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

Chapter 10. A Family Dialogue--And A Secret Nearly Discovered

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_ CHAPTER X. A Family Dialogue--and a Secret nearly Discovered

Our scene must necessarily change to a kind of inn or low tavern, or, as they are usually denominated, eating-houses, in Little Mary street, on the north side of the good city of Dublin. These eating-houses were remarkable for the extreme neatness and cleanliness with which they were kept, and the wonderful order and regularity with which they were conducted. For instance, a lap of beef is hung from an iron hook on the door-post, which, if it be in the glorious heat of summer, is half black with flies, but that will not prevent it from leaving upon your coat a deep and healthy streak of something between grease and tallow as you necessarily brush against it--first, on your going in, and secondly, on your coming out.

The evening was tolerably advanced, and the hour of dinner long past; but, notwithstanding this, there were several persons engaged in dispatching the beef and cabbage we have described. Two or three large county Meath farmers, clad in immense frieze jackets, corduroy knee-breeches, thick woollen stockings, and heavy soled, shoes, were not so much eating as devouring the viands that were before them; whilst in another part of the rooms sat two or three meagre-looking scriveners' clerks, rather out at elbows, and remarkable for an appearance of something that might, without much difficulty, be interpreted into habits that could not be reconciled with sobriety.

As there is not much, however, that is either picturesque or agreeable in the description of such an establishment, we shall pass into an inner room, where those who wished for privacy and additional comfort might be entertained on terms somewhat more expensive. We accordingly beg our readers to accompany us up a creaking pair of stairs to a small backroom on the first floor, furnished with an old, round oak table, with turned legs, four or five old-fashioned chairs, a few wood-cuts, daubed with green and yellow, representing the four seasons, a Christmas carol, together with that miracle of ingenuity, a reed in a bottle, which stood on the chimney-piece.

In this room, with liquor before them, which was procured from a neighboring public house--for, in establishments of this kind, they are not permitted to keep liquor for sale--sat three persons, two men and a woman. One of the men seemed, at first glance, rather good-looking, was near or about fifty, stout, big-boned, and apparently very powerful as regarded personal strength. He was respectably enough dressed, and, as we said, unless when it happened that he fell into a mood of thoughtfulness, which he did repeatedly, had an appearance of frankness and simplicity which at once secured instant and unhesitating good will. When, however, after putting the tumbler to his lips, and gulping down a portion of it, and then replacing the liquor on the table, he folded his arms and knitted his brows, in an instant the expression of openness and good humor changed into one of deep and deadly malignity.

The features of the elder person exhibited a comic contrast between nature and habit--between an expression of good humor, broad and legible, which no one could mistake for a moment, and an affectation of consequence, self-importance, and mock heroic dignity that were irresistible. He was a pedagogue.

The woman who accompanied them we need not describe, having already made the reader acquainted with her in the person of the female fortune-teller, who held the mysterious dialogue with Sir Thomas Gourlay on his way to Lord Cullamore's.

"This liquor," said the schoolmaster, "would be nothing the worse of a little daicent mellowness and flavor; but, at the same time, we must admit that, though sadly deficient in a spirit of exhilaration, it bears a harmonious reference to the beautiful beef and cabbage which we got for dinner. The whole of them are what I designate as sorry specimens of metropolitan luxury. May I never translate a classic, but I fear I shall soon wax aegrotat--I feel something like a telegraphic despatch commencing between my head and my stomach; and how the communication may terminate, whether peaceably or otherwise, would require, O divine Jacinta! your tripodial powers or prophecy to predict. The whiskey, in whatever shape or under whatever disguise you take it, is richly worthy of all condemnation."

"I will drink no more of it, uncle," replied the other man; "it would soon sicken me, too. This shan't pass; it's gross imposition--and that is a bad thing to practise in this world. Ginty, touch the bell, will you?--we will make them get us better."

A smile of a peculiar nature passed over the woman's ghastly features as she looked with significant caution at her brother, for such he was.

"Yes, do get better whiskey," she said; "it's too bad that we should make my uncle sick from mere kindness."

