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.
IN WHICH THE HAWK TAKES FLIGHT
Young Clery went about with his left arm in a sling for a few days. The wounds had seemed very terrible when I first saw them, but the recuperative power of clean young flesh is wonderful. In a few weeks there remained only two crescent-shaped white marks between the wrist and the elbow to show where the eagle’s talons had entered. I remember that the only bad beating in handball I ever gave Clery was when he played me (as Mesgedra fought Conall) one-armed. To the lads’ inquiries as to how Clery had hurt himself we returned, by agreement, evasive answers. The Little Captain had said to us, as we rowed home, ‘Boys, let’s keep the secret of the Eagle’s Nest to ourselves.’ That suggestion was to us as a command. Wild horses would not have torn from any of us an admission that there was anything like a cave on Inishglasogue. Apart from the loyalty which we felt we owed to the merest suggestions of the Little Captain, even when we did not understand their import, we realised a certain sense of adventure in having a secret and in sharing it with him. It was as if there were a little world of romance and hidden peril at our doors and known to us only. The Eagle’s Nest became the symbol of a secret league.
The remainder of that term was distinguished by certain football matches in which St. Fintan’s snatched hard-won and precious victories. O’Doherty captained us, and Sweeney, the calm and steady, was the mainstay of our backs. Young Clery, with arm in a sling, did daring and astonishing things in his place among the forwards. The opposing pack always put a great hulking full-back to mark young Clery, but you might as well put a man to mark a flash of lightning. It is one of my proudest memories that I had a place on that team,—the St. Fintan’s team of 1866-7. You can read its exploits in the now yellowing pages of the Fintonian of that year: you will see my name there along with O’Doherty’s and Sweeney’s and O’Sullivan’s and young Clery’s, and if you have ever played football you will thrill at the narrative of how Sweeney saved the goal in our match with Clongowes and how young Clery shot the drop-goal that gave us the victory over Rockwell. Those were great days.
Kilgallon took a kindly interest in our games, but he did not play football himself. The only game he played was handball, and he was one of the best handball players I have ever seen. Indeed Kilgallon and young Clery were the most formidable combination in handball that had been known at St. Fintan’s in our time: they could give O’Doherty and Sweeney five points and beat them. The Little Captain was often present by invitation at the meetings of the Football Committee and he used to help us to pick our teams. In fact, we often left the final decision as to the inclusion or non-inclusion of a man, or the placing of a player, to him, and he never made a mistake. He knew by instinct what each lad could do and what he couldn’t do. It was owing to Kilgallon’s unerring judgment that Sweeney was in the right place when we beat Clongowes: O’Doherty was for having him on the left, but Kilgallon said, ‘Put Sweeney on the right and you’ll win your match.’ And we did; and we should have lost if we hadn’t. That rightness and sureness of judgment was very remarkable in a man that did not play football himself. I sometimes explain it to myself by saying that a man with a great vision and at the same time of great mental clarity and of swift decisions can be great in anything. Napoleon may never have played football, but he would have been the most wonderful captain of a football team that ever lived; and Kilgallon was like Napoleon.
So that term drew to an end, memorable for its triumphs in football and still more memorable for the coming of the Little Captain; and we went home to good cheer and domestic warmth and the short days and merry evenings of the Christmas vacation. My father took me up to Dublin to see the pantomime, and I asked him to go through Parliament Street that I might pass by the house where the Fenian newspaper had had its office. At home there was a good deal of anxiety on the subject of the Fenians: I heard people saying that they were preparing to rise, and asking if Stephens was still in America, and wondering where the Wandering Hawk was. And everyone agreed that though the Wandering Hawk was a very dreadful and a very mysterious personage he was very brave, and that if he was still in the country there would be a fight, big or little. But whether he was in the country or not no one could tell, for he had been very quiet of late.
