The queer thing is that Big Michael, slow and all as he was, happened to be right about the letter from Art. It had been written, and, moreover, it had reached Ardenoo post-office. But no one knew that for certain, or what became of it, only a small little pup of a terrier dog belonging to one of the Melia boys. This pup was just of an age that it was a great comfort to his mouth to have something he could chew. He was lying taking his ease, just under the counter where the letters got sorted. And when, as luck would have it, Art's letter slipped down, of all others! from the big heap of papers and all sorts that came very plenty at that Christmas season, this little dog had no delay, only begin on the letter. In two minutes he had "little dan" made of it!--nothing left of it only a couple or three little wet rags that got swep' out the next morning, and never were heard of again. Sure, why would they, when only the pup knew anything about them? And he couldn't explain the thing, even if he had wanted to. He escaped a few kicks by that. Still, dogs often get into trouble the same way, God help them! without having earned it at all.
Yes, the invitation for the Christmas was answered. The wife, Delia her name was, had said nothing at first when it came. To tell the truth, she was well satisfied where she was, with Art and the child all to herself, in their one room in a back street. Up a lot of stairs it was, too, and the other people in the house not to say too tasty in their way of going on. But poor Delia thought it was all grand, with the little bits of furniture herself and Art would buy according as they could manage it, and the cradle in the corner by the fire.
Poor Art would smother there betimes, nigh-hand, when he'd think of the Crooked Boreen, and the wide silence of the bog, with the soft sweet wind blowing across it, and the cows and all, and the neighbours to pass the time of day with, let alone the smell of the turf-fire of an evening! Homesick the poor boy was, and didn't know it.
The way it came about that Art left home was, he got tired of things there, the very things he wanted now. And there was some said, the mother was too good and fond with him. She'd lay the two hands under his feet any hour of the day or night; thought the sun shone out of him, so she did. And Art was always good and biddable with her; never gave any back-talk, or was contrary. But all the time he wanted to be himself. He was much like a colt kept in a stall, well fed and minded, but he wants to get out to stretch his legs in a long gallop all the time.
So there's why Art went off from Ardenoo to the Big Smoke, and got on the best ever you knew. He was very apprehensive about machinery, could understand it well, and got took on by a great high-up doctor to mind his motor for him. The old people were that proud when they heard of it.
"Sure it's on the Pig's Back Art is now, whatever!" they said, "with his good-lookin' pound a week!"
Wealth that sounded, away off in Ardenoo. But the sorra much spending there is in it in a city, where you're paying out for everything you want. Delia did the best she could with it, but it wouldn't do all she wanted.
Still, she pleased Art. Small and white in the face she was, as Mrs. Moloney had imagined her. Sewing she used to be, a bad life for a girl to be at it all day. But she flourished up well after getting married. And what Art had looked into, when he was courting, was the big, longing-looking dark eyes of her, and the gentle voice and ways, and the clouds of soft brown hair ... well, sure every eye forms a beauty of its own. But Art might have done worse nor to marry Delia Fogarty that never asked to differ from a word he said, till the notion came up of they going to Ardenoo for the Christmas. When the letter asking them came, he near riz the roof off the house, the shout he gave, he was that delighted in himself to be going back home.
"But what's a trouble to you, Delia?" he says, when he had time to take notice that she wasn't looking as rejoiced as he expected, only sitting there with her eyes upon the child in her arms; "a body'd think you didn't care about going at all!" he says, half vexed.
"I ... I'd like to go, Art," says Delia, "only I don't know do I want to go or not.... I ... do you see ..."
"Well ... what?"
"Sure ... maybe ... how do I know will they like me or not! And me coat all wore ... and ... and, moreover, I never got to get a right sort of a hood for the child ... or a cloak...."
"Och, what at all, girl dear!" says Art, that was so excited at the thoughts of getting home that nothing was a trouble to him; "not like you! What else would they do! And the child ... well, now, isn't it well we told them nothing about him, the way he'll be a surprise to them now? The fine big fellah that he is! Sure it would be a sin to go put any clothes on him at all, hiding the brave big legs of him!"
Delia had to laugh at that; and then Art went out and bought a grand sheet of note-paper with robins and red berries and "The Season's Compliments" at the top of it. And Delia wrote the letter upon this, because she could write real neat and nice. Art told her every word to say.
