James Murphy.

Convict No. 25; or, the clearances of Westmeath : a story of the Whitefeet online

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6o ''CONVICT No. 25."

had ever before seen in human countenance. It was made
all the whiter by reason of a thick stubble of black beard
that covered it.

Set in the countenance was a pair of eyes, which much
relieved the pallor of his countenance by their extreme live-
liness and restlessness. They had much the same watch-
ful and frightened expression constantly dominating them,
that one might expect to find in a trapped fox.

"I say," said No. 25.

" Better not," said the other, shaking with a twist of the
connecting handcuffs, the speaker's hand.

"Why not?"

" We'll be heard."

" We can't in this noise of walking,"

" They'd hear you thinkin', so they would. Leastways
they always heard me."

" You're an Irishman, I think."

« So I am."

" So am I," said 25 encouragingly.

" I see that," said his companion, looking onwards, at
the back of the man trudging before him — for he was not
high enough to look across his shoulder. *' I see that. I'd
be surprised if you worn't."

Rather wondering at this curious statement. Convict
No. 25 asked, "Why?"

*' Because they're never done trans portin' 'em. They
ought to have enough to fill Van Diemen's Land by this."

" What are you in for ? "

" For havin' too much money."

" I don't mean that. How long ? "

"For life."


"For life !" exclaimed Convict No. 25 with astonishment.

" No talking in the ranks there ! " shouted a warder who
had, unheard by them, walked forward from the rere to
within a few yards.

"What is your number? Oh, yes, 25," said he, as he
approached and looked at the number on his cap. " Convict
No. 25, ril report you to the captain for disorderly

A slight shake of the handcuff by the little man, as the
warder passed on to the preceding ranks, intimated as
plainly as possible " I told you so j you don't know them
as well as I do."



On, on, through the mud, and slop, and fog! Hedges,
iron gates, tall trees, came upon their view — came to them,
and receded iuto the distance. Carts, and carriages, the
drivers whereof held their horses' heads and stayed to look
at the convicts, also went by. Women, with their children
in their arms, stood at cottage doors to look at the fettered
ranks as they passed, or, if some distance from the road,
walked thither to take a better and mayhap a sympathetic
look at them ; and perhaps to shudder a little as they looked
forward to the future of the little ones in their arms.

It would be hard indeed to think that any one of these
fettered and handcuffed men, spattered over with mud, the
result of their method of marching, clad in these hideous

62 ''CONVICT No. 25."

grey garments, with the numbers of their convict rank, in
substitution for their names, stamped on the fronts of their
caps, the collars of their jackets, and their sleeves, in red
letters, could ever have been innocent children fondled in
mothers' arms.

If they passed through a village, the warders with their
shotted guns at half-cock still marching before and behind —
as if the prisoners were wild dogs that might at any moment
burst forth and do mischief — the villagers all rushed into
the street to see the chained outcasts mutely march past.

After three or four hours of this ceaseless and monotonous
march, No. 25 began to feel a sense of thirst grow upon
him, which increased with each successive mile, until he
thought he could bear it no longer. His throat and mouth
grew dry as a limekiln, and his tongue could scarcely afford
the moisture to wet his parched palate and throat. Mile
after mile passed as he suffered in this manner, until he
felt that he could go no further.

He was about to say so to his companion when the clank
of the butt-end of a gun rang on his ears, and a loud cry
came along the ranks.

" Halt ! "

As one man all stopped, for all were tired, parched, and
worn. The exuberance and heartiness of the first few hours
had worn itself out in the toil of the later ones, and the rest
came with a grateful sense to all.

They had arrived at a small stream, and here they were
allowed to rest, and eat, with the assistance of the running
stream, their chunks of dry black bread.

Their handcuffs were quickly unlocked ; four stakes were
planted in the ground at the four points of a parallelogram,


beyond the lines of which they were not to stir under pain of
being shot : and by the side of the little river the convicts
wearily flung themselves to drink of its waters to assuage the
burning thirst, and to eat — those who were so disposed —
their black bread and to rest their tired limbs.

No. 25 and his companion were not slow to avail them-
selves of the privilege ; and, the former throwing himself on
his breast on the meadow bank, and bending his face over
the water, drank long and copiously — as indeed did also his

When he had satisfied his thirst, he endeavoured to munch
his bread, but though hungry and stomach-weak, he could
not eat it, so he restored it again to his bag.

