As we arrived at the walls of Cork, I dismounted from Sneachta. I looked at the gates of the town and felt a sudden stab of panic. What if they were locked? This was a most distressing thought considering our long day's journey. After riding all day my legs were troubling me. I slowly made my way to the arch where the gates stood. They were closed but as I approached them I could see they were not locked. I gave a sigh of relief and looked back at Seanan.
He was looking cautiously at me from the top of his horse. If the light was not playing tricks it looked as if he was shaking his head in disapproval. I beckoned to him to join me. His horse slowly came up to the gates.
May I ask what your honour wants to do now?
We'll go into the town
But the town's closed your honour
So what do you suggest we do?
I wouldn't know I'm sure your honour
Seanan frowned, looked at the walls of the town and then at the ground. It annoyed me sometimes when he seemed so stolid and yet so reticent. Perhaps both characteristics complemented each other.
Knowing that Seanan would be stressed about it, I held Sneachta by his noseband as we went through the gates of Cork. A predictable yell hit the evening air.
You can't hold him like that your honour! That's not right
Without looking back at Seanan, I remounted Sneachta and we went into the town, our horses nuzzling together along the way.
Darkness was descending as we made our way along the cobblestone roads of Cork. Although it was late and I did not expect to see many people there was still an eerie silence. I saw the outlines of houses and a couple of churches but no welcoming lights shone from within. Was everyone in bed? Were they away? Were they…..? I got a shiver down my spine when I remembered the ploughman we had seen earlier.
I could hear the echo of the horseshoes as we moved along. I was angry with myself for not calculating our time better. To arrive in a town at night is not the best idea unless you are sure of somewhere to stay. Although I had been in Cork several times before I was not at all sure of my whereabouts. I did not want to ask Seanan what to do - that would mean placing myself in the hands of a serf. I don't want to be a snob but I have to say the workers will have no respect for their superiors if they see them wilting. We need to set a good example by showing determination and courage.
The problem was that I was not feeling very courageous that night. I suffered a mixture of tension and fatigue. We ambled aimlessly through the town, our eyes ready for a footfall or a cry that would signify we were not alone.
We will go to the market square and try to find our bearings from there
As you please your honour
I sounded more confident than I felt. I comforted myself at the thought that if I now made a mistake in our itinerary, Seanan would make it clear to me. Thus I had avoided the indignity of asking him where to go.
We made our way slowly forward. It was a weird experience passing through a town that appeared to be deserted. Any time in the past when I had been in an urban environment at night there had always been some comforting lights, shining out from windows. I looked in vain for anything that might suggest some human presence but could see nothing.
I could not stay silent in these conditions
Seanan - where do you think all the people are?
If you ask me your honour I'd say they're gone
Gone? What do you mean gone?
You think all the people of Cork are dead? I think that's hardly likelySeanan. We would have heard about it if it were so
Who'd have told us your honour? The dead can't speak
After that rather grim remark Seanan lapsed back to his habitual introspection. As before I felt that he had a tendency for exaggeration and yet a haunting fear nagged at me. I suddenly had a mad urge to knock on one of the squat houses we were now passing. I know it is not seen as the right thing to do when people are supposed to be sleeping but I felt that any growls of complaint or abuse were worth having as opposed to this prolonged strain.
We rode our horses in single file through the dark narrow lanes which eventually came out into the market square. I remember in the past thinking that it was like the way a series of streams all link together to flow into a river. But that night I was not in a poetic mode of thinking.
We came into the square. I was proud of my sense of travel. I had not had to ask Seanan for help. But my self-satisfaction did not last long. I had always thought that this place was so cheery and inviting. Several times I had been here late in the day and the bright flickering of candlelight had raised my spirits. But not tonight. The whole square appeared to be smothered in some black cloak. I pulled my own cloak closer to my body as the wind suddenly blew strongly.
I looked carefully at all sides of the square and suddenly my heart jumped. I knew that the night can play tricks with your eyesight, I knew that sometimes we can imagine what we want to see but I now felt sure that a human form was sitting on one of the benches which was facing me. As I stared harder I saw that there might be two - maybe three people all together on the one bench. I looked away up into the sky and saw a white moon struggling to free itself from the folds of a persistent cloud. Was I now a witness to some sort of lunar mirage? I have heard of such things happening.
I was impatient to find out. I dismounted and felt drawn like a magnet to the bench where these people mysteriously sat. I was confused by the way they sat huddled together. They never said a word. They must be sleeping. For a jestful moment I thought they might be drunk.
