Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/The Fair of Ballinasloe

THE FAIR OF BALLINASLOE.
(A TRUE INCIDENT. BY THE AUTHOR OF “RECOMMENDED TO MERCY.”)

A great time enthirely in the troublesome little island “over the say” is the yearly Fair of Ballinasloe. All the world is there—all the Irish sporting and farming world at least; and they, and their stock together, are a sight worth coming some little distance to behold. The ground where the animals stand is a sea of mud of course—of mud up to the fetlocks of the horses; but nevertheless they trot and gallop gallantly through the same, urged thereto by the “boys,” who have a name, and a just one, all the world over for making the best of their “horse bastes,” and for understanding the art of circumventing their natural enemies, id est, the Saxon and the stranger. The sun shone—no very common event—on the horse day of the great fair, in the year 185—, and the scene on which the rare luminary looked down was, as I have said, a curious one enough. There were knots of sporting gentlemen, composed both of English and Irish, although the latter element preponderated, and they were one and all occupied in discussing the merits of the many magnificent, weight-carrying hunters which the grooms were now riding, as quietly as it is in the nature of Paddy to do, for the gentlemen’s inspection, and now leaping backwards and forwards over the high bar erected for the acrobatic performances of the equine race. There were crowds upon crowds of the finest peasantry in the world standing about amongst the rough country ponies in the slippery, tenacious mud of the park; and amongst them might be seen many a closely shorn face above its priestly coat, while Fathers Conway and Daly, apparently thoroughly in their element, loafed about through the throng with words of counsel to the members of their flock, and a scowl for the inimies who were on the watch to enter and despoil the sheepfold. The business of the day had gone on briskly enough, and many a Celtic steed had changed its owner, whilst not a few had passed into the hands of the useful, though hated Saxon. It was still early in the afternoon; but nevertheless not a few of those who had attended the fair, but who lived at a distance from Ballinasloe, had already betaken themselves to the railway station, and were waiting for the overdue train from the west which was to carry them and their gains to “Daublin.” There was, amongst the waiting crowd, none of the order and seeming patience, and certainly none of the taciturnity which is characteristic of the English traveller at a railway station; but on the contrary, the sounds of blarney, chaff, and laughter filled the air, and everywhere your ear might catch the import of racy words redolent of fun and harmless satire, while jests at the expense of such unlucky countrymen as were, with crest-fallen countenances, taking back their tired animals to their little “holdings,” seemed to be amongst the most popular of the witticisms which were flying about.

“Bedad! and she’s a fine baste enthirely,” said a countryman, in a long-skirted frieze coat, and with shirt collars up to his eyes, and who was alluding to a low-shouldered, over-worked pony, which was being placed in a crowded truck. “A fine little baste that you had along wid you, Dominick; and you niver to be so much as axed where you was going! Well!—well!”

“It isn’t the likes of her that does be selling along wi’ the tip-top cattle for the gentle folks,” remarked another man—a snug farmer doubtless, for his “Carolina” hat was very new and tall, and his stout frieze coat of the thickest and the best. “It isn’t for a poor man’s baste a man would be coming to the fair. It’s them’s the lads as makes the money,” he added, in a lower tone, and pointing to a stout, middle-aged man who, with an air of conscious importance, was walking up and down the platform. The countryman whom the last speaker had been addressing had no time to reply, for at that moment the feeble apology for a whistle which is the best approach to that inspiring railway music which Irish skill has yet arrived at, gave warning of the train’s approach, and in another moment every one was engrossed in the struggle for places in the already nearly filled carriages.

The frieze-coated small farmers were hustled with very little ceremony, and but small amount of consideration as regarded their powers of compression, into a third-class carriage; but such poor accommodation as it afforded was apparently not to the taste of the stout and self-satisfied individual I have alluded to, for, after glancing at its humbler occupants, he turned away, and ensconced himself in a more aristocratic vehicle. In the same compartment, and amongst other passengers whom it is not necessary to describe, were two young men of the buckeen, or very small landed gentry class. They were brothers, too, and students at Galway College, being withal tolerably wild specimens of the aborigines of the far west; with happy tempered faces, and eyes brimming over with the “fun” which they “poked” at every one who gave them the chance of a merry thrust at his or her expense.

