The boys of St. Fintan’s College discuss the coming of a new master. They resolve to give him a lively time of it. When, however, ‘Old Snuffy,’ as the boys respectfully call the Rev. President, introduces Kilgallon, something in the new master’s personality interests and attracts them. They call him ‘The Little Captain’ and are soon listening to his stories of Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell, and taking a breathless interest in ‘The Wandering Hawk,’—the name given to a noted Fenian organiser, one John Dunleavy, alias Warren, on whose head is the price of £500. A strolling tin whistler comes to the College and is seen in secret conference with the Little Captain. Several of the boys make an expedition to the island of Inishglasogue. Their boat founders. Young Clery disappears. The Little Captain comes on the scene and he and Dwyer (who tells the story) enter a water cave in search of him. The cave leads into the interior of Inishglasogue where in a cleft which they name the Eagle’s Nest they find young Clery wounded after a victorious fight with a sea eagle. One day, as he sits in his classroom, a police force enters and arrests the Little Captain as a Fenian organiser. He effects a daring escape, and the County Inspector astonishes the President and students of St. Fintan’s by announcing that the Little Captain is the Wandering Hawk. A few nights later the Hawk comes secretly to the College and asks Clery and Dwyer to convey a message to the Tin Whistler. They duly convey the message, but the tin whistler is captured by a force of police as he leaves the College. Clery and Dwyer decide that they must now themselves carry the message to the Hawk’s friends who are to meet at night in the Priest’s Cave on Conagh Mountain.
IN WHICH WE TAKE THE FENIAN OATH
The stars in their courses fought for us. Witness the fact that the Dean, who would ordinarily have presided at second study on Thursday evening, was providentially afflicted with an abominable toothache and asked MacDonnell to take his place. With MacDonnell on duty one could make any racket one pleased in the Study Hall, short of playing a brass band. That particular evening MacDonnell’s contortions and chuckles gave us to understand that he had a particularly interesting set of Conic Sections to deal with. They seemed at once stubborn and tricky, full of resources and unexpected rallies, dying very hard. He wrestled with them with a sort of demoniac glee, most impressive for us to contemplate. During this Berserker struggle, MacDonnell was as oblivious of our presence, and of our comings and goings, as if we were on the planet Mars.
In these circumstances a sublime inspiration came to young Clery. He slipped out of his desk, crawled under cover from his place near the top of the Study Hall to the bottom, placed a stool under the clock, mounted the stool, and pushed on the hands of the clock a good half-hour. This done, he effected a skilful retreat. Everyone except MacDonnell had watched him with fascination. MacDonnell had been busy slaying a Conic Section. Clery’s feat deserves to be recorded with that of the general of old who made time stop in order that he might win a battle. Clery had quite as effectively made time move on. MacDonnell was amazed beyond words when nine o’clock struck half-an-hour sooner than he had expected it. We all raced up to the dormitories, the Dean fortunately not being on the spot to detect the mysterious change that had taken place in the hours and seasons of things. We had gained a solid half-hour which might mean all the difference between the failure and the success of our dash to the Priest’s Cave.
Clery, Sweeney, and I feigned an unusual somnolence, which materially helped in quietening things down in the dormitory. Sweeney and Clery were unofficial leaders of our dorm—Sweeney in virtue of his slight seniority and his frank good nature, Clery in virtue of the indefinable something in him which we all felt, yet could neither name nor explain—and the tone of the dorm on any particular night was always set by them. To-night they set, or seemed to set, the example of sleep, and MacDonnell was able to turn off the lights and get back to his Conic Sections in record time. As soon as he had closed the door behind him young Clery and I began to re-dress ourselves under the bedclothes. We were ready in five minutes. We waited five minutes longer less MacDonnell should blunder back in again. All the lads were quiet; most of them asleep.
‘Keep nix now, Sweeney,’ said young Clery.
Sweeney slipped out of bed and moved noiselessly towards the door, where he posted himself sentry. Clery and I then slipped out and completed our costume by putting on our boots, and taking our caps from our pockets.
‘Whadyer doin’?’ asked Splothery sleepily.
‘Shut up, ass,’ said Sweeney.
The ass shut up. No one else stirred.
‘Raise the window now,’ said Clery.
Together we raised it inch by inch. It seemed to creak in a way it had never creaked before. It positively talked.
‘Hang this window,’ said Clery.
‘It is already hung,’ said I, attempting a feeble joke.
‘The joke hangs fire,’ said Clery, as he crawled through and began to disappear.
I was about to follow him when Sweeney said ‘nix!’
A hand had been placed on the outer nob of the door. Sweeney put his back against the door and held the knob on his side.
‘Scoot,’ he cried to me under his breath.
I scooted through the window, and closed it from the outside. As I climbed down after Clery I saw a band of light widening in the room; I paused, realising that, as the night was dark, I could not be seen from the inside. MacDonnell’s head appeared at the door; MacDonnell’s kindly owl-like eyes blinked in the light of the lamp he held. Sweeney had flattened himself between the leaf of the door and the wall. MacDonnell peered about, and detected nothing. He withdrew, and all was dark again. MacDonnell was invaluable. If it had been the Dean!
