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The Black Baronet; or, The Chronicles Of Ballytrain, a novel by William Carleton

Chapter 1. A Mail-Coach By Night, And A Bit Of Moonshine

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_ CHAPTER I. A Mail-coach by Night, and a Bit of Moonshine

It has been long observed, that every season sent by the Almighty has its own peculiar beauties; yet, although this is felt to be universally true--just as we know the sun shines, or that we cannot breathe without air--still we are all certain that even the same seasons have brief periods when these beauties are more sensibly felt, and diffuse a more vivid spirit of enjoyment through all our faculties. Who has not experienced the gentle and serene influence of a calm spring evening? and perhaps there is not in the whole circle of the seasons anything more delightful than the exquisite emotion with which a human heart, not hardened by vice, or contaminated by intercourse with the world, is softened into tenderness and a general love for the works of God, by the pure spirit which breathes of holiness, at the close of a fine evening in the month of March or April.

The season of spring is, in fact, the resurrection of nature to life and happiness. Who does not remember the delight with which, in early youth, when existence is a living poem, and all our emotions sanctify the spirit-like inspiration--the delight, we say, with which our eye rested upon a primrose or a daisy for the first time? And how many a long and anxious look have we ourselves given at the peak of Knockmany, morning after morning, that we might be able to announce, with an exulting heart, the gratifying and glorious fact, that the snow had disappeared from it--because we knew that then spring must have come! And that universal song of the lark, which fills the air with music; how can we forget the bounding joy with which our young heart drank it in as we danced in ecstacy across the fields? Spring, in fact, is the season dearest to the recollection of man, inasmuch as it is associated with all that is pure, and innocent, and beautiful, in the transient annals of his early life. There is always a mournful and pathetic spirit mingled with our remembrances of it, which resembles the sorrow that we feel for some beloved individual whom death withdrew from our affections at that period of existence when youth had nearly completed its allotted limits, and the promising manifestations of all that was virtuous and good were filling the parental hearts with the happy hopes which futurity held out to them. As the heart, we repeat, of such a parent goes back to brood over the beloved memory of the early lost, so do our recollections go back, with mingled love and sorrow, to the tender associations of spring, which may, indeed, be said to perish and pass away in its youth.

These reflections have been occasioned, first, by the fact that its memory and associations are inexpressibly dear to ourselves; and, secondly, because it is toward the close of this brief but beautiful period of the year that our chronicles date their commencement.

One evening, in the last week of April, a coach called the "Fly" stopped to change horses at a small village in a certain part of Ireland, which, for the present, shall be nameless. The sun had just sunk behind the western hills; but those mild gleams which characterize his setting at the close of April, had communicated to the clouds that peculiarly soft and golden tint, on which the eye loves to rest, but from which its light was now gradually fading. When fresh horses had been put to, a stranger, who had previously seen two large trunks secured on the top, in a few minutes took his place beside the guard, and the coach proceeded.

"Guard," he inquired, after they had gone a couple of miles from the village, "I am quite ignorant of the age of the moon. When shall we have moonlight?"

"Not till it's far in the night, sir."

"The coach passes through the town of Ballytrain, does it not?"

"It does, sir."

"At what hour do we arrive there?"

"About half-past three in the morning sir."

The stranger made no reply, but cast his eyes over the aspect of the surrounding country.

The night was calm, warm, and balmy. In the west, where the sun had gone down, there could still be noticed the faint traces of that subdued splendor with which he sets in spring. The stars were up, and the whole character of the sky and atmosphere was full of warmth, and softness, and hope. As the eye stretched across a country that seemed to be rich and well cultivated, it felt that dream-like charm of dim romance, which visible darkness throws over the face of nature, and which invests her groves, her lordly mansions, her rich campaigns, and her white farm-houses, with a beauty that resembles the imagery of some delicious dream, more than the realities of natural scenery.

