Seumas O’Kelly – The Derelict


He Boss of The Golden Barque was very pleased when he was able to resume business on her deck. He was likewise pleased that the man with the pock-marked face had disappeared and that Billy the Clown was available to fill his place. Billy the Clown was obviously a companionable person, interested in almost everything, and sometimes the Boss liked to talk. He explained to Billy that he always experienced a heavy bilious attack when forced to leave The Golden Barque for other craft on the canal. There was, he said, some quality in the timbers of The Golden Barque which cured him immediately he got aboard her.
He was anxious to impress th’s knowledge upon Billy as they voyaged through a very pleasant country, great trees hanging over the canal, sweeping green pastures visible between them, red and white cows browsing on the rich grass lands. Billy was mildly putting the point that one canal boat was as like another canal boat as one crow was like another crow or one Chinaman like another Chinaman. Tut-tut! The Boss would not—could not—hear of it. The comparison, as Billy put it slyly for the Boss, ” didn’t hold water.” Canal boats, to the intelligence of the Boss, were full of individuality “as young hares”—it was Billy again who suggested the comparison. The Boss went on talking of canal boats with an intimacy and lack of humour which made of them human things. Calcutta listened, hanging over a pile of soap boxes, and having yawned went back to his vigil by the funnel, his smouldering eyes showing their eternal gleam of ugly hatred, watchfulness, as they became fastened on Hike, who stumbled and prayed on the bank.
The Boss had reached the topic of the ages of boats when he hit on the affair of the Derelict. Had Billy the Clown ever heard of the Derelict? Billy the Clown had never heard of the Derelict. What was more, Billy the Clown declared he had no interest whatever in derelicts, in old ruins, tomb-stones, fairy raths, or mummies. He did not care if he never saw another Round Tower.
“The Derelict is not a boat,” broke in the Boss. “It is a man.”
“A live man?” Billy asked cautiously.
“Yes, a live man.” The Boss swung the rudder a little to one side. “He’s alive yet, too. He was the first Boss of The Golden Barque, and the reason I drew him down was because we’re coming to his place and you’ll be apt to see him.”
They went on quietly for some time, the bubble of the water sounding pleasantly on the timbers of The Golden Barque, the country growing more and more serene, the banks given up to the quacking of little parties of white and fawn ducks. The Boss went on talking after a little while, but his voice had such a pleasant drone, and Billy felt so sure that what he talked about no more mattered than the bubble of the water at the prow of the boat, that he did not really break the beautiful peace, the exquisite sense of idleness of the whole place. He was speaking for quite a long time before Billy became conscious that he had worked his way back again to the ages of canal boats.
No, he was saying, The Golden Barque was a youthful thing compared to certain other old trick-o-the-loops to be met with. Why did the Boss say that? He raised his fat hand as he put the question. He had his proof of it. The Boss brought down his fat hand with a clinch on the shaft of the tiller when he said he had his proof of it. He was always bringing forth great proofs of unimportant things, always clinching points that did not matter. But as he went on references to the Derelict became more and more frequent. Billy gathered, after a long time, after he had dropped off and leisurely caught him up again, that the Derelict was a name put upon one James Vasey, that James Vasey was the first man to put the nose of The Golden Barque to the water, and that as James Vasey was still a living if an old man, that, therefore, The Golden Barque could not possibly be as old as people might very well take her to be.
James Vasey—or the Derelict—was not always an old man no more than anybody else, the Boss insisted. There was a time when he was a young man, as young as anybody else if it went to that. Why did the Boss say that? The fat hand went up.
When the Boss brought down the fat hand on the tiller a drake with a rich green and white head, a sheen of gold glinting over it, stood up on the bank, spread out his wings and shouted out shamelessly that he was as good a drake as any other drake that had ever led a line of ducks up the canal.
