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“ IN THE SHADOW OF DEATH.”
BY M. F. QUINLAN.
"A tree hath hope: if it be cut, it groweth green again, and the boughs thereof sprout. If its root be old in the earth, and its stock be dead in the dust; at the scent of water it shall spring, and bring forth leaves, as when it was first planted. But man when he shall be dead, and stripped and consumed, I pray you where is he?" (Job xiv. 7-10).
THE woman in the hovel was ill. At times she
could sit up, but for the most part she kept her bed. She had been ailing thus for years. For
two years had she spent each day alone, never y
stirring beyond the hovel door. Her husband was away all day, and both her daughters worked at the factory. At noon they returned to have their dinner and to tend their mother; then they hurried back to the jam factory, leaving the sick woman to her lonely vigil. She was waiting for death.
The door of the hovel was always bolted. She preferred it so—to be locked in with her thoughts; she said it felt safer. For her nerves were wrecked with suffering and she feared what lay beyond. So the weeks and the months crept by; and still the angel tarried.
Sometimes she used to wonder, as she sat with her eyes fixed on the one grimy window that faced the blank wall, if death had not forgotten her. He had knocked at other doors down the Court. Why did he never beckon to her? She was weary of watching.
There was not much sunshine in the alley. The blank wall opposite was always gray; but in the twilight it became grayer, and then black-pitch black. It shut out the stars, that dreary blackness, and it crept into the hovel, filling it with night. Then the woman knew that another day had passed. There was nothing to choose between them; one day was the same as the last, and each was twelve hours long. Then the darkness came and swallowed it; and the jaws of eternity stood agape for the morrow. She could just see it from where she lay. First the blank gray wall with the shadows creeping up and then blotting it out; and lo! the passing day was gone-gulped down by Time, the devourer.
It was an eerie occupation, to watch the passing of the days; but the sick woman had nothing else to do. She was always glad when twilight fell-glad, because that day could never return. But after awhile the darkness in the hovel would frighten her. It used to twist itself into horrible shapes, while Aaming eyes would glare at her through the bolted door, and ghastly arms endeavored to entwine themselves round the lonely brain. Then the woman would cower down trembling and cover her head. At such times she felt forsaken of God and man. How long, she murmured, must she keep tally of the days ? Must she watch forever the gray shadows creeping up the blank wall ? How many nights more must she listen to the human curses and the staggering footsteps that filled the evil Court. With a sigh of utter weariness she turned her face to the wall and sobbed. The tears helped to shut out the darkness. She felt less lonely when she cried; and in another hour her daughters would return to her.
But if there was sin in the Court there was also charity. I was passing through the alley one day when I saw a woman listening outside the door of Number 5. It was a wild, blustery day and the woman's ragged dress was blown in the wind.
“'Tis fancy, p'heps," said the waiting figure, “but whin the wind do be rough, seems like as if I 'ears the sound o' sobbin'. An' Gawd 'elp 'er! she's all be 'erself, poor soul!” The woman jerked her thumb over her shoulder; "an' mebbe she'll die, wid n'er a priest, an' niver a friend by 'er."
“And the door is always locked ?".
The woman nodded. “If 'twasn't furthet, the neighbors wud look arter 'er, an' tidy up the place a bit.”
“Can nothing be done?" I asked.
“Well, I was thinkin' as mebbe 'tis yersilf as cud git in. I've see'd yer knockin' more'n once,” she added, “but thet ain't no manner o use. But look 'ere! You tell me wot day yer'll come, an' I'll git 'er 'usband ter leave the door on the latch. Fur I'd wish yer jes' to see 'er. It's like on me mind as no one never comes nigh 'er. An' 'tis likely,” said the woman under her drawn shawl, “ as we're all nearer death nor we think fur."
I nodded. “When shall I come ?”
“Say yer come fust on Sund'y," she suggested, “an' see 'er 'usband, too? I'll tell 'im-yer kin trust me. Twelve o'clock. An' yer won't be late ? fur they'll be expectin' yer.”
So I promised.
On the following Sunday morning a church clock was striking when I knocked at the hovel door. But, as usual, no one came. And in the length of the alley there was no sign of life.
It seemed a fruitless enterprise-getting to the other side of that door—and I was about to give up the attempt. Then softly the door handle turned from within. And after a minute or two the door opened a few inches, and a girl peered out.
“May I see Mrs. McDermott?" I asked.
With vacant eyes the girl stared at me through the aperture.
“I have an appointment with her, and I promised not to be late.”
Still the factory hand said nothing.
Puzzled at her seeming indifference, I wondered if I had mistaken the door. But just then I saw “Number five" scrawled in white chalk over the entrance.
“She does live here, does she not?'
