May Night

It was a night in May, warm and dim and full of the syrupy smell of whitethorn. In a black sky a single star, blue and misty, was burning. Two tramps sat by the roadside. One was tall and thin, and in the ash-coloured twilight one might have seen that he had a long face with a drooping moustache. The other was a small man who looked fat; but that was only because he was swathed in coats, one more ragged than the next. He must have been wearing four or five in all. He had a ragged black beard that jutted out all over his face. His black hat was pasted perfectly flat over his scattered black locks that streamed about his shoulders, inside and outside the coats. Even in daylight all you could see of his person would be two beady black eyes, very bright, a stub of a nose no bigger than the butt of a cigar, and, when he moved his hands, the tips of his dirty fingers which were otherwise lost to view.

‘Man,’ he was saying in a high sing-song voice, ‘is an animal. An animal must live. Therefore man must live. That’s a syllogism; if you don’t agree with it you must contradict the major or the minor or say the conclusion doesn’t follow. But a man is made in the image of God and he must try and live decent. Only you, Horgan, you son of a bitch, you’re worse than an animal. An animal bites because ’tis his nature to, but you bite because you likes it. Horgan,’ he said, spitting, ‘you’re neither a man nor an animal. Why do you hang around me?’

‘I don’t hang around you.’

‘You do. You do hang around me. No one else would leave you do it. But I’m a weak man and I leaves you. You’re a constant source of timptation to me. When I gets angry I hits you and then I do be sorry.’

‘Where would you be only for me? Who carries you away when you’re drunk? Only for me the guards would have you now.’

‘I admit I gets drunk,’ replied the fat man sternly. ‘Not like you. Nothing makes you drunk, which is another reason I say you’re not a man at all. And you leads me into timptation. When you’re with me I wants to hit you. I wants to hit you now.’

‘You try it and see what you’ll get.’

‘If I lose me temper I’ll hit you,’ said the fat man, spitting on his stick. ‘I’ll hit you such a crack you won’t get over it. ...’ After a moment he sighed. ‘O Lord, behold the timptation I’m put in with this fellow. Some day I’ll do for him. ... What did you hang that dog for?’ he cried fiercely. ‘What harm was he doing you? One of God’s creatures! You savage!’

‘Don’t you call me a savage!’

‘Savage, savage, dirty savage!’ said the fat man thickly.

‘By Chrisht, I’ll shtrangle you!’

‘Come on! Come on! Do it!’ cried the fat man, springing to his feet with extraordinary agility and brandishing his stick. As the other began clumsily to rise there was a sound of footsteps on the road. The fat man lowered his stick with an oath and resumed his seat, back to back with his companion. The tall man lit his pipe. There they sat, looking in opposite directions and muttering the most fiendish maledictions at one another under their breath; the fat man in particular showed a decided ability to manufacture curses. Some minutes later the footsteps drew level with them, and the figure of a man emerged from the

darkness. The flame in the bowl of the tall man’s pipe attracted his attention. He stopped.

‘Good-night, men,’ he said with a soft, country accent. ‘Would ye have a light?’

‘Certainly,’ said the tall man in a whining and obsequious tone. ‘You’re welcome to a light from the pipe, the little that’s in it, God help us.’

The stranger bent over him. In the light which the tramp sucked from his pipe he saw with his small, shrewd eyes the pale face of a young man. What he saw there caused him suddenly to drop his obsequiousness, and when he spoke again it was in a blustering tone.

‘Where are you going to?’ he asked.

‘The city,’ replied the young man after a barely perceptible pause.

‘Looking for work?’

‘Ay.’ Again there was the same slight pause.

‘And you’ll get it I suppose.’

‘What’s that?’

“You’ll get it, you’ll get it,’ repeated the tall tramp, and into his voice had crept a perceptible snarl. “The foxy country boy. Ye’d live where honest men would starve.’

‘I dunno would we.’

‘Oh, don’t you? Well, I know. I know men that can’t get a living in their own city on account of the country johnnies.’

‘Never mind him,’ broke in the fat man. ‘He’s not from the city at all. No one knows where he comes from.’

‘Don’t they? Don’t they now? If they don’t they know damn well where you come from. With your bag under your arm!’

‘Be quiet, you, Horgan! Be quiet now!’

‘I will not be quiet,’ hissed Horgan. ‘Look at him now, young fellow! Look at him now! The man that was to be a priest. And when they were turning him out they cursed him to have the bag on his back the longest day he’d live, and he thinks when he’s carrying it under his oxter that he’s cheating them!’ |

‘Ay, said the fat man slowly in a deep voice, ‘I was, I

was to be a priest. And I know curses, curses that’ll bring the big, blind boils out on you so that you’ll stink for ever—and you going the roads.’