The Boss, ignoring him, brought forward his proof that the Derelict was once as young as anybody else; the weight of evidence in support of this stupendous assertion lay in the fact that once upon a time from the deck of that boat, from the very spot where the Boss had now planted his flat feet. James Vasey, the Derelict, had cast amorous eyes upon a young girl with a rich bloom on her cheeks. Not alone that, but The Golden Barque had been known to lie with her bow to the bank waiting patiently for James Vasey, the Derelict, who had risked his position as Boss of the boat by drawing her up there and bidding the men shut their mouths while he went in pursuit of a young female up a bohreen. If the Derelict was not as young as anybody else, how could he do a thing like that? And why did the Boss say the Derelict had gone up a bohreen after a young girl? He said it because he had his proof of it. That proof lay not alone in the existence of James Vasey, the Derelict, but in the continued existence of the bohreen, or lane way, up which he had taken eager strides in auld lang syne. What was more, that very day that was in it the Boss would point out with his own hand the very and the identical bohreen up which the Derelict had coursed the time the hot fancy took him for the panting young female;. And why did he say he ^could point it out with his own hand ? Because —
And the Boss went on with his interminable proofs about nothing; a group of geese on the bank suddenly broke into a hearty quack of laughter which was taken up by other groups along the canal until the whole waterway was ringing with it.
They came to the romantic bohreen in the course of the day. The Boss came up the deck of the boat on his flat web-like feet to point it out to Billy. Nothing in the shape of a vehicle had p.assed through that bohreen, or by-road, for years. It was covered with scutch-grass, briars, dock leaves, nettles, Robin-run-the-hedge. Over this hearty growth the hedges each side had struggled until they had caught hands, embraced, hugged each other, became one tangle of shoots and leaves. It was more like a jungle than a bohreen. As luck would have it, out of this jungle an old man came prowling as the boat passed. The grizzled, long, lined face, the wisps of shaggy hair about the jaws, the head that hung level between the drooping shoulders, the small, sharp eyes, a certain furtiveness in their expression, the claw-like, nervous hands, gave him an entirely animal appearance. There was a crackling of brambles as he emerged from his den.
“Good morrow, James,” the Boss sang out.
“Good morrow, Martin,” the old man answered. He trembled with ague as he followed the boat on the bank, hobbling along like one who was accustomed to and took pleasure in a difficult effort.
“What way is the health, James?”
“I’d be right enough only the compression on the chest. It takes the wind from me in the night.” He wheezed as he spoke. “Well, keep the heart up. It is the heart that tells at the last.”
“The heart is very sound with me, Martin. Did you see any trace of a haun as you came along?”
“No, sorra trace, James. Are you missing the goat?”
“I am. He’s a devil. My melt is broke striving for to keep him within bounds. A fortune he is costing me in ropes. Buck-leaping this way and that, until I pray to the Lord that he might brain himself against the ditch. I don’t know where to turn for him now, for the four quarters of the world are forninst me.”
The boat had gone by, the old institution not able to keep up any longer, his claw up to his wheezing chest. Further conversation was not possible. Billy could not help looking back at the old figure of the man on the bank, his gaze wandering helplessly about. Billy found it hard to imagine him as commander—the first commander—of The Golden Barque. But as a Derelict he was complete and magnificent.
“He has no interest in the canal now,” Billy said to the Boss. “His mind is given up to the lost puckaun.”
“Don’t think that,” the Boss said. “That old fellow could not live a mile from the canal. He’s down every day to see the boats going by. The life has a hold of him yet, and it will keep him until they put the band of death about his jaw.”
They went on for some time in silence. The figure of the old man hobbling on the bank grew fainter. The Boss began to moralise. “Mind you,” he said, “the canal has a call. The old soldier has a taste for the barracks, the farmer has nature for the fields, and the sailor can converse with the winds. That old fellow, James Vasey, has the same love for the canal as the water rat hid in the rushes.”
The Boss began to hum in his monotonous voice as he fondled the shaft of the tiller, the same shaft that James Vasey had fondled years gone by.
Did you take stock of that little house beside the bohreen?” he asked after a time.
Billy told the Boss it was almost his trade to take stock. He remembered the house as a little wreck of a place, roofless, the shoulder of the doorway that survived blackened, two square window spaces gaping beside it like eye cavities in the head of a skull.
