The Proctor's Daughter by William Carleton

"Huroo! at id agin. Success, Briney. Ha! take that, you ould dust. Will you bewitch our cattle now, Nanny? Whoo—ha, ha, ha!—at id agin, boys—that's your sort."

Such were a few of the explosives of mingled fun and devilment that proceeded from a group of ragged urchins, who were busily employed in pelting with hard mud, sods and other missiles, an old and decrepit woman, whose gray hair and infirmities ought to have been her protection, but whose reputation as an evil disposed witch proved quite the contrary. Nanny, for such was her name, was leaning, or rather sitting, against a bank at the road side, shaking occasionally her crutch at her tormentors, and muttering a heavy curse as missile after missile fell thickly around her. The shouts of laughter proceeding from the annoying children, as she tried in vain to rise, and impotently threatened, made her imprecations come doubly bitter; but her eye was never wet, nor did she once even by a look appeal to their pity. Her figure was bent with age, and her shaking hands brown and fleshless—her hair was gray and wiry, and escaped from beneath her cap, in short, thin, tangled masses—her eyes were dark and deep set, and her lips and mouth had fallen in as her teeth had gradually decayed. She was clad in a russet gown, much the worse for the wear, and a scarlet cloak, or rather a cloak that had once been scarlet, but was now completely faded from its original color. It had been broken here and there, but was pieced with different colored cloths, so as to appear a motley and strange garment; and her bony feet were bare and unprotected. Nanny, from different circumstances, was unanimously elected the witch or bugbear of the village; and though the brats were then so busy annoying her, at night, or in a lonesome place, they would fly like lightning even at her approach; and some of them actually trembled while shouting, though they did not like to exhibit their fear to their companions. In the first place, she lived completely alone in a hovel on the mountain side, where, save heath, rock, and fern, there was not a single thing on which the eye could rest; then, no one knew from whence she came, and lights were frequently seen shining through her unglazed windows at hours when spirits were supposed to be abroad; besides, more than once a group of dark figures had been observed standing at twilight near her door, and were always set down as ministering demons, awaiting the pleasure of their mistress. Whenever a cow ceased giving milk—whenever a lamb or pig got any disease and died—it was unanimously attributed to the spite and venom of "Nanny the witch;" in fact, no human being could be viewed, with more mingled feelings of fear and hate than she was by all the inhabitants of the village. The boys still continued their unfeeling attack; and she now was silent and gloomy, and did not menace nor even mutter a curse, but her firmness had not left her, for her brow was darkly bent, and her small black eyes emitted a flash of wild though concentrated anger and revenge. Nor did those who passed from time to time, by word or gesture discourage the young urchins from their attack; sometimes they even stood looking complacently on, wondering at the reckless courage of the boys, as they would not for worlds dare to rise a hand against one so very powerful. Suddenly a louder whoop than any they had yet given, told that they had just invented some new mode of annoyance, and a short, hard-featured, red-headed boy, whom they called Briney, ran whooping and hallooing towards them, bearing a large hairy cap, which he triumphantly declared was full of rotten eggs—those delicious affairs which smash so delightfully off an unprotected face, and which used to be in great demand when pillories were in fashion.

"I must have first shot!" roared Briney, as he placed his burden down in the midst, and seized one of the eggs it contained.

"Sorra a bit, Briney!" screamed another, striding before him—"I've a betther aim nor you."

"You a betther aim!" scornfully retorted he; "thry id:" and his hand was upraised in the act of pelting, but was as suddenly stopped and withheld, as a pretty, tiny, fair-haired child, tripped forward from an opposite stile; and perceiving what was going on, ran quickly to the old woman, and laying down a pitcher that she bore, stood before her, facing the crowd of boys, her mild, soft blue eye flashing displeasure, and her cheeks flushed with a deep pink suffusion.

"Shame! oh, for shame!" were the first exclamations that escaped her, and her sweet voice trembled with anger.

"Bedad, it's purty Minny herself, sure enough!" muttered one urchin to another, as they hesitated what to do, each evidently unwilling to encounter the reproaches they were sure of receiving; and one or two scampered off the instant she spoke.

