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Captains and the Kings
By Taylor Caldwell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1972 Janet Reback
All rights reserved.
"Joey, Joey? O God! Joey?" his mother cried out of her extremity and pain.
"I'm here, Mum," said Joseph, holding her thin small hand tighter. "I won't leave you, Mum." She stared at him in the dimness, her eyes bright and distended and sparkling with terror. Joseph bent over her, the stool on which he sat rocking with the heavy laboring of the anchored ship. Her fingers squeezed his hand until they were like tight iron on his flesh. He felt the cold sharp tips. "Oh, Mum," he murmured. "You'll be well, Mum." His crisp russet hair fell over his forehead and his ears and he shook it back. He was thirteen years old.
"I'm dying, Joey," she said, and her weary young voice was hardly audible. "There's Sean, Joey, and the little colleen. You'll take care of them, Joey, for himself? You'll mind them?"
"You're not dying, Mum," said Joseph. The eyes of his mother did not leave his face. Her gray lips had fallen open and they showed her delicate white teeth. Her little nose was thin and pinched and the nostrils blew in and out with her hurrying breath, and she panted. Her eyes asked him a desperate question, and they started from under her glossy black brows.
"Sure, and I'll mind them, Mum," he said. "Dad will meet us. You'll be well then."
The most pathetic smile appeared on her mouth. "Good Joey," she whispered. "You were always a good boyeen. You're a man, Joey."
"Yes, Mum," he said. The fingers that clutched his hand had become icy, and not only the tips. His mother's thick black hair, as glossy as her brows, was strewn over the dirty pillows, and faintly shone in the light of the stinking and swaying lantern which hung from the wooden ceiling. That ceiling and the wet wooden walls sweated with an evil and oily moisture and the big masted ship creaked all about them. The coarse jute curtain at the end of the passage moved backwards and forwards with the slow lurching of the vessel. It was still light outside the four small portholes but little light entered here in the rancid steerage where fifty women and infants and little children slept on noxious bunks under thin and dingy blankets. The broken floor was soiled with the urine of children and scattered with sawdust thrown there for sanitary purposes. It was very cold. The portholes were blurred with spray and the little heat and breath of the bodies of the wretched creatures within. The ship was a four-master which had left Queenstown, Ireland, over six weeks ago. By standing on tiptoe the tallest could see the shoreline and wharfs of New York, the wandering yellow lights, the faint gloomy illumination of lamps, and flittering shadows. Some of the steerage passengers had been rejected twenty-four hours ago in Boston. They were Irish.
The majority of women and children on the hard bunks was sick with cholera, Famine Fever and other illnesses caused by rotten food and moldy bread, and tuberculosis and pneumonia. There was a constant frail wailing in the air, as if disembodied. Older girl children slept in the upper bunks; the very sick slept in the lower, clutched against the sides of their starved mothers. The light darkened swiftly, for it was winter, and the cold increased. Joseph Francis Xavier Armagh felt and saw nothing but his dying mother, who was hardly thirty years old. He heard bitter crying near him and he knew it was his little brother, Sean, who was scarcely six. Sean was crying because he was perpetually hungry and cold and frightened. He had had his supper ten minutes before, a bowl of thin oatmeal and a slice of coarse dry bread which smelled of mice.
Joseph did not turn to Sean. He did not hear the wailing of children and the weeping of the sick women in the steerage, nor did he look at the bunks which lined both sides of the narrow tilting deck. His mind and his passionate determination were fixed only on his mother. He willed her to live with a quiet cold will which no hunger, no destitution, no pain nor chill nor hatred could break. Joseph had eaten no supper at all, and had pushed aside the bowl which Sister Mary Bridget had entreated him to take. If he thought of anything extraneous but his mother now she would die. If he took his hand from hers and his eyes from her face, she would die. "They" would have killed her at last, Moira Armagh, who laughed when there was no occasion to laugh and valiantly prayed when there was no God to hear her.
But Joseph dared not remember that there was no God, and he was afraid of mortal sin, and only a God could help Moira now — and the will of her son. The new baby had been born at midnight, and the Sisters had taken her, and the old priest in the steerage — among the men beyond the swinging burlap curtain — had baptised the child and had named her, on Moira's whispered word, Mary Regina, which had been her dead mother's name. The child lay soundless in a cocoon of dirty blankets on the bunk of young Sister Bernardo who had given her a "sugar tit" to suck — a tied square of cotton in which some sugar had been placed — for there was no milk for such as those who traveled in the steerage. The child was too weak to cry; the young nun sat on the bunk near her and said her beads, then stood up as Father William O'Leary pushed aside the curtain and entered the quarters of the women and young children. The long passage became silent; even the sick children stopped crying. Mothers reached from the narrow bunks to touch his frayed black cassock. He had been summoned by a Sister aboard, Sister Teresa, and he carried, very carefully, a worn and ancient leather bag in his hand.
