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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Widow Joyce’s Cloak

By Jane Barlow (1857–1917)

From ‘Strangers at Lisconnel’

STILL, although the Tinkers’ name has become a byword among us through a long series of petty offenses rather than any one flagrant crime, there is a notable misdeed on record against them, which has never been forgotten in the lapse of many years. It was perpetrated soon after the death of Mrs. Kilfoyle’s mother, the Widow Joyce, an event which is but dimly recollected now at Lisconnel, as nearly half a century has gone by. She did not very long survive her husband, and he had left his roots behind in his little place at Clonmena, where, as we know, he had farmed not wisely but too well, and had been put out of it for his pains to expend his energy upon our oozy black sods and stark-white bowlders. But instead he moped about, fretting for his fair green fields, and few proudly cherished beasts,—especially the little old Kerry cow. And at his funeral the neighbors said, “Ah, bedad, poor man, God help him, he niver held up his head agin from that good day to this.”

When Mrs. Joyce felt that it behooved her to settle her affairs, she found that the most important possession she had to dispose of was her large cloak. She had acquired it at the prosperous time of her marriage, and it was a very superior specimen of its kind, in dark-blue cloth being superfine, and its ample capes and capacious hood being double-lined and quilted and stitched in a way which I cannot pretend to describe, but which made it a most substantial and handsome garment. If Mrs. Joyce had been left entirely to her own choice in the matter, I think she would have bequeathed it to her younger daughter Theresa, notwithstanding that custom clearly designated Bessy Kilfoyle, the eldest of the family, as the heiress. For she said to herself that poor Bessy had her husband and childer to consowl her, any way, but little Theresa, the crathur, had ne’er such a thing at all, and wouldn’t have, not she, God love her. “And the back of me hand to some I could name.” It seemed to her that to leave the child the cloak would be almost like keeping a warm wing spread over her in the cold wide world; and there was no fear that Bessy would take it amiss.

But Theresa herself protested strongly against such a disposition, urging for one thing that sure she’d be lost in it entirely if ever she put it on; a not unfounded objection, as Theresa was several sizes smaller than Bessy, and even she fell far short of her mother in stature and portliness. Theresa also said confidently with a sinking heart, “But sure, anyhow, mother jewel, what matter about it? ’Twill be all gone to houles and flitters and thraneens, and so it will, plase goodness, afore there’s any talk of anybody else wearin’ it except your own ould self.” And she expressed much the same conviction one day to her next-door neighbor, old Biddy Ryan, to whom she had run in for the loan of a sup of sour milk, which Mrs. Joyce fancied. To Biddy’s sincere regret she could offer Theresa barely a skimpy noggin of milk, and only a meagre shred of encouragement; and by way of eking out the latter with its sorry substitute, consolation, she said as she tilted the jug perpendicularly to extract its last drop:—

“Well, sure, me dear, I do be sayin’ me prayers for her every sun goes over our heads that she might be left wid you this great while yet; ’deed, I do so. But ah, acushla, if we could be keepin’ people that-a-way, would there be e’er a funeral iver goin’ black on the road at all at all? I’m thinkin’ there’s scarce a one livin’, and he as ould and foolish and little-good-for as you plase, but some crathur’ill be grudgin’ him to his grave, that’s himself may be all the while wishin’ he was in it. Or, morebetoken, how can we tell what quare ugly misfortin’ thim that’s took is took out of the road of, that we should be as good as biddin’ thim stay till it comes to ruinate them? So it’s prayin’ away I am, honey,” said old Biddy, whom Theresa could not help hating heart-sickly. “But like enough the Lord might know better than to be mindin’ a word I say.”

And it seemed that He did; anyway, the day soon came when the heavy blue cloak passed into Mrs. Kilfoyle’s possession.

At that time it was clear, still autumn weather, with just a sprinkle of frost white on the wayside grass, like the wraith of belated moonlight, when the sun rose, and shimmering into rainbow stars by noon. But about a month later the winter swooped suddenly on Lisconnel: with wild winds and cold rain that made crystal-silver streaks down the purple of the great mountain-heads peering in over our bogland.

