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.
THE TIN WHISTLER
On the third morning after that midnight visit the Little Captain’s successor came to St. Fintan’s. He was one Turner. The two remarkable things about him were the impressive height of his collars and an accent which was understood to be English. He had been at Stoneyhurst, as he told us more than once, and we took it that his collars and his accent were the sign manual of Stoneyhurst. He used to say to us ‘you Irish chaps,’ which failed to annoy us; especially after we had found out that his people kept a public house in the Coombe. For the rest, he was not a bad sort. We conferred upon him the appropriate name of Collared Head, and we gave him only the amount of deference which such a product deserved.
At after-dinner play that afternoon Sweeney and I were fooling in the handball alley. I was too restless to settle down to a good game. Young Clery, on the other hand, was the leading spirit in a boisterous group on the football ground. They were shooting goals by way of practice, and one would have thought that Clery’s only interest in life was shooting goals. He had such clever quick ways on the football field, and did such unexpected things, that it was always exciting to play with him; and it was the same in handball. I was watching him out of one corner of my eye while pretending to keep up a game with Sweeney. Anyone less good-humoured than Sweeney would have thrown the ball at me and left the alley. Sweeney contented himself with saying:
‘You’re playing rotten.’
‘I know I am,’ I said. ‘I’m off handball this while back.’
At that moment I heard ‘Billy Byrne of Ballymanus’ on a tin whistle.
‘I’ll chuck this game,’ I said.
‘You’re odious mean,’ said Sweeney. And he shouted across the field to MacGavock who came and took my place.
I sauntered away with my hands in my pocket. Sweeney and I were such good friends that I hated having a secret from him. I resolved that, with young Clery’s consent, he should be told everything as soon as we felt at liberty to breathe a word. We would give him a thrilling description of the midnight visit of the Little Captain.
Young Clery had already left the group that was around the goal-post and was strolling nonchalantly towards the gate of the field. I wondered how he had managed to hear ‘Billy Byrne’ above the racket that he and the others were making. We met at the gate.
‘Have a baaz round the lawn, John?’ he said carelessly, as I joined him. I am not sure of the spelling of the word baaz, nor of its origin, whether Indo-European or otherwise. It was our word for a more or less innocent ruse by which one might obtain a desirable object, such as getting off class; and, by extension, it meant a stroll through some forbidden place, such as across the lawn or through the wood to the Hole in the Wall. To do a baaz was not necessarily dishonourable. It was only a temporary ignoring of one of the minor conventions imposed upon us, without consulting us, by the powers that were.
‘Have a baaz round the lawn, John?’ said young Clery carelessly.
‘Don’t mind,’ I said.
And we sauntered out of the gate and round the gravel path which encircled the lawn. The tin whistler was playing before the front door, a battered disreputable figure. His tangle of hair and beard was so red as to verge on crimson. His hat came down in a sort of debauched way over his right eye. His left eye had a patch on it. His clothes were shabby to the point of indecorum. His knees came through his trousers. His boots were down at heel and turned up at the toes. Altogether forlorn and outcast he seemed,—a ‘dead beater,’ as young Clery said. And yet he could discourse most excellent music on his tin whistle. He played ‘Billy Byrne’ defiantly and grandly to an audience consisting of Old Snuffy’s cat seated superciliously on the steps. All the lads were in the field; masters there were none to be seen.
Young Clery and I strolled up. When he finished he looked at us and pulled the brim of his debauched hat. Each of us produced a penny and placed it in his furtively outstretched hand.
‘Thank ye, young gintlemin,’ he said.
He looked straight into our eyes with his single uncovered eye. It was a keen eye with a flash in it. He seemed to be waiting for something more. Young Clery spoke at once.
‘We have a message for you from the Wandering Hawk.’
‘Yes, Sir.’ The tin whistler exhibited no surprise. He did not move from his position, but a certain indefinable alertness seemed to creep into his face and figure. He waited quietly for young Clery to go on.
‘The Hawk came the other night and woke up this fellow’—young Clery indicated me—‘and he woke up me. The Little Captain—that’s our name for the Hawk—told us you would be here in two days and that we were to give you this message.’ And young Clery repeated in the clear precise tone he had when he was in earnest about anything the message of the Little Captain. ‘Did I say it right, John?’ he finished, turning to me.
‘Yes,’ I said.
The tine whistler had listened with the greatest attention.
‘See have I got it right now,’ said he.
He went through the message, dwelling carefully on the times and places.
‘That’s right,’ said young Clery and I in a breath when he had finished.
‘You’re young to be in this, boys,’ said the tin whistler. ‘Take care of yourselves.’
Instinctively we held out our hands and he grasped each of them quickly. We felt akin with him in the same way, though of course in a very different degree, as we felt akin with the Wandering Hawk. Who he was we did not know and never subsequently learned. Enough for us that he was one of the devoted men who bore the hated and beloved name of Fenian.
‘I’ll give you’s another tune now,’ said the tin whistler, dropping back into the professional voice and manner of an itinerant music-maker. He played the ‘Rakes of Mallow.’ Young Clery and I sauntered back to the playfield. The tin whistler finished and shambled down the avenue.
Five minutes later we heard a pistol-shot; then another, and another. They seemed to be quite close,—not further off than the entrance gate. The noisy playfield was struck silent; each boy stopped in his place as if he had been suddenly turned to stone. Everything for a moment seemed as still and silent as a picture, except that our ears were still buzzing with the reports. Then, by a common impulse, we charged for a part of the hedge where it was thin and we could easily cross the wire fencing into the wood; through an angle of the wood we could reach the boundary wall at a point where it overlooked the road near the gate lodge. McRory, the gardener, met us in the wood. His face was white.
