon, with your pockets full of the Spanish gold.’
At the bottom of the hill, where the turning came, he looked round and saw the handkerchiefs waving white on the hillside and he held up his hand to wish them farewell: and he watched the twinkle of their waving, though it swam in his eyes, until the bend of the road and the long stack of turf hid them all from his sight.
Then it was the soft green of the crossroads by Joseph Noonan’s cabin and the women waving their blue shawls, and he had to collect himself to smile and call back.
‘And let you bring us the King of Spain’s bright crown,’ cried Pegeen Ban behind him.
‘Well, it has begun,’ he thought; but although he had looked forward to this day so much, the reflection that the adventure was now beginning left him strangely unmoved. The pain of leaving them all was so much greater than he had ever expected, and it almost daunted him: it quenched all the excitement that had kept him from sleeping these many nights past; and it left him quite desolate.
He stole a sideways look at Liam, but Liam, in delicacy, feigned to be absorbed in the buckle of his reins, and he said
nothing. They rode on in silence, with nothing but the creak of leather and the deadened thrum of their horses’ hooves on the soft and grassy road.
After a long while Peter said to himself again, ‘Well, so it has begun,’ and again he wondered that the words should feel so commonplace and flat. Perhaps it was because he was still on such familiar ground, he thought, looking up from his horse’s mane: when you start out on a great adventure perhaps you expect everything to change all round you at once, and there is a feeling of something wrong in going over the country you know so well. He looked round, and indeed it was the same country that he had seen every day of his life: they were coming across the bog of Connveagh now, by the inland road, and already the sea was far away on the right hand: on the left the blue mountains of Slieve Donagh and Cruachan ran up, smooth against the huge pale sky; and he knew that if he turned in his saddle he would see the far ash-trees that sheltered the Rectory of Ballynasaggart, where they would be sitting down to breakfast now. Before him the road ran on, faint through the dim rushes and the grass, to the sudden fall in the land where the bog of Connveagh left off and the Moin bog began; where the world stretched out, far and flat, to the edge of the sky, and over the Plain of the Two Mists there was a white haze never moving and not a single cabin, let alone a farm or a house, to be seen in the whole vast expanse—nothing but the pale flash of the water in the turf-cuttings and the shine of the creeping river.
It was a huge and a wild landscape, and one that a stranger might have found inhuman and desolate; but it was Peter’s own country, and he thought it no more saddening than the long cry of the curlews passing over behind them. And yet although it was so familiar, today he looked at it so hard that for a while he almost saw it with a stranger’s eye; but then the soft sea-rain drifted in across them and the distant country was lost in its fall.
It was not a cold rain; nor did it drive: they hardly noticed it weeping gently out of the sky, as it did for so many days in
the year; but it matched with Peter’s state of mind and the song that Liam was half humming, half singing under his breath—the lament for the wild-geese, the exiles who never returned—and it made him, if anything, lower in his spirits than he was before.
They went on: on and on steadily through the small rain, and Peter was so wrapped in his thoughts that a figure leaping up at the side of the road brought the heart almost out of his mouth—a tall figure in a blue coat, springing out of a hole with a screech and flapping the sides of its cloak.
‘T’anam an Dial, omadhaun,’ cried Peter, quietening his horse; and, speaking still in Irish, he said, ‘What are you doing here at all, Sean? And have you no more sense than to be leaping out of a great hole, screeching and waving the sides of your cloak, which is not your cloak anyway but Patrick Kearney’s?’
‘You great fat thing,’ said Liam, frowning at his nephew. ‘What manners are these? Why are you carrying the shoes?’
‘I am coming too,’ said Sean with a grin, taking Peter’s stirrup-leather and urging the horse forward.
‘You are not,’ cried Peter and Liam together: the first said it in a wondering tone; the second without much conviction.
‘I am, too,’ said Sean, trotting evenly by the horse’s side with the shoes bumping rhythmically against his broad chest as they dangled from their string.
‘You are not,’ said his uncle again, but only from a spirit of contradiction.
‘I am,’ said Sean; and Peter, who knew that otherwise this conversation might continue indefinitely, interrupted with, ‘Did your father say you could go?’