Just as earlier in the day the imperative tone of Seanan made me jump.
No - your honour - Don't go there!
I felt an odd sense of deja-vu when he said this as he had made an identical expression some hours before.
I think our men have taken more drink than is good for them Seanan!
I tried to sound jolly but already I was beginning to feel uncomfortable. Why did they not move? Seanan and I had spoken loudly enough. Our discourse would surely have awakened at least one of them.
Just as I reached them there was a faint movement and the man on the left fell gently off the bench. He slid onto the ground. Seanan yelled out. I approached the bench and reached down to the man who appeared to rest below me.
Don't touch him your honour! Don't go near him! He surely has the plague!
The memory of the man I'd seen in the field earlier flashed before me and I recoiled for a moment but my natural sense of helping a fellow human overpowered me and I gripped the man who had fallen
Don't do that! Leave him be! You'll be next on the death list!
Seanan's appeals disturbed me. Did he have to address me in such a rude way?
Although I could not see the men clearly as the whole square was covered in darkness now, I suspected that they were indeed dead. I moved to the man sitting in the middle but again was halted by my vigilant servant.
Come back here at once! Those men are dead and you'll be joining them soon if you don't come back now!
I felt indignant at hearing Seanan's commanding tone. He was rising too high above his station and yet his obvious concern for my well-being stopped me from abusing him. After giving a desperate glance at the man on the right who was now pressing his shoulder heavily against his companion, I retreated.
What's going on? What has been happening here?
My words sounded so feeble in the middle of an empty square where death was obviously present.
All dead your honour.
You think the whole town of Cork is dead?
I wouldn't know your honour. But certainly there's lots of them that are
From a distance I looked carefully at the three inanimate shapes which had given me so much hope only a few minutes ago. If only we could have talked to these men we might have found out so much. How exhilarating it was to share feelings in times of trouble like this! But they were gone. Their presence here only added to the deepening mystery of this engulfing crisis.
My eyes had got accustomed to the dark and I could see more clearly now. From their dress - especially the design of their tunics - they looked more Norman than Celtic. I remembered that Seanan had said we were worse victims of this plague than the Celtic Irish. How could this possibly be the way? No doubt a man of God might say that we were greater sinners but I don't believe that God works like this. Did we drink different water? Had we brought something with us to Ireland which had eventually caused this to happen? The more I tried to find a solution the more questions arose.
I was shaken from my pensive mood by a long sigh from Seanan.
We'd best be going on our way
I felt an urge to retaliate to my serf's continuous nagging
On our way where - may I ask?
Better get back to Ardmore your honour
At this time of night? I think it would be foolish
But we can't stay here can we?
I don't think the horses could make it back - and I am not sure about us either. We all must have a rest
But where your honour?
We'll find a place I'm sure
Tonight Seanan was as keen to forbid me to do things as much as he was to ask me what I should do. No matter what I said, no matter what happened, he would always play safe by this approach.
I glanced around the square and quickly made up my mind. I would knock on every door on every house until I got an answer. Etiquette frowned harshly on waking people up at night but who cared about etiquette at a time like this? I would risk catching this terrible plague in order to talk to someone - in order to beg them to let us stay with them till daybreak. I had some money and if that didn't work I might use other means of persuasion. I felt the dagger that I always carried at my side. I am not a violent man and I can truthfully say that I have rarely had to use that metal object which stays most of its life safely in its scabbard. But for once in my life I felt I was ready to murder anyone who proved to be unhelpful in the midst of this terrible situation.
I moved to the nearest building and went under its archway and started drubbing my hands against its heavy wooden door. I looked into its windows and wondered for a moment whether I should not hammer on them but decided against it. If my knocking did not work then I would try breaking a few windows soon. I beat the door as heavily as I could but to no avail.
Holding my sore hands under my arms I moved to the next house wondering if I could find some stick or bar to help me in my quest for a door that would open.
What are you doing your honour?
I think it's rather obvious don't you?
By now I had lost patience with my serf. I was tired and hungry and just about to lose my temper with his questions.
You're wanting to stay in somebody's house?
No! I'm just having a late night work out!
Unfortunately irony was wasted on Seanan. He did not appear to be offended at my remark and he did not smile either. He frowned and scratched his head. As I was about to knock on another door he called me
I see a light in front your honour. There might be somebody there.
