by Myles Abroad
1880's Ireland. A benevolent Landlord is forrced into facing opposing loyalties.
In the light of the full moon, shadows melted across the gravelled drive that separated the manicured lawns from the Big House. The shadows formed into three figures, pressed against the outer walls. They crept along it, anxious their contact inside had left the veranda doors unlocked. In the distance, a dog's bark was cut short with a yelp...
Lord Crofton and his twelve-year-old daughter waited in the cobblestoned courtyard for the groom to saddle their horses. The purple ribbon tying back Alexandra's blond curls struggled to maintain its knot as she bounced on the balls of her feet. He laughed putting his hands on her shoulders as her brown mare was led out.
"You need to contain your excitement. You don't want to frighten her." He couldn't help but be pleased with the mare's gentle nature.
A footman appeared at his shoulder. "My Lord, a messenger from the home office has arrived. He urgently needs to speak with you."
Lord Crofton nodded his thanks and then addressed the groom. "We'll delay for a few minutes, James." He looked down at his daughter when her face dropped. "Alex, I won't be long. Go introduce yourself to her."
He smiled, watching the tenderness with which she stroked the horse's head. He turned to the footman and walked with him into the house.
"Was he shown into my study, Connor?"
"He was. Lady Constance is with him."
Lord Crofton groaned. Constance, his late wife's sister, had arrived two years before to help him run the household. He hadn't realized his wife had been Jezebel's sibling.
"Connor, how is your Mother now?"
Connor's face broke into a smile. "Much better, Sir. Thank you for sending the physician last night. She was sitting up this morning drinking some broth."
"Great news, Connor, great news," Lord Crofton laughed as they parted ways.
From the open doorway of his study, he watched Constance scrutinise her latest victim. Arms folded, her dark eyes boring into the messenger, she listened then jabbed a finger at his chest and spoke in a hushed staccato tone. He stepped back, looked at his feet then returned her gaze. Lord Crofton smiled and cleared his throat. The messenger faced him with a relieved smile while Constance threw her eyes up to heaven and muttered under her breath.
As he joined them, the messenger bowed. "My lord, the Home Office is warning all the Landlords of unrest among the peasantry. There have been atrocities against the gentry in Ulster. We fear it could spread."
"Surely not in the Pale?"
"Perhaps not, Sir, but I might remind you that you are on the edge of it. The Home Office instructs that we should take this threat seriously."
Lord Crofton nodded. "Thank you, Sir. Constance, can you see that this man gets some refreshment. I take it your task has only begun?"
"You are quite right, my Lord. Thank you."
Lord Crofton left them and walked towards the back door when an all too familiar screech gave him pause.
He sighed and faced Constance as she caught up with him.
"You can't ignore the warning."
He pulled her into an empty room and shut the door. "Constance, we have nothing to fear. I can hardly blame the people from rising up. Some of our peers treat them horrendously. These mass evictions must stop."
Constance's face turned red as she threw her arms up. "There you go with your politics again." She pointed at his chest. "You've turned on your own by joining that Home Rule movement." She stepped in close, her voice rising. "As for Parnell's land reform, I am appalled you have embraced that."
He stood up straight clenching his hands into fists. "I haven't turned on my own." He pointed at his chest. "I'd like to remind you that I am an Irish Lord. My family has lived here for four generations. These 'peasants' are my people and I have nothing to fear from them."
The first figure held his breath when he tried the door handle. It pushed down easily, a click and the door drifted open. They waited for a response. None came. He nudged the door open and in complete silence the three intruders pushed past the drapes and glided into the room, their presence unchallenged...
Lord Crofton and Alexandra slowed their horses to a walk as they turned up their avenue. They waved at the gardeners who tended the flower beds on the front lawn that stretched towards their stately, three-story home.
The rain of the last few days had been pushed aside for a brilliantly hot afternoon to rival a summer's day on the French Riviera. A haze was rising and the smells of earth and freshly cut grass filled Lord Crofton's nostrils.
He dabbed at the sweat on his forehead and glanced at the inviting shade offered by the dense growth of rhododendron thriving on the opposite side of the avenue. He smiled at memories of exploring and hiding in the thickets as a child with Dessie O'Grady.
He turned to Alexandra. "Are you nervous about going to boarding school tomorrow?"
The smile fell from her face as she looked at him. "I wish I didn't have to go."
