Nocturnal Alarm

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter VIII (5) | Start of Chapter

A few mornings after my return, at the dawning of day, I heard a loud knocking at the door, and supposed some messenger in haste had called for the doctor.

This was followed by the most unearthly scream, which was long and repeated. I first tried to collect myself, to ascertain whether I was asleep, in the body or out, for nothing that was human like this had I ever heard; and surely nothing superhuman would make such a shout at a door inhabited by man. I looked out, but durst neither arise or call for help. The family and servants were all above; and when repeated yells had echoed and re-echoed, the servant opened the door, and all was still. I could not see what entered, and waited for an explanation, supposing there must be some out-of-the-way animal appended to the family. In a moment, the servant entered with, "Don't be afeard, ma'am; it's only the beggar woman that sleeps out of doors. She always comes at light to get the potatoe, and if I am not up, she makes that scream to wake me. She won't hurt ye. She's innocent, and goes away when she gets the potatoe." This was the beggar I had seen asleep under the wall, when going to the mines. I ventured out, and saw her snugly sitting on the hearth, enlivening the turf under the pot. She was more than good-looking for a woman who must have been forty-five, and seventeen years of which she had buffetted storm and sleet, snow and rain, in open air. She shrunk from my rude gaze. I said good morning; she made no answer.

"Why are you sitting here?" I added. "Waiting for the potatoe, ma'am."

When the potatoes were ready, she selected the quantity and quality she liked, took them in her petticoat, and hurried out.

Her voice was soft, and her manners childlike, wholly at variance with the terrific scream she made at the door. The doctor gave me the history of this strange anomaly. "She was of a good family, married well, and in all Ireland," he added, "there was not a better housekeeper. But her husband died, and by a train of misfortunes, she lost all. Her relations were treacherous, and she was at last ruined. Disappointed and jealous of the world, she determined to leave its society, and wandered from home, living on the little money she had; washing her clothes in the brooks and springs, as she met them; keeping herself cleanly for years; sleeping in open air, wrapped in her cloak, She appeared sane, but never saluted any one, nor never asked charity, till all she had was gone. Whether she had recourse to that noise as a defence was not known, but it proved a sure one. The police had endeavored to take her into some shelter from the rain, but every one would take up his 'two heels,' when she set up that scream. No one in the parish ever molested her; every child is afraid of the yell."

She had found her way to the doctor's house years before, and he had made her welcome to a breakfast and dinner, and she now calls at the dawn of day. If the servant be not up, she gives the scream, and the door is soon opened. Twelve is her dinner-hour, and the time is always understood. She is losing her care over her clothes and person, though she is quite removed from the appearance of a dirty beggar. She never whines, nor tells you of the Blessed Virgin, or promises prayers; but simply asks, in a pleasant tone, "will you give me some potatoes?" She never stops to eat them in the house, but gives a short "Thank you," and goes hastily out. This is "the beggar that sleeps out of doors," and the rustic says to all who pass, "Don't ye disturb her; for this same bawl would frighten the life of ye."

Ireland’s Welome to the Stranger is one of the best accounts of Irish social conditions, customs, quirks and habits that you could wish for. The author, Mrs Asenath Nicholson, was an American widow who travelled extensively in Ireland on the eve of the Great Famine and meticulously observed the Irish peasantry at work and play, as well as noting their living conditions and diet. The book is also available from Kindle.