Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Final Sin

When the sins of the fathers are indeed visited on the sons ...

The chink and rasp intruded on the steady rustle of rain through the trees. Drops streamed on the face of the grave-digger as he shovelled earth into the hole, toiling with the rhythm of a man well used to his work. His breath steamed, and every now and again he turned and spat on the ground beside the grave, a punctuation of his efforts with the spade.

There were just six people on the small river island, one a young priest, his Roman collar barely visible behind the turned-up lapels of his black coat. He held a missal and prayed soundlessly for the departed. The other men were similar in mien and dress to the grave-digger, patently not mourners. They stood with hands in pockets at a little distance from the grave, people waiting to quickly depart.

The grave-digger threw the last few stones on the grave, then took a tattered overcoat from a dead branch on the lightning-blasted tree, the only feature on the island. Nodding to the priest, he put the spade on his shoulder and joined the other men. The cleric closed his prayer book, crossed himself, and turned away.

The group trudged in silence along the river bank, moving faster as the drizzle turned heavier. It had been a long walk to the island with the coffin, and most of them were now thinking of creamy-headed porter in McKeady's bar. Ten minutes later they came out on the Main Street through an arch beside the mill and stood in a huddle while the priest had a few words with the grave-digger, eventually holding out some coins.

'It's not much, Jack, but it'll buy the lads a drink.'

The grave-digger pushed his hand back. 'It's not necessary, Father Breaffy. The lads did it for the poor girl's memory.'

'Take it anyway, Jack. You've all earned it, coming out on a day like this.'

The grave-digger took the coins then. 'Thank you, Father. Not for the money, but for coming down-'

'It was the least she was entitled to, Jack,' the priest said gently. 'I'd have wished for better, that she'd have been buried in the graveyard, but you know the situation with the Canon.'

'Aye, Father. It's not your fault, I know. But then it was her own wish anyway, on the note she left me. It was a queer way to get instructions for a grave-diggin'.'

The priest turned his coat collar tighter, hunching against the rain, now much heavier.

'It was indeed, Jack. But there's no accounting for the ways a young girl's mind will take in her position. You'd better go in out of the wet.'

The grave-digger nodded, touched his cap, and then led the five men across the road and into McKeady's. The priest walked up the hill towards the presbytery, depressed as the weather.

•••


On the wooded bluff above the river, a young man had watched the burial from a window in a big house. As the six men disappeared into the misted evening, he raised a glass to the forlorn island.

'Stupid, spiteful little bitch,' he muttered. He drank, opened the window, and threw the empty glass far down. He turned back into the deepening gloom of the room, then stopped as he saw the shadow of another figure.

'There's the end to one night's madness, young Thomas,' his father said.

'A stupid little bitch,' Thomas repeated.

'Her only stupidity was spreading her legs for you.' The older man laughed, a sardonic and cruel sound.

'She was just an ignorant little trollop.'

His father flared then, his temper changing.

'Ignorant she might have been, and maybe a trollop,' he growled. 'But she was the daughter of my head man, a man I can ill afford to lose. Why couldn't you take one of the town wenches? It cost me thirty sovereigns to square with her father.'

He paced the room, a big man growing in his anger. 'The money is not of moment, but I'm now in his obligation, and that's something money can't settle. And then this happens!'

His voice had grown halfway to a roar as he pointed through the window towards the island now lost in the evening.

For all his twenty-two years, Thomas was still afraid of his father. He tried to get around him towards the door, but the old man caught him by the wrist in a steely grip. With blind instinct he swung his free hand, knuckles bunched, but it brushed only air.

'Ye'll need to win more bar fights before you catch your old man like that,' rasped his father, forcing the younger man to his knees. Thomas screamed at the first sting of the riding crop through his shirt.

The old man struck again and again until the silk was torn and bloody, then let his sobbing son fall. He strode across the room, struck a match and lit the two gas mantles over the fireplace. Then he took a decanter and two glasses from a cupboard and put them on a small table. He filled the glasses and nudged the young man with his boot.

'The next time you want to piddle, don't do it on your own doorstep,' he said roughly. 'Come, join me. I've a thirst that'll take the bottle to slake.'

He sat in a high-backed chair and drained his first glass. Thomas got painfully to his feet and fell in a chair opposite, taking a large gulp from the whiskey.

The old man refilled his glass and looked across at his son, a glint in his eye. Then he opened his mouth and laughed, a harsh sound that echoed through the dark empty house. After a few moments Thomas joined in, hesitantly at first, but soon the tears running down his face were no longer from pain. In the wavering light from the gas mantles, their faces gleamed like demons from the darkest ranges of Pandemonium.