But tKe Boss had another memory of it. His description was laboured. All the same he made a picture of it in time. Billy began to see the thatch on the roof, the smoke coming out of the chimney, the panes of glass shining in the windows, neat, white screens behind them; some order in the front, even a sanded path, and roses clustering about the doorway. The figure of a young girl busying herself about the house, trim and alert, followed; then the manner in which James Vasey began to follow her movements, to make note of her charms, and to throw sheep’s eyes from the deck of The Golden Barque. It culminated in the pulling up of the boat and the scandal given to the crew by the chasing of the young girl up the bohreen. But James Vasey’s enterprise prospered. The young girl liked the way he adventured, and she smiled on his advances.
The Boss liked to dwell on the subsequent developments. As he did so he more and more fell into the love tradition of the novelette. He closed his case with a “lived happy ever after” ring in his voice.
But Billy the Clown was left with the impression that the thing worth telling in James Vasey’s life remained untouched. An under-current of contempt for the hero of the romance now and again betrayed itself in the manner of the Boss. While he was squeezing the first commander of The Golden Barque into an affair of rose and water he could not altogether help remembering him for something else. With pressure it came out in bits and scraps. Let us put them together.
The married life of James Vasey was the married life of all boatmen. He turned up at home when he could. He had a great joy in the little home beside the canal. The parents of the girl whom he had married died in course of time, leaving the place to James Vasey. A son and a daughter were born to him. The son went away to Liverpool and never returned. It was said of him that he turned out a bad lot. The daughter went to America. She kept in touch with the homeland. They had letters from her frequently. They expressed a crude but sincere affection for the parents. It was a lonely life that the old people dragged out in the home by the bohreen. This loneliness fell more heavily on the mother, for James Vasey had the distraction of his life and work on the canal.
It was, however, a great shock and a great change to him when his wife died after a few weeks’ illness. James Vasey wrote to his daughter in America announcing the death of her mother. The memory of the lonely old man no doubt moved the girl, and she returned to Ireland. She brought some money with her. With it they were able to secure a little land and a little stock. The daughter was a good woman, a capable manager, and they were able to live in certain comfort. When the time came that James Vasey left The Golden Barque for ever, unable for further work, they had the little place to fall back upon. It was then he came to be known to his former fellow-voyagers as the Derelict.
It was the opinion of the Boss that the Derelict had always been a miser. His manner of securing tobacco and other little luxuries in life at the expense of other boatmen was cited as proof of this. It may be true, but it was also true that James Vasey had no opportunity of amassing wealth. His profession did not permit of it. But his passion for loans of tobacco, together with his failure to keep up his individual end of the expense of enjoyments in The Haven, had made him unpopular among the democracy of the canal.
He had actually scraped together a sum of ten pounds. The knowledge of this he had kept secret even from his own daughter. As he grew older, we may take it that he handled the money with twitching hands, a cackle in the old voice; that he fondled and doted over it in secret like the theatrical old man in ” Les Cloches de Corneville.” If he did not rise to that dramatic enthusiasm, we may take the more homely view that he tied it in the corner of an old stocking, hiding it away in various places like a cat with a kitten. He would probably die with it under his pillow, obsessed with his secret, fighting death at the last in defence of his hoard — only for what happened.
It was a night in early winter. The foliage had fallen from the trees, the wind swept the leaves in a heap in the bohreen. They made a stir there like impatient souls that wanted to be at rest. The canal gave an air of chilliness to the landscape, the desolation of the bog-land to the west looked Hke an open wound in the side of the country. The dismal note of a curlew overhead was like a voice from some suffering land. A drooping shoot of a rambler-rose fell over from the porch and made a constant swaying beside one of the windows of the Derelict’s home. All was silence within. It was his custom, and the custom of his daughter, to go early to bed and to be early about. The hours of the night went by in a great peace, save for a dull glow by the kitchen hearth that stealthily made its way to the brown heap of sods by the wall.
At this time the Derelict was troubled with the first stages of his asthma. The “compression on his chest ” made his sleep restless as the early dawn approached. He became troubled with his cough. It persisted, until at last it robbed him of his sleep. He drew his old frame up in the bed, pushing his shoulders up on the pillows and barked for some time. He grew conscious that the atmosphere was heavy, that it was difficult for him to get his breath.
” Sara,” he called out to his daughter. There was no response.
