Quin’s Rick by Jane Barlow

From “Doings and Dealings.”

Clear skies and gentle breezes had so favoured Hugh Lennon’s harvesting that his threshing was all safely done by the first week in October, and as the fine weather still continued, he took his wife, according to promise, for a ten days’ stay at the seaside. Mrs. Hugh was rather young and rather pretty, and much more than rather short-tempered. The neighbours often remarked that they would not be in Hugh Lennon’s coat for a great deal—at times specifying very considerable sums.

From her visit to Warrenpoint, however, she returned home in high good humour, and ran gaily upstairs to remove her flowery hat, announcing that she would do some fried eggs, Hugh’s favourite dish, for their tea. Hence, he was all the more disconcerted when, as he followed her along the little passage, she suddenly wheeled round upon him, and confronted him with a countenance full of wrath. She had merely been looking for a moment out of the small end window, and why, in the name of fortune, marvelled Hugh, should that have put her in one of her tantrums? But it evidently had done so. “Saw you ever the like of that?” she demanded furiously, pointing through the window.

“The like of what at all?” said Hugh.

“Look at it,” said Mrs. Hugh, and drummed with the point of her umbrella on a pane.

Hugh looked, and saw, conspicuous at a short distance beyond their backyard, a portly rick of straw, which their neighbour, Peter Quin, had nearly finished  building. A youth was tumbling himself about on top of it with much agility, and shouting “Pull!” at each floundering fall. “Sure,” said Hugh, “it’s nothing, only young Jim Quin leppin’ their rick.”

“I wisht he’d break every bone in his ugly body, then, while he’s at it,” declared Mrs. Hugh.

“It’s a quare wish to be wishin’ agin the poor, decent lad,” said her husband, “and he lepping plenty of ricks for ourselves before now.”

“And what call have they to be cocking up e’er a one there,” said Mrs. Hugh, “where there was never such a thing seen till this day?”

“Why wouldn’t they?” said Hugh. “It’s a handy place enough for a one, I should say, there on the bit of a headland.”

“How handy it is!” said his wife, “and it shutting out the gap in the fence on me that was the only glimpse I had into our lane.”

“Well, supposing it does, where’s the odds?” said Hugh. “There’s ne’er a much in the lane for anybody to be glimpsing at.”

“The greatest convenience in the world it was,” declared Mrs. Hugh, “to be able to see you crossing it of a morning, and you coming in from the lower field, the way I could put the bit of bacon down ready for the breakfast.”

“Musha, good gracious, woman alive, if that’s all’s ailing you, where’s the need to be so exact?” said Hugh.

“Exact, is it?” said Mrs. Hugh. “Maybe you’d like to have the whole of it melted away into grease with being set on the fire half an hour too soon. Or else you to be standing about open-mouthed under me  feet, like a starving terrier, waiting till it’s fit to eat. That’s how it’ll be, anyway, like it or lump it. And I used to be watching for old Matty Flanaghan going by with the post-bag, and the Keoghs coming back from early Mass—’twas as good as an extra clock for telling the time. But now, with that big lump of a thing stuck there, I might as well be shut up inside of any old prison. Them Quins done it a-purpose to annoy me, so they did. Sorra another raison had they, for what else ‘ud make them take and build it behind our backs? But put up with it is what I won’t do. Stepping over to them I’ll be this night, and letting them know how little I think of themselves and their mean tricks. And if I see old Peter, I’ll tell him you’ll have the law of him unless he gets it cleared away out of that to-morrow. Bedad will I; and yourself ‘ud say the same, if you had as much spirit in you as a moulting chicken.”

“Have sense, Julia,” Hugh remonstrated, wedging in a protest with difficulty. “Stop where you are, now, quiet and peaceable. It’s only making a show of yourself you’d be, running out that way raging about nothing What foolish talk have you about the man moving his rick, that he’s just after building? You might as well be bidding him move Knockrinkin over yonder; and he more betoken with his haggart bursting full this minyit. What annoyance is there in the matter, Julia woman? Sure in any case it won’t be any great while standing there, you may depend, and they bedding cattle with it, let alone very belike sending in cartloads of it every week to the market. Just content yourself and be aisy.”

But, as he had more than half expected, Hugh spoke to no purpose. His wife would not be said by him,  and his expostulations, in fact, merely hastened her impetuous departure on her visit to the Quins. She returned even more exasperated than she had set out, and from her report of the interview Hugh gathered that she had stormed with much violence, giving everybody “the height of abuse.” He was fain to console himself with the rather mortifying reflection that “the Quins knew well enough she did be apt to take up with quare nonsensical fantigues, that nobody minded.”