When the stout cattle-dealer (for such he was) settled himself in his place alongside the Galway brothers—whose names, as I may here remark, were O’Flaherty—he looked a placid and contented man enough; but another moment sufficed to change the expression of his countenance entirely, for an almost livid hue overspread his cheeks, and his eyes glared with the wide, open aspect of despair. In another instant he sprang upon his feet, and cried with what was something very nearly approaching to a howl, the while he patted his rotund person vigorously:

“My notes! By ——, my notes! Two hunder pound I had in the fair, the price of the large brown hunter, and by the powers! but the ruffians have been and stolen them from me the day!”

The unhappy man’s broad fat face was now perfectly crimson with excitement; indeed, so imminent did the danger of apoplexy appear to Manus O’Flaherty, the younger of the brothers, that he retreated hastily to avoid the possible consequences of the stout man’s collapse. At that moment, however, a “boy,” the waiter of some half-century’s standing at the Ballinasloe Hotel, rushed, bareheaded and breathless, on the platform, exclaiming as he did so:

“Is the jintleman in it as slept in the big room with the small little bed in the corner of it?”

“Shure it’s mysel’ was in it,” responded the stout man, leaning forward, and speaking with great eagerness.

“And did ye be laving anything afther ye at all?”

“I did—some notes, shurely.”

“Was it two hunder pound, now?”

“It was.”

“Shure it’s mysel’ ’as found ’em a-rowling on the flure.”

“And is it along wid ye, ye have them?”

“It is—in my fhist, bedad!”

The stout man held out his hand, and grasping the notes which the honest old waiter placed unsuspectingly within them, he turned them over rapidly, in order to ascertain if the dirty, crumpled paper which he held were actually identical with his missing treasure.

“Bedad, an’ it’s all right!” was his joyous exclamation when the examination was concluded; and then, thrusting the money deep into his huge breeches-pocket, he buttoned it up with an air as though he would say, “They’ve got the better of me once, but they’ll be wide awake if they do it a second time, and be hanged to ’em!”

But during the second or two wasted in this imaginary Saxon soliloquy, the exceptional inn waiter—for may he not well be called so?—stood gazing on the man he had so signally befriended, with a face compounded of mystification and remonstrance. Small time had he, however, to put his looks into words, for, ere his mouth could open, the train was set in motion, and Paddy—totally unrewarded for his disinterestedness, and the considerable trouble he had taken—was left standing on the platform, regretting, in all probability, his lost opportunity, and telling himself in his own language that honesty is not always the best policy. And now—although I do not look upon myself as a peculiarly sensitive individual—I must confess that I should not exactly like to have stood either in the shoes or the situation of Mr. John Burke—for such was the “snug man’s” name—that day. Public opinion is a tremendous engine, and public opinion was hard at work against him. It is true it was only expressed in the countenances of five common-place and second-class men whom he might never set eyes on again in the course of his mortal career; but still, for the nonce—that is to say, for several hours probably—those contemptuous faces were turned upon him, and, what is more, the niggardly traveller was painfully aware of the fact. But whilst shrinking, in spite of his self-importance, from the glances of those opposite to him, it was in reality of the Galway brothers that John Burke stood most in awe, for he had caught a word or two of whispered commentary far from complimentary to himself, and the farmer had not now to learn to what lengths the spirits of frolicsome Irish youths of the O’Flaherty stamp are capable of carrying their possessors. Still Mr. Burke, to the best of his power, put a good face on the matter; and, after telling himself more than once that his money was his own, and that he had a right to do what he liked with it, he, soothed doubtless by the previous imbibing of sundry glasses of whisky, yielded his ponderous person to the embraces of Morpheus, and slept as soundly as though he had been both just and generous. It appeared, however, that even in his slumbers the imagination of the fortunate owner of the “brown hunter’s” price, was still running on his almost miraculously restored property, for his fingers sought the solace of its agreeable touch, and, diving into the lowest recesses of the pocket where the dirty specimens of filthy lucre were reposing, they brought the flimsy paper gradually, but all unwittingly, to the orifice, where the thick brown hand was so lovingly lingering. Not long, however, did those protecting fingers retain their hold, for as the slumbers of the unconscious man grew more intense his grasp relaxed, and the hand falling inertly by his side, the precious paper was left exposed—a considerable portion of the roll of notes actually protruding from the pocket of their slumbering owner.

