THE MOUNTAIN TAVERN Edit
By Liam O'FlahertyEdit
Reprinted from The Mountain Tavern and Other Stories, (1897)
LIAM O'FLAHERTY, author of The Mountain Tavern, Spring Sowing, The Tent, and many other short stories, and of the novels The Informer, The Assassin, etc., was born in the in 1897. As a youth he was a volunteer in the Irish Republican Army; during the Great War he joined the British Army; in a Scotsman converted him to Socialism. He attributes the awakening of his conscious mind to the experience during the War of contact with all sorts of workingmen, including German prisoners. After the War, becoming bored with Irish Republicanism, he spent several roving years at sea, in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere (recorded in the autobiographical Two Years), returning to Ireland about 1920 to fight the Black and Tans (British troops}. By that time he was a Communist. He attributes much of the success of his subsequent literary career to timely encouragement and criticism from Edward Garnett.
Snow was falling. The bare, flat, fenceless road had long since disappeared. Now the white snow fell continuously on virgin land, all level, all white, all silent, between the surrounding dim peaks of the mountains. Through the falling snow, on every side, squat humps were visible. They were the mountain peaks. And between them, the moorland was as smooth as a ploughed field. And as silent, oh, as silent as an empty church. Here, the very particles of the air entered the lungs seemingly as big as pebbles and with the sweetness of ripe fruit. An outstretched hand could almost feel the air and the silence. There was absolutely nothing, nothing at all, but falling flakes of white snow, undeflected, falling silently on fallen snow.
Up above was the sky and God perhaps, though it was hard to believe it; hard to believe that there was anything in the whole universe but a flat white stretch of virgin land between squat mountain peaks and a ceaseless shower of falling snow-flakes.
There came the smell of human breathing from the east. Then three figures appeared suddenly, dark, although they were covered with snow. They appeared silently, one by one, stooping forward. The leading man carried his overcoat like a shawl about his head, with a rifle, butt upwards, slung on his right shoulder and two cloth ammunition belts slung across his body. He wore black top boots. His grim young eyes gazed wearily into the falling snow and his boots, scarcely lifted, raked the smooth earth, scattering the fallen snow-flakes.
The second man wore a belted leather coat, of which one arm hung loose. With the other hand he gripped his chest and staggered forward, with sagging, doddering head. A pistol, pouched in a loose belt, swung back and forth with his gait. There was blood on his coat, on his hand and congealed on his black leggings, along which the melting snow ran in a muddy stream. There was a forlorn look in his eyes, but his teeth were set. Sometimes he bared them and drew in a deep breath with a hissing sound.
The third man walked erect. He wore no overcoat and his head was bare. His hair curled and among the curls the snow lay in little rows like some statue in winter. He had a proud, fearless face, bronzed, showing no emotion nor weariness. Now and again, he shook his great body and the snow fell with a rustling sound oif his clothes and off the heavy pack he carried. He also had two rifles wrapped in a cape under his arm; and in his right hand he carried a small wooden box that hung from a leather strap.
They walked in each other's tracks slowly. Rapidly the falling snow filled up the imprints of their feet. And when they passed there was silence again.
The man in front halted and raised his eyes to look ahead. The second man staggered against him, groaned with pain and gripped the other about the body with his loose hand to steady himself. The third man put the wooden box on the ground and shifted his pack.
"Where are we now?" he said.
His voice rang out, hollow, in the stillness and several puffs of hot air, the words, jerked out, like steam from a starting engine.
"Can't say," muttered the man in front. "Steady, Commandant. We can't be far now. We're on the road anyway. It should be there in front. Can't see, though. It's in a hollow. That's why."
"What's in a hollow, Jack?" muttered the wounded man. "Let me lie down here. It's bleeding again."
"Hold on, Commandant," said the man in front. "We'll be at the Mountain Tavern in half a minute. Christ!"
"Put him on my back," said the big man. "You carry the stuff."
"Never mind. I'll walk," said the wounded man. "I'll get there all right. Any sign of them?"
They peered into the falling snow behind them. There was utter silence. The ghostly white shower made no sound. A falling curtain.
"Lead on then," said the big man. "Lean on me, Commandant."
They moved on. The wounded man was groaning now and his feet began to drag. Shortly he began to rave in a low voice. Then they halted again. Without speaking, the big man hoisted his comrade, crosswise, on his shoulders. The other man carried the kit. They moved on again.
The peak in front became larger. It was no longer a formless mass. Gradually, through the curtain of snow, it seemed to move towards them and upwards. The air became still more thin. As from the summit of a towering cliff, the atmosphere in front became hollow; and soon, through the haze of snow, they caught a glimpse of the distant plains, between two mountain peaks. There below it lay, like the bottom of a sea, in silence. The mountain sides sank down into it, becoming darker; for it did not snow down there. There was something, after all, other than the snow. But the snowless, downland earth looked dour and unapproachable.
"It must be here," the leading man said again. "Why can't we see it? It's just under the shelter of that mountain. There is a little clump of pine trees and a barn with a red roof. Sure I often had a drink in it. Where the name of God is it, anyway?"
