His mother had forbidden him to stray about the roads, and standing at the garden gate, little Ulick Burke often thought he would like to run down to the canal and watch the boats passing. His father used to take him for walks along the towing path, but his father had gone away to the wars two years ago, and standing by the garden gate he remembered how his father used to stop to talk to the lock-keepers. Their talk often turned upon the canal and its business, and Ulick remembered that the canal ended in the Shannon, and that the barges met ships coming up from the sea.
He was a pretty child with bright blue eyes, soft curls, and a shy winning manner, and he stood at the garden gate thinking how the boats rose up in the locks, how the gate opened and let the boats free, and he wondered if his father had gone away to the war in one of the barges. He felt sure if he were going away to the war he would go in a barge. And he wondered if the barge went as far as the war or only as far as the Shannon? He would like to ask his mother, but she would say he was troubling her with foolish questions, or she would begin to think again that he wanted to run away from home. He wondered if he were to hide himself in one of the barges whether it would take him to a battlefield where he would meet his father walking about with a gun upon his shoulder?
And leaning against the gate-post, he swung one foot across the other, though he had been told by his mother that he was like one of the village children when he did it. But his mother was always telling him not to do something, and he could not remember everything he must not do. He had been told not to go to the canal lest he should fall in, nor into the field lest he should tear his trousers. He had been told he must not run in about in the garden lest he should tread on the flowers, and his mother was always telling him he was not to talk to the school children as they came back from school, though he did not want to talk to them. There was a time when he would have liked to talk to them, now he ran to the other side of the garden when they were coming home from school; but there was no place in the garden where he could hide himself from them, unless he got into the dry ditch. The school children were very naughty children; they climbed up the bank, and, holding on to the paling, they mocked at him; and their mockery was to ask him the way to Hill Cottage; for his mother had had the name painted on the gate, and no one else in the parish had given their cottage a name.
However, he liked the dry ditch, and under the branches, where the wren had built her nest, Ulick was out of his mothers way, and out of the way of the boys; and lying among the dead leaves he could think of the barges floating away, and of his tall father who wore a red coat and let him pull his moustache. He was content to lie in the ditch for hours, thinking he was a bargeman and that he would like to use a sail. His father had told him that the boats had sails on the Shannon — if so it would be easy to sail to the war; and breaking off in the middle of some wonderful war adventure, some tale about his father and his fathers soldiers, he would grow interested in the life of the ditch, in the coming and going of the wren, in the chirrup of a bird in the tall larches that grew beyond the paling.
Beyond the paling there was a wood full of moss-grown stones and trees overgrown with ivy, and Ulick thought that if he only dared to get over the paling and face the darkness of the hollow on the other side of the paling, he could run across the meadow and call from the bank to a steersman. The steersman might take him away! But he was afraid his mother might follow him on the next barge, and he dreamed a story of barges drawn by the swiftest horses in Ireland.
But dreams are but a makeshift life. He was very unhappy, and though he knew it was wrong he could not help laying plans for escape. Sometimes he thought that the best plan would be to set fire to the house; for while his mother was carrying pails of water from the back yard he would run away; but he did not dare to think out his plan of setting fire to the house, lest one of the spirits which dwelt in the hollow beyond the paling should come and drag him down a hole.
One day he forgot to hide himself in the ditch, and the big boy climbed up the bank, and asked him to give him some gooseberries, and though Ulick would have feared to gather gooseberries for himself he did not like to refuse the boy, and he gave him some, hoping that the big boy would not laugh at him again. And they became friends, and very soon he was friends with them all, and they had many talks clustered in the corner, the children holding on to the palings, and Ulick hiding behind the hollyhocks ready to warn them.
Its all right, shes gone to the village, Ulick said, one day the big boy asked him to come with them, they were going to spear eels in the brook, and he was emboldened to get over the fence and to follow across the meadow, through the hazels, and very soon it seemed to him that they had wandered to the worlds end. At last they came to the brook and the big boy turned up his trousers, and Ulick saw him lifting the stones with his left hand and plunging a fork into the water with his right. When he brought up a struggling eel at the end of the fork Ulick clapped his hands and laughed, and he had never been so happy in his life before.