Going back to school after the Christmas vacation is always harder than going back at any other time. But I went back with somewhat better cheer that year than ever before or after, for I felt a kind of subdued elation or excitement as if I were about to see, and take part in, adventurous and perilous things. And this feeling was secretly connected with the Little Captain and with young Clery. Always I linked those two together in my imagination and always I saw myself sharing dangers and toils with them. Young Clery had not arrived when I reached St. Fintan’s. I sought out Sweeney, and we two talked quietly in a corner of the Study Hall fireplace—it was an immense fireplace, a regular alcove, and, if one were not crowded out too far by other fellows, was a genial and comfortable place to it in. Sweeney had seen the Little Captain for a moment: he had arrived while Sweeney was carrying in his trunk. Splothery appeared; O’Driscoll, Burke, O’Sullivan, Nelson, Joyce, Quominus, MacGavock; ‘our crowd’ would be complete if Clery were come. Ah, that was his laugh. We greeted him in the nonchalant way that schoolboys affect towards one another, but everyone felt glad of his sunny presence. The Little Captain looked in on us during the evening. He has been in the South, he said, and in the West, and in Dublin. We had often noticed that he knew every part of Ireland.
‘You must spend a lot on railway fares, Sir,’ said Quominus.
‘I do most of my travelling on foot,’ said the Little Captain smiling.
He was in truth an amazing walker. He often went away on the Saturday afternoons, returning to College in time for Monday morning’s classes. He made these week-end excursions with increased frequency from the opening of the new term, and we missed his company on our Sunday walks. Sunday walks were an institution at St. Fintan’s, and they had been most unpopular till the Little Captain came. When the Little Captain accompanied us, as he often did even when not on duty, he animated and transfigured the whole proceeding. What had been a solemn parade became a march in search of adventure. He often broke us up into little groups with instructions to re-assemble at a given place and time; and no one ever failed to keep the tryst, which would have been the danger if another master had been concerned. He had gained a very intimate knowledge of the district, and led us down to lonely little strands by the sea and up to unfrequented hollows in the hills. As dusk fell, and sometimes even after dark, we marched home together singing. The cottiers must often have been startled by the beat of ‘Marching through Georgia’ or the anthem-like strains of ‘John Brown’s Body’ or the defiant clarion-call of ‘The West’s Awake’ rolling down to them from the darkening hills.
One memorable walk we had on a Sunday evening in February. We went through ‘the Hole in the Wall’—a gap leading from one of our fields into Feagh Wood; crossed Feagh, came out on the road above Barna Forge, tramped to Desertconnla, where we bought biscuits in a publichouse and saw the proclamation about the Wandering Hawk—which the Little Captain read through carefully—outside the police barrack; then on to Killconnla Churchyard, where in the gathering dusk we tried to read the inscription on the tombs; in on the mountain then, skirting Grey Man’s Pool, and along Grey Man’s Path to the shoulder of Cruach. From Cruach we watched the moon rising over Inver Bay: the islands stood out dark, and we saw the white line of surf at the feet of the Glassing Rocks. We came down a mountainside that seemed all silvered over: we could count the very blades of grass as we trod them under foot, so bright was the moon. On to the crisp road (there was a nip of frost in the air) and home we went, singing our songs. The Little Captain walked with Sweeney and me, and in the intervals of the singing he talked about the stars.
That night would have remained in our memories even if the tremendous event of the next day had not fixed it there. Afterwards we looked back upon it as the majestic ending of a chapter in our lives,—a chapter in which the ordinary and the droll and the romantic had variously intermingled; for it seemed then, and still seems in the retrospect, that our school life had been shot through with romance since the Little Captain came.
A new and breathless chapter opened the next day. We were sitting at French. Kilgallon was reading us one of Lamartine’s poems when the classroom door opened. Old Snuffy came in. His face was pale, but there was a little red flush on each cheek-bone. His lip trembled as if with some agitation he was trying to suppress.
‘Mr. Kilgallon,—’ he began.
