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 affects 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.
IN WHICH WE BURN THE Patriot’s Journal
Most men remember two or three moments in their lives when a great wave of emotion has swept through them,—an emotion so exalted and so joyous as to have some of the poignancy of pain. Such a moment to me was the moment when I first saw Pius IX and heard the Roman crowd acclaim him as ‘il Papa-Ré.’ Such a moment was the moment when, homeward bound after being away from Ireland for twenty years, I tumbled up from a ship’s cabin on hearing the cry ‘Old Head of Kinsale in the offing.’ But the emotions of those moments were faint and ordinary compared with the emotion of the moment in which I heard the Police Inspector shout ‘Do you know that that man is the Wandering Hawk?’ And every fellow there felt the same emotion; aye, and Old Snuffy felt it. No one of this generation can quite understand what it was to us, for no one of this generation has come under the spell of that name as we and our fathers came under it. The doings of the Wandering Hawk—his flights from place to place, his hair-breadth escapes, his daring disguises, his always successful stratagems—had grown into a legend in every part of Ireland: they had been the open talk of all our firesides during the Christmas Vacation, they had for six months now been the whispered talk of playground and dormitory at St. Fintan’s. And there was the Wandering Hawk himself, the Hawk taking flight, the Hawk away to the hills, the Hawk again triumphant, and the foes of the Hawk baffled; and the Hawk was our friend and teacher and leader, the Hawk was Kilgallon, the Hawk was the Little Captain!
As the portentous meaning of all this flashed through our minds, we vented the wonder and pride and emotion of the moment as schoolboys alone can adequately vent such feelings: in a cheer, yea, in a yell that went floating over the lawn and fields and woods bearing the message of our love and fealty and good hope to the man that was fleeing towards Feagh with a price upon his head. And it was long a tradition in St. Fintan’s that Old Snuffy joined in the cheer!
That cheer did for the County Inspector. He sputtered something in which we detected only the words ‘all damned Fenians.’ We thought he was going to drop down in a fit. Young Clery relieved the tension by bursting into his merry laugh. We all laughed hysterically. The County Inspector and the District Inspector started across the lawn in the wake of the police. Far off we saw the Little Captain bounding through the Hole in the Wall into Feagh Wood. Let them catch him there if they can!
‘We will resume work, boys,’ said Old Snuffy, trying to speak and look as if a tremendous thing had not happened.
Tongues were now unloosed and we trooped back into the corridor all talking together. We were exhilarated as if by wine. Some of us were laying bets on the Little Captain. Others were describing to those who had not seen them the leap of the Little Captain through the window and the terrific blow of his manacled hands with which he had downed the policeman that rose from behind the stile. The whole school had now turned out in addition to our class, and the news had spread like wildfire that the Little Captain was the Wandering Hawk, that he was away to Feagh Wood and to the hills, and that the Rising would be in a few days. Masters passed among us and urged us into the classrooms; Old Snuffy clapped his hands and said, ‘Now, boys, back to work’; the Dean clanged his bell. Gradually we melted into our classrooms and made a pretence of resuming study. MacDonnell went through the farce of a lesson on quadratic equations; O’Mara mumbled out a chapter or two of Cicero, and carefully noted down all our names for inattention during Thucydides,—as if Thucydides mattered more than the Wandering Hawk, more than the Little Captain! At last the school day came to an end and we poured out into the playfield to finish our talk.
That night after Rosary Old Snuffy came into the Study Hall and said to MacDonnell, who was on duty, that he would detain us for a few minutes. He mounted the rostrum and we sat upright on our benches with arms folded on the desks in front of us. We knew that something about the Little Captain was coming.
‘Boys,’ began Old Snuffy, somewhat nervously, and as if fumbling about for the right words, ‘I feel I ought to say something to you with regard to the event of this afternoon. First, some of you will be interested to hear that Mr. Kilgallon—I mean, Mr. Dunleavy—has, so far, not been taken by the—’
A wild burst of cheering interrupted him. He made no effort to stop it. We paused of our own accord, for we wanted to hear what else he had to say. The President went on:
‘I cannot pretend that I am altogether in sympathy with the aims—or, at any rate, with the methods—of the brave, but, as I fear, misguided men with whom it appears that our late master has been prominently associated. But I will say this’—and Old Snuffy’s voice trembled—‘that there has been among us a very good and a very valiant man and that we are all a little bit better of having known him.’
Another cheer greeted these words, and Old Snuffy, thinking perhaps that he had said quite as much as was wise, walked down the Study Hall holding his head very high, as was his manner when he was conscious of having done his duty. We gave a special cheer for Old Snuffy himself as he marched out, for, though some of us thought the ‘misguided men’ part unduly tame, we all felt that Old Snuffy had acted well in the matter, that his tribute to the Little Captain had been prompted by real generosity of feeling, and that, on the whole, the President of St. Fintan’s was ‘a good old skin.’