I looked in front but saw nothing. Not for the first time I thought that this man who spent his life with horses had some animal sense that I was sadly lacking. I was so weary that I did not have the spirit to give a response. I shrugged and like an obedient dog followed him.
We cut across the square with our horses ambling along beside us. Seanan walked confidently on in front whilst I marvelled secretly at his sense of direction. I tried my best to see a light but could see nothing. We came to one of the corners and at last - oh joy!
I finally saw a candle flickering through one of the windows. How had this stableman noticed this vague emission from a distance? He had eyes like a cat. Somewhat against my will I felt admiration for him.
Light must mean life. But as I approached the front door of this residence I started to feel uneasy. Since we had left Ardmore we had encountered no living people. It was strange to think of that but no less true. What would happen if we found all who dwelt within to be dead? It was a ghoulish thought but I preferred to prepare myself for the worst.
I glanced at the writing inscribed on top of the door - "Maycroft". Was that the name of the house? Most houses did not have names in Cork unless they were inns and I sensed that this was a private house. Maycroft certainly did not sound Celtic - nor Norman for that matter. In fact it sounded English. Did some English family live here? I would soon know.
Because a candle was shining steadily in front of me, I decided to make less noise than in my earlier attempts at getting my prospective hosts' attention. A couple of short knocks and I waited for an answer. A few minutes passed whilst I listened carefully to a bed creak or a footstep, a groan or a door squeak that might mean someone was on the way.
I knocked again, louder this time. Seanan sighed. This made me even more intent on getting some response. I banged on the door and the echo shattered the still night and vibrated through the empty square.
What is it? Who's there?
I jumped violently. The shock of suddenly hearing another human voice dulled the hope that I would otherwise have felt. The speaker spoke in Irish but I suspected that he was not a native speaker. I tried my best to answer in the same tongue.
I have been travelling all day. I come from Ardmore.
And why are you here?
I was not sure if he wanted to know why I was in Cork or why I was knocking on his door.
I - I am desperately hungry and tired. I-
This is not an inn! This is a private house!
Yes I know but…..but I promise if you let me stay just this one night I will pay you well for it
I don't want your money! What's the use of paying me if you give me the plague?
I- I don't have the plague. We- the plague has not come to Ardmore. Not yet at least…..
There appeared to be a whispered conference from the other side of the door. So it seemed at least two people lived here. I said a silent prayer in hope that no voice would be raised to block our entry at this stage. A series of bolts slid back and the door opened creakily. A tall man - stocky with a short red beard and curly hair- looked out warily.
Thank you. Thank you for opening the door to us…..
Us? There's more than one of you?
Yes. I have my stableman with me.
Seanan looked blankly at our new acquaintance and got a suspicious stare in return.
So you have horses too?
Yes we have.
In the midst of my fatigue I suddenly felt like saying that in the event of our residing on the premises the horses would not have to bed down with us. But I felt that under the circumstances our red-bearded fear an ti might not appreciate the whimsy.
I like horses. We have a couple ourselves. I'll take them to the back.
For the first time I realized that there was some space between the different houses in the square. Redbeard opened a side door and I saw there was a small field behind his house. It was surprising to see this but I was thrilled to think that at least one problem of the night might be solved - the problem of where to put our horses. I saw in the murky darkness a rather battered shelter - you could hardly call it a stable. Our placid beasts moved in there without a sound. I heaved a sigh of relief.
I suddenly realized we had not been introduced. On the way back to the house I decided it was time to say who we were.
My name is Gilbert de Barry
Wow! De Barry? That sounds very posh I must say!
I traced a jeer in his tone but now feeling so reliant on him I ignored it.
I am from Norman stock. We are farmers in Ardmore.
Well I'm a brewer in Cork. My name's Edward. Just call me Eddy!
As we approached the outer section of the market square the hope of getting something to eat and a bed to sleep in, seemed to restore my energy. I wondered about Eddy. The name sounded English. Not many English families lived in this part of the world. Not many English men had red curly beards. Perhaps he was of a mixed family. I could not think anymore. I felt a sudden weakness and knew if I did not rest soon I would collapse on the hard ground in front of me.
Eddy opened the front door and let us through. Usually I am apprehensive at the thought of staying the night with strangers. But that night I was so relieved to find somewhere to rest I could only call out weakly -
Thank you for your kindness…..thank you….
I leaned against the wall in the dark passage as Eddy put back the bolts of his front door. At last we were in the midst of living people again. I had no idea how things would go here. I was too tired to think of any dangers that might arise. All that mattered was that we finally had a place to stay.