A hope that the morrow might find her more reasonable proved entirely vain, as many additional grievances, resented with increasing bitterness, had been evolved during the night. When Hugh went out to his work, he left her asserting, and believing, that the noise of the wind whistling round the rick hadn’t let her get a wink of sleep, and when he came in again he found her on the point of setting off to the police barracks that she might charge the Quins with having “littered her yard all over with wisps of straw blown off their hijjis old rick, till the unfortunate hens couldn’t see the ground under their feet.” This outrage, it appeared, had been aggravated by Micky Quinn, who remarked tauntingly, that “she had a right to feel herself obligated to them for doing her a fine piece of thatching”; and an interchange of similar rejoinders had taken place. On the present occasion Hugh was indeed able forcibly to stop her wild expedition by locking both the house doors. But as he knew that these strong measures could not be more than a temporary expedient, and as arguments were very bootless, he was at a loss to determine what he should do next. She had begun to drop such menacing hints about lighted matches and rags soaked in paraffin, that he felt loth to leave her at large within  reach of those dangerous materials. Already it had come to his knowledge that rumours were afloat in the village about how Mrs. Lennon was threatening to burn down the Quin’s rick. The truth was that she had said as much to several calling neighbours in the course of that day.

Hugh’s perplexity was therefore not a little relieved when, early on the following morning, his wife’s eldest married sister, Mrs. Mackay, from beyond Kilcraig, looked in on her way to market. Mrs. Mackay, an energetic person with a strong will regulated by abundant common sense, was one among the few people of whom her flighty sister Julia stood in awe. In this emergency her own observations, together with her brother-in-law’s statements, soon showed her how matters stood, and she promptly decided what steps to take. “Our best plan,” she said to Hugh apart, “is for Julia to come along home with me. She’ll be out of the way there of aught to stir up her mind, and she can stop till she gets pacified again. ‘Twill be no great while before she’s glad enough to come back here, rick or no rick, you may depend; for we’re all through-other up at our place the now, with one of the childer sick, and ne’er a girl kept. I’ll give her plenty to do helping me, and it’s much if she won’t be very soon wishing she was at home in her own comfortable house. She doesn’t know when she’s well off, bedad,” Mrs. Mackay added, glancing half enviously round the tidy little kitchen.

Hugh fell in with her views at once. The Mackays lived a couple of miles at the other side of Kilcraig, so that Julia would be safely out of harm’s way, and he could trust her sister to keep her from doing anything disastrously foolish. So he cheerfully saw his wife depart, and though her last words were a  vehement asseveration that she would “never set foot next or nigh the place again, as long as there did be two straws slanting together in Quin’s dirty old rick,” he confidently expected to see her there once more without much delay.

Up at the Mackay’s struggling farmstead on the side of Knockrinkin, Mrs. Hugh found things dull enough. Internally the house was incommodious and crowded to uncomfortable excess, and its surroundings externally were desolate and lonesome. Mrs. Hugh remarked discontentedly that if the inside and outside of it were mixed together, they’d be better off, anyway, for room to turn round in, and quiet to hear themselves speak; but the operation appeared impracticable. Nor were the domestic tasks with which Mrs. Mackay provided her by any means to her taste, and her discontent continued. One evening, shortly after her arrival, she grew so tired of hearing the children squabble and squawl, that as soon as supper was over she slipped out at the back door into the soft-aired twilight. She proposed to wile away some time by searching the furzy, many-bouldered field for mushrooms and blackberries, but neither could she find, and in her quest she wandered a long way down the swarded slope, until she came to a low boundary wall. There she stopped, and stood looking across the valley towards a wooden patch beyond the village, which contained her own dwelling, as well as that of the hateful Quins. Her wrath against them burned more fiercely than ever at the reflection that they were clearly to blame for her present tedious exile. The thought of going home, she said to herself, she couldn’t abide, by reason of their old rick.

Through the dusk, the darker mass of those trees  loomed indistinctly like a stain on the dimness, and Mrs. Hugh fancied that she could make out just the site of the Quin’s rick—the best of bad luck to it. Why didn’t some decent tramp take and sling a spark of a lighted match into it, and he passing by with his pipe? As she strained her eyes towards it, she suddenly saw on the very spot the glimmer of a golden-red light, glancing out among the shadowy trees. For a moment she was startled and half scared, but then she remembered that it would be nothing more than the harvest moon rising up big through the mist. Hadn’t she seen it the night before looking the size of ten? This explanation, at least, half disappointed her, and she said to herself with dissatisfaction, watching the gleam waver and brighten, that it looked as red as fire, and she wished to goodness it was the same as it looked. “There’d be nothing aisier than setting the whole concern in a blaze standing so convanient to the road,” she thought, while she gazed and gazed with tantalised vindictiveness over the low, tumble-down wall.