Then turning round to the old woman, and perceiving that her lips looked dry and parched, she ran to the pitcher, and lifting it to her mouth with much softness and compassion, exclaimed,

"Poor Nanny, you look dhry, an' here's some wather. Take a little sup, an' it 'ill revive you! Oh; if I wor here a little bit sooner."

Nanny raised her eyes to thank her, and did as she requested; and it was indeed a touching thing to see that child in all the budding beauty of infancy, attending so anxiously on the withered female, whose name was seldom pronounced without dread or malediction. The urchins looked on for some time with open mouths and staring eyes; and then, headed by Briney, giving a farewell shout, to show they were not entirely disconcerted, bravely took to their heels.

"May the blessins ov the poor and persecuted folly on yer path, my purty child!" gratefully exclaimed the old woman, as her eyes rested on the cherub face and infantine figure of her protectress, and they now were dewy and wet with tears.

"Shall I help you to rise, Nanny?" asked she, her little heart dancing with pleasure at hearing the fervent wish: "iv you like to go home, an' you think me sthrong enough, I'll help you on!"

"From my heart I thank you, my purty golden haired child," said the old woman, as with her assistance she at length stood up; "bud you seem to know who I am, and I wondher yer not afeard ov me. Minny, I think they called you—who is the happy father ov my little darlin'?"

"I'm Minny Whelan," gently answered the little girl; upon which Nanny shrunk hastily back, and a fearful change overspread her features.

"Minny Whelan!—you the proctor's daughter? Those smiling lips—those tinder, soft eyes—that rich yellow hair—an' that warm an' feelin' heart, Minny Whelan's. Oh, it can't, it mustn't be—I won't believe id!"

The little girl laughed, although wonder lurked in her eye, and repeated innocently,

"Sure enough, I am the procthor's daughter: bud you don't hate me for id—do you?

"Come close to me, child, till I look upon you," said Nanny, in a cold and altered tone of voice; and then, as Minny fearlessly advanced, she laid her aged hands on her head, and pushing back the profusion of her curling hair, looked long and anxiously on her. A hot tear fell upon the child's forehead as she withdrew her hand; and in a broken, voice the old woman exclaimed,

"You are—you are indeed his child; bud have naither his black look, nor his hard an' baneful heart—so—so—I cannot hate you! For years I've never met with kindness, till you wor kind. Minny, heaven 'ill reward; you for id; an' may its blessin' be wid you, is the prayer ov your father's bittherest foe!"

At this the child hesitated for an instant, as if she did not comprehend the latter part of Nanny's sentence; and then innocently taking her hand, she looked up to her face and said—

"Bud maybe yer too tired to go home now all the ways, Nanny, so iv you'll come home wid me, I'm sure my father won't be angry, an' will"—

"Go home wid you!" wildly reiterated the old woman, her eyes blazing so fearfully, that the child shrunk instinctively back—"crass your father's flure!—inther the man's house who sint my son—my only son!—my heart's blood!—from his native land, wid disgrace upon his name, and the heavy hand ov power crushin' him to the earth! Never!—these eyes, that once could laugh wid happiness, will burn in their sockets first, and this withered heart, once so warm and joyful, will burst afore I ever think ov id!"

"Nanny," tremblingly said Minny, "you spake so wild you make me afeard—I hope I haven't done anything to vex you!"

"You! Oh! no, no—you force me to love you! I couldn't hate you, although yer father—bud no matther. Minny, good bye—may the Almighty guard you."

The day passed away as Summer days are wont, in softness and languor, and the sun descended in gold and crimson, leaving a bright halo in the west to mark his resting place. Night came on serene and still, and the quiet moon ascended her heavenly throne, while the refreshing dews fell upon the flowers, whose leaves opened to receive them, parched, as they were with the burning lustre of the mid-day sun. Midnight had already passed; and all was as silent as if no living or created thing existed upon the earth to mar its splendid beauty with the wild indulgence of its fiercer passions. A strong light was gleaming from the interior of Nanny's cabin, which we have already said was situated on the mountain side; and the noisy sounds of revelry were heard proceeding from within. Could any of the superstitious have summoned courage to approach sufficiently near, and listen for a moment, the idea of spirits would soon be dissipated in the bluff, hoarse voices which were laughing and grumbling, and singing, sometimes alternately, and sometimes all together. But we had better introduce the reader to the interior, and then he will be a better judge of the nature of the orgies carried on.

