a short story by Catherine Broughton
Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
(Walter de la Mare)
I told them that I would return, and so I did. I am not a man to break my word. My word is my honour. Even though, as many would say, the problem was not mine, and nor was it of my own making. I am nonetheless conscious of my role as a human, a man, a man with a heart and a sense of decency.
‘Twas that very sense of decency that caused me to leave the warmth of the hearth at the old Finnigan house, and that sense of decency (I might add) that causes me to remain silent about the warmth of young Maid Celia’s arms. I may well have stayed there, for I know I’d have been welcome, after dispatching my mother and sister to the safety of England. But these things are forever easy to say and hard to do, and hindsight is a great thing. But it was tempting to stay. Ireland is a pretty place, especially in the summer, and the vibrant green of the trees and the fields around us has always enchanted me. I have for many years enjoyed visiting the estates … though I fear I will never return now.
I wish they, the Finnigans, had left for America. I wish I had insisted. Great sailing ships were filling at Cork and it would have been cheap and easy for all to board. A few shillings. By all that is good, I’d have paid their passage. I’d have found them bread and biscuit for the journey. Little Gavin may not have survived, nor old Ma Finnigan, but the others were all still strong then and they’d have survived the trip to the other side of the world.
It is a trip I have undertaken myself, just the once, in a slaving ship, though there were no slaves. The keeping and buying or selling of slaves has been outlawed some years now, and I praise the good Lord that it is so. I know, thus, how arduous the trip can be, and that is why I say that little Gavin, still a suckling babe, and old Ma Finnigan would perhaps not have survived. Indeed, I have since heard that these ships, full to over-crowding with desperate Irish, were called coffin ships.
There were not many alternatives. Death and starvation, or death and disease seemed to wait either way. It may be that Celia nurtured some vain hope that I would take her away with me, her and young Gavin, though she must have known it was not possible, nor would it ever be. Simple as she was, she must have known that.
As the potato blight took hold of Ireland, so many English families such as my own returned to England. At first we didn’t notice the steady decline in standards among the local peasantry. It has to be said that they were anyway extremely poor, so it was not easy to spot further decline. They had always been poor and dirty.
No, it was the begging that started up around the gates of the estate, and indeed right up to the kitchen door. People were hungry in a way they had not been hungry before. There were more of them. Word spreads quickly amid these people – (as indeed it does in any group of people, for I have seen it often enough amid the English in China or even social groups within London) and before we knew it there were not just our own poor workers to feed, there were others, and still others.
I shake these thoughts from my mind. I have travelled far today and both I and my horse are in need of rest. I do not wish to remember the hungry eyes. I look up at the house, waiting to see a casement open or to hear a voice call.
But no-one descended to the traveller,
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned out and looked in to his gray eyes
Where he stood perplexed and still.
Old Finnigan’s house is set at the far end of the woods, and the woods are one hundred and eight hectares strong on that side, to the east of the estate. It is a fine stone dwelling, in need of much repair, but boasting the tower which, in old times, was a keep for the previous lords in the time of my great-great-grandfather. The Finnigans have always lived there, and I have known this house, where I now stand, since I was just a babe in arms … for Ma Finnigan’s eldest daughter was my wet-nurse. I look up at the dark building, shrouded in heavy brooding trees, and there is no light and no sign of life. But they cannot all be out ! Finnigan and old Ma, also Brodie, who was my wet-nurse and her seven children. Her husband, whose name escapes me. Brodie’s sister, Alma, whose daughter is Celia and her various other off-spring. There must be twenty of them that live in the house. They cannot all be out.
The baby Gavin was born the winter before the famine, so he was perhaps four months of age when I last saw him. I do not believe he was mine. I do firmly believe that Celia said so because she hoped I would help her. My family are known to be generous with tenants and workers alike. The father was almost certainly young Doherty – a skinny lad from the house kitchens who, sad to say, was one of the first to die as famine took hold and sent us, myself, my mother and two young sisters, hurriedly back to England.
I dwell sadly on this as I wait for somebody to attend me. My horse scuffs the ground impatiently. Faint rustling sounds in the woods behind me make him nervous. I pat his flank.
“Easy, boy,” I tell him, “’tis but birds and woodland creatures.”
The manor house almost half an hour’s ride back over the fields, where I lived, is completely shut up, as I knew it would be. My mother will never return and both my sisters are to be wed. I have found good matches for both of them. Both London men. And I must wed too. ‘Tis time. I reach my twenty-eighth year, and ’tis time. Thinking on this brings me to thoughts of a son, and that in turn brings thoughts of Celia and the babe, Gavin.
I could tell he was not mine. My family are tall, dark, sturdy people. We are Anglo-Irish, a good, powerful combination. The babe was small and thin and fair. Similar to Doherty.