"I know, but you'll enjoy it." He could already feel the emptiness her parting would bring but he steeled himself against it, knowing it was for her own good. "I'll be in Dublin next week. We can see each other then." He laughed. "You'll have so many friends you won't want to see me."
"Of course I will, Papa."
Lord Crofton smiled when he recognised a woman joining the avenue from a side path, carrying a basket. She held her head high as she walked with a purposeful stride; her long red braid, emerging from under her scarf, swayed with each step.
Alexandra's face lit up. "Look, Papa. It's Kathleen."
"So it is. Bringing us eggs, I expect."
"Could I see Maggie later?"
"Of course, but you'll have to ask Kathleen."
When they pulled up next to her, she dipped her head. "Good afternoon me Lord, Alexandra."
"Hello, Kathleen. Beautiful day, isn't it?"
"It's glorious." Her face crinkled with mirth as she nodded at the eggs in her basket. "And the hens love it as well."
"Good to hear that but I hope you kept some for yourselves."
"We did." She looked at Alexandra. "So you're away tomorrow. You'll be missed."
Alexandra gave her a weak smile. "I'll miss all of you. Could I call by to see Maggie later?"
"You're more than welcome, Alexandra. She was only saying today she wanted to see you before you left."
They bade her goodbye and continued towards the house.
"Why does Kathleen always bring us eggs?"
Lord Crofton was silent a moment then looked at her. "Do you remember when her husband died three years ago?"
She nodded. "Poor Maggie and Dessie was such a kind man. He knew so much about gardening."
Lord Crofton smiled remembering, "That's right. Dessie. Dessie O'Grady. He was the head gardener and now his son is showing promise. Dessie was a good worker but more importantly a great friend. After he died they couldn't pay the rent so I told them they could live there as long as they wanted. Bringing us eggs is her way of giving what she can. I've told her she doesn't have to but she insists..."
From the corner of his eye, he saw a figure materialise out of the bushes and point a pistol at him. Instinctively he ducked as a loud rapport sounded. Both horses reared.
"Nooo..." he shouted when he saw Alexandra thrown from the mare.
A glance at the undergrowth confirmed his assailant had vanished. He dived from his horse and knelt next to her, only then noticing a dark red stain spreading on her chest.
"Papa, I'm scared..."
"I'm here Alex. Just hold on."
Someone dropped down next to him and held onto her hand.
"I feel so cold..." She took a shuddering breath and lay still. Lord Crofton looked up and met Kathleen's eyes, then knelt his head and pulled Alexandra to his heart and wailed like he had never done before.
The three men drifted across the room to the open doorway, each cradled a cask of lamp-oil. They froze when they heard footsteps in the hallway and the front door of the house opening.
"Good night, Connor," a woman said in a hushed voice. The door closed followed by the crunch of footsteps on the drive. Footsteps, inside, were heard retreating deeper into the house.
All three men relaxed but bided their time...
Kathleen knelt on the ground sobbing long after Alexandra had been removed. She gasped as the image of her falling from the horse returned, the stranger firing a pistol but he was no stranger. She balled her hands into fists knowing she should have said something.
What was she to do?
Seamus, her nephew from Donegal, had arrived two nights ago for a visit. She hadn't seen him in so long and barely recognised him but he was the image of her brother.
I knew him today but I couldn't turn him in. He's family.
Remembering the dear child slain, she hardened her heart. She would go to the big house and tell them. There was no other option.
She felt gentle arms pull her up. Standing, she fell into her son's embrace.
"Here, let me walk you home, Ma."
Kathleen pushed herself away from him and wiped the tears from her face.
"Thanks, Michael, I'll be fine." She said picking up her basket.
"Are you sure?"
She put her hand to his cheek and felt the soft stubble on his young face. He looked so much like Dessie now that he was grown up. She kissed his cheek and took a stumbling step towards the house.
"Where you going, Ma? There's nothing you can do for them now."
If you only knew.
She nodded knowing she couldn't turn Seamus in. Not yet. She would face him; call him a 'murderer' to his face, maybe then... She returned down the path, forcing each step as though trudging through a bog.
She arrived to an empty cottage, put her basket on the table and sank onto the bench. Overcome with despair, she buried her face in her hands and waited.
She looked up when Seamus entered and pushed the door closed. He leaned against it, his eyes like those of a stag being brought down in a hunt.
He recoiled when she sprang up and slapped him across the face.