"I cannot exactly say that I am much out of order as yet," replied the schoolmaster, "but, as they say, if the weather has not broken, the sky is getting troubled; I hope it is only a false, alarm, and may pass away without infliction. If there is any of the minor miseries of life more trying than another, it is to drink liquor that fires the blood, splits the head, but basely declines to elevate and rejoice the heart. O, divine poteen! immortal essence of the hordeum beatum!--which is translated holy barley--what drink, liquor, or refreshment can be placed, without the commission of something like small sacrilege, in parallel with thee! When I think of thy soothing and gradually exhilarating influence, of the genial spirit of love and friendship which, owing to thee, warms the heart of man, and not unfrequently of the softer sex also; when I reflect upon the cheerful light which thou diffusest by gentle degrees throughout the soul, filling it with generosity, kindness, and courage, enabling it to forget care and calamity, and all the various ills that flesh is heir to; when I remember too that thou dost so frequently aid the inspiration of the bard, the eloquence of the orator, and changest the modesty of the diffident lover into that easy and becoming assurance which is so grateful to women, is it any wonder I should feel how utterly incapable I am, without thy own assistance, to expound thy eulogium as I ought! Hand that tumbler here, Charley,--bad as it is, there is no use, as the proverb says, in laving one's liquor behind them. We will presently correct it with better drink."

Charley Corbet, for such was the name of the worthy schoolmaster's nephew, laughed heartily at the eloquence of his uncle, who, he could perceive, had been tampering a little with something stronger than water in the course of the evening.

"What can keep this boy." exclaimed Ginty; "he knew we were waiting for him, and he ought to be here now."

"The youth will come," said the schoolmaster, "and a hospitable youth he is--me ipso teste, as I myself can bear witness. I was in his apartments in the Collegium Sanctae Trinitatis, as they say, which means the blessed union of dulness, laziness, and wealth, for which the same divine establishment has gained an appropriate and just celebrity--I say I was in his apartments, where I found himself and a few of his brother students engaged in the agreeable relaxation of taking a hair of the same dog that bit them, after a liberal compotation on the preceding night. Third place, as a scholar! Well! who may he thank for that, I interrogate. Not one Denis O'Donegan!--O no; the said Denis is an ignoramus, and knows nothing of the classics. Well, be it so. All I say is, that I wish I had one classical lick at their provost, I would let him know what the master of a plantation seminary (*--a periphrasis for hedge-school) could do when brought to the larned scratch?"

"How does Tom look, uncle." asked Corbet; "we can't say that he has shown much affection for his friends since he went to college."

"How could you expect it, Charley, my worthy nepos." said the schoolmaster--"These sprigs of classicality, when once they get under the wing of the collegium aforesaid, which, like a comfortable, well-feathered old bird of the stubble, warms them into what is ten times better than celebrity--videlicet, snug and independent dulness--these sprigs, I say, especially, when their parents or instructors happen to be poor, fight shy of the frieze and caubeen at home, and avoid the risk of resuscitating old associations. Tom, Charley looks--at least he did when I saw him to-day--very like a lad who is more studious of the bottle than the book; but I will not prejudge the youth, for I remember what he was while under my tuition. If he be as cunning now and assiduous in the prosecution of letters as I found him--if he be as cunning, as ripe at fiction, and of as unembarrassed brow as he was in his schoolboy career, he will either hang, on the one side, or rise to become lord chancellor or a bishop on the other."

"He will be neither the one nor the other then," said the prophetess, "but something better both for himself and his friends."

"Is this by way of the oracular, Ginty?"

"You may take it so if you like," replied the female.

"And does the learned page of futurity present nothing in the shape of a certain wooden engine, to which is attached a dangling rope, in association with the youth? for in my mind his merits are as likely to elevate him to the one as to the other. However, don't look like the pythoness in her fury, Ginty; a joke is a joke; and here's that he may be whatever you wish him! Ay, by the bones of Maro, this liquor is pleasant discussion!" We may observe here that they had been already furnished with a better description of drink--"But with regard to the youth in question, there is one thing puzzles me, oh, most prophetical niece, and that is, that you should take it into your head to effect an impossibility, in other words, to make a gentleman of him; ex quovis ligno nonfit Mercurius, is a good ould proverb."

"That is but natural in her, uncle," replied Corbet, "if you knew everything; but for the present you can't; nobody knows who he is, and that is a secret that must be kept."

"Why," replied the pedagogue, "is he not a slip from the Black Baronet, and are not you, Ginty----?"

"Whether the child you speak of," she replied, "is living or dead is what nobody knows."

"There is one thing I know," said Corbet, "and that is, that I could scald the heart and soul in the Black Baronet's body by one word's speaking, if I wished; only the time is not yet come; but it will come, and that soon, I hope."

"Take care, Charley," replied the master; "no violation of sacred ties. Is not the said Baronet your foster-brother?"

"He remembered no such ties when he brought shame and disgrace on our family," replied Corbet, with a look of such hatred and malignity as could rarely be seen on a human countenance.