The air became more stifling. He struggled out of the bed, and it took him some time, for his thin legs were stiff and reluctant. He called his daughter’s name again. He grumbled when she did not answer. Like all hard workers, Sara Vasey slept soundly. There was no sign of her stirring in the little room at the other end of the house.
The Derelict struggled to the door leading to the intervening kitchen and opened it. The place was filled with smoke, heavy, pungent smoke. Through it a wisp of light descended from the roof to the floor, shedding some sparks when it struck the ground. He stood looking at it for some time stupidly. Then a crackle over the chimney and another drift of sparks caught his eyes. He gave a little cry, turned back, groped for his clothes, and went out into the kitchen. A noise with ominous little cracks and snaps grew in volume until it made a dull hum, as he made for the front door and passed out through the porch.
A cutting wind passed him and filled the kitchen, and he saw flames driven across the rafters. He drew on some of his clothes, his gums hammering against each other, his hands trembling. He was grumbling and crying as he hobbled around to the window of his daughter’s room. He cracked his knuckles on the glass.

“Sara!” he cried. A spurt of flame ate its way through the thatch above him, and he drew back with a cry.
Then his daughter came rushing out of the porch in her night-dress, calling on his name.
“Father!” she called out, “are you safe?” She rushed at him, hugging him in her arms hysterically, holding him in her arms protectingly from this calamity that had suddenly overtaken them in the quiet of the winter’s night. It was while his daughter held him in her arms, and that he gazed in fear over her shoulder at the burning house, that the mind of the Derelict jumped back to the memory of his money.
“Sara” he said, “I’m safe and you are safe.”
“Thank God, thank God,” she cried, her teeth chattering, her eyes on the flames licking the thatch.
“But I left something behind me, daughter.” He drew back from her embrace. He began to wring his hands. “I’m lost, I’m surely lost if I don’t get the little stock of money.”
“The stock of money?” She had never heard of it until now.
“Yes, daughter. I had a little bit put by. It is in the tin trunk under the bed.”
“Oh, father!”
“I thought that maybe you might reach it. You are active on the limbs, Sara. Save that much for me.”
“But look at the smoke, the flames. 1 stumbled in the kitchen coming out. It was like a dead weight pressing me down.”
“Sara, before it is too late. My God, my little store of money ! What matter is anything else!”
“Let us call the neighbours. Maybe something could be done.”
“The neighbours!” the old man exclaimed, looking about him with sudden fear. Then he turned on his daughter, resentment in his voice. “Is it to bring Tom Nolan to this place and tell him of my money? Damnation! Oh, I’ll go in myself.”
He made some steps towards the house, whining in a low voice.
“Father, don’t attempt to go in. You will be burned,” the girl said, going to his side.
“Oh, my God!” he cried, “the flames are making for the room. It is designedly. Look at the wind blowing them along the straw. My little money will be lost… I mincled it well all the years… Sara, don’t give it to say you let it be destroyed before my eyes… Do as I bid you I.” A note of command, hardness, crept into his voice. The girl drew back from him.
“Do you hear me?” he shouted. His voice changed to one of sudden desperation. She only shrank the further from him. He hobbled after her. She made an effort to avoid him. He clutched her night-dress, then buried his hard fingers in the flesh of her arms.
“Damn you,” he cried, “I will make you do my liking. Don’t you see the way the flames are making for the room?”
She clung about his neck. His breathing was hard, his eyes riveted upon the burning thatch as his face hung over her shoulder.
“Let it go, father. It can’t be saved now. I did not know you had it.”
The words only stung the Derelict to new fury. A glowering, wolfish look came into his eyes. He pushed the clinging girl back from him. “ Let the lock of money go, is it?” he shouted. “Is that the respecl you have for my earnings? In with you and bring it out to me.”
“Later on, father.”
“Later on! The house will be burned to the floor. I will be a ruined man for ever.”
“It will be saved in the trunk.”
“It can’t… It is in notes: fine crisp notes that I know the feel of in my hands. … I could tell them in the darkness of the night. They were as known to me as the nails on my fingers.”
His voice had risen to a hoarse cackle. He pushed the girl before him as he spoke. She clasped her hands in despair, then turned to break away from him.