"Why, Seamus? Why?" she screamed and then rained blows down on him as he crouched, covering himself up. "She was a sweet darling girl."
Amidst the blows, he put his head up. "Please, it was an accident..."
She slapped his exposed face. "Yes. You meant to kill her father instead: a good man. A man you don't know."
"He's one of them..."
"He's an honest man that treats us fairly." She picked up his bag and threw it at him. "Now get out of here before I call the constable."
Seamus clutched his bag and opened the door. Before he left he turned to her. "Mark me words, Auntie, you'll know what sort of man he is now."
Kathleen slammed the door and knelt on the floor, tears spilling down her cheeks, feeling as one standing on the gallows dreading that fatal drop. She hated it but she had chosen sides.
Kathleen had stoked up the fire and now a stew bubbled over it. She held Maggie in her arms soothing her grief. They both jumped when someone pounded on the door. Before she opened it, she knew it would be Constable Richards.
"Kathleen, we're looking for your nephew. Have you seen him?"
She tried to maintain a neutral expression. "Not since this morning... Why?"
The constable scratched at his beard. "It was him that shot Alexandra."
She put her hand to her mouth and leaned against the doorframe. "It couldn't be. Sure he doesn't know them."
He sighed and removed his hat. "I need to come in and take a look."
She stood back and allowed him in to search both rooms. Satisfied he was not there, he left.
When Michael came home, they had a subdued meal. As Maggie cleared the table the Constable returned; this time, she was to speak to Lord Crofton at the Big House. It was a short walk, made long by the brooding silence of the Constable escorting her.
He gripped her arm as she was ushered into the Lord's study. Lord Crofton sat behind his desk, his head in his hands, ignoring her while Lady Constance stood at his side, her eyes narrowed into dark slits as though hungering to strip the flesh from her bones.
"You'll hang for this you worthless..." she hissed as Kathleen shrank from her.
Kathleen jumped when Lord Crofton slapped his hand on the table now staring at his sister-in-law, his face white.
"You don't dispense justice here. Get out and I want you gone the day after the funeral."
Lady Constance's eyes glittered as she held his stare, then hardened her face and strode from the room. The Lord turned to the Constable then.
"David, you can leave us and close door."
Tears brimmed in her eyes when Lord Crofton looked at her; his once immaculate appearance in disarray, his shirt stained with Alexandra's blood.
"My Lord..." she gasped stepping forward.
He put up his hand cutting her short.
"How long has your nephew been staying with you, Kathleen?"
"He arrived the day before yesterday, me Lord."
He looked directly at her. "When did you last see him?"
She looked down at her feet, then looked back into his eyes.
"I saw him this afternoon, after Alex..." She stared at the floor as tears filled her eyes.
"Why did you lie to the Constable? You knew it was he that killed Alex."
She shook her head as tears ran down her cheeks. She stared back up at him. "I just couldn't turn him in. He's my brother's son..."
Lord Crofton's face turned to stone and his eyes blazed. He spoke in a low voice but she blanched at the menace. "Alex was my family and you helped the man that killed her. I want you and your family off my land tomorrow morning. Your cottage is to be levelled." Kathleen felt the strength drain from her limbs; she swayed but fought to stay upright. He reached into his desk and removed a velvet purse and laid it at the edge of the table. "Take it; a few coins to see you through the winter. Now go."
"I'm so sorry about Alexandra..."
He stood up and walked around the desk picking up the purse. He pressed it into her hand without looking at her and then opened the door as she was overcome by a wave of nausea.
The next morning, Kathleen, Maggie and Michael stood at the edge of the woods with whatever possessions they could carry, watching the workmen demolish the only home her family had ever known. A silent crowd had gathered to stare; some had wished them well.
Her heart ached as she watched their furniture being broken up and stacked in a pile. When Maggie began to weep she pulled her in close. The thatch and roof beams were added to the stack. A team of horses, with chains and hooks, began pulling the walls down. They flinched when the last gable fell, tolling the end of their life on the estate. Smoke began to rise from the thatch and stacked timber, the flames growing in strength.
Kathleen glanced at the distant figure of Lord Crofton, sitting on his horse like a statue as every trace of their life was stamped out. When the flames had taken hold he turned his back on them and rode away. They shouldered their packs and joined a path that traversed the woodlands.
"I hate him," Maggie said.
Kathleen shook her head. "We mustn't hate, Maggie." Michael looked at his mother and cleared his throat.
