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 Cruagh Mountain. With the co-operation of their friend Sweeney, they succeed in escaping through the dormitory window and bring the message to the Priest’s Cave, where they take the Fenian oath and are admitted to the deliberations of a Fenian circle. The Hawk’s message is to the effect that a boat with six men is to meet him off Inishglasogue at midnight. Clery and Dwyer undertake to steer the six Fenians to the appointed place, which is at the entrance to the Eagle’s Nest. They descend the mountain in the dark and put out for Inishglasogue in a fisherman’s boat. As they enter the cove leading to the secret entrance to the Eagle’s Nest a British naval boat gives chase. The Wandering Hawk’s boat appears in time to cover their escape. They arm themselves with rifles which the Hawk has brought to the cave, and they fight and drive off the men-o’-war’s men. As the two Fenian boats row back across the Bay a British gun-boat opens fire on them.
IN WHICH YOUNG CLERY AND I ARE FLOGGED
That solemn boom on the waters stirred me strangely, but I was not afraid. Our adventure had entered on a new phase, more exciting and thrilling than the first; that was all. I felt unreasoningly that the quiet man beside me was master of the situation. If the guns of the whole British Navy were booming across Inverbeg Bay the Wandering Hawk would be able to thread his way through the cannonshot.
When Kilgallon spoke it was with a jest.
‘The second naval battle of the Irish Republic,’ he said, ‘is going to be less glorious than the first. But it will be fought according to sound tactics. When you fight two cockle-shells against a man-o’-war your plan is to run away.’
The men laughed. He has given them the steadiness and abandon that would carry them through the adventure. They pulled rhythmically, calm as if they were homing with their catch.
‘Let the boats separate,’ continued the Little Captain. ‘Ned Connolly, dash for Cruagh. I’ll make for Illaunarone.’
Young Clery and I had when leaving Inishglasogue transferred to the Little Captain’s boat from Ned Connolly’s. He glanced at us as if he were considering whether he ought to pass us back to Ned Connolly, whose dash was evidently to be the less dangerous of the two. But this, however quickly effected, would mean loss of time, and would have to be carried out under fire. Evidently the Little Captain decided on keeping us with him, and we were glad.
‘I’ll join you on Cruagh in two hours,’ he sang out as Ned Connolly’s boat drew away to the right.
At that moment a second shot struck the water between the two boats. They danced up and down as if in a choppy sea. I was drenched with spray.
‘We form a smaller mark when we are separate,’ said the Little Captain. ‘Besides I have an idea about the tactical importance of Illaunarone.’
Only a very fearless man would have made for Illaunarone at all at night. There were jagged rocks around it, and unexpected shallows. It was just these that gave it ‘tactical importance’ in the eyes of the Little Captain. As we soon realised, he had formed the daring scheme of drawing the gunboat into the very narrow and dangerous sound that runs between Illaunarone and the Glassing Rocks. That her commander could know Inverbeg Bay well seemed improbable, and, once drawn into the Death Sound (for this was its cheerful name) he must needs to be a good seaman to carry his vessel out again.
‘I begin to think,’ said the Little Captain, ‘that the Republic’s second naval fight will not be so inglorious. To sink a gunboat will be something.’
And the men rowed with a will. Two shots splashed near us as we raced over the moonlit waters. We were threading the islets now, worming in and out like a hare twisting before the hounds. It would have been a mad thing to attempt had there been a less steady hand at the helm. But the Little Captain had nerves and arms of steel. The boat seemed like a live thing obeying some fierce and intelligent will of its own.
Out in the bay we saw our foe, dark and evil-looking against the white moonlight. She had altered he course. Hurrah! She was steering towards the Sound. Evidently Ned Connolly’s boat had escaped her ken, and we were her sole quarry. Good! Let her follow us into Death Sound!