After a time there were no more stones to raise, and sitting on the bank they began to tell stories. His companions asked him when his father was coming back from the wars, and he told them how his father used to take him for walks up the canal, and how they used to meet a man who had a tame rat in his pocket. Suddenly the boys and girls started up, crying Heres the farmer, and they ran wildly across the fields. However, they got to the high road long before the farmer could catch them, and his escape enchanted Ulick. Then the children went their different ways, the big boy staying with Ulick, who thought he must offer him some gooseberries. So they crossed the fence together and crouched under the bushes, and ate the gooseberries till they wearied of them. Afterwards they went to look at the bees, and while looking at the insects crawling in and out of their little door, Ulick caught sight of his mother, and she coming towards them. Ulick cried out, but the big boy was caught before he could reach the fence, and Ulick saw that, big as the boy was, he could not save himself from a slapping. He kicked out, and then blubbered, and at last got away. In a moment it would be Ulicks turn, and he feared she would beat him more than she had beaten the boy — for she hated him, whereas she was only vexed with the boy — she would give him bread and water — he had often had a beating and bread and water for a lesser wickedness than the bringing of one of the village boys into the garden to eat gooseberries.
He put up his right hand and saved his right cheek, and then she tried to slap him on the left, but he put up his left hand, and this went on until she grew so angry that Ulick thought he had better allow her to slap him, for if she did not slap him at once she might kill him.
Down with your hands, sir, down with your hands, sir, she cried, but before he had time to let her slap him she said: I will give you enough of bees, and she caught one that had rested on a flower and put it down his neck. The bee stung him in the neck where the flesh is softest, and he ran away screaming, unable to rid himself of the bee. He broke through the hedges of sweet pea, and he dashed through the poppies, trampling through the flower beds, until he reached the dry ditch.
There is something frightful in feeling a stinging insect in ones back, and Ulick lay in the dry ditch, rolling among the leaves in anguish. He thought he was stung all over, he heard his mother laughing, and she called him a coward through an opening in the bushes, but he knew she could not follow him down the ditch. His neck had already begun to swell, but he forgot the pain of the sting in hatred. He felt he must hate his mother, however wicked it might be to do so. His mother had often slapped him, he had heard of boys being slapped, but no one had ever put a bee down a boys back before; he felt he must always hate her, and creeping up through the brambles to where he could get a view of the garden, he waited until he saw her walk up the path into the house; and then, stealing back to the bottom of the ditch, he resolved to get over the paling. A few minutes after he heard her calling him, and then he climbed the paling, and he crossed the dreaded hollow, stumbling over the old stones.
As he crossed the meadow he caught sight of a boat coming through the lock, but the lock-keeper knew him by sight, and would tell the bargeman where he came from, and he would be sent home to his mother. He ran on, trying to get ahead of the boat, creeping through hedges, frightened lest he should not be able to find the canal! Now he stopped, sure that he had lost it; his brain seemed to be giving way, and he ran on like a mad child up the bank. Oh, what joy! The canal flowed underneath the bank. The horse had just passed, the barge was coming, and Ulick ran down the bank calling to the bargeman. He plunged into the water, getting through the bulrushes. Half of the barge had passed him, and he held out his hands. The ground gave way and he went under the water; green light took the place of day, and when he struggled to the surface he saw the rudder moving. He went under again, and remembered no more until he opened his eyes and saw the bargeman leaning over him.
Now, what ails you to be throwing yourself into the water in that way?
Ulick closed his eyes; he had no strength for answering him, and a little while after he heard someone come on board the barge, and he guessed it must be the man who drove the horse. He lay with his eyes closed, hearing the men talking of what they should do with him. He heard a third voice and guessed it must be a man come up from the cabin. This man said it would be better to take him back to the last lock, and they began to argue about who should carry him. Ulick was terribly frightened, and he was just going to beg of them not to bring him back when he heard one of them say, It will be easier to leave him at the next lock. Soon after, he felt the boat start again, and when Ulick opened his eyes, he saw hedges gliding past, and he hoped the next lock was a long way off.
Now, said the steersman, since you are awaking out of your faint youll be telling us where you come from, because we want to send you home again.
Oh, he said, from a long way off, the Shannon.
The Shannon! said the bargeman. Why, that is more than seventy miles away. How did you come up here?
It was a dreadful moment. Ulick knew he must give some good answer or he would find himself in his mothers keeping very soon. But what answer was he to give? it was half accident, half cunning that made him speak of the Shannon. The steersman said again, The Shannon is seventy miles away, how did you get up here? and by this time Ulick was aware that he must make the bargemen believe that he had hidden himself on one of the boats coming up from the Shannon, and that he had given the bargemen some money, and then he burst into tears and told them he had been very unhappy at home; and when they asked him why he had been unhappy, he did not answer, but he promised he would not be a naughty boy any more if they would take him back to the Shannon. He would be a good boy and not run away again. His pretty face and speech persuaded the bargemen to bring him back to the Shannon; it was decided to say nothing about him to the lock-keeper, and he was carried down to the cabin. He had often asked his father if he might see the bargemens cabin; and his father had promised him that the next time they went to the canal he should go on board a barge and see the cabin; but his father had gone away to the wars. Now he was in the bargemens cabin, and he wondered if they were going to give him supper and if he would be a bargeman himself when he grew up to be a man.
