O'Connor was the first to speak. In a low voice, which trembled with agitation, he said,
Sir Henry Ashwoode, I have come here in answer to a note which reached me but a few minutes since. You desired a conference with me; it there any commission with which you would wish to charge me?if so, let me know it, and it shall be done.
None, none, Mr. O'Connor, thank you, rejoined Ashwoode, recovering his characteristic self-possession, and continuing proudly, if you add to your visit a patient audience of a few minutes, you will have conferred upon me the only favour I desire. Pray, sit down; it is rather a hard and a homely seat, he added, with a haggard, joyless smile but the only one this place supplies.
Another silence followed, during which Sir Henry Ashwoode restlessly shifted his attitude every moment, in evident and uncontrollable nervous excitement. At length he arose, and walked twice or thrice up and down the narrow chamber, exhibiting without any longer care for concealment his pale, wasted face in the full light which streamed in through the grated window, his sunken eyes and unshorn chin, and worn and attenuated figure.
You hear that sound, said he, abruptly stopping short, and looking with the same strange smile upon O'Connor; the clank upon the flags as I walk up and downthe jingle of the fettersisn't it strangeisn't it oddlike a dreameh?
Another silence followed, which Ashwoode again abruptly interrupted.
You know all this story?of course you doeverybody doeshow the wretches have trapped meisn't it terribleisn't it dreadful? Oh! you cannot know what it is to mope about this place alone, when it is growing dark, as I do every evening, and in the night time. If I had been another man, I'd have been raving mad by this time. I said alonedid I? he continued, with increasing excitement; oh! that it were!oh! that it were! He comes therethere,
p.346he screamed, pointing to the foot of the bed, with all those infernal cloths and fringes about his face, morning and evening. Ah, God! such a thinghalf idiot, half fiend; and still the same, though I curse him till I'm hoarse, he won't leave it. Can't they waitcan't they wait? for-ever is a long day. As I'm a living man, he's with me every nighttherethere is the body, gaping and noddingtheretherethere!
As he shouted this with frantic and despairing horror, shaking his clenched hands toward the place of his dreaded
p.347nightly visitant, O'Connor felt a thrill of horror such as he had never known before, and hardly recovered from this painful feeling, when Sir Henry Ashwoode turned to the little table on which, among many things, a vessel of water was placed, and filling some out into a cracked cup, he added to it drops from a phial, and hastily swallowed the mixture.
Laudanum is all the philosophy or religion I can boast; it's well to have even so much, said he, returning the bottle to his pocket. It's a dead secret, though, that I have got any; this is a present from the doctor they allow me to see, and I'm on honour notto poison myselfisn't it comical?for fear he should get into a scrape; but I've another game to playno fear of thatno, no.
Another silence followed, and Sir Henry Ashwoode said quickly,
What do the people say about it? Do they think I forged that accursed bond? Do they think me guilty?
O'Connor declared his entire ignorance of public rumour, alleging his own illness, and consequent close confinement, as the cause of it.
They sha'n't believe me guilty, no, they sha'n't. Look ye, sir, I have one good feeling left, he resumed, vehemently; I will not let my name suffer. If the most resolute firmness to the very last, and the most solemn renunciation of the charges preferred against me, reiterated at the foot of the gallows, with the halter about my neckif these can beget a belief of my innocence, my name shall be clearmy name shall not suffer; this last outrage I will avert; but oh, my God! is there no chance yetmust Imust I perish? Will no one save mewill no one help me? Oh, God! oh, God! is there no pityno succour; must it come?
Thus crying, he threw himself forward upon the table, while every joint and muscle quivered and heaved with fierce hysterical sobs which, more like a succession of short convulsive shrieks than actual weeping, betrayed his agony, while O'Connor looked on with a mixture of horror and pity, which all that was past could not suppress.
At length the paroxysm subsided. The wretched man filled out some more water, and mingling some drops of laudanum in it, he drank it off, and became comparatively composed.
Not a word of this to any living being, I charge you, said he, clutching O'Connor's arm in his attenuated hand, and fixing his sunken fiery eyes upon his; I would not have my folly known; I'm not always so weak as you have seen me. It must be, that's allno help for it. It's rather a novel thing, though, to hang a baronetha! ha! You look scaredyou think my wits are unsettled; but you're wrong. I
p.348don't sleep; I hav'n't for some time; and want of rest, you know, makes a man's manner odd; makes him excitablenervous. I'm more myself now.
After a short pause, Sir Henry Ashwoode resumed,
When we had that affray together, in which would to God you had run me through the heart, you put a question to me about my sisterpoor Mary; I will answer that now, and more than answer it. That girl loves you with her whole heart; loves you alone; never loved another. It matters not to tell how I and my fatherthe great and accursed first cause of all our misfortunes and miserieseffected your estrangement. The Italian miscreant told you truth. The girl is gone I know not whither, to seek an asylum from meay, from me. To save my life and honour. I would have constrained her to marry the wretch who has destroyed me. It was hehe who urged it, who cajoled me. I joined him, to save my life and honour! and nowoh! God, where are they?
O'Connor rose, and said somewhat sternly,
May God pardon you, Sir Henry Ashwoode, for all you have done against the peace of that most noble and generous being, your sister. What I have suffered at your hands I heartily forgive.
I ask forgiveness nowhere, rejoined Ashwoode, stoically; what's done is done. It has been a wild and fitful life, and is now over. What forgiveness can you give me or she that's worth a thought?folly, folly!
One word of earnest hope before I leave you; one word of solemn warning, said O'Connor; the vanities of this world are fading fast and for ever from your view; you are going where the applause of men can reach you no more! I conjure you, then, for the sake of your eternal peace, if your sentence be a just one, do not insult your Creator by denying your guilt, and pass into His awful presence with a lie upon your lips.
Ashwoode paused for a moment, and then walked suddenly up to O'Connor, and almost in a whisper said,
Not a word of that, my course is chosen; not one word more. Observe, what has passed between us is private; now leave me. So saying, Ashwoode turned from him, and walked toward the narrow window of his cell.
Farewell, Sir Henry Ashwoode, farewell for ever; and may God have mercy upon you, said O'Connor, passing out upon the dark and narrow corridor.
The turnkey closed the door with a heavy crash upon his prisoner, and locked it once more, and thus the two young men, who had so often and so variously encountered in the unequal path of life, were parted never again to meet in the wayward scenes of this chequered and changeful existence.
Tired and agitated, O'Connor threw himself into the first coach he met, and was deposited safely in the Cock and Anchor. It were vain to attempt to describe the ecstasies and transports of honest Larry Toole at the unexpected recovery of his long-lost master; we shall not attempt to do so. It is enough for our purpose to state that at the Cock and Anchor O'Connor received two letters from his old friend, Mr. Audley, and one conveying a pressing invitation from Oliver French of Ardgillagh, in compliance with which, early on the next morning, he mounted his horse, and set forth, followed by his trusty squire, upon the high road to Naas, resolved to task his strength to the uttermost, although he knew that even thus he must necessarily divide his journey into many more stages than his impatience would have allowed, had more rapid travelling in his weak condition been possible.