“No; she don't." The answer was brusque and the girl's eyes hard fixed. “She's dead, thet's wot she is.” She opened the door and stared vacantly at the blank wall Then she undid the neck of her dress and did it up again. “Dead," she muttered. She passed her hand across her forehead and paused. “ Dead !” The cry rang out through the alley and the girl burst into a wild flood of tears.
So this was the dead woman's daughter—the girl from the jam factory, who hurried home at noon to tend her. And now she stood in the doorway and leaned her head against the doorpost, sobbing as if her heart would break.
I waited until her sobs had lessened, and then I asked her to tell me about it. It seemed a relief to unburden her grief, and bit by bit, with the tears trickling down her cheeks and her voice broken with sobs, she told me of the end. For the last few days, she said, her mother had been better. Only that morning she seemed almost well. 'Twas but an hour ago that they thought she was sleeping. . . . But the sleep
was of death and the dream eternal. And the factory girl leaned her head on her arm and sobbed again.
In the tiny room above, the dead woman was being laid out by a neighbor; for in the Devil's Alley no one lays out their own dead. This is the last service; the inalienable privilege of friendship; nay more—it is the hallowed tradition of Mark's Place.
And because one of their number had that day left their ranks-gone forth at the summons to join the great majoritythe East End Court was hushed, and the living spoke in whispers. For the Angel of Death stood in the alley; and the shadow of his wings reached from end to end.
It was a fortnight later when I again went down the alley. This time it was to inquire for the living. So I stopped at Number 5.
In the open doorway sat an old man. He was chopping sticks with a kitchen knife. There were hard lines about his face, together with a week's stubble, while on his head was a dilapidated bowler hat that came down over his ears.
“Are you Mr. McDermott ?" I asked. “I am,” said he curtly. And he went on chopping sticks.
As a first meeting it was not promising, and I was rather at a loss how to proceed. It was not for a stranger to offer sympathy. So I stood and watched him while the sticks fell on the paving stones, and the alley was filled with silence.
“I believe you are an Irishman," I said presently. The remark was thrown out more or less as a fly to a salmon. I hoped he would rise to it. This he did with unexpected vigor. Indeed, had I lighted a dynamite bomb the explosion could hardly have been greater.
“An Irishman, is it ?" he ejaculated-and the half-chopped stick dropped from his hand. “An Irishman! Shure I am that; an' glory be ter God fur the same. 'Tis fr'm the County Cork I am, an' divil take the North ! ”
The old man threw back his head and looked at me defiantly. Standing in the doorway of the hovel with the flash of Celtic fire in his eyes, and the kitchen knife in his hand, he stood for the country that still struggled to be free.
To him I was one of the Saxons who had accompanied Strongbow into Ireland. Worse than that, I was a follower of Cromwell, who had murdered their women and children at Wexford and Drogheda. And, hardest of all to the old man, I represented the race that had framed the penal laws. Was the persecution of centuries to be wiped out by a morning call in the alley ? It was not thus with the Celt. So the son of Erin stood in his doorway and glared at me.
“Yis; 'tis from Ireland I come,” said he with rising patriotism, "the land o'heroes an' o' saints. An' 'tisn't me that 'll be denyin' me religion neither," he ejaculated, “fur I come fr'm the old stock as suffered an'-"
“And pray, where do I come in ?" I interrupted.
The effect was instantaneous. Checked midway in a flight of patriotic eloquence, he gazed at me open-eyed, as if I had dropped from the clouds.
“'Tis niver fr'm-?". I nodded.
“Musha! musha!” His tone was incredulous. But as the novel position dawned upon him, the hard lines softened and the scowl gave place to a smile.
“Theoretically,” I said, “I'm from Tipperary.”
“Shure 'tis a fine part,” he murmured. “'Tis almost as good as Cork.”
“Hush man!” I said, "you must have seen Tipperary in the dark!” There was an answering light in the old man's eye.
“No matter," said I; “which ever part it is, there's no other like it."
"Thrue fur yez !” He held out his hand and seized mine. “God save Ireland, sez we.” And then- with some difficulty, for it seemed like part of his anatomy—he doffed the dilapi. dated bowler. It was Cork's tribute to the County Tipperary.
“Fur 'tis theer,” he said generously, “that the finest boys an' the handsomest girls come fr’m."
Here my heart smote me sore, for that I had not been born on Tipperary soil, but had inherited my nationality as a family heirloom.
“May the Almighty have ye in his keepin', an' may the hivens be yer bed!” It was thus, with a lavish hand, that he scattered blessings upon me in the deserted alley, while my sympathy went out to the old man who stood at the hovel door where death had so lately been.
Then he told me of himself and of his sorrow; and because