"Go on. Stop talking," said the curly-headed man.
"Can't you be easy?" muttered the leading man, moving ahead and peering into the snow that made his eyelids blink and blink. "Supposing this is the wrong road, after all. They say people go round and round in the snow. Sure ye could see it from the other end, four miles away in clear weather, two storey high and a slate roof with the sun. shining on it. It's facing this way too, right on the top of the hill, with a black board, 'Licensed to Sell.' Man called Galligan owns it. I'd swear by the Cross of Christ we must be up on it."
"Hurry on," snapped the curly man. "There's a gurgle in his throat. Jesus! His blood is going down my neck. Why can't you hurry on, blast it?"
"Hey, what place is that?" cried the leading man, in a frightened voice. "D'ye see a ruin?"
They halted. A moment ago there had been nothing in front but a curtain of falling snow, beyond which, as in a child's sick dream, the darkening emptiness of the snowless lowland approached, tumbling like a scudding black cloud. Now a crazy blue heap appeared quite close. Suddenly it heaved up out of the snow. It was a ruined house. There was a smell from it too. From its base irregular tufts of smoke curled up spasmodically; dying almost as soon as they appeared and then appearing again.
The two men watched it. There was no emotion in their faces. They just looked, as if without interest. It was too strange. The Mountain Tavern was a smoking ruin.
"It's gone west," murmured the leading man.
"Eh?" shouted the curly man. "Gone did ye say?"
"Aye. Burned to the ground. See?"
"God knows. We're up the pole."
Suddenly the curly man uttered a cry of rage and staggered forward under his load. The other man opened his mouth wide, drew in an enormous breath and dropped his head wearily on his chest. Trailing his rifle in the snow behind him, he reeled forward, shaking his head from side to side, with his under lip trembling. Then he began to sing foolishly under his breath. There were people around the ruined house. And as the two men, with their dying comrade, came into view, quite close, these people stopped and gaped at them. There was a woman in front of the house, on the road, sitting on an upturned barrel. She was a thin woman with a long pointed nose and thin black hair that hung in disorder on her thin neck, with hairpins sticking in it. She had a long overcoat buttoned over her dress and a man's overcoat about her shoulders. She held a hat with red feathers on it in her right hand, by the rim. Two children, wrapped in queer clothes, stood beside her, clinging to her, a boy and a girl. They also were thin and they had pointed noses like their mother. One man was pulling something out of a window of the ruined house. Another man, within the window, had his head stuck out. He had been handing out something. Another man was in the act of putting a tin trunk on a cart, to which a horse was harnessed, to the right of the house. All looked, gaping, at the newcomers.
"God save all here," said the curly man, halting near the woman.
Nobody replied. The other man came up and staggered towards the woman, who was sitting on the upturned barrel. The two children, silent with fear, darted around their mother, away from the man. They clutched at her, muttering something inaudibly.
"Is that you, Mrs. Galligan?"
"It is then," said the woman in a stupid, cold voice. "And who might you be?"
"We're Republican soldiers," said the curly man. "I have a dying man here."
He lowered the wounded man gently to the ground. Nobody spoke or moved. The snow fell steadily.
" Mummy, mummy," cried one of the children, "there's blood on him. Oh! mummy."
The two children began to howl. The dying man began to throw his hands about and mutter something. A great rush of blood flowed from him.
"In the name of the Lord God of Heaven," yelled the curly man, "are ye savages not to move a foot? Eh? Can't ye go for a doctor? Is there nothing in the house?"
He stooped over the dying man and clutching him in his arms, he cried hoarsely:
"Easy now, Commandant. I'm beside ye. Give us a hand with him, Jack. We'll fix the bandage."
The two of them, almost in a state of delirium, began to fumble with the dying man. The children wept. The dying man suddenly cried out:
"Stand fast. Stand fast boys. Stand. . . ."
Then he made a violent effort to sit up. He opened his mouth and did not close it again.
The woman looked on dazed, with her forehead wrinkled and her lips set tight. The three men who had been doing something among the ruins began to come up slowly. They also appeared dazed, terrified.
"He's gone," murmured the curly man, sitting erect on his knees. "God have mercy on him."
He laid the corpse flat on the ground. The blood still flowed out. The other soldier took off his hat and then, just as he was going to cross himself, he burst into tears. The three men came close and looked on. Then they sheepishly took off their hats.
"Is he dead?" said one of them.
The curly man sat back on his heels.
"He's dead," he said. "The curse o' God on this country."
"And what did he say happened?"
"Ambush back there. Our column got wiped out. Haven't ye got anything in the house?"
The woman laughed shrilly. The children stopped crying.
"Is there nothing in the house, ye daylight robber?" she cried. "Look at it, curse ye. It's a black ruin. Go in. Take what ye can find, ye robber."
"Robbers!" cried the soldier who had been weeping. "Come on, Curly. Stand by me. I'm no robber. God! Give me a drink. Something to eat. Christ! I'm dyin'."
