True to Death by Edmund Leamy

Death!” The speaker was a tall, sinewy, athletic man, from twenty-eight to thirty years of age. The single word came from his lips short and sharp as a pistol shot. He looked around upon his auditors, who watched his hard-set features in silence. A group of a dozen peasants stood before him, the youngest not more than twenty, the oldest a man of sixty years, above the average height, thin, cadaverous looking, with hollow, sunken eyes, black as night, that contrasted strangely with the prominent, grey, bushy eyebrows. Deep lines, traced by suffering and bitter thought, furrowed his ample brow, and long, lank, white hair came down almost to his shoulders. His eyes rested upon the speaker, whose face became blanched under the terrible and earnest gaze that was fastened upon him. Though dressed in peasant garb, it was easy to see that the young man’s life was not always spent in the peaceful occupation of the peasantry; a scar on his right cheek told a story of conflict, while the deep bronze that stained his face was suggestive of travel in other lands. Born on the southern coast, his earlier years were spent in the precarious pursuit of fishing, and just as he crossed the threshold of manhood, an adventurous spirit prompted him to join some of his comrades who sailed with a French captain bound from the Shannon for Brest. He pursued the sea-faring life for a year or two, when, falling in at one of the French ports with a detachment of the Irish Brigade, then battling under the Fleur-de-lis, he took service in it, and fought in several engagements, until a bullet in the breast incapacitated him for the duties of a soldier’s life. Returning to Ireland, he found the peasantry engaged in the great agrarian struggle which produced the “Whiteboys.” His military and adventurous spirit, as well as his sympathy with his class, invested the conspiracy with a peculiar attraction for him. He became a member of it, and before many months had passed was the leader of the organisation in his district. His superior ability, and his power of swift and keen judgment, commanded the respect and confidence of his followers. On many a night before this on which our story opens, the terrible sentence of death had fallen from his lips, but never before had his comrades observed the deathlike pallor that was in his face to-night. The scene was a weird one. A long, low-roofed cave, of irregular shape, not more than twelve feet at the widest, and narrowing towards the aperture, which was scarce large enough to allow of one man at a time crouching on his hands and knees; a small opening in the roof, through which a hand might be thrust, allowed the escape of the smoke from the pine logs, blazing in the further end of the cave. As the flame leaped up and down, a thousand shadows and flickering lights danced on roof, and floor, and walls, flitting fantastically, bringing into occasional prominence, the features of the group. As the speaker uttered the single word, a log, displaced by the action of the fire, blazed fiercely, and threw its light upon his face. In the searching light every lineament was clearly portrayed, and the twitching of his mouth, and the white look that chased the bronze from his cheek, became plainly visible to the eyes of his followers.

“It is well,” said the old man. “When shall we meet again?”

The question was addressed to the leader. All eyes were fastened on him as he said with unusual slowness:

“This night fortnight.”

“Too long,” cried the old man, with a fierce cry that had a hard metallic ring in it as it struck against the walls of the cave.

“Too long,” murmured the others.

The leader looked around, scanning the faces of each one closely.

“Too long,” repeated the old man, in deeper tones.

“Well, this night week, be it,” said the leader.

“Agreed,” came the response.

And one by one the party left the cave, save the old man and the leader. The old man moved to the aperture, peered out, and waited until the last of his comrades had disappeared. He then turned back, and, standing with folded arms before his companion, said to him:

“We chose you to be our leader because we knew you were brave, and we believed you to be true; you have never failed us up to this.”

“Then why do you doubt me now?”