On passing along, they could observe the careless-looking farmer driving home his cows to be milked and put up for the night; whilst, further on, they passed half-a-dozen cars returning home, some empty and some loaded, from a neighboring fair or market, their drivers in high conversation--a portion of them in friendship, some in enmity, and in general all equally disposed, in consequence of their previous libations, to either one or the other. Here they meet a solitary traveler, fatigued and careworn, carrying a bundle slung over his shoulder on the point of a stick, plodding his weary way to the next village. Anon they were passed by a couple of gentlemen-farmers or country squires, proceeding at a brisk trot upon their stout cobs or bits of half-blood, as the case might be; and, by and by, a spanking gig shoots rapidly ahead of them, driven by a smart-looking servant in murrey-colored livery, who looks back with a sneer of contempt as he wheels round a corner, and leaves the plebeian vehicle far behind him.

As for the stranger, he took little notice of those whom they met, be their rank of position in life what it might; his eye was seldom off the country on each side of him as they went along. It is true, when they passed a village or small market-town, he glanced into the houses as if anxious to ascertain the habits and comforts of the humbler classes. Sometimes he could catch a glimpse of them sitting around a basket of potatoes and salt, their miserable-looking faces lit by the dim light of a rush-candle into the ghastly paleness of spectres. Again, he could catch glimpses of greater happiness; and if, on the one hand, the symptoms of poverty and distress were visible, on the other there was the jovial comfort of the wealthy farmer's house, with the loud laughter of its contented inmates. Nor must we omit the songs which streamed across the fields, in the calm stillness of the hour, intimating that they who sang them were in possession, at all events, of light, if not of happy hearts.

As the night advanced, however, all these sounds began gradually to die away. Nature and labor required the refreshment of rest, and, as the coach proceeded at its steady pace, the varied evidences of waking life became few and far between. One after another the lights, both near and at a distance, disappeared. The roads became silent and solitary, and the villages, as they passed through them, were sunk in repose, unless, perhaps, where some sorrowing family were kept awake by the watchings that were necessary at the bed of sickness or death, as was evident by the melancholy steadiness of the lights, or the slow, cautious motion by which they glided from one apartment to another.

The moon had now been for some time up, and the coach had just crossed a bridge that was known to be exactly sixteen miles from the town of which the stranger had made inquiries.

"I think," said the latter, addressing the guard, "we are about sixteen miles from Ballytrain."

"You appear to know the neighborhood, sir," replied the guard.

"I have asked you a question, sir," replied the other, somewhat sternly, "and, instead of answering it, you ask me another."

"I beg your pardon, sir," replied the guard, smiling, "it's the custom of the country. Yes, sir, we're exactly sixteen miles from Ballytrain--that bridge is the mark. It's a fine country, sir, from this to that--"

"Now, my good fellow," replied the stranger, "I ask it as a particular favor that you will not open your lips to me until we reach the town, unless I ask you a question. On that condition I will give you a half-a-crown when we get there."

The fellow put his hand to his lips, to hint that he was mute, and nodded, but spoke not a word, and the coach proceeded in silence.

To those who have a temperament fraught with poetry or feeling, there can be little doubt that to pass, of a calm, delightful spring night, under a clear, starry sky, and a bright moon, through a country eminently picturesque and beautiful, must be one of those enjoyments which fill the heart with a memory that lasts forever. But when we suppose that a person, whose soul is tenderly alive to the influence of local affections, and, who, when absent, has brooded in sorrow over the memory of his native hills and valleys, his lakes and mountains--the rivers, where he hunted the otter and snared the trout, and who has never revisited them, even in his dreams, without such strong emotions as caused him to wake with his eyelashes steeped in tears--when such a person, full of enthusiastic affection and a strong imagination, returns to his native place after a long absence, under the peculiar circumstances which we are describing, we need not feel surprised that the heart of the stranger was filled with such a conflicting tumult of feelings and recollections as it is utterly impossible to portray.

From the moment the coach passed the bridge we have alluded to, every hill, and residence, and river, and lake, and meadow, was familiar to him, and he felt such an individual love and affection for them, as if they had been capable of welcoming and feeling the presence of the light-hearted boy, whom they had so often made happy.

In the gairish eye of day, the contemplation of this exquisite landscape would have been neither so affecting to the heart, nor so beautiful to the eye. He, the stranger, had not seen it for years, except in his dreams, and now he saw it in reality, invested with that ideal beauty in which fancy had adorned it in those visions of the night. The river, as it gleamed dimly, according as it was lit by the light of the moon, and the lake, as it shone with pale but visionary beauty, possessed an interest which the light of day would never have given them. The light, too, which lay on the sleeping groves, and made the solitary church spires, as they went along, visible, in dim, but distant beauty, and the clear outlines of his own mountains, unchanged and unchangeable--all, all crowded from the force of the recollections with which they were associated, upon his heart, and he laid himself back, and, for some minutes, wept tears that were at once both sweet and bitter.