"Then why did you live with him, and remain in his confidence so long," asked his uncle.

"I had my own reasons for that--may be they will be known soon, and may be they will never be known," replied his nephew--"Whisht! there's a foot on the stairs," he added; "it's this youth, I'm thinking."

Almost immediately a young man, in a college-gown and cap, entered, the room, apparently the worse for liquor, and approaching the schoolmaster, who sat next him, slapped his shoulder, exclaiming:

"Well, my jolly old pedagogue, I hope you have enjoyed yourself since I saw you last? Mr. Corbet, how do you do? And Cassandra, my darling death-like old prophetess, what have you to predict for Ambrose Gray," for such was the name by which he went.

"Sit down, Mr. Gray," said Corbet, "and join us in one glass of punch."

"I will, in half-a-dozen," replied the student; "for I am always glad to see my friends."

"But not to come to see them," said Mrs. Cooper--"However, it doesn't matter; we are glad to see you, Mr. Ambrose. I hope you are getting on well at college?"

"Third place, eh, my old grinder: are you not proud of me," said Ambrose, addressing the schoolmaster.

"I think, Mr. Gray, the pride ought to be on the other side," replied O'Donegan, with an affectation of dignity--"but it was well, and I trust you are not insensible of the early indoctrination you received at--whose hands I will not say; but I think it might be guessed notwithstanding."

During this conversation, the eyes of the prophetess were fixed upon the student, with an expression of the deepest and most intense interest. His personal appearance was indeed peculiar and remarkable. He was about the middle size, somewhat straggling and bony in his figure; his forehead was neither good nor bad, but the general contour of his face contained not within it a single feature with the expression of which the heart of the spectator could harmonize. He was beetle-browed, his mouth diabolically sensual, and his eyes, which were scarcely an inch asunder, were sharp and piercing, and reminded one that the deep-seated cunning which lurked in them was a thing to be guarded against and avoided. His hands and feet were large and coarse, his whole figure disagreeable and ungainly, and his voice harsh and deep.

The fortune-teller, as we have said, kept her eyes fixed upon his features, with a look which seemed to betray no individual feeling beyond that of some extraordinary and profound interest. She appeared like one who was studying his character, and attempting to read his natural disposition in his countenance, manner, and conversation. Sometimes her eye brightened a little, and again her death-like face became overshadowed with gloom, reminding one of that strange darkness which, when the earth is covered with snow, falls with such dismal effect before an approaching storm.

"I grant you, my worthy old grinder, that you did indoctrinate me, as you say, to some purpose; but, my worthy old grinder, again I say to you, that, by all the gerunds, participles, and roots you ever ground in your life, it was my own grinding that got me the third place in the scholarship."

"Well, Mr. Ambrose," rejoined the pedagogue, who felt disposed to draw in his horns a little, "one thing is clear, that, between us both, we did it. What bait, what line, what calling, or profession in life, do you propose to yourself, Mr. Ambrose? Your course in college has been brilliant so far, thanks to--ahem--no matter--you have distinguished yourself."

"I have carried everything before me," replied Ambrose--"but what then? Suppose, my worthy old magister, that I miss a fellowship--why, what remains, but to sink down into a resident mastership, and grind blockheads for the remainder of my life? But what though I fail in science, still, most revered and learned O'Donegan, I have ambition--ambition--and, come how it may, I will surge up out of obscurity, my old buck. I forgot to tell you, that I got the first classical premium yesterday, and that I am consequently--no, I didn't forget to tell you, because I didn't know it myself when I saw you to-day. Hip, hip--hurra!"

His two male companions filled their glasses, and joined him heartily. O'Donegan shook him by the hand, so did Corbet, and they now could understand the cause of his very natural elevation of spirits.

"So you have all got legacies," proceeded Mr. Ambrose; "fifty pounds apiece, I hear, by the death of your brother, Mr. Corbet, who was steward to Lady Gourlay--I am delighted to hear it--hip, hip, hurra, again."

"It's true enough," observed the prophetess, "a good, kind-hearted man was my poor brother Edward."

"How is that old scoundrel of a Black Baronet in your neighborhood--Sir Thomas--he who murdered his brother's heir?"

"For God's sake, Mr. Ambrose, don't say so. Don't you know that he got heavy damages against Captain Furlong for using the same words?"

"He be hanged," said the tipsy student; "he murdered him as sure as I sit at this table; and God bless the worthy, be the same man or woman, who left himself, as he left his brother's widow, without an heir to his ill-gotten title and property."