Manus and Val O’Flaherty caught sight at one and the same moment of this unexpected apparition, and a thought—the offspring of fun and frolic—flashed in an instant through the minds of each.

“The mane fellow!” said Val in a whisper to his brother—although the precaution of low speaking was wholly unnecessary from the fact that all the other inhabitants of the carriage were sleeping soundly under the influence of fatigue and whisky. “The mane fellow! nivir so much as to offer the poor boy a sixpence, and he running fit to knock the life out of him!”

“The dirty schroundrel!” responded Manus, in the same tone. “It’s myself ’ud like to play him a thrick about the money.”

“I’d just like to give him the fright,” said Val, who was seated the farthest from the object of their animadversions. “Shure, thin, an’ it ’ud be grate foon enthirely to make him shake agin the day! An’ wouldn’t I like to see the big long face he’d be making for the minute when he’d wake up, and find his notes gone astray on him agin, the spalpeen!”

They were scarcely more than boys, and the love of a joke was almost irresistibly strong within them, or they would never have yielded so instantaneously to the temptation into which they had been led. They took no time, indeed, for thought, or the consideration of consequences, for Manus’s hand was already on the roll of notes, and, gently drawing it from the pocket of the unconscious farmer, he held it triumphantly towards his brother.

Val had looked on at the operation with dilated eyes, and a mouth bursting with suppressed merriment, whilst the train, which had been for several seconds gradually decreasing in velocity, came at last to a stand-still at Athlone station.

“Athlone! Athlone!” shouted the officials. “Change here for Longford,” &c., &c., &c.

The repose of the stout cattle-dealer was too deep to be more than momentarily disturbed by the stoppage, but to Manus O’Flaherty it was an event which (combined with the boyish practical joke I have just narrated) gave a gloomy colouring to years of his after-life. Looking from the window of the carriage, with his fingers just removed from the notes which he had concealed in his breast coat-pocket, the Galway student, as his evil stars would have it, recognised in one of the many loungers on the platform the face of a friend.

“Ah! by the powers, now!” he shouted. “If there isn’t that thief of the world Dinis Grady! Let me out, guard, will ye? It’s three minutes here, and it isn’t one I’ll be stopping in it;” and with that Mr. Manus O’Flaherty, with all the agility of his energetic eighteen summers, sprang from the carriage, bearing with him the grazier’s gains, and followed by the anxious eyes of the half-repentant Val, who still retained his seat within the carriage.

He had a bold spirit of his own, and bore a light heart within his breast, did cheery Val O’Flaherty, or he would have been still more agitated than in truth he was when the moments sped by, and he, leaning with his thin little body from the carriage window, looked in vain for the return of his absent brother. The time was nearly up, and with a heart which was beginning to beat faster than was altogether agreeable, he was preparing to jump out, and search for the truant, when a banging of doors, and the rapid steps of the guard on the platform gave notice that the moment of departure had arrived.

“Och, thin, wait a moment, will ye, now?” cried the poor fellow, resisting the closing of his particular door, and speaking in appealing tones of entreaty to the official. “Jist a moment—there’s a gentleman coming—or—let me out—will ye—I’m ill—I’m—och, Jasus!” but at that moment the door was closed and locked, the whistle sounded, and Val, with a white face and dire consternation in his breast, was carried on his way.