"We did nothing wrong, Ma. Maybe Seamus was right."
"Don't ever say that again, Michael. Seamus is a murderer." She sighed. "It was me that cost us our home, but I couldn't turn on our own."
The three intruders crept into the hallway then split up, each with a planned destination. The leader knew where he was going having been there before. He stood outside the closed door and listened. Nothing, only the tic-toc of a clock could be heard.
He slowly opened the door and staggered from a stench that would have made Mona Lisa weep. Pulling a scarf up over his nose he stole into the darkness of the room where it all began.
Lord Crofton sat behind his desk and pushed his greasy locks from his face. He giggled when he farted and waved his hand at the pungent aroma. A fleeting glimpse of Alexandra laughing with her head thrown back made him look towards the far corner of the room, but she had already vanished.
"Sorry Alex, funny though."
Still chuckling, he reached for the bottle of whisky, poured himself another drink, knocked it back and then felt a loose tooth with his tongue.
"Damn, another one..."
He stuck his finger in his mouth, wobbled it, then pinched it between thumb and finger and pulled. He yelled at the searing pain in his gum as he pulled it free while Alexandra looked on with wide eyes. He dropped the blackened tooth onto the papers scattered on his desk and wiped his mouth with his grubby coat sleeve.
"It's alright, Alex..." he said looking up. He glanced around the room. "I wish you would stop disappearing." The empty socket burned when he took a drink of whisky. He cleared his throat and walked over to the full chamber pot and spat the bloody gob into it.
He looked around the room and shook his head. "I should get someone to clean up. How can you stand it, Alex?" He began to laugh. "Now I remember. There's no one to do it. They've all gone home for Christmas. It's just us now." He slumped down in his chair and caressed the loaded pistol on his desk. "And Connor, we mustn't forget Connor, Alex."
He leaned back in his chair and sighed. "How many are still with us?" He raised his hand and started to count his fingers. "Let's see: Connor, James, Helen, Richard ..." He slapped his hand down. "And a few more... That's what, six, seven?"
He shoved a stack of dirty plates aside and stared at the bloody smudge his tooth left on the papers.
"Staff...Who needs them anyway? Oh, Constance would keep everyone busy. That's one woman, Alex, we both despised, didn't we?" He started to laugh. "Remember her face when we sent her packing?" In the corner, Alexandra tittered with her hand over her mouth.
In the dim light, he lifted the sheet of paper holding the tooth, dipped it for the rotted molar to slide to the floor and then squinted at the red bold letters from the bank. He let it fall back on the stack of unanswered correspondence
He glanced again at the letter he had received the day before from his contact in Mullingar. Kathleen and Maggie had both succumbed to a fever that raged through the towns. It was old tidings. They had been dead a month.
The news had blindsided him, though, erupting feelings he thought he no longer felt. He ran his hand through his hair.
"I'm sorry, Kathleen. You were the one person I thought I could trust."
Alexandra huddled and wept. He turned towards her but once again she disappeared.
"At least we hung the bastard, Alex," he said remembering Seamus swinging from the gibbet in Oldtown.
He knocked back his drink and then laughed as he poured another and raised it.
"Here's to you, Kathleen. After you left, the villagers shunned me and most of my staff quit, but we showed them, didn't we Alex." Alexandra stood in the corner and laughed. He smiled to himself. "We evicted every tenant from our land and closed the school in the village. They didn't know who they were messing about."
He threw his eyes up to heaven. "Boycott. They call it a 'boycott' after the first beggar they victimised. Could they not have thought of something more original, like...?" He listened to a whisper and nodded. "Maybe, Alex, but 'a shunning' sounds a little flat."
He drummed his fingers on the desk and then smiled. "I bet even the Duke of Wellington would have crawled away, a beaten man. Not us, though. We'll pull everything down around them. It will be glorious, won't it, Alex?"
He picked up and read a scrawled note, then glanced at the clock and giggled, "Time for some fun."
He poured another glass and raised it.
"To King and Country; God bless King George, you fat, pompous, whor..." Alexandra stood in the corner with her hands over her ears. "Sorry Alex; I forgot you were here. Don't tell your Mother." He burst out with a laugh. "And certainly don't tell Constance." Alex stood in the other corner and doubled over laughing.
The smile fell from his face and he raised an eyebrow at her before she vanished. "She's not there is she?" He cocked an ear to a whisper and breathed a sigh of relief. "Glad to hear she's not."