I continued my descent.
Young Clery waited for me below. We glided round the front of the house, gained the playfield, crept past the shadowy goal posts, past the swings, past the handball alley, gained the far hedge, and won on to the Hole in the Wall. Through the Hole in the Wall then and out into the blackness of Feagh Wood.
I had never realised what darkness was until I stood in Feagh that night. By day young Clery and I knew Feagh Wood as we knew the palms of our hands. But this was not Feagh Wood: this was simply blackness. We sat down for a few minutes to get used to the dark. We shut our eyes, and opened them again. It made no appreciable difference. We got up and stumbled on. We kept bumping against trees, and tripping over roots, and getting entangled in brambles.
‘This will take us an hour,’ said Clery. ‘I’m jolly glad I shoved on that clock.’
It took us the better part of an hour. Instinct or chance or Providence or something that was not deliberate and intelligent on our part, for it was too dark for us to follow any course known to us, guided us to the very point we wanted to make,—the point where the wood stretched up the hillside to Killconnla Churchyard, thus saving us the sweep of the road from Barna Forge to Killconnla. The road, indeed, would have proved shorter that black night, for progress would have been quicker; but we preferred the wood, for there was always the danger that, if missed from our dormitory, the Dean or Old Snuffy might give chase along the road. And the Dean, giving chase under the stimulus of a raging toothache, would have been no joke! In Feagh, on the other hand, on such a night we were at any rate free from the fear of pursuit.
We skirted Killconnla Churchyard, keeping arm-in-arm for mutual protection against any ghosts that might be on the prowl there. Then, in the Irish phrase, ‘we gave the mountain to ourselves.’ The mountain was dark, but had not quite the blackness of Feagh. Shapes that were familiar to us by day seemed strangely unfamiliar now,—huge and grotesque and menacing. Once Clery walked up to a thorn-bush and shouted ‘Who are you?’ thinking it was a man. Shortly after some living thing, whether a hare or a rabbit or a badger—for it seemed bigger than a hare or a rabbit—started up from under my feet and went pattering away somewhere. It caused my heart to beat in a ridiculous way.
The scramble round the lip of Grey Man’s Pool and along the ridge of Grey Man’s Path was still more nerve-racking. Nothing would have induced me to do it but the consciousness that young Clery was with me and that we were on the Wandering Hawk’s service. The place was dangerous in itself,—we knew that a man had fallen from Grey Man’s Path and had been dashed to pieces in the glen beneath it; we knew that two men had been drowned in Grey Man’s Pool, one of them having slipped on the edge of the chasm and dragged the other over in an effort to steady himself. We also knew that the Grey Man himself was believed to haunt that region, a shadowy spectre; that he was addicted to flitting across the Pool and to stalking along the Path, and that, in fact, it was his sudden appearances in those places respectively that had caused the deaths aforesaid. In truth a rencontre with him on Grey Man’s Path would have been far from enjoyable. If one turned to flee, one would inevitably topple over, for the Path was only a yard wide, was slippery with fine gravel, and was nearly as steep and as twisted as a corkscrew. One could not step either to the right or to the left, for that would mean in either case to step down a precipice three hundred feet deep. ‘If we meet him,’ whispered young Clery, ‘we’ll have to walk right through him.’
We did not meet him. At least we did not see him, though we may have walked through him without knowing it, for a Grey Man must necessarily have been invisible in that darkness. We won through to the end of the Path, doing the last few yards on our hands and knees. It was a relief to find ourselves among the furze and bracken of the hillside again. That shingly slippery path was like a nightmare.
A light gleamed in front of us, then disappeared. Was it the Grey Man hunting us with a lantern? Possibly; but more probably it was the light from the Priest’s Cave where the Wandering Hawk’s men were gathered. Doubtless it had gleamed through some chink in the rocks or through some opening in the brambles. The instinct that had never failed us during the night told us that that light was a beacon to be followed, and we directed ourselves as best we could towards the point where it had shone. Once or twice, as our path swerved a little, it gleamed momentarily again. We were sure now that it was the light of the Priest’s Cave. And it was. In ten minutes we found ourselves in front of a screen of rocks and bracken and heather from behind which came the low murmur of voices.
We had now to make ourselves known. This was a matter of some delicacy. We felt uneasily that a false move might get us shot or piked. We knew indeed that no one who owned the leadership of the Wandering Hawk would be likely wantonly or rashly to injure two boys, but before they realised that we were boys, or what our mission was, an alarm might be raised and they might shoot, thinking they were being surrounded. To be shot would be disagreeable, but to be shot before delivering our message would be ridiculous. It was only when I stood before the entrance to the Priest’s Cave that these difficulties presented themselves to me. Up to then I had imagined that we had only to get to the Priest’s Cave and that our task was accomplished. As usual, it was Clery’s clear brain that saw the way out of the situation.
‘Unless these men are jolly fools,’ he whispered, ‘they will have a sentry. We’ll attract his attention and surrender to him when he challenges us, and then we’ll ask to be brought before the captain.’
