As O'Connor approached the outer door through which he was to pass to certain and speedy death, it were not easy to describe or analyze his sensations; every object he beheld in the brief glance he cast around him as he passed along the hall appeared invested with a strangely sharp and vivid intensity of distinctness, and had in its aspect something indefinably spectral and ghastlylike things beheld under the terrific spell of a waking nightmare. His tremendous situation seemed to him something unreal, incredible; he walked in an appalling dream; in vain he strove to fix his thoughts myriads and myriads of scenes and incidents, never remembered since childhood's days, now with strange distinctness
p.227and wild rapidity whirled through his brain. The hall-door stood half open, and the fellow who led the way had almost reached it, when it was on a sudden thrown wide, and a figure, muffled in a cloak, confronted the funeral procession.
The foremost man raised the ponderous weapon which he carried, and held it poised in the air, ready to shiver the head of the intruder should he venture to advancethe two guards who held O'Connor halted at the same time.
How's this, Cormack! said the stranger. Do you lift your weapon against the life of a friend?rub your eyes and wakenhow is it you cannot know me?you've been drinking, sirrah.
At the sound of the speaker's voice the man at once lowered his hatchet and withdrew, a little sulkily, like a rebuked mastiff.
What means all this? continued he in the cloak, looking searchingly at the party in the rear; whom have we got here?where made you this prisoner? So, sothis must be looked to. How were you about to deal with him, fellow? he added, addressing himself to him whom he had first encountered.
According to orders, captain, replied the man, doggedly.
And how may that have been? interrogated the gentleman in the cloak.
End him, replied he, sulkily.
Has he been before the council in the great parlour? inquired the stranger.
Yes, captainlong enough, too, replied the fellow.
And they have ordered this execution? added the newly arrived.
Yes, sirwho else? Come on, boysbring him out, will you? Time is running short, he added, addressing his comrades, and himself approaching the door.
Re-conduct the prisoner to the council-board, said the stranger, in a tone of command.
Without a moment's hesitation they obeyed the order; and O'Connor, followed by the muffled figure of the stranger, for the second time entered the apartment where his relentless judges sate.
The new-comer strode up the room to the table at which the self-styled council were seated.
God save you, gentlemen, said he, and prosper the good work ye have taken in hand; and thus speaking, he removed and cast upon the table his hat and cloak, thereby revealing the square-built form and harsh features of O'Hanlon.
O'Connor no sooner recognized the traits of his mysterious acquaintance, than he felt a hope which thrilled with a strange agony of his hearta hopealmost a convictionthat he
p.228should escape; and unaccountable though it may appear, in this hope he felt more unmanned and agitated than he had done but a few moments before, in the apparent certainty of immediate and inevitable destruction.
The salutation of O'Hanlon was warmly, almost enthusiastically, returned, and after this interchange of friendly greeting, and a few brief questions and answers touching comparatively indifferent matters, he glanced toward O'Connor, and said,
I've so far presumed upon my favour with you, gentlemen, as to stay your orders in respect of that young gentleman, whom, it would appear, you have judged worthy of death. Death is a matter whose importance I've never very much insisted uponthat you knowat least, several among you, gentlemen, well know it, for you have seen me deal it somewhat unsparingly when the cause required it; but I profess I do not care in cool blood to take life upon insufficient reason. Life is lightly taken; but once gone, who can restore it? Therefore, I think it very meet that patient consideration should be had of all cases, when such deliberation is possible and convenient, before proceeding to the last irrevocable extremity. Pray you inform me upon what charges does this youth stand convicted, that his life should be forfeit?
It is briefly told, replied the priest. On my way hither I encountered him; we rode and conversed together; and conjecturing that he travelled on the same errand as myself, I talked to him more freely than in all discretion I ought to have done. I discovered my mistake, and at Chapelizod I turned and left him, telling him with threats not to follow me; yet scarcely had I been here ten minutes, when this gentleman is found lurking near the houseand about to enter it. He is seized, bound, brought in here, and witnesses our assembly and proceedings. Under these suspicious circumstances, and with the knowledge of our meeting and its objects, were it wise to let him go? Surely not sobut the veriest madness.
