The Threepenny Piece, by James
When Brien O'Brien died, people said that it did not matter very much,
because he would have died young in any case. He would have been
hanged, or his head would have been split in two halves with a hatchet,
or he would have tumbled down the cliff when he was drunk and been
smashed into jelly. Something like that was due to him, and everybody
likes to see a man get what he deserves to get.
But, as ethical writs cease to run when a man is dead, the neighbours
did not stay away from his wake. They came, and they said many
mitigating things across the body with the bandaged jaws and the sly
grin, and they reminded each other of this and that queer thing which
he had done, for his memory was crusted over with stories of wild,
laughable things, and other things which were wild but not laughable.
Meanwhile, he was dead, and one was at liberty to be a trifle sorry for
him. Further, he belonged to the O'Brien nation, a stock to whom
reverence was due. A stock not easily forgotten. The historic memory
could reconstruct forgotten glories of station and battle, of terrible
villainy and terrible saintliness, the pitiful, valorous, slow descent
to the degradation which was not yet wholly victorious. A great stock!
The O'Neills remembered it. The O'Tools and the MacSweeneys had
stories by the hundred of love and hate. The Burkes and the Geraldines
and the new strangers had memories also.
His family was left in the poorest way, but they were used to that, for
he had kept them as poor as he left them, or found them, for that
matter. They had shaken hands with Charity so often that they no
longer disliked the sallow-faced lady, and, so, certain small gifts
made by the neighbours were accepted, not very thankfully, but very
readily. These gifts were almost always in kind. A few eggs. A bag
of potatoes. A handful of meal. A couple of twists of tea—such like.
One of the visitors, however, moved by an extraordinary dejection,
slipped a silver threepenny-piece into the hand of Brien's little
daughter, Sheila, aged four years, and later on she did not like to ask
for it back again.
Little Sheila had been well trained by her father. She knew exactly
what should be done with money, and so, when nobody was looking, she
tip-toed to the coffin and slipped the threepenny-piece into Brien's
hand. That hand had never refused money when it was alive, it did not
reject it either when it was dead.
They buried him the next day.
He was called up for judgment the day after, and made his appearance
with a miscellaneous crowd of wretches, and there he again received
what was due to him. He was removed protesting and struggling to the
"Down," said Rhadamanthus, pointing with his great hand, and down he
In the struggle he dropped the threepenny-piece, but he was so bustled
and heated that he did not observe his loss. He went down, far down,
out of sight, out of remembrance, to a howling, black gulf with others
of his unseen kind.
A young seraph, named Cuchulain, chancing to pass that way shortly
afterwards, saw the threepenny-piece peeping brightly from the rocks,
and he picked it up.
He looked at it in astonishment. He turned it over and over, this way
and that way. Examined it at the stretch of his arm, and peered
minutely at it from two inches distance—
"I have never in my life seen anything so beautifully wrought," said
he, and, having stowed it in his pouch along with some other trinkets,
he strolled homewards again through the massy gates.
It was not long until Brien discovered his loss, and, suddenly, through
the black region, his voice went mounting and brawling.
"I have been robbed," he yelled. "I have been robbed in heaven!"
Having begun to yell he did not stop. Sometimes he was simply angry
and made a noise. Sometimes he became sarcastic and would send his
query swirling upwards—
"Who stole the threepenny-bit?" he roared. He addressed the
surrounding black space—
"Who stole the last threepenny-bit of a poor man?"
Again and again his voice pealed upwards. The pains of his habitation
lost all their sting for him. His mind had nourishment and the heat
within him vanquished the fumes without. He had a grievance, a
righteous cause, he was buoyed and strengthened, nothing could silence
him. They tried ingenious devices, all kinds of complicated things,
but he paid no heed, and the tormentors were in despair.
"I hate these sinners from the kingdom of Kerry," said the Chief
Tormentor, and he sat moodily down on his own circular saw; and that
worried him also, for he was clad only in a loin cloth.
"I hate the entire Clan of the Gael," said he; "why cannot they send
them somewhere else?" and then he started practising again on Brien.
It was no use. Brien's query still blared upwards like the sound of
the great trump itself. It wakened and rung the rocky caverns,
screamed through fissure and funnel, and was battered and slung from
pinnacle to crag and up again. Worse! his companions in doom became
interested and took up the cry, until at last the uproar became so
appalling that the Master himself could not stand it.
"I have not had a wink of sleep for three nights," said that harassed
one, and he sent a special embassy to the powers.
Rhadamanthus was astonished when they arrived. His elbow was leaning
on his vast knee, and his heavy head rested on a hand that was acres
long, acres wide.
"What is all this about?" said he.
"The Master cannot go to sleep," said the spokesman of the embassy, and
he grinned as he said it, for it sounded queer even to himself.
"It is not necessary that he should sleep," said Rhadamanthus. "I have
never slept since time began, and I will never sleep until time is
over. But the complaint is curious. What has troubled your master?"