‘Don’t you curse me!’ exclaimed Horgan, not quite sure of himself.

‘Ah,’ said the fat man with satisfaction, shaking his head so that his long locks wagged about him, ‘T’ll give you a hot little maledico vobis that’ll make you wish you never seen the light, Horgan. You mind what I say.’

‘How far more have I to go?’ asked the stranger.

‘Fourteen mile,’ replied the fat tramp.

‘’Tis a long road.’

‘’Tis so. Set down, can’t you?’

‘I will for a minute.’

‘There’s a lot looking for work.’

‘There is.’

‘’Tis to England you should go,’ said the fat man decisively. ‘They give them money for nothing there. If I could put by a few ha’pence I’d go to England. I’d rent a little house of my own and drop the drink and go to Mass regular.’

‘England!’ said the young man bitterly. ‘I tramped every mile of it.’

‘And no work?’

‘No work,’

He turned and lay on his stomach, biting a blade of grass.

‘And didn’t they give you the money?’

‘God’s curse on the ha’penny.’

‘Lord, O Lord! The liars there are!’ The tramp fumbled in his bag. ‘A biteen of bread? ... The liars!’ he added indignantly under his breath.

The young man took the crust and began to gnaw it moodily. A car whizzed by, its lights picking them out like pieces of scenery against the theatrical green of the hedges and the dead white of the hawthorn. Screwing up their eyes, the two tramps looked at their companion.

‘You could have asked for a lift,’ said the man with the beard.

‘I’m in no hurry.

‘’Tis hard enough to get work in the city, I hear tell.’

‘I’m not going there to get work.’

‘Take my advice,’ said the fat man with animation, ‘don’t go on the roads! Don’t go on the roads, young man! ‘’Tis a cur-dog’s life.’

‘I’m not going on the roads.’

‘And what are you going to do?’ It was the truculent voice of Horgan, breaking a sudden silence.

‘What do you think?’

‘Are you going to try for the army?’


‘For the guards?’

“They wouldn’t take me.’

‘Then what is it? Jasus, you’re making a great secret of it.’

‘’Tis no secret. I’m going to say good-bye to misfortune.’

There was another silence, deeper, longer. The fat tramp caught his breath and grabbed the young man’s arm.

‘Don’t do it!’ he cried, ‘No, don’t do it!’

‘And why not?’ The young man sat bolt upright and the tramp felt a pair of wild eyes piercing him in the darkness, ‘Why not, I say?”

‘Because’ ’tis a sin, a terrible sin. Life comes from God. God is good. So life is a good thing—that’s a syllogism. And if you kill yourself you’ll be damned.’

‘I’m damned as it is.’

‘No, no, no! You don’t know what it is. I know, I know, but I can’t tell you. There’s no one can tell you, no one! But you feel it in here’—he beat his breast frantically —‘the fire, the blackness, the loneliness, the fear. Don’t do it young man, don’t do it!’ His voice rose to an angry impotent cry.

‘Don’t be a fool, Kenfick,’ said Horgan; and there was the same rancour and jealousy and malice in his voice. ‘He’s telling lies. What’s he going there for? Why can’t he do it anywhere else? He’s telling lies.’

‘Jasus!’ The stranger suddenly bent across the fat man and gripped Horgan by the throat. ‘Are ’oo contradicting me, are ’oo?’

‘Never mind him!’ said Kenfick.

‘Are ’oo contradicting me?’

‘I’m not, I’m not,’ screamed Horgan, frightened out of his wits and brazening it out with spleen, ‘I’m asking a civil question.’

The young man’s grip relaxed. He resumed his former position, lying on his stomach.

‘Tell us,’ said the fat man, stretching out a conciliatory. hand. ‘Never mind that black devil. Young man, I like you. Tell us what happened.’

‘You know it all now,’ replied the young man after a moment’s hesitation. ‘I was in England looking for work. I tramped every bit of it. I came home at the latter end. My mother said: “Go out and look for work. I can’t keep you here.” So I went out and I looked. I tramped Munster looking for it, begging my way. Then I came back to her. “Did you get work?” says she. “No,” says I, “I didn’t.” “Then you must go away again,” says she, “I can’t keep you.” I took up a bit of rope that was lying in the back room and I went out to the shed. I tied it to a rafter. Then I put a box underneath it and I tied the rope around my neck. The door opened and in she walked. “Is it hanging yourself you are?” says she. “It is,” says I. “You can’t do it here,” says she. “Is it to be putting me to the expense of burying you?” “What’ll I do then?” says I. “My feet are bleeding, and I can’t tramp no more.” “You can go down to the city,” says she, “where the tide will wash your body away and there’ll be no call for me to bury you.”’