" When you're as long as I am at it, you'll eat it ready
enough," said his companion, noticing this.

"How long are you in?" asked Convict No. 25.

"Ten years."

" And you are in for life ? '*

"Yes; I'm in for life."

"What for?"

" Nothing."

" Nothing !"

" Just so — nothing."

" I thought that I," said No. 25, glancing at his com-
panion, " was the only one in for nothing."

" Maybe I shouldn't say for nothing — but it's all the same.
I'm in for having too much money, if you like that better."

" I don't like it better or worse," said Convict No. 25
pityingly ; for, looking at the frightened and restless eye of
the other, he at once inferred that his long imprisonment
had touched his brain. And, as he instantaneously thought

64 ''CONVICT No. 25."

of his own years to come, a sympathetic shudder passed
through his frame. " But it's a pity to see any one in for
life, no matter what it's for."

" Well, that's what it's for," said the man, munching his

" How did that come ? " said No. 25, with some curiosity,
to see how a life-long sentence could arise from such a
curious cause.

" It's a long story to tell ; you wouldn't care to listen to it."

" Yes, I would. I have not heard a soul talk these two

" Nor I for three times that. But I don't know whether
he would like me to tell it. Maybe not. I don't know."

He lifted his frightened eyes in sudden terror upwards, as
if he expected to see some person standing over him. The
bread he was munching fell from his hands.

Convict No. 25, startled a great deal by this striking
exhibition of sudden and secret dread, lifted the bread and
restored it to his hands. As he did so he was startled at
the dreadful pallor of the man's face, and the look of awful
terror that came out from his cowed and restless eyes. At
first he was alarmed least the man might go into a fit ; but
he did not, and gradually steadied himself.

" I can always feel when he's coming, or when he's near
me," said he with a sense of relief, manifest in his utterance :
" but he's gone now. He that showed it to me first."


" The money."


" Down in the South."

" How does he come to see you ? "


" I don't know ; but he does."


" Everywhere."

" Everywhere ?"

"Yes; everywhere, Sometimes in the cell."

" In the cell ? "

" Yes ; in the cell the darkest night he'll come. I know
when he's near, for I always waken out ov my sleep, in
fright to find him standing over me."

" How does he come in ? "

" I don't know. Sometimes when I'm picking oakum
with the others he stands beside me, and lays his hand on
my shoulder and talks to me."

"Talks to you?"

" Yes j talks to me. I must talk to him while he is there.
Warder comes up ; finds me idle and talking ; twenty-four
hours in dark cell on bread and water. And tfiat happens
once every week, or every two weeks."

" Why does the warder allow it ? "

"Allow what?"

" Allow him to come."

" God bless you ! the warder cannot help him. No one
can help him. He comes when he likes, and he goes when
he likes."

The convict raised his cap with his unfettered hand, and
wiped with it the heavy drops of perspiration that stood on
his brow. Fixing it again, he restored it to its former place.

"I don't understand it," said No. 25, much puzzled,

" No — nor any one. I don't myself."

" But he can't come in without their permission ? "

"He can come at any time — through iron doors, and
barred windows." e

66 ''CONVICT No, 25."

"Oh, then he's not a prisoner," said No. 25, with a new
light breaking on him.

" I don't know what he is, but he comes."


" Yes ; comes constantly ever since he first came to me."

" And how long is that ago ? "

"Just ten years. Fd have forgotten how long, but I
happened to see the name of the year in the governor's room,
the day I was ordered off; only for that I wouldn't know
whether it was five, or ten, or twenty. How would you ?
One day is the same as another, an' after a time you lose
count ov the days, and very soon ov the seasons, and then
ov the years. They all pass blank, blank, blank ; no stay,
no guide, no mark to any of them. All alike ! "

"Ten years is a long time," said No. 25 with a shudder.

" So it is. But they pass ; the years pass. I thought
the first week would never pass, then the first month, then
the first year. But, you see, ten have passed — passed
whether I liked it or not. And v/ill pass and pass until
they carry me out ov the cell to throw me in the quicklime
behind the prison. That's their burying ground. I did not
care how soon it came aither. I have not many years more
to spend now."

"What age are you ? "

" Thirty-five."

" Thirty-five ! " said the other in astonishment. He
looked more like sixty-five.

" Thirty-five," repeated the other decidedly. " I was
sentenced when I was barely twenty-five years. I am ten
years in. Anyone can make it out from that."