For a few minutes the unhappy victim of a joint practical joke was in a state of bewilderment so complete, that he could barely realise the extent of the misfortune that had befallen him. Before him sat and snored the unsuspicious man whose awaking to a sense of his bereavement could not be long delayed; and heavy on his own breast sat the demon of fear, as he glanced towards the other travellers, who must in so short a time become the witnesses of his disgrace. And yet—he asked himself, as the cold sweat broke out upon his forehead, and his heart beat wildly with the dread of coming retribution—and yet what proof was there that he had aught to do with what to all the world must seem a robbery? And then, of course, the truth must soon become apparent. His brother, stupid fellow, had but missed the train, bad cess to him! and by the next he’d hurry on, and bringing back the money, nothing bad would come of it. And comforting himself with these reflections, Val stilled the pulses in his frame, and leaning back in his corner kept a sort of fascinated gaze on the fellow-travellers, whose slumbers, greatly as such a consummation was to be wished for, could scarcely be expected to last for ever.

At Mullingar—and no wonder, for the excitement and clamour were there increased by a more than usual amount of screeching drunkenness—Mr. John Burke awoke for good.

“Now for it!” said Val to himself, with an internal groan, as obeying the strong instinct of money preservation, the grazier’s hand dived into his breeches-pocket. “Now for it!” and putting on with a very ill grace a face of intense interest in the scene enacting on the platform, Mr. Valentine O’Flaherty stared vacantly from the window of the carriage.

The stout traveller, as we have said, thrust his hand into the pocket in which he remembered having placed his treasure, and not finding it there he tried the other side, but all in vain! The pockets were empty, and the frightened man roared lustily in the extremity of his agitation for the guard.

It was not a small body that he thrust through the window, and Val was almost thankful at the moment for the respite which the eclipsing of his own slender person afforded.

“Guard, I’m robbed and desthroyed,” he cried. “Let me out. I’ve lost two hunder pound, and it’s a ruffian as got out at Athlone as took it of me! Let me out, I say, and be d—d to you.”

But the busy officials on the platform (the bell having already rung for departure) were too much occupied to attend to Mr. Burke’s complaints, so the train, jolting, swaying, shaking, as only Irish trains (when they are pressed for time) can do, carried the frantic man and his unhappy companion on their way. The former sank back in his seat, in what Val almost trusted was a state of collapse, and he was beginning to hope that Dublin might be reached, and he make his escape without being subjected to the indignity of suspicion, when he was roused by an exclamation from his unfortunate neighbour, and by a clutch at his own neckcloth which nearly strangled him.

“You villain!” exclaimed Mr. Burke, passionately. “You villain! It’s you as was the friend of him as robbed me—the thief of the world!—and he to make off that way!” and he shook the pale-faced student vigorously, whilst his hold on his thick woollen comforter never relaxed for a moment, and his knuckles dug into the veins of the boy’s throat.

“I say, hold hard there, old gentleman,” said one of the other passengers, who chanced to be an Englishman. “Fair play’s a jewel, and though the matter looks queer, you’ll get no good by murdering a fellow,” and, suiting the action to the word, he, with the assistance of the fourth traveller, loosened the grazier’s hold, and pushed him back, not too tenderly, into his place. Val was anything but sorry to be released from a grasp which, had he chanced to have been ' tête-à-tête with the infuriated Mr. Burke, might have ended in choking the life out of his far feebler body. As it was, indeed, he felt very sick and shaken, and it was some little time before he found breath enough to thank his rescuer. But with that breath there came a strong feeling of virtuous indignation, and a keen desire for vengeance on his foe.

“Thare, an’ it’s yourself as is the big coward to be laying hould on a man half your size, ye mane blayguard ye. And is it the dirty notes you’re afther talking of? It’s my belief you never had them of your own at all at all, or it’s more than the bare thanks you’d have given to the poor boy as brought them to ye.”

But in this hasty expression of his anger, Val O’Flaherty overstepped the bounds of prudence, and went far to convince his hearers—and more especially the Englishman who had momentarily taken up his defence—that he, that blundering, blustering Galway boy was, if not actually, the dangerous animal called a pickpocket, a companion, at least, and accomplice of one who was anything but a safe and respectable member of society.

“Hold hard there, young fellow,” said again the Saxon dealer, in a peremptory tone. “We can’t have none of that blarney. The notes was there, for I saw ’em counted, and if they isn’t now, why—” and he scratched his head with a musing air, being mentally divided probably between the rather pleasurable excitement of thief-detecting, and a natural and good-natured dislike to make an unpleasant remark.