This sounded very military and proper.
‘If there’s a sentry,’ said I, ‘he ought to have twigged us before now.’
‘He may be having a smoke or something,’ said Clery. ‘Sentries often do.’
‘How are you going to attract his attention?’
For answer Clery whistled loudly and clearly through the opening bars of ‘Billy Byrne of Ballymanus.’
The challenge came before he got very far. It was unmilitary but perfectly intelligible.
‘Who the hell is there?’ said a deep voice.
‘Friends of the Hawk,’ responded Clery promptly.
We stepped forward, as the next best thing to showing ourselves. To show ourselves would have been impossible in that blackness.
‘Where are ye?’
‘How many of us?’
A man came towards us and stopped in front of us.
‘We surrender,’ said Clery. ‘We want to see your captain. We have a message for him.’
‘Where are ye from?’
‘From the College. We’ve a message from the Wandering Hawk. It’s important. It can’t wait.’
‘Stand where ye are till I come back to ye.’
The man turned and was gone. We waited in silence. In about three minutes he returned with another man.
‘What is your message for me?’ said the newcomer.
Clery spoke the message in clear straightforward sentences. He told of the Wandering Hawk’s midnight visit, of the message we were to give the tin whistler, and of the tin whistler’s arrest. The men made no comment.
‘When the tin whistler was arrested we thought the best thing to do was to come on with the message ourselves,’ said Clery as he finished up.
‘Ye did well,’ said the man we understood to be the captain. ‘I wouldn’t doubt ye. If the Hawk was your masther, I’ll wager ye’re thrue.’
The other man appeared to raise some objection.
‘I’ll stake my life on the thruth o’ this,’ said the captain. Then, turning to us, he asked: ‘Do ye know who the Hawk is?’
‘Do ye know what his work is?’
‘Did ye ever take an oath from him?’
‘Never. We didn’t know who he was until the day the police came to arrest him. We only saw him once since,—that was when he gave us this message.’
‘Will ye take an oath from me?’ said the captain.
‘I will,’ said Clery without hesitation.
‘I will,’ said I in the same breath.
The captain and the other man took off their hats. Clery and I took off our caps. In the silence and dark of the night we took the Fenian oath. When we had repeated the words after the captain, he gripped each of us by the hand. The other man did the same. Long afterwards I learned that it was most unusual to administer the oath thus in the presence of witnesses; but the whole proceeding of that night was unusual.
‘Ye may come with me now,’ said the captain, putting on his hat again.
We followed him into the Priest’s Cave. About two dozen men were gathered there, seated on stones or on logs of wood or on the ground. On a rude table formed by a tree-trunk stood a candle. I recognised one or two of the faces, having seen them in Killconnla street, but the majority were strange to me. They seemed to be mountainy men, and were for the most part young, tall, and dark, with that suggestion of wildness which the mountainy men always have in the glint of their eyes and the carriage of their heads and the make of their clothes. But I liked their looks, and felt honoured in being their comrade. As we entered, inquiring glances were thrown on us.
‘These are friends, boys,’ said the captain (or centre, as we learned afterwards to call him). ‘They have brought a message from the Hawk.’
He sat down at the table and stated briefly the gist of the message we had brought. When he had finished he said: ‘We have only got an hour. I want five volunteers for Inishglasogue. I’ll make the sixth myself.’
More than half the men volunteered. The centre named five.
‘Who can steer a boat to the Eagle’s Nest?’ he asked.
The men looked at one another. The very name was unfamiliar to them, for it had been conferred by the Little Captain and ourselves.
‘Where is the Eagle’s Nest?’ asked the centre turning to us, where we sat on a log on which a man had made room for us.
‘It’s a cave on Inishglasogue,’ said Clery.
‘There’s no cave on Inishglasogue,’ said one of the men.
‘Yes, there is,’ said Clery. ‘I found it. The Little Cap—I mean the Wandering Hawk—knows it. He must have told the tin whistler about it.’
It had become evident to Clery and me that the Little Captain had been relying on the tin whistler to bring the men to the Eagle’s Nest. The existence of the cave had been unknown before Clery’s famous dive, and was still unknown except to the Little Captain and ourselves and, apparently, to the tin whistler. We were obviously the only two in the present company who could know where the Eagle’s Nest was. Clery and I glanced at each other.
‘We’ll steer you to the Eagle’s Nest,’ said Clery.
The centre hesitated a little.
‘’Tis dangerous work for gossoons,’ he said.
‘We’re in for it now,’ said Clery with that smile of his which disarmed opposition.
The centre glanced round the circle. No one had any suggestion to offer.
With sudden decision the centre said: ‘In God’s name, be it so.’
The five men promptly rose. The centre and young Clery and I rose at the same moment.
‘Let ye stay here till we come back, boys,’ said the centre to the rest of the men. ‘Keep a good look out. With the help of God we’ll have a gun for every man of ye to-night.’
And we followed him out of the Priest’s Cave and down the dark hillside.