"DEAR FATHER AND MOTHER," it began, "I have pleasure in taking up my pen to rite yous those few lines hopping they find yous in good health as they leave us at this present thank you and God. I would wish my love and best wishes to ..." and there were so many to be remembered that Art told Delia to put in "all inquiring friends," and even shortened like that, the list hardly left room for saying, "and we will go home for the Christmas and is obliged for the kindness of asking and we will go by the last train Christmas Eve and let yous meet that with Ling-gerin' Death and the cart and we're bringing a Christmas box wid us that yous will be rejoiced to see so I will end those few lines from your
"SON AND NEW DAUGHTER."
When that letter was finished and posted, Delia made no more of an objection to going, only did the best she could, washing and mending her own little things and the baby's. But let her do her best and they were poor-looking little bits of duds! And many's the time, when Art was away, that she'd cry, and wish to herself that there was no such a place as Ardenoo on the face of this earthly world. But what could she do, only please Art!
Well, the very evening before they were to start for Ardenoo, didn't Art come home to her in great humour. "Look at here, Delia!" says he, with a big laugh; "see the fine handful of money," and he held it out to her, "that Himself is after giving me in a Christmas box! Now we'll do the thing in real style! Come along out now, before the shops shut, and we'll buy all before us!"
Well, if you were to see the two of them that night! the three, indeed, for Delia wouldn't ever leave the child, only took him with her. To see them looking in at the grand bright windows full of things! and going in, Delia half afraid, but Art as loud and outspoken as a lord, spending free as long as it lasted! To see him then going home with her and the child, and he all loaded down with parcels! and opened them all out, the minute they got back! All the things they bought out of that money! A pipe and tobacco for Michael; a lovely cake with "Merry Christmas" in pink sugar upon it, for Herself; the grandest of brown shoes and a hat and feather for Delia, and as for the baby!... Delia could scarce believe her eyes, all they had got for him, things she had been wanting....
Art made her fit them all on, and when she held up the child to be admired, with the loveliest of a soft white shawl rolled round him, "He becomes it well," says Art; "and I suppose you think to make him look better nor he is, by all that finery!"
"Your mother'll think him terrible small," said Delia, looking very fretted again; but she kissed the baby, as much as to say, "Little I care what she thinks!"
She said nothing about that part of it, though, only looked up at Art with the beseeching eyes I mentioned before.
"Let that go round!" says Art; and he lifted the two of them in his arms and kissed them both; and then when he had let Delia go, says he, "Me mother is the smallest little crathureen herself, that ever you saw! So she needn't talk! And sure what can you expect from a child not a month old yet! And there's an ould saying and a true one, in Ardenoo, 'It's not always the big people that reaps the harvest!' and so by this boy of ours! We won't feel till he'll be working!"
"Working!" said Delia. And she unclasped the baby's fingers and kissed the tiny hands inside, that were as soft and pink as rose-leaves, first one hand and then the other. She never thought that every hand, no matter how rough and strong, begins by being a baby's hand like the one she was after kissing.
"Ay, work!" says Art, very determined; "it would amaze you or any one that didn't know, the way the children grow up and get sense at Ardenoo! the way if the old people seemed wishful for us to stop at home with them, this little fellah of ours would soon ... but whisht!" before poor Delia had time to say a word one way or other about this iday, "whisht! what's this at all! A telegram! for me!"
HE KISSED THEM BOTH
A telegram! Poor Delia turned gashly pale at the word, and hugged the child closer to her, as if she thought that little bit of an orange-coloured envelope might be going to do some destruction on her treasure.
Art read it slowly to himself, while his face grew as long as to-day and to-morrow; and says he, "Well, it can't be helped! The Master that's after getting a hurried call to the country and will want me to drive him ... so I'll not be at read'ness to go...." He looked anxiously at Delia.
Not go to Ardenoo! Delia's heart leaped up.
"Sure, can't we stop where we are?" says she, with dancing eyes.
"Och, not at all!" says Art; "it wouldn't answer at all to be disappointing them. And besides, it's down that side he wants to go ... some sick child ... the Master I mean ... I'll likely be at Ardenoo before you!"
"But, Art! ... is it go wid meself? What will I do at all at all?" and Delia begins to cry.
"See here now," says Art, "don't be taking on, that way! You wouldn't have me disappoint the Master ... after he being so good to us, too! The fine grand little clothes we're after getting!... You'll be as right as rain! Just wait till you're at Ardenoo, where every one knows me! Why, you'll be with friends, that very minute! And you wrote it in the letter yourself, what train to meet you at.... You wouldn't be fretting me mother and she thinking to have us for the Christmas ... to make no mention of the child at all!"