More than two hours later Mrs. Hugh Lennon came hurrying in at the Mackay’s back-door. By this time it was dark night outside, and she found only Mrs. Mackay in the kitchen, for himself and the children had gone to bed.

“Where in the world have you been all the evening?” Mrs. Mackay inquired, with some indignation. “Leaving me with nobody to give me a hand with the childer or anything, and keeping me now waiting up till every hour of the night.”

“Quin’s rick’s burnt down,” burst out Mrs. Hugh, who evidently had not heard a word of her sister’s  remonstrance. She looked excited and exultant; her hair was roughened by the wind, and her skirts were bedraggled with a heavy dew brushed off tussocks and furze bushes. Mrs. Mackay eyed her with a start of vague suspicion.

“And who did you get that news from,” she said, “supposing it’s true?”

“Amn’t I after seeing it with me own eyes?” triumphed Mrs. Hugh. “Watching it blazing this long while down below there by Connolly’s fence. First of all I thought it was only the old moon rising, that would do us no good; but sure not at all, glory be! Burnt down to the ground it is, every grain of it; and serve them very right.”

“What took you trapesing off down there, might I ask?” inquired Mrs. Mackay, her scrutiny of her sister growing more mistrustful.

“Is it what took me?” said Mrs. Hugh. “I dunno rightly. Och, let me see; about getting some mushrooms I was, I believe, and blackberries.”

“A likely time of night it was to be looking for such things,” said Mrs. Mackay, “and a dale of them you got.”

“There isn’t a one in it; all of them’s as red as coals of fire yet, or else as green as grass—sure, what matter?” said Mrs. Hugh. “Anyway, I was took up with watching the baste of an old rick flaring itself into flitters; and a rale good job.”

“A job it is that you’re very apt to have raison to repent of,” Mrs. Mackay said severely, “if so be you had act or part in it.”

“Is it me?” Mrs. Hugh said, and laughed derisively. “Raving you are, if that’s your notion. A great chance I’d have to be meddling or making with it, and I stuck  up here out of reach of everything. I only wisht I’d been at our own place to get a better sight.”

“How can I tell what chances you have or haven’t, and you after running wild through the country for better than a couple of hours?” Mrs. Mackay said. “Plenty of time had you for the matter, to be skyting there and back twice over, if you was up to any sort of mischief; let alone going about talking and threatening, and carrying on, till everybody in the parish is safe to be of the opinion yourself was contriving it with whoever done it, supposing you didn’t do it all out. And it’s the quare trouble you might very aisy get yourself into for that same, let me tell you. There was a man at Joe’s place that got three years for being concerned in setting a light to a bit of an old shed, no size to speak of; so, if the next thing we see of you is walking off between a pair of police constables, yourself you’ll have to thank for it. I only hope poor Hugh won’t be blaming me for letting you out of me sight this evening.”

“Och, good luck to yourself and your pólis!” Mrs. Hugh said, defiantly. “It’s little I care who lit the old rick, and its little I care what any people’s troubling theirselves to think about it. I’d liefer be after doing it than not—so there’s for you. But what I won’t do is stop here listening to your fool’s romancing. So good-night to you kindly.”

With that Mrs. Hugh flounced clattering up the little steep stairs, and hurled herself like a compressed earthquake-wave into her bedroom. Mrs. Mackay, following her, stumped along more slowly. “Goodness forgive me for saying so,” she reflected, “but Julia’s a terrific woman to have any doings or dealings with. She’s not to hold or bind when she takes the notion,  and the dear knows what she’s been up to now; something outrageous most likely. The Lord Chief Justice himself couldn’t control her. Beyond me she is entirely.”

Nevertheless, her warnings were not without effect, and at their next interview, she found her sister in a meeker mood.

It was when Mrs. Mackay was in the cowhouse milking, before breakfast, that Julia appeared to her, hurrying in with a demeanour full of dismay. “Och, Bridgie, what will I do?” she said.

“What’s happint you now?” Bridgie replied, with a studied want of sympathy.

“I’m just after looking out of me window,” Julia said, “and there’s two of the pólis out of the barracks below standing at the roadgate, having great discoursing with Dan Molloy, and about coming into this place they are. Ne’er a bit of me knows what’s bringing them so outlandish early; but I’ll take me oath, Bridgie darlint, I’d nought to do, good or bad, with burning the rick. It might ha’ went on fire of itself. Hand nor part I hadn’t in it. So you might be telling them that to your certain knowledge I was up here the whole time, and sending them about their business—there’s a good woman.”