Some miles further the boat bumped the edge of the bridge, and on the other side of the bridge there was the lock, and he heard the lock gate shut behind the boat and the water pour into the lock; the lock seemed a long time filling, and he was frightened lest the lock-man might come down to the cabin, for there was no place where he could hide.
After passing through the lock one of the men came down to see him, and he was taken on deck, and in the calm of the evening Ulick came to look upon the bargemen as his good angels. They gave him some of their supper, and when they arrived at the next lock they made their beds on the deck, the night being so warm. It seemed to Ulick that he had never seen the night before, and he watched the sunset fading streak by streak, and imagined he was the captain of a ship sailing in the Shannon. The stars were so bright that he could not sleep, and it amused him to make up a long story about the bargemen snoring by his side. The story ended with the sunset, and then the night was blue all over, and raising himself out of his blanket, he watched the moonlight rippling down the canal. Then the night grew grey. He began to feel very cold, and wrapped himself in his blanket tightly, and the world got so white that Ulick grew afraid, and he was not certain whether it would not be better to escape from the boat and run away while everybody slept.
He lay awake maturing his little plan, seeing the greyness pass away and the sky fill up with pink and fleecy clouds.
One of the men roused, and, without saying a word, went to fetch a horse from the stables, and another went to boil the kettle in the cabin, and Ulick asked if he might help him; and while he blew the fire he heard the water running into the lock, and thought what a fool they were making of the lock-keeper, and when the boat was well on its way towards the next lock the steersman called him to come up, and they breakfasted together. Ulick would have wished this life to go on for ever, but the following day the steersman said: —
There is only one lock more between this and our last stopping-place. Keep a look-out for your mothers cottage.
He promised he would, and he beguiled them all the evening with pretended discoveries. That cabin was his mothers cabin. No, it was further on, he remembered those willow-trees. Ulicks object was to get as far away from his home as possible; to get as near the Shannon as he could.
Theres not a mile between us and the Shannon now, said the steersman. I believe youve been telling us a lot of lies, my young man.
Ulick said his mother lived just outside the town, they would see the house when they passed through the last lock, and he planned to escape that night, and about an hour before the dawn he got up, and, glancing at the sleeping men, he stepped ashore and ran until he felt very tired. And when he could go no further he lay down in the hay in an outhouse.
A woman found him in the hay some hours after, and he told her his story, and as the woman seemed very kind he laid some stress on his mothers cruelty. He mentioned that his mother had put a bee down his neck, and bending down his head he showed her where the bee had stung him. She stroked his pretty curls and looked into his blue eyes, and she said that anyone who could put a bee down a boys neck must be a she-devil.
She was a lone widow longing for someone to look after, and in a very short time Ulick was as much loved by his chance mother as he had been hated by his real mother.
Three years afterwards she died, and Ulick had to leave the cottage.
He was now a little over thirteen, and knew the ships and their sailors, and he went away in one of the ships that came up the river, and sailed many times round the coast of Ireland, and up all the harbours of Ireland. He led a wild rough life, and his flight from home was remembered like a tale heard in infancy, until one day, as he was steering his ship up the Shannon, a desire to see what they were doing at home came over him. The ship dropped anchor, and he went to the canal to watch the boats going home. And it was not long before he was asking one of the bargemen if he would take him on board. He knew the rules, and he knew they could be broken, and how, and he said if they would take him he would be careful the lockmen did not see him, and the journey began.
The month was July, so the days were as endless and the country was as green and as full of grass, as they were when he had come down the canal, and the horse strained along the path, sticking his toes into it just as he had done ten years ago; and when they came to a dangerous place Ulick saw the man who was driving the horse take hold of his tail, just as he had seen him do ten years ago.
I think those are the rushes, only there are no trees, and the bank does not seem so high. And then he said as the bargeman was going to stop his horse, No, I am wrong. It isnt there.
They went on a few miles further, and the same thing happened again. At last he said, Now I am sure it is there.
And the bargeman called to the man who was driving the horse and stopped him, and Ulick jumped from the boat to the bank.
That was a big leap you took, said a small boy who was standing on the bank. It is well you didnt fall in.
Why did you say that? said Ulick, is your mother telling you not to go down to the canal?
Look at the frog! hes going to jump into the water, said the little boy.
