Saving Mr. McNeil

This is a deleted scene from Thread of a Spider.

Ailis made a bed for Garrett on the sofa, using blankets that had been left in the cellar, and a downy pillow. Though he asked her to lay next to him she refused. She missed Liam and would never do him wrong as some girls had while their men were away fighting. Liam was on her mind, and in her prayers day and night. She peeked in on Garret later and saw him sleeping as soundly as a baby. She, however, could get no rest. Still dressed, fixing her fourth cup of tea a noise outside gave her a start. She peeked out the window just as a buggy pulled into the drive and the dark figure of a woman came up the step and knocked.

“Maureen?” Ailis exclaimed when she opened the door.

“Ailis, I know where Mr. McNeil is. Come with me!”

“How? Where?”

Maureen peeked inside over Ailis’ shoulder at the sleeping guest and smirked. “Why is he here?”

“He drove us home, Maureen. It’s a long ride back to town on a bike. Where is Mr. McNeil?”

“He’s held up in the basement at the ale house. I think I can get him out of there.”

“Good! Let me wake Garrett.”

“No!” Maureen took her arm and though she still whispered, her voice was urgent. “Just you and me. I have a plan.”

Ailis hesitated, but Maureen’s expression was confident, her nod reassuring.

“Then let’s go.” Ailis took her coat from the wooden peg that hung by the door and slipped it on. She gave Garret one last look and then reached for her father’s rifle.

Maureen stopped her. “We don’t need that.”

Ailis left the firearm where it was and quietly shut the door behind her.

The night was clear, cold and extremely dark. What time it was, she didn’t know. There couldn’t be many more hours until daybreak. Whatever Maureen had planned would have to be done quickly. Ailis pulled herself up into the buggy and took a seat next to Maureen. The surrey sped down the driveway and onto the road at a quick and steady pace.

“How are we going to help a prisoner escape with no guns?” Ailis asked, now that she was free to speak above a whisper.

“We’ll be having some help. My heart was so heavy after what happened tonight, Ailis! I stopped by the chapel on the way home. Meant to confess, but instead I poured my heart out to Sister Barbara. Told her everything what happened. When I mentioned Mr. McNeil I thought she’d faint. She was devastated. She left the sanctuary and lo, if she didn’t come back with Mother Cristin!”

“So, Mother Cristin knew where the Tans took Mr. McNeil?”

“No, but she knew someone who was on the street when the Lorries went by. They saw where the Brits took the prisoners, saw everything, and even heard some chat about how the Tans are disgusted with our village. Hard to find a good meal. Not enough prisons, says they. Pulling out tomorrow, says they. Lucky for us they don’t know we Irish have cellars for the best of our food. City boys, sounds like to me.”

“So Maureen, where did they take Mr. McNeil.”

“I’m getting to that. The soldiers took some of the prisoners to the Inn. But this witness says they took up residence in the ale house for the night, and put Mr. McNeil downstairs. He was special because he had all that money. They were going to interrogate him.”

Ailis knew of the ale house and the man who ran it. Da called him a sot with no upbringing. “How are we going to rescue Mr. McNeil? We’re not walking into a pub full of British soldiers, are we Maureen? We’d be safer raiding a barracks with an armful of apples.”

“We aren’t going to walk into the ale house, not through the front door, anyway. There’s a basement entrance that opens out into the alley.”

“Maureen if there’s a door, there’s going to be a sentry. I should have brought a gun.”

“You know Rory McCloud?”

“Not personally, but he’s the talk of the town. My father has called him a drunkard more than once,” Ailis said.

“Yes, but he’s a religious drunk and he’s no lover of the Tommies.”

Ailis could only guess what Maureen was leading up to, but their conversation stopped when the soft dirt of the rural road turned into cobblestone.

The old wooden tower of Kilbritteny Chapel was the first structure that greeted residents and vagabonds traveling from the south. Tonight the steeple was lit only by a hazy starlight which reflected on its whitewash walls. The sullen crucifix that hung over its arched doorway was a gentle reminder of Irish roots. “No Brit will take that away, either,” Ailis said to herself as Maureen pulled the wagon to a halt.

