Ned Sheehy's Excuse - Fairy Legends of Ireland

ED SHEEHY was servant-man to Richard Gumbleton, Esq., of Mountbally, Gumbletonmore, in the north of the county of Cork; and a better servant than Ned was not to be found in that honest county, from Cape Clear to the Kilworth Mountains; for nobody—no, not his worst enemy, could say a word against him, only that he was rather given to drinking, idling, lying, and loitering, especially the last, for send Ned of a five minutes' message at nine o'clock in the morning, and you were a lucky man if you saw him before dinner. If there happened to be a publichouse in the way, or even a little out of it, Ned was sure to mark it as dead as a pointer; and knowing everybody, and everybody liking him, it is not to be wondered that he had so much to say and to hear, that the time slipped away as if the sun somehow or other had knocked two hours into one.

But when he came home he never was short of an excuse; he had, for that matter, five hundred ready upon the tip of his tongue, so much so, that I doubt if even the very reverend Doctor Swift, for many years Dean of St. Patrick's in Dublin, could match him in that particular, though his reverence had a pretty way of his own of writing things which brought him into very decent company. In fact, Ned would fret a saint; but then he was so good-humoured a fellow, and really so handy about a house, for, as he said himself, he was as good as a lady's maid, that his master could not find it in his heart to part with him.

In your grand houses—not that I am saying that Richard Gumbleton, Esquire, of Mountbally, Gumbletonmore, did not keep a good house; but a plain country gentleman, although he is second cousin to the last high sheriff of the county, cannot have all the army of servants that the lord-lieutenant has in the castle of Dublin—I say, in your grand houses you can have a servant for every kind of thing, but in Mountbally, Gumbletonmore, Ned was expected to please master and mistress; or, as Counsellor Curran said,—by the same token the counsellor was a little dark man,—one day that he dined there, on his way to the Clonmel assizes, Ned was minister for the home and foreign departments. But to make a long story short, Ned Sheehy was a good butler, and a right good one too, and as for a groom, let him alone with a horse; he could dress it, or ride it, or shoe it, or physic it, or do anything with it but make it speak: he was a second whisperer! there was not his match in the barony, or the next one either. A pack of hounds he could manage well—ay, and ride after them with the boldest man in the land. It was Ned who leaped the old bounds ditch at the turn of the boreen of the lands of Reenascreena, after the English captain pulled up on looking at it, and cried out it was "No go." Ned rode that day Brian Boro, Mr. Gumbleton's famous chestnut, and people call it Ned Sheehy's leap to this hour.

So, you see, it was hard to do without him; however, many a scolding he got, and although his master often said, of an evening, "I'll turn off Ned," he always forgot to do so in the morning. These threats mended Ned not a bit; indeed, he was mending the other way, like bad fish in hot weather.

One cold winter's day, about three o'clock in the afternoon, Mr. Gumbleton said to him, "Ned," said he, "go take Modderaroo down to Black Falvey, the horse-doctor, and bid him look at her knees, for Doctor Jenkinson, who rode her home last night, has hurt her somehow. I suppose he thought a parson's horse ought to go upon its knees; but, indeed, it was I was the fool to give her to him at all, for he sits twenty stone if he sits a pound, and knows no more of riding, particularly after his third bottle, than I do of preaching. Now mind and be back in an hour at furthest, for I want to have the plate cleaned up properly for dinner, as Sir Augustus O'Toole, you know, is to dine here to-day. Don't loiter, for your life."

"Is it I, sir?" says Ned. "Well that beats anything; as if I'd stop out a minute!" So mounting Modderaroo, off he set.

Four, five, six o'clock came, and so did Sir Augustus and Lady O'Toole, and the four Misses O'Toole, and Mr. O'Toole, and Mr. Edward O'Toole, and Mr. James O'Toole, which were all the young O'Tooles that were at home, but no Ned Sheehy appeared to clean the plate, or to lay the table-cloth, or even to put dinner on. It is needless to say how Mr. and Mrs. Dick Gumbleton fretted and fumed, but it was all to no use. They did their best, however, only it was a disgrace to see Long Jem the stable-boy, and Bill the gossoon that used to go of errands, waiting, without anybody to direct them, when there was a real baronet and his lady at table, for Sir Augustus was none of your knights. But a good bottle of claret makes up for much, and it was not one only they had that night. However, it is not to be concealed that Mr. Dick Gumbleton went to bed very cross, and he awoke still crosser.