So one perishing Saturday Mrs. Kilfoyle made up her mind that she would wear her warm legacy on the bleak walk to Mass next morning, and reaching it down from where it was stored away among the rafters wrapped in an old sack, she shook it respectfully out of its straight-creased folds. As she did so she noticed that the binding of the hood had ripped in one place, and that the lining was fraying out, a mishap which should be promptly remedied before it spread any further. She was not a very expert needlewoman, and she thought she had better run over the way to consult Mrs. O’Driscoll, then a young matron, esteemed the handiest and most helpful person in Lisconnel.

“It’s the nathur of her to be settin’ things straight wherever she goes,” Mrs. Kilfoyle said to herself as she stood in her doorway waiting for the rain to clear off, and looking across the road to the sodden roof which sheltered her neighbor’s head. It had long been lying low, vanquished by a trouble which even she could not set to rights, and some of the older people say that things have gone a little crookeder in Lisconnel ever since.

The shower was a vicious one, with the sting of sleet and hail in its drops, pelted about by gusts that ruffled up the puddles into ripples, all set on end, like the feathers of a frightened hen. The hens themselves stood disconsolately sheltering under the bank, mostly on one leg, as if they preferred to keep up the slightest possible connection with such a very damp and disagreeable earth. You could not see far in any direction for the fluttering sheets of mist, and a stranger who had been coming along the road from Duffclane stepped out of them abruptly quite close to Mrs. Kilfoyle’s door, before she knew that there was anybody near. He was a tall, elderly man, gaunt and grizzled, very ragged, and so miserable-looking that Mrs. Kilfoyle could have felt nothing but compassion for him had he not carried over his shoulder a bunch of shiny cans, which was to her mind as satisfactory a passport as a ticket of leave. For although these were yet rather early days at Lisconnel, the Tinkers had already begun to establish their reputation. So when he stopped in front of her and said, “Good-day, ma’am,” she only replied distantly, “It’s a hardy mornin’,” and hoped he would move on. But he said, “It’s cruel could, ma’am,” and continued to stand looking at her with wide and woful eyes, in which she conjectured—erroneously, as it happened—hunger for warmth or food. Under these circumstances, what could be done by a woman who was conscious of owning a redly glowing hearth with a big black pot, fairly well filled, clucking and bobbing upon it? To possess such wealth as this, and think seriously of withholding a share from anybody who urges the incontestable claim of wanting it, is a mood altogether foreign to Lisconnel, where the responsibilities of poverty are no doubt very imperfectly understood. Accordingly Mrs. Kilfoyle said to the tattered tramp, “Ah, thin, step inside and have a couple of hot pitaties.” And when he accepted the invitation without much alacrity, as if he had something else on his mind, she picked for him out of the steam two of the biggest potatoes, whose earth-colored skins, cracking, showed a fair flouriness within; and she shook a little heap of salt, the only relish she had, onto the chipped white plate as she handed it to him, saying, “Sit you down be the fire, there, and git a taste of the heat.”

Then she lifted her old shawl over her head, and ran out to see where at all Brian and Thady were gettin’ their deaths on her under the pours of rain; and as she passed the Keoghs’ adjacent door—which was afterward the Sheridans’, whence their Larry departed so reluctantly—young Mrs. Keogh called her to come in and look at “the child,” who, being a new and unique possession, was liable to develop alarmingly strange symptoms, and had now “woke up wid his head that hot, you might as well put your hand on the hob of the grate.” Mrs. Kilfoyle stayed only long enough to suggest, as a possible remedy, a drop of two-milk whey. “But ah, sure, woman dear, where at all ’ud we come by that, wid the crathur of a goat scarce wettin’ the bottom of the pan?” and to draw reassuring omens from the avidity with which the invalid grabbed at a sugared crust. In fact, she was less than five minutes out of her house; but when she returned to it, she found it empty. First, she noted with a moderate thrill of surprise that her visitor had gone away leaving his potatoes untouched; and next, with a rough shock of dismay, that her cloak no longer lay on the window seat where she had left it. From that moment she never felt any real doubts about what had befallen her, though for some time she kept on trying to conjure them up, and searched wildly round and round and round her little room, like a distracted bee strayed into the hollow furze-bush, before she sped over to Mrs. O’Driscoll with the news of her loss.