“Come inside,” she whispered. “Quickly!”

The room had a serene atmosphere, one which brought peace to Ailis. Her shoulders relaxed as her worries left. It’d been awhile since Ailis came to the chapel, probably too long for her soul’s sake. Mass was never held here, but rather in people’s home throughout Kilbritteny, as this structure, as old as it was, could barely hold more than twenty people at one time. This was the place for confession, for console, or for refuge if one was running from a British constable.

Ailis was at Maureen’s heels. Past the pews, they walked, on to a lone figure draped in black, kneeling in the front row. Sister Barbara stood when she saw them, and put her finger to her lips before they had a chance to speak.

“Come with me. I have everyone’s permission and the Good Lord’s blessing.”

They followed the nun to a door behind the altar, up a rickety stairwell, through the choir room to a small closet. As soon as she opened the door, the scent of lavender filled the room. “Hold out your arms,” Sister Barbara instructed. She pulled out a large woolen robe. Ailis’ arms sunk under the weight but the Sister didn’t seem to notice as she kept piling other garments on top. “A veil, a collar, I’m not sure if you’ll need the undergarments.” She looked at them and smiled. “It’s just for tonight. I don’t think anyone will notice.”

“We won’t have a lot of time, Sister.”

“Yes, well don’t tell Mother Cristin, then.” Sister Barbara removed two more robes from the closet and handed them to Maureen. “These should fit you just fine and this one is for Mr. McNeil,” she said as she held the habit up to her chest. “It’s the largest size we have.”

Maureen nodded. “I think it will fit.”

“Here is his veil. You two should change now. There’s a curfew, you know. But the clergy’s been given passes. I’ll get them for you.”

When Sister Barbara left the room, Maureen and Ailis put on the habits. Maureen adjusted Ailis’ veil, fastened the collar and tucked her long hair under the tunic. Ailis did the same for her.

“You look quite lovely as a nun,” Maureen grinned as she brushed a stray lock of Ailis’ under her veil.

“You fit in as well, Maureen! If I weren’t in love, I’d consider joining a convent.”

“I’m not sure they’d take you, Ailis!”

Ailis pouted, “Why not?”

“You’re too much the rebel.”

Ailis laughed quietly. “Now you be flattering me!”

“See?”

A knock at the door interrupted them. “Are you decent?” Sister Barbara asked.

They laughed. “As decent as any peasant disguised as clergy,” Ailis whispered.

“Shh,” Maureen said.

Sister Barbara let herself into the room and handed them each an envelope. “Now listen to me. You’ll have to know this. You are Sister Francis, and you are Sister Bernice. Bring these habits back as soon as it’s safe to do so. Don’t worry too much as Sister Francis and Sister Bernice have other habits they wear more often. I can’t see an urgency. Better to get Mr. McNeil home with his wife so they can leave the county before the British get wind of this.”

Sister Barbra said a prayer for them and then kissed their foreheads.

The cloudy mist had turned to a constant light rain. Ailis groaned when they stepped out from under the chapel awning. “If the weight of these robes weren’t bad enough, they’ll be smelling like a sheep in the pasture by the time we’ve got Mr. McNeil with us.”

“There’s always a sacrifice, Ailis,” Maureen mumbled as she lifted herself onto the driver’s seat of the surrey.

“Well, at least their warm!” Ailis said under her breath.

“But I hope there’ll be no running. I might as well be carrying your surrey for the weight that’s on me now!”

“We’ll get used to it.” Maureen released the brake and clicked with her tongue. She kept the horse’s gait slow and steady as it rolled through Kilbritteny’s streets.

“Oh dear,” Ailis whispered under her breath when she saw a British guard standing under a street lamp. He raised his rifle and stepped off the curb. Ailis held her breath.

“Be sweet,” Maureen advised. She nodded at him as they neared.

“Halt!” he said.

Maureen pulled the carriage to a stop.

