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 EAGLE’S NEST
The boat glided swiftly and smoothly through the semi-dark. The impression I had was that I was noiselessly treading the aisle of some great dim cathedral. What looked like carved pillars loomed up vaguely on each side, and I half expected to see at length a great altar with a lamp burning before it. Kilgallon was now merely paddling, from which I concluded that he had no longer depth for his former vigorous strokes; presently the boat grated gently on a little sandy beach which gleamed white through the dusk. The Little Captain sprang out and I followed him.
The sea came no further into the cave. It lapped there with a very quiet soothing sound. It was like a ghostly sea making a ghostly sound in some still underworld. At times there seemed a little gentle laugh and at times a little gentle sigh in its utterance. The stern of the boat swayed almost imperceptibly. Everything else was perfectly still.
Kilgallon stood motionless, but his gaze seemed to be piercing into the dimness ahead of us and his ear bent to catch the slightest whisper that might come floating through the silence.
‘We must push on,’ he said to me in a moment.
‘How do you know Clery has gone on, Sir?’ I asked.
‘He swam as far as here,’ said Kilgallon, ‘and waded ashore. Look at his footprints.’
There was in fact the distinct track of bare feet on the sand. The trail wound round and round as if Clery had first moved about reconnoitring: then it started off in a definite direction as if he had made up his mind to push on into the cave. We followed it easily enough, Kilgallon occasionally striking a match from a box I had given him. The cavern evidently ran for a considerable distance into the heart of the island. The vaulted roof was now nearer to us than it had been, and the walls on each side were drawing together. The cave was becoming a corridor. The sandy floor had been replaced by a slippery floor of rock on which the trail was no longer legible. Here and there, where there was a little moist earth, Kilgallon by stooping down and striking a match was able to make out the imprint, or part of the imprint, of a foot. Presently complete darkness closed us in. With only half-a-box of matches to light us (Kilgallon’s matches were wet and useless) it was impossible to follow the trail further. Yet we kept on, for there was no evidence that young Clery had gone back. Unless he had wandered into some side alley that we had missed he must be ahead of us.
‘He had a nerve to come in here by himself,’ I whispered to Kilgallon. In spite of the feeling of confidence which the Little Captain’s presence gave me I was myself a good deal daunted by the darkness and the stillness. I kept as close behind the Little Captain as I could. He felt his way very cautiously, evidently exploring for openings in the side. After a little while he stopped.
‘We have come to a dead wall,’ he said.
I crept to his side and put out my hands. There was a wall of rock in front of us. Looking up, we saw the faintest possible gleam of light coming from what appeared to be a narrow chink high up in its face. The Little Captain contemplated it for a few moments.
‘Are you good at climbing?’ he asked.
‘Fair,’ I said.
‘We’ve got to go up here.’
Without more ado he commenced the ascent of the cliff. I followed him as soon as he had gone a little way. It was not altogether as difficult as it had looked, for one could always find little projections on which to grip with hands and feet. The strain on the muscles was terrible, and there were moments when I felt that it would be an immense relief to let go my hold and jump or fall to the bottom. But the Little Captain went steadily on and up, giving me an occasional word of encouragement or warning. I set my teeth and toiled after him. Where he went, where young Clery had gone, I must follow. Once or twice, finding a more secure foothold than usual, we rested for a few seconds.
The light grew brighter, and what had appeared at first to be a narrow chink began to reveal itself as a large opening. Slowly Kilgallon drew near it, reached it, swung himself up into it. Then he leaned forward and stretched me a strong helping hand. Soon I crouched panting beside him.
We were in a little chamber opening at mid height off what resembled a great natural shaft connecting that strange underworld with the upper air. The chamber was comparatively bright, being lit by an opening very far up. I could see what looked like heather stirring on the lip of the opening, and the patch of sky that the opening framed. Kilgallon threw around him a quick glance. Suddenly he sprang forward. With a cry I bounded after him.
The body of young Clery, very white and very still, lay on the floor of the little chamber. Near it, also on the ground, fluttered something large and dark,―a great bird of some kind. As I sprang past that restless shape to kneel down beside young Clery I caught for a moment the fierce gleam of an eye. It seemed to me that some wild strong creature was gasping out its life there. And young Clery?
The Little Captain was already on his knees beside him, and was chafing his cold body. On the white of the bare arm I saw two cruel wounds, close together.
‘It’s only a faint,’ said the Little Captain. ‘Your coat.’
I pulled off my coat, which he wrapped around young Clery.
I gave it to him, and the Little Captain quickly bound the wounded arm.
‘Help me to warm him,’ he commanded as his fingers moved quickly yet gently with the bandage.
It did not take very much exertion on our part to bring back a faint glow into Clery’s cheek and warmth to his limbs. He opened his eyes with a little smile and said:
‘Where is the eagle?’
I glanced round at the fierce dying thing on the rocky shelf. It was struggling more feebly now.
‘I am sorry,’ said young Clery with pity in his voice. ‘But I couldn’t help it.’
‘What happened?’ asked Kilgallon, who was now wrapping my waistcoat round young Clery’s legs. His own clothes were wet, and Clery’s were still on the beach where he had dived.
‘I came up here. I was starting to climb to the top when the eagle swooped down on me. I must have been near his eyrie. I put up my arm to save my face and his talons went into it. I tried to catch him by the throat. He drew off and was coming at me again. I had just time to grab that big stone that was loose in the cliff and hurl it at him with all my strength. I don’t remember any more till I saw you kneeling beside me.’