It spread rapidly through Lisconnel, and brought the neighbors together exclaiming and condoling, though not in great force, as there was a fair going on down beyant, which nearly all the men and some of the women had attended. This was accounted cruel unlucky, as it left the place without any one able-bodied and active enough to go in pursuit of the thief. A prompt start might have overtaken him, especially as he was said to be a “thrifle lame-futted”; though Mrs. M’Gurk, who had seen him come down the hill, opined that “’twasn’t the sort of lameness ’ud hinder the miscreant of steppin’ out, on’y a quare manner of flourish he had in a one of his knees, as if he was gatherin’ himself up to make an offer at a grasshopper’s lep, and then thinkin’ better of it.”

Little Thady Kilfoyle reported that he had met the strange man a bit down the road, “leggin’ it along at a great rate, wid a black rowl of somethin’ under his arm that he looked to be crumplin’ up as small as he could,”—the word “crumpling” went acutely to Mrs. Kilfoyle’s heart,—and some long-sighted people declared that they could still catch glimpses of a receding figure through the hovering fog on the way toward Sallinbeg.

“I’d think he’d be beyant seein’ afore now,” said Mrs. Kilfoyle, who stood in the rain, the disconsolate centre of the group about her door; all women and children except old Johnny Keogh, who was so bothered and deaf that he grasped new situations slowly and feebly, and had now an impression of somebody’s house being on fire. “He must ha’ took off wid himself the instiant me back was turned, for ne’er a crumb had he touched of the pitaties.”

“Maybe he’d that much shame in him,” said Mrs. O’Driscoll.

“They’d a right to ha’ choked him, troth and they had,” said Ody Rafferty’s aunt.

“Is it chokin’?” said young Mrs. M’Gurk, bitterly. “Sure the bigger thief a body is, the more he’ll thrive on whatever he gits; you might think villiny was as good as butter to people’s pitaties, you might so. Shame how are you? Liker he’d ate all he could swally in the last place he got the chance of layin’ his hands on anythin’.”

“Och, woman alive, but it’s the fool you were to let him out of your sight,” said Ody Rafferty’s aunt. “If it had been me, I’d niver ha’ took me eyes off him, for the look of him on’y goin’ by made me flesh creep upon me bones.”

“’Deed was I,” said Mrs. Kilfoyle, sorrowfully, “a fine fool. And vexed she’d be, rael vexed, if she guessed the way it was gone on us, for the dear knows what dirty ould rapscallions ’ill get the wearin’ of it now. Rael vexed she’d be.”

This speculation was more saddening than the actual loss of the cloak, though that bereft her wardrobe of far and away its most valuable property, which should have descended as an heirloom to her little Katty, who, however, being at present but three months old, lay sleeping happily unaware of the cloud that had come over her prospects.

“I wish to goodness a couple of the lads ’ud step home wid themselves this minit of time,” said Mrs. M’Gurk. “They’d come up wid him yet, and take it off of him ready enough. And smash his ugly head for him, if he would be givin’ them any impidence.”

“Aye, and ’twould be a real charity—the mane baste;—or sling him in one of the bog-houles,” said the elder Mrs. Keogh, a mild-looking little old woman. “I’d liefer than nine ninepennies see thim comin’ along. But I’m afeard it’s early for thim yet.”

Everybody’s eyes turned, as she spoke, toward the ridge of the Knockawn, though with no particular expectation of seeing what they wished upon it. But behold, just at that moment three figures, blurred among the gray rain-mists, looming into view.

“Be the powers,” said Mrs. M’Gurk, jubilantly, “it’s Ody Rafferty himself. To your sowls! Now you’ve a great good chance, ma’am, to be gettin’ it back. He’s the boy ’ill leg it over all before him”—for in those days Ody was lithe and limber—“and it’s hard-set the thievin’ Turk ’ill be to get the better of him at a racin’ match—Hi—Och.” She had begun to hail him with a call eager and shrill, which broke off in a strangled croak, like a young cock’s unsuccessful effort. “Och, murdher, murdher, murdher,” she said to the bystanders, in a disgusted undertone. “I’ll give you me misfort’nit word thim other two is the pólis.”

