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Ngamihi; or The Maori Chief's Daughter

Chapter V

page 328

Chapter V.

The luminary, which it would appear was in some measure connected with his success, still required two nights to attain the indicated phase; but the auspicious moment at length drew nigh, and O'Sullivan—his spirits elate with renewed hope —once more shouldering his pick-axe and shovel, proceeded in the direction of the round tower, which he reached after a few minutes' walk.

Ascending the fight of stone steps, he pushed aside the ivy that hung like a curtain before the entrance to which it led; and as the distant church clock sounded the first stroke of twelve, stood within the circle forming the interior of the base of the tower. His feet were now resting on the very spot which had been so mysteriously pointed out to him, in his thrice repeated dream—the moon was at her full—and the solemn hour of midnight had been announced. All conjunctions necessary to the coming issue had been arrived at. Then why should he pause? Why, having disencumbered himself of his coat, and standing with the pick-axe raised over his head, did he hesitate to strike the first blow that was to place fortune within his grasp? What meant that indefinable feeling of dread which crept, like an ague fit, through his frame—that presentiment of impending evil which stayed his hand? But he had page 329gone too far to recede, his pride revolted at the idea of giving way to such sensations, and the stroke fell—fell as Owen thought with a dull thud-like sound—like that given out from the damp, clammy soil of a church-yard when a grave is being dug.

His task once commenced, proceeded with rapidity, and having made an excavation of about two feet in depth, he was engaged in throwing out the louse earth, when the point of his shovel came in contact with some hard substance which, in being struck, returned a peculiar hollow sound, and on feeling with the implement all along the bottom of the hole, a similar obstacle presented itself. With a joyous exclamation, he sprang into the aperture before him, and with his hands began scraping away the remainder of the clay covering what, he little doubted, to be object of his search. At this instant the moon suddenly emerging from behind a cloud, which for a while had obscured her, threw her bright rays directly on the scene of his operations, revealing to his horror-stricken sight—not the treasure he had so eagerly sought after, but a fleshless skeleton!—the skeleton of the murdered Doran! Its identity was but too apparent from the dress, part of which still hung on the smouldering bones. O'Sullivan could gaze no longer. With a wild cry he started to his feet, and clasping his hands over his burning brow, made madly for the entrance of the tower, and was about rushing out into the open air, when his foot accidentally struck against the stone sill of the doorway, and losing his balance he was precipitated down the flight of steps, his head striking with violence against the ground outside.

So severe was the injury the wretched man had sustained, that he lay without sense or motion on the spot where he had, fallen until daylight made its appearance, when he was observed by some men who were driving their carts laden with produce page 330to the market of Killala, which was to be held that day. With the assistance of some of the party, he was placed on one of the carts and conveyed to his home; while others, whose curiosity was aroused, remained behind for the purpose of ascertaining the cause of the disaster. It at once seemed evident that the wounded man had fallen down the steps from the round tower, and the question naturally arose as to what his business there, at such a time, could have been? To solve this problem, several of the men hastened to examine the interior of the building, but the scene they there witnessed, however calculated it may have been to excite their wonder, threw but little light on the circumstance for which they sought an explanation.

Concussion of the brain being the result of the accident he had met with, Owen lay in a state of stupor for several days, hovering between life and death, and when, with the help of a strong constitution, he rallied sufficiently to comprehend what was said to him, it was to learn that he was a prisoner on a charge of homicide, in accordance with the finding of a coroner's jury, which had been held on the human remains discovered in the Round Tower. One portion of the evidence adduced on this occasion, although circumstantial in its nature, tending to bring the crime directly home to him, was the fact of a silk handkerchief, with his name marked on it, having been discovered firmly fixed between the skeleton jaws of the murdered man?

As soon as the health of the prisoner would admit, he was removed to the gaol at Castlebar, there to await his trial at the forthcoming assizes. Let us hope that during the two long months which elapsed before that event took place, he sincerely repented of the error of his ways, and became resigned to the only atonement he could make to society for its outraged laws. Nor does the hope appear to be without foundation, for when page 331eventually brought up for trial, and the momentous question: "Owen O'Sullivan, are you guilty, or not guilty, of the crime for which you are indicted?" was put to him, in spite of the remonstrance of the presiding judge and the advice of his counsel, he persisted in adhering to his first plea of "guilty," and, previous to sentence of death being passed upon him, made a truthful statement of the manner in which the crime had been committed; exculpating the memory of Byrne, on whom suspicion had long rested, from any participation in the act for which he was to suffer.

It is needless to dwell on the "last scene of all" which followed in a few days. Suffice it to say that the condemned man met his fate with a demeanour well suited to the awful position in which he stood, expressing to the last his contrition, and acknowledged the justice of the punishment which had overtaken him.

"So, yer honour, there's the end of the story," said its narrator, beginning to fill his pipe, "an' as sure as we're standin' here, once every year, at twelve o'clock at night, the ground opens where the body of the ould man was found, an' his skeleton may then be seen lying there, without coffin or winding-sheet—just as Owen O'Sullivan saw it when he went to dig for gold. But, yer honour, it's dry work talkin', an' it's myself would feel proud drinkin' yer health this blissed day."

The indications of rain, which were so detrimental to my morning's sport, had after all, resulted merely in a shower, which had made the air clear, and cooled the road for the long walk page 332which was before me, so bidding my guide farewell, and responding somewhat liberally to his modest insinuation respecting his health, I resumed my angling apparatus and set off on my return home, thinking by the way how Providence can bring to light hidden crime, through the instrumentality of even such an insignificant thing as a—Silk Handkerchief.