•••


Father Breaffy toyed with the haddock. The Canon, on the other hand, had cleared his plate with relish and was now pouring himself a brandy from a bottle which seemed to have the miraculous attribute of never emptying. Then the old man picked up his breviary, and began to read by the light of the two paraffin lanterns that illuminated the parlour of the presbytery.

The housekeeper came in and began to clear the table. She looked accusingly at the curate's plate, sniffing at the waste of God's good bounty. She'd got it cheap because it was four days old and wouldn't last the night, the saving going into the nest-egg priests' housekeepers built up to augment whatever they were left in the wills of their clerical charges.

After she'd left, Father Breaffy settled in an armchair and tried to read the morning paper. But he found it difficult to concentrate and rustled the pages to and fro without settling on any article.

'You went down then, John?'

He looked up.

The Canon was gazing across the top of his Breviary. 'To the burial-'

'Yes, Canon. I went and prayed for their immortal souls. Hers and her unborn baby's. It was . . . my Christian duty.'

He realised he'd dealt an unconscious rebuff, but the Canon didn't appear to take the remark in anger.

'Mary Langan was a wayward girl,' he mused. 'She fell not alone to the Original Sin, but compounded her affront to the Almighty by committing the final one.'

'But the first may not have been a mortal sin,' objected the younger priest. 'I doubt she gave consent to the act. You know as well as I do the reputation of Thomas Kilbride, and indeed that of his father. They still believe in the droit de seigneur.'

'Such unholy traditions are no longer relevant,' the Canon demurred.

'When the son of the landlord wants to make hay with the daughter of a servant, there's only one relevance, Canon.'

'Come now, John - you must not slander the name of a man like that. It's not Christian.'

'Aye. And it's not Christian that a poor girl of sixteen and her unborn babe are lying buried on that island, unconsecrated and alone,' blazed the curate, letting loose the pent-up frustrations of his day. 'It's our Christianity that refused her poor abused body eternal rest in the graveyard. It's the Christianity of her father who beat her after she found she was pregnant and went to him for help.'

The young priest's anger flowed in a cleansing tide. 'Luke Langan comes to Mass each Sunday, driving the carriage for his employer,' he continued. 'That makes it all right, I suppose - once people fulfil their church duties and leave their pennies on the plate, they're Christians.'

He crumpled the newspaper and stood up.

'You forget yourself, Father,' the Canon said coldly. 'It was the girl's own wish that she be buried on that island, otherwise we would have buried her outside the graveyard, in the space reserved for those who die in the state of the final sin.'

'How generous is our religion,' muttered the curate wearily. 'Forgive me, Canon. I've had a difficult day. It's time to close the church.' He started for the door.

'Do that, Father Breaffy,' said the Canon, no forgiveness in his voice. 'While you're there, pray for the humility the Lord requires in those who serve Him.'

•••


McKeady's was smoky as usual. Jack Kinlay sat at the worn counter in the back of the grocery shop. The bar was lit by two hissing gas lamps and the counter was tended by a large comfortable woman in her late forties.

'Give us another one, Brigid,' he said, putting his drained glass on the counter.

She put the tumbler under the brass spout and pulled back on the wooden handle several times. The creamy porter filled the glass and she put it on a tray to settle.

'That business has affected the lads, Jack,' she said. 'They're quiet.'

He nodded gloomily. 'God knows I've put enough people under in my time, I should be used to it. But there's something different about burying one who was little more than a child, and her expecting one of her own, too.'

Brigid ran a rag up and down the counter. 'It's bad doing, Jack, a young girl drowning herself like that all because of a man.'

'Well, we all know the man, Brigid. But sure it takes two to make a baby. There must've been something between them.'

The woman angrily topped off Jack's glass from a copper jug of black flat porter, then put it in front of him. 'You know yourself that little Mary was as timid as a rabbit. If Thomas Kilbride wanted his way with her one drunken night, she'd be too scared to refuse him. If the truth be known, he raped her and left her with a fear so bad she'd never tell a soul.'

The grave-digger moodily took a draught from his glass. 'But why did she want to be buried on the island? That's all the note said that she left with you for me. It was a strange way to get instructions for a funeral, from the person I was going to bury.'

Brigid McKeady shrugged.

'That's a woman's mind, Jack. She probably had the notion that young Kilbride would grieve ever more if she was buried where he'd see her grave every day.' She sniffed. 'More fool she to think that any man will grieve after a woman he's defiled.'

Her voice softened. 'She knew she'd not be buried in the graveyard, anyway. I hope she haunts the young bastard to a sleepless eternity.'

'You saw her, Brigid, when she came in with the note. Did she give any sign-?'

'Lord, no, Jack. If she had, I'd have talked her out of it. She'd been crying, and there were bruises on her face. But she didn't want to talk, and I thought it was because she was embarrassed. She was just beginning to show.'