Another station reached—a small place evidently, but still large enough to contain some officers of justice, some magistrate by whom that shivering, miserable youth might be tried and sentenced. These were the grazier’s thoughts as, jumping from the carriage, he called lustily for aid to secure the prisoner.

“Hands off,” cried Val, who, when the moment for action, and perchance for fight arrived, felt strong within him the pugnacious instincts of his countrymen. “Hands off; I’ll be afther ye in a hand’s turn, old boy, and then we’ll see who’ll have the best of it, and be d—d to ye.”

During his short and not over-agreeable walk to the residence of the stipendiary magistrate, Val O’Flaherty fully made up his mind to tell that gentleman the whole truth, nothing doubting but that this straightforward explanation of facts, combined with the certain and speedy reappearance of his careless brother, would procure his own immediate restoration to liberty. But the inexperienced Valentine had not reckoned with any degree of accuracy on the various suspicious circumstances which told so terribly against himself in the opinion of the gentleman who received his confession with such a grave and unsympathising air.

“It was jist foon, your worship—jist hoombugging we was—and Manus he got the notes, and seeing a frind on the platform, he disremembered the train and the money enthirely. But there’ll be no delay at all, your worship. Shure there’s another train to-night, and its mysel’ will be there to hurry him.”

But Mr. Sullivan, though a good-natured man, as well as an experienced magistrate, did not happen to see the matter in the same light, for, to set against a good deal of criminating evidence there was only the student’s very improbable story, to say nothing of the shabby hat and well-worn coat which, in order to save his only holiday suit, the prudent Val had deemed it wise to put on duty for the journey.

Such being the view taken by the magistrate of the matter, he declined to let the prisoner go, and the unlucky Val, infinitely to his surprise and consternation (for the obtaining the blessing of bail was as completely out of his reach as would have been the landed proprietorship and the well-to-do look which might have induced the worthy Mr. Sullivan to look more favourable on his case), the unlucky Val, I repeat, was placed under lock and key to think over his unlooked-for disgrace, and to wait impatiently, but alas! in vain, for the arrival of the brother whose testimony in this emergency could alone avail to rescue him from the unhappy position in which he found himself.

But we must leave the incarcerated student for awhile, in order to account for the absence of the actual perpetrator of the so-called robbery. He had small experience in railway travelling, that raw buckeen, who had scarcely ever left his native mountains, and to whom the “city of Dublin” was as yet a scene of only dreamt-of pleasure. Yes, he had very little experience in rapid locomotion, or, in the small Junction of Athlone, he would not have so completely lost his head as to allow the train by which he had travelled to depart without him; whilst he, staring into the windows of another which was on the point of starting for Longford, looked in vain for his brother’s familiar face, and for the portly figure of the horse-dealer.

“By the powers!” he cried at last, addressing a man who was employed in banging too the doors. “By the powers, but I was in it a minute ago, and now divil a one of them is in it afther.”

The words had scarcely passed the lips of Manus O’Flaherty when the train for Longford moved slowly away, and he was left on the platform alone! In a moment the full horror, not only of his own, but of his unlucky brother’s situation flashed across his mind. To have left the carriage with another man’s two hundred pounds (and how obtained was a reflection that now filled his brain with dismay unutterable), to have left his seat, I say, under such circumstances, seemed now to him an act little short of madness. But what was now to be done to remedy the evil? This was a question that even the greatly bewildered Connaught youth asked himself the instant the first shock was over; but it was a query easier asked than answered. He had no acquaintance now to aid him, for the fellow-student whom he had so eagerly greeted was by this time miles away in an outside jaunting car that had been waiting for him, and hours, too, must elapse before he could get on to Dublin, whilst in that time to what terrible suspicions would he not be subjected, and his brother,—his poor, guiltless, lonely Val—ah, that was the thought that preyed upon him most; and as he cursed his own reckless folly, the tears filled the eyes of Manus O’Flaherty as he drew a mental and scarcely an exaggerated picture of his young brother’s sufferings.