Young man, said O'Hanlon, turning to O'Connor, what say you to this? No more than what I already told these gentlemensimply, that taking the upper level to avoid the sloughs by the river side, I became in the darkness entangled in the dense woods which cover these grounds, and at length, after groping my way through the trees as best I might, arrived by the merest chance at this place, and without the slightest knowledge, or even suspicion, either that I was following the course taken by that gentleman, or intruding myself upon any secret councils. I have no more to saythis is the simple truth.
p.229Well, gentlemen, said O'Hanlon, you hear the prisoner's defence. What think you?
A silence of some seconds followed this unexpected declaration.
Be it so, then, said the priest; for my part, I offer no resistance.
So say I, added the person who sat with the papers by him at the extremity of the board. On you, however, Captain O'Hanlon, rest the whole responsibility of this act.
On me alone. Were there the possibility of treason in that youth, I would myself perish ere I should move a hand to save him, replied O'Hanlon. I gladly take upon myself the whole accountability, and all the consequences of the act.
Your life and liberty are yours, sir, said the priest, addressing O'Connor; see that you abuse neither to our prejudice. Unbind and let the prisoner go.
Stay, said O'Hanlon. Mr. O'Connor, I have one request to make.
It is granted ere it is made. What can I return you in exchange for my life? replied O'Connor.
I wish to speak with you to-night, continued O'Hanlon on matters which concern you nearly. You will remain hereyou can have a chamber. Farewell for the present. Conduct Mr. O'Connor to my apartment, he added, addressing the attendants, who were employed in loosening the strained cords which bound his hands; and with this direction, O'Hanlon mingled with the group at the hearth, and began to converse with them in a low voice.
O'Connor followed his guide through a narrow, damp-stained corridor, with tiled flooring, and up a broad staircase, with heavy oaken balustrades, and steps whose planks seemed worn
p.230by the tread of centuries; and then along another passage, more cheerless still than the firstseveral of the narrow windows, by which in the daytime it was lighted, had now lost every vestige of glass, and even of the wooden framework in which it had been fixed, and gave free admission to the fitful nightwind, as well as to the straggling boughs of ivy which mantled the old walls and clustered shelteringly about the ruined casements. Screening the candle which he carried behind the flap of his coat, to prevent its being extinguished by the gusts which somewhat rudely swept the narrow passage, the man led O'Connor to a chamber, which they both entered. It was not quite so cheerless as the desolate condition of the approach to it might have warranted one in expecting; a wood-fire, which had been recently replenished, blazed and crackled briskly upon the hearth, and shed an uncertain but cheerful glow through the recesses of the chamber. It was a spacious apartment, hung with stamped leather, in many places stained and rotted by the damp, and here and there hanging in rags from the wall, and exposing the bare, mildewed plaster beneath. The furniture was scanty, and in keeping with the placeold, dark, and crazy; and a wretched bed, with very spare covering, was, as it seemed, temporarily strewn upon the floor, near the hearth. The man placed the candle upon a small table, black with age, and patched and crutched up like a battered pensioner, and flinging some more wood upon the fire, turned and left the room in silence.
Alone, his first employment was to review again and again the strange events of that night; his next was to conjecture the nature of O'Hanlon's promised communication. Baffled in these latter speculations, he applied himself to examine the old chamber in which he sat, and to endeavour to trace the half-obliterated pattern of the tattered hangings. These occupations, along with sundry speculations just as idle, touching the original of a grim old portrait, faded and torn, which hung over the fireplace, filled up the tedious hours which preceded his expected interview with his preserver.
At length the weary interval elapsed, and the anxiously expected moment arrived. The door opened, and O'Hanlon entered. He approached the young man, who advanced to meet him, and extending his hand, grasped that of O'Connor with a warm and friendly pressure.