“Because,” said the old man gravely, “there was a white look in your face to-night, which was the sign of either fear or treachery; you are too brave for fear; then what did it mean? You have decreed swift doom to the petty tyrants; why did you seek to-night to postpone the execution of the arch tyrant? You know the wrong he has done our people—ay, the nameless outrages which he has inflicted upon their honour, yet you sought to gain for him the long day, for him who would string us up at short shrift. What does it mean?” And the old man’s tones became fiercer. “Is it true what they whisper of you, that the nut-brown hair and the bright eyes and the red mouth of his daughter have caught you in the net, and that your arm is no longer free, and that your heart is unmanned? Look at me! I am old, and worn, and withered. I was once young like you. I knew what it was to love, and the sweetest maid that ever stepped down the mountain side, bright and sparkling as a streamlet in the sun, was the girl of my heart. Forty years ago the green carpet was laid over her in the old churchyard, and a week after there was a bullet in the heart of him who was the father of the man you want to save. Ah! You cannot know, God grant you may never know what forty years of sorrow and bitterness are to the heart of man. Yet you would save him, who follows in the footsteps of his father—him who, as I have told you, has done us nameless wrong. Beware! I am old and you are young; you are strong and I am weak, but I can strike a traitor yet.”

As the old man spoke these last words, he had drawn himself up to his full height, his right arm was lifted, and the clenched fist drove the nails into the palm of his hand. Suddenly it fell to his side, and turning from his companion he sought the opening of the cave and disappeared in the night. The leader stood alone. The light from the pine logs began slowly to die out, shadows clothed the walls of the cave and advanced along the floor, and save a small pool of red light below and a faint flickering glow on the roof above, everything was in darkness. Still the leader remained with his arms crossed, motionless; various thoughts disturbed his heart, thoughts of the old days when he was a fisher lad; thoughts of the bivouac and the battle, of the stories of the camp fire, of the long yearning in foreign fields for his own old island home, of the oppression of the people, of the loyalty of his followers, of their faith in him, of the brave work he had hoped to do for them, and then of the sweet face of the girl that he knew never could be his, but for whose sake he would have plucked his eyes out and gone through a thousand deaths. He knew the old man had spoken truly; he knew that her father was one of the bitterest and most hated of the oppressors of his people, and yet he had to confess to himself that for her sake he had sought to gain for him the long day. The last flickering embers were almost dead. Suddenly he became aware of the darkness around, and with an effort, bracing himself up, he sought to chase the harassing thoughts away from him and left the cave.

The cave was by the sea-shore; it was far up on the cliffs, its entrance was concealed by a projecting rock, and was known to very few. A rugged ascent scarcely safe to even the most practised feet, and dangerous to any but a man of the firmest nerves, led up to it from the beach. When the leader stepped through the outlet the strong sea breeze restored him to himself. He descended cautiously until he reached the strand. To the right lay his home. For a moment he turned in that direction, but only for a moment, and then he went the opposite way. After walking for a quarter of an hour he again ascended the cliff, and reaching the table land advanced with quick steps until he found the road. Having gone three or four hundred yards, a light piercing far through the darkness from the window of a square building, that looked half fortress and half mansion, caught his eyes. There was a wild stir in his heart, and the blood rushed fiercely through his veins. He walked like one fascinated. He knew not what he thought; he only felt that if with every forward step death should grip him by the throat he should still go on. At last he stood almost close enough to the lighted windows to touch them with his hand. He looked into the room which was on the ground floor. Pictures and books and embroidery were there; a bright fire sparkled on the hearth, candles fixed against the walls made the room almost as light as day. There was no one visible. Just as he was about to turn away in despair the door opened and a radiant girl entered. She advanced towards the fireplace, shuddered a little as if cold, and stretched her soft white hands over the blaze, and the ruddy glow stained the white lilies on her cheeks. Something like a sob stuck in his throat, and when a moment after her father entered the room, and the Whiteboy chief remembered the sentence in the cave, with a moan, like that of a dumb animal in pain, he staggered helplessly away and sought his home.

The morning broke cold and grey, but soon the level lights of the winter sun came into the room where he had spent a sleepless night. He rose from his bed, and dressing himself opened the little window and looked out upon the sea. The chill breeze of the morning, odorous with the brine of the ocean, filled the room. Hours passed and he still watched the glancing billows keen and cold, and thought of the Shannon river and his voyage to Brest and the escape that was open to him, and he sank into himself and thought and thought. Then looking out again he saw on the strand below, moving along with pain, the old man of the cave, and his heart was divided, and once more he remembered the oppressions of his people.

