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I saw her first at the burying, behind the wicked crowd. With the mob of them cursing and shaking their fists in the snow, twas her I saw. Still as if frozen she was, and only her eyes betrayed the fire devouring her. Aglow like embers in a winter hearth, those eyes would burn us all, and haunt me when she was gone.
Fanned by the wind, a lock of hair flamed from her shawl, scorching across her forehead. I would tell you that her hair was red as blood, to give you the vividness of her, but such would be untruthful. I know the look of blood, see. Her own would spot the snow before my eyes. Her hair was a darker thing than blood, though not so dark as her story.
I should have felt the queerness there at once, from the way the rest of the Irish kept off her. Careful they were with the lovely, though otherwise a bad pack. The men slurred and jostled. Drunk under noon, some of them were, and ragged. Bleezed with spite, their women put me in mind of white-faced crows, hard and deprived. Even the little ones come hating to the holy doors that day. For the Irish fear an informer more than the devil, and death excites them always. I worried that the coffin would not pass the gauntlet they made outside the poor boards of their church. As the representative of our Federal authority, I should have made order my business. And I meant to. Then the look of Nellie Kildare drew me from my duty, and I leaned -- one fateful moment -- on my cane.
But I must not go too quickly. There was blame in this death, and a bitter portion of it was mine. Had I not lain abed with General McClellan's own typhoid upon me, I might have come north a month the sooner, asMr. Nicolay and Mr. Seward first intended. Our agent might have lived. Better it would have been for the widow and the little one, not to speak of the poor, blundering fellow himself.
They had tormented him before they killed him. I saw the marks of their work when I come fresh from the train that morning, fair running from the station, with ice on the streets of the town, and my leg bad in the cold, and the weakness still upon me from the fever. The coroner's assistant held the coffin open for my arrival, then disappeared. The Irish priest kept the widow away from the box. Kind doing that was. I ran into the church all snow-pestered and unready for the shock of it. How long I stared at the dead man I cannot tell you now. Long enough, though, to singe my eyes. Twas small of me to gobble so much time, for the widow was keening away in a locked room. But such matters bind us, and we forget consideration. My hands curled into fists beside the corpse, and not only to fight the cold there in that church. There is cruelty, I thought. Savagery. I had not seen so grim a sight since India and the inferno of the Mutiny.
I am a poor beast, as all men are, and would not question the Good Lord's grand design. Still, I wonder at that which He allows.
When I finally stepped away, two paddies nailed the box shut. Muttering and careless, they made it clear enough that they wanted no part of the business. But the priest fell hard upon them and soon they were jumping about and jabbering their sorties. Their voices took me back. I knew those accents from my old red regiment, the gurgling of that unextinguished tongue, harsh as lye-water in the mouth. Each fellow smelled of whisky.
The priest brought in the widow then, holding her up on her feet with one big arm. His other black sleeve held her babe. The little thing was bawling as if it knew all.
Beneath a statue of the sort the Irish idolize, the woman found her strength. She plunged forward, young and worn in her tattered dress, black shawl flying about her. Flinging herself upon the raw pine, she nearly upset the bier. Splinters soon bloodied her hands for the beating she gave the boards. Her wailing echoed in the empty church, raising a swell of laughter beyond the doors.
"The hoor's upon 'im now," a woman cried, triumphant. Her voice pierced the walls. "Oh, bring ye out the traitor's hoor. We'll give 'er what she's a-coming."
To calm the widow, the priest forced her babe into her arms. The woman's raw hands bled on the infant's face and wrappings. They prayed then, in the different way they do, all Latin and sorrow. The priest had eyebrows that met in a black knot and his shoulders were those of a navvy. Not young, not old, there was a worn solidness to him. He might have done for an elder soldier, had he not been a soldier of his faith. His name was McCorkle and he was no more born to America than I was.
I prayed my own prayers. Off to the side, and quiet like. I will not be small and think the Good Lord tends only to us chapel folk. For all the pagan coloration, there is a faith in your Irish Catholic that must call down pity from above. They do the best they can with what they know, and I would not damn them out of hand. But then I have found good among the Hindoo and the Musselman.
I prayed first for the dead man, then for his shattered family. Careful I was not to face their painted statues, but looked to the windows and Heaven beyond. Next, I gave my thanks. First for my Mary Myfanwy and our little John, and then for the...Shadows of Glory. Copyright © by Owen Parry. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.