Now it might seem on the face of things that the arrival of those two active and stalwart civil servants would have been welcomed as happening just in the nick of time; yet it argues an alien ignorance to suppose such a view of the matter by any means possible. The men in invisible green tunics belonged completely to the category of pitaty-blights, rint-warnin’s, fevers, and the like devastators of life, that dog a man more or less all through it, but close in on him, a pitiful quarry, when the bad seasons come and the childer and the old crathurs are starvin’ wid the hunger, and his own heart is broke; therefore, to accept assistance from them in their official capacity would have been a proceeding most reprehensibly unnatural. To put a private quarrel or injury into the hands of the peelers were a disloyal making of terms with the public foe; a condoning of great permanent wrongs for the sake of a trivial temporary convenience. Lisconnel has never been skilled in the profitable and ignoble art of utilizing its enemies. Not that anybody was more than vaguely conscious of these sentiments, much less attempted to express them in set terms. When a policeman appeared there in an inquiring mood, what people said among themselves was, “Musha cock him up. I hope he’ll get his health till I would be tellin’ him,” or words to that effect; while in reply to his questions, they made statements superficially so clear and simple, and essentially so bewilderingly involved, that the longest experience could do little more for a constable than teach him the futility of wasting his time in attempts to disentangle them.

Thus it was that when Mrs. Kilfoyle saw who Ody’s companions were, she bade a regretful adieu to her hopes of recovering her stolen property. For how could she set him on the Tinker’s felonious track without apprising them likewise? You might as well try to huroosh one chicken off a rafter and not scare the couple that were huddled beside it. The impossibility became more obvious presently as the constables, striding quickly down to where the group of women stood in the rain and wind with fluttering shawls and flapping cap-borders, said briskly, “Good-day to you all. Did any of yous happen to see e’er a one of them tinkerin’ people goin’ by here this mornin’?”

It was a moment of strong temptation to everybody, but especially to Mrs. Kilfoyle, who had in her mind that vivid picture of her precious cloak receding from her along the wet road, recklessly wisped up in the grasp of as thankless a thievin’ black-hearted slieveen as ever stepped, and not yet, perhaps, utterly out of reach, though every fleeting instant carried it nearer to that hopeless point. However, she and her neighbors stood the test unshaken. Mrs. Ryan rolled her eyes deliberatively, and said to Mrs. M’Gurk, “The saints bless us, was it yisterday or the day before, me dear, you said you seen a couple of them below, near ould O’Beirne’s?”

And Mrs. M’Gurk replied, “Ah, sure, not at all, ma’am, glory be to goodness. I couldn’t ha’ tould you such a thing, for I wasn’t next or nigh the place. Would it ha’ been Ody Rafferty’s aunt? She was below there fetchin’ up a bag of male, and bedad she came home that dhreeped, the crathur, you might ha’ thought she’d been after fishin’ it up out of the botthom of one of thim bog-houles.”

And Mrs. Kilfoyle heroically hustled her Thady into the house, as she saw him on the brink of beginning loudly to relate his encounter with a strange man, and desired him to whisht and stay where he was in a manner so sternly repressive that he actually remained there as if he had been a pebble dropped into a pool, and not, as usual, a cork to bob up again immediately.

Then Mrs. M’Gurk made a bold stroke, designed to shake off the hampering presence of the professionals, and enable Ody’s amateur services to be utilized while there was yet time.

“I declare,” she said, “now that I think of it, I seen a feller crossin’ the ridge along there a while ago, like as if he was comin’ from Sallinbeg ways; and according to the apparence of him, I wouldn’t won’er if he was a one of thim tinker crathures—carryin’ a big clump of cans he was, at any rate—I noticed the shine of thim. And he couldn’t ha’ got any great way yet to spake of, supposin’ there was anybody lookin’ to folly after him.”

But Constable Black crushed her hopes as he replied, “Ah, it’s nobody comin’ from Sallinbeg that we’ve anything to say to. There’s after bein’ a robbery last night, down below at Jerry Dunne’s—a shawl as good as new took, that his wife’s ragin’ over frantic, along wid a sight of fowl and other things. And the Tinkers that was settled this long while in the boreen at the back of his haggard is quit out of it afore daylight this mornin’, every rogue of them. So we’d have more than a notion where the property’s went to if we could tell the road they’ve took. We thought like enough some of them might ha’ come this way.”