The fortune-teller rose up, and entreated him not to speak harshly against Sir Thomas Gourlay, adding, "That, perhaps, he was not so bad as the people supposed; but," she added, "as they--that is, she and her brother--happened to be in town, they were anxious to see him (the student); and, indeed, they would feel obliged if he came with them into the front room for ten minutes or so, as they wished to have a little private conversation with him."

The change in his features at this intimation was indeed surprising. A keen, sharp sense of self-possession, an instant recollection of his position and circumstances, banished from them, almost in an instant, the somewhat careless and tipsy expression which they possessed on his entrance.

"Certainly," said he--"Mr. O'Donegan, will you take care of yourself until we return?"

"No doubt of it," replied the pedagogue, as they left the room, "I shall not forget myself, no more than that the image and superscription of Sir Thomas Gourlay, the Black Baronet, is upon your diabolical visage."

Instead of ten minutes, the conference between the parties in the next room lasted for more than an hour, during which period O'Donegan did not omit to take care of himself, as he said. The worthy pedagogue was one of those men, who, from long habit, can never become tipsy beyond a certain degree of elevation, after which, no matter what may be the extent of their indulgence, nothing in the shape of liquor can affect them. When Gray and his two friends returned, they found consequently nothing but empty bottles before them, whilst the schoolmaster viewed them with a kind of indescribable steadiness of countenance, which could not be exactly classed with either drunkenness or sobriety, but was something between both. More liquor, however, was ordered in, but, in the meantime, O'Donegan's eyes were fastened upon Mr. Gray with a degree of surprise, which, considering the change in the young man's appearance, was by no means extraordinary. Whatever the topic of their conversation may have been, it is not our purpose at present to disclose; but one thing is certain, that the transition which took place in Gray's features, as well as in his whole manner, was remarkable almost beyond belief. This, as we have said, manifested itself in some degree, on hearing that Corbet and his sister had something to say to him in the next room. Now, however, the change was decided and striking. All symptoms of tipsy triumph, arising from his success in college, had completely disappeared, and were replaced by an expression of seriousness and mingled cunning, which could not possibly escape observation. There was a coolness, a force of reflection, a keen, calm, but agitated lustre in his small eyes, that was felt by the schoolmaster to be exceedingly disagreeable to contemplate. In fact, the face of the young man was, in a surprising degree, calculating and sinister. A great portion of its vulgarity was gone, and there remained something behind that seemed to partake of a capacity for little else than intrigue, dishonesty, and villany. It was one of those countenances on which, when moved by the meditations of the mind within, nature frequently expresses herself as clearly as if she had written on it, in legible characters, 'Beware of this man'.

After a little time, now that the object of this mysterious meeting had been accomplished, the party separated.

We mentioned that Corbet and Sir Thomas Gourlay were foster-brothers--a relation which, in Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland, formed the basis of an attachment, on the part of the latter, stronger, in many instances, than that of nature itself. Corbet's brother stood also to him in the same relation as he did to the late Sir Edward Gourlay, under whom, and subsequently under his widow, he held the situation of house-steward until his death. Edward Corbet, for his Christian name had been given him after that of his master--his mother having nursed both brothers--was apparently a mild, honest, affectionate man, trustworthy and respectful, as far, at least, as ever could be discovered to the contrary, and, consequently, never very deep in the confidence of his brother Charles, who was a great favorite with Sir Thomas, was supposed to be very deeply in his secrets, and held a similar situation in his establishment. It was known, or at least supposed, that his brother Edward, having lived since his youth up with a liberal and affectionate master, must have saved a good deal of money; and, as he had never married, of course his brother, and also his sister--the fortune-teller--took it for granted that, being his nearest relations, whatever savings he had put together, must, after his death, necessarily pass into their hands. He was many years older than either, and as they maintained a constant and deferential intercourse with him--studied all his habits and peculiarities--and sent him, from time to time, such little presents as they thought might be agreeable to him, the consequence was, that they maintained their place in his good opinion, so far at least as to prevent him from leaving the fruits of his honest and industrious life to absolute strangers. Not that they inherited by any means his whole property, such as it was, several others of his relatives received more or less, but his brother, sister, and maternal uncle--the schoolmaster--were the largest inheritors.

The illness of Edward Corbet was long and tedious; but Lady Gourlay allowed nothing to be wanting that could render his bed of sickness or death easy and tranquil, so far as kindness, attention, and the ministry of mere human comforts could effect it. During his illness, his brother Charles visited him several times, and had many private conversations with him. And it may be necessary to state here, that, although these two relatives had never lived upon cold or unfriendly terms, yet the fact was that Edward felt it impossible to love Charles with the fulness of a brother's affection. The natural disposition of the latter, under the guise of an apparently good-humored and frank demeanor, was in reality inscrutable.