Round Inishturk we went and on towards Illaunarone. The breakers roared there. They roar for ever on Illaunarone and on the Glassing Rocks, however calm the bay be. Purposely, the Little Captain came into full view just for a moment, so as to leave our pursuer no doubt as to the path we were taking; then he ported his helm savagely and suddenly, and we swept in near the line of breakers, while a shot splashed in the very trough we had left behind us at the point where we came about. Round Illaunarone we glided, keeping as near the breakers as possible, for the cliff gave us shadow there. At the back of Illaunarone is a sheltered inlet where the breakers die down into mere ghosts of themselves. Into this the Little Captain steered us. We were out of fire.
Springing ashore, we scrambled up the cliffs. The Little Captain led us to a point from which, by creeping along a narrow ledge, we reached a cleft which gave us a look out on to the sea. It was weird and beautiful beyond words. I felt the great beauty of the night as I had never felt it before. The strife and noise of the last few hours, the fight off Inishglasogue and the mad race through roaring waters, seemed like a turbulent dream from which I had awakened. But the dream had left something tangible and terrible behind it. Up a moonlit path of water the gunboat came on into Death Sound.
‘In five minutes she’ll ground on Leckavauish,’ said the Little Captain.
We waited breathless. It was pitiful to watch a gallant thing—that a ship has always seemed to me a gallant thing—come on all unknowing to her death. For a few moments, as I waited there, I had the curious feeling that I was a member of a gang of murderers. Then I thought of the evil thing that ship served, of the unspeakable flag she flew, and I hardened my heart.
‘Will she go to pieces, Sir?’ I asked the Little Captain.
‘Not until the next gale. They’ll never get her off Leckavauish. The waves will make an end of her.’
‘What will the crew do?’
‘If they have sense they’ll stay aboard till morning. They they’ll come off in their boats.’
As he spoke the vessel stood still and seemed to tremble all over. Then she went on a little further, and again she stood still.
‘She’s safe on Leckavauish,’ said the Wandering Hawk. ‘Away, lads, to Cruagh.’
We scrambled down the cliffs to our boat. In half-an-hour we landed the guns. Up the side of Cruagh then, staggering under our loads. Eight men sent by Ned Connolly met us half way in the mountain and partially relieved us. We were a weary but a joyous band when we filed one by one under the doorway of the Priest’s Cave. The watchers sprang to their feet and presented arms (a thing they had evidently been rehearsing) when the Wandering Hawk came in among them. Ned Connolly saluted with a dramatic gesture.
‘Boys,’ said the Wandering Hawk, ‘you must make good use of the guns you have won to-night. Every man must keep his gun in the safest place he knows. When I come to you again it will be with great news. I’ll want you all then, with every pike and gun, and you must all be here.’
‘We will, Captain,’ said the deep voices in answer.
‘Home now to the women that are sitting up for you. Ned Connolly, you know where to store the spare guns. Bat Burke, the ammunition is in your charge. A hundred rounds a man, and the rest in store. Murt Doyle, tell your father to row out to the gunboat early to-morrow and to show the commander the safe passage for his boats through the Sound; I see nothing to be gained by letting them drown themselves.’
Then he turned to young Clery and me.
‘It is my painful duty to escort you back to school,’ he said.
We bade good-bye to our comrades (Bat of the Boathook nearly squeezed our hands off) and left the cave with the Little Captain. He put an arm round each of us in his old way, and dropped into one of those intimate talks of his which have remained in my memory during all the years. It was only when we were nearing the borders of Feagh that he spoke of the night’s adventure.
‘You must let me know,’ he said, ‘if you get into any trouble in College on account of to-night.’
‘We may not have been missed,’ said young Clery.
‘That is so. But if you have been missed they may want to expel you. In that case you are to let me know. One of the lads can pass the word to Patsy O’Toole’s son, who will pass it to me.’
‘Will it put you in danger if you have to do anything?’ asked young Clery.
‘No. I will simply see the President and tell him everything as it happened. He will not refuse my request that your breach of discipline be not punished by expulsion.’