The cabin consisted of but one small apartment, in the centre of which blazed a, huge fire (summer though it was) of dried peat. The smoke sought egress where it might, but still left a sufficient canopy over the heads of the occupants, as completely to hide the dingy and charred rafters, and did not seem in the slightest degree to annoy the optical powers of any one, so accustomed where they to this kind of atmosphere. Round this fire about ten were seated or squatted down, and were all at the time busily employed in some noisy and apparently angry disputation. However, this did not prevent the bottle from being freely passed amongst them; and so cordial were they in embracing it, that Nanny, who sat a little apart, was often called on to replenish it with mountain-dew. On a table or dresser that stood by the wall, were three or four large pistols, besides an old sword or two, and a few rusted bayonets: piled against it were two large muskets, evidently kept with more care than the rest of the arms, for they were brightly polished, and looked even new. A couple of powder-horns, a tin box containing shot and bullets, and a large iron mallet, used in breaking open doors, completed the array, which could leave no doubt as to the men who occupied the cabin.

"Come, Nanny acushla, give us another dhrop of that you gev us last," exclaimed one, whose rolling eyes gave token, of approaching intoxication; "you're not used to be sparin', an' considherin' the way you get id, needn't be so—eh? Dick, what do you say to another drink?"

"Game to the last," answered the man addressed—"never refuse id."

"Why, Nanny," observed a low but muscularly formed man, who seemed from his manner to exercise some slight command amongst his associates, "what's the matther wid you to-night? Sure we're goin' to do what you've long been axin' us, an' what you first gev us lave to meet here for—an' by doin' so we've got the fame of bein' not quite right. The villain of a procthor that suit poor Bob off afore he could look about him, 'ill resave his pay to-night, anyhow. What say you, boys?"

"No doubt ov it!—All right!—Whoo! sartinly!" they grumbled and shouted in reply; and then, the whiskey having been brought, the health of Nanny's absent son, and their companion, was loudly proposed and drank.

"I say, Dick," hiccupped the first speaker, who now began to wax drunk, "what is your op—op—opinion should, we do to ould Whelan? You know, I'm (hiccup) not natherally crule, bud suppose (hiccup) we jist cut the ears off the baste, an' (hiccup) lave him hard ov hearin' for the rest ov his life!"

"I'm not the man to disagree wid a rasonable iday," ironically answered Dick.

"What do you say to that, my ould (hiccup) woman?" again asked he, addressing Nanny, who had drawn near to listen; "suppose we sarve him that-a-way, will you be (hiccup) satisfied; or maybe you'd sooner we'd prevint his bein' annoyed wid a cough by (hiccup) cuttin' his informin' throat!"

While he spoke, an indescribable expression lighted up the old woman's eye, and she stood a moment, as if a struggle was going on between long-brooded-over revenge and some newly awakened sympathy. The rest of the men were busy with other schemes, and did not even hear the last conversation, for they had before agreed to pay Whelan a visit that night, and Nanny had eagerly entered into their intentions; for she had an only son, who, being wild and dissipated, had got connected with the very gang at present in her cabin, and through Whelan's means (he having informed against him) was transported. An Irish mother soon looks upon the faults of a darling child with levity: and when he was torn from her arms, in the madness of grief she had vowed vengeance against Whelan; and though he soon after removed to where he then was, she followed him, and took up her residence on the mountain, where, as she was a stranger, and had no apparent means of living, a report of her communion with evil spirits was soon spread abroad. This she rather encouraged than otherwise, by the advice of the men whom she fixed on as the completers of her revenge, and by such means the lights and nightly noises were placed to the account of anything but their real cause.

She had endured many griefs, and many mortifications, from her reputation as a witch, but met every thing in that way with patience, as the dream of her soul was revenge, and that dream by such means alone could be realized. However, when on the very point of its completion, one of those sudden and mysterious changes which often takes place in the human mind made her waver in her purpose; and the child of her intended victim having behaved so tenderly and so kindly when all the rest hooted at and tormented her, made her fervently wish that she could turn the fierce men around her from that fell purpose which she herself had nourished till it grew into a fixed, and, she dreaded, an unalterable determination.