He heard that Ned had not made his appearance for the whole night, so he dressed himself in a great fret, and taking his horsewhip in his hand he said,—

"There is no further use in tolerating this scoundrel; I'll go look for him, and if I find him, I'll cut the soul out of his vagabond body! I will by——"

"Don't swear, Dick, dear," said Mrs. Gumbleton (for she was always a mild woman, being daughter of fighting Tom Crofts, who shot a couple of gentlemen, friends of his, in the cool of the evening, after the Mallow races, one after the other), "don't swear, Dick, dear," said she, "but do, my dear, oblige me by cutting the flesh off his bones, for he richly deserves it. I was quite ashamed of Lady O'Toole, yesterday,—I was, 'pon honour."

Out sallied Mr. Gumbleton; and he had not far to walk; for not more than two hundred yards from the house he found Ned lying fast asleep under a ditch (hedge), and Modderaroo standing by him, poor beast, snaking every limb. The loud snoring of Ned, who was lying with his head upon a stone as easy and as comfortable as if it had been a bed of down or a hop. bag, drew him to the spot, and Mr. Gumbleton at once perceived, from the disarray of Ned's face and person, that he had been engaged in some perilous adventure during the night. Ned appeared not to have descended in the most irregular manner, for one of his shoes remained sticking in the stirrup, and his hat, having rolled down a little slope, was embedded in green mud. Mr. Gumbleton, however, did not give himself much trouble to make a curious survey, but with a vigorous application of his thong soon banished sleep from the eyes of Ned Sheehy. "Ned," thundered his master in great indignation; and on this occasion it was not a word and blow, for with that one word came half a dozen. "Get up, you scoundrel," said he.

Ned roared lustily, and no wonder, for his master's hand was not one of the lightest; and he cried out, between sleeping and waking, "Oh, Sir! don't be angry, sir! don't be angry, and I'll roast you easier—easy as a lamb!" "Roast me easier, you vagabond!" said Mr. Gumbleton; "what do you mean? I'll roast you, my lad. Where were you all night? Modderaroo will never get over it. Pack out of my service, you worthless villain, this moment; and, indeed, you may give God thanks that I don't get you transported."

"Thank God, master dear," said Ned, who was now perfectly awakened, "it's yourself anyhow. There never was a gentleman it the whole county ever did so good a turn to a poor man as your honouf has been after doing to me; the Lord reward you for that same. Oh! but strike me again, and let me feel that it is yourself, master, dear. May whisky be my poison——"

"It will be your poison, you good-for-nothing scoundrel," said Mr. Gumbleton.

"Well, then, may whisky be my poison," said Ned, "if 'twas not I was—God help me!—in the blackest of misfortunes, and they were before me, whichever way I turned 'twas no matter. Your honour sent me last night, sure enough, with Modderaroo to Mister Falvey's—I don't deny it, why should I? for reason enough I have to remember what happened."

"Ned, my man," said Mr. Gumbleton, "I'll listen to none of your excuses; just take the mare into the stable and yourself off, for I vow to——"

"Begging your honour's pardon," said Ned, earnestly, "for interrupting your honour; but, master, master! make no vows—they are bad things; I never made but one in all my life, which was to drink nothing at all for a year and a day, and 'tis myself repinted of it for the clean twelvemonth after. But if your honour would only listen to reason; I'll just take in the poor baste, and if your honour don't pardon me this one time may I never see another day's luck or grace."

"I know you, Ned," said Mr. Gumbleton. "Whatever your luck has been, you never had any grace to lose: but I don't intend discussing the matter with you. Take in the mare, sir." Ned obeyed, and his master saw him to the stables; here he reiterated his commands to quit, and Ned Sheehy's excuse for himself began. That it was heard uninterruptedly is more than I can affirm; but as interruptions, like explanations, spoil a story, we must led Ned tell it his own way.

