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Wilson's Border Tales
The Old Irish Beggar-Women

About twenty-five years ago, there came to the door of a certain house, on the south side of Edinburgh, a little, old, Irish beggar-woman, soliciting charity. She was very old— giving her age as eighty-one, and with every appearance of truth.

In her dress, however, there was none of that squalor and utter wretchedness which one so often sees in those who seek their bread from door to door. Her clothes were not, indeed, indicative of anything approaching to what we call respectable; but they were comfortable. There were no rags; and her little gray cloak was rather a snug-looking article: her shoes and stockings were good; and on her head she wore a very clean white cap. Altogether, there was something very pleasing, and well calculated to excite sympathy, in the appearance of the cleanly, little, old beggar-woman.

It was such feeling as this that induced the lady of the house alluded to, to invite the old woman into the kitchen, as the day was very wet and cold. With this invitation she readily complied; saying, as she tottered alongst the passage, supporting herself by her staff—

"Thank you dear—thank you. It’s myself that will be glad of a blink o’ the fire this cowld day. It is indeed, dear; for my ould bones feel the cowld bitterly."

A chair was now placed for her before the fire; when, seating herself, she deliberately placed her crook-headed stag on one side; and on the other, on the floor beside her, a little basket that she carried. To this little basket we should, perhaps, have alluded before. It contained a little stock of rnerchandise—some tape, some balls of thread, and two or three oranges; the value of all of which would not exceed one sixpence sterling money. There was something piteous about this little basket; it looked so miserable—so wretched.

The day, as already mentioned, being very cold and wet, the little old woman was asked if she would take a little spirits.

"No, dear, thank you. It’s five-and-forty years since a dhrop o’ speerats, or anything stronger than wather, crossed my lips. Many thanks to you, dear, all the same, though. The bit o’ fire" she added, toasting her little, old, withered hands before it as she spoke—"The bit o’ fire is comfort enough; and a great comfort it is in such a day as this."

"And you drink nothing but water?" said her hostess, in some surprise at so unusual a peculiarity in one in her condition and circumstance.

"Nothing, dear, unless it be the dhrop tea; it’s my only comfort."

"You have been always a sober woman, then?"

"Indeed, and I may say I have, dear. I never was given to dhrinking: I never liked it; but there was a time when I could take a little like other people. But I saw a scene once that made me forswear it for ever; and, from that day ta this, I have never put a glass to my lips, and, please God, never will."

The curiosity of her hostess being excited by this allusion, she was asked what was the nature of the circumstance to which it pointed.

"Troth, dear," replied the old woman, "it was a case that’s but too common; but, as it happened to my own sister, and before my own eyes, as I may say, it made an impression on me that five-and-forty years has done nothin’ to weaken.

"My sisther, who was as purty a girl as you could find in all Ireland—and that’s a wide word, dear, but a thrue one— married a young farmer of the name of John Dowlan; as good-lookin’ a lad as you would see anywhere, and a well-doin’.

"Awell, dear, for six or seven years they lived happily together. There never was a fonder couple; and matters throve wid them mightily. It was just a treat to see them. They were so loving; their house was so tidy; and everything about them so comfortable and orderly; their childer—for they had two—so clean and well dressed. It was a purty sight. But, och! dear, a terrible change came over them. John Dowlan took to the dhrinkin’—the cursed dhrinkin’. At first, and for some time, wid some regard to decency and motheration; but it was soon from bad to worse, as it always is in such cases, dear. Dowlan drank harder and harder. His farm went to rack and ruin; his tidy house was gradually stripped of its comforts; and his childer ran about as dirty and ragged as the childer of a Dublin beggar. But this wasn’t the worst of it, dear, bad as it is. The heart of her broken by Dowlan’s misbehaviour, Nelly took also to the cursed dhrinkin’; and then there was nothin’ but fightin’ and quarrellin’ from mornin’ to night.

"Well, dear, going one night, when things were in this way, wid a tate o’ meal for the childer’s supper—for they were now badly off indeed—I finds the house all dark, and no soul moving in it. I went in and called out, but nobody answered me. Thinking there was no one in the house, I was comin’ out agin, when I stumbled over something. I put down my hand to feel. It was my sisther lying all her length on the floor. Believin’ that the poor crathur was the worse o’ the dhrink, didn’t I raise her up, and try to waken her. But no word would she speak, and no motion would she make. So, suspectin’ somethin’ wrong, didn’t I lay her gently down agin, and run into a neighbour’s house for a light.

"Och! och! God be wid us! what a sight did I see when I came back wid the light. Wasn’t there my poor sisther lyin’ murdered on the floor; her face covered wi’ blood; her long black hair all spread about, and thickened and glued together wid the life strames o’ the poor crathur; and a deep gash in her forehead: and wasn’t there John Dowlan lyin’ in another corner, mortal drunk, and a bloody axe beside him. And, och! och! och! wasn’t it the dhrink that did all this? Hadn’t they been dhrinkin’ and fightin’ all day long? and wasn’t this the end of it? It was, aghra—it was? Now, wouldn’t that sight have curd any one of dhrinkin’, dear? A cowld and desolate house, without fire or candle; a murdered woman; and a senseless man, lyin’ more like a brute than a human crathur; and two poor, naked, starving childer in the next room, sleepin’ on a lock o’ strae, and not knowin’ what had happened. There was a sight for you, dear, wasn’t it? Is it any wonder I shouldn’t ever allow the cursed liquor to approach my mouth?"

"And what became of Dowlan?"