"Hell is turned upside down and inside out," said the fiend. "The
tormentors are weeping like little children. The principalities are
squatting on their hunkers doing nothing. The orders are running here
and there fighting each other. The styles are leaning against walls
shrugging their shoulders, and the damned are shouting and laughing and
have become callous to torment."
"It is not my business," said the judge.
"The sinners demand justice," said the spokesman.
"They've got it," said Rhadamanthus, "let them stew in it."
"They refuse to stew," replied the spokesman, wringing his hands.
Rhadamanthus sat up.
"It is an axiom in law," said he, "that however complicated an event
may be, there can never be more than one person at the extreme bottom
of it. Who is the person?"
"It is one Brien of the O'Brien nation, late of the kingdom of Kerry.
A bad one! He got the maximum punishment a week ago."
For the first time in his life Rhadamanthus was disturbed. He
scratched his head, and it was the first time he had ever done that
"You say he got the maximum," said Rhadamanthus, "then it's a fix! I
have damned him for ever, and better or worse than that cannot be done.
It is none of my business," said he angrily, and he had the deputation
removed by force.
But that did not ease the trouble. The contagion spread until ten
million billions of voices were chanting in unison, and uncountable
multitudes were listening between their pangs.
"Who stole the threepenny-bit? Who stole the threepenny-bit?"
That was still their cry. Heaven rang with it as well as hell. Space
was filled with that rhythmic tumult. Chaos and empty Nox had a new
discord added to their elemental throes. Another memorial was drafted
below, showing that unless the missing coin was restored to its owner
hell would have to close its doors. There was a veiled menace in the
memorial also, for Clause 6 hinted that if hell was allowed to go by
the board heaven might find itself in some jeopardy thereafter.
The document was dispatched and considered. In consequence a
proclamation was sent through all the wards of Paradise, calling on
whatever person, archangel, seraph, cherub, or acolyte had found a
threepenny-piece since midday of the tenth of August then instant, that
the same person, archangel, seraph, cherub, or acolyte, should deliver
the said threepenny-piece to Rhadamanthus at his Court, and should
receive in return a free pardon and a receipt.
The coin was not delivered,
That young seraph, Cuchulain, walked about like a person who was
strange to himself. He was not tormented: he was angry. He frowned,
he cogitated and fumed. He drew one golden curl through his fingers
until it was lank and drooping; save the end only, that was still a
ripple of gold. He put the end in his mouth and strode moodily chewing
it. And every day his feet turned in the same direction—down the long
entrance boulevard, through the mighty gates, along the strip of carved
slabs, to that piled wilderness where Rhadamanthus sat monumentally.
Here delicately he went, sometimes with a hand outstretched to help his
foothold, standing for a space to think ere he jumped to a further
rock, balancing himself for a moment ere he leaped again. So he would
come to stand and stare gloomily upon the judge.
He would salute gravely, as was meet, and say, "God bless the work";
but Rhadamanthus never replied, save by a nod, for he was very busy.
Yet the judge did observe him, and would sometimes heave ponderous lids
to where he stood, and so, for a few seconds, they regarded each other
in an interval of that unceasing business.
Sometimes for a minute or two the young seraph Cuchulain would look
from the judge to the judged as they crouched back or strained forward,
the good and the bad all in the same tremble of fear, all unknowing
which way their doom might lead. They did not look at each other.
They looked at the judge high on his ebon throne, and they could not
look away from him. There were those who knew, guessed clearly their
doom; abashed and flaccid they sat, quaking. There were some who were
uncertain—rabbit-eyed these, not less quaking than the others, biting
at their knuckles as they peeped upwards. There were those hopeful,
yet searching fearfully backwards in the wilderness of memory, chasing
and weighing their sins; and these last, even when their bliss was
sealed and their steps set on an easy path, went faltering, not daring
to look around again, their ears strained to catch a—"Halt, miscreant!
this other is your way!"
So, day by day, he went to stand near the judge; and one day
Rhadamanthus, looking on him more intently, lifted his great hand and
"Go you among those to be judged," said he.
For Rhadamanthus knew. It was his business to look deep into the heart
and the mind, to fish for secrets in the pools of being.
And the young seraph Cuchulain, still rolling his golden curl between
his lips, went obediently forward and set down his nodding plumes
between two who whimpered and stared and quaked.
When his turn came, Rhadamanthus eyed him intently for a long time—
"Well!" said Rhadamanthus.
The young seraph Cuchulain blew the curl of gold away from his mouth—
"Findings are keepings," said he loudly, and he closed his mouth and
stared very impertinently at the judge.
"It is to be given up," said the judge.
"Let them come and take it from me," said the seraph Cuchulain. And
suddenly (for these things are at the will of spirits) around his head
the lightnings span, and his hands were on the necks of thunders.