'Her father gave her the bruises,' he muttered. 'Mickey Flynn said Luke went home drunk the night before, swearing he'd teach her not to disgrace him.'

Behind him, the bar door creaked open.

'Speak of the Devil,' Brigid murmured.

The grave-digger turned.

A dark and stocky man stood in the opening, weaving slightly. Luke Langan was groom, driver and gamekeeper to the biggest landowner in the county, who used the high unemployment of the time to guarantee cheap labour during the harvest. He left it to Langan to choose who would work, and the man dangled the pitifully-paid employment before the workless lined up in the town square each morning. The lucky few were always paid for their day's labour in a pub, and Langan usually therefore drank for free.

He moved to the counter.

'Gi' me a whiskey, Mrs McKeady,' he slurred heavily.

Brigid silently turned, poured the drink into a glass, and handed it to him. 'That'll be four pence, please, Luke Langan.' There was no warmth in her voice.

Langan looked along the counter. 'Jack Kinlay. Gi' Jack one, too,' he muttered.

Brigid turned to pour, but stopped when Jack called out.

'I won't have one, Brigid,' he said softly. 'Thanks all the same, Luke.'

'C'mon, Jack. Have a drink wi' me,' Langan insisted. 'It's a sorry time for me. My daughter disgraced me, and now she's dead.'

'Aye, and it's the disgrace you're sorry about, not her death,' the grave-digger said shortly. 'You weren't even at the burial. I won't drink with you, Luke.'

Langan pulled a handful of coins from his pocket, some glinting gold. He slammed them on the counter. 'Give everybody a drink from me,' he shouted. 'I can pay for it.'

'I'll not give anyone a drink from you, Luke,' Brigid said quietly. 'They don't want it from you. And I'll thank you to take yourself and your money out of this bar. It's well your daughter's rid of you, poor child . . . the pity is she thought she had only the one way to escape.'

For a moment it seemed Langan would cross the counter, but then he saw some of the men getting up. He picked up his money and staggered out.

'Now I'll have a whiskey, Brigid,' Jack Kinlay said heavily. He spat in the sawdust on the floor. 'I've a foul taste in my mouth.'

•••


The big house was dark save for the flicker of gaslight in the first-floor study window. A late full moon played hide and seek with fast-moving broken clouds, occasionally lighting the island below, the blasted tree-trunk starkly pale. In the study the Kilbride father and son snored in drunken disharmony.

A swaying figure came through the door and gazed on them. Like a deep sleeper waking at a nightsound, young Thomas blearily opened an eye. For just a moment he thought he saw a familiar figure, at a distance as if through the wrong end of a telescope. Then the liquor in his blood pushed him back to oblivion.

Luke Langan looked at the sleeping pair for another few moments, then grunted and left the room.

•••


It was just short of eleven o'clock when Mickey Flynn ran into McKeady's.

'The big house is afire,' he shouted. The bar cleared in moments. Outside, a red glow could be seen against the night clouds.

Within minutes many of the townspeople were on the front lawn of the house. They watched as fingers of flame licked their way from the ground floor to the next, and soon the whole interior glowed red. There were sudden cries as a figure appeared in a first floor window, starkly silhouetted against a blazing room.

'Help me!' shrieked Thomas Kilbride. 'Help me! Save me . . . someone, for God's sake, help me!'

Nobody moved.

With a roar the roof caved in and the house and his blazing figure disappeared in a roaring mass of flames that lit every watcher's face.

•••


The Canon gave the eulogy. The congregation included members of the gentry from around the county, and even from Dublin. The Kilbrides' money had been held in esteem by their kind. Last respects had to be paid.

'Dear friends, we are gathered here on an infinitely sad occasion. The recent tragedy took two of the best-known members of this parish. We are grieved by their loss, which is all the sadder because they were the last of their family . . .'

His homily was punctuated by the chink of coins as the collection salvers were passed around, and though his face remained grave, the Canon smiled in his heart.

Afterwards the two coffins were buried in the Kilbride plot, railed off from the common folk in the graveyard.

As prayers were being said at their graveside, Luke Langan stood on the island beside the pitiful mound of his daughter's grave. His face was stubbled and dirty and his eyes bright and feverish. He stared up at the still-smoking hulk of the big house, then turned and threw a fistful of coins the length of the little island.

'Mary!' he cried. 'Mary! Forgive me-'

•••


They found him hanging from the blasted tree. The gold coins lay scattered on the ground, some of them on his daughter's grave.

Nobody touched them.

---


©1984/1993 Brian Byrne.

The Final Sin is from the collection Mariseo's House and other stories, published by The Kestrel's Nest, 1993, under my pseudonym William Trapman.

This was my first short story, and my first one to be published, in Woman's Way magazine in 1984. As such, it has a place of special affection in my memory.

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