"No wonder, your honour," said he, "should be a bit angry—grand company coming to the house and all, and no regular serving-man to wait, only Long Jem; so I don't blame your honour the least for being fretted like; but when all's heard, you will see that no poor man is more to be pitied for last night than myself. Fin MacCoul never went through more in his born days than I did, though he was a great joint (giant), and I only a man. I had not rode half a mile from the house, when it came on, as your honour must have perceived clearly, mighty dark all of a sudden, for all the world as if the sun had tumbled down plump out of the fine clear blue sky. It was not so late, being only four o'clock at the most, but it was as black as your honour's hat. Well, I didn't care much, seeing I knew the road as well as I knew the way to my mouth, whether I saw it or not, and I put the mare into a smart canter; but just as I turned down by the corner of Terence Leahy's field—sure your honour ought to know the place well, just at the very spot the fox was killed when your honour came in first out of a whole field of a hundred and fifty gentlemen, and may be more, all of them brave riders."

Mr. Gumbleton smiled.

"Just then, there, I heard the low cry of the good people wafted upon the wind. 'How early you are at your work, my little fellows,' says I to myself; and, dark as it was, having no wish for such company, I thought it best to get out of their way; so I turned the horse a little up to the left, thinking to get down by the boreen that is that way, and so round to Falvey's, but there I heard the voice plainer and plainer close behind, and I could hear these words:—

'Ned! Ned!

By my cap so red!

You're as good, Ned,

As a man that is dead.'

'A clean pair of spurs is all that's for it now,' said I; so off I set as hard as I could lick, and in my hurry knew no more where I was going than I do the road to the hill of Tara. Away I galloped on for some time, until I came to the noise of a stream, roaring away by itself in the darkness. 'What river is this?' said I to myself—for there was nobody else to ask; 'I thought,' says I, 'I knew every inch of ground, and of water too, within twenty miles, and never the river surely is there in this direction.' So I stopped to look about; but I might have spared myself that trouble, for I could not see as much as my hand. I didn't know what to do; but I thought in myself, it's a queer river, surely, if somebody does not live near it; and I shouted out as loud as I could, 'Murder! murder! fire! robbery!' anything that would be natural in such a place; but not a sound did I hear except my own voice echoed back to me, like a hundred packs of hounds in full cry, above and below, right and left. This didn't do at all; so I dismounted, and guided myself along the stream, directed by the noise of the water, as cautious as if I was treading upon eggs, holding poor Modderaroo by the bridle, who shook, the poor brute, all over in a tremble, like my old grandmother, rest her soul, anyhow, in her ague. Well, sir, the heart was sinking in me, and I was giving myself up, when, as good luck would have it, I saw a light. 'Maybe,' said I, 'my good fellow, you are only a jacky lanthorn, and want to bog me and Modderaroo.' But I looked at the light hard, and I thought it was too study (steady) for a jacky lanthorn. 'I'll try you,' says I, 'so here goes;' and walking as quiet as a thief, I came towards it, being very nearly plumping into the river once or twice, and being stuck up to my middle, as your honour may perceive clearly the marks of, two or three times in the slob (mire). At last I made the light out, and it coming from a bit of house by the roadside; so I went to the door, and gave three kicks at it, as strong as I could.

" 'Open the door for Ned Sheehy,' said a voice inside. Now, besides that I could not, for the life of me, make out how any one inside should know me before I spoke a word at all, I did not like the sound of that voice, 'twas so hoarse and so hollow, just like a dead man's!—so I said nothing immediately. The same voice spoke again, and said, 'Why don't you open the door to Ned Sheehy?' 'How pat my name is to you,' said I, without speaking out, 'on the tip of your tongue, like butter;' and I was between two minds about staying or going, when what should the door do but open, and out came a man holding a candle in his hand, and he had upon him a face as white as a sheet. 'Why, then, Ned Sheehy,' says he, 'how grand you're grown, that you won't come in and see a friend as you're passing by.'

" 'Pray, sir,' says I, looking at him—though that lace of his was enough to dumbfounder any honest man like myself—'pray, sir,' says I, 'may I make so bold as to ask if you are not Jack Myers that was drowned seven years ago, next Martinmas, in the ford of Ah-na-fourish?'