He looked them both over carefully. “Passes?”
Maureen pulled her envelope from her habit pocket nudged Ailis for hers. Ailis pulled hers out, gave it to Maureen who handed them to him. Ailis felt the sweat bead under her veil as she waited.

“It’s near three in the morning. Where are you two headed at this hour?”

Ailis swallowed. What alibi did she have? They should have discussed this before they left. She stared at him, her heart quietly fluttering. Whether the heat she felt was from the thick woolen fabric wrapped over her, or from fear, she wasn’t sure.

Maureen cleared her throat. “There’s an old man who needs our prayers, sir. Near death we’re told.”

“Do tell?”

That was a snicker, most certainly! Ailis surmised.
He folded his arms over his chest. “I don’t know a lot about your religion, but I do know that Last Rites are done by priests,” he retorted, a hint of anger in his voice.

“The priest is on another call.” Ailis mumbled, equally angry that they had been stopped.

The man glared at her. “I didn’t see a priest come by.”
Ailis wanted to respond with some smart retort about this wasn’t the only road in Kilbritteny, but Maureen interrupted before she had a chance. “He left yesterday to Cork. He’ll not be back until the end of the week. Please, sir, the patient may be stepping through the Golden Gates even as we speak.”

The guard took another look at Ailis, but she avoided his scowl. He folded the passes, slipped them back into their envelopes, and handed them to Maureen.

“Very well. Carry on.”

Ailis didn’t breathe again until Maureen drove the surrey around the bend.

“Ailis you need to act like a nun!” Maureen whispered.

“They’ll hang us for sure if you smart mouth to them.”

“Wasn’t meaning to cause trouble. I just hate them so!”

“Get your revenge by freeing Mr. McNeil.” She took Ailis’ hand and added, “Successfully!”

There was no mistaking that Black and Tans were in the pub as the voices belting from the alehouse intruded on the sleeping town. Curfew meant late nights for the soldiers, and a cheerful number of drinks with friends. Ailis pitied the inn keeper for she knew the Tans wouldn’t pay, and would most likely consume his alcohol until the well ran dry.

Maureen drove the surrey past the pub. A lantern glowed in the window of an apartment next it, perhaps an officer’s residence. Maureen slowed the horse, and turned the buggy into a dark alley. Before they parked, she circled the buggy to face the direction they had come.

“That will make for a quick getaway,” she explained. “We may need it.”

“Not too quick I hope.”

“Act Holy.” Maureen said as she slid out of the buggy and adjusted her veil. She helped Ailis down.

Ailis took the extra habit in her arms and tucked it under her own tunic.

“Do we look believable?” Ailis asked.

“You do. If you don’t open your mouth,” Maureen said and touched her cheek. “Let me do the talking.”

The alley behind the ale house stank of garbage, low tide and stale beer. Ailis held her hand over her nose and Maureen waved the fumes from her face. “I can’t believe men spend so much time in places like this.”

Alcohol was not something Ailis was used to being around. She knew her father drank from time to time, her mother complained about it. Still never at home and never when her Mam was present, and certainly not in the presence of their children.

The steps down to the basement from the outside were concrete, wet and covered with a slimy moss. They hadn’t seen traffic for weeks, or years for that matter. Broken boards, cracked stones, and rotted wood blocked the path. Ailis kicked a splintered board aside, lifted the hem to her skirt out of the dampness and descended. Maureen followed her down and knocked once at the heavy oak door. There was no answer.

“I don’t think anyone can hear you from inside.” Ailis said.
Maureen knocked again and rubbed her knuckles afterward. Ailis glance up at the only window which was small, narrow and well above their heads. There was no light in the basement. They waited a few minutes, knocking consistently to no avail.

“We’re going to have to go around front,” Ailis decided.
“Through the pub?”

“We can’t get in this way and we’re not leaving without Mr. McNeil,” Ailis insisted.

Entering the pub was not something Ailis was looking forward to, but it would be their only approach. They hurried around the corner, but slowed when they reached the main street that the pub faced.