Old Sister Mary Bridget patted Joseph's emaciated shoulder timidly. "Father is here, Joey," she said. But Joseph's head moved in strong negation. "No," he replied, for he knew why the priest had come. He bent over his mother again. "Mum, you'll be well," he said. But she was looking over his shoulder at the priest and the fevered brightness of her eyes increased with fear. Sister Mary Bridget stroked the young woman's arm. Joseph brushed her aside with ferocity, his own deep-set blue eyes shining with rage in the light of the malodorous lanterns. "No!" he exclaimed. "Go away! No!" He caught his breath with a choked sound. He wanted to hit the holy old woman, in her patched black garments. Her white coif, which had miraculously remained clean and stiff during these weeks, glimmered in the semidarkness, and beneath it her wrinkled face worked in pity and there were tears on her cheeks. Joey gestured at the waiting priest, but did not look at him. "You will kill her!" he cried. "Go away." A spot of blackish oil fell from the ceiling above him and struck his cheek and left a smear as of old blood on its gauntness. It was the face of a grimly resolute man that looked at the old nun and not a boy of thirteen.
One of the six nuns in the steerage had produced a small splintered table and this she set near Moira Armagh's head. "Come," said Sister Mary Bridget, and though she was old she was sinewy and strong, having been a farm girl in her youth. The hands that had held the reins of a horse, and the handles of a plow, and had dug and turned soil, were not to be denied, and Joseph was pushed, in spite of his resistance and his firm seat on the stool, a foot or so along the side of the bunk. But he clutched his mother's cold hand as tightly as ever, and now he averted his head so that he would not even see her face and especially not the face of the priest, whom he now hated with cold and determined anger.
"Joey," said Sister Mary Bridget in his ear, for he had seemed deaf these past hours, "you won't deny your own mother Extreme Unction, will you, and deprive her of the comforting?"
Joseph's voice, as hard and ruthless as his nature, rose on a great cry. He lifted his head now and stared at the ancient nun with passion.
"And what has she to confess, my Mum?" he almost screamed. "What has she done in her life to make God hate her? How has she ever sinned? It is God who should confess!"
A nun who had been spreading the table with an anonymous square of white cloth drew in her breath at this blasphemy, and blessed herself. The other nuns did also, but Sister Mary Bridget looked at Joseph with compassion and she folded her arms in her veil. The priest waited. He saw Joseph's face, so appallingly thin and white, the broad full forehead, the deep flashing eyes, the strong curved nose, the broad cheekbones on which ginger freckles were sprinkled lavishly, the long Irish lip and the wide narrow mouth. He saw the thick crest of the ruddy hair, its roughness, and the boy's thin tall neck, frail shoulders and slender, clever hands. He saw his frantic dishevelment, the poor white shirt and rude pantaloons and broken shoes. The priest's mouth shook; he waited. Grief, revolt, and hopeless fury were not new to him; he had seen them on too many calamitous occasions among his people. It was rare, however, to see them in one so young.
Vermin ran up and down the curved wooden walls of the deck. There was a splashing sound outside in the quickening dusk. The children began to wail again. Fetid air blew through the curtain at the end of the deck and now some man on a bunk beyond the curtain began to play on a mouth organ, a dolorous Irish ballad, and a few hoarse voices hummed the chorus. The kneeling nuns began to murmur: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death —"
"No, no, no!" shouted Joseph, and he beat the side of his mother's bunk with one clenched fist. But he did not release his other hand from hers. His eyes were blue fire. They could hear his disordered breathing above the mouth organ and the singing voices of the men. His face was pulled into a terrible distortion in his agony. He half-crouched over his mother as if to protect her from mortal enemies, and he glared at the priest and the nuns with the utmost and most intense defiance and rage. But Moira Armagh lay in mute exhaustion.
The priest silently opened his case and his ancient hands trembled with age and sorrow and reverence. Joseph's eyes now fastened on him and his pale lips lifted from his big teeth in a soundless snarl.
"Joey," said Moira in the faintest of dying voices.
"Go away," Joseph said to the priest. "If she receives she will die."
"Joey," said Moira and her hand stirred in his. Joseph's eyes closed on a spasm, and then he slipped to his knees, not in piety but only in weak surrender. He put his head down near his mother's shoulder, near the young breast which had once nourished him, and her hand touched his hair with the gentle brushing of a wing, then fell. He held her other hand as if to withhold her from the darkness and the endless silence which he believed lay beyond life. He had seen many die, as young and innocent and as starving and brutalized as his mother, and helpless infants crying for food and old women gnawing their hands for hunger. He could not forgive God. He could no longer believe. He had only hate and despair to sustain him now, to give him courage.