“They trust me,” he said, “and what am I to her? What am I to her?” he cried out passionately, “she does not know of my existence. I am one of the crowd that her father treats even worse than dogs, and whom she, with all her graciousness, scarcely deigns to recognise. Ay! there you go, old man, with your load of sorrow, greater than mine; and yet ’tis hard, ’tis hard to think of it, that I should be the one to pronounce his doom.”

Wearily he closed the window and left the room and went down by the sea, and watched its ebbing and its flowing with sinking heart. The following night found him equally restless. How the week passed he did not know, but the night came when he was to meet his followers again in the cave. A week before he was a man of thirty years, looking resolute and brave save for the white look that momentarily came into his face as he pronounced the terrible sentence; to-night he looked old and haggard, and the ruddy light from the blazing logs served only to make his face look ghastly. The doom had been decreed. To-night was to decide who was to carry it into execution. Hitherto the executioner had been selected by lot. To-night it was proposed the same course should be followed. All appeared to agree, when the old man lifted his voice and said:

“We have chosen this man as our leader; we have been faithful to him in carrying out his orders; we have placed our necks within the gallows noose; some of us have stepped up the gallows stair and died without betraying him, when by betraying him they could have saved their lives. The time has come when he should prove his fidelity to us by taking this deed upon himself.”

When the old man had ceased speaking there was perfect silence. In the uncertain light it was impossible to discern clearly the features of the leader. But he spoke no word. An indistinct muttering from the followers scarcely broke the silence. Then a stout strapping fellow stepped to the front and said:

“No! I believe in our leader. Up to this it has always been decided by lot. It fell to me twice. I wished it fell to someone else; but when it fell on me I did it. I don’t see why the captain should not have the same chance as the rest of us.”

A chorus of approval answered this little speech.

“Well, then, comrades,” said the leader, “are you all satisfied that it should go by lot?”

“Yes, yes,” was the answer, while the old man stood with folded arms and remained silent.

“Then let it be by lot,” said the leader.

This course having been determined upon, a pebble was produced for every man present. One was a white pebble; the others were of various colours. The man who drew the white pebble was to be the executioner. The pebbles were placed in a small hole in the side of the cave, not touched by the light of the fire, and too high, even if there was most perfect light to allow anyone to see its contents. The old man was the first to try his fate, and kept the pebble which he drew close in his clenched fist; the others followed, and each also kept the pebble in his closed fist. The last to draw was the leader. The old man, stirring the logs with his feet, said as the blaze lit up the cave—

“Now, let us show our hands,” and every man displayed the pebble upon his level palm.

The white was in the leader’s hand. He had no sooner shown it than his fingers closed over it with a convulsive grasp that might have crushed it into powder.

“Yes,” he said, with a strident voice, “the lot has decided I’m to be the executioner. I shall answer for the discharge of my duty with my life.”

“To-night,” hissed the old man between his teeth.

“Yes, to-night,” was the reply, cold, and brief and fierce.

The conspirators filed out of the cave; the last to leave was the leader.

The new moon had just broken through the clouds, which flung their dark shadows on the sea. He gained the strand, conscious that his comrades were watching him. He took the direction of the doomed house; he moved along like a man whose heart was dead within him. He crossed the lawn, he advanced to the window; the lights were burning in the room as they had burned on that other night. The father and the daughter sat, side by side, in front of the cheerful fire, her arm round his neck, and from the movements of her lips, the light upon her face, and the pleasant laughter in her eyes, the chief knew she was talking fondly. In a moment of madness he lifted his pistol, and aimed it at her father’s head. Just then the girl drew back, rose from her chair, and standing up to her full height, displayed all her freshening beauty.

“God bless you, darling!” he sobbed; and when he was found dead outside the window, with a bullet from his own pistol in his heart, the boys knew that he was “True to them to the Death.”