The Lane that had No Turning/The Man that Died at Alma
THE MAN THAT DIED AT ALMA
THE man who died at Alma had a Kilkenny brogue that you could not cut with a knife, but he was called Kilquhanity, a name as Scotch as McGregor. Kilquhanity was a retired soldier, on pension, and Pontiac was a place of peace and poverty. The only gentry were the Curé, the Avocat, and the young Seigneur, but of the three the only one with a private income was the young Seigneur.
What should such a common man as Kilquhanity do with a private income! It seemed almost suspicious, instead of creditable, to the minds of the simple folk at Pontiac; for they were French, and poor, and laborious, and Kilquhanity drew his pension from the headquarters of the English Government, which they only knew by legends wafted to them over great tracts of country from the city of Quebec.
When Kilquhanity first came with his wife, it was without introductions from anywhere—unlike everybody else in Pontiac, whose family history could be instantly reduced to an exact record by the Curé. He had a smattering of French, which he turned off with oily brusqueness, he was not close-mouthed, he talked freely of events in his past life, and he told some really wonderful tales of his experiences in the British army. He was no braggart, however, and his one great story which gave him the nickname by which he was called at Pontiac, was told far more in a spirit of laughter at himself than in praise of his own part in the incident.
The first time he told the story was in the house of Medallion the auctioneer.
"Aw the night it was!" said Kilquhanity, after a pause, blowing a cloud of tobacco smoke into the air, "the night it was, me darlin’s! Bitther cowld in that Roosian counthry, though but late summer, and nothin’ to ate but a lump of bread, no bigger than a dickybird’s skull; nothin’ to drink but wather. Turrible, turrible, and for clothes to wear—Mother of Moses! that was a bad day for clothes! We got betune no barrick quilts that night. No stockin’ had I insoide me boots, no shirt had I but a harse’s quilt sewed an to me; no heart I had insoide me body; nothin’ at all but duty an’ shtandin’ to orders, me b’ys!
"Says Sergeant-Major Kilpatrick to me, ‘Kilquhanity,’ says he, ‘there’s betther places than River Alma to live by,’ says he. ‘Faith, an’ by the Liffey I wish I was this moment’—Liffey’s in ould Ireland, Frenchies! 'But, Kilquhanity,’ says he, ‘faith, an’ it’s the Liffey we’ll never see again, an’ put that in yer pipe an’ smoke it!’ And thrue for him.
"But that night, aw that night! Ivery bone in me body was achin’, and shure me heart was achin’ too, for the poor b’ys that were fightin’ hard an’ gettin’ little for it. Bitther cowld it was, aw, bitther cowld! and the b’ys droppin’ down, droppin’, droppin’, droppin’, wid the Roosian bullets in thim!
"‘Kilquhanity,’ says Sergeant-Major Kilpatrick to me, ‘it’s this shtandin’ still, while we do be droppin’, droppin’, that girds the soul av yer.’ Aw! the sight it was, the sight it was! The b’ys of the rigimint shtandin’ shoulder to shoulder, an’ the faces av ’m blue wid powder, an’ red wid blood, an’ the bits o’ b’ys droppin’ round me loike twigs of an’ ould tree in a shtorm. Just a cry an’ a bit av a gurgle tru the teeth, an’ divil the wan o’ thim would see the Liffey side anny more.
“‘The Roosians are chargin’!’ shouts Sergeant-Major Kilpatrick. ‘The Roosians are chargin’—here they come!’ Shtandin’ besoide me was a bit of a lump of a b’y, as foine a lad as ever shtood in the boots of me rigimint—aw! the look of his face was the look o’ the dead. ‘The Roosians are comin’—they’re chargin’!’ says Sergeant-Major Kilpatrick, and the bit av a b’y, that had nothin’ to eat all day, throws down his gun and turns round to run. Eighteen years old he was, only eighteen! just a straight slip of a lad from Malahide. ‘Hould on! Teddie,’ says I, ‘hould on! How’ll yer face yer mother if yer turn yer back on the inimy of yer counthry?’ The b’y looks me in the eyes long enough to wink three times, picks up his gun, an’ shtood loike a rock, he did, till the Roosians charged us, roared on us, an’ I saw me slip of a b’y go down under the sabre of a damned Cossack! ‘Mother!’ I heard him say, ‘Mother!’ an’ that’s all I heard him say—and the mother waitin’ away aff there by the Liffey soide! Aw! wurra! wurra! the b’ys go down to battle and the mothers wait at home. Some of the b’ys come back, but the most of thim shtay where the battle laves ’em. Wurra! wurra! many’s the b’y wint down that day by Alma River, an’ niver come back!