‘You’re a good lad,’ said Kilgallon. That commendation from the Little Captain was equal to being hailed as a hero by any other man. While I felt young Clery had done an almost incredible thing I felt that the Little Captain had adequately spoken his praise.
‘It’s well the stone was there,’ said Clery simply.
We looked down at the dying eagle. The last flickers of his splendid life were coming and going. He lay almost still, in a pool of dark red blood; then, making a final effort to rise and uttering a little hoarse scream, he subsided and became rigid.
‘He’s dead,’ said Kilgallon.
‘Poor old chap,’ said young Clery, who was more moved than I had ever seen him.
‘I’m sorry I ever blundered in here. I should be kicked.’
‘What sort of eagle is he, Sir?’ I asked Kilgallon.
‘A sea eagle. You can tell him by his white tail and whitish head. He was a full-grown bird.’
‘I didn’t think there were any here.’
‘Yes, I’ve seen one before―on the Glassing Rocks. Perhaps it was this one or its mate. I’ve seen them on the Saltees too. They often build on islands. In Connemara they build even on the lake-islands. We’ll call this chamber the Eagle’s Nest in memory of him.’
I stooped to examine the dead eagle more closely. Young Clery shivered.
‘You must be cold, child,’ said Kilgallon gently. ‘How about getting back?’
They must both have been cold, for Kilgallon had been in wet clothes for over half-an-hour and young Clery had been without any clothes at all for nearly an hour. The question now was whether we should return the way we had come or carry out Clery’s original intention of ascending from the chamber to the opening high above it. The Little Captain decided quickly in favour of the latter.
‘We can swim in for the boat after,’ he said.
So we started up the face of the rock. It was a more difficult climb than, but not so long as, the one we had already made from the lower cave. The Little Captain went very cautiously, helping young Clery who was still shaky. It took us a long while, and I at least was several times on the point of giving up in despair; but at last we climbed painfully out, one by one, into the bright clear air.
We found ourselves near the highest point of the island, and quite a little distance from the sea. Kilgallon insisted on taking young Clery in his arms, and we went at a spanking pace down the somewhat rugged and precipitous face of the hill. With unerring instinct the Little Captain guided himself towards the point where our adventure had begun,―the little cave where Patsy Byrne’s boat had sunk, where Clery had dived, and where his clothes lay on the beach. As we hurried on I told him in snatches what had happened before his sudden appearance. I noticed curiously that Clery no more than I had seemed surprised to see the Little Captain and had never once asked him how he got there.
We sang out lustily as we reached the beach, and there came to us answering cries from the lads. They had naturally congregated at the cove as soon as young Clery’s and my absence had begun to cause them apprehension. They opened their mouths in mute but eloquent surprise when they saw us appear, plus the Little Captain, from a totally unexpected direction.
‘Clery’s clothes,’ ordered the Little Captain.
Sweeney came running to meet us with them. Clery was quickly dressed.
‘Take him back to camp now and give him something to eat and drink,’ said Kilgallon. ‘I’ll bring round the boat.’ And away he went leaving us all talking at once.
At the camp, young Clery told his tale briefly. When he had dived to recover the eatables he had discovered the mouth of the cave. While we thought he was dressing he had gone into the water again bent on exploration. He had explored to such good purpose that he had discovered the Eagle’s Nest and a hitherto unknown underground passage from the shore to the summit of Inishglasogue. His fight with the eagle he dismissed almost as laconically as in his narrative to Kilgallon and me in the cave. It did not occur to him to be proud of it: rather he was vexed and grieved at having caused the eagle’s death.
‘What could I do?’ he said, by way of exculpation. ‘He would have pecked my eyes out.’
The Little Captain returned sooner than we had expected him. To our amazement and delight he brought with him sandwiches, tea, sugar, milk and a kettle.
‘Have you a good fire, lads?’ he cried cheerily. ‘I want to make tea.’
A few extra sticks and some judicious blowing by Sweeney and O’Driscoll, stretched in ridiculous positions on the ground, soon gave us a noble fire, and in a few minutes the Little Captain’s kettle was singing merrily. He wet and brewed his tea with the art of a connoisseur. There was but one teacup between us―this too the Little Captain had brought―so that we had to take our tea one by one; but conversation and sandwiches (rich beefy sandwiches they were, very creditable to the Little Captain’s taste in such matters) filled up the gaps of waiting. The Little Captain expanded and cracked jokes and told us stories; genial stories which made us laugh, and exciting stories which thrilled us. He revealed himself to us in a new light that day: extraordinary capable, yet extraordinary human and boyish; we felt (and I believe it was the actual fact) that he was enjoying our society as much as we were enjoying his, that he was living in the gaiety of that hour as fully as we were.
We rowed home in time for supper, and no questions were asked either by the President or by the Dean.
‘What explanation will we give about Patsy Byrne’s boat?’ asked Joyce just before we landed.
‘I’ll make that all right with him,’ said the Little Captain.
And he was as good as his word. From that day until the day we left St. Fintan’s Patsy Byrne never exhibited the slightest curiosity on the subject of his boat. One would have imagined that the disappearance of a boat from her moorings was so everyday an occurrence in Patsy Byrne’s experience as to call for absolutely no comment. Afterwards we clubbed together and sent Patsy an order for two pounds anonymously through the post. To O’Sullivan’s stupefaction, an anonymous donation of two pounds to the Football Club reached St. Fintan’s two days later. We pirates knew, or thought we knew, that it had some obscure connection with Patsy Byrne and his boat. But we held our peace.