Now, Mr. Jerry Dunne was not a popular person in Lisconnel, where he has even become, as we have seen, proverbial for what we call “ould naygurliness.” So there was a general tendency to say, “The divil’s cure to him,” and listen complacently to any details their visitors could impart. For in his private capacity a policeman, provided that he be otherwise “a dacint lad,” which to do him justice is commonly the case, may join, with a few unobtrusive restrictions, in our neighborly gossips; the rule in fact being—Free admission except on business.

Only Mrs. Kilfoyle was so much cast down by her misfortune that she could not raise herself to the level of an interest in the affairs of her thrifty suitor, and the babble of voices relating and commenting sounded as meaningless as the patter of the drops which jumped like little fishes in the large puddle at their feet. It had spread considerably before Constable Black said to his comrade:—

“Well, Daly, we’d better be steppin’ home wid ourselves as wise as we come, as the man said when he’d axed his road of the ould black horse in the dark lane. There’s no good goin’ further, for the whole gang of them’s scattered over the counthry agin now like a seedin’ thistle in a high win’.”

“Aye, bedad,” said Constable Daly, “and be the same token, this win’ ud skin a tanned elephant. It’s on’y bogged and drenched we’d git. Look at what’s comin’ up over there. That rain’s snow on the hills, every could drop of it; I seen Ben Bawn this mornin’ as white as the top of a musharoon, and it’s thickenin’ wid sleet here this minute, and so it is.”

The landscape did, indeed, frown upon further explorations. In quarters where the rain had abated it seemed as if the mists had curdled on the breath of the bitter air, and they lay floating in long white bars and reefs low on the track of their own shadow, which threw down upon the sombre bogland deeper stains of gloom. Here and there one caught on the crest of some gray-bowldered knoll, and was teazed into fleecy threads that trailed melting instead of tangling. But toward the north the horizon was all blank, with one vast, smooth slant of slate-color, like a pent-house roof, which had a sliding motion onwards.

Ody Rafferty pointed to it and said, “Troth, it’s teemin’ powerful this instiant up there in the mountains. ’Twill be much if you land home afore it’s atop of you; for ’twould be the most I could do myself.”

And as the constables departed hastily, most people forgot the stolen cloak for a while to wonder whether their friends would escape being entirely drowned on the way back from the fair.

Mrs. Kilfoyle, however, still stood in deep dejection at her door, and said, “Och, but she was the great fool to go let the likes of him set fut widin’ her house.”

To console her Mrs. O’Driscoll said, “Ah, sure, sorra a fool were you, woman dear; how would you know the villiny of him? And if you’d turned the man away widout givin’ him e’er a bit, it’s bad you’d be thinkin’ of it all the day after.”

And to improve the occasion for her juniors, old Mrs. Keogh added, “Aye, and morebetoken you’d ha’ been committin’ a sin.”

But Mrs. Kilfoyle replied with much candor, “’Deed, then, I’d a dale liefer be after committin’ a sin, or a dozen sins, than to have me poor mother’s good cloak thieved away on me, and walkin’ wild about the world.”

As it happened, the fate of Mrs. Kilfoyle’s cloak was very different from her forecast. But I do not think that a knowledge of it would have been consolatory to her by any means. If she had heard of it, she would probably have said, “The cross of Christ upon us. God be good to the misfort’nit crathur.” For she was not at all of an implacable temper, and would, under the circumstances, have condoned even the injury that obliged her to appear at Mass with a flannel petticoat over her head until the end of her days. Yet she did hold the Tinkers in a perhaps somewhat too unqualified reprobation. For there are tinkers and tinkers. Some of them, indeed, are stout and sturdy thieves,—veritable birds of prey,—whose rapacity is continually questing for plunder. But some of them have merely the magpies’ and jackdaws’ thievish propensity for picking up what lies temptingly in their way. And some few are so honest that they pass by as harmlessly as a wedge of high-flying wild duck. And I have heard it said that to places like Lisconnel their pickings and stealings have at worst never been so serious a matter as those of another flock, finer of feather, but not less predacious in their habits, who roosted, for the most part, a long way off, and made their collections by deputy.