“There I was shtandin’, when hell broke loose on the b’ys of me rigimint, and divil the wan o’ me knows if I killed a Roosian that day or not. But Sergeant-Major Kilpatrick—a bit of a liar was the Sergeant-Major—says he: ‘It was tin ye killed, Kilquhanity.’ He says that to me the noight that I left the rigimint for ever, and all the b’ys shtandin’ round and liftin’ lasses an’ saying, ‘Kilquhanity! Kilquhanity! Kilquhanity!’ as if it was sugar and honey in their mouths. Aw! the sound of it! 'Kilquhanity,’ says he, ‘it was tin ye killed!’ but aw, b’ys, the Sergeant-Major was an awful liar. If he could be doin’ annybody anny good by lyin’, shure he would be lyin’ all the time.
"But it’s little I know how many I killed, for I was killed meself that day. A Roosian sabre claved the shoulder and neck of me, an’ down I wint, and over me trampled a squadron of Roosian harses, an’ I stopped thinkin’. Aw! so aisy, so aisy, I slipped away out av the fight! The shriekin’ and roarin’ kept dwindlin’ and dwindlin’, and I dropped all into a foine shlape, so quiet, so aisy.! An’ I thought that slip av a lad from the Liffey soide was houlding me hand, and sayin’ ‘Mother! Mother!’ and we both wint ashlape; an’ the b’ys of the rigimint when Alma was over, they said to each other, the b’ys they said: ‘Kilquhanity’s dead!’ An’ the trinches was dug, an’ all we foine dead b’ys was laid in long rows loike candles in the trinches. An’ I was laid in among thim, and Sergeant-Major Kilpatrick shtandin’ there an’ looking at me an’ sayin’, 'Poor b’y! poor b’y!’
"But when they threw another man on tap of me, I waked up out o’ that beautiful shlape, and give him a kick. ‘Yer not polite,’ says I to mesilf. Shure, I couldn’t shpake—there was no strength in me. An’ they threw another man on, an’ I kicked again, and the Sergeant-Major he sees it, an’ shouts out: ‘Kilquhanity’s leg is kickin’!’ says he. An’ they pulled aff the two poor divils that had been thrown o’ tap o’ me, and the Sergeant-Major lifts me head, an’ he says ‘Yer not killed, Kilquhanity?’ says he.
Divil a word could I shpake, but I winked at him, and Captain Masham shtandin’ by whips out a flask. ‘Put that betune his teeth,’ says he. Whin I got it there, trust me fur not lettin’ it go. An’ the Sergeant-Major says to me: ‘I have hopes of you, Kilquhanity, when you do be drinkin’ loike that!’
"‘A foine healthy corpse I am; an’ a foine thirsty, healthy corpse I am!’ says I."
A dozen hands stretched out to give Kilquhanity a drink, for even the best story-teller of Pontiac could not have told his tale so well.
Yet the success achieved by Kilquhanity at such moments was discounted through long months of mingled suspicion and doubtful tolerance. Although both he and his wife were Catholics (so they said, and so it seemed), Kilquhanity never went to confession or took the Blessed Sacrament. The Curé spoke to Kilquhanity’s wife about it, and she said she could do nothing with her husband. Her tongue once loosed, she spoke freely, and what she said was little to the credit of Kilquhanity. Not that she could urge any horrible things against him; but she railed at minor faults till the Curé dismissed her with some good advice upon wives rehearsing their husband’s faults, even to the parish priest.
Mrs. Kilquhanity could not get the Curé to listen to her, but she was more successful elsewhere. One day she came to get Kilquhanity’s pension, which was sent every three months through M. Garon, the Avocat. After she had handed over the receipt prepared beforehand by Kilquhanity, she replied to M. Garon’s inquiry concerning her husband in these words: "Misther Garon, sir, such a man it is—enough to break the heart of anny woman. And the timper of him—Misther Garon, the timper of him’s that awful, awful! No conshideration, and that ugly-hearted, got whin a soldier b’y! The things he does—my, my, the things he does!" She threw up her hands with an air of distraction.
"Well, and what does he do, Madame?" asked the Avocat simply.
"An’ what he says, too—the awful of it! Ah, the bad sour heart in him! What’s he lyin’ in his bed for now—an’ the New Year comin’ on, whin we ought to be praisin’ God an’ enjoyin’ each other’s company in this blessed wurruld? What’s he lying betune the quilts now fur, but by token of the bad heart in him! It’s a wicked cowld he has, an’ how did he come by it? I’ll tell ye, Misther Garon. So wild was he, yesterday it was a week, so black mad wid somethin’ I’d said to him and somethin’ that shlipped from me hand at his head, that he turns his back on me, throws opin the dure, shteps out into the shnow, and shtandin’ there alone, he curses the wide wurruld—oh, dear Misther Garon, he cursed the wide wurruld, shtandin’ there in the snow! God forgive the black heart of him, shtandin’ out there cursin’ the wide wurruld!"