As the stranger concluded his story the fat tramp sighed angrily. He pulled his old hat farther over his eyes.

‘She’s no mother,’ he muttered thickly. ‘She’s a wolf. Never mind her. Spit on her! Faugh! ... Oh!’ he cried, his voice rising to a wail, ‘my mother; why didn’t I mind her when I had her? And all the times she cried over me, and all the prayers she said for me, and all in the hope that one day she’d kneel for my blessing! Oh, God, what blinds us, what blinds us, O God, that we don’t see our own destruction?’ Bawling his lament with hoarse sobs, he began hitting the grass about him with great sweeps of his stick. ‘Listen, boy,’ he continued eagerly. ‘Come with me. I makes it out well; all the priests knows me; they’re good to me. Sometimes I makes one and six a day.’

‘Are you going to drop me then?’ asked Horgan angrily.

‘I am. I’m sick of you.’

‘I’ll lay you out,’ cried Horgan, drawing back his fist.

‘Will you? Will you? Will you? Kenfick lifted his stick. ‘Leave me see you now. Bah! You haven’t it in you, Horgan, You’re a coward, Horgan!’

‘Don’t you call me a coward!’

“You are a coward!’

‘I won’t come between ye,’ said the stranger, rising. ‘I’ll go me road, I’ll be no man’s dog any more, waiting for the bite to fill me. There’s no use your telling me about hell no more, mister,’ he added in a husky voice. ‘I was afraid of it once, but I’m afraid of it no longer.’

‘Young man, young man,’ cried Kenfick, ‘beware! You don’t know what you’re saying. ‘’Tis blasphemy, young man. Almighty God, have mercy on us all this night. Almighty God, forgive him and save him!’

‘Save!’ snarled Horgan. ‘Look at who talks of saving. He saved you nicely, didn’t He?’

‘Yes, He did, He did. I sees what none of ye sees; I sees the world and the people of the world, and I sees the black angels and the white angels fighting always around them. Don’t do it, young man. Stop with me.’

‘A grand life you have to offer him,’ sneered Horgan.

‘’Tisn’t a grand life, but ’tisn’t a bad life either.’

‘’Twould be better for him be dead than tied to the likes of you.’

‘Shut up, you!’

‘I will not shut up. What’ll he say when he have a month of you, dragging you along the road and you stinking with drink, pulling you out the convent gate and you shouting back dirty words at the nuns?’

‘If I do inself, isn’t it their own fault?’ hissed the fat man. ‘Why don’t they give me the few coppers I ask for without whinging and whining? What is it to them what I does with them? What do they think I’m going to buy with them? A house and shop? But women are all alike. A man have sense. A man don’t ask are you going to buy drink with it. Look at the priests! They gives me whiskey because they have sense.’

‘Because they’re afraid of your dirty tongue.’

‘Because they have sense, they likes whiskey themselves. And they knows I’m not a bad man. They knows I’m only weak. And some day when I’ve a bit of money put by I’ll go and live in a town and have a little house of my own, and every day of my life I’ll answer the Holy Mass. And Almighty God knows it, and He’s not angry with me, and some day He’ll lift me up out of the gutter. I know He will, I know it well. And I know what He’ll do to you, Horgan. Will I tell you?’

‘Don’t you say anything bad about me.’

‘Ah, you’re afraid! You know damn well what’s coming to you and you’re afraid.’

‘I am not afraid.’

‘Young man, young man, look at him now!’ Kenfick had Horgan by the neck of the coat, shaking him back and forward. ‘Look at him!’ he shouted triumphantly. ‘The man that was talking about death.’

And at that instant the tramps saw that the stranger was gone, vanished into the darkness of the spring night, his footsteps unheard on the thick wet grass. Horgan laughed bitterly. The fat man sat back and began to tie up his old bag. Suddenly he broke into a whine.

‘O Lord!’ he said, ‘I should have told him. At the hour of aspiration...My Jesus, mercy. ... Almighty God, forgive and save him, forgive and save us all.’

For some time after he could be heard muttering ejaculations and prayers. Then Horgan lit a cigarette and he grew rigid.

‘Horgan,’ he said sternly, ‘where did you get that fag?’

‘Where do you think?’ asked the other with a snarl.

‘Did you steal them from that boy?’

‘What do you think I was doing while the pair of ye were gassing?’

The fat man sighed bitterly. After about three minutes of silence there was the heavy thud of a stick, a scream of pain, and in an instant the two were struggling like madmen in the grass.