He lurched after her. A strand of her loose ihair flew behind her as she went. This he clutched, and she shrieked, bending her knees as the pressure from the hair brought her to a stop. When he laid his hands on the girl’s arms again she was sobbing. They were on the verge of the smoke that enveloped the house in dense vapour. He pushed her forward, and they were two vague figures struggling in the smoke. A flock of wild birds wheeled overhead, crying in their strange voices, then vanished into the night.
“Father, for pity’s sake ! You are foolish, mad.” The girl appealed to him.
“ My little stock of money!” he cried. He gave her a drive in front of him. She stumbled against the porch of the house. A blast of wind sent the smoke from about them in long, sinuous streaks, clearing a space. In that space he saw for a moment the white figure of his daughter, her face ghastly in the vivid yellow glare from the house. He (thought he caught a look of defiance, scorn, hatred, in her eyes. She made a quick movement, and he concluded that she was about to escape him. He raised an angry arm, his fist closed.
“ By God Almighty!” he shouted. The fist remained above his head for a moment, then fell to his side, for the white figure had vanished through the porch to the house.
He stood there, mumbling and shivering, his eyes still wolfish. The noise of a crackling beam inside made him limp away, whining. He cleared the smoke, then turned back to the house with a cry.
“Sara!” he called, “what is delaying you? Come on quick with the money. The flames will be upon it.”
There was no reply. He limped around to the window of the room, his suspenders streeling behind him, his trousers hanging about his quivering, crooked, half-naked limbs, a human Derelict against a background of flames that were thick enough for hell.
“Sara!” he shouted at the window. He pushed his ashen-lined face close to the glass. He had a confused sense of a clouded interior with struggling shafts of flame through it. He burst in the little window. A rush of thick smoke struck him in the eyes, filled his mouth. He drew back, gasping.
“God, it will kill me,” he cried. ” What is delaying her at all? Has she put her hands to my money?”
With a new horror in his mind, he struggled back to the window. As he did so he heard, above the low boom in the house, the sharp noise of the tin trunk being drawn across the floor. He gave a little triumphant cry. ” Blessings on you, girl,” he cried. He clapped his thin hands, staggering about in the smoke in a weird movement that was a tragical parody of a dance of delight. The tears were streaming down his face. “Sara,” he said, “you were always the good daughter. There was never one like you; for goodness and for bravery you were the best. Your mother in Heaven is directing you this night. May every blessing be showered upon you—for you are the one that will save my little store of money”.
A cry that was half a scream, half a moan, broke from the house. He stood stupefied for a while, then staggered to the window. He saw a figure vaguely inside, then a hand made a blind drive at the window. He was alert in a moment. He knew the hand was trying to push the notes to him through the window. He raised his arm and made a grab, but Ithe hand inside never reached beyond the inner ledge of the window. It scraped along the wail and vanished There was a thud of a body falling in a dead fleshy weight and then a sudden touch of light made the whole piece jump to his gaze, vivid as a horrible nightmare. He shrieked, clawing the wall of the window with his hands, his nails tearing the hot mortar from the stones.
“Sara!” he cried. “ Give me the money. What is wrong with you? Hell to your soul, give out my money. Look at them leaping upon the bed like devils. What has come over you at all?”
He was still clawing the wall when footsteps came running to the house. He felt a hand on his shoulder and, turning round, saw Tom Nolan, his next neighbour.
“James, what on God’s earth has happened?”
“ My place is in a blaze. I am destroyed, Tom. The world will have pity for me.
“Where is Sara?”
“She’s within in the room, Tom. I was striving to direct her. What way will I be at all after this? I’ll be destroyed forever.”
Tom Nolan did not wait for any more. He went through the door. The old man limped after him, paused at .the porch, passed it, mumbling, whining.
“Tom,” he said, “wait forme. I’ll be with you now.” He made little circles in front of the porch, hobbling on his old limbs, his hands pulling the streeling trousers up upon them. But he never ventured any farther. Tom Nolan staggered through the porch, a white burden in his arms.
“James!” he shouted, “I found her lying under the window.”