For the second time in his life Rhadamanthus was disturbed, again he
scratched his head—
"It's a fix," said he moodily. But in a moment he called to those
whose duty it was—
"Take him to this side," he roared.
And they advanced. But the seraph Cuchulain swung to meet them, and
his golden hair blazed and shrieked; and the thunders rolled at his
feet, and about him a bright network that hissed and stung—and those
who advanced turned haltingly backwards and ran screaming.
"It's a fix," said Rhadamanthus; and for a little time he stared
menacingly at the seraph Cuchulain.
But only for a little time. Suddenly he put his hands on the rests of
his throne and heaved upwards his terrific bulk. Never before had
Rhadamanthus stood from his ordained chair. He strode mightily forward
and in an instant had quelled that rebel. The thunders and lightnings
were but moonbeams and dew on that stony carcass. He seized the seraph
Cuchulain, lifted him to his breast as one lifts a sparrow, and tramped
back with him—
"Fetch me that other," said he, sternly, and he sat down.
Those whose duty it was sped swiftly downwards to find Brien of the
O'Brien nation; and while they were gone, all in vain the seraph
Cuchulain crushed flamy barbs against that bosom of doom. Now, indeed,
his golden locks were drooping and his plumes were broken and tossed;
but his fierce eye still glared courageously against the nipple of
Soon they brought Brien. He was a sight of woe—howling, naked as a
tree in winter, black as a tarred wall, carved and gashed, tattered in
all but his throat, wherewith, until one's ears rebelled, he bawled his
But the sudden light struck him to a wondering silence, and the sight
of the judge holding the seraph Cuchulain like a limp flower to his
breast held him gaping—
"Bring him here," said Rhadamanthus.
And they brought him to the steps of the throne—
"You have lost a medal!" said Rhadamanthus. "This one has it."
Brien looked straitly at the seraph Cuchulain.
Rhadamanthus stood again, whirled his arm in an enormous arc, jerked,
and let go, and the seraph Cuchulain went swirling through space like a
"Go after him, Kerryman," said Rhadamanthus, stooping; and he seized
Brien by the leg, whirled him wide and out and far; dizzy, dizzy as a
swooping comet, and down, and down, and down.
Rhadamanthus seated himself. He motioned with his hand—
"Next," said he, coldly.
Down went the seraph Cuchulain, swirling in wide tumbles, scarcely
visible for quickness. Sometimes, with outstretched hands, he was a
cross that dropped plumb. Anon, head urgently downwards, he dived
steeply. Again, like a living hoop, head and heels together, he spun
giddily. Blind, deaf, dumb, breathless, mindless; and behind him Brien
of the O'Brien nation came pelting and whizzing.
What of that journey! Who could give it words? Of the suns that
appeared and disappeared like winking eyes. Comets that shone for an
instant, went black and vanished. Moons that came, and stood, and were
gone. And around all, including all, boundless space, boundless
silence; the black, unmoving void—the deep, unending quietude, through
which they fell with Saturn and Orion, and mildly-smiling Venus, and
the fair, stark-naked moon and the decent earth wreathed in pearl and
blue. From afar she appeared, the quiet one, all lonely in the void.
As sudden as a fair face in a crowded street. Beautiful as the sound
of falling waters. Beautiful as the sound of music in a silence. Like
a white sail on a windy sea. Like a green tree in a solitary place.
Chaste and wonderful she was. Flying afar. Flying aloft like a joyous
bird when the morning breaks on the darkness and he shrills sweet
tidings. She soared and sang. Gently she sang to timid pipes and
flutes of tender straw and murmuring, distant strings. A song that
grew and swelled, gathering to a multitudinous, deep-thundered harmony,
until the over-burdened ear failed before the appalling uproar of her
ecstasy, and denounced her. No longer a star! No longer a bird! A
plumed and horned fury! Gigantic, gigantic, leaping and shrieking
tempestuously, spouting whirlwinds of lightning, tearing gluttonously
along her path, avid, rampant, howling with rage and terror she leaped,
dreadfully she leaped and flew. . . .
Enough! They hit the earth—they were not smashed, there was that
virtue in them. They hit the ground just outside the village of
Donnybrook where the back road runs to the hills; and scarcely had they
bumped twice when Brien of the O'Brien nation had the seraph Cuchulain
by the throat—
"My threepenny-bit," he roared, with one fist up—
But the seraph Cuchulain only laughed—
"That!" said he. "Look at me, man. Your little medal dropped far
beyond the rings of Saturn."
And Brien stood back looking at him—He was as naked as Brien was. He
was as naked as a stone, or an eel, or a pot, or a new-born babe. He
was very naked.
So Brien of the O'Brien nation strode across the path and sat down by
the side of a hedge—
"The first man that passes this way," said he, "will give me his
clothes, or I'll strangle him."
The seraph Cuchulain walked over to him—
"I will take the clothes of the second man that passes," said he, and
he sat down.