“Walk slow and stately, like we know what we’re doing,” Ailis whispered to Maureen. “No one’s ever met a Sister who lacked sureness!”

The front window was alit with bright red letters of welcome and drawings of mugs spilling over with bubbling ale that were meant to lure potential patrons inside. The door was ajar slightly, Tobacco smoke and the smell of alcohol streamed out into the street. Along with that putrid odor came the stench of unwashed soldiers. Ailis choked and paused, hesitant to go all the way in the room without a clear plan. She counted six soldiers, though by the noise and chatter they made, she would have guessed more. Four men were at tables, one man was seated at the bar and another standing. The owner of the pub was not present. The Tans had taken over the refreshment bar, helping themselves to drink. All six soldiers were in various stages of intoxication.

Ailis and Maureen waited until one particularly happy soldier saw them and lifted his mug.

“To the God!” he proposed a toast and laughed. His friends looked up when they saw Ailis and Maureen standing at the door. With grandeur, they accommodated him, lifting their ale in good cheer. “My heavenly stars! And how might we help you fine ladies tonight? Is this confession time?”

Maureen cleared her throat. “Yes, sir, it is. Not for you, sorry to say,” she said.

He laughed, stood, and stumbled over a chair leg when he came close to them. His breath reeked and his clothes smelled worse. Never a Volunteer stank the way this man did, not even when the IRA had been out on parade for weeks at a time.

“Unless of course you have repented,” Ailis added.

Maureen peered at her.

He smirked. “I don’t repent, lass. No need to. Not around here anyway. Least of all not to a Catholic!”

Ailis wrung her hands under her gown, amazed at how constrained Maureen remained.

“However, you have a Catholic with you I was told. And he may need confession.” Maureen said.

This was it, their line, their ticket to Mr. McNeil. “We do?” The man turned to the others. “Anyone here Catholic?” he asked. The Tans at the table shook their heads, while the standing soldier grunted in a deep tone. “No?”

“Do we look like Shiners?” came a remark from the back of the room.

“Sorry ladies,” the soldier said. He slurred his words. “No luck. Maybe tomorrow.”

Ailis smiled at him. “We meant your prisoner. He’s a member of our congregation and spiritually he’s our responsibility. We would like to give him the opportunity to confess his sins before he’s taken away.”

“Is that right? You want to see our prisoner?” The man grunted and seemed to sober very quickly. “They want to visit with our prisoner, chaps!” He raised his mug again. “What say you?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but we’re serious. We’ve no idea what you will be doing with the man,” Maureen added.

“Oh he’ll be hanged most like. Or shot. If he wants to save his skin, he’ll tell us what he knows.” The soldier was slobbering now.

“Then all the more reason to let us pray with him,” Maureen insisted.

“I see. Sort of a ‘last rites,’ arrangement?”

The idea sickened Ailis and left her speechless. A good thing that Maureen was there to chime in.

“Exactly, sir.”

“He’s downstairs.” The soldier pointed to the back of the room and then staggered to the bar and filled his mug from the tap.“You’ll have to ask the sentry. It’s his charge.” The soldier waved her toward the back.

Ailis followed Maureen and glanced at the men as she moved past them. One young soldier closest to her winked, and she looked away, repulsed by him being so personal with a Sister. The men allowed them to continue around the tables to the back. They meandered through the kitchen where Ailis couldn’t help but notice the mess, having food and waste scattered about as though the men had ransacked the cupboards and cooked whatever was available for a meal; potato skins, onion peelings, carrot trimmings, bones left discarded to rot.

With some confusion Ailis found the stairwell leading to the basement. No light or lantern was visible so she had to guide herself by holding the rail on one side and the wall on the other. By the time she was in the brewery downstairs, the dark overwhelmed her.

“Mr. McNeil?” Ailis said more audibly. Candlelight glowed dimly in the brewery at the bottom of the stairwell, casting enough light that Ailis saw a figure move toward them. A guard.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, resting his hand on his revolver.

“We’ve come to offer your prisoner a sacrament of reconciliation,” Maureen was quick to respond and Ailis was thankful she had such a brave friend.