He got to his feet and took a pace forward like a drunken man. The curly-headed soldier caught him.
"Keep yer hair on, Jack," he said.
"Look at what ye've done," cried the woman. "Ye've blown up the house over me head. Ye've left me homeless and penniless with yer war. Oh! God, why don't ye drop down the dome of Heaven on me?"
"Sure we didn't blow up yer house," cried the curly soldier. "An' we lookin' for shelter after trampin' the mountains since morning. Woman, ye might respect the dead that died for ye."
The woman spat and hissed at him.
"Let them die. They didn't die for me," she said. "Amn't I ruined and wrecked for three long years with yer fightin', goin' back and forth, lootin' and turnin' the honest traveller from my door? For three long years have I kept open house for all of ye and now yer turnin' on one another like dogs after a bitch."
"None o' that now," cried the hysterical soldier, trying to raise his rifle.
"Hold on, man," cried one of the other men. "She has cause. She has cause."
He grew excited and waved his hands and addressed his own comrades instead of addressing the soldiers.
"The Republicans came to this house this morning," he cried. " So Mr. Galligan told me an' he goin' down the road for McGilligan's motor. The Republicans came, he said. And then . . . then the Free Staters came on top of them and the firing began. Women and children out, they said, under a white flag. So Galligan told me. 'They damn near shot me,' says he to me, 'harbourin' Irregulars under the new act.' Shot at sight, or what's worse, they take ye away on the cars, God knows where. Found in a ditch. None of us, God blast my soul if there is a word of a lie in what I am sayin', none of us here have a hand or part in anything. Three miles I came up in the snow when Mr. Galligan told me. Says he to me, 'I'll take herself and the kids to aunt Julia's in McGilligan's motor.'"
"Where did they go?" said the curly soldier.
"I was comin' to that," said the man, spitting in the snow and turning towards the woman. "It's with a bomb they did it, Galligan said to me. Something must have fallen in the fire. They stuck it out, he said. There were six men inside. Not a man came out without a wound. So he said. There were two dead. On a door they took 'em away. They took 'em all off in the cars. And they were goin' to take Mr. Galligan too. There you are now. May the Blessed Virgin look down on here. An' many's a man '11 go thirsty from this day over the mountain road."
"Aye," said the woman. "For twenty years in that house, since my father moved from the village, after buyin' it from Johnny Reilly."
"Twenty years," she said again.
"Can't ye give us something to eat?" cried the hysterical man, trying to break loose from the curly soldier, who still held him.
"There's nothing here/' muttered a man, "until Mr. Galligan comes in the motor. He should be well on the way now."
"They were all taken," said the curly soldier.
"All taken," said the three men, all together.
"Sit down, Jack," said the curly soldier.
He pulled his comrade down with him on to the snow.
He dropped his head on his chest. The others looked at the soldiers sitting in the snow. The others had a curious, malign look in their eyes. They looked at the dazed, exhausted soldiers and at the corpse with a curious apathy. They looked with hatred. There was no pity in their eyes. They looked steadily without speech or movement, with the serene cruelty of children watching an insect being tortured. They looked patiently, as if calmly watching a monster in its death agony.
The curly-headed soldier suddenly seemed to realize that they were watching him. For he raised his head and peered at them shrewdly through the falling snow. There was utter silence everywhere, except the munching sound made by the horse's jaws as he chewed hay. The snow fell, fell now, in the fading light, mournfully, blotting out the sins of the world.
The soldier's face, that had until then shown neither fear nor weariness, suddenly filled with despair. His lips bulged out. His eyes almost closed. His forehead gathered together and he opened his nostrils wide.
"I'm done," he said. "It's no use. Say, men. Send word that we're here. Let them take us. I'm tired fightin'. It's no use."
No one spoke or stirred. A sound approached. Strange to say, no one paid attention to the sound. And even when a military motor lorry appeared at the brow of the road, nobody moved or spoke. There were soldiers on the lorry. They had their rifles pointed. They drew near slowly. Then, with a rush, they dismounted and came running up.
The two Republican soldiers put up their hands, but they did not rise to their feet.
"Robbers," screamed the woman. "I hate ye all. Robbers."
Her husband was there with them.
"Mary, we're to go in the lorry," he said to her. They're goin' to look after us they said. Fr. Considine went to the barracks."
"The bloody robbers," she muttered, getting off the barrel.
"Who's this?" the officer said, roughly handling the corpse.
He raised the head of the corpse.
"Ha!" he said. "So we got him at last. Eh? Heave him into the lorry, boys. Hurry up. Chuck 'em all in."
They took away the corpse and the prisoners. There was a big dark spot where the corpse had lain. Snow began to fall on the dark spot.
They took away everybody, including the horse and cart. Everybody went away, down the steep mountain road, into the dark lowland country, where no snow was falling. All was silent again on the flat top of the mountain.
There was nothing in the whole universe again but the black ruin and the black spot where the corpse had lain. Night fell and snow fell, fell like soft soothing white flower petals on the black ruin and on the black spot where the corpse had lain.