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A Landlord's Garden in County Wicklow


A STONE'S throw from an old house where I spent several summers in
County Wicklow, there was a garden that had been left to itself for
fifteen or twenty years. Just inside the gate, as one entered, two
paths led up through a couple of strawberry beds, half choked with
leaves, where a few white and narrow strawberries were still hidden
away. Further on was nearly half an acre of tall raspberry canes and
thistles five feet high, growing together in a dense mass, where one
could still pick raspberries enough to last a household for the
season. Then, in a waste of hemlock, there were some half-dozen
apple trees covered with lichen and moss, and against the northern
walls a few dying plum trees hanging from their nails. Beyond them
there was a dead pear tree, and just inside the gate, as one came
back to it, a large fuchsia filled with empty nests. A few lines of
box here and there showed where the flower-beds had been laid out,
and when anyone who had the knowledge looked carefully among them
many remnants could be found of beautiful and rare plants.

All round this garden there was a wall seven or eight feet high, in
which one could see three or four tracks with well-worn holes--like
the paths down a cliff in Kerry--where boys and tramps came over to
steal and take away any apples or other fruits that were in season.
Above the wall on the three windy sides there were rows of
finely-grown lime trees, the place of meeting in the summer for ten
thousand bees. Under the east wall there was the roof of a
green-house, where one could sit, when it was wet or dry, and watch
the birds and butterflies, many of which were not common. The
seasons were always late in this place--it was high above the
sea--and redpoles often used to nest not far off late in the summer;
siskins did the same once or twice, and greenfinches, till the
beginning of August, used to cackle endlessly in the lime trees.

Everyone is used in Ireland to the tragedy that is bound up with the
lives of farmers and fishing people; but in this garden one seemed
to feel the tragedy of the landlord class also, and of the
innumerable old families that are quickly dwindling away. These
owners of the land are not much pitied at the present day, or much
deserving of pity; and yet one cannot quite forget that they are the
descendants of what was at one time, in the eighteenth century, a
high-spirited and highly-cultivated aristocracy. The broken
greenhouses and mouse-eaten libraries, that were designed and
collected by men who voted with Grattan, are perhaps as mournful in
the end as the four mud walls that are so often left in Wicklow as
the only remnants of a farmhouse. The desolation of this life is
often of a peculiarly local kind, and if a playwright chose to go
through the Irish country houses he would find material, it is
likely, for many gloomy plays that would turn on the dying away of
these old families, and on the lives of the one or two delicate
girls that are left so often to represent a dozen hearty men who
were alive a generation or two ago. Many of the descendants of these
people have, of course, drifted into professional life in Dublin, or
have gone abroad; yet, wherever they are, they do not equal their
forefathers, and where men used to collect fine editions of Don
Quixote and Moliere, in Spanish and French, and luxuriantly bound
copies of Juvenal and Persius and Cicero, nothing is read now but
Longfellow and Hall Caine and Miss Corelli. Where good and roomy
houses were built a hundred years ago, poor and tawdry houses are
built now; and bad bookbinding, bad pictures, and bad decorations
are thought well of, where rich bindings, beautiful miniatures, and
finely-carved chimney-pieces were once prized by the old Irish
landlords.

To return to our garden. One year the apple crop was unusually
plentiful, and every Sunday inroads were made upon it by some
unknown persons. At last I decided to lie in wait at the dangerous
hour--about twelve o'clock--when the boys of the neighbourhood were
on their way home from Mass, and we were supposed to be busy with
our devotions three miles away. A little before eleven I slipped
out, accordingly, with a book, locked the door behind me, put the
key in my pocket, and lay down under a bush. When I had been reading
for some time, and had quite forgotten the thieves, I looked up at
some little stir and saw a young man, in his Sunday clothes, walking
up the path towards me. He stopped when he saw me, and for a moment
we gazed at each other with astonishment. At last, to make a move, I
said it was a fine day. 'It is indeed, sir,' he answered with a
smile, and then he turned round and ran for his life. I realized
that he was a thief and jumped up and ran after him, seeing, as I
did so, a flock of small boys swarming up the walls of the garden.
Meanwhile the young man ran round and round through the raspberry
canes, over the strawberry beds, and in and out among the apple
trees. He knew that if he tried to get over the wall I should catch
him, and that there was no other way out, as I had locked the gate.
It was heavy running, and we both began to get weary. Then I caught
my foot in a briar and fell. Immediately the young man rushed to the
wall and began scrambling up it, but just as he was drawing his leg
over the top I caught him by the heel. For a moment he struggled and
kicked, then by sheer weight I brought him down at my feet, and an
armful of masonry along with him. I caught him by the neck and tried
to ask his name, but found we were too breathless to speak.

For I do not know how long we sat glaring at each other, and gasping
painfully. Then by degrees I began to upbraid him in a whisper for
coming over a person's wall to steal his apples, when he was such a
fine, well-dressed, grownup young man. I could see that he was in
mortal dread that I might have him up in the police courts, which I
had no intention of doing, and when I finally asked him his name and
address he invented a long story of how he lived six miles away, and
had come over to this neighbourhood for Mass and to see a friend,
and then how he had got a drought upon him, and thought an apple
would put him in spirits for his walk home. Then he swore he would
never come over the wall again if I would let him off, and that he
would pray God to have mercy on me when my last hour was come. I
felt sure his whole story was a tissue of lies, and I did not want
him to have the crow of having taken me in. 'There is a woman
belonging to the place,' I said, 'inside in the house helping the
girl to cook the dinner. Walk in now with me, and we'll see if
you're such a stranger as you'd have me think.' He looked infinitely
troubled, but I took him by the neck and wrist and we set off for
the gate. When we had gone a pace or two he stopped. 'I beg your
pardon,' he said, 'my cap's after falling down on the over side of
the wall. May I cross over and get it?' That was too much for me.
'Well, go on,' I said, 'and if ever I catch you again woe betide
you.' I let him go then, and he rushed madly over the wall and
disappeared. A few days later I discovered, not at all to my
surprise, that he lived half a mile away, and was intimately related
to a small boy who came to the house every morning to run messages
and clean the boots. Yet it must not be thought that this young man
was dishonest; I would have been quite ready the next day to trust
him with a ten-pound note.

J. M. Synge

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