But never let it be said that I was cruel. That is not my way. I told Celia that she was not to speak of it again but that my family would provide for them, as we always have. I wander round to the side of the house, half-expecting some drunken old member of the family to be sitting there in the dark. Nobody. I return to my horse and take a long drink from the keg of cider I have brought with me. I wait.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men.
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
On that last evening I hugged Brodie and shook Finnigan’s hand. I had brought food with me, though there was little enough for ourselves. A fire roared in the hearth and the family sat about, hungrily dividing up what small items I had brought to them. Some bread and corn, two apples, half a jar of cider. I saw a rabbit had been snared and was hanging by the door, the remains of another on the table. Two rabbits do not give enough meat for twenty hungry people. They saw me looking.
“‘Tis no matter,” I said and raised a hand as if to keep the peace, though that was hardly necessary, “take what you can find. You must do so.”
I didn’t tell them that the gamekeeper had anyway left. Gone back to Dublin where, I have heard, he has found work with a wheel-wright. The beggars at the kitchen doors were fewer now. Word had gone round that we were hungry ourselves.
“Sir, I beg you to not leave us!”
I looked in surprise at Ma Finnigan, for it was not her way to speak out.
“Take us with you to England,” she begged.
“I cannot. You know that I cannot,” and I was aware that they did not know. But I could not. ‘Twould have been impossible for them in London. They were peasants. I could not run the risk that Celia would attach my name to that of the babe. It could not work, and I owed them nothing other than a logical and masterly concern.
It was then that I spoke about America.
“‘Tis a land of plenty,” I told them, “where there is space for all and already a large Irish community to help you when you arrive.”
They listened silently. The babe began to cry as if he guessed already that he was too small and frail to undertake such a journey.
“There is a ship that leaves Cork in two days’ time.”
Still, they stared silently.
I had money. I had no food because there was no food to buy. Not there in that part of Ireland. Leaving was our only option. It was the Finnigan’s only option too.
“I will ensure your safe passage,” I said.
Still, the silence. It angers me now. I wish they would attend to me, and I hit the door again.
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,’ he said.
A slight breeze has got up and sends a few leaves scuttling at my feet. A twig scratches against a window. There is something unsettling about the very air about me. My horse whinnies and brings my thoughts back to the present and I realise something I had not noticed before, dark as it is and fool that I am.
There is no dog barking. There is no cat. There, hanging raggedly on a washing line are the remains of a pair of breeches. Wind and rain have turned over a bucket and destroyed the hen house. A solitary clog lies by the path, half-hidden under weeds. The greenery has grown over the windows in several places, curling like old fingers about the latches. The darkness is all about, almost total but for the moon. Somewhere at the back of the house I hear a door creak and for a moment I almost call out:
“Finnigan! Finnigan! It is I ! Returned as promised!”
But I look about me and see, lit by the moon that peeps whitely through the branches of the surrounding canopy, that the well-trodden path that I had walked almost all my life is also grown over. Why had I not noticed this before ? The house is abandoned. They have gone.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
I try to gauge how long they have been gone. It must be a year or more, looking at the undergrowth. I promised I would return with food, though I knew I could not, or that – failing that – I would return with a cart to bear them elsewhere to some place where they could find succour. Mostly I wanted to send somebody to fetch them to the ship, but they would not go.
They would not go. And, as I stand here, I realise something else. Something my poor, patient horse felt when we arrived. He has been unusually jumpy but, lost in my thoughts, I paid him no mind. This place is haunted. I know that now and a chill runs down my spine.
I am not afraid, for I know the ghosts of the Finnigans would do me no harm. But I know, as clearly as I know night from day, that they have died.
I hang my head. Grief, sadness, despair, relief and acceptance flood through me. I have done what I promised. I returned for them as soon as I was able. I kept my word. The black squares that are the windows gape in the facade. High above, the roof has started to give way and I see that the chimney stack has gone. No smoke belches from there now, and it is stark and broken against the inky sky. An owl hoots in the woods behind me, and it seems that there are strange movements and sounds that I had not been aware of before. This is a place of the dead.
“Are you all gone?” I call in to the night. “Is it that you have all died? How can this be ? How can this be …”
I wish to leave. It is time to go. The stirrup creaks as I hoist myself up. They hear my foot upon the stirrup. The healthy, wholesome sound of leather. I mount quickly, pull my mount’s muzzle windward, and spur back towards whence I came. My horse’s hooves clatter over the stones. Iron on stone. I do not look back, though I know they watch me. They stand silently in their places of death and watch me through the tiny gap of life after death. They thank me for returning, but I am too late, way too late.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.