Sean turned up his big open face and said, ‘And would I be so wicked and undutiful as to go off from my own country without my father’s permission and his Reverence’s blessing? Would I not think it the great shame for ever, to be stealing away like a polecat?’
At the sight of so much righteousness Peter was almost certain that Sean was lying, and he said directly, ‘Did your
father truly say that you might go? And did my father approve?’
‘Ah,’ said Sean with a leap and a jerk that made Placidus stagger and change step. ‘Oh,’ he cried, ‘it is hard to be after running twenty miles across the mountain and over the bog and then to be called a renegado, no less.’
‘It is no more than seven,’ said Liam, ‘and he has no leave of anybody but the empty wind.’
‘Listen, Sean,’ said Peter. ‘Did your father say you could go?’
‘Am I not telling you?’ cried Sean, boiling with frustration and shaking the patient horse until it tottered. ‘Did I not say to my Da, “Will I go?” and did he not say, “You will”? And did not his Reverence encourage my heart with his noble description of the free and magnificent life in his royal Majesty’s imperial fleet? “Sail forth young man,” cries his reverend honour and he pacing back and forth in the small parlour itself. “Sail with the royal navy into the golden ocean, far into the golden sea.”’
‘“The golden ocean, the golden sea”,’ cried Peter. ‘Did he say that indeed, Sean, now?’
‘He did,’ said Sean, pleased with the reception of his words. ‘“Sail on the golden waves of the west until you can touch the sun with your hand,” says he, “and my younger son Peter, that elegant boy, will give you his protection if you attend to your duty.”’
‘It does not sound like my father—God bless him—at all….’
‘God bless him,’ they cried, Liam raising his hat.
‘… except for the ocean, the broad, golden sea.’ Peter went on. ‘He was saying a word of the same kind to me, about a golden voyage and a place called Colchis—he was saying that I must make my way there myself.’
‘It is to Cork we are going,’ said Liam in a pragmatical tone—‘to Cork by way of Derrynacaol: and not to any Colchis at all.’
‘Where is this Colchis?’ asked Sean, intensely interested.
‘Oh, in Greece, sure, or somewhat behind it,’ said Peter. ‘It is all in the book. But I do not have it clear in my mind—there was this gold in the tree, and a dragon and a wise-woman who was beautiful, the king’s daughter. It is William who would tell it: he can read the Greek and the Latin like any archbishop.’
‘It was long ago, I am sure?’
‘Why, surely it must have been.’
‘Before Saint Patrick, maybe?’
‘Perhaps so, Sean—very likely indeed, from what I recall.’
‘In the time of the Tuatha De Danaan, perhaps it was?’
‘Ah, Sean, I cannot tell you. You should ask William—he is the great scholar, with his podarkees Achilles and his hic hac horum.’
‘I wish,’ said Sean, looking down for a while and watching his bare feet running—‘I wish I could read the Greek.’
‘Read the Greek, is it?’ cried Liam with strong indignation. ‘Oh, the serpent. The impudent toad. Many and many a time have I said to my poor sister—and she quite demented with tales of his misconduct—I have said to her, “If you will not cut the comb of that young cock he will end on the gallows, like many another unpromising reptile, and then we’ll hear of him going for a soldier in King Lewis’s army of Papists, where he will be knocked on the head out of hand and shot through the body with flintlocks and pikes. He will be brought back and tried for foreign enlistment and treason and they will hang him at the four roads of Ballynasaggart. Let him be put to a respectable master,” I said, “and let us hear no more of this running up and down and playing the fiddle and making of rhymes or jingles in Irish—it is bad enough to be speaking it in private the way no one can hear us, but to write it in sheets …”’
‘What is wrong with the Gaelic?’
‘It is a language of servants. And it is not good enough even for them. What kind of a place can a servant get and he speaking nothing but Irish like something that has come in out of the bog?’
‘It was once the language of kings.’
‘I spit on your kings. It was never the language of commerce.’
‘It is the language they are speaking in Paradise.’
‘It is not. Some few very poor and ignorant angels with hardly a feather on them yet might still speak a few words of it in the dark corners of Heaven; but the language that is rightly spoken there, is the English.’
‘Well,’ said Peter, ‘Irish is good enough for me.’