The Avocat looked at the Sergeant’s wife musingly, the fingers of his hands tapping together, but he did not speak: he was becoming wiser all in a moment as to the ways of women.
"An’ now he’s in bed, the shtrappin’ blasphemer, fur the cowld he got shtandin’ there in the snow cursin’ the wide wurruld. Ah, Misther Garon, pity a poor woman that has to live wid the loikes o’ that!"
The Avocat still did not speak. He turned his face away and looked out of the window, where his eyes could see the little house on the hill, which to-day had the Union Jack flying in honour of some battle or victory, dear to Kilquhanity’s heart. It looked peaceful enough, the little house lying there in the waste of snow, banked up with earth, and sheltered on the northwest by a little grove of pines. At last M. Garon rose, and lifting himself up and down on his toes as if about to deliver a legal opinion, he coughed slightly, and then said in a dry little voice:
"Madame, I shall have pleasure in calling on your husband. You have not seen the matter in the true light. Madame, I bid you good-day."
That night the Avocat, true to his promise, called on Sergeant Kilquhanity. Kilquhanity was alone in the house. His wife had gone to the village for the Little Chemist. She had been roused at last to the serious nature of Kilquhanity’s illness.
M. Garon knocked. There was no answer. He knocked again more loudly, and still no answer. He opened the door and entered into a clean, warm living-room, so hot that the heat came to him in waves, buffeting his face. Dining, sitting, and drawing-room, it was also a sort of winter kitchen; and side by side with relics of Kilquhanity’s soldier-life were clean, bright tins, black saucepans, strings of dried fruit, and well-cured hams. Certainly the place had the air of home; it spoke for the absent termagant.
M. Garon looked round and saw a half-opened door, through which presently came a voice speaking in a laboured whisper. The Avocat knocked gently at the door. "May I come in, Sergeant?" he asked, and entered. There was no light in the room, but the fire in the kitchen stove threw a glow over the bed where the sick man lay. The big hands of the soldier moved restlessly on the quilt.
"Aw, it’s the koind av ye!" said Kilquhanity, with difficulty, out of the half shadows.
The Avocat took one burning hand in both of his, held it for a moment, and pressed it two or three times. He did not know what to say.
"We must have a light," said he at last, and taking a candle from the shelf he lighted it at the stove and came into the bedroom again. This time he was startled. Even in this short illness, Kilquhanity’s flesh had dropped away from him, leaving him but a bundle of bones, on which the skin quivered with fever. Every word the sick man tried to speak cut his chest like a knife, and his eyes half started from his head with the agony of it. The Avocat’s heart sank within him, for he saw that a life was hanging in the balance. Not knowing what to do, he tucked in the bedclothes gently.
"I do be thinkin’," said the strained, whispering voice—"I do be thinkin’ I could shmoke."
The Avocat looked round the room, saw the pipe on the window, and cutting some tobacco from a "plug," he tenderly filled the old black corn-cob. Then he put the stem in Kilquhanity’s mouth and held the candle to the bowl. Kilquhanity smiled, drew a long breath, and blew out a cloud of thick smoke. For a moment he puffed vigorously, then, all at once, the pleasure of it seemed to die away, and presently the bowl dropped down on his chin. M. Garon lifted it away. Kilquhanity did not speak, but kept saying something over and over again to himself, looking beyond M. Garon abstractedly.
At that moment the front door of the house opened, and presently a shrill voice came through the door: "Shmokin’, shmokin’, are ye, Kilquhanity? As soon as me back’s turned, it’s playin’ the fool——" She stopped short, seeing the Avocat.
"Beggin’ yer pardon, Misther Garon," she said, "I thought it was only Kilquhanity here, an’ he wid no more sense than a babby."
Kilquhanity’s eyes closed, and he buried one side of his head in the pillow, that her shrill voice should not pierce his ears.
"The Little Chemist ’ll be comin’ in a minit, dear Misther Garon," said the wife presently, and she began to fuss with the bedclothes and to be nervously and uselessly busy.
"Aw, lave thim alone, darlin’," whispered Kilquhanity, tossing. Her officiousness seemed to hurt him more than the pain in his chest.
M. Garon did not wait for the Little Chemist to arrive, but after pressing the Sergeant’s hand he left the house and went straight to the house of the Curé, and told him in what condition was the black sheep of his flock.