" How did it happen ? "

" That I was sentenced ? "


" Yes ; and such a heavy sentence."

" Simple enough. You see I lived in the County Clare.
I was married there, and had a farm. The farm was not a
very large one ; but it suited me very well. You could see
the Atlantic from the house. When Mary sat sewing of a
summer's day, before the baby was born, she could see the
sea shining like a gleam of silver before her. And afterwards
when the little thing began to take notice, she would lift it
up to show it the vessels passing up and down. So I, if I
was workin' in the fields, could see it if I lifted my eyes. It
was very happy, so it was ; very happy. I think I can see
it now through the fog. I often jumped out of bed in my
sleep in the prison when I'd think I'd see the white sheet
spread on the hedge afore the door. When I was workin'
too far from the house to hear her voice calling, she used to
spread a sheet on the hedge to show me that dinner was
ready. Hundreds of times I've seen it in my sleep, in the
darkness of midnight in the cell.

. " It was too happy to last, maybe, or we didn't desarve it,
or something. Anyhow we got notice to quit."

" Ah," said No. 25, with a choking feel.

" You know what that is," said the other turning quickly
round to him.

" I do," said the former.

" It isn't that brings you here — is it ? "

" It's the cause of it anyhow," said No. 25 with a gulp.

" Belike enough. It sent many a wan to the gaol an'
many a wan to the gallows. God help the people."

The convict interrupted his narrative by a wandering fit
5)f reflection, in which he seemed lost for a few minutes.

** You got notice ? " suggested No. 25.

68 ''CONVICT No. 25."

" Yes," said the other, interrupting his reflection, " I got
notice. The landlord wanted my farm to add to another
man's, or to turn into game-land, or for something or
another — it does not make much differ what it's for, when
he does want it — does it ? "

" No ) it does not," said No. 25 emphatically.

" No. Well I wouldn't give it up as long as I could help
it. What could I do out of it ? Nothing. What could my
wife do — she was only twenty-one — turned out av it on to the
high road ? Or what could the little baby do — just one year
old ? Or what could I do for aither ov 'em ? I tould the
landlord all that. I might as well ax a favour from the
warder beyant, wid his loaded gun, or from the big stone
you see in the river. Out I must go — an' out I did go.

"What we suffered no one knows but ourselves — and
God, if He saw it, which I don't think He did, because if
He did, He wouldn't permit it. The roof was taken off
afore our eyes. The hedge of rose trees was trampled and
pulled down, and the rose tree I had planted the morning
baby was born, and that we both watered so carefully ever
after, and that was doing so finely, was torn up and thrown
to wither. Much as baby's own life was torn up. Much as
her mother's life was torn up. Just the same. But it took
place all the same.

" It was in the month of February too. The weather was
cold, and the snow was half meltin' on the ground. Where
could I go ? — nowhere ! What could I do ? — nothing ! I
built a hut with such sticks an' coverin' as I could get in a
bit of waste heath near the shore. An' there I lived for
some time, workin' about so long as I could get work to do.
" But I soon had to give up work. Mary caught a cold


in the damp of the hut, an' wid the wakeness of havin' but
little to eat — an' that little, poor — her strength ran out, like
water out av a sieve. So the baby got a cold, too, an' was
very bad ; an' the mother, the crathur, bad as she was, kept
her in her arms, tryin' to mind her an' keep the life in her,
an' I had to try an' mind both.

" Anyhow, they grew worse an' worse, until Mary was
scarcely able to turn in the bed or hould the baby to her

" One cowld evenin' came when there wasn't a spark of
fire on the hearth, nor a drop of anything but water in the
house. There wasn't milk to make a drop of whey, though
I knew she was thirsty for it. People used to give an' give,
an' send an' send — though the nearest was a mile off — but
people get tired of givin' an' givin', when it's likely to go on
for ever, an' they get worn out.

**I walked about the house, an' about the heath that
grew around. I didn't know what to do, or where to get
succour and relief. I was in awful agony.

"'I wish I had a little money for my starvin' family,' I
used to say aloud to myself. ' A Httle, a little, only a little !
I wish God or the devil would bear me a helpin' hand. Any-
thing to get food and medicine for the famishing crathurs.'

"I had not eaten anything myself for that day, though
the evening was falling — nor the day before. My heart
was too full of burning-up just to eat anything — even if
I had it.