"Hadn't yez betther wait," she tremblingly began, scarcely knowing what she was about to propose—"another night 'ill do as well for Whelan."

"How's this," interrupted one of them, "Nanny, you growing lukewarm!—you proposin' another night—are you beginnin' to be afeard we'll be hindhered from payin' him off, or are you repentin' yer former anxious desire?"

"No—no!" hastily answered she, dreading lest they should discover her feelings, as she well knew that many amongst them had revenge to be gratified as well as herself; "I don't repine as regards him, bud—bud—his daughter—poor little Manny—the purty goolden-haired child!—I wouldn't like any thing 'ud harm her, an' I'm afeard ov her bein' hurted—that's all."

"He did not feel so six years ago," said a deep voice at her elbow, "whin yer only son was sint off from home an' counthry through his manes!"

Nanny started, she knew not why, at the tones of the speaker, and turned round to look closer at him; but his back was towards her, and a large loose coat prevented all recognition of his person; besides, bringing an occasional newly enrolled stranger there, was a common circumstance, so she soon forgot the momentary surprise she had met in her anxiety about their intention.

"He is a brute—his heart is harder nor steel, an' he must be punished," said another, whose bent brow and flashing black eye spoke of malignity and crime.

"But his child—his poor little Minny!" exclaimed Nanny, "sure you wouldn't injure her—she hasn't deserved id at yer hands—she has done nothin', but is a sweet an' kind-hearted crathur. Oh! iv you had seen her whin I was in the village, an' the boys were hootin' an' peltin' me, an' no one interfered to protect the hated Nanny—iv you had seen the little angel how she stood before me, an' cried out 'shame!' an' held up the pitcher for me to dhrink, an' helped me to rise, offerin' me the shelter of her father's house, little dhramin' ov whom she was spakin' to—you wouldn't have a thought ov hurtin' her—bud—no one—no one could harm Minny!—-she is too sweet, too pure, too like a little angel!"

"A hair of the child's head shall not be touched!" said the same deep voice that had before made Nanny start; "bud he, the informher an' the prosecuthor, must feel our vengeance!"

Nanny was silent—she saw that further parley was useless, and was obliged to bear with the concession she had already obtained. Meanwhile, the men having ascertained that it was time they were stirring, hastily equipped themselves, and prepared to start. When. they were leaving the house, the stranger, whose voice had so startled her, took her hand, and though his face was studiously averted, she heard him say solemnly'—

"Nanny, good bye!—my promise I'll keep sacred—the good child shall not be touched!"

She had not time to utter her thanks, for his hand as hastily relinquished its hold, and ere she could speak, all were gone, and she heard the buzz of their voices, as in a group they descended the mountain.

The bright moonbeams silvered the motionless leaves of the trees that surrounded Whelan's cottage—there was not a stir within—no light gleamed from the lattice, and the small thin brook that bubbled through the long grass a little in its front, seemed to hush its merry song to a mere low trickling sound, as if in unison with the universal repose. A dark group of figures stood in the little garden before the door, as if debating how they should act. Two of them, separated a little from the rest, conferred together, one of whom was the stranger we have already noticed, and the other the man we have spoken of as seeming to possess some command over them all. Suddenly the latter started, and exclaimed in the quick, sharp tone of command—

"Advance, men, an' smash the door—there's no use in delayin' longer."

An almost instantaneous crash was the answer, and the door flew from its hinges, and four or five of the men rushed into the cottage, while the rest kept watch outside. Exclamations of surprise, mingled with harsh, epithets, were heard within; and then they appeared a second time, dragging with them the unfortunate and trembling owner, whom they had just torn from his bed. A loud shout from the rest spoke their eagerness for his punishinent; and amidst prayers for mercy, and entreaties, he was dragged to the centre of the garden, placed on his knees; and his hands firmly tied behind his back.

"Now, Misther Whelan, acushla," asked! one, in a jeering tone, "would you be jist pleased to make yer choice between two purty little invintions of ours—cardin an ear-ticklin'."