" 'Suppose I was,' says he; 'has not a man a right to be drowned in the ford facing his own cabin door any day of the week that he likes, from Sunday morning to Saturday night?'

" 'I'm not denying that same, Mr. Myers, sir,' says I, 'if 'tis yourself is to the fore speaking to me.'

" 'Well,' says he, 'no more words about that matter now; sure you and I, Ned, were friends of old; come in, and take a glass; and here's a good fire before you and nobody shall hurt or harm you, and I to the fore, and myself able to do it.'

"Now, your honour, though 'twas much to drink with a man that was drowned seven years before, in the ford of Ah-na-fourish, facing his own door, yet the glass was hard to be withstood—to say nothing of the fire that was blazing within—for the night was mortal cold. So tying Modderaroo to the hasp of the door—if I don't love the creature as I love my own life—I went in with Jack Myers.

"Civil enough he was—I'll never say otherwise to any dying hour—for he handed me a stool by the fire, and bid me sit down and make myself comfortable. But his face, as I said before, was as white as the snow on the hills, and his two eyes fell dead on me like the eyes of a cod, without any life in them. Just as I was going to put the glass to my lips, a voice—'twas the same that I heard bidding the door be opened—spoke out of a cupboard that was convenient to the left-hand side of the chimney, and said, 'Have you any news for me, Ned Sheehy?' 'The never a word, sir,' says I, making answer before I tasted the whisky, all out of civility; and, to speak the truth, never the least could I remember at that moment of what had happened to me, or how I got there; for I was quite bothered with the fright. 'Have you no news,' says the voice, 'Ned, to tell me, from Mountbally, Gumbletonmore; or from the Mill; or about Moll Trantum that was married last week to Bryan Oge, and you at the wedding?' 'No, sir,' says I, 'never a word.' 'What brought you in here, Ned, then?' says the voice. I could say nothing; for whatever other people might do, I never could frame an excuse; and I was loth to say it was on account of the glass and the fire, for that would be to speak the truth.

" 'Turn the scoundrel out,' says the voice; and at the sound of it, who would I see but Jack Myers making over to me with a lump of stick in his hand, and it clenched on the stick so wicked. For certain, I did not stop to feel the weight of the blow; so, dropping the glass, and it full of the stuff too, I bolted out of the door, and never rested from running away, for as good I believe as twenty miles, till I found myself in a big wood.

" 'The Lord preserve me! what will become of me now!' says I. 'Oh, Ned Sheehy!' says I, speaking to myself, 'my man, you're in a pretty hobble; and to leave Modderaroo after you!' But the words were not well out of my mouth when I heard the dismallest ullagoane in the world, enough to break any one's heart that was not broke before, with the grief entirely; and it was not long till I could plainly see four men coming towards me, with a great black coffin on their shoulders. 'I'd better get up in a tree,' says I, 'for they say 'tis not lucky to meet a corpse: I'm in the way of misfortune to-night if ever man was.'

"I could not help wondering how a berrin (funeral) should come there in the lone wood at that time of night, seeing it could not be far from the dead hour. But it was little good for me thinking, for they soon came under the very tree I was roosting in, and down they put the coffin, and began to make a fine fire under me. 'I'll be smothered alive now,' thinks I, 'and that will be the end of me;' but I was afraid to stir for the life, or to speak out to bid them just make their fire under some other tree, if it. would be all the same thing to them. Presently they opened the coffin, and out they dragged as fine-looking a man as you'd meet with in a day's walk.

" 'Where's the spit?' says one. 'Here 'tis,' says another, handing it over; and for certain they spitted him, and began to turn him before the fire.

" 'If they are not going to eat him,' thinks I, 'like the Hannibals Father Quinlan told us about in his sarmint last Sunday.'

" 'Who'll turn the spit while we go for the other ingredients?' says one of them that brought the coffin, and a big ugly-looking blackguard he was. 'Who'd turn the spit but Ned Sheehy?' says another.