" There was no relief to be had outside, as there was
nothing but sorrow inside. I came in to see how they were
doin', though well I knew how they were doin'. What way
could they be doin' but the wan way ?

70 ''CONVICT No. 25."

" But whin I came in I was frightened to see the change
that had come over my wife's face. It made the heart stand
across in my breast.

" ' Are you worse, Mary?' I asked her.

" ' I am,' said she ; ' have you any drink there ? '

" ' There is nothing in the house, Mary,' said I, * but

" ' Give me that ! ' said she. She was speaking at the
time lower than a whisper, so that I had to kneel beside her
on the ground — she was lying on a shass ov straw — an' bend
my face down to her's to hear her.

" She took the drink of water.

" ' I think you ought to go for the priest,' said she. * I
feel very bad.'

" ' An' who'll mind you and the little one while I'm away,
Mary ? ' said I. ' It's six miles to where the priest lives.
Who'll mind you all the time I'm away ? '

" ' God,' said she feebly. ' God and the Blessed Virgin.'

"Nobody will ever know what I suffered that night.
Nobody. I couldn't be ov much use stayin', when I hadn't
a bit or a sup to give 'em, the crathurs ; but for all that,
somehow I couldn't bear to leave 'em alone in the hut that
night, in the could an' the dark, an' the wet, an' the hunger.

" I tore myself away to go for the priest. Greater
despair, torment, blackness, madness, lay never in any heart
than in mine that journey. I ran the whole way. Along
the cliffs by the shore, up an' down, up an' down, until I
came to the high road ; an' then fast as I could through the
meltin' snow that lay in the hollow of the cliffs, and through
the mud an' the slush of the roads until I came to the
priest's house.


" I did not know how wake I was until I reached my
journey's end. In my torture and agony, I forgot I had
been fastin' two days athout atin' anything.

" I had scarcely given my message to the priest, who
knew me well, when I fell in a faint. Afore I went off alto-
gether, I could hear him say to the servant — ' This poor
fellow seems starvin', look to him until I come back.'

'' It was about midnight when I came to. The house-
keeper had something prepared for me to eat, but with the
wakeness I could not put a morsel into my mouth. I took
a glass of spirits from her an' set out to go home agin. She
wanted me to wait until mornin', or until the priest came
back, but if I had had to walk through fire all the way I'd
have gone.

" When I came to the place where I had to leave the
road and go across the fields, I met the priest in the dark
riding out on the road.

" ' Who is that ? ' said he, as he noticed my form in the
dark. ' Is that Phelim ? '

" ' It is,' said I, *your reverence. How are they ? '

" ' They're well, Phehm, my poor fellow,' said he, laying
his hand on my shoulder. ' They'll never feel sorrow or
pain in this world again. Why did't you come and tell me
how hardly oif you war ? '

" Is she better, your reverence ? ' said I, for I didn't
know what he meant. ' Is the little one better ? '

" ' They are both better,' said he getting off his horse to
spake to me. * Better than ever they could be in this
world, for they're both with God.'

" * They're not dead, your reverence ? ' I said. I could
hardly ask she question. The drops of perspiration tumbled

72 ''CONVICT No. 25."

off my forehead, and fell on my hands as I lifted them to
my face, as cold as hailstones and as big.

" ' You must bear it, my poor fellow. It is the hand of
God, and if He gives troubles in this world, He gives eternal
happiness for it in the next. We are in His hands. You
must bear with your great troubles. The baby was gone
when I went there, and your poor wife died with my hand
under her head.'

" I don't know how I left him. I think I ran mad in the
dark towards home. I know that I raved and cursed, with
my brain on fire, as I ran through the dark — cursed myself,
cursed my landlord, cursed earth and heaven.

" I suppose I fell or lay down exhausted, for when I woke
up I was lying on the side of the cliff, wet and cowld and
shiverin'. It was a mornin' like this wan was, and the day
was just breakin'. It was then I first saw him. I had only
begun to stagger along as fast as I could towards home,
when I noticed somebody walkin' beside me. I did not
much mind, nor did I care. But he kept step for step with
me, walkin' when I walked, runnin' beside me when I ran
a few steps ; never lavin' me — never once lavin' me !

" I climbed into the Rath that was on the way, to get a
few sticks to light a fire when I got home. He gathered
some too. I pulled at an old rotten bush that gave way
with me. Feeble though I was the whole ' scraugh ' gave
way with my pull.