"Och, dear, and wasn’t he hanged for the murder, in less than six weeks after, at Armagh!"

There was a peculiarity about the old woman, which struck every one who saw her, on the occasion of which we are speaking—these consisting of several members of the family, including two or three children, whom curiosity had gathered around her. This peculiarity consisted in certain strange, earnest, scrutinising looks which she, from time to time, fixed on the different individuals about her.

What these looks meant, it was impossible to conjecture, as they conveyed no distinct expression of any particular purpose. They were odd, however, and remarkable.

"Now, dears," said the old woman, after she had talked herself into some familiarity with her auditory—a familiarity which had been further promoted by a basin of broth and a slice of bread—"Now, dears, I will show you something that I wouldn’t show to everybody."

And she began rummaging a deep pocket which hung by her side, and from which she cautiously drew forth, but not farther than to allow of its being barely seen, a small golden crucifix.

"See, dears," she said, addressing the children; "do you know what that is?"

"Is that our Saviour on the Cross?" said a little curly-headed boy of about five years of age, gazing with eager curiosity on the sacred emblem.

"Yes, dear—yes," replied the old woman, stroking the boy’s head kindly. "it is, jewel. He who suffered for our sins, and through whose mediation lies the only road to salvation."

For four or five years after this, the little, old, Irish beggar-woman was a frequent, although not a very regular, visitor of the family of which we are speaking, where, as she always suited her calls to the tea hour, a cup of that, her favourite beverage, always awaited her.

At the period of the old woman’s first visit to the family alluded to, their circumstances were comfortable; and, for some time after, they continued so.

Misfortune however, came, how or by what means it is not necessary to our story to explain. Be it enough to say that Mr Arthur was unfortunate, and, finally, so far embarrassed, that his household furniture was sequestrated for the rent. The day of sale came, and the fatal red flag was displayed at one of the windows.

The brokers were already gathering about the door, which stood wide open for all who chose to enter.

It wanted yet about twenty minutes to the hour of sale; but, as has been said, intending purchasers were already crowding about the door, and thronging the passages of the house. Amongst the latter, feebly struggling to make her way in, was a little old woman in a gray cloak. It was the Irish beggar-woman. There was surprise, and an expression of deep and anxious interest, in her aged countenance. Pushing on, she found out the apartment in which the unhappy family had assembled, and tottered into the midst of them.

The sight of the old woman at such a moment gave much pain to both Mrs Arthur herself and the other members of the family. They thought it a most unseasonable visit.

"Och, dear, dear, and this is a sorrowful day wid ye," said the old woman to Mrs Arthur. "Excuse me for coming at sich a time; but I heerd of your misfortune, and thocht it my duty, who had shared of your comforts, to share in your distresses. Will you spake to me a moment, Mrs Arthur, dear?"

Mrs Arthur retired with her to a window.

"Don’t think it impertinent of me axin, dear," said the old woman; "but what’s all this for? Is it the rint, dear?"

Mrs Arthur told her it was.

"And how much is it now, jewel? Come now, dear, don’t be after crying your eyes out in that way. I always put my trust in God while in trouble, dear; and, perhaps, He’s nearer you this blessed moment wid assistance, than you’re thinkin’ of. How much is the rint, dear?"

"It will be altogether about £20," replied Mrs Arthur, sobbing and not a little surprised at the old woman’s inquiries, which, but for the manner in which they were put, she would have deemed impertinent.

"Twenty pound, dear. Well, get me a word o’ your husband, as there’s no time to loose."

Mr Arthur was immediately brought to her.

"You’re in distress, sir, and a sorrowful sight it is to me to see it; but, maybe, I can relieve you," said the old woman, "Put everybody out of the room but the misthress and yourself."

We will not pause to describe Mr Arthur’s astonishment at this address, but proceed.

The apartment being cleared—

"Now, dears, said the old woman, working her hand into the deep side-pocket from which she had drawn the crucifix on a former occasion, and from which she now pulled forth an old leathern purse—"Now dears, ax no questions, and don’t vex me wid refusals or thanks. Here’s twenty gould guineas; and just you settle wid the harpies, Mr Arthur, dear, and let there be no more about it. You’ll pay me back again when you can, as I will be always comin’ and goin’ about the house, as usual. There, dear," she added, handing over twenty guineas to Mr Arthur, which she had, in the meantime, counted out from the leathern purse. "Take that, and run away wid ye, and clear the house o’ the spalpeens."

Mr Arthur would have refused the money; but she would hear of no denial. He hastened to the apartment where the person sent from the sheriff’s-office to receive the proceeds of the sale and the auctioneer were. The sale had just begun. The first article had been put up, when Mr Arthur approached the clerk and whispered something in his ear.

The words acted like a charm. The whole proceedings were instantly stopped: the rent and costs were paid; and, in ten minutes after, the house was cleared of strangers. It was once more the sanctuary of Arthur and his family.

After this, matters again improved with Arthur. The old woman continued her visits as formerly; but steadily refused receiving back any part of the twenty guineas she had advanced—always saying, when partial repayments were offered her—

"Not now, dear: wait awhile till you get a little easier, and maybes you’ll give it to me when I am more in need of it than at present."

About a year after, the old woman informed Mrs Arthur, one day, that she intended to go to Glasgow to see some friends she had there, but that she would return in about a month.

To Glasgow she accordingly went, as was ascertained by subsequent inquiry; but she never returned, nor was anything more ever heard of her by the family whom she had so seasonably relieved.

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