‘Your honour will please himself,’ said Liam sharply, ‘but when we meet the young gentleman in Derrynacaol I hope that your father’s son will not make me blush by speaking the servants’ language.’
‘But Sean now,’ cried Peter, returning to the point that had been at the back of his mind, ‘if my father said all this, why did he not tell me? And why did you not start with us? You might have borrowed Clancy’s mare, and your uncle Liam would have taken her back with Placidus. And what is your baggage apart from Patrick Kearney’s cloak for such an enormous voyage—and I wish you may have got it from him fairly. Have you a letter at least to recommend you to Mr Walter, Sean?’
‘I have the shoes,’ replied Sean, ‘and before Derrynacaol I will be putting them on.’
Derrynacaol: it was two full days’ journey from Ballynasaggart to Derrynacaol, far out of the country of Peter’s knowledge, but they were to try to reach it in a day and a half, for the great horse-fair was held at that time of the year and it would have been the world’s pity to pass by without seeing anything of it. They would arrive in the afternoon of Wednesday if they travelled by moonlight, and they would be in time for the races.
‘It is the race they call the Town Race that we must see,’ said Liam as they went up the white road of Slieve Alan, ‘for that is the great race and the town gives a silver bell to the winner.’
‘Are they very fine horses, Liam?’
‘Are they very fine horses? They are the best in the world,
my dear, fit for Julius Caesar or the Lord Lieutenant, and there is half Ireland lining the course and cheering the winner. Why, even the worst and the last of the creatures that run there would be like a comet in Ballynasaggart and it would put the mock on Cormac O’Neil’s brown gelding, the ill-shaped thief.’
‘I wish I could ride in a race like that,’ said Sean, who was up behind his uncle for a rest from the road.
‘Pooh,’ said Liam. ‘A great long-boned, tick-bellied slob of a thing like you? Those tall and stately magnificent horses would bend to the earth. No indeed: unless the gentry who own them are as light as may be they have little jockey-boys who weigh no more than an owl. For they are mad to win this race, do you see? And not an ounce will they carry that they can spare. It is not only the honour of bearing the bell away, but each gentleman pays five guineas to enter and each lord ten, and the winner takes all—and there are the side-stakes too, and the betting: but I’ll say no more of that.’
‘And why will you not?’
‘Because it’s there is the evil side of racing. Did his Reverence never tell you how wicked it is to gamble? And do I not tell you it is foolish as well, and I the best judge of a horse in the County Galway, if not in the whole of Connaught, whatever Cormac O’Neil may say. No: it is a fine and laudable sight, the glorious creatures, and then there is the piping and the dancing; but the betting and the wickedness—there’s folly for you, and under his Reverence’s command there will be none of it; nor any truck with the thimble-riggers and the common coney-catchers. And while I have it in my mind I will warn you against the pick-pockets that swarm at the fair. You must keep your hands in your pockets, or they will certainly steal the teeth out of your head. Indeed, they may do so even then, for there was a man from Dungannon who had the wig snatched from his poll in the hurly-burly by the winning-post, and he holding his pockets with might and main; which I had from his aunt in Dungannon itself: so if you have any money or valuable thing upon you at all, give it to me and I will carry
it in the purse, God shield us from harm. For you cannot conceive of their wickedness.’
‘God between us and evil,’ they said, and Peter handed him a thick cart-wheel of a crown piece which had been trundling round the family for several years, going from John to William to Sophia to Rachel to Dermot to Hugh to Laetitia; and Peter had it now from William, it being given to each on his birthday by the previous holder and kept for the next, a treasured possession, too valuable ever to spend yet giving a most agreeable feeling of wealth, rare in a country clergyman’s family; and Liam pulled up the purse by the string round his neck—the purse where the few hard-saved guineas for the journey lay warm and bright in their leather bag—and put the crown piece in. He looked at Sean, who avoided his eye, and then at Peter again. ‘There are your buckles,’ he said.
‘Faith, so there are,’ cried Peter, clapping his hand to his throat. ‘But come, Liam,’ he said, after a moment’s thought, ‘they’ll not be stealing the buckles off my shoes or my breeches, I’m sure, for they are only cut steel. But will I give you the one from my stock?’