O'Connor pursued his way towards the city, following the broken horse-track, which then traversed the low grounds which lie upon the left bank of the Liffey. The Phoenix Park, or, as it was then called, the Royal Park, was at the time of which we write a much wilder place than it now is. There were no trim plantations nor stately clumps of tufted trees, no signs of care or culture. Broad patches of shaggy thorn spread with little interruption over the grounds, and regular roads were then unknown. The darkness became momentarily deeper and more deep as O'Connor pursued his solitary way; and the difficulty of proceeding grew every instant greater, for the heavy rains had interrupted his path with deep sloughs and pools, which became at length so frequent, and so difficult of passage, that he was fain to turn from the ordinary track, and seek an easier path along the high grounds which overhang the river. The close screen of the wild gnarled thorns which covered the upper level on which he now moved, still further deepened the darkness; and he became at length so entirely involved in the pitchy gloom, that he dismounted, and taking his horse by the head, led him forward through the tangled brake, and under the knotted branches of the old hoary thorns, stumbling among the briers and the crooked roots, and every moment encountering the sudden obstruction, either of some stooping branch, or the trunk of one of the old trees; so that altogether his progress was as tedious and unpleasant as it well could be. His annoyance became the greater as he proceeded; for he was so often compelled to turn aside, and change his course, to avoid these interruptions, that in the utter darkness he began to grow entirely uncertain
p.218whether or not he was moving in the right direction. The more he paused, and the oftener he reflected, the more entirely puzzled and bewildered did he become. Glad indeed would he have been that he had followed the track upon which he had at first entered, and run the hazard of all the sloughs and pools which crossed it; but he was now embarked in another route; and even had he desired it, so perplexed was he, that he could not have effected his retreat. Fully alive to the ridiculousness, as well as the annoyance of his situation, he slowly and painfully stumbled forward, conscious that if only he could move for half an hour or thereabout consistently in the same direction, he must disengage himself in some quarter or another from the entanglement in which he was involved. In vain he looked round him; nothing but entire darkness encountered him. In vain he listened for any sound which might intimate the neighbourhood of any living thing. Nothing but the hushed soughing of the evening breeze through the old boughs was audible; and he was forced to continue his route in the same troublesome uncertainty.
At length he saw, or thought he saw, a red light gleaming through the trees. It disappearedit came again. He stopped, uncertain whether it was one of those fitful marshfires which but mock the perplexity of benighted travellers; but nothis light shone clearly, and with a steady beam, through the branches; and towards it he directed his steps, losing it now, and again recovering it, till at length, after a longer probation than he had at first expected, he gained a clear space of ground, intersected only by a few broken hedges and ditches, but free from the close wood which had so entirely darkened his advance. In this position he was enabled to discern that the light which had guided him streamed from the window of an old shattered house, partially surrounded by a dilapidated wall, having a few ruinous outhouses attached to it. In this building he beheld the old mansion-house of Finiskea, which then occupied the ground on which at present stands the powder-magazine, and which, by a slight alteration in sound, though without any analogy in meaning, has given its name to the Phoenix Park. The light streamed through the diamond panes of a narrow casement; and still leading his horse, O'Connor made his way over the broken fences towards the old house. As he approached, he perceived several figures moving to and fro in the chamber from which the light issued, and detected, or thought he did so, among them the remarkable form of the priest who had lately been his companion upon the road. As he advanced, someone inside drew a curtain across the window, though, as O'Connor conjectured, wholly unaware of his
p.219approach, and thus precluded any further reconnoitering on his part.
At all events, thought he, they can spare me some one to put me upon my way. They can hardly complain if I intrude upon such an errand.
With this reflection, he led his horse round the corner of the building to the door, which was sheltered by a small porch roofed with tiles. By the faint light, which in the open space made objects partially discernible, he perceived two men, as it appeared to him, fast asleephalf sitting and half lying on the low step of the door. He had just come near enough to accost them, when, somewhat to his surprise, he was seized from behind in a powerful grip, and his arms pinioned to his sides. A single antagonist he would easily have shaken off; but a reinforcement was at hand.
Up, boysbe stirringopen the door, cried the hoarse voice of the person who held O'Connor.
The two figures started to their feet; their strength, combined with the efforts of his first assailant, effectually mastered O'Connor, and one of them shoved the door open.
Pretty watch you keep, said he, as the party hurried their prisoner, wholly without the power of resistance, into the house.
Three or four powerful, large- limbed fellows, well armed, were seated in the hall, and arose on his entrance. O'Connor saw that resistance against such odds were idle, and resolved patiently to submit to the issue, whatever it might be.
Gentlemen that's caught peeping is sometimes made to see more than they have a mind to, observed one of O'Connor's conductors.
Another removed his sword, and having satisfied himself that he had not any other weapon upon his person, observed,
You may let his elbows loose; but jist keep him tight by the collar.
Let the gentlemen know there's a bird limed, observed the first speaker; and one of the others passed from the narrow hall to execute the mission.