"To be sure not!" says Delia. And she dried her eyes and said no more, only got ready and went off the next day with the little child, as smiling and gay as she could appear, waving her hand to Art that saw her off at the Broadstone station, and did all he could to put her in heart. But it's a long, long ways from the Big Smoke to Ardenoo. Hours and hours it took that wet, wild day to get there. And Delia wasn't too well accustomed to trains and going about. She managed to keep the child warm and comforted all through, but when the train stopped at Ardenoo she was that tired and giddy herself, that she scarcely knew what she was doing or where she was to go.
She stood a minute on the platform, with the wind and rain beating down upon her, till it had her even more confused. And the day was nearly done, and no lamps lit yet. But she made out a porter and asked him, as Art had bid her, for Mr. Moloney's ass-cart.
"Moloney's ass and dray? Ay," says the man, "Big Michael was in the Town to-day at Melia's, and buying all before him, by what I hear. And not too long ago it was ..."
"Would I ... could I find him ... where's that place you're after mentioning?"
And Delia took a grip of the big hat, that the wind was getting at.
"Melia's shop? You can't miss it! There's ne'er another.... He should have left it by now ... but let you go on along that road ..." and he showed her where it lay, stretching off into the darkness, "and you'll overtake him, ready! That ass is middling slow!"
The man guessed who this was speaking to him, for they all had heard about Art and the wife being expected for the Christmas. And he had no call to tell her to go off like that. Big Michael was nigh-hand at home again by then. But he had a sup taken at that present, as often happens at Christmas. Only he was a bit "on," he'd never have put such an iday into Delia's head. To think of letting her start after Michael like that!
But poor Delia knew no better than to follow fool's advice; how could she? So she just asked some directions about the road, and then she changed the child from one arm to the other and faced out in the night and rain, and a wind that would blow the horns off a goose to overtake the ass-cart. Little she thought that it was back at the Crooked Boreen by then, near five good miles away!
For a while, she wasn't in too bad a heart at all. She was glad to be out of the train, and she was expecting every step to get some signs of Michael on in front. But the little light there was went altogether before long; quenched, like, by the great rain and the heavy clouds that hung low and dark in the skies. Delia began to feel it very lonesome! But she kept going on; what else could she do?
At this time, what she thought worst of was, that the wet was spoiling her good hat, after Art spending his money upon it, the way she could make some kind of appearance foreninst his mother and the neighbours. But what could she do to save it?
"The cut I'll be!" she thought; "all dreeped with rain!" And indeed the hat, with its grand feather all broken and draggled, was a poor-looking thing enough before she was half-ways to the Crooked Boreen. As for the grand shoes with the high heels, they were like sponges upon her feet, and she slipping in them as she stumbled along through mud and gutter to her ankles.
But she kept going on! The baby lay warm and snug upon her heart. She managed to keep him sheltered, anyway! Now and then she'd stop and put her face down to his, to feel his sweet warm breath upon her cheek. Then she'd go on again. That ass-cart! If only she could catch it! Wouldn't it be Heaven to be taken off her aching feet and be carried along, herself and the child, with some one that knew the way, and not to be feeling lost, as she did now.
For by degrees that's what Delia had to think; she was lost. Still she struggled on, the poor little bet-down thing that she was; so tired that she only kept moving at all by clenching her teeth hard and saying out loud, "I must! I must! A nice thing it would be for Art to not find me when he gets home! I must keep going on! The baby would die if I was to lie down..." for that is what she was more inclined for than anything else.
The wind was coming in great gusts now, hindering her far worse than the rain. It caught her skirts like the sails of a ship; it snatched at her hat. She tried to hold it on, but a sudden strong blast came, just as she was shifting the child again in her arms. Like a spiteful hand, it tore the hat from her head and furled it away; and what could be done, to get it again, in the storm and darkness? Delia cried at first, thinking of the loss it was. But she minded nothing long, only the tiredness and that still she must keep going on.
Suddenly she began to sing to the child:
I laid my love in a cradley-bed, Lu lu lu lu la lay
. Little white love with a soft round head, Lu lu lu lu la lay
Before she had it done, she thought to see a light a piece off from her. She made towards it. Out upon the bog itself she was now; and them that saw her tracks after, said one of the holy Angels must have been guiding her then, that she wasn't drownded, herself and the child, in a bog-hole. She slipped here and she fell there on the wet, rough ground; but she kept on till she reached the light. It was the Christmas Candle, in Michael's stable, burning there, mild and watchful.