‘’Tis the tin whistler,’ he cried. ‘There’s a small army of polis round him. He’s fightin’ like a divil.’
Already half of us were astride on the wall. Right under us a desperate struggle was taking place. Over a dozen constabularymen were surging and swaying backward and forward on the road. In the middle of them was a figure which combated them with a magnificent and superhuman energy. It was the tin whistler. His coat was torn off. His hat was gone. There was a gash on his forehead. His face was pale with a sort of battle-light. His lips were parted and his teeth set. Two constabularymen lay very still on the ground. The fight was fought silently. There were no cries of encouragement, no moans of pain. One stubborn man was resisting twelve. It could end only in one way. Slowly they pinioned first one hand, then another. By sheer weight they bore him down to the ground. We heard the thud of his head as it struck the hard road. Even then he struggled. One knelt on each of his legs, two on his body. They took off their belts and bound him.
A curious thing happened. I thought for a moment that I caught his eye as he lay on the ground,—the patch that had been over one eye was gone, and he had two bright keen eyes.
A car appeared and they put him on it, bound. Three constabularymen mounted the car. Another car appeared, and they put the two wounded men on it; they were not dead, as we had at first thought. The rest of the police closed round the two cars and they moved off slowly.
McRory told us how it had all happened. As the tin whistler came out of the gate four constabularymen had sprung forward from behind the wall. Instantly the tin whistler had put his hand to his breast, drawn a revolver, and fired. One of the four fell. The tin whistler fired again and another fell. Then a shot from a second body of police struck the tin whistler on the forehead, and he staggered. A policeman, seizing the moment, dashed forward and wrested the revolver from him. Then the whole force closed in on him, and the terrific struggle to bring him to the ground commenced.
‘He must be one o’ the Wandherin’ Hawk’s min,’ concluded McRory.
Two of us knew he was. An instinct brought young Clery and me together as we walked back up the now darkening field.
‘Do you know,’ I whispered to Clery, ‘I thought I caught his eye as he lay on the ground.’
‘I thought I did, too,’ said Clery. ‘He recognised us. He was … I think he was asking us to do something.’
We were both silent. The study bell began to ring.
‘John,’ said young Clery suddenly, as if he had made up his mind. ‘We must do it.’
‘You mean on Thursday night?’
‘Right,’ I said. And we went up to the bootroom with the other lads to change our boots for study.
We had both reached the same conclusion. I knew without asking any questions that young Clery had pieced the story together exactly as I had. The Wandering Hawk was to do something very important on Thursday night. To help him in this he wanted six men in a boat to be off Inishglasogue by midnight. The tin whistler—who was obviously a messenger by whom the Wandering Hawk communicated with his friends—was to bring these men to him. He was to select them from those whom he would find in the Priest’s Cave on Cruagh at ten o’clock. The tin whistler being gone, the Hawk’s message would not reach his friends when they met on Cruagh. The Hawk, indeed, might hear of the tin whistler’s arrest, and might be able to send another messenger. But could we be sure of this? He might be far away by now, and not come to the district at all until Thursday night. He might hear nothing of the tin whistler’s arrest, and go on with his plans expecting to be joined by the tin whistler and his men at midnight, on Inishglasogue. His whole scheme, whatever it was, might thus miscarry. Now on us had been laid the task of passing on the Hawk’s message to the tin whistler. We had done so, but the tin whistler was a prisoner. Did it not now devolve on us to see that the Hawk’s orders reached the men who would be gathered on Cruagh on Thursday night? To young Clery and to me it was clear that we ourselves, at whatever peril, must carry the message to the Priest’s Cave.
I felt this so definitely that I was able to put the matter away out of my head as a thing settled, and to work without any more than the ordinary distraction at study. Young Clery was entirely serene. He did his exercises with unusual care, ruling his margins with the utmost nicety and exactness; which to me, who knew him so well, was an indication that his mind was very busy with something else, for ordinarily his exercises were models of carelessness. When I rejoined him in the playroom after supper he had fully matured all the details of our plan. This was Tuesday. The night after tomorrow would be Thursday. We went to bed at 9; lights out at 9.15. As soon as lights were out and the fellows had settled down a little Clery and I were to dress ourselves again as quietly as we could, under the bedclothes. At 9.45 most of the fellows would be asleep. We would then rise, open the window, and climb down the ivy. Then away to Cruagh. It would take us a good half-hour at our topmost speed, and we should be a quarter of an hour late. We calculated that this quarter could be made up for subsequently.
Two difficulties presented themselves. The fellows might stay awake talking as they often did. The Dean, or O’Mara, or MacDonnell, or some other master might be on the prowl round the dormitories. The first must be risked: none of the fellows would give us away even if we had to get out of the window while they were all wide awake. To meet the second difficulty we needed an ally.
‘We’ll have to tell somebody,’ said Clery.
‘Sweeney,’ said I.
‘Right,’ said Clery.
We told Sweeney that night. We told him everything.
‘I wish I could go with you,’ he said.
‘It’s enough for the two of us to be in it,’ said Clery. ‘If we’re caught we’ll be expelled. Besides, we’ve a job for you.’
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘To keep all masters out of the dorm,’ said Clery.
‘All right,’ said Sweeney. ‘I’ll build a barricade if necessary.’
And so it was settled.