‘Won’t it be running a terrible risk to come to the College?’
‘I will come secretly or in disguise. No one will know but the President, and I can trust the President. There will be no danger. At the same time, unless expulsion is decided on, it will be as well for you to see the thing through yourselves. Send for me only if you need me.’
‘All right, Sir.’
We knew what his last injunction meant. The Hawk had important work on hand which, urgent though it was, he would neglect or postpone in order to save us from public expulsion. But the work was of such moment that he did not wish to have to postpone or neglect it for anything short of that. He glanced keenly at us, and seemed satisfied that we understood. Then he gripped each of us by the right hand for the second time that night.
‘You are as true as steel,’ he said.
We walked on together a little further. We told him of Old Snuffy’s words about him in the Study Hall on the memorable evening of his arrest and escape, and he seemed pleased. We told him of our burning the ‘Patriot’s Journal,’ and he laughed. The dawn had begun to whiten while we were still on the mountain. Now, in Feagh, patches of grey tremulous light hovered on the ground among the tree-trunks. There was a stirring of life on the bare branches, and a scurrying of little feet here and there in the frosty bracken. When we came to the verge of Cruagh, near the playfield boundary, it was broad day.
‘It will be best for us to part here,’ said the Little Captain. ‘Remember what I said about sending word if you need me. God bless you, Phil; God bless you, John.’ And, ringing our hands again, he turned and disappeared among the trees of Feagh.
We crept into the playfield through the Hole in the Wall. A mist was rising from the ground, and eddying in low waves along the hedges and between the chestnut trees in the lower part of the field. A cow coughed and frightened us, at which we laughed. We kept the cover of the hedge, so as to avoid detection by any of the outdoor hands that might be about. We did not expect any master to be stirring so early, and the lads had not yet been called. With luck we might reach the dormitory unobserved, and be found in out beds when the master on duty came in to call us. Our plan was to arouse Sweeney or some of the other lads by throwing gravel at the window, as the Little Captain has aroused us on a certain memorable occasion.
We noiselessly opened the field gate and came out on the gravel walk which runs between the lawn and the front of the house. We hugged the house wall in our passage of this danger zone. A big fluffy shape sprang past my face, and I stifled a cry. Only Old Snuffy’s cat springing from a half-opened window. It was curious how cows and cats frightened warriors who had fought the British Navy. Now a dash past the great door, and we should be under the window we meant to enter by—the window near my bed. One, two, three, and—we ran right into the arms of the Dean who was coming down the steps!
He stood as if petrified. A thing so contrary to rule had never happened in his experience. That two boys, fully dressed, mud-stained, apparently travel-worn, should be darting across the front door of St. Fintan’s College at a moment when they should be sleeping in beds seven and eight of St. Fursa’s Dormitory, was monstrous and unheard of in the experience of Deans. For a few minutes he glared speechless. We trembled. A wild idea of bolting came to me, but I dismissed it. I was cold, and I was anxious to get indoors.
‘What is the meaning of this?’ the Dean at last found voice to say.
Obviously, it would not do to tell him the meaning of it, so we said nothing.
‘Where have you been?’
‘In Feagh Wood,’ I said, which was partly true.
‘What have you been doing?’
‘Walking round,’ I answered, which was a mild way of describing our night’s proceedings.
‘How long have you been out of the house?’
‘You spent the night in Feagh Wood?’
‘We were on Cruagh as well, Father,’ said young Clery, adding another small instalment of truth. On such occasions one goes on the maxim that truth, being precious, should be doled out in small quantities.
‘How did you leave the College?’
‘Through the dormitory window.’
The Dean pondered these amazing answers for some seconds. Then, stepping aside, he said: ‘Go to your dormitory until the bell rings. After breakfast you will report to the President in his study.’