The old man followed him as he brought the girl beyond the range of the smoke and heat, then suddenly fell upon the limp figure. He took up one of the dangling arms, running his quivering fingers along it until he reached the hand. The hand was open and empty. The old man dropped it with a low wail. Tom Nolan left the inert figure of the girl on the grass. She looked black and terrible, some of her half burned nightgown still smoking, in the light that was now breaking over the eastern sky. The old man pounced upon the other arm; it was blackened down from the elbow.
“ I’m afraid, James, she’s burned,” Tom Nolan said.
But James Vasey, the Derelict, was not listening. He turned up the scorched hand. The fist was tightly closed! He endeavoured to open it, falling on his knees beside the figure of the girl.
“Let out of it, you bitch!” the old man shouted. He got his bony knuckles between the fingers of the closed fist and screwed them about, his eyes blazing, his gums beginning to hammer together again, a dribble falling from between his lips, his whole face twitching as it leered over the helpless figure. The neighbour who saw that sight at the dawn was too stupefied to speak.
At last the fist was forced open. A little crisp ashes, with no semblance to the original paper notes, lay in the palm. They jumped up when the pressure upon them was released. A vagrant wind blew them from the girl’s hand along the wet grass. The Derelict knew, in spite of his delirium, what had happened. He knew that there were only two five pound notes in the tin box, and he knew that they had been burned while the girl endeavoured to pass them to him through the window. His old frame quivered, he moaned like one in mortal pain, he rose from the ground beating his hands together, the sweat streaming all over his face. Then with a shout he fell on his face on the ground, his hands blindly tearing at the ashes of the lost treasure, his furious drives burying it in the red clay of the earth, the figure of the girl lying all the time quietly in the shining grass.
Sara Vasey recovered, but went about for the rest of her life with a right arm useless from the elbow down. The Derelict, her father, also recovered. Everything in the house by the canal was lost. Tom Nolan gave them all the shelter they needed until they were able to re-arrange their manner of life. The people, however, noted a great strangeness in the manner of Sara Vasey. She was given to brooding, silence, sudden and — to her neighbours — unaccountable bursts of hysterical weeping—and avoided her father as much as possible.
When the affairs of the little farm and a new cottage were set to rights she bought her ticket back to America. She went suddenly, quietly, without any send-off or leave-takiiig. The Derelict did not know she was going. One morning when he wakened up he found himself alone in the house.
The neighbours said Sara Vasey was an unnatural daughter.
When Billy the Clown heard this story of the Derelict—in different words—from the Boss he had a vivid memory of the old animal who had come prowling out of his jungle, his mind troubled over the loss of his goat.
“Who christened him the Derelict?” Billy asked.
“Calcutta,” the Boss replied.
Billy looked at the figure of Calcutta, black and slender and sinister, against the pale light of the sky. Billy walked up to him.
“Shake,” he said, putting out his hand.
Calcutta, a little bewildered, shook, then his head swung round the funnel, his dull eyes bent on Hike, and Billy noted the tobacco spit which sang like a bullet in the direction of the hunched driver.

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Seumas OKelly
(Loughrea, County Galway 1881 - 1918). Playwright, novelist, story writer and journalist, O'Kelly was educated at the local school (St. Brendan's College), began his career as a journalist with the Skibbereen newspaper, The Southern Star, then moved to the Leinster Leader in Naas, where he remained as Editor until he went to work for his friend Arthur Griffith’s "Nationality", organ of Sinn Féin founded by Griffith himself in 1906. His brother was arrested during the Easter Rising and Seumas returned to the "Leinster Leader" for a brief stint. There is a plaque in his honour outside the Leader's offices which reads 'Seumas O'Kelly - a gentle revolutionary'. He died prematurely, in November 1918, of a cerebral hemorrhage following a raid at the paper’s headquarters at Harcourt St by British troops anti-Sinn Féin who were celebrating the end of the First World War. In his short life he had an intense literary production, mostly published posthumously, and wrote for several newspapers, including The Saturday Evening Post and The Sunday Freeman of Dublin. He wrote numerous short stories, novels and plays. His short story, The Weaver’s Grave, is among the most acclaimed of Irish short stories. A radio version of this, adapted and produced by Mícheál Ó hAodha, won the coveted Prix Italia for Radio Drama in 1961.