He was the same age as Ulick was when Ulick ran away, and he was dressed in the same little trousers and little boots and socks, and he had a little grey cap. Ulicks hair had grown darker now, but it had been as fair and as curly as this little boys, and he asked him if his mother forbade him to go down to the canal.
Are you a bargeman? Do you steer the barge or do you drive the horse?
Ill tell you about the barge if youll tell me about your mother. Does she tell you not to come down to the canal?
The boy turned away his head and nodded it.
Does she beat you if she catches you here?
Oh, no, mother never beats me.
Is she kind to you?
Yes, shes very kind, she lives up there, and theres a garden to our cottage, and the name Hill Cottage is painted up on the gate post.
Now, said Ulick, tell me your name.
My name is Ulick.
Ulick! And whats your other name?
Ulick Burke! said the big Ulick. Well, my name is the same. And I used to live at Hill Cottage too.
The boy did not answer.
Whom do you live with?
I live with mother.
And whats her name?
Well, Burke is her name, said the boy.
But her front name?
And wheres your father?
Oh, fathers a soldier; hes away.
But my father was a soldier too, and I used to live in that cottage.
And where have you been ever since?
Oh, he said, Ive been a sailor. I think I will go to the cottage with you.
Yes, said little Ulick, come up and see mother, and youll tell me where youve been sailing, and he put his hand into the seafarers.
And now the seafarer began to lose his reckoning; the compass no longer pointed north. He had been away for ten years, and coming back he had found his own self, the self that had jumped into the water at this place ten years ago. Why had not the little boy done as he had done, and been pulled into the barge and gone away? If this had happened Ulick would have believed he was dreaming or that he was mad. But the little boy was leading him, yes, he remembered the way, there was the cottage, and its paling, and its hollyhocks. And there was his mother coming out of the house and very little changed.
Ulick, where have you been? Oh, you naughty boy, and she caught the little boy up and kissed him. And so engrossed was her attention in her little son that she had not noticed the man he had brought home with him.
Now who is this? she said.
Oh, mother, he jumped from the boat to the bank, and he will tell you, mother, that I was not near the bank.
Yes, mother, he was ten yards from the bank; and now tell me, do you think you ever saw me before?… She looked at him.
Oh, its you! Why we thought you were drowned.
I was picked up by a bargeman.
Well, come into the house and tell us what youve been doing.
Ive been seafaring, he said, taking a chair. But what about this Ulick?
Hes your brother, thats all.
His mother asked him of what he was thinking, and Ulick told her how greatly astonished he had been to find a little boy exactly like himself, waiting at the same place.
Your father is away.
So, he said, this little boy is my brother. I should like to see father. When is he coming back?
Oh, she said, he wont be back for another three years. He enlisted again.
Mother, said Ulick, you dont seem very glad to see me.
I shall never forget the evening we spent when you threw yourself into the canal. You were a wicked child.
And why did you think I was drowned?
Well, your cap was picked up in the bulrushes.
He thought that whatever wickedness he had been guilty of might have been forgiven, and he began to feel that if he had known how his mother would receive him he would not have come home.
Well, the dinner is nearly ready. Youll stay and have some with us, and we can make you up a bed in the kitchen.
He could see that his mother wished to welcome him, but her heart was set against him now as it had always been. Her dislike had survived ten years of absence. He had gone away and had met with a mother who loved him, and had done ten years hard seafaring. He had forgotten his real mother — forgotten everything except the bee and the hatred that gathered in her eyes when she put it down his back; and that same ugly look he could now see gathering in her eyes, and it grew deeper every hour he remained in the cottage. His little brother asked him to tell him tales about the sailing ships, and he wanted to go down to the canal with Ulick, but their mother said he was to bide here with her. The day had begun to decline, his brother was crying, and he had to tell him a sea-story to stop his crying. But mother hates to hear my voice, he said to himself, and he went out into the garden when the story was done. It would be better to go away, and he took one turn round the garden and got over the paling at the end of the dry ditch, at the place he had got over it before, and he walked through the old wood, where the trees were overgrown with ivy, and the stones with moss. In this second experience there was neither terror nor mystery — only bitterness. It seemed to him a pity that he had ever been taken out of the canal, and he thought how easy it would be to throw himself in again, but only children drown themselves because their mothers do not love them; life had taken a hold upon him, and he stood watching the canal, though not waiting for a boat. But when a boat appeared he called to the man who was driving the horse to stop, for it was the same boat that had brought him from the Shannon.
Well, was it all right? the steersman said. Did you find the house? How were they at home?
Theyre all right at home, he said; but father is still away. I am going back. Can you take me?
The evening sky opened calm and benedictive, and the green country flowed on, the boat passed by ruins, castles and churches, and every day was alike until they reached the Shannon.