“Who are you? Where is your identification?”

She handed them to him.

“Very well,” the young soldier replied and Ailis wondered if he, most likely being a Protestant, knew any more about Catholicism then she did.

“He’s in the back.” The soldier took a flashlight out of his pocket and shone it on the floor as they moved through a row of barrels to a small enclosure sealed shut with a padlock.

“I’ll have to lock you in,” he said. “Just rap on the door when you’re done.”

“Thank you,” they said in unison. The door closed behind them. Ailis gasped when she heard the click of a bolt locking them in. She took a deep breath and survey what little of the room she could see.

“Mr. McNeil?” Ailis asked. The chamber was dark except for the light of a street lamp which shone through a small narrow window. They were in a cellar of sorts that smelled moldy and damp. The room was being used as a storehouse. Old furniture, cracked and unusable barrels, and an assortment of junk that was too good to throw away but too useless to store anywhere else. These items were scattered recklessly throughout. The cellar had been abandoned, as if no one came down here except to discard whatever wasn’t wanted any longer. She shuddered. What a horrible place to bring such a dear man.

“Who’s here? Who’s come?” That was not Mr. McNeils’ voice.

“We’re looking for Mr. McNeil.” Maureen said.

Out of the shadows a face appeared, a small man with a shiny bald head and a nose that showed signs of too much drinking. “Are you Rory McCloud?” Ailis guessed. Her father’s descriptions had been so accurate she identified the man as if he were her uncle, though she was thankful there wasn’t any relation.

“The one and only, Rory McCloud and if you brought down some of that ale those thieves are stealing I’ll be one happy man.”

“I’m sorry, we didn’t,” Ailis said. He squinted at her, his breath assured her he was not hurting too badly for a drink.
“What good are you then? Oh, I didn’t see you now, you’re Sisters! Begging your pardon.” He crossed himself and folded his hands and bowed.

“Where is Mr. McNeil?”

“Sleeping, I hope,” Rory led them through the piles of junk to the back of the room. “Those dirty Tans have me watching over him. Says I’m to tell them if he dies, those murderers. Tried to force him to tattle on his friends. When he refused they gave a good one until they knocked him out cold. They’re going to ship him out tomorrow. They’ll be torturing him something awful is my guess.”

“He’s going nowhere but with us tonight!” Maureen said.
When Ailis saw Mr. McNeil slumped over in a chair she was overwhelmed. She knelt by his side and pushed his hair from his blood covered face. A black and blue knot protruded from his forehead. He was covered in blood. “Mr. McCloud, do you have water? We have to wake him up.”

“There’s water. Think he needs water?” Rory stumbled through the room, knocking unidentifiable items on the floor. Once he banged his knee and cursed, but soon came back with a wash basin and a rag.

They washed the prisoner’s face, patted him on his cheeks and spoke softly to him. His eye was swollen shut, and besides the knot he had a fresh cut on his temple, but once they cleaned the blood, he didn’t look too bad.

“Rory, is there another way out of here?” Ailis put the wet rag on Mr. McNeil’s eye. She tilted his head back so the water would soak into the wound.

“You fixing on escaping?”

“Yes, sir, we are.”

Rory scratched his head and pointed to the back door. “That one hadn’t been used in a long time. Maybe ten years, I don’t know. Might not even open. A bin full of trash on the other side.”

“We cleared out the debris from the outside.” Maureen assured him.

“They’ll arrest you for breaking curfew though, sure as day even if you can get out. Weren’t so, I’d be gone.”

“We have passes.” Ailis’ shoulders dropped when she looked at Rory. “You’ll have to leave too or they’ll question you. I don’t have a pass for you.”

“Ah well. I can stay. This is my home you know, the pub. It’s where all my nutrients are.”

“Home or nay, you’d better run. When they see their prisoner gone, you’ll be getting the same treatment he’s had.”

Rory scratched his head again and studied Mr. McNeil’s wounds. “Don’t want that.”

Mr. McNeil moaned.

