Jack Higgins – The Savage Day

Barry poured a good four fingers into the glass, steadied the shaking hand as it was raised. In spite of that, a considerable amount dribbled from the loose mouth as the old man gulped it down greedily.

He sank back in the chair and Barry said cheerfully, ‘There you are, Vaughan, Old Lord Palsy himself.’

I had found him likeable enough until then, in spite of his doings, but a remark so cruel was hard to take. Doubly so when one considered that it was being made about his own flesh and blood.

There was a silver candelabrum on a sideboard with half a dozen candles in it. He produced a box of matches, lit them one by one, then moved to the door which the man in the alpaca jacket promptly opened for him.

Barry turned to look back at his uncle. ‘I’ll give you one guess who the heir is when he goes, Vaughan.’ He laughed sardonically. ‘My God, can you see me taking my seat in the House of Lords? It raises interesting possibilities, mind you. The Tower of London, for instance, instead of the Crumlin Road gaol if they ever catch me.’

I said nothing, simply followed him out and walked at his side as he went down the great stairway to the hall. It was a strange business, for we moved from one room to another, Dooley keeping pace behind, the only light the candelabrum in Barry’s hand nickering on silver and glass and polished furniture, drawing the faces of those long-dead out of the darkness as we passed canvas after canvas in ornate gilt frames. And he talked ceaselessly.

He stopped in front of a portrait of a portly, bewigged gentleman in eighteenth-century hunting dress. “This is the man who started it all, Francis the First, I always call him. Never got over spending the first twenty years of his life slaving on a Galway potato patch. Made his fortune out of slaves and sugar in Barbados. His plantation out there was called Spanish Head. When he’d got enough, he came home, changed his religion, bought a peerage and settled down to live the life of an Irish Protestant gentleman.’

‘What about your father’s side of things?’

‘Ah, now there you have me,’ he said. ‘He was an actor whose looks outstripped his talent by half a mile, and in their turn were only surpassed by his capacity for strong liquor, which actually allowed him to survive to the ripe old age of forty.’

*Was he a Catholic?’

“Believe it or not, Vaughan, but I’m not the first Protestant to want a united Ireland.’ He held a candle up to an oil painting that was almost life-ske. ‘There’s another. Wolfe Tone. He started it all. And that’s my favourite relative beside him. Francis the Fourth. By the time he was twenty-three he’d killed three men in duels and had it off with every presentable female in the county. Had to flee to America.’

The resemblance to Barry himself was quite remarkable. ‘What happened to him ?’

‘Killed at a pkce called Shiloh, during the American Civil War.’

‘On which side?’

“What do you think? Grey brought out the colour of his eyes, that’s what he said in a letter home to his mother. I’ve read it.’

We had turned and were making a slow promenade back towards the entrance hall. I said, ‘When I look at all this, you don’t make sense.’

‘Why exactly?’

‘Your present activities.*

I like a fight.’ He shrugged. ‘Korea wasn’t all that bad if it hadn’t been for the bloody cold. And life gets so damn boring, don’t you think ?’

‘Some people might think that was a pretty poor excuse.’

‘My reasons don’t matter, Vaughan, it’s what I’m doing for the Cause that counts.’

We had reached the hall and he put the candelabrum down on the table and took out the handcuffs. I held out my wrists.

He said, ‘Thirty years ago, if I’d been doing exactly

what I’m doing today for the resistance in France or Norway I’d have been looked upon as a gallant hero. Strange how perspective changes with the point of view.’

‘Not mine,’ I said.

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