" A few coins turned up with the earth. I looked at them
an' found they were gold. I thrust my hand down through
the soft earth an' found there were more, many more. I
didn't know how much more. If there were a million I
wouldn't have thought them worth keepin'. I took a few


and then threw the 'scraugh' back again over the place, and
thramped on it, I took the little bundle of faggots, and
Ihried to run home with them. You may think it quare, but
my whole anxiety was to light a fire to warm the poor things.
It often seems quare to myself now, but that's what I had in
my head. If I could only light a fire to warm 'em ! I
couldn't get out of my head the wet straw an' the wet
ground, all sodden with the snow, they were lyin' upon.
And I was boilin' over with my haste to kindle a fire to keep
them warm, even although I knew they were dead.

" I think I must have lost my senses, for I don't remem-
ber anything more until I found myself marching through
the streets of Ennis a prisoner. I didn't know nor care
then what happened me ; but I knew afterwards on the

" The landlord's house — he was bad to many others as
well as me — was attacked and burnt down and plundered at
daybreak that mornin', and himself burnt in it. You must
have heard of that."

" I did not," said No, 25.

"Well it was. There was plenty to swear that I was
there. The priest proved I couldn't be, but the others swore
I was. Maybe because I was likely to be — because I had
raison to be. But what made everyone sure I was was the
gold I had in my pocket. How else could it come there
but by plunder ? An' to make the matter worse, I could
not remember myself how it came. I had forgotten it. It
was long after, one night dreamin' in my cell, I remembered
it. Ay, an' could lay my hand on the place if I were there.
But what was the use talkin' about it ? "

" And your companion of that night? " asked No. 25.

'74 ''CONVICT No. 25."

" Hush ! " said the convict with a frightened gesture.
" Hush ! spake easy. Ever since he comes at times — and
watches me. In the night in my cell. ^In the daytime at
my work, pickin' the oakum. I can know when he's in the
room in my sleep. Sometimes I can know when he's comin',
I feel my heart beginnin' to flutter and beat, and the cowld
perspiration come out through my face and forehead. Some-
times I leap from my standin' to find him, when I turn my
head, beside me, watchin' me. Watchin' me ! It's awful !"

The deadly pallor of the man's face bore an expression of
profound terror, which was heightened by the fear that
manifested itself in his restless and furtive-glancing eyes.
There was no mistaking the truth of the convict's story from
the earnestness of his words ; but there was still less from
the terrified indications of his face.

" Did you see your wife and child ? "

" No ; I don't remember. I think not."

" Did you ever hear from Clare since ? "

" Not a word — not a word, for ten years."

'• Does he come to you still? "

" Hush ! Spake easy ! Yes."

" Often ?"

" Sometimes often, sometimes not. Spake easier."

" Does he speak everytime ? "

A hoarse cry of " Fall in there ! Fall in !" from each of
the four warders brought the convicts to their legs and into
rank quickly, and two of them proceeding along the line
relocked the handcuffs.

The men filed once more into the road, and, as before,
commenced their renewed weary tramp over the gutters and
pools of the high way, on to their destination.




Tramp, tramp, unceasingly as the soddened feet of the
trampers splashed and plashed on their way past houses,
villages, mansions, castles ; through the afternnon, the
evening, and into the dusk. Tramp, tramp, still in silence,
without pause or cessation.

"Will it ever end?" Convict No. 25 asks himself as he
plods along mechanically, every sense but one of dull
fatigue and excessive tiredness dormant in his body. It
was like the endless journeys men imagine themselves
making when the fever stretches them on a bed of sickness
and tires their brain with disordered dreams.

" Will it never have an ending ? " He was going asleep
as he staggered along, and would have fallen forward, as his
heedless foot struck against a stone which he failed to see,
but that his companion brought him up with a chuck of the
handcuff, and he saved himself further by partly falling
against the man preceding him.

"Steady there, No. 25 ! No breaking the ranks 1"

The voice of the warder, shouting menacingly over the
beat of the men's feet, woke him to a sense of his position.
But the feeling died away again, as the relapsing sense of
fatigue — overwhelming fatigue and sleep — seized upon the
numb muscles and nerves of his limbs and brain. No

Online LibraryJames MurphyConvict No. 25; or, the clearances of Westmeath : a story of the Whitefeet → online text (page 5 of 28)