Ailis ran the damp cloth over his forehead again and spoke softly in his ear. “Mr. McNeil, we’re going to get you out of here,” she said excitedly.

Mr. McNeil opened his good eye and touched the cloth that covered his wound. “What?”

“It’s us. Ailis your neighbor.”

“Ailis?” He blinked and then smiled. “Kilpatrick!”

“Yes. I wish we could wait until you feel better, but there’s not a moment to spare. We need you to put on this habit.”

“Habit?”

Ailis tugged at the door and when her efforts were fruitless, Mr. McNeil joined her. Together, with a few good pulls, the lock gave way and fresh air filled the room. Soon they were in the open air.

“Rory!” Maureen whispered as the barkeeper walked outside. “You can’t stay here. Go! Disappear until the Tans leave town.”

He scratched the stubble on his chin and then smiled, clicked his fingers, and stumbled as he ducked under the doorway. His short and burly figure scooted quietly into the shadows. Ailis stepped up from the outside stairwell after him and looked around. “We’re clear!” she said. She took Mr. McNeil by the arm and helped him into the back of the surrey, rearranging his veil to drop over his black eye. Maureen climbed in the driver’s seat and soon the three nuns were headed out of town.

Dawn came with a thin sliver of gold on the horizon just as the buggy rolled out of the alley onto the cobblestones. The steady clip-clap of hooves was the only sound in the village. Even the pub was quiet. Ailis guessed the soldiers had guzzled themselves to sleep, and perhaps the guard downstairs was relieved of duty without telling anyone there were visitors with the prisoner. She hoped they had been forgotten, at least until the sun was high. Maureen kept the horse at a steady walk. They were almost to the dirt road when a Constable approached. Ailis moaned to herself.

“Hey there!” he yelled. He was a young man; his eyes were barely open. He must have stayed up all night.

“Where are you going this early in the morning?” he asked. “Papers, please?”

“Maureen handed him the three passes. The guard took a good look at them. Mr. McNeil kept his bruised face covered with the habit.

“We’re headed for the graveyard, sir. To say our prayers for the deceased.”

After reading the papers, he handed them back. “All right. Go ahead.”

He stepped away, offering a friendly wave as they left. From there, Maureen let the gelding trot through the quiet country side. A misty haze hung over the landscape, concealing the gray ocean in the distance from time to time. A sea gull called and followed them a way, then swooped back toward the sea. The air was fresh and clean and cool. A beautiful morning to be free. Ailis looked behind her and grinned at Mr. McNeil.

“T’isn’t a single Tan going keep you down, Mr. McNeil!” she said.

He laughed. He was a mess, his head all banged up, his dark hair blowing in the wind, but his smile was bright and cheerful.

“I owe you two girls my life, Ailis Kilpatrick.”

“You’re not owing us a single thing. Just keep yourself and your family safe.”

Ailis saw Mrs. McNeil outside feeding her hens when the surrey veered up the McNeil’s daughter’s driveway. Ailis knew the woman would be anxious. Strangers approaching was a cause for alarm these days what with so many raids. Especially so early in the morning. She called out to her and waved. “Mrs. McNeil, it’s us. Ailis and Maureen.”
The woman held her hand up to return the greeting, still not certain.

“She doesn’t recognize us in these clothes,” Maureen said.
When Ailis, Maureen and Mr. McNeil stepped out of the surrey in the nun’s habits, Stella McNeil covered her face with her hands and screamed for joy, dropped the bucket of laying mesh and ran to her husband. She cried, as did everyone else. Once the initial shock of having her husband freed, she wiped her tears.

“You must leave immediately,” Maureen told the McNeils.

“The IRA has a safe house for you in Ardnacrow. Here is a map. Destroy this paper after you study it.”

“Thank you, girls. Your courage is what our country is made of. Thank you. You give hope to the rest of us!” Mr. McNeil said as he shook their hands. He removed the habit, and placed it in the buggy. Both Mr. and Mrs. McNeil gave Ailis and Maureen a tearful hug, thanking them with every blessing that they could mutter.