“May the divil take the ould fellow’s money, and himself along with it,” he muttered, as after a few more minutes of reflection he decided on the wise course of depositing the notes without delay in the hands of some “respectable man,” if such were to be found in the neighbourhood of the solitary-looking little station. This resolution was no sooner arrived at, than with almost a mechanical action he felt in his pocket for the unlucky cause of all his misery; and lo!—horror of horrors! and to his terror unutterable, the notes were no longer there.

“My God!” he exclaimed aloud, as he made certain of the awful fact; “I’m ruined and desthroyed entirely!” and Manus O’Flaherty, rushing madly from the place where he had been left standing, flew to the station-master with his complaint.

The man took the news very coolly—so coolly, indeed, that the poor young fellow grew exasperated thereat, and his Milesian blood getting the better of his fear of consequences, he was preparing to enforce his arguments in a manner anything but agreeable to the official, when a hand was laid upon the student’s shoulder, and a “peeler,” alias a policeman, informed him that he was a prisoner.

Manus was in a state of mind which rendered him incapable of the sensation of surprise, or he would have been wonderstruck at the celerity with which, by electric means, justice had thus come so quickly on his track. But, though bewildered and miserable, he was anything but silenced, and continued, in spite of the policeman’s warnings, to pour forth explanations which, in the eye of the law, were so many evidences of his guilt.

There is no reason to dwell in detail on the examination, trial, and committal to prison of the unfortunate lad, whose wealth of juvenile spirits had led him into a “fix” so inextricable. The money was gone, and, by his own confession, he had been the purloiner. What was it to either judge or jury that Manus and his brother had both told the same (in the opinion of most) improbable story? What mattered it that their family was respectable, themselves of good repute, and that their widowed mother was broken-hearted? Facts and circumstances were against them, and Manus O’Flaherty was condemned to expiate his crime by a lengthened term of imprisonment, whilst Val—who had forgotten himself to the extent of using strong language on the occasion to the judicial authorities—was severely admonished, and removed with ignominy from the precincts of the court.

Months passed away after this sad event, and the eldest brother was still in prison; whilst the youngest, who had lacked courage to return to his college, where he had already begun to give good promise of future success, was living in gloomy retirement on the hundred-acre estate with his mother, and fancying the while that he saw contempt for and avoidance of him everywhere.—Months, I repeat, had passed away, and the adventure had almost become forgotten save by those who had suffered from it, when one bright spring morning, as Val was in melancholy mood watching the turf-cutting, and thinking regretfully of his happy college days, when he and Manus were together, he was roused from his sad thoughts by the approach of the old parish priest. He was a good, kind man was Father Moriarty, and one who had not only entered warmly into the family sorrows, but had from the first believed in the innocence of the boys whom from their infancy he had loved. The priest came forward on this occasion with a kinder smile than usual on his face.

“Val, my son,” he said, “God bless you!”

“What is it, sir?” responded the lad, as he took the offered hand. “Your reverence has heard good news the day, I’m thinking.”

“Indeed an’ I have. The best news I have to tell this many a day. I’ve got the notes, boy! There, now, don’t cry out, because of the mother, and she so wake and ailing. They’re restitution from a poor sinner who is gone this day to God.” And Father Moriarty crossed himself devoutly, whilst tears of gratitude rolled slowly down the pale cheeks of the once robust-looking Galway student. “It’s all to the fore but twenty pounds, and we’ll make that up amongst us by the blessing of God! In with ye, boy! and tell the mother gently, now.”

And patting him on the back, whilst he placed the recovered money in his hands, Father Moriarty went with a light heart upon his way.

My story is nearly over now, for the restoration of the notes worked a miracle in the belief of the two brothers’ story, and soon liberated, and once more light of heart and countenance, Manus clasped his mother in his arms. From that time, too, all prosperity has attended them, for Val, successful in a competitive examination, obtained a comfortable little civil service post in Dublin, while Manus, living on in the old homestead, and still watching with filial care the declining years of his only remaining parent, has been fortunate enough to obtain the agency of a neighbouring estate, the duties of which he fills to the satisfaction of his employer, and—what is far more rare—for the welfare, as far as lies in his power, of those who, despite the many assertions to the contrary, are still, and it is to be feared ever will be, poor indeed!