The young man was conveyed from the chamber by his two athletic conductors, the door closed upon the deliberations of the stern tribunal who were just about to debate upon the question of his life or death, and he was led round the corner of a lobby, a few steps from the chamber where his judges sat; a stout door in the wall was pushed open and he himself thrust through it into a cold, empty apartment, in perfect darkness, and the door shut and barred behind him.
Here, in solitude and darkness, the horrors of his situation rushed upon him with tremendous and overwhelming reality. His life was in the hands of fierce and relentless men, by whom, he had little doubt, he was already judged and condemned; bound and helpless, he must await, without the power of hastening or of deferring bis fate by a single minute,
p.223the cold-blooded deliberations of the conclave who sat within. Unable even to hear the progress of the debate on whose result his life was suspended, a faint and dizzy sickness came upon him, and the cold dew burst from every pore; ghastly, shapeless images of horror hurried with sightless speed across his mind, and his brain throbbed with the fearful excitement of madness. With a desperate effort he roused his energies; but what could human ingenuity, even sharpened by the presence of urgent and terrific danger, suggest or devise? His hands were firmly bound behind his back; in vain he tugged with all his strength, in the fruitless hope of disengaging the cords which crushed them together. He groaned in downright agony as, strength and hope exhausted, he gave up the desperate attempt; nothing then could be done; there remained for him no hopeno chance. In this horrible condition he walked with slow steps to and fro in the dark chamber, in vain endeavouring to compose his terrible agitation.
Were my hands but free, thought he, I should let the villains know that against any odds a resolute man may sell his life dearly. But it is in vain to struggle; they have bound me here but too securely.
Thus saying, he leaned himself against the partition, to await, passively, the event which he knew could not be far distant. The surface against which he leaned was not that of the wallit yielded slightly to his pressureit was a door. With his knee and shoulder he easily forced it open, and entered another chamber, at the far-side of which he distinctly saw a stream of light, which, passing through a chink, fell upon the opposite wall, and, at the same time, he clearly heard the muffled sound of voices in debate. He made his way to the aperture through which the light found entrance, and as he did so, the sound of the voices fell more and more distinctly upon his ear. A small square, of about two feet each way, was cut in the wall, affording an orifice through which, probably, the closet in which he stood was imperfectly lighted in the daytime. A plank shutter was closed over this, and barred upon the outside, through the imperfect joints of which the light had found its way, and O'Connor now scanned the contents of the outer chamber. It was that in which the assembly, in whose presence he had, but a few minutes before, been standing, were congregated. A low, broad-shouldered man, whose dress was that of mourning, and who wore his own hair, which descended in meagre ringlets of black upon either side, leaving the bald summit of his head exposed, and who added to the singularity of his appearance not a little by a long, thick beard, which covered his chin and upper lipthis man, who sat nearly opposite to the opening through which O'Connor looked, was speaking and addressing himself to
p.224some person who stood, as it appeared, divided by little more than the thickness of the wall from the party whose life he was debating.
And against all this, continued the speaker, what weighs the life of one manone life, at best useless to the country, and useless to the kingat best, I say? What came we here for? No light matter to take in hand, sirs; to be pursued with no small risk; each comes hither, cinctus gladio, in the cause of the king. That cause with our own lives we are bound to maintain; and why not, if need be, at the cost of the lives of others? No good can come of sparing this fellowat the best, no advantage to the cause: and, on the other hand, should he prove a traitor, a spy, or even an idle babbler, the heaviest damage may befall us. Tush, tush, gentlemen, it is ill straining at gnats in such times. We are here a court-martial, or no court at all. If I find that such dangerous vacillation as this carries it in your councils, I shall, for one, henceforward hang my sword over the mantelpiece, and obey the new laws. What! one life against such a riskone execution, to save the cause and secure us all. To us, who have served in the king's wars, and hanged rebels by the round dozeneven on suspicion of being sosuch indecision seems incredible. There ought not to be two words about the matter. Put him to death.
Having thus acquitted himself, this somewhat unattractive personage applied himself, with much industry and absorption, to the task of chopping, shredding, rolling up, and otherwise preparing a piece of tobacco for the bowl of his pipe.