" 'Burn you!' thinks I, 'how should you know that I was here so handy to you up in the tree?' 'Come down, Ned Sheehy, and turn the spit,' says he. 'I'm not here at all, sir,' says I, putting my hand over my face that he might not see me. 'That won't do for you, my man,' says he; 'you'd better come down, or maybe I'd make you.' 'I'm coming, sir,' says I, for 'tis always right to make a virtue of necessity. So down I came, and there they left me turning the spit in the middle of the wide wood.

" 'Don't scorch me, Ned Sheehy, you vagabond,' says the man on the spit. 'And my lord, sir, and ar'n't you dead, sir,' says I, 'and your honour taken out of the coffin and all?' 'I ar'n't,' says he. 'But surely you are, sir,' says I, 'for 'tis no use now for me denying that I saw your honour, and I up in the tree.' 'I ar'n't,' says he again, speaking quite short and snappish.

"So I said no more until presently he called out to me to turn him easy, or that maybe 'twould be the worse turn for myself.

" 'Will that do, sir?' says I, turning him as easy as I could. 'That's too easy,' says he; so I turned him faster. 'That's too fast,' says he; so finding that turn him which way I would I could not please him, I got into a bit of a fret at last, and desired him to turn himself, for a grumbling spalpeen as he was, if he liked it better.

"Away I ran, and away he came hopping, spit and all, after me, and he but half roasted. 'Murder!' says I, shouting out; 'I'm done for at long last—now or never!'—when all of a sudden, and 'twas really wonderful, not knowing where I was rightly, I found myself at the door of the very little cabin by the roadside that I had bolted out of from Jack Myers; and there was Modderaroo standing hard by.

" 'Open the door for Ned Sheehy,' said the voice, for 'twas shut against me, and the door flew open in an instant. In I ran without stop or stay, thinking it better to be beat by Jack Myers, he being an old friend of mine, than to be spitted like a Michaelmas goose by a man that I knew nothing about, either of him or his family, one or the other.

" 'Have you any news for me?' says the voice, putting just the same question to me that it did before. 'Yes, sir,' says I, 'and plenty.' So I mentioned all that had happened to me in the big wood, and how I got up in the tree, and how I was made come down again, and put to turning the spit, roasting the gentleman, and how I could not please him turn him fast or easy, although I tried my best, and how he ran after me at last, spit and all. 'If you had told me this before, you would not have been turned out in the cold,' said the voice. 'And how could I tell it to you, sir', says, I, 'before it happened?' 'No matter,' says he, 'you may sleep now till morning on that bundle of hay in the corner there, and only I was your friend, you'd have been kilt entirely.' So down I lay, but I was dreaming, dreaming all the rest of the night, and when you, master dear, woke me with that blessed blow I thought 'twas the man on the spit had hold of me, and could hardly believe my eyes when I found myself in your honour's presence, and poor Modderaroo safe and sound by my side; but how I came there is more than I can say, if 'twas not Jack Myers, although he did make the offer to strike me, or some one among the good people befriended me."

"It is all a drunken dream, you scoundrel," said Mr. Gumbleton; "have I not had fifty such excuses from you?"

"But never one, your honour, that really happened before," said Ned, with unblushing front. "Howsomever, since your honour fancies 'tis drinking I was I'd rather never drink again to the world's end, than lose so good a master as yourself, and if I'm forgiven this once, and get another trial——"

"Well," said Mr. Gumbleton, "you may, for this once, go into Mountbally Gumbletonmore again; let me see that you keep your promise as to not drinking, or mind the consequences; and above all, let me hear no more of the good people, for I don't believe a single word about them, whatever I may do of bad ones."

So saying, Mr. Gumbleton turned on his heel, and Ned's countenance relaxed into its usual expression.

"Now I would not be after saying about the good people what the master said last," exclaimed Peggy, the maid, who was within hearing, and who, by the way, had an eye after Ned: "I would not be after saying such a thing; the good people, maybe, will make him feel the differ (difference) to his cost."

Nor was Peggy wrong; for, whether Ned Sheehy dreamt of the Fir Darrig or not, within a fortnight after, two of Mr. Gumbleton's cows, the best milkers in the parish, ran dry, and before the week was out Modderaroo was lying dead in the stone quarry.