Though capable, as we said, of assuming a very different character whenever it suited his purpose, he was nevertheless a man whose full confidence was scarcely ever bestowed upon a human being. Such an individual neither is nor can be relished in society; but it is precisely persons of his stamp who are calculated to win their way with men of higher and more influential position in life, who, when moved by ambition, avarice, or any other of the darker and more dangerous passions of our nature, feel an inclination, almost instinctive, to take such men into their intrigues and deliberations. The tyrant and oppressor discovers the disposition and character of his slave and instrument with as much sagacity as is displayed by the highly bred dog that scents out the game of which the sportsman is in pursuit. In this respect, however, it not unfrequently happens, that even those who are most confident in the penetration with which they make such selections, are woefully mistaken in the result.

We allude particularly to the death of Edward Corbet, at this stage of our narrative, because, from that event, the train of circumstances which principally constitute the body of our narrative originated.

His brother had been with him in the early part of the day on which he breathed his last. On arriving at the mansion in Merrion square, he met Lady Gourlay on the steps of the hall door, about to enter her carriage.

"I am glad you are come, Corbet," she said--"Your poor brother has been calling for you--see him instantly--for his sands are numbered. The doctor thinks he cannot pass the turn of the day."

"God bless your ladyship," replied Corbet, "for your uncommon kindness and attention to him during his long and severe illness. All that could be done for a person in his circumstances, your ladyship did; and I know he is deeply sensible of it, my lady."

"It was only my duty, Corbet," she replied, "to a true-hearted and faithful servant, for such he was to our family. I could not forget the esteem in which his master, my dear husband, held him, nor the confidence which he never failed, and justly, to repose in him. Go immediately to him, for he has expressed much anxiety to see you."

His brother, indeed, found him hovering on the very brink of the grave. What their conversation was, we know not, unless in so far as a portion of it at least may be inferred from the subsequent circumstances of our story. After having spent about an hour with him, his brother, who, it seems, had some pressing commissions to execute for Sir Thomas, was obliged to leave him for a time, but promised to return as soon as he could, get them discharged. In the meantime, poor Corbet sank rapidly after Charles's departure, and begged, with a degree of anguish that was pitiable, to see Lady Gourlay, as he had something, he said, of the utmost importance to communicate to her. Lady Gourlay, however, had gone out, and none of the family could give any opinion as to the period of her return; whilst the dying man seemed to experience a feeling that amounted almost to agony at her absence. In this state he remained for about three hours, when at length she returned, and found him with the mild and ghastly impress of immediate death visible in his languid, dying eyes, and hollow countenance.

"They tell me you wish to see me, Corbet," she said--"If there is anything that can be done to soothe your mind, or afford you ease and comfort in your departing hour, mention it, and, if it be within our power, it shall be done."

He made an effort to speak, but his voice was all but gone. At length, after several efforts, he was able to make, her understand that he wished her to bend down her head to him; she did so; and in accents that were barely, and not without one or two repetitions, intelligible, he was able to say, "Your son is living, and Sir Thomas knows----"

Lady Gourlay was of a feminine, gentle, and quiet disposition, in fact, a woman from whose character one might expect, upon receiving such a communication, rather an exhibition of that wild and hysteric excitement which might be most likely to end in a scream or a fainting fit. Here, however, the instincts of the defrauded heart of the bereaved and sorrowing mother were called into instant and energetic life. The physical system, instead of becoming relaxed or feeble, grew firm and vigorous, and her mind collected and active. She saw, from the death-throes of the man, that a single moment was not to be lost, and instantly, for her mouth was still at his ear, asked, in a distinct and eager voice, "Where, Corbet, where? for God's mercy, where? and what does Sir Thomas know?"

The light and animation of life were fast fading from his face; he attempted to speak again, but voice and tongue refused to discharge their office--he had become speechless. Feeling conscious, however, that he could not any longer make himself understood by words, he raised his feeble hand, and attempted to point as if in a certain direction, but the arm fell powerlessly down--he gave a deep sigh and expired.

Thus far only can we proceed at present. How and why the stranger makes his appearance at Ballytrain, and whether in connection with this incident or not, are circumstances which we will know in due time. _

Read next: Chapter 11. The Stranger's Visit To Father Macmalum

Read previous: Chapter 9. Candor And Dissimulation

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