I confess, said someone whom O'Connor could not see, that in pleading what may be said on behalf of this young man, I have no ground to go upon beyond a mere instinctive belief in the poor fellow's honesty, and in the truth of his story.
Pardon me, sir, replied one in whose voice O'Connor thought he recognized that of the priest, if I say, that to act upon such fanciful impressions, as if they were grounded upon evidence, were, in nine cases out of every ten, the most transcendent and mischievous folly. I repeat my own conviction, upon something like satisfactory evidence, that he is not honest. I talked with the fellow this eveningperhaps a little too freelybut in that conference, if he lied not, I learned that he belonged to that most dangerous classthe worst with whom we have to contendthe lukewarm, professing, passive Catholicsthe very stuff of which the worst kind of spies and informers are made. He, no doubt, guessed, from what I saidfor, to be plain with you, I spoke too freely by a great deal, in the belief, I know not how assumed, that
p.225he was one of ourselveshe guessed, I say, something of the nature of my mission, and tracked me hitherat all events, by some strange coincidence, hither he came. It is for you to weigh the question of probabilities.
It matters not, in my mind, why or how he came hither, observed the ill-favoured gentleman, who sate at the head of the table; he is here, and he hath seen our meeting, and could identify many of us. This is too large a confidence to repose in a stranger, and I for one do not like it, and therefore I say let him be killed without any more parley or debate.
The old man paused, and a silence followed. With an agonized attention, O'Connor listened for one word or movement of dissent; it came not.
All agreed? said the bearded hero, preparing to light his tobacco pipe at the candle. Well, so I expected.
The little man who had spoken before him knocked sharply with the butt of a pistol upon the table, and O'Connor heard the door of the room open. The same person beckoned with his hand, and one of the stalwart men who had assisted in securing him, advanced to the foot of the board.
Let a grave be digged in the orchard, said he, and when it is ready, bring the prisoner out and despatch him, Let it be all done and the grave closed in half an hour.
The man made a rude obeisance, and left the room in silence.
Bound as he was, O'Connor traced the four walls of the room, in the vague hope that he might discover some other outlet from the chamber than that which he had just entered. But in vain; nothing encountered him but the hard, cold wall; and even had it been otherwise, thus helplessly manacled, what would it have availed him? He passed into the room into which he had been first thrust by the two guards, and in a state little short of frenzy, he cast himself upon the floor.
Oh God! said he, it is terrible to see death thus creeping toward me, and not to have the power to help myself. I am doomedmy life already devoted, and before another hour I shall lie under the clay, a corpse. Is there nothing to be doneno hope, no chance? Oh, God! nothing!
As he lay in this strong agony, he heard, or thought he heard, the clank of the spade upon the stony soil without. The work was begunthe grave was opened. Madly he strained at the cordshe tugged with more than human mightbut all in vain. Still with horrible monotony he heard the clank of the iron mattock tinkling and clanking in the gravelly soil. Oh! that he could have stopped his ears to exclude the maddening sound. The pulses smote upon his brain like floods of fire. With closed eyes, and teeth set, and hands
p.226desperately clenched, he drew himself together, in the awful spasms of uncontrollable horror. Suddenly this fearful paroxysm departed, and a kind of awful calm supervened. It was no dull insensibility to his real situation, but a certain collectedness and calm self-possession, which enabled him to behold the grim adversary of human kind, even arrayed in all the terrors of his nearest approach, with a steady eye.
After all, when all's done, what have I to lose? Life had no more joys for mehappy I could never more have been. Why should the miserable dread death, and cling to life like cowards? What is it? A brief strugglethe agony of a few minutesthe instinctive yearnings of our nature after life; and this over, comes resteternal quiet.
He then endeavoured, in prayer, earnestly to commend his spirit to its Maker. While thus employed he heard steps upon the hard tiles of the passage. His heart swelled as though it would burst. He rightly guessed their mission. The bolt was slowly drawn; the dusky light of a lantern streamed into the room, and revealed upon the threshold the forms of three tall men.
Lift him uprise him, boys, said he who carried the lantern.
You must come with us, said one of the two who advanced to O'Connor.
Resistance was fruitless, and he offered none. A cold, sick, overwhelming horror unstrung his joints and dimmed his sight. He suffered them to lead him passively from the room.