A heavy mist was rising from the cold sea and melancholy horns began to moan in the harbor. The ship rocked. "I'll take ye to your home again," sang the men beyond the curtain, "to where the grass is fresh and green!" They sang of the land they had loved and left, because there was no bread there any longer to satisfy the body, and only rotting and blackened potatoes in the wet and ravished fields, and they sang with deep melancholy and sadness, and one man sobbed, and another groaned. Women's heads lifted from rank pillows to watch the priest solemnly, the hands raised to bless meager breasts, and there was a muffled blurt of weeping.
A murmurous sound rose, the Litany for the Dying, and the kneeling nuns and the priest formed a small half-circle about Moira Armagh's narrow bed. Beyond the half-circle little children raced and squalled and stopped briefly to stare at the black bent bodies, and then continued to pound up and down the wooden and reeking floor, scattering clouds of rank sawdust. From the deck below some cattle lowed. A night wind was rising and the vessel rocked uneasily and the foghorns moaned like a hell of the possessed. The priest had placed a candle upon the little table and had lighted it, and near it stood a worn wooden crucifix with a yellow ivory Corpus. There was the bottle of holy water, a saucer of oil, and a small dish in which the priest washed his tremulous hands, and a nun reached up to give him a clean and ragged towel. The old man leaned over Moira and looked into her eyes, on which a film was rapidly gathering. She gazed at him in a mute plea, and her mouth stood open with her panting. He said in the gentlest voice, "Peace be to this house — You shall sprinkle me with hyssop, O Lord, and I shall be clean. You shall wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow —"
"No, no," whispered Joseph, and his head nestled deeper against his mother's breast and he frenziedly clutched her hand even tighter. The Litany for the Dying rose clearer and stronger as Moira sank into darkness, and now she could not see but only hear. Some woman, not as sick as the others, had drawn little Sean to her bunk on the opposite side of the deck, and she held him there as she knelt, and he clutched her arm and whimpered in bewilderment, "Mum, Mum?"
Joseph held his mother, praying and blaspheming in his boy's heart, and believed that he could bar the way into death by the strength of his young body and his silent inner cries. All became a murky and anguished confusion. A fainting sickness came to him. He, from the corner of his half-shut eyes, saw the flickering of the candle, and it greatly enlarged so that it became a monstrous and moving yellow blur at once nauseating and dizzying. The lanterns swayed and threw down their shifting pallid light and the stench of offal flowed through the deck from the two wooden latrines that stood between the men's and women's quarters. Timber groaned. Joseph drifted into a hazy dream of pain and despair.
The priest administered the Sacrament of Extreme Unction and Viaticum to the dying woman, whose white lips barely moved in her extremity. Then the priest said, "Go forth from this world, O Christian soul —"
Joseph did not hear this. He was saying to his father, Daniel, who was to meet his little family in New York, "I brought her to you, Dad, and Sean and the little colleen, and now you and I will take care of them, in the house you provided, and we'll be free and never hungry or homeless again. No one will hate us and drive us from our land and tell us to starve — Dad, we've come home to you."
It was real to him, for he had dreamt that scene a thousand times on this sorrowful voyage. His father, his young fair father with the singing voice and the strong thin arms and the gay laughter, would meet his family on the dock and enfold them all, and then he would take them to the "flat" in the Bowery where he lived with his brother, Jack, and it would be warm and there would be soft beds and a hot stove and joy and the fragrance of boiling potatoes and turnips and beef or lamb and Moira's light songs and, above all, safety and comfort and peace and hope. Had they not received letters from him, and money, and had he not told them of this? He had a good job as janitor in a small hotel. He ate to repletion for the first time in years. He worked hard, and received money for his labor. He would provide for his family, and no more would they be hunted like vermin and despised and execrated for their Faith, and thrown from their land to die on the highways of exposure and hunger. "Ah, and it is a land for free men," Daniel had written in his careful hand. "The lads will go to school, and the little one will be born in America, and we will be Americans together, and never part again."
The dying woman suddenly moved so convulsively that Joseph's dream abruptly ended, and he lifted his head. His mother's eyes, no longer filmed and dull, were gazing over his shoulder with an expression of profound joy and surprise, and her gray face flashed with life and rapture. "Danny, Danny!" she cried. "Oh, Danny, you've come for us!" She lifted her arms, wrenching her hand from Joseph, and they were the arms of a bride, rejoicing. She murmured something deep in her throat, confiding, half-laughing, as though she were being embraced by a dearly beloved. Then the light faded from her eyes and her face, and she died between one breath and another, though the smile remained, triumphant and fulfilled. Her eyes still stared over Joseph's shoulder. Her glossy black hair was like a shawl about her face and shoulders.
Excerpted from Captains and the Kings by Taylor Caldwell. Copyright © 1972 Janet Reback. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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