He stalked forth into the morning, and we ran upstairs and threw ourselves dressed on our beds. No one was yet awake. When the bell clanged, the whole dormitory surrounded us, asking us questions. We gave picturesque answers which everyone knew to be untrue. Had we told the truth they would have equally disbelieved us. In the cold morning light the whole thing was beginning to look improbable even to ourselves. To Sweeney alone we whispered the main facts as we washed.
‘Gee-whizz!’ said Sweeney.
As we went into Chapel all eyes watched us. In some mysterious way the news that we had been missing from our dormitory all night and that the Dean had caught us had reached every fellow in the school from six-footed O’Doherty to diminutive Johnny O’Loughlin. We were regarded during breakfast with respectful awe. Everyone knew that the ordinary punishment of such an offence was expulsion.
After breakfast we went to the President’s study. When we went in he was seated at his desk, leaning back in his armchair with a very troubled face. The Dean stood near him, upright and grim.
‘Boys,’ began Old Snuffy, ‘I am sorry for this. Mr. Dean has told me that you confess to having left your dormitory by the window, and to having spent last night outside the College. You know the penalty of such an act. Have you anything to say?’
Old Snuffy looked at us very gravely. The Dean’s lips were set tight. An indescribable longing seized me to take up a volume of theology which lay on a table at my elbow and to fling it at the Dean. I mastered the impulse with difficulty.
‘The penalty is expulsion,’ said Old Snuffy.
We had no comment to offer.
‘Boys,’ said Old Snuffy, almost pathetically, ‘will you not help me? I … I don’t want to expel you. You have been good boys. I have liked and trusted both of you. It will be a great grief to me if I have to expel you from St. Fintan’s—send you out into the world with a stigma on your names. Help me, boys.’
Then words came to young Clery. God had given him the gift of true and brave words in hours of danger and difficulty. It was one of God’s rarest gifts.
‘Father,’ said young Clery, ‘I give you my word of honour, and Dwyer will give you his word of honour, that we have done nothing that you would disapprove of if you knew the whole truth. We are not free to tell the whole truth. We didn’t mean to stay out all night. We went to carry an important message, and we were delayed.’
‘Can you tell me what the message referred to?’ asked Old Snuffy.
‘No, Father. It is the secret of another person. It has nothing to do with anyone in the College.’
Old Snuffy considered for a few minutes. I have often thought that some inkling of the truth may have been in his mind. After a little while he looked up at the Dean.
‘What do you think, Mr. Dean?’
‘The penalty for unexplained absence is expulsion,’ said the Dean. My fingers again itched fir a grip of the volume of theology.
‘In view of the good character which these two boys hold, and of the statement that Clery has made, I am trying to think,’ said Old Snuffy, ‘what punishment short of expulsion will meet the case.’
‘My considered opinion is that the usual penalty should be inflicted,’ replied the Dean. ‘If you have decided not to inflict it I would suggest a public flogging.’
How very kind of him! Old Snuffy turned to us and said: ‘Boys, we will let the matter stand at that.’
At noon that day we were flogged in the Study Hall. It was very awful and solemn. Old Snuffy sat in the rostrum. The Dean loomed up near him motionless as an image. All the masters stood round the room. The fellows sat upright on the benches. Old Snuffy recited the facts with due gravity. He then called on Philip Clery to come forward.
Young Clery rose with a very white face and walked in dead silence to the top of the room. The flogging, which was administered by the Dean, was a very severe one. Clery bore it like the man he was, without a murmur, without a tear. His face was so white as he walked back to his place that I feared he might faint. Then John Dwyer was called upon.
I remember rising, but I remember hardly anything else except the pain, the sharp cutting pain of the Dean’s blows. It seemed to last a very long time. I do not remember walking back to my desk, except that I have a vague impression of all the boys’ faces looking at me. The lads told me afterwards that I bore myself quite as well as young Clery, the only difference between us being that my face was red while Clery’s was white.
When we reached the playground we found that we were both heroes. We escaped as soon as we could from the crowd that surrounded us and sauntered off with Sweeney for a good talk.