After some little delay, O'Connor, who awaited the result with more of curiosity and impatience than of alarm, was conducted by two of the armed men who had secured him through a large passage terminating in a chamber, which they also traversed, and by a second door at its far extremity found entrance into a rude but spacious apartment, floored with tiles, and with a low ceiling of dark plank, supported by ponderous beams. A large wood fire burned in the hearth, beside which some half dozen men were congregated; several others were seated by a massive table, on which were writing
p.220materials, with which two or three of them were busily employed; a number of open letters were also strewn upon it, and here and there a brace of horse-pistols or a carbine showed that the party felt neither very secure, nor very much disposed to surrender without a struggle, should their worst anticipations be realized, in any attempt to surprise them.
Most of those who were present bore, in their disordered dress and mud-soiled boots, the evidence of recent travel. They were lighted chiefly by the broad, uncertain gleam of the blazing wood fire, in which the misty flame of two or three wretched candles which burned upon the table shone pale and dim as the last stars of night in the red dawn of an autumnal sun. In this strong and ruddy light the groups of figures, variously attired, some seated by the table, and others standing with their ample cloaks still folded around them, acquired by the contrast of broad light and shade a character of picturesqueness which had in it something wild and imposing. This singular tableau occupied the further end of the room, which was one of considerable length, and as the prisoner was led forward to the bar of the tribunal, those who composed it eyed him sternly and fixedly.
Bind his hands fast, said a lean and dark-featured man, with a singularly forbidding aspect and a deep, stern voice, who sat at the head of the table with a pile of papers beside him. Spite of O'Connor's struggles, the order was speedily executed, and with such good-will that the blood almost started from his nails.
Now, sir, continued the same speaker, who are you, and what may your errand be?
Before I answer your questions you must satisfy me that you have authority to ask them, replied O'Connor. Who, I pray, are you, who dare to seize the person, and to bind the limbs of a free man? I shall know this ere one of your questions shall have a reply.
I have seen you, young sir, beforescarce an hour since, observed one of those who stood by the hearth. Look at me, and say do you remember my features?
I do, replied O'Connor, who had no difficulty in recognizing those of the priest who had parted from him so abruptly on that evening of course I recollect your face; we rode side by side from Leixlip to-day.
You recollect my caution tooyou cannot have forgotten that, continued the priest, menacingly. You know how peremptorily I warned you against following me, yet you have dogged me here; on your own head be the consequencesthe fool shall perish in his folly.
I have not dogged you here, sir, replied O'Connor; I
p.221seek my way to Dublin. The river banks are so soft that a horse had better swim than seek to keep them; I therefore took the upper ground, and after losing myself among the woods, at length saw a light, reached it, and here I am.
The priest heard the statement with a sinister smile.
A truce to these inventions, sir, said he. It is indeed possible that you speak the truth, but it is in the highest degree probable that you lie; it is, in a word, plainsatisfactorily plain, that you followed me hither, as I suspected
you might have done; you have dogged me, sir, and you have seen all that you sought to behold; you have seen my place of destination and my company. I care not with what motive you have actedthat is between yourself and your Maker. If you are a spy, which I shrewdly suspect, Providence has defeated your treason, and punished the traitor; if mere curiosity impelled you, you will remember that ill-directed curiosity was the sin which brought death upon mankind, and cease to wonder that its fruits may be bitter to yourself. What say you, young man?
I have told you plainly how I happened to reach this place, replied O'Connor; I have told you onceI will repeat the statement no more; and once again I ask, on what authority you question me, and dare thus to bind my hands and keep me here against my will?
Authority sufficient to satisfy our own consciences, rejoined the priest. The responsibility rests not upon you; enough it is for you to know that we have the power to detain you, and that we exercise that power, as we most probably shall another, still less conducive to your comfort.
You have the power to make me captive, I admit, rejoined O'Connor you have the power to murder me, as you threaten, but though power to keep or kill is all the justification a robber or a bravo needs, methinks such an argument should hardly satisfy a consecrated minister of Christ.
The expression with which the priest regarded the young man grew blacker and more truculent at this rebuke, and after a silence of a few seconds he replied,
We are doubly authorized in what we doay, trebly warranted, young traitor. God Almighty has given us the instinct of self-defence, which in a righteous cause it is laudable to consult and indulge; the Church, too, tells us in these times to deal strictly with the malignant persecutors of God's truth; and lastly, we have a royal warrantythe authority of the rightful king of these realms, investing us with powers to deal summarily with rebels and traitors. Let this satisfy you.
I honour the king, rejoined O'Connor, as truly as any
p.222man here, seeing that my father lost all in the service of his illustrious sire, but I need some more satisfactory assurance of his delegated authority than the bare assertion of a violent man, of whom I know absolutely nothing, and until you show me some instrument empowering you to act thus, I will not acknowledge your competency to subject me to an examination, and still resolutely protest against your detaining me here.
The little man who sat at the head of the table made a gesture to those who guarded O'Connor, and the order thus given and sanctioned was at once carried into execution.