He stared at the clock and chuckled. "Times up, we have to be very quiet. Shhhh," he said putting his finger to his lips and smothering the lamp.
He sat in darkness, only the tic-toc of the clock to keep him company. He giggled as a draft of cold air crossed his skin.
"That's not fair, Alex. You can see in the dark but I can't."
He heard a muffled voice and then the front door closing.
"Perfect. Now we wait, Alex."
He gripped the pistol when the door unlatched. The faint light from the hallway outlined a figure hunched over in the doorway and then hesitate.
Lord Croton tutted and nearly yelled at him to hurry up. Finally, the intruder moved into the room.
"Hold it. We have a gun on you." The trespasser stood frozen. Lord Crofton lit the lamp while training the pistol on him. He instructed the hooded figure to close the door.
"Now. Pull your hood back so we can see who you are and stand in front of the desk." He sighed. "And pull that scarf down, man, the smells not that bad," he said looking around the room.
Lord Crofton smiled when his identity was revealed. "Ah, Michael O'Grady. I was hoping it would be you. See, Alex, I told you Michael would come back to visit."
Michael looked around the office and then stared at Lord Crofton.
"Alex? Alexandra? Have you gone mad?"
Lord Crofton cackled. "He thinks I'm mad. Alex." All the humour slipped from him. "So what did you intend to do?"
Michael indicated he wanted to put the cask down.
Lord Crofton nodded. "Carefully, mind you, I'm a good shot."
Michael set the cask down and then removed a velvet purse from his pocket, opened the drawstring and dumped its contents on the desk, the gold coins glittering in the lamplight. Lord Crofton stared at the coins as tears stung his eyes.
"The coins to appease your guilty conscious were never used, even when they may have saved Ma and Maggie's life."
Lord Crofton's vision blurred and the gun trembled in his hand. A knock on the door steadied his nerve. He took aim at Michael.
"Lord Crofton, are you alright?" came a voice through the door.
"Connor... Please come in and join us."
Connor came in, closed his eyes and pinched his nose. He froze when he blinked and saw Michael.
Lord Crofton cackled again. "Come in. Come in, Connor. We're all one happy family now and take your hand away from your nose. You're insulting us."
He turned back to Michael as Connor dropped his hand and gasped. "You see, Connor had a simple job: make sure the veranda door is unlocked. But could he do that?" He shook his head. "No. It's so hard to get good help, isn't that right, Alex?"
Connor and Michael gaped at each other and then back at Lord Crofton.
"Michael, you're wondering who did unlock it, right? Well me, of course, and probably just before you got here. We figured it might be too much for Connor. Choosing sides is such a problem in this country."
Michael swallowed and then spoke up. "So you knew all along."
Lord Crofton giggled. "That's another problem in this country. Too much talk. Nobody can keep a secret."
"So what are you going to do with us?"
"Nothing. You came to burn the place down, so get on with it. Connor, make sure everyone gets out." He glanced up at the ceiling. "You never know if someone's taking advantage of a house full of empty bedrooms." He shook his head and then glared at Connor. "Can you manage that or will I have to do that as well?"
"No, me Lord."
"Well don't just stand there, get on with it, man." Connor bobbed his head and ran out the door.
Michael stood as though he had taken root. Lord Crofton sighed and put the pistol down.
"I have no intention of shooting you. Just spread the oil and start your fire" He smelled smoke and then smiled. "I believe your colleagues have already started their own."
Lord Crofton hummed while Michael soaked the furnishings and drapes and then shattered the cask, a puddle of oil forming around it. He lit a saturated rag and threw it onto the spreading pool. It flared into a wall of flame. Lord Crofton chortled at the intensity of the heat and watched Alexandra dance in the flames. Michael ran to the door but paused to look back.
Lord Crofton giggled and put the pistol to his head. "I'm off to apologise to your Mother and Maggie."
Michael gasped, then ran.
"I'll see you on the other side, Alex," he cried as he pulled the trigger.
Four figures emerged from a raging inferno, crossed the lawn and disappeared into the thicket of rhododendron as the winters evening sky was lit up in a spectacular display. Those first on hand to lend assistance were too late. Flames reached out from the windows to the open sky. A brilliant crest of fire rose through the roof in an awesome glow. Slowly the roof collapsed into the house in a cascade of sparks, the windows lit up with orange light, like a jack-o-lantern on all hallows eve.