Next morning everyone was avid for a sight of a newspaper. Now newspapers were forbidden at St. Fintan’s, and the Dean had several times caned boys for having them unlawfully in their possession. Judge of our surprise and gratification when after breakfast the Dean handed the Patriot’s Journal carelessly to O’Doherty, and said that perhaps the boys would like to have a glance at Father John Burke’s charity sermon. We had not suspected the Dean either of such good-nature or of such subtlety.
In a prominent part of the Patriot we found a highly-coloured and inaccurate report of the attempted arrest and escape of ‘the notorious Fenian leader, Dunleavy alias Warren, commonly known as the “Wandering Hawk,” at a well-known Catholic College in the provinces,’ whose authorities were of course quite ignorant of the ‘dangerous character’ of the ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ that had ‘abused their hospitality and generosity’ by ‘masquerading as a teacher of languages.’ Dunleavy had, it seems, made a ‘murderous and totally unprovoked assault’ on a ‘brave constable who took part in the attempted arrest.’ The paper added that ‘the miscreant was still at large,’ but that County Inspector Jaggard was ‘hot on the scent and would soon have him by the heels.’
That evening we publicly burned the Patriot’s Journal in the classroom quadrangle.
For two days no rumour of the Wandering Hawk reached us. We were all nervous and anxious. Was he near or far off? Had he reached a place of safety or was he fleeing in deadly peril? Should we ever see him again? In the playroom and in the billiard room we retailed to one another in subdued voices anecdotes of his life among us,—sayings of his, little traits of character, little acts of comradeship. Only, we of the pirate crew never spoke of the Eagle’s Nest: that was between us and him.
On the fourth night after the flight of the Hawk, I was awakened in bed by some unaccustomed sound. I listened. It came again: a little tinkling as of sand or gravel against the window. My bed was next to the window, and separated from it only by a narrow passage in which was a locker for my clothes. I sat up and listened very intently. There it was again. I leaned over and touched young Clery who slept in the next bed—we had no cubicles at St. Fintan’s. He woke in the quiet bright way that was characteristic of him,—just opened his eyes and looked at me inquiringly. Young Clery was famous for waking up all at once when he was called, instead of coming back to consciousness by slow and undignified stages like most fellows. I whispered to him:
‘There is someone throwing pebbles at the window.’
Young Clery slipped out of bed without a word. I did the same. He came round to the window where I already stood.
‘We’ll open the window,’ he whispered, naturally taking the lead, which I yielded to him just as naturally. ‘Make no noise.’
Had we been professional housebreakers of long experience and established reputation we could not have opened the window more softly than we did. We raised it with infinite caution, just sufficiently to allow us to thrust out our heads and shoulders. Then we peered forth into a cloudy night with a drizzle of rain in it. On the gravel walk stood a figure which we recognised even in the uncertain light. It was the Little Captain.
‘Who is there?’ came up his voice.
‘Dwyer and Clery.’
‘Wait till I climb up to you.’
He commenced to ascend, holding on by the ivy which covered the front of the College. We waited silently and without excitement. When he came close he grasped each of our hands in turn, holding on by his own left hand. Then he spoke rapidly.
‘I want you to do something for me.’
‘You remember the tin whistler that came one day and played “Billy Byrne of Ballymanus”?’
‘I expect him to come again in two days from now. I want one or both of you to get a chance of speaking to him for a minute and to give him this message. Listen carefully so that you’ll remember the words: “The Hawk will be on Inishglasogue on Thursday night. Meet the boys in the Priest’s Cave on Cruagh at ten o’clock. Bring six of them in a boat to Inishglasogue. At twelve o’clock the Hawk will come out of the secret passage that leads to the Eagle’s Nest.” Can you repeat that now?’
Each of us repeated it.
‘That’s all. You see we’re making use of your cave, Phil,’ he added to young Clery with his humorous smile. ‘Good night, lads. Good luck.’
‘Good night, Sir. Good luck.’
He gripped each of our hands again in his own warm hand—he had the softest and most delicate hand I ever knew on a man—and commenced his descent. We watched it silently. Then we watched him steal away in the shadow first of the house and then of the hedge. Soon his figure faded into the greyness of the night. We closed the window softly and returned to bed.
Clery and I so fully realised the necessity of absolute secrecy in the task that had been entrusted to us that, by tacit understanding, we did not speak of it even to each other. We worked and played as usual. But, working or playing, during every instant of the next two days our ears were alert to catch the strains of ‘Billy Byrne of Ballymanus’ on a tin whistle.