When M. Garon returned to his own home he found a visitor in his library. It was a woman, between forty and fifty years of age, who rose slowly to her feet as the Avocat entered, and, without preliminary, put into his hands a document.
"That is who I am," she said. "Mary Muddock that was, Mary Kilquhanity that is."
The Avocat held in his hands the marriage lines of Matthew Kilquhanity of the parish of Malahide and Mary Muddock of the parish of St. Giles, London. The Avocat was completely taken aback. He blew nervously through his pale fingers, raised himself up and down on his toes, and grew pale through suppressed excitement. He examined the certificate carefully, though from the first he had no doubt of its accuracy and correctness.
"Well!" said the woman, with a hard look in her face and a hard note in her voice. "Well!"
The Avocat looked at her musingly for a moment. All at once there had been unfolded to him Kilquhanity’s story. In his younger days Kilquhanity had married this woman with a face of tin and a heart of leather. It needed no confession from Kilquhanity’s own lips to explain by what hard paths he had come to the reckless hour when, at Blackpool, he had left her for ever, as he thought. In the flush of his criminal freedom he had married again—with the woman who shared his home on the little hillside, behind the Parish Church, she believing him a widower. Mary Muddock, with the stupidity of her class, had never gone to the right quarters to discover his whereabouts until a year before this day when she stood in the Avocat’s library. At last, through the War Office, she had found the whereabouts of her missing Matthew. She had gathered her little savings together, and, after due preparation, had sailed away to Canada to find the soldier boy whom she had never given anything but bad hours in all the days of his life with her.
"Well," said the woman, "you’re a lawyer—have you nothing to say? You pay his pension—next time you’ll pay it to me. I’ll teach him to leave me and my kid and go off with an Irish cook!"
The Avocat looked her steadily in the eyes, and then delivered the strongest blow that was possible from the opposite side of the case. "Madame," said he, "Madame, I regret to inform you that Matthew Kilquhanity is dying."
"Dying, is he?" said the woman, with a sudden change of voice and manner, but her whine did not ring true. "The poor darlin’! and only that Irish hag to care for him! Has he made a will?" she added eagerly.
Kilquhanity had made no will, and the little house on the hillside, and all that he had, belonged to this woman who had spoiled the first part of his life, and had come now to spoil the last part.
An hour later the Avocat, the Curé, and the two women stood in the chief room of the little house on the hillside. The door was shut between the two rooms, and the Little Chemist was with Kilquhanity. The Curé’s hand was on the arm of the first wife and the Avocat’s upon the arm of the second. The two women were glaring eye to eye, having just finished as fine a torrent of abuse of each other and of Kilquhanity as can be imagined. Kilquhanity himself, with the sorrow of death upon him, though he knew it not, had listened to the brawl, his chickens come home to roost at last. The first Mrs. Kilquhanity had sworn, with an oath that took no account of the Curé’s presence, that not a stick nor a stone nor a rag nor a penny should that Irish slattern have of Matthew Kilquhanity’s!
The Curé and the Avocat had quieted them at last, and the Curé spoke sternly now to both women.
"In the presence of death," said he, "have done with your sinful clatter. Stop quarrelling over a dying man. Let him go in peace! Let him go in peace! If I hear one word more," he added sternly, "I will turn you both out of the house into the night. I will have the man die in peace!"
Opening the door of the bedroom, the Curé went in and shut the door, bolting it quietly behind him. The Little Chemist sat by the bedside, and Kilquhanity lay as still as a babe upon the bed. His eyes were half closed, for the Little Chemist had given him an opiate to quiet the terrible pain.
The Curé saw that the end was near. He touched Kilquhanity’s arm: "My son," said he, "look up. You have sinned; you must confess your sins, and repent."
Kilquhanity looked up at him with dazed but half-smiling eyes. "Are they gone? Are the women gone?"
The Curé nodded his head. Kilquhanity’s eyes closed and opened again. "They’re gone, thin! Oh, the foine of it! the foine of it!" he whispered. "So quiet, so aisy, so quiet! Faith, I’ll just be shlaping! I’ll be shlaping now!"
His eyes closed, but the Curé touched his arm again. "My son," said he, "look up. Do you thoroughly and earnestly repent you of your sins?"
His eyes opened again. "Yis, father, oh yis. There’s been a dale o’ noise—there’s been a dale o’ noise in the wurruld, father," said he. "Oh, so quiet, so quiet now! I do be shlaping!"
A smile came upon his face. "Oh, the foine of it! I do be shlaping—shlaping."
And he fell into a noiseless Sleep.