In proportion as they advanced toward the town of Ballytrain, the stranger imagined that the moon shed a diviner radiance over the surrounding country; but this impression was occasioned by the fact that its aspect was becoming, every mile they proceeded, better and better known to him. At length they came to a long but gradual elevation in the road, and the stranger knew that, on reaching its eminence, he could command a distinct view of the magnificent valley on which his native parish lay. He begged of the coachman to stop for half a minute, and the latter did so. The scene was indeed unrivalled. All that constitutes a rich and cultivated country, with bold mountain scenery in the distance, lay stretched before him. To the right wound, in dim but silver-like beauty, a fine river, which was lost to the eye for a considerable distance in the wood of Gallagh. To the eye of the stranger, every scene and locality was distinct beyond belief, simply because they were lit up, not only by the pale light of the moon, but by the purer and stronger light of his own early affections and memories.

Now it was, indeed, that his eye caught in, at a glance, all those places and objects that had held their ground so strongly and firmly in his heart. The moon, though sinking, was brilliant, and the cloudless expanse of heaven seemed to reflect her light, whilst, at the same time, the shadows that projected from the trees, houses, and other elevated objects, were dark and distinct in proportion to the flood of mild effulgence which poured down upon them from the firmament. Let not our readers hesitate to believe us when we say, that the heart of the stranger felt touched with a kind of melancholy happiness as he passed through their very shadows--proceeding, as they did, from objects that he had looked upon as the friends of his youth, before life had opened to him the dark and blotted pages of suffering and sorrow. There, dimly shining to the right below him, was the transparent river in which he had taken many a truant plunge, and a little further on he could see without difficulty the white cascade tumbling down the precipice, and mark its dim scintillations, that looked, under the light of the moon, like masses of shivered ice, were it not that such a notion was contradicted by the soft dash and continuous murmur of its waters.

But where was the gray mill, and the large white dwelling of the miller? and that new-looking mansion on the elevation--it was not there in his time, nor several others that he saw around him; and, hold--what sacrilege is this? The coach is not upon the old road--not on that with every turn and winding of which the light foot of his boyhood was so familiar! What, too! the school-house down--its very foundations razed--its light-hearted pupils, some dead, others dispersed, its master in the dust, and its din, bustle, and monotonous murmur--all banished and gone, like the pageantry of a dream. Such, however, is life; and he who, on returning to his birthplace after an absence of many years, expects to find either the country or its inhabitants as he left them, will experience, in its most painful sense, the bitterness of disappointment. Let every such individual prepare himself for the consequences of death, change, and desolation.

At length the coach drove into Ballytrain, and, in a few minutes, the passengers found themselves opposite to the sign of the Mitre, which swung over the door of the principal inn of that remarkable town.

"Sir," said the guard, addressing the stranger, "I think I have kept my word."

The latter, without making any reply, dropped five shillings into his hand; but, in the course of a few minutes--for the coach changed horses there--he desired him to call the waiter or landlord, or any one to whom he could intrust his trunks until morning.

"You are going to stop in the 'Mithre,' sir, of course," said the guard, inquiringly.

The traveler nodded assent, and, having seen his luggage taken into the inn, and looking, for a moment, at the town, proceeded along the shadowy side of the main street, and, instead of seeking his bed, had, in a short time, altogether vanished, and in a manner that was certainly mysterious, nor did he make his appearance again until noon on the following day.

It may be as well to state here that he was a man of about thirty, somewhat above the middle size, and, although not clumsy, yet, on being closely scanned, he appeared beyond question to be very compact, closely knit, well-proportioned, and muscular. Of his dress, however, we must say, that it was somewhat difficult to define, or rather to infer from it whether he was a gentleman or not, or to what rank or station of life he belonged. His hair was black and curled; his features regular; and his mouth and nose particularly aristocratic; but that which constituted the most striking feature of his face was a pair of black eyes, which kindled or became mellow according to the emotions by which he happened to be influenced.