The Little Captain looked up from his book, and then rose. Immediately the door was pushed open, and a number of men filled the doorway. They were constabularymen with rifles. One came forward into the room. By his sword and uniform we guessed him to be the County Inspector. Behind him stood another whom we recognised as the District Inspector. Old Snuffy turned to them with a little burst of anger.
‘Really, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘you are intruding. I did not intend you to follow me to the class-room.’
‘We cannot take any risks, Canon,’ replied the County Inspector. ‘We are dealing with a very dangerous man.’
He advanced across the room closely followed by the District Inspector and two constabularymen. The Little Captain stood perfectly quiet and collected where he had risen from his seat. He was the only calm man in the room.
‘You go by the name of Owen Kilgallon?’ said the County Inspector to the Little Captain.
‘I have a warrant here for your arrest as a Fenian organiser.’
He produced a paper and motioned to the two constabularymen to come forward. In a twinkling of the eye handcuffs were slipped on the wrists of the Little Captain. He made no resistance.
‘I am sorry, Sir,’ he said to Old Snuffy: ‘I did not intend to bring this notoriety on the College.’
‘It is an honourable notoriety, Mr. Kilgallon,’ said Old Snuffy; and with that he turned and glared at the Inspector.
‘We’ll be getting along now,’ said that functionary, half brusquely, half apologetically, ‘I regret this intrusion, Canon’—to Old Snuffy. ‘If you please, Sir,’—to the Little Captain.
Kilgallon glanced at us with the old boyish smile. It was just his usual smile, with no constraint and no swagger in it. That was his only farewell. Then he quietly followed the Inspector, and the others closed around him. The group went out on the door and moved down the corridor.
Without any permission asked or given, we left our seats and followed at a little distance. None of us spoke. Our hearts were big, and yet we felt a strange exaltation. We did not believe that all was over yet.
Nor was all over. The little procession was walking down the corridor, a constabularyman on each side of Kilgallon, the County Inspector in front, the District Inspector behind. Suddenly, as they passed an open window on the left, the Little Captain, acting on one of those instantaneous decisions of his, hurtled aside the constable that walked on his left, and, before anyone could stop him, sprang clean through the window on to the gravel path beneath. I had a glimpse of him fleeing across the lawn. Two or three constables sprang after him; the rest, headed by the Inspectors, raced along the corridor to the front door. We followed, breathless.
Arrived at the front door, and crowding through on to the steps and gravel walk, we saw the Little Captain flying like the wind across the level sward of the lawn. Policemen panted after him. The lawn was bounded on its far side by a hedge; a gap and stile in the hedge led to the playfield. For this Kilgallon was making. It was evident that he would reach it before the police. Knowing the ground better, he had, we felt, a chance of escape. Through the playfield he could reach Feagh Wood and the hillsides. And who could catch him there?
Now he was at the gap. But suddenly from the far side of the stile rose a constabularyman. Was the Little Captain hemmed in? Our hearts literally stood still. Then we saw an amazing thing. Raising his two manacled hands above his head the Little Captain brought them down on the constable’s skull. The constable simply dropped, and the Little Captain sped over the stile into the playfield.
‘The Hole in the Wall, Sir,’ sang out a voice beside me. I know it was young Clery’s.
A halloo came ringing back. The Little Captain altered his course, showing that he understood and approved of young Clery’s suggestion. The ‘Hole in the Wall’ was an exit contrived by us boys for our own purposes, and would almost certainly not be known to or guarded by the police.
Simultaneously we heard the County Inspector give the order to fire. A volley rang our from the police carbines. When the smoke cleared away we saw the figure of the Little Captain still speeding unwearied towards the Hole in the Wall.
‘Is it legal to shoot, Inspector?’ asked Old Snuffy, his face white, and his voice vibrating with wrath.
The County Inspector lost all patience. He turned right round on the President of St. Fintan’s and shouted at him:
‘Hell’s blazes, Sir, do you know that that man is the Wandering Hawk?’