The poor man trembled violently, and his livid lips opened but he could not utter a word.

"What an obstinate, silent ould baste you are," said the same man, "not to give a civil answer to my question. Bud maybe the look o' this plaything id drive spake outov you—oh, you may stare now!" Saying this, he drew forth a board with a thick handle, the bottom part of which was closely studded with nails and sharp pieces of iron, in imitation of the cards they use for wool, and continued—"Would you admire the taste of this in the flesh on your back, my informin' codger!—eh?"

Upon this, shouts of "card him! card him!" arose from the group, and his hands were quickly unloosed, and he was violently dashed on his face, while some held his legs and others his arms. Then his back was stripped, and the stranger laid the board flatly on it, with the iron points touching the flesh, while another stood up with the large mallet ready to drive them in, the shrieks of the victim becoming more and more faint. Just as the man who held the weapon last named was about to strike, and just as a demon grin of satisfied vengeance distorted the otherwise handsome features of the stranger, a light and tiny form flew screaming towards them, her long yellow hair floating in the night-breeze, and her white dress hanging loosely about her delicate limbs. It was Minny, who, unmindful of all, and seeing only her father, threw herself on her knees beside him, exclaiming in tones of agony:

"Oh, my father—my dear father—what is the matter?—what are they goin' to do wid you?"

The stranger started at the tones of her voice, and on gazing at her for a moment, flung the card to a distance, and catching her in his arms, kissed away the tears which covered her cheeks, as she struggled for release.

"Is it you," he said with much emotion, "that I promised to purtect?—You, who succored an' saved me when I was dyin' for want? An' are you the daughter ov Whelan the procthor?"

The men, perplexed at the apparition of the child, mechanically had released their prisoner; and he, starting up with the sudden hope of freedom, stood confronting the stranger, who yet held his child.

"Gracious Providence!" he exclaimed in wonder, as the moonlight streamed on the face he was trying to recognize—"Is id—can id be Robert Dillon?"

"Yis, Whelan!" was the answer, "it is the man you name—the man you caused to be thried an' banished, an' the man who came here to have revange!"

"Oh. don't hurt him—don't hurt him—he is my father," cried the little Minny who now also seemed to recognize him.

"Iv he was surrounded wid fiends," answered Dillon, kissing her fair smooth brow, "iv he was for ever on the watch, I'd still have my revenge: bud for your sake, sweet, good-natured child—for your sake, I'll not allow him to be touched!"

A murmur here began to rise among some of the men, while the leader, with one or two others, seemed to take part with the returned son of Nanny Dillon. Upon this he added—

"I was weary an' wake wid fatigue an' hunger—I couldn't move a step further than jist to lave the road an' lie in a dhry ditch, as I thought, to die, jist as I complated the journey to my native place! But this little girl—this goolden-haired child—kem to me, an' raised my head, an' poured a sweet draught of milk into my mouth, an' brought me food, an' sat by me, an' talked wid me, till I was at last able to join wid you! An' afther this—afther this, would you have me harm any one belongin' to her—even though he is my bitterest inimy?"

The quick changing of purpose—the sudden transitions of the Irish nature—are proverbial; and then those who had been loudest in their murmurs were loudest in their cries of approval; and a deep huzza of exultation at the magnanimity he displayed, told Dillon that he had little to fear from their opposition. So once more embracing the little girl, he gave her hand to her father, and taking the leader's arm, strode away, exclaiming:

"Whelan, you may thank your child—for 'tis she ha's saved you!"

The party all followed after him; and in a few moments more there was no trace of the scene of violence that had been partly enacted, and the brook's low bubblings, as before, alone disturbed the silence of the slumbering night.

We will not attempt to describe poor Nanny's joy at her son's making himself known, and informing her of the circumstances that had taken place—enough to say, he had managed to escape before his time was out; but as no one informed against him, he was suffered to remain in peace, and manage a small farm in the next county, where he and his mother soon after retired, as he determined totally to forsake his old mischievous pranks.

We were present at the village, altar, when Minny, who had grown up in beauty and gentleness, gave her hand to a youth—the selected one of her heart—and her gray-headed parent looked meekly on, blessing that Providence who had given him such a child. Providence who had given him such a child.