"My good lad," said he to "Boots," after his return, "Will you send me the landlord?"

"I can't, sir," replied the other, "he's not at home."

"Well, then, have the goodness to send me the waiter."

"I will, sir," replied the monkey, leaving the room with an evident feeling of confident alacrity.

Almost immediately a good-looking girl, with Irish features, brown hair, and pretty blue eyes, presented herself.

"Well, sir," she said, in an interrogative tone.

"Why," said the stranger, "I believe it is impossible to come at any member of this establishment; I wish to see the waiter."

"I'm the waiter, sir," she replied, with an unconscious face.

"The deuce you are!" he exclaimed; "however," he added, recovering himself, "I cannot possibly wish for a better. It is very likely that I may stay with you for some time--perhaps a few months. Will you see now that a room and bed are prepared for me, and that my trunks are put into my own apartment? Get a fire into my sitting-room and bedchamber. Let my bed be well aired; and see that everything is done cleanly and comfortably, will you?"

"Sartinly, sir, an' I hope we won't lave you much to complain of. As for the sheets, wait till you try them. The wild myrtles of Drumgau, beyant the demesne 'isliout, is foulded in them; an' if the smell of them won't make you think yourself in Paradise, 'tisn't my fault."

The stranger, on looking at her somewhat more closely, saw that she was an exceedingly neat, tight, clean-looking young woman, fair and youthful.

"Have you been long in the capacity of waiter, here." he asked.

"No, sir," she replied; "about six months."

"Do you never keep male waiters in this establishment," he inquired.

"Oh, yes, sir; Paudeen Gair and I generally act week about. This is my week, sir, an' he's at the plough."

"And where have you been at service before you came here, my good girl?"

"In Sir Thomas Gourlay's, sir."

The stranger could not prevent himself from starting.

"In Sir Thomas Gourlay's!" he exclaimed. "And pray in what capacity were you there?"

"I was own maid to Miss Gourlay, sir."

"To Miss Gourlay! and how did you come to leave your situation with her?"

"When I find you have a right to ask, sir," she replied, "I will tell you; but not till then."

"I stand reproved, my good girl," he said; "I have indeed no right to enter into such inquiries; but I trust I have for those that are more to the purpose. What have you for dinner?"

"Fish, flesh, and fowl, sir," she replied, with a peculiar smile, "and a fine fat buck from the deer-park."

"Well, now," said he, "that really promises well--indeed it is more than I expected--you had no quarrel, I hope, at parting? I beg your pardon--a fat buck, you say. Come, I will have a slice of that."

"Very well, sir," she replied; "what else would you wish?"

"To know, my dear, whether Sir Thomas is as severe upon her as--ahem!--anything at all you like--I'm not particular--only don't forget a slice of the buck, out of the haunch, my dear; and, whisper, as you and I are likely to become better acquainted--all in a civil way, of course--here is a trifle of earnest, as a proof that, if you be attentive, I shall not be ungenerous."

"I don't know," she replied, shaking her head, and hesitating; "you're a sly-looking gentleman--and, if I thought that you had any--"

"Design, you would say," he replied; "no--none, at any rate, that is improper; it is offered in a spirit of good-will and honor, and in such you may fairly accept of it. So," he added, as he dropped the money into her hand, "Sir Thomas insisted that you should go? Hem!--hem!"

The girl started in her turn, and exclaimed, with a good deal of surprise:

"Sir Thomas insisted! How did you come to know that, sir? I tould you no such thing."

"Certainly, my dear, you--a--a--hem--did you not say something to that effect? Perhaps, however," he added, apprehensive lest he might have alarmed, or rather excited her suspicions--"perhaps I was mistaken. I only imagined, I suppose, that you said something to that effect; but it does not matter--I have no intimacy with the Gourlays, I assure you--I think that is what you call them--and none at all with Sir Thomas--is not that his name? Goodby now; I shall take a walk through the town--how is this you name it? Ballytrain, I think--and return at five, when I trust you will have dinner ready."

He then put on his hat, and sauntered out, apparently to view the town and its environs, fully satisfied that, in consequence of his having left it when a boy, and of the changes which time and travel had wrought in his appearance, no living individual there could possibly recognize him. _

Read next: Chapter 2. The Town And Its Inhabitants

Read previous: Preface

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