On further reflection Mrs. Mackay had already concluded that Julia probably was not guilty of incendiarism; still, she considered her sister’s alarmed state a favourable opportunity for a lesson on the expediency of behaving herself. Therefore she was careful to give no reassuring response.

“‘Deed, now, I dunno what to say to it all,” she declared, “and I couldn’t take it on me conscience to  go swear in a court of justice that I knew where you might be yesterday late. More betoken there was the bad talk you had out of you about the Quins before you come here, that they’ll be bringing up agin you now, you may depend. An ugly appearance it has, sure enough, the two of them coming over at this hour. As headstrong you are as a cross-tempered jennet; but if you’ll take my advice you’ll keep yourself out of their sight the best way you can, till I see what they want with you, and then if it’s a warrant they’ve got, I might try persuade them to go look for you somewheres else. That’s the best I can do, and, of course, I can’t say whether they will or no, but maybe—”

For a wonder Mrs. Hugh did take this advice, and most promptly, rushing with a suppressed wail out of the cowhouse and into a shed close by, where she crouched behind a heap of hay, the first hiding-place that presented itself to her in her panic. She had spent a great part of the past night in meditation on her sister’s alarming statements; and now the ominous arrival of the police put a finishing touch to her fright. How was she to escape from them, or to exculpate herself? Bridgie evidently either could or would do little or nothing. At this dreadful crisis in her affairs her thoughts turned longingly towards her own house down below, where there was Hugh, poor man, who would certainly have, somehow, prevented her from being dragged off to Athmoran gaol, even if he did believe her to have burnt the rick. Through the dusty shed window she saw two dark, flat-capped, short-caped figures sauntering up to the front door, whereupon with a sudden desperate impulse, she stole out, and fled down the cart-track along which they had just come. Getting a good  start of them, she said to herself, she might be at home again with Hugh before they could overtake her—and one of them, she added, as fat as a prize pig.

As Mrs. Hugh ran most of the road’s two long miles, she was considerably out of breath when she came round a turn which brought into view an expected and an unexpected object. The one was Hugh walking out of his own gate, the other Quin’s rick, still rearing its glistening yellow ridge into the sunshine.

“Well, now, Julia woman, and is it yourself?” Hugh said, as she darted across the road to him. “What’s took you to be tearing along at that rate, and without so much as a shawl over your head?”

“Thinking I was to meet you before this—kilt I am, running all the way,” she said, panting. “And I do declare there’s the big rick in it yet.”

Hugh’s face fell. “Whethen now, if it’s with the same old blathers you’re come back,” he said, in a disgusted tone, “there was no need for you to be in any such great hurry.”

“Ne’er a word was I going to say agin it at all,” said his wife, “and I making sure the constables would be after me every minyit for burning it down.”

“What the mischief put that notion in your head?” said Hugh.

“I seen the blaze of a great fire down here last night,” she said, “and I thought it would be Quin’s rick, and they knowing I had some talk about it.”

“Sure ’twas just the big heap of dead branches and old trunks,” said Hugh, “that’s lying at the end of the cow-lane ever since the big wind. It took and went on fire yesterday evening; raison good, there was a cartful of Wexford tinkers went by in the afternoon, and stopped  to boil their kettle close under it. A fine flare-up it made, and it as dry as tinder; but I’d scarce ha’ thought you’d see it that far. Lucky it is the old sticks was fit for nothing much, unless some poor bodies may be at a loss for firewood this next winter. Come along in, Julia, and wet yourself a cup of tay. You’d a right to be tired trotting about that way. And as for the pólis, bedad, they’d have their own work cut out for them, if they was to be taking up everybody they heard talking foolish.”

Not long after Mrs. Hugh had finished her cup, Mrs. Mackay arrived, alighting flurriedly from a borrowed seat on a neighbour’s car.

“So it’s home you ran, Julia,” she said, sternly. “Well, now, I wonder you had that much sense itself. Looking for you high and low we were, after the pólis had gone, that only come to get the number of our chickens—counting the feathers on them next, I suppose they’ll be—and all romancing it was about anything happening the rick. But frightened I was out of me wits, till little Joey said he seen you quitting out at the gate. So then I come along to see what foolish thing you might be about doing next.”

“She’s likely to be doing nothing foolisher than giving you a cup of tay, Bridgie,” Hugh interposed, soothingly. “And mightn’t you be frying us a few eggs in the pan, Julia? Old Nan Byrne’s just after bringing in two or three fresh ones she got back of the Quins’ rick, where our hins do be laying.”

“‘Twill be a handy place for finding them in,” Mrs. Hugh